Summary: A response to the IMHO’s “Theoretical and Practical Perspectives for Overcoming Capitalism” in which the economic underpinnings of racism are connected to the changes in social consciousness since the 2008 economic crisis — Editors
“Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto—without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. […] It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.”
–Georg Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism”
Ever since a network of consistently self-celebrating financial elites and their machinations (in large part undiscovered country even to the network itself) became the proximate cause of the Great Recession, we have lived in economic times. A long, dark night of identitarian thought, of the primacy of tolerance over the principle of equity, of mornings in America, of the late, evangelical Dylan—is (almost) over. The self-described socialist candidate for office is the most popular candidate running (he will not appear on the ballot, which tells us something about the nature of democracy in America), the former finance minister of the Eurozone’s most troubled client, Greece, travels around speaking of “erratic Marxism,” Trump talks trade, and Zizek is still quoting Capital.
The times, then, appear ripe for more than just an appeal to letting go of our worn-out, McCarthy-era anxieties about the mere mention of Marx or socialism. (Do we remember how happy it made us that Occupy got everyone to say the word ‘capitalism’?) Many, if not most, Americans are finding their way to some kind of anti-capitalism, or at least anti-market sentiment: protectionism, environmentalism, bank capital regulation, health provisions, neo-Luddism, and on and on. We can all agree that Capitalism is, if not doomed, then pretty bad. It encounters few boosters in labor market conditions like these.
Now that we can say Marxism and Capitalism out loud in a relevant and intelligible way, I feel the need to make a plea for Orthodox Marxism. It is, I think, the next step in the formation of responsible class consciousness on the part of working people, which consciousness is a necessary element in developing the kind of institutions that can viably take power from bank capital’s increasingly naked tyranny.
To make clear what I mean, let me refer to some contemporary struggles. In light of the rise of exceedingly necessary resistance to militarized police brutality and casual murder, the topic of what is called “institutional racism” is on many people’s lips. It comes accompanied with other concepts, notably “unconscious bias.” Little is said of the plain contradiction between these two interpretations of the persistence of racism in a society where it is by-and-large patently taboo. While ‘institutional’ is there to make felt the material and systematic consequences of white supremacy, ‘unconscious’ picks up the slack on the subjective side of the equation. Clearly subjective (race is simply not a biological category of any kind), racism is a material reality (witness the New Jim Crow). But no account, from Black Lives Matter, from Henry Louis Gates, from Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, has given a coherent account of race and racism in our society. This theoretical silence has come with the insistence from all quarters (ours included at times) that race is an independent variable in the horror house of capitalism. At most, questions of race merely “intersect” with questions of class. White supremacy exists as an inheritance of our past. One we constantly shake off and shake off again. Police are put in sensitivity training. The president tours a prison.
Labor can never be emancipated from its forming part of the private property of capital, Marx tells us, while it is “branded in a Black skin.” Labor branded in skin. It recalls (quite explicitly, as far as I can tell) Hegel’s characterization of phrenology as the position that Spirit (the rules we live by collectively and the nature of our lives together) is a matter of bone. Racist violence is, in fact, the form of appearance of a disdain for human life that is part and parcel of the mode of production we are all caught in, and collectively fail to take responsibility for. Race is that concept in American life that concentrates and compartmentalizes the degradation of the working class. Wage slavery recalls chattel slavery. Racism is simply meaningless outside the context of this kind of class society. A little like anti-redhead sentiments are meaningless outside the context of colonial degradation of the Irish. Class is essential, and exerts its power through an ideological avatar. This is why race hatred is not an error. It is a lie.
The dynamic of essence and appearance is at the heart of Marxist orthodoxy. It is hard to conceive of a form of the Black Lives Matter movement that could successfully provide an alternative to white supremacy without this understanding of the very social pathology it targets. Ignoring the primacy of class has consequences. As it stands, the movement often calls for little more than throwing delinquent police officers into the same prison-industrial torture complex that has eaten alive so many black and brown bodies thus far. Reform, indeed.
On the Left, we are often called to divest. Capital must divest, we insist, from for-profit prisons. From fossil fuels. We are reminded that these ways in which capital has found to self-valorize are insidious. And they are. But there is no critique of capital here. Good money does not self-valorize morally while bad money hangs out among the minions of the drug trade. Moral appeals themselves are bizarrely out of touch with reality.
