The Capitalist Road: The Riddle of the Market from Karl Marx to Ben Okri

Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture - Paul A. Cantor & Stephen Cox 2009

The Capitalist Road: The Riddle of the Market from Karl Marx to Ben Okri

Chandran Kukathas

It is capitalism which pitches every value into question, dissolves familiar life-forms, melts all that is solid into air or soap opera; but it cannot easily withstand the human anxiety, nostalgia and deracination which such perpetual revolution brings in its wake, and has need of something called culture, which it has just been busy undermining, to take care of it. It is in the logic of late capitalism to breed a more fragmentary, eclectic, demotic, cosmopolitan culture than anything dreamt of by Matthew Arnold—a culture which is then a living scandal to its own firmly Arnoldian premises. Postmodernism then simply inverts this contradiction, seeking to undo the metaphysical, mono-logical aspects of the system with something of its own heterogeneity. At its most callow, such theories complacently underwrite the commodity form, and do so in the name of an opposition to elitism. Nothing could in fact be more offensively elitist, more aloofly academicist, than this cynical celebration of the market-place, which for ordinary men and women has meant homelessness and unemployment rather than random libidinal intensities, and which globally speaking means war as well as cosmopolitan cuisine.

— Terry Eagleton1

Then, suddenly, with the sun burning itself into evening, with so many people around, everyone active, everything moving, I was overcome with a strange panic. I couldn't see a single familiar face in that jostling universe. And then just as suddenly, in flashes of lightness and dark, I began to see Mum everywhere. I saw her writhing in the basin of eels. I saw her amongst the turtles in the plastic buckets. I saw her among the amulets of the sellers of charms. I saw her all over the market, under strange eaves, in the wind that spread the woodsmoke and the rice-chaffs; I felt her everywhere, but I couldn't break the riddle of the market's labyrinths where one path opened into a thousand faces, all of them different, most of them hungry in different ways.

—Ben Okr i2

To many it would appear to be in bad taste to rehearse the arguments against Marxist economics. Outside of Ameri can Departments of English, and a few of History, Politics, and Sociology, it is hard to find anyone who takes such ideas seriously—even in the academy. For the analytical Marxists, Marxist economics is simply an embarrassment: something best left unmentioned out of regard for the great man. For most economists, Marx is no better than a minor Ricardian socialist, who left little of more than curiosity value. For the modern intellectual—or the general reader—Marxist economics is simply an irrelevance. The disintegration of socialist economic systems over the decades preceding their political demise is no longer a contested issue. The poverty of Marxist economics has been laid bare by the demonstration that it is an economics of poverty.

But in spite of the refutation of Marxism in practice (and Marxism, remember, claimed to be above all a practical philosophy), and its repudiation by all who had any experience of the consequences of its grip on material life, it continues to exercise a significant influence among the denizens of one corner of the academy: in literary criticism. To be sure, not all are unreconstructed Marxists (indeed, some have been deconstructed and then constructed anew); and not all are Marxists of the same stripe. Yet they remain Marxists nonetheless, committed to the use of the tools of Marxist analysis to interpret and illuminate texts and the processes of their production; convinced that capitalism is an epoch through which humankind cannot pass quickly enough to leave the realm of exploitation and oppression; and as insistent as ever that their inquiries are not merely efforts of understanding but contributions to the process of social transformation.

The purpose of this essay is to suggest that it is high time these commitments and convictions were reconsidered. The reason, ultimately, is that Marxism has never been able to solve “the riddle of the market's labyrinths.” Its approach in all forms of social inquiry has thus been bedeviled by basic misunderstandings, as have been its readings of literature. It is simply untrue that

the fundamental strength of Marxist thinking is its ability—indeed its determination—to make all the connections and to put back together all those separate fields—economics, say, and literature—that middle class thought had been so intent on keeping apart.3

To say this is not only to claim more for Marxism than it has ever been able to deliver but also to reveal a profound ignorance of other, more powerful, systems and traditions of thought. Worse than this, it is to embrace a form of thought which is more hostile to, and contemptuous of, human diversity than any other in the modern world. Less tolerant than any religion, it is a form of thought whose commitment to Lukács's category of “Totality” bespeaks not a desire (let alone a capacity) to embrace the diver sity of human life, but a conviction that that diversity is a manifestation of human unfreedom—and indeed, all that is wrong in the human condition.

The object of Marxism's scorn is, quite simply, civil society. But it is civil society, more than anything else, which it has never been able to understand. And for this reason it is incredible that literary critics have thought Marxism could provide any guidance in our efforts better to understand either those works of literature (canonical or otherwise) which offer us some insight into human society and the human condition, or those less ambitious works which are nonetheless products, and reflections, of civil society. Marxism is not the lens through which we should look at literature because it is not the lens through which we should look at the world. For it is, in the end, not the means of demystification its proponents claim, but simply another Western, bourgeois myth—though, tragically, one whose power has so gripped its political adherents that it has inspired a brutality unmatched in its scope even by the worst twentieth-century nationalisms.4

How then should we look at literature? Or, more precisely, what other systems of thought might offer us better guidance or insight? This essay argues that there is an alternative in the tradition against which Marx, and other socialists, railed. This is the tradition of classical liberalism, at whose heart may be found an economic theory that has been given expression most helpfully (at least for our purposes) by the Austrian School of economics. The first important—and decisive—criticisms of Marx's economics, as it happens, were offered by the Austrians, notably in Böhm-Bawerk's 1896 study: Karl Marx and the Close of His System. But aside from this, the Austrian School, more than any other, offers an understanding of the economic and social world that rivals Marx for its comprehensiveness, and supersedes it for its grasp of and insight into the human condition. The reason for this, ultimately, is that Marx's theory is disabled by a thoroughly implausible theory of history—an eschatological doctrine that leaves it incapable of understanding the economic world of capitalism, and, so, modernity. The Austrian view, by contrast, embodies an understanding of history that is at once more prosaic and yet surer in its grasp of the nature of social transformations. Most of all, it offers a sounder understanding of the nature of human freedom—a topic on which Marx's (and Marxism's) pronouncements are most seriously in error.

