Editors' Introduction

Volume 30  Issue 2  April 2018

The controversy about the primacy of forces and relations of production, without any doubt, has been one of Marxism’s most fundamental debates, the economic, political and social implications of which are profound. The essay by Andreas Malm entitled “Marx on Steam: From the Optimism of Progress to the Pessimism of Power,” takes us back to this debate, reframing the issue from a particular Marxist-ecological angle. The author traces textually the transformation in Marx’s thinking on the steam engine and connects this exegesis to the concrete historical circumstances of the period. Malm argues that whereas in the early works of Marx we see clear evidence of productive-force determinism, which produced generations of disciples among the Left, in his mature works Marx seems to have shifted to a constructivist position in which he argues that the use of steam engines was in fact determined by the relations of production. This conceptual transformation in Marx, according to Malm, is of utmost significance, as it warns us against determinist views of socialism—such as the complete domination of nature by man, which lies behind the ecological disasters of the socialist experience—and keeps us cognizant that the domination of man over nature and the domination of man by man are intertwined processes. If we are going to address the ecological challenges of our time, at the center of which is global warming, then, argues Malm, we need to rethink this connection between control over energy and control over human beings. Clearly this calls for an overhaul of the ways in which we think of all living and nonliving existence.

It is precisely this rethinking that we find in the next contribution, by Mathieu Dubeau: “Reclaiming Species-Being: Toward an Interspecies Historical Materialism.” Dubeau challenges the speciesism in Marx’s writings, arguing that nonhuman animals also have “capacities and subjectivities” with implications for political and ecological communities. Dubeau writes that Marx’s discussion of species-being is an articulation of freedom and flourishing and that while he does refer to nonhuman existence, his focus is human beings. Dubeau then develops through examples his argument of how Marx’s analysis of labor and flourishing, used exclusively for human communities, can indeed by used for nonhuman animal communities as well. He argues, following Marx, that human nature constantly changes in relation to other beings in complex, multidimensional, and overlapping processes of interconnection, but, differently from Marx, he believes that creativity is not a singularly human quality, being shared by nonhuman animals as well. The capacity to change the material world and to have subjective lives is not unique to human beings. For Dubeau, such recognition of our dependence on other species, the acknowledgement of our “vulnerability” rather than the desire to control and dominate other beings, will render true flourishing possible. It therefore follows that the “art of politics” should be one that celebrates differences rather than sublimating them.

Lenape scholar/artist/activist Joanne Barker’s art and her text, “Decolonizing the Mind,” constitute one such reclaiming of species-being, wherein we see a depiction of a universe in which being is unified and decidedly nonanthropocentric. Barker paints for us modes of being in which human beings coexist with animals, plants, rocks, and water in a universe where our planet is but one spot. In the accompanying text, the author points to the chasm between indigenous modes of existence and European settler-colonial modes; land, for instance, in indigenous thinking is not a resource to be controlled and dominated but is a complex realm of relations and responsibilities. Such different modes of existence have had deadly consequences: Barker contemplates this in the long and continuing history of colonial, gendered, and racialized violence against indigenous communities. Her criticism of settler colonialism recalls Malm’s argument about the domination of nature being concomitant with man’s domination of man. In her discussions of varied sexualities including eco-eroticism in indigenous writings, Barker draws another mode of being that doesn’t place the human being at the center of existence. We are reminded yet again that Western ontology is humanist at its core, and the history of this humanism has been particularly inhumane.

