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The Will to Marxism: Need We Work in an Economy of Abundance?

By Jeremy Brunger.

Karl Marx - portrait

In the 19th century, English philosopher John Stuart Mill revamped Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism, whereby in tandem they mathematized the world according to their vision of liberal capitalism. While students of history today might consider utilitarianism a somewhat dated way to view the world, it was utterly revolutionary for its time, exempting nothing in nature from the purview of human endeavor. Even pleasure became a quantity under the utilitarians, who conceived it as a measure of utility, subordinating all qualities to quantities (with certain exception such as the pleasures of high literature or other pursuits favored by their respective bourgeois milieu), erasing the measures of quality from the social sphere –– mankind became reduced to a series of numbers, which man first had invented. The quantum as utility, it seemed, had invented man and converted him into its religion. Man could look at the world around him only as a man might look at a department store, seeing a price here, and a calculus there. Mother Nature became the sum of the square footage of ground rents, man became the man-hour, and capital came to represent the very summit of Western achievement and Enlightened progress. In the process of capitalist development, which began to subtly invade man’s interior cognition in the 18th century and came to dominate it in the 19th, man became immiserated, even in the most powerful global empire ever to exist then: the England of Karl Marx’s Capital. Little did capital know that it would never quite hear the end of that book, though it was not proletarians who produced it but rather a poor Ph.D. supporting his family with the scraps given to him by a communist in the guise of a factory boss. A century and a half later over half of the population of America lives at or around subsistence level, again in the most powerful global empire ever to grace the Earth. Capital will continue to co-exist with capital because capital cannot behave otherwise than as antagonism. It quantifies in order to exploit and kills what it cannot.

The mere fact that the American government uses a statistical construction, the GDP, as a measure of its progress is telling, for its imperial-progressive march towards the infinite neither dares to account for nor declares the happiness of its people. Even the Founders, whose mythos compares to the founding myths of every empire, thought the pursuit of happiness –– let us quote the Declaration –– was coincident with private property, that is, property from which one man could exclude another. For the slave-holding bourgeois legalists of the 18th century, actual human happiness was another matter entirely. Happiness remains a potential category for fulfillment but our present history ignores its accounting. Instead, the monetary return on investment rules us all, no matter that money was first put into circulation by human hands.

Karl Marx, despite his current retro-perspective image as a Victorian patriarch and anti-modern voodoo economist, was really a special breed of technocrat much ahead of his contemporaries. He believed the evolution of technology would free mankind from the toil of labor and that this technology would, by definition, be created by man rather than foisted upon him by Nature at large. The strange capacity of techne, unique to man alone, would emancipate the human race from the grinding horror of animal life (for Marx was fanatic about Darwin’s biology, even going so far as to try to dedicate Capital to him). Man’s liberation would lie in his creativity, which 19th century wage-slave industrial economies –– the principle object of Marx’s ridicule –– at once stoked and artificially repressed by virtue of the grueling work hours and minuscule wage compensation they imposed. The technology Marx saw in his time ruled man and made him a sort of machine; he desired a new machine, one that at once liberated man and allowed him to approach the fellows of his species as equals.

It should not take a world-historical thinker to advise the world that it can enjoy its products once its labor has succeeded output with its harvest. It would, indeed, be difficult to enjoy the fruit of one’s exponentially more productive labor if one has no time or energy with which to do so. Thus was the stranglehold that the industrial bourgeoisie of Marx’s era had over its subjects, the men (and women and children) who by their sweat and blood built the English empire inwardly and outwardly. Yet the concept of the individual was still subsumed under the cloak of religious ideality, ensuring that no matter how much abundance one had at home, one was still enslaved to the structure of his politics. What work was done then, was done not for the man who performed it, through his sacrifice of time and flesh. It was done in the service of his accountant, who at once acted as priest, god, and employer lest he find himself in a debtor’s prison, on the stocks, or on streets lined with coal-dust, prostitutes, and urchins begging to eat the soles from his shoes. Most certainly, it was not the capitalist class who decided to end child labor as “Rule Brittannia” resounded from the port cities. This was the central travesty of progress. Marx’s thoughts on the working day had it that it neither be ten to fourteen hours — as it was in industrial England — nor be so intensive if work still had to be done in his envisioned communist society, at least in such intensive work spaces. There is no difference between the cotton loom, the production line, or the registry list in a call center, which were and are all ran by human beings who would rather not do what need not be done.

