Saturday, March 31, 2018

Marx's hope - or mine

The hardest thing to recover from the wrecks of history is the horizon of expectation that the actors presupposed. Those expectations, that imagined future, all black on black, was intrinsic to the routines and habits that made it the case that people accepted x and came to reject y. The historian can make it easier on him or herself by simply borrowing the economist’s toolkit. It doesn’t really explain expectation, but it gives you a nice labels that you can paste over the gaps – for instance, you can talk about marginal disutility and make a graph.

A more sophisticated stab at the mystery was made by Marx, who assumed class conflict. By assuming an intrinsic violence that exceeded exchange, he opened up history to ethnography. His followers often have a hard time with this – they have a tendency to revert to the economic models of the neo-classicals, with the difference that, for the Marxists, profit is a dirty word, and for the neo-classicals it isn’t. This kind of Marxist will tell you, with a knowing smirk, that everything that happened in Iraq was planned, usually by some bigwigs, motivated purely by profit. Secret plans and the holy elevation of profit are the marks of this line of thought. Marx himself, thank God, was not given to such bogus analysis, since of course he realized that profit and loss has to be reconciled, in the end, with the realities of class conflict. Thus, in his analysis of how Louis Bonaparte became the emperor in France, he is very careful to underline the fact that the working class, which fought for the Republic, was fighting against its own interests, so to speak, insofar as the Republic was dominated by conservative business men, while the bourgeoisie, which did have an interest in preserving the Republic, went, to a man, to Louis Bonaparte’s side. Marx’s analysis – his journalism in general – confronted a fact that he tended to erase in the economic works – the lack of a truly homogeneous class.

This means, as well, that identifying class with its "interest" sacrifices the violence out of which class was forged - the meaning that endows profit with something more than the ability to afford a trip to a higher level fast food joint. That violence, sublimated in a thousand routines, makes up a collective lifestyle. One that, in our time, is snatched from the people to which it was promised at regular intervals. What to do with the anger that results from this is a problem that is left to... nobody, no structure, no church, no organization.

Marx, I think, thought that a working class consciousness could be forged - that it was not some natural demographic product. This was the point of the Communist Manifesto: this is the heart of revolution. Briefly, such homogeneity has occurred, but never, it seems to me, because of some universally shared class identification or recognition – instead, it is always about some collective threat. It is war, not the consciousness of one’s place in the system of production, that produces solidarity. And so that solidarity is, from the beginning, a reactive rather than a productive property.

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