Editor's Introduction, Rethinking Marxism 24: 2, 2012
This issue of Rethinking Marxism opens with Andriana Vlachou's timely and trenchant “The Greek Economy in Turmoil.” As Europe deals with the consequences of neoliberal monetary policies—among them a crippling debt crisis threatening the viability of the European Monetary Union, Greece finds itself facing the prospect of devastating austerity measures that will produce long-lasting personal hardships as well as exacerbate economic and political uncertainty.
For Vlachou, understanding the public debt crisis in Greece as well as in other, less wealthy eurozone countries must necessarily take into account the “neoliberal turn of global capitalism in the past two decades.” As she states, the burden of the current international crisis is falling on those weaker economies that were essentially swept along on a wave of enthusiasm about their integration into the EU and global markets—an inclusion for which these countries’ economies were ill prepared. Greece's debt crisis, in many respects, is only the beginning of a larger problem that threatens to overwhelm other eurozone economies. And while Vlachou points especially to economies such as Portugal's and Spain's, it is now clear that the consequences of underregulated neoliberal monetary policies, coupled with the lack of both an infrastructure to support and the will to implement more central control (and responsibility), will reach well beyond peripheral eurozone countries to the powerful economies of France and Germany as well. Ultimately, it seems only a matter of time before global repercussions become even more evident and dire.
The impacts of neoliberalism are further taken up in a fascinating exchange between Ann Kingsolver and Vincent Lyon-Callo. Begun as Kingsolver's review of and response to Lyon-Callo's Inequality, Poverty, and Neoliberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry, this dialogue morphed into an extended analysis of Lyon-Callo's critique of neoliberal governance of public services designed to cope with economic inequities. He argues that although such services (soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc.) may help to alleviate some of the effects of economic disparity, these activities may also be complicit in exacerbating the structural violence of neoliberal capitalist policies. For Lyon-Callo, this takes place when the focus shifts from the structural inequalities evidenced by homelessness to homeless individuals themselves. Conversely, Kingsolver argues in her essay, “Neoliberal Governance and Faith-Based Initiatives: Agentive Cracks in the Logic Informing Homeless Sheltering in South Carolina's Capital,” that the national neoliberal and neoconservative policy of “strengthening faith-based initiatives in providing public services” in fact works to undo its own efficacy by undermining the possibility of neoliberal governance of those services at the local level. Rather than framing this as a repudiation of Lyon-Callo's thesis, however, Kingsolver suggests that the results she observed from her own empirical example of homelessness in Columbia, South Carolina, could indeed lead to the sort of larger structural analysis championed by Lyon-Callo.
In his wonderfully frank response “Homelessness or the Violence of Poverty and Exploitation: Does it Matter?” Lyon-Callo admits to the shortcomings in his own method, and suggests the need to consider a more finely differentiated, complete understanding of the human subject in conversation with the structures that produce it. As he eloquently puts it, neither a focus on practice alone nor retreat into overanalysis will serve. Rather, “an ethnography that matters will be one that accounts for the complexity of emotional and material subjectivity. An activism that matters will involve working with people to develop those insights collaboratively with the hope of helping to produce the conditions whereby it becomes possible to begin to act in ways that transform the actual conditions producing homelessness rather than simply helping to gain new understandings while continuing to respond to the most obvious manifestations of their effects.”
The problem of the subject in larger social analyses is further explored in Pranab Kanti Basu's “Rethinking the Values of the Left.” Drawing on the tension between constitutional Marxist parties in India, which as he points out have been in provincial power for decades, and assorted “people's” movements that have remained on the political margins in these Marxist provinces, Basu makes a compelling argument for why the Marxist parties in these states have failed to come to supportive terms with such movements. By accepting the capitalist notion of linear growth, and adopting a concept of Marxist political economy that fails to fully account for social use values, the leftist parties in power in India cannot adequately empathize with or theorize the communal efforts of these marginalized movements. For Basu, the “erasure” of social use value from Marxist theories of value is indeed “necessary for analyzing” the capitalist economic order; nevertheless, this absence also contributes to a failure of the critique of the broader capitalist order and thus undermines its own attempts to serve as a ground upon which Marxist party practices can function. The provincial Indian Marxist parties, grounded in political economy, promote a working-class subjectivity that is fundamentally individual-centric in its ethics and is “reflected in value.” In contradistinction, Basu finds that the discourses of the people's movements “are sustained by community ethics, reflected in their insistence on social use value.” The challenge for the counterhegemonic movement is to imagine a community of working-class people in the midst of their struggles, but also in relation to the particularities of the customary practices and social values that shape their struggles.
