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Inside the factory, and out

Fredric Jameson, Representing ‘Capital’: A Reading of Volume One, Verso, London and New York, 2011. 158pp., £14.99 hb., 978 1 84467 454 1.

John Kraniauskas

Fredric Jameson’s latest book, published hot on the heels of a monograph on Hegel’s Phenomenology (The Hegel Variations, 2010) and a large collection of essays on the dialectic (Valences of the Dialectic, 2009), is a reading of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. Together, they constitute what appears to be a late push into European philosophy by one of our most important Marxist literary and cultural critics, in the form of a defence of Hegel, Marx and their respective dialectics – against alternative, analytical, historicist and structural Marxist traditions, which variously sideline the notions of ‘negativity’ and ‘contradiction’. For Jameson, ‘to attempt to construct a model of capitalism’, its reality and its reflection in thought, and to reconstruct Marx’s dialectical representation of it, is to ‘coordinate incompatible modes of thought without reducing them to … one-dimensionality’. Because this is also a fairly good description of Jameson’s own style, what we are presented with in his latest work is a kind of double mimesis: Jameson’s contemporary performance of Marx’s previous representation.

In Representing ‘Capital’, Jameson thus insists that Marx’s work is a heterogeneous and multiple text (similar to the Phenomenology), made up of a semiautonomous Part One, centred on the commodity and money forms and the market; the historical Part Eight, given over to the multiple histories of the emergence of capital, and particularly of the commodity ‘labour power’; and finally, and most significantly according to Jameson, Capital-proper, the core of the book made up of Parts Two to Seven and centred on the experience of capital accumulation, the factory and the industrial machine. Jameson’s book thus also tracks and reflects the figurative dramas of Capital’s composition at a micro-analytic level, stylistic symptoms, he suggests, of the difficulties confronted by Marx in representing capital. In this sense, following in the footsteps of both Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Kluge, Jameson productively foregrounds Capital as a kind of modernist montage, a ‘specific proto-narrative form’ which ‘can be imagined as a series of interlinked problems or paradoxes (elsewhere he calls these ‘riddles’), which, ostensibly solved, give rise to new and unexpected ones of greater scope’. Again, rather like capital itself on Marx’s account, it produces its own barriers to accumulation (‘riddles’), which it then proceeds to surmount (‘solve’).

Jameson insists that Marx’s Capital should not be considered a political work. It is ‘not a book about politics’. This, he suggests, dialectically constitutes its contemporary political significance: ‘the absence of a political dimension from Marxism’, specifically from Marx’s Capital, ‘is one of its great and original strengths’. Moreover, he makes the ‘scandalous assertion’ (his own words) that it ‘is not even a book about labour’, but rather ‘a book about unemployment’. Even more scandalously, perhaps, he excludes Parts One and Eight of Volume One from what he presents as Capital proper.

Drawing on the work of Karl Korsch, among others, Jameson repeatedly underlines the opposition and tension within Marx’s text between two ‘alternat[ing] languages or codes’, those of ‘class struggle’ on the one hand, and of ‘capital accumulation (or the law of value)’ on the other, rightly pointing out that in Capital the former is ‘only intermittently visible’. So, for example, in his account of Marx’s chapter on the length of the working day, Jameson shows how initially politics seems to come to the fore: ‘Suddenly, it is not the clunking of machines in the subterranean realms of production we hear … but rather the noisy shouting of parliamentary voices and their interminable debates about the shortening of working hours.’ This is the effect of collective workers’ resistance to the vampiric demands of capital. Indeed, he goes on to suggest that as well as a ‘refutation to our claim that Capital was not a political book’, Marx’s volume – already extensive – ‘might have ended here with a powerful call for legislation’. It does not, however, and this account of ‘class struggle’ and the conditions of labour in Capital is immediately – and dialectically – reinscribed into Marx’s ongoing account of ‘capital accumulation’; that is, into Marx’s analysis of the relations between variable and constant capital, of absolute and relative surplus value – all of which Jameson expounds – and to the industrial processes through which, despite the struggles over the working day (indeed, as a result of them), capitalist exploitation paradoxically expands and increases through the development of new technologies. From this point of view – and here Jameson could be emplotting for his own purposes the work of Mario Tronti on the logics of workers’ refusal and its subsequent generalization by Hardt and Negri into a philosophy of history – the workers themselves paradoxically become subjects of capital. Agency (and politics) is thus subsumed by Marx’s focus on the systemic character of the dynamics of capital in which, writes Jameson, ‘“system” is characterized as a unity of opposites, and it is the open system of capitalism which proves to be closed’. It is at such moments of theoretical tension and dialectical productivity in which Marx is attempting to bring different theoretical discourses together – agency and systematicity – that produce what Jameson refers to as Marx’s ‘figurations’, a productive symptom here of his dialectic at work attempting to unify opposites in his representation of capital:

