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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

the Zona, Marx and the necessity of universal prostitution

Ah, I’ve been tearful all day – that was a beautiful speech by Obama. Those were beautiful crowds. But where are the ghosts of some half a million Iraqis? And what is the sound at our backs – the scuttle of rats in the alley? The fall of the market? The zona, phase 2?

Yes, yesterday the zona quietly settled in the UK. The Royal Bank of Scotland basically declared insolvency. This will (prediction prediction/here’s my malediction) be bigger, in the end, than the Lehman brothers. However, the oligarchy seems to be proceeding, robot-like, as though the financial sector could, somehow, be restored, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas. You were there! And so was my yacht! And my trophy wife! And the 40 room pad in Greenwich, Connecticut! And I never want to leave home again!

Of course, the problem is not that the banks aren’t loaning money to homeowners – it is that the homeowners incomes have been frozen or gone down since 2000. You don’t have to use a complicated equation to see what happened. Put this in your model – Homeowner A receives y amount of money per year in 2001. He receives y-x amount of money in 2004. However, he can buy much better cell phones with it, and great plastic tat at Walmart, and sign up for a teaser rate credit. In 2007, however, he has bought all the cheaper tat he could stand, he owes y x 4 for the new house he bought, and his income is still y-x. You figure it out. Then multiply by 80 million households. Quick, how soon then can you loan more money to Homeowner A to make all the mortgage vultures happy? Answer is: as much time as it takes to travel to the Alpha Centauri galaxy and back. Which is why, incidentally, TARP is not only a bank robbery, but it has created quite a large hole in the future, which has literally been mortgaged to a bank system that cannot pay back the loans. As in, can’t pay back that 7 trillion dollars in loans on junk assets our kindly Government has pumped out. When Paulson announced that the sky was falling, there was, admittedly, no alternative but to pass the bill – but it was precisely then that the alternative should have been floated. Dems should have gotten together to pass a bill capitalizing a national bank with the Tarp money, with a charter to finance industry and commerce in the U.S., until further notice. It is employment and increasing incomes that will repair the much shrunken financial services sector. Not all the Fed chits and all the T-men will build back the castles of ruin again.

Enough of the zona. Because I am broke and idle this month, I’m working quite a bit on the Human Limit. So, resuming the glowworm thread…

Let’s put our piton in this remarkable passage in the Grundrisse (wait for it) – especially as we are mulling over the first generation of Romantics. This passage – we can’t name it, give it a proper name, it comes from the flow of the notebook, Marx not as the systematic but as the notebook thinker, there’s no subsection for it - comes at the end of four or five pages the proceed out of the consideration of the utopian banking scheme of the Saint Simonians, as well as Proudhon’s idea of being paid directly for one’s time itself – the time-chit – instead of in money (wait for it). The passages I want to consider go from this sentence: “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,” which begins a consideration of the universal history (wait for it) and the universal subject (about which Marx says, later on: “The exchangeability of all products, activities and relations with a third, objective entity which can be re-exchanged for everything without distinction – that is, the development of exchange values (and of money relations) is identical with universal venality, corruption. Universal prostitution appears as a necessary phase in the development of the social character of personal talents, capacities, abilities, activities.” I hardly need to point out to LI’s readers that this could easily have come out of Baudelaire’s Mon Coeur mis a nu – and so we have two secret notebooks, written about the same time, converging on the same images. Vases communicantes indeed, man).

Here’s the passage (just a second) that caught my eye:

“Universally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal [gemeinschaftlich] relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control, are no product of nature, but of history. The degree and the universality of the development of wealth where this individuality becomes possible supposes production on the basis of exchange values as a prior condition, whose universality produces not only the alienation of the individual from himself and from others, but also the universality and the comprehensiveness of his relations and capacities. In earlier stages of development the single individual 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. It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness [22] as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.)”

Marx, of course, has more than an honorable place in the history of the overcoming of the human limit – he is, in a sense, its clearest theoretician. 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. 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, – which is to some extent what LI has identified with the great reactionary theme of irrevocability – with a romantic point of view that he feels is discredited and unreal from the outset. It is a point of view that depends upon the bourgeois point of view to which it forms an antithesis. It is a parasitic existence that denounces conditions that it 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. I, too, am emphasizing nests of gentle folks in my history, but in actuality, many of the romantic themes transform popular, grass roots themes and conceptual schemas – touch, as it were, on superstition, that lose 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. We will remark more on Taussig’s essay in our next post.


Anonymous said...

Your "zona" posts keep reminding me of Lorca's magnificent poem about the 1929 crash, "Danza de la muerte", from Poeta en Nueva York. (I can't find an English version online, but maybe you own a translation of the book?) Lorca had just had his heart broken in Spain and, confronted with writer's block and difficulties of various sorts, accepted an invitation to Columbia University in the autumn of 1929. He barely spoke English. He arrived shortly before Black Tuesday and spent the next few months wandering around Harlem and flipping his shit; where he came to associate an African mask with the dance of death I am not sure, but who cares? El mascarón. ¡Mirad el mascarón!

This isn't a strange place for the dance, I tell you.
The mask will dance among columns of blood and numbers,
among hurricanes of gold and groans of the unemployed,
who will howl, in the dead of night, for your dark time.
Oh savage, shameless North America!
Stretched out on the frontier of snow.
[from Christopher Maurer's version]

Roger Gathmann said...

phoenixcomplex, lovely! Thank you for that quote. It makes me feel like picking up some Lorca tonight.