Bite Size Marxism

“Ever since Luxemburg put into question the completion of real subsumption by suggesting it was nothing more than a heuristic device Marx employed to totalize capitalism, thinkers outside of Euro-America have, in one way or another, underscored a conception of the social that embodied an uneven mix of practices of prior modes of production alongside the newer innovations of capitalism”

Harry Harootunian, 2015, Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism.

Postcolonial discontents

For anyone interested in the debate aroused by Vivek Chibber’s critique of postcolonial theory for being insufficiently Marxist-in-the-right-sort-of-way, which has included a robust response from Partha Chatterjee, Bruce Robbins has a review of Chibber’s book at n+1, and Chibber has a response to Robbins at Jacobin, to which Robbins has in turn his own response at n+1 again. Phew.

Chatterjee on Subaltern Studies and Capital

Andy Davies at Contentious Geographies has news of a piece by Partha Chatterjee entitled Subaltern Studies and Capital in Economic and Political Weekly, a response to Vivek Chibber’s book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.

While on the subject of Chatterjee, here is a link to details (and the first chapter) of his newish book, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

Dialogues in Human Geography

Re-blogging a re-blog from Progressive Geographies, the latest issue of Dialogues in Human Geography is currently available on open access. Includes a section on academic blogging and public geographies, and also a debate section revolving around an intervention by Kevin Cox on the relations between critical realism and Marxism in and around geography (Blur or Oasis? The Beatles or The Stones? The Beatles and the Stones?).

Thinking culture


The new issue if Dialogues in Human Geography contains a forum on public geography and social media. The articles are currently open access. The section focuses on geography, but the issues discussed relate to broader discussions around public engagement and communication in research. As is usual with this journal, the forum contains a feature article, some responses and a reply from the authors of the feature article. This particular forum is built around a feature article on ‘Public Geographies through Social Media‘ by Rob Kitchin, Dennis Linehan, Cian O’Callaghan and Philip Lawton. Their article describes their attempts at using a combination of blogging and Twitter to communicate their research. There are six responses, these include my own piece ‘Public Geography and the Politics of Circulation‘ (which is currently open access). I’ve posted about this previously.

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Old haunts: is this what happened to postcolonial theory?

IMG_0365A couple of days ago, Dissent pointed to an almost real-time, developing ‘debate’ about the trajectories of postcolonial theory – in the form of the response to the publication of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. The book is largely a refutation/attack/hatchet-job/demolition job (depending on how you read it) on the work of the Subaltern Studies historians, who are taken as standing in for the whole field of ‘postcolonial theory’ (come in Aijaz Ahmad, all is forgiven….). If you don’t want to read the whole book (which can currently be surreptitiously downloaded if you stumble across it…), you can get a sampling of Chibber’s argument in an interview at Jacobin, titled How does the subaltern speak? (I wonder how many variations on that title there have been, and how many more we could all imagine in the future?).

There is already a debate emerging around Chibber’s book, not least encouraged by Verso’s own blog site – they have posted a response to a critical review by Chris Taylor, which Taylor has himself responded to in the update to his original piece.

Blog-twitter-sphere excitement about all this is circulating around a set-piece ‘debate’ between Chibber and one of his targets, Partha Chatterjee, in New York last month – via Andy Davies’s blog, I see that the video of this encounter is now up on YouTube



New book by David Harvey: Rebel Cities

Between trying to take a day off and teaching overload (at the same time), I have been speed-reading David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution, bought on a day out in Bath. I know, this is the sort of book you are meant to buy at Booksmarks or somewhere like that, but Bath is the closest place to where I live with decent book shops (Oxford doesn’t count, because it doesn’t actually have great bookshops, apart from Blackwell’s, and the OUP bookshop, both of which are more like academic libraries where you can buy the books, if you see what I mean).

The book is a collection of mainly recent pieces on urban politics, including a long essay on The Right to the City from New Left Review; the long, written-out-in-neat story of the ongoing urbanization of capital that underwrites the financial meltdown of 2007/8 which Harvey’s viral RSA animation lecture covered; and a set of pieces at the end reflecting on recent events such as the Occupy movement, London riots in 2011, and more interestingly, urban politics in Latin America.

It has some familiar limits, shall we say – an aversion to rights-talk when thought of as anything more than a convenient strategic fiction, and a simplistic contrast between ‘individual rights’ (not to be trusted), and ‘collective’ rights (more of these, please). And a tendency to defer the most pressing problems of political analysis to the field of concrete struggle (the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t feature in the index of this new book, which I thought was telling, until I noticed that the index only lists proper names of people and places and movements, which is a shame).

The two most interesting pieces in this new book are in the middle. A neglected essay, from more than a decade ago, analyses cultural commodities from the perspective of the Marxist conceptualization of monopoly rent. I think there is a lot of mileage to be had from this sort of approach, or at least I used to, when I thought more about these things (I think Nicholas Garnham had a similar line once), though it inevitably runs aground on the limits of an account of commodities that still invests heavily in the manly notion of value being derived from living labour in the production process (come in, Carolyn Steedman).

