The Abstract Critique of Late Capitalism in the Metamodern Age

Brent Cooper
Nov 19, 2017 · 10 min read
A spectre haunts capitalism

“Marxism has since developed into different branches and schools of thought, though there is now no single definitive Marxist theory.” — Wikipedia, paraphrasing and citing Wolff and Resnick, Richard and Stephen (August 1987). Economics: Marxian versus Neoclassical

Marx was right about a lot of things, but “Marxism” is dead on arrival. The political right equates it with communism and denies it accordingly. The political left is fighting for the working class, and represent some Marxist principles, but cannot embrace it fully because of historical abuse and taboo. There is much confusion over what the term means and how to apply it to achieve it’s political aims, but beneath the surface is still a large conceptual toolbox. Too many people commit ‘vicious abstraction’ and use a strawman of Marxism, and so foreclose discussion or academic inquiry. It makes it impossible to be a Marxist and still be taken seriously.

Well, I’m almost inclined to agree that we should leave the old cliche of “Marxism” behind, and perhaps invent a whole new discourse for the new set of problems we face. That, or teach people that words are actually signifiers with complex meaning, because these concepts will always be instructive and we can’t throw them out. Let’s begin the process with “meta-Marxism,” as in after, between, and beyond Marxism(s), which will help us to recover the term, but also move past it. To avoid accusations of just being Marxism rebranded, meta-Marxism necessarily includes a critique of Marxism itself; an autocritique.

“Marxist theory… can become a false consciousness if, instead of being used for the methodical investigation of reality through theory and practice, it is misused as a defence against that very reality… Those who wish to deprive Marxism of its critical, subversive power and turn it into an affirmative doctrine, generally dig in behind a series of stereotyped statements which, in their abstraction, are as irrefutable as devoid of result.” — E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays (1978) — Source: When Marxism becomes a dogmatic abstraction rather than a critical praxis

There is already some theorizing on what is called meta-Marxism, which attempts to transcend the political firefight and abstract the set of principles that defines the critique of capitalism. It is Marxism without Marx. This is necessary to transition from Marxism to a discourse that is accessible and relatable to everyone, and that respects the actual legacy of Marx’s work (not communism).

Meta-Marxism goes back at least to the book Marxism and Alternatives (Rockmore et al., 1981), as the title of a very brief chapter. It does not really define meta-Marxism. It simply ‘hints’ at an abstract categorical definition of the scientific premises of Marxism-Leninism. It seeks to establish basic categorical concepts for the purposes of totalistic explanations. In other words, it’s suggestive of a most abstract philosophical terminology from which to pursue social science;

“a neutral specification would face… the tantalizing question as to whether there are absolutely ultimate ground(s) from which all human discourse must begin a philosophia perennis with a vengeance.” — Marxism and Alternatives, 1981

To clarify, The Abs-Tract Organization is developing a meta-Marxist approach in our work, and our articles that mention Marx(ism) reflect that. This article notes other critical movements that express this nuanced Marxist approach, which dovetails with metamodernism. Marxism is both an academic methodology and a set of political ideas, but they are also distinct, which becomes a source of confusion over the term. The contemporay academic literature actually reflects awareness of the complexity, hence meta-Marxism.

According to Beck Holm, Althusser formulated meta-Marxism (to use Holm’s term, in this case) back in 1965. Holm theorizes (in 2016) Althusser’s attempt to;

“…not to present yet another interpretation of Marx, but to reconstruct his project and to purify it of ideological elements. In other words, it is Althusser’s ambition to answer the question about what Marxism has to be, if it is to be not just another philosophy, but a science of history.” — Holm, Rethinking Althusser’s Meta-Marxism, 2016

Meta-Marxism is thus the abstraction of Marxism, not to be reduced to the various reifications of the term Marxism. This is a grand project. It means that we re-define what the critique means in contemporary terms, retiring the antiquated terms such as ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeosie.’ Of course those terms are still important for study, but they are anachronistic. One new term of import is the (global) ‘precariat’, which describes the growing masses with precarious working conditions.

The core idea behind Marxism is ‘historical materialism’ (dialecticism), which is the study of the interplay and reflexivity between economy and society. The classical expression is that social structures evolve from and supervene onto the economic base (which is the primary mode of production, ie. manufacturing). The culture and politics that arises is shaped, if not determined, by our material progress throughout history. I offer a more detailed review and defense of historical materialism here.

