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Marx Reloaded, A Film by Jason Barker: Review and Commentary

Message Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
Jason Barker's film, Marx Reloaded, was released in 2011. It is 52 minutes long and is now available for viewing on the internet. It was interesting to watch but it did not have a lot to do with Marx except superficially. If Marx was reloaded it was with blanks. 
The film presents a series of talking heads many of whom have no grasp of what Marx and Marxism are all about and who engage in flights of "postmodern'' speculation as to the meaning of Marxism today. There are a few exceptions that I will note. There are also a few non-Marxist supporters of capitalism who don't see any future for Marx. There are no representatives from contemporary labor movements or political parties which are part of the ongoing Marxist tradition.
The question addressed is if Marx's critique of capitalism is valid for our time. If the critique is valid then what comes next? Is Communism going to make a return? Is it coming back to replace the capitalist system?
The film opens with an animation of Marx meeting Trotsky and Trotsky undertaking to enlighten Marx as to the significance of Marxism today. Trotsky will attempt to guide Marx to an understanding of how ideology works in society. Quite the tail wagging the dog.
The film then begins by asking how economists today explain the greatest capitalist crisis since the great depression of the 1930s. The answers we get are not very telling. Now the talking heads take over.
First up is the late former chief economist of the Deutsche Bank, Norbert Walter (1944-1912) who says that we [bankers] made mistakes. E.g., in the USA people could get mortgages at 110% of the value of their houses. The banks made money cheaply available, people borrowed too much and they couldn't pay back what they owed. Later in the film he tells us that Marx's ideas about getting rid of capitalism by abolishing a society based on commodity production for profit would create a world that people would not want to live in as that would lead to the abolishment of "the universal medium of money" which "turns everything around us into commodities" and "money is an essential medium for civilization, for peaceful coexistence and the organization of complex societies." This begs the question as communism is a complex society based on production for human needs not commodities for profit. Mr. Walter must have forgotten about the two world wars that almost destroyed European civilization in the last century when he opined that "peaceful coexistence" is one of the benefits of a money economy.
Next up is Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, and author of "Taming The Trade Unions", who tells us the crisis was caused by inflation due to governments printing too much money. That is all we hear from him.
On a more general level of the problems of capitalism and the meaning of Marx's writing the film interviews several people identified as philosophers, political philosophers, theorists, critics, etc. Some are well known to the academic community although their grasp of Marxism may be questionable. We now hear from Antonio Negri, co-author of "Empire", an expert on Spinoza, and a founder of Italian Autonomism, and "Worker's Power" (Potere Operaio) an ultra-left formation in Italy with a secret armed wing. Negri tells us that the capitalists [neo-liberals] cannot pay the workers the price of their labor [which doesn't even make sense in Marxist terms-- a wage is the price paid for labor-- he should at least be talking about the value of their labor-power not the price] and that they remain in power and are able to wage wars around the world only as long as the working class remains quiescent  due to high wages. But as we see the capitalists can't do that so Marx is still relevant.
This line of thought is taken up by the film which now asks does Marx's theory of exploitation hold today or is the way capitalists make their profits changing? The answers are sought from more talking heads without any clear explanation having been given as to what Marx's theory of exploitation is. What is clear is that with a few exceptions, which I will note, none of the answers given in this part of film are dealing with Marx's theory.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek is now up to bat (what film on "Marxism" would be complete without this latter day Eugen DÃ hring). He is described as the "leader" of a new movement to revive Marxist and Communist thinking. He revives Marx by proclaiming that the classical notion of exploitation [left unexplained] no longer works due to the knowledge explosion-- he does not tell us why this is so. However, it has something to do with computers because we need them to communicate with each other and so we have pay "rent" to Bill gates because he owns part of our mental substance. I am tempted to think that in professor Zizek's case Mr. Gates  is a slumlord. Finally we are told that we need a redefinition of the "proletariat" because the "proletariat" is larger than the working class. Zizek also notes that the unemployed today demonstrate because they want jobs-- "please exploit us in the normal way" they are saying to the capitalists. I think he strikes out as the "leader" of a new "Marxist" movement. He will appear again later.
Antonio Negri now reappears. Capitalism, he says, has evolved in ways Marx could not have predicted. Exploitation is not only of factory workers but of workers throughout society. You can't start a revolution with the factory workers-- you need them but also all the other workers too [I think Marx could have predicted this, in fact he already knew it.] You need the other workers, Negri says, because they are the "most" exploited. What can that mean? The examples he gives is of research and cinema workers and the like because they produce more value. None of this makes sense because the Marxist concept of "value," "surplus value," "labor power" and "exploitation" are never brought up in the film. If they were none of the things these talking heads and intellectual will o the wisps are saying would make sense anyway only the viewers would at least understand why.
