One of the first books I picked up after I turned the diss in was William Clare Roberts’s Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, which I think it’s safe to say is already making quite a stir. (You can read the whole introduction here [pdf].) Not only did Andrew Hartman assign it to his History of Capitalism course, but David Harvey reviewed the book for Jacobin, and he expressed some fairly strong reservations regarding Roberts’s understanding of what kind of book Marx’s Capital is. Roberts has defended his method and arguments in three blog posts (1, 2, 3), which also serve nicely to highlight some of the more contentious and original aspects of Marx’s Inferno. Continue reading
In the course of my Marx and America research I have had the pleasure of reading a number of excellent biographies. To name but a few: Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life; Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist; David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963; and Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (note: I’m excited to be on a panel at next week’s S-USIH conference with Leilah that also includes our very own Robert Greene II and Nelson Lichtenstein as commenter).
Now, I am not writing a biography of Marx, but I have come to the conclusion that the best way to tell the story of Marx in America is to examine the topic through the lens of a number of biographical snapshots that will include an eclectic and diverse mix of intellectuals and political actors.
I will begin my multi-biographical exploration with Marx himself and the first chapter will also include the stories of Marx’s German émigré collaborators such as Joseph Wedemeyer. From there, in ten or so chapters that move chronologically but that will also be structured thematically, I plan to include intellectual biographical snapshots that will include the following people: Continue reading
Three years ago I wrote a post here—“Karl Marx and Intellectual History”—that used reviews of Jonathan Sperber’s 2013 biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life to ask questions about the relationship between biography and intellectual history. One of the reviews was by Terry Eagleton. Given my affinity for Eagleton I took his criticisms of Sperber at face value before reading the book itself. Eagleton made two charges that resonated with me. First, he disagreed with Sperber’s claim that Marx’s writings were a product of nineteenth-century concerns and thus don’t speak to twenty-first century problems. Second, Eagleton asserted that Sperber did not do justice to Marx’s ideas. These two criticisms were not mutually exclusive: Eagleton implied that someone who believed Marx relevant would have focused more on the ideas and less on the man.
I learned an important lesson from writing that blog post—better late than never! Do NOT criticize a book without first reading it. No, duh! Sperber left a reply in the comments section that exuded more patience than I deserved:
First, it’s a bit much to condemn, or at least criticize, a book, based on a review, without having read it yourself. Had you done so, you might have found that Eagleton’s contention I didn’t pay much attention to Marx’s ideas (I’ll leave aside the issue of whether my discussion of them is “clumsy,” as Eagleton states–not an impression of other reviewers) is problematic. The book contains a lengthy discussion of the Paris manuscripts, Marx’s theories of revolution, the influence of Hegel, the Young Hegelians, David Ricardo and Charles Darwin on Marx’s formulations. All that is without considering the chapter on Marx’s social theory (entitled “The Theorist”) and the one on Marx’s economic theories, esp. in Das Kapital (“The Economist”).
I’m learning anew how to read Marx’s Capital: Volume One by watching David Harvey’s famous course on the subject. (All 13 lectures are available online. Originally published in 1867, Harvey teaches from the 1976 Vintage edition of Capital, translated into English by Ben Fowkes.) Harvey has been teaching Capital for over 40 years now, starting when he arrived in Baltimore during the summer of 1969—where the Brit took a position at Johns Hopkins—because he was in search of a framework from which to understand the radical and reactionary politics of that year. His many years of experience teaching Capital show. Harvey demonstrates the brilliance of a teacher who has not only mastered the subject, but who also has a passion for it.
Harvey is passionate about the merits of Capital, and not merely as a way to think about capitalism—although Harvey is indeed bullish on that aspect of Capital. Rather what is so striking about Harvey’s take on Capital is that he loves it as a Great Book. Harvey has reinforced for me that Capital is a masterful literary construction. (A forthcoming book by William Claire Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: A Political Theory of Capital, seems likely to do the same. “Placing Marx against the background of nineteenth-century socialism, Roberts shows how Capital was ingeniously modeled on Dante’s Inferno, and how Marx, playing the role of Virgil for the proletariat, introduced partisans of workers’ emancipation to the secret depths of the modern “social Hell.” In this manner, Marx revised republican ideas of freedom in response to the rise of capitalism.” Wow that sounds cool.) Continue reading
In my larger interest in understanding Marx as an American alter ego, I’m interested in how Americans have translated, read, interpreted, and sold Capital, Marx’s magnum opus, from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. Two case studies of this phenomenon in particular have caught my attention: 1) the first English translation of Capital by Ernest Untermann, published in 1906 by the Chicago-based socialist Charles H. Kerr & Company (which conveniently for me has records at the Newberry Library in Chicago); and 2) geographer David Harvey’s annual seminar on Capital, which began in 1969 and is still running. Both of these case studies are prime historical examples of ongoing efforts to Americanize Marx, a process kick-started by the man himself. Marx’s fascination with American politics implicitly informed Capital, particularly his labor theory of value which arguably stands as Capital’s most lasting theoretical contribution to political economy.
The Kerr publishing house was intentional in its efforts to make Capital usable for an American audience. This was made evident when it published Untermann’s 1908 companion to Capital, Marxian Economics, which included favorable comparisons of Marx to Teddy Roosevelt and Henry George, and a class analysis of the African-American experience. The American context also underwrites Harvey’s reading of Capital. In an introduction to his lessons, now available for online viewing, Harvey recalls that he started his Capital reading group upon his arrival in Baltimore during the summer of 1969—when the Brit took a position at Johns Hopkins—because he was in search of a framework from which to understand the radical and reactionary politics of that year. In other words, Harvey has been reading Capital through an American lens from the get-go, which remains evident in his recent analysis of the 2008 global financial meltdown and its focus, in part, on the role of American housing in the crisis.
Where these two distinct readings of Capital differ speak to the changed historical context. Untermann sought to relate what he thought was a universal Marx to the concerns of a more parochial American audience–specific to the growing socialist movement in and around Chicago. In contrast, by reading Marx in an era of American-led globalization, Harvey presupposed that his version of Marx, though particular to his American experience, was a universal Marx. The irony here is that this is how Marx viewed America in the mid-nineteenth century–as a universal harbinger of a capitalist future–a view that not only informed Capital but also helped Marx anticipate the globalization of capitalism.
I’m interested in reader responses to short analysis above, but also in reader suggestions for other examples of Americans reading Marx in general and Capital in particular.
Yesterday, I finished writing up my comments on Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture, which I will present at our conference in November. This was a difficult review for me to write because there are so many things about the book that sparked my intellectual curiosity. I settled on examining the epistemology implied by the book, in part because, though we’ve done a great deal of speculating about it here (see for example David Sehat’s posts on whether Rodgers is Rortyian here and here and here), none of the formal reviews have addressed Rodgers’s theoretical underpinnings to my satisfaction. I also rested my review on epistemology because, as regular readers of this blog have no doubt noticed, I am always thinking about it in relation to history and historiography.
This is not to say that my epistemological influences or interests are necessarily well rounded. As our frequent gadfly Varad pointed out in a recent post, the theories of culture and power I focus on tend to run the gamut between Marxism and its derivatives. Fair enough. In my defense, this gamut seems large when I’m trying to decipher the differences between Marx and Derrida. But I admit this might be the narcissism of small differences. Oh, well, at the risk of beating a dead, narcissistic horse, today I continue my thread about theories of culture by returning to the subject of last week’s post: David Harvey, specifically, his latest book, The Enigma of Capital (which I find a deeply satisfying read).
In Chapter 5, “Capital Evolves,” Harvey pauses from his historical dissection of capitalism (by way of Marx’s Capital) to offer up a general theory of history (by way of, you guessed it, Marx’s Capital). I find this theory worth discussing because it makes sense to me, but also because it puts into clear words the nuanced sense of culture that Harvey displayed in his classic work, The Condition of Postmodernity. I also find it worth discussing because I think its an implicit structuralist response to those poststructuralists who only see base-superstructure determinism when they see Marxism.
Harvey argues that “cultural norms and belief systems (that is, religious and political ideologies) are powerfully present but do not exist independently of social relations…” Pretty standard stuff, and not far removed from Althusser or from Marx for that matter. Harvey calls these cultural norms and belief systems our “mental conceptions of the world,” one of seven “distinctive activity spheres” that comprise the historical development of capitalism. All seven in Harvey’s words:
1. Technologies and organizational forms
2. Social relations
3. Institutional and administrative arrangements
4. Production and labor processes
5. Relations to nature
6. The reproduction of daily life and the species
7. Mental conceptions of the world
This last “sphere” of course speaks most to intellectual historians. Harvey sees all of these spheres as mutually constitutive: no one sphere dominates even as none of them are independent. “Each sphere evolves on its own account but always in dynamic interaction with the others.” So though this is a structuralist account of historical change, in that a contrived mental conception like a metaphor cannot take on a life of its own apart from the other spheres, and although it’s “total” or even “totalizing” in its sense of a social formation, which postmodernists of the world have united against, it is not economically determinist in the “vulgar” sense that economics underlies all else. More from Harvey to give a sense of how he sees this at work:
Our mental conceptions of the world… are usually unstable, contested, subject to scientific discoveries as well as whims, fashions and passionately held cultural and religious beliefs and desires. Changes in mental conceptions have all manner of intended and unintended consequences for [the other activity spheres]…
Harvey argues that we should think about the interrelatedness of these spheres as we think about an ecosystem. Parts of the ecosystem can act seemingly independent of the rest, but have consequences for the whole by way of the dialectic processes of accommodation and resistance. “The complex flow of influence that move between the spheres are perpetually reshaping all of them.” In stable societies, these seven spheres roughly harmonize. In societies in flux or crisis, there are imbalances that shakedown in unpredictable ways.