To see this we should first take a closer look at Marx's ideas, before turning to explore more carefully the Austrian alternative. Then I want to illustrate the power of the alternative by examining the philosophic vision offered by Ben Okri in his novel, The Famished Road. A Marxist reading of Okri can only lead us astray, because The Famished Road presents us not only with an understanding of human freedom which is profoundly true, but also with a view of the human condition which reveals both how much Marxism has misunderstood it, and how much Marxism itself is no more than one of the petty mythologies peddled in the marketplace.


Karl Marx was fundamentally a Rousseauean in social philosophy—one who reacted against the Philosophy of Right of Hegel to become a critic of civil society. Civil society (“b ü rgerliche Gessellshaft”) in Marx's conception is bourgeois society, market society, and it is dominated by relations of self-interest and economic calculation. In this society, he argued, the one thing that can never be found is human freedom. Indeed, this form of society is nothing if not destructive of that freedom. In turning all human relations into mere money relations it will never allow men to attain the autonomy in which real freedom consists. Civil society—capitalism—will sustain only heteronomy in a world of class conflict.

What one finds in such a society, Marx argued, is simply the satisfaction of particular, private interests—at the expense of other particular interests. But, unlike Hegel, Marx rejected any sort of solution that attempts to reconcile these interests. Hegel thought that the state would turn out to embody the general interest, reconciling the particular interests found in the family and civil society. For Marx, however, only the abolition of particularity is an acceptable solution. The state, he argued, turns out to be nothing more than the agent of particular interests masquerading as the embodiment of the general interest. Politics in such circumstances is merely a conflict among particular concerns. The political rights or freedoms sought by those who would reform the state cannot, in the end, bring freedom because “mere” political emancipation—the making of one's political attributes independent of the features of one's civil life (wealth, birth, religion)—is an illusory emancipation: “the state can free itself from a restriction without man being really free from this restriction.”5 Not only is political emancipation illusory, but it also brings about a fundamental division in human life:

Where the political state has attained its free develop ment, man—not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life—leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.6

Civil society is thus an expression of man's separation from his community and from his real self, an expression of his alien ation. The only bond that holds men together in civil society, Marx argued, “is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.”7 The political sphere is simply subordinated to private interest. Pointing out that the state is based on the contradiction between public and private life, on the contradiction between general interests and private interests, Marx maintained that politics cannot solve the social problem because it itself expresses that problem. Only a social revolution can bring about true change, overcoming the division of state and civil society and making politics entirely unnecessary.

As an advocate, Marx encouraged revolutionary activity, but as a “scientist” he averred that revolutionary transformation is inevitable. Capitalism is merely the latest and penultimate stage of human development, and, indeed, an epoch in which the conflicts that bedevil humanity will come to a head and demand resolution. Socialism will offer that resolution, ushering in the epoch of human freedom. Yet for all his criticisms of capitalism, Marx insisted not only on its importance as an era in world-historical terms but also on its productive power as an economic system. Indeed, it is the abundance that capitalism generates that will make socialism ultimately possible. Socialism will resolve not only the political contradictions of capitalism but also the problem of waste that characterizes the capitalist mode of production.

For all its productive power, capitalism for Marx is a crude, even if not entirely chaotic, system of coordination of productive activities. It is a system of partial coordination of separate decision makers; and the alienation of these decision makers from one another is the source of the discoordination that besets all markets. The plans of producers and consumers are always made in ignorance of one another. Competitors struggle against each other to bid prices up and down in an ever-continuing cycle of disappointed plans and windfall gains. And by its very nature, the exchange economy necessitates the appropriation of surplus value by private owners of capital. Intervention in this whole affair by legislation to eliminate unearned income will not work if the system is to be left intact. Private appropriation of profit is necessary for the capitalist mode of production, and fiddling with wages and prices will not alter this situation. Only the complete replacement of capitalism by a new mode of production in which men take conscious control of the productive process can bring about an improvement in productive capacity. In this new mode, the rivalry of producers and consumers will be replaced by the conscious direction of a central plan. Then, rather than being guided by prices in a competitive market, production will be guided by central planners, who will save the costs spent in circulation, including expenses for sales, advertising, and inventories. Capitalism, while undeniably efficient at enforcing economy on each individual business, creates in its anarchical system of competition the most flagrant waste—squandering labor-power while at the same time creating work that is entirely unnecessary.

For Marx, the direction of all social production according to a single, coordinated plan would eliminate the waste generated by capitalism. But more than this, such a form of production would be entirely inconsistent with the production of mere commodities. Socialism, for Marx, means above all the abolition of market relations. The expropriation of the expropriators would mean both the elimination of the anarchic and rivalrous aspects of private production and the reestablishment of the bond between the producers and their means of production.

With the once oppressed proletariat finally in control of production, the profit motive would be abolished, and economic activity would be subordinated to social needs. In such conditions, class antagonisms would disappear, and the institutions of political rule would become unnecessary. All that would be required is “the administration of things.”

As a result, not only will the split between the social and personal functions of individuals be healed, but so will the division between subject and object of histori cal process (transparence of social relations, control of associated individuals over their life processes, and so on), between man and his natural setting, between desires and duties, and between essence and existence.8

All this is consistent with what came to be called Marx's historical materialism—the theory that serves as the basis of his analysis of society. Marx presents the crucial formulation of the central hypothesis of historical materialism in a now famous passage in the preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic struc ture of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary their social existence determines their consciousness.9

If human beings are to become free, it is necessary not just to change the legal and political superstructure but also to trans form the foundations on which they rest. Relations of production are shaped more by the fundamental features of the economic base—for ideas and institutions do not have any life of their own except within the boundaries set by material life. (And ruling ideas reflect the ideas of the ruling class.) Freedom can come not through a revolution in consciousness but only through fundamental social transformation.

But how will social transformation bring about freedom? The key to Marx's answer to this question is in his assumption that freedom is not possible until conflicts of interest disappear. Conflict makes impossible the perfect unity of the personal and communal life of every individual. Until conflict is abolished, all cannot be free; and until all can be free, no one can be free. This conviction lies at the heart of Marx's work—and arguably, at the center of Marxist thinking more generally.10 The task he set himself in his philosophy was to explain that this is the nature of freedom, but his greater desire was to bring it about: not to explain the world, but to change it.



Though less well known than Marxism in the history of modern thought, the Austrian School is no less difficult to describe, and its ideas no easier to summarize. Like any living tradition, it is marked by differences—indeed, conflicts—of understanding and interpretation.11 And, again like many traditions, it has its adver saries; in the Austrian case, its intellectual battles have been waged on the very different fronts of neoclassical or mainstream economics on the one hand, and Marxist socialist economics on the other. For our purposes here, however, it may be best to begin a consideration of Austrian economics by comparing and contrasting it with the Marxist schools.

Such prominence as the Austrians have achieved is due largely to debates in the 1920s and 30s over the possibility of socialism as an economic system, and to the writings of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek in particular. Mises argued that socialism is strictly impossible because rational calculation is not possible in an economy without money. The variant of socialism which was the object of Mises's attack, Marxist socialism, does not recognize that economic value is subjective: “Valuation can only take place in terms of units, yet it is impossible that there should ever be a unit of subjective use-value for goods.”12 Judgments of value do not measure but establish grades or scales and, in the exchange economy, the “objective exchange-value” of commodities becomes the unit of economic calculation. In a monetary exchange economy money is the good used as the unit in terms of which exchange-values are defined. While the value of money may fluctuate (its value in relation to other goods constantly changes), monetary calculation “fulfils all the requirements of economic calculation” because it enables us to judge the relative values of all goods and so to make production plans involving processes stretching over long periods of time.13 Mises's criticism of social ism, in a nutshell, is that without a free market there can be no pricing mechanism and that, without that, given the defects of calculation in terms of labor rather than money, there can be no economic calculation—and no coordination of production.

To appreciate the depth of this insight it is important to understand how much it strikes at the core of Marx's economics and, so, his entire social theory. Marx was convinced that capitalist production, for all its power, could be improved upon by central planning. The elimination of class conflict and of the competitive process would, he thought, eradicate the wastefulness that is characteristic of the market economy. But Mises made clear (though, as it turned out, not clear enough to Marx's followers!) that the concept of central planning is “utopian” in Marx's own sense of the word: “demonstrably unworkable, as is revealed through an analysis of the way the existing capitalist economy works.”14 Advanced technological production is too complex to be subsumed under a conscious plan and has to be broken up into smaller plans. Yet without money, there can be no common denominator for the quantitative calculation necessary to coordinate these different plans. Marx assumed that the problems facing a central planning board are of the order of complexity of the problems facing Robinson Crusoe commanding an economy of one producer. Mises showed that this assumption does not hold up. Commodity production is now a complex and time-consuming process that integrates the whole world in a structure marked by a complex division of labor. It is beyond the control of any single planner or planning board.

The truth of the matter is that those elements Marx saw as the wasteful side effects of capitalism are simply vital parts of the processes of production. The very rivalry and competition that Marx found abhorrent are the engines of coordination that make production possible. One could no more improve the quality (or quantity) of production by ending rivalry than one could improve the quality of tennis by forbidding opposing players to compete to win. Competition is a form of cooperation that is vital to economic coordination.

