Some painful inaccuracies, but a step in the right direction.
“We are no longer alienated towards the others and through others, but toward our multiple virtual clones.” - Baudrillard
Far from being a simple communication medium, Facebook has qualitative and concrete effects on the growing places dominated by its use. The social mode surrounding the ubiquitous nature of Facebook coercively influences the possibilities of the social. The problems generated aren’t relative, but ontological; they are new and intensive problems of alienation. Alienation in the Marxist sense refers to externalizing parts of ourselves. Originally Feuerbach claimed people did this by inventing gods, who exist only as an abstract subject containing the elements that humans project onto. This abstraction eventually caused humanity to be relative to a creature of its own making, whether it took reified form in icons or not. The value of the abstraction is wholly social: there is nothing, outside of the collective delusion, that grants its value. The most severe manifestation of the problem is that the question of subjecthood becomes confused. Where is the essence actually located? To what extent does the abstraction form a cultural identity that naturalizes the alienation process?
In Marx, the alienation concept is applied to the process of labor in the creation of commodities which represent externally the value that should be attributed to a concrete use-value; the commodities produced actually embody the labor appropriated from the laborer. This of course leads to the role alienation plays in the capitalist mode of production, whether monopolized or in the modern disseminated, post-Fordist format. This is one of those pesky internal contradictions Marxists are always raving about, and the sort of canned response to this is”Well why don’t you just not buy them?” The unfortunate part is that commodities aren’t simply left to that vacuous sphere of buying/selling, but actually have massive distorting influence over the way humans interact at all. They form the social element of the capitalist mode of production, a space that by necessity is under constant assault from capitalism for the creation of new use values. In this way the commodity is posed as a tool for gaining validity, and identity… but not just a tool, rather the only possible tool. There are of course other venues, but there is no music scene, cultural identity, or high-school that isn’t targeted by corporate entities in a way that actually qualifies the possibilities of their interactions. It’s obvious to anyone that capitalism has become the only game in town, the naturalized frame constituting the only available terms of debate, while Marxism’s profound challenge has been reduced to conflations with Stalinism, and prepackaged answers that don’t even approach critical thought (“Well communism is a good idea in theory…”). Fortunately we aren’t deterministically doomed to perpetually mediated life, because there is a dialectic element to our historical model: humans have the agency to interact with their economic situation, and alter the conditions of their lives, though this change remains qualified by the preexisting conditions. The problem of subjectivity has a particular ailment under capitalism, an existence that leads to severe mental trauma, and usually to some degree of self-deferral and displacement. The deferral process leaves the individual (or collective) straining for the type of identity community should provide—an easy target for those selling identities. Subjectivity is at risk because there are those who can profit from filling that space in for you. This isn’t to totally deny all agency, but to look at those who are particularly vulnerable, and at how even agent choices are effected, such as the “choice” to use Facebook. Like Hegel, I think the problem is not what we desire, but what we desire to desire.
The general response to this issue when actually addressed is the problematization of any type of “natural” self. Any degree of socialization will call identity into question. Even without the alienation we have discussed, the “private” self is always qualified by the social; before you move or think you’re already in a world with developed rules, language, and practices. Of course, upbringing and social circles are factored in. It is absurd to make any claims toward “naturalness”: the self is a dialectic self. A self develops and is developed by the world it exists in; it accounts for the factors that obscure it, and exists in state of becoming, rather than any tangible or fixed place. When we consider ourselves involved in this state of constant oscillation and development, we can understand how susceptible our identities are to a system that stands to produce capital from channeling that process. I will refer to the hijacking of becoming as “mediation,” assuming a negative context.
Possession as Mediation.
