1. Leaving the Twentieth Century
What might a Marx for the twenty-first century, a #Marx21c, look like? Perhaps as different to that of the nineteenth century as this era is from that one. These are some personal, impressionistic reflections on what that might look like.
The Marxism that I know is part of my life through four kinds of experience: the party, the popular front, the avant-gardes and the university. Each offered its own possibilities and limits for Marxist thought and practice.
My apprenticeship was the period from the late ‘70s through to the ‘90s. It was a time of modifiers. The existing language for describing the situation accreted a layer of suffixes and adjectives, but the language itself didn’t change. The situation was postmodern, or postfordist, or it was late capitalism, and a bit later it would become neoliberal.
None of these are adequate descriptions. The situation could only be named structurally, with the modified term denoting only that it was somehow different to the other term, to the recent past. It wasn’t modern, Fordist capitalism any more. Not the least problem for #Marx21c is to create a new language.
Back to the ‘70s: I was really a pretty poor candidate for cadre training, but I learned a lot from party school. The Marxist texts we studied had at one and the same time to be grasped abstractly and also applied to the situation at the time. It was in retrospect a good training for my attempts to be a writer in three quite distinct kinds of media, and as three different kinds of Marxist.
As a journalist, writing for daily newspapers or the radio in Australia, I belonged to the late twentieth-century version of the popular front. The task was first and last to show how certain local and particular struggles connected, how feminism, gay liberation, the environment, anti-racism and the class struggle were not the same, not reducible one to the other, but could be coordinated.
Having read some Antonio Gramsci at party school came in handy. He had already thought the question of hegemony, of rule by consent. He had thought the role of intellectuals, in either maintaining a national culture or challenging it, of articulating a national-popular counter-hegemonic bloc.
Maybe it was because the party no longer existed, or could no longer exist, that I also spent some time in avant-gardes of one sort or another, putting out our little journals and tracts and manifestos. This involved learning quite a bit about the print trades, about how to make video or radio. It was a great education in the tactics and mechanics of communication. Then the internet and computers came along, and it got even more fun.
Having read some Guy Debord in the context of the avant-gardes had its uses here. He had already thought about how to keep a group interesting, how to use theory as total critique, how to use the resources of art for something other than just more art.
But being only a passably good journalist and a quite terrible artist, quite naturally I ended up in the academy. I had the good fortune to fall into teaching media, which at the time could be pretty much anything you wanted it to be.
Having read some Althusser as a student came in handy. He appeared to have a method for working in a specialized academic field and yet assessing work there against a general Marxist method. And yet having never really intended to end up in academia, I had not really educated myself for such a vocation.
As an undergraduate in the ‘80s, I studied with whoever seemed interesting in each department, usually with Marxists or post-Marxists or other aberrant thinkers. I had rarely gone to class. I was too busy being a not particularly effective organizer. I spent my study time in the Current Serials section of the library, following the debates across a number of diverse journals, from New Left Review to Economy and Society to Screen.
In the academy back then it was amusing to talk to the Althusserians, who said that Marx’s theory of alienation was nonsense, but not to worry, as the theory of surplus value was still solid. Then if one talked to the neo-Ricardians, they would then tell you that the theory of surplus value was nonsense, but not to worry, as Marx’s theory of alienation was untouched by this! It was as if each of the disciplines were slowly digesting the whole extra-academic scope and sweep of Marx’s thought, and making it safe for the protocols of their particular field.
To understand how this worked, it certainly helped to read some Foucault. My introduction to his work was an unusual one. Homemade translations were pressed into my hands by self-described “nasty street queens” who had come up through Gay Liberation. This was, among other things, an important avant-garde, with a clear critique of the institutions of knowledge/power.
Having ended up in the academy in the ‘90s, I wrote some popular front books, about the globalization of the news media event, about the culture wars, about the popular as understood in social democracy and popular culture. But these were rearguard actions. We were losing. What could be described provisionally as the neo-fascism so prevalent in in our own times was starting to establish itself already.
The principle affect of so-called neo-liberal culture is that for me to win, you have to lose. It’s a zero-sum game. This is already a blow to any culture of solidary, be it social-democratic or otherwise. Neo-fascism is much worse than that. For me to win, it is not enough that you lose. You have to suffer. Identity comes from the other’s suffering, even death. This was already becoming again a legitimate thought in the ‘90s. If the Balkan Wars could teach the West anything, it was that neofascism was at the heart now of our cultures, too.
But that was the ‘90s. I emigrated to New York in 2000. I no longer had access to a national popular cultural space. As a passably articulate, semi-educated white man from the provinces, there was practically nothing I could not do in Australia. So I wrote for a national newspaper. Broadcast on national radio. Appeared before the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of a team giving a report on the internet and public policy. I was not so much a public intellectual as a public idiot. It was easy to appear in the hegemonic space and say something idiosyncratic, in and against it.
I exchanged that for a life of teaching in upstate New York all week, and then driving the four hours back to Brooklyn. It was a life of intellectual isolation. But it was a good time to try to tackle two things together: One was an accounting for what the avant-gardes I had experienced in the ‘90s had been all about, and the other was to use that rather marginal but precocious form of practice to rethink what a critical theory might be for the new century.
A word on those avant-gardes. Sydney back in the eighties had been an excellent host for the production of avant-gardes, because it still had a bohemia. It was cheap to live in the city, because in those days, people with money still preferred the suburbs. There was enough work for when you needed it, in commercial media or the “entertainment” trades. You could scrape by on unemployment benefits or the government student allowance so long as you worked on the sly a bit. There were plenty of big, cheap communal households, and not a few squats. So one could devote the bulk of one’s time to reckless living, trying to make art in the media of one’s choice, or trying to change the world.
The down side: Sydney was – and is – provincial. The nearest global capital was Tokyo. Others brought back reports from the old pilgrimage centers of London and Paris, or the more recent one of New York, but it was Tokyo were I went to learn how provincial I was. I never learned the language. I taught myself enough French to keep up with new writing, but it was the psychogeographic study of the everyday life of Tokyo, combined with reading as much Akira Asada in translation as I could find, that for me was an intimation that this could no longer be called “late capitalism” any more. It was early something else.
That was the ‘80s. Then in the ‘90s there was the internet. It was suddenly much easier and cheaper to keep in contact with the bohemian node in the interesting cities of the world, to know of and play with their avant-gardes, or at least those that were oriented towards questions of media. But then aren’t all the avant-gardes that matter not really about literature or painting, but media? The Futurists were about media, and so was Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, mail art, and the Situationist International. And now one could make contact with their successors via dial-up modem.
The avant-gardes of the ‘90s went by many fluctuating names. It helped to have read some Deleuze and Guattari. It really did seem rhizomatic. There were deterritorializations but also reterritorializations. These days it is assumed we were naïve about all this, but look back through the archives and you’ll find this clearly was not so. The internet avant-gardes lived through the Balkan wars, through the first internet stock market and bust, and through the machinations of state and corporate telecoms. Before Snowden’s leaks about the NSA was Echelon, a global internet surveillance project, rumors of which had leaked.
Among the avant-gardes of the ‘90s, I felt closest in this world to the art, theory, and politics hackers of Nettime, or nettime.org. It was based on a listserv, and deliberately set itself against the atheoretical techno-optimism emanating out of Northern California. In the theory world, there were two extreme positions, both resolutely non-Marxist, but both insisting on a kind of unidirectional liquidation of the old social formation. On the one extreme, Nick Land’s delirious optimism; on the other, Arthur Kroker’s cool pessimism. But more interesting to me were those who were looking more closely at avant-garde practices, and building concepts that might account for the novel features of a world made over by an emerging digital means of mediation.
It was useful in this context to read some Geert Lovink. A Nettime co-founder, he came out of the squatting scene in Amsterdam and Berlin, and spent the ‘90s travelling Europe and the world making connections and writing astute reports on the successes and failures of attempts to build an avant-garde culture or politics on the new tools. He co-founded the nettime.org listserv in 1995.