We still have grocery stores that command their cashiers to labor according to mathematically standardized speed scores that split to the second how much they sell with how much they take to give their customers back their cash; oil-changing marts that follow the same process; gas stations that forbid their clerks to accept less than a penny’s cost of the merchandise consumed; managerial rubrics that rule not according to human interview but to imagined cost-effectiveness; government bureaus that count heads instead of faces; and the death camps of health insurance that would sooner have a homeless population than a healthy one. Forges of steel or lives reduced to a cold and insane mathematics: this is not a choice. Our humanism has not been sold, it has been stolen. Marx witnessed the same theft in his own 19th century even as he presaged ours.

Such intensive economies hardly disappeared during the 20th century, even as technological innovation thrived in the private and public spheres alike: Ford Motor Company gave us the mass-produced automobile along with the mass-produced man and the US government in contract with other governments and domestic private companies ushered in the information age. Yet, people often worked harder than ever: the protestant work ethic was supreme up to the 1960s, when cultural revolution seemed on the brink of a eschatological dawn. The more we knew, it seems, the more we worked. This is the chief paradox of modernity: we have so much material and intellectual abundance, yet appear trained, disciplined even, to think it necessary to earn a living despite our historically unique largesse. There has been much talk in the last 150 years about communism working only in theory, as if any other comparable theory has worked in practice, pure capitalism included. But never before has an economic base been poised to marry the intellectual monuments built from, and upon it, were we only ready to forge the bonds in order to unite them now that our intellect compares to our materials. The labor pool has never been larger, nor more educated. We have thus far only straddled this gulf, too afraid of what we might accomplish on the other side.

We live within the horizon of that gulf. Diverse anarchists, Marxists, Catholic distributionists, mainstream social-capitalist theories of development, and proponents of other theories (and practical examples) of human society abound on the internet, that creation of the sovereign nation-state in league with private capital. Such diffusion was not possible before the information age, when even centuries after Gutenberg’s great leap forward we still had access to information at a snail’s pace. Now, history is a palimpsest so easily dissected that we need only click a button to view its inner details, such as the reason why Jesus moved to Jerusalem or why the horrific Stalin approved of the discipline of sociology despite its bourgeois roots in French and German academic discourse. Furthermore, we can use the internet to examine Marx’s England, the economic structure of our own neighborhoods, the mathematical parallels between popular music and the Icelandic saga, or a whole host of economic theory after Adam Smith first philosophized on the dialectics between the moral and the material. A brave new world indeed: both the material resources of man’s dominion and the intellectual curiosity of his mind are thriving in the 21st century, as the inroads of that thriving lay bare our shortcomings in understanding our histories both particular and general.

Among such a bounty of ideas, there is, of course, much conflict. One especially interesting development in economic theory subsequent to Marx’s anthropology of the deprived English is that of “the post-scarcity economy.” The idea is at least as old as the 19th and perhaps even the 18th century, when Thomas Paine in Agrarian Justice was promoting a sort of proto-socialism against the property-adoring Enlightenment thinkers of his milieu. But the practical reality of it lies firmly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when material abundance was so massive that the only thing halting human progress was humanity itself and not the technological innovations it came to wield. John Steinbeck in his The Grapes of Wrath, arguably the greatest novel in the American canon, lambasted the misfortunes of the dismal science of orthodox economics that saw fit to destroy food rather than distribute it to the victims of the Great Depression, because of how such equivalent distribution would affect the reigning price mechanism of foodstuffs. Other literature of the 1930s and 40s abounds with such themes, from James T. Farrell’s A Note on Literary Criticism to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods, a novel about African American migration towards the North and their discontent subsequent to being proletarianized.

