It’s been a while since I’ve written much online, but I wanted to briefly relate some short and hesitant thoughts about a theme that keeps recurring in some of my recent research. Across speculative realism, Marxism, non-philosophy and actor-network theory, one of the constant tensions is between a totalizing theory and what we might call an assemblage theory. Most Marxism (to my knowledge) and non-philosophy seem to both rely upon the assumption of totalization – either capitalism is a totalizing, unified system, or philosophy qua decision is a totalizing theory (and we might easily include correlationism in with the latter). The response to these totalizing functions is to try and articulate how one can escape from them – either through postulating an instance that lies outside capitalist valorization (and see Benjamin Noy’s recent thoughts on the metaphysics of labour power for more in-depth thoughts and variations on this), or showing how capitalism produces its own external resistance, or showing philosophy’s decisional structure is unilateralized and made relatively autonomous through a real instance which always-already remains indifferent to philosophy. But the same structure reoccurs in both Marxism and non-philosophy – the assumption that what it is resisting is a totalized system. If it’s a totalized system we’re fighting, then certain tactics become useful.
But what if that’s not the case? What if, following ANT and Deleuze and Guattari, the whole is merely a part produced alongside other parts? What if capitalism-qua-system is as much a product of Marxist theories as it is of any physical and social reality? The enemy to be fought, in other words, is constructed by the theories aiming to resist it. We can see this fairly clearly in the recent Marxist works on real subsumption, or in the return to Marx’s Hegelian (systematic dialectic) themes. We can also see it in how Laruelle declares all philosophy to partake of a decisional structure which renders philosophy sufficient-in-itself. Each of them constructs its enemy as a totalizing structure.
But if this isn’t the case, the question becomes, how to resist something that is non-systemic, non-totalizing and more heterogeneous than previously presumed?
The alternative, however, isn’t to say that nothing like ‘capitalism’ or ‘philosophy qua decision’ exists. This is where, despite the advances made by ANT, it ultimately falls short. Both Latour and the main ANT economist, Michel Callon, argue that capitalism does not exist – for Callon rather, there is a massive diversity of ‘markets’, which never synthesize into something like capitalism. The problem Callon then sees is that many markets don’t allow for the full plurality of voices to contribute to their construction – we need a democratization of market construction. But what this misses is precisely the sorts of things that are valuable in Marxist systemic critiques – the internal tendencies and logic of something like a capitalist system, and how it propels itself forward. While an ANT analysis of financial crises could certainly be made, it’s not clear that the repetition (and historically, the increasing frequency) of financial crises could be explained in an ANT framework devoted largely to ethnographic and local case studies. In other words, there are some sort of systemic tendencies, but there can be no totalizing system. How then, to explain this? How to square the circle and incorporate Marxism, non-philosophy and ANT together?
I think in many ways the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham is fairly on point here. Not that they are ANT thinkers, but they both believe capitalism is not a totalized system (they critique a type of thought they refer to as capitalogocentric), at the same time they certainly do believe that such a thing as capitalism exists. They are pretty obsessed with local economies and things of the sort, but I’ve always found it to be in an useful way.
Oddly enough, I have their book lying on my desk just waiting to be read. I think it’ll be a really helpful book, but I admit I find the notion of local economies, or any sort of return to local communities, to be less than convincing. The basic problem, as with ANT, is that it neglects these sorts of global dynamics. A local economy or community might help that place weather the volatility of the global economy, but it does absolutely nothing to try and change the ‘system’ (whatever that word might mean). Which is why theorizing how something like capitalism can arise is important, while also taking into account the insights of ANT.
The scapegoat symptom you identify in capitalism and marxism is not unlike heresiology to religion. For instance, you find the same sort of mechanisms at work in the contemporary neo-traditionalists of Christianity, such as Alisdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. The argumentation goes that liberalism, modernism, secularism, etc. is fundamentally atheological and violent. Obviously such statements are oversimplified and demonizes a particular ideology that can subsequently be saved by an alternatively religious one. It also fails to recognize the complexity and ambivalence within ones own tradition. At least this is the point being made by some radical democrats such as Jeffrey Stout and Romand Coles.
Yes, definitely, it’s not surprising that a similar process occurs in other fields too. The question it seems to me then, is to what extent are these ‘solutions’ – Marxism, non-philosophy, radical orthodoxy, etc. – reliant upon their constructed foe? I think certain elements of these theories can be recuperated, but the (in my mind) misplaced analysis of their enemy leads them to the wrong solutions. It’s like the immediate post-9/11 situation in America, where all Muslims were considered to be actual or potential terorists, without any recognition of the vast diversity within Islam. With an analysis that so blatantly misrepresents the enemy as some existential and totalizing force, it’s no wonder that America spread itself far too thin in an attempt to stop terrorism. In that respect, it seems to me that these theories would be better served by recognizing their own complicity in constructing a totalizing enemy.
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Have you read Galloway and Thacker’s book The Exploit? Might be interesting to locate its claims in this discussion.
Thanks for the reference Ian. I haven’t read it yet, but I see it’s available on GoogleBooks:
This is all part of a longer-term project, so I’ll have to read through it at some point. (Making my way through Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism right now, which I can already tell will be exceptionally useful. Have I just missed all the discussions about this book? It seems like it’s really useful for our present situation, but I never see anyone write about it.)
Hey. My feeling, for what it’s worth, is that (strands of) Marxism and (aspects of) ANT can be really fruitfully brought together. The argument about fetishism – where the commodity becomes a social actor, imbued with apparently quasi-magical properties owing to its place in a larger network of social relations – seems to me to fit in pretty neatly with plenty of actor-network theorising.
That’s a good point. From what I’ve been able to find, the only people really trying to combine ANT and Marxism are the ecologists, but their focus is almost entirely on nature. Useful, but I think the major question is precisely how would something like capitalism arise from an ANT perspective? Anways, that’s something I’m trying to work out right now!
I suppose I see Marx as already doing this? (Without using ANT vocabulary, obviously!) I.e. Capital aims to provide an account of how the many different actors within capitalist society (people, commodities, money, machinery, etc.) interact to produce a dynamic, self-reproducing social structure. The kind of large-scale self-modifying network that is capitalism is accounted for both in its current existence and in its ability to reproduce or perpetuate itself, through a large- and small-scale investigation of the component actor-networks that taken together make up the capitalist economy. (I agree with Nate that this analytic procedure needn’t involve philosophical concepts of totality.)
Duncan, you write: “My feeling, for what it’s worth, is that (strands of) Marxism and (aspects of) ANT can be really fruitfully brought together. The argument about fetishism – where the commodity becomes a social actor, imbued with apparently quasi-magical properties owing to its place in a larger network of social relations – seems to me to fit in pretty neatly with plenty of actor-network theorising”
I think it’s a fruitful line of inquiry to see how ANT and Marxism relate but you’re gonna come up against the problem – heightened in your specific example – that Marx wanted to expose the illusions by which things were seen to be as much actors as humans are. Hence Marx’s critical, mocking talk of the ‘theological capers’ of the commodity and of his need to solve the riddles of the commodity by tracing them back to labour power.
Thanks Utisz. We may disagree about Marx. I don’t see Marx as presenting commodities – for instance – as only illusory social actors. Commodities are one component of the larger set of interactions that make up capitalist exchange and production. To the extent that commodities have a function as a part of this system, they act – in more or less the sense of ‘act’ employed in actor-network theory. The fetishism argument isn’t about whether commodities are social actors in this sense: they are. The argument is about how we, as inhabitants of capitalist society, understand these social properties of the commodity. In criticising the attribution of metaphysical or theological qualities to commodities, Marx is criticising the naturalisation of social qualities – the misattribution of socially contingent roles an object plays, to its inherent qualities as an object – and therefore the rendering-mysterious of those qualities. I see no inconsistency between this argument and an ANT-inflected read of Marx.
Labour and labour power are a more complex issue. But the kind of labour relevant to Marx’s theory of value is social labour, of course – and Marx is clear that social labour is only produced as part of a larger economic movement including both production and circulation – i.e. including the actions of commodities.
Hi Duncan, I agree that it’s not only an illusion that Marx is drawing our attention. Commodities seem to act as real entities too – just witness, to take a recent example, how the money-form operates in the stock market and thereby in the wider economy. Marx was, you’re right, very aware of both the reality and the illusion. ANT however – at least in Latour’s formulations – is by contrast reluctant to talk of unmasking illusions associated with objects like these, as it smacks of primary qualities, and an Enlightenment-style reductio ad humanum. ANT would, as I read it, be more concerned with how the commodity has effects than in enquiring after what human origins may be concealed in those effects. At this point I think Marx and Latour would diverge, and I’d go with Marx. But I agree totally with your formulation that he is trying to expose the mistaken naturalisation of social qualities and that this places e.g. the commodity within a wider network. Interesting ideas.
Thanks Utisz. My feel is that Latour often doesn’t put ANT resources to the best possible use. That’s largely beside the point, though. I agree: where Latour and Marx diverge (which they do aplenty), I too go with Marx.
(I hope this comment appears in the right place…)
SH: ” What if capitalism-qua-system is as much a product of Marxist theories as it is of any physical and social reality? The enemy to be fought, in other words, is constructed by the theories aiming to resist it.”
Kvond: This is the problem that I have with almost all oppositional thinking. There is an unconscious investment in the very thing that is being opposed. The construction of an (evil) totalization is just one very important conceptual version of this, not very far from “Evil Empire” thinking.
Two things happen.
Capitalism laughs all the way to the bank because totalization isn’t its game, leveraged mutation is (if one had to guess).
The conceptual attempts to identify the totalizing enemy actually, and unconsciously bolster the ideological space for just such a habitation: opposers create perpetuate the very thing that they fight (without enemy there is no fight).
Hey Kvond, yes agreed. I mean there’s obviously more sophistication than just the labelling of capitalism as an evil, unified totality, but the basic principle seems pretty prevalent throughout leftist thought. But not only leftist thought – mainstream neoclassical theories portray capitalism in a similar way. (Gibson-Graham get into all of this in a much more detailed way.) The question is, precisely, what would be an alternative formulation of how economies run?
