Thursday, October 25, 2007

Week 10, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (759-67); The German Ideology (767-69); from The Communist Manifesto (769-73); Grundrisse (773-74); “Preface to A Contribution...” (774-76); Capital’’, Vol. 1 Ch. 1 “Commodities” (776-83).

Page-by-Page Notes on Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (759-67).

764. “On the basis of political economy itself....” The darkened chamber metaphor is a figure for ideology—the paradox is that the worker creates an opulent society and starves in the middle of it.

764. “Political economy proceeds from the fact of private property, but it does not explain it to us.” Political economists see private property as natural, and they think value resides in things. At the bottom of this page, Marx implies that political economists cannot account for capitalism’s development, for change and historical process. We might “apply the master/slave dialectic to this page—the political economists speak for the masters and do not understand their relationship to property, or at least they have naturalized that relationship. Labor, implies Marx, must and will come to understand its relations with capital and the commodity form.

765. At the top: alienation from labor and the product of labor—labor is turned against itself as a human expressive act and a force for social cohesion; now labor produces atomistic relations amongst humans and treats things as if they alone were alive. We suffer an “attack of the killer widgets,” so to speak. Marx writes, “Do not let us go back to a fictitious primordial condition as the political economist does, when he tries to explain.” Marx refers a little below to the myth of the fall, and asserts thereby the need for a dialectical view—what is the relationship between two things?

765. “With the increasing value of the world of things...” here Marx brings up an actual fact: an increase in commodity value makes labor cheaper. Then he goes on to say that under capitalism, labor is stripped of its human value, congealed in abstract form in an object, the commodity. The worker owns the minimum socially necessary command of other people’s labor to prop up the capitalist order—ever more capital is generated, but the worker does not share in that affluence. “All these consequences are contained in the definition that the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object.” Marx plays the anthropologist with capitalism, comparing the commodity form to magic and fetishism. We invest or transfer our own power to an object we have made with our hands. Nature becomes an alien, determining power over us, not something over which we have dominion. That is the paradox of the Industrial Revolution.

766. “Thus in this double respect the worker becomes a slave of his object....” Under private property, the worker’s relation to objects is one of slavery.

766. “Political economy conceals the estrangement....” political economy conceals ideology, and makes exploitation seem natural. That is the function of ideology. Below, refer to the relationship between the master and the object that he simply consumes; here this idea is applied to the accumulation of capital.

767. Page top: work as meaningless when it should render us free agents who belong together in a morally intelligible world. “What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?” Marx’s fourfold theory of alienation: we are alienated first from our self-image as free human beings, second from the labor process, third from the product of labor, and fourth from the community. The capitalist productive process involves self-alienation; the production of commodities creates a worker who is not human. It renders labor meaningless in terms of human expression and identity—we are not “at home” in the world we are creating. He also brings up religion as mystification, and says “what is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”

767. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic applies here to what Marx says about capitalists and workers. The revolutionary potential lies with the working class. The workers’ experience consists in fourfold alienation. They are alienated from themselves as free human beings with the power to develop; they are alienated from the activity of working; they are alienated from the products of the labor (refer to 765); and they are alienated from their fellow workers and therefore from society in general.

Workers do not benefit from the products of their labor. When the factory worker makes an item, its value is lost to him and will be sold by the boss as a commodity. The worker “produces” a world of rich capitalists and consumer goods, few of which goods he or she can afford. We find misery and despair in the midst of plenty. The worker becomes a thing, and things themselves, as commodities, come to life.

Marx’s view of human nature is that we produce ourselves through the active process of laboring. However, there is a suggestion here of a potential to be expressed and developed. We do not have a fixed, pre-existing nature but rather work, as the creative process, produces our nature. This emphasis on expression and self-development is similar to romanticism. Marx stresses a dialectical mode of expressing the self in relation to natural objects. He resembles Hegel in that regard. What would be the point of criticizing capitalism if one system or environment were not better? Scientific socialism has a humanist basis in asserting the primacy of humanity in the relationship between humanity and nature.