Over the next five years, Nettime would host a critique of leftism (i.e. Frankfurt school media theory), formulate the practice of tactical media, spawn and reject net.art, and invent a practice for itself of collaborative filtering of texts. It existed in a prickly series of intersections with cyber-feminist and anti-colonial listservs such as Faces, 711, and Undercurrents, and lists in languages other than English.
And so: after emigrating to New York in 2000, I was cut off from the popular front activities that occupied a lot of my time in the ‘90s. I simply had no intuitive understanding of American cultural politics, and no entrée to its media spaces even if I had. But it seemed like a good time to try to theorize what the avant-gardes had been up to, and what they implied for #Marx21c. This resulted in two books, A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007).
2. From Late Capitalism to Early Something Else
“Information wants to be free, but is everywhere in chains.” That is the central proposition I tried to argue in A Hacker Manifesto (2004). The development of the forces of production took a qualitatively different turn when information became digital. Information turned out to have some strange properties. It is not immaterial, and yet its relation to any given material substrate can become arbitrary. The cost of copying it becomes very low. What Debord and the Situationists called détournement, the copying and correcting of information, becomes a social movement in all but name. Information wants to be free.
But it is in chains. There was a mutation in the means of securing class power through private property. Property became more abstract. It passed through privatizing land, then the mechanical means of production, and now the digital means of production, in the various forms of intellectual property. A new ruling class was trying to assert its control over the entire value production process by controlling information rather than the physics of the production process directly. I called them the vectoral class: their power is in securing the vector along which information moves as both command and feedback.
The commodification of information produces not only a new possessing class but a new kind of dispossession. Information is alienated from its direct producers—what I called the hacker class. Unlike the worker, the hacker does not produce more of the same, but produces what is qualitatively different. Whether in the sciences, the arts, engineering, design, or even Marxist theory, the hacker class produces what Bateson called “the difference that makes a difference”—information.
In the early 2000s most of the world was still occupied with agricultural labor, and industrial labor was if anything expanding, particularly with the manufacturing boom in China. It was more a question of how the vectoral class was trying to control the production of value as a kind of third layer of domination, over and above agriculture and manufacturing. There is a struggle, among other things, between different kinds of ruling class, vectoralist and capitalist.
There seemed to me clear evidence of a struggle over who controlled information. At the time, I thought the struggle to free information from privatization was a strategy that challenged vectoral power. And it did. But the hacker class, and the social movement beyond it to free information, won the battle but lost the war. The vectoral class regrouped on higher ground. New “business models” emerged which actually depended on information being free, but which captured and commodifed the metadata about it. That is pretty much were we are now.
I had noticed another aspect in A Hacker Manifesto, although I had not adequately stressed it: what I called the infoprole, but which others covered with the term precarity. It was becoming clear that vectoral power could extract information directly from everyday life, and not just from labor. The infoprole was giving up information in exchange for nothing. The vectoral class could even exploit nonlabor.
Take a look at the top Fortune 500 companies, and it is clear that in one way or another they are now mostly in the information business, with the actual mechanics of making things being increasingly subcontracted, or based on short-term leasing and contractual obligations. The oil companies are in the information-prospecting business. The car companies make most of their money in finance. The big box stores are logistics companies. The drug companies are patent farms. The big retailers all sell the same cheaply made crap but carefully manage their intangible brands. Big finance is in the information asymmetry business. All this is before you even get to the tech sector.
I also argued in A Hacker Manifesto that the state would increasingly be oriented to policing information as well as physical entities, for example by data surveillance. Its job would be to control the relation between signs and referents. This would oblige forms of counter-power to be a bit more oblique about themselves, to refuse identity, to hide in plain sight. Politics would be about connecting the spaces of everyday life to this increasingly abstract terrain of information. I had the border-hackers and floodnet as the avant-garde examples to go on. Occupy and Anonymous would later encounter and work creatively with this doubled terrain.
The problem with commodifying information is that it is hard to insist on its value when it is free. Whole new gift economies of unprecedented kinds had emerged, and threatened to escape the enclosure of commodified information. This is why I thought it interesting to look at games. My interest in the then-emergent cultural form of games had been much enriched by meeting the game culture avant-garde via some of its leading exponents, including Eric Zimmerman, Katie Salen, and later Class Wargames and the Radical Software Group.
Gamer Theory (2007) is not really about computer games, or not only. It is about how the whole of everyday life starts to seem game-like. It was a critique in advance of what would later be called “game-ification.” Everyday life increasingly appears as a zero-sum contest. One’s job, one’s dating habits, one’s consumption patterns all come to have, in a rather unclear and imperfect way, some of the qualities of games. They all become subject to the pursuit of trophies of no inherent value, which one is taught to want simply because others are also told they want them.
This was before the era of the cellphone as platform for an endless market in “apps,” which could double the space of the city with a grid of data, making over the whole of everyday life as a game board, but it was after the era of GPS and global logistics, in which all the resources of the planet could be valued, bought, sold, and committed to production processes, as if the whole thing were a giant Monopoly board. Gamer Theory was about the whole world becoming a gamespace, one enabled by the information vector, controlled by a vectoral ruling class.
If there is an art form that best captures this twenty-first century situation, it is the computer game. In Gamer Theory, I made the somewhat counter-intuitive argument that a good game is something like a neoliberal utopia. It is where the promises of the vectoral class are actually kept. In a game, there really is a “level playing field,” where winners really do get the trophy on their merits. If there is a critical leverage to be had from games as a media, it is that the world is an imperfect copy of the game, not the other way around.
Gamer Theory looks at the ways games model a range of subjectivities not through their content but through their form. Here I was extending those formal analyses of the novel and cinema that were part of the Marxist tradition from Lukács to Laura Mulvey. I was interested, for example, in repetitive, ahistorical time, which can be started over. Or in the phenomenology of targeting, in which games train a capacity to detect a hard border between friend and foe—something all too evident in the “GamerGate” controversies of 2014.
In short, A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory took the avant-gardes of the ‘90s to be experimental practices which, in their clash with emerging forms of commodification and class power, revealed something of its contours. Then, by digging through the archive of Marxist theories-past, it might be possible to build on those experiences and produce the concept of the historical situation they revealed.
Already in A Hacker Manifesto, I saw modern history as a process of increasing abstraction (not unlike what Bernard Stiegler calls grammatization). There I stressed how the alienation of the world from itself through the commodification of information opened a rift between the world as physical layer and the world as information layer.
In Gamer Theory, I took this up via a study of the game SimEarth. The “realistic” mode of that game models climate change. Within the game, there is a more or less accurate model of climate, but the game has to run on a computer, and the computer draws energy. The model is at odds with the vector that makes it possible to exist at all.
Those two books were, in short, already about what is now more commonly called the Anthropocene, that historical situation where the combined effects of vectoral power on the physical infrastructure layer of commodification undermine its very conditions of existence. But from where in the Marxist tradition could one draw the resources to think about a situation that is on the one hand about more and more abstract forms of the commodification of information, and on the other about more and more concrete problems of destabilized earth systems? To answer that, I felt I had to turn back to the archive, and proceed in a more academic manner rather than an avant-garde one.
3. Expanding the #Marx21c Archive
A central problem for #Marx21c is that as commodification becomes more abstract, the concrete comes back to haunt it in the form of the metabolic rifts characteristic of the Anthropocene. What resources do we have for thinking this?
It was to uncover some such resources that I embarked on what I think will be a four-book series that reads the twentieth century through its more or less forgotten Marxists. Two of these books will be on Marxists who engaged with the natural sciences, and two with those more interested in the media arts. What unites them are questions of apparatus.
As Alex Galloway has pointed out, one of the surprising features of A Hacker Manifesto is that it is not a blanket critique of the abstracting forces of information technology. If anything it is an accelerationist book that wants to push that process even further. Part of the subsequent project, then, is to find resources for ways of extending the Marxist project that are not about negation or resistance.
In Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I try to revive the forgotten figure of Alexander Bogdanov, who was Lenin’s rival for the leadership of the Bolsheviks, before Lenin threw him out. Bogdanov constructed an ambitious project for the self-education of the working class in the task of organization. In his utopian novel Red Star he had strikingly anticipated the problem of climate change, and in his Tektology he had already begun to grapple with the idea of a biosphere, and the problem of organizing social forms in relation to their points of vulnerability in an unstable natural world.
Molecular Red also tells the story of Andrey Platonov, a rare modernist writer-engineer of genuine proletarian origins, whose extraordinary (anti)novels tell the story of the Soviet Union from the point of view of everyday, lowly comrades, trying to build the means of production for Lenin’s leap into communism. Platonov, besides his genius as a writer, is to me a great theorist of the basic organizational problems of combining and motivating labor in and against its struggle with nature and techne. In Bogdanov the central question is how to organize as labor; in Platonov, the central question is how to organize as comrades.
In a project I am grappling with at the moment, I want to extend this Marxist counter-narrative through the ‘30s and ‘40s. But rather than look at Marxists whose background and interests were literary and philosophical, I want to look at those whose engagements were scientific and technical. This story centers on three British Marxists, J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal and Joseph Needham. These were all first-rate scientists and original theorists, particularly of the way scientific work was being incorporated into new production processes, able to transform matter on a molecular and even sub-molecular level.
Only a philosopher such as Heidegger could make such a glib announcement that “the essence of technology is nothing technical.” To Haldane, Bernal and Needham, technologies all have very specific properties, understood and produced in a subtle dialectic with the natural sciences. Bridging the gap between what became of Marxist thought and the struggles within scientific fields—by a branch of what I call the hacker class—seems imperative to me in the current historical situation. We know about the Anthropocene, about climate change, about ocean acidification, and so on, only because of knowledge produced in the natural sciences.
The anti-science critique is now on the right: it is in the hands of denialists who knowingly or not work for the fossil fuel industries. It is crucially important to realize that the situation calls for quite different tactics in the politics of knowledge. The fellow travelling of critical theory with Heideggerian late romanticism must come to an end. Hence in Molecular Red and the subsequent work I want to restore that part of the #Marx21c archive where Marxist thought is in dialogue with the sciences, as it is in Helena Sheehan—although my version is rather less orthodox.
The work on the early twentieth-century Marxist archive is about the sciences, while the work I did on the later twentieth century looks at the Marxist-inflected avant-garde. Both are, in different ways, about problems of the “aesthetic,” broadly understood as problems of perception. How do science and media, as forms of techno-industrial apparatus, affect how the world can be known and changed by collective praxis? That question, in my mind at least, is the thread through this body of work.
When I wrote A Hacker Manifesto it had seemed obvious to me that the central category in Debord’s work was not spectacle but détournement. But this did not seem obvious to others, and in attempting to explain it, I ended up writing two and a half books about the Situationist International. They became for me one of the most useful counter-traditions for understanding the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps this was because, at their best, they lacked any interest in either the casuistry of leftist groupuscules, or in the steady careers of those of us in academia or the media. They had a certain license to say and do as they pleased, and they used it well.
I told it as an ensemble story. Besides Debord, Michèle Bernstein had made a valuable contribution to think about love and sex and everyday life outside of the strictures of private property, and without the masculinist privileges of the so-called sexual revolution.
Asger Jorn had already artfully explained the difference between what I would later term the hacker class and the working class, as the distinction between making new forms and filling given forms within the production process.
Constant Neiuwenhuys had, with his New Babylon, created the greatest Marxist-accelerationist utopia of all time. He vividly understood that the second industrial revolution of information technology would redesign the whole geography of base and superstructure. These were some of the heroes and heroines of The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso, 2011).
In the rather more bleak sequel, The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso, 2013) I tell the story of what the Situationists did when the revolution of the ‘60s did not come to pass. They dug in for the long haul. Debord and Viénet made some very fine Marxist-Situationist cinema. Alice Becker-Ho constructed the elements of an alterative to semiotic theories of language, one that emphasized not the free play of the sign but its fugitive, constrained, and secret qualities. Raoul Vaneigem revived Charles Fourier’s utopian vision of the everyday.
The spectacle is no longer the centralized, planned extrusion into the world of images of the production process. It fragmented and disintegrated into the pores of the everyday. As Debord predicted, it no longer even much pretends to promise the good life. But here, in the later lives of his comrades, were strategies for hiding in plain sight.
Apart from Constant’s brilliant reading of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, the Situationists did not pay a lot of attention to science and technology. And so to complete this raid into the byways of the archive, in Molecular Red I paired the chapters on Bogdanov and Platonov with a late twentieth-century story, the central figure of which is Donna Haraway. What is unique about her work is that it combined a close reading of Joseph Needham’s organicist biological thought with Marxist critical theories and the practical experience of feminist struggles around reproductive technology and the life sciences.
Particularly useful in my mind is her careful unpacking of the promiscuity of metaphors of race, gender, and class as they pass between social and technoscience domains. And yet for all that, Haraway is able to hold on to a sense of the sciences as kinds of real knowledge, telling constrained stories within strict disciplinary protocols.
On my reading, Haraway and some of her students, collaborators, and followers have unknowingly revived something of a Bogdanovite-Marxist theory and practice of knowledge—one that is alive to the way metaphors pass between domains, but where this in itself does not disqualify research from being knowledge. The task is not to expunge metaphor, but to use it better.
In the Harawayesque work of Edwards, Karen Barad and Beatriz Preciado, there is an understanding of how knowledge/power emerges out of not only metaphoric and conceptual work but also out of a specific apparatus. The particular kind of realism that this line of research might support is a realism of the sensations produced by controlled experiments in a given situation with a given apparatus. The knowledge of the sciences is both real and historical in this view, and the result of collective effort with a means of production—as it should be in any Marxist theory of knowledge and science.
This strikes me as a more promising line of work for #Marx21c than the more rationalist approach which takes mathematics to be a sort of essence of science and which no longer has anything to say about the forces of production of science, namely the apparatus, and the relations of production within which they function. I have chosen to emphasize the forces of production, but I think this line of thought can be placed in dialogue with those more interested in the relations, as in the work of Philip Mirowski. It does however point away from that hyper-rationalist line that descends through Althusser to Badiou and Meillassoux, not to mention the latter’s hyper-rationalist critique in François Laruelle.
The historical situation thus calls for versions of a Marxism that can account for three things:
Firstly, new forces of production, particularly in information.
Secondly, new kinds of class interest, relation, and conflict that stem from the evolution of the private property form to subsume information.
Thirdly, new kinds of knowledge about the world, based on the application of information as a means of production in the sciences, about the totality of effects of global commodity production on the biosphere. Hence the subtitle of Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene.
My attempts at actually writing Marxist theory in A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory depended on drawing together experiences of avant-garde practices with what existed as the canonic Marxist and critical theory texts of the time. That was a body of work which brought Marxist thought into the domain of media theory, in dialogue with others who were trying to think what came out of the Nettime years, including Wendy Chun on control, Alex Galloway on protocol, Lisa Nakamura on subjectivity, Lev Manovich on formalism, Coco Fusco on empire, Eugene Thacker on biomedia, Richard Barbrook on strategy, and Trebor Scholz on digital labor.
My later, historical works are a kind of dialectical complement, bringing a Marxist media theory and practice perspective into the received ideas about what the canonic Marxist works actually are. It is in effect a rewriting of that canon as one finds it, for example, in Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, Martin Jay, or Goran Therborn. Those versions of an archive seem to me to have been determined by the objectives and experiences of the postwar new left. Those are no longer our perspectives and experiences.
