In 2013, De Volkskrant portrayed Angela Wigger as one of a rare breed of dissident economists in the Netherlands. It is certainly true that there are not many economists who regard Marxist tradition as being of value in studying present-day economic and social trends. Wigger teaches political economy and international relations at Radboud University in Nijmegen and is a board member of the Critical Political Economy Research Network (CPERN) and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). The world of academia, including Radboud, turned away from Marxism following the activist years of the 1970s. But Wigger now reads Marx more freely than Marxists did then; she sees him as one of our most incisive economic theoreticians and a must-read if we want to understand today’s world. Wigger: “We are not natural scientists. What we do is try to interpret and explain the world, and we do so from a particular perspective.”
De Helling: Is Marx back?
Angela Wigger: I believe that he was never away, but that those who place themselves in the Marxist tradition have long been marginalised. We are noticing them now because attention has refocused on Marx. We are in the seventh year of a crisis. The analyses produced by both science and journalism are often inadequate. Questions about capitalism with a capital C are generally not addressed.
Does that have to do with the end of genuine socialism in Europe?
We need to be aware that experiments around socialism and communism have nothing to do with Marx. I find it dangerous to mix them. Marx himself insisted that he was not a Marxist. And nor would I immediately describe myself as one. There is no such thing as a ‘single Marxism’. Everyone who engages with Marx has their own perspective. I would rather call myself a historical materialist. The idea is very simple: to survive as people, we need to produce. The way in which we do that influences the balance of power within a group. Nowadays we can see how economic changes in the production process are also leading to shifts in the global balance of power. I try to analyse and understand these processes from an historical perspective. Marx offers important guidance that sometimes needs to be translated to contemporary times. To do that, I use critical realism, which is about the dialectic process between four dimensions: the existing structures, the way in which we ourselves can change them, the relevant ideas that play a role in them, and the material dimension of those ideas. Marx said: ‘People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please’. We are born into a world that we cannot choose, but people can organise themselves and bring about change. From a Marxist perspective, we always need to bear in mind that ideas are linked to people who have particular roles in the production process. When considering a political decision, therefore, we must always ask: cui bono? Who benefits? In this way, historical materialism offers a far-reaching and holistic way of thinking.
What stage of capitalism are we in at present?
Capitalism is in a period in which added value is created by the rapid circulation of financial capital. This has nothing do with production any more. The Australian thinker David Harvey offered a fantastic interpretation of the current crisis, saying that: ‘If the accumulation of debt and the accumulation of capital get too far out of synch, they create a crisis.’ But, unlike some post-Keynesians, I would not claim that the financial world is the reason for the crisis or that the solution lies in repairing the financial markets.
The real reason lies in the phenomenon of ‘overaccumulation’. It is inherent in capitalism that we produce more than we can consume. If a capitalist stops accumulating capital and producing added value, he falls behind the rest and so loses the competitive battle. But at a given point markets become saturated. Then there is a need to find outlets so that the accumulation of capital can resume. Overaccumulation can be described as a point in history where there are no outlets for profitable investment of excess capital in real production.
Have we reached that point now?
Yes, but new outlets are being found all the time and it is not clear how long that can continue. A classical outlet is the tapping of new markets through territorial expansion. But there is also the option of ‘deepening’ the capitalistic logic. Areas that were previously outside the market are drawn into the capitalist process. Marx calls this commodification: changing social affairs and relationships into goods with a negotiable price tag. Think of women in India who rent out their wombs to women unable to have children. Or education, care for the elderly, or nature – in the case of carbon emissions trading. In this way, capitalism creates new options for accumulation.
A third outlet is mergers and takeovers. Rather than reinvesting excess capital in new production, we buy up existing production. Just before the crisis hit in 2006, the markets saw the largest mergers, and the largest numbers of mergers, there had ever been. A third of these mergers and takeovers were initiated by private equity funds, hedge funds and other financial market participants that are not tied to real production.
When credit is issued, a claim is laid on future work. Financial capital has no limits. After all, we can continue endlessly to make such claims on the future. This in turn creates space for capitalism to continue its growth. Marx is still relevant today in understanding these financialisation processes. He wrote about the function of credit, and understood how badly it can get out of control. A brilliant quote of his is: “There are even phases in the economic life of modern nations when everybody is seized with a sort of craze for making profit without producing. This speculation craze, which recurs periodically, lays bare the true character of competition, which seeks to escape the need for industrial emulation.” (Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)
Finally, besides expansion, deepening and financialisation, there is a further outlet, namely capital destruction. If capital is destroyed, a new accumulation process can begin. This can be via bankruptcies, dumping of goods, or exploiting workers and then engaging others under poorer terms of employment. War, of course, is another well-known method of capital destruction.
And what does that lead to?
Marx said that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. This implies that it is finite. But whether that is really the case remains an open question for me. The future is open-ended.
Endless growth is impossible, of course. Marx points out that capitalism is contradictory because it assumes continuous linear growth. Which is impossible, simply due to natural limitation. And you can’t keep exploiting workers indefinitely, although it will take you quite a long way because there will always be others prepared to do their jobs on poorer terms. But we don’t know which new accumulation structures will be offered by future technology. Will new options be organised on capitalist lines, or will they use shared, freely accessible knowledge and common public goods? In brief: cooperate or compete?
That raises the question of whether Marx can inspire us when it comes to today’s counter-movement against capitalism. From whom, or from what, can we expect change?
We can certainly learn from Marx. And Gramsci as well, another Marxist thinker, who said that change does not come from a single identifiable class. It is a process that needs to be set in motion, that requires certain alliances. So it is hard to say exactly who can bring about that change. It is a question of caminando preguntando, as the Zapatistas [Mexican anticapitalist movement – ed.] say: formulating questions while walking.
We need to distinguish between street protests by groups such as Occupy and the opposition that people raise when they are actually trying to introduce different forms of production or power relations. I believe the latter is extremely important. Look at the debt movements in Spain and Italy for example, which are challenging micro debt and national debt. I believe that debt is the key for movements like these. It is not about consumer debt, about buying a new car, say, but about health, education and housing. These basic needs are largely based on debt. That situation is untenable.
In Southern Europe especially, we are seeing the emergence of new forms of production such as cooperatives and other horizontally organised production processes, where participation and democratic decision-making on reinvesting of profits are essential. But we also need to bear in mind that, even if all employees are involved in decisions on reinvesting excess capital, it nonetheless remains excess capital. The democratisation of capitalism has not yet brought an end to capitalism. In addition, initatives like these often result in self-exploitation because, if you are generating less profit but are focused on capital accumulation, you earn less. It is not possible to escape the grip of capitalism. In that sense, I do not really believe in revolutions.
Do left-wing political parties have a role in change?
I believe they do, but links with social movements and trade unions are also important. More alliances should be made between political and social movements. But many political parties are too moderate and focused on themselves. They should become more radical.
Should political parties read more Marx?
Marx is very complex, so that’s not easy. But you’re better to read Marx than Piketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is mainly a collection of empirical accounts. He assumes that capitalism can be tamed. Marxist thinkers are more helpful. In any case, every political scientist should have read Marx, because his work is essential in order to understand politics. We mustn’t go back to dogmatic readings like those of the Seventies. As Marx himself did, we need to respect the motto omnibus dubitandum: doubt everything, stay critical and investigate everything.
This interview was originally published by De Helling as part of their Winter edition offering a platform to a new generation of Marx. It was conducted by Erica Meijers and Amarens Veeneman.