Capitalist hell

Mike Macnair reviews: William Clare Roberts, Marx’s inferno: the political theory of capital, Princeton 2017, pp282, £21.40

Inspired by Dante?

There is an awful lot of ‘Marxology’ (writing about what Marx allegedly really said and why) out there. It still continues to be produced, in spite of Marx being repeatedly officially pronounced to be ‘old hat’ in one way or another, and no doubt there will be more for the man’s 200th birthday (May 5 2018).

Most of this is crap, but some of it, in contrast, is illuminating, even if it is debatable. For example, Jonathan Sperber’s 2013 Karl Marx: a nineteenth century life is poisoned by the mistaken belief that marginal-utility equilibrium theories ‘disproved’ older economic views (marginal utility theories, being inherently unfalsifiable, cannot possibly disprove anything); nonetheless Sperber is very illuminating on Marx in his 19th century political context.

William Clare Roberts’ book Marx’s inferno is similarly enlightening, even if its argument is perhaps problematic. The grand theme of the book is that volume I of Capital is to be read as an intervention in debates in the left of the 1830s-60s, and one structured by the literary device of following the form of Dante’s Inferno.

In that work Dante, guided by the Roman poet, Virgil, descends through the circles of a Hell, which is a roughly conical pit divided into terraces or ditches, each for a particular class of sin. The first circle is Limbo (virtuous non-Christians); the next four circles are for those affected by lust, gluttony, greed and anger. The sixth circle, the City of Dis, houses heretics; the seventh is for the violent; the eighth for fraudsters, subdivided into 10 sub-classes; the ninth, a frozen lake, for traitors, with Satan as a giant at its centre.

The Inferno is, in fact, the first of the three parts of Dante’s Divina commedia (commedia meaning here merely a non-tragedy). In the second part, Purgatorio, Dante ascends an antipodean mountain, Purgatory, which also has nine levels where the repentant soul is purged of sins, mainly corresponding to the ‘seven deadly sins’: in order, pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. From the summit of Purgatory, he ascends through the nine celestial spheres of Paradiso: the moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the ‘fixed stars’, the primum mobile, which are populated by groups of the dead, grouped in relation to the four cardinal and three theological virtues, each level getting closer to god.

For those of us who do not read medieval Italian and are therefore dependent on translations, the Inferno is much the most readable of the three - both for its grotesque horrors and for its satire. Hence it is also the part of the Commedia which has been most adapted, and so on, in modern culture.1 Hence it would not be particularly surprising that Marx should construct his structure round the Inferno only, as Roberts’ argument supposes.


Roberts’ reading of Marx’s appropriation of the Inferno is rather simpler than Dante’s structure. He divides Hell into four parts (p27). The first part, ‘upper hell’, covers sins of incontinence: circles 1-5 (actually 2-5), Inferno cantos 4-8. The corresponding Marx is ‘Commodities, exchange and money’ in Capital chapters 1-3. The second part is ‘Dis’ covering sins of violence: circles 6 and 7, cantos 9-17 (the heretics have gone missing). In Capital this is capital and exploitation, chapters 4-11. The third is Malebolge: circle 8, cantos 18-30. In Marx it is the capitalist mode of production and accumulation (chapters 12-25). The fourth is Cocytus (sins of treachery), circle 9 and cantos 31-34. In Capital this corresponds to the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ in chapters 26-33.

There is no doubt that there are allusions to the Inferno in Capital volume 1. That said, there are a great many literary allusions in the book. The explanation of the structure of the book in terms of the Inferno depends in part on Roberts’ general claims about method, in part on his particular readings of the text through this method.

The discussion of method has three elements. The first is that Marx’s arguments must be read with and against the arguments of other theories in circulation among radical movements and especially in the First International (1864-71): Roberts lists Owenism, Fourierism, Saint-Simonianism, the ‘social republicanism’ of James Bronterre O’Brien, and Proudhon’s mutualism (p2).

The second is to read Capital ‘as political theory’, which is some respects another way of making the same point, but is also to read it together with republican and liberal theorists. It is, further, an argument against reading Capital volume 1 through Hegel’s Logic (pp10-12) - and equally against reading it through and against the ‘classical political economists’ (pp12-14).

