What’s In a Name?

Modifiers multiply. Adjectives appear without limit: disaster capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, technoscientific capitalism, postindustrial capitalism, global capitalism, communicative (even “cognitive”) capitalism.[1] Prefixes proliferate: biocapitalism, necrocapitalism, hypercapitalism, neurocapitalism, semiocapitalism.[2] The list goes on and on.

Something similar happens with labor: precarious labor, immaterial labor, reproductive labor, affective labor, info-labor.[3] Classes correspond to these freshly-minted operations: the precariat, cognitariat, care workers.[4] This is not the place to examine the scope or provenance of the various terms introduced over the past few decades, much less evaluate their legitimacy. For now, it is enough to note the exponential rate at which such neologisms have accrued.

Of course, Marxists have periodically sought to develop their discourse past the limits left by Marx and Engels during their lifetimes, applying the analytic methods they established in order to take stock of changed conditions and shifting realities. Even so, anyone who is at all familiar with modern political history will recognize that the current situation has proved unusually fertile for theorization. Why, then, the sudden increase in terminology? It’s not difficult to guess. No great insight is required to see that the contemporary world no longer seems to correspond to the one described in such vivid detail by Marx nearly a century and a half ago. Little remains of the burgeoning, cohesive, instinctively militant mass he identified in the industrial proletariat of old.

Desperate to discover a new revolutionary subject to replace the international working class—with the multitude, the “part of those who have no part,” the abject, the hooded “non-subject” of urban riots, the “motley crowd” of the unuseful, etc.—a number of terms have been proposed.[5] Otherwise, the proletariat is simply redefined so as to encompass a larger share of the total population, thereby tipping the scales against the ruling elites once again. Plenty of groups have been enlisted, or rather volunteered without their knowledge, to overthrow the existing capitalist order.

Recently, the media theorist McKenzie Wark called into question this entire framework. In his article “Is This Still Capitalism?” he inquired whether “capitalism” remains “an adequate term to describe the currently dominant mode of production.”[6] Given all that has changed since Marx’s day, this is not an unreasonable thing to ask. “Without some notional sense of both origins and endpoints,” Wark warns, “the concept of ‘capitalism’ risks becoming a bit too totalizing and ahistorical.”[7] A few weeks earlier, in a previous article, Wark expressed his frustration:

I don’t know why we still call it capitalism. It seems to be a sort of failure or blockage of the poetic function of critical thought. Even its adherents have no problem calling it “capitalism” anymore. Its critics seem to be reduced to adding modifiers to it: postfordist, neoliberal, or the charmingly optimistic late capitalism…Capitalism seems destined to outlive us all.[8]

But if capitalism does not sufficiently distinguish contemporary society, what does? Morbidly, Wark has suggested a darker designation. “Thanaticism: a social order which subordinates the production of use value to the production of exchange value, to the point where the production of exchange value threatens to extinguish the very conditions of existence of use value.” He explains this peculiar choice of nomenclature with reference to the word’s homophonic properties: “Like fanaticism, only a gleeful, overly enthusiastic will to death (the slight echo of Thatcherism is useful also).”[9]

Whether or not the partisans of a particular social order are comfortable with the term, however, the criterion for its continued usage cannot depend upon fickle feelings. Descriptive accuracy ought to count for something. So, how accurate is “thanaticism” as a description of the present moment? Undoubtedly, there is something suicidal about the course charted by society today. In a loose sense, it may thus be compared to Freud’s famous death drive. Yet this hardly means that extinction has become the objective for production; extinction might just be one of its adverse side-effects. Valorization remains the goal, in other words, but the pursuit of this goal now has blight as an incidental, if inexorable, consequence. A byproduct, as it were. Exchange-value, the creation of surplus, still rules over the social division of labor as the causa finalis to which all efficiency is enthralled.

