In a 1974 interview with New Left Review, the Italian philosopher Lucio Colletti rued the chasms that had opened between the work of Marxist intellectuals in the West and the practice of workers’ movements:
The only way in which Marxism can be revived is if no more books like [Colletti’s] Marxism and Hegel are published, and instead books like Hilferding’s Finance Capital and Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital—or even Lenin’s Imperialism, which was a popular pamphlet—are once again written. In short, either Marxism has the capacity—I certainly do not—to produce at that level, or it will survive as merely the foible of a few university professors. But in that case, it will be well and truly dead, and the professors might as well invent a new name for their clerisy.footnote1
Robin Blackburn was an important figure on the British New Left at the time of Colletti’s strictures. More than thirty years later, an emphasis on the practical possibilities for social change continues to animate his work, including his recent analysis of the credit crunch, ‘The Subprime Crisis’.footnote2 Blackburn’s account of the causes of the crisis—which both untangles the technical failures of the financial instruments in question, and embeds them in longer historical processes of financialization and credit-driven capitalization—is likely to be widely read. It may therefore be useful to think through his analysis to consider what else might be at stake in the credit crisis that could identify political opportunity, or complicate the regulatory mode of redistribution he recommends. Blackburn concludes his exposition of credit-market malfunction with a social-democratic call for sound state and international financial management, focused on social wealth: ‘The solution to the huge problems outlined above is not to abandon money or finance but to embed them in a properly regulated system; to progressively transform the very nature of corporations and banks in terms of both ownership and functioning; and to create a global network of social funds . . . and a global system of financial regulation.’ He continues:
The actual and potential costs of the credit crunch are already huge, but they must be seen as part of a wider distemper of financialized capitalism, with its yawning inequalities, stagnant wages and loss of social protection . . . The prestige of capitalist institutions has already suffered a damaging blow and will suffer further as the crisis hurts those in the real economy. But only practical, radical and transformative actions to tackle the wrenching consequences of the crisis can ward off stiff doses of capitalist medicine, which for many will be worse than the financial malady they will be designed to cure.
Blackburn’s ‘practical, radical and transformative’ solutions—a global network of publicly owned derivatives boards, transparency in the over-the-counter market, capital levies, even something like a ‘World Financial Authority’—are well-considered, and backed by an array of commentators on financial markets, before and during the current meltdown. The realization of any of these measures would be welcome. What merits concern, however, is what falls out of his account, or is perhaps even disavowed by it: the larger categorical questions that have historically animated critique in the Marxian tradition. This is why it is worth re-engaging with Colletti’s work, even, it seems, against Colletti’s own wishes. For he was among the sharpest critics of what he called the ‘pillars’ of the Marxist ‘theoretical edifice’—the analysis of value, money and capital.footnote3 These concepts are not a part of Blackburn’s discussion, but they remain an essential part of the political-economic stakes.
It is of course possible that Blackburn would agree, the ‘practical’ emphasis of his contribution being just one of several responses the crisis demands. But his insistence that the solution is definitely not to ‘abandon money or finance’ hints at an impatience with the ‘impractical’ sorts of questions that sometimes operate under the guise of theory. Certainly no one could accuse his work of avoiding the ‘big issues’. But the current crisis opens a window on the nature of value, and on the operation of capital as a social form—begging, precisely, the categorical questions that challenge the presumed coherence of concepts like ‘regulated capitalism’. We can advocate the radical institutional reconfigurations Blackburn outlines while simultaneously asking about the work of pernicious reinscription those institutions might carry out. A world beyond the rule of value remains a possibility that matters.
In 1857, as a financial panic steamed across the Atlantic, Marx wrote to Engels that ‘the stock exchange is the only place where my present dullness turns into elasticity and bouncing’. Blackburn’s explanation of the credit crisis of 2007–09 does not communicate the same cheerfulness, but its emphasis on historico-structural movement contrasts sharply with the dominant explanations currently in circulation. These address only historically ‘proximate causes’: various financial practices, instruments, institutions, and the aspects of ‘market psychology’ that ‘enabled’ the asset-price bubble and make the ‘crunch’ so uncomfortable. Analytical energy has been focused on the technical mechanics of the crisis, on the assumption that this is where the problem lies. This is not to say that these mechanics are unimportant. Elaborate packaging of asset-backed securities and creative evasion of liquidity requirements have become fundamental to the way investment banks (and, increasingly, commercial banks) have made money; the processes of ‘securitization’ through which finance capital ‘originates’ credit-backed securities involve mystifications so marvelous Marx would have been bug-eyed.