The historical narrative of Socialism and Capitalism

Continued from last week:

pposition to capitalism ceased after the fall of the German Democratic Republic and the USSR. There were still governments nominally committed to communism, and non-Marxist left-wing parties continued to win elections. In the United States, the campaign against globalization captured national attention in 1999, when activists clashed with police in Seattle during a meeting of the World Trade Organization. But for large swaths of the left and the right, these seemed like shallow eddies running against the overpowering tide of what was increasingly referred to as “global capitalism.”

Marxists had painted an intimidating picture of the enemy: a totalizing system governed by the iron discipline of free markets, assimilating whatever it could, destroying the rest. When capitalism’s overthrow was excised from their master narrative, the only counsel that Marxists could offer was stoic resistance against despair, and the hope that the contradictions of capital would eventually yield the long-anticipated catastrophe. In the words of Perry Anderson, elder statesman of Anglo-American Marxism, the left required “uncompromising realism” that would never “lend credence to illusions that the system is moving in a steadily progressive direction.” That meant, above all, maintaining an unwavering focus on capitalism. “Only in the evolution of this order could lie the secrets of another one” he maintained.

The disasters of 2008 were not quite what Marxists had hoped capitalism’s internal logic would supply which is the particular form the financial crisis assumed took almost everyone by surprise, but they were close enough. In the scramble for explanations that ensued, the handful of Marxists  such as David Harvey, Robert Brenner and Giovanni Arrighi in particular, who had been writing thoughtfully about economics for decades gained credibility for having at least declared that a crisis had been brewing. True, they had been issuing these predictions for some time, and many Marxists had been announcing capitalism’s imminent demise for even longer.

Yet when contrasted with the pre-crisis consensus of experts who were supposed to know what they were talking about, economists, politicians and other important people in suits, stubborn pessimism seemed like a bracing corrective. A small but serious Marxist renaissance followed. Capitalism was in question again, and the shock of the emergency had jolted its previously moribund antagonist back to life, if not as a political movement, then at least as an intellectual one.

The icons of Marxism’s resurgence had more than their fair share of gray whiskers, but in the United States the most enthusiastic followers sprang from the ranks of the young and bookish. Thus was born one of the most curious features of the contemporary intellectual scene: millennial Marxism. Even among those who remained skeptical about Marxism, or just apathetic, 2008 assumed the status that 1989 had for their elders.

Although the financial crisis and its aftermath did not have the same global ramifications as communism’s crack-up, they had a far greater impact in the United States, one whose damage fell disproportionately on the young. The disintegration of the Soviet bloc affected other people far away; the Great Recession happened in the United States. Children of the Clinton years who could recall their parents rhapsodizing about tech booms and a new economy entered the weakest job market since the 1930s, and they did it encumbered with unprecedentedly high levels of student debt. This was an audience primed for lectures on the contradictions of capitalism.

There were other, less obvious sparks to Marxism’s rekindling. Among twenty somethings, the Soviet Union was a distant memory, if it was remembered at all, freeing socialists from the burden of explaining the drab realities of life under communism. Many had just left college, carrying with them fresh memories of an academic world that doubles as Marxism’s heartiest stronghold. Some of the intellectually inclined among them had grown weary of the squabbles about postmodernism and the end of history that had been grinding on for most of their lives.

Marxism, which fell into neither of those camps, seemed novel by comparison. Those less disposed toward meditating on the world-historical welcomed the chance to re-emphasize work and labor, topics that had earlier seemed passe. Trade Unions had once been pillars of the New Deal order, making them inviting targets for baby boomers looking to rebel. A half-century of retreat turned them into underdogs in need of allies, and made it easier to see labor not as the province of middle-aged white men but as an issue of universal significance. The commitment was lighter, but easier to share, maybe with a post on Facebook.

Shifts in American politics also provoked a leftward turn. Barack Obama owed his election to support from under-30s, but the visions of his youthful supporters who are something like a second Camelot, but with more Beyonce, were inchoate. Once Timothy Geithner, Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton proved disappointing substitutes, new outlets appeared for the expectations that Barack Obama had aroused. The political itinerary of the archetypal millennial might have started with volunteering for Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign and joining one of the enormous crowds that thronged his swing-state rallies in the run-up to the election.

The anarchist core of Occupy had not joined the groundswell for Obama, but what the diehards wanted was always less important than what Occupy came to represent for the vastly larger numbers who were attracted to the movement but never set foot in one of its outposts. Discussions of economic inequality had been in retreat for decades until, suddenly, “We are the 99 percent!” became the most popular rallying cry since “Yes we can.” That a few thousand people scattered across the country could become the receptacle of hopes placed three years earlier in a newly elected president of the United States was astounding. It was also, perhaps inevitably, ephemeral.

Inequality receded from the media’s attention once the protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park. Unaccustomed recognition had energised activists, and tactics associated with Occupy spread far beyond the encampments, but these were only pieces of a grander transformation that had briefly seemed within reach. Yet the protests have had an enduring, and surprising, legacy. The crowds that gathered in Zuccotti Park were not marching to advance the careers of young, ambitious, radical writers, but there were more than a few who fit that description in their number.

Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City, Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others, have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals. Since 2008, mainstream journals ranging from Time to Foreign Affairs had been speculating that Marx might have his vengeance. Now, it seemed, Marx’s heirs had arrived, and they were naturals with social media.

There’s a hefty dose of irony here, because Marxists were some of Occupy’s greatest early skeptics. But the savvier among them quickly spotted an opportunity and fashioned themselves as spokespeople for the movement. This new cohort of Marxists has thrived on the peculiarities of the contemporary media ecology. Despite the skepticism of their less technologically besotted elders, they have made the web into an effective mechanism for disseminating their ideas. Thanks to the Internet, little magazines can conjure up a global audience if they know how to get enough clicks.

And it’s perfect for aspiring institution-builders looking to create their own forums rather than climb to the top of an existing organization; all the better if there’s a radical ideology to distinguish the new crowd from their more senior counterparts. After such a long exile from public debate, even conventional Marxist tropes seem original, and daring, to those without a background in Marxism, which happens to include the overwhelming majority of American journalists.