July 26, 2006

The dance of commodities

The poet of dialectics Francis Wheen Saturday July 8, 2006 The Guardian
Why did Marx recall Balzac's tale at the very moment when he was preparing to unveil his greatest work to public scrutiny? Did he fear that he too might have laboured in vain, that his "complete representation of reality" would prove unintelligible? He certainly had some such apprehensions - Marx's character was a curious hybrid of ferocious self-confidence and anguished self-doubt - and he tried to forestall criticism by warning in the preface that "I assume, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself." But what ought to strike us most forcibly about his identification with the creator of the unknown masterpiece is that Frenhofer is an artist - not a political economist, nor yet a philosopher or historian or polemicist...
Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of dialectic. "Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it," he wrote to Engels in July 1865. "Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole." It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers or political essayists, that he looked for insights into people's material motives and interests: in a letter of December 1868 he copied out a passage from another work by Balzac, The Village Priest, and asked if Engels could confirm the picture from his own knowledge of practical economics. Had he wished to write a conventional economic treatise he would have done so, but his ambition was far more audacious. Berman describes the author of Das Kapital as "one of the great tormented giants of the 19th century - alongside Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Van Gogh - who drive us crazy, as they drove themselves, but whose agony generated so much of the spiritual capital on which we still live".
Yet how many people would think of including Marx in a list of great writers and artists? Even in our postmodern era, the fractured narrative and radical discontinuity of Das Kapital are mistaken by many readers for formlessness and incomprehensibility. Anyone willing to grapple with Beethoven, Goya or Tolstoy should be able to "learn something new" from a reading of Das Kapital - not least because its subject still governs our lives. As Berman asks: how can Das Kapital end while capital lives on? It is fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece. The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study. Marx's work is as open-ended - and thus as resilient - as the capitalist system itself.
Although Das Kapital is usually categorised as a work of economics, Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations that underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world they inhabit - a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of capital and commodities...One deterrent, perhaps, is that the multilayered structure of Das Kapital evades easy categorisation. The book can be read
  • as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created ("Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore");
  • or as a Victorian melodrama; or as a black farce (in debunking the "phantom-like objectivity" of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality, Marx is using one of the classic methods of comedy, stripping off the gallant knight's armour to reveal a tubby little man in his underpants);
  • or as a Greek tragedy ("Like Oedipus, the actors in Marx's recounting of human history are in the grip of an inexorable necessity which unfolds itself no matter what they do," C. Frankel writes in Marx and Contemporary Scientific Thought).
  • Or perhaps it is a satirical utopia like the land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile: in Marx's version of capitalist society, as in Jonathan Swift's equine pseudo-paradise, the false Eden is created by reducing ordinary humans to the status of impotent, alienated Yahoos.

To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx's text is saturated with irony - an irony which has yet escaped most scholars for the past 140 years. One exception is the American critic Edmund Wilson, who argued in To The Finland Station: a study in the writing and acting of history (1940) that the value of Marx's abstractions - the dance of commodities, the zany cross-stitch of value - is primarily an ironic one, juxtaposed as they are with grim, well-documented scenes of the misery and filth which capitalist laws create in practice.

Wilson regarded Das Kapital as a parody of classical economics. No one, he thought, had ever had so deadly a psychological insight into the infinite capacity of human nature for remaining oblivious or indifferent to the pains we inflict on others when we have a chance to get something out of them for ourselves. "In dealing with this theme, Karl Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and has a good deal in common with him." This an edited extract from Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography, part of a series, Books that Shook the World

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