Gen Z and Karl Marx

The Grundrisse is a collection of Marx’s unpublished notebooks that cover his entire critique of classical political economy. It is looser and more chaotic in form than Das Kapital and covers more ground, taking in art, ancient history, geography, and technology as well as expected economic themes, such as the relations between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption in 19th-century industrial capitalism. 

By , a British reporter, book critic, and writer covering foreign affairs, culture, and political theory. Originally published in FOREIGN POLICY
A row of statues of German political thinker Karl Marx.
Statues of German political thinker Karl Marx created by artist Ottmar Hoerl are on display in Trier, Germany, on May 5, 2013. HANNELORE FOERSTER/GETTY IMAGES

Among the rites of passage of the millennial generation was the rediscovery, for some, of Karl Marx. Many left-populist movements that emerged across the Western world after the Great Recession of 2008, such as Occupy Wall Street, channeled their intellectual energy into engaging with the 19th-century German thinker’s work—specifically, Marx’s canonical text Das Kapital (1867) and its explorations of how recessions recur throughout business cycles.

The relative economic scarcity that the millennial generation confronted after 2008, and the insights provided by Marx, helped shift much of the contemporary left away from the once-fashionable postmodernist linguistic theory that had dominated U.S. academia in the 1990s. The need to explain falling standards of living and unemployment took precedence over parsing complex French theory. This materialist attitude found its way into political movements including the Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders campaigns in Britain and the United States, respectively, and the new parties of continental Europe such as Syriza in Greece, PODEMOS in Spain, and La France Insoumise in France.

2019 and 2020 brought electoral defeat for most of these projects and the hopes of a set of millennial left activists trained on Das Kapital. But that defeat has come just in time for the next generation to embrace a Marx of its own. For many analysts, the millennials’ left-populism was unable to grasp the growing social atomization driven by technology, fully conceptualize the move toward a new multipolar axis revolving around U.S.-China relations, or speak convincingly about threats from robotic automation and ecological collapse.

It’s not that Marx can’t help the new post-COVID-19 generation understand its own forms of accelerating social, economic, and natural dislocation. But Generation Z would be wise to trade Marx’s Das Kapital for his long-neglected Grundrisse. And it now has a useful new guide at its disposal, A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse by David Harvey.

Harvey, a soft-spoken 87-year-old British professor working in the City University of New York system, happens to have also heavily influenced the post-2008 cohort’s engagement with Marx. His guide to Das Kapital, published in 2010, was incredibly popular, overcoming the fact that its content matter was an obtuse, abstract, and frustratingly complex economic treatise. Notably, the first episode of Harvey’s YouTube series “Reading Marx’s Capital Vol I,” released the same year, has nearly 1 million views.

Just as Das Kapital provided orientation amid the Great Recession, the Grundrisse—and Harvey’s interpretation of it—could be an indispensable guide to navigating our political situation today, specifically when it comes to the question of how to deal with a rapidly developing artificial intelligence and the continued, seemingly inexorable rise of China.

Men wearing work uniforms and hats assemble rows of semi-automatic textile machines on a large factory floor in Leningrad in 1924.
Soviet-made semi-automatic textile machines are assembled at the Karl Marx factory in Leningrad in 1924. SOVFOTO/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The Grundrisse is a collection of Marx’s unpublished notebooks that cover his entire critique of classical political economy. It is looser and more chaotic in form than Das Kapital and covers more ground, taking in art, ancient history, geography, and technology as well as expected economic themes, such as the relations between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption in 19th-century industrial capitalism. Harvey presents the Grundrisse as the exposition of a vast array of overlapping and ever-evolving mechanical systems that explain an encyclopedic range of modern phenomena, including money, capitalist forms of slavery, the transformation of tools into machinery, and the rise of the rational economic actor in the theories of political economists such as David Ricardo, Adam Smith, and Thomas Malthus.

