A HOLIDAY weekend gave the chance to look up from the daily political grind and think about some deeper trends at work in the 21st century. Among them is the total failure of Marxism since 2008 to provide any coherent answer to what is (I agree) one of the biggest crises capitalism has faced since it got into full gear about the turn of the 19th century. If Marxists can’t make hay with this now, when will they ever?

People early on noticed that big crises were part of the process as capitalism spread from the UK to Europe, America and nowadays to Asia. A bust followed every boom. Not till the 20th century did John Maynard Keynes offer persuasive ideas on how to deal with these defects in a system that seemed ever ready to consume itself.

A second great economist, Joseph Schumpeter, argued the crises were actually useful because of the ‘‘creative destruction’’ they wrought, clearing out obsolescence and opening the way to innovation. Yet meanwhile there had been such terrible sufferings among the industrial working class as to lead others to the conclusion that, by way of cure, nothing but the end of capitalism would do.

The first man to reach this conclusion had been Karl Marx, born 200 years ago last Saturday. He came from the German city of Trier in the verdant, vine-clad valley of the River Moselle, the son of rich, secularised Jews. He went to university in the 1840s, a decade when, much like in the 1960s, radicalism was all the rage among students. He got into it a bit too deep, was fingered by the police and forced to flee the country. After several years of wandering he settled in London, where he stayed for the rest of his life. To my mind it is significant that he arrived just at the end of what in his own time had already been dubbed the Hungry Forties, probably the biggest capitalist crisis of the century.

For instance, in Glasgow one in 10 of the population – 20,000 people – relied on public soup kitchens to keep body and soul together, while the many anxious official reports of the period show the situation was just as distressing all over the industrial regions of the UK.

So the young Marx would have seen the capitalist system, in its cradle, at its very worst. Though from 1850 things were about to improve, and to go on doing so until the First World War, he never seems to have got over this initial impression.

There are of course pundits, some writing for this newspaper, who still share that impression and claim we are living in a sort of European Somalia ripe for some revolution of our own. But they can only do so by exaggerating the poverty of Scotland, the 18th richest country in the world, where 96 per cent of the active workforce has a job and the distribution of income is pretty well spot on the EU average.

We do indeed also have poor people who live deprived and unstable lives, the sort of unfortunate individuals dubbed the ‘‘precariat’’ by the French Marxist analyst Pierre Bourdieu. But he separates them off from the traditional working class, those in secure industrial trades. Anyway, he points out, both groups together form today only a minority of the population.

There is no longer a simple split of bourgeoisie and proletariat, rather a much more complex class structure. Many ordinary citizens take part in capitalism through their pension pots and their insurance policies invested on the stock market. If they are homeowners, as nearly 60 per cent of Scots now are, they can use the value of their property as collateral for setting up a small business. The social contrasts which looked so stark to Marx have become blurred.

In this era of bloated bonuses it may be hard to argue that much of the improvement has come from concessions by capitalists, but I’ll have a go.

On the practical side of the evolving economic system, a huge contribution came from Henry Ford, the first mass producer of cars, who gave us the more advanced Fordist version of capitalism. Since mass production also required mass purchases, he paid good wages to his employees in Detroit – at $5 a day, many found their income doubled when they came to work for him. The aim was to make them rich enough to buy the cars for themselves, so turning what had been a toy for the wealthy into an ordinary, but liberating, accessory of everyday life. Other capitalists followed Ford, and soon the workers were not so much exploited as consuming.

Then, under the kind of economics Keynes framed for the UK to win the Second World War, government took to regulating capitalism in a way that avoided its worst excesses of the past. His permanent monument is the welfare state, created first in the UK and then in most European countries after 1945. As a result, we have free healthcare, universal education, old-age pensions, social security, minimum wage. None of this had been there in the 19th century, yet none of it needed a revolution. On the contrary, government, capital and labour co-operated as never before. Workers got a greater say, partly due to unionisation, partly to more enlightened management. In post-war companies, the Victorian type of boss was dead.

In terms of theory, all this was to subvert one of Marx’s central principles. He had argued that those who control the economic base in the modern world control its political and social superstructure. This is why proletarians suffer from ‘‘false consciousness’’, an inability to identify where their true interests lie, which is to say, in opposition to the capitalists. So workers acquiesce in the institutions of bourgeois society.

We might still argue whether this had been true of an industrial society, but I think it clear Marx’s theory is wholly untrue of a digital society. Because in the modern age capitalists control very little of popular consciousness. On the contrary, every man and woman is free to go online and give the world the benefit of their personal opinions, to interact with one another, to keep tabs on government or to castigate economic misbehaviour, quite apart from contributing to a counter-culture in literature, music and lifestyle in general.

And in the UK there are four million self-employed people (I’m one of them) who directly manage the terms and conditions of their working lives. So it seems ludicrous to argue that the superstructure is dominated by the capitalist bourgeoisie and is used to create false consciousness.

We have instead, more and more widely, a post-modern reality where free individuals correctly see class as irrelevant. They do not feel exploited and are happy to identify themselves, at least partly, in the products they buy. The fruits of a successful capitalist system do not stop these consumers developing themselves in any other direction, material or intellectual, that they want.

Scotland is the last modern society where a large part of the political class speaks seriously of socialism. But these people are reluctant to define what they mean by the term, which appears to have more to do with baby boxes than with steelworks (the main focus only a generation ago). It is all just touchy-feely rather than dialectically materialist. I would go so far as to say it is the government of Scotland that suffers from a false consciousness of the nation, and we see the political consequences being worked out every day.