It’s easy to dismiss Marxism as a “failed theory” because of its economic failures, but Marx lives on in a way that makes him arguably more influential than he was when his discredited economic ideas served as an excuse for the immiseratation of a quarter of mankind. For he and his followers have provided us with a lot of the political language that we still use and therefore the terms in which we still think about politics. In a sense, we are all Marxists now. That this is the case is something we should all be reminded of by the alleged crisis of “capitalism” suggested to so many distinguished minds by the accounting scandals at Enron or WorldCom or the alleged insider trading of Martha Stewart.
A cartoon in the Daily Telegraph of London, for instance, shows cavemen with weapons labeled “Enron”, “WorldCom” and “Andersen” slaughtering what we are to suppose is the last of the Wooly Mammoths, which is labeled: “Trust in the System.” In the same paper, George Trefgarne worries that “some academics, pundits and Left-wing rabble-rousers, playing on fears that the system doesn''t work, will take advantage of the situation and question the very values and institutions on which the world economic system rests.” Meanwhile, The Times hastens to soothe our natural anxiety on behalf of the same “system” by editorializing that “WorldCom is an exception and not capitalism''s rule.”
This kind of reassurance is actually more worrying than the outright attacks on “capitalism” by such papers as the Guardian, which has been saying similar things for so long that nobody pays much attention to it anymore. But when Mark Leibovich in the Washington Post says that the news from WorldCom is “yet another body blow to our national faith in capitalism triumphant,” we have to wonder if the defenders of “capitalism” shouldn’t consider the dangers of using their enemy’s vocabulary. For “capitalism,” as a man from Mars unfamiliar with the terms of political debate in the 20th century would have to conclude, is simply the socialist word for life.
Or, to put it another way, this supposed “system” of capitalism is simply the way things are, baby — even under “socialism,” as the inevitable black markets in socialist countries bear witness. To give this fundamental economic reality its socialist name, to call it an “ism” and speak of that “ism” as a “system” implies that there is some alternative to it — which is the cue for the socialist, who just happens to be the only person with a ready-made alternative that he has been tinkering with for well over a century, to step forward. He may not expect to sell his whole program anymore, but if he’s got the rest of us being defensive about the alleged system we already use, he is more than half-way to being able to sell us socialist patches for it — such as over-regulation of accountants or stock markets, or maybe a Clinton-style health-care plan.
His remedies are designed for the bits of the system he has got us to believe don’t “work.” The hidden metaphor in such language is that of a machine — as we might expect from ideas having their origins in the 19th century — which has been designed to perform a specific task. It “works” when it performs the task and doesn’t “work” when it doesn’t. But the economy is not a machine and wasn’t designed by anybody. It is more like an organic being and therefore can’t work or not work — since there is no specific task it is designed to perform — but only be healthy or unhealthy. It can continue to generate wealth, as it always has done, or it can be hobbled and interfered with and prevented from generating wealth and doing other things natural to it. But it cannot be replaced by a machine which has been designed so that everybody will be happy.
Nor is it only “capitalism” which is the victim of this kind of intellectual con-trick. Every time we use words like “imperialist”, “racist”, “sexist”, etc., we are thinking in quasi-Marxist terms. Or when we use the word “fascist” in a non-historical context. Thus a Reuters story tells us that the government of the tyrant Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe has described the desire of his nation’s white farmers to go on farming as “racist and fascist.” Mugabe is himself an unashamed Marxist, of course, and so is happy to use “fascist” as the Marxist does to describe any political view to the right of his own. But for the rest of us there is no excuse for using such language which, like that of “capitalism,” is designed to impose a bi-polar structure on the world, requiring us all to be counted either among the far-left sheep or the far-right goats.