Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Marxist Moment

The best thing about Marxism is that it provides a language for talking about comprehensive, fundamental aspects of society.  The worst is that it also imposes a template for this discussion that often doesn’t fit very well.

I just read Daniel Zamora’s When Exclusion Replaces Exploitation: The Condition of the Surplus-Population under Neoliberalism in nonsite.  The first half is really excellent.  His insight is that the shift from the old left to the new and the rise of modern neoliberalism are in some sense reflections of one another, and both are rooted in the emergence of a relatively distinct “surplus” stratum of the population in developed capitalist countries.  (I also associate this view with Loïc Wacquant, whose notion that racial division in the US has shifted from being a means of exploitation to one of exclusion was a basis for Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow.)  According to this argument, in the bad old days the visible line drawn through society was between the wealthy and the rest of society whose work made this wealth possible.  Now, in the bad new days the line has been redrawn between those who have steady work and a modicum of economic security on the one side, and the poor, the unemployed, and the victims of discrimination on the other.  Left and right agree on this, and only disagree about which side they valorize.  Interesting.

The second half of the essay, alas, is a big letdown.  It retreats into pure dogmatism: we read that Marx showed the exploitation of the working class is the motor that powers the whole system and only a united working class movement can end exploitation and usher in a society without all the invidious distinctions.  Zamora actually describes his intellectual retreat precisely, juxtaposing the concrete and contingent analysis of current social conditions that foregrounds various group oppressions and the abstract (his word, used over and over) revelation of Marxism that is true without any need for empirical validation.  If, like me, you’re not a believer, nothing he says about this will turn you around.  What I was hoping for was an analysis of the structures of inequality that exist today, with a grounded explanation for why the identitarian movements don’t add up to a systemic force (which I suspect but may be wrong about), and instead all I got was the same old, same old.


Thornton Hall said...

As I have mentioned before, the 100 year persistence of basic wrongness in economics is strong inductive evidence that the flawed premises are shared by both neoliberalism and the principle critique of neoliberalism by Marxism.

My guess is that it is the adoption of Newtonian-Cartesean metaphors (misnamed "models") for fundamentally Darwinian processes.

Peter T said...

adding to Thornton, perhaps part of the problem is that economics lacks historical depth. Up to 1860 or so, around 10 per cent of western populations were marginal - malnourished, incapable of sustained work, first to die in hard winters or food shortages (see, eg, Floud, Fogel, Harris and Hong's The Changing Body). This is still the case in much of Asia and Africa. Emigration and then tapping new energy sources (coal, oil, electricity) allowed policies to change which then reduced this percentage markedly. Now population has caught up, climate change is happening, resource availability declining, sustainability in serious question, and the fraction of marginal people is rising. This may be a return to normal.