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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Repost, edited: Marx and the devil

Marx and the devil

“He’d sell his soul for gold, and he’d be right, for he’d be exchanging dung for gold”
– Mirabeau on Tallyrand.

The great myth under which modernization understood itself in Germany was an old chapbook tale about an obscure professor selling his soul to the devil – an old story indeed. The professor, Faust, was taken up by Goethe and placed at the center of a poem which touched the thoughts of every German intellectual in the 19th century, including, certainly including, Karl Marx.

The devil intrudes fairly often in the narrative of capitalism – as it is woven on the heights, in the heads of the economists, and as it is unraveled at the depths, among ordinary people. Marx was, among other things, a great tracker of Mephistopheles. More than any other thinker of the nineteenth century, he sensed the shape of the web that was being blindly woven by the colonial offices, the businessmen, the political economist, and the rentier, and he saw what they couldn’t see, the pattern of Nemesis that was impressed upon the weave. But this was not a vision that appalled him – on the contrary, when in the utopian mood, he saw in this work the product of the discovery that there was no human limit to the use of the earth. When in the utopian mood … and against this, with the eye that Shestov claims is given by the angel of death, who has a thousand eyes, to those they come for whose time, it turns out, has not arrived – he writes of the dissolution of the human limit as a system of “universal prostitution”. It is the third eye that leaps out of the intricate jumprope rhymes of the dialectic and looks about in this world and sees the ruins and the small pleasures, the pleasure in smallness, which is what is being taken away forever.

Yet seeing this loss for what it is, Marx still connects resentment over it, mourning, – the mood in which the great reactionary theme of irrevocability is couched – with a romantic point of view that he feels is discredited and unreal from the outset. It is a point of view that depends critically upon the bourgeois point of view to which it forms an antithesis. It is the attitude of a parasitic existence in that it denounces those conditions that it inevitably, practically exploits. The romantic point of view would unwind history, undiscover the new world, and return to the giants – “the single individual [who] seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself.” The characteristic of that erection of independent social powers and relations is found precisely in money. The romantic point of view longs for another kind of independent power, the power of the gods, the power that antedates the discovery that there is no human limit and emerges as a protest against the world in which man is made a “universal” in relation to the great world universal-maker: money.

One should ask, however, whether Marx is right to connect this romantic viewpoint exclusively with a dissident faction of the bourgeoisie. In actuality, many of the romantic themes transform popular, grass roots themes and conceptual schemas – touch, as it were, on superstition, that loose system of beliefs which it was the point of the enlightenment program to overcome. In fact, as a sort of check on the emergence of attitudes that come with the advent of universal history, we have interesting anthropological data which is uncontaminated by readings of Ruskin or Tocqueville. In a famous paper, The Genesis of Capitalism amongst the South American Peasantry: the Devil’s Labor and the Baptism of Money, Michael Taussig wrote this about a population he did field work among:

In the southern extremities of the Cauca Valley, Colombia, it is commonly thought that male plantation workers can increase their output, and hence their wage, through entering into a secret contract with the devil. However, the local peasants, no matter how needy they may be, never make such a contract when working their own plots or those of their peasant neighbors for wages, It is also thought that by illicitly baptizing money instead of a child in the Catholic church, that money can become interest bearing capital, while the child will be deprived of its rightful chance of entering heaven.” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr., 1977))

Taussig explored popular sense-making of the effect of the implantation of the regime of capitalism – a good developmental project – on a primitive peasant culture. He found that the introduction of a fully monetized exchange value economy in the rural community in Colombia that he chose to study in the 1960s was interpreted by the myth of selling a soul to the devil. Mephisto shows his horns again. But why this convergence of sense-making narratives?

Taussig suggests that we can use Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism to explain how, spontaneously, a “primitive Marxism” springs up among the people. One wonders, however, if the direction of the interpretation can be reversed as well. Could we explain Marx from the direction of the people of the Cauca Valley? Could it be that Marx’s method reflects, unconsciously, the observation of the work of the diabolic in the capitalist system? Can we read backwards – the witch’s direction – here?

First, this is what Taussig writes:

“Rather than dismissing these responses as "traditional" or irrational, the approach adopted in this essay is that it would seem to be more true to the facts as well as more enlightening to consider these reactions as outcomes of a clash between a use value orientation and an exchange value orientation, thus viewing them as the beginning of a potential critique of capitalism. They provide us with insights into the irrational basis of our own economy and stereotype of homo oeconomicus, and can be usefully considered as illustrative of a form of "primitive Marxism."

Which raises the question: How is contracting with the devil derived from understanding a change in economic regimes from a “use value orientation”?