This point was lost on those of Marx's followers who tried to confront Mises's arguments. To be sure, they conceded his point to the extent that they tried to develop models of “market socialism” that include mechanisms that mimic the price system. Oskar Lange and H.D. Dickinson, who were the most important figures in this movement, went so far as to suggest that under a market socialist model a Central Planning Board might even have a much wider knowledge of what is going on in the whole economic system than private producers, and might therefore reach equilibrium prices by a shorter series of successive trials than a competitive market does. But this approach represented, more than anything else, a failure to grasp Mises's insight into the function of competition. Possibly this was a result of the distinctiveness of the Austrian argument for competition compared with that of neoclassical economics. The neoclassical model of static competitive equilibrium places emphasis on viewing the market as a condition of harmony resulting from the pursuit of self-interest. There is, in principle, perfect coordination in long-run equilibrium. The Austrians, however, have consistently stressed that there is an element of conflict in competition. Some competitors win, as some buyers squeeze out other buyers and some producers eliminate other producers. Market socialists, working in the equilibrium models of neoclassical economics, thought they had solved the problem of socialism when all they ever attempted was, in fact, the solution to some theoretical questions in the neoclassical paradigm. In short, they tried to show how a central planning board could behave like a Walrasian auctioneer, surveying the marketplace, and altering prices as changes in the quantities of commodities supplied and demanded became known. They seem never to have been struck by the practical absurdity of the idea of such a board trying to operate in a complex economy with innumerable buyers and sellers.15

For the Austrians, however, the guidance that brings about economic coordination (and production) is supplied, ultimately, by competition in the market made up of producers disciplined by the need to make profits, and by buyers and sellers operating with a knowledge of prices. But there is, according to the Austrians, even more to the matter than this. The economic problem, they argue, is not a matter of simply working out or constructing a rational economic order using all relevant information about individual preferences and factors of production. Such information can never be made available. The economic problem, as Hayek in particular argued, is, rather,

determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently con tradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.16

Economic knowledge is not a given. It is not always easily identi fied, or even capable of being articulated by those who possess it. It is embodied in skills and practices as often as it is found in propositions. And it is sometimes fleeting—as is the case of knowledge of economic (or other) opportunities—opportunities that may last only moments. In such circumstances, the economic question is how to make the best use of our dispersed knowledge.

The answer the Austrians had always offered is “the competitive market.” But Hayek took the matter still further. Given the limited nature of our knowledge, what competition offers is not simply a coordination by the matching of known wants to available goods but knowledge itself. Competition is a “discovery procedure.” What is most significant about human society, Hayek argued, is not that individuals differ in their tastes or preferences but that they differ in their circumstances and knowledge. The problem posed by this condition is economic in the widest possible sense of the term, for the fundamental economic problem is not one of calculating how scarce resources are to be allocated to those who require or desire them. The more basic problem is to discover what is scarce or valuable in the first place. The price mechanism is one aid to the solution of this problem, since prices direct attention to the relative scarcity of goods. This has some obvious advantages, encouraging us to economize on scarce (expensive) resources. Moreover, the tendency of the market to disappoint the expectations of those who fail to produce goods sought by others eliminates practices that waste human and material resources. But most important of all, a condition in which individuals are free to produce and market their wares or purchase the creations of others enables individuals to discover values which no one may have realized existed before. Individuals do not always know what they want, or where their interests lie—any more than producers always know what consumers want. In a competitive market producers compete not just to satisfy known demands but also to persuade people of the existence of new and different values.

This point was made most powerfully by Hayek in his critique of John Kenneth Galbraith who, in 1962, revived the Marxist critique of wasteful capitalism in his book The Affluent Society. The price system, according to Galbraith, does not serve consumers' wants because consumers' desires are not their own but created—largely by advertising and sales techniques which seek to create wants that did not previously exist. The market process wastes scarce resources on producing goods for which people have no desire, and wastes even more persuading people to buy them. Hayek's response was to argue that the assertion that artificial wants are somehow less worthy is simply a non sequitur. Wants created by the process by which they are satisfied are no less important than other wants. Most of our wants and needs are of this sort, created by the production processes of civilization. If some are harmful, others are surely worthy, including artistic creations, whose supply creates their own demand, extending the scope of our activity, our feelings, our aesthetic understanding, and even our self-knowledge.17

Once again, the characteristically Austrian point is that it is out of the very conflict and rivalry characteristic of competition that things of value are produced. More than this, it is out of this very conflict that value itself becomes known to us. Such knowledge is not given to us, but is created by our own efforts, even though in the end the overall process of discovery is the product neither of our intention nor of our design.

Out of this outlook comes, then, a view of human history— and of human freedom—very different from that offered by Marx. For Marx, history is a story not only of class struggle, but also of social transformation brought about by changes in material conditions. The progressive movement from one epoch to another brings with it changes in legal and political institutions and the development of new forms of consciousness. But that movement of history is an ineluctable lurching from crisis to crisis until a final resolution is reached in the overcoming of the contradictions inherent in the penultimate stage of human history: the era of capitalism. This resolution is the point at which men cease to be the playthings of alien powers and take conscious control of their own collective destiny—thus achieving freedom.

The Austrian view dismisses entirely both the coherence and the worth of the notion of conscious collective control. While Marx thought there would come a stage in human history when man would acquire the capacity to control social processes, Austrians like Hayek concede no more than that, in the course of history, men may come again and again to believe that they can do so. They will, however, inevitably be disappointed; worse, Hayek suggests, this ambition “may well prove a hurdle which man will repeatedly reach, only to be thrown back into barbarism.”18 The limited powers of human reason make the goal of controlling society simply unattainable, but the consequences of the attempt could be nonetheless disastrous.

