Dirty Capitalism

The concept of ‘dirty capitalism’ (Buckel 2015) opposes the idea of a “pure” capitalism according to which an analysis of social developments can be achieved by applying the category of class and focusing on the contradiction between capital and labor. With Marx and against Marx the term counters such conceptualizations with an analysis of the historically grown capitalist mode of socialization (“Vergesellschaftung”), in which diverse relations of power combine and newly articulate a complex whole.

Thus, categories such as race and gender neither present side contradictions (Nebenwidersprüche) of capitalism nor extensions to enrich its analysis, but are the product of conditions on whose continuation capitalism is constitutively dependent.

The term “dirty capitalism” emphasizes a double movement. Firstly, it is a social-theoretical concept which emphasizes that there is no, and has never been an, “impure”1 form of capitalism in the above-mentioned sense. Secondly, capitalism is dirty in that it is a multiple relation of domination. Critical analysis of capitalism therefore always means analyzing with the objective of emancipation.

From this analytical perspective emerges a modified view of emancipation: the challenge is to create a project which knits together strategies of resistance against the different relations of power in the knowledge that only an attack from various points of departure, while having in mind the complex whole, is able to question and overcome the capitalist mode of socialization.

Or, to put it in Marx‘ words: that genuinely all relations of power have to be taken into account in the attempt “to overthrow all relations in which the human being2 is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence.” (MEW 1, 385). Every omission marks a blind spot which in some circumstances might be accounted for by one’s own privileges but undermines emancipatory political practice.

If one thinks this Marxian version of the categorical imperative through to its end, there can be no talk of pure and abstract laws of movement anymore. This can also be shown when uncovering a marginalized Marx who himself approvingly states that such trans-historical “abstract laws do not exist” (MEW 23, 26f), and that the capitalist mode of production itself is dependent on the simultaneous existence of other modes of production (MEW 4, 114) which are not based in the value form (such as e.g. subsistence economy, production based on enslavement, and unwaged reproductive labor).

The underlying reason can be found in capitalism’s inability “to reproduce in its entirety through the value form. […] A complete commodification of everything and everyone, above all a pure capitalist economy, is out of question.” (Jessop 2001, 28, own translation).

However, with Marx one can argue against Marx, that although he recognized and selectively analyzed this relation – for instance with the “primitive accumulation of capital” – he never developed it systematically. Thereby, Marx falls short of his own research program since according to the “materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.” (MEW 21, 27).3 Silvia Federici supposes that the reason for Marx’ tenacious omission of reproductive labor is the condition of the working class in England: on average, female workers hired themselves out in the factory for twelve to fourteen hours per day and had hardly any time to take care of the household. Up until the 1870s, consistent with a policy of the “unlimited extension of the working-day” (MEW 23, 248), “and the utmost compression of the cost of labor-power production, reproductive work was reduced to a minimum.” (Federici 2012, 94).

Whereas one could grant Marx the claim that the analysis of dirty capitalism, in which various relations of power are interlocking for the first time towards a globally articulated capitalist mode of socialization, would not have been possible considering the development of social movements as well as critical research and its division of labor at the time, today such thinking falls short.

Generations of movements, and with them theorists, referring to Marx have been struggling to overcome the conceptual self-limitation of concentrating on the value form when analyzing capitalism.

De-colonial works (cf. e.g. Quijano 2007, Lugones 2008, Dussel 2000) show that the capitalist mode of socialization, with its onset in the beginning of modernity, and the emergence of nation states which was articulated with it, have been imperatively dependent on the violent and unpaid appropriation of foreign labor, land and raw materials.

These works, however, insist that primitive accumulation does not stand, as Marx implied, at the outset of capitalism only, but presents an ongoing process (already Rosa Luxemburg pointed towards this) apparent in phenomena such as land-grabbing or bio-piracy (for an overview cf. Dörre 2012).

This highly violent process, which found its most brutal expression in transatlantic trade and in the devastation of enslaved persons, is combined with the formation of a colonial system whose effects persist despite formal decolonization. Its core is constituted by the racialization of humanity (Mills 1997, 20ff.) which enables in the first place the direct and indirect violence inscribed in diverse parts of this order, such as the division of labor, knowledge production, border regimes, differentiation of individual rights, and chances of life (Caceres 2017, 9ff).

Until this day, colonial relations of power are constitutive of the capitalist mode of socialization: economically they permit the continued seizure of land, raw materials and labor – either unpaid or below reproduction costs. Politically they have deeply divided the global working class and thereby serve as a stabilizing resource to follow through with its exploitation.

In the same manner also, gender relations are dividing the global working class. According to Marx’ value theory of labor, surplus value is created when the labor power is not only producing the equivalent to its own value, i.e. the value necessary for its own reproduction (Marx, MEW 23, 184), but works beyond this point and thereby produces excess value. The labor time necessary for the physical and emotional reproduction of labor power (a power that, according to Marx, takes the shape of the form of a commodity in capitalism) remains unpaid, and is thus free of charge to the capitalist class. If this would not be the case, costs would be so high that the surplus value of labor becomes marginal. Capitalist value-creation thus rests on a cushion of mainly unpaid and female care work (Wichterich 2009, 22).

In this, women* and men* are not given biological entities but embodiments of social relations of power: genders are socially produced as binary, and only binary, with respectively contrary desires along the heterosexual matrix. The gender-hierarchical division of labor is “a central, possibly even the central mode of the social construction of gender” (Wetterer 2002: 26, own translation), since the re-/production process is also bringing forth the possibility of differentiating between the genders and the firm belief in their naturalness: by constantly doing different things, men* and women* become different.

Undoubtedly, the analytical perspective which is articulated with the concept of dirty capitalism continues to be confronted with the challenges of over-complexity. However, those still convinced that capitalism can be analyzed by focusing exclusively on the value form or the relation between capital and labor only prove that they are neither up to date with current research nor with current struggles.

With regard to academic and theoretical work, the point is to achieve collective knowledge production by innovatively connecting divided and specialized research. It is therefore necessary to create the conditions and spaces for such collectivizing endeavors.

In order for this mode of socialization, which not only in its formative stages but today still operates behind people’s backs “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (MEW 23, 788), to come to its world-historical end and to be replaced by an emancipatory society, it is required that the protagonists of this change be equipped with a comprehensive social perspective, one which has been developed in the last decades in arduous conflicts.

Those who fall short of such a perspective have to put up with the accusation of bigotry. Because the real movement which aims to abolish the present state of things can only succeed when it establishes a common interest of all the “debased, enslaved, abandoned and despicable”, who despite being differently affected take the perspective of society as a whole and go all out for change.