Rethinking Marx’s Critical Theory

Marx and Marxism are irrelevant. Not only do we hear this declaration from neoliberals and neo-Keynesians, but also from post-Marxists who proudly strut their post-modern creds while fishing about for the next, next critical theoretical vantage-point. The Keynesian Social Welfare State (KSWS) turned out to be peddling its own form of totalizing social and cultural wares in comparison to which post-modernisms fragmentation and variety come as a blast of fresh air.

But, what if the central contradiction within capitalism—provisionally overcome or, at least, overcomable within the KSWS—was not between the socialized forces and the private relations of production; what if it was not a matter of redistributing social wealth (been there, done that) or of achieving full employment and full industrial capacity, but was instead, as Marx attempted to show, between two social forms, abstract value and its material form of appearance, whose mutually constitutive relationship forms the central tension within the capitalist social formation?

If this is so, then several conclusions seem to follow:

  1. The redistribution of social wealth (although good and necessary) did not in the least touch upon this central tension within the capitalist social formation. The end of wealth redistribution (in the US and UK) or its gradual displacement by other, private regulatory mechanisms, the post-Fordism that hailed the end of the Keynesian Social Welfare State, did not spell an end to the West’s flirtation with Marxism light.
  2. The dramatic reduction in the use of our industrial capacity and the equally dramatic increase in unemployment, which traditional organized labor has decried and sought to remedy, and which traditional Marxist theorists have viewed as a natural consequence of the lack of economic planning, may point instead to the increasingly tenuous relationship between abstract value and its material form of appearance and therefore the increasingly redundant character of value-producing labor.
  3. The inclination of Marxist social theorists to identify the commodity’s material form of appearance with its “natural” or “pre/post-capitalist” form and to equate abstract value as the commodity’s uniquely capitalist dimension (a pairing that is reproduced in an overall antipathy for the sign and symbol over its “objective” object, or the identical subject over its alienated form) could be seen as a tendency to reproduce the binary pairing immanent to the commodity form itself rather than overcoming that binary opposition practically.

In other words, Marx’s interpretive categories provide us with a powerful and productive means of grasping and critiquing capitalism in all its many forms rather than a specific instance of capitalism (such as high industrial capitalism, or Fordism) because these categories identify a determinate contradiction immanent to all these forms. These categories also provide us with a means of reflecting immanently on the determinate conditions of possibility for overcoming this contradiction both in general and with sufficient specificity to cover individual instances and expressions.

Returning briefly to our Gymnasium in a Box, it is now possible to see how Immanuel Kant’s oppositional framework, which required a static transcendental subject, as well as GFW Hegel’s, which set this transcendental subject in motion, constituting the phenomenal world by which it was, in turn, animated and ultimately completed, were themselves already pre-critical attempts to grasp the complexity and dynamism of a specific social form, the commodity form. That is to say Kant’s and Hegel’s interpretive categories already display an oppositional form “adequate” to a society constituted the two-fold form of the commodity. This “adequacy” can be recognized insofar as the commodity shapes both the “objective” social relations that are the object of social experience and the “subjective” categories that strike individuals as “built in” to the very structure of cognition; when in fact it is clear that such categories are themselves socially produced and reproduced.

Social being is therefore not a specific kind of being, unique to one or another social formation. Rather, social being is what human beings always are; structured by the structures that they in turn structure, shaped by the forces and relations to which they have themselves given rise.

There is nothing specially magical about our moment in history that grants us a special insight into our socio-historical constitution. Aristotle (who here agrees with Kǒng Fūzǐ) recognized long ago that freedom from necessity is an aid to reflection, self-knowledge, and right conduct in all societies. And, yet, the form of domination in any specific society, or the categories adequate to grasp that form of domination, are always socio-historically specific.