The Austrian view of history differs from Marx not only in this regard, however, but also because it denies the existence of any final stage toward which human development is moving. Indeed, it has little or no use for the idea of stages of history, or of historical progress. The human world, in Austrian social the ory, is populated by innumerable individuals who operate in myriad contexts, governed by different sets of rules, and motivated by different purposes. Their lives are shaped by different historical and geographical circumstances, as well as by different mores. They are at once creative experimenters and cautious conventionalists, largely ignorant of most of the things which affect them, but generally motivated by the desire to improve their lives—despite being, for the most part, ignorant of what would make for, or even count as, improvement.

The history of such a species is, to put it simply, a series of accidents. While there are elements of regularity, and developments that reveal the path-dependence of particular outcomes, the twists and turns make clear why the future is always so uncertain to individuals and communities. Things could just have turned out very differently. An invention, a war, a missed opportunity, a lucky discovery, or a legal interpretation could put a society on a different track.

What this outlook rejects in Marx even more importantly, however, is the assumption that it is material life that drives history and shapes human consciousness. This assumption, which has generated endless debate among Marxists about the nature of the economic base and its relation to the superstructure of society's institutions and ideas, makes no sense from an Austrian point of view. What we see in Marx's distinction is a dualism that serves no purpose except to distort or occlude our understanding of a phenomenon that is, above all, a single whole. Social life does not determine consciousness any more than consciousness determines social life: there is only one phenomenon. Economic conditions cannot be described without reference to the ideas that define them: laws, particular understandings of property, moral beliefs, political rights. The superstructure cannot be sensibly distinguished from the economic base in the way that Marx and (many of) his followers have thought. Even if the superstructure of ideas is defined more narrowly to include only those “political institutions, legal forms and moral or religious ideologies which most effectively sanction [society's] system of social relations,”19 Marx cannot be rescued. To the extent that ideas are closely tied to the system of production relations, they shape and define them and, so, are part and parcel of the economic base. Insofar as they are independent of that system, they can just as easily be critical of or hostile to that system—Marxist ideas for example. But in fact what we have is something much more like a world of diverse and conflicting ideas and practices, shifting into different patterns depending on all kinds of circumstances. Neither the ideas nor the material conditions are determining; for they are one and the same. Social existence and consciousness are simply aspects of each other, or, better, aspects of one whole.

In the Austrian view of history, freedom cannot be understood as something to be gained once the ways of the world have been transcended or overcome. The kind of transcendence Marx hoped for is simply illusory. Freedom is not to be found in the world to come, in some realm of unity without conflict. That world will never come, for conflict is an ineradicable feature of the human condition. Freedom has to be found in this world, in the interstices of human endeavors and human conflicts.


This insight supplies the theme of Ben Okri's 1991 Booker Prizewinning novel, in which a spirit child tells the story of his entry into the material world of human beings, and of his decision to forsake that other realm for life in the messy and difficult region that is the earth. Like all “abiku” or spirit children, Azaro (so named by his parents who were afraid to call him Lazarus) did not look forward to being born, for in their own world spirit children “knew no boundaries”:

There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigors of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the uni verse. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see. 20

Yet in spite of these misgivings Azaro is born—many times to many parents—and dies again and again, until, breaking his pact and outwitting his companions, he decides to stay, perhaps for no better reason than that he “wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become [his] mother.”21

Azaro is born to a couple in a town in Nigeria on the eve of independence: a father who strays in and out of work as a laborer, and a mother who earns even less selling what she can as a trader in the market. The world they inhabit is the world of the market, both literally and figuratively; but the time they spend in that world is only a moment in history, which is the road on which they find themselves: a road “without end, with too many signs, and no directions.”22

The road, which supplies the ruling metaphor of the book, is time; but it is time not as an abstraction, but as history, along which travel real people who journey on, build, and are eventu ally consumed by the road. “In the beginning,” the novel opens, “was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”23 That road, Azaro later discovers when he lies near death, is one which people have been building for two thousand years. “But they haven't gone far at all,” he observes to a spirit, who concedes that, yes, they have only built two feet of the road. But why are they building it, and working so hard? The spirit's answer brings us to the heart of Okri's story: “Because they had a most wonderful dream.”

They had been living for eternity as faces on the great tree. They got tired of eternity. They were the ones that the sun didn't melt into precious water. They became beings, people in masks. One day their prophet told them that there were worlds and worlds of people high up. The prophet spoke of a particular people. A great people who did not know their own greatness. The prophet called the world Heaven and said they should build a great road so that they could visit those people, and that those people could visit them. In this way they would complete one another and fulfill an important destiny in the universe.24

The road is nothing less than the Tower of Babel. And like the Tower, it can never be finished—for the moment it is finished the builders will perish.25 They will perish because “they will have nothing to do, nothing to dream for, and no need for a future. They will perish of completeness, of boredom. The road is their soul, the soul of their history.”26 Whenever it looks as if it might be finished, “landquakes happen, lightning strikes, invisible vol canoes erupt, rivers descend on them, hurricanes tear up their earth, the road goes mad and twists and destroys itself, or the people become distorted in spirit and start to turn the road into other things, or the workers go insane, the people start wars, revolts cripple everything and a thousand things distract them and wreck what they have built and a new generation comes along and begins again from the wreckage.”27

This view of the human condition presents it as an endless history whose meaning is not to be found in any goal or destination, however much that illusion of a final resolution—the quest for a Holy Grail—might motivate each individual. The truth of the matter, Okri suggests, is simply more prosaic: it is only in the striving that there is anything of value, for in time everything will be lost, and each generation will have to begin anew.