Nick, With respect I think it is a bit unfair to suggest all Marxists see capitalism as totalising. Those who use the category of ‘totality’ usually add the qualifier ‘divided-‘ or ‘antagonistic totality’. I think it’s hard to deny it is a totality of sorts – Marx’s comments on how it spreads to almost every corner of the globe, ripping up existing social relations, is pretty prophetic in my opinion. I would suggest though that to be consistent with Marx’s repeated emphasis on class struggle and how resistance has driven capital onto the back foot many times throughout its history (the theory of ‘cycles of struggle’ – see Harry Cleaver) any Marxist would I think _have_ to endorse the ‘divided-‘ or ‘antagonistic-‘ qualifier. I admit that some Marxists use hyperbole when describing the powers of capitalism, and this can overestimate the enemy, but such hyperbole is usually employed to shock us into action. At the same time I worry that all this talk about capital actually being diffuse (because not a totality) in fact under-estimates its power. There are lots of times in Latour, for instance, when he seems highly unaware of just what he is up against if when if his collective capable of solving ecological problems is to be convoked. His dismissive comments about Murray Bookchin ‘extending the lease on class struggle’ (footnote somewhere in Politics of Nature) are not very reasssuring that he knows much about politics. In sum, we need to think both capitalism’s power and its fragility – not an easy task. I hope ANT can learn from Marxist debates in this respect.
My problem is that even adding the qualifier ‘antagonistic’ still seems to provide an image of capitalism that is much more systematic and totalized than is actually the case. Gibson-Graham are great at showing the sheer variety of economic relations that go into constituting our world – most of which aren’t identifiably capitalist. And Michel Callon’s work has shown the plurality of markets and calculative agencies, which undermines any systematicity that could be granted to capitalism.
That being said, you’re right that too often people who go the opposite way (e.g. Latour, or anarchists, or Gibson-Graham, even) tend to underestimate the power of capitalism. I’ve written elsewhere about what I think are the important limits of more locally-oriented politics (see here). The problem is, precisely as you say, to think capitalism’s power and its fragility – both its resilience and its fragmented nature.
Nick: “The question is, precisely, what would be an alternative formulation of how economies run?”
Kvond: Why not think of economies (and their entire adjunct branches of support) in biological terms? Are gorilla’s “totalizing”? Are roaches? Are viruses? Are rainforests?
Is not the question ultimately an Ecological question, in the broadest sense of “ecological”?
Well, after reading Gibson-Graham’s book, I’m inclined to believe the problem is more than just with totalization. They distinguish between totalization, unity, and singularity. Totalization is the idea that capitalism is the container within which modern society occurs. It provides the basic coordinates for any political or social phenomena. Singularity is the idea that capitalism presents itself as having no alternative (TINA); it is alone in being the adequate system for our contemporary age. And unity is the idea that capitalism is an integrated and reproducing system. (And I would align all systems with the unity aspect.)
So, yes, an ecological framework could avoid the totalization aspect, but I’m not sure it could avoid the unity part. The problem with it is that it presents capitalism as being far more homogeneous and integrated than it actually is, and also prohibits small-scale changes from the beginning. If it’s a unified system, then chipping away at the margins doesn’t change anything fundamentally. Only revolution can overthrow a unified system. But I don’t think that’s the case.
Which is not to say that ecology doesn’t offer a lot of useful resources, but I’m just not sure it resolves all the problems.
In my view the “unity” problem only poses the illusion of a problem. One treats Capitalism as a closed “system” (on the analogy of an organism) only where it descriptively pays off to do so, but the bio-analogy extends in several directions which require no exclusive “unity”. Capitalism can be understood as a local “ecosystem” which obviously would have rather permeable and soft boundaries, or it could be treated as an operation of conversion for other systemic unities, such as “photosynthesis” (which is neither a unity or system). Or species, which operate like unities in many regards or thresholds of description, though one could argue that “there is no such thing as a specie”. Key is to understanding the it is the descriptive power of an assumed unity that holds court here (and not the ideological need for a totalizing capture). Capitalism may indeed act LIKE or AS a unity under certain profiles, and then LIKE or AS an operation elsewise, and LIKE or AS a sedimentation. What is required, I believe, is something more of a cartography and taxonomy, resistant to only one subsumption. This is how it works in biology. When one encounters something different than before, new categories of things or operations arise.
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Agreeing with Kvond and the discussion: Totalization in marxism works a lot like ‘strategic essentialism’ in postcolonial theory, critical race theory and feminism. It’s a framing device designed to enable focused action by forcibly simplifying complex identities and dynamics into big chunky good guys and bad guys.
As I argued in my dissertation, for example (hm, hrm, my theory, brackets end brackets), totalized capitalism in Lenin was a gamble while in Lukacs it was a myth. In each case the intent was to actively construct the class-for-itself and the class enemy so that the final conflict between them could take place. What happened instead was that the kind of granular analysis of opportunities and forces ANT enables was foregone, revolutionary effort was very poorly targeted, and the whole thing unraveled and became murderous.
For what an alternative within marxism might look like I recommend Capital, Marx’s least revolutionary work, and the several thousand pages of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which are smashingly granular but don’t offer much in the way of linear clarity about how to do revolution either.
I really like the Lenin/Lucas clarification in this context. And I believe Althusser in his Spinozism also made the same point in regard to Marx. It was Marx as scientist, or at least as “freer through the understanding of causes” that was the Marx to pay attention to.
p.s. As a writer I love the phrase “smashingly granular” (especially if it is said with a high-brow British accent, however oxymoronic that would sound, speaking of Gramsci).
Respectfully, I think you’re talking about specifically marxist philosophy, and perhaps only some of it, rather than marxism in total. Another way to put this is that I think there are fair criticisms of some positions Marx appears to have held at some points in his life but which he may not have for his whole life (there’s a big difference between some of his remarks about history, say, prior to the mid 1850s and his letters to Vera Zasulich about Russian peasants later in his life). Yet another way, I think your criticisms may apply to certain portions of v1 of Capital, particularly if those portions are read with certain ideas in mind, but I don’t think they apply to the bits I think are most important – the chapters on the buying and selling of labor power, the sections on machinery and on the working day, and the sections on primitive accumulation. In sum (I’ve thought my way to this point, sorry it’s taken me so long!), I think your criticisms rely on a sort of totalization of Marx/ism, without which the scope of your criticisms would be much more narrow. That’s not to say they’re wrong with regard to some of marxism.
Similarly with regard to the issue of the assumption of resisting a totalized system and how that relates to political activity, I think there’s a sort of implied move you’re making that’s at least in the same family as totalization, an overly short trip and overly straight route from philosophical to other practices. It seems to me that there a fair few different political positions and activities which could be understood as following from totalization or anti-totalization. If we expand this to include practices where the actors don’t consciously hold ideas of this sort but could be described has holding ideas which entail ideas of the sort you’re describing then the range of variance between philosophical and other practices gets even bigger. (sorry if that doesn’t make sense!)
Much thanks Nate – I think you’re a right about my totalization of Marxist work, and as you and others have pointed out, there’s definitely some divergent trends within Marxism that resist the problems I cited. I suppose, on reflection, my criticism was more focused at what has become the popular versions of Marxism lately – specfically autonomia, and the new Hegelian versions of Marx – rather than Marxism in toto. But I also think that when the common phrase ‘there is no alternative’ is thrown around, nearly always it relies on an image of capitalism that is totalized. So while people may theoretically diagnose capitalism in a different way, it seems that it’s almost our age’s unconscious assumption that capitalism is totalized.
Nick: “But I also think that when the common phrase ‘there is no alternative’ is thrown around, nearly always it relies on an image of capitalism that is totalized. So while people may theoretically diagnose capitalism in a different way, it seems that it’s almost our age’s unconscious assumption that capitalism is totalized.”
Kvond: I think that this is an important point, despite all the baby-out-of-the-bathwater talk. The ideological dimension, its rhetorical imprint, is as important as its diagnonsis is. Which is to say that probably the primary reason that Marxism is “Marxism” and has such a powerful and lasting place in academia is the large degree that it has posited itself as the ONLY alternative to an otherwise totalizing and all-consuming (evil) Capitalism. Marxism, that is the ideal place floating in everyone’s minds when the sheer name pops up, lives and thrives on its opposite, and its opposition.
p.s. I did not realize that you likely had the Fisher book in mind. In that sense, perhaps it is good to quote Shaviro’s blurbed, Blade Runner’d review:
“What happened to our future? Mark Fisher is a master cultural diagnostician, and in Capitalist Realism he surveys the symptoms of our current cultural malaise. We live in a world in which we have been told, again and again, that There Is No Alternative. The harsh demands of the ‘just-in-time’ marketplace have drained us of all hope and all belief. Living in an endless Eternal Now, we no longer seem able to imagine a future that might be different from the present. This book offers a brilliant analysis of the pervasive cynicism in which we seem to be mired, and even holds out the prospect of an antidote.”
I haven’t had a chance to read Mark’s book so I of course can’t say whether it falls into that trap. But from what I know (and judging by the blurbs), it seems as though he’s striving to resist the idea of TINA, and to the extent that he talks about it, it’s precisely to show how it has become ideological in the way you mention. As a critique of TINA then, he has to be operating from a position outside of it, and so I don’t think he’ll be subject to the problem I cited.
I did not mean to say that Fisher’s book had the problem you invoked, but that the phrase you picked was taken from his book title. But perhaps the phrase/concept is so ubiquitous it was a conincidence.
Nonetheless, the theoretical desire to read the world as dystopianly foreclosed (even if you imagine this to be an ideological illusion), its itself a very strong product of the Marxist oppositional conception of totalizing Capitalism. It feels like a very unhealthy perspective to take, and one that rather privleged, mostly white, university educated males have a great need to adopt. Reading it either as a constitutive illusion, or as a fact has pretty much the same effect. “There is no alternative” and “It seems like there is no alternative” are both wrong in my view.
A solution could be to use the Latourian idea of tracing networks in order to rebuild a political project suited to a seemingly globalized system. For such as solution, see http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2008/09/16/knowledge-and-praxis-of-networks-as-a-political-project/
Thanks Yannick, this looks interesting – hope to read through it sometime soon.