Thus, by a chiasmus that has become dialectical, everything bad about the qualification of the closed has been transferred to the open… Capitalism is thus what is sometimes called an infernal machine, a perpetuum mobile or unnatural miracle, whose strengths turn out to be what is most intolerable about it.

It is in such moments of his analysis that Jameson’s experience and expertise as a literary and a cultural critic come to the fore, despite his attempts to distance his text from literary interpretation. For what emerges in his reading, among other things, might be more forthrightly described as an attempt – following here perhaps in the footsteps of Hayden White’s deployment of the idea of ‘emplotment’ in historiography – to discover and consider the necessarily ‘figurative’ (even literary) content of all dialectical thought, in detail. This means, for example, moving beyond Marx’s use of literary quotation and characterization – including his use of allegory and gothic – to examine how certain key words – which are not quite concepts, but not now pure literary figurations either – work across different discourses, becoming quasi-conceptual figurations (in other words, transdisciplinary sites of conceptual production). In this respect, Jameson dedicates his extraordinarily condensed chapter on ‘Capital in its Time’ to the significance of Marx’s use of the verb ‘to extinguish’, to great effect, so as to give an account of the layering of time(s) in (and of) capital: ‘From this verb comes past and future alike, along with a view of the present as production whose originality lies in its negativity rather than in any positive or affirmative content.’ Thus, in the fire of present production past labour is repeatedly resurrected as means and as value and immediately ‘extinguished’ in use in the capitalist labour process of accumulation. The secret of Marx’s previous reflections on the idea of production as consumption is contained in his use of this word, in Jameson’s view, as is the alienated character of workers’ experience of ‘real subsumption’ to (constant) capital (in the form of machinery). Finally, it returns us to the retreat of the political in Capital, producing a real sense of ‘having once been historical capitalism now becomes eternal’, a continuous present. For, in extinguishing its past capital also appears to extinguish any other possible future. This constitutes one of the ‘limits of Volume One’, according to Jameson (suggesting, as might the title of his book, that he could write others on Volumes Two and Three), except, that is, for what Jameson calls its ‘heroic’ and ‘comic’ climaxes.

The ‘heroic’ climax is especially significant, for it insists on an idea that is almost anathema to the contemporary Left: that socialism is to be more modern and more productive than capitalism. Jameson is referring to the moment when, in Part Eight, Marx writes of the tendencies towards the ‘monopoly of capital’ of ‘centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour’ become ‘fetters’ and the ‘knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.’ ‘To recover that futurism and that excitement’, writes Jameson, ‘is surely the fundamental task of any left “discursive strategy” today.’ The ‘comic’ climax is merely an image, an idyllic image of freedom from capitalist relations of production, captured by Marx in his story of a Mr Peel who takes both money capital and working people with him to Australia. Once there, however, he was abandoned: ‘Unhappy Mr Peel’, writes Marx, ‘who provided for everything except the export of English relations of production…’ Others exported slavery. This, perhaps, constitutes Jameson’s critique of ‘exodus’.

