Mark Steel: So Marx was right after all

March 21, 2009

The sudden change is disconcerting.

For years, I might suggest society would be improved if we sacked these vastly overpaid bankers, and the response would be some variety of "here he goes again".

Now, if you say the same thing, the response is "SACK them? I'll tell you what we should do, we should cover them in marmalade and lock them in a greenhouse full of wasps, then scour the stings with a Brillo pad.

"Then prick them with hedgehog spikes, smear them with fish paste and dip them in Sydney harbour, then glue them to a pig and send them into an al-Qaeda training camp with a letter announcing they're a work of art, never mind sack them."

Even the British Daily Mail exclaimed on its front page, "I'm keeping every penny", in outrage at former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin's pension.

Maybe the paper is planning a change of direction, and will be sold in shopping precincts by left-wing groups, yelling "SMASH the bosses, get the WORKER'S mail, for suburban fashion tips, 20 ways to cook a parsnip and an all-out GENERAL strike".

Even Karl Marx himself is in vogue.

Most papers have had articles about him in their business sections, commending his analysis of booms and slumps, and he was on the front page of the Times.

Soon a Times editorial will begin: "As the global downturn gathers pace, perhaps one economic remedy to be considered by our esteemed guardians is a violent workers' revolution as envisaged by Mister Karl Marx, and championed with consummate aplomb on page 32 by William Rees-Mogg."

A passage from Marx about the insatiable greed of bankers was quoted on Radio 2 one morning by Terry Wogan.

For all I know, he's doing it every day now, muttering: "Now here's a jolly old lesson from the old boy Karl — about those rascals of the bourgeoisie, it seems they've been robbing us blind all along and no mistake, so let's overthrow the nitwits for a bit of mischief.

"In the meantime this is 'Surrey with the Fringe on Top'."

Sales of Marx's Capital are at an all-time high, and this can't just be due to the current rage against characters such as Goodwin and his merry bonus.

It must also be because Marx fathomed that under capitalism, boom and slump would remain a perpetual cycle, as opposed to those such as Gordon Brown, who said once an hour for five years, "We have abolished boom and bust" — a theory now in need of a minor tweak.

But Marx might be surprised at the way he usually appears in these articles, as if he was mostly an analyst, a Robert Peston of his day.

As a professional analyst, Marx would have been a disaster.

For example, one year after Capital was due, his publishers asked him when it would arrive, and he wrote back: "You'll be pleased to know I have begun the actual writing."

He might also dispute the idea attributed to him, that slumps make the collapse of capitalism inevitable. Because while he said slumps were inevitable, he also said the outcome wasn't inevitable at all, but depended on whether the poor allow the rich to make them pay for it.

Which is to say an abridged version of the 1100 pages of Capital would go: "I'll tell you what we should do, spray them with wildebeest odor and make them run through the Serengeti, with a commentary by Attenborough, then ..."

[Originally published in the British Independent.]

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