Karl Marx and Coronavirus

Seb Dex discusses Karl Marx in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I have, in my life, never been short of someone willing to tell me what Karl Marx would have made of all this. The context and the delivery may vary, but the arguments all follow a similar path. The economic trends Marx identified are accelerating. Their consequences are unavoidable. We have only avoided them, so far, because of X or Y reason. Globalisation and consumerism are typical stand-ins. The name Thatcher is rarely far from the analysis. There is even the occasional surprise cameo; as occurred recently when one such friend highlighted the nihilistic influence of South Park.

These arguments are not necessarily bad, but to accept them unreservedly is to subscribe to a peculiar species of political religion. One is waiting for the ‘day of judgment’, when the ‘forces of evil’ – be they South Park or self-centred consumerism – will be unable to stem the tide of cosmic justice. More importantly, they relegate Marx’s political writings. Perhaps the most useful of these works for making sense of the coming decade, played out as it will doubtless be in the shadow of the past six months, is The Class Struggle in France (1850). It explores the relationship between political events and collective perceptions; itself part of a larger dance between the present and the past.

Marx spoke of the 1830-32 Revolution – of Les Mis fame – as striking ‘off the crown behind which capital had kept itself concealed’ and ‘bringing the rule of the bourgeoisie clearly into view’. Its most important legacy was not in institutional or legislative change but in mentally sub-dividing the movement against absolutism. It divorced liberal property owners from an understanding of revolution as the best and only means to political self-determination, one hitherto shared with working class radicals. When the two parties reunited to overthrow the July Monarchy in 1848 the alliance was fated to be short lived, since each now possessed contradictory understandings of revolutionary upheaval. One saw it as salvation, the other as little more than a dress rehearsal for a gruesome rerun  of The Reign of Terror.   

What, then, might be the consequences of Covid-19 for our shared social and political perceptions? Two obvious changes will be regarding employment and the environment. It is beyond my ability to add anything meaningful to the discussion about a potential cultural shift on these topics. I will leave it to individual judgement whether the superiority of white-collar work and the sanctity of economic growth might give way to a proper respect for essential workers and the climate. Rather, I would like to suggest a potentially more transformational change: a shift in public discussion, however temporary, towards the future and away from the past.

You are welcome to dismiss this argument as just a long-winded way of saying what many  concluded in March: that lockdown drew a line under the ‘Brexit Civil War’, that no longer will politics be a thinly-veiled rematch of the referendum. Yet, the debate around masks alone might give us cause to doubt this conclusion. The past lingers like an unwanted guest, gurgling the occasional curse at ‘metropolitan elites’; but the future is slowly arresting control of the discussion.

One can glimpse it in the new vocabulary of politics introduced by these ‘unprecedented times’: the plain English philosophising about ‘life after lockdown’ and a ‘post-pandemic world’. It is most clearly on show in American politics where the prospect of a Democratic Trifecta in 2020 was already being discussed as the means to a new nation, a sense only intensified by this year’s events. Advocates of the Green New Deal and the Public Option see them as steppingstones to the city upon a hill. Yet, this new generation of Democrats also seek to fulfil the promise of the Obama presidency, which swore to ‘harness the sun and the winds … to fuel our cars and run our factories’ and ‘to raise health care's quality and lower its cost’. All this would have amused Marx, whose introduction to The 18th Brumaire (1852) discussed the conflicted psychology of revolutionaries, determined to break free of the past while wedded to its precedents. Perhaps he would have concluded that the future influences the present just as much as the past.

Seb Dex studied History at the University of Cambridge and lives in Southend-on-Sea where he works as a part-time tutor.
He tweets at @DexSeb
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