The dominant image of Marx that one is confronted with today, in philosophy classrooms, discussions on Reddit forums, and countless editorials, is not simply distorted but inverted. It is possible to argue that the image has the same relationship to Marx’s thought as Bizarro does to Superman, covering the same points in an absolutely inverted way. In place of the exhortation for the workers of the world to rise up and discard their chains, today his opponents allege that Marx wants to wrest away the fruits of the workers’ labor, rewarding the lazy and unproductive with the workers’ hard-earned spoils.
The figure of the worker has shifted from the exploited, from people with nothing to lose but their chains, to those whose hard work needs protecting from the would-be Marxists and socialists in government eager to redistribute wealth. In this respect, Marx is not the one who would end exploitation, returning the value of production to the producers, but is the specter behind every new attempt to exploit and enslave humanity.
The opposite side of class struggle is no less distorted: the capitalist is no longer the parasite living off of the wealth of the workers, but the “job creator”; not only the hardest worker, but the benevolent creator of work. Of course the history of this distortion is a long and complex one, passing through the formation of welfare programs and the corresponding backlash. Thus, it is possible to write a history of this inversion, examining the rhetorics and politics behind such figures as the “welfare queen” and “forgotten man.” What I want to argue, however, is that it is Marx’s own philosophy that makes possible an understanding of this distorted world.
Marx was, after all, very interested in distortions. His writing is riddled with such figures of illusion as the camera obscura and mystics’ table-turning. Very often these distortions take on the shape of inversions; the world is not only skewed but upside down; ideas rather than material forces drive history, and the market appears as the zenith of freedom rather than the nadir of alienation. Moreover, Marx’s central concepts of ideology and fetishism are attempts to understand the distortions of the world; through ideology the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas, so that everyone, irrespective of class position, sees the world through the perspective of the wealthy; while through fetishism the world of things appears to have more value than the workers who create them.
Essentially there are three types of distortion in Marx’s thought, each building on the other to create an increasingly upside-down world.
The first, and trickiest, opens the first volume of Capital. It is the famous discussion of commodity fetishism. Freud’s writings and a century of consumer capitalism have obscured the meaning of this phrase. Marx did not mean, as we might think, a particular libidinal or erotic attachment to commodities, the sort of thing encouraged by the world of advertising. Marx meant something simultaneously more mundane and more fundamental, shaping our very way of looking at the world; namely, that value appears as an attribute of commodities, something they possess along with their physical characteristics, rather than as a product of labor. This is the fetish, whereby social relations appear as a relation between things. Marx argues that this happens because workers work in isolation, only seeing the relation between their different labors in the form of finished commodities.
But another way to understand this is that labor is effaced, obscured, and what we see instead is the commodity. The paradox of capitalist society is that although our days are spent working (or searching for work) it is consumption that dominates our consciousness. Entertainment is not only underwritten by commercials but is itself a series of commercials. It is “consumer confidence,” not workers’ satisfaction, that drives the political agenda. Framed in this way we can see the convergence of the concepts of ideology and fetishism, even though the former was developed in relation to the politics of class conflict and hegemony, and the latter concerns the appearance of the economy.
The centrality of consumption, of the figure of the consumer, is not just a representation of the economy that obscures the world of work, it is also one slanted in favor of the interests of those with the luxury to live as consumers. Marx ends his discussion of the commodity with a cartoon-like image of commodities speaking among themselves; only the fantasies of animation can possibly capture a world where inanimate things have personalized characteristics, and workers are increasingly thing-like, inert objects to be used up.
It is important not to confuse Marx’s point with any moralizing declaration of the value of people versus the value of things. To say that labor is the source of value is not the same as saying that workers are truly valuable and should be treated as such. To be the source of value in a capitalist society is more a curse than a blessing. First, this value, labor power, exists only in relation to its opposite, capital. Workers cannot consume their own labor power: it has no value outside of this relation, which means that workers must necessarily sell it, sell their capacity to work, the effort of their bodies and the faculty of their minds, in order to live. This sale or exchange is fundamentally different from any other market transaction. It has its price on the labor market like all other commodities, but no sooner than it’s sold the capitalist can extract as much value as possible from it. The entire history of labor relations under capitalism, from the division of labor in Smith’s pin factory to Taylor’s scientific management, is an attempt to extract more work, more value, from workers.
Common sense tells us that the harder we work the more money we earn; it’s the American way, after all. But the world we inhabit is closer to a Bizarro World inversion of this: not only is there no direct correlation between increased productivity and increased wages, the two often diverge.
