This quarter’s selection

Issue: 152

October’s Science and Society (volume 80, number 4) is a special issue edited by Eduardo Albuquerque and Alex Callinicos entitled “Crises and Transformation of Capitalism: Marx’s Investigations and Contemporary Analysis”. Their reasons for revisiting Marx’s writings on crises are twofold: there is a need for theoretical and empirical research into the economic crisis of 2007-9 and its aftermath, and previously unpublished work by Marx has now been made available thanks to the MEGA (Marx-Engels Complete Works) project.

Lucia Pradella makes use of some of the works included in the MEGA project as well as Capital, volume I. Pradella shows how Marx integrated an understanding of global politics into his analysis of capital accumulation rather than treating the British state as self-enclosed. His understanding of crisis was linked to his understanding of revolution. While it is often assumed that Marx saw economic crisis as leading to social upheaval, he also speculated about the reverse happening; an uprising in the colonies could trigger economic crisis in the imperialist countries.

In “How Not to Write About the Rate of Profit” Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara criticise David Harvey’s attempts to discredit theorists of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Harvey accuses such theorists of ignoring other factors—such as financialisation—as causes of crisis. But for Callinicos and Choonara this is a basic misunderstanding of Marx’s method, which, they note, involves starting from the abstract and “successively introducing more concrete determinations” and that “addresses apparent counter-examples by integrating them into the theory”. Therefore Marx can introduce a discussion of finance and circulation into his overall analysis but without detracting from the centrality of the rate of profit.

By contrast Jan Toporowski says that “corporate finance has been largely overlooked in explanations of the 2008 crisis”. Toporowski takes a more empirical approach using data from The Economist to argue that large companies cut back on expenditure to try to deal with their debt problems and that this, rather than the failings of the banks, was the mechanism behind the crisis. Other contributors to the special issue include Guglielmo Carchedi, Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, Leonardo Gomes de Deus and Michael Roberts, who has also contributed a book review to this issue of International Socialism.

The latest issue of New Left Review (II/100) has a number of interesting articles. The editor, Susan Watkins, offers a detailed analysis of the Brexit referendum and its consequences. This cogently argued article confirms the dramatic shift that NLR has made from supporting European integration when Britain joined the European Common Market in the 1970s to opposing the European Union from the left today. Both were minority positions on the wider British left, but, amid the mourning over Brexit from the likes of the Guardian, Watkins’s tough-minded assessment is refreshing:

The Brexit vote doesn’t mean state break-up, yet. Still less the downfall of Brussels. For now, though, it is plain that Blairised Britain has taken a hit, as has the Hayekianised EU. Critics of the neoliberal order have no reason to regret these knocks to it, against which the entire global establishment—Obama to Abe, Merkel to Modi, Juncker to Xi—has inveighed.

One of the most influential articles NLR published in the 1970s was Perry Anderson’s “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, a detailed examination of what he argued were the conceptual and political ambiguities in Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. His interpretation has been challenged, notably by Peter Thomas in The Gramscian Moment. As far as we know, Anderson hasn’t responded to these criticisms, but maybe he will in a forthcoming book on the concept of hegemony.

The current issue of NLR carries an extract in which Anderson discusses those he regards as the most creative continuers of Gramsci’s explorations of hegemony—the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, the philosopher Ernesto Laclau, the postcolonialist historian Ranajit Guha and the political economist Giovanni Arrighi. Anderson’s tone is generally neutral, though not uncritical. Although he’s maybe a bit too kind about Hall, his justified admiration for Guha and Arrighi is clear. But he can’t restrain himself when discussing Laclau, whose theory of populism was a major influence on the founders of Podemos. His judgement on Laclau’s attempt, together with Chantal Mouffe, to fuse Gramsci and poststructuralism is definitive:

The linguistic turn of the theory, in common with its late twentieth century vogue in general, proposed a discursive idealism severing significations from any stable connexion with referents. Here the result was to detach ideas and demands so completely from socio-economic moorings that they could in principle be appropriated by any agency for any political construct. Inherently, the range of articulations knows no limit. All is contingency: expropriation of the expropriators could become the watchword of bankers, secularisation of church lands a goal of the Vatican, destruction of guilds the ideal of craftsmen, mass redundancies the call of a working class, enclosures the aim of a peasantry. The proposal defeated itself. Not only could anything be articulated in any direction: everything became articulation. First hegemony, then populism, were presented as a type of politics, among others. Then, in a characteristic inflationary move, they became the definition of all politics as such—thereby making themselves supernumerary.