This is a summary for my blog friend at Great Lake Swimmer. The question was what has postmodernism done to change or re-arrange Marx’s theories? Some ideas have been surfacing lately that I want to share, albeit somewhat sloppily. The point I want to argue is that postmodernism hasn’t rejected Marx, and that Marxian ideas are ever still relevant today.

Who is Karl Marx in a postmodern era?


Karl Marx’s theory of capital is like a path in the woods. Every idea, every research program, is a path in the woods leading us (where?somewhere) to a place we won’t know until we get there. Martin Heidegger wrote that speculative philosophy was like exploring a path in the woods — a hols vage. But would any particular path lead us to a promising vista for further exploration, or will it be a Lakatosian dead end? The path in the woods taken with Karl Marx’s ideas turned out to be a pivotal vista for the postmodern era. However, there are some confusing words being thrown about that I would like to clarify, explore, and criticize for being ahead of itself.

Post-Marxism

The postmodern paradigm thinks in terms of fragments, particulars, and chaotic heterogeneity. In the new Marxian intellectual climate it is popular to be what is called a “post-Marxist” — a camp which believes they reject the specter of Marx because they reject economic determinism, class-reductionism and Marxist essentialism.

The post-Marxist group consists of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Slavoj Zizek, Stanley Aronowitz, Alistair Davidson, Phillip Derbyshire, and David Forgacs, to name only a few. Rather than reject the specter of Marx, my point is they actually sharpen the Marxian dialectic, and strengthen the Marxian research program by adding layers study and meta-theorization — basically adding more to the body of Marxian thought. But the  new intellectual climate presents us with two equally ridiculous options: Marxist orthodoxy or post-Marxism. But perhaps like the Situationists who preceded them they are still Marxists just as much as Marx was when he said, “I am not a Marxist.

If the Marxian theory of capital is a working theory, then it should be changing if capital itself is changing. Theory should reflect every activity of human life if capital has colonized every activity of human life. This has already happened. Since the 1960s the top-down view of the base and superstructure was replaced by a more reflexive social relationship. The “spectacular society” in the words of Guy Debord is more dynamic, the lie that everyone is “an accomplice” to. (But Marx also hinted at this when he wrote of “false consciousness” and religion.) Post-Marxists like Slajov Zizek also weave Freudian, Jungian, and Lacanian psychoanalysis into the theory (also not incompatible with theories of antagonism or agonism.) And now of course harvesting the world for the new (digital) future is a (digital) class of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists for the wireless world — the virtual class as Athur Kroker describes in Data Trash and other books. This is a new class of people whose work breaks from the materiality of production, and speeds off into the virtuality of circulation.

So capitalism has changed. And naturally Marxian theory has changed with it.

How has the commodity changed? How has capital changed?

The commodity has also changed. Whereas in the manufacturing era the commodity-form was “one-sided” and “massive,” again quoting Kroker in The Will to Technology. In digital capitalism the new commodity is distinctly virtual — it is a vector not a magnitude. It is not one-sided. In economic terms, the commodity-form of virtual circulation is multiplicative infinitely with no marginal costs per unit. Economists today are busy calculating the implications of transaction cost effects in globalization and virtual markets. Even for Karl Marx, it was never really about capitalism as production, but capitalism as circulation.

What about economic determinism? Marx was, firstly, an economist and it was commonplace at the time to speak of “iron laws” in classical economic theory. David Ricardo used this language. But capital was always instead about “tendencies” which could be perverted by countervailing forces. As long as we are speaking of tendencies, we don’t have to worry about a silly problem such as economic determinism. Foucault, newer theories of agonism and antagonism, Agamben, etc. explain these countervailing forces.

What would warrant the title post-Marxist? I think it would really have to be a rejection of some crucial parts of Marxian theory, or we would have to live in a society which was no longer bound by some pretty fundamental constants in Marxian thought — such as capital or labor, or class altogether. If we lived in a classless society, but still had analyzed capital as Marxian pro-revolutionaries, I think we could be post-Marxists. Or something along those lines.

How has social antagonism changed?

The post-Marxism movement begins with the basic tenets of Marxian theory but moves away from the mode of production as the starting point for analysis to include factors other than class — such as gender, ethnicity, and biopower. New theories of class and social antagonism break with older models.

The point post-Marxists make is their break with the economic and material dimension to Marx. The aim is to bring the antagonistic dialectic to nearly every sphere of human activity, not just the material forces of production. But just as the commodity-form is present in every sphere of human activity (experiences, advertising, culture, etc.) so too the Marxian dialectic is present in every sphere of human activity (gender relations, psychology, literary theory, etc.) This is also the postmodern tendency. You can use Marx to talk about race, about gender, about social identity. You can use Marx to talk about social antagonism. You can combine Marx with Freud, or Marx with Nietzsche and Heidegger. Our social theory is plug-and-play.

