×

Warning

JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 763
Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?

Published in Cultural Commentary

In the closing Winter Lecture for the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton discusses the origin and uses of culture. Half-way through the piece, Fran Lock and Alan Morrison provide a complementary chorus of new poems. We are deeply grateful to the LRB and 'the dreadful Terry Eagleton', as King Charles called him, for their kind permissions to republish his lecture.

In​ Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley finds himself living in Beersheba, the area of Oxford we know as Jericho, home at the time to a community of craftsmen and artisans who maintained the fabric of the university. It doesn’t take Jude long to realise that he and his fellow craftsmen are, so to speak, the material base without which the intellectual superstructure of the colleges couldn’t exist: without their work, as he says, ‘the hard readers could not read, nor the high thinkers live.’

He comes to recognise, in a word, that the origin of culture is labour. This is true etymologically as well. One of the original meanings of the word culture is the tending of natural growth, which is to say agriculture, and a cognate word, coulter, means the blade of a plough. The kinship between culture and agriculture was brought home to me some years ago when I was driving with the dean of arts of a state university in the US past farms blooming with luxuriant crops. ‘Might get a couple of professorships out of that,’ the dean remarked.

This is not the way culture generally likes to see itself. Like the Oedipal child, it tends to disavow its lowly parentage and fantasise that it sprang from its own loins, self-generating and self-fashioning. Thought, for idealist philosophers, is self-dependent. You can’t nip behind it to something more fundamental, since that itself would have to be captured in a thought. Geist goes all the way down.

art for arts sake

There’s n irony here, since few things bind art so closely to its material context as its claim to stand free of that context. This is because the work of art as autonomous and self-determining, an idea born sometime in the late 18th century, is the model of a version of the human subject that has been rapidly gaining ground in actual life. Men and women are now seen as authors of themselves, as a result of the deepening influence of liberalism and possessive individualism and – to perpetrate a dreadful cliché – the rise of the middle classes. (If you open a history book at random, it will say three things about the period you light on: it was essentially an age of transition; it was a period of rapid change; and the middle classes went on rising. That’s the reason God put the middle classes on earth: to rise like the sun, but, unlike the sun, without ever setting.)

You can’t have culture in the sense of galleries and museums and publishing houses unless society has evolved to the point where it can produce an economic surplus. Only then can some people be released from the business of keeping the tribe alive in order to constitute a caste of priests, bards, DJs, hermeneuticists, bassoon players, LRB interns, gaffers on film sets and the like. In fact, you might define culture as a surplus over strict need. We need to eat, but we don’t need to eat at the Ivy. We need clothes in cold climates, but they don’t have to be designed by Stella McCartney. The problem with this definition is that a capacity for surplus is built into the human animal. For both good and ill, we’re continually in excess of ourselves. Culture is reckoned into our nature. King Lear is much concerned with this ambiguity.

Wanted: Culture, to legitimate the social order......

Since the material production that gives birth to culture is racked by conflict, bits of this culture tend to be used from time to time to legitimate the social order that strives to contain or resolve the conflict, and this is known as ideology. Not all culture is ideological at any given time, but any part of it, however abstract or high-minded, can serve this function in specific circumstances. At the same time, however, culture can muster vigorous resistance to the dominant powers.

TE banksy

Banksy musters some vigorous resistance to the dominant powers

This resistance is more likely to occur, curiously enough, once art becomes just another commodity in the marketplace and the artist just another petty commodity producer. Before that, in traditional or pre-modern society, culture generally serves as an instrument of political and religious sovereignty, which means among other things that there are steady jobs for cultural workers as court poets, genealogists, licensed fools, painters and architects patronised by the landed gentry, composers in the pay of princes and so on. In those situations you also know more or less whom you are writing or painting for, whereas in the marketplace your audience becomes anonymous.

The world no longer owes the cultural worker a living. Ironically, however, it’s the integration of art into the market that gives it a degree of freedom. Once it’s primarily a commodity, culture becomes autonomous. Deprived of its traditional features, it may curve back on itself, taking itself as its own raison d’être in the manner of some modernist art; it is also free to serve as critique on a sizeable scale for the first time. The miseries of commodification are also an enthralling moment of emancipation. History, as Marx reminds us, progresses by its bad side. In the very process of being pushed to the margin, the artist begins to claim visionary, prophetic, bohemian or subversive status – partly because those on the edges can indeed sometimes see further than those in the middle, but also to compensate for a loss of centrality. A movement called Romanticism is born.

....and so capitalism gives culture a job to do

At roughly the same time, so is industrial capitalism, which with admirable convenience gives culture a job to do just as it’s in danger of being driven out by philistine mill-owners. There’s now a growing divide between the symbolic realm and the world of utility, a divide that runs all the way down the human body. Values and energies for which there isn’t much call in the workaday world of bodily labour are siphoned off into a sphere of their own, which consists of three major sectors: art, sexuality and religion. One of these endangered values is the creative imagination, which was invented in the late 18th century and is nowadays revered among artistic types, though organising genocide in Gaza requires quite a lot of it too.

The distance that opens up between the symbolic and the utilitarian, while threatening to rob culture of its social function, is also the operative distance you need for critique. Culture would expose the crippled, diminished condition of industrial-capitalist humanity through its full and free expression of human powers and capacities, a theme that runs from Schiller and Ruskin to Morris and Marcuse. Art or culture can issue a powerful rebuke to society not so much by virtue of what it says but because of the strange, pointless, intensely libidinal thing that it is. It’s one of the few remaining activities in an increasingly instrumentalised world that exists purely for its own sake, and the point of political change is to make this condition available to human beings as well. Where art was, there shall humanity be.

TE cropped show culture some love2

PCS workers issuing a powerful rebuke to society 

The harmonious realisation of one’s powers as a delightful end in itself: if this is what the aesthetic comes to be about, it’s also the ethics of Romantic humanism, which includes the ethics of Karl Marx. The aesthetic becomes important when it isn’t simply about art. Marx’s thought concerns the material conditions that would make life for its own sake possible for whole societies, one such condition being the shortening of the working day. Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work. For Oscar Wilde, who was closer in this respect to Marx than to Morris, communism was the condition in which we would lie around all day in various interesting postures of jouissance, dressed in loose crimson garments, reciting Homer to one another and sipping absinthe. And that was just the working day.

7. Photo opkennardphillippspigment print 2005.width 1000

Half in love with the powers that repress us? Image by kennardphillips

There are problems with this vision, as there are with any ethics. Are all your powers to be realised? What about that obsessive desire to beat up Tony Blair? Or should one realise only those impulses that spring from the authentic core of the self? But by what criteria do we judge this? What if my self-realisation clashes with yours? And why should all-round expression beat devoting oneself to a single cause, like Alexei Navalny or Emma Raducanu? Do human capabilities really grow malevolent only by being alienated, lopsided or repressed? And what if we’re half in love with the powers that alienate and repress us, installed as they are inside the human subject rather than purely external to it?

Hegel and Marx have an answer of a kind to the problem of clashing self-fulfilments, which goes like this: realise only those capabilities which allow others to do the same. Marx’s name for this reciprocal self-realisation is ‘communism’. As the Communist Manifesto puts it, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. When the fulfilment of one individual is the ground or condition of the fulfilment of another, and vice versa, we call this love. 

Jesus

And the hands that act on it...

by Fran Lock

their charnel austerity, logged in the body.
a city repellent to memory, walk. this bleak
referendum of razors, indifferent justice,
law like a nail knocked into hunger. the law
is a meat-hook with your name on it, kid.
breathe. with the rhythm of syndrome,
the dark particulate scraped from a lung.
breathe. stertor, stridor, inspiratory stress.
productive cough that closes the throat.
their mouths are feudal thresholds. have
alphabets, inscribed against empathy.
say: this is the world, and what're you
going to do about it? step out. step out
of step. break that masochists pact,
patterned into apathy: work-or-death
and worked-to-death. the moment
becomes the movement, the moment
we decide to move. flip this tyranny
of tyrian shekels; pathologies of profit,
their sick vocations of control. love.
as conspicuous sabotage, direct action,
conductor of heat and dissonance. in
a world we cannot occupy or exit, be
the hand that lights the match, the arm
that bears the torch.

Marxism is about political love. I mean love, of course, in its real sense – agape, caritas – not the sexual, erotic, romantic varieties by which late capitalist society is so mesmerised. We’re speaking of the kind of love that can be deeply disagreeable and isn’t necessarily to do with feeling, that is a social practice rather than a sentiment, and which is in danger of getting you killed.

Agape

by Alan Morrison

agape - agape - agape -
love without possessiveness
platonic love
spiritual love
political love
love without possessions
love unfettered by desire
love without covetousness
love without expectation
hearts without property
hearts freed from property
love devout in poverty
agape - agape - agape -
love as common ownership
unconditional love
universal love
communism of souls
souls in common ownership
hearts & souls in fellowship
no hedges in heaven
only untethered purple heathland
lavender heather
lavender ever
& ever
love as common good
numinous communism
eudemonia -
welfare of all
capitalism can never
make us happy
pits us against ourselves
in pursuit of profit
& empty property
only love without covetousness
love without possessiveness
love for one & all
universal
unconditional
can approach that utopian
conception to be happy
agape - agape - agape -

Wanted: Culture, to buy off anarchy

Early industrial capitalism had another mission for culture to accomplish. A new actor had just appeared on the political scene – the industrial working class – and was threatening to be obstreperous. Culture, in the sense of the refined and civilised, was needed to buy off the other half of Matthew Arnold’s title, anarchy. Unless liberal values were disseminated to the masses, the masses might end up sabotaging liberal culture. Religion had traditionally bred a sense of duty, deference, altruism and spiritual edification in the common people. But religious belief was now on the wane, as the industrial middle classes demythologised social existence through their secular activities and, ironically, ended up depleting what had been a precious ideological resource. Culture, then, had to take over from the churches, as artists transubstantiated the profane stuff of everyday life into eternal truth.

What else was happening around the time of Romanticism and the industrial revolution? The revolution in France. One might do worse than claim that this was what thrust culture to the fore in the modern age – but culture as a riposte to the revolution, as an antidote to political turbulence. Politics involves decision, calculation, practical rationality, and takes place in the present, whereas culture seems to inhabit a different dimension, where customs and pieties evolve for the most part spontaneously, unconsciously, with almost glacial slowness, and may therefore pose a challenge to the very notion of throwing up barricades.

The name for this contrast in Britain is Edmund Burke, who came from a nation, Ireland, where the sovereign power had failed to root itself in the affections of the people because it was a colonialist power. In Burke’s view, this rooting wasn’t happening in revolutionary France either, since the Jacobins and their successors didn’t understand that if the law is to be feared, it is also to be loved. What you need in Burke’s opinion is a law which, though male, will deck itself out in the alluring female garments of culture. Power must beguile and seduce if it isn’t to drive us into Oedipal revolt. The potentially terrifying sublimity of the masculine must be tempered by the beauty of the feminine; this aestheticising of power, Burke writes in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, is what the French revolutionaries calamitously failed to achieve. You mustn’t, to be sure, aestheticise away the masculinity of the law. The ugly bulge of its phallus must be visible from time to time through its diaphanous robes, so that citizens may be suitably cowed and intimidated when they need to be. But the law can’t work by terror alone, which is why it must become a cross-dresser.

TE Edmund Burke caricature 1790

Edmund Burke pontificating against the French Revolution

Burke believed that the cultural domain – the sphere of customs, habits, sentiments, prejudices and the like – was fundamental in a way that the politics to which he devoted a lifetime were not, and he was right to think so. There have been some suspect ways of elevating the cultural over the political, but Burke, who began his literary career as an aesthetician, neither despises politics from the Olympian standpoint of high culture, nor dissolves politics into cultural affairs. Instead, he recognises that culture in the anthropological sense is the place where power has to bed itself down if it is to be effective. If the political doesn’t find a home in the cultural, its sovereignty won’t take hold. You don’t have to detest the Jacobins or idealise Marie Antoinette to take the point.

Despite his aversion to Jacobinism, Burke ended up feeling some sympathy for the revolutionary United Irish movement, an extraordinary sentiment for a British Member of Parliament. The Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, also an MP, was even more dedicated to the United Irish cause. He was, in fact, a secret fellow-traveller – a fact that, had it been widely known, might have wiped the smiles off the faces of his London audiences. The United Irishmen were Enlightenment anti-colonialists, not Romantic nationalists, but the rise of Romantic nationalism in the early 19th century once more brought culture to the centre of political life.

Nationalism was the most successful revolutionary movement of the modern age, toppling despots and dismantling empires; and culture in both its aesthetic and anthropological senses proved vital in this project. With revolutionary nationalism, culture in the sense of language, custom, folklore, history, tradition, religion, ethnicity and so on becomes something people will kill for. Or die for. Not many people are prepared to kill for Balzac or Bowie, but culture in this more specialised sense also plays a key role in nationalist politics. There are jobs for artists once more, as from Yeats and MacDiarmid to Sibelius and Senghor they become public figures and political activists. In fact, nationalism has been described as the most poetic form of politics. When the British shot some Irish nationalist rebels in 1916, a British army officer is said to have remarked: ‘We have done Ireland a service: we have rid it of some second-rate poets.’

