‘Beyond Marx: Theorizing the Global Labour Relations of the Twenty-First Century’ reviewed by Dana Domsodi

Reviewed by Dana Domsodi

About the reviewer

Dana Domsodi is a PhD student in political theory at the Sant’ Anna of Pisa School of …


Beyond Marx is an ambitious and refreshing collection of essays on the political economy of labor. Though topics range from elder care work to the death of the gold standard, the common denominator here is as the title explicitly suggests – going beyond the Marxist ideals in both theory and practice. The true merit of this book is its accurate refutation of the mainstream apologetic discourses of capitalism and labor-exploitation. Instead, the book – from its first pages – suggests a reopening of history to revolutionary changes, to ‘indicate the transcontinental possibilities for action open to a new anticapitalist International’ (8).

Further, the essays are thematically united in their many disagreements with the Marxist tradition. To name but a few: Marx’s Capital is too much about capital and too little about class struggle; the analytic and historic privilege granted to the doubly free wage worker is contested by the myriad of free and unfree labor forms and relations present since the birth of capitalism that have all, also, contributed to the creation of surplus-value. The general subordinate and subaltern position of the working class, the conceptualization of class contradiction as an expression of mere capital-relations (thus completely determined by the systemic logic of capital), the nationalist methodological approach within the larger frame of a Eurocentric perspective also weigh heavy against Orthodox Marxism.

In sum, the authors opt against constructing a Marxist critique of political economy. The verdict is almost unanimous, ‘Marxist theory is obsolete, but the theory of revolution needs to be reconceptualized’ (17). In terms of the book’s organization, the contributions are divided into two sections: those retracing the empirical history of labor (historical perspectives) and those proposing new theoretical conceptualizations (critical references to Marx’s theory of labor and value).

Thematically, Part I’s essays gravitate towards the problem of coexistence among various capitalist labor regimes with pre/para-capitalist labor relations. The making of the forgotten Atlantic proletariat can be traced back to the inter-imperial wars of the late eighteenth century. According to Niklas Frykman, the particular lesson is the ‘contagious’ nature of deck-mutinies generated by the imperialist politics of exploitation. Peter Way explains in great detail the process of primitive accumulation, with particular emphasis given to the role of armed conflicts in the transition to capitalism. New insight is given to the opposing force of this process, i.e., the martial proletariat (form of labor both free and unfree), which consisted of non-mercenary soldiers, who are both the result of and the inherent social opposition to primitive accumulation.

Immigrant labor (as having both an abstract form and social substance) reveals the temporary compromise between the rising rate of productivity and diminishing profit margins. The structural transformations of labor in capitalism that immigration entails call for a new reconceptualization of labor. For Gambino and Sacchetto, (European) migration has always functioned as a kind of ‘pressure-valve relieving Europe’s social tensions’ (101). However, the last five decades reveal an asymmetrical development of migratory movements in relation to foreign direct investment, an extreme expression of the latter being the multiplication of EPZ (export-processing zones). Subir Sinha’s `Workers and Working Classes in Contemporary India’ argues for the need to conceptualize class taking into account not only its economic base, but also the cultural base of the economy itself. This rich thesis concludes with an analysis of the Indian working-class (trapped in the deadlock created by economy and culture, caste and class, elite and subaltern).

Silvia Federici and Maria Mies tackle the problems of cost and marginalization within socially reproductive labor. Within feminist discourse, Federici calls for the recognition of reproductive work as work, while critically assessing the social mechanisms of injustice and exploitation generated by this misrecognition. Likewise, Mies proposes the subsistence approach as a way of replacing the Marxist theory of production. She ends with an appraisal of the subsistence communities: ‘It is subsistence (production) that is fundamentally opposed to capital, not wage-labor’ (231). Her solution lies somewhere beyond the welfare state, where the basis for internationalization is grounded in regional, autonomous subsistence economies connected by solidarity and collaboration. However, the practical advantages of this alternative economic organization have yet to be demonstrated.

