Editor's Introduction, Rethinking Marxism 23-1

Rethinking Marxism
Publication/Event Date: 
January, 2011

We open the issue with “Under the Dome: The Ethics and Politics of Reading Capital,” a special symposium devoted to readings of Capital by graduate students at Notre Dame. As David Ruccio writes in his introduction, “It's one thing to read about Capital, or to listen to lectures on the Marxian method. It's something else entirely to read the text of Capital and develop an understanding of Marx's method in action.” Taken together, the symposium's contributors demonstrate the value of open-ended, aleatory readings of Capital.

Matthew C. Brown, in “Marx for Medievalists: Rethinking Feudalism and Historicism in Capital,” returns to Marx's writings on feudalism and private property in Capital in order to rethink Marxist historicism. Calling attention to the “almost total lack of correspondence between the familiar summaries from graduate courses and the methods actually on display in Capital,” he argues for a “logico-historical” approach moving between two registers simultaneously: one being “sequences of events drawn from empirical history,” the other being “sequences drawn from the inner logic of the development of a concept.” This approach allows him to recover the historical specificity of the modern notion of property and recognize “alternative conceptions of ownership that were normative in the past.” Brown's approach, by showing how “[t]hese kinds of reconceptualizations of historicism open the way to seeing the 'feudal' not as an empirical historical period, but instead as a mobile conceptual category that may describe formations of power in other periods as well,” showcases the ways medievalist scholars are returning to the concept of multiple temporalities developed in Althusser's reading ofCapital, and presents the possibility of reimagining the 'feudal' in ways that resonate with debates about the category in the pages of Rethinking Marxism.

“From Being to Unrest, from Objectivity to Motion: The Slave in Marx's Capital” by James Edward Ford III reexamines the figure of the New World slave in order to rethink the nature of agency. Deploying a Derridean analysis, Ford shows that the image of the slave as non-agential is a necessity for the analysis of wage-labor developed in Capital, “a necessity manifest in textual supplements—the footnote, the excised note, and appendices … These literary additions first appear to be external to an otherwise self-sufficient text, but prove to be central to the text's function.” Starting from the concept of the slave as instrumentum vocale or “speaking implement” provided by Varro and taken up by Marx, Ford juxtaposes the issue of the slave's own capacity to speak with Marx's parodic discussion of a commodity's capacity to speak (raised by Marx in his discussion of commodity fetishism). This move denaturalizes not only wage labor and the commodity, but also slave labor and the presumedly 'natural' lack of agency among slaves, enabling the recovery of the historic trace of resistant agency among slaves.

“Un-/Re-Productive Maternal Labor: Marxist Feminism and Chapter Fifteen of Marx's Capital” by Jacquilyn Weeks returns to Marx as a way to explore the relationship between Marxist-feminist scholarship, especially as developed in/since the 1970s, and Marx's own writings on women's work within and beyond the home. Weeks writes that while much of the debate about Marxism's relation to feminism focuses on method, little contemporary work explores Marx's own writings on the subject. Focusing specifically on Chapter Fifteen ofCapital (“Machinery and Modern Industry,” which tracks the effect of the spread of the modern industrial form on the life of workers and the organization of work), she finds that many of the themes and debates that currently trouble scholarship on women's work can be found in Marx, specifically in his writings about unpaid domestic labor and the problems of balancing work and family. If much of Marx's language on feminized labor troubles a modern sensibility, the specific problems he describes, and the insistence that a solution must entail “a labor system that humanely accommodates its entire working force and a new definition of productive labor that acknowledges the significance of work done in the domestic sphere,” are remarkably familiar. Weeks's return to Marx identifies the source of feminist confusion about Marxian understandings of domestic labor, particularly the category of productive labor. It also shows how we might re-engage the terrain between Marxism and feminism to attain that “higher form of the family and relations between the sexes” that remains the goal of both projects.

