Saturday, March 13, 2010

Our foundation is an earthquake: Marx doubts...

“The first work, that I undertook to resolve the doubt that assailed me…[zur Lösung der Zweifel, die mich bestürmten]

Marx is the Leo among philosophers. It is rare that he will express himself in terms of a personal “doubt.” The method of Descartes may have been all very well for his era, slowly freeing itself from the chains of scholasticism – but Marx did not see his own period as one in which the confession of doubts was at all helpful. Like the inventor of a machine who proposes to solve a material problem, Marx wanted, in his published work, to include those things of material relevance for describing and promoting the overthrow of capitalism. James Watt does not tell us of his doubts and woes, but tells us of the trials he makes of his machine, its failures and successes.

But in the introduction to the Critique of the Political Economy, Marx does feel the need to introduce himself a bit. Thus, the lion, for a moment, a mere flash, reverts to the pussy cat.

What is this doubt about? It regards the very fulcrum of society, and thus of social change. Marx first approaches the question through the study of jurisprudence, in its most philosophical form. But outside of his university classes, out there in the real world, what he sees is that the philosophical view of the law is unable to account for the basic movements that are occurring within the law – say the law of property. In fact, the law was being pulled along by economic forces. Instead of enforcing a definition of property arrived at logically, or from a study of legal precedent, legal precedent was being picked apart and re-arranged to justify vast shifts in property relations. And were these shifts decided by the state and imposed on the population? While his training in both law and Hegel might make this seem to be both the rational and real course of things, it seemed, instead, that the law simply caught up with exogenous pulls.

It is this simplified picture of social change that made Marx reach for a model that had an all too successful career in Marxism: the base/superstructure model. As so often in Marx, his postulates are announced with a certain music, a soundtrack, consisting of the noise of chains – fetters being dragged, or fetters being burst asunder:

“The general result that pressed itself upon me and, once I had gained it, served as the leading thread of my study, can be briefly formulated like this: In the social production of their lives persons enter into determined and necessary relationships independent of their will, that correspond to a specific stage of the development of their productive forces. The collectivity of these relationships of production depict the economic structure of society, the real basis, upon which a juridical and political superstructure is raised, and which corresponds to specific social forms of consciousness. The modes of production of material life condition the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of persons that determines their existence, but, inversely, their social existence, which determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material forces of production of a society come into contradiction with the prevailing relations of production, or (which is only the jurisprudential expression of this), with the relations of property, within which it have moved up to this time. Out of the forms of development of the forces of production, these relationships suddenly change into fetters. There then enters an epoch of revolution.”

Even here, where the base/superstructure notion – first mentioned in The German Ideology, I believe – makes its appearance as a ‘Leitfaden’, the metaphoric tends to metamophose. The superstructure becomes fetters, which implies that the superstructure is imprisoning the base upon which it rests.

This idea has, unfortunately, led to an infinite amount of writing in which all cultural, legal or political events and artifacts become the ‘expression’ of the base – a base which is a very funny thing for a base, as it keeps changing. The metaphoric difficulty here is not just a mere epiphenomena – since the metaphor is the way the model is pictured.

And yet, even if the misery generated by the base/superstructure metaphor makes me want to give it the evil eye and pass on, that would be a foolish thing to do. For Marx is in some ways more right than he knows, here; in addition, by making the base itself a source of change - merging the foundation with the earthquake – he finds the way out of his own model.

The clue that the imperfectly vertical metaphor of the base and the superstructure (in which the former operates not as a secure foundation, but as the very locus of change, and the latter operates not as a house, but as the prison that seeks to cage the earthquake on which it is built) made Marx uncomfortable is found in one of those footnotes in Capital in which the choral id of the system receives its play – although perhaps this is to confine the Marxian id too much, since surely it is at work in one of the first example of exchange in the Critique, that of a volume of Propertius against 8 ounces of snuff.

This is what Marx writes in note 34 of the first chapter of the first volume, breaking off from giving Bastian a drubbing:

“I will take this occasion in order to briefly address an objection which was made to me on the appearance of my text, To the Critique of the Political Economy, in 1859, in a German-American pamphlet. It was said that my insight, that the specific mode of production and its corresponding relations of production, in brief the ‘economic structure of that is the real basis, on which the juridical and political superstructure which are erected and to which specific social consciousness forms correspond that ‘the mode of production of material life in general conditions the social, political and intellectual life process – all of this was true for today, where material interests dominate, but not for the middle ages, where Catholicism, or for Athens and Rome, where politics ruled. Firstly it is strange that someone presumes that these well known clichés about the Middle Ages and Antiquity are unknown to a person. It is at least clear, that the Middle Ages could not live from Catholicism, nor the antique world from politics. The manner in which they gained their life explains, on the contrarcy, why in one case politics, and her Catholicism played the major roles. Anywy, it requires little acquaintance with the history of the Roman Republic, for example, to know, that the history of landed property images its secret history. On the other side, Don Quixote already paid for the error that he incurred by imagining that wandering chivalry was equally in accordance with all the economic forms of society.”

This is, in one way, a robust defense of the idea that the ‘secret history’ of the politics of a society is – to use an image Marx couldn’t have used – like x raying the politics and finding the mode of production behind it, the skull, or caput mortuum, behind the skin. And yet this actually changes the terms – the base and superstructure won’t stand still. For how has the base now become a secret history? In a sense, the base, here, is a secret shame – it is abasing. But surely there was nothing the Church or the Roman senate talked about more than rents, tithes, production, land, interest, etc. It was, if anything, an open secret, known to all men. There is a sense in which Marx, reaching to strip off the justifications of politics, becomes a sort of negative image of Don Quixote – mistaking politics or the law as pure epiphenomena, which, by stripping it of anything but a justificatory character, begs the question of why it needs to be justified in the first place. If Don Quixote mistakes the windmills for giants, isn’t Marx, here, mistaking the giants for windmills? The function of politics and law is utterly lost if they are utterly superstructure. By combating the dualism between the idealist and the materialist, we lose, here, our sense of the dense knitting of reciprocities of which politics, religion and culture must be a part.

There’s a passage in James Buchan’s Essay on Money, Frozen Desire, in which he, too, examines Don Quixote, in the light of the influx of gold from the Indies. Actually, it is in light of the confrontation between a society that is already on its way to fetishizing money, in terms of Gold, and a society in which gold is primarily an ornament. The latter should not be taken to mean ‘only’ an ornament – the only is introduced by the cash nexus. Buchan, a marvelous rifler of the old books, quotes Cortes’ words as recorded by Gomora’s History of New Spain – asked by the Mexican ambassadors sent by Monteczuma why he had landed in Mexico, Cortes explained the ‘disease of the heart, that infirmity, that we have, my companions and I, and that we cure with gold.” Yet in Spain itself, which like all of Europe in 1492 suffered perpetually from a lack of money in circulation, the disease and the cure weren’t well understood – and of course, by understood, I mean felt. Buchan takes up not the fight against the windmills, but the first aventura, in which Don Quixote, mounted on Rosinante, comes to an inn which, of course, he doesn’t see as such:

“In the adventures of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, we at last have a hero who confronts the world of money in all its fluidity and relativity, not on its own terms,

“He [the innkeeper] asked if he had any money on him, and Don Quixote replied that he hadn’t a penny on him, for he’d never read in the histories of the knight-errant of anyone who had.”

but on his own. Like Columbus, he hadn’t got a blanca; unlike Columbus, he doesn’t care. He mounts his steed, which has more quarters than a real, and sets out to do battle not just with the world of capital – configured in the famous windmills – but with money itself. In the process, Don Quixote inaugurates in prose, which is the language of commerce, the novel of the modern West, whose very greatest exemplars – Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, the Wings of the Dove –re-stage that combat to the death of money and romance.”

From the margins, I’d put my two cents in here, that the narrative regression that we are experiencing in our culture can be measured precisely in terms of the fact that Hollywood, unblickingly, has created whole worlds in which the heros, villains, comedy and tragedy contend with money only, if at all, as an intermittent plot device – their clothing, houses, food, autos, all are simply givens, existing to cretinize the audience into a sort of compromise Quixoteism of absolute greed.

But to return to our texts.

Marx’s rather worried footnote is not false – but it falsifies the import of the base superstructure image. Which, as we have seen, does more dancing than the wooden table in the Commodity Fetishism chapter.