One of the subthemes of Michael E. Gardiner’s “An Autonomist Marcuse?” is precisely the transformation of human beings under the changing conditions of modern capitalism that Dubeau refers to. Concentrating on the work of autonomist Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s critique of Marcuse, Gardiner finds clues for an autonomist interpretation of the latter. The author picks up on Marcuse’s critique, in his later works, of the Freudian psychoanalytical subject as outdated, because with the development of automation, the repression of desires becomes unnecessary. Bifo, on the other hand, argues that in contemporary capitalism, or in semiocapitalism, the “general intellect” increasingly becomes the basis of value creation. So capital, rather than repressing desires, subsumes them along with worker’s “imaginative capabilities,” thus resulting in a “semiotic overload.” For Bifo, then, the overcoming of this system—which has created the neoliberal subject and is radically authoritarian, embodying complete biopolitical control—will not take the form of a totalizing overhaul, a “Great Refusal” as Marcuse suggests, but rather a continual series of mundane refusals and noncompliance. Gardiner argues that Bifo’s criticism holds for the Hegelian Marcuse. However, Gardiner concludes—regarding Marcuse’s concept of “repressive desublimation,” through which capital directs the innermost drives of people into different work routines and hyperconsumerism—that an autonomist interpretation of Marcuse is still possible.

If we are living in an authoritarian era in which capital has established full biopolitical control, is political resistance possible at all? The political possibilities of transforming the neoliberal subject are what Tim Christiaens takes up in his contribution “Neoliberalism and the Right to Be Lazy: Inactivity as Resistance in Lazzarato and Agamben.” The author delves into competing notions of laziness as a form of resistance against neoliberal capitalism under the reign of financialization, comparing the work of Lazzarato with that of Agamben on the subject. Christiaens argues that, while Lazzarato’s conceptualization of laziness is similar to neoliberal theories of innovation as an unleashed potentiality always exceeding the status quo, Agamben’s conception is significantly different, with inactivity as an impotentiality being a form of resistance against the social system. For Christiaens, the concept of laziness in Lazzarato’s writings is something that can be and often is co-opted by neoliberalism, such as with the celebration of time spent not working as a time of creativity, while Agamben’s concept is one that “suspends the difference” between potential and actual worlds, thus creating the potential of circumventing the system. Resistance is thus the performance of impotentiality. In the end, Agamben offers us the possibility of thinking in terms of a form-of-life in which the actual is not a negation but rather a situation that is always contingent on unrealized outcomes. For Agamben, inactivity becomes possible as a form-of-life in which impotentiality is inappropriable by capital.

Does capital have the capacity to dominate and subsume all its others? What political strategies of resistance can be developed? In response to this central question, as Gardiner’s essay attests, Italian Marxism has played a distinct role in the post–Word War II era, and especially in the 1970s. The next contribution picks up one thread in this controversy, following the work of Gianni Vattimo. In “Left-Wing Nietzscheanism in Italy: Gianni Vattimo,” Stefano G. Azzarà traces the transformation of the Left’s engagements with the work of Nietzsche, focusing on the work of Vattimo. Azzarà argues that in the 1970s, Vattimo’s engagement with Nietzsche had a libertarian and anarchistic quality, still sharing the optimism of 1968 and still “fascinated by the dialectic.” Early on, argues Azzarà, Vattimo took Nietzsche’s argument about the decadence of all human society—and not only of capitalism, as later argued by Marcuse—as always culminating in the Hegelian man, who submits to Reason at the expense of the Dionysian. Vattimo’s notion of Dionysus was different from Marcuse’s; for the latter the Dionysian signified peace, beauty, and sensuality, while for the former it was the human being’s exposure to the primordial chaos, to the constant flow of being. With this fluidity, for Vattimo, comes the end of social hierarchy, thus rendering such Dionysian dreams equivalent to revolutionary dreams. However, argues Azzarà, this early reading of Nietzsche by Vattimo changed radically due to historical circumstances, above all the “season of terrorism in Italy.” From then on his early attempts at an encounter between Marx and Nietzsche became an “impossibility,” as Marx, he began thinking, was bound in the end by Reason. This new turn by Vattimo, according to Azzarà, led to his final position: a merely hermeneutic engagement with Nietzsche that thus took away all light for any possible social transformation, leaving merely the “words.” Could it then be said that Vattimo’s ultimate surrender is one that signifies capital’s perceived appropriation of all of life, a perception that is the backdrop to the essays in this issue?

