Capital and Its Discontents: A Marx & Philosophy Review

Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult

By Kate Drabinski
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
January 22, 2012

In their interview with Sasha Lilley, Leo Panitch and Doug Henwood argue that the Left must seriously reflect on the workings of the global economy if it is to effect change: “there really does need to be some more serious talk about how the world works and what kind of world we would like to see and how we get from point A to point B” (89). This call is heeded in Lilley’s Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult, a collection of interviews with leading academics, economists, activists, and artists emerging from Lilley’s work on KPFA public radio’s program Against the Grain. Lilley’s radio interviews have been extended and completed, and the result is a remarkable collection of interviews that challenge and deepen much of the received wisdom that shapes contemporary popular movements. The collection could not be more timely, given the rise of popular movements against states and capitalism worldwide, and the fourteen interviewees raise important questions for the Left, which needs to actively think about and strategize the current crisis in capitalism that is marked by falling world markets, threats of a global depression, and mounting ecological crises.

The interviews are divided into three parts:‘Empire, Neoliberalism, and Crisis, which offers a variety of diagnoses of the current crisis; Commodification, Enclosure, and the Contradictions of Capitalism, which explores the connections between capital, ecology, and environmental crisis; and Alternatives?, which raises more questions than answers. Taken together, the volume is a thought-provoking, accessible, and essential collection of conversations that should be widely read.

The first section offers pointed critiques of some popular Left views, and this alone makes the volume an important read as it deepens the analysis of the current crisis and moves beyond approaches that call for a return to a time before capital, make overblown contentions about globalization, or insist that the real problem is simply a lack of government regulation. For example, in Ellen Meiskins Wood’s interview, she argues against the Hardt and Negri-type view that globalization has rendered the nation-state less powerful. She argues instead that “what’s really characteristic of globalization is the growing disparity between the global reach of capitalist economic domination and the persistence of the territorial state which it still needs, because capital needs an orderly, predictable legal and administrative apparatus more than any other social form has ever done” (37). Lilley’s deft follow up questions allow Meiskins Wood to extend her thoughts as well as link them back to Marx’s writings themselves. The result is a thoughtful exposition of historical and current debates about the role of the state in organizing capital that both explains the view that globalization means a decline in the nation-state and a rise of Empire, yet contests that “the state is perhaps more than ever the point of concentration of capitalist powers” (42).

This book continues with similar intellectual treats. David Harvey’s explanation of the rise of neoliberalism in the United States and around the world in the 1970s offers much-needed historical context, arguing for neoliberalism as itself a class revolt. Panitch and Henwood also take on the question of globalization, arguing that it has led to a growth in state power while also making possible an international movement of workers; global production means that a strike at one end of the supply chain can ripple around the world. David McNally explains the global economic meltdown, and challenges popular assumptions that increased governmental regulation is the solution. In the closing interview of this first section, Sam Gindin, Greg Albo, and Panitch extend McNally’s observations and call for greater political organization of workers and social movements more generally if the Left is to have a voice on the political stage at all. They also offer possible Left demands that could unify a larger movement, including free public transit and universal pension programs that would fund government deficits and democratized social benefits. As a group, these interviews deepen our understanding of the relations between state and capital, offer new diagnoses of the current global economic situation, and call for new political organizing in the face of this crisis of capital.

The second group of interviews focuses on Marxist understandings of ecological crisis, and makes a strong case for understanding social, economic, and environmental crises as part of a single “crisis.” John Bellamy Foster resituates Marx’s materialist conception of nature and reminds us that for Marx, the problem of alienation is not just a matter of labor, but also of nature. Foster argues that resituating Marx in this way can help us see the importance of the green movement’s addressing the entire capitalist system rather than simply individual consciousness. Jason Moore’s interview is especially good at resituating the environmental crisis. Moore challenges us to move away from thinking about the “twin crisis of capitalism and the environment” and instead see them as the same crisis, in order to “open up a new way of seeing those large, so-called ‘social’ processes that we always refer to—globalization, imperialism, industrialization—as themselves ecological projects’ that attempt to refashion the relationship between humans and nature, as if the two are separate from each other” (136).

Gillian Hart looks to East Asia and South Africa to examine different paths to capitalist development and how struggles around land and livelihood can be both highly contextualized and link to struggles in other places. Ursula Huws brings issues of gender explicitly into the discussion, asking how labor organization might arise from those working at home or away from traditional workplaces. This section of interviews roots the global crisis in place(s) and reminds us that context, history, and geography all matter, not just in how crisis plays out, but also in how we imagine solutions.

The final section of the book—Alternatives?—aptly ends with a question mark. The interviewees here continue to diagnose the current crisis, but with an eye specifically toward other ways to organize the world, and yet their ‘alternatives’ remain largely hidden. Vivek Chibber looks at how states have largely supported capitalist development even when ostensibly regulating it, and calls for state and labor to make different political choices given this reality. Refusing to offer a blanket alternative, he rightly argues that context matters, and that different national capitalisms demand different responses. Mike Davis calls on the Left to remember Isaac Deutscher’s thought as potentially useful to politics, but he does not offer a clear explanation of how Deutscher might be useful in imagining alternatives in the present. Tariq Ali reviews his own involvement in Left activism during and after the war in Vietnam and argues that the lack of a socialist bloc that serves as an organizing alternative means the Left must imagine new ways of organizing. John Sanbonmatsu defines and explores the limits of postmodernism, arguing that the refusal to make normative ethical and political claims cedes too much to the right, which has few qualms in this area. Noam Chomsky and Andrej Grubacic come closest to offering “ways out.” Chomsky reminds us that any move toward a stateless society must offer clear alternatives that would transform society, though he does not tell us what those alternatives would be, partly because we cannot know in advance what our new world might look like. Grubacic discusses his involvement in the Peoples’ Global Action, and draws on that experience in offering several explanations for what revolution might look like, acknowledging that revolutionary socialism would not look the same in all contexts. In the U.S. context, he argues that what is needed is strategic clarity and increased political imagination. These final interviews do not offer a clear answer to the implicit question “What is to be done?,” but they do offer several models for imagining what we might do now and in the future.

As a whole the book offers incredibly thought-provoking interviews, made more so by Lilley’s excellent questioning, and demonstrates her deep and insightful knowledge of the issues and the thinkers with whom she engages. Readers hoping to find a roadmap to revolution might be disappointed, but it is a disappointment we all must face. There is no single answer, no single vision of the world after a final capitalist crisis. There is struggle, best waged with a clear idea of the many facets of the situation itself. This book is an invaluable resource for thinking critically and in complex ways about our current crisis, while also offering examples of resistance and revolution. In his interview, Gindin argues that what the Left needs are alternatives: “I don’t think you have to convince people that capitalism isn’t wonderful. You just have to convince them that there is something they can do about it” (120). This book leaves readers with the sense that not only is there something we can do about it, but we no longer have the choice to do nothing.

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