Mentor Marx 1
[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. ]
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.
~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 21, 2014.
Posted in critical theory, essays, social change, social theory
Tags: alienation, commodity fetishism, critical theory, critique of political economy, Das Kapital, Feuerbach, historical materialism, Marx, Marx and existentialism, Marx' Paris Manuscripts, Marxism, Marxist humanism, primary accumulation, Reading Marx, reification, religious alienation, theory of capitalism, young Marx