Heirs of Marx

by | 24 Oct 2011

The 1996 book The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy authored by the duo (as one) of Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham (J.K. Gibson-Graham) spelt out the ways in which certain types of thinking have warped our thoughts on capitalism, and hidden its intrinsic ‘noncapitalist’ components (its ‘other’). [1] The book sought to illustrate this state of affairs in order that we may be able to re-envision capitalism and allow for alternate ways of thinking its ‘supersession.’ [2] Here emancipation was being attempted through an all new methodology. In enacting such an all new methodology it was apparent that Gibson-Graham had astutely transposed the form of critical gender theory onto the content of Marx’s classical account of capitalist political economy, whether this was to be seen through the re-engagement with commodity fetishism, the C-M-C circuit, or the alienation of labour (as a non-exhaustive list). All of these things, and more, were revisited in order that capitalism may be thought anew. [3] In an eloquent statement from Gibson-Graham they illustrate their methodology as one which engages with the challenges faced by critical gender theory: ‘…we confront a similar problem to that encountered by feminists attempting to reconceptualize binary gender. It is difficult if not impossible to posit binary difference that is not potentially subsumable to hierarchies of presence/absence, sufficiency/insufficiency, male/female, positivity/negation.’ [4] Thus Gibson-Graham’s account of capitalism (which highlights capitalism’s own, yet subsumed, ‘other’) recalls to us a certain critical methodology which seeks at once to confront binaries but in doing so critically undermines any telos which would reinstate a hierarchical account of such binaries. This was the imminent challenge which presented itself before Gibson-Graham in their confrontation of Marx’s powerful emancipatory humanitarian dialectic.

From their own description of how the project may be understood, Gibson-Graham makes parallels to ‘…the writings of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985, for example)…’ in order to portray capitalism as something other than fixed, rigid, wholly consuming and ever present. [5] It is therefore possible to avoid seeing capitalism as an all-devouring ‘blob’ which would serve as the ‘totality of the economic.’ [6] As a result capitalism may be seen in a more nuanced fashion, ‘anti-essentialist’ one could say, and so it is therefore far removed from a ‘unitary or homogeneous’ form. [7]

This, J.K. Gibson-Graham claim, ‘…multiplies (infinitely) the possibilities of alterity’ and indeed one can imagine why this is: the more ‘others’ which are offered up in the name of emancipation, the better. [8] It is this initial line of engagement which is multiplied throughout the book and which reaches a seemingly pivotal point in chapter 10, where capitalism (which had thus far been ‘relatively immune to radical reconceptualization’) [9] then gets ‘deconstructed’ for a final time, once again using Marx’s account as the basis for engagement. At this point the work of the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida enters the fray and his book on Marx, Specters of Marx, is taken to task. [10]

However Derrida’s work on Marx comes off very well from J.K. Gibson-Graham’s reading, unlike for example from the readings of Antonio Negri or Terry Eagleton (we will return to Eagleton’s scathing words to close). [11] Derrida comes off so well from Gibson-Graham’s reading because he employs a methodology which is a complimentary parallel to the one used by Gibson-Graham. So it is that deconstruction and critical gender theory both seek to unveil capitalism’s ‘other’ and disrupt the ‘ontological totality’ which Marx proffers. [12] For Derrida this is achieved by illustrating the fissures which seep into Marx’s distinct categories of use and exchange value.[13] For such distinct values cannot withstand the solicitation of Derrida’s metaphysics which have underlined his entire corpus. [14] Returning then to Gibson-Graham, their engagement with Marx conveys capitalism to have inherent instances of ‘noncapitalis[m],’ which they insightfully offer as the ‘home-cooked meal,’ and ‘made beds.’ [15] The point here is of course to break away from an ontologically rigid one-size-fits-all account of capitalism in order that the pluralities which become manifest open points of engagement: ‘[t]here is no capitalism but only capitalisms.’ [16] However at this juncture it is absolutely crucial that one point be made crystal clear: neither Gibson-Graham nor Derrida seek to denounce Marx’s account of capitalism – in fact far from it. Their separate (yet seemingly intertwined) accounts offer nothing but praise, respect and above all a sense of responsibility to Marx’s work. As Derrida states, there is no inheritance without responsibility and so it is only with a sense of admiration and respect that one can take up Marx again, in order to allow him to speak again. [17]

