There is a delicious old Soviet joke about Radio Yerevan: a listener asks: “Is it true that Rabinovitch won a new car in the lottery?”, and the radio presenter answers: “In principle yes, it’s true, only it wasn’t a new car but an old bicycle, and he didn’t win it but it was stolen from him.”- Slavoj Zizek, "200 years later, we can say that Marx was very often right – but in a much more literal way than he intended"
Does exactly the same not hold for Marx’s legacy today? Let’s ask Radio Yerevan: “Is Marx’s theory still relevant today?” We can guess the answer: in principle yes, he describes wonderfully the mad dance of capitalist dynamics which only reached its peak today, more than a century and a half later, but… Gerald A Cohen enumerated the four features of the classic Marxist notion of the working class: (1) it constitutes the majority of society; (2) it produces the wealth of society; (3) it consists of the exploited members of society; and (4) its members are the needy people in society. When these four features are combined, they generate two further features: (5) the working class has nothing to lose from revolution; and (6) it can and will engage in a revolutionary transformation of society.
None of the first four features applies to today’s working class, which is why features (5) and (6) cannot be generated. Even if some of the features continue to apply to parts of today’s society, they are no longer united in a single agent: the needy people in society are no longer the workers, and so on.
But let’s dig into this question of relevance and appropriateness further. Not only is Marx’s critique of political economy and his outline of the capitalist dynamics still fully relevant, but one could even take a step further and claim that it is only today, with global capitalism, that it is fully relevant.
However, at the moment of triumph is one of defeat. After overcoming external obstacles the new threat comes from within. In other words, Marx was not simply wrong, he was often right – but more literally than he himself expected to be.
For example, Marx couldn’t have imagined that the capitalist dynamics of dissolving all particular identities would translate into ethnic identities as well. Today’s celebration of “minorities” and “marginals” is the predominant majority position – alt-rightists who complain about the terror of “political correctness” take advantage of this by presenting themselves as protectors of an endangered minority, attempting to mirror campaigns on the other side.
And then there’s the case of “commodity fetishism”. Recall the classic joke about a man who believes himself to be a grain of seed and is taken to a mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man. When he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back trembling. There is a chicken outside the door and he is afraid that it will eat him.
“Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man.”
“Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken know it?”
So how does this apply to the notion of commodity fetishism? Note the very beginning of the subchapter on commodity fetishism in Marx’s Das Kapital: “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
Commodity fetishism (our belief that commodities are magic objects, endowed with an inherent metaphysical power) is not located in our mind, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself. We may know the truth, but we act as if we don’t know it – in our real life, we act like the chicken from the joke.
Niels Bohr, who already gave the right answer to Einstein’s “God doesn’t play dice“(“Don’t tell God what to do!”), also provided the perfect example of how a fetishist disavowal of belief works. Seeing a horseshoe on his door, a surprised visitor commented that he didn’t think Bohr believed superstitious ideas about horseshoes bringing good luck to people. Bohr snapped back: “I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works whether one believes in it or not!”
This is how ideology works in our cynical era: we don’t have to believe in it. Nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corruption, but we practice them – in other words, we display our belief in them – because we assume they work even if we do not believe in them.
With regard to religion, we no longer “really believe”, we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong (non-believing Jews obeying kosher rules “out of respect for tradition”, for example).
“I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture” seems to be the predominant mode of the displaced belief, characteristic of our times. “Culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without taking them quite seriously.
This is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” or “primitive”, as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture – they dare to take seriously their beliefs. The cynical era in which we live would have no surprises for Marx.
Marx’s theories are thus not simply alive: Marx is a ghost who continues to haunt us – and the only way to keep him alive is to focus on those of his insights which are today more true than in his own time.