Volume 25 Issue 1 January 2013
This issue of Rethinking Marxism marks the commencement of our twenty-fifth year of production—and of our relationship with our readers. Like all good relationships, this one has required tending in order to flourish. Over the years, the journal has done its best to keep its connection with its readers central to its concerns, and yes—the cliché obtains—“fresh.” Recognizing the multifarious interests of our audience, the significance of their work, and the intellectual as well as activist effects we hope to encourage among them, RM has ranged broadly in its subject matter even as it has kept true to its theoretical and analytical agenda. Indeed, the positions voiced in Remarx, the analyses offered in art/iculations, and the evaluations published in our Reviews section, not to mention the discussions that take place in our frequent symposia, have all now become standard, well-received features of our fare. Embarking on our argent year of publication, it seems only appropriate that we continue to diversify our offerings and introduce a new feature, Keywords.
As Maliha Safri and David F. Ruccio point out in their introduction to this new section, “One of the goals of Rethinking Marxism from the very beginning has been to recover the vocabulary of the Marxian tradition.” In undertaking to produce a section that focuses specifically on the vocabulary we collectively draw upon, the intent of the journal is both to trace the histories and traditional uses of terms (some of which may have fallen into relative disuse) and to vivify them within our current context, with a full understanding of the dynamism that characterizes our discourse. As we begin to compile our concordance of “keywords,” we also recognize that we will be confronting, querying, and perhaps even adapting key concepts as well. Nor do we expect that this lexicon will be anything less than protean and mutable in its own right. Thus, while recovery is certainly a part of the project we are undertaking, so too are intervention, opposition, critique, and change.
The inaugural Keywords article by Bruce Norton is, appropriately, “Economic Crises.” Drawing on the history of the Marxian understanding of, and one might even say “investment” in, critical junctures in the march of capitalism, Norton discusses the ways in which notions of economic crisis have dwelt at the center of much Marxist discourse. As Norton points out, both Marx and Engels were acutely—and personally—aware of the undulations of European and American capitalist economies throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. But by the 1870s, it was clear that the imminent revolt that the younger Marx and Engels had linked to such downturns was not forthcoming. And while the leadership of the Second International continued to promote the thesis that crises in capitalism would ultimately make manifest the contradictions at its core, by the 1890s other theorists, such as Eduard Bernstein, began to question whether such crises would indeed “unlock the future.” As Norton makes clear in his accounts of Bernstein's futile attempts to persuade his colleagues of this theoretical difficulty, the teleological view of social development that is embedded in classical Marxism is vitally dependent upon the need for capitalist crises to initiate class revolt. The influence of Rosa Luxemburg, an especially robust supporter of “crisis theory” and the identificatory need of Marxism to cling to it for its explanatory force, emblemizes how even “after much of the rest of the Second International's vision had passed, the heart of its crisis-theoretic dimension beat on,” holding sway until the 1970s. Norton goes on to note how the contributions of Sweezy and Harvey (together with theoretical incursions by Althusser, Laclau and Mouffe, and J. K. Gibson-Graham) helped to rethink the orthodox model of crisis theory and to offer energetic explanations of current crises, though they could not produce the one thing needful for instigating fundamental change: a growing and unified proletariat. Yet Norton finds that the most recent work by Resnick and Wolff offers possibilities inasmuch as their analysis is not bound to the momentum of crisis theory, per se, so much as it is constructed around the specificities of the current crisis, or as Norton says, “as a particular historical experience, rather than the product of a general logic of crisis.” Also, contends Norton, Resnick and Wolff focus their analysis on class rather than on “the laws of motion of a mode of production,” and as a consequence they underscore the undemocratic, unilateral processes that are supported and reproduced in capitalist practices.
The first of this issue's four regular articles is “Inception or Interpellation? The Slovenian School, Butler, and Althusser” by Won Choi. Choi takes up the issues raised by Eagleton, Žižek, Dolar, and others concerning the paradox of the “subject before the subject” in Althusser's famous example in the ISAs essay of the policeman hailing the subject. The question for these critics is how the subject could, at the moment of hailing, be interpellated as a subject—i.e., by turning around—if indeed she were not already a subject. That is, why would the subject turn around if she were not already a subject? And if indeed she is already a subject, what then comes before subjectivity? Yet as Choi masterfully demonstrates, Althusser is arguing that the understanding of the subject before the subject is an effect of the “circular stairway” of ideology. Since there is no outside of ideology, the reading of the subject as subject before the hailing is really an assertion of the telos of the ideological instance into which the subject (and indeed, all of us) is hailed. For Choi, it is important to understand the instrumentality of ideology in Althusser's formulation, for as he rightly points out, ideological interpellation takes place at the level of discourse—as distinct from language—and as such is also the site at which resistance can be theorized, for it is also in interpellation (and discourse) that class difference and struggle are articulated as a whole. As Choi writes, “ideological interpellation always presupposes and takes place through class struggle (and other struggles).”
