Category Archives: Reviews

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)

Advertisements

Review: Capitalizing on Crisis

This is a technically complex work of sociology unpicking and analysing trends in US society, economy, and politics over the course of forty years from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Krippner’s basic thesis is that successive policy decisions over the course of this period, each in response to immediate challenges, have ‘financialised’ the US economy. In other words, have shifted the focus of profit making from investment in productive activity to the ownership and exchange of financial instruments. Even major industrial companies come to make significant portions of their profit from activity in the financial market. This shift has significant implications for how the economy is managed, and the location of future crises.

Krippner demonstrates this through a detailed analysis of economic data and a systematic review of policy shifts during this period. Although this is somewhat dry in places the case is convincing. She defines three separate phases. First the deregulation of the domestic financial market as an attempt to get to grips with the social crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, offering policymakers a ‘reprieve from difficult political choices’. Second the response to the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s with growing government deficits which altered the relationship between the domestic and global markets driving a ‘dramatic expansion of credit in the US economy’. Finally on the realisation relying on market mechanisms offered in fact very little restraint on consumers, corporations, or governments how approaches to monetary policy developed incrementally in the period up to 2001 to control the demand for credit through interest rates (as opposed to regulation of the supply).

Although the book was first published in 2011, Krippner stops short of the 2007-9 financial crisis, indicating in the introduction that she considers this to represent a separate stage of development that requires a separated analysis. That said it is clear that the ‘depoliticisation’ of economic decision making that Krippner outlines is a significant factor underpinning the later crisis. As Krippner explains, in making this change the expectation had been that the market would impose a discipline on economic behaviour that political actors were unwilling to do. In fact this has turned out not to be the case at all. The market has promoted and validated a lack of restraint particularly in relation to credit which has left us more exposed than ever to the risk of financial crisis.

Although this is not Krippner’s intention, her analysis is a neat fit for the Marxist view of the long term tendency of the rate of profit to decline (see writers such as Robert Brenner and Michael Roberts). The declining profit possible in productive industry leads to speculation in what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’. This growing financialisation becoming increasing unstable and leading inexorably to crisis. The picture here is one that provides a deep-seated explanation for the financial crisis of 2007-9.

So this is a fascinating book with many implications for further analysis. If a touch dry in places, it is detailed, well researched, and a thought provoking discussion of what underpins the modern economy.

Krippner, Greta Capitalizing on Crisis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2012)

Review: How Will Capitalism End?

Wolfgang Streeck may not in fact answer the question that he poses in the title of this book, but it is still a superb read.

How Will Capitalism End” consists of a set of essays and speeches from the German sociologist published previously in New Left Review (and elsewhere) and organised around the theme of the challenges to capitalism. Each is a thoughtful and valuable contribution to the analysis of modern capitalist, it’s impact on society, politics, and environment, and what our options for the future might be.

The opening essay sets the tone. It poses the suggestion that capitalism has so successfully eliminated all opposition to it’s conquest of politics and society that it’s destructive nature now has free rein without constraint from organised labour or political control. The end result will be the long slow death of capitalism’s ability to deliver for the majority of its inhabitants, without the prospect of its replacement by a different system which can pick up the baton as Marx originally envisaged.

The remaining essays work around similar themes. The emphasis is on the impact of the neoliberal project to disconnect the management of the economy from political and social control. This can be seen in Streeck’s characterisation of the changing nature of the state leading towards the current “consolidation” state where having passed successively through private debt then public debt stages now exists to ensure that we reliably meet our obligations to asset holders.

Another theme of Streeck is the divide between social rights and free markets. Where the democratic state prioritises providing public services for its citizens identified through elections. By contrast the “consolidation” state prioritises the contractual claims of creditors and the servicing of debt. The tension between these two has been a major driver for social and political change since the second world war.

This is a thought provoking and very readable set of essays which should be of interest to anyone who doesn’t accept the orthodox economist world view.

Streeck, Wolfgang How Will Capitalism End? (Verso, London, 2016)

Review: The Meaning of Marxism

This is not a terrible book. But it is a limited one. As a basic introduction to a lot of the basic concepts in Marxism it has some merit. D’Amato sweeps across the range of Marxism from the economy to exploitation to the state to the revolutionary party, covering each at a basic introductory level. What then is the problem?

Partly it is that D’Amato’s treatment is quite dogmatic. He discusses Marxism as a fairly monolithic source of truth without acknowledging debate or variation other than to condemn Stalin and Mao as dictatorial and not true Marxists. But Marxism is not a monolithic entity, certainly not anymore. It’s use in the modern world must surely be as an analytical toolkit to prompt debate and the exploration of alternatives to the neoliberal capitalism. This requires the sort of argument that doesn’t form any part of this book. On top of this, D’Amato’s own (undeclared) viewpoint is sectarian Trotskyist, a fairly specific clique within modern socialism.

It doesn’t feel like D’Amato engages with modern uses of Marx’s analysis at all. He doesn’t mention such thinkers as David Harvey or Wolfgang Streeck, both of whom make intelligent use of Marxist thinking to break down modern society and economy. Jodi Dean is mentioned only to attack her as not adhering to the true nature of socialism. Yet these writers (and I’m sure others that D’Amato doesn’t mention) are all critically engaged with Marx and Marxist thought.

In fact this book feels like a simple restatement of a revealed truth. D’Amato quotes Marx and Trotsky extensively, and often follows this up with an assertion that whatever point is being made remains relevant to the modern world, without attempting to actually apply the analysis to the changed world. And it is important to remember that the capitalist world has changed since Marx was alive and we cannot simply treat his work as truth. It is telling that D’Amato quotes the Communist Manifesto extensively, written before Marx began his economic work and while it has value doesn’t reflect the depth of his later work.

