Tag Archives: Marxism

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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Opium of the People

Religion is the opium of the people” is a frequently quoted phrase by Marx whose meaning is more ambiguous than it is I suspect often taken for. In this short post I want to capture briefly the interpretation given it by Sven-Eric Liedman in his book “A World to Win” recently re-published by Verso in English translation.

The phrase, is often taken to mean that religion is used by the dominant forces in society as a mechanism of control over the working class, something manipulated cynically as a means to keep the working class quiescent. It seems more than likely that this is a view conditioned by the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China.

Liedman disagrees. He states that in fact Marx was using opium in what might be described as a more ‘self-medicating’ sense. Religion is the drug that allows the exploited and oppressed to

“It is thus the shortcomings of the earthly life that constitute the breeding ground of religion.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99)

He then goes on to quote a longer passage from Marx to demonstrate the point.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99, quoting Marx “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”)

There is an interesting example of a very similar phenomenon in the description by Cyril Mango of the world view of inhabitants of the medieval Greek Byzantine Empire. Mango describes the invisible world of demons and evil as felt to be very much part of reality by the average Byzantine. What’s more the existence of demons is used to make sense of the world around them, of things for which in the absence of modern science the existence of demons provides a ‘rational’ explanation. Mango notes that

“It would be a mistake to dismiss these as a product of superstition, unworthy of the historian’s consideration.”

(Mango 1998, p.159)

Mango quotes many examples from the lives of saints where ordinary people gain comfort from the intervention of monk or other holy man who drives the demons away. The medieval Byzantine experiencing ‘real distress’ searched for something that could make sense of the world around them, and found the answer in the invisible battle between good and evil, and the comfort of religious protection.

Marx is making a similar point. Superstition and religion are a rational response by ordinary people to the oppression and misery of their daily lives, something that can make sense of what they are experiencing and provide comfort.

Liedman, Sven-Eric A World To Win (Verso, London, 2018)

Mango, Cyril Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome (Phoenix, London, 1998)

Marx, Karl Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (First published in 1844, available in translation at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)

Repeating the past

Received wisdom dictates that Marx’s theories have been wholly discredited by the attempt to implement them made by the Soviet Union. Capitalism won, the west declared the end of history, and the left accepted defeat and the necessity of capitalism under the “third way” of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In “In Defense of Lost Causes” from 2008 Slavoj Zizek tackles the failures of a number of radical movements, from the Terror of the French Revolution to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. One thing Zizek challenges is the characterisation of the horrific consequences of these episodes as an inevitable consequence of revolutionary outbursts, that there was only one possible path forward. Does the path taken historically represent the only possible route out of the revolutionary situation?

Discussing Heidegger, Zizek notes that he “locates the future itself into the past”

“not, of course, in the sense that we live in a closed universe in which every future possibility is already contained in the past, so that we can only repeat, realize, what already is present in the inherited texture, but in the much more radical sense of the “openness” of the past itself: the past itself is not simply “what there was,” it contains hidden, non-realized potentials”

(Zizek 2009, p.188).

In other words history is not a deterministic linear process, but nor is it entirely contingent. There are only a limited range of future possibilities and these are built into the past. In this sense therefore we should not reject Stalinism as a ‘distortion’ of Marx or a betrayal of the revolution. We should fully accept it as a natural (but disastrous) path out of the situation in Russia after the revolution, but not the only possible one.

It is in this sense that Zizek suggests we should “repeat Lenin” (or Mao, or Robespierre etc.). Not so that we can repeat the same linear path of failure, but so that at the critical points we can take a different route in pursuit of a more equal society.

Five years after the revolution, Lenin himself seemingly understood this point. He wrote (although he did not finish) an article which was published in Pravda shortly after his death. Here he uses the analogy of a climber ascending a high peak but having climbed high realising that it is too difficult to reach the summit by continuing the path he has chosen.

“He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit.”

(Lenin, 2002)

A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis“. It is important to acknowledge that the attempts to put communist theory into practice have failed, and not only failed but also resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. This is a conclusion that it should be possible even for partisans of the left to agree now that these attempts are safely in the past.