In “Alternative Art Economies: A Primer,” Erin Sickler describes the “962-page compilation of links, reading lists, and essays that relate to art's economy, assembled and discussed over the course of three workshops in spring 2011.” Drawing upon the work of thinkers as diverse as Badiou, Bataille, and, of course, Marx, the ten main contributors to “The Alternative Art Economies” primer attempt to challenge the “relationship between art and speculative capital as a universal and ahistorical phenomenon.” In addition, Sickler admits that while readers of this journal may find this to be a somewhat familiar conclusion, she was surprised to learn that such notions are often quite alien to artists—or are so ensconced in theoretical discourse that artists find them rarified and useless. For Sickler, then, this project is truly the beginning of the discussion, and an attempt to “open up the possibility of agency within a larger, more complex discourse.”
Some of the parameters of that “larger discourse” are evident in “Arche / An-arche,” a conversation among Reinhold Martin, Brian McCarthy, and Jesal Kapadia. Ostensibly beginning with the topic of “architecture,” this discussion moves quickly to a consideration of system, repetition, power, and representation in all aspects of our lives. Inevitably, as Martin points out, the double bind of capital formulates the paradigms of the creation of “public” environments by architects, thus implicating their creative efforts, even as it reasserts the private property aspect of those spaces. In the recent Occupy movement, this paradox is often the unarticulated, yet palpable issue at hand. For, as Martin continues, “we're not talking about ownership of the space. That's not the point. The point is: what forms of sovereignty can be imagined there, if you take occupation not as just a political tactic but as a kind of demonstration of possible social reorganization? Well, a kind of absolute and unconditional sharing is the premise.” For Martin, the opposition between “planned” and “unplanned” is misleading, since what we are always dealing with is a certain mediation that, in a sense, partakes of both. Thus, dealing with both the necessity and the impossibility of the “anarchy” of the OWS movement brings into focus the contradictions, the double bind of systems as simultaneously liberating and imprisoning.
In the symposium “The Mass Psychology of Capitalism,” Philip Kozel collects three commentaries, originally presented at the 2010 Left Forum in New York City, that focus on why, as Kozel puts it, “the radical rethinking taking place globally has not ‘trickled down’ to the mass of people in the contemporary United States.” The issue at hand in these essays, writes Kozel, is the problem of the point from which resistance might be effected, especially in light of the Althusserian “trap” of ideology: the formation of a subject (or in Foucaultian terms, the emergence of a subject position) that is somehow not entirely constructed by the reproduction of dominant thought. Kozel remarks that the essays in this symposium usefully intervene in capitalism's relation to the production of subjectivity. In addition, for Kozel, their interventions can “be usefully supplemented by opening up the issue of radical subjectivity to new and alternative investigations that enable us to conceptualize a radical subjectivity from without the limits of political quiescence.”
Alan Weinerman's “The Mass Psychology of Capitalism: Dialectical Contradictions in the Realm of the Psyche” opens the discussion. Explicitly claiming the classical Marxist perspective of dialectical materialism, Weinerman fixes upon a number of assertions: first, that the global capitalist crisis is indeed the result of basic contradiction “in the system itself.” For Weinerman, the crisis has now reached its qualitative limits and is unresolvable. Second, avers Weinerman, popular (mass) understanding(s) of the current crisis have become a material force and a roadblock to change. For Weinerman, these current conditions arise from three contradictions inherent in the operations of capitalism: the exploitation of surplus value (and thus the working classes), the destruction of the environment, and the exploitation of human consciousness—as he puts it, “to so distort reality and people's perception thereof, that these perceptions become a material force essential to maintaining the system,” thus reproducing “ideologically driven perceptions [that] are in contradiction to peoples’ material conditions of existence.” For Wienerman, it is this final contradiction that both “naturalizes” capitalism and undermines it by limiting its ability to adapt to changing material conditions.
Roger Salerno's “Personal Debt and the Credit Card Fetish” takes up an excellent example of Wienerman's notion of the exploitation of human consciousness by capitalism. Salerno contends that by extending Marx's concept of commodity fetishism to the way in which debt is encouraged (and accommodated), primarily through the credit card industry, in this current manifestation of capitalism, we can better recognize the power that discourses of consumption have over individuals. As Kozel points out in his introduction to the symposium, for Salerno the fetishization of credit cards “is crucial for understanding America's love affair with them, for the debt they enable helps fulfill (albeit ultimately unsuccessfully) our deep human need for community. Hence, credit cards represent both a means (consumer goods) and an end (joining an imaginary community).”
The last essay in the symposium, Harriet Fraad's “What's Wrong with America? Twelve Steps toward Change,” takes up the broader issues of widespread political and social apathy, and depression, among the U.S. population, and how the Left might respond to and ultimately help to ameliorate this situation. For Fraad, the efficacy of twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous provides a prescriptive model for leftist activism on this score. She argues that such programs mobilize individuals and communities and that, through adopting a similar approach, the left in the United States could produce a new, mass social consciousness organized around radical social and economic change and equity.
