The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump

Next term, I am planning to use selections from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in Shimer’s senior capstone course, and yesterday I spent some time working through the text. Part of my motivation in using it is obviously its contemporary relevance in the Trumpocene — something that many others have picked up on, particularly given the uncanny coincidence that Election Day was (at least by some reckonings) the Eighteenth Brumaire. As the apparent coiner of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Sarah Palin, I felt I should weigh in on this important cultural reference.

Aside from the fact that Trump is as ridiculous and incompetent as Louis Napoleon, I think the core parallel between the two events is that each exposes the truth of the state in their respective eras. For Marx, Louis Napoleon exposes the fact that the bourgeoisie cannot coherently wield the power of the state, which stands as a power over against them. In our era, I would suggest that Trump exposes the limits to the neoliberal state, which tends to become a purely coercive apparatus whose sole goal is to guarantee capitalist profitability. The fact that Trump’s instinct for cruelty finds such easy outlets — above all in brutalizing immigrant populations — is evidence of this truth, and the fact that he can use the state as a platform for his petty resentments and crackpot schemes demonstrates that there really is no “there” there. The fantasy of the Deep State filled with principled public servants serving the public good is precisely that, a fantasy. To the extent that the American state apparatus ever had something like the public good in mind, that ethos has been systematically destroyed. Trump’s open profiteering is one logical endpoint of the development that has been underway since Reagan and even before.

Even “progressive” neoliberalism is caught in this bind. Obamacare is exemplary here, as its key innovation was to expand access to health care by coercing people into supporting the profitability of the hated private insurance companies. From one perspective, their profits were capped by the law; from another, they were encoded as an entitlement. The other two prongs of the attack were to coerce private employers into providing health insurance (unless they were not large enough to do this while maintaining profitability) and to strongarm the states into expanding Medicaid (which has increasingly become a disciplinary apparatus rather than a public support program). Seemingly the entire thing was engineered to prevent the direct provision of health insurance by the one level of government that was in a position to finance it. And when the Great Recession backed Obama into a corner, forcing him to use Keynesian stimulus techniques, he tried to render it as invisible as possible — providing “stealth” tax cuts that people wouldn’t notice (ostensibly so that they would spend it routinely rather than treat it as a windfall) and financing only “shovel-ready” projects that had already been planned. It’s as though the fact that government spending could be directly beneficial was an embarrassment that must be hidden from the people — presumably because awareness of the possibility of collective economic action independent of “the market” would undercut labor discipline and the profitability of capitalist firms.

My hope is that the lesson we can draw from the Trump era is that the left will give up the easy opposition between “the state” and “the market,” as though it is inherently progressive to favor the former over the latter. Trump shows that there is no inherently progressive impulse behind state power — perversely enough, we must now look to the corporate world for any institutional progressive gains in the coming years. A real transformation will not consist of favoring one side of the state/market, political/economic dyad over the other, but by refusing the distinction and rethinking from the bottom up the form and goals of the institutions we need to organize our collective life.

October in June

Amidst its present Russian turmoil, 2017 is also distinct as the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1.

Join InterCcECT for 2 linked sessions on what is to be done.

Session 1 reads the novelist/critic China Mieville’s new narrative history of the Russian revolution, October (excerpts) alongside Lenin’s The State and Revolution (chapters 1 and 5).

Session 2 reads Capital (lol, just excerpts) alongside William Clare Roberts’s recent brilliant polemic
Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital.

Thursday 15 June, 4pm, HandleBar 2311 W North Ave
Wednesday 12 July, 4pm, location TBD

Contact us (interccect at gmail) for the readings, like us on the facebooks for frequent links, and, as always, send proposals for group endeavors!

On our calendar:

26 May, Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction

28 May, Mieville himself at Seminary Coop

9 June, Poems, Prose, & Possibility

15 June, Summer of Cage

21 June, The Political Conscious

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”

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”