Reviewed by Alex Marshall
The publication of a collection of essays which were written over decades of historical time rarely does full justice to the author concerned, an essay being invariably a more fragile and time-specific artefact than a monograph. It is to the credit of Istvan Mészáros’s writing that many of the articles reprinted here – the oldest published in 1971, the most recent being a chapter from a book that is forthcoming with the Monthly Review Press this year –still stand up to scrutiny. The recycling of material, the majority of it already in print elsewhere, nonetheless does leave open the question of why this book was felt to be necessary, a question which the foreword by John Bellamy Foster does not fully answer. Foster here provides a retrospective rationale which in reality is not corroborated by the texts themselves, by arguing that Mészáros has been a consistently clear analyst of the structural crisis of capitalism. In reality, the articles themselves leave Mészáros open to the (unjustified) criticism that he has simply been a rather traditional Cassandra of the capitalist economic system, with the concomitant charge that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Partly this is a function of the fact that the articles themselves are often not particularly good examples of the Marxist argument for capitalism’s structural crisis; but part of the problem is also their very specific time-centredness. The oldest piece here, from 1971, on ‘The Necessity of Social Control’, argues that capitalist contradictions are accumulating and ‘becom[ing] increasingly more explosive’ (67) whilst the ‘social status quo is rapidly and dramatically disintegrating in front of our very eyes’ (70), as evidenced –here – by increasing worker militancy, and increasingly desperate attempts at political re-branding by President Nixon, the Shah of Iran, and Harold Wilson. Yet move forward to the next chapter, from 1983, and capitalism has somehow still managed to perpetuate itself, though we are there assured that ‘we are a great deal closer to the conditions of capital’s global breakdown’ (93). The necessary stridency of such statements – the crisis is seemingly always imminent – leads to an unfortunate gap in analysis when it comes down to understanding how capitalism has in reality come to perpetuate itself, a gap matched by the other glaring lacunae in this book – that of any parallel analysis of the fundamental breakdown and failure of the USSR and the wider socialist bloc (beyond some rather traditional swipes at Stalinism as a ‘transition problem’). The chronological time line of the book underlines this gap – chapter four is from 1983, chapter five from 2006.
It would nonetheless be unfortunate if readers were to dismiss this collection of essays purely as a rather dated hodgepodge of elements, since Mészáros’s writing contains elements of genuine fire and occasional real insight. The aforementioned essay from 1971, chapter three in this collection, contains some interesting ruminations on the environmental limitations of capitalism (environmentalism being an aspect of Marx’s writings that has only relatively recently been appreciated). Chapter four, from 1983, demonstrates Mészáros’s profound intellectual attachment – shared with Immanuel Wallerstein, Alain Badiou, and others of his generation – to seeing 1968 as a key turning point in both capitalism’s and Soviet socialism’s ideological crisis, but nonetheless it still contains other insights which provide food for thought even for those without this generational attachment. Of these insights, perhaps the most pertinent for present day concerns is his here highlighting capitalism’s proclivity for ‘restructuring’ as a way of papering over systemic underlying problems, not least the twin fixtures of overproduction and periodic catastrophic debt crises (106-11). Chapter five, from 2006, could be read as a rather disappointing party piece for Chavez, Mészáros latest patron and promoter, the theme being lines of continuity between Bolivar and Chavez. The piece is also rather repetitively and reflexively anti-North American, but again it contains a few nuggets of analysis that offer a degree of complementarity with the work of, for example, David Harvey, particularly regarding his suggestions about the spatial limitations now being imposed on hegemonic capitalism’s survival and perpetuation (135). Chapter six meanwhile comes closest to justifying the purchase price of the book, by making a strikingly bold intellectual argument in favour of planning; but it is this very chapter which will also re-appear in Mészáros’ forthcoming book.
In general there is probably about as much in this collection of essays to savour as to discard as dated and no longer relevant; this makes the overall volume a curious curates’ egg of a book. The essays do not hang together particularly well, some of the analysis is dated and has retrospectively been proven clearly wrong, and there are better overarching analyses out there of capitalism’s capacity to repeatedly avert systemic collapse, not least Robert Brenner’s magisterial study of wage repression and the ‘long downturn’ since 1973, The Economics of Global Turbulence. Nonetheless there is enough of Marx (and of Hegel) in this collection of essays to make the book of more than merely passing interest to scholars of the Left, particularly if they do not possess this particular assemblage of essays in some other form already.
2 September 2010