Reading Marx on May Day

A contemporary drawing of Marx as a young man

The name “Karl Marx,” especially when heard by a U.S. citizen, conjures a variety of images, or perhaps none at all. Marx as a figure was an important sign for the Soviet Union, which established a state ideology in his name. The Soviet Union was the sworn enemy of the United States for most of my parents’ lives. They have told me stories of how, when they were 7 years old, they would have “atomic bomb drills” when they would all simulate what would happen if the Soviet Union dropped atomic weapons on them by hiding under their desks. Can you imagine the psychological impact that would have on a seven year-old?

But the Marx I am reading wrote long before there was such a thing as the Soviet Union. And in reading him, there are things I want to preserve and things I want to firmly reject. Nineteenth-century German idealist philosophers were not very concerned with being legible to the uninitiated. I think, perhaps, it is the difficulty in reading Marx that produced the abomination of the Soviet ideology. But, if you are willing to struggle through this complex text with me, I think we can come out on the other end with a good framework for understanding a lot of the events we see unfolding around us today.

What can we preserve from Marx? To answer this question, I want to go back to some of the very first writings of his we have, after his encounter with British political economy. At this point, I believe Marx had already developed his fundamental view of human nature, but he had yet to refine this view into a “science.” This move allows us to walk with the thinker as he developed his theory of the relationship between ideas and politics, and their role in the coming revolution.

When the twenty-six year-old Marx set out to write the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he found himself in the paradoxical position of wanting to move past the thought of G.W.F. Hegel, the most influential philosopher in Germany at the time, while still trying to answer the same question as Hegel: Why does History unfold as it does? Hegel approaches the problem of history by separating human consciousness  (or “Reason”) from the individual human subject and instead assigning fundamental importance to the agency of “Spirit” or Geist. Spirit organizes Nature, which contains the abstract form of spirit. Nature is interpreted and realized in the negative practice of human beings in contradictory ways, who thus set about destroying one another in the course of History. Spirit is gradually “sublated” (aufheben) through this process into its concrete form when it is elevated to the level of universal interpretation. Hegel calls this model of historical change the “dialectic.”

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx preserves the mechanics of the dialectic as a structural model of historical change, but rejects Spirit as the ground of History, and thus human nature. Instead, Marx offers a two-tiered model of human nature as “species-life” and “species-being.” “Species-life” refers to the ways in which humans relate to Nature, which is the human’s “means of life in two respects: first…[it is] an object belonging to his labor—his labor’s means of life.” That is to say, Nature provides the materials that we consume in labor.  Second, in the immediate sense, Nature is “the means of physical subsistence.” That is, it provides the materials we consume to subsist as humans. The other fundamental aspect of human nature, “species-being” refers to the ways in which humans relate to each other, as opposed to Nature. Nature therefore determines human practice by providing the materials for human labor and the means for human subsistence. But humans also influence Nature through transforming those materials in the process of labor. Moreover, they establish their own “inorganic” nature (“species-being”) in the form of society, which also determines human practice. This is the dialectic of History for Marx.

Capitalism introduces alienation or “estrangement” into this model through the commodification of labor. This happens through a peculiar slippage of the role of money in the process of economic exchange. Money begins as a commodity (often a precious metal) just like all other commodities. It is substituted as a universal equivalent to facilitate the process of exchange. When individuals accumulate more money than they need to reproduce their subsistence, they sever their relationship with Nature by relying less on Nature and more on money as a means of subsistence. (So, instead of farming our food, we buy it from the supermarket.) Furthermore, as technology evolves, species-life as the appropriation of Nature relies less on the forces of Nature and more on the forces of man. (So, instead of farming naturally and cultivating the best food we can, we now approach farming as a massive agri-business.) When these forces—the accumulation of surplus money and the development of the forces of production—conjoin, surplus money can invested for profit and turned into Capital.

