Marx at the Millennium by Cyril Smith

1 The Way We Live Now

Finally, there came a time when everything that men had considered as inalienable became an object of exchange, of traffic and could be alienated. This is the time when the very things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought – virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. – when everything, in short, passed into commerce. It is the time of general corruption, of universal venality, or, to speak in terms of political economy, the time when everything, moral or physical, having become a marketable value, is brought to the market to be assessed at its truest value.
Karl Marx

Twentieth-Century Paradox

At the end of the twentieth century, humankind is not a pleasant sight. We humans have had centuries of ever-accelerating natural-scientific and technological progress. With this immeasurable advance in our ability to understand and transform the natural world, it ought to be easy to make ourselves reasonably comfortable.

Instead, humanity seems to be in the grip of some invisible, malevolent force. This uncontrollable demon impels us to tear our world apart, turning our own human productive powers against ourselves, transforming them into forces of self-destruction. Set against one another, we are reduced to a state of utter powerlessness, mere spectators of our own actions, able neither to control nor to comprehend them. This is what makes the recent changes in the world appear so strange to us.

For reasons we are quite unable to explain, we devote a huge part of our energy and ingenuity to lying and cheating, to hurting or killing each other. Over many decades, a major part of scientific and industrial activity has been devoted to fabricating the means to kill, torture and maim human beings. They functioned with great efficiency: millions perished miserably in world wars and death camps. After the Holocaust

and the atomic bomb had shown us just how effective we were, the third quarter of this century was overshadowed by the possibility of nuclear self-destruction bringing the whole show to a grand finale.

During the 1980s, the immediacy of the threat seemed to recede. As if a signal had been given, a dozen ‘minor’ paroxysms of murder erupted. Nuclear weapons, once the prerogative of the super-powers, are now ‘democratically’ spread around the globe. While modern means to process and transmit information knit every aspect of world economic life into ever-closer global union, brutal conflicts explode between national and religious groups, equipped by arms dealers with the latest killing machines. The outbreak of bestial savagery in the former Yugoslavia, one of the better-publicised examples, seems to point the way for the rest of the globe.

After the Second World War, a few decades of industrial expansion brought a new menace to the fore. It began to seem possible that, even without the opportunity of war, the use of modern technology would destroy the natural environment on which all human life depends. Again, this threat to humankind is both the outcome of human activity and totally out of human control.

In every part of the world, there has been a drive to expand industry and to apply the discoveries of chemistry and biology to agriculture and to medicine. The consequences, however, have never been what was intended. They include the destruction, not only of natural ecological systems, but also of older forms of social life.

Almost the whole planet is now covered by a uniform cultural sludge. It is mechanised with the latest technology, impoverished and fragmented, obsessed with surface, form, image, packaging. Appropriately, a high-tech, tabloid, ‘entertainment’ industry, completely motivated by the drive for profit, chums out a highly polished and debased product for the masses of every continent.

The presentation of ‘news’ now forms an inseparable part of this round-the-clock stream of images. Pictures of war and of natural disaster are smoothly and expertly mixed with titillating gossip and mechanically performed ‘comedy’. Parallel with this, and equally obsessed with money, cultural products for a narrow middle-class layer are increasingly reduced to superficial, self-conscious posing.

Of course, millions of people try to lead decent lives amidst all this confusion, bringing up their children in the best way they can, but such remnants of humanity are pushed into the background of social life. Every day another bit disappears, as the last vestiges of communal life are replaced by the impersonal machines of state bureaucracy and the market.

This is a world which becomes less and less comprehensible to its inhabitants. To speak of the prevalence of ‘selfishness’ is misleading, for people now not only fall to recognise each other, but can’t even recognise themselves. (Applicants for many high-powered jobs nowadays find they need ‘interpersonal skills’. The ability to get on with other people needs special training it seems.)

Is it any wonder that drug abuse and alcoholism are so rife? These self-destructive responses are only futile attempts to blot out the meaninglessness and irrationality of the modern world. At a time when entire national states disintegrate, it is not surprising that over a quarter of the citizens of many countries undergo some form of treatment for mental disorder at some time in their lives.