Page-by-Page Notes on Karl Marx’s The German Ideology (767-69).

768. Note on the camera obscura figure for ideology. Capitalism produces the ideology that perpetuates it—it not only personifies things, endowing them with fetish power and turning human beings into mere things—it produces the illusory philosophy that keeps most of us from understanding the true basis of ourselves as workers and of our society. Marx’s metaphor of the darkened chamber implies that descrambling ideology is possible. Things are upside down, but at the same time absolutely clear: we can examine the life process (economics) and strip away ideology to get to the truth. But we might also ask whether illusions must be perpetual, representation perpetual, and the production and variation of desire also perpetual—if so, that might account for the continuing existence of capitalism to this day. Marx apparently believes in a teleological conception of history, one in which the contradictions inherent in the market order and its social forms will lead to something better. (By “contradiction,” I refer to such phenomena as overproduction, the association of workers, and so forth.)

768. The superstructure, says Marx, has no history. But as he recognizes, in his brief comments on art later, the correlations between ethics, religion, art, and the economic system are not necessarily synchronous. The realm of ideas isn’t a mere reflex—it takes on a power and temporality or rhythm of its own, it becomes semi-autonomous. Artists and philosophers can resist the reigning ideas of their time, i.e. the ones that merely support private property and bourgeois individualism. We must ask, therefore, “where does such resistance come from, and how successful can it be?”

768. “The production of ideas....” Would Nietzsche accept this passage? He would take things further back to biology—what Marx refers to comes along too late in the process; refer to Nietzsche’s discussion of the way language falsifies our relationship to the world.

768. “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.” Must we always generate an ideology? It does not seem so from this selection.

Marx and Engels’ Guide to Appearing German, Profound, and Speculative:

First of all an abstraction is made from a fact; then it is declared that the fact is based on the abstraction. That is how to proceed if you want to appear German, profound, and speculative.

For example: Fact: The cat eats the mouse.

Reflection: Cat = nature, mouse = nature, Consumption of mouse by cat = consumption of nature by nature = self-consumption of nature.

Philosophic presentation of the fact: Devouring of the mouse by the cat is based upon the self-consumption of nature.

From The German Ideology. London : International Publishers, 1965. 530.

768. “Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history....” So the superstructure is derivative, not material. Therefore, working with abstractions—even dialectically as Hegel does—only leads us further astray from material history’s processes, the very processes that give us our ideas. When Hegel talks about the march of spirit, he is tilting at windmills like Don Quixote. Kant also provides interesting examples, but his conception of the self remains abstract, and his nature is a general world—not Marx’s world of struggle, or the pain of our ancestors. For Kant, each mind functions similarly, but in isolation, and universal laws are generated from supposedly stable inner capacities.

Page-by-Page Notes on Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto of 1848 (769-73).

Capitalist philosophy assumes that our default nature is acquisitiveness. It assumes that “greed is good,” as the movie line goes. It also supposes that our basic instinct can perpetuate itself by encountering and incorporating infinitely many objects of desire—fashion is a fine example of this process. Fashion recycles objects of desire. Desire—and the desire to desire—drives the system. We might say also that excess is vital to the functioning of capitalism—”reason not the need,” as King Lear says. We are creatures of excess, and would never be satisfied with the bare minimum for life. Capitalism is like a shark that has to keep moving to stay alive. If we only purchased what we needed, the capitalist order would collapse almost instantly, and we would relapse into something like a barter economy such as existed during the Middle Ages. We might refer for example to the Great Depression and to the fascist order it led to in Europe . But does this process ever need to stop? Are the chickens coming home to roost, or are we dealing with “real chickens in an imaginary hen-house”?