The value of money, then, goes from being derived from the value of commodities as a universal equivalent, to becoming the universal determinant of value: “In both respects, therefore, the worker becomes a servant of his object, first, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e. in that he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. This enables him to exist, first as a worker; and second, as a physical subject.” Capitalism is therefore a determining element in the constitution of human subjectivity. Think about it. Take out a $100 bill. Now rip it up. You won’t do it, right? Why not? It’s just a piece of paper. But that paper now holds so much sway over you, that you will not destroy it, but will gladly destroy other people, Nature, and yourself (which are three ways of saying the same thing, for the young Marx), to get more of it.

Humans no longer experience their labor as “species-life,” or as a fundamental part of their identity as humans. Instead, labor becomes an “occupation” by Capital, in the sense that one “searches for” and “finds” work that has already been prescribed. Furthermore, this alienated labor becomes the “means of subsistence,” trapping the worker into a relation of subservience to Capital and further separating him from Nature. Cut off from authentic labor as a means to relate to individuals and Nature, Capitalism changes “the life of the species [the “species-life,” which is fundamentally the Capitalist “mode of production”] into a means of individual life.” For Marx, we are not individuals, we are “species-being” and “species-life.”

Marx’s model of history maps on to his model of human nature: “the entire movement of history, just as its actual act of genesis—the birth act of its empirical existence—is, therefore, for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming.” The realm of “the birth act of [history’s] empirical existence” is the realm of “species-life,” where man comes against the fundamental ground of Nature as “History” (most assuredly a proper name). The realm in which we “comprehend” that History is “species-being.” [ The following sentence is very abstract, but try to work with me here:] The young Marx embodies the concretization or “sublation” (Aufheben) of Hegel by working within his very same problematic (the problematic of history) and “universalizing” his “abstract” application of the dialectic to history by shifting its ground (Grund) from a disembodied Spirit to the material realm of History.

Marx still has a fundamental point on which he agrees with Hegel, however; that the “entire movement of history” can be “comprehended,” and furthermore that this act of comprehension is also the “known process of its becoming.” As the philosopher who comprehends and articulates the condition of species-life under Capitalism, Marx himself becomes the agent of Historical change. The dialectical synthesis of theory and practice in his philosophy of “praxis” is the way out of Capitalism: Communism.

For Marx, Communism, as “the positive transcendence of private property,” is  “the perceptible appropriation for and by man of the human essence and of human life,” which “should not be conceived merely in the sense of immediate, one-sided enjoyment, merely in the sense of possessing, of having.” Instead,  “man appropriates his total essence in a total manner, that is to say, as a whole man. Each of his human relations to the world—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving—in short, all the organs of his individual being, like those organs which are directly social in their form, are in their objective orientation” now pointing toward “human reality.” “It is human activity and human suffering, for suffering,” he writes  “so long as it is humanly considered, is a kind of self-enjoyment of man.”

The implications of the alienation of labor in the regime of Capital are spelled out: Capital flattens the human sensorium. We are no longer able to orient our sensory organs toward “the object…of human reality”—that is we can relate neither to nature (species-life) nor to each other (species-being). Instead, we orient our senses towards ourselves, and we are only able to perceive things in terms of possession or the lack thereof. In “human reality” (that is to say, in the state of things in which the Marxist model of the human is able function without estrangement or alienation), when the senses are oriented toward Nature and other humans as the proper “objects” of human life, sensory input manifests itself in a diversity of consciousness which we cannot possibly understand, as we are trapped in the sensory regime of Capital. In this sense, we will not merely “have” Communism, but must constantly be revolutionizing ourselves by focusing our “labor” (fully-understood) on other human beings and Nature.

So how does this whole big mess relate to the “occupy” movement? To put it simply, according to Marx, Capitalism has occupied you. It has given you an “occupation” which is not the means to your own personal self-fulfillment, but the means of the fulfillment of the circulation of Capital. Rather than approaching the products of our labor as extensions of ourself (what Marx later calls “use-value”) we look at them and see how much they are worth in the Market (or “exchange-value”).

