Earlier this year, or perhaps late last year, a correspondent, one of my boon companions from my undergraduate years, asked me where Marx went wrong. It wasn’t that broad a question in the asking but over time and consideration it became a question to that effect. And having turned the question into a double or nothing, use it or lose it, scenario I’ve spent a good many of my quiet moments throughout this year trying to construct something like an answer. My correspondent had his own answer, that Marx was wrong because he failed to anticipate the growth, impact and power of consumer choice and spending of the working class.
I think this understates what Marx got wrong. What he got wrong, to my mind, is that he understood people as being determined by their social and economic circumstances. The whole class based analysis enacts a deterministic structure and systematizes the possibilities of human existence by limiting the scope of that existence. Marx allows for no otherness: there is nothing outside the economy. And having made the world so neat and tidy and straight the conclusion that by arranging x and y in such and such a manner will result in the Revolution after which justice prevails, ceteris paribus, is a comforting basis on which to proceed through the uncertain ethics of being part of a vast repressive apparatus and, perchance, mitigate a little of that repression and its consequential harms.
The whole box and dice is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the working class are disempowered because they are working class, the bourgeoisie are powerful because they are the bourgeoisie, and no-one can escape the prison house of structure-superstructure. Materiality is a very small world, and by making it so orderly it is rendered but a suggestion of the complexity of being here now (or not yet, or not anymore) and the wonder that should rightly produce. The materiality Marx places at the centre of his analysis is the same terrible narrowness that capitalism similarly imposes. Marx has not misrecognised that capitalism is all about the material but in both contexts the material is nothing more than sepia-toned obfuscation, a function of reductionism. Increasingly, I am no longer willing to speak of the world in manageable bite sized chunks, nor to affect some gesture of mitigation, as these rationalisations feel more and more like doing an injustice. The impost of a discursive poverty.
As these reflections might imply my head has been in a dark place for some time now. It’s hard to say what shape this darkness takes, if shape is what it has. I’ve waited a good long time for the darkness to lift, to fade up to a dawn. But it hasn’t. It’s also hard to say why this isn’t just depression of the usual kind and with which I am familiar, however this is not like that. When I’m depressed I can’t bear to look around, I don’t want to see or be seen. I just want erasure. Presently, that is not where I’m at, rather I am frantically looking around for orientation but cannot locate an horizon, there are dark clouds and dark earth and dark light. There are only moments of distinction between from which I might half-step, half-stumble toward something. I am patient with this, I am practised at waiting. And, as I stand at this particular bus stop in the rain, I have been trying to make sense of things but for a little while now I’ve thought that this was a mistake.
I think that making sense of things is the impost of that poverty of view, it makes things smaller, makes them manageable and discreet. The rationality of the conduct of human affairs is nothing but chancellery, a veil thrown over a field of thought and action so complex that nothing, no discourse, will ever garner sufficiently robust explicatory force to deliver justice to the producers of that complexity. Charles Bowden, who died recently, remarked in podcast that to live a moral life was an irrational act, that morality isn’t rational. I didn’t get this when I first heard it but now I am beginning to see its wisdom. To believe in the order of things is to look at the world as a snow globe, and you can make that work, it’s all structure and superstructure. But maybe it would be better, maybe it’d be more caring, to not impose order and not construct models of that order. Maybe if I stop trying to follow a rational path I will see an horizon of my own making.