Russell Davies: Marx can help you understand today's bewildering world

By Russell Davies, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 12 April 2012 08:00AM

It's easy, sometimes, to feel like a bewildered old duffer. The pace of change, the plethora of resources, the sheer amount of things you're supposed to know something about.

Russell Davies: Marx can help you understand today's bewildering world

It can be overwhelming. I find, though, that if you just dig around the web for a while, there will always be someone who can explain things for you. The internet solves its own problems - it throws randomness in your face, but then it guides you to explanations. Here are a couple who have been interesting and useful to me of late.

David Toop is an experimental, avant-garde musician and writer. He has been playing at the edges of music culture for decades now, much of his work and his writing prefiguring things that were outre once but seem mainstream now. In an interview in The Guardian, talking about the huge range of music "young people" are exposed to, he said something that made me more comfortable about feeling bewildered: "It's my belief that 'young people' will figure it out and older people will either settle into the habit of moaning until mortality shuts them up or realise that the conditions they were born into were also novel and unsettling."

Every generation thinks it's born into a particularly unsettling time. We're no different. Find the interview by Googling "David Toop" and "Guardian".

You've probably seen John Lanchester's novel Capital being promoted or perhaps read his last book about the financial crisis. He's a superb writer who can make the intricacies of monetary policy seem comprehensible. The London Review of Books website has a podcast of the lecture he gave looking at what Karl Marx might make of the world today. It helped me understand a lot about the world and quite a bit about Marx, particularly when he talks about phenomena Marx couldn't have anticipated but nevertheless somehow explains.

"Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there's no time-saving at all for the customer ... They're transferring their inefficiency to the customer, but what they're also doing is transferring the labour to you and accumulating the surplus value themselves. Every time you deal with a phone menu or interactive voicemail service, you're donating your surplus value to the people you're dealing with. Marx's model is constantly asking us to see the labour encoded in the things and transactions all around us."

You don't have to be a Marxist to find a Marxist analysis of Foxconn, "gendercide" and voicemail fascinating. You don't even have to be a bewildered old duffer. But maybe it helps.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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