A place of politics, culture (!!) & random subjects from Airstrip One. Noel hopes it will be of interest and/or use to all sorts of voyagers in cyberspace!

My Photo
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

KM is back!

Although I think Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin have a lot to answer for (Bolshevism has put back the cause of socialism in England & elsewhere a good century) I am an anti-anti-Marxist. Most people who criticise him have never read a word of the great man apart from a few quotes. Francis Wheen's biog of Hampstead Cemetry's most famous inhabitant is well worth reading, particularly in an age where all that is solid melts into air & religion is the opium of the masses (or enough of them to make the rest of us worry).

Why Marx is man of the moment: He had globalisation sussed 150 years ago
Francis Wheen The Observer Sunday July 17, 2005

A penniless asylum seeker in London was vilified across two pages of the Daily Mail last week. No surprises there, perhaps - except that the villain in question has been dead since 1883. 'Marx the Monster' was the Mail's furious reaction to the news that thousands of Radio 4 listeners had chosen Karl Marx as their favourite thinker. 'His genocidal disciples include Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot - and even Mugabe. So why has Karl Marx just been voted the greatest philosopher ever?'
The puzzlement is understandable. Fifteen years ago, after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, there appeared to be a general assumption that Marx was now an ex-parrot. He had kicked the bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil and been buried forever under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. No one need think about him - still less read him - ever again.

'What we are witnessing,' Francis Fukuyama proclaimed at the end of the Cold War, 'is not just the ... passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution.'

But history soon returned with a vengeance. By August 1998, economic meltdown in Russia, currency collapses in Asia and market panic around the world prompted the Financial Times to wonder if we had moved 'from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis in barely a decade'. The article was headlined 'Das Kapital Revisited'.

Even those who gained most from the system began to question its viability. The billionaire speculator George Soros now warns that the herd instinct of capital-owners such as himself must be controlled before they trample everyone else underfoot. 'Marx and Engels gave a very good analysis of the capitalist system 150 years ago, better in some ways, I must say, than the equilibrium theory of classical economics,' he writes. 'The main reason why their dire predictions did not come true was because of countervailing political interventions in democratic countries. Unfortunately we are once again in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from the lessons of history. This time the danger comes not from communism but from market fundamentalism.'

In October 1997 the business correspondent of the New Yorker, John Cassidy, reported a conversation with an investment banker. 'The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,' the financier said. 'I am absolutely convinced that Marx's approach is the best way to look at capitalism.' His curiosity aroused, Cassidy read Marx for the first time. He found 'riveting passages about globalisation, inequality, political corruption, monopolisation, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence - issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realising that they are walking in Marx's footsteps'.

Quoting the famous slogan coined by James Carville for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 ('It's the economy, stupid'), Cassidy pointed out that 'Marx's own term for this theory was "the materialist conception of history", and it is now so widely accepted that analysts of all political views use it, like Carville, without any attribution.'

Like Molière's bourgeois gentleman who discovered to his amazement that for more than 40 years he had been speaking prose without knowing it, much of the Western bourgeoisie absorbed Marx's ideas without ever noticing. It was a belated reading of Marx in the 1990s that inspired the financial journalist James Buchan to write his brilliant study Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money (1997).

'Everybody I know now believes that their attitudes are to an extent a creation of their material circumstances,' he wrote, 'and that changes in the ways things are produced profoundly affect the affairs of humanity even outside the workshop or factory. It is largely through Marx, rather than political economy, that those notions have come down to us.'

Even the Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, eager cheerleaders for turbo-capitalism, acknowledge the debt. 'As a prophet of socialism Marx may be kaput,' they wrote in A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalisation (2000), 'but as a prophet of the "universal interdependence of nations" as he called globalisation, he can still seem startlingly relevant.' Their greatest fear was that 'the more successful globalisation becomes the more it seems to whip up its own backlash' - or, as Marx himself said, that modern industry produces its own gravediggers.