Maybe it makes sense to look too at Laruelle’s book “Introduction au non-marxisme”? I can’t claim to know the text well but if i remember it was written in the wake of the failure of actually existing Marxism (the end of the Soviet Union, etc.) — but he refuses to try to argue if it did or didn’t fail. Also refuses to try to “amend” or deconstruct Marxism, all because this would constitute an attempt to add further philosophy. Instead he wants to “philosophically impoverish” Marxism with the goal of “universalizing” it through a “scientific mode of universalization.” He also dismisses Sartre, Althusser, Henry, Balibar, and even Derrida, claiming that they all “normalized” Marxism. Yet Laruelle is happy to save the Marxian–and totalizing–concept of “determination in the last instance,” which seems to be central to non-philosophy. Laruelle’s goal is to melt or fuse together philosophy (as Principle of Sufficient Philosophy) and capitalism (as Principle of Sufficient Economy) into a single object or a process of “worlding” or “globalization” (mondialisation).
Also, on behalf of the Jamesonians out there (if indeed any of us still exist), I might stress that totality in Marxism refers to capitalism, of course, but more importantly that it refers to history itself. Which means that totality is not exclusively a sinister thing that must be resisted (although it is that too, as you point out). Totality is simply what’s empirically real, from the lowest depravities of capitalist reification, to the exigencies of daily life (which of course for the Marxist are the same thing). So in fact, to a Marxist, totality is ultimately “on our side,” if that makes any sense… and if so it might complicate your reading above, which I dare say stresses the romantic resistive militant side of things.
Re: Gibson-Graham. Nancy Fraser also has an excellent piece in the March 2009 issue of New Left Review called “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History.” Highly recommended.
(PS: if you send me your mailing address I’d be happy to mail you a copy of “The Exploit.”)
I’ve only had a chance to read the chapter on DLI in ‘Introduction au non-marxisme’, but I think you’re right about the ways in which Laruelle brings together capitalism and philosophy, and melds them into a similar process of totalization. This is sort of the undercurrent of my post – namely, how non-philosophy sees philosophy in this totalizing way, in the same way that some Marxism sees capitalism. But if it’s not the case that philosophy is totalizing, then it’s not clear the non-philosophy provides the correct way out. That being said, I think it’s much harder to argue that philosophy (i.e. correlationism) isn’t totalizing in the way suggested. But again, ANT might provide some useful resources to tackle the problem in an alternative way.
I hadn’t thought of that Jamesonian perspective, but that’s quite interesting. I think, along with what Carl mentioned above, there is a sense in which totalization and unification can create a simple entity which can much more easily be focused upon. My problem though is simply that it seems to have led to an era where we can’t think otherwise. But I’ll have to go back to some Jameson and check your point out in more depth.
Respectfully, identifying the USSR with “actually existing Marxism” is surely a totalizing move. The USSR’s marxism was at best only ever *hegemonic* within marxism and was never – despite the claims of its loyalists in the USSR and abroad – identical with marxism as such. I don’t know if Nick has a similar perspective on marxism as what you imply here, but part of my own hesitation for the claims made in the post is that I think actually existing marxism has been far more diverse than is suggested here, and that some of the more heterodox and interesting currents get left out.
Nate, I completely agree with your point about how actually existing Marxism (or capitalism, or market-making) has been much more diverse than typically recognized. This is sort of where my problem stems from – more from the theoretical simplifications of economies, rather than the actually existing economies themselves (a division which could itself be problematized to some degree). But theoretically, we tend to paint ourselves into a corner, and that’s a major problem.
I realize now that I basically made the same point twice, once above and then again in response to Alex – I hadn’t seen that you’d already replied to the first, sorry about that. For what it’s worth, I think your points are quite fair as a description of say Negri’s recent work. Pardon some pedantry on my part please – ‘autonomia’ is a bit of a retroactive term of art as a (self?)description of those folk, the hegemonic figures in all that are in my mind really quite bad about relating the movement and intellectual histories they come out of, particularly the level of disagreement and difference that characterized that history. In a sense, Negri’s totalizing theoretical perspective is matched by his totalizing of the various contexts his work came out of. As someone who is really interested in some of the debates and competing interpretations of Marx from the late 1960s and early 1970s that he drew on and was in dialog with, I find it frustrating when he and his readers act as if his work is the aufhebung of all that. It’s particularly frustrating because so much of that work – and the more recent work of other people who were involved in all that – is untranslated. His recent popularity could have been a spur to translating more of that work, if the orientation had been “this is one interesting strain that used to be part of this larger conversation, other parts of that conversation should also be translated, and other people who like Negri have moved on also have interesting recent work.”
Grumble grumble, why doesn’t everyone devote more energy the obscure marxistology matters that I care about grumble grumble. :)
Sorry, just to clarify, by “his readers” I meant people who are in a general sense Negrian, not directed at you!
Thanks Nate – I, for one, appreciate your devotion to “obscure marxistology”! :) I certainly don’t know everything, so I’m quite happy to have people point out where they believe I’m wrong or misrepresenting thinkers and movements.
This is the *practical* problem I have with even this kind of benign framing, as you say, “The problem is, precisely as you say, to think capitalism’s power and its fragility – both its resilience and its fragmented nature”.
I would want to ask: Is Micro lending “good” or “bad”?
Is it “good” because it undermines long lasting pattriarchial and abstractly corporate repressive social structures, lifting an under class out of acute poverty situations.
Or is it “bad” because it simply replicates Capitalism, spreading it into every nook and cranny of our problem-solving, exhibiting the very all-pervasive fragmentizing powers of that totalizing power?
It is really the rhetorical picture of Capitalism, the image of it as tentacled, or viral, or nano’d, and onmipresent, that makes Micro Lending de facto “bad” I suspect. And while there may very well be practical, or even sociological problems with Micro Lending, the biggest “problem” is that it is Captialism, the spreading of the Marxist enemy. Ah, Capitalism is morphing, its changing its colors, its resisting, see, now its even working to help the very poor, people want to say.
Right, there’s a knee-jerk tendency to see capitalism everywhere and infesting every social relation, which is exactly what I’m trying to argue against. I, in fact, think it’s quite easy to argue that micro-credit is a valuable innovation, and possibly non-capitalist in the sense that it supports self-employment where the producer and the seller are united. That’s what an over-totalizing picture of capitalism leads us to overlook – the heterogeneity of economic and social relations, and productive processes.
Nick: “I, in fact, think it’s quite easy to argue that micro-credit is a valuable innovation, and possibly non-capitalist in the sense that it supports self-employment where the producer and the seller are united. That’s what an over-totalizing picture of capitalism leads us to overlook – the heterogeneity of economic and social relations, and productive processes.”
Kvond: This is what is so interesting. In the first part you have to qualify micro lending as “not capitalism” in order to qualify it is a “good”. What about the preposterous idea that micro lending REALLY IS capitalism, and it is still good.
Is there not a sense in which micro lending actually promotes ethical relations by maximizing capitalism, just as radical democracy might very well promote ethical relations by maximizing democratization.
But it isn’t really about micro lending per se, but about how EVERYTHING has to be distanced from the very name of Capitalism if it is to be seen as “good” (from the Marxist, liberal perspective). This is the product of the very oppositional, rhetorical need to have a systematic enemy.
I think you’re reading too much into my comment – I never said capitalism was ‘bad’, and even if we want to consider micro-credit a capitalist relation, I’d still consider it a net positive. To be quite honest (and maybe I’ll have my Marxism license revoked), I think capitalism has been a huge benefit in a number of areas. The exponential rise in per capita income over the past 2 centuries has brought billions out of poverty. And as Deleuze and Guattari noted, capitalism has been wildly successful in breaking down oppresive traditional structures in the name of more molecular subjectivities. Those are just two of the biggest positives it’s given us.
My point with micro-credit was that even if we were to see capitalism as entirely negative, I don’t think micro-credit operates in the same exploitative way that a factory job might.
Nick: “My point with micro-credit was that even if we were to see capitalism as entirely negative, I don’t think micro-credit operates in the same exploitative way that a factory job might.”
Kvond: Sure. I suppose that I am questioning the entire “no good can come from Capitalism” perspective (whether you hold it or not), a position in which you provide some redemptive place for Micro Lending: “its not even real Capitalism”. It is just this “We must maintain our theoretical, absolute categories of valuation in the face of counter evidence” that I have a problem with. I wholly accept that this is NOT your position, but the idea that Marxism must be maintained despite catastrophical historical brutalities in the name of Marxism (“that isn’t even Marxism), or even beneficient micro lending practices (“that isn’t even Capitalism), is pretty much ridiculous. When I see us making more room for Marxism in this way, I buck. I took your “micro lending isn’t even Captialism” to be something of this kind of thought.
But I say this as someone who never really had a Marxist license to turn in, while I find Marxist-inspired critiques of society quite interesting.
I think we’re pretty much in agreement on these issues. I tend to think Marxism provides some of the best analyses of capitalism, and is much more able to explain the repetition of things like crises and resistances than neoclassical economics is. I don’t think it’s at all clear that it has the right solutions though (but I am willing to admit that any socio-economic system will inevitably have major flaws, so Marxism’s not alone there).
Nick: “but I am willing to admit that any socio-economic system will inevitably have major flaws, so Marxism’s not alone there”
Kvond: And do you feel that the “flaws” of historical Marxism (actually practiced Leninism, Maoism), are in human, moral terms somehow equivalent to the flaws of other socio-economic perspectives?
I think whether they’re somehow equivalent is basically an unanswerable question (i.e. what could possibly be an agreed upon metric to determine that?)
You seemed to be saying “hey, they all have problems” . But isn’t the point to make a strong valuation of which perspectives have the biggest, or perhaps really, the most eggregeous problems? I mean why pussy-foot around the issue?
When you say something like, ” I think capitalism has been a huge benefit in a number of areas” are you not making a determinative evaluation? Implicit is “capitalism has been a greater benefit than other approaches” is it not? Or am I simply misreading you? For you there is a kind of equivocality of all socio-economic approaches?
For me the “metric” is always an ethical metric, and is largely seen in terms of the relative freedom granted to person (and things, environments). But there is also a sense in which when a government carries out systematic, ideologically redeemed murder of its citizens, at a very high rate (think Maoist Cultural Revolution, think Khmer Rouge), this is pretty much off the scale for some very important reasons. When our rationalizing starts murdering consciously and systematically, there is a deadly short-circuit in the Law that undermines much else in our moralizing.