I am reminded of Karl Polanyi’s notion that the economy as defined by the non-Marxist political economists of the nineteenth century – that is, in terms of self-regulating markets – actually induced a political remedy – what Polanyi called the double movement. On the one hand, the movement to “free the markets” – on the other hand, the movement to regulate them. This movement responds to the collective effect of capitalism, or the Great Transformation – disembedding economics from its place in the social and attempting to embed the social in economics.

“… never before our own time were markets more than accessories of economic life. As a rule, the economic system was absorbed in the social system, and whatever principle of behavior predominated in the economy, the presence of the market pattern was found to be compatible with it. The principle of barter or exchange, which underlies this pattern, revealed no tendency to expand at the expense of the rest. Where markets were most highly developed, as under the mercantile system, they throve under the control of a centralized administration which fostered autarchy both in the households of the peasantry and in respect to national life. Regulation and markets, in effect, grew up together. The self-regulating market was unknown; indeed the emergence of the idea of self-regulation was a complete reversal of the trend of development. It is in the light of these facts that the extraordinary assumptions underlying a market economy can alone be fully comprehended.”

Marx makes, then, a valid point through the use of the base/superstructure metaphor, but the metaphor can’t really contain that point, overdetermined as it is with both an implicit value system that comes with vertical metaphors (the base as, indeed, base) and failing to structure the relations between the base and the superstructure in such a way that we understand the way in which an economic dynamic axis is embedded in society. Life, for humans, is social life – you are not going to get down to the natural basics, food, sex, shelter, and find some a-social element. But the vertical ideology is a powerful reaction formation to the money economy in the West, a disguised piece of nostalgia.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Money just seems to make the world go around

There is a drop of blood on the ground
And it seems to me that it's not my kind
but I can't be sure if its yours or mine

Substitution. Replacement. Fungibility. I have so far been hammering home a point about one of the great, novel features of capitalism, but it is a point that is, inherently, difficult to express. When money is paid for an object, in one sense it operates as a substitute for the object – and in one sense it doesn’t. For the object does not operate as a substitute for money. If I pay 2 dollars for a bag of sugar, as we all know, this does not mean that I can then go into a store and trade my bag of sugar for 2 dollars worth of oranges. In this way, money is a commodity unlike any other in the body of commerce. “It is a matter of complete indifference to money into what kind of commodities it is transformed. It is the universal equivalence form of all commodities, which already show in their prices, that ideally they represent a specific amount of money, awaiting their transformation into money, and only through changing places with money maintain the form in which they are convertible into use values for their possessor.” [Capital II, 36 – my translation] The principle of substitution, the universal equivalence seemingly embodied in cash, not only supplants the system of in-kind payments which, theoretically, held together the feudal world – it becomes a sort of multiplier of other substitutions. Or, to put it another way, it reveals the variables that structure the new world of capitalist production, most notably in the convergence of the specialization and fungibility of the worker.

But is money really, then, impervious to all social boundaries? On one level – for instance, in buying a bag of sugar – money holds its place as a great converter. But though the capitalist would like to think that the worker is merely a screw, a stopgap, Marx clearly does not believe that the human – the social - is so easily liquidated. Rather, we must operate one of those inversions of the terms in place to help us see what is happening here:

“If M-L appears as a function of money capital, or money here as the existence form of capital, thus in no simply because the money steps out here as a means of payment for human activity, which has a useful effect, that is, for a service; thus absolutely not through the function of money as a means of payment. Money can only be disbursed in this form, because the labor power finds itself in the circumstance of being divided from its means of production (including the means of subsistence [Lebensmittel as the means of the production of labor power itself); and because this division can only be abolished through the fact that the labor power is sold to the possessor of the means of production. Thus, even the mobilization of labor power, whose limits are not synonymous with the limits of the necessary quantity of labor involved in the production of its own price, belongs to the buyer. The capital relationship emerges during the production process because it exists in the act of circulation, in the different basic economic conditions by which the buyer and seller confront each other, in their class relationship. It is not in the nature of money that the relationship is given; it is rather the existence of this relationship that makes it possible to transform a simple monetary function into a capital one.” [Capital bk. 2, 36 – my translation. Compare with the David Fernbach Penguin translation, p. 115]

