Monday, October 01, 2007

Marxism in Reverse

The idea that neoliberalism is a kind of Marxism in reverse has taken on a great deal of currency in academic, popular, and activist circles. In Chroniques de temps consuels, Jacques Rancière goes so far as to say that Marxism has in some sense become the official ideology of liberal societies. (Similar remarks can be found in Disagreement).The grounds for this idea of Marxism displaced or reversed are basic. In each case it is the matter of the economy determining the political. What has been reversed is only the value attached to this determination; free markets and private property and not the free association of producers is now the basis for freedom.

Alain Badiou has pushed this argument further, stating that is not simply economic determinism that unifies Marxism and neoliberalism but a shared anthropology that unifies all economic discourse. It is an anthropology of interest, in which the human animal is defined by its desire for the conservation of self. It is hardly an anthropology at all, since it does not so much define the human as reduce humans to the animalistic basis of existence. It is against this that Badiou juxtaposes the human capacity for fidelity to truth.

In identifying Marxism with neoliberalism, Rancière and Badiou repeat some of the old polemics and arguments against Marxism from the past decades. The accusation of economism, of an anthropology which identified humanity with basic needs, can be found in critics such as Arendt, Baudrillard, Gorz, Habermas, and Foucault, to name a few. Thus it would be more accurate to say that neoliberalism is vulgar Marxism in reverse.

These same positions, economism, anthropology of labor, etc., are what Marxism (what has sometimes been called Western Marxism) has been trying to philosophically distance itself in past decades. So, rather than say that neoliberalism is Marxism in reverse, it is possible to say that Marxism confronts its own limitations in an inverted form. This opens up an interesting critical predicament. At the same time that Marxism has been expanding its critical tools, developing materialist understandings of ideology, non-reductive accounts of the economy, and a nuanced social ontology, capitalist ideology has been simplifying itself, to the point where it no longer conceals its economic basis. Can neoliberalism even be called ideology?


Steven Shaviro said...

At the risk of sounding like a fundamentalist or "vulgar" marxist, I am inclined to say that what we need is precisely more economism, capital-logic, etc., rather than "materialist understandings of ideology, non-reductive accounts of the economy, and a nuanced social ontology." This is because such "basics" as one finds in Capital are the anatomy of what happens when what we now know as neoliberalism gets actually put into practice. When Ranciere and Badiou identify marxism with neoliberalism, they are doing the same thing that Zizek does when he characterizes Deleuze and Guattari as philosophers of the yuppie/neoliberal world order. In both cases, the very attempt to analyze and anatomize a phenomenon is denounced as an act of complicity with it. This goes beyond blaming the messenger. Zizek makes no attempt to actually understand the logic of rhizomatic capital; just as Badiou makes no attempt to actually understand the logic of homo oeconomicus and of the assumption that human beings are atomistic utility-maximizers. They both indulge in grandiose postures of radical rupture and refusal, instead of trying to think through the effects of actually existing capital/capitalism. (Ranciere is different, in that he is oriented towards a micropolitics rather than a grand revolutionary rupture).

unemployed negativity said...

I am tempted to say that it is not so much a matter of more economism, but of taking capitalism seriously to the point where it is more than an economy. This is what I think Marx meant by mode of production.

I think that Badiou's position with respect to capital is even more confusing and vexing. On the one hand he dismissed political economy and history out of hand, but, on the other, he refers to capital as a desacralization of the social bond, the presentation of the multiple as such, giving it an epochal character. That is perhaps matter for another post.