Globalization and Marxism

7 December 2008


Redeeming a promissory note

In Yesterday’s Marxism Lite I quoted the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm from a BBC radio interview as follows: “Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism, not only destroys the heritage and tradition but it is incredibly unstable, it operates through a series of crises, and I think this has been recognised to be the end of this particular era,” ( “Marx popular amid credit crunch” 20 October 2008).

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

I remarked in a note that this quote deserves a fuller exposition, so now it is time to redeem in gold the promissory note. And although I can’t do justice to all that is implied in this single sentence, I can at least make some remarks, perhaps redeeming the note in silver if not gold.

Sentimental forms of exploitation

Hobsbawm mentions the destruction of heritage and tradition wrought by globalization, and this has been a perennial theme of Marxism. In one of the many famous passages from the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. ”

One doesn’t ordinarily think of Marx as a sentimentalist, but here Marx sounds as though he prefers the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic” relations of the pre-industrial past to “callous cash payment”, and that exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions is a better thing than exploitation that is “naked, shameless, direct, brutal.” While this would be a good place for a digression on Freud concerning the future of such illusions, we will leave this for another time (another promissory note to redeem). Of all people, Marx sounds closest to Edmund Burke in this passage, even down to the metaphor of nakedness and the implied comfort of illusions; perhaps the resemblance is intentional, an allusion, as Marx had no doubt read Burke. But one would scarcely be more surprised to find Marx quoting Joseph de Maistre.

Edmund Burke and Karl Marx tête-à-tête in prose

Edmund Burke and Karl Marx tête-à-tête in prose

Edmund Burke, in his Reflections in the Revolution in France, similarly expressed himself on sentimental forms of exploitation thus:

“All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

One can immediately perceive the parallelism of this from Burke with the above quoted passage from the Communist Manifesto; not only the references, but even the rhythm and cadence, are similar. This sentimental side of Marxism, apparently tolerant of feudal exploitation so long as it is modestly draped in moral rhetoric, illustrates the lengths to which Marx (and his followers) will go to make a point, but it is a mere distraction from the more significant content of Hobsbawm’s above quote.

The development of the heretofore undeveloped world

For much of the twentieth century the political left engaged in ostentatious hand-wringing over the conditions in poor countries around the world. This hand-wringing was best exemplified in dependency theory, which held that poor countries were being “underdeveloped” (instead of simply being “developed”) as part of a nefarious capitalist scheme to keep them poor. Now, some of these countries are no longer poor; certainly, many are no longer as poor as they once were. Countries like India and China have begun to industrialize, and their industrialization is changing conceptions of economic development, international relations, and indeed civilization itself.

Globalization is nothing but the long-awaited development of the undeveloped and underdeveloped world. That globalization is attended by much lamentation and gnashing of teeth in both the developed and in the un- and underdeveloped world is in itself a demonstration that globalization is no respecter of persons and is as blind as justice. The peoples of the developed world complain that jobs are being “exported” to the industrializing nation-states, while the peoples of industrializing nation-states complain about the conditions of industrialization, notwithstanding the fact that industrialization in the twenty-first century is a very different beast than industrialization in the nineteenth century.

If any political entity not affiliated with the left attempted to obstruct globalization, they would be accused of attempting to keep poor countries poor, just as when any political entity in the US points out the counter-productive character of attempting to protect politically visible jobs (by singling out particular industries for protection) such an entity can expect to be pilloried by those claiming to speak on behalf of workers.

Industrialization before revolution

Many are the economists and political theorists who have rightly observed that Marx maintained that industrialization was a necessary preliminary to communist revolution. Marx himself was lukewarm about the enthusiastic Russian reception of Das Kapital, because Russia, being not yet industrialized and lacking an industrial proletariat, was not primed for revolution like heavily industrialized Western Europe. Lenin made some revisions to Marx and attempted to legitimize revolution in Russia from a Marxist theoretical perspective. Mao later went much farther, and made the obviously non-industrialized Chinese peasant the basis of his revolutionary movement. If Marx was right, and we can take him at his word, the communist revolutions in Russia and China were premature revolutions, and had Marx seen them he might well have predicted their failure.

If, as I have stated above, globalization is nothing other than the extension of the industrial revolution to regions of the world previously untouched by it, and if Marx was right that communist revolution must emerge from the industrialized armies created by the factory system, then globalization must precede any genuine communist revolution. Hobsbawm said that globalization is implicit in capitalism, but he might just as well have said that globalization is implicit in Marxism. In other words, Marx may yet be right, and he may yet be proved right at some distant point in the future, but the conditions under which Marx might be proved right (or wrong) have simply not yet obtained.

Marxism and its experimentum crucis

It is easy to imagine a point in time when all the world is industrialized, and Africa has followed in the footsteps of Asia’s present capitalist development (and, in a sufficiently warm world, Antarctica as well). At such a point in history, the world entire would be ripe for revolution, as financial crises today that are limited to the industrialized and developed world would at that time involve the whole world. When industrialization is world-wide, the mechanisms employed today to stabilize developed economies may no longer function and we could yet see escalating crises of the kind predicted by Marx. But this has not yet happened; it cannot happen until the entire world has industrialized, and the process by which the world is industrialized is globalization.

Globalization is thus a precondition of a sufficiently catastrophic crisis that a communist revolution could unfold as predicted by Marx. After the initial industrialization of western Europe, followed shortly thereafter by the industrialization of North America and Japan, it seemed that the rest of Eurasia and Africa would follow in sequence. But industrialization stalled; while some industries were established in Asia and Africa, society was not transformed by an industrial revolution, and industry after the model of Europe remained economically marginal throughout much of the world. Near the end of the twentieth century, when China began to industrialize in earnest, it seemed again as though the rest of the world would follow in sequence, and this may yet happen, but it is too soon to judge.

So, Marx may yet be proved right. But there is a twist. Depending upon the direction that history takes, Marx’s theories may never be tested properly because the conditions under which they could be tested may never obtain. Firstly, and most obviously, if the world never fully industrializes, the conditions under which communist revolution ought to take place will never obtain; hence, Marx’s theory can never be exposed to its experimentum crucis. Secondly, by the time the developing world industrializes, those economies that were initially transformed by industrial revolutions may have already transitioned to post-industrial economies (e.g., information societies), so that the economic and industrial infrastructure of the world remains uneven and global economic crises do not play out as they would under globally uniform economic and industrial infrastructure. Thirdly, and (in my view) more interestingly, if human civilization establishes itself off the surface of the earth, and industrialization has the indefinite extent of known space into which to expand, the potential infinity of the human future will defy any “complete” industrialization, and hence, again, the conditions needed to test Marx’s theory the way he himself interpreted it may never obtain. An “open” future can never converge on an historical totality of industrialization, therefore the conditions under which communist revolution can take place and be successful would be pushed further and further into an indefinite future, never to be realized.

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Almost four years after writing the above, Eric Hobsbawm passed away on 01 October 2012 at the age of 95. He left an estate of nearly two million pounds.

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