The evidence that ancient money-lenders had exerted a strong influence on morality lies in an idea that has endured — that debt has to be repaid. It is an absurd obligation. If everyone has an obligation to repay a debt, what moral tenet explains the interest on the loan, which is the lender’s reward for bearing the risk? Repaying a debt is merely a good idea, that is if you wish to borrow again.
This is not the only reason why the Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the kind of man on whom a bald head does not look like a flaw, encouraged Greeks to vote for a default on the nation’s public debt. In 2013, he gave a lecture, and it is an exquisite piece of literature.
Titled ‘Confessions of an erratic Marxist in the midst of a repugnant European crisis’, the hero of the piece is Karl Marx. But please stay with me, my friend. Varoufakis is not a dinosaur. He is a dinosaur-lover. Most of us can be that, which is his point. As is the nature of lovers, he makes the subject of his adoration look better in his interpretation than what the creature is in its core.
Like many Indian Marxists, Karl Marx was an underemployed scion of a wealthy family, who wondered what social function others performed; who lamented economic inequality even as he lived on inheritances, and on donations made by his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, who too was from the affluent class. Marx wrote about the misery of factory workers without ever entering a factory. He took nearly two decades to write ‘Das Kapital’ and some of his excuses for the delay were, according to Sylvia Nasar’s history of modern economics ‘Grand Pursuit’, “rheumatism, liver trouble, influenza, toothache, impudent creditors, an outbreak of boils…” He published a slim sample of the book in 1859, which got no attention except the anonymous reviews that Engels wrote after Marx nudged him to. And when Das Kapital was finally published, it was not an immediate rage. Years later economist John Maynard Keynes would dismiss it as “an obsolete economic textbook”.
But Varoufakis exhumed Marx to remind the world that the central flaw of capitalism is not that it does not work but that if it works very well it would destroy itself. “Employers use all their ingenuity, and that of their HR management minions, to quantify, measure and homogenise labour,” Varoufakis said. And, prospective employees do all they can to offer themselves as “quantifiable labour units. And there’s the rub. If workers and employers ever succeed in commodifying labour fully, capitalism will perish.”
He was talking about the relation between human nature, work and happiness. When humans have been converted into highly efficient units of work, there would be no happiness or freedom left to lend meaning to the triumph. They would then withdraw from labour, collapsing the system that had converted them into workers. “This is an insight without which capitalism’s tendency to generate crises can never be fully grasped.”
Labour “can be purchased by liquid capital”, but “it will always carry with it a will hostile to the capitalist buyer.” This is also the reason why there may not be such a person as a happy prostitute and men who wonder why there must be so much strife and ignominy in a barter that is volunteer and practical probably need to just ask themselves why they are not happy workers in the first place.
If capital attempts to relax its severe grip on workers to lure them out of their hatred, and labour “sheds this hostility, it becomes sterile, incapable of producing value”. If capital tries to eliminate the inconvenience of dealing with humans altogether and automates, capital would not remain capital. If algorithms and machines replace all human labour, who is the consumer that can afford what they produce? What is the meaning of capital if it does not own and pay humans?
For capitalism to survive it must be allowed to fail. The inefficiency of compassion should be allowed to intervene. Varoufakis wants a diminished form of capitalism to survive in Europe. He fears that if the present infamy of capitalism is exploited by its insane foes, it may lead to a reign of despots and thugs. But Varoufakis is not a devotee of capitalism, not even in its diminished form.
He says that studying Marx enabled him “to become immune to the toxic propaganda of neoliberalism…the idea that wealth is privately produced and then appropriated by a quasi-illegitimate state, through taxation, is easy to succumb to if one has not been exposed first to Marx’s poignant argument that precisely the opposite applies: wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights”.
All Marxists appear to experience the Prince Siddhartha moment when they discover, to their apparent horror, that they are so entitled in an unequal world. Such a moment came to him one day in an airport when he was on his way to board a plane, holding a first-class ticket. He felt ashamed, he felt at the “risk of becoming co-opted, of shedding our radicalism through the warm glow of having ‘arrived’ in the corridors of power”.
He does not mention if he exchanged his ticket with an economy passenger as he could have. The recognition of the unfairness of social hierarchy is an intellectual moment. The wish to sleep on a flat bed in an aircraft is human nature.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. He tweets by the handle @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal.