Issue #54 Genres of Capitalism, Part II

Genres of Capitalism, Part II

Stephen Squibb

Issue #54
April 2014

Continued from “Genres of Capitalism, Part I

The first part of these notes presented spiritualism, commercialism, and productivism as three ways of reading “capitalism,” which have formed, over time, into genres. This exercise proceeded from a slow-building impression that we don’t know precisely what we are talking about when we talk about “capitalism.” Or simply that the way we talk, read, and write about “capitalism” is not as helpful as it could be. Part I ended by noting that “capitalism” is sometimes read as an abbreviation and expansion of the related concept of “the mode of production.” Part II begins with an extended consideration of this phrase. It shows, first, how its centrality has been detrimental to critical political economy, and, second, just what sort of things “capitalism” can be seen to obscure.

Film still extracted from Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972.

Capitalism as a Mode of Production

In an ingenious essay for the London Review of Books, John Lanchester demonstrated the slipperiness of the common use of “capitalism” by quoting several passages from Marx, with the word “bourgeoisie” in the original text replaced by the word “capitalism.”1 The effect of this substitution was to highlight how capitalism is today ascribed a kind of agency that in the past would have been reserved for a class. “Capitalism” resembles “the bourgeoisie,” even as it represents “the capitalist mode of production” (the phrase with which Capital proper begins).

Certainly much could be said about this resemblance between the role of “capitalism” in the twentieth century and that of “the bourgeoisie” in the nineteenth, especially as it concerns the history of the novel. But it is the second signification, linking the notion of “capitalism” to that of “the mode of production,” that allows us to reconsider the relationship developing between “genre” and “capitalism,” by drawing our attention to the different levels of analysis to which these concepts refer.

The fastest way for these different levels to fall into relief is to consider the term “mode,” which, in addition to appearing in the middle of the “capitalist mode of production,” also has a central place in genre theory. In particular, it is helpful to think about Alastair Fowler’s positioning of “mode” as the middle moment in the progression “genre, mode, subgenre,” where each term specifies the previous one.2 Thus, genre is substantive, and mode is adjectival, as in “lyric poem”—lyric is the mode, poem is the genre. We cannot recognize the lyricism of the poem in question without reference to its location within a larger generic framework.

A similar necessity lies behind the “capitalist mode of production”; “capitalist” is the mode and “production” is the genre. Capitalist is adjectival, production is substantive. The capitalistic nature of the capitalist mode of production can only be recognized in relation to production, in the same way that the lyric poem falls into relief against the category of poetry. In this respect, the mode of production, capitalist or otherwise, is very specifically not a genre, but a mode, a subset of the genre of production. The capitalist mode of production is more specific still, and exists when and where a form of circulation—capital—begins to organize the entire substance of production, producing a mode, the capitalist mode of production.3

Speaking of “genres of capitalism” rather than “modes of production” thus draws our attention to the movement of “capitalism” up the conceptual ladder from the particular towards the generic—from a subset of one genre, a mode of production, past the level of genre itself—into something more like an entire field.

In other words, this analogy illustrates something about where “capitalism” takes place in our thinking: a position precisely not analogous to “lyric poetry”—and often, not even to “poetry”—but rather somewhat closer to “literature,” insofar as both literature and capitalism roll up into a single identity the manifold genres that constitute the various forms of their appearance. The important thing to notice is that this expansion happens in both directions: not only does “capitalism” reach downward and absorb the particularities of the various modes of production, distribution, circulation, and exchange, but it also reaches upwards, claiming to exhaust the entire political economy. “Capitalism” has its origins as a mode (lyric poetry) and sounds like a genre (poetry), but in practice often signifies something more total (literature as such). The following table illustrates:

If this comparison is to be helpful we must then ask: What are the names for the genres and the modes that “capitalism” subsumes—the political-economic equivalents, in our analogy, not only of poetry, prose, and drama, but also the lyric, epic, romance, and so on? In the first case, the answer seems clear: the four genres subsumed by “capitalism” are production, circulation, consumption, and distribution.4 And we recognize, in the first two of these, the first two of my “genres of capitalism.” I will return to some of the modes in which we frequently encounter these genres.

It will be objected that this comparison is misleading, an uncalled-for deployment of a conceptual framework where it does not belong. It seems justified for two reasons. First, I am not claiming that political economy is organized in the way that literature is, so much as I am interested in delimiting a political-economic vocabulary that is at least as specific as the one we have for literature. Second, in the same way that literary criticism evolves to clarify and enable conversation about texts in the world, political economy responds to sites of struggle. One problem with the discourse of “capitalism” is the extent to which it cannot account for the contemporary class struggle, which appears only as a courtesy, an insignificant exception to an otherwise general law.

Put otherwise, the paradigm of capitalism as we have inherited it has too many anomalies, and these anomalies are too important, to simply continue amending it as we go along. The concluding, unscientific postscript to “capitalism” has become home to the most vital movements of the twentieth century, and it is this newness of our peoples, as Enrique Dussel points out, that must be reflected in our thinking, and not the other way around.5 Bending “capitalism” to fit the contemporary world becomes the analytic equivalent of trying to read all of literature in terms of lyric poetry.

Avoiding this fate requires that we recover the missing elements, the generic equivalents, in this metaphor, of prose and drama. These are production, distribution, consumption, and circulation, which—like drama, poetry, and prose—can be understood as distinct theaters of social antagonism, complete with their own historically specific dramatis personae of forces and relations, or modes.6 It is only against this conceptual background that the dynamic tension between circulation and production called the “capitalist mode of production” appears in focus. And it is this dynamic tension that is falsely resolved when “capitalism” is considered as a genre or a field unto itself. Instead of continuing to think at the level of the mode, too many have instead preferred to fight—always in the form of a debate about “capitalism”—over which genre Marx was talking about, production or circulation, when in fact he was not dealing with either of these on their own but with an uncanny amalgam of the two.

There was a reason for this, as David Harvey explains in his companion to volume 2 of Capital.7 It was not simply that Marx preferred “production” over distribution or consumption, but rather that Marx believed that the different genres allowed for different degrees of scholarly or scientific rigor. In the same way that one cannot study plate tectonics by the same method that one studies particle physics, Marx thought that the different genres of political economy lent themselves to a greater or lesser degree of scientific apprehension. For Marx, production was generic in a way that consumption was not. This was a position inherited from classical political economy; Harvey quotes Marx: “Thus production, distribution, exchange and consumption form a regular syllogism; production is the generality, distribution and exchange the particularity, and consumption the singularity in which the whole is joined together.”8

As Harvey points out, Marx is essentially ambivalent about this framework, mocking it as a “shallow syllogism” even as he nevertheless relies on it throughout Capital. However, Harvey also indicates that elsewhere, particularly in the Grundrisse, Marx effects what he calls “a radical break” with the same tradition, and it is here that the great knot of “capitalism” finally begins to loosen.

Harvey points out that the nature of Marx’s break with classical political economy involves two distinct understandings of “production,” and that this doubling has been an endless source of confusion. What sets Marx apart from his predecessors is not the emphasis on “production” as something distinct from distribution or exchange; rather, it is a second, predominating meta-relation called “the production of surplus value” which is the substance of this radical break. As Harvey clarifies:

The production that “predominates” within a capitalist mode of production is the production of surplus-value, and surplus-value is a social and not a physical, material relation … The production of surplus value through the circulation of capital is, in short, the pivot upon which the lawlike character of a capitalist mode of production turns: no surplus-value, no capital. This was the fundamental break that Marx made with classical political economy.9

And this is distinct from our genre precisely because it exceeds it. The “production of surplus value” now becomes something more like the total field of political economy, the proper equivalent to our “literature.” We can now return to our diagram from earlier:

Harvey finds both “productions” at work in the following section from the Grundrisse: “A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments. Admittedly, however, in its one-sided form, production is itself determined by the other moments.”10

The first, definite production is “the production of surplus value” and the second, one-sided production is the moment distinct from distribution, consumption, and exchange. This ambugity is still with us, and a full accounting of its effects would require its own essay. 11 In any case it seems essential to seperate these two different “productions,” so I will refer to the “production of surplus value” with a suitably ostentatious signifier—alchemy—and leave the simple, or one-sided, generic “production” as such.12 And so, as Harvey indicates, Marx does in fact break with the “shallow syllogism”—it is not “production” that gives the lawlike, general quality to Marx’s analysis, but rather alchemy understood as the generation of a surplus between different politically economic moments.

“Lawlike” is meant here in two senses. There is the sense of law as that which is revealed by science, and there is law as legislation: law as force, and law as relationship. The distinction is captured in this old science joke: “186 thousand miles per second isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law.” For many Marxists, alchemy, or the creation of surplus value, is a law in both senses: it behaves simultaneously like a law of gravity and a reverse speed limit, something that is both revealed by science, and a socially determined minimum pace at which everything must operate if it is not to be disciplined out of existence.13

Even readers unconvinced by my substitution of 'alchemy' for 'the production of surplus value' will admit the importance of distinguishing between the two senses of 'production' discussed above. Insisting on a distinction like the one proposed between alchemy and production reveals the manifold confusions occasioned by their conflation, confusions which we can now recognize as mistakenly moving between one level of analysis and another. Production and alchemy do not differ in the way that a square is different from a triangle, but rather in the way that squares and triangles differ from the more abstract concept of shape. Those accounts of political economy that expand the “mode of production” into a total social explanation are misregonizing a part of the political economy for the whole. Two diagrams illustrate this.14 The first is Fredric Jameson’s rendering of the orthodox Marxist vision:

We can see that the failure to distinguish adequately between alchemy and production has the effect of installing “the mode of production” in its one-sided ambiguity as primary and original. This ambiguity is then compounded by the further equation of 'the mode of production' with 'the economic' as such. 15 Rather than understanding production as one of several genres that are always already both political and economic—that is, comprised of both forces and relations determined not only by alchemy but also by the struggle against it—politics and economics are relegated to different spaces entirely. A quick glance at the diagram is sufficent, for example, to confirm the judgement of history that within orthodox Marxism there is no such thing as trade union politics, as these would be exhausted by the thoroughly economic 'relations of production.' Jameson then introduces (what he understands to be) the Althusserian revision, which aims to shorten somewhat this distance between the politcal and economic :

We have recovered the economic, but only by adding a new predicate to 'the mode of production' which is now identified with structure. We still have the ambiguous doubling of “production,” such that it is set off from itself by the economic, and separated entirely from the political, while ideology has the same status as culture. Most importantly, there is no indication of how struggle impacts any of these divisions. We remain in the grip of a profound confusion concerning the principles and elements of the political economy. 16

Once we have made a distinction between production and alchemy, we recover the former as one site of struggle among others. It is class struggle, in other words, that determines the various modes, and not the other way around. In order to make this clear, I have used “autonomy” as the name for the counter-tendency to alchemy—or that which stands opposed to the accumulation of surplus for its own sake:

The diagram above allows us to see the various objects of analysis to which we have seen “capitalism” refer. Spiritualism is concerned with the total field of alchemy, while productivism and commercialism usually describe the genre/mode relation in production and/or circulation, respectively. In the fourth genre, representaionalism, we find a secularized return to the total field defined by the social-historical relationship of alchemy.

Capitalism as Representationalism

Representationalism reads capitalism as a malignant or deceitful regime of appearance. 17 Like performance art, it can be understood as a secular radicalization of the Abrahamic prohibition on graven images, expanded to encompass the entirety of lived experience. “The spectacle” Debord wrote, “is not a collection of images but a social relationship between people, mediated by images.” Representationalism combines aspects of spiritualism and commercialism, both discussed in Part I, insofar as it understands capitalism to be a generalization or spiritualization of those deceitful or occluding representations whose origins lie in commercial exchange. For the representationalist, iconoclasm is often tactic, strategy and theory simultaneously, its history ranging from smashing stained-glass windows to all those efforts to turn this or that remittance, note, or bill of exchange back into paper, for example, by burning 1 million pounds sterling as the KLF famously did.

The origins of representationalism’s articulation as a genre of capitalism likely lie with Aristotle’s theory of exchange which opens a distinction between appearance that invites consumption - or the recognition of utility - and appearance which facilitates exchange - or the representation of price. Marx radicalized this distance with his charismatic but confused concept of the fetishism of commodities, or the ability of an object of exchange to both conceal and represent the social totality that produced it, in the way of religious totems. Hence the need, to “take flight into the misty realm of religion,” according to Marx, when attempting to understand commodity exchange.

Unlike spiritualism, which sees capitalism as instituted by adherents to this or that specific idea of God, representationalism has capitalism establishing itself, via the obfuscating mechanism of commodity exchange, as a new, godlike power. The generalization of this process of exchange is alienating because it inaccurately separates individuals from social objects of their own making. Alienation is the failure of the objects of our collective labor or issue to represent themselves as such. We are alienated when we do not recognize ourselves represented in our work. Like God, or the gods, that is, capitalism is fundamentally a product of human thoughts and behavior but is represented otherwise, as something eternal and all-powerful. Hence the issue, for representationalists, is the failure of the entire social-historical system to represent its human origins, a failure they call ‘capitalism.’

Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness provides the conventional hallmark of representationalism, namely an expanded reading of the chapter on commodity fetishism that opens Capital, the fetish being, again, a part of something taken to signify the whole of it; the hair fetishist worships hair in place of the whole person, the shoe fetishist the shoe, etc. etc. In the same way that this misplaced attachment to a part of an individual supplants the reality the whole, Marx argues, the commodity supplants the reality of the whole system of production. Equipped with a price tag and sitting on a shelf, the commodity appears to be merely an object of exchange, but in fact it is an object of production as well. Capitalism is a mode of representation when its primary dynamic is to conceal the reality of the later by emphasizing the former.

The audacity of the early Lukács was to claim that what is hidden by the commodity’s incomplete representation of itself is not merely the mode of its production, but all of social life, a process he called reification, or the misrecognition of non-things as things. In a move that brings him extremely close to his fascist contemporary Martin Heidegger’s concern with fallen-ness, or the inauthenticity of modern, everyday life, it is the quantitative process of calculation that drains humanity of its qualitative, vital connection with the blood and soil of the lifeworld.

The commodity character of the commodity, the abstract, quantitative mode of calculability shows itself … in its purest form [in] the reified mind … just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher and higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully, and more definitively into the consciousness of man.18

For representationalist anti-capitalists, the capacity for abstract representation functions as a kind of original sin, pulling ignorant humanity ever deeper into a shared postlapsarian nightmare. Lukacs, for his part, would later recant this vision, arguing that he failed to distinguish between the recognition of the object as a necessary moment in the knowledge-process and the ‘bad’ objectification called reification. It was this confusion that allowed him to present a world in which individuals really are transformed into inert objects when in fact it is precisely the impossibility of this transformation that makes the tendency so violent. As Castoriadis says of reification:

The essential tendency of capitalism can never be wholly realized. If it were, if the system were actually able to change individuals into things moved only by economic ‘forces,’ it would collapse not in the long run, but immediately. The struggle of people against reification is, just as much as the tendency towards reification, the condition for the functioning of capitalism. A factory in which the workers were really and totally mere cogs in the machine, blindly executing the orders of management, would come to a stop in a quarter of an hour. 19

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, representationalists have favored the city as the terrain of their analysis, where the totality of the built environment provides a kind of scaffolding for a vision of the world completely transformed by capital. Here we can think of Walter Benjamin and Henri Lefebvre, in addition to Guy Debord.

Representationalism has been so dominant that its proliferating examples threaten to obscure their more fundamental generic affinity. We can think here of Stephen Greenblatt’s indication in “Towards a Poetics of Culture” that for Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard, capitalism meant two apparently different things.20 For Jameson, capitalism fragments, isolating distinct individuals and misrepresenting what is alike as different, while for Lyotard, capitalism amalgamates, reducing the differences between people, offering them up for consumption by a larger system and misrepresenting what is different as the same.

Film still extracted from Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, 1973.

Capitalism and Institutionalism

In what amounts to our first contemporary example of “capitalism,” Wolfgang Streeck closes his examination of the German economy, Re-Forming Capitalism, with a chapter entitled “Bringing Capitalism Back In.”21 He offers a sketch for what he calls a “historical-institutionalist” model of capitalism. Institutional economics, Streeck writes, “must drop its pretensions at timeless and placeless general theory and focus instead, not on institutions as such, and not even on economic institutions, but on the economic institutions of capitalism.”22 Moreover, Streeck renders the very appeal of institutionalism in a way that recalls Greenblatt’s frustration with “capitalism” as a unitary demonic principle, in writing that “by focusing on capitalism as a really existing social and economic order in historical time, institutionalist analysis avoids … speaking of an abstract ‘economy.’”23

Such a focus on the economic institutions of capitalism can be seen at least as far back as what is known as the Regulation School.24 One could probably trace this even farther, all the way back to Althusser’s positing of “ideological state apparatuses” that secure the reproduction of society.25 Althusser’s examples for these sinister-sounding organizations—churches, schools, unions—are what we now call institutions. It was a short step to bundle these together into broader accounts of their complementary interaction; concepts like mode of regulation, regime of accumulation,26and later, worlds of welfare capitalism, liberal market economy, and coordinated market economy, are all, in some sense, groupings of ideological state apparatuses concerned with the maintenance of a given economic arrangement.

Althusser saw himself as pushing back against an undue Hegelian influence—against, that is, a certain spiritualism. A classic confrontation between representationalism and early institutionalism can be found in Manuel Castells’s The Urban Question.27 In it, he sharply attacks Henri Lefebvre for allowing “the urban” to operate ideologically—that is, as a determining factor in contemporary economic reproduction, rather than as a transhistorical form common to most of recorded history and thus to many different economic arrangements. For Castells, the city cannot be ideological, in terms of reproducing the status quo, because as an institution it has continued to exist across many different political-economic histories. Translated to our own framework, Castells accuses Lefebvre of putting the urban in the place of surplus — of elevating it to a total social force — when in fact the urban is never entirely on one side or the other, but is instead a site of struggle.

Institutionalism is not introduced here to minimize the distance between a concept like Fordism28 and one like diversified quality production, but rather to indicate a generic affinity for political-economic explanation in terms of institutional complementarities drawn from across the genres—that is, a preference for thinking at the level of the mode, wherein institutional sets become the building blocks of the political economy.

Streeck is certainly correct to note that this focus has had the effect of dislodging “capitalism” from the center of analysis. However, as we have seen, this was because capitalism had become an abstract and history-less monologue of domination. This tension is particularly evident in Alain Lipietz, an early regulationist, writing already in 1977:

To argue that world capitalism has from the outset been a single regime of accumulation with forms of global regulation is tantamount to saying that some sovereign power established regular trade flows, codified and guaranteed universally applicable social norms and procedures, and then, when the need arose, delegated its powers to local states that were simultaneously established throughout the world. It is tantamount to saying that every compromise and every shift in the balance of power at any given point on the surface of the earth corresponds to the need to adjust a totally adaptable and perfectly homeostatic cybernetic system.29

In phrases like “sovereign power,” “universally applicable,” and “perfectly homeostatic cybernetic system,” we can hear echoes of spiritualism and representationalism alike. The contrast between analyses focused at the modal, institutional level of the political economy, and ones focused on the more general one is clear when we compare Lipietz’s desire for particularity with Wendy Brown’s move in the opposite direction:

Capitalism remains our life form. Understood not just as a mode of production, distribution, or exchange but as an unparalleled maker of history, capital arguably remains the dominant force in the organization of collective human existence, conditioning every element of social, political, cultural, intellectual, emotional, and kin life.30

Similarly, Streeck returns to “capitalism” precisely because he does see a common institutional trend across many specific national contexts, namely the trend towards liberalization under the influence of globalization. This might not be Lipietz’s “perfectly homeostatic cybernetic system” or Brown’s “life form,” but it is enough, for Streeck, to justify speaking again in terms of capitalism.

Two Contemporary Approaches to “Capitalism”

Hopefully, we have come some distance in our understanding of what is going on behind this word. We have seen how it confuses distinct levels of analysis and how it thus obscures the different genres of the political economy. Two final, contemporary approaches to “capitalism” reinforce this reading, indicating how the word continues to point in opposite directions.

1. Market Society contra Capitalism

Despite reaching the opposite conclusion, the sociologist Fred Block draws on the same Polanyian framework as Streeck to argue, in his 2012 essay “Varieties of What? Should We Still Be Using the Concept of Capitalism?,” that the term be abandoned in favor of Polanyi’s “market society.”31 Block gives the two most “coherent” definitions of “capitalism” as those offered by Marx and Engels, on the one hand, and by Immanuel Wallerstein, on the other. The first Block refers to as the “genetic theory of capitalism” in that

It is fundamentally similar to the idea that the DNA encoded in each cell shapes the structure and development of the entire organism. Rather than the cell, the basic unit is the production unit where surplus is extracted. The dominant mode of surplus extraction, in turn, shapes the structure and development of the entire society.32

We recognize the problem: so long as production remains indistinguishable from the creation of surplus value, then the theory of capitalism becomes the series of hybridized exceptions with which I began Part I. For Block, this hyphenation almost always involves the state, and is “characteristic of virtually all” of twentieth-century Marxist theorizing: Lenin, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Baran and Sweezy, Ernest Mandel, and the French regulation theorists all “seek to delineate different stages or phases of capitalist development by analyzing the different ways in which the state seeks to resolve and manage the underlying contradictions of the system.” But, crucially, Block argues that each of these fixes “could give you societies with different class structures, different dynamics, and different contradictions,” and that thus change or eliminate “the unifying element” that defines capitalism as a system for Marx and Engels.33

