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Marxing Read Ontologically? Jason Read’s Autonomist Post-Structuralism

Anonymous Comrade writes:

"‘Marxing Read Ontologically?’
Jason Read’s Autonomist Post-Structuralism"

[Reviewing Jason Read, The Micro-politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (State University of New York Press, 2003), and retrospectively of Jean Baudrillard, Le Miroir de la Production: ou l’illusion critique du matérialisme historique (Editions Galilée 1975).]

A l’instar de la valeur d’échange et de la marchandise, selon Marx, les formes abstraites apparaissent à travers des choses, comme propriétés des choses, en un mot naturalité. La forme sociale et la forme mentale semblent données dans un « monde ». — Henri Lefebvre, La Vie Quotidienne Dans La Monde Moderne

Quite at the beginning of his writing life, Jean Baudrillard has observed that a certain type of Marxist can only see the world of capital as a multiplication of self-moving social forms. This type of Marxism (which used to be more widespread than it is today), by grace of its limitations, is caught in these forms, rather than hacking a theoretical path through the jungle, following the lead of actual struggles.

In order to grasp the ontology of capital’s forms, i.e. their social being, Marx himself argued we have to descend into what he called the ‘hidden abode’ of production, and into (as Italian feminists have added) the ‘arcane’ of reproduction of labour power. Descending willfully down all these rickety staircases and ladders, sweeping away the dust and cobwebs of years, we find ourselves knocking on a door strangely well-oiled, to encounter an old figure: the worker, left in a place that remains even after history has "ended" — the workplace.In the case of Jason Read, we think, this workplace is a university office: probably small but not unpleasant, with a coffee machine and a fine bookshelf. Jason Read has just written The Micropolitics of Capital: Marx and the Pre-history of the Present, an impressive little book on a heavy topic. He must be rather satisfied.

Because Read has only just started, we’re setting the stage — in this review — for a competition between him and Jean Baudrillard, something akin to a boxing match or running contest. Why? Well, both of them do intellectual work for a living, which, like all sorts of work, gets tiring, boring or stressful after a while. And both the youthful Mr. Read in his Micropolitics of Capital (2003) and the aging French theorist (in Le Miroir de la Production, published 29 years ago) are attempting to outrun a certain type of Marxism by actually reading what the nineteenth-century thinker wrote.

The specific problems both theorists address, and the passages from Marx used to explore these problems, are similar: the double-sided character of labour in capitalism, the remarks on pre-capitalist formations in the Grundrisse and so on. (In Read, the so-called ‘Unpublished 6th Chapter’ of Capital, and in Baudrillard the "Marginal Notes on Wagner", and in both a discussion of primitive accumulation.)

Both use these parts of Marx’s writing in order to argue for a reading posited explicitly against stale interpretations; for a theoretization which deals passionately and decisively with these fossilised forms. In this sense, both are marxists "in a certain spirit of Marx" as Derrida would say: without the capitalized M, but with all the C-M-C’ stuff and the circuitary, spiralling and elusive character of capital in mind.

Yet, at the same time, both Read and Baudrillard refuse the label of "Marxist". If we desired to put a label on the theoretical results of their work, rather than examine the critical impulse of their living labour, we could draw an "epistemological" demarcation line between them and their subject. This would satisfy competing academic camps: the authors under discussion are "post-modernists" whereas K. Marx (1818-1883) was the official founder of "historical materialism", etc. We would be caught in the same dead end: the Trotskyists would keep "defending Marxism" rather than developing it, and everyone else equally justified in ignoring their mutterings. With Baudrillard and Read we are in better company, because both are endowed with a healthy distaste for theory that considers itself official, and with a mind to lucidly chasing the more fluid forms to theorize sociality and its transformations. This search for fluid forms takes a different shape in Baudrillard’s and Jason Read’s book.

If we read Baudrillards’ 1975 pamphlet today, it transpires that he was still fighting against the one-directional teleology of Stalinist phase-theory, against quasi-anthropological justifications of labour-defining-man, and so on. Jason Read, on the other hand, has shifted the terrain of struggle to theorise, with ample sophistication, the present situation against the background of its capitalist ‘pre-history’. The tools Baudrillard uses to escape the quagmire are at the same time similar to Read’s.