My point is more that an answer to that question would take not only a book, but a whole career to try and justify. It’s just not something I can give a reasonable answer to in a blog comment.
You’re right that direct killing by communist governments is an atrocity that should be faced up to by anyone reading Marx. My problem is that capitalism often gets away with atrocities, simply because they’re more indirect. The Great Depression was a major cause of the rise of fascism and WWII. The problems of climate change are a result of the industrial revolution, the insatiable appetite for resources, and capitalists’ incentives to resist meaningful action, and will likely leave a trail of destruction as well. Even if we’re talking just about the scale of destruction (a metric which is itself highly questionable), it’s not clear which system is better.
nick: “You’re right that direct killing by communist governments is an atrocity that should be faced up to by anyone reading Marx. My problem is that capitalism often gets away with atrocities, simply because they’re more indirect.”
Kvond: I feel that there is both an instinct, and a rational, critical analysis which would reveal the former to be “worse” than the latter. This has to do with the very perversity of the Law itself. When the Law has a kind of ideological autonomy to murder/erase there is a degree of atrocity that moves into a categorical dimension. In a certain sense the “gets away with” in both versions is different. The “getting away with” in the Great Depression can be critiqued from within in a manner in which the “getting away with” that the Khmer Rouge cannot. Not only is there the room for this auto-critique (of a kind, such that for instance almost all of the dominant and very wealthy American intuitions of higher education out of which the economically elite come, teach Marxism as THE critique of Capitalism) but there is the pragmatic address of problems of failure in terms of causes, i.e. there is steerage within Capitalism away from Great Depressions, if possible.
If indeed you view climate change as a Capitalist catastrophe (its hard to imagine that a real world Communist state would worry much about the environment when the wealth of “the people” is at stake), the very celebrity of Al Gore, not matter how ridiculous it is, is suggestive that correction is involved in the very structure of Capitalist relations. Instead it seems that lies beneath the “all systems are bad” is the general sense that the suffering that indeed stems from Capitalism has to be laid at SOMEONE’s or something’s feet.
The kinds of atrocities of real world Marxist pursuits are of a category that I think are of the more dangerous, and perhaps pernicious kind, and it may only be from (real accumulations of elite wealth) ivory towers and some historical distance that they regain their ideal sheen.
Kvond – I respect your writing and your thought enormously. (That’s not false praise or disingenuous or whatever.) But this is bullshit. I know it’s a fact of current life – but I’m really sick of the way that any time anyone mentions Marx on the blogosphere (or, generally, in real life) someone comes along and says: what about Stalin? Aren’t you endorsing mass murder? How can you admire Marx and not also want everybody killed, secretly or inadvertently? Here are some obvious, easily verifiable facts: Marxism, both theoretically and in political practice, is an extremely heterogeneous tradition. It does not equal Stalinism. Or the Khmer Rouge. Seriously. It just doesn’t. Second fact: the choice is not between actually existing capitalism and a system modelled after the USSR. These are not, in fact, the only two conceivable forms of political organisation. If someone criticises capitalism, in a manner informed by the (heterogeneous, see fact 1) Marxist tradition, this does not mean that they are advocating murderous totalitarianism. Even secretly or inadvertently.
The opposition between capitalism and murderous totalitarianism is an ideological opposition that a huge amount of brainpower and resources have been devoted to producing and disseminating. If you want to look at the education of the economically elite, this would I think be a more pertinent ideological structure to investigate than academic Marxism. (Of course eeevil Muslim extremists have recently been picking up a lot of the Manichean slack left over by the collapse of the USSR).
To be clear, I share a lot of your criticisms of academic leftism. But seriously – what societal function do you think this segment of the academy serves? Why do you think critique of capitalism takes place in an academic sphere completely dissociated from policy-making, popular influence, or even, for the most part, basic empirical facts? You say that the ivory-tower position of academic Marxism allows it to ignore real-world atrocities. I think this is true, to an extent – the radical left was clearly scarred by the horrifying failure of the Soviet ‘experiment’, it fled into abstraction, I’m not disputing that (though it’s more complex than a one-sentence intellectual history). But this is obviously not the main thing going on. The main thing going on is that intellectual critique of the current system is being channelled into avenues where it has no efficacy or power. One of the chief mechanisms of this is the fucking constant repetition of these same, endless, tired, stupid, demonstrably false talking points (What about Stalin? Aren’t you apologising for the Khmer Rouge?), as a way of shutting down any kind of sensible critique. Why can’t we have a rational discussion about 1) How best to analyse capitalism; and 2) What political choices are advisable given our analysis – without constantly having to talk about what an evil guy Stalin was?
Duncan: “Marxism, both theoretically and in political practice, is an extremely heterogeneous tradition. It does not equal Stalinism. Or the Khmer Rouge. Seriously.”
Kvond: Who said it “equals” Stalinism, or Maoism, or Leninism? I suggested that there is a relationship between Marxism and the REAL world attempts to impliment it. Hey, perhaps Marxism just had a bad run of it, some PR problems of a genocide here, and a genocide there. But perhaps not.
Saying that Marxism is heterogeneous is pretty much bogus, for one just as easily could say (and this is the point of Nick’s) that Capitalism is heterogeneous. Yes, Marxism is all the “good stuff” once you filter out the dross of genocides, and Capitalism is all the “bad stuff” once you filter out all the increase in standards of living.
Why is it that Marxism can’t be criticized (either historically or in terms of its current highly elite, academic, white, male advocacy) without people getting all bent out of shape?
An example of this hyperbole: Who in the world suggested that if you are a Marxist of one sort or another means that you are supporting genocide? Who is calling you, or anyone else an “apologist”? (Please quote me if you would, and let me know where I have said this.)
Sometimes it feels like when discussing Marxism one is discussing religion.
Duncan, actually your diatribe pissed me off a bit. Honestly, being forced to be silent about Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge, etc. etc, sometimes is like being told not to pay attention to Britney Spears’s episode with baldness, her mental breakdown and the loss of her children. Just pay attention to her “hot” Catholic school girl years, people want to say.
Hey, I am quite in favor a Marxist critique of Capitalism, all good. But when people tell me they are tired of hearing the bad stuff that came out of Marxism, and about the warning signals such atrocities might be offering to any REAL WORLD instantiation of Marxist principles, this is close to ideological head-in-sand as it gets. If one is serious about Marxism as something other than mastabatory critique from afar, in the abstract, meant to sell books to pimple-faced teenagers that have grown up enough to head to college, and book lecture tours, I would think you would never tire of thinking about all the ways that Marxism indeed went wrong, and could very well go wrong again.
Its like saying, never mind about how my wonderful invention blew up in some terrible way, it will work next time.
Just a reminder to keep it civil guys. We don’t have any explicit rules about commenting here, but just to let you know if I feel the discussion is getting out of hand (it’s already far off topic!), I’m going to close the comments. Feel free to call me a fascist pig :)
If you feel that I have crossed the civility line, please do edit out the comments as you see fit.
Nick – apologies if I’m transgressing comment policy or civility norms. As kvond says – please of course edit or delete my comments as appropriate.
kvond. various things.
– “Saying that Marxism is heterogeneous is pretty much bogus, for one just as easily could say (and this is the point of Nick’s) that Capitalism is heterogeneous.” Yes – both are heterogeneous, and it is not bogus to point this out – in relation to either. It’s useful, in discussions of both capitalism and Marxism (and I don’t think these are really parallel categories) to draw attention to the non-homogeneity of these things, in order to take an accurate measure of them.
I’m really really not objecting to the denunciation of the crimes and atrocities of Stalinism (as an example). Such denunciations have of course been articulated (and were articulated very early) from within the Marxist tradition. (Obviously fuckloads of people outside the tradition made powerful and accurate critiques – I’m just sayin’.) Neither am I objecting to discussions of the relationship between Marxist politics / theory, and the regimes and social movements that were born of Marxist political endeavours – revolutionary or otherwise, murderous or otherwise. I think, like you, that it is important to have a clear sense of the history of attempts at political emancipation, precisely because many of those attempts had catastrophically non-emancipatory results which we absolutely don’t want to repeat.
I object to none of this. What I object to is the well-trodden discursive path that leads from Marxism, as a general, non-too-clearly-specified category, to murderous political crime, without the absolutely necessary attempt to give an adequate account of what the relationship is here, what the categories are, how we should understand these complex historical movements, etc. etc. This discursive move has the function of shutting down the analysis that it claims to be demanding. By all means go after such-and-such an academic Marxist, or strand of Marxist theorising. (I might disagree with that too, of course, but it’d be a different sort of thing…) What I object to here is this move from ‘Marxism’ per se to these notorious political crimes – and the corresponding suppression of the many aspects of ‘Marxism’ that have, frankly, nothing to do with totalitarian mass murder.
I understand why you’re pissed off at my tone, obviously. But my tone comes from the fact that I’m pissed off at the way large swathes of emancipatory politics and political-economic theorising are routinely and rapidly and without much in the way of argument connected to mass murder.
I mean I agree with you, kvond, about the Manichean perspective of some Marxism – a totalising analysis of capitalism producing pointless oppositional logic, etc. etc. But the manner in which you discuss this treats Marxism as homogenous in a closely parallel way. “I suppose that I am questioning the entire “no good can come from Capitalism” perspective”. But of course a large part of Marx’s point is that capitalism produces and makes available emancipatory resources – that a future society will be built out of the materials of capitalism. The Manichean analysis you critique is opposed to this aspect of Marx’s work.
Duncan: “I object to none of this. What I object to is the well-trodden discursive path that leads from Marxism, as a general, non-too-clearly-specified category, to murderous political crime, without the absolutely necessary attempt to give an adequate account of what the relationship is here, what the categories are, how we should understand these complex historical movements, etc. etc.”
Kvond: Then we are in agreement, and nicely so. Keep in mind that I was responding to a very loose and wide characterization of comparitive evils by Nick, what I read to be “Marxism has some historical evils on its ledger, but so has Capitalism”. What I was attempting was to force Nick to take a position on the kinds, the categories of evils here, for instance his citing of the Great Depression, and my citing of the Khmer Rouge. There is surely very complex analysis due each of these phenomena, but as long as we are generalizing, I suggest that the kind of atrocity that was perpetrated by Mao was categorically different that that commited by robber barons in the US.