The book depicts life on one section of that road. The people on it, the community into which Azaro is born, have no idea that they are builders on a road they are destined never to finish because, like all people, they “have the great curse of forgetfulness” and “are deaf to the things they need to know most.”28 Azaro, however, sees everything as he explores the world of the living, and comes to understand something of it. What he comes to understand above all is the strange and contradictory nature of the freedom which is life in this dimension of existence—the dimension he reluctantly (or at least, hesitantly) entered.

The question that needs to be answered, however, is: what precisely is the nature of that freedom? Slowly, but surely, The Famished Road works toward an answer. But to grasp it, Okri has to show how Azaro comes to comprehend it.

The people who comprise the community into which Azaro is born do not enjoy the freedom of spirits: freedom without boundaries. Indeed, they live burdened by all the hardships that make for mundane existence. They live in and depend upon the marketplace, a realm of exchange which is indifferent to their existence, and which lies beyond their control, and into which come, from time to time like little plagues of disease, the interventions of politics: visitations by the thugs of the Party of the Rich, and by those of the equally brutal Party of the Poor. Some, like Madame Koto the bar-owner, become lucky and go on to fortune (though that too carries a price in the tribute that must be paid to the Party in control); others, like the creditors and landlords, find it harder, having to extract payments from clients as poor as they. Dad—Azaro's father—earns what he can as a beast of burden, lifting sacks in the marketplace, out of sight of Azaro, who never knows where he goes until one day he stumbles upon him, and discovers for the first time “one of the secret sources of [his] father's misery.”29

Mum, however, struggles in the heart of the market itself: a realm of confusion, a place of strange voices and “invisible hands”30 that leaves Azaro bewildered and blinded. In that place, that “labyrinth,” he is unable to locate his mother. Invisible hands push and pull him; and the voices which answer his questions cannot distinguish his mother from the market, which is all the same to them. If she is a trader, she is the market—one who takes their money, as well as their power, their dreams, their sleep, their children.31 Finally, when a bright wind suddenly makes the paths clearer, and leads Azaro “in a spiral through the riddle of the market to the centre,” he comes only to an empty well in which he sees the moon and realizes that there is nothing at the center. From here he comes to recognize the market's indifference to all that goes on within it, even to the injustices. For he sees a woman struggling there against the odds.

Further on, deeper into the night, I saw three men in dark glasses pushing over a woman's flimsy stall of provisions. They threw her things on the floor and she patiently picked them up again. She cleaned the soiled goods with her wrapper and put them back on the table. The men tipped over the table. The woman cried for help, cried out her innocence, but the marketplace shuffled on, went on with its chaos, its arguing, its shouting and disagreeing, and no single voice, unless it were louder than all the voices put together, could make the market listen.32

One of the reasons for her struggles in the marketplace is politics. “If you don't belong to our party you don't belong to this space in the market,” she is told by the men who tip her table over again.33 Her protestations that she has paid her dues and rented the space make no difference, and she is hassled until she is driven to violence and attacks her attackers with a machete. She is then asked to leave the market, along with her tormenters, by the market people, who cannot tolerate such disruptions. The woman Azaro does not recognize until all the commotion is over is, of course, his mother. In the market, everyone becomes something different, takes on other identities, becomes indistinguishable from the others, becomes a part of the market itself. But the market has no identity, no center; it has no preferences or feelings or sense of justice and injustice, even though within it all of those things are to be found.

What is most striking about all this is Okri's depiction of life in the market, which is also life on the great road. For in this great allegory nothing is alien. In the marketplace itself, everything— both good and bad—is to be found: from fresh fruits to rotting vegetables, roasted meat to stinking fish, “the feathers of wild birds and stuffed parrots, the wafting odors of roasted corn and fresh-dyed cloth, cow dung and sahelian perfume.” And “just as there were many smells, so there were many voices, loud and clashing voices which were indistinguishable from the unholy fecundity of objects.”34 In that fantastic confusion everything is sold— from the most basic necessities to the most improbable trinkets—patterned cloths, coral charms, and magic love mirrors. The commodities sold might (at least some of them) appear to be fetishes; but “commodity fetishism” in Marxist terms is not Okri's point. For in this world, the zany is no less real and vital than the object of sober desire.35

Even politics must be accepted, although in Okri's depiction of its workings there is nothing that ought to inspire affection for it. Set in the period of Nigeria's move to independence (c. 1960), the novel is anything but sanguine about the dark side of politics.36 Early in his time of travail, Dad discovers that side. Struggling all day like a beast to earn a modest living, he returns home to complain: “They have begun to spoil everything with politics.... Now they want to know who you will vote for before they let you carry their load.”37 And when the politicians finally come, they come in the form of the Party of the Rich, laden with promises, blaring out from their van's loudspeakers offers of electricity, schools, hospitals, and riches in the future, and free milk immediately. “On and on they went, crackling abundant promises on the air, launching future visions of extravagant prosperity, till they broke down the walls of our skepticism” and the “compound people abandoned their doubts and poured over to the van.”38 As it happens, Dad refuses the milk out of pride, and the milk turns out to be rotten, poisoning half the compound; but the “rotten milk of politics” is no sooner forgotten than the Party of the Poor descends upon the people, with a commitment never to poison the people high on its list of promises.

