‘Voices on the Left: Challenging Capitalist Hegemony’ by George Souvlis reviewed by Rosa Vasilaki

Reviewed by Rosa Vasilaki

About the reviewer

Rosa Vasilaki holds a PhD in History from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and a …

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In this book, George Souvlis brings together a wide array of Marxist thinkers and as such he creates an international and necessary debate about the contemporary challenges and conundrums faced by Marxist analytics, in particular, and the global Left, in general, today. The book enters these debates via the use of interviews, or even better, conversations. I believe that this term introduces a small, nonetheless important distinction: while the term interview refers to a methodological tool for data collection in the field of human and social sciences, the term conversation establishes a condition of parity, a condition of mutual interest in the subject under discussion. Hence, the term conversation is better suited for the endeavour undertaken by the book: a discussion about the Left presupposes while simultaneously seeks for conditions of parity. There is also an additional reason for the choice of this type of intellectual exploration:  the author aims to supersede the academic boundaries and to open up the field of Marxist analytics to the wider public and all those who feel concerned by the epistemic and political issues raised by the book.

The volume hosts twenty-six such conversations, organized in thematic sections which necessarily overlap to a certain extent as they are part of a broader debate. Some of the fundamental themes running across Marxist theoretical tradition figure in the book: historical sociology, political Marxism, Marxist feminism, the political economy of the current neoliberal condition, the great theoreticians of Marxism such as Gramsci, Althusser and Perry Anderson, the political developments beyond Europe, but also the concerns about and interpretations for the rise of the far-right in the interwar years.

Besides exploring this extensive terrain, the volume also maps three generations of Marxist thinkers, by way of categorizing the events, phenomena and movements which marked their own process of politicization. Hence, a tripartite typology emerges: the generation which had been politicized in the aftermath of 1968, the generation which was marked by the struggles of the movement against globalization, and finally, the millennials, a generation which came of age in the midst of the global capitalist crisis. As such, the volume works on a number of registers: it accounts for the interests and concerns of each generation, for the disagreements and convergences between thinkers, for the crucial moments or turning points with regards to the development of their political consciousness, and the different facets of their intellectual trajectories. In this perspective, the book does not only offer an intellectual biography of individual thinkers, but also a comprehensive biography of Marxist problematics.

It is impossible to provide a full account of the multiple facets and richness of the volume in hand. I will, therefore, focus my review on those aspects of the book, which, in my view, broaden the field of Marxist analytics in the following sense: in integrating the experience of exclusion of those who were left outside the Western canon, in broadening Marxism’s universal scope by historicizing those experiences and standpoints as equally constitutive of Western, capitalist oppression, rather than bypassing them as secondary concerns. To do so, I will refer, first, on the book’s engagement with the debates in the field of historical sociology, Eurocentrism, and the possibility of conceiving a Marxist historiography beyond the teleological analytics placing Europe in the centre of history and measuring the others’ modernity according to that European yardstick; second, I will refer to book’s take on the challenges faced by contemporary Marxist feminism, and in particular, in the co-optation of feminist themes and claims by the right and the far-right.

With regards to the first point, the book will be of particular relevance to those interested in the problematic revolving around the question of Eurocentrism and the way it reproduces internalist narratives accounting for the emergence of capitalism. In the book, Alexander Anievas in the conversation entitled “How the West Came to Rule”, outlines a particularly illuminating perspective with regards to the way the narratives of transition have been subsumed into the internalist logic, but also with regards to superseding the internalist theoretical straight-jacket. Anievas focuses on the foundational assumption of classical social theory (shared by key social thinkers such as Marx, Tonnies, Durkheim and Weber) positing that the nature of any given society’s development is determined by its internal structures and agents. Besides, as Anievas explains, it was the very conception of internal history of societies that led to the genesis of sociology itself. In these narratives, the “international” remained essentially a contingent and external factor as far as the elementary premises of social theory are concerned. At the same time, the field of International Relations suffers from the opposite fallacy: detaching the “international” from its socio-historical context leads to a reification of geo-politics, turning it, thus, into a “supra-social” sphere of great political powers. Anievas, however, shows that is was precisely those extra-European geo-political conditions and forms of agency that led to the rise of capitalism in the West in the long durée. For instance, he places in the centre of history not only feudalism, but also the Pax Mongolica which introduced Europe to the emerging “world system” and familiarized the Europeans with the technological breakthroughs of scientifically advanced Asia, while simultaneously introducing to Europe new diseases – such as the Black Death epidemic – which caused a demographic reordering and eventually brought European feudalism into crisis. Similarly, Anievas sheds light to the consequences of the antagonism between the super-powers of the time, that is the rivalry between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, which caused the further undermining of existing centres of feudal power, like the papacy or the Italian city-states, whilst empowering new rival emerging powers, such as the French or the Dutch. Anievas’ shift of focus also allows for the understanding of the unusual cohesion and unity of the English ruling class and the primitive accumulation in the English countryside as an effect of the geo-political isolation suffered by the English, itself an unintended consequence of the Ottomans’ action.