In order to break out of this system, we need to re-orient our senses towards each other (i.e. “species-being”) and towards Nature (i.e. “species-life”). Marx expresses this sensory dimension with the following paradox: “it is human activity and human suffering, for suffering, when humanly considered is a kind of -self enjoyment of man” How can suffering be self-enjoyment? I challenge you to find out the answer to this riddle yourself. Make yourself suffer by sleeping on the ground. Make yourself suffer by skipping work tomorrow and risking pissing off your boss. Make yourself suffer by going outside in the hot and the cold and being bored in those moments between meeting new people. the goal is not to harm yourself in the long run, but to re-tune your senses towards Nature and towards other human beings.

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3 thoughts on “Reading Marx on May Day

  1. whenever one of my posts sparks a good debate on facebook, I like to put it up here so viewers of the blog can see it in context. This post sparked a great one:

    Greg Collins: Marx’s and your conception of “Nature” dismisses the natural sentiments of man, of which its better angles exhibit sympathy, compassion, kindness, and sacrifice. In reference to your example about the $100 bill, perhaps a poor immigrant in a new country would not rip the bill up not because he has an acquisitive disposition, but rather because this hard-earned money (earned under a capitalist system) would pay for better food and shelter for his children. Because Marx’s and your conception rejects the natural sentiments of man, it rejects the immutability of human nature…since human greed will not vanish under an economic system different from capitalism. The opportunity to retune one’s senses “towards other human beings” flourishes when human beings have freedom (for instance, private philanthropy thrived during the 19th century and throughout the 20th century in the West). The Occupy protesters would be better to acknowledge that human vice exists under any economic system, and within any conception of man’s natural state (Marx’s conception of “Nature” or otherwise.)

    Kyle J. Anderson: your “poor immigrant” would only be able to spend money in the “market” of a capitalist system, so your argument presupposes the existence of Capitalism. What if we do away with this pre-supposition? You are basically saying greed is an immutable part of human nature. I am saying it is produced under Capitalism. My argument justifies democracy, your argument justifies authoritarianism, hierarchy, and autocracy. Who is the real American in this exchange? To the extent that what constitutes so-called “American exceptionalism” that you right-wingers lover to talk about is our love of “freedom,” it seems as if Marx’s argument is more truly in line with the conceptions of our democracy than yours.

    Kyle J. Anderson: I should not say that “I am saying it is produced under Capitalism,” because that’s not what I think. that’s what Marx thinks, though. I think greed can be produced by a lot of ideologies. But I don’t think humans are inherently greedy. If that is true, then democracy is a bad idea and the state is the solution.

    Greg Collins: The immigrant argument does presuppose the existence of capitalism, as it was intended to show that an individual living within a capitalist system is not necessarily motivated by greed when in the process of earning money. If greed can be produced by a lot of ideologies, then why would greed suddenly vanish in the dangerous ideology behind Marx’s conception of Nature? Because human beings have the capacity to commit greedy acts, this is precisely why democracy (of the representative, constitutional, and tempered variety) is better than any other alternative. Creating a system in which one force of greed has to compete with other forces of greed (regarding money, votes, etc. thru democratic elections and competitive capitalism) tempers the aggregate impact of greed…as opposed to creating a system that monopolizes greed in the hands of the few (i.e. “the state”; i.e. socialism, Communism, and other redistributive property systems advocated by many Occupy protesters.)

    Kyle J. Anderson: I don’t understand how this immigrant, who wants to buy private property, isnt motivated by greed. That’s the point, right: greed is good.

    At this point in his life (1844), the only ideology behind the work of the young Marx is this model of what it means to be “human” (species-life and species-being) and this idea of some better future which he calls “Communism.” If you read my interpretation of how he describes Communism, it has nothing to do with “redistributing property” and everything to do with changing the way we perceive things and each other, so that with communism, “possession” and “property” (in the one-sided sense of to “have” or not have) are replaced by a full sensory engagement with the world and with others. Granted, this is very abstract and certainly doesn’t give us a “policy” or “platform,” except to constantly be trying to sense what’s going on with others and nature.

