Why read Capital?

Marx drinking coke by Medi Belortaja (2013), accessed from toonpool.com

The following is an edited version of Matthijs Krul’s “Why read Capital, 150 years later?”, originally published in 2017 on New Socialist.

  1. It is an indispensable guide to political economy.

[…] Marx was very keen that his book should be seen not simply as a polemic against capitalism, but as a serious and sober-minded analysis of how it actually works. This also explains the abstraction of the first three chapters: they are essentially Marx defining his terminology and the way he is going to use his concepts for the rest of the work […] In order to understand what the book is about and why it is still important, it is essential to know that it presents a pure theory of capitalism: […] stripped of any historical and geographical particulars, and so applicable to any capitalist society. […] Marx wanted to understand capitalist society as a historically specific way of life, a particular way of organizing labour and goods. […] he observes capitalism as it appears to us: based on the two major drives of competition and accumulation, showing constant technological changes and increases in labor productivity, an almost complete system of private ownership of all things, a regimented workforce that sells its labor for wages during a given working day (or week, or month), plus of course such everyday things as money, finance, and credit. Marx sees these things and describes them, but he goes further than that. He asks why they are the way they are. In that sense, Capital is the answer to a series of questions: why should it be that in this society, the vast majority of people work for someone else for a living? Why is it that not only (almost) all goods and all land, but also our own ability to work is exchanged in markets as private products, and what role does money play in making those markets possible? And if all these goods exchange at the price that they are ‘worth’, and everyone gets as wages what their work is ‘worth’, then where does profit come from? Why is it that while technology was relatively stagnant for most of history, under capitalism everything changes all the time, and there are constantly more things being produced in the same amount of time and work? Why does capitalism need there to be economic ‘growth’, or accumulation, or else it falls apart? […] Although the discussions of ‘value’ and ‘commodities’ may appear strange and difficult, […] the point of them is to answer these questions, and to show how the answers follow from the way capitalism works at its very core: a system in which accumulation takes place under private ownership of competing owners of means of production, and where everything is produced as commodities for the market by competing individuals who sell their labor-power for a wage. […]

  1. It is a great read.

[…] As soon as Marx is past the most abstract discussion […], he gets into a very lively narrative description of the various ways in which capitalism appears immediately at the surface, so to speak. First he discusses how money accumulates, how people sell their ability to work for a wage, and how this creates ‘the market’ in the abstract that is always the subject of economic discussions in the media. Then he describes in great detail, and with many critical comments, the fight over the length and intensity of work-time, the division of labour, the development of modern industry, the different ways in which workers are exploited, and the historical process of robbery, violence, force and extermination that brought capitalism about in the first place. Finally, he points out what all this leads to: endless accumulation that makes capital, and the owners of capital, seem productive, when in fact it is the people working for them that are productive and that make the existence of capital possible even as it exploits them and forces them to compete. In this way, he shows how people unwillingly and unwittingly produce the very system that oppresses them and how that system makes it seem as if it is a force of nature. All this is done in a very readable and vigorous way. Marx’s writings here are some of the best that 19th century polemical writing could produce […] he invokes Don Quixote in order to criticize the idea that the answer to capitalism’s problems is a return to a supposedly better and unproblematic past, or to ways of living that are no longer compatible with modern circumstances. […] He contrasts throughout the glorification of capitalism as a system of liberty, individual rights, and prosperity by the commentators of his day with the reality on the ground that is found in government and newspaper reports […] This reality was and is one of poverty, disease, drudgery, hopelessness, and death for working people, and all the while – then as now – being lectured to about your moral failings in the bargain. […]

  1. It is a political must.

[…] without Marx’s analysis, it is all too easy to blame unemployment, poverty, and economic crisis on other things: strangers in our midst, immigrants, moral failures, insufficient hard work, bad management, or conspiracies. Marx […] shows in this book where the weak points of capitalism are. […]  the chapters on the working day, on wage and piece work, and on co-operation are essential for understanding the labour process and resistance against it. Similarly, the indignant analysis of the forced expropriation, murder, and repression of people in pre-capitalist social relations, and the discussions of ongoing legislation and violence against the working class, jointly help to comprehend the class nature of laws, governments, and their enforcers. […] understanding the political significance of finance and credit systems is also indispensable […] Capital is about understanding the way that technology and technological change affect the way society is organized and the division of labour, and the impact this has on every aspect of social life. It is hard to think of a topic more politically relevant [in] the age of automation […]