I no way do I presume a logical necessity that economic policies that follow from Marxist principles of analysis necessarily lead to genocide, but one certainly has to be aware that there has been a historical problem with this in the past. Perhaps there is an endemic danger to State policies informed by Marx (both the theoretician, and the figure). I don’t know. But if we are placing the atrocities that were done in the “name” of Marx (at the very least), and those in the “name” of Capitalism, these are largely of a different kind.
Whether the future that is built out of the materials of Capitalism (is democracy a “material of Capitalism”?) is still called Capitalism or not seems to me something more of a nomological concern. But I strongly suspect that if it not called Capitalism, is won’t be called Marxism, or Communism either.
Like Duncan (I think), I found myself both agreeing strongly and disagreeing strongly with your comments. Here’s my take. Many of the critics of great atrocities committed by some self-styled marxists were opposed by and criticized by other marxists, and many of those atrocities had as their victims other marxists (in Russia and around the world).
So, what’s frustrating read your comments is that you seem on the one hand to be denouncing great crimes in need of denunciation but attributing them to an agent that at least some of the victims and critics of those crimes (at the time of their commitment) would not have agreed with. You are in a sense implying that the aggressors were right in their self-representations as the Real Marxists and that some of the victims and losers, while sympathetic qua victims, were wrong in their insistence on another version of marxism. Actually existing marxism at any point in time, like most big ideas (especially those tied to social projects and organizations, like say Christianity), has involved a great deal of debate over ideas, conflicts over resources and direction, etc. We can identify consistencies in the terrain at any point in time and trends over time, but I think it’s really important to note that for almost any Marxist Position – perhaps not in terms of analysis but definitely in terms of organization and political tactics etc – there is likely a corresponding opposite Marxist Position. (For instance, the Bolksheviks vs the Mensheviks, or in the early 20th century US the “elect political candidates and pass progressive legislation” marxists in the Socialist Party and the “form industrial unions and carry out general strikes” marxists in the IWW, to name only two of a great many examples.)
Put another way, you rightly bang on about terrible crimes committed by some real evil folk and yet you seem to take those evil folks’ self-representation rather uncritically and in doing so you leave out a fair bit of at least some of the victims’ self-representations. This seems to me rather like making claims about democracy and liberation based on President Bush’s proclamations about democratizing and liberating as part of imperialist foreign policy. The actions are clearly to be denounced and opposed; the vocabulary used, though, while subject to criticism in this context, is not reducible to its use in context.
Sorry to post twice, but on Mao and Stalin vs US robber barons and so on – part of why I find frustrating what I take be the flattening in some of this thread is that I’m quite taken with marxist criticisms of the experiences you list, which criticize their self-representation as marxist and communist and instead argue that they were equally describable as capitalist – specifically, state capitalist. It may well be that those state capitalist regimes were more murderous than other types of capitalist countries (it;s been a while but I’m pretty sure I’ve read stuff by some heterodox trotskyists who thought that), but that’s only partly related.
This is somewhat off topic, but this point was made for me very strongly several years ago when I happened to be reading Michael Perelman’s excellent book The Invention of Capitalism at the same time I was reading Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s exciting memoir-and-manifesto about the May events in Paris 1968. Cohn-Bendit’s descriptions of the ideas and actions of Trotsky and Russia are strikingly similar to Perelman’s description of the ideas and policy recommendations of people like Say much earlier in Scotland. There were quotes that were almost eerily alike, something to the effect of ‘shoot and hang the peasants until they shall submit to working as they are told.’
Nate says it much better than I did.
Another thing is that this association – Marxism & Stalin & mass murder – doesn’t even have to work as argument in order to perform its function – it operates through the association of ideas. It’s a little like advertising. Cars; beautiful woman. Marxism; Stalin. And as any ad exec – or propagandist – knows, these associations are much more effective, much more potent, if there’s some real connection there, which can be played up, made dominant, while all other associations are downplayed or obliterated. Marxism is branded via the association with Stalin & terror. And what this brand promotes isn’t Marxism (obviously) but capitalism, imperialist violence, exploitation. (Of course Marxism is also branded within certain small communities in an entirely different way – in sections of the academy Marxism is a cool thing, a status symbol, a proof of how radical and transgressive one is, as one adheres to this community’s communally produced ideal of transgression. But this is an exception, of course, which takes place in precisely the academic communities that have no real influence, and which serves both as a safety valve within the academy – reassuring dissent – and as a way of neutralising critique, by dissociating it from concrete goals. One of the things that’s frustrating to me in this discussion is that ‘Marxism’ is (at times) being treated as if it’s intellectually hegemonic. That’s true for some intellectual communities; not for the most politically influential intellectual communities; not for most intellectual communities. (And of course as we saying there’s not just one ‘Marxism’.) If you go to an economics department and praise Marx you’ll get dismissive associations and lack of substantive engagement. And this stuff has a purpose.)
It’s partly frustrating, and wearying, because this propagandist function can be served even if the ‘dominant’ association is in fact rejected. If discussions of Marxism constantly lead into discussions of Stalin and totalitarianism and political violence, this performs its function of maintaining the association and preventing more nuanced discussion even if the conclusion of the debate is that more nuanced discussion is desirable. The association leaves its mark, redirects discussion towards the association, constantly defers real analysis, reinforces the ideological space that uses this association to justify violences currently taking place. Obviously comments like this one do not break with that logic – but stil.
” but on Mao and Stalin vs US robber barons and so on – part of why I find frustrating what I take be the flattening in some of this thread is that I’m quite taken with marxist criticisms of the experiences you list, which criticize their self-representation as marxist and communist and instead argue that they were equally describable as capitalist – specifically, state capitalist.”
Kvond: Yes, you are right, everything bad in 20th century histsory is Capitalism (we can see it everywhere!), and everything good is Marxism, undeveloped. Even when Marxism has been brutal in its attempted implimentation, Capitalism has simply crept in and ruined it. Damn. And yes, Khmer Rouge Agrarian transformations had nothing to do with Marx. If only they had read the master more closely.
I guess the problem with Marx is that when REAL people, in REAL situations, in the REAL world try to impliment his thinking, they just are not smart enough (don’t have enough degrees) to do it RIGHT, and they end up producing some of the most brutal, horrific Capitalist forms imaginable. Even if such is the case, this make Marxism a pretty bad idea, especially when it requires so many “smart” people to make sure it doesn’t devolve into pretty much evil.
This is one of those very good arguments in which I agree with everyone and everyone agrees with each other, so what’s accomplished is ultimately a really nuanced calibration of a shared position. I think. I also have to say that I find it really, really refreshing about aficionados of Marx that they know how to argue without getting all fragile and hurt.
Since we all agree that crimes were committed in the name of marxism, but that all marxists are not criminals (and some were victims of the others’ crimes), maybe we can move the analysis along a little bit by considering if there’s something conditional about particular instances of marxism and ‘the real world’ that synergize to enable murderous outcomes. I’d suggest there are three key factors, two internal to marxism, one external. They play off each other, so this is not a linear list.
1.) Replacement of the post-political ANT-style analysis of Capital with the ultra-politicized totalizing analysis of the “Manifesto.” As we’ve discussed above this is an expedient shortcut to political identity and revolutionary action via a reduction of the forces in play to the manichean alternative of Good (proletariat, communism) and Evil (bourgeoisie, capitalism). This move then moralizes (see, e.g., Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours and Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror) the terrible expedients that may make the ultimate overcoming of terror possible.
2.) Seizure of power. The Wobblies may not have been quite so cuddly if they’d actually been in charge, and Bukharin is a much more sympathetic figure given that he held no decisive power. Althusser’s a mixed case…. The point, however, is that these are unanswerable counterfactuals; citing them proves nothing about marxism’s penchant or not for murder, which may remain latent when marxists are safely in opposition. The single instance I can think of of a marxoid movement giving up power rather than become murderous to protect it is Ortega and the Sandinistas. Like Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem I wish there were more of those examples.
3. External opposition. Good luck not having it, and it’s decisive (which is why Trotsky thought only global revolution would work). Would Stalin have been possible without the Whites and their support by the West? Mao was clearly a megalomaniac, but would his virtuosity for conflict have dominated the PRC if it hadn’t been born in civil and international strife? The most promising counterexample is probably North Vietnam, which remained fiercely emancipatory despite anticolonial struggle but was ultimately pushed into compact totalitarianism by the need to concentrate resources and motivation against the U.S.
Of course this analytic is basically ad hoc and ideal-typical. But the question would also be subject to an ANTsy analysis. What would that look like?
Carl, I don’t have anything to say about 2. and 3. (perhaps others will) but I’d just suggest that 1. starts from flawed premised. I think it assumes there was a political (young) Marx and a scientific (old) Marx, when a lot of non-Althusserian Marxism has been devoted to showing – I’m thinking particularly about Harry Cleaver’s book ‘Reading Capital Politically’ – how Marx’s Capital is _highly_ political, and its analysis of its object tried to empower and inform the very same praxis theorised in Marx’s pre-Capital writings (indeed Marx didn’t stop writing pamphlets or leave the International whilst writing Capital). The analysis in Capital has to be read as a _critique_ of political economy, a discipline which itself happily de-politicised, naturalised and rendered ‘scientific’ the workings of capitalism. Calling politicisation a ‘shortcut’ is really – I blame ANT, not you – an abdication of the demands implicit in that critique itself: critique of false appearances implies a praxis that further de-reifies, unmasks and finally tries to throw off oppression. To politicise in this sense is in no way necessarily to overlook the number of forces in play in capitalism, though I’ve no doubt there were in history some who have in Marx’s name ‘reduced the forces’ as you put it. An unfortunate implication of point 1. is that the more forces one takes into account the less one will see a need for, or the possibility of, a praxis aimed at dismantling capitalism, a conclusion which I think is an abdication (but one with a long history); it’s also, IMHO, alien to Marx’s thinking.
Brilliant Carl. I like it.
Good Christ Carl those are big questions.
