Lately John Lanchester keeps crossing my horizon. Originally it was an interview on Newsnight, which was a little like this:
Took a while to find…
Today Tim Bray twittered a reference to a lecture he’d given on Marx, presented as a podcast on The London Review of Books. As Tim said, it’s relevant.
The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.
This is a point that Marxists for the most part have been reluctant to address, and for a very good reason: the problem of resources in the world today, whether food or water or power, power in all senses, are to do with inequitable distribution and not with the total supply. There is more than enough of all those things for all of us. Writers and activists in the Marxist tradition have tended to stress that point, and they’re right to do so, but we need also to face the fact that the world is heading towards ever greater consumption of and demand for resources on the part of everybody. Everybody simultaneously. That fact is capitalism’s most deadly opponent.
Marx is probably the ultimate pariah of my generation. The few times that i’ve tried to get a handle on his views, beyond the radicalised, student / academic version that i was exposed to in my youth, i’ve come away frustrated by how inaccessible his writing seems in the current context. There is so little frame of reference because the terms he uses are now poisonous! I’ve had an easier time reading Engels, which is at least practical, and easy to grasp.
Obviously the odd of us coming up with an alternative to capitalism, let alone recognising the truths that Marx set down, are very slim… but it’s good that at least his work is still causing discussion and intelligent discourse.
John Lanchester seems, by the way, to be that rarest of english individuals, an acceptable intellectual. Let us hope, for his sake, that he is as humble as he is eloquent.