Our foundation is an earthquake: Marx doubts...

“The first work, that I undertook to resolve the doubt that assailed me…[zur Lösung der Zweifel, die mich bestürmten]

Marx is the Leo among philosophers. It is rare that he will express himself in terms of a personal “doubt.” The method of Descartes may have been all very well for his era, slowly freeing itself from the chains of scholasticism – but Marx did not see his own period as one in which the confession of doubts was at all helpful. Like the inventor of a machine who proposes to solve a material problem, Marx wanted, in his published work, to include those things of material relevance for describing and promoting the overthrow of capitalism. James Watt does not tell us of his doubts and woes, but tells us of the trials he makes of his machine, its failures and successes.

But in the introduction to the Critique of the Political Economy, Marx does feel the need to introduce himself a bit. Thus, the lion, for a moment, a mere flash, reverts to the pussy cat.

What is this doubt about? It regards the very fulcrum of society, and thus of social change. Marx first approaches the question through the study of jurisprudence, in its most philosophical form. But outside of his university classes, out there in the real world, what he sees is that the philosophical view of the law is unable to account for the basic movements that are occurring within the law – say the law of property. In fact, the law was being pulled along by economic forces. Instead of enforcing a definition of property arrived at logically, or from a study of legal precedent, legal precedent was being picked apart and re-arranged to justify vast shifts in property relations. And were these shifts decided by the state and imposed on the population? While his training in both law and Hegel might make this seem to be both the rational and real course of things, it seemed, instead, that the law simply caught up with exogenous pulls.

It is this simplified picture of social change that made Marx reach for a model that had an all too successful career in Marxism: the base/superstructure model. As so often in Marx, his postulates are announced with a certain music, a soundtrack, consisting of the noise of chains – fetters being dragged, or fetters being burst asunder:

“The general result that pressed itself upon me and, once I had gained it, served as the leading thread of my study, can be briefly formulated like this: In the social production of their lives persons enter into determined and necessary relationships independent of their will, that correspond to a specific stage of the development of their productive forces. The collectivity of these relationships of production depict the economic structure of society, the real basis, upon which a juridical and political superstructure is raised, and which corresponds to specific social forms of consciousness. The modes of production of material life condition the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of persons that determines their existence, but, inversely, their social existence, which determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material forces of production of a society come into contradiction with the prevailing relations of production, or (which is only the jurisprudential expression of this), with the relations of property, within which it have moved up to this time. Out of the forms of development of the forces of production, these relationships suddenly change into fetters. There then enters an epoch of revolution.”

Even here, where the base/superstructure notion – first mentioned in The German Ideology, I believe – makes its appearance as a ‘Leitfaden’, the metaphoric tends to metamophose. The superstructure becomes fetters, which implies that the superstructure is imprisoning the base upon which it rests.

This idea has, unfortunately, led to an infinite amount of writing in which all cultural, legal or political events and artifacts become the ‘expression’ of the base – a base which is a very funny thing for a base, as it keeps changing. The metaphoric difficulty here is not just a mere epiphenomena – since the metaphor is the way the model is pictured.

And yet, even if the misery generated by the base/superstructure metaphor makes me want to give it the evil eye and pass on, that would be a foolish thing to do. For Marx is in some ways more right than he knows, here; in addition, by making the base itself a source of change - merging the foundation with the earthquake – he finds the way out of his own model.

The clue that the imperfectly vertical metaphor of the base and the superstructure (in which the former operates not as a secure foundation, but as the very locus of change, and the latter operates not as a house, but as the prison that seeks to cage the earthquake on which it is built) made Marx uncomfortable is found in one of those footnotes in Capital in which the choral id of the system receives its play – although perhaps this is to confine the Marxian id too much, since surely it is at work in one of the first example of exchange in the Critique, that of a volume of Propertius against 8 ounces of snuff.

This is what Marx writes in note 34 of the first chapter of the first volume, breaking off from giving Bastian a drubbing:

“I will take this occasion in order to briefly address an objection which was made to me on the appearance of my text, To the Critique of the Political Economy, in 1859, in a German-American pamphlet. It was said that my insight, that the specific mode of production and its corresponding relations of production, in brief the ‘economic structure of that is the real basis, on which the juridical and political superstructure which are erected and to which specific social consciousness forms correspond that ‘the mode of production of material life in general conditions the social, political and intellectual life process – all of this was true for today, where material interests dominate, but not for the middle ages, where Catholicism, or for Athens and Rome, where politics ruled. Firstly it is strange that someone presumes that these well known clichés about the Middle Ages and Antiquity are unknown to a person. It is at least clear, that the Middle Ages could not live from Catholicism, nor the antique world from politics. The manner in which they gained their life explains, on the contrarcy, why in one case politics, and her Catholicism played the major roles. Anywy, it requires little acquaintance with the history of the Roman Republic, for example, to know, that the history of landed property images its secret history. On the other side, Don Quixote already paid for the error that he incurred by imagining that wandering chivalry was equally in accordance with all the economic forms of society.”

