So, to restate the question: is Shlomo Avineri’s new book titled Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution about closing or creating gaps in Marxism? What does the book bring to the table regarding resolving the confusions in the world today, the world arguably of Digital Capitalism, its promises and its problems?
Marxism is under pressure today more than any other time in human history. Marxism under pressure is revolution under pressure because to talk of one without the other is to advertise quackry. The positivist reasoning that informed Marx’s dichotomy between philosophers interpreting the world and practitioners changing it is now a dead logic. Interpretation itself is the revolution because speaking is doing, especially in situations of unequal power relations. So, the first pressure on Marxism is the dynamism of capitalism to the point that it has eluded conceptual capture for nearly a decade now. It certainly is no longer industrial capitalism under which exploitation as a warrant for revolutionary resolution could be said to be self-evident.
After the upheavals of 2008, those who thought that calling it financial capitalism would provide the conceptual way- in were already behind time. By early 2011 when the difficult conversation between Obama and the late Steve Jobs took place at the annual get together at the Silicon Valley, the United State no longer understood what was happening. A crude recollection of that conversation as reported in The New York Times was: Obama was asking Jobs and the leading capitalists there to bring the jobs back from China. All those who read that report would find the newspaper’s table of job loses in leading US multinational companies. A year later, a more systematic report put the total job loses at 27, 000. Yet, Steve Jobs was telling Obama that it would amount to charity for big companies to bring back the jobs from China because they were not running charities. The US, said Jobs, was not profit friendly for the kind of thing Obama was pushing. In 2008, the American State had spent billions bailing out giant corporations with tax payers’ money. A recent academic paper spoke of how protesters under the “Occupy Movement” who were railing at the big guys in Wall Street found that they were wasting their time. Capitalism had slipped the barricades and relocated. The Wall Street guys were no longer in charge. The emergent monopolies – Google, Facebook and the big data engines had taken over.
What name might we call capitalism with these sorts of features? It has been a long battle. There are many voices in the wilderness but the loudest currently is, unarguably, the theorists of Digital Capitalism. The power of their reading of the world in terms of informationalization of capitalism suggests tomorrow could be theirs vis-à-vis the challenge of formulating transformative paradigms, especially in societies that have not industrialized. Although Digital Capitalism proves Marx’s contention that capitalism and crisis go together, Digital Capitalism, however, poses a complicated challenge. The challenge lies in how Digital Capitalism makes everyone else an unpaid worker –anyone else who uses social media platforms and from whom these platforms track the data which it converts as products that are so attractive and helpful that a ‘workers’ protest against Facebook or Google is most unlikely as would have been the case against Coca-Cola or General Electric under industrial capitalism.
Two, it hides the rawness of capitalism because nearly everything is virtual and huge transfers can be made without anyone actually seeing anything. Thirdly, although most powerful states are fighting hegemonic Digital Capitalist forces over the huge data these companies have amassed, Digital Capitalism is the greatest facilitator of state power in exactly the way the Foucauldians have analysed in biopolitics. Prof James Der Derian’s concept of Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Complex, (MIMEC) captures this transformation best. Under Digital Capitalism, war too has become virtual and virtuous ever since the first Gulf War. Digital technology has made topological warfare possible and it won’t take long before the human agency is near completely removed from the conduct of wars. So, Digital capitalism does not only enhance the panoptic/surveillance capability of state power, it has made war into an entertainment as is what critical geopolitics students call ‘CNN Wars’. People now watch violence without feeling guilty, without that empathy for the victims of hellfire. The guy on the console of the computer manipulating a dronecraft to release hellfire thousands of miles away has no idea where on earth the spot the violence from air is landing. He or she is just a technician. They call it ‘joystick’ war.
One ideological problem of contemporary global capitalism is how a voice such as Michel Foucault is stronger than that of Marx in unpacking the dynamics. Marx couldn’t have gone into it at the time he was writing but Foucault could because he was writing only recently. Although Foucault was also a Marxist, he brought in new categories that did not accept the Cartesian, dualistic lens, making his methodology the exact opposite of Marx’s materialist analysis. So, apart from the Digital character of contemporary capitalism, there is fragmentation in social theory in terms of what is and how what is might be best apprehended, politically. Tactics for unmaking Digital Capitalism is very much a work-in-progress. Almost all popular uprisings since the end of the Cold War have not produced much in favour of a workers’ state in the classical sense. The assumption is that if the First World War produced the Soviet Revolution and the Second World War produced the Chinese Revolution and the Cold War the Cuban Revolution, then the Global War on Terror, (GWOT) may likely produce a revolution. But what is the guarantee that there would be any such revolution or what notion of capitalism it would be directed against.
Post-Marxist scholars, (not a title they accept anyway) have provided the closest response to the ‘how to’ challenge. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s text still the closest to such a stuff, a text by radicals in their own right. They have been well read but more by revolutionaries under siege across the world than by revolutionaries more comfortable with regurgitating ossified Marxism-Leninism in spite of how determinism and nothing but determinism scattered the Soviet Union. Thanks to Providence, the Chinese communists learnt a lot from a critical review of the Soviet catastrophe and they are the better for it. Reflexivity has saved Chinese Communism from the contradictions of ossified and unthinking Marxism. The venerable Chatham House just published a comment in which the writer was wondering if the Chinese style One-Party State is not even where the world is heading. Uhmmm!
Apart from the Chinese, the Latin Americans have fought brave wars. It was from here that a president who spent his first day in office reading the neoliberal privatisation documents came out to tell everyone that he had just understood what neoliberalism meant. No such thing has come out from Africa. Nigeria which is huge enough to provide leadership for the continent has been on a steady decline. And the decline is not only at the level of leadership, it also manifests in a tendency to talk about revolution as if the country is a box, sealed from the rest of the world. It is such that even when the Nigerian Constitution has categorically proclaimed the National Democratic Revolution, (NDR) that a whole generation of Nigerians steeped itself intellectually, ideologically and politically fighting for and paying a heavy price under military rule, there is not the imaginative sense of revolution to take Chapter Two to a logical conclusion. And every regime since 1999, including the current regime which mouths ‘change’ all over the place is privatising the railway and electricity that Lenin identify as definitive of Socialism. Perhaps, those who say that there is struggle for ‘True Federalism’ but not Socialism in Nigeria might be right. Too bad!