“The true mystificator seeks not to appear to be one, but to be one. On the contrary, Mallarmé is paradoxically conscientious about appearing to be a mystificator in order not to be one. One has already seen this in relation to his obscurity. Imbued with that truth that the highest art is accessible only to the very few, he did as he wanted to by intentionally emphasizing the hermetic side of his genius, sparing the public the pretention to understand him, the error to suppose that they did understand him.” – Thibaudet on Mallerme
But the affair here has yet another background. With insight into the nexus collapes, long before the practical collective collapse, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions. Thus, it is in the absolute interest of the ruling classses to eternalize thoughtless confusion. And why otherwise would the sycophantic pundits (Schwätzer – enthusiasts) be paid, that are able to play no other scientific trumpcard, as that one ought not to think at all in political economics!
Yet satissu perque. In any case it is shown how very much these pastors of the bourgeoisie are mistaken, that workers and business people understand a book and you yourself have found your bearings in it, while these scribes (!) complain, that it is quite an indecent thing to put their understanding at a loss.“
- Marx, letter to Kugelmann over Capital, July 7th 1868.
Irony has many sins on its conscience, even if it is the most useful of all tropes – one of which is that, ironically, what is labeled as ironic is often simply unexpected or paradoxical. We live in the era in which the irony of the masters has become the irony of circumstances. Hardy’s phrase is correct.
And thus, the question of understanding. Mallarme wrote with the full expectation that he would be understood by the few; Marx wrote with the full expectation that he would be understood by the many. Yet, as he was fully aware (as expressed in the letter to Kugelmann), understanding so often depends on what you desire to understand. Malllarme, of course, treats the desire to understand as, primarily, a desire, which requires teasing, flights and returns, follies and almost unspeakable unions. Understanding presents itself as the lab coat and the icy fingers, but to the eye of the poet, these are mere emblems of play. To the eyes of Marx, on the other hand, there is also a strong desire not to understand. In fact, today, it is rather easy to see, looking at the productions of the economists, that the split Marx pointed to between the understanding of the scribes and of the lay people is broad enough that one could say, the economics of the economists are recognized as such only by students in economics classes, while the economics of everyday life are recognized as such by a mere handful of economists, all shunted to the sidelines. Marxism, put into broad outlines, has a history of lighting people’s minds on fire. It seems to align itself much better with the vernacular understanding of capitalism than any theory based on maximizing utility. Hence, the cordial hatred it has always received from the scribes.
And yet… as I pointed out in my last post, there is a tendency to chisel out of Marx’s work the Marx one wants to embrace. The Marx, for instance, who objected to the idea that the historical sketch he had worked out in Capital was a universal solvent was dismissed almost effortlessly by twentieth century Marxist who were sure that Marx had given them the key to all inevitable economic development. In the collapse of Communism, the wheel has turned – and one tends to underestimate the strong, strong tug of the universal history tradition in Marx. But the Marx who sang the World Market in the Communist Manifesto can’t simply be ignored as a babbler, some confidence man pose. He returns to his problems because they are the problems of everyday life in the modern era. He may well be the man of the document and blue book, but he is not weaving the system together in his head. What he is doing – his fundamental move, a move that brings us to the revolutionary core of Marx’s entire work after 1843 – is pointing to the historical conditions that brought about capitalism. It is a move that snaps the bond to ananke – necessity (which, etymologically, is rooted in the Greek term for yoke, fetters, bonds), but poses the problem of the ‘law”.
If Marx were tracing the rise of the ancient system of slavery, he would be dealing with a system that limits itself. Its self understanding is invested in the merging of conquest and growth – an empire grows, but the forces of production depend on purely predatory relations that are, at most, concerned with a systematic need to raid – not to market.
Marx, however, is dealing with a system that exists on a different basis altogether. If, from the revolutionary point of view, the capitalist system is not necessary, from within the system, secondary necessities are created. In the same way, unexpected social features are also created.
One of those features is the advent of a new social identification: the competitor.
