Thursday, 24 November 2011
More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base - the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.
But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we're only now struggling to cope with.
.....as capitalism evolves, its defenders say, an increasing number of people will be able to benefit from it.
Fulfilling careers will no longer be the prerogative of a few. No more will people struggle from month to month to live on an insecure wage. Protected by savings, a house they own and a decent pension, they will be able to plan their lives without fear. With the growth of democracy and the spread of wealth, no-one need be shut out from the bourgeois life. Everybody can be middle class.
In fact, in Britain, the US and many other developed countries over the past 20 or 30 years, the opposite has been happening. Job security doesn't exist, the trades and professions of the past have largely gone and life-long careers are barely memories.
If people have any wealth it's in their houses, but house prices don't always increase. When credit is tight as it is now, they can be stagnant for years. A dwindling minority can count on a pension on which they could comfortably live, and not many have significant savings.
More and more people live from day to day, with little idea of what the future may bring. Middle-class people used to think their lives unfolded in an orderly progression. But it's no longer possible to look at life as a succession of stages in which each is a step up from the last.
In the process of creative destruction the ladder has been kicked away and for increasing numbers of people a middle-class existence is no longer even an aspiration.
As capitalism has advanced it has returned most people to a new version of the precarious existence of Marx's proles. Our incomes are far higher and in some degree we're cushioned against shocks by what remains of the post-war welfare state.
But we have very little effective control over the course of our lives, and the uncertainty in which we must live is being worsened by policies devised to deal with the financial crisis. Zero interest rates alongside rising prices means you're getting a negative return on your money and over time your capital is being eroded.
The situation of many younger people is even worse. In order to acquire the skills you need, you'll have to go into debt. Since at some point you'll have to retrain you should try to save, but if you're indebted from the start that's the last thing you'll be able to do. Whatever their age, the prospect facing most people today is a lifetime of insecurity.
At the same time as it has stripped people of the security of bourgeois life, capitalism has made the type of person that lived the bourgeois life obsolete. In the 1980s there was much talk of Victorian values, and promoters of the free market used to argue that it would bring us back to the wholesome virtues of the past.
For many, women and the poor for example, these Victorian values could be pretty stultifying in their effects. But the larger fact is that the free market works to undermine the virtues that maintain the bourgeois life.
When savings are melting away being thrifty can be the road to ruin. It's the person who borrows heavily and isn't afraid to declare bankruptcy that survives and goes on to prosper.
When the labour market is highly mobile it's not those who stick dutifully to their task that succeed, it's people who are always ready to try something new that looks more promising.
In a society that is being continuously transformed by market forces, traditional values are dysfunctional and anyone who tries to live by them risks ending up on the scrapheap.
Capitalism has led to a revolution but not the one that Marx expected. The fiery German thinker hated the bourgeois life and looked to communism to destroy it. And just as he predicted, the bourgeois world has been destroyed.
But it wasn't communism that did the deed. It's capitalism that has killed off the bourgeoisie"