Reviewed by Garrett Pierman
Derek Wall, in his latest book, sets out to critique modern capitalism and provide us with an alternative for the unavoidable collapse of the capitalist order. At least, that is the sense the reader gets from the title, cover description, and two forewords. And that story is, indeed, found in the book. The first four chapters comprise Wall’s diagnosis of capitalism as it sits in the contemporary period, and the last chapter presents an alternative economics that focuses more on the creation of local commons rather than global trade. Taken together, these selections comprise a thoughtful, if not terribly groundbreaking, centre-left critique of neoliberal capitalism and some hopeful notes about the economic policies of the Greens.
The bar for reading the book is fairly high; the basics of capitalism are not covered in detail. Rather, Wall assumes his audience to be familiar with the concepts of modern economics and fairly well read in that field. The book differs from the usual left-leaning criticisms of neoliberal capitalism with a green tint; the environmental devastations of capitalism are front and center in the author’s analyses. Free markets, Wall points out, relegate the environment to an externality to be either ignored (ideally), or regulated, much to the chagrin of the centre right. We must, as decent human beings, refuse to take this as the final answer and instead dream of an economic system that places our planet above corporate profits; this is the main point of the work from the standpoint of advancing an agenda. It is this critique of neoliberalism and suggestion of Green economics that makes up the first four chapters, as well as the last chapter. These sections are where the book is at its best, clearly presenting a coherent, fairly mainstream analysis.
The rest of the book considers possible alternatives to capitalism. Covering all such alternatives would be the work of a lifetime, and the book is only a hair over 150 pages, so Wall appears to have restricted his analyses to Marxism, left-anarchism, and feminism. At least, that is what seems to be the case glancing at the admittedly thoughtful table of contents. In reality, the remaining chapters of the book form a scrapbook of center-left readings which range from cursory, at best, to, at worst, downright conceptually violent towards such a long and rich academic tradition.
One of the worst offenders in the book is the chapter on Marxism. In what is either a joke that falls flat, or a gross oversimplification, Wall makes the claim that one of the major difficulties in understanding Marxist thought is that reading Marx is difficult, and implies that such difficulty is a sign that we, as scholars, ought not to be bothered (pgs. 77-78). The section considering Marxist imperialism (pgs 83- 86) make no mention whatsoever of the rich field of postcolonial studies, which finds itself rich with Marxian thinkers. Apparently unaware of Fanon, Wall goes as far as to claim that “the idea that imperialism leads to underdevelopment is alien to the Marxist tradition” (pg. 85). Though it is clear that the author is aware of Marxist works after the death of Marx, he treats Marxist thought as though it stopped developing in 1883. The chapter concludes in part with a rousing back-patting of Chavez; apparently the newest edition of the book assumes history itself stopped in 2005 despite the 2017 publication date.
A following chapter on anarchism is similarly puzzling. Attempting to explain Foucault in two paragraphs is a bold task, and, apparently, difficult to do with much precision (pg. 108). Here Wall seems puzzled by the Marxist lineage of the French thinker. However, it is well known that Foucault studied under Althusser, linking the French scholar to the history of Marxist thought in his training. It is, again, as though the author is simply unaware of the canon of contemporary political theory, or leaves it out for the sake of brevity. In a similar omission, the book does not address the developments of the Frankfurt School, which may explain the disconnect the author seems to experience between the late nineteenth century and the recent past, and present state of left-wing theory. Wall does recognize that the Greens owe their basic understanding of political life to Marx (pg 123), but the lack of a nuanced narrative of that development frustrates the book’s efforts to present ecosocialism as a viable alternative to capitalism. In a similar vein, the chapter on feminism seems to make forced intellectual distinctions instead of a logical progression from Marxism to Marxist feminism and ultimately Green Marxist Feminism.
Setting aside, for the present moment, the content of the book, which is effectively a scrapbook of center-left critiques of both neoliberal capitalism and more leftist criticisms, the text itself is worth a comment. Given Wall’s intention to provide something of a survey, the bibliography of the book is impressive. In fact, I argue that it is the most useful section of the work, covering the primary and secondary literatures of the modern left in some detail. With that richness in source material, however, comes a risk; the book as a whole suffers from two common problems with surveys. First, no subject is covered in any real depth, leaving the reader to either assume that Wall’s analyses are correct, or to skim through surface-level views of some of the most complicated political thought of the past two centuries. Second, the text itself is difficult to follow. In an attempt to show the reader that the author has, in fact, done the reading, there are frequent (ab)uses of long block quotations that distract the reader. Few pages are immune. For instance, chapter four (50-61) contains eleven such quotes, averaging one per page. This trend is representative of the book at large; it is difficult to keep track of what Wall actually thinks in light of the mixed salad of quotations that make up much of the actual content of the book. At the risk of leaving critique for condemnation, such writing feels, at times, like an attempt to fill pages when the author does not have an analysis of his own to present.
Given that the work assumes a fair amount of background knowledge on the part of the reader, one can safely make the assumption that the book is aimed at their advanced undergraduates or graduate students. In either case, the book would make for an interesting discussion section in a class focused on international political economy, assuming the rest of the syllabus consists of the material with which Wall assumes the reader has engaged. For more advanced scholars, the bibliography may prove a good resource, but the book itself does not advance any new theory or innovative readings of previous scholarship. Overall, Economics After Capitalism is a difficult to read, and somewhat confused survey of the modern left, and will likely attract a niche following among those looking for a quick reminder of what they should have already read more carefully.
19 October 2017