A new past is called for, as a resource for a new situation. Or rather pasts. Razmig Keucheyan has offered one useful remapping, but there could be others. Rather than posit another apostolic succession, maybe it is a question of trying to map what Needham would see as a field of possible permutation and elaborations on Marx that differentiate in all directions from his work but are still organized by it. But to do that, perhaps we could take another look at the resources of the archive, and think again about ways to access it.
4. The Marx-field
After Debord, we can think of two ways of articulating pasts to presents via the archive. One is quotation, which works from past to present, in which the legitimacy of a statement rests on its anchoring in statements from recognized authors in the past. This is the standard practice of the humanities academy. It gives the academy a conservative tendency. This is of course not always a bad thing. It is a guard against fashion. But it can also set scholars, even Marxists ones, up to play what Lyotard called language games with the archive and with each other, games that no longer have anything to do with any situation outside of them.
The other path is détournement. As Keston Sunderland has shown, détournement was part of Marx’s own practice. Marx constantly copies and critically corrects the epigrammatic illuminations of his age. Détournement works first from the present situation, and only then selects cuts from the past and brings them into the present, copying and correcting in the direction of possibility. Practiced as scholarship, détournement can at least begin from the question of the historical situation. It is a matter of articulating a common task for this situation, and for that task to call out of the past the resources for organizing thought and action in the present. In the era of digital means of production, the twist on class conflicts that this brings, and the facts of the Anthropocene that can no longer be considered as secondary, must be drawn into the very heart of thought.
Back in party school, I started reading two kinds of Anglophone Marxists, both of which branch off from the economic history of Maurice Dobb. One was the history from below school of E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and others. This later diversified into the non-national perspective of Peter Linebaugh and the feminist historiography of Sheila Rowbotham. Related are the Eric Hobesbawm’s sequence of synthetic historical books on the 19th and 20th centuries, which are more like slices through the totality than the view from below.
All of this was a context for discovering C. L. R. James and Eugene Genovese on the history of slavery. Here one might locate the great Australian contribution, European Vision and the South Pacific, by Bernard Smith, a book I still find more useful than Foucault for explaining the formation of knowledge out of forms of apparatus.
The other Anglophone school is what I would call the Ricardian-Marxists, such as Ian Steedman. Rather than Hegel it was Ricardo and political economy that was the parent tradition for Marxism in this view. Political economy became an object of both critical, historical study, but also one amendable to formal and mathematical analysis, where the central question was the dynamics of class struggle over the distribution of the surplus and its relation to growth and qualitative change.
The Ricardian-Marxists constructed a very different set of problems and analyses to the Hegelian-Marxists. From this much issued, ranging from Lukács and Adorno to Debord and Moishe Postone. The problem is that it can often get caught up in a metaphysics of essence and appearance. Either the value-form of capital, or the totality of social relations that commodification produces, is taken as an unvarying essence. Change is only apparent, a matter of appearances, just circulation, or just distribution.
In these Hegelian-Marxist theories the essence of capital is always the same. Their core belief, never quite consciously articulated, is that capital is actually eternal. The eternal capital can be negated, but only by that which arises within and against it. That agency could be the working class, or the party, or failing that, all that negates it is an aesthetic or philosophy itself. As the prospect of even those purely formal negations recede, this negationist school lapses into despair or quietism. Moreover, it has surprisingly little to say about actual historical change, since all such change is only phenomenal, and in essence capital is eternal.
One might expect the Spinozist-Marxists to have come up with a better alternative to this, and for a while it looked like they had. The Althusserians dispensed with the essence-appearance metaphysic. They acknowledged the reality of all three “instances” of the social formation: economy, politics, ideology (or culture). They saw the economic as determinant only in the “last instance.”
Like the Hegelians, the Spinzoists could be obsessed with method, with purely textual, hermeneutic techniques for guaranteeing the validity of Marxist theory. Both are variants of the practice of quotation. Despite all their differences, the Hegel-Marx and Spinoza-Marx crowds had a mutual interest in insisting on the legislative role of theory. To this day the descendants of both, from Badiou to Zizek, insist on the primacy of philosophy, and have a tendency to discount in a most unhelpful way the autonomy of other modes of knowing.
The Althusserian flavor of Spinozist-Marxism at least legitimated the study of politics or culture as relatively autonomous instances of the superstructure. This gave rise, particularly in France, to a Jacobin Marxism. Althusser’s students, such as Nicos Poulantzas, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, and Regis Debray, tried in very, very different ways to produce theories of politics, as did Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The world of production seemed to be one of the mere satisfaction of needs, whereas politics held out the utopian promise of transformative action. Unfortunately this left unexamined the very transformation of the whole social formation by new forces of production.
In the Anglophone world, Althusser both strengthened and transformed an emerging cultural Marxism. This had its roots partly in the Marxist historiography of E. P. Thompson, in the radicalizing of Leavisite literary study by Richard Hoggart in Raymond Williams, and in the English reception of Antonio Gramsci. Stuart Hall took that tradition and brought it into contact with Althusser, to produce a tactical, low theory of culture, without guarantees.
Laura Mulvey and others took Althusser’s legitimizing of the autonomy of the cultural sphere, and also his insight into the usefulness of semiotics and psychoanalysis as tools of analysis specific to the cultural instance and analogous to the critical political economy through which the economic instance could be analyzed. In both the Hall and Mulvey flavors of cultural Marxism, headway was made in the analysis of culture, but reduced, under the influence of Roland Barthes, to the status of text. The apparatus had a somewhat vestigial status in screen theory, and even less presence in post-Hall cultural studies. This was not a tradition well equipped to understand the transformation of the mode of production of culture itself in the digital age.
The Italian version of Spinozist-Marxism at least tried to come up with a language to describe the experience of labor in the late twentieth century, even if its perspective was limited to the overdeveloped world of Italy and France. Where Althusser had insisted on a close reading of Capital, Antonio Negri’s practice of quotation based itself on Marx’s Grundrisse, although in his case perhaps with too much, rather than too little, textual fidelity.
It resulted in some temporary descriptions: the formal subsumption of the lifeworld under capital became the real subsumption. Collaborative labor began to engage the general intellect. A heterogeneous kind of labor was described under the rather unfortunate term immaterial labor. Meanwhile, a feminist critique of this conceptual scheme opened up the question of affective labor and unpaid labor.
The “real subsumption” of Marx to Spinoza was soon to follow in the collaborative work of Negri and Michael Hardt. In Empire they developed a new language that connected Negri’s experience of Italian Workerism with Hardt’s of Latin American counter-imperial struggles. This succeeded for a time in providing a language for a counter-globalization movement. This new internationalism was no small achievement. However, the language of empire and multitude, of constitutional and constituent power, reproduced on a global scale the limit of Italian workerism, which was always to see the living labor of the worker as a privileged moment, and hence to render secondary the complexity of the forces and relations of production within which labor was enmeshed.
The most expansive attempt at a synthesis of the Spinozist and Hegelian version of Marxism was surely the work of Fredric Jameson, which folded the autonomy of the cultural and political instances back into a more diversified concept of the totality of a more or less Hegelian kind, drawn in particular from Sartre. The high point of its influence was Jameson’s famous essays on the postmodern. This did not really break with theories of eternal capital. Jameson’s point of reference for what was actually going on in production remained Ernest Mandel. Still, Jameson at least got to the point of registering new symptoms on the horizon of “late” capitalism that might point to a theory of “early something else.”
Franco Moretti surely stands next to Jameson as one of the most distinguished literary critics in the Anglophone world, and like Jameson is a Marxist, although descended from a different strain. I am not too familiar with the work of Della-Volpe and Colletti, other than as a parallel school to the Althusserians in their rejection of Hegelian Marxism. In Moretti, this emerges as a synthetic sensibility as broad as Jameson’s. Where Jameson’s famous slogan is “always historicize!” then Moretti’s might be “always geographize!” Lately his techniques of distant reading have proven a useful tool for conducting social-scientific experiments on the literary corpus, and are a forerunner to the now widespread digital humanities.
