Asad Haider: You write within a Marxist framework, but often focus on classical political philosophy, prior to or outside of the Marxist tradition. What’s the relevance of this kind of study?
Gopal Balakrishnan: I would say that just as we clearly see that Marx’s economic thinking arises out of a critique of classical political economy, and that in turn was made possible by a prior critique of idealist philosophy, we also have to see the problems of revolutionary politics that Marx is addressing as a critical engagement with the past history of political thought. There are specific category problems, as well as intertwined historical subject matter in an engagement with that side of Marx, and Marx’s own engagement with this lineage of thinkers – Hegel as a legal and political thinker, clearly, but Hegel’s thought as a culmination of a tradition of legal and political thinking going back to Aristotle. That’s something which has been underscored by others in the Marxist tradition, you could think of Althusser and Colletti, who also had works which were explicitly about the political writers before Marx, who in some way introduce or delineate the problems of politics and history that Marx will subsequently take up in his accounts of the class struggles and civil wars of the times that he was living in.
I want to ask about two political thinkers, and what we can learn from them. The first is Carl Schmitt, the subject of your first book, The Enemy.
Well, you know, it’s not always obvious to people why it’s necessary to read figures like Schmitt, a figure who was compromised by his intimate associations with fascism and National Socialism. So this is an initial obstacle to a critical engagement – it was even for me. Schmitt, from the other side of the political spectrum, was approaching the problems of the forms of politics that arose in a period of the historical and structural crisis of the state-form, manifesting itself in the indeterminacy around the basic categories and conceptual distinctions that organized legal and political thinking from an earlier period. His benchmark is the period of classical liberalism, so the concepts and category distinctions that organized legal and political thinking for classical liberalism and before are entering into crisis in this new era, in which the opposition of state and society, the fundamental separation of the economic from the political – which is of course one of the ways Marx understands what’s specific to modern bourgeois or capitalist society – is under threat. Schmitt is addressing the same problem as Marx, except he’s doing it in a period when the further development of the capitalist system, mediated by the interstate system into a pattern of combined an uneven development, and further mediated by revolutionary and counterrevolutionary ruptures, is bringing about a reconnection of these previously separated spheres or domains of the political and the economic. The actual subsequent development of capitalism is reconnecting them in various ways, although maintaining fundamentally the separation insofar as we’re still speaking of capitalism. So I think in that sense Schmitt is dealing with a problem – indirectly, sometimes, but sometimes directly – a deep problem that arose in Marx’s own thinking.
Now Marx, even though he posited this separation of the political from the economic, did not on that basis attempt to elaborate on concrete forms of modern statehood and their potential historical transformations within later phases of capitalist development. While he identified the social relations behind the long-term dynamic of capital accumulation, he developed a more rudimentary account of the basic structure of the state that arises from this separation. His accounts of class struggles and civil wars of the 19th century present some general outlines of the modern bourgeois state, but not much as far as theorizing its concrete tendencies of development. Unlike capital, the state is a very simple category in Marx’s writings. There isn’t really a systematic historical critique of the political order that arises from this constitutive separation of the political from the economic, or of contemporary relation between state and the development of capitalism, although he has much to say about how this played out in the period of the formation of capitalist society. In the early works, when he’s engaging with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he addresses the specific delineated forms of the European state arising out of this process of separation, but its of course still in a rudimentary philosophical form.
Getting back to Schmitt: there are of course serious limits to his thinking, to the extent that he only approached these problems through the mediation of his conception of the state in the tradition of constitutional law and its premises, so his understanding of the transformations of capitalism in this period are approached through this mediation. But what he has to say about the crisis of the legal forms of statehood, private property, and war is interesting in its own right, and often goes well beyond what Marxists at the time wrote on these matters. The Weimar Republic was, after all, the epicenter of a larger historical situation of an intense interwar structural crisis of capitalism and the inter-state system within which it had evolved. The Weimar state-form, and the constitutional controversies surrounding it, was a staging ground for the larger theoretical questions around the character of the period, in terms of the fundamental transformations in the relationship of the state to capitalism, of the political to the economic, that should be of interest to any Marxist. Of course, many of his students were Marxists, and he was often able to appropriate ideas from others across the political spectrum. This is apparent from the very beginning of the Weimar Republic, when he wrote on the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat within a wider intellectual history of emergency powers and states of exception, all the way to its end when he addressed the problem of the compatibility of the crisis management of post-laissez-faire capitalism with existing forms of democracy.