    So how does “communism” (as we have just described here, NOT anything to do with the USSR or “redistributive property”) deal with greed? Rather than channeling it through hierarchy and the state, this new sensory engagement would focus on the first cause. Like all good right-wingers, I see the first cause beginning in the family. Greed stems, first, from our relationship to our women and the ideology of the patriarchy. A constant sensory engagement towards women would then be the first step towards dealing with the problem of greed in a truly “democratic,” non-hierarchical way.

    Kyle J. Anderson: I think the fundamental point of difference between you and Marx is over “human nature.” The way I see it, you are looking at humans as you see them now and abstracting from that to some idea about how all humans everywhere have always been. Marx looks at how humans are now and sees as a model that is not at equilibrium. Most importantly, he sees history and all of the historical processes that led to humans being the way they are now.

    Kyle J. Anderson: also, that bit about patriarchy is not something Marx would ever say. He was obviously patriarchal and probably racist, too

    David J Bell: equilibrium models are outdated, complex emergent / spontaneous orders are the reality and any framework that denies that is using improper priors, and thus inherently wrong

    Kyle J. Anderson If you read the post, Marxs dialectical model of human nature and historical change is not all that simple. But the notion of “estrangement” or alienation does imply equilibrium, even if Marx never expressly says this. I might be putting words into his mouth, or it could be the fact that he’s writing in 1844. Also, there is a certain amount of normalization inherent within the Marxist project, which may be associated with this issue. I will take this on in another post

    David J Bell: I did read the post. Dialectics are a way of saying absolutely nothing worthwhile, in complex terms.

    David J Bell: I just don’t understand why you reject the idea of accumulated capital being beneficial to humanity. “Capital flattens the human sensorium” Really Kyle? Did humans in the 1400s have much better sensory experiences due to a lack of capital vs modern society? I really want to keep this debate friendly, but you are crossing into dangerously incoherent territory in the name of intellectualism.

    Kyle J. Anderson First, dialectics are the early way of formulating exactly the kind of “complex emergent/spontaneous traditions.” It is basically an understanding of “society” or the “social totality” in terms of both economics (“species-life”) and culture (‘species-being”) in a way that is not uni-directional causality.

    as for the notion of the sensorium and “humans in the 1400s,” we are kind of sliding back to this question about “natural man” that Greg is talking about or an answer to the question: what did people look like outside of capitalism? At this early point Marx is not concerned with first causes or trying to look back into history. He is looking around him and seeing “alienation.” I don’t know what sensory experiences were like in the 1400s, but I do know that in the modern society we see around us, the fact of “possession” or the quanitity of possessions has taken on much more importance than the quality. Take beer, instance. Bud, Miller, and Coors own something like 90% of the beer market. Their beer is shit, but they mass produce it and pump money into advertising and people eat it up. Now, I LOVE what your dad and people like him are doing with beer. Concentrating on it as a craft. Basically, recouping our senesory engagement with beer. Your dad is not “alienated” from his labor. This is the kind of society that I want to see. This does not involve looking back or destroying the system, but simply engaging with our senses in the course of our labor to ensure we produce the best products for nature and for other human beings.

    Kyle J. Anderson: Later on, Marx starts building a model of history from the beginning of time, and that is where I think he starts fucking up. I also think these later theories are responsible for the abomination of the USSR, and I don’t think it was some kind of “misinterpretation” of Marx. The guy was imperfect. He had some bad ideas and some good ones.

