Editors' Introduction

Volume 33  Issue 1  January 2021

In this issue, we start with an interview and an art piece on topics that have gripped global attention: the COVID crisis and the Floyd rebellion, with its laser-sharp focus on race and racism. In essays situated in Pakistan and India, we examine how it is that a state’s developmental efforts can also have perverse classed effects (through either militarization or Keynesian programs like agricultural price-floor policy), demonstrating a lesson that has applicability in the rest of the world, too. And in the remainder of the issue, our authors help us rethink concepts such as degrowth, the formal and real subsumption of labor, abstract labor, and post-Marxism. Readers will hopefully forgive us for pointing out the obvious: the practice of rethinking Marxism is all over our pages.

We open this issue with Associate Editor Boone Shear’s conversation with Kali Akuno, a well-respected activist scholar whose work has been key to the Cooperation Jackson project in Mississippi, among other organizing campaigns. Part of this interview was previously published as part of our special open-access dossier, Pandemic and the Crisis of Capitalism, published in August 2020 (see http://rethinkingmarxism.org/Dossier2020/index.html), but here we release the extended interview, which touches on various aspects of the current crisis period. They begin by discussing the paralysis of the U.S. Democratic Party in the face of two key demands: defunding the police and universal health care, neither of which many Democrats are prepared to do, leaving in place a centrist strategy that cannot possibly deal with the crisis of COVID and the Floyd rebellion. And this, actually, is where the disposability of Black lives rises to connect the two crises structurally, as Shear and Akuno draw links between the high rates of COVID deaths in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations; both parties’ emphasis on opening the economy, which readily sacrifices those lives instead of “harming” the economy; and the long historical tolerance of police violence. Akuno helps us see that the crisis may be a turning point where we face two different and opposed possibilities for our future. Not fundamentally transforming the system means the crisis could inaugurate worse and more fascistic days to come, exacerbating inequality to even more dangerous levels. However, an incredible flourishing of mutual-aid networks is knitting together communities and advancing new relations between people based on solidarity and not charity, laying the material foundation for a different type of politics.

Our art contribution by David Minter is introduced with an essay by Rachel Elizabeth Harding. Pieces like this also rely on the more invisible labor of art editors, Serap Kayatekin, who solicited and nurtured the contribution, and Yahya Madra, who designed and laid out the art contribution for the journal. The selection of Minter’s work takes us through his life’s project of exploring different aspects of Blackness. The last image, for instance, shows the ways that Black slave workers were made invisible in the very foundation of the United States: a Black woman stands at the center of a white house, surrounded by smaller vignettes depicting slave workers and the violence they experienced, all ringed by the faces of the U.S. “founding fathers.” It shows in visual form our repressed history that enslaved quarry workers, carpenters, and brick makers (along with free laborers, but primarily the enslaved) built both the White House and the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and that slave workers would have worked in the White House staff as chefs, gardeners, maids, and valets. The first child born at the White House was born into slavery under Thomas Jefferson’s administration/ownership and died soon after because of poor health, one of the untold deaths memorialized in Minter’s work in the depiction of the Middle Passage of enslaved Africans. In another image, calipers used by eugenicists to measure skulls hover above the profiled head of a Black woman. But Minter’s work also stretches toward Afro-futurism, seeking to remind people of the links to African spirituality and cultural resources embodied in the African diaspora. In delicate geometric tracings inside figures depicting life-giving connections to the cosmos and community, Minter shows how each of us carry the world inside ourself.

In a continuous way, we miss the sharp intellect and camaraderie of Stephen Resnick, a founding editorial-board member of Rethinking Marxism and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who helped generations of Marxists find their way. As we announced in the last volume, the organization with which he worked so closely, the Association for Economic and Social Analysis (AESA), has established a prize in his honor, and the selection committee of Antonio Callari, Serap Kayatekin, Rob Garnett, David Ruccio, and Dan Skinner have selected the two cowinners of the inaugural Stephen Resnick Memorial Prize: Danish Khan and Sayonee Majumdar. We publish the reviewed versions of those essays here.