Roland Boer's “Toward Unethical Insurgency” establishes its provocative thesis (and tone) with its opening sentence: “Ethics may be defined as the means of greasing or oiling social relations so that they work more smoothly.” Boer makes a point of highlighting his suspicion of the discourse of ethics and argues persuasively (pace Marx) that ethics, as such, is not only reproductive of dominant (ruling-class) social structures but that it also asserts as given the very foundation of its operations: the other. Boer successfully contends that ethics in fact produces the other in the first place, and in so doing “it obfuscates its arrogation of other discourses that also produce others, as well as concealing the socioeconomic connections that enable such productions.” Beginning with an etymological analysis of the Greek roots of “ethics” (ethos) and the Latin root of “morals” (mos), Boer teases out the insistence of ruling-class assumptions, from Aristotle forward, that drive ethical discursive imperatives, and he asks whether an ethical possibility exists that can operate free from these discursive (and, he contends, structural) constraints. Continuing with his motif of suspicion, Boer suggests that ethics may indeed be impossible outside of its prison house of custom and practice, and he proposes instead that a “position opposed to ruling class custom and habit be pursued—that is, aēthēs and praeter morem, unethical and unmoral.” For Boer, such a position is not “amoral,” nor does it dispense with ethics. Rather, it “seizes ruling class ideology and turns it against itself.” Indeed, such a move would ultimately necessitate not only an entirely new terminology for socially responsible interaction but would foment a new epistemology of ethics qua ethics.
Gerda Roelvink's provocative “Rethinking Species-Being in the Anthropocene” takes up the recent pronouncement of our new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This appellation pointedly marks the fundamental impact that human activity has had (and continues to have) on our physical world. As Roelvink points out, it also explicitly names the “species,” specifically the human species, “as a collective geological force, one that is undermining humanity's conditions of existence or ‘evolution itself.’” Thus, as Roelvink states, “we are being called, then, to move beyond using species as a (contested) biological term for categorization … to consider species as a political-economic collective that has become geological.” The implications of this are potentially a refiguring of our existence, especially in ethical terms that must consider our own species collectively and interdependent with other species. But Roelvink also recognizes that such thinking potentially reinscribes modernist binary notions of humanity as privileged and having mastery over other species. Roelvink uses Marx's own conception of species-being as a starting point for considering how new modes of humanity might be created while—via Bertell Ollman's classic analysis—simultaneously critiquing the modernist binary assumptions at work in Marx's theory. For Roelvink, the hope is “to open up further exploration of the relationship between species-being and dignified modes of humanity that might be able to respond to the environmental crisis.”
As part of our ongoing series on Globalization, Tony Smith offers “Beyond the ‘Keynes Solution.’” Starting with the proposition that global neoliberal economic practices (and their outcomes) have helped to instigate a resurgence of interest in Keynesian alternative models, Smith examines the work of Paul Davidson's The Keynes Solution: The Path to Global Economic Prosperity. In his book, Davidson argues for a collection of reforms that would ultimately lead to what he describes as a “civilized” global economy. Smith, however, finds this untenable, since Davidson does not adequately address, and indeed accepts and incorporates, capitalist social relations as they now exist. For Smith, this further underscores the need to continue to advocate Marxian solutions to the global economic crises.
We are pleased to present the work of Marina Berio in her photo-essay, “Burn Breathe.” Berio describes her method as using “photographic negatives as a kind of stencil to make charcoal drawings of the lights illuminating artist's studios.” Accompanying each photograph/drawing is a quotation from Marx's “A Worker's Inquiry,” first published in April 1880 in La Revue Socialiste. The questions from the “Inquiry” move us directly to the material, intellectual, and indeed even emotional conditions of production of the artists who are metonymically represented by the photos/drawings of their lights. The effect is complex and compelling. Berio's work evokes a sense of the collective activity of these artists yet also emphasizes the enforced solitude of the artistic endeavor. By having their studio lights stand in for the artists themselves, Berio underscores her metacommentary on the labor of the artist as one that cannot be divorced from inspiration (and sometimes, the darkness that asserts itself when inspiration fails to appear). The black and white of the medium helps to further accentuate the production aspect of the artist's activity, while the absence/presence of each artist (there as light—but absent as body) speaks to the dialectic of identification/alienation that vexes artistic production in a world bound by capitalism.
