Triple C: Communication, Capitalism and Critique, the open access journal, would appear to have kick-started the 200th anniversary of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s fellow traveler in articulating the theory and practice of Socialism. It has called for abstracts from which it would select materials for a special issue on “Engels@200: Friedrich Engels in the Age of Digital Capitalism”.
But it is in its articulation of that anniversary that the signs of controversies to come can be seen. On the one hand, the Marxist humanism that the journal’s masterminds such as Westminster University’s Professor Christian Fuchs in the UK subscribes to attacks neoliberalism, postmodernism and postcolonial theory but celebrates leading lights of poststructuralism and postcolonialism such as Edward Said. It doesn’t appear Fuchs notices this contradiction as his list of heroes of the struggle for change in a July 2020 essay is an incredible ensemble.
On the other hand, it is the journal’s theme that promises to infuse the most meaning to Engels and Marxism by reading him from what is on the ground in 21st century capitalism – digital capitalism. The journal’s special edition might, therefore, emerge referential in the commemoration of Engel’s birthday, offering something close to a synthesis but only something close to a synthesis.
Looking at the anniversary from digital capitalism has potentials in reaching some consensus. Contemporary capitalism has assumed an informational character, a process in which information technology and the way they are used to mediate reality has become key to understanding what is going on. How might we then make sense of the key philosophers and theorists of Marxian Socialism by re-reading them in that light?
That should interest anyone at all, irrespective of his standpoint within Marxism although the contending readings of capitalism that have sprung up from the Marxist root can hardly find reconciliation even with the theme of digital capitalism. The post Cold War has seen an unbelievable implosion of perspectives within Marxism that it seems only practice can decide which one is closer to the ground. Since a revolution without a revolutionary theory is unthinkable, there is a problem there.
The poststructuralist/post-Marxist/postcolonial contention is where the hottest challenge to Marxist orthodoxy lies, specifically at the ontological level and at the empirical level. The game changer is Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s argument that all three main currents of philosophy in the 20th century – analytical philosophy, phenomenology, and structuralism – share a central characteristic in discourse. On that they erected the thesis that there is we do not have “non-discursively mediated access to the things themselves”. That is a way of saying that materialism upon which modernist theories such as Marxism is erected are all nonsense. That is one point to chew.
Their second main point is that contemporary societies have fragmented to a point that the singularity granted a specific class in classical Marxism doesn’t make sense anymore. Class, ethnicity, nationalism, environmentalists, gender and religion must be recognised as sites of struggle that have agenda worth supporting but are not necessarily class agenda. It is for that reason they identify the substance of Socialist politics to be radical democratic politics based on contingent interpretation of reality so rather than the singularity of any force, interest or factor.
To be found here are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri ‘s formulation of the contemporary global order in terms of “decentered and deterritorialising apparatus of rule”. They call their text on this Empire,. That is empire in a borderless sense of the world rather than in territorial and military control, the exact opposite of Leo Panitch’s own concept of Empire as he and his friend articulated it in The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. In plain English, they give overlordship of global capitalism to the American State in the context of globalisation, this time the exact opposite of what John Agnew is saying in his 2007 book, Hegemony: The New Shape of Global Power.
In other words, theorising capitalism in the 21st century has been a perfect case of different folks, different strokes. The anti-globalisation movement tended to give originality to Hardt and Negri up to a point just as the way the US (mis) managed the invasion of Iraq but the organisational problems of the anti-globalisation politics has brought about a stalemate there. Is it superior to the First International, for example? Does it have potentials which are still hidden, awaiting exploration or it has expired? These are questions to think about. In all these, Laclau and Mouffe remain unaffected both in theory and practice.
In 2018, the organisers of a Conference on Marxism posed the question why no revolution has repeated the Soviet experience? It remains an important question which was, however, not pursued. Why has all other revolutions followed different classes from the working class, including revolutions that even followed a theological pathway as in Iran. In the mid 1980s, just a few years after Laclau and Mouffe’s text, the claim was made that neither liberalism nor Marxism has been able to compete with nationalism. The deepest cut came from China which opted for ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, a major statement in specificity of meaning.
The space is no less congested when we move to the realm of what, exactly, is the problem with capitalism at this moment. Lenin located this in the monopoly stage. Monopoly has not been transcended but it has, itself, been moderated. The dynamics have changed with the onset of neoliberalism. David Harvey, the top name here says it is difficult to say how neoliberalism emerged dominant, concluding that the world actually staggered into it. He puts the trigger into neoliberalism to the petrol crisis of 1973 and the fear it sent into the minds of capitalists who began to design how to send the state packing. Well, it is not really sending it packing but instrumentalising it for a peculiar pattern of accumulation that accords with classical Marxism’s concept of primitive accumulation. Harvey’s New theory of imperialism and its key formulation of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is thus a case of updating classical Marxism in relation to where the contradiction is to be located in 21st century capitalism.