Wanted: Culture, to rival religious faith

The nation itself resembles a work of art, being autonomous, unified, self-founding and self-originating. As this language might suggest, both art and the nation rank among the many surrogates for the Almighty that the modern age has come up with. Aesthetic culture mimics religion in its communal rites, priesthood of artists, search for transcendence and sense of the numinous. If it fails to replace religion, this is, among other things, because culture in the artistic sense involves too few people, while culture in the sense of a distinctive way of life involves too much conflict. No symbolic system in history has been able to rival religious faith, which forges a bond between the routine behaviour of billions of individuals and ultimate, imperishable truths. It’s the most enduring, deep-rooted, universal form of popular culture that history has ever witnessed, yet you won’t find it on a single cultural studies course from Sydney to San Diego.

For​ the liberal humanist heritage, culture mattered because it represented certain fundamental, universal values that might constitute a common ground between those who were otherwise divided. It was a ground on which we could converge simply by virtue of our shared humanity, and in this sense it was an enlightened notion; you didn’t have to be the son of a viscount to take part. Since our shared humanity was rather an abstract concept, however, something that brought it back to lived experience was needed, something you could see and touch and weigh in your hand: this was known as art or literature. If someone asked you what you lived by, you gave them not a religious sermon or a political pamphlet but a volume of Shakespeare.

The self-interest of this project, as with almost all appeals to unity, is obvious enough: culture, like the bourgeois state for Marx, represents an abstract community and equality which compensate for actual antagonisms and inequities. In the presence of the essential and universal, we are invited to suspend superficial distinctions of class, gender, ethnicity and the like. Even so, liberal humanism captured a truth, albeit in a self-serving form: what human beings have in common is in the end more important than their differences. It’s just that, politically speaking, the end is a long time coming.

Wanted: Culture, to make profits and fight wars for political demands

The vision of culture as common ground was challenged from the late 1960s by a series of developments. Students were entering higher education from backgrounds that made them disinclined to sign up to this consensus. The concept of culture began to lose its innocence. It had already been compromised by its association with racist ideology and imperialist anthropology in the 19th century, and contaminated by political strife in the context of revolutionary nationalism. From the end of the 19th century, culture became a highly lucrative industry, as cultural production was increasingly integrated into production in general, and the manufacture of mass fantasy became deeply profitable. This, we might note, isn’t yet postmodernism. Postmodernism happens not just with the arrival of mass culture but with the aestheticising of social existence, from design and advertising to branding, politics as spectacle, tattoos, purple hair and ridiculously large glasses. Culture, once the antithesis of material production, has now been folded into production.

Modernism, now a century behind us, was the last time culture offered itself as a full-blooded critique of society, a critique launched mainly from the radical right. If it does so no longer, neither does culture in the sense of a specific form of life. Most such life-forms today are out not to question the framework of modern civilisation but to be included within it. Inclusion, however, isn’t a good in itself, any more than diversity is. One thinks fondly of Samuel Goldwyn’s cry: ‘Include me out!’

All of this is sometimes known as cultural politics, and has given rise in our time to the so-called culture wars. For Schiller and Arnold, the phrase ‘culture wars’ would have been an oxymoron like, say, ‘business ethics’ (Beckett is said to have remarked that he had a strong weakness for an oxymoron). Culture in their eyes was the solution to strife, not an example of it. Now, culture is no longer a way of transcending the political but the language in which certain key political demands are framed and fought out. From being a spiritual solution, it has become part of the problem. And we have shifted in the process from culture to cultures.

TE culture wars Picture1

Both types of culture are currently under threat from different kinds of levelling. Thinking about aesthetic culture is increasingly shaped by the commodity form, which elides all distinctions and equalises all values. In some postmodern circles, this is celebrated as anti-elitist. But distinctions of value are a routine part of life, if not between Dryden and Pope then between Morrissey and Liam Gallagher. In this respect, anti-elitists who like to see themselves as close to common life are deluded. At the same time, cultures in the sense of distinctive forms of life are levelled by advanced capitalism, as every hairdressing salon and Korean restaurant on the planet comes to look like every other, despite the prattle about difference and diversity. In an era when the culture industry’s power is at its most formidable, culture in both of its main senses is being pitched into crisis.

Culture in our time has become nothing less than a full-blooded ideology, generally known as culturalism. Along with biologism, economism, moralism, historicism and the like, it is one of the major intellectual reductionisms of the day. On this theory, culture goes all the way down. The nature of humanity is culture. Behind this doctrine lurks an aversion to nature (one of culture’s traditional antitheses) as obdurate, inflexible, brutely given and resistant to change. At precisely the point where nature is capricious, unpredictable and alarmingly fast-moving, culturalism insists on regarding it as inert and immobile.

It’s not that culture is our nature, but that it is of our nature. It’s both possible and necessary because of the kinds of body we have. Necessary, because there’s a gap in our nature that culture in the sense of physical care must move into quickly if we are to survive as infants. Possible, because our bodies, unlike those of snails and spiders, are able to extend themselves outward by the power of language or conceptual thought, as well as by the way we are constructed to labour on the world. This prosthesis to our bodies is known as civilisation. The only problem, as Greek tragedy was aware, is that we can extend ourselves too far, lose contact with our sensuous, instinctual being, overreach ourselves and bring ourselves to nothing. But that’s another story. 

This video of the lecture is worth watching not only for the Q and A session, but for Terry's closing rendition in song of Raglan Road 

Terry Eagleton is a British literary theorist, critic, and public intellectual. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He has published over forty books, anmd hundreds of articles and reviews, and is the most influential contemporary cultural theorist. 

Fran Lock is an editor, essayist, the author of numerous chapbooks and thirteen poetry collections, most recently Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2023. She is a Commissioning Editor at Culture Matters, and she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review

Alan Morrison is a Sussex-based poet. His collections include A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (2009), Keir Hardie Street (2010; shortlisted for the 2011 Tillie Olsen Award, Working-Class Studies Association, USA), Captive Dragons (2011), Blaze a Vanishing (2013), Shadows Waltz Haltingly (2015), Tan Raptures (2017), Shabbigentile (2019), Gum Arabic (2020), Anxious Corporals (2021), Green Hauntings (2022), Wolves Come Grovelling (2023) and Rag Argonauts (2024). He was joint winner of the 2018 Bread & Roses Poetry Award, and was highly commended in the inaugural Shelley Memorial Poetry Competition 2022. He edits The Recusant and Militant Thistles, and is book designer for Culture Matters

 

Culture for All: Why Religion Matters
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

Culture for All: Why Religion Matters

Published in Religion

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about religion, written by James Crossley. 

Why Religion Matters

by James Crossley

Religious ideas have been central to human culture and society for thousands of years. They have been the inspiration behind art, architecture, and epic literature from the Bible to the Qur’an, from Homer’s Odyssey to Icelandic sagas.

Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with them or not, religious ideas have influenced systems of morality and our very understandings of life and death.

Traditional expressions of religion are still with us. Today, people will experience religious buildings and ceremonies at weddings and funerals—or even when visiting a historic town. But even in twenty-first-century Britain where church attendance is in years long decline, religious-related ideas remain widespread, such as in beliefs in the afterlife, guardian angels, horoscopes, or alternative spiritualities. Many popular sayings in English are from the Bible. Think of ‘eye for an eye’, ‘love thy neighbour’, Good Samaritan, ‘the blind leading the blind’, ‘cast the first stone’, ‘eat drink and be merry’, ‘writing on the wall’, and many more.

We all know that religion has justified acts of bigotry and even extreme brutality. Even to this day, we only need think of groups like ISIS, American presidents going to war with the enthusiastic backing of Christian fundamentalists, or far right attacks on Muslims on the basis of their religion supposedly being incompatible with the values of a supposedly Christian country.

In this country, the medieval church justified the social hierarchy, class relations, and oppression with reference to God, theology, and the Bible. This has even been updated to be relevant for today’s ruling class—the austerity measures under David Cameron’s governments were justified with reference to a Thatcherite reading of the Bible in favour of charity rather than a strong welfare state. 

Liberatiuon Theology and revolutionary change

But religion has also inspired reactions against the ruling class. Liberation Theology in Latin America emerged in opposition to American imperialism where religion and the interests of workers and peasants has gone hand-in-hand and where priests have even been murdered for taking a stand.

Radical traditions can be found arguably in any religious tradition, particularly when attacking landowners and the wealthy, demanding care for the poorest in society, and providing a community as protection for the individual. These common ideas across religious traditions can be taken not only in reformist directions but used to justify more revolutionary change. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (and no doubt many more) have long traditions noting the connections between their teachings and Marxism or socialism—sometimes to the point that they are seen as one and the same thing.

And while religious capitalists preach a gospel of wealth being as a result of hard work and a sign of being blessed by God, religion has simultaneously provided opposition to this fantasy by also being used on the side of the workers. The rise of the labour movement in Britain owed much to Christian and Jewish socialists with their traditions of combatting poverty, homelessness, and deprivation and a hope for a transformed world sometimes labelled a New Jerusalem.

And that religion has been part of the labour movement should be no surprise given our national history where religion has been integral to any number of revolutionary movements. Think, for instance, of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 inspired by ideas from the Bible about social equality and a time when all things would be shared in common. Or think of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and the advancements made in democratic thought and visionary ideas of a better future by religious figures from outside the established church.

Religion isn’t automatically good or bad, pro- or anti-worker, revolutionary or reactionary, any more than film or literature are. But it can be all these things because it is an integral part of human culture and society, a shared language.

'Religion is the opium of the people'

Karl Marx got religion right, though maybe not in the way many people think. Marx famously claimed that religion is ‘the opium of the people’. This is popularly understood as an outright attack on religion as manipulation. But if we read the fuller version of the saying we see that Marx knew how complicated religion could be: ‘The wretchedness of religion,’ he stressed, ‘is at once an expression of and protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

This is why even some atheists have embraced the more revolutionary parts of religion as a way of understanding what a better world would look like and how to achieve it. People like William Morris—who had long given up his faith by the time he was active in politics—saw the values of solidarity, community, and pride in work emerging from our shared religious heritage, ideas which should not be lost and could now challenge and help overthrow the uncaring individualism of capitalism. We should not underestimate the appeal of these values in an era when loneliness has thrived as a consequence of contemporary capitalism.

In everyday practices we see the connections made between non-religious and religious people—campaigning on housing, welfare, and poverty regularly involves people from churches and mosques working alongside agnostics and atheists. No matter how their values are personally justified, the reason why such people can work together is that they clearly do have shared beliefs, goals, and concerns about the devastation caused by a class-ridden society.

People from whatever tradition who interpret their religion in such ways—whether committed members of a radical religious community or casual believer—are potentially part of any response to a heartless world as much as agnostics and atheists who likewise want to overturn class oppression. This should not mean accepting any views—reactionary views must be challenged, religious or otherwise. And the labour movement cannot promote this or that religion and will remain central in opposing ongoing imperialist and capitalist versions of religion. But the trade unions and the labour movement are now the main custodians of those inherited and shared values of solidarity and community which will one day transform the world.  

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jim Aitken analyses the links between philosophical and cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and far right politics, in a wide-ranging, discursive essay. The image above is of the Night of the Long Batons (29 July 1966), when the federal police physically purged politically incorrect academics who opposed the right-wing military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–1970) in Argentina from five faculties of the University of Buenos Aires

The postmodernists would detest a title such as this one. They claim to be opposed to elites – who are seen as somehow remotely intellectual – while at the same time claiming a relativism in all artistic production which could rank the novels, say, of Nadine Dorries alongside the work of Dostoevsky. In all things, it seems, there is this relativism that seeks to bridge gaps between so called high and popular art forms and between thought and opinion; between all forms of discourse, even when there is very little of it about.

The deconstructiveness of their thought is also highly sceptical. While a healthy scepticism is certainly agreeable before making judgements and decisions, to continually vacillate is to create a vacuum which can be so easily filled by unwelcome forces. Today, these forces are the forces of the far right, both within the Tory Party and outside of it. And these forces are in power, or fighting for power, across Europe and the rest of the world.

Amazingly, these trenchant forces all claim they are challenging the elites that are holding back their bizarre vision of progress. These elites, they maintain, reside in universities, in the civil service (called ‘The Blob’ in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail), on the left (as always), in the scientific community, in literary, artistic and media circles, among academics and so-called experts, and in the actual vacuum that is social media. In America they are called liberal elites while here in the UK all opposition is derided as mere ‘wokery.’

The grand narrative of capitalism

And this state of affairs can be attributed, in part, to the woolly relativist thinking that says there is no such thing as class when there are billionaires and those living in dire poverty, and where the grand narratives of socialism and communism have been discarded while the other grand narrative of capitalism continues plundering the planet and its peoples.

In a sense the outrage at liberal elites and wokery; at Black Lives Matter and climate protests, and against anything remotely left, whether politically or culturally, shows the deep unease within the actual real elites who continue to run the affairs of state. These elites are the same ruling classes that have always been in power and their shift further to the right actually shows their unease. This is because these ruling classes realise there is a strong reaction against their divisiveness of people on the basis of class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they also realise the enormity of the forces gaining momentum against climate chaos, as well as those appalled at the corruption within the state. Before it was Jews and witchcraft as scapegoats, now it is migrants, Muslims and general wokery.

