The unbearable

I like to think of degrees of separation, of connecting links, that come about because “the production and consumption of all lands have become cosmopolitan” as a result of the relentless bourgeois search for markets. 

Take, for instance, Pavel Annenkov. It was Annenkov who happened to visit Belinski right as he was reading an ‘extraordinary’ novel, one that, one that, Belinski said, ‘reveals such mysteries and such characters in Russian life as never discussed before.” The novel was Poor Folks, and the novelist Dostoevsky. Pavel Annenkov happened to be in Russia in 1846, which is why a friend of his from Brussels, Karl Marx, was writing him letters there.

Poor Marx, of course, had had to move to Brussels at the prodding of the French police, although in truth it was a strange affair. Why should the wrath of the Prussian government – pressuring the French government – come down on him? He was not even involved in the article that was the cause of his expulsion – an article applauding an assassination attempt on the Prussian king in an exile German journal.

Annenkov and other Russians were attracted to the milieu around Proudhon and Bakunin, It was through this circle that Herzen met – to his later regret- the German poet Hedwegh, Marx’s great friend. Annenkov had attending a meeting of the communists in Brussels. I like to think that Annenkov might have mentioned the names of some of the new Russian writers to Marx – for instance, Gogol.

Marx’s letter to Annenkov is well worth reading – and, for those of us with a keen eye for the intersigne, there is something so very right – so almost uncannily right – in the fact that Annenkov, in this year, is involved as an observer both with the beginning of Dostoevsky’s career and with Marx’s. Annenkov had asked Marx’s opinion about a book written by Proudhon. Remember that Proudhon is, at this time, a European celebrity. Marx – well, he was known by some, and admired greatly by Frederick Engels, but he had trouble focusing.

The letter is here. It is a letter about, among other things, God and money. A subject that Dostoevsky has been attuned to from the first – although we are far from Crime and Punishment as yet.

“Why does M. Proudhon speak of god, of universal reason, of the impersonal reason of humanity, which is never mistaken, which has been, at all times, equal to itself, of which is it enough simply to have the correct consciousness in order to find oneself in the true? Why put on the feeble Hegelianism in order to pose as an esprit fort?
Himself, he gives you the key to the enigma. M. Proudhon sees in history a certain series of social developments; he discovers the progress realized in history; he finds at last that men, taken as individuals, do not know what they have done, have been deceived in their own movement, that is to say, their social development appears at the first view as a distinct, separate thing, independent of their individual development. He does not know how to explain these facts, and the hypothesis of universal reason manifesting itself is all ginned up [est toute trouvée]. Nothing easier than to invent mystical causes, that is to say phrases, where common sense can’t supply any.
But doesn’t M. Proudhon, in avowing that he does not understand anything of the historic development of humanity – and he avows this once he resorts to sonorous words about universal reason, god, etc. – doesn’t he avow implicitly and necessarily that he is incapable of understanding economic developments?”

The idea that history is happening behind our backs – or, to put it more personally, that our lives are operating behind our backs – verbally echoes a famous moment in Marx’s (posthumously published) German Ideology, which I am going to translate without smoothing out the gnarly structure of the sentences. There’s a reason that the sentences are gnarly: the sense, here, is a sort of Laocoon, in the toils of the snake Ourubos:

“That it [alienation] thus becomes an “unbearable” ["unerträgliche"] power, that is to say, a power, against which one revolutionizes, is integral to the fact that it has produced the mass of mankind both as thoroughly propertyless [“eigentumslos"] and at the same time as in contradiction to a world of wealth and culture spread before them, which both presuppose a great increase of the force of production, a higher level of its development; on the other side, this development of the forces of production (with which already the empirical existence of persons is put on a world historical rather than local footing) is, as well, an absolutely necessary practical pre-supposition, because without it only lack is universalized, and thus with neediness also the struggle for necessities begins again and we have to reconstruct all the old shit [die ganze alte Scheiße sich herstellen müßte] – and because, furthermore, only with this universal development of the forces of production is a universal commerce of people posited; thus on the one side, the phenomenon of the “propertyless masses among all peoples is produced all at the same time (universal competition), each making themselves dependent on the overthrow of the other, and finally the world historical, empirically universal individuals replace the local ones.” 

The complex that is built around “alienation” here goes through certain recognizable steps.

