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Saturday, February 23, 2013


Today I shall begin to connect up my exposition and reconstruction of Marx's economic analysis of capitalism with his decision to write the opening chapters of Capital in highly charged, richly metaphorical language utterly unlike that of either his predecessors or those who came after him [including, of course, those who considered themselves his disciples and called themselves Marxists.]  Since this is going to take a while, let me summarize the central idea at the outset so that you will find it easier to follow.
Marx believes that capitalism is objectively mystified, that in fact its mystifications are essential to its continuing existence.  These mystifications go so deep into capitalist social reality that all of us, including Marx and those who have learned from him, are infected with them, beguiled by them, unable to get through the day without repeatedly reenacting them and thus reinforcing them.  It follows that the only way in which Marx, or any of us, can simultaneously anatomize those mystifications and also give them their proper weight and significance in our understanding of capitalism is through the use of an ironic voice.  Merely understanding intellectually the nature and origin of those mystifications is not sufficient to rid ourselves of them, for they are not intellectual errors, nor are the result of ignorance.  Rather, they are necessary and inevitable so long as capitalism persists.  Truly to be quits with them, Marx believes, will require the overthrow of capitalism itself.  [I happen to disagree with Marx that in a socialist society mystification will disappear, but that is another matter -- at present I am trying to explain Marx, not criticize him.]

Before returning to Capital, I am going to expand on the notion that a society can be objectively mystified.  In this part of my story, I will be drawing on things I said in my essay, "Narrative Time:  The Objectively Perspectival Structure of the Human World," which is archived on and is available via the link at the top of this blog.  I remind you that my purpose in writing this lengthy many-part essay is to weave together into a single coherent narrative ideas that I have put in print over the past thirty-five years and more.

According to the traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim account, the universe is essentially a story told by God, with a beginning, a middle, and an end -- the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran are the revealed versions of that story, suitable for human comprehension.  [In The Chronicles of Narnia, a telling of the Christian story for children, the lion Aslan roars the world into existence -- an echo of the opening line of The Gospel According to John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."]  Now, literary theory has a good deal to tell us about the structure and character of stories [or fictions, if you prefer the more pretentious locution.]  If you think about novels, for example, you will immediately realize that they are written from a narrative point of view, which builds into the text a temporal structure and an anisotropic spatiality that define objectively significant times and places.  In a novel there is a beginning and an end.  A novel may privilege certain places as having a special significance that is in the space of the novel, not merely in the mind of the reader.  For example [to choose one from very many], Edith Wharton's famous novella, Ethan Frome, has a frame structure, in which the narrator's story of Ethan and Mattie and the other characters begins as he lifts his foot to step over the threshold of the Frome home, and ends many pages later as his foot falls inside the doorway.  Thresholds have a special significance in Wharton's novels that they do not have, say, in the novels of Austen or Dostoyevsky.

The crucial thing to note is that because the world of a novel is created by the novelist's words, not merely described by those words, the fictional world actually has whatever properties the words of the novelist ascribe to it.  To choose another example, in Dickens' novel Bleak House, characters are in some passages described as having to walk all day to get from one place [such as "Tom's all alone." a slum neighborhood] to another.  In other passages, they seem to make the journey quickly.  This is not an error on Dickens' part [like Conan Doyle's inability to recall which leg Watson took a bullet in during his stay in India].  Rather, the degree of the spatial separation is intended by Dickens as a measure of the moral distance between the two parts of English society, and that separation changes during the course of the novel.
Even names can have a creative significance in a novel.  Dickens plays endlessly with the names of his characters as a way not of revealing but of constituting their nature.  If an historian labels the economic, social, and technological changes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries an "industrial revolution," she is making a claim about their nature, asserting, we may suppose, that in the scope and depth of their effects they produced as a great a change in Europe as the overthrow of the British and French monarchies.  But when Dickens names a group of greedy poor relations The Pockets, he is literally creating their distinctive trait in the act of naming.

Now the physical world was not created by God, so nature is not a story with a narrative structure.  There is, however, another world that is not natural but rather created -- the social world.  Society is not, of course, the product of a single purposeful individual.  It is rather the product of countless purposeful individuals whose choices, desires, habits, expectations, understandings, misunderstandings, fantasies, and concepts create and recreate -- or produce and reproduce, to use the economic terms -- the social realm.  At any moment we wish to choose in the evolution of society, individuals experience social reality as objectively real, independent of their wills, given in just the way that the natural world is given.  No one is capable of stepping completely outside of the social world he or she has encountered at birth and in the process of becoming a fully developed human being.
This simple truth, so often denied, is central to my story, and needs to be elaborated upon.  Some philosophers in the Western tradition have seemed to suggest that at birth the infant is a tiny rational agent not yet possessed of useful information about the world and a control of its bodily functions.  But that, we now know, is absurd.  It takes a long time [and a village, according to some political aspirants] for the infant to develop into a coherent person, and in the course of that development, each infant internalizes some particular way of interacting with the world, managing its drives and fantasies, deferring gratifications, and coming to terms with its sexuality, all of which makes the child a twenty-first century working class Indian, an eighteenth century aristocratic Frenchman, a Roman slave, a Chinese peasant, a Boston Irish ward heeler.  Even such seemingly "natural" matters as how one walks, sits, or stands turn out to be culturally internalized and reenacted by the individual.  Those who rebel against social norms and strive to create their own ways of being, free the dead hand of the past, end up rebelling in ways that are immediately recognizable as shaped by the culture from which the rebel has declared his or her independence.

[Those wishing to pursue this in more depth might find it interesting to read Michael Oakeshott's great essay, 'Rationalism in Politics," in the book of the same title, or Erik Erikson's seminal work, Childhood and Society, or -- not at all in their class -- my tutorials on The Thought of Sigmund Freud and How to Study Society, archived on]
Tomorrow, we shall see how Marx engages with these ideas.


Jerry Fresia said...

Fascinating to say the least. I'm especially intrigued by the role assigned to irony as the singular (?) means by which the relationship between appearance and reality is to be or can be made apparent. The question in my mind at this point is this: if capitalism is "objectively mystified," how is it possible to have a "real audience?" Who's in the know?

I will be patient and await further installments.

Don Schneier said...

I agree that rebellion is necessarily conditioned by its given antecedents. However, that it is always "immediately recognizable" as such is less clear to me. For, those remaining within the status quo tend to lack the requisite insight, while the more significant the rebellion, the less can the rebels grasp its full consequences, which may extend for centuries.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry, the question you ask is a very important one, and the reason for the extended example from catholicism. because we are complex persons, not simple, we can be, under the right circumstances, both the apparent and the real audience for an ironic communication. No one throughly implicated in the commodification of capitalist society can free himself or herself from it completely. hence a part of me is always the apparent asudience.

Conrad Decker said...

Which is deeper, the Marxist analysis or the Freudian one in which we are always at least partially beset by the illusions "we" ourselves create? The ironic position that we occupy is not of our own making. Whether the forces are economic or broadly psychological the one thing that is certain is that it is only through often painful dialogue that we reach a position tentatively outside of whatever cave we find ourselves in.

Many thanks as always for your prose, your commitment to philosophy, and to your intellectual generosity in allowing us to eavesdrop on your thinking!