Karl Marx and contemporary capitalism



To understand today's world, the key is to put the central categories of the critique of political economy to work.

Marx published The capital just over 150 years ago. For bourgeois thinkers, academics and the media mainstream, Marx is completely out of date. Where are the ragged proletarians? Today we live in the world of democracies and free markets. The traditional left might object, claiming that capitalism is back, that there is again a gap between the rich and the poor, and that there are other types of subordinates and oppressed. I would argue that it is possible to ascertain the actuality of Marx's theory in another way: in this period the surface of capitalism underwent major changes, but its core remains the same.

This nucleus is composed of what Marx analyzed, mainly in the first chapter of The capital: merchandise and value, money and abstract work. To avoid confusion and misunderstandings between abstract work and immaterial work, it is better to speak of the abstract dimension of work, of its dual nature. Marx himself considered his analysis of the “double nature of work” – abstract and concrete – one of his most important discoveries.[I] What does that mean? Every instance of work, under capitalist conditions (and only under capitalism, there is nothing natural here), is both abstract and concrete.

As concrete work, each activity produces goods or services, but the same activity is also a simple expenditure of human energy, measured in time; a simple amount of time, regardless of what was done in it. The concrete dimension of work corresponds to the use value, and the abstract dimension, to the value (represented by money) of the same commodity. In capitalism, the abstract dimension of work, and its products, prevails over the concrete dimension. Therein lies the deepest root of the absurdity that constitutes the capitalist mode of production.

These are the underlying and fundamental structures of all forms of capitalism (including its state versions, called “socialist” or “communist”). But such structures are neither neutral nor natural: they are historically specific to capitalism, and they are both destructive and self-destructive. This also means that it is not about using them in a better way (socialist, communist, etc.), but about overcoming and abolishing them. And this, in principle, is possible, since humanity has lived for a long time without them. Someone could say that there was already money, work, etc. in other societies, in pre-capitalist societies; then, it would be necessary to remember that its social function was different and not very similar to what we call money, work, etc. today, as even certain non-Marxist historians confirm (such as Jacques LeGoff for the Middle Ages, or Moses Finley for Antiquity). .[ii]

The realm of merchandise and value, of money and abstract labor, has its most typical and mysterious manifestation in what Marx called commodity fetishism. This notion not only implies an exaggerated appreciation of commodities, as happens in consumer society, but also goes beyond a mystification of the real nature of exploitation and bourgeois domination, a veil that really covers the origin of surplus value, as advocated by the traditional Marxists. Commodity fetishism means something more general: essentially, a system where what Marx called the “autonomous subject” reigns supreme,[iii] where humans are the servants of the economy they themselves have created and which appears before them as an independent force.

Commodity fetishism is the main form of capitalist social mediation: concrete activities and objects – concrete works and use values,[iv] shall we say – serve only to embody the underlying “real essence” of commodity society: and this “real essence” is the value created by the abstract dimension of labor, without any regard for its content. The capitalists themselves are only the executors of this anonymous systemic logic – they do not control it. A subordination of the concrete to the abstract, an inversion of the relationship between them and their dynamic and destructive character are the most distinctive characteristics of capitalist society, when compared historically with other forms of society.

When we insist on the importance of Marx's thought to understand the current world, we are not saying that one must necessarily adopt it literally, nor that it is necessary to defend his works as if they were sacred texts. The important thing is to put the central categories of his critique of political economy to work – as has been done in recent decades.[v]

Adopting Marx's most revolutionary concepts means going against almost everything traditional Marxism has stood for over the last 150 years, and sometimes even questioning some of Marx's own theories. This is especially true when it comes to the concept of class struggle, and also for substitutes like race and gender issues: these struggles exist and can be very important, but they are not automatically emancipatory or anti-capitalist. During this period they helped to integrate, first, the workers, and then the other subaltern classes, into the system: there was almost no longer any challenge to the fact that social life is geared towards the multiplication of abstract value through work. What was demanded was just a more equal distribution.

Today, capitalism faces less its declared opponents, certain types of revolutionaries or something like that, than the limits created by its own development. These limits have been with him since the beginning, but they crossed a certain threshold and became visible in the 1970s. The first of them is an internal limit: only living labor creates value, but competition forces capital to make use of technologies that replace work whenever possible. However, if less labor is used in the production of a commodity, the less value it will have, since labor is the only source of value. Technologies do not produce value. Less value means less realization of surplus value and, ultimately, less profit.