  1. It makes you rethink the nature of our society.

[…] Marx’s preoccupation was with the idea that the social forces that determine the course of people’s lives in our society appear to us as if they were inescapable and unchangeable forces of nature, even though they are simply the product, the aggregate result, of our own actions and relationships. […] It is also meant to help the reader understand just how bizarre capitalist society actually is. Why should we survive by spending the vast majority of our lives working for someone else in someone else’s office or shopfloor? Why should the way to get the best out of people, and to create the most liveable and fruitful society, be having everyone compete against each other to produce objects (or services) that exchange for the smallest amount of pieces of paper that have a value printed on them? How come a few people own most things, in terms of the amount of work they can be exchanged for in the market, and most people only own their own ability to work? And most importantly, how come that technology that should make our lives easier never seems to make the workload less, or mean we can stop accumulating and competing? […] he shows […] [capitalist social relations] has come about in a particular historical way, and that it took – and still takes – an enormous amount of both ideological and real violence to make it seem natural. […]

Strike as an act of critical resuscitation

Screenshot 2020-02-24 at 13.44.49

There is a particular freedom in strike action. The humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm reminds us that Marx’s critique of capitalist social relations is based on more than simply the conflict between those who have nothing to sell but their labour-power in order to survive and those who live off the profits. The biggest industrial dispute in UK higher education history pushes to the foreground the contradictory tension between the conditions of existence for academic workers – workload intensification and unpaid labour time, vast casualisation and precarity, a crisis in mental health and wellbeing – and a senior managerial glut personified by those who “drive their Bentleys and sail their yachts through the new wild west” of a sector ravaged by marketisation (Erickson, Hanna, and Walker, 2020). Fromm (1956: 95) identifies a further dimension of Marx’s critique, the “conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.” Here, by productivity, Marx envisions a productivity beyond capital’s restless drive to self-expand through the exploitation of labour-power, specifically, an autonomous productivity of self and others to holistically develop: a freedom to grow intellectually, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually. On the picket line, one glimpses that freedom; in strike action, one tastes that independence. It is in stark contrast to a marketisation that has alienated academics and students from the university.

The UK university sector has come to embody what Fromm (1956: 6) calls “the pathology of normalcy”: imposing upon us, as academics and students, a social character that “internalizes external necessities” and exploits “human energy for the task” of capitalist relations (Fromm, 1985: 29). Elucidated in The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education (Jones, 2019), the commodification of degrees has turned the academic and student relationship into one of opposition between producer and consumer while degrading the product itself. Competition between universities – based on deeply flawed quantifiable ‘quality’ and associated metrics and league tables – has driven vanity building projects hand-in-hand with a growing managerial bureaucracy fixated with maximising surpluses (along with private finance) to pay for such unstable developments (Jones, 2019). Maximisation of surplus has meant a reduction in the proportion of overall expenditure spent on academic staff (down from 57% to 54% from 2008 to 2018), employment of more and more academic staff on casualised, precarious contracts (currently representing 53% of teaching and research contracts), working academics harder and longer, and sweating the assets – buildings that might look glossy on the outside but are packed full to overflowing on the inside (Jones, 2019). All of this is in the context of a sector “now awash with cash” – higher education income increased 63% from 2008 to 2018 (Jones, 2019).

