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This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx in Trier, Germany. Yet the anniversary comes at a time of turmoil for the political left in many European countries and the USA. At the same time, nearly thirty years have passed since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. For many this moment marked the start of a new era as liberal democracy replaced socialism as the predominant political ideology. As we reflect on the relevance of Marx's ideas today, there will inevitably be some, who point to the above as evidence that they belong to the past. Yet I believe this is the opportunity to put political prejudices aside and view Marx's theories with a fresh, critical perspective.
Employment and the 2008 Crash
Consider the core idea of Marx's theories: work, that is, the relationship between the 'worker' and employer, proletariat and bourgeoisie. Since the economic crisis of 2008, inequality in many western countries has increased dramatically. This is in part a result of a sinister shift to so-called zero hour contracts, which makes work increasingly secure and could be equated to modern slavery. Low wages and no guaranteed working hours per week create precarious employment in poor working conditions. In this sense, we are still discussing employment, including wages and conditions, two hundred years after Marx wrote about his observations of factory employment at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Regardless of your political persuasion, precarious working conditions will affect us all in some shape or form.
Digitalisation- the 'Fourth' Industrial Revolution
The relevance of Marx's ideas to political, economic and social ideas does not end there. Digitalisation and automation, known by some as the 'fourth industrial revolution', are advancing at a rapid pace and are already transforming the world of work. This will only become more relevant to employment in the next decade as 'traditional' jobs are gradually replaced by machines and robots while new roles emerge which no one previously will have thought of. Like Marx, who was writing at the height of industrialisation, we are witnessing an enormous transformation of the world we know and we need to begin to ask ourselves questions and find solutions to potential problems which may arise as a result.
Over the last few years...
Over the last few years, the political left has suffered significant electoral setbacks which again raise questions relating to Marx. Just ten to fifteen years ago, many European countries, including Spain, Germany and Italy had governments including the left-wing socialist and democratic parties of Europe. Yet in 2018, the conservatives remain the largest party in Germany under Angela Merkel. Italy has formed a government between the far-right Lega Nord and the left-wing populist Cinque Stelle. The contrast could not be starker. Electorally, the Partito Democratico of Italy and the Social Democrats of Germany gained similar results at around 20 percent This is a historic low for the workers' parties formed in the mid-nineteenth century. In the SPD's case, it is tragic that the oldest political party in Germany, formed after the 1848 Revolutions, can barely gain the support of one in five voters.
There are many questions still to be raised about...
In this sense, there are many questions still to be raised about how Marx's theories can help us today. Many will rightly point to the atrocity of the mass murders carried out under Joseph Stalin or Chairman Mao in China. Some also point to the severe economic crisis in Venezuela which forces millions to flee to neighbouring Colombia or Brazil. The case of Stalin shows one of the key flaws of Marxism: it is open to interpretation, in part because Marx's original texts are vague in certain areas. Marx himself claimed somewhat arrogantly that he was 'not a Marxist' in disapproval of the interpretations that emerged after his work was published. To blame the situation on Venezuela on 'socialism', however, is simplistic and ignores major structural flaws that Latin American economies still suffer from today.
Marx's relevance to the past and present should neither be under or overstated. As a key figure of the nineteenth century, his influence can still be found in politics and culture today. Many of the "issues" we face today are broadly similar to those in Marx's time. Perhaps this anniversary presents us with an opportunity to view his ideas from the past with a fresh perspective and in turn, learn something relevant to the present.