One argument might be that Marx, with his contradiction-theory whereby the desire to accumulate capital results in overproduction, and the need to bring workers together in factories leads them towards revolutionary class-consciousness, covers up the possibility that the answer is no, the process need not end. Furthermore, since Marx obverts Hegel, he is quite invested in the idea that object-relations are central to the full development of humanity. He remains chained to what Jean Baudrillard calls “the mirror of production”—it’s all about us and objects, and about how we represent that relationship to ourselves and others. Perhaps that is unfair to Marx—has anyone really escaped from that trap, from the order of representation, from the need to understand that we are not simply pure spirit freed from materiality, that desire will always be partly for material things and never for purely immaterial or spiritual things?

In any case, the point is that Marx privileges “material reality” over representation, even if he admits that the relationship between them harbors some complexity. Is postmodernism complicit in perpetuating post-industrial capitalism? Postmodernism suggests that there is no viable exit strategy from the order of representation to the real. This raises the question as to whether capitalism is simply better at representation (refer to the African-American expression “representing”) than socialism or any other idealistic way of looking at the world.

769. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Class struggle is the law of history, and reality is a material process. It proceeds by strife, and the contradictions that develop can be understood through dialectical method.

770. Top: history proceeds by contradictions and conflicts, and then comes a new set of warring groups, a new form of society.

770. On this page, Marx repeats Hegel’s ideas about the march of spirit, but here the engine is class antagonism. “From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns.” Therefore, productive forces and social forms develop in accordance with their own internal laws. Development comes organically from within; Marx does not rely upon a model with external interruptions as the agent of change.

770. “The feudal system of industry... now no longer sufficed....” we go from feudal production to manufacturing, which makes better use of division of labor. But as markets increase, the big capitalists and the industrial order alone can meet the new demand. Feudal society generated its own opposition—thanks to the contradictions in the feudal order. Its productive forces outgrew the social system.

770. “We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development....” The bourgeoisie is the product of successive revolutions in the modes of production and exchange.

771. On this page, Marx points out the revolutionary quality of the bourgeoisie. “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The state represents class interests. The representative state is built upon the bourgeois notion of the self as isolated and as pursuing pleasure through the purchase and consumption of commodities. This kind of self is intimately related to the laws of property and to the efficient accumulation and circulation of capital.

771. “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.” This class strips away all of the old illusions in favor of direct, brutal exploitation. But in his chapter on the fetishism of the commodity, Marx hints at the kind of illusion that perpetuates capitalism. He uses an anthropological framework to describe powerful human tendencies to make people content with their lot. Moreover, among the exploited are some of the biggest producers of middle-class ideology.

771. “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production....” There is a constant revolution in the relations between workers and employers, and in social institutions. When Marx says, “all that is solid melts into air,” I must ask whether this is what actually happens. Or is it rather that the upheaval comes to seem natural?

772. “In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.” This is a very important point—capitalism actually produces desire itself, and even the desire to desire things. Marx goes on to explain below that capitalism is bent upon internationalizing and globalizing the economy and social relations generally. “It creates a world after its own image,” he says. It would add that when we arrive at global capitalism, capitalism as a universal system, it comes to seem natural and we begin to lose the power to criticize it. What is universal is everywhere and nowhere at the same time—that is probably what Foucault is getting at with his term “power.” First comes nationalism, and then internationalism.

772. “The bourgeoisie... has agglomerated population....” The bourgeoisie therefore centralizes the means of production. But that is one of the contradictions in capitalism—the working class comes together and becomes conscious of itself as a class.

Page-by-Page Notes on Karl Marx’s Grundrisse (773-74).

773. Marx says that he is no Marxist, and to some extent, that flexibility shows here, when he discusses the relationship between art and the base. Mythology is possible only when people do not understand natural forces.

774. We take Greek art to be naïve and childlike—we become nostalgic for an earlier state of human development, for the good old days. Is Marx suggesting that in pre-technological Greece , myth flourished, and became sophisticated in its naivety? That is, the Greeks had better art than we would expect because art was proportionally such a large part of life in ancient times, whereas at present, science and economics dominate the scene? The second question—Marx says that from nostalgia, we set up the Greeks as an ideal. Does that imply self-deception? Is nostalgia a form of distortion?

