Karl Marx Had It Right About Greedy Bastards

On a recent weekend, Master Francis and I drifted over to the annual Potato Festival at the Hampton Day School. This should not be confused in readers’ minds with the annual Potatohead Festival, which was simultaneously taking place in East Hampton. This is also known as the Hamptons International Film Festival-a five-day period when pointless films made and performed by generally talentless people are screened, most of them for the first and last time ever, to an audience of non-local nitwits with loud voices and awful hair. The only contribution of the latter to the community, if the local shopkeepers are to be believed, is to take up parking spaces and kill the commerce of what might otherwise have been a promising off-season weekend.

There is nothing like a perfectly done potato skin stuffed with melted cheese to prompt serious rumination, and watching the kids disport at the Day School occasioned miscellaneous reflections bearing on the future of this great land. What possible good can portend for the children of a culture that has bought more copies of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s banal, unmusical tribute to the late Princess of Wales, in a mere six weeks or so, than preceding generations have bought of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” in the past half-century? Not much, I wot. (Incidentally, readers wishing to know what a proper musical salute to an English rose should sound like are invited to listen to “Rose of England” from the musical Crest of a Wave , 1937, by Ivor Novello-an artifact of a much-beset era that held itself erect with penurious pride, rather than slumping and whining about its Versace-clad victimhood.)

Readers of this column will be familiar with the Old Blowhard’s oft-expressed conviction that Karl Marx is likely to have another bite at the apple. Not that I’m in the least bit a Marxist, mind you (nor was Marx), but I do think that the man must be ranked among the greatest financial journalists who ever lived, every bit the equal in perspicacity of Adam Smith. His analysis of the “character” of capitalism, and the tendencies, largely self-destructive, that flow from that character, is as penetrating and on the money (if you will) as any ever written. Much of that analysis, let us not forget, was first mooted in the dispatches Marx wrote during the 1850’s for the New-York Tribune , not exactly a socialist rag, whose ill-paid European correspondent he was. Capitalism, Marx saw, releases certain inherently antisocial, suicidal energies; it is Mammon who appears to hold the key to whatever it is that precipitates the lemmings, or the Gadarene swine, to destruction. And capitalism as a “system” probably has most to fear over the long term from nothing more or less than the public behavior of those who control or own the capital. In this the O.B. concurs-or, as the lady of this house puts it, “How long can it possibly be before someone just shoots Donald Trump?”

This is a typically long-winded O.B. way of getting to my point, which is to make sure you have all read John Cassidy’s first-rate piece, “The Next Thinker: The Return of Karl Marx,” in the recent double issue of The New Yorker . There is so much to think about in Mr. Cassidy’s piece that one hardly knows where to start. Globalization, the sheer, irresistible force of capitalism, materialist values, downsizing and other tropes of “efficiency,” all were anticipated and described by Marx-as I say, so much to think about. Go find it! Go read it!

The observation that particularly struck the O.B., not without a frisson of amusement, was the following: “Capitalism … made human beings subjugate themselves to base avarice. ‘Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world, human as well as natural, of its own values,’ [Marx wrote in 1843] … The money-driven debasement of popular culture, epitomized by most of Hollywood’s output, was also foreshadowed by Marx. In the Grundrisse (Outlines) … he argued that the quality of the art a society produces is a reflection of the material conditions at the time.”

Grundrisse was published in 1857, the same year that Charles Dickens, another Londoner, in infinitely better circumstances than the threadbare Marx, published a great book that tackled many of the same issues: Little Dorrit . Something was definitely in the air; predatory, shameless, callous capitalism-call it “trumpery” (defined by Webster’s as “worthless nonsense”)-was stinking up the joint. Indeed, when, not long ago in a talk on Dickens’ great novel-perhaps his greatest-I compared Dickens’ depiction of the Merdles’ grand reception for the worthies of public and private life to the goings-on in the Bill Clinton-John Huang-James Riady Oval Office, a listener came up afterward and gently chided me for socialist tendencies.

What amused me about Mr. Cassidy’s observation is this. There is a certain very vocal school of defenders of High Culture who look about themselves today and see a wasteland. I agree with that conclusion. This particular school, however, blames the whole catastrophe on “60’s-style liberalism,” in consequence of which it has formed an alliance with, is funded by, and has in general become the cultural dogsbody point man for free-market, laissez-faire, supply-side capitalism on the grounds that both stand for traditional, refined values.

But they do not. The current issue of Harper’s Magazine excerpts a “must-read” excerpt from a new book, The Conquest of Cool , by Thomas Frank, which makes an inescapable point: Without capitalism’s shoulder to it, thanks to the profit it saw in effecting a revolution in popular/mass culture, the great rock ‘n’ roll-spoked wheel of the anarchic, know-nothing, tradition-abhorring values ascendant in the 60’s, in which the rock sensibility ruled all (and still does), could not have crushed everything in its path as efficiently as the panzers once overran the defenses of France or the barbarians the gates of Rome. Why, in God’s name, do you think the Europeans resist the “New Global Economy” as determinedly and valiantly as they do?

Because they know what the true cost will be.

Sure, France and Germany would like the money, anyone would, but not at what they know the cost will be in terms of cultural annihilation. They have looked across the Atlantic; they know what unfettered capitalism’s “long march through the institutions” looks like.

The O.B. intends to return to this theme in future columns, but let me leave you with this thought. In The New York Times of Oct. 22, Martin Arnold wrote the only insightful column on the current state of publishing that I have read in a dog’s age. The point he makes is that publishing is bereft of talent-not writers, but editors, marketing people, people like that. It’s tempting to blame this on low pay, but publishing has always paid badly. So here’s something to think about. In the mid-1980’s, half of one Yale graduating class signed up to interview with Goldman, Sachs & Company. This suggests a value system unlikely to produce many book people.

As Marx saw, the last laugh is generally Mammon’s.