If our humanity is transformed through the web of social relations that constitute us, then how would a Marxist write a biography? Julian Roche dwells on a possible Marxist conception of individuality and biography in “Can Biography Benefit from a Marxist Theory of Individuality? Lucien Sève’s Contribution to Biographical Theory and Practice.” For Sève, argues Roche, human beings are not concrete manifestations of a universal abstract “humanity,” but rather each individual is shaped by the social world and becomes “humanized” through real-life processes within social relations; therefore, for Sève our humanity is eccentric, outside of our minds or bodies. Personality is defined here as the total system of activity of individuals, which develops over their lives, and this development is the core of a biography. For Sève, therefore, the work of biography starts in the analysis of the social relations in which the individual is enmeshed, because it is precisely in social labor that we produce our humanity. Roche then wonders if the very complex undertaking of analyzing an individual’s evolution through social labor, as suggested by Sève, is in fact a quixotic endeavor. If one had to write the biography of a neoliberal subject under Bifo’s semiological capitalism, following Sève, one would have to dig into the web of social relations of this subject—a very taxing task indeed, but one that would constitute the start of a meaningful biography.

James Day, in his contribution “On Broken Ground,” comments on the myriad traditions of realist Marxist critique using the entry point of T. J. Clark’s bleak overview of modernity, which produced the “Century of Violence,” in the context of artistic production. For Clark—reminiscent of Vattimo’s assessment of the season of terror in Italy—this attachment to rationality produced Stalin for communism, ending the promise of Marxism as a genuine social alternative and leading Clark to choose the political alternative of reformism. Day observes the detachment of Marxist critique from political practice over the course of the late twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries, keeping in the background Benjamin’s argument for criticism as political practice. Drawing also from Werckmeister’s criticism of Marxist critique having ceded to the contemporary conditions of market competition and the search for funds, having become an isolated academic endeavor, Day ends on a more hopeful note that Marxist critique has to open itself to forms of experimentation in order to connect with its historical task of the critical commentary of social relations. He observes this development in the recent resurgence of interest in Lukács as well as in the work of artists such as the art collective Chto Delat, whose work has been showcased in the pages of this journal.

The final contribution to this issue reviews a book that attempts a reading of Capital, volume 1, in the context of semiological capitalism. Christian Fuchs’s Reading Marx in the Information Age: A Media and Communication Studies Perspective on “Capital,” Volume 1 is the subject of Amit Basole’s review. Basole welcomes this very timely contribution to the literature and commends the author for developing a sophisticated Marxist approach to this new age of capitalism, analyzing the continuities as well as the breaks of the present with the past, without falling into either techno-optimism or pessimism. While there are certain minor issues that Basole raises with the work, he recommends it as useful for the application of the concepts in volume 1 of Capital, giving examples from the realm of media and communications studies. Although the reviewer argues that the book requires prior knowledge, or at least simultaneous reading of Capital’s volume 1, he still thinks it a rich and worthy pedagogical tool for teaching.

Almost all the contributions in this issue address the possibilities of change under contemporary capitalism, a number of them in a pessimistic tone. While the idea of the revolution as a grand event may not have purchase in many places, Marxists can find sources of inspiration from practices many of which are completely mundane. This journal, now in its thirtieth year, is for many of us one such source. Rethinking Marxism has worked as a collective from the beginning. All of us who are past and present members of this collective know from firsthand experience that the selfless and dedicated work of many individuals has made the journal what it is today. Some of these individuals work with quiet élan, all the while performing a fundamental part of the social labor. One of these truly remarkable people is Jackie Southern, who has decided to step down from her position as the proofreader of the journal. Jackie has given a new meaning to the word “meticulous” and has contributed enormously to the very high standards we have come to expect in the quality of our endeavor. We are all deeply thankful to her and grateful for all the hours of superlative work she has dedicated to this collective process. She leaves behind a group of friends who will miss her and will find her professional standards very hard to match. She has our best wishes in the next phase of her life.

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Page last revised: September 18, 2018