Monday, March 12, 2012

Marxian Basics- alienation-commodity fetishism

In Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts we are given important coordinates for identifying him with a romanticism that isn’t merely a view of art communicating feelings but also a view that certain individuals possess different emotional make-ups as well as different affinities for certain types of labour [i]. Marx gives us a very simple example of alienation in a person who has a talent or a ‘calling’ to study in university but who doesn’t have the money and therefore, has no effective calling. However, he also draws our attention to aspects of personality like charisma and the ability to love which point to a more subtle version of alienation:

if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people… If you love without evoking love in return- that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent- a misfortune (p. 51)

I believe Marx is making two very simple propositions here. The first is that alongside a gift for learning, a person might similarly be gifted in wisdom or emotional intelligence. He or she might intuit other people’s feelings and/or know how to inspire others, or be able to capture different feelings in art. I’d like to call this the vertical axis of alienation. As mentioned above, it is expressed when individuals of lower classes might have gifts or callings in science or the humanities but don’t have access to the necessary education (or freedom from violence in their neighbourhoods) because of their lack of money while other less talented people due have access because of (their parents’) money. Another example is that a company might be taken over by someone because he or she gets the company through inheritance. Therefore, the person who runs the company might not have the same ability to manage the workers or put out quality products. In this sense Marx is talking about how an individual’s merit is sometimes defeated by inheritance and nepotism. Of course today these differences have been softened. Scholarships allow those of the lower classes to go to university and bigger companies mean that an individual inherits stocks in a company who hires a CEO who must demonstrate increased sales and returns to shareholders. However, this problem is far from being overcome. And, while a debate would ensue about how the imperfections of capitalism are better than the horrors of communism the second, or horizontal axis of alienation, will show that no governments who have called themselves ‘communist’ have ever in fact been communist.

The horizontal axis is derived from the concept of wisdom mentioned above and involves the recognition of Marx’s comments on a person’s charisma or ability to love in a way that inspires love. These comments point to what is just beginning to be recognized in Nietzsche scholarship as a ‘doctrine of types’[ii]. This doctrine of types recognizes that different individuals have different emotional make-ups as well as different desires. For some people love is the most important thing, for some people success is the most important thing, some people are much more social than others, and some strive to be as self-sufficient as possible. Additionally, we recognize others as shy, arrogant, enthusiastic, competitive, vindictive, etc[iii]. These character traits might become exacerbated and become the personality disorders in the DSM, but so long as the individual is under the sway of Eros they are also responsible for our cultural achievements.

The DSM, or the psychoanalysts who contributed to it, didn’t create the concept of character. Similar typologies have been expressed in pre-scientific cultures in relation to the humours, the Taoist elements, and most clearly in the representations of the gods in polytheistic religions. In the myths of Ares, Aphrodite, Dionysus, Apollo, etc. we have a certain characterological outlooks at the world. For example, Hermes is seen as the trickster and messenger god and shows a characterlogical desire of some people to devote themselves to the service of a group as well as the fear of physical violence leading to a sublimated aggression towards others in trickery. In the work of Nietzsche polytheism is given a special place as a reflection of a profound recognition of the affects. He writes:

For an individual to posit his own ideal and to derive from it his own law, joys, and rights- that may well have been considered hitherto to be the most outrageous of human aberrations and idolatry itself; indeed, the few who dared it always felt the need to apologize to themselves, usually as follows: “Not I! Not I But a god through me!” The wonderful art and power of creating gods- polytheism- was that through which this drive could discharge itself, purify, perfect and ennoble itself… above and outside oneself, in a distant overworld, one got to see a plurality of norms: one god was not the denial of or anathema to another god! Here for the first time one allowed oneself individuals; her one first honoured the rights of individuals… [it] was the invaluable preliminary exercise for the justification of the egoism and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom that one conceded to a god in his relation to others gods one finally gave to oneself in relation to laws, customs, and neighbours. Monotheism, in contrast, this rigid consequence of the teachings of a normal human type- that is, the belief in a normal god next to whom there are only false pseudo-gods – was perhaps the greatest danger to humanity so far… (Gay Science- 143).