The other piece, perhaps the most interesting in fact, is on the concept of the urban commons. It’s a critical engagement with a notion that has become quite central to certain strands of contemporary left theory and politics, as both a ‘slogan’ and ‘ideal’ we might say. Philosophically, the commons has emerged as a kind of ontological security blanket for the revival of discussions of communism, a sort of immanent presence that just needs to be recognised and embraced – it is a weirdly post-political idea. Harvey suggests that the commons is always likely to be a construct of struggle and conflict, an effect of one form or another of exclusion or enclosure – he proposes the notion of ‘commoning’ as a practice to be analysed and encouraged. He also points out the degree to which the anarcho-inflection of this concept in contemporary thought systematically evades problems related to variations of ‘scale’ (a criticism which could be read, if one wished, as a surrogate for a much broader evasion of the problem of democracy in this style of leftist political romanticism). Harvey is rather sheepish in his suggestion that a little bit of hierarchy might be OK, although this is really just another way of saying that democracy is an art of governing, amongst other things.

Harvey makes use of the ‘conventional’ thinking of Elinor Ostrom in his discussion of the contradictions surrounding issues of commons, which is also refreshing, and another departure from the constrictions of the hegemonic account of this idea that draw on Hardt and Negri and others (he does not, however, go very far down the line of thinking about institutional analysis and institutional design that this reference point might open up). And there remains something rigid about Harvey’s understanding of ‘public’ attributes – public goods and public space are understood as gifts dragged out of ‘the state’ by class and other struggles, a sort of grudging background that might be actively, creatively appropriated by practices of genuine commoning (what Harvey describes as commoning in this respect looks a lot like authentic public action as described by Arendt, which is only to suggest that it might also suffer from some of the same problems as that description, not least a hint of an image of pure action freed of instrumental concerns).

[The baby’s just been sick, I have to pause].

In this account of commoning as the appropriation of already constructed background environments, Harvey’s critical reconstruction of the notion of the commons ends up, then, looking quite ‘conventional’ itself, although not necessarily in a bad way – whisper it, but there is a minor theme in Harvey’s work I think, behind the rhetoric of revolution, that sees left politics primarily in terms of seeking after more just, more equitable distribution of surplus in the here and now (and there’s no reason that this need not encompass more just relations of surplus production). The rhetoric of unified revolutionary transformation is in abundance in this book, certainly, but it is not really supported by an analysis of politics, culture and economics that has so relentlessly, over many years now, demonstrated the dynamics of fracturing, differentiation and contradiction that inhabit any and all forms of human action (the idea of revolutionary transformation might, it seems to me, if you’ve read enough of David Harvey as a geographer, be deeply antithetical to a geographical imagination). The ambivalent nostalgia for social democratic settlements, for failed Swedish promises of surplus transfer from capital to labour and the like, are testament to a radical politics of redistribution that seems unable to speak its own name – it’s present in Harvey’s book about the New Imperialism, and goes all the way back to Social Justice and the City. This minor key is that of a Polanyian radicalism, not a Marxist one.

Marx and other Zombies

Via Crooked Timber, I came across a newish journal, Jacobin, which contains an interesting piece on Zombie Marx – picking up on a ‘debate’ a couple of years ago involving David Harvey and Brad DeLong onthe merits or otherwise of Marxist and neoclassical economics. In the piece, Mike Beggs raises some interesting questions about the argument often made that back in the 1860s Marx effectively debunked neoclassical economics, and by extension ‘neoliberal’ ideology, before it even appeared on the scene. The broader point, beyond questions of the status of the labour theory of value, of concepts of supply and demand, and the like, is the issue of whether/when certain strains of radical thought will be able to treat Marx’s writing historically, rather than canonically. Beggs has a follow-up post on Joan Robinson’s remarks about having Marx in the bones rather than in one’s mouth, and the discussion of these issues continues on the Jacobin blogsite.

All of this reminded me of something I read a month or so ago when I was reading Erik Olin Wright’s book on real utopias. Wright’s book is presented as a reconstruction of a Marxist critical social theory, but it contains barely any referencing or quotation of Marx himself. In an interview from 2001 Wright elaborates on this feature of his own scholarship:

“I generally do not believe that the best way to develop arguments and push theory forward is to engage in fine-grained debates about the interpretation of texts, however brilliant they may be, particularly texts written a century or more ago. Thus, almost none of my writing centers on Marx’s own writings. If the Marxist tradition is genuinely committed to a scientific understanding of the social conditions for radical, egalitarian social change, then it would indeed be extraordinary if the most useful things on most contemporary topics in the 21st century were written in the middle decades of the 19th century. Just as evolutionary biologists don’t bother reading Darwin’s work, except out of historical interest, eventually there will — hopefully — come a time when Marx’s writings will mainly be of interest for the history of ideas, but not for the exposition of scientific arguments.”

I can well imagine how this position would rankle many avowed Marxists, but it seems to me to contain the same sort of ‘methodological’ challenge that Beggs’ post lays out. It also raises some interesting questions about the degree to which social science and humanities approaches to critical theory might well be divided by different degrees of dependence on and reverence for textual canons – a matter that stretches beyond debates in and around Marxism.

