The Marx-Field



by McKenzie Wark

After Debord, we can think of two ways of articulating pasts to presents via the archive. One is quotation, which works from past to present, in which the legitimacy of a statement rests on its anchoring in statements from recognized authors in the past. This is the standard practice of the humanities academy. It gives the academy a conservative tendency. This is of course not always a bad thing. It is a guard against fashion. But it can also set scholars, even Marxists ones, up to play what Lyotard called language games with the archive and with each other, games that no longer have anything to do with any situation outside of them.

The other path is détournement. As Keston Sunderland has shown, détournement was part of Marx’s own practice. Marx constantly copies and critically corrects the epigrammatic illuminations of his age. Détournement works first from the present situation, and only then selects cuts from the past and brings them into the present, copying and correcting in the direction of possibility. Practiced as scholarship, détournement can at least begin from the question of the historical situation. It is a matter of articulating a common task for this situation, and for that task to call out of the past the resources for organizing thought and action in the present. In the era of digital means of production, the twist on class conflicts that this brings, and the facts of the Anthropocene that can no longer be considered as secondary, must be drawn into the very heart of thought.

Back in party school, I started reading two kinds of Anglophone Marxists, both of which branch off from the economic history of Maurice Dobb. One was the history from below school of E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and others. This later diversified into the non-national perspective of Peter Linebaugh and the feminist historiography of Sheila Rowbotham. Related are the Eric Hobesbawm’s sequence of synthetic historical books on the 19th and 20th centuries, which are more like slices through the totality than the view from below.

All of this was a context for discovering C. L. R. James and Eugene Genovese on the history of slavery. Here one might locate the great Australian contribution, European Vision and the South Pacific, by Bernard Smith, a book I still find more useful than Foucault for explaining the formation of knowledge out of forms of apparatus.

The other Anglophone school is what I would call the Ricardian-Marxists, such as Ian Steedman. Rather than Hegel it was Ricardo and political economy that was the parent tradition for Marxism in this view. Political economy became an object of both critical, historical study, but also one amendable to formal and mathematical analysis, where the central question was the dynamics of class struggle over the distribution of the surplus and its relation to growth and qualitative change.

The Ricardian-Marxists constructed a very different set of problems and analyses to the Hegelian-Marxists. From this much issued, ranging from Lukács and Adorno to Debord and Moishe Postone. The problem is that it can often get caught up in a metaphysics of essence and appearance. Either the value-form of capital, or the totality of social relations that commodification produces, is taken as an unvarying essence. Change is only apparent, a matter of appearances, just circulation, or just distribution.

In these Hegelian-Marxist theories the essence of capital is always the same. Their core belief, never quite consciously articulated, is that capital is actually eternal. The eternal capital can be negated, but only by that which arises within and against it. That agency could be the working class, or the party, or failing that, all that negates it is an aesthetic or philosophy itself. As the prospect of even those purely formal negations recede, this negationist school lapses into despair or quietism. Moreover, it has surprisingly little to say about actual historical change, since all such change is only phenomenal, and in essence capital is eternal.

One might expect the Spinozist-Marxists to have come up with a better alternative to this, and for a while it looked like they had. The Althusserians dispensed with the essence-appearance metaphysic. They acknowledged the reality of all three “instances” of the social formation: economy, politics, ideology (or culture). They saw the economic as determinant only in the “last instance.”

Like the Hegelians, the Spinzoists could be obsessed with method, with purely textual, hermeneutic techniques for guaranteeing the validity of Marxist theory. Both are variants of the practice of quotation. Despite all their differences, the Hegel-Marx and Spinoza-Marx crowds had a mutual interest in insisting on the legislative role of theory. To this day the descendants of both, from Badiou to Zizek, insist on the primacy of philosophy, and have a tendency to discount in a most unhelpful way the autonomy of other modes of knowing.

The Althusserian flavor of Spinozist-Marxism at least legitimated the study of politics or culture as relatively autonomous instances of the superstructure. This gave rise, particularly in France, to a Jacobin Marxism. Althusser’s students, such as Nicos Poulantzas, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, and Regis Debray, tried in very, very different ways to produce theories of politics, as did Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The world of production seemed to be one of the mere satisfaction of needs, whereas politics held out the utopian promise of transformative action. Unfortunately this left unexamined the very transformation of the whole social formation by new forces of production.