Students tragically incorporate the marketisation of higher education through the internalisation of its external necessities. The burden of the fee-paying student translates into an expectation that their time at university will provide them with ‘added value’. The pressure on students to gain a high classification in their chosen package of university, degree and modules is an exploitation of their human energy to transform themselves “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others” (Fromm, 1956: 73):

“the aim of learning is to gather as much information as possible that is mainly useful for the purposes of the market. Students are supposed to learn so many things that they have hardly time and energy left to think. Not the interest in the subjects taught or in knowledge and insight as such, but the enhanced exchange value knowledge gives is the main incentive for wanting more and better education.” (Fromm, 1985b: 44)

The effect of this on students’ sense of self is devastating: if they are “successful” in their degree classification, they are “valuable”, if they are not, they are “worthless” (Fromm, 1985b: 42). This marketisation has had a destructive pathological effect on the mental health and wellbeing of academics too. We are trapped in a treadmill to be ‘outstanding’ lecturers, researchers, and administrators, where outstanding is quantified and abstracted in a parallel universe that bears no resemblance to reality and quality, while we work amid ever-worsening conditions of existence. Take, notably, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) which ranks ‘the product’ (the commodity of the degree and the service provider of the university) by a metricised ranking of so-called teaching quality, which is quantitatively scored through the abstract measures of graduate employment outcomes and student satisfaction results, not through the quality of the real social relationship between the educator and the educated. This is alienation writ large.

Marx understands alienation as estrangement; in Fromm’s (1961: 44) words, alienation “is essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively”. Alienation in higher education, for the academic and the student, fuels a sense of loneliness and powerlessness: the “students and the content of the lectures remain strangers to each other” (Fromm, 1979: 37). The idea of the university which expands knowledge and understanding through critical frameworks and human connection – as a meaningful process in and of itself – has been lost. And in the process we have lost our freedom to independently express ourselves and grapple with the world. This loss and denial, Fromm (1961: 30) insists, is the prevention of living itself: for if we are passive and receptive, then we are “nothing”, we are effectively “dead”. This UCU strike is an act of critical resuscitation. Through the space of the picket lines and beyond, in our conversations and solidarity with striking colleagues, students and members of the public, we are strangers no more, we experience a negation of alienation: what “Marx calls “productive life”, that is, “… life creating life …”” (Fromm, 1961: 34). For those of us old enough to remember the university prior to its full exposure to destructive market forces, this space reminds us of why we originally fell in love with the university, because it gave us the imaginings of a freedom to – a freedom to be total human beings able to affirm our individuality in all of our relations to the world: “… seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, [and] loving …” (Marx cited in Fromm, 1961: 38). In strike action, we hope and we love once more.

See also:

Bassi, C. (2019) “On the Death Throes of Education: Erich Fromm’s Marxist Rallying Cry for a Healthy University.” In Juergensmeyer, E, Nocella II, A J., and Seis, M (Eds.) Neoliberalism and Academic Repression (pp.31-42). Leiden: Brill Publishers.


Erickson, M., Hanna, P. and Walker, C. (2020) “The Senior Management Survey: auditing the toxic university.” LSE Blogs. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/02/17/the-senior-management-survey-auditing-the-toxic-university/

Fromm, E. (1956) The sane society. London: Routledge.

Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s concept of man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.

Fromm, E. (1979) To have or to be? London: Abacus.

Fromm, E. (1985a) “The Social Character and Its Functions.” In R. Funk (Ed.), The Erich Fromm Reader (pp. 25-30). New Jersey: Humanities Press International.

Fromm, E. (1985b) “The marketing orientation.” In R. Funk (Ed.), The Erich Fromm Reader (pp. 39-45). New Jersey: Humanities Press International.

Jones, L. (2019) “The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education.” Medium. https://medium.com/@drleejones/the-seven-deadly-sins-of-marketisation-in-british-higher-education-c91102a04a8f

A story of tea, the Opium Wars, and early globalisation

The BBC In Our Times podcasts “Tea” (2004) and “The Opium Wars” (2007) are a fascinating insight into the interrelated historical journeys of tea and opium and the early development of global capitalism. Originating in and solely sourced from China, European contact with tea in the early sixteenth century paved the way for it later becoming Britain’s first mass commodity and a core component of its national identity. From 1660 onwards, the British East India Company’s dealings with local merchants in the port of Canton provided a foothold into trade with China and its produce of tea. Tea became one of numerous exotic and luxury commodities introduced into Britain from around the world in the expectation that some would appeal to consumers and generate a profit. Tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco all grew in demand – promoted, in a partnership between commerce and medicine, as medicinal products. While at the end of the seventeenth century, tea drinking in Britain was the preserve of the aristocratic elite, by 1750 there had been a huge increase in the importation and consumption of tea. The mass success of the tea commodity was in conjunction with that of the sugar commodity: Chinese black tea became domesticated as British with the addition of milk and sugar. Sweet hot milky tea satisfied a demand for a non-alcoholic energising beverage that was easy to prepare. Two interconnected trading triangles and systems accordingly developed, signifying the emergence of a global economy by 1750: one, trading in tea, connecting Britain to India to China back to Britain; the other, trading in sugar, connecting Britain to the continent of Africa to the West Indies back to Britain; both plugged into one another.

