“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, February 25, 2010

the flowers of evil in a Brussel's estaminet




I like to think of Marx in Brussels, that capital of compromise, sitting in Le Cygne – apparently his favorite estaminet – thinking about the course of events. The young Marx, who felt that the course of events was going in his direction, rather than the older Marx, aware that events are tricky and baffling things. Both, though, already feel – such is my novelistic intuition – that the scale of their thought exceeds the scale of their audience. This is, perhaps, the great modernist anxiety – exactly at the same time that the popular press brings an unparalleled audience to certain writers, it seems, capriciously, to exile others. And yet, what is the correlation between the embodied work and the scale of the readership? In one domain after another, one sees that intellectual production is standardized and put on a schedule for the widest possible use, while at the same time it suffers an interior trivialization as it is wrenched out of the relationships – that mode, ultimately, of connected friends and allies – in which it used to exist. It is in this sense that I – rather imaginatively – connect Marx’s exile in Brussels with Baudelaire’s later self-inflicted exile in the same city.

It is under such Baudelairian auspices that certain of Marx’s writings from this period have a certain satanic nuance to them. None more so than the litany that ends a draft entitled Wage Labor [Lohnarbeit]. There are reasons that this reminds me of Baudelaire’s poem, Abel et Caïn, which is nobody’s favorite poem from Fleurs de Mal – and yet, somehow, has stuck in my head since I first read it when I was a wet behind the ears fifteen year old (read Baudelaire as a teen and it screws you up for life – I can testify!)

Race d'Abel, dors, bois et mange;
Dieu te sourit complaisamment.

Race de Caïn, dans la fange
Rampe et meurs misérablement.

Race d'Abel, ton sacrifice
Flatte le nez du Séraphin!

Race de Caïn, ton supplice
Aura-t-il jamais une fin?

Race d'Abel, vois tes semailles
Et ton bétail venir à bien;

Race de Caïn, tes entrailles
Hurlent la faim comme un vieux chien.


Marx’s litany is different, but in a sense, it picks up Cain’s complaint and turns it against the bourgeois Abels. I think of it as the dark pole of Marx’s thinking – later, in the Grundrisse, he will return to this with more care – but I believe he never quite saw the error in this litany, which is to define private household relations by direct correspondance to a macrostructure of feudal relations. It is where Marx needs to be corrected by Simmel, and Simmel by recent research on the emotional economy of the household. Dissolving all ties in the money culture – which Marx here posits as Cain’s witchy path to emancipation – has, as we all know now, actually crippled Cain, since the fungibility of all relationships destroys labor’s solidarity and eats into the ability to resist capitalism’s seedy little totalizing gestures. I should point readers, here, to Nina Power’s latest essay for a nice, succinct overview of the conjunction of feminist ideals and consumerist marketing – which of course arises from the destruction not only of the patriarchal, but of the private domain in general, that web of reciprocities, traumas, joys, sweetnesses, tiredness that winds directly into our affectual being.

However, this is not to stint or complain about the dark pole in Marx’s writing - I understand it, rather, as a necessary view point – to use the vocabulary of my last post – from which one can go outward to understand how modernity encompasses different economic systems that cannot so easily be subsumed in an ideology of ‘progress’. The feudal and archaic, to put this in the framework of one of Hirschman’s stories, may rightfully support the intimate. In fact, the destruction of the intimate may just be the destruction of the working class as a class. Which, I hope, reveals my hand in the question of defining class ‘interests’.

Here is Marx’s litany. I’ll come back to this in my next post.



Positive Aspect of Salariat

Before we conclude, let us draw attention to the positive aspect of wage labour [Salariat].
[a] If one says “positive aspect of wage labour” one says “positive aspect of capital”, of large-scale industry, of free competition, of the world market, and I do not need to explain to you in detail how without these production relations neither the means of production — the material means for the emancipation of the proletariat and the foundation of a new society — would have been created, nor would the proletariat itself have taken to the unification and development through which it is really capable of revolutionising the old society and itself. Equalisation of wages.
[b] Let us take wages themselves in the essence of their evil [Kern der Verwerflichkeit – kernal of the reprehensibilness – from such kernels, the flowers of evil grow – R], that my activity becomes a commodity, that I become utterly and absolutely for sale.
Firstly: thereby everything patriarchal falls away, since haggling, purchase and sale remain the only connection, and the money relationship the sole relationship between employer and workers.
Secondly: the halo of sanctity is entirely gone from all relationships of the old society, since they have dissolved into pure money relationships.
Likewise, all so-called higher kinds of labour, intellectual, artistic, etc., have been turned into articles of commerce and have thereby lost their old sanctity. What a great advance it was that the entire regiment of clerics, doctors, lawyers, etc., hence religion, law, etc., ceased to be judged by anything but their commercial value. [And here we seem to miss this note in the German text: [<(von Marx eingefügt) National-Klassenk[ampf], Eigentumsverhältnise> - added by Marx, National class struggle, property relations]