Moretti however lacks any critical or dialectical appreciation of these very tools and procedures. He ably uses these tools to show the homologies between the literature of past centuries and their mode of production. Yet there is nothing in Moretti about the mode of production that makes this kind of criticism possible in our own times. The apparatus of “big data” simply appears. Here he makes no advance beyond Jameson’s invocation of Mandel.
In the analysis of the economic sphere, a much more useful body of work after Mandel appeared in the form of the regulation school, in the work, for example, of Michel Aglietta and Alain Lipietz. This had the advantage in trying to think empirically and theoretically the mutation not just of productive forces but of whole regimes of regulation and reproduction. The major triumph of this approach was an account of the virtuous circle of Fordism, in which new modes of production and consumption coincided, providing a systematic account of what Guy Debord had so elegantly called the society of the spectacle. The regulation school also gave a systematic account of the breakdown of Fordist regulation, even if the designation of its successor as post-Fordist did not quite succeed in giving it an affirmative and distinctive analytic quality.
The regulation school had also had a pragmatic answer to one of those intractable debates in Marxocological thought: the value-price controversy. Nowhere in Capital does Marx give a convincing answer as to how surplus value is expressed as profit. The neo-Ricardians simply dispensed with surplus value, which enabled them to produce a rigorous economics of the relationship between growth and the distribution of surplus between classes. Here they built on the pioneering work of Piero Sraffa, Joan Robinson, and others. The regulation approach kept the category of surplus value, but stressed the difference between value and price as a signature feature of capitalist regulation. Thus, the distortion of value, as a measure of production for need, by production for exchange, could itself be a critical tool of analysis.
The Monthly Review school of thought, of Baran and Sweezy, had already abandoned the category of surplus value, and had tried to think the features of monopoly capitalism as a form distinct from the liberal form of Marx’s time. But perhaps the signature contribution of this journal to thinking the present came later, in the work of John Bellamy Foster. In Marx’s Ecology, he built an original Marxist theory with what to my mind is really a détournement of Capital Vol. 3, where Marx begins, but does not really think through, the category of metabolic rift. This is in essence the Anthropocene, the transformation on a planetary scale of the molecular composition and distribution of the biosphere. The gap between value and price here becomes total.
This insight can be usefully juxtaposed with one that otherwise has nothing in common with it, and that came principally out of the journal Multitudes—namely the emergence of an era of cognitive capitalism, increasingly invested in the production of subjectivity. Here the work of Yann Moulier Boutang, Maurizio Lazzarato, Franco Berardi, and Tiziana Terranova might be mentioned. However, this school of thought is still stuck in the language of the modifier, of qualifying the essence of capitalism rather than really asking what the conditions of possibility of its transformation might be.
A rather virulent but useful critique of this work comes from Beatriz Preciadio, who draws in significant ways on Donna Haraway. Preciado asks what becomes of Haraway’s cyborg bodies—amalgams of flesh and info and tech—in an era that does not just make information a force of production, but applies information to the pharmacology with which it remakes the body, as well. Commodification makes not just subjectivities but bodies in its image. Preciado takes the paradigmatic worker of this era to be the sex worker.
Perhaps to historicize now means to think about what historicity is implied in the very category of capital itself. If one cannot (at least as a thought experiment) think the conditions under which this might no longer be capitalism, short of the revolution of one’s desires, then it is not an historical category at all. It is merely a term for the ruins of a fallen world, awaiting the return of its messiah, which is pretty much where things end up in the work of Agamben, and even in the elegant tracts of Tiqqun. How, then, might capital be thought as historical rather than eternal?
There is a resource to be drawn on here from the school of political Marxism. Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and others turned away from the “neo-Smithian” approach to world systems of Wallerstein and others, and instead thought the origins of capital as a more local, European phenomena. What is of interest in their work, outside of historiography, is the idea that there have already been two eras of commodification. The first is based on privatizing land, the second on the factory system as a further extension of the abstraction introduced into production by the commodification of land.
Thus, there have been two ruling classes already, based in turn on rent and then profit. Ricardo’s great work stands at the boundary where the land-owning class was defeated and subsumed into a more properly capitalist ruling class. The political Marxists would not go this far, but to me this begs the question: if there have been two eras of commodification, why not a third? One with its own distinctive forms of property, forms of exploitation, and forms of extracting a surplus? One based on surplus information, inequalities of information, and control of data via metadata?
Political Marxism insists on a Eurocentric story for the origins of capitalism, but that does not mean we have to accept that world history remains dominated by what transpires over the Atlantic. Perhaps Europe, America, and Japan are now what the Situationists called the over-developed world, trapped in forms of rent seeking behavior. Perhaps theirs is a ruling class in decline, in that while it retains and even accumulates power, it can no longer coordinate its efforts through the state and open up new forms of regulation and growth. The failure to transition out of a carbon-based economy is a clear symptom of this decline.
Just one example of what might be required now to think world history in Marxist terms is to account for China. Is China capitalist? It is a question which doubles back, in that any answer to it at the same time sharpens a definition of what capitalism might actually be, and whether it is to be understood narrowly or broadly as a category. I note with interest that Michel Aglietta has turned the regulationist method to this question.
While there are many other parts of the world that are both historically significant and have local Marxist traditions, China is the one I try to follow, having spent some time there during the ‘80s, doing psychogeographic research in its cities and travelling its railways while reading Deng Xiaoping.
Hence I find the work of Wang Hui of particular interest, as an instance of a distinctive new left position in and on China (although he and his co-thinkers resist that label). Wang artfully uses the Marxist commitment to solidarity and equality of the revolutionary period in China as a critical wedge not just against the inequalities of the present, but against those of the past too. He holds the Chinese Communists of the past accountable to their own Marxism. This work also skillfully negotiates between importing Western Marxism (or other theory) and too strong an insistence on distinctly Chinese analytic categories. It is a model of sophisticated #Marx21c work that is cosmopolitan but not Eurocentric.
One could put this alongside what is now a debate between the subaltern studies school from the Indian subcontinent, and Vivek Chibber, its strongest critic. In different ways, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesth Chakrabarty and others have confronted the universalizing project in which Marxism participates with its own dependence on prior categories of the metropolitan pole and its colonial other.
Regrettably, I know very little about Marxist work outside the West. What little I know about Latin American Marxism comes through Bruno Bosteels’s efforts. I still don’t know what to make of the impressive project of Kojin Karatani to rethink the historical sequence of modes of production as actually modes of exchange. Clearly a #Marx21c will have to be a collaborative, global project in many languages, sensitive to core-periphery inequalities. It is a project that calls more for new modes of organization than for new theories.
I know even less about the embedding of Marx in the social sciences. When Marxism acclimatized to the Anglophone world, one of the assimilations that took place was to its peculiar brand of philosophy, and thus analytic Marxism was born. It started perhaps with Maurice Cornford, and G. A. Cohen’s controversial but to me persuasive defense of a certain kind of vulgar Marxism.
This then cleared the way for an empirical and social-scientific Marx in the hands of Jon Elster, John Roemer, and in particular Erik Olin Wright. The latter’s detailed work on class greatly refined an ongoing debate on how not just to think but to study class as a category. His later work on actually existing utopias is a necessary corrective to the approach to utopia that looks to Ernst Bloch and is far more transcendental and poetic.
In the twentieth century, Marx’s thought found its way into a wide range of disciplines and languages. This process of adoption was also one of adaption, where Marx became a name that could be said at least in the margins of certain formations of knowledge/power. This had however, two consequences.
First, it meant that while one could adopt a Marxist position within a given space of writing and thinking, all of these separate adaptations of Marx were less and less in useful dialogue with each other. What could only be called academic Marxism became so acculturated to its various disciplines and languages that its various versions started to take as a given the academic division of labor within which it was formed. Thus the Hegelian-Marxists and the analytic-Marxists, for example, ended up with little to say to each other.