This is no more apparent than in the environmental movement. We are headed toward an environmental disaster. International meetings promise too little and deliver less. Meanwhile, capital has found “going green” an obvious propaganda tool. It is often supposed that the reason our rapidly warming climate does not inspire the sense of urgency it ought to is because it cannot be imagined properly. The “it was cold today, so global warming can’t be that bad, right?” phenomenon.
I want to suggest that there is a deeper reason for the lack of urgency. Taking an apocalyptic tone about the end of Nature assumes that apocalypse is a bad thing. That it is obviously terrible that the world should find itself on the brink of doom. Brink of doom already gives the game away. Apocalypse is a frankly sexy concept. A Hollywood staple. And nihilism in the face of doom is even sexier. Think True Detective.
And the rub is that nihilism is the core ethical position of alienated people. Owners beholden to the iron laws of accumulation and workers utterly powerless to control the means of production of the food that they eat and the clothes that they wear. That we eat and wear. Nihilism, like white supremacy, is not a mistake. It is a form of appearance of the structure of our lives together, the determining elements of which are the conditions of our activities and our labor. The environment and human survival simply cannot be counted on to matter when we have thrown up our hands at the taking control of the means of production. No balance of production and conservation make sense in a class society. Production was for capital valorization and not for use anyway.
Finally, it is in light of the rise of the New Socialism, that Marxian orthodoxy appears to have the most to contribute. As our statement, “Theoretical and Practical Perspectives for Overcoming Capitalism,” reiterates, the global economy is caught in a persistent downward spiral. Since the slump of the mid-1970’s, the total invested capital across the whole of world production has managed to win for itself a declining rate of profit business cycle by business cycle. Debt has covered a deficit in the creation of surplus value, caused (so I believe) by an ever-increasing organic composition of capital.
Neoliberal politics has no economic solution to this problem. Bailouts do not count as a solution to an inevitable tendential decline in the rate of profit. Neither does the creation of further debt through quantitative easing. The American consumer has declined to shop at Macy’s (which in the last few days has taken a toll on the price of equities), increasingly aware of her economic precarity. China is in such outright contraction (read: destruction of capital) that the State has taken measures to stop its own economists from expressing their pessimism in public. Latin America, which provides so many raw materials for the state capitalists in Beijing, spins out of control as its major exports decline.
The oil market is frankly irrational. The Saudi princes currently spend more extracting oil from beneath their sands than they can fetch for it on the open seas. Storage space for oil is at a historic low and it waits for… a higher price? The end of the deflationary cycle? A European recovery that has no signs of arrival? An American recovery that the markets neither expect nor encourage?
Neoliberalism only has a political solution in the near-term. Suppress anti-capitalism in any form. A generation of Greeks will be kept back-breakingly poor and bankers will forego returns on development loans to prove a political point: democracy cannot be allowed to be a means of releasing a people from the control of capital.
Railing against the violent assaults on the bodies of working people we find New New Dealers, like Bernie Sanders. Taxation, redistribution and government investment are thought to respond to the troubled economic landscape. Increased consumer spending, increased demand for products, will boost flagging profits. Leading to higher tax revenue. Leading to more teachers and doctors. Leading to more taxes. And so on.
This response not only fails to question the exploitation of labor for the enrichment of the few. It also fails to take seriously the nature of the crisis. It is the pie itself that is shrinking. And massive government spending (in the form of bailouts and corporate welfare) can barely keep the pie from imploding. There is a problem of distribution, but this is a form of appearance of the essential character of the transformation afoot.
So it is that I make a plea for orthodoxy. For seeing essential features of the system behind the confused morass of its “objective” appearances. Now, as before, what is needed is communism: an end to profit, an end to war, a generalized system of cooperative enterprise and political control of the means of production.
As I heard a comrade of mine state recently: When we will stop talking about getting money out of politics? We need to get politics back into money!
Stephan Hammel is a dedicated Marxist and a musicologist focusing on cultural production and political consciousness in Latin America. He has given presentations at Left Forum and the American Society for Aesthetics.