As a character says in Moulin Rouge, “a girl has got to eat/or she’ll end up on the street.” Money’s power as a universal equivalent, in the capitalist era, gives to the capitalist a weapon. That weapon derives from the division of labor. The weapon does not fall from heaven. Rather, all must agree on the weapon, as in a game in which the opponents moves against each other reference agreed upon rules. Why would the worker agree to these rules? Because of the division of labor that separates the worker from the means of production. In this game, one side created the rules – we will call them, as Marx did, the bourgeoisie. I hasten to say that this is not a whole truth – Marx sometimes considers that the rulemakers, the state, are only tools of the capitalist class, and sometimes complicates the base/superstructure model. In fact, he would have no interest in democracy at all if a strong version of the base/superstructure model held – whereas he is always politically throwing his weight on the side of democracy, suffrage, all the gains of the French revolution. However, leaving this aside for the moment - it is in the interest of the (variously changing members) of those who own the means of production that the weapon will be agreed upon in as much as the can valorize their ownership of the means of production. Notice, you tastemongers of dialectics, that this means only that the form of money is agreed upon – the substance – including its practical loss or gain of value, inflation or deflation – is not under the control of the ownership class. Seeds here for future drama.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

There is no such thing as good work

I absolutely love the following excerpt, which better captures what it is like to hang around with Chicago economists than just about any quote I have ever seen:

“We should have a recession,” [John] Cochrane said in November, speaking to students and investors in a conference room that looks out on Lake Michigan. “People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.” - Freakonomics blog

In a famous passage in The German Ideology (which I take to be ironic), Marx writes that, as a result of the revolutionary takeover of society by communism, the person will be able to “do this today, to do that tomorrow, in the morning hunt, in the afternoon fish, in the evening herd the cattle, after dinner criticize, as I have a mind to, without becoming a hunter, fisher, herder or critic.” Of course, Marx, more percipiently, warns against dreaming of communism in terms of the beatific everyday life – communism is not a state of affairs but a movement within society.

Why this emphasis, however, on not becoming a hunter, fisher or herder? In other words, why this push against the division of labor?

As Marx well knows, the division of labor did not start with capitalism. And as he also knows, it is precisely due to the specialization of labor that capitalism has released the enormous productive potential of human society. In fact, when we read about cities that have been besieged, struck by earthquake, or undergone some other disaster, the key note is the collapse of specialization. All tasks become arduous precisely because the division of labor that we unconsciously rely upon vanishes. When reading Lydia Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary of the great siege of Leningrad, we are acutely aware that people are being worn down to grubby points because they have to do everything in their private lives themselves, from figuring out how to find a way to heat whatever shelter they have found to scrounging for food and disposing of their wastes in subzero temperature. In Port au Prince, the earthquake that destroyed an already weak and incompetent state left people to fend for themselves – and they did so by spontaneously dividing up the labor in neighborhoods, some guarding houses, some rescuing the wounded, some going out for water, etc. Even so, these ad hoc divisions were extremely inefficient, as the material embodiment of specialization – the tools of all sorts that they needed – were hard to come by.

In fact, the life of doing one thing today, and another thing tomorrow, and not becoming one thing – the life of the jack of all trades on the American frontier – is not a sustainable or desirable proposition. It is a boy’s life vision of society.

Marx was no utopianist. He decisively shifts ground in the Communist manifesto, and changes the focus of the communist negation to private property.

But the original attack on division of labor should not be dismissed as simply a mistake. It is, rather, a response to one of the great structural paradoxes of capitalism, which is that increasing specialization of labor takes place at the same time as the increasing fungibility of the laborer. On the one hand, Marx knows that if the division of labor is dissolved, the cities will tumble into ruin, and we will be left with the rural idiocy of the peasant or the a-social cunning of the frontiersman. On the other hand, let specialization metastasize, and it produces a strange result – the worker gradually sheds, at least from the point of view of the capitalist, all skill whatsoever. He becomes, as Nietzsche puts it, the stopgap for some future machine. The assembly line worker who puts screws into such and such a machine in precisely the right order has himself, in Nietzsche’s words, become a screw – a mere devise. In Alfred Chandler’s Visible Hand: the Managerial Revolution in American Business, he gives this account of an early ‘traditional’ American enterprise: “As early as 1795, Oliver Evans constructed a continuous process flour mill on the Brandywine Creek in Delaware. This mill annually milled 100,000 bushels of wheat into flour. It employed six workers who spent most of their time closing barrels.” [55] The six workers were exercising little skill in closing barrels. They were employed for their willingness to close barrels and their physical capacity to do so. Another employee of a different kind of mill in the 1830s, this time in a novel, is described first in relation to the mechanism by which the mill ran:

