Beyond Marx

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* Book: Über Marx hinaus Arbeitsgeschichte und Arbeitsbegriff in der Konfrontation mit den globalen Arbeitsverhältnissen des 21. Jahrhunderts, Marcel van der Linden und Karl Heinz Roth, (ed.) with Max Henninger, Berlin und Hamburg: Assoziation A, 2009


Armin Medosch:

"This article presents a review, summary and notes on Über Marx hinaus Arbeitsgeschichte und Arbeitsbegriff in der Konfrontation mit den globalen Arbeitsverhältnissen des 21. Jahrhunderts. Edited by Marcel van der Linden and Karl Heinz Roth, this book combines many heterodox thinkers of the left, who had a close engagement with Marx, but are convinced now that we need to go beyond Marx for a number of reasons. This carefully edited volume makes a very interesting contribution to the history and present of labour and deserves to receive enough attention so that it gets translated as a whole or some of the pieces in it. (


"Roth and van der Linden identify five main weaknesses, inconsistencies and/or contradictions in Marx' work. First, they focus on the issue that Marx analysed capital but did little on living labour, which was reserved for a further book which he never came to write. The focus on developing theoretic instruments through which to understand the working of capital necessarily leads to many gaps, notably how capitalism actually works in the real work, how for instance the working class reproduces itself and what constitute its 'needs'. This, in our terms, would be the integrative process. van d. Linden and Roth are asking, what is the working class? The first part of the book provides a variety of angles, from a historic perspective, to aspects such as migration and the difficulty of applying a concept of class on subaltern groups in an emerging economy such as India.

This leads to a second point, a tendency to objectivism which is partly explained out of the context of Marx' own life: while the basic plan for a critique of the national economy was developed in the revolutionary 1840s, the emerging working class movement suffered heavy political defeat in the late 1840s and Marx thereafter became a precarious intellectual who had withdrawn into private life to make his theory more 'scientific'. This resulted in an objectivist tendency with Marx hoping to discover the "natural laws of the development of the capitalist economy" which would either lead to avantgardism or passivity (this line of critique is developed by quoting Karl Korsch (p.17)2 and Castoriadis' Crossroads in the Labyrinth (p. 16 and p. 204)3, both quoted on pages 18-19).

The third weakness is a tendency to privilege only one segment of the world working class, the male industrial proletariat which Marx and Engels treat as the only really revolutionary class while having, for instance, scant regard for the urban lumpenproletariat. This is closely linked with a fourth problem which is identified as methodological nationalism (p. 20). Marx explicitely based his theoretic model in Capital I on one nation state. While Marx made this theoretic reduction explicit, it has led to a widespread methodological nationalism among Marxists who, according to Roth and van der Linden, naturalise the nation state and exclude subnational, supranational and transnational aspects of the world system, while also identifying society with the state and a specific territorry (p. 21). This leads to the fifth accusation of Eurocentrism, which finds three main expressions, one, by ignoring events outside the axis Europe-North-America, second, by developing a prejudice about a European led development model, and third, by using empirical assumptions which treat certain things as facts, when they actually occured only under specific historic conditions (p.23).

The central thesis of the editors of Beyond Marx is that those 5 issues have to be overcome if radical theory should be able to provide orientation in the way it is expressed in the initial quote. The following essays of this finely edited book focus mainly on the aspect of labour and a more inclusive approach to the question of who or what is the working class. Thereby they help to sort out the mess with regard to class issues. The demographic decline of a specific type of working class in rich Northern countries, the rise in numbers and significance of new types of "flexi-workers" both in developed and emerging economies, the swelling numbers of the new industrial proletariat in emerging economies, all those tendencies coalesce into a problematic which has so far seen little solution both theoretically and empirically." (

Commentary by Brian Holmes:

"Of course I am in total agreement with the introductory statement of the editors, and more precisely with the focus on the weakness of Marx's treatment of living labor and its reproduction. The result of this weakness today is an exaltation of productivity as an ontological universal, which leaves most Marxists unable to even admit the existence of any culture but a voluntarist, self-creating and therefore, essentially modernist one. Yet most people do not live by modernist culture. Now that the "working class" as an economic category is everywhere global - ie all capitalist societies are immigrant societies - this lack of comprehension means no understanding of the real ways people survive, and also how they transform themselves over time through education, communication, leisure time, creation of and access to the arts, local political organizing, etc. In America this lack was partially overcome by minority emancipation movements and identity politics - often with a loss of Marxist analysis as a result. In Europe it seems the leftists have kept their Marx and mostly ignored the daily life issues of the new workers in their midst, so you have volontarist leftist movements cut off from the most exploited sectors of the population.

