‘Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital’ reviewed by Sean Ledwith

Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital

Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2017. 304pp., $35 hb
ISBN ISBN 9780691172903

Reviewed by Sean Ledwith

About the reviewer

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History and Politics at York College. He is also a regular contributor …


This year’s 150th anniversary of the publication of Volume One of Marx’s Capital has created renewed interest in that unrivalled magnum opus of radical political economy. The undimmed relevance of the book has only been enhanced by recent economic and political developments in this decade of the 21st century. 2017 also marks the tenth anniversary of the onset of the great recession that continues to act as a drag-weight on the Western capitalist economies. The transparent failure of bourgeois economists to anticipate or avert the 2007-08 crash has led millions to turn to rejuvenated leftist politicians, such as Corbyn in the UK, Sanders in the US, and Melenchon in France, for radical alternatives.

None of the movements built around these personalities have embraced Marxist economic theory in an unambiguous manner; yet the rhetoric of ‘For the many, not the few’ and ‘We Are the 99%’ that figures prominently in their campaign rallies demonstrates that a populist version of the foundational critique of capitalism permeates the grassroots of these and other manifestations of the electoral revival of the left. The defining challenge for Marxists in this milieu is surely to locate means of propagating an understanding of the comprehensive critique of capitalism contained in Marx’s 150-year old text, so that it penetrates the fertile ground that now clearly exists. William Clare Roberts, author of Marx’s Inferno, shares this goal: ‘Marx’s Capital must be recovered as a work of political theory, written in a specific political context, but seeking also to say something of lasting importance about the challenges to – and possibilities for – freedom in the modern world’ (1).

Roberts’ invigorating and provocative analysis of Volume One takes as its starting point a reminder that Marx himself confronted the same challenge in his own lifetime. The radical left at the mid-point of the 19th Century was dominated by diverse brands of utopian socialism offered by, among others, Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon. Also overshadowing the ideas of Marx for a significant period of time was the Proudhonian strategy of turning one’s back on the accelerating impact of mass production and looking to artisanal and small producer models as the route to socialism. Roberts elegantly and innovatively argues that Marx adopted the model of Dante’s journey through Hell in the celebrated Inferno section of his The Divine Comedy as a paradigm for revealing the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production and for demonstrating, contra the aforementioned thinkers, that the capitalist economic system had created a platform for socialism.

According to this account, the exegesis in Capital leads the proletarian reader through the subterranean levels of an economic system that has been misread by Marx’s political rivals on the left. Dante’s classic, Roberts argues, was widely known in contemporary socialist circles and would have made a comprehensible template for Marx’s target audience of educated workers: ‘Casting the proletariat as the pilgrim, he took upon himself the role of Virgil, guiding the revolutionary class through the evils of the modern world in such a way as to reveal capital itself as the guilty party, the sinner trapped in a Hell of its own making, incapable of salvation’ (23).

Roberts provides helpful diagrammatic evidence of the structural parallels between the two works, arguing persuasively that both can be divided internally into four principal sections (27). The Upper Hell in Dante’s Inferno, where sins of incontinence such as sloth and envy are punished, corresponds to the surface appearance of the capitalist market in which commodities seem to exchange equally through the medium of money. Dis, the walled city of Hell where violent offenders are held, relates to the forcible but hidden extraction of surplus-value at the point of production. Malebolge, where sins of fraud are dealt with, corresponds to the pursuit of intensified productivity by the bourgeoisie through absolute and relative surplus-value which maximise exploitation; and climactically, Cocytus, the locale of Lucifer himself, parallels the brutal appropriation of the peasantry and colonised peoples that accompanied the primitive accumulation of capital in the early modern era. In the author’s words: ‘As a new Virgil, Marx tries to guide his readers along the internal connections binding exchange to exploitation, contracts to conquest, prices to poverty, development to despotism. His hope is that a pilgrim with many heads will follow him, a new collective Dante, whose poetry will constitute a new republic beyond the critique of capital’ (257). This is a perceptive and powerful analysis on Roberts’ part and he is to be commended for elucidating an approach to a notoriously daunting text that possibly did appeal to Marx’s first generation of readers, and which can still offer genuine enlightenment to those studying Capital today.

Two immediate problems with Roberts’ methodology, however, might strike the reader from the outset. Firstly, applying the Dantean paradigm fits neatly with the general argument of Volume One, but Volumes Two and Three are left unexplored. The author justifies this decision on the grounds that the 1867 publication was the only one definitively prepared and supervised by Marx himself, whereas its successors were largely the result of Engels’ attempt to complete his great collaborator’s legacy (14). Also contentious is Roberts’ agenda of traducing a more traditional Hegelian reading of Capital. He argues that the limitation of the interpretation known as ‘systematic dialectics’ is its failure to integrate the historical analysis contained in the work. Roberts observes: ‘this modelling seems to have excluded large swathes of the text, including chapters ten, thirteen through fifteen, and twenty-six through thirty-three, together composing over 40 % of the book’ (11). This highlights a considerable problem for Hegelian readings but Roberts’ attempt to displace it with a Dantean template is not entirely consistent either; allusions to the Italian poet become progressively less common and he barely figures in the closing chapter.

Roberts does not just utilise the Dante analogy to explicate the key arguments of Capital. He also deploys aspects of Inferno to engage in crucial theoretical debates within the left from Marx’s era and ours. In the first level of Hell are situated those who are guilty of the sin of ‘akrasia’: incontinence, weakness; lack of self-mastery or self-control (57). For Dante, these were individuals who had proved incapable of controlling their basest desires and were duly punished. Roberts contends that the utility of this depiction for Marx is that it illuminates the mystery confronting the utopian socialists of why the new technological powers of capitalism were apparently surging ahead even beyond the will of the bosses. At this point, the author notes a crucial divergence of perspective between the two books. Dante and the utopian socialists attributed responsibility for the wrongs of the world to the moral weakness of individuals. In Roberts’ words: ‘Dante’s moral categories are the original and highest poetic expression of a religion born of exchange relations, of which the morality of the early socialists is merely a rough knock-off’ (22).

