The name “Karl Marx,” especially when heard by a U.S. citizen, conjures a variety of images, or perhaps none at all. Marx as a figure was an important sign for the Soviet Union, which established a state ideology in his name. The Soviet Union was the sworn enemy of the United States for most of my parents’ lives. They have told me stories of how, when they were 7 years old, they would have “atomic bomb drills” when they would all simulate what would happen if the Soviet Union dropped atomic weapons on them by hiding under their desks. Can you imagine the psychological impact that would have on a seven year-old?
But the Marx I am reading wrote long before there was such a thing as the Soviet Union. And in reading him, there are things I want to preserve and things I want to firmly reject. Nineteenth-century German idealist philosophers were not very concerned with being legible to the uninitiated. I think, perhaps, it is the difficulty in reading Marx that produced the abomination of the Soviet ideology. But, if you are willing to struggle through this complex text with me, I think we can come out on the other end with a good framework for understanding a lot of the events we see unfolding around us today.
What can we preserve from Marx? To answer this question, I want to go back to some of the very first writings of his we have, after his encounter with British political economy. At this point, I believe Marx had already developed his fundamental view of human nature, but he had yet to refine this view into a “science.” This move allows us to walk with the thinker as he developed his theory of the relationship between ideas and politics, and their role in the coming revolution.
When the twenty-six year-old Marx set out to write the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he found himself in the paradoxical position of wanting to move past the thought of G.W.F. Hegel, the most influential philosopher in Germany at the time, while still trying to answer the same question as Hegel: Why does History unfold as it does? Hegel approaches the problem of history by separating human consciousness (or “Reason”) from the individual human subject and instead assigning fundamental importance to the agency of “Spirit” or Geist. Spirit organizes Nature, which contains the abstract form of spirit. Nature is interpreted and realized in the negative practice of human beings in contradictory ways, who thus set about destroying one another in the course of History. Spirit is gradually “sublated” (aufheben) through this process into its concrete form when it is elevated to the level of universal interpretation. Hegel calls this model of historical change the “dialectic.”
In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx preserves the mechanics of the dialectic as a structural model of historical change, but rejects Spirit as the ground of History, and thus human nature. Instead, Marx offers a two-tiered model of human nature as “species-life” and “species-being.” “Species-life” refers to the ways in which humans relate to Nature, which is the human’s “means of life in two respects: first…[it is] an object belonging to his labor—his labor’s means of life.” That is to say, Nature provides the materials that we consume in labor. Second, in the immediate sense, Nature is “the means of physical subsistence.” That is, it provides the materials we consume to subsist as humans. The other fundamental aspect of human nature, “species-being” refers to the ways in which humans relate to each other, as opposed to Nature. Nature therefore determines human practice by providing the materials for human labor and the means for human subsistence. But humans also influence Nature through transforming those materials in the process of labor. Moreover, they establish their own “inorganic” nature (“species-being”) in the form of society, which also determines human practice. This is the dialectic of History for Marx.
Capitalism introduces alienation or “estrangement” into this model through the commodification of labor. This happens through a peculiar slippage of the role of money in the process of economic exchange. Money begins as a commodity (often a precious metal) just like all other commodities. It is substituted as a universal equivalent to facilitate the process of exchange. When individuals accumulate more money than they need to reproduce their subsistence, they sever their relationship with Nature by relying less on Nature and more on money as a means of subsistence. (So, instead of farming our food, we buy it from the supermarket.) Furthermore, as technology evolves, species-life as the appropriation of Nature relies less on the forces of Nature and more on the forces of man. (So, instead of farming naturally and cultivating the best food we can, we now approach farming as a massive agri-business.) When these forces—the accumulation of surplus money and the development of the forces of production—conjoin, surplus money can invested for profit and turned into Capital.
The value of money, then, goes from being derived from the value of commodities as a universal equivalent, to becoming the universal determinant of value: “In both respects, therefore, the worker becomes a servant of his object, first, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e. in that he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. This enables him to exist, first as a worker; and second, as a physical subject.” Capitalism is therefore a determining element in the constitution of human subjectivity. Think about it. Take out a $100 bill. Now rip it up. You won’t do it, right? Why not? It’s just a piece of paper. But that paper now holds so much sway over you, that you will not destroy it, but will gladly destroy other people, Nature, and yourself (which are three ways of saying the same thing, for the young Marx), to get more of it.