This issue also offers a symposium, organized and edited by Vincent Lyon-Callo, on Catherine Mulder's Unions and Class Transformation: The Case of the Broadway Musicians. In his opening commentary, “Professionals, Artists, and Unions: Agents of Class Transformation?,” Lyon-Callo remarks upon the job insecurity built into the system of training and employing Broadway musicians, despite their unionization. And though he lauds Mulder's suggestions for crafting a communist class process by creating a less exploitative environment around the few jobs that do exist, he is left wondering how the impetus to compete individually for that work can be overcome in order that a more collective system can emerge.
In “Labor and Méconnaissance in the Culture Industry,” Graham Cassano comes to a similar conclusion, arguing that the contradictions that obtain in an industry that actively fosters competition among its laborers is never completely reconciled in Mulder's book. Pointing to what he describes as an “active set of professional phantasies” that interfere with labor struggle and class transformation, Cassano identifies these contradictions as a “vocational méconnaissance” that resists the sorts of change Mulder is advocating. Yet, Cassano points out, this is hardly the end of the conversation; rather, the “virtual Marxist cartography of class exploitation in one work force” that Mulder maps is, in fact, an important recognition that should ignite the need for follow-up investigations into these issues.
David Brennan's “If Class Transformation Can Happen There, It Can Happen …” extols Mulder's collection and presentation of important details that attend the processes by which the labor involved in producing a Broadway musical is put in place—details gleaned from her time as an employee of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. As Brennan puts it, Mulder integrates “her ground-floor knowledge of the Broadway musicians union with her training as a Marxian economist interested in unions to get beyond the abstract generalizations to tell a story of actual people with real experiences and provide a concrete suggestion for class transformation today.” For Brennan, this is the real value of Mulder's book: her insider's take that could indeed lead to class transformation of the union membership.
Mulder eloquently responds to this commentary in “Unions’ Resistance to Capital and the Potential for Class Transformation” by acknowledging the important points articulated by Lyon-Callo, Cassano, and Brennan. As she says, since the publication of her book, she has continued to think critically about both the specific problems she details in her study as well as how the model she proposes might be used to instigate class transformation among other types of workers. She admits that a major stumbling block for such transformation among Broadway musicians is a lack of class consciousness that even fails to recognize the union as a union. Despite this, she contends that the collectivity called for by Lyon-Callo might in fact be achieved through collective bargaining, for one. She admits that the capitalist structure that informs the musicians union, as well as the difficulty of convincing the musicians that class transformation would indeed be in their best interests, may prove bigger stumbling blocks than she first anticipated, but she also believes they are not insurmountable.
In addition to the symposium, this issue's Remarx essay, “After Fukushima: Revisiting Chernobyl and the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” by Marjolein van der Veen examines the Fukushima nuclear disaster, an event that transfixed the world in mute horror. Rather than seeing the root cause in a natural disaster, van der Veen sees the root cause of Fukushima in a peculiar kind of man-made disaster, echoing Mike Davis's (2002) argument that disasters (like famines) are always man-made even when they have a causal veneer of exogenous forces. She largely focuses on the role of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the fall of the Soviet Union (in terms of symbolic and material costs). Van der Veen hints that Fukushima could generate another kind of large-scale transformation: the potential questioning and reorganization of the globally celebrated Japanese model of capitalism.
In our Reviews section, David Norman Smith looks at Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies by Kevin B. Anderson. Of Anderson's analysis of four themes in Marx's writings (Marx's colonial writings on India and China, Poland and Ireland, the American Civil War, and the transformation of his thinking from the Communist Manifesto to the Grundrisse and Capital), Smith's review focuses on one strain related to the Civil War. In his book, Anderson draws our attention to Marx's correspondence with Pavel Annenkov to reveal the critique that Marxist historian Eric Williams (1944) would elaborate with so much controversial detail a century later: that the foundation of industrial capitalism lay in the surplus accumulation of slavery.
Rounding out this issue is Stephen Tumino's review of The Task of Cultural Critique by Teresa L. Ebert. For Tumino, Ebert has reclaimed “critique” as a substantive activity. Unlike thinkers such as Fredric Jameson, who argues that it is impossible to achieve the necessary “distance” to effectively participate in critique, Ebert contends that it is cultural critique's task to engage our multiply determined abstract social relations. And unlike Jameson, who insinuates that there is no “outside” of culture from which to gain an Archimedean point for analysis, Ebert insists the “outside” is class itself—the most insistent of those abstract social relations. Thus, for Ebert, cultural critique is always a Marxian activity. As Tumino puts it, “Ebert believes contemporary cultural critique is providing illusory interpretations of culture to normalize capital. The task of cultural critique … is to put an end to social illusions.”
Finally, we wish to acknowledge the work of Yahya M. Madra, whose three-year term as Associate Editor of Rethinking Marxism comes to an end with this issue, and to thank him for his insights, his commitment, and the extraordinary amount of work he has done for this journal over that time. We look forward to his continued involvement as a member of the editorial board.