Postmodernism is not merely limited to art, as I think it is usually understood, or just a trend in Continental philosophy: everything is postmodern in the postmodern era. The economics, the aesthetic, the culture, the biopower. The concept of biopower was realized in the postmodern era. Contemporary postmodern theory stresses a growing interconnectedness of markets, politics, and culture in a high-tech global village where information simultaneously penetrates the entire world, and all aspects of everyday life. The globalization of capital put capitalism everywhere on the geographical map, but the movement of the commodity puts capitalism everywhere in human experience, and even inside the human body. A paragraph from Arthur Kroker’s The Will to Technology,

Just as Marx prophesied in The Communist Manifesto, the unfettered movement of the commodity-form breaks beyond the strictly economic sphere to involve market penetration of every dimension of human experience, from electronically mediated subjectivity and processed (social) reations to the biogenetic engineering of human reproduction…

Use Value, Exchange Value, Sign Value

Have postmodern theorists rejected Marx?


Jean Baudrillard is probably the most Marxian (yet incidentally, post-Marxist) of the postmodern theorists, since he has done the most to improve upon Marx’s theory of capital in the original spirit of Marx and Engels.

Like other postmodernists, Baudrillard also rejected Marx. It was important for Baudrillard to criticize Marx in order to make a crucial point in The Mirror of Production and A System of Objects. But his new “sign value” theory, based partly on Saussurian semiotics, is undoubtedly true to the materiality of the Marxian legacy. (See my essay The Rehabilitation of Jean Baudrillard.)

Baudrillard was more than a footnote to Marx; he was an epic thinker like Marx who had a keen sense of the historical unfolding of capitalism, and whose specter of hyperreality/hyper-capitalism captured the imagination of a new (postmodern) intelligentsia. While Marx wrote the political history of material capital, Baudrillard was writing a kind of metaphysical history of virtual circulation. He has been revived through science fiction (such as David Cronenberg films, but many others) and dystopian animes (such as Ghost in the Shell.) Keanu Reeves was instructed to read Baudrillard’s Simulation et Simulacra for his role as “Neo” in The Matrix movies. Arthur Kroker again:

“Probably against his (political) intentions and certainly against his theoretical aspirations, [Marx] was always and only writing about the disappearance of capitalism into technology, the vanishing of a materialist theory of political economy into a metaphysics of the ‘value-form’ of capital — the pure code of technicity.”

In this Matrix-style reality, Marxian thought hovers over our commodity-forms.

How are Marx's ideas present in the cultural code?

Conclusion

Despite the rise of post-Marxist critical theory which breaks with Marx’s materialism, and in lieu of the collapsed pseudo-Marxist Soviet Empire and the end of history approach of mainstream thought, now that we’ve actually arrived at the 21st Century,  we find Marx more relevant and more readable than ever. The specter of Marx has been waiting for us in the digital age this entire time, perhaps waiting for the virtual classes to open Das Kapital in the form of an e-book or download The Communist Manifesto onto a mobile phone and or any number of virtual media (online universities, for example.) We also find that you don’t need to have an orthodox materialist Marxism in order to use Marxian analysis as a tool. Just as Marx himself knew when he appropriated Hegel’s dialectical idealism into his own dialectical materialism.

When Das Kapital was first published in 1867 capitalism was very different. Marx and Engels wrote diatribes against bourgeois families who overworked their house-servants to death, and against the working conditions of children in coal mines. Conditions of production and circulation today are vastly different today. Globalization. Personal automobiles. The Internet. The Third World. Virtual Reality. A hundred years from now, capitalism will be even more different. We can’t say what it will look like but we can be sure it will be different. “There’s just no way of telling,” to echo the words of anarchist anthropologist David Graeber.

If we look at Marx’s body of thought through the Lakatosian framework — as a “research program” that either melts away under pressures from superior bodies of thought or perseveres as a viable research framework — then the  majority of postmodern theory grew from appendices to Marx. Marx never disappeared. Today we have the web 2.0. Tomorrow we’ll have the digital noosphere or something else. This makes the specter of Marx even more relevant. Today we have post-Marxist cyborg feminists such as Donna Haraway. Tomorrow we will have the post-human? So the specter of Marx is even more relevant in my opinion. We are thresholding and the horizon is always receding, but the specter of Marx’s thought remains inadmissible.

Karl Marx statue in Chemnitz, Germany