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Capital as subject and the existence of labor

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Werner Bonefeld
Open Marxism
Volume 3, 1995
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Editorial note
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Been reading furiously through the Theories of Surplus Value and the 1863 manuscripts on the relation of “subject” and “object” in Marx’s later writings. My hunch is that Postone is right in his reversal of Lukács, who had the proletariat as the simultaneous subject-object of History. For Postone, it’s capital that is the simultaneous subject-object of History. The thing is, they’re both right. And I’m not saying this just so as not to pick a side, though I think ultimately it’s Lukács who gets the better of Postone (at the precise moment the latter seems to have the upper hand).

Living labor or variable capital — i.e., the proletariat as the embodiment of wage-labor — is the subjective factor in production. Dead labor or constant capital — i.e., the bourgeoisie, or rather the means of production they own, as the embodiment of capital — is the objective factor in production. Early in Capital, Marx identifies the vitality of labor-power as “the subjective factor of the labor process,” and goes on to state that “the same elements of capital which, from the perspective of the labor process, can be distinguished respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, can be distinguished from the perspective of the valorization process as constant and variable capital.”

 However, under capitalism these roles appear reversed: the products rule over their producers. Consider a couple passages from the 1863 manuscripts. First,

Objectified, past labor… becomes the sovereign of living, present labor. The relation of subject and object is inverted. If already in the presupposition the objective conditions for the realization of the worker’s labor capacity and therefore for actual labor appear to the worker as alien, independent powers, which relate to living labor rather as the conditions of their own preservation and increase — the tool, the material [of labor] and the means of subsistence only giving themselves up to labor in order to absorb more of it — this inversion is still more pronounced in the result. In both directions, therefore, the objective conditions of labor are the result of labor itself, they are its own objectification, and it is its own objectification, labor itself as its result, that confronts labor as an alien power, as an independent power; while labor confronts the latter again and again in the same objectlessness, as mere labor capacity.

[Die vergegenständlichte, vergangene Arbeit wird so zum Herrscher über die lebendige, gegenwärtige Arbeit. Das Verhältnis von Subjekt und Objekt wird verkehrt. Wenn in der Voraussetzung schon dem Arbeiter die gegenständlichen Bedingungen zur Verwirklichung seines Arbeitsvermögens und daher zur wirklichen Arbeit als fremde, selbständige Mächte gegenüber erscheinen, die sich vielmehr zur lebendigen Arbeit als die Bedingungen ihrer eignen Erhaltung und Vermehrung verhalten — Werkzeug, Material, Lebensmittel, die sich nur an die Arbeit hingeben, um in sich selbst mehr Arbeit einzusaugen —, so erscheint dieselbe Verkehrung noch mehr im Resultat. Die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit sind selbst Produkte der Arbeit und, soweit sie von der Seite des Tauschwerts betrachtet werden, nichts als Arbeitszeit in gegenständlicher Form. Nach beiden Seiten hin sind also die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit Resultat der Arbeit selbst, ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, und es ist diese ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, sie selbst als ihr Resultat, die ihr als fremde Macht, als selbständige Macht, gegenübertritt und der gegenüber sie immer wieder in derselben Gegenstandslosigkeit, als bloßes Arbeitsvermögen, gegenübertritt.]

Next,

Since the economists identify past labor with capital — past labor being understood in this case not only in the sense of concrete labor embodied in the product, but also in the sense of social labor, materialized labor time — it is understandable that they, the Pindars of capital, emphasize the objective elements of production and overestimate their importance as against the subjective element, living, immediate labor. For them, labor only becomes efficacious when it becomes capital and confronts itself, the passive element confronting its active counterpart. The producer is therefore controlled by the product, the subject by the object, labor which is being embodied by labor embodied in an object, etc. In all these conceptions, past labor appears not merely as an objective factor of living labor, subsumed by it, but vice versa; not as an element of the power of living labor, but as a power over this labor.

