As the Last Days of Mankind—already diagnosed by Karl Kraus while the First World War was underway—march on, apparently endlessly (despite the dispiriting hints of a Final Last Day suggested by the weather), they seem to have brought with them an increasing flabbiness of discourse. To take an example almost at random, when the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.) rejected a petition to censure members who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers, the institute’s former president, Helene Combs Dreiling, explained that, “It’s just not something we want to determine as a collective. Members with deeply embedded beliefs will avoid designing those building types and leave it to their colleagues. Architects will self-select, depending on where they feel they can contribute best.”
And what if they feel they can contribute best by beheading Christians on the shores of the Mediterranean? Like Mies van der Rohe himself, who after his beautiful monument to the memory of Rosa Luxemburg designed buildings for the Nazis, they will, I’m sure, find interesting building projects there. Besides open-air death chambers, perhaps exercise studios, in collaboration with young Islam Yaken, the former aspiring personal trainer from Cairo who “found what he was looking for” in the Islamic State. According to the New York Times, which reported on his doings two days after it explained the A.I.A.’s devotion to freedom of belief, he posted a video demonstrating how to stay battle-ready, “wearing a snug black Islamic State T-shirt, camouflage pants, and a pair of cutoff gloves … adding that he had been deployed in a region with no ‘weights or gyms,’” he “lifted a log, placed it over his shoulders and counted eight squats.”
On a more elevated level, the Guardian has printed a talk given in 2013 by Yanis Varoufakis, the dashing finance minister (he prefers the untucked shirt and Burberry scarf to the tight black T) of the new Greek government, explaining his “erratic Marxism.”* Despite a lifetime devoted to orthodox economic theory, in academia and in government, he has, apparently, always held to a deeply embedded belief in some key Marxian insights. Above all is what he claims is a discovery of Marx’s “that must remain at the heart of any useful analysis of capitalism”: that while labor is treated by capital as a resource measured and paid for by the hour, it is also a “value-creating activity that can never be quantified in advance” and which is the spring of workers’ resistance to dehumanization. This, it turns out, is ultimately good for capitalism, because, in Varoufakis’s version of Marxian theory, if capitalism ever did succeed in thoroughly turning labor into a commodity, this would spell the end of profitability and produce recession.
That all this is nonsense, will be recognized by anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the theory in Capital. What’s more interesting is its complete irrelevance to the main topic of Varoufakis’s speech, which is to explain why he has taken on the task of saving capitalism from the recession to which its workings have apparently doomed it. Despite his brilliance, Varoufakis observes, Marx was mistaken in thinking that capitalism’s tendency to crisis would produce a left-wing movement that would create a new, socialist society. Instead, just as the recession of the 1980s provided an opportunity to “undermine progressive politics,” so today’s stagnant capitalism threatens a revival of fascism, a “postmodern version of the 1930s.” Europe’s elites, unfortunately do not understand this (perhaps because of their deficit in Marxist theory?). Thus it is the left that must come up with “proposals for stabilizing Europe—for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, reinforces only the bigots.”
World history will never, apparently, allow us to stop repeating Marx’s celebrated remark that everything happens twice, as tragedy and as farce. The tragedy of German social-democracy, which with all good intentions both promoted the blood-bath of 1914 – 18 and prepared the way for fascism, is echoed today in the mildest of calls for a slight let-up in the lowering of working-class living standards as the price to be paid for salvaging the capitalist economy. But where the social-democracy and fascism of the past—in particular, the New Deal and Nazi responses to the Great Depression—had open to them the possibility of Keynesian methods of borrowing money for the state financing of economic activity, that money (especially given the continuation of such methods after the war) now exists as the gigantic sovereign debts of the world’s nations. If capitalism is to be saved today, it will not be by this method, whatever the hopes and wishes of Syriza, Podemos, or their milquetoast American analogue, the political forces boosting the career of Elizabeth Warren. A Marxism this erratic needs to lift a log and do a few squats.
* Yanis Varoufakis, “How I became an erratic Marxist,” The Guardian, February 18, 2015.
Paul Mattick is the Field Notes Editor.