William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, Princeton University Press, 2018, £19.95, 9780691172903
Reviewed by Sean Sheehan
Marx’s Inferno is an interpretation of Volume One of Marx’s Capital based on the idea that Dante’s Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, was appropriated by Marx as a literary framework. The argument is that he rewrites the Inferno as a descent into the social Hell of the capitalist mode of production. The argument is an intriguing and appealing one and the author William Clare Roberts marshals evidence to support his contention. It certainly carries an authentic poetic truth given that we are living witnesses to the social perdition currently being experienced by ordinary, hardworking people. Dante believed Hell’s punishments were proper remuneration for earthly sins; Tory theology considers austerity as a necessary measure to sustain the economic system without unduly hurting those who profit most from it.
The second main argument of Marx’s Inferno is that Capital is a critical response to other versions of socialist radicalism in Britain and France during the 1860s and 1870s. This is where the book tends to get side lined with academic arguments about the work of William Thomson, Robert Owen and the anarchist, Joseph Proudhon. A virtue and value of Marx’s Inferno for non-specialist readers is that page references are to the Penguin edition of Capital Volume 1. Reading Capital is a daunting task without the help of a commentary but, by following up references of Roberts to particular sections and paragraphs, a sign posted way in to reading Marx’s magnum opus is provided.
Capital, as borne out by current events, is incapable of self-control. There is a discipline to the market but it is one that champions the rule of commodities – material and virtual ones – and a world where people have to sell their labour power to the owners of the means of production for a wage. By appropriating Dante’s Inferno, the sins of individuals are transformed into the system of capital that dominates people’s lives. Marx’s Inferno is a rewarding but not an easy read. At times, too much space is devoted to bickering with other commentators on Marx and the prose is generally dry and humourless. Along the way, though, there is plenty to get your theoretical teeth into; just be sure to also have a copy of Capital Volume 1 as a companion volume.
Sean Sheehan is author of ‘Žiżek: A Guide for the Perplexed’ (Continuum, 2012) and’ A Guide to Herodotus’ Histories’ (Bloomsbury, 2018).