“… you have Africans imported in their millions by the British … to produce sugar which you mix with Chinese tea to slate the natural thirst of even the lowest income people of this country …” (BBC In Our Times: Tea, 2004)

The problem for British traders in the eighteenth century was paying for tea. China wanted and needed very little from Britain in exchange, so an unbalanced tea trade was paid for with a depleting stock of silver. Silver represented a further global movement: originating in the silver mines of Central and South America and transported via the trading triangles of the colonial empires into China; China being known at this time as “the silver grave of the world” (BBC In Our Times: The Opium Wars, 2007). A crucial development in paying for tea was the British control of the territory and revenue of Bengal in the 1760s, which generated a considerable surplus revenue; between 1750 and 1780, British investment in Indian textiles (namely, cotton) were exported to Canton, providing proceeds to pay for tea. It is at this point in the story of tea that opium enters the picture.

The Portuguese Empire first discovered and shipped opium to China; it also introduced the practice of smoking from the New World, turning opium consumption from a medicinal to a pleasure product. By the 1770s and 1780s opium was in great demand in the country, despite being banned by the Qing Dynasty for reasons of social control. Opium was desirable both as a consumable good and, for traders, as a portable currency, preferable to heavy copper and a shortage of silver. The British East India Company not only had a monopoly on the production of opium in India, its Patna opium was highly demanded because of its known superior quality. The Company, whilst publicly stating its adherence to the Qing Dynasty’s opium ban, oversaw private British traders dealing opium into China; the receipt of which was paid into its treasury.

Manufacture of opium in India (Wikimedia Commons)

This late eighteenth century rise in the trade of (Indian) opium offset the trade deficit between Britain and China and paid for the British addiction to (Chinese) tea.

The 1839 burning of opium at Humen (part of an organised crackdown endorsed by the Qing Dynasty) actually benefited private British traders, since, before this event, the country was inundated with opium driving down its price, while after, its price soared. What followed was the First Opium War (1839-1842): a spectacular military response by the British that used the latest technology of the time, armour-plated steamers, which led to Chinese defeat, the Nanking Treaty (opening port cities, or treaty ports, to foreign trade) and the territorial concession of Hong Kong. The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was both a further defeat for China and a further opening of treaty ports to foreign imperial powers. The rise of Chinese nationalism following the Opium Wars turned an anti-opium failure into a discourse of anti-opium hero; a narrative that remains a key part of Chinese national identity against the West.

Second Opium War (Wikimedia Commons)

Other national identities were bound up with this story of early globalisation. The export of tea from Britain to North America in the early eighteenth century, and its demand and consumption, was part of how American colonial elites defined themselves. However, when the British government imposed taxes on this tea trade in the 1760s, the response was non-importation of tea and throwing tea into Boston harbour, known as the Boston Tea Party. This anti-tax protest was also an anti-British protest. In the early years of the Republic, America was self-consciously on a course to becoming a coffee drinking, not a tea drinking, nation.

Boston Tea Party (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem of only being able to supply tea from China was eventually resolved by turning to India. Although the British East India Company was involved in early trials to grow tea elsewhere, the loss of its monopoly in India in 1813 explains its reluctance to heavily invest in tea production there, since it would be undercut by private tea growers. What’s more, the Company maintained its monopoly in China until 1833. Once the monopolies in both India and China ceased, tea production in India (notably, Assam) significantly developed.