Here Nietzsche recognizes a plurality of norms in each god that were allowed to exist side by side and therefore represent a celebration of the individual differences of different types[iv]. Looking at artistic depictions of greek gods, Norse, Hindu gods, etc. we can see that different colours, different symbols, and different relations to sexuality, aggression, love and competition were expressed. Nietzsche also draws attention to how the following monotheistic religions, while representing a vertical move forward for civilization in terms of increases in science and making a virtue of self-honesty- a virtue that eventually led to the demise of religion itself- it is actually a loss as far as horizontal axis is considered. Instead of a recognition and celebration of different types the types are all forced to submit to identification with one God and one set of norms[v]. These two differences in the horizontal axis make sense of two trends running through Marx’s comments on alienation and commodity fetishism.

Regarding commodity fetishism, Marx famously writes that:

a definite social relation between men, assumes… the fantastic form of a relation between things. In [the religious] world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities… (Capital, Vol. 1, chapter 1 section 4).

If the recognition of different human types was projected into the metaphysical world of the gods, then Marx, recognizing the world trade between different countries is drawing our attention to how a similar projection was later made at a national level. In other words, when a European would buy American leather it would represent an adventurous spirit, a rugged independence, and the untamed nature that the idea of America represented for those who had never been there[vi]. Rather than moving to America and having this relation between one’s self and others and between one’s self and nature one buys the commodity and personally day-dreams about it or shares ones enthusiasm for it with friends.  
Thus as the as the Greeks had Aphrodite as the goddess of love to contemplate, the French culture received the projection of a place that produced romantic lovers or the most beautiful and elegant women or fashion. Another example is in the Spaniards who were seen as hot-blooded, unpredictable, and passionate. This could be seen as inheriting the festival and madness mentality of Dionysus. So, rather than having a community that worships such a god and re-enacts different rituals and surrounds itself by meaningful symbols, the commodity is bought by isolated individuals for similar purposes[vii]. But, again, Marx isn’t asking us to go back and worship gods again, rather he is showing a progressive alienation of the human essence that goes through the Gods, and then through representations of other nations, and an end of alienation once humans recognize the different characters among them and affirm them in production. This will allow for a relation to other people, to nature, and to different societies based upon human essence as opposed to money alone[viii]. Marx is very clear that even if health care is universal and wages are the same then alienation in this horizontal sense won’t be overcome:

Indeed, even the equality of wages demanded by Proudhon only transforms the relationship of the present-day worker to his labour into the relationship of all men to labour. Society is then conceived as an abstract capitalist (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, p. 48).

The second element of the horizontal split recognizes that in different periods of history religion doesn’t allow for a plurality of types but seeks to represent a single type as the only type to be. Upon entering capitalism, the species-ties between individuals have been broken and religion, though still existing in idea, no longer supplies the group cohesiveness to limit individual greed[ix]. Previous to this, the periods of a single type would represent the breaking of the will of the child so that selfishness and willfulness become an ‘identification with the aggressor’ and the community had leverage upon the individual to appeal to the dignity of other members of the group[x]. In psychoanalysis but more explicitly in the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler we find the concept that the neurotic is most easily defined not by problems with his sexuality but rather his or her self-absorption (whether about one’s greatness, one’s badness, or concern with psycho-somatic illness). “The neurotic and the desolate person” Adler writes, stem from among those who were deprived in their younger years of being able to develop the feeling of community” (Individual Psychology, p.9).

The failure in capitalist culture to form ‘identifications with the aggressor’ is implicit in many of Marx’s early writing on alienation. Again and again he brings up the idea that the worker is an isolated “physical subject” and that “life appears only as a means to life” or that work grants a means of subsistence only. Capitalism, Marx writes, puts “egoism and selfish need in the place of these species-ties, and dissolve the human world into a world of atomistic individuals who are inimically opposed to one another” (On the Jewish Question). Thus, when Marx draws our attention to vertical alienation he also comments on the neurotic psychological reaction to it (from horizontal alienation) when he writes:

If I have the vocation for study but no money for it, I have no vocation for study- that is, no effective, no true vocation for it… money transforms real essential powers of man and nature into what are merely abstract conceits and therefore imperfections- into tormenting chimeras…(Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, p. 50)