[Da die Ökonomen die vergangene Arbeit mit dem Kapital identifizieren — vergangene Arbeit hier sowohl im Sinne der konkreten, in den Produkten realisierten Arbeit, als im Sinne der gesellschaftlichen Arbeit, materialisierter Arbeitszeit — , so versteht sich bei ihnen, als den Pindaren des Kapitals, daß sie die gegenständlichen Elemente der Produktion geltend machen und ihre Bedeutung überschätzen gegenüber dem subjektiven Element, der lebendigen, unmittelbaren Arbeit. Die Arbeit wird ihnen erst adäquat, sobald sie Kapital wird, sich selbst gegenübertritt, das Passivum der Arbeit ihrem Aktivum. Das Produkt ist daher bestimmend über den Produzenten, der Gegenstand über das Subjekt, die realisierte Arbeit über die sich realisierende etc. In allen diesen Auffassungen tritt die vergangene Arbeit nicht auf als bloß gegenständliches Moment der lebendigen und von ihr subsumierten, sondern umgekehrt; nicht als ein Machtelement der lebendigen Arbeit, sondern als Macht über diese Arbeit.]

Capital is the actual, albeit unconscious, form of society’s self-objectifying subjectivity, while the proletariat is rather its potential form. Only by becoming conscious of its position within the totality of production (in other words, by attaining class consciousness in the Lukácsean sense) can the subjectivity of the latter be actualized. Wage labor and capital are, after all, only two sides of the same value-relation, constitutive of yet antithetical to one another. Inverting this inverted relationship — expropriating the expropriators, negating the negation — humanity masters its own social organization and finally sets itself off from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the workers [object] must be the task of the workers themselves [subject]” captures precisely this image of the proletariat as subject and object of social emancipation. Yet this “historic mission” does not mean affirming the class essence of workers. Socialist revolution will not result in universal proletarianization; capitalism has already accomplished this. “Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class.”

Postone is of course understandably wary of the “notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary Subject, in the sense of a social agent that both constitutes history and realizes itself in socialism.” He writes: “Far from entailing the realization of the proletariat, overcoming capitalism involves the material abolition of proletarian labor.” But Lukács wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment:

Subjectively, i.e. for the class consciousness of the proletariat, the dialectical relationship between immediate interests and objective impact on the whole of society is located in the consciousness of the proletariat itself. It does not work itself out as a purely objective process quite apart from all (imputed) consciousness — as was the case with all classes hitherto. Thus the revolutionary victory of the proletariat does not imply, as with former classes, the immediate realization of the socially given existence of the class, but, as the young Marx clearly saw and defined, its self-annihilation.

Qua embodied negativity, as the negative condition of class society and the promise of its dissolution, “affirmation” of the proletariat can only mean abolishing the present state of affairs. This is what Engels meant when he remarked that “communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, capital is nothing other than the alienated agency of unrealized humanity. The proletariat does not presently represent the material human community in nuce, but it alone is capable of realizing it. By taking command over the accumulated instruments of production, it finally makes possible the advent of a truly human history. Lukács confirms this:

The “realm of freedom,” the end of the “prehistory of mankind” means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. For the blind power of the forces at work will only advance “automatically” to their goal of self-annihilation as long as that goal is not within reach. When the moment of transition to the “realm of freedom” arrives this will become apparent just because the blind forces really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss, and only the conscious will of the proletariat will be able to save mankind from the impending catastrophe.

Werner Bonefeld addresses some of these same issues in the essay appended below, albeit in a somewhat different manner than I do here. He’s addressing Bob Jessop, rather than Postone, whose work he engages with elsewhere. Bonefeld makes many similar points, although as a rule he tends to denigrate “class consciousness.” I take this to be symptomatic of his anti-Leninism, but otherwise agree with his position.

To be sure, he’s right that “[i]n Marx’s work there is hardly any reference to ‘class consciousness’… Marx was not interested in the psychology of the working class.” Nevertheless, though the word Klassenbewußtsein does not appear in Marx’s work, its rudiments can be made out in numerous places. E.g., the Manifesto, where it is written that “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

(As far as I can tell, Kautsky coined the “class consciousness,” indicated by Engels’ 1891 comment: “Instead of ‘class-conscious,’ which in our circles is an easily understood abbreviation, I would say the following to facilitate universal understanding and translation into foreign languages: ‘with workers conscious of their class position,’ or something like it.”)

