Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818. I didn’t quite make it to post this on his birthday, as Angela urged people to do, but hopefully it is not too egregiously late. (It sometimes seems to me that everything relating to Marx is too late…).
The real question, post-1989, post-television, post-Internet, post-everything, is this: What in Marx’s thought is alive, what in his thought is vital, urgent even, for us today? And concurrently, what in Marx’s thought is no longer alive, what is outdated, what is an impediment? I don’t think the answers to these questions are by any means obvious.
For one thing, many people would disagree with my very emphasis on Marx’s “thought.” For many Marxists, philosophical thought (which implies textual interpretation, among other things) is precisely the wrong thing to emphasize, since (in the all-too-often quoted 11th Thesis on Feuerbach), “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” And for many anti-Marxists, thought is also the wrong thing to emphasize, since they refuse to consider Marx worthy of being taken seriously as a thinker altogether, reductively equating his ideas with the practices of Stalin and Pol Pot. (Which, of course, makes about as much sense as equating Darwin’s ideas with the practices of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan eugenics, or equating Einstein’s ideas with the practices of the American nuclear weapons program). Against both of these objections, I will insist here upon Marx as a philosophical thinker, or a social theorist: somebody who indeed actively interpreted the world. Marx is very much, still, a post-Enlightenment rationalist and humanist; he wants to change the world, but he has nothing but scorn for “spontaneism” and a-rational “direct action” (for which he reproached the anarchists of his own day). In the Theses, Marx certainly objects that Feuerbach’s critiques of religion don’t go far enough. Feuerbach’s arguments merely expose religion as a fiction; they fail to go on, as Marx does, and examine why such a fiction ever got projected in the first place, what social purpose the fiction plays, and what interests and powers it serves. But exposing all this, for Marx, is still a work of interpretation and critique; though hopefully a work that will serve the interests of change and liberation, instead of one that continues to serve the interests of exploitation and domination.
In any case, getting back to the questions with which I started: the key, for me, is 1989. That year marks the end of “actually existing socialism,” the fall of most of those regimes that at least paid lip service to Marx and Marxism. (And the conversion of the remaining ones, most notably China and Vietnam, to full-fledged savage capitalism, while continuing to be ruled by authoritarian parties that call themselves “Communist.” Such a combination of capitalism and totalitarian control strikes me as being much closer to fascism than to anything Marx envisioned or wrote about). The collapse of “actually existing socialism” led to a lot of self-congratulation in the West, epitomized in the proclamations of Francis Fukuyama, which relegated Marx and Marxism to the dustbin of history, and proclaimed unbridled capitalism as the very universal Hegelian End of History to which dogmatic socialism had always laid claim.
What this really meant, of course, was that — with the “communist” threat disposed of — Western societies felt secure enough to get rid of Keynesianism, Fordism, and Welfare-State-ism, the three reforms that had palliated the inherent miseries of capitalism, and allowed working people (by which I am inclined to include anybody who is a paycheck or two away from absolute dispossession — which, in America today, extends far enough upward to even include people with incomes in the “low six digits”) to experience a certain measure of security and prosperity. You might say that the collapse of “socialism with a human face” (i.e. of the attempt to reform the “actually existing” socialist system, so that the only remaining alternative was to altogether junk it) was accompanied by, and indeed strictly coordinated with, the rejection of Keynesian/Fordist/Welfarist “capitalism with a human face,” and its deliberate replacement by an utterly savage neoliberalism, that trashed all guarantees of human well-being.
In this context, as I have argued before, the economic and social analyses that are the heart of Marx’s philosophical and sociological writing are more valid, more necessary, than ever. From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation, all the processes that Marx wrote about in the three volumes of Capital are being accomplished today with unbridled thoroughness, with all the consequences, in terms of social and political organization, that Marx also described. In its economic, social, and political core, the largest revision Marx’s theory needs is one of elaboration and extrapolation — he never got around to writing as much about credit, for instance, as he originally planned. But the proliferation of credit is itself one of the major consequences, and in turn continuing causes, of capital’s movement from capital’s “formal” to its “real” subsumption of all other labor processes and social forms across the globe.
(A note on “primitive accumulation”: this doesn’t happen only at the beginning of capitalism, but continues as a process within it and throughout it — today, the formerly common goods that are being accumulated as private property are not just land, as was the case in the 14th-16th centuries in England, but also of the order of knowledges and impalpable relationships; thus it is not just the Amazon rain forest that is being expropriated and privatized, but also whatever the indigenous peoples of the Amazon know about, for instance, the medicinal properties of various plants).
As for what is no longer so valid, or so vital, in Marx’s thought: here I am likely to get in trouble again, at least with most Marxists who would agree with my previous several paragraphs. Because what seems to me no longer to be valid is precisely all that stuff in Marx (and even more in the later Marxist tradition) about ideology, about class consciousness, about the proletariat as the universal revolutionary class, and so on. Here the transition from the disciplinary society to the control society, from the society of mass production to the society of networked, computer-and-communications-regulated production, from Fordism to Walmartism, does seem to me to make a huge difference. These transitions (which I am not necessarily equating with one another; each refers to a different set of problems and structures, and occurs over different time periods) have the consequence that any traditional Marxist notions of the proletariat and of its self-consciousness as an exploited class have pretty much ceased to function.