The laborer under capitalism is presented with the commodity as an external object containing their alienated labour power. The surplus value relationship is idealogical, but must take a concrete form -outside and against the laborers who invested in it- to be realized as value for the capitalist. In Żuławski’s film Possession these complications likewise take a concrete form, but in a more immediately sinister version: as a virus developed by an ambiguous government agency or corporation which replaces people with identical versions of themselves. There is a long history in literature and psychoanalysis regarding the terror of confronting one’s double, perhaps most notably in Dostoyevsky’s novella, “The Double”. The vulgar version of this fear is that others might think the double is you, so if it does some evil you might be blamed, but there is a far deeper and more disturbing quality to it; the question really becomes what constitutes being “you” at all. In Żuławski’s film the protagonist Anna secretly spends her time protecting the growing double of her unaware husband Mark, who we watch progress through intensive stages of the negation of his subjecthood. Not only does she protect it, she feeds the creature (who looks somewhat like an inside-out octopus as it develops): she labors for it. Anna herself has reached the furthest stages of alienation due to her own double already being completed. Only later in the film do we retro-actively see Anna advancing in her own process of negation, when a mysterious film shows up at Mark’s door, in which Anna speaks into the camera, documenting her growing neurosis. “You’re looking at me as if to tell me that I need you to fill me up, as if I’m an empty space, but I love you too but…I can’t exist by myself, because I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil. Goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil. That’s all it is…” The void left by the negation of one’s subjecthood is experienced as a unfillable void. Recognizing what was once herself in the double, she begins a process of labor for it, a master/slave dichotomy that transcends Hegel’s hopeful hypothesis of negating negation: it is a pure alienation. In the film the disease spreads, eventually erasing the majority of the population. It ends with the sounds of sirens and bombs dropping; the end of the world. Like commodities, the doubles are incapable of production, existing only as reified abstractions, which is why they require the labor of the former subjects. As with the alienation and projection of essence onto a godhead, the double can only contain subjecthood projected onto it: in reality, the double is only an object. This is perhaps why Mark at one point almost casually remarks “God is a disease”. The result of this negation process is un-dialectic, since it is only a process of mediation. In the Hegelian dialectic, negation is an element in a creative process; he even suggests that negation is a necessary element to our understanding of time itself. Negation, however, must be enacted by subjects toward objects, at least until, in Hegel’s discourse, we reach a point of reunion of subject/object through the aforementioned “negation of negation”. The god-disease constructing the doubles represents the mode of production, the only fully “agent” element in this process. The negation it incurs is what Hegel would call an “indeterminate negation”, one that halts instead of aids movement.. The human (labor/subject) and the double (object-of-labour/object) are directed by its course. However, once it has achieved total mediation, there are no longer any subjects to maintain the production, and everything falls to pieces. Rather than a unification, it is the totality of the object. The double in the film takes a physical form, but what if, like alienation, it could also assume the form of the abstract? Or somewhere between the two?
“When they said to the being’s image: I love you (but what about me? Me? Why not me as well? Why only my portrait?)” -Lispector; Profile of Elected Beings.
The increasingly pervasive “social” network of Facebook is constructed by users with carefully selected pictures of themselves, square grid patterns of portraits, lists of interests, and even a box for beliefs. Daily attention and labor go toward Facebook avatars. Nearly every interest imaginable is accounted for, as within its parent form capitalism. It can absorb all interests and identities because it is only a reflection of those pouring their being onto it. The veritable horde of users perhaps unknowingly contributes a great portion of the Facebook corporation’s labor, constantly advertising and getting others to join. After the first time meeting someone, the ubiquitous phrase “I’ll friend you” feels almost a threat. The word, “friend”, one of the most important words in our vocabulary, has been redefined. The promise of connectivity and identity end up being the very form which alienates (in both the Marxist and non-Marxist sense). The in-substantive, shallow, and abstract nature of a Facebook friendship has for its users shifted the way we as a society interact with one another. How many of your Facebook friends are people you actually talk to or care about, or have even met face-to-face? Interacting in this abstract sector doesn’t take place from human to human, subject to subject, but is mediated by a corporation that hosts the user’s identity. The discursive nature of the post-modern condition could not construct a more apt tool.
On a more intensive level, the nexus of culture itself is beginning to struggle with identity. Which reality is more real?  It is not difficult at social events to find people snapping pictures, their social reality existing only to feed their Facebook with the experiences they’ve captured, at events probably populated through Facebook in the first place. Aside from the more-difficult-to peg-down social effect of Facebook, our individual attention spans are infected by its mediation. People often no longer have the capacity to critically engage with things longer than a sound-bite, as communication is being developed into pure consumption. This culminates most densely in Tumblr, a site where media regurgitation reaches unprecedented levels. In reaction to these criticisms, people often emphasize one’s agency in simply choosing not to use these tools; but for those who create art, theory, or anything that requires a degree of attention and engagement, it is becoming culturally impossible to find an audience that will interact with something longer than 150 characters, let alone the social impossibility of making contacts, or finding out about events. This illusion of choice is a classic tactic of capitalism; it claims the poor are lazy, the criminals choose crime, and the consumers chose the major corporation. It completely dismisses the reality of coercion, and the fact that a homogeneous cultural mode leaves very little room for those who want to act outside of it. Once again, the other “choices” have been replaced. The reproduction of capitalism requires extensive dissemination of capitalist relations in the social realm of the laborer/consumer, who is the machine it requires to function. The structure of Facebook likewise forces the processes which sustain it; this abstract entity is carried into reality by the coerced movement of individuals. This coercion is easy to locate, as anyone without a Facebook amidst a group that uses it will be able to explain. On a personal level, simply meeting new people has become difficult without submission, giving me the, perhaps paranoid, but eerie feeling that I might be the only real person in the room.