Previously, when kings or aristocrats were believed to be of different blood or divinely chosen the neurotic could identify with their ‘perfection’ in serving them. He did not have any hopes to rise above his station in life, and more community feeling would be established through traditions among the lower classes. However, after children were increasingly segregated from adults and given the notion that they could rise to the top in capitalist culture, it is small wonder that the injustice of a gifted individual being kept from realizing his ability could torment him. Marx makes the further psychological point that confronting the mendacity of the world means that workers often only feel free in their “animal functions” which I take to mean that sex, food, and alcohol are used to distract one from life rather than to celebrate it with others. Additionally, employers who feel no bond with their fellow men will squeeze as much surplus value as they can from the workers without care for how it harms their bodies. I don’t want to insinuate that only in capitalism does an employer or ‘master’ treat his inferiors poorly. Surely in the medieval guilds, and in ancient Greece employers could be sadistic or unsympathetic towards their employees (not to mention their slaves!) but Marx’s concept of species-ties existing in religion seems to recognize that the group has social leverage against the individual which is why that even though money existed in ancient Greece it is not a capitalist society. In other words, there has been a general trend that as civilization advances the average labourer works longer hours and Marx’s suggestion seems to be that failure to create a bond between employer and employee, which sees them both sacrifice egotism for identification with a belief in religion, has the employer on the lookout to get more out of the employee. The rich are driven to become richer, religious sentiments become mere rhetoric used to rationalize “the job creators’” deserving more wealth, and eventually the spiritually inclined children of the wealthy will begin to hunger for new experiments in living. This won’t be nihilistic dandyism as many former Nietzscheans claimed but something deeper and in greater reaction to the specialization of labour and PCism of post-modern culture:

"Facing a world of ‘modern ideas’ that would banish everybody into a corner and
‘specialty,’ a philosopher- if today there could be philosophers- would be compelled to find the greatness of man, the concept of ‘greatness,’ precisely in his range and
multiplicity, in his wholeness in manifoldness. He would even determine value and rank in accordance with how much and how many things one could bear and take upon himself, how far one could extend his responsibility." BG&E- 212

Ironically, Nietzsche turns out to be a better theorist of the revolution than Marx and Marx gives a superior formulation of the aesthetic experiments in living that Nietzsche called for.

[i] “…man’s feelings, passions, etc., are not mere anthropological phenomena in the [narrower] sense, but truly ontological affirmations of essential being (of nature), and… they are only really affirmed because their object exists for them as an object of sense” 48

[ii] Nietzsche quickly moves from the claim that being causa sui involves a contradiction, however, to an argument that depends on his picture of human agency. Nietzsche accepts what we may call a “Doctrine of Types” (Leiter 1998), according to which,

Each person has a fixed psycho-physical constitution, which defines him as a particular type of person.
Call the relevant psycho-physical facts here “type-facts.”

Type-facts, for Nietzsche, are either physiological facts about the person, or facts about the person's unconscious drives or affects. The claim, then, is that each person has certain largely immutable physiological and psychic traits that constitute the “type” of person he or she is.

Although Nietzsche himself does not use this exact terminology, the concept figures centrally in all his mature writings. A typical Nietzschean form of argument, for example, runs as follows: a person's theoretical beliefs are best explained in terms of his moral beliefs; and his moral beliefs are best explained in terms of natural facts about the type of person he is (i.e., in terms of type-facts). So Nietzsche says, “every great philosophy so far has been…the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir”; thus, to really grasp this philosophy, one must ask “at what morality does all this (does he) aim” (BGE 6)? But the “morality” that a philosopher embraces simply bears “decisive witness to who he is” — i.e., who he essentially is — that is, to the “innermost drives of his nature” (BGE 6).

This explanation of a person's moral beliefs in terms of psycho-physical facts about the person is a recurring theme in Nietzsche. “[M]oralities are…merely a sign language of the affects” (BGE 187), he says. “Answers to the questions about the value of existence…may always be considered first of all as the symptoms of certain bodies” (GS P:2). “Moral judgments,” he says are, “symptoms and sign languages which betray the process of physiological prosperity or failure” (WP 258). “[O]ur moral judgments and evaluations…are only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us” (D 119), so that “it is always necessary to draw forth… the physiological phenomenon behind the moral predispositions and prejudices” (D 542). A “morality of sympathy,” he claims is “just another expression of … physiological overexcitability” (TI IX:37). Ressentiment — and the morality that grows out of it — he attributes to an “actual physiological cause [Ursache]” (GM I:15).