(Thirdly: since labour has become a commodity and as such subject to free competition, one seeks to produce it as cheaply as possible, i.e., at the lowest possible production cost. All physical labour has thereby become infinitely easy and simple for the future organisation of society. — To be put in general form.)

Thirdly: as the workers realised through the general saleability that everything was separable, dissoluble from itself, they first became free of their subjection to a given relationship. The advantage both over payment in kind and over the way of life prescribed purely by the (feudal) estate is that the worker can do what he likes with his money.


ps. Qlipoth has a good rundown of the context of Marx's notes here - plus his disagreement with my reading.

23 comments:

duncan said...

Oh noes, I disagree with this too! I'm going to ignore it until I've responded to your secrets post! Which is taking me forever!

duncan said...

Fuck it, I can't help myself. Look - you're seriously overestimating the significance of the 'cash nexus' type stuff to Marx's critique of capitalism. Capitalism is not universal exchangability for Marx; he's nowhere close to that Becker space, even negatively. (I'm thinking of your comments in the other thread.) When Marx talks about exchange ruining the family and so on he has in the first place in mind stuff like tiny children having to go out and work in order that the household earns enough to survive. It's not "markets in everything" because the exchange relation is entering into our soul and destroying intimacy!

But also it's not a dark pole of Marx's thought that he thinks it's a good thing that the emergence of capitalism destroyed patriachy, destroyed hierarchical feudal relationships, etc. etc. Marx just likes this about capitalism! He thinks capitalism's really fucked up in all sorts of ways, but he's actually a kinda pro-Enlightenment guy. What Marx thinks 'the Enlightenment' gets wrong, is in seeing this (in something like Weberian terms) (before Weber, self-evidently) as a rationalisation, a stripping away, a simplification, a removal of social relationships. Capitalism involves a whole set of extremely complex social practices - not just exchange! - which then get forgotten about or naturalised, by those participating in them, as if all you've got is exchange, pure and simple, rational, transparent. The thrust of Marx's critique is against this understanding.

Not sure if that'll communicate. I think it's a mistake to over-emphasise the exchange relation.

duncan said...

I understand what you're saying about the "dark pole" of course, but the mechanisms by which capitalism destroys feudalist relationships - primitive accumulation, say - are not the same as the fact that it does so.

I suspect I'm not getting across what I mean. Will write a proper post instead of sounding off.

roger said...

Duncan, don't worry! I'm going to be following out these lines for a month - you'll have plenty of time to argue with my Marx.

I'm not sure how you cannot interpret the final sentence in any but a very naive and dark claim: "as the workers realised through the general saleability that everything was separable, dissoluble from itself, they first became free of their subjection to a given relationship. The advantage both over payment in kind and over the way of life prescribed purely by the (feudal) estate is that the worker can do what he likes with his money."

That 'freedom to do what he likes with his money" is, of course, massively distorts the cash nexus and its effect - it simply shows no understanding for household economics or how they function, which is, indeed, that money is not fungible in this sense. Nor should it be.

But even as Marx approaches the endpoint of Benthamism, I think he recoils. I hold, with Amie, that Marx does not have a vision in which everything is in place in the forties - rather, he lays down features that he reworks, re-visions, finds other contexts for, etc. in the economic works.

What is funny is that it is you who appear, now, to want to cling to the humanist Marx with a heart for alienation. Myself, I believe that is a guiding thread for Marx, but dialectic is a process of testing the extremes. In some ways, Marx is prophetic here, but accidentally - he was right about physical labor, but that was due to various technological and economic arrangements in the early twentieth century that made a vast agricultural population superfluous. We are still standing in the shock of the collapse of those peasant economies, where, indeed, the work was hard - but at the same time, linked, seasonally, to respite. Actually, at the moment, I think the West is also standing in the shock of another ill recognized revolution - the collapse of manufacturing that basically was meant to be 'cushioned' by the great moderation. The end of that cushion is here. The job machine in the developing countries has stopped for almost a decade now.

duncan said...

