Although Marx provided an unsurpassable analysis of capitalist reproduction, his mistake was that he counted on the prospect of capitalism’s final breakdown, and therefore couldn’t grasp how capitalism came out of each crisis strengthened. Described in precise terms by Wolfgang Streeck, Marxism was right about the “final crisis” of capitalism we are clearly entering today, but this crisis is just that, a prolonged process of decay and disintegration, with no easy Hegelian Aufhebung in sight, no agent to give to this decay a positive twist and transform it into a passage to some higher level of social organization:

“It is a Marxist – or better: modernist – prejudice that capitalism as a historical epoch will end only when a new, better society is in sight, and a revolutionary subject ready to implement it for the advancement of mankind. This presupposes a degree of political control over our common fate of which we cannot even dream after the destruction of collective agency, and indeed the hope for it, in the neoliberal-globalist revolution.”[1]

Streeck enumerates different signs of this decay: lower profit rate, rise of corruption and violence, financialization (profit from financial dealings parasitic upon value production). The paradox of the financial politics of the US and the EU is that gigantic inputs of money fail to generate production since they mostly disappear in the operations of fictitious capital. This is why one should reject the standard liberal Hayekian interpretation of the exploding debt as due to the costs of welfare state: data clearly show that the bulk of it goes to feed financial capital and its profits.

There is another unexpected consequence of this decay. Rebecca Carson[2] recently discussed how the financialization of capital (where most profit is generated in M-M’ (money – money’), without the detour through the valorization, Verwertung, of the labor force which produces surplus-value) paradoxically leads to the return of direct personal relations of domination. It does so unexpectedly since, as Marx emphasized, M-M’ is capital at its most impersonal and abstract. Now, it is crucial to grasp here the link between three elements: fictitious capital, personal domination and the social reproduction of labor power. Financial speculations take place before the fact of valorization. They mostly consist of credit operations and speculative investments where no money is yet spent on production. Credit means debt and therefore the subjects or bearers of this operation (not just individuals but banks and institutions that manage money) are not involved in the process as subjects to the value form alone. They are also creditors and debtors, and so subject to another form of power relation that is not based on the abstract domination of commodification:

“Hence, the particular power relation involved in credit operations has a personal dimension of dependency (credit-debt) that is differentiated from abstract domination. This personal power relation however, comes into being by the very process of exchange that is described abstractly by Marx as completely impersonal and formal since the social relations of credit operations are built on the social relations of the value form. Hence the phenomenon of personal forms of dependency coming to the fore by way of the suspension of valorisation with fictitious capital does not mean that abstract forms of domination are not also present.”[3]

It may appear that the power dynamic implied by fictitious capital is not a straightforward dichotomy between agents: while personal domination by definition occurs at the level of direct interaction, debtors are mainly not individuals but banks and hedge funds that speculate on future production. And, effectively, are the operations of fictitious capital not made more and more even without any direct intervention, that is, simply through computers acting on their programs? However, these operations have to be somehow re-translated into personal relations, and there abstraction appears as personal domination.

Those who are not subjected to direct commodification but play a crucial role in the reproduction of labor force are also affected by the growing dependence on future valorization supposed to be opened up by the circulation of fictitious capital. Such capital is upheld by the expectation that valorization will occur in the future, so the reproduction of labor power is put under pressure, in order for those not laboring in the present to be ready to labor in the future. This is why the topic of education (in its productive-technocratic version: getting ready for the competitive job market) is so important today, and is also intertwined with debt: a student gets indebted to pay for his/her education, and this debt is expected to be repaid through self-commodification when the indebted student gets a job. Education also emerges as one of the main topics in how to deal with refugees — hence, how to make them into a useful work force.

Since, in our society, free choice is elevated into a supreme value, social control and domination can no longer appear as infringing on subject’s freedom. They have to appear, instead, as (and be sustained by) the very self-experience of individuals as free. There is a multitude of forms of this un-freedom appearing in the guise of its opposite. When we are deprived of universal healthcare, we are told that we are given a new freedom of choice, namely to choose our healthcare provider; when we no longer can rely on long-term employment and are compelled to search for a new precarious position every couple of years, we are told that we are given the opportunity to re-invent ourselves and discover new, unexpected, and creative potentials that lurked in our personality; when we have to pay for the education of our children, we are told that we become the “entrepreneurs of the self,” acting like a capitalist who has to choose freely how he will invest the resources he possesses (or has borrowed) – into education, health, travel… Constantly bombarded by imposed “free choices,” forced to make decisions for which we are mostly not even properly qualified nor possess enough information about, we more and more experience our freedom as what it effectively is: a burden that deprives us of the true choice of change. Bourgeois society generally obliterates castes and other hierarchies, equalizing all individuals as market subjects divided only by class difference. But today’s late capitalism, with its “spontaneous” ideology, endeavours to obliterate the class division itself by way of qualifying us all as “self-entrepreneurs,” the differences among us being merely quantitative (a big capitalist borrows hundreds of millions for his investment; a poor worker borrows a couple of thousands for his supplementary education).

