Marx's Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital

Marx's Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital

by William Clare Roberts


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ISBN-13: 9780691180816
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,201,111
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

William Clare Roberts is assistant professor of political science at McGill University.

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Marx's Inferno

The Political Theory of Capital

By William Clare Roberts


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8370-7


Introduction: Rereading Capital

When word of his death reached New York City, "representatives of the various trades, labor, social, and other organizations" issued a public statement proclaiming that "now it is the duty of all true lovers of liberty to honor the name of Karl Marx." This call has become, over the course of the twentieth century, nigh unintelligible. "Liberty" has become the shibboleth of antisocialism and anticommunism. That Marx was ever taken to be a devoted advocate of "the liberation of all downtrodden people," as these laborers and socialists claimed, seems, not antiquated, but bizarre. Justice, certainly. Progress. Science. Equality. Universal solidarity. But liberty? What has Marx to offer "all true lovers of liberty"?

If this book is to accomplish one thing, it ought to make this eulogy seem not only intelligible but also sensible and reasonable. Marx's critical theory of capitalism diagnosed the rule of capital as a complex and world-spanning system of domination. He sought, in Capital, to analyze the mechanisms of this system and to reconstruct a notion of freedom adequate to its abolition. In order to be properly appreciated, Marx's Capital must be recovered as a work of political theory, written in a specific political context, but seeking also to say something of lasting importance about the challenges to — and possibilities for — freedom in the modern world.

My argument is twofold. First, I contend that, in Capital, Marx had a grand aspiration, to write the definitive analysis of what's wrong with the rule of capital, and that he hung this aspiration on a suitably grand literary framework: rewriting Dante's Inferno as a descent into the modern "social Hell" of the capitalist mode of production. Dante, of course, staged his own, individual, salvation story, telling us how his encounter with the evil of the world prepared his soul for its journey to blessedness. But his pilgrim was also supposed to be an Everyman, whose descent into damnation and resurrection into grace might be reiterated by all of the faithful. Marx, on the other hand, cast himself as a Virgil for the proletariat, guiding his readers through the lower recesses of the capitalist economic order in order that they might learn not only how this "infernal machine" works, but also what traps to avoid in their efforts to construct a new world.

Second, I argue that in order to understand Marx's attempt to realize this grand aspiration, Capital is best read as a critical reconstruction of and rejoinder to the other versions of socialism and popular radicalism that predominated in France and England in the 1860s and 1870s, when Marx was composing his magnum opus. These competing discourses — the remnants of Owenism, Fourierism, and Saint-Simonianism, the social republicanism of James Bronterre O'Brien, and, most crucially, the mutualism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon — were at the forefront of Marx's concern when he was writing Capital. The foundation of the International Working Men's Association (IWMA) in 1864, and Marx's conviction that the group held the seeds of a renewal of revolutionary politics, spurred him to get his thousands of pages of manuscripts and notes into publishable form. He hoped that the book would provide the theoretical guideposts for the resurgent movement. In order for it to achieve this status, Capital had to either co-opt, undermine, or openly confront the existing theoretical commonplaces of the rival camps, which dominated the political landscape that Marx hoped his own outlook would come to occupy. Hence, in the process and for the sake of unfolding Marx's critique of capitalism, my book examines Marx's borrowings from and arguments against the other socialists, many of which remain sub rosa to those unfamiliar with the writers in question.

Marx's grand ambitions and his internecine struggles are not separable from one another, either, but are thoroughly intertwined. The notion that modernity is a "social Hell" was originally suggested by Charles Fourier and his protégé Victor Considérant, and had already been developed in the works of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon into a metaphorical history of humanity's descent into and escape from the underworld. The moral categories that structure Dante's Hell — incontinence, force, fraud, and treachery — were common terms in the moral discourse of early socialism. Indeed, much of early socialism, as it emerged from Christian and civic republican discourses, consisted in the application of these moral categories to the social question, and this was a crucial point of contention between Marx and his more moralistic predecessors and contemporaries. Marx's distinctiveness comes to the fore in that his opponents want either to avoid political economy, or else, like Proudhon, to remain within it. Only Marx, following Dante, sees the necessity of going through political economy in order to get beyond it. And, as in the case of Dante's pilgrim, this transit is transformative. But Marx's journey, unlike Dante's, is supposed to de-personalize and de-moralize. Marx recapitulates Dante's descent through incontinence, force, fraud, and treachery in order to show that it is capital, as a system of all-around domination, that is responsible for these evils, not the individuals dominated by capital.

Thus my book is only able to trace either of these two threads by tracing both. By considering together Marx's context and his designs, this study shows how Marx's fights with other socialist theorists in the early years of the IWMA were transmuted by him into Capital, and reveals the ambition of Capital to lay bare, for the first time, the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production and the political economy that analyzes it, as a Hell into which the proletariat must descend in order to free themselves and the world.

