Marx’s “Dangerous Classes”

Most Marxists know that Marx infamously dismisses the lumpenproletariat — those band of “vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes,” “the demoralised, the ragged,” swindlers and tricksters, ragpickers and pickpockets, tinkers and beggars (all Marx’s words). These ruffians, he says, “dwelling in the sphere of pauperism,” are nothing but “the deadweight of the industrial reserve army,” trapped in the Lazarus layers of society and generally not, nor ever likely to be, a progressive political force.

In Capital, Marx’s bad faith in the lumpenproletariat only redoubles what he’d said some fifteen years earlier. In Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, he’d written about the rise of Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire, and how a lumpenproletariat had helped crush the June 1848 workers’ insurrection in Paris. Without this lumpenproletariat, Marx insists, there wouldn’t have been any coup d’état, nor any Louis Bonaparte. The latter’s banditry were recruited from the most desperate lumpen elements, bought off (for 1 franc 50 centimes a day) to do the bourgeoisie’s dirty work. Thus Louis Bonaparte shines as “the chief of this lumpenproletariat,” Marx jokes, as its reactionary embodiment assuming the mantle of power.

Louis Bonaparte deployed a time-served tactic that sought the only way out of the crisis: “to play one part of the proletariat against the other.” “For this purpose,” Marx says, “the Provisional Government formed 24 battalions of Mobile Guards, each a thousand strong, composed of young men, from 15 to 20 years. They belonged for the most part to the lumpenproletariat, which in all big towns forms a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat, a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, people without hearth or furniture, unapologetically with no fixed address.”

Doubtless few smart people these days would deny the dubious leanings of the lumpenproletariat, especially if we consider the rabble heartlands of Donald Trump, and the most gung-ho Brexiteers. But perhaps Marx never recognised the logic of his own analysis? Failing revolution, what’s to stop this relative surplus population from relentlessly expanding its ranks? What’s to prevent those Lazarus layers from becoming a global norm, outnumbering fully paid up members of a rank-and-file proletariat?

To diss all lumpenproletariat as backward is, then, to diss a large whack of the global working class. What’s more, if the lumpenproletariat could be once bought off to fight for the bourgeoisie, why can’t it be encouraged to shift its allegiances, and come over to fight for the other side? Why should the lumpenproletariat necessarily and always be a reactionary force? It’s evident that this mass of humanity, when given the right nudge, has periodically awoken from its slumbers.

Another significant aspect of the lumpenproletariat is that it has no aspirations of being bourgeois. It isn’t interested in bourgeois respectability, in its rewards and trappings, in becoming upwardly mobile, ascending into the upper classes. The lumpenproletariat is relatively immune from the bourgeois’s commercial grasp, its advertising, its gloss and market ideology, even its dominate ideology. So, although the lumpenproletariat has sometimes been bought off, it certainly hasn’t bought into the capitalist system. This, if nothing else, ensures that its potential radicality is always there, waiting in the wings.

The ballast of the deadweight has shifted. The lumpenproletariat has become a decommissioned reserve army of labour that nowadays maybe outweighs the active reserve army of labour. As such, it’s a mistake, and this is perhaps Marx’s mistake, to see the lumpenproletariat as a bastard ward of labour. Perhaps a rethink is in order. Maybe we need to reconsider the lumpenproletariat less scathingly, explore it more speculatively, project what it might be capable of—if ever it came together as a collectivity of desperate and deprived people, of poor working class people. The threat of its latent potentiality is enough to send a frisson through the progressive senses: a spectre haunting the reactionary landscape, the popular masses united, actively rejecting populism!

It’s curious how some translations of Capital Volume One don’t actually employ the term lumpenproletariat. Samuel Moore’s and Edward Aveling’s first English edition, for instance, achieved in 1887, opts instead for “dangerous classes.” Lumpenproletariat doesn’t appear anywhere in Moore’s and Aveling’s efforts, supervised by Engels. [1] I’ve always wondered why their translation, which International Publishers reissued in New York in 1967, at Volume One’s centenary, differed from Penguin’s 1976 edition (and Vintage’s 1977), translated by Ben Fowkes?

That latter translation was carried out in conjunction with New Left Review, a major theoretical mouthpiece of international Marxism since 1960; its editorial committee is predominantly Trotskyist; and the most seasoned of Fourth International Trotskyists, Ernest Mandel, wrote a long introduction to the text. Whether Trotsky’s stamp, another intellectual who scoffed at the lumpenproletariat, had any subtle bearing on the translation; or, conversely, whether Moore’s and Aveling’s reveal their own secret yearning for a class becoming dangerous, is anybody’s guess.

In saying this, we should probably also give a nod to Bakunin, Marx’s great leftist rival. Bakunin sat on the other side of the fence in the First International, championing its anarchist wing. He waxed lyrical about “the flower of the proletariat,” which, he said, “doesn’t mean, as it does to the Marxians, the upper layer, the most civilised and comfortably off in the working world, that layer of semi-bourgeois workers… By the flower of the proletariat I mean, above all, those millions of non-civilised, disinherited, wretched and illiterates… that great rabble of the people ordinarily designated by Messrs. Marx and Engels by the phrase at once picturesque and contemptuous of ‘lumpenproletariat’.”

For Bakunin, “that rabble which, being very nearly unpolluted by all bourgeois civilisation, carries in its heart, in its aspirations, in all necessities and the miseries of its collective position, all the germs of the Socialism of the future.” Bakunin is as glowing of the lumpenproletariat as Marx is as damning. But I’m wondering whether their black or white positioning might be better tempered by a dialectical shade of grey, by some critical positioning within each man’s camp?

The first twentieth century scholar to raise the lumpenproletariat out the mire, and critically affirm it as a “dangerous class,” came from beyond the white European world: Frantz Fanon, a physician and psychiatrist from Martinique. His opus The Wretched of the Earth (1961) highlights the role of a black lumpenproletariat in the anti-colonial struggles sweeping across Africa during the 1950s. “It is within this mass of humanity,” writes Fanon, “this people of the shantytowns, at the core of the lumpenproletariat, that the rebellion will find its urban spearhead. For the lumpenproletariat, that horde of starving men, uprooted from their tribe and from their clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary force of a colonised people.” “Like a pack of rats, you may kick them and throw stones at them, but despite your efforts they’ll go on gnawing at the roots of the tree.”

Fanon says revolutionary groups and progressive political parties need to find a space for the lumpenproletariat to manoeuvre. This is his crucial point. Any struggle for liberty and justice, he says, ought to give its fullest attention to this lumpenproletariat. Or else. Or else what? Or else oppressors and demagogues won’t lose the chance to pit the poor against the poor. It was Marx’s fear, too, as we’ve seen. Oppressors and demagogues are “extremely skilful,” Fanon says, “in using ignorance and incomprehension which are weaknesses of the lumpenproletariat.”

“If this available reserve of human effort isn’t immediately organised by the forces of rebellion,” he warns, “it will find itself fighting as hired soldiers side by side with the colonial troops.” Colonised peoples have to fight for their freedom, with force, if necessary, with violence, through open armed open struggle. Faced with an aggressor, the lumpenproletariat has to grasp its own spirit of spontaneous revolt. “The colonial man,” says Fanon, “finds his freedom in and through violence.” Yet this violence must be “proportionate to the violence exercised by the threatening colonial regimes.”

In the decades since Fanon’s death, the wretched on the earth are still amongst us. The dialectic of coloniser and colonised hasn’t gone away. Its spots have changed; its nature has changed. It is closer to the core now, within core nations, an internal neo-colony, on the urban periphery, out on the coloniser’s banlieue. Colonised peoples are still marginalised peoples. Their freedom of subjectivity continues to be denied. They still lack dignity, suffer daily humiliations, endure all the privations and exploitations that Fanon described. Indeed, one of the keywords in The Wretched of the Earth persists to this day: lack—“sans,” in Fanon’s French. Everywhere we find people lacking: without housing (sans domicile), without homeland (sans patrie), without territory (sans territoire), without work (sans travail), without official identity cards (sans papiers), and ultimately without rights (sans droits).

Fanon’s death was untimely. He passed away a month after Les damnés de la terre first appeared in Paris, dying of leukaemia in a clinic near Washington D.C., aged thirty six. He never saw his great book in print. But its message soon became the message, soul food for another sort of anti-colonial battle, one raging in the American inner city. By the mid-1960s, the Black Panthers had reincarnated Fanon as their patron saint, as their main man, in their fight against racist oppression and economic exploitation.

In Seize the Time, one of the Panther’s founders, Bobby Seale, recounts calling on another founder, Huey Newton, with a copy of Fanon’s book under his arm. “Hey, man, have you read this thing?” he asks Newton. “Huey was laying up in bed, thinking, plotting on the man.” No, he said, he hadn’t. Soon “the brother got into reading Fanon,” Seale said, “and, man, let me tell you, when Huey got hold of Fanon…[he’d] explain it in depth.” Newton understood what Fanon meant about organising the lumpenproletariat—“if the organisation didn’t give a base for organising the brother who’s pimping, the brother who’s hustling, the unemployed, the downtrodden, the brother who’s robbing banks, who’s not politically conscious, that if you didn’t relate to these cats, the power structure would organise these cats against you.”

Another Panther to get Fanon was Eldridge Cleaver. He was just out of prison, on parole, wore a leather jacket and a beret. On the inside, he’d read The Communist Manifesto and written letters about about his incarceration, about a life of petty crime and the reality of the colonised “black soul.” The free-wheeling counter-cultural magazine Ramparts published extracts of these letters. (They’d later become the basis for Cleaver’s memoir Soul on Ice.) In Cleaver, Seale saw another Malcolm X. The dude could write, could rap, and he came from the lumpen. Immediately, Cleaver became the Panther’s “Minister of Information.” The real work for the Party, he suggested, was “organising the brothers on the block.”

A vital organ was a newspaper. In 1967, The Black Panther was launched, beginning as a 4-page newsletter, run off in Oakland; but, by the late 1960s, at 25c per issue, The Black Panther became a fully-blown weekly newspaper, one of the nation’s highest circulating underground papers—selling 125,000 copies per week between 1968-1971. The Black Panther relayed information about the Party’s activities, about its ideology, about other national and international black struggles. The newspaper offered a “serve the people” programme, connecting local needs with larger radical issues, across the U.S. and the imperialist globe. Ex-cons, without jobs, who’d barely finished high school, who’d never written a line, were working at the newspaper, learning new skills while becoming politically organised and conscious.

In The Black Panther, Cleaver published his classic essay, “On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party.” There, he points the finger at the labour unions and the Democratic Party, and at the “Marxist-Leninists.” Cleaver reckons the working class is “the rightwing of the proletariat, and the lumpenproletariat is the leftwing.” “O.K. We’re the lumpen,” he says. “Right on. The lumpenproletariat are all those who have no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of capitalist society… who have never worked and never will.” We’re the “criminal element,” too, he says, “those who live by their wits, those who don’t even want a job, who hate to work and can’t relate to punching some pig’s time clock, who would rather punch a pig in the mouth and rob him than work for him.” “But even though we are lumpen,” Cleaver says, “we are still members of the Proletariat, a category that theoretically cuts across national boundaries.”

So, “WHO SPEAKS FOR THE LUMPENPROLETARIAT?,” wonders Cleaver, in a question still requiring a hard answer. The lumpen finds itself in a peculiar predicament with respect to the working working class. It’s been locked out of the economy, sometimes locked itself out. It doesn’t engage in direct action against the system of oppression; doesn’t focus rebellion on the picket line; can’t call a strike against the factory bosses. The lumpen can’t manifest its complaints through any labour union. “It’s forced to create its own forms of rebellion,” Cleaver says, “which are consistent with its condition in life.” The lumpen is left with little choice “but to manifest its rebellion in the University of the Streets.”

“Streets belong to the lumpen,” Cleaver says, “and it is in the streets that the lumpen will make their rebellion.” This militant reasoning “is often greeted by hoots and howls from the spokesmen of the working class in chorus with the mouthpieces of the bourgeoisie. These talkers like to put down struggles of the lumpen as being ‘spontaneous’, ‘unorganised,’ and ‘chaotic and undirected’. But the lumpen moves anyway, refusing to be straightjacketed or controlled.”

Spontaneity always expresses itself in the street. The street is the last bastion of society that hasn’t been entirely dominated by bourgeois institutions. (It’s crucial it stays that way.) Institutions fear the street, try to cordon off streets, repress street spontaneity. They want to decant street people from the street, patrol and police the street, quell the apparent disorder of the street, reaffirm order in the name of the law. We know enough from past street revolts involving lumpenproletariat that streets fill the void left by institutions; they let the voice of the voiceless make itself heard.

That voice can’t make itself voluble anyplace else. Sometimes mass violence in the street is unavoidable, even justifiable: it reveals the glaring lag between “the people” and degenerate social institutions, including out-of-touch politicians. We might think of the black lumpen revolts of 1965, in Watts, and 1967, in Detroit; or indeed across the U.S. and the world throughout 1968; even in 1992, in Los Angeles, with the so-called “Rodney King” uprising; and then we’ve had assorted “riots” in Britain, in 1981, in Liverpool (Toxteth) and London (Brixton), as well as in 2011, when widespread looting and arson ignited many cities; meantime, in 2005, the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois revolted. And the recent gilets jaunes violence attests to masses of peripheral people demanding their core rights on the streets.

There’s a deep history of ruling classes fearing the dangerous classes, fearing them in the street, fearing their neighbourhoods, stigmatising their neighbourhoods. The French historian Louis Chevalier long ago showed how dangerous class criminality was often simply a strategy to survive an urban environment where the odds were stacked against poor people. Chevalier’s laboratory was Paris; and in Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes (1958), he concentrates on the first half of the nineteenth century, when the criminal activity of the Parisian dangerous classes set a capitalist precedent: it became the most normal aspect of urbanising everyday life.

Chevalier was a historian who’d weened himself off statistical facts gleaned from official archives. He favoured instead the rich descriptions of the great nineteenth century novelists, particularly Balzac, Chevalier’s hero, whose epic Comédie humaine (comprising some 91 novels) represented a vast document of social realism, a tremendous historical resource to be tapped. Balzac’s novels, Chevalier said, sharply define the link between the dangerous classes and the upper classes, with the “honest” labouring classes wedged somewhere in between. Balzac remained a long-life Royalist yet hated an ascendant bourgeoisie with such spleen that he frequently threw in his lot with the lower classes, whom he lived amongst and wrote about with considerable compassion and sympathy.

The backdrop of Balzac’s creative universe was the collapse of the Ancien Régime (which he lamented) and the massive demographic and economic changes the French capital was undergoing from the 1830s onwards. “This unbalanced development of resources and population,” Chevalier said, meant “crime was now an aspect of poverty.” Chevalier, like Balzac, deigns here to Thomas Malthus and the English parson’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which Marx pilloried in Capital. (“The great sensation this pamphlet caused,” Marx had said, “was due solely to the fact that it corresponded to the interests of a particular party.”)

Malthusian ideas were much in vogue then; and the claim that lower class population growth was rapidly outrunning available resources was heartily cheered by a gallic gentry across the Channel. Balzac seems to have swallowed Malthusian thought wholesale, without really thinking about it, without really considering its reactionary implications. From the Malthusian standpoint, the rise of the dangerous classes was directly correlated to a depletion of economic resources; there are just too damn many of the buggers, breeding like rabbits, swelling their ranks through an “absolute” law of population the likes of which Marx decried in “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”; there, he’d said, the creation of wealth progressively produces a relative surplus population. Nothing absolute about it.

The Malthusians were dead against social welfare: it would mean the poor would only reproduce even more numerously. The fertility of dangerous classes had to be curbed; beggars should either be sent to the workhouse or kicked out of town. Malthus himself was merciless in denying relief to the poor, instrumental in helping pass the Amendment Act of 1834 Poor Law, revising existing legislation. He said it had been too easy for the poor to receive aid and they were abusing the old system. Kicking them off welfare was in their best interests; it’d force the lazy blighters to find honest graft, spend less time fucking about. It was a precursor of classic conservative pretzel logic that prevails to this day. [2]

In Balzac’s Paris, proletarians were dangerous because of their desperate situation on the margins of an urban life in transition. Bourgeois capitalism and its factory system was upsizing the city while downsizing the petty-bourgeois artisan, converting the latter into a mere deskilled wage-labourer. And technological change would soon see off the factory-hand, chase them onto the streets where the “hospital” (Marx’s label) of pauperism awaited them. Like everything else under capitalism, pauperism is actively “produced”: “its production,” says Marx, “is included in that of the relative surplus population, its necessity is implied by their necessity; along with the surplus population, pauperism forms a condition of capitalist production, and of the capitalist development of wealth.”

Marx was an admirer of Balzac; allusions to the Frenchmen’s writings are scattered throughout Marx’s works. He was even reputed to be planning a monograph devoted to creator of La Comédie humaine; alas, he never realised it. Engels was another fan, once remarking in a letter (to the radical journalist Margaret Harkness) that “one of the greatest features in old Balzac” is his “Social Realism.” “His satire is never keener,” Engels added, “his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply—the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry, the men, who at that time (1830-6) were indeed the representatives of the popular masses.”