The bourgeoisie has not died. But nor has Marx: his errors or unfulfilled prophecies about capitalism are eclipsed and transcended by the piercing accuracy with which he revealed the nature of the beast. 'Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones,' he wrote in The Communist Manifesto.

Until quite recently most people in this country seemed to stay in the same job or institution throughout their working lives - but who does so now? As Marx put it: 'All that is solid melts into air.'

In his other great masterpiece, Das Kapital, he showed how all that is truly human becomes congealed into inanimate objects - commodities - which then acquire tremendous power and vigour, tyrannising the people who produce them.

The result of this week's BBC poll suggests that Marx's portrayal of the forces that govern our lives - and of the instability, alienation and exploitation they produce - still resonates, and can still bring the world into focus. Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, he may only now be emerging in his true significance. For all the anguished, uncomprehending howls from the right-wing press, Karl Marx could yet become the most influential thinker of the 21st century.

Moreover, Marx can be used to explain much, if not all, that goes on in the workplace today.

Those mill owners knew a thing or two, Raj Persaud, New Statesman, Monday 17th October 2005

The Marxist view of pay strategy "down t'mill" was that bosses extracted maximum effort from workers by keeping them desperate. Employees, in other words, were paid just enough to keep them from starvation. It didn't make sense to pay them so badly they couldn't get out of bed in the morning, but equally it wasn't smart to pay more than the minimum needed to keep them turning up at the mill gate each day ready to give their all.

A distant Victorian memory, you may think, except that an American economist has come up with a model of modern salaried professions which suggests that the Marxist analysis applies with renewed force in competitive market places such as, to take one example, the City of London. According to Alan Day Haight of Bowling Green State University, Ohio, people in accounting, law, medicine and similar work toil on the verge of depression or burn-out in much the same way as wage workers once lived on the edge of starvation.

Haight points out that promotion-track workers in these professions are motivated largely by hope of advancement to partner or vice-president, or some other senior post. And given that they basically accept hope as a means of payment, they are convenient targets for "surplus extraction".

In a typical office, this argument runs, senior professionals benefit from the long hours put in by junior professionals, and because a little rivalry makes the juniors more diligent, the partners have an incentive to hire more than one candidate for each anticipated promotion. But how much more than one? How much rivalry is enough, from a partner's point of view, to extract maximum surplus effort?

The Haight answer may seem dismally familiar: there is enough rivalry only when the junior professionals are suffering from so much promotion anxiety that they are always on the verge of giving up or burning out.

Haight has modelled the optimum curve for the number of extra hours that can be extracted from young professionals on the basis of their hopes of promotion. Maximising hope, he notes, is the key art of the senior partner; more people must believe they may be promoted than can be promoted.

He therefore concludes that "if staff burn-out did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it". If junior staff have high morale, in other words, you must hire more of them until promotion anxiety is sufficiently severe to extract maximum free labour from juniors. The firm can even afford a few psychological casualties among the staff because of the returns in aggregate effort.

The model reminds us that although the modern owner of the means of production might not exploit workers physically in the manner of the Victorian mill owner, he or she may be exploiting them emotionally. And because emotions are less visible than malnutrition or physical exhaustion, the damage is harder to measure. In other words, the professional workers of the world may be in chains, even if they can't see the chains to throw them off.

Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London


Blogger Blogging Blogging Queen said...

Hi there! I was just surfin blogs via the nav bar up top and found yours (like and adventure). You write better than many of the blogs I just went by, so have you ever thought about trying to make a little money blogging? Not tons, but I mean, just enough to pay for some other things like webhosting or a car payment, etc? Well, please do NOT confuse this with the cr*ppy comment spam I see all over the place, but I spotted a very cool free book on how to

how to make money blogging blogging and blogging some more..!

Hey, if you're gonna do it, you might as well get a LITTLE somethin' for it...!

Take care, and keep up the great writing,
Tiffany Burrell
How to Make Money Blogging Blogging
ps. No, that's NOT my real picture, lol!

12:21 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home