This is the first part of a series on the end of the left & right. Feel free to submit your own by emailing me.
Unlike many of my political colleagues, I can’t read the writings of Marx without quivering with irritable disagreement. Not always specifically because Marx is necessarily wrong about the narrative of capital and its direct relationship with the political elite, but because his arguments live in a world that is somewhat utterly disconnected to our own. Why this makes me fume, however, is more that people still seem to think that times have not changed. And many of my fellow political colleagues will spout rhetoric without realising how outdated its content is.
Let me explain. Marx’s world was much more restricted to rudimentary capitalism. For him, the concept of statehood lacked the multinational corporations that co-mingle with our “elected” leaders. His world lacked financial adjustments that were necessary for the West to retain its economic superiority over the rest of the world. And most importantly, his world lacked the very concept of globalisation – economic and social.
Thus, many of his ideas on how Capital and Power were interrelated, and specifically material dialectics did not engage communities which had hugely different social structures to those in which he resided. For him, the world was black and white – the Western form of organisation (Capitalism and Industrialisation) was easily superior and more advanced to the primitive Other.
Communism was the ideal – the perfect end of social reformation – because capitalism had to be an integral step. Furthermore, any other society which could be perceived as more just was not, simply because it had not achieved industrialisation. If equality was achieved through materiality, then our relationship with the material would have to become rational, and not based on superstition, faith or myth. And in order to do that, we would need to commodify the material – make the material the nature of our valuation system rather than the sacred.
And this is where Marxist dialetics really begin to fall apart. Valuation theory, even when seemingly entirely monetary, shows that our relationship with material culture is distinctly much more complex. What we value is embedded with meaning – meaning which we impose upon the object, and one in which value is constantly changing. Within this complex relationship, we begin to see the problems with perceiving technological advancements as the agent of change.
Technology plays a close role in the cultural imagination. For many African traditions, the production of iron was very much a process of reproduction. The furnace in which the iron was smelted was often shaped in the form of a female, while the bellows would often be worked by fertile men ‘blowing’ into the female furnace. The iron would be the transformed product of that relationship. Its value was not defined by only its exchange value, but its spiritual value at the time of production. The mode of production, therefore, was a religious ceremony in itself. Value was literally blown into the object.
Marx’s flaw, therefore, was he was unable to see the social and cultural patterns of meaning that were embedded in his view of materiality – that innovation and change in technology could occur without a link back to metaphoric link to natural human processes. His belief in rationalism, for example, was dependent on a worldview that had some concept of an objective reality, and even if so, it was an objective reality that humans could actually reach out and access.
Of course, neomarxists have covered this ground well, but it still shocks me that political activists have not. To accept Marx at face value is very much accepting racism at face value, because it accepts a model of Western superiority (or indeed white supremacy). We have passed a point when being a Marxist is relevant. Society has faced huge changes, and models of power are not universal or even similar anymore. Marx, I believe, would have a hard time trying to explain the same discourse in our world, which is far more digitalised and individualised than even he could have imagined.
Our changes have made the utopian Communist ideal weak. Collectivism cannot be accomplished without accepting liberation movements, many of whom identity politics play an essential role. Even if we take in Frantz Fanon‘s views on how black culture could only win through adopting Marxist ideals, we need to remember that Fanon was guilty of disregarding gender and disability into his discourse.
The fact is that our world is more than just a battle between the Haves and the Have-nots, everything lies on multiple spectrums of power relationships. If we want to truly build a more stable world, we do not want equality as that would create uniformity. Instead, we want equity, justice and liberty – all of which will always be reliant on a world that excepts that difference isn’t the bad thing, control is.
On a deconstructive note: of course this criticism of Marx’s use of rationalism is flavoured with its own structured use of rationality in itself. But it would be somewhat amusing to have watched Marx be challenged by a Buddhist; I doubt he could have dealt with Maya that well.