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All right. First off – I agree with Utisz that calling Capital post-political is sorta bizarre. Second: In the interests of pushing back gently against the framing of these issues in terms of the murderousness of Marxism, rather than the to-date failure of large-scale emancipatory politics, I think I’ll point out that there are plenty of Marxist and Leftist regimes that have not turned totalitarian in the face of external opposition, but have simply been fucked over by that opposition – through sanctions that destroy the country’s economy; through international economic and political pressure that necessitates capitulation to capitalist demands if the economy isn’t going to be fucked over; and through straightforward coups, assassinations, and invasions. I think it’s somewhat misleading to frame discussion of external opposition to emancipatory politics in terms of forces driving leftist regimes towards murderousness, rather than just in terms of forces destructive of emancipation. A turn to murderousness is one of the ways this pressure can manifest itself – it is, historically, an important way. But I think the issue is more clearly and accurately framed if other results of the same pressures are given comparable weight.
Which is to say that to my mind Carl’s #3 is the most central issue here. To reframe the question: how can the capitalist dynamic of relentless, blind (and therefore, of course, crisis-prone) economic growth, and the corresponding dynamic of exploitation, poverty-production, and social control through coercive labour and unemployment be overcome, when this dynamic is enforced not just in a given national economy, but through the international system?
As an aside: This is one reason why I believe that Nate’s raising of the analysis of self-described communist regimes in terms of state capitalism is really poorly understood if it’s seen as an attempt simply to align all of the Bad Things with capitalism. I haven’t read much of the state-capitalism literature, so I don’t want to say much on this, but I think if you understand capitalism in terms something along the lines I just gestured towards – as a global dynamic of on the one hand blind growth, and on the other hand the production and reproduction of a coercive demand for labour [and the production of poverty as one of the means to enforce the coercion of labour] [and the movement between coerced employment and poverty-threatened / poverty-stricken unemployment as part of a constant self-transformation of capitalist economies, the collapse and global relocation of old industries and the regular creation of new industries and new markets enforcing this social dynamic] [when of course there’s no technical or logistical reason why we couldn’t just have a lot more time off, and allocate resources so that people get fed and given medicine] [my understanding of capitalism as a self-transforming coercive social dynamic focussed on the expulsion and re-absorption of labour is entirely derived, I should say, from NP’s work on Marx (as is a lot of other stuff; which doesn’t of course mean that NP would put things like this…)]… if we understand capitalism in something like these terms, then the analysis of the USSR, for instance, in terms of state capitalism is neither stupid nor self-exculpating. As Carl says, external pressures are one of the principal reasons why would-be Marxist regimes fail; these external pressures are, almost always, in one way or another, pressures of capitalism. Those pressures are generally either resisted, with catastrophic results for the regime… or channelled, with catastrophic results for the regime’s subjects. All an aside, but I think relevant.
So to my mind the question is: how can an emancipatory politics maintain itself when it is located in a larger socio-political network oriented – blindly, though via the active violence of brutal political actors – towards the destruction of emancipation? And, then, how can such a politics aim towards the large-scale transformation of society (and the construction of a less murderous socio-economic system – which would remove the pressures we’re talking about) given such a location? [As an aside: I think this question needs to be tackled by any would-be emancipatory politics, whether it self-identifies as Marxist or not; but that one of the virtues of Marx, as a political thinker, is that his analysis is sufficiently complex to allow this question to be usefully posed.]
Running off to one of my little bourgeois activities in my little bourgeois life, but a couple of quick thoughts:
Although I agree in principle with most of what Utisz and Duncan say, there’s still this tendency, flagged by Latour and channeled by Kvond above, to treat ‘capitalism’ as an active and tendentially totalized entity. So capitalism is out there, and it does stuff that we would like to resist.
Latour/ANT reject this way of thinking and it’s worth considering why. It’s not just to flinch from bad history or to abdicate political responsibility. It’s because capitalism is actually, really not an entity in this way, and acting as if it is predictably produces perverse outcomes with respect to the project of total emancipation.
Really gotta run.
Duncan: “So to my mind the question is: how can an emancipatory politics maintain itself when it is located in a larger socio-political network oriented – blindly, though via the active violence of brutal political actors – towards the destruction of emancipation?”
Kvond: Manicheanism, expressed in too many words.
Kvond: “Manicheanism, expressed in too many words.”
Because it’s totalising? (I don’t believe it is.) Because it sees some stuff as good and other stuff as bad? (I think that’s called making judgements.) Because it uses a different definition of capitalism to yours? There’s an actual analysis here. It’s fine if you don’t like it, but just saying ‘Manicheanism’ doesn’t do much work.
Carl: “this tendency, flagged by Latour and channeled by Kvond above, to treat ‘capitalism’ as an active and tendentially totalized entity. So capitalism is out there, and it does stuff that we would like to resist.”
Carl – I think this gets to the heart of the issue (w/r/t Marxism and ANT – we’re back on topic!). What does it mean to treat ‘capitalism’ as an active and tendentially totalized entity? First of all, cards on the table (if they’re not there already, which I’m pretty sure they are), I obviously that think there is such a thing as capitalism. I think that large-scale patterns and structures can manifest and reproduce themselves through the multitudinous smaller scale activities that make up our societies. Aspects of those large-scale tendencies / structures can be picked out using the term ‘capitalism’. I think this is sort of obvious, you know? So I disagree with the positions discussed earlier in the thread which say: capitalism is sort of a projection, it’s all in the mind, there’s just lots of markets or whatever. Sure there’s lots of markets – and lots of other stuff – but that doesn’t mean we can’t detect really-existent larger-scale patterns and analyse them too.
So: what’s the status and nature of the self-reproducing form of social organisation that we’re [or I’m] calling ‘capitalism’? Well, Marx tried to give a really elaborate answer to that question in Capital. I think that, for the most part, it’s a good answer. What does it mean to say that capitalism acts? Well – while of course neo-classical economics is talking nonsense when it sees capitalism as oriented to an efficient general equilibrium, there’s still a fairly strong sense in which capitalism is a self-organising system. [When I say ‘self-organising’ I of course don’t mean to ascribe either a self or agency to capitalism – I’m just using the term in its regular sense.] Self-organising systems that successfully reproduce themselves often do so because a large scale family-resemblance of patterns maintains itself even through considerable changes in the system’s component parts. These patterns or structures are what we’re referring to when we talk about ‘capitalism’. When we talk, if we do, about capitalism ‘acting’ we simply mean the actions of actors that are part of the network, which actions, whether deliberately (as in policy responses to the financial crisis, say) or non-deliberately (as in most people’s regular day-to-day economic lives) serve to reproduce the larger-scale structure. More micrological analysis would of course be required to give an account of how that reproduction functions in any given set of cases. This is one of the tasks of political economy.
I’m not sure if this satisfies? It seems to me that the choice between ANT-style analysis and analysis of capitalism as a global self-reproducing system is a false choice?
Duncan, I’m sorry I just try to avoid such concept as forces that bring the “destruction of emancipation”. Firstly, it is horribly rhetorical, and leads to the necessary reversals Zizek speaks of, i.e. “Liberty for all….Death to the enemies of Liberty!”. At best opposing forces (in my view) are not best seen as enemies of emanicipation (in general, in the abstract). We want to speak of specific emancipations, and specific attempt to restrict them, not Emancipation pure.
Secondly, it may well be that the imaginary, totalizing Noble Lie of Enemism is both cognitively and politically necessary to intensify and galvanize the ignorant masses, but the cognitive function of Enemism also works upon the Vanguard (which, I suppose, is composed people who understand things like you would like to, smart enough to feret out all the analysis beneath the Evil of the systematic “destruction of emancipation”); The very Noble Lie requires a deep concentration of REAL power, unlikely to be relinquished. In short, Enemism becomes the political/cognitive path to organized resistence, and also the cybernetic feedback loop of justified Vanguardism.
Thanks Duncan, it does satisfy and that’s also how I think it makes sense to talk about a thing called capitalism.
And based on this agreement I think we can further agree that if that’s how it works, then treating capitalism as a coherent totality has exactly the same sorts of misleading and counterproductive effects as treating marxism that way. So “if discussions of [capitalism] constantly lead into discussions of [the Great Depression and poverty] and political violence, this performs its function of maintaining the association and preventing more nuanced discussion even if the conclusion of the debate is that more nuanced discussion is desirable. The association leaves its mark, redirects discussion towards the association, constantly defers real analysis, reinforces the ideological space that uses this association to justify [analytical] violences currently taking place.” ;-p
In short, capitalism is a bricolage that functions, not by some nefarious projective logic, but by an ordinary burkean/darwinian pragmatics of accumulated kludges. The challenge for marxism and other radical politics has always been to replace what Gramsci called the endless (sterminato) permutations of this unconscious existential manifold with a fully-intentional community. Which may not even be possible, which is why all hitherto-existing radical politics have attempted to find some key to simplifying the dynamics.
I felt a bit rude here steaming into someone else’s blog and arguing at length like this, which already made me hesitant to dig in. Your comment “everything bad in 20th century histsory is Capitalism (we can see it everywhere!), and everything good is Marxism, undeveloped” seems like such a strong misreading of my and Duncan’s arguments that it can only be willful (given that you’re clearly super smart and well read). Both of these make me hesitant to try again, but here goes.
What I’ve tried to suggest here is that the category “marxism” in much of this thread should be disaggregated, that less broad of brush strokes are in order. That means I am *not* saying “marxism good.” Far from it. I would bet that if we could get a god’s eye view and a god’s mind caliber computer and do the tabulation we’d on balance most actually existing marxisms have been bad for humanity. I’d say the same of christianity, or rather christianities. I still don’t think that justifies the unargued move that some folk here (like you I think above all) are making, where marxism is made one thing in an overly pat manner. I raised the point about marxist victims of other marxists for two reasons, one to explain a bit of the emotional investment that I have in this (respect for the victims), and two as a piece of evidence to support my claim that actually existing marxism is not nearly the unified body that your remarks suggest it is but rather has been a matter of conflicting marxisms.
Again there’s a parallel that could be made here with the history of christianity – many of the victims of the inquisition in colonial Mexico, for instance, understood themselves as christians (catholics, actually). I’ve got a longstanding knee jerk impulse to treat christianity in a fashion analogous to your treatment of marxism here; such treatment is really satisfying at a gut level given my experiences and intuitions but it’s simply not accurate at the level of understanding actually existing christianity (as something existing in/as social practices I mean, rather than a body of ideas in abstraction).
