Beyond the Engine

by Alyssa Battistoni

Image Credit: Michelle Jia. Images via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

What does it mean to think about twenty-first-century Marxism? Marxism has only really had one century so far: Marx wrote in the mid-nineteenth, of course, but didn’t catch on until nearly the twentieth. And to write on twenty-first-century Marxism amidst a blip of interest among a tiny fraction of the population at the dawn of the century feels a bit absurd. After all, who could have predicted twentieth-century Marxism—from Rosa Luxemburg to Chairman Mao, Vladimir Lenin to Angela Davis, Bertolt Brecht to Julius Nyerere? At this point last century, the Russian Revolution was still a few years off, the Cold War unimaginable, Third Worldist struggles decades away.

But Marxists in the present day have no choice but to think in terms of the century. The century, after all, is the unit of time in which the most devastating impacts of climate change and other ecological crises are predicted to materialize. The horizon of struggle isn’t endless; indeed, it’s starting to look shorter than ever. So what does Marxism mean in a century whose prospects look bleak?

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Last summer’s film Snowpiercer, set in a not-too-distant future of class war amidst climate catastrophe, seemed to many to epitomize a Marxism for the coming age. The film’s plot is by now familiar: an effort to address climate change through geoengineering has turned Earth into an icy wasteland; the surviving remnants of humanity are together cloistered on a train forever circling the frozen globe, powered by an eternal engine. The train’s passengers are starkly divided into those who paid for their tickets, who roam a series of luxuriously appointed cars containing all manner of amenities—a garden, an aquarium, a library, a rave—while the lowly passengers taken in as a matter of charity subsist on gelatinous insect-protein bars in the squalid back cars. In the face of cruelty and oppression, the underclass—notably, not the working class, as they don’t actually do any work—eventually decide to stage a revolt, led by the strong-jawed Chris Evans; while previous revolts have been attempted unsuccessfully, the goal this time is to “take the engine”—an obvious analogy for seizing the means of production. All this has been discussed, even as critics argue over whether the film represents a valorization of traditional Marxist politics or a rejection of them.

But what I found most frustrating was the film’s failure of imagination, not aesthetic or narrative so much as political. Rather than explore what politics might look like in a world thus transformed, Snowpiercer simply provides a futuristic new backdrop for the familiar twentieth-century story of men waging bloody struggle over control of a piece of machinery. But that story was an uneasy fit for the film’s internal logic. The politics of the train revolved almost entirely around control over reproduction and population, around the “ecological balance” of a closed living space, which necessitated preventing the underclass from having children, except on command; the only thing produced by the people in the back of the train is the occasional child, to serve as a piece of living machinery. Shoehorning a familiar revolution into these political circumstances requires a fairly ludicrous plot twist: it turns out that the revolutions are plotted by the train conductor in order to justify violent reductions in the population of the underclass. This, alas, doesn’t really make sense.

I don’t mean to pick on the film too much: after all, it’s the movies, and it’s not often that we see such blatant class war on screen. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder: instead of depicting the failure of a traditional revolution—albeit not a proletarian one—what if the film had tried to depict the revolutionary politics of a world characterized by reproductive labor and ecological control rather than industrial production? What might it have looked like? What are the politics of a world where the working class doesn’t have any work to do and the ruling class is obsessed with ecological balance, locating blame in overpopulation of the poor rather than their own extravagant consumption—that is to say, of the world that we do, and increasingly will, live in? They won’t, I suspect, look quite like the politics we’re used to.

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To wonder what twenty-first-century Marxism is begs the question of what Marxism itself is in the first place. What are its essential elements? What can change, and what remains fundamental across time and space? In his essay “Our Marx,” written in 1918, Gramsci asked a similar question: “Are we Marxists? Do Marxists exist?” His answer suggested a minimal definition: Marx, he said, “did not write a nice little doctrine, he is not a Messiah who left a string of parables laden with categorical imperatives, with absolute, unquestionable norms beyond the categories of time and space. The only categorical imperative, the only norm: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’”

It sounds simple enough. But the question of who exactly is a worker—and for that matter, what constitutes work—has proved vexing. Marx, of course, identified the 19th-century urban factory worker as the proletariat, destined to act as the revolutionary class. Since then, Marxists have been trying to account for the failure of the proletariat to act as such, and trying to figure out where other kinds of work and workers fit into a Marxist politics. What do we make of domestic and reproductive labor done mostly by women? Is labor done by slaves capitalist? What to make of agricultural labor, done by the peasants dismissed by Marx, or intellectual labor? These kinds of work and production are different than the kinds of labor traditionally recognized and valorized in Marxist theory, and their politics are likely to be different too. What, for example, does a strike look like for a care worker, or a surrogate who gestates a child? What might it look like for a community that tends a forest?

Nancy Fraser’s lecture, included in this colloquy, is representative of these critiques and arguments, and suggests some areas that twenty-first-century Marxism will have to address. Fraser notes that anti-capitalist struggles are more capacious than Marxists have often imagined, and looks to the space “behind the hidden abode” of capitalist production, to the largely non-commodified, unwaged social relations on which capitalist markets depend—in particular, to the realms of social reproduction, ecology, and politics. Fraser isn’t alone in calling our attention to these areas. Twenty-first-century Marxism to date has witnessed a revival of the Italian autonomist thought of the 1970s, characterized by the rejection of the traditional distinction between productive and reproductive labor and valorization of activities that, though unwaged, produce value for capital. Marxist feminists like Silvia Federici and Selma James have been notable figures of this revival, and their cry of “wages for (and against) housework” acts as the model for any number of calls to recognize unpaid and underacknowledged work: wages for Facebook, wages for pregnancy, wages for sex work.

