Marx Reloaded with blanks?


Jason Barker's film, Marx Reloaded, was released in 2011. The question addressed is if Marx's critique of capitalism is valid for our time. If the critique is valid then what comes next? Is communism going to make a return?

The film opens with an animation of Marx meeting Trotsky and Trotsky undertaking to enlighten Marx as to the significance of Marxism today. Trotsky will attempt to guide Marx to an understanding of how ideology works in society. Quite the tail wagging the dog.

The film then asks how economists today explain the greatest capitalist crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

First up is the late former chief economist of Deutsche Bank, Norbert Walter, who says, "We [bankers] made mistakes." E.g., in the US people could get mortgages at 110% of the value of their houses. The banks made money cheaply available, people borrowed too much and they couldn't pay back what they owed.

Later in the film he tells us that Marx's ideas about getting rid of capitalism by abolishing a society based on commodity production for profit would create a world that people would not want to live in, as that would lead to the abolishment of "the universal medium of money" which "turns everything around us into commodities," and "money is an essential medium for civilization, for peaceful coexistence, and the organization of complex societies."

This begs the question, since communism is a complex society based on production for human needs not commodities for profit. Mr. Walter must have forgotten about the two world wars that almost destroyed European civilization in the last century, when he opined that "peaceful coexistence" is one of the benefits of a money economy.

Next is Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, and author of "Taming The Trade Unions", who tells us the crisis was caused by inflation due to governments printing too much money. That is all we hear from him.

On the more general level of the problems of capitalism and the meaning of what Marx wrote, the film interviews several people identified as philosophers, political philosophers, theorists, critics, etc. Some are well known to the academic community although their grasp of Marxism may be questionable.

We hear from Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire, an expert on Spinoza, and a founder of Italian Autonomism and "Worker's Power" (Potere Operaio), an ultra-left formation in Italy with a secret armed wing. Negri tells us that the capitalists [neo-liberals] cannot pay the workers the price of their labor; however, to say "a wage is the price paid for labor" doesn't make sense in Marxist terms. Negri should at least be talking about "the value of workers' labor-power," not "the price." They (the capitalists) remain in power and are able to wage wars around the world only as long as the working class remains quiescent due to high wages. But as we can see the capitalists cannot do that, so Marx is still relevant.

This line of thought is taken up by the film, which now asks if Marx's theory of exploitation holds true for today, or whether the way capitalists make their profits is changing? The answers are sought from more talking heads without any clear explanation being given as to what Marx's theory of exploitation is. What is clear is that, with a few exceptions, none of the answers given in this part of film deal with Marx's theory.

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek is now up to bat (what film on "Marxism" would be complete without this latter-day Eugen Dühring?). He is described as the "leader of a new movement" to revive Marxist and communist thinking. He revives Marx by proclaiming that the classical notion of exploitation (left unexplained) no longer works due to the knowledge explosion. He does not tell us exactly why this is so - it has something to do with computers, however, because we need them to communicate with each other, and so we have "pay rent" to Bill Gates because he owns part of our mental substance. I am tempted to think that in Professor Zizek's case Mr. Gates is a slumlord.

Finally, we are told that we need a redefinition of "proletariat," because the proletariat is larger than the working class. Zizek also notes that when the unemployed today demonstrate because they want jobs, they are saying to the capitalists "Please exploit us in the normal way." I think he strikes out as the leader of a new Marxist movement. He will appear again later.

Antonio Negri now reappears. Capitalism, he says, has evolved in ways Marx could not have predicted. There is exploitation not only of factory workers but of workers throughout society. You can't start a revolution with just the factory workers. You need them but also all the other workers too. I think Marx could have predicted this; in fact, he already knew it.

You need the other workers, Negri says, because they are the "most" exploited. What can that mean? The examples he gives are research and film industry workers and the like, because they produce more value. None of this makes much sense, because the Marxist concepts of "value," "surplus value," "labor power" and "exploitation" are never brought up in the film. If they were, none of the things these talking heads and intellectual will-o'-the-wisps are saying would make sense anyway - only the viewers would at least understand why.