But to continue with Taussig:

This "primitive Marxism" was undoubtedly inherent in the outlook of the European proletariat in the early stages of the birth of the capitalist system, but has since been largely superseded by a new world view which regards the wage contract system, market pricing, and the institutionalization of profit and greed as natural and ethically com- mendable.1 In the light of this historical amnesia, which afflicts all social classes in a developed market economy, it is all the more important to dwell on the critique offered us by those neophytic proletarians in the Third World today, who are just entering the capitalist system with their goods and labor and who often appear to regard that system as anything but natural and good.2 In the Cauca Valley the sense given to the devil and his role in contracting wage labor is like the definition of the early Christian fathers as "he who resists the cosmic process," which in this context comes close to the idea of forcing things in the interest of private gain without regard to what are seen as their intrinsic principles (cf. Needham: 69-71).”

The “forcing” is an imposition from the outside. And it is pre-figured in another pre-capitalist economic form - the notion of sacred predation, the notion that the powerful have a divine sanction to take more than their share. This  sanction does not make them non-predatory, but instead institutionalizes their predatory status. In the chain of being, the creator God is also the taker God. The fall of this old ethos is recorded throughout the eighteenth century, masked to an extent in the rise of happiness as the social justification of the power structure. Taussig is talking about a culture moment that occurs, theoretically, as a result of the dissolution of sacred predation in the emergence of a new economic system, a new totality of social forces. But it doesn’t simply emerge – it is ‘felt’ as being imposed by something outside the social whole. Its exteriority joins it, archetypally, to images which exist (as portents?) in the old system. This is a thread expertly danced by Deleuze and Guattari in The Anti-Oedipus. .

But to return to Taussig, it is not the simple form of the contract with the devil that fascinates me as much as the “money as double” form – a story that has striking resemblances with Marx’s treatment of money in the Grundrisse, and with Balzac’s story, the Peau de Chagrin.
According to the belief in el bautizo del billete (baptism of the bill), the Godparent-to-be conceals a peso note in his or her hand during the baptism of the child by the Catholic priest. The peso bill is thus believed to receive baptism instead of the child. When such a baptized bill enters into general monetary circulation it is believed that it will continually return to its owner with interest, enriching the owner and impoverishing the other parties to the deals transacted by the owner of the bill. The owner is now the Godparent of the peso bill. The child remains unbaptized, a cause of great concern since the child's soul is denied supernatural legitimacy and has no chance of escaping from Limbo or Purgatory, depending on when it dies. This practice is heavily penalized by the Church. The baptized bill receives the name-the "Christian name" as we say in English-that the baptismal ritual was meant to bestow on the child and is now referred to by that name. It is then set to work as follows. The Godparent pays the bill over as part of a routine monetary transaction, as when one pays for goods in a store. The Godparent mutters the following type of refrain:
Are you going or are you staying?
Are you going or are you staying?
Are you going or are you staying?”

I am tempted to make some interlinear collage between this and Marx’s brilliant demonstration of the doubling to which social labor, embodied in the commodity that is raptured by money, which also embodies a social, exterior force, is subject. But let’s not muddy the track. Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care:
The bill, referred to by its name, is asked three times whether it is going to return to its Godparent or not. If everything works as it should, then it will soon return to its Godparent, bringing a large amount of money with it. This transfer is accomplished invisibly. A black middle-class family owned a corner store in the village. Halfway through the morning, when the wife was alone, she went out the back and then quickly returned because she thought she heard a noise in the till. Opening it she found all the cash gone. She then remembered that one of the customers had behaved peculiarly earlier that morning, and realized that someone had passed her a baptized bill. As soon as her back was turned, this bill had made off with all the money in the cash register. In a busy supermarket in the large city nearby, a shop detective was startled to hear a woman standing near a cash register chanting under her breath: "Guillermo! iTe vas o te quedas? ,Te vas o te quedas? ,Te vas o te quedas?" He promptly concluded that she had passed a baptized bill and was waiting for it to return to her with the contents of the register, and he immediately arrested her. She was taken away and nobody knows what happened thereafter. One of the few successful black store owners in the village was saved from a great loss only by a most unusual coincidence. Serving in his shop he was startled to hear a strange noise in his cash register. Peering in he saw two bills fighting with each other for possession of the contents, and he realized that two customers, each with their own baptized bills, must have just paid them over and were awaiting their return. This strange coincidence allowed him to prevent the spiriting away of his cash.”

Wendelin: “The devil is not the worst by far, I can deal better with him than with many people. He honors the elderly, his grandmother stands high in his regard, and that is a fine character trait. When he shakes hands he means it, one can see that he has had much to do with knights; he fills his end of the contract much more promptly than many an earthly dirty dealer. Of course, afterwards, on the delivery date, then he comes on the very minute. On the stroke of twelve, he grabs his soul and goes, with beautiful regularity, with it back to to his house in hell. He’s really a proper businessman, he is.”
Pfrim: I am too old, a satanic pact wouldn’t do me any good now, but when I was as young as you – my soul, I didn’t know what to do with my soul. -Nestroy, Hollenangst
“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.”