Block argues that this impasse was resolved by Immanuel Wallerstein, who shifted the element underpinning capitalism from surplus-value extraction to the existence of a system of global trade. This solved the problem of accounting for the various changes in capitalist nations by offering capitalism as “a world system that exerts unrelenting pressure on societies to obey its commands.”34 For Block, however, this solution opens up the problem that gives his essay its title—namely, how to account for the significant variety of different regimes that exist despite the apparently univocal discipline of the capitalist world system:

[Wallerstein’s theory offers] no real acknowledgement that under a particular hegemon, there is a possibility of a variety of different regimes that would provide different levels of constraint on governmental choices. And some of these regimes could open up space for some societies to pursue greater equality and greater democratization of economic decision making than anyone associates with the idea of capitalism.35

Again, if this is the case, it is because the “idea of capitalism” is always already confusing at least two of our three levels of analysis. All Wallerstein has done is reposition an international mode of circulation so that it can be seen to operate in tension with the nationalist mode of distribution. Indeed, the failure to read distribution as a distinct mode of social conflict, complete with its own historical set of antagonisms, accounts for Block’s fixation on “government” or “state-sponsored fixes.” Most of these are located within the moment of distribution, insofar as they concern institutions whose jurisdiction is the price of land, labor, and capital. Today, by and large, such institutions are national ones. Nationalism, understood as a mode of distribution, not only allows for different regimes, but actually requires them, as it is the ability of nations to enforce differences in the price of labor that allows for the global discipline of the workforce.

In both Block and Streeck, “capitalism” is thus a summoner of final vocabularies, revealing what each writer takes to be the most significant problem facing his respective tradition. For Streeck, “capitalism” has in fact been absent from the institutionalist tradition to which he belongs; however, he underestimates the extent to which that absence was enabling and emancipatory, even inaugural for that approach. For Block, addressing himself to the amalgam of commercialist, productivist, and representationalist approaches he understands to be Marxist, “capitalism” has consistently covered over the political stakes of these approaches. However, it is too much to declare that capitalism has always entailed a forgetting or an absence of the political tout court; rather, it provincializes it, making some genres merely political and others merely economic, rather than understanding each as a moment of political economy.

Furthermore, it was precisely in order to recover these specific political histories at the level of their institutional evolution, adaptation, drift, and decay that concepts like the “mode of regulation” or the “liberal market economy” were first formulated.36 Indeed, Block’s proposed swap of “market society” for “capitalism” is already contained in the ostensible target of his article, the “varieties of capitalism” approach that substituted two kinds of market economy, liberal and coordinated, for one homogenous “capitalism.”37

Daniel Cockersell, Chaos War Mammoth, undated. PVC figurine from the game Storm of Magic. The figurine is a replica of an original sculpture by Jes Goodwin.

2. Capitalism as Temporality

We have seen, I hope, that the more “capitalism” refers to misrecognition or accumulation as such, rather than a specific mode or genre, the broader and more totalizing the claims that can be made for it.

In this respect, William Sewell’s argument in “The Temporalities of Capitalism” that “capitalism” is best understood as a kind of time is perhaps the most honest of all the examples considered.38 Capitalism, for Sewell, acts to structure an otherwise fundamentally discontinuous historical chronology—it stands opposed, that is, to precisely the vision of history for which Sewell is known. Amidst his radically anti-teleological conception of historical time, Sewell has located some consistency in the world system since 1700, and he calls this consistency “capitalist temporality.” Thus, in the same way that Lyotard exempted capitalism from an otherwise total skepticism towards metanarratives, Sewell argues that, to the extent that a transhistorical mode of time can be understood to exist, this should be called capitalism.

On its face, Sewell’s is a representationalist understanding of capitalism—he cites Lukács and Postone—even as he appreciates the importance of institutional analyses like those of Kathleen Thelan. Eventually, his spiritualism becomes explicit, as when he claims that one would have “to be a God to write a truly adequate history of capitalism.”39 If Sewell’s analysis has a unique value today it is because, unlike typical examples of spiritualism, it recovers the sense of “capitalism” as being an incomplete project, as something that is always encountering resistance, even if this resistance remains entirely contingent and open.

It is interesting, finally, that while Streeck contrasts the need for “stability in human affairs” with the “dynamism of capitalism,” for Sewell, this dynamism, however expansive and flexible, nevertheless represents the only stability in an otherwise radically unstable—discontinuous, contingent, and temporally open—account of history. For Block, too, “capitalism” stands opposed to singularity (albeit the singularity of political decisions) and so it must be jettisoned.

