It's always interesting teaching Marx. I think Marx was a good historian and a lousy political theorist. So I try and present him that way. The dialectic is interesting. The surplus value of labor is interesting. The base and superstructure is interesting.
I point out that the dialectic probably DID work, just not as Marx intended. In the dialectic, you have a thesis - or status quo - and that is challenged by the anti-thesis. The result of this struggle is synthesis or new thesis.
Marx posited that industrial capitalism would be challenged by the proletariat and replaced by a communist utopia. In fact, it seems pretty clear that capitalism was challenged by communist and anarchist intellectuals and was replaced by social democracy or Christian socialism or whatever you want to call it. Namely the welfare state and some regulation of the market.
Since we have spent the last three decades stripping away the welfare state and the regulation of markets, we have returned to the Gilded Age (see what I did there). The system no longer works for the benefit of all, it works for the benefit of a few. Hence, #OWS, and the line from my student's piece: "When people start spouting Marx, it is a good sign that the current system has failed."
The Gilded Age was painful, because industrialization is painful. It's dirty, dangerous and unfair. But in the end, you get an industrial economy that is productive and has a higher standard of living.
The New Gilded Age does not, from my vantage point stuck in the middle of it, proffer any long term benefits. What has the financialization of America's economy done to make America - as a whole - stronger?
Modest redistribution of wealth and certain state-provided benefits, like education, health care and pensions, can smooth out some of the rough spots in market capitalism. It can muzzle the beast "red in tooth and claw". It can lead to rising standards of living.
Coincidentally, one of the main stories at TPM this morning is the fact that Mitt Romney won't release his tax returns. This is because Mitt Romney is precisely the sort of plutocrat that our New Gilded Age policies have created. He pays a pittance of his real income in taxes because our tax code values wealth over work.
The system is clearly not working. Will we embrace evolution? Or be forced to confront revolution?