Marx, third wave

Reconstructing Marxism to emancipate modern forms of capitalism: this was the ambition of Erik Olin Wright, who died in 2019. But how can we articulate the idea of ​​decommodification with democracy??

According to Michael Burawoy and Erik Olin Wright (1947-2019), there are four possible theoretical attitudes towards Marxism. The first seeks spread Marxism by striving to comment on and disseminate as much as possible all of the theses contained in the founding work of Marx and Engels. The second, which is opposed to the previous one, means bury Marxism by denouncing it as an obsolete, false or even dangerous theory. The third attitude consists use Marxism, drawing from his theoretical corpus to enrich other social theories, this would be the approach of very different authors such as Durkheim, Bourdieu, Foucault or Habermas. The fourth attitude, the one which is defended by our two authors, proposes to rebuild Marxism. She considers that we can find in this theory developed in the middle of XIXe century the conceptual framework of a social theory which, at the cost of an effort to renew certain of its concepts, makes it possible to effectively analyze the particular forms that capitalism can take today and to question the concrete means of emancipating ourselves from it. The project of this renewed Marxism is described in this collection through three short texts: a 2002 article written by Burawoy and Wright, a revised version of an article by Burawoy first written in 2013, and the transcription of a questioning session carried out with the latter.ENS in 2020.

On the critique of capitalism and emancipation

For Burawoy and Wright, an essential dimension of Marxism classic, that of Marx and Engels, is found in its capacity to account for a radical social transformation following the Industrial Revolution: in industrial society, class relations are redefined based on the commercial exploitation of certain dimensions of social life. On this basis, Marxism invites us to analyze modernity as a society contaminated by relations of exploitation, that is to say by relations of domination and appropriation of one class over another. The boss is not content with having authority over the worker: his position also allows him to appropriate the labor force of his employees by dispossessing them of their property rights to the fruits of their labor. In classical Marxism, this critical theory of capitalism is supplemented by a theory of emancipation taking the form of a historical materialism predicting the inevitable self-collapse of capitalism from the spontaneous emergence of socialism.

For Burawoy and Wright, the problem is that, if the course of history has confirmed the relevance of the Marxist critique of capitalism, it has also shown that its theory of emancipation is untenable. Capitalism, which is proving more resilient than expected in the face of the multiple crises it continues to go through, tends rather to intensify by integrating more and more dimensions of social life into the domain of market exploitation. On this observation, two attitudes are possible. The first consists of renouncing a theory of emancipation, retaining only the critical theory of capitalism. In this case, Marxism tends to become the basis of a cynical and fatalistic theory of the social, brutally confronting us with violence and injustices that are apparently inevitable according to our authors; this is the path taken by the Frankfurt School. The second consists of proposing another theory of emancipation, more respectful of historical truth, which can complete the critical theory of capitalism of classical Marxism. In this case, the project is to reconstruct Marxism while preserving its ambition to be a scientific socialism, that is to say a theory of emancipation based on an objective understanding of the social world. For Burawoy and Wright, sociology, as an empirical science based on the real manifestations of the social world, can advantageously take the place of historical materialism. This is why our authors propose to call their reconstructed Marxism sociological Marxism.

The three waves of capitalism and Marxism

If classical Marxism can pass for an outdated doctrine today, it is because current capitalism is no longer that which Marx and Engels confronted in the middle of the XIXe century. Capitalism, as a process of commodification of social life, is not a fixed social fact. Consequently, Marxism, as an effort to resist capitalism, cannot be content with being a fixed theory: it must continually renew itself to respond to the new forms of exploitation that appear in the social world. In this way, our authors invite us to think about the relationship between capitalism and Marxism in historical terms. Drawing on Polanyi, Burawoy proposes to reflect on the historical development of this antagonism according to three waves.

The first, which goes from the end of the XVIIIe century until the First World War, corresponds to the development of capitalism linked to the Industrial Revolution and the commodification of work. Faced with this, classical Marxism carries the ideal of a progressive transformation of capitalism into socialism which is historically embodied in the evolution of labor law which gives an increasingly collectivist form to the capitalist mode of production.