It seems that when people are defending Facebook they obsessively refer to notions of accessibility and connection, but it’s a fatal error to assume that this mediated medium promotes engagement before pure consumption. On the internet people rarely take time to chew: all the information goes down so smoothly, and generally gets regurgitated before the person has learned or gained anything from it. Experiencing only flashes of information allows no opportunity to commit anything to memory. Abstracted from the process of obtaining information, the information collected will always remain unsubstantive, and uncommitted. The internet conceptually leaves plenty of space for engaged information and horizontalism. My intent isn’t to pose technological regression, but rather to question why we choose the major corporations over open source projects, a choice as simple using search engines that won’t feed the FBI and advertisers whatever they want. Filtering our primary communicative mode through billion dollar corporate entities should be a frightening concept, but even radicals aware of these issues go out of their way to defend internet use. People seem almost excited to provide free labor for companies like Google and Facebook, companies that barely need to sell their good-guy image since people are really ready to believe them based solely on the service they host. If you don’t think this is significant, consider a recent event in Germany: people who didn’t want their house photographed by Google World (an ominous title) had their homes vandalized, finding notes that read “Google’s cool”. (I direct skeptics to look into the few documents the government has released regarding their use of social networking sites, as well as into some sources of Facebook’s funding.  )
This isn’t an attempt to locate all the conditions of post-modernism as if they were coming from a single place, or even to claim Facebook as the most pervasive element (which would of course be capitalism itself), but rather to draw to light some of the particular social problems connected with the use of Facebook, and problematize some of the shallow defenses in its name (“I just use it to keep in touch with people I wouldn’t see otherwise”). I’ve jokingly described pulling the plug on my own Facebook in 2008 as akin to one of the first scenes in the Matrix, where a person wakes up for the first time in a hellish alien world, pulling long tubes from his mouth and the back of his head. A friend described his brief time on Facebook saying “I felt like I was living in a Wal-mart.” The similarities are striking in some ways: the rational efficient method of categorizing, the profit incentive, the white sterile backdrop… There is also an obsessive form of egoism driving the construction of these identities which are wholly public, where thoughts and conversations are always accessible to all other users. This is the farthest thing from a community: it is the best expression to date of the cult of the individual. As Hegel says, “The simple compactness of their individuality has been shattered into a multitude of separate atoms”.
Those who use Facebook have an ambiguous degree of agency, as we have already discussed, but I don’t want this argument to take the form of a polemic against the user. I can understand why someone would “choose” Facebook, given the first form of alienation we discussed. Feeling disempowered and lonely are a part of the daily life of capitalism, a system forged from individualism and competition. The wounds inflicted by this system work seamlessly with anything that claims to mend them. Friendship becomes measurable by a number, and connection likewise by the amount of messages one receives (a severely impoverished form of communication in itself). A housemate and comrade of mine who recently committed Facebook suicide described her experience of using it as a form of addiction: the temporary highs of receiving recognition need to be constant, and are never rewarding in the long run. This feedback loop of endless need is another classic tactic used by capitalism against the consumer. Trying to found a “social network” through such rationalized and unsubstantive means appeals directly to the capitalist logic of production, and instead of forming community, I believe it causes us as a culture to be more dispersed. This “logic” is the crux of what I want people to understand: the forced naturalization of dispersed, unsubstantive, consumerist tendencies, which detrimentally mediate our ability to form real communities and meaningful lives.
Positive Production and the Use-Value of Relationships
Marx distinguishes our relationship to commodities as either use-value or exchange-value. Use-value is determined by the actual implementation of the object (what it does for us, physically), whereas exchange-value is a pure abstraction, understood only through social construction. Exchange-value, in other words, is a relationship to an object which is mediated by society (i.e. money). Under capitalism, exchange-value becomes the dominant way we can form relationships to things outside of ourselves, subordinating material and constructive use to abstract use. A social network formed under these conditions will inevitably carry this abstractness. Defining a relationship itself as an abstracted social value alienates us even further from reality. While abstraction of material in the form of commodities distorts our interaction with objects, abstraction of the actual relation between human-beings through mediation is impossibly more complex and disturbing. It may seem a conflation to directly relate these two processes, but really the main difference is the way a human relationship itself is looked at as something abstract. Whereas letters, cell phones, and even e-mail to some degree replicate human interaction, their function is different than the social network which replaces interaction. It forms an entire new realm of the social. In this sense it can be seen as the abstract form of relation, where material interaction is replaced by images, or the mere language of interaction. This is a form of labor subject to capitalism which is similar to the labor of commodity construction, though without the positive aspect of actually bringing the people exploited together, as in the factory; rather it attacks the very foundation of their ability to interact. However, the creation of affective communities which are not mediated through abstraction can be viewed as a positive production, akin to growing one’s own food. Creating positive affective community outside mediation also generates a social climate that allows others even the option of desubjugation.