Herfried Munkler now makes his appearance. Dr. Munkler, co-editor of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels and a professor at Humbolt University, in contrast to those who have appeared before, actually knows a thing or two about Marxism although in its Social Democratic deformation. His concern is not limited to discussing the plight of working people in the West but focuses on the exploitation of working people in the so-called Third World where working conditions are subhuman and wages are ridiculously low in comparison to the advanced capitalist countries. Here it is obvious that Marxist ideas are relevant and that capitalism is being abusive. 
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri's collaborator on the book "Empire" (not worth the read) now appears to bring us back from the Third World to the the First to tell us the economy is now centered on "immaterial" and "immeasurable" products-- that is, on "ideas" not on "objects" like old fashioned commodities such as cars, refrigerators, toasters-- the products of industrial manufacturing. Economics is about relationships and intangible assets [not, coal, oil or natural gas]. He is listed as a literary critic and political philosopher, at least he talks about political philosophy like a literary critic. 
Now is the time for Jacques Ranciere, the co-author with Louis Althusser of "Reading Capital" (although his part was left out of the English version). He is noted for an educational theory which says a person can be a teacher without knowing anything about the subject he is going to teach; a view welcomed by not a few teachers. Ranciere makes three appearances in the film and manages to say nothing of importance in any of them.  Here he tells us many societies have had exploitation without "explosions" so we can't draw from exploitation the logic of an end to exploitation. Economic exploitation is not the dominant factor in all social struggle. Ranciere seems oblivious to the Marxist view that, as Engels says, in the last analysis all major social struggles in class based societies have economic exploitation at their root. Each society and its economic formation needs to be individually studied. There have certainly been "explosions" over exploitation in all societies that have distinct social classes despite Ranciere's contrary assertions.
The film now takes up a new subject. We are told that to understand capitalism we must delve into the the "mystic realm" of the COMMODITY.  It is certainly true that without an understanding of the origin and role of commodities we will not understand our economic system which is based on the production and exchange of commodities. Marx devotes the first chapter of "Das Kapital" to the commodity. It is a difficult chapter but once grasped the rest of the volumes of Das Kapital will be easily understood. 
The film however does not deal with Marx's scientific analysis of commodities but skips to the last section of the chapter which is entitled "The Fetishism of Commodities." Without an understanding of the preceding sections it is easy to misunderstand this last section and, true to form, both the film's narrator and all of the talking heads in this part of the film completely miss the point and fail to grasp Marx's ideas concerning commodity fetishism.
To make a long story short, Marx's point is that the laws of the capitalist system are not  products of  nature as, say, are the laws of gravity or of aerodynamics but they are the result of human activity. Commodities and their relations are created by human beings and human beings can abolish them. Yet, because we are ignorant of the laws of economics we think of commodities as natural, as things which , although created by us, assume an existence independent of us and go to a market whose laws we are subject to and must conform to. This is similar to the creation of religions or "primitive" belief systems where a person creates a fetish and then bows down to it and thinks it has power over him and he must subject himself to its demands and will. The capitalist market appears as the natural form of economic exchange and there is no alternative to it.  It is not true that there is no alternative and humans can abolish capitalism and rid themselves of subjection to the laws of commodity production and create an economic world which serves human needs and one where human needs do not take second place to the need to exchange commodities at a profit. None of this is addressed in this part of the film. Instead we get baloney. This is because the talking heads are in the grips of the very fetishism Marx warns us about.
Norman Bolz (media theorist): "The theory of commodity fetishism is Marx's most important discovery." It isn't. Marx's most important discovery is the distinction between the value of labor and that of labor-power which is the basis of the labor theory of value and of his analysis of capitalism. It is, however, one of the most important consequences of that discovery.
Bolz continues by saying Marx's theory reveals a secret as to why capitalism today "functions so well" [!!!]. The secret is "that goods in the capitalist market place satisfy more than simple needs  they also convey a spiritual surplus value and this value is the real reason for the purchase." This is complete and utter nonsense.
Peter Sloterdijk (philosopher [but not a very good one]) is not so definite. He says the theory is probably "the important part of Marxist doctrine." This is because "Marx is among those who discovered the fact that things live."  He goes on to say, Walter Benjamin "discovered the structural similarity between human commodities [?] and commodities as objects." He thus "universalized the category of prostitution." While there may be a relationship between fetishism and prostitution on some level, I don't think this is what Marx was getting it. "Prositution is always present when a beautiful thing feigns life and tries to seduce passersby with an offer."  I think professor Sloterdijk should reread Marx's chapter on commodities.
