Marxian Hipsters, Old Skool Marxists and the Abstract and Fetishized Notions of Social Emancipation
The hipsters of value critique can often be heard describing present society as one founded on an abstract and fetishized mode of social domination. Most of the rest of us have no idea what the fuck any of that means, but we know it sounds pretty impressive. If pressed to explain what this bullshit even means, the value critique hipster might refer to Adorno or some other theoretical heavy, as does the writer of this blog post, “The All-Penetrating Ether of Society: Adorno, Exchange, and Abstract Social Domination”:
“[A]ccording to Adorno, unlike the ‘idealist’ ‘subjective and ‘reflexive’ prognosis of reification, which centres on the undialectical appearance of the thing, and criticism that seeks to dynamize these things, the trouble is with the social ‘conditions’ that structure human interaction.
In Adorno’s view the later is theorized by Marx’s analysis of the fetish character of the commodity, which Adorno reads as a social category that expresses the objective social form of existing social relations.
“the fetish-character of commodities is not chalked up to subjective-mistaken consciousness, but objectively deduced out of the social a priori, the process of exchange.”
“Ah!”, I nod in what appears to signal agreement, mostly because I don’t want to expose my complete inability to understand a single damn word the blogger wrote, “Yes, we must objectively deduce something that requires eight semesters of Hegelian philosophy out of something else that requires mastery of Capital, volumes 1, 2 and 3. Uh … by the way, would you like fries with your order?”
Fortunately, for the rest of us, there is the German Ideology. In a concise 1600 word fragment from that work, Marx and Engels outline their view of the relation between the individual, the class and the community. The argument in this fragment of the German Ideology has much in it that rejects commonly held notions of Marxian Hipsters and Old Skool Marxism. For instance, Marx and Engels argue the formation of the bourgeois class results from the fact that these individuals were increasingly tied together materially by the development of the forces of production. At the same time, they confronted the same antagonist. Their conditions were common to them and in contradiction to the old society, but were, at the same time, independent of each of the individual members of the bourgeois class — e.g., trade, communications. money, etc. Over a period of time, these common conditions developed into the material conditions of a class.
Marx and Engels write:
“The same conditions, the same contradiction, the same interests necessarily called forth on the whole similar customs everywhere.”
This bourgeois class was only formed gradually, split up according to a division of labor and absorbed the existing propertied classes from the old society. The bourgeoisie only formed into a class insofar as they carried on a common battle against other classes in the old society. Absent this common battle against the other classes, Marx and Engels explained, they were on hostile terms with each other as competitors. Since the common conditions of the bourgeois class exists independently of the separate individuals who made it up, the individuals were subsumed under the class — their conditions of existence, social position and development are assigned to them. This independent existence of their material conditions of existence, Marx and Engels explained was the subjugation of the separate individuals to the division of labor; and it can only be removed by the abolition of labor and property. Moreover, it was this subsumption of individuals under class that produces the peculiar bourgeois class consciousness.
Then Marx and Engels make what is, for us, a pivotal and far-reaching argument:
“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”
To understand how critical the argument Marx and Engels makes in paragraph 3 of this section is to the concept of social emancipation, we have to compare it to the 2 preceding paragraphs. In paragraph 1, Marx and Engels speak of a bourgeois class that comes into existence gradually in “a struggle with the same antagonist”. The proletariat, however, is itself the product of the bourgeois class, who converts the majority of the earlier propertyless and a portion of the propertied classes into a proletariat. This proletarian mass, therefore, emerges as a direct product of the bourgeois class and has no particular class interest to assert against the dominant class.
Thus the fundamental thesis of all old skool Marxism — the contention that the working class has its own unique class interest, and that assertion of this interest is the motive of its efforts to emancipate itself — never existed in the argument Marx and Engels outline in the German Ideology. It is an invention created by the idiots of old skool Marxism. Moreover, the thesis of a working class interest that is opposed to a bourgeois class interest cannot be found anywhere in the writings of Marx and Engels precisely because, for them, the absence of such a working class interest is the premise of the very concept of social emancipation itself: precisely because this emerging class has no interest to assert, it can put an end to classes and class society.
