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Thursday, April 30, 2015


One of the great texts of the early days of the discipline of Sociology is the essay, The Metropolis and Modern Life, by the great  nineteenth century German sociologist, Georg Simmel.  I was reminded of it during the trip Susie and I took on Monday to Washington D.C. to see my sister and my son, Tobias, who was in town for the Tuesday Supreme Court hearing on same-sex marriage cases.  An odd conjuncture, you might think.  The connection is this:

Tobias was eager to introduce us to one of his favorite restaurants, Rose's Luxury, which is on 8th street SE in the Capitol District of DC.  The restaurant is very popular, and does not take reservations, so it was agreed that Tobias would drive down from Philadelphia as soon as his teaching duties for the day were done at UPenn Law School, arriving in time to get on line outside the restaurant at about 4:30 p.m.  Barbara, Susie, and I would show up at about that time and have a drink in a nearby bistro while Tobias [and a lawyer friend] stood in line.  A minute or two before 5:30, when the restaurant opens, we would join him and go in together.  All this went swimmingly, and we had a delicious dinner.

While driving to the restaurant from Barbara's apartment, which is in the NW area of the city, we passed the Supreme Court building.  There was a long line of people camped out, prepared to spend the night in order to get into the hearing at ten the next morning.  The room in which the High Court meets is small -- maybe six hundred seats -- and there are no reserved seats, not even for someone like my son who has been admitted to the Supreme Court Bar and had written the lead  amicus brief in the second case to be heard that day, on the question of whether the "full faith and credit" clause requires states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.  For a case of this historic importance, there would be many, many more people eager to listen to the oral arguments than the room could possibly hold.

How could Tobias possibly hope to get in, when people were already in line eighteen hours before the doors were due to open?  A trifle embarrassed, he admitted that he had paid a professional line-standing company to supply a line-stander, who had in fact been on line since Sunday!  Apparently, professional line-standing is a recognized métier, with enough demand to make it profitable for a company to hire line-standers and make them available when needed.

It was at this point that Georg Simmel came to mind.  In his classic essay, Simmel gives, as an example of the extreme division of labor in modern [i.e., nineteenth century] Paris, les quatorzièmes.  It seems that ladies hosting formal dinner parties were superstitiously averse to having thirteen at table.  Enough dinner parties were arranged each evening, and the unlucky number came up sufficiently often,  to make it worthwhile for a number of socially presentable men to dress in full formal evening clothes at the dinner hour and hire themselves out as "fourteenth at  table" to hostesses in need.




classtruggle said...

If I remember correctly, Simmel espoused certain aspects of reformist socialism in the 1890s but his relationship to Marxism was weak or non existent. For example, he rejected historical materialism and critiqued the labour theory of value in the Philosophy of Money.

As an aside, there was probably nothing unique or original about Simmel's critiques or his interest in the conditions permitting the rise of capitalism --it stemmed directly from Marx and was shared by many scholars in Germany at the time. Marxists as well as the economists of the Historical School discussed it at great length. It was part of the revolt against the increasing dominance of the economic factor in social theory which was common during Simmel's day, particularly among German thinkers in the Historical School of Economics such as Schmoller, Sombart, Toennies, and others.

But if he rejected or was not very interested in Marx/Marxism then how was it possible for someone like Lukacs to comment that he saw Marx 'through the spectacles tinged by Simmel' or for him to maintain that his 'knowledge of Marx was influenced by Simmel.' Walter Benjamin also commented that he was taken back by Simmel's critique of Marx's theory of value. The Austro-Marxist Max Adler also praised Simmel in his 1919 work 'Simmel's Significance for Intellectual History' which contains an evaluation of Simmel's work as a whole.

So what attracted these men (as well as our dear Marxist blogger) to Simmel's work? Well, you all seem to share an interest in the subtlety and sensitivity of Simmel's writings on culture and his attempt to relate culture to society.

However, if we want to learn more about the rationality of people's behaviour, it is Marx's important contribution to the formation of historical sociology (by calling attention to the relationship between social conditions and the nonmaterial manifestations of human activity in the form of ideas and values) that teaches us that it always a sort of rationality within the framework set by commodity production. What was significant about Marx's thought was that he linked two distinct and previously unrelated concepts, the theory that all history was the history of class struggles with the theory that material conditions gave rise to certain institutional and ideological forms.

classtruggle said...

Throughout history, we are told, classes have maintained themselves in different ways. In ancient Greece, slaves existed opposite to slave owners, in the Middle Ages serfs existed opposite to landlords, and under capitalism, wage-labourers exist opposite to the capitalist/corporate class. What was important for Marx, however, was how class domination and exploitation work in different societies.

Under capitalism, Marx observed, wage labourers are formally free and so a personal relationship of direct force does not exist, at least not to the same extent to which pre capitalist societies were governed. For many theorists of society, however, including Simmel, Weber and Durkheim bourgeois society appears to be the opposite of feudal society of the Middle Ages with its caste privileges and personal relations of domination. But Marx realised how the status quo is preserved through ideology in capitalist society, that is, how domination and exploitation are realised precisely by means of this formal freedom and alleged equality between owners of commodities:

"This sphere [marketplace] that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all." (p.280)

“The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-labourer is bound to his owner by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a constant change in the person of the individual employer, and by the legal fiction of a contract” (p.719).