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The Bogeyman

by Alex Demirović

Jacques Derrida described Marx and his theory as the sceptre that ever-new holy alliances have sought to expel. Many emphasized that Marxism’s project should have resolved itself together with the end of history. And yet its sceptre returns and haunts us. Today’s challenge consists in accepting this legacy, and to use it to gain new insights into the climate crisis, the poverty that reigns across Europe, the refugee situation, the financial market’s collapse, and the corruption that determines both big business and our political landscape. Written by Alex Demirović.

Some of you may remember the moment when – shortly after your childhood ended – an exciting new thought took hold of you, a thought that thrived on a rather metaphysical suspicion: could it not be that everything that surrounds us, from our sensory impressions to the categories in which we think, is merely a deception, and therefore an illusion? We followed that we could no longer trust in the appearance of this reality, since maybe it did not in fact exist. Or maybe it was categorically different than we thought and we could not even recognize it for what it was? Why should that which we see and think necessarily be true and certain?

It was this doubt, this very uncertainty, which also marked the beginning of the modern bourgeois worldview. And it was René Descartes, who in his Meditations sceptically pondered the question whether all the knowledge that he had gathered from teachers and books and which had over time been approved by peoples and societies, was not perhaps a delusion and mere appearance. Did they not once also consider gods, sirens, and unicorns real? Could it not possibly be that we are the victims of a treacherous god who wants to make us believe that everything is exactly the way that it appears to us to be. Who can tell us for sure that our lives are anything but dreams? Unfazed by and despite all of these doubts, Descartes set out to bring certainty back modern philosophy.

He argues that even if we call everything that surrounds us into doubt, we can at the very least be certain that we are the ones who raise these doubts. A subject who is able to consciously reflect upon itself can draw this particular certainty from within itself and thus secure it. The thus defined bourgeois subject understood itself as self-constitutive, and therefore as creative. It in fact believed that it created the world through its own terminology and its own work, and was for this very reason also sure that it could truly recognize it. According to the verum factum principle, truth is verified through creation and invention. From this perspective, it seemed that modern subjects could arrange themselves in a world that was not only familiar to them, but that also provided them with the promise of both direction and orientation precisely because it was ‘their’ own, self-created world. This world would be the product of their work. It would in fact be a world that consisted solely of their own interiorities. Over time, however, this view proved to be a delusion. The bourgeois found itself surprised by the realization that while it had indeed set things in motion and explored the planet, and while these new developments promised enlightenment, progress, and prosperity, they also led to torture, war, and racism, all three of which could only poorly be justified through nature’s higher plans. The bourgeoisie was soon forced to realize that people resist and do not necessarily oblige; they fight, the flee, they cherish hopes that far exceed the status quo. As a consequence, the hope for a self-created world that resonates complete familiarity could never be fully realized. The once initiated dynamics got out of hand and became both inscrutable and uncontrollable. Harmony had to be manufactured, reality ignored, and contradictions denied: the egotistical actions of private market players did neither balance each other out nor did they lead to the common prosperity of all: the personal interests of the masses were in addition not easily reconciled with a democratically negotiated common good. Misery and hardship remain omnipresent! The spirits, once summoned, now haunt us tirelessly. The bourgeoisie, which once sought to free itself from the dream-like quality of reality, now escapes into its own ignorance. In order to be able “to deny the existence of the monsters,” as Marx put it, the bourgeoisie had to “pull the magic cap down over [its] eyes and ears.”

Marx initiated a turn in the dreamlike appearance of the capitalist world; his writings sought to stir the world’s heavy sleep. Not unlike Descartes, he also begins with a dream; yet his is a dream, which the people want to awake from. Marx argues that the answer is not to be found in our inner lives; it can no longer be drawn from our constitutive consciousness. Instead, it can only be regained once we orient ourselves toward the external, and try to understand our time through its struggles and desires. Certainty can only be reached once one steps out of the dream of reality, which hovers like a nightmare over both the present and over a free and truly alert future. The dream needs to be explained and the imaginary, which holds the people captured in their own reflections and representations so that they continue to believe in the same spectres and spirits, must be articulated.