Now, all of this is obvious to anybody who thinks seriously about it. Many will agree that this loss of control over our lives is connected with the social order sometimes known as ‘capitalism’. There is much talk of the ‘money-culture’ and its consequences. But what is remarkable about the 1990s is that, amidst all these obvious examples of self-destruction, it has now become almost unthinkable that we might possibly live in any other way, or even that we should try.

What can explain this strange paradox? In the 1950s and 1960s, we were often told that, in the advanced countries at any rate, an adequate material standard of living had been provided for all. With the aid of the new technology, a bit more tinkering with state intervention in the economy, a little improvement in state welfare schemes, and just a few steps further down the road of decolonisation, and the year 2000 would see the solution to many of the world’s problems. Now, only a politician at election time would even suggest such things – and only a fool would believe him.

For over a century, millions of people, organised in a powerful working-class movement, challenged the existing order, convinced that they were on the verge of a drastic change. A socialist future would guarantee the rational use of human creativity and resources.

In the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, this future seemed to many to be almost at hand. But the dream faded. Bottled up within a devastated, backward country, the revolution rapidly degenerated. A bureaucratised state machine, drawn increasingly into the world market, reproduced the most corrupt and brutal features of the decaying world order it claimed to replace. Even on those later occasions where despair drove masses of people into revolutionary action, they never seemed to look beyond a change of political regime and higher living standards.

When the Soviet Union broke up, and its former satellite states collapsed, there was a lot of talk about ‘the end of socialism’, or ‘the collapse of Marxism’, even ‘the end of history’, and that is certainly the way many people still think of it. But, long before this, the realities of Stalinism had convinced large numbers of people that bureaucratic control – this was the generally accepted meaning given to the words socialism’ or ‘communism’ – was the only alternative to the power of capital. When the East European regimes collapsed, millions of working people were glad to be rid of them.

The new regimes which have appeared in the lands of the former USSR, and its satellites, combine some of the monstrous remains of the old bureaucratic structures with the repulsive features of the bourgeois world. And yet, three-quarters of a century after the October Revolution, the belief is widespread that, however bestial its forms of appearance, the existing social order is the only one possible.

Even before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the international labour movement, the only force which could challenge the power of capital, was on the retreat. During the 1980s, trade unionism shrank in size and influence in every one of the older industrial nations. While the relocation of industry to newly industrialised countries led to the emergence of a new trade unionism, it is significant that, in both old and new movements, the idea of socialism is rarely talked about.

I have pointed to some features of the world at the end of this century – that people have no control over their own lives, that they are unable to comprehend the consequences of their own actions, that social life is fragmented – and to the widespread belief that no other way of life is possible. These changes in world society, which have come upon us so rapidly, seem to form a web of corruption and inhumanity. But what is the connection between them? How can we grasp them as a unity?

The Economics of Insanity (and vice-versa)

Advances in the natural sciences, and their technological application, underlie all the changes in the way we live. During the second half of the century, humankind has put its stamp on the globe to an extent no-one could have envisaged, even a few decades ago.

Electronics has expanded into every comer of industrial and domestic life. Transport and communication have become faster and simpler, until Tokyo is next door to New York and Australasia is a part of Greater London. Medicine has made enormous strides, and is intricately involved not only with biochemistry, but with physics and even engineering. Machines are computer-controlled and factories are run by robots. The processes of life are now the basis for powerful ‘biotechnological’ processes in industry and agriculture. From the tiniest sub-atomic particle to the expanses of outer space, the whole universe now seems to be under reconstruction by technology, including even our own bodies.

Yet these powerful developments of human creativity are turned into something quite different by the social forms within which they are organised. As everybody knows, the most important advances in knowledge, and the most powerful applications they bring into being, are directed to mass murder and mass destruction. These now include horrific chemical and biological weapons. More ‘peaceful’ applications of science, directed solely towards the accumulation of immense agglomerations of wealth, have arisen largely as ‘spin-offs’ of the weapons industry.

Technical advance today is so fast, and on such a huge scale, that it brings with it the danger of uncontrolled and unforeseen alterations to the planet, to its chemical composition and to the interconnected structure of its biological make-up. What does this imply for the way we live, and the way we try to understand our world?

The mode in which society organises its productive activity masks the speed and extent of these changes. While the steam-engine took about 150 years to run its course, new developments in computing machinery find their expression in widely available products within a couple of years. However you measure the productive power of labour, the past twenty years have seen the potential ability to satisfy human needs take several leaps forward. In many industries and branches of agriculture, the productivity of labour has multiplied five or ten times.