774. “Why should not the historic childhood of humanity... exercise an eternal charm?” Marx says that the Greeks were normal children, and that we feel nostalgia for that earlier time. Does this point towards self-deception or illusion as a basic human trait? That would be suggestive with regard to the Marxist view of literary criticism as a practice that demystifies distorted representations of real material conditions.

775. The superstructure transforms rapidly, but parts of it may take longer to change, so they become ideological battlegrounds and what is said requires decoding. A novel by Dickens, for example, criticizes the excesses of capitalist bosses and those who unreflectively act within capitalist ideology; even so, Dickens can be read as a supporter of the system trying to fix it, to mend it rather than end it. The word “reform,” is similarly tricky—one person’s reform is another person’s poison. Marx says that no class or system gives way until all of its resources (of whatever kind) have been exhausted—art is one of those resources.

Page-by-Page Notes on Karl Marx’s “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (774-76).

775. “With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.” This passage is important to the understanding of art. The old order may carry out a rearguard action, maintaining a human face on its old ways. I like the suggestion that “no social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed.” I should repeat here what I said earlier—history proceeds by strife from one system to the next; each system generates its own internal contradictions. We can understand and even predict such movements scientifically if we comprehend the contradictions. History proceeds in an orderly fashion and we can understand its processes—that is a fundamental assumption behind scientific socialism.

Page-by-Page Notes on Karl Marx’s Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 1., Section 4: “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” (776-83).

776. Marx defines society as people producing their subsistence and the means of production. Man the toolmaker produces his society materially, and the form of production determines social relations and institutions like law and religion. So if man loses control over those relations—as happens in a capitalist commodity culture—he becomes alienated from his work and from the products of his labor, from others, and from his own potential for freedom. His consciousness becomes determined by capitalist production. That is why Marx is so determined to explain commodity production and exchange—it is the site of this displacement.

777. On this page, Marx explains what he means by fetishism. Exchange is the key to mystification.

781. “Let us now picture to ourselves....” At this point, Marx discusses the social nature of labor. Production and distribution ought to be in harmony.

783. “So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond.” Marx sarcastically brings up the way we invest value in things. Sarcasm of this sort is a major feature of his writing style.

General Notes on Karl Marx: Commodities and History (Written at UCI in the 1990’s)

It is best to begin with a statement about Marx’s conception of human society. Marx (1818-1883) largely agrees with his philosophical predecessor Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) that it is essential to human beings to “objectify” themselves in an external world and then to comprehend that external world as an adequate expression of themselves. Work, for both Hegel and Marx, is the main way in which humans accomplish this self-affirming objectification. Labor, that is, brings out the latent potential in human beings and leads them toward an ever-greater realization of freedom within a community of fellow-workers. Human society, for Marx, consists in people laboring to produce what they, as members of society, need for their subsistence and happiness. At one and the same time, their labor both brings out their human capacities or potential and affirms their relationship with all their fellow workers. Work then, is for both Hegel and Marx essential to the very concept of humanity. Both thinkers are aware, of course, that this ideal society has by no means been fully established, and in their analysis of the reasons for the imperfection of human affairs, they part company.

Hegel and Marx use the term “alienation” to describe the cause of human unhappiness and failure to live in harmony. The content of this abstract term, however, shows the great differences between Hegel and Marx. While to the idealist Hegel alienation has to do primarily with the sphere of religion, Marx interprets the concept in accordance with his own materialist philosophy. Hegel, that is, argues that an alienated, “unhappy consciousness” is the result of humans’ experiencing themselves as empty and placing “worth” out of reach in a supernatural realm. Marx, by contrast, insists that such idealist formulations only obscure the true cause of human misery, injustice, and alienation. The real reason for these problems, says Marx, can be traced to the material ways in which people work and live—to their economic and social arrangements. Religion, says Marx, is nothing but a reflex of this real world; the misery humans express in religious terms is, therefore, nothing but a reflexive distortion of the misery and alienation they experience as members of an actual, material society. It will not do, then, to look to religion and the realm of the spirit for an understanding of (or a cure to) human ills. One must look to economics and to the “class struggle” that has always—right up to and most intensely in the time of industrial capitalism—characterized human history. After all, as Marx says succinctly in The German Ideology, “men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