Marx contended that capitalism is set apart from all previous modes of production in two primary ways. Capitalist production produces most of its products as commodities (with the express purpose of exchange, not immediate consumption). From the outset it presupposes surplus-value as “the direct aim and determining motive of production.”[10] Production for the sake of production is the animating principle behind autotelic accumulation,[11] the basis of its insatiable appetite for further growth. Left to its own devices, capital overrides anything that threatens “the ceaseless augmentation of value,”[12] employing every means at its disposal to achieve this selfsame end. Other considerations fall by the wayside against the singular drive to increase capital’s magnitude.

As Marx demonstrated in Capital, however, the total annihilation of use-value would at the same time entail the total annihilation of exchange-value along with it: “Nothing can be a value without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.”[13] But this possibility has very little bearing on the actual productive process, since the horizon of the commodity extends no further than the prospective realization of its value on the market through sale, at which point the cycle terminates only to set out anew. Whatever surplus-value has been added in production and realized in circulation is reinvested as the base quantity in the next round of capitalization, a movement then repeated ad nauseam.

This sequence is only ever interrupted under appreciable duress. Usually, pressure to reform comes from the threat of strikes on the part of workers or mutinies on the part of soldiers.[14] Less often is it the result of lobbying by concerned citizens. Regulations come and go with each international summit on climate change, for example, but no political will exists to enforce them.

Here one wonders if Wark’s terminological innovation is not superfluous. “Thanaticism” does nothing to grasp the contours of contemporary reality. It is unclear whether it signifies anything more than what “capitalism” did beforehand. Vocabulary alone cannot remove the impediments which prevent social and historical transformation today, especially if it fails to shed light on emergent conditions.

Besides, Marx’s interpretation of capitalist society already captures its prevailing necrosis. Dead labor rules over living labor under capitalism; the present serves the past. “[T]he rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of things over man, of dead labour over the living, of the product over the producer.”[15] Prefacing his Critique of Political Economy, Marx proclaimed: “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif!”[16] Commodities take on a life of their own in societies rooted in their production, an existence independent of the men and women who produce them. Still, it is a life conjured from death. Hence the “necromancy” that surrounds the products of labor produced under capitalism.[17] Matter set in motion by the momentum of the past is dredged up and reanimated in the course of its valorization, sustained by a kind of vampirism that drains the vitality of the workers charged with its enrichment. For Marx, then, “capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”[18] Quite literally, capital is revitalized by the “lifeblood” of living workers.[19]

Entire books have been written on the use of monstrous imagery in Marx’s texts.[20] One should not get carried away by literary motifs, of course. Jean Baudrillard, for his part, found that Marx did not go far enough in elaborating its consequences, naïvely believing the forces of production could be repurposed by new relations of production. “Marx’s greatest error,” the French philosopher maintained in 1976, “was to have retained a belief in the innocence of machines, the technical process, and science — all supposedly capable of becoming living social labour once the system of capital was liquidated, despite the fact this is precisely what the whole system is based on. This pious hope springs from having underestimated death in dead labour.”[21] Baudrillard was not alone leveling this criticism, however dubious the notion of “symbolic exchange” may seem in retrospect (derived from Jean-Joseph Goux’s symbolic economy).[22] Distant echoes of this contention can be heard in the back-and-forth between Alberto Toscano and Jasper Bernes regarding logistics the last couple years, with the former asking “what use can be drawn from the dead labours which crowd the earth’s crust”[23] and the latter casting aspersions on such a “reconfiguration thesis.”[24] However, Marx himself was inclined to agree with classical bourgeois political economists about the substitution of dead for living labor — i.e., constant for variable capital — under capitalism.[25] Past labor demands the infusion of present labor, however, in order to generate fresh value. “Living labour must seize on these things, awaken them from the dead, change them from possible into real and effective use-values,” Marx explained.[26] Yet means and ends are inverted in capitalist society, and “living labour appears as a mere means to realize objectified, dead labour, to penetrate it with an animating soul while losing its own soul to it.”[27] Already by 1848, this inversion was apparent to the young Marx and Engels: “In bourgeois society, living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labor…; [i]n communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to promote the existence of the labourer.”[28]

Nor do the macabre metaphors end there, at the material level. Ideologically, too, there is no escaping death’s twilight kingdom. At the level of pure thought, as well, “[t]he tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”[29] Outworn ideals, notions, and beliefs survive the very circumstances that engendered them. Just as a new era begins to dawn, Marx memorably observed, “[men] anxiously summon up the spirits of the past to borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes so as to greet the latest scene in world history in time-honoured disguise.”[30] The difference today, ironically, is that Marxist theory has become part of the tradition burdening the present.

