Warren Buffet wants to tax the rich, Forbes warns about a global class war and Nouriel Roubini says that Marx was right about capitalism. What’s going on?
It was a week of opposites. As stock markets around the world continued to nosedive into financial meltdown, the world’s third wealthiest man told US Congress to stop coddling the super-rich; Forbes, the ultimate magazine of the rich and famous, warned about the “coming global class war“; and Nouriel Roubini, one of the world’s leading economists, told the Wall Street Journal that Karl Marx was actually right in saying that capitalism is doomed.
And as if that string of radical comments from some of the world’s least radical sources weren’t enough, Business Insider piled onto the scrimmage stating that “Karl Marx is hot” and TIME Magazine called on the West to “heed Marx’s warning” and realize that capitalism simply won’t survive without heavy-handed state intervention. Even on Wall Street a specter was haunting investors, with several leading analysts quoting Marx favorably in important research notes.
What’s going on here? Why this sudden mainstream interest in issues that the radical left has been crying out about at the fringes of the political debate for the past 20-30 years? Certainly these capitalists didn’t turn into revolutionary socialists overnight? Indeed, all of them make it very clear that they disagree with Marx on the crucial issue of socialism. They just believe he “might have been right” about capitalism’s tendency to self-destruct.
In other words, the sudden (superficial) interest in the work of Marx points at the growing sense of fear among the ruling classes. As Business Insider put it, “you know it’s a real panic when everyone’s trotting out the old guys, and even capitalists think Marx got the endgame right.” In an op-ed, Roubini pointed out that “Karl Marx was right that globalization, financial intermediation, and income redistribution could lead capitalism to self-destruct.”
But it’s not just the fear of financial collapse that’s driving Marx’s comeback. Apparently, the ruling classes are fearing an imminent rising of the masses. As Fortune wrote, “the riots that hit London and other English cities last week have the potential to spread beyond the British Isles. Class rage isn’t unique to England; in fact, it represents part of a growing global class chasm that threatens to undermine capitalism itself.”
The only “logical” conclusion for the more enlightened bourgeois press, therefore, is old-fashioned progressive liberal reformism. Consider TIME‘s conclusion: “capitalism can be saved from the excesses that Marx warned would be its downfall, but only through the sort of state intervention that has become almost as politically unfashionable as Karl Marx himself.” In other words: capitalism needs socialism to survive — but we still want to keep capitalism!
Stefan Stern, a professor in management at Cass Business School in London, just echoed a similar conclusion in the Independent: “Marx said that while interpreting the world was all very well, the point was to change it. If capitalists want to keep their world safe for capitalism, they need to face up to what is wrong with it, and change it, fast.” But is changing capitalism to save the system really the same as “changing the world“? It certainly doesn’t seem to be.
Indeed, what we are witnessing here is the ultimate case of a “passive revolution“. As Antonio Gramsci (wiki), the great Italian philosopher, wrote in his Prison Notebooks, Marx was wrong to put so much faith in his “economic determinism”. Capitalism, Gramsci observed, did not rule merely through force or oppression. Neither would its internal contradictions automatically lead to a socialist revolution. Instead, Gramsci accorded a major role to culture.
For Gramsci, the ruling groups in society maintained their position in two ways: firstly, through the traditional Marxist form of physical and economic oppression; and, secondly, through cultural hegemony, which operates via ideological consent. Thus Gramsci opened up a major new battlefield in the revolutionary process: civil society. There, outside of the realm of the state or the economy, ruling groups clashed with subordinate ones in a discursive “war of position” to gain or retain popular legitimacy.
It was this brilliant theoretical innovation that allowed Gramsci to explain capitalism’s resiliency to an all-out popular revolution. When their dominant position came under fire, Gramsci observed, and the ruling classes were about to lose the crucial consent of the people, they could always accommodate for the concerns of the masses by going against their own direct short-term interests in order to retain the dominant social order in the long-term.
In this respect, while we may feel an intuitive moral appreciation for the seeming selflessness of Warren Buffet or the sheer frankness of Nouriel Roubini, we have to realize that these enlightened capitalists, for all their “Marxian” rhetoric, are even more dangerous than the blunt ones like Lloyd Blankfein or the Koch brothers. For it is the Buffets and Roubinis of this world who, through their passive reformism, will allow the latter to keep controlling the rest of us.