Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Marx, money and straw men

I watched the final episode of the BBC2 series Masters of Money last night in which the economics correspondent Stephanie Flanders looked at whether Karl Marx has anything to say about the current financial crisis.

Flanders claimed to have "waded through hundreds of pages of Marx" - just as literary experts "wade through" Dickens and Shakespeare I suppose - but there wasn't much evidence that she had. I could have predicted most of the stock images and ideas she came up with: the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of socialism, miners hacking coal for a pittance are workers, but not people who work in offices and have shiny new mobile phones, so the working-class which Marx described has disappeared, at least in Western Europe and North America, and unemployment is the inevitable result of new technology.

The main problem with the programme though was that Flanders, despite her degrees from Oxford and Harvard, clearly doesn't understand Marxist economics. She claimed that Marx thought the only way profits could increase is by workers' wages being driven down to the bare minimum needed to survive, a view that Marx actually spends a lot of those pages she claims to have "waded through" attacking. This argument was repeated by Madsen Pirie of the right-wing Adam Smith Institute who said that rising wages alongside rising profits showed that Marx had been wrong. In fact, Marx argued that technological innovation meant that workers could spend a lot less of the working week replacing the cost of their wages and that rising wages and shorter hours could go hand in hand with higher profits. She also seemed to be arguing that Marx would have been surprised at the role of credit in the current crisis, something he again spends quite a few of those "hundreds of pages" explaining.

The programme had the usual line-up of talking heads, from right-wingers like Pirie and Nigel Lawson to ex-Marxists Martin Jacques and Peter Hitchens. Tariq Ali and Slavoj Žižek came out with some pretty obvious remarks and the only person who could have given some real insights into Marx's ideas, the geographer David Harvey, got about five seconds on screen.

The programme concluded with Flanders and some of her economics professor and City trader pals agreeing that Marx has some interesting things to say about capitalism which could help the system "reinvent itself". Hopefully some of the people who watched the programme will be interested enough in his ideas to do what Flanders clearly hasn't and read Marx themselves.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading that people tend to believe what they read in the papers until they see something they know something about themselves. The same applies to TV and radio. While I'm sure you knew this already, it can make for frustrating reading and viewing as you end up doubting everything. That's one reason I stopped buying a daily paper.