Simon Clarke died in December 2022 at the age of 76.
Over a thirty year period, Clarke produced a stream of sophisticated analyses of topics that lie at the heart of the Marxist tradition. His work on the capitalist state breathed new life into what had become a dead-end debate. His writings on money were among the earliest and most compelling examples of so-called ‘value-form’ analysis in the English-language literature. His exhaustive knowledge of the histories of capitalism, economic policy, and social thought is obvious to anyone who picks up his books.
And yet Clarke is not widely recognized outside certain—mostly British—circles. I hope that changes, because his writings (most of which are freely accessible) denounce tired dogmas and strive to grasp capitalism by its roots. This is an important legacy. ‘The point may be to change the world’, Clarke once pointed out, but ‘it helps to understand it’.
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Clarke was born in London in 1946. He studied Economics at Cambridge in the mid-1960s, during the latter phase of the Cambridge Capital Controversy, before abandoning the discipline to pursue a PhD in Sociology at the University of Essex in 1968. His PhD thesis explored the thought of Claude Lévi-Strauss, supervised by the Aristotelean philosopher Alasdair Macintyre. Clarke joined the University of Warwick’s Sociology department in 1972, where he remained until his retirement in 2009.
He arrived at Warwick a year after the resignation of the historian E.P. Thompson, following the latter’s excoriating attack on the institution’s commercialization in the 1970 book Warwick University Ltd.1 Warwick had a reputation as a ‘business university’, in thrall to the West Midlands car industry. Nevertheless, Warwick was a prominent focus for the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) during its origins in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Clarke was a founding member of the CSE, which gathered radical economists who sought to overcome left sectarianism and develop a Marxism adequate to the events of the time, which included the failure of the Labour governments to advance towards socialism, the waning of postwar growth, European integration, and the growing militancy of shop stewards, anti-war activists, student radicals, and women’s movements.
During the 1970s, the CSE witnessed an influx of non-economists who wished to move beyond discussions over whether Marx’s thought ‘could be reformulated in terms of….general equilibrium theory’, which Clarke argued had dominated early CSE debates.2 Instead, this growing tendency within the CSE began to rethink Marx’s concept of value as a more-than-economic category—that is, as a social process constituted by ‘the concrete activities of men and women engaged in social life’ that takes the mystified form of the ‘quantitative determination of economic magnitudes’.3 It was this strand of CSE theorizing that would later be associated with the label ‘Open Marxism’, with Clarke as one of its leading voices.
The diversity of Clarke’s scholarly output is striking, including studies of the political economy of South African apartheid, Japanese value theory, and Vietnamese trade unionism. Probably the greatest number of Clarke’s publications are on the topic of post-Soviet Russia. During the 1990s, Clarke and other Warwick colleagues forged links with a network of Russian scholars to explore the impact of the collapse of Communism on households, industrial enterprises, and labour organizations—resulting in 18 books and 55 journal articles.
However, Clarke’s most important works of social theory and history were those penned in the 1980s and early 1990s that interrogated the concepts of money, the state, and crisis through a unique interpretation of Marx. In addition to many articles on these topics, Clarke authored several books that ought to be considered classics of critical Marxist scholarship.
The rise and fall of Political Economy
Clarke’s major works take the form of sweeping yet intricate studies of intellectual history that at every turn ground the evolution of social thought in the material history of capitalism’s struggle-ridden development. This approach was first displayed in his 1981 book Foundations of Structuralism, which built upon his PhD thesis.4 Ostensibly a study of Strauss’s structuralism, Clarke expands his focus to critique a diverse array of intellectual tendencies from Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism to Noam Chomsky’s linguistics—all rooted in an analysis of the crisis of France’s Third Republic.
His next book perfected this technique. First published in 1982, with a revised edition in 1991, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology is a masterful exploration of liberal thought.5 Against the background of the rise of capitalism in Europe, Clarke argues that political economy sought to discover the basis on which the different social classes, bearing different forms of property and income, could be brought into harmonious relations with one another under an appropriate constitutional order.
Adam Smith was the best exponent of this naturalistic approach, but Smithian orthodoxy was shaken by industrialization and the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s—developments that raised contentious questions about the distribution of economic surpluses among the contending classes. Clarke argues that David Ricardo recognized the inability of Smith’s deeply incoherent economic theory to address these problems, and thus tried to set political economy on more rigorous foundations. Yet Ricardo’s solution—to construct a systematic theory of wages, rents, and profits as derivative from the value produced by labour—unintentionally became a rhetorical weapon wielded by ‘Ricardian socialists’ to condemn capitalist theft.