Reading Capital as Political Theory

My argument takes its orientation from some of the literary aspects of Marx's book — its use of tropes and metaphors, its allusions and citations. For all that, however, I do not treat Capital as a work of literature. Rather, I treat it as a work of political theory. Its tropes, metaphors, allusions, and citations are approached as signs to be interpreted, as the linguistic traces of intuitions that can be fleshed out in theoretical terms. When socialists and communists, including Marx, call capital a vampire, they do so because the metaphor seems to them an apt one. And the aptitude of the metaphor can be discussed and articulated in language that is not itself merely an elaboration of the metaphor. The sense that capital is parasitical upon something — labor — that is both more primary to human existence and more natural and lively than is capital can be spelled out. These intuitions have their own implicit presuppositions, and these can be made explicit. The judgment against capital implied by the vampire metaphor can, by this process, come to be considered independently of the metaphor itself, and can be assessed as more or less cogent.

The metaphors, tropes, and formulas circulated within a discourse are the anchors of its common sensibility, the moments that give to an utterance an immediate plausibility or attractiveness within a certain community of writers and readers, speakers and listeners, and an immediate outlandishness to members of other communities. Political speech is often an exercise in recollecting, rehearsing, burnishing, and deploying such familiarities, for the sake of signaling one's allegiances and rallying one's allies. It recalls people to their prior commitments and to the shared narratives that make sense of their world by orienting them in it.

In the South Dakota of my youth, for example, it was de rigueur for political speeches and ads to refer to at least one of two scenes: a rancher riding and surveying his range, or a handful of farmers exchanging news and gathering supplies on the Main Street of a small town. The figure of the rancher bespoke the assumption that the land ought to be controlled and supervised by independent men, who could be trusted and expected to take care of things themselves. The tableau of the farming town was to remind the audience of the trust and mutual reliance that exists among neighbors, who know one another for what they are. Whether spoken, written, or depicted by actors on TV, these political tropes signaled adherence to a common sense of what political life was about — its parameters and stakes — in a sparsely populated prairie state, where the native population had been subjugated and confined to reservations and poverty, and where the upsurge of political Christianism had yet to make significant inroads. Every discursive community has such anchoring homilies.

By contrast with the mere reiteration of these metaphors and tropes, however, the attempt to articulate a nonmetaphorical discourse around them is the playing out of a rope that gives a speaker or writer some measure of mobility among communities. Rather than simply stringing together immediately plausible turns of phrase, the watchwords and catchphrases of one's closest circle of interlocutors, a writer might try to make those watchwords and catchphrases understandable to a wider circle of readers, to explicate the sense of them, to motivate them by appeal to experiences and arguments drawn from other communities or common to many communities. By this effort, the anchoring homilies of one's local political dialect are maintained, but are also rendered less parochial. They enter into relations with previously alien metaphors and tropes. The discourse anchored in them attains a more or less limited independence from them, a flexibility and mobility and adaptability that it otherwise would have lacked.

Political theory is, according to this way of thinking, the effort to escape being sunk by one's own anchors. Hence, to read Capital as political theory is to show how Marx tried therein to give a more cosmopolitan sense to particular metaphors and tropes that were, in their origins, provincial to the socialism and popular radicalism of the nineteenth century. Such a project requires acknowledging where Marx's linguistic materials came from, and what associations his words would likely have called to mind in the context of their utterance. But it also insists that Marx's work cannot be dispersed into that context. The single-minded internalism that seeks to reconstruct an author's work on the sole basis of what that author wrote is prone to anachronism, to reading works of the past as if they were addressing the reader's present-day concerns and preoccupations. As Gregory Claeys has noted, "Marx and Engels were relative latecomers to a debate [over socialism] that was thirty years old before they began to consider seriously its central issues." In their efforts to include themselves in and influence the direction of that debate, "they incorporated into their own thought many hidden assumptions and even covert first principles which occasionally emerged to the discursive surface, but as often as not remained half-disclosed if not well buried." These half-disclosed references to earlier writers and controversies will not reveal themselves to someone who does not look beyond the various editions of Marx and Engels's collected works to the writings of the other socialists they read and argued with.

On the other hand, as helpful as a familiarity with the context is for grounding the study of works of political theory, and as important as contextual considerations are for the argument of this book, context is not everything. If a work of political theory gains much of its sense and comprehensibility from remaining within "the parameters of a given political language or ... certain linguistic conventions," its cogency or power tends to come more from its idiosyncrasies: its exceptional formal coherence, scope, or rigor. Contextual scholarship has immensely enriched our understanding of British political thought, has resuscitated the tradition of republicanism, and has brought new attention to neglected figures like James Harrington. It has not, however, diminished the stature of Hobbes's Leviathan or Locke's Treatises. Nor should it. If the "great books" lose a vital quotient of their sense when they are ripped from their contexts and pitted against one another on the barren plain of "the history of the West," approaching them in the settings from which they emerged does not entail denying their greatness.