What Marx means here by a general commodity is one so purified of its mortal nature, as a use value, that it has been entirely transfigured into a pure commodity, unsoiled by human hands. Particular commodities, on the other hand, like Goethe, have two souls within their breasts – longing to be exchange value, and ending up as use value. In fact, in their end is their justification, at least in one of the social spheres that, altogether, constitute the total society. Yet it turns out that the use value of exchange value embodied in money is involved in a self-referential bind – it can’t quite dematerialize itself. Like the money in Taussig’s story, quarreling in the cash register, money is always in the process of shedding its nature, which is to be an intensional object – dependent for its meaning and existence on a social attitude – and presenting itself as something independent and even autonomous. There have been many dreamers of a utopia of money, in which something would simply be recognized by all as a measure of value outside of all social relations – although, alas, this impossible object would have to fall into the world again if it is actually to be exchanged – that is, if it is actually to be of use. The flies in the spider web dream of the superfly that would deliver them. It is part of the fallen nature of money that, strive as we will to find that unit outside of the social that will operate immaculately inside the social, it always reflects the particular conditions of exchange.
“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.)”

When Marx talks like this, of “sides”, what is he saying? Where do these sides exist? This question isn’t impertinent – that is, it isn’t as though the sides are ‘metaphors’ for a logic of, say, the spirit. Later on, Marx will make a note that he has to express these things less “idealistically”. But we can see that these sides are not arising in the kaleidoscopic turns of the Absolute spirit. They are happening in the here and now. They have an actual social existence – that is, the sides are performed. In a sense, this is what is happening in Taussig’s story of baptized money. But it is also what is happening when money exists as, so to speak, an infinitely deferred referent. The wealthy or enterprises concerned with wealth have, so to speak, assets in money, but the real existence of that money is another matter entirely.

The culture of happiness, that is, the culture in which the ideal is given as either the individual pursuit of happiness or the collective’s pursuit of happiness, presupposes a certain interchangeability of happiness, a certain harmony that would make all happinesses consistent one with the other. At the same time, the real conditions for growth – the overcoming of the human limit upon which the pursuit of happiness is premised – is dependent on a system in which the opposition of happinesses are understood as the drivers of growth. This is a “contradiction” in the Marxian sense – not of logic, but of elements within a total system.
“The dissolution of all products and activities into exchange values presupposes the dissolution of all fixed personal (historic) relations of dependence in production, as well as the all-sided dependence of the producers on one another. Each individual’s production is dependent on the production of all others; and the transformation of his product into the necessaries of his own life is [similarly] dependent on the consumption of all others. Prices are old; exchange also; but the increasing determination of the former by costs of production, as well as the increasing dominance of the latter over all relations of production, only develop fully, and continue to develop ever more completely, in bourgeois society, the society of free competition. What Adam Smith, in the true eighteenth-century manner, puts in the prehistoric period, the period preceding history, is rather a product of history.”

The all-sided dependence of the producers – in this way, the people come into history. In this way, the caterpillars begin to develop wings. In this way, universal history is born. This is one of the contradictions that gets in the throat both of capitalism and Marxism. There is, on the one hand, an all-sided dependence that breaks man out from the condition of idiocy, of private servitude and local superstition, in which he had been bound. But how does this happen? It happens through the division of labor, and the de-personalizing of the routine of labor. Just as with the peasants of the Cauca valley, the dominance of exchange value over all other market systems – of which we now have an extensive anthropology, thanks to Polanyi – produces not the all sided perfect man,  but a multi-tasking wage laborer – besieged, as it were, on all sides. Where you gonna run to where you gonna go? Well the rock won’t hide you, and the rivers are bleeding. And after the revolution, what is to become of your all sidedness?
“Just as the division of labour creates agglomeration, combination, cooperation, the antithesis of private interests, class interests, competition, concentration of capital, monopoly, stock companies – so many antithetical forms of the unity which itself brings the antithesis to the fore – so does private exchange create world trade, private independence creates complete dependence on the so-called world market, and the fragmented acts of exchange create a banking and credit system whose books, at least keep a record of the balance between debit and credit in private exchange. Although the private interests within each nation divide it into as many nations as it has ‘full-grown individuals,’ and although the interests of exporters and of importers are antithetical here, etc, etc., national trade does obtain the semblance of existence in the form of the rate of exchange. Nobody will take this as a ground for believing that a reform of the money market can abolish the foundations of internal or external private trade. But within bourgeois society, the society that rests on exchange value, there arise relations of circulation as well as of production which are so many mines to explode it. (A mass of antithetical forms of the social unity, whose antithetical character can never be abolished through quiet metamorphosis. On the other hand, if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic.)”

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