It’s all the more surprising, then, why Marx and Engels should home in exclusively on Balzac’s top-down perspective, on his excoriations of “the nobles.” Why overlook that other aspect of his social realism: its bottom-up picaresque evocations of the dangerous classes? Marx and Engels make short shrift of Balzac’s explorations of their habits and hopes, of their shiftless cacophonous world, which he depicts with both charm and menace. They seem content to have Balzac take apart the elite guys, without seeing how some of his most fascinating and intriguing characters are poor guys, hailing from the lowest depths of the popular masses.

Take the criminal genius Jacques Collin (aka Vautrin, aka the Spanish priest Abbé Carlos Herrera). Collin was a master of disguise and dissimulation, Balzac says, a dab hand at ruse and seduction. In his assorted guises, he haunts the whole of Balzac’s oeuvre, quite literally haunts it, epitomising how the shadowy dangerous classes could unnerve the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois society had helped create this species; but its very being, its very underground existence, its dark satanic reputation, became a constant source of terror for ruling classes.

Balzac was quietly protective of Jacques Collin, could never quite bring himself round to kill off his criminal hero. At the end of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (cf. “The Last Incarnation of Vautrin”), Balzac has Collin negotiate his own release from Paris’s Conciergerie prison, afterwards hanging up his swag bag and “retiring in 1845 or thereabouts.” Collin’s nickname was “Trompe-la-Mort”—“Dodgedeath”—because of his uncanny knack of escaping incarceration, his hair’s-breath avoidance of the gallows. Collin belonged to a highly organised secret criminal association that seemed to mesmerise Balzac: la haute-pègre—the high underworld (the swell mob in some English translations)—a diverse network of malefactors in which the lowest of the low seemed to attain the highest of the high; Jacques Collin reigned as its king and mastermind, as its ringleader and royalty.

The high underworld had its own argot and secret language, its own passwords and codes of behaviour, its own cells and organisations within organisations, operating in a subterranean hide-out of dives and inns, of curtained backrooms and seedy bordels. Members of the haute-pègre considered themselves above the law, taking a pride in flouting the law, living by their own laws. In Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Balzac says “these dukes and peers of the underworld had founded, between 1815 and 1819, the famous society of the ‘Dix-Mille’, so-called from the agreement by virtue of which none of them undertook an operation in which the loot was less than ten thousand francs.” The haute-pègre existed as an underground republic, as a shadow democracy, which, Balzac claims, “presents in the social scene a reflection of those illustrious highwaymen whose courage, character, exploits and eminent qualities will always be admired.” [3]

Louis Chevalier produced two other works on the dangerous classes: Montmartre du plaisir et du crime (1980), on Paris’s famous northern bohemian quartier in the first half the twentieth century, with its artists, low-lifers and mauvais garçons; and another, The Assassination of Paris, three years earlier, devoted to a different sort of criminal dangerous class. This time the perpetrators were more dangerous than ever before, principally because they came from the “respectable” high-life and wore suits and ties: the polytechniciens—the elite bureaucrats educated at France’s grandes écoles—who’d systematically orchestrated the deadly coup de grâce.

This dangerous dangerous class has instigated a greedy feast—a Grande Bouffe—of rape and pillage; technocrats, in cahoots with a new breed of neoliberal business executives, more brazenly entrepreneurial than their forebears, frequently schooled in the U.S., had reorganised Parisian space, done it rationally and profitably in their own crass class image. The wrecker’s ball had torn into medieval neighbourhoods, emptying them of their popular life, built superhighways along the Seine, ripped out old market halls. “Paris is now a closed universe,” Chevalier said, “disinfected, deodorised, devoid of the unexpected, without surprises, with nothing shocking, a well-protected ordered world.”

Chevalier saw the destruction of les Halles, Paris’s central wholesale food and flower market, with its wonderful old glass and cast iron pavilions, as the violation of the City of Light, as its fatal blow. “With les Halles gone,” he said, “Paris is gone.” It’d been the heart and soul of Paris, its ignoble viscera, a palpitating living tissue attached to the rest of the city by nerves and ligaments, by vessels and veins; and such “radical surgery” augurs very badly for the popular future of the city, Chevalier thought. The bloody smell of les Halles—the authentic odour of its working class streets, of butcher’s shops and triperies, of flower sellers and cheap cafés—had been supplanted by “that frightful jumble of pipes and conduits and ducts that they have dubbed the gas works.”

Chevalier meant the Pompidou Centre, “baptised after my unfortunate comrade,” he said, “whom I cannot bring myself to believe was personally responsible for this horrible thing.” “It is blue,” Chevalier quipped, “yet Paris is grey.” He’d been a schoolmate of the French President, still lunched with him almost every week; yet Chevalier ventured into a demi-monde where his President never ventured and loved the democracy of old les Halles, where people from all walks of life and classes—from high society to no society at all—once mingled. “In the old popular neighbourhood from which all the bums have been removed,” he lamented, “one now meets only countless copies of the mink-coated woman walking her dog. Thank God, the dogs at least are not all of the same species. As for the bums, I put amongst them, without hesitation, those most cherished children of Parisian historians.” [4]

Chevalier’s attack on planners and urban managers in The Assassination of Paris was perhaps the first to challenge the emergence of a new brand of city, underwritten by a new kind of economic philosophy: the neoliberal city, dominated by a dangerous class of neoliberals who over the course of the 1980s and 1990s would supersede the ancien urban régime. The popular city began wilting under a historic compromise between a neomanagerialist class and an ascendant cadre of free market businessmen. They’d soon conjoin into a hybrid Frankenstein: entrepreneurs transmogrifying into state managers and state managers into commercial entrepreneurs, embracing one another on the threshold of urban change and global capitalist transformation.

At the new millennium, this new order was well and truly over its birth-pangs. As it stands to date, the assassination of almost all big cities has been perpetrated by a shadowy criminal underworld similarly beyond the law. The only difference now is that this underworld makes the law, rules governments, controls the mass media, operates unashamedly overground, across the planetary airwaves, peddling its credos and crudities morning, noon and night and much of the time in between. It also presents itself with an irreconcilable contradiction, an insuperable dialectic of a neoliberal economy, on the one hand, with its laws of motion sucking in and spitting out a residual surplus population as a condition for its billionaire wealth production; on the other hand, this economic order at the same time begets its progeny, the neoliberal city, which wants to rid itself of this self-same poor lumpen, cleanse its streets of people who have no place to go and who won’t disappear. [5]

What can today’s dangerous classes learn from yesterday’s? When Balzac was scribbling away in the 1830s and Marx still a fresh-faced lad, another kind of clandestine society—“The Society of the Seasons”—met, countenancing conspiracy as one method for instigating insurrection. Its leaders, like the haute-pègre, went largely unseen; secret meetings recruited foot soldiers from the intelligentsia and lumpenproletariat, who all pledged allegiance within a hierarchy of cells—a “week” meant six men and a leader; a “month,” twenty eight members plus a leader; three months made a “season,” and four seasons a “year.” This network hardly stretched beyond Paris; its membership never topped a thousand revolutionaries, around three years of “seasons.” [6] Yet the covert nature of its cells unsettled the powers-that-be, and meant the Society punched above its weight—or else seemed to threaten to.

Maybe The Society of the Seasons offers some suggestive hints about what needs to be done now, about how to change our own inclement weather? Maybe we could experiment with a similar seasonal underground today? That way we might avoid those dangerous classes—as Fanon and the Black Panthers had insisted—getting recruited by the enemy, woo them over instead to participate in a new progressive movement. Just as it did almost two centuries earlier, this Society would need to establish covert cells in the faubourgs and banlieues, setting up leaders and organisers there. Full-time organisers and tacticians could then spearhead a plot to stymie the dominant flow of things.

Against a backdrop of rising unemployment, precarity and alienation, autonomous lefties of different stripes and persuasions—black bloc anarchists and dangerous classes who’ve never been politically active before, men and women, blacks and whites, gays, straights and trans, casseurs and voyous (and voyelles) from the ’hood—all need to be somehow encouraged to join in, welcomed into cells, so they can positively channel their energies and dissatisfactions. Sites of encounter wouldn’t be fancy: ordinary cafés and bars, street corners and youth centres in the peripheral estates, bowling alleys and pool halls at the local mall, school and university cafeterias, independent bookstores, anywhere where young people might hang out. Dialogue might sometimes be online but preferably face-to-face. Secrecy would be paramount during plotting, given how the forces of law and order crack down on subversive activity, tainting everything alternative, anything it doesn’t like, as criminal and/or “terrorist.”

One advantage to those without work is, of course, that they have free-time; so why not use this precious time socially? Fill it with other people, talking about one’s own predicament, which is other people’s predicament. Meeting people without jobs or with irregular jobs lets isolated people feel less isolated, creating a conscious collective with time on its hands, discussing publicly political affairs. Many unemployed people are glad they no longer have a life on the rack. But the perpetual menace is bureaucratic harassment and humiliation, a constant institutional intrusion into your private life, having to prove you’re “actively seeking work,” actively seeking pointless work that nobody really needs, that nobody would ever miss, that lasts too long and pays too little.

Many people, from the far right to the far left, are always up in arms about unemployment, always struggling against unemployment, always trying to dam its torrential flow. It’s never going to work. Many see unemployment as a dirty word, as a negative label, as a pathology. To be unemployed is to be a person without work. But must we forever define ourselves by work, as workers, and nothing else? Marx taught us why unemployment will never be eradicated from our society, such as it’s organised and run. The factory’s going badly. So you lay off workers. The factory’s going well. So you invest in new automation and lay off workers. It’s a no-win situation—no-win for everybody except the bosses and shareholders.

Work for the vast majority people means time spent doing something that has absolutely no meaning for the doer: an alienated activity, with an alienated product (if there is a product), commandeered by an alienating organisation, all conspiring to shape an alienated self. Many twenty- and thirty-somethings these days are learning how to re-evaluate their “career” choices, as well as the whole notion of career itself, because they’re smart enough to know that they might not have anything deemed “career” anymore. In fact, there’s now a whole generation of college-educated twenty-somethings who recognise they’ll never work a “proper” salaried job. They’re not turned on by temping or interning, either, by any “gig” economy. They’re a new lumpenproletariat.

Perhaps we can scheme alternative survival programmes, other methods through which we don’t so much “earn a living” as “live a life.” Perhaps we can self-downsize and confront the torment of work that forever jars: work is revered in our culture yet at the same time workers are becoming superfluous; you loath your job, your boss, loath the servility of what you do, of how you do it, the pettiness of the tasks involved, yet want to keep your job at all costs. You see no other way of defining yourself other than through work, than what you do for a living. Perhaps it’s time for us to get politicised around non-work? Then the lumpen might really become dangerous.

These are “truths” that any Society of the Seasons might promote and disseminate. In its Marxist guise, organisation needs to begin again underground. The underground was the stomping ground for lumpen radicals in the 1960s and it has to be again. But a new underground. Agitate again, build up again, somewhere cheap, somewhere far away. Or perhaps close by. Yet underground. For it’s true today that truth is more truthful in the poor underground than in the wealthy overground. Truth won’t be voiced from the rich core, but from the poor periphery, from the margins of life, from the margins of our cities, from bedsits and sunken basements, from communal squats, from grungy banlieues, from broken-down informal zones à défendre (ZAD), defended everywhere.

The other likelihood is that truth will get communicated via old means not new media. It’ll be shared by word-of-mouth, and on paper, in print form, not just online. Eldridge Cleaver was right to emphasise the importance of a newspaper in organising, with real pages. We need one, probably more than one. We need to reinvent the brawling underground press of the 1960s and 1970s, put a fresh spin on this old idea, and inspire a new audience of readers out there now. In their day, newspapers like Ramparts so rattled the conservative establishment that the CIA spied on them. (In its pages, Ramparts exposed the CIA’s surveillance and caused a huge uproar.)

In the late 1960s, there were around 500 underground newspapers, each belonging to an “Underground Press Syndicate.” All were run as collectives, frequently home-baked, printed on shoestring budgets; editorship usually identified with the counter-culture, with drop-outs and marginals. Some the best-known papers, like The Berkeley Barb and Rat Subterranean News (in a wink to Fanon?), had widespread and loyal readerships, shining because of the integrity of their reporting and the quality of the writing. News stories had an honesty that commercial media never had or lost long ago.

The problem with today’s commercial media, especially social media, is its saturation: there’s just too much of it, too much peddling of lies, too much fear and loathing. Over the airwaves, we’re literally flooded with truths, making it hard to decide which truth isn’t a lie. Through the underground press other truths might emerge, from the bottom-up, like they once did, via the tried and tested printed word, in a newspaper you can trust, that brings integrity to its reportage, correcting mainstream bias and online distortion. It might also help shift the debate from opposing to proposing.

And from this underground a new underground might take hold, together with some new propositions, affirming a different kind of citizenship; not an official citizenship but a sense of identity inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation—underneath it, perhaps; not expressive of a legal right bestowed by the bourgeois nation-state; nor with any flag or country or border. At this point I can only label it something phantom-like, a shadow citizenship, something haunting, lying latent: the repressed will of masses of people yet to find its dangerous collective self.



[1] Neither translator was a professional linguist. Moore was a socialist judge, based in Manchester, whom Engels knew and who had earlier translated The Communist Manifesto; Aveling was the common-law husband of Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor. For the record, The Communist Manifesto does mention the “dangerous classes,” “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society,” says Marx. But, as Marx sees them, the only danger they pose is to themselves.

[2] “Let us note incidentally,” Marx ironises in a footnote to Capital, Chapter 25, “that although Malthus was a parson of the Church of England he had taken the monastic vow of celibacy… This circumstance favourably distinguishes him from other Protestant parsons, who have flung off the Catholic requirement of the celibacy of the priesthood, and taken ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ as their special Biblical mission to such an extent that they generally contribute to the increase of the population to a really unbecoming extent, whilst at the same time preaching the ‘principle of population’ to the workers.”

[3] The haute-pègre really existed in the first half of the nineteenth century; and Balzac’s Jacques Collin was loosely based on a real-life character, Eugène-François Vidocq. Vidocq himself was a criminal mastermind who knew so much about this underworld that, in the end, like Jacques Collin, he turned crime against itself, morphing into the first-known private detective and founder of a national detective agency known as the Sûreté Nationale. For some time Vidocq assumed a life as double-agent, a dialectical spy, though often which way the arrows pointed was blurry. His life of crime and as a criminalist captured the literary imagination of several writers, not just Balzac but Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe (cf. “The Murders of Rue Morgue”).

[4] Guy Debord, who once associated himself with the Parisian dangerous classes in the fifties and sixties, found a strange affinity with the conservative Chevalier. In Panégyrique, he wrote: “It was almost as though… I was the only person to have loved Paris, because, to begin with, I saw no one else respond to this matter in the repugnant seventies. But afterwards I learned that Louis Chevalier, the city’s old historian, had published then, without too much being said about it, The Assassination of Paris. So we could count at least two righteous men in that city at the time.”

[5] In UK cities, there’s been talk about scrapping a 195-year-old Vagrancy Act (1824). Now, there are so many homeless people sleeping rough and begging on British streets that to criminalise them is both a savage flouting of human rights and an over-stretching of police resources. According to the homeless charity “Crisis,” rough sleeping has increased 70 percent between 2014-18; homeless encampments have tripled during the past 5 years. As Crisis say, nobody should be criminalised for having nowhere to live (see “Calls for 195-year-old Vagrancy Act to be Scrapped,” The Guardian, June 19, 2019).

[6] The Society of the Seasons was founded by two great republican revolutionaries, Louis-Auguste Blanqui and Armand Barbès, prominent organisers in the armed insurrection of May 1839 and June Days of 1848. Each devoted his life’s work to not working, to conspiring to overthrow the ruling regime. Marx called Blanqui “the head and heart of the proletarian party in France”; and of Barbès, he thought him “the scourge of the establishment.” In the late 1830s, Barbès wrote a fascinatingly-titled pamphlet: A Few Words to Those Who Sympathise With Workers Without Work.

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Notes on Marx’s “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”

If someone were to ask me what my favourite bit of Marx’s Capital is, I’d tell them Chapter 25, on “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” Not that anybody has ever asked me; but I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in selecting this pinnacle performance, the beginning of the climatic unfurling of Volume One. For here those “laws of motion” that Marx had been trying to lay bare throughout Capital, really do motor before the reader’s very eyes, in all their disturbing fluidity. Hitherto, Marx had been attempting to piece together the intricate “inner mechanisms” of capitalist society. By Chapter 25, he’s ready to analyse these inner mechanisms as a giant well-oiled whirring machine.

And he’s mesmerised by the prodigious power of this machine, by capital accumulating, bursting through every historical and geographical restriction, conquering the entire world of social wealth. Yet, at the same time, he’s appalled by the ruthless force it unleashes, by the horrors the machine inflicts upon its cogs. Meanwhile, its normal functioning soon takes on a spiralling dynamic all its own, operating beyond the control of any single capitalist master. After a while, the enviable freedom of the capitalist gets transformed into a die-hard necessity, into an infamous historical mission: “Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake.”