Our money economy is a direct descendent of the economy of scarcity that defined all of human history until quite recently — again, until the 20th and 21st centuries. At least in the developed world, we now have — as we had then — the material resources to behave as though we do not require the signaling vehicle of cash to refer to material commodities in order to purchase them for our consumption. It persists despite itself. Such a modal object of value-storage is a survival of the “good old days”, when human life was defined not by what it had, but by what it did not have: thus scarcity was identical with history. Now, finance is all fiat, which is to say it is a priestly phantom that nevertheless controls our lives by directing and reflecting our motivations. For once, our access to the world outweighs our hunger for such access. The fact we confuse cash for accounting only tells on us to our higher intellects, saying that we are lagging behind the times of our own futurity. The watershed will leave its marks.

All that is fiscal is, of course, wholly political: there is no political decision that does not cohere towards an economic result. In the eyes of capital we are little more than labor rents, as are capital’s highest employees — the reification of the abstractions we human beings have produced over the centuries has fitted itself as our designated master, from the server of grits and ham to the chief executive officer. We might even consider Congress to be largely the legislative arm of capital, since their proper concerns are budgetary in nature. Five hundred years ago the West entered early modernity, ushering in the marriage of scientific inquiry and humanism we enjoyed for so long. Somewhere along the line the process inverted and turned man into a commodity. The transmogrification of man into rent continues its onslaught through the centuries, all the while supposing our negative consent.

The most obvious symbol of this transformation is the dollar, or rather, any cash symbol that makes man see his neighbor as a potential predator in the realm of plenty. The dollar is a magic symbol that can motivate an army of pediatricians to treat adolescent pancreatic cancer or drive horrific genocides. John Stuart Mill, despite his excesses, would have abhorred a police state intent on protecting private property even at the cost of human liberty, along with the legislature that produced it, utility be damned. It is our insistence on using the same structure that served our misery in the past that continues our misery into the present.

The United States, with all its capital stocks, standing contracts dating back centuries, massive labor forces, predatory immigration policies, technological abundance, has enough resources to end domestic poverty tomorrow. The government could do this without even having to remold the behavior of its citizens, whether you, a subject of the government, are a conservative who believes poverty is a moral problem, or whether you are a liberal who believes that poverty is the direct result of economic warfare against labor. The material abundance is there in time and space, no matter the language games of property that compete in claiming it for one interest group or another. The abundance is tethered by a legal and cultural superstructure which we call America, clothed as it is in the dollar which seems to be more socially powerful than the people themselves who actually constitute civil society, of which the dollar (along with its prices) is a subordinate tool.

Regardless of the ideological bent of its people, the objects themselves are there: the housing, food, clothing, and so on are there in the physical world but are prevented from being distributed by this language game we call “legal tender.” Cash, therefore, only signifies labor that is backed by the structural violence of the state, which monopolizes violence in order to monopolize human regulation. The massive profit margin of international business is largely a loophole of this process rather than the end result. Money is merely an engine for controlling human beings, for forcing their antagonistic co-operation, for convincing them of scarcity. The greatest philosopher of the World Wars, Ludwig Wittgenstein, stumbled onto a great fiction with his philosophy of the human tongue and all the perils it entails. He just did not know he had unearthed the secret of modern human enslavement, or rather its most pernicious aspect. The dollar is not a proper representative of value but a bead on the abacus of social control.

The average citizen attains that legal tender by performing what we moderns call “work” and what the poet Dante called “Hell.” The way we think is overdetermined by the past, by its determinant historical scarcity, which bore both our greater and our lesser habits into the present. Nevermind that we needn’t work, or that agrarian mores ought not be the same as urban mores, or that human life simply does not operate according to the same guidelines in the 21st century that it might have operated in accordance with in the 1st. The word “determine” means “to limit,” to overdetermine to “super-limit,” quite without reason. Without real material limits, we are still limited, not by our lowly origins as in Darwin’s biology, but by their hyped-up successors: the postmodern financial economy coupled with the cynicism of a corrupted political structure that conceives of itself as lasting for centuries more.