Does this mean it has been rendered historically obsolete? Have the dynamics described by Marx truly been surpassed? “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought like a fish in water,” quipped Michel Foucault in 1966, “unable to breathe anywhere else.”[31] Ghosts of bygone revolutions tend to linger, however, long after breathing their last. Even theories which claim to have broken once and for all with Marxist orthodoxy are haunted by it.

Unsurprisingly, it is the specter of Marx that haunts the conscience of the contemporary Left. His name still stands for a future which today is consigned to the past, much as Jacques Derrida predicted almost a quarter century ago.[32] Revolution never materialized; the time is out of joint. But another ghost lurks menacingly in the background. Perhaps more than the specter of Marx, the specter of Marxism looms large over the landscape of recent memory. Not as a rigid set of doctrines, but as the theory of the class-conscious proletariat during its height. Without the international movement he helped to shape, Marx would be little more than an obscure, eccentric figure of interest to a handful of scholars or antiquarians. Crucial though this recognition may be, it is equally important to acknowledge that the revolutionary movement that made Marx a household name belongs to the past. “Since August 4, 1914,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote amidst the chaos of World War I, “German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse.”[33] The same could be said of Marxism in general, if not from that day then from not long afterward. Any meager life the communists managed to wrest from the ruins of the Second International was snuffed out in the years of isolation and capitalist encirclement that followed. If scattered remnants here and there were able to preserve bits of Marxist theory intact, this preservation reeks of formaldehyde. Despite an array of groups which trace their lineage back to October 1917, or claim to represent “living Marxism,” they are at best living fossils—petrified anachronisms clinging desperately to life. Little red threads leading nowhere except into the mists of the past.

Few seem willing to admit the depth of the discontinuity, however. Marxism is similar to a dead language; terms like “lumpenproletariat,” “opportunism,” or “petite bourgeoisie” are usually met with blank stares of incomprehension. Oddly, these terms might still have some purchase on the present should their original meanings be recovered. Alongside other tasks, it is worthwhile (à la Croce) to determine what is living and what is dead in Marxist theory.[34] Commonplace words, phrases, and categories, such as imperialism, fascism, subject, object, theory, practice, and so on, ought to be examined to see if anything is still alive in them.



[1] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. (New York: Picador, 2008); David Kotz, “Systemic Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism,” in Review of Radical Political Economics (May 4, 2009); Agnieszka Leszczynski, “Situating the Geoweb in Political Economy,” Progress in Human Geography 36.1 (February 2012); George Liagouras, “The Political Economy of Post-Industrial Capitalism,” Thesis Eleven 81.1 (May 2005); David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2006); and Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2009);

[2] See Andrea Fumagalli and Cristina Morini, “Cognitive Biocapitalism, Social Reproduction, and the Precarity Trap: Why Not Basic Income?,” Knowledge Cultures 1.4 (2013); Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee, “Necrocapitalism,” Organization Studies 29.12 (December 2008); Philip Graham, “Hypercapitalism: A Political Economy of Informational Idealism,” New Media & Society 2.2 (June 2000); Ewa Hess and Hennric Jokeit, “Neurocapitalism,” Eurozine (November 24, 2009); and Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-alpha Generation, translated by Giuseppina Mecchia and Antonella Schintu (New York: Minor Compositions, 2009).

