A judgment on art that is not itself a work of art…has no civil rights in the kingdom of art.

                                        Walter Benjamin, quoted by Rainer Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art


I’ve always considered literary criticism and political economy as two separate and distinct disciplines.  Generally when I finish reading a book of literary criticism or one of economics, I can easily slot the book onto one shelf of my library or another, with little confusion as to where it belongs.  Combining the two realms seemed no more natural to me than mingling pickles and peanut butter.

Marxist literary criticism, and in particular, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, challenges this notion, bringing, as it does, the entire panoply of Marxist dogma to bear on major works of literature. In doing so, Fredric Jameson, “the leading Marxist literary critic in America,” (says Vincent B. Leitch) asserts the primacy of Marxist literary criticism over “…approaches current in American literary and cultural study today.” Further:

Their juxtaposition with a dialectical or totalizing, properly Marxist ideal of understanding will be used to demonstrate the structural limitations of the other interpretive codes, and in particular to show that “local” ways in which they construct their objects of study and the “strategies of containment” whereby they are able to project the illusion that their readings are somehow complete and self-sufficient.
    The retrospective illusion of the metacommentary thus has the advantage of allowing us to measure the yield and density of a properly Marxist interpretive act against those of other interpretive methods—the ethical, the psychoanalytic, the myth-critical, the semiotic, the structural, and the theological—against which it must compete in the “pluralism” of the intellectual marketplace today.  I will here argue the priority of a Marxian interpretive framework in terms of semantic richness.  Marxism cannot today be defended as a mere substitute for such other methods, which would then triumphalistically be consigned to the ashcan of history; the authority of such methods springs from their faithful consonance with this or that local law of a fragmented social life, this or that subsystem of a complex and mushrooming cultural superstructure.  In the spirit of a more authentic dialectical tradition, Marxism is here conceived as that “untranscendable horizon” that subsumes such apparently antagonistic or incommensurable critical operations, assigning them an undoubