Remark on the contemporary relevance of Marxism


If we were talking about the sum of all things taken indiscriminately, then one would be a fool to deny significant novelty.

Marxism is not intended to address this sum, but the “form of social activity” (or later, “mode of production”), the functional shape assumed by human relationships in their collective practices. The core of such relationships is defined by those practices that must be undertaken for individuals to persist, day to day and generation to generation, which unify through common constraints and conditions all other practical endeavors, however marginal.

The relations that people stand in by virtue of these core practices, the “relations of production”, thus imbue human life with a fundamental definition, a form that is relatively autonomous of the actual practical undertakings that, as a content, develop within it. At certain points, the form must be transformed due to the development of its content.

The sort of novelty Marx was concerned with, the “conjuncture” of a degenerating and an emerging form of social activity, reached its peak intensity by 1919, if not earlier. Since then, the novelty was lost, the emergent was swallowed up in the degenerating conditions from which it struggled to extricate itself, and in the process, the degeneration has entailed the loss of significant novelties that had accrued along the way (e.g. the labor movement, and everything connected to it).

The dearth of novelty regarding this form is made evident by the fact that now more than ever, the immense majority of people are faced with circumstances in which they are expected to provide for their individual needs through wage labor, and in which wage labor is ever more unnecessary and hence unavailable. No technological innovation will change this situation, which would require the conscious effort on the part of that majority to institute a new mediation of production.

The situation we have now has less new about it, as regards the form of social activity, than the moment in which Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky lived. They are worth engaging not because they speak to the novelty of the present, but because they reveal the banality of these supposed novelties when seen through the eagle-eye of history, and thus the magnitude of the conjuncture we find ourselves in – not the emergence of something new, but the recrudescence of the old and dark.

Against Accelerationism – For Marxism


To the extent that left accelerationists draw upon Marx, they are reflecting Marx’s recognition of the positive historical role capitalism can and must play, specifically in its capacity to develop the forces of production, increasing intensively and extensively the productivity of human activity.

Yet insofar as they reject the dialectic, they lose Marx’s crucial *political* insight. This developmental dynamic is intimately tied to the struggle of the working class to increase value of its labor power, and thus to diminish the need to work. Yet technology is employed not to emancipate the worker from the need to work, but from the opportunity to do so, and thus to emancipate the capitalist from the worker. It is employed in order to drive down the value of labor power, precisely to the point at which their labor-power becomes cheaper than “labor-saving” alternatives.

In other words, the development of the productive forces comes into conflict with the existing relations of production. Wage workers, displaced by machinery, are proletarianized, deprived of access to the means of subsistence they collectively produce.

It was precisely this tendency that Marx saw “accelerating” with the completion of the bourgeois revolutions. Yet he did not advocate it simply because it led to technological advancement, but because it forced the proletariat to organize itself to mediate the deprivation they faced. As the population threatened with and afflicted by proletarianization would grow in proportion to industry, the organizations of the proletariat would be forced to express the common interests of the “immense majority” of the population “without distinction of sex or race”, and to face the possibility, and the need, of taking political power. These interests would coincide in the abolition of private property in the means of production, which would be appropriated by the proletarian dictatorship and applied for the common benefit of all.

In other words, the acceleration of the development of productive forces (or “technology”) under capitalism creates a potential for emancipation that manifests negatively – freedom from any means of production of their own – as a problem that can only be solved politically.

“Acceleration” is ambivalent; it is regressive in that it is the mechanism by which the conditions of the working class are forced downwards, but progressive to the extent that this is mediated by political radicalization. The latter can be headed off by compromises that divide the proletariat in different ways (between nations, or within nations on the basis of race, gender, nationality), but in the end dependence on the bourgeoisie for concessions will undermine the impetus for independent proletarian organizations, which erode, in turn undermining the bourgeoisie’s impetus to keep those concessions in place. And so those elements of the working class suspended in the middle strata fall back into the proletariat (e.g. “neoliberalism”).

To the extent that the accelerationists are calling for reforms (most notably, universal basic income) that would subsidize the proletarian condition, they would undermine the very source of the progressive dynamic that Marx sought to “accelerate” – not the advancement of technology, but the advancement of the organizational and political development of the working class. Who, after all, would pass such a reform? What political agency has, or could have, the motive and the capacity to do so? In the context of capitalist society, such a reform would only be a measure of political warfare – not against the working people, but against the working class as self-consciously organized.

What’s Left? What’s Right? Fascism, Austerity, and the Working Class


A new orthodoxy is consolidating on the left, which sees the complicity between the “1%” and the far right, as symbolized by the likes of the Koch Brothers, as the basis of a resurgent fascism. On this view, the “oligarchical” degeneration of liberal society, as evinced by the fact that, as Senator Bernie Sanders pointed out, “In the last election, 63% of Americans didn’t vote, including 80% of low-income workers”, is coupled with the troubling fact that “billionaires spent hundreds of millions to elect extreme right-wing candidates.” Yet is this, as some have claimed, the “first stage of fascism”?

