the manifestist manifesto

•July 24, 2014 • 3 Comments


[Older poem combining my love of poetry with my love of manifestos. Photo near the great little Collected Works poetry bookshop, Swanson Street Melbourne.]

the manifestist manifesto

time to manifesto some more off your chest the walrus said


do the our clique is cooler than your clique cha cha

coz if humanity is warming to a new set of crossroads, why not rub the Herm there

we’ll be needing all the trickster traveller trader luck we can get

the small problem with survival or chaos is that they’re both unpoetic

the poetry of total mystical interdependence now bleedingly obvious to pre-schoolers

so why aren’t the walls halls malls full of meme-blowing subversive texts I ask

why is poetry still locked up in the tomb of the nortonbluedogjacketanthology

like you I don’t want answers so much as good questions so I don’t vote either

is verse the open parallel multi-uni-verse of synaptic petaflop

or the big bang of a blue moon dragonfly opening sun-diamond wings to cosmic wind

Descartes riding a reptile when he’s not a mammal

or say an umbrella over an estuary of singing sewing machines

yes it could all be verse, as the German Professor of the Great Turning said

meaning turn, dance & plough your word furrow down the page

turn to your partner heel & toe head over heel arse over tit

can we turn love leap plough dance our wild way through this together I wonder

turn up to levitate parliament house till they declare they’re poetic about survival

turn off the mines & plants of mass destruction by some well placed mantras

whisper whitmannerudarumieliotbashotufublakeshakepeare from the verdant rooftops

grow mushroom music in our basements, fish on our balconies, old in disgrace

make our own manifesto of contraband our ship will need as the seas sink upwards

then slyly manifest it sideways into streets, paper, light, what, ever

The Theology of Los Alamos, 16 July 1945

•July 20, 2014 • 1 Comment


[An older poem. Four days ago it was the 69th anniversary of the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos which subdivided human history in a new way: before and after nuclear energy, before and after potential self-annihilation and the end of the human experiment in the universe. Our memento mori is now the Bomb. Its suicidal destructiveness, vanished from the hectic daily news, has not gone away, is always there in the anxious depths of our unconsciousness. This self-created 'Other', like climate chaos, unfortunately has yet to fuse humanity into one human family consciously living within the limits of One Planet...]

The Theology of Los Alamos, 16 July 1945

Batter me now three-personed God
– John Donne

1. Theology 1

To prove a finer point maybe
in metaphysics, the first test
was referred to as Trinity.

Perhaps to hammer home
the ineffable mysteries of Thor,
we really are God playing God?

Other hypnotic hypotheses:
(a) there were three bombs
(b) Trinity was a nearby turquoise mine

under some old curse or other
and thus abandoned
by the local tribe.

2. Linguistics

The word bomb was always avoided.
The word gadget was used instead.

The main topic of conversation
among the scientists

was whether the gadget
would go off or not.

If it did, it would be: a boy
If a dud it would be: a girl.

Lovely Little Boy then dropped
from mother Enola Gay

to say hello
to Hiroshima.

3. Oscuro

Before the blast
the gadget was transported

from Site S to a desert area
known as Jornada del Muerto

(Death Tract) near the village
of Oscuro (Dark).

4. Last Question

Two days before the test
heavy thunderstorms and hail

hit the site. Before setting off
to the Death Tract, Hans Bethe

held a speech in the movie hall
that ended: ‘Human

calculation indicates
the experiment

must succeed. But
will Nature act

in conformity with
our calculations?’

5. Anapocalyptic

At the site they put on sunglasses
and lay down on their stomachs
with their heads turned away.

While they waited hardly
a word, their thoughts
not apocalyptic.

Most were trying to work out
how long it would be
before they could shift

their uncomfortable
positions and get
a view of the spectacle.

Fermi held scraps of paper
to gauge
the air pressure from the explosion.

Frisch focussed on memorizing everything
precisely without allowing excitement
or preconceptions to interfere.

Groves was wondering whether
he’d taken all the right measures
to evacuate in case of disaster.

Oppenheimer oscillated
between fears
of failure and success.

6. Theology 2

Like us all in Plato’s cave
no one saw the first flash

of the atomic fire itself
but only its reflection

in the stunned sky
and hills. Some then saw

a bright ball of flame
growing steadily larger.

A senior officer shouted:
‘Good God, I believe

the long-haired boys
have lost control!’

Carson Mark feared
the ball of fire

would never stop growing
till it destroyed the universe.

Oppenheimer’s mind
coughed up Krishna:

I am become Death,
the shatterer of worlds.

General Groves consoled
a tearful scientist

whose measuring
instruments had been smashed.

Fermi for the first
time in his life

let someone else
drive him home in his car.

The Lessons of 1914

•July 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

British gas casualties April 1918

[From a series of essays called 'The Many Deaths of Socialism'. Endnotes have been omitted. Picture of gassed British soldiers in 1918]

The Lessons of August 1914

This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. Given rising nationalism, xenophobia and militarism in many countries today, one may wonder if enough people have really learned from history. ‘Patriotism may be the last refuge of the (ruling) scoundrels’ but it still seems to work like a charm on most people when there is enough economic insecurity, hysteria, fear and demonization of people chosen as scapegoats. What can we learn from August 1914 for today?

Mass War Enthusiasm and the Collapse of Socialist Internationalism

Growing inter-imperialist rivalry and attendant increasing arms expenditures, militarism and bellicose imperial nationalism on the part of national ruling classes were key features of the European context in the lead-up to 1914. What is less well known is that in the decade before the outbreak of the First World War hundreds of thousands of working class people in Germany and elsewhere had participated in socialist anti-militarist rallies. In accordance with the principle of socialist internationalism, European socialist parties and trade unions had cooperated across national boundaries to diffuse ruling class foreign policy crises like the Fashoda conflict between England and France, the Morocco crisis between Germany and France, the Trieste crisis between Italy and Austria and the Swedish intention to invade Norway. The Stuttgart Resolution of the Socialist Second Internationale of August 1907 had even boldly declared:

“Wars are furthered by the people-to-people prejudices systematically inculcated in the interest of the ruling classes in order to thereby deflect the mass of the proletariat from its own class tasks and from the requirements of international solidarity.
Wars are thus inherent in capitalism; they will only cease when the capitalist economic order has been eliminated… […]

Thus the working class – which has to predominantly provide the soldiers and most of the material sacrifices – is a natural enemy of war; since war also stands in opposition to its own goal: the creation of an economic order based on socialism and which realises the international solidarity of all peoples.”