Danish Khan’s essay, “Political Economy of Uneven State Spatiality: Conflict, Class, and Institutions in the Postcolonial State of Pakistan,” explores a class analysis of the state in Pakistan. If Resnick and Wolff’s analysis of the state was more about contradictions over the appropriate role of the state (with intervention versus laissez faire as poles), Khan looks at the internal struggles within the state, between state apparatuses, inside Pakistan. Using Lefebvre’s tripartite division of “state spaces” (mental, physical, and social space), Khan explores how the military has colonized these different spaces within Pakistan. Pakistan’s military apparatus (dominated ethnically by Punjabis) has maintained hegemonic control over other state apparatuses and through this control has also contributed to a “Punjabization” against which multiple resistance movements in Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa contest this usurpation of power. All of this results in regionally uneven economic development inside Pakistan, which affects not only the internal distribution of resources but the distribution of external resources, such as a $62 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in which the military has controlling oversight while the civilian government is left out of key decision-making bodies. We can see how, despite being specific to Pakistan, aspects of Khan’s scholarship on military hegemony has potentially broad application for understanding not only how the military apparatus is never quite as universally constituted as imagined but also how the military relates to other state apparatuses in an antagonistic fashion.

In her essay “A Class-Focused Theory of Minimum Support Price and Agricultural Distress in India,” Sayonee Majumdar explores the invisible class effects of price floors, or minimum support price, for agricultural products in India. At one level, free-market economists have long criticized price floors for distorting the market while their opponents have touted agricultural price floors for helping small and poor farmers survive the volatility of agricultural markets. In India the latter have long won this contest, but other tensions have nonetheless been revealed. Most recently, in 2018 the Government of India announced that it would set the minimum support price (MSP) at 150 percent of the cost of production, exposing the question of how to calculate both costs and margins of profit or surplus in agriculture. Through class analysis Majumdar shows that, when the state uses its considerable buying power to procure agricultural commodities at minimum prices, this only advantages a narrow sliver of class enterprises, at most 10 percent of agricultural commodities. This certainly echoes experiences in other countries where agricultural support is sucked up by large farmers, but Majumdar goes on to demonstrate that both large and small farmers continue to experience distress in India because of the multiple class positions they hold that could still push them to the brink of crisis despite the MSP. Large farmers (owning 10 hectares or more) are jeopardized and even pushed into the phenomenon of farmer suicides when international prices of exportable crops crash and they cannot service their rising debt, despite receiving the MSP for part of their produce. Small farmers are likewise pushed to sell their products to a state-designated trader who receives a cut of their surplus, thus depressing their incomes. Even the Indian government has had to admit that minimum support prices have failed to boost farmer incomes or to undercut the power of rural wholesale traders over the lives of the small and marginal farmers who make up the majority of the sector.

In our Keywords section, we have a contribution on “Degrowth” by Bengi Akbulut. Economics has long been colonized by a discourse of growth as necessary to well-being, as far back as Adam Smith, who illustrated the power of the invisible hand through rising consumption and production. In a Manichean world, the only options are growth and development or recession and de-development, the latter producing ripples of social pain and misery and the former overstepping ecological limits to produce increasing climate disasters. Akbulut helps us see the option derided by both camps because it is so misunderstood: degrowth. Pursuing a genealogical approach, she takes us through the work of foundational thinkers in degrowth theory who outline the impossibility of endless compounded growth. But beyond pointing out the environmental limits, others have focused on the aspects of growth that are undesirable and produce alienation, inequality, and ill-being instead of well-being. She also addresses the tension inside Marxism around degrowth, partly because the overriding emphasis on justice in the productive sphere does not sit well with a world in which workers would be permanently unemployed. Additionally, the horizon of socialism might simply adopt a mildly redistributionist ethics without necessarily giving up on growth, as evidenced in the state formations of both the USSR and China. In the end, she suggests that degrowthers must incorporate at the center of their politics an emphasis on class justice and addressing alienation, while Marxists must take into their core politics the aims of ecosocialism.

