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Rethinking Marx's Capital: An Interview With Prof. William Clare Roberts

By Jun 20, 2017

Ryan Shah and Sam Hull had the opportunity to sit down with Political Science Professor William Clare Roberts to discuss his recent book: Marx’s Inferno. In it, Professor Roberts, proposes a refreshing interpretation of Marx’s Capital Volume I in which Marx’s conception of the capitalist economy mirrors the Christian conception of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Marx’s Inferno identifies in Capital a broad critique of capitalist social relations using republican, Christian conceptions of wrong - reconceptualizing the classic critique of political economy as a thoroughgoing work of political theory. In addition to his book, Roberts offered insight into the contemporary capitalist crisis, the legacy of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the lessons contemporary scholars should take from Marx’s work.

Ryan Shah: To begin, could you give us a brief description of your book and how it connects Republican theory to Marx’s analysis in Capital?

William Clare Roberts: Sure, the book pursues a couple different lines of investigation. On the one hand, I have been interested, since I was a graduate student, in the literary form of Capital as a book, and I noticed, and have been trying to flesh out, what I thought was Marx’s use of Dante’s Inferno as a structuring guide for Capital. But the other side is that I try to read Capital in its political context. Marx wrote it in 1867 and revised it a couple times over the late 1860’s and 1870s. This was at a time when he was heavily involved in the International Workingmen’s Association. I was trying to read Capital as a political intervention in that context. The two sides of that are connected with one another because, oddly, there is a whole raft of 19th century socialist texts that use metaphorics of hell to describe the capitalist, industrial economy that they are critical of. So, the two sides sort of go together and that is the problematic of the book.

RS: To build on the comparison of Inferno and Capital, what would you say this parallel adds to contemporary Marxist theory beyond the aesthetic similarity?

WCR: I think that, for me, the main thought is that Capital is a piece of critical theory. It is really trying to get at what is wrong with the capitalist economy. The structure of Dante’s inferno is based on an Aristotelian/Christian moral ontology that proposes the types of wrong that people can engage in. That Aristotelian/Christian moral ontology was part of the fund of moral concepts that exist in early modern Europe. This moral economy was drawn on by lots of early socialist and popular criticisms of capitalism. Just as now we find Christian anti-capitalists of various stripes, Catholic anti-capitalists in particular, who criticize the capitalist economy using Christian moral concepts. I see Marx’s adoption of Dante as sort of adopting but also subverting that Christian moral economy, basically saying: “look, I’m going to take these categories of wrong that are handed down from the tradition and rather than say these are the forms that sin or wrong taking place in the capitalist economy, these are the wrongs that capital itself, as an ensemble of social relations, is guilty of.” It’s a depersonalization of this moral discourse that he connects with this critique of political economy

Sam Hull: Unlike other socialists, you think that he sees capitalism as something that has to be worked through and then transcended like a journey through hell rather than something to be simply ignored or rejected?

WCR: Exactly.

RS: Given your own analysis of Capital in Marx’s Inferno, do you think we should we be more or less receptive to Marx’s original theoretical writings?

WCR: I think more. But that means more receptive in a different way. I think that Marx’s arguments in Capital were actually not very well understood – it’s a very difficult book. It pays revisiting precisely because I think that the received Marx is often at odds with the Marx that is actually on the page. So, I think it is important to understand Marx, and I think it is important to understand nineteenth century socialism in general. In part, because the arguments that people were making then still have their analogs today. When people articulate criticisms of capitalism or criticisms of the modern state they often don’t recognize the ways in which they are picking up little bits of historical discourse. I think that the socialist left in the nineteenth century was in formation and it actually was very multi-faceted, going in lots of different directions, we can learn a lot by exploring the various options that were on the table back then.

SH: On the topic of the state, you talk about how in the nineteenth century some socialists were pushing for worker separatism. But now, if you buy into post-modernism and the notion that capitalism has penetrated every facet of our society, separatism doesn’t really seem feasible. Marx also disagreed with the notion of worker separatism. Simultaneously, the state seems to be getting stronger as technology advances. Nowadays, would you say there are better opportunities to work within the state for change by electing leftist political candidates? Or would you say that we should follow something closer to what Joshua Clover lays out in Riot, Strike, Riot where the left focuses on dissent and challenging the state to avoiding acceding to its terms.

