Volume 15, Number 1 (November 2018)
Author: Joseph Cunningham
Gerry Coulter’s support was essential to me as a graduate student and young scholar. As an education scholar, I was not trained in critical theory, and my program and institution were lacking in mentors with a critical theory background. The majority of my education was as a result of my own initiative, sneaking in chapters of The Consumer Society and Symbolic Exchange and Death amid my dry methods courses. When one is self-taught in this way, there is a greater ownership of knowledge, but there is also a tendency to stumble, misunderstand, and completely miss the mark when writing about theory. Passion often exceeds competency, which can be a dangerous situation.
This is why Gerry’s support was so crucial. One of my first publications, “Consumption, Sign, and Simulation: A Baudrillardian Perspective on Online Education,” was published in The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Gerry went well beyond the call of duty when assisting in the review of the article. Not only did he provide wonderful feedback, but he added a human element in the peer review process, virtually unseen in today’s world of publication. He asked me about dissertation and my other projects, which really meant a lot to me. Publishing articles in academic journals has acquired either a mechanical, impersonal touch, or there is, even worse, a degree of menace as scholars attempt to knock each other down. The concept of peer review has lost the concept of being a peer or a colleague. We are supposed to learn from and support one another as we perform rather difficult work. Gerry was one of the few leading scholars who understood that.
But of course, Gerry understood a great many of things. He was a brilliant scholar, one of considerable erudition who could write about critical theory, philosophy, art, literature, and politics with great ability and depth. His immense list of publications is a testament to this as is The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, a journal through which he was the driving force. Indeed, as much as Gerry was an interdisciplinary scholar, he was very much a Baudrillardian. The work of Jean Baudrillard touched a great deal of his work, and it is quite clear that he enjoyed writing about Baudrillard. The inspiration, itself, proved dialectical. Baudrillard inspired Gerry’s work, but Gerry’s work was paramount to keeping a theorist like Baudrillard relevant.
In reflecting on Gerry’s work, I want to reflect on his discussion of Baudrillard’s Marx. As a Marxist scholar, this discussion is of great interest and considerable importance to me. Baudrillard began as a Marxist-oriented philosopher, and even later in his life, Baudrillard’s work was inspired by Marxist theory. However, Baudrillard also diverged from Marx, most notably in the book, The Mirror of Production, and lodged several potent and intriguing criticisms of Marx and Marxist theory that are still resonant today. In writing about this branch of Baudrillard’s work, Gerry serves as a crucial guide. Explaining Baudrillard’s often knotted prose and focusing on Baudrillard’s core criticisms of Marx, Gerry gives Marxist scholars plenty to consider. As we continue to struggle with problems posed both by Marx and Baudrillard, Gerry illuminates a way forward that attempts to bravely go beyond Marx to a new political program that can readily confront 21st-century challenges.
II. Marxism Revitalized
The 2008 global financial crisis triggered a reawakening of sorts in Marxist theory. As much of the developed world was left in disarray due to a catastrophe wrought by the capitalism, scholars looked for answers. What many of them found was a critical theory bereft of political economy, focusing rather on identity politics or baroque postmodernism. During this time, Marxists, who were previously ignored in an age of neoliberal complicity, perceived the financial crisis as vindication of their decades-long warning. Following the aftershocks of the global recession, a number of economically-oriented political and academic moments took shape: the Occupy Movement, the victory of Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders’ remarkable political campaign in the United States, and the release of Thomas Piketty’s bestselling tome, Capital in the Twenty-first Century.
In the wake of these events, a number of Marxist theorists beckoned us to return to Marxist theory and the well-thumbed pages of Capital and The Communist Manifesto. Terry Eagleton wrote a 2011 book titled, Why Marx Was Right. Frederic Jameson composed a reading of Capital in 2014, and David Harvey composed two companions to Marx’s Capital 2010 and 2013. These books represent a sample of literature with a primary argument that a book on 19th-century political economy could serve as a cornerstone to understanding a global crisis of 21st-century political economy. Despite the common denominator, 150 years of economic and political development render that argument problematic.