It does not feel like D’Amato is trying to reconstruct a modern left progressive movement that can take on the world of capitalism. He is simply reasserting the world view of Trotsky in the 1930’s and D’Amato’s belief that it remains relevant to today.

Finally the bibliography is limited and strongly slanted towards Trotsky and with very few recommendations of modern writers. While it does reference Capital, it doesn’t really provide a guide to getting further into Marx’s analysis (for example D’Amato doesn’t reference key works by Harvey, Michael Heinrich, or Ben Fine that can help ease the difficulty of getting to grips with Marx’s economics).

In short this is a limited book. It does have value, it is written in clear language and covers a wide range of subjects. It is by no means a definitive introduction to the basics of Marxism.

D’Amato, Paul The Meaning of Marxism (Haymarket, Chicago, 2014).

Review: The Shock of the Anthropocene

A polemic on climate change and the impact of humanity on the earth. Very wide ranging in its scope running through the history of those who have challenged the climatic impact of industrialisation from before the industrial revolution, as well as the basic science behind the description of a new geological era where humanity dominates the globe – the “anthropocene”.

The very sweep and scope of this book means that the treatment of is sometimes quite brief. It would benefit for example from a more comprehensive engagement with Marx bearing in mind the importance of capitalism as a system, which Bonneuil and Fressoz do acknowledge, for the impact of industry on the climate.

Bonneuil and Fressoz do succeed in at least one of his stated goals – echoing EP Thompson – to rescue earlier challenges to the impact of human activity on the climate from the “enormous condecension of history”. The call to action is also clear. Humanity is now in a position where it controls the future of the planet. Perhaps the most challenging part of the book is where Bonneuil and Fressoz argue that humans have not suddenly become aware of the climate crisis, and that therefore we cannot look to a newly engaged science to simply reverse the situation. More fundamental change is needed, starting with an acknowledgement of the new situation. Bonneuil and Fressoz makes the case, but more work is needed to develop a programme for future action.

An important book then. Not the last word on the subject, but rather perhaps the beginning of something that needs to become much more mainstream and influence all our thinking in the future.

Bonneuil C., and Fressoz J-B The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso, London, 2017)

Review: Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason

A while ago I read the three volumes of Marx’s Capital in tandem with the first and second volumes of David Harvey’s “Companion to Marx’s Capital”. Harvey is of course also well known for his series of online video lectures on Capital, which formed the basis for the “Companion” books.

In some ways this book feels like a shortened version of the longer work. It is a superb short introduction to the thought of Marx in all it’s complexity. Harvey builds the book around the basic principle that for Marx Capital is ‘value in motion’ and uses the hydrological cycle to illustrate how this works in practice. His emphasis on contradiction and conflict in the thought of Marx is a great counter to the ‘standard’ deterministic version of Marxism.

Harvey works through the various transformations that capital progresses through in moving from production to circulation to realisation (and then back into production) spiralling upwards driven by the need to accumulate. He draws out the dialectical nature of these transformations, riven by contradiction and the possibility of crises. This leads to the final chapter where Harvey begins the process of connecting this analysis to the current political conjunction. In particular he draws out how the dramatic growth of China demonstrates an acceleration in the challenges modern capital presents both to the continuation of a working economy and to a sustainable climate.

Harvey also discusses the creation of ‘anti-value’. One aspect of modern capitalism has been the creation of vast quantities of debt representing claims of the present on the future, determining the continuation of the production of surplus value in the need to service the debt that has been built up in the past. And yet the creation of this debt has been necessary to pulling capital out of its periodic crises, and in particular following the great recession of 2007-8.

Harvey does not shy away from exposing the complexities of Marx’s thought. In this the book is similar to the pair of “Companion” books. The goal is to encourage us to engage with Marx’s thought as an insightful way of thinking about the current state of affairs, as an analysis that helps us to understand the way things are, and emphatically not as a dogma that must be revered without being changed. Harvey does a superb job of outlining Marx’s framework, where it reflects the challenges we face today and where it needs further thought or revision.

In brief, as a short introduction to the modern value of Marx’s work this book is invaluable without ever being dogmatic. Perhaps the dissolution of ‘actually existing’ communism frees us to make better use of what Marx can tell us about modern political economy. If so, there is no better introduction than David Harvey’s latest work.

Review: The First International and After

The final volume in the set of three covering Marx’s “political” writings published by Verso, this covers the period of the First International. Similar to the first two volumes this shows Marx grappling with the tactical issues of the day. Although this means that many of the articles included in the book cover quite specific topics – and therefore might seem somewhat limited in more general interest – in fact they show Marx as anything but the doctrinaire ideologue he is often portrayed to have been. Instead it shows him carefully managing the various sectional interests in order to maintain a coherent programme across the movement.

In particular Marx insists on the need to maintain a revolutionary goal. Whatever tactics are suitable to the situation at hand, the working class movement must not lose sight of the need to overthrow the existing system and replace it with something else in the end.

Marx’s argument with Bakunin during the revolution is an interesting follow on, making it clear that Marx believed that a political programme is a necessary part of a revolutionary movement. It is not sufficient to pursue a purely ‘economic’ agenda looking to improve working conditions. The movement must remain engaged with the political struggle too.

This is complimented by the other section which is particularly interesting which includes “The Civil War in France”, Marx’s writing on the Paris Commune. This covers some of his most specific statements on the subject of the state, what a “dictatorship of the proletariat” might mean in practice, how the working class might go about dismantling the capitalist state, and what might come afterwards in practice.

All this means that it is a volume with a great deal of relevance to the modern left wing and is worth reading for the intersection it presents between the building of an engaged daily working class movement on top of a strong foundation in an economic analysis of capitalism and the state.