Forging meaningful relationships requires a productive process. The simple upkeep of Facebook messaging is the microwave dinner of friendship. What makes a meaningful, lasting, and solid foundation for relationships (let no one mistake this for an advocacy of monogamy) is time, and effort: process. Inter-personal relationships, like subject-hood, should be founded on dialectic, something that can’t be captured in clicking a friend button at someone, and them clicking back. To build an affective friendship, let alone an affective politic, we should found our relationships on substantive effort and meaningful actions. The beginning of revolutionary politics must be material interaction, a concrete communicative mode. Of course we can’t move backward technologically, but anything we build from our historical position will be hopeless if not done on our own terms; as Marcuse put it: “What is at stake is not the undoing or the curtailing of science, but its liberation from the masters whom science itself has helped to set up.”
Addendum: This was written before the events that transpired around Egypt, for some information on Facebook being used against the protesters rather than as an organizing tool: http://serbianballerinasdancewithmachineguns.com/post/3427846413/egypt-technology-and-thoughts-on-how-to-organize-a
1. “More than 500 million active users. 50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day. Average user has 130 friends. People spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook” - http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
2. (a.)“Facebook’s first round of venture capital funding ($US500,000) came from former Paypal CEO Peter Thiel. Author of anti-multicultural tome ‘The Diversity Myth’, he is also on the board of radical conservative group VanguardPAC. The second round of funding into Facebook ($US12.7 million) came from venture capital firm Accel Partners. Its manager James Breyer was formerly chairman of the National Venture Capital Association, and served on the board with Gilman Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm established by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1999. One of the company’s key areas of expertise are in “data mining technologies” – Matt Greenop; globalresearch.ca
4. Andrew Feenberg. Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings; Remarks on a Redefinition of Culture
[Wrote this piece a few years ago, and some lovely people even made it into a zine and distro’ed it along with Jackie Wang’s piece on Egypt.]
This little project is my attempt to right the imbalance of information. While many compilations of the “Crimes of Communism” exist, most notably the “Black Book of Communism”, there does not seem to be a reliable, accurate analysis of the death toll of capitalism, of the wars, oppression, slavery, violence and poverty caused by this system over the many years it has existed (from the 1500’s).
* The Colonization of the Americas
* The Colonization of Australia
* The Atlantic Slave Trade - 10 000 000
* World War 1 - 17 000 000
* World War 2 - 60 000 000
* The Vietnam War (including the bombings of Laos and Cambodia) - 3 992 846
* The defeat of the Paris Commune - 25 000
* Pinochet’s CIA backed regime in Chile - 33 000
* Batista’s Regime in Cuba - 20 000
* Irish Potato Famine - 2 500 000
* Saddam Hussein’s American backed regime in Iraq - 300 000
* The War in Iraq - 1 033 000
* The War in Afghanistan - 14 700
* Overthrow of Patrice Lumumba and resulting Civil War/Dictatorship in the Congo
* The regime of Raphael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic
* The overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh and the Shah’s regime in Iran - 16 000
* Israeli genocide against the Palestinians
* The regime of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay
* Military junta in Argentina
* Bhobal Chemical disaster - 15 000
* Spanish American War
* American Civil War - 620 000
* Spanish Civil War - 500 000
* Belgian Involvement in the Congo - 10 000 000
* Francisco Franco and the Fascist reign in Spain
* Military Dictatorship in Greece
* The overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala
* The after effects of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam - 400 000
* The Contras in Nicaragua - 30 000
* Apartheid in South Africa - 21 000
* Nationalist China - 10 000 000
* The Indian Mutiny - 10 000 000
* Partition of India and following violence - 500 000
* First Indochina War - 400 000
* Lynchings in the USA between 1882 and 1964 - 4742
* Spartacist Revolt (Germany in 1919) - 1200
* Cuban Revolution - 5200
* US involvement in El Salvador - 70 000