This is but one example of the way the narrative on the emergence of capitalism as a Western product can be entirely transformed when others – those non-European others and their agency – inform our historical accounts. This new perspective, though, only becomes possible when we overcome the logic of “additional” factors: when we do not simply perceive the non-European as a supplementary category but as constitutive of the very possibility for the emergence of capitalism. In this perspective, the exceptionality of Western modernity collapses and this opens up an extremely fertile field for the explanatory narrative of Marxism and the Capital.

What is also particularly interesting, though, is the reactions and disagreements among Marxist historical sociologists, who continue their mental conversation via this volume. For instance, Charlie Post, in the conversation entitled “Class, Race and Capital-centric Marxism”, argues against the claim that the Brenner-Wood analysis of the origins of capitalism emphasizing class conflict is Eurocentric. Eurocentrism, for Post, is founded on the assumption of the superiority of European culture and institutions; furthermore, it assumes that this culture and its institutions are necessary elements for the development of all non-European societies. Post claims that the internalist approach focusing on England makes none of these assumptions. Perhaps not in any obvious way, one could retort. Nonetheless, focusing on European, internal processes only presupposes a stance, which sees non-European developments as not important and, therefore, easily omittable from the narratives for the Western self. I will, however, pause here and give everyone the chance to savour these fascinating disagreements through the book itself.

Let me now proceed to the second point, namely the hard challenges faced by feminism today. The volume engages with a series of extremely topical issues: for instance, women’s strike via the conversation with Cinzia Aruzza, entitled “Feminist Organizing and the Women’s Strike”; or the concept of social reproduction and the centrality of women’s reproductive labour as constitutive of the very possibility for the capitalist “take-off” in Silvia Federici’s “Feminism and Social Reproduction”. As Federici notes, the previous generations of thinkers may have emphasized the separation of the peasantry from the land as an essential condition for the creation of capitalist relations, however, they had completely ignored the separation of production from reproduction, the devaluation of reproductive work, its delimitation in the ostensibly non-economic sphere, which was a key element in the depreciation of women’s position in toto. The relationship between women, work and capitalism is further explored via an insightful conversation with Morgan Merteuil, entitled “Sex Work Can Be Emancipatory Only as A Collective Process”, who engages with the numerous arguments around sex workers, and especially with the dilemma between seeing sex work as exploitation only or by considering its emancipatory potential in the context of a collective process as well.

But, perhaps the more pressing questions – given flows of global migration and the global spread of xenophobic attitudes – in the field of Marxist feminism emerges from the conversation with Sara Farris, entitled “Marxism, Religion and Femonationalism”. The concept of femo-nationalism attempts to account for a recent and disconcerting phenomenon: that of the cooptation of feminist themes, struggles and concerns by the far right. From the wars in the name of women’s right in Afghanistan to the unapologetic Islamophobia of a part of the LGBTQ movement, for instance, in the Netherlands, to the French authoritarian republicanism which demands to uncover the heads of Muslim women and Marine Lepen appropriating gender equality and supporting women’s rights as the pinnacle of “Western civilization”, an intense instrumentalization of themes historically associated with the Left by the right and the far-right is underway. Naturally, it is not a coincidence that the discussion is mostly focused on Islam: on the one hand, this is the effect of the visibility of Muslims, as the epitome of otherness in the West; on the other,  it is the effect of Islamist fundamentalism posing – and convincing many on the left side of the political spectrum – as anti-Western, and, hence, necessarily anti-capitalist or anti-hegemonic, whereas its political theology and imaginary is nothing but a narrative of emancipation. What is at stake here is not to repeat that the interest of the right and the far-right in feminist issues is disingenuous, but rather to attempt to comprehend why such shift may be taking place. In this volume, Farris does exactly that: she demonstrates the political hypocrisy of the West with regards to Muslim women. On the one hand, racism against migrants reconfigures itself as Islamophobia and is being white-washed in the laundry of women’s rights; on the other hand, the compulsory integration programs migrant women have to undertake in numerous European countries are nowhere near any concept of emancipation: confining women in the realm of care-related labour – housekeeping, childcare, care for the elderly –  the integration programs further enhance the patriarchal division of labour in capitalism.

Bringing those important omissions, such as the history of the “Rest” to the centre of our Eurocentric analysis of the genesis of capitalism or accounting for forms of marginalization and oppression such as those experienced by migrants, women or the targets of contemporary cultural racism, are necessary moves for both Marxist analytics and the global Left in the current historical conjuncture. The author and its interlocutors perform exactly this difficult work: they discuss, they disagree and clash over important points of contentions, they redefine the terms of the debate and they keep examining in many separate and converging ways the most important issue of our times: the emancipation from lesser and greater forms of oppression.

10 December 2019

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