However, one of the problems of occupying the in-between theoretical space described above, coupled with the relative shortness of the book, is that Jameson tends at times to riff, producing short bursts of thought that remain undeveloped. This has its creative moments. One may be found in the chapter on Part Eight of Capital that is concerned with ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ (and that contains the above-mentioned ‘climaxes’ to Capital). Jameson’s chapter is called ‘History as Coda’, suggesting that Marx’s Part Eight is a kind of appendage. It is, no doubt, the baggiest part, evoking the multiplicity of historical causes, processes and explanations of the emergence of capital (even becoming, subsequent to his reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s own version, the favourite of the late Althusser). There is a really productive moment in Jameson’s account: a kind of dialectical reversal of the temporal order of the text that folds the historical processes Marx associates with the separation of the direct producers from their means of production, and the coercive legislation that enforced the creation of labour power as a commodity, back into Marx’s account of manufacture in Chapter 14 (Part Four). The looping effect produces continuity in apparent discontinuity. Jameson thus shows how Marx’s ‘figure of separation’ is deployed to illustrate how capitalists need not only to displace feudal lords and their control of labour, but also ‘to seize the space of production [here, the factory system] for themselves and to reorganize it’. The battle here is against the working traditions and regulations of the guilds and is one of the conditions for the subsequent rise of machinofacture. ‘Dialectical history’, suggests Jameson, ‘is thus written in the discontinuous mode of successive negations, subtractions, separations and omissions … which … allow us to read the absent continuity between them.’ It is, in other words, a montage.

Certain ideas remain underdeveloped. None more so than Jameson’s self-proclaimedly ‘scandalous assertion’ that Capital is a book about unemployment. This is important because it is a key argument for his assertion of the contemporary political relevance of Capital, despite the text’s own systematic and anti-political dynamic – the point being to insist on the necessity today of both an appreciation and a critique of the logics of exploitation (including the power and hold of the commodification of labour and the wage form) and accumulation. Jameson’s assertion recurs intermittently throughout the book, mainly in his account of what he perceives to be Capital-proper; that is, when Marx leaves the realm of circulation and exchange (at the end of Part One) and enters the subterranean realm of the factory where exploitation and accumulation take place (which he leaves again for Part Eight). Here, he finds the capitalist ‘identity of productivity and misery’ – that is, the absolute general law of accumulation. According to Jameson, this is the ‘centrepiece’ of Marx’s analysis, from where the system as a totality becomes visible. From this perspective, Marx’s classic accounts of the real (machinic) subsumption of labour to capital, on the one hand, and the accompanying logics of pauperization and the creation of a more or less permanent ‘reserve army of labour’, on the other, become one. This is the moment at which, in the contemporary context of globalization and resistance to it, Jameson expands the (political) constituency of the exploited – and thus of capital accumulation – to include the unemployed. The objection here – to an argument I am nonetheless sympathetic with – is that such an expansion and inclusion surely demands an account of the forms taken by exploitation (and expropriation more generally) today and the ways in which these (for example, the wage form) have become articulated, or even subordinated, to other forms of capital accumulation: for example, the very well-known abbreviated financial and credit forms of M–M´, or the more violent ones of ‘accumulation through dispossession’. It is to this that various kinds of anarchist ‘resistance’, from which Jameson wants critically to distance himself, in fact respond.

These are the contemporary forms of exploitation that might be derived from what Jameson believes to be the extraneous inclusions, within Capital, of Parts One and Eight. As is well known, Part One centres on the analysis of the commodity and money forms, passing through the exchange of equivalents and the theory of value. It poses a problem – or riddle – that the other parts of Marx’s work resolve: how does the exchange of equivalents generate more? The answer is to be found in the character of labour-power as a commodity: its use value to capital is to generate more – that is, surplus – value. Jameson believes that Marx’s account, which he presents as a critique of the mathematical form of the equation, is merely an extension of his earlier A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859. And it is, as the subtitle of Capital A Critique of Political Economy – makes clear. The crucial difference, however, is that by the time of the latter Marx had developed a theory of surplus value centred on the specificity of the commodity labour-power. In the earlier book,‘abstract’ labour is socially de-differentiated labour,the product of the division of labour, or a kind of labour ‘in general’. In Capital, however, labour-poweris transformed into a commodity and exchanged: this is what makes it abstract. This is what transforms thetheory of value, set out in Capital. In other words, in Part One of Capital the commodity has always already been to the factory.

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