some notes for saturday

It is a point that is not often enough stressed that one of Marx and Engels co-editors on their newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, was a man named Ernst Dronke whose major claim to fame was as a chronicler of low-life and Polizei Geschichte. Marx’s well known affection for Balzac, whose police stories were one of great unifying threads in the Comedie Humaine, was matched in his real life, the period of his greatest political activity, by his own involvement in decrying the police tactics and the laws concerning certain “little things” – such as the laws against gathering wood for fuel in private forests passed by the Rheinische Landstag, against which Marx pointed his lance as early as 1842.

Without my expecting or planning it, it seems that the tree from the Chuangtze haunts the Human Limit.

I’ve been pondering in my off hours the way in which commodities – say in dead wood in the underbrush – not only get up and lead a secret life in the world of Capital, but, in so doing, evoke the organization of the police and the attempt to follow and control the most private of routines – for instance, the one that connects the cells in your brains to the distilled spirits in your stomach – which is, one might say, the political side of the secret life of commodities….

There’s been a recent controversy about happiness and militant dysphoria over at Ads Without Products to which I contributed my predictable pence. I liked it that the argument fingered the tropes I would have predicted in just the way I would have predicted, with everything centered around the inability to imagine that there could be any ideal but happiness, and at the same time leaving that massive signifier as blank as the eyes of any idol, any dug up statue, from any long sunk dynasty. One must infer the vision…

But to get back to the world of little things, especially the little things that get you drunk… or that in some way interfere with the state’s desire for the paradigm consciousness (which at that time was a nice cleared Lockean blank slate – land for the tilling, a property, and not common land debauched by vile liquids). Jessica Warner’s Craze is not only the history of that brief time in which gin was drunk in killing quantities, but of the attempt, by the state, to stop it. This involved using informers – not to betray a dissident religious or political sect, but to betray a consumer choice. While the state’s fight against smuggling had long used informers, I am going to tentatively claim that the act of 1736 which made it a crime to sell gin without an expensive license, intentionally available to few, introduced something new: a much more concentrated use of informers to control ordinary life. Here, indeed, was a contradiction in proto-capitalism: the elite – like Walpole – who depended on the money flowing in from the tax on spirits and the support of the great brewers were also confronted with a popular movement that lay outside of religion, politics, or ideology. Not of course that the movement didn’t develop an ad hoc ideology in its defense, one that caught hold of the theme of liberty. The gin acts, which go up to the 1750s, provoked riots. And they marked, Warner claims, a brief but telling victory of the urban obscure – artisans, maids, construction workers, etc – over the police powers of the establishment. She does not connect this with a revolt that happened later on, in America, sparked by, among other things, two of the little things, sugar and tea. However, as within, so without – the magic warrant for our inverted universal history seems to hold, here.