The third element is the claim that Roberts is writing about Capital volume 1 only, and not about Marx’s writings as a whole. He discards both Marx’s writings on related topics before Capital volume 1, the drafts Marx left of what became Capital volumes 2 and 3, the Theories of surplus value, and the unpublished correspondence. He does so on the basis that Capital volume 1 is, unlike these other elements, a finished published work.

I make one point here which has been partially made by other reviewers. Roberts is right in principle that a published author, not writing with a view to censorship, should be taken to have intended to write what is published and not the rejected drafts he discarded or left unpublished. But there is, in fact, a contradiction between Roberts’ second and third methodological claims. We can legitimately read Marx as political theory and against Proudhonism and other such trends, because we know that Marx was a political actor engaged immediately with these other trends. We know this because of Marx’s unpublished correspondence with other political actors, published statements and minutes of the First International’s bodies, and so on; and in relation to Proudhonism in particular, because The poverty of philosophy and the Grundrisse also show us Marx engaged polemically with Proudhon’s economics. Without the unpublished drafts and correspondence, it would be obvious that the right method for reading Capital volume 1 would be ‘through’ Hegel’s Logic (very visible in parts of the book) and ‘against’ the ‘classical’ and ‘vulgar’ 19th century political economists, who are explicitly engaged at several points of the book.

Andy Seal has suggested that at work is Roberts’ commitment to the disciplinary methods of work of political theorists, focused on ‘great books’ even when they attempt to textualise these, as opposed to the ‘archivalism’ of historians of ideas - or, I might add, of political historians, or of Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s theory of revolution (which Roberts discards in a footnote on p6 as uninformative, on the ground that it only tells us what Marx (and Engels) said about other authors).2


Chapter 2, ‘Taenarus’ (the entry to Hell), makes Roberts’ general case that Marx may have modelled the structure of Capital volume 1 on the Inferno. The argument begins with the proposition that Marx thought that the existing left oversimplified the ‘problem of capitalism’, so that he needed a structure which would force and present the descent into the depths as the key to understanding the surface, and Dante could do so. Further, he argues, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte uses a literary model from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the exposure of the French bourgeoisie as the assassin of the revolution; this makes the Inferno as a literary model more plausible. Moreover, the idea of capitalist modernity as a kind of hell was already present in Fourier and other French lefts of the 1830s-40s, and elaborated by Proudhon; Marx’s scheme is precisely addressed to Proudhon’s version of political economy. Like Dante descending into Hell to escape from it, the workers’ movement must descend into the capitalist depths to understand it.

Chapter 3 is ‘Styx: the anarchy of the market’ (Styx is the river of the underworld which in Dante largely occupies the fifth circle). This part of Capital volume 1 is interpreted by Roberts as involving a loss of self-control and inability to plan for the future; thus mapping onto the sins of incontinence in Dante. The starting point, he argues, is civic republicanism and Christian moralism, which were intermingled in early socialist writing. The idea involved being subject to an arbitrary power as tending to corrupt the ability of the subordinate to be virtuous, producing akrasia - a persistent tendency to act against one’s better judgment; and also in circulation was the idea of money and finance as ‘mysteries’, which concealed real decision-making. Marx’s argument in the early chapters of Capital is directed, Roberts argues, against all forms of socialism which imagine that ‘true’ values could be found in the absence of the money mechanism or through some form of reformed money mechanism. Roberts takes this a step further to argue for ‘impersonal domination’ along the lines of Moishe Postone’s Time, labour and social domination; the result is universal akrasia and domination by economic laws working behind our backs. But Postone (Lukács and other Lukácsians) fail to grasp that the domination of the impersonal other is itself objectionable for its impact on the decision-making capabilities of the actor.

The result of the chapter is that

Instead of containing only highly abstract (and perhaps wrongheaded) economics, or neo-Hegelian conceptual mastication, these chapters compose the beginnings of a critical political theory of capitalism. They contain, not a theory of price, but an account of the structure of human relations in a commercial society (p102).

The problem of this line of argument is the same as that of all lines of argument which attempt to dodge the supposed ‘wrongheadedness’ of Marx’s ‘economics’. The moral critique of capitalism as producing dependence on impersonal force and akrasia is totally irrelevant if the laws of the capitalist economy identified by the political economists were really natural laws, existing under the surface of antiquity and feudalism and only discovered in capitalism, so that there was no practicable alternative to capitalist order for a modern society.3 The idea that one can make moral critiques without empirical claims is thus revealed as an illusion.

