Marxism In Other Theory.

I’m always curious to see how Marxism is construed in other theoretical discourses. I’m also usually disappointed at how it is construed where what is designated as Marxism is usually reflective of Wordview Marxism, not Marx’s theory. Its interesting to speculate about how such interpretations have functioned productively to differentiate these discourses from Marxism, and how they also function to prohibit theoretical dialog or syntheses. I’ve certainly found that when Marxist theory is broached with people who study in other discourses, I’m usually appalled by what they define as Marxism.

A case in point can be seen in the Introduction to Feminist Thought I spent the day reading for a feminist book club I’ve joined to discuss The Dialectic of Sex. The author’s pronounced substantialist definition of Marxism, its ensuing depiction of Marx’s social theory as exclusively concerned with the economy and male workers and her bizarre definition of fetishism can be said to both set up the need for feminist theory and to separate Marxist theory from being able to articulate it:

Whereas liberals view capitalism as a system of voluntary exchange relations, Marxists and socialists view capitalism as a system of exploitative power relations. According to Marx, the value of any commodity is determined by the amount of labor, or actual expenditure of human energy and intelligence, necessary to produce it.7 To be more precise, the value of any commodity is equal to the direct labor incorporated in the commodity by workers, plus the indirect labor stored in workers’ artificial appendages—the tools and machines made by the direct labor of their predecessors.8 Because all commodities are worth exactly the labor necessary to produce them and because workers’ labor power (capacity for work) is a commodity that can be bought and sold, the value of workers’ labor power is exactly the cost of whatever it takes (food, clothing, shelter) to maintain them throughout the workday. But there is a difference between what employers pay workers for their mere capacity to work (labor power) and the value that workers actually create when they put their work capacity to use in producing commodities. Marx termed this difference “surplus value,” and from it employers derive their profits. Thus, capitalism is an exploitative system because employers pay workers only for their without also paying workers for the human energy they expend and the intelligence they transfer into the commodities they produce.10

At this point in an analysis of Marxist economic thought, it seems reasonable to ask how employers get workers to labor for more hours than are necessary to produce the value of their subsistence, especially when workers receive no compensation for this extra work. The answer to this query is, as Marx explained in Capital, a simple one: Employers have a monopoly on the means of production, including factories, tools, land, means of transportation, and means of communication. Workers are forced to choose between being exploited and having no work at all. It is a liberal fiction that workers freely sign mutually beneficial contractual agreements with their employers. Capitalism is just as much a system of power relations as it is one of exchange relations. Workers are free to contract with employers only in the sense that employers do not hold a gun to their heads when they sign on the dotted line.

Interestingly, there is another, less discussed reason why employers are able to exploit workers under capitalism. According to Marx, capitalist ideologies lead workers and employers to focus on capitalism’s surface structure of exchange relations.11 As a result of this ideological ploy, which Marx called the fetishism of commodities, workers gradually convince themselves that even though their money is very hard earned, there is nothing inherently wrong with the specific exchange relationships into which they have entered, because life, in all its dimensions, is simply one colossal system of exchange relations.

Of course there are also notable attempts to grapple with these issues from a non substantialist world view Marxist perspective, I’m just speculating about how such a perspective has shaped discourses and how these divisions might be shifted by getting people to properly engage with Marx.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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2 Responses to Marxism In Other Theory.

  1. Robert says:

    I’m interested in how you might respond to each part of this quote (line for line, if you like). While it does seem to fit the general description of weltanschauungsmarxismus, I guess I’m not exactly sure what is particularly problematic about any of it. It doesn’t appear to constitute the worst form of substantialism I’ve come across, at any rate, and seems sophisticated enough for an “in nuce” formulation. This isn’t a challenge, just trying to learn.

    • HR says:

      Hi Robert,

      This is a good question. I agree that this passage isn’t the most egregious example of a bad characterization of Marx’s theory but it is the passage that led me to speculate about this issue. I also probably don’t have time to answer it at the length it deserves. It may also just be that my value-form pedantry is triggered by such definitions. But I’ll still give it a go and hopefully vindicate my value-form pedantry.

      In the first place I would say that what is problematic about the definition is that it conflates Marxist theory with weltangschung marxism and the substantialist reading of Marx. To me this seems to already forclose or at least shape how Marxist theory can be utilized by feminism because the theory is already defined as pertaining to a class, whilst value is defined in a substantialist manner as ‘ the value of any commodity is determined by the amount of labor, or actual expenditure of human energy and intelligence, necessary to produce it.’ Whilst it is true that the author does rightly point out the doubly free conditions that compel workers to sell their labour, I think her definition undercuts: (1) an account of how capital as a social relation reproduces itself and (2) the autonomous forms of value that mediate this reproduction. Thus, her definition of Marx’s critique of capitalism boils down to ‘Thus, capitalism is an exploitative system because employers pay workers only for their without also paying workers for the human energy they expend and the intelligence they transfer into the commodities they produce.’ But this is different than Marx’s account of capital and how capital reproduces itself, which accounts for more than simply class exploitation. For instance we find some of Marx’s fullest accounts of capital in the trinity formula such as the following:

      We [49] have seen that the capitalist process of production is a historically determined form of the social process of production in general. The latter is as much a production process of material conditions of human life as a process taking place under specific historical and economic production relations, producing and reproducing these production relations themselves, and thereby also the bearers of this process, their material conditions of existence and their mutual relations, i.e., their particular socio-economic form. For the aggregate of these relations, in which the agents of this production stand with respect to Nature and to one another, and in which they produce, is precisely society, considered from the standpoint of its economic structure. Like all its predecessors, the capitalist process of production proceeds under definite material conditions, which are, however, simultaneously the bearers of definite social relations entered into by individuals in the process of reproducing their life. Those conditions, like these relations, are on the one hand prerequisites, on the other hand results and creations of the capitalist process of production; they are produced and reproduced by it.

      we also see in the trinity formula how marx addresses other aspects of society that function in a socially specific manner in the reproduction of capital.

      If we also acknowledge the fact that Marx did not complete capital, and was negligent in accounting or discussing the role of women, then it seems to me that it possible and theoretically illuminating to theorize about feminism in conjunction with an account of how capital reproduces itself, rather than foreclosing such an explanation by defining marxist theory in the manner the author does.

      in the second place, i simply don’t understand how or why she interprets fetishism like she does.

      I realize that was rushed. gotta go to some fucking work dinner. let me know if you need clarification.

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