Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 2)

[Read Part 1 Here.]

Andy Warhol: Excerpt Marilyn Diptych.

Andy Warhol: Excerpt Marilyn Diptych.

III. Cultural Turn: A Way To Go Beyond Marx?

The shifting focus from materialist conceptual apparatuses to cultural studies in the social sciences cannot be taken as an arbitrary movement in the academe. It must be seen as symptomatic of changes in prevailing political conditions especially as this turn advances the proposition of going beyond materialism, the essential condition of Classical Marxism. Henceforth referred to as the “cultural turn,” this shift in the social sciences turned away from what is perceived as the limitations of a historical materialist view of the social. “More and more often, they devised research topics that fore-grounded symbols, rituals, discourse, and cultural practices rather than social structure or social class” (Bonnel and Hunt, 1999, 8).

The emergence of Western Marxism in Europe signaled this shift from history and the material world towards a concentration on the area of philosophy and culture. This peculiar type of Marxism was in its first incarnation associated to the Institute of Social Research of the Weimar Republic, more popular by the name Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Robert Babe, quoting Terry Eagleton, said that the Frankfurt School first gave “serious attention to mass culture, and so lies at the origin of what is known today as Cultural Studies” (2009, 66). According to Siraj, the institute “has its genesis in an anti-Bolshevik radicalism and a revised form of Marxism” (2003, 10).

From looking at society as an object for examination, the theoreticians of this institute insisted on one-sidedly looking at “subjectivity” and rejected the enlightenment idea of historical progress and the revolutionary role of the working class. Max Horkheimer in his inaugural address as the first Director of the Institute proclaimed that historical materialism as a science is no longer the concern of the Institute. Rather, it will work “towards a development of social philosophy supplemented by empirical investigations” (Anderson, 1979, 33).

There is no more concern for Marxism as a theory criticizing capitalism and guiding revolutionary movements. Marxism thereby became divorced from political practice (32) as “Marxist theory migrated virtually completely into the universities” (49-50). Naturally, proponents of this particular type of “Marxism” were academics who were either nominal members of any socialist party or were totally uninvolved in the socialist movement. Horkheimer, for example, “had never been an overt member of any any-working class party, although he had once admired Luxemburg” (Ibid). Herbert Marcuse had been a member of a soldiers’ council in 1918. Adorno has no personal ties at all to socialist political life.

Another thinker within the Western Marxist tradition is Louis Althusser who sought to reconfigure Marxism from the lens of French Structuralism, a school of thought that gave a privileged position to ideology, signs, language, and other superstructural elements over society’s economic base (Siraj, 105). While Althusser joined the French Communist Party in 1948, his nominal membership was evident in the period following 1965 when, according to Anderson, “Althusser’s work defined itself as explicitly anti-humanist at a time when the official French party doctrine extolled the virtues of humanism” (1979, 39).

INFANZIA - Mixed Media on Wood, 35.4" x 53.1 by Monica Maroni.

INFANZIA – Mixed Media on Wood, 35.4″ x 53.1 by Monica Maroni.


The founding of the Frankfurt School would signal the shift towards the Cultural Turn, a shift that would lead to the rise of various intellectual currents from Althusserian Marxism, British Culturalism, and Postmodernism. Culturalism was the term used by Richard Johnson, former director of Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, to describe the works of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson (Storey, 2009).

The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart’s major work, is a comparative study of the working class culture in England in the 1930s in relation to the 1950s. The working class in the 1930s, according to Hoggart, experiences a “lived” or “self-made” culture. The 1950s, however, marked a cultural decline due to the proliferation of mass entertainment. Hoggart cited the juke-box boy as a reflection of a society “reduced to a condition of obediently receptive passivity” (Hoggart in Storey, 43). Nevertheless, he remains optimistic in the capacity of the working class to resist  through their ways of speaking, the Working Men’s Clubs, the styles of singing, etc (43).

Meanwhile, E. P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, sought to explain the working class as a historical phenomenon. He conceives of the class as “a social and cultural formation, arising from processes which can be studied as they work themselves out over a considerable historical period” (Thompson quoted in Storey, 49). The Making of the English Working Class is a “classic example of history from below,” said Storey: “Thompson’s aim is to place the ‘experience’ of the English working class as central to any understanding of the formation of an industrial capitalist society in the decades leading up to the 1830s” (Storey, 49).