Secondly, it meant that the agenda for Marxist thought often arose within the disciplines. Sometimes mostly formal problems or language games occluded any larger agenda, even within a given national culture, let alone the larger transnational situation. Thus the cultural Marxists thought cultural problems, the Jacobin Marxists thought political problems, the regulation school thought economic problems—all separated from each other. In the absence of powerful social movements, let alone an organized working class, professional agendas prevailed.
In the era of the Anthropocene, perhaps more than ever a #Marx21c needs new forms of organizing and coordinating collaborative knowledge projects. It needs ways of keeping in dialogue speculative and empirical work, work from different disciplines, in different languages, from metropolitan cores and peripheries.
Three agenda items in particular seem pressing:
First, the central problem of metabolic rift, which points towards the horizon of the Anthropocene, and the need to re-engage Marxism with the natural sciences.
Secondly, what some call semio-capitalism or cognitive capitalism, but which I had described in quite other terms in A Hacker Manifesto, as the hint of a new mode of production, based on information as a new force of production, and with a new ruling class, the vectoral class. This prompts the need to think about what kind of transformation of the forces of production may rise to the level of a qualitative break.
Thirdly, a dislocation in space, but also perhaps in time, of the object of analysis. Spatial and temporal boundaries and continuities, cores and peripheries, could be rethought, and not least to understand how the engines of world history may now be far from the West.
5. The Marx of the Avant-gardes
So much for an academic #Marx21c. What about the avant-gardes? Perhaps there is something to be said for the total and bracing critique of Manfredo Tafuri, for whom all of the avant-gardes were stalking horses for capital, all diverting social struggle into formal “solutionism,” all merely delaying the advent of total revolution. But there is a way that such an absolute perspective lends itself to quietism as much as activism. The avant-gardes necessarily fail, but more to the point, they never give up.
Here there are some competing methods to choose from and think about developing in the twenty-first century. The practice of quotation, the standard academic method, becomes optional. The one I know the most about is détournement, but there are others. This comes down to a question of what one considers form.
Twentieth-century Marxist aesthetics was obsessed with formal methods. They took the means of production of art to be more or less given. Within the work that such a process produced, they sought to transform the experience of the work by attention to its formal properties.
The dominant idea here is that an audience can be brought to the point of a radical cognition by a formal procedure. It could be one that interrupts an expectation. It could in this sense be negative. Or it could affirm another formal principle altogether, one that refuses those which simply mirror the dominant ideological forms congruent with the commodity.
What I will here call the style of interruption or negation might be thought of as the school of Adorno. The task of the work here is to refuse the extorted reconciliation of the culture industry, where every song begins and ends on the same note, where every story is a happy ever after. The aesthetic, as Jay Bernstein maintains, in the spirit of Adorno, is the domain of the qualitative, of that which is excluded in advance from the calculus of exchange value.
But there are other aesthetics with which Marxism has had a dalliance. The epic theater of Brecht ends up in the alienation-effect produced in later Godard films. The historical novel, which for Lukacs narrates the totality of historical action as seen from the margins by minor characters, becomes the historical cinema of Visconti.
A particularly interesting case is the art of the popular front, of the counter-hegemonic struggle for cultural leadership, in Gramsci’s terms. Here one might locate some but certainly not all of Pasolini. His books and films combine an historical axis with a kind of theological one. His work, unlike that of bourgeois novels and films, does not exclude the heavens as the locus of a popular affect of justice and redemption. There is of course something backward-looking here. It is not pre-bourgeois elite art that is the source of the non-commodifed culture, as in Adorno, but the pre-capitalist underclass.
In his later work, Pasolini despairs for the disappearance of these popular sources of another way of life. His last work, the unfinished queer-Marxist masterpiece Petrolio, pointed to a path beyond this. Interestingly enough, it also concerns the oil and gas industry, and gave a convincing answer for the involution of the state into its concentrated spectacle form, as described by Debord. In Petrolio it is clear that the state monopoly industries such as oil and gas are producing a new form of state-capital monopoly formation, in which—contrary to the neoliberal proposition—state and capital are inextricably entwined.
Pasolini’s genius was to become at one and the same time a marginal and a popular figure, a one-man dialectic of the singular and the universal. But his work still inhabited the confines of the culture industry, which is decidedly in retreat. The culture industry is giving way to what I call the vulture industry. The latter no longer even feels the need to make spectacle for us to consume. We are supposed to make it for each other—unpaid—while it collects the rent. To understand this trajectory, the school of détournement, which asked formal questions in a more basic way, might have its merits.
One can start here with a vulgar and reductionist reading of Benjamin, particularly the infamous text on mechanical reproducibility. Here Benjamin began to grasp the potential of the cinema as a means of production of perception. The mass-produced image is partway to an organization of the senses through which the people really could make history, at least with the perceptions of their own choosing, if not quite the means. The elasticity of tempo and scale and the capacity to edit perceptions into narrative, metaphoric, and conceptual patterns; all point to a non-rationalist means by which labor could be self-organized into a totality able to perceive itself making its own history, in and against nature, and through all these senses and sense-making forms of cognition. Benjamin grasped the potential, and what is essential, about technological prosthesis for forward movement in history. Tragically, of course, none of this came to pass.
Interestingly, Platonov had similar ideas, and like Benjamin drew on short-lived experiments in the Soviet ‘20s. His factory of literature anticipates the collaborative filtering of the Nettime era, and is still a bold plan for balancing a distributed with a hierarchical means of discovering and filtering images, stories, moods, and ideas out of everyday discourse, and organizing them into synthetic, multi-authored perceptions of the state of historical development.
It was Debord who articulated the concept of these practices as détournement. His model was the great late-romantic poetry of Lautréamont—one of the patron saints of the Francophone avant-gardes. Debord and his comrades quite correctly saw how the copying of cultural material, its correction in the direction of hope, and the combining of different materials, were all components of a practice as yet to be invented, via which the people could make, if not history, then the precondition for it: the history of their own culture as a collective and collaborative project.
Détournement as practiced by the avant-gardes is no respecter of authorship or copyrights. It treats the past not as an apostolic succession but as a literary communism, or in today’s terms, a commons. It breaks down the Chinese firewalls of information recuperated by intellectual property. From Kathy Acker to Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith and Stewart Home, this avant-garde has evolved as a counter-economy of practices which grasp through their actions what the abstraction of information has made of the cultural archive.
What these more recent practices highlight is the transformation, from the era of the culture industry to the vulture industry, of the whole space of culture as détournement. It became a social movement in all but name in the late twentieth century. Not too far into the twenty-first, détournement was recuperated into commodity production, with the capture of the energies of the gift culture of information into higher-order forms of capture. Here the more subtle techniques of latter-day practitioners are instructive. Goldsmith’s Ubu.com, for example, an invaluable compendium of avant-garde audio and video, is simply not visible with certain search engines, to prevent them from recuperating access to this material as a basis for its ad-based business model.
There are of course other avant-garde strategies. Reaching back to the hyperbolic language of the futurists are the Accelerationists. This has its roots in a school that appropriated Marx not into a Hegelian or a Spinozist register, but a Nietzschean one: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard. After the failure of May ‘68 as a negation of capital, they sought other means of thinking its supersession. Deleuzian desiring-machines, Lyotardian libidinal economy, Baudrillard’s fatal strategies were all procedures that affirm and push forward the dynamics of capital.
The first wave of Accelerationist thought and art pushes these strategies even further. A second wave interestingly reacts against the Nietzschean note, and tries to reconstruct a rationalist and non-populist project that still seeks the reconciliation of reason and the real, but no longer in the guise of human reason. For the rational to meet the real is to shed the fleshy impediments of the human and integrate it into machine cognition. (Although the Accelerationists appear not to know it, this was J.D. Bernal’s program of the ‘20s.)
This is still an interesting project, if somewhat limited in scope. It usefully abandons the now rather vain hope in an agent of negation, and bets the farm on the forward momentum of what it still largely imagines to be an eternal capitalism. The focus on a hyper-rationalism seems at one and the same time a useful corrective to the Nietzschean excesses of the late twentieth century, although one which seems curiously resistant to thinking its own will to power.
