Interview du Jour: Face to face with Karl Marx – diss capital

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Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor, managed to track Karl Marx down and produced the delightful interview below as reported by the NewStatesman.

Karl Marx, in London for a book signing, stumbles off the Eurostar and straight into an interview with Paul Mason at a café in King’s Cross. How does the credit crunch fit with the guru’s theory of crisis?

I chose St Pancras to impress him, but he is not impressed. Stumbling off the Eurostar, he barely notices the architecture and thumbs his BlackBerry when I point out the champagne bar.

I’ve prepared this whole historical decompression briefing for him: the match girls’ strike, the petrol engine, cinema, Lenin, the Warsaw Pact, the John Betjeman statue. But he stops me short: “I know, I know all about it. You think we don’t have Wikipedia up there?”

“You see everything?”

“Better than you! We see it without sen­suous historical experience. It’s like watching a slow-motion car crash. Just wait till you get there: it will restore your faith in the objective forces of history.”

I explain that I want to ask about the credit crunch, how it fits with his theory of crisis –

“I’ve got an hour and then I’m doing a book signing . . .”

“Which book?” I joke.

He laughs: as we all learned in the 1980s, there is more than one volume of Marx’s Capital, and more than one theory of crisis therein. So which one fits the events since the Lehman Brothers crash?

“OK. Crisis 101,” he begins. We’ve grabbed a table at a Starbucks on Euston Road and he’s let me buy him a double espresso.

“In the book, what I say is that the possibility of crisis is there right from the moment you separate sale from purchase. Once you’ve got a society based on money and commodities you can have a situation where there’s enough produce to go around – enough Fairtrade coffee, iPods, Prada overcoats” (he is wearing a Prada overcoat) – “but not enough money for people to buy it.”

“So the commodity is the root of all evil?”

“It makes crisis possible, is all.”

So what has caused this one?

“In the book I never actually got around to a synthetic crisis theory so, as you know, ‘ze Marxists‘” – he does inverted commas with his fingers – “had to scrabble around in my notebooks to concoct one.”

“So you don’t have a synthetic theory of the credit crunch?”

“There is one, but you have to remember that the book was written at a certain level of ­abstraction . . .”

“OK,” I press him. “There are three recognised causes of crisis in Marxist economics: underconsumption, disproportionality and overproduction. Do you buy that, at least?”

He looks glazed, impatient. I’ve seen this look in the eyes of the other celebrity profs and hedge-funders who predicted the 2008 credit crunch and have now shot to fame.

He retorts: “OK, but you have got to think of them as layers; they’re not competing explanations. They work at different levels of abstraction, like biology, chemistry and physics.”

So what’s the physics? What’s the root cause of this crisis? I push my digital voice recorder closer to him. “All three,” he laughs. “That’s why it’s a whopper. Let’s start with the debt ­issue. Why do you think they were shovelling cheap credit into the hands of poor African Americans and Hispanics who could never pay it back?” Low wages, I answer. “Precisely. They held down the real wages of the working class during a boom. Unheard of since before the 1936-49 war.”

So the underconsumption theory is still valid? “Pah!” He rocks in his seat with frustration. “Have you actually read Volume II?”

I fidget. There was a student occupation going on when I was trying to read it. And I was in a rock band …

Click here for the full article.

Source: Paul Mason, NewStatesman, January 6, 2011.

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