This is an extract from Daily Review columnist Helen Razer’s new book, Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young. As its title suggests, the work, to be released by Allen & Unwin this Wednesday, is an attempt to introduce the thought of Marx to the curious, the cross and the time-poor in an era where he has been largely forgotten.
Karl Marx was a white European bloke from the nineteenth century who drank too much and probably got the cleaning lady up the duff. He was often in a very bad mood. If we saw him on a TED talk of the present, we might ask, ‘Can’t that crusty old dribbler break out a smile once in a while, or possibly a comb?’ before switching to another speaker. Perhaps one with tidier hair and a more optimistic topic than This Is How The World Got Into A State Of Total Shit.
Such was the unpleasant labour of a sometimes-unpleasant man: exploring the shit of the world in some detail. This short book will not be a guide to the life of Marx, which may or may not have involved a weekend of nobbing with a German cleaning lady called Helene. It will be a basic introduction to the revolutionary project of shit-sorting, begun in earnest by Marx. One that has enjoyed a recent revival.
You may have heard the old term ‘socialism’ getting about a bit lately. You must have, otherwise you’d hardly have picked up a book that promises to explain Marx’s marvellous variety of it. I should tell you then, from the outset, that the Marx kind of ‘socialism’, which I’ll now stop stuffing inside scare quotes, is largely a tool for understanding capitalism. And capitalism is understood by the Marxist to negatively affect many parts of everyday life, not just the bits with money in it.
Yes. Not just the economy! This news may be a relief for you, because it means we’ll discuss things a bit more thrilling than profit, commodities and labour. We will talk about a world in which we might all flourish. We will even talk about our feelings. Our feelings are not, when truly examined, unimportant when it comes to diagnosing all the disorders of capitalism. And Marx was in the business of diagnosis. It’s now up to us to find a cure, a task you may find, as I do, both thrilling and fucking exhausting.
Just in time for the centenary of its most famous revolutionary expression, the Russian October Uprising of 1917, this socialism word can again be heard. You may have heard it used by the United States presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during his popular campaign. If you were listening in to the 2017 French Presidential election, you would have heard the word truly and more traditionally used by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. You may have heard it used by the United Kingdom Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn and the supporters who joined him, making his party the largest, and the youngest, in Europe. If you ever joined me and my relatives at a table, you would have heard it then too. As in, there goes the socialist again, banging on about seizing the means of production while totally covered in gravy. I am delighted to find a more agreeable place and time than Christmas dinner in which to address the topic.
Everyone is always calling someone a ‘Marxist’ as though this is a slur; as though they even understand what Marxism means in an era where it is no longer truly taught at universities.
For various reasons, which you can be sure I will start boring you with in Chapter 1, talk of socialism—which can also be called ‘communism’ by some, or, just to mess with your shit, ‘the material Left’—has lately become more frequent and public. It’s not just for the festive family table or nineteenth-century white men anymore! No. Apparently, many inquisitive youngsters of the West have decided they don’t mind the sound of this thing at all, this form of socialism written down by Marx in the mean little rooms of a long-ago Europe.
You, whether old or young or a midlife husk like me, have not become curious about something like socialism on a whim. To take real interest in any ‘ism’ is a time-sucking pain, especially when that ism has endured decades of bad press. And it has had such bad press. Everyone is always calling someone a ‘Marxist’ as though this is a slur; as though they even understand what Marxism means in an era where it is no longer truly taught at universities.
You might have heard people say that Marxism is too idealistic, too lazy, or about as helpful to the present day as an open-cut coalmine. Such people—often old enough to remember the Cold War and usually rich enough to own a bit of property—have many ways of dismissing Marx’s socialism without ever bothering to read it. These include, ‘There’s no difference between Left and Right anymore. That rot went in the bin with my iPhone 2.’
Well, you know, bollocks to them. If we truly understand what Marxism is—a strong and unflinching criticism of capitalism; the necessary shadow of a behemoth that imposes itself on every person on the planet, no matter their cultural identity—then plainly, there’s a bunch of Western people, largely young, now reasserting their need to do this.
