Mit Moishe Postone Professor für Moderne Geschichte der University of Chicago, habe ich im September 2017 im Wien Museum ein Gespräch über Marx und den Marxismus geführt. Professor Postone (1942-2018) ist im März verstorben, das Gespräch wurde im Magazine of Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen No.121 Spring/Summer 2018 veröffentlicht, es war der letzte öffentliche Auftritt des Historikers.
Marx in the Age of Trump
In the Age of Trump, there is a renewed interest in the thought of Marx amongst American thinkers. What kind of questions do people have where they think that Marx’ ideas might be helpful?
For decades, the humanities and humanistic social sciences in the US were dominated by cultural studies. During the crisis of 2008 it then became evident that the so-called linguistic or cultural turn had led to a complete neglect of economic questions, and that this had been a mistake. The renewed interest in Marx is not associated with what you might consider traditional Marxist groups, which in small numbers had continued at universities all along. Instead, there is a strong reception of the Frankfurt School and of thinkers such as George Lukacs, and Marx is being re-read through those lenses. I certainly belong to this group.
In today’s US politics, you don’t only have Trump and the Tea Party, you also have Bernie Sanders and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Is there anything that links questions about capitalism and the search for Marxist answers to these political currents?
Most of the American Left, including the movements you just mentioned, use the word capitalism when they actually mean inequality, or racism, or sexism. Their thinking is not grounded in any detailed political-economic analysis. They focus on the fact that more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of the rich, which is true, but they are not dealing with the fact that the American economy has been in structural crisis since the early 1970s. Even Bernie Sanders explains the current economic developments as the result of bad trade policy. However, the proportion of GDP produced by American manufacturing has not declined proportionately, what has declined are American manufacturing jobs. The real difference is automation: jobs are not declining because they are going to China or Mexico, but because they are now being done by machines.
So Bernie Sanders’s reaction to the problem of capitalism is actually nationalist because international trade is seen as the main culprit?
Yes. Focusing on trade easily leads to a nationalist position, defending the domestic working class against foreign imports. In the course of the 20th century, due to the welfare state and similar developments, the communist dream of internationalism dissipated and working class movements became de facto nationalist. But if that’s going to be your position, then the Right is much better at that. The Right are much better nationalists.
Let me ask you about your understanding of Marx. Do you consider yourself a Marxist?
No. I think Marx was probably the greatest theorist of the modern period; Das Kapital is really a work of considerable genius. But most of what we call Marxism is really the writings of Marx’ very good friend Friedrich Engels, who in my view misunderstood what Marx was about.
Engels’ understanding of Marx made a lot of sense at a time when the political issue was the growth and strength of the industrial working class. It is a theory that glorifies the industrial working class. Now, however, the working class is in decline.
Your approach is a Marxism without the proletariat as the historical force to overcome exploitation, to overcome capitalism?
The Marx who has something to say to our current problems is not the Marx of the Communist Manifesto, but the one of Das Kapital. Marx actually didn’t write a critique of society from the standpoint of labor; he wrote a critique of labor. In fact, he wrote a critique of the centrality of labor to modern capitalist life. Marx’ idea of emancipation was not the realization nor the glorification of proletarian labor, but its abolition.
How does this reading of Marx help us to understand the Age of Trump?
Marx’s analysis of surplus value and accumulation offers an explanation for current structural developments in the capitalist economies. In the US, the years between 1945 and 1973 saw a great rise in prosperity, and, more importantly, also an enormous increase in productivity. Productivity in capitalism before and after 1945-73 was much lower, but people took the middle period to be typical of capitalism, and thought that welfare-state capitalism had solved all problems. But this period of prosperity and ever-increasing productivity came to an end. Whereas between 1948 and 1967 people who entered the workplace earned more than their predecessors, those who entered the workforce in 1967 made less than those who entered the year before them. Real wages in the US have not risen since 1973.
One possible explanation for this is the weakness of the US trade union movement. The Trumpista answer, on the other hand, would be that this decline in productivity and real wages was caused by globalization, such as by jobs going to China.
I argue that we need to find a different answer. The current crisis of labor is actually a structural problem of capitalism that was foreseen by Marx. His analysis of relative surplus value and accumulation predicted that runaway growth would be accompanied by declining surplus value, and declining levels of surplus value are related to a growing superfluity of labor. People become more and more superfluous. And the Left does not have an answer to that. The Right does, but it’s a stupid and dangerous answer. They blame these developments on immigrants, on women, and in the US also on Blacks, or on China or Mexico. And the Left does not offer a viable alternative explanation. Occupy talks about inequality, but that is only a symptom. They cannot explain the underlying structural changes of the last half-century that Marx helps us to understand. These structural changes have left burnt-out places, like Detroit, and led to rising levels of opioid addiction mostly among the people who once were working class. They’re now the opioid class and no one is addressing this. The Left talks about the environment, but never about the relationship of environment and work. In a sense, they leave all of these people out of the discourse, but these people worry about work, and they don’t care about the environment.
What could a new discourse of the Left be? If I understand you correctly, then we are dealing with economic change that is caused by technological change, independent of policies and of what kind of government we have. You seem to be saying that we can’t do anything about it.
The strength of Marx is that he can help us to understand the situation; his weakness is that he gives us no answers as to how to get out of it. Previous generations of Marxists, and many social democrats as well, had a clear idea of what the future should look like: there should be full employment and living wages. Society was to be based on the just distribution of labor and should be rationally organized. This was a vision of a workerist society. We lack an imaginary of what a post-work society would look like. I see my work as a small contribution to start people thinking about this tremendous change that we’re undergoing, the decline of the proletariat, that is as significant in human history as the destruction of the peasantry and the rise of wage labor. Less and less people work, ever more are unemployed or in jail.
What are the political consequences of the shrinking of the working class? In Europe, the organized working class was essential to the development of democracy. If it withers away, do you see a new era of authoritarian demagogues emerging, building their political power on the basis of giveaways from the government, the way a Roman consul did?
Looking at the swing to the right – Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, AfD, FPÖ, Orban, the PiS party in Poland – I think we’ve reached an age that is potentially as authoritarian as the interwar period. It is a very dangerous time, because the Left has no compelling imaginary of a different future. In this situation, the demagogues have it much easier.
Marx was sort of an historical optimist. You don’t seem to share that part of Marxism, do you?
My analogy is: if you want to understand the significance of a great work of art, you don’t necessarily interview the artist. I think what Marx developed through years of work on Das Kapital went beyond his own political horizon. If I were writing a biography of Marx I would write about this tension, between Marx the analyst and Marx the revolutionary. And it is Marx, the great analyst of the underlying forms of capitalist modernity, who, in my view, still has something to say to us.
Moishe Postone is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Modern History and the College, as well as the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. Furthermore, he is co-director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory. From September 2017 to June 2018 he is a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.
Raimund Löw is an Austrian historian and journalist. As a correspondent for the Austrian Broadcasting Cooperation he headed the ORF’s office in New York.
• “Marx didn’t write a critique of society from the standpoint of labor; he wrote a critique of labor.”
• “We lack an imaginary of what a post-work society would look like.”