Monday, April 01, 2024

Marx, Cologne and the West Bank

Marx made the great leap towards what became Marxism in Cologne in 1842, when he became the editor of a newspaper there and did a few articles on a local controversy: the new legislative rules that eliminated the time honored custom of gathering sticks in forests owned by the great landholders. Marx at this time was a graduate of law school. He gets it that the legislature is creating something new here – a property – out of the denial of something old – a customary right. But it occurred to him that it was not enough to remain on the level of the law – for what was driving the legislative proces was not so much any legal confusion, or any unfolding of some previous logic in the legal code, a la Hegel, but instead, was a basic, extra-legal social force.

The custom of gathering fallen wood, as Marx came to see it, had its roots in another kind of social order. Marx latter on considered this social order as pre-capitalist, evidently defining it from the ‘stage’ that succeeds it. However, I think it is entirely within the Marxist spirit to define it differently, as the regime of the “image of the limited good”, a phrase coined by the anthropologist George Foster to describe the image of the world inherent to those who inhabit a social economy in which economic growth is not the norm. The norm, instead, for the peasants and their governors, is of rise and fall, in which prosperity can be expected to lead to superbia, or vanity, which in turn creates the condition for the fall. The image of the limited good is congruent with the iconography of nemesis, or justice, a blindfolded figure holding a scale in which our sins and accumulations are weighed.
In this world, it makes sense to talk about the poor. There is no sense that in this world, the laborer produces such wealth as will cause economic growth to be the primary fact of the social world. Marx, in Cologne, began to sense the meaning of this.

To put this another way: Marx made the very important discovery that “the poor”, as a socio-economic category, was vacuous. The poor were easily recognized in pre-capitalist economies: the beggars, the serfs, the slaves, they all exist under the sign of minus. They had less, and that quantitative fact defined their social existence. What Marx saw was that capitalist society was not just a matter of old wine in new bottles – the archaic poor were now free labor. Perhaps nothing so separates Marxism from religion as this insight: in all the great monotheistic religions, poverty is viewed in feudal terms: the poor you will have always with you. But in capitalism, or modernity tout court, the poor continue to exist as a mystificatory category, usually in a binary with the rich. In fact, the real binary in society is capital and labor. The bourgeois economists, and even the non-scientific socialists, operate as though the archaic poor still exist. To help them, we need to develop a method of redistribution that is, in essence, charity – run by non-profits or run by the government, but still charity. But Marx saw this in very different terms. Labor produces the economic foundation of capitalism – value. In these terms, it is not a question of the poor being a qualitative or moral category – it is a question of the alienation of value, of surplus value, that circulates through the entire capitalist system and allows it to grow on its own, while at the same time making it vulnerable to crisis.
Daniel Bensaid, the French Marxist, wrote a fascinating book on Marx’s essays on the Wood Laws. Bensaid sees the new category of the “poor” under the sign of dispossession. What Marx saw in the move to take away a traditional right and transform it into a kind of property for capital was, in Bensaid’s account, tied to a whole system of dispossession.

Bensaid springs these essays, so to speak, from their purely philological interest as early writings of Karl Marx, to show that the wood laws, with their alternative dispossessing of a traditional right or usage and their thrusting the dispossessed into the market society is happening here and now. Bensaid shows how it has been happening, since the end of the Cold War, in Africa, with the scramble for resources churning great masses into urban barrios as the environment is clubbed and axed and extracted to death. But even in developed economies, dispossession remains one of the great drivers of profit.

You have to read the forms that are being created in the area around Cologne – or in the seizures of the British commons, or in the creation of roads, etc. – in order to see the dispossession that works in such developed economies as that of the U.S.

Here’s the wood laws: “Pierre Lascoumes and Hartwig Zander cite the following list of “forest infractions and their economic causes” established by forest rangers: theft of blueberries and other berries; theft of forest products necessary for the production of brushes and brooms, or as food for livestock; theft of twigs for the production of fishing rods; theft of timber for the repair of domestic and agricultural implements; theft of wood for roof shingles; theft of timber for hop-poles; theft of wood for stairs, trestles, and scaffolding; theft of ground roots for basket weaving; theft of fagots for firewood . . . an edifying inventory! It is composed of all those marketable goods without which life itself could not be secured, especially as their domestic use was itself increasingly subject to market circulation.”

Those who have eyes to see recognize the way in which Internet companies, or the whole of computer capital, have managed to make secondary markets illegal – for instance, in selling or sharing you Microsoft Office Suite – in a way that is unquestioned, for the most part, by the user. Publishing companies would love to annul the secondary market in books – imagine that the book you bought could not be re-sold or given as a gift, except under very limited circumstances. Life itself is increasingly unsecurable without the ramifying Internet, yet it is also increasingly out of the hands, entirely, of the end user. We may play at pirates on the net, but the true Pirate captains sit secure on their billions and on our faces and pay for pirate catchers to make their raids on lesser fry.
“The invocation of a “natural status” to these objects seems to refer to the tradition of natural law in which the invocation of “occupancy rights,” or jus nullius, accords a right of first occupancy onto a “personal good.” It is this juridical rationale that was used to legalize the colonial appropriation of lands decreed “virgin.” Marx exploits the paradoxical logic of the argument: if property is not legitimated by an activity that transforms the object (through mixing with labor, as it is with Locke), then the right of occupation derives from an initial stroke of force (a “seizure of the land” in the case of colonial conquests).”


“As for security, up until 1979 the legal tools that the government used in order to seize land and build settlements were based on the 4th Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory. The convention states that you are not allowed to build permanent settlements on occupied land, but you are allowed to build temporary interventions for security reasons. What the government was claiming was that the settlements were temporary paramilitary posts.”

After 1979, however, as the Israeli government became settler oriented, they needed a new set of rules to displace the Palestinian population. So they came up with them:


“The government had to opt for another legal tool because they could not build settlements and argue that they were temporary strategic military outposts. They said, OK, we can rely on Jordanian law and start a project of land registry. The West Bank had not had a land registry since Ottoman times, and if you look at Ottoman land laws, you did not have real land ownership. You would just pay tax for what you cultivated. Nobody wanted to own anything beyond what he was growing on, because that is what you paid tax on. If someone fenced off a hilltop, he didn’t register it because that would just mean more taxes. So basically Israel was collecting Ottoman tax documents to establish ownership and map out the extent of cultivated lands. Whatever land could be proven to be under continuous cultivation remained in private Palestinian ownership, and the rest was declared state land according to Jordanian law, which was based on Ottoman law.”
Jordanian law, based on Ottoman law, was applied by Israel for Israelis on territory seized from Jordan. As always in colonizing situations, the law exists to displace the indigenous people. There are times that the lawgivers forget and extol the “universality” of the law, but they are soon pulled back to their true task. The war in Gaza, whenever it ends, will surely be followed by the seizure of Gaza land in the North by the Israelis. Nobody will raise a hand or make a fuss about that. Gaza is, after all, not Eastern Ukraine, where the West has discovered the morality of resisting conquest and illegitimate seizure.
Interestingly, the “vacant” land on the West Bank, and the overthrowing of hundreds of years of Palestinian boundary making and common land usage, is basically, with little transformation, the same think Karl Marx encountered in Cologne. This is a larger and more complex thing, historically, than it appears to be in Capital, which is devoted to another historical moment in the system of alienated labour. And it is wrong to attempt to mark it as a primitive starting point for capital accumulation – it is a cyclical phenomenon that emerges again and again in all capitalist systems.

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