‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. So wrote an Irishman a century ago, a meditation on the difficulties of establishing a revolution in political and cultural consciousness out of the wreckage of dead traditions, war, disappointments and the endurance of conservative reaction.
Revolutionaries have long been concerned with temporality; what to do when the luggage and garbage of the past litters the present, diminishing the possibilities of collective freedom in the future; what to do when time runs out or history stops, or when you’re living too late.
It’s been the end times for a long time now. Once it was postmodernism, late capitalism and ‘New Times’; a generation later, capitalist realism and that line about the end of the world. These days, clairvoyants have taken to reading the tea leaves in Gramsci. Perhaps one day someone will write a PhD on the second life of one line over the 2010s and 2020s: ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of who bears responsibility for the outbreak has been hotly contested. Several media outlets and politicians, including former President Donald Trump, contend that China is responsible. One argument blames the pandemic on ‘exotic’ Chinese eating habits and ‘unhygienic’ wet markets. Another argues that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Driven by an underlying xenophobia, Trump and his supporters have routinely referred to COVID-19 as the ‘China virus’, ‘Wuhan virus’ and even the ‘Kung flu’. Others have argued that ultimately no one is responsible for the emergence of the virus. Because viruses are naturally occurring phenomenon, the possibility of epidemics and pandemics is always present. On this view, questions of responsibility should be limited to how corporations, governments and the public respond to the pandemic. China is not responsible for the virus’ emergence, but the Chinese government is responsible for not altering the global community of the outbreak sooner. Similarly, the US government is responsible for underplaying the severity of the virus and failing to properly prepare in light of the information that they did have available.
Producing a critical review of a scholarly book is often a daunting prospect, given the responsibility placed on the reviewer to give a fair representation of the author’s work and to find ways to criticise it productively. It is more daunting still when the book under consideration is itself an omnibus collection of critical reviews, and even more challenging when the author is one of the most important voices in debates over the state of modern capitalism. The author in question is the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, formerly director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, and the book is Critical Encounters: Democracy, Capitalism, Ideas, a collection of fifteen separate reviews released previously in such publications as New Left Review and the London Review of Books. Perhaps anticipating a review such as this, Streeck prophetically offers some guidance in the introduction on how he approaches the task. Reviewing a book, he says, ‘requires deep reading, beginning usually with the last chapter, then the introduction, then several expeditions into the interior’ (ix). He continues:
Fernwood Publishing | Streamed live on May 11, 2021
Fernwood Publishing presents the launch of Twilight Capitalism: Karl Marx and the Decay of the Profit System . This event will feature a panel discussion with authors, Murray E.G. Smith, Jonah Butovsky and Josh J. Watterton, moderated by Tim Hayslip. This event is part of Radical May, an international festival of books and authors.
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2021, 304 pp., £80 hb
Reviewed by Timothy Deane-Freeman
Dan Taylor’s Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom subtly achieves apparently contradictory ends. On the one hand, this elegant and restrained monograph situates Spinoza, resisting a long-standing temptation to ‘make [him] one of us’ (254), by transposing his rigorously particular concepts neatly onto contemporary problems and vocabularies. This tendency, which has plagued Spinoza almost since his works were first published, has birthed multiple images of the seventeenth century Dutch rationalist, ranging from the ‘radically individualistic’ (119) libertarian we encounter in the work of Rice or Den Uyl, through to the collectivist thinker of the ‘multitude’ whose genealogy we might trace through Marx to Althusser, Matheron and Negri. And while this constellation of simulacra has proven immensely productive, it has also often served to obscure the actual social and political problems to which Spinoza’s thought was addressed – a problem Taylor’s work seeks to rectify.
Why do we eat what we do? This is the question Chris Otter seeks to answer in Diet for a Large Planet. It is very timely. In recent years there has been growing anger and horror at a food system that delivers both unhealthy and environmentally destructive diets. Food has become deeply politicized.
In 2019 the medical journal The Lancet published what it called a “planetary health diet.” Their conclusion was that “the world’s diets must change dramatically” to save the planet and ourselves. They argued that a Great Food Transformation is required — a move away from what is often called the Western Diet, high in red meat, refined grains, saturated fat and sugar, to a more plant based diet.
People who have studied Marxist philosophy will probably at some point have learned of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, either through the work of Slavoj Žižek or in surveys of the Frankfurt School. It is less likely that they will have had an opportunity to read his Intellectual and Manual Labour, for it has long been out of print and is hard to acquire. Fortunately, the Historical Materialism series has released a new edition of Intellectual and Manual Labour, which contains a useful introduction discussing the context in which the book was written and its impact on Western Marxism, as well as a collection of articles from the Italian autonomist journal Lotta Continua that show how Sohn-Rethel was received by leftist circles in Italy. Upon reading Sohn-Rethel it becomes clear that his work is important for contemporary debates on ecology, the Marxist critique of science and debates on post-revolutionary societies such as the former Soviet Union.
More than 100 years after her murder by counterrevolutionary soldiers during the German Revolution of 1918-1919, Rosa Luxemburg continues to demand attention. As one of socialism’s most prominent Marxist theorists and one of its most courageous revolutionary activists, Luxemburg remains inspiring to radicals today. Not surprisingly there is a large literature on most aspects of her life and work, including relatively recent major biographies such as those by Annlies Laschitza (1996) and Ernst Piper (2018), which, unfortunately, have not been translated into English. J. P. Nettl’s massive study, originally published in 1966, remains the standard scholarly work in English, while a more accessible volume by Luxemburg’s comrade, Paul Fröhlich, is now over 80 years old. Likewise, Stephen Eric Bronner’s brief 1981 biography, which examined the applicability of Luxemburg’s thought to the conditions of the late twentieth century, is also dated. Meanwhile, Kate Evans’s recent graphic biography provides an innovative presentation of Luxemburg’s life, but lacks the depth that a more text-oriented biography can provide.
In Adorno and Neoliberalism: The Critique of Exchange Society, Charles A. Prusik argues that Adorno’s critical theory can provide crucial resources for an understanding of neoliberal political economy and the forms of thought it generates, weaving an impressive knowledge of Adorno’s works and their reception with deep familiarity with Marxist and classical political economy, neoclassical and neoliberal economics, and political history. Prusik’s book is valuable for the way it works against the customary interpretation of the early Frankfurt School as a group of theorists departing from – rather than deepening – Marxist social theory. The Adorno of these pages is not so much an elitist forebear of apolitical aesthetics as a critic of capitalist society.Read More »
Completed ‘under the difficult conditions created by the pandemic’ (xiii) the 2020 edition of the Socialist Register seeks to ‘analyze the nature of digital capitalism and its contradictions’ (ix), doing so ‘within the history of technological change’ (x). In selecting this topic, the late Leo Panitch and Greg Albo’s goal was to highlight the extent to which ‘digital technology has become integral to capitalist market dystopia’ (ix), a necessary task given the prevalence of ‘cyber-utopian’ (ix) and ‘techno determinist’ (x) thought in the public and private realms. This kind of ‘celebrant’ ideology, which Robert McChesney (2013) outlined so well recently, provides a social license for centi-billionaires like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos to continue to have a disproportionate say in directing investments, allocating resources and setting the terms of production. In laying out this agenda, Panitch and Albo rightly place greater emphasis on ‘capitalism’ than the adjectival ‘digital’, effectively suggesting that regardless of the various affordances platforms, algorithms and code may provide, in the first instance they are shaped by the imperatives of capital. Theirs is a welcome addition of materialist and class analysis to the general literature within Science and Technology Studies through demonstrating how digitalization is used to expand and deepen capitalist social relations.Read More »