Marx Brothers

“The system must be completely overhauled,” said Nicolas Sarkozy in October 2008, as the world economy was in the midst of a startling decline. A few months later the cover of Newsweek announced “We Are Socialists Now.” These were just two signs of the surprisingly mainstream consensus that the global financial crisis had marked a significant rupture with traditional economics and politics. But the exact nature of the transformation was unclear. Have we witnessed the end of a hegemonic economic order, “the death of neoliberalism,” as authoritative voices like Joseph Stiglitz ask? If so, what will take its place? Specifically, what ideas are being explored by the people who gave neoliberalism its name and identified it as a primary enemy—the radical left? Notwithstanding Glenn Beck’s “Tree of Revolution” diagram, which shows Obama as an outgrowth from Che Guevara and Saul Alinsky, the old order has not been replaced by socialism. In the realm of ideas, however there are those who hope it might yet. Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias and David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital proceed from very different backgrounds and reach very different conclusions.

Photo Illustration by Alexander Ivey

A clue to Wright’s orientation is the self-applied nickname of the movement Wright was associated with in the 1980s and 1990s: “No Bullshit Marxism.” Formally called analytical Marxists, Wright and his comrades, including G.A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and John Roemer, busied themselves with “bringing the concern with conceptual precision, clarity, and rigor that is characteristic of analytical philosophy to bear on Marxian themes.” By, for instance, modeling propositions about class and exploitation using rational choice theory, they tried to parse what was living and what was dead in a philosophy too often given to dogmatic thinking. They believed that Marx’s writings could be separated into a set of analytic propositions, which could then be assessed based on logical and empirical grounds.

Such an approach led the members to substantial revisions of orthodox Marxism. This is reflected in Envisioning Real Utopias, which finds that the labor theory of value “is simply wrong,” the law of the falling tendency of the rate of profit is “quite problematic,” and Marx’s forecasts about the simplification of social classes “have not occurred.” Despite his history on the Marxist left, Wright ends up theorizing social change distinct from socialist and Marxist labels in favor of a “radical democratic” approach to “emancipatory social science.” This gives him a freedom to propose practical policy positions, the titular Real Utopias. The ideas he offers suggest either generalizing existing institutions or instituting mostly notional policies like a basic income guarantee.

The catholicity of his solutions is refreshing, and his willingness to engage with ideas from outside the Marxist tradition is compelling. One of the most radical of his ideas, that of a guaranteed minimum income, once enjoyed support from figures ranging from Martin Luther King to Richard Nixon, and is partially in practice as the Earned Income Tax Credit. While that modest program is far short of what Wright calls for in Envisioning Real Utopias, it is a reminder that some of his ideas have bases in widely accepted existing programs.

In A Companion to Marx’s Capital, David Harvey represents a more purist mode of thinking, stressing an understanding of “Marx on Marx’s terms.” He claims that “No Bullshit” (“brick-by-brick,” in his parlance) approaches do a grievous violence to works like Capital. Harvey’s entire career argues that any attempt to seriously change the world will come through careful study of that book, which he has taught for almost four decades. To make use of the insights of Marx, Harvey insists that there is no way around grappling with dialectic method. Harvey thus makes few concessions to current affairs.

The Companion is a revised set of the lectures Harvey delivered in his class on the first volume of Capital, and its structure follows Marx’s. He offers modest revisions where he thinks they are necessary, but mostly for emphasis: Marx did not investigate the credit system thoroughly enough, Marx was mistaken in thinking that primitive accumulation of capital ever ceased. On the important questions, namely those of value theory and the systematic problems of capitalism which follow from those axioms, he follows Marx faithfully. Therefore, Harvey’s section on “Reflections on Prognoses” climaxes in the classical communist summation: “class privilege and power, Marx says, must be battled against and destroyed to make way for another mode of production.” This ruptural theory of history, where one totality replaces another, is what distinguishes Harvey’s Marxism most definitively from Wright’s book, which points out the hybrid nature of any political and economic system, and the unsustainability of any “pure” system.

Harvey’s “dance of the dialectic” offers aesthetic thrills missing from Wright’s positivist axioms. The introduction to Companion mentions the influence of Jacques Derrida, and Harvey can sound like a comparative literature professor asking his class to “comment on how it [a basic concept in Capital] would weave into and out of the fabric of the book” and asking questions like “does the word ‘appear’ always signal a fetishistic moment?” Reading an exposition of such a rich text by someone who knows it so intimately is a pleasure. There is also an appeal in the elegant parsimony of Harvey’s orthodoxy—a system which can incorporate any fact into its system and which shows so effectively the limitations of any half-measures. In the final analysis, though, there is something evasive about it, exemplified in Harvey’s assertion that capitalism’s survival “suggests that the fluidity and flexibility of capital accumulation—features that Marx emphasizes.” Is that really all that capitalism’s survival suggests? Does its survival really speak that well of Marx’s theories? One appreciates Wright’s willingness to examine Marx’s propositions in the analytic “brick-by-brick” method Harvey disdains. (It is also nice to read Wright’s frank acknowledgements of the failures of the actually existing socialism of the 20th century, in contradistinction to Harvey, whose mentions of Lenin and Mao are glancing and sometimes approbatory.) But it doesn’t take a staid democratic socialist like Wright to question Marx’s basic suppositions more deeply than Harvey is willing to. Slavoj Žižek, for all of his defiant Leninist gestures, submits also that “it’s clear that if you want to explain what today is going on with Marx’s theory of exploitation, what goes on today with poverty and so on, you can no longer account for it in the Marxist terms of exploitation.”

For his willingness to venture beyond the confines of these terms, Wright makes a more convincing case for his brand of socialist thought than Harvey does for his well-aged Marxism. Still, the prospects for immediate radical change, or even for the Democrats in 2010, won’t be affected by the publication of Wright’s book. Economic recovery of some sort, it seems, will come and the hint of capitalism’s death throes, so long hoped for by Marxists, will fade once more. But once we accept that radical social change might come through small, thoughtful reforms and not through the iron laws of crisis and contradiction, Wright’s “socialist compass” offers a path forward, both for its specific proposals and as a guide to imagining new ones.