‘Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism’ by John Patrick Leary,’Marx, Dead and Alive: Reading ‘Capital’ in Precarious Times’ by Andy Merrifield reviewed by Christian Garland


Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism

Haymarket, Chicago, 2019. 216 pp., $16.00 pb
ISBN 9781608469628


Marx, Dead and Alive: Reading ‘Capital’ in Precarious Times

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2020. 184 pp., $23.00 pb
ISBN 9781583678794

Reviewed by Christian Garland

About the reviewer

Christian Garland has degrees in Philosophy and Politics from the University of East Anglia (UEA) …

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In seeking to understand ‘the present state of things’, we are left with the additional problem of the degradation of the available language in order to do so, what John Patrick Leary asks at the beginning of Keywords: ‘How can we think and act critically in the present when the very medium of the present, language, constantly betrays us?’ (2)

Written in the format of a reference book, Keywords’ short critical essays make a significant contribution toward debunking the management-speak nonsense which attempts to reset the English language – and all others – according to its own instrumental and limited logic. It is this resetting of language, both words and their meaning, that the book sets out to not only critique, but also to equip readers with many of the resources needed to make sense of so much bullshit used by companies and organisations to obfuscate and frustrate anyone wanting to undertake a reasoned critique of them and more importantly, the society and its social relations of which they are part.

Anyone who has had the distinctly tepid pleasure of trying to communicate with a large company, and increasingly public institutions, specifically universities, will know exactly what many, if not all, of Leary’s entries refer to. ‘Self-service’ of course means being held responsible for something beyond your control with no interest or responsibility taken by the institution; but this has the spin of sounding ‘empowering’ – like you have a choice – with institution copying the corporate tactic of using Q&A templates, and concealing email addresses with auto-responses saying, ‘This address is not checked’.

Whilst ‘self-service’ is not in Keywords, it certainly could be, and the book further benefits from its ‘keywords’ highlighted in bold throughout. Its keywords appear in bold wherever they appear elsewhere in the text, beyond their specific alphabetic entry, a sample being: leaders, curators, competencies, best practices, and human capital (4).

Such continuous and ceaseless churning out of only positive definitions of words and concepts which are either meaningless or which have taken actual words and turned them into sound bites devoid of their original ‘objective’ substance, is the habit of contemporary capitalist society. This makes it near impossible to identify or criticize the degradation of language, or such a form of society. Yet Leary’s book is a toolkit for just that. Early on, referring to dictionary definitions and references for the book to draw comparison with the words and concepts under critical scrutiny, Leary sets out a bold and convincing introduction with some style.

Capitalism at its most hi-tech has been quick to invent and spread this new language of unequivocal positivity: about itself and the world it shapes and defines. Nearing the end of the introduction, Leary refers to the entry on failing: ‘If you are failing, this is only in the service of maximizing future success; if you are “succeeding” then congratulations, you earned it.’ (17). The individualized nature of neoliberalism, in which individuality is always absent, as is society or collective responses to social problems, is critically defined in the entries, for Accountability, Accountable, Best Practices, Excellence and indeed Innovation: such insipid corporate and institutional terms will be all-too-familiar for the reader, especially if they have ever taught in a British university. The entry for Brand meanwhile and the wide-scale ‘necessity’ for ‘building one’s own brand’ in an advanced capitalist society, receives short thrift: ‘The brand’s familiar origins in the marking of property, reminds us of that laboring body whose flexibility has psychic and physical limits.’ (34).

As hi-tech consumer capitalism becomes ever more a technological selection of pre-defined choices to ‘choose’ from, now done for you by algorithms, data mining information about its members and their ‘choices’ becomes paramount to the capitalist class and its profits. In particular, there is that section which prefers to talk about creativity, innovation and, notably, disruption: billionaires who wear hoodies rather than Armani suits, and who think that the world doesn’t regard them as part of the transnational capitalist class. ‘Disruption […] is one of the most widely used and widely disparaged terms in this book.’ This Silicon Valley cliché ultimately amounts to Joseph Schumpeter’s awed ‘creative destruction’ of the market destroying anything not up to competing in its war of all-against-all, specifically, those firms not utilizing competitive advantage and being sufficiently creative and innovative. Harvard Business Review, which is Leary’s bugbear, is quoted throughout the book: ‘This is an era of disruption’, declares one of its authors, surely not intending to sound as dismal and as dreadful as he does.

Another interesting and important entry is Empowerment, and the concept has, as Leary notes, a history that is both ‘complex and diverse’ but is now used primarily in the corporate sense to disempower but to pretend the opposite: ‘If the power to choose between market-based options is yours, […] the responsibility for failure is yours as well’ (78-79).

