Talk by Andy Blunden at Rethinking Marxism, 11th November 1999, in Woolongong.

Postmodern capitalism

First thing: When I read the opening words of Capital — “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”, two things strike me: firstly that this is far, far more true than ever before in the sense that nowadays every single aspect of human life is now commodified, on the market and up for sale, but secondly, it seems to me that the image this phrase conjures up of a huge pile of things with Mr Moneybags sitting on top, is out of date: the wealth of today’s society manifests itself as a ceaseless flow of images and ideas, the flicker of electronic registers and a bewildering array of personal services. And when we think of the accumulated wealth of the past — the factories and machinery of industrial capitalism, we call them “rust buckets”.

Second thing: Marx identified wage-labour as the defining mode of labour of bourgeois society, the ideal mode of extraction of surplus product, its mystification and of the reduction of human beings to objects, and he resolutely rejected the economists’ conception of workers as independent proprietors selling a service: “In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find on the market a commodity whose consumption is a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a commodity in labour power."

It is a great irony that we unionists and labour leaders today find ourselves struggling to defend the right of workers to be treated as wage-labourers, against the bourgeoisie who seem determined to deny workers this right and convert us all into independent proprietors - and Moneybags clearly stands to profit from the exercise. In other words, it appears that capitalism is trying to abolish wage labour!

Now, Marx was not a political economist. His critique of political economy was aimed at revealing the forms of consciousness which dominate our lives in bourgeois society and the source of these illusions in how we live, for the purpose of figuring out how we could live differently, humanly. At the time Marx was writing Capital, the “marginal revolution” of Jevons and Walras was very new and received little attention from Marx, and Marx never had a chance to turn his critical eye on the work of today’s economic rationalists or complexity theorists. He clearly did see the beginnings of today’s global commodification and his truly fundamental conceptions stand up today better than ever. But we have to let go of certain conceptions which belong to an earlier day, and I believe that when we do that, it becomes possible to understand the peculiar forms of domination, of mystification and alienation, of crisis and human powerlessness which affect us today and I believe that such a consideration goes right to the heart of the problems we are facing in overcoming such problems as the decline in union membership, of the dilution of class consciousness, of the seeming impasse confronting the socialist project today and gives us some idea of where we have to go.

In the first place, this is not a problem of the collection of empirical data, of interviewing people and gathering up sociological data for analysis, or recalculating economic aggregates. Daily life in postmodern capitalism presents us millions of times over with simple relations of person-to-person which form the real basis of our problem. The real development of bourgeois society has developed these relations over the past 150 years, and we have the benefit of being able to see the outcome of this development. The issue is to simply and without mystification look at these relations, and try to understand the forms of consciousness which correspond to them.

Just one more point. In his 1843 Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx makes the following criticism of Hegel: “This is a kind of mutual reconciliation society. ...” he says, and accuses Hegel of deriving everything as “determinations of a single essence”. But true opposites, Marx says, cannot be reconciled, they are like “Pole and non-Pole” rather than North and South pole. Marx thus, as early as 1843, is levelling the charge of “totalisation” against Hegel, not for ignoring the multiplicity of attributes constituting social identity, but for subsuming the wage labourer under Capital, as one of its determinations!

Thus even before writing the 1844 Manuscripts, and five years before the Communist Manifesto, Marx makes it clear that the communist project at its very root and foundation rejects the totalisation of capital. This is however a completely different kind of rejection than that which rejects “totalisation” in order to restore the conception of the human being as a collection of just so many “attributes” each of which is the basis for a unique identity.

In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx goes further. Not only does he reject the subsumption of “producer” under “wage-labourer”, he definitively rejects the reification of “work” and “life”, of “earning a living” versus “having a life”, as antithetical fragments of existence. Likewise, he rejects the conception of Religion and Ethics and Political Economy as separate, antithetical domains of consciousness, and struggles for a conception and a practice which overcomes this kind of alienation.

This person who is famously accused of defining the human being by their work, of ignoring the “other” things, actually rejected from the outset that any such division of life into work and non-work as already a capitulation to bourgeois consciousness.

Capital is the practical totalisation of modern life. If you want to overcome totalisation, then you must overcome capital. That is all.

Andy Blunden