Class struggle, inequality, and the exploitive nature of capitalist production—these are central themes of Marxist theory and the 2008 economic crisis, but there were a great many other factors at play. In the past 150 years, capitalism had become globalized and multi-faceted. It had spewed outside the industrial factory into shadow sectors like finance. Capitalism had deeply infiltrated into the culture, fetishizing consumption. Technological developments and the explosion of the media and entertainment sectors drilled capitalist ideology and hegemony so deeply into mass consciousness that it became surreal. Marx and early Marxists anticipated many of these themes, true. However, when one investigates the mass devastation wrought by the crisis and points to things like the labor theory of value, that individual must wonder if these ideas still hold up. Marx is immensely important, and Marxism is still relevant, but its theory is not enough. Moreover, there are a number of critiques lodged against Marxism and its inadequacies that expose gaps that need to be filled. As an original and provocative theorist, Jean Baudrillard exposed many of these gaps and illustrated why Marxism by default can be an inadequate mission statement to the problems of today.
III. Sifting through the Shards
The passage of time has corroded Marx’s original theory to a degree. While a number of Marx’s central tenets remain important, the argument that capitalism is still capitalism is an oversimplification that ignores a number of dangerous developments within the capitalist mode of production. However, in The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard does not submit Marxist theory to this mode of critique. Much like Marx taking previous notions of liberal bourgeois political economy on its own terms and brilliantly turning it in on itself, Baudrillard takes Marx at his word and thus uncovers the limits to Marx’s Capital that are relevant in any historical milieu. With The Mirror of Production and Gerry Coulter’s careful analysis of this text, Baudrillard’s Marx reveals himself as an important, yet flawed precursor to critical theory.
One of Baudrillard’s crucial decisions in The Mirror of Production is to subject Marxist theory to a kind of semiotic analysis. From the very outset, Baudrillard argues that every term in the Marxist canon—value, labor, production, alienation, and all the rest of it—needs to be questioned. The analysis of these terms is crucial because at the time of The Mirror of Production up to the present day, the discourse of the Left has largely taken these terms for granted. This terminology, which Marx largely appropriated from the economists and philosophers that came before him, is the language of the very system that Marx critiques and ultimately is unable to disentangle himself from. In a key quotation, Baudrillard discusses how Marx and Marxists are locked into the universe of political economy: “All revolutionary hope is thus bound up in a Promethean myth of productive forces, but this myth is only the space time of political economy. And the desire to manipulate destiny through the development of productive forces plunges one in the space time of political economy. The wish to abolish scarcity is not furthered by restoring an integrated productivity” (Baudrillard, 1975: 60). Can Marxism serve as a portal outside of capitalism when it is capitalism’s mirror image? Adopting the language of the oppressor, Marx attempts to convince us that the way to abolish capitalism is to take control of it, not to escape or destroy it. A revolution would not abolish labor or abolish production, but instead seek to utilize these forces to better ends.
The language of capital. The space time of capital. Baudrillard is questioning the fundamental language of Marxist discourse, but I think it is crucial to recognize that Baudrillard goes a step beyond a discourse analysis, which today functions as much of Leftist critique. So much of the Left is fixated on conversations. Social media is festering with Twitter wars as the Left bickers over issues of terminology. However, arguments over terminology and discourse become something of an endless loop born from language and accomplish little except in terms of the conversation. Problems of human exploitation and misery are not exclusively concepts to be debated. Baudrillard provides us with the tools to question concepts taken for granted while also enabling for different visions of the future.
For these visions to take place, Baudrillard attempts to pry beloved Marxist concepts from the hands of the Left. By doing so, he effectively shatters the mirror of production. Take for example, the concepts of labor and labor power. These identifiers lie at the heart of Capital, but Baudrillard takes umbrage, stating that these signifiers are extremely limiting, stating the Marx’s analysis “convinces men that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the much more radical hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power, as the ‘inalienable’ power of creating value by their labor” (Baudrillard, 1975: 31). For Marx, the capitalist mode of production reduces people to labor power, a commodity to be purchased and exploited. From this central root, much of Marx’s analysis flowers, yet Baudrillard argues that conceptualizing humans as laboring animals is itself an alienating determination. Reducing workers to labor power is a problem, but the solution is not to find a way to own their labor power, but rather to abolish the concept of labor power entirely. “Workers of the world, unite!” is a powerful line, but masks the reality that we are humans of the world first.