First, we have what I’d call the Frankenstein moment. This is the moment in which the people who are collaborating realize that somehow, without their choosing it, the division of labor has taken on a life of its own. This in itself is an important clue that alienation is unthinkable without division of labor of some kind: between men and women, between adults and children, etc. It appears again and again in Marx’s writing, every time giving us a sense of the social uncanny. The monster, it appears, is alive:

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Beautiful! And hideous. At the same time the system produces the most astonishing beauty – such refinement and cultivation [Bildung] as has never been seen before -- and a wretchedness, and evacuation of life, that has also never been seen before. This evacuation is described in two terms: of unbearability and of propertylessness. Unbearability is, Marx claims at this point, the condition without which the masses won’t revolutionize. In the sixties, when Marx was good and thoroughly Nietzschefied, this moment would give rise to doubts – is it a fact that the bourgeoisie, here, is the great producer, and the proletariat merely the reactive social body? If this were true, of course, it would truly put a spoke in the whole system – for the rising of the proletariat would only create the old filth, the old shit of fighting for survival.

The second moment has to do with located this unbearability in relation to the instantiation of universal history – the world market – in goods and labor that characterizes the modern system of production. Marx never takes back this insight. At the time he is writing the German ideology, very few business enterprises spanned the globe, and the logistics of manufacture, trade and communication are – in spite of his comments in the Communist Manifesto – only at the beginning of their irresistible rise. Certainly, the velocity with which silk moved from Canton to London was faster than the days when it had to go to Manila, then Acapulco, then across Mexico to Veracruz, then to Europe – or through Central Asia to Turkey, through Italy and up through Europe. Marx saw that already, branches of industry in one country would manufacture goods for sale in a far away country – as for example, Chinese ceramics, produced for the European and American market – and that there was a greatly increased commodity and money flow. Marx’s emphasis on this – even when explaining alienation – is another clue that alienation has to do with a vast and seemingly monstrous system that has arisen behind the backs of the worker. Before human beings become the subject of world history, their monster already is. Earlier revolutions against the unbearability of the system of production were as local as the system itself. The transatlantic revolutions might be said to be the first true revolutions - the French revolution, spread across Europe and fought out, in an unexpected way, in Santo Domingo, kept working in the liberation of Latin America and even, one could say, in the 1910 revolution that overthrew the Chinese Imperial court. Marx, in a famous 1881 letter to a Dutch socialist, Domela Nieuwenhuis, wrote: “The general demands of the French bourgeoisie laid down before 1789 were roughly just the same, mutatis mutandis as the first immediate demands of the proletariat are pretty uniformly to-day in all countries with capitalist production.”

In the German Ideology, the interweaving of the high level of the forces of production and their global scale leaves its impress on the chance of success of communism:

“Without this, 1, communism would be able to exist only as that of one locality; 2, the powers of commerce themselves could not have been developed yet as universal, and thus unbearable powers, they would have remained domestically-superstitiously “circumstances” ["Umstände"], and every expansion of commerce would negate local communism.”

To summarize: the  moment in which the monster opens its eye – in which man’s creation, to speak in Frankenstein’s terms, seems to operate behind man’s back, and subject man to its will – is the moment in which, rightly viewed, a whole series of developments falls into place. This moment – which is a moment, I would say, in the ‘becoming unbearable’ of social conditions, and thus is intimately entangled with the history it sees – is the condition for understanding what the forces of production have wrought.
 Alienation comes from those forces: alienation is their monster.

At the end of Marx’s letter to Annenkov – which is obviously connected to the work he is doing, at that time, which resulted in the section of the German ideology that presents a broad outline of capitalism as the heir to universal history -  Marx makes an observation about Proudhon’s theory as an expression of the class views of a group he knew well, since they constituted the Communist League – the petit-bourgeois.

“The petit-bourgeois, in an advanced society and by the necessity of its status, is made up of one part socialist, and one part economist, that is to say, he is awed by the magnificence of the high bourgeoisie and sympathizes with the griefs of the people. He is at the same time bourgeois and people. He prides himself, in the depths of his consciousness [dans son for intérieur de sa conscience] to be impartial, to have discovered the right balance, which he has the pretention to distinguish from the golden mean [juste milieu]. Such a petit-bourgeois divinizes the contradiction, for contradiction is the basis of his being. He is only a social contradiction put into motion. He has to justify by theory what he is in practice, and M. Proudhon has the merit of being the scientific interpreter of the French petite-bourgeoisie française, which is a real merit, because the petite-bourgeoisie will be an integral party of all the social revolutions that are in preparation.”

The petit bourgeois (raise your hands in the air if you are a member!) was not, as Marx supposed then, a transitional class type in the spread of capitalism. The petit bourgeoisie has become instead a dominant element, populating the ever expanding sphere of circulation. To probe the soul of that element is the task of literature. Lets end this with another quote. This one is from Gerard Cornio’s Figure of the Double in European literature. For Cornio, Balzac’s Rastignac and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov are doublets, and both encounter doubles in their lives:

‘Raskolnikove is also placed at the crossing, at the crossroads of doubles, but between [this pair] reigns incompatibility: Raskolnikov cannot, like Rastignac, accommodate himself to social and moral contradictions, accommodate himself through his personel consumption, he has to chose, to cut, to make choices which are sacrifices.”