Fascism arose out of the failure of socialist revolution, not the degeneration of liberalism into oligarchy. The latter certainly preceded such revolutions, but was by no means sufficient to provoke them – there were attempted revolutions in Italy, Germany and Spain, but not in France, Britain, or the US, for example.

So why should fascism be the primary concern? Isn’t what we already have a serious problem? If anything, raising the threat of fascism seems like a way of suggesting the need for cooperation between socialists and “progressive” liberals against the far right; in other words, the Stalinist popular front.

If anything, the amount of energy and money that mainstream republicans and their capitalist supporters spend wooing the radical right, and the extent of the political concessions they’re willing to make to this constituency, bespeaks the tenuousness of the alliance between them, which is by no means involves obvious common interests. Indeed, for all those “hundreds of millions”, only 37% of the electorate turned out, with only a fraction of that supporting far-right candidates, and a smaller fraction doing so for explicitly ideological reasons, rather than out of respect of the ideological compromises represented by the Republican party.

Historically, the far right has been anti-capitalist, not pro-capitalist; yet because there is no longer a political vehicle for traditional anti-capitalist conservatism, they have to concede the point or risk complete marginalization. Fascism represented a mass far-right movement that could only become a “mass movement” by making such concessions; but the Republican party is the inverse, they are a pro-capitalist party that, beginning with the Dixiecrat defection following Truman’s support of Civil Rights in 1948 and culminating in Goldwater, has conceded more and more to the far right so as to transform them into a domesticated constituency, as opposed to forcing them into a position of political isolation in which building a mass politics would be necessary.

The Republican Party is now realizing that the marginalization (and subsequent radicalization) of the far right is happening anyway just in the general drift of public opinion which is why it is pandering to them more and more. The real problem is not the far right, but the moderate base of the Republican Party, which has taken some of the far right ideas their party has endorsed as a means of justifying their own discontents with capitalism, thus making them impervious to suggestibility by the left, in that the left’s politics today amounts to little more than an abstract negation of the politics of the far right. Thus, working class people who support the Republicans for largely “fiscal” rather than “social” or “cultural” reasons find themselves *having* to do so, because the left doesn’t seem to appreciate why such “fiscal” concerns might be obscure expressions of working class interests that can be broken from the opportunistic ornamentation of the far right.

Recall what Marx said in arguing against protectionism and for free trade: “The preservation, the conservation of the present state of affairs is accordingly the best result the protectionists can achieve in the most favourable circumstances. Good, but the problem for the working class is not to preserve the present state of affairs, but to transform it into its opposite.”

The same might be said against the propping up of the welfare state against austerity measures, hard a pill as it might be to swallow. The welfare state was a means of undermining working class struggle by appropriating just enough of the politics of the socialist movement to win the support of workers away from their own autonomous political and social organizations – which were subsequently either attacked, or became degenerated through complicity and bureaucratic ossification.

Marx, by contrast, argued against protectionism and for free trade. Despite the fact that this amounts to the “freedom of capital to crush the worker”, he also says,

“The most favorable condition for the workingman is the growth of capital. This must be admitted: when capital remains stationary, commerce and manufacture are not merely stationary but decline, and in this case the workman is the first victim. He goes to the wall before the capitalist. And in the case of the growth of capital, under the circumstances, which, as we have said, are the best for the workingman, what will be his lot? He will go to the wall just the same…

“The accumulation of productive capital forces the industrial capitalist to work with constantly increasing means of production, ruins the small manufacturer, and drives him into the proletariat. Then, the rate of interest falling in proportion as capital accumulates, the little rentiers and retired tradespeople, who can no longer live upon their small incomes, will be forced to look out for some business again and ultimately to swell the number of proletarians. Finally, the more productive capital grows, the more it is compelled to produce for a market whose requirements it does not know,—the more supply tries to force demand, and consequently crises increase in frequency and in intensity. But every crisis in turn hastens the concentration of capital, adds to the proletariat. Thus, as productive capital grows, Competition among the workers grows too, and grows in a far greater proportion. The reward of labor is less for all, and the burden of labor is increased for some at least.”

Yet Marx by no means recoiled from this outcome, as any reader of the Manifesto will know. He criticized free trade, not from the perspective of conservative resistance, but on the basis of its positive overcoming:

“But, generally speaking, the Protective system in these days is conservative, while the Free Trade system works destructively. It breaks up old nationalities and carries antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to the uttermost point. In a word, the Free Trade system hastens the Social Revolution. In this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, I am in favor of Free Trade.”

Similarly, we could say that austerity, in driving down the conditions of working class people, “carries the antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to its uttermost point”, whereas support for the welfare state seeks to mitigate this antagonism. The welfare state was never anything but a means of suppressing this antagonism, mediating it without removing it.

Yet who on the left today would say “Austerity hastens the Social Revolution”, and thus, “in this revolutionary sense”, that they are “in favor of austerity”?

Contra the banner in the image above, mightn’t we say, “Austerity breeds Communism”?