The second thinker is Machiavelli. Both Gramsci and Althusser wrote about Machiavelli, and you returned to some of this material in Antagonistics.
I would say that one of the ways to think about the significance of Machiavelli is the context in which thinking about the present through a reading of Machiavelli emerged, from the 19th century to the interwar period, and perhaps closer to the present context as well. If you think about it that way, you can see that there are a number of episodes in the story of the reception with Machiavelli. In the early 19th century you have Fichte and Hegel responding to the crisis of the German state, and trying to think about the conditions of possibility of the reconstitution of a national state, by looking at Machiavelli’s writings on the problem of Italian national unity. They saw Machiavelli as addressing the problem of the conditions of the genesis of a state, particularly in the context of what appeared as catastrophic defeat in the form of foreign occupation. So that’s their historical link to Machiavelli’s situation.
Keeping that in mind, the renewed interest in Machiavelli during the interwar period, and this is manifested by writings on him across the political spectrum – you mentioned Gramsci, there’s also Leo Strauss, Wyndham Lewis, Raymond Aron, and many others. Gramsci, whether he was dealing with the problem of revolutionary political strategy in the West, the rise of Fascism or even the onset of American hegemony, raised Machiavellian questions about the nexus between the foundation of new states and the conditions of their perpetuation. This is the problem that Machiavelli is dealing with in the Discourses, the need for an interlude or founding episode of terror to establish a new state, and the mode by which that origin can be superseded through the establishment of political forms that are capable of perpetuating themselves on the basis of the multitude, the not yet fully independent popular foundation of the new order. So, these episodes of reading Machiavelli are all about the origins and foundations of new orders, as experienced in the aftermath of defeat.
So we’re seeing the resonance of these themes across historical periods. Crises in state-forms, and crises which are truly global, with catastrophic defeats, situations in which the shape of a new order can’t be clearly seen. We’re now experiencing what seems to be an interminable economic crisis; how do these classical themes play into understanding the current period?
The ability of some of these older legacies of thought to address the present was called into question by the restabilization of the capitalist system in the postwar period. For that reason those who have remained interested in those older legacies of revolutionary political thought, thinking about a politics that could bring them back, have found it difficult to find its points of application to the world of capital that arose in the postwar Western sector. There were a variety of attempts to keep alive, in some way, the possibilities of revolutionary political change, but often this took the form of trying to look for other agencies outside the working class, and other sites of struggle. For a very a long period of time we’ve experienced the development of capitalism which is in some respects no longer capable of continuing and reproducing the successes of the postwar period.
An adequate understanding of the so-called period of neoliberalism involves understanding these different levels, some of which seemed to indicate that the capitalist system was reaching new heights, as the entire world was incorporated into it, while other levels of its evolution exhibited characteristics which suggested that the fundamental economic problems of the 1970s, in terms of a slowdown in the growth of income, were never really superseded. What I suggest in my piece “Speculations on the Stationary State” is that these conjunctural problems carried over from the 1970s are converging with the structural limits of capitalism itself, which make it less realistic to assume that this renewal process is going to happen.
It was often thought, until recently, that the last thirty years, after the postwar “Golden Age,” were the greatest period of capitalism ever. Developing a comprehensive objective account of what happened in this period has been difficult, since there are so many different levels at which what happened unfolded. There’s been a long term period of structural transformations and adjustments with so many new characteristics introduced into the capitalist system, it would seem at least initially paradoxical that this has not in some way broken forth into a new period of accumulation. So in order to address that problem, its now important to reconsider some theorizations of longer-term limits of capitalism. I didn’t really go into the various Marxist versions of that, which I would do more of now, but I think that the core of it arises out of the Brenner account and some unresolved problems and questions in that account regarding the long term, drawing the political and historical problems out.
