Why Conservatives Take Marx Seriously
September 26, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
More than 130 years after the death of Karl Marx, and 24 years after the demise of the USSR, conservatives in the world’s leading capitalist countries still take the co-author of The Communist Manifesto seriously.
One such conservative is Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, whose essay The Middle Class Squeeze, appeared in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.
Moore uses “middle class” as a synonym for Marx’s “proletariat.” By “middle class squeeze” he means the class war, as Warren Buffet famously termed it–the one Buffet said he and his fellow billionaires, major investors, and high-level CEOs are winning. The connection between the expanding wealth of the owners of capital, on the one hand, and the flagging standard of living of people who must sell their labor in order to survive, on the other, is becoming all too evident, frets Moore.
Moore, who apart from singing paeans to Margaret Thatcher, was the editor at various times of the British newspapers The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator, offers a good account of the growing harshness of capitalism for the West’s middle class. (It has always been harsh for residents of the periphery.)
In Britain, the average age for buying a first home is now 31 (and many more people than before depend on “the bank of Mom and Dad” to help them do so). In the mid-’80s, it was 27. My own children, who started work in London in the last two years, earn a little less, in real terms, than I did when I began in 1979, yet house prices are 15 times higher. We have become a society of “have lesses,” if not yet of “have nots.”
In a few lines of work, earnings have shot forward. In 1982, only seven U.K. financial executives were receiving six-figure salaries. Today, tens of thousands are (an enormous increase, even allowing for inflation). The situation is very different for the middle-ranking civil servant, attorney, doctor, teacher or small-business owner. Many middle-class families now depend absolutely on the income of both parents in a way that was unusual even as late as the 1980s.
Persuaded during the Cold War that life would always get better in the capitalist West, the proletariat now lives with unfulfilled expectations.
In Britain and the U.S., we are learning all over again that it is not the natural condition of the human race for children to be better off than their parents. Such a regression, in societies that assume constant progress, is striking. Imagine the panic if the same thing happened to life expectancy.
All of this makes Moore anxious.
When things go backward in nations accustomed to middle-class stability, people start to ask questions. What is the use of capitalism if its rewards go to the few and its risks are dumped on the many? The rights of property do not seem so enticing if the value of what you own collapses or if that property is trapped by debt. What is so great about globalization if it means that the products and services you offer are undercut by foreign competition and that millions of new people can come to your country, take your jobs and enjoy your welfare benefits?
So, where might today’s proletariat, the squeezed middle class, look for answers? “How about this,” asks Moore, pointing to quotes from Marx:
“The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.” Or this: “Modern bourgeois society…is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world which he has called up by his spells.” Or this: “The productive forces no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property: on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions…[and] they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property.”
Moore assures his fellow conservatives that he has not “become a late convert to Marxism.”
But Marx did have an insight about the disproportionate power of the ownership of capital. The owner of capital decides where money goes, whereas the people who sell only their labor lack that power. This makes it hard for society to be shaped in their interests. In recent years, that disproportion has reached destructive levels, so if we don’t want to be a Marxist society, we need to put it right.
We might pause for a second to wonder who it is that Moore is addressing when he says “we don’t want to be a Marxist society.” Surely, it can’t be the squeezed middle class, for why would its members object to a society shaped in their interests?
When Moore says “we need to put it right” he means conservatives need to put it right in a way that preserves their ability to exploit “the middle class” to maintain their wealth and privileges; it’s just that they need to improve the condition of the middle class with a little less squeezing. It’s as if a prescient slave-owner is warning his class cohorts that “The slaves are getting restless. There are two ways this can be put right. We can improve the conditions of our slaves. Or the slaves can take it into their hands to abolish slavery. Let’s do the first before the slaves do the second.”
One wonders whether Moore is as familiar with the work of Marx’s intellectual companion, Friedrich Engels, as he appears to be with that of Marx? In the last paragraph of his The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels wrote:
The classes are divided more and more sharply, the spirit of resistance penetrates the workers, the bitterness intensifies, the guerilla skirmishes swell into more important battles, and soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion, then, indeed, will the war-cry resound through the land: ‘War to the palaces, peace to the cottages!’—but then it will be too late for the rich to beware.”
Moore appears to be sounding the same warning. But Engels wrote an important sentence which immediately precedes the paragraph cited above: “It is too late for a peaceful solution.”