We have been here before. This classic anti-intellectualism is designed to divide people and blame others rather than the elite caretakers of the chaos that is capitalism. To divert attention, divide and rule. But throughout history there have been those who have consistently challenged how things were and sought radical change.

In the ancient world both Confucius (551-479 BC) and Socrates (469-399 BC) tried to achieve a higher level of good governance for their respective states by simply asking questions. Neither had a dogmatic manner but their aims were both the same – to educate by posing questions that can be enlarged upon and debated. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth of his day and sentenced to death. Confucius never attained any high office of state though some of his former students did and made appeals on his behalf.

Around the time of Socrates there was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. While they did foster critical thinking, some like Protagoras and Hippias used logic simply as a suave exercise in cynical virtuosity to prove things like sin and virtue can be synonymous or that evil can be as desirable as good. Their logic simply led to an earlier form of relativism, negativism and a thorough lack of human values that Socrates believed would ultimately undermine Greek society.

Similarly, today’s anti-woke brigade of continually outraged Conservatives thrive in the absence of any socialist alternative offered. They are the adherents of political postmodernism which claims that class is dead despite Victorian levels of inequality. They applaud what they call good old fashioned common sense and rail – as Gove did during the Brexit campaign – against experts. This attitude took on deeply disturbing scenes at a Trump rally when he encouraged his audience in shouting ‘Fire Fauci’, the Chief Medical Officer in America, who was calling for measures to be taken against the rising cases of Covid.

History is littered with anti-intellectualism and it is clear that rich and powerful individuals do not wish scrutiny; do not wish to be intellectually or culturally challenged because their rule would be in jeopardy. However, the much-used phrase telling truth to power remains suspect for Chomsky. He maintains that the ruling classes are only too well aware of the truth and that they seek simply to conceal it and the people who should be told the truth are the masses oppressed by the rich and powerful.

Ancient Chinese and Roman emperors were constantly ill at ease with scholars and writers. It was said during the Dynasty of Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) that political power was consolidated by suppressing freedom of speech. Books like the Shi Jing (a poetry classic) and the Shujing (a history book from c.6th century BC) were ordered to be burned. Anyone refusing to give up their copies would be executed. The imperial library though still kept copies of such texts which confirms Chomsky’s view.

In imperial Rome too the Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) had his henchmen search houses for books he did not wish to be circulated. The poet Juvenal once said it is better to criticise emperors once they have died.

Rich, powerful, ignorant and stupid

The richest and most powerful capitalist economy on Earth has nurtured a culture of ignorance and stupidity. For decades now the United States has been well down the league table internationally for educational attainment. While Hollywood can show the luxurious living of the wealthy, along with the US media more generally, it seems there is little appetite to focus on the millions in jail, millions more homeless, and tens of millions living in poverty. In this mix could be added the extent of the drug problem, both legally prescribed by Big Pharma and drugs circulated by criminal cartels. There is also the incredible death toll annually caused through the domestic sale of weapons, running at 30,000 per year with some 11,000 deaths from this figure caused through suicide.

There is nothing to feel patriotic about with such figures, and those who would argue such a case would simply be labelled communists or socialists as if the use of those words brings to an end any more discussion. This is effectively saying that social conscience is both ludicrous and dangerous.

The show trials that took place in Soviet Moscow and the McCarthy trials that took place in Washington both revealed a sense of paranoia with alternative ideas. The left-wing ideas that were disseminating in the US would have improved the social conditions of the American masses and the ideas of many of those charged with being enemies of the State in the Soviet Union were highly intelligent and original thinkers. People like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were leading Party figures and their loss robbed the revolution. As for Trotsky’s expulsion and eventual assassination, the international socialist and revolutionary movement would have a permanent split that could only aid the capitalist powers. Murdering opponents is stupid because it holds back progress by instilling fear, which works as a barrier to a better system being developed. Ideas should always have free rein, especially ones that are suspect so that they can be shown to be suspect. Discourse must always be seen as desirable because it can invariably lead to desirable conclusions.

While the bureaucracy of the USSR simply ossified the entire system without the vital intellectual input required in such a historical development, the actively encouraged ignorance in the West has given us Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and others.

A Trump supporter being interviewed by Jordan Klepper replied to his questioning – ‘Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up.’ This kind of response is a fairly commonplace one precisely because it has been cultivated that way. Fox News and GB News both cultivate ignorance through demanding their views are the stuff of common-sense. The shock-Jockery of the hosts fill the airwaves with bile and legitimise draconian legislation like the Borders and Nationality Bill going through Parliament, as well as denying they hold any racist or sexist views.

In fact, most news media have become smiley and friendly forums for entertainment as much as informing viewers about our world. Since Brexit there is even less of a focus on the wider world with the result that even greater insularity prevails. That simply mirrors the media in the USA and fosters a culture of unquestioning acquiescence.

It was Oscar Wilde in his wonderfully satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) who captured exactly the point of not educating the populace. Lady Bracknell tells Earnest:

I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.

il 1140xN.3209500151 d42p 

Wilde is ridiculing the upper classes that Lady Bracknell is talking about. Exactly the same sense of satire took place in Parisian clubs like the Le Chat Noir around the same time when Aristide Bruant, made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his poster of him with his black cape and red scarf, would poke fun and insult his upper-class clientele. They would similarly be rolling in laughter like Wilde’s audiences. They control everything, after all, so why would they not feel safe?

It was Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) in his The English Constitution (1867) – clearly not the British one since that would include Celts - who seemed to grasp the essence of Conservatism:

The Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential connection.

 Psychologists would call such characteristics arrested development. To this day when Conservatives are ever challenged they claim their opponents are being political as if to imply that they are somehow not. It is politically infantile but when they find themselves in serious trouble in their Parliaments there is always the reserve teams on hand to help them out. They are the patriotic demagogues like Trump, clowns like Berlusconi and Johnson, the military and emerging Fascist parties.

It was the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the father figure of Fascism, who was responsible for a solution to guarantee capital’s security. Like Marx, he was much influenced by Hegel but arrived at totally different conclusions. He was proud to be called by Mussolini ‘the philosopher of Fascism’ and went on to co-write with Il Duce The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) as well as serving as Minister for Education in his Government and becoming a member of the powerful Fascist Grand Council.

For Gentile the idealism of Hegel had to have action and Gentile went on to develop his own brand of thought which he called actual idealism. One of his key texts gives a clear indication by its title what he was on about –Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1912). In order to move away from class conflict, from both liberalism and Marxism, Gentile offered up corporatism as his solution whereby there would be the collective management of the economy by employers, workers and state officials. Corporate groups would organise society through its various areas such as agriculture, military, business, science and so on. The already rich would be perfectly secure and the workers would be firmly in their place. Today’s giant corporation Amazon comes immediately to mind in this regard and its model would be applauded by Gentile.

Fascist dictatorships are the most stupid ones of all. The horror and the evil of Auschwitz was also absolutely insane. During the Spanish Civil War the Franquist General Astray confronted the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at the University of Salamanca with cries of Muera la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte! (Death to the intelligentsia! Long live death!) And during a burning of left-wing books in General Pinochet’s Chile, soldiers burned a book on Cubism believing it had something to do with Castro’s Cuba.

41gNoGhGSYL. SY291 BO1204203200 QL40 ML2

It was the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who wrote Fahrenheit 451(1953) and this novel came out of the McCarthy witch-hunt trials that also threatened to – and did – burn books. As an emerging writer this alarmed him. It has an Orwellian feel to it in that firemen exist not to put fires out but to start them. If books are found to be in anyone’s home then the fire brigade is on its way to burn them. The central character Montag becomes disillusioned with his job and goes over to the other side where a small group of book lovers seek to protect all literature for future generations. Though Bradbury was conservative himself, he was appalled by the anti-intellectualism of his nation and went on to say how he believed the emergence of the mass media was hampering reading and an interest in books.

As well as making sure education has little impact, the ruling classes also manage to trivialise what is genuinely important – like our social conditions, wages, prices, housing, alternative progressive politics - and make popular the vacuous cult of celebrity. Again, Wilde stated in an interview for the St. James Gazette concerning his play, that:

(The Importance of Being Earnest) is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.

Trivial TV

This comment sums up much of the TV we watch and it is clearly designed that way. And it has been going on for an exceedingly long time. TV and radio hosts are adept at talking trivia and it was pointed out by Epictetus (c 56- c 135 AD):

When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.

Bombarded by trivia and with a clear control over any opposing ideas, so-called democracy seems a safe haven for capital to flourish. For another science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) this was the anti-intellectual basis of democracy:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Such a statement is all too near today’s political and cultural malaise. Of course, the concept of truth itself is suspect for the postmodernists which merely enables more and more exploitation of various kinds – through the mass media, through attacks on trade unions, climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women campaigning against domestic violence – to take place.

Ruling classes have a fear and loathing of history. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary and Brexit Minister, recently lauded our wonderful nation as the greatest on earth and told her audience that all nations have warts in their pasts and that dwelling on the past is not what matters but creating a brighter future is what truly matters.

Harold Wilson, twice a Labour Prime Minister, was considered by his politics tutor at Oxford to be the finest student he had ever had. He received a triple first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and became the youngest Oxford don of the century at age 21.  Before becoming MP for Ormskirk he had previously been a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College. With such a brilliant academic pedigree it seems incredible that he would boast that he had never read Marx’s Das Kapital.

Francis Wheen tells us in Marx’s Das Kapital (2006) that Wilson claimed to have got as far as page two ‘and that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt two sentences of main text and a page of footnotes were too much.’ Any cursory look at the opening pages of this text would show that there are indeed footnotes in the opening pages, but none more than a few sentences. Such a comment is a clear case of anti-intellectualism.

Before the English socialist Henry Hyndman actually acknowledged his debt to Marx and his text, he had initially told Marx that he did not wish to mention him by name in his England for All (1881) – presumably, like Bagehot before him, using England to mean Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well he told Marx he could not do so because the English ‘had a horror of socialism’ and ‘a dread of being taught by a foreigner.’ Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Build Back Better are founded upon such xenophobic nonsense.

Marx’s book was never published in England during his lifetime. Activists, writers and academics had to rely on French and German editions until it was eventually published. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw found the book a marvellous read, having read the French edition in the British Library where much of Marx’s research had been done. For Shaw the book ‘revealed capitalism in all its atrocity’ and his passion for the text never dimmed. Not so Shaw’s fellow Fabian, HG Wells, who dismissed Marx as ‘a stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist.’

Yet, what took place was an enormous flowering of thought that came from Marx’s ideas. Of particular significance is also Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which only appeared in English in 1959, having first been published in German in Moscow, 1932. These papers are also known as the Paris Manuscripts because the text was written there when the youthful Marx was a Left-Hegelian.

Refining Hegel’s concept of estrangement or alienation, Marx showed how such a concept has its origin in the exploitative economic system of capitalism. He also made clear the fateful consequences in the social formation of human individuals, and therefore in society as a whole.

Philosophers and writers found this a fertile analysis ripe for development. The notion of being alienated within society came to be explored in literature, literary theory, cultural theory, art, psychoanalysis, social sciences and in philosophy.

The existentialist philosophers, particularly in France, fused Marx’s ideas into their texts. Chief among them was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He was much more than just a philosopher, he was also a dramatist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and a political activist. Sartre had read Heidegger and Husserl and their influence is clear in his work. In the 1960s he had said that Marxism was the spirit of the age.

It is sad to see that this flowering of intellectual ideas that took place in France is now a country where the dominant narrative is Islamophobia, with writers and journalist like Michel Houellebecq and Alain Finlielkraut among the most Islamophobic. The demise of France intellectually is traced in The End of the French Intellectual (2016) by Shlomo Sand. The rampant racism there – as here – can be attributed to the imperial past, but also to the thinkers who came after Sartre like the postmodernists.

According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Marx is now no more than a spectre. All we have left of him is Spectres de Marx (1991) which claims to be a work of mourning. A debt to him had been paid but with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, would anything of Marx remain? The capitalist triumphalism that greeted this collapse found its best expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which came out in 1992. We are all liberal democrats now, he seemed to say, with liberal democracy the settled will of all people.

Only contemporary capitalism is becoming less liberal with attacks on wages, living standards, Muslims and migrants along with vapid anger directed at liberal elites – a group that had no mention whatsoever in Fukuyama’s book. And furthermore, just as Marx and his followers had claimed that capitalism, in its ravenous desire to seek more and more profit, would tumble under the weight of its own contradictions, this very system is seemingly prepared to ignore the warnings of climate catastrophe that awaits humanity unless we change tack. This is the logic, sadly, of where we are.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes The sleep of reason produces monsters No. 43 from Los Caprichos Google Art Project resized

There is a wonderful capricho (‘whim’ in English) etching by Goya (1746-1828) of a man who has fallen asleep at his writing desk.  Unknown to the man, various owls and bats fly above him as he sleeps. Goya called his piece El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). In this etching Goya is reminding us that reason must be ever vigilant so that monsters do not reappear. The collapse of communism never created any peace dividend and never ushered in so-called liberal democracy, and is showing an extremely illiberal tendency with people like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro the clowns now taking over the asylum.

If the system of Capital is all about accumulating more Capital at whatever expense then the monsters are already on the loose. The victory over communism has been simply the opportunity for Capital’s monsters to fly wherever they want and create as much destruction as they can so long as profits are made. They even call it collateral damage.

