Author Archives: 4harrisons

Dialectical Materialism

I’ve been reading a fair amount about dialectics recently, working through both Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing“. I recently captured an interesting passage in Jameson’s book on Lukacs’ use of the concept of “totality” to understand the strategies used in modern society to envelop and incorporate dissent into the status quo (and the potential impacts of that strategy, leading to the eruption of dissatisfaction in other places). I’ll follow that up with more extensive notes shortly.

“Dialectical materialism” however has a poor reputation these days as the term used for the simplified “vulgar” Marxism of the Stalinist Soviet Union. So it was odd to read in Zizek’s book a long quote from Stalin’s “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course“. (I shouldn’t really be surprised, Zizek is such a consistent contrarian).

However, when summarised by Zizek this passage from the relic of the worst period of Marxism becomes a brilliant short explanation of dialectical totality:

“First, nature is not a conglomerate of dispersed phenomena, but a connected whole. Then, this Whole is not immobile, but in a state of constant movement and change. Next, this change is not only a gradual quantitative drifting, but involves qualitative jumps and ruptures. Finally, this qualitative development is not a matter of harmonious deployment, but is propelled by the struggle of the opposites … The trick here is that we are effectively not dealing merely with the Platonic dieresis, the gradual subdivision of a genus into species and the species into subspecies: the underlying premise is that this “diagonal” process of division is really vertical, ie., that we are dealing with different aspects of the same division.”

(Zizek 2012)

I should be clear that I’m not endorsing a “dialectic of nature” here. Rather the thought process that sees a subdivided whole rather than a set of linked but discrete objects.

Just as usefully, Zizek goes on to explain how this analytical concept can become in the hands of someone like Stalin a tool for monstrous political control and persecution. Quantitative change that doesn’t lead to qualitative change is, in this analysis, not true change; qualitative change that does not involve a struggle of opposites is not true change. As Zizek describes it this leads to a “more ominous” description:

“those who advocate qualitative change without a struggle of the opposites really oppose change”

(Zizek 2012)

And to refine it further:

“those who advocate the transformation of capitalism into socialism without class struggle really reject socialism and want capitalism to continue.”

(Zizek 2012)

And suddenly the potential political implications are laid bare, and how it came to be used to underpin the Stalinist terror.

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2012)


Totality and pluralism

This is a short post to capture a superb passage from “Valences of the Dialectic”. I’m not going to add much commentary to it, but will rather quote it at some length.

Jameson is discussing Lukacs’ concept of “totality”, and in particular the post-modern turn which dismisses it as associated with Stalinism and in general the perceived destructiveness of totalising visions of the future when used as drivers for political action.

Jameson describes how modern (“late”) capitalism uses the concept of “pluralism” to express the complexity of social relations and to envelop what had formerly been disruptive non-conformist movements within the social apparatus.

This is fascinating framework within which to understand how ‘identity politics’ has become a mechanism for the co-option of dispute and its incorporation into ‘permitted’ discourse as part of a wider Marxist thought process. This facilitates the neutering of dissent, and thereby events such as the Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump. More traditional channels for discontent have in other words been not blocked but diverted, opening the window for the unexpected. To mix metaphors, what the protectors of the status quo haven’t got to grips with is that in the context of class struggle closing one avenue of dissent is like squeezing a balloon – all that happens is that the challenge pops out somewhere else.

This provides philosophical depth (and a link to Lukacs’ Hegelian Marxism) to the theory of “spirits” of capitalism as a means to incorporate and control challenge and dissent expressed in Boltanski and Chiapello “The New Spirit of Capitalism“.

