- Interview by
- Sasha Lilley
What does Karl Marx’s masterwork, Capital, have in common with Dante’s Inferno? And more importantly, what can the book — which was written partly in debate with the socialist movements of its time — teach us today?
In his book Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, political theorist William Clare Roberts argues that Marx’s arguments are not simply about the economic inner workings of the system of capitalism but about building a world free from domination — a notion that has great political power today as we attempt to think about the politics of the future and how to get there.
In an interview on the California-based progressive radio show Against the Grain, radical journalist Sasha Lilley spoke with Roberts about Marx, Capital, and the politics of freedom. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You argue that Marx consciously modeled the first volume of Capital on Dante’s Inferno, with Marx leading the reader into the center of hell. Why is that the case, and what is its significance?
Marx borrowed the structure of Dante’s Inferno. Leading his readers into hell didn’t make him particularly unique among nineteenth-century socialists. Nineteenth-century socialists had been referring to the industrial economy as a social hell for thirty-five years by the time Marx wrote Capital.
Marx’s readers have to follow him into the hell of the contemporary social science of capitalism that is political economy. That’s significant because one of the things that Marx carried over from his early years was his belief that individuals weren’t related to humanity in some generic way, but rather that we are human because of the particular forms of social relations that interweave and bind us to one another. In one of his early texts, he calls this the “ensemble of social relations.”
This is a distinctive aspect of Marx’s socialism. Everything that other socialists thought was wrong with capitalists, with greed, or with some moral property of individuals, Marx argued was a property of the ensembled social relations — that is, of capital as a way of organizing society as a whole. This is how he uses Dante. He takes his readers through political economy, showing how everything that his socialist readers think is wrong with capitalism has to be pinned on capital as a social formation — not on individual buyers, sellers, producers, and exchangers.
What is the political significance of this anti-moralist stance? The reigning ideas at the time, as you’re suggesting, couched a criticism of capitalism in deeply moral terms.
This stance introduces two big changes into socialist beliefs, practice, and politics. First, it ceases to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. What makes the proletariat special for Marx? It’s not that they have some inherent moral qualities that make them purer or more innocent than everyone else. Rather, it’s that they have the power and the interest in transforming society in a socialist direction.
Second, for Marx, the movement out of capitalism into a postcapitalist society is a problem to be solved. He gives us a critique of political economy and capital, but he doesn’t tell us what a postcapitalist society would look like. He’s not a utopian socialist; he doesn’t paint a rosy picture or give us a blueprint of how to organize society, because he thinks that’s the thing we have to figure out.
Part of this depersonalization is that we don’t have the answer in our back pocket. The answer isn’t just to turn power over to a new group of people. We have to come up with a new way of organizing society, and a new way of organizing the production of wealth, in order to avoid the problems that socialists were diagnosing in the current economy.
You argue that Capital is a deep engagement with the politics of his time, the debates of his time, and the socialist movement of his time. What was the political context in which he wrote the first volume of Capital, which was ultimately published in 1867?
The major context of Marx’s mature writings is the International Workingmen’s Association, with which Marx was deeply involved from 1864 until its dissolution in the wake of the 1871 Paris Commune. This is the audience for whom he wrote Capital — many of the arguments that he developed in Capital were given a sharper, more polemical voice in debates within the International.
What were the themes of the socialist writers he was engaging with?
They varied, but there were similarities tying together the forms of socialism that Marx reacted against. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was Marx’s great enemy, and, above all, Marx wanted to combat Proudhon’s influence. Most socialists, like Proudhon, thought of the modern economy as a lingering aftereffect of feudalism. They thought that the power of the industrial bosses stemmed from the conquest of land by feudal lords. They saw the modern economy as an inheritance from the past that was used as a monopoly power of wealth, driving a hard bargain with workers who didn’t have inherited wealth.
In other words, most of the socialists that Marx dealt with objected to capitalism in the same terms that they would use to object to conquest and the old aristocracy. Marx thought that this was a mistake: it underappreciated the difference between the modern economy and the precapitalist economy.
Proudhon and many other socialists admired and appreciated exchange relations. They thought that if the market could be purified of this accumulated power, people could engage in free and fair exchanges. Marx thought this was wrong. He thought that it undersold the relationship between workers and capitalists, and that it misunderstood how the market works, as well as how power works. When workers sell their labor power to capitalists, they are not just under the thumb of the local monopolist. They are now doing the bidding of someone who is captive to the market. That changes the worker-boss relationship significantly.
Many people who read Marx appreciate that what makes Marx distinctive is his focus on labor and the conditions of production; he doesn’t make things just about distribution. This is true, but it also hides the fact that Marx makes the market absolutely central to the operations of production in capitalism.