Personally, I think the issue of proletarian consciousness, what Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution called “the subjective factor in the socialist transformation,” is indispensable. “The stronger [the] contradiction [within production] becomes,” wrote Lenin in 1899, “the more developed become the objective conditions for this transformation, as well as the subjective conditions [объективные условия этого превращения, так и субъективные условия], the workers’ consciousness of this contradiction [сознание противоречия работниками].”

Contra Kautsky, sixteen years later, Lenin thundered: “Not every revolutionary situation…gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the… objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.” Continue reading

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On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

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It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything.” It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height,” but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world.” But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meager increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

Continue reading

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Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing

Daniel Lopez

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[Daniel Lopez’s essay on “Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing” was recently republished on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. In my opinion, it’s an excellent and fairly self-explanatory piece. As such, it doesn’t require much commentary on my end. Still, I’d like to note just a few things about the essay as well as the subject it concerns, not only to personalize it for my blog, but to set it in broader context. These won’t be included here, however, but will have to wait for a subsequent post. Just one thing, really: I find the notion of a Marxist “ontology,” like an “epistemology,” quite problematic, and characteristic of the later Lukács, and not the early one.

Please do, if you’re interested, check out Bertell Ollman’s classic Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971). Long before he started announcing every economic upheaval as “the terminal crisis of capitalism,” and talking about robotization, Ollman wrote what was probably the definitive text on the subject of alienation.]

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As Karl Korsch noted in Marxism and Philosophy, the philosophical foundation of Marx’s works has often been neglected. The Second International had, in Korsch’s view, pushed aside philosophy as an ideology, preferring “science.” This, he charged, tended to reduce Marxism to a positivistic sociology, and in so doing, it internalized and replicated the theoretical logic of capitalism. [1] In place of this, Korsch called for a revitalization of Marxism that would view philosophy not simply as false consciousness but as a necessary part of the social totality.[2]

Following Marx, we should understand that philosophy could be, at best, its own period comprehended in thought, and that “philosophy cannot be abolished without being realised”.[3] Korsch was not alone in this. Georg Lukács’ major work, History and Class Consciousness, appeared almost simultaneously. Lukács, too, sought to lead a renewal of Marxism via a return to its philosophical roots, specifically in Hegel.[4] Unknown to them at the time, there was a greater basis for this in Marx’s writing than they could have imagined. In 1927, Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was released; this was followed in 1932 by The German Ideology. These two texts joined other works by Marx, including The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), On the Jewish Question (1843), The Holy Family (1845, co-authored with Engels), Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and The Poverty of Philosophy(1847). Together, these illustrate a vast and penetrating critical engagement with Hegelian philosophy.

This essay will engage with this body of work in order to shed light on Marx’s early period and specifically, the concept of alienation.[5] The central contention here is that alienation is vital to the ontological bedrock of Marx’s early viewpoint. This will help to elucidate a number of related issues. Specifically, his concept of labor as species-being, his argument that material reality is always formed by and through social relations and his application of alienation to the critique of philosophy and history will be explored. In order to do this, this essay will be divided into four subsections which deal with the concept of alienation as Marx developed it. It will begin with his Hegelian inheritance and will then move to his political critique of Hegel. Following the development of Marx’s thought, the essay will discuss the economic production of alienation. Marx’s theory of the overcoming of alienation will then be considered, with reference to the Young Hegelian movement, against which he formulated his views. This will necessitate a short discussion of alienation in history and Marx’s theory of revolution. It is hoped that out of this, an understanding of Marx’s early period will be reached that emphasizes his radical humanism and his basic affinity with thinkers like Korsch, Lukács, and Rubin. Finally, this essay seeks to present a Marx who is simultaneously deeply indebted to and critical of Hegel.

