Thursday 24 April 2014

Three Varieties of Post-Marxism

1. There's what you might call 'political' Post-Marxism. Anyone who's been around the academic lefty bloc and/or were privy to the strategic 'New Times' debates of the 1980s will have an idea what this is about. Basically, in a nut shell, the class politics Marxism depended on had clearly collapsed by the end of that decade. Rather than increasing numbers of workers, capitalism had bequeathed an expanding middle class, a tendency to smaller workplaces, a consumer culture that eroded traditional senses of solidarity, and a new politics organised around identity and oppression - not class interest. In short, Marx's approach to politics was clapped out and no longer relevant.

Perhaps the most (in)famous example of political Post-Marxism was Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. While they argued class politics was outdated, they went further and suggested it was never really a runner in the first place. Starting with a mechanistic interpretation of Marx's notorious base/superstructure metaphor in the 1859 Preface, they argue that capitalism - for Marxism - calls into being the working class and clusters them in ever greater concentrations. With every crisis of capitalism the numbers thrown into wage labour grow exponentially, but so does the workers' capacity to organise themselves into labour movements, cooperatives, and parties. The official Marxism of the 2nd International (1889-1914), according to Laclau and Mouffe, believed revolution and socialism was inevitable - the capitalist cogs would grind out socialist product eventually. As we know, the outbreak of war shattered that perspective.

Laclau and Mouffe track how Marxism subsequently came to cope with this confounding of perspectives through Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci. Their basic argument is that Marx's "economism" guaranteed the political primacy of the working class, and forecast that it would behave in a set of theoretically prescribed ways. When it did not as per the 2nd International's schema, Lenin went back to the drawing board. His insight that in Russia the working class needed its own revolutionary party to negotiate the fractured strata of a decaying autocracy and lead an alliance of workers and peasants required no mechanical schema. Revolution was a question of politics, of winning revolutionary socialist hegemony. Hence there is a contingency - Lenin has the sense to realise socialism was not inevitable and was something that had to be prosecuted through class struggle. And its instrument, of course, was the party. The view was telescoped out and generalised to the advanced west in the wake of the October Revolution. Socialism was not inevitable, it was a matter of skilled leadership to tip politics into revolutionary crisis. Where Laclau and Mouffe were concerned, whereas Lenin's view represented an immeasurable advance on what went before it was still mired in economism. They argue that Lenin treats the workers as a simple given whose existence is underwritten by capitalism. This is an effect of what they call "suturing", of preserving the coherent narrative of Marxist thinking. In this particular case, whereas an alliance should, theoretically, be a democratic clash of ideas they argue Lenin's suture, resting on an essentialist notion of class, closes down its democratic potential and subordinates it to the (autocratic) party.

Their analysis of Gramsci runs more or less along the same lines. They suggest he developed Lenin's conception of hegemony by extending class struggle to all facets of social life, and talked up the democratic potential of the 'historic bloc' - the alliance of classes needed to knock down capitalism's door. They suggest that this approach recognises the political complexity of the revolutionary movement, that everywhere and at all times socialism has to make sense to its varied participants, speak to their interests, and explain the opportunities and challenges as they present themselves. Hegemony doesn't just happen, it is constantly and continuously negotiated. However, in their view Gramsci's adherence to Marxism hobbles its democratic potential in much the same way as Lenin's does. Rather than just letting different interests democratically interplay, Gramsci yokes them to the revolutionary party that is, yet again, underwritten by the privileged position occupied by the working class. Contingency and complexity is effectively rode roughshod over - messy reality is squeezed into an ideological schema. Laclau and Mouffe take the negotiated character of hegemony and run with it. If it has to be negotiated, a historic bloc isn't fixed by "class interests" from the outset. This emerges over time as an outcome of the movements within it. Following this true, if a bloc's identity is accomplished after the fact then what use is there of fixed class categories from Marxism? For Laclau and Mouffe, there isn't any - they're purely ideological: stitches of the suture Gramsci performed.

If hegemony is ensured by a negotiation between the different subject positions contained within it (as it is in Gramsci) this suggests identity with a historic bloc is not fixed apriori by class. It is therefore only a short leap to the position that the principle of identity is unfixity; that it is established as social processes play out.

The consequences here are two fold. In the first place there is no necessary correspondence between the working class and socialism, meaning that no position can be privileged above another. Secondly, socialism must be articulated by negotiating between the different positions emerging from and shaped by multiple struggles. This in turn must lead to a rethinking of the symbolic unity that secures an historic bloc, but without the closure provided by class. In other words, for Laclau and Mouffe, the starting point is the idea of socialism and the job of intellectuals is to rally support around it.