Note: The Marx references come from materials no longer available on, but can be found in vol. 6 of the MECW, which you can find here:

Fetishizing the Proletariat? Marx and the essence of class

Ukrainian photographer Vladimir Shipotilnikov explores the fate of Soviet mosaics in the contemporary city, which are slowly disappearing behind graffiti and advertising banners. … “These works narrate the story of the great expectations of the Soviet era. Such expectations are no longer of concern to people today,” writes Shipotilnikov. “The pictures documented here will help to bring back into existence a layer of the utopian past.”

This was was written as a response to “The Worst of Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”. It may seem gratuitous to criticize what I believe is an undergraduate paper at such length, and I certainly wouldn’t have done so if not prompted by a comrade who was uncomfortable taking for granted the weakness of this reading of Marx. Nonetheless, the paper is well written and effectively captures some pervasive interpretative distortions pertaining to Marx, and so I thought it worth the time.

Why is this a weak criticism? The author, in the brief prefatory remarks, says the Brumaire “exhibits some of the worst of Marx – class essentialism, economic determinism, the fetishisation of the urban proletariat”. That is to say, this author takes the Brumaire to exemplify elements of Marx’s theoretical outlook that have already been identified and judged “the worst”. Interestingly enough, the author nonetheless takes this reading to be “true to the text”.

Before even treating the content of the essay, it should be easy for any careful reader of Marx to see why this involves importing a substantial interpretative framework. The defects the author sees in Marx are actually defects of this interpretation, and such is not necessary to understand Marx. This framework derives from an attempt to make sense of Marxism as the relationship between Marx’s works and the political movement they inspired. This was an effort to, depending on one’s affinities, either condemn Marx or justify Stalinism by seeing them as intrinsically connected. By contrast, a distinctive (not anti-Marxist, but anti-Leninist) interpretative framework would either deny Marx’s work had these sorts of elements despite appearances, or admit that it had them but claim it did not need them, and that it has more to offer, whether this required unearthing a more authentic Marx or salvaging the enticing flotsam from a wrecked theoretical system. This latter framework is parasitic upon the former, trying to rescue Marx from what it sees as the former’s plausible interpretation. The author of this piece gestures toward acceptance of the latter framework (specifically the second variant, that Marx’s work really had such elements but didn’t need them), but here only really employs the former.

The irony is that there is a sense in which Marx’s work does involve “class essentialism”, “economic determinism”, and “the fetishization of the urban proletariat”, but the author of this essay, like the interpretative paradigm they parrot, doesn’t take Marx seriously enough to understand these elements as they actually function in Marx’s theoretical and political judgments.

The author begins by revealing their understanding of class to rely on props from the subsequent history, rather than Marx himself. An immanent reading, something the author claims to have produced, would by contrast try to make sense of the concept class solely within the text. Rejecting such an approach, one could still rely on Marx’s works more broadly, or even those of his contemporaries or predecessors. The fact that they draw on Therborn and Thompson is telling – both, however Marxian or Marxist they may have been, were firmly situated within a context suffused by the sorts of interpretative relations to Marx I outlined above, and the cited remarks reveal as much. Therborn’s definition of class bears little resemblance to anything one would find in Marx, as it deals wholly in the realm of appearances, so-called “distributive inequalities”, rather than understanding relationships within distribution as functionally subordinate to the dynamic of the social totality, which is the level at which all social phenomena, but class especially, should be grasped.

The Thompson quote is a bit better, though obscure. One can make more sense of Thompson by reading him through Marx than one can of Marx by reading him through Thompson. Thompson is getting at the subjective dimension of class, whereas, assumedly, Therborn is cited (misleadingly, or confusedly) as providing a sense of the objective dimension.

The author contrasts the “objective” “taxonomic” definition provided by Therborn with the “relational” and “dynamic” (and implicitly, subjective) definition of Thompson. Yet for Marx, the objective as well as the subjective are relational and dynamic, grasped as perspectives on the social totality – in the former this perspective is only grasped “implicitly” as “in itself”, whereas in the latter it is grasped “explicitly” as “for itself”.

Because the author doesn’t understand this, they take the very un-Marxian definition furnished by Therborn as equivalent to the objective pole of Marx’s dialectical conception of class, and thus confuses a dialectical movement with the “equivocation” of incompatible definitions.

The author singles out a particular passage in which Marx’s sees the political lines as drawn between an “an absurdly heterogeneous rag-bag of sub-classes” on one side and the proletariat as the “necessarily and uniquely the revolutionary force in any given political conflict” on the other. Interestingly enough, this critique does not involve an historiographical challenge, but rests on the author’s intuition that such a gesture seems “absurd”. Of course, this seeming is a result of the author’s own inability to grasp what Marx means when employing class concepts, as I’ve already begun to demonstrate.

The author in particular singles out Marx’s use of the concept “lumpenproletariat” to “explain away parts of the proletariat which failed to behave in a proper revolutionary fashion” (a quote from Cowling, one of a “rag-bag” of modern interpreters the author brings to bear on the text to which they claim to be “true”). Yet this gets at the crux of the matter, because for Marx, being proletarian is not a condition with which one can live; it is a position that one must necessarily struggle to escape, one way or the other. It is for this reason that class belonging has more to do with subjective “identification” (this isn’t really the right word) than objective situation, with the latter merely amounting to the implicit basis for the former.