The drive to accumulate capital dramatically pits capitalist against capitalist, capitalist against worker, worker against worker. Accumulation fuels competition, and competition, Marx says, “subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external, coercive laws.” Thus, as capitalists strive to accumulate, as their actions become mere functions of capital, they inevitably clash with other capitalists seeking to do likewise. What erupts is a fratricidal war; different fractions of capital jostle one other, struggle to corner markets, to control and monopolise markets, to control and monopolise labour; a zero-sum accumulation mania transpires and conspires. Accumulation is the centrifugal impetus of “capital in general.” But competition hastens a splintering of capital, just as it hastens a splintering of labour, compounding each side into many “aliquot parts.” Thus, as capital accumulates, the formation and intensification of class structure manifests itself as a paradoxical obliteration of class structure.

Before long, the hullabaloo of accumulation is “supplemented” by concentration and centralisation, by big capitalist fishes gobbling up little fishes and sharks chomping on big fishes. Marx says this enhances the scale of operations, accelerates the overall effects of accumulation, but in uneven ways, for capitalists and workers alike. Trouble and strife brood. For, on the one hand, competition and the obligatory development of a credit system become powerful levers of centralisation—of the formation of joint stock companies, trusts and conglomerates, mergers and acquisitions—and of expanded accumulation; on the other hand, though, the “organic composition of capital”—the ratio of dead to living labour, of machines to workers, of constant to variable capital—gradually starts to creep upwards, diminishing the relative demand for labour.

Before long, too, the system breeds a new species: Marx labels them “a new financial aristocracy, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators and nominal directors, a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporation promotion, stock issuance, and stock speculation.” Could Marx be talking about us? By God yes. Nowadays, we know these people by name, by sleazy reputation; we know, too, that within the overall accumulation process this new financial aristocracy has a stake very different to that of productive capital’s.

The former plays a extremely limited, if any, enabling role for valorisation: stock exchanges are now billion dollar markets for speculating on already existing stocks and shares. Little activity here actually raises money for new productive investment. Businesses generate money by selling stock and shares, relinquishing part of the company to shareholders; but little of the accruing booty gets recycled into future investment. Invariably, it’s doled out as dividends, and/or creamed off through inflated CEO salaries.

One of the reasons I like to affirm Chapter 25 isn’t only because it explains the working conditions of the world’s peoples today; it also explains the conditions of our whole existence. Marx’s general law of capitalist accumulation is nothing less than the lever upon which all our lives now pivot. Its frame of reference needs to be opened out, out onto the broader canvas of life, especially planetary urban life. The mighty machine has made us cogs everywhere. It’s here where I’d like to develop Marx’s law, “a law of tendency,” as he calls it, which expels people from dwelling space as well as from the workplace. As such, this law isn’t just a condition of earning a living; it’s a condition of earning a life.

Marx knew in the 1860s that “the absolute” general law of capitalist accumulation could be “modified in its workings by many circumstances.” But in every case, he says, it “followed that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be their payment high or low, must grow worse.” In our present-day “neoliberal” context, the economy flourishes through sub-employed and over-employed workers, through contingent and gig economy workers, through zero contract hours workers: from Uber to Deliveroo, Handy to Hermes, Amazon to Adjunct Professors, work is evermore casualised and irregular; and worker benefits seem to diminish by day. Toilers here assume that category Marx reckons the general law of capitalist accumulation progressively produces: “a relative surplus population”—or, alternatively, “an industrial reserve army of labour.”

“Every worker,” Marx believes, “belongs to this relative surplus population during the time when they are only partially or wholly employed.” Marx, it’s worth pointing out, sees all work under capitalism as precarious; always has been, always will be. It’s a precariousness dependent on a consistently fickle capitalist business cycle, on short-term soars and long haul dips. Wage levels, he says, get regulated by the relative surplus population, by its expansion and contraction. Wages “aren’t determined by the variations of the absolute numbers of the working population,” Marx insists, “but by the varying proportions in which the working class is divided into an active army and reserve army, by the increase or diminution in the relative amount of surplus population, by the extent to which it is alternately absorbed and set free.”

Sometimes wages might even rise should demand for labour rise. At these moments, wages can conceivably keep increasing so long as they don’t impinge upon the overall expansion of capital. Something resembling this actually occurred during the boom of the 1950s and 1960s, when real workers’ wages did in fact rise. Still, the more typical rule, Marx thinks, is that “the mechanism of capitalist production takes care that the absolute increase of capital isn’t accompanied by a corresponding rise in the general demand for labour.” “Capital,” he says, does something more innovative instead, something more dialectical: it “acts on both sides at once”:

If its accumulation on the one hand increases the demand for labour, it increases on the other the supply of workers by ‘setting them free’, while at the same time the pressure of the unemployed compels those who are employed to furnish more labour, and therefore makes the supply of labour to a certain extent independent of the supply of workers. The movement of the law of supply and demand for labour on this basis completes the despotism of capital.

And under this despotism, real wages have effectively stagnated, almost nowhere keeping pace with cost of living hikes. One of the U.S.’s top capitalist mouthpieces, The Harvard Business Review (October 24th 2017), admits that hourly inflation-adjusted wages for the typical American worker have, since the early 1970s, hardly risen, edging upwards a mere 0.2% per year. Throughout this period, remember, the overall economy has been growing. Thus American workers haven’t participated in any of the growth, nor benefited from gains in their own productivity. The reason why is classic Marx Volume One: new technology has put downward pressure on less-skilled workers’ wages; and workers displaced from work send disciplinary messages to those still active in work: work harder or else!

Whether in times of prosperity or decline, the industrial reserve army produces much the same effect: “it weighs down the active army of workers; during periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions.” The relative surplus population is “the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work. It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate workers.”

If we dig a little deeper into Chapter 25, we can see how Marx identifies three types of relative surplus population: stagnant, floating, and latent. Alas, we haven’t got to dig too deeply, nor have too much imagination, to see how Marx’s types remain our types. The stagnant form, for a start, is “part of the active labour army,” he says, “but with extremely irregular employment. Hence it offers capital an inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour-power.” It’s characterised “by a maximum of working time and a minimum of wages.” The downsized blue-collar worker might be filed under this category, since stagnant surplus populations, Marx says, are “recruited from workers in large-scale industry who have become redundant, and especially from decaying branches of industry where handicraft is giving way to manufacture, and manufacture to machinery.”

This stagnant workforce consists of time-served men repulsed from blue-collar employment and drawn into irregular jobs like security and custodial work, janitors, cabbies and deliverymen. Older generation blue-collar workers, who once worked the mines, the auto plants and steel mills, now find themselves literally stagnant. They’re no longer able (or willing) to do low-grade work, yet are too young to retire. So instead they slouch into the ranks of a non-participating labour-force. Men who once set rivets together now sit alone, able to recite daytime TV schedules by heart. Utter stagnation lingers everywhere in rust-belt Europe and America, where empty union halls look out over the rubble of what used to be the company plant.

The dialectic of the floating relative surplus population is similarly one of repulsion and attraction, but its charge is much more volatile. Participants here encounter working conditions wholly unstable and uncertain. The only thing that’s regular is the irregularity of their work. These men and women represent a huge pool of under-employed and sub-employed workers—part-time, on-call, self-employed or zero hours contractors—whose resumé is marked by a floating in and out of jobs. Despite the job-hopping, few new skills are ever learned. Steadily, its fluctuating force assumes a predictably deadening life-form.

Many workers are absorbed into the “personnel services industry,” where the hiring and firing is managed by employment agencies like Manpower, Inc., who recruit temporary workers across America and the world. (Manpower has offices in fifty countries, and places 1.6 million “in assignments with more than 250,000 businesses worldwide annually…providing our customers with productive workers and our employees with work.”) The growth of this personnel services industry means evermore despotic control of an anarchic labour-market. Supply and demand for labour tightly track the expansions and contractions of capital; yet always its motioning seeks to trim monies laid out on variable capital.

As at May 2017, the U.S.’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said nearly 6 million workers are “contingent”—i.e. “persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary.” Moreover, there are a further 10.6 million people working as “independent contractors,” together with another 2.6 million on-call. And this doesn’t include 1.4 million temporary help workers nor the 933,000 employed by contract firms like Manpower. Which suggests that true numbers for contingent America tot up to somewhere in the region of 20 million people. No coincidence, too, that the nation’s two largest employers are contingent kings Walmart and McDonald’s.[1]

Techie giants like Google, often seen as egalitarian employers with idyllic workplaces, are likewise massively reliant on temporary and contracted labour. In fact, “a shadow workforce of temps” now outnumber Google’s full-time employees. As at March 2019, Google uses 121,000 temp and contracted workers, compared with a full-time workforce of 102,000. Google temps are employed by outside agencies and, in the U.S., make less money than Google full-timers. They have different benefits packages and no paid vacation. Last April, hundreds of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s “two-tier system,” as well as the dismissal of 80 percent of a 43-person artificial intelligence team of contingent workers. OnContracting, a temp employment agency for the high-tech industry, says that companies like Google save $100,000 a year on average per American job by using a temporary contractor instead of a full-time employee.[2]

Women swell the ranks of this floating contingent workforce. In the U.S., women are three times as likely to hold regular and irregular part-time work as men. These women make up about a fifth of the overall female workforce, earning, on average, 20 percent less than equivalent women employed full-time and 20 percent less that their male counterpart part-timers. Minority groups fare worse than their Anglo peers, and minority women worst of all. On the whole, African-American women tend to be twice as likely to be lower paid temps and much less likely to be self-employed; Hispanics, meanwhile, have a larger share of low-wage “on-call” work.

Capitalism has a handy knack of constantly inventing and reinventing its reserve army of labour. Often it does so miraculously, tapping into assorted branches of society and sectors of industry where labour has been lying latent. Thus, alongside the stagnant and floating forms, Marx acknowledges another category of flexible labour, the “latent” category, a sort of reserve reserve army of labourers. “As soon as capitalist production takes possession of agriculture,” he says, “and in proportion to the extent to which it does so, the demand for a rural working population falls absolutely.” “Part of the agricultural population,” says Marx, “is therefore constantly on the point of passing over into an urban population or manufacturing proletariat. There is a constant flow from this source of the relative surplus population. But the constant movement towards towns presupposes, in the countryside itself, a constant latent surplus population.”

The movement of peoples from rural to urban areas, from agriculture to an urban-based factory system, continued apace during the twentieth-century. As at 2006, its flow tipped the global demographic balance: the majority of the world’s inhabitants, some 3.3 billion people, live in urban agglomerations, not rural areas. Some of that generation’s latent surplus populations, i.e. people formerly displaced from agriculture and reabsorbed into urban factories, have since fallen into the ranks of floating and stagnant relative surplus populations. Yet by 2030, 60% of the world’s population is projected to be urban; an additional 590,000 square miles of the planet will be urbanised, a land surface more than twice the size of Texas, spelling an additional 1.47 billion urban dwellers; many of whom will bolster the ranks of a latent reserve army. They’ll offer sustained nourishment for expanded capitalist accumulation everywhere.

A big chunk of this latent surplus population lurks in China. Shanghai is the planet’s fastest growing metropolis, expanding a massive 15 percent each year since 1992, boosted by $120 billion of foreign direct investment. Half the world’s cranes are reputed to be working in Shanghai’s Pudong district. Rice paddies have been filled with modern skyscrapers and vast factories. Outlying farmlands now host the world’s fastest train links and the tallest hotel. Four thousand buildings with twenty or more stories have gone up, ensuring Shanghai has twice the number of buildings as New York. With 171 cities of more than one million inhabitants, China over the past decade has commandeered nearly half the world’s cement supplies, and will doubtless monopolise the world’s supply and demand for latent surplus labour populations.

Of course, after 1989, with the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, another reservoir of latent labour flooded the capitalist marketplace. A freshly- proletarianised workforce initiated a primitive accumulation of capital, transforming former Eastern European state employees into freelance wage-labourers, set free to pit their wits on the flexible European labour market. The Eastern bloc’s headlong embrace of Western-style neoliberalism prised open a whole new array of market niches, together with a jamboree latent labour reserve—both at home, in some newly-formed nation-states, and in the European Economic Area (EEA). Almost overnight an ideology of dictatorial personality morphed into an ideological dictatorship of the free market, with its attendant rights of consumerist man.

Out of the ashes of communism rose the Phoenix of cheap labour. Western manufacturers, halving labour costs, beat a hasty path eastwards; while a lot of latent labour, almost as hastily, trekked westwards. Stimulated by the European Union’s freedom of labour movement (2004), they’ve found low-grade jobs in powerhouses like Britain, Germany and France. Pay is better than before, yet a lot less than homegrown workers’. British businesses have prospered enormously from this influx of Eastern European labour, especially Polish. Enterprises have been able to valorise a cheap labour they’d not had since the 1950s, when Afro-Caribbean Windrush immigrants arrived. The British agricultural sector has been a big gainer. Prior to 2004, crops like asparagus, cherries, raspberries and strawberries were suffering long-term decline. Remuneration in these sectors was meagre; the work backbreaking. Few locals were turned on. Yet since 2004, rather than invest in expensive new berry-picking technology, growers have exploited Eastern European labour reserves, latent labour-power, which has rekindled agricultural capital accumulation and boosted productivity.

When Marx formulated his General Law of Capitalist Accumulation, cities were sites for manufacturing valorisation. It was in urban factories where commodities got produced and surplus value created. The factory system—“Modern Industry,” Marx called it—was the mainstay of capital accumulation, and workers were attracted and repelled from this urban employment. Later in Chapter 25, however, Marx notes how the general law operates outside the factory gates as well—vividly exemplified, he says, in “‘improvements’ of towns which accompany the increase in wealth, such as the demolition of badly built districts, the erection of palaces to house banks, warehouses, etc., the widening of streets for business traffic, for luxury carriages, for the introduction of tramways, [which] obviously drive the poor away into even worse and more crowded corners.”

It’s not a bad description of what still happens in big cities today. Marx’s point here is “that the greater the centralisation of the means of production, the greater is the corresponding concentration of workers within a given space; and therefore the more quickly capitalist accumulation takes place, the more miserable the housing situation of the working class.” Landlords squeeze workers, ripping them off at home, as tenants, just as industrialists rip them off at work, as wage-labourers. Rents are high precisely because pay is low. Vulnerable workers equate to vulnerable tenants; both feel the force of “property and its rights,” Marx says.

“Everyone knows,” he adds, “that the dearness of houses stands in inverse ratio to their quality, and that these mines of misery are exploited by house speculators with more profit and less cost than the mines of Potosi were ever exploited. The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation, and thus of capitalist property-relations in general, is here so evident.” Marx’s adopted hometown of London, one of world’s richest cities, had the most squalid, overcrowded habitations, “absolutely unfit for human beings,” he says. Marx knew this because he and his family lived in many of these hovels. “Rents have become so heavy,” he cites one government health inspector saying, “that few labouring men can afford more than one room.” 1865 or 2019?

And yet, in another sense, a lot has changed since Marx’s day. Back then, his focus was on production in the industrial city; a century and a half on, the city itself has become the form of industrialisation. In the 1860s, cities were places where commodities got produced; nowadays, cities are themselves commodities, centres of gravity for the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation and for the expansive power of capital. Now, urban space itself is both the subject and object of valorisation, the means of production as well as the product this means of production creates. In manufacturing, Marx said new technology would prompt a change in the “organic composition of capital.” “The growth in the mass of means of production,” he argued, “as compared with the mass of labour-power that vivifies them, is reflected in its value-composition by the increase of the constant constituent of capital at the expense of its variable constituent.”

So, too, now, is the organic composition of capital in cities rising. Quite literally rising. Constant capital is displacing variable capital: capital circulates into the construction of new fixed capital assets, new items of the built environment, such as office blocks and shopping malls, Hudson Yards and Coal Drops Yard, upscale housing and elite cultural amenities—high-yield activities for the expanded reproduction of capital rather than low-yield necessities for the simple reproduction of labour-power. This is the sense in which workers have now been set free from life, not just from work: they’re displaced from dwelling space as they’re rendered superfluous from the workplace.

The progress of urban accumulation lessens the relative magnitude of the variable part of capital, even if, as in industry, it can’t lessen it entirely. Capital, after all, needs its minion service workforce of busboys and valet parkers, of waiters and barmen, of cleaners and security guards, of nannies and cooks, of superintendents and doormen. But a push-pull effect has taken hold, a dialectic of attraction and dispossession, a sucking into the city of a relative surplus population together with a spitting out, a banishment from the centre. Poor old-time stagnant populations, as well as floating and latent reserve armies, now embrace one another out on the periphery somewhere, where rents are lower and life cheaper.

This system produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. The process embroils everybody, no matter where; even when it doesn’t embroil, even when it abandons people and places, it embroils. Cities, like the factories of Marx’s era, become vortexes for sucking in everything the planet offers: its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban accumulation machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising. For it’s a system that secretes a residue, chewing people up when needed, spitting them out when they’re not.