"The advantage both over payment in kind and over the way of life prescribed purely by the (feudal) estate is that the worker can do what he likes with his money."

How is this a dark claim? Seriously. Marx thinks this is emancipatory - or potentially emancipatory, since that "freedom to choose" is also (as he puts it elsewhere) "freedom to starve". But the freedom to starve stuff is why he's against capitalism - not because we can (if we've got the money) choose what we want to spend it on. Marx's critique of capitalism is not an anti-consumerist one - it's an anti anti-consumerist one: Marx objects to the systemic production of poverty and exploitation, he doesn't object to the range of different things workers can choose to do with their money if and when they ever get any.

roger said...

Well, there are two problems. Of course the worker can't do what he likes with his money - this is a point that Marx will return to and, I think, see more clearly in the Grund. But it is a point that he never gets completely clear about. He sufferes a deficit in understanding tthe household economy, the informal exchanges that hold together associations. That is why Simmel is an excellent corrective to Marx. And in fact it is through Simmel that Lukacs rediscovers the revolutionary method in Marx.

On the level of the system, of course, that freedom to "do what he likes with his money" leads us, of course, to the ultimate weakening of any labor movement in the face of that array of choices. Which one sees more, perhaps, in the U.S. than in England. In the U.S., this kind of talk always has a libertarian Beckerish bent - from vouchers so that you can make school 'choice' to vouchers for medical care.

On the scale of the narrative of universal history - which I am most interested in - there are two takes, here - well, perhaps more. One of those takes revamps but essentially preserves a progress-based history - so that capitalism creates both the conditions of its own demise and the conditions that will be seized by the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie - or, second take, that in the rise of capitalism, the decay of all the ties of association will make any unification of the proletariat impossible, instead atomizing them so that there is no resistance as capitalism decays, only more and more atomizing and clinging to the consumer function. Marx doesn't consider, at this point, that the latter is a possibility.

duncan said...

"Of course the worker can't do what he likes with his money"

Not altogether, mainly because he doesn't have enough, also because money can't buy you everything, self-evidently: Marx isn't forgetting about the existence of households, they're just not a major focus of his analysis, and why should they be? But the point is that capitalism opens up the possibility for widespread material prosperity - whether mediated by market exchange or not, that's a different issue - and it also destroys the forms of hierarchy that were prevalent in feudal societies, opening up instead forms of hierarchy, of oppression, that are self-evidently open to political contestation, because part of the way capitalism functions is by moving individuals between different social roles in a way that makes those roles' contingency an obvious on-the-ground fact.

duncan said...

"In the U.S., this kind of talk always has a libertarian Beckerish bent - from vouchers so that you can make school 'choice' to vouchers for medical care."

Yes, because the entire fucking discourse of choice has been appropriated by the right - but that's not a problem with the concept of choice per se, any more than the invasion of Iraq is an objection to democracy.

You should not let the enemy set the terms of the debate.

duncan said...

But I'm going back to the secrets thing. I think that might be more on point w/r/t our disagreements.

roger said...

"Not altogether, mainly because he doesn't have enough, also because money can't buy you everything, self-evidently"

No no no. Because the fungibility of money is hemmed in by the system of exchanges that constitute the workers family life, friendships and associations. The idea that these things are mere dross, or don't have an actual social force, seems to me so sociologically wrong that it shows a misunderstanding of the heterogenous economies that will always characterize capitalism. Period. Of course, mentining the penetration of the cash nexus, this is relevant. Marx eventually does see this, but he doesn't quite know how to theorize it. Hence, the alteration between the feudal fetters thesis and the dehumanization thesis.

I will get to this shortly, in a post about the significance in the change of the Communist League's slogan.

roger said...

"Mentioning the penetration of the cash nexus" - I mean, Marx, in this litany of the positive side of wage labor, is tracing the penetration of the cash nexus and its effects. Thus, it becomes relevant to ask about the systems that are thereby penetrated.

Anonymous said...

"The idea that these things are mere dross, or don't have an actual social force, seems to me so sociologically wrong"

Now at the top of the page, Chuckie sez the cash relation creates existence separated from purposeful life activity.

How do you interpret that as dross?

Chuckie K

Anonymous said...

that = purposeful life activity. Sorry for the dangling demonstrative.

Chuckie K

roger said...

Mr. CK! I'm confused about what you are asking. How Marx reconciles idea that social existence under capitalism generates existence separated from purposeful life activity for the worker with the idea that the worker is free to spend the money that he earns any way that he wants? Is that what you are asking?

duncan said...