Let’s talk about Robert Brenner’s analysis of what he calls the long downturn, which started in the 1970s. His account is controversial for a number of reasons, including among Marxists. He doesn’t make use of the Marxian terminology of value, and doesn’t explicitly refer to Marx’s texts on economic crisis.
It’s neither framed in terms of Marx’s own characteristic terminology, nor is it framed as a general theory of capitalist crisis. Though some general principles might come out of it, Brenner doesn’t advance this as an explanation of the interwar economic crisis, the so-called Great Depression, nor of the crisis of the last decades of the 19th century. So although there’s a general characterization of the social property relations of the capitalist mode of production, and there’s an account of some of the long-term dynamics and trends, every particular phase of accumulation is a historical topic unto itself, calling into question the idea of Marx’s economic thought as a crisis theory. That’s good, in my view.
As a secondary issue, on Brenner’s relation to Marx, despite the terminological distance, I think actually the account that Brenner provides gives a concrete meaning to various concepts that are the foundation of Marx’s own account of the value form. I think that there’s still something more to be said on this subject, since Brenner himself doesn’t use the terminology and more or less frames his own account of capitalism and of its accumulation process in terms of a cost-price theory, explicitly avoiding the problematic that Marx opened up with his understanding of the social relations which give rise to production in a value form, that there’s a significant dimension of what Marx was trying to get at in his theory of capitalism that is not brought into sharp relief in Brenner’s account.
You’re actually in the midst of researching and writing a book on Marx, focusing on Marx’s economic writings. One of the major problems for the entire history of what was called Western Marxism was that Marx never actually wrote what his method was in works like Capital.
From beginning to end, Marx’s own theory arises out of a critical analysis of the category problems that arose within classical political economy, that it was unable to solve. Marx’s own account of “the capitalist mode of production” takes the form of a solution to these problems, from the mystery of why the value of commodities must appear in a monetary form to why the social relations of production appear in the form of separate factors of production contributing to the value of the commodity, with each appearing as a separate source of revenue to their owner. One of the premises of my work on Marx’s economic thought is that we have generally lost sight of the fundamental economic problems that Marx was addressing, that came out of classical political economy. These were in part still living problems at the time that Marx was working through them, but even during the course of Marx’s own writings on these topics, from the late 1850s to the early 1870s, this tradition of classical political economy, and the living historical content of the problems it was addressing, began to fall out of view, became in some way occluded, so I would argue there’s a kind of opacity to the fundamental underlying problems of Marx’s economic thought. The meanings of many of the terms he’s using, and more seriously the systematic character of his economic thought, are not apparent. Of course, there have always been dogmatic understandings of the systematic character of Marx’s writings, but putting those aside, interpretations of his theory of capitalism have always been mediated by the initial attempts to make sense of it, which took shape in the aftermath of the decline of the intellectual traditions out of which Marx himself formulated his critique of political economy. These initial attempts established the points of entry, topics and problems that have dominated much of the commentary since.
That being said, Marx’s own understanding of capitalism has many characteristics of the particular socio-historical world of 19th century English capitalism embedded within it. Although it’s a general theory, and arises as a critique of the fundamental economic categories of classical political economy, and the solution of the fundamental category problems and with them obviously the real underlying characteristics of a capitalist economy, with the working through of the problems and impasses of classical political economy, Marx arrived at a general theory, but this general theory is in some way conjoined to the specific socio-historical context of the capitalism of his time. Not just of course the factory-industrial order that emerged in England, which is the locus classicus for the general theory, but also the various regions of the larger world-system, from declining Asiatic empires to the still-intact world of European feudalism in the East, in Russia, in the period of its demise, the emergence of white settler states, the end of the large plantation slavery-based economies. These conditions are specific to the classical period of capitalism that Marx is theorizing, and not all of them are in some uniform way subsumed under one single form of capitalism. Many of the characteristics of his age of capitalism belong to another world: capitalist landlordism based on agricultural rent, gold standard money, and conditions of working class life that were uprooted with the advent of modern medicine and the welfare state – although, of course, this latter development has only taken place in more advanced economies. So there’s a number of ways in which Marx’s world is discontinuous with our own, though the general theory allows us to make the bridge, to understand what in the subsequent periods of capitalism, although they break and depart with the characteristics of Marx’s own time, are nonetheless intelligible in terms of the account that Marx does provide.