Herfried Munkler now makes an appearance. Dr. Munkler, co-editor of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels and a professor at Humbolt University, in contrast to those who have appeared before, actually knows a thing or two about Marxism, although in its social democratic deformation. His concern is not limited to discussing the plight of working people in the West, but focuses on the exploitation of working people in the so-called Third World, where working conditions are subhuman and wages are ridiculously low in comparison to the advanced capitalist countries. Here it is obvious that Marxist ideas are relevant and that capitalism is being abusive.

Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri's collaborator on the book Empire, now appears to bring us back from the Third World to the the First. He tells us that the economy is now centered on "immaterial" and "immeasurable" products-- that is, on "ideas," not on "objects" like old-fashioned commodities such as cars, refrigerators, and toasters, the products of industrial manufacturing. Economics is about relationships and intangible assets (not, coal, oil or natural gas). He is listed as a literary critic and political philosopher. At least he talks about political philosophy like a literary critic.

Now it is time for Jacques Ranciere, the co-author with Louis Althusser of Reading Capital (although his part was left out of the English version). He is noted for his educational theory, which says a person can be a teacher without knowing anything about the subject he or she is going to teach - a view welcomed by not a few teachers. Ranciere makes three appearances in the film and manages to say nothing of importance in any of them. Here, he tells us that many societies have had exploitation without "explosions," so we cannot draw from exploitation the logic of an end to exploitation. According to Ranciere, economic exploitation is not the dominant factor in all social struggle. Ranciere seems oblivious to the Marxist view that, as Engels notes, in the last analysis all major social struggles in class-based societies have economic exploitation at their root. Each society and its economic formation needs to be individually studied. There have certainly been "explosions" over exploitation in all societies that have distinct social classes, despite Ranciere's contrary assertions.

The film now takes up a new subject. We are told that to understand capitalism we must delve into the the "mystic realm" of the COMMODITY. It is certainly true that without an understanding of the origin and role of commodities we will not understand our economic system, which is based on the production and exchange of commodities. Marx devotes the first chapter of Capital to the commodity. It is a difficult chapter, but once grasped the rest of Capital will be easily understood.

The film, however, does not deal with Marx's scientific analysis of commodities but skips to the last section of the chapter entitled "The Fetishism of Commodities." Without an understanding of the preceding sections it is easy to misunderstand this last section and, true to form, both the film's narrator and all the talking heads in this part of the film completely miss the point and fail to grasp Marx's ideas concerning commodity fetishism.

To make a long story short, Marx's point is that the laws of the capitalist system are not products of nature as are, say, the laws of gravity or aerodynamics, but are the result of human activity. Commodities and their relations are created by human beings and human beings can abolish them. Yet, because we are ignorant of the laws of economics we think of commodities as natural, as things which, although created by us, assume an existence independent of us and go into a market whose laws we are subject to and must conform to.

This is similar to the creation of religions or primitive belief systems, where a person creates a fetish and then bows down to it and thinks it has power over him, and that he must subject himself to its demands and will. The capitalist market appears to be the natural form of economic exchange and there is no alternative to it. It is not true, however, that there is no alternative. Humans can abolish capitalism and rid themselves of subjection to the laws of commodity production, and create an economic world which serves human needs, one where human needs do not take second place to the need to exchange commodities at a profit. None of this is addressed in this part of the film. Instead we get baloney. This is because the talking heads are in the grips of the very fetishism Marx warns us about.

Norman Bolz  a media theorist says, "The theory of commodity fetishism is Marx's most important discovery." It isn't. Marx's most important discovery is the distinction between the value of labor and that of labor-power, which is the basis of the labor theory of value and of his analysis of capitalism. It is, however, one of the most important consequences of that discovery.