What are the consequences of this forward movement? Nobody can tell. Greater ability to produce wealth must have some connection with the ability of humans to satisfy their human needs, but it is impossible to say what it is. For who knows what these needs really are?

The steady rise in the level of unemployment, whether the economy is in ‘recession’ or ‘recovery’, is only one way that the ability to produce wealth faster turns into a threat to the well-being of the producers. In the main industrial countries, the proportion of people employed in making things which people need went down steadily right through the ‘boom’ decades.

In the UK, for example, over seven million people worked in manufacturing industry in 1980. By 1990 there were five million. The fall to a little over four million during the next three ‘recession’ years was hardly more precipitous. In the US, the proportion of the labour force in manufacturing is now around 12 per cent, and still falling.

AU these changes operate on a global level. Each advance in production methods rapidly affects every part of the world, but it does so with ever-increasing unevenness. The new technology simultaneously integrates production into a world-wide undertaking and disintegrates it. What seems to benefit some people in some places appears as a disaster to others.

The steady growth of persistent long-term unemployment is closely related to the relocation of industry to areas of cheap labour, the newly industrialised countries. Meanwhile, masses of workers migrate in the opposite direction in search of higher living-standards and greater job-security. Both movements are facilitated and driven by the new technology.

Many millions of the better-off sections of the population have nothing to do with creating anything useful at all. Instead, they devote their skill and effort to other purposes, for example, persuading people to buy things they would otherwise not have thought they needed. In a world where brand names and packaging count for much more than the actual utility of goods, the media earn vast amounts of money by employing the very latest technology to spread misinformation and illusion.

Looked at on a global scale, the rise in productivity is accompanied by a widening of the gap between rich and poor countries. But even in the industrialised countries, the enhancement of the productive power of labour, instead of lightening the burden of human toil, throws some sections of the population into poverty and misery and makes others work longer and under still worse conditions. Long-term unemployment is accompanied by a rapid increase in part-time working, mainly of women and young people, the sections of society which get the worst of every shift in the economy.

Society is increasingly divided into strata whose ways of life diverge more and more widely. Those at the bottom are deprived of decent housing, education and health care. In turn, this condemns them to a life of unemployment or of the most degrading work.

Some groups seemed to have done well out of these economic changes, although the recession brought some of them down to earth with a bang. A new middle class has been able to improve its standard of living, in material terms, and so have some sections of manual workers. Many are relieved of heavy physical labour and some are provided with considerable material wealth. Actually, their very life, incorporated into the computerised system, ought to be called impoverished, at a deeper, spiritual level. For, apart from getting money, they are unable to say just what their life activity is for.

The market, of course, is what links the whole world together. Money really makes the world go round, determining every aspect of the life of society as a whole as well as the lives of individuals. But is this really the old form of exchange? Is money that convenient ‘medium of exchange’ described in textbooks of economics? Or rather, in the era of the transnational corporation, is it not finance which controls the rest of economic, political and social life? From politics to football, from music to newspapers, every activity is driven by the thirst for money, which does its own thing, almost as an independent force.

After the Second World War, US dominion over the globe was expressed through the strength of the dollar, and all international trade took place through its auspices. This was the financial set-up under which an unprecedented industrial expansion of production took place. Under the banner of John Maynard Keynes, governments, together with international agencies Eke the International Monetary Fund, thought they had the system under control.

In the late 1960s, the boom began to falter. With the Vietnam defeat, the emergence of Japan as a major economic power and the oil shocks of the 1970s, the dominance of the US dollar was severely eroded. A mountain of debt overshadowed the globe. For many decades – perhaps since the slump of the 1930s – money has been credit-money, whose supply could expand or contract to fulfil the requirements of the world markets. In the earlier period, central banks kept an eye on the process, adjusting the rate of interest and keeping the other banks in line.

By the end of the 1980s, all this had changed. No longer could anyone pretend that the world economy was controllable by banks, by governments or by anybody else. In 1979-81, the dominant influence of Lord Keynes just seemed to fade away. Now, instead of governments controlling the economy, the movement of debt came to control governments. Banks, central and private, counted for less as independent decision-makers, elbowed aside by new kinds of financial institution. While computers linked the world into a high-speed globalised economy, the whole thing zoomed along with nobody at the steering wheel – in fact, there wasn’t any steering-wheel!