In Okri's account, the two parties are indistinguishable; but the people are caught up in the contest of promises, and before long are partisans of one side or the other. The landlord tells his tenants: “Anybody who wants to live in my house under this roof that I built with my own hands, should vote for my party.”39 Politics makes Dad stubborn: “What right does the landlord have to bully us?... We may be poor, but we are not slaves.”40 And it makes Mum fearful, and in particular afraid to go to the market, where party thugs become violent. But there is no escape from its irrationality, as Dad insists, nonetheless, that he will vote for the Party of the Poor—even though its thugs beat up traders in the marketplace, and even though it has done nothing for him. Nor is there escape from its corruption, as Madame Koto, in her pursuit of prosperity and progress, entangles her business interests with the fortunes of the Party of the Rich.

Yet for all this, politics is not condemned. For it is not, in Okri's account, an excrescence, or an epiphenomenon, or some kind of superstructural projection shaped by other more basic forces. While it may not be romanticized, it cannot be denied; for it is no less a part of the life of the road, and the life of the mar ket, than anything else. The key to understanding this is offered in a passage describing the party “thrown to celebrate Madame Koto's attainment of new powers, the installation of electricity, the consolidation of her party connections, and to widen the sphere of her influence in this and that realm.”41 At this time,

The most bizarre rumors circulated about what had been really happening at night when we slept, and during the day when we, as always, were unaware of the changes taking place in constellations of energies and alignments. New spaces were being created while all we saw were the mundane events of thugs and can vassing vans and the violence of political struggles. New spaces which we couldn't name, and couldn't imagine, but only hint at with unfinished gestures and dark uncompleted proverbs. The rumors invested everything with a higher significance. Fabulous noises floated on the air. Ground-nut sellers, corn-roasters, fortune-tellers, tyre-menders, beer-traders, all gathered outside the bar, looking in from a respectable distance, doing business, while the bar resounded with drinking noises and laughter and the occasional piercing ritual cries.42

The critical point here is that “new spaces” are being created all the time—spaces generally not comprehended by the living. Out of the energy of human efforts, unknown things emerge, and newness comes into the world. They come not simply as physical objects but, more importantly, as realignments—of thought, of attitude, of vision. In the end, there is no market, or economy, simpliciter. There is only what the Austrians would call a “catallaxy”: a realm of human interaction that does not exist separately from (and cannot be abstracted from) the processes of social life more generally. The catallaxy embraces the activity of human exchange in a structure that is shaped, not just by the demand for and supply of goods, but by the laws, by power, by human values. As these change, so do the spaces within which people operate change and re-form.

In this world, as Okri makes clear, all kinds of things may be found. Among them are oppression and exploitation, as the strong try to subjugate the weak, the powerful the defenseless, the rich the poor. None of this may be swept under the carpet. For one thing, there simply isn't enough carpet. But neither does it make much sense to round up the usual suspects: capitalism, colonialism, the West, or the ruling class. Nor is there any hope that injustice will one day be swept away: that may simply be the greatest illusion of all. It is the illusion to which Dad falls victim when he finally finds success as a boxer: the unvanquished “Black Tyger.” Success brings delusions of power; and Dad is convinced that he can change the world for the better—if only everyone would listen and follow his lead. “We can change the world!” he cries. “That is why the road is hungry,” he hollers. “We have no desire to change things.”43 Yet, for all their gullibil ity in the presence of real politicians, the people send Dad packing, and his dreams of ridding the world of injustice remain just dreams.

Dad was redreaming the world as he slept. He saw the scheme of things and didn't like it. He saw the world in which black people always suffered and he didn't like it. He saw a world in which human beings suf fered so needlessly from Antipodes to Equator, and he didn't like it either. He saw our people drowning in poverty, in famine, drought, in divisiveness and the blood of war. He saw our people always preyed upon by other powers, manipulated by the Western world, our history and achievements rigged out of existence. He saw the rich of our country, he saw the array of politicians, how corruptible they were, how blind to our future, how greedy they became, how deaf to the cries of the people, how stony their hearts were, how short-sighted their dreams of power. He saw the divisions in our society, the lack of unity, he saw the widening pit between those who have and those who don't, he saw it all very clearly.... He saw the wars in advance. He saw the economic boom in advance, saw its orgiastic squander, the suffering to follow, the exile in strange lands, the depleting of the people's will for transformation. He saw the emergence of tyrants who always seem to be born from the extremities of crisis. He saw their long rule and the chaos when they are overthrown. He argued in three great courts of the spirit world, calling for justice on the planet. He argued with fantastic passion and his case was sound but he was alone.44

Azaro sees all this because, as an abiku, he can follow Dad into his dreams. However, he can also see those things Dad can not. Dad did not see “the mighty multitudes all over the world in their lonely solidarities, pleading cases in the supreme courts of spirits, pleading for justice and balance and beauty in the world, for an end to famishment and vile wars, destruction and greed.”45 Dad is alone precisely because he does not see the others—the “multitudes of dream-pleaders, invading all the courts of the universe.” But he does not see them because he is also “struggling in the real hard world created by the limitations in the minds of human beings.”46

