Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx

Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx

Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

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This book critically introduces two compelling contemporary schools of Marxian thought: the New Reading of Marx of Michael Heinrich and Werner Bonefeld, and the postoperaismo of Antonio Negri. Each stake novel claims on Marx’s value theory, the first revisiting key categories of the critique of political economy through Frankfurt School critical theory, the second calling the law of value into crisis with reference to Marx’s rediscovered Fragment on Machines. Today, ‘postcapitalist’ conceptualisations of a changing workplace excite interest in postoperaist projections of a crisis of measurability sparked by so-called immaterial labour. Using the New Reading of Marx to question this prospectus, Critiquing Capitalism Today clarifies complex debates for newcomers to these cutting-edge currents of critical thought, looking anew at value, money, labour, class and crisis.



"This book rejects the idea that we have entered a postcapitalist reality as at best wishful thinking and pure ideology at worst. Pitts looks into the eye of the storm that is brewing all around us, laying bare the sheer unrest of life in a system of wealth in which money only counts as more money. A remarkable book." - Werner Bonefeld, Professor of Politics, University of York

"This book challenges postoperaismo’s overestimation of workers’ power and its recent reception in postcapitalist dreams of an automated future. Maturing in these pages is a new way to read Marx and understand resistance in a money-dominated world." - Ana Dinerstein, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Bath

"Too much fashionable thinking on the left lacks rigour and an appreciation of the history of Marxist thought. This is especially the case when we consider value theory and alternative approaches to the world of work. In contrast this exceptional book knows its subject matter- and demands to be read by anyone who claims allegiance to the contemporary left." - Jon Cruddas MP, Visiting Professor, Centre of Sustainable Work and Employment Futures, University of Leicester

Chapter Synopses

Chapter 1 Introduction: Marxian Value Theory in New Times

Introducing the New Reading of Marx and postoperaismo, this chapter considers the critique of capitalism at a time where Marx’s theory of value is called into question and the promise of a postcapitalist utopia captures the public and political imagination. It situates the New Reading of Marx within existing work on the labour theory of value, and postoperaismo within its increasing reception on the contemporary left. Setting out the contours of the critical method employed in the book, the contents of the chapters that follow are introduced, charting the progression of the book’s argument, using the New Reading of Marx, that postoperaismo gives an impoverished theoretical and empirical foundation for the understanding of contemporary capitalism. Critical thinking is proposed as an alternative to wishful thinking.

Chapter 2 Value, Time and Abstract Labour

This chapter charts the differing interpretations of how value relates to labour within the New Reading of Marx and so-called ‘embodied labour’ approaches. The chapter first surveys the attempts to get to grips with value in the classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo, and the specificity of Marx’s critique. The chapter then outlines the divergent readings of Marx’s value theory between a traditional Marxism focused on the quantification of labour time as the key to value and the New Reading of Marx, which focuses instead on what Michael Heinrich calls the ‘social validation’ of abstract labour-time in commodity exchange. Finally, the chapter goes on to consider the concept of socially necessary labour-time, through the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Chris Arthur.

Chapter 3 Money and the Exchange Abstraction

Considering the implications of the New Reading of Marx’s ‘monetary theory of value’, this chapter explores how thinkers in and influential upon this theoretical perspective have conceptualised money as constituting a materialist version of the Kantian schematism bringing all things into an abstract social relation with all other things by means of commodity exchange. First outlining the monetary theory of value as it appears in the work of Riccardo Bellofiore, the chapter departs from Christian Lotz’s contemporary account of the ‘capitalist schema’, before considering the roots of this analysis in the Frankfurt School critical theory of Max Horkheimer and Alfred Sohn-Rethel- specifically the latter’s theory of the ‘social synthesis’ established by money as means of exchange, and the conceptualisation of value as a ‘non-empirical reality’.

Chapter 4 Labour in the Valorisation Process

Approaching labour as an object of inquiry in light of the New Reading of Marx’s theory of the value-form, this chapter analyses how what goes on in the workplace relates to what goes on in the market. Value assumes a succession of what Richard Gunn calls ‘modes of existence’ in the valorisation process, of which the labour process is just a carrier. This procession of forms is hard to capture in applied social research focused on labour alone. The chapter evaluates how two methods for studying labour and economic life capture value’s ‘non-empirical reality’- the Italian workers inquiry tradition, and the feminist ‘life trajectory of the commodity’ approach. Encapsulating production and circulation, Chris Arthur’s conceptualisation of ‘practical abstraction’ is proposed as an alternative.

