Why we need a Marxian renaissance that drops the old ‘Marxist’ tropes

April 27th, 2012

Cathartic but way off target: traditional marxism

In case you missed this (scroll down for the comments), we publish the more pertinent points here:

What do we mean by human beings being ‘mediated by the commodity form?’

What is meant by mediation? Following Richard Gunn, to mediate is to relate a term to itself or to one or more other terms through another term. The mediation is the relating term, which is itself the relation. There are several kinds of mediation but I am primarily concerned with the one in which two terms mediate each other, where each relates the other to itself reciprocally or we can say where each is the middle term for the other, as in capital and labor. This can also be referred to as an internal relation, which is what we are concerned with in dealing with social forms. An internal relation constitutes the terms it relates and as it is the relation itself, it is the mode of existence, form or appearance of the terms it relates. If the terms are contradictory then the mediation allows the terms to subsist in their contradiction. A properly Marxian notion of contradiction relies on this notion of mediation.

What then might it mean to say that social life is mediated by the commodity-form? Firstly, that sociality itself, as we live/experience/know it, subsists in and through the commodity form.

For example, capital entails a society in which the vast majority of human beings find their day-to-day existence not merely engaged with the purchase and sale of commodities, and not merely with the production of items directly for exchange, rather than for immediate consumption, but with the reproduction of themselves by such means and in order to sell their own life force as a commodity in turn qua labor power.

I find it amusing that we so frequently fail to realize what it means to have such a huge percentage of the population involved in the dominant form of the production of surplus wealth. In ancient Greece, slaves accounted for barely 35% of the population, less in some cases, and between that and pillage, provided the bulk of surplus wealth as the majority of the Greeks were subsistence farmers. In feudal Europe, a small part of the serfs’ time actually went to surplus production, and many people contributed no surplus whatsoever.

The universalision of the proletariat

By comparison, the majority of humanity at this point is brought, directly and indirectly, under the ambit of the capital-labor relation. Those who are not directly involved in wage-labor frequently 1) manage wage labor, 2) provide direct services for those within the capital-labor relation.

From another angle we might develop the degree to which almost nothing which we consume at this point is not a commodity or gotten with a commodity (if one say goes fishing at the lake or hunting in the woods, it is probably with equipment you bought, even if the fish or game is not a commodity and the activity is not either.) Further, there is very little left of so-called leisure time which is not also mediated by the commodity form.

We then have to ask if the way in which the commodity-form is expressed in the entire cycle of capital impacts forms of consciousness, that is to say, objectively shapes consciousness. Is there a way out of this?

Keeping on with the ideas of form, relation, and mediation, Lukacs takes the view that form and its content are not unified. For example, J.B. Say argued that crisis was impossible because sales and purchases always had to be equal. For Lukacs, crises in which stocks lay unsold while money flows in abundance gives the lie to this formal relation. The content of the capital cycle overflows the limits of the form because the form contains within itself a contradiction, which Marx shows to be a crisis of valorization.

This overflowing of content opens the way to consciousness, but consciousness does not simply overcome the mediation, but brings to awareness the necessity and the possibility of collective action that would overcome the mediation.

It is outside the scope of this discussion for me to lay out my issue with Lukacs and the concept of reification. I am actually quite skeptical of it and Lukacs’ appropriation of Weberian concepts, however much he might alter them. What matters is that I would say that he is not Hegelian enough and falls back into a kind of Fichtean immediacy.

On the so-called ‘state-derivation debate’

The direction Holloway and Bonefeld took actually was to say that properly speaking, the state is a social formation particular to capital, that is, to a society in which there is a genuine separation of sphere between the political or public power and the economic, or reproduction and private wealth. Both argued that this was reliant on the development of the capital-labor relation itself which separates production of goods from domination because all people enter into the market as equals, as equally possessing commodities, and equally seeking to buy and sell commodities. This form of interaction necessitates a disinterested arbiter, above civil society, to ensure the equality and fairness of the transaction is maintained.

This was developed systematically against Milibank’s idea that the state was a container filled with the class content of whichever class controlled it, and also against Poulantzas’ Eurocommunism, in which the state was hypostatized as its own field, acting ‘autonomously’.

I think if you look carefully at their contributions to the state debate you will get a better view.

Why traditional Marxism has to be overcome

Again, saying that labor is not the standpoint of the critique of capital is singularly NOT the same as saying that the communism entails the abolition of the working class. If you can’t tell the logical difference between the two, you have larger problems of comprehension. The latter only takes us part way there because if you think that labor is the standpoint of the critique (as a lot of people who hold the latter view do), then you still essentialize labor and fall into the old garbage about how direct sociality is our goal (Lukacs does this, actually), ‘free labor’ is wonderful, labor mediates humanity, etc.

Unfortunately, that view of labor is piffle and leads right back practically to capitalism, the society in which labor already is associated with freedom. We might even say, taking up Marx’s language in Vol. 3, that between the realms of Necessity and Freedom, necessity being the realm of Labor, that capital conceives of the Realm of Necessity as the Realm of Freedom, whereas pre-capitalist societies held an strict separation of the Realm of Necessity, reserved for slaves, serfs, and peasants, and the Realm of Freedom, reserved solely for the Lords, Masters, and all others who got to enjoy and create poetry, art, music, etc.