For Marx, in contrast, both boss and worker are playthings of an ensemble of social relations that has overtaken them together. His rivals on the left ‘had terrifically oversimplified the operations and the harms of modern capitalism by individualising and moralising both’ (55). Marx’s version of socialism is distinguished from that of Fourier, Owen and others by the absence of an ethical critique of capitalism and an exclusive focus on the dissection of the inner mechanics of the system in the form of a scientific description. This alternative vantage point allows Marxism to dispense with futile appeals to the goodwill of the handful of benign capitalists or to waste time with regressive visions of an anterior, supposedly fairer social system: ‘To the extent that our contributions to society are mediated by exchange, we find ourselves trapped in a giant collective-action-problem generating machine, a machine that we have inadvertently created and from which it will be extremely difficult to extricate ourselves’ (102).

Outlined as such, Roberts’ conceptualisation of capitalism as a system of impersonal domination that manipulates bosses and workers alike seems reminiscent of two other influential modern readings of Capital: namely, those of Michael Heinrich and Moishe Postone, which similarly stress the abstract and objective nature of the system. Roberts, however, rejects such a comparison and seeks to differentiate his model from theirs. He argues that Heinrich’s approach links the rise of fetishised mentalities under capitalism primarily to our subjection to the commodity form, while Postone attributes capitalist domination to abstract social structures. In contrast, Roberts contends that we should conceive of the process of capitalist exploitation as still one ‘of people by people’ but in a mediated, indirect and impersonal form (92).

The distinctions Roberts wishes to offer here are subtly made but they are not entirely persuasive. The notion, for example, that the eight wealthiest people on the planet who have the equivalent wealth of half the human population (as reported by Oxfam this year) are unified with the 3.6 billion in their common imprisonment within the capitalist system makes political agitation on the issue problematic. Roberts’ contention that the moral responsibility of the elite is a dimension that Marx wished to elide from the heart of his analysis is indubitably the case, but the author does not provide a clear prognosis of how revolutionaries are to highlight this form of gross inequality to maximum effect if the focus is on what we have in common with our exploiters, as opposed to what divides us from them.

The notion that our rulers are helpless playthings of their own system is also perhaps a suitable characterisation of classical capitalism in the nineteenth century but less so once the modern bourgeois state emerges, fully equipped with financial and military capabilities in the era of monopolisation and imperialism. The capitalist politicians and theoreticians who congregated at Bretton Woods in 1944, in Rome for the formation of the embryonic EU in 1957 or who meet annually in Davos, are not entirely masters of the universe but they are far removed from Dante’s sinners in limbo, being buffeted by winds beyond their control. The tools of fiscal and monetary policy available to central bankers, plus the exponential growth of military and surveillance hardware available to their political masters, means that modern capitalist powers have the ability to re-shape the balance of class forces, if not at will, then certainly far beyond the imaginings of their nineteenth century predecessors.

Another antinomy for Roberts’ version of the impersonal domination of capital is locating the source of resistance and revolution if the ideological hegemony of the system is as pervasive as he suggests. He rightly asserts at the outset that reclaiming Marx’s Capital as a political weapon is crucial, and yet it is difficult to see how that project can be sustained if all subjects of late capitalism are locked into its fetishized conceptions of the world as firmly as he contends. The conceptualisation of the ‘collective-action-problem-machine’ appears to seal both bourgeoisie and proletariat into an airtight social structure without any means for the latter, in particular, to break out and to create – or even to envisage – an alternative social system.

In the final chapter, Roberts addresses the question that Marx may have been over-optimistic regarding the smoothness of the transition from capitalism to socialism; but even if that is the case, a political analysis of Capital today surely needs to tackle the decisive question of through what agency the rule of capital can be challenged. A study of this nature is not obligated to engage with the legacy of Leninism; however, without such an engagement, the question of how everyday proletarian consciousness can make the leap to revolutionary consciousness is a conspicuous omission.

In this context of the transition to socialism, Roberts does defend Marx from the claim by G.A. Cohen that Capital propagates an ‘obstetric conception of politics’ (232). The author summarises this as the view ‘that the capitalist development of the means of production, and the consequent struggles between the capitalist and labouring classes, will, of itself, make the case that the broad swath of humanity is committed to socialist principles’ (241). Roberts rightly rejects the notion that Marx was committed to such crude technological determinism and that the necessity for revolutionary consciousness – the subjective factor – was, in fact, integral to his vision. The author explains Marx’s reluctance to commit himself to detailed prescriptions of either the nature of revolution or a post-capitalist society in Capital as being reflections of his espousal of a ‘neo-republican’ definition of human freedom: ‘This goal – universal republican self-emancipation of the labouring classes, secured and developed by universal republican government in all arenas of social life – militates against Marx setting himself up as a legislator for this future state, proposing elaborate rules and institutions, decision making procedures or the like’ (243).

Roberts contends that this conception of freedom in Marx is more accurate than the conventional reading placing him in the predominantly left-wing tradition of theorists of positive freedom such as Rousseau and Hegel. Like his deployment of Dante, this is a radical and stimulating innovation on the part of the author, even though it perhaps creates the danger that Marx becomes too closely linked to the Anglo-Saxon, atomistic conception of negative freedom as espoused by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and others. Nevertheless, this creative approach to a classic text is symptomatic of Roberts’ overall engagement with Capital, making his study one of the most stimulating contributions to the renewal of its revolutionary project, 150 years on.

5 December 2017

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