The second wave, which goes from the First World War to the 1970s, corresponds to the development of financial capitalism linked to the establishment of an international economy based on the gold standard. Faced with this, the emancipatory ideal is that of a protective state which renationalizes its economy and takes charge of the redistribution of surplus goods. According to Burawoy, this state socialism could take various forms ranging from Soviet Marxism (including in its Stalinist form) to Third World Marxism (that of Cuba or Frantz Fanon). The third wave, which goes from the 1970s to the present day, corresponds to capitalism linked to the overexploitation of nature and the development of the internet.

Third wave capitalism is that of the commodification of the environment and information.After putting work and money under the yoke of market exploitation, third wave capitalism is that of the commodification of the environment and information. Faced with this new situation, Marxism must renew itself: state withdrawal is no longer enough to respond to the unprecedented crises we are facing today, the environmental crisis and the crisis of individual freedom linked to the commodification of personal data. The ambition of sociological Marxism proposed by Burawoy and Wright is to contribute to the third wave of Marxism by confronting the question of the emancipation of capitalism in a context of globalized commodification.

Real utopias

Having renounced the ideal of state socialism, sociological Marxism must think about emancipation from a conception of society which decentralizes the political action of state authority. For this, Burawoy and Wright use the notion of civil society, a term designating a social space independent of the state and the economy from which very diverse citizen actions can emerge, making it possible to decommodify certain dimensions of social life on a modest scale: cooperatives, participatory budgets, social banks, universal income, collaborative encyclopedia (Wikipdia), etc. These emancipatory impulses are reflected here from the category ofreal utopias first developed by Wright.

The ideal of emancipation linked to self-governing citizen initiative does not arise from pure speculationIf these initiatives are utopian, it is because they carry an ideal of emancipation which remains beyond their reach: if Wikipedia or Gutenberg can be considered as the torchbearers of a project of emancipation (that is to say decommodification) of knowledge, their contribution to the realization of this project remains very modest, if only because it comes up against the limitations imposed by copyright. But these utopias are also real: as modest as it may be, these initiatives are effective on their scale and are sufficient to show that the ideal of emancipation linked to self-governing citizen initiative does not arise from pure speculation. In this context, the task that Burawoy and Wright assign to sociological Marxism is to show that these local and independent citizen initiatives can, by being generalized and articulated between them, serve as a starting point for the emergence of a socialist society.

From decommodification to emancipation

For Burawoy and Wright, the main function of real utopias is that they help to naturalize capitalism: their example helps to nourish the collective imagination, to arouse hope for emancipation by showing that other forms of society are possible, that capitalism is not a natural social order or necessary. However, there is never a question of examining the new ways of relating to others that these real utopias make possible nor of showing how these initiatives, not content with tearing their participants away from commercial alienation, have made them freer. this level finds a major limitation of the text: by concentrating its analysis on the question of market exploitation and its sociohistorical transformations, sociological Marxism lacks conceptual resources to think positively about an emancipation which is only formulated abstractly in a negative form (as an exit from capitalism) or modal (as something possible). On the last page of the book, Burawoy explicitly recognizes the limits of the idea of ​​decommodification: decommodification itself does not result in a socialist world () (It) can just as easily lead to social democracy or fascism as to democratic socialism (p. 133).

What is at stake here is that a consistent theory of emancipation must articulate the idea of ​​decommodification with the idea of ​​democracy as a positive idea of ​​a social bond freed from exploitation and authoritarianism. In this regard, the project of reconstructing Marxism carried out by Burawoy and Wright seems unfinished. Despite this reservation, For a sociological Marxism remains a very stimulating book, particularly because it clearly poses certain strong theoretical demands that any social theory of socialist inspiration can adopt: that of evaluating the relevance of a theory, its capacity to think about the contemporary world, that of articulating the question of criticism of the established social order with that of of its emancipation and that of a theory which renews itself and thinks about its renewal by adopting a sociohistorical point of view on its articulation with the social world.