In spite of his disagreement with certain portions of ‘accumulation by dispossession’, Alex Callinicos has, however, done something interesting along that line. He speaks of a capitalist and territorial logic of power. Although he used this with particular reference to whether there would still be geopolitical competition as we know it, he ends up making a contribution to the kind of turbulence marking US-China relations today as opposed to the “imperialism without home address” that Hardt and Negri champion. The minus side of Callinicos’s argument is how he ends up saying the same thing that John Mearsheimer, a kingpin of neorealism is saying about the inevitability of a US-China clash.
The competing narratives are damned too many. The above sketch says nothing of the hard headed postcolonial voices who are largely applying post Marxist categories to the study of identity, thereby demonstrating the great relevance of poststructuralism to emancipation in the former Third World societies. In much of Africa, the heroes we celebrate – Mandela, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Tajudeen Abdulraheem, Abubakar Momoh, most of the big names in Literature and Philosophy – are postcolonial theorist. This is to the extent that they are all guided by rejection of logocentrism from which the ‘we’ versus ‘they’ binary rather than class which underpinned colonialism emanated.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, the theme of digital capitalism offers some hope in terms of a unifying narrative. As unnecessarily antagonistic to poststructuralist Marxism as Marxian humanism, there is some meeting ground in the hostility of both to neoliberalism. Here, Marxian humanism cannot do without poststructuralism which has better details of how neoliberal capitalism actually works through its stress on a concept such as governmentality. It is one thing to talk about the class character of the state but another to understand the rationalities, calculations and practices by which the state normalises and consummates power. Marxists need to know what they are confronting when they come up against the technology for biometric details, either at airports or identity management offices. Governing through disciplining, control and circulation is how neoliberalism is operationalised, meaning there is more than class in state power in terms of technology of panoptic power. Same goes for mediated warfare, virtuality in security practices, visuality in global politics and a whole lot of how neoliberalism in the sense analysed by Foucault, for instance, woks. Shouting class, revolution, Marx, Lenin and Castro cannot help radical democratic politics in the era of neoliberalism without understanding how it works. It leads to civil society errors of campaigning against hate speech, for instance, only to turn around sooner than later to campaign against social media bills that capitalises on such campaigns to strenghten the hands of the state in controlling the populace.
There is thus something evocative about the graffiti on the walls at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where Engel’s centenary held between August 5th and 8th, 1995. The graffiti which attracted attention was that which said: The father of Socialism. He died living (sic) no property behind except Dr. Raufu Mustapha, T. Abubakar, Bonat and Bashir Kurfi”.
Of course, the student got so much mixed up. He didn’t get his list right anyway. But it was an interesting graffiti if read as an early warning of what was about befalling Marxism-Leninism, both as an academic thing and as a guide for political action. A tradition that has been very rich and productive also descended into incoherence along with the society. And this to a point that “revolutions” are proclaimed on twitter and online platforms, fizzling away as soon as proclaimed.
Back to the key items that Triple C is itemizing for paper contributors for the special issue it is planning for the commemorative activities. (https://triple-c.at/public/site/images/Engels%40200_CfP.pdf
November 28, 2020, marks the 200th birthday of Friedrich Engels. The
journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critque
(http://www.triple-c.at) celebrates Engels’ birthday with a special
issue, in which critical theorists reflect on the relevance of Engels’
works for the analysis of digital and communicative capitalism.
The special issue’s contributions shall provide perspectives that
address the question: How do Friedrich Engels’ works matter for the
critical analysis of digital and communicative capitalism?
Contributions focus on single or several of Friedrich Engels’ works.
Example questions that can, based on Engels, be treated in contributions
include but are not limited to:
– How do the digital conditions of the working class look like today?
– What are digital working class struggles and how do they operate?
– What is the role of reproductive labour, including digital housework
and digital housewifisation, in digital capitalism?
– What are Engels’ contributions to a Marxist-humanist critique of
– What is digital scientific socialism?
– How can we make sense of digital utopias today?
The contributions in this special issue will shed light on the relevance
of Engels today for the critique of the political economy of
communication and digital media, critical digital research, and critical
media and communication studies.
Deadline for abstract submission: August 7, 2020
250 words, per e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, please include a
submission/article title, your name and contact, a 100-word short bio,
and an abstract of 250 words and send the submission in a Word- or
Acceptance decisions: until August 31, 2020
Submission of full reflection articles (maximum of 8,000 words,
including all references, footnotes and tables): October 12, 2020
Online publication of the special issue: November 28, 2020 (= Friedrich
Engels’ 200th birthday).
Engels’ original works plus:
Paul Blackledge. 2019. Friedrich Engels and Modern Social and Political
Theory. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Gustav Mayer. 1935. Friedrich Engels. A Biography. London: Chapman & Hall.
Mary Evans and Nanneke Redclift, eds. 1987. Engels
Revisited. New Feminist Essays, eds. 37-56. London: Tavistock.
Christopher J. Arthur, ed. 1996. Engels Today. A Centenary Appreciation.