According to Hartmann, the succession of various labor management regimes corroborated by the constant global reorganization of the division of labor has shattered the foundations of class-consciousness. Global collective action has been stymied, whereas the self-presence of class to itself seems unlikely. Moreover, he argues in favor of revolutionary life tactics from below in a theory that combines the (post)Structuralist tradition with (post)Workerist modes of action. He holds that ‘struggles are what determines the rate of surplus-value, the rate of profit and their crisis’ (202). Castoriadis seconds this idea, denouncing the origins of Marxist laws as the outcomes of class struggle and labor relations, and not vice versa. The historical and sociological data, however, seem to require the abandoning of the law of value. Nevertheless, the analytic jump between the two regimes cannot but surprise Marxists. Being the internal norm of capitalism, the law of value operates at the systemic level regulating capital’s self-valorization. (Class) struggles can, in a mediated way, interfere at the level of the quantitative side of value, while leaving intact its qualitative aspect (the social form of value). The reification of labor in value remains intact, notwithstanding the strong social pressures on the rate of surplus-value.

Of all the authors, Sergio Bologna takes on the book’s title most aggressively: “it is not enough to go ‘beyond Marx’, we need to go ‘beyond the Left’” (142). Faith in the Workerist methodology and its cognitive procedures prevents him from adhering to the ‘Marxist religion’. However, he does not elaborate on what political agendas might lie beyond the Left for the post-Workerist movement, if any.

For Ahlrich Meyer, Marx’s critique of political economy remains bourgeois in nature, merely concluding the work done previously by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, which identifies labor as the source of value. Instead, as Meyer outlines, the entire discipline must move beyond the bourgeois paradigm. This is still a goal that remains to be achieved. Gerhardt goes even further arguing that the law of the tendential fall of the profit-rate actually has never operated in the process of capitalist accumulation. Moreover, the subordinated character of labor to capital needs to be replaced by a reintegration in the critique of the political economy of subjectivity as potential ‘freedom in and for itself’ (329). The counter-force of capitalist production and reproduction processes could reside in the unity of commanding and commanded labor. Vercellone brings the discussion on the terrain of cognitive capitalism, where the prime source of value and surplus-value would be the immaterial, knowledge production. Social time in its entirety becomes an expression of productive labor. The law of value is but ‘an historical determined articulation’(423) of the law of surplus-value, thus the former may enter into contradiction with the latter. Under cognitive capitalism the logic of surplus-value has extended significantly rendering obsolete the law of labor-time.

At this point, however, it’s necessary to recall Marx’s eminent finding: not that labor is the source of value, but rather the interrogation of the value-form itself; a critique of all the economic categories of classical political economy. The reification of social abstract labor in value was the blind spot of classical political economy. The tripartite analysis of value as magnitude (regulator of production – labor time – quantitative aspect), substance (expression of abstract labor – qualitative aspect) and form (expression of social relations of production and exchange value – qualitative aspect) constitute the intricate levels of the critique of value in Marx. All this amounts to a critical theory of modern society. Compelled by its internal dialectical logic of self-valorization capitalism still follows the law of value, although the growing contradiction between the production of material wealth and the abstract regulation of value is very much real. However, merely negating the latter (as long as capitalism still abides its rules) can only thwart any real debate.

The volume represents a valuable source of analytic, empirical, and critical study in the field of labor-relations. While its scholarly significance is certain, more practically it offers economic, historic, and moral justifications for the refusal to work, breach of contract, open rebellion against capitalist work-relations and all the pre-Modern forms of exploitation that have long fueled its engines. All the forms of (un)free exploited labor testify against the real and abstract violence of capital, at the same time indicating possible solutions for social emancipation and critique. The downside lies exactly in the imperative of going beyond Marx, although the critical possibilities manifest in his texts have yet to be explored or properly interpreted. The emancipation of labor signifies the emancipation from labor as a moment of capital. Any radical critique of labor-relations should start from this uncomfortable hypothesis and it all leads back to Marx. 

25 November 2014

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