The same resolution further noted the duty of socialist parliamentarians to refuse to grant any state budgetary contributions to arms purchases, to help educate working class youth in the spirit of international fraternity and socialism, to use all means necessary to prevent the outbreak of a war or to work for the swift ending of one that has broken out and use the subsequent economic and political crisis to mobilise the people and thereby accelerate the elimination of capitalist class domination.

Again, a mere two years before the war and flanked by anti-war demonstrations throughout Europe numbering hundreds of thousands, the European Socialist Congress meeting in Basel ended with a manifesto that equally boldly declared:

“Governments ought not to forget – given the current state of Europe and the mood of the working class – that they cannot declare war without danger to themselves […] Proletarians feel it is a crime to shoot at each other for the benefit of capitalists’ profits, dynastic ambition or the high honour of secret diplomatic treaties.”

In August 1914, however, despite such internationalist propaganda and firm resolutions by their mass parties, all European working classes and their social-democrat mass parties at once, and in fact extremely enthusiastically, heeded their imperial masters’ calls and headed off for the trenches to slaughter the very fellow-proletarians against whom their own socialist representatives had previously sworn never again to wage war.

In the last days of July and the early days of August there were deliriously jingoistic crowd scenes, sometimes of hundreds of thousands of people all euphorically clamouring for war all over Europe, in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris and London. According to Modris Eksteins, there is even evidence that these scenes may have also ‘pushed the political and military leadership of Europe toward confrontation.’ Interestingly, the last significant anti-war rallies in Germany had been just days before, on July (The Berlin police commissioner in fact described the working class attendance at these social-democrat protest rallies as ‘extremely strong’ and explained the necessity of using firearms to prevent the crowds from entering the central business district.)

Only a few days later, confronted by the Russian mobilisation and the jingoistic crowds, the German Social Democratic Party – the by far largest political party in the Reichstag, the largest socialist organization in the world and the leader of the Socialist Internationale – fully accepted the nationalist war cause (of course, as usual, defined as a war for the ‘defence of the nation’ particularly against the usual demonic monster, this time of ‘barbaric Russian despotism’). On August 4th, the parliamentary party unanimously voted as a faction for the granting of the government’s request for the taking up of war loans. As president and future chancellor Friedrich Ebert explained to his party colleagues:

“We are showing that we are not unpatriotic folk [vaterlandslose Gesellen: literally ‘folk without country’, the derisive phrase used by the Kaiser to characterise the Social Democrats]. This is about the good of the whole nation. We must not abandon the Fatherland when it is in trouble. This is about protecting women and children […]”

Founding SPD-father August Bebel’s proud dictum about the SPD being a ‘pre-school for militarism’ had again been confirmed.

The popular enthusiasm for war, of course, did not last long. Mass disillusion and disgust and even mass strikes (e.g. in Germany) apparently started frequently appearing on the ‘home fronts’ after about 1916 and paved the way for the pan-European social radicalisation that was to follow.

At the western battle fronts themselves, however, despite some mutinies in the French army and increasing levels of insubordination elsewhere, ‘among British and German troops there was, with the exception of some relatively minor incidents, almost absolute loyalty to the very end’ as millions of soldiers, all initial notions of ‘adventure’ or ‘higher values’ gone, horror-hypnotised and numbed of all thought and feeling, doggedly continued to let themselves be led to slaughter, i.e. ‘do their duty’, ‘play the game’ and ‘comport themselves correctly’ in the usual patriotic spirit of ‘our country, right or wrong’. As lambs to slaughter, right to the bitter end.

German libertarian socialist and émigré economist Paul Mattick acidly summarises the self-defeat of the European working class movement in World War One and what it revealed about this movement:

“In the First World War the working class movement revealed itself to be a part of bourgeois society. Its different organisations in every nation proved that they had neither the intention nor the means of opposing capitalism and that they were mainly interested in securing their own existence within a capitalist social structure.”

On this reading, the European working class movement ‘secured its own existence within capitalism’ at the cost of not only symbolically, morally and organisationally destroying itself as a viable social alternative to capitalism, but also of literally destroying a great part of itself by colluding in the mass slaughter of millions. In slaughtering their fellow workers, they thus fell, hook line and sinker – despite years of socialist insights, conference resolutions and anti-militarist propaganda – for the classic ‘safety valve’ strategy that war has always had for the ruling classes:

“Hence the sense of joyous release that so often has accompanied the outbreak of war, when the daily chains were removed and the maimed and dead to come were still to be counted. […] Respect for property gave way to wanton destruction and robbery; sexual repression to officially encouraged rape; popular hatred for the ruling classes was cleverly diverted into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies.

In short, the oppressor and the oppressed, instead of fighting it out within the city, directed their aggression toward a common goal – an attack on a rival city. Thus the greater the tensions and the harsher the daily repressions of civilization, the more useful war became as a safety valve.” (Lewis Mumford)

One may wonder whether it would it be any different in our day and age if, within the context of increasing and multi-layered social and ecological crises, inter-imperial rivalries (e.g. between the US, China, India, Russia, Japan) again led national ruling elites to open the safety valve and call on their perennial war option. Have enough people learned from history?

Mug Shot

•July 9, 2014 • Leave a Comment

[Older poem about early childhood, and the first poem. Photo from world war two bombed out London, the 'milk of human kindness'....]

