We can’t say Karl Marx didn’t warn us: capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. In their chase for ever higher profits, the capitalists shed workers for machines. The higher return on capital means that the share of profits rises and the share of wages falls, and soon the mass of the population isn’t earning enough to buy the goods capitalism produces. And that’s exactly what’s been happening over the past four years of the Great Recession: ever increasing income inequality, leading to ever weaker aggregate demand – temporarily disguised by an unsustainable credit binge – leading to collapse. You don’t have to be a communist to see that this is so. We should all be Marxists now.
Or should we? Every time capitalism hits an inevitable bad patch, Marx’s name is invoked with wearisome regularity. But no serious economist or political thinker – with the possible exception of Gordon Brown – has ever suggested capitalism can break free of booms and busts. Once bust, as we’ve seen time and again, the capitalist economy has a robust in-built ability to restore itself. As for all the talk of growing inequality, hasn’t anyone noticed that ordinary people in the capitalist West have enjoyed an astonishing long-term rise in their standard of living? We are not suffering an existential economic crisis. We do not need extraordinary remedies. We do not need Marx.
So which is it? Is Marx the voice we should be heeding? Or are his modern day apostles resuscitating a late Victorian corpse whose main contribution to human affairs has been the Soviet gulag?