How intelligent was Karl Marx

Social justice: Marx was too smart for a basic income

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For a few weeks now the Germans have all been Marx connoisseurs - by default. Because now, on the occasion of his 200th birthday, it is hardly possible to escape him. In the process, Marx is transfigured for what it takes. Although a lot of injustice has been committed in his name - and all sorts of crude stuff is in his books that is now out of date.

One would like to exclaim, stop me with this Marx. Let the man and his beard rest in peace!

But that would be wrong. Because Marx, as the best-known critic of capitalism, was also one of its best analysts. Anyone who reads his writings today will find thoughts that fit surprisingly well with the topics that will occupy us in 2018. Two of the most interesting current debates can easily be rethought with Marx: the trade dispute and the welfare state debate. So free trade versus Donald Trump's protectionism and Hartz IV versus basic income.

At first glance, these two debates have nothing to do with each other. One is about companies and how they operate in the world, i.e. the core of capitalism. The other is about people and the alleviation of their misery, that is, about the core of the state. One plays between the great nations of the world: Angela Merkel visits Donald Trump. The other takes place in Germany between Berlin and Karlsruhe: Jens Spahn visits a Hartz IV recipient.

Marx not only found globalization bad

But Marx knew that the two debates are closely related. One cannot properly describe globalization and trade if one ignores the social question, because world trade has an impact in every country. It amplifies the effects of capitalism and can upset the social fabric. It makes many rich, others unemployed, because someone else produces the same thing better or cheaper. It depends essentially on the rules of a society how this ends, i.e. on the state.

To understand these debates with Marx, one must first overcome two popular fallacies. First: Marx by no means saw globalization only as a danger. Rather, he recognized free world trade and the associated globalization as a primal force that changed the world and thus also eliminated many of the structures he saw as being outdated - which he welcomed. "By exploiting the world market, the bourgeoisie has made production and consumption in all countries cosmopolitan," he wrote in the Communist Manifesto. "To the great regret of industry reactionaries, it has pulled the national soil from under its feet."

Marx saw economic globalization as an opportunity for countries to free themselves from patriarchal and feudal structures and from nationalism. "The bourgeoisie is tearing all, even the most barbaric nations, into civilization through the rapid improvement of all production instruments, through the infinitely easier communications," he wrote. And he also recognized the means by which trade has such a world-changing effect: "The cheap prices of their goods are the heavy artillery with which they shoot all Chinese walls into the ground, with which they force the most stubborn xenophobia of the barbarians to surrender."

From today's perspective that is a description of reality, but then it was prophetic knowledge. For the great international age was just dawning, and its effects were far from being as clear.