Mug Shot

Time to go to school
ding dong bell
Peter’s in the well

of reading, writing, rhythmic ticks
little round things that stick
in gold, red, blue for being good.

First ever invented sentence
carved into page with pencil:
‘I have a mug.’

The container of the milk
of human kindness
and/or mother.

Change a consonant
and a mum appears.
Backwards it’s sticky

and supports teeth.
No change, still a mouth.
Mum mouth. Mum’s the word.

A relationship
of having
a thing.

Have, not am
a mug,
I’ll have you know.

The thing and I,
both empty.
A life of poetry

starts here,
ends here,
mouth-mothering words

waiting to be filled
with fire with beauty
pouring from above.

Isaiah’s Red

•July 3, 2014 • 1 Comment

help poster Russia 1921 famine by Orlov
[Poem from 2009. Achtung, it's 'political'. The phrase 'That Art Thou' or 'Tat Twam Asi', is from the Bhagavad Ghita. Image is a poster by Orlov asking for help during the Russian famine of 1921. This one's also for Kristi visiting family in Kentucky.]

Isaiah’s Red

to be in this world
but not of it
is easier said than done

to realise: That
Art Thou

is easier said than done

almost half think torture
is OK if our boys do it
to theirs, Hiroshima
was, on balance,
necessary & some politician
is going to fix it

meanwhile Isaiah
has another glass
of that superb red,
Greenland melts
& children in China
breathe in the poisons
of our flash junk

so many good people

so many good people
stuck in the loving
savage nets
of kin & skin

so many good people

so much decency
so much

Mentor Marx 2

•June 26, 2014 • 3 Comments

Marx as Warhol
[Second part of my Marx piece. More literary/cultural dimensions...Also bit more memoir here. Translations again mainly my own.]

Mentor Marx, Part 2

Linked to this critical analysis of the roots of alienation and reification in commodity fetishism and the capital relationship is the cultural charm of Marx’ radically ‘modernist’ attitude. Although as much a part of the same post-romantic 1840s generation that founds artistic modernism as are Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wagner, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky or Whitman, Marx is seldom considered part of it despite seeming to incorporate Baudelaire’s defining injunction of ‘il faut être absolument moderne’ as much as the others .

Although implicitly (like many an anarchist) ‘romantically’ motivated by a sense of loss of personal autonomy still to be found in the pre-capitalist free peasant or artisan, Marx’ critique is not based on any romantic or reactionary hankering after any supposedly lost pre-capitalist ‘innocence’. He does not simply and abstractly reject or negate capitalism like contemporary religious fundamentalists, primitivists and anti-modernists. His whole thrust is radically dialectical, transcending modernity, not by totally rejecting it in a reactionary or ‘fundamentalist’ way, but by further developing its own internal contradictions, its necessarily blocked inherent potentials, hoping ‘to heal the wounds of modernity through a fuller and deeper modernity.’

Thus it is well known that the Communist Manifesto – perhaps ‘the first great modernist work of art’ (Morris Berman) ‒ is also an eloquent hymn to the ongoing capitalist construction of the world market.

150 years before any breathless theories of ‘globalisation’, ‘planned obsolescence’ or ‘future shock’, it is still, perhaps even increasingly, resonant for us later generations. It is indeed ‘a document which can be, has been, critiqued and argued with – even by its author – but which will be carried into any future that is bearable to contemplate’ (US poet Adrienne Rich). It, famously, actually welcomes capitalist ‘disenchantment’, the ‘revolutionary, demystifying and ‘civilising’ essence of industrial capitalism, its inherent survival need to incessantly develop technology, expand, subvert and destroy all ‘natural bonds’, all feudal and reactionary relationships and drag them kicking and screaming into the modern age and the total brutal rule of the cash nexus:

“The bourgeoisie, where it has come to dominate, has destroyed all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relationships. It has mercilessly torn apart all the colourful feudal bonds that linked people to their natural superiors and left no other social bond but that of naked self-interest, the emotionless cash nexus (…) It has dissolved personal dignity in exchange value (…) It has, in a word, replaced an exploitation veiled in religious and political illusions with an open, crass, direct, lean form of exploitation (…)

Only the bourgeoisie has proven what human activity can achieve. It has created quite other wonders than Egyptian pyramids, Roman aquifers and Gothic cathedrals (…) The bourgeoisie cannot exist without continuously revolutionising the instruments of production, thus the relations of production and thus all social relationships. (…) The continuous revolutionising of production, the never-ending shattering of all social conditions, eternal insecurity and movement – these characterise the epoch of the bourgeoisie in contrast to all other epochs. All stable, rusted relationships and their venerable views and beliefs are dissolved, all newly formed ones are obsolete before they can ossify. All caste relations and social stagnation melt in air, all things holy are profaned, and people are finally forced to look at their life conditions and relationships in a sober, unblinkered way.”

And this dialectical critique is of course grounded in historical hope, in a ‘messianic’ vision of a post-capitalist free society liberated from the dictatorship and psychosocial alienations of capital, money, wage labour and commodity production. The vision is more assumed than ever really spelled out as it is seen ‒ like the theoretical work of critique itself ‒ as an ongoing work-in-progress, a product of real historical class struggles, not as a utopian and dogmatic blueprint arising in some isolated intellectual’s brain.

Yet there are hints and glimpses. Post-capitalist society is the ‘negation of the negation’ and the ‘inversion of the inversion’. It is the annulling and transcending – on the basis of capitalism’s economic achievements and wealth creation ‒ of social alienation and reification, the assertion of humanity’s freedom and dignity by gaining control over its own run-away economic and political creations.

The Communist Manifesto famously speaks, in anarchist terms, of a post-capitalist society overcoming class conflict as an ‘association in which the free development of each individual is the condition of the free development of all’. Marx speaks in the first volume of Das Kapital of the ‘association of free humans’ (Verein freier Menschen) working with collective means of production and consciously expending their diverse individual energies as expressions of a collective labour. The third volume envisages freedom as a condition in which

“(…) socialized mankind, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with Nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power, and accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under such conditions as are proper and worthy for human beings.”