Lastly, Raymond Williams introduces the definition of culture as a way of life. He adds that culture has three levels, namely a lived culture of a particular time and place which is fully accessible only to those situated in such a niche, a recorded culture, and the culture of a selective tradition wherein whatever knowledge we have on the culture of a prior period is always already determined by the dominant class of the present (2009, 46).

"Clotheslines" by Bernard Safran.

“Clotheslines” by Bernard Safran.

What is common to the three scholars of British Culturalism is the assertion that an analysis of a society’s culture would make it possible to understand the conduct and ideas of the people who produce and consume that society’s cultural artifacts. According to Storey, “it is a persepective that stresses ‘human agency,’ the active production of culture, rather than its passive consumption” (38).

Hoggart, Thompson, and Williams therefore proposes that culture cannot be separated from transformations in the socio-economic base. According to Babe, “all three are interdisciplinary, combining sociological, historical, political, ethnographic, and economic analyses, going beyond textual analysis to speculate relations between texts and patterns of lived experience. And all three focus on class” (68).

Even as British Culturalism swims in an intellectual atmosphere that was paying more attention solely on culture and ideology its take on culture still falls back on a Marxist conception of culture as dialectically reflective of man’s interaction with nature. Understanding culture then would require the study of the actual socio-economic and political realities of society.


While Culturalism can still be directly appropriated to a historical materialist framework, The deeper the cultural turn went, the less was this made possible. This is especially true with the intellectual current called postmodernism. Postmodernism is understood in two main ways, as a cultural movement and as a philosophical and political discourse. While it would be inevitable to tackle postmodernism in its first sense we will focus on the second appropriation of the term.

In the first sense, postmodernism is a movement in the art and literature that poses a reaction to modernism. According to Storey, it “attacks modernism’s official status, its canonization in the museum and the academy, as the high culture of the modern capitalist world” (Storey, 182). Moreover, it also refuses the idea of a distinction between the high culture and the popular culture.

In the second and more important sense, postmodernism is understood as a philosophical and political discourse. Ahmad explained that postmodernism proclaims that a fundamental change occurred in the nature of capitalism after the Second World War. Corresponding to these changes are shifts in culture and politics (2011, 5). Within the second use of the term postmodernism as a philosophical and political current we find a general distinction between (1) what Siraj calls “textualism” and (2) a theory of power pioneered by Michel Foucault. What links the two accounts, however, is the frequent use of the key words discourse and narrative.

Textualism, as defined by Richard Rorty, “is actually an heir to German Classical Idealism” (Siraj, 11). This postmodernist school sought to locate literature as the center of everything and thus relegate both science and philosophy as just another literary genre. Its chief proponents are Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Foucault’s theory of power meanwhile proceeded to analyze the world through his master category of “power-knowledge,” which emphasized the power of knowledge and the diffusion of power everywhere.

According to Ahmad, the present understanding of postmodernism is attributed to a group of American sociologists during the 1950s. This group advanced the idea that the latest technologies, i.e. computer-based technologies, transformed capitalism into a system that enables prosperity without the troubles of rising inequality and social unrest. Across the social sciences, it was held that “US is basically a middle class society and the working class… had become part of the middle class.” For the American postmodernists, therefore, “Marxism had simply become redundant” and the idea of class struggle is no longer viable (7-8).

In the 1960s, a group of French thinkers adopted these American ideas. Europe in 1967-69, witnessed the retreat of left social movements all over Europe. This became the grounds for the proliferation of such ideas. Postmodernism, clothed in French philosophical language, later returned to Anglo-Saxon countries and began to dominate universities (6). To borrow Cusset’s words, “during the last three decades of the twentieth century in the United States, the names of a few French thinkers took on an aura that up to then been reserved only for the heroes of American mythology or the celebrities of show business.” They were that of Foucault, Derrida, Jacques Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, among others (2003, 6).

In his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge , Lyotard defined “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (1984, xxiv). For Lyotard, Western societies have reached a period wherein totalizing frameworks or meta-narratives like Marxism and Christianity no longer have legitimacy to explain phenomenon in their own terms. Instead, we are witnessing “increasing sound of a plurality of voices from the margins, with their insistence on difference, on cultural diversity, and the claims of heterogeneity over homogeneity” (185). Science, according to Lyotard, as a narrative that organizes and validates other narratives for the goal of human liberation has ceased to perform its role (185).