But this does not mean that we have to accept the conclusion drawn by the supporters of the “third way” with it’s acceptance that the attempt to create a more equal society is structurally doomed to failure.

All of which leads us back to Marx and one of his most famous lines, from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

(Marx 1973, p.146)

As Bertell Ollman suggests in “Dance of the Dialectic” (Ollman 2003), Marx is proposing that we “read history backwards” seeking the roots of the present in the past, and using that to develop our understanding of the future. The failure of Soviet communism does not invalidate this insight.

So progressives should continue to look for different pathways to the summit. As Zizek explains, the lesson is that of Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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

Marx, Karl (ed. David Fernbach) Surveys from Exile (Pelican, 1973)

Lenin, Vladimir Notes of a Publicist (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm, 2002, accessed May 2018)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Reforming Capitalism

Coming back to reading Slavoj Zizek after a break is always an interesting experience. I picked up “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously” in the Verso end of year sale and it is the usual eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary.

In this book he picks up themes developed from an analysis of a range of protest movements in 2010 and 2011 from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. One thing he specifically challenges is the desire sometimes heard in response to these protests to ‘democratise’ capitalism, to bring it under the control of the rational liberal state.

“There is no lack of anti-capitalist sentiment today… What as a rule goes unquestioned… is the democratic-liberal framework as a means of fighting against these excesses.”

(Zizek 2012, p.86)

A common assumption is that what is missing from the Occupy movement is a political programme. Something that can be fitted into the democratic system and voted for. That somehow the system can be made better if we all just want it to change a little more. That the unfocused nature of the protest is part of the problem.

But we are now at the end of the last attempt to make capitalism ‘nicer’. Under pressure from the collective effort required to defeat fascism and from a seemingly triumphant Soviet communism a number of concessions were made to the working class. Britain saw the creation of the National Health Service and the construction of a welfare state to provide support “from cradle to grave”. These concessions have been under sustained assault since the late 1970s, gradually dismantled in the name of ensuring that the economy remains ‘competitive’.

Perhaps the search for ways to mitigate the worst impacts of capitalism on the “99%” or “ordinary working people” is doomed to failure from the start.

“we should read the ongoing dismantling of the Welfare State not as the betrayal of a noble idea, but as a failure that retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of the Welfare State.”

(Zizek 2012, p.15)

In other words that creating a welfare state and leaving capitalist relations in place is at best a short term solution. Capitalist economics will only tolerate its creation when under pressure, will perceive it as a barrier to profit making throughout, and will move quickly to its destruction when it can.

In fact, the liberal state cannot respond to anti-capitalist protest in a way which addresses the root causes of the problem. Democracy has proved to be “impotent in the face of the destructive consequences of economic life.” (Zizek 2012, p.88). We must look outside the existing system for a solution. Occupy Wall Street’s role according to this view is to open up a space for the existing system to be challenged, and as such it does not need to present a programme. But there remains work to be done to transform the energy of protest into transformative change.

“what is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist response to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

(Zizek 2012, p.133)

What this implies then is that the Corbyn project is misguided. We cannot realistically defend past victories or rebuild a mythical golden age of social democratic capitalism. We need to be much more radical than that.

“It is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change, that blocks any radical transformation of capitalist relations.”

(Zizek 2012, p.87)

What is at risk is that all Corbyn will achieve is to harness a youthful and energetic protest movement to the next failed attempt to make capitalism nicer.

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

Overdetermination

Overdetermination is a concept I recall being introduced to during my undergraduate course on Marxism as part of Louis Althusser‘s “structuralist” approach. It’s not something that I ever really felt I had a grip on. Althusser’s writing feels very much in the French philosophical tradition, and isn’t helped by being read in translation.

My university notes about overdetermination say that Althusser is making the point that there is no simple deterministic relationship between “base and superstructure“. The superstructure both determines and is determined by the economic base, each part shaping and being shaped by the whole. The autonomy of the superstructure is not absolute however, and the economic base is still determinant in the final analysis.