“The roof is held up by rafters supported on four stout wooden pillars. Nine or ten feet from the ground, in the middle of the shed, one sees a saw which moves up and down, while an extremely simple mechanism thrusts forward against this saw a piece of wood. This is a wheel set in motion by the mill lathe which drives both parts of the machine; that of the saw which moves up and down, and the other which pushes the piece of wood gently towards the saw, which slices it into planks.”
[Scott-Montcrieff, trans.]

The employee, who was also the son of the sawmill owner, was Julien Sorel – the novel Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. The ingenious mechanism that made the sawmill work was, at the same time, the emblem of the unrelieved tedium that Julien saw before him if he remained in his father’s house. He wanted – as so many of the young men in novels did - a profession. And as so many young men of the 1830s did, his idol was Napoleon, the ultimate emblem of upward mobility.

Thus it comes about that to be both specialized and absolutely fungible was the condition of the worker under capitalism. This, of course, gives rise to a diffuse but socially palpable form of melancholy. For within the social order as a whole, the worker was faced by the fact of his enormous non-necessity. There is, still, a trace left by the craftsman or the peasant – the touch, the style – which was constructed within an order in which necessity is the product of a chain of being reaching up to God and down to the devil. However, that trace is vanishing. And when one comes to the service sector proletariat, that lack of a trace, that feeling of absolute fungibility, that absence of style, can become overwhelming in exact proportion to the fact that the labor required to be a clerk is educated labor. The literature of the clerk, from Charles Lamb to Pessoa and Kafka, is one of ever more ferocious daydreaming, in response to ever more monotonous tasks. Style, here, becomes Bartleby’s I prefer not to – stopping the machine. Which is, as the clerk is educated enough to know, not a real response.

There is, of course, another potent symbol of the effect of specialization and absolute fungibility: the mass layoff. Laying off workers according to some formula that quantifies over them is the overt acknowledgement, on the part of the capitalist, of what is otherwise hidden by the system: there is no such thing as good work.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Capital from the point of view of Revolution

Take! Take! Take! Take! Take! Take! Take! Take!

In number 206 of Dawn, Nietzsche addresses the worker problem under the heading of three “phooeys”:

The impossible estate [Stand] – Poor, joyous [froehlich] and independent! – all of that together is possible; poor, joyous and slave! – that is also possible – and I don’t know what I could tell the laborers of factory slavery better than: given, that you do not feel that it is generally a scandal to be exploited to such a degree, as it were, as a screw of a machine and something like a stopgap of human ingenuity! Phooey! [Pfui] to believe, that through higher pay the essence of your misery, I mean, your impersonal enslavement, will be lifted! Phooey! To let yourself be persuaded that the scandal of slavery can be made a virtue through an increase in this impersonality within the mechanical enterprise of a new society! Phooey!to have a price for which one becomes no longer a person, but a screw! Are you co-conspirators [Mitverschworenen] in the present folly of nations which, before all else, wants to produce as much as possible and get as rich as possible!”

The Dawn was written in 1881, at a time when, as the British quarterly review put it that year, “some Social Democrats have deserted Lassalle’s standard and openly gone over as State Socialists to Bismarck as their leader. Both the so-called “Christian socialists” and the “State Socialistts” calim for the new programme of Bismarck that it has effected the commencement of a separation of the reasonable portion of the Social Democrats from their revolutionary dreams and associations.” [Vol. 75, 443]

Nietzsche’s contempt for Bismarck’s combination of strategic aggression abroad and social insurance at home permeates his writing, and makes him difficult to locate on any map of modern politics – like de Maitre, but for different reasons, he sets himself against the entire project of political modernity, which Bismarck’s politics prefigure.

Given this nihilistic political position, what is Nietzsche’s solution to a problem of Gogolian dimensions – that is, the transformation of man into screw?

