Thursday 13 October 2016

Five More Books on Marx and Marxism

By way of a sequel to this from a few years back, here are five more books about Marx and/or Marxism that use the materialist method to understand the world.

The first of these has to be Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000). It had sat on my shelf for 16 years before I finally got round to reading it this summer, and I've kicked myself ever since. In a great working of theoretical synthesis, Hardt and Negri bring together theories of political sovereignty, political economy, Marxism, and postmodernism in an entirely convincing whole. The basic thesis is global capitalism is transitioning to an international system in which capital, or Empire as they call it, is a decentered, disembodied sovereign better able to regulate the growing capacities and objective strength of the multitude (a Spinozan concept that sort of indicates the masses, which have variously assumed the form of slaves, peasants, and proletarians) than the nation state. As an emerging, unconscious entity, the Empire is an alien power straight out of Marx's Paris Manuscripts. A surprisingly readable work that makes legible complex processes, it remains a fresh work that could fool you into thinking it was published this last year. It casts a great shadow over the next book ...

Cognitive Capitalism by Yann Moulier Boutang (2007) explores the case Hardt and Negri make on relation to the new shifts on global capitalism, particularly with regard to Negri's earlier work around the 'social worker'. i.e. The new breed of proletarian that has the production of knowledge, services, or care (in sum, social relations) as the object of their work. Boutang argues that key to the transition from the old to the new is the growing capacity of labour power. In the age of the so-called mass worker, the hegemonic form of work had people fed into companies where they would be trained and socialised into work. This was bound up with a conscious strategy pursued by big capital since the advent of Scientific Management, that subordinating labour to capital requires that the latter holds the knowledge of the production process. The emergence of 'cognitive capitalism' finds that labour power's aptitude with new technologies is something acquired outside of workplace relations, and that the coming hegemony of this work puts capital at a double disadvantage: labour power is a self-actualising and innovative force of production independent of capital. And, as such, to generate profit capital has to assume more overtly parasitic and unjust forms of surplus value extraction. Think Uber. Think Deliveroo. Labour is constantly networking and forming its own brain trust, which, for want of a better phrase, capital can only ponce off - think about how Facebook and Google feed off the data sets your online doings produce with no financial benefit to the user. This is just a condensed flavour of what's on offer, so Cognitive Capitalism comes as an essential work.

Speaking of essential, there is The Hard Road to Renewal by Stuart Hall (1988), another book I've been meaning to read for ages but only read this last week or so. What Hall does in this collection of essays from New Left Review and Marxism Today is provide a properly Marxist analysis of Thatcherism. He characterises it as a hegemonic project (albeit one that did not achieve complete hegemony) that sought to redefine politics and values across a broad front: economics, politics, and culture. He does this by analysing the British state as it declined relative to the rise of the other great powers and had to transform itself into an instrument that more directly intervened as a participant of class struggle and manager of a large population. More specifically, he picks apart the crisis of social democratic capitalist management in the 1970s and discerns the emergence of authoritarian populism, a strategy by the right to ride the wave of anti-establishment and anti-statist feeling and transform it into a buttress for the establishment. He also castigates Labour and the left repeatedly for ignoring their Gramsci and never seriously engaging in a similar kind of project: rather the former chases public opinion without trying to lead it, and the latter is fundamentalist and stuck on the defensive. Lastly, he notes that Thatcherism was never about providing solutions to capitalist crisis, even if it dressed up in those clothes. Instead, it was about tilting the balance of class forces to the right and keeping them there. As a Marxist analysis of politics and an explanation of the impasse we find ourselves in almost 30 years after publication, it too is a vital intervention everyone on the left should read.

Going back to basics a bit, I want to big up again the best introductory book on Marx and Marxism I've ever read. And that would be Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right (2011). Taking the form of a series of common objections/misconceptions about Marxism, the book provides answers. It's not a dry-as-ditchwater exercise along the lines of "this is what Marx really said". Quote-mongering is kept to a minimum and, instead, Eagleton allows the materialist method and concepts do the talking. On economics, on the salience of class, the relationship between Marxism and the "new" (though now, rather old) social movements around race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and the environment, I can't ever see its supersession by something better. It's one of those books that should have been around when I was a touch younger - its clarity would have saved a lot of time wading through useless, dusty tomes.

Lastly, I had a lot of fun with Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts by Leigh Phillips (2015). Perhaps the most "populist" of this round-up of books, Phillips makes a case for a Marxist approach to technology. i.e. That innovative new tools, ways of working, and technologies are dialectical fusions of benefit and risk, but that on the whole development has been a force for good. He is outraged and offended to find the Luddism at the heart of nearly all Green and environmentalist politics has been tailed and adopted wholesale by the left, and subjects reflex opposition to genetically modified organisms, nuclear power, and consumerism generally to the fire of polemic and brimstone of the put down. These, he argues, are manifestations of an anti-human and misanthropic approach to politics. Those who worship Gaia, favour primitivist solutions to the ecological crisis, and get all gooey over earth spirit hocus pocus offer the way back to a past in which our species were fragmented, few in number, and absolutely dependent on the blind whims of the seasons. Reactionary nonsense of the worst kind, in other words. And a fundamentally debilitating one as it talks down our powers and capacities to cope with and ameliorate the environmental problems stacking up against us. That, after all, should be the focus of radical politics.

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