Is authenticity possible under capitalism?

By Daniel Margrain

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The anti-capitalist slogans ‘The World Is Not A Commodity’ and ‘Our World Is Not For Sale’ which emerged out of the great anti-capitalist demonstrations from Seattle and which many of us take for granted, are tremendously powerful statements about the world. One of Karl Marx’s most profound insights was his understanding of how the workings of the capitalist system is bound up with the process of turning ‘things’ from the ‘productive sphere’ to a ‘consumptive sphere’ realized as commodity value.

For Marx, the notion of turning ‘use values’ into ‘exchange values’ is an inherent feature of capitalism’s drive for the accumulation of capital. Capitalism does not create commodities or markets and, similarly, it does not create money. The problems, as Marx sees them, is not that capitalism brings these things into being, but brings them into being in a particular way that expands and extends the process of capital accumulation through the extraction of surplus value realized as profit.

Over a century and a half ago, Marx grasped the existence of an inherently competitive struggle between rival units of capital to turn increasing spheres of life over to private production and therefore to extend the sphere of commodities which have come to dominate the people that produce them. Formally, capitalists and workers are independent of each other, but in reality inextricably connected.

From the 19th century, production no longer took place in the home but in factories where new systems of discipline operated. For the first time in history, humans came to be defined by how and what they consumed. By turning society and production over to the production of ‘things’ that the direct producers have little or no control over, means that capitalism is an alienating system.

The devaluation of public life increases in direct relation to the increase in the value of the world of things. Real social relationships are governed by an external power which attains control over the individual. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx asserts:

“The alienation of the worker means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as hostile and alien.”

Although we make and buy ‘things’, the antagonistic nature of the capitalist market means we are detached and alienated from them and each other. The system produces a world of isolated and egoistic individuals, bound together by calculation and crude monetary terms rather than the establishment of community life. The capitalist system of generalized commodity production is so pervasive that it seems an inevitable and natural condition of humanity.

Commodities acquire social characteristics because individuals enter the productive process only as the owners of commodities. As Marx succinctly put it“the impact of society on the individual is carried out through the social form of things.” This adds another dimension to alienated relationships because “the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations. It is as the bearers of these economic relations that they come into contact with each other.”

The notion that human will is separated from the social organization that overrides it and where powers are conferred to inanimate objects, is what Marx meant by ‘commodity fetishism’. It is a process in which “the capitalist mode of production takes over the totality of the individual, family, social needs and, in subordinating them to the market, also reshapes them to serve the needs of capital.” In this way culture is packaged within what appears to be an era of all-pervasive globalization where:

“The local and exotic are torn out of place to be repackaged for the world bazaar. So-called world culture may reflect a new valuation of difference and particularity, but is also very much about making a profit from it.”

Commodities also take on a mystical character. As writer, Kitty S Jones has shown, under capitalism the world has become devalued and society debased. Under these conditions, rather than the state providing services directly, it’s role is to act as a purchaser of public services which are then farmed out to the private sector. Working conditions are unilaterally altered as a result, and the path of individual redress begins and often ends with automated answering services of the great bureaucracies.

The frustration has reached such epic proportions that in those services where staff have to confront the public, they either have to be physically protected by screens or notices have to be posted warning the public of the dire consequences of assaulting staff, as now happens on London buses and tubes. All this is compounded by market-inspired jargon that seems to promise the opposite of this frustration.

The dominance of the cash nexus and privatization within public life is such that trains now carry customers not passengers and nurses tend clients not patients. Bewildering consumer choice is offered by the same few large corporations. The near universal mechanisms supposedly designed to provide accountability and increase public trust through regulation, inspection, target-setting and audit are, in reality, making things worse.

Ira Katznelson outlines the all-pervasive and distorting power of capitalism in relation to cities:

“Capitalism creates the city; the city creates a consciousness that reflects its varied reality; yet that unconsciousness deflects attention away from the primal forces of the capitalist mode of production that underlie the production and functioning of cities. This is the great secret of the capitalist order. Not only does the city give the accumulation process the capacity to secure a spatial fix, it also misshapes class struggle by deflecting it into fetishistic dimensions.”

