Marx: Pretty Good Communist Thinker

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My students just had an extremely insightful discussion of two chunks of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts: “Alienated Labor” and “Private Property and Communism.”  The class has to do with the idea of community, and so we pay attention not just to Marx’s critique of the current society, but also to his imagination of the community to come.  This latter element is underdeveloped in the Communist Manifesto, but it is actually, to my mind on this reading, quite robust in the chunk on “Private Property and Communism,” especially if we augment Marx with Nietzsche and Deleuze and Guattari.

Marx develops his critique of capitalism by arguing it alienates people from 1) the product of their labor (which is owned by the capitalist), from 2) their species-being (they are not fulfilled in their productive activity but sell it as labor in return for a wage), and from 3) each other (from other workers with whom they compete, and from capitalists to whom their productive activity has been sold).

Communism, Marx argues, is the positive overcoming [Aufhebung] of alienation, and, necessarily also, the overcoming of the relations of private property.  One form of communism, crude communism, is merely the universalization of the property relation, whereby each individual becomes able to participate in owning property.  The second form is one in which either the state overcomes private property (presumably through a form of state-socialism) or the state has been overcome but property has been left in place [this passage is short and not as clear].  The third form of communism is the full form: a “positive overcoming of private property as human self-alienation, and thus as the actual appropriation of the human essence through and for man…the restoration of man as a social, that is, human being” (p. 71 of the Simon collection).  This process, this overcoming of alienation and private property, this movement to construct communism, is “the riddle of history solved and knows itself as the solution” (p. 71).

Clearly the liberals would worry about this vision, assuming it entails a Rousseauian absorption of the individual into a single and undifferentiated social whole.  But Marx is quite subtle here.  He says, basically, that what it means for people to restore themselves as social beings is to realize that the individual is a fiction, an invention of bourgeois society.  The individual is always already a product of, connected to, and dependent on others; s/he is, in other words, always already social.  This is true in a biological sense: each person’s bodily existence is dependent on the procreative and nurturing activity of many, many ancestors.  Similarly, the creative/productive activity of a given individual is utterly dependent on a host of other creators/producers from whom s/he has learned.  The things I make, in other words, are not really made by me alone, but by something I call ‘me’ that is really more like a dense knot of ideas and skills (what Marx called “senses and aptitudes”) that only exist because of the creative activity of many thousands of other humans.  To an extent my body, my senses and my aptitudes are mine, but they are also, just as much, everybody’s.  This is a lot like what Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:

I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact…namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion. and assuredly not an “immediate certainty” (Section 17).

This is the immediate inspiration for the view of Deleuze and Guattari.  For them the individual is an assemblage, a complex open system that is constantly exchanging matter and ideas with its outside.  For them each of us is an intensity on the plane of consistency: we all arise out of the same collective soup, and while we are distinct from each other, none of us is in any way self-contained or independent.  We are intensities that exist only as part of millions of other intensities scattered across the plane of consistency.  I think this is a good way to read Marx’s line that each of us “is therefore a particular individual” but also “equally the totality” (p. 73).  “The overcoming of private property,” Marx writes,

means therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and aptitudes [Eigenschaften], but it means this emancipation precisely because these senses and aptitudes have become human both subjectively and objectively.  The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object derived from and for man…Need or satisfaction have thus lost their egoistic nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becoming human use (p. 74).

So overcoming private property means overcoming Locke’s argument in Chapter 5, where he says that God gave the earth to humans in common, but he also gave us property in our own bodies, so that when I use my body-labor to produce a product, that product is entirely the result of my own efforts (actually he says 99%), and so it belongs entirely to me.  Locke posits that this individual with a proprietary body exists already in the state of nature, but Marx refuses this ploy.  Locke’s bourgeois, independent, proprietary individual is for Marx an alienated version of ourselves, one that obscures our true social, or human, character.