Finally, here is Famonn Butler"s (policy analyst) take: he says it's human psychology to want things-- the economy is neutral-- it just produces what people want.  Well then, that's it. Capitalism just produces what people want. Then why are there so many adverts all over the place? Do we need to be constantly reminded about what we want?
The film now turns to Marxism and Ecology-- only by now Marxism has been unloaded rather than  reloaded. Zizek is now taking about  "Communism" in the sense what we have in "common"-- the Earth as our "common substance" and we have to manage it together. He makes no proposal about how to do that. Michael Hart is also back talking about the "common" in "Communism" and how different that is from both the "Communism" found in the Soviet Union (derived from Marx incidentally) and also the "Communism"  of American Anti-Communism [evidently he doesn't approve of either kind of "Communism"]. 
Herfried Munkler points out that Marx "applies exploitation not only to human labor but to the limited resources of nature. He says that if the exploitation of nature continues nature will be destroyed." Munkler thinks that we can reduce the exploitation of nature under capitalism and have common ownership of the Earth without  a Marxist society. But this is just social democratic optimism as befits anyone affiliated with the SPD in Germany. He gives no program. But at least he brings up an all important issue; the destruction of the environment under capitalism today.
John Gray weighs in with the observation that international capitalism develops in ways impossible to predict and impossible to control (revealing that he is completely under the sway of the fetishism of commodities). He says the "New Leninists" [we have not met any "Leninists" in this film-- nor will we] and "Greens" are correct about the fact that "human action" has destabilized the environment but they are "deluded" in thinking human action can restabilize it. It doesn't occur to him that it is not humans qua humans that are destructive but only humans under the sway of particular sorts of economic and social relations. Even if humans could get together as a global collective, which he says will never happen, they could not restabilize the environment. Doom and gloom is all we can expect.
The film now asks if the current economic crisis was caused by an under regulated banking system. Is the only solution now and in the future to have state regulated economic systems? The film suggests we look back into history for solutions. I should note here that people who look  to the past for solutions to present day problems are usually seen to be reactionaries.
Be that as it may, we return to Norbert Bolz who likes the fact that in the 19th century banks issued their own scripts which functioned as money. You could take it to another bank and redeem it in coin of the realm-- if the other bank trusted it! This system would make all the banks very aware of the true value of the scripts and bad banks would be exposed. He thinks this is a really good idea and I suppose there were no banking crises in the 19th century, except there were.
John Gray rightly thinks this idea is nuts because state monopoly capital [not his term] has become so evolved and complicated since the 19th century and this has happened as a result of the close interconnection between capitalism and state power-- there is no going back. But is there going forward?
Why is it that the state rushes in to save capitalism all the time? Is it possible, the film now asks, that these crises, like the one we are in right now, which broke out in 2007, are not side effects of capitalism but essential to its very existence?
Herfried Munkler tells us that Marx thought that crises would lead to the downfall of capitalism but since his day capitalism has gone through many crises and has "rejuvenated itself." He mentions Joseph Schumpeter's theory of crises as periods of "creative destruction." "Capitalism," Munkler concludes, "doesn't age. Instead crisis is its Fountain of Youth."  This from the co-editor of the Collected Works is rather strange. Marx thought the internal contradictions would eventually bring about capitalism's collapse (or the mutual destruction of the contending classes within the system) but there was no time table and he argued that capitalism had at its disposal many tools to stave off immediate collapse but it would eventually prove dysfunctional as had the economic forms (slavery, feudalism,) that preceded it. Schumpeters "creative destruction" (destruction of the lives of workers and the majority of the population and creative of wealth for the so-called 1%-- the capitalists) is no refutation of Marx's theories.
The "theorist" Alberto Toscano, one of the very few interviewed who seems to have his head in the right place, points out that capitalism, whatever its ultimate fate, is responsible for creating a gigantic surplus population that it does not know what to do with. He mentions the book "The Planet of Slums" by Mike Davis and talks about  the "surplus humanity" that capitalism has on its hands because its technological advances have made the number of workers it needs redundant. This is the "reserve army of labor" that Marx wrote about-- but now it is no longer a "reserve" it is just a surplus of human beings that are socially unneeded piling up in the slums of the world with nowhere to go. The "creative destruction" they may eventually bring about capitalism may have a hard time dealing with. Only the Chinese, with a non-capitalist economic system, seem to have been able to cope with the massive poverty in the rural areas  of their country (and of course Cuba and Vietnam and a few others with non-capitalist economies, and now Venezuela, are beginning to follow suit).