Once upon a time, it was easy to become a millionaire – at least, it was easy to understand how it could be done! You just had to employ other people to make things, which you could then sell at a profit. Banks lent you money to begin and took a part of the loot in return in the form of interest. But in this brave new world, making money from money is an end in itself, far more important than the making of goods. Of course, at no time could you get rich except at the expense of those who were poor, but now the process was in the open.

In this ‘casino capitalism’, the trick was not to lend money when you had too much of it, but to lend money when you didn’t have any. Manufacturing and other firms raised their capital through the issue of securities, which were then bought and sold on the market for whatever people thought they were worth, or might be at some later date.

Financial wizards issued ‘junk bonds’, using the money invested to take over firms and merge them, then paying the investors out of profits made from the resulting rise in share prices. Others gambled on the future prices of commodities, or even of stock-market assets. In other words, debt was not only bought and sold, but made the subject of betting. And, piling madness on madness, debts were fashioned into huge pyramidal structures, ownership of each chunk of debt serving as collateral to borrow still more.

Of course, in the end it is the labour of people in factories and fields which is the source of these masses of wealth. But the predominant sections of capital are no longer those involved in manufacture or in the extraction of raw materials. Economic and social life in the older industrial countries was transformed by the decline of large-scale manufacturing industry. When the first billionaires appeared, many of them turned out to be engaged either in retailing or in the manipulation of debt.

The movement of masses of speculative money now came to determine the fate of national economies. The prosperity of these modern capitalists is not bound up with stability at all. What they like is ‘volatility’, unpredictability, uncontrollability. In the old days, unvarying rates of exchange between different currencies was the ideal. Today, thousands of billions of dollars change hands each day, making immense profits from fluctuations in exchange rates. The foreign exchange market is now a major source of profit for all owners of capital.

Huge amounts of wealth are ‘earned’ by those who manage the flotation of new firms, or the merging of existing ones. ‘Consultancy” which sometimes means no more than introducing businessmen to each other, or to politicians, can yield tremendous incomes.

In the past, it might have made sense to refer to such ways of making money as ‘parasitic’ on the old-fashioned industrial capitalism. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the parasites came to rule the world. Decisions about whether and where to produce can only be taken relative to the rate of interest, and to the profits which might be yielded if you closed the whole thing down and put your money into some financial speculation. Thus the power of finance is not merely independent of productive activity: it is actually destructive of it.

Inseparable from all economic changes during the past twenty years are the changed relationships between the economy and the state. In earlier times, the state was supposed to keep the masses in order, to see fair play between the owners of capital of a particular nation, and to represent them against other states. In the Keynesian era, the state entered more directly into economic life, and the state budget made up a sizeable part of national income in many countries. The state was supposed to plan economic development, steering it by adjusting the knobs of taxation and interest rates.

But now, all that has gone. Economic policy has to pander to the requirements of finance, rather than governing it. The chief economic function of the state is now to guarantee the health of the financial corporations, those precariously balanced edifices of debt. To complete the circle, government expenditure on such operations must, of course, be financed by borrowing yet more from these same institutions. Effectively, the state, with its central bank, is no longer the sole creator of money. The ‘supply’ of money issues uncontrollably from a hundred financial orifices.

The 1980s saw a violent shift from state control to deregulation and privatisation all over the world. This was inevitable, in view of the conflicting interests of national states and transnational enterprises, and the ease with which masses of speculative funds moved at the speed of light from place to place. The consequences of privatisation for many sectors of social life which had previously been taken care of by the state, like health and education, has been disastrous. Privatisation in no way meant that individuals had greater control over their lives. On the contrary, it was bound up with the mushrooming of huge, uncontrolled bureaucratic structures.

A major sequence of state scandals has revealed that bribery and corruption at the very highest level of state agencies play a major part in the globalised economy. We are not here talking about the odd ‘backhander’, or unfortunate anomalies, in which a few villains are found from time to time breaking the law and stealing the wealth of their fellow citizens. As scandals in Italy, Spain and Japan have illustrated, bribery, involving massive sums of money, has become a leading feature of world economic and political life. Without it, the system could not function.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, what used to be called ‘the centrally planned economies’ (in the light of our increased knowledge of them, this name seems not quite as appropriate as we once thought), was closely related to these changes. The subsequent upheavals have thrown much light on the nature of modern political life.