Okri's vision here is startlingly Austrian. The world is the product not of justice or of beneficent design, but of human limitations. Out of ignorance, and in the chaos of conflict, the world is built and rebuilt. And Okri's point is that this just has to be accepted for what it is. There is no progress in the sense of the word that saw Marx yearn for progress. If there is any progress, it is only in the sense that Hayek employs when he argues in The Constitution of Liberty that competition fosters progress. Hayek admits quite candidly that while the “cumulative growth of knowledge and power over nature” is the result of the “successful striving for what at each moment seems unattainable,” this will not ultimately make us any happier or better off. But that, he notes, just “does not matter.” What matters is the striving: “It is not the fruits of past success but the living in and for the future in which human intelligence proves itself. Progress is movement for movement's sake, for it is in the process of learning, and in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence.”47 The impossibility of progress in any larger sense is not, however, cause for despair, or at least, not for the worldly philosopher. The absence of a golden age, whether in the future or in the past, is not worth regretting, for it is in this world that we live, and to this world that we must attend. This does not mean that injustice does not matter (or that poverty is good, or that ignorance and superstition should be romanticized); it only means that we should not look upon those caught up in the world, or at the world itself, with the disdain of utopians.

Once this truth is grasped, it becomes possible to understand the real nature of freedom in this world. And it is this that The Famished Road reveals. Human liberty is not the liberty of the spirit world—liberty without boundaries. It is not the liberty that comes when conflicts are ended and differences disappear. Azaro sees this when he reflects on his friend Ade, another spirit child, who does not want to remain on the earth. Azaro, unlike Ade, comes to prefer life on earth, and the peculiar liberty that is possible there. “I was a spirit-child rebelling against the spirits, wanting to live the earth's life and contradictions. Ade wanted to leave, to become a spirit again, free in the captivity of freedom. I wanted the liberty of limitations, to have to find or create new roads from this one which is so hungry, this road of our refusal to be.”48 Azaro may have made his choice because this way was less difficult: “it may be easier to live with the earth's boundaries than to be free in infinity.”49 But he also made his choice because “these paradoxes of things, the eternal changes, the riddle of living while one is alive,” all supply the challenges people need. The absence of an end to the process supplies “the probability that no injustice lasts forever, no love ever dies, that no light is ever really extinguished, that no true road is ever complete, that no way is ever definitive, no truth ever final, and that there are never really any beginnings or endings.”50

Freedom comes not, as the Marxists (and others) have thought, with the attainment of unity with one's fellows, or with the achievement of the harmonious community, or with the elimination of oppression and exploitation. Freedom is to be had in spite of our failure to achieve these things. That is part of the reason why freedom is to be treasured. The freedom that matters, that is worth seeking, is the freedom that is found in a world of ineradicable conflict. The reason is simply that it is the only world we can possibly know.


If Okri is right, not only has Marx misunderstood the human condition, but also Marxists ever since have misunderstood history and capitalism even more completely. Marx, for all his errors, at least had the good sense to declare that he was not a Marxist. Modern Marxists, however, have not been aware of the difficulty of their position, since Marxism was the most successfully marketed intellectual commodity of the twentieth century. Franchises have been established around the globe, and almost everywhere it has found its market niche. In some cases it has succeeded through the power of salesmanship; in the Western academies it continues to thrive because of the power of the guilds that control entry into professions. In most nations that embraced it, the preferred technique was the compulsory free sample, injected like a drug into the veins of unwilling users, who have been trying desperately to wean themselves off it ever since. Where modern Marxists have held on to Marx's concepts, they have been led astray by the false dualism of the base-superstructure distinction. This is nowhere more evident than in the confusion that sees culture as something apart from (and, of course, undermined by) capitalism. There is a harsh irony in the accusation that capitalism has bred a “fragmentary, eclectic, demotic, cosmopolitan culture” when the Marxist promise is to offer a philosophy of (and, of course, for) modernity, and modernity is cosmopolitan by its very nature. The willingness of other Marxisms, both in theory and in practice, to accept the overwhelming and destruction of pre-capitalist societies in the name of the future and of the universal class, makes this particular objection sound even more hollow.

What needs to be pointed out more than anything else, perhaps, is how alien this philosophy of alienation is to anything vital in human experience. Its success has come because its mythology has been cast as one that offers us an insight—no, the deepest insight—into the human condition. But Okri's depiction of the political process suggests otherwise. In that process

The political parties waged their battles in the spirit spaces, beyond the realm of our earthly worries. They fought and hurled counter-mythologies at one another. Herbalists, sorcerers, wizards and witches took sides and as the trucks fought for votes in the streets they fought for supremacy in the world of spir its. They called on djinns and chimeras, succubi, incubi and apparitions; they enlisted the ghosts of old warriors and politicians and strategists; they hired expatriate spirits.51

Marxism is just one, extraordinarily well-marketed, counter-mythology. In West African literary circles, it is an expatriate spirit whose foreignness to African traditions has been repeatedly revealed by the likes of Wole Soyinka, only for the messengers to be denounced by those writers already hooked on this opiate of the intellectuals.52

What, in these circumstances, is to be done? If Okri is right, the answer is, very little. Far from Marxism being able to guide our understanding of the world, it will simply be consumed by it. It will, in time, be swallowed up by the famished road. The Marxist literary critics railing against capitalism, and viewing all art through the lens of the Marxist theory of oppression, will like wise be consumed by the works their tools are unable to open. There is little point in trying to change the thinking of the ruling elites, whether they be from the Party of the Rich or the Party of the Poor. Far better to bypass these critics altogether, and to look at the world through the eyes of the non-utopians.

After all, Marxists have for too long blundered along trying to change the world; the point, however, is to understand it.