Being part of the proletariat is not a matter of how much income one makes but of how one makes that income, which is to say, how one copes with the situation of being a wage-laborer in a post-Industrial Revolution context. In general, there were three options available. One was to “fall out” of the proletariat into the lumpenproletariat, that is, to find a manner of subsisting that did not involve direct dependence either on sale of labor power or ownership of capital.

As Engels noted in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, this could manifest as “crime”, which he described as the “earliest, crudest, and least fruitful form of [the] rebellion” against the proletarian condition. Presumably, although I’m unaware of any analysis to this effect, one could interpret the genesis of “organized crime” as a kind of concentration and centralization of the “capital” of the negative “petit-bourgeoisie” made up of lumpenproletarian criminals.

A somewhat more fundamental condition is that of the “beggar”, and we might say that the criminal stands to the beggar as the petit-bourgeois does to the proletarian. As such, both are generated as negative effects (from the perspective of bourgeois society) of the proletarianization of the English peasantry as described in part 8 of Capital Vol. 1, especially chs 27 and 28. In the latter, Marx writes,

“The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this “free” proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances.”

It took a tremendous and brutal effort of the English government to convert the better part of this lumpenproletarian product of the enclosures into proletarians in the labor market; but proletarianization (as a lack of opportunity and to some extent motivation to become “absorbed into the nascent manufactures”) was the original condition. Becoming beggars or vagabonds might have had a more immediate appeal, objectively if not necessarily subjectively, because it fell back upon the long-established “humanitarian” role of the Catholic monasteries, which were not coincidentally suppressed.

That lumpenproletarians are essentially beggars, and that crime can be interpreted as a kind of non-consensual begging, is what leads Marx to claim their “conditions of life…prepare [them] far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” [Manifesto], an interpretation that is carried forward in the Brumaire, in which Marx accuses Bonaparte of offering “donations and loans” as a means of winning loyalty of the “masses”. He tellingly says – in a formulation the author overlooks, that “the financial science of the lumpen proletariat, whether of high degree or low, is restricted to this.” So apparently Marx thought lumpenproletarians could be recruited from among the “noncommisioned officers” and “workers”, as those who would trade political loyalty for financial assistance – this begins to blur the lines between begging and crime, especially when such loyalties become militarized. (Police thus fundamentally straddle the line between petit-bourgeois and the “higher degree” of the lumpenproletariat – they are as much the “supervisors” of the social division of labor as a gang on the state’s payroll.)

The second option for coping with proletarianization was to seek “penetration into the middle strata”, or in other words, to become (or remain) petit-bourgeois. While in one sense the latter term could be taken to refer to owners of small amounts of capital, it also has a more general sense of workers who depend in part upon wages (even a wage they pay themselves) and in part upon profit. In the case of the small capitalist who works for his own enterprise, this is rather straightforward. Yet Marx (and later Marxists) also retain a broader sense of this term for wage workers who are in some sense privileged over the wider proletariat (Lenin’s “labor aristocracy” is thus not the innovation many take it to be, but is simply the application of Marx’s framework to the role of the trade union bureaucracy).

This privilege has two dimensions. The first is when workers earn higher than the average wage rate due to the relative scarcity of the particular kind of “useful labor” they perform in the labor market and consequently its higher market-rate. Maintaining such scarcities was the function of the guild-system, which inhibited the socialization of the labor process. The guild strategy was nonetheless in some measure reappropriated within bourgeois society by “skilled laborers” organized into “craft unions” for the sake of protecting themselves from proletarianization – their becoming “unskilled” not in sense of losing their skills, but to some extent due to their skills becoming redundant within a more developed labor process, and to some extent due to the growth of the labor supply within their specialization driving down the wage rate.

It’s important not to retroject the familiar critique of craft-unionism, however. For Marx, the effort to preserve the value of one’s labor power had potentially progressive political content, but this was only potential and ultimately ambivalent. If this effort was combined with the wider effort of proletarians to preserve – or obtain at all – the value equivalent of their labor power through a political coordination, it could be progressive. If it became a means for one segment of the working class to struggle against the rest, it became regressive. So modern-day “professional” labor, with its credential-mediated restriction of the labor market (often with some degree of state involvement) for particular forms of useful labor (doctors and lawyers being only the most obvious, but the same logic applies to varying extents to a whole host of particular forms of useful labor), is a well-established form of such privilege.

The second dimension is when workers earn a higher wage rate than the average market-rate for their particular kind of useful labor. This can, of course, be the result of simple stochasticity, but it can also express a particular kind of relationship of the worker to capital within the labor process: loyalty. This can, in theory, extend all the way down to the lowest level of employees, but more generally progressively targets the managerial and administrative strata, to ensure they function as “representatives of capital within the labor process”. In this sense, managers and administrators, even executives, have a dual role: a technical function of managing the labor process, which in any given situation involves a certain set of particular “useful” skills; and the function of enforcing the interests of capital as against those of the workers. That these functions can be disambiguated at least some of the time is evinced, for Marx, in the fact that worker cooperatives have no difficulty selecting managerial staff.

