This text is a suggestion for amending Marx’s description of power relations throughout history. It is focused on the pre-conditions of property since material property is fundamental to Marx’s analysis, which led to the global clash between capitalism and communism.
Before unravelling the consequences of this amendment let’s start with establishing the source of property and determine which attributes of property would alter the outcome of Marx’s analysis. To understand the source of property, we must first understand the self and I’ll get to the self by comparing three ideas; a dependent, an independent and an interdependent self.
A long time ago, I contend, people felt like they were in some sense an immanent part of nature. This was not the only view of their existence and perhaps not the earliest and it has also taken different shapes. Nonetheless, there was at one point a sense of connectedness with other animals, with water and blood, with all living organisms and with the Earth. The use of ochre dating to 285,000 years ago is possibly symbolic of blood in this role. Some forms of ancestor worship view each person as a continuation of the ancestors. To what extent that these views are theory-lite is irrelevant in a culture lacking an alternative theory. More recently, we also find monist philosophies that don’t make a distinction between the self and the rest, e.g. Advaita Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, pantheism and solipsism. So, that’s one alternative and, I contend, in some form and for a significant period of time it was the prevailing view among humans. Let’s look at the opposite alternative, the separation between the self and the rest.
Symbolic separation is first manifested in the distinction between a female earth figurine and a male phallus figurine some 40,000 years ago. It’s possible that this represents a matriarchal culture, possibly as a result of a matrilocal culture and a patrilocal culture clashing. Either way, it represents a formal binary between male and female. The second manifest distinction is between humans and other animals in the shape of Göbekli Tepe 12,000 years ago.
A few millenia later, possibly as a mix of human ancestor worship and the idea of a binary, the immaterial soul is invented. The immaterial soul can be detached from the material body and once detached can live on forever in an immaterial realm. I don’t think I need to list every -ism that adheres to the idea of a soul, suffice it to say that Descartes cemented the soul-body dichotomy centuries ago.
There are several other alternatives, such as the material world not existing at all which opens up for at least three possibilities; that God is simultaneously each soul, that the soul is a semi-independent piece of God or that God and souls are completely separate.
I’m leaning towards the semi-independent interpretation, with the relatively important objection that God is actually the material universe and the soul is actually the physical body. This is a form of materialism. Many materialists tend to ignore the hard problem of mind-body, i.e. the question why we are sentient if everything is material, and this question can be ignored because there is no contradiction in claiming that consciousness is just another part of the material universe, but let’s take it slow and steady.
To understand a material semi-independence, I’ll first invoke Nagarjuna (200 C.E.) who says that all things lack an independent essence. Things only gain their essence from their interaction with or relation to other things, they are dependently-arisen. If we choose to interpret this purely epistemologically it corresponds to what we know about the nervous system. The subjective, material experience creates an entangled self. The nervous system, although in part genetically programmed, is built-up from the very first nerve cell into a network from interacting with its surroundings. Every input follows a path to an output reaction, while simultaneously leaving lasting effects on the path-selection function of that path. The network of paths constitute learned relationships between concepts without any objective definitions, i.e. we only know what a dog is by contrasting it with a cat, a horse, a tree, a sense of frustration et cetera. Although Nagarjuna implies that all things are interdependent in this way, it is sufficient for this analysis that all knowledge (and/or the nervous system) is interdependent, (or dependently-arisen, or relative, or entangled).
Already Aristotle described the soul as inseparable from the physical body, but for a more modern description I turn to Maurice Merleau-Ponty who, in his 1945 book Phenomenology of Perception, furthers Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world to describe the material body as an interdependent self using the term body-subject:
“Merleau-Ponty developed the concept of the body-subject as an alternative to the Cartesian ‘cogito.’ This distinction is especially important in that Merleau-Ponty perceives the essences of the world existentially. Consciousness, the world, and the human body as a perceiving thing are intricately intertwined and mutually ‘engaged’… Things are that upon which our body has a ‘grip’ (prise), while the grip itself is a function of our connaturality with the world’s things. The world and the sense of self are emergent phenomena in an ongoing ‘becoming.'”
So, without delving too far into ontology, we can describe the self epistemologically as an interdependent phenomenon in contrast to an absolute, detachable or alienable soul. This is key to understanding how property has been defined and why it is wrong. The souls who wished to manage the Earth in such a way as would please the heavenly judge of souls collected herds of animals and claimed them as property. By managing the world, not for the sake of what’s in the world, but for an external purpose, they created an artificial separation between the self and the world. The only way to uphold this illusion was by organized force which constitutes the first proto-state and the origin of modern phenomena like private property, law, law enforcement, war, hierarchies, social stratification, capitalism and so on. I’ll soon return to how this artificial alienation amends Marx’s theories.