The much celebrated “Collaborative Commons” also play a role here. Marx always emphasized that the exchange between worker and capitalist is “just” in the sense that workers (as a rule) get paid the full value of their labor-power as a commodity – there is no direct “exploitation” here, that is it is not that workers “are not paid the full value of the commodity they are selling to the capitalists.” So while, in a market economy, I remain de facto dependent, this dependency is nonetheless “civilized,” enacted in the form of a “free” market exchange between me and other persons, instead of the form of direct servitude or even physical coercion. It is easy to ridicule Ayn Rand, but there is a grain of truth in the famous “hymn to money” from her Atlas Shrugged: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.”[4] Did Marx not say something similar in his well-known formula of how, in the universe of commodities, “relations between people assume the guise of relations among things”? In the market economy, relations between people can appear as relations of mutually recognized freedom and equality: domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such. Really-existing Socialism in the twentieth century proved that the overcoming of the market-alienation abolishes “alienated” freedom and with it freedom tout court, bringing us back to “non-alienated” relations of direct domination. To what extent are collaborative commons exposed to the same danger? Can they survive without a regulating agency which controls the very medium of collaboration and thereby exerts direct domination?

The expected outcome is that other divisions and hierarchies emerge: experts and non-experts, full citizens and the excluded, religious, sexual, and other minorities. All groups not yet included into the process of valorization, up to refugees and citizens of “rogue countries,” are thus progressively subsumed to forms of personal domination, from the organization of refugee camps to the judicial control of those considered potential law-breakers – a domination which tends to adopt a human face, like social services intended to ease the refugees’ smooth “integration” into our societies.

Why this resurgence of direct (non-democratic) authority? Above and beyond cultural differences, there is an inner necessity for this resurgence in the very logic of today’s capitalism. That is to say, the central problem we are facing today is: How does the late-capitalist predominance (or even hegemonic role) of “intellectual labor” affect Marx’s basic scheme of the separation of labor from its objective conditions, as well as of the revolution as the subjective re-appropriation of the objective conditions? In spheres like the www communication network, production, exchange, and consummation are inextricably intertwined, potentially even identified: my product is immediately communicated and consummated by another. Marx’s classic notion of commodity fetishism, in which “relations between people” assume the form of “relations between things,” thus has to be radically re-thought. In “immaterial labor,” “relations between people” are “not so much hidden beneath the veneer of objectivity, but are themselves the very material of our everyday exploitation,”[5] so we can no longer talk about “reification” in the classic Lukacsian sense. Far from being invisible, social relationality in its very fluidity is directly the object of marketing and exchange. In “cultural capitalism,” one no longer sells (and buys) objects that “bring” cultural or emotional experience; one directly sells (and buys) such experiences. And since social relationship is directly marketed, this means that personal relations of domination are also directly marketed – I pay others to act as my servants… No wonder that, to obfuscate this breach of freedom and restore a false balance, many top managers pay prostitutes to play the masochistic games of self-humiliation with them.

All these complications compel us to rethink the so-called “labor theory of value” which should in no way be read as claiming that one should discard exchange, or its role in the constitution of value, as a mere appearance which obscures the key fact that labor is the origin of value. If we consider money as a secondary form of expression of value which exists “in itself” in a commodity prior to its expression — that is, if money is for us a mere secondary resource, a practical means that facilitates exchange —then the door is open to the illusion, to which the Leftist followers of Ricardo have succumbed, that it would be possible to replace money by simple notes designating the amount of work done by their bearer and giving him or her the right to the corresponding part of the social product, as if, by means of this direct “work money,” one could avoid all “fetishism” and ensure that each worker is paid their “full value.” The point of Marx’s analysis is that this project ignores the formal determinations of money that make fetishism a necessary effect. In other words, when Marx defines exchange-value as the mode of appearance of value, one should mobilize here the entire Hegelian weight of the opposition between essence and appearance: essence exists only insofar as it appears, it does not pre-exist its appearance. In the same way, the value of a commodity is not its intrinsic substantial property which exists independently of its appearance in exchange.