Jean Baudrillard’s thesis on postmodernism, on the other hand, revolves around the categories of simulation, implosion, and hyperreality (Kellner, 2013). Simulation is defined as an imitation of the processes and images of the real world. Baudrillard advances the idea that in the postmodern world “identities are constructed by the appropriation of images, and codes and models determine how individuals perceive themselves and relate to other people…Economics, politics, social life, and culture are all governed by the mode of simulation” (ibid).

Thus, for Baudrillard, postmodern world is characterized by an implosion of boundaries and distinctions held by modern societies. As Kellner explains, “in this implosive mix, economics is fundamentally shaped by culture, politics, and other spheres, while art, once a sphere of potential difference and opposition, is absorbed into the economic and political, while sexuality is everywhere” (ibid). It is not just the boundaries that are imploding but even the real and the simulation. This view on society, becomes the basis of Baudrillard for charting a new theory and politics that essentially, as Kellner points out, inverts Marx’s historical materialism.

In place of Marx’s emphasis on political economy and the primacy of the economic, for Baudrillard it is the model, the superstructure, that generates the real in a situation he refers to as the “end of political economy”…sign values predominate over use values and exchange values; the materiality of needs and commodity use-values to serve them disappear in Baudrillard’s semiological imaginary, in which signs take precedence over the real and reconstruct human life (Kellner, 2013).

Image from NZAfro visual library:

Image from NZAfro visual library:

But the most influential among the postmodernists is Foucault. In his theory, power-knowledge as discourse constitutes people as subjects and governs them through knowledge. Foucault negates the class content of power and instead treats power as cutting across all aspects. “In his view, people have no escape route from the multiple sources of power. He also dismisses the view of overhauling the system of domination,” said Siraj (2003, 6).

Foucault will argue that Power is everywhere, in every social relation, but dispersed, diffused, impersonal, multiple, wielded by no one, with no identifiable origin or defined purpose. He made it categorical that the history of Power cannot be narrated from the twin sites of political economy and the state. thus, it is implied that resistance to Power can also not be organized as some project to change the nature of the state or politico-economic system. Foucault also opined that since Power is everywhere there is really no place where resistance can be distinguished from Power itself, what is resistance is in reality another kind of Power (2003, 40).

Thus in the Foucauldian scheme of things, the oppressed and the exploited cannot put up resistance to power except for that which are localized, small-scale, and temporary. This is the ideological midwife of micro-politics and identity politics. As a whole, post-modernism as an intellectual current seeks to transcend the modernist ideas that emerged after the feudal era and thus stands opposed to Marxism and the ideas and values of the Enlightenment, Reason, and even Science.

IV. The Cultural Turn towards Idealism

We demonstrated that the Cultural Turn as an intellectual movement situated primarily in the Western academe that aimed to go beyond what it saw as the “economic reductionism” of Marxism has moved on to become a project aiming to transcend modernist ideas. But what is this economic reductionism that cultural studies opposes so much? To recap, economic reductionism consists in the mechanical assertion of the material base of society – the economy and the most material part of this sphere, i.e. productive technology – as the only factor effectively causing changes and determining the shape of political and ideological superstructures that are entirely contingent on the former.

But a correct reading of Marxist dialectics would say that this is not Marxism at all! In the contradiction between the superstructure and the economic base it is the latter that plays the principal and decisive role as ultimate determiner of the former. However, it is false to claim that the superstructure do not exert any reaction on the economic base and society as a whole. As Josef Stalin pointed out, “the superstructure actively assists its base to take shape and consolidate itself, and does its utmost to help the new system to finish off and eliminate the old base” (1972, 5). In fact, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong is a reaffirmation of the importance of superstructure in forming consciousness of the people.

However, the “Cultural Turn” never intended to reclaim Marxism from the reductionism it suffered from mechanical interpretations of Marx. Rather it is a project intended to gradually abandon Marxism and revolutionary struggle by postulating culture over political economy as the more important site of discourse. Though there is a strand a strand in cultural studies i.e. British Culturalism that still maintains the framework of historical materialism, the very onset of cultural studies as marked by the establishment of Frankfurt School has the underlying rationale of abandoning Marxist fundamentals in favor for eclectic and idealist thinking.