For those with an interest in considering Marxian approaches to literature, this issue offers Myka Tucker-Abramson's “Is Marlowe a Marxist? The Economic Reformation of Magic in Doctor Faustus.” In a richly nuanced reading of Christopher Marlowe's 1594 play, Tucker-Abramson argues for a new interpretation of the transitions represented in the work. Fixing upon magic as a structuring metaphor for her analysis, she contends that the play's subordination of the “old” magic of the emperor and the church to the “new”—and considerably more potent—magic wielded by Faust via Mephistopheles (and Lucifer) signals an important change taking place in Marlowe's world. For Tucker-Abramson, this “new” paradigm is metonymic with (and representative of) emergent capitalism. Faustus's inevitable “fall” into the clutches of the demons who “serve” him is an analog for the practices of capitalism as they remake human subjectivity. Thus, the play is less about the moral shortcomings of its eponymous “hero” than the pernicious, destructive power of this new order as it establishes its dominance.
Remarx provides three substantial and fascinating offerings in this issue. First is Josef Gregory Mahoney's “Fukuyama in China,” which addresses Francis Fukuyama's new book on the state, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, together with remarks he made during a recent public appearance in Shanghai. Mahoney takes Fukuyama to task for his unrepentant adherence to the “universalist, Eurocentric positions” that characterized his earlier thinking. Despite “six seemingly positive chapters on China” in his new book and Fukuyama's criticisms of recent U.S. leadership, from George W. Bush forward, Mahoney contends that the author has not begun to shift his polemics, as some commentators have suggested. Rather, says Mahoney, Fukuyama has “doubled down … with his Eurocentric universalism,” a move particularly apparent in the marginalization of “both historical and contemporary China in a manner that reinforces his basic ‘the West is best’ thesis.” It is an analysis, writes Mahoney, that is bereft of even the most rudimentary discussion of oppositional viewpoints, as though thousands of years of Chinese history—and significant contributions vis-à-vis the development of the modern state—can be dismissed with the wave of a hand.
In “Jim Cramer's Mad Money: Disavowals of a Late Capitalist Investor,” Gerald Sim argues that the CNBC celebrity, renowned for his reactionary diatribes and over-the-top antics, is in fact too easily dismissed as a jingoistic defender of slash-and-burn capitalism. Sim, instead, reads Cramer's approach as a cynical—though nonetheless opportunistic—understanding of late capitalism, replete with insights into (and exploitation of) its “injustices and immoralities.” Reading through the perspective of Žižek's conception of ideology, Sim claims that despite Cramer's incisive, and often biting, critiques of late capitalist practices, we cannot understand his comments as some sort of subversive exposure of the moralistic veneer of capitalist discourse. For Sim, that “knowledge is already present but disavowed and fetishized.” The upshot for Sim is to be sure that we use our own understanding of this practice of disavowal to refrain from falling into simplistic ethical critique. After all, replacing the disavowal of knowledge with a lie “is not restricted to the ruling and investor class,” but is a broader operation of ideology among all subjects. The case of Jim Cramer merely serves as an example of how subjects not only are willing to fetishize the lie of continual upward mobility, but, as Sim says, they also always already know it is a lie.
The third contribution to Remarx in this issue is James M. Czank's “On the Origin of Species-Being: Marx Redefined.” In this essay, Czank attempts to “unpack” what he perceives to be Marx's understanding and use of the concept of “species-being.” In doing so, he historically situates Marx and his philosophical groundings, and further insists that for Marx, species-being must be understood as the universal essence of humanity rather than of individual human existence. For Czank, in order to come to terms with the concept of species-being as used by Marx, it is necessary to also come to terms with Marx as philosopher from the German idealist school—very much at odds with the English tradition culminating (at the time) in utilitarianism. Further, contends Czank, it would be mistaken to fail to consider Marx's thought in total, despite Althusser's famous assertion of an epistemological break. As Czank puts it, “the mature Marx of Capital and The Communist Manifesto should not be considered as a thinker separate from the philosopher of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology,” but rather as one who was concerned with “the complete return of one to oneself as a human being.”
The final contribution to this issue is by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry, who reviews Manuel S. Almeida Rodríguez's Dirigentes y dirigidos: para leer los Cuadernos de la cárcel de Antonio Gramsci. Seda-Irizarry lauds Almeida's effort and points out the importance of his contributions. Almeida contends that the enormous oeuvre left by Gramsci is only superficially fragmentary, writing that “Gramsci's preoccupation with the different modalities in which the relations between the leaders and the led, the governing and the governed, are expressed is the thread that runs underneath the diverse themes in the notebooks.” Thus Almeida's book stands as a useful interpretive tool for newcomers as well as initiated Gramscians, for it offers an understanding of the expressive connections that emerge and create the landscape of the Notebooks.