"No no no. Because the fungibility of money is hemmed in by the system of exchanges that constitute the workers family life, friendships and associations. The idea that these things are mere dross, or don't have an actual social force, seems to me so sociologically wrong that it shows a misunderstanding of the heterogenous economies that will always characterize capitalism. Period."

Roger, I understand what you're saying - it's very clear - it's not a complicated argument. I disagree that Marx does not understand this.

duncan said...

Look - one of the things that happens with the emergence of capitalism is the differentiation out of something that can be regarded as "the economy" - 'economic' activity gets separated out from 'social' activity in a way that first creates an intellectual endeavour called 'political economy' and then one called 'economics'. This is itself a social process, this differentiation. There is a widespread misapprehension, among the members of the political-economic intellectual community, that this apparently quasi-independent entity called 'the economy' has laws which can be understood independent of their social and historical context/location. Marx's decades-long intellectual project, which he eventually publishes as "a critique of political economy", aims to re-embed political economic discourse within its historically specific social environment, showing what is occluded or naturalised in political-economy's reification of the 'economic'.

This is the project, okay?

To think that Marx misses the fact that money's fungibility (for instance) is hemmed in by non-economic social phenomena, which have actual social force, is (in my opinion) to fail to understand the most basic feature of Marx's intellectual endeavour.

duncan said...

I'll come back to this, but I've got some other stuff to do. If I drop offline for a few days, that's not because I've thrown in the towel...

duncan said...

(sorry to leave things hanging though!)

roger said...

Oh, Duncan, like I say, this is my project for the next month. So we will surely have plenty of time for this.

I have no disagreement with your sense of Marx's project - it chimes with my own Polanyi-ish view of Marx. But it was, as you say, a long project with many stopping points, repairs, changes, and shifts.

Anonymous said...

LI, wow, what a number of great posts here and at Rough Theory. Alas, I just don't have the time to even read them with the proper attention let alone comment.

A little comment nevertheless. While reading your previous post about secrets, which refers in joking to dim bulbs, something started to dimly flicker in memory. And lo, it was a series of posts you wrote in 2006, which include addressing Marx, toddler economists, Witz, lighting technologies - and vertigo.

http://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2006/04/more-light-on-dark-subject-part-1.html

The post refers to a letter from Marx to Kugelmann from 1868. Which reminded me of another letter from Marx to Kugelmann in 1871. Unfortunately, I can't find it in German and don't have the time to go researching. I only have the French translation, which I'm going to transcribe. Sorry if it is a rough transcription, but even even if it's a "mere" letter, it does seem to address some of the things discussed in the posts "presently", for example tele-technology, which you also mention.

"The work for the International is immense, moreover London is overrun with refugees who we must help. Furthermore, I am besieged by other people, pen-pushers of the press and individuals of all sorts, who come to see the "monster" with their own eyes.
One has believed until now that the formation of Christian myths in the Roman Empire had been possible only because the printing press had not yet been invented. It is completely the contrary. The daily press and telegraph, who instantaneously spread inventions across the globe, fabricate more myths in a day (and the stupid bourgeois believe and broadcast them) than one had been able to realize in former times in a century."
(Marx to Kugelmann, 27 July, 1871)
....

PS - thank you for the d'un pas irrégulier post and the song.

Amie

northanger said...

NHF 186 = 12.26.05-LETTERS-TO-JUNIUS.TXT = ANALYSIS OF THE THIRD KEY (The Power of the Word; 26-Mar-2005 (Wings of the Wind)) = POSITIVE ASPECT OF SALARIAT = PURPLE EYES LIKE IN A MOOD RING = SULLIVAN BALLOU'S LETTER = SUPERIOR GEMELLUS MUSCLE = THE CONCEPT OF AMERICA = THE DEBATES OF LIBERTY = THE SPACE OF AMBIGUITY = TOP 9 CHANSONS POUR JULIE.

NHF 361 = THE GEMELLI ARE TWO SMALL MUSCULAR FASCICULI = AMERICAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY HOLDINGS LLC = FOCUS ON THE MANY- SIDEDNESS OF THE WORKING CLASS = A BOOK MUST BE THE AXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA WITHIN US.

roger said...

North! Blithe spirit!
"Can I go forward when my heart is here?/
Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out."

Anonymous said...

yes i have been reading up on stuff like this for a few weeks now.it seems alot of people are writing articles about this subject matter.keep up the great work..