After leaping to another metaphor – that of the pied piper of Hamelin, or ‘pipers’ – as Nietzsche conceives of the socialists – who make the workers warm [brünstig – literally, put them in heat] with wild hopes of the day of the ‘bestia triumphans’ – against this Nietzsche has some advice:

Against this each should think to himself: “rather to wander out to become Lords in wild and fresh areas of the globe, and to become lord firstly over myself; to change places so long as any kind of sign of slavery still marks me [Zeichen von Sklaverei mir winkt]; to not avoid adventure and war, and in the worst cases hold myself prepared for death: only to no longer this indecent servitude, only no longer this becoming acidic and poisonous and conspiratorial.” This would be the right idea: the laborer in Europe should make themselves advocates as an estate for a human impossibility, and not only, as mostly happens, declare themselves as something hard and pointlessly instituted; they should lead an age of great swarming out in the European beehive, as has never yet been experiences, and through this act of freedom in the great style protest against the machine, Capital and the current threat of suffrage, to have to become either the slave of the state or slave of the overthrow party. Let Europe be lightened by a quarter of its population: it and they will be lighter at heart! In the distance, only, by the employments of the swarming colonists, there will emerge recognizable features, how much good reason and cleverness, how much healthy mistrust of mother Europe has been inherited by its sons – these sons which could not longer bear to stay in the proximity of the dull old woman… [My translations]

Nietzsche’s advice, of course, takes no account of the populations that might be living in those ‘fresh’ places of the earth. On the other hand, this is no call for state imperialism. In fact, as Nietzsche well knew, that swarming out was going on already.

Which leads us back to the limit of the bearable in Marx. In the wake of the failure of 1848, there was a massive immigration of Germans to America. From 1852 until the Civil War, nine hundred thousand Germans immigrated – and after the Civil War until the 1890s, there was a remarkable influx of between 100-200 thousand per year on average. Of course, in the wake of the Irish famine, the flow of Irish also increased – although of course the Irish also emigrated to England – with the numbers averaging between 70-100,000 from the much smaller population of Ireland. And so it goes. According to Raddatz, Marx’s pathographer – to use Joyce Carol Oate’s term for biographers who present themselves as hanging judges – Marx exchanged letters with the Burgomeister of Trier, his home town, in 1845, in which he claimed to be planning to emigrate to America – which, in Marx’s case, was only a ruse to get the Prussian spies off his back.

The 19th century was a time of the great movement of the peoples – one could even say that the choice, in Europe, seemed to be that between revolution and emigration. As I’ve tried to show, the concepts Marx is dealing with in the forties – alienation, universal history, ideology – all converge on revolution –the dynamic force in history. But revolution doesn’t automatically arise out of oppression. It works to make history in as much as it disturbs history’s ‘manorial’ process – the inheritance – the passing down - of the “historically created relation to nature and the individual” of one generation to the next – which plays a part in the general rule in The German ideology. That massive inheritance – in Edmund Burke’s words, traditional society – has a tendency to get out of synch with the real social conditions that arise in these generation, where the sum of the forces of production tend to transform quantitative change into qualitative change.

All of which give us the general outline of a problem that is eclipsed, in the Communist Manifesto, by the broad historical sweep, and the listing of proletariat grievances. As we’ve pointed out, the basis for the worker’s ‘uniting’ requires that we retain the notion of alienation, even if it is translated into the analysis of the exploitation at the root of the capitalist valorization process. Still, victimization is not enough. Marx’s writings in the forties treat the working class mainly in terms of its lack of property (they have nothing to lose but their chains). A world historical lack – as Marx well knows – does not the overthrow of a system make.

We pair socialism or communism so naturally with the working class that we don’t notice, as Kautsky did, that this synthesis was forged by Marx.

Thus – in my view, there’s no epistemological break in Marx’s work, but rather the creation of a research problem that the economic works address, always with revolution – rather than any model, including that of labor value economics – as the central truth-maker. It is in relation to revolution that Marx writes Capital. To use notions that fill out this problematic ground in Capital itself is unnecessary – what Marx wants to do is see if these notions can be derived from the analysis of Capital, rather than imposed from without. Marx, the insider from the outside.