Using Marx’ theory of alienation, you write a long essay for Christian Enzensberger’s Beckett seminar at Munich University exploring alienation as loss of self and relationship in a long essay ‘The Epistemology of Alienation in Samuel Beckett’s Watt’. Moving beyond the strictures of New Criticism and Leavisite moralism, ‘epistemology’ and ‘hermeneutics’ (the theories of perception/knowledge and interpretation) become new fields of intellectual interest first stimulated by readings of Habermas and, particularly, Adorno. Like your original reading of Waiting for Godot in Sydney, a close reading of Watt’s psychotic procrastinations, confusions, semantic despair again strikes deep chords. Gradually moving away from your previous vaguely Leavisite social liberalism, you see it as a contribution to your mentor Enzensberger’s concept of a ‘literarische Ichgeschichte’, the innovative neo-Marxist notion of pursuing literary criticism as engaged research into the internal history of the bourgeois ego or self in its interdependence with the changing economic and social conditions of bourgeois society. Beckett’s modernist works, for example, can then be read as useful literary documentations of the state of the bourgeois self in mid-twentieth century capitalism (Herbert Marcuse: “The real face of our time shows in Samuel Beckett’s novels” ).

You try the same thing for Shelley’s Romantic nature poetry in a long essay in German entitled Subjektivität und Ding in Shelleys Naturlyrik (‘Subjectivity and Object in Shelley’s Nature Poetry’). Close readings of the poems Mont Blanc, Ode to the West Wind and To a Skylark analyse the epistemological relations between the authorial voice and the natural objects depicted. Within the conceptual framework of a Marxian concept of alienation, Critical Theory (Adorno, Habermas) and Enzensberger’s ‘literary ego history’, you read Shelley’s odes of 1816-1820, albeit rather abstractly, as failed attempts at meaning-making and individuation within the historical context of early industrial capitalism in Britain and its psycho-historical correlates of alienated and reified relationships.

From this neo-Marxist perspective, Shelley’s poetry frantically, mournfully, violently attempts to attain in the medium of language, of art, what ‒ at least under critical-materialist assumptions ‒ can only be realised within real social and productive relationships: meaning and identity. Shelley’s lyrical observer reproduces the self-experience of the isolated, alienated participant of a now fairly generalised market society in early nineteenth century Britain.

In the odes, an isolated observer bereft of social relationships confronts isolated natural objects bereft of social relationships and tries to find personal meaning through the invocatory, pseudo-dialogic literary form of the ode. Various language manoeuvres are attempted. Objects are reduced to the subject (i.e. anthropomorphised) or the subject wishes to be reduced to a thing or passively subsumed under the power of things and natural cycles; the subject projects symbolic meanings onto the object; things are seen abstractly as diverse manifestations of an abstract and unknowable ‘power’.

All these poetic manoeuvres resonate with specific features of Marx’ theory of ‘commodity fetishism’ and its ‘naturally supernatural’ mysteries of concrete-and-abstract-in-one. Finally (in the last poem of the three poems, To A Skylark), the language that is desperately seeking to find or foist meaning in or onto these natural objects seems to break down under the strain and end in abstractions and outright clichés or else the opacity and undecipherability of the artificial and abstract symbol. The psycho-historical and aesthetic threshold from ‘late Romantic’ to ‘early Victorian’ poetry (Swinburne, Tennyson) seems to have been crossed.

Around this time you meet a new friend, let’s call him Mojo: long gaberdine coat, round rimless glasses, mildly unruly straw blond hair, a leftist, hashish smoker, furrow-browed sufferer of migraine headaches and fan of free jazz. He becomes a kind of peer mentor. Your social focus shifts away from the anglophile and apolitical Critical Society to leftist comrades and reading groups, finally to the newly formed Rote Zelle Anglistik-Romanistik (‘Red Cell English-French’). Hardly having read a few short texts of Marx ourselves, we are already in demand to ‘teach Marx’ to other students at the Munich art academy. We take first semester art students through the pre-economic texts Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology, emphasizing the former’s stress on the need for (revolutionary) ‘praxis’ and the latter’s stress on the materialist primacy of economic ‘base structures’ over cultural ‘superstructures’. It is a simplified, vulgar form of ‘Marxism’ we ‘teach’; it is the blind leading the blind.

For three or four years you read a lot of social theory instead of literature and feel no urge to write poems. When one then does arise again it becomes, after Dadaist beginnings, short allusions to beloved poets and a passing muse, almost necessarily ‘political.’

Black Power Meat Flower

ba ba ba lu la
ba ba Babylon
o hide, object
abject reject
baby Billy Blake
blow your horn blow:

it is the reddishness or suchness
of the red that is different
from the suchness of the blue…

of the neon furry plastic
perambulating her breasts
o baby long
a long long time a cummings

but Coming the implosion
black blood on oil stains
singing the abstraction of the streets
Watts Harlem Detroit

jes groovin’
The Trane like a carnivorous flower
hear it comin’ long
the wired freeways


During this period there is, for a time, a pervasive sense of ‘the establishment’ being caught on the back foot, of not really having any arguments or viable ideology with which to counter our new-found, New Left Marxism. We are invited to the humanist philosophy seminars of the elderly and charmingly urbane Italian philosophy professor Ernesto Grassi who is sympathetic to the student movement and Marxist humanism. He seems keen to learn more from us Neo-Marxist students. Flattered but not showing it, and having just read a few pages of Marx, we pretend to all-encompassing insight into the ‘fundamental self-contradictions’ of capitalism and the blindingly ‘obvious’ nature of socialism as its necessary replacement.