So that’s the preamble, here’s the segment from Jameson in full:

“Pluralism has therefore now become something like an existential category, a descriptive feature that characterises our present everyday life, rather than an ethical imperative to be realise within it. What is ideological about current celebrations of pluralism is that the slogan envelops and illicitly identifies two distinct dimensions of social complexity. There is the vertical dimension of late-capitalist or corporate institutions, and then the horizontal one of increasingly multiple social groups. Celebrations of pluralism pass the first off under the guise of the second, in whose joyous and Utopian street “heterogeneity” it decks itself out. But the complexity of institutions is also a form of standardisation (the very paradox of the system of reification as Lukacs first described it in an early stage). Meanwhile, the celebration of the diversity of the “new social movements” released by the 1960s obscures their increasing collectivisation and institutionalisation as well. The solitary Romantic rebels and nonconformists of earlier periods have all been transformed into groups and movements, each with its own specific micropolitics. The transformation marks a significant (if provisional) gain in the political power of formerly marginal or repressed individuals, who, however, thereby forfeit the power and the pathos of an older rhetoric of individual resistance and revolt.”

“Yet is is precisely by way of this new institutionalisation, marked, for example, by a new-ethnic movement in culture, in which older groups now produce their “heritage” in the form of the image, that the ideologeme of “pluralism” is able to do its work. It shifts gears imperceptibly from these new group structures to the very different structures of the corporate, which can now appropriate the celebration of Difference and Heterogeneity and harness it to the celebration of consumer goods, free enterprise, and the eternal wonder and excitement of the market itself.”

(Jameson 2009, p212-213)

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Review: Grand Hotel Abyss

I’ve not really paid much attention previously to the Frankfurt School and the development of critical theory after having covered them briefly during my University course and taking against the complexity, obfuscation, and negativity of their thought. This probably wasn’t helped by their entries in Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” (the standard work covering all the main Marxist thinkers from Marx through to the 1970s). Kolakowski’s section on the Frankfurt School includes one of my favourite academic take-downs of all time, talking about Theodor Adorno’s “Negative Dialetics”, Kolakowski says of Adorno that:

“he shows no desire whatever to elucidate his ideas, and clothes them in pretentious generalities. As a philosophical text, Negative Dialectics is a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1081)

Ouch. Enough to put anyone off reading critical theory in any detail.

Stuart Jeffries book cuts through this. Told in chronological order Jeffries places each thinker in context, starting with Walter Benjamin (an inspiration for the Frankfurt School and critical theory if not actually part of the Institute for Social Research) and progressing from Horkheimer to Adorno and on to Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth.

Jeffries gives some biographical detail for each of the thinkers covered, and covers the historical context – particularly important for 1930’s Nazism and the run up to the second world war, and then again for 1968 and the influence both of the school on the revolutionary moment, and of the student radicals themselves on the Frankfurt School thinkers, especially Adorno and Marcuse.

Alongside this, Jeffries covers the theories and main lines of thought for each of them in a way that makes sense and allows you to follow the development of their critique of modern life in a clear and coherent way. The style is engaging and very readable, but still leaves you feeling that you’ve covered a reasonable summary. Jeffries is not blind to the gaps, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in the work of the school, but is clearly sympathetic in general. That said this never feels like hagiography, but rather an honest assessment of their contribution to modern thought.

If you’ve struggled with critical theory before and want an engaging introduction to who the main characters are and what it’s all about then this is the perfect book. It’s not a book of heavy theory, nor is it quite just a simple biography. It is though a good starting point. Maybe I’ll read some Adorno after all.

Jeffries, Stuart Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso, London, 2017)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton & Company, London, 2008)

Review: The New Spirit of Capitalism

This is a classic modern work of sociology, which sets out to unpick the relationship between society, politics, and the mechanisms of the economy.

The key concept presented by the authors is that in order to survive capitalism needs to be accompanied by both a “spirit” and a “critique”.

The “spirit” is a positive expression used to inspire commitment to the continuation of capitalism. Passive non-resistance is not enough, the system needs active commitment from both workers, managers, and leaders to continuing to reproduce that system. The “spirit of capitalism” then is “the ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism” by defining “not only the advantages which participation in the capitalist processes might afford on an individual basis, but also the collective benefits, defined in terms of the common good, which it contributes to producing for everyone.” (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p.8)

In other words this spirit articulates the shared vision capable of delivering the broad support of society for the continuation of capitalism based on a collective understanding of the common good.