* US Involvement in Guatemala - 100 000
* The Troubles in Ireland (1968 - 1998) - 3524
* American-Phillipino War - c. 1 000 000
* The Suez Crisis - 3 000
* Six Day War - 15 000
* First Italo-Ethiopian War - 30 000
* Second Italo-Ethiopian War and subsequent occupation - 300 000
* First Boer War - < 500
* Second Boer War - 40 000
* Iraq-Iran War - 1 000 000
* US sanctions on Iraq - 1 000 000
* Suharto in Indonesia - 1 200 000
* Japanese Democides - 5 964 000
* US Bombing of Yugoslavia - 300 000
* Feudal Russia - 1 066 000
* Children killed by Hunger during the 1990’s - 100 000 000
* Japanese Occupation of East Timor - 70 000
* Japanese Bombing of China - 71 105
* Japanese Massacre of Singapore - 100 000
* Japanese Germ Warfare in China - 200 000
* Rubber companies in Peru and Brazil - 250 000
* Capitalist Russia - 3 000 000
* The Korean War - 4 000 000
* The Greek Civil War - 158 000
* US Invasion of Grenada - 1 400
* US Invasion of Panama - 3 000
* Use and Exploitation of Child Labour - Unknown/Unknowable
* Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll - 250
Total so far: 357 824 914
Recurring Sources: 21st Century Atlas (http://necrometrics.com/index.htm)
Sources used in that site:
Aletheia, M. D., The Rationalist’s Manual (1897):
AWM: Australian War Memorial Fact Sheet [http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/war_casualties.asp]
“B&J”: Jacob Bercovitch and Richard Jackson, International Conflict : A Chronological Encyclopedia of Conflicts and Their Management 1945-1995 (1997)
Bodart, Gaston, Losses of Life in Modern Wars (1916)
Britannica, 15th edition, 1992 printing
Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century (1993).
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Africa (1981)
The Cambridge History of Africa (1986), ed. J. D. Fage and R. Oliver
CDI: The Center for Defense Information, The Defense Monitor, “The World At War: January 1, 1998”.
Chirot, Daniel: Modern Tyrants : the power and prevalence of evil in our age (1994)
Chomsky, Noam, The Chomsky Reader (1987); Deterring Democracy (1991)
Clodfelter, Michael, Warfare and Armed Conflict: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1618-1991
Compton’s Encyclopedia Online v.2.0 (1997)
COWP: Correlates of War Project at the University of Michigan [http://www.correlatesofwar.org/]
Courtois, Stephane, The Black Book of Communism, 1997
Davies, Norman, Europe A History (1998)
Dictionary of Twentieth Century World History, by Jan Palmowski (Oxford, 1997)
Dictionary of Wars, by George Childs Kohn (Facts on File, 1999)
DoD: United States Department of Defense [http://web1.whs.osd.mil/mmid/m01/SMS223R.HTM]
Dumas, Samuel, and K.O. Vedel-Petersen, Losses of Life Caused By War (1923)
Dunnigan, A Quick and Dirty Guide to War (1991)
Eckhardt, William, in World Military and Social Expenditures 1987-88 (12th ed., 1987) by Ruth Leger Sivard.
Edgerton, Robert B, Africa’s armies: from honor to infamy: a history from 1791 to the present (2002)
Encarta, Microsoft Encarta ‘95.
FAS 2000: Federation of American Scientists, The World at War (2000)
Gibbon, Edward, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Gilbert, Martin, A History of the Twentieth Century (1997)
Global Security: The World At War [http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/index.html]
Grenville, J. A. S., A History of the World in the Twentieth Century (1994)
Hammond Atlas of the 20th Century (1996)
Harff, Barbara & Gurr, Ted Robert: “Toward an Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides”, 32 International Studies Quarterly 359 (1988).
Hartman, T., A World Atlas of Military History 1945-1984 (1984)
Henige, David, Numbers From Nowhere, (1998)
Johnson, Paul, Modern Times (1983); A History of the Jews (1987)
Kuper, Leo, Genocide: its political uses in the Twentieth Century (1981)
Levy, Jack, War in the Modern Great Power System (1983)
Marley, David, Wars of the Americas (1998)
Our Times: The Illustrated History of the 20th Century (Turner Publishing 1995)
“PGtH”: Stuart and Doris Flexner, The Pessimist’s Guide to History (1992, updated 2000)
“Ploughshares”: Project Ploughshares, Armed Conflicts Report 2000
Porter, Jack Nusan, Genocide and Human Rights (1982)
Rosenbaum, Alan S., Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on comparative genocide (1996)
Rummel, Rudolph J.: China’s Bloody Century : Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900 (1991); Lethal Politics : Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917 (1990); Democide : Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder (1992); Death By Government (1994), http://www2.hawaii.edu/~rummel/welcome.html.
