Marx in Bizarro World

But the world we inhabit is closer to a Bizarro World inversion of this: not only is there no direct correlation between increased productivity and increased wages, the two often diverge. In order to change the world we must also see it differently, interpret it, and this interpretation necessarily presupposes a change in our ways of seeing and thinking. The dominant image of Marx that one is confronted with today, in philosophy classrooms, discussions on Reddit forums, and countless editorials, is not simply distorted but inverted. First, this value, labor power, exists only in relation to its opposite, capital. Essentially there are three types of distortion in Marx’s thought, each building on the other to create an increasingly upside-down world. This is the fetish, whereby social relations appear as a relation between things. This is the vicious circle that we must break: finding the connection between creating different interpretations of the world and actually changing it. Stock prices go up or down, with little reference to the labor processes or conflicts that make such things possible. Marx was, after all, very interested in distortions. One thinks of Occupy Wall Street and the recasting of inequality as a divide between the 99 percent and one percent. Marx famously wrote that philosophers have only interpreted the world, when it was high time to change it. The paradox of capitalist society is that although our days are spent working (or searching for work) it is consumption that dominates our consciousness. Marx meant something simultaneously more mundane and more fundamental, shaping our very way of looking at the world; namely, that value appears as an attribute of commodities, something they possess along with their physical characteristics, rather than as a product of labor. Once value appears in the form of commodities and money appears as the source of all value, then the appearance of money begetting money, of capital generating itself, soon follows. Ordinarily, when something is sold, the seller parts with it and remains indifferent to whatever use it acquires. It is important not to confuse Marx’s point with any moralizing declaration of the value of people versus the value of things. Freud’s writings and a century of consumer capitalism have obscured the meaning of this phrase. Money is the fetish personified, in that it seems not simply to possess value, as is the case with all other commodities, but itself seems to be the very source of value. This illusion is not, as in the case of ideology, generated by some ruling class, propagating its views to the point where they become the ruling ideas. But money has value that exceeds any particular situation. The first, and trickiest, opens the first volume of Capital. This sale or exchange is fundamentally different from any other market transaction. Under capitalism one is forced to live as someone else’s commodity. We do not ask about value, where it comes from, or how it is produced, because money appears as the all-too-obvious solution to why something has value and how much value it possesses. If one turns from the first volume of Capital, which expounds the theory of commodity fetishism, to the dense and obscure third volume, one finds an odd but provocative formulation: “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.”
Capital, money, and the earth (land), here appear as the source of all wealth and value. They emerge together, as do their limitations, limitations that become the basis of new interpretations and new attempts to change the world. But this is not true of one’s labor power. The past year has been rife with an overarching sense of some inverted world, to use Hegel’s phrase, or a Bizarro World, to cite the comic book version. Even though money appears in Marx’s text as the commodity par excellence, the one that is able to express the value of any other, it is the logical culmination of fetishism. Framed in this way we can see the convergence of the concepts of ideology and fetishism, even though the former was developed in relation to the politics of class conflict and hegemony, and the latter concerns the appearance of the economy. In money the very abstract idea of value receives its supposed material basis, appearing as a physical bill or coin, and in doing so is able to more effectively obscure the actual material basis of capitalism, namely labor. The mundane sight of the stock ticker that runs, seemingly with a mind of its own, on the nightly news, presents the accumulation of capital as a magic process. It is “consumer confidence,” not workers’ satisfaction, that drives the political agenda. Common sense tells us that the harder we work the more money we earn; it’s the American way, after all. As much as labor is the opposite of the commodity, in the sense that the latter obscures the former, it is not outside of capitalism. If you were to ask anyone the question Marx poses in the opening pages of Capital — how is it that we are able to treat disparate and diverse things as being equal and interchangeable, deciding to spend 20 dollars on either a tank of gas or a new shirt? It is the famous discussion of commodity fetishism. Workers cannot consume their own labor power: it has no value outside of this relation, which means that workers must necessarily sell it, sell their capacity to work, the effort of their bodies and the faculty of their minds, in order to live. Marx did not mean, as we might think, a particular libidinal or erotic attachment to commodities, the sort of thing encouraged by the world of advertising. Very often these distortions take on the shape of inversions; the world is not only skewed but upside down; ideas rather than material forces drive history, and the market appears as the zenith of freedom rather than the nadir of alienation. The figure of the worker has shifted from the exploited, from people with nothing to lose but their chains, to those whose hard work needs protecting from the would-be Marxists and socialists in government eager to redistribute wealth. Both of these preexist capitalism by millennia. Instead, the illusion is ingrained in everyday practices and institutions. On some level we all know that money is just a convention, something that possesses value only because we treat it as general currency. It is the relation between value and money. The second inversion is perhaps even more immediate, so much so that, like the proverbial fish in water, we cannot see it. Labor, for its part, is out of the picture. Marx ends his discussion of the commodity with a cartoon-like image of commodities speaking among themselves; only the fantasies of animation can possibly capture a world where inanimate things have personalized characteristics, and workers are increasingly thing-like, inert objects to be used up. This brings us to the third inversion, the inversion that relates not just to value, but to capital itself. ¤