In his monumental work on Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski is dismissive of the concept:

“The upshot is simply that particular cultural phenomena are generally due to a variety of circumstances, including the history of the aspect of life they belong to and the present state of social relations. We are not told what is so ‘scientific’ about this obvious truth, why it is a revolutionary discovery of Marxism, or how it helps us to account for any particular fact, let along predict the future.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1176)

My reaction to Laclau & Mouffe’s analysis in “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy” is similar to Kolakowski’s damning verdict. They analyse overdetermination in the context of their construction of a theory of hegemony, building on the work of Gramsci as well as Althusser.

Laclau & Mouffe deny a determining role for the economy and therefore also class in the structure of society . Instead they theorize society as broken down into a wide range of different interests and actors not determined or even strongly influenced by any economic relationships. In this analysis more important than class is the complex intermeshing of ‘elements’ or ‘moments’ which are ‘articulated’ together each influencing and influenced the others. In other words these elements are ‘overdetermined’. In Laclau & Mouffe’s words there are

“a multiplicity of antagonisms whose effects, converging and overdetermined, are registered within the framework of what we have called the ‘democratic revolution’.”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.152)

This covers what might otherwise be considered various separate struggles operating almost in conflict with traditional working class campaigning such as feminism or anti-racism. Again in Laclau & Mouffe’s words:

“Once the conception of the working class as a ‘universal class’ is rejected, it becomes possible to recognise the plurality of the antagonisms which take place in the field of what is arbitrarily grouped under the label of ‘workers struggles'”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.151)

This “overdetermination of some entities by others, and the relegation of any form of paradigmatic fixity to the ultimate horizon of theory” (Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.91) means that while it is not possible to assume that the working class will on their own create a revolution, it is possible to stitch together progressive blocs as part of unified progressive struggle.

Wading through the complicated language, what I think this means in more practical terms is that society is complex and different groups within it interact in ways which are not solely dictated by economic relationships. Any effective progressive strategy must be aware of this, building alliances, and developing shared goals. It cannot simply wait for the tide of history to deliver a working class revolution. Laclau & Mouffe contrast this with the simplified view of orthodox Marxism.

To the extent though that Marx presented a simplified view of society as divided into just two classes, it is clear that this is an abstraction from a more complicated reality to allow him to develop his theory of the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. When he comes to apply this theory to the analysis of real situations (in for example “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” or “The Civil War in France”) his writing reflects the more complex world.

After reading Laclau & Mouffe I do now feel that I have a better grip on what the concept of ‘overdetermination’ might mean, however as Kolakowski suggested that concept doesn’t seem particularly useful. It appears to indicate what is an obvious truth, that society is complex, but in Laclau & Mouffe it is used to support the removal from left strategy of the struggle by economically exploited classes. It is then unclear what common ground should be used to underpin the hegemony which they believe holds together the coalitions that they suggest as the way forward for progressive politics.

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

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

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)

Rosa Luxemburg and the Communist Manifesto

After reading Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Accumulation of Capital”, included in Verso’s second volume of her complete works I wrote a post covering her analysis that accumulation could only proceed on the basis of there being sufficient space outside the global capitalist system for it to expand into.

I recently re-read Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (thanks to my wife, who gave me the best possible Christmas present for a radical). This was written in 1848, that is before Marx began his economic work. It is interesting therefore that Marx and Engels also point out in the Manifesto the importance of the non-capitalist economies to the growth of capitalism itself.

For example this comment on the importance of the discovery of America on the initially explosive growth of capitalism:

“Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce… This development has, in its turn, reacted back on the extension of industry.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 22)

Marx and Engels seem to have a similar mindset to Luxemburg in her analysis that capitalism needs to grow into the space outside itself in order to expand.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 25)

Along with the points Luxemburg makes about capitalism drawing even those parts of the globe that are not part of the capitalist world into its orbit.

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 25)

“The bourgeoisie… draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation… It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst… it creates a world after its own image.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 26)

As I wrote in my earlier post I don’t think that this is the end of the story, that their are other important factors both supporting and driving the expansion of capital. But it is interesting to see support for Luxemburg’s analysis in this earlier work of Marx and Engels.

Luxemburg, Rosa The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg Volume II (Verso, London, 2016)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (Vintage, London, 2010)