A structural revolution presupposes, and trumps, a legal one –– for we have invented them all by virtue of our participation. Most of this participation is barely conscious, or unconscious, as the French social theorist Louis Althusser had it in his On the Reproduction of Capitalism. The same criticism pervades Andre Gorz’s classic Critique of Economic Reason, dating from the 1980s, when liberal capitalism made its brutal return under the triumphant neoliberal regime and the tentacular spread of the IMF’s loan programs. What continues is what is allowed, provided it is not first recognized as an evil we only co-opt. We are enslaved only as long as we do not think we are enslaved.

Simone de Beauvoir once asked her audience “Must We Burn Sade?” We have not burned Greece, the original foundation of most of our philosophy, despite its being a slave-owning republic built on the selfsame principle of brutal exploitation. Neither need we burn ourselves in heaving America toward its inexorable summit, wherein the principle of liberty, both collective and individual, resolves its contradictions. It will either resolve, or denature back into nothingness. Its people are the agents of this crossroads, but first it must ask itself some hard and pointed questions: it must self-criticize, not in the manner of reciting a catechism, but in the manner of a free people who despise hypocrisy and the hollow ideals of empire. If not this, then decline.

Need we work as if we are but Sisyphus on the mountainside rather than crowded around Prometheus as he shows mankind how to kindle our way out of the primeval darkness? Why grind corn when you can mass-produce it with a few men and a few machines? Why insist on sweating by the toil of your brow when you are already in the land of milk and honey? Why pretend the moral sphere of modern life is comparable to the bronze age, when most people worked, despite their detestation of it, because their environment offered them no other choice? Why demand others perform busy work even if it is not economically necessary, only, as some suppose, morally necessary (keeping in mind the suggestion that others must work for things not necessary to society already smacks of slavery)? Why work for nothing save the satisfaction of a political minority intent on subjugating the poor, who themselves always have comprised the majority of humankind?

Most of these questions could be fallaciously answered in a response that naturalizes work, as all reigning behavioral and political regimes do: “there is no other way,” or “the way we do things now is consonant with the natural world.” But all of these answers ring as false now, in the great age of human artifice, as they did when the first builders of the ziggurats convinced the common man to give his surplus to the ruling class, according to divine and natural warrant. Capitalism is a pyramid scheme, a system of caste that convinces its adherents that horror is joy, and joy horror.

After all, the idea of the “dignity of labor” originally came not from laborers but from those who profited from their misery. The idea that misery was dignified was not grassroots — it was corporate, especially as it was expounded by the Church Militant (not coincidentally, the Catholic church still uses the language of corporate expansion to describe itself).

Such probing questions are, of course, more theoretical today than practical tomorrow –– this fact cannot be denied. If the theory were practiced one would still need to figure out the logistics of national distribution stemming down all the way to the local field, the maintenance costs of stores and storage facilities, and so on (of course, this is work that people are already doing rather efficiently). In general we call this already-existing figure of logistics “the free market;” but it is, as such, still entirely dependent on using the dollar as a replacement for labor, when in fact labor is the true force behind the dollar’s successful interpolation of our collective consciousness. A more radical approach to this is one of demystification: the dollar means nothing more than “the nation” in liquid form, and if we as human beings could re-open our eyes and judge the material world around us, we would see nothing but the material world in all its splendor, touched-up by the mysticism of political and economic language. Our confusing and confused web of language, which devolved from the sonnet into the labor contract, would allow us to recognize the role that signifiers –– such as money –– play in our everyday lives once we were freed from the false consciousness of exchange-value. And the most common and most powerful form of that labor contract is the dollar, which separates man from his desires: Marx himself called it a pimp between man and his relations of need and object in his early humanist Manuscripts of 1844. It is not that we do not possess resources that border on the infinite; it is that the structure of our societies implicitly forbids their democratic distribution. The largess is not designed to be distributed, but hoarded. Meritocracy, if not merit itself, is the great lie of the bourgeois era: it has never truly existed, even among those who most vocally express its reality. That realpolitik question “who gets what” is meaningless when everyone can get enough simply because there is enough to get, for once.

