“By its nature,” Marx writes in the climactic passage of a magnificent but very dense section of the Grundrisse, capital “posits a barrier to labor and value-creation in contradiction to its tendency to expand them boundlessly. And in as much as it both posits a barrier specific to itself, and on the other side equally drives over and beyond every barrier, it is the living contradiction.”
There are those who believe that Marx has little relevance for today’s world—that globalization, finance, the hyper-mobility of capital, class fragmentation and the like represent fundamental ruptures that separate our age from the epoch of European industrialization and colonial expropriation in which Marx’s ideas were forged. In his 2103 biography of Marx, for example, Jonathan Sperber advances the thesis that “Marx certainly did understand crucial features of capitalism, but those of the capitalism that existed in the early decades of the nineteenth century, which … is distinctly removed from today’s circumstances.”
Although I admire the richly textured account of Marx’s life that Sperber develops, I find this conclusion both intellectually misguided, and politically disabling. Contra Sperber, I believe that Marx remains the seminal theorist of capitalism, and that Marx’s critique of capitalism and the social relations to which it gives rise remain not merely relevant, but necessary and indispensable.
For Marx, the critique of capital begins with what he calls the “value-form.” By this Marx means the historically specific ways in which capitalism conceives of, produces and accumulates value, distinct from previous social conceptions of wealth. Once the capitalist category of value becomes dominant, it gives rise to forms of social life that must conform to the dictates and contradictions inherent within capital’s value-form. Capital draws all of us into its orbit as monetary-subjects and commodity-subjects. It has become the all-but-universal condition of life under capitalism that humans must ceaselessly struggle to gain access to money and/or commodities in order to live. Capital creates dense social ties—many of which are invisible to its participants. But it is characterized as much by its profound asociality—producing alienation and atomization that lead to the decomposition of societal forms of collective well-being, creating ever-widening rifts relations between and among people and nature.
Capital’s essence, according to Marx, lies in the constant accumulation of one particular form of value, surplus value, which is generated by the exploitation of productive living labor. From the outset, then, capital cleaves off a huge portion of human life and constitutes it as “unproductive.” In many cases this “unproductive labor”—labor that does not immediately produce surplus value—is vital to human society and includes some of humanity’s most cherished activities. Consider the services provided by doctors or teachers, the unwaged domestic labor of child rearing and household work (historically shouldered disproportionately by women), or the work of creating art, just to name a few examples. Part of capitalism’s brutality comes from the fact that it subjugates all aspects of human life to the needs of capital accumulation.
Among the principal contradictions that Marx locates within the value-form is capital’s simultaneous need to absorb new labor even as it displaces or eliminates existing labor. On the one hand capital constantly draws new wage laborers into production. This might mean locating workers in new places. Or it might mean bringing populations which had previously been excluded—women, children, peasants, etc.—into capitalist wage work. On the other hand, however, capital is forced to seek what Marx calls “relative surplus value,” value that is generated by making labor more productive, usually through mechanization or automation. An increasing reliance on machines means that fewer workers are needed to produce the same number of commodities, which in turn makes workers redundant, forced out of their waged work. This leads to the creation of what Marx called, the “surplus population,” not immediately required by capital as a workforce, but needed to discipline those who are employed. In the push and pull of its human workforce, capital controls both sides of the ledger.
These contradictions make capital particularly prone to crisis. In moving past the limits it encounters, capital reproduces its contradictions at a higher stage of development, and hence increases the intensity of future crises. For instance, capital appears to overcome national boundaries through free trade, but to do so it must constrict the free movement of labor generating inequality and misery. Capital appears to overcome the barriers of nature by finding cheap energy to fuel its drive for value, but in doing so it creates the looming ecological catastrophes of climate change and species extinction. It appears to level social distinctions, prejudice, and fetters on human development, only to make universal the asociality and alienation characteristic of life under capital. Whatever specific form of appearance its crises take, Marx contends, the essence of crisis and contradiction remains inherent in the value-form of capital itself.
This is why, as an aside, some of today’s most important scholarship being done on social problems comes from Marxist scholars, who understand the particular manifestations of crisis in relation to capital’s requirements for accumulation. Consider the pathbreaking scholarship being done by Marxist feminists, Marxist ecologists, Marxist scholars of racism, Marxist scholars of imperialism, among many others. In each case these scholars examine the myriad forms of violence, discrimination, oppression, and exploitation as part of capital’s larger unity rather than as autonomous forces.
From even this brief list, we begin to understand what it means to live amidst the catastrophes of “the living contradiction.” Marx’s work allows us to recognize and analyze the crises of our day, but he also gives us a framework to think about what is required to move beyond capitalism. We must always remember that Marx’s writings are about the historical conditions of capitalism. He does not make claims about universal truths. He proceeds from the understanding that capitalism has its own internal dynamics, its own “laws of motion,” and that like all historical epochs it is necessarily fluid, in motion, and transient.
Among the forces that Marx believed would lead to capitalism’s demise was the growing size and centrality of a new class of proletarian workers, who would ultimately overthrow the system that was founded upon their exploitation. This proletariat has continued to grow in recent years, especially in what is now often called “the Global South,” now home to some 84% of the global workforce. This is but one expression of capital’s continued need to draw new wage-workers into its orbit. But even as it subsumes new workers, it must likewise push others out. Alongside the expansion of a global proletariat has been a swelling of the “surplus population.” This includes the ever-growing ranks of the unemployed and unemployable, the sick, the injured, the paupers, the “informal”, the peasants, the domestics, a list which only begins to catalog the myriad ways in which individuals “make a living.” Although Marx argued that the creation of such a surplus population was a necessary feature of capital’s unceasing search for value, he could not have foreseen the size and scale of this surplus population today.
What, then, of Marx’s vaunted proletariat, the gravediggers of capital? Can the working class still assume its purported role as the historical subject capable of expropriating the expropriators?
This remains the pressing question for the Left today. I feel that Marx offers us two ways to think about this problem: theoretically and politically. Theoretically, our task is to analyze the class configuration of the present moment, which includes both those who work and those who don’t work, two inverse expressions of capitalism’s search for value. This class is undoubtedly more prone to fragmentation than the working class envisioned by Marx, but we must understand and make visible the structural connections among segments of the exploited, oppressed, and disposed victims of capital. Politically, we must recall that Marx, as he grew older, was critical of those who saw revolution as imminent or spontaneous. He, by contrast, recognized the enormity of revolutionary transformation. He advocated careful, exacting analysis alongside slow, patient organizing. The idea was not to wait for the next big crisis to deliver the revolution. Rather, he understood that while crises create room to maneuver within the contradictory forces of the day, revolutionary transformation requires sustained, committed activity pursued in the interests of a collective social actor.
To look with clear eyes at the present, marked both by crisis and deeply fragmented class formations, is to again comprehend the enormity of a revolutionary transformation that would move us beyond the value-form. Financial crises, climate change, the rise of political fascism, or the coercions of imperialism will not, in and of themselves, provide the lever to supersede capitalism. To do this will require, as Marx tells us, exacting analysis and difficult organizing, undertaken over many years. We have no blueprints, no ready-made programs for such a transformation. But Marx’s critique of capital remains the indispensable starting point.
Brett Benjamin is Associate Professor at the State University of New York at Albany. Author of Invested Interests: Culture, Capital and the World Bank, he has also published articles on Marx, value theory and anti-colonial Marxism in numerous journals.