Ricardo’s labour theory of value was thus abandoned because of its unpalatable implications by mid-century economic scholars, who fell back on the muddled thinking of what Marx would call ‘vulgar’ political economy. The inability of these vulgarisers to scientifically defend free market capitalism opened the door to reformist variants of liberalism—such as the German Historical School—which called for regulations to temper capitalism’s worst ravages. The material force behind such calls for reform in the late 1800s was the growing power of Europe’s working class. The marginalist revolution, Clarke points out, erupted at just this conjuncture.
The pioneers of this intellectual revolution sought to rid liberal economic thought of its preoccupation with questions of social class and the development of the forces of production, instead focussing on the rational individual allocating scarce resources, divorced from any definite class relations. Marginalists constructed wildly unrealistic assumptions and abstracted from all historical context so as to make possible the mathematical modelling of market behaviour. Yet while demonstrating that marginalism’s insistence on the rationality of market exchange ignored the irrationality of capitalist social relations of production, Clarke refuses to condemn marginalism as ‘purely apologetic ideology’.6 Instead, Clarke claims that marginalism sought to provide a scientific basis on which to evaluate proposed reforms of the market system, such as plans to break up turn-of-the-century industrial monopolies. The unrealism of marginalist models was precisely the point: ‘insofar as the real world does not accord with the abstractions of marginalism it is not the economic theory that is in error, but the real world that is in need of reform’.7
Alongside this new, pure economics, Max Weber constructed his sociology as an ‘autonomous and complementary discipline’, designed to explore social phenomena that could not be explained by marginalism’s narrow methods.8 The fragmentation of holistic political economy into today’s separate social sciences was complete.
Despite its evolution from classical political economy to marginalist economics and beyond, Clarke insists that liberalism in all of its guises misrecognises the unique characteristics of capitalist society as transhistorical expressions of Nature and/or Reason. Clarke presents Marx’s theory of alienated labour as an alternative to this tradition. Marx developed a mode of social enquiry that grasps capitalism as a historically transient way of organizing people’s collective labour practices that merely appears as a system of natural economic laws. This methodological point would be a continuing theme throughout Clarke’s work.
The state and class struggle
In 1988, Clarke followed this book with a mammoth study of economic governance: Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State. Despite the narrow focus of its title, this piece is nothing less than an attempt to provide an integrated intellectual and material history of the rise of capitalism, the development of the modern British state, and the evolution of economic thought.
The book begins by exploring the theory and practice of eighteenth-century mercantilism, and its critique by the liberal monetary theories of Smith and David Hume. Next, Clarke narrates the British state’s gradual reform in the nineteenth century from an instrument of aristocratic rule to a liberal, bureaucratic apparatus. This political history is embedded in a retelling of the early development of capitalism, as it oscillated between boom and bust, generating a growing wave of working class agitation. The narrative then turns to the period of social reform and imperialism that followed the depression of the 1870s, which ends with the outbreak of world war and economic calamity from 1914 to 1945.
Finally, more than 200 pages in, the analysis turns to the titular theme of Keynesianism. The reader is led through the complicated disputes around money, credit, and investment between John Maynard Keynes and (neo)liberals of various stripes. All the while, Clarke reconstructs in painstaking fashion the evolution of postwar British economic policy from the expansion of the welfare state to banking reform to money supply targeting. These transformations are set against the background of the postwar boom’s descent into global crisis. This whirlwind of conceptual and historical detail ends with a discussion of the eventual defeat of Keynesian governance and the victory of Thatcherite monetarism.
Throughout this winding narrative there runs a central theme. By destroying pre-modern social relations, capitalism conjures a new subject: the dispossessed, the proletariat. This class is at once the source of capital accumulation and, as it is forged into a politicized social movement in capitalism’s slums and satanic mills, the chief barrier to the smooth reproduction of capitalist society. To maintain order, the liberal state strives to contain proletarian struggles within safe institutional forms. The struggle over production is channelled into legalistic ‘industrial relations’; the struggle for a dignified existence is neutralized by ‘social administration’, which provides measly relief for the poor; and ‘electoral representation’ confines workers’ aspirations within the sanitized procedures of parliamentarianism.
