The varieties of oppressive experience

In many debates about leftist political strategy, the various forms of oppression tend to be mapped out onto the opposition between class and an indefinite string of “identity”-based categories. The latter are often castigated by traditional Marxists as divisive, and attempts to show how various forms of “identity”-based oppression overlap and reinforce each other (intersectionality) are taken as furthering the division by proliferating new identities rather than creating grounds for solidarity. In short, the “identity”-based categories are a Hegelian “bad infinite” that endlessly distracts us from the truly decisive struggle over class oppression.

What I want to do in this post is to displace the debate by reframing forms of oppression in a different way. Continue reading “The varieties of oppressive experience”

Two notes on calling oneself a Marxist


There is also a sort of game that I play with this. I often quote concepts, texts and phrases from Marx, but without feeling obliged to add the authenticating label of a footnote with a laudatory phrase to accompany the quotation. As long as one does that, one is regarded as someone who knows and reveres Marx, and will be suitably honoured in the so-called Marxist journals. But I quote Marx without saying so, without quotation marks, and because people are incapable of recognizing Marx’s texts I am thought to be someone who doesn’t quote Marx.


I hear people saying ‘You picked a good time to salute Marx!’ Or else: ‘It’s about time!’ ‘Why are you so late?’ I believe in the political virtue of the contretemps. And if a contretemps does not have the good luck, a more or less calculated luck, to come just in time, then the inopportuneness of a strategy (political or other) may still bear witness, precisely, to justice, bear witness, at least, to the justice which is demanded and about which we were saying a moment ago that it must be disadjusted, irreducible to exactness [justesse] and to law. But that is not the decisive motivation here and we need finally to break with the simplism of these slogans. What is certain is that I am not a Marxist, as someone said a long time ago, let us recall, in a witticism reported by Engels. Must we still cite Marx as an authority in order to say “I am not a Marxist”? What is the distinguishing trait of a Marxist statement? And who can still say “I am a Marxist”?

You want full communism? You better sublate work, bitch

I wouldn’t usually crosspost something about Britney here, but her new song does seem to have tapped in to a current interest in the topic of work; this piece in the Guardian is typical, arguing that the song reflects a contemporary, “religious” commitment to the value of work. That’s not what the song sounds like to me; it’s not so much capitalist ideology as capitalist id. While the official capitalist ethic proposes the necessity of hard work as the ground of equality, the capitalist id glories in the reality that you have to work while (indeed, because), capital doesn’t. Hence Britney’s imperious “work, bitch!” with the subtext that, work as hard as we like, we’ll never be as good as her; and doubtless we’ve all come to terms in our own way with the fact that we’re not Britney and never will be. But, if we follow the insight of the Neue Marx Lektüre that capital is the historical subject of capitalism, we might find in the id of this historical subject some useful indications of the mutations happening to the role of work in contemporary capitalism, and thereby come up with a more dialectical anti-work politics.We need this dialectical approach because of work’s contradictory position within capitalism: official capitalist ideology extols the virtues of work, but capital hates work and wants to minimize the amount of wage labour it employs, while at the same time wage labour is the source of capital’s profits and so ineliminable. So capital is itself anti-work, but in a contradictory and destructive way. It seems to me that our response to this shouldn’t be the social-democratic one of attempting to re-valorise work (which just embeds us further within capital’s contradictory attitude to work), but instead to try and trace capital’s anti-work position out past capital. Continue reading “You want full communism? You better sublate work, bitch”

Thoughts on the labor theory of value

[Disclaimer: I do not claim or attempt to say anything original here. I’m just trying to think through Marx’s theory. I realize this is an area where I’ve put my foot in my mouth in previous posts, and I’m open to correction.]

Marx’s labor theory of value is often summarized in a dismissive way, as though he thinks that there’s literally some kind of labor-substance that adheres in a commodity, providing it with an objective value. This theory is often set over against a more Austrian-style relativism, where value is determined by desire. As I painstakingly worked my way through the first two sections of Capital in German (in preparation for my summer seminar, which begins tomorrow by the way), it struck me that Marx’s theory is more robust and weird than I had realized. In a way, it charts a path between the supposed “objectivity” of earlier uses of the labor theory of value in political economy and the later “subjectivity” of the Austrian school. And a helpful way to get at that is to think of value as replacement value.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the labor theory of value”

totality, represented: an InterCcECT reading group on Fredric Jameson

Jameson’s recent Representing Capital encounters Marx’s first volume through foregrounding the reading modes necessary to appreciate Marx’s writing modes, which are themselves not peripheral to the subject matter but essential.

