Most of today’s left-wing parties in Europe have either become too reconciled to the modern world or are clinging too hard to disappearing ways to conceive such an idea for themselves. The impressive volume of factual material that Piketty has amassed is of no help either.
What we need is a deeper analysis of the circumstances in which we live. It is time for a renewal of left-wing thinking, which can best be achieved by going back to the source: the works of Karl Marx. The parties of the left will need to reinterpret the current economic and political order if they ultimately wish to change it. They would therefore do well to re-read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (Capital: Critique of Political Economy). Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it should be possible to take a fresh look at Marx’s work, unaffected by the geopolitical and ideological battles of the Cold War.
The left can allow themselves to be guided in this by a new generation of European economists and philosophers who are re-reading Marx, mainly in order to fathom the logic of the current global economy. It may take some getting used to, however, seeing the use of a word like ‘capitalism’ not immediately as political flag-waving but simply as a description of an economic order in which capital is the organising principle: all value is expressed in money or relates to it in one way or another.
Marx explained clearly that capitalism can survive only if the economy continues to grow. We are continually finding new ways to make this possible, such as trading in financial products, divorced from actual production. This was one of the reasons for the 2008 crisis that we are still struggling to emerge from.
Marx was one of the first thinkers to analyse the nature of the recurring crises in capitalism, and his observations remain relevant today. Consider, for example, his famous theory of the ‘fetishism of commodities’, which states that the relationships between workers and employees that lead to a product appear to be objective characteristics of that product. Products generated by social relationships wrongly appear to be natural and objective. Take the clothing industry, for example: we know exactly how much a pair of jeans costs and where it is cheapest, but which of us still aware of who produced their new jeans, and under what conditions?
This in fact applies to the economy as a whole: it appears objective and unchanging; it is simply there and is a major determining factor in our lives. Marx helps us to understand that the economy is actually a man-made system. It became what it is today under the influence of historical conditions, and will therefore continue to change. That in itself is enough reason for left-wing and green parties to read Marx. It reminds them that the current order can and will change, and that they should not see it as a natural system to which we must adapt. By reading Marx, they will hopefully find the vital courage they need to imagine a world other than one which is defined by money, growth and an economy that repeatedly leads to crisis.
This article was previously published in the online version of a Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, and on the website of De Helling, the quarterly journal of the Political Foundation of the Dutch Green party, GroenLinks. De Helling’s Winter edition offers a platform to a new generation of Marx.