It was two years ago tonight that I heard Noam Chomsky speak to a packed house at my alma mater, Rhodes College in Memphis. He was two hours late, and he spoke for what seemed like two more hours, but nobody left the packed auditorium until after he was done speaking.
After he concluded his long, extemporaneous speech about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the state of the economy, he opened up the floor to questions. One person stood up and asked this:
QUESTION: Could you define the words "democracy" and "capitalism" as you understand them?
CHOMSKY: At this point, those two words are basically meaningless.
I'll never forget this exchange. I felt suddenly gullible to have made it that far in my life still believing in concepts that I should have seen were corrupted at worst and imaginary at best. All the stuff we teach our children about democracy and capitalism as being the manifest destiny of our wonderful nation is really just a fantasy. What we call "capitalism" is just a repressive discursive structure we have chosen (or, more correctly, has been chosen for us) that defines and controls the way we live our lives. And there's nothing saying it has to be this way.
And it was spoken not by a kook in a V for Vendetta mask, or the writer of a nutso left-wing blog, but by one of the most respected intellectuals alive today, during a question and answer session in a packed auditorium.
Eagleton's structure of the text is simple and brilliant. He tackles ten misconceptions about Karl Marx, who he calls the most "travestied" thinker in history, and then debunks them. The ten misconceptions are as follows:
1. That Marxism is an obsolete idea.
2. That Marxism works on paper but only induces misery when implemented.
3. That Marxism is "offensive to human freedom and dignity" because it figures people as being pawns of history.
4. That Marxism is utopian and ignores the weaknesses of individual humans.
5. That Marxism reduces human existence to economics.
6. That Marx was a meterialist who ignored humans' spirtual potential.
7. That Marxism is obsessed with an out-of-date class structure.
8. That Marxism promotes violence.
9. That Marxism promotes a totalitarianist state.
10. That Marxism's focus on the class struggle has taken a backseat to feminism, environmentalism, and other movements.
He goes through these one by one and refutes them, using his prodigious learning and understanding of Marx and Engles to persuade the reader. This book favors theoretical analysis over all else, and it will definitely not teach you how to resist the man in your neighborhood or start up a democratic coffee shop around the corner.
(And, by the way, did I mention that Eagleton is frequently hilarious?)
And it's mighty convincing. And Eagleton frequently pauses his argument to point out omissions or flaws in Marx's thinking, which makes his overarching point more convincing. Rather than go through each of his refutations, which you can read for yourself (or get a good idea of by watching this 24 minute summarization of the book which willl have you laughing your ass off from the get go), I will leave you with a summary of what I learned about capitalism from reading this book.
My thoughts on capitalism
after having read Why Marx Was Right
by Terry Eagleton.
Capitalism as Eagleton notes, made "astonishing progress." Its greatest achievement was to create the middle class, which Marx admired greatly because it was liberal and creative--an enormous group of people who were close to realizing a society of leisure, art, and production. Marx teaches us more about capitalism than any other philosopher, and proves that it is, in fact, an integral step on the way to socialism.
On the other hand, capitalism has caused unimaginable destruction, including "global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide, and avoidable famines" (185). This is a system, developed relatively recently in human history, in which plutocratic maniacs use the media to tell the general public what it wants and how it wants it. One result of this stysem is that people in our county "are living lives of largely fruitless toil for the benefit of the ruling elite" (74). Another is that one million of this country's inhabitants are in prison.
Capitalism as we know it creates crushing conformity of consumers struggling in an environment that consumes them. Today, half of the world's population is made up of the urban poor, and we live on a planet in which nations clamor to achieve nuclear capability while they struggle over diminishing resources. This capitalism creates a superstructure of culture, art, and entertainment that only reinforces the system. (Watch two episodes of any horrid CBS sitcom and you'll surely see what I mean.) In this system, the upper class pits the middle class in an unending war against the lower class, and makes leisure something one must work for.
Eagleton notes that people are fearful of a bloody socialist revolution, then reminds us of the incalculable lives that were sacrificed in order to make capitalism possible. Consider the extermination of the native populations of the Americas, or 400 years of slavery in the American south, or the despair of the working poor. Eagleton astutely attributes the first World War, for one, which cost somewhere between 20-50 million lives, to capitalist nation- and economy-building. What socialist revoultion could compete with such a bloodbath?
And, for all this bloodshed, misery, and poverty, what has capitalism established? A system so precarious an untenable that it was nearly upended in 2008 in the recession that almost resulted in "a wholesale implosion of the system" (195). Thanks to its disregard for the environment, today's capitalism is a "way of life that is threatening to destroy the planet altogether" (Eagleton, 15).
What has capitalism done for you?