Reflecting on the BBC In On Times podcasts, the historical and interwoven journeys of tea and opium provide a story on the construction of national identities during a period of early globalisation, in which such national identities are themselves the distinct products of globalisation. This story is also an insight into the emergence of a genuinely global economy: its centre and peripheries, and its peculiarities and forced economic and social resolutions. The story of the Opium Wars is actually the story of tea, and the story of tea is in fact the story of capital relentlessly pushing geographical boundaries and abiding no limits.



BBC (2004). In Our Times: Tea, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y24y

BBC (2007). In Our Times: The Opium Wars, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00776k9

On the Great Derangement and yearning for original fullness

Amitav Ghosh’s (2016) book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is a commendable thesis on how the climate crisis is not simply a manifestation of physical geographical quantities but also a qualitative crisis in human geographical imagination. In other words, the climate crisis reveals an inability of the cultural imagination to face up to this reality and to envisage alternative possibilities and ways out. Ghosh is a highly accomplished Indian novelist whose catalogue of fiction is distinguished by its interweaving of global and historical political economy with personal narrative. He is thus well positioned in his criticism of the literary profession:

“That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish. […] When the subject of climate change occurs in these publications, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the grave of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.” (Ghosh, 2016: 7)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Ghosh (2016: 22) contextualises this myopia of literary imagination as born out of nineteenth century discourse on modernity as orderly and progressive; a discourse which also shaped the discipline of geology:

“The victory of gradualist views in science was similarly won by characterizing catastrophism as un-modern. In geology, the triumph of gradualist thinking was so complete that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which posited upheavals of sudden and unimaginable violence, was for decades discounted and derided.”

Narratives from fiction and nonfiction accordingly came to chime with the new regularity of bourgeois-dominated life, and yet the unpredictability of global warming now defies this conventional lens.

Ghosh (2016: 58-59) explains how the modern novel unfolds through a ‘setting’ – the construction of a ‘sense of place’ (as humanistic geography would understand it):

“settings become the vessel for the exploration of that ultimate instance of discontinuity: the nation-state. In novels discontinuities of space are accompanied also by discontinuities of time: a setting usually requires a “period”; it is actualized within a certain time horizon. […] It is through the imposition of these boundaries, in time and space, that the world of a novel is created.”

This fictive geographical imagining, a bounded and discontinuous spatial-temporal terrain, is contrasted with the holistic and fluid space and time of the Anthropocene:

“it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.” (Ghosh, 2016: 66)

The setting of the novel, Ghosh (2016: 131-133) contends, mirrors a dominant culture of politics, economics and literature that has exiled the idea of the collective in the search for personal authenticity and (at best) a career in personal political virtue – impeding effective resistance to, and reimagining of, the climate crisis:

“the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum of secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics as thus practiced is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness. […] Of late, many activists and concerned people have begun to frame climate change as a “moral issue” […] When framed in this way, authenticity and sacrifice become central to the issue […] To think in those terms is to accept neo-liberal premises.”

Ghosh (2016: 129) continues, “the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction” in imagining alternative futures has been lost in its orientation towards the self and away from the human collective and the nonhuman; he astutely asks:

“Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?” or “where were you on 9/11” Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, “Where were you at 400 ppm [parts per million]?” or “Where were you when the Larson B ice shelf broke up?””

Echoing the title of the book, Ghosh (2016: 11) proclaims:

“Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

Ghosh is keen to distinguish himself from those who attribute the climate crisis to capitalism alone, since, he claims, this underplays the central role of empire and imperialism. He argues:

“To look at the climate crisis through the prism of empire is to recognize […] that the continent of Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming: its causes, its philosophical and historical implications, and the possibility of a global response to it.” (Ghosh, 2016: 87)

He elaborates:

