Category Archives: Reviews

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)

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Review: A World To Win

This book is billed as “the life and works of Karl Marx”. However despite it’s size it is not a comprehensive story of the life of Marx and his family. Liedman covers the basics, tracing Marx’s travels across Europe before ending in London, touching on the poverty of his early years there. As soon as the story reaches the beginning of the drafting of Capital, the personal side begins to fall away, and Liedman concentrates more closely on the construction of Marx’s master work. The story of Marx’s personal life is better told by Francis Wheen’s biography (“Karl Marx”), or possibly (and with more theoretical rigour) by David McClellan’s “Karl Marx, His Life and Thought”.

Liedman’s is better at working through the development of Marx’s theory. This he treats as a single continuous process and dismisses the idea of an “epistemological break” in his thought, as proposed by Althusser among others. Marx’s thought clearly did change, and Liedman does well at tracing how his use of constructions such as “essence” changed over time.

It takes a while for Liedman to get into his stride – the discussion of some of the earlier work feels somewhat cursory – but once he reaches the core economic work, beginning with the “Grundrisse”, the book hits its stride. While nowhere near as close or comprehensive reading as David Harvey’s “Companions” books, this is a well written outline of the development of Marx’s analysis of economy and society. Liedman does well at bringing out a number of crucial concepts, including internal relations, and the (in)famous dialectic, but also things like the contrast between form and content for example. He also seeks to place Marx within the contemporary intellectual context, including his relationship to Darwin, and developments in science which Liedman presents as having a significant influence on Marx’s thought. As an overview of Marx’s theoretical approach and method, the book broadly works albeit at a relatively high level.

Liedman’s evaluation of Marx is very obviously positive, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem in the discussion of Marx’s work itself it becomes more so in the chapter which covers his successors and “marxism” in general. For example Liedman clearly disavows Stalin as bearing no relation to Marx – a fairly standard line on the political left, but one which is (rightly in my view) challenged by Slavoj Zizek. The Stalinist terror remains one possible historical outcome from Marx’s work, and the modern followers of Marx have to find a way to deal with that.

It is marred by a small number of errors of either copy editing or translation, which jar the experience of the reader from time to time. Other than that, it is a coherent and useful introduction to Marx’s theoretical approach, with a bit of biographical detail attached.

Review: In Defense of Lost Causes

This book is typical of Zizek’s style, in other words an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary. The opening proposal is to defend a range of revolutionary thinkers and events which history looks on unfavourably. This ranges from Robespierre to Heidegger’s flirtation with Nazi Germany, to Mao and the Cultural Revolution. From this initial premise Zizek spins out across his usual dizzyingly wide frame of reference.

One theme is repetition. History is not pre-determined presenting instead a range of possibilities, some of which are retro-actively identified in the past to justify where we are today. This underpins the discussion in particular of Stalinism. Zizek urges the left to accept that Stalin represents one path out of the civil war in Russia in 1918-20 and the situation Lenin had reached by his death in 1924. But this does not make it the only possible path. It is odd that liberal thinkers who are so keen to criticise Marx for a perceived economic determinism in his approach to history also often see a direct line from Marx to the gulag. Instead, rather than trying to deny Stalin as ‘deviating’ from Marx we should accept it as one path, while seeking to ‘repeat’ Lenin so that we can seek a different outcome to the revolution. A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in his “Communist Hypothesis”.

Written in 2008, and therefore before the financial crisis, Zizek also takes aim at the liberal ‘third way’ with it’s acceptance of capitalism as the background of life, and something which we can only seek to ameliorate. The resulting failure to pursue radical outcomes ends with a gap where a progressive left ought to be, leading to all sorts of distortions from radical Islam to right wing populist demagogues. This is a common Zizek theme which he has discussed before, but which is prescient in the context of when the book was written.

The afterword to the second edition finishes by discussing the uses of violence, drawing a line between violence used in pursuit of revolution and that used to defend the existing order. I’m not sure this is entirely successful, but it certainly delivers what I suspect Zizek was aiming for, which is a provocative challenge to the standard liberal left view of the world.