Our energy and radicalism is an expression both of the marvellous surplus energy and moral outrage of youth and the spurious, overcompensating pseudo-confidence that derives from a felt (but never openly acknowledged) ignorance. At times this denied ignorance takes on the form of an over-compensating, outright boorish arrogance. When an elderly visiting critical Marxist of the famous Yugoslav Praxis school, Gaijo Petrovic, is a guest in a Grassi seminar, my friend Mojo (albeit visibly sweating under his own chutzpah) lectures him at length on the ‘simple reason’ for the absence of ‘real’ socialism in Yugoslavia: money has not been abolished. A strange oversight by our Yugoslav comrades. QED, case closed.

On the other hand, the basic tenets and radical social perspectives of Marx and Marxism are (like the writers, artists and art movies of the previous seven or so years) another, and lasting, form of cognitive liberation, a stepping out of some mental box or cage . At times it feels like the famous Renaissance image of Copernicus thrusting his head through one of the planetary spheres of medieval thought to see the new modern reality of a heliocentric solar system. Marx has provided a new ‘sun’ around which your forming mind can revolve, his analysis of the commodity and capital.

Thus the often confusing surface complexity of modern society, the total environment of commodities and commodified images experienced daily (Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’), the inexplicable simple ‘naturalness’ or sheer static ‘givenness’ and opacity of social phenomena, their apparently ‘eternal’ nature – all this starts to become more transparent, more comprehensible once, under a Marxist lens, they are related to historical developments, class and power struggles.

Central to these, in turn, is the ‘great transformation’ (Michael Polanyi) ‒ the great social inversion and alienation ‒ that has defined capitalist production since its beginnings. Suddenly there is some kind of measuring stick, an alternative (not merely intellectual but somehow gut-level) set of criteria with which to perceive and understand social realities and commentaries. Holden Caulfield reads Das Kapital: the Marxist perspective provides an intellectually sophisticated version of a bullshit or phoniness detector.

Also central to this radical distancing from ‘consensus reality’ and official phoniness is the new found key notion of ‘ideology’. This term denotes not its common, trivial (and Marxist-Leninist) sense of any belief system or Weltanschauung, but its original critical Marxist sense of socially produced ‘false consciousness’. Ideology in this critical sense is a social form of the personal defence mechanism Freud termed ‘rationalisation’: seemingly rational theories are used to buttress personal unconscious or semi-conscious needs or perceived interests.

The critical Marxist understanding of ‘ideology’ is that it is not arbitrarily or ‘wrongly’ but in fact necessarily produced by the ‘false’, alienated relations of production and distribution (at least as long as people remain caught and conditioned within the systemic social roles which express and maintain these alienated relations). Ideology in this sense is ‘socially necessary appearance’ (gesellschaftlich notwendiger Schein).

Ideology is then in most cases not simply ‘untrue’ or a cynical Machiavellian lie (although these are of course still used where possible, e.g. in crude forms of propaganda). The apparent paradox is that, given a ‘false’ reality, ideology, although ‘false consciousness’, may, as an expression or mirroring of this false reality, thus often in fact contain a lot of (unconscious) ‘truth’ about that reality. Your neo-Marxist Ideologiekritik – so central to the work of the Frankfurt School and your main intellectual occupation at the time – is based on this central dialectical notion of the falsity of that masquerading as official truth and of the truth hidden within the false.

Moreover, such a notion of ideology can be linked not just to the contents but to the very forms of abstract thought, your now increasingly consuming occupation. To express, for example, everything ideologically in the science of numbers, dollars and statistics, to reduce all thought to quantifiable ‘information’ (as in information theory, cybernetics, IT), may reflect the extent to which modern reality is in actual fact completely dominated by the reign of money, capital and quantity.

Or (to take another, earlier example), to believe, like philosophical idealism, that reality is created exclusively by the mind or that cognitive abstractions (The Mind, The Ideas, The One, Transcendental Apperception, The Absolute, God etc) are as real as the printed paper page you are reading, may in fact also express a real historical abstraction and inversion: the reign of money and abstract exchange value over humans, qualities, use value. The invention of money may have changed human neurology.

Monotheism, Chinese and Greek philosophy arose in the historical phase in human development in which a new, major abstraction actually began to dominate society: generalised commodity production, coined money and its inherent real ‘abstraction’ from the use value of goods, the brutal realities of (often slave) exploitation and the traditional customs and reciprocities of human community.

As ‒ on the basis of commodity production by slaves ‒ the abstractions of money, trade and exchange values became increasingly widespread (particularly among the ruling classes exploiting and divorced from the realities of production and nature), they indeed tended to dominate society, to become rulers, to invert human agency. (In the Marxist reading, this inversion occurs on a total scale only much later in industrial capitalism, the now socially generalised rule of money and exchange values, in which even human labour has become just another commodity to be bought and sold).

Thus the formal ‘truth’ of the cognitive abstractions and inversions of philosophy, science and theology may (irrespective of their particular contents) lie in their ideological (unconscious) reflection of real ‘abstractions’ and power inversions in human social organisation and intercourse. This notion of the inner historical and formal relationship between abstract thought and social commodity/money relations is one central to and scattered throughout the works of various members of the Frankfurt School, in particular those of T.W. Adorno.

[An explicated, more classically Marxist theory of this notion can be found in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Geistige und körperliche Arbeit (1970), Warenform und Denkform (1971) and Materialistische Erkenntniskritik und Vergesellschaftung der Arbeit (1971). Adorno and Sohn-Rethel corresponded on these issues in the 1930s. British Marxist historian George Thomson’s more empirical historical study linking commodity production, the circulation of money and the origins of Greek philosophy (The First Philosophers, 1955) also expresses an intellectual debt to Sohn-Rethel.]

Mentor Marx 1

•June 21, 2014 • 3 Comments

young marx priority of social being

[Part 1 of another older mentor-cum-memoir piece. Part 2 will follow. Endnotes have again been left out. Image: the young Marx of around the time of the Paris Manuscripts of 1844. ]

Mentor Marx

As a student of the humanities in Munich in the late sixties, the student movement alive and kicking all around you, you could hardly avoid the reading and discussion of Karl Marx. You start with his early (pre-1848, pre-economic) texts on alienation, philosophy and historical materialism: the Economic-Philosophical (or Paris) Manuscripts of 1844, the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the Theses on Feuerbach, The German Ideology.

