Monday, March 13, 2017

Response to Harvey, part 1

David Harvey has done me a great honor by reviewing my book, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, for Jacobin. To have the first review of my first book penned by the most famous living teacher of Capital is a boon. Professor Harvey’s wide-ranging response highlights a number of disagreements of broad significance, not only for academic Marxologists, but for the political Left. He claims that my book will be “a first salvo in what promises to be a grand battle to redefine Marx’s legacy, both intellectual and political.” I certainly hope that he is right. At present, the Left is weak but energized. Young people are widely disenchanted with capitalism and the post-Cold War global order, and are open-minded about socialism. At the same time, the political and economic organizations of the Left are in shambles, and there is no theoretical or tactical center of gravity. I think this is precisely the moment to reread the history of Left theory, to return to and to rework first principles.

No one is more important, in this respect, than Marx. The question is, which Marx? My book defends the dignity of the first volume of Capital, and argues that it contains the Marx we need to recover today. Harvey disagrees, arguing that “taking Volume 1 as a standalone treatise is deeply problematic.” This disagreement, which he calls his “most serious objection” to my book, reflects three deeper but less apparent divisions. One concerns the sort of theory Marx provides. The second concerns the actual content of Marx’s arguments in Volume One. The third concerns what is needed now, in our present. Each of these deep disagreements should be brought into the open, for wide-ranging debate on these matters is of the utmost importance.

1.       Part 1: What sort of book is Capital?

The research question that my book poses and tries to answer is the old question of Marx’s “method of presentation” in Capital. Why does Volume One take the form it does? Because Marx himself addresses this question – howsoever elliptically – in the course of rebutting the claim that he is applying a Hegelian method to the study of political economy, the scholarship on this question is dominated by efforts to find a Hegelian or quasi-Hegelian method of presentation in Volume One. This has had mixed results. Everyone acknowledges that parts of the text look rather Hegelian. On the other hand, major chunks of the book don’t look Hegelian at all: much of Parts Three, Four, and Eight, together adding up to about 40% of the book. These are the “historical” parts. Hegelian Marxists tend to be embarrassed by these parts, since they don’t add to much to the development of the concepts. Social historians, like Gareth Stedman Jones, think they are the only valuable part of Capital. The two halves are never knit together, though.

My idiosyncratic answer to this problem is that Marx’s structured Volume One on the model of Dante’s Inferno. This is not so weird as it might sound. Metaphorical descents into Hell were widespread in the socialist literature of the nineteenth century. Marx’s bête noir, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, did the most with the trope. Moreover, the moral categories that structure Dante’s Hell – incontinence, force, fraud, and treachery – were pervasive in the moral economy of early socialism, for the simple reason that the Christian-Aristotelian heritage permeated popular morality. Marx, I argue, wrote Capital as a descent into the social Hell of modern capitalism. He wanted to acquaint his readers with the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production, while displacing the categories of socialist moral judgment onto “the ensemble of social relations.” As my book shows, reading Volume One in this way allows us to make sense of its arguments in a connected and holistic way, and as a carefully constructed intervention into the socialist movement of Marx’s day, without excising half the book as “digressions” or “illustrations” or “beside the point.”

David Harvey objects, however, that this “builds a singular and exclusive account that pushes other readings to one side,” and that it rests “on the shallow but convenient grounds” that only Volume One was seen through to publication by Marx. According to Harvey, “if we only read Volume 1 of Capital, … we will also misunderstand the point of Volume 1.” We will do so because “the assumption throughout Volume 1 is that all commodities exchange at their value.” This allows Marx to construct “a model of capitalist activity that reflects ‘the hell’ of the laborer,” but it does not allow him to consider the “alienation”  of “the ‘affluent worker’ who is protected by a trade union, lives in a suburban house, has a car in the driveway, a TV in the living room, and a laptop in the kitchen, and vacations in Spain or the Caribbean.” Nor does it allow him to explain how “capital accumulation … rests on [the] ‘rational consumption’” of the working class, which must be enabled by the capitalist class. Harvey claims that these issues can come to the fore and receive their proper explanation only once Marx’s drops the assumption that prices equal values, which he does in Volumes Two and Three. Hence, Volume One, on its own, gives us a partial, and hence false, picture of capitalism. My book, by arguing that Volume One can stand on its own, does Marx and my readers a disservice.

The basic presupposition of Harvey’s interpretation is that, when Marx wrote and published Volume One, he was “presenting his findings,” and that, in the service of presenting them in a “persuasive” and “palatable” way to a readership of “self-educated artisans and laborers,” he “simplified” those findings, “even to the point of falsification.” If this is true, then only his unpublished works – the Grundrisse, Volumes Two and Three, the various preparatory drafts – can give us a true picture of Marx’s “findings.” In short, Harvey’s Marx is an explainer. He has a grand, unified theory, but knows that it is too difficult to communicate to “self-educated artisans and laborers,” so he simplifies it, and dresses it up with “literary and cultural references,” so as “to make sure his audience would get what he was talking about.”  

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

I think my picture of Marx, and of Capital, is more accurate that Harvey’s. After all, it is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.” That I try to read the book this way does not mean that everyone should just ignore Marx’s unpublished writings. My reading does not exclude those efforts, or push them to the side, simply because it does not engage in that sort of work. There are many excellent scholars who have shed much light on Marx’s unpublished writings. There is next to nothing on Volume One of Capital as a published work. I think, frankly, that we are more comfortable with Marx if we picture him as a scholar unable to communicate the complexity of his truth in a mere 900 pages, instead of as an engaged political thinker, working out his ideas in the scrum of debate.