What you’re pointing to is the fundamental relation between the logical exposition in Capital and the historical chapters, which are sometimes seen as existing in an entirely different register.
There is a tendency to isolate the value theory, or the “theory” part of Marx’s economic writings from the historical parts, to put it crudely. That has to do with prevailing conceptions of what theory is. I’d like to demonstrate what kind of theory Marx is building by presenting it in a systematically unified, reconstructed form. Clearly, Marx does not mean by mean by theory, generalizations applied to something called “history.” But there is another sense of the term “theory” associated with Marx which is also not exactly the one Marx himself had: so-called “Critical Theory.” Marx’s conception of theory was not merely negative in this sense, but aspired to be scientific and systematically integrated with historical content, that is, with the articulation and solution of real historical problems.
Many of the attempts now to get to a new reading of Capital set up as their adversary something called “traditional” Marxism or “worldview” Marxism, which is connected to the political projects of the workers’ movement. Now, if we do a reading of the theoretical texts that were produced by the workers’ movement, we find a remarkable heterogeneity, of perspectives, problematics, questions. How can we begin to reread this tradition as well?
I think there are a couple of questions there, some of which presuppose a particular answer. I would say that, contrary to my own inclinations, insofar as I’m sympathetic to some of the traditions of so-called “worldview Marxism,” there really isn’t much in Marx’s economic writings to warrant the idea that it had some immediate or direct relationship to an understanding of the conditions of possibility of the pursuit of class struggles, or immediately oriented towards the problems of the revolutionary praxis of the working class. That was an attempt made at a later point, based in the fact that Marx’s writings are not just economic, but also on the politics and history of his time, some of them part of a series of writings on the great upheavals, the revolutions and counterrevolutions from 1848 to 1871. So obviously it was not simply culled out of nothing, that so-called “worldview Marxists” would try to establish the connection. But aside from some discussions of the workers’ movement in the form of the struggle to limit the workday, and to establish normal conditions of labor within the factory system, and the significance of the success of that in inducing structural changes within capitalism, as opposed to breaking with it and overthrowing it, there isn’t really that much in the economic writings which either explicitly puts the class struggle at the center of the unfolding evolution of these social relations. There’s much more on the violence of the class struggles that characterized the period of the “primitive accumulation” of capital than on any subsequent episodes of it. It’s not even clear whether the theory which he presents, and this is a tribute to his scientific integrity, really identifies the conditions of possibility for a workers’ movement, in the sense of a dynamic by which the working class might develop out of the process of the accumulation of capital into a force of emancipation and reconstruction. It’s not entirely clear that this is his understanding of what happens to the working class under capitalism.
Nevertheless he described Capital as a weapon in the hands of the working class.
Scientific theory is a weapon, it’s ultimately beneficial to the workers and the downtrodden of society because they have the most interest in understanding the world without illusions. It’s in that respect that I think it’s a weapon for the working class, and it’s not really clear that it can be directly, in the form that Marx wrote it, turned into an instrument of the class struggle. But that’s not what Marx is trying to do, either. He’s trying to set up a framework for concrete investigations of the evolution of this form of society and the political and other forms of struggle that result from its underlying contradictions. Theory – in some ways I think this is what Althusser was good at pointing out – is not there for us, in the sense of something which is immediately even meaningful for us, and the questions that we’re asking. It’s not meant to do that. It’s meant to maybe take us away from the questions we’re asking. So we can’t really think of theory in an instrumental way, because of that relationship, true theories don’t serve our purposes so easily. But they better serve our purposes for all that, because they are ultimately about true things and a knowledge of them. In that sense I think you could say that the scientific-critical understanding of theory, as opposed to a political worldview understanding, is really what the classical conception ultimately subscribed to. Let me qualify that: I think that Gramsci is maybe, in the aftermath of defeat, more attuned to the way a scientific-critical understanding of history and politics leads to a certain, let’s say, disabused relationship to the immediate prospects of the conditions of struggle for working and subaltern classes. It’s really a difficult thing to scientifically and critically explore these problems. We prefer to have our questions result in answers which are enabling to us in some way. There are totally good reasons we ask theory to do this for us. But it best served even that purpose when it did this indirectly.