Marx’s most prescient exposition in the Grundrisse is what is often called the “Fragment on Machines.” This section, halfway through the text, sets out how capitalist investment in complex productive machinery will radically change human subjectivity—in short, by transforming people’s relationship to their tools from one of mastery to one of subordination and alienation. (Think, for instance, of the difference between a traditional carpenter and a worker in a large furniture factory.) In the Grundrisse, Marx shares an optimism with Silicon Valley about the potential for rapid technological change but is also far more skeptical about the short-term uncontrolled effects machines will have on human beings.

In line with much of the optimism among big tech executives in California, Marx thought that automation could liberate humanity from the “necessary labor” of reproducing society.

In this way, Marx is the opposite of Peter Thiel, the controversial head of Palantir Technologies, who has argued that the rate of technological innovation is in decline, which he believes is harming human potential. Thiel has neatly summed up this fall-off, claiming that, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” For Thiel, the innovative machines of the Grundrisse—vast spinning jennies, cotton gins, steam engines, blast furnaces—have been replaced by minimal hardware innovation and diminishing returns in communication software.

Marx, by contrast, saw the rise of self-directing machines in production as an inevitability that would alienate the vast majority of the population from their work, arguing in the Grundrisse that labor would appear “subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself … whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism.”

But Marx was no Luddite. In line with much of the optimism among big tech executives in California, Marx thought that automation could liberate humanity from the “necessary labor” of reproducing society. However, in the Grundrisse, he denies that privately owned machines seeking a profit will ever be able to liberate humans from work. Instead, machines will push down wages and create a vast reserve of unemployed workers.

In many parts of the Western world, layoffs prompted by technological change have already come to pass. Although unemployment is currently low in the United States, formerly skilled employees in car manufacturing and steel plants are now out of work or have found themselves working underpaid service jobs or hustling in the gig economy. Marx’s predictions about machinery have proved more accurate than those of thinkers such as the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, who anticipated in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930) that machines would exponentially reduce working time and increase leisure.

A bookend featuring a caricature of Marx is holds up three books at a stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011.

A bookend featuring a caricature of Marx is on display at a stand at the 63rd Frankfurt Book Fair on Oct. 13, 2011. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

According to Marx and those who followed him, to avoid becoming underpaid and overworked assistants to advanced machinery or living as helpless beneficiaries of the state, either under paltry welfare systems or more generous universal basic incomes, workers would need to release technology from the “value form”—a technique of measuring output and price through expended human labor time. For Marx, machines should be used to reduce necessary labor time, freeing humans to pursue higher forms of work. Importantly, Marx was not anti-work. However, he believed machines needed to be tools creatively controlled by humans, rather than systems designed to do the opposite.

ChatGPT presents a similar conundrum to Gen Z as spinning jennies did to weavers in 1720: how to harness a technology that will double output while not guaranteeing any rise in wages, leisure time, or new work opportunities. While ChatGPT does not appear in Harvey’s analysis—the chatbot was released late last year—Harvey does discuss large language model artificial intelligence, writing that he is skeptical that the technology will be happily adopted by corporations that may also be undercut. “[W]e should be clear that individual capitalists do not turn to AI because they want or desire it (indeed, a good many plainly fear it),” Harvey writes, “but because competition coerces them into using it whether they desire it or not.”

Still, Marx was hopeful that progress would allow humans to harness these tools for their own liberation. Paradoxically, this belief in technology’s liberatory potential, once the dogma of the rapidly industrializing Soviet Union, passed over in the 1990s to the libertarian techno-utopians, cypherpunks, and open-source software developers of Silicon Valley—though, after the dotcom crash of 2001-2, this free-for-all was consolidated into big tech corporations and closed proprietary software. For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the left was deeply skeptical of the potential of technology, pursuing forms of anarcho-primitivism and anti-corporate (and often anti-tech) alter-globalization during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests. The contemporary left in the United States is only now returning to a pro-tech stance, with, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal.

Rows of workers wearing white hats, uniforms, and masks work on an assembly line in a factory in Shenzhen, China.