Residues are something more than relative surplus populations and probably include a fair number of lumpenproletariat. They’re minorities who are far and away a global majority. They’re people who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues are workers without regularity, workers without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander. Residues are displacees whose land has been grabbed, who’ve been displaced from housing, thrown out of housing, whose living space teeters on the geographic and economic edge. Residues are disenfranchised and decommissioned people everywhere who feel isolation strike them deep within. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between, neither traditional city nor traditional countryside. We might call this somewhere in-between the global banlieue. (Remember, the French word banlieue comes from lieu, meaning “place,” and bannir, “to banish”; hence “place of banishment.”)

A lot of these residues know that now work is contingent life itself is contingent. And with little security, there’s little to lose, and, moreover, little to gain from playing by capitalism’s rules. So what’s the point? There is no point. Some residues play by different rules, beat a different drum. Others listen to reactionary demagogues and swing right, embrace populist ravings against the machine. Many others voice muffled hopes from the left. All somehow know the capitalist game is rigged, that those in power are liars and cheats. Still more residues know that a career of hustling and hawking, of wheeling and dealing, of petty criminality, of opioids and outlawing, become coping mechanisms from the outside to a life that offers no discernible future on the inside.

One of the problems Marxists face—and I think Marx knew it might one day become a big problem—is that many residues have lost their class address. How can they regain it, find the right door bell to ring on together? How can workers who have no Party, no regular workplace or arena for collective bargaining—in fact who have no real public arena at all—how can they find one another? Perhaps the more vital question is how can the twenty-first century “dangerous classes” become really dangerous? How can they endanger the capitalist system rather than just endanger themselves?…

[Next time I want to talk about this, about the Marx’s “dangerous classes.”]


[1] Walmart’s low-wage workers are so poor that they receive around $6.2 billion in federal assistance, principally in the shape of food stamps. The billionaire Walton business thus gets a huge public handout for its low-balling employment practices. In a recent study, conducted by the Organization United for Respect (OUR), 55 percent of Walmart part-timers admitted they didn’t have enough money to meet basic needs.

[2] See “Google’s Shadow Workforce: Temps Who Out Number Full-Time Employees,” The New York Times, May 28, 2019

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Grand Inquisitors in Our Midst

Demagogic chauvinism is thriving across the globe. Tolerance has undergone core meltdown. Nationalism is alive and apparently well. And just when we thought the Cold War was long over, certain political leaders now seem intent on wanting to blow up their peoples if not each other. What our demagogues have in common today is the uncanny knack of persuading masses of people that they have nothing in common. Like the 1930s, whiffs of fascism are in the air, a fear and loathing of “others.” Borders are getting staked out, walls set to go up, closing in on us, keeping people in as well as out.

In recent years, intelligent people have tried to explain this disturbing trend. They’ve suggested we’re living in “post-truth” times, which provide a fertile context for demagogic hate-mongering. Mass media, especially social media, now saturate us with information and misinformation, morning, noon and night and much of the time in between, making it hard to pass critical judgment, to discern which truths aren’t falsities.

Still, haven’t politicians always been rather creative with the truth, engaging in what Jonathan Swift, three-hundred years ago, called “the art of political lying”? Telling the truth doesn’t require great art, Swift reminded us, not like “salutary falsehoods,” which, he said, need to be carefully made up. The problem, the author of Gulliver’s Travels noted, is that a lie only has to be believed for an hour for its work to be done. Twitter helps. “Falsehood flies,” Swift said, whereas “truth comes limping after it.”

Fast forward to the early 1970s, when political theorist Hannah Arendt, commenting on the “Pentagon Papers,” concurred with the old curmudgeon Swift. Trying to get behind U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Arendt said “the basic issue raised by the Papers is deception,” and the “extravagant lengths to which commitment to non-truthfulness in politics went to the highest levels of government.” “Truthfulness,” Arendt concluded, “has never been counted among political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.” In other words, post-truth is hardly anything new. It has been the bread and butter of politicians in representative democracy, always has been, maybe always will be.

But few of us in the past really bought those lies. Nowadays, though, what seems to be distinctly new isn’t so much the centuries of peddling political falsehoods; more our popular willingness to believe them. Even when we knew that Brexit would never save Britain’s National Health Service £350 million a year, or that Donald Trump was ever going to make America great again, the lie became the necessary mood-music for millions of people. They wanted to hear it, yearned to believe.

Why? Someone who can perhaps shed light on this murky matter is the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky created twisted and tormented characters like Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov and The Idiot’s Prince Myshkin, fictional beings we know might not be so fictional after all. But it’s his 1881 masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, that has the most remarkable contemporary ring. One of its key scenes is when modernist intellectual Ivan Karamazov recounts to his devout brother Alyosha “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

Ivan takes us back to sixteenth-century Spain, to Seville, during the Inquisition, and reimagines the return of a humanistic Jesus. In these pious times, Jesus, whose chief concern is with freedom of conscience, is seen as a subversive, as a radical threat to the church’s power. He’s quickly thrown in prison, condemned to be burnt at the stake the next day. At midnight, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor pays Him a visit. “Now, today,” the Inquisitor says, “people are persuaded that they are freer than ever before, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.” We don’t need somebody like You here, he says, promising them real freedom. It doesn’t take much to control people’s consciences, the Inquisitor says. Promise them bread and they’ll gladly give up their freedom. They’ll throw themselves to the mercy of “three powers that are able to hold them captive,” a reactionary trinity of “miracle, mystery and authority.”

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is an apt prophet of facist regimes and totalitarian movements. The parable still has religious resonance, but its real power, the primary source of “miracle, mystery and authority” these days, isn’t the church but the state, in its incumbent and wannabe leaders, whose lust for power is secular. They promise miracles that seduce the masses, that conjure up the spectre of nationalism, a particularist and peculiar identity flourishing not from blood or soil or DNA but from some arbitrary desire of the human imagination, from people’s minds, a manufactured bigotry. Our Grand Inquisitors also shroud themselves in mysteries (what conniving really lay behind that 2016 Presidential election result?) and assume an authority that brooks not only no dissent but can seemingly do no wrong, nor tell any lie.

Was the Grand Inquisitor Dostoevsky’s own vision of humanity? It’s hard to tell but I’m hoping not. The Grand Inquisitor, after all, is a mortal enemy of Jesus, who believed the meek would one day inherit the earth. At the end of the parable, Dostoevsky’s Alyosha, who’d listened intently throughout, wonders if the tale isn’t just a sick joke. We know Ivan is playing devil’s advocate; it might be a joke, but we know now, with Nigel Farage lurking, that it’s no laughing matter. Perhaps we can never prevent our politicians from practicing the art of political lying. But maybe some day we can hope to create the social conditions whereby people’s needs for miracle, mystery and authority dissipate, somehow whither away, in a society that can absorb human sorrows and fulfil our deepest desires. To call on people to give up illusions about our condition is, above all else, to make a call to give up a condition that requires illusions.

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Marx at His Limits

I was in New York recently, and as per custom I like to walk its streets checking out used bookstores. Used bookstores are a species in danger of extinction in Manhattan, ever more picked off by rising rents and booming property prices. But one of my favourites, Mercer Books, along Mercer Street, smack in the heart of New York University’s ghetto, miraculously lives on. I’m always surprised, and not a little relieved, that NYU’s real estate machine hasn’t yet gobbled it up.

Piled up in one corner of the bookstore were dusty back copies of old literary and political journals, many dating from the 1960s, a treasure trove for those who cared to rummage, there at giveaway prices. Digging around I discovered a few gems: a Partisan Review from 1965, with an article by Joseph Frank on “Dostoevsky and the Socialists”; and a 1983 Antioch Review with Raymond Carver’s story “The Compartment.” My great find, though, was a 1978 issue of Dissent, containing Marshall Berman’s original take on “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.”

For a couple of dollars, I now had my hands on an early draft of what would become the mainstay of Marshall’s famous book. Indeed, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: Marx, Modernism and Modernization” was a fascinating discovery for anybody who knows All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, published by Simon & Schuster in 1982. Not least because the Dissent piece, I’d soon recognize, read very much like a work in progress, sounding a lot flatter and less lyrical than the eventual book chapter. As a standalone article, I guess it had to sound more direct, spelling out more emphatically what would later get developed over the course of an entire book.

Marx’s dialectic is unique, Marshall says, because it straddles two distinctive ideas of modernization and modernism. Typically, analyses of each have been set apart. Modernization, on the one hand, has meant sustained economic development and industrial expansion, large-scale social planning and urban growth, bureaucratic regulation and rationality, the shattering of traditional cultures, perpetual progress and productivity. On the other hand, modernism suggests something more artistic and experimental, a movement more iconoclastic, sometimes destructive, occasionally destructive to its proponents as well. With modernism, Marshall says, “we find ourselves in the midst of an endless series of spiritual upheavals and cultural revolutions—the death of God, the theatre of cruelty, Dada, jazz, the twelve-tone scale, Existentialism, abstract art, and so on.”

Enter Marx, the first thinker, Marshall believes, to make these two worlds connect. It was Marx, after all, who wanted to discover the underlying unity of life. Marx’s horizon is vast and his vision packs together an enormous range of things and ideas that nobody had thought of throwing together before, breaking down boundaries, piling things together that seem to clash and totter on the brink. Take one of his central images from Part I of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “All that Is solid melts into air.” “The cosmic scope and visionary grandeur of this image,” Marshall says, “it’s highly compressed dramatic power, its vaguely apocalyptic undertones, the ambiguity of its point of view—the heat that destroys is also super abundant energy, an overflow of life—all these qualities are supposed to be hallmarks of the modernist imagination.”

Marx’s prose, says Marshall, hurtles along with the same breathless energy and reckless momentum as the society he depicts. The need for a constantly expanding market has the bourgeoisie settle everywhere, nestle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. A world market rapidly emerges, absorbing and destroying local and regional markets; improvements in communication draw everybody under the sway of bourgeois economy and culture; capital concentrates into the hands of fewer and fewer bigger and bigger producers; “Modern Industry” rationalizes production, in both the factories and on the land; rural labourers are uprooted and pour into ever-expanding cities; a factory proletariat swells its ranks, learning the hard way about machines and modern exploitation.

Before long, “no other nexus exists between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” A brave new world of capitalist modernity sprouts. Mountains are moved, railroads laid down, and canals rerouted, all of it done in the name of bourgeois modernity—should the price be right. Everything we once thought solid suddenly disintegrates into air. “By the time Marx’s proletarians appears,” Marshall says, “the world stage on which they were supposed to play their part has disintegrated and metamorphosed into something unrecognizable, surreal, a mobile construction that shifts and changes shape under the players’ feet”:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marshall wonders what kind of people these permanent revolutions produce? Those who’re compelled to face, “with sober senses,” everlasting uncertainty, this restless obsession with sweeping away forms of life “before they can ossify”? He’s talking about us, remember. “To survive in modern bourgeois society,” he thinks, “our personality must take on an open form.” “We must learn not to yearn nostalgically for the ‘fixed, fast-frozen relationships’ of the real or fantasized past, but to delight in mobility, to thrive on renewal, to look forward to future developments in our conditions of life and our relations with your fellow men.” It’s an exciting, if troubling, vision of ourselves.

A few days after I discovered that 1978 copy of Dissent, I did a big walk around the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s westside with my friend and former teacher, the Marxist theorist David Harvey. It was a soaking wet spring afternoon, chilly and grey, and we both tried our utmost not to let the weather, nor the awfulness of this project, a spillover from Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral years, dampen our spirits.

The twelve acre site, behind Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, had once been gritty rail tracks and storage yards for Long Island Rail Road trains. Now, a $20 billion mega-plan promises shingled blue-glass skyscrapers, with office space, deluxe condos and high-end retailing galore, to say nothing of an eco arts centre and bizarre pedestrian walkway. Talk about all that was solid melting into air! Completion isn’t destined until 2024; but much is already in place. Hooking up to the High Line and a revamped No. 7 subway station, Hudson Yards is set to symbolize the pride and joy of a post 9/11 Big Apple, a celebration of Michael Bloomberg’s bleeding edge: New York, Inc.

The bourgeoisie has torn away sentimental veils, Marx said in the Manifesto, and put in its stead “open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation.” In all this—in open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation—we are, at Hudson Yards, on familiar ground. The New York Times’ architectural critic, Michael Kimmelman, called the development “a super-sized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1%.” It’s the largest private real estate venture in US history, and in the brazen world-leader of private real estate deals that’s saying a lot.

In office, Bloomberg pumped 75 millions’ worth of public dollars into the development, matching it with a similar sum from his own deep pockets. Moreover, BlackRock, a midtown investment company, managing a $6 trillion portfolio, wrote off $25 million in state tax credits, buffering the move of its 700 workforce to Hudson Yards, less than a mile westwards. Some estimates suggest the whole initiative has totalled as much as $6 billion in tax breaks and public finding. Socialism for billionaires is how the scam has been described—even as those self-same scammers wax lyrical about the virtues of the “free market.”

Still, one of the most startling of Hudson Yards’ scams, reputed to have amassed some $1.6 billion’s worth of financing, is even more insidious, only recently becoming public news. (1) It centres on the controversial investor visa program called EB-5, part of Poppy Bush’s immigration reform of the early 1990s. Bizarre as it may sound, the program lets immigrants secure visas in exchange for investment in the US economy. We’re talking here about super-rich foreigners, not fresh off the boat immigrants, nor even fresh over the wall ones. They’re people who can pump between $500k and a million bucks into American real estate. That’ll enable—no questions asked, no hoop-jumping—to gain fast-track visas, for work or study. (It’s been something of a favourite in recent years amongst wealthy Chinese families.) The monies are meant to go into federally-targeted areas, into poor and distressed neighbourhoods across America, so-called TEAs—Targeted Employment Areas.

But the jurisdiction of TEAs—where its boundary lines are drawn—is rather loose, hence open to meddling and manipulation. And in New York, the Empire State Development, a public-private organization under New York state’s banner, is the arch-meddler and manipulator. Somehow, it managed to secure Hudson Yards TEA status, stretching its remit into poor census tracks of Harlem. Thus funds intended for real estate aid in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, like Harlem, were siphoned off and redirected into a super-luxury mega-development. “Think of it a form of creative financial gerrymandering,” is how Kriston Capps put it. That’s how the developer Related Companies raked in around $380 million at Hudson Yards, bypassing distressed area scrutiny through a greedy audacity that beggars belief. Or perhaps not, in Trump’s America. (And, by the way, son-in-law Jared Kushner has been busily promoting Kushner Companies’ projects with EB-5 investors in China.)

Something more publicly obvious at Hudson Yards is, however, the scale of its banality. A stroll around doesn’t reveal too much intrigue. What we find here is something not only unfair but uninteresting, a city space flattened by familiarity, even as those glitzy skyscrapers go up. It’s the sort of predictability that only money can buy. Its ubiquity resides in its sameness, in the predictability of both its form and function. Here, as elsewhere, we have the same predictable city within a city, the same predictable sleek glass and steel architectural structures, housing the same financial and high-tech services, same multinational corporations and accountancy firms, same banks and management consultancies, same retail giants, destined for the same wealthy consumers. In the mix, there’s no mix. All real urban texturing is expunged.

Apart from, that is, a mix of spectacular gimmickry. And at Hudson Yards there are a few. First off we have the “Vessel,” touted as Manhattan’s Eiffel Tower, designed by multimillionaire Brit developer Thomas Heatherwick, a $200 million 16-story pedestrian walkway, a stairway to nowhere, looking like a truncated giant honeycomb, serving no other purpose than to serve, than to promote spectacular contemplation.

Nearby, meanwhile, comes the “Shed,” a $500 million eco-friendly arts centre and performance space, which actually looks like a shed, or, as someone said, like an aircraft hangar wrapped in a down comforter. Maybe it’s a quilted Chanel handbag. At any rate, the structure is a movable feast, a shell that glides along rails, seating 1,200 people at any one time, “physically transforming itself,” the hype says, “to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.” Which artists? Whose ambitious ideas? We still have to see. In 2013, the City of New York handed over $50 million towards the project, to Related Companies and the Oxford Properties Group, representing the single biggest capital grant given in that year.

Wandering around Hudson Yards, David and I spoke of something he’d written about over thirty years ago, in his book Consciousness and the Urban Experience: “the restless analyst.” It’s the mythical figure haunting The American Scene (1907), Henry James’s roving travelogue around fin-de-siècle America. James had been away from the US for twenty five years, living in Europe. As a “returning absentee,” between 1904-05, he spent a year rediscovering his native land, indignant at much he saw; many changes, he said, became “a perpetual source of irritation.” “Charming places, charming objects,” James wrote, “languish all around the restless analyst, under designations that seem to leave the smudge of a great vulgar thumb.”

The gaze of James’s restless analyst was the gaze of “an inquiring stranger.” The character likely came to mind at Hudson Yards because we, too, felt there like “inquiring strangers,” out of place and similarly indignant at much we saw. In Consciousness and the Urban Experience, David said he’d “long been impressed with this character the restless analyst. It seems to capture the only kind of intellectual stance possible in the face of a capitalism that reduces all aspects of social, cultural, and political (to say nothing of economic) life to the pure homogeneity and universality of money values and then transforms them according to the roving calculus of profit.” It’s hard to better this as an insight into what was unfolding all around us.

