By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.
“All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto. He meant that the sheer, revolutionary power of capitalism had wrenched larger and larger parts of the world out of its feudal or tribal doze, and sent it running round the track of modernization, smashing down habits, customs, faiths as it went. The agents of this wrenching change: the middle classes, or as he would have it, the bourgeoisie, the new class which grew in the womb of feudalism, and then destroyed it. And they would, he prophesied, be destroyed in their turn.
Do you not fear, in anxious moments at dawn, that he was right, just a bit (163 years: the Manifesto came out in 1848) before his time? Do you feel the solid world melting? Do you tremble that we in the rich states are living, not just on borrowed money, but also on borrowed time – and that it is running out? That our way of life is being gnawed at from below?
John Gray, the British philosopher, once a Thatcherite, thinks Marx is right, and that the melting has gone beyond effective political control. Marx was wrong, to be sure, about communism producing a decent society, judging by what’s been on offer so far. But Gray thinks he was right about how the apparently triumphant bourgeoisie, builders of a productive, industrial, city-based society, would themselves melt. “The weapons,” Marx wrote, “with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.” The constant churn and change which capitalist development required would, in the end, attack those who had created the process: the middle classes. Now they – we – are for churning.
Our fate has become linked to that of the classes we thought we had left, or left behind. The industrial working class in the rich societies, whom Marx thought would lead the revolution, is now small, and in most states the trade unions are weakened, as are the socialist parties. Those in what Marx called the “lumpenproletariat” are growing in numbers, and can be dangerous – see the London riots in August. But they are also disorganized. In an article in London’s Guardian earlier this week, the UK Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke called the rioters a “feral underclass” and said they were “cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism.”