Now, there are moments in Marx, even in Capital, which describe a kind of inexorable process of historical development which will result in communism.
Where would you say that is?
The “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” in continuity with earlier works.
I would disagree with that, I would say that there’s often a kind of peculiar dialectical form to the way Marx establishes the conditions of the negation of existing conditions. So although he very strikingly suggests the dialectical form of the development of capitalism as a process of the expropriation of labor, which will in turn capsize over into an expropriation of the expropriators, that formal-dialectical structure shouldn’t deceive us. I think this is where we might take a cue from some of the criticism of dialectical thought that came out of currents in the, let’s say, Althusserian tradition. The way the logic of development is understood as a way of following the logic of negation, can lead to assumptions about the course of history which ultimately turn out to be dialectical illusions. I’m not advocating stepping back away from the dialectical development of laws and tendencies. Much of what is great in Marx’s thinking takes this form, and any version of Marx which strips that out of it, really strips out the guts of it. Briefly in the penultimate chapter of volume 1 he speaks of this “expropriation of the expropriators,” it seems as if this is culmination of the analysis, at least in that volume of the text. We might be tempted to see volume 1 as culminating in this understanding of the expropriation of the expropriators. Capital is often read today as the story of the formation of the working class and, let’s call it, before the letter, “the multitude.” The basic idea is that as we approach the final chapter of the expropriation of the multitude, the conditions are emerging for a great reversal. This is the enabling ideological formula of the radical left today. There is a rational core to this. Liberals, social-democrats and remnant legacies of an older far-left often snicker at such illusions, but since they were completely blindsided by the contemporary crisis of capitalism, and failed to predict it, and now offer only hindsight and stick to whatever it is they were saying before, they’re hardly credible either.
It seems to me the reason Marx places such an emphasis on violence, as you mentioned before, in the chapters on primitive accumulation is to break from the idea – which is there in classical political economy, but can also be repeated in a modified form in a Marxism which relies on a transhistorical narrative of the forces of production, the development of the forces of production – the idea that the “social-property relations” of the capitalist mode of production are the realization of something nascent in the previous mode of production, whereas he is describing a process which isn’t a simple realization, but which involves discontinuity, and which engages every level of the social formation. He emphasizes the role of the state, the interaction of various elements which don’t contain capitalism within them.
I’m not sure if you’re describing Marx here, I think that his thoughts on the subject of the emergence or transition to something like a “social” mode of production, are scattered, as everyone knows, and really take the form of either this dialectical-overturning, or, more modestly, of a consideration of the way aspects of social reproduction which assume a particular form because of capitalist social-property relations would be suspended, given a social mode of production. In this latter vein his basic point is that what are assumed to be material necessities of production are really only such because of these particular social forms.
You’ve described the story of primitive accumulation as the formation of the working class as a kind of ideological narrative, with utility for the social moment. What would be a scientific analysis of the formation of the proletariat? Not Marx’s?
Well, he explicitly says in that chapter, that he is not going to look at the economic causes of the formation of the proletariat, that he is just going to look at the role that violence played in this process. That’s an explicit admission that this is not really a theorization, or historically grounded account of the whole process of the original accumulation of capital, but a counter-myth to the bourgeois story of enterprising Lockean forefathers scraping together, out of their labors, sums which they are then able to use to employ those who were unable, or didn’t want to do that. That story is basically an ideological account of why people today are divided into classes, and so Marx is countering it with another one unfolding within a dialectical form, with this kind of reversal.
So he’s lapsing out of science? Because you’ve described the systematicity of this entire work.
I have said that there is a logico-historical systematicity. I haven’t described it though.
