By John Cooper
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Representing Capital

This article is over 12 years, 10 months old
Frederic Jameson
Issue 361

When most people encounter the work of Fredric Jameson, it is usually through reading his early writings: his groundbreaking Marxist studies on narrative representation, or his renowned book on postmodernism. In this latest work he applies many of these insights, perhaps somewhat controversially, to Marx’s Capital.

Jameson’s most recent preoccupation has been with rethinking what we mean by a dialectical reading in philosophy. Jameson argues, provocatively, that Capital (and, in particular, its first volume) is not a book about labour, or even politics. Rather, in a society where the commodity form holds sway, he looks at how we might read Marx as reinterpreting Hegel’s theory of alienation in a non-philosophical, or “economic” way.

Jameson asks how the seemingly all-encompassing commodification (or “alienation”) ushered in by globalisation can be considered as anything other than negative. If we attempt to represent capitalism as being a self-sufficient system (or as some sort of all-powerful totality – another Hegelian reference), then it would appear we are in trouble. His answer to this conundrum lies with unemployment.

The key to Marx’s “representation” of capitalism is that its increasing productivity and the innovation which it brings is actually identical with the worldwide immiseration and unemployment of large swathes of the population – its own victory is also its downfall.

This conclusion will, of course, be familiar to many. However, Jameson’s work is about narrative representation, and how, in this case, the commodity form is a figurative way of understanding the contradictions in capitalism as an economic mode of production.

Perhaps his most original though rather troublesome point is that he defines Capital as being wholly “economic” in persuasion with no direct political conclusions internal to its narrative. Marxism, he argues, rightly focuses on the question of economic exploitation and adopts a programme for the transformation of the entire mode of production, explaining the recent popularity of anarchism or Islamism (at least with the triumph of globalisation – though times have now changed with the economic crisis).

It is surely problematic for Jameson to separate politics and economics as opposed spheres in this way. There is a vast tradition of complex Marxist thought and practice which brings the two together.

In Representing Capital, Jameson once again proves himself to be a deft and skilled writer. He succeeds in showing how the dialectic itself forces us to embrace contradiction – and capitalism is, of course, contradictory to its core. However, it is also to be hoped that Jameson in forthcoming work moves to embrace a more open discussion of his own philosophical approach, which can only enhance the force of his critique.

Representing Capital is published by Verso £14.99.

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