WCR: That’s a complicated question. I don’t see myself as being that well equipped to lay out leftist strategy. I feel like as much an amateur on that train as anybody else. I would say a few things though. First of all, I think that the strategy of separatism is still very much with us. It’s with us more in the domain of anti-colonial and decolonial discourses than it is in workers’ discourse. Indigenous peoples, struggles in Chiapas, Canada, Idle No More, et cetera. Those discourses still frequently utilize or advocate some sort of strategy of separation, exit or exodus from the capitalist economy and the creation of autonomous spheres of self-determination. So, while I certainly would not want to turn Marx’s critique of worker separatism into a flat-footed critique of those strategies, I do think that the underlying concern that Marx had was that the industrial and political powers of the modern world, which are so vast, are nonetheless dominated by the necessity of pursuing economic growth. He understood these strategies as failing to account for the fact that these massive powers would be turned against them if they posed any danger to economic growth. I think that the lesson I would draw from Marx is that he thought it was important to know your enemy and to not underestimate them. That is the main thing that I would want to say I guess, I don’t know what to do, but I do think that there is a lot of room on the left today for closer and more exhaustive study of the operations of the state, the operations of the global economy and the discourses that are on the other side. I would not want to simply dismiss any of that, I would want to say that people need to study that stuff, rather than turn away from it.

RS: We’re in a moment where leftist literature tries to be accessible to broader groups, but I think that a fair critique that emerges frequently is about the inaccessibility of leftist theory. On the point of going from theory to strategy, what would you say the stakes are of your book, and contemporary theory more broadly?

WCR: I mean, I certainly don’t think my book is a popular book. It is an academic book, it’s supposed to be scholarly, not a movement text. I think, on the one hand, there is a lot of energy on the left, there are a lot of young people who are attracted to socialist ideas, there are not, however, any of the grass roots, ground level popular organizations that historically were the strength of the political left. Unions are in decline, and have been for a long time, insofar as they exist, they are focused on industries or particular workplaces – they are not poor people’s unions or union-type social movements amongst the poorest, most oppressed groups. They just aren’t there. I think that this explains why left discourse is pretty much exclusively a quasi-academic discourse, because there aren’t those organizations where people would be talking in a more vernacular tone

SH: Related to that, what would you have to say about the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)? In one sense it seems promising, they have chapters springing up everywhere across the states, but also it doesn’t seem to be a working-class movement. Do you see this as a hopeful sign?

WCR: It’s impossible, for me, not to be a bit excited by the growth of the DSA – also Black Lives Matter. There are lots of signs of life, right? Whether the DSA can keep growing as a political organization, I think, will depend upon whether it can find that sort of uptake amongst people who aren’t college students or recent college graduates.

SH: Going back to when you mentioned anti-colonial and de-colonial discourse, we went to the Ngugi wa Thiong’o roundtable and saw your speak there, we definitely both thought that it was very interesting, do you want to go into a bit of depth about what you spoke about?

WCR: Ngugi wa Thiong’o was a giant of the post-colonial world. He was already a rising star in African literature when he switched over from writing in English to writing in Kikuyu. That move was justified by him on basically Leninist grounds, that the language in which anti-colonial and de-colonial arguments were made couldn’t be English and French because these were not the languages spoken by the people of Africa. People in large parts of Asia and Latin America, also. Colonial languages were at a remove from the lives of the people who anti-colonialists were most invested in the welfare of. So, Ngugi’s argument was that if you’re concerned by colonialism and by imperialism, you had to start writing in the vernacular- you had to go to where the people were. If you don’t, you’re ceding that ground to the reactionaries who are perfectly willing to speak English or French. I read that as a great sort of allegory for our current predicament. This is not just confined to the post-colonial situation, or, if it is, we are all in a post-colonial situation – this is a generalizable analysis of the world. On the one hand, the left, meaning everyone who is committed to universal emancipation, requires rigorous theory. It requires the study of social institutions, science, social science, economics – it requires all of the things that we study in the academy. It requires of us that we become well informed practitioners of the best theory. But as a politics, it also requires that we talk to people. In order to talk to people, we can’t use the language of the seminar room. Insofar as the left has meant a desire for universal emancipation, which requires a lot of hard thinking about what sorts of institutions could universalize freedom, the left has also been committed to this movement arising from below: it is the people themselves that must free themselves. Institutional and theoretical sophistication, and recognizing that there are hard theoretical problems to solve, on the one hand, and being rooted in the masses of the people, on the other hand – that’s the tension, those two things don’t easily go together. If the left is going to be anything, those two things have to stay together.