Only a continuous increase in production is able to contain this tendency to decrease the mass of value. The less each commodity contains value – the cost of a car, for example, has continuously decreased over the decades – the greater its production will have to be, the number of commodities will have to increase so that the mass of surplus value does not decrease. One might call this the compensation process. In the last forty years, however, rationalization processes and the replacement of human labor by technologies have advanced faster than compensation processes. The use of living, capital-producing labor is shrinking, as is the absolute mass of value and, ultimately, the mass of profit. Real profitability is largely replaced by simulation, especially finance. The rise of the global financial sector – of what Marx called “fictitious capital”[vi] – was a response to the growing lack of real profitability. One of the consequences of this is the growing decrease in the supply of jobs in the work society. And with it, the entire social order gradually collapses.

The other big limit, the external one, is ecological: the depletion of natural resources. The accumulation of value and capital is an accumulation of abstract wealth that has no limits, since it does not seek something concrete, only abstract quantities. But the abstract value needs to be realized – materialized – in something concrete and, at least partially, in material objects (since production cannot be limited to services and communication, according to those who today speak of a “society”. of services” or “cognitive capitalism” would have us believe). It is for this reason that the logic of value inevitably leads to the devastation of natural resources.

The ecological disaster is quite evident and highly discussed, but as long as it is not associated with the logic of value production, analyzed by Marx in The capital, it will not be possible to really understand its causes and possible solutions. We can even say that Marxian theories of money and value, merchandise and the double character of work, fetishism and the autonomous subject, are today more relevant than ever, as their effects were even more evident in a purely capitalist society than than in the semi-feudal society to which Marx belonged. Furthermore, our understanding of psychic structures, in particular narcissism, depression and acts of blind destructiveness will remain fragmentary and superficial as long as the subjective side of the fetishist logic of value is not considered – it goes far beyond the economic aspect of life.

A century and two months after the first edition of The capital, Guy Debord published The society of the spectacle. The book begins with the following statement: “the whole life of societies in which modern conditions of production reign is announced as an immense accumulation of shows".[vii] The phrase is almost identical to the one that opens The capital, with the only difference being that Debord writes “accumulation of spectacles” where Marx wrote “accumulation of commodities”.[viii] With this misappropriation (as the Situationists called the re-use, and enhancement, of existing cultural materials), the tone is set: Debord intended, without overtly declaring it, to write a kind of new The capital, to modernize and adapt Marx's analysis to the present, to deploy what Marx might have written a century later.

He uses Marx, and especially his theory of the commodity (read mainly through the lens of History and class consciousness, by Lukács) as the basis of his own theory, placing, however, “spectacle” in the place of “commodity”. We can therefore immediately see that Debord's concept of the spectacle means much more than simply a critique of the media – to what it has often been reduced. Spectacle is, for Debord, the contemporary development of the commodity form, and follows the same logic. Debord's main work clearly belongs to the field of Marxist theory – a fact that is often ignored or dismissed to place him only in the artistic and literary fields or to reduce him to a media theorist.

Debord transformed Marx's categories, which had become an object for scholarly debate, into living categories by combining them with observations about the new consumer society. He has largely contributed to our awareness of the need for a radical break with the basic categories of capitalism, not just some of its specific forms. He also helped shift the focus of critical analysis and praxis: what mattered was not just the economic sphere and work, but also everyday life and issues such as urbanism and housing.

It was changes in reality itself that brought to the surface the hidden core of Marx's theory: the critique of value and the commodity, abstract labor and money. When capitalism entered its phase of decline, a better distribution of its wealth was no longer possible, and the question of overcoming it arose. The abandonment of the Keynesian “class compromise” after the 1970s cannot be explained only by political circumstances or by a “class struggle from above”, it was essential for the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and its historical development: the substitution of the human labor for technologies – which do not create economic value – provoked a crisis in the production of value and stimulated the simulation of accumulation through credit and finance.

It is not possible to revoke this evolution and return to a “reasonable” capitalism. In its declining phase, capitalism is no longer able to offer the majority of the population extra gratifications as it could in its heyday. The issue today is not “taking power”, achieving more “economic justice”, “combining ecological reasons and economic growth” or anything like that, but inventing ways of life beyond the logic of merchandise and work.

What happens today, though, is pretty much the opposite. The crisis of capitalism is not at all identical with the advance of solutions and emancipatory forces, as revolutionaries have always believed. Capitalism has had 250 years to colonize all aspects and sectors of life, and it has often left only scorched earth behind, on all levels, literally and metaphorically, externally and internally. Capitalism by no means prepared the ground for socialism; the development of the productive forces did not create the material prerequisites for a superior form of life, as was long believed; he never had a civilizing mission, as even Marx defended.

