Seeing the End in the Beginning II: His Time Not Ours, Research Time, 23/06/2016

Continued from last post . . . Yesterday, I wrote about why I’ve always hesitated about using Marx in the central argument of Utopias. When you use Marx openly as a basis for any of your ideas, you risk being ghettoized as Marxist literature. 

So the only people who read you with any charity are the ones who are already going to pretty much agree with you. There’s one problem for the marketing of the book, that leaning too heavily on Marx will keep it from reaching the potentially larger audience I want for it.

Also, there’s the core problem of Marx’s philosophy: it’s very much of its time. The most common mistake that people throughout the field of scholarship and activism make about Marx’s work is that they take his categories for universals. The structure of class conflict, the nature of industrial capitalism, the engine of history. 

I’ve read people and met people who think that Marx hit on the universal essence of capitalism in Capital. And that’s just not the case at all. I’m largely echoing Antonio Negri and Louis Althusser here when I say that Marx was a man of his time. 

This isn't the universal model for the world of work
anymore. The factory floor is no longer the common
ground for the lives of working people. So one
fundamental aspect of textbook Marxist political
organizing no longer exists.
There have been serious changes in the global structure of our economy since the 1870s. The primacy of the knowledge and communication economy being the most important. Related to that is the primary of online communication networks for commerce and political organizing. 

There’s also the end of states as the massively dominant political actors in the world. And also the creation of real international organizations and NGOs. Plus mass decolonization. 

And global ecological catastrophe. And the advent of nuclear weapons. You can’t just graft analytic categories from the height of the British Empire and the ascent of industrialization onto our very different time.

You can use the analytic frameworks Marx did to learn more about your global economy. That’s what Negri and Michael Hardt did with the decade-long research and writing project of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth

But I’m going to get meta with my use of Marx in Utopias. I’ve literally made an example out of him. And I think this example will probably make it into the book itself. I’m actually pretty sure by now – after only four years of thinking and researching about it – that I know pretty much what the major steps of Utopias’ argument will be.

The example is simple. I might go into it a little bit more tomorrow, because I didn’t get much time to write or think through it today. The example isn’t even Marx himself, but how people have tended to read Marx.

Whether they’re scholars or activists, Marx is read as if he’s a complete work. Scratch that. As if he’s always been a complete work. The culmination – the gospel, as the mediocre readers take it – is Capital. So all of his prior books and manuscripts are understood in the light of Capital.

How far a given work approaches the core ideas of Capital. How much groundwork a particular work lays for Capital. How it falls short of Capital. How this particular dry run at Capital came up just a little bit short. 

The thing is, that's not how any of those early works like The German Ideology, The 18th Brumaire, the Critique of the Philosophy of Right, or any of those essays and books that came out before Capital were written. They were written to stand alone on their own rights, for their own reasons. 

Understanding a person's entire life’s work as leading up to some culmination in a late-period masterpiece is always a mistake. You don’t write the masterpiece until it’s been written. So there’s no way it could be the point of all your other writing until you actually get there.

That way, the present, even in the moment, becomes the past. . . . To be continued

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