Early in the Grundrisse, the idea of competition as a means of breaking free from the bonds of tradition makes an appearance:
“In this society of free competition the individual appears freed from the bonds of nature, etc., that made him in earlier historical epochs the factotum [Zubehör] of a specific, limited human conglomerate. In the prophets of the 18th century, upon whose shoulders Smith and Ricardo still entirely stand, this individual of the eighteenth century makes his transitory appearance – the product on the one side of the dissolution of feudal social forms, and on the other side, of the newly developed forces of production since the 16th century – as the ideal, whose existence is of the past.”
This passage is correlated with others in Marx’s work – he did like Newton’s phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants. When the bourgeois economists try to explain prices in the market, they often turn to the idea of competition (binding it with the idea of freedom) to explain the central nucleus of capitalism, that which makes it freeing and a creator of affluence for all.
Marx deals with the notion of competition as it appears and has effects on several levels in the capitalist system. In the Communist manifesto, of course, Marx is subsuming the whole system to its broadest outlines, with the consequence that competition – which frees the businessman to enter the market – produces a level of necessity – the need to realize the value of his commodities in the market – that creates the expansionistic tendency of the capitalist economy. Under the guise of imperialism, the state, responding to the needs of the bourgeoisie, captures markets and cheap labor – and in as much as imperialism is a state, rather than a private affair (which it evolved into in the 17th century), state economies compete in this way.
However, let’s bracket out this higher level of competition, and turn to something different: the identification of the worker with the competitor – his economic character mask in capitalism. It is at the level of creating the successful synthesis between the person and his or her character mask – on the level of identification - that ideology does its most important work. After all, the point is always to make a given population pliable to the domination of the dominant classes.
That identification is mediated by the fact that, as Marx recognized, ‘the mean of work changes from Land to Land; here it is greater, there it is smaller.” [Kapital, I, Chapter 20] These differences all relate to the world market, of course, which gives us a universal standard of measure. In the considerations on wage labor published in the sixties, Marx considers the ‘small wars” conducted by labor to keep Capital from forcing the wages down to the minimum level necessary to the reproduction of the labor’s life. Of course, this is just one of several strategies involving lengthening work time, or otherwise making more profitable use of the labor power the laborer has sold him. The essential thing here is that the labor power is commodified – and all commodities eventually are priced in the world market. Marx, of course, finds those small wars understandable, but they are still waged under the ‘conservative slogan: an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.” Whereas Marx has his eye on the revolutionary slogan, abolish wage labor.
The history of the trivilization of the revolutionary impulse is the history of the domination of the conservative slogan over the revolutionary one. The necessary function of ideology in capitalist society is to intervene, in a sense, between those two slogans by making the worker adhere to – identify with – the logic of capitalism. One aspect of that is to make him embrace his true identity as a competitor in the labor marketplace. The whole social value put on competition refers, in one way, to a social reality – but its real effect is to leave that social reality protected from any serious questioning. The impress of necessity in capitalist society is expressed in the vocabulary of competition.
If there were such a thing as Marxist social psychology, this would be a good place for it to start. As Marx has pointed out, under capitalism, there exists a double process of de-skilling and specialization. The worker becomes ever more interchangeable as the ‘human capital’ he acquires is subject to processes that strip it of its skill aspect. This is easy to see in the history of many branches of labor. Secretary work is a well known example – partly because the de-skilling was accompanied by the feminization of the labor force, which all in all had the effect of driving down the cost of the secretary to the firm.
But the de-skilling is resisted both because it leads to lower wages, and because the very freedom from the bonds of natural relationships has relied on a virtue ethic that puts an equal value on every human being. To be valued as a unique human being is the equivalent of a lack of interchangeability – and that feeling penetrates all the way through the work life.
The compromise solution, on the social psychological level, is to embrace the idea of competition that preserves one’s uniqueness at the same time that it turns the interchangeability that the system requires into a personal fault.
Now, let me go up a level.