Derrida’s Spectres of Marx is a frustrating book. For someone capable of such careful readings, Derrida’s references to Marx are remarkably sloppy, and, as with a lot of his later work, the obsessively spiraling style appears hollow rather than beguiling (it’s not as bad as The Politics of Friendship, but what is). But the central theme of the text is undeniably interesting. Derrida identifies in Marx an uneasiness with his (Marx’s) own analysis, with Marx constantly discovering the spectral nature of capitalism, which he continuously seeks to deny or deflect with a focus on life as a material positivity.
It would be pointless to deny that Marx is sometimes vitalist, although this is not a simple organicist praise of life as vital spirit. Rather, Marx connects life with productive potential, first of all in the figure of “living labor,” but in more depth in Marx’s description of the fundamentally excessive nature of the proletariat, the surplus population necessarily produced by capitalism. In Capital, the descriptions of overpopulation evoke compression and pressure, a pressure that the capitalist authorities quoted inevitably figure in terms of a danger that is equally biological, moral, and political.