There is a promise of a re-engagement with the natural sciences here, but conceived in rationalist fashion, and making something of a fetish of mathematics. It moves in quite the opposite direction to that line that runs from Marx and Ernst Mach to Bogdanov to Haraway, which calls for a rather more empirical engagement with the means of production of the natural sciences, not to mention with science studies, which over the last thirty years has produced a convincing body of work that fatally compromises any attempt to impose a philosophical rationality on the sciences. (Of that work, Donald MacKenzie seems least hostile to Marxism.)
Strangely enough, the irrationalist strand of Accelerationism held out one possible set of concepts which has been all but erased. One might think that of all the avant-gardes, nobody belongs more in the dustbin of history than the Surrealists. Yet they were one of the conditions of possibility for Bataille’s general economy. The brilliance of this was grasping the centrality of the unreturnable gift of sunlight to the biosphere. The beginnings of a general theory of the Anthropocene reside in that insight. Alan Stoeckl, in his book Bataille’s Gift, and Reza Negarestani, in Cyclonopedia, independently opened up a useful line of thought on this, one which the latter appears unfortunately to have abandoned.
The Surrealist note lives on too in various attempts to construct a mytho-poetics for the times. The followers of Benjamin might fall into this camp; these include Susan Buck-Morss and Esther Leslie, whose work on Soviet utopias and German romantic science, respectively, open up new perspectives. Meanwhile, Michael Lowy, Franklin Rosemont, Penelope Rosemont, and Robin D. G. Kelley have kept the flame of those who connected a non-Stalinist Marxism to the surrealist project of the revolution of desire. To this Edward Soja adds the thirdspace of urban hybridity, and Andy Merrifield his own flavor of magical-Marxism.
In a strange way, the surrealist impulse became, of all things, analytic rather than mythic, in the hands of the Lacanians. The Lacanian approach used to be in dialogue with cultural Marxism, but lately seems to have become independent of it. Castoriadis bent this back toward a creative rather than analytic project, in his concept of the imaginary institution of society. Chiara Bottici refines this in her studies of the imaginal, and Stephen Duncombe’s work contains a wealth of examples of attempts to work the affective and mythic terrain of American culture in progressive directions. What remains to be done here perhaps is to connect the practices of liberation in content of the surrealists with the liberation of form that descends from the Situationists and others under the sign of détournement.
The legacy of the Situationists points in at least two directions. One is a theory and practice of détournement. The other is a radical critique of capital and spectacle that points toward total revolution. The latter strand is advanced by groups advocating communization. This entails a trenchant critique of all popular front strategies, a refusal of the party form, a rejection of the working class as itself a compromised product of capital, and an analysis which insists on an immanent communism.
One version of this has Heideggerian overtones—the Tiqqun group, already mentioned. The Endnotes collective, and the French groups it draws upon, do not. Endnotes No. 1 begins with a root and branch rejection of the politics of the popular front. It is an interesting analysis, but if these are indeed times of neofascism, then tactically I think what needs more development are ideas and sentiments that can scale, rather than such incendiary analyses, bracing though they are. There is, however, a lively poetics growing out of this strand at Commune Editions.
Needless to say, such avant-gardes, when not collapsing into academia, now collapse towards the art-world. The Bernadette Corporation, Reena Spaulings, and Claire Fontaine would be representatives of that tendency. We all have to make a living, I guess. As Chris Kraus has argued, the art-world, for all its problems, might be more open as a space in which to do critical work than the academy.
It does not seem inappropriate to me to consider the now forty year old project of Semiotext(e) as an avant-garde. Besides being a key port of entry for French and Italian (post)Marxist thought into the Anglophone world, Sylvère Lotringer’s selection, translation, editing, and presentation of that work seems to me an advanced work of détournement in its own right. It gathered momentum by selecting elements of Foucault, Baudrillard, Guattari, Lyotard, and others that might serve as tools for articulating a radicalism not of labor but of desire.
This gave rise to a second moment of this avant-garde, which absorbed the conceptual force of that work, but took issue with the universal and masculinist master-speakers who presumed to speak in the place of what was supposed to be a horizontal and plural field of radical or resistant desiring-machines. Kathy Acker was a parallel development here, but it was Chris Kraus, both as Semiotext(e) editor and author, who took this turn. Her work connected both to a distinctive, non-academic kind of feminism, and also to questions about the art-work as work, and hence of labor. As seen on the ground, this labor attempts to create aesthetic practices which no longer make art, but aim higher than that, at forms of survival.
Failure is a keynote of Krausian avant-garde practice. Here it echoes a note from the queer avant-gardes of the early twenty-first century. Judith (aka Jack) Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure transmutes Stuart Hall’s cultural Marxist low theory into a queer one. José Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia repurposes the theo-Marxism of Ernst Bloch, and Kevin Floyd does the same for Lukács in the Reification of Desire. While these are academic works, they draw on the twenty-first-century spaces that took the place of bohemias, and the avant-gardes of sexual politics that have endured, survived, and sometimes even managed to flourish there in dim times.
A certain sensibility that might be called Marxist has also had a role in creating an African diasporic avant-garde that has some independence from forms of both Black nationalism and also more potentially essentialist forms of Negritude. Cedric Robinson made race rather than class a central dimension of a global analytic of struggle. Paul Gilroy elaborated this into a workable concept of the Black Atlantic. Isaac Julien, building like Gilroy in part on Stuart Hall, is just one of a number of artists who have been able then to work in a transnational, diasporic space outside of both national and Black nationalist formations. This might be just one instance of the internationalist commitment of Marxism and its interesting and productive after-effects.
The poetics journal Lana Turner has been conducting a very interesting dialogue about the avant-garde, including many crucial voices which decenter or reject such a construct. There is as yet no synthesis of those avant-gardes whose locus is the perceptual, the technical, the rational, and the corporeal. Perhaps there never will be. And yet perhaps one role that Marxism(s) might find here is in negotiating between the fragments of practice. It is a question of seeing in this a Marxism which can be in-between various positions rather than above them.
Marxism may not work any more as a Jamesonian high theory, as a kind of master-code that always rises above other critical and constructive practices. Rather than specialize in being a meta-discourse, perhaps it might instead specialize in being a translation practice. Here Emily Apter’s insistence on the limits to world literature and the nuances of translation practice might be a good model. This of course calls for a quite different kind of capacity with language. In relation to the avant-gardes, it might mean a Marxism that tries to grasp each in turn as certain kinds of worker or hacker practices, in and against certain particular means of production of aesthetic form and value.
6. The Party and the Popular Front
I am agnostic on the question of organizational form. As an ex-communist, I consider my “party” to be those who are also now in some sense “ex”: excommunicated, expelled, or just extremely indifferent to such experiences.
All politics is local, so I can only remark on what I can see around me in New York. I admire those who, like Jodi Dean, want to revive the party form. I also admire those who, like David Graeber, have thought and practiced contemporary forms of horizontality. Astra Taylor, Nick Mirzoeff, Andrew Ross, and others developed Strike Debt out of the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street, in various ways showing how activist scholarship can work. The journal Tidal is a product of this movement. But in an era when none of the once-mighty political forms of the left are functioning particularly well in New York, or the United States more broadly, it seems to me prudent to support all attempts to build something new in their wake.
However, it does seem timely to ask what might take the place, not just of the party, but of the popular front. I take seriously the view that the current situation is not just a form of neoliberalism, but of neofascism. The ruling class of our time does not see any reason to make concessions to labor, given its disorganized state, and has successfully disorganized and scattered the critical impulses of other class fractions. It is intent now on pressing its advantage.