Were God real, and in the mood to inquire into mankind’s industry, he would have to question why so many people make so little in compensation for their labor when they seem so intent on chasing the dollar — why they do not recognize that money economies function almost mystically as mechanisms of social control rather than as systems of real value regulation. This question is identical to contemporary Marxism, or if you will, this question is the critical eye of Marxism unperverted by the barbarism of the 20th century Soviet experiment. There was a great epistemological and practical break between what Marx thought of the world and what the Marxists did to the world. But it will not do to discard our visionaries because the blind who followed them began to see the world through jaundiced eyes. Blind slaughter never solved anything, least of all the problem of human liberation.

But questions harass any utopia, even one that admits to not promising utopia. One such important question that will be on everyone’s mind in the coming decades is: why should an American work a 10 hour day for less than a living wage if the country is already the wealthiest in the world, yet one which features some of the worst standards of living seen in the first world? Think of inner city Nashville, Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, Trenton, the wastelands of the highway states, the drug-addled counties of the South and the Southeast, the death-rattles of industry resounding loud in the North, the homeless crowding around the Capitol, the black-market edging its way towards the Southwest states, the new normal of the precariat whose families cannot expect any stability save that of imprisonment –– with this last spreading across the entire country. In 2015 few American children can expect to attain adulthood in any degree of wholeness or stability; such a misery should not be blamed on such an abstraction as “the economy” rather than the mis-dealings of the men and women who have come before them, who held the world in their arms and decided to let it fail because of circumstances they chose to ignore.

Why should a 3 hour working day be considered more insane than an 8-10 hour working day or a fifth of the population put in jail? Why should the sane submit to the insane, who think it right that a minority should decide whether or not a majority lives in penury or pleasure? Why should a particular mode of market-capture undermine our ability to seek philosophy and self-understanding rather than the economic bottom line, which, if it doesn’t kill us, certainly won’t follow us to the short-faring graves that await us all, even those few who manage to profit? Why slave for the dollar when the dollar is itself a slave –– our slave, one we politically produce? The social and historical trends of the upcoming century will no doubt re-insert themselves from the 19th century into the 21st century. We will have no choice but to live through them. What will prove our grit is how well we provide the answers to these questions. Marx was, after all, an avid reader of Darwin. What cannot endure, will not endure. We ride the tides of this history whether we like it or not.

Marxism is not a drop-out culture: it is a culture of opting in, of examining the real conditions of our mutual existence and striving towards a world in which neither you nor I are miserable, exploited, or enslaved to circumstances beyond the control of the society we decide to constitute. Ought we weep for that joyful science which is not economics? We have already wept for our better functions, now that we have only our worse to support us. History bears the straight story: to impoverish is to radicalize, from the peasant revolts of the Middle Ages to the brink of popular immiseration on which we now stand. The world’s measure of utility is not man’s servitude to man. Dr. Thomas Piketty, in his recent Capital in the 21st Century, discussed a predictive concept economists call “general appropriation.” This is dry academic jargon: what it means is the poor reclaiming from the rich through brute force. Perhaps this too can be avoided.

The Soviet experiment in freedom is dead; the American experiment in freedom is dying. Marx opened his chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital with one of his most famous observations: “between equal rights, force decides.” Shall we call his bluff or prove it true in our will to Marxism, wherein restriction is defined as farce and human freedom as the only universal imperative? I suspect if we do not use our time to pursue freedom wisely, someone else will sell it out from under us, even as the GDP increases along with the suicide rate.


jeremy profile

Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 20th, 2015.