Okay. But your characterization of the chapters on primitive accumulation seems to suggest that they are not part of this.
I think that there’s a conceptual development running throughout Marx’s works, including the texts on primitive accumulation.
Theorizations of history and politics are always in some way connected to a concrete historical situation, an existential-historical situation. Every example we have of even the articulation of sweeping accounts of basic political forms, whether that’s done in a way that historicizes them or not, arose in that conjuncture and encounter with a particular setting. That’s going back to Aristotle’s Politics, and that’s certainly true of early modern political thought. It’s also true of Marx. So this duality of theory and, let’s call it ideology, is inside of theory. The questions we’re asking of politics and history are questions for us, not like when we’re asking questions about other kinds of objects, with the understanding and comprehension of non-human reality, the separation of what is and what is for us can in some way be made completely, and that’s obviously not true when we’re talking about politics and history. So there is in some way this internal mutual implication of the ideological and the theoretical. Theory takes the form of the dissolution and critique of our ideologically formed questions. It doesn’t ever sever itself completely from our ideologically formed questions. Ideology in the Althusserian sense is rising out of social experience, right? The spontaneous ways things appear, and even theories can become encrusted with ideology, and become a kind of obscurantist naivete. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it’s not the case that we have theory on the one hand and spontaneous and direct social experience in its naive form on the other. That social experience is mediated by a whole garbled set of terminologies and half-formed questions and problems, which then it’s the business of critical theoretical understanding to break apart and to generate tracks and paths for analysis and investigation. Theories and problems within any tradition can become ideologized. This is true of Marxism, this is true of every tradition. There’s a moment in which theory emerges in some living relation to scientific-critical problems and does so perhaps in some conjunction with the political moment, and then there are moments when that is left behind, and we only have ossified terminologies and poorly-understood questions and problems.
For Althusser, I would argue, the really core characteristic of ideology is that it posits the transparency of social relations. And this is guaranteed by an understanding of history as a process with a subject and a goal, which is the realization of this transparency. The primary example of this is the teleology of the Second International, and for him this is repeated in the humanist, historicist theoretical revolt against the categories of the Second International. The way this maps out onto Marx’s works is, for example, that dialectical account that you described in that chapter in Capital, that would be the ideological moment, while primitive accumulation is an attempt to break with that.
Certainly within Marx’s work is the possibility of developing an adequate account of the actual primitive, or original accumulation of capital. There’s plenty of material in Marx which is about this process of the formation of wealth in a new social form during the manufacturing period. That’s the real material on primitive accumulation. Whether it’s wholly correct is another matter.
So while I am suggesting, along with Althusser, that the chapter on the expropriation of the expropriators and the chapters on primitive accumulation are in a tension, because one describes a historical dialectic with a goal, the other describes a process of rupture which is figured in violence, you’re suggesting that they’re part of the same ideological mold.
Like I said before, I’m not saying that Marx himself was unable to break with this. I’m saying that he explicitly says that in this chapter he is only looking at the political side, the role that violence played in this process. That’s a pretty direct statement to the effect that this is not a comprehensive account of the whole process. The process of social and historical change, the emergence of a new mode of production, can’t be explained adequately by a “force theory of history.” Although Marx once referred to force as the midwife of such changes, Engels had to launch an attack on exaggerated reactionary versions of this view. By the late 19th century there’s an increasing widespread rejection of the older peaceful account of the origins of civilization, and Bismarckian blood and iron is replacing Lockean labor as the dominant ideology of the origins of society. Marxism as a result developed not just a critique of the story of the peaceful rise of civilization that you get from the classics, it also develops as a critique of the bourgeois reactionary accounts of blood and iron as the motor of history, and in this respect Marx was a Marxist.