SH: It reminds me about your South Dakota childhood as you wrote about it in your book, how people have anchoring homilies, but even Marx saw the need to transcend your own anchoring homilies if you want to get past your own circle who already agree with you.

WCR: Exactly.

RS: Based on your own reading, what do you see as Marx’s most relevant contributions to political and social theory in the context of the 21st century? Especially considering the convulsions of capital and sovereignty that we are experiencing in the West today?

WCR: I guess I think that the major conundrum right now centres around the question of just how far the nation-state can be the staging ground for a mode of government that would not be capitalist. The problem is this, most of our modern modes of government, the things we take for granted, the repertoire of institutions and practices that are used all over the world, seem to presuppose and rely upon economic growth. This is especially true of precisely those forms of government and state policy that have been favoured on the left. You want a robust welfare state, you want the rule of law, you want a good regulatory apparatus, you want a responsive bureaucracy, you want these things – in order to get these things, the state needs to pay people to take those actions. In order to pay people to undertake these actions, you need the tax revenues to pay for it. To have these revenues, you need a growing GDP. Since the 70’s, there has been an ongoing crisis in government precisely because there has been an ongoing crisis in economic growth. Economic growth has not been proceeding at the pace that it did in the post-war boom years. Without that robust economic growth, you have to start shrinking the state in various ways. This has decoupled all of the robust left welfare policies from the economic base that supported them. What do we do in that context? Some think that if we go back to this robust welfare state, the return of this robust welfare state will bring back the glory days of the post-war boom. If we go back to a robust Keynesian policy, then we will get the economic growth that will support that Keynesian policy. That’s sort of the DSA line, basically. There are others who think that its not coming back, and that trying to bring it back through a Keynesian state is both a losing political gesture and futile. Worse, they think that it reinforces the national boundaries which seem to be the place where a lot of the evil and cruelty in the world are taking place. There is a sort of implicit nationalism that undergirds that Keynesian policy – that’s really problematic. That is more of a harder left analysis that says that that’s not coming back. Hence, for the ultra-left, national political strategy is just dead. Electoral politics is dead – nothing is happening there and nothing is ever going to happen there. But then, what do we do instead? I don’t think the ultra-left has a very convincing answer to what we do instead. That’s the terrain, I think Marx can help us understand this terrain. I think he can help us understand the linkages that tie the modern state to the capitalist economy. But I certainly don’t think that Marx has the answers for our conundrums. That’s going to require fresh thinking. I guess I think of Marx as helpful for 2 reasons. On the one hand, for thinking through the problem more deeply than anyone else. And second, for more clearly articulating an ideal of freedom and connecting the pursuit of freedom to this critical diagnosis. I think that’s valuable and I think its worth holding on to – but I don’t think it’s the answer.

RS: In an article in Jacobin, Marxist Geographer David Harvey wrote that he took issue with your decision to draw conclusions solely from Volume I of Capital, particularly because he believed that it was a decision to facilitate your metaphor with Dante’s Inferno, what would you say in response?

WCR: I guess I have two responses. One, this I say in my response to Harvey in Jacobin, Marx published Volume I – he published it 3 times and was getting ready to publish it a fourth time. He clearly, therefore, thought that people could read Volume I on its own. That is made sense, and that you could figure it out, as a political intervention, independently of all of this unpublished stuff that he wasn’t about to publish. I think that’s worth taking seriously. On the one hand, I want to read the book as a political intervention and therefore, I want to read it as a self-standing book. It was published, so we can read it – let’s try to make sense of it. The second thing, though, and this I think lurks in the background, I think there has been a longstanding tendency on the Marxist left to conflate two questions: the question of what Marx said with the question of how capitalism works. I think you can see that conflation at work in Harvey’s objection to me, because basically it trades on the notion that we can’t make sense of the capitalist economy as a whole just on the basis of Volume I, therefore we can’t read volume I just as a standalone text. That’s where the conflation happens. I think that we need a lot more than what Marx wrote in order to understand the capitalist economy. That’s part of why I think that people on the left need to be studying non-Marxist economics, non-Marxist social theory, non-Marxist political science and political theory, social sciences in general way more than they do. We need all of that, we don’t have a finished theory – that’s an important thing to hold on to. That doesn’t mean that Marx isn’t incredibly valuable, I think he’s one of the people that we need to keep reading and keep thinking about, but I think that’s pretty obvious from the other things I’ve said.

Marx’s Inferno: A Political Theory of Capital can be purchased here.

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