In Capital Vol 3, especially parts 5 and 7 (and especially chs 23, 27, and 48), Marx lays the groundwork of a sadly incomplete analysis of the nature of the relationship between managerial and simple labor. The essence is that because profit can be broken down into two parts, the part that is owed (or would be owed) as interest to money-capitalists (determined by the general rate of interest), and the part appropriated by the “active capitalist” as “profit of enterprise”, one can grasp the distinction between capital and labor within the total profit, interest being that portion of profit owed purely to capital as such and profit of enterprise as the part spent on the “labor of supervision”. For example, Marx says:

“The conception of profit of enterprise as the wages of supervising labour, arising from the antithesis of profit of enterprise to interest, is further strengthened by the fact that a portion of profit may, indeed, be separated, and is separated in reality, as wages, or rather the reverse, that a portion of wages appears under capitalist production as integral part of profit. This portion, as Adam Smith correctly deduced, presents itself in pure form, independently and wholly separated from profit (as the sum of interest and profit of enterprise), on the one hand, and on the other, from that portion of profit which remains, after interest is deducted, as profit of enterprise in the salary of management of those branches of business whose size, etc., permits of a sufficient division of labour to justify a special salary for a manager.”

In this, we can distinguish between the genuine (“useful”) managerial function, which might earn a higher wage rate for the same reason as the “professions”, and the “supervising” function, which earns a higher wage rate specifically to incentivize loyalty to the interests of capital on the manager’s part. One can think, for example, of cases in which low-level supervisors earn little more, or even no more, than their subordinates, and in which under the right conditions they might prefer to participate in a strike than to engage in intimidation. Nonetheless, in general, the form “disloyalty” would take among the broader managerial stratum is not joining with the lower ranks, but throwing oneself back into a labor market in which one has favorable chances of obtaining a higher wage. Loyalty is thus a matter of retaining talent, it is loyalty to this capital against others, although that also therefore can involve loyalty to this capital against its workers.

This being said, while there are genuine reasons to restrict credentials for certain kinds of skilled labor (e.g. doctors), the manner in which professionalized labor has been propped up by the capitalist state undoubtedly reveals a certain “loyalty” dimension there as well. So these things become difficult to distinguish in reality, which is why the “force of abstraction” is needed. That higher wage rates earned by managers and professionals are not merely a question of market scarcities, but reflect a special reproductive function of capital, indicates the sense in which these “intermediate” strata are “petit-bourgeois” in the above-mentioned sense of earning what are in one sense wages, in another sense, portions of profit.

The third option for coping with proletarianization, besides those of the “lumpenproletarian” and the “petit-bourgeois”, is of course that of the proletarian proper. This involves proletarians combining or organizing to exploit their collective monopoly over the commodity labor-power to influence the terms of employment contracts. At first this takes the form of geographically and qualitatively specific labor pools, but as competition between capitals leads to geographical expansion and qualitative leveling of useful labor (de-skilling), proletarian organizations must respond in kind.

The union movement (as well as the cooperative movement, which while less prominent nonetheless had its own significant valences, as Marx recognized) has long faced criticism of being “bourgeois”, workers forgoing revolutionary struggle in favor of the struggle to integrate themselves into the bourgeois world. In this sense, unions can be understood as trying to extract wage-increases in exchange for loyalty in the above mentioned sense, precisely as an incentive against striking, and ultimately to cement this into a higher market rate by creating a stable credential-like artificial scarcity. This indicates the fundamental risk of unionized labor becoming “petit-bourgeois”, compromised by opportunism. Yet whether or not it is susceptible to this risk depends upon the broader political and ultimately historical horizons of the organizationally-constituted self-consciousness of the proletarian movement.

In this sense, the highest manner of integrating oneself into the bourgeois world is politically through participation in (or, where unavailable, militation for) the democratic political process. The “bourgeois” character of the labor movement is thus exactly the source of its potentially revolutionary force: democratic politics is not opposed to Blanquist conspiracy and insurrection, but seen as the means of introducing the social principles of capital – mass cooperation, division of labor, and machinery (primarily in the form of mass communication technology like the newspaper) – into the revolutionary struggle. Blanqui thus stands to Marx as the small commodity producer does to the titan of large-scale industry.

Yet if the horizon of the political struggle of the working class is limited to winning democratic reforms, it remains merely “petit-bourgeois” for not grasping democracy itself as a means to the political end of expressing the class interests of the “immense majority” – the proletariat – as against those of the minoritarian classes. Proletarians, who as such own no capital and do not benefit from capital but only their collective power to struggle against it, thus have a unique interest in abolishing capital, something not shared by the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois. Democracy, as a means of expressing this distinctive interest, would thus be the political form of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. It is this ambition, to use democracy as a means to the end of the independent and exclusive class interests of the proletariat, that distinguishes proletarian socialism from petit-bourgeois democratic radicalism.

The point of all of this is to show that the author’s criticism of “Marx’s particular taxonomy of classes” suffers from an inability to grasp that the distinctions Marx draws between classes is not a matter of “categorisation of individuals on the basis of socio-economic inequalities, most likely distributive, whose problematic is social stratification”, but rather, on the basis of practical organizational (and at least implicitly political) strategies for coping with (or avoiding) proletarianization, whose outcome yields a particular distributive contour.