Slowly, not without effort, you begin to enter the heady, exciting new world of speculative philosophy and critical social theory, the great tradition of German thought since Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. Coming from novels and poetry, you find Marx’ writing often contains almost literary power and this at once draws you in.

There is the apodictic, wide-sweeping, manifesto-quality of much of the syntax, for example. This is not the careful, tentative, quiet, dry and lifeless reasoning hedged with academic modifiers of the tenured academic. There is the breath of (the failed 1848) revolution here, at times an almost Whitmanesque breadth of vision, the social prophet’s and activist’s trumpet-like clarion calls that attack, expand, denounce, consummately compress and summarise and do not shy away from poetic metaphor (‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world…’). There are word plays and dialectical inversions and voltes (‘Thus the worker only feels at one with himself outside work and outside himself at work.’)

Take, for example, his both radical and subtle analysis of the ambiguity of religion (probably greatly influenced by his own philosophical mentor of the early 1840s, the ‘sensuous materialist’ Ludwig Feuerbach) in the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844). Here is a typical passage which does not crudely or abstractly negate religion (as in narrowly rationalist atheism a la Hitchens or Hawkins, or as the often misunderstood phrase ‘opium of the people’ might suggest when taken out of context), but which understands its necessary place in an alienated world that ‘requires illusions’. In a passage again strongly resonant in the present era of resurging religious cretinism and diverse fundamentalisms, Marx’ main point is that it is primarily the oppressive and ‘soulless’ world itself that needs changing, not its mere religious reflection (all translations below mostly my own) :

“Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusionary happiness of the people is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition that requires illusions. The critique of religion is thus at its core the critique of the vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

This critique has ripped off the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order to enable man to bear the prosaic and bleak chain but so that he may throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The critique of religion disenchants man so that he may think, act and fashion his reality like a man who has lost his illusions and regained his reason, so that he may revolve around himself as his own true sun. Religion is merely the illusionary sun that revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”

And, as with that other focus of your literary interest at the time, Samuel Beckett, but now on a more philosophical and social level, Marx’s key theme in these early texts is Entfremdung, ‘alienation’. The texts are a surprising and radical melange of the philosophical, economic and psychological. It is your own personal theme, the sense of ‘I am not I’ (Jimenez), which draws you in: the inner division, the dissociation, the sometimes not feeling ‘at one’ with yourself, the recurrent sense of emptiness, boredom, loneliness, isolation, in short – ‘alienation’…:

“Wherein lies then the alienation of labour?
Firstly, in the fact that the work is external to the worker, i.e. that it does not belong to the essence of his being, that he thus does not affirm but rather negates himself in his work, does not feel happy but unhappy, does not develop any free physical and mental energy but rather emaciates his body and ruins his mind. Thus the worker only feels at one with himself outside work and outside himself at work. He is at home when he does not work and when he works he is not at home. His work is thus not voluntary, it is enforced, it is forced labour. This labour is thus not the satisfaction of a need but only a means of satisfying needs that are external to the work itself. Its alien status is clearly revealed in the fact that work is fled as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion to do it. Alienated work, work in which man alienates himself, is a work of self-sacrifice. Finally the alien status of work for the worker is revealed in the fact that it is not his own work but another’s, that in this work he does not belong to himself but to another. As in religion the self-activity of the human imagination, the human mind and heart reappears as an alien, divine or devilish activity affecting man, in the same way the activity of the worker is not his self-activity. It belongs to another, it is the loss of self.”

Or, in another (even more obviously dialectical) passage from the same exciting Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

“The alienation of the worker in his object is expressed as follows in the laws of political economy: the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more value he creates, the more worthless he becomes and the less dignity he possesses; the more refined his product, the more misshapen the worker; the more civilised the product, the more barbaric the worker; the more powerful the work, the more powerless the worker; the more the work manifests intelligence, the more dumbed down the worker becomes and the more a slave of nature.

Political economy conceals the alienation that is the essence of labour by ignoring the immediate relation between the worker (work) and production. Indeed. Labour produces marvels for the rich, but privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labour by machinery, but it casts a proportion of workers back into a barbaric kind of labour and turns the others into machines. It produces intelligence, but it also produces stupidity and cretinism for the worker.”

Here, in these short excerpts, it seemed, lay the core of Marx’ contemporary appeal. This theory of work alienation under the conditions of private property, wage labour and capitalism, lost in later orthodox Marxism and social democracy, seems to be the radical quintessence of Marx.

Although this is a philosophical text on work and wage labour, there seems to be a sense of some dense blending or interpenetration of personal experience and social theory. There seems to be a line to your early interest in the existentialism of Albert Camus and l’absurde. Indeed Marx himself here seems not a ‘Marxist’ in the usual stereotyped sense of the orthodox ‘dry and dismal’ economist, but an ‘existentialist’: he is speaking, much more comprehensibly, historically and radically than Kierkegaard or Heidegger , about ‘authenticity’ (the ‘loss of self’, the ‘essence of his being’) and about the social conditions that make such authenticity possible or impossible. A Beckett’s Murphy or Watt, a Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a Camus’ Stranger (and a Peter L-N) could here find a cogent historical and social framework and explanation for their own subjective experience.

Reading Marx, there is thus a resonance both with personal feelings of being ‘outside oneself’, of alienation, and at the same time a plausible social and historical explanation for this state. Interestingly, the explanation is modelled on the theories of spiritual and religious alienation of Hegel and Feuerbach.

