U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marx, Property, Capitalism, Violence: Further Reflections

Let’s say that one found oneself in the position of writing a proposal for a conference session on property, capitalism, and violence and the Marxist tradition. (This is, in fact, a situation I find myself in. I concede that it is probably not––in the language of our day––especially “relatable”? But who knows? These are strange times).

How would one start?

Perhaps the most sensible place would be with a brief meditation on some key differences between Karl Marx and Max Weber on the nature of the connection between property, capitalism, and violence. Marx, we recall, was an advocate of a proletarian revolution in both epistemology and politics; and Weber, of course, was a thoroughly bourgeois thinker who helped sociology mature into a state-approved academic discipline. According to every conventional metric, we should always expect to find––whatever the given issue––Marx somewhere to Weber’s left. And yet it seems irrefutable that, compared as anatomists of the inter-entanglement of property, capitalism, and violence, Marx comes out looking less radical than Weber .

Does not Weber’s famous formula of the liberal state as a “monopoly on the legitimate means of violence” foreground domination and force as preconditions of political life in a manner more assertive than any comparable Marxist arithmetic equation? With Weber’s formula in hand, we can proceed easily to an analysis of the post-Westphalian state as a creature born of the suppression of a certain originary violence, displaced and rechanneled into the regime of possessive individualism; a regime that bears unmistakable traces and stains of its brutal conditions of emergence. (The same might be said of Thomas Hobbes, who articulated an earlier version of the “monopoly on the means of legitimate violence” state formula in his discussion of the original pact, the collective agreement to delegate the instruments of violence to the state, which thereafter operates under the aegis of the “Sword Publique”). Weber seems to provide us with the necessary resources to sort out how it is that capitalist property law at once self-fashions as a banal matrix of buying and selling and yet, at the same time, grounds itself in the strikingly aggressive and bare-fanged “Right to Exclude Others.”

To push the point further, we might remind ourselves that certain Marxist premises in regard to property and law have worked to de-emphasize the violence inherent in liberal property relations. To cite one example, the notion of “primitive accumulation”––which emphasizes the violence and terror of Early Modern peasant dispossession and genocidal colonialism––sometimes functions to set up a temporal narrative of an earlier capitalism swathed in violence and the system under which we live, evolutionarily distant from the bloodiness of the post-Medieval period. To cite another, Marxist legal theory (one thinks of the pioneering work of Evgeny Pashukanis) has often understood the centrality of property talk in capitalist jurisprudence as a complicated ruse within the larger drama of legitimizing and naturalizing the employer-employee (and bourgeois/proletarian) distinction. That might even be true, in some sense, but such a reading of property relations wishes away the complex knots that bind every regime of private property to a constitutive violence that remains vitally present (if often discernible most clearly in phantasmagoric form) in every phase of capitalism’s history.

What I would like to do (and here we might posit a connection between these musings and last week’s brief meditation upon the notion of “social-property relations”) is to double back and reject the claim with which we flirted above: that it is Weber, not Marx, who provides us with the foundations for a radical analysis of the interconnections of property, violence, and capitalism. Without wishing to discount the value of Weber’s contribution, we remain convinced that historical materialism offers a more sophisticated and politically salient perspective on these linkages.

Substantiating this argument requires a careful consideration of the theological roots of the young Marx’s critique of property (particularly evident in Marx’s wrestling with the texts of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, intensely religious in character), the survival of this theological strain in Marx’s later critique of political economy (a point stressed by the Japanese Marxist Kojin Karatani) and the convergence of Marx’s mature theorization of property and capitalism and the orientation that would come to be called political theology: what Eric Santner helpfully describes as the study of ways in which the “reach of religious meanings and values” have extended into the sphere of political life, with the concomitant “investment of political institutions and actors with the trappings and charisma of sacred authority.”

Viewed as a critical political theology avant la lettre, Marx’s theorization of property, capitalism, and violence might also be productively regarded as an adumbration of the position later mapped out by the American philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen: the recognition that the relationship between property and sovereignty, ultimately, is one of identity. Property is sovereignty, and sovereignty is property: so argued Cohen (who did not care for Marx or Marxism), and so argued Marx (even if the theme was often submerged under other polemics and overshadowed by other claims).

If Marx consistently recognized that a certain violence always served as the connective tissue tying property to sovereignty (and, relatedly, stressed the modern capitalist state’s need for propertarian violence as a bulwark against transformative class struggles) then, I think, we might be able to recognize and appreciate certain key dimensions of the larger project of historical materialism that have remained, for many years, unduly hidden or neglected—dimensions that, I would argue, speak most directly to the crises of our extraordinarily violent times.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt,
    Interesting. I’m not sure I understand exactly how “political theology” helps with a Marxist analysis of the connections between property, violence, and capitalism, but that reflects on my lack of much familiarity with this line of thought, I think, more than on your post. The ‘property is sovereignty and vice-versa’ thesis depends in some crucial respects on how one is defining and using “sovereignty,” I would think.

    Work in leftish precincts of historical IR by Benno Teschke (and Alexander Anievas and Justin Rosenberg, to mention a couple of other names) might be of interest for Marxist-inflected perspectives on the connections between capitalism and the emergence of the so-called Westphalian state (or Westphalian state system). I’m more familiar with some of the non-Marxist work on state formation (e.g., H. Spruyt and Charles Tilly; Tilly’s definition of ‘sovereign’ states [which he calls ‘national’ states] has Weberian elements but adds other things). But it would take too long to go into all this and lead too far afield for a comment box.

  2. Thanks as always, Louis, for these comments. I hate to do this, but in this case it is actually the most sensible response: stay tuned! I hope that the political theology connection will become legible in the coming weeks!

Comments are closed.