As we find from Derrida (from within his attack on Francis Fukuyama and his ‘singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history’) [18] we are to be more than cautious of the fact that ‘…never before, in absolute figures, never have so many men, women, and children been subjugated, starved, or exterminated on the earth.’ [19] So it is that Marx of course still speaks to us and does so with a rousing voice of dissent against the fact that ‘violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression’ effects (affects) more people on the planet than ever before. [20] It is now on this poignant reminder of responsibility that we can remark upon those who today, across the globe, are raising their voices in a certain spirit of Marxism. Such a spirit is here the ‘motor-scheme’ of those voicing dissent [21] and begins to show a resonance with one of the questions asked by Gibson-Graham: ‘[w]here are the elements that contaminate the ostensibly pure and exclusively capitalist world economic space?’ [22]

Turning then to those who are occupying spaces all across the globe in the name of a justice to come and against the injustice of capitalism’s (capitalisms’) ruthless hold over the ‘99%’, we find Marx re-envisioned. Marx here does not necessarily present the orthodox, dialectical, economical (mathematical), and algebraic truth presented, say, by Rastko Mo?nik in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, [23] but rather he presents a voice to be inherited and interpreted. He provides the ‘motor-scheme,’ the spark for emancipation. The occurrence here is one which mirrors the actions seen in the work of Gibson-Graham and Derrida. For there we find in Marx ‘other Marxs,’ ‘other Marxs’ which can be found to say this and do things differently. This brings us back to Terry Eagleton. Eagleton’s comments on Derrida’s monograph on Marx are less that favourable: they are scathing. In but 5 pages and without so much as a full footnote or reference to anything outside some key passages from Derrida’s text, Eagleton lays waste to Derrida’s ‘Marxism without Marxism.’ [24] Within Eagleton’s dry wit and sarcasm one can easily make out the main point of criticism: there is no orthodoxy to be seen in Derrida’s work on Marx. [25]

This lack of orthodoxy in Derrida is the backbone of Eagleton’s engagement and it culminates to decry Derrida’s famous call for a ‘New International,’ one which is ‘without status, without title, and without name, barely public…without contract, “out of joint,” without coordination, without party, without country, without national community (International before, across, and beyond any national determination), without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class.’ [26] Eagleton criticizes Derrida for theorising this ‘New International’ because it sits as a ‘the ultimate poststructuralist fantasy: an opposition without saying anything as distastefully systemic or drably ‘orthodox’ as an opposition, a dissent beyond all formulable discourse, a promise which would betray itself in the act of fulfilment, a perpetual excited openness to the Messiah who had better not let us down by doing anything so determinate as coming.’ [27]

The 99% [28]

And yet in a moment which seems (at the very least) to ask some real questions of Eagleton’s critique, we have seen, quite literally overnight in some cases, the spontaneous worldwide spark in over 80 countries of a certain spirit of Marxism. This spirit has no borders, no party, no contract, no class, no states; merely the emphatic assertion that we are heirs of Marx; we are the vast majority of humanity; and we are facing injustice. [29] It serves as an initial reaction and enaction, a memorable constituent moment, one which has a Nietzschean perhaps attached to it. We must take heed of the moments when spirits are roused and invoked en masse, and when the ghosts of the past speak again, for they are moments which can become moments far beyond themselves (lest we forget the initial moments of the Arab Spring which have now led to unforeseeable consequences). [30] One could say that the 99% have opened an abyss and it is this abyss of the masses, in the name of a certain spirit of Marx which we must acknowledge: ‘[t]he ‘abyssal’ opens before us rarely; the Bastille is not stormed every day. But that does not mean that ruptures are not possible.’ [31]

Marxism indeed.