The following quote from the Brumaire, cited by the author as evidence of Marx’s economic determinism, takes on a very different light in this context:

“Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity… And as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves, from their reality. (Ibid, p.47)”

This passage, as well as the similar passage in the preface to the Critique of Political Economy,

“seem to suggest that, ontologically, economic relations are both in some sense separate from and prior to politics, culture and subjectivity. Moreover, there is, from the perspective of Marx’s methodological materialism a problematic conflation of the material with the economic, and a concomitant denial of the materiality of culture. However, in reality, no such distinctions can be made.”

Once again, this seeming says more about the author’s presuppositions than about Marx. The author flattens out what Marx calls “the social conditions of existence” to fit the “taxonomic” sense of class Marx is wrongly presumed to employ. This interpretation is belied in the very passage itself, when Marx says “The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations.” Marx means this quite literally: the collective practices (their “real life process”) through which the classes stabilize the personal reproduction of their individual constituents are the bases in and through which “forms of culture and modes of subjectification” arise as functional components.

This does not involve an “undialectical model of linear causation between base and superstructure” – it’s hard to even imagine what this could mean – but grasping the practical reproduction of social life, which is, but does not have to be, “economic”, as the overarching systematic context that both conditions and requires, but also constrains, everything grouped as “superstructural”. It is not for nothing that in the preface to the CPE, Marx says that it is precisely within such “ideological forms” that “men become conscious of this conflict” – that is, the deep potentially revolutionary changes at the level of the reproductive totality – “and fight it out.”

The author ironically says, citing Judith Butler, that “The appearance of the economic and the cultural as separate spheres is an effect of an operation of abstraction specific to capitalist production.” Yet it is the author, and not Marx, who relies on such an abstract distinction. Marx does not treat the “economic” as a distinct and restricted sub-domain of the social totality opposed to, and determining of, the “cultural” and “subjective”, but as itself (a historically distinctive determination of) the social totality within which “cultural” and “subjective” dimensions develop and fulfill necessary functional roles.

The author takes Marx to conflate the “material” and the “economic”, thus denying the “materiality of culture”. Thus, Marx attributes to the economic dimension of society an explanatory priority akin to that which reductive materialism ascribes to physical laws. Yet it is precisely the functional supervenience of “culture” on the reproductive practical infrastructure of social life that constitutes its materiality, providing it with a continuous material instantiation over time. In this sense, the “economic” in Marx is simply the fact that the practical expressions of social life must involve some fundamental reproductive dimension with which other dimensions cannot substantially interfere without undermining their own perpetuity.

The author then tries to turn Lukacs’s analysis of reification against Marx himself, claiming that Marx reifies the economy, and thus the proletariat. He invokes Lukacs’s distinction between empirical and imputed class consciousness, which for Lukacs of course pointed to the distinctive political function of the political party, but only to muck it up with John Holloway’s revisionist argument that “no individual nor party is capable of fully transcending the reified world and fully apprehending the social totality”, and that “it is the fact that proletarian consciousness may “aspire towards totality” which gives it its revolutionary potential.” Of course, for Lukacs, neither an individual nor the party is “capable of fully transcending the reified world” – only the proletariat as a class is so capable. What the party is capable of doing is giving the proletarian struggle a political orientation toward this possible transcendence through the agitation for revolution. As Luxemburg famously put it,

“the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social-Democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labour movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order”.

The author is nonetheless onto something in suggesting that

“it is this immanent contradiction of proletarian consciousness – the tension between fetishising and de-fetishising tendencies – together with the heterogeneity of lived experience within the social world, rather than the insufficiency of organised forms of political mediation…which explains the contradictory roles played by sections of the proletariat in situations of political struggle.”

This contradiction is precisely that between the implicit political implications of the different strategies for coping with proletarianization. Yet this means that the “existence of the lumpenproletariat”, and the petit bourgeoisie, evince this contradiction, rather than distract from it. Moreover, the entire purpose of the party is to organize the dynamic between “fetishising and de-fetishising tendencies”, which I would parse as the dynamic between the labor movement’s “petit-bourgeois” integrative function and its revolutionary potential, by giving a consistent and unified political articulation to and coordinating context for the concrete forms of working class organization, and thereby to give practical consistency to the “heterogeneity of lived experience within the social world”.

While proletarian consciousness is ambivalent in potentially reifying its integration into bourgeois society as a “constituted class”, and thus exhibiting “an economic determinism which would reduce political subjectivity to a merely superstructural effect of economic relations”, this ambivalence can be overcome through the self-conscious grasp of the proletarian class position in terms of its historical horizon, the struggle for socialism, which is thus also the struggle to dissolve “constituted class” identity into the free development of social life in classless society. This is the “essence” of the proletariat as a class, which, following Hegel, Marx does not understand as timeless and fixed but as bound up in an historical process of development whose inner tendencies point toward the possibility of transcending its limitations on its own basis.