Where Brown, Ford and Weeks read Capital in order to undo received wisdom about the nature of Marxian concepts and analysis, Mallin uses Capital to re-read the problem of representation in neoclassical economics. This is no simple 'compare and contrast' between two opposing models. Rather, this investigation unearths the logic of neoclassical economics, as found in Gregory Mankiw's Principles of Economics, in and through the logic of commodity fetishism. The result illuminates the operations of naturalization in this economic representation. Mallin's investigation is closer to Marx's investigation inTheories of Surplus Value, whose purpose is not just to dispute a competing analysis, but to show how and why this analysis 'makes sense'. As Mallin says, this enables questions such as “What modern conditions allow this representation to achieve its hegemonic status in economics courses? What mechanisms inside and outside the academy affect its reproduction? What possibilities are there for alternative representations?” This helps us see that neoclassical economics is not problematic simply because it is false or incomplete. Rather, as a hegemonic representation, it “creates the reality it purports to describe.” Thus, the very act of reading Capital and circulating it as text is radical, since “[w]hat is most empowering about reading Capital is not finding answers but encountering the questions it makes possible.”

The symposium concludes with Ryan McCormick's “The Parallax of Labor: Marx as a Moralist.” McCormick argues against the scientistic reading of Marxism as an empiricist project of descriptive analysis. In such readings, the moralist position is eschewed as utopian, the field of ethics is viewed an object of study as it presumably reflects the morality of ruling classes, and transformation is the result of the internal dynamic of teleological development rather than grounded in ethics as such. Instead, McCormick argues that in Capitalone finds a Marxian ethics that shows close affinities with the ethics developed by scholars such as Lacan, Lyotard and iek. Specifically, Marxian ethics emphasizes not merely that which is against the law or norm, but that which entails a violation in and through the law or norm. Developing the concept of the Parallax View from iek, McCormick suggests we view surplus value as a constitutive exception in Marx's account—the labor/labor power distinction which makes the extraction of surplus value possible, acts as the exception to the law of equal exchange in and through which the law of equal exchange for all other commodities becomes possible. Eschewing empiricist approaches to Marx and Capital opens the door to recovering Marx's ethical groundings, where “[t]he challenge is to imagine a form of social labor that, in the absence of exploitation, preserves this sense of labor's non-identity with itself … the parallax tension between that which we receive from each other according to their ability and that which is distributed to each according to their needs.”

Beverly Best's “ 'Fredric Jameson Notwithstanding': The Dialectic of Affect” deploys the Marxian concept of dialectic and social totality to undertake a close reading of the literature on affect. Best's project is to undo the rejection of the concepts of mediation and narrative in the literature on affect. However, this recovery of mediation and narrative is not undertaken as a simple rejection of the post-interpretive turn. Rather, she notes that scholars exploring the nature of biopower have correctly emphasized the shift from representational forms of identity-constitution to affective modes of subject-becoming. But, she shows that they have mistakenly assumed that the rise of affect must mean the absence of mediation, which is associated with interpretive rather than affective theories of subject formation. Instead, she identifies mediation as the arena that has become invisible through over-saturation of all spheres of life with media messages—it is precisely in the increasing invisibility of mediation due to hypersaturation that we can see the rise of affect. At stake in this recovery is not the recovery of older approaches and rejection of the literature on affect, but the ability to identify spaces of immanent transformation through the emplacement of affect in its historical context of emergence and dialectical co-constitution with other elements of a social totality.

Cosim o Zene, in “Self-Consciousness of the Dalits as 'Subalterns': Reflections on Gramsci in South Asia,” returns to Gramsci so as to rework Gayatri Spivak's famous question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Zene suggests that Spivak's response to that query (No) rests on her use of Derridean perspectives on subalternity. While agreeing that the Derridean formulation allows us to resist appropriation of subalternity, and also agreeing with Spivak's own reworking of this question, especially her formulation of “learning to learn from the Subaltern,” Zene suggests that we cannot manage to learn to learn unless we learn to listen in order to learn to learn—that is, unless we can approach the issue of Subaltern speech differently. Gramsci's concept of integral history provides an alternate formulation to Derridean techniques, one that helps surface Subaltern speech without appropriation. The value of this turn can be seen in Zene's discussion of Subaltern religiosity in contrast to mainstream-left secularism, since he identifies the ways Dalits have been denied humanity in terms of placement in the order of closeness/access to the divine as central for grasping Dalits' agential speech in the terrain of religion. Zene's project finds points of commonality with Ford's work in this volume, each showing the value of different strategies for recovering the agential nature of subaltern speech.

Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos, in “Kalecki's Dilemma: Toward a Marxian Political Economy of Neoliberalism,” underlines the differences between Marxian and Keynesian analyses and critiques of financial markets and the rentier class. Where Keynesians see rentiers as a problem, their conceptual use of 'unproductive' derives from Ricardo's, rather than Marx's, definition of unproductive. As a result, Keynesians have no response to the critique of Keynes's analysis provided by Michal Kalecki: that as regulation moves us closer to full employment, capitalists find it harder to discipline labor. Thus, while Keynesians see financialization and neoliberalism as a problem of distribution arising at the level of circulation, Marxists grasp the common interests between 'productive' capitalists and rentiers. Drawing on Marx's analysis from Capital, Vol. 3, Sotiropoulos shows how the stakes of the approach taken are class politics: approaches that focus on circulation and finance, on the bankers and unproductive rentiers, seek to ameliorate the problems of neoliberalism through regulation, but without any effort to re-examine the class logic of neoliberalism at the level of production. Rather than simple re-regulation, we need a politics that can highlight the relation between neoliberalism and exploitation, so as to place deeper issues of labor discipline and surplus value extraction at the center of our political responses to the economic crisis. Sotiropoulos's essay thus carries forward the discussion of the “Crisis of Capital” in volume 22, issue 2 of this journal.

Jeff Noonan's “Use Value, Life Value, and the Future of Socialism” is an ambitious reworking of the relationship between the concepts of need and value. He asks what concept of need should ground our efforts to create a society organized around the principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Noonan notes that to the extent that our understanding of needs has been colonized by capitalism, use value reflects that which is useful to satisfy the needs and wants generated through a capitalist organization of our life world. In this context, simplistic redistributive visions of social democracy that seek to replace a focus on exchange value with one on use value are inadequate. He thus suggests the concept of life value, rather than use value, to organize our comprehension of needs. Noonan's discussion of the limits of use value based approaches to social democracy demonstrates the limits of definitions of capitalism that focus exclusively on property or markets, and fail to focus on the broader terrain of social relations governing exploitation. Going further, Noonan contends that given the colonization of our psychic comprehension of needs, we cannot expect radical transformation to succeed unless we begin a process of decolonization of the mind that draws on small, lived experiments in alternative comprehensions of need—what he terms 'prefigurative practices' drawing on Kovel, which find their conceptual counterpart within Marxian analysis in the concept of alternative economic subjectivities beyond capitalocentrism in work inspired by J. K. Gibson-Graham. However, as Noonan notes, the small alternative practices, as they grow larger and succeed, will eventually meet the limits of either the market or the repressive arm of the state. He thus suggests that Marxists need to transform the state through participation in the electoral practices of liberal democracy. Here, we see the value of a Gramscian analysis, since Noonan's magisterial work, limited by what one can say in the space of a single article, does not explore the ways in which hegemony and repression work together in actual state practice. In particular, his assertion that “[c]oncretely, no law of which I am aware would make a democratic-socialist party illegal, no law prevents such a party from contesting elections, and no law could prevent such a party, properly organized and determined, from winning,” shows the limits of any scheme for transformation developed without historical grounding in the actual institutional histories of given states, since the history of democratic institutions in various parts of the world in the postcolonial era is rife with examples of this problem.

Iraklis Oikonomou's Remarx essay, “EU-U.S. Military Relations and the Question of the Transnational Capitalist Class,” provides a timely reminder of why concrete historical materialist analyses of state formation are key for political analysis and for organizing political struggle. Oikonomou challenges the notion that we now live in a world of transnational capital, where a single, transglobal capital class is giving rise to a transglobal political apparatus that supersedes the nation state. Oikonomou observes that while it is the case that we can see internationalization of capital—that is, the organization of production processes that move across and beyond the boundaries of a single nation state—it is not clear that this implies transnationalism, particularly if transnationalism is taken to mean the emergence of a single global capitalist bloc. In the latter approach, rivalry between varied capitalist blocs disappears, and U.S. military actions are assumed to support the interests of capital generally, rather than the interests of U.S.-based capital particularly. Focusing on the history of tensions around the constitution of independent EU military capacities and institutions, Oikonomou capably demonstrates that inter-capitalist rivalry and regional interests remain part of the political terrain. This suggests that inter-imperialist rivalries remain central to the unfolding global terrain, so that we cannot assume that any and all opposition to U.S. military might—including 'local' oppositions emerging within rival imperial powers—deserve support as 'anti-capitalist' politics. Rather, we need to oppose all imperialist projects, including the militarized-imperial projects of U.S. rivals, paying attention to the role that such rivalries play in the unfolding geopolitical terrain.