In the Anglophone world, Althusser both strengthened and transformed an emerging cultural Marxism. This had its roots partly in the Marxist historiography of E. P. Thompson, in the radicalizing of Leavisite literary study by Richard Hoggart in Raymond Williams, and in the English reception of Antonio Gramsci. Stuart Hall took that tradition and brought it into contact with Althusser, to produce a tactical, low theory of culture, without guarantees.

Laura Mulvey and others took Althusser’s legitimizing of the autonomy of the cultural sphere, and also his insight into the usefulness of semiotics and psychoanalysis as tools of analysis specific to the cultural instance and analogous to the critical political economy through which the economic instance could be analyzed. In both the Hall and Mulvey flavors of cultural Marxism, headway was made in the analysis of culture, but reduced, under the influence of Roland Barthes, to the status of text. The apparatus had a somewhat vestigial status in screen theory, and even less presence in post-Hall cultural studies. This was not a tradition well equipped to understand the transformation of the mode of production of culture itself in the digital age.

The Italian version of Spinozist-Marxism at least tried to come up with a language to describe the experience of labor in the late twentieth century, even if its perspective was limited to the overdeveloped world of Italy and France. Where Althusser had insisted on a close reading of Capital, Antonio Negri’s practice of quotation based itself on Marx’s Grundrisse, although in his case perhaps with too much, rather than too little, textual fidelity.

It resulted in some temporary descriptions: the formal subsumption of the lifeworld under capital became the real subsumption. Collaborative labor began to engage the general intellect. A heterogeneous kind of labor was described under the rather unfortunate term immaterial labor. Meanwhile, a feminist critique of this conceptual scheme opened up the question of affective labor and unpaid labor.

The “real subsumption” of Marx to Spinoza was soon to follow in the collaborative work of Negri and Michael Hardt. In Empire they developed a new language that connected Negri’s experience of Italian Workerism with Hardt’s of Latin American counter-imperial struggles. This succeeded for a time in providing a language for a counter-globalization movement. This new internationalism was no small achievement. However, the language of empire and multitude, of constitutional and constituent power, reproduced on a global scale the limit of Italian workerism, which was always to see the living labor of the worker as a privileged moment, and hence to render secondary the complexity of the forces and relations of production within which labor was enmeshed.

The most expansive attempt at a synthesis of the Spinozist and Hegelian version of Marxism was surely the work of Fredric Jameson, which folded the autonomy of the cultural and political instances back into a more diversified concept of the totality of a more or less Hegelian kind, drawn in particular from Sartre. The high point of its influence was Jameson’s famous essays on the postmodern. This did not really break with theories of eternal capital. Jameson’s point of reference for what was actually going on in production remained Ernest Mandel. Still, Jameson at least got to the point of registering new symptoms on the horizon of “late” capitalism that might point to a theory of “early something else.”

Franco Moretti surely stands next to Jameson as one of the most distinguished literary critics in the Anglophone world, and like Jameson is a Marxist, although descended from a different strain. I am not too familiar with the work of Della-Volpe and Colletti, other than as a parallel school to the Althusserians in their rejection of Hegelian Marxism. In Moretti, this emerges as a synthetic sensibility as broad as Jameson’s. Where Jameson’s famous slogan is “always historicize!” then Moretti’s might be “always geographize!” Lately his techniques of distant reading have proven a useful tool for conducting social-scientific experiments on the literary corpus, and are a forerunner to the now widespread digital humanities.

Moretti however lacks any critical or dialectical appreciation of these very tools and procedures. He ably uses these tools to show the homologies between the literature of past centuries and their mode of production. Yet there is nothing in Moretti about the mode of production that makes this kind of criticism possible in our own times. The apparatus of “big data” simply appears. Here he makes no advance beyond Jameson’s invocation of Mandel.

In the analysis of the economic sphere, a much more useful body of work after Mandel appeared in the form of the regulation school, in the work, for example, of Michel Aglietta and Alain Lipietz. This had the advantage in trying to think empirically and theoretically the mutation not just of productive forces but of whole regimes of regulation and reproduction. The major triumph of this approach was an account of the virtuous circle of Fordism, in which new modes of production and consumption coincided, providing a systematic account of what Guy Debord had so elegantly called the society of the spectacle. The regulation school also gave a systematic account of the breakdown of Fordist regulation, even if the designation of its successor as post-Fordist did not quite succeed in giving it an affirmative and distinctive analytic quality.