So, while the criticism is weak, the influence of Lukacs does seem to have had a modicum of positive influence, which may be recoverable from Stalinophobic dogmatization. The author may become a Marxist yet.

What is Capitalism?

Nomad cover

On facebook, my friend Pete Wolfendale made the following remark:

Marx is pretty explicit that capital as a mode of resource accumulation emerges before capitalism, and that capitalism is the broader system which emerges once the former becomes dominant and wage labour becomes the norm.

The remark was off-handed, and I don’t expect it was meant to represent the full rigor of which he is capable. Nonetheless, it inspired the following response on my part, in which I was able to clarify some things for myself.

But for Marx, capital is *not* a “mode of resource accumulation” but a relation of production. Specifically, it is “the governing power over labor and its products.” (EPM) This power depends upon the social recognition of labor in a generically comparable and preservable form, which is to say, the treatment of the abstract capacity to work (labor power) as a commodity (wage labor). Wage labor doesn’t come later; e.g. the Manifesto has it that “the condition for capital is wage-labour.”

Relations of production have direct bearing upon the “mode of accumulation” as the resources to be accumulated must first be *produced* as such (as use-values), even if this is the zero-level productive activity of raw material extraction.

Marx does cite usury and merchandizing as examples of M-M’ circulation, which he refers to as “the description of Capital from the mouths of its first interpreters, the Mercantilists.” [C1] But that isn’t enough to account for capital as Marx understands it, which involves the real augmentation of value, which is to say, embodied past labor. Capital by this definition did not and could not pre-exist a generalized market for wage labor and production-relations structured around the employment of wage labor, even if pre-bourgeois forms of M-M’ circulation were adapted by/to the needs of capitalist accumulation.

Marx rarely used the term “capitalism”, and when he does he seemed to use it as shorthand for “capitalist mode of production”. By “mode of production” he means a situation in which social relations of production are able to effectively exploit the degree of development of society’s productive forces such that they can effectively reshape the consciousness and self-consciousness of that society, importantly including the political structures through which that society acts upon itself as such. By this definition, I don’t think it is accurate to describe capitalism in terms of the generalization of M-M’ “resource accumulation” combined with the generalization of wage labor – this is accurate up to a point, but misses the core of the argument.

More important that dynamics of circulation and accumulation are those of production, and in a sense more important that those of production per se are the relations between these dynamics and the forms of consciousness they condition, to which they give rise.

For Marx to describe industrial society as having a “capitalist mode of production” is to challenge the form of consciousness of that society, to claim that the productive relations of that society were being fundamentally transformed in ways that were not readily evident to members of that society. It was an attempt to give expression to the “era of social revolution” that had already begun, and in doing so, to participate in the “transformation of the whole immense superstructure”, and most importantly, the political aspects of that superstructure. [CCPE]

What he was most concerned with was preventing the working class, for whom the “coming into conflict” of “the material productive forces of society” and “the existing relations of production” was a dreadful reality, from relying upon “ideological forms in which [they became] conscious of this conflict and [fought] it out” that did not adequately reflect the nature of that conflict and the prospects for its resolution. The forms of consciousness that were available to the industrial working class were the very same that had consolidated with the advent of bourgeois social relations, which is to say, generalized commodity production and wage labor.

Yet this was insufficient to express the transformation of that conflict after the industrial revolution, which for Marx was defined by the emergence of capital, and its human expression, the “bourgeois class”. “Capitalism” in this sense does not describe an “economic system” so much as the manner in which productive relations are expressed in social, and especially political, consciousness. Capitalism is the name of the inadequate resolution of the conflict of post-industrial revolution productive relations on the scale of society’s self-conscious (which is ultimately to say, political) totality. This is why the problem of capitalism for Marx is so often characterized in terms of the vulgarity and opportunism of 19th century political economy, liberalism, and political leadership both within the bourgeois state and among the masses (Bonapartism), and within the working class itself (the various forms of pre-, para- and anti-Marxist socialism and communism).

The problem of capitalism is ultimately the problem of the consciousness and self-consciousness of the working class after the industrial revolution, not simply the “economic structure of society”. The conflict within production only approaches resolution when it is capable of affecting the superstructural forms that it conditions, including those political forms through which society can consciously act upon and reshape the relations that compose it.

From an argument about the role of unemployment in Marx’s Capital

Sir Luke Fildes, "Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward", after 1908.

Sir Luke Fildes, “Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward”, after 1908.

While it may seem trivial to record arguments that occur within social media, they do occasionally provide some fruitful context for self-clarification. I’m recording the following because, in its course, I managed to provide what I think is a serviceable summary of the dialectical arc of Capital, Volume 1.

On Facebook, a commenter named David Bush responded to Fredric Jameson’s claim that “Marx’s Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment” with some dismissive remarks. He said,

I just finished Capital volume 1 for the second time (so I am just starting to understand it a little). I can’t for the life of me understand how Jameson arrives at that conclusion. Like how can you claim to divorce the first three chapters from the rest of the book? Capital Volume 1 is about many things but ultimately it is laying the ground work for understanding the basic internal relations of capitalism and surveying how they play out in the larger world.