So for each of us, life in communism does not mean surrendering our natural individual freedom to a social whole.  Rather it means rediscovering the real condition of our lives: each of us is an intense accumulation of matter and ideas on the common plane of consistency.  We are each an assemblage that opens out onto other assemblages, that realizes itself only in common society with millions of other assemblages.

This line of thinking seems to dovetail quite nicely with Hardt & Negri’s idea of the common, and in particular Marx’s idea of our aptitudes being common resonates with H&N’s argument that the most important ‘common’ that is being produced today is the common intellect: the ideas, codes, affects, languages, norms that work best when they are freely shared [Marx seems to offer (here in EPM) a shadow of the “general intellect” idea that is most often thought to be found in the Grundrisse.  In addition to the discussion of common sense and aptitudes, he talks of “general consciousness” or “generic consciousness” (p. 73)].

This argument is certainly not yet fully formed in my mind, but I think I am clear on the point that in thinking communism today, we should very much  return to Marx (and especially the early work), not just as a formal historical exercise, but because he offers a rich kernel of ideas that are strikingly concordant with the way communism is being thought today.

Marx on Communism

Reading Michael Hardt’s piece in The Idea of Communism, I am reminded of the power of Marx’s argument in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Here is just a snippet from the Early Writings:

Communism is the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man; it is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social, i.e. human, being, a restoration which has become conscious and which takes place within the entire wealth of previous periods of development.

Alienation and Becoming-Active

Check out this thought-provoking post at Unemployed Negativity.  I am not sure we need to junk the idea of alienation as readily as the author thinks, or that Marx’s thoughts on the matter should be bypassed in favor of Capital.  Still, I like the call to think seriously about what it means today to become active.  Perhaps we do can do that best through Ranciere, or D&G, or the autonomists (Berardi’s book is on my list), or maybe even Lefebvre, but in any case I agree it is a vital question.

Market Democracy

A contemporary drawing of Karl Marx as a young...

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A new post at ABC Democracy offers excerpts from a new book called Free Market Fairness.  It is a bit stomach-churning every time a free-marketeer tries to capture the banner of democracy, especially when it is a scholar who has thought about things a bit.  Here is part of the excerpt:

In this book, I introduce a liberal research program that I call market democracy. Market democracy is a deliberative form of liberalism that is sensitive to the moral insights of libertarianism. Market democracy combines the four ideas I just mentioned: (1) capitalistic economic freedoms as vital aspects of liberty, (2) society as a spontaneous order, (3) just and legitimate political institutions as acceptable to all who make their lives among them, (4) social justice as the ultimate standard of political evaluation. Here is a simple way to begin thinking about this view: market democracy affirms capitalistic economic liberties as first-order requirements of social justice.

The author’s claim that “capitalistic economic freedoms” are “vital aspects of liberty” and “first-order requirements of social justice” is just absurd.  But I was struck more by his insistence on “society as a spontaneous order.”  This resonates pretty clearly with the forms of acentered, non-hierarchical, leaderless, and emergent social organization that I think are an important element of what democracy means.  This resonance has been noticed many times before, and it is the basis of a supposed critique often raised by more party/vanguard-inclined leftists: such “anarchist” or “libertarian” values are right in line with liberal capitalism.  But I am not sure this critique concerns me as much as they think it should.  Because democracy as I understand it can in no way accommodate capitalist economic relations.  Marx made clear in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts that capitalism involves stark forms of alienation (worker-labor, worker-product, worker-worker, etc.) and exploitation (rooted in that alienation), and these are inimical to democracy’s insistence that people should manage for themselves the conditions of their own existence.  Put another way, Marx’s free activity beyond capitalism is a necessary part of democratic life.  So instead of seeing the Hayekians’ fondness for emergent/spontaneous organization as impugning my fondness for it, I take it instead as a deep contradiction at the heart of their thought.  It might be that they too want democracy—real democracy.  It might be that their praise for democracy is not merely a cynical attempt prop up capitalism’s legitimacy but flows instead from a sincere desire for real freedom, autonomy, and communal life, all of which could only exist in a world beyond capitalism.  I think there is hope for them yet.