7 Responses to “Why we need a Marxian renaissance that drops the old ‘Marxist’ tropes”

  1. principiadialectica.co.uk Says:

    “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. [...] On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value.”

    Karl Marx, Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy, 1857/58

  2. antyphayes Says:

    This is great:

    “We might even say, taking up Marx’s language in Vol. 3, that between the realms of Necessity and Freedom, necessity being the realm of Labor, that capital conceives of the Realm of Necessity as the Realm of Freedom, whereas pre-capitalist societies held an strict separation of the Realm of Necessity, reserved for slaves, serfs, and peasants, and the Realm of Freedom, reserved solely for the Lords, Masters, and all others who got to enjoy and create poetry, art, music, etc.”

    The above reminds me of Debord’s argument regarding the emergence of “surplus time” for the masters on the basis of surplus extraction from the slaves in the ancient world in the two chapters on time in The Society of the Spectacle. If I remember correctly Debord was keen to argue that with the emergence of value-form to dominance (the spectacle), the “surplus time” of the masters was an impediment to the extension of market relations and the commodity-form. What I like about Debord’s argument is his identification of something historically new, i.e. the “surplus time” of the masters, was deployed as a human need against both the hierarchy of the pre-capitalist social forms *and* the insurgent value-form. This is an important insight that helps us to develop a non-essential account of alienation (and save Debord from accusations of essentialism leveled unthinkingly by post-moderns and TC’s Roland Simon to boot).


  3. principiadialectica.co.uk Says:

    Chris Wright, don’t be pessimistic. The beauty of the Situationist phrase ‘our ideas are in everyone’s heads’ still holds today. We just need to find the fuse to light the detonator!

    “There is an evolution in human consciousness today that has somehow become aware of itself, even though comparatively little has shifted on the social scale.”

    and crucially:

    “We have the absurd situation where none of the most crucial developments in the scientific disciplines are communicating themselves to its axioms in social knowledge – for example contemporary social and political theory, psychology, sociology and the like. When they do, a total revolution in these fields will be inevitable.”

    Aaron Asphar is onto something. Read all about it here

  4. David Black Says:


    Marx does not express the “standpoint of labour” in Capital (and the Critique of the Gotha Programme) but the standpoint of the “labourER”.

    Arguing from the standpoint of the labourers is in no way incompatible with arguing for the self-abolition of the working class,

    Lukacs’ take on the direct sociality of labour still seems to allow for commodity production (“Stripped of its fetish character” – though how and in what way he doesn’t say).

    Marx, in his critique of Owenite political economists, insists that commodity production can NEVER be directly socialised.

  5. principiadialectica.co.uk Says:

    But once again on pessimism etc. In all seriousness, it is hard to remain an optimist a lot of the time in today’s climate.

    Economic decline has been a constant since circa 1974…the margins for manoeuvre get slimmer, the parameters within which people construct a mode of imagination does appear less bold…the S.I. were putting forward incredible ideas, right through from their origins in the 1950s until they melted away, in no small part due to the fact that capitalist expansion made it all seem possible.

    Can a revolutionary Left re-emerge? Not without a wholescale root and branch renaissance…of course events will impress themselves upon anything we may wish or hope for…


  6. David Black Says:

    The ancient ties between men, their opinions and beliefs – hoar with antiquity – are fast disappearing, and new ones become worn out ere they can become firmly rooted. Everything fixed and stable vanishes, everything holy and venerable is desecrated, and men are forced to look at their mutual relations, at the problem of life, in the soberest, most matter of fact way.

  7. Chris Wright Says:

    I never said Marx took the standpoint of labor. He most certainly has a critique of labor as the determinate social mediation as I see it, pace Postone.

    I do believe he takes the standpoint of the laborer, insofar as the liberation from labor must be self-liberation.

    I agree there is a problem with Lukacs’ formulation of de-fetishized commodity production if it were planned, but I think he has other formulations which contradict this. There is some very good discussion of this in the book Geroge Lukacs: The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence (T. Hall and T. Bewes).

    The matter is less one of pessimism than a refusal of the kind of idiot optimism the Left seems to bathe in, like the “theoretical” nonsense they tell themselves that “the workers” are not subject to commodity fetishism, that they really know the score, and that it is the dull compulsion of wage labor that stymies the masses. Reality will have to somehow break in on the mind that masters it. I am just hammering at the edifice, listening for the pitch that indicates a crack.

    A deepening of the current crisis, which seems quite possible, by no means entails a revival of radical perspectives, and at least in the near term a probable strengthening of the worst, most reactionary tendencies.

    That said, I see no reason to believe we’ve passed the point of no return yet. That would, I think, be less a matter of capital so perfecting its domination that revolution is impossible than of the damage capital seems intent on doing to the world from which we might not be able to recover.

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