Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reflections on Marxism 2013

I went along to Marxism 2013 in Melbourne over Easter knowing in advance that I would feel distinctly out of place. I am not a member of any socialist party. I do not identify as a Marxist and I did not know anyone going! Why then did I bother attending? Basically because I am interested in dialoging and discussing with anyone who sees capitalism as central to humanity’s multidimensional crisis, and believes we need some form of ‘eco-socialism’.  Many Marxists agree with that. But the devil is in the detail. And on so many points, I find myself out of step with them. Below are some of the concerns I have, as highlighted by the stimulating discussions and workshops at Marxist 2013.

Faulty Economic Analysis:

Despite focusing much of their intellectual efforts analyzing the dynamics of capitalism, most Marxists have, I believe, an inadequate and unrealistic critique of the system. There analysis is very much focused on capitalism as a class system. This is quite correct. Despite the fashion, class exploitation is still a reality. However, in focusing on class, Marxist tend to overlook the many problems associated with market forces, which is a larger concept. The market system has to be seen as distinct from ‘property relations’ – i.e the exploitative relationship between worker and capitalist. As many have pointed out, theoretically, one could have a ‘market socialist’ economy, in which workers owned and ran industries, but market competition still disciplined all economic actors.

This has huge implications for analysis of what’s wrong the world. For example, market forces have shaped the type of development taking place in the third world. The result, as Ted Trainer argues, is inappropriate development. And so third world land and labor is allocated to producing luxury cash crops for export, like coffee, rather than cheap food to meet the needs of the poorest. Most of us in the west – whether rich or poor - are beneficiaries of this process i.e we get cheap coffee.  But Marxist’s, focusing on class dynamics, don’t highlight this problem. The issue here is not the exploitative relationship between the owner of the coffee farm and his/her workers (although that is a real problem). It is the form and type of production that market forces have generated, and which allocates resources to the benefit of affluent consumers (i.e Australians) and not those in need.

A failure to focus on market forces also blinds Marxists to the strong points of capitalism, and the reasons for its ongoing cultural legitimacy. There was, I found, a clear lack of understanding that cut throat competition in the market place had brought down the cost of many products we all directly benefit from (and, for the most part, see no problem in buying/consuming). This is capitalism’s trump card. We were all drinking cheap coffee, using iphones and computers and wearing fashionable clothes. All of which has been made affordable in large part (though not only) due to the relentless search for efficiency and productivity that market capitalism generates. Yes, we also won a greater share of the pie through union struggles and labor parties etc. But even so, capitalism is a wealth making machine and it has (with help from government), delivered the material goods. 

At a session on ‘the case for economic planning’ it was argued capitalism inevitably tends to monopoly, which therefore removes the necessity for cost reduction. This is an exaggeration. The fact is even the largest corporations are under enormous pressure to reduce costs (not always prices), in order to attract and retain customers. This process is a big reason for first world affluence. Economic planning, by contrast, is unlikely to be as ‘economically’ efficient as market capitalism, even if it will be far more efficient in other ways – i.e. meeting basic needs of people and the environment. In an alternative planned co-operative economy, many things we buy/consume today will cost more. This, however, will not be a major problem if we live more simply, share and co-operate. Under eco-socialism our social relationships will improve, so it won’t matter much if we are not as wealthy.

Despite the above, Marxist, unlike theorists working in other schools of thought, have their finger on a crucial piece of the puzzle. They understand that the system is driven by the never-ending quest for profit and ‘capital accumulation’ in a ‘grow or die’ system that knows no bounds. But this dynamic is a product of the market system as a whole, not simply class relations. Some Marxist’s clearly understand this, but many don’t (or don’t seem to). Its time they expanded their analytical tools.

Ecological Limits:

My discussions with a number of comrades made clear that most have no idea about how severe the ‘limits to growth’ are. I am not going to justify that assertion here. I encourage any Marxist reading to consult the works of socialists such as Saral Sarkar, Ted Trainer, and Richard Smith. All make a compelling case that we must make severe reductions in economic activity in order to be ‘sustainable’. In other words, the ecological crisis is not simply a challenge to capitalism, it is a challenge to industrial society as a whole.

This highlights another reason why focusing on market forces, is important for an adequate contemporary critique of capitalism: it highlights the role of our own consumption. In view of the impending ecological crisis – largely driven by over-consumption – this is absolutely critical. But again Marxists tend to overlook this side of the economic equation. After attending the conference, one could be excused for thinking that capitalist’s only exist to exploit workers and don’t actually sell their products to willing consumers! Listen Marxist: capitalist could not have their power and wealth without our consumption! And, what we now know with certainty is an ecological society will require much diminished consumption of resources and energy!

But Marxist’s, for the most part, operate on the assumption that no such limits exists. Or if they do, they can be sorted out after the revolution. And so they continue to demand rising living standards and conditions for workers, oblivious to the fact that those ‘living standards’ are unsustainable and cannot be kept up for long. They do not recognize the contradiction built into their strategy: equitable affluence for all, when affluence itself is unsustainable.

As Ted Trainer has argued, the limits to growth completely change the entire political ball game. Socialist must re-think their vision of the good society and therefore the strategy on how to get there (see below).