Bolz continues by saying Marx's theory reveals the secret as to why capitalism today "functions so well." [!] The secret is "that goods in the capitalist market place satisfy more than simple needs; they also convey a spiritual surplus value and this value is the real reason for the purchase." This is complete and utter nonsense.

Peter Sloterdijk (philosopher) is not so definite. He says the theory is "probably the most important part of Marxist doctrine." This is because "Marx is among those who discovered the fact that things live." He goes on to say that Walter Benjamin "discovered the structural similarity between human commodities and commodities as objects." He thus "universalized the category of prostitution."

While there may be a relationship between fetishism and prostitution on some level, I don't think this is what Marx was getting at. "Prositution is always present when a beautiful thing feigns life and tries to seduce passersby with an offer." I think Professor Sloterdijk should reread Marx's chapter on commodities.

Finally, there is Eamonn Butler's take: he says it is human psychology to want things. The economy is neutral - it just produces what people want.

Well then, that's it. Capitalism just produces what people want. Then why are there so many advertisements all over the place? Do we need to be constantly reminded about what we want?

The film now turns to Marxism and ecology-- only by now Marxism has been unloaded rather than reloaded. Zizek talks about "communism" in the sense of what we have "in common"-- the Earth is our "common substance" and we have to manage it together. He makes no proposal about how to do that. Michael Hart is also back, talking about the "common" in "communism" and how different that is from both the "communism" found in the Soviet Union (derived from Marx incidentally) and also the "communism" of American anti-communism. Evidently he doesn't approve of either kind of communism.

Herfried Munkler points out that Marx "applies exploitation not only to human labor but to the limited resources of nature," and says that "if the exploitation of nature continues nature will be destroyed." Munkler thinks that we can reduce the exploitation of nature under capitalism and have common ownership of the Earth without a Marxist society. But this is just social democratic optimism, as befits someone affiliated with the SPD [Social Democratic Party] in Germany. He gives no program. But at least he brings up an all important issue: the destruction of the environment under capitalism today.

John Gray (the British social philosopher) weighs in with the observation that international capitalism develops in ways impossible to predict and impossible to control (revealing that he is completely under the sway of the fetishism of commodities). He says the "New Leninists" (we have not met any Leninists thus far in the film-- nor will we) and Greens are correct about the fact that "human action" has destabilized the environment, but they are "deluded" in thinking that human action can restabilize it. It does not occur to him that it is not humans qua humans who are destructive, but only humans under the sway of particular sorts of economic and social relations. Even if humans could get together as a global collective, which Gray says will never happen, they could not restabilize the environment. Doom and gloom is all we can expect from Gray.

The film now asks if the current economic crisis was caused by an under-regulated banking system. Is the only solution now and in the future to have state-regulated economic systems? The film suggests we look back into history for solutions. I should note here that people who look to the past for solutions to present day problems are usually seen to be reactionaries.

We now return to Norbert Bolz, who likes the fact that in the 19th century banks issued their own scripts which functioned as money. You could take it to another bank and redeem it in coin of the realm-- if the other bank trusted it. This system would make all the banks very aware of the true value of their scripts and bad banks would be exposed. He thinks this is a really good idea, and one would suppose there were no banking crises in the 19th century, except that there were.

John Gray rightly thinks this idea is "nuts," because state monopoly capitalism has become so evolved and complicated since the 19th century. This has happened as a result of the close interconnection between capitalism and state power-- there is no going back. But is there any going forward?

Why is it that the state always rushes in to save capitalism? Is it possible, the film now asks, that these crises (like the one we are in right now which broke out in 2007) are not side-effects of capitalism but essential to its very existence?