Capitalist reality is essentially paradoxical: it exists and yet it is not really there. Everything functions according to the ‘as if’ that also dominates religion. Cathedrals are built, condoms banned, chorals sung, and people killed ‘as if’ there really was an omnipotent God. Capitalist society, it follows, is a religion, and thus also a dreamlike reality: everything appears ‘as if’ the irrational, the fantastical, the spectral, in other words ‘as if’ value, work, money, commodities, and states were in fact real. Yet money is the spectre itself. While it is the valid and general form that prosperity takes, it is not itself a material good but rather a mere imaginary figment. One must in fact give it away in order to be able to indulge in and enjoy one’s wealth. Money further loses not only its meaning as the measure of value, but also its worth, if it is not used to accumulate other riches. It is an illusion to think that money works for itself, and that its mere existence increases our wealth. Pure and productive work, rid of its particular societal form and function, does not exist at all:  it is in contrast just another spectre that haunts us. Wealth is supposed to be the product of our work and our accomplishments. With the help of its own labour capacity, the individual creates practical value for the capitalist market. It is, however, quite possible that the individual’s work or the value that it has created suddenly become worthless, or that both remain in demand but can no longer be attained because they have become unaffordable. Bourgeois society cannot grasp the circumstances that determine its working conditions. In addition, work often changes in appearance once labour capacity and the goods that it produces are transformed into commodities. These commodities assume, as Marx put it, a mystical, metaphysical, theological, even supernatural quality that forces the people, who idealize their self-created constraint by calling it the free market’s natural law, to take action. So what happens? Work is here understood as social collective labour. All of its single parts contribute to the greater whole. And yet this collective labour is not organized in a collective way. Instead, the individual owners of different capital goods are in command of it. They see to it that the ‘dead’ work that is embedded in the capital that they disburse for machines and resources is absorbed by the highest possible amount of ‘living’ labour capacity. The product that is created through these dynamics is then sold at the market. It is only here, through the process of selling and purchasing, that it is decided whether and to what extent the invested capital can be utilized. Here, where different products are compared, they begin to lose their distinct quality and are evaluated in the context of society’s labour power at large. Only their almost eerie material objectiveness is in the end reminiscent of the fact that commodities embody the indiscriminate force of human labour that produced them. It is through this force that they could gain value and generated a particular price. Societal connectedness is thus reached through a mediator, the commodity. As a consequence, the conditions under which the individual works turn against itself. The individual becomes, in other words, dependent upon the value that its produced commodities and its own labour force have gained, and which can therefore be utilized at the market. It is for this reason that the commodity comes to embody the individual and its relations. And these relations are truly spooky: although the individual’s labour capacity assumes a particular economic value, he or she can neither fully know nor exert control over its value. And yet it fully determines the individual’s fate. This shows the extent to which bourgeois society is entangled in the capitalist dream. This dream has, however, rather real and often evil consequences, since it must always appear as if it were real. It is this capital, which reins over our dead past and sucks both our labour force and our nature dry in order to be able to keep itself alive. In doing so, it creates a society of revenants, of ‘undead.’

The ones who deny reality, the vampire-like representatives of a society of revenants, will regard those who want to step out of the dream of the past and emerge into a real present and an actual common good as ghosts. Marx famously said that: “a spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” What we are dealing with is thus nothing less than a world theatre with all its tragedies and charades. Spirits of the past were summoned. From them we have borrowed names, battle slogans, and costumes: religions, spiritualisms, superstitions, sex, race, class, nation, people, capital, market, democracy, Plato, the apostle Paul, and the founding fathers. Marx wants to rid himself of these ghosts – or spectres. He wants to move beyond the historical narrative that weighs down the living. He wants to provide them with the chance to create their own conditions. Thomas Paine, participator in two revolutions, stated that there is no tyranny worse than that exerted from the grave. Marx lets ghosts be ghosts; he turns away from them. While the dead should bury their dead, the living should leave behind all hollow phrases, turn to new topics, and draw their poetry, as Marx said, not “from the past but only from the future.”

October 2015

Alex Demirović holds an extracurricular professorship at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main and is also a fellow at Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin. He is currently at work on a book about Michel Foucault, whose tentative title reads Aktive Intoleranz and which will be released in 2016.