The literary critic and Marxist political theorist, Fredric Jameson, has written Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, a book that revisits Karl Marx’s most important work, Capital.
On one level it may seem odd evaluating a book almost 150 years old. How much relevance and practical applicability could it have to the world we currently inhabit? Yet to overlook Capital — as is too often the case — is to miss its searing critique and keen insight.
It is not coincidental that it addresses key elements of the situation we find ourselves in today: how the rich got so rich, how the poor got so poor and how all the various fixes and proposed solutions are based on the illusion that capitalism can somehow be made to meet the needs of the majority of people and still be capitalism.
In short, Marx and Capital is onto something worth exploring. I talked with Jameson by phone recently about this:
Aaron Leonard: You write, “Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment.” Could you talk about why you think that is true?
Frederic Jameson: I know this is probably surprising for people who always think of Marx in political terms, but there is really very little mention of any political action in Capital. There is certainly the implication of the kind of society that could come out of capitalism and also of the contradictions that could led to the end of capitalism and I am not saying that Marx was not political or didn’t constantly think of political strategies, but Capital is not a book about that. It is a book about this infernal machine that is capitalism.
It is a book about unemployment in the sense that the absolute general law of capitalism, as he enunciates it, is to increase productivity — as a result, as he writes, “The relative mass of the industrial reserve army [the unemployed] increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth.” I think this corresponds very much to what is happening in the present. I heard the most revealing thing recently from a venture capitalist, obviously annoyed by the constant talk of both Republicans and Democrats about supporting business so it can ‘create jobs.’
He said look, “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, I wanted to increase my payroll because I think it’s good for the American economy.” This is a pretty direct way of saying business does not exist to create jobs; it is there to make money. That is exactly what Marx lays out in Capital. There is no direct connection between productivity and creating jobs.
This was not so clear as long as Keynesian economics were being applied in certain countries — Keynes understood there had to be workers with enough money to buy all these goods being produced. Since Reagan and Thatcher, however, we get something more like the fundamental logic of capital Marx described. It is not just job flight to other countries; this is part of a worldwide process.
You want to bring factories back to the United States but on the other hand you want them to be productive? Well that means more and more automation and less and less workers, it is obvious. So I think there really is a profound contradiction between employment and what the system does. In that sense it seems to me, a political demand of the kind that there used for full employment is a demand for something the system can’t possibly provide.
AL: You make a point in this book, and “Valence of the Dialectic” that, “The Marx of the Grundrisse, (perhaps more than of the more triumphalist passages of Capital) tirelessly insisted on the significance of the world market as the ultimate horizon on capitalism.” How did he express this and how do you see it actualized today?
FJ: It doesn’t take much room in that work, but the point is the universalization of commodification — everywhere wage labour begins to replace every other kind of labour, be it slave or feudal. It is only when you see the predominance of wage labour in an area, like Western Europe for example, that you realize what kind of machine capitalism is, what kind of process it is, how it is universal.
In a footnote in Grundrisse [the notebooks that preceded Volume One of Capital] Marx says it is not until we reach the confines of the world market that a world revolution, a socialist revolution, becomes foreseeable. By that he means that when gradually around the world all of these other forms of labour will have been replaced by wage labour and thus the profits they produce will have been replaced by capital (from surplus value).
What happens when capital reaches a contradiction or a crisis? There is a breakdown movement. In the book I write that capitalism is “a peculiar machine whose evolution is at one with its breakdown, its expansion at one with its malfunction, its growth with its collapse.” The breakdown of the system is given in the expansion of the system. You’ve used up your peasantry and made them into farmers, then they become unemployed, the system moves along trying to get cheaper and cheaper labour, finally it reaches a point where there isn’t any cheap labour any more, but at the same time there isn’t anyone to buy all these products.
I think we’re in a position now to see that much better than they were in the 20th century. Once you touch the boundaries of the world market then capitalism can’t really expand any further. Now we are not at that point. Yet, better than in Marx’s own time we can see the limits of the situation approaching. That is the moment when the system becomes intolerable and it becomes clear that the system either has to break down or be replaced with something else.
Of course people used to think that Marx was saying that socialism is inevitable, but as far back as the Communist Manifesto he writes about either a revolutionary reconstitution “or the common ruin of the contending classes” — so no, it is not inevitable, but it is where human action and political practice come into play.
AL: In the book you write, “Marx alone sought to combine a politics of revolt with the “poetry of the future” and applied himself to demonstrate that socialism was more modern than capitalism and more productive. To recover that futurism and that excitement is surely the fundamental task of any left ‘discursive struggle’ today.” Could you talk more about this, and how one might begin to conceive a futuristic socialism?
FJ: Marx himself was always quite excited about new discoveries — things like chemical fertilizers (which don’t seem so good today, but lead to a green revolution in their time), undersea cable, and other discoveries of the day. It is very clear that he thought of socialism as more advanced technologically and in every other way. Raymond Williams wrote about how people think that socialism is a nostalgic return to a simpler society. Williams challenged that saying socialism won’t be simpler, it will be much more complicated.
There is a tendency among the Left today — and I mean all varieties of the Left — of being reduced to protecting things. It is a kind of conservatism; saving all the things that capitalism destroys which range from nature to communities, cities, culture and so on. The Left is placed in a very self-defeating nostalgic position, just trying to slow down the movement of history. There is a line by Walter Benjamin that epitomizes that — though I don’t know how he thought of that himself — revolutions are “pulling the emergency cord,” stopping the onrush of the train. I don’t think Marx thought about it like that at all. It seems to me that Marx thought that productivity would increase by getting rid of capitalism. On the level of organization, technology and production, Marx did not want a return to handicraft labour, but to go on into all kinds of complex forms of automation and computerization [as it would emerge] and so.
The historical accident of something like socialism or communism taking place in a place what was essentially a third world country, Russia, an underdeveloped country, that has made us think of socialism in a way that was not Marx’s way of imagining it. The socialist movement has to itself be inspired by this other type of vision.
Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, by Fredric Jameson (Verso Books, 2011).