We see many respectable books published about the rise of the ‘alt-right’. We read many news articles profiling young, smug conservatives calling for an end to immigration/feminism/decent manners and we see media vision of groups that advance crude nationalism. What we do not see in mainstream press is the strong re-emergence of great Leftist passion. This is the true shift of our time. Right now across the West, there are rallies and political parties full of kids united by one crucial understanding: capitalism cannot be trusted to determine our future.
Look at ’em all! Oh, they warm even my dead old heart. Young people were very recently in very high attendance at rallies for those self-described socialists, Sanders and Corbyn. Young people answered a range of social surveys in 2016 that showed strong favourability for socialism and strong suspicion of capitalism. There are babies engaging in some fiery Red criticism of things as they are in the West.
This book, of course, is not just for time-poor kids surviving that shitstorm we call the ‘gig economy’.
Young people are even beginning to find their way into my inbox. They have been sending emails and Facebook messages, asking, ‘Old Lady, what is Marxism?’ when they have detected reference to Marx in my published writing. I started out telling them what Marxism was not: it was not placing faith in the power of cautious or ‘politically correct’ words to change reality; not thinking that a truly good change in the world will ever be made by those already powerful; not worrying so much about whether you are a noble individual, and more about how you can stand shoulder to shoulder with others to win a noble future.
One day in early 2016, I received a correspondence from a bright young lady called Ana who demanded to know what Marxism was, not what it wasn’t.
I told her a little. Ana told me that such analysis was ‘lit fam’. She assured me, when asked, that this was not an insult, and then requested more information on the man’s thinking. I asked her exactly how interested in Marx she felt she was, so I knew how much time to spend explaining and/or ripping off eBooks to send her. She said she had read a bit about him and he was ‘turnt as fuck’—apparently, again, not an insult—and that she would certainly like to read more, if only she, an Uber driver and a writer and a shop assistant, had the free time. Could I sum it all up? So here it is, Ana: the evaporated Marx. The decision to write this book was taken after many queries of the type, but yours was the first, and the rudest.
This book, of course, is not just for time-poor kids surviving that shitstorm we call the ‘gig economy’. It has been written for anyone who wants to taste a little Marxism before committing to feast upon the bodies of the tender ruling class marinated in riches for centuries. (Please note, employees of Rupert Murdoch, this is a joke. Neither Marx nor I are advocates for cannibalism. We’re just trying to stop capitalism from eating the people.) But, as the young seem to have worked up quite an appetite, I must first tip my Lenin cap to them.
To this end, young comrade, I apologise in advance for being so old. I should warn you that I could not identify a ‘dank meme’ if the fate of the working class depended on it and that I shall not be ‘shipping’ Lenin and Trotsky. If I tried to speak your marvellous language, I would produce sentences like, ‘Hey, fleeky brother with the random, let’s get planked with Marx!’
Nobody wants that. But, what many do seem to want is a short and new explanation of an old and complex thinker. So, this is that revolutionary tapas; an introductory morsel of Marx. Think of it as a tasting plate.
The future you face is one of absolute uncertainty. This uncertainty is often rebranded for you by politicians and property owners as your opportunity to be ‘agile’, ‘innovative’ or ‘entrepreneurial’. To which the Marxist says, ‘Get fucked.’
Again, young comrade, I am sorry in advance for being me. Ideally, this book would be written by a fashionable person like Ana who does not have to google terms like ‘woke’—which, I recently learned, is a pretty good one. ‘Woke’ is what a Marxist would call ‘class consciousness’, and more of that later. For the minute, my attention is still with you poor fucking Millennials, the most impoverished Western generation in almost a century.
You guys have it bad. Without extraordinary reform to the way we organise our economies, you lot, as some of you may have started to suspect, are soon going to have it worse. Unless your parents are both generous and extremely well-to-do, the future you face is one of absolute uncertainty. This uncertainty is often rebranded for you by politicians and property owners as your opportunity to be ‘agile’, ‘innovative’ or ‘entrepreneurial’. To which the Marxist says, ‘Get fucked.’