The authors use management literature to develop an analysis of that shared vision, on the (reasonable) basis that the guidance presented to managers is a clear indication of how the system is “supposed” to work, in a way that supports the most efficient running of that system. Using this technique they contend that for much of the twentieth century the spirit of capitalism was built on secure jobs and hierarchical progress with accepted union rights supporting the division of increasing wealth in a way perceived to be fair.

Each spirit is accompanied by “critique” with two emphases. A ‘social’ critique that addresses the impact of the system on inequality and distribution of wealth, and an ‘artistic’ critique that addresses the impact on individual human psychology. It is the interaction between the way things are supposed to work (the ‘spirit’) and critique that drives the stability of the status quo. The system responds to criticism which in turn reacts to new developments in an ongoing dialogue.

With a strong French perspective the authors outline how the critique of post-war capitalism dominated by large monolithic firms with hierarchical bureaucracies and the accompanying “second spirit” of capitalism peaked with the events of 1968. In Britain it is possible to perceive a similar situation in the various crises of the 1970’s. Under the impact of critique not only workers but also managers and owners reached the point where they were no longer able to maintain the belief that the system could continue as it then existed, or was capable of maintaining the common good. The prevailing spirit broke down, unable to respond to criticism of the stifling effect of bureaucracy, the inauthenticity of mass produced commodity consumerism, and distributional mechanisms built around (white, straight) male dominated industrial workplaces.

As a result of this breakdown, a new spirit of capitalism has begun to emerge that is able to respond to this criticism. Again, built up from the management literature – this time of the 1990s – it is one based around flexible working in networked environments which deliver more individual control over life and work, but also a more precarious life style Ahead of their time, what the authors are describing is the modern world of the ‘gig economy’, the zero-hours contract, and the ‘precariat‘. This third spirit neutralises the critique of the second spirit by allowing more focus on the individual and less on the collective, allowing the subsequent development of ‘identity politics’, accompanied by the break up of the large monolithic companies into many loosely linked component parts. The move away from inauthentic mass commodity production is exemplified by the creation of new ‘artisan’ products. This new system they term the “projective city”, because it is upon relations built around individuals collaborating in projects rather than working in command-and-control hierarchies.

The authors theorise that after a hiatus when this new third spirit was in the ascendant and the old critique of the ‘second spirit’ of capitalism was neutralised, new forms of criticism are becoming visible. They highlight the exploitation inherent in a network model of employment where the freedom and flexibility available to the few is built on the requirement for many to work cheaply and without security, to be discarded when it suits the business. Corporations similarly are broken up into flexible and loosely connected parts to avoid both tax and other social obligations. This provides the basis on which criticism might resume, although the authors are clear that modern critical thought has yet to catch up with the changes visible in what might be called the relations of production. Critique is necessary however to keep the system ‘honest’ and without it, it falls prey to its worst excesses, as can be demonstrated from the experience of the last 10 years. There is also a lesson here for Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour Party who it feels are still refighting the battles of the past, rather than trying to identify the new critique that will drive the changes of the future.

The authors disclaim any direct connection to Marxism or a Marxist analysis of capitalism, and reference a sociological historiography from Weber and Durkheim onward. However what they seem to describe are the detailed mechanics of the ‘hegemony’ articulated and theorised by Gramsci. What they describe as the “spirit” of capitalism is simply the mechanism through which the dominant class acquires the subservience of the rest of society to the continuation of the existing system.

Especially fascinating is the dialectical tension between the ‘spirit of capitalism’ and the critique directed at it. The two remain in dialogue throughout and cannot exist without each other. As the last 20 years have demonstrated, capitalism needs effective criticism to prevent it from falling into the self-destructive pattern identified by Marx.