Why not write to both Gambino and Bologna for the Italian versions of their texts? Are you in contact with them at all? The Gambino/Sachetto text sounds really excellent and does not seem to correspond to Gambino's book, Migranti nella tempesta (Ombre Corte, pp. 182, € 14,00), which seems to be focused on contemporary Italy (though an intriguing chapter title talks about the Persian Gulf). I am particularly interested in the parts about Detroit and about the relationship between immigration flows and the business cycle (of course, in capitalist societies there are correlations of everything with the business cycle). I will check the sources of those notes you give, thanks. The idea that "post-Fordism" results in an end to serialized production is clearly false, I agree with Gambino and in fact, last time I saw Maurizio Lazzarato he said we should give up the notion of cognitive capitalism, that so-called immaterial labor is not hegemonic but just one part of a system which begins with slavery and imperialism and runs through every historically existing kind of labor, all of which continue to exist alongside one another in the present. The notion of flexible accumulation is far more capacious than the clean-break model of post-Fordiam. Flexible accumulation indicates the role of contemporary networked management, which scans the entire geographical space of the earth and the entire range of the social classes to look for differential advantages and to find the precise ways to exploit them. Concerning the continuity between forced labor and "free" industrial labor exchanged as a commodity, in a country like China you find all the degrees linking these extremes, with additionally a small presence of state measures aiming to partially decommodify as in Europe or (less and less) the USA. One would have to study the export-processing zones in their many geographical variations to see what's happening. Free labor in Marx's sense is a productive reality, but it does not exclude a whole range of other forms of labor.

I have never read Bologna and will try to read all the bits you mention, these are pretty generally available in Italian, French or English on the net. The idea that Marx is utterly obsolete under flexible accumulation appears dead wrong in an American context. What we see is increasingly naked exploitation of both contractual and non-contractual labor, coupled with extraction of the savings and assets gained by the former working classes under the welfare-state regime (which, it is crucial to realize, made both socialized and individualized forms of accumulation possible for large swathes of the population). The autonomy granted by networked media appears very relative here, quite slim really. People manage their own working lives while their production - in advertising, education, culture, software, accounting, engineering, etc - serves as the essential raw material out of which others will compose the self-management of their lives. This relative autonoomy unfolds in an environment whose basic coordinates and frameworks of possibility are provided by capital. Mandel was not so wrong when he saw the rate of growth as being the key determinant of capitalist strategy: except what has happened is that in the absence of a general rate of industrial growth permitting both higher profit and broad redistribution, what you have is a competitive struggle to achieve differential rates of profit, and it is this struggle between competing fractions of capital that creates the parameters within which the semi-autonomous flex-workers try to manage their lives. Today these flexworkers are realizing that the game is always rigged and that the relative autonomy inevitably declines as the extraction of value reaches the bottom of the barrel, leaving less and less margins for pleasure and exploration.

In short, popped financial bubbles and asset-stripping of the former middle classses leave flex-workers facing the reality of highly coordinated exploitation, where the conditions of their lives increasingly resemble those of the working and service classes. The realization of this reality is the content of the current student movement, and in that respect I imagine it is very different than what's happening in Europe. Marxist analysis of the capital-labor relation still works very well; the problem is, the Marxist analysis of class consciousness doesn't work at all, due to the weakness in the analysis of the cultural components of living labor mentioned above. This is the trap we're in today, as I see it. The current crisis is making it really visible, and propelling us beyond the analyses of the operaisiti, whose ideas were forged during the transition from Keynesian mass-manufacturing to globalized flexible accumulation.

As for conricerca, I think there is a lot of it going on under different names! Blacks, Chicanos and other groups in the USA, Africans in Europe. Palestinians, many largely ignored groups in India, indigenous groups in Latin America and all over the earth, as well as the new precarious former middle-class workers in Europe, the USA and Latin America, all are producing inquiries into their everyday living conditions and the ways these conditions intersect and conflict with the increasingly clear norms and operational principles of transnational capital. I am very curious to read Gambino's book, and see if he registers the immense diversity of this kind of work. So far I have been disappointed with the autonomous migration specialists like Sandro Mezzadra, who seem primarily concerned with a libertrian/anarchist exaltation of autonomous movement, and not with the conditions of people who actually settle, who start to live their lives in northern capitalist countries over generations. However, my reading of Mezzadra is probably superficial, he has many books out and I have only read articles..." (