Yet repeated crises of overaccumulation mean that the true domestication of the working class is impossible. When crises strike, class antagonism ‘overflows the institutional forms provided for it’, threatening to violate the sanctity of property and exchange.9 For this reason, political elites cycle through an ever-growing list of liberal ideologies, from laissez-faire to Keynesianism to monetarism, in an attempt to discover a new formula that can stop the wheels from flying off.
Indeed, Clarke warns against overstating the causal power of economic theory. Economic doctrines ‘serve more to legitimate than to guide political practice’—they lend coherence to policies that are simply haphazard attempts to keep the capitalist show on the road.10
In Keynesianism, Clarke had relied on an overproduction theory of crisis. Yet he later admitted that while he had understood this to be Marx’s own theory, he ‘could not find [it] developed systematically either in Marx or in the Marxist tradition’.11 This led Clarke to write his 1994 book Marx’s Theory of Crisis, which still stands as the best survey of Marx’s writings on crisis—carefully tracing the development of Marx’s thought through his published work, notebooks, and correspondence from the 1840s to the 1870s.
Bourgeois economics dismisses the repeated crises inherent to capitalism as the result of mere contingencies. For the neoclassicals, crises are caused by ‘external shocks’, while Keynesians point to the ‘inadequacy of institutional arrangements and policy responses’. It is as if, Clarke writes, ‘a scientist were to deny that the recurrence of the seasons was a natural phenomenon, attributing the return of spring each year to the whim of a supernatural force’. It is Marxism’s insistence on the necessity of crisis that sets it apart from such ‘nonsense’. 12
And yet Clarke argues that Marxists thus far have failed to provide a satisfactory account of crisis. His study begins by exploring the politically charged debates over the status of Marx’s crisis theory that erupted after Marx’s death. This includes an analysis of Engels’ theory of cyclical overproduction, Kautsky’s writings on capitalist collapse, Rudolf Hilferding’s disproportionality approach, Rosa Luxemburg’s underconsumptionism, and the ideas of various advocates of the falling rate of profit theory, including Henryk Grossman and Paul Mattick.
Clarke discusses the unique strengths and weaknesses of each theory, but insists that they are united by a shared inability to provide an account of crisis that integrates the competitive market relations between capitalists with the exploitative class relations between capital and labour. Thinkers like Kautsky and Luxemburg put forward plausible descriptions of the mechanics of economic meltdowns, yet they rooted their explanations in bourgeois notions of the anarchy of market competition; while Grossman and others focussed squarely on the dynamics of surplus value production but were unable to show how falling profitability was related to an abrupt crash.
The failures of Marxism lead Clarke to return to the master. However, Marx’s writings on crisis are also judged to be ‘fragmentary and confused’, with Marx’s thinking shifting repeatedly in response to the economic meltdowns and political struggles of his era.13 Indeed, Marx relied upon different explanations of crisis at different moments: disproportionalities between branches of production, underconsumption, and falling profitability caused by labour-saving innovations. Marx’s discussion also alternates between describing capitalism’s cyclical crisis tendencies and its long-term developmental tendencies in ways that are not always immediately clear. Clarke meticulously reconstructs these scattered writings, pointing to inconsistencies and unifying themes in Marx’s thought.
The only conclusion that can be drawn, Clarke insists, is that ‘Marx did not have a theory of crisis’—at least not in the sense of a general cataclysm that will provoke the revolution.14 Instead, Marx understood crises as necessary moments in the normal operation of capitalism. The subordination of the production of things to the production of profit forces capitalists to continuously expand their output. The result is both disproportions between leading and laggard branches of industry and the repeated inability of the population to consume all of this output. In the long run, such crises are made potentially worse by the continual automation of production, which not only tends to reduce the profit rate, but contributes to the monopolization of capital and the creation of a growing workless population.
Marx’s is a theory not of collapse but of ‘the permanent instability of social existence under capitalism’.15
The critique of social forms
If Clarke’s only achievement was his reconstruction of intellectual and social history, his legacy as an insightful thinker would be secure. Yet underpinning (sometimes implicitly) his historical works is a novel and powerful interpretation of Marx’s project that should serve as the basis for a renewed critique of capitalism today.16
From Clarke’s earliest writings, he rejected all forms of structuralism and ahistoricism. He was just as opposed to orthodox Marxism as to liberalism, both of which accept at face value the superficial appearance of the world as divided into distinct and eternal levels of social reality—political, economic, and ideological.
