Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre).
July 24, 2015

21st Century Marx

Gaining new traction with the collapse of actually existing communism and the emergence of the rhetoric of globalization, capitalism entered the twenty-first century seemingly more secure than at any other point in its 500 year, conflict-riven history. Sure, wages in places like China, India, and Mexico were dreadfully low. Sure, environmental regulations were being eviscerated by global trade treaties and the neoliberal doctrine, espoused everywhere, of free trade. Sure unions were on the decline along with worker protections. But capitalism at the turn of the century seemed to be the drunk, rich boy at a frat party, loved by many, envied by more, and with more than enough money and clout behind him to cover over any illegalities or violent indiscretions that might appear in his wake. While many of us disliked him even back then, we were left cleaning up the mess and attending to the hurt or discarded; he was on to the next party charming more people, generating more good feelings, and throwing around more money.

What a change 15 years makes. The charming rich kid act has grown old (starting to reveal that his seeming youth was just a ruse, a trick produced by plastic surgery, good clothes, and the right lighting). The guy hunched over the bar stinks of too many Grey Goose martinis, his once winsome smile now reveals itself to be predatory, and his face leers with dissipated and only half-believed come-ons. What originally looked like good money is now just a collection of gambling debts and loans from lenders who are either remarkably naïve or as thoroughly corrupt as our not-so-young man.. Such is the changed appearance of capitalism in the present moment. Where it once seemed to offer unlimited goods at cheap prices (never mind the corresponding wage depression and wholesale destruction of specific industries via offshoring), it now seems to only offer unlimited and very risky speculation, available only to the super-rich but redeemable, should all of these speculations go bad, by the wealth of the many. Where once it promised productivity and abundance (never mind the creeping environmental devastation), it now demands austerity and its right to whatever is left of the public coffers and the collective commons. Where it once promised growth and a jubilant end of history, it now very clearly is becoming the harbinger of death and suffering by way of ecological catastrophe (whether via cataclysm or, more likely, the evermore-regular degradation of the planet, which of course affects the global poor disproportionately). And for the rhetoric of entrepreneurial opportunity (which of course also meant you had the opportunity to starve) that accompanied the first wave of neoliberalism, we now have the rhetoric of working for free and loving it in neoliberalism’s second wave. If you do it really well, you might get paid for it someday.

So capitalism, these days, is looking both wounded and positively lethal. The fully irrational character of its current manifestations seems to only increase its furor and the shrillness of its insistence as being the only way forward. A recognition of the suicide pact that capitalism is hell-bent on making with the world has spurred the members of The New Centre for Research & Practice to confront and reengage its most enduring and perspicacious critic, Karl Marx, in the recently-concluded reading group focused on Capital, Volume One. We will address Volumes Two and Three in upcoming sessions in the next year. The reading group is organized in conjunction with fellow thinkers and scholars in Bogota, Colombia, who are celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Capital’s publication. This is, then, an unprecedented moment to return to Marx. Most importantly, Marx is profoundly undead. His ghost haunts the global capitalist present very much like the ghost of proletarian revolution haunting Europe in the late 19th century, as the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto asserts. Our organizing principle is that attempts at fixing him in his coffin through either ideological, capitalist dismissals or worshipful, and pallidly orthodox readings of him are to no avail. Marx, the most cogent critic of capitalism, the systematic thinker of the relationship between labor and profit, exploitation and production, appropriation and immiseration, financial speculation and the destruction of everyday life, materialism and its spectral doubles, is very much with us in our present of global capitalist crisis.

Marx’s undead presence is the gambit of the Capital reading group that Carlos M. Amador, Jason Adams and I are leading. The reading group is being conducted online and is made up of scholars and activists, both academic and nonacademic, from around the globe, who are engaging Marx’s writings in a heterodox and contemporary manner. Our approach in the reading group is to make Marx ever more contemporary, ever more a thinker of the twenty-first century. He is a thinker not only of labor but of finance, a thinker of both the human and the nonhuman. Animals, nature, and nonhuman forms of materiality are everywhere present in Marx’s corpus once we begin to look for them. Similarly, Marx’s account of finance and the generation of capital itself has much to teach us about the power and the limits of financial speculation for shaping or deforming the world in which we live. Also, looked at awry, Marx reveals that the appropriative violence of colonialism and slavery are not past undertakings, or somehow remnants of pre-capitalist forms of production, but are capitalism’s unofficial double, its violent helpmate, and a perpetual threat to hold class-formation at bay. Similarly, a twenty-first century reading of Capital recognizes the way in which so-called reproductive work is also work. The notion of wage-work has always violently masked various kinds of gendered and sexualized work and pleasure that are crucial for both the functioning of capitalism and even more crucial for its supersession. Given that The New Centre is allied with recent work in Accelerationism and Xenofeminism, a twenty-first century Marx will help us rethink our relationship between humans and machines, the human and the posthuman. Finally, Marx, the dialectician and profane materialist, can also teach us about the necessary return of the material repressed, to all of our commodity and finance driven dreams of the material’s transcendence.

All of these possibilities already rest there in the undead Marx. The challenge is to nurture them, develop them, and make them flourish. Our wager is that the undead can lead us toward a better life and that a post-capitalist future is not only desirable but necessary.

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