The magic and necromancy
of commodity production
Goethe’s famous 1797 ballad Der Zauberlehrling [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] provides probably the best allegory for Marx’s own conception of capitalism, which he memorably described as partaking of a kind of sorcery — “the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities.”
Under the capitalist mode of production, the producer is ruled by the products of his labor rather than the other way around. Living labor in the present serves the accumulated dead labor of the past. “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [The dead holds the living in its grasp!]“
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels implicitly allude to Goethe’s poem, comparing society’s relation to capital to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Marshall Berman, the late Marxist critic, reflected on this line at some length in his 1982 masterpiece All that is Solid: The Experience of Modernity:
This image evokes the spirits of that dark medieval past that our modern bourgeoisie is supposed to have buried. Its members present themselves as matter-of-fact and rational, not magical; as children of the Enlightenment, not of darkness. When Marx depicts the bourgeois as sorcerers — remember, too, their enterprise has “conjured whole populations out of the ground,” not to mention “the specter of communism” — he is pointing to depths they deny. Marx’s imagery projects, here as ever, a sense of wonder over the modern world: its vital powers are dazzling, overwhelming, beyond anything the bourgeoisie could have imagined, let alone calculated or planned. But Marx’s images also express what must accompany any genuine sense of wonder: a sense of dread. For this miraculous and magical world is also demonic and terrifying, swinging wildly out of control, menacing and destroying blindly as it moves. The members of the bourgeoisie repress both wonder and dread at what they have made: these possessors don’t want to know how deeply they are possessed.
All this ought to be perfectly familiar to attentive readers of Marx. Remarking on this peculiar double aspect, by which all things seem to engender their own negation, Marx observed: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, as if by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.”
To illustrate this, here is Walt Disney’s animated epic Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse. (Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein already recognized Mickey as a revolutionary in the early 1930s). Capital appears here as a spell to alleviate necessary labor, the bewitched broomsticks as automata. But it works too well. It overwhelms its putative master, resulting in serial overproduction, overflowing basins of water, etc.