    David J Bell: I think for you, dealing with the inherent stratification of society is probably a really big internal battle. But society has always been stratified, and for the foreseeable future will be. This isn’t to say that the people on the bottom have languished and not benefited from modern advancement, as they certainly have benefited, but taste and affinity for quality and luxury has always been limited to a portion of society. The beauty of capital accumulation is that things once considered luxuries are now commonplace items for almost everyone. This is a trend that will continue. I’m not really trying to argue from a family/beer perspective, but I think you’d find that historically, freer markets have led to quality beer, whereas government gave us prohibition and gave rise the the BMCs that you lament so much. And, as for what people looked like outside of capitalism, the empirical history is that of disease, hunger, state/religious oppression, and death.

    Kyle J. Anderson: also, I should not have said “Capital flattens the human sensorium,” that would be better phrased as “CapitalISM flattens the human sensorium.” Or “the human sensorium has been flattened under Capitalism.” The -ism connoting the ideology instead of money invested for profit as such. My literary flare tends to get the best of me at times.

    David J Bell: Also, capital is best not understood as money. Capital is aggregated knowledge, it is machinery, technology, and institutions that organize and arrange materials in novel ways.

    Kyle J. Anderson: ‎”disease, hunger, state/religious oppression, and death” as if these things don’t exist under Capitalism? Capitalism is a global system of uneven development that evolved from a mercantile economy based on colonialism. Our desires for “luxuries” are part-and-parcel of those “institutions that organize and arrange materials in novel ways” that your talking about and that I am calling “Capitalism,” the ideology of modern bourgeois Europe which has been exported by force of arms across the world. BUT, I do not want to do away with all of these things, because I know that would be impossible. I am interested in moving forward

    Kyle J. Anderson: I hate to drag this on, but I just wanted to add one more thing. I think most of the intelligent activists from the grassroots on the right and most of the “leftist” people who have any clue, that I have spoken to at least, are both working towards basically the same thing: a free market. (People on the left don’t articulate it like that, because that term has a lot of ideological baggage, but basically that’s their politics looks like in practice.) We have different ideas about how to get there. One side says: eliminate government taxes and regulation and allow the individual forces of competitiveness to cancel each other out and raise the standard of living on the aggregate. The other side says: buy local, vote with your dollars, (and this is my version of it:) understand your labor as fundamentally limited by the interests of Nature and other human beings. **Both sides are critiquing the relationship between massive corporate monopolies and the government, and arguing for small business** My problem is, from reading Marx, I am starting to think the first argument actually presupposes structure and hierarchy. And it also ignores the impact a raised “standard of living” for some people has on other people (in other parts of the world) and on Nature.

    Greg Collins: Capitalism is most assuredly not a “global system,” if you are talking about free market, competitive-market capitalism. The most competitive capitalist economies in the world, such as the United States, are still heavily burdened with government regulations. The vast majority of countries are run by kleptocratic and autocratic governments. If one had to label a “global system,” a more accurate description would be despotism. If, when you reference “capitalism,” you mean avarice, what examples of economic systems in human history demonstrate that avarice did not exist?

    Greg Collins: The inevitable conclusion emanating from Marx’s conception of “Communism” is: 1) seizing and redistributing property; 2) undermining social traditions and relationships. This is why Marx and his political and intellectual followers have consistently advocated for the breakup up the family, which is a more direct way of saying that people should have “a constant sensory engagement towards women.” In free societies, families are free to choose how they want to divide their labors. This relationship is not “hierarchy” or “patriarchy.”

    Greg Collins: Since you wrote the initial post, you can have the last word.

    Kyle J. Anderson: I think my next post is going to be called “Why I’m not a Marxist.” Marx didnt write much about the family, that I am aware of at least, and I think this is a major problem of his. He also had a view of history, by his older years, that justifies the seizure and re-distribution of property, as far as I see it. And when I say the bit about “constant sensory engagement towards women,” I am not talking about breaking up the family, but treating your wife and mother with respect. The fact that Marx ignored this crucial aspect of what it means to be human accounts for a lot of the problems in his thought, in my opinion

  2. Appreciate you posting this, Kyle. I appreciate respectful discourse, so keep up the posts, and I’ll keep up reading them.

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