For anyone familiar with Karl Marx's profligate but cash-strapped life in Victorian London, starring in a BBC documentary series called The Masters of Money is enough to tickle your sense of irony. But as far as understanding the flow and power of money goes, Marx's opus remains unsurpassed nearly 130 years after his death.
While the other two programmes in Stephanie Flanders' series, on Keynes and Hayek respectively, were great primers to both those thinkers, it was always going to be Marx who would generate the greatest controversy and cause the hard-of-thinking to, if you can forgive the pun, see red.
As you would expect, a great deal of Monday night's programme was given over to explaining the basics with conservatives, Keynes-fans and leftists chipping in with their two penneth worth. So the programme early on establishes (with the assistance of Lego) how capital is compelled to drive down the wages of its employees to reap a maximum return, whereas workers themselves are equally compelled to resist and secure an ever greater slice of the pie.
This tension (Flanders' narrative skirts around the term 'class struggle') can play out in two ways. Workers can successfully prosecute their wage claims, which ups the cost of production and forces out of business those capitalists who cannot keep pace absorb their demands. Or it could tilt too far in the capitalists' favour, meaning workers as a collective can no longer buy back the fruits of their labour and the economic system as a whole plunges into crisis.
Where the last 30 or so years are concerned, the economic direction of travel has been a journey down the latter route. Real wages in the UK stuttered and then flatlined since around the turn of the last decade. In the USA it has been even more pronounced as the average pay packet has not grown in real terms since the mid-70s. However, productivity in America and in Britain has continued to increase, but has become disengaged from wages as a result of real world processes. Such as the declining clout of trade unions, employment legislation, the move from 'collectivist' to individuated forms of morality, technological change, and the acceleration of globalisation. All of these are symptomatic of what the Regulation School of writers on political economy argue is the move from one 'regime of accumulation' to another.
This, for Flanders, provides the backcloth for explaining the 2008 stock market crashes and subsequent recession and stagnation (see here for an elaboration of this argument).
Naturally, not all are convinced. Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation suggests that indebtedness was a feature before the crisis hit, and that the shock to the system intensified this problem and made suffering all the more acute. It was not, however, the primary dynamic in play (if not, then what was?) Madsen Pririe of the Adam Smith Institute suggests governments and central banks are to blame for flooding the financial markets in the years leading up to 2008 with cheap money for credit, mainly because politicians did not want to have to face the political effects of a sharp downturn. Personally, I cannot see how this argument renders the Marxian diagnosis null and void - rather, it underlines it.
The programme reaches the point where the utility of Marx for professional economics ends. There has always been a tendency in Marxist and Marxisant thought that has tried to prise Marx the analyst away from Marx the revolutionary, such as the 'Legal Marxism' movement of pre-revolutionary Russia, or in more recent time some adherents of the 'Analytical Marxism' school. And this impulse is on show here too. As former IMF chief economist Raghuram Rajan notes, Marx is good for framing the terms of analysing capitalism, but does not have the "appropriate solutions".
What would be an appropriate solution? Flanders says that Marx's response is to get rid of capitalism. But replace it with what exactly? As she notes, it seems we are all compromised by the various stakes we have in the system as is, and that might be enough to see off any impulse to widespread insurrection. Not only that though, what alternative to capitalism exists? Marx did not specify what would come after except in the most general of terms. Where Peter Hitchens is concerned, asking if there is another way of organising society is akin to wondering whether there is an alternative to weather. For John Micklethwait of The Economist all that exists are different forms of capitalism, some more benign than others. For former Marxism Today supremo Martin Jacques no systematic alternative currently exists, but that will not always be the case. And for celebrity academic Slavoj Žižek there is no blueprint, it is up to us to find a new way.
The framing of this latter question is problematic. Flanders tells us throughout the programme that capitalism contains the seeds of its own collapse. The assumption is that capitalism decays irredeemably and a new way of organising human society wins out, that one stops and another starts. But that is not the case at all and is not how social change works. She notes earlier on that capitalist solutions to a crisis contain the seeds of further crises, such as the decline in real wages in the US staved off an immediate crisis of underconsumption thanks to the provision of cheap credit, in turn fuelled by the large profits accrued through productivity gains.
Likewise, as Marx argued in The Manifesto against those earlier socialists who attempted to foist social engineering blueprints onto the nascent workers' movement, socialism is something that grows within capitalist societies. The gravedigger of capitalism is more than just the wage-earning workers and their labour movements. It also encompasses the development of cooperative businesses, welfare states, state-provided health services, state-led economic policy, and the opening up of ever greater areas of society to public scrutiny, democracy, and accountability. All these and more rest on principles that anticipate a society beyond capitalism and, crucially, are absolutely crucial for the stable operation of advanced capitalist economies. We don't need to fashion something new out of the muck of ages when parts of it emerged many decades ago.
Obviously, a lot of nuance has been lost in this one hour episode and I imagine the same was true of Flanders' treatment of Keynes and Hayek. Nevertheless 1.2M apparently tuned in, indicating something of a hunger for ideas that can make sense of the mess we're in. If you are looking for a way in to the often abstruse debates around economics, you could do much worse than catching The Masters of Money while it's still on BBC iPlayer.