Chapter 4 - ‘Dis: capitalist exploitation as force contrary to nature’ - argues that Marx in part ii of Capital volume 1 is concerned with redesigning the concepts of the role of force in capitalist society, and of exploitation, which already existed in radical thought, starting with Owen’s talk of force and fraud, and with the Saint-Simonian school and later Proudhon developing the idea of ‘exploitation’ - in both cases starting with ground rent. Marx, Roberts argues, focuses on exploitation in the factory and in relation to the working day and work-rates; he depersonalises it; and he emphasises its tendency to revolutionise machinery and technique. This is ‘force against nature’ because capital has an unlimited appetite for work and time, and because dead labour (machine) tyrannises over living labour (human workers): “Overwork and meaningless work are the rule and tendency of capitalist production ...” (p142).

Chapter 5 is ‘Malebolge: the capitalist mode of production as fraud’. Roberts asks where there is to be fraud, given that Marx supposes labour-power to be purchased at its value. “The sine qua non of fraud,” Roberts says, “is a certain discrepancy between appearances and reality, seeming and being” (p147). Without being conscious of it, Roberts here follows the mid-19th century English common lawyers who borrowed a narrow definition of fraud from the Roman republican jurist, Gaius Aquilius Gallus, reported by Cicero in his On duties, in preference to the broader definition which had been used later in Roman law and earlier in common law.4 By doing so, he sets up an unusual difficulty in finding fraud in capitalism.

The fraud Roberts finds is the false promises of abundance: “… the capitalist mode of production betrays its promise of wealth and leisure by its subordination of the worker to an organisation of work that cannot but be despotic.” The issue again involves engagement with Proudhon, who imagines that one can have the free exchanges of the capitalist market without the tendency to concentration and domination in the factory.

Chapter 6 - ‘Cocytus: treachery and the necessity of expropriation’ - addresses the last eight chapters of Capital volume 1 on ‘primitive accumulation’. Why are they there? Roberts argues that ‘primitive accumulation’ occurs through the betrayal of their subordinates and their own feudal and public duties by the landlord class and public officials in the 16th century, followed by a betrayal of their benefactors by capitalist farmers and industrialists in the 18th. The state now emerges as a dependent agent of capital. The result is that independent producers and cooperatives cannot resist; and that colonisation projects intended to restore the independent producers are replaced by schemes which artificially raise the price of land in order to force the existence of a proletariat (Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s policy for South Australia and New Zealand). There is no way out without confronting the question of the state.

Chapter 7 is the conclusion: ‘Purgatory, or the social republic’. GA Cohen argued that Marx wrongly failed to offer an alternative social design, due to the “obstetric conception” of the material conditions of socialism growing in the womb of capitalism. Roberts argues that Marx said more about the future than Cohen admits. Rather than full equality, he aims merely for the emancipation of the working class and its association in cooperatives and between cooperatives through a regime of the type of the Paris Commune. Roberts argues that the workers’ party cannot come to power unless the working class has come to share these aims. The approach is, he argues, derived from Owen - and is a form of civic republicanism: the aim of freedom from domination.

I have offered here chiefly a summary of Roberts’ argument, with fairly limited criticisms. I have taken this approach because I think that the argument is, in fact, illuminating. How far so is variable in the individual parts - the idea that Capital is largely engaged with Proudhon is not new. I would be quite cautious about chapter 3’s and chapter 4’s “impersonal domination”, and the reason is rather fundamental: it seems to me that the earlier part of Capital volume 1 is largely a counterfactual description of what capitalism would be if left-Ricardian, Proudhonist, etc, reforms were introduced. On the other hand, I find the idea in chapter 6 that the account of ‘primitive accumulation’ exposes the need of capital for the state, and the failures of ‘exit’ strategies, very helpful and one which reconnects to Marx’s actual political interventions.

The schema as a whole is thus helpful in making sense of this part of Capital. Certainly worth reading.


1. A convenient but incomplete list is at


3. See, for example, Nicholas Vrousalis’s review of Roberts in a forthcoming issue of Capital and Class: This relies on David Schweickart’s critique of Albert’s and Hahnel’s ‘Parecon’ (

4. M Macnair, ‘Sham: early uses and related and unrelated doctrines’ in E Simpson and M Stewart (eds) Sham transactions Oxford 2013, pp47-48.