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Why Marx Now?

Karl_marx__painted_portrait-
via Wikimedia Commons.

This text was first presented as talk at the Goethe-Institut New York and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research's Marx Now program.

I’d like to start with a famous line from the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” There’s a lot going on in this line, and by teasing some of those things out, I hope to offer a way of thinking about the question, "Why Marx now?"

“All that is solid melts into air.” It may actually sound better in English than in German. It conjures up an image of the industrial era, of steam power, smoke stacks. And yet it also speaks the language of chemistry, a science just becoming modern when it was written. And it also suggests that the solidity of tradition is evaporating. A world supposedly of closely connected community is giving way to one of free floating atoms.

“All that is sacred is profaned.” A religious world view extruded out of a now obsolete mode of production find itself over-trod at every step by modes of calculation that have nothing to do with the ancient verities. Tradition is giving way. The forces of production are bursting through the old constraints and showing old obscure habits of thought not to be eternal truth for all time.

“And man is at last forced to face with sober sense his real conditions of life.” Marx is still thinking of our species-being the way he learned it from Feuerbach, as something that has an essence, and that all of the religious world is but an inverted projection of the qualities of that essence. The destruction by capitalism of the basis of those beliefs is their real undoing.

“Conditions of life” is a pregnant phrase here. The conditions of life are social labor, wresting freedom from necessity, socializing nature just as it naturalizes the social, abolishing artificial forms and producing social wealth. Or so it could be. The real critique of the present is not in any argument so much as in the fact that social production does not actually produce social wealth.

“… and his relations with his kind.” The melting into air of the old beliefs under the blowtorch of the development of the forces of production reveals the means by which the production of social wealth by social labor is turned instead into misery and precarity.

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Well, it did not quite work out that way. The forward momentum of capital, its inherent dynamism, may have shredded the last relics of the old order, but it did not then stand naked and revealed to “sober sense.” On the contrary, it produced instead its own modes of intoxication.

One thing that is very significant about this text however is that Marx and Engels do not hold capital to account according to even more ancient rites and charters. They are not looking backwards. There may even be many things about this emerging world they admire. They value reason, scientific method, cosmopolitan values, modern communication. How can the potential of these things be realized as general and social attributes of a way of life for all?

What agent could be the bearer of those values? Not capitalists, who proclaim a universality that quickly reveals itself to be partial and one-sided once the question of property is raised. As Marx and Engels say elsewhere in the Manifesto, the real forces for change are those who raise the “property question.” Nor do they see themselves or their kind as agents of change per se. Ideas don’t make and remake the social world; the social world makes and remakes ideas.

An abstract idea requires an abstract agent. Capital has blown apart the local and particular, the provincial and superstitious, and all the petty little emoluments and subventions of small minded aristocratic ruling class. But it has also destroyed the local and particular, the solid and unchanging ways of life of the peasantry. It has thrown them off their land and into the moloch maw of industrial labor. Now with nothing to lose but its chains, labor becomes the potential bearer of an even more abstract form.

I have a small confession to make here: my loyalty is more to the working class than to Marx. I was raised in the labor movement, was taught my Marx at party school. Our Marxism was always a little vulgar. Like Alexander Bogdanov, I take the most enduring feature of Marxism to be this: the point of view of the working class. To me, Marxism has no essential method or dogma or theory other than that.

So when asked: ‘Why Marx now?’ I don’t think the answer lies in a return to a philosophy or method or dogma that was current in the small world of even the more cosmopolitan radical thinkers of the middle of the nineteenth century. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned,” and surely that includes even the verities of classical Marxism itself.

The Marx of use now is no particular method or dogma or philosophy. The Marx of use now as then is the labor point of view. Or to put it in the robustly vulgar terms in which an old comrade explained it to me: the party sticks to working class like shit to a blanket.

This brings us also to interesting questions as to what and where the working class is now. Marx recognized — thanks to Engel’s psychogeographic work in Manchester — that the industrial working class was displacing the artisan and craft-worker. But it is not the case that this became a universal form for labor. Nor has the global distribution of labor stood still. There are probably more industrial workers in China now than there are people in the whole of the British Isles.

Industrial work is not quite the same given how closely woven into the production process information is these days. Marx wrote the Manifesto with the aid of concepts appropriated from German philosophy. He wrote Capital with intellectual resources that included the latest thermodynamic and metabolic concepts from physics, chemistry, and the life sciences, not to mention the careful ethnographies of industrial technology of Charles Babbage, but no science of information existed in his time. What labor is after the instrumentalizing not just of physics and chemistry but biology and information science seems to me an open question.

Labor now has to be thought of as including not just social production but also social reproduction, including unpaid labor, affective labor, and sex work — a topic in which Marx was still rather moralistic. Maybe not all of labor is strictly speaking human. Other species labor too.

If labor fills standardized labor processes with content, perhaps we need a way of thinking also those whose labor is not to produce standard content but novel forms. So-called innovation and creativity are now commodified in quite novel ways. The enclosure of the information commons is a major front in class struggles of a distinctively twenty-first century type.

But let’s not forget that while the planet may now be made up of a majority of urban-dwellers, many still work the land. The enclosure of the land proceeds in attenuated form. If Marxism is the point of view of the working class, high on its agenda remains questions of alliances with other exploited classes. Not to mention tactics for negotiating with other classes, not least the one most prone to the most small-minded kinds of reaction — the petit bourgeois, sometimes rendered in vulgar but accurate English as the petty bourgeoisie.

Lastly, “all that is solid melts into air” has acquired an unintended connotation. Think of the smoke stacks that image indirectly invokes. Melting into air is vast quantities of carbon. Enough to tank the whole climate system. Marx had no inkling of this in the 1840s. By the time he was working on Capital, however, he was starting to think about what he called metabolic rift. He read the earth science of his day. He understood how commodified agriculture was a maker of deserts, and that this had a geochemical basis.

So that’s where we are, and that’s "why Marx now." The peculiar form of dynamism of the commodity economy treats both labor and nature as disposable things to be consumed in the production of exchange value, and for the extraction of a surplus by a ruling class. We see clearly how this enervates and disorders the working class: with many hideous forms of physical injury, but also with mental confusion, anxiety, and depression. Well, if you think your job is fucking you up, just imagine what it’s doing to the biosphere.

So to rephrase the old clarion call: beings of the biosphere unite. You have nothing to lose but your bonds and bond markets. We have a world to save.