For Clarke, these seemingly independent spheres are merely the forms assumed by capitalist social relations:
The citizen, commodity owner, and conscious subject are not three different people. … The wage labourer does not establish three different relationships with the capitalist, but a single relationship in which the worker, as citizen, freely chooses, as commodity owner, to sell her labour power to the capitalist and thereby submit herself, as a conscious subject, to the capitalist’s will.17
The point is not to naively accept the different forms in which capitalism appears to the naked eye, but to discover their common origin: social relations between people at a particular point in history.
This approach is clear in Clarke’s discussions of money. Against reformist claims that money is a neutral instrument that can be wielded for emancipatory purposes, Clarke insists that money is the perverted form that human socialization takes under capitalism. Money is the social glue that binds together the private producers and consumers of capitalist society into a (mal)functioning, crisis-ridden whole. Money is not an independent thing but a form of unjust social relations.
In this theoretical endeavour, Clarke drew on thinkers such as I.I. Rubin, Hans-Georg Backhaus, and Diane Elson. Yet he also pushed their insights further, alongside fellow Open Marxists such as John Holloway and Werner Bonefeld, by applying this ‘social form’ approach to the theory of the state.
For Clarke, the state is not capitalist simply because it has been infiltrated by the bourgeoisie. Instead, the very fact that the modern state takes the form of an independent political institution separate from the economy defines it as capitalist (and liberal). Echoing Ellen Meiksins Wood, Clarke argues that capitalism is unique in that economic life is organized by the competitive, depoliticized impulses of the market, rather than by physical force or political custom. Political content is gradually drained from economic interactions and concentrated in a distinct body—the state—that wields violence to secure ‘the rule of law and of money’.18
The state need not be captured by capitalists to nevertheless govern in their interests. The very fact that its revenues and legitimacy depend upon the growth of capital within its territory forces policy-makers to attempt to remove barriers to capital accumulation. The state is not an empty vessel that can be filled by leftist or rightist ideology. It is the political form of capitalist social relations—as much a core feature of capitalism as the private enterprise.
Yet capitalism’s various social forms are more than just functional parts of an unassailable monster. They are also the object of struggle. Money can never be reduced to a pure embodiment of capitalist power—the proletariat warps and devalues money through its inflationary demands upon the state to meet social needs. The strict separation of politics and economy is also always incomplete, as proletarians fight to politicise the production and distribution of goods and subject them to democratic control.
Clarke insisted that such struggles gesture, however imperfectly, towards a better future. If hope lies anywhere, it is the dismantling of capitalism’s alienated social forms through the self-organization of the dispossessed:
not only organisations such as trade unions…but also organisations of tenants, of young workers, of black and migrant workers, of women workers, so that the divisions within the working class and the fragmentation of working-class experience can be broken down through the development of a united movement.19
Beyond the obstacles of money and the state exists the potential for a liberated form of life, in which ‘the labourers have recovered their free time from capital’ and are ‘transformed into a different subject, free to discover the creative powers of their labour’.20
Jack Copley is an Assistant Professor in International Political Economy at Durham University, UK. He is the author of Governing Financialization (2022, Oxford University Press).
1 E P Thompson, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities (London: Penguin, 1970).
2 Simon Clarke, ‘The Value of Value’, Capital and Class 10 (1979), 2.
3 Clarke, ‘The Value of Value’, 4.
4 Simon Clarke, The Foundations of Structuralism: A Critique of Lévi-Strauss and the Structuralist Movement (New York: Harvester, 1981).
5 Simon Clarke, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology: From Adam Smith to Max Weber (London: Macmillan, 1991).
6 Clarke, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, 141.
7 Clarke, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, 159.
8 Clarke, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, 207.
9 Simon Clarke, Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1988), 142.
10 Clarke, Keynesianism, 1.
11 Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis (London: Macmillan, 1994), 10.
12 Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis, 5–6.
13 Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis, 11.
14 Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis, 191.
15 Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis, 192.
16 A central motivation for writing the second edition of Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, Clarke wrote in the Preface, was that readers of the first edition had ‘missed the distinctiveness of the interpretation of Marx’. Clarke, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, viii.
17 Simon Clarke, ‘The State Debate’, in Simon Clarke, ed, The State Debate (London: Macmillan, 1991), 33–4.
18 Simon Clarke Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1988), 127.
19 Simon Clarke, ‘State, Class Struggle, and the Reproduction of Capital’ in Simon Clarke, ed, The State Debate (London: Macmillan, 1991), 180–81.
20 Simon Clarke, ‘The Labour Debate’ in Michael Neary and Ana C. Dinerstein, eds, The Labour Debate (Aldershot: Ashgate), 60.