In Harvey’s conclusion, he provocatively asks if this co-evolutionary theory of social change can be projected into a co-revolutionary theory of a break. He argues it can and it should. In fact, he maintains that past revolutionary projects failed in part because “they fatally failed to keep the dialectic between the different activity spheres in motion and also failed to embrace the unpredictabilities and uncertainties in the dialectal movement between the spheres. Capitalism has survived precisely by keeping that dialectical movement going and by embracing the inevitable tensions, including crises, that result.”
Some might think this all too abstract or utopian. But I like the way, as a general theory of history, it allows for the importance of structure without being deterministic; and the way it allows for (mild) optimism while also calculating heavy constraints.
In this lecture put to animation by RSA Animate (one of several such brilliantly animated lectures done by RSA), David Harvey explains the economic crisis of 2008 in Marxist terms. This lecture is a synthesis of Harvey’s 2010 book, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, where he contends, among other things, that surplus capital generates problems that will turn into crises if not solved by innovations in capital accumulation. What is the basis of the current crisis? He writes:
Labour availability is no problem now for capital, and it has not been so for the last twenty-five years. But disempowered labour means low wages, and impoverished workers do not constitute a vibrant market. Persistent wage repression therefore poses the problem of lack of demand for the expanding output of capitalist corporations. One barrier to capital accumulation–the labor question–is overcome at the expense of creating another–lack of a market. So how could this second barrier be circumvented? The gap between what labour was earning and what it could spend was covered by the rise of the credit card industry and increasing indebtedness.
It hardly takes analytical imagination to understand how we got from there to the bursting of the housing bubble and the ensuing collapse of the banking system that financed it. My point here is not to say that Harvey’s analysis (in this specific example) is necessarily unique. That good Keynesian Jim Livingston made a similar argument about how inequality (Harvey’s “wage repression”) created systemic problems (still) in need of correction. Rather, I wanted to draw attention to Harvey’s work more generally, and gauge the level of familiarity or interest. I think he’s one of the more lucid Marxists around (which I realize is not a large sampling).
I first read Harvey in graduate school when I was assigned The Condition of Postmodernity, which I found a brilliant combination of history, analysis, and critique. Harvey gave a total reading to an age in which total readings had supposedly been obliterated. I then quickly read some of his other books, which were more geographic or spatial explorations of capital, and also his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, which has done more to form my thinking on that topic than anything else.
I am currently reading The Enigma of Capital with my graduate students. It’s a required “philosophy of history and historiography” course, and Harvey falls in the week after Marx on the syllabus. I wanted to show the students how a Marxian analysis might still apply to their world. The combination of Marx then Harvey works really well–at least, I hope it does, I’ll find out more when I meet with students tomorrow night–because nobody is more familiar with Marx’s Capital than Harvey. He’s been teaching that text for decades. You can take the course on-line now!
Harvey integrates actual analysis from Capital into his contemporary analysis of capitalism’s crises in ways that I find very convincing, or at the very least, thought provoking. Check out how Harvey quotes Marx extensively to convince his reader that the current crisis is an intensification of past processes inherent to capitalism. Here he talks about what happens when faith in credit, which is necessary to maintaining the smooth flow of capital, breaks down (Marx called credit a Protestant thing, because of the need for faith):
From time to time, however, the expectations become so excessive and the financing so profligate as to give rise to a distinctive financial crisis within the financial system itself. Marx provides a brief description in Capital: ‘The bourgeois [read Wall Street], drunk with prosperity and arrogantly certain of himself, has just declared that money is a purely imaginary creation. Commodities [read as safe as houses] alone are money,’ he said. ‘But now the opposite cry resounds over the markets of the world: only money [read liquidity] is a commodity. As the hart pants over fresh water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth. In a crisis the antithesis between commodities and their value form, money, is raised to the level of an absolute contradiction.’ In the depth of that contradiction, expectations become riddled with fear (neither houses nor the Bank of England appear as safe as they were once presumed to be) and the financing becomes far too meagre to to support further accumulation.
I think this nicely sums up what happened in 2008, when the value of houses crumbled alongside the exotic financial products tied to them. The Marx quote is poetic, too, but that’s not surprising coming from the first great poet of capitalism.