Yes, we have been asleep. Our reason, our thinking has been defective, if not completely absent. Everything seems to point to our demise except for the groups mentioned earlier – climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women’s groups along with all the community groups up and down the nation trying to keep the poor from sinking further. The challenge is to link all these groups and more to demand a world free from the greed that destroys us so that there can still be a world.

ADN-ZB Katschorowski 5.10.71 Berlin: Festtage-

Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1856), in his play The Life of Galileo (1937), explores how truth can be problematic to those in power. They don’t want to face it because it changes their sense of themselves in the world, and therefore changes their relationship to everyone else. They would rather ignore truth completely. When Galileo asks them to look through the telescope and see for themselves the truth of how the cosmos is, they all refuse.

Galileo also says in the play:

Someone who doesn’t know the truth is merely a fool. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a criminal.

But lies and stupidity are still force-fed to us.  George Orwell (1903-1950), in his novel 1984, published in 1949, tells us that one of the three mottos supplied to the masses is IGNORANCE IS TRUTH. Ironically, a dumbed down reality TV show called Big Brother takes its title from the anonymous leader of Oceania featured in the novel. The warning Orwell was giving us in this novel simply has to make us question three-word slogans like Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done.

The pernicious anti-intellectualism that permeates contemporary capitalist countries also leads to a frightening level of political illiteracy. Brecht captured this sense particularly well in his era:

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He then prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational companies.

This pretty much sums up the state of the western, liberal democracies today. Ignorance is desirable for the ruling elites. Marx, studying the capitalism of his day, predicted the growth of such multinational companies. He followed the logic of capitalist competitiveness, accumulation and insatiable greed. It has brought us to where we are today.

Sophistry and postmodernism seem weak tools to deal with this impasse. Terry Eagleton, in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism, published in 1995, castigates it by saying that it ‘does not envision a future for us much different from the present.’ This statement remains a powerful indictment against it. Marx’s famous statement in his Theses on Feuerbach of 1845 said that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world, and if this can be updated for today we may be able to say something like this – that the postmodernists have only deconstructed the world. The point remains to change it.

200 years young
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

200 years young

Published in Films

Scott McLemee reviews The Young Karl Marx, which, on the eve of 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, contains themes of economic crises and inequalities that remain relevant today.

Released last year but receiving as yet very little English-language press coverage, Der Junge Karl Marx is a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man. That said, I cannot vouch for the chase scene. Regarding which, more anon.

First a couple of circumstances that bode well for the film's chances of reaching a wider audience once The Young Karl Marx (the title I saw it under at a film festival recently) becomes available on DVD and via streaming. Its director is Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker whose I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin, was nominated for the Oscars last year. And the timing is good: This coming May 5 will mark the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth. Add, say, the findings in World Bank report released this week, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, and the potential for interest in the film looks promising. Over the past two decades, global wealth grew "grew an estimated 66 percent," the report says, "from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices," while "per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets."

If anything, those figures understate the gap. It was defined more starkly two years ago by Oxfam: "[T]he richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together…. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years."

As the middle-aged Marx put it when writing for The New York Tribune in 1859: "There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery." His understanding of that system identified tendencies towards economic crisis and breakdown as inherent in the normal functioning of capitalism itself. The tweaks and patches improvised to keep things moving become, in due course, sources of turbulence. (How to square stagnating wages with the need for constantly renewed household purchasing power? With more and more consumer credit - plus the chance for investors to wager on securities tied to mortgage failure! That'll fix it.) These are insights it is unfortunately necessary to recover from time to time.

Peck and his screenwriters have availed themselves of very few of the imaginative liberties usually permitted in the making of a biopic. The Young Karl Marx sticks closely to the record, with some of the dialogue adapted from correspondence or memoirs and the casting director clearly working from portraits of the original figures. It can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a young man beneath the iconic Marx, with his prophetic and imposing beard. But August Diehl bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of Marx in his early twenties, and depicts him with just the confrontational edge that comes through in his letters to Friedrich Engels. The latter is played by Stefan Konarske - and again the likeness to pictures of the young Engels, especially in demeanor, shows more attention to the biographical sources than the genre necessarily requires.

KM4

The film opens in 1842 with Marx and his fellow philosopher-journalists at the Rheinische Zeitung being arrested for Marx's scathing coverage of debates in the local parliament - in particular, his articles on new laws taking away the traditional right of peasants to gather deadwood on a landowner's property. Marx himself later wrote that reporting on such grubby matters had been his first push towards studying economic issues. On screen, it appears as Marx's breaking point with the Young Hegelians (not a circle I ever expected to see on film) and the beginning of a series of clashes with government officials and hurried moves from country to country with his wife and children - living the life of an impecunious political exile that continues long after the end of the movie, which coincides with publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. For the record, the final scene contains the only significant factual mistake I noticed: Marx tells Engels he will be writing for The New York Tribune, though in fact he was only offered the job in 1851.

Now, a film that begins with its hero writing for one newspaper and ends with him taking a position at another newspaper is going to need a lot more than verisimilitude going for it. And that is also true even - or perhaps especially - when intervening developments largely concern the shaping of a political doctrine. What The Young Karl Marx has working to its advantage is that the 1840s were an exceptionally lively decade. Cold War-era accounts sometimes made it sound like Marx was a misanthropic recluse, scribbling diatribes read mostly by other fanatics. Peck stands that myth on its head in the first scene of Karl and Jenny in Paris, attending a political banquet addressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Such banquets were a big part of the oppositional political scene in France at the time. In reading about them, I've always imagined a big hall with waiters bringing food to large tables -- nothing like the event depicted in the film. What we see is more like an open-air rally during the daytime, with booths for food and books for sale. Proudhon takes the stage to speak about the need for an economy that won't grind the people into the dirt. He's surrounded by what looks like an entourage of co-thinkers who don't look especially happy about it when Marx throws "the master" a hard question, though both he and the audience seem to enjoy the exchange. And it so happens that some of that audience is black - a nice touch and Raoul Peck's reminder that his ancestors were part of French history even if historians have sometimes written them out of it.

In short, we get a glimpse at a culture of political debate - the first of several. In later events, the audience consists more and more of working men and women, some of them devoted to Proudhon, others drawn to the religiously-tinged radical vision of Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor of great eloquence. In time, Marx and Engels find themselves both working and arguing with these comrades, with Marx in particular proving constitutionally incapable of politesse. Of course, he's even less diplomatic upon meeting a British industrialist who insists that if child labor is abolished, he won't be able to turn a profit.

Textbook boilerplate has it that the Manifesto launched an international revolutionary movement. But The Young Karl Marx shows what that truism leaves out: Marx and Engels were part of, and were shaped by, a movement from below of people who fought not for ideals but for survival. The point of the manifesto was to give that movement an analysis of some breadth and depth. Whatever the failings of Marx and Engels's shorter-term projections, the lines read in voice-over concern something closer at hand than 19th-century social conditions.

I failed to note down exactly which passage was used, but in looking over the text, I am struck once again by the lucidity and precision of what the authors saw:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

This vision of hybridity applies to The Young Karl Marx itself - a film in German, French and English, directed by a Haitian in a medium well suited to communicating across wide cultural differences. Which brings me back to how in the film, shortly after Marx and Engels meet and begin exchanging ideas, they soon run into police who are hassling immigrants. They try to escape, and the chase is on! I've checked the biographies and find no indication that this actually happened. But maybe the director is tipping his hat to American cinema by imagining Marx and Engels in a buddy movie.

This review first appeared here, at the U.S. website Inside Higher Ed.

 

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling

Published in Poetry

To mark the 170th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Peter Raynard presents his new poem, a 'poetic coupling' based on the text of the Manifesto.

Counting in at around 12,000 words, has there ever been a more influential book containing so few words, than the Communist Manifesto? The 21st February, 2018 is the 170th anniversary of its publication. Written in a six-week rush, after the Communist League imposed a deadline on Marx, its take up and influence has been phenomenal, and it is as relevant today as it ever has been. 

Much is planned to mark the occasion, especially as it is also the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth on May 5th. I have read the Manifesto a number of times over the year. However, as a poet, I hadn’t given it much thought in my writing until I was introduced to a poetic form called ‘coupling’, devised by the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf. Coupling is a line by line poetic response (that includes rhyme, repetition, and assonance) to an existing text. It can be applied to any text but I think works very well with political writing, either as a way of making it relevant to today’s readers, or as a (satirical) polemic against it. In writing a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto I took the former approach but - in the spirit of Marxism - with a critical as well as creative eye.

I hope to complete the poem over the next few weeks, and the plan is that Culture Matters will then publish it in May in time for the 200th anniversary. Below is my coupling of the infamous ‘preface’ of the book, as well as Marx’s ten ‘commandments’ of communism.

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling

by Peter Raynard (with Karl Marx)

“In accordance with my state of mind at the time lyrical poetry was bound to be my first subject, at least the most pleasant and immediate one….Poetry however, could be and had to be only an accompaniment; I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.” [Marx’s letter to his Father, November 1837]

PREFACE

A spectre is haunting Europe
               innit though

 — the spectre of communism
               that loose blanket in need of tucking in

All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre
            this unholy spectre come to remove the opium and Xanax flow from the ennui of its existents

Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
            Pope and President, Merkel Macron, autoimmune free radicals of capitalism, each playing I spy with my belittling eye

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?
               Karl saw a gap in the market before the market had been fully formed

Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism
               no-one likes us, no-one likes us, no-one likes us, we don’t care, we are commies, new-born commies, we are commies from over there

against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
               we are coming with sickles and fists, hammers and molotovs, balaclavas and masks, & pen and paper (just in case)

Two things result from this fact:
I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power
               albeit a power with a crackly track record of misuse, one dictatored by substance abuse

II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world
               come out and tell it how it is FFS, it has been 170 years but it’s never too late!

publish their views, their aims, their tendencies,
               they tend to hang to the left, last I heard, but added ingredients can make it absurd

and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself
               ring a ring a roses you pocketful of posers, atishoo, atishoo, we will knock off your crown

To this end, Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London
               to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, to honour his will, to update his worth

and sketched the following manifesto
               give him a deadline and he’ll give you a tract, the theory, the practice, revolutionary acts

to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages
               & Bakunin translated it into Russian, and we all know how that turned out

PR Workers by Peter Kennard

Workers, by Peter Kennard

Marx’s Ten Commandments of Communism

            ………..in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable
                       behold, the secular ten commandments, scribed in the original Manifest der kommunistischen Partei   

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purpose
                 I suggest we begin with cutting the hedge funds, the casino capitalism, the prospecting close your eyes and pick a card path to prosperity

    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax
                in the heated climate of today’s reprobates, they’ll not be much need for public debate

    3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance
                Can I keep my granddad’s watch, it’s broken, it’s worthless, it means a lot?

    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels
                there’ll be no more capital flight, those runways closed at midnight

    5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
                credit where credit is due, an economy not founded on a global debt of $233 trillion, phew!

    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State
                yes traveller I’m just putting you through, can you believe it, no trains overdue

    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State
                of factories, mere metal filings remain, big data now is the name of the game

    the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan
                I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/ Shall I at least set my lands in order (TSE)

    8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture
                you might need a little marketing advice, industrial armies doesn’t sound nice

    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country
                the green with the grey, cosmopolitan hue, no borders, no hoarders, no get in the queue

    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
                with child labour/girls denied education/born into sex work we mustn’t forget this is not done-and-dusted, those wheels have not come off yet, though they may be a little rusted

Marx’s Final Words

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            With links made of debt, disease, war, racism, sexism, capitalism, and more

They have a world to win
            and win it they will, for as Prometheus was Bound to say, ‘defy power which seems omnipotent’

Working Men of All Countries, Unite
            and women as well, and all those between

PR walterbenjamincopy

Portrait, by Peter Kennard

Marxism and religion
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

Marxism and religion

Published in Religion

Richard Clarke outlines how religion, like any other cultural activity, is capable of both promoting political and social liberation, and being manipulated and controlled by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

Most Marxists would say that it is none of their business to judge or comment on any individual’s sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs, provided that these do not encourage prejudice, intolerance or result in harm to others.

Some religious groupings, notably the Quakers, have been prominent in the peace and anti-war movement. Many Jews – not just secular Jews but ultra-orthodox religious Jews as well – oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Catholic ‘liberation theology’ has been a feature of progressive movements in South America.  Many individuals – of all faiths – have managed to combine their religious conviction with a commitment to socialism, even Marxism.

RC Keir Hardie Trafalgar Square 1908

In Britain, the fusion of Marxist theory and Christian beliefs called Christian socialism has a long and honourable tradition. Keir Hardie (1856-1915), the founder of the modern Labour Party declared that “Any system of production or exchange which sanctions the exploitation of the weak by the strong or the unscrupulous is wrong and therefore sinful.” And Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury (1931-1963) was a supporter of the October Revolution, a life-long friend of the Soviet Union, and a chair of the Board of the Daily Worker, the predecessor of today’s only socialist national newspaper, the Morning Star.