This formal property could only have happened once the self had been formally separated from the world. The self could now independently and absolutely own parts of nature it wasn’t even in direct contact with, like cattle running around in the fields. Hence follow capital, latin for head, originally indicating the number of animal heads in the herd. This artificial abstraction from usage-value to social status (economic value) created an illusion of power (office, law or state) that could only be upheld by real power (law enforcement or military), spawning an arms race that eventually forced the entire world to adopt this new culture. Presumably as a consequence of this focus on force, the matriarchy is replaced by a patriarchy wherein women are traded as property in marriage, which would be in line with the idea of kyriarchy. The originally centralized monopoly on force within the first hierarchy naturally dissipated as new individualists sought their own top position in the hierarchy of wealth and power and/or as a consequence of the ressentiment of Nietzschean slave morality.
Although this began so long ago that nobody can be certain what really happened, it took a long time before property was properly defined, pun intended. Property is derived from a Latin word meaning self. John Locke offers a definition of property, which subsequent economists have based their theories on, in Two Treatises of Government from 1689. He starts with the property of the person, or self, and expands it to some things which the self comes into contact with. The property of the person, or self-property, will on my tongue henceforth be called proper property. Locke writes in the chapter called Of Property:
“I shall endeavour to shew, how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners… God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. The fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life…
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others…
He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. No body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common? If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that part, does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them.”
“It will perhaps be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns, or other fruits of the earth, &c. makes a right to them, then any one may ingross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so. The same law of nature, that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. vi. 12. is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy. And thus, considering the plenty of natural provisions there was a long time in the world, and the few spenders; and to how small a part of that provision the industry of one man could extend itself, and ingross it to the prejudice of others; especially keeping within the bounds, set by reason, of what might serve for his use; there could be then little room for quarrels or contentions about property so established…
But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common. Nor will it invalidate his right, to say every body else has an equal title to it; and therefore he cannot appropriate, he cannot inclose, without the consent of all his fellow-commoners, all mankind. God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him…
Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same…
God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labour was to be his title to it;) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious. He that had as good left for his improvement, as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another’s labour: if he did, it is plain he desired the benefit of another’s pains, which he had no right to, and not the ground which God had given him in common with others to labour on, and whereof there was as good left, as that already possessed, and more than he knew what to do with, or his industry could reach to.”
Removing God from the equation changes a few things. The starting point is no longer that we own everything in common, but instead the default position is that nobody has any justified claim to a piece of the Earth. It is plain that animals, having themselves proper property in the form of a nervous system, would not fall under common ownership of humans. Locke also admits that this appropriation relies on the abundance of resources. Considering the global population today, the scarcity resulting from mismanagement of the planet and the elevation of animals to rightful competition, the abundance is no more. Clearly, Locke did not anticipate the accelerated accumulation of artificial wealth in the modern financial and capitalist market, but rather expected a more communistic result of his theory: “As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others.”
In any case, without abundant resources or miraculous divine intervention, the consent of fellow-commoners must thus be required and due to competition there is a lack of justification for the appropriation of nature beyond the self. However, the social contract, or social construction or social illusion, called property prevailed. Those who were rich of course preferred to uphold this mirage, like the emperor in H. C. Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, because that meant they stayed rich and, like the sycophants in the story, the small-folk upheld the illusion in a desire to get some of it for themselves. If anyone denied that the illusion was real, there would be less radical-minded people who, for a good share of the illusion, would convince the deniers they were wrong by causing them very real pain with very real weapons. Enforcement is the basic method of preserving the illusion, but as is evident today, the system is maintained by a range of increasingly complex methods. I’ll return to some of these, but for now I’ll just mention that much of it is out of people’s control and often not even intended by the richest, most cold-hearted capitalists.
Alienation of the worker
Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Prior he had identified the root-cause of oppression in the artificial accumulation of wealth and declared war against the capitalists on behalf of the workers. To win the war it was necessary that workers realized that they were workers and not capitalists, a separation that was labelled class (just as radical feminists use class to label the binary gender separation). The idea was that the workers would take control of the modes of production, thereby eliminating the capitalist class. Marx explains why working under capitalism required this rebellion with the concept of alienation and identifies several types of worker alienation.
The worker is made into an automaton, alienated from the entire process because he or she has no say in the design of the product, in the purchase of material, in the division of labour, when to work or who to sell to and only doing the same repetitive task every day. The only reward is an artificial wage without any of the fulfilment stemming from creativity, accomplishment, real usage-value or joy of fulfilling the needs of the next person.