The regulation school had also had a pragmatic answer to one of those intractable debates in Marxocological thought: the value-price controversy. Nowhere in Capital does Marx give a convincing answer as to how surplus value is expressed as profit. The neo-Ricardians simply dispensed with surplus value, which enabled them to produce a rigorous economics of the relationship between growth and the distribution of surplus between classes. Here they built on the pioneering work of Piero Sraffa, Joan Robinson, and others. The regulation approach kept the category of surplus value, but stressed the difference between value and price as a signature feature of capitalist regulation. Thus, the distortion of value, as a measure of production for need, by production for exchange, could itself be a critical tool of analysis.

The Monthly Review school of thought, of Baran and Sweezy, had already abandoned the category of surplus value, and had tried to think the features of monopoly capitalism as a form distinct from the liberal form of Marx’s time. But perhaps the signature contribution of this journal to thinking the present came later, in the work of John Bellamy Foster. In Marx’s Ecology, he built an original Marxist theory with what to my mind is really a détournement of Capital Vol. 3, where Marx begins, but does not really think through, the category of metabolic rift. This is in essence the Anthropocene, the transformation on a planetary scale of the molecular composition and distribution of the biosphere. The gap between value and price here becomes total.

This insight can be usefully juxtaposed with one that otherwise has nothing in common with it, and that came principally out of the journal Multitudes—namely the emergence of an era of cognitive capitalism, increasingly invested in the production of subjectivity. Here the work of Yann Moulier Boutang, Maurizio Lazzarato, Franco Berardi, and Tiziana Terranova might be mentioned. However, this school of thought is still stuck in the language of the modifier, of qualifying the essence of capitalism rather than really asking what the conditions of possibility of its transformation might be.

A rather virulent but useful critique of this work comes from Beatriz Preciadio, who draws in significant ways on Donna Haraway. Preciado asks what becomes of Haraway’s cyborg bodies—amalgams of flesh and info and tech—in an era that does not just make information a force of production, but applies information to the pharmacology with which it remakes the body, as well. Commodification makes not just subjectivities but bodies in its image. Preciado takes the paradigmatic worker of this era to be the sex worker.

Perhaps to historicize now means to think about what historicity is implied in the very category of capital itself. If one cannot (at least as a thought experiment) think the conditions under which this might no longer be capitalism, short of the revolution of one’s desires, then it is not an historical category at all. It is merely a term for the ruins of a fallen world, awaiting the return of its messiah, which is pretty much where things end up in the work of Agamben, and even in the elegant tracts of Tiqqun. How, then, might capital be thought as historical rather than eternal?

There is a resource to be drawn on here from the school of political Marxism. Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and others turned away from the “neo-Smithian” approach to world systems of Wallerstein and others, and instead thought the origins of capital as a more local, European phenomena. What is of interest in their work, outside of historiography, is the idea that there have already been two eras of commodification. The first is based on privatizing land, the second on the factory system as a further extension of the abstraction introduced into production by the commodification of land.

Thus, there have been two ruling classes already, based in turn on rent and then profit. Ricardo’s great work stands at the boundary where the land-owning class was defeated and subsumed into a more properly capitalist ruling class. The political Marxists would not go this far, but to me this begs the question: if there have been two eras of commodification, why not a third? One with its own distinctive forms of property, forms of exploitation, and forms of extracting a surplus? One based on surplus information, inequalities of information, and control of data via metadata?

Political Marxism insists on a Eurocentric story for the origins of capitalism, but that does not mean we have to accept that world history remains dominated by what transpires over the Atlantic. Perhaps Europe, America, and Japan are now what the Situationists called the over-developed world, trapped in forms of rent seeking behavior. Perhaps theirs is a ruling class in decline, in that while it retains and even accumulates power, it can no longer coordinate its efforts through the state and open up new forms of regulation and growth. The failure to transition out of a carbon-based economy is a clear symptom of this decline.

Just one example of what might be required now to think world history in Marxist terms is to account for China. Is China capitalist? It is a question which doubles back, in that any answer to it at the same time sharpens a definition of what capitalism might actually be, and whether it is to be understood narrowly or broadly as a category. I note with interest that Michel Aglietta has turned the regulationist method to this question.