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German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1772-1831)

Marx’s Hegelian roots

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Alienation is a theme fundamental to Hegel’s thought. To give an in-depth account of this would be a vast undertaking. This essay will therefore limit itself to one clear example — the emergence of Reason out of Self-Consciousness in Section B of The Phenomenology of Spirit.[6] Continue reading

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

On old and new
in modern times


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Image: Umberto Boccioni,
Charge of the Lancers (1913)


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What follows are just a few quotations I’ve assembled from various authors on the peculiar way time operates in modern society, or “modernity” considered as the temporal index of capitalism. They’re here presented more or less in fragmentary outline, without much commentary or exegesis. Nevertheless, I feel like they all revolve around a common theme, and that they have a certain cumulative effect when grouped together. Please pardon me, however, if they don’t possess the kind of self-evidence I impute to them. It may just be me.

In January 1849, only six months after “the first great battle was fought between the two classes that split modern society” — that is, the proletariat and bourgeoisie — just blocks from his apartment, the Parisian journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr unwittingly stumbled upon the temporality that characterizes the capitalist mode of production in a casual quip:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, epigram (1849) Continue reading

Lenin, Beethoven

An interview with Dean Whiteside on Marxian Musicology

Conducted by C. Derick Varn

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Image: Large bust of Lenin next to
a smaller bust of Beethoven

After listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, Lenin added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves. I’d like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for producing such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody — for people will only bite off your hand.” Georg Lukács, Lenin: A study in the unity of his thought (1920)
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Originally posted on The (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity blog. Please follow and subscribe to it.

Dean Whiteside studies music theory as a conductor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He has an interest in reintegrating music theory with materialism.

C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Theodor Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?

Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor — music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “WTF, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no. Continue reading

Socialism or Barbarism?

The decline of the Left over the course of this last century is thus not only a tragedy for those who fought on its behalf, but also for those who traditionally fought against it.  Inasmuch as proletarian socialism aimed at the supersession of bourgeois liberalism, its old nemesis, while simultaneously preserving the latter’s revolutionary accomplishments and raising them to a “higher level,” the former stood for the hope of all humanity — no matter which side one was on.  For as long as it is able to reproduce its own existence, the underlying volatility of capitalist society will remain unchanged (whether or not there is a leftist political project capable of overcoming it).  But the idea that capitalism will simply continue to exist indefinitely cannot at all be supported by historical experience.  Though bourgeois political economists have time and again tried to naturalize the social relations that have appeared immediately before them, mesmerized by the fetish-character of the commodity form, the capitalist mode of production has not always existed.  It came into existence historically, and could just as easily pass out of existence historically.[231]  The issue thus comes down to ascertaining the nature of this historical passage, should it ever arrive at all.  Capitalist society could cease to exist in any number of ways, the majority of which would not be emancipatory in the least.  This might well be the most disturbing prospect of all: that capitalism will collapse and still not lead to a more just, liberated, and equitable society.  As Lukács pointed out, commenting on the revolutionary legacies of Lenin and Luxemburg, “socialism would never happen ‘by itself,’ and as the result of an inevitable natural economic development.  The natural laws of capitalism do indeed lead inevitably to its ultimate crisis, but at the end of its road would be the destruction of all civilization and a new barbarism.”[232]  Broadly speaking, there are two scenarios that can be imagined as leading to capitalism’s eventual demise: 1.) cataclysm or 2.) revolution.

