Marxism for Tomorrow

Marxism for Tomorrow

An intelligent left today can neither live within nor without Marx’s thought. Marxism today is most useful when it is erratic, irreverent, non-doctrinaire.

Street art in San Francisco's Mission District, 2009 (Dave R / Flickr)
This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read an alternative perspective on contemporary Marxism from Benjamin Kunkel, click here.

An intelligent left today can neither live within nor without Marx’s thought. As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis reminds us, Marxism today is most useful when it is “erratic,” irreverent, non-doctrinaire. This means that effective political challenges to contemporary capitalism, not to mention other orders of injustice or peril (from racism to climate change), must revise, resist, and supplement Marx. Consider, in this regard, four Marxist arguments:


1. Capital organizes everything in the modern world, and capital is derived from exploited labor.

The first half of this teaching remains profound and important. Marx’s materialism was flawed and overstated, but this doesn’t negate his essential claim that human beings are unique as producers of their existence, and hence as producers of their history and world. Moreover, a mode of production such as capitalism, more than merely ruling, creates everything in its own image, including us. This insight is vital in the “post-productive” era of finance capital. How else to understand financialization’s transformation of both the character and aims of states and NGOs, universities and corporations, start-ups and social life? How else to fathom how humans themselves have become what the philosopher Michel Feher calls “bits of credit-seeking capital”—whether as middle-schoolers building résumés or as left magazine editors courting Facebook “likes”? Or to comprehend why new apps that are free to users and unprofitable may be valued by speculative investors in the tens of millions? Or to understand how the fates of (formerly) sovereign democracies like Greece have come to rest on their bond and credit ratings, which in turn depend on global financial institutions and the finance ministers of other nations? More than monetizing everything, finance capital has transformed the very nature and measure of value, thus reconfiguring states, firms, and non-profits as well as human aspirations, human conduct, and even human anxiety. Marx did not anticipate this chapter of capitalism, but he provided us with essential tools for apprehending its power to shape the world and its subjects.

The second half of this teaching—exploited labor as the source of all value—is less helpful today. Grueling, poorly paid work remains a huge source of profit and an important site of critique and organizing. Almost everything we eat and wear, type on or swipe on, is the fruit of such labor. Exploited labor, however, is not the wellspring of finance capital and its growing domination of the globe. This is obvious enough in the EU crisis, the careening Chinese economy, and in quotidian personal strategies for human capital development. Exploited labor does not drive the devastation—of people and planet, communities and democracies, farms or universities—wrought by neoliberal reason and policy. (Nor can we simply substitute credit/debt for capital/labor here. Most states, businesses, and people are both creditors and debtors today.) Neoliberalism and financialization have brought new actors and powers onto the world stage; these require a different and more complex account of capital’s sources, means of enhancement, and shape-shifting capacities than the labor theory of value can provide.


2. The truth and the fundamental dynamics of capitalism are not found in markets.

Markets are the focus of economists and capitalist ideologues but, says Marx, one has to look behind them to comprehend both the workings and the damages of capitalism. How do the capitalist, the worker, and the commodity come into being? How is profit generated? How is value created? How is class reproduced? Answers to these questions direct us to capitalism’s essential but hidden dynamics; they also give the lie to its manifest appearance as a free and fair marketplace.

For Marx, the secreted truths of capitalism are harbored in the sphere of production—the place where things are made and the capitalist extracts surplus labor from the worker. Can we adapt this insight to the age of finance capital? Rather than financial markets themselves, we would study the sources and mechanisms of financialization: the rise of shareholder value; the increasingly complex instruments of speculation, monetization, credit and debt; the capital-appreciating and capital-depreciating powers of ratings and rating agencies. We would identify the roots of Greek bankruptcy in the neoliberal foundation of the Eurozone, the global financial meltdown in 2008, and the economic chokeholds embedded in previous rounds of debt restructuring. We would comprehend Puerto Rico’s “death spiral” as having been abetted by all that made it capital’s playground in the past three decades, including steadily downgraded “triple tax-free” municipal bonds that sunk it into unpayable debt, and untaxed, heavily repatriated foreign investment. We would not blame the starved and the choked for their failure to thrive.


3. Capitalism has a life drive and a death drive.

The life drive of capitalism is the imperative to grow through the constant search for cheap labor (and ways to cheapen labor), constant production of new markets and new goods, constant innovation, and constant invention of new sources of value. Capitalism’s life drive violently overwhelms the needs of human life, planetary life, and the life of democracy. This voraciousness is what makes capitalism irreconcilable with any kind of sustainability, and not simply unfair or inegalitarian.

The death drive of capitalism is overdetermined. On the one hand, Marx theorizes the tendencies of capitalism toward crisis—overproduction, underconsumption, and the inability to realize surplus value as profit. (To these, finance capital adds crises of liquidity, bubbles, debt, currency value, excessive volatility, and market manipulation.) On the other hand, Marx depicts capitalism as “produc[ing] . . . its own gravediggers” in an ever-growing mass of exploited and dispossessed humanity that will eventually rebel and inherit capitalism’s accomplishment—the spectacular productive capacity generated by its life drive. Once this inheritance is seized for the people, properly shared, and rationally reorganized for human needs, Marx believed, we will no longer need to labor to live. Liberated at last from necessity, we may finally turn to inventing ourselves together and individually. We will finally be free.

No doubt, this freedom at the “end of history” imagined by Marx will always elude us.  Yet it surely spirits a future more compelling than one shaped by the ubiquitous marketization—and now financialization—of ourselves and the planet. It animates the struggle for alternatives, which in the West today extend from Syriza to Podemos, Occupy, Ahora en Común, and Sinn Féin. Far more than a class struggle, this is a struggle over the future of the world.


4. There is no God. Nothing animates our history and organizes our lives apart from our own powers, yet, paradoxically, humans have never controlled their own existence.

For all of history, we have been dominated and bewitched by powers emanating entirely from human activity but that slipped our grasp. However, says the still-theological Marx, we were placed on earth to overcome this condition: history drives steadily toward our recapture of these alienated powers. With communism, the story goes, we will finally control the conditions of existence rather than be controlled by them.

Breaking this story apart and judging its pieces separately, perhaps we arrive here: Marx’s diagnosis of a world out of control is right, the progressive historiography is wrong, and the political ideal is indispensable, especially at this perilous historical juncture. We cannot abandon the dream of radical democracy and surrender instead to rule by markets, experts, or political maneuvering indifferent to the common good. We cannot give up the Marxist ideal of collectively taking ourselves in hand, even if this ambition must now be tempered by humility about our place on earth.

Wendy Brown teaches political theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book is Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone, 2015).

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read an alternative perspective on contemporary Marxism from Benjamin Kunkel, click here.

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