It never really suffices to say “it’s more complicated than that,” but social and historical change is, to put it generally, a multi-dimensional process. In some way Althusser tried to convey this with his understanding of the discontinuities between levels of a social totality, that they were not capable of cohering into a single subject, because they all had their own relatively autonomous tendencies and histories. So in this sense there were histories, but there is no subject from which one could speak of a history. This was the point of contention with Sartre and Lukács. The formation of history was not an automatic and given process, it was a complex one in which the mediated and relatively autonomous social and historical existence could be given a unifying account which would become the basis for a process of their sociopolitical transformation. The idea of a subject of history, and I think Althusser came to this understanding later, is somehow implicit within our politics of historical transformation. One of the reasons why I think he’s wrestling with the problem of theory and ideology later on, is that he realizes that these are not separable things, in precisely the manner in which this was thought to be possible in the earlier writings.
Sometimes the critique of “traditional” or “worldview” Marxism extends as far as the claim that capitalist development required a workers’ movement in order to complete itself. So the end of the workers’ movement was essentially inscribed in its origins. To me it seems we’re back at what Althusser cheekily described as “poor man’s Hegelianism,” reproducing the Second International’s teleology in what claims to be a critique of the very deepest categories of Second International Marxism. The same structure of historical development is now applied to the history of the workers’ movement itself.
If by this you mean the idea that we can understand historical processes through general interrelationships between categories of analysis, this is truly to be avoided. This is something that Marx himself had things to say about. So the idea that one can, instead of actually doing historical investigation in the mold that Marx does himself, which he is in some sense creating the foundation of, if one thinks that we can instead of that do a kind of understanding of the world-historical dynamics that arise out of the internal relationships between categories, then that is not something which follows Marx. It might be that some things of intellectual interest arise out of this way of framing things, I don’t want to say that there’s nothing to that, but it should never be conceived of as a substitute for real historical understanding.
The social relations that Marx develops out of an analysis of categories and the category problems of political economy are always being developed through real historical content. This real historical content takes the form of problems that cannot be resolved by apprehending their conceptual form. They don’t exist independently, the idea that there’s a kind of purely logical mode of the interconnection of these categories to one another is simply to have a mystified and fetishistic conception of what theoretical categories are.
I want to return to these two themes of political thought that you identified earlier. One was crisis, which we’ve discussed. The other was defeat. The major defeat which frames our period is precisely the defeat of the workers’ movement, across the end of the 1970s through the 1980s. As the ambivalence towards “traditional” Marxism demonstrates, this defeat poses considerable problems for people interested in mass movements and political transformation today.
On the one hand we seem to be in a period in which more and more people are coming around to the view that the economic problems of the day speak to a deep structural crisis of capitalism. Even a few years ago when I wrote the piece on the stationary state this wasn’t widely held to be the case, but it’s now increasingly accepted. On the other hand, as you point out, we’re confronted with the absence of any large-scale agencies of social and political change that might open up the question of a new social economic order beyond capitalism. The way the crisis has unfolded so far is primarily to raise questions about how to sustain and prop up the status quo, and even forms of opposition to austerity have not really been able to break out of a set of purely defensive demands, to roll back some of the damage of the financial crisis and think about restabilizing the economy by restoring a previously existing level of economic equality and job security, which is thought to be perhaps attainable. Some people are drawing the conclusion that the problems are so deep that those kind of solutions aren’t going to work anymore, but the fundamental structural transformations that would have to happen for these problems of unemployment, declining wages, and mass poverty around the world, to be overcome are so daunting, that the fallback position is understandably one or another of these forms of left-wing populism. I don’t have any problem with that being the form that struggles assumes, it’s inevitable for that to be the case. But the reason the reason why this cannot ultimately succeed even as a strategy of defense is because there’s no new track that capitalism seems to be able to go to. Various types of left-wing reformism have been dependent on the ability of capitalism to deliver employment and rising living standards. So even though capitalism is in this deep and systemic crisis, the crisis is simultaneously manifesting itself in undermining the conditions of social and political opposition. That hasn’t just been a matter of defeat of revolutionary challenges to the system, but has also in this period taken the form of a rollback of the reformist accomplishments of the working class within the advanced capitalist countries, and elsewhere the various mixed legacies of the attempt to promote economic development in some vision of progress in more economically “backwards” zones of the world-system. That’s the context in which we operate.
Gopal Balakrishnan is an editor at New Left Review, and the author of The Enemy and Antagonistics. He is a professor in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz.