Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

Reclaiming Marxism in an age of meaningless work

The absurdities and humiliations of late capitalism — social atomization, the gig economy, brutalizing inequality — have given new life to Karl Marx. While known best for his economic theorizing, Marx has found new favour for his rigorous humanism. Those most vulnerable to the vagaries of capitalism are seeing in Marx a framework for understanding their own humanity.

Capitalism keeps us from creating value in life, says Yale professor

"Karl Marx" installation includes 500 figures of the communist icon which reside in Marx's native town Trier, Germany. The philosopher's principal critique that capitalism stands in the way of authentic emancipation has arguably become more relevant than ever in the modern age. (Thomas Wieck/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

** This episode was originally published on June 14, 2019.

When Karl Marx offered his critique of capitalism in the mid-19th century, work was a brutal endeavour. Workers had few rights, conditions were terrible, and the work itself was often dangerous and poorly compensated. But wage labour was progress compared to what came before it — and while it may have overtaken the lives of workers, it offered some hope of a better life.

More than a century and a half after Marx first talked about the struggle between the ruling class and labour, the promise of capitalism — that progress was inevitable and would ultimately lead to good things for everyone — has proven empty for many people.

All there is are these jobs you have, and so people have understandably gone looking for meaning in these jobs. But that's the wrong place. The place to look is still history.-Malcolm Harris

And it seems Marx's principal critique that capitalism stands in the way of authentic emancipation is arguably more relevant than ever. 

Martin Hagglund, a professor of philosophy and literature at Yale University, argues that the nature of capitalism keeps us from making any meaningful decisions about how we can create value and meaning.

"What distinguishes us from other animals is not just that we have free time to play around like other animals do, but we also have the capacity to ask ourselves what is worth doing with our free time and what we ought to do with it. It's unintelligible that your decisions are free and that you're leading a free life unless you can ask yourself that question," says Hagglund, author of This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom.

The privilege of time

But owning one's time in 2019 is the purview of elites. According to writer Malcolm Harris, the millennial generation, for example, has inherited a world in which living a life solely of one's own making has a dreamlike quality for any but the most privileged. He contends they are poorer, in greater debt, and more medicated than their parents or grandparents. 

In his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Harris writes that when millennials express any kind of expectation that life ought to offer greater meaning, they are derided as being spoiled and entitled.

Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days, on the challenge for young people in finding meaning at a time when history has been declared dead. 2:02

 "For young people to say we want to live in a world that is tending toward meaning, that reduces the drudgery that people have to experience, that reduces the exploitation that people have to experience so that more of us can do rewarding things with our lives — I'm not sure what a better claim could be. That's supposed to be what this is all about," he says.

Harris — who is a millennial himself — says younger people are looking for precisely that connection to history, that sense that they are connected to something bigger than just their own individual lives, that preceding generations had. But that connection is elusive, obscured by a deep sense of alienation from themselves and those around them.

History is now

Terrell Carver, who teaches political theory at Bristol University, says the conditions of alienation and lack of meaning resulting from late capitalism are the same conditions Marx confronted in the 1840s.

"I think there's much more historical overlap than people realize. I think this also has to do with new and revolutionary technologies because the 1840s, like today, was really quite revolutionary in terms of technology. The Industrial Revolution was getting underway. Also: the themes of pollution and exploitation and migration."

In Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, German social, political and economic theorist Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) wrote: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it' ⁠— words inscribed upon his grave. (Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For Karl Marx, history was now. No generation was disconnected from the one that came before it, or the one that would come after. Capitalism is failing in its promise that life would be better for the next generation. 

Malcolm Harris says the only way forward is to connect where we are today with what happened in the past.

"There is no more historical reaching for meaning. All there is are these jobs you have, and so people have understandably gone looking for meaning in these jobs. But that's the wrong place. The place to look is still history."

Guests in the program:

  • Martin Hagglund is professor of Comparative Literature and of Humanities at Yale University.
  • Malcolm Harris is a writer and an editor at The New Inquiry.
  • Terrell Carver is a professor of Political Theory at Bristol University.
     

Further Reading:

  • This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, Martin Hagglund, Pantheon, 2019
  • Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris, Little, Brown and Company, 2017
  • Marx, Terrell Carver, Classic Thinkers, 2018
     


** This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.