Religion in and of itself is no indicator of people’s political orientation or of their personal qualities. At the same time Marxists would challenge the liberal exhortation to ‘celebrate all faiths’. The ‘faiths’ that are purportedly celebrated are not, of course, just matters of individual conviction. They are institutionalised belief systems. Religion is primarily a social and historical phenomenon. As Marx observed, ‘Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.’ Britain’s own Head of State is, after all, also the head of the ‘established’ Church of England.

On a philosophical level, Marxism questions the truth of any religion that assumes the existence of a supernatural being not subject to the laws of nature but who responds to the adulation and entreaties of his/her/its worshippers. In engaging with religious believers, however sympathetically, Marxists do not conceal their materialist belief that everything that exists is part of nature and subject to laws which – in principle at least - can be discovered by human action and used by humanity to shape our own future.

However, notwithstanding the gendered language of his time, Marx’s position on religion is a lot more subtle and sympathetic than is commonly thought:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state and this society produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Probably the best known observation of Marx on religion is that it is the ‘opium of the people.’ This is sometimes taken to mean that he saw it as a mechanism of control from above, prescribed by those in power to secure compliance and docility. To the extent that this is true it is only part of Marx’s analysis. The full passage from Marx makes his own meaning clear:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

As Roland Boer points out, Marx used opium himself to give some relief from a variety of ailments including toothache, ear aches and carbuncles; the opium metaphor had some meaning to him. Religion, in his view, provided at least some comfort and hope to the oppressed. In an uncertain world it promises a degree of certainty; it provides an apparently alternative authority to corrupted secular institutions, and to those suffering physical or psycho-social distress, it offers comfort. Above all, it offers hope, however illusory. Marxists understand this, which is why they don’t challenge genuine individual faith.

Marxists realise the limitations of individual good works, and question those that are driven primarily by expectations of a better life hereafter. More than a century ago, the communist organiser Joe Hill’s ballad ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ (popularised by Woodie Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen amongst others) challenged the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ of organised religion. ‘It’s a Lie’ goes the final line of each stanza.

As Marx concluded in his ‘opium of the people’ passage: ‘challenging religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.’ John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ tries to do just this ‘imagine there’s nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too; imagine all the people, living life in peace… no possessions… no need for greed or hunger…’ And of course, the Internationale declares ‘No saviour from on high delivers.’

Institutionalised religion can impose its own form of alienation on its adherents. That alienation is expressed wonderfully for one individual in Dire Straits’ song Ticket to Heaven (ironically taken by some to be an endorsement of religious faith rather than a critique of it). The ‘narrator’ of the song gives more than she can afford to ‘save the little children in a far country’ – sending money to ‘the man with the golden ring. – a reference to evangelical Baptist ministers like Billy Graham, spiritual adviser to a number of American presidents including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and a significant influence on Donald Trump). As a consequence she has ‘nothing left for luxuries, nothing left to pay her heating bills’ but ‘the Good Lord will provide’ – she has her ‘Ticket to Heaven’.

Religion can also be a cloak, a justification for greed and avarice. TV evangelists in the US (and elsewhere) promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich, inverting Feuerbach’s assertion that ‘only the poor man has a rich God’’ and reimagining the life of an itinerant Jew who believed that you couldn’t serve God and mammon to be ‘a poster boy for the super-rich.’

As Giles Fraser (former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre) has pointed out, Donald Trump is both a product and a perpetuator of the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich: ‘Being “blessed” has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: God gave this to me, so it’s not about me having too much.’’

In Britain the Alpha Course, that gospel’s more restrained, English equivalent, promotes a parallel message of personal fulfilment or quiescence, devoid of any notion of collective social progress.

All religions demand a degree of submission in religious observance – attendance at mass, praying five times per day, acceptance of a higher authority than one’s own conscience. And most are accepting of the status quo – on this earth as well as the next. That lovely hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ has for its third verse:

The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,/ And ordered their estate.

But religions are not ‘all the same’. Religion presents a world of contrasts and contradictions both between and within faiths. It would be difficult to conceive of an Islamic liberation theology, for instance. The prophet of Christianity – a poor single man who ‘turned the other cheek’ and gave what he had to the poor contrasts with the prophet of Islam – a trader and military leader who accumulated wealth and power through war. Pope Francis’ 2017 encounter with Donald Trump (who arrived at the Vatican in a motorcade; the Pope came in a Ford Focus) spoke volumes. The Pope had previously suggested that Trump’s threat to build a Mexican wall meant he could not be a Christian (Christians build bridges) to which Trump responded by calling the Pope ‘disgraceful’ for doubting his faith.

For some, religious conviction offers comfort, disengagement, a shelter from the world. For others, it offers a justification for greed, bigotry and even violence. And for some it is the route to social action, challenging injustice, exploitation and evil.

Marxists need to take a careful, dialectical view on religious belief. Like any other cultural activity, it is capable of promoting political and social liberation. But it is always subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling

Published in Poetry

To mark the 170th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Peter Raynard presents his new poem, a 'poetic coupling' based on the text of the Manifesto.

Counting in at around 12,000 words, has there ever been a more influential book containing so few words, than the Communist Manifesto? The 21st February, 2018 is the 170th anniversary of its publication. Written in a six-week rush, after the Communist League imposed a deadline on Marx, its take up and influence has been phenomenal, and it is as relevant today as it ever has been. 

Much is planned to mark the occasion, especially as it is also the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth on May 5th. I have read the Manifesto a number of times over the year. However, as a poet, I hadn’t given it much thought in my writing until I was introduced to a poetic form called ‘coupling’, devised by the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf. Coupling is a line by line poetic response (that includes rhyme, repetition, and assonance) to an existing text. It can be applied to any text but I think works very well with political writing, either as a way of making it relevant to today’s readers, or as a (satirical) polemic against it. In writing a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto I took the former approach but - in the spirit of Marxism - with a critical as well as creative eye.

I hope to complete the poem over the next few weeks, and the plan is that Culture Matters will then publish it in May in time for the 200th anniversary. Below is my coupling of the infamous ‘preface’ of the book, as well as Marx’s ten ‘commandments’ of communism.

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling

by Peter Raynard (with Karl Marx)

“In accordance with my state of mind at the time lyrical poetry was bound to be my first subject, at least the most pleasant and immediate one….Poetry however, could be and had to be only an accompaniment; I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.” [Marx’s letter to his Father, November 1837]

PREFACE

A spectre is haunting Europe
               innit though

 — the spectre of communism
               that loose blanket in need of tucking in

All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre
            this unholy spectre come to remove the opium and Xanax flow from the ennui of its existents

Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
            Pope and President, Merkel Macron, autoimmune free radicals of capitalism, each playing I spy with my belittling eye

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?
               Karl saw a gap in the market before the market had been fully formed

Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism
               no-one likes us, no-one likes us, no-one likes us, we don’t care, we are commies, new-born commies, we are commies from over there

against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
               we are coming with sickles and fists, hammers and molotovs, balaclavas and masks, & pen and paper (just in case)

Two things result from this fact:
I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power
               albeit a power with a crackly track record of misuse, one dictatored by substance abuse

II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world
               come out and tell it how it is FFS, it has been 170 years but it’s never too late!

publish their views, their aims, their tendencies,
               they tend to hang to the left, last I heard, but added ingredients can make it absurd

and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself
               ring a ring a roses you pocketful of posers, atishoo, atishoo, we will knock off your crown

To this end, Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London
               to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, to honour his will, to update his worth

and sketched the following manifesto
               give him a deadline and he’ll give you a tract, the theory, the practice, revolutionary acts

to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages
               & Bakunin translated it into Russian, and we all know how that turned out

PR Workers by Peter Kennard

Workers, by Peter Kennard

Marx’s Ten Commandments of Communism

            ………..in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable
                       behold, the secular ten commandments, scribed in the original Manifest der kommunistischen Partei   

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purpose
                 I suggest we begin with cutting the hedge funds, the casino capitalism, the prospecting close your eyes and pick a card path to prosperity

    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax
                in the heated climate of today’s reprobates, they’ll not be much need for public debate

    3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance
                Can I keep my granddad’s watch, it’s broken, it’s worthless, it means a lot?

    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels
                there’ll be no more capital flight, those runways closed at midnight

    5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
                credit where credit is due, an economy not founded on a global debt of $233 trillion, phew!

    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State
                yes traveller I’m just putting you through, can you believe it, no trains overdue

    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State
                of factories, mere metal filings remain, big data now is the name of the game

    the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan
                I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/ Shall I at least set my lands in order (TSE)

    8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture
                you might need a little marketing advice, industrial armies doesn’t sound nice

    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country
                the green with the grey, cosmopolitan hue, no borders, no hoarders, no get in the queue

    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
                with child labour/girls denied education/born into sex work we mustn’t forget this is not done-and-dusted, those wheels have not come off yet, though they may be a little rusted

Marx’s Final Words

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            With links made of debt, disease, war, racism, sexism, capitalism, and more

They have a world to win
            and win it they will, for as Prometheus was Bound to say, ‘defy power which seems omnipotent’

Working Men of All Countries, Unite
            and women as well, and all those between

PR walterbenjamincopy

Portrait, by Peter Kennard

Image by Ignacia Ruiz
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

Religion and capitalism

Published in Religion

In the second essay in the series, Roland Boer discusses the relationship between religion and capitalism. The essay is also available as an ebook, and is part of the Culture Matters mission to reclaim and liberate all aspects of our human culture. Our aim with religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim in the arts and other cultural activities: to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. For details, please go here.

What does the Marxist tradition have to say about the relationship between capitalism and religion? In this booklet, I deal with four topics: the suggestion that capitalism itself is a religion; the ‘economics of religion’ approach, which seeks to apply neo-classical economic theory to religion; Marx’s observations on religion in the bourgeois state; his development of the theory of the fetish to understand the inner workings of capitalism. Since this final topic is the most important, I devote the bulk of what follows to the fetish. For Marx, capital itself becomes a fetish in which money seems to produce money without mediation.

Capitalism as Religion

A proposal doing the rounds of late suggests that capitalism has replaced traditional religion as the faith of many people around the globe. The emphases and sources vary – ranging from Walter Benjamin’s fragment from 1921 called ‘Capitalism as Religion’ to Buddhist criticisms – but the outline is largely similar. Thus, capitalism requires one to believe in an all-powerful being. Some suggest it is money, which can give one power over others, if not determining who dies and who lives. Others draw on Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to point out that the mythical ‘market’ is a wise and all-knowing entity that knows what is best, without human interference. (It is worth noting that Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ operates at the intersection between religious and secular meanings, which enables people to read it in both ways.) Some go do far as to suggest that the capitalist market economy will eventually lead human beings to a paradise of plenty for all. Milton Friedman, whose work influenced Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was one of the more well-known proponents of this image of a market-based heaven on earth. He called it the ‘fecundity of freedom’ (Friedman and Friedman 1980, 3).

The mention of Friedman brings us to another feature of the capitalism-as-religion hypothesis: the economic specialists who function in a way very similar to ‘theologians’. Not only do they debate the core doctrines of capitalism, and not only do they develop new ‘schools’ or ‘churches’, but they also advise governments in much the same way that priests, ministers and theologians used to advise European governments of the past. And where you have doctrines and theologians, you also have sacred places for worship. These places may vary – stock markets and banks come to mind – but one must show due reverence to them and engage in the appropriate acts of worship. Individual life too has its rituals of this new religion, focused on spending and saving, on buying and selling.

I have said enough to show how this proposal works, but I must admit that I see some problems. The main problem is that it uses an argument from analogy: the fact that capitalism is analogous to or like a religion in some respects leads some to suggest that it is a religion. Why is this a problem? First, the step from analogy or likeness to being the same is not obvious. Second, it assumes the priority of religion. It begins with the historical reality that religion is much older than capitalism – true in itself – to the problematic suggestion that religion causes and shapes what follows it. Third, it leaves out the possibility that capitalism and religion may appear to be like one another in some ways because they share features common to large-scale organisations, movements and systems. Let me use another example: one could argue that political movements and religion are analogous to one another, but this does not mean that a political movement is a religion in and of itself. We might be able to ‘translate’ (the basic meaning of this word is to ‘carry across’) some terms from one side into the language of the other side. But this does not mean that they speak the same language.

Economics of Religion

The overall tone of these proposals concerning capitalism-as-religion is mostly negative. Against the assumption that capitalist economics is in some sense a ‘science’, those who propose that capitalism is a type of religion want to undermine the scientific claim. You may think you are exercising a ‘science’, say the critics, but you are no better than religious believers who have a blind faith in God or the gods. However, there is another approach that is more positive. It may be called the ‘economics of religion’, with the assumption that one can apply the dominant economic theories of capitalism (neo-classical economics) in order to understand religious activity (Witham 2010).

So we find the deployment of the supposedly neutral ‘supply and demand’, in which a specific religion might offer something that people want in a way that is better than other religions. Or the presence of many gods and religions is seen as a type of capitalist market: one has many products from which to choose, but which one will you choose? A prevalent assumption is that you will choose the one that gives you the most advantage in life, in comparison with other religions. This assumption relies on the curious idea that human beings ultimately make rational choices about what is best for themselves (Stark 1996). And it also assumes a very individualist idea of how human beings function in the world. It should not surprise us that this approach has been used to argue for the economic rationality of Christian dominance.