While Streeck cites Polanyi to bring “capitalism” back in, Block cites him to drive it out; where Sewell sees dynamic capitalism as the only stable structure at work throughout history, Streeck sees its dynamism as a source of instability; and when Block sees capitalism as apolitical and mired in economic determinism, both Sewell and Streeck seem to valorize its conceptual utility for precisely this reason—for the way it explains and determines otherwise disparate and apparently unrelated political and social events. It was this nexus of contradictory uses of the term “capitalism”—which appeared particularly troublesome in the light of a recent political setback—that launched this rapidly concluding inquiry.

Absent the awareness of the different levels of analysis at work in political economy, “capitalism” inevitably elevates distinct and conflicting relations within and between the modes of reproduction, representation, production, and distribution, confusing them with an overwhelming para-natural force. The result is that, in one way or another, every “capitalism” is always already a spiritualism, a mystification that places the actual levers of collective emancipation out of reach.

It is in many ways the specific virtue of the institutionalist tradition that it recovered these elemental and analytic distinctions—in order, of course, to knit them up together in new combinations, like that of the “regime of accumulation,”40wherein a concept like Fordism is fashioned precisely to account for the combination of productive and reproductive modes into a single accumulative logic. Any anxiety over Streeck’s reformation of “capitalism” is thus precisely a concern for the potential loss of this level of specificity in political-economic analysis. Instead, it is better to talk about an international mode of representation, which interacts with the nationalist mode of distribution, than to return to, or invite back in, “capitalism.”

In this respect, the term “capitalism” should be retired, not because it is too determining or apolitical, but rather because it is not determined enough, having never shed the spiritualist essence of its popular origins in Sombart and Weber. It elides precisely those distinctions that critical political economy intended to recover, confusing conjunctural or historical analysis of the generic or the modal kind with attempts to consider surplus separately from its every instance of appearance.

This position—call it radical anti-“capitalism”—has the virtue of allowing for struggles occurring in different moments and across different modes to be understood as engaging in a common project. No longer will it be necessary to sublimate the campaigns of certain class formations—like those against the patriarchal mode of reproduction41—to others like the refusal of Taylorism on the factory floor. Similarly, it will be equally difficult to understand a successful struggle in one moment—like the destruction of private property—as being sufficient for emancipation in all the others. Such is the hope, at least, for a world without “capitalism.” 42


Lanchester, “Marx at 193,” London Review of Books vol. 34, no. 7 (April 5, 2012)


Alastair Fowler, “Mode and Subgenre,” chap. 7 in Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).


I must reference Kojin Karatani’s essential Transcritique, which I encountered for the first time in the middle of this writing. Karatani’s point that “surplus value … comes from the difference of value systems in the circulation process … and yet this difference is created by technological innovation in the production process,” is similar to my own. The fine details of the distinction need not concern us here—it’s more important to indicate a shared debt to Kozo Uno. See Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, trans. Sabu Kohso (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 11.


Some posit only three, with consumption belonging to circulation. My preference for four, rearticulated as production, representation, reproduction, and distribution, reflects a desire to create a framework capable of recording more variations in the class struggle than has been possible hitherto.


Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 39.


It may be best today to substitute “reproduction” for “consumption” and “representation” for “circulation.”


Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2 (New York: Verso, 2013).


Ibid., 17–18. Originally in Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin Classics, 1993), 89.


Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2, 23. Emphasis in original.


Quoted in ibid., 23. Originally in Marx, Grundrisse, 99. Emphasis in Marx’s original.


Two particularly pregnant examples would be Foucault's attempt to distinguish between the productive and juridical modes of power in his History of Sexuality; and Derrida's identification of 'the concept of production' as the reason for his distance from Marxism in his interview with Michael Sprinker included in The Althusserian Legacy.


I use 'alchemy' to signify the alchemist's contradictory desire to discover new technology for producing value, on the one hand, and then to restrict the dissemination of this technology on the other. To wit: if it really were possible to fashion gold from lead, than the demand for gold motivating the search for such a method would collapse with the resulting explosion in supply. Hence the alchemist wants to discover how to make gold, but maintain the scarcity that gives that discovery its value. This is the contradiction at the center of Marx's 'production of surplus value' insofar as it is the ultimate impossibility of restricting the dissemination of productive technology that leaves accumulators no choice but to exploit the sellers of labor-power in order to triumph in a competitive marketplace. Of course history unspools as a series of exceptions to this alchemical tendency intended to relocate or mitigate its destabilizing effects, much in the same way that the history of gravity is a history of exceptions to the speed of a falling object on account of the wind, or the presence of feathers, etc. etc.