Finally, it’s ironic to me that a primary objection of yours in all this seems to be the following: “Marxism is totalizing; totalizing is totalitarian!” or “Oppositional thinking is an error; it leads to bad practices.” On the first, you are precisely making a totalizing intellectual move in two parts – part one your reduction of actually existing marxism to figures like Lenin and Mao, and part two tour suggestion or implication that totalizing thought is in all contexts going to have the same outcomes. It seems to me that rejecting totalization in a thorough-going fashion (in a self-reflexive or metatheoretical fashion, if you will) has to mean that there aren’t a-contextual meanings or outcomes, thus totalizing intellectual moves [moves that don’t themselves contextualize], like any other bodies of thought, do not *really* have clear a-contextual results. On the second, oppositional thinking… umm, as distinct from what? Bad oppositional thinking vs good non-oppositional thinking? That distinction works really, really well until there’s an attempt to make it self-reflexive or internally consistent. A la “we reject binary distinctions! (because we implicitly hold that binary distinction are bad)” Sure, and one can get a fair bit of mileage from that, except that the founding move here is based on what the position purportedly rejects.
Nate thank you for your thoughts.
Nate: “I would bet that if we could get a god’s eye view and a god’s mind caliber computer and do the tabulation we’d on balance most actually existing marxisms have been bad for humanity.”
Kvond: That you seem to take this as a kind of close call is interesting. The point that I tried to make initially is that the kind, the quality of “bad for humanity” is categorically closer to evil than anyone outside of ivory tower intellectualism would want to ever risk.
Nate: “Again there’s a parallel that could be made here with the history of Christianity”
Kvond: I’m glad that you make parallels with Christianity because the comparisons are apt. When discussing Marxism with self-identifying Marxists one quite often gets the same doctrinal commitment to truths in the face of historical facts, the same sense of devotion. The difference of course is that historical Christianity actually as two-sides of the ledger, the brutal and the organizing, liberating one, whereas Marxism’s ledger is a bit out of balance. In short, the difference for me is that Christianity is not essentially a political and economic prescription, and can be enacted in a great variety of subjective forms (it can exist quite outside of the instantiations of Church power), whereas Marxism either exists in real States (bad track-record) or in the spiritual ghettos of Academic Institutions where the children of the elite gather to amuse themselves over the intricacies of their own revolutionary selves, where books get written by relatively privileged persons to be read by other relatively privileged persons, about how the world should best be run. Would we really want Badiou or Zizek or Jameson actually running a country or educating the persons who would be running a country?
Nate: “Finally, it’s ironic to me that a primary objection of yours in all this seems to be the following: “Marxism is totalizing; totalizing is totalitarian!” or “Oppositional thinking is an error; it leads to bad practices.””
Kvond: Actually of the two, the second is more accurate.
Nate: “On the first, you are precisely making a totalizing intellectual move in two parts – part one your reduction of actually existing marxism to figures like Lenin and Mao, and part two your suggestion or implication that totalizing thought is in all contexts going to have the same outcomes.”
Kvond: Like I have said before, I have no desire to ‘reduce’ Marxism to Leninism, Maoism, or Stalinism, but one would have to be pretty damn willful or simply indoctrinated to ignore the strong historical tendency of the one to lead into the other. It may very well be that Marxism does not HAVE to end up in one of these three, and that it requires very smart people to keep it from avoiding it, but a) the risk alone is of the nature that it makes little sense to roll those kind of historical dice, and b) if it takes such geniuses (who have not existed so far), this very dependency upon interpretation just leads to Vanguardism as a concentration of power that is quite susceptible to eternal perpetuation.
Again, I can’t say that the kinds of people who can read Hegel and Marx with great accuracy and depth tend not to be the kinds of people that I would grant enormous political and financial power to.
It does not require a logical foreclosure, where the one must lead to the other. It can simply be a stochastic prediction, a risk/reward calculation: Very, very, very bad possible results, very poor track record, a rather ivory-towered view of what “emancipation” is, ah, bad idea.
Nate: “On the second, oppositional thinking… umm, as distinct from what? Bad oppositional thinking vs good non-oppositional thinking? That distinction works really, really well until there’s an attempt to make it self-reflexive or internally consistent.”
Kvond: Fortunately, being self-reflexive and internally consistent is not required for questions of pragmatic resolve, and only scores points in philosophy class. Because of this “oppositional thinking” can be read simply as “…is a bad idea, produces historically poor results, and can often accomplish many of its stated goals through non-oppositional thinking”. You know, using a hammer for a screw is “bad” and using a screwdriver for a screw is “good”, giving us the “self-reflexive” consistency we crave.
There can be a lot written about this (Spinoza wrote a book on it), but generally when you view the enemy as outside of you, polarized into one great projection, you lose track of the real nature of your dis-empowerment. And, as I have argued elsewhere, people who emotionally invest in an “opposition” often becomes so enamored with their own position in the fight that they un/consciously do all that they can to create and perpetuate the very conditions they are fighting, for without an enemy they have no Raison d’être.
Sorry again for posting twice again, I do a fair bit of thinking only after I’ve stopped trying to think.
Kvond, on “everything good is Marxism, undeveloped,” that’s not what I was on about, as I tried to say above. I think I expressed it clumsily, but part of what I was trying to get at by mentioning that some marxists have understood that marxism as involving a criticism of the USSR etc is that those marxists have in effect said that marxism vs capitalism is at least some of the time a false dichotomy. There are or have been marxists who are or have been capitalists. It is possible to say that they’re not *really* marxists, I guess (I’ve certainly had friends who want to make that move). I don’t find that move helpful. I do want to say that those marxists are not in keeping with what I take to be the best spirit of marxism, but that doesn’t mean that what I’m on about is the One True Marxism and all else is undeveloped, it just means that there’s marxisms I like better than others, and some of those others are really disgusting and odious. Also for what it’s worth, while I do take ‘capitalist’ and ‘capitalism’ to be bad (that’s not very interesting or useful, I know), something need not be capitalist to be bad. Marx for instance has some really crap comments in his 1844 Manuscripts saying in effect that some workers can be sacrificed for the good of the class; I don’t know if that’s a capitalist sentiment or not (and I’m not interested in whether or not it is) but it’s really obviously loathsome.
Argh I’d hoped to be clearer in this comment, epic fail.
Hey Nate, I won’t speak for Nick but I think of my blog as a salon, where I propose a topic and the best possible thing that could happen is smart people steaming in and arguing at length. What a long, great thread it’s been.
Kvond, hm, well I like marxism a lot and am not content just to dump it in the wastebin of history. Why? Well for one thing I’m a feckless dreamy academic playing with ideas. But for another I think it’s helpful to have a theory other than personal malevolence, gods’ will or Fate to account for and possibly eliminate large scale, systematic bad things happening to people who don’t deserve them and can’t do much about them. By this I mean the kind of not-uncommon scenario where, say, a mining company comes in, buys up all the land, destroying the local peasants’ livelihood, takes advantage of their desperation to hire them as brute labor in appalling conditions at wages that force the whole family including the children to work for bare subsistence, pollutes the local environment with industrial chemicals and dross, then moves on, leaving behind an apocalypse of waste land, cancer and birth defects.
Although I agree that the kind of oppositional thinking that tends to animate responses to these scenarios can be counterproductive in all kinds of ways, and I’m inclined toward a stoic ethic with respect to lesser existential indignities, in cases like this I would much rather see if there’s some way to keep it from happening quite like that. What I like about marxism is that unlike the utopian socialisms there’s ideally a commitment to figuring out pragmatically how to get from here to there. This is why I think figuring out how ANT can inform marxism is worth doing.
As for the horrors of actually-existing marxism, which my students also use to dismiss the whole project (“It’s a great idea on paper, but it will never work in practice”), I argue that we gave the Constitution almost 200 years before even the formalities of freedom and equality paid off, and we’ve given the Bible 2000 years. So maybe we’re just being impatient and what’s needed is the correct configuration of historical conditions , which would fix the interpretive elite / vanguard problem. But I note that the spirit of patient pragmatic analysis and strategizing also exists in other eschatological movements. I have a cousin who busily learns obscure Central American Indian languages so she can translate the Bible into them and thus bring the Rapture closer to hand.
Carl: “Kvond, hm, well I like marxism a lot and am not content just to dump it in the wastebin of history.”
Kvond: I cannot question your affection for Marx.
Carl: “I argue that we gave the Constitution almost 200 years before even the formalities of freedom and equality paid off”
Kvond: This is an interesting class-room argument. Of course via this loose analogy it might very well be the case that Mein Kampf just had to short a gestation period (only history will tell). (darkly and humorously compared, but of course Marx has been the inspiration for a quite a bit.)
And I would disagree that the Constitution of the United States took 200 years to “pay off”. I suggest that it has been “paying off” in degrees since its inception. (I hope your bright students don’t fall for this easy trope.) The question always is, Paying off for whom?
The “Paying off for whom” in the Marxist record does not bear the same trajectory of increased benefaction. But perhaps too, as you say, the conditions are not right yet, that in the dawning of humanity indeed perhaps after a few more genocidal tries, we’ll get there. I cannot rule that out. But since nearly everyone who champions the academic Marx is themself the kind of person one would imagine as part of a Vanguard of Intellectual brilliance, at this stage all the booksellers and lecture makers speaking to their audiences of affluent Westerners seem the least likely sort of the Vanguard/Enemism problem being solved. In short, WHO is talking about Marx is likely to have to be radically changed, if the WHAT of what Marxism is likely to produce is to radically change.
I do feel that imaginary, oppositional relations have purposes. The intensify and close cognitive gaps, they feed political movements and create social bodies. It is just that I would hope that the use of the imaginary would be more “prophetic” rather than projective.
Dontcha just hate that Oppositional Enemism?
But don’t you see, I don’t consider Mein Kampf a book of the “enemy”. Its a book, you do things with it. But one of the things its not a good idea to do with it is organize society around its principles.
But, on the other hand if you think that what the Khmer Rouge intellectuals did, fresh from the classes on Marx in France, is any less horrific than what Hilter and Goebbels did, well….
Apologies for being away for a bit, but this discussion has been fascinating to read through. Just to echo Carl’s sentiment so there’s no confusion – I’m very happy to have intelligent people discuss whatever should come up in the course of commenting, so I have no problem whatsoever if this discussion goes off-rails from the original topic (though I’m happy to see ANT making a comeback in the comments!)