However, this economic approach to religion relies on a whole series of assumptions concerning economic analysis. Together they may be described as ‘economics imperialism’ (Milonakis and Fine 2009, Fine and Milonakis 2009). This type of economic analysis begins with the classical economic theory of capitalism and follows it through to the development of neo-classical economics. In this situation, the moral and political frameworks of earlier classical theory (Adam Smith was, after all, a moral philosopher) were dropped in the name of ‘science’. Mathematics was applied, numbers were crunched, tables produced and seemingly scientific models were developed (Weintraub 2002).

The result was an academic discipline that migrated from humanities to the sciences, or at least wanted to claim that it had made the transition. It sought to explain the world as it is rather than suggest a world that should be. Of course, it could do so only when capitalism was well established in many parts of the globe (Adam Smith made his moral arguments for laissez faire when it was clearly not the dominant approach). As Immanuel Wallerstein puts it, this type of economics, along with other disciplines such as sociology and political science, took the form of a university discipline in which ‘the Western world studied itself, explained its own functioning, the better to control what was happening’ (Wallerstein 2011, 264). This is precisely the point: in presenting itself as a descriptive and scientific approach, this particular type of economic analysis was really another dimension of the dominance of capitalism.

Through this whole development, three crucial steps were taken. First, the economics in question was de-historicised. In other words, it systematically forgot its own origins and historical process of development. If we forget our origins, it is a small step to assuming our assumptions are universal. Second, it was de-socialised. The social realities of any economic system were denied and blocked out. Rather than a market – of whatever type – relying on inescapable interactions between social beings, the ‘market’ became an entity unto itself. Third – and obviously related – this approach to economics became thoroughly individualised. The private individual became the primary actor in the market, making choices based on an ultimate rationality that would benefit the individual in question. Stripped down in this way, with history and society banished and the individual raised to become the primary focus, economics imperialism was born.

As it did so, it took on an air of neutrality and universality. After all, without its specific historical and social circumstances and focused on the individual, it became easy to apply this approach to economics to all sorts of human activities. It was applied to human behaviour (Becker 1976) and especially religion (McCleary 2010). This could happen only in light of the developments I have already outlined. Until now, I have insisted that this is a specific approach to economics. It is actually neo-classical economics, a revision of classical economics that sought to turn it into a universal ‘science’ that could be applied to all human activity. Tellingly, its claim to universality is reflected in the claim to be simply ‘economics’. There is no describing term, no epithet – such as ‘neo-classical economics’ or ‘economics imperialism’. Just ‘economics’, with the assumption that there is no other type. By now, it should be obvious that there are profound problems with this approach. It may seem to be a more positive approach to religion within the framework of capitalism, but it has profound problems in the way it universalises a specific approach to economics.

Marx on Religion and Capitalism

In light of these developments, it is worth returning to Marx to see what he has to say about religion and capitalism. These appear in different phases of Marx’s works. The first comes from an early piece, ‘On the Jewish Question’, which is a response to a piece by Bruno Bauer. The latter had been Marx’s teacher at the University of Berlin and they had once worked closely together. But by this time they began to have serious differences. For our purposes, one feature of Marx’s argument is important, although we should remember that this early text by Marx is heavy with dialectical theory and specific historical moments. Marx is responding to Bruno Bauer’s claim that ‘political emancipation’ would be achieved when everyone gave up their particular religious claims, the ‘Christian state’ was abolished and a thoroughly secular and atheistic state established (Bauer 1843b, 1843a). Marx responds by arguing that the ‘Christian state’ – the final form of the absolutist state after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) – does not disappear with the secular bourgeois state, but that the bourgeois state is the full dialectical realisation of the ‘Christian state’.

To back up his argument, he looks not to France or elsewhere in Europe, but to the United States, which many saw as the first glimmers of the future. Here, argues Marx, religion has become a private affair, exercised by any citizen while the state itself is ostensibly secular. Now Marx becomes fully dialectical: this secular state is not a negation of the ‘Christian state’, but its full realisation. Indeed, the so-called ‘Christian state’ – proclaimed in Europe in the nineteenth century – was not Christian at all. Instead, the fully realised Christian state is ‘the atheistic state, the democratic state, the state which relegates religion to a place among other elements of civil society’ (Marx 1844, 156). Or as Marx and Engels put it in The Holy Family, ‘the politically perfected, modern state that knows no religious privileges is also the fully developed Christian state’ (Marx and Engels 1845, 111).

Marx’s argument in this case is more political than economic, so let us extract the economic point. The bourgeois state is Marx’s concern, which he already found emerging in the United States. And this form of the state appears only with the establishment of capitalism. Crucial to this state is the separation of religion and politics: one religion, or indeed one form of religion, is no longer supported by the state to the exclusion of others. Is this the death of religion? Not at all, for religion becomes the private affair of each individual in the realm of ‘civil society’. In your private life, you can practice whatever religion you like. This private practice is what characterises ‘civil society’. For Marx – and here he borrows from Hegel – this ‘civil society’ is not a neutral term, designating all that is outside the state’s control. Instead, it is bürgerliche gesellschaft, bourgeois society, a creation of capitalism and the bourgeois state. In this context, with its cult of the private individual, religion becomes a private affair.

Capitalism and Fetishism

However, the most substantial contribution by Marx to understanding capitalism appears elsewhere – with his lifelong interest in fetishism. This argument requires some careful and detailed analysis. I make no apologies for this, since it is crucial to understanding not only Marx’s arguments concerning capitalism and religion, but the very nature of capitalism itself. Many will perhaps know the section of Capital I called ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’. Fewer will know that he constantly reworked the idea of the fetish over four decades, or indeed that his completed argument in relation to capitalism appears in the third volume of Capital. Since I will focus on Marx’s arguments in the volumes of Capital, let me summarise his four decades of working with the idea.

The story of the fetish itself begins further back, in the fifteenth century (Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988). When the Portuguese began sailing tentatively down the West-African coast in their tiny caravels in search of a way to the ‘East’ that managed to get around the Muslim-dominated lands of the Middle East, they encountered local people with their own cultures and religious practices. As the Portuguese established forts, refuelling stations and slaving posts, they also attempted to understand cultures that were vastly different from their own. In particular, the amulets and objects, endowed with super-human powers and keys to social exchange, had to be understood. They found the term ‘idolatry’ inadequate, for it had become an elaborate term in the Christian tradition. Church fathers and theologians had developed a complex understanding of idolatry that went far beyond its initial biblical framework: idolatry had become a mirror of ‘true religion’, requiring a cultic practice, institutional structure, clergy, sacred objects, architecture and tradition.

This understanding of idolatry seemed not to apply to the practices of the West Africans. Instead, the Portuguese used the term fetisso, the origin of which is still disputed. But they played a double game: on the one hand, the term was used to suggest that the primitive Africans were irrational, for they attributed super-human and magical powers to simple objects of wood, stone or metal; on the other hand, the Portuguese also would swear by and even consume a fetish (where needed) to ensure a commercial exchange. In short, they looked own on the claim that the fetish had powers in social networking and yet they recognised such powers in their everyday interactions with the Africans.

The term ‘fetish’ caught on. The Dutch, French and English Protestants used it to describe Roman Catholic practices, while Enlightenment intellectuals used it in the eighteenth century as the basis for a general theory of religion. One of these intellectuals was Charles de Brosses, who published a work on fetishism and ancient Egypt (Brosses 1760). I mention this work, since Marx was deeply influenced by it when he read it as part of his early research into religion and art (Marx 1842). In fact, Marx wrote – as part of his collaboration with Bruno Bauer – a manuscript called A Treatise on Christian Art. But the manuscript is now lost!

Even without the manuscript, we can trace the development in Marx’s ideas of the fetish, whether in terms of criticising the decisions of the Rhine Province Assembly, in his early deliberations on the alienation of labour, as well as his reflections on the mediating role of money. What did Marx find so useful in the idea of the fetish? The core was that the fetish entailed a transfer of powers: human beings attributed to the fetish certain human powers, so much so that the fetish itself came to determine human lives. At the same time, human beings were diminished, giving up powers that they originally had. This core idea would run through Marx’s reflections, coming to fruition with his efforts to understand capitalism.

Capital-Fetish

This effort appears above all with the three volumes of Capital. This requires some careful analysis, since it is important understand how Marx develops his argument in his search for the secret of capitalism. We begin with the most well-known treatment, concerning commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital  (Marx 1867a, 81-94). Here Marx attempts a dialectical leap: he argues that the transferral of powers in the commodity-form – the notion that everything, no matter how different, may be exchanged in terms of its value – is both illusory and real, both mystified and concrete. The best way to see how Marx attempts his massive leap is to focus on the following passage:

There [with commodities] it is a definite social relationship between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of the relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that 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 with the product of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (Marx 1867a, 83).

At first, Marx assumes the position on fetishism with which he has worked until now: the fetish signals a transferral of attributes from human social relations to the fetish (now the commodity-form) and vice versa. In earlier texts, he used this argument in relation to labour, alienation and money. The first sentence in the quotation makes the same point: the social relation between men assumes a fantastic form in the relation between things.[1]

Now Marx faces a problem: how does the transfer of the fetish take place? Is this transference real or illusory? Three answers have been offered: a) the transfer is, like religion, illusory; b) the analogy with religion is misleading; c) Marx attempts to move dialectically beyond the opposition. The first answer argues that we suffer from a mistaken belief that the products of labour, like the fetish, gain such powers. In this case the political response is straightforward: all we need to do is indicate why those beliefs are mistaken, show what the object really is – a product made by human hands – and the task is done. At times Marx seems to assume such a position, sprinkling his text on the fetishism of commodities with phrases such as ‘grotesque ideas’, ‘mystical character’ and ‘unsubstantial ghost’.

The problem with this argument is obvious, since it would make commodities, labour, money, exploitation, and suffering a grand delusion. Is Marx then misguided in his use of the idea of fetishism, especially in light of its religious ties? Some would suggest so, arguing that the understanding of how powers are transferred to the fetish is illusory, a product of the imagination, but that those gained by the commodity are real. Marx was really showing that the perception of how those attributes are passed over to commodities is mistaken; he sets out to correct the mistake. Marx would have done better – so the argument goes – to have used an analogy other than religious fetishism.

How exactly does the transfer take place between fetish and human beings? Marx may well argue that workers, processes of material production, social relations and the product made are real; indeed, he argues that the powers transferred and thereby gained by the product are also real and materially grounded, which then means that the effects on human beings – exploitation, suffering, ruined bodies – are equally real. But are the perceptions of this process held by workers illusory? No, for the transferral of powers between commodities and human beings appear to those producers as ‘what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things’ (Marx 1867a, 84).

Their bodies know perfectly well what is going on. Yet their perception of how this process works is illusory and mystified: commodities do not have this power in themselves, for it comes from the labour power of those who produce commodities. It is both/and rather than either/or. Marx pushes at the edge of language to explain what is going on. For example, the qualities of the products of labour ‘are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’ (Marx 1867a, 83)

Once again: although one may reveal the process of transferral and thereby show how value appears in the product of labour, that value appears ‘just as real and final, as the fact that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered’ (Marx 1867a, 85). In order to express what he is trying to argue, Marx formulates a curious phrase to express this dual character of social relations and the transferred relations between commodities: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms’ (Marx 1867b, 90).[2] Not only does this apply to the theories of bourgeois economists; it also applies to the very process of fetish transfer itself.

In other words, the process of transferral is a thought form that has become objective, utterly real. The commodity-form and the value of abstracted labour it attracts are both products of thought and objective, imaginary and real, mysterious and concrete. As with the fetish, or indeed the idol of the religious believer, the gods may not be real, but the transfer of powers to the object made, along with the resultant effect on the worker, is very real indeed.

On three other occasions in Capital and its preparatory materials, Marx returns to fetishism – in the third draft of Capital and then twice in the third volume of Capital. In these texts, Marx works away at the question of fetishism, exploring the various means by which more and more elements of capitalism end up ‘confronting living labour power’ (Marx 1894, 802) as alien, abstracted, all-powerful and utterly dominating. As he does so, the idea undergoes a process of expansion and distillation, so much so that the discussion of commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital becomes an ‘introductory framework’ (Dimoulis and Milios 2004, 29). Initially, he expands the fetish to include virtually all of the dimensions of capitalism but then he distils this variety to three and then one essence.

Expansion

In the only extant section of the third draft of Capital, Marx identifies a whole series of items that are both the products of labour power and yet become powers independent of it. Apart from noting money, commodities, and even use and exchange value, he is particularly interested in abstractions from the social process of labour. Thus, the social forms of labour are inverted and now appear as the forms of the development of capital. So also, the productive powers of social labour look like the productive powers of capital – specifically as the social combination of individual labour capacities in the workshop and as the objective conditions of labour (including machinery, fixed capital and the application of forces of nature and science).