“The factor that gave the carbon economy its decisive shape was not the provenance of the machines that ushered in the Industrial Revolution: these could have been used and imitated just as easily in other parts of the world as they were in continental Europe. What determined the shape of the global carbon economy was that the major European powers had already established a strong (but by no means hegemonic) military and political presence in much of Asia and Africa at the time when the technology of steam was in its nascency, that is to say, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From that point on, carbon-intensive technologies were to have the effect of continually reinforcing Western power with the result that other variants of modernity came to be suppressed, incorporated, and appropriated into what is now a single, dominant model. The boost that fossil fuels provided to Western power is nowhere more clearly evident than in the First Opium War, where armoured steamships, led by the aptly named Nemesis, played a decisive role. In other words, carbon emissions were, from very early on, closely co-related to power in all its aspects: this continues to be a major, although unacknowledged, factor in the politics of contemporary global warming.” (Ghosh, 2016: 108-109)

Whilst Ghosh recognises that both capitalism and imperialism are interconnected, he states that “even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action” (Ghosh, 2016: 146). And yet if a movement successfully overthrew capitalist social relations tomorrow – and it would have to be a mass, labour-based movement that could achieve this – such a movement would also (in its nature of being successful) represent a profound democratic shift to the grassroots that has radically altered the political and cultural sphere. Ghosh does not indicate who crudely separates capitalism from imperialism. In the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, Marx (1999: 376) in Capital makes no such separation:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China”

On a movement for radical social resistance and alternatives to the climate crisis, it is not an organised mass labour movement that Ghosh (2016: 111) sees as the lever for change, despite at times recognising the fundamental role of labour’s antithesis, capital:

““Money flows toward short term gain,” writes the geologist David Archer, “and toward the over-exploitation of unregulated common resources. These tendencies are like the invisible hand of fate, guiding the hero in a Greek tragedy toward his inevitable doom.” This is indeed the essence of humanity’s present derangement.”

Instead, Ghosh’s (2016: 159) desire for future alternative imaginings is actually a turn to past imaginings – a rediscovered sacred, community and kinship – that the forces of religion offer:

“Bleak though the terrain of climate change may be, there are a few features in it that stand out in relief as signs of hope […] the most promising development, in my view, is the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change.”

Religion represents, for Ghosh, transnational mass mobilisations of people capable of intergenerational, nonlinear and non-economistic thinking; but so too do capital’s gravediggers possess such potential imagination. Both the commonality and critical difference between the two can be explained by Marx (1977: 64) in Towards a Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”:

“Religious suffering is at the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion.”

Ghosh’s hope in religion to move us beyond the present impasse reminds me of the words of Marx (1973: 162) from Grundrisse:

“It is ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint”

Rather than fixating in a nostalgia with the past, one must recognise the radical possibilities thrown up by the globalisation of capital (a global working class, a world literature, social intercourse in every direction, to paraphrase The Communist Manifesto) and sublate such potentiality out of capital’s heartbeat of profit-making from human and nonhuman resources.

Israel-Palestine: Two Nations, Two States 101

What do we mean by, and what’s the case for, a two states settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? On the academic and public Left, the history of this conflict is actually one of competing historical narratives, which differ in their selection and emphasis of key events and players. These historical narratives offer different perspectives on the nature of this conflict at present and on its potential resolution in the future.

Two highly significant dates in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are 1948 and 1967.

1948 is known by the Palestinian-Arabs as the al-Nakba, the catastrophe. Why? Because in 1948, Israeli-Jews took up their right to national self-determination. In one and the same moment, on one and the same land, the original occupants, Palestinian-Arabs, saw their right to national self-determination banish.

What do I mean by ‘right’ here? I am coming from the tradition and perspective of consistent democracy, which recognises that, as much as I am politically opposed to nationalism and strive for a world free of nation-states, all (without exception) self-defining national groups of people have a basic democratic right to fulfilling their wish for a nation-state.

The tragedy of 1948 is that one nationally self-defined group of people achieved their right at the expense of another nationally self-defined group of people.

In June 1967, the Israeli state came out of the Arab-Israeli 6-day war with more territory than its UN recognised nation-state borders of 1948. To date, that territory is the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Now, accepting the fait accompli of the nation-state of Israel on its 1948 borders, a further critical date then in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is 1967: that being the moment when the Israeli state occupation of Palestine, Palestine being Gaza and the West Back, commenced.

