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.