Review: “How Karl Marx Can Save American Capitalism”

Dworkin, Ronald W. How Karl Marx Can Save American Capitalism.

Reviewed by Yixin Sun

September 13, 2015

A new superstructure has been constructed within American society today, a superstructure of crony capitalism that has run rampant throughout the country, besmirching the good name of true free market capitalism. This serves as the epidemic central to Ronald W. Dworkin’s book, How Karl Marx Can Save American Capitalism, and as the title suggests, Dworkin finds salvation for the current economic system in the unlikely writings of Karl Marx. A professor of political philosophy at George Washington University and senior fellow at Hudson Institute, Dworkin offers a compelling hook and an elucidating read into Marxist theory, one that is often misunderstood by the general public.

Dworkin opens the book with a scene as provocative as the title. He introduces Mindy, a college student taking part in Occupy Wall Street and quickly advances into a juxtaposition of Mindy’s concerns with those of the Tea Party. While the two movements seem hopeless opposed, that is just a manifestation of an ever widening gap between the two parties. In ideology, both movements actually agree that fundamental issues with America today are “a lousy economy, a lack of good jobs, and the government colluding with business” (2). From here, Dworkin purports that he wants to focus on the psychology behind how American capitalism devolved into crony capitalism, not the economics of it, and Marx offers the perfect antidote to the problem.

In the rest of the book, he offers an analysis of Marx free from idol/devil characterizations that political realms have indoctrinated him into. Every chapter opens with the construction of a modern day persona who has been beaten down by crony capitalism. The stories of these personas are then interwoven with Marx’s life and ideological shifts, tackling issues of mass loneliness, dysfunctional families, commodity fetishes, and boredom with work, offering an interpretation of Marx based in the modern material world.

Dworkin’s strengths lie in his candid description of the political and economic landscape today, one based on an obsession with consumption, a senselessly divergent partisan system and false sense of democracy. He makes the credible argument that it was not capitalism that Marxism was against, but the inevitability of the commoditization of labor that would shift capitalism to crony capitalism. Capitalism achieves this by promulgating the importance of ownership and property, one that creates mass loneliness and a distorted sense of individuality. This sense of individuality and obsession with possession ironically traps people in crony capitalism, for in reality, crony capitalism is built upon an interdependence that stems from division of labor and rampant consumerism.

While Dworkin does manage to clarify Marx’s writings and intentions, he fails to offer reinterpretation. He bases much of his novel arguments about Marx on a delineation between early Marx and late Marx, a murky delineation at best. Take for example the personas that kicked off each chapter; they serve to augment the fact that Marx’s early works focused on human psychology and the individual, not just on grand economic theories that dominated much of his later works. These personas ended up being wash-down metaphors, lacking neither the pathos to speak to the reader on an emotional basis nor the credibility to challenge readers on an intellectual level. More importantly than the depth of these personas is the fact that they are based on the same old ideas that made Marx famous: alienation and commoditization of labor.

In the end, this book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. The book is pertinent in its interpretations of American through Marxist writings, but falls flat in going any deeper than that. Especially because the first chapter ends with a promise to give solutions to crony capitalism, the book fails to live up to such high expectations, offering instead grand calls of psychological shifts in American identity with no tangible solutions going forward. While the title is quite eye-catching, a more accurate title would be How Karl Marx Can Explain American Capitalism.

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