Marxism and Modernity

A 19th-Century factory: the centre of modern bourgeois economic and social power

Before concluding our look at Marx, it is important to relate his work back to the larger theme of the course- the social, political, and cultural experiences of Modernity, particularly the mediated forms of these experiences. Marx’s theories of value, labour, capital, and exchange are far more in depth than our last post can approximate, but the point is not to languish in the intricacies of the writings themselves, but to situate them within the modern psyche and the discourses that accompany it.

Marshall Berman, in his extraordinary All That’s Solid Melts Into Air provides a vivid account of how we may think of Marx as a consummately Modern thinker and, in some ways, aesthetician. The title of Berman’s book is drawn from The Communist Manifesto, and is part of a larger clause that he contends embodies the rhetoric and spirit of the modern age:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.

Here, Marx is beautifully capturing the emphatic mutability of modern life- a life in which the forces that once anchored us and structured our consciousness (the church, feudal power, cooperation on collective lands, etc.) have evaporated and given way to a melted, fluid state of being. The mysticism that once saturated every day interactions has been forced out of existence, and the veil of superstition has been lifted by the relentless incisions of rationality and empiricism- anything that once seemed “holy,” or mystical, or sacred, or spiritually engaging has been profaned, intruded upon, studied, and absorbed wholesale into the sprawling taxonomies of modernity.

Berman draws our attention to the metaphor of “melting,” in particular, as one that heavily informs Marx’s literary style. He does not suggest that modernity is some unequivocal end point, and goes to pains to show that it is not static or set. Rather, drawing on the notion of fluidity, throughout the Manifesto, he is fixated upon the seemingly relentless dynamism of modern bourgeois society. The bourgeoisie of modern Europe were flexible and adaptable as no other class in history had ever been, and as such, had been able to, in Marx’s eyes, accomplish feats so grand that they surpassed the achievements of even the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Berman excerpts this section of the Manifesto to highlight Marx’s fixation upon the generative dynamism of bourgeois society:

The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive power than have all previous generations put together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground- what earlier century had even an intimation that such productive power slept in the womb of social labour?

But as Berman notes, Marx’s celebratory tone cannot be divorced from his deeply critical analysis of bourgeois society and the capitalist political economy. Berman asserts that tied to the enormous achievements of the bourgeois is a dark self-made undercurrent that threatens to unhinge their own social and economic dominance. It is not, as we might expect from reading portions of Capital such as “The Working Day,” the brutal exploitation of human and natural resources  for personal gain. To paraphrase Berman, why should the Bourgeois fear exploitation? They do it to one another all the time, and openly acknowledge that it is the very foundation of a marketized capitalist economy.

Rather, there is a particularly modern anxiety within Bourgeois society that cannot be undone. If Bourgeois culture is invariably tied to the dynamic, fluid flexibility that Marx claims it is, then all of their miraculous achievements are doomed to crumble under the weight of the pursuit for more. The Bourgeoisie achieved their dominance in the modern period through an insistence that everything that came before the modern is oppressively outmoded, and must be dramatically reworked in the age of the machine and industrial capitalism.

But if this is the case, then what is to become of their own acheivements? Berman points out that the Bourgeois are prone to monumentalism, and the construction of material testaments to their own success. This is as true today as it was in Marx’s time. Icons such as the Eiffel Tower and contemporary skyscrapers are little more than testaments the accepted power of those who build them.

The Eiffel Tower under construction. A monument to steel, industry, and the aspirations of the bourgeois.

The recently completed Burj Khalifa (United Arab Emirates) stands at 828 meters, or 2,717 feet. Just over half a mile tall.

The Eiffel Tower, pictured above during its construction, was once the ultimate testament to human ambition, ranking as the tallest man-made structure in the world. Yet today, it is dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa, also pictured above, which staggers upward out of the Saudi Arabian desert for over half a mile. While the Eiffel Tower has remained a globally-recognized architectural landmark, it hardly retains its status as a feat of engineering next to contemporary superstructures like the Burj. The Burj, however, when considered alongside the stagnant Middle Eastern economy in which it exists, and the dirty geopolitics of war, oil, and global capitalism it stands at the centre of, hides its own secret behind hundreds of meters of mirrored glass. As economic structures crumble around it, and the dogma of global capitalism begins to fray at the edges, the Burj becomes a kind of sad, teetering testament to the impossibility of solidity in a culture that demands a creativity predicated on destruction. At the same time as it acts as a shrine to the excesses and achievements of bourgeois society, it also functions as constant reminder of the dark secret of the bourgeois in modernity:

The immense amounts of money and energy put into building, and the self-consciously monumental character of much of this building-indeed, throughout Marx’s century, every table and chair in a bourgeois interior resembled a monument-testify to the sincerity and seriousness of this claim. And yet the truth of the matter, as Marx sees it, is that everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down. “All that is solid” [is] made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms.

The pathos of all bourgeois monuments is that their material strength and solidity actually count for nothing and carry no weight at all, that they are blown away like frail reeds by the very forces of capitalist development they celebrate.

Tied up in this reading of Marx as a definitively modern thinker is a suggestion of a concept that will inform the remainder of the course. The notion that under modernity, achievement and accumulation often beget their opposites- decay and emptiness- serves as a conceptual springboard for later Marxist thinkers who would mount their own critiques of the capitalist mode of production. Most notable among these thinkers are those of the Frankfurt School, who combined Marx’s critique of the capitalist political economy with a critique of emergent mass culture to suggest that, by the early-to-mid 1900s, the Enlightenment project had folded in on itself to yield ideologically repressive cultural and artistic regimes, and a pervasive social irrationality, attested to by the rise of fascist and totalitarian regimes. These two topics: the mass society thesis and the Frankfurt School critique of capitalism will round out this blog.

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One Response to Marxism and Modernity

  1. Diver Genta says:

    Very interesting indeed!

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