Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Real and the Symbolic: Marx, McCloskey, & the Möbius Strip

The Real and the Symbolic:
Marx, McCloskey, & the Möbius Strip

Marx’s grand narrative both begins and ends with a form of communism. If we accept that human development will follow this narrative, is there a reason to assume that the endpoint is an endpoint and not a new beginning—that this wouldn’t be cyclical? If primitive communism could, through the emergence of private property, begin the dialectical development that would lead to capitalism—and if capitalism could, through inevitable intensification and revolt, lead to socialism and the ultimate form of communism—why must the narrative end (and "real history" begin) there?

This occurred to me again when we encountered Deirdre McCloskey’s work. Like Marx, she drew from historical examples as a basis for theorizing about the future. And I think that we could agree with many of her points and arrive at a very different conclusion.

On a side-note, her writing and speaking styles were so engaging that I think that it could be possible for both supporters and opponents (except maybe those uncomfortable having their ideas questioned) to enjoy reading or listening to her. (I may be wrong, of course; my own phlegmatic sort of "high tolerance" for ideological differences could cloud my judgment here.) I especially enjoyed her ubiquitous nineteenth-century references—At one point, she even referred to the bourgeoisie with the phrase “It’s me” in a pitch-perfect call-back to Flaubert’s self-identification with his bourgeois protagonist, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” It’s actually this type of representational relationship that I want to consider….

As I thought about Marx’s inflection of dialectical development, I began to wonder whether these apparent antitheses, capitalism and communism, have something within them that causes them to lead into each other. This seemed especially possible as I reflected on the interesting interweaving of socialist and capitalist trends within McCloskey’s approach. While denying that redistribution is an effective way to aid the lower classes, she mentioned that she redistributes 15% of her own income to the poor. Moreover, the type of corporation that she described seems to be the “corporation with a heart,” although as I understand it, publicly traded corporations are obligated to prioritize the accumulation of capital in their decisions. This seems to warrant exploration.

Along these lines, she defined socialism in terms that seemed to me to characterize it as a sort of “excess” of capitalism (in an Aristotelian sense). It sounded like a form of monopolization: the state becomes the monopoly corporation (and the competitive drive to innovate diminishes). (Lenin seems to hit on this as well.) Socialism as an intensification of capitalism seems to make some Marxist sense insofar as the intensification of capitalism would lead to revolt.

Does this make sense in terms of our current financial situation? There do seem to be a lot of corporate takeovers and close-to-monopolies forming. If corporate America receives state representation through political contributions… are we, through an intensification of capitalism, approaching a dark form of communism? Could a Marxist revolt depend on hitting a tipping point at which there is a sense of having the right “coin,” but being on the wrong side of it? the frustration of being close to an answer, but not quite there?

Rhetoric & Terror
The idea that capitalism and communism could lead into each other through endless cyclical developments called to my mind Giorgio Agamben’s description of Rhetoric and Terror in The Man Without Content.

In the context of artist creation, Agamben describes a dialectic between artists/authors whom he describes as “Rhetoricians, who dissolve all meaning into form and make form into the sole law of literature” and those he describes as “Terrorists, who refuse to bend to this law and instead pursue the opposite dream of a language that would be nothing but meaning, of a thought in whose flame the signs would be fully consumed, putting the writer face to face with the Absolute” (8). The Rhetorician tries to represent reality through signifiers. The Terrorist tries to bring signifiers to life as objects within reality. These lead into each other in an un-synthesizable relationship akin to a möbius strip: “Fleeing from Rhetoric has led him to the Terror, but the Terror brings him back to its opposite, Rhetoric… in a vicious circle” (10).

At first, I thought that this Rhetoric/Terror relationship came to my mind simply because I was positing a similar relationship between capitalism and communism. But if symbolism is already grounded in value theory for Marx, then maybe there is more to this.

For Marx, the capitalist’s surplus value originates in wage-based labor power. (And interestingly, McCloskey mentioned the need for a “minimum income” rather than a “minimum wage.”) This is where the expression “time is money” came from, right? The representation of human time, human life, as money. This is, I think, what Georges Bataille pinpoints as a form of degradation, an alienation from oneself. It opposes experiencing a sense of being entirely present, being immanent in the world. (He draws a distinction between the regular “world of objects” and what he calls the “world of things,” which he associates with a sense of alienation. Bataille’s things are Marx’s commodities, I believe. Man becomes a thing and alienates himself from his true nature by equating his time, his life, with money.)

These are my questions, or hypotheses, then: 

Could we consider this desire to transform time into money as the Rhetorical desire of the capitalist? The capitalist pushes for the symbol—the money over the time it represents. 

Conversely, could we consider the communist to have a Terroristic (in Agamben's sense) desire to realize the symbol—to liberate the human from what Bataille would consider the degradation of self-alienating commodification?

And if so, do these apparent opposites naturally lead to each other, suggesting that Marx’s narrative could be cyclical?

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