There are two things I’ve noticed recently in discussion of Marxism on the one hand and political economy on the other, and I think I’ve finally figured out how they’re connected. In the first place, we have an image of Marxism as rigid, deterministic, or “programmatic”, which always strikes me as odd, as I’ve never felt that way, either about the work of Marx himself, or about the many, many Marxisms that have emerged at least since the collapse of the Second International in 1916. Obviously, many positions taken by individual Marxists, like Lenin for instance, are rigid and sometimes suggest a particular kind of determinism, but on the whole even the Marxism of Lenin is much more flexible than it is generally considered.
On the other hand, despite all the narratives of “post-industrialism”, neoliberal restructuring, cognitive capitalism, etc, that have been with us for many years, a lot of people still lament the loss of industrial manufacturing and expect its return. Living in Alberta obviously gives this impression, as so much of the culture and politics attends a single quintessentially industrial sector. But this phenomenon is not limited to Alberta. In a recent article on the towns that will be hardest hit by automation, workers in Hawkesbury, Ontario are still lamenting the loss of the pulp and paper mill that closed in 1982 (almost forty years ago):
Sitting around a table with fellow Steelworkers, Steve Berniquez starts listing companies that once stood in and around Hawkesbury, a small Ontario town an hour’s drive east of Ottawa.
When he mentions Canadian International Pulp and Paper, everybody nods. Its mill closed in 1982 and that was a bad one, more than 400 jobs gone at once.
“We had how many mills around here where everybody could work? Now we don’t have anything else,” Berniquez says, leaning back in his chair. “They’re not coming back to us.”
The connection, I think, between the caricature of a rigid and deterministic Marxism and the inability to let go of traditional industrial manufacturing is primarily a generational one. Not directly, to be sure - the current Hawkesbury steel workers would have been children when the Pulp and Paper Mill closed in 1982, but today’s workers grew up in culture dominated by industrial labour. The economic shift to post-Fordism (which began 40-50 years ago) was much swifter than the cultural shift; the lag being felt by workers all over the global North and West is a cultural one, not an economic one; they are lamenting an economic change that took place before they were even born.
The intellectual reproduction of ideas around Marxism also partakes of this cultural inertia. I started my undergrad in 1995 and read the Communist Manifesto a year or so later. In those days - less than half-a-decade after the unilaterally declared victory of liberal-capitalism - Marx wasn’t taught at my university, at least not in this history courses I took. In political science courses, Marx occupied one or two lectures in a 13-week course, and probably not much more than that in a full-year course (remember those?). And those one or two lectures were in the main dismissive. A de-Marxified Gramsci was the only Marxist who still had any currency within my university. I read Marx on my own, and so I didn’t receive a preformed opinion from professors a generation or two older than me, a generation which had grown up under welfare-state industrial capitalism, the Fordist assembly line, the Soviet Union, and Trotskyist history departments. All that was gone by the time I went to university, and even those professors who were sympathetic to the Marxist project were inculcated with the caricatural exaggerations of Marxism that were the product of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union means nothing in terms of my Marxism (though Lenin does), just as industrial labour means nothing to my work experience. I owe no emotional allegiance to either; they are of historical interest only. I’m part of perhaps the first generation where non-industrial labour was the norm: my own work experience has ranged from tertiary-sector service work to white-collar “cognitive”, all of which have significant immaterial and affective - that is, post-industral - characteristics. My reading of Marx was informed by this gap dividing my work experience from the industrial, mass labour of the welfare state; informed too by the constant change of working conditions under the combined pressure of neoliberal restructuring and austerity, distrust of both the labour unions and the state, as well as the social movements that arose once again in the late 1990s.
The privileging of an industrial labour force and industrial conditions of work are a holdover from a world that disappeared in the global North forty years ago. Its disappearance here was predicated on the transfer of industrial labour exploitation (and hyper-exploitation) to the countries of the periphery, a process bound up with the colonial and racist values of capitalism itself. But culturally, we continue to imagine that industrial capitalism was the high water mark - unsurprisingly, because industrial capitalism coincided with the temporary benefits of the welfare state. But we can’t go back to industrial capitalism just as we can’t go back to the welfare state. Capital has dismantled both, due at least in part to the pressure placed on profits by autonomous working-class demands. Marxism - alongside other practical-theoretical frameworks around race, gender, sexuality, disability, as well as class - offers ways of understanding not only the pre-1991 world, but today’s world as well. Sticking to outdated, romantic and/or condemnatory, caricatures of both industrialism and Marxism does no-one any favours, however. Our perspective with respect to labour and the mode of production, as well as politics, political theory, and ideology, can’t remain stuck in the past, but has to be oriented towards the future. The future, after all, is already here.