There are other varieties of political Post-Marxism, but fundamentally they deny the applicability of class politics and argue that Marx has to be transcended because his notion of class interest is inseparable from the struggle for wages and conditions at work. As we know, life is richer, fuller and more complex than that.

2. Then we have what you might call 'sociological' Post-Marxism. There is a close correspondence between this and political Post-Marxism - if the former's the practice, then this is the theory. This is the assumption - and it is often an assumption born of ignorance - that social development has some how gone past Marxism, that the concepts and the method Marx elaborated no longer have any purchase. Forget your use values, your circuits of capital, wage labour, and so on and embrace the new.

There are almost as many strands of Post-Marxist theory as there are Trotskyist internationals. But most are relatively well known. Take Jean Baudrillard. He made his journey from a mix of Marxism, semiology and psychoanalysis to a distinctive Post-Marxism in which reality, as such, can no longer be spoken of. His key work of transition was his 1972 collection of essays, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. He argued that Marx's analytical split of a commodity into use and exchange values needed supplementing by an additional concept - sign value. He argued that commodities in societies increasingly dominated by a consumer culture, the 'use' of a good became less important than what it signified. For example, at work a number of students and staff prefer to queue up at Costa than the equally good, cheaper but unbranded Union-owned coffee bar. Why? Such questions Baudrillard hoped to answer with this concept. Hoped until, that is, he abandoned this project entirely for the one he became known for. Beginning with his critique of Marxism in The Mirror of Production, he argued that society has become so heavily mediated that our sociality is bounded by self-referential recursive systems, or simulations. Each of these attempt to create or 'simulate' a bounded universe in which the governing set of rules have the answers. Thus Marxism, neoliberalism, Scientology, postmodernism, all make claims to the truth but their appeals to reality mask the production of a simulation, which cannot have a relationship with the "real". Baudrillard's argument is a bit more nuanced than that - I toy with it a little bit in this analysis of Peaches Geldof - but this is the jumping off point.

Good old Michel Foucault is sometimes considered a Post-Marxist, though he never used the term himself. He acquires this label not because he abandons "class analysis" (his work on power operates at the level of individual subject formation), but because he eschews the old Marxist warhorse of ideology. The emphasis of the 'second phase' of his work - his Nietzschean-inspired genealogies of power/knowledge. His accounts of the convict-as-subject and the formation of sexuality in the 19th century power argued that institutions charged with the management of populations - prisons, hospitals - developed specialist knowledges that more or less constituted the subjects of that knowledge. As Foucault put it:
There are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise, and constitute the social body and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated or implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth. (Power/Knowledge 1980, p.93)
These historically have given rise to disciplinary techniques the focus on positioning and conditioning human bodies by constituting those bodies as certain subjects. When you join the army, training breaks you down and rebuilds you as a particular kind of subject. When you're in prison, the regimen of locking up, work, recreation, etc. is about trying to create a certain kind of subject. In the workplace, established procedures for doing things, work hours, rules, all work together to inculcate a subject. In all these cases the techniques that position and manipulate human bodies are backed up by the power of surveillance, the idea that "being seen" conditions soldiers, convicts and workers to abide by the rules, follow the conventions, and act like the subjects they are supposed to be. What room here for ideology, for the ideas that sit in our head and command our activities in accordance with ruling class imperatives? There isn't any. The politics of ideology have given way to the politics of truth, wrote Michele Barrett in her savaging of the Marxist approach to ideology.

In different theoretical camps, I suppose you could say Pierre Bourdieu is a Post-Marxist of sorts. He applied Marx's understanding of how economies worked to what he describes as 'social fields', but went beyond Marx by emphasising symbolic struggles and the process of subject inculcation that came to fruition as "players" in these fields pursued non-economic forms of capital. The "heir" to the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas also sits firmly in the camp. His social theory emphasises communicative action and the contradiction between colonising (technocratic, impersonal) systems vs the social "lifeworld" - both of which are 'beyond Marxism'. And a quick word about Zygmunt Bauman, whose 'liquid modernity' apparently speaks of a slippery dynamism to modernity absent in Marx's writings about the subject. Hmmm.

3. The third kind of Post-Marxism might surprise you. You could call it Marxist Post-Marxism, Post-Post-Marxism, Marxism after Marxism, or just plain old Marxism. It is basically the observation that all the Post-Marxist "refutations" of Marxism are nothing of the sort. Where they do not lapse into outright irrationalism, one can find stray whiskers from Marx's beard in their critiques of essentialism, their unconscious dialectics and historical materialism. True, some of the material they cover Marx did not and could not have written about. But Marxism, among other things, is an open-ended research project. His entire work acts as an invitation to social analysis not because absolutely everything is in Capital, but because it's unfinished. In my opinion, as Lukacs put it, Marxism first and foremost is a question of method.

