Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Marx is back

Well, this headline only works if Marx was ever gone, if you know what I mean. But no, now he is literally back, and this in no less a becoming space than on the new edition of Mastercard issued by the German savings bank Sparkasse Chemnitz. And this by popular demand, no less. Customers in this East German city were asked to vote on what motive they would like to see on their credit cards – and Karl Marx won hands down!

Now, we have to be correct here. Technically, it is not Marx the philosopher who was voted in. The bank’s customer’s in Chemnitz (for 40 years under communist rule it was actually called ‘Karl-Marx-Stadt’) were given a choice of the city’s landmarks, and the humongous Karl Marx sculpture - that survived the zeal to eradicate the GDR legacy - won the competition. It is impressive; I had a chance to check it out last Christmas (see the picture below).

So here we are, Marx on a Mastercard. For many this is just hilarious, for some it’s a sad sign of how capitalism has now even commoditized and incorporated the very symbol of its critique. For me personally, Marx on a Mastercard is nothing short of a neat symbol that maybe Marx’s real contribution to the world gets slowly appreciated.

Apart from a few intellectuals who wear the brand of being a Marxist on their sleeves, after the fall of the iron curtain Marx was considered by most people as being disposed of to where he belongs: the scrap yard of history.

I am not a Marxist and my education did not give me a chance to study Marx in too much detail. The more though I become acquainted with his thinking I find that Marx today is more relevant and important than ever before. Francis Fukuyama (‘The end of history’) and all those other, mostly conservative, thinkers who gleefully touted the demise of Marx after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in my view were seriously misguided. In fact I happen to believe that the true ‘Marxists’, the people who act like Marx predicted capitalism would make people to behave, are actually in the conservative end, or right wing, of the political spectrum.

An anecdote to this effect from the country of today’s Marx-tercard: in the run-up to Germany’s first election after the reunification in 1990 the opposition leader Oscar Lafontaine called the incumbent Chancellor Kohl ‘the last surviving Marxist’. Why? Kohl believed that the country could only be unified if it got a common currency immediately. Unifying a country for the political right in Germany at the time was all about creating common economic conditions. Exactly this is the core of Marx’ analysis: in a capitalist society the only dimension which governs all social relationships is the economic level. The Left at the time in Germany though saw very clearly what we know now: to unify a nation split apart for 40 years in very different circumstances a host of other policies would be more important than just the economic level.

Here is why I think the people who voted Karl Marx the Millennium’s ‘Greatest Thinker’ in a BBC poll a decade ago were bang on the money: Marx was one of – maybe even the first –political philosopher who understood that modern capitalism, if allowed to prosper and dominate, will render the economic relations between members of a society as the most important and ultimately the only bond that keeps a community together. What keeps a society together in his view are purely the economic ties between the individual actors. For us today that maybe sounds a bit trivial. But at the time of him writing this it was truly a revolutionary thesis – and the fact that we consider this to be so normal just goes to show how correct Marx’ analysis was.

Communism in some ways is a footnote to Marx’s work, I sometimes think. If ownership of the means of production (i.e. capital) is the main bond of a society, a fair society would be like one where this ownership is evenly distributed. Communism did not work because his analysis of human beings as purely economic actors of course is a bit limited. But he came to this conclusion by analyzing the then emergent system of capitalism – and in our current capitalist system we just see how right he was.

His main legacy then is still powerful and visible today though. If Marx were to rise from the dead today I would venture the guess that the places where he would find himself most well understood would be the modern business school. He would not necessarily like what he hears, but he would have no problem to get the language and rationale of the place. Just take the model of the firm as an example: business school orthodoxy still is that firms are purely economic actors and that the only way to explain and to run them is by focusing on economic relations. The core tenets of Agency Theory as the dominating theoretical framework in business schools conceptualize human beings just along these lines: little predators whose only interest in life is the maximization of their economic goals.

The fairly new areas of CSR/Business Ethics/Sustainability etc. have entered the business school agenda just because it has become so blatantly obvious that businesses have other impacts and goals – for better or for worse – than just those economic ones. But even if we look at the CSR literature – the vast majority of it is still focusing on the ‘business case’ for CSR; if you want to do a good job in an MBA class on CSR you have to sell it as a means to sell more stuff, or to reduce cost, or at least as a way to manage risks. In other words, the only ‘correct’ way to be socially responsible is when it actually makes economic sense.

So putting Marx on a Mastercard is actually not so bad a place. Ask an (illegal) immigrant in Europe or North America how important it is to have a credit card: it establishes an economic relation, for sure. But that relation is so important as it is a basis for all other aspects of being a membership in today’s society. A credit card – especially in the age of the internet – is one of the most vital links to membership in the wider community; an economic relationship which crucially shapes all the other social, political or otherwise defined relationships in society. So Karl Marx fiercely staring at us from the Mastercard of the Sparkasse Chemnitz maybe just wants to tell us: ‘I told you so!’

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post, which is just great. I plan to add it to my students reading for their first lecture on Business in Society. It just might help them get their heads around the tensions and ironies of business ethics. Laura Spence


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