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Monday, January 19, 2009

From the caterpillar factory to the extinction of the glowworm


First things first - on MLK day, who'd you rather read than yours truly on the Dream speech? Okay, perhaps I am n. 45 million on that list, but if you want to, here I am in the statesman on Eric Sundquist's book.

Now, onto our show...

This is Pasolini, analyzing Italian history:

Since I am a writer and I write polemically or at least polemicise with other writers, let me give a poetico-literary definition of the phenomenon which occurred in Italy about ten years ago. This will help to clarify and sum up what I have to say (and perhaps make it more easily accessible). In the early 1960s, owing to the pollution of the atmosphere, and especially in the countryside because of the pollution of our waterways (the blue rivers and limpid springs), glow worms began to vanish. The phenomenon was sudden and devastating. In a couple of years there were no more glow-worms. (They are now a rather distressing relic of our past: an old man who recalls them can’t recognize in the boys of today the boy he was, can’t have the pleasant regrets he once would have had.)

Thus I shall call that phenomenon which occurred about ten years ago “the extinction of the glowworm.”

The Christian Democratic regime had two distinct phases that not only can’t be compared to each other – which would imply a certain continuity – but which have become historically incommensurable.

The first phase of this regime (as the radicals have always rightly insisted on calling it) goes from the end of the war to the extinction of the glow worm. The second goes from the extinction of the glow worm up to the present.” – Quoted in Leopoldo Sciascia’s The Moro Affair.


Forster’s human factories of caterpillars overseen by butterflies, as I said, signaled an inflection in the metaphor of the revolution, gave it a standing in natural history, while at the same time extending it to describe any order. In fact, Forster throws the term revolution back at the defenders of the old order, which is seen as a revolution that was affected to change the very nature of men; the old order was an intervention in their natural history, an inhibition of their natural capacity to perfect themselves. Although I don't want to press too much on Forster’s originality - these ideas were in the air of 1793 - it is from his pen, perhaps, that we get what was taken up by the first generation of Romantic philosophers - Schelling, Hegel - that mixture of natural and universal history. Although surely this is one of the lesser tributaries. Still, it is significant that both Herder and Forster were fellow travelers of the French Revolution, and both saw it in terms of universal history - a distancing device, in some ways, that justified the war and bloodshed. Or so one might think, in the reactionary era we live in. Another interpretation would, of course, remark on the war and bloodshed that stains every year of the ancien regime, which was right in the faces of these thinkers.

Marx, too, seizes upon the idea of this transformative moment - that is, the moment when natural history and the history of men merge, as it were. This is the importance of the remarks about universal history in the Grundrisse. Oddly, the remarks emerge in the context of his his meditation about the real nature of money. Roberto Calasso quotes from this section quite a bit in The Ruins of Karsch. Some of those quotations were so striking that I had to look them up myself - since I had never read the Grundrisse. I found that the section, even in Niclaus' translation, is compelling - alternately mindblowing and mindblowingly boring.

The notebook entry on Money contains an argument that seems to jump about, to embrace, for instance, a delirious sideview of the history of precious metals – whipped up contra Proudhon – while it tells a story with a motif Marx, like Dostoevsky, loved: the story of the double.

"Just as exchange value, in the form of money, takes its place as the general commodity alongside all particular commodities, so does exchange value as money therefore at the same time take its place as a particular commodity (since it has a particular existence) alongside all other commodities. An incongruency arises not only because money, which exists only in exchange, confronts the particular exchangeability of commodities as their general exchangeability, and directly extinguishes it, while, nevertheless, the two are supposed to be always convertible into one another; but also because money comes into contradiction with itself and with its characteristic by virtue of being itself a particular commodity (even if only a symbol) and of being subject, therefore, to particular conditions of exchange in its exchange with other commodities, conditions which contradict its general unconditional exchangeability. (Not to speak of money as fixed in the substance of a particular product, etc.) Besides its existence in the commodity, exchange value achieved an existence of its own in money, was separated from its substance exactly because the natural characteristic of this substance contradicted its general characteristic as exchange value. Every commodity is equal (and comparable) to every other as exchange value (qualitatively: each now merely represents a quantitative plus or minus of exchange value). For that reason, this equality, this unity of the commodity is distinct from its natural differentiation; and appears in money therefore as their common element as well as a third thing which confronts them both. But on one side, exchange value naturally remains at the same time an inherent quality of commodities while it simultaneously exists outside them; on the other side, when money no longer exists as a property of commodities, as a common element within them, but as an individual entity apart from them, then money itself becomes a particular commodity alongside the other commodities. (Determinable by demand and supply; splits into different kinds of money, etc.) It becomes a commodity like other commodities, and at the same time it is not a commodity like other commodities. Despite its general character it is one exchangeable entity among other exchangeable entities. It is not only the general exchange value, but at the same time a particular exchange value alongside other particular exchange values. Here a new source of contradictions which make themselves felt in practice. (The particular nature of money emerges again in the separation of the money business from commerce proper.)"


It is important, when reading Marx, to have a firm grasp of just why he uses the method he uses to talk about political economics. After all, it was available to him to employ the methodology of conjectural history created by the classical economists and their successors, who put these histories in the framework of mechanical systems – their own way of being scientific. Marx, however, uses Hegel’s dialectical method – freed from its idealistic tendencies, and set loose in the real world. The question has always been if this is good for the method, or if, like a household cat, setting it 'free' in the wild will lead to no good end. (although Marx insisted that what he was doing was conjoining materialism and dialectics, LI thinks the name "materialism" is a legacy of Marx's grad student days. Materialism seems to be little involved in what Marx is doing. LI calls it wild dialectics - what the hell). Paul Piccone makes the sensible remark that the primary thing for Marx is not value or production, but “people suffering and struggling to be human”. The point is to get out, to use Forster’s image, of the caterpillar factory. It seems to me that Marx’s decision to use the dialectical method to explain political economics was not a matter of applying the dying fashions of provincial German universities, but rather, emerged from the subject matter itself. The first thing that impressed him about the capitalist system was its contradictions. The contradiction, firstly, between the riches produced by the mechanical system of capitalism, and the poverty it produced among the producers. To grasp this as a contradiction in Hegel’s sense is to grasp it not as something to be explained mechanically – but rather, dynamically, functionally. One has to see not only that the system functions in such a way as to produce contradictions-in-use, but also that, as a human system, agents within it have to produce explanations for it. These agents like to explain the system as a vast dead machine. If the output of the machine is both greater wealth and greater poverty, such is the machine. Tampering with one of the outputs will screw up the other. Now, in the 20th century, the claim that capitalism indeed produced poverty among the producers has been roundly booed – since we are at a safe from the world of 1848. But the booing is misplaced. Gregory Clark in A farewell to Arms, certainly no friend to Marx, recently made the econometric argument that capitalism introduced a crash in the lifestyles of the populace when it first gained critical mass in the U.K., and that it still effects this crash when it is introduced into third world countries. I would argue that Marxism, anarchism, socialism and all the old causes introduced elements into the economic mix such that labor acquired an unparalleled bargaining power, which decisively effected the distribution of the system’s benefits – but that is an argument for another time. I’m more interested in taking one of those startling sentences in the Grundrisse and, like many another Marx-climber, putting a piton in it and making a scamper up one of the old man’s rocky faces – all to zigzag and weave together happiness and the human limit.

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