Monday, March 08, 2010

the sensual reality of time/the social reality of time

History is made of time – evidently. But time, we should remember, is a socially processed parameter in our lives. It is to this parameter that Marx will turn in Capital, putting to use insights from the theoretical phase of his work in the 1840s. This is from the German ideology – I would love to be able to spin on at length about the tree that ends this passage, since wood – and the organic growth time embodied in wood – is a sort of background noise in much of Marx’s writing. Trees have a special place in Marx – after all, it was the forest laws that he criticized in Köln which, on his own account, started his intellectual journey from philosophy and law to the political economy.

“He [Feuerbach] doesn’t see, how the sensual world around him is not immediately given by eternity, an always self-same thing, but instead is the product of industry and social circumstances, in the sense of actually being a historical product, the result of the activity of a whole series of generations of which each stood on the shoulders of its predecessors, constructing its industry and commerce, modifying its social order according to its altered needs. Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensual reality’ are present to him only through social development, given through industry and commercial interactions. The cherry, as almost all fruit tress, was, as is well known, only planted a few centuries ago through trade in our zone and was thus first through this action of a determined society in a determined time given to the “sensual certainty” of Feuerbach’s.”

As is well known, Marx cast a jaundiced eye on country life – the idiocy of country life, as he liked to call it. Of course, Marx’s phrase has a scholastic side – the idios, the private man, is the man who doesn’t participate in the life of the polis. He is the clown in Shakespeare – for clown, etymologically, takes us back to the inhabitant of the backwater, cultivators of the soil, colonnus.
One of the social aspects of country life that creates the clown is the allotment of time. Marx, in Capital, uses the time of the day as the great natural parameter with which the worker, under capitalism, deals. But this natural parameter is, as is always the case in Marx, not simply a given ‘sensual reality” – rather, it is an indicator of a great change in the mode of production. The temporal determinants in the cultivation of the soil are seasons. Of course, under the season comes the working day – but, in the 1840s, there is nothing to do but wait upon the time of growth of the plant or animal. A few years ago, I reviewed Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and I made much of the sparsity of his data in relation to the generality of this conclusions. One of his data points irritated me more than most – a comparison of the use of time of the European peasant compared to the use of time of the Chinese peasant. Gladwell took a passage from, I believe, Robert Gildea about the 18th century French peasant, who went into semi-hibernation during the winter, as opposed to the rice cultivating Chinese peasant, who was active all the year round. This was wrong on every count. Historians, work in the line of Charles Tilley (among whom Jan de Vries, with his notion of the “Industrious revolution”, is important), have destroyed the clownish image of the peasant as the simple herder or cultivator – as James Richard Farr points out, even in 1600, there were probably more looms than plows in Picardy, as cottage production was a vital source of peasant incomes. De Vries quotes a study by George Grantham of the increase in agricultural productivity before the 1840s – when Marx, of course, wrote the Communist Manifesto – which attributes that increase to more productive time use:
“Technical innovation was not a central feature of the growth of agricultural output throught he 1840s, when the appearance of commercial fertilizers and the elaboration of mechanical harvesting equipment began significantly to affect methods of production. Rather, up to that time, the growth of output depended more on intensive use of known technology than on novel methods.”

But even given this more complex picture of economic life, the peasant world was governed by longer increments of social time. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the capitalist system was to replace this parameter with another – the time of the working day. Even as we have developed the information networks that, in many ways, seem to make the factory working day an anachronism, capital still clings to it fiercely.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

What did the bourgeoisie ever do for us?

XERXES: Medicine.
COMMANDOS: Huh? Heh? Huh...
COMMANDO #2: Education.
REG: Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.
COMMANDO #1: And the wine.
COMMANDOS: Oh, yes. Yeah...
FRANCIS: Yeah. Yeah, that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
COMMANDO: Public baths.
LORETTA: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
FRANCIS: Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.
COMMANDOS: Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Marx never wrote a romance about the future. Not for him the Icarias, the Fourierist tract, the utopias of the Saint-Simonians. Not for him Robert Owen’s communes. All those infinitely detailed plans. The scheduling. The inversion of society. At Menilmontant, Enfantin designed the shirt with buttons on the back, so that the principle of association would be obeyed even when dressing – for it required two to button the shirt. And by such easy uses we dissolve egotism...

Marx’s comments on the future communist community are sparse, and often ironic – as when he writes in the German Ideology, a work that criticizes the critical critics, that that abolition of the division of labor will allow each to fish, hunt, and criticize during different parts of the day. That many have not seen the humor in devoting a part of the day to the critical critique is not Marx’s fault. This vision of utopia as a grand hobby shop seems massively below the level of the revolutionary impulse.

