Friday, 10 February 2012

120 minutes were expended upon reading Fredy Perlman’s Commodity fetishism, and 180 coffee spoons were measured out in the written response

It is some sort of pity that the critic must live off the material of another's exertions. For example, it might seem that there is some sort of hostile attempt in my engagement with Perlman here. However, that is not the case at all, by setting the limits of his discourse the writer invites others to step beyond them and even re-conceptualise the questions at hand in new terms. Equally, the critic hopes that there is further engagement with his response and that a set of relations may be undertaken via the the contents under discussion.



The short essay Commodity Fetishism is a lesser work than The reproduction of everyday life and suffers from its original function of serving as introduction to a marxist text by another writer, II Rubin. To this end, much of the text is taken up with discounting irrelevant economic theories of the academy. However, there remains within the text both a concise theoretical approach to commodity fetishism and the outline of a political project, it is this which forms the object of my critique. 

Two immediate themes emerge within Perlmans text, the first relates the political importance of preserving the theoretical coherence of Marxs analysis of capital, in particular the continuity between key concepts of alienation in his earlier writings and the account of exploitation in his later work. To this theme we are bound to ask the question why is it important to Perlman to maintain marx's coherence? 

The second theme involves Perlmans attempt to sustain this continuity between two registers, that register which is situated phenomenologically at the level of actual human productive activity and that register which is derived through the attempt to abstractly systematise that activity via the critique of political economy. Within this latter theme we are obliged to uncover the discrepancies, or different outputs, that are inevitably produced by different methodologies. 

The disjunction between the two orders of Marxist signification is located at the site of the question of species being. It is at this point, roughly sited in history at the publication of The German Ideology, that Marx begins the groundwork for a scientific register for his analysis; and it is from this point that the question of the nature of human existence is transformed into the question of the nature of social systems. Perlman writes: 
In the Preface to The German Ideology, Marx ridicules would-be revolutionaries who want to free men from stereotyped alternatives of thinking, from the illusions that enslave and paralyze men. Marx has these revolutionaries announce: "Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and existing reality will collapse." Then Marx draws the ridicule to its conclusion: "Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water." In a letter written at the end of 1846, Marx turned the same critique against P.J. Proudhon: " . . . in place of the practical and violent action of the masses ... Monsieur Proudhon supplies the whimsical motion of his own head. So it is the men of learning that make history, the men who know how to purloin God's secret thoughts. The common people have only to apply their revelations. You will now understand why M. Proudhon is the declared enemy of every political movement. The solution of present problems does not lie for him in public action but in the dialectical rotations of his own mind ."
Marx projects onto, or rather discovers in, Proudhon and others some traits of his own which he then seeks to repudiate as he reconfigures the register in which his object is to appear.  
Between 1845 and 1847, Marx also abandons his earlier conception of a human essence or a human nature to which man can return: "As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production."(3 In fact, Marx goes on to say that man's ideas of his nature or his essence are themselves conditioned by the material conditions in which men find themselves, and therefore man's "essence" is not something to which he can return, or even something which he can conceive in thought, since it is constantly in a process of historical change. "Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. - real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these ... Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual-life process." Consequently, "we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process." 
The ideal of science is unreflectively presented here against a crudely drawn caricature of idealism. In practice however, there can be no engagement with ‘acutal-life process’ without an initial hypothesis, and no hypothesis is drawn from experiment (which would result in an infinite regress). All hypotheses initially appear within a given ideological framework made up of grounded in unchallenged assumptions which are themselves already in motion serving a definite purpose... such assumptions may only be challenged later once this initial affective engagement with the world has been activated as a definite project. 

In Perlman's account of Marx, he literally can only move into his maturer phase (critique of political economy) after he has passed through the theoretical framings produced within a ‘whimsical motion of his own head' (the theory of species being and alienation).

If Marx could not acknowledge the necessity of the earlier moment as a critical and irreducible element of what comes later but saw it as an error attributable to others, then this only concretises the problems inherent to the scientific delusion when it accounts for itself as a unique and preeminent form of thought. In neglecting to include space for ‘whimsical motions’ in his later texts Marx writes a lie into the heart of communist theory, and thereby commits a crime against history. It is from this act of externalising his own traits and projecting them onto others, for the sake of political expediency, that Marx then sets in motion the rationale of Leninism. Perlman, quite helplessly, as if borne on some positivistic flow, continues in the same falsifying current:
Thus unlike the philosopher we quoted earlier, Marx no longer begins his analysis with "Marx's concept of Man"; he begins with man in a given cultural environment. Marx systematized the relationship between technology, social relations and ideas in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847: "In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, and in changing their mode of production ... they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steammill, society with the industrial capitalist. The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with their material productivity, produce also principles, ideas and categories, in conformity with their social relations." The next step is to pull man's "essence" into history, namely to say that man has no essence apart from his historical existence, and this is precisely what Marx does when he says that the "sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as 'substance' and 'essence of man' ..."
Perlman, rightly observes that Marx had to abandon his earlier account of alienation because he was now focused on historical social forces in which mutability and relativity became indicators of developmental process. However, the later analysis of exploitation produced a number of ambivalences which could not be accounted for within the frame of the analysis. Most importantly, no theory of the necessity of communism may be derived from the analysis of capitalism; communism is not a solution to the contradictions of capitalism, therefore if marxism is to hold on to communism (and in most cases it does not) it has to borrow its arguments from somewhere else than Marxs works on political economy. 