Maybe the restless analyst can be a sort of radical archetype, somebody we need more than ever today, an “inquiring stranger” who scours the capitalist landscape, restlessly keeping abreast with capitalism’s restless (and reckless) penchant for, as Marshall said, melting things into air, levelling everything even as it builds up. Perhaps the restless analyst is the archetypal modern commentator, whose sceptical gaze is never seduced by dazzling appearances, by that smudge of capitalism’s great vulgar thumb.

When it comes to the “roving calculus of profit” in cities these days, the question of land rent has to be foremost on any restless analyst’s mind. That most restless of restless analysts, Karl Marx, didn’t say much about urban land markets. His was a theory of agricultural ground-rent where the central challenge lay in understanding how land can have a value without being a product of labour. In The Limits to Capital, David’s masterpiece from 1982, urban land markets are tackled full on, and a brilliant reinterpretation of Marx’s theory is offered. It’s one of the most strikingly original features of Limits to Capital, a piece of genius in its apparent simplicity: that land under capitalism—especially urban land—has become another form of fictitious capital, another financial asset, having more in common with an asset-bearing investment—and hence with interest-bearing capital—than any arcane debate about rural soil fertility.

Ground-rent is a kind of “imaginary capital,” David said. What’s bought and sold isn’t so much land itself as “a title to the ground-rent yielded by it. The money laid out is equivalent to an interest-bearing investment. The buyer acquires a claim upon anticipated future revenues, a claim upon the future fruits of labour.” So the “value of land” is intimately related to the circulation of interest-bearing capital, as well as to the stock market, and to finance capital in general. In this way the spatial landscape of cities gets shaped by shifts in interest rates and by the ebbing and flowing of money capital, by its supply and demand. Perceptions of future rents deeply affect land values and property prices. This speculative bent can make or break certain locations, conditioning what might, and mightn’t, be built at any given moment. The built environment of cities thereby sways to the rhythm of capital accumulation.

In fact, the notion isn’t too far removed from Marx’s understanding; he’d hinted as much in drafts of Volume Three of Capital: “in cities that are experiencing rapid growth,” he’d said, “particularly where building is carried on with industrial methods, as in London, it is the ground-rent and not the house that forms the real object of speculation” (Marx’s emphases). And elsewhere: “capitalised ground-rent presents the appearance of the price of the value of land, so that the earth is bought and sold just like any other commodity.”

Curiously, the recent publication of Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864-1865, making available for the first time the only full draft of Volume Three of Capital, has shone light on Marx’s own view of ground-rent. (2) I say Marx’s “own view” here because the posthumous publication of Volume Three of Capital bore the heavy imprint of Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Engels had edited and added, divided and subdivided what Marx wrote as a continuous interconnected flow; the sections on interest-bearing capital and ground-rent particularly suffered under Engels’s stewardship. The former he blanketed with an overriding (and erroneous) concern for the “credit system”; the latter discussion on rent he chopped up and reordered into discrete sections. The reordering, alas, severed Marx’s close affiliation between interest-bearing capital and ground-rent—vindicating just how Marxian David’s vision of rent actually is in Limits.

In the Economic Manuscripts of 1864-1865, Marx called interest-bearing capital “the externalization of surplus-value.” In interest-bearing capital, he said, “the capital relation reaches its most fetishized form.” Here we have the appearance of money breeding money, of money no longer bearing any trace of its origin. “The social relation is consummated in the relationship of a thing (money) to itself.” It’s clear how Marx viewed ground-rent as another form of “externalized surplus-value,” as something parasitic rather than productive, a redistribution of total surplus-value and hence a filching of the fruits of labour. Only, of course, it doesn’t look like that.

Somebody has to pay, always; and usually it’s the working classes who get fleeced with increased levels of exploitation and oppression. “The tremendous power this gives to landed property,” said Marx, “when it is combined together with industrial capital in the same hands enables capital practically to exclude workers engaged in a struggle over wages from the very earth itself as a dwelling place.” In a single sentence, Marx seems to have laid bare the whole dynamics of New York’s housing and labour market. (He added, immediately thereafter, in parentheses, “here one section of society demands a tribute from the other for the right to inhabit the earth, just as in landed property in general the proprietors demand the right to exploit the earth’s surface.”)

Interest-bearing capital circulates through land markets, chasing enhanced future ground-rents; land prices get fixed accordingly. In a certain sense, the process becomes self-fulfilling: the pursuit of enhanced rents will often enhance those rents. Marketing, publicity and “place-making” play their role. “In this case,” said David, “the circulation of interest-bearing capital promotes activities on the land that conform to the highest and best uses, not simply in the present, but also in anticipation of future surplus-value production.” “Highest and best uses,” are, needless to say, capitalistically defined. Exchange-values are gouged out of what should be use-values. Locations like Hudson Yards are preeminent expressions of capital becoming an automatic fetish. Space becomes an exploitable commodity, a monopolizable financial asset, a frackable parcel of planet earth. Maximizing rent is akin to power-drilling for oil. Black gold in the city.

By eyeing future gains, landowners and developers “inject a fluidity and dynamism into the use of land that would otherwise be hard to generate.” We could say that this is precisely the impetus behind all that is solid melts into air; (3) that speculation in land may be necessary to capitalism but its restlessness and recklessness unleashes “speculative orgies,” which, David said, “periodically become the quagmire of destruction of capital itself.” The twist is that capital has various lines of defence to buffer these crises, to underwrite potential financial loss. The principal risk manager is none other than the state itself, the “last line of bourgeois defence,” David called it.

It’s perhaps the only occasion in Limits to Capital where I find myself in disagreement! For, nowadays, the state is surely the first line of defence, a defender of bourgeois ranks even before battle is waged. The state has a variety of powers at its disposal: land regulation (zoning), land expropriation (eminent domain), planning initiatives and the provision of public infrastructure—using taxpayers money to put in subway stops, roads and transport links, all of which can be capitalized upon as private gain. Meanwhile, tax breaks and assorted corporate alms add to the state’s relief arsenal.

Perhaps, in the past, pre-1982, the state mobilized its power as a last resort, countering market hiccups and incoherences, stepping in, as we know it has, to bale out capital when its speculative binges have wrought havoc, rescuing the system from total collapse. And yet, increasingly, the state now anoints capital in the first instance, putting in the initial spade work so that those speculative wheels of motions can run smoothly. Therein the state absorbs the contradictions of rent as fictitious capital. But so long as it remains a capitalist state, especially a neoliberal one, it can never abolish those contradictions. And thus solid society seems forever fated to melt into air.

Later in my New York trip I reflected upon something I already knew but hadn’t much thought about before: David’s Limits to Capital and Marshall’s All That Is Solid appeared in the same year—1982, during the first term of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Not exactly the most auspicious moment for two books professing allegiance to Marxism. But then again, what a testing ground: the inauguration of a deregulated, union busting and fiscally-downsizing capitalism, privatizing daily life, handing out tax cuts to the rich while waging brutal class war against the poor.

Two sorcerers of the “free market” had conjured up the powers of the monetarist netherworld, and unleashed it on the world stage as right-wing economic orthodoxy. They’d “set up that single, unconscionable freedom: Free Trade”—like Marx suggested the bourgeoisie would, “wherever it got the upper hand.” All of all, then, maybe just the ticket to ride for seasoned Marxist analysis. A senseless material world that Marxists could make dialectical sense of? The great bearded prophet ought to have been our critical main man, the most trenchant thinker to expose the fetishism of the free market, together with the dogmatism of those free-marketeers.

Yet it wasn’t the case: Limits to Capital and All That Is Solid were both quietly received. Marshall’s friend, the cultural critic John Leonard, gave All That Is Solid a rave review in The New York Times (January 8th, 1982), with a little sting—“Seize the day and the change the world,” wrote Leonard, “Modernism is a ‘permanent revolution,’ full of radical sunrise and great dawn…I love this book and wished I believed it.” Elsewhere, All That Is Solid had no elsewhere, made little impact. For the bottom line Simon & Schuster, it wasn’t terribly important. The jacket image revealed bundles about its lack of commitment: dull blue with a faint gaseous white plume, dissipating upwards, going nowhere, signifying nothing. Marshall said his book fast disappeared, went immediately into limbo; the publishers, he said, placed it “into an ominous category of being ‘indefinitely out of stock’.”

Limits to Capital, meantime, did the academic rounds. The Annals of the Association of American Geographers described it as “a marvellous achievement, demonstrating a tremendous personal and intellectual feel for the texture of Marx’s arguments.” If anything, bourgeois geography warmed to Limits more than scholarly Marxism—a tradition, after all, dominated by historians (think of Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson and E.P.Thompson). The privileging of history over geography, of time over space, within the Marxist tradition, has meant to a rather one-sided kind of leftism, an interpretation that has often downplayed capitalism’s spatial dimension. David suggested the system’s temporal and financial contradictions get displaced into space, that internal crises are susceptible to an external “spatial fix”: “geographical expansion and uneven geographical development,” he said, “hold out the possibility for a contradiction-prone capitalism to right itself.” In other words, capitalism buys time for itself out the space that it conquers, that it perpetually transforms, in both the city and the world.

As both books languished, though, radical publisher Verso stepped in, giving each the kiss of new life, a popular afterlife. After a few years of nasty exchanges and threats of lawsuits, Marshall said All That Is Solid was prised loose from Simon & Schuster; Verso then ensured it had a future, that it “had legs”—a longer shelf-life than anyone ever imagined, never out-of-print since, even venturing into regions and intellectual realms Marshall himself never dreamt of. Verso, moreover, pricked up its ears to Limits to Capital, a full seventeen years after its initial publication. But by 1999 they really listened, largely because one of their honcho authors, Fredric Jameson, said they should listen.

In the pages of publisher’s companion journal, New Left Review, he’d called David’s book “a magisterial review and re-theorization of Marx.” Limits was one of the “most lucid and satisfying recent attempts,” Jameson said, “to outline Marx’s economic thought.” And it was, he added, “perhaps the only one to tackle the thorny problem of ground-rent in Marx”—that “structurally necessary fiction” under capitalism. Jameson’s article was entitled “The Brick and the Balloon,” and it dealt with the link between architecture and real estate; how each is mediated by aesthetics, and how aesthetic mediation usually involves the economic logic of rent. It was a typically brilliant Jameson essay, piling up references and ideas and concepts almost to the point of bursting; yet it brought heavy-duty attention to David’s almost-forgotten opus.

David said Limits wasn’t about building firm or fixed building blocks, but a fluid, dialectical mode of argumentation and presentation; and in this he and Marshall found common ground. All That Is Solid depicts an impressionist Marx, the Marx of the Manifesto, loosely sketching out capitalism’s laws of motion; the brush strokes are fast, the detail fuzzy—especially if you venture up close. This isn’t necessarily a fault; it’s more a perspective from which Marshall wanted to enter a particular experience, the experience of being modern, of living within these broad brush strokes. Limits, on the other hand, moves inside that canvas, is more precise about where it applies its paint. Here Impressionism gives way to Realism; moving in close with David lets you see the detail of the layers of Marx’s paint, how he endlessly reworked and touched up.

Limits follows the Marx of Capital, beginning with the commodity, dealing at first with capitalism as a closed system. In Volume One of Capital, Marx had purposely closed it down. He’d wanted to capture the system’s purity, its essential movement—from the standpoint of its “cell-form.” Only when Marx understood what lay within this restless urge for movement and expansion could he let his theory be open to this restless urge for movement and expansion. Thus it’s only later in Limits, when David theorizes crisis, that his and Marshall’s vision complement one another. Crisis meant “creative destruction”; capitalism tears down its solid edifice in order to renew its monetary spirit. Renewal is an innately ruinous and nihilistic imperative. To accumulate capital, the built landscape is configured at one moment only to be ripped apart and reconfigured at a later moment. Devaluation somehow prefigures revaluation. So it goes.

But so it goes for how long, and how far? Nobody knows—not even Marx. Marx made a series of contingent projections about capitalism’s destiny, not, as some think, absolute predictions. Near the end of Volume One of Capital, we think it’s the end; we think Marx has finally had it in for capitalism, that its own “immanent laws” are about to destroy it. Here he is, in Chapter 32 on “The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” letting rip, giving us a crescendo of stirring prose, hitherto kept under wraps:

Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. The integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

This seems as good a place as any to stop, to finish Capital on an upbeat note, gleefully celebrating the collapse of bourgeois society, its own melting into air. But no, this isn’t how Marx’s dialectical brain operates. Suddenly, he moves against himself, against his own wishful thinking, forcing open his Pandora’s box, unsealing his closed system, opening it up to fresh rounds of “primitive accumulation.” Pow, now there seems no stopping capital’s expansion machine again, spinning off into a colonial orbit (Chapter 33). Now the world is seemingly its oyster. New fertile soils emerge to rip off and to privatize, to kickstart its accumulation process—in the US and Canada, and in Australia.

Marx had earlier toyed with the “secret” of primitive accumulation; now he makes it public knowledge. Primitive accumulation, he says, plays the same role for capital as “original sin” does for theologists. It’s the starting point of something revelatory, an epiphanal beginning, an initiation into virgin territories, into pre-capitalist lands, into “New Worlds,” civilizing the uncivilized, exploiting where it hasn’t already exploited, already established links, putting in place new social relations of domination. The possibilities for primitive accumulation appear infinite. Isn’t Hudson Yards yet another instance of “primitive” accumulation in the “civilized” city?

Nowadays, primitive accumulation mobilizes high-tech sophistication, plunders modern territories, dispossesses lands and states—land-grabs, people evicts, invades the whole public realm (privatizing spaces, schools, services, hospitals, infrastructure)— smashing and pilfering where it can, anyway it can. Marx ends Capital devilishly open-ended because he knew how capital itself is devilishly open-ended. It turns on new axes, gyrates to all manner of new gyrations. What else could the man do but to gyrate himself?

And yet, and yet, perhaps the limits of capital’s gyrations in the city will be set by capital itself, by its own cannibalization of urban space. Aren’t there endemic problems with expelling workers “from inhabiting the earth as a dwelling place”? They’re value producers, after all. Won’t capital here fall foul of its own automatic fetish, of money creating more money ex nihilo? The limits to the “general law of capitalist accumulation” might really be the limits of the law’s inherent logic.

This law, remember, creates a “relative surplus population”; men and women who feel the brunt of capital’s business cycles, of the pushing and pulling of industrial production, sucking people in when the economy soars, spitting them out when it dips. Marx knew how this system “creates a mass of human material always ready for exploitation by capital’s own changing valorization requirements.” “Its own energy and extent,” he said, produces a “relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population superfluous to capital’s average requirements.”

So, too, now, in the city, capitalism’s new factory for valorizing capital, where primitive accumulation’s messenger boy is interest-bearing capital circulating through spaces, searching out those titles to future ground-rents. The process renders workers superfluous, not only from work but from the totality of living space, displacing from dwelling space as it downsizes the workplace. Can accumulation at one pole and relative superfluity at the other continue together, forever, in the city? Won’t we reach a point when a kind of Endgame sets in, when the general law of capitalist accumulation generalises its own illegality?

Here, when the rich have banished the poor from its urban core, from its isotropic plane of business immanence, won’t we have reached a strange apotheosis? Won’t we have reached an Endgame, like in chess, when the game is up although we continue to feign the moves? When, after little is left on the urban checkerboard besides a few loose pawns and kings, kings playing off against other kings, square by square, isn’t there’s nothing left to win nor any real possibility of ever winning? Nothing to exploit, nobody to valorize capital?

Or… or is it more that those pawns might learn “to thrive on renewal,” as Marshall said, and “delight in mobility,” keep moving on come what may? Maybe these pawns will edge along together, agonizingly, one square at a time, until they finally make it to the end of the board, transforming themselves into powerful queens, winning the Endgame against all odds.

Ah, I know this checkmate is probably pure fantasy. But even if it never happens, I’ll take comfort in the meantime from one basic idea underlying both David’s and Marshall’s work: that of a Marx without limits, an ever-renewable thinker whose thought and practice will live on so long as capitalism lives on, so long as working class people everywhere retain a capacity to still make moves.


(1) See Kriston Capps, “The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed,” CityLab (April 12, 2019):

(2) See Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864-1865 (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2017)

(3) In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall suggests this melting process is an example of “bourgeois nihilism.” He also cities, in a footnote, David’s work to this effect. “It is only recently,” Marshall says, “that Marxist thinkers have begun to explore this theme. The economic geographer David Harvey tries to show in detail how the repeated intentional destruction of the ‘built environment’ is integral to the accumulation of capital.”

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Buttoning Up With Marx

At a quarter to three in the afternoon, March 14, 1883, Karl Marx passed away peacefully in his favourite armchair. Three days later, a few miles up the road, he was buried, a citizenless émigré, in London’s Highgate Cemetery. At the graveside, eleven mourners paid homage to “Old Moor,” and listened to Marx’s longtime comrade and benefactor, Friedrich Engels—“The General”—remember his dear departed friend: “An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by historical science, in the death of this man. The gap that has been left by the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt.” “His name,” Engels predicted, “will endure through the ages, and so also will his thought.”