Jameson writes “the central formal problem of Capital Volume I is the problem of representation: namely how to construct a totality out of individual elements, historical processes, and perspectives of all kinds; and indeed how to do justice to a totality which is not only non-empirical as a system of relationships, but which is also in full movement, in expansion, in a movement of totalization which is essential to its very existence and at the heart of its peculiar economic nature.”

Join InterCcECT for a reading of Jameson’s reading.
Friday, 28 June, 2pm
Bucktown / Wicker Park Public Library (Community Room, 2nd Floor).
1701 N Milwaukee, accessible via Blue Line Damen or Milwaukee, North, Damen, Western, and Armitage buses.

As always, we welcome your proposals at interccect @ gmail dot com, and encourage your input at our Facebook page.

An odd demand

When discussing the Communist Manifesto in class, both my students and I were puzzled by the ninth item on the list of demands: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.” It became less clear as it went on — the combination of agriculture with manufacturing makes sense (presumably to increase food production), but why is a more equable distribution of population such a priority that it belongs on this list of ten basic demands? (I apologize if I’m missing something obvious.)

Heretical thoughts on Marx

Recently I have had some heretical thoughts, particularly in light of my increasing interest in Soviet history. The summary: What if Marx isn’t the unsurpassable horizon of the critique of capitalism? It seems to me that there are a lot of intellectual blind alleys in Marx’s economic theory, most notably the labor theory of value and the idea of use value vs. exchange value. (I can already anticipate people responding that they’re so tired of bourgeois ideologists pointing to those aspects of Marx’s thought — but maybe those things are constantly critiqued because, you know, they’re actually pretty questionable?)

The problem with both of those concepts seems to me to be the quest for some kind of “objective” value underlying the mystifications of capitalism. It also seems to me that the Soviet attempt to build a consciously directed economy based solely on use value was a reasonable way to respond to Marx’s theory — and I don’t think anyone views that system as a model for the future, with good reason.

This is not to say that Marx’s work isn’t incredibly valuable in other respects or that Marx shouldn’t remain an indispensable point of reference on the left. Nor is it to say that we must either take or leave Marx as a whole — obviously there’s a lot that we can make use of that isn’t directly dependent on the reference to an “objective” value that capitalism is screwing up. Perhaps we should just admit that Marx was at his best when he was furthest from his self-image as a hard-headed empiricist asserting the claims of objective reality against bourgeois mystification, strip his work for parts, and take responsibility for our own critique of capitalism without engaging in a kind of scholastic attempt to “save” our authoritative figure.

Unemployment and bare life

In lieu of a post, here’s a quote from Jameson’s latest, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One:

It is in keeping with the latest form of this dialectic–the exposition of that “general law” whereby industrial productivity generates overwork and unemployment simultaneously–that we make a final tour of these ultimate spaces of capitalism, in which we confront a form of “naked life” far more deeply rooted in the economic system itself than Agamben’s hopeless inhabitants of the concentration camps. [A footnote continues:] Agamben’s pseudo-biological concept in Homo Sacer proves in reality, like those of Foucault, to draw on categories of domination [i.e., as opposed to exploitation] (as it would have been difficult for it to do otherwise, given his example of the concentration camps). This is why the destitution of unemployment is the more fundamental and concrete form, from which such later conceptualizations derive: what is concrete is the social, the mode of production, the humanly produced and historical; metaphysical conceptions such as those involving nature or death are ideological derivations of that more basic reality. (pg. 125)

(I highly recommend the book, by the way.)

Fun fact about Marx

I learned something new from Anna Kornbluh’s article on reading Capital as a Victorian novel:

Long before he aspired to the critique of political economy, the young Marx fluently pursued charming stylizations, conducting numerous “Early Literary Experiments,” including love poems, “Wild Songs,” and a “Book of Verse.” And indeed, rather like enacting a kind of phylogeny of that ontogenetic generic experimentation which culminates in the novel as such, his experiments ultimately amounted to Scorpion and Felix, A Humoristic Novel (1837). Marx’s novel is a Tristram Shandy-ish pursuit of deferred origins, told self-reflexively in the present tense by a first-person narrator. Continue reading “Fun fact about Marx”