I am convinced that Marx's Capital is one of the great works of political theory. It identifies and analyzes an interrelated set of political problems that are either invisible to or wished away by virtually every other book in the canon of great works, no matter how one might expand that canon in other directions. It does so by taking seriously the experiences and complaints of wage laborers, but also by subjecting those experiences and complaints to a sort of immanent criticism. For this reason, I think the greatness of Capital, as well as much of the sense of its argument, emerges only or best when it is read against the background of the socialisms with which Marx was contending, socialisms that grew much more directly out of the everyday political discourse of the workers' movement. Reading Capital against the backdrop of this political language of workers requires some reconstruction of the context in which it was written and the audience to whom it was addressed. But discussion of this context, and of the political languages that comprise it, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Hence, this book lacks the historical and documentary scope of a full-blooded contextual history of Marx's political thought. It makes up for this lack, hopefully, by the depth of attention it gives to the text and argument of Capital, and by the reconstruction of certain strands of argument — regarding money, exploitation, exchange relations, and such — central to the non-Marxian socialisms of Marx's day.

This question of context is closely related to another. One of the difficulties faced in trying to read Capital as political theory is that Marx's texts have become anchors for many who write about him or who try to continue his project. That is, Marx's writings acquired, over the course of the century after his death, the opacity and immediacy of metaphors and formulas, self-explanatory or self-refuting, depending upon the party to which one belonged. In order to show that Marx was doing political theory, therefore, it is also necessary to do political theory with Marx. In other words, one must embed his concepts in other discourses, translating his claims into languages not his own. This carries risks, of course. In trying to clarify and bring out the force of Marx's assertions and arguments, for example, I have drawn significantly on the reconstructions of republicanism offered by Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit. I think their explication of republican freedom as non-domination tracks much more closely the range and types of Marx's concerns than does the more traditional attribution to Marx of a positive conception of freedom as collective self-realization or collective self-mastery. This use of contemporary neo-republican arguments exposes me, however, to the very anachronism that I have tried to ward off by means of contextualizing Marx's arguments. It is one thing, after all, to argue that Marx and Engels were "more indebted to their socialist predecessors than has usually been conceded," and that a central element of this debt consists in the transmission, via the early socialists, of elements of eighteenth-century republicanism into Marxism. It is another thing altogether to claim that freedom as non-domination was one of Marx's central political ideals. Such a claim seems to imply a teleology according to which nineteenth-century socialists, including Marx, knew not what they said; their words implied concepts that would not be developed and properly clarified until the present generation of academic political theorists roused the sense slumbering in the dusty chambers of nineteenth-century books.

However, this misperceives the role played by contemporary republican political theory in the reconstruction of the past (or, at least, forecloses roles that it might play). The rise of neo-republican political theory stems directly from research on the history of political thought. That research, however, did not really cross "the great divide into the nineteenth century." The republicanism that has been reconstructed as neo-republicanism is an aristocratic republicanism, which predated the great emancipation movements of the nineteenth century. There is a significant literature devoted to arguing that the historical and social circumscription of the original has bequeathed conceptual limitations to the revival. As Alex Gourevitch has noted, however,

The best chance republicanism had of "transcending" its aristocratic origins and of developing an egalitarian critique of enslavement and subjection was when someone other than society's dominant elite used republican language to articulate their concerns. This is precisely what happened when nineteenth-century artisans and wage-laborers appropriated the inherited concepts of independence and virtue and applied them to the world of labor relations. The attempt to universalize the language of republican liberty, and the conceptual innovations that took place in the process, were their contribution to this political tradition.


Excerpted from Marx's Inferno by William Clare Roberts. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

A Note on References and Translations xiii

1 Introduction: Rereading Capital 1

Reading Capital as Political Theory 3

Reading Capital as Political Theory 9

Outline of the Argument 17

2 Taenarus: The Road to Hell 20

The Elements of the Case 24

The Social Hell 32

Marx's Katabasis 40

Conclusion 54

3 Styx: The Anarchy of the Market 56

Republican Socialism and the Money Mystery 58

Marx's Innovations 74

Fetishism and Domination 82

Conclusion 101

4 Dis: Capitalist Exploitation as Force Contrary to Nature 104

Exploitation before Capital 108

Capitalist Exploitation in Capital 119

Exploitation as Forza contra Natura 134

Conclusion 142

5 Malebolge: The Capitalist Mode of Production as Fraud 146

Capital with a Human Face 153

The Monsters of Fraud 163

Conclusion 183

6 Cocytus: Treachery and the Necessity of Expropriation 187

Primitive Accumulation as a Problem 193

Negating the Negation 208

Conclusion 222

7 Conclusion: Purgatory, or the Social Republic 228

Marx's Midwifery 231

The Shape of Things to Come 244

Conclusion 256

Bibliography 259

Index 277

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