I stumbled across the Public Seminar ‘commons‘ blog today, after seeing syndicated versions of Mackenzie Wark’s ‘thanaticism‘ essay (linked, for example, by Stuart Elden) and was interested to see further pieces concerning (shifting) contemporary understandings of capitalism and Marxism.
In particular, I enjoyed reading two pieces:
In “Is this still capitalism?” Wark looks at the common assumptions upon which understandings of the definition of ‘capitalism’ are based and thinks through how these might be challenged or at least re-worked through contemporary global business practices. In particular, Wark discusses how we may need to rethink understandings of capitalism as the dominance of one class over others through ownership of the means of production because, in many, cases the ‘dominant class’ do not own the means of production but, rather, they own the intellectual property, like Apple (for whom others, like Foxxcon, actually make their products), or the distribution chain, like Walmart and perhaps Google:
Perhaps what is going on is a kind of power that has less to do with owning the means of production thereby controlling the value cycle, as in capitalism. Perhaps it is more about owning the means of mediation, thereby controlling the means of production and hence the value cycle. The actual production can be outsourced, and manufacturing firms will have to compete for the privilege of making products with someone else’s intellectual property embedded in it, and sold under some else’s brand.
Wark poses the question, ‘is this something other than capitalism’, in particular, in relation to Google because there is perhaps no longer a capturing of surplus value by exploiting labour but rather–in an argument that resonates with that of both Stiegler and Lyotard–a capturing of value by exploiting data. In concluding, Wark argues that its not enough to merely label this a form of ‘immaterial’ labour (again resonances with Stiegler’s critique of ‘immateriality’ here):
None of this, one should hasten to add, is ‘immaterial’. Can we just admit that this was a terrible (non)concept? Just as it took an incredible amount of infrastructure to seize power from the old landlord class, so too seizing power from a capitalist class to vest it with something else takes a powerful infrastructure, one no longer about making and distributing things but about controlling that making and distributing.
In short, considered in a really vulgar way, in terms of the forces of production, maybe there’s something new going on. Some of the relations of production look familiar. This is still an economy that appears to have markets and prices, firms and profits and so on. But perhaps power is shifting away from owning the means of production, which merely extract surplus value from labor, toward owning the means of mediation, by which a surplus can be extracted from any activity at all.
In the other essay I enjoyed, “Four cheers for vulgarity“, Wark explores the ways in which the labelling of ‘vulgar’ Marxism has been used as a means of Othering:
There are then four general actions of othering involved in calling something vulgar. The first is political. The vulgarians think in terms of a gradual, evolutionary process of historical change. They lack a taste for the political leap. The second is theoretical. The vulgarians pay too much attention to specialized knowledge such as the sciences. They lack a sense of the central role of philosophy as guarantor of the correct method. The third is cultural. The vulgarians are too close to the self-identity of the working class. They lack a sophistication about the struggle within bourgeois culture. The fourth is more strictly academic. The vulgarian ranges too freely across disciplinary knowledge.
Wark goes on to both critically reflecting upon the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’–in particular citing Bogdanov and Platonov as ‘losers’ (‘who?’ you ask – exactly!)–and of those processes as well turning the possible meaning of ‘vulgar’ by offering alternative models of vulgarity that might be seen as worthwhile and/or desirable. In particular, Wark discusses the work of Donna Harraway and Kim Stanley Robinson as alternative (‘positive’) models of ‘vulgarity’.
In concluding, Wark suggests that many of the preoccupations of contemporary social science (especially geography) can be seen as ‘vulgar’ concerns in the guise of ‘nature, labour, techne and utopia’, particularly in relation to anthropogenic climate change:
So here are four kinds of vulgarity: about nature and labor, techne and utopia, that are not quite those usually covered by the “vulgar Marxist!” insult. They are surely useful kinds of vulgarity with which and about which to think, given that the era of climate change is upon us. There are surely other senses of the vulgar that one might add, and other writers who make them thinkable. That might be part of a larger project of rethinking the paths through the archive that open these traditions up again in news ways to confront the present.
And so: four cheers for vulgar Marxism!!!! Four rather than three, as the vulgar is always a little excessive. Four cheers for these four vulgar Marxist writers, although they are also much more than that. Bogdanov and Platonov offer unique perspectives on what Jodi dean calls the ‘communist horizon’; Haraway and Robinson on what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism.’ I have been thinking for a while now about why I chose to write about them together, in my book Molecular Red, for which these might be some provisional notes. Perhaps it is because if we are to have a low theory for the times, it will be vulgar, or not at all. Opening up the vulgar wing of the archive again might open some more plural pathways through which to think from past to present, to inhabitable futures.