The result of the direct subordination of cultural production to the priorities of profitable accumulation can be witnessed daily on television. In Britain today – the European vanguard of neoliberalism – government ministers refer to the ‘cultural industries’ without any sense of paradox or discomfort, and the Financial Times has a regular supplement called ‘Creative Business’.

This understanding of culture as part of the profitable accumulation process, is very different from the understanding of cultural theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. When, for example, they coined the expression ‘the culture industry’, they intended it as an ironical and critical concept. Nothing seemed to them to be more absurd or contradictory than to reduce the creative process to an industry governed by the same logic of rationalization as any other.

Throughout the public realm, what appears to be the hegemonic subjugation to the market of communities and societies, means that many people are oblivious to alternative narratives which challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of neoliberalism. Postmodernism helps reinforce this consensus view because it seeks to prohibit a discourse of social criticism to the experience of neoliberalism. The high priest of the deconstruction of authenticity, Jean Baudrillard, for example, writes:

“All our problems today as civilized beings originate not in an excess of alienation, but a disappearance of alienation in favour of a maximum transparency between subjects.”

For Baudrillard, critical thought and political struggle have been rendered obsolete in society, not of the spectacle but of simulation where images no longer represent but now constitute reality. Marx’s concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism, however, infer a contrast between an authentic subject and existing social relations that deny it self-realization.

This contrast is implicit in the critique developed during the 1960s by the Situationists of ‘the society of the spectacle’. Situationist Guy Debord writes of “the global social praxis that is split into reality and image” and says that “within a world really on its head, the true is a movement of the false.” The tradition in which the Situationists built on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is one, therefore, that’s committed to the idea of pursuing the critique of existing reality as part of the struggle of what Marx called ‘human emancipation’.

The re-emergence of Marx’s concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism in recent years marks the breakdown of the hegemony that postmodernism has exerted over much academic thinking during the last few decades. For Alex Callinicos, postmodernism is predicated on a neoliberal ideological discourse that dovetails in with urban corporate spatial strategies designed to extract value by dissolving the aspiration to authenticity and community through identity politics.

According to Rosalyn Deutsche, corporate planning strategies frequently cast homogeneity and unanimity in the shape of ‘community’ with the goals of consolidating communities and soothing conflicts. The aim is to dissociate democracy from conflict. Conflict is “simultaneously acknowledged and disavowed, a ‘fetishistic’ process whose repercussions generate certitudes about the meaning of public space.” Thus the struggle for authenticity through recognition of identity and differentiation, and the effort to disembody ownership from representation in urban spaces, is the struggle for community and democracy itself.

The community in this sense appear as negative images embroiled within a discursive economy that both masks and legitimizes socioeconomic domination by obliterating difference, inequality and oppression. The merging of ownership and representation as a tool of statement production only serves to extend these operations of power and to further undermine the possibility of resistance.

In this way, corporate structures are able to appropriate representative claims for authenticity and embody them within a framework of ownership that privilege an integrated concept of space distanced from a discourse of threat and conflict. Thus urban spaces can appear to be abstract and neutral allowing urban planners to divorce the urban fabric from class content. So, for instance, the dominant response to the English inner city riots of the 1980s was for better ‘design solutions’ to control social problems rather than on focusing attempts to challenge entrenched socioeconomic relations that gave rise to them.

An inclusive Marxist vision of democracy is one in which, the ‘subject’ as opposed to the ‘commodity’ becomes the universal category. Marx, therefore, is able to transcend the capitalist totality by providing a theoretical basis by which authenticity can be realized without the need to turn to market-based objectified concepts.

In my next article I will examine how misplaced notions of authenticity have influenced the way many of us perceive the Cuban experience

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