It doesn’t seem that long ago that John Cassidy (a former Murdoch empire business editor) penned an essay from the New Yorker predicting that Marx the thinker, the analyst of capitalism, would come into vogue once more. In fact it was nearly 16 years ago, before Monica Lewinsky, before 9/11, before the Iraq and Afghan wars—two large market crashes ago. When I first read it, it struck a tiny chord—yes, he may be right—and if I reread it, (which I will when my New Yorker subscription kicks in) I suspect it will resonate a bit more.
Linked to Marx’s appeal as an analyst of capitalism is the fate of societies which ruled in his name—that is, the largely failed and now defunct communist world. As I recall, Cassidy separates Marx from those failures, though not completely successfully. There is, of course, a related nostalgia for the USSR in contemporary Russia, and even for Stalin. It could be rather obviously understood as a longing for order and a fondness for Soviet great power status. But I wonder if there aren’t more subtle sentiments involved in such stirrings as well.
Over the weekend I saw “Barbara” the Christan Petzold film about an East German dissident physician in her thirties who, for unspecified political reasons, is exiled from Berlin to a provincial hospital. She has a well-off boyfriend in the West, and is plotting her escape. The tension in the film revolves around her growth of a sense of duty and attachment to her patients, despite continuous surveillance and harassment from the Stasi, and the quite realistic prospect of much easier, safer, materially richer life on the other side of the wall.
It was a cliché during the communist era that dissident writing counted for more—that words had more meaning when writing them, or even reading them, could lead one to prison. In the Soviet sixties, dissident manuscripts were often copied by typewriter and circulated—how could they not mean more, relative to what is available in our current information age of gluttony?
In any case, Dr. Barbara rides her bicycle and takes the bus around her East German provincial town, grows close to a young physician who, among other virtues, has thoroughly internalized the Hippocratic oath. “Do you treat people even if they are assholes,” Barbara asks him, after discovering him making house calls to nurse the wife of a Stasi agent in the final stages of terminal cancer. “Yes, if they are sick.”
The whole movie takes place in an atmosphere of constraint: East Germans are not free, not in their movements, in their employment, in their possibilities, not in their pleasures. But the constraints which bind somehow liberate as well. Each little flower of freedom breaks through so that it can cherished that much more deeply. To what extent is the totalitarian society less free than one in which one can do absolutely anything, subject only to the all-powerful God of the Market? I’m not certain of the answer, but a movie like “Barbara” raises the question, and I wouldn’t be surprised if an ever growing number of Germans, and not only them, begin to find the question increasingly pertinent.