This was aggravated further by the emigration of the Institute to the USA under the University of Columbia. In an environment with no strong working-class movement with socialist orientation, “the Institute as such gravitated steadily towards adaptation to suit local academic or corporate susceptibilities, and conducting sociological surveys of a conventionally positivist character” (Anderson, 33).

Marcuse, for example, near the end of his life in the 1970s began to theorize a “structural integration of the working-class into advance capitalism” (34). Horkheimer’s case is worse. From advocating ‘critical theory’ in the thirties, he later on renounced any link with socialist practice and became an apologist of the capitalist system in his retirement (ibid). As Perry Anderson remarks, “the hidden hallmark of Western Marxism as a whole is a product of defeat” (1979, 42). It is the bitter fruit of the retreat of the socialist project in Western Europe:

For the first time in the history of capitalism became stable and normal through out the advanced industrial world… world capitalism enjoyed a long boom of unprecedented dynamism, the most rapid and prosperous phase of expansion in its history. Meanwhile, the repressive bureaucratic regimes exercising tutelage over the proletariat in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe underwent successive crises and adjustments after the death of Stalin, but no fundamental modification of their structure… It was in this altered universe that revolutionary theory completed the mutation which produced what can today retrospectively be called ‘Western Marxism.’ (24-25).

Indeed, cultural turn scholars has not only done what Ellen Meiksins Woods described as The Retreat from Class. Worse, they are steadily regressing into idealism. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, for example, has its origin in the philosophy of Schelling which asserts that “all recorded history was seen as a regression from a higher to a lower state of ‘fallen nature,’ after an original ‘contraction’ of divinity from the world, and prior to an eventual ‘resurrection’ of nature with the reunification of deity and universe” (Anderson, 81). This clearly opposes the classical Marxism’s narrative of history as characterized by the growing control of man over nature with the development of productive technologies as well as the march of humanity towards liberation from societies marked by the exploitation of one class by another class.

Cultural turn: from class to body.

Cultural turn: from class to body.

As Fredric Jameson himself remarks, all this would in fact simply “document the truth of the assertion that attempts to ‘go beyond’ Marxism typically end by reinventing older pre-Marxist positions” (1980, 196). This rabid idealism infecting the Frankfurt School is also the central theme followed by postmodernist philosophers:

This new fashionable trend challenges the enlightenment’s belief in the existence of underlying essences and unified entities… They argue that there is no such thing as intrinsic nature, an objective reality or an accurate representation of the world as it is in itself. Just as there are no universal laws of history operating independently of particular agents, similarly, there is no truth out there, existing independently of the human mind, waiting to be ‘discovered. All claims about the nature of the world are embodied in language and mediated through our theoretical paradigm. Hence, we never know the world in itself; what we see and know is the world as it appears to us through the lens of our paradigm. thus our descriptions of the world are human constructs, devised, used and judged by their capacity to perform certain tasks (Siraj, 2003, 12).

For postmodernism, “the materialist view that some truth can be discovered by scientific observation and philosophic reason is rejected” (ibid). Yet this claim only leads to more questions. Lyotard’s idea of science being performative and knowledge being commodified and Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality, for instance, may indeed be reflective of the conditions of the present society. But does this necessarily mean going beyond Marx and thus making the idea of class struggle redundant? Secondly, if this is indeed the case, what’s next?

Badiou can easily answer the first question: “Contemporary capitalism possesses all the features of classical capitalism. It is strictly in keeping with what is to be expected of it when its logic is not counteracted by resolute, locally victorious class action” (2010, 11). Did not Marx postulate the idea of commodification of knowledge when he proclaimed that capitalism is a commodity-based societies? Does the fetishism of commodities or alienation not serve as the foundation for the existence of the phenomenon Baudrillard describes as hyperreality?

But the second question is more perplexing. How do we overcome this world of hyperreal or reclaim science from being performative? Baudrillard offers fatal strategies which is nothing but resigned acceptance. Lyotard is contented with his “little narratives of ethnic, minorities, local communities and traditional beliefs” (Siraj, 66). For his part, Foucault privileges micro-politics which is the basis for the present sprouting of thousands of Non-Government Organizations and identity-based social movements that position themselves against Marxist and revolutionary movements.