[1] J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). I am here taking references from the first edition of the ‘new’ University of Minnesota Press, published ten years after the Blackwell Publishers version. See chapter 1 in general.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 15–20.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985). Here, as is well known, Laclau and Mouffe critically examined ‘society,’ as J.K. Gibson-Graham critically examine ‘economy.’

[6] J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, 12. This author has always envisioned (in an albeit somewhat comic fashion) totalising concepts to be portrayed adequately by the protagonist of the 1958 B-movie, The Blob. For those who would be lost to this reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhyRpvgm03g

[7] Ibid., 12–14.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 253.

[10] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, (New York: Routledge, 2006). This is a reference to the Routledge ‘Classic’ version. The original Routledge publication was in 1994.

[11] See their respective essays in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, ed Michael Sprinker, (London/New York: Verso, 2008), at 5–16, and 83–87.

[12] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, 110.

[13] Ibid., chapter 5: ‘Apparition of the Inapparent.’ See also J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it), 239 for Gibson-Graham’s acknowledgement of Derrida’s insight into Marx’s strict ontological formations.

[14] For perhaps one of Derrida’s clearest account of his metaphysics, see ‘Différance,’ in Margins of Philosophy, (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Press, 1982). And here, the use of the word solicitation is as described by Alan Bass in his translators note, at 16, note 18, in Derrida’s ‘Différance.’

[15] J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it), 245.

[16] Ibid., 247.

[17] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, 114.

[18] Ibid., 106. See more generally chapter 2: ‘Conjuring – Marxism,’ for Derrida’s scathing account of Fukuyama’s work (and ideology).

[19] Ibid., 106.

[20] Ibid.

[21] For a conceptual thinking of a ‘motor-scheme,’ see Catherine Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, destruction, deconstruction, trans. Carolyn Shread (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 15.

[22] J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it), 243.

[23] See Rastko Mo?nik, ‘After the Fall: Through The Fogs of the 18th Brumaire of the Eastern Springs,’ in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, 110–133.

[24] Terry Eagleton, ‘Marxism without Marxism,’ in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, 86.

[25] There are numerous instances where Eagleton makes this clear, but one of the most pertinent points can be seen in ‘Marxism without Marxism,’ at 86: ‘If Derrida thinks, as he appears to do, that there can be any effective socialism without organization, apparatuses and reasonably well-formulated doctrines and programmes, then he is merely the victim of some academicist fantasy which he has somehow mistaken for an enlightened anti-Stalinism.’

[26] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, 106–107.

[27] Terry Eagleton, ‘Marxism without Marxism,’ in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, 87. The quotations on the word orthodox are Eagleton’s.

[29] Here, the ‘we’ is seen in opposition to the ‘we’ which is necessarily exclusive as interpreted by Emilios Christodoulidis in ‘Against Substitution: The Constitutional Thinking of Dissensus,’ in The Paradox of Constitutionalism: Constituent Power and Constitutional Form, M. Loughlin and N. Walker (eds), (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 200.

[31] Emilios Christodoulidis, ‘Against Substitution: The Constitutional Thinking of Dissensus,’ in The Paradox of Constitutionalism: Constituent Power and Constitutional Form, 194. The quotations on the word abyssal of Christodoulidis’.


  1. problem is that Derrida himself attarcts these sort of lightweight protesters who want to be academics. A few succeed thanks to some 60s holdovers who specifically promote them. That is unfortunate. Academics should have political views, courage even, and be politically active. But political activism should not grant you a damn PHD!!! PS: Derrida-types have ruined the Left. The Left once stood for social progress, now the academic Left stands for irrationalism.

    • I don’t think Eagleton is saying that ‘a cer­tain spirit of Marx­ism with no bor­ders, no party, no con­tract, no class, no states’ cannot become manifest; I think he’s saying that you need some of the old orthodoxies like parties, positions, and plans for it to become anything than a flash in the pan. Maybe that didn’t seem as obvious a month or two after Occupy began…


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