Jan Rehmann's Remarx essay, “Can Marx's Critique of Religion Be Freed from Its Fetters?” continues the task of refocusing attention from broad abstractions toward concrete historical investigations. Returning to the context of Marx's writings on religion, he notes that the purpose of Marx's critique is not to valorize secular rationalism over religion, but to highlight the continuities between secular market shibboleths and religious ones. Going further, he reminds us that a Marxist approach highlights religion not simply as a structure of ideas or belief systems, but as an ensemble of material practices and institutions. As such, a Marxist critique differs dramatically from the critiques of rationalist atheists, who focus merely on structures of belief, and fail to discern the continuities between their own secular verities and the belief systems they critique. Recovering the element of Marx's critique that recognized religion as a sigh of the oppressed, Rehmann paves the way for a critique that can both identify the ideological operation of religion, and yet recover, without denigrating as false consciousness, the contradictory critical impulses contained in religious belief and practice. This allows a recovery of the ethical terrain he terms faith, an orientation toward the world that is contained in struggles over religion that simple secular rationalist perspectives miss and dismiss. Here, Rehmann's conclusions mirror Zene's discussion of Dalit religiosity, opening the door for Gramscian integral history to do the work of translation (no matter how difficult, partial, and necessarily incomplete this effort must be) as a vehicle for social transformation that far exceeds the more limited and limiting perspectives allowed by simple idealist rationalist critiques of religion.

Derek Ruez's review of Slavoj iek's Violence contends that even if many of the themes in Violence would be old ground for those f amiliar with iek, the book is a timely intervention that distills much of iek's thinking about contemporary issues. iek's typology of violence reminds us that the subjective violence of terrorism receives high attention, usually at the expense of the ordinary and everyday forms of routinized violence embedded in language and in the structure of liberal-democratic capitalist social organization. As Ruez shows, while iek's suggested response—a form of withdrawal that disavows the legitimacy of capitalist liberal democracies—may not be one all readers agree with, any text that manages to succinctly and clearly outline the hidden forms of violence that pass unscrutinized in the current context is to be applauded.

The issue closes with Paul Khalil Saucier's review of two recent books on Afro-Caribbean Revolutionary thought: Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, by Carole Boyce Davies, andUrbane Revolutionary: C. L. R. James and the Struggle for a New Society, by Fran Rosengarten. Claudia Jones emerges as an early theorist of the multiple forms of oppression and super-exploitation faced by African American and Afro-Caribbean women. C. L. R. James emerges as a theorist who similarly pushed against narrow, reductionist forms of Marxism to highlight the role of multi-ethnic nationalisms in Africa and the Caribbean as part of the path to revolutionary transformation. Both partook of multiple forms of resistance that straddled the divide between the political and the cultural. Taken together, these books showcase the life and work of activists who brought attention to, and fought to undo, the everyday, routinized forms of violence iek's text highlighted, using strategies quite different from the one advocated by him.

We end this introduction with a reflection on the past year, which has been turbulent for Rethinking Marxism. Our Managing Editor Julie Graham passed away in April 2010, just half a year into the transition to our new Editorial team. We lost our Editorial Assistant position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in May 2010 due to the fiscal crisis facing the University. We thank Gina Sully, who was Editorial Assistant to the journal for the nine months that UNLV was able to provide us with a Graduate Assistant. Having no Managing Editor or Editorial Assistant left the journal in deep disarray, and we thank all our authors and reviewers who kindly recognized the difficult context faced by the journal. We were able to continue the work of the journal due to the invaluable support of a number of people who rallied around in the best of our collective traditions—special thanks are due to Jackie Southern who stepped in to take up large portions of the managing editor duties, Jared Randall who joined us as our Editorial Assistant and worked hard to get us back on track with review processes, and Joel Phipps from Taylor and Francis who heroically adjusted our production schedules and provided training and support so we could get our production back on track. As we look ahead to the coming year, a warm welcome to new Editorial Board members Marcus E. Green, Peter Ives, and Ian J. Seda-Irizarry.The Editors