Editors' Introduction

Volume 29  Issue 4  October 2017

Fittingly, the contributions in the final issue of this volume represent returns to the basic concepts of Marxism in the context of contemporary capitalism. This rethinking is a running thread, a relentless reflection that leaves no concept intact.

In “Karl Marx on Wage Labor: From Natural Abstraction to Formal Subsumption,” Ernesto Screpanti examines the “ambivalence” in Marx’s characterization of abstract labor as a natural and historical fact. As Screpanti shows, both descriptions appear in Marx’s writings, and Screpanti argues that the naturalist characterization assumes that abstract labor has an independent existence that gives rise to an a priori metaphysics in which labor is posited as a natural substance. Abstract labor, Screpanti argues, can be extracted from this naturalist rendition by positing it as a historical (and not transhistorical) category that arises in the context of capitalism. The author argues that Marx, departing from Hegel’s notion of employment contracts as agreements of commodity exchange, views such agreements as relations of subordination and subsumption in which workers relinquish their decision-making freedom in the labor process, enabling capital to subsume workers’ capacities in securing surplus value. Rather than a natural or transhistorical category, Screpanti thus argues that the concept of abstract labor arises in the context of capitalism. To treat abstract labor as a social relation of power and subordination rather than as a natural category thus presents points by which to contest its political implications in contemporary society.

The notion of socially abstract labor as the core determinant of value is the central theme in the next contribution. “Demand, Values, and Prices in Marx: Contrasting Simultaneous and Temporal Approaches,” by David Kristjanson-Gural, develops an alternative to the traditional approaches that analyze the relationship between value and exchange value. Most Marxist theories that study the relation between value and exchange value, the author argues, reject the direct effect of demand on values and exchange values on the ground that accepting such a role would undermine Marx’s claim of labor being the only source of value; for these traditional approaches, the effect of demand on values and exchange values can only be indirect, through a divergence of market prices from prices of production. On the other hand, as Kristjanson-Gural also argues, monetary theorists claim that value is determined through exchange, in which case demand is taken to fully determine exchange value. This leads, according to the author, to a conflation of exchange value with market price. The author instead proposes an integration of two distinct meanings of Marx’s concept of socially necessary labor time. As a result, it becomes possible to observe that changes in demand—without being a source of value but rather functioning in the determination of whether expended private labor is socially necessary—directly affect commodity values and exchange values, thus redistributing value among producers. Kristjanson-Gural then uses a one-commodity model of simple reproduction to show how the variations in demand in connection with supply determine both values and exchange values. Where demand and supply do not coincide, he argues that it is necessary to take into account the formation of money hoards and commodity inventories. This renders visible the movement and redistribution of value intertemporally, which analysis can be used to reconcile the simultaneous determination of values and exchange values. This analysis, argues Kristjanson-Gural, also offers insights into the dynamics of competition, which is precisely the focus of the next contribution.

In “Understanding the Competition-Crisis Nexus: Revisiting U.S. Capitalist Crises,” Angela Wigger rethinks the “competition-crisis nexus” through a reconsidered social structures of accumulation (SSA) perspective. Focusing on three eras of U.S. capitalism—the monopoly SSA, the post–World War II SSA, and the current time of neoliberalism—and on antitrust and financial-markets rules, she argues that intensified competition under capitalist conditions can be one of the causes of crises by slowing down the accumulation of capital, thereby reducing profitability, wages, and demand. Where financial markets are unregulated, competition in the real economy pushes investors into pouring surplus capital into the financial markets where expected profits are higher, which then becomes the basis of fictitious capital. While crises can be postponed as the bubbles keep growing, if there is a notable divergence between fictitious capital and the actual or expected surplus value created in the real sector, a crisis starts. On the other hand, under regulated financial markets—hence, with constrained creation of fictitious capital—competition in the real economy can lead to an overaccumulation crisis. Under either free or regulated financial markets, Wigger indicates, capitalist economies are prone to crisis.