Since Marx argues that economics is the key to understanding how human societies function and change, his task in Das Kapital as an antagonist of nineteenth-century capitalism is to explain the nature and behavior of that system’s most important phenomenon: the commodity. Since, in turn, understanding what a commodity is and how it behaves in the marketplace involves an understanding of the term “value,” we must turn first to Marx’s analysis of this concept, and then move on to the revolutionary implications which Marx himself draws from this fine-grained economic study.

The three types of value that Marx identifies in Capital, Volume One are use-value, exchange-value, and surplus value. We should consider use-value first. An object becomes a use-value, says Marx, by virtue of its utility, its capacity to satisfy human wants. A useful object cannot become a commodity, however, until we sell it to someone, and so exchange-values come into play. Exchange-value, which we must now consider, is quite different from use-value. While an object’s use-value is dependent on its “usefulness” and the labor that went into its production need only be conceptualized as “specific and determinate,” its exchange-value must, says Marx, be determined differently.

The following example will illustrate the difference in valuation: Let’s say I have some wheat. Insofar as I simply want to grind it up and bake for myself some bread with it, I am only concerned with the “productive activity of a definite kind and exercised with a definite aim” (Capital 49) that I have put into the growing and harvesting of my wheat. There is as yet no need to determine its value in terms of anything but its usefulness to me. But what if I live in a fairly well-developed market society and so intend to sell my wheat as a commodity? What if I want not to make bread with my wheat but to exchange it for something else that I need? How do I compare its value in relation to that something else? Well, says Marx, I have to recognize that my useful object, once I take it to market, can only function during a given exchange as a manifestation of abstract labor power. I cannot compare two things without reference to a third thing that will serve as a common denominator. How, for example, could I say, “My ten pounds of wheat are equal in value to one coat”? (Use-values or useful objects can only confront each other as qualitatively different; no one would exchange a coat for a coat, but someone might exchange a coat for another useful thing. Nonetheless, such qualitative differences do not establish a common standard of value.) Abstract labor power is Marx’s answer—I can compare the two objects because into the making of both went a quantity of homogeneous, “abstract” labor. Notice here that no one cares about the specific, determinate labor that went into the making of a given item, or even about the object in all its glorious usefulness. At the market, at the point of sale, all we care about is the fact that “abstract labor,” however absurd such a concept may in fact be, can serve as a common property for both items. If we started arguing over the quality of the work involved, we would no longer be able to agree on a standard measure of value.

Since a commodity can express its value only through exchange, we must measure that value in terms of congealed, socially necessary labor—just as much quantity of time, no more, no less, as it takes efficient workers in an efficient commodity-society on the average to produce a given item. (Adam Smith had explained long ago the benefits of the division of labor, wherein each worker does only one little task with robot-like efficiency. Thanks to the division of labor, ten people making part of, say, a pin can make thousands of pins in a day while those same ten people, each trying to make an entire pin, would have very little to show for their efforts at day’s end.) So here we are, gone to market with our useful objects. In order to transform those objects into commodities, we must exchange them as pure congelations of abstract labor power. During the moment of exchange, nothing else matters except that abstract standard; all else is unavailable to us, is bracketed out.

The commodity, to repeat, is no respecter of specific, determinate labor; it requires that we should consider it merely as a portion of general labor. All commodities are equal; all work is equal, when exchanged in certain proportions. A commodity is indeed a useful thing, but that usefulness cannot be realized as value until the thing is exchanged. The commodity then, says Marx, is a peculiarly two-fold phenomenon. We can grasp its value only as an expression of abstract labor, only when it embodies this labor at the point of exchange, only in “the social relation of commodity to commodity” (54). Our own mutual relations and interdependence, our own concrete labor as producers of serviceable objects, says Marx, no longer matter; once a capitalist economy gets going, those commodities might just as well have picked themselves up and gone to the market without us. We exist to produce commodities; they do not exist to serve us, and we cannot hope to commandeer them our way just because we happen to have done some specific piece of work a few days back. In effect, the man working himself to death in a coal mine has no right to demand more from the society he keeps warm than his paltry wages allow. His money represents a given amount of abstract labor, and he may command only that much and no more. Money, of course, is the absolute, universal standard, the congelation of labor by which all other items may be measured as values, and our workman has very little of it to show for his pains, and so no right to live like the capitalist who employs him.