Ordinarily, when something is sold, the seller parts with it and remains indifferent to whatever use it acquires. But this is not true of one’s labor power. Under capitalism one is forced to live as someone else’s commodity. Labor power is a paradoxical commodity: first, in the sense that it produces more value than it costs to employ; and, second, in that it is never actually parted with once sold. One has to live with the labor one sells, living under someone else’s rules, time, and goals. The first of these paradoxes explains exploitation, while the second underlies alienation. As much as labor is the opposite of the commodity, in the sense that the latter obscures the former, it is not outside of capitalism. Labor is thoroughly shaped by its opposite: inversions transform their terms.
The second inversion is perhaps even more immediate, so much so that, like the proverbial fish in water, we cannot see it. It is the relation between value and money. If you were to ask anyone the question Marx poses in the opening pages of Capital — how is it that we are able to treat disparate and diverse things as being equal and interchangeable, deciding to spend 20 dollars on either a tank of gas or a new shirt? — the answer most people would give is: because they cost the same. We do not ask about value, where it comes from, or how it is produced, because money appears as the all-too-obvious solution to why something has value and how much value it possesses. Money is the fetish personified, in that it seems not simply to possess value, as is the case with all other commodities, but itself seems to be the very source of value. As much as paper currency may declare its conventional social status with a barrage of stately iconography on every bill and coin, it still appears as the physical instantiation of value. Even though money appears in Marx’s text as the commodity par excellence, the one that is able to express the value of any other, it is the logical culmination of fetishism.
On some level we all know that money is just a convention, something that possesses value only because we treat it as general currency. But that does not prevent it from simultaneously taking precedence over and being more valuable than all the other commodities. After all, the uses of particular commodities only apply to particular situations: coats are only useful when it is cold, umbrellas when it rains. But money has value that exceeds any particular situation. In money the very abstract idea of value receives its supposed material basis, appearing as a physical bill or coin, and in doing so is able to more effectively obscure the actual material basis of capitalism, namely labor.
This brings us to the third inversion, the inversion that relates not just to value, but to capital itself. Capitalism, it must be remembered, is not just commodities, things for sale on the market, or even the accumulation of money. Both of these preexist capitalism by millennia. Capitalism, or the capitalist mode of production, begins when value produces value, when wealth becomes the basis for the accumulation of wealth. It is this capacity for money to produce money that creates the grand illusion. If one turns from the first volume of Capital, which expounds the theory of commodity fetishism, to the dense and obscure third volume, one finds an odd but provocative formulation: “It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as mere things.”
Capital, money, and the earth (land), here appear as the source of all wealth and value. Labor, for its part, is out of the picture. Marx refers to this as a “religion of daily life,” but we can see it as the culmination of the inversions discussed above. Once value appears in the form of commodities and money appears as the source of all value, then the appearance of money begetting money, of capital generating itself, soon follows.
Marx’s phrase “the religion of daily life” is quite telling. This illusion is not, as in the case of ideology, generated by some ruling class, propagating its views to the point where they become the ruling ideas. Instead, the illusion is ingrained in everyday practices and institutions.
When we walk into a Walmart we see prices jumping out at us, forgetting that labor, and the particular social relations of labor, are their source. In the store money stands as the tangible embodiment of value, just as our everyday experience of capital is one in which value appears to generate value. The mundane sight of the stock ticker that runs, seemingly with a mind of its own, on the nightly news, presents the accumulation of capital as a magic process. Stock prices go up or down, with little reference to the labor processes or conflicts that make such things possible. To the extent that such things happen at all, strikes and wage hikes are interpreted not from the perspective of the workers and their demands for a better life, but from their effect on the convenience and pocketbooks of consumers.
The past year has been rife with an overarching sense of some inverted world, to use Hegel’s phrase, or a Bizarro World, to cite the comic book version. From the rebranding of capitalists as “job creators” to a US president who went from playing a capitalist on television to becoming the voice of the working class, the world seems to be fundamentally upside down. Reading Marx is a reminder that this inversion is not new; it did not start with the internet and “fake news,” but is integral to the capitalist mode of production itself, which effaces labor and valorizes money.
Marx famously wrote that philosophers have only interpreted the world, when it was high time to change it. But this advice is much more complicated than it seems. In order to change the world we must also see it differently, interpret it, and this interpretation necessarily presupposes a change in our ways of seeing and thinking. One thinks of Occupy Wall Street and the recasting of inequality as a divide between the 99 percent and one percent. In this example it is hard to distinguish between a new way of seeing the world and actually changing it. They emerge together, as do their limitations, limitations that become the basis of new interpretations and new attempts to change the world. This is the vicious circle that we must break: finding the connection between creating different interpretations of the world and actually changing it.
Jason Read is associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is author of The Politics of Transindividuality.