Marx uses the same rhetoric as Locke in identifying an independent self and equating it with its actions and not with a material essence, although he uses different terms:
“The Gattungswesen (species-essence), the human nature of a man and of a woman is not discrete (separate and apart) from his or her activity as a worker; as such, species-essence also comprises all of his and her innate human potential as a person. Conceptually, in the term ‘species-essence’, the word ‘species’ describes the intrinsic human mental essence that is characterised by a ‘plurality of interests’ and ‘psychological dynamism’, whereby every man and woman has the desire and the tendency to engage in the many activities that promote mutual human survival and psychological well-being, by means of emotional connections with other people, with society. The psychic value of a man consists in being able to conceive (think) of the ends of his actions as purposeful ideas, which are distinct from the actions required to realise a given idea. That is, man is able to objectify his intentions, by means of an idea of himself, as ‘the subject’, and an idea of the thing that he produces, ‘the object’. “
Without control over one’s intentions, actions and their consequences, one is mentally ill. The conclusion to this is that the alienated workers must take over the modes of production to become humans again. Marx says that the fundamental alienation, the reification turning subjects (and their actions, relationships and attributes) into objects, is between the self and its labour. Therefore the solution is to regain control of labour. However, and this is the break between me and Marx, the alienation between the self and its labour is secondary. The primary alienation is between the self and the rest of the universe; in the categorical severance of psychology and biology; the violent introduction of the idea of the “independent-arisen” self. Only through this concept of an alienated self is it possible to further alienate the self from its labour and so its product and the entire society based on alienated property, a society in many ways correctly described by Marx’s dialectical materialism. Marx’s analysis does not adress this first, fundamental alienation but implicitly assumes the existence of an independent self by instead starting from the separation between self and labour.
Note that while a deterministic, materialistic definition of the self turns the subject into an object, this is a very different form of objectification. Whereas objectification and materialism are negative phenomena to an immaterial soul, they are neutral, even intrinsic aspects of a deterministic, material self. The quality of being is here not determined by a measure of free will, or the extent to which the immaterial soul has willed control over the material world, but instead by the perceived experience of the self, including events or things the subjects like experiencing or perceive as something they want or inversely what is perceived as oppression and coercion.
Marx in this way does not depart from the fundamental alienation of the independent self that is at the root of the artificial social illusion. By identifying labour as fundamental, he thinks it is enough to overturn control over labour, but if it isn’t fundamental, the effect will simply be that the new owners of the modes of production will become like the capitalists. Just to reaffirm this role of labour, I’ll mention that in the 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max “Weber wrote that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant (particularly Calvinist) ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprises and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment. In other words, the Protestant work ethic was an important force behind the unplanned and uncoordinated emergence of modern capitalism. This idea is also known as the ‘Protestant Ethic thesis.'”
Marx should have just taken one step further and identified the original alienation of the self, which, for reasons unknown to me, Althusser believes he did: “Marx’s work is built on a groundbreaking epistemology that rejects the distinction between subject and object.” I’d say Marx de-alienation is limited to the unification of the subject with its labour and does not by extension include the product of its labour or any other material object that is interconnected with an entangled self.
Firstly, as we all know, the workers who kicked out the capitalist pigs in Russia in 1917 slowly turned into pigs themselves, as per George Orwell’s Animal Farm from 1945. Secondly, state socialism, which is more or less the same as neoliberalism, corrupted the socialist narrative and removed communism from mainstream discourse. Thirdly, the independent self remained in ideological power and was perhaps even strengthened by this failed attempt at combating it. Indeed, individualism appropriated all notions of collective uprising by demarcating the limits of any one collective, most importantly nationalism and by extension racism. Whereas nationalism was at first an inclusive means for oppressed groups to unite in common action against imperialists, individualism exploited its theoretical weakness and demonized it as exclusive tribalism. It’s true, admittedly it really is tribalism, however the factuality of the matter was irrelevant, the only concern of the oppressors was to exploit any weakness for their own sake and indeed they still successfully rule by the maxim of divide and conquer. By simply dividing humans into capitalists and workers, Marx becomes a tool for the capitalists.
Any oppressed group, whether we’re discussing racism, sexism, LGBT (etc) issues, worker’s rights, animal rights, ableism, indigenous rights or whatever, is subject to the crushing rhetorical blows of the ones in control, but this oppression is also why we must stand up for these groups. Each individual is involved in multiple (and intersecting) power-relations simultaneously so while a term like cultural appropriation clearly defines oppression, in practice this is never self-evident. Currently we are divided and thus to a great extent conquered, everyone fighting a lonely fight in their corner of society or their corner of the globe. The workers in the West are becoming rich, at the expense of the rest of the world, and they are subsequently forgetting about the struggle. The Spectacle, as the Situationist International named it, of mass media, advertisement and pop culture is a capitalist diversion tactic so efficient it would have made Sun Tzu proud.
