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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kill the poor



It was during his Koln period that Marx, according to his own account, made one of his most important discoveries: that the sociological category, “the poor”, was vacuous. The poor were easily recognized in pre-capitalist economies: the beggars, the serfs, the slaves, they all exist under the sign of minus. They had less, and that quantitative fact defined their social existence. What Marx saw was that capitalist society was not just a matter of old wine in new bottles – the archaic poor were now free labor. Perhaps nothing so separates Marxism from religion as  this insight: in all the great monotheistic religions, poverty is viewed in feudal terms: the poor you will have always with you. But in capitalism, or modernity tout court, the poor continue to exist as a mystificatory category, usually in a binary with the rich. In fact, the real binary in society is capital and labor. The bourgeois economists, and even the non-scientific socialists, operate as though the archaic poor still exist. To help them, we need to develop a method of redistribution that is, in essence, charity – run by non-profits or run by the government, but still charity. But Marx saw this in very different terms. Labor produces the economic foundation of capitalism – value. In these terms, it is not a question of the poor being a qualitative or moral category – it is a question of the alienation of value, of surplus value, that circulates through the entire capitalist system and allows it to grow on its own, while at the same time making it vulnerable to crisis.

Baudelaire famously created a slogan for the 1848 revolution: Assommons les pauvres. Kill the poor! This seems on the surface to be the most radical and effective of  welfare schemes, for it would get rid of the poor once and for all. But Marx explains why it wouldn’t work: the poor describes an illformed social  category, a survival from the past. And on the other hand, to kill the working class would be to kill capitalism itself. What  Marx learned in the forests of Koln was that capitalism was as atheist as could be against property. Far from being founded on the defense of property, capitalism was quite comfortable with changing its definition to suit – capital. What was once a right of the “poor” – for instance, to glean windfallen branches – could be swept away with a penstroke when the large landowners so desired. What was once the very definition of property - to have the full usage of an item one buys - can suddenly be hedged round with limitations when we try, for instance, to copy it and upload it on the internet. We are suddenly deprived of the inalienable right to give our property - and this is named Intellectual Property, and a legal structure grows up around it in a heartbeat.  Property is not, then,  a constant element, but a fluid one, changing its meaning and effect with the system of production in place. To describe the poor as having little “property”, in other words, reified property, placed it outside the social, and disguised the social conflicts encoded in what property is.

Marx’s logical clarity, however, is a bit too bright even for many of his own followers, who are as prone to fall into the language of the struggle between the poor and the rich as anybody else. It is, after all, one of the richest images we have, an leads irresistibly to a one-sided discourse on equality.

Nevertheless, Marx did not take this to mean that all workers are “productive”.   

2 comments:

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

The truth of individual people's existence(s) was there before Karl Marx and after him. His descriptions did nothing to alter that. They didn't more accurately define things.

The "poor" were "free labor" pre-capitalism. Marx just created categories and stuffed people and things into categories. He saw things narrowly.

Move beyond Marx. Ignore Marx. Look at people, their individual plights. Those plights predate and postdate capitalism. Capitalism is just one of many social systems or networks or beliefs that hurt the people who don't actively work toward/within it. In non-capitalist societies, people will set up hierarchies and there will be "poor" within those structures, and they will be "free labor" for the people who run the structures.

This happens whether Marx chose to pay attention to it, or not.

Marx is better left buried in his grave.

roger said...

Marx is buried in a grave.His texts aren't, of course. As for your comments:

"The truth of individual people's existence(s) was there before Karl Marx and after him. His descriptions did nothing to alter that. They didn't more accurately define things."

As for this:

"Capitalism is just one of many social systems or networks or beliefs that hurt the people who don't actively work toward/within it. In non-capitalist societies, people will set up hierarchies and there will be "poor" within those structures, and they will be "free labor" for the people who run the structures."

This wholly confuses what free labor is, and what I am saying about the poor. You aren't making an argument - or even making an accurate historical observation - but instead are using vague historical generalizations unlinked to any material situation to - well,I'm not sure what. Are you trying to defend capitalism, in some vague way?
This is two claims, one of which is obvious - of course individuals, groups, men, women, trees and dinosaurs were there before Marx -and the second of which, non-sequeterishly, claims that somehow, this means Marx didn't more accurately define things. One could say this of any intellectual. Gravity existed before Newton, relativity before Einstein,etc. Marx observed the system of capital and took from the writings of those who claimed to understand it his categories.