Engagement, so beloved by companies and public institutions – especially should their ‘policies’ ever be called into question – of course means compliance with and acceptance of whatever those ‘policies’ are. The one-way hierarchical transmission of what the management of an organisation or institution with the power to do so decide and declare, is the way things are, and too bad if you don’t like it – you are not ‘engaging’.

Throughout Keywords, the writing is inflected with a cerebral anger preceded by thought. As Leary explains in his introduction and throughout, the very creation of the book was borne of discussion of the absurdities and idiocies of language itself being corrupted into a jumble of buzz words, spin and corporate re-purposing to make criticism impossible. It was this discussion that also recognized that ‘[l]anguage is not merely a passive reflection of things as they are, but also a tool for imagining and making things how they could be.’ (11)

Many of the entries such as Ecosystem, Nimble and Outcome will be familiar, these three especially for their nebulous company mission statement spiel, although less so perhaps, Grit and Resilience which are now, incredibly, being taken up as clearly ideological terms for self-help mantras and ‘can do’ spirit. Again, in the late capitalist universe, all problems are yours to solve, regardless of what their causes might be, just as inculcating recognition of this is key to accepting why try as you might, you can’t seem to solve them. As Leary notes,

‘Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, and author of the 2017 best-seller Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, [in] her passion-based meaning grit has the air of a new idea, but it is the newest twist on the old story of American middle-class reform for the poor, a modern version of the familiar bootstraps ideology of self-reliance.’ (101)

The short essays comprising Keywords offer much insight for anyone seeking an explanation and critical lexicon for corporate ‘streamlining’ of language, distorting the meaning of words and inventing nonsensical terms to mystify and take its readers, viewers and recipients for fools.

Perhaps the entry that debunks and reveals more than any other is Flexible. The term ‘has a history in the economic study of “labor flexibility”’ as Leary notes, but it is now all-but generic and standardized as ‘late-capitalist body talk modelling firms on the agility and strength of the human body’ (94). In its most generic and standardized usage, flexible and flexibility mean the asymmetric and unequal capital-labor relation skewed completely to the side of capital, and labor accepting this as a given and unassailable reality.

Paradoxically, as the degradation of language becomes ever more generic and standardized, ‘personalized’ terms and pseudo-personalization are also apparent. ‘Personalizing the impersonal’ and ‘personifying the abstract’ can be heard in corporate PR as much as product launches of ‘must have’ goods serving manufactured and manipulated needs: this is for you and with you in mind, this smart phone that is just like the previous 10 models, except it can store more data. ‘Flexibility refers to the ways in which time, compensated and otherwise, is commodified and controlled’ (Ibid). Indeed, this is best observed in employees being made – when they are not being told that they are ‘self-employed contactors’ and that they are ‘free’ to accept or reject the ‘gig’ – to work harder, longer for less money (lower wages) and for fewer or no benefits, since the non-existence of the latter is one of the advantages – for capital – of ‘flexibility’.

The personification of the abstract – market confidence, a firm being agile or leaner – is very apparent and employed by companies and across wider society in the 2020s, and Leary expertly debunks such fallacious claims and false promises as he does with flexibility: ‘With flexibility and the right software, our bosses can conquer time and bend it to their will – and bend us, their subordinates, as well.’ (Ibid.) The book is a toolkit for understanding and resisting the expectations and demands, the impositions of the bosses of late capitalism.

Given these challenges, the seemingly Sisyphean task of a collective revolutionary project, in which late capitalism is negated and superseded by a revolutionary social subject, would seem to be some way off. However, this seeming remoteness is not fixed or given, something Andy Merrifield’s Marx, Dead and Alive brings home with theoretical and stylistic aplomb. Setting the tone for the book, Merrifield outlines the lasting importance of Marx’s thought, as well as the importance of not regarding it as scripture always beyond criticism. ‘Marx’s thought has never been rigid dogma or some sterile formula. Instead it’s a rich source of ideas, a vibrant critical (and self-critical) culture capable of innumerable spin-offs and reinterpretations, imaginative adaptations and provocations.’ (9)

Marx, Dead and Alive is a bracing and lyrical intervention in ‘These Darkening Days’ – to borrow the title of Benjamin Myers’ 2017 novel. To be sure, before Merrifield’s considerable theoretical contributions, he gives a ‘pessimism of the intellect’ – and heart – set against Fredric Jameson’s observation, which is often apocryphally attributed, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Quoting dialogue from Samuel Beckett’s absurd tragicomedy Endgame, Merrifield applies it to the often seemingly hopeless present: ‘Have you had enough? Of what? Of this…this thing?” At low times, I’ve really had enough. I suspect I’m not the only one.’ (11) To which can be replied, he certainly isn’t.

