Babak Amini, Critical Sociology

Review of Rethinking Alternatives with Marx: Economy, Ecology and Migration

Marcello Musto, one of the leading forces behind the recent revival of studies on Karl Marx, has produced yet another rigorous, insightful, and cohesive edited work. The book brings together some of the most renowned and innovative scholars in the world on topics that are urgently relevant to our contemporary situation. It engages with issues as broad as gender and social reproduction, ecology and migration, and Marxian visions of alternatives to capitalism. This volume is as much about rethinking alternative interpretations of Marx’s ideas as it is about their relevance to the question of alternatives to capitalism. To remain within the confines of this review, I will focus only on seven of the thirteen contributions in the book.
Himani Bannerji begins her chapter, ‘The Factory and the Family as Spaces of Capital’, with a familiar critique of family as a fundamental element for the reproduction of capital that is systematically made invisible and held to function mostly on the back of the unpaid labour of women. Bannerji then shows how her interpretation of Marx’s critique of capitalism perfectly accommodates this critique of family. She conceives of the fundamental relation between the family and the factory in Marx based on an expanded definition of ‘mode of production’ as a social rather than a mere economic relation. She illustrates the connection between family and class, consequently presenting the family as yet another space of class struggle just like the factory as integral parts of the reproduction of capitalist social relation. However, the chapter falls short of exploring the internal dynamics of class struggle within that space and in relation to the larger sphere of power struggle articulated in either class or non-class terms. Notably, the specific ways in which gender dynamics influence class struggle within and outside the family remains undertheorized in this chapter.
The role of gender in the reproduction of capitalist social relation is the core of Silvia Federici’s chapter, ‘Marx on Gender, Race, and Social Reproduction: A Feminist Perspective’. Less sympathetic than Bannerji towards Marx’s approach to social reproduction, Federici claims that Marx’s critique of political economy is still ‘written from a male viewpoint’ (p. 29). This is despite her acknowledgment of the generative quality of Marx’s ideas for feminism and his clear stance against the subjugation of women. Federici argues that Marx does not consider the gender question as structurally fundamental to the capitalist organization of production and the specific ways in which women are exploited. Federici draws parallels with Marx’s treatment of ‘race’ in his analysis but underscores where this breaks down particularly regarding Marx’s differential stance towards ‘race’ as integral to the working-class struggle. The chapter does not however engage with Marx’s manuscripts after the publication of Capital. This leaves open the question of the extent to which Marx began to incorporate the question of gender into his analysis more systematically as he did with regards to ‘race’ in the last fifteen years of his life.
The second part of the book turns to the socio-ecological question. Kohei Saito’s chapter, ‘Primitive Accumulation as the Cause of Economic and Ecological Disaster’, demonstrates the foundation of critical ecology in Marx’s analysis, particularly in Capital. Saito centers his interpretation on Marx’s conception of ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital and shows how the economic and the ecological are structurally linked in his framework. Accordingly, Marx’s conception of labour as a process between workers and nature lays the ground for understanding capital’s simultaneous exploitation of workers and nature. It is under capitalism that social and natural wealth appears as an immense collection of commodities – i.e. the commodification of labor-power and nature. Saito explains why Marx’s conception of communism is still sensitive to ‘natural scarcities’ while rejecting the ‘artificial scarcities’ produced by capital in its commodification of nature.
The core question of Gregory Claeys’s chapter, ‘Marx and Environmental Catastrophe’, is how socialists should come to terms with the current patterns of consumption, while recognizing the finite resources of our planet, and conceive of ‘some compensatory advantage’ (p. 121) to make their transformative project palatable to the middle classes for their support. Claeys argues that there is an ambiguity in Marx’s conception of needs in his rejection of slavish devotion to satisfying them and the limitless expansion of their fulfillment after the socialist revolution. He provides a historical overview of the transformation of consumption in the USSR and their resemblance to the West in seeing consumption as a byproduct of industrialization. Therefore, he calls for a rethinking of consumption. However, the complex process of building class power needed for such transformation is effectively replaced by a series of policy proposals, some of which are egalitarian (e.g. reduction of work time and increasing public luxury) while others seem strangely autocratic (e.g. legislation against fashion advertisement, and reduction of the population). The democratization of economic relations is dealt with in passing towards the end of the chapter.
