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Marx & Spencer

Marx & Spencer Wearable memories

The wordplay in the title blissfully suggests that mirth is a legitimate reaction to the connotations of a mundanely “hallowed” name. Phonetically, it insinuates an English apparel retailer, much appreciated by the in-crowd. Visually, there seems to be a “spelling” mistake. Obviously, it is just a caprice, of the same character as the caprices history slams in our faces; these caprices are (also) known as coincidences. They make up the tools based on which some individuals torment themselves to transform the historical fact into invariant lessons. Those individuals may be labelled “hasty” historians. And the most “arrogant” of them postulate with no remorse universal laws from past uniqueness. 

Karl Marx postulated the thesis of “historical materialism”: matter forces people to work in order to appease, materially, their desires; work forces them to specialize, producing and then asymmetrically receiving value-work; divisions generate class impressions and conflicts to restore the well-deserved symmetry where each person would receive the whole product of his work only to redivide it, like a humble New Man, in the utopian egalitarian commune. 

Herbert Spencer struggled between his self-repressed deism and experiential positivism to discover the natural method to probe the societal reality, finding out also its institutional founding law: “evolutionary selection oriented towards progress”. 

For Marx, communism was the necessary end of line for history; for Spencer, liberalism was the rational decanter of history. Therefore, zero coincidence regarding these 19th century contemporaries: if one showed a photography of his epoch, the other was the possessor of the negative. 

Marx’s spectres haunted the current post-modern crisis almost in the same manner as the phantom of communism, from “The Communist Manifesto” co-signed with Engels, was haunting the middle of his century. A few years ago, they revealed themselves to Nouriel Roubini, “Dr. Doom” in economics (or doctor in doom-economics). Roubini is the economist who saw the 2008 crisis in the numerology of economics emanated from the statistics of the prior economic boom and signalled that he was (fore/re)seeing the ineluctable direction of history in the spirit of the dialectically-twisted “Capital” of the “antibourgeois bourgeois” (a phrase that summarizes Marx’s portrait made by Paul Johnson in his delightful history of intellectual hypocrisy). Somehow, Roubini looked like he might have been also considering that capitalism is a societal misfortune with a dramatic ending, as in Marx’s epic epiphany. 

You can’t duel, in an lone page, neither with the work of perhaps the most influential modern ideologist (considered, however, by Paul Samuelson, to be, as an economist, only another “minor neo-ricardian”), nor with the most popular contemporary economist (otherwise, ideologically eclectic by any standard). I would only like to retranslate the problem exposed by Marx, relevant even in its deep misunderstanding: the rotten order, self-destructive, of world capital, such as the one revealed by the enduring crisis, should in no case condemn the benign market capitalism, to which we owe the sustainable side of the today abundance (as Marx owed his, in his times). Capitalism is rotten due to interventionist, state-driven distortion regarding incentives and economic calculus (as the Austrian School economists articulately pointed out refining the classical tradition of liberalism). 

Marx’s diatribe, acknowledged in the current folklore of economic media discussions (“capital owners who stimulate the working class to buy increasingly more goods, houses and technologies, driving it to apply for credits which turn out to be increasingly more expensive up to the point where their repayment becomes unbearable; unpaid debts generate bankruptcy for banks, which have to be nationalized, and the state would be forced to go the Communist way”), makes no sense in a market economy free from the political safety net. Nobody (apart from the state) can create illusion-money and incite to indulgence by encouraging privatization of profits from inflation and coercive socialization of losses from malinvestments. 

Herbert Spencer published one year after Marx’s death, in 1884, “The Man versus the State”, where he denounced the violent abdication from the trend of societal progress (made possible by the institutions of freedom) and the tyranny of the emerging “welfare state” by force and of servitude, that accompanied the corruption of the naturally free spirit. 

The chronic spasms of modern economies (the “recurrent economic crises”) can be explained by the moral hazard instilled in the privileged capitalists’ habits and paid from the wealth of the captive taxpayer. The spasms coincide, indeed, with market expansion, but are caused precisely by their usurpation. And talking about coincidences: Spencer’s ashes rest only a few feet away from Marx’s grave, in the same London cemetery. Inasmuch as the ashes remains the ultimate geometric locus of all history’s (mis)matches.



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