Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Marxian Basics- Alienation and dialectical materialism pt 1.

I shared an older post with someone recently and realized that it was both poorly written and vague. I've begun re-writing it and want to re-post it.

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. In regards to aesthetics he writes, ““…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” (1844, p. 48). Outside of aesthetics Marx draws our attention to the response a person is able to generate in others as a proof of his charisma or the general authenticity of emotion that is able to inspire reciprocated feeling:  

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 (ibid., p. 51)

These comments point to what is just beginning to be recognized in Nietzsche scholarship as a ‘doctrine of types’[i]. 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 having the respect of others and being admired for skills or intelligence is the most important thing, some people are much more social than others, and some strive to be as self-sufficient as possible, (etc.) Additionally, we may recognize others as possessing charm, humour, a commanding presence, grace, as well as being shy, arrogant, enthusiastic, vindictive, (etc.). What is important about this doctrine of types is that it isn’t based upon values. The schizoid personality who avoids personal contact with people may give value-based rationalizations about why he acts as he does. For example, he may claim that people are bad and untrustworthy, or he can argue that a stoic way of life and avoiding human drama is best, but these values aren’t responsible for his actions (but are ‘epiphenomenal’). A psychoanalytic or psychodynamic approach would reference this individual having a problem with a very early imago or object relation that affects an individual’s attachment in any relationship[ii]. The doctrine of types is also implicit in Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach for whom religious essence is seen as something abstract in each person[iii]. The question is where do different religious sensibilities come from? I understand Marx’s answer to be that at different historical points the means of production allow different characterlogical types to come into prominence in the culture. Religion is  the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right). Otherwise, how is his criticism of Feuerbach any less abstract? Feuerbach says religion is the essence of man and Marx would merely be saying that it’s the essence of social relations. Of course, Marx holds that upper classes use religion to legitimize their power and justify their execution of it but my interest here is religions or values as a particular way of living and as their relation to different symbols, phantasies, and concrete texts. I’ll return to the issue of human essence being alienated in religion in a moment but the point here is that once this character is in place it creates a ‘first nature’ that determines our general type of striving for happiness in the world and has dispositions to breaking down in certain ways. This ‘human essence’ is the ground for religious or value projections. A person with a stoic first nature is the model of stoic values the become culturally elaborated and, through child rearing practices and societal pressure the child can have a ‘second nature’ formed, based upon identifications, to either overcome certain inhibitions in his character or to curb certain drives. The difference here is between someone who has an autistic fixation who naturally on their own would sit silently lost in sensations and impressions vs. a child given to a monastery by a poor family who doesn’t have this fixation but through being forced to sit still, punished for disobedience, and having to overcome all his impulses to hurt his aggressive teachers or sexual interests. The child given to the monastery can get in touch with the universal autistic stage of the mind but without the fixation (a traumatic drive experience or adaptation that is non-universal) he will only learn to approximate. I also very much mean to suggest here that there are periods of history, and specific classes in them, in which second nature is not instilled or inscribed in people. Again, I’ll address this soon.         

In general, character traits might become exacerbated and become the personality disorders in the DSM, but so long as the individual is healthy they can also be the source of certain gifts and therefore play an important part in cultural achievements. A culture may place emphasis on mathematics in its schools and “drill it” into their children but that doesn’t change that there are some individuals who have an interest in mathematics that goes to the being of who they are. Fixations that encourage certain cognitive functions and act as adaptations that reduce the desire for social relations and increase the child’s narcissistic sense that it is entitled to introduce new paradigms of thought to a culture are very important. Humans aren’t simply tabula rasa. Thus, included in the doctrine of types, is Marx’s recognition that an individual has different affinities for certain types of labour.  These gifts or affinity for certain types of labour is more easily recognized where IQ is concerned. A test will show that someone might have a good head for mathematics or the spatial sense for architecture. In contrast, the sense of authenticity in someone’s feelings or drawing attention to their charisma, humour, or wisdom is much harder to objectively define. However, both are important factors in alienation.  

In relation to IQ, and EQ so much as recognizing certain motivational differences in people can even be said to be important in the post-modern humanities, 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. When individuals of lower classes might have gifts or callings in science or business but don’t have access to the necessary education because of their lack of money, they are alienated. I call this the vertical axis of alienation. Another example can be found in someone taking over a company because he or she receives it through inheritance. The person who inherits the company might not have the same ability to manage, inspire, or offer the workers a sense of fulfilment. Morale may lower and the business may decline when someone with more EQ could have kept the company successful. In this case, along with the access to university above, the merit of the individual isn’t recognized by society. It is defeated by inheritance and/or nepotism when the brightest minds don’t get access to education and those with EQ don’t get to sew harmony among the different types of people that work together.