Every facet of their argument on social emancipation follows from their premise that the proletariat has no class interest to assert against the bourgeois class.
If, therefore, in a hundred different ways, we ask the same question — Why does the proletariat so often acts against its own interests? — the answer to this question is obvious: because it has no interest as a class. The interests commonly imputed to the proletariat are not its own interest, but a prejudice of those who impute this interest to it. Since the proletariat has no interests, by definition it cannot act against its own interests. The subsuming of the proletarian under the class is expressed in her consciousness as the absence of classes and, therefore, of class society.
For the proletariat, classes don’t exist in modern society; for each member of this class, all other members of the proletariat are simply competitors.
The proletariat is unique in modern society in the sense that its material conditions of life are characterized by universal hostility and competition. There is, for this class, no common interest to be asserted in the struggle with the same antagonist, nor is there an antagonism to the system which they find in existence. The result is that when old skool Marxists depend theoretically on arguments like one that assumes a “working class interest”, they are, by engaging in this fallacy, ignoring the actual material basis of social emancipation. There is, of course, an actual communist impulse in the proletariat, despite the fact it has no interest to assert against its exploiters, but it is not the one usually identified as such by communists. For what now must be understood as obvious reasons, Marx and Engels did not assume the proletariat asserts its interest against the bourgeoisie.
Instead they assumed something much more profound: The proletariat would try to put an end to the universal hostility and competition within its own class — a competition that permeates the social relations within and among the proletarians and which appears to our value critique hipsters as an abstract and fetishized mode of social domination peculiar to the capitalist mode of production. The proletarian revolution is not the least bit concerned with the capitalist class, but with its own fragmentation.
Try to get communists to stop blabbering on and on about “the capitalist this and the capitalist that” to no avail. For our old skool Marxists in particular, there is nothing so revolutionary as when they declare how much they hate the capitalist, when in fact the capitalist is entirely marginal to the problem of social emancipation.
I offer this interesting example of how Old Skool Marxism approaches the question of competition within the working class in contrast to Marx — an example that also drags the Marxian Hipsters abstractions down from the clouds of Hegelian philosophy:
According to Marx competition works this way:
“The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.”
After quoting Marx, however, the Old Skool Marxist writer states:
“With the introduction of machinery fewer workers can produce a higher outcome. So, the number of the unemployed also grows and with it the competition for jobs, making it easier for the bosses to lower wages.”
Notice how Marx never once mentions unemployment in his argument, yet the Marxist introduces this term into his own argument. This leads the reader to a completely false understanding. Unemployment does not produce competition among the working class; competition produces unemployment. The idea that unemployment produces competition is the reason why so many Marxists think “full employment” can reduce competition. It cannot. The relation suggested by the advocates of “full employment” is a complete fallacy. The idea that unemployment causes increased competition among workers and thus leads to a fall in wages is imported from bourgeois economics.
In reality, all the individuals of modern society are on hostile terms with each other, no matter the level of employment. These individuals only form into a class when they actually are in conflict with another class — a condition that does not hold for the proletarians. Marxists, however, have turned labor theory on its head, by suggesting competition among workers is mediated by unemployment. It is not. Competition is mediated by the division of the conditions of production — the division of labor itself. When the worker is at work, she is competing against other workers who are also at work.
According to Marx:
“Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour.”
The competition does not end once the worker has secured the sale of her labor power, but continues even after the sale as she labors. Labor itself, not unemployment, increases competition among workers, according to Marx:
“The greater division of labour enables one labourer to accomplish the work of five, 10, or 20 labourers; it therefore increases competition among the labourers fivefold, tenfold, or twentyfold. The labourers compete not only by selling themselves one cheaper than the other, but also by one doing the work of five, 10, or 20; and they are forced to compete in this manner by the division of labour, which is introduced and steadily improved by capital.”
The harder, more intensively, longer and more productively the worker labors, the more she produces a mass of competitors standing over against her. The worker does not simply produce commodities, she produces the ever more hostile, competitive environment within which she herself labors. In measure as the productivity of her labor increases so also increases the numbers of her competitors.
To put an end to competition, she must put an end to her own labor — a condition that can only be realized in association.