Still, the Communist Manifesto breathes a science fiction air. If Marx did not fantasize about the future communist community, he did draw a fantastic – if accurate – projection of history’s revolutionary class up to then – the bourgeoisie.

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop.
Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacturer no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.
Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.
We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange.

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune(4): here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. [From Samuel Moore’s translation]

Many of the world historical actions of the bourgeoisie in the Manifesto are, at most, in the seed. The industrialization of agriculture, for instance, really doesn’t get on its feet until the 1870s, and even then Europe’s population, in 1914, was predominantly rural. In Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the narrator, Zeitblom, choses 1914 as the date when the ancien regime really collapsed – and there is a lot to say for that position.

Given the most revolutionary part allotted to the bourgeoisie by Marx, what are we to say of the proletariat? In the manifesto and in the German Ideology, the proletariat play a puzzling role. They are, Marx assures us, the class that, secreted by the industrial system of capitalism, will be its undertakers. But when we get down to it, the bourgeoisie does all the creative work here. To be Nietzschian about this, the proletariat seems to exist solely as a reactionary body – a body of labor and a victim of history. How is such a reactive force supposed to become an active force? We know that the bourgeoisie developed an incentive structure that not only made feudal inhibitions unbearable, but that also served as a weapon to overthrow the feudal structure. Why, though, should we believe this is true about the working class?

Up to now, I’ve been pressing on the seeming contradiction between Marx’s assumptions about the laboring class uniting and his vision of the absolute penetration of the commodity relationship into all spheres of the worker’s life. My point has been twofold: on the one hand, if capitalism has truly stripped the worker of any form of association except through the cash nexus, than the sense of solidarity that Marx is appealing to in the Communist Manifesto is doomed. Workers cannot unite, because they have no vision of themselves as united, and no medium through which to be united. If their interest is in pure cold cash, their association is extremely friable: having done away with the protocols that would justify sacrifice, they are more likely to make patchwork treaties with the bosses than to sacrifice their immediate interest for the sake of international solidarity as workers. On the other hand, this picture of the worker is simply wrong. Too often Marx uses his macro sense of historical development to analyze the microworld of family, friendship and association. Far from being outside of economics, emotional and social life is dependent on a vast and intricate structure of reciprocities that are not “feudal” but are as modern as money. We can’t leave the household, the kin system, etc., in the shadows, so to speak, but we should see it connected to the social whole. Modernity, in my view, is an intrinsically heterogenous system in which social relations defined under the regime of capitalism are not only juxtaposed with systems of barter and giftgiving, but are interpenetrated with them down to the factory floor itself. This doesn’t mean they are equally weighted down at the factory or in the stock market – it does mean that the compliance of the working population upon which capitalism depends is, itself, dependent on the working of these other reciprocities.

As we see with emotional labor, that by no means that there is a truce between the different systems. Emotional labor – looked at as one way of explaining what Elias called the civilizing process – and commodification form a fault line in the social whole. From such fault lines, massive earthquakes come.

However, suspending for the moment the issues resulting from that fault line – we are left with the question of the working class as a reactive class, shaped by the productive forces of history rather than shaping it. I think Marx was well aware of this question, and that it was partly to respond to this problem that the First book of Capital was written.

Kautsky, summing up the achievement of Marx and Engels, divides it between achievement in the world of thought and achievement in the political sphere. The latter achievement was in bringing together socialism and the worker’s movement – for, as he points out, they did not begin as one thing.

Socialism had arisen earlier. But in no way in the proletariat. Really it is, as is the worker’s movement, a product of capitalism. The former as the latter arises out of the pressure to work against misery, that capitalist exploitation imposes on the working class. Meanwhile, the defending forces of the proletariat in the labor movement arise autonomously wherever a numerous working population is gathered against which socialism premises a deep insight into the nature of modern society. Every socialism rests on the knowledge, that on the basis of civil society, there will not be an end to the capitalist misery, that this misery rests on private property in the means of production, and can only disappear with it. In this are all socialistic systems united, they only deviate from one another in the ways that they have suggested in order to achieve the anullment of this private property, and in the ideas, that they elevate of the new social property that they want to put in its place.”

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...