For Baudrillard and Coulter, Marxist theory locks people and the world in an inescapable cage of production. Gerry, in particular, was keen in pointing this tendency out. He writes that “Marx does not produce a radical alternative to productivism – but merely the ‘socialist’ mirror of capitalist production” (Coulter, 2009a: 138). The factory—with its dangerous labor, pollution, and profit-maximizing fixation revolving around corrosive consumption—still stands for Marx; the workers merely own it.
This observation has profound implications. For starters, classical Marxism has few answers to climate change, in part, due to this obsession with production, which—as Baudrillard and Gerry discuss—is typified by humankind dominating nature. Gerry further discusses geopolitical consequences: “Marxism found itself (ironically) in the same position as bourgeois economics—a willing servant of the productivist mindset. It is hardly surprising then, that the largest and most successful of the old state-capitalist societies, China, is leading us into the openly post-democratic phase of productivism” (Coulter, 2009b: para. 3). Despite a communist government and an affiliation of sorts to Marx, China is the productivist country par excellence. China elevates production over all other social and political commitments. It is what happens when a country takes a piece, albeit a large piece, of Marx’s theory too much to heart, producing prodigious economic growth and much of the world’s stuff, but at the cost of its democratic soul and the wellbeing of its people.
While The Mirror of Production cuts Marxism to the quick, as someone who still holds affinity for Marxist theory, there are counterarguments to Baudrillard. Most notable, production is important. As much as Baudrillard criticizes Marx for overemphasizing production as humanity’s fate, the current makeup of society is very much oriented towards a production mindset. In some sense, this further validates Baudrillard’s argument, but the Marxist war over production’s soul is still worth fighting. Production and factory labor still dominate much of the world, influencing the lives of virtually everyone on this planet. Any transition into a post-capitalist society will have to answer any pivotal questions regarding production.
Fetishizing creative/intellectual/unproductive labor—which are increasingly focal points in U.S. political/academic discourse—is something of a trap in that it attempts to bypass a central problem of the past 200 years that the Left has been unable to solve. Moreover, a substantial segment of post-work theorists, on the Left and Right, are pointing to automation and a subsequent Universal Basic Income as the harbingers to production’s end (Srnicek and Williams, 2015). However, this technocratic solution, which right now seems more like a utopian dream that practical Leftist theory, still does not address the original problems Marx had with capitalism, nor the current problems of inequality that cripple the world today. As much as some pray for production’s convenient death, I fear that even if that were to happen (which I doubt it will), we would still be struggling with production’s ghost.
What Baudrillard does accomplish is formulating a clear boundary to Marxist theory. Marxists have a tendency to write as if Marxism is boundless, capable of aiding one in understanding everything within political economy. Baudrillard was able to expose crucial gaps in Marxism as a theory as well as its limitations regarding creating a new society. As Gerry argues, Marxism is born out of the same material as bourgeois economy theory and thus is unable to transcend it: “Marx’s assessment of capitalist society succumbs to a dialectic and Christian ethic which produces a critique which is not radical, but rather, plays a key role in reproducing the existing system of political economy” (Coulter, 2009a: 137). Gerry is really helpful here in explaining what Marx’s Capital actually is instead of what Marxists want it to be.
Marx was interested in how 19th-century political economy worked, and although he was critical of it, Capital is an attempt to peer into its inner-working, not taking it down. In The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard further expounds on this argument: “Marxist theory has sought to shatter the abstract universality of the concepts of bourgeois thought…Yet Marxism in turn universalizes them with a ‘critical’ imperialism as ferocious as the other’s” (Baudrillard, 1975: 47). Baudrillard argues that it is through concepts like labor power, value, dialectics, and the rest of it that Marxist theory hopes to disrupt the hegemony of bourgeois thought (and now neoliberalism). However, there is a rigidity in these terms, which comes from numerous factors, including Marxist dogma, the terms’ origins, and their limitations. This rigidity, and Marxists’ commitment to it, prevents Marxism from escaping the bourgeois context that it hoped to disrupt. Perhaps this is why Marx stated that he was not Marxist.