Historical materialism is an approach that is virtually exclusive to Marxism, and thus it provides a basic sociological awareness that can not be thrown out. Other Marxist concepts such as commodity abstraction, class consciousness, alienation, reflexivity, and revolution can change with the times, but they are invariably rooted in scientific Marxism. It is often by revisiting Marx (along with Kant and Hegel), that we renew this theoretical approach and so it lives on as a valid critique of capitalism.

Yet because of the name and historical associations, Marxism is either worn as a badge or used as a pejorative (“bloody Marxists” — Jordan Peterson). To be anti-Marxist is in vogue and empowering among the right these days. But its wrong considering the fact(s) that inequality has widened, economic anxiety has deepened, and political legitimacy has collapsed (while authoritarianism has increased). Anti-Marxism is very confused. Isms are not the enemy, fundamentalists are.

“Marxism has had a considerable impact upon global academia and has influenced multiple political ideologies and social movements. Marxist understandings of history and society have been adopted by academics in the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, media studies, political science, theater, history, sociology, art history and theory, cultural studies, education, economics, geography, literary criticism, aesthetics, critical psychology and philosophy.” — Wikipedia

It is not intellectually responsible to say that Marxism is dumb or evil, any more than it is for capitalism. Capitalism can be incredibly dumb and evil, but it also structures great opportunities and innovation. The 2008 (global) financial crisis not only proved that Marx was right, but that Marxism wasn’t enough. Even if Marxists are right, they are a minority up against the leviathan of capitalism. “Marxists” will never have full political power again, nor should they seek it, but what we should all agree on is that Marxism and socialism are (and should be) vital parts of capitalism now, suffused through concepts and institutions.

That is to say, via meta-Marxism, the critique can be infused, to become social capitalism, a new hybrid system. To deny the Marxist critique in total is to be a market fundamentalist, which is arguably more insipid and dangerous in today’s climate where corporations already dominate politics.

For these reasons, Jacobin is declaritively leftist and socialist, and even explicitly Marxist (see Why We’re Marxists). As the Jacobin article points out, the political right misunderstands and denies Marx, citing the defense Piketty gives in his book Capital in the 21st Century. Simply for the reason that Piketty is a critic of capitalism while rejecting the Marxist label for something more abstract, I will consider him a meta-Marxist. He understands Marx deeply, while transcending the baggage, lexicon, and politics, for a more nuanced approach that is bipartisan.

There are other contemporary expressions of meta-Marxism. David Harvey (dubbed “The world’s leading Marxist thinker”) appeared with Russell Brand to discuss “Marxism on the Rise” which if not for the title, would appear to be more meta-Marxist in its nuanced discussion. The problem with calling it Marxism is that anti-Marxists will tune out, yet we are somewhat bounded by the convention and terminology. Nevertheless at least the conversation is being had, and is going with the trend of metamodernism.

Richard Wolff is an economics professor at The New School, and is active in educating the public about and through a Marxist perspective. He spoke with Sam Seder on Majority Report (March, 2018) about trends of emerging socialism in response to the financial crisis. He also sat down with Abby Martin on Empire Files (2016) to discuss how capitalism is killing itself. These perspectives do not get trafficked through the mainstream media because it rubs against the status-quo. According to Wolff, we are just on the cusp of understanding what socialism means in the 21st century.

Chris Hedges is another prominent thinker part of this trend. He wouldn’t call himself a Marxist. He knows better. But he is explicitly a proponent of Marxist analysis, and that is the point. Speaking at the Left Forum (2015) on “Marx: The System is the Problem”, Hedges simply points out the prescience of Marx’s critique of capitalism, and discusses the basic stats and facts of its contemporary pathologies. In 2015, Hedges wrote Karl Marx Was Right. Douglas Lain followed up with What Marx Was Really Saying. All this is part of the wider project of TruthDig, which I would call meta-Marxist.

Marxism also does not equal communism, but the two are often confounded. Which brings us to the basic factor that’s always left out of evaluating economic systems such as capitalism, socialism, or communism, and that is war. Would they all suffer the same destructive habits and fates if they weren’t under constant threat or themselves projecting? Would the Soviet Union have condemned millions to die only to later collapse if it weren’t pumping a high percentage of its GDP into war and then an arms race? Would the US be in the precarious position it’s in if it hadn’t deprived much of its own society of basic education and wealth in order to flex its global military might?