Theory in the streets

A feature of much of the instant commentary on political events from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya has been a focus on those aspects of these processes that can be grasped even if you don’t know much, if anything, about these places. This is partly what is going on around all the discussion of the role of new media in facilitating and translating contestation across the Middle East – this is the aspect of these events can is familiar even from a distance. Indeed, it’s the aspect that makes these events accessible in new ways, in certain respects, while occluding aspects that are not so amenable to being communicated through these mediums.

So, rather than focus on what is most comforting about these events – the degree to which they might confirm a certain predisposition amongst a digitally wired intellectual strata of the importance of being digitally wired, I wonder if there aren’t things about them that might unsettle received wisdom. I wonder in particular if they might unsettle at all any of the conventions of contemporary ‘Theory’? This might appear a rather obscure concern, but it’s been interesting me this week as the figure of Gene Sharp, political theorist of non-violence, has been profiled in a range of after-the-fact reflections on political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt in particular.  Sharp was mentioned in a New York Times article about these revolutions, and was then the subject of a follow-up profile. Interviews and blog notices about his influence  in shaping the non-violent strategies of protestors and with links to key publications have followed.

I particularly liked the blog posts which wondered aloud who Gene Sharp was, since he doesn’t seem to figure in a canon of contemporary political thinkers. In fact, Sharp is often a focus of attention when non-violent political action shakes more or less dictatorial, more or less authoritarian regimes around the world – he is credited with influencing non-violent political movement from Burma to Zimbabwe, Iran to Eastern Europe (there is an ultra-leftist riff on the blogosphere that Sharp is just an agent of the CIA, on the grounds that the events in which his influence is so often found tend to be supported also by the US government or US-based democracy promotion programmes).

What is interesting, theoretically, about Sharp’s analysis of non-violent political action, which informs the practical strategies picked up in such diverse contexts, is a conceptualization of power as being based on consent and obedience, not premised on violence. This might sound familiar – it is a Gramscian shibboleth to contrast coercion and consent after all. But in Sharp’s work, it is the basis of a pluralist understanding of the different ways in which power structures seek and secure consent – without reducing all of these to some fundamental substance in violence and coercion. It’s this difference between power and consent that underlies Sharp’s strategic understanding of the potential of non-violent action, which has clear resonances with Arendt’s account of concerted public action, as mobilising a fundamentally different register or mode of action than that of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The sense that power is not reducible to violence is also found in Arendt, even in Foucault. But its remarkably common in contemporary political theory and cultural theory alike to elide this difference, and to presume that in fact violence is the substratum of all power relations, or that apparent consent is really just the product of manipulation and manufacture – i.e., just a cover for coercion, which is not, one might suppose, what Gramsci was actually getting at. The failure to think through the political implications of the fact that consent has to be won is the focus of Michael Bérubé’s book The Left at War, and John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, great books which seriously think through the limitations of conventions of current theoretical genres in light of the spiralling politics of violence of the last decade.

The influence of Sharp’s work, and the examples of non-violent political action with which his name is often associated, is a powerful rebuke to the metaphorical over-inflation of ‘violence’ in so much contemporary theory, whether in notions such as ‘symbolic violence’, or the ontologization of violence that runs from Sorel through Fanon to Agamben. It also stands in contrast to the current excitement around The Coming Insurrection, the anarcho-communist text that has become central to the case of the Tarnac 9 (0r 10) in France since 2008, and garnered lots of attention, and a translation with Semiotext(e), as a startling new and original conceptualization of the ‘politics of neocommunism’, as one contribution to a renewed Marxism-beyond-class (what would be the point of Marxism without class?). Interpreted by the French authorities as a manual for terrorism, it’s also been described as ‘elitist revolutionary strutting‘ and identified as really just a symptom of the absurdities of a failed lineage of left theory. It’s certainly odd to find a text which identities a new subject of political revolution – ‘youth’ – but has recourse to such a resolutely middle-aged, crotchety analysis of generalised alienation. It is also notable, in contrast to the theory of non-violent political action currently being enacted in the world, how far this style of political analysis depends on drawing symmetries between the modes of action of ‘the powerful’ and those who challenge them – the theoretical significance of the rhetoric of war, attack, and confrontation in this document lies here, I think, in this moral and political failure to be able to think of politics outside of a logic of mimetic hostility. And of course, whereas Gene Sharp’s name keeps coming up when it is realised that non-violent political action is strategic and organised, the analysis of a communism-to-come that is a purely immanent resonance with the current system requires no attention at all to the hard work of political action.

Magical Marxism

A new book by Andrew Merrifield, Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination

Introduction: The Circulation of Revolt: Real and Fictitious Marxism
1 Living an Illusion: Beyond the Reality of Realism
2 Subscribing to the Imaginary Party: Notes on a Politics of Neo-Communism
3 Spontaneous Overflow of Powerful Feeling: Activism and Immateriality
4 Militant Optimism and the Anti-Capitalist Transition
5 Macondo of the Mind: Imagination Seizes Power
6 Butterflies, Owls, and Little Gold Fishes: Conjuring up Revolutionary Magic