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Capital (It Fails Us Now)

Introduction to a Mini-symposium on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Alberto Toscano

This introduction to Historical Materialism’s mini-symposium on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century places the three contributions by Husson, Mann and Roberts in the context of an exploration of the link between methodology and politics in Piketty’s economic history of inequality. Touching on the role of time and literature in Piketty’s argument, as well as on his difficulty in accounting for the relations of capital – especially ones originating in colonialism and empire – it approaches Piketty’s book, and its success, in terms of its concerted effort to produce a cognitive mapping of contemporary capitalism that can serve as a prelude to its democratic reform.

Alberto Toscano

Abstract

In this polemical intervention within the field of French and European social theory, Franck Fischbach proposes to revive and radicalise the tradition of social philosophy. The latter is understood, following Axel Honneth, in terms of the normatively-driven analysis of socio-economic processes that may be characterised as pathologies of the social. Fischbach contrasts the lessons of social philosophy from Rousseau to the Frankfurt School with the recent ascendance to intellectual hegemony of a formalistic, procedural liberalism which is oblivious to social negativity. The review questions the capacity of social philosophy to synthesise stances as politically and methodologically different as those of de Maistre, Nietzsche and Marx, as well as the very pertinence of the appellation ‘philosophy’. Fischbach’s more historically determinate definition of social philosophy as arising out of the critique of Jacobin revolutionary political thought, with its supposed abstraction and voluntarism, fails to contend with the claims of ruptural politics, as well as with those positions that would regard crisis and pathology not just as a menace, but also as an opportunity for liberation. In the end, in spite of its able historical and conceptual mapping, and its commendable demand for totalising critique, Fischbach fails to persuade in his claim that social philosophy is the name for emancipatory thought in the present.

Alberto Toscano

Abstract

This article reconsiders Marx’s thinking on religion in light of current preoccupations with the encroachment of religious practices and beliefs into political life. It argues that Marx formulates a critique of the anticlerical and Enlightenment-critique of religion, in which he subsumes the secular repudiation of spiritual authority and religious transcendence into a broader analysis of the ‘real abstractions’ that dominate our social existence. The tools forged by Marx in his engagement with critiques of religious authority allow him to discern the ‘religious’ and ‘transcendent’ dimension of state and capital, and may contribute to a contemporary investigation into the links between capitalism as a religion of everyday life and what Mike Davis has called the current ‘reenchantment of catastrophic modernity’.

Alberto Toscano

Abstract

What is the relationship between materialism and partisanship today? Starting with an outline of the elements of Lenin's understanding of the partisan character of truth, this intervention outlines some of the challenges posed to a Marxist understanding of partisanship by the influential positions of Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt, as well as by the recent turn to vitalism and complexity in social theory. On the basis of the confrontation between a Leninist conception of materialist partisanship and its contemporary challengers, the article considers Alain Badiou's recent attempt to revive a 'materialist dialectic' in order to think through the present conditions for formulating a partisan and universalist conception of political truth that would not collapse into mere partiality or outright dogmatism.

Alberto Toscano

Abstract

This article introduces a series of essays on the related concepts of cognitive capitalism, immaterial labour and the 'general intellect', which will feature in the pages of Historical Materialism from this issue onwards. It outlines the stakes of the theoretical discussion around these concepts and welcomes the recasting in Marxian terms of debates which have o en been monopolised by apologetic treatments of capitalist development. It also identifies five areas which future articles in this 'research stream' will be preoccupied with: (1) the interpretation of Marxian notions, especially arising from the Grundrisse; (2) the philosophy of history and the schemata of social change that underpin concepts such as cognitive capitalism; (3) the identification of hegemonic social figures (e.g. the immaterial labourer, the 'cognitariat'); (4) issues of philosophical anthropology bearing on the definition of knowledge and intellect; (5) the role of debates on value (and its possible crisis) in assessing the idea of knowledge as a productive force.

Alberto Toscano

Abstract

Beginning with his engagement with Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s seminal treatment of ‘real abstraction’, Intellectual and Manual Labour, Slavoj Žižek has repeatedly thematised and excavated the proposition that capitalism is innervated by a kind of actually-existing metaphysics, the scandal of an abstract form external to human cognition. This essay investigates Žižek’s use and criticism of Sohn-Rethel and outlines some of the developments and contradictions in his effort to confront capital’s challenge to philosophy’s self-sufficiency. It problematizes Žižek’s tendency to elide a model of abstraction as a hollowing-out or evacuation of social content (rooted in The Communist Manifesto) with a much more promising conception of real abstraction as its re-articulation or re-functioning, while querying Žižek’s recent efforts to transcend the purported limitations of Marx’s conceptualisation of capital in the direction of a (‘Lacanised’) Hegel.