Nietzsche sums up the idea well in the preface to On the Genealogy of Morality (hereafter simply “Genealogy” or “GM”): “our thoughts, values, every ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘if’ and ‘but’ grow from us with the same inevitability as fruits borne on the tree — all related and each with an affinity to each, and evidence of one will, one health, one earth, one sun” (GM P:2). Nietzsche seeks to understand in naturalistic terms the type of “person” who would necessarily bear such ideas and values, just as one might come to understand things about a type of tree by knowing its fruits. And just as natural facts about the tree explain the fruit it bears, so too type-facts about a person will explain his values and actions. This means that the conscious mental states that precede the action and whose propositional contents would make them appear to be causally connected to the action are, in fact, epiphenomenal, either as tokens or as types: that is, they are either causally inert with respect to the action or causally effective only in virtue of other type-facts about the person (Leiter 2002: 91-93 argues for the latter reading; Leiter 2007 argues for the former).

[iii] Besides the ontological status given to the affects in footnote 1, the doctrine of types is also implicit in the criticism of Feuerbach in whom essence is seen as something abstract in each person as opposed to the idea of different historical points of the means of production allowing different characterlogical types to come into prominence in the culture:

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.
In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:
To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.
Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals. (Theses on Feuerbach- 6)

[iv] The idea of the “true world” or of “God” as absolutely immaterial, spiritual, good, is an emergency measure necessary while the opposite instincts are still all-powerful- The degree of moderation and humanity attained is exactly reflected in the humanization of the gods: the Greeks of the strongest epoch, who were not afraid of themselves but rejoiced in themselves, brought their gods close to all their own affects. The spiritualization of the idea of God is therefore far from being a sign of progress: one is heartily conscious of this when considering Goethe- in his case, the vaporization of God into virtue and spirit is felt as being on a coarser level- (WTP-573, p.308 [1888]).

[v] This isn’t to say that these norms would be static over a whole culture. Class conflict and other factors would mean that there would be differences between different groups as far as what actions would result in social or legal penalties.

[vi] This isn’t to say that all nations have the same view of each other but that the disposition to project different characterlogical traits exists in each nation that has reached a point of development in political economy.

[vii] To be clear here, not only did the Greeks have a society in which the majority of people were slaves but even the free men of the society didn’t express their characterlogical types in a full way. They merely worshipped their gods in isolated locations and, no doubt, one followed family traditions. However, the stories of all the gods and their symbols were available and contemplation and discussion could be shared. However, with commodity fetishism, it is certainly not true that French people are all romantic lovers or that Spaniards are all passionate and impulsive. There might be an objective element that encourages people to identify with such roles within a culture but it doesn’t overwrite the subjective or characterlogical differences of the individuals that make up the nation. So, in some sense Marx uses alienation not about what we used to have and what we’ve lost but rather what we’ve always wanted and what should come to be.

[viii] ‘If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, binding me and nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds’ (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, p.50)

[ix] “Only under the dominance of Christianity, which makes all national, natural, moral, and theoretical conditions extrinsic to man, could civil society separate itself completely from the life of the state, sever all the species-ties of man, put egoism and selfish need in the place of these species-ties, and dissolve the human world into a world of atomistic individuals who are inimically opposed to one another” (On the Jewish Question).

This can also be seen in Protestantism’s position against ‘good works’. Previously good works and the call to live a life like Christ was in place- although part of Luther’s reaction against the Catholics were against the blatant disregard for this in selling indulgences (spots in heaven) for the rich. However, after Luther the world was seen as so full of the devil that earthly ‘good works’ did not guarantee a place in heaven. It was only faith in God, and in some branches of Protestantism, it was a predestination and not the choice of faith that brought about salvation of the soul.

[x] The contrast between polytheism and monotheism that Nietzsche makes is for polemical purposes and there would be a more complicated social dialectic at work. For example, Hegel notices that it is within the polytheism of Rome that the egotism of the Greeks is replaced by a group identification that brings out patriotism

To acquire the capacity of self-control, all nations must therefore undergo the severe discipline of subjection to a master... Thus Rome, too, had to live through the strict rule of kings under which natural egotism was broken down, before it could give birth to that admirable Roman virtue of patriotism which was ready to make any sacrifice (Phil of Mind, p.175 [435]).

Similarly, pre-Protestant Catholicism with its saint cults has more pluralism while Protestantism is more unified and codified in its values.

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