It may have no choice. The engines of development of commodification appear in some ways to be stalled. The ideology of “disruption” and “innovation” and the “pivot” seem to be designed to mask the real absence of a coherent project of creative destruction on the part of the ruling classes. They can see no way forward but by cannibalizing those parts of the social formation in the over-developed world that are its support systems. Thus education, heath, public housing, transport, and social security—those social-democratic achievements which are also the conditions of viability of the over-developed world—are all one after another to be sacrificed to the perpetual growth engines of commodification.
This is where the Situationist term (also used by Paul Gilroy) of over-development has its uses. The United States, Japan, and Western Europe are not a developed norm against which under-development is to be thought. Rather they are an over-development, a process of commodification gone past some point where a qualitative transformation might have rescued these social formations from an impending neo-fascist fate.
Apart from their centrality to finance and capacity to project military violence, the states of the over-developed world may no longer be all that central to world history. It may be time to think the problems of living in them as problems of a periphery. I think it is the case that in the over-developed world, a new kind of vectoral ruling class emerged, one that tries to control the whole production and consumption chain through ownership and control of information. But it is not necessarily the case that this is a leading historical development. It may yet prove to be a reactive one.
It is crystal clear that as we go deep into the Anthropocene, a radical transformation of the means of production has to happen. This is not just a question of swapping out energy systems, but also a full deployment of information systems at least partly on a basis other than a market-based quantification. Abstraction has reached the point where it has commodifed, and thus alienated, all the resources of the earth. Thus while at one end the political question is always local, on the other we urgently need an approach to organization at the scale of the gamespace of global infrastructure itself.
How does one occupy an abstraction? That was the question I had about Occupy Wall Street as I was sitting in the middle of it. Unlike Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek I would not oppose the large-scale organizational question to the small-scale one. Thinking scale in this manner may actually be something that the development of an information infrastructure of the vectoral era has in fact quite transformed. This is an era where infrastructure is not a little network of big things so much as a big network of little things. The question is how to transform that in a direction that can sustain life, that can put an end to unnecessary suffering – to give the old Fabian formula.
Here the Marxist strand of geographic and urban studies may have its uses, in rethinking the spatial forms in which local and global, concrete and abstract might interact. Henri Lefebvre is a key figure here in thinking capital as the production of space. This approach was much criticized by Manuel Castells, who usefully maps the transition from a global space of places to a space of flows. Lefebvre was then revived by David Harvey, although all of this might contribute to the politics of the right to the city.
How vectoral power changes cities was already becoming clear in Mike Davis on policing, Sharon Zukin on gentrification, and Saskia Sassen on the service labor of the new global city. Andrew Ross has rather presciently shown how environmental justice plays out in a city like Phoenix, likely to be particularly hard-hit by climate change. Maggie Grey tracks the farm labor of upstate New York to show how the productive space on which the city depends extends way beyond it. Owen Hatherley’s revisionist history rescues from oblivion the achievements of social democratic public housing.
Rethinking forms of politics, or forms of action after politics, for the overdeveloped world might call for a placing of the city back in its geographic field, into what Gearóid ó Tuathail calls a critical geopolitics. While not explicitly Marxist, I think there is a #Marx21c aspect to the work of Keller Easterling and Benjamin Bratton. Here the old diagram of base and superstructure acquires new layers. Bratton’s concept of the stack shows how information technology functions to delaminate geographic, economic, and political layers. Easterling’s studies of free trade zones and broadband infrstructure outside the old metropolitan core shows how the patterns crafted by digital design embed themselves directly into vast tracts of territory, creating cut-and-paste urbanisms, sometimes overnight.
Thus in the dialectic between party and spontaneity perhaps what we are seeing is an effect of relatively new geographies over which the vector can articulate quite distinctive relations between the local and the global and between the abstract and the particular. A #Marx21c urgently needs tools with which to think the contours of the infrastructure in which all forms of social life are embedded—particularly at a time when none of them seem sustainable or resilient.
There are, and will necessarily be, many different kinds of #Marx21c. It is not a tradition, or an apostolic succession. It is a field of differences and similarities, which unfold outwards from the moment of Marx in all directions. The means via which contemporary Marxisms relate to the past is also plural. Not all take the form of quotation, that legitimating mark of academic modes of discourse. It will necessarily develop all four modes discussed in this essay (which probably map onto the four discourses Jodi Dean extracts from Lacan), but which may well create yet others.
What the times call for is not yet another Marxist theory, of whatever stripe. Rather, the pressing question is one of forms of communication between different practices in the name of Marx. For too long these have been captured and separated by academic modes of communication. Let’s invent a new theoretical practice as Althusser called it, but one where his rather controlling, top-down approach remains optional. Let’s have a proliferation of low theories instead.
Finally, let me hasten to add that the mapping offered in this essay is personal and provisional. It is based entirely on memory, and a closer engagement with any of the texts mentioned here will reveal resources not even touched upon in this account. We have hardly even begun to explore what these and other veins of Marxist work might yield by way of crystals of insight, when set to the task of understanding and engaging with the present situation.
Join the colloquy
Join the colloquy
Big Finance had emerged triumphant from the 2008 crisis, Occupy-style anarchism had foundered, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a bestseller, and young Leftists of the so-called millennial generation, the punditry went, were effecting a turn away from airy, poststructuralist, "cultural" Marxism back to the more nitty-gritty, all-too-solid volumes of Capital and more materialist concerns of Marxist theory.
Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in November 2013, Andrew Seal had already anticipated and rejected such claims. "The continuities between today’s focus on political economy and the aging Theory Era," he wrote, "are often obscured by an exaggerated narrative of willful rediscovery of Marx, as if our inspirations are only our own intelligent resentment of the economy and the powers behind it." Seal offered a provocative counterpoint: the conversation was refocused by the vast capture, not only of a generation’s future wealth in the form of student and consumer debt, but of its "best minds." Decades of high-achievers were scooped up by Wall Street scouts who cruised the campuses of colleges too preoccupied with rankings and endowment figures to concern themselves with fusty old mission statements about social responsibility and the liberating power of knowledge. Friends morphed into investment bankers and hedge-fund managers, ascending to the boardrooms of the 1% as soon as the diploma ink had dried.
Indeed, Louis Althusser’s characterization of the university as an ideological state apparatus must be revised. Forget the state—the university has become the tool and stooge of the transnational finance economy, which itself has shown only contempt for the state. Steeped in pure free-market ideology and restructured along the lines of corporate managerialism, elite colleges not only became the nurseries of nascent Wall Street execs, but collaborated in generating huge new markets for consumer debt.
But not without generating a backlash. The new thrusts of Marxist theory, as Seal suggests, are a generation’s first efforts to delineate the terrain and bleak scenery of today’s class struggle: a rapidly vanishing commons; a desiccated public sector; the neoliberal, corporatized university; and the despotic regency of finance over not only democratic institutions and what used to be called civil society, but the political imagination of that very generation.
Recent efforts in Marxist theory attempt to understand the origins of today’s debt- and finance-based economy, without neglecting its social and cultural aspects. Arcade has convened a Colloquy on 21st-Century Marxisms to collect some of these thoughts. In the interest of dialectical critique, the present colloquy also hopes to create a space for considering the role of the academy and of public intellectuals at this juncture in Marxist theory.
We’ve collected recent and forthcoming materials from our partner journals and presses that take up these new directions in Marxist thought, and invited commentary from some of the leading voices in contemporary Marxist theory. To open the colloquy, we’re featuring an article on debt by David Palumbo-Liu and the first of a multi-part reflection by McKenzie Wark on 21st-Century Marxisms. We also include the introduction to The Specter of Capital by Joseph Vogl, who offers an analysis of the irrational and spectral nature of immaterial finance capital through a reading of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis. Nancy Fraser returns to "Marx's Hidden Abode" in a lecture given at Dartmouth, and Edgar Illas attempts to "name the system" that Marxist theory now tries to describe and analyze.
Watch for additional interventions from Jacobin editor Alyssa Battistoni, professor and immigration activist Justin Akers Chacón, novelist and professor Lee Konstantinou, and New Inquiry blogger and author Evan Calder Williams.