A hundred and thirty six years on, Highgate Cemetery continues to receive a steady stream of Marx well-wishers, of all ages and nationalities, the curious and the converted, and fresh flowers and moving inscriptions, in almost every language under the sun, regularly adorn the great revolutionary’s gravestone. Towering overhead, seemingly indomitably, is the man himself, or rather a gigantic bust of him, with its menacing eyes staring out into the distance, perhaps frowning at his conservative rival Herbert Spencer, whose remains lie opposite across the path.

Over the years, too, the cemetery has attracted its fair share of naysayers, people who’ve had it in for Marx and for all he stood for, still stands for. Reactionaries have taken hammers and chisels to his monument, daubed graffiti over it, tried to blow it up with a pipe bomb—in 1970, in a National Front affront. But the grave’s design—solid bronze bust with a brick-reinforced granite plinth—has so far resisted everything thrown at it. I say “so far” because just this past week, as I write—late February 2019—perhaps the nastiest attack to date has been perpetrated; the Grade I-listed monument might never be the same again. The nastiest attack in the nastiest of times, and that, alas, is no coincidence.

In early February, vandals took a blunt instrument to Marx’s headstone. But they hadn’t reckoned on its thickness. So they returned later that same night, with what seems like a lump hammer, taking further swipes. This time they shattered pieces from the tablet, those bearing the letters of Marx’s name, as well as members of his family, including his four year old grandson, Harry Longuet. And then, several weeks on, the tomb was ransacked a second time, splattered with lurid red paint, saying: “Doctrine of Hate” and “Architect of Genocide.” Ian Dungavell, chief executive of Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a man responsible for the cemetery’s 53,00 graves, was shocked by both assaults, condemning them as a “particularly inarticulate form of political comment.”

My heart sank when I heard the news. Perhaps because I knew that, these days, inarticulacy is very much the form of our political commentary. Maybe, too, because over past decades I’ve tried to articulate my own vision of Marx and Marxism. Marx’s thought has never been rigid dogma or some sterile formula for me; instead, it’s a rich source of ideas, a vibrant critical (and self-critical) culture, capable of innumerable spin-offs and reinterpretations, imaginative adaptations and provocations. Marx’s vision is about human liberation not collective enslavement. Why would any tyrant ever imagine a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (The Communist Manifesto)? Or a “society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle” (Capital Volume One)?

Marx’s thought has survived for more than a century and a half because of its fluidity and dynamism—not because of its solidity and rigidity. I say all this while never really being smitten by Marx’s Highgate bust, by an immense iconic image of the man, and of Marxism, a Marxism of big statues and flag-wavering, of a holy orthodoxy far removed from the messy profane world of real mortals. Marx himself, of course, occupied this messy profane world. In real life, he was an intricate and vulnerable figure, a feisty yet frail patriarch, a poor peripatetic vagabond who spent more than thirty years traipsing from one crummy London apartment to another, his whole family often living in just two cluttered rooms, avoiding debts, pawning what little he had (including his own overcoat), shrugging off illness, watching four children pre-decease him. (The two survivors, Eleanor and Laura, later killed themselves.)

Marx’s personal pains far exceeded his political woes. Never had anyone, he once said of himself, written about capital in general amidst a total lack of capital in particular. Marx’s own ironic—not iconic—Marxism often seemed more akin to a Groucho Marxism, avoiding any club that would have him as a member: “I, at least, am not a Marxist,” Karl is once reputed to have a told a French socialist, after seeing his thought bastardised. More often than not Marx resembled a dishevelled underground character from Dostoevsky or Gogol, having his overcoat ripped off his back, feeling the chill breeze of the economy and the climate pierce his threadbare clothing. (The Communist Manifesto is full of such imagery.)

Marx’s clumsy outsiderness, his foreignness, his broken English, could have easily earned him a lead role in a Beckett performance. Marx knew the ropes and tropes of dingy bedsit tenancies populated by the likes of Murphy, or the anonymous evictee of “The Expelled,” flung out onto the rooming-house’s steps, hearing the door slam behind him. For Marx, waiting for the revolution was invariably Waiting for Godot. Marx’s alter-egos were more Watt than Stalin, more Molloy than Mao. His Vladimir was a Didi not an Ilyich. He was the intellectual champion of the underdog principally because he was one. He learned about the brutality of capitalism from political activism and mammoth reading sessions in the British Museum; yet his knowledge of working class domestic oppression came first-hand, was lived out. A prophet of genocide? Give me a break.

I was beginning to agree with the Marxist academic Fredric Jameson: that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Some days, it does feel like we are living through the end of the world. Everything seems such a hopeless dead-end—our politics, our economy, our high-tech culture, our collective future. Maybe it’s a sort of Endgame: the game is up yet somehow the match goes on, square by square, pawns besides Kings. “It’s time it ended,” Hamm says in Endgame, Beckett’s play about the end of the world, a world that had ended yet continues to trudge on miserably. “Clov,” Hamm asks his half-crippled assistant, in a question we might pose today, if only to ourselves, “Have you had enough?” “Yes!” Clov answers. Then, pausing, wonders, “Of what?” “Of this…this…thing,” says Hamm. “I always had,” says Clov.

Have you had enough? Of what? Of this…this…thing? At low times, I’ve really had enough. I suspect I’m not the only one. Daily on the news: I try to avoid looking, try to close my ears. Yet I hear it everywhere. Newspapers. People talking. On screens. In the air. This thing that depresses. Trump? Brexit? Climate meltdown? Consumer capitalism? Hate-mongering nationalists wanting to build walls or create little islands? And then the desecration of Marx’s grave, which tipped me over the edge, or else brought on a raging fever. I knew then how Wally Shawn’s traveling protagonist felt in The Fever, a play about a personal contagion that’s really a political self-reawakening.[1]

In fact, reality has depressed me so much that I vowed now was the time to get back to Marx. It’d been awhile since I’d read him closely, and almost twenty years since I’d taught him at university, in my former academic days in America. God knows, it had been truly awful then, under post-9/11 George W. Bush’s reign. It would’ve been hard for my friends and I on the Left to imagine, in our most terrifying nightmares, that things could ever get worse. Little did we know. First time tragedy, this time farce.

Thus my pledge: to get back to Marx, back to Capital, to Volume One. 2019 would be nothing less than Capital Days: A Year Reading Marx, commencing February, the month his thought was most brutally violated. It would sound pretentious to say A Year Re-Reading Marx, but that would have been truer, since I must have read Volume One of Capital a half-dozen times already, at least. This time I decided to buy a brand new copy—Vintage’s handsome Marx Library Edition, from 1977—so that I could read it afresh, uninhibited by past annotations, by the old scribbles and underlinings found in my tatty Penguin copy, first read in 1986, during Thatcher’s second term.

Everybody says, even Marx himself, that those early chapters of Capital are the most difficult. In 1872, Marx was thrilled to see his great work translated into French and serialized. But he warned French readers not to be too hasty: “the method of analysis which I employed,” he said, “and which had not previously been applied to economic subjects, makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous.” “The French public,” he feared, “always impatient to come to a conclusion, eager to know the connection between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once.”

Still, despite his cautioning, there’s something wonderfully dizzyingly about moving inside Marx’s mind, about laughing at his acerbic wit, hearing his often poetic lyricism and following his analytical logic, even getting bogged down in this analytical logic. What Marx is up to early on in Capital is something today we might call coding. He’s literally programming capitalism; and reading him is our attempt to download the critical app he’s created for us, the conceptual software that allows us, step by step, contradiction by contradiction, to trace out capitalism’s whole evolutionary movement. He’s like some genius computer hacker, or maverick theoretical physicist, inhabiting a vast virtual and material universe, scouring it for economic black holes and political event horizons.

Marx’s plane of immanence incorporates the whole wide capitalist world, with its intricate web of global money flows and commodity exchanges, of capital accumulating and stock prices rising and dipping. This system taps into the furthest and widest reaches of our planet while plumbing the depths of our everyday lives. And yet, for all that, its atomic composition, its basic constitutive part—its “cell-form,” Marx calls it—is the “ostensibly trivial” commodity, abounding in all sorts of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” What Marx wants to demonstrate here is how such “a motley mosaic of disparate and unconnected expressions of value” aren’t so disparate and unconnected as we might think.

One of the great cameo appearances at the start of Capital is the tailor, together with his trusty product, the coat. For a dozen or more pages, the tailor’s coat, and its counterpart, the linen, comprise some of weirdest and most brilliant sections of Marx’s whole text. For centuries, Marx says, humans have made coats without a single person ever becoming a tailor. It’s only with the advent of capitalism that tailoring became a specialist trade, “an independent branch of the social division of labour.” Suddenly, the tailor’s wares became value-creating abstract labour; the coat an objectification, the incarnation of “socially-necessary labour time,” a material thing extinguished of all sensuous characteristics, exchanged on the marketplace for money.

This is how Marx puts it:

In the production of the coat, human labour-power, in the shape of tailoring, has in actual fact been expended. Human labour has therefore been accumulated in the coat. From this point of view, the coat is a ‘bearer of value,’ although this property never shows through, even when the coat is at its most threadbare. In its value-relation with the linen, the coat counts only under this aspect, counts therefore as embodied value, as the body of value. Despite its buttoned up appearance, the linen recognizes in it a splendid kindred soul, the soul of value.

“As a use-value,” Marx continues,

the linen is something palpably different from the coat; as value, it is identical with the coat and therefore looks like the coat. Thus the linen acquires a value-form different from its natural form. Its existence as value is manifested in its equality with the coat, just as the sheep-like nature of the Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God.

“In order to inform us that the linen’s sublime objectivity as a value,” Marx says a bit later, “differs from its stiff and starchy existence as a body, it says that value has the appearance of a coat, and therefore that in so far as the linen itself is an object of value, it and the coat are as alike as two peas.”

And again:

in the value-relation of commodity A to commodity B, of the linen to the coat, not only is the commodity-type coat equated with the linen in qualitative terms as an object of value as such, but also a definite quantity of the object of value or equivalent, 1 coat, for example, is equated with a definite quantity of linen, such as 20 yards. The equation 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat, presupposes the presence in 1 coat of exactly as much or the substance of value as there is in 20 yards of linen, implies therefore that the quantities in which the two commodities are present have the cost of the same amount of labour or the same quantity of labour-power.

And a few pages on, Marx resumes:

If one kind of commodity, such as a coat, serves as the equivalent of another, such as linen, and coats therefore acquire the characteristic property of being in a form in which they can be directly exchanged with the linen, this still by no means provides us with the proportion in which the two are exchangeable. Since the magnitude of the value of the linen is a given quantity, this proportion depends on the magnitude of the coat’s value. Whether the coat is expressed as the equivalent and the linen as relative value, or, inversely, the linen is expressed as equivalent and the coat as relative value, the magnitude of the coat’s value is determined, as ever, by the labour-time necessary for its production, independently of its value-form. But as soon as the coat takes up the position of the equivalent in the value expression, the magnitude of its value ceases to be expressed quantitatively.

Thus “the relative value-form of a commodity,” Marx says, “the linen for example,

expresses its value-existence as something wholly different from its substance and properties, as the quality of being comparable with a coat for example; this expression itself therefore indicates it conceals a social relation…The coat, therefore, seems to be endowed with its equivalent form, its property of direct exchange ability, by nature, just as much as its property of being heavy or its ability to keep us warm. Hence the mysteriousness of the equivalent form, which only impinges on the crude bourgeois vision of the political economist when it confronts him in its fully developed shape, that of money.

When I read these sections on the coat, I’d not long finished Samuel Beckett’s early novel Watt, written in the south of France in the early 1940s, as the author fled Nazi Occupation. What struck me immediately were the similarities between both men’s mode of argumentation, their irresistible urge to understand inexplicable realities through dialectical gyrations. At Knott’s house, Watt fixates on the pot much as Marx had fixated on the coat.

“Watt was greatly troubled by this tiny little thing,” says Beckett,

more troubled perhaps than he had ever been by anything, and Watt had been frequently and exceedingly troubled, in his time, by this imperceptible, no, hardly imperceptible, since he perceived it, by this undefinable thing that prevented him from saying of the object that was so like a pot, that it was a pot, and of the creature that still in spite of everything presented a large number of exclusively human characteristics, that it was a man…Thus of the pseudo-pot he would say, after reflection, It is a shield, or, growing bolder, It is a raven, and so on. But the pot proved as little a shield, or a raven, or any other of the things that Watt called it, as a pot.[2]

Yet Watt’s logic is much less politically charged than Marx’s. The coat, for Marx, has profound political as well as dialectical significance. We might even say that the political significance of the coat for Marx emanated from the personal significance of the coat for Marx. Peter Stallybrass’s essay, “Marx’s Coat,” offers a fascinating glimpse of poor Marx, not only journeying to the British Museum in his old overcoat, but also having to periodically shuffle to the pawnbroker with his old overcoat.[3] Marx was so broke that he was often forced to sell what little he had to the pawnbroker. One time, Marx went to the pawnbroker with wife Jenny’s family silver, a precious heirloom. He was unkempt, with a ragged mane, and the silver bore the crest of the Duke of Argyll. The pawnbroker, seeing such a noble stamp peddled by such a wretched soul, became suspicious, called the cops, who took Marx away to the station, locking him up in a cell for the night.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Marx’s coat was in and out of the pawnshop.
When Marx’s fortunes picked up, if either Engels helped out, or Marx published a piece of paid journalism in the New York Daily Tribune, he’d go back to the pawnbroker and try to redeem his old coat. Until then, he’d be housebound, especially in winter. Without his coat, no British Museum. Without the British Museum, no research for Capital. “What clothes Marx wore,” Stallybrass says, “thus shaped what he wrote.” As a use-value, Marx’s coat kept him warm in winter, brought him the appearance of a respectable gent, able to access the bourgeois Reading Room of the British Museum. But his coat, as an exchange-value, is evacuated of its use-value; its physical existence, Marx says, then becomes “phantom-like.”

It’s hard to imagine that Marx, the great devourer of Shakespeare, Goethe and Balzac, hadn’t at some point read Nikolai Gogol’s phantom-like tale The Overcoat, from 1842. Gogol was already famous in Marx’s day. And The Overcoat’s hero—or anti-hero—Akaky Akakievich, has his overcoat ripped off by thugs one dark night, much as Marx’s Communist Manifesto (written six years after Gogol’s tale) said market expansion (with its daylight thuggery) would tear away all veils and protective clothing of the labouring classes, overcoats included.

Gogol’s Akaky is a lowly titular clerk, poor and passive yet silently stoic. His problem is that his overcoat is so threadbare that in places its cloth is transparent. It’s nigh useless against the vicious onslaught of Petersburg’s wind, whipping up off the Neva. Akaky fears his coat is done for. So he takes it to Petrovich, the drunken tailor “living somewhere on the third floor up some backstairs.” Petrovich takes a long look at Akaky’s rags and shakes his head. “No,” he says, “I can’t mend that. It can’t be done, sir. It’s too far gone.” He can make a new one—for 150 roubles. Akaky’s head begins to swim. How an earth will he find such a sum?

Somehow, tapping modest savings, scrimping here and there, together with an unexpected little work bonus, Akaky cobbles together the money for the new coat. And Petrovich couldn’t have delivered it at a more opportune moment. The severe frost had just arrived and was set to get worse. But Akaky is warm now, and triumphant; the day of its first wearing is like a great festive holiday, Gogol says. Akaky walks taller down the street. His work colleagues, instead of pillorying him (as usual), now admire him, decked out in his majestic new garb. They organize a drinks party in his honour.

But Akaky isn’t used to these occasions and creeps away early. Though it’s already well past his bedtime; and he’s a bit tipsy after a glass of champagne. Everywhere is closed, shuttered up, and not a soul about the dismal streets. Suddenly, as Akaky’s enters a square, a pair of burly shapes dodge out of the shadows, grab Akaky’s collar, punch him in the face, pull off his coat, and knee him in the groin. The overcoat has gone. Akaky calls for help—to no avail. The night watchman had seen nothing, hadn’t been watching the night. Akaky runs off home, “in a shocking state,” says Gogol.

The next day, he goes to the police. But they’re not bothered. Complain to a superior, they say, to an important person. (Gogol uses italics to denote important people in the bureaucracy.) And yet, important persons aren’t terribly interested in hearing from a poor folk’s grumblings about a stolen overcoat: “If I may be so bold as to trouble you, Your Excellency…” stammers Akaky. “Do you realise who you’re talking to?” the important person admonishes. “Do you know who’s standing before you? Do you understand?…” “Where did you pick up such ideas?” says the important person. “What is this rebelliousness spreading among the young against their chiefs and higher-ups?”