Herfried Munkler tells us that Marx thought that crises would lead to the downfall of capitalism, but that since his day capitalism has gone through many crises and has "rejuvenated itself." He mentions Joseph Schumpeter's theory of crises as periods of "creative destruction." "Capitalism," Munkler concludes, "doesn't age. Crisis is its Fountain of Youth." This coming from the co-editor of Marx's Collected Works is rather strange. Marx thought that its internal contradictions would eventually bring about capitalism's collapse (or the mutual destruction of the contending classes within the system), but there was no timetable. He also argued that capitalism had at its disposal many tools to stave off immediate collapse, but would eventually prove dysfunctional, as had the economic forms (slavery and feudalism) that preceded it. Schumpeters "creative destruction" (destruction of the lives of workers and the majority of the population and creation of wealth for the top 1% - - the capitalists) is no refutation of Marx's theories.

The social theorist Alberto Toscano, one of the very few interviewed who seems to have his head in the right place, points out that capitalism, whatever its ultimate fate, is responsible for creating a gigantic surplus population that it does not know what to do with. He mentions the book "The Planet of Slums" by Mike Davis and talks about the "surplus humanity" that capitalism has on its hands, because its technological advances have made the number of workers it needs redundant. This is the "reserve army of labor" that Marx wrote about-- but now it is no longer a "reserve." It is just a surplus of human beings who are socially unneeded, piling up in the slums of the world with nowhere to go. The "creative destruction" they may eventually bring about capitalism may have a hard time dealing with. Only the Chinese, with a non-capitalist economic system, seem to have been able to cope with the massive poverty in the rural areas of their country (and, of course, Cuba and Vietnam and a few others with non-capitalist economies, and now Venezuela, are beginning to follow suit).

Finally, the film asks what sense there is in believing that another world, other than capitalism, is possible. TINA (There Is No Alternative) was Mrs. Thatcher's motto. Was she correct? Can a Communist alternative emerge after the experiences of the past century?

Antonio Negri states there is only capitalism, so we must fight the bosses as the bosses fight us. This seems to be an eternal struggle. It seems that to Negri there is only the Movement, as Bernstein thought. It is difficult to understand exactly what he means, so I may be incorrect here. He tells us what we all know-- Russia didn't have "communism," it had "socialism." What is socialism? For Negri, it is a way to manage capitalism, just like liberalism is. How, then, does communism come about? It "comes into being through a relation between transformations of reality and the will or decision to do it or to build it." After this bit of balderdash, Negri leaves us with the admonition to junk the old Communist Manifesto and to write a new one-- he is not , however, the man to do it.

Nina Power, a feminist philosopher, has more regard for the Communist Manifesto, and says that "it has continuing power to influence people." She is surely correct.

Zizek writes off 20th century Communist states, Social Democracy, the idea of local councils or collectives (the soviets, which first appeared at the time of the 1905 Russian Revolution), and their latter day reincarnations. What's left? He tells us he likes the idea that "a communist society is one in which each person could dwell in his own stupidity." Zizek is already doing that so he should be happy. He says he got that idea from reading Fredric Jameson, the American literary critic and political theorist. He thinks it would be great if communism turned out to be like a Bruegel painting. Whenever I hear Zizek expostulating like this, it brings to mind what Karl Marx said about Jeremy Bentham: "In no time and in no country has the most homespun common-place ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way."

Micha Brumlik (professor of education at Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main) maintains that after the 20th century we have the right to know what Communism is going to be like-- it has to be democratic to be supported. There will be a big fight over that, I fear, as different concepts of "democracy" will be put forth. But he is right to demand a politically active civil society not divorced from a democratic political system. He thinks that Hardt and Negri's unclear views on "the multitude" will never get that concept up and running or have any practical outcome.

Jacques Ranciere leaves us with the view that while Marx wanted a "classless society," what we really need is what he calls an "emancipatory society." This is one "in which each has an equal share." That has a vague utopian sound to it-- a throwback to pre-Marxist French socialist thinking. Marxist logic, Ranciere tells us, is to prepare for the future, but he believes instead that the idea of emancipation is really tied to the appearance, in the here and now, of "those we call the 'have-nots' and those who make their presence felt through their capacity to think, to intervene politically, and to prove themselves capable of organizing economic production." Ayn Rand would have liked this-- the have-nots and their masters-- only for Ranciere they would be good masters. This is a latter day reincarnation of Plato's Republic.

