Blog post

An interview with Jason Barker, director of Marx Reloaded

Huw Lemmey 7 February 2012

Marx Reloaded is a documentary on the political relevancy of the economic and political philosophy of Karl Marx in the light of the global financial crisis, featuring insight and interviews from such figures as Slavoj Zizek, Antonio Negri, Jacques Rancière and Peter Sloterdijk. As the film hits cinemas next week, we asked its director, Jason Barker, a few questions.

Marx Reloaded is your new film, in which you focus on the resurgence of interest in the political philosopher and his works. What were your intentions in making this film?

Quite modest in trying to respond to the "crisis of capitalism" while at the same time exploring the "idea of communism". I was determined to confront the "communism is great idea in theory, but impossible to implement in practice" cliché. The other aim was to explore the "reloading" of Marx. The title of the film seemed important. It's about a transformation and that's clearly what Badiou, Negri and Zizek have in mind for Marx, albeit with slightly different nuances. Is there such thing as Marx without Marxism? In this proto-communism of Badiou and Zizek? I take the point that Marx wasn't or didn't want to be a Marxist. Although, as Rancière points out somewhere, Marx was at least a member of his own party. Anyway, the attempt to try to reload or reimagine Marx as a thinker, without the usual totalitarian moralising, seemed long overdue.

Since the banking crisis we've seen the figure of Marx reappear within the popular and financial press- do you perceive as simply "looking for a new angle", or is it due to a more serious reappraisal of his ideas on the crises of capitalism?

Well, I imagine it's partly circulation grabbing and partly an attempt at appropriation. The bourgeois press has always loved to flirt with Marx. Time magazine loves him, don't they? He's become the philosopher of choice for the middle classes (he was voted the most popular philosopher in a BBC Radio 4 poll some years ago). Maybe I'm even contributing to the love affair with this film. Then again when Nouriel Roubini says "Marx was right" it seems like an unconscious effort to move against the full implications of his work. It's like a preemptive strike. "We know the Marx debate is coming so let's head it off". This brings us back to the cliché that I mentioned before. You always have this qualified endorsement where Marx's diagnoses of capitalism are validated whereas his "prescription" of communism is rubbished on the grounds that it's "utopian". John Gray adopted precisely this position in the film and repeated it in a Radio 4 series last year, arguing that Marx was right about capitalism but wrong about communism. It's a mistake because when Marx says "communism is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things" he is making it quite clear that communism is already at work within capitalism. However it's always the utopian cliché that people expect to hear and as far as I can see that's what the popular and financial press are providing them with.

Your film features a wealth of contemporary philosophers and thinkers- Slavoj Zizek, Antonio Negri, Nina Power and Michael Hardt to name but a few- all of whom produce books that are widely read by the general public. Zizek has even been the subject of a feature-length popular documentary, and is sometimes referred to as "the Elvis of cultural theory". Are we in the age of the popular Marxism, and if so, is this really helping popularise his ideas on political economy?

Are those you mention really so popular? I know Zizek is the Elvis of cultural theory but he isn't the Elvis of Las Vegas. Has he ever been to Las Vegas? I suspect if he ever went few there would recognise him. I don't consume enough popular media to know whether we're in the age of popular Marxism, nor am I sure what precise measure of popularity we're talking about here. Personally I respect Zizek as a theorist and don't much care about the wider reception of his work or how many films he's made - despite the fact that I've been trying to persuade him to accept a role in my new one! I'm too much of an old-fashioned Platonist to worry about the spectacle of consumption. If an idea has integrity then it'll find a way through the noise. I suppose if a wider public discovers Marx and Marxism through Zizek or, dare I say, Marx Reloaded then perhaps it might add something to debates in which Marx is more than simply the subject of polite, after-dinner conversation. But there is clearly more at stake with Marx than the "popularity" of his ideas.

In Marx Reloaded, philosopher Antonio Negri states that the "return of Marx" rests upon developing a practical critique of, and political militancy within, post-fordist workers and those engaged in "immaterial labour". Do you agree, or is this line becoming increasingly popular because it reflects the lived experience of academics and those with a self-declared interest in Marx? And if not, do you think Marx is actually necessary for this project?

Marxist social theory owes Negri a huge debt for his readings of the Grundrisse. I often think that if Negri's seminars at the Ecole normale (published as Marx Beyond Marx in 1991) had been given twenty years earlier then it would have sent Althusser in a completely different direction. Having said that the way in which his work evolved in the Empire trilogy I find less convincing, although of course it has propelled the Marx revivals. In the Grundrisse we already have Marx's analysis of two types of labour: abstract and concrete labour. Work is abstract in being relatively independent of the individual workers who produce commodities. And as Alberto Toscano puts it in Marx Reloaded, whether the work is "immaterial" or cognitive, or material or physical, seems less important than how that work is practically organized. As for whether immaterial labour reflects the real experience of academics, I don't think we need be so wary of people's motivations. I think it's possible to be a public intellectual while at the same time generating important and original research.

Does this current wave of interest in Marx really foreshadow a return of communism as a political force? Is communism a spectre that haunts the world, or is it rather just the spectre of Marx haunting the academies?

Again I don't see any contradiction here. The idea of communism conferences - which were billed as philosophical conferences - strike me as an important reference point. What I took away from them was the idea that political thinking today is again converging on precisely the type of social conditions in which Marx lived. This is the important discipline of political thinking that Badiou always highlights. Forget the faithful transmission of Marx's works. If Marx still has something to teach us then it's as a thinker who helps us to think those very conditions which take us back, not to 1968, but to 1848. Badiou isn't the only one who's mentioned the historical significance of 1848 recently. Hobsbawm has too. This is the revolution whose lessons we really need to grasp in light of what's been going on over the past year or so, from the Arab Spring to the occupy movements.

For more information on the film, please visit the official Marx Reloaded website.