“In their expanded interpretation of Marxist theory, the situationists asserted that the misery of social alienation and commodity fetishism were no longer limited to the fundamental components of capitalist society, but had now in advanced capitalism spread themselves to every aspect of life and culture… Essential to situationist theory was the concept of the spectacle, a unified critique of advanced capitalism of which a primary concern was the progressively increasing tendency towards the expression and mediation of social relations through objects. The situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires, to individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.”
Let’s invent a new ideal, or spook as Stirner says. Let’s call it proper anarchism. Proper anarchism is a form of social anarchism, true democracy, full communism or something like that.
This anarchist property includes the property of the self as emotions or experiences and property as the material objects directly in contact with these neurological activities, like your own blood and skin, the paper you feel in your hand, the photons from the sun that touch the back of your brain. It excludes material objects wholly unconnected to the self.
Obviously it’s difficult to delineate the boundaries between these three categories in practice, but it reveals how the interaction between the mind and the world is not just productive, or labour, or planning, or energy being exerted. Experiences can be passive and are not isolated systems inside the skull. It is not only in organized force we live, and yet, to the extent that we do talk and organize, we represent force, so while we take action we can measure the results and check whether we fulfil what we represent, i.e. our roles as defined by language/bureaucracy.
There is no state, no law, no law enforcement, no artificial economy, only logistics of goods and transportation, all organizations built bottom-up.
Any top-down artifact, whether a pope, a king or a merchant, can’t uphold itself. Like trying to build a tower by laying the top brick suspended in thin air first, the illusion can only be maintained by force.
Force is necessary to uphold property laws. The reason is that property (and the laws and officials proclaiming it) is artificial. Proper property is the only intrinsically justifiable property. The quality of the emotions of every sentient being is the only thing of real value in the universe, although relative and hard to quantify.
An inclusive ideology for proper beings says that the enemy is oppression and artificial alienation, it involves every sentient being and indeed the entire universe in the sense that sentience is an emergent property of (some composites of) matter – the enemy is not any one person, class or organization.
What is the best method for achieving this? I don’t know. Supporting any struggle against oppression, despite the rhetorical struggle that inevitably follows? Hypocritically become the new rulers by taking over the system by force and then somehow self-destruct? By creating new artificial organizations that somehow manages to revert other organizations? There are many good ideas, e.g. Communalism which is being tested in Rojava as we speak, but alas, I do not know.
The concept of dependent-arising at the bottom of this work is perhaps a good indication. The revolution must be a complex of many integral processes working in unison.
Cornelius Castoriadis says both communism and capitalism rest on the same imaginary basis, namely that of continuous evolution of material production. His definition of imaginary is perfectly compatible with my description of the idea of the soul.
I thought of a new method that could complement all the other avenues of resistance, based on the Spectacle; a political party using e.g. electronic direct democracy, with party members that do not participate in the parliamentary work at all but instead only use their media exposure for political propaganda in accordance with the method of détournement. One objection is that if the party gains power, its members might decide to make use of that power in the parliamentary institutions and kill the whole project with hypocrisy.
Post Post Scriptum
I just read a text by James W. Moore (which you can read here) that is amazingly close to what I’ve written. He speaks of the devaluation of labour alienated from its use-value (just like Marx) of women’s labour, or social values, and the intrinsic value of nature by objectifying it. “Civilisations had long distinguished between humans and the rest of nature. [I set that date of separation between humans and animals at 12,000 years ago, the separation of humans and plants with the introduction of semi-sedentary agriculture at 20,000 years ago.] But during the rise of capitalism, something peculiar occurred. Humans were no longer ‘distinct’; they became, in modernity’s new cosmology, wholly separate. And so did Nature, now with a capital ‘N’. Nature became an object. The point was not only to interpret the world but to control it… The rise of early modern materialism – the ‘scientific revolution’ and all that – redefined some humans, most humans, as less-than-human. Women especially. The dualism of Humanity/Nature was the creation not of science alone, but of science, capital, and empire – entwined movements in a world-ecological system.”
He goes on to say that capitalism relies on the appropriation of unpaid work, “Cheap Nature,” (since much of nature has already been appropriated this means primarily women’s labour, or social, or life, or soft values) has to outpace the accumulation of capital to sustain itself. This goes beyond my analysis but it’s perfectly in line with it. The emphasis is the lack of regard capitalism has for real value, which is a label I would put on emotions and the resources that are necessary for their existence. Lastly I will mention that he also says: “In sum, not only does capitalism have frontiers; it is a frontier civilisation.” This is in line with my emphasis on the literally military advance of private property, which would suggest that capitalism is, either militarily or economically, imperialistic in itself.
Tags: social anarchism