There is nothing character building about not being able to afford a permanent place to live. There is nothing fun about a shrinking job market. Stagnant wages are not exhilarating, and spending a huge sum of money on an education which qualifies you for work that may not even exist by the end of your degree hardly makes this An Exciting Time To Be Alive. The only people truly enjoying themselves in the present are the elite investor class, the people you might have heard called ‘the one per cent’ but which we might now more accurately call, and plenty of good economists do, the one per cent of the one per cent.
No amount of trying can secure you a regular job, a home or, in many cases, the means to an education.
You have it bad, comrades. And, no, of course, in anticipation of the ‘You don’t know how good you have it, shut up and enjoy your exotic brunch’ critique so many young people face, you don’t have it as bad as your comrades in the Global South. You’re not sleeping in the factory dormitories of China or mining rare elements in the bloody pits of Congo. And, yes, you have nice things like your Uber and your streaming video and your low-cost creative fashions, all of which you access on devices made by those Chinese and Congolese labourers.
But what you don’t have, as you may have begun to see, is the future you were promised. You’ve been told for all your life that You Can Make It If You Try. And perhaps you now see that no amount of trying can secure you a regular job, a home or, in many cases, the means to an education. Even the thought of having your own child must be tempered with thoughts of money. Commandments like ‘Follow your dreams!’ make a lot less sense when capitalism has become your nightmare.
You are not a pussy for feeling that the world has failed you. The world has failed you, and it’s hardly your fault that its systems have begun to break down. You guys are not ‘choosing’ to flit from job to job. You are not choosing to hurt those Chinese and Congolese workers who made that iPhone with their blood. You did not throw your chance at a home after a gourmet sandwich.
Oh, Millennial Sandwich Eater. The next time a Boomer investor accuses you of eating your asset-rich future in the form of a snack, tell them you would need to sacrifice 8,800 fifteen-dollar sandwiches to save for the nation’s median house deposit of $132,000. That’s almost a quarter-century of daily sandwich denial, by which time you will be considered too old to service a loan.
You have no ‘choice’ about buying a home—the choice has been made for you by a political economy so self-deluded it can no longer identify its own bad ideas. So, its defenders make up moral bullshit instead. They say to you, a large group of people, ‘You’re only poor because you’re spoilt brats.’ This is a cop-out. It is not ‘economics’. It is not an explanation.
Questions about the origin of the suffering and poverty borne by so many in this present world can be answered, possibly even corrected, by the socialism of Marx.
Old or young, you may sometimes wonder about the deteriorating conditions of your own life. Rich or skint, you may wonder about the broken lives of others, in neighbouring suburbs and distant lands. You might not be able to bear thinking too long about those others. Questions about who made your iPhone, or why the Sudanese guy driving the Uber it beckoned looks so miserable and homesick and scared, are those that are hard to endure.
While a Marxist view might not make these questions any simpler for your heart to bear, it can ease the strain to your head. Questions about the origin of the suffering and poverty borne by so many in this present world—in which just eight men command more wealth than the poorest half of the planet, in which one billion go hungry, in which corporations are now excused both from paying tax and providing meaningful employment—can be answered, possibly even corrected, by the socialism of Marx.
Marxism is a way of understanding how we got here. Marxism is a way of answering heartbreaking questions. Marxism is . . . well, we better let that dirty old bugger begin a book that would never have been written without him. Marxism is a criticism of the present which gives rise to a vision for a society in which, ‘The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’
Now. Let’s talk about that freedom, shall we? For each and for all.
Helen Razer’s regular Monday column is on hold, as she’s locked in a box making last-minute amendments to a talk. She will present on ‘Trump and the Death of the Media Class’ this week as part of Professor Raimond Gaita’s free series, now in its 16th year, The Wednesday Lectures.
Book here if you’d like to hear her Daily Review column in undiluted spoken form at her lecture, Trump and the Death of the Media Class at 6.30 pm, Wednesday August 23, Public Lecture Hall, Old Arts Building, Melbourne University.