“The important person seemed not to notice,” Gogol says, almost parenthetically, “that Akaky was already pushing fifty. And so, even if he might be called a young man, it was only relatively.” Belittled by this important person, frozen in a raging Petersburg blizzard, on his way home Akaky catches a fever. The malady progresses violently. Akaky breathes his last a day later. “So disappeared forever,” Gogol says, “a human being whom no one ever thought of protecting, who was dear to no one, in whom no one was in the least interested.”

But as so often with Gogol, the end is never really the end. Comedy lurks somewhere around the corner of tragedy. Akaky disappeared, until, until… he comes back to life, haunting the city, this time as a phantom intent on revenge, intent on nocturnally ripping off the overcoats of others, with no regard for rank or title, even tracking down the important person himself: “Suddenly the important person himself felt a violent tug at his collar… ‘Ah, at last I’ve found you!,’ says the phantom. ‘Now I’ve, er, hm, collared you! It’s your overcoat I’m after! You didn’t care a toss about mine and you couldn’t resist giving me a good ticking-off into the bargain! Now hand over your overcoat!’” The important person is terrified out of his wits: It may have been what Marx meant when he said, in the Manifesto, that losing your overcoat was sobering, that then you’d have to face, “with sober senses,” your “real conditions of life.”

I can’t help think that Marx would have loved this imagery of the underdog haunting the overdog. He loved the idea of spectres haunting Europe. And he wasn’t talking about Brexit, either. His spectres haunted the bourgeois order, the spectre of a new social contract, an affinity between people without a country, without a national community, based on a common belonging to a class, a solidarity that brings justice and peace. A phantom-thought still. But let it haunt; let it disseminate our culture as a ghostly presence ready to tear the coats off the backs of important persons. I thought of this as I walked up the hill of Swain’s Lane, on my way to Highgate Cemetery, to its East Wing, going to pay homage to old Moor myself, see what was happening to his vandalised grave.

The brutality of the attack shocked me. Some of the red paint had already been scrubbed off. Yet the plinth had been assaulted with terrifying force, by someone verging on the demented. Scary that they’re still walking London’s streets. (We might wonder what kind of world we’d have if this type ever seized power?) I took a photo of the damage, along with the little bunch of daffodils some gentle soul had placed there.

One suspects that the perpetrator was himself an underdog, somebody who’s had his own overcoat torn away by our system, yet who feels a bilious rage inside, enough to lash out rightwards. There are a lot of bouquets at the base of the grave, from all over the globe, and a sign, on A4 paper, sellotaped on the plinth, left by the Turkish Revolutionary Path movement. Torn but intact, it reads, in red uppercase: “YOU CAN DESTROY MARX’S GRAVESTONE, BUT YOU CANNOT DESTROY HIS IDEOLOGY.”

“Normally,” said Ian Dungavell, “we take signs down, but on this occasion, I think we’ll leave it.” It’s a nice thought: that that ideology, that those ideas, might still be blowing in the wind, haunting the world, despite the hammer blows that try to destroy them. I could even imagine Marx’s own phantom, Akaky-like, floating up Swain’s Lane, headed towards Highgate Village, up and over and beyond, a phantom intent on vengeance, nocturnally ripping off the overcoats of others—with no regard for rank or title, tracking down important bourgeois persons, before vanishing into the darkness of Hampstead Heath. (On Sunday summer afternoons, up on the Heath, the whole Marx family delighted in reenacting Shakespeare together.) But now I need to cross over Hampstead Heath myself, button up against the damp air, and get back to my Capital Days.



[1] “One day,” Shawn’s dramatic monologue goes, “there was an anonymous present sitting on my doorstep—Volume One of Capital by Karl Marx, in a brown paper bag. Did someone leave it as a joke? Did someone seriously think I should read it? And who had left it there? I never found out. Late that night, naked in bed, I leafed through it. At first it seemed impossible, a sort of impenetrable tangle of obsessively repeated groups of words curling around each other like moles underground, but when I came to the part about the lives of the workers—the coal-miners, the child labourers—I could feel myself suddenly breathing more slowly.”

[2] It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Beckett has his own tailor tale, a joke Nagg tells in Endgame: An Englishman goes to the tailor for a new pair of trousers. The tailor takes his measurements and tells him to come back in four days. Four days later: “So sorry,” the tailor says, “come back in a week, I’ve made a mess of the seat.” A week later: “Frightfully sorry, come back in ten days,” the tailor says, “I’ve made a hash of the crotch.” Ten days later: “Dreadfully sorry,” the tailor says, “come back in a fortnight, I’ve made a balls of the fly…a smart fly is a stiff proposition.” The Englishman, now at the end of his tether, complains bitterly: “God damn you to hell, Sir…there are limits. In six, do you hear me, six days, God made the world, yes, Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making a pair of trousers in three months!” “[Tailor’s voice, scandalised]” “But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—[disdainful gesture, disgustedly]—at the world—and look—[loving gesture, proudly]—at my TROUSERS.”

[3] Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat” in Patricia Spyer (ed) Border Fetishisms: Material Objects In Unstable Spaces (Routledge, London, 1997)

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Encountering Marshall Berman and Mike Davis

Marshall Berman’s Nation review of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, ‘LA Raw,’ from 1991, is an all-time favourite of mine in part because Davis’s book on Los Angeles is an all-time favourite of mine, one of the greatest urban books ever. ‘I said that City of Quartz is refreshing in its neglect of Hollywood,’ Marshall wrote, ‘but this isn’t quite true. There’s a full frontal Hollywood in Davis’s back-cover self-presentation. He doesn’t mention going to school anywhere or studying anything with anyone, so I guess we’re meant to think he learned all he knows at the rack or on the road. Above the jacket copy there’s an elaborately staged (and stagy) cover photo, in which the author comes on like Charles Bukowski’s doomed younger brother. We see him standing on a closed overpass (evoking factory or prison garb), dressed in proletarian clothes, glaring out at us as if to say this is his turf and he doesn’t want company, hugging himself tight to fight off the DTs or maybe the existential cold. The look is that of an ageing, ravaged light-heavyweight who could have been a contender but has taken too many shots to the head.’

I remember buying City of Quartz at the Museum of Modern Art bookstore in December 1990. A big-formatted, glossy hardback, hot off the press, what a thrill it was. I was visiting New York from Baltimore. In the latter place I was spending a sandwich year at grad school, at Johns Hopkins, between my stint at Oxford. David Harvey told me I should go to Baltimore, study it; the city, he said, once deemed ‘the armpit of the East,’ would make a good dissertation comparison with Liverpool, my hometown. David lived and taught in Baltimore for decades before moving to Oxford, and still kept his house there, near Homewood campus, in Hampden. Part of the house was vacant. He said I could stay there if I wanted. I did want.

When I came to New York that Christmas I got a ride off another grad student with a car. We blasted up Interstate 95 one Friday night in the pouring rain. He dropped me off on the Lower East Side, along Avenue A. For some reason I’ll always remember the music playing in the car as we cruised the East Village’s dark and wet streets – John Coltrane, his 16-minute lead-out number, ‘Africa,’ from the 1961 experimental album Africa/Brass. Those menacing syncopations of Coltrane’s tenor, hooting like frantic car horns, will always remain evocative of that evening, with its wild jungle feel, an unknown chaos, an impending doom, demonic and threatening. Coltrane’s sax and the brass section, the drums and piano and bass, all worked against each other, in a disruptive cacophony, perfect for the kinetic sound of the city that evening, a brilliantly inventive jazz that forever plays in my brain when I think of New York, pulsating with an energy at once scary and invigorating.

To call it scary and invigorating was about right then because the Lower East Side was scary and invigorating. I stepped out of the car with Tompkins Square Park immediately before me. In those days it was tent city for New York’s ever-expanding homeless population, hundreds of residues and displacees of Ed Koch’s mayoral years. Everything was soggy and tense that night. Conditions were gruesome; lots of angry shouting and growling dogs, chained to trees, frothing at the mouth, as well as a heavy-handed police presence, similarly frothing at the mouth, patrolling the perimeter of the twelve-acre park; an odd commingling of Sesame Street, Hooverville and Haight-Ashbury, someone called it. For a while the space had been highly contested terrain. Homeless populations, housing advocates, and East Village anarchists regularly clashed with the NYPD.

This stark dystopian backdrop prologued my New York City visit and set the tone of the urban zeitgeist. Mike Davis caught this zeitgeist in City of Quartz, gave it a dazzlingly new narrative form. It was his style that I’d found so captivating. Mike could really write, had tremendous storytelling gifts. He wove together cultural history and politics, economics and literature, film and music, capturing the whole city, the whole implicate order, while keeping his nose close to the street, pacing the sidewalk, cruising the freeway. A giant city like Los Angeles was laid down solid on the page, in print. This wasn’t dry scholarship. It was the real thing, he was the real thing, a gritty urbanist after my own heart, one I wanted to emulate. I even loved the stagy flap image of him, hugging himself under an underpass, coming on like Bukowski’s doomed younger brother – as Marshall said! There were plenty of places in Baltimore where I could similarly hug myself, affect the same DT pose.

Mike amalgamated all the things a 30-year-old grad student, struggling to write an academic PhD, could only dream about. I wanted to pull off a similar scam myself, but knew I couldn’t. Not as a PhD. I knew it would take me someplace else, someplace beyond academia. I was envious and admiring of Davis in equal measure. He’d blended together Blade Runner with Antonio Gramsci, hip-hop gangbangers with Scientologists, critical urban theory with Raymond Chandler; Cal jazz legends Art Pepper and Ornette Coleman shared airtime with novelist Thomas Pynchon. This was a Marxism beyond my wildest fantasies, and I wanted more. It was dramatic and exciting. When Mike spoke about the jazz and literature I loved, his prose soared: ‘Living in Skid Row hotels, jamming in friends’ garages, and studying music theory between floors during his stint as an elevator operator at Bullocks Wilshire, Ornette Coleman was a cultural guerrilla in the Los Angeles of the 1950s.’ Meanwhile, Art Pepper ‘studied bebop on Central Avenue, did graduate work on heroin in Boyle Heights, and became emeritus at San Quentin.’ As for Thomas Pynchon, his Crying of Lot 49 (1965) ‘provided the ultimate freeway-map ontology of Southern California.’ ‘As radically “decentred” as any contemporary Althusserian could have wished, Crying of Lot 49 wastes no time grappling with the alienation of its subject.’

The street-fighting, tough guy persona you got from Mike wasn’t really Marshall’s shtick. But he’d appreciated how Davis had carried off something special. Davis wrote beautifully, Marshall said, ‘about less glamorous places and themes of LA’s; about its industrial ghost towns, like Fontana, where Davis was born in 1946, full of shattered dreams and awaiting new development.’ ‘Fontana probably has more wrecked cars per capita than anywhere else on the planet,’ Davis said. The town is full of wrecks.

‘Scattered amid the broken bumper cars and Ferris wheel seats are nostalgic bits and pieces of Southern California’s famous extinct amusement parks. Suddenly rearing up from the back of a flatbed trailer are the fabled stone elephants and pouncing lions that once stood at the gates of Selig Zoo in Eastlake (Lincoln) Park, where they had enthralled generations of Eastside kids. I tried to imagine how a native of Manhattan would feel, suddenly discovering the New York Public Library stone lions discarded in a New Jersey wrecking yard. Past generations are like so much debris to be swept away by the developers’ bulldozer. In which case it is only appropriate that they should end up here, in Fontana—the junkyard of dreams.’

‘Narratives like these,’ Marshall said, ‘not only show Davis at his best but also, I believe, show Marxism doing what it can do best: bring us closer to the historical long waves that drive and wreck our everyday lives; force us to see ourselves and one another and our whole society and all our inner contradictions in depth face to face. If Marxist thought can do that, I think it has plenty to be proud of.’ Still, Marshall knew that for some Marxists this isn’t enough, never enough. ‘They feel Marxism has to provide a transcendent revolutionary zap. It has to bestow the powers that Jim Morrison pursued—to break on through to the other side, to bring on the end—or else it isn’t worth anything.’

Marshall’s great insight into City of Quartz was also an insight, I know now, into myself. I’d shared then, perhaps without even recognising it, the two souls that dwelled in Mike Davis’s own breast. Davis had a yearning for this ‘Big Bang’ zap; a radical concerned citizen, Marshall said, both humane and humanitarian, ‘who wants to grasp the totality of city life’; and yet he’s equally ‘a radical guerrilla aching to see the whole damned thing blow.’ Is he embracing the whole city or telling it all to go to hell? Doubtless he’s yearning for both, maybe at the same time. This is perhaps what makes City of Quartz so enthralling. ‘Who will he be, try to be?’ Marshall wondered, ‘Whitman or Céline? Davis sounds unsure, but I’m rooting for Whitman.’

Marshall was good for me. He was a generous soul when I sometimes wasn’t. He was a guy who tried to see the good in the bad, seeing positivity beyond negativity. I had a lot of negativity in me, frequently without much positivity. It wasn’t like I was a pessimist; I mean, I wasn’t. I was angry somehow, an angry optimist, a dark optimist. He was gentle spirit, a hugger rather than a puncher, a man who saw the power of love frustrating the power of hate. He was a partisan of happiness, of joy over misery, a Whitman rather than a Céline. Joy will give people more power to change the world for the better, Marshall said.

In Marshall I saw my shadow self. In Mike Davis I recognised my angrier part, the undertow that tugged with my Marshall part, the loving part. These were the two souls dwelling in my breast, dwelling in my feeling and thinking about cities as well. I was more dystopian than utopian. Funnily enough, this is what I wanted to discuss with Marshall, who’d become a friend. We’d agreed to see each other, to talk about a letter he’d sent me about an article I’d sent him.

Both letter and article were about Marx’s and Dostoevsky’s concept of suffering and freedom, why their concepts might be important for urbanists. It was another way to frame the Whitman and Céline split. Marshall thought it a great idea, told me so in a wonderful letter, handwritten in his handsome cursive, in blue felt-tip pen, on Gothic sepia notepaper, rimmed by gargoyles and demons, by lions pulling tongues and deformed monkeys looking like crippled humans. It was trippy, little green man notepaper, spookier than you’d imagine coming from Marshall. Maybe this was his shadow self on display?

In his letter, Marshall said I should send my article to Dissent or New Left Review. ‘It’ll look great in print!’ he said. I did send it to Dissent who quickly passed, and afterward to New Left Review, who likewise weren’t smitten. They weren’t so fast. I’m not sure they ever got back to me. We’ll be in touch, they said. Which meant they’d never be back in touch. What counted most then was Marshall’s affirmative response, that handwritten letter, worth a million referees’ reports. ‘Your Marx-Dost piece immediately disappeared into one of the hundreds of stacks of paper,’ he’d written me, ‘and I just retrieved it a couple of days ago. I enjoyed it a lot! I’ve always looked for a way to juxtapose that ‘suffering’ passage in M+D, but I’ve never figured out how. So now I’m both a little envious and a lot relieved—you’ve done it, weight’s off my head.’

‘One place where you can bed down M+D,’ Marshall said, ‘is the desire to overcome mechanical, closed-society models of the good life. M’s romance of “free development” is meant as an alternative to classical and medieval closed societies. Marx enjoyed Utopian thought, ripped it off plenty, and stayed friends with Moses Hess (who may have even written some of the Manifesto). But he dissed it because all its models were Crystal Palaces. So you could see M+D both engaged in imagining critical + radical forms of an Open Society.’

This was Marshall’s vital life-spirit there in print, in a preciously handwritten letter, to me, revealing as much about his own model of the good life as ‘M+D’s.’

For years, I’d been a big fan of Dostoevsky’s novella from 1864, Notes from Underground, even considered myself a bit of an Underground Man. The book had kept me going in Liverpool after I’d quit high school at sixteen, when I was reluctantly forced to engage with the overground. Dostoevsky spoke about a long-suffering ‘underground’ character. This Underground Man had a ‘hysterical craving for contrasts and contradictions’ and wondered whether human beings liked something else besides prosperity. Maybe, the Underground Man said, we like suffering just as much? Suffering meant doubt, meant negation, and ‘what would be the good of a Crystal Palace if there could be no doubt about it?’

In the Crystal Palace, there’d be ‘nothing left to do’; you’d not be able to stick your tongue out at it, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man said, nor ‘thumb your nose on the sly.’ What worried him most wasn’t whether abolishing disorder and conflict was possible but whether it was desirable. He hoped people would only love Crystal Palaces ‘from a distance,’ invent them as fantasies but not want to inhabit them in reality. For living in them meant the end of novelty, of adventure and fantasy, the end of Mike Davis’s dystopian panorama in City of Quartz. Everything would become routine, the death knell of the spirit. Passion would be throttled, and from where, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man wondered, would intensity of experience, that sole origin of consciousness, then emanate?

I’d said, in my article, that this concern chimed with the young Karl Marx. I knew, when I said it, Marshall would be on my wavelength, perhaps the only person on my wavelength! After all, he’d pioneered the whole frequency in the first place, tuned me into how Marx, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, framed things strikingly similarly. Like Dostoevsky’s, Marx’s point of departure was that humans are endowed with ‘vital powers.’ Vital powers, Marx said, exist in us as ‘dispositions,’ as ‘capacities’ and ‘drives.’ We come to know ourselves by passionately using these vital powers to feel and see and comprehend the external world all around us, a world simultaneously ours and one which incorporates other people. Passion, Marx said, is our ‘essential power vigorously striving to attain its object.’