In Hegel, as in Marx, man (and, in Hegel’s case, ‘Absolute Spirit’ through man) both expresses and creates himself through his own activity and at the same time alienates himself from himself through the reification of the products of his own activity. Similarly, Ludwig Feuerbach, a materialist influenced by, but critical of, Hegel’s idealism, develops ‒ in some ways anticipating Freud ‒ a radically anthropological notion of religious alienation as a form of collective projection : humanity first projects its own unrecognised and disowned capabilities or potentialities upwards into the heavens, or outwards onto entities termed spirits, fetishes, gods, divinities, God. Then, as in the Freudian defence mechanisms of individual neurosis, these disowned and unconsciously projected agencies take on a life of their own, become external objects or fetishes lording it over their creators, leading them into all sorts of blind, self-induced misery and suffering.

In the same way, Marx now sees humanity blindly suffering under its own unconscious self-creations: the power of alien work owned and appropriated by others (i.e. the dead accumulated work, or ‘surplus value’, known as ‘capital’) now taking on a life of its own and lording it over (dominating, managing, exploiting, sucking the blood out of) living work and the living worker.

It is the sorcerer’s apprentice losing control of the powers he has unleashed. It is the historical Great Inversion, the world turned on its head. Things (money, capital, markets) dominating humans, death dominating life. As in Freudian neurosis or radical mysticism, it is the congealed and dead past dominating the living present. It is, as explicated social philosophy, Emerson’s contemporaneous insight that ‘Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.’

As Marx’s humanist (i.e. Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, liberal and anarchist) anthropological assumption is that to be human is to be in control of your life, to be freely and consciously self-active, this loss of creative autonomy or self-activity (freie bewusste Tätigkeit) in alienated wage labour is also the loss of identity, loss of authentic self, ‘alienation’ in the modern popularised sense. (Marx then links this personal alienation from self and work to a wider alienation from others and, importantly, from nature).

What immediately deeply appeals in this philosophy of alienation of early Marx is in fact its deeply humanistic anti-‘materialism’ (in the everyday, non-philosophical sense of the latter word). It is the ‘spiritual existentialism in secular language’, the romantic-humanist concern with the liberation of man from economic need and alienation and the inauguration or restoration of relationship with self, others and nature as the project of becoming fully human; it is the both material and, in essence, spiritual project of socialism as ‘essentially prophetic Messianism in the language of the nineteenth century’ (Erich Fromm).

Even the later, more ‘scientific’ and economically informed, texts of Marx are driven by these core early insights into social alienation. For you, part of the rhetorical power and charm of texts like The Communist Manifesto and the first volume of Das Kapital lie not merely in their plausibility as social theory. They also lie in the fact that their language is replete with (often enjoyably sarcastic) moral outrage against capitalist exploitation and violence and at the same time, an, usually more tacit, undercurrent of hope, of ‘essentially prophetic Messianism’.

Even the economically driest passages seem at some point embedded in a general context (or ‘inter-text’) of radical moral passion. The last two chapters of the first volume of Das Kapital, for example, are 160 pages of historical-empirical analysis that document the human ‘accumulation of misery’ that accompanies the often violently introduced ‘primary accumulation of capital’ (later copied by the Bolsheviks, the Chinese Communist Party, and ongoing in many countries today as the transnationals’ form of globalisation). Take the short but sweepingly summarising passage in the last chapter on the terroristic beginnings of English capitalism in the rural enclosures and violent expropriations of Capital’s ‘primary accumulation’:

“The theft of church property, the fraudulent selling off of the state domains, the theft of the commons, the usurping and ruthlessly terroristic transformation of feudal and clan property into modern private property – these were the idyllic measures of primary accumulation. They conquered the terrain for capitalist agriculture, incorporated land into capital and provided urban industry with the necessary supply of dispossessed proletarians.”

Take the description of the outright terrorism of the Duchess of Sutherland’s ‘clearing of estates’ and appropriation of clan land in the Scottish Highlands in order to run sheep along agrarian capitalist lines:

“Immediately upon joining government this economically schooled person decided to implement a radical economic reform program and transform the whole County – whose population had already shrunk to 15,000 because of similar previous measures – into a sheep run. Between 1814 and 1820 these 15,000 residents, about 3,000 families, were systematically driven out and exterminated. All of their villages and were destroyed and burned, all of their fields turned into pastures. British soldiers were ordered to carry this out and came to blows with the native residents. An old woman was incinerated in her hut because she refused to leave it. Thus Madam possessed herself of 794,000 acres which had belonged to the clan since time immemorial.”

Then, at the other end of Das Kapital, in the first two chapters, there is Marx’ brilliant analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’, so seemingly relevant in late consumer capitalism, the ‘society of the spectacle’ (Guy Debord), in which commodities, capital and their image representations seem to reign ever more intensively and ever more supreme .

In these initial and base chapters upon which his whole theoretical edifice is built, Marx radically deconstructs and demystifies apparently objective, simply eternally ‘given’ economic entities, things or categories like ‘commodity’, ‘money’ and ‘capital’, as forms of social and historical relationship, of class struggle. However, this is not simply and dogmatically asserted but, in Hegelian, dialectical fashion, logically and historically deduced and developed out of the internal polarities or contradictions of the economic categories themselves.

Simplifying formulae help encapsulate the development of social exchange relationships: from primitive exchange relationships in which the personal use values of the goods still dominate (commodity – money – commodity: C-M-C, selling goods in order to buy other needed goods) to the first inversion of simple commodity production in which exchange values already dominate (money – commodity – money: M-C-M, buying goods in order to sell them at a profit) and on to the apparent ‘magic’ of capital as self-accumulating money (money – money 1: M-M1).

Marx’ capital formula (C=) M-M1 should thus perhaps be up there with Einstein’s energy formula E = MC2. It seems to succinctly sum up the irrational, entirely self-referential, indeed socially and ecologically ‘autistic’, law of an entire economic system that now deeply determines the uncertain, precarious future of the planet and all its inhabitants: capitalism.