As the market has been ‘set free’ to determine the lives of the inhabitants of these countries, all of the symptoms of this ‘freedom’ have shown themselves. Mafia-type gangs control large parts of the distribution of goods. Drug trafficking, pornography and prostitution thrive, alongside mass unemployment and hunger. Meanwhile, men and women who, quite recently, would have called themselves communists, hurry to get very rich, sometimes as agents of the transnational corporations.

The end of the Cold War was supposed to release everybody from the burden of arms production. When the time came to collect the ‘peace dividend’, it was found that a number of hot wars needed still more equipment. As yet, nuclear weapons have not been employed in these conflicts. But there are now some sixteen countries with atomic weapons programmes. Many more are geared up for chemical and biological armaments, and even more are now buying each new generation of ‘smart’ weapons.

Indeed, the trade in armaments is one of the chief factors linking the various parts of the global economy. The many armed conflicts actually killing people at this time ensure that large sums of money are accumulated by those engaged in this trade. It turns out that for many years several governments, including the US, the UK and France, had been encouraging or allowing some of their citizens to supply the very latest killing-machines to the most oppressive regimes. To be fair, often in contravention of their own laws, they sell war material to their enemies as well.

Like the lucrative trade in high-tech weaponry, the manufacture and distribution of illegal drugs had become entwined inextricably with the world banking system. Together, these two occupations now make up a sizeable portion of global commercial life. The breakdown of barriers between the Western and East European banks now gives the drug-dealers more scope to move their profits around the world. To an unknown extent, forces within the state itself participate in such dealings. Billions of ‘narco-dollars’ yield big profits to some of the most ‘respectable’ financial institutions. If these billions were to disappear, the entire system would be in trouble.

The nature of the new world is clearly revealed in the former colonial and semi-colonial countries. The disappearance of the old colonial empires was a major feature of the post-war world. The chief beneficiaries, however, were often drawn from a narrow layer of politicians and army officers. These people, sometimes dressing themselves in the most radical political clothes, fitted in well with the new financial atmosphere of the 1980s.

The concept of a ‘Third World’ – never a clear one – is now quite misleading. The group of former colonial and semi-colonial countries, where industrial and social development had been held back by imperialist domination, has broken into pieces. In Asia, several countries have undergone considerable economic growth, largely under the influence of the rise of the Japanese economy. Although living standards still lag far behind Europe and the US, they must now be classed as industrialised nations.

Meanwhile, many countries in Africa and Latin America have fallen still further behind. The world shortage of food which could be seen a decade or so back has been reduced in size. And yet starvation in many parts of the world, especially on the African continent, is far worse, sometimes caused by one of the many civil wars raging since the Old Order fell apart. Altogether, about one and a quarter billion men, women and children are living below subsistence levels, and the number is rising fast.

People sometimes used to refer to the older industrialised countries as ‘metropolitan’. This is now a misnomer, for several of the largest cities in the world are to be found in the southern hemisphere. In 1950, the Third World comprised about two-thirds of the world’s population, but only a small proportion of them lived in the ten cities which then held a million or more inhabitants. By 1990 there were 171 such cities, over 30 with more than 5 million and 9 with over 10 million. By the year 2000, it is estimated 45 per cent of the population of these countries will live in towns.

In the mega-cities which mushroomed almost overnight, millions live in shanty towns and barrios under the most miserable conditions imaginable. On every continent, the march of progress has engendered monstrous urban conglomerations, vast pools of human misery. Within sight of the most up-to-date airports, in close proximity to glass and concrete structures housing international banks, starvation is an everyday occurrence. Protecting their property against those without any is a major preoccupation of the wealthier citizens.

For a few of their inhabitants, life in these new cities mimics aspects of life in the older industrialised countries. On the other hand, every metropolis in what are still called the ‘advanced’ countries, has its own ‘Third World’. I mean the ‘cardboard city’ where the homeless struggle to survive, on the margins of urban civilisation.

What unifies the items on this list of features of the new world set-up? Bewilderment, despair, self-destruction, powerlessness, disintegration, fragmentation, chaos: these are some of the words which come to mind. Many people, in various parts of the world, live miserable lives and have no hope of them becoming better. But anyone can see that their hopeless situation results from the actions of their fellow humans.