Workers make pods for e-cigarettes on the production line of a factory in Shenzhen, China, on Sept. 24, 2019.KEVIN FRAYER/GETTY IMAGES

It was not only Silicon Valley that took up the mantel of technological acceleration as a form of liberation in the 1990s. In a very different way, China’s leadership understood that the Soviet Union’s technological stagnation had helped cause its downfall. Ironically, for China to maintain its communist system into the 21st century, limited capitalist innovation was unleashed to spur technological growth. Now, in 2023, Beijing nearly rivals Washington, as Moscow did in the 1940s and 1950s, as a research and development powerhouse.

The huge economic success of China since the reforms of leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s and 1980s—which allowed massive capitalist productive capacities under the supervision of a communist state structure—would have intrigued, and perhaps surprised, Marx. A man distinctly of his orientalist age, he writes in the Grundrisse of several ancient modes of production, including the “Asiatic,” which covered the far-east and sometimes Russia. In the Grundrisse, Marx makes the argument that ancient Asian societies combined agriculture and manufacturing in self-sustaining communes overseen by a unitary imperial ruler, with the whole of society being this monarch’s property. Marx saw Britain and Germany, not Russia or China, as potential hotspots for revolution, judging the latter as either developmental laggards or outside European capitalism entirely.

Indeed, Marx thought that the specific economic development emerging from Western European feudalism in the 18th and 19th centuries would likely go on to shape the rest of the world. He was both right and wrong about this. China has taken on much of this capitalist ethos, yet the continued tensions between Beijing and Washington prove that Chinese political development is also particular and different from the forms that came out of the British industrial revolution in the 1800s.

As Harvey notes, “The theory [Marx] comes up with is … contextualized by how capital was working in what Marx himself recognized to be his ‘little corner of the world.’ For most of his active intellectual life, he felt … that the study of British industrial capitalism was showing the rest of the world a picture of its own future …. But, toward the end of his life, he began to question whether that presumption was warranted …. Whether or not the image of our own future now lies in China is thus an interesting contemporary version of this question and one open to debate.”

Indeed, China’s breakneck urban development and incursion into wild spaces, which possibly helped unleash the COVID-19 virus, has, debatably, given us a glimpse of our future in relation to climate change. Meanwhile, China’s expansionist foreign policy toward Taiwan might expose the world to declining industrial and technological capacity as tensions (and sanctions) around chip manufacturing heat up. Harvey is right to point out that European forms of capitalism might not be the most globally and environmentally impactful economic models in the long run when compared to China’s unique combination of Marxism, developmentalism, and capitalism.

Gen Z might opt out of an identification with either Western or Chinese capitalism.

Much like the New Left Boomer generation of the May 1968 uprisings, hostile to both the Soviet Union and the United States, Gen Z might opt out of an identification with either Western or Chinese capitalism—choosing, instead, an internationalism expressed through technocratic solutions at the global level and populist anti-capitalist protest domestically. However, unlike their older millennial counterparts, they will not have strong states to appeal to with populist demands. Indeed, renewed great power conflict, fragile supply chains, and environmental breakdown will likely leave national governments, already depleted from their pursuit of austerity since 2008, distracted and at capacity. Marx’s Grundrisse is hardly likely to gain much of a following at the international and technocratic level, though there are some who see him as a pragmatic analyst rather than a prophet. However, the Grundrisse may well guide grassroots efforts in the United States to resist climate change and automation and to think about the challenges posed by China in our multipolar age.

Multipolarity was not something that Marx was particularly suited to analyze. The Communist Manifesto posited a defined end to history for all societies—one that the Soviet Union claimed to represent, before its own failure undermined that very claim. It was a deflationary moment for a movement that had, only a few decades before, covered half the globe. Writing a few months after the fall of the Soviet Union in the New York Times, the German-American historian Walter Laqueur proclaimed: “The Age of Communism has ended for the time being with a whimper; the bang, alas, may still come.” That bang has now arrived in our own deeply chaotic world, buffeted by new technologies and new empires, with little historical certainty to guide the way.