What sense should this be considered a variety of Post-Marxism then? Sadly, it's not a matter of just saying to our Post-Marxist chums that their readings of Marx are wrong and stumping up the textual proof to confound them. Even though, in large measure, they are badly mistaken and do fundamentally misunderstand Marx's contributions (whether wilfully of honestly). But there is a reason for this. Althusser's former student, Etienne Balibar puts it in The Philosophy of Marx that the fragmentary character of Marx's work, the multiple revisions his work underwent, the sketching out of concepts in the early part of his career and later abandonment or transformation into something else and tendency to use expressions at cross purposes to his method is the fountainhead of muddle and confusion. If you want to portray Marx as the sensitive, nuanced analyst and critic of capitalism - a non-essentialist and deeply historical thinker and activist who is not only deeply relevant but, in many ways, remains the most modern interpreter of our age; you'll find him. But the other Marx is there too. The one with the clunky mechanical materialism, of the impersonal forces driving capitalism to its inevitable collapse - he's still about. The Marx who wrote unpleasant things about certain nationalities and condemned whole peoples as 'non-historic', he's knocking about in the Collected Works. The Marx waxed lyrical about alienation from some kind of essential species-being, that youthful fellow is still read and passed off as the finished product. And the Marx whose remarks about ideology have led generations of radical thinkers to treat human beings as if they're the brainwashed prisoners of the ideas in their heads, sadly, he's taken as the real deal too.

Balibar argues that ultimately, Althusser's reading of Marx was about liberating all that was valuable from all that was not. Althusser didn't manage it because he over-egged the pudding in certain respects, elaborated a non-essentialist but equally creaky and "theoreticist" reinterpretation of Marx, and got completely weighed down in philosophical proofs of Marxism's scientific credentials which were, ultimately, unnecessary. But for Balibar, Althusser's argument about an epistemological break between a 'young' and 'mature' Marx was largely correct: after the 1844 Manuscripts which dealt with alienation came the unpublished German Ideology in which Marx and Engels elaborated their distinctive post-philosophical social theory for the first time. From then on, concepts like alienation were incorporated into the abstract processes that enable capitalism as a system to yield a surplus from the exploitation of labour power. Likewise ideology, which - as Barrett pointed out - was treated as incorrect, mystifying ideas that benefited the powers that be in the German Ideology assumed less importance in Marx's overall analysis. Ideology became something after the fact, as Žižek noted.

For Balibar, as Marxism is compromised not just by the contradictory complexity of its founder but also the various offshoots, including the brutal bastard children of Stalinism and state "socialist" modernisation, "Marxists" should not fix on the label and feel free to abandon it. In this sense, Balibar's understanding is Post-Marxist but not Post-Marx. His project and that of a great many thinkers and activists not affiliated to and sometimes opposing Althusser's reconstruction of Marxism rescue, run with and elaborate Marx's concepts; they use the materialist method he developed with Engels to make sense of the world. A Marxist analysis of how Marxism became something far removed from all that is dynamic and wonderfully scandalous about a tool for interpreting and changing the world needs to be done, but until then the work that stands on Marx's shoulders should get on with its business without worrying about labels and let its veracity speak for itself.


howard fuller said...

Marxism as Theology. Discuss.

Your friendly neighbourhood athiest!

Phil said...

Definitely not! Well, apart from a few far left-types. But this comes down to Balibar's arguments about Marxism - how was it that a set of ideas for analysing the social world were turned into their opposite?

Anonymous said...

would you say that one of the big differences between post marxisms 1 and 2 and marxist post-marxism, or just marxism--and i approve of your formulation here--is that standard post-marxism is engaged more and more in the production of self-reflective discourses meant for consumption within academia, which is more and more becoming an industry in and of itself where the most one can hope for is to aspire to the conditions of middle management (see how i'm bringing class into it?), but marxism should, at least, carry with it the prospect of organizing or focusing a whole range of practical-critical activities, all that is, in your own words, "dynamic and wonderfully scandalous?"


Phil said...

In short, yes! Too often my experience of Post-Marxism is a theoretical gloss masking a retreat from any kind of politics, or of treating one's research as a substitute for it.

Of course the 'practice' of Marxism hasn't proven much cop either, as Balibar helpfully outlines.

Anonymous said...

yeah, phil, we fucked up. but looking back on it (i'm 62 years old) the best political work i ever did in my life was the stuff i did in the labor movement.


Phil said...

I'm not casting aspersions on work comrades have done down the years, Les. But that 'Marxism' commonly received is inconsistent, a mish-mash of the flexible and dynamic with the ossified and chunky. How that came to be the case is a story that is still being written. Until then I'll be carrying on in the Post-Marxist vein, as Balibar understands it.