How, indeed, is it that the capitalist lives so well? We must now bring up the third kind of value that Marx discusses, “surplus value.” Simply put, this is the profit that the man of business turns. Whatever certain economists may say, Marx explains, profit is not generated by sharp buying and selling prices. People do, of course, sometimes buy things below their value and/or sell them to some poor devil at an exorbitant price, but we must not equate such practices with profit. No, our capitalist generates his profit not during an exchange of commodities but beforehand, right in the factory. How so? Well, consider that in a given society, the entirety of the workforce only needs to produce a certain quantity of goods to keep itself going. Society X (read “workforce plus dependents”) needs to make only quantity Y of goods, no more, no less, to provide for its own well-being. Let us say that providing this quantity of serviceable things—food, shelter, tools, and the like—takes each worker an average of, say, four hours per day. Thanks to the marvelous technology and division of labor that came into play with the Industrial Revolution, it only takes half a day’s work to satisfy all basic human needs. Nonetheless, we must forget any ideas this fact may have given us about producing our way to industrial utopia; the capitalist is intent on turning a buck, and he cannot do it so long as the workers all provide for their own welfare and then go home. He points to the terms of employment laid out in that lopsided contract between himself and his workers. He knows full well that he, the capitalist, owns the means of subsistence (money and the materials with and upon which to labor) so necessary to the worker, who has only his labor power to sell. In practice, this means the worker will have to do a little more work than he might have planned. Does ten or twelve hours sound like a nice round figure? Fine, it’s settled. Welcome aboard!

In essence, each extra hour of labor, each extra object or part thereof that the worker provides, goes right into the pocket of old moneybags the capitalist, or at least it will make that familiar jingle when all of his surplus commodities reach the market and get sold at the rate determined by competition. The point is, the worker owns only his labor and is paid in wages for the exercise of that labor; he does not own the products of his labor, and has no right to any of the money to be had from the sale of these products. What the capitalist accumulates, then, is the surplus labor provided by his workers, which surplus labor, conveniently compressed into its money form, he can then venture in exciting new ways to harvest even more surplus labor. For the moment, let us leave aside the obvious question that arises here: since the worker’s wages command only a rather small quantity of goods, who is going to buy all the extra things that the dynamic capitalist’s ambition brings to market? Some of them, says Marx, will obviously be bought by those who have accumulated a great deal of money and can afford to live well, but it is not as simple as that, so we shall have to return to the problem below.

What does Marx draw from all this economic analysis? Well, he says that the commodity, by its very conditions of existence, has by the nineteenth century transformed the relationship between human beings and the quality and products of their labor. Human relations are no longer valuable until they are expressed in the grotesque exchange of commodities; they have to be “embodied” in commodities, which then take on all the power and ferocity and determining quality of fetish objects. Instead of regulating the great productive capacity that the scientific revolution has given us, instead of making what we need to live well and distributing it on a rational, orderly, and just basis, says Marx, we live chaotically. The old, hierarchical social bonds of feudal Europe have been broken forever, replaced by the Darwinian social environment of capitalism with its two great antagonistic classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat. While the latter class has little to hope for in Marx’s day except to work and subsist on what wages it can earn, the former class has for its interest the ceaseless accumulation of wealth, a quest which leads to what Marx calls perhaps the worst “contradiction” of capitalism. Namely, since nearly round-the-clock manufacturing of goods is essential to the capitalist, overproduction, undertaken on far too grand a scale to respond to the Invisible Hand of competition in which Adam Smith put so much faith, is bound to result in periodic crises. The market, that is, will surely suffer through ever-increasing cycles of boom and bust. The owners of capital, helped along by the state they control, will try anything to keep their markets expanding—including subterfuge, colonization of pre-industrialized lands, and war against the capitalists of other nations. (Not that the word “nation” means much within such an international system as capitalism, Marx would point out.) Obviously, even the most cursory look at the first two world wars should convince one that Marx’s model, whatever its flaws, has a certain predictive value. This century’s wars in Europe surely had much to do with economic crises and empire-building. The great powers became desperate for new markets and jealous of one anther’s successes, and hell broke loose.