If it is slightly less successful than some of his other books, that is probably for two reasons. First that having been written ten years ago it feels somewhat dated after the financial crisis. Second it includes several long sections where Zizek responds to criticisms levelled at him by other writers, which I’m sure are important to Zizek but sit oddly with the rest of the book and seem quite abstruse.

The related post I wrote on ‘repeating the past’ is here.

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Review: Society of the Spectacle

Despite being written in the 1960’s this book feels very current. It’s depiction of a world where even time is commodified and where we are all in thrall to alienated images built to bind us into the class relations that underpin the modern world, fits well with our world of ‘reality’ television and celebrity. A world in which the abundance delivered by capitalism remains under the control of existing property relations, and as a result the majority of us remain dominated by the ‘machinery of modern consumption’. Things have only accelerated since this book was written.

In some ways this book is part of the “rediscovery” of Hegelian Marxism. Certainly it emphasises dialectical analysis and the ‘humanist’ side of Marx, the need for us to take control of our own future and create a world where we are connected to, rather than separated from, reality. It also emphasises the importance of the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. We can only understand how to theorise about how the world should change by actively seeking to change it.

It shows an open antipathy to Stalinism specifically and to ‘standard’ soviet communism in general, and there is an interesting critique of the communism of bolshevism and the second international. While this probably felt radical in the 1960’s when the book was written, 27 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union it feels more routine. We have moved beyond the opposition to capitalism consisting only of a single monolithic alternative state, and in that sense this book feels ahead of it’s time.

Despite it’s association with the situationist movement in art, it is in fact the sections on art which feel least successful, the most over-intellectualised. While it makes good points about the commodification of art from across history, it is unclear what a more ‘real’ art, one less in thrall to the status quo, might be composed of or how it will come about.

That said this is a fascinating reflection on the impact of modern consumer capitalism on contemporary culture, and no less relevant to today for being 50 years old.

Debord, Guy Society of the Spectacle (Rebel Press, London, 1983)

Review: The Politics of Friendship

I know I’m supposed to find Derrida interesting and challenging and stimulating… etc.. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to follow his line of argument, certainly my background is not in philosophy. There is surely however an unnecessary level of obfuscation in the language Derrida uses in this book. Phrases such as:

“possibilisation of the impossible possible”

and

“the long time of a time that does not belong to time”

defy any meaning that I can uncover. This is not the language of someone trying to get complex philosophical points across to the reader, it is the language of someone showing off.

Buried underneath all this are some interesting points. The analysis of the need for an enemy in political discourse chimes well with the experience of the west since the fall of Communism. The interaction between this need for an enemy and the nature of modern warfare, and its impact on democratic politics is insightful. There are interesting points about the nature of friendship built on three separate bases: virtue, utility, and pleasure.

It’s just a shame that it is so hard to get to these points you have to wade through such a cascade of meaningless literary contortions.

While there is mention of how friendship and ‘fraternity’ influences the democratic polity this is essentially a bourgeois vision. The focus is on how the connections between individuals are created and maintained, with some discussion of what might be thought of as ‘identity’ – race, gender, etc.. What is entirely missing is any sense of solidarity, of a group finding common cause, of class.

There is no doubt that this is complex work of philosophy with insights to offer. I just can’t help thinking that the same points could have been made much easier to understand and in about half the space.¬†And it doesn’t have an index either, which seems odd for a non-fiction book looking to be taken seriously.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

Review: The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

A great short volume with all the standard Zizek style. In other words it is an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary with a vague underpinning theme. If you like Zizek then you’ll enjoy it, if you hate Zizek you’ll probably hate it.

His focus here is the various protest movements which erupted across the world in 2011, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. When I say ‘focus’ though bear in mind that this is Zizek, so what that means in practice is a vague theme that is used as the springboard for a slightly rambling text that takes in The Wire, West Side Story, G K Chesterton, and the social taboos against smoking.

