New Capitalism and the Rise of Socialist Ideology

Reckoning with Industrialization: In Modernity, the infrastructure of the factory system became the new urban landscape, particularly in England, where the mechanization and rationalization of industry found firm footing ahead of most continental European nations.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

-William Blake, “Jerusalem”

In our previous post, we briefly introduced a third reaction to the tensions of Modernity- Socialism, which we will now examine in more detail. Recall that Edmund Burke and the English conservatives lamented the French Revolution and its blind faith in reason, the Patricians lamented the breakdown of traditional hierarchies of social and intellectual power, and the Romantics rejected the dismissal of the sensual and the aesthetic that Enlightenment empiricism demanded. The new Socialists, for their part, drew on all three schools to articulate a critical view of the violence of Modernity.  Unique to this view, however, was a particularly virulent critique of market capitalism and industrialization as destructive, alienating systems that served only to reproduce and codify the social, cultural, and economic inequities of modern Western society

Capitalism, broadly speaking, is the mobilization of the philosophical principle of rationality in the economic realm. Recall that rational empiricism is built upon a logic of dissociation: breaking down complete systems, objects, and beings into their constituent parts whose physical interactions occur according to a particular set of laws. The internal operations of the human and natural worlds, then, can be mathematically modeled based on empirical observations of the physical manifestations of these interactions. Capitalism applies a similar logic to the process of production and distribution. From the extraction of raw materials, to the processing of those materials into completed goods, and finally to the shipping of these products to retail outlets, every phase of the capitalist process is relentlessly rationalized. The manufacturing phase, for example, within the modern factory system, is broken down into atomized parts, with each labourer in charge of a minute portion of the overall product. He exchanges this contribution for a wage- a mathematically determined monetary value assigned to his labour based upon the fluctuations of supply, demand, employment, and the abstract value of money. Under such a system, artisanal modes of production, in which a single craftworker creates a product in its entirety, often exchanging it for in-kind or equivalent services and goods, is dramatically displaced. Rather, within a capitalist mode of production, each worker is given a minute, repetitive task as part of the overall manufacturing process, and trades this labour for a wage (which is often too low to enable him to purchase back the product of his labour in the form of the completed commodity).

Any student of Cultural Studies will no doubt be familiar with the patron saint of Socialist ideology, Karl Marx, whose seminal texts Capital and The Communist Manifesto articulated a sprawling examination and critique of this dissociative logic. As a consequence of Marx’s immense influence on the trajectory of Western ideological conflict, his expansive and nuanced body of work has been whittled down to a select few aphorisms, suitable for the left to valorize, and the right to lambaste. This frequent reduction of the key socialist writings is unfortunate and misleading, as Marx’s vision of history, people’s relations to one another within a particular mode of production, the nature of work, the movement of capital, the migration of value, and the fetishization of the commodity form all emerge from particular historical conditions, and represent a calculated response to those conditions. It is necessary, then, to examine some resources that frame Marx’s work through a historical lens, acknowledge his numerous theoretical and conceptual nuances, and implicate within his writings the influence of a changing social reality.

For a light-hearted introduction to Marx as a human being and philosopher, and for a brief overview of some of the historical roots of his key theoretical tenets, take a look at this highly entertaining talk by Mark Steel, long-time columnist for the Guardian, and an extremely knowledgeable scholar of Marx’s work.

Of particular importance in this talk is Steel’s brief discussion of Hegel’s notion of dialectics. In his own words, to try and briefly summarize Hegelian philosophy is a misguided project from the outset, but nonetheless, a dialectical world view rejects the “great men and battles” theory of historical progression. With the Enlightenment came the idea than man was the master of his own fate, and so secular history, rather than being driven by divine intervention, was driven by the actions of great men- rulers, warriors, kings, philosophers. The human agent became the prime mover of history.

Hegel rejected this theory, instead asserting that change arose not from people, but from broad tensions within society more generally. He held that there were axes of difference within a given society along which prevalent cultural tensions aligned- the division between master and slave in premodern Europe being one of the most famous. The opposing sides of this axis grind against one another, potentially for centuries, until the given relationship is overturned by a galvanizing event, such as the French Revolution. The Revolution, seen in this light, was not the work of Robespierre, Locke, or other individual revolutionaries, but the rupture of a long-standing and broad-based social tension in dynamic flux over the course of centuries. Hegelian dialectics were immensely influential upon Marx, and would deeply inform his notion of class struggle, as well as his oft-misappropriated base/superstructure metaphor used to describe the more materialist dimensions of his philosophy.

David Gordon, speaking at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1988, provides a deeply detailed look at Hegel’s notion of how seemingly disparate elements of our world are intrinsically linked into often oppositional relationships. The language here is dense, but the content is worth wading through.

The Hegelian dialectic, however, is only one epistemological tradition upon which Marx draws in his body of work. Rather, as Gordon mentions in his talk at the von Mises Institute, he also refers to the works of the German metaphysical tradition, which are closely associated with the German fascination with the sensual and the Romantic (discussed in the previous post). The third main school of thought Marx drew upon to articulate his critique of Capitalism was the largely French tradition of utopian socialism, championed by thinkers such as Fourier and St. Simone. For perhaps one of the best online resources on the topic of Marxist philosophy, economics, and language, and one that sketches out these influential schools of thought, and their place within Marx’s conception of a socialist society, watch this introductory lecture to Marx’s Capital by David Harvey, who has been teaching all three volumes of this expansive work for over forty years. The true dynamism and scope of Marx’s thought is conveyed with expert precision by Harvey, who has posted all lectures in this series for free online.

In our next post, we will detail the concept of historical materialism, which serves as one of the cornerstones of Marx’s theories, and provides an ideal opportunity to discuss some of the critiques that have been been leveled against them, including claims of technological and economic determinism, rigid causality, and blind materialism.

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