‘To be sensuous is to suffer (to be subjected to the actions of another).’ (The italic is Marx’s.) Suffering is an ‘integral human essence,’ Marx said, ‘an enjoyment of the self for man.’ The Underground Man couldn’t agree more! This was Marx affirming the primacy of “free conscious activity” in the ‘species-character of man,’ the vitality of free will and individuality – features so dear to Marshall’s own heart, to his own species-character. It was why, too, Marx indicted capitalism so ardently; not simply because it makes people suffer – of course it makes people suffer – but that it makes people suffer in a particularly crippling manner. The senses are numbed rather than stimulated; the parameters of free individual development are restricted, despite what capitalists say about freedom. Marx, like Marshall, yearned for a society where people fully express their individualities and desires. Both men were into positive suffering, without injustice, wanted a society where each human sense – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, contemplating, sensing, acting, loving (the list is Marx’s) – could blossom as ‘organs of individuality.’

When we suffer we feel, we learn things about ourselves intellect alone can’t discern. It’s a learning process, ‘an integral human essence.’ It happens to everybody, everywhere, at all times, whether we like it or not, whether we confront it or not, acknowledge it or not. Strangely, we need it somehow. Painful encounters offer an intensity of experience that help us become whole people; paradoxically it may even make us feel, in Dostoevsky’s language, ‘more alive,’ helping us stave off what Marx called ‘one-sided individuality.’ All told, it seems, we, as human beings, crave a society where both positive and negative passions need to get played out and worked through, openly and honestly, and here the city comes into its own, makes its life-form so compelling as a life-force. Because there, and maybe only there, can people vigorously strive to attain their object. So it was as Marshall had said in his letter: Marx and Dostoevsky – or M+D – remain existential bedfellows. They challenge us to imagine critical and radical forms of an Open Society – just like Mike Davis’s City of Quartz.

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Surrealist Love at the Barbican

For a while now, I’ve been laughing out loud at a play about the end of the world. It seems a bit odd that I would laugh about something so serious, so seemingly dire. But then, sitting here, I started to wonder why I was laughing. I mean, really belly laughing. One reason might be that the play is genuinely funny—even if it’s not meant to be funny. Another reason is that these days it often does feel like we are living through the end of the world. What better thing to do, then, than to laugh, to laugh one’s head off, while we’ve still got a head on.

You laugh to stay sane. So goes the old adage. But it’s not really been like that recently. I haven’t felt that sane, nor much like laughing. Actually, like a lot of other people—and you hear about this all the time these days—I’ve been down in the dumps. Depression levels, we’re told, are soaring almost everywhere. Some of my own worst doldrums have been deep-down depressions, lasting months on end. These depressions have been cyclical, coming and going more regularly over past years, hitting me hard sometimes.

That’s probably why I’ve tried to laugh them off, laughing at a play called Endgame, a film of this play, in fact, made in 2000 by Conor McPherson. I’ve been watching it on YouTube, guffawing to my heart’s content. The play itself was written in 1957 by Samuel Beckett, a Nobel Laureate. Part of the amusement could be Michael Gambon, the English actor who plays Hamm, the lead character. Gambon’s Hamm is frighteningly brilliant, just as Beckett would have wanted it. Hamm is such a suffering soul he’s beyond pity. He knows it. What else is left but to laugh at him, and at yourself, to have a strange sympathy for the devil. Perhaps it’s a gallows humour all our own today? Perhaps I’m listening to a dialogue of what’s going on inside my own head, going on on the inside while I’m thinking about life on the outside?

The setting is bleak, dark walls of a dark mind on dark days. Bare interior. Grey light. Two small windows, curtains drawn. It might be an attic room somewhere, an attic room nowhere. Though it could be somebody’s living room, practically anywhere, even one full of objects of life. The wind whistles its haunting draught. Four characters. Hamm, blind, infirm, wheelchair-bound; Clov, younger, lame, Hamm’s helper, a sort of adopted son; Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s father and mother, old and legless, living in two ashbins. “Clov,” Hamm asks, in a question many might pose today, if only to oneself, “Have you had enough?” “Yes!” Clov answers—then, pausing, wonders, “Of what?” “Of this…this…thing,” says Hamm. “I always had,” says Clov.

Have you had enough? Of what? Of this…this…thing? At low times I’ve really had enough. I suspect I’m not alone. Daily on the news: I try to avoid looking, close my ears. Yet I hear it everywhere. Newspapers. People talking. On screens. In the air. This thing that depresses. Trump? Brexit? Environmental meltdown? Modern life?… Have I had enough? I always had. No, I always hadn’t. It seems to have worsened over recent years. That “It.”

“The whole thing is comical, I grant you that,” says Hamm. “What about having a good guffaw the two of us together?” Upon reflection, Clov says, “I couldn’t guffaw again today.” “Nor I,” Hamm laments. “Outside of here it’s death,” he says. “Beyond is the other hell.” Looking through his telescope, at this outside, Clov says “nothing stirs. All is—” “All is what?” demands Hamm. “What all is? in a word? Corpsed,” says Clov. It’s a killer line. Could he be talking about our outside?

Endgame is a peculiar deadlock in chess. Almost all the pieces have been lost or sacrificed. Little is left on the checkerboard save a few pawns and kings, a king playing off against another king, square by square. There’s nothing left to win nor any real possibility of either opponent winning. The game is up yet the match goes on. “Enough,” says Hamm, in his Endgame, “it’s time it ended. And yet I hesitate to…to end. Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to—to end.” Marcel Duchamp once described Endgame as “a problem with no solution.” Duchamp was a chess maestro as well as an artist, a pal of Beckett’s. On the brink of Nazi occupation of Paris, they played chess together for a while, on the Atlantic coast, in Arcachon, at a mutual friend’s house. Beckett always lost. It may have been there where he first conceived his play.

Duchamp featured in an exhibition I saw this autumn at London’s Barbican. I was in a gloomy Endgame state of mind that day and couldn’t guffaw anymore. I went hoping it might cheer me up, perhaps inspire me to write something. It was one of those dreary London days, suitably Beckettian. Grey upon grey. Light black, from pole to pole. The wind whipped up between buildings. I felt cold and forlorn. I didn’t expect much, almost regretted coming, balked even at paying the entrance fee. Still, I went in, and am glad I did, because soon I realised I was experiencing the shock of recognition, something Duchamp and his fellow Surrealists might have called an ENCOUNTER.

An encounter with what? An encounter with art and literature, with beauty and intimacy, with love. Perhaps it was an encounter with hope, with a solution, an encounter with myself. It had been there all the time, this hope, somehow always there; but I didn’t feel it enough, hadn’t recognised it inside me. Yet, now, amid two-floors of paintings and sculptures, of rare manuscripts and objets d’arts, of old photos and romantic verse, I saw it all for what it was: Mad love. I’d entered a den of “modern couples,” a saga of forty-odd twentieth-century relationships between avant-garde artists and writers, between subversive people who fell in love with one another and changed the world. These modern couples were straight and gay—sometimes straight and gay at the same time—men and women whose love affairs infused their art, just as their art infused their love affairs. They mobilised something sacred, something time-served, still vital: imagination, the power to imagine themselves, to break out of convention, out of servility.

The roster of couplings is impressive: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (whose gender-bending exploits inspired Woolf’s Orlando), Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca, Paul Éluard and Gala Éluard, Paul and Gala Éluard and Max Ernst (in a ménage à trois), Paul Éluard and Maria Benz (aka Nusch), Salvador Dali and Gala Dali, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, André Breton and Léona Delcourt (aka Nadja), André Breton and Jacqueline Lamba, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp. The list is by no means exhaustive.

The most exhilarating collection was devoted to Surrealism, striking me with all the sublime sensual force that its leading light, André Breton, loved to describe in his books. In front of the Surrealist cabinet, my heart seemed to miss a beat, overcome with a trembling excitement. “Beautiful like the tremor of the hands in alcoholism,” wrote Lautréamont. I hadn’t had a drop to drink in years but was drunk before the convulsive beauty of Nadja’s pencil sketch, “The Lover’s Flower,” paired with a rare first edition of Paul Éluard’s 1935 love poem, Facile [Easy], whose refrains floated dreamily across Man Ray’s startling solarised images of the poet’s amorous confidante, Nusch. Meanwhile, like a giant eye looking out, keeping tabs, was Dorothea Tanning’s Rapture, her totemic sunflower, enrapturing anybody who happened to enter its gaze. She’d painted it in 1944, two years before she and lover Max Ernst had shacked up in Sedona, Arizona, in the middle of nowhere. Rapture’s dreamscape saw it all coming, prefiguring their desert hideaway, amid the red rocks and rattlesnakes. Breton’s poem “Tournesol” had already immortalised the heliotropic plant as the Surrealists’ love talisman; now, in full striking colour, here it was, like a homing pigeon sending emergency kisses from afar.


I felt a marvellous rush. A feathery wind brushed across my temples, producing a real shiver. “Easy and beautiful under your eyelids,” wrote Éluard. “Like a meeting of pleasure/ Dance and its continuation/ I spoke the fever.” It was staggering—quite literally—this fever. A very special emotion had been aroused. Something deep inside me had stirred, quite unexpectedly, decidedly powerfully, a tottering disquiet—an anti-Endgame. Before me was something to live for, a flame to keep burning. I’d had my encounter.

The idea of ENCOUNTER was elemental to Surrealists and meant something much more than mere meeting, than mere rendezvous, than some kind of get together. It was, is, an event of seismic magnitude, a fortuitous event, a random event, a predestined event, an event that lasts, that strikes and sticks, that changes its participants forever, henceforth never the same again. It’s not that I hadn’t had my own Surrealist encounter before. Like plenty of people, plenty of fortunate people, I’d encountered mad love before. I’d even written something about it in my last book, What We Talk About When Talk About Cities (and Love) (O/R Books, New York, 2018), a sort of homage to the American writer Raymond Carver, as well as my little paean to city life, to its romance, to that haunting ideal that maybe, just maybe, we might find true love in the city. I was into love’s purity, still am, have to be.

I’d also encountered Surrealism itself long ago, in the 1980s, when I’d been a budding Liverpudlian Surrealist—or at least had delusions of being one. It was my Surrealist encounter during the dark reign of Margaret Thatcher, whose only dream-fantasy was the desire to have, to own, buying people off with her false material dreams. Surrealism kept my inner life alive during that dire decade. Since then, I’d alluded to Surrealism often in my books about cities, even penned a “Opinion” piece quite recently in British Guardian newspaper (June 11, 2018), about Surrealism and the British high (main) street.

I’d suggested there that identikit Britain needed a touch of Surrealism to keep its high street from dying off entirely. The Surrealists yearned for novelty and chance encounter, for mystery and adventure in the city—indeed, the meaning of city life, they said, is found in novelty. Alas, there isn’t too much novelty down our chain-dominated high streets. Little is there to inspire dreams. A paucity of romance, and zilch desire. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, because now that those dreary chain stores have monopolised our high-rent high streets, driving out smaller independents in process, they’ve decided to abandon places that can no longer pay up. The once predictable and boring high street is destined to become something worse: deserted and boarded-up. A Hobson’s choice between a sterile wilderness and a dead wilderness. Isn’t there another alternative?

My thinking hitherto had been preoccupied with Surrealism as an urban phenomenon. Yet the problem with our lifeless cities is really a deeper problem of our Endgame life. I’d been approaching Surrealism as something physical, as street-oriented, rather than something metaphysical, as people-oriented, along the lines of what I’d just seen and felt at the Barbican. So perhaps we need to explore that other feature of Surrealism, its frequently taboo-breaking, often erotic, occasionally perverse feature, its insatiably resilient feature: LOVE. Perhaps we need to move forwards from this primal point of departure. Love is celebrated by Surrealists as the supreme moment, as the ultimate fusion of the self with the other. It’s a dialectic that expresses contradictions, creative as well as destructive contradictions; but it also conveys a unity that inspires, that can lead to a mutual blossoming, to a creative coupling that, despite its tensions, endures, and goes on enduring, sometimes beyond death.

Listen to Breton speaking in Mad Love, from 1937, published one year after fascist bombs rained down on the Spanish town of Guernica and four years after Hitler came to power and his Third Reich jackboots were about to stomp across Europe: “I have never ceased to believe that, among all the states through which humans can pass, love is the greatest supplier of solutions, being at the same time in itself the ideal place for the joining and fusion of these solutions. People despair of love stupidly—I have despaired of it myself—they live in servitude to this idea that love is always behind them, never before them… And yet, for each of us, the promise of the coming hour contains life’s whole secret, perhaps about to be revealed one day, possibly in another being.” For a man sometimes accused of misogyny, and often as ruthless with his friends as with his foe, this is one of the nicest evocations of something that makes the world go around.

Surrealism built its dream house in the ashes of the dominant order, out of a disgust and distrust of this order, an order that had blasted and butchered in the Great War and would blast and butcher again, unabatedly, absentmindedly, two decades later. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Surrealism proclaimed its diabolical dialectic, an extraordinarily creative impulse of tragedy, on the one hand, epitomised by Max Ernst’s post-apocalyptic “Europe After the Rain II,” painted between 1940-2, a hellscape of hope smothered by petrified and calcified structures, by corpses and decayed vegetation, by deformed creatures in a prehistoric premonition of the future; and, on the other hand, an optimism, an art and literature celebrating the dawn of romantic love—aube, as in the French, as in André Breton’s love-child, mothered by Jacqueline Lamba, his Mad Love muse. Thus a new day was heralded, the beginning of new era, bidding adieu to yesterday’s fear and loathing.


Breton closed Mad Love with a touching letter to Aube, born in 1935, addressing her as a sixteen year old, as a teenager perhaps tempted to open her father’s old book, whose title, he wrote, “will be wafted to you euphonically by the wind bending the hawthorns.” “Whatever will be your lot,” Papa said, “increasingly fortunate or entirely other, I cannot know, you will delight in living, expecting everything from love.” “Let me believe,” he added, “that these words, ‘mad love’, will one day correspond uniquely to your own delirium… You were thought of as possible, as certain, at the very moment when, in a love deeply sure of itself, a man and a woman wanted you to be.” “I WANT YOU TO BE MADLY LOVED.”

But there’s also something else about Surrealist love worth stressing and exploring: Surrealists were prepared to fight for it. Some fought life and limb as Résistants, publishing and politicking underground, as Maquisards, spilling blood as well as bottles of ink. Love and liberty somehow became synonymous, the love of liberty fused to the liberty of love. René Char and Paul Éluard were perhaps the greatest Surrealist poets engagés. Char’s famous logbook, Hypnos, composed of 237 “leaves,” ruminations and private musings, never initially intended for publication, stands as one the finest anti-war prose-poems.

Written “under strain, in anger, fear, rivalry, disgust, cunning, furtive reflection, the illusion of a future, friendship, love,” Char said the French people, as well as the nation’s body politic, had been lulled to sleep, hypnotised—hence Hypnos, the Greek God of Sleep. Everywhere a dreadful contagion raged, sounding oddly familiar today: sleepwalkers seduced by reactionary propaganda, by generalised lies, by hate-mongering demagogues. The poet was there, though, to arouse the people, to force them to remember, to wake them up. Char and his comrades went about their moonlit nocturnal business, collecting arms airdropped by Allied forces. “The plane flies low,” he wrote. “The invisible pilots jettison their night garden, then activate a brief light tucked in under the wing of the plane to notify us that it’s over. All that remains is to gather up the scattered treasure. So it is with the poet.”

Paul Éluard joined the Resistance movement the same year he joined the French Communist Party, 1942, and saw no discordance between a communist poet and a romantic poet, between a poet of militant democracy and a poet of inner emotional life. To fight against injustice was to fight on all fronts, to scribble a poem at the same time as to derail an enemy train. Éluard’s own great Resistance poem, “Liberty,” was a love letter to his wife and résistante Nusch. The poem quickly became a watchword for emancipation everywhere: “On my devastated shoulders/ … On the steps of death/… And by the strength of one word/ I begin my life again/ I was born to know you/ To name you/ Liberty.”

Its 21 quatrains were first published in June 1942, in an underground journal called Fontaine [Fountain], diffused from Marseille. In 1943, thousands of copies of Éluard’s poem were scattered across Maquis France, on printed sheets folded 32 times, parachute-dropped by the RAF. On March 25, 1945, the BBC premiered “Liberty,” broadcasting Roland Penrose’s English translation. “I thought of revealing at the end,” Éluard admitted, “the name of the woman I loved and for whom this poem was intended. But I quickly realised that the only word I had in mind was the word liberty. Thus the woman I loved embodied a desire even greater than her.”

And so it was that Surrealists proclaimed love as the liberation of dark times, as the antidote to a time of cholera, to an era of borders and hate, to mass death and national division. Is that era really behind us? Perhaps it’s too early to tell. Meantime, is it too late to reclaim the heady ideal of mad Surrealist love?

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