The chapter deals with both the capitalist system and the sense-making that goes on within it – for, as a human system with human actors, it requires explanations to work. Marx has a bone to pick with those explanations – a complaint that allows us to catch a glimpse of the Wiccan Marx, who, like Michelet’s witches, has discovered the power of the negation of the negation, the power of saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards:
“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning.”
As is evident from the chapter’s title, Marx is set on some good ol’ mythbreaking here. He trains his peeps on a myth that has jumped out of a novel into the popular consciousness – Robinson Crusoe. It is a brilliant move by our man Marx. The establishment of a system that depends on abstracting labor into the commodity form – the fictitious commodity, as Polanyi calls it – generates, at the same time, a justifying ideology of individualism. The bond between the system and the ideology is not accidental – as we said above, every human system has to explain itself. It won’t work, otherwise. Ideology, then, is a surface phenomena only the way skin is a surface phenomena – try living without it. Here are the two long grafs re Robinson Crusoe, which will take us to Robinson Crusoe’s predecessor in Hayy ben Yaqdhân, the boy raised by a gazelle on an uninhabited island. By various detours, we hope to then advance to feral children and, in particular, the Wild Girl of Sogny in future posts – and from there get to the European savage. An ambitious program which we will no doubt flub, like a muscle-challenged landlubber courting Olive Oyl with comb-music.
Here’s Mr. Marx:
“Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists, let us take a look at him on his island. Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting. Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation. In spite of the variety of his work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of nothing but different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him. ….
Let us now transport ourselves from Robinson’s island bathed in light to the European middle ages shrouded in darkness. Here, instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy. Personal dependence here characterises the social relations of production just as much as it does the other spheres of life organised on the basis of that production. But for the very reason that personal dependence forms the ground-work of society, there is no necessity for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind. Here the particular and natural form of labour, and not, as in a society based on production of commodities, its general abstract form is the immediate social form of labour. …”
Ah, and since I am quoting, let’s quote Karl Polanyi, from the chapter in the Great Transformation about fictitious commodities. Polanyi sets up a dialectically charged polarity between individualism and autarky that makes the boundary-marking in the Robinson Crusoe figure all the clearer:
“As a rule, the economic system was absorbed in the social system, and whatever principle of behavior predominated in the economy, the presence of the market pattern was found to be compatible with it. The principle of barter or exchange, which underlies this pattern, revealed no tendency to expand at the expense of the rest. Where markets were most highly developed, as under the mercantile system, they throve under the control of a centralized administration which fostered autarchy both in the household of the peasantry and in respect to national life. Regulation and markets, in effect, grew up together. The self-regulating market was unknown; indeed, the emergence of the idea of self-regulation was a complete reversal of the trend of development. “