Many will have smirked as I did at the news that a tourist in Ilfracombe had officially complained about the sight and smell of fish in the harbour. Some perhaps remembered the case of the school headmistress forced to resign last year after having her school’s pet sheep slaughtered so that the children would learn the connection between animals and the food they eat. Both stories hint at something strange going on in our natures, at some radical new disconnect between our consciousness and the facts of life that have sustained human beings for thousands of years. It is tempting to use the word “alienation” here, once a power word in late night student Marxist discussions: that we are in some sense being alienated from our own natures and the realities of life and that there will be some price to pay for this, as yet unknown.
The heady nostalgia of that word, and all it meant in the 1960s, forced me to read again the recent article by John Gray, who is a bit of tease as well as an eminent political philosopher: it is available in the New Republic and this week a version appears in the BBC news magazine. Gray’s case in a nutshell is that Marx is due for a revival because he was right about capitalism but wrong about communism. You remember the original 19th Century saga: the worker under capitalism is alienated from the product of his labour: what he makes as a wage slave is taken from him, and he is kept at a subsistence level. Meanwhile the ferocious competition between capitalists, nationally and internationally, is a contradiction and capitalism collapses under these. The worker, his consciousness raised to see the truth by the CP, takes over and ushers in first socialism, then communism on these ruins. He repossesses the fruits of labour, overcomes the original alienation by reincorporating the goods he produced. It’s all a little reminiscent of understanding meat by eating one’s own lamb, as the school children were meant to. These last bits come straight from Hegelian metaphysics but one gets the general idea. In Marx’s own words, a worker under communism would “do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner”.
The problem for me with that vision of communism was the question was who was doing all the work while the former worker was living this relaxed and rather modern life - if you add in cheap flights to Spain it all looks pretty familiar? It only made sense against either a world of slaves - a little like the way the South African Communist Party once defended apartheid so as to protect the life styles of the white workers there - or, more plausibly, with machines doing the work. Technology was not a subject that interested Marx much but in my own juvenilia on this topic in the 1970s, I expressed the view that automation might indeed give us the communist paradise, with computers doing all the heavy lifting, but without the need for the CP.
But, as always, it hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it? Boris Johnson likes to say we live in the best times in human history, and he may be right, and the London rioters are not at all Marx’s impoverished workers repossessing the fruits of their own labour; court records now show how unpoor many of them are, and we know the trainers they looted are not the fruits of their labour but that of some underpaid person in the Far East. In some sense, capitalism not communism has given us a situation a bit like Marx’s paradise: not just for the so-called feral underclass but for the vast numbers of old people living well without working - everyone over 50 in Italy if the rumours are true - and that is a quite new situation in human history. And yet we seem unhappy with it; the late Auberon Waugh used to say that people had dreamed of being paid by the state not to work for millennia, so why didn’t they stop moaning and enjoy it? This is perhaps the hardest question behind the riots, one that public inquiries into causes, deprivation, poverty etc. will not answer.
Which brings us back to John Gray. I think he has it all upside down: Marx’s communism has arrived for many but via the midwife of capitalism, even if the recipients are unhappy. It is unclear that there can ever be work again for the uneducated in highly automated society and we should get used to it. Gray’s other claim is that Marx was right about the collapse of capitalism under its contradictions and that it is here now and all around us with the financial crash. Moreover, Gray says Marx was right that capitalism with its constant revolution has undermined and destroyed the secure bourgeois life and made the middle class as insecure as the 19th Century worker: “For many, women and the poor for example, these Victorian values could be pretty stultifying in their effects. But the larger fact is that the free market works to undermine the virtues that maintain the bourgeois life. When savings are melting away being thrifty can be the road to ruin. It's the person who borrows heavily and isn't afraid to declare bankruptcy that survives and goes on to prosper.”
This is powerful stuff, but he may be too pessimistic and Boris may be a better guide. Capitalism has always existed in tandem with state control of its “excesses” and will continue to do so, but there is no alternative motor available for any economy. One might just as easily argue that bourgeois values have been at least as much eroded by the state: by the encouragement of large scale immigration, by the collapse of incentives for marriage and cohabitation and by the destruction of the education system. Capitalism may well be, as Gray says, “radically unstable” but what he ignores, and Marx never knew, is that science and technology have established a long tradition of the control of unstable systems - they need not collapse, they just have to be managed.
Gray’s conclusion is teasing and powerful, but in the end I think, false: “And just as [Marx] predicted, the bourgeois world has been destroyed. But it wasn't communism that did the deed. It's capitalism that has killed off the bourgeoisie.” Not in my town it hasn’t.