While there are many other parts of the world that are both historically significant and have local Marxist traditions, China is the one I try to follow, having spent some time there during the ‘80s, doing psychogeographic research in its cities and travelling its railways while reading Deng Xiaoping.

Hence I find the work of Wang Hui of particular interest, as an instance of a distinctive new left position in and on China (although he and his co-thinkers resist that label). Wang artfully uses the Marxist commitment to solidarity and equality of the revolutionary period in China as a critical wedge not just against the inequalities of the present, but against those of the past too. He holds the Chinese Communists of the past accountable to their own Marxism. This work also skillfully negotiates between importing Western Marxism (or other theory) and too strong an insistence on distinctly Chinese analytic categories. It is a model of sophisticated #Marx21c work that is cosmopolitan but not Eurocentric.

One could put this alongside what is now a debate between the subaltern studies school from the Indian subcontinent, and Vivek Chibber, its strongest critic. In different ways, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesth Chakrabarty and others have confronted the universalizing project in which Marxism participates with its own dependence on prior categories of the metropolitan pole and its colonial other.

Regrettably, I know very little about Marxist work outside the West. What little I know about Latin American Marxism comes through Bruno Bosteels’s efforts. I still don’t know what to make of the impressive project of Kojin Karatani to rethink the historical sequence of modes of production as actually modes of exchange. Clearly a #Marx21c will have to be a collaborative, global project in many languages, sensitive to core-periphery inequalities. It is a project that calls more for new modes of organization than for new theories.

I know even less about the embedding of Marx in the social sciences. When Marxism acclimatized to the Anglophone world, one of the assimilations that took place was to its peculiar brand of philosophy, and thus analytic Marxism was born. It started perhaps with Maurice Cornford, and G. A. Cohen’s controversial but to me persuasive defense of a certain kind of vulgar Marxism.

This then cleared the way for an empirical and social-scientific Marx in the hands of Jon Elster, John Roemer, and in particular Erik Olin Wright. The latter’s detailed work on class greatly refined an ongoing debate on how not just to think but to study class as a category. His later work on actually existing utopias is a necessary corrective to the approach to utopia that looks to Ernst Bloch and is far more transcendental and poetic.

In the twentieth century, Marx’s thought found its way into a wide range of disciplines and languages. This process of adoption was also one of adaption, where Marx became a name that could be said at least in the margins of certain formations of knowledge/power. This had however, two consequences.

First, it meant that while one could adopt a Marxist position within a given space of writing and thinking, all of these separate adaptations of Marx were less and less in useful dialogue with each other. What could only be called academic Marxism became so acculturated to its various disciplines and languages that its various versions started to take as a given the academic division of labor within which it was formed. Thus the Hegelian-Marxists and the analytic-Marxists, for example, ended up with little to say to each other.

Secondly, it meant that the agenda for Marxist thought often arose within the disciplines. Sometimes mostly formal problems or language games occluded any larger agenda, even within a given national culture, let alone the larger transnational situation. Thus the cultural Marxists thought cultural problems, the Jacobin Marxists thought political problems, the regulation school thought economic problems—all separated from each other. In the absence of powerful social movements, let alone an organized working class, professional agendas prevailed.

In the era of the Anthropocene, perhaps more than ever a #Marx21c needs new forms of organizing and coordinating collaborative knowledge projects. It needs ways of keeping in dialogue speculative and empirical work, work from different disciplines, in different languages, from metropolitan cores and peripheries.

Three agenda items in particular seem pressing:

First, the central problem of metabolic rift, which points towards the horizon of the Anthropocene, and the need to re-engage Marxism with the natural sciences.

Secondly, what some call semio-capitalism or cognitive capitalism, but which I had described in quite other terms in A Hacker Manifesto, as the hint of a new mode of production, based on information as a new force of production, and with a new ruling class, the vectoral class. This prompts the need to think about what kind of transformation of the forces of production may rise to the level of a qualitative break.

Thirdly, a dislocation in space, but also perhaps in time, of the object of analysis. Spatial and temporal boundaries and continuities, cores and peripheries, could be rethought, and not least to understand how the engines of world history may now be far from the West.

Essay part 4 of a 6-part series. First published at Arcade | Creative Commons License
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About the Author:

McKenzie Wark is Professor of Culture and Media at The New School. He is the author, most recently, of The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso 2013). His book Molecular Red is out in April 2015.