To be more specific: these notions have been effectively squelched by such phenomena as the “postmodern” effacement of distinctions between work time and leisure time; the “post-industrial” atomization and global dispersal of production, putting new obstacles in the way of unionization struggles; the multiplication of micro-distinctions among the oppressed, making identification on the basis of shared experiences of exploitation or impoverishment or oppression more and more difficult (this is something Mike Davis details in his excellent, powerful new book Planet of Slums); the very movement of exploitation beyond the factory to also cover the “affective” plane of “immaterial production”; the hypercommodification of everything, not just durable goods, but the most impalpable and most ubiquitous experiences and “lifestyles”; the systematic blockage of any form of collectivity not mediated through the market; the closure of possibilities of thinking and acting otherwise (the sense that there is No Alternative), leading to a rise of the most virulent nationalisms and fundamentalisms as the only forms of resistance that are able to function (albeit, this functioning is only fantasmatic, and does not really oppose the forces of capital at all). For all these reasons, and doubtless many more that I have forgotten to add to the list, there simply is no place in the world today where anything like a “proletariat” (as a self-conscious and organized class) could arise at all. The part of Marx which dealt with such a revolutionary proletariat is hopelessly outdated, as is any notion that the “contradiction” between forces of production and relations of production might leading to a radical “negation of the negation,” an explosive change. Such ideas were indeed pragmatic in Marx’s own time, although they evidently did not succeed in changing the world in more than minor and limited ways. But today they are entirely fantasmatic, as dubiously self-deceptive as the nationalisms and fundamentalisms that have supplanted them in the popular imaginations of most of the world.
This is not to say that Resistance is Futile; only that resistance and change have not been theorized with any success. While Marx gets us very far indeed in understanding the world we find ourselves living in, he doesn’t get us anywhere when it comes to figuring out how to use that understanding in order to change it. So I am not saying — at least I am trying not to say — that, since everything is totally shitty and hopeles, there really is No Alternative, which would just be to confirm backhandedly what Clinton and Bush, and Thatcher and Blair, and their ilk, have all along been so smugly telling us. But I am saying that Marx, for all his greatness as a philosophical and sociological thinker, will not be the one to get us to the alternative we need. This isn’t necessary even a criticism, if you consider that a good part of Marx’s own point is that merely understanding the situation, although necessary to changing it, is not ever sufficient (which is why — in contrast to his “utopian” predecessors) he always refused to describe what a communist society would actually be like). Practice has to be ahead of theory, etc., etc.; and I do not wish to minimize or deny the sheer creativity of, for instance, the Zapatistas or the Italian autonomists; or for that matter of schemes like Michael Linton’s Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) advocated so forcefully by Karatani. But I fear that inventing these alternatives in practice, let alone theorizing them after the fact, is not something that Marx, or the whole Marxist tradition from his days until now, will give us much help with.
So I am left with the somewhat ironic position that Marx is absolutely indispensable when it comes to interpreting and understanding the world, but not of much use in the task of changing it. And I certainly find myself in the cynical (and inadvertently, but unavoidably, nihilistic) position of being only an interpreter, someone who lacks any faith that a good change will come. (This relates to my aestheticism, which I have mentioned before on this blog, and which I certainly do mean affirmatively, not just ironically/defensively). (I mean “faith,” not in the religious sense which has a long history of use by positivists who loved to attack Marxism as being a “religious” or “metaphysical” belief system rather than a rational or scientific one; I am more thinking in terms of Deleuze’s frequent statement that “belief in the world” is the most urgent task faced by philosophy today). (I will leave aside for later consideration my quite conscious slippage between Marx’s “interpreted the world, in various ways” and my own reformulation of this — which will set deconstructionists on edge — as a matter of understanding the world, rather than of interpreting it).
One brief corollary. Much as I find the revolutionary optimism of Hardt/Negri, and of the Italian autonomist tradition in general, to be entirely unwarranted, I think that their theories of the Multitude (in Virno as well as in Hardt/Negri) and of immaterial or affective labor (referring here to Lazzarato as much as to Hardt/Negri) indicate that they are at least trying (even if not successfully) to address the issues I am raising here re the failure of traditional Marxist notions of class consciousness, or of the proletariat as a class “for itself.” On the other hand, explanations of this failure by appealing to alleged phenomena like “the decline of Symbolic efficacy” and the problem of the “obscene superego supplement” (Zizek) strike me as obscurantist mystifications, little better than Heideggerian invocations of the problematics of techne, technological “enframing,” etc etc. I think that Zizek’s political ideas really were creative and efficacious in the peculiar circumstances — those of Yugoslav “actually existing socialism” — in which they were first developed; but that Zizek’s endeavors to make them more generally applicable for the conditions of postmodern capitalism simply don’t work.
So, to conclude this (slightly belated) birthday appreciation, I will say that Marx does not have all the answers; but he points us in the right direction, and asks many of the most essential questions, which is no mean accomplishment for a thinker whose second centenary is approaching. I do think that, in the long view (at least as long a view as I am capable of; I am aware that two centuries is not two millenia), Marx’s importance, his urgency for the present, and his capacity to shake up the very roots of our self-understanding, is ultimately far greater than that of the other great iconoclasts of the threshold of modernity, Nietzsche and Freud, with whom he is so often grouped. And to return to the realm of “pure thought” (where I am always more comfortable, alas, than I am when confronted with “practice”): in the coming years of the 21st century, we may well increasingly find all the passions and disputes of 20th century modernism and avant-gardism to be trivial, quaint, and of very little interest or importance; but we will not, for all that, escape the shadow of the dilemmas and blockages which the 19th century bequeathed to us. And in exploring, and trying to overcome, those dilemmas and blockages, Marx (together with Darwin) is our indispensable precursor. Which is a great enough birthday legacy for anyone.