The fascist Mircea Eliade's book, The Forge and the Crucible, is useful on the contradictions at work in the alchemical imagination.


Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 32, 36. I have left out Erik Olin Wright’s similar accounting in Classes (p. 9), which also privileges mode of production in the overdetermined way.


Anyone familiar with the origins of the term 'economic' in the Greek word for household, oikos, will be surprised to see it merge with 'the mode of production' a term which emerged precisely at that point when production leaves home, so to speak, as what were formerly cottage industries take up residence in the factory. Anyone familiar with the vexed history of socialist feminism in getting a hearing for these issues will perhaps be less so.


Jameson, in fairness, is representing Althusser accurately, as the latter is unable to separate Marx's notion of production - which has its origins in a struggle against the Hegelian fondness for pure spirit, on the one hand, and a second struggle, against the anarchist fascination for 'pure commercial exchange' on the other - from Althusser's own, which has its origins in the rationalist tradition of the French philosophy of science, in particular Bachelard and Canguilhem. Anti-spritualist and anti-commercialist 'production' cannot be easily reconciled with 'production' as a concept in the scientific sense that 'reflex' is a concept. The role of Hegelian-style negation in forming the former inhibits the clarity appropriate to the latter. Hence Althusser's immediate relapse, having identified the significance of production in For Marx, into a derivative, tripartite structure of economic/political/cultural more appropriate to Locke. On this last point see Kosseleck, Critique and Crisis; on Althusser's debt to Bachelard et al, see Lecourt, Marxism and Epistemology; on Marx's remaining trapped within his fight with anarchists and Hegelians, a fate with which we can all identify, see J.E. King, "Value and Exploitation: Some Recent Debates" in Classical and Marxian Political Economy: Essays in Honor of Ronald L Meek and the conclusion to Samuel Hollander's The Economics of Karl Marx


I borrow the term ‘representationalism’ from the philosophy of science. See, in particular, Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening from 1983 and more importantly its discussion in Karan Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, from 2007.


Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967), 94.


Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 16.


Stephen Greenblatt, “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), 8.


Streeck, Re-Forming Capitalism: Institutional Change in the German Political Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 230–272.


Ibid., 230. Emphasis in original.


Ibid., 232.


Typically represented by Michel Aglietta, Robert Boyer, Bob Jessob, and Alain Lipietz.


Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 85–126.


Alain Lipietz: “A regime of accumulation describes the fairly long-term stabilization of the allocation of social production between consumption and accumulation.” Mirages and Miracles: The Crises of Global Fordism, trans. David Macey (London: Verso), 1987, 20.


Castells, The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979).


Lipietz: “The set of internalized rules and social procedures which incorporate social elements into individual behavior is referred to as a mode of regulation. Thus, the dominant regime of accumulation in the OECD countries during the postwar period—an intensive regime centered upon mass consumption—has a very different mode of regulation to that operating in nineteenth-century capitalism … we now refer to it as Fordism.” Mirages and Miracles, 21.


Ibid., 19.


Wendy Brown, “At the Edge: The Future of Political Theory,” in Edgework: Critical Essays in Knowledge and Politics (New York: Princeton University Press, 2005), 68.


Fred Block, “Varieties of What? Should We Still Be Using the Concept of Capitalism?” in Political Power and Social Theory, vol. 23, ed. Julian Go (Bingley, UK: Emerald Books, 2012), 269–291.


Ibid., 278. Recall Harvey’s point about the two meanings of “production” in Marx, cited above.


Ibid., 276.


Ibid., 278.


Ibid., 280.


These four concepts come from Streeck and Kathleen Thelan, “Introduction: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies,” in Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies, eds. Wolfgang Streeck and Kathleen Thelan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1–39.


Peter A. Hall and David Soskice, Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).


Sewell, “The Temporalities of Capitalism,” Socio-Economic Review vol. 6, no. 3 (2008): 517–37.


Ibid., 535.


This term appeared no less than fourteen times in Perry Anderson’s recent article on American politics—a repetition most worthy of analysis. See Anderson, “Homeland,” New Left Review 81 (May–June 2013), 5–32


Formerly “consumption.”


I take this opportunity to thank Peter Hall, Kathleen Thelan, and Martha Rosler for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this text. None of them are in any way responsible for any errors, misrepresentations, and distortions.

Capitalism, Literature, Marxism, Economy
Class, Representation, Temporality
Return to Issue #54

Stephen Squibb is a student and a writer who divides his time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

Feel free to subscribe to additional content from the e-flux platform: