From: Contemporary South Asia vol 14, no 3 Sept 2005

Review of Bad Marxism: Capitalism and Cultural Studies
by Lee Jarvis.

Although this book represents a more general theoretical engagement with cultural studies and global capitalism, much of John Hutnyk’s analysis contains direct significance for contemporary South Asian politics, particularly when contextualised internationally. The sections of Bad Marxism more explicitly relevant to this region are reviewed in greater detail below, although a brief overview of Hutnyk’s broader concerns will assist in locating this relevance. The dominant theme around which the structure of this book is organised concerns Hutnyk’s critical account of the (often limited) engagement of key cultural theorists with Marx’s ideas. Two related lines of critique are threaded together here. Firstly, Hutnyk criticises the myopic obsession with the absurd and the incongruous that characterises much theorising within contemporary cultural studies. The increasing marginalisation of Marx’s (global) political project behind, for example, James Clifford’s ‘fascination with spicy little details’ (p 42) or Jacques Derrida’s ‘new astonishment at time and technology’ (pp 63–64) is forcefully condemned throughout the book. Accompanying this derision of the ‘stunned contemplation’ (p 183) marking contemporary cultural analysis runs Hutnyk’s concurrent attack on the subsequent political paralysis within which leftist theorising has remained content to reside. For Hutnyk, the complicity of this ‘institutionalised quietism’ (p 12) to a world still ravaged by imperialism, plunder and war represents nothing less than a ‘pathetic giving up of the loser who thinks he or she still has some degree of credibility’ (p 193).

Having critiqued, then, a number of ‘bad Marxisms’ within which the transformative project of Marx’s writings have been lost, Hutnyk turns to the book’s second theme: the demand for a re-engagement with these questions of political prescription and action. He forcefully insists on a critical, open-ended and practical engagement with a Marxism capable of intervention and resistance. Emphasising the truly global dimensions and consequences of capitalist accumulation and exploitation, Hutnyk contextualises this demand with reference to the current geopolitical climate of South Asia.

Pouring scorn upon those for whom de-industrialisation in the ‘advanced West’ (p 136) has been equated too readily with globalisation and the end of proletarian internationalism, Hutnyk reconfirms the significance of Marxian analysis in understanding the continuation of imperialism and neo-colonial exploitation within the global South. Locating Asia as capital’s ‘flashpoint of extraction and exploitation’ (p 122) and, therefore, more accurately seen as the core rather than the periphery of the capitalist world-system, Hutnyk demands a new set of concepts capable of organising resistance to this global order of Empire. Stressing the need to link the struggles of rural insurgents in India and China with the global predicament of the anti-capitalist movement, he suggests the possibility of ‘a reconstituted proletarian internationalism’ (p 137) to pilot this much-needed opposition to imperialist aggression. That capitalism’s worst exploitations still blight those rural regions of South Asia and beyond, whether in the guise of free trade zones, gene-modified crop plantations or forced displacements from the construction of dams, requires increasingly more than content conceptualisation among avowedly leftist academics. Throughout this book, Hutnyk sustains his forceful yet eloquent demand for a resuscitation of the political and activist traditions of Marxism. Although his account of the paralysis marring contemporary cultural theorists is perhaps a little overstated, this book successfully articulates the ongoing need to read Marx in order to understand the structures of capitalist exploitation within South Asia and beyond, and, more importantly, for resisting those structures.

Lee Jarvis
University of Birmingham, UK

From: Contemporary South Asia vol 14, no 3 Sept 2005