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John Lanchester Writes on Marx

Last month, or the one before that, John Lanchester did a podcast on Marx for the London Review of Books. Presumably this is an effort to generate a bit of buzz for Lanchester’s new novel, Capital. From the title of the new novel alone, we can assume that there’s not a little that Lanchester owes old, dead Karl. LRB ran the piece, and it really is execrable: self-contradicting and riddled with glaring errors. I’m not sure how this happened: there are a lot of commentators on Marx who could say something intelligent about his work and legacy, maybe even go so far as to speculate on what method he would take today. This is not that. It is just bad.

Trying to make sense of the appearance of the piece, I imagine an editor from Faber and Faber—which published Capital—calling a friend of his who manages ad space for LRB, suggesting they grab a drink, and they meet in some fashionable bar crawling with the earnest, somewhat matured, children of privilege and have a few drinks, talk about ad buys, and hey, why not give Lanchester a bit of space to talk about Marx: he does in fact have a book called Capital coming it, and Marx would be 193 this year, and sure wouldn’t it be interesting to hear what the man would have thought of this finance mess. What they drink, I don’t know, and of course my imagining of the scene is colored by my experience of the rough-and-tumble New York publishing world (rough-and-tumble really doesn’t cover it; it’s inadequate: what, really, we have here is a cloistered little realm whose purblind library mice fancy themselves seers, but that’s something else, some other concern entirely). But no matter: maybe in fact the LRB approached Lanchester and said, hey, why not write something on Marx? The provenance of the thing will hopefully remain obscure.

Anyway, the podcast I read and found very irritating: it’s the sort of self-assured rumination that lacks all lucidity, even though benefiting from the supposed clearness of hindsight. Consider the opening paragraph, where Lanchester begins by stressing that Marx “was not an empiricist.

He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated.”

Well, okay, this really isn’t an accurate representation of Marx’s method in, say, volume one of Capital, the latter half of which is (notoriously?) peppered with the kind of details (data points) that Marx tries to explain. Like differences in national wages. Or the account of the legal and political struggle that culminating in the establishment of the working day. Et cetera. But, let’s just grant Lanchester that Marx wasn’t an “empiricist.” If that’s the case, we have a hard time granting Lanchester’s later assertion that Marx “would have taken a keen interest” in infant mortality, which is supposed to be an indication of How Much Better Things Are Now. You can’t have it both ways: either Marx could infer from data points about the economy and society, or he didn’t believe it was possible. Claiming that someone isn’t interested in facts (they’re “not an empiricist”) means that they wouldn’t have a “keen interest” in them; and it also, conveniently, makes them seem out-of-touch and more than a lil insane.

Marx did use a hell of a lot of data in constructing the argument in Capital, and it would be a lot more interesting, enlightening, beneficial for the reading public, for Lanchester to have investigated, say, whether the data Marx presents in Capital were taken as credible by his contemporaries, and how the data would be understood now. This is the stuff of serious historiography, and since Marx has the position he does, it likely wouldn’t require anything more than access to a scholarly library—no dusty archive rummaging. Only a WorldCat search and some eye strain.

And then there are the other factual errors and strange contortions in Lanchester’s piece: rather than positioning “bourgeois political economy” in the tradition of writing by theorists of the economy, most of whom attempted to understand things so from the position of owners of capital interested in maximizing their profit, Lanchester confuses things. He makes a lot of hay about the fact that Marx critiqued “bourgeois political economy” rather than “capitalism” because “He didn’t think it was possible to move past capitalism without a fundamental overturning of the existing social, political and philosophical order.” This is true, but it makes things appear more obscure than they are. In Capital, Marx is critiquing the body of knowledge employed by a specific class in studying the operation of the economy, “bourgeois political economy.” Today, we would call that body of work Economics; in the nineteenth century, they called it “political economy.” Marx was interested in revealing the lacunae and concealed class position implicit in the framework of political economy, to demonstrate that the truths and assumptions it purported to reveal reproduced one class’s power. And he did this with data, in a way that can be judged as more or less successful—and often is bitterly humorous in its ironic inflections. But Lanchester misses that chance.

Then he makes claims like this one:

Many workers have pensions invested in companies whose route to profit lies in cutting to a minimum the number of workers they employ; one of the things that led to the credit crunch was pension funds’ search for higher stable returns to pay the pension liabilities of future generations of retiring workers, so that in very many cases we had a situation in which people lost their jobs because of losses incurred in the attempt to provide future security for the same workers. Most of us are wage slaves, beneficiaries of the welfare state, funders of that state, at the same time as being current or future pensioners who, in that capacity if in no other, are textbook bourgeois owners of the means of production. [my emphasis]

Actually, because we’d have to multiply qualify pensioners’ supposed “ownership” of the means of production—can they individually choose to disinvest in a firm? do they get to make any decisions about which firms receive their capital, or is that decision one they contractually cannot make? who are the managers of the pension funds, and did they come from the shop floor? etc.—it is anything but “textbook.” Calling it textbook ownership makes it seem self-evident that the lucky laborers who actually have a pension are on the same footing, economically, as the highly remunerated financiers who have (many times fraudulently) siphoned pension funds into high-risk, failed investments, or the private owners of a business. And if you actually believe that, you need to check the frame through which you’re getting your data points.

Other problems abound.

So what to do with this piece? Part of me wants to see Lanchester as simply a misguided fellow traveler, albeit one with whom I’d have strong disagreements. But another bit of me thinks he’s just wrong, wrong, wrong, and that his meditations do more to obfuscate things than they should. And my hackles get up.

Categories: Notes.

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One Response

  1. In fact when someone doesn’t understand afterward its up to other people that they will assist, so here it happens.



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