But it’s not just Marxists who are concerned about what lies beyond the hidden abode, or about the goods that capitalism undervalues. In fact, it’s primarily those would defend capitalism who are seeking to recognize and account for non-market systems. According to these perspectives, we need to bring the “background conditions” that Fraser identifies into the foreground so that the market can work properly at last. Thus not only Federici and James but Chicago School economists like Gary Becker famously sought to bring “household services” and “human capital” into the realm of economic rationality; more recently, proponents of “natural capitalism” argue that capitalism can only truly function when the services provided by ecosystems are priced and accounted for.

The difference, of course, is that the original idea of wages for housework required a tricky maneuver: to demand wages not only for the work done, but also against capitalism—the understanding being that capitalism would collapse if forced to pay its full bill. The question for Marxists, then, is how, and when, do we get to the against? How, that is, does this strategy end up doing more than simply rendering all activities work to be done for wages, and all value simply another price? How do attempts to point out what capitalism doesn’t value do more than simply prompt an expansion of economic logic into new realms—perhaps strengthening capitalism in the process?

The costs of environmental reproduction hint at political promise. A recent assessment of “environmental externalities” suggested that none of the world’s major industries would remain profitable if forced to pay the costs of “natural capital”—processes like pollination and carbon cycles, without which the economy—not to mention human life as we know it—could not function. As with the value of unwaged housework, the value of ecosystem services threatens to swamp the balance books. Proponents of “market-based solutions” have sought to capture this value as capital to be owned and traded—but might we instead think of the work of caring for ecosystems, done largely by “unemployed” people in the global South, as work to be done for wages? And what would happen if those communities sought to raise the wage—to raise the price of nature so high that “business as usual” couldn’t function? Could “the price of nature,” that is, rather than something simply to be scorned as another instance of commodification, be made into a site of political struggle?

Of course, billions of people worldwide are still employed in industrial production. Yet billions more have never held a traditional job and are not likely to. Endlessly expanding production to employ more people—the Keynesian strategy of the twentieth century—simply isn’t a viable option anymore, if it ever was. The challenge, then, is to imagine—and organize—an international movement of the working class and wageless, dispossessed and disenfranchised, indigenous and indigent struggling for common control over our shared planet. Whether this century’s Marxism can move beyond theory and the academy, beyond little magazines and big hype, remains to be seen. In any case it will have to be the kind of Marxism called for by Stuart Hall—a “Marxism without guarantees.” All politics comes without guarantees these days—climate change is a problem to which no political position can credibly claim fully-fledged solutions.

Yet some kinds of politics can at least offer hope. While most models of climate futures are fairly dismal, they tend to rely on fairly conventional projections of political action and change. They don’t anticipate radical shifts in political sensibility. But politics-as-usual, like business-as-usual, is starkly insufficient for the present age. And for all its struggles to come to terms with nature, Marxism offers a theory and a praxis concerned with the things key to any climate politics worth its salt: bodies and their needs, the forces of industrial society, human liberation in the face of material constraints, revolutionary change, collective politics across and beyond the nation-state. That is to say—Marxism, updated for the twenty-first century, may be the only political force capable of confronting climate change and other ecological crises.

But it will have to change itself in the process. Like much political theory, Marxism has long held that the realm of freedom lies beyond the realm of necessity. Upon achieving a state of plenty, Marx held, true human flourishing could finally commence. Thus the orthodox view of Marx’s stages of history looks to communism as the pinnacle of human achievement, amidst post-capitalist conditions of superabundance. But somewhere along the way it became clear that the baseline for superabundance would keep shifting. Capitalism kept producing more—and Marxism in the twentieth century became enamored of capitalist forms of modernity, convinced that simply seizing the capitalist engine was enough to instigate a change in society. But the twentieth-century socialist anxiety about catching up to the capitalists now appears an exercise in cruel optimism, wherein the thing we most want is the thing that will destroy us: churning industrial productivity, which once promised a better life, now appears to threaten the prospect of any at all. Marxism in the twenty-first century needs utopias more than ever, but they will have to be different ones than those that have guided us to date: Marxists in the twenty-first century need not only to seize the means of production, but to transform them.

The aim of liberating ourselves from as much of what Hannah Arendt called the “toil and trouble” of labor and necessity as possible is still a worthy one. But to imagine that we can, in the process, liberate ourselves from our dependence on nonhuman nature—and from the constraints and limits that come with it—is a fantasy. It’s not that traditional industrial production is unimportant or undesirable, as some varieties of eco-philosophy would have it—simply that the zeal to produce our way out of want has led us to underappreciate the other kinds of activities necessary to make up our world. Rather than seeking to escape toil and trouble entirely, we need to, as Donna Haraway puts it, “stay with the trouble”—to realize that we’re bound to the struggles of living on our shared planet with many others. And here, Marx himself may offer more resources than we think. His own vision of the communist future is notoriously vague, and more nineteenth-century than twenty-first in its wistful appeal to hunting, fishing, tending cattle. But it offers a vision of a world where, with our basic needs provided for, we can have leisurely relationships to other humans and other species—a world of red-green plenty for all.  

Alyssa Battistoni's picture
PhD student, political science, Yale University; editor, Jacobin
I study political theory at Yale University, where I work at the intersection of political economy, science studies, geography, feminist theory, and Marxism. I'm also an editor at Jacobin magazine, where I write about the Left and the environment.