This is the historical understanding that then flows into the demand for a fully autonomous Palestinian nation-state of Gaza and the West Bank alongside the nation-state of Israel; meaning, notably, an end and reversal of the right-wing expansionist politics and actions of the Israeli state, that the Israeli-Jewish settlements of the West Bank must be reversed, and that the control of movement and space in, out, and through Gaza by the Israeli state and military must end.

A consistently democratic settlement to this conflict (and by this, I mean democratic for both working class people in Israel and in occupied Palestine) is that of a ‘two nations, two states’ settlement.

Conversely, the dominant historical narrative of the Left considers 1948 as the singular paramount date in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – this is when, it is argued, the colonial occupation of Palestine began and continues, with the territory gained by the Israeli state in 1967 merely an expansion of this occupation. The demand, ‘Free Palestine, End the Occupation’, means then the undoing (in some way) of the existence of the nation-state of Israel on 1948 borders. And after that, because we exist in a world in which the nation-state is the legal vehicle of political governance, some kind of one state settlement: be that under the guise of a binational state, a confederation, or so on.

What’s the right political answer here for the Left? Two states or a various configurations of one state. Certainly the answer for the Israeli political Right is one state.

In the run up to 1948, as stated by late scholar Maxime Rodinson, “the actual inhabitants of Palestine were ignored by practically everybody. The philosophy prevailing in the European world at the time was without any doubt responsible for this. Every territory situated outside that world was considered empty”. Zionism, Jewish nationalism, pursued its project in this climate and it gained reality because of the exodus of Jews from Europe escaping murderous anti-Semitism. A newly formed Israel existed in an era of decolonisation, which partly explains why Israel is uniquely singled out by the much of the Left.

Is it a just and realistic demand, seven decades on, to undo Israel? No. Is it morally bankrupt and unrealistic to demand a two nations, two states settlement on pre-1967 borders? No.

Again, Maxime Rodinson: “If the consequences of pressing a just claim are liable to be calamitous and unjust, and too fraught with practical difficulties, there may be grounds for suggesting that it be renounced. The wrong done to the Arabs by the Israelis is very real. However, it is only too common throughout history.” “Colonists and colonizers are not monsters with human faces whose behaviour defies rational explanation, as one might think from reading left-wing intellectuals … Who is innocent of this charge? … History is full of fait accomplis.”

There is no revolutionary solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but there is a consistently democratic one with the hope that the peaceful coexistence of two realised national groups of working class peoples might then transcend their national and religious identities for a cosmopolitan and egalitarian future.

Fetishizing Brexit’s working class rage

“Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the ‘folklore’ of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is. At those times in history when a homogenous social group is brought into being, there comes into being also, in opposition to common sense, a homogenous – in other words coherent and systematic – philosophy.” (Gramsci 1971: 419)


“Many working class people believe in Brexit. Who can blame them?”, writes self-defined anarchist working class academic Lisa Mckenzie in her LSE blog post. Her narrative on working class support for Brexit is of a class long and systematically excluded from British cosmopolitan society fighting back. What is critically missing from Mckenzie’s narrative is a consideration of the politics which they are fighting back on. As such, she fetishizes the working class: they have been so downtrodden that their resistance is… well, what exactly?

“How depressing that now seems as chaos ensues in Parliament, the political system is at breaking point and rage is infectious. The only positive is that Brexit has at last broken the political and social hegemony that kept our population subdued and somewhat apathetic. They are no longer apathetic, and their rage has become unbearable to the Westminster political and media chattering classes.” (Mckenzie)

Is Mckenzie suggesting here, rage is good because it is working class rage?

The recent period has seen an ascendency of right-wing nationalist populist politics in Britain, the United States, and Europe: captivating significant sections of the sociologically working class through an anti-establishment discourse. “Take Back Control”, in retrospect, was a brilliant slogan because it had traction: it made common sense to people’s life experiences and conditions, to their reality of social and political exclusion. But, following Gramsci, common sense is not good sense. Mckenzie is right to emphasize that many who voted did so feeling politically empowered after years of disempowerment, but she fails to scrutinise the politics of “Take Back Control”. Worse still, she dismisses its racist current.