Jason Read is associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. His writing is riddled with such figures of illusion as the camera obscura and mystics’ table-turning. Moreover, Marx’s central concepts of ideology and fetishism are attempts to understand the distortions of the world; through ideology the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas, so that everyone, irrespective of class position, sees the world through the perspective of the wealthy; while through fetishism the world of things appears to have more value than the workers who create them. In the store money stands as the tangible embodiment of value, just as our everyday experience of capital is one in which value appears to generate value. In this example it is hard to distinguish between a new way of seeing the world and actually changing it. MARCH 16, 2018

MANY PEOPLE have heard of Nietzsche, Plato, and Hegel, but Marx is perhaps unique among philosophers in his ability to inspire fully formed opinions among people who haven’t read him. — the answer most people would give is: because they cost the same. But another way to understand this is that labor is effaced, obscured, and what we see instead is the commodity. It has its price on the labor market like all other commodities, but no sooner than it’s sold the capitalist can extract as much value as possible from it. In this respect, Marx is not the one who would end exploitation, returning the value of production to the producers, but is the specter behind every new attempt to exploit and enslave humanity. Capitalism, or the capitalist mode of production, begins when value produces value, when wealth becomes the basis for the accumulation of wealth. When we walk into a Walmart we see prices jumping out at us, forgetting that labor, and the particular social relations of labor, are their source. The first of these paradoxes explains exploitation, while the second underlies alienation. To the extent that such things happen at all, strikes and wage hikes are interpreted not from the perspective of the workers and their demands for a better life, but from their effect on the convenience and pocketbooks of consumers. From the rebranding of capitalists as “job creators” to a US president who went from playing a capitalist on television to becoming the voice of the working class, the world seems to be fundamentally upside down. In place of the exhortation for the workers of the world to rise up and discard their chains, today his opponents allege that Marx wants to wrest away the fruits of the workers’ labor, rewarding the lazy and unproductive with the workers’ hard-earned spoils. Capitalism, it must be remembered, is not just commodities, things for sale on the market, or even the accumulation of money. Labor power is a paradoxical commodity: first, in the sense that it produces more value than it costs to employ; and, second, in that it is never actually parted with once sold. Thus, it is possible to write a history of this inversion, examining the rhetorics and politics behind such figures as the “welfare queen” and “forgotten man.” What I want to argue, however, is that it is Marx’s own philosophy that makes possible an understanding of this distorted world. As much as paper currency may declare its conventional social status with a barrage of stately iconography on every bill and coin, it still appears as the physical instantiation of value. He is author of The Politics of Transindividuality. After all, the uses of particular commodities only apply to particular situations: coats are only useful when it is cold, umbrellas when it rains. The opposite side of class struggle is no less distorted: the capitalist is no longer the parasite living off of the wealth of the workers, but the “job creator”; not only the hardest worker, but the benevolent creator of work. Reading Marx is a reminder that this inversion is not new; it did not start with the internet and “fake news,” but is integral to the capitalist mode of production itself, which effaces labor and valorizes money. The centrality of consumption, of the figure of the consumer, is not just a representation of the economy that obscures the world of work, it is also one slanted in favor of the interests of those with the luxury to live as consumers. Marx refers to this as a “religion of daily life,” but we can see it as the culmination of the inversions discussed above. But this advice is much more complicated than it seems. Of course the history of this distortion is a long and complex one, passing through the formation of welfare programs and the corresponding backlash. One has to live with the labor one sells, living under someone else’s rules, time, and goals. To say that labor is the source of value is not the same as saying that workers are truly valuable and should be treated as such. It is this capacity for money to produce money that creates the grand illusion. It is possible to argue that the image has the same relationship to Marx’s thought as Bizarro does to Superman, covering the same points in an absolutely inverted way. Entertainment is not only underwritten by commercials but is itself a series of commercials. Marx argues that this happens because workers work in isolation, only seeing the relation between their different labors in the form of finished commodities. But that does not prevent it from simultaneously taking precedence over and being more valuable than all the other commodities. Labor is thoroughly shaped by its opposite: inversions transform their terms. The entire history of labor relations under capitalism, from the division of labor in Smith’s pin factory to Taylor’s scientific management, is an attempt to extract more work, more value, from workers. Marx’s phrase “the religion of daily life” is quite telling. To be the source of value in a capitalist society is more a curse than a blessing.