This book is a detailed and fascinating explanation of the interaction between modern society and economy. While not directly Marxist, it is a fascinating accompaniment to Marxist thought and a spur to reflective thinking about how revolutionary change in the modern world might come about.

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

Review: A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things

This book is an interesting corrective to what might be thought of as the ‘standard’ history of the development of the European domination of the world from the 15th century onward.

The seven cheap things in question are Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy, and Lives. Where that standard history views modernity as having been a time of enormous progress that has lifted millions out of poverty (see for example Fraser Nelson discussing modern statistics on inequality from Oxfam in the Spectator) the authors of this book see a story of rapacious exploitation of both people and the natural world. As they say in the introduction, while it might be thought that the iconic product of the modern world is perhaps the smartphone, or the internet more generally, it is in fact the chicken nugget – something which demonstrates a cheapened approach both to the production of food, to the natural environment, and to the lives of the people who consume them.

The early narrative of the book focuses on the island of Madeira and its colonisation in the 15th century, moving on to Columbus and the subsequent exploration and colonisation of the Americas. The text bounces back and forth using examples from early imperialism to illustrate and underline the ongoing cheapening of the modern world. This is both insightful and frustrating in equal measure. It is not a methodical review of the development of modern capitalism, but is strong on anecdote and exposing the myths on which the modern west’s view of its foundation is built.

While the text is not explicitly Marxist, one emphasis is on the importance of the boundary between the commodified capitalism world and the rest. In this sense it feels strongly influenced by Rosa Luxemberg and the need for violent ‘primitive’ accumulation to continue keeping capitalism alive. Like Rosa Luxemberg the authors see this as an ongoing process, as much a part of life today with the commodification of areas of life previously untouched by capitalism, as it was in the early modern period with the construction of the slave economy in the Americas. The parallel is well drawn, but it remains a frustration that the intervening history of capitalism is skipped so quickly over.

The book also fails to fully engage with the Marxist debate on the origins of capitalism. It implicitly subscribes to the view that the changes brought about by the colonisation and expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries was the key change which triggered the development of capitalism. It does not tackle Meiksin Wood’s view contra view that in fact the significant change came in the relations of production in rural England and that there is not a smooth path from the mercantilism of early modern colonialism to fully fledged industrial capitalism.

As I said at the start this is a useful and engaging short book, and a corrective to progressive liberal views of western history. It is not though a full academic treatment.

Nelson, Fraser What Oxfam Won’t Tell You About Capitalism and Poverty (

Patel, Raj and Moore, Jason A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things (Verso, London, 2018)

Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Recovering Modernity

“Post-modernism” is not something I’ve previously really engaged with as a concept or got to grips with what it means, other than in a superficial way. Which is why I was interested to read the refreshingly simple description of “modernity” presented by Goran Therborn in his book “From Marxism to Post-Marxism?” against which to assess “post-modernism”:

“Modernity is a culture claiming to be modern, in the sense of turning it’s back on the past… and looking into the future as a reachable, novel horizon”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

He then goes on to give a little more context to this basic statement:

“Rather than trivialising the concept of modernity by attempting to translate it into a set of concrete institutions , whether of capitalism of politics, or into a particular conception of rationality or agency so that it can more easily be philosophically targeted, it is more useful to deploy it solely as a temporal signifier, in order to allow it to retain its analytical edge.”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

“Modernity” is therefore a world view focused on progress, one in which things are getting better, which looks to the future and is actively seeking ways of moving towards it. In a brief segment at the end of her book “The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View” Ellen Meiksins Wood characterises this as developing from the Enlightenment based on increasing “rationalisation”.

“rationalisation of the state in bureaucratic organisation, the rationalisation of the economy in industrial capitalism, the rationalisation of culture in the spread of education, the decline of superstition, and the progress of science and technology.”

(Meiksins Wood 2017, p. 182)

Modernism therefore implies belief in an overarching view of the world that defines how progress happens and the mechanisms that drive change. Throughout much of the twentieth century at least two world views were available that might be thought of as upholding this view of progress, including both Soviet Communism and post war liberal democracy.

