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Was Marx Right?

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not claim only that capitalist development engenders its own contradictions, but also that those contradictions could be overcome only through the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” It is up to governments to carry out – and soon – the reforms needed to prove Marx and Engels wrong.

SANTIAGO – In Santiago, Chile, a massive graffito by the exit ramp of a brand-new, privately-built urban freeway reads: “Marx was right!” Indeed, capitalist development begets its own contradictions, as the scribbling itself attests.

Recent months have been the spring – and winter – of Chile’s discontent: peaceful marches and protests, but also plenty of looting and violence. Just as in Hong Kong and Iran, Colombia and Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru, Iraq and Lebanon, Sudan and Zimbabwe. And, despite these countries’ diversity, and that of the local incidents that triggered the unrest, pundits and media have settled into a comfortable narrative: “2019 was a year of global unrest, spurred by anger at rising inequality – and 2020 is likely to be worse” the commentary website The Conversation confidently asserts. The Guardian adds: “Not all the protests are driven by economic complaints, but widening gulfs between the haves and have-nots are radicalising many young people in particular.” Even the staid Financial Times concurs: “Inequality in ‘stable’ Chile ignites the fires of unrest.”

Yet many of these countries have long been unequal. And economic conditions are nowhere as dire as they were a decade ago, during the global financial crisis. So why are people taking to the streets now? The puzzle deepens if one notes that in Latin America inequality has been dropping fast, during precisely the same years it rose in the United States and the United Kingdom. According to the World Bank, between 2007 and 2017 the Gini coefficient (an index of income distribution, where zero represents perfect equality and 100 absolute inequality) fell in every Latin American country now erupting in protests – including by a massive eight points or more in Bolivia and Ecuador.