RETHINKING MARXISM Volume 12, Number 2 (Summer, 2000)
In this issue the Brazilian political theorist Carlos Nelson Coutinho demonstrates that Antonio Gramscis concept of hegemony represents a fundamental contribution to the idea of democracy and, especially, to the possibility of imagining and enacting the radical democratization of society. Today, as is well known (and, in left circles, much disparaged), the discussion of democracy has been effectively captured, monopolized in both academic and everyday discussions, by the language of the "invisible hand," purely formal constitutional and electoral rules and procedures, and distinctly non-Marxian conceptions of civil society. However, it is not enough, Coutinho implicitly argues along with Gramsci, to counterpose to this neoliberal position an approach to political praxis founded on the idea that the state is a coercive apparatus or that capitalism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. Gramsci can be read as recognizing and adding to these Marxian insights a concern for another fundamental dimension of politics, that of "intersubjective and consensual interaction." But, to get there, Gramsci (like Althusser and so many other Marxist thinkers) had to make a theoretical detour. In the case of theory of democracy, Gramsci was able to articulate his insights by engaging not only with the work of Marx and Lenin but also—and, for Coutinho, significantly—with the nonliberal contributions of Rousseau and Hegel.
Rousseau can be credited with criticizing the entire liberal tradition of contract theory that begins with Locke while, at the same time, insisting on the idea of a "legitimate" social contract founded on popular sovereignty, on the "general will" of "a collective subject." Still, there are two major limitations of Rousseaus conception of democracy: the maintenance and eventual strengthening o particular interests associated with the continued existence of private property and the inability to grasp the conditions of pluralism and diversity in modern society. Hegel, for his part, was able to overcome these problems—even as he discarded some of Rousseaus theoretical achievements. He succeeded both in giving concrete form to the notion of general will and in linking hegemony (the preponderance of universality) with pluralism (the respect for and cultivation of differences). What Hegel lost in the process, however, was the contractualist dimension that lies at the center of Rousseaus project. In Coutinhos view, Gramscis theory of hegemony both absorbs the valid dimensions of the writings of these two classic figures and develops new ideas to move beyond the limits and aporias of their work. Gramsci borrows from Hegel the idea that particular interests are concretely determined within material culture and undergo a process of universalization that leads to the creation of collective subjects. And, from Rousseau, Gramsci views participation in the various hegemonic apparatuses as a contractual or consensual process. It is this new sphere of social being that Gramsci marks with his concept of "civil society," which constitutes an enlargement of the traditional Marxian concept of the state to include the dimension of consensus. For Coutinho, one of Gramscis key contributions to democratic and socialist culture of our time is the necessity of opposing coercion and expanding the sphere of contract—in order to build the consensual bases of a "regulated," communist society.
Feminist philosophers and social theorists have long drawn on Althussers writings, especially the famous essay on "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," for insights into the nature of ideology and the interpellation of the subject. Yet, Hasana Sharp argues in her article, "Is It Simple to Be a Feminist in Philosophy?" a materialist reading of Althussers theory of ideology and interpellation offers even more to contemporary feminist thinking than has been recognized, even by such astute readers as Judith Butler and J. K. Gibson-Graham. In particular, Sharp understands feminist philosophy and Althusserian theory as taking similar positions concerning the practice of philosophy—on the idea of philosophy as practice; however, the limitations that have operated in the feminist engagement with Althusser have, in Sharps view, foreclosed the investigation of additional dimensions of subjectivity and its relationship to "material" institutions and practices. What most worries Sharp is the idea that Althussers theory of the constitution of subjectivity, the project of under-standing the interpellation of individuals as subjects in and through ideology, has been reduced to a problem of language. For example, while expressing her admiration for Butlers work as a "significant and important contribution to, and augmentation of, the investigations of subjectivity initiated by Althusser," Sharp thinks there are other encounters between Althussers work and Butlers own writings on the materiality of the forces constitutive of subjectivity that operate alongside, but are ultimately not reducible to, a central authority or linguistic signs. In a similar vein, Sharp praises Gibson-Grahams use of Althussers notion of overdetermination in their practice of theorizing economic difference alongside sexual difference while challenging her to consider its correlate, underdetermination. It is the latter which, for Sharp, signifies an alternative to determinism and functionalism, a way of thinking "at the extremes" rather than attempting a full and complete explanation of the way things are. Ultimately, then, what Sharp calls for in pointing toward further encounters between feminist theory and Althusserian Marxism are experiments in theoretical practice that, for her, are the real meaning of "intervention."