All of these seem to be contained within the capital-relation and appear to be independent of the worker. We also find the capitalist as a personification of the social character of labour, of the workshop, of capital itself, as well as items such interest, rent, wages and profit, until the development of society as such turns out to seem as though it is the development of capital itself. All of them face the labourer as pre-existing, objective, alien realities that rule his life; they ‘stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront him as “capital”’ (Marx 1861-63, 457-58).[3]

In this treatment two developments have taken place. The first is to argue that the very process of ‘capitalisation’, which involves the extraordinary shift of properties from the social conditions of productive labour to capital, is itself a form of the fetish transfer. The significance of this initial move should not be under-estimated. Let me use the example of use value, which is usually understood to be outside the zone of the fetish (at least on a reading of the first volume of Capital). However, once use value too becomes a fetish, it throws into relief the fact that use value is an abstraction as well, that it does not have a material existence in the conventional sense of the term, that the value so attained by the product is a transfer of human powers to it. All of which means that the end of capitalism does not mean the restoration of some primal use value; rather, use value too must be destroyed in the revolution.

Second, Marx is moving to the position that the whole of capital is itself fetishised. When we arrive at the third published volume of Capital, more items are added. Some are familiar, such as interest, profit, the capitalist as the personification of capital, the products of labour in all their various manifestations, or the form of the conditions of labour, which is ‘alienated from labour and confronting it independently’ (Marx 1894, 812). But others are relatively new: land as an independently producing entity, specifically in terms of ground rent; the landlord who personifies both land and this process; the abstraction of labour, which is a ‘mere ghost’ (the Holy Ghost, the third person of the trinity) that somehow produces wages; those wages themselves, as a portion of the product of labour power; surplus labour -> surplus value -> surplus product, and thereby profit; the circulation process, since it seems as though commodities emerge from within circulation; and the collection of the world market, movements of market prices, credit, industrial and commercial cycles, alternations of prosperity and crisis – all as ‘natural laws’ and as ‘blind necessity’ (Marx 1894, 801-18).

Distillation

Thus far, I have traced the way Marx expands the category of the fetish to include ever more items involved in capitalism. By now, he has moved well beyond commodities and the commodity-form to include almost every component of capitalism. He is fully aware of the shift, mentioning that his earlier treatment of the fetish transfer in commodity production and money really dealt with only ‘the simplest categories of the capitalist mode of production’ (Marx 1894, 813). At the same time, he also begins a process of distillation, focused initially on a threefold pattern: capital, land and labour (Marx 1894, 801-18).

Marx calls this the ‘Trinity formula’, which actually has three components: capital–interest, land–ground rent, and labour–wages. The key to this trinity is that relations between these terms have been concealed, specifically under the conditions of capitalism. The concealment produces the perception that capital simply produces interest in and of itself, without any need to consider labour power, surplus labour, surplus value, commodities, production, circulation and so on. Similarly, land produces ground rent in its very nature, masking the role of labour. And labour itself produces wages, for all one need do is turn up for work and wages are – naturally – forthcoming.

In each case, the fetish, or ‘capitalisation’, is in full operation. The trinity represents, from the point of view of capitalism and classical political economy, the pure and natural essence of capitalism. In the process, the specific and particular forms of these modes under capitalism become universalised: capital is thereby equated with the means of production, land with land monopolised through private ownership, labour with wage-labour. Even more, the process of personification applies not merely to the capitalist, but also to the landowner, who is now the embodiment of land, which – in a favoured metaphor – ‘likewise gets on its hind legs to demand, as an independent force, its share of the product created with its help’ (Marx 1894, 811).

Marx concludes:

In capital–profit, or still better capital–interest, land–rent, labour–wages, in this economic trinity represented as the connection between the component parts of value and wealth in general and its sources, we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the conversion of social relations into things, the direct coalescence of material production relations with their historical and social determination. It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as mere things (Marx 1894, 817).

In all this, I suggest that the primary feature is the first, concerning capital–profit (interest). The other two are subordinate to it, focused above all on the extraction of surplus value. So let us focus on this primary formula.

The Core of Capitalism

'The relations of capital assume their most external and most fetish-like form in interest-bearing capital’ (Marx 1894, 388). So begins the twenty-fourth chapter (in section five) of Capital volume three. Marx’s concern here is the externalisation of the relations of capital, especially in the most extreme form in which social relations are left far behind. And that most ‘fetish-like form’ is what is now known as the financialisation of the market, in which capital creates its own surplus value, money creates money, expanding of its own accord without the mediation of the commodity. Invoking the beautifully simple formula of M–C–M’, Marx argues that interest-bearing capital operates in terms of M–M’. The former at least gives the appearance of depending on social relations (the production of commodities), but the latter has dispensed with that: profit is now ‘the product of a mere thing’ (Marx 1894, 388-89).

Note what has happened to the fetishism of commodities, let alone all of the other instances of fetishism that I discussed above. In light of this argument, each of them has become a localised instance of fetishism, an example of a much more basic operation. In its pure essence, the fetish is nothing other than capital itself, and the fetish relation operates in terms of M – M’, which Marx describes as ‘the original starting-point of capital’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital apparently produces surplus value in and of itself, unassisted by the processes of production and circulation.

All of this is only the first step beyond the fetishism of particular elements within capitalism. The next involves expanding the very notion of fetishism, for now Marx is interested in the logical extreme of the fetish. If the fetish involves the shifting of the powers and values of human social interaction to the relations between objects, then the full realisation of that transfer will result in the complete elevation of those things and the complete abasement of human relations, so much so that those relations simply disappear from the scene. The analogy with the transfer of human powers to the gods should be obvious: ‘In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, is brought out in its pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birthmarks of its origin’. In this pure, ‘essential fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 390), capital embodies the whole process of production within itself, a ‘mysterious’, self-creating and self-generating source of its own increase (Marx 1894, 389). It may have various manifestations or even incarnations perhaps, as commodity, money, value, social forms of productive labour, capitalist, landlord, profit and so on, each of them with properties acquired but now regarded as inherent, but at its heart capital is a fetish.

Once again, Marx must deal with the tension between illusion and reality, between concealment and transparency, surface and depth, external and internal, absurdity and rationality. On the one hand, capital-as-fetish is due to a topsy-turvy world. M–M’, whether manifested in the form of money or commodities expanding their values independently of reproduction, is a ‘perversion’, a ‘meaningless form’ of capital, mystification ‘in its most flagrant form’, in short, ‘the fetish form of capital and the conception of fetish capital’ (Marx 1894, 390). Why? While interest appears to be a primary and inherent feature of capital, it is actually a portion of the surplus value, manifested as profit, extracted from the labourer. The problem is that the real source of this surplus value is now regarded as secondary, a by-product of the supposedly primary nature of capital. That is, what is unreal is the way this pure formula of capital assumes that capital produces surplus value in and of itself – money generating money, financial speculation, and volatilised markets and so on. At the same time, the process is very real, once we bring out of concealment the process of production that generates such surplus value. But Marx goes further: M–M’ may be a ‘meaningless condensation’, but it is also the ‘original starting-point’, the ‘primary and general formula’, the moment when the unity of production and circulation ‘appears directly’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital itself has become an ‘objective thought-form’ with power to oppress.

In the remaining part of this important chapter, Marx cites approvingly Luther’s critique of usury and then the amusing fancy of a Dr. Price and his Jesus Christ sinking fund,[4] but the argument concerning fetishism has expanded far beyond that initial foray in the first volume concerning commodities, let alone Marx’s earlier journalistic writings. Now all that has gone before, the full range of items from commodities through to the personification of the landlord, have become incarnations of capital’s ‘pure fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 801-2). Capital can exist only as parasitic, as transferral – for which the terms capitalisation and fetishisation equally apply – in which the means of productions are transformed into capital. Or, as he now writes towards the close of this chapter, capital and fetish elide to become one word, ‘Capital-fetish’.

This insight into the core of capitalism is crucial and to get to it Marx found that the most useful tool was the fetish. He had discovered it many years before, had experimented in using it to analyse a range of economic features, and then made it a centre-piece of his analysis of capitalism. He may have begun with the basic idea of the fetishism of commodities, but soon enough he expanded the fetish to include all of the features of capitalism. Once he had done so, Marx was then able to distil the idea to locate the central fetishistic function of capitalism: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Only a complex theory of fetishism can explain why ‘capital thus becomes a very mystic being’, especially ‘since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself’ (Marx 1894, 814).[5]

In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’ (Marx 1894, 817).

Bibliography

Bauer, Bruno. 1843a. 'Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden'. In Einundzwanzig bogen aus der Schweiz, edited by Georg Herwegh, 56-71. Zürich und Winterthur: Zürich Verlag des Literarischen Comptoirs.

Bauer, Bruno. 1843b. Die Judenfrage. Braunschweig: Otto Wigand.

Becker, Gary S. 1976. The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brosses, Charles de. 1760. Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Égypte. Paris.

Dimoulis, Dimitri, and John Milios. 2004. 'Commodity Fetishism vs. Capital Fetishism: Marxist Interpretations vis-à-vis Marx’s Analyses in Capital'. Historical Materialism 13 (2):3-42.

Fine, Ben, and Dimitris Milonakis. 2009. From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries between Economics and Other Social Sciences. London: Routledge.

Friedman, Milton, and Rose Friedman. 1980. Free to Choose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, Karl. 1842 [1976]. 'Exzerpte aus Charles de Brosses: Ueber den Dienst der Fetischengötter'. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 4:1, 320-29. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1844 [1975]. 'On the Jewish Question'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 146-74. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1861-63 [1994]. 'Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 (Conclusion): A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 34. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867a [1996]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 35. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867b [1972]. Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erster Band Buch I: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 23. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1894 [1998]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 37. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845 [1975]. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, 5-211. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

McCleary, Rachel, ed. 2010. The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milonakis, Dimitris, and Ben Fine. 2009. From Political Economy to Economics: Method, the Social and the Historical in the Evolution of Economic Theory. London: Routledge.

Pietz, William. 1985. 'The Problem of the Fetish, I'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9:5-17.

Pietz, William. 1987. 'The Problem of the Fetish, II'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 13:23-45.

Pietz, William. 1988. 'The Problem of the Fetish, III'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 16:105-23.

Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weintraub, E. Roy. 2002. How Economics Became a Mathematical Science. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Witham, Larry. 2010. Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

[1] More fully, this transferral is a ‘mysterious thing, simply because the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour’ (Marx 1867a, 82-83).

[2] My translation and emphasis, with thanks to Jan Rehmann for this point (personal communication). The English translations try various formulations that do not capture the sense of Marx’s text.

[3] Or: ‘They confront the workers as shapes of capital itself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities, belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it’ (Marx 1861-63, 458).

[4] For Price, ‘One penny, put out at our Saviour’s birth to 5 per cent compound interest, would before this time, have increased to a greater sum, than would be contained in a hundred and fifty millions of earths, all solid gold’. The upshot: a state would be able to ‘spirit away the national debt through the mystery of compound interest’, even borrowing against the future (Marx 1894, 392-93).

[5] Or as he puts it elsewhere: ‘All forms of society, in so far as they reach the stage of commodity production and money circulation, take part in this perversion. But under the capitalist mode of production and in the case of capital, which forms its dominant category, its determining production relation, this enchanted and perverted world develops still more’ (Marx 1894, 814).

200 years young
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

200 years young

Published in Films

Scott McLemee reviews The Young Karl Marx, which, on the eve of 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, contains themes of economic crises and inequalities that remain relevant today.

Released last year but receiving as yet very little English-language press coverage, Der Junge Karl Marx is a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man. That said, I cannot vouch for the chase scene. Regarding which, more anon.

First a couple of circumstances that bode well for the film's chances of reaching a wider audience once The Young Karl Marx (the title I saw it under at a film festival recently) becomes available on DVD and via streaming. Its director is Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker whose I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin, was nominated for the Oscars last year. And the timing is good: This coming May 5 will mark the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth. Add, say, the findings in World Bank report released this week, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, and the potential for interest in the film looks promising. Over the past two decades, global wealth grew "grew an estimated 66 percent," the report says, "from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices," while "per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets."

If anything, those figures understate the gap. It was defined more starkly two years ago by Oxfam: "[T]he richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together…. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years."

As the middle-aged Marx put it when writing for The New York Tribune in 1859: "There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery." His understanding of that system identified tendencies towards economic crisis and breakdown as inherent in the normal functioning of capitalism itself. The tweaks and patches improvised to keep things moving become, in due course, sources of turbulence. (How to square stagnating wages with the need for constantly renewed household purchasing power? With more and more consumer credit - plus the chance for investors to wager on securities tied to mortgage failure! That'll fix it.) These are insights it is unfortunately necessary to recover from time to time.

Peck and his screenwriters have availed themselves of very few of the imaginative liberties usually permitted in the making of a biopic. The Young Karl Marx sticks closely to the record, with some of the dialogue adapted from correspondence or memoirs and the casting director clearly working from portraits of the original figures. It can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a young man beneath the iconic Marx, with his prophetic and imposing beard. But August Diehl bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of Marx in his early twenties, and depicts him with just the confrontational edge that comes through in his letters to Friedrich Engels. The latter is played by Stefan Konarske - and again the likeness to pictures of the young Engels, especially in demeanor, shows more attention to the biographical sources than the genre necessarily requires.

KM4

The film opens in 1842 with Marx and his fellow philosopher-journalists at the Rheinische Zeitung being arrested for Marx's scathing coverage of debates in the local parliament - in particular, his articles on new laws taking away the traditional right of peasants to gather deadwood on a landowner's property. Marx himself later wrote that reporting on such grubby matters had been his first push towards studying economic issues. On screen, it appears as Marx's breaking point with the Young Hegelians (not a circle I ever expected to see on film) and the beginning of a series of clashes with government officials and hurried moves from country to country with his wife and children - living the life of an impecunious political exile that continues long after the end of the movie, which coincides with publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. For the record, the final scene contains the only significant factual mistake I noticed: Marx tells Engels he will be writing for The New York Tribune, though in fact he was only offered the job in 1851.