Ranciere goes on to criticize Negri. "Negri thinks capitalism produces communism." In the film, however, Negri appears to think capitalism is here for the long run and that it must always be struggled against, and if communism comes about it will be through the triumph of the will. In reality, then, capitalism only produces its own form of communism. But this is not the communism of everyone's capacity. There are those who say ‘look at what capitalism does; the idea of communism can't be so bad,' but I don't think those people are involved in constructing the idea of real equality today." What is this rambling discourse supposed to mean?

The last pronouncement I will consider comes from Peter Sloterdijk, who tells us that "people must join together to forge alliances against the lethal. They must provide mutual security and offer each other communities of solidarity on a planetary scale, because for the first time collective self-destruction is possible. Before we say 'communism' we must understand the principle of 'immunism' or the principle of our mutual insurance, which is the most profound motive of solidarity." So now we have a new "-ism" to worry about that sounds like an advertisement for NATO.

This is the sum and substance of the movie. Some of these thinkers are better than they appear to be in the film, but probably not by much. I don't think this film has reloaded Marx-- quite the contrary, I think it completely fails to present what Marxism is all about, its past accomplishments and future possibilities. No film can hope to present Marxism to the public without at the same time dealing with the real life problems of the labor and people's movements, and issues in the so-called Third World. As I pointed out at the beginning of this review, Marxism Reloaded completely ignores working class leaders and the leaders of political movements inspired by Marxism, and confines itself to interviewing intellectual talking heads who, quite frankly, often do not know what they are talking about. Thus rather than reloading, the film was largely shooting blanks.

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  • Trotsky? this says it all

    Posted by Harvey Smith, 06/28/2013 9:11am (10 years ago)

  • I'm not sure if communism ever made people happy! History shows that communism in the USSR and China made people struggle for their rights and for well being. They had nothing to complaint about aloud - they were afraid! Talking about the 1930s - hundreds of thousands of people were jailed in the USSR by Stalin for no reasons - bloody regime it was!
    In a whole, I think no matter how it is called - communism, democracy or monarchy - if people are happy, that's what really matter!

    p.s. I don't like theory! I like dids!

    Posted by William Miller, 06/25/2013 4:32am (10 years ago)

  • Excellent, brother Riggins.
    Reloading blanks. What a telling oxymoron.
    Our Marx, with such confidence in the modern working class, had deep, deep, reverence for the creative philosophy of this working class, and its religious or spiritual thought and action, he was moved to write of it, in very clear terms.
    What comes to mind is his philosophical, often misused and misunderstood "opiate" quote, by both the left and the right, in today's politics. In this observation, he stood firmly, consistently, with full confidence in his working class (along with the oppressed), the future ruling class of all human society, his would be advanced human society, to what we have known heretofore.
    Today, as you have stated in this article, we have to refer to today's working class leaders, (especially those who have embraced Marxism)trade unionists, human rights activists, female, gay, spiritual and religious, majority and minority, and poor people's liberationists, to understand Marxism.
    After the communists leaders, and those close to the communists like Theodore Dreiser, Neruda, Allende, Claudia Jones, M L K, Elizabeth Flynn, Fred Shuttlesworth, Paul Leroy Robeson and Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Albert Einstein, Hugo Chavez, and today, Fidel and Raul Castro, Angela Yvonne Davis, Gerald Horne, Joseph Echols Lowery, and Lennox Hinds, we are reminded that we are "reloaded" with the
    potent, authentic weapons of Marxism, its emphasis on working class organization and unity with all people, which change the world, and change even how society's individuals and groups see Marxism and communism.
    Ours is only to know and live this potency to change the world.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 05/30/2013 11:22am (10 years ago)

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