Capitalism is not only hideous and unfair, it no longer works. One of its most impressive aspects is the transformation of growing masses of people, entire social groups, regions, countries and continents into superfluous contingents before the cycle of accumulation and, therefore, for consumption. Their workforce is no longer needed and, therefore, they no longer have a reason – a right – to exist, in the eyes of the logic of value. The forms of suffering arising from the classic problem of exploitation are being partially replaced by forms of suffering related to superfluity and uselessness, since it does not even pay to exploit people – and everyone today is potentially threatened by this. This is a difficult situation to explain through the classic approach centered on class struggle, but it becomes much more understandable if we return to Marx's analysis of the commodity and if we consider the destructive force of the logic of abstract work.

Responses to the barbarization of capitalism can be equally barbaric. This is what we have seen in recent years. The problem is not so much a return of fascism. There are several neo-fascist movements (and they are more powerful than ever), as well as other phenomena that resemble fascism. But capitalism does not always consist of a return on the same; and equating contemporary phenomena with those of the past can be an obstacle to understanding the real dangers we face today. One of them is what I would call transversal populism, which is based on a “false anti-capitalism”. I say “transversal” because he often mixes left and right arguments directed against the surface of capitalist society – and, above all, against one of its aspects: finance, speculation, credit, banks.

These perspectives do not explain the ills of capitalism by referring to productive processes, the existence of work and money, nor do they refer to classes, as traditional Marxists did. Rather, they refer to so-called parasites located in the financial sphere and corrupt politicians. Some of these movements claim to be leftist, such as the Occupy Wall Street and the We can; many are openly right-wing and some, like the Italian Five stars (Five Star Movement), are likely the future of populism, as they adopt elements from both camps. The anti-capitalist rhetoric of these movements must not deceive us, and is not something of a half-truth: Nazism and other historical fascist movements also proclaimed themselves against “plutocracies” and opposed “good” and “creative” capital, allied to labor , to the “evil” and “greedy” financial capital, associated with the Jews.

Everyone knows the consequences of that. This one-sided critique of monetary interest and distribution, which eschews any critique of the capitalist mode of production, and specifically of labor, has a long tradition going back at least to Jean-Pierre Proudhon in the XNUMXth century, and is also quite persistent within of traditional Marxism itself. It values ​​the concrete said (which is actually pseudo-concrete), such as race, people, or the state, as opposed to the threatening force of abstraction (value) whose effects are perceived (for example, by losing the employment due to economic globalization), but are not fully understood.

Populist movements, in all their iterations, help the system survive by mobilizing their victims' rage in a completely wrong direction. However, the problem is not just the seduction and manipulation of the media: if we were to limit the use of the concept of spectacle to the media sphere, we would continue to assume, when using notions such as manipulation, the existence of a unilateral relationship between political and economic power and the “ pastas". But if we remember that Debord's spectacle signifies the commodification of all desires and needs and a structural separation between actors and spectators, reducing life to passive contemplation, then we find that the spectacle profoundly reshaped the subjects themselves and their structure. psychic. As Debord states, the spectacle was able to produce a generation that never knew anything beyond it.[ix] And Debord wrote all this years before the spread of digital and virtual culture, which seems to have engraved industrial capitalism and its logic even more in our heads…

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Text established from a speech at the Congress Spectacle of Fascism, which took place in Vancouver in April 2017.

Originally published on Contours magazineIn 2019.


[I] Karl Marx, Letter from Marx to Engels, 24 August 1867On MECW (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1987), 42:407

[ii] Jacques LeGoff, Le Moyen Âge et l'argent: Essai d'anthropologie historique (Paris: Perrin, 2010); Moses Finley, The Ancient Economy (Oakland, CA: University of California Press 1973)

[iii] Karl Marx, The capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 1:255

[iv] Recognizing that such terms may cause some problems

[v] Cf. Moishe Postone, especially his book Time, Labor and Social Domination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); see also the German Wertkritik (Krisis, Exit!, Robert Kurz), whose forerunners are Lukács, Isaac Runim, Freddy Perlman, the Frankfurt School (especially Adorno and Marcuse), and the Situationists (especially Guy Debord)

[vi] Karl Marx, The capital, trans. David Fernback (London: Penguin, 1991), 3:596

[vii] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1997)

[viii] Marx, The capital, 1:125. In this English translation, it reads “imense collection of commodities”

[ix] Guy Debord. Comments on Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie (London: Verse Books, 1990)

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