Finally, the film asks what sense is there in believing another world, other than capitalism, is possible. TINA-- There is No Alternative was Ms. Thatcher's motto-- was she correct? Can a Communist alternative emerge after the experiences of the past century?
  Antonio Negri says there is only capitalism so we must fight the bosses as the bosses fight us. This seems to be an eternal struggle-- there is only the movement Bernstein thought and so it seems  does Negri-- at least in this film-- it is difficult to get just what he means so I may be incorrect here. He tells us what we all know-- Russia didn't have "Communism" it had "socialism." What is socialism? It is a way to manage capitalism, just like liberalism is. How would Communism come about? It "comes into being through a relation between transformations of reality and the will or decision to do it or to build it." After this bit of balderdash  he leaves us with the admonition to junk the old Communist Manifesto  and to write a new one-- he is not , however, the man to do it. 
Nina Power, feminist philosopher, has more regard for the Communist Manifesto, and says it has continuing power to influence people. She is surely correct.
Zizek writes off the 20th century "communist" states, Social Democracy, the idea of local councils, collectives, Soviets (which first popped up in the 1905 Russian Revolution) and their latter day reincarnations. What's left? He tells us he likes the idea that "A communist society is one in which each person could dwell in his own stupidity." Zizek is already doing that so he should be happy. He says he got that idea from reading Frederick Jameson. He thinks it would be great if Communism turned out to be like a Bruegel painting. Whenever I hear Zizek expostulating it brings to mind what Karl Marx said about Jeremy Bentham i.e., "in no time and in no country has the most homespun common-place ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way." At least Bentham did not resort to pseudo-Hegelian verbiage.
Micha Brumlik (professor of education at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main) maintains that after the 20th century we have the right to know what Communism is going to be like-- it has to be democratic to be supported. There will be a big fight over that, I fear, as different concepts of "democracy" will be put forth. But he is right to demand a politically active civil society not divorced from a democratic political system. He thinks that Hardt and Negri's  unclear views on the "the multitude" will never get that concept up and running or have any practical outcome.
Jacques Ranciere leaves us with the view that while Marx wanted a "classless society" what we really need is what he calls an "emancipatory society." This is one "in which each has an equal share." This has a vague utopian sound to it-- a throwback to pre-Marxist French socialist thinking. Marxist logic, he tells us, is to prepare for the future, but he believes "instead that the idea of emancipation is really tied to a sort of appearance in the here and now of those we call the 'have-nots' and of those who make their presence felt through their capacity to think, to intervene politically  and to prove themselves capable of organizing economic production." Ayn Rand would like this-- the have-nots and their masters-- only for Ranciere they would be good masters. This is a latter day reincarnation of Plato's Republic.
Ranciere goes on to criticize Negri. "Negri thinks capitalism produces communism [in the film Negri appears to think capitalism is here for the long run and must always be struggled against-- or if communism comes about it will be through the triumph of the will-- few of the people in this film are logically coherent]. In reality, capitalism only produces its own form of communism. But this is not the communism of everyone's capacity. There are those who say 'Look at what capitalism does. The idea of communism can't be so bad.' But I don't think those people are involved in constructing the idea of real equality today." What is this rambling discourse suppose to mean?
The last pronouncement I will consider comes from Peter Sloterdijk, who tells us that "People must join together to forge alliances against the lethal. They must provide mutual security and offer each other communities of solidarity on a planetary scale [sounds like an advert for NATO]. Because for the first time collective self destruction is possible. [Is he referring to the bomb? climate change?] Before we say 'communism' we must understand the principle of 'immunism' [a new -ism to worry about] or the principle of our mutual insurance which is the most profound motive of solidarity."
This is the sum and substance of the movie. Some of these thinkers are better than they have appeared in this movie-- but not by much. I don't think this film has reloaded Marx-- quite the contrary. I think it completely fails to present what Marxism is all about and its past accomplishments and future possibilities. No film can hope to present Marxism to the public without at the same time dealing with the real life problems of the union and working class movements and issues in the Third World. As I pointed out at the beginning of this review this film completely ignores working class leaders and the leaders of political movements inspired by Marxism and confines itself to interviewing intellectual talking heads who, quite frankly, often don't know what they are talking about. You can find this movie on You Tube complete with subtitles. It is 52 minutes long, and once you have watched it I think you will agree with my assessment.
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Thomas Riggins, PhD CUNY, is a retired university lecturer in philosophy and ancient history and the former book review editor for Political Affairs magazine.

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