In either case, the result would be that capital would no longer exist.  The reason for this would be quite different from instance to instance, however.  Should the former take place, capital would be dissolved simply because it would no longer be able to reproduce and augment its own value through the process of production.  For example, a war could break out that would be of such devastating proportions that the cycles of production and circulation would be fatally disrupted.  Some of the images called to mind are total blight, scorched earth, and nuclear holocaust.  Another possibility would be some sort of global environmental catastrophe.  Should the latter (revolution) obtain, however, capital would be dissolved because human production would no longer be subordinated to its ends.  Humanity would not produce goods simply to extract surplus-value from labor and then be realized on the market, only to repeat this cycle all over again, in perpetuity.  Rather, humanity would produce in order to meet (and surpass) human needs, in a way that does not endanger the provision of such needs in the future.  In this scenario, society would not undertake production for the sake of a category external and alien to itself (capital), but would become its own self-directed end.  Society would only produce for the sake of society and its individual members.  The mystery of capital — and indeed the riddle of all history[233] — is that society is a product of human activity, and yet appears to humanity as an unruly force of nature.[234]  Crises are experienced under the capitalist social order as so many natural disasters, as storms to “weather” or endure.  Humanity is, nonetheless, the unconscious demiurge of this second nature.  It has but to attain consciousness in order to decisively act and thereby claim this system for itself, so that society and its constituent individuals might someday live autonomously.  As Engels once put it:

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer…The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.  Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action…It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.[235]

Faced with the polarity dividing freedom and humanity on the one hand from unfreedom and inhumanity on the other, society arrived at a historic impasse almost a century ago.  Since this time it appears to have remained at a virtual standstill, stuck before this fork in the road.  This apparent immobility must not be thought of as an absolute motionlessness, however, qua an absolute cessation of motion or activity.  At best, civilization has merely been spinning its wheels for the last hundred years; at worst, it has politically regressed.  The choice presently at hand poses afresh Luxemburg’s old disjunction of “socialism or barbarism.”[236]  But make no mistake about it: these options do not present themselves as on an empty slate.  Liberalism has been utterly barbaric for over 150 years now.  But the attempts to go beyond it during this time, the many faces of “actually existing socialism,” have been similarly barbarized and enervated.  The twentieth century, Richard Rubin has pointed out, revealed the nightmarish possibility of having both socialism and barbarism, embodied its most characteristic and grotesque form as Stalinism.[237]  A pair of related, if troubling, questions now makes an appearance.  What if liberal civilization still provides the basis for the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds that humanity can realistically hope for? This is, at least in Michéa’s opinion, how it has often understood itself.[238]  And, assuming that liberalism does in fact provide this basis, what if the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds thus established proves impossible to maintain?

This is the prospect raised by Žižek, amongst others, as the specter of ecological and thermonuclear Armageddon continues to haunt contemporary social life.[239]  In one of his more bombastic books of late, In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek summarizes this current state of affairs more succinctly.  “What looms on the horizon today is the unprecedented possibility that [a calamity] will intervene directly into the historical Substance,” projects Žižek, “catastrophically disturbing its course by triggering an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophe, and so on…It no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will carry on.”[240]  Since the 1970s and the emergence of the environmental movement, many leftists fear that an impending natural disaster will render the Earth uninhabitable, effectively bringing an end to the drama of human history.  Other critics of a Marxist persuasion, such as Fredric Jameson, count no fewer than “four fundamental threats to the survival of the human race today,” throwing global impoverishment and famine as well as structural unemployment into the mix along with ecological collapse and nuclear war.  He immediately adds, correctly, the humbling fact that “in each of these areas no serious counterforce exists anywhere in the world.”[241]  Yet it would seem to be of paramount importance that such counterforces eventually arise so that humanity can continue to exist at all — let alone realize its deepest aspirations of liberty and equality.  Despite capitalism’s much-vaunted “adaptability,” the liberal belief in the self-correcting capacity of the Market seems a dangerous game to play, a concern voiced in recent decades by the Marxian anthropologist Maurice Godelier.[242]  For now, at least, liberalism clearly offers no way out.  With the decline of the Left in the twentieth century, however, no socialist alternative seems readily available.  That is to say, the need for revolutionary transformation has never been greater, and yet the forces necessary for such a transformation have never been in shorter supply.