A failure to reflect on the importance of values:

Among Marxists there is a disappointing absence of attention paid to the values that ordinary people, including workers, hold dear. There seems to be no concern that today individualism, competitiveness, selfishness, the ‘me’ generation, rein supreme even among the ‘battlers’. Socialism, of course, stands for the very opposite set of values. I agree with eco-socialist Saral Sarkar who says: ‘I am for socialism mainly because of the values it represents:  equality, co-operation, solidarity.’

One example of this oversight was a conversation I had with a lady about AFL. She thought it was good that the radical left now embraced, or at least did not criticize, the Aussie obsession with competitive gladiatorial sports. A while ago I would have agreed with her. I have grown up playing and loving AFL football. But, to me, there is an indisputable contradiction between the competitive, macho, hierarchical culture associated with sports (particularly AFL), and the ethic of co-operation that socialism requires, and which will need to be infused throughout society, in part via recreation and sports. I am not suggesting we demand that all socialists end their association with competitive sport. But shouldn’t socialists be at the forefront of efforts to promote co-operative games and sports – of which there are many – as an alternative for our kids? I think so. 

Marxist will stress, in response, that today’s dominant values are powerfully reinforced – indeed required – by the daily working’s of capitalism. Only by overthrowing the system can we hope to change the values that most people hold. There is therefore little point in trying to create a counter-culture now. But, although I agree that the values of socialism can only become dominant when we have finally replaced capitalism, it does not follow that a crucial step towards that goal involves building a counter-cultural movement imbued with the socialist values. And this finally turns our attention to the crucial question of transition….


Most Marxists still work within the same tired old framework: build up the party, and agitate with ‘militant’ unions to build the power of the working class. All this in the futile hope that the working class – now fully integrated into consumer-capitalism – will revolt…for higher living standards.

Even if this had any chance of success, the limits to growth rule it out as a viable option. Eco-socialists must now clearly be for simpler lifestyles, more co-operative practices, greater self-sufficiency and localism. And all these things, sadly, contradict the material aspirations of most of today’s working class. The working class will therefore not necessarily lead this revolution. People will lead it from all classes who care enough to put their desire for a better world ahead of their narrow short-term material interests.

So socialists, and other radicals, the best place to work now is in the transition towns, and related movements. Help us radicalize these movements so that they have a clear anti-capitalist vision and politics. The aim, eventually (over the next few decades), is too have a global movement which aims to demonstrate the viability, necessity and attractiveness of alternative ways. We will slowly and surely build the co-operative economies and cultures, in the towns and suburbs where we live, that will become our lifeboats in the coming era of decline. This kind of movement also has the best chance of developing within participants the values required for socialism: co-operation, solidarity and equality.

Comrades, we have a world to win…albeit very different world from the one we once aspired to. I will finish with a quote from Saral Sarkar:

A socialist society is not only a necessity that arises from the growing scarcity of resources and the imperative of conservation of the natural basis of life, it is also desirable if we consider equality, justice, cooperation, solidarity and freedom to be highly important values. A solidary and peaceful coexistence of individuals and the peoples of the world requires an eco-socialist society, in all countries of the world.


  1. Well written Johnny, I do believe we are moving towards a tipping point where many people are striving towards oneness, equality for all, and co-operative living. Your book portrays and demonstrates how we can have a difference of opinion and great Love at the same time. A magnificent gift to the world....thank-you.

  2. Thanks for the kind comment, whoever you are!

  3. You might like to include in your margin a link to the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Having a comprehensive alternative to the present endless economic growth system is essential. Otherwise people tend to devote their time to limiting the damage to the Earth of the existing system.

  4. Hi John. We met last week at the fish and chips shop :) I’m glad I checked out your blog, you make some really interesting points.

    I haven’t really spoken to a lot of Marxists in my time but I’ve always been sympathetic. Still, how absurd if anyone is still thinking that class relations, as opposed to market forces, are the dominant source of inequality in today’s world. The real losers of capitalism - the ones who are impacted the most by its environmental degradation - live in third world countries and do not belong to the same ‘class’ in any way shape or form as Australian workers.

    I couldn’t agree more with your criticism of (un)sustainable development. I cannot even imagine the damage to the environment if all the all the ‘workers’ in the world were affluent enough to drive a car and own a refrigerator. We’d have to move to a new planet.

    I can see now what you mean by the need to live more simply. But man what a tough sell. It will take forever to erode the culture of consumption. I’m aware enough to know that I’m being brainwashed to buy things I don’t need but, at least in my case, self awareness doesn’t lead to action.

    1. Hi Amina,

      I am so sorry for not replying to your post. I have been lazy with this blog, and did not see that you had responded. Thanks for your comments. Don't beat yourself up about consumption to much. We all lead contradictory lives and change is a slow process. Its good that your thinking about it. In any case, I am not really advocating 'consumer boycotts' much as building a new economy that does not require us to over-produce/consume. Tough ask...but that is the task if we want to save the planet, in my view. However, for practical ideas on living more simply, the simple way website is excellent.
      All the best.