Filippo Menozzi’s “Marxism in Plural Times: Decolonizing Subsumption” tackles the debate on the formal and real subsumption of labor in capitalism in the works of Antonio Negri and Harry Harootunian. In teleological accounts of these concepts, formal subsumption comes first in the development of capitalism (the placing of workers in factories, without changing the labor process; for instance, weavers weaving by hand in the factory place), and real subsumption completes the control of labor by breaking the labor process itself into the technical division of labor. Both Harootunian and Negri destabilize this teleological process to show that these processes unfold in our contemporary context, but they also differ on what this means, as Menozzi shows. According to Harootunian, the unevenness of global development, which includes a plurality of noncapitalist processes in our midst and around the world, points to the incompletion of real subsumption, and this in itself opens the political possibility of resistance and struggle. But for Negri “only the fight ‘within and beyond’ real subsumption paves the way for overcoming and dismantling capitalism.” Menozzi suggests that combining these views could lead to decolonizing the notion of subsumption, and writes about what that would entail: “A decolonized notion of subsumption would not neglect the dominant role or tendency of some figures of labor in a certain historical period but would also reconnect the hegemonic figure to nonhegemonic, residual, and marginal experiences of resistance to exploitation, showing the core’s dependence on exploitation at the periphery.”

Continuing an examination of core Marxian concepts, Simon Tunderman turns to how various schools within Marxism have addressed the concept and deployment of abstract labor in his essay “Equivalence and Antagonism in Marx’s Theory of Value.” He first engages with the work of many members in AESA (Amariglio and Callari, Kristjanson-Gural, Roberts, and Wolff) to trace the work of how abstract labor has been reconsidered through an overdeterminist lens. He likewise uses the work of Laclau and Mouffe to show how money can act as an empty signifier, which suggests that abstract-labor equivalence between commodities can be understood as a chain of equivalence. The equivalential relations that bring abstract labor into being only emerge, however, on the basis of negativity, in their antagonistic relation to what abstract labor is not. So what is this constitutive limit to abstract labor? Tunderman argues that it is directly useful work producing use values necessary for survival—for example, household labor—that are not commodified. Similar to Menozzi, Tunderman argues that the process of primitive accumulation that separates humans from directly useful work should be seen not as a precapitalist stage that we have surpassed but as a continual struggle that undermines the equivalence of abstract labor.

We are pleased to publish a scholarly exchange, Thomas Jacobs’s response to Pedro M. Rey-Araújo’s essay “Ernesto Laclau’s Oblivion of Political Economy,” and then Rey-Araújo’s reply to Thomas Jacobs. In RM volume 32, number 2, Rey-Araújo argued that Laclau had thrown out the baby with the bathwater, to use a popular adage, by evacuating political economy from post-Marxism in his contributions to a nondeterminist approach. In his response, titled “Institutions and Political Strategy in Post-Marxist Discourse Theory,” Thomas Jacobs critiques Rey-Araújo on two main fronts: (1) that post-Marxist discourse theory has in fact tackled a key deficit by addressing institutions and (2) that Rey-Araújo is holding onto an essentialist ontology of class even as he relies on the antiessentialist framework of Resnick and Wolff and so many others associated with this journal. Ultimately, Rey-Araújo is careful in his response, engaging Jacobs to show their agreements and disagreements and ending with a comradely invitation for further reflection to advance our understanding of political strategy.

We end with Andrey Maidansky’s book review, titled “An Unseen Life of the Intellect: A Review of Vygotsky’s Notebooks: A Selection.” Edited and compiled by Ekaterina Zavershneva and René van der Veer, the book brings together the notes of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, a pioneering Russian psychologist who sought to combine Marx’s method with the study of the mind. Having deciphered and analyzed Vygotsky’s copious handwritten notes over ten years, the editors give a detailed periodization of his thinking, grouping notes thematically and chronologically. Maidansky ends his review by thanking the editors, even as he notes their philosophical and political differences from Vygotsky, for this monumental intellectual labor and contribution to cultural-historical psychology.

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