Marx recognizes the way that capitalism develops production technology and methods. He also recognizes the way that capitalism draws on human labor and treats the human body as a natural resource to be plumbed and exploited. Both of those things are rooted in the centrality of the market in capitalist production. It’s because the relationship between worker and capitalist is mediated by exchange that capitalism is so dynamic and exploitative.
How did Marx shape his ideas around the key role of the market in his debates with contemporaries?
Marx spent the 1850s and the early 1860s in seclusion. After the failure of the revolutions of 1848, he ended up in exile in London. Over the next couple of years, he broke his ties with most of the people with whom he’d been allied during the 1848 Revolution, the main exception being Friedrich Engels. Instead of being involved in political organizing, he went into study.
Not only was he studying political economy, he was also reading the works that Proudhon produced. He read widely in socialist literature; he kept abreast of what was going on everywhere else. During that period, he crystallized a set of intuitions and ideas about what was wrong with Proudhonian or Saint-Simonian-style socialism and what was wrong with the efforts of British Owenites to set up labor exchanges and bazaars, and to figure out new forms of cooperative exchange.
How was the process of exploitation understood by thinkers before Marx, especially by the followers of Henri de Saint-Simon?
The premarket understanding of the expectation is intuitive to everyone; it hasn’t gone anywhere — the idea is that bosses take advantage of the weakness and the poverty of their workers. Workers are poor; they don’t have property to rely upon, and so they have to go and work for someone else, this other person who already has wealth to fall back on and can extort labor out of the poor.
This is an intuitive understanding of what exploitation is. It’s a very real phenomenon, and it seems pretty straightforward. The Saint-Simonians married that to an account of history in which the problem was the lingering inheritance of massive tracts of land. Occupy Wall Street and other attacks on the 1 percent focus on concentrated wealth. It’s easy to associate that concentrated wealth with inheritance and the idle rich.
Marx thinks that this discourse misses what is distinctive about the modern workplace — which is not that the owner of the business takes advantage of the neediness of the workers in order to get them to work for him or her. Rather, the modern capitalist employer is motivated by their own dependency upon selling products and adding a profit on the market. They’re motivated by that to extract as much labor from the workers as they can, and in as creative a way as possible — an idea that the premarket socialists missed.
Marx engaged with his contemporaries and forebears in the socialist movement on the concept of primitive accumulation. What does that term mean?
This term is derived from Adam Smith. The notion is that there has to be some first accumulation of productive assets. According to Smith, there has to be a collection of the means of production, in order for labor and productive activity to go forward.
Marx transformed this idea and called it primitive accumulation. The capitalist has accumulated wealth; they have the means of production under their control, allowing them to hire workers. Where does that come from? Smithian apologists for capitalist production tended to think that that original accumulation of capital came from the proprietor’s hard work or thrifty abstinence. Socialists tended to think that it came from theft of one sort or another.
In his discussion of primitive accumulation, Marx’s major contribution is the idea that the capitalists themselves don’t engage in primitive accumulation. The capitalists can’t engage in primitive accumulation because this accumulation is the origin of capitalism. The capitalists can’t pre-seed themselves and accumulate the wealth by which they are to become capitalists.
Marx tells a historical story, and the primary historical actors in that story are, on the one hand, the feudal landlords who inadvertently created capitalists by kicking most of the peasantry off the land, thereby empowering the few peasants who remained on the land to turn into capitalist farmers, to hire their expropriated brethren, and to work the land that they were lucky enough not to be kicked off of.
The second big actor is the state, the primary agent of primitive accumulation. This is, in part, because over the course of the early modern period, the state became dependent upon the tax revenue that it could only get from economic accumulation and capitalist development in order to be itself. Therefore, the state had a powerful incentive to create the conditions for capitalist accumulation, and it did this in part by expropriating masses of people and concentrating wealth in such a way that it could be used to kickstart capitalist enterprise.
You argue in Marx’s Inferno that Marx draws on republicanism, which tends not to be the focus of a lot of scholarship on Marx. What does republicanism mean?
It might be clearer to call it anti-domination politics rather than republican politics. I’m referring to a bunch of literature that has been written in order to recover and rehabilitate a tradition of political thought that takes its bearings from the Roman Republic. Some people also call it neo-Roman political thought. Anti-domination thought is distinctive because of its particular conception of freedom: freedom from domination. This is central to Marx’s thought.
Domination is the power that someone has to interfere in your life and to frustrate your desires. You don’t have any countervailing power. You can’t stop them. Your protests are meaningless. They can do what they want. In order to be free, we have to be free from that sort of power. If we read Marx with this notion of freedom in mind, a lot of things click into place.