Gerry picked up on these limitations with a keen eye, and reading his work, I am struggling with the implications that they possess. I do not think Baudrillard’s critique renders Marxism toothless or irrelevant. But Baudrillard raises crucial issues that I don’t think have been truly addressed. These issues are important to Marxism’s viability in terms of undoing the work of capitalism and producing a better future. As this discussion suggests, Marxism was never truly able to escape its bourgeois roots; its fixation on production, in particular, limit the theory to a kind of productivist ideology, which creates a number of problems whether under the capitalist or Marxist banner.
Moreover, in the past 200 or so years, capitalism has undergone a series of radical changes, and Marxists have not been able to respond with radical revisions in kind. Instead, they are intent on returning to the “labor theory of value” or just shrugging it off as “capitalism is capitalism.” Gerry was not nonchalant and instead argued that “Capitalism today is perhaps best understood as a mutant form which eradicates determination and introduces vast indeterminacies. There is no contract linking it to any society any longer than the anti-society of banking and finance. The presented is marked by a distorted kind of neo-capitalism alternating between unlimited abundance and absolute shortage” (Coulter, 2009b: para. 2). There is little in the Marxist canon that answers this criticism, a criticism that deals directly with the financial crisis’ origins, which made Marxism in vogue in the first place. The M-C-M` formula, which works so logically in theory, is torn asunder. Baudrillard correctly argued that the evils of capitalism extend far outside the realm of production.
The limitations that Baudrillard and Gerry pointed out are also central to the problems of the Left at large. Fragmented and self-contradictory, the Left is too busy eating itself to offer an alternative vision for the future, a vision that the population clearly craves, but is continually denied to them. Gerry is tragically accurate to conclude that “The Left for example, despite itself, is never really anything more than a prosthesis of the Right” (Coulter, 2009: 138). The Clintonian Democrats are definitively not agents of the Left, but rather function as neoliberal hawks for multiculturalism. Movements like Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Movement, and those combating microaggressions are doing good work, but are also insular and frequently directionless. Bernie Sanders and his followers captivated many Left-leaning young people, but ultimately ran out of steam, and even if Sanders was elected president, (as in Baudrillard’s critique of Marx) his grand ideas would have struck hard against the wall of the political morass.
Europe is no better. Socialists there are truly representative of Baudrillard’s theory. Corbyn is an ineffective leader, incapable of generating any Leftist change as Britain gives way to reactionary politics. France’s president, Hollande, is a socialist in name only and is actually beckoning capitalist policies (e.g., extending the length of the working day) before he abstains from seeking reelection due to his political failure. In Greece, the Leftist party Syriza now kowtows before the austerity demands of the E.U. as it plummets into a sinkhole of inescapable debt. The list goes on and on.
Gerry was correct. The Left is but a prosthesis of the Right. The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a startling manifestation of this argument as Hillary Clinton offered no alternative vision for the future, but rather remained fixated on the deplorable nature of Trump. Even the “radical” side of the Left falls into a similar trap, which was Baudrillard’s crucial takeaway in The Mirror of Production. Marxists continue digging the same trench and utilize the same terminology with little direction forward. Throughout his life, Gerry Coulter wrote for something better. His thought was multifaceted and erudite, touching numerous disciplines and reveling in their richness. He boldly exposed uninvestigated corners of these disciplines’ boundaries, daring us to think about these old ideas in new ways. He taught us to break free from the shackles of the convention, question it, and devise new ways to understand Leftist politics. As scholars, intellectuals, and citizens, Gerry taught us a great deal. We should follow his lesson.
Jean Baudrillard. (1975). The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos Press.
Gerry Coulter. (2009a). ‘The Place of Marx in Contemporary Thought: The Case of Jean Baudrillard’ in Nebula vol. 6, no. 4, 133-141.
Gerry Coulter. (2009b). ‘Bigger than Capitalism.’ Ovi Magazine.
Terry Eagleton. (2011). Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale University Press.
David Harvey. (2010). A Companion to Marx’s Capital. New York: Verso.
David Harvey. (2013). A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume II. New York: Verso.
Frederic Jameson. (2014). Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume I. New York: Verso.
Thomas Piketty. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. (2015). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. New York: Verso.