The Continuing Charm of Marx, Part 2

(3) Commodity Fetishism: demystifying Capitalism

Marx’ most lasting contribution perhaps is his brilliant demystification of the core dynamic of capitalism. Orthodox Marxism often conveniently ‘forgets’ that Marx did not create a new (‘Marxist’ or ‘socialist’) economic system or theory but engaged in a radical ‘critique of political economy’ per se, a critique that sought to help overthrow the oppressive primacy of ‘the economy’, the rule of ‘the market’, over almost all human affairs in bourgeois industrial society. This central aspect of Marx’ critique would seem to be of immense current relevance as ‘the economy’ or ‘the market’ immeasurably extends and intensifies its control of all societies, people, psyches and nature both ex- and internal.

Mainstream economics, as hammered into general consciousness by the corporate media and politicians of all persuasions, always portrays the movements of Capital as abstract, i.e. as socially and politically de-contextualised. Our attention is strictly focussed on the rise and fall of abstract numbers and things (share prices, interest rates, investment figures, foreign debt, trade balances, currency exchange and employment rates, GDP etc). Class interests and power relationships are completely absent from all mainstream media discourse on ‘the economy’.

The whole thrust of Marx’ critique of political economy in Das Kapital was to deconstruct and destroy this bourgeois ideology that today seems almost total. The ‘reified’ surface appearance of ‘capital’ as an abstract economic ‘thing’ seemingly acting of its own accord was demystified as being in essence a social relationship of alienation, oppression, ‘power-over’ and exploitation between capital and labour, the bourgeoisie and the working class, the order-giving owners and managers of the means of production and the order-taking employees.

In a similar way, the central defining object of capitalist society, the commodity, was also demystified. Marx analysed the strange ‘sensuous abstraction’ of the commodity form (or ‘fetish’) as a ‘coagulated’ form of abstract (wage) labour undertaken under the new historical conditions of generalised commodity production, i.e. societies in which anonymous, isolated and competitive strangers exchanged their products or services according not to their concrete and qualitative ‘use values’ (human needs and qualities) but according to their abstract and quantitative (monetary) ‘exchange values’.

Capital is now seeking to even further expand its realm of abstract exchange values: its inherent project of commodifying all life is now proceeding exponentially by expropriating the last vestiges of the global commons (water, air, seeds), by genetically engineering, cloning and patenting life forms. All of nature and its complex ecological and aesthetic qualities are viewed as nothing but abstract, quantifiable and marketable ‘natural resources’. At the same time, many ‘cool’ and hyper-modern ‘market personalities’ (Erich Fromm) have totally internalised Capital’s values by thinking and talking its pervasive language of money and markets, by closely identifying with the manipulated images of the commodities they wear or use or by seeing aspects of their own ‘personalities’ as sellable commodities on the generalised ‘labour market’.

The cold, inhuman and reified non-relationships of totalised wage labour, market relations and the commodity now reign supreme both in the world and in many minds. Marx’ unsurpassed analysis can provide the proverbial axe that helps break that mental ice of conformity to the dictates of total marketing.

(4) Ideology

Marx’ concept of ideology is also of continuing relevance as it differs from the now prevalent neutral definition of the term as simply denoting any belief system whatsoever. Marx’ use of the word is socially critical and situated within the larger Enlightenment tradition of the critique of ‘idolatry’. This tradition reaches from Moses to Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620) and his delineation of the various ‘idols’ that hinder men from seeing truth or undistorted reality. Focussed on the radical critique of political economy and its reifications as Marx is, the term ‘ideology’ takes on the precise general meaning of ‘socially necessary false consciousness’.

Bourgeois economics, for example, is undoubtedly the core ideology of modern capitalist societies from New York and London to Beijing and Moscow. All ruling elites of whatever political persuasion, the corporate media and increasing numbers of ‘market personalities’ in the general populace (including environmentalists) now exclusively live and think in its terms. The ideology of economics is false because it abstracts from and further reifies social class relations of power/powerlessness’. At the same time this ideology is historically ‘necessary’ in two senses. Firstly, the class interest of the bourgeoisie power elite prevents it from conceiving ‘the economy’ or ‘markets’ in any other way. Secondly, this ideology also unconsciously expresses a historical reality or truth: social relations really are ‘abstract’ (i.e. geared not to human needs but to the realisation of monetary values), reified and almost totally dominated by ‘the economy’ and ‘market’ (Capital).

The prevalent technocratic ideology of fetishizing technology and technical fixes to socio-economic problems (popular in a green version among many or most environmentalists) can be similarly deconstructed as both false and necessary. It is false because, like economics, it abstracts from any social or class context or interest. The whole point of technical fixes is to leave (capitalist) power relationships and ‘business as usual’ intact within the economic and political spheres. An exclusive focus, for example, on ‘clean coal’, carbon trading, nuclear, large-scale renewable technologies or individual energy-saving measures as ‘solutions’ to climate chaos can deflect from any uncomfortable social questions about equity and power, e.g. the exorbitant, inequitable and unsustainable energy use of the wealthy and corporations or the social nature and control of centralised energy systems by powerful elites. At the same time such a technocratic ideology unconsciously expresses the truth of a historical reality in which Capital in the material form of its hyper-industrial ‘megamachine’ (Lewis Mumford) really has become all-dominant and seemingly overpowering and popular resistance is limited in extent and narrow in focus.

(5) Systemic Dialectics, Historicism and the Potential for Liberation

For minds made passive, confused and lost in the ‘spectacle’ (Guy Debord), – i.e. the fragmented, de-contextualised and thus meaningless world as ubiquitously constructed by Capital and its media –, an exposure to Marxist dialectical texts can help see things from a different and liberating perspective. Here we discover the important legacy of Hegel and the philosophically sublimated results of the great bourgeois revolutionary epoch of the 1770s-90s that produced both the radical Enlightenment and Romanticism. Reading ‘Hegelo-Marxist’ texts like Das Kapital, Grundrisse, T.W. Adorno or Guy Debord, we engage with the primacy of dialectical process over static substance and structure. We experience a revolutionary fluidizing of things and categories, a de-reifying of the solidified. Like the life it mirrors, dialectical thought never rests in any final conclusion or result. The truth is not in the end but in the process or proverbial journey itself, a truth-in-process. Thus it is actually impossible to make reified and dead comments about ‘dialectics’ as such, i.e. as something separate from the actual process of dialectical thinking and analysis. (As the ontological ‘dialectical materialism’ of Marxism-Leninism attempted, even, based on the late Engels, purporting to find an ‘objective dialectic’ in nature divorced from human perception and construction). The following remarks are thus little more than abstract hints as to certain general aspects of its nature.

Like the historical evolution of society in Marxian perspective (‘all history is the history of class struggles’), the process of dialectical thought in the Hegelo-Marxist tradition is movement driven forward by conflict, paradox, ambivalence, self-contradiction. Within this process there is a double movement of self-alienation and eventual or temporary self-reconciliation or ‘supercession’ (Aufhebung: integration). Supercession or transcending is not an ‘abstract negation’, not a ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. Rather, it is ‘concrete negation’ in the threefold, seemingly paradoxical sense of the German word Aufhebung in which the old is simultaneously negated, kept and superseded or ‘lifted up’ onto a higher level of integration. Thus, for example, a post-capitalist society in the Marxian sense will not simply regress from or throw out (‘abstractly negate’) all the considerable historical achievements of capitalism and bourgeois society, but will seek to ‘lift them up’ and integrate them into a higher unity democratically benefitting all.

This whole dialectical movement of Aufhebung is, however, more than the dead mechanics suggested by the often cited phrase ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’. It may perhaps be best exemplified by the threefold subjective work of ‘identifying-disidentifying-integrating’ (Ken Wilber ) as ideally happens in psychological development, individuation and maturation. Thus, as children we build identity by unconsciously introjecting and identifying with our parents (as civic majorities still do with their leaders); then as adolescents we often continue to build identity by abruptly cutting off, reacting against and consciously dis-identifying with them; then as we mature we are at some point called on to overcome and somehow resolve these two previous developmental stages. Ideally this happens neither by regressively re-identifying with one’s parents (becoming conformist), nor by adversarially maintaining the cut-off (becoming compulsively ‘anti-conformist’), but rather by maturely and ‘dialectically’ sifting through, discarding and integrating our various parental influences and hang ups.

A similar dialectical approach can be taken towards Marx himself. It is possible to first completely and dogmatically identify with him as a ‘Marxist’, then to equally dogmatically dis-identify with (or ‘abstractly negate’) him as an ‘anti-Marxist’ (like many ‘renegades’ a la Horowitz or Kristol or Glucksman etc.) Finally, it is possible to engage in the mature work of ‘dialectical integration’: i.e. to analyse and discard, or else keep and integrate those elements of Marx that would seem to continue to be true and useful.

Furthermore, in dialectical thought everything is dialectically ‘mediated’ (vermittelt). That is, there is nothing simply and dogmatically given as an isolated ‘fact’, there is nothing simply ‘im-mediate’ (unmittelbar, i.e. un-mediated), as in the empiricism, positivism and scientism dominant in global mainstream thought. Rather, everything is considered as mediated with other things, as contextual, in relationship, in communication with the other (vermitteln also means ‘to get across’ or ‘communicate’). Moreover, this mediation is not an external and mechanical relationship extraneous to the object being considered but rather an internal and inherent one. The mediation, the relatedness, is a constitutive part of the object itself. As the whole is made up of, or mediated by, parts, so also is the whole contained or mediated within the parts themselves. And this whole is ‘holistic’: as in ecology and systems science, things are always seen not in isolation but systemically, as part of a ‘concrete totality’. Thus Marx in the three volumes of Das Kapital famously develops the successive categories of his analysis of the totality of capitalist economy dialectically out of the one basal category of the commodity.

In addition, this totality is not abstract and a-temporal (as in the scientism of general systems theory) but inherently concrete and historical. In the ‘historical materialism’ of Marx, nothing can be really understood outside its historical genesis or context. The concept of ‘capital’, for example, cannot be understood without analysing its historical origins in the social and cultural terrors of ‘primary capital accumulation’ (enclosures, slave trade, absolutism, child labour, pauperisation etc). In contrast, the prevalent positivism, structuralism and scientism of mainstream academia and the media tend to take things as simply ‘given’, as structures, systems, data, ‘information’ or fragmented ‘facts’ divorced from historical context and origins. This is of course not accidental. Where everything is simply a-historically ‘given’, it becomes ‘naturalised’ and eternalised, and thus legitimised. As in Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘TINA’ (‘there is no alternative’) axiom, a concept of any systemic alternative and different future can then no longer arise. Without history, without a sense of the past and the future, reality has been flattened into a repressive eternal Now, i.e. the Nietzschean ‘eternal repetition of the same’, the very image of capital accumulation itself. For Capital, as for Henry Ford, ‘history is bunk’.

In contrast, where things have an origin and an evolution, they can also change and be changed. Past and present contain differing potential futures that are created by collective human action and meaning-making. This would seem to be Marx’ most lasting contribution to the ongoing project of human liberation from social alienation, the core of his continuing charm. With Marx, another world is indeed possible.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 8, 2010.

7 Responses to “The Continuing Charm of Marx, Part 2”

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