Bottomline: can we truly say that capitalism is good, or communism is bad, when they are thrown into the arena to fight each other to the death? Perhaps yes, to a large extent, capitalism is the optimal template for producing wealth, but that does not (and should not) mean at the expense of systemic integrity or justice. We don’t have to make excuses for the excesses and pathologies of capitalism. And moderate communism is necessary for the protection of communal goods like water, so clearly we must strike a balance somewhere in between. But ultimately, the fact that they all went to war and one side (capitalism) emerged victorious proves nothing except nihilism.

As mentioned earlier, meta-Marxism can also refer to a spirit of auto-critique, exemplified by the left critiquing the left, such as in the article White Marxism: A Critique of Jacobin Magazine.

“New Leftists got so obsessed with philosophical and literary speculation about cultural oppression that they lost track of the real issues.” — Uday Jain

Jain clarifies how the left has become fragmented by its own literature and contemporaries (in postmodernism). In particular, Jacobin has shifted away from identity politics to focus on more universal class based issues. However, because these issues are inextricable, it ends up looking like ‘white’ Marxism for Jacobin. Jain’s underlying message is that we’re all on the same team and competing for attentional space has divided us, and he’s not wrong.

So we are in a new era for Marxism, a time for renovating the theories and upgrading social systems. Perhaps much of the contemporary literature and commentary, such as Gunn and Wilding’s article Marx and Recognition or John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology, can be read through lens of meta-Marxism, rather than Marxism, neo-Marxism, post-Marxism, or even Open Marxism. Doing so would get over the reliance on Marx himself, avoid being feared and dismissed as traditional Marxism, and ensure for skeptics that we are not repeating the mistakes of the past. Meta-Marxism is something different, new, still evolving, and post-ideological, in line with metamodernity.

For more in depth case studies or applications of meta-Marxist analysis see the articles Systemic-Conspiracy as Social Pathology (which has its own meta-Marxist subsection), The Abstract Society, or The Abstraction of Benjamin Bratton, or The Abstract Empire of Global Capital. Furthermore, as Jordan Peterson is a strong detractor of “Marxism” and particularly “postmodern neo-Marxism”, the concept of meta-Marxism speaks to this movement outside the purview of Peterson’s critique.

Metamodern Marxism

Before there was meta-Marxism there was post-Marxism (circa 1960s). A main feature is that it rejects essentialism, and so does not interpret Marx in absolute terms (ie. that the state is invariably an instrument of the capitalist class). Famous post-Marxists include Paulo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Alain Badiou, Bruno Latour, Frederic Jameson, and Jean Baudrillard. Like with post-modernism, it is time to evolve the discourse into the meta- frame, especially with the emphasis on new forms and methods of abstraction;

“What is affirmed is not that we cannot know the world and its totality in some abstract or “scientific” way. Marxian “science” provides just such a way of knowing and conceptualising the world abstractly, in the sense in which, for example, Mandel’s great book offers a rich and elaborated knowledge of that global world system, of which it has never been said here that it was unknowable but merely that it was unrepresentable, which is a very different matter.” — Jameson, Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)

My broader point is that meta-Marxism is indicative of the movement into metamodern social science, in which Marxism can (and must) achieve its goals without undermining itself, being the victim of other ideologies, and engaging in the destruction of society, or the abolition of capital altogether. Marxism took its own long meta- turn, as the sources suggest, and it must now come of age.

The purpose is not to simply equalize society but to prosecute the crimes that are currently exempted and protected by the status-quo. It must reform, tame, and domesticate capitalism while advancing social integrity and civic education. Marxism is needed to point out and close those very loopholes, laws, and legacies that serve only the rich or elite class. And perhaps where Marxism fails, meta-Marxism can finally succeed at creating consciousness not only in the victim, but in the oppressor.

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The Abs-Tract Organization

A Metamodern Think Tank for Global Civil Society and Absolute Social Philosophy, based on new insights in "abstraction."

Brent Cooper

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Political sociologist by training, mystic by nature, rebel by choice. Executive Director of The Abs-Tract Organization. #pointbeing #abstract

The Abs-Tract Organization

A Metamodern Think Tank for Global Civil Society and Absolute Social Philosophy, based on new insights in "abstraction."