Sheina, Robert L., Latin America’s Wars: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899 (2003)
“S&S”: Small, Melvin & Joel David Singer, Resort to Arms : International and Civil Wars 1816-1980 (1982)
Singer, Joel David, The Wages of War. 1816-1965 (1972)
SIPRI Yearbook: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
Skidmore, Thomas E. (and Peter H. Smith), Modern Latin America, 4th ed., 1997
Smith, Dan: The State of War and Peace Atlas (1997); The New State of War and Peace (1991); The War Atlas (1983) with Michael Kidron
Sorokin, Pitirim, Social and Cultural Dynamics, vol.3 (1937, 1962)
Timeframe AD 1900-1925 The World In Arms (Time-Life)
Timeframe AD 1925-1950 Shadow of the Dictators (Time-Life)
Timeframe AD 1950-1990 Nuclear Age (Time-Life)
Totten, Samuel, ed., Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views (1997)
Urlanis, Boris, Wars and Population (1971)
Wallechinsky: David Wallechinsky’s Twentieth Century : History With the Boring Parts Left Out (1995).
War Annual: The World in Conflict [year] War Annual [number].
Wertham, Fredric, A Sign For Cain : An Exploration of Human Violence (1966)
“WHPSI”: The World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators by Charles Lewis Taylor
“WPA3”: World Political Almanac, 3rd Ed. (Facts on File: 1995) by Chris Cook.
-re-blogging and adding a couple.
El ritmo que todos ocultan…
The relevance of Marx’s Das Kapital to the modern capitalist world is once again getting a hearing. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the opening up of China to international capitalism, the political and economic elites declared that a new economic paradigm had arrived, bringing with it undreamt promises of wealth and consumer bliss as long as the market was left to do its own thing. Plenty of people listened to them. But their hubris and complacency rested on a massive historical amnesia that blinded them to an elementary truth borne out by nearly 400 years of history: namely that capitalism remains structurally prone to major economic crises.
That is one context in which it makes sense to return to Marx’s Das Kapital. As the title of the book makes clear: it names the beast. Without a name, we cannot really begin to define what the problems are – in their deep fundamentals; without naming this system of social and economic arrangements, the deep structural causes elude us.
Whether we are talking about obesity epidemics, water shortages amid torrential downpours, or environmental degradation and toxification, the hollowing out of representative democracy, the erosion of workers rights, the growing inequalities between the rich and the rest, the dismantling of the public sector and the destruction of social gains and rights built up over decades; whether we are talking about a lost generation of young people whose skills and potentialities can find no gainful employment; the reduction of education to obedience, conformity and discipline; the transformation of the media from tools of information, connection and creativity to purveyors of ignorance, sensationalism and tired clichés; whether we are talking about the economic violence of the system or the surveillance society or the decreasing room to peacefully protest without being truncheoned, tasered or worse – all these problems and more can be traced back to the question of capital and unless we name the system within which these problems are developing, public debate, public discourse and policy agendas, are doomed to stay at the surface level, addressing symptoms at best, or making the problems worse by following the same discredited capitalist nostrums and prescriptions that are responsible for the problems in the first place.
This is why a book whose first volume appeared in 1867 remains compellingly relevant to our times. Marx’s great work has a universality about it – an applicability to capitalism in whatever country and whatever century it develops. Yet this universality is not an empty abstraction – Marx develops a critique that is both empirically responsible and more importantly cuts through to the essential relations of the system.
That is a rare blend. While Darwin’s The Origin of the Species has become accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community, Marx’s work remains –as he would wish – a scandal and abomination for the bourgeoisie. It is in many respects a deeply challenging counter-intuitive attack on cherished assumptions, held both by the political economists and the lay man and women in the street, in so far as they fall under the spell of the spontaneous ideology secreted by capitalist exchange.
Marx showed that the capitalist system is torn apart by structurally irresolvable contradictions. Adopting Hegel’s methodology, Marx deconstructed bourgeois political economy from within, starting with its own conceptual universe and discovering the contradictions and conflicts within that system and showing what bourgeois political economy had to repress in order to retain a semblance of coherence. The really big repression within bourgeois political economy is this: where does value come from? Bourgeois political economy cannot really confront this question and prefers to stay at the level of secondary phenomena, such as supply and demand, interest or mark up, to explain the origin of value.
