Thursday, March 10, 2011

Identity politics

S.J. McGrath, Heidegger:

Insofar as we fail to stand in authentic comportment to our possibilities, choosing instead to measure up to the standards of others, we do not authentically exist.

Capital isn't strictly how Marx defined it in Volume 1, however -- that authority which confronts you at work, which alienates you from that process. Seen from the capitalist's perspective, it is also a circulatory process which transforms money into production (which means paying for you and your tools, etc.) out of which emerges the commodity, or commercial product (or service). Marx called this cycle "industrial capital": money capital is transformed into productive capital which is in turn transformed with a surplus into commodity capital; when the commodity is sold, it can once again be realized in money capital form, and begin its circuit anew. So capital can take different forms, all contributing to this process, when looked at in this way. This is the subject of Volume 2.

What the Spectacle represents is capital once it permeates society as whole: the advent of consumerism, which recruits everyone into the spirit of producing, consuming and investing. You still have the conspicuous consumption of the rich, now assisted by the conspicuous consumption of the poor. As we said yesterday, whether at work or at home, you always have an idea of what you are supposed to be doing, and if you think about it long enough it becomes clear that it usually has to do with contributing in one way or another to the production of surplus-value, or profit, for somebody.

Naturally this imposes rigid constraints at work. But as a younger colleague once confessed, he didn't like having time off from work because it made him "want to spend money." Nothing at work or in your living room or on the interstate is going to reinforce your feelings about any other value than what Marx called exchange-value, except in cases when they can be bundled together. You can pay someone to uphold your ideals, for example, as with many non-profit organizations, but at the same time find yourself consistently discouraged from living them.

All of this has particular import as it relates to our sense of time. I hope a short example will suffice. Most of us can hardly bear the thought of having to get up in the morning to go to work. It just sucks. Because we have no enthusiasm for the project, some of us will remain home until the last minute, putting us in a position where we now have to rush to work. Once we begin our commute however, we only prioritize our obligation to our employer. All other obligations -- to that homeless dude over there, or to whomever might still be in that smoking car in the center lane (true story) -- go right out the window. All of our social exchanges between home and work are heavily discounted, because we don't get anything out of them that we need in the same way that we do with our boss -- who we hate. And so it is that the same fools who show such tolerance for the boss erupt into a furor at the slightest misunderstanding in the street -- a process that repeats itself daily.

Insofar as we choose to measure up only to the standards of others, we foreclose the possibility of knowing ourselves in an authentic way. We won't know ourselves. One of the best reasons for regarding yourself and others sympathetically, and accommodating them the best you can, is that everything dominant in the society is working full-time against that, and you are all that is left.


Anonymous said...

This is a tremendously important piece. We are discouraged from participating in anything that doesn't benefit, or at least accommodate, the circulation of capital.

What's remarkable is that this class of activities includes (as you point to) everything from a simple act of charity to pulling someone from a burning car (seemingly a moral imperative).

Anonymous said...

This is why:

* people advertise their collegiate attendance with window decals and license plate frames... I went to Harvard, I have more consuming power than you!

* people anxiously "upgrade" their motor vehicle to the most expensive thing they can stretch their budget to afford... I drive a BMW, I have more consuming power than you!

* people pull out their cell phones and put them on the bar/table when meeting friends for drinks/food... I have the latest iPhone/Droid, I have more consuming power and consumer savvy than you!

* people brag about what expensive vacation they just took, or plan to take... I just got back from a week in Gstaad, I have more consuming power than you!

I could go on like that for pages.

Randal Graves said...

Jeez, Charles, now I feel bad because my vacation will be spent on the couch watching soccer, and it's a relatively comfortable couch.

All around downtown Cleveland there are parking meter-style contraptions that implore you to put your money there to help the homeless, not give it TO the homeless. Look, if the dude's going to spend it on a bottle of beer or a vending machine sandwich because that will make him feel better for five minutes in the dead of winter, so be it.