Razmig Keucheyan, building heavily on André Gorz and Agnes Heller’s works, argues that a radical theory of needs is essential for our conception of overcoming capitalism. He holds that a radical theory of needs can lead us to a critique of capitalist destruction of nature. Keucheyan argues while capitalism increasingly provides the material basis necessary for the possibility of realizing ‘radical needs’ (loving, being loved, creativity, autonomy, etc.), it also prevents their actual realization as its development intensifies the process of commodification and therefore alienation in society. It is in the unfulfillment of these radical needs despite their growing material possibility that Keucheyan sees the seed of a revolutionary transformation of capitalism. Towards the end of the chapter, Keucheyan switches the focus to the sphere of production by arguing that ‘it is production – that is capitalist production – which determines needs’ (p. 139). Such a surprisingly deterministic account of the primacy of production overlooks the complex ways in which consumption and production are reciprocally linked in capitalism. It is also confused about the supposed locus of revolutionary transformation: among the affluent consumers whose satisfaction of radical needs has become increasingly hindered by the development of capitalism (p. 137), or among the producers whose critical position supposedly gives them constitutive power over the sphere of consumption (p. 140). The consideration of how transformative projects would impact different spheres of society is critical to carrying out a successful counter-hegemonic movement. However, this requires a nuanced understanding of the asymmetrical codetermination of these spheres – and in that not just in the Global North but in their combined and uneven development throughout the world.
David Norman Smith’s chapter, ‘Accumulation and its Discontents: Migration and Nativism in Marx’s Capital and Late Manuscripts’, shows how Marx was engaged in a radical expansion of his framework to incorporate an entangled history of capitalist development. Smith paints an astonishing picture of how the many different threads that Marx was following at least in the last two decades of his life, including his studies on anthropology, natural sciences, colonialism, global migration, dynamics of racism, and subaltern resistance, were all pieces of a coherent set of objectives that Marx had foreseen in advancing his critique of capitalism. While highlighting where Marx engages in elaborations, revisions, and corrections of his ideas, Smith illustrates a clear continuity between Marx’s late manuscripts and his earlier ideas. The chapter is particularly relevant to our contemporary predicament amidst mass migration, rising xenophobia, and racist policies. It explains how Marx, in his uncompromising commitment to working-class emancipation, made sense of the dynamics of racism and patterns of migration within the working class and their connection to the global dynamics of capitalism and colonialism.
The last part of the book explores the communist alternative to capitalism. Michael Brie’s chapter, ‘Uniting Communism and Liberalism: An Unsolved Task or a Most Urgent Necessity?’, explores the reasons behind the failure of the past experiences with 20th-century communism. He traces the failure of those movements in their ‘inability to do justice to the double demand of preserving the liberal heritage and implementing solidarity, communist objective’ (p. 314). The chapter traces the development of Marx’s solution to ‘the contradiction between the freedom of individuals and the sociality of their conditions of life’ (p. 324) that concerns any complex society towards his vision of communism as the association of free individuals. Brie argues that despite its elegance, it is effectively a deflection of this fundamental contradiction, with serious consequences for individual and civil liberties under communism. But in his attempt to offer the outlines of a solution, Brie falls back on an orthodoxy, arguably rejected by Marx himself, that separates socialism and communism, and reserves socialism as a mediation between communism and liberalism. This framework raises liberalism to a status with regards to individual and civil liberties that is unduly both in its theory and history. I believe Marx has much to offer concerning individual and civil freedoms in a democratic socialist/communist society. He succeeds in transcending the logical contradictions (not to mention the historical incoherency) of liberalism without scarifying its democratic elements – which within the liberal framework remain essentially unfulfilled. The reasons behind the colossal failure of much of the actually-existing socialism to uphold and enhance those essential freedoms should be sought elsewhere.
Overall, the contributions of this book illustrate the frontiers of Marxist scholarship on the most relevant topics of our time. Their innovative interpretations of Marx’s work, especially in the light of the publication of previously unknown manuscripts, question some of the most entrenched orthodoxies and demonstrate the relevance of Marx’s ideas for critical examination of capitalism and visions of alternative social relation.

Babak Amini
London School of Economics and Political Science, UK

Published in:

Critical Sociology

Date Published

4 February, 2022


Babak Amini