One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This month, to mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on 5th May, we ask:
How has Marx influenced your thinking?
Responses from: Ursula Huws; Sven-Eric Liedman; Terrell Carver; Jayati Ghosh; Wolfgang Streeck; Frigga Haug; Lucia Pradella; Neil Faulkner; Lars T Lih; Esther Leslie; Guilherme Leite Gonçalves; Michael Roberts.
Marx helped me understand how capitalism works. There are many developments he did not predict, but he bequeathed us tools to unpick the business models and explain the processes by which capitalism continues to expand and develop, and the creative-destructive way it lurches from crisis to crisis, transforming labour and everyday life along the way. As he put it in the Communist Manifesto, ‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones’.
Using his concepts, we can see how the continuous need for expansion drives a voracious appetite to seek out new sites of accumulation and how this sucks more and more aspects of human activity within the scope of the market, opening up new opportunities for making money out of them. To quote again from his Communist Manifesto, ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere’.
For me, the concept of ‘commodification’ is key to understanding these dynamics. In Marx’s day, industrialists took activities that were previously based in the household, such as weaving, sewing, making cleaning materials and preparing food, and, turned them into standard commodities, forming the basis for huge new industries. New machines played a key role in this. In our own times, new commodities are being generated from art and culture and the exploitation of the natural world, as well as many other aspects of daily life and sociality. We are turned into customers, even for such basic aspects of subsistence as health, clean water and the ability to communicate. This locks us into an ever-greater dependence on the market. To change this situation we will have to find a collective way to say ‘No’! READ MORE