One of the big criticisms directed at poststructuralism, ‘Theory’, academic identity politics, etc. was always that these apparently leftist intellectual trends were thoroughly complicit in the social structures they criticised – that postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capitalism, manifested itself, within the academy, as shilling for the economic status quo. I never had a huge amount of time for that complaint – partly just because I like Theory, but also because I felt that poststructuralism offers critical resources that the left-wing anti-Theorists tended to neglect.
Which I still believe. But as I try to study economics I notice myself becoming markedly less sympathetic to Theory. And the situation is hardly helped by stuff like this. It’s a quote from J.K.Gibson-Graham’s ‘The End of Capitalism (as we knew it)’ (1996) – a feminist ‘critique’ of political economy I started reading today.
“To the extent that firms in the finance sector are engaged in commodity production, some will be capitalist sites where surplus labor is appropriated as surplus value from employees whereas others will be sites of independent commodity production – for example, the personal investments manager who is a self-employed entrepreneur and appropriates her own surplus labour – and therefore noncapitalist.” (p. 18).
Laughing out loud. Rolling on the floor. Oh My God. Because, you see, according to Gibson-Graham [= Katherine Gibson & Julie Graham, though I like the single author idea] the self-employed personal investments manager isn’t part of capitalism. No capitalists here. No exploitation! Because she’s self-employed, our Wall Street entrepreneur appropriates her own labour… not anybody else’s. You might ask what “commodity” she produces. You even might ask where the value of her work comes from. You might believe (if you’re an old school Marxist) that it has something to do with her clients’ investments converting surplus value into the means of production. That would be… um… the creation of capital – the most basic and pervasive operation in the constitution and reproduction of capitalist societies, according to Marx. This self-employed entrepreneur wouldn’t then be so much “noncapitalist” as… the embodiment of capitalism.
It’s a little dizzying that the author(s) a) know(s) enough about Marx to be able to write that sentence, and b) went ahead and wrote it. (Without, I should add, any kind of gesture towards the incongruity; I’m not massively distorting this by taking it out of context.) So: a reminder from the man himself. “If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” No more anti-essentialism, please, until you’ve taken full account of this fact.