Marx’ radical contribution is to decipher the ‘dirty little secret’ of the ‘mystery’ of the M-M1 phenomenon, of Wert heckender Wert (‘value breeding value’), or capital accumulation. It is the capitalist sine qua non: wage labour as a social relation of inherent exploitation. It is this which produces the ‘surplus value’ (the value above that needed for the fulfilment of the worker’s survival needs) that becomes capital.

Marx thus shows that the apparently contractually ‘free’ capital relationship of employer and employee on the ‘labour market’ is, for the worker, in reality unfree. The economic relationship is structurally (i.e. regardless of the personal qualities, attitudes or consciousness of those involved) one of power, expropriation, exploitation, domination between the owners of the monopolised means of production and the dispossessed workers who – historically ‘liberated’ from their own means of production such as trades and land ‒ are ‘free’ to sell them the only thing they themselves still own, their labour power.

This historical, ongoing process of ‘liberation’ and alienation (Marx’ ursprüngliche Akkumulation: original capital accumulation) – as shown in the section on the Highland clearances cited above ‒ was and is one of deep and traumatic social and psycho-social severance: the ties between producers and their own means of production were and are violently cut in sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual processes of dispossession. The same basic process of severance and dispossession, of proletarianization, has been repeated all over the world at different periods (including in soi-disant ‘socialist’ countries), is still continuing, and this is one major aspect of the great continuing relevance of Marx.

In this process colonized tribes lost their hunting and gathering territories, peasants lost their land in the processes of enclosure, artisans lost control of their tools in putting-out systems and the capitalist factory. The ancient spiritual, cultural, social and productive bonds, the ‘moral economies’ of independence and mutual aid that held together tribal, peasant and artisan communities were thus also severed. As communities and villages died, people had to survive either by becoming marginalised itinerants, petty criminals and bandits or else by moving to the capitalists’ new factories and cities. Independent producers became dependent factory workers, wage slaves and buyers of their own products as a class.

Despite all the significant changes within the economic and class structures of capitalism since its beginnings in the European modern age, the brutal core fact of severance, alienation and violence has remained. From the Marxian point of view, which is consciously the point of view of those without means of production, without capital, the structural violence of capitalism is contained within the very ‘freedom’ of the economic alternative it offers most of its subjects: the freedom to be exploited as free wage labour or the freedom to starve.

The smiling, alluring surfaces of the myriads of shiny commodities that now increasingly dominate our global environment betray nothing of their origins in primary expropriation, colonialist plunder and slavery and in ongoing oppressive production and (also ecological) exploitation. Like Feuerbach’s gods, commodities, money and capital are thus ‘fetishes’, ‘abstractions’, ‘mysteries’, apparent ‘things’ that veil their dark origins in oppressive class and power relationships.

These commodities are thus crystallisations or ‘reifications’ of these alienated social relationships. They are the social oxymorons, ‘abstract things’, i.e. they are both seemingly natural, concrete things with a ‘use value’ (Gebrauchswert) and yet at the same time abstract, culturally signified, ‘super-natural’ things with an ‘exchange value’ (Tauschwert). As the latter, they are a form of socially created ‘second nature’ or ‘collective unconscious’ (albeit not in the psychological Jungian sense). They are mystifying social products blindly produced and exchanged by isolated, competitive producers and traders acting in their own particular economic self-interests and only blindly, not consciously, linked by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market:

“The secret nature of the commodity form thus simply consists of the fact that it reflects back to people the social character of their own work as social characteristics of the work products themselves, as socialised natural forms of these things; thus it also reflects back the social relationship of the producers to the work of society as a whole as a social relationship of objects that is external to them. Through this quid pro quo the work products become commodities, sensuously occult, naturally supernatural [sinnlich übersinnliche] or social things. (…) It is only a specific social relationship between people that here takes on the phantasmagorical form of a relationship between things. (…) I call this fetishism, a fetishism that attaches itself to the products of work as soon as they are produced as commodities and is thus inseparable from commodity production.”

The ‘secret’ of the commodity, of money and capital is the blind, opaque, unplanned working of the free market on the one hand, and on the other the inherently violent relation of alienation and domination at the heart of original commodity production (slave production) and later capitalist production (wage labour) that creates ‘surplus value’ or capital growth.

As Freud demystified neurotic symptoms as fixated expressions and prolongations of suppressed unconscious conflict in the individual, Marx demystified commodities, money and capital as the reified and fetishised symptoms and causes of an underlying root conflict of class and power, a ‘social unconscious’, a social ‘shadow’ of sorts. Both personal neurosis and the social neurosis of capitalism are based on an original severance, a cutting of bonds and attachments, a separation and dis-owning, in short on: alienation.

Both Marx and Freud can thus be read as radical humanists in the Enlightenment tradition. They are both committed to human emancipation by attempting to cast some light into the shadows, to ‘enlighten’ in the sense of demystifying, of making more of the unconscious conscious, transparent, and thus amenable to change. In Marx, economics, the bourgeois ideology and ‘dismal science’ par excellence, becomes radically humanised. It becomes a socially contentious issue of economic, political, moral, class struggle rather than, as even done in some ‘progressive economics’, a positivist masquerade of a ‘science’ that ‘fetishises the fetishes’ of the given capitalist economy (labour, wages, markets, capital etc).

There is thus, strictly speaking, no positive ‘Marxist economics’, there is only a Marxist negative ‘critique of political economy’. Revolutionary Marxism cannot ‒ unlike the Stalinist dogma of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ ‒ be a ‘science’, a form of scientism or positivism. Radically historical in essence, it must apply Marxism to itself and see its own theoretical practice as a social product. It thus can only be, according to its own self-definition, a radical critique closely linked to, reflecting on and reflecting the real, practical ‘critique’ manifested in contemporaneous class struggle, a theoretical contribution to the practical negation of the core defining power relationships of bourgeois-industrial society. Being thus inherently and self-consciously historical in nature, it must necessarily and willingly ‒ and if necessary, radically ‒ change itself as historical conditions and the nature of class struggle change.



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