2015 Historical Materialism conference panel abstracts

Sean Sayers (Kent)
The theme of alienation in Marx’s economic thought

Marx’s discussion of alienation is most prominent and explicit in his early writings, where the influence of Hegel’s philosophy is most evident. The theme is only rarely explicit in Marx’s later writings that focus on economic topics. However, the concept of alienation, I shall argue, is a feature of Marx’s thought throughout. It is present particularly in the concepts of abstract labour and the idea of fetishism. These do not constitute a break with ideas initially first sketched out in his early works under heading of `estranged labour’, but rather a development and extension of them.

Andrew Chitty (Sussex)
Collective action, social relations action, and fetishism

Marx often refers to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as collective actors, who act collectively so as to maintain the existing social relations of production or to overthrow them. Furthermore he often describes capital itself as an actor, which acts through individual members of the bourgeoisie so as to continuously expand itself geographically and quantitatively. However he never analyses what is involved in collective action, nor in the ‘action’ of a social relation of production like capital. In this paper I suggest analyses of these two phenomena. A group of individuals acts collectively when each of them identifies itself and the others as a ‘we’, i.e. as a collective subject with a common goal, and when each does what it construes as its part to help bring about that common goal. By contrast the idea of action by a social relation of production (call it ‘social relations action’) is only metaphorical. In the case of capital the metaphor stands for the fact that once the set of social practices constitutive of a capitalist society are up and running they have a strong tendency to sustain themselves, (1) because each role-occupant in the system of practices finds that, on the assumption that every other role-occupant will continue to play their role, it is in its own overwhelming economic self-interest to continue to play its own role too, and (2) because participation in the system of practices socialises individuals into the view that the only way to live is to pursue one’s own economic self-interest. So it is ‘as if’ the capitalist set of social relations acts to preserve itself. I finish by arguing that the difference between ideology and fetishism in Marx can be understood as based in the difference between collective action and ‘social relations action’: ideology is the result of collective action whereas fetishism is the result of ‘social relations action’.

Robert Cannon (UEL)
Contesting money’s capacity to conduct value-judgments

Granted austerity is not the mere by-product of the economic crisis but a project in its own right, which aims to deepen and consolidate the most uncompromising forms of neo-liberal capitalism. But can we say neo-liberalism is dying when it gives expression to capitalism’s resurgence as a global project, with ever greater ‘territory’ to capitalize (social, virtual and subjective)? What we can say is that the more humanity is brought under capitalism’s value-system the more unstable, unequal and inhumane it becomes. Crises are an ever-present facet of its hegemony, whose reliance on money becomes ever more perilous, the more its socially constructed nature becomes apparent. Never was Marx’s theory of fetishism more relevant – as the ‘objective’ forces imposing their values on humanity stand revealed as mere cyphers in cyber-space – rendering absurd the austerity-justifying claim ‘there is no money left’. But it is not simply that the social forces, which govern us, are ours to command. There is something absent from the discussion: namely, ‘morality’. Marxists have long been sceptical of its immaterial, voluntarist and unscientific nature. But under capitalism money becomes a conductor of reified values, by which the social worth of people and things is autonomously and anonymously determined. The more obvious it becomes that capitalism cannot allocate social value in a stable, just or humane fashion; the less legitimate its capacity to make value-judgments on our behalf appears.