What is common to all them is that they all dismiss Marxism as a meta-narrative that “operate through inclusion and exclusion as homogenizing forces, marshaling heterogeneity into ordered realms, silencing and excluding other discourses, other voices in the name of universal principles and general goals” (Storey, 185). This is of course a rather shallow understanding which begs the question, what’s wrong with labeling anyway?

What is wrong with categorizing diverging social forces with conflicting interests in accordance to their role in the process of social production? What is wrong with calling the toiling classes revolutionary and the bourgeois as class enemies? Are the postmodernists afraid that they will be labeled as “romantic petty-bourgeois exercise dumping rationality and practice” (Siraj, 2003, 94)? In conclusion, the danger of the postmodernist propositions is best summed-up as follows:

Thus such new idealism in the present age of globalization and increasing power of imperialism and states represent an obstacle to revolutionary struggles on all fronts as: it negates a scientific understanding towards the development of the social system (with it’s a historical approach); diffuses focus on the chief perpetrators of exploitation and oppression (by seeing domination every where, de-linked from the system); and by spreading pessimism in any alternative system, with the understanding that all power corrupts. Instead of plugging the loopholes in the theoretical domain and practice, such linguistic idealism leads us to torpidity and pessimism (Siraj, 2003, 46).

[To be continued.]

Fallen Stalin monument.

Fallen Stalin monument.


Ahmad, A. (2011). On Postmodernism. The Marxist XXVII (1), 38, 1-38.

Anderson, P. (1979). Considerations on Western Marxism. London: Verso.

Badiou, A. (2012). Elliott, G.(Trans). The Rebirth of History. London: Verso.

Bonnell, V. and Hunt, L. (1999). Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cusset, F. (2003). Fort, J (Trans.) (2008). French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kellner, D. (2013). Zalta, E. (ed.) Jean Baudrillard. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2013 Edition.

Jameson, F. (1980). Afterword. In Bloch, E., Lukacs, G., Brecht, B., Benjamin, W., & Adorno, T., Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso.

Lyotard, J.F. (1984). Bennington, G. & Massumi, B. (Trans.) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Siraj. (2003). Postmodernism Today: A Brief Introduction. Delhi, India: New Vistas Publications.

Stalin, J. (1972). Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics. Peking: Foreign Language Press.

Storey, J. (2009). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction (5th ed.). UK: Pearson Education.

5 thoughts on “Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 2)

  1. For me, this sort of survey serves as a refresher to many of the ideas that I used to take seriously back when I was a student of literature in college. Postcolonialism, which shares most of the assumptions of the intellectual currents criticized in this article, was quite (and I suppose continues to be) fashionable at the time.

    What fascinates me here is the distinction made between postmodernism as a literary and art movement and postmodernism as a philosophical and political category. Following Fredric Jameson’s infuential schema defining the postmodern as the cultural logic of what he calls “late capitalism” I have tended to conflate the two in my own understanding of the postmodern.

    This distinction, I think is crucial. After all, while many literary and art works that use techniques that are categorized as postmodern do follow a capitalist logic that eschews history and an all-sided view – not all does! Literary and art forms consigned by Jameson as always-already on the side of capital have been used to interrogate the ruling order and propose the new.

    Given my one-sided education by Jameson in the academe, also new to me is the distinction made by Siraj between textualism and power-knowledge discourse. Among the references cited here, his work Postmodernism Today, seems to me to be the most interesting (apart from that Stalin, that is).

    • While it is certainly easy to conflate the ‘cultural’ postmodernism and the ‘philosophical/ political’ one, there is indeed a strong connection between the two, the former being the ‘form’ (more or less) of our current global political paradigm, which is essentially postmodern. Yet with all its dizzying categories, I somehow get this feeling that postmodernism as the topic of discussion is becoming less and less pertinent Even in the realm of the arts, people are expressing discontent with postmodern aesthetics and are looking for more sincerity and less Hollywood-ish self-reflexivity. I think the time is ripe for a new cultural and political dominant to rise up and counter the current system. I’m getting tired of capitalism’s penchant for recycling itself over and over again.

  2. Pingback: Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 3) | Hello.Lenin!

  3. Paul Moufawad in his blog MLM Mayhem! also talks about the intellectual pessimism of Adorno who said that the defeat of communism as a revolutionary movement seeking to change the world has rendered Marx’s call to move beyond interpretation and into the business of revolution obsolete. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics marks, according to Moufawad, “a flight back into the ivory towers of philosophy.”

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