This is, in one way, a robust defense of the idea that the ‘secret history’ of the politics of a society is – to use an image Marx couldn’t have used – like x raying the politics and finding the mode of production behind it, the skull, or caput mortuum, behind the skin. And yet this actually changes the terms – the base and superstructure won’t stand still. For how has the base now become a secret history? In a sense, the base, here, is a secret shame – it is abasing. But surely there was nothing the Church or the Roman senate talked about more than rents, tithes, production, land, interest, etc. It was, if anything, an open secret, known to all men. There is a sense in which Marx, reaching to strip off the justifications of politics, becomes a sort of negative image of Don Quixote – mistaking politics or the law as pure epiphenomena, which, by stripping it of anything but a justificatory character, begs the question of why it needs to be justified in the first place. If Don Quixote mistakes the windmills for giants, isn’t Marx, here, mistaking the giants for windmills? The function of politics and law is utterly lost if they are utterly superstructure. By combating the dualism between the idealist and the materialist, we lose, here, our sense of the dense knitting of reciprocities of which politics, religion and culture must be a part.

There’s a passage in James Buchan’s Essay on Money, Frozen Desire, in which he, too, examines Don Quixote, in the light of the influx of gold from the Indies. Actually, it is in light of the confrontation between a society that is already on its way to fetishizing money, in terms of Gold, and a society in which gold is primarily an ornament. The latter should not be taken to mean ‘only’ an ornament – the only is introduced by the cash nexus. Buchan, a marvelous rifler of the old books, quotes Cortes’ words as recorded by Gomora’s History of New Spain – asked by the Mexican ambassadors sent by Monteczuma why he had landed in Mexico, Cortes explained the ‘disease of the heart, that infirmity, that we have, my companions and I, and that we cure with gold.” Yet in Spain itself, which like all of Europe in 1492 suffered perpetually from a lack of money in circulation, the disease and the cure weren’t well understood – and of course, by understood, I mean felt. Buchan takes up not the fight against the windmills, but the first aventura, in which Don Quixote, mounted on Rosinante, comes to an inn which, of course, he doesn’t see as such:

“In the adventures of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, we at last have a hero who confronts the world of money in all its fluidity and relativity, not on its own terms,

“He [the innkeeper] asked if he had any money on him, and Don Quixote replied that he hadn’t a penny on him, for he’d never read in the histories of the knight-errant of anyone who had.”

but on his own. Like Columbus, he hadn’t got a blanca; unlike Columbus, he doesn’t care. He mounts his steed, which has more quarters than a real, and sets out to do battle not just with the world of capital – configured in the famous windmills – but with money itself. In the process, Don Quixote inaugurates in prose, which is the language of commerce, the novel of the modern West, whose very greatest exemplars – Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, the Wings of the Dove –re-stage that combat to the death of money and romance.”

From the margins, I’d put my two cents in here, that the narrative regression that we are experiencing in our culture can be measured precisely in terms of the fact that Hollywood, unblickingly, has created whole worlds in which the heros, villains, comedy and tragedy contend with money only, if at all, as an intermittent plot device – their clothing, houses, food, autos, all are simply givens, existing to cretinize the audience into a sort of compromise Quixoteism of absolute greed.

But to return to our texts.

Marx’s rather worried footnote is not false – but it falsifies the import of the base superstructure image. Which, as we have seen, does more dancing than the wooden table in the Commodity Fetishism chapter.

I am reminded of Karl Polanyi’s notion that the economy as defined by the non-Marxist political economists of the nineteenth century – that is, in terms of self-regulating markets – actually induced a political remedy – what Polanyi called the double movement. On the one hand, the movement to “free the markets” – on the other hand, the movement to regulate them. This movement responds to the collective effect of capitalism, or the Great Transformation – disembedding economics from its place in the social and attempting to embed the social in economics.

“… never before our own time were markets more than accessories of economic life. 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 households 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. It is in the light of these facts that the extraordinary assumptions underlying a market economy can alone be fully comprehended.”

Marx makes, then, a valid point through the use of the base/superstructure metaphor, but the metaphor can’t really contain that point, overdetermined as it is with both an implicit value system that comes with vertical metaphors (the base as, indeed, base) and failing to structure the relations between the base and the superstructure in such a way that we understand the way in which an economic dynamic axis is embedded in society. Life, for humans, is social life – you are not going to get down to the natural basics, food, sex, shelter, and find some a-social element. But the vertical ideology is a powerful reaction formation to the money economy in the West, a disguised piece of nostalgia.