The social life of trash, in Liz Siscos photo-essay, involves both official and unofficial, public and private, forms of recycling. Across A Street from Siscos neighborhood, amid the well-groomed lawns and Neighborhood Watch signs, the city sponsors a program of curbside pickup: blue plastic tubs; plastic, glass, and newspapers properly sorted. However, south of A Street—a high-density, "mixed residency" neighborhood where, the Environmental Service Department explains, curbside recycling is not yet possible—residents do have an unofficial, private recycling program. Each morning, "a steady trickle of street people" enters the neighborhood (watched with a good deal of suspicion by Siscos next-door neighbor) and looks for things that can be transformed into commodities, items with market value. As Sisco discovers when the tables are turned and a black plastic bag of mildewed clothing and a roll of unprocessed film is left on her back doorstep, the creation of life out of discarded possessions is "tough work." The found objects resist interpretation: Are they random acquisitions from the street, or do they represent a family robbed of its possessions? Whose life is registered in the odds and ends of the unwanted inheritance? But, without doubt, they do force us to confront the "vulnerability of people who depend on the street for survival."
Many of us—Marxists and non-Marxists alike—took it upon ourselves to reread, and then to discuss and debate the continued relevance of the Communist Manifesto during the many celebrations occasioned by the 150th anniversary of its publication. In this sense, the Manifesto was reappropriated—written and created, once again— as one of the common texts of left culture. Thomas Kemple sets out to investigate precisely how the Manifesto works as such an active text, a key-work, "a symptom of and an agent in the history of which it is a part," by threading his way through and providing an alternative to existing (both subjectivist and objectivist) readings. Kemples own reading focuses on the discursive strategies of theatrical script, legal argument, and pedagogical lesson that contribute to the texts political effects and, thus, serve as a model for new fields of discursive practice.
Kemple begins by examining the overall hermeneutic framework within which the strategies of the three major sections of the Manifesto can be seen to operate. What emerges from the combination of spectral sightings, shifting verbal tenses, and historical references invoked by Marx and Engels in the initial passage is a contrasting of ways of life that are fading, passing out of existence, with the emergence of others that have "not yet" come into being. Next, "the history of all previously existing society" represents for Kemple a kind of stage direction according to which the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary and violent agent of history, takes the lead role—followed by the appearance of the central character, the proletariat, which threatens to disrupt and redirect the forward motion of the narrative, culminating in a counterintuitive spectacle of catastrophe and redemption. The second principal section, "Proletarians and Communists," can be read as a carefully articulated, quasi-legal disputation in which the cross-examination of the founding principles of bourgeois society—property, freedom, work, family, nationality, and the ruling ideas—serve as the means of turning the tables on the accusers. For Kemple, the final section, notwithstanding its pedantic style, provides a valuable pedagogical lesson in distinguishing "the regulative ideal of a classless society" from its uses within "apparently or potentially allied discourses." The discursive strategies that together comprise the Communist Manifesto offer something more than a theory of history; they also contain a thesis about the historicization of theory, "an open framework which requires its own transformation in confrontation with newly emerging political circumstances, historical tendencies, and fields of application." This is precisely the collaborative work that, in Kemples view, the Manifesto exemplifies and that it invites us to take up.
In a chronological sense, postcolonial discourse comes after W. E. B. Du Bois. However, as Kenneth Mostern demonstrates, although Du Bois has had little noticeable influence on the texts of postcoloniality, the definition of postcolonial critique (put forward by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture) applies unambiguously to Du Boiss 1903 volume The Souls of Black Folk. In particular, the themes of doubling, ambivalence, hybridity, interdisciplinarity, migration, and national art that are used to describe cultures and psyches in at least one version of contemporary post-colonial theory (which Mostern considers to be the dominant position in the field today) are also present in Du Boiss much earlier work. The strong parallels between the two historically separated texts then lead Mostern to investigate how the "structure of the double represses this history by representing postcolonial discourse as new." Mostern locates his explanation of the emergence of the postcolonial double consciousness not in the slave or colonial experience itself but, rather, in the class situation of migrant professional classes following such a period of "oppressive dislocation." It is the similarity in the postslavery and postcolonial experiences of the educated middle classes that, for Mostem, closes the gap between the terms of critique of the early Du Bois and contemporary postcolonial discourse and, at the same time, serves to hide the class origins of hybridity. It is this Marxist "moment" that Mostern finds missing in Bhabhas version of postcolonial theory but present in texts of the later Du Bois such as Dusk of Dawn. There, Mostern finds an autobiographical narrative of intellectual work that is contextualized at various levels, from psychological motivation through the nexus of race and nation to racial imperialism and the international capitalist economy. Dusk therefore combines a Marxist framework of analysis and a "carefully defined, identitarian, practical intellectual politics" that, Mostern argues, acquires an importance as a key document for rewriting the history of postcolonial discourse and, therefore, for understanding the "complicated and multifarious spaces we inhabit, and by which we are identified."
