Marx was very struck by his visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851 - the show meant to be a celebration of the progressive and civilising effects of Victorian capitalism on the world. But his views on capitalism sometimes surprise first time readers - the humanist liberal in him morns the degradation of the human spirit resulting from the reduction of all relations to the cash nexus and the alienation of people from their own labour. But the historian in him doesn't flinch from acknowledging, in relative terms, the progressive role of capitalism in developing society.
Of course in his day capitalism was quite young and was still playing the role of dragging society out of the last vestiges of the middle ages. But nowadays capitalism is sickly and creaking. And if Marx visited an industry trade show at the Birmingham NEC - as I did this week - I don't think there would be anything ambivalent about his reaction - there certainly wasn't about mine:
Forget about faith in a bold progressive future and civilising forces - what I saw amongst the stands, the seminars and most of all the 'netwoking areas' was a display of sad little men and their tedious little worlds. I say sad - but actually false joviality is more accurate, and I say little - but bloated and red-faced would be more appropriate; they are however invariably men. And so much waste - if not of talent then certainly of energy - in getting over-excited about the progress in whatever esoteric gadgetry they are responsible for . But most of all in the snatches of overheard conversations - endless conspiring and gossiping about the labyrinthine internal politics and jealousies of their companies - like a strange cross of plotting Renaissance courtiers and bitching adolescent schoolgirls.
And somehow I seem to have found myself stranded in this world ...