‘Chaos’, one of the few words drawn from mathematics to make an impact on popular speech, might give us a clue to the answer. A chaotic system is one whose future course of development is changed drastically by small inaccuracies in its present state. Predicting its trajectory in terms of any simple rule is utterly impossible. Its behaviour is best described as ‘mad’. The world at the end of the millennium does indeed look Eke this. How is it possible for us to grasp its nature, let alone to determine or predict its future course?

The New World Order

In the summer of 1989, a much-hyped article called ‘The End of History?’ appeared in a US Journal, The National Interest. Its author, Francis Fukuyama, announced that ‘Liberalism’ had defeated ‘Communism’ and that a new period of human development had begun. (When the same author’s book The End of History and the Last Man appeared a year later, he had dispensed with the question mark in the title.) Armed with a few phrases from Hegel, Fukuyama tried to describe what was going to happen after the breaking of the Berlin Wall, when History had come to an end.

As the Stalinist regimes crumbled, the idea of a ‘New World Order’ became so fashionable that President George Bush made use of the phrase. He was particularly pleased with the idea that this new way of running the world demonstrated its value in the Gulf War. The ability of the United Nations to sanction what was effectively the US attack on Iraq, he assured the world, showed us the shape of future collaboration between the leading world powers, especially with the newly reconstructed Soviet Union.

It is a big idea, a new world order ... new ways of working with other nations, peaceful settlement of disputes, solidarity against aggression, reduced and controlled arsenals and just treatment of all nations.

Thus, in his usual elegant prose-style, the former head of the CIA explained the significance of the New World Order. Meanwhile, thousands of young Iraqi peasants were burned, crushed or blown apart by the latest products of civilisation. (According to Newsweek, 20 January 1992, 244 allied troops were killed in action, while Iraqi, military casualties were estimated at around 100,000 dead, together with an unknown, but even larger, number of civilian deaths.)

The trouble with new phases of development is that there are only old categories in which to understand them, and these are, by definition, never adequate. The Gulf War was explained from many points of view, but always in unexamined terms from the past like ‘imperialism’, ‘democracy’, ‘North-South divide’, and so on. But what was happening could not be captured by these old phrases.

It is apt that the Gulf War was the occasion from which to date the onset of the new era, for it accurately characterised many aspects of the world as the century staggers to a close. For instance, the war was notable for the way that the television report was employed as a means of confusion. It is interesting that Saddam Hussein and George Bush regularly watched the same CNN bulletins throughout the conflict. Military spokesmen appeared in every living-room, in every country, delivering profound dollops of misinformation, and pointing with pride to those technological wonders which are such an important aspect of the New World Order. For example, they were particularly pleased with the ability which the new ‘hardware’ gave its users to kill large numbers of people without getting near enough to see them.

When Bush made his speech, he had in mind the willingness of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev to collaborate in the US policing of the world, especially in the Middle East and in Southern Africa. And it is certainly true that, without this particular political situation, the US and allies could not have launched their ‘Desert Storm’. But within a few months, not only Gorbachev and his government, but the Soviet Union itself, had vanished for ever.

As some features of the New World Order revealed themselves more clearly, people began to wonder whether its title was not somewhat misleading. It was certainly a world phenomenon, and it had many features which were new. But was it a form of order?

By January 1993, even UK Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd was talking of ‘the continuing slide into disorder’. Using words like ‘chaos and anarchy’, he listed 25 conflicts raging at that time, referring in particular to Somalia, Yugoslavia, the Transcaucasus, Angola and Cambodia. Effectively contradicting the outgoing US President, Hurd declared that talk of a New World Order was ‘utopian folly’, and the phrase soon vanished from the editorial columns.

To qualify as an order, an entity needs some unifying principle. According to the experts on such matters, the Old World Order was founded on the antagonism of the two nuclear super-powers. This way of life, governed precariously by balancing the twin threats of atomic incineration (Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, as it was appropriately known), had now come to an end: only one of the two former super-powers was left.

Bush’s idea of the New World Order was based on the expectation that the US was going to resume its single-handed role as global sheriff. But many experts in international relations had already begun to discuss the decline of the US following its Vietnam defeat twenty years before. They began to speculate about a ‘tri-polar’ world set-up, in which Germany, dominating Europe, and Japan, in charge of Asia-Pacific, would vie with the Americans for world leadership.