Chapter 5 Class, Critique and Capitalist Crisis

Using Werner Bonefeld’s theorization of the social constitution of capitalist society in the class antagonism, this chapter considers the critique of political economy as a critical theory of society that uncovers the concrete social relations concealed within value’s abstract social form. This centres on Bonefeld’s critique of the conceptualisation of value as a purely abstract unfolding uprooted from ongoing processes of primitive accumulation. The chapter then explores how the ‘real appearance’ of social relations in the value-form is captured in the work of Marx and the Frankfurt School on the commodity fetish. The theorisation of class on which this rests is counterposed to contemporary sociological understandings. Finally, the implications for Marxist theories of crisis outlined, drawing on the work of Michael Heinrich and Simon Clarke.

Chapter 6 Immanence, Multitude and Empire

This chapter surveys the philosophical and theoretical foundations of Antonio Negri’s postoperaist conceptualisation of a crisis in the law of value. Central to this is Negri’s turn from Marx to Spinoza. The chapter begins by outlining the shift from operaismo to postoperaismo in Negri’s work and the wider tradition. It then considers how, in the development of thinking around the social factory and real subsumption comes a shift from the refusal of work to its celebration as an expression of the constituent power of the ‘multitude’. The chapter then assays Negri’s rejection of dialectics, contradiction, abstraction and mediation for the Spinozist immanence of ‘Empire’. This, the chapter suggests, forecloses the capacity to grasp the negativity and antagonism central to the critique of political economy.

Chapter 7 The Fragment on Machines

This chapter assesses the significance of Marx’s Fragment on Machines, a few pages of his notebooks for Capital, the Grundrisse, for the development of the postoperaist prospectus of incipient communism and capitalist collapse. It begins by evaluating how the discovery of the Fragment chimes with the analysis of empirical changes in capitalist labour to suggest a utopian scenario taken up increasingly on the contemporary left. It considers how Hardt and Negri’s ‘molecular’ understanding of history, focusing on immediate changes in the content of labour, elides the ‘molar’ continuities of the forms this labour assumes in exchange. The posing of successive paradigm shifts through which postoperaists like Bifo suggest measurement has been replaced progressively by control, command and violence ignore what the value-form already dialectically conceals.

Chapter 8 A Crisis of Measurability

Postoperaists extrapolate from the advent of contemporary ‘immaterial labour’ a crisis of measurability synonymous with a crisis in the law of value. This chapter reveals such claims to deny the Marxian theory of value only through recourse to its most traditional interpretation, holding value to relate not the social validation of abstract labour but the quantification of direct labour-time. Drawing on existing critiques by Michael Heinrich and George Caffentzis, the chapter interrogates three assumptions present in theorisations of immaterial labour: its novelty, its ‘immediately abstract’ character, and its immeasurable productiveness. The chapter concludes that the new conditions captured in the concept of immaterial labour do not pose a crisis for the law of value, because value has never related to the measurement of immediate labour.

Chapter 9 Creative Industries and Commodity Exchange

This chapter confronts the concept of immaterial labour through an analysis of an archetypal example: creative industries like advertising, branding and graphic design. Interrogating Andrea Fumagalli’s account of the value added by immaterial labour’s ‘general intellect’, it suggests that both traditional Marxist and postoperaist notions of circulation’s productiveness or unproductiveness elides the latter’s determination by the law of value. In intervening in the buying and selling of commodities, fields like advertising play a more fundamental role than is captured in such conceptualisations, making possible the value relation itself. This is supported by Marx’s writings in Capital Vol. 2 on the ‘work of combustion’ and transportation, and applied to an understanding of capitalist crisis as centring on a classed contradiction of constrained consumption resulting in overproduction.

Chapter 10 Conclusion: From Postoperaismo to Postcapitalism

Assessing the political consequences of the postoperaist extrapolation from immediate changes in the content of labour the possibility of an incipient communism and capitalism’s imminent collapse, this chapter surveys the reception of postoperaist thinking in presently popular visions of a technology-aided postcapitalist future disseminated in bestselling works like Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism influential on the contemporary left. The chapter suggests that such perspective induces a passivity that history will unfold in our favour. The New Reading of Marx, it is suggested, withdraws from explicit political commitments but, in recognising the totalising force of value’s abstract social relation, provides a better basis for necessarily pessimistic assessments of the potential for wide scale social change resulting in an escape from capitalism, emphasising continuity of form over ceaseless change.