Lenin remarked in 1917, of course, that revolutionary ruptures necessarily appear as “miracles” to those who witness them.[243]  It is thus perhaps not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that capitalism might still someday be transcended.  If liberalism’s original emancipatory potential is ever to be realized, however, it will require a revolutionary act of sublation — in the strict Hegelian sense of a thing’s determinate negation, its concurrent cancellation and preservation.[244]  As Chris Cutrone has put it: “Socialism is meant to transcend liberalism by fulfilling it.  The problem with liberalism is not its direction, supposedly different from socialism, but rather that it does not go far enough.  Socialism is not anti-liberal.”[245]  Despite the recalcitrance it has repeatedly shown to efforts aiming to radically transform it, liberalism’s — and, indeed, all of humanity’s — only chance for survival resides with socialism.  “In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity,” Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed in 1918.  The fundamental truth of this assertion remains equally valid today, however much other conditions have changed.  Absent the possibility of its determinate negation, liberalism now instead faces absolute annihilation.  Socialism or barbarism? Revolution or cataclysm?

Continue to Revolution into Reaction: June 1848 to August 1914

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On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

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It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything”. It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height”, but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world”. But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meagre increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

Андрей Платонов

Надо не высовываться и не упиваться жизнью: наше время лучше и серьезней, чем блаженное наслаждение. Всякий упивающийся обязательно попадает и гибнет, как мышонок, который лезет в мышеловку, чтобы «упиться» салом на приманке. Кругом нас много сала, но каждый кусок на приманке. Надо быть в рядах обыкновенных людей терпеливой социалистической работы, больше ничего.

Этому настроению и сознанию соответствует устройство природы. Она не велика и не обильна. Или так жестко устроена, что свое обилие и величие не отдавала еще никому. Это и хорошо, иначе — в историческом времени — всю природу давно бы разворовали, растратили, проели, упились бы ею до самых ее костей: аппетита всегда хватило бы. Достаточно, чтобы физический мир не имел одного своего закона, правда, основного закона — диалектики, и в самые немногие века мир был бы уничтожен людьми начисто. Больше того, и без людей в таком случае природа истребилась бы сама по себе вдребезги. Диалектика наверно есть выражение скупости, трудно оборимой жесткости конструкции природы, и лишь благодаря этому стало возможно историческое воспитание человечества. А то бы все давно кончилось на земле, как игра ребенка с конфетами, которые растаяли в его руках, и он не успел их даже съесть.

В чем же истина современной нам исторической картины?

Конечно, эта картина трагична, — уже потому, что действительная историческая работа совершается не на всей земле, а только на меньшей ее части с огромной перегрузкой.

Истина, по-моему, в том, что «техника… решает все». Техника это и есть сюжет современной исторической трагедии, понимая под техникой не один комплекс искусственных орудий производства, а и организацию общества, обоснованную техникой производства, и даже идеологию. Идеология, между прочим, находится не в надстройке, не на «высоте», а внутри, в середине общественного чувства общества. Точнее говоря, в технику надо включить и самого техника — человека, чтобы не получилось чугунного понимания вопроса.

Между техникой и природой трагическая ситуация. Цель техники — «дайте мне точку опоры, я переверну мир». А конструкция природы такова, что она не любит, когда ее обыгрывают: мир перевернуть

можно, подобрав нужные моменты рычага, однако надо проиграть в пути и во времени хода длинного рычага столько, что практически победа будет бесполезной. Это элементарный эпизод диалектики. Возьмем современный факт: расщепление атомного ядра. То же самое. Настанет всемирный час, когда мы, затратив на разрушение атома П — количество энергии, получим в результате П+1 и этим убогим добавком будем так довольны, потому что он, абсолютный выигрыш, получен в результате как бы искусственного изменения самого принципа природы, т. е. диалектики. Природа держится замкнуто, она способна работать лишь так на так, даже с надбавкой в свою пользу, а техника напрягается сделать наоборот. Внешний мир защищен против нас диалектикой. Поэтому, пусть это кажется парадоксом: диалектика природы есть наибольшее сопротивление для техники и враг человечества. Техника задумана и работает в опровержение или в смягчение диалектики. Удается ей пока это скромно, и поэтому мир для нас добрым быть еще не может.

Одновременно лишь диалектика является единственным нашим наставником и средством против ранней, бессмысленной гибели в детском наслаждении. Так же, как она же явилась силой, создавшей всю технику.

