Brendan O’Neill

Help! I’m a Marxist who defends capitalism

The benefits of global capitalism

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As one of the Marxists named in James Delingpole’s recent Spectator article (3 November) on his alleged conversion to the commie cause, I really should be angrier about reckless, risk-hungry, overambitious bankers. Yet I find myself in the curious position today of thinking capitalism isn’t risk-hungry enough, certainly in areas where it matters: developing the forces of production and creating new wealth. I also find myself shaking my head in violent disagreement whenever I hear so-called radicals put the boot into capitalism. They seem to loathe the very parts of the capitalist system that Marx quite liked. Delingpole’s crisis of Tory/commie identity is nothing compared with mine: Help! I’m a Marxist who sometimes feels the urge to defend capitalism.

It’s trendy to be an anti-capitalist these days. Newspaper columnists attack greedy fat-cats and their big bonuses. Environmentalists protest about the impact of the capitalists’ dirty factories and aeroplane-enabled international trade on poor Mother Earth, where it’s not so much a case of everything solid melting into air, as Marx described the rise of the bourgeoisie, but everything solid polluting the air, with smog and soot and various other Very Bad Things. Some posh kids born with an entire cutlery set of silver in their mouths now stop washing their hair in order to develop dreadlocks and then wield cudgels against a McDonald’s restaurant or a Starbucks outlet. Meanwhile, everyone looks at China as it lumbers from Stalinism to capitalism, building a mind-boggling two coal-fired power stations every week, and says in unison: ‘Eeerugh!’

Marx would have told these shallow anti-capitalists to get a grip. Where they view capitalists as overly cocky and arrogant, always erecting new factories and building new cities to satisfy mankind’s insatiable lust for stuff, Marx was quite happy to champion the naked ambition of the capitalist class. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and his sidekick Frederick Engels upheld and even celebrated the achievements of capitalism in overcoming and controlling nature, through its rapid development of industry, science, agriculture and telecommunications. The capitalist class was the first in history, said Marx and Engels, to ‘show what man’s activity can bring about’. In only a century, it had ‘accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades’. These days, the ‘wonders’ of modern capitalism — whether it’s the 4x4 or digital TV or genetically modified crops — are more likely to be looked upon as wicked things that corrupt nature rather than as wonderful things that liberate humanity. It is striking that, today, well-off newspaper columnists and the spoilt-brat sons and daughters of the aristocracy and other money-lubed sections of society are unwilling to defend the kind of capitalist gains that even communists were celebrating more than 150 years ago.

Today’s capitalist-bashers also dislike international trade and development, especially since it involves flying products around the world, which leaves a long, streaking carbon skidmark in the skies. Environmentalists bang on about the problem of ‘food miles’ — the distance grub travels before it reaches our plates — and even ‘love miles’, the bloody killjoys, which refers to the distance your red roses and boxes of Belgian chocolates travel before you hand them, like an unthinking slave to capitalist desire, to your loved one. New movements celebrate local production over international trade: the Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year for 2007 is ‘locavore’, which refers to a new breed of green-leaning Westerner who only eat food grown or harvested within 100 miles of where he or she lives. Meanwhile, Naomi Klein, queen of the anti-capitalists, writes tear-drenched tirades against the spread of capitalism into every corner of the globe, while eco-commentators celebrate the virtues of those few remaining tribes that have remained relatively capitalism-free.

Yet Marx quite admired the internationalising tendencies of the capitalist system. He argued that, ‘to the chagrin of reactionists’, capitalism dislodges local and national industries and turns production into a global phenomenon. ‘The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation’, he and Engels wrote. Now, if you will forgive their 19th-century language, ‘inappropriate’ and un-PC, I know, their point is clear: globalisation at least has the benefit of smashing down silly local practices and ‘civilising’ formerly backward societies. What’s more, this opens up the potential for a truly universal culture, said the communist duo: ‘The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.’

Hurrah! Only today’s lazy anti-capitalists — locavores and ‘reactionists’ the lot of them — celebrate the local over the international, and fight to preserve one-sided and narrow-minded cultural practices around the world from what they see as the carbon bootprint of capitalist expansionism. Unlike Marx, they’re not interested in superseding capitalism with something better — with something even more global and more productive, which will leave an even bigger human footprint on the planet — but rather in returning to a pre-capitalist era of local food production, dancing around maypoles and early death from cholera or malnutrition.

What today’s anti-capitalists loathe most is the ‘consumer society’, with its incessant advertising and wicked temptation to buy, buy, buy. On Buy Nothing Day, at the end of November, anti-capitalist protesters on Oxford Street and elsewhere advised shoppers to ‘detox from consumerism’ because ‘everything we buy has an impact on our planet’. Meanwhile, serious psychologists (as well as the seriously psychotic) claim that consumerism makes us ill — it gives us ‘affluenza’, apparently. Geddit?

Marx loved the consumer society. Indeed he described it as a ‘civilising moment’ of capital. In the Grundrisse, he wrote: ‘In spite of all his “pious” speeches, [the capitalist] searches for means to spur [the workers] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter, etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment.’ It is striking that what a bearded communist described as ‘civilising’ 150 years ago — the chatter and charms of consumerism — is now written off by anti-capitalists as dangerous and corrupting.

Of course, Marx wanted to destroy capitalism because he thought it didn’t go far enough in remaking the world in man’s image and organising society according to man’s needs and desire. Today’s sorry excuses for Marxists and anti-capitalists think capitalism has gone too far in its development of the forces of production and encouragement of consumerism. I’m with Marx. Let’s replace capitalism with something even more dazzlingly cocky and human-centric. But let’s first deal with the luddites, locavores and eco-feudalists who have given anti-capitalism a bad name.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked (

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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