Yet another dimension of the crises of capitalism is what in the literature has been referred to as “financialization,” and the connection of this dimension to contemporary modes of capitalism is the focus of the next article. “A Critique of the Extractive Operations of Capital: Toward an Expanded Concept of Extractivism” is an attempt to understand the specificities of contemporary capitalism by focusing on its processes of valorization and the accumulation of capital. Authors Verónica Gago and Sandro Mezzadra expand the concepts of extraction and extractivism, which are related yet not synonymous. By breaking the equalization of the concept of extractivism from its traditional images of natural resources, they delink it from the financial moment, rethinking it as an abstract operation that goes beyond the primary-goods sector and that includes the digital economy, which is linked to the hegemony of finance. In this way, they argue, we can understand the dynamics of modern capitalism as a heterogeneous field of differential spatial and territorial components. Under the new system of valorization, different from that under industrial capitalism, a “financial prototype” is born that allows a direct relationship between exploitation and capital, leading to an image of the end of the mediation of living labor. Within this framework, primitive accumulation is transformed from its earlier sense of the origin of capitalism and rather becomes, along with accumulation by dispossession, a permanent feature of contemporary capitalism. Such a transformation necessarily leads to rethinking the category of living labor, which in the case of popular finance, the authors argue, has become a diverse set of practices of cooperation. This new conceptual take leads to a redefinition of the common, which cannot be thought any longer as a synonym of natural goods or as idealized practices of solidarity—just as it is not possible to think of the North as comprising only immaterial labor.

As Gago and Mezzadra’s essay sheds light on the “hegemony of rent,” so does the next contribution to this issue. Zoe Sherman, in “Opening Value Theory to the Brand,” explores the brand, this “exceptionally strange form of commodity” that only exists in the mind, from a value-theoretic perspective. It is strange because it exists only to the extent that there are people who are willing to use the brand as a meaningful symbol of communication. The money equivalent of the brand exists only insofar as consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that bear a brand. However, the value basis of this money equivalent, argues Sherman, is ambiguous, as various forms of paid and unpaid labor are involved in the creation of a brand. Although communicative labor leads to use value, and the owner has access to exchange value, value here has only an indirect relation to that labor. The exchange value of a brand is not an embodied quantum of abstract labor but rather a claim on future rents. It is for this reason, Sherman argues, that the value form of the brand is fictitious. Brands are given life through existing consumer cultural practices; thus, brand owners need to continually reenlist consumers in the work of social communication, which is imperative for a brand’s continuation. In her analysis, Sherman points not only to the importance of the cultural conditions of existence of a fundamental class process but also to the fact that, through brand ownership, we become alienated from what we have in fact produced, which could be common cultural property.

The contributions in this issue all represent attempts at coming to terms with the specificity of contemporary capitalism through a rethinking of some of Marxism’s central concerns, such as value determination, exploitation, labor, technology, and their connections to political hegemony and forms of resistance. In doing so, they point at the novel structures through which capitalism is able to reproduce itself, as well as the fractures in this reproduction, thus bringing to our attention new avenues of resistance.

Another contribution noting the need for a reformulation in light of the specificities of contemporary capitalism is the review of John Smith’s recently published book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis, which examines the political economy of imperialism in the age of neoliberal globalization from a Marxian perspective. Smith argues, as Richard McIntyre points out in his book review, that Lenin provided one of the most influential theories of imperialism, yet contemporary Marxism lacks an analysis of imperialism derived from Marx’s value theory that accounts for the major transformations of the economy in the current neoliberal era—namely, global labor arbitrage and outsourcing. According to McIntyre, Smith provides several innovative insights into understanding contemporary globalization, yet as McIntyre points out, it is unclear how these insights relate to Lenin’s original theory of imperialism.

In the same vein, though a thinker of the twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci has nonetheless proven to be prophetic, a bottomless source of inspiration in the rethinking of the capitalism of his time but also that of the twenty-first century. For the last several years, the editors of the Historical Materialism Book Series have contributed to the global dissemination of Gramsci’s ideas by commissioning the translation of influential works on his thought written by internationally recognized scholars. In his essay in this issue, Manuel S. Almeida reviews three recently published books from the series: Carlos Nelson Coutinho’s Gramsci’s Political Thought, Francisco Fernández Buey’s Reading Gramsci, and Guido Liguori’s Gramsci’s Pathways. As Almeida points out, the three books bring into relief Gramsci’s contributions to political theory, which are often neglected in Anglophone receptions of his work. All three books benefit from recent rigorous philological research of Gramsci’s texts that provides greater insight into their meaning. Yet, as Almeida stresses, the philological analysis of Gramsci’s texts unto themselves presents a risk of mummifying the revolutionary implications of the Sardinian’s thought. Fernández Buey, Coutinho, and Liguori, however, successfully utilize the philological analysis of Gramsci’s texts to demonstrate their political relevance, illustrating the point that Gramsci was first and foremost a theorist of the political, as Almeida argues.

The undying interest in the work of this great thinker together with the themes raised in this issue’s contributions all continue to add to vibrant discussions that have strengthened the heartbeat of Marxism, which was thought by many to have flatlined in the late 1980s. It is on this optimistic note that we end this volume.

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