В социологии, в любви, в глубине человека диалектика действует столь же неизменно. Мужчина, имевший десятилетнего сына, оставил его с матерью, а сам женился на красавице. Ребенок затосковал по отцу и терпеливо, неумело повесился. Грамм наслаждения на одном конце уравновесился тонной могильной земли на другом. Отец взял с шеи ребенка бечеву и вскоре ушел за ним вслед, в могилу. Он хотел упиться невинной красавицей, он любовь хотел нести не как повинность с одной женой, а как удовольствие. Не упивайся — или умирай.

Некоторые наивные могут возразить: современный кризис производства опровергает такую точку зрения. Ничего не опровергает. Представьте сложнейшую арматуру общества современного империализма и фашизма, истощающее измождение, уничтожение тамошнего человека, и станет ясно, за счет чего достигнуто увеличение производительных сил. Самоистребление в фашизме, война государств — есть потери высокого производства и отмщение за него. Трагический узел разрубается, не разрешаясь. В классическом смысле трагедии даже не получается. Мир без СССР несомненно уничтожился бы сам собою в течение одного ближайшего века.

Трагедия человека, вооруженного машиной и сердцем, и диалектикой природы, должна разрешиться в нашей стране путем социализма. Но надо понимать, что это задание очень серьезно. Древняя жизнь на «поверхности» природы еще могла добывать себе необходимое из отходов и извержений стихийных сил и веществ. Но мы лезем внутрь мира, а он давит нас в ответ с равнозначной силой.

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The spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism

Introduction

To understand the history of architectural modernism and eclecticism as they emerged out of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one must take into account the broader development of architecture over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This development, in turn, must be seen as emerging out of the dynamic of late nineteenth-century capitalism, which had by that point extended to encompass the whole of Europe. For it was the unique spatiotemporal dialectic of the capitalist mode of production — along with the massive social and technological forces it unleashed — that formed the basis for the major architectural ideologies that arose during this period. Before the story of the academicians or the avant-garde can be told, then, some background is necessary to explain both their origin and the eventual trajectory they would take into the early twentieth century.

So while my aim is to eventually account for how a single social formation, capitalism, can give birth to these two opposite tendencies within architectural thought, the space required to give an adequate exposition of the spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism is such that it deserves to function as a standalone essay. Certainly other trends, both cultural and social, could be understood as reflections of this underlying socioeconomic dynamic. It is thus my intention to post this as its own piece, before then proceeding to detail the way in which architectural modernism and eclecticism mirrored these dynamics. Continue reading

Man and Nature, Part III: An Excursus into the Structuralist Opposition of Nature and Culture

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

The basic distinction between “nature” and “culture” — that fundamental opposition so central to Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology[1] — has been denied, deconstructed, and dissolved countless times by post-structuralist scholars and intellectuals.  But in this respect, it is hardly the only binary to have been so challenged — man/woman, inside/outside, and self/other have all similarly come under attack.  The reality of such distinctions, they say, is far less certain, and far more ambiguous, than the structuralists would have us believe.  An absolute division between any of these pairs, they argue, cannot therefore be established.

And there is undeniably something to the blurring of this distinction: after all, is man (historically associated with culture and civilization) not also an animal? Darwin’s theory of evolution proved definitively man’s derivation from more primitive animal species.  It could thus not be denied that man is simply one species amongst many.  Humanity can claim no special status separate from these other species, by dint of some sort of divine creation or other fantasy.  And so also can humanity not maintain any sort of special dominion over all the rest of nature, as suggested by Judeo-Christian mythology.[2] By what right, then, ask the environmentalists, can mankind dominate and exploit the whole of nature? Humans have no special privilege — at an ethical level — over and above any other sentient animals.  It is unethical, therefore, to live at the expense of other sentient beings, or to intrude upon their natural environment.  Would this not constitute a form of speciesism?