Now, a film that begins with its hero writing for one newspaper and ends with him taking a position at another newspaper is going to need a lot more than verisimilitude going for it. And that is also true even - or perhaps especially - when intervening developments largely concern the shaping of a political doctrine. What The Young Karl Marx has working to its advantage is that the 1840s were an exceptionally lively decade. Cold War-era accounts sometimes made it sound like Marx was a misanthropic recluse, scribbling diatribes read mostly by other fanatics. Peck stands that myth on its head in the first scene of Karl and Jenny in Paris, attending a political banquet addressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Such banquets were a big part of the oppositional political scene in France at the time. In reading about them, I've always imagined a big hall with waiters bringing food to large tables -- nothing like the event depicted in the film. What we see is more like an open-air rally during the daytime, with booths for food and books for sale. Proudhon takes the stage to speak about the need for an economy that won't grind the people into the dirt. He's surrounded by what looks like an entourage of co-thinkers who don't look especially happy about it when Marx throws "the master" a hard question, though both he and the audience seem to enjoy the exchange. And it so happens that some of that audience is black - a nice touch and Raoul Peck's reminder that his ancestors were part of French history even if historians have sometimes written them out of it.

In short, we get a glimpse at a culture of political debate - the first of several. In later events, the audience consists more and more of working men and women, some of them devoted to Proudhon, others drawn to the religiously-tinged radical vision of Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor of great eloquence. In time, Marx and Engels find themselves both working and arguing with these comrades, with Marx in particular proving constitutionally incapable of politesse. Of course, he's even less diplomatic upon meeting a British industrialist who insists that if child labor is abolished, he won't be able to turn a profit.

Textbook boilerplate has it that the Manifesto launched an international revolutionary movement. But The Young Karl Marx shows what that truism leaves out: Marx and Engels were part of, and were shaped by, a movement from below of people who fought not for ideals but for survival. The point of the manifesto was to give that movement an analysis of some breadth and depth. Whatever the failings of Marx and Engels's shorter-term projections, the lines read in voice-over concern something closer at hand than 19th-century social conditions.

I failed to note down exactly which passage was used, but in looking over the text, I am struck once again by the lucidity and precision of what the authors saw:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

This vision of hybridity applies to The Young Karl Marx itself - a film in German, French and English, directed by a Haitian in a medium well suited to communicating across wide cultural differences. Which brings me back to how in the film, shortly after Marx and Engels meet and begin exchanging ideas, they soon run into police who are hassling immigrants. They try to escape, and the chase is on! I've checked the biographies and find no indication that this actually happened. But maybe the director is tipping his hat to American cinema by imagining Marx and Engels in a buddy movie.

This review first appeared here, at the U.S. website Inside Higher Ed.

 

......and its name is Communism
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:35

......and its name is Communism

Published in Poetry

On the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Jenny Farrell introduces Brecht’s poetic re-writing of the Communist Manifesto, with its ‘spectre of communism, which continues to be a threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth.’

In February 1848, Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” (TCM). It remains to this day a remarkable piece of literature, a lucid and powerful explanation of politics, economics and culture. It outlines the central importance of class in understanding human history, and a programme to guide our struggle for a more humane, communist society with no class-based divisions.

Almost one hundred years after its first publication, on 11 February 1945, German communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht noted in his diary the plan to re-write this text in verse. He was still living in exile in Santa Monica. The end of WWII was approaching and with it the question concerning the future of Germany. Brecht recorded in his journal on 10 March1945: “terrible newspaper reports from Germany. Ruins and no sign of life from the workers”.

Brecht hoped to infuse the original text with “new, armed authority”. The past century had witnessed ever-deeper crises and two horrendous wars. It had also seen for the first time in history a successful revolution, in which the proletariat had taken power. Armed with this historical perspective, the awareness of later Marxist theory, and the need to revive the idea of communism as the only alternative to barbarism, Brecht resolved on this spectacularly ambitious challenge.

With Lucretius’s didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in mind, and the added challenge of hexameters, he began writing a didactic poem “On the Abnormality (Un-nature) of Bourgeois Relations”. At the heart of four intended cantos, two were to be a versification of the Manifesto, plus an initial one on the difficulties of understanding the nature of society, and a final one to demonstrate the monstrous increase in barbarism. Brecht wrote the second canto first, versifying the first chapter of TCM. This is the only part that Brecht worked on and fully developed. However, Brecht did not publish it during his lifetime, and the poem remained a fragment. Yet “The Manifesto” is awe-inspiring and truly memorable.

In his versification, Brecht follows the original text, often using its terms and famous formulations, but changing some of these around in the interest of dramatic effect and also modernising it. Take the opening stanza: TCM famously begins: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”. Brecht uses the phrase “A spectre is haunting” in the opening line, and marvellously personifies it as present in various places and situations around the world. He withholds the name of the personified spectre until the end of the stanza, creating an arc of tension and adding dramatic emphasis to the word “Communism”.

Here is an extract, translated by Jack Mitchell:

Wars ruin the world and a spectre is haunting the ruins.
Not born in war, seen around in peace too, for some time now.
Nightmare to rulers but friend to the children that live in the townships.
Shaking its head as it peers into half-filled plates in poor kitchens.
Standing in wait then for those that are weary at pit-head and yard-gate.
Visiting friends in the prisons, passing in without pass-card.
Seen even in offices, heard in the lecture-halls, personally
Sometimes mounting giant tanks and flying in death-dealing bombers.
Speaking in various tongues, in all tongues. Keeping silent in many.
Guest of honour in ghettos and slums, the terror of palaces
Some here to stay, and for ever: its name is Communism.

Apart from its friendly and ever-present character, Brecht stresses the fear “palaces” have of the spectre, and its willingness to defend itself. The new world situations enter into the image as the spectre mounts tanks and death-dealing bombers, referring to the Soviet army in WWII defending the Soviet Union from Nazi invasion.

JF EasternFrontWWIIcolage

The difference between the original text and its poetic ‘translation’ is evident in the gentleness with which Brecht describes the spectre’s actions: vivid actions take the place of theoretical explanation. This is not a judgement of better or worse, it is a comment on the specific nature of art and poetry. Art and poetry capture the nature of the world and of society in specific, individualised images, whereas a text like TCM aims to outline some general principles of history and society. Although it occasionally illustrates its points with references to art, it operates on a different, more abstract level.

 Another way in which Brecht departs from the original is that he addresses his readers directly. He also establishes the speaker as intermediary between the reader and the founders of scientific communism:

Much you’ve heard tell of it. This, however, is what its founders say.
If you read history you read of the deeds of immense individuals;
Their star, in its rising and falling; the march of their armies;
Or of the pomp and destruction of empires. For them, for the founders
However, history is foremost the history of conflicts of classes.
They see the peoples internally split into classes and
Warring within. Patricians and knights, plebeians and slaves
Nobles, peasants and craftsmen, proletarians and bourgeois today
Keep in their turn the whole mighty household in motion, creating
And distributing the goods that are needed for living, but also
Fighting their fight to the death, the old fight, the one for dominion.

A central theme in TCM are the modes of production, and production itself. While Marx describes the objective laws of capitalist production, Brecht invests his imagery with the sense of natural laws. While Marx presents facts and outcomes, Brecht focuses on activities:

Never before was unleashed such a wild surge of creation
As that which the bourgeoisie in its epoch of sway has unfolded
One which bowed nature to man and made steam and electrical power
Cleared rivers for shipping and continents ready for tillage.
Never before had humanity guessed that asleep in its womb
Such liberations were lurking and powers of production like these.

Overproduction in capitalism, leads to its reversal, the destruction of commodities. The following quote is from the translation by Darko Suvin (see endnote):

Immemorial hunger had plagued the world when granaries emptied:
Now, nobody knows why, we’re hungry when they’re too full.
Mothers find nothing in the bare pantry to fill the small mouths
While sky-high mountains of grain rot behind walls.
& while bales upon bales of cloth are warehoused, the ragged family,
Overnight kicked out of its rented home, wanders freezing
Through emptied city quarters.

He illustrates the commodity nature of all labour:

Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

He highlights the way capitalist production dehumanises:

Instead of feeding off
Its proletarians, now it must feed them. It needs to employ them
But has no employment for them and yet lets their numbers swell.
And dehumanization wins, marking the victims
and victimizers….

 He also draws on other, later works of Marx, including for example the theory of cyclical crises and the hidden fetishism of commodity economy, adding this to the Manifesto.

The house does not exist for dwelling, the cloth for dressing
Nor the bread for stilling hunger: they must bring Profit.
If the product however is only used, but not also bought
Since the producer’s pay is too small – were the salary raised
It wouldn’t pay to produce the commodity – why then
Hire the hands? For they must produce at the workbench more
Than a reproduction of worker & family if there’s to be
Profit! Yet what then with the commodities? In good logic therefore:
Woolens and grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork
All are consumed by fire, to warm the God of Profit!
Heaps of machines, tools for entire armies of workers,
Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill
All sacrificed, cut up to appease the God of Profit!
Yet their God of Profit is smitten with blindness. He never sees
The victims. He’s ignorant. While he counsels believers he mumbles
Formulas nobody grasps.

 Note how specifics evoke all the senses and make the images more memorable: “Woolens & grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork” appeal to our senses of touch, smell, taste and vision. “Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill” add red heat, the contrasting coolness and paler colour of the sea, the darkness and depth of the mines, the women and children of the textile mills, the sounds of industry.

JF At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub 1942 Art.IWM ART LD 2240

At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub, Henry Moore, 1942

Brecht’s “The Manifesto” is not simply a reiteration of TCM in verse form. It is more than that, it is an expansion of the original based on Marxist theory. Readers in later times will bring their experience to the poem.

Now however those weapons wielded with deadly effect
To shatter the feudal world are turned on the bourgeoisie.
Yes it too has brought forth a class that will bear those death-dealing
Weapons against it, for all through the centuries, bound in its service
Grew with the bourgeoisie also the proletariat of the modern
Workers, living by labour and finding work only so long as they
Work in the bourgeois interest, increasing his capital interests.
Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

“The Manifesto” saw a number of re-workings. Upon his return to Berlin, Brecht went back to the draft several times. Communist composer and fellow exile in the US, Hanns Eisler, later regretted the fact that he and Feuchtwanger had discouraged Brecht in this project. He said:

If we had an epic by Brecht, “The Communist Manifesto”, then this would have gone down in human history as a very rare work of art indeed. (…) we did not consider then that Marxism must be disseminated in many ways, in many areas and in manifold subtleties. (…) much becomes attractive by being poeticised, that is deemed boring in the flatness of everyday life, the difficulties of class struggle, or academic classrooms. Brecht casts a golden sheen.

The world-famous spectre that Marx described so clearly still haunts the world, wherever wars devastate innocent populations, man-made famine stalks poor countries, workers are paid poverty wages, and the powerful oppress the dispossessed. The spectre explains the reasons for such devastation and oppression. It speaks in countless languages, and is expressed in many cultural activities – sport and religion as well as all the arts. Those cultural activities are also the site of continuous struggle, throughout history, as ruling classes seek to control and manipulate them, and veil or corrupt their fundamentally social, co-operative nature in order to obtain consent and maintain social order, so that economic exploitation can proceed unchallenged.

Yet still people fight back, economically, politically and culturally. In short, the spectre of communism continues to be threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth:

Therefore the one class capable of defeating the bourgeoisie
And shattering the fetter its state has meanwhile become
Is, in our time, the working class. It is this by its size and condition.
All that once guaranteed life in the older society now is
Rubbed out, done away with, in the life of the proletariat.
Propertyless, head and provider no longer to wife and children
Hard to distinguish by nation or native place now, for the selfsame
Subjection at the selfsame machine marks him from Essen to Canton
Morals and religion confront the proletarian as fata morganas
Mirroring to him, far off unattainable, Edens in deserts.
/…/
His is the movement of the immense majority, and his dominion is
Domination no more but the subjection of all domination.
There oppression alone is oppressed for the proletariat must
As society’s undermost stratum, in rising, completely demolish
The social set-up entire with all its uppermost strata.
It can shake off its subjection only in shaking off all
Subjection from all people.

Works consulted:

Rita Schober, "Brechts Umschrift des Kommunistischen Manifests" in Vom Sinn oder Unsinn der Literaturwissenschaft, Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle Leipzig, 1988.
Hans Runge, "Das Manifest" von Bertolt Brecht, Sinn und Form, Heft 2-3, 1963.
Robert Spaethling, "Bertolt Brecht and the Communist Manifesto", The Germanic Review, Columbia University Press, vol. XXXVII, 1962.
Socialism and Democray online, On Brecht’s “The Manifesto”: Comments for Readers in English, April 11, 2011.
Most quotations used here are from a translation by Jack Mitchell, unpublished.

For the full text of Brecht’s poem in English, please see the translation by Darko R. Suvin 1999, 2001, accessible here.

JF commmanifest

Page 1 of 2