This is also why we should abandon the attempts to expand value so that all kinds of labour would be recognized as a source of value. It is enough to recall here the great feminist demand from the 1970s to legalize housework (from cooking and maintaining the household to caring for children) as productive of value, or some contemporary eco-capitalist demands to integrate the “free gifts of nature” into value production by way of trying to determine the costs of water, air, forests, and all other commons. All these proposals are “nothing more than a sophisticated green-washing and commodification of a space from which a fierce attack upon the hegemony of the capitalist mode of production and its (and our) alienated relation to nature can be mounted”: in their attempt to be “just” and to eliminate or at least constrain exploitation, such attempts just enforce an even stronger all-encompassing commodification. Although they try to be “just” at the level of content (what counts as value), they fail to problematize the very form of commodification. They forego the conclusion that value should be treated in dialectical tension with non-value, i.e., to assert and expand spheres not caught in the production of (market) value, like household work or “free” cultural and scientific work, in their crucial role. Value production can only thrive if it incorporates its immanent negation, the creative work that generates no (market) value it is by definition parasitic on. So instead of commodifying exceptions and including them in the process of valorization, one should leave them outside and destroy the frame which makes their status inferior with regard to valorization. The problem with fictitious capital is not that it is outside valorization but that it remains parasitic on the fiction of a valorization to come.

A further challenge to market economy comes from the exploding virtualization of money which compels us to thoroughly reformulate the standard Marxist account of “reification” and “commodity fetishism,” insofar as this topic still relies on the notion of fetish as a solid object whose stable presence obfuscates its social mediation. Paradoxically, fetishism reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself is “dematerialized,” turned into a fluid “immaterial” virtual entity. Money fetishism culminates with the passage to its electronic form, when the last traces of its materiality disappear. Electronic money is the third form, after “real” money which directly embodies its value (gold, silver) and paper money which, though a “mere sign” with no intrinsic value, still clings to its material existence. And it is only at this stage, when money becomes a purely virtual point of reference, that it finally assumes the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe you $1000, and no matter how many material notes I burn, I still owe you $1000; the debt is inscribed somewhere in the virtual digital space… It is only with this thorough “dematerialization,” where Marx’s famous old thesis from The Communist Manifesto according to which, in capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air,” acquires a much more literal meaning than the one Marx had in mind, where not only our material social reality is dominated by the spectral/speculative movement of Capital, but this reality itself is progressively “spectralized”—it is only at this point that what Derrida called the spectral aspect of capitalism is fully actualized. Here, we have the “Protean Self” instead of the old self-identical Subject; the elusive fluidity of its experiences instead of the stability of the owned objects; in short, the usual relationship between firm material objects and fluid ideas is turned around and objects are progressively dissolved in fluid experiences, while the only stable things are virtual symbolic obligations.

However, as we have already seen, such a spectralization of the fetish contains the seeds of its opposite, namely its self-negation: the unexpected return of direct relations of personal domination. While capitalism legitimized itself as the economic system that implies and furthers personal freedoms (as a condition of market exchange), its own dynamics brought about a renaissance of slavery. Although slavery became almost extinct at the end of the Middle Ages, it exploded again in the European colonies from early modernity until the American Civil War. Today, with the new epoch of global capitalism, a new era of slavery is also dawning. Although the direct legal status of enslaved persons is no longer acceptable, slavery acquires a multitude of new forms: millions of immigrant workers in the Saudi peninsula who are deprived of elementary civil rights and freedoms; the total control over millions of workers in Asian sweatshops often directly organized as concentration camps; the massive use of forced labor in the exploitation of natural resources in many central African states (Congo and so on).

But, in fact, we don’t have to look so far as these countries. On December 1 2013, a Chinese-owned clothing factory in an industrial zone in the Italian town of Prato, 10 kilometers from the center of Florence, burned down killing seven workers who were trapped inside, living and working in conditions of near-slavery. So we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of looking at the miserable life of new slaves far away in the suburbs of Shanghai (or Dubai and Qatar) and hypocritically criticize the countries that house them.  Slavery can be right here, within our house, while we just don’t see it – or, rather, pretend not to see it. This new apartheid, this systematic explosion of a number of different forms of de facto slavery, is not a deplorable accident but a structural necessity of today’s global capitalism.

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, London: Verso Books 2016, p. 57.

[2] See Rebecca Carson, »Fictitious Capital, Personal Power and Social Reproduction” (manuscript, 2017).

[3] Quoted from Carson, op.cit.

[4] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, London: Penguin Books 2007, p. 871.

[5] Nina Power, “Dissing,” Radical Philosophy 154, p. 55.