Humans no longer experience their labor as “species-life,” or as a fundamental part of their identity as humans. Instead, labor becomes an “occupation” by Capital, in the sense that one “searches for” and “finds” work that has already been prescribed. Furthermore, this alienated labor becomes the “means of subsistence,” trapping the worker into a relation of subservience to Capital and further separating him from Nature. Cut off from authentic labor as a means to relate to individuals and Nature, Capitalism changes “the life of the species [the “species-life,” which is fundamentally the Capitalist “mode of production”] into a means of individual life.” For Marx, we are not individuals, we are “species-being” and “species-life.”
Marx’s model of history maps on to his model of human nature: “the entire movement of history, just as its actual act of genesis—the birth act of its empirical existence—is, therefore, for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming.” The realm of “the birth act of [history’s] empirical existence” is the realm of “species-life,” where man comes against the fundamental ground of Nature as “History” (most assuredly a proper name). The realm in which we “comprehend” that History is “species-being.” [ The following sentence is very abstract, but try to work with me here:] The young Marx embodies the concretization or “sublation” (Aufheben) of Hegel by working within his very same problematic (the problematic of history) and “universalizing” his “abstract” application of the dialectic to history by shifting its ground (Grund) from a disembodied Spirit to the material realm of History.
Marx still has a fundamental point on which he agrees with Hegel, however; that the “entire movement of history” can be “comprehended,” and furthermore that this act of comprehension is also the “known process of its becoming.” As the philosopher who comprehends and articulates the condition of species-life under Capitalism, Marx himself becomes the agent of Historical change. The dialectical synthesis of theory and practice in his philosophy of “praxis” is the way out of Capitalism: Communism.
For Marx, Communism, as “the positive transcendence of private property,” is “the perceptible appropriation for and by man of the human essence and of human life,” which “should not be conceived merely in the sense of immediate, one-sided enjoyment, merely in the sense of possessing, of having.” Instead, “man appropriates his total essence in a total manner, that is to say, as a whole man. Each of his human relations to the world—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving—in short, all the organs of his individual being, like those organs which are directly social in their form, are in their objective orientation” now pointing toward “human reality.” “It is human activity and human suffering, for suffering,” he writes “so long as it is humanly considered, is a kind of self-enjoyment of man.”
The implications of the alienation of labor in the regime of Capital are spelled out: Capital flattens the human sensorium. We are no longer able to orient our sensory organs toward “the object…of human reality”—that is we can relate neither to nature (species-life) nor to each other (species-being). Instead, we orient our senses towards ourselves, and we are only able to perceive things in terms of possession or the lack thereof. In “human reality” (that is to say, in the state of things in which the Marxist model of the human is able function without estrangement or alienation), when the senses are oriented toward Nature and other humans as the proper “objects” of human life, sensory input manifests itself in a diversity of consciousness which we cannot possibly understand, as we are trapped in the sensory regime of Capital. In this sense, we will not merely “have” Communism, but must constantly be revolutionizing ourselves by focusing our “labor” (fully-understood) on other human beings and Nature.
So how does this whole big mess relate to the “occupy” movement? To put it simply, according to Marx, Capitalism has occupied you. It has given you an “occupation” which is not the means to your own personal self-fulfillment, but the means of the fulfillment of the circulation of Capital. Rather than approaching the products of our labor as extensions of ourself (what Marx later calls “use-value”) we look at them and see how much they are worth in the Market (or “exchange-value”).
In order to break out of this system, we need to re-orient our senses towards each other (i.e. “species-being”) and towards Nature (i.e. “species-life”). Marx expresses this sensory dimension with the following paradox: “it is human activity and human suffering, for suffering, when humanly considered is a kind of -self enjoyment of man” How can suffering be self-enjoyment? I challenge you to find out the answer to this riddle yourself. Make yourself suffer by sleeping on the ground. Make yourself suffer by skipping work tomorrow and risking pissing off your boss. Make yourself suffer by going outside in the hot and the cold and being bored in those moments between meeting new people. the goal is not to harm yourself in the long run, but to re-tune your senses towards Nature and towards other human beings.