The basic equations of Marxian value theory need to be radically transformed by the explicit recognition and incorporation of household labor. That is the conclusion of Ajit Chaudhury and Anjan Chakrabartis analysis of the relationship of exchange between the capitalist economy of the market and the noncapitalist economy that obtains within the household. Chaudhury and Chakrabarti take as their point of departure the overdeterminist approach to Marxian theory pioneered by Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff and the class analysis of the household that Wolff, Resnick, and Harriet Fraad initially published in RM (and which subsequently appeared in a Pluto Press book, Bringing It All Back Home, in 1994). While defending the distinctiveness of the Fraad, Resnick, and Wolff approach against its critics, Chaudhury and Chakrabarti proceed to make their own "corrections" in order to incorporate what they consider to be the particular class structure of a typical Indian household. This is what they call the noncommunist "community" class process: one that involves individual performance of surplus labor by the direct producers—according to a clear, gendered, division of labor—along with "community appropriation of the goods produced." Both agricultural production (where individuals do the farming but the community appropriates the harvest collectively) and household economies (where the household members collectively appropriate the cooked food while male and female partners individually perform "inside" and "outside" labor according to a gendered division of labor) are examples of such a community class process. In neither case are Chaudhury and Chakrabarti willing to consider the process to be communist because the performance of labor is not collectively organized.
The next task is to show how a formal value-theoretic Marxian approach can incorporate the household economy. The main problem, as Chaudhury and Chakrabarti see it, is to find a way of reducing the incommensurable, heterogeneous labors carried out within the household economy to a single measure of abstract labor. Once this is accomplished, Chaudhury and Chakrabarti arrive at a conclusion that many readers will no doubt find controversial: while women (in this particular gendered division of house-hold labor) often work more hours than men, they may also occupy the position of exploiter. This is because the external market may value the labor of women substantially less than it does that of their male counterparts; thus, a smaller quantity of mens labor more than compensates for womens work in market terms. What this implies for Chaudhury and Chakrabarti is that equal exchange means quite different things for the capitalist and household sectors; in particular, it may turn out to be quite unjust for a particular group within society. it is on this basis that Chaudhury and Chakrabarti challenge contemporary Marxists to recognize the gender biases inherent in existing approaches to the labor theory of value and to take up the challenge of incorporating household labor and the household economy into their discourse.
Jacques Derridas Specters of Marx continues to haunt—alternately engaging and frustrating—reflections on the contemporary relevance of Marxist theory and political practice. Imre Szeman joins a host of others, including Pierre Macherey, J. K. Gibson-Graham, Tom Lewis, and Stella Gaon, who have previously responded to Derridas text in the pages of RM. For Szeman, having expressed his appreciation for the range of ghostly issues raised by Derrida, the ultimate unanswered question remains what is to be done? Szeman does credit Derrida with reading Marx in a manner that effectively confronts two of the most important changes in the world situation: the apparently completed hegemony of capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc (and the interpretation of this event as marking the death of Marxism) and the necessity of retaining or reconstituting the radical edge of Marxism against the threat of incorporating it "into the safety of an established philosophical or political canon." For Szeman, Derridas injunction to remember specters, "to see them as something to be kept close by instead of conjured away," reinforces both the project of critique (especially Marxist critique—of global capitalism, of the state, etc.) and the work of undoing everything that tries to hide specters, thereby being more attentive to a certain spirit of Marxism. Where Derridas approach falls short, Szeman argues, is in confronting the spectrality of politics itself, the third major transformation in the world today. According to Szeman (and Derrida himself), the nineteenth-century model of party and state has given way to a mass-media culture that has radically reconfigured the possibility—indeed, the very space—of political activity. What remains unclear is what spectrality has to offer, beyond naming the derealization of the political and posing the idea of justice, to formulating a Marxist politics appropriate to these changed conditions. Here, Szeman argues that it is necessary to return to and reinvigorate an older discourse, one that has long haunted Marxism: the aesthetic. Like the specter, the aesthetic can be seen as a figure that works to disrupt the closure of a hegemonic system and promises new possibilities "by its very conceptual form." Szeman notes that the aesthetic is not without its own problems and limitations. However, to the extent that the "old" aesthetic combines a model of transcendental cognitive power and a historical and ideological social practice, it represents a tension that is virtually absent from Derridas ghosts but vitally important for Marxism to retain.
We conclude this introductory essay with Richard Wolffs appreciative review of Terry CAESArs recent book, Writing in Disguise: Academic Life in Subordination. Wolff notes that CAESArs incisive and sustained critique of academic writing forms part of a growing literature in which academics finally "are turning the weapons of their criticism to their own academic imprisonments." Alongside such far-reaching issues as college and university finances, the corporate reorganization of higher education, the role of sweatshop labor in the production of school logo apparel, the casualization of academic labor, the challenges to intellectual property via the Internet, and much else that is receiving long-overdue attention inside the academy, CAESAr focuses on the deleterious effects of the rigid—though often unstated—rules of what, how, when, and for whom academics are forced to compose (and from whom, in return, to receive) their written work. The mythology of objectivity surrounding the memos, dissertations, rejection letters—even the jokes and casual anecdotes that academics spend a good bit of their time preparing and reading—all mask the various forms of insult and injury to which they are regularly subjected. Wolff expresses his appreciation for the authors sharp and humorous style, as well as for the "disturbing" issues CAESAr raises for readers. But he cautions that much work needs to be done by way of analyzing the relationship between the changing class structure of universities and the forms of writing that lead to the subordination of academics before formulating plans for imagining and inventing new systems of academic writing.
<---Previous | Next--->