Bush believed that his actions in the Middle East had shown the world how US hegemony could be restored. ‘We’ve finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome’, was the charming way he put it. However, the Gulf War gave us an illustration of this aspect, too, when the US and Japan came to blows over Japanese reluctance to hand over a sufficient amount of cash to pay for Bush’s war. Only the US had the military power to fight such a war. However, as the largest debtor in the world, it could do so only with the financial backing of the world’s largest creditor.

Another feature of the New World Order is the appearance of right-wing political movements, usually expressing violent racist and nationalist views, which has taken the world by surprise during the past few years. From the disintegrated Yugoslavia to the Indian subcontinent, from Rostock to Armenia, their brutalities have amazed the world, including many of the participants.

However close the parallels might seem, these eruptions cannot be comprehended in terms of past phenomena, for example, by analogy with pre-war fascism. In these movements of despair, movements without a future, both the cynicism of their leaders and the confusion of their followers have a uniquely contemporary character.

The disintegration of what was once Yugoslavia has combined all of these features in a terrifying way. National, religious and ethnic divisions whose origins are buried long in the past have erupted in brutal and mindless forms of struggle. They are fought out with the most up-to-date weaponry. The Great Powers’ feeble attempts at intervention mask the efforts of each power to use the situation to its own advantage, often without any clear idea what that might be.

This ‘New World Order’ is an international regime characterised by confusion at every level. It is a world which evades comprehension, prediction or control.

Where are We Going?

So here we are in the last decade of what is generally counted as the second millennium. Human beings, equipped with the means to control the natural world, are bereft of the power to control their own lives. At the same time, they are in the grip of forms of thinking which make the resulting inhuman ways of living appear perfectly ‘natural’. Since they lead increasingly fragmented lives, how can they possibly grasp the true nature of the situation as a whole?

More and more, thought is dominated by the certainty that there is no way out. The failure of all previous attempts to comprehend the whole picture is taken as proof that there is no such picture. It is not just that we do not know the truth: celebrated thinkers and artists declare with great authority that there is no truth. There are only what they call ‘incommensurable’ bits and pieces of ‘discourse’, some of which tell slightly smaller lies than others. That is why, at the very time when we need to speak as plainly as we can to each other and to ourselves, leading thinkers are determined to wrap their pronouncements in the most obscure language they can devise.

What is the nature of homo sapiens? How must we five to accord with that nature? Why do we not live like that already? Can we collectively alter our way of life, and, if so, how? What kind of knowledge is required to make this possible? This book is about a thinker whose ideas on questions like these have been ignored. He strove all his life to discover how humans could live in a way I worthy of their human nature’. Nobody took any notice. His name was Karl Marx.

To some, this will sound very odd. The works of Marx have been printed in vast quantities and libraries are filled with commentaries on them. Doesn’t ‘everybody’ know what Marxism was about? Yes, but as so often happens, ‘everybody’ is quite wrong.

In the name of ‘Marxism’, the Stalinist regimes forced their school children to study a body of doctrine shaped like a state religion. Ideas which were developed as part of the struggle for the liberation of mankind from exploitation and oppression were debased and used by cynical bureaucrats to find their way to promotion in an oppressive and inhuman state machine, and to hide their privileges. Presented as a complete, integral, ‘scientific’ body of knowledge, this theoretical monstrosity so sullied the ideas and even the vocabulary of Marx’s work, that we are obliged to tunnel our way through a mass of this stuff to find out what Marx was actually trying to do.

I believe that this work is vital. I am not talking about formulating a new political programme, or finding a recipe to cure our economic ills. The problems which confront us go far too deep for that kind of measure. Nor am I interested in some academic efforts to clear up the historical record. The reason it is necessary to rediscover what Marx was really trying to do is that he did get to the heart of those very questions which confront all of us in the way we live today.

In this book, I try to show that all of Marx’s major works – not just the work of ‘the Young Marx’, as some have thought – contain an investigation of questions such as: What is it to be human? In what ways are we estranged from our humanity? How can we live humanly? What must we do to make this possible? How must we think about the world to find the answers to these problems?

Of course, such questions have little in common with the ‘Marxist’ understanding of Marx, but then, as he said, he himself was no ‘Marxist’.