“I have written and argued in academic journals, and on panels at academic conferences, that for some working class people in the UK – those who had experienced political, economic and social exclusion – the question they saw on the ballot paper was not about leaving or remaining in the European Union, but was ‘Do you want things to stay the same, or do you want things to be different?’ Those people – whom the media has since named ‘the left behind’ – answered. They wanted things to change, they wanted things to be different. […] working class people had read, understood and heard the debates around the EU as exclusive, and elite, too often using language that diminished their own life experiences: ‘stupidity and racism’ has been the most common.” (Mckenzie)

The legacy of mainstream political parties in England and Wales long problematizing immigration meant that the EU referendum was a tinderbox-in-waiting: the spark to set off the nationalist populist Right and far Right. Enter UKIP, the English Defence League, and the rest. This is not to say that all people who voted Leave were racist; of course not. But it is to say that the common sense ideology of the right-wing Leave campaign was an exclusive and excluding racist nationalism – on this point, see Expounding racial hatred before and after the Brexit vote and Brexit’s inevitable racism.

Mckenzie deplores the disgraceful dismissal of her working class heroes as ‘stupid and racist’. Yes that’s a crude assertion, but the flipside of this notion isn’t analytically accurate either: that people voted Leave in a coherent and fully informed way and weren’t affected by its common sense ideology. What’s more, the working class – as perhaps distinct from Mckenzie’s working class heroes – are not a uniform group. The Lord Ashcroft Polls established that older people were more likely than their younger counterparts to vote Leave and black and Asian people were more likely to vote Remain. University educated people were also more likely to vote Remain. The working class who are classified sociologically lower middle class were fairly evenly split between Leave and Remain.

The nationalist populist Right succeeded in gaining a hegemony during and after the EU referendum.

The Left thus far has failed, either by pursuing Stalinist nationalist Lexit politics or by simply not winning the arguments wide and well enough. The progressive Left has failed in winning the idea that cosmopolitanism, the expansion of civil and political rights, feminism, environmental concern, globalisation, the internet, and immigration are not ‘the enemy’ of the working class. Further still, the progressive Left has failed to spell out that it’s in favour of globalisation as democratically controlled by international working class interests rather than the interests of big business, and in favour of freedom of movement of labour (in a world that allows freedom of movement of capital).

“Westminster, the media, and the academic world – all of which are solid bourgeois spaces devoid of working class people – are in full agreement: the past 40 years of deindustrialisation and aggressive policies of social mobility that marginalise working class life, pride and identity have no credence in the debate about the EU. […] Brexit has let those rational, liberal masks slip, and you are ugly.” (Mckenzie)

Mckenzie makes a false argument that the academic world is in full agreement that the past four decades of deindustrialisation and socio-economic and political exclusion of the poorest in our society had no bearing on the EU referendum. Of course it did. She is right that Westminster, the media, and the academic world generally ignored significant layers of the working class, yet she omits that the likes of UKIP readily stepped in and captured hearts and minds during the referendum. Again, the liberal and radical Left failed. Oswell (2006: 46), following Gramsci, reminds us that, “[in] order to change people’s mind and conduct, common sense must not be foregone in favour of an arid knowledge, rather it must be carried over, as it is that passion that forms the connection between the leaders and those who are led”:

“One cannot make politics-history without this passion, without this sentimental connection between intellectuals and the people-nation. In the absence of such a nexus the relations between the intellectual and the people-nation are, or are reduced to, relationships of a purely bureaucratic and formal order; the intellectuals become a caste, or a priesthood.” (Gramsci 1971: 418)

“Take Back Control” could have been the political slogan of the Left, successfully translated into the demand for a labour-led socialist united states of Europe.

Back to the fetishized rage of the working class. Is the demand not to be binded to a referendum decision made two and a half years ago political disenfranchisement of the working class? Is the demand to have a say on the actual political reality and options here and now undemocratic to the working class? No, it’s politics: the necessary on-going battle of ideas on how society is and how it could be. As Oswell (2006: 46) states, “common sense is not only the ground upon which ideological battles are fought, it is also that which needs to be contested and brought to bear under the weight of critical consciousness.”


David Oswell (2006) Culture and Society: an Introduction to Cultural Studies. Sage Publications, London.