Why is this so important? As someone contributing to an understanding of Marx and political theory, but also with an understanding of the relevance of this for us today, how do you understand it?
Domination is central to a number of things that are going on in the political world right now. The #MeToo movement has shown that when men are in positions of power, they may not need to use coercive force to get women to engage in sexual activity with them. The very fact that they have power over women’s livelihoods, and the fact that women don’t think they have any countervailing power against them, means that their power will have an effect, even in the absence of actual threats.
We see the same thing with immigration politics. One of the side effects of Trump’s immigration crackdown is that immigrants become less likely to call the police or go to hospitals when they need to. They are afraid of what could happen to them under those circumstances. Just the knowledge that the police could call ICE on them, could turn them over to immigration authorities — and that their family could be split up and they could be deported — has major effects on how they live their lives.
The phenomenon of living in fear of someone’s power to mess with you, even when that person isn’t actively doing anything to you, is a salient political concept for Marx — in the world of employment and in the world of markets in general.
The crimes of the Soviet system are often laid at the feet of Marx. He’s accused of setting the ideas in place for domination, not freedom from domination. But what you’re describing sounds like part of the legacy of the anarchist tradition. How do his ideas relate to that tradition?
There’s been increasing work on the relationship of the anarchist tradition to anti-domination politics. All of these nineteenth-century political traditions had a foot in older ways of thinking, but there are contradictions everywhere. The anarchist tradition that Marx was acquainted with tended to think of freedom as a radical independence of individuals: that to be free from domination is to be free from dependence upon others, unless you agree to it.
Marx is starting from a similar point: an abhorrence of domination. But Marx thought that independence was impossible and undesirable under modern conditions, and that the modern development of the capitalist economy made us all dependent upon vast numbers of people whom we couldn’t possibly know personally.
In my book, I write that Marx wanted freedom without independence. He wanted to take the older notion of freedom to be free from domination, but also to make it compatible with a system in which we are dependent upon one another and upon large-scale social cooperation. This takes certain notions of what it means to be free from domination off the table.
Marx is much more friendly to large-scale institutions and systems of rules that are relatively impersonal in their operation compared to the anarchists he knew, who wanted to see a world in which large-scale anonymous institutions would disappear.
There are debates about the degree to which Marx was a historical determinist. Looking at the logic of the system of capitalism, Marx could argue that it followed its own rules and its own trajectory. At a certain point, the contradictions within it would lead to its demise. Politically, rather than opposing capitalism because we think it’s evil in a moral sense, we need to oppose capitalism because we can be part of this system’s end. How do you understand that? Were there political consequences to opposing moralism that we might not find desirable now, or is there something to be gained from that vantage point?
Historically, Marx opposed moralism, placing emphasis upon the systematic nature of things and upon the fact that it’s not up to us to choose the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Some of these ideas ended up being interpreted deterministically by some of Marx’s followers, as well as by many of Marx’s detractors.
The way to guard against that danger is to say that the emphasis upon the systematic nature of the regime that we’re trying to change is supposed to be a prompt to study. In other words, because it’s a system, you have to understand which parts support one another and what dynamics are fundamentally driving things.
I don’t think it ever crossed Marx’s mind that his ideas would be taken as an argument for the mechanistic determination of something newer and better that would come at the end of capitalism. For Marx, it was always a way of understanding that there is a large group of workers who have an interest in changing the system because they are the most exploited — and because they’re central to the way the system works, they also have the power to transform it. He never doubted that the actions of workers would bring about the end of capitalism, not the inevitable logic of its operations.
What are the lessons for the present that we can take from Capital, especially for those who would like to see the end of capitalism? How might life be structured after capitalism?
People looking for recipes are not going to be satisfied with what I find in Marx. But if we recognize the notion of freedom, in the name of which Marx protested against capitalism, we can use that to wonder, “What sorts of institutional arrangements would make everyone equally free from domination?” This is a wide-open question. It’s a question socialists haven’t asked. It’s a question that anti-capitalists haven’t asked. It’s a question that deserves a lot of thought, because people have dramatically divergent intuitions.
It is relatively easy to identify circumstances, situations, and actions that we find abhorrent. It is harder to identify the sorts of institutions and practices that could be adopted on a large scale, and the political constituency that might push for the adoption of those institutions or practices.
Marx opened the door to those questions. I don’t think he ever thought that he had answered them. He had great faith in the ability of common folks to get together, organize, and figure out how to live freely.
But it’s not as if the scale of the problems that confront us has gotten smaller since the end of the nineteenth century. The scale of the problems has only gotten larger. So it’s important to think about political constituency, plans of action, and forms of organization. All of these things are incredibly important, vital, and underappreciated.