And Kvond, come on, invoking Hitler in this debate is Ann Coulter-level rhetoric that contributes nothing to the conversation. Maybe there’s some important point hidden in it, but I just don’t see it.
On this idea you’ve constantly repeated, that only “really smart people” could make Marxism work: but of course the “really smart people” were the ones in charge of the current financial crisis – physicists, mathematicians, Nobel prize winners, etc. all missed the signs and nearly sent the global economy off the cliff. It seems to me, and I think this is an obvious point, that the world is ridiculously complex and that any attempt to organize society is going to fail in significant ways. So the fact that really smart people are needed to organize the world, and that they will fail eventually, is a problem with every system. The question then isn’t how do we avoid these failures (we can’t), but how do we deal with them? Or we could become the Republican party and become anti-intelligence!
On your idea that only “white, male, ivory-tower intellectuals” could ever support Marx: this isn’t really an argument so much as, like Duncan says, an attempt to associate Marxism with a negative connotation of intellectuals. But moreover, I could just as easily claim that only privileged Westerners could support neoliberalism. That claim and your claim both have the appearance of an argument, and may likely have some validity, but neither get us anywhere. It just quickly devolves into insult-throwing. “You’re an ivory-tower intellectual!” “Oh yeah? Well you’re a privileged Westerner!”
Nick: “On this idea you’ve constantly repeated, that only “really smart people” could make Marxism work: but of course the “really smart people” were the ones in charge of the current financial crisis – physicists, mathematicians, Nobel prize winners, etc. all missed the signs and nearly sent the global economy off the cliff.”
Kvond: As I have repeatedly tried to assert, global economies collasping are not States systematically murdering thier own citizens that disagree with them. I would rather have 1,000 economies collapse than 10 sytermatically murderous States. They are simply two very different kinds of mistakes.
As for Hitler, it simply was my loose, rhetorical response to Carl’s equally loose argument that the books of Marx are like the Bible.
But if invoking Hilter is off the table, I suppose invoking Pol Pot is as well (Bad Marxist, Bad! Should have taken better notes in class, the Proletariat is not Agarian! Another Revolution, another Emancipation of the People screwed up by not taking notes).
Nick: “On your idea that only “white, male, ivory-tower intellectuals” could ever support Marx: this isn’t really an argument so much as, like Duncan says, an attempt to associate Marxism with a negative connotation of intellectuals. But moreover, I could just as easily claim that only privileged Westerners could support neoliberalism.”
Kvond: I think that this is a valid way of thinking of things. If white male affluent intellectuals are supporting neoliberalism we pretty much get the idea that neoliberalism is FOR white male affluence (hey, this pretty much is how it is). When then critique the position to be as inclusive as possible. But the white male affluent Marxists are preaching for what they are not. They are not owning their position of ennunciation. They are speaking, in my view, outside of themselves, as are all their theory reading students (pretty much all persons of affluence). Thus what drives Marxist theory is really text production, and text consumption, requiring the anthropological questions: Who is producing these texts, and who is consuming them, and to what REAL end?
I agree, the discussion has been interesting.
“But if invoking Hilter is off the table, I suppose invoking Pol Pot is as well”
I of course didn’t say that, and it would be opposed to everything else I’ve said in this thread. My point with Hitler is that he’s always used as a figure of radical Evil to tarnish anything and everything. If he was a communist leader, it might make sense to bring him in, but otherwise it’s just an attempt to draw a loose association between unrelated figures.
“But the white male affluent Marxists are preaching for what they are not. They are not owning their position of ennunciation.”
I don’t quite know what you are saying here. Are you suggesting that people can’t speak for other positions? That white affluent males can and should only speak for their own position? If that’s not the case, and we can admit that people can actually act and speak for the betterment of others (and even against their own position), then my problem with your claim is that the work hasn’t been shown. Yes, white affluent Westerners can support neoliberalism because it’s in their interests. Does that mean that every argument for neoliberalism is merely an attempt to defend that position’s interests? Of course not – there can be valid arguments for neoliberalism that aren’t merely the result of one’s social position. To show that that’s the case in any particular instance, you have to do the work.
And I should add in the vein, while Nietzsche is not Marx,and that the political outgrowths of Nietzsche do not follow the same trajectories as those of Marx, I do feel that the political employment of Nietzsche’s sociological assumptions and concerns to be considered dangerous, or at least watchable, given their relative expression in Nazi Germany. These are very different writers, but when writing is invoked as part of the authority of a political agenda that becomes “inhuman” and decidedly bad, the connections between the two should be investigated. And as with Marx, the question of WHO is reading and teaching Nietzsche, to WHOM is also of interest.
I’m not saying that one should not read and reflect upon Nietzsche (or Marx), or that there are not great weaths of social knowledge in each. It is just that the processes of translation between ideas (and their analysis) and real political instantiation are the kinds of things that should bear close scrutiny.
The case of Nietzsche and Realpolitik is much more obscure than that of Marx, and actually Marx’s influence has had distinctly positive, even constitutive effects on Capitalism itself, perhaps even having made it viable (would there be Capitalism as it is known in the United States without the Labor Movement of the ’20s and ’30s, I somehow doubt it). The point is for me that criticism is not prescription, and that philosophical criticism often takes as its necessary vantage point an unreal place beyond the frame, a place from which one is either unlikely, or even would not likely want, to live.
It seems for this reason that Latour’s ANT kind of sociological analysis, the one that deprives Capitalism of much of its rhetorical heft, is exactly the kind of translation that Marxism might most benefit from. And it is for this reason as well that Latour’s thinking should also be philosophically investigated for its incipient Nietzschean assumptions as well.
kvond: “And as with Marx, the question of WHO is reading and teaching Nietzsche, to WHOM is also of interest.
I’m not saying that one should not read and reflect upon Nietzsche (or Marx), or that there are not great weaths of social knowledge in each. It is just that the processes of translation between ideas (and their analysis) and real political instantiation are the kinds of things that should bear close scrutiny.”
Precisely. This is why it is a grotesque historical mistake to assimilate Marx and Marxism to only one set of those translations or realisations, and to ignore or elide others. Analysis of these translations is foreclosed if the translation itself is obliterated in the too-quick association of an entire tradition with only one kind of outcome. This association also serves an ideological function.
And part of this analysis of “translation” is an appreciation of “ideological function” of those doing the analysis. In otherwords the altruism of affluent intellectuals prescribing to society – all the while functioning in within a highly commericialized text-production factory (the Discourse mechanisms of the University) aimed at the production of both an affluent consumer and its products – is not a doorstop to our appreciation of the translations being done.
To put it more coarsely, and taking on one very narrow example meant merely to focus our attention to real circumstances. I have no desire to have prescriptions for society swept up in Badiou’s nostalgia for something that personally happened momentarily in his youth (’68) – we MUST remember the “name” Comumunism! – and his desire to remain a text-producer of relative affleuence and command, communiated to consumers.
kvond – in case it isn’t clear, I’m not an academic. I haven’t read enough Badiou to feel comfortable discussing him philosophically, and in that circumstance I generally don’t like to discuss a philosophical figure. Most intellectual work contains multiple resources, and I feel uncomfortable criticising it without having a solid sense of what other people are getting out of it. On the other hand, and since you bring him up: I’ve read a little of Badiou’s stuff, and I went to see him give a talk at the ICA (in London) a few years ago, where he was also interviewed by Hallward. I was not impressed. I am particularly angered by his insistence that political economy is no longer relevant to contemporary radical politics. It seems to me that political economy is as relevant as ever to radical politics, and that the late twentieth century move within the ‘radical’ leftist academy away from political-economic analysis and towards ideology critique and metaphysical concerns has had a disastrous effect in terms of the articulation of leftist alternatives to current political and economic structures. This is a large failure on the intellectual left, which has had, I feel, significant bad results (though leftist politics has made gains in other areas, particularly in terms of what’s often called (in an often derogatory phrase) ‘identity politics’: feminism; anti-racism; the politics of sexuality and gender.) Point is – I’m not going to defend Badiou. [I understand that he does good political work in France w/r/t asylum seekers – and some of his journalistic stuff that I’ve read, particularly on the demonisation of Islam, has been excellent. But what little I know of his philosophy, including the way he connects it to his politics, I don’t like.]
In more general terms – I think your critique of the philosophically leftist section of the academy – the text-production machine, etc. – is shared by many Marxists. I therefore don’t think this critique is very decisive as part of a critique of the general category Marxism.
This question of the ideology of critique is an old one. From the Manifesto:
Okay, so many (non-academic) Marxists agree with me. Sounds good.
Do you mean “My critique of Marxism is wrong”?
Not at all.
I don’t know what you want me to say.
“I don’t consider Mein Kampf a book of the “enemy”.”
Umm. I really not sure what to make of that, other than that your calls for nuance and complexity and nonoppositional whatsits ring hollow given your basically “all roads lead to terror! terror I say!” refrain regarding all things marxist (with a counterpoint of at best partially warranted but in no way constructive speculation about your interlocutors backgrounds and positions).
As for vanguards and so on, you have either not read my posts or I failed spectacularly to make myself clear, as part of the antibolshevik communism I am interested in involves asking various questions about vanguardism.
All in all, I don’t feel taken seriously here in the back and forth with you Kvond (cue snarky remark), suggesting to me that the requisite mutual commitment to charitable interpretation is missing (I for one am finding my own will to charitable interpretation rapidly eroding as this goes on), so I’m gonna bow out from here. The last word can be yours, at least as far as I’m concerned.
I suppose I will let your last diagnosis ring out on its own: “Umm. I really not sure what to make of that, other than that your calls for nuance and complexity and nonoppositional whatsits ring hollow given your basically “all roads lead to terror! terror I say!” refrain regarding all things marxist”
Clearly you have not read closely what I claim about Marx, Marxist influence, both positive and negative. But the conversation has been good.
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As Moishe Postone has written in defense of Marx’s theory of capital, “many currently popular positions that criticize the affirmation of totality in the name of emancipation do so by denying the existence of the totality.” This represents, of course, an attempt to overcome the problem of structure vs. agency in society. To deny the existence of the structure in the name of agency, however, when the structure does indeed exist, is actually disempowering.