All that being said, Marx, Dead and Alive offers much succour and cause for hope. Merrifield’s own ‘school’ of Marxism he has defined as ‘Magical Marxism’, but this should not be misunderstood. It can be taken to mean a non-doctrinaire Marxism drawing on the heart and soul as much as the head, a bold and exhilarating philosophy dialectically synthesising the two, never however, underplaying its materialism. All of Marx’s work – from the 1844 Manuscripts and the Theses on Feuerbach to Capital – is an unfinished project, and it is for his historical heirs to ‘update his work, explore the layer upon layer of Marx’s paint, and do our own touching up along the way’ (15). As readers of this publication will be aware, the materialist method is one of analysis and critique of the conditions of which it finds itself a part. To understand and explain the urgent present in order to change it and create the future is our task: one that is both necessary and possible, albeit vertiginous in its scope: ‘Marx’s plane of immanence incorporates the whole wide capitalist world’ (19).

Beginning his theoretical excurses with biographical details on Marx’s continuous penury, which often worsened to the point of him having to pawn his overcoat, Merrifield offers a highly credible short overview of how anyone wanting to make sense of the concept of value might do so. The form and appearance that the economy, forms of work, commodities and class structure now assume in the twenty-first century so different from in 1867, as to be ‘beyond’ Marx. However, such glib dismissal is much more a signal of the limited grasp of Marx’s work by his would-be critics, than it says anything about Capital – or the materialist method for that matter.

The book also gives an introduction to or development of the commodity-form, undertaken in Capital, Vol.1’s first chapter as the fetish-character of commodities, something which is an ideal starting point for anyone trying to begin to make sense of the apparently incomprehensible nature of consumer capitalism with its offshored sweatshop production as the signature of globalized neoliberalism. Human beings, having the unique ability to remake the world in accordance with their wishes, can of course do this, because unlike any other species, they have consciousness and abstract intellect, what Marx calls Gattungswesen, species-being, or creative human essence. In 2021, the ability of the vast majority of people to ‘live the life that that want’ and exert agency is so far removed form the tawdry reality as to sound like a cruel joke, but is of course the joke played by the everyday social relations of late capitalism. This cruel joke of fallacious promises as much as the tawdry material reality to which they bear no resemblance, is embodied by the commodity-form which appears ‘abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ as much as ideology which distorts and erroneously ‘explains’ ‘the foggy world’ (32) of commodity fetishism, further thickening this same fog of mystification.

Marx, Dead and Alive packs an extraordinary amount into its 184 pages, both historical detail and in contemporizing Marx with multifarious global contexts and examples. The book does Marx justice with its many literary and cultural references and asides: from Shakespeare to Dickens to Dostoyevsky and Shelley to Beckett to Joyce. As such, it would make an excellent introduction for someone just starting to grasp Marx and wanting clear definitions of alienation, capital, class, commodity fetishism, value and wage labour – amongst other key concepts.

Merrifield offers a comprehensive exploration of how capital – in its nineteenth century as well as twenty-first century incarnations – subsumes all of life: labour produces wealth as accumulated value and is appropriated by the capitalist and the firm who re-invest the money to increase their wealth: money begets more money. The worker must be expected to work as long as possible for as little remuneration as possible, all the while increasing the amount produced in the shortest time, working ever longer hours to try to make up for low wages not in any way relative to his/her social reproduction. Merrifield sets out with some theoretical assurance for how Marx understood that the reduction of the working day was the immediate and most pressing political demand of the nascent worker’s movement, and successfully draws that link across more than 150 years to our own present, in which ‘work’ is precarious, chronically insecure and contracts that regularly guarantee zero-hours.

The book is not at all ‘academic’, in the sense that it is not written for specialists. Make no mistake, it is, like Marx before it, the formidable intellectual equal of any academic text – probably superior, and it is extensively referenced. It is completely interdisciplinary, but not an exercise in a scholastic bad faith parlour game of the academy, with which Marx himself had no truck. The book moves across decades and centuries taking in the distinctive traits of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries with impressive ease. The changes first wrought by the Industrial Revolution and the upending of all ‘fixed frozen’ social relations, in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’ are unevenly felt in hyper-modernising global capitalism 175 years later, which the book documents extensively throughout, giving plenty of intellectual weapons intended to be taken up and used by its readers.

