February 8, 2008

With Friends Like These…

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Sarcasm — duncan @ 9:36 pm

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.


  1. 🙂 Marx makes fun of some of his contemporaries for things like this… If it helps, this doesn’t seem so much like you’re developing less sympathy with “theory”: you don’t have to like all theoretical attempts equally 😉 There are of course distinctions that can be made about how “adequate” this form of small-scale commodity production could be to certain aspects of capitalism – I don’t know, for example, that I would say this sort of small-scale stuff is the “embodiment” of capitalism, if you intend a connotation of, say, the “quintessence” of capitalism: larger-scale forms of production express more clearly certain tendencies that aren’t expressed as well in one-person firms. But these distinctions lie comfortably within moments of capitalism itself, and don’t provide any sort of “outside” standpoint.

    For whatever reason, the structural transformations of the 1970s confused a number of theorists (from my point of view, at least) – perhaps because an older, more linear, sociological narrative had been carried into the conception of capitalism, such that people thought the sorts of shifts that characterised the transformations beginning in the 1890s, would just continue, with greater and greater quantitative expanse, into the future. This linear understanding (of capitalism, modernity, disenchantment, or whatever the key term for a theorist might have been) then led to… well… a lot of unjustified excitement at the sorts of transformations that began to unfold from the late ’60s, early ’70s, because these transformations bucked the linear trends and, where those trends had been taken as definitive, things briefly looked very exciting. It’s of course a bit easier from our current standpoint to see the problems with this…

    Marx spends a lot of time running around trying to make sense of where various narrow definitions of capitalism come from – why they’re plausible, etc. Doesn’t make them less frustrating – for him, either: some great polemics around this… 🙂

    This doesn’t of course mean that there aren’t any critical potentials in this round of structural transformation – just that it can be more difficult to see what those might possibly be, if the base understanding of capitalism doesn’t make it possible to grasp how these things are also “capitalist”.

    Comment by N Pepperell — February 9, 2008 @ 5:26 am

  2. Wow, a much longer and more thoughtful comment than my intemperate post deserves. 🙂 I’m a little ashamed of jumping all over Gibson-Graham – she does have interesting things to say. The book’s broader point is that most Marxist theory treats capitalism as an all-encompassing, unitary, inescapable hegemony that dominates every aspects of our lives, and that this theoretical approach is a product of the way political economists choose to imagine capitalism: anti-capitalism of this kind buys into the capitalist myth. Gibson-Graham advocates an approach that sees many different ‘capitalisms’, and sees non-capitalism as often present in and always constitutive of even the most exemplary capitalist activities. I find all that pretty convincing. The trouble’s just that when she gives examples of non-capitalism, like the one I quote, they don’t seem to be non-capitalism at all, not even in the slightest. Perhaps this suggests that Gibson-Graham’s base understanding of capitalism is in fact quite narrow (/unitary?), despite her theoretical or meta-theoretical approach…

    Anyway – it was, I think, out of order and question-begging of me to invoke Marx in, basically, an argument from authority, since one of Gibson-Graham’s points is that Marxism often prevents a proper theorisation of ‘capitalisms’. And you’re right – “embodiment” makes no sense; “quintessence” is what I meant; and “quintessence” is wrong. I plead haste and bile. The quote, however, is still silly.

    Thanks for the comment (& keep up the great Rough Theory work…)

    Comment by praxisblog — February 9, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

  3. lol – don’t worry about “intemperance” in a blog post (and besides, the term reminds me of Marx polemicising against arguments about the “abstinence” of capitalists ;-P). I like in principle Gibson-Graham’s attempt to unearth multiplicity in what is often taken as the “same” social context – I think is the “right” impulse, when it comes to thinking about how critical sensibilities might arise immanently. But I think you’re onto something with your critical reaction – which is that the approach at base really isn’t that immanent – that critical sensibilities are still conceived, at least tacitly, as something that must lie “outside” the object of critique. This understanding of the locus of critical sensibilities can drive a narrow conception of the object of critique, because otherwise you can’t locate the “outsideness” of your own standpoint.

    One of the things that interests me in Marx is the comfort with critical positions that arise immanently to the object of critique – and then also the recognition of the complexity of an immanent standpoint. So he will talk about certain things as forms of domination now, as they are currently implemented – but as potentials for something else, if they are appropriated from their current social configuration. This approach is important to him, in part, as a means of addressing the complaint that his critique might be “utopian” in the sense of unrealisable – and, of course, he spends a lot of time himself criticising competing visions of socialist (or, for that matter, pro-capitalist) transformation, on the grounds they these competing visions are utopian hypostatisations from some specific dimension of the reproduction of capital – that they are attempts, say, to eliminate something, while the retaining the very things that generate that something in the first place, or attempts to realise something, while retaining the very things that undermine it…

    The fact that Gibson-Graham (rightly) is critical of the way in which Marxism has historically itself gotten in the way of an understanding of the multiplicity of capitalism, doesn’t mean that it’s question begging to invoke Marx 🙂 Authors don’t get to rule out the forms of critique used against their position 🙂 It might be a really good idea to thematise multiplicity within capitalism – but still perfectly valid to criticise a less-than-ideal implementation of a sound impulse…

    Comment by N Pepperell — February 10, 2008 @ 3:49 am

  4. I think I understand where you’re coming from here – the attempt to find an ‘outside’ of capitalism in order to have solid non-capitalist ground on which to build your critique can get in the way of both a) actually building your critique and b) adequately characterising capitalism in the first place. The temptation is to say, as Gibson-Graham does, ‘such-and-such isn’t really capitalism; we’ve just been tricked by the discourses of capitalism into seeing it as capitalism.’ If you’re dealing with something like self-employment, or ‘non-productive’ (and thus supposedly non-exploitative) financial speculation, this isn’t going to be useful. On the other hand – and this is the trend in Marxism that Gibson-Graham deplores – there’s an temptation to see capitalism as so all-encompassing that critique becomes impossible, because there’s no ‘outside’ even really imaginable, except through a hopeless utopianism.

    One of the things I’m liking in Marx is his insistence on analysing not just the social relations that are capitalism, but the social/political events that create those relations. He doesn’t just analyse the operations of an economic system based on the commodification of labour – he asks what political/social activities are necessary to produce that commodification in the first place. Those activities aren’t necessarily part of capitalism as such (at least as classical political economy understands it) – they’re ‘pre-capitalist’, or constitutive of capitalism; yet they’re also (of course) inseperable from capitalism. (Plus capitalism may need to keep on ‘creating’ itself – through, for instance, a constant repetition of the ‘primitive’ accumulation that initially created capital.) So: Marx keeps moving in and out of the strictly economic perspective, taking in also a broader social perspective that allows him to understand the sources of both capitalism, and the types of (political-economic) analysis we use to understand capitalism. Since those modes of analysis are expressions of the social relations Marx wants to analyse, Marx has (as you emphasise) a pretty complex relationship to classical political economy.

    Anyway. It seems to me this means that, for Marx, capitalism already contains ‘non-capitalism’ of the kind the Gibson-Graham wants to draw our attention to. In this sense, much of what she’s looking for can already be found in Marx, I think. It’s just that she’s working out of, and reacting against, a very narrow idea of Marxist political economy.

    However – I’ve still only read the first volume of Capital; and half of what I’m saying here I’ve just stolen from your Rough Theory posts (no doubt inaccurately) 🙂 So I’m not sure why I’m blathering on. For my own benefit.

    Re question-begging: I didn’t mean to suggest it was out of order to invoke Marx at all. 🙂 I just could have been a little more… careful.


    Comment by praxisblog — February 11, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

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