But if you enjoy Zizek’s writing then that is part of the attraction. He begins by outlining the current state of things from a basically Marxist perspective, while acknowledging that ‘immaterial’ labour is currently ‘hegemonic’ in place of the highly organised industrial workforce of Marx’s time. He moves on to make the case for resistance and fundamental change. That the attempt to preserve the remnants of or return to the mid-twentieth century post war consensus is doomed to fail. That democracy can no longer contain or control modern capitalism.

Zizek reasserts the need for a revolutionary break rather than an incremental or democratic approach. This leads him to reviews of the protest movements of 2011 and in particular Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

On Occupy, Zizek makes the case for it’s importance as protest, as the recognition that things are broken and must change. He refutes the common criticism that the movement didn’t express concrete goals. This would be a failure, indicating acceptance of the need to operate within the rules of the status quo when what is needed is in fact a radical rupture.

On the Arab Spring Zizek addresses the desire for the west to see the various movements as an attempt to move to western liberal democracy and not acknowledge the actual desire for change. He attacks the subsequent rise of radical Islam as a failure to allow space for radical change that is not towards western (neo-)liberalism. “We do not need a dialogue between religions (or civilisations) we need solidarity between those who struggle for justice.”

He ends with thoughts on the state of the modern left, chiming strongly with my own view that the lack of an overarching analysis as a driving force is holding back practical action. “What is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist reply to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

As always with Zizek I suspect some will not enjoy this book. But for me it is both a challenging and thought-provoking read with much to say about the state we’re in and some pointers to where progressives should look to make future change happen.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)

Review: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

The main challenge with this book is wading through the opaque philosophical style in which it is written. Laclau & Mouffe do however make some interesting points.

At it’s core the book seems to be a rejection of a mechanical and deterministic versions of Marxism. The emphasis is on the development of the concept of ‘hegemony’, and the first part of the book traces its use through thinkers from Luxemburg to Lenin to Gramsci. Laclau and Mouffe seek to develop the concept further into something which can be used to underpin a modern approach to politics.

The key point is that society is not structured in monolithic economic classes whose existence determines how ‘superstructural’ elements are constructed. On one level this seems sensible. It is common sense that political action is built on coalitions, and that any successful revolution will be the same.

That an economic ‘base’ does not mechanically determine a social ‘superstructure’ is surely obvious and I think Laclau and Mouffe are wrong however not to see this already in Marx. There is a divide between his theoretical work, in which her operates at a high level of abstraction to make the underlying ‘laws of motion’ clear. Conversely in his political work such as “The Civil War in France” and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx uses his theory for more practical analysis. In theory, Marx presents society as containing just two classes to simplify the analysis. In practice he understands that it is more complicated than that.

In fact, developing this theory of hegemony leads the authors to remove the class based element from their analysis almost completely. And that doesn’t seem correct either. They make what seems to me to be a theoretical justification for the ‘third way’ approach and identity politics. What they propose is that people fit into society through a range of different and often conflicting identities which are not determined by economic class, and that this complexity is growing in modern capitalism. The role then of progressive politics – in the absence of an apriori class conflict which has been removed from the analysis – is to stitch together “coalitions of the willing”. In pursuit of what goal, if the liberation of the oppressed class cannot be the goal, it is not clear.

I say ‘seems to’ though because the mode or expression is very challenging indeed. I’m sure this seems reasonable to the authors but it does not help with deciphering what it is the they are trying to say.

In short, this is a book with a lot of value in thinking about what sort of progressive alliances are likely to be necessary if the left is to be successful under modern capitalist conditions. But hamstrung by removing the theoretical underpinning provided by Marx and the analysis of how the ‘laws of motion’ of the economy interact with society to constrain what it is possible to achieve. In the absence of this underpinning it becomes unclear what the goal of progressive politics is, and ends up being a justification for the ‘third way’ approach of Clinton and Blair.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)