But this argument cuts both ways.  For how is it that the actions of this animal, mankind, be considered so wholly unnatural? After all, it might be justifiably pointed out that all biological organisms exploit their environment, to the extent that they can.  Those species that do not adequately exploit their environment or find their way into an environment in which they can, simply go extinct.  So when environmental activists protest the exploitation of nature by human beings, the argument could be made that we are simply doing what all other organisms do.  We just happen to be especially good at it.  Might it not even be human “nature” to ruthlessly exploit and dominate the rest of nature? In the end, human beings are exceptionally gifted in terms of their ability to think systematically, understand the relationship between means and ends, and contrive complex devices to use as tools to manipulate the environment.  It is as if evolution produced an animal capable of conquering nature in its entirety, and that mankind is merely exercising the gifts bestowed on it by nature.

Continue reading

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The relation of ancient skepticism to Hegel’s problem of the criterion in the Phenomenology of Spirit

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Image: Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s
Le retour de Marcus Sextus (1799)
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In introducing the method by which his Phenomenology of Spiritis to proceed, G.W.F. Hegel addresses the epistemological “problem of the criterion.” [1] The criterion problem, it turns out, inheres in all finite determinations of truth. For Hegel, the internal contradictions it engenders serve to demonstrate the essential inadequacy of all relative (versus absolute) forms of cognition. It thus facilitates the dialectical unfolding of consciousness as it speculatively approaches Absolute Spirit. This, put simply, is the stated goal of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Beyond examining its merely functional role in this work, however, the reader might observe the way in which the problem of the criterion directly emerges from the context of a discussion of skepticism,[2] which appears in the Introduction. Hegel’s procession from the topic of skepticism to criticism is no accident; indeed, its logic can be seen to mirror his understanding of their historical relation. Did not the historic problem of the criterion arise out of the resolute skepticisms of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, after all? Comparing the remarks in Hegel’s Introduction with some of the pertinent philosophical digressions in his later Lectures on the History of Philosophy, the connection between the logical order of his argument and the history of the event may be further established. Reflexively, this then has recourse to his phenomenological treatment of Skeptical self-consciousness in the second section of the earlier work, in which Hegel dismantles its principle of one-sided negativity by applying the critical method which ancient Skepticism had itself inspired.

Our investigation can thus be understood to contain two integrally related parts. The first claims that Hegel’s movement from the issue of skepticism to the problem of the criterion in the Introduction to the Phenomenology is tacitly modeled after their historical succession. Evidence supporting this assertion will be gathered from his interpretation of Skeptical philosophy in the History of Philosophy. This part of the inquiry is thus of a hermeneutic aspect. Conversely, the second part is oriented critically (one might say “autocritically”) back to Hegel’s answer to the problem of the criterion in the Phenomenology. We will assess the way in which the distinctive brand of self-relating skepticism he develops therein is then applied to the Skeptical self-consciousness as its object, both phenomenologically and historically.

It must be noted from the start that the two parts of this study simultaneously follow from and ground one another. At first glance, the reciprocity of this relation is bound to confuse the reader. But this operation is not as confounding as it may initially seem, and demands no great dialectical rigor. To begin with, Hegel’s methodological solution to the criterion problem presupposes his high regard for ancient Skepticism’s critical enterprise, as well as his concurrent dissatisfaction with its epistemological nihilism. If he did not take seriously the implications of skepticism’s problem of the criterion, he could forego the negativity of dialectic altogether. Hegel would have no reason not to relapse into the dogmatic metaphysical positivism that held sway before the appearance of the Kantian philosophy. On the other hand, if he had not objected to ancient Skepticism’s stubborn disbelief, he would have been comfortable with its purely negative result. Hegel’s critical method, which we seek to apply back to his own system, would thus seem to require that our prior hermeneutic claim be accurate. Oppositely, however, his historical interpretation of skepticism, on which our hermeneutic is based, can equally be seen to presume the critical apparatus he develops in the Introduction to the Phenomenology. Whatever the actual order in which they fell, for the purposes of this essay their logic will coincide. As such, the consequences of each will be borne in mind throughout. Continue reading