Towards a Radical Interpretation of the Present Crisis

by Ben Campbell on October 31, 2012

According to Fredric Jameson, one of the hallmarks of late capitalism is the loss of any sense of a cognitive map for understanding our present, that is, our location in the totality of things. As a result, we don’t know where we are going, with the left charging headlong in all directions at once, like some of the wild Occupy rampages through the financial district last fall – exciting but ultimately entropic.

It was, of course, Marx’s great contribution to realize that political economy provided that cognitive map for orienting the working class in their struggle. Yet today, we seem to have lost sight of it. In my experiences on the left, there is a collective lack of confidence in assessing our economic present. Everybody knows something is deeply wrong, yet nobody seems to possess the Ariadne’s thread leading out of here. We don’t know who to believe, and far too often nod our heads at contradictory notions. Something major obviously changed in 2008, and we appear to have entered a new, exciting yet terrifying, always indeterminate, stage of world history. Yet what exactly was it that happened, what exactly will it become, and how can we act so as to make it what we wish? These are still questions to which we have no collective answer, and indeed I have met only a few individuals who have coherent answers.

It is my belief that what is much needed on the left is an open yet rigorous discussion of radical political economics. For political economics is only useful to the extent it can change the world, and for a radical perspective it must therefore take hold of members of that struggle. A radical political economics consigned to the academy is not a radical political economics at all.

Thus, over the next several weeks (or more likely, months) I will be posting a series of reviews on the economic crisis, hopefully to stir some vigorous discussion and critique. I do not pretend to be an expert on these topics, and indeed one of the major reasons for doing this is to force myself to finally resolve some of the contradictions between the various interpretations that have influenced me over the last year or so.

Of course, I would very much appreciate help in this. If anyone would like to contribute reviews or related discussions, that would be much appreciated. Presently, I would appreciate suggestions of which authors to consider, particularly to draw out important points of disagreement. I plan on discussing at least Duménil and Levy, Kliman, Harvey and some non-Marxists I have read (e.g. Varoufakis).

This emphasis on political economy has been brought about by a couple of factors. First, I have come to realize that recent political disagreements can likely trace their way back to differing economic analyzes (or the lack of economic analysis altogether). Second, I was pleased to see that the Platypus Affiliated Society has organized a forum on just this topic in New York City. Despite the rather harsh criticisms leveled at Platypus by respectable members of the left, and despite my own concern over their seemingly quietest “pre-politics”, Platypus is to be commended for keeping alive such an invigorating and unsurpassed level of theoretical discourse amongst the contemporary left. Thus, if you’re in New York City, I would highly recommend making it out for this event on Nov. 14.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Kerr October 31, 2012 at 9:02 am

Simon Clarke is good on the marxist theory of crisis:

introductory version:

relatively short version:

longer book length version:

Ultimately, you have to read Capital (and related works such as Contribution to a Critique of PE, which was written earlier) IMO since how else can you tell when the “moderns” actually understand and interpret Marx accurately and when they don’t. This is a big problem since Capital is hard to understand, especially chapter one, volume one. And on top of that for various wrong reasons people can’t be bothered, eg. how could an author writing 150+ years ago possibly grasp things better than a modern author who claims to understand Marx? I don’t think this argument works because Marx’s opinions are so highly contested that there is no real option but to go back to the original.

I also like Christopher Arthur a lot for his interpretation of the dialectics of Capital:


Arthur October 31, 2012 at 9:28 am

Looking forward to the series. Will help with “vigorous discusson and critique” (so much easier than sticking one’s neck out to be critiqued ;-)

I concur with Bill’s recommendation of Simon Clarke as closer to grasping Marx’s theory of crisis than others.

I also strongly recommend “The Capitalist Cycle” by Pavel Maksakovsky:


Bill Kerr November 5, 2012 at 8:31 pm

arthur, the pdf download button produces a 404, (not the not uncommon non message which means try again later)


Arthur November 6, 2012 at 2:37 am

Confirmed. I guess they have lost it. Busy with assignments at the moment. Could you please point people towards another copy online (eg put it online if you have a copy and cannot find it elsewhere).


Arthur November 8, 2012 at 8:03 am
Ross Wolfe October 31, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Thanks for linking to the event. I’m very excited about the speakers and venues we’ve been able to secure, as well as the buzz that has been generated. Hopefully the discussions will bring clarity to the issue by setting it into greater relief. Even if no agreement on the roots of the crisis or possible steps toward overcoming it is ultimately reached, it would still be helpful if the points of disagreement are clarified.

In terms of appraisals of the present crisis, some interpretations

Hillel Ticktin on the crisis of capitalism at the Communist University in Great Britain this year, hosted by the CPGB. Five or six members of Platypus were at this talk. Here’s his “Brief History of the Present Crisis.”  Also, “Theses on the Present Crisis.”

Costas Lapavitsas of the SWP has recently written a book on The Crisis in the Eurozone.

Also, here was “Understanding the Crisis Historically,” with speakers David Harvey, CUNY; Duncan Foley, New School for Social Research; Beverly Silver, Johns Hopkins; Immanuel Wallerstein, Yale.  Discussant: Moishe Postone, University of Chicago.  Despite my deep respect for Postone, as well as for Harvey, Wallerstein, and Foley, I found this discussion almost hopelessly academic.

Here’s the post-anarchist Saul Newman (Goldsmiths) “On the Crisis.”  Newman will be on our London panel.

Moishe Postone has a very good overview of various attempts to interpret the present, in “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, and David Harvey.”


Ben Campbell November 1, 2012 at 12:29 am

Yes, the event looks promising. Thanks for organizing.

Bill, Arthur, and Ross – thanks for all the great reading material. Strangely, none of these suggestions were on my already long list, so it looks like I have a ton of reading to do. I hope I haven’t bit off more than I can chew…


Simon November 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm

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