In this repression bourgeois political economy mirrors the capitalist system itself. The origins of things, and indeed capitalism’s own historical origins are anathema to capital. Marx tracks the source of value to exploited labour power and historically capitalist commodity production emerges when labour power becomes a commodity on a large scale. This requires separating labour power from any private or common ownership of the means of production. Forced to sell their labour power to survive they meet the owner of the means of production, the capitalist, in the market place on very unequal terms.
The concept labour-power is one of Marx’s conceptual innovations that marks a decisive break from bourgeois political economy. For labour-power produces more value than it costs in the market. That innovation in turn required Marx to develop another conceptual innovation. For labour-power produces value surplus to what it is paid and this surplus value is owned and controlled by capital.
Today we are told incessantly that the origin of wealth depends on innovative entrepreneurs, risk takers, visionaries and corporations who we must bow down to, do everything in our power to mollify and attract (by cutting their taxes and worsening labour conditions) because they bring jobs and investment.
But where does this ‘investment’ come from? Marx’s answer is unequivocal: it has in effect been seized by capital from labour and turned into monetized assets that obey the logic and dictates of the capitalist system. But behind the concepts lies a struggle written in sweat and blood as capital seeks to reduce the cost of labour and expand the surplus value which labour-power produces.
‘Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labor power’ says Marx, after remarking on the premature deaths of bakers and blacksmiths. ‘All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour power that can be rendered fluent in a workday’. Any worker in a call centre today would recognize that analysis.
Similarly, the product of labour is degraded by capital in the pursuit of profit. Marx noted the extensive adulteration of bread with alum powder in the English bakeries and saw this as the flip side of worker exploitation. When we look at the crisis in food production today we can see that Marx was indeed prophetic.
Another one of those big conceptual innovations that Marx handed down to us and which explain so much today was the concept of commodity fetishism. This concept helps explain how the daily and routine practices of capitalist exchange structurally inhibits our cognitive capacities to grasp the network of social relationships, the causal forces at work in the phenomena of everyday life.
Capitalism works as a giant act of decontextualisation, by making people, events and institutions, work as if they had no social basis, no social connections, no social requirements and no social conditions of existence.With the concept of commodity fetishism Marx also anticipates and helps us understand a very important aspect of advanced consumer capitalism: namely the giant orchestration of psychological investments and satisfactions in the decontextualised phenomena of everyday life.
Today we are heading towards a perfect storm: a massive economic crisis, a political crisis, a social crisis and an ecological crisis – a multiplication of crises that will bring war in its wake. Marx’s Das Kapital, which was a huge laborious expose of this monstrous system’s inner and essential tendencies towards crises, remains the book that every generation must rediscover.
9 April 1936 - ∞
The mentality perpetuated by anarchists and liberals creates a peculiar line between the “good” and “bad” socialists. It seems that anarchists and liberals vehemently support communists/socialists who didn’t win their revolution (yet), or were swiftly defeated, such as: The Black Panthers, Communists who suffered under the Pinochet regime in Chile, American Communists black-listed under McCarthy, Malcolm x, academics like Walter Benjamin, and the occasional exception being support for Che, who they absurdly distance from communism and the Cuban revolution. Granted there are some people reactionary enough to distance themselves from all of these fighters.
The “Bad” communists are those who made their revolutions and held on, Castro, Lenin, Kim Il-Sung, Mao, and of course Marx and Engels themselves…
Liberals tend to rely on paying lip-service to radical figures, while distancing their legacy from the actual ideas they represented. They repackage revolutionary figures into “democracy safe” distortions. Radical histories become legitimate expressions of anger, but locked in their particular time period: the illusion being that legal methods have developed to address all of the ailments radicals have historically confronted.
Anarchists pretend to take the historical moral high ground by distancing themselves from all notable instances where the character of a revolution would be tested; or else they rewrite events like Makhno’s military dictatorship to be the epitome of anti-hierarchical egalitarian perfection. This way the difficult questions are never asked, and their politics are never put to the test— Questions like “Do we dare to win?” , and “How are we going to suppress the bourgeoisie counter-revolution?” (you know, that thing that has happened after every working-class revolution EVER?) Purity in intention subsumes all practical demands, and history is cherry-picked to present a story of the courageous martyrs with an uncompromising vision of liberty, and the tyrants who played the role of opportunist.