With this in mind, Postmodernism can then be defined in opposition to ‘modernity’ as:

“a questioning of, or loss of belief in, the future narratives of the modern.”

“Insofar as ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, progressive and reactionary, have lost all meaning, we have entered a post-modern world.”

(Therborn 2018, p.122)

Boltanski and Chiapello in their book “The New Spirit of Capitalism” similarly describe a postmodernist approach as viewing the state of the world as “chaos unamenable to any general interpretation”. (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p. 345).

This loss of belief in “the future” means the loss of a set of criteria against which to judge things. The old analyses are no longer valid, and therefore no longer provide a guide for future actions. Politically this shift was one of the factors underpinning the move of left wing parties from socialism to a “third way“. If capitalism is not progressing towards it’s eventual supercession then the best that can be hoped for is to reach an accommodation with it. With collapse of Soviet communism and the perceived irrelevance of Marxism, the left lacked any overarching analysis of the shape of the world, and therefore any view of what it was ‘for’. The only rational choice left to progressives in a post-modern world is working out how to make capitalism a bit nicer.

The end result has been a consensus of support across the political spectrum for a neo-liberal economics that has delivered a world which is increasingly unequal, polarised between asset holders and non-asset holders. There is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, particularly among the young who have been disproportionately impacted by the implementation of nearly unopposed capitalism.

But without a strongly organised left articulating an alternative view of what is possible, that dissatisfaction has nowhere progressive to go. That doesn’t mean it disappears. Rather it migrates to political movements which are prepared to critique the current state of affairs and offer an explanation, even if it is not a rational one. In recent years this has meant Trump and Brexit.

In other words, the progressive left needs to recover its belief in the modern and find the overarching analysis of the world to underpin a call to action, and which can then be used to create a coherent manifesto for practical policies for change. I think there are some signs of this analysis developing but there’s still a long way to go.

Therborn, Goran From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (Verso, London, 2018)

Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

Review: The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View

A fascinating re-examination of the genesis of capitalism, along with some thoughts for what that might mean for its future. The origin of capitalism has been the subject of debate, particularly within the Marxist intellectual sphere because of its significance for how it might finish. The first part of this book is taken up with a summary and brief review of this debate. Meiksin Wood’s focus is on the “commercialisation” approach and its variations. In short Meiksin Wood’s view is that this is based on the presupposition that the logic of capitalism (profit derived from exploitation of production based on workers who do not have independent access to the means of production) is eternal, awaiting only the removal of fetters to be released and grow. Even various strands of Marxist thinking see capitalist laws of motion sitting within feudalism simply waiting to be unleashed. Gradual accumulation through trade eventually reaches a tipping point allowing the existing bourgeois in the cities to overturn their feudal chains.

In Meiksin Wood’s view this is wholly unsatisfactory, taking as given what itself needs to be explained – that is how did capitalist relations and forms of property come to be created in the first place. It is not sufficient to simply assume that capitalism existed latent within feudalism waiting to be released. This would mean that we accept the view common in capitalist economics that the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism represent eternal rules valid throughout the whole of human history. And yet we know that capitalism appeared late, with most societies functioning in non-capitalist ways.

The second and longer section of the book outlines Meiksin Wood’s view that the genesis of capitalism was in fact a specific response to the conditions in rural England in the early modern period. Rather than being driven by the commercial accumulation of wealth, or by technological change, capitalism grows out of the relations of production in the countryside where the development of changed relations between aristocratic landlord and tenant farmer imposes the imperatives of the market on both producers and appropriators. These relations of production, and the creation of a unified national market for domestic products, create an agrarian capitalism that provides the foundation stone for future developments. The bourgeois of the towns and the development of international trade is therefore not what underpins the creation of capitalism, rather it is the changes in the English countryside.

This is an excellent thought provoking discussion of the issues surrounding the development of capitalism in the early modern period.

Meiksins Wood, E The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)