“With Adam Smith and Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes… stands as one of three giant figures in the history of economics. As Smith can be viewed as the optimist of this trio, seeing economic improvement as the main consequence of capitalism; and as Marx can be viewed as the pessimist, believing that its many serious problems would cause capitalism to self-destruct; Keynes can be viewed as the pragmatic saviour of capitalism.”
This is Steven Pressman, in Routledge’s key guide to ‘Fifty Major Economists’. (I’m still on the pre-school stuff, as you can see). It’s as good a way as any of sketching the difference between these thinkers. But of course it’s wrong. One reason why: Marx isn’t a pessimist. On the contrary – it takes an almost pathological degree of optimism to believe that the destruction of capitalism, and the ushering in of a new socialist regime, will bring about a transformation not only of society, but of human nature. Marxism would be impossible without a wildly deluded cheerfulness.
Here’s Engels, writing to Marx about the allegedly impending world financial crisis. “The clouds gathering over the money market are sombre indeed. This time there’ll be a day of wrath such as had never been seen before: the whole of Europe’s industry in ruins, all markets over-stocked (already nothing more is being shipped to India), all the propertied classes in the soup, complete bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, war and profligacy to the nth degree.” Joy. A childlike relish in destruction. A ridiculous utopianism. The apocalyptic and the utopian so often bedfellows. Consider Orwell’s account of Stephen Spender, looking out over the Blitz and declaring, with the confidence of a prophet, “it’s the end of capitalism.”
Marx’s optimistic embrace of destruction had effects at a personal level. Poverty is progress; wealth is death. Marx’s constant self-sabotage, his tireless drive to undermine his prospects, his will to destitution – these are ways of testing his resources; measuring his resilience. Dire circumstances bring out Marx’s ebullience, his energy, the sheer power of his cheerfulness.
This manifests as humour. Marx cracks gags. Marx is a hoot. We all know that Marx turned Hegel on his head (to see what fell out of his pockets). Humour is the most potent weapon in this project. Marx’s rerouting of absolute idealism into economic materialism is also the diversion of philosophical vocabulary into the mundane, the profane, the blasphemous, the funny. No great thinker has made such pervasive use of bathos. In 1967 Derrida wrote (in his essay on Bataille) that the only way to escape the synthesising power of Hegelian philosophy was with the shattering power of laughter. Marx already knew this. The movement from idealism to materialism is, in the most literal sense, a bringing down to earth.
“We abandoned our book to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more cheerfully in that we had achieved our main purpose: self-clarification.” Impossible to disentangle here the strands of hubris, self-importance, self-mockery and capacious good humour. Marx is his own dialectic: debunking and rebuilding his philosophical ambitions, line by line. This is one reason why its so hard to extract his ideas without losing their genius.
We shouldn’t learn from this to discard the content of his work, and see Marx as a humourist. Nor (god help us) should we join the cloth-eared fraternity who don’t find Marx funny. We need to read Marx with our guts. He addresses himself to the body. His is not, contra Derrida, a spectral world. It is a world of quaking flesh.
“By means of an ingenious system of concealed plumbing, all the lavatories of London empty their physical refuse into the Thames. In the same way every day the capital of the world spews out all its social refuse through a system of goose quills, and it pours out into a great central paper cloaca —the Daily Telegraph.” Toilet humour and capitalism. The Hegelian motif of incorporation; the capitalist motif of consumption: both neglect their corollary: expulsion, evacuation. Marx, like Joyce, brings high culture into the lavatory.