Anyone who actually reads Marx will be surprised to see that his writing isn’t filled with altruistic sentiments about helping others and self-sacrifice but, rather, is a theory of egoism and meritocracy that happens to coincide with overcoming class/monetary inequality. For example, he holds that the spinning jenny is what abolished slavery and not altruistic sentiments. What he means by this is that it was the technology that allowed white workers to have a higher output of textiles per person than black workers (who were slaves without this technology), that made the abolishment of slavery possible. It would not have been abolished if an equal number of white people had to do the work. Of course, the abolishment of slavery is touted as springing from altruism and care for others, but this would be the same as believing that the US government went to war against Iraq in order to help free the Iraqi people from a dictator. If the US government really did it for this reason then why does it do business with and support dictators in other countries? If the slaves were freed because of recognizing their equality, then why were they still discriminated against in so many other ways? From the beginning of recorded history it’s been a patriarchal world in which men have the power and therefore history is the history of egoism. Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world and the suggestion is that egoism rules the world and altruism is forced into religion and the belief in another world because altruism is impotent in this world. However, in true dialectical materialism we must still recognize that although the spinning jenny is a pre-condition of the abolishment of slavery there is still the need for a charismatic altruist to give good speeches and win over the hearts of some people. The mistake of idealism is to believe that if someone like Lincoln was only born earlier that slavery in the US would have been abolished earlier. In Dialectical materialism a lower class that is forced into labour by a higher class and under this oppression eventually produces technology/communications that change the means of production and silently change the social organization. Eventually these changes lead to a refined egoism and the displacement of the higher class or reduction of its power by the new desires the both higher and lower class now compete to satisfy[iv].   

Marx’s examples of what I call the vertical axis of alienation are based upon a failure of meritocracy. Of course today people would argue that there are scholarships for the poor and business models have changed so that the capitalist-inventor isn’t in charge of his own company. Instead, a manager or CEO who is good at organizing people is hired or the style of production is such that employee differences and conflicts are minimized. The recognition of the importance of technology in labour and specialization creates a third term in my analysis of alienation that I have to pause for a moment to explain. Marx isn’t a ‘luddite’ or ‘hippy’ who wants to scrap technology and live “naturally” or go back to a simpler mode of production. There is an “appendage of the machine” quality to many types of labour or specialization in medicine, for example, that sees a physician show a narrow, mechanistic interest in an appendage or organ in isolation from the rest of the body, or specialization in the humanities that sees sociologists ignore psychology or psychologists ignore sociology, for example. The future “humanization” of these approaches will be a step forward and not a step backwards, the information or productivity that has been accumulated in specialization will be retained but people will work in more than one type of labour and employ different parts of their bodies and different disciplines under the umbrella of a deeper understanding of human nature (the doctrine of types).

Although, the vertical axis of alienation has been softened and both scholarships and business practices have changed so that more class mobility is possible it is still far from being overcome. There is still racism, sexism, and obstacles facing the poor that the majority of people will acknowledge but they would hardly say that this is an argument for communism. They will argue that the imperfections of capitalism are better than the horrors we’ve seen in communism. This is the place to say two things. Firstly, ‘the self made man’ that arises from a poor class can take advantage of scholarships and various programs to get a business running but just because there is such a person with exceptional will power that doesn’t mean that everyone else who doesn’t make it didn’t have the potential to rise to excellence. We are not simply rational beings who choose to work hard or be ambitious or choose not to be. Being driven to find success is a social relation in which one encounters various authority figures in one’s teachers, professors, bosses, the police, etc. and there is only so much mistreatment one can endure from them before one is conditioned to believe that one’s individual achievement is not possible. Moreover, if one grows up in a poor neighbourhood in which gangs and violence is a problem then a lot of energy will have to be spent navigating these problems. Someone who may have had intellectual gifts may encounter such problems and give up on the pursuit because protecting himself and his loved ones was a much more immediate problem. Secondly, I want to be clear that no so-called communist countries have ever met the central requirement of Marxism: the abolishment of money. Just as we now think it is ridiculous that we used to have kings and that the king’s son would rule by inheritance, Marx believes we will look at the inheritance of wealth in the current system in the same way. The children of the rich receive money they’ve done nothing to deserve and get access to education or jobs that isn’t based upon their merit. In some ways the category of the self-made man and the failure of meritocracy blend together when we consider that the wealthy who inherit money will give that money over to stock-brokers or those in the entertainment (music, movies, etc.) industry in order to make money without doing any, or very much, labour themselves. Many of these ‘self-made men’ have a lot of will power but very little originality or taste and so you have too many people getting into the same stocks or you have too many of the same type of movie or music being made and this results in the collapse of a sector of the market and the spoiling of a genre.        

[i] 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).
[ii] This is as opposed to having a problem with an imago or object relation later in development where relationships in general aren’t avoided but instead one remains in relationships but in repetitions that are sadistically or masochistically tinged. Also this approach resolves the old nature vs. nurture distinction. A child’s character or type is formed either by genetic inheritance for certain drives that produce fixation upon object relations or actual parenting causes a drive based response from the child that create a fixation. The point here is that it is neither nature or nurture but the ‘other scene’ of what becomes traumatic or not.
[iii] 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] Consider how television and film was introduced as a low cultural form for the masses while the upper classes were interested in the arts. After a generation or two now the upper classes are just as desirous of the fame that comes from them.  

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