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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

Reading Capital in Precarious Times | Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 20 May 2023, by Arup Kumar Sen


A recently published book, Marx Dead and Alive: Reading Capital in Precarious Times, authored by Andy Merrifield (Monthly Review Press, 2021; Indian edition, 2023), has gone back to Marx’s Capital to address our precarious times: “Our own corpsed reality has depressed me so much that I vowed now was the time to get back to Marx.”. The author emphasized in this reading the unfinished journey of Marx’s Capital: “Marx never wanted to finish Capital because he couldn’t see how it could ever be finished. He sought the definitive but knew the impossibility of the definitive. It tormented him.”

Andy Merrifield’s reading has situated Capital as a life-sustaining force. To put it in his words: “Marx’s Capital is a text, like the Bible, that can help readers attribute meaning to their lives; they can use it, study it, live it out, pore over it, as a guiding spirit.”

While highlighting the important aspects of Capital, Merrifield argued: One of Marx’s brightest concepts, perhaps his most profound dialectical construct in Capital, is the “fetishism of commodities.”...The working class Marx described in Capital is still our working class; his commodity fetishism remains our commodity fetishism...Marx believed conceptual analysis could demystify fetishistic visions of human experience.

Another crucial aspect of Marx’s understanding of Capital is highlighted by the author: Marx is adamant that “capital cannot arise from circulation.” On the other hand, “It is impossible for it to arise apart from circulation.”

The central message of Capital is emphasized by the author: “Indeed, so much of what he presents in Capital involves the lies and misinformation of others, the bourgeois propaganda that lurks behind the apparent seal of knowledge.”

Merrifield observed that Marx was well-versed in the history of technology and he made it clear that all capitalist technology leads to disciplining of workers.

The author stated that his favourite chapter in Marx’s Capital is chapter 25, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” He argues that Marx’s characterization of the path of capital accumulation in cities is “not a bad description of what still happens in big cities today.” However, he cautions us: “And yet, in another sense, plenty has changed since Marx’s day.”

Merrifield discussed in his book Marx’s view of ‘ground rent’ and argued that Marx viewed ‘ground rent’ “as something parasitic rather than productive, a redistribution of total surplus-value and hence a filching of the fruits of labor.”

After pointing out Marx’s lack of faith in the lumpenproletariat, the author gave us a call to reconsider their role in the light of the contemporary reality where the “lumpenproletariat has become a decommissioned reserve army of labor that nowadays may be outweighs the active reserve army of labour.”

 Merrifield invoked many other thinkers in his reading of Marx. He raised critical questions about the possibilities of Leninist concept of the revolutionary vanguard in contemporary reality: “Can we realistically expect a resurgence of a Marxism spearheaded by a revolutionary vanguard, a cohort of thinkers and workers, of activists and unionists, still capable of spreading the radical word? Can a small vanguard go to the people like the Narodniks of Lenin’s generation went to the people?”

Andy Merrifield imagined his emancipatory politics in non-specific terms in the context of fragmentation of workers in contemporary precarious times:

“These days, to go to the working class is to go to a people without a workplace, without a class address, without a common representative or common sense of belonging. The working class is out there, dispersed everywhere, in zones full of poor and overworked people...Contemporary capitalism has downsized and downgraded so many people that there now exists across the globe a huge mass of those outside the system. Hence, they’re a potential cooperative force that could make a great deal of anti-capitalist noise.”

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