Halfway into Marx Dead and Alive, the question of technology and how it is used, is given considerable space. Marx recognised that ‘science’ and what would become known in the early twentieth century as ‘scientific management’, were discernible in early production processes, both in Capital and the Grundrisse, the latter published posthumously in the following century. The passages and works in question of course seem to understand how advanced economies would be ‘centuries in the future’. What gets called ‘post-industrial’ is misleading in a sense, because although it may mean ‘post’ in the sense of an economy no longer based on heavy and extractive industries, it can also mean the thoroughly disingenuous claim that societies with advanced economies can be post-dated as having superseded industrial – read capitalist – social relations, and are thus no longer class societies. ‘The accumulation of knowledge and skill of the general productive forces is thus absorbed into capital’ (76), a quotation from Marx on what Hardt and Negri in Empire would come to identify as the production paradigm of advanced economies and indeed globalization, that will be particularly useful for anyone looking to grasp the social reality of ‘work’ (wage labour), and class as they exist today.

Taking the Luddites and their authentic but in many ways misguided revolt in the 1800s and 1810s, which saw the machine and not its private ownership as the problem, Merrifield again successfully makes the comparison with algorithms and the re-imposition of an automated tyranny of the clock and people – the workforce – being ‘set free’. The book’s later chapters all bring this question into play and its historical comparisons ‘up to date’. Merrifield also offers much in the way of ideology critique, of different manifestations of spurious claims to ‘factual validity’, but which emerge as reactionary opinion, and none more so than the pseudo-science claiming it ‘can prove’ humans are inherently grasping, acquisitive and venal under the rubric of ‘evolutionary biology’, but better understood as social Darwinism. This had its mouthpieces before and after Marx in Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer, albeit in less ‘scientific’ terms than it now receives in myriad expressions – not least in the pages of the business press. Merrifield debunks such ideological and post-ideological nonsense very well, drawing on Darwin himself, as well as Kropotkin and of course Marx in doing so.

Marx, Dead and Alive is as much about the future and – possible – paths it could take, as it is about the dismal present and realising the agency which still exists but seems remote in the fog of the present. It is the unwanted surplus labour of capital who are thrown off into the margins of a society which has no place for them, who are increasingly called the precariat and could well be the first to assert their agency. The precariat is a not uncontroversial term, referring to a quite disparate social group who are most certainly part of the proletariat, which is ‘recruited from all classes in society’, but who are additionally expected to live half-lives and ‘who float in and out of jobs and whose destiny is entirely contingent on the whims of the business cycle’ (94), Marx’s ‘relative surplus population’ outlined in Capital. As Merrifield asks, ‘[p]erhaps the more vital question is how can the Twenty-First Century’s “dangerous classes” become really dangerous? How can they endanger the capitalist system rather than just endanger themselves?’ (120)

As ‘labour’ becomes increasingly obsolete, newer ways of creating value and extracting profit are found, what Marx understood as ‘ground rent’ being one such example. The tyranny of the cost of living anywhere near the centre or inner areas of cities become beyond the reach of most because hi-end blocs of real estate purchased with cash by the super-rich renders it so. This is something else which the book covers. Merrifield is a former PhD student of David Harvey, and his spatial and geographical awareness of ‘the present state of things’ is apparent throughout the book. Something else to commend is that Merrifield – rightly – makes no distinction between ‘early’ and ‘late’ or ‘mature’ Marx. Capital and The Grundrisse are drawn on extensively, but so too are the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto.

The substantial chapters fifteen and sixteen, taking in the Black Panthers and Frantz Fanon, as well as Bakunin, cannot be covered by this review essay, but they pose important questions and make important points on the potentially radical and revolutionary role of the precariat, what was once understood in straightforwardly dismissive or laudatory terms as the lumpenproletariat, or in more contemporary terms, the underclass. These chapters should be studied in some detail for pointers on how this section of a class, now extremely diffuse, is dispersed and no longer anything like what its admirers and detractors assume for anyone wanting to understand agency, class struggle and how a revolutionary social subject may begin to take form.

Marx, Dead and Alive draws to a close with some hopeful and pertinent questions, left as Marx often did himself, open-ended. ‘The other likelihood is that truth will get communicated via old means not new media’ (140) These truths will be spread by a nascent revolutionary social subject, ‘something haunting, lying latent: the repressed will of the masses of people yet to find a dangerous collective self’ (142).

Merrifield finishes as he started, reflecting on the 2019 vandalism of Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. A photo of the damaged plaque’s lettering is the book’s cover, showing that far-right graffiti and serious damage to the lettering cannot destroy ideas that live on. The graffiti was quickly cleaned off, and the statue undamaged, but the hysterical attack was an attack on ideas the attackers know to be undefeated. ‘I walk carrying Marx inside me, his living spirit, those ideas that threaten reactionaries so much’ (172).

8 November 2021

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