Perhaps the best illustration of the similarities of Miroir and Micropolitics is Baudrillard’s gleeful "détournement" of what Marx had said about the "critique of religion". Baudrillard claimed that the "critique of political economy" in the proper sense of the word was "terminated in substance". In the same state of mind, Jason Read argues that what needs theorising is not simply the production of capitalist social forms (like that which Marx accomplished during his life), but more specifically the forms of their reproduction, and notably their occasional non-reproduction.

The crowbar Read uses to accomplish this hacking of the Marxist superstructure is the concept of "subjectivity", or the "production of subjectivity". Read’s attempt to theorize the "contradictory tendencies of the present conjuncture" occurs here in the awareness of its extremely fluid constitution; we are dealing with a very Hegelian proposition, in short. Jason Read also affirms Michel Foucault’s admonishment that what is needed, in fact, is "a critical ontology of ourselves".

It may strike one as peculiar that Jason Read takes titles for chapters from Friedrich Nietzsche ("The Use and Disadvantage of Prehistory to Life"), but that he does not mention Nietzsche a single time in Micro-politics — even though the book is essentially a discourse about Marx, Foucault and Deleuze/Guattari, i.e. about the nexus of materialism and post-structuralism. Also, while the axis Nietzsche–Bataille may be seen as leading to the post-WWII French school of postmodernism, and Henri Lefebvre may be considered a Marxist contributor to its themes, none of these thinkers appear in Read’s exposé.

My simple guess is that the absence of all these thinkers is intentional, methodological, or in some other way a result of the extremely rigorous demarcation of the theoretical inquiry. Jason Read performs what appears as a strange "genealogy" of poststructuralism: starting from the writings of Marx, seeking out threads of ontological/philosophical inquiry in that body of work, and delving into phrases and sentences trying to extract what is fluid. At the end of these threads, he does not end up in the middle of poststructuralism as an academic body of texts, but in a space defined by the cooperative subjectivity of living labour — the materiality of the present.

Marx, in Read, is not read as a fixed point in the history of ideas, but as a critical investigation at a certain point of development of capitalist forms, and an attempt to uncover their antagonistic essence (which, by the way, is not "the factory," but abstract labor as the substance of value). This abstract, ontological essence is subtracted from its nineteenth-century setting, and traced along the actual social development of capital, up to its present phase of (as Read has it) the "real subsumption of subjective activity". Read traces these ontological strands ("living labour", "real subsumtion", etc.) up to the theoretical emergence of poststructuralism; not surprisingly perhaps, the current informing Read’s reading of Marx is that of the Italian operaismo, of Tronti, Negri, Lazzarato, etc., which could be called the "living-labour/antagonism" school of Marxian theory.

To the autonomists as much as to Read and Baudrillard, the concept of "labour" must be theorized as the peculiar, two-sided phenomenon that it is, namely: as simultaneously abstract expenditure of time and energy and concrete, purposive activity. If we take the Bataillean lineage of poststructuralism, we may add "labour" as unproductive expenditure.

Read does a similar thing by expanding the notion of production to subjectivity. The determinist notion that social individuals, and society itself must be "productive," that society must "work" rather than simply reproduce itself in a range of pleasant forms, seems to be a constituent element of today’s radical theory. Once again, we are said to be living in the conjuncture of a materialized Grundrisse, in a flux of activity and subjectivity rather than in the impenetrable self-sufficient architecture of Capital.

So both, in fact, are in debt to the anti-historical posture, to the romantic desire to live in an anti-linear mode of permanent, collective self-recreation rather than enclosed in the mental forms of capital’s perpetual reproduction. This attitude in itself allows every type of tangential escape, self-valorization, expenditure and irreverence, and is matched in Read and Baudrillard by the other awareness: that of the persistent actuality of capital.

Read and Baudrillard both affirm this actuality of abstraction, of capital imposing its forms on the living, something that Nietzsche’s philosophy was aristocratic enough to abstract from. Both critics disagree with the determinism of the present-by-the-past that some Marxisms imply (the supposedly linear development of "forces of production"), as much as they affirm the possible (and actual) creation of the future in the present, the rupture with the past as the condition for something else.

If we were to take our wisdom from the American phrase that "history is bunk," we would have to add immediately: as long as we haven’t escaped it yet, we still have to live in cities of bunk, reproducing ourselves as bunk, and writing books to survive.

A concluding question: does it still involve the workplace, or does it encompass the entire social terrain? We would say that it does.