Universal Translator

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reading Marx – Intermezzo

That’s right . . . first post of 2012 is about Marx, homies.  ‘Cause that’s just how I roll, yo!

(Sorry.  Had to get that out of my system.  It probably has something to do with the fact that I got the first three seasons of Breaking Bad as a Christmas present.)

So I’m getting ready to plunge back into Capitalism, having taken a week or so off to gird my loins before doing battle with The Dread Chapter Three, but I did watch – as I always do before I plunge into the actual reading – David Harvey’s lecture on the reading material. 

Maybe it is just that Harvey is a very good professor, but despite all of his warnings that this is the point at which most adventurers turn back I think Chapter Three sounds kind of interesting.  Marx apparently is going to begin expounding upon the fundamental changes that money works in what heretofore had been strictly conceptualized as a commodity-based system, how those changes are necessary for the new money-based system to function, and what those changes portend in terms of the value of commodities and the power of participants in that system.  I am especially intrigued to see how Marx ends up arguing that debt is functionally necessary to a capitalist system.

But over the weekend I went back and found the original London Review of Books article I read months ago that first got me on this kick – as well as my original post about that article – and a possibility occurred to me that I had not considered before:  Marx may in fact be entirely correct and yet wholly irrelevant in his critique of capitalism.  It all has to do with temporal considerations.

For example, like many, many people I’ve never found it difficult to predict what the stock market or the economy ultimately is going to do.  To this day my sister thinks I’m a genius because about a year and a half before the housing market collapsed I told her that it was going to do so.  I gave her some advice that she did not heed, and in the ensuing years she has told me several times that she wished she had listened to me.

Now . . . I’m not claiming to be particularly bright or insightful about this stuff.  A lot of people saw exactly what I saw back then, and a lot of people predicted the housing bubble collapse – the only thing is, a whole lot more people were calling it the other way, and then the herd instinct kicked in and those other people tended to get all the attention.  Which is why my sister thinks I’m a genius today – because (as she remembers it) “everybody” was saying that there was no problem in the housing market, and only her brother was warning her that things were about to go pear-shaped.

But the real point is that it is insufficient to know what the real estate market or the stock market or, really, any market, is ultimately going to do; in order to take advantage of that insight you also have to know when that market shift is going to take place.  This is a whole lot trickier.

(Back when the tech stock/NASDAQ boom was going on it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we were looking at a stock bubble.  I was just a puppy when the bubble started inflating, and by the time I had money to invest I was convinced the bubble was going to pop at any minute . . . so I refused to put any money in the market.  I sat out 2 years’ worth of insane capital gains just because I couldn’t know when the bubble would finally burst and I didn’t want to risk my investment.

(That turned out to have been the correct call, but I would have loved to have been able to take advantage of the stock price run-ups that my prudence during those 2 years made me forego.  And I would have done so, too, if only I could have known exactly when the inevitable tech-stock collapse would finally happen.  Such foresight, alas, was beyond me.)

Anyway . . . back to Marx.  It strikes me that Marx’s critique of the capitalist system is not of capitalism as it is actually exists, but is of the “capitalist system finally realized.”  That is, Marx’s critique (I think) finally is going to be that capitalism cannot continue indefinitely, but that once it has engulfed the world and all the world’s peoples then its own inherent structure dooms it to failure.  The thing is . . . that might technically be true and yet it may also be a practically pointless statement.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier postings in this whole Reading Marx series, in one of the prefaces to the book Engels makes the comment that Britain was at that time trapped in a “permanent and chronic” economic depression.  Well, it may have looked so to Engels back when he was writing, but of course we know now that this most certainly was not the case and that – as I found out with a quick Wikipedia search – Britain got out of its “permanent” depression by attempting to annex Africa.

That’s the thing about the capitalist system:  even assuming that Marx’s critiques are correct (and I’m still just reading, so I haven’t yet formed an opinion about that) it is very difficult to know when the capitalist system will finally run out of tricks in order to keep the whole damned thing chugging along just a little bit longer.  Sure, you can say that the system is ultimately doomed, but that is very much like scientists saying that our sun will ultimately turn into a red giant and engulf the earth:

“When is that going to happen?” you might well ask. 

“Oh, in about 5 billion years,” they’ll tell you. 

“Hhmmmm . . .” you might then ask, “so this is something you needn’t have bothered me with, isn’t it?”

“It’s still true,” they’ll claim.

“Yes,” you could then reply.  “Still true and utterly meaningless to me personally.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I have to admit to a sheer intellectual frisson reading this stuff.  It is challenging and it is different and it may turn out to be – as I indicated above – completely correct.  It may also be entirely pointless, at least for anyone living in the early part of the 21st century.

But I am enjoying the opportunity to engage and grapple with a way of thinking about things entirely new to me, so I’m even looking forward to The Dread Chapter Three.  Ever forward!

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