By taking authority out of the equation instead of seeing it as a problem to be solved, the difficult tasks of serious revolutionary activity are sidestepped. The stage is set for future coup attempts, and self-righteous anger when the legitimate revolutionary forces don’t cave to the minority vanguard of moral champions. This is not paranoid, this is already happening, and whereas many of us may not be totally sympathetic to “Stalinists”, and probably nearly none of us are sympathetic to the cultish RCP, the attitudes reflected in this attack are not isolated, but represent a historical continuity. When the weak and diffused anarchists outlets find themselves burnt out time and time again, and are sick of making grungier versions of Church style charity institutions, they get violent at other leftists groups, because it gives them the illusion that they are not utterly powerless. Let me be clear: this is not true of all anarchists by any means. Many anarchists supported the Bolsheviks, and fought alongside them. Many anarchists today are legitimately interested in left solidarity and wouldn’t dream of attacking other left groups; but in history and in modern practice we have to be aware and prepared of such profoundly counter-revolutionary sentiments from anarchists, and wingnut left-communist groups.
I am proud to stand in the legacy of revolutionary fighters from nearly every country on earth who were informed by Marxism-Leninism; I accept our historical faults and problems, and confront them directly. Struggle doesn’t mean having the right belief system, and it doesn’t mean not making mistakes, it means analyzing historical trends, adapting and evolving. To throw the baby out with the bathwater is to erase the most profound and successful tools the working class has developed to fight bourgeoisie class oppression. It is to distance yourself from global anti-colonial struggle, and resistance against imperialism. A-historical categories like “State” and “Power” say nothing about the current character of a revolutionary struggle: sometimes it is progressive to support people, places, or things, that you don’t agree with, or are doing something you think is “fucked up”, because there are larger conditions at work. Sometimes revolution isn’t about your desires.
basicmarxism asked: Alright alright, I do hold that a socialist state is not necessary as it's open to opportunists historically. What's your position on this?
Well I notice your name is now “Dialectical Revolution”: one of the most fundamental tenants of Hegelian/Marxist dialectic thought is that change only occurs from within the context that is being changed. If you have not read Engels “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” it is essential read on this topic. The French utopians believed we could change everything in one day, and start living completely differently. Unfortunately because of reification, our economic and social relationships under capitalism are deeply influenced by it. Can we eliminate all of these complex social arrangements, and reeducate the next generation of children on a completely new basis in such a short amount of time? How are we going to eliminate and oppress the interests of class enemies who want to return to power after a revolution? We need a state to prosecute and combat counter revolution, we need a state to build schools and educate people about new ideas in a centralized fashion, we need a state to coordinate infrastructural programs and resource distribution… it takes a long time to build communism. The state can be extremely positive, and is not the same thing as bureaucracy. For instance in Cuba the healthcare program is one sentence long, it says something like “Every individual has complete access to health care, from the day they are born, until the day they die”. They needed a state to plan strategically where to locate hospitals and send guerrilla doctor units, but when people come they are simply treated, no 20 page forms like in the U.S.
I could go on forever about this, but I will leave it at this for now. I am willing to answer any other specific questions you have as well. Problems with authority and the state are only amplified if we remove them from the equation instead of seeing them as a problem to be solved.
We can therefore answer Mr. Fukuyama as follows: history has not ended. In fact, it has hardly begun. When future generations look back at our present “civilisation”, they will have approximately the same attitude that we adopt towards cannibalism. The prior condition for attaining a higher level of human development is the ending of capitalist anarchy and the establishment of a rational and democratic plan of production in which men and women can take their lives and destinies into their own hands.
“This is an impossible Utopia!” we will be told by self-styled “realists”. But what is utterly unrealistic is to imagine that the problems facing humanity can be solved on the basis of the present system that has brought the world to its present sorry state. To say that humanity is incapable of finding a better alternative to the laws of the jungle is a monstrous libel on the human race.
By harnessing the colossal potential of science and technology, freeing them from the monstrous shackles of private ownership and the nation state, it will be possible to solve all the problems that oppress our world and threaten it with destruction. Real human history will only commence when men and women have put an end to capitalist slavery and taken the first steps towards the realm of freedom."
— Alan Woods Why We are Marxists
The Adventures of Marx and Engels, #7
I getchu Karl
Let’s seize the means of production so we can party
The actual context of this quote is that “we can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and take care of cattle in the evening” is written in Engel’s handwriting, and then in Marx’ handwriting the addendum: ”and criticize after dinner”… with the implication that it was perhaps a bit silly for dialectic materialists to engage in prefigurative speculation.
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get in the gulag you fucker
what the fuck