[3] See Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody; Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” translated by Paul Colilli and Ed Emory, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Angela Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia. (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2012), 173-76; and Nick Dyer-Witherford Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labor in the Digital Vortex (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

[4] See Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011); Franco Berardi, “What does Cognitariat Mean? Work, Desire, Depression,” translated by Melinda Cooper, Cultural Studies Review 11.2 (2005); and Silvia Federici, “Notes on Elder-Care Work and the Limits of Marxism,” in Beyond Marx: Theorizing the Global Labor Relations of the Twenty-First Century. (Boston: Brill, 2014).

[5] See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004); Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Imogen Tyler, Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain (New York: Zed Books, 2013), Woland (Blaumachen), “The Rise of the Non-Subject,” Sic 2 (February 2012); and Bruno Bosteels. The Actuality of Communism. (New York: Verso, 2011), 142.

[6] McKenzie Wark, “Is this still Capitalism?” Public Seminar (April 30, 2014).

[7] Ibid.

[8] McKenzie Wark, “Birth of Thanaticism,” Public Seminar (April 3, 2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Two characteristic traits mark the capitalist mode of production right from the start…Firstly, it produces its products as commodities…The second thing that particularly marks the capitalist mode…is the production of surplus-value as the direct object and decisive motive of production. Capital essentially produces capital, and it does this only as long as it produces surplus-value.” Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy vol. 3,  translated by David Fernbach (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 1019-20.

[11] “Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production: this was the formula in which classical economics expressed the historic mission of the bourgeoisie during its period of domination.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books,1982), 742.

[12] Ibid., 254.

[13] Ibid., 131.

[14] “[Using] the term ‘citizen’ in reference to the bourgeois as well as to the proletarian, intending to refer to man in general, [one] identifies man in general with the bourgeois, and society with bourgeois society.” Rosa Luxemburg., Reform or Revolution?, translated by Integer (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 100.

[15] Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy 1:990.

[16] “The dead clutch the living!” Marx, Capital 1:91.

[17] Ibid.,  169.

[18] Ibid.,  342.

[19] “The capitalist…appropriates [the worker’s] living labour as the lifeblood of capitalism.” Ibid., 1007.

[20] David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism. (Boston: Brill, 2011).

[21] Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, translated by Iain Hamilton Grant (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications,1993), 15.

[22] Jean-Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud, translated by Jennifer Curtiss-Gage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

[23] Alberto Toscano, “Logistics and Opposition.” Mute 3:2 (August 9, 2011).

[24] Jasper Bernes, “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect.” Endnotes. January 2014.

[25] “Saving of labour…and a greater use of dead labour (constant capital), appears a quite correct economic operation.” Marx, Capital 3:270.

[26] Marx, Capital 1:289.

[27] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by Martin Nicolaus. (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 461.

[28] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, translated by Samuel Moore, in Collected Works, Volume 6. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1976), 499.

[29] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, translated by Clemens Dutt, in Collected Works, Volume 11: 1851-1853. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1981), 103.

[30] Ibid., 104.

[31] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Translator unnamed. (Routledge. New York, NY: 1989), 285.

[32] Derrida liked to speak in riddles, but this is the only plausible sense of the following passage: “A ‘since Marx’ continues to designate the place of assignation from which we are pledged. But…the ‘since’ marks a place and a time that doubtless precedes us, but so as to be as much in front of us as before us. Since the future, then, since the past as absolute future, since…the non-advent of an event, of what remains to be…If ‘since Marx’ names a future-to-come as much as a past, the past of a proper name, it is because the proper of a proper name will always remain to come.” Jacques Derrida. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 19.

[33] Rosa Luxemburg, quoted in Vladimir Lenin. “Notes of a Publicist,” translated by David Skvirsky and George Hanna, in Collected Works, Volume 33: August 1921-March 1923. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 210.

[34] Benedetto Croce, What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel?, translated by Douglas Ainslie (New York: Russell & Russell, 1969).

O. Oblomov Written by:

Oblivion Oblomov is the last representative of a dying class.