David Jarman on Marx and Cultural Domination

The readings culled from Marx's early writings focus on two seemingly disparate topics: the alienation of the species-being, and the hegemony of ruling-class ideas. While these are very different concepts, in both cases we find young Marx grappling with the question of how the realm of ideas impacts upon man's material conditions.

For Marx, perhaps the gravest injustice of waged labor, on top of the more brutish elements of repression, is simply that laborers are estranged from some essential being within (i.e. the species-being). Under the conditions of waged labor, spending 10 hours a day bringing forth someone else's commodities becomes an end in itself, and other elements of human life simply becomes means of perpetuating the laborer's objectified value as labor-power. As Marx puts it (in one of his infrequent moments of clarity): "Labour is external to the worker, i.e. does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy... Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself (326)." Or, "the result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions - eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment - while in his human functions he is nothing more than an animal (327)." In fact, even simple pleasures are still a lose-lose proposition, because the sensual activities in which a worker might feel some degree of freedom are actually crucial in reproducing either his/her own labor power (eating) or future generations of labor power (procreating).

In other words, Marx claims that man is operating in a state of greater self-consciousness off the job rather than when working. Man is a conscious being, Marx claims, in that his own life is an object for him. However the animal, in Marx's eyes, is "immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity (328)." When man's labor power is objectified, the same thing occurs... his labor is estranged from himself and subsumed into the commodity (this is what gives the commodity its exchange-value... and in fact creates an interesting double-bind, in that the more efficiently one produces, the less one's labor-power is worth... machinery, sweatshop conditions, and so on, can only lessen the value of man's objectified labor). When producing someone else's stuff, man's essential being ceases to be an object; rather, his labor power is the object of his existence.

It is unclear, however, what exactly Marx would have our essential species-being doing if the brutal necessity of participating in estranged labor were removed; what activites would be valorized in his ideal world? Perhaps we can pick up a clue when Marx seems to take a cue from Kant in discussing what separates humanity from animals: "Aniamls produce only according to the standards and needs of the species to which they belong, while man is capable of producing according to the standards of every species [?!?] and of applying to each object its inherent standard; hence man also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty (329)." Perhaps we would instead be measured, not in terms of how effectively we produce commodities with our estranged labor-power, but rather through what objects of timeless beauty that our own alienated species-beings might choose to bring forth? Even if he doesn't specifically propose valorizing that activityl, Marx seems to regard a world given freely to production of beauty as lying at the end of his theoretical tunnel.

The notion of ruling class/ruling ideas is a bit simpler to explain than the concept of an essential species-being; Marx himself explains it quite effectively: "For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form, it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones (65-66)." In other words, just as a ruling class must tyry to create the inevitability and self-evidentness of its material force, so too must they strive to naturalize their intellectual force.

It's unclear (to me, at least) from the limited selection of the German Ideology whether Marx envisions a 'ruling class=ruling ideas' schema closer to Bourdieu's notion of doxa, where the realm of the undisputed expands and contracts in response to crises and contradictions, or closer to the Althusserian/Foucauldian concept of an all-encompassing ideology, where resistance is necessarily incorporated into its own existence. There is, however, one telling line here from Marx which anticipates nicely Althusser's seemingly puzzling claim that ideology is ahistorical (puzzling in that ideology certainly results from historical, material conditions and helps determine future material conditions). He states, "To remove the mystical appearance of this 'self-determining' concept it is changed into a person - 'self-consciousness' - or... into a series of persons, who represent the concept in history, into the 'thinkers,' the 'philosophers...' Thus the whole body of materialistic elements has been removed from history and now full rein can be given to the speculative steed (67)." perhaps we see Marx, like Althusser, investigating ideology as occurring at the level of the subject? Marx seems engaged in a rather non-Marxist moment of personifying, rather than institutionalizing, ideology.

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