In response, I quoted the following section from ch. 25 of Capital, Volume 1:

You need to read more closely! “The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.” I mean, this is the conclusion of the whole arc of vol 1. You aren’t writing anything off to recognize this as the ultimate conclusion.

When accused of quoting selectively, I said:

It is from the chapter called “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”, the last one before the historical overview that concludes the work. This quote is that statement of said general law, and hence, of the ultimate conclusion toward which the argument of the text had been building. Of course it is legitimate to criticize, but if that criticism is undermined by textual evidence, you can’t just refuse to acknowledge that evidence anymore than I can simply dismiss your criticism out of hand!

Another commenter named Steve D’arcy responded,

What’s misleading about the reserve army point is that saying that this very quotation is about unemployment conceals the fact that, in the book Capital, the social phenomenon of capital is itself a form of appearance of labour. The book is about how wealth “appears” to be an “immense accumulation of commodities,” but turns out to be something else: labour, with its two-fold character as precisely *not* a relation between things (commodities, like money or other products of labour), but instead a relation between persons and other persons (my labour to the total social labour, and to the capitalist as exploiter) and, in a secondary way, relations between persons and things (concrete labour, use-value). So, clearly the whole book is about the 2-fold character of labour as the underlying reality of wealth and capital (and profits, rent, etc.), which is concealed from us by fetishism and price (exchange-value, thing-thing relations). That’s the whole point of the book. Unemployment is just one way in which labour is turned against itself by virtue of its two fold character as, not only and in an important sense not primarily a type of instrumental action or concrete labour producing use value, but above all a way of pressing the labour of the many into service of the few, and in that context divorcing labour from social usefulness (meeting needs) in favour of commodifying it for profit-making (surplus labour extraction). It is only in that context that Marx is interested in “unemployment.” He’s interested in *labour,* which requires that he pay attention to unemployment.

In short, unemployment is not an interest to Marx as something separate from labour: it is this very semblance of separateness that he wants to dispel. It is the same motive that leads him to take an interest in rent, which also wrongly gets mistaken for something separate from labour.

To which I replied,

Steve, I appreciate you addressing the contention with some substance. 

With all due respect, I disagree with your interpretation of the argument in Capital. The argument that “capital is itself a form of appearance of labour” is deeply confused. I don’t mean to be nit-picky, as this is just a facebook comment, but I think it is important enough to deserve mention. 

First, you seem to conflate the sense in which commodities turn out to be the form of appearance of labor, which in turn has multiple interrelated senses (use value as “contained useful [concrete] labor” and value as “congelation of homogeneous [abstract] human labour”), and the sense in which capital is the form of appearance of *labor power*. Moreover, labor power as a commodity presupposes the production of surplus value, as the essence of which it, in turn, is the appearance. Surplus value turns out to consist in 1) the lengthening of the working day, which excites class struggle, leading to the further revelation that it is 2) the intensification of the labor process made possible by cooperation – in which abstract labor, and ultimately capital itself, has its original source, and which culminates in the advent of the machine-systems of large-scale industry in which the labor power component is completely debased, reduced to a pitiful residuum. This allows for the further revelation that surplus value is nothing but the surplus labor performed over and above that which was necessary to replace the value of the labor power thereby consumed, or in other words, it is unpaid labor. 

So at this point, capital is indeed labor, but essentially the unpaid portion. But the crucial move that completes the argument, over the arc of part 7, is that the surplus product must be reconverted into capital, and thus the process of production must undergo continual expansion. Yet this expansion is only possible insofar as an increasingly large pool of labor power is available to absorb into expanded production. Thus, the ultimate essence of capital is the availability of labor power in the form of a reserve army of unemployed workers. That this is the ultimate point being argued is confirmed in the final part on primitive accumulation, in which the original accumulation of capital is shown to consist first in the proletarianization of the English peasantry – that is, their becoming ‘unemployed’ in the modern sense of available for wage labor. It is only because of the continuous reproduction of a population available as labor power that labor even enters the equation. Unemployment thus is not “just one way in which labour is turned against itself”, it is constitutive of labor in the relevant sense.

So yes, Marx does want to “[dispel] the semblance of separateness”, but I think you misconstrue what this entails. It is not that capital, the commodity, unemployment, and all concomitant phenomena are to be reduced to labor, but that the essence of these ultimately traces back to what he elsewhere calls ‘disposable time’ or free time. The character of this freedom depends, of course, on the manner in which it functions in the life process of society; in capitalism, disposable time is suffered by a disposable surplus population because labor mediates integration into the social ‘metabolism’. Marx recognizes the revolutionary potential of the working class precisely as rooted in their capacity to potentially wield this swelling ‘productive force’, through the conscious control of the labor supply, and thus the redistribution of disposable time in the gradual abolition of work. Of course, this leads to a political struggle that greatly complicates matters, but even this in its essence is the struggle over the consumption of the surplus, which might take the form of its reconversion into capital (and if is, in what form, by what sort of productive agency), or otherwise its ‘unproductive’ consumption in the free development of human capacities outside the labor process, the ‘realm of necessity’.

The political significance of Capital is obscured if the significance of this argumentative strategy is not appreciated.