Secondly, the disappearance of the theoretical frame for registering alienation as the fundamental experience within capitalist society produces in the economic register some sense of the practical necessity of the costs of capitalist development of the forces of production and their inevitability. The ideology of development of forces of production itself reasserts a number of equivalents to human essence, namely in the constants such as labour and the material determinations of the form of human society. 

In short, the concept of constant displacement of human essence, of change, of mutability, of development, itself becomes a fixed and unchanging principle, which, when applied to political interpretations of marxism becomes a justification for the displacements and mystifications of leninist realpolitik and the self-managed counter-revolution. In short, the translation in Marx’s theory of lived human activity into the a-historical character of Labour (in particular the quantitative constant of accumulated surplus labour as a motor of social change) indicates a disjunction between the register of revolt of human beings against conditions, and the register of the revolt by conditions against the thoughts and habits of human populations which hold development back. 

On the one hand, human culture and consciousness is bound by productive forces, on the other, human beings must develop consciousness in advance of conditions so as to change them. This contradiction becomes apparent in Perlmans juxtapositions of the terms concrete labour and creative labour power:
Consequently, the reification of social relations and the fetishism of commodities are not "chains of illusion" which can be "broken" within the context of capitalist society, because they do not arise from "stereotyped alternatives of thinking" (Erich Fromm). The capitalist form of social production "necessarily leads" to the reification of social relations; reification is not only a "consequence" of capitalism; it is an inseparable aspect of capitalism. Concrete, unalienated labor which is a creative expression of an individual's personality, cannot take place within the production process of capitalist society. The labor which produces commodities, namely things for sale on the market, is not concrete but abstract labor, "abstractly-general, social labor which arises from the complete alienation of individual labor" (Rubin, p. 147). In the commodity economy labor is not creative activity; it is the expenditure of labor-time, of labor-power, of homogeneous human labor, or labor in general.
Creative power exists as a human potential, an ideology of activity, it is only set in motion once the capitalist social relation is suspended and the apparent dictatorship of things over human activity is revealed as a mystification of human relations. And yet this vantage point of communist consciousness is equally a product of commodity production and therefore, on its own terms, contraindicates the anti-idealist position of The German Ideology. Without the spread of 'whimsical' communist ideas in actualised contradiction to the neat determinism of cultural forms by productive relations, there can be no revolution. 
Qualitatively, the laborer alienates the entirety of his creative power, his power to participate consciously in shaping his material environment with the productive forces he inherits from previous technological development. This means that "it is true that men do rent out their services for a price" (Samuelson), and as a result, "The less you are, the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life, the more you have ..." 
Given the dictatorship over lived life by the spectacle of commodities, it is structurally impossible, within the discourse of political economy, for any human individual to participate consciously in society as this would suggest an escape, by means of consciousness, from the bind which commodity production places on workers. Social revolution is possible only where the marxist critique of commodity fetishism becomes inconsistent with itself and brings in other discourses. 

Usually, this inconsistency is given license in arguments such as those Harry Cleaver uses in Reading Capital Politically where the development of productive forces do not simply record capitalist dominance over society but also embody a human potential, a communist movement. But this argument then binds itself to the theory of an objective necessity in development of productive relations. If capitalism also produces a viable anti-capitalism then capitalism is historically necessary to any escape from it. Communism, on these terms, is a latent circumstance existing already which only requires realisation. So much for the great capacities of creative power. 

The development, and thus continuity, of the later scientific discourse as a more complete account of the capitalist social relation in fact only achieves this completion by means of abstraction. At best, it functions as an analysis of systems of production and reproduction but at worst it becomes merely a discourse on the discourse of such systems and within this register, actual human experience is lost.  

It is this lack of adequacy of the marxist discourse, its loss of the human scale, which requires response now and this inadequacy is best registered in recognising the failed accommodations between the narrative of alienation, and the analysis of commodity fetishism. The move to abstraction in analysis produces a more defined outcome but it cannot generate a coherant subjective critique of conditions in which the experience of, and revolt against, alienation and the sense of exploitation must form the core. And for that, philosophical ‘whimsical motions’ of our own heads concerning human nature are still the only way in to the problems of existence.  

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