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Genres of Capitalism, Part II


Continued from “Genres of Capitalism, Part I

The first part of these notes presented spiritualism, commercialism, and productivism as three ways of reading “capitalism,” which have formed, over time, into genres. This exercise proceeded from a slow-building impression that we don’t know precisely what we are talking about when we talk about “capitalism.” Or simply that the way we talk, read, and write about “capitalism” is not as helpful as it could be. Part I ended by noting that “capitalism” is sometimes read as an abbreviation and expansion of the related concept of “the mode of production.” Part II begins with an extended consideration of this phrase. It shows, first, how its centrality has been detrimental to critical political economy, and, second, just what sort of things “capitalism” can be seen to obscure.

In an ingenious essay for the London Review of Books, John Lanchester demonstrated the slipperiness of the common use of “capitalism” by quoting several passages from Marx, with the word “bourgeoisie” in the original text replaced by the word “capitalism.” The effect of this substitution was to highlight how capitalism is today ascribed a kind of agency that in the past would have been reserved for a class. “Capitalism” resembles “the bourgeoisie,” even as it represents “the capitalist mode of production” (the phrase with which Capital proper begins).

Certainly much could be said about this resemblance between the role of “capitalism” in the twentieth century and that of “the bourgeoisie” in the nineteenth, especially as it concerns the history of the novel. But it is the second signification, linking the notion of “capitalism” to that of “the mode of production,” that allows us to reconsider the relationship developing between “genre” and “capitalism,” by drawing our attention to the different levels of analysis to which these concepts refer.

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