In the German ideology, Marx introduced a trope that he used quite frequently to think about the socio-economic relations that underlie capitalism:
“Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, [Wenn in der ganzen Ideologie die Menschen und ihre Verhältnisse wie in einer Camera obscura auf den Kopf gestellt erscheinen] 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.”
In my last post, I introduced the anecdote of the masked gamblers in the Redoute to make a number of points – one of which is that you can read any number of biographies of John Law, or you can read Gregory Clarks recent A Farewell to Alms, which concentrates on the developments that produced capitalism in the period between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century, and nowhere will there be any anthropological consideration of that semantic pair with which the business pages are now entertaining us: transparency and opacity. The masks are so much frivolousness.
Well, since the frivole is one of the banners under which a site named, after all, Limited Inc operates, you’ll excuse me if I find the masks, on the contrary, full of meaning, and even find meaning, mythological meanings, in the detachment of the economic facts from the rites and peculiar symbols in which they are instantiated. The masked gambler and the open faced banker (who is a proxy of others, and thus fulfils a masking function, too) have an especial relevance now, when we are told that the transmission of commodities that are essentially nothing other than masks concealing unlikely combinations – securities the composition of which is hardly known to the dealers who sell them, who would even consider understanding the products that they sell to be a waste of time – is the very bedrock of our system.
Ah, the bedrock. And so it is that we get to Marx’s fascination with the inversions natural to ideology, that process of re-casting artifice as the natural. When Marx approaches this topic, some reference to an ur-ilinx situation – that of standing on one’s head – is sure to be in the offing. Or at least in the room next door, listening.
It is a good time to remember this. Lately, we are flooded with the world upside down – the world in which we, the producers, and we, the consumers, are shown to depend on them, the managers, and on them, the financial world – a relationship of dependence that “umdreht” – inverses reality. This inversion penetrates the discourse in unusual ways – for instance, the Fed’s concern with the liquidity of the system is derived from this inverted image, since if we turned the relationship about we would not only transform the central crisis into one of solvency, but we would have to contextualize solvency – and solvency, here, is about the means and modes of the expropriation of the increase in productivity, the fruits of which have been going, since 2001, almost exclusively to the top 20 percent of the income bracket. Since the collapse of the power of labour unions and the unraveling of the collaboration between the state and labour to give labour more bargaining power in the early eighties, this crisis was bound to happen. And it is bound to be seen upside down. Now, standing on your head and then standing on your feet certainly falls under the games of ilinx, which activates a dizziness in the social world. Marx was a man who wanted to seize society and make it stand on its feet – on its own two feet – and in that ambition he was serious – an avatar of seriousness. But since that seriousness was realized in images of standing on one’s head and inversion, his seriousness would slip away into ilinx as he analyzed the upside down society, as he corrected the reigning ideology, as, indeed, he spoke for revolution. For even though revolution was on the side of play, was the realization of the society of seriousness, it was entangled from beginning to end in ilinx – the irrepressible euphoria of the revolutionary act.
Of course, standing on one’s head makes it a question of heads – so often the revolution comes down to heads – and as heads seemed to be designed as perverse machines for the inversion of things, Marx’s tone, around the “Kopf”, always seems to take on a slightly mocking air. Here’s a passage from the introduction to the Critique of the Political Economy:
“Accordingly for the consciousness – and by this we specify the philosophic consciousness – to which the conceptual thinking of real persons and thus the conceived world as such is primarily real, the movement of categories appears as the real act of production – which, unfortunately, requires a shock from the outside to be set in motion – whose result is the world. And this is (this is again a tautology) correct insofar as the concrete totality as a thought totality, as a thought concretum, in fact is a product of thought, of conceptualization; but in no way of the external or above it all thinking intuition and idea and auto-generated concept, but of the working out of intuition and idea in concepts. The whole, appearing in the head as a thought whole, is a product of the thinking head, which assimilates the world in the only way available to it, a way that is different from the artistic, religious, practical-intellectual assimilation of this world. The real subject remain, before as afterwards, outside of the head, independent, as long, namely, as the head relates only speculatively, theoretical. Even then, in the theoretical method the subject, society, must always hover before us as the presupposition of the idea.” (ME 13, 633)
As it was in the beginning, so it is now, in our era of detached heads, tv heads, talking heads. Assimilation of the world through the total distortion of the world – this is what Kraus called the black magic of the press, and what LI calls white magic – for what was black for Kraus, the ink of the newspaper, has become white for LI, the white of the screen.
I came upon a beautiful instance of standing on one’s head, economically speaking, in Washington Post lately. It was in the Q and A with Stephen Pearlstein, the Post’s only intelligent business reporter (for unintelligence when one touches on any practical economic matter, or foreign policy, or anything that does not involve pre-digested nuggets of White House spin, I recommend the Post’s political reporter, Peter Baker, who possesses almost genius ability to totally miss the news in whatever news he is reporting). And this is what an intelligent business reporter thinks:
“Washington, D.C.: Steven, I suppose that additional regulation of the markets will also be accompanied with guarantees of government intervention to "socialize" losses in the financial industry. Bringing "stability" to this powerful and wealthy economic caste may have consequences for national competitiveness, social stability, and the print circulation of Das Kapital.
Steven Pearlstein: Very cute. First of all, you mistake bringing stability to a powerful and wealthy economic caste, in which we have little interest, and bringing stability to ordinary homeowners, workers, investors and the broader economy, in which we do have a societal interest. Often the two go together, so you can always rail against bailing out the big guys. But as I've written before, the bailout here is really for all of us. And I think you play cute intellectual games in dismissing that. There is a legitimate tradeoff between innovation and efficiency on the one hand and stability on the other, and it is hard to do that tradeoff because it is like weighing apples against oranges. But it is one we should do without getting into accusations that one side (my side) doesn't care about innovation or efficiency, which is what the Financial Services Round Table and the Derivatives and Swap Industry Association (or whatever it calls itself) invariably do.”
The bailout is really for all of us. This is a phrase that can lodge in the head, the head that is a factory for making ideas into concepts, or, as I suppose we would now say, conceptual schemas. Especially as it is in conjunction with the class segmentation of society that is both acknowledged and dismissed, with just the right upside down tone – as though we depended on the ‘innovations’ of the ‘big guys’. It is a funny thing, this word innovation. For instance, counterfeiters are innovators. They are continually innovating forms of currency that are supposed to look just like currency. Unfortunately for them, innovation is no excuse. Whereas in the financial sector, which is really about loaning money and receiving payments on those loans – and that’s it – innovation has been borrowed from the annals of engineering to make it seem like we have entered a whole new schema. In a sense that is right. The schema combines the banality of loaning money and receiving payments on those loans with the excitement of counterfeiting. It is all high stakes, piracy, and 45 trillion dollars in derivatives.
But of course that whole world is horseshit. When we cease standing on our heads. If we cease…
But its not them. They don’t decide.