As for the strictly social effects of capitalism, or what Marxists call the “superstructure” when they are not on guard against being called vulgar, these follow the same fetishistic logic as capitalist economics. Marx, a good materialist who tries to begin with his observations of the world around him, declares in The German Ideology that “men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with . . . their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (47). However, under capitalism, just as in the economic sphere the mutual relations between human workers are obscured and displaced into the allegedly social exchange of things, of commodities, so in the social sphere the institutions by which humans live are taken as a priori, eternal commands from some supernatural being. The contents of religion, morality, philosophy, law both civil and criminal, politics domestic and foreign, and so on are taken as natural rather than as corollaries, however indirect, of a given economic system, or, in Marxist terminology, of a given “set of material relations between men.” If capitalism dictates that our actions are controlled by the objects we produce, says Marx, it follows that we understand everything else on the basis of our mystified relation to commodities. We become the slaves of abstractions which we ourselves have produced, whether directly in the factory and marketplace or in our minds. The tendencies of the logic described here are perhaps to be summed up best by the Romantic poet William Blake’s almost Marxian line, “Prisons are built with the stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.” That is, we take our religious dogmas and our laws and institutions as unquestionable, eternal truths rather than as the effects of the way in which we relate to one another as human beings, as producers of our material subsistence. This reification and naturalization of certain moral values, says Marx, we then employ to condemn those who do not share in the benefits of a market-based economy. As always, ranking follows reification, and the final equation is just what we might have expected: “whatever is, is right.” The poor, the thief, the prostitute, are born losers, and they deserve whatever happens to them, while the wealthy are considered superior and deserving of all good things.

Finally, we should remember that while the foregoing description of capitalism sounds rather bleak and hopeless, Marx himself is anything but a pessimist. He is a firm believer in “progress” or “historical development.” In other words, Marx is convinced that just as certain historical factors made the development of industrial capitalism inevitable, so will its demise occur almost like clockwork. The increasingly violent economic cycles and imperialist sprees that system is bound to suffer, says Marx, will lead to that system’s overthrow. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, he says, the proletariat will realize that they have already attained the capacity to produce enough to make the world a comfortable place, and they will stop obeying the orders of capital. Then the revolution will occur on an international scale, and the path will be open to the full development of that many-sided “communist man.” Remember when you compare Marx to some of the English cultural analysts that for Marx, the proletariat is a class like no other in history. Its appearance on the world stage precludes any attempt to turn back the clock to some falsely idyllic feudal age and thereby defuse the threat that the working class presents to the new, but self-destructive, world order. We could, of course, spend a great deal more time discussing the problems with Marx’s historical vision—his ideas about women, race (he says that Asia has no history!), and the time-frame or even the inevitability of capitalism’s self-destruction, for example. One thing to keep in mind, however, as we move towards Sigmund Freud, is that Marx has no fully developed notion of the Unconscious, though his analysis of fetishism clearly bears a psychological cast. Perhaps this dark little secret about humanity, the Unconscious, plays a role in the survival of capitalism. At least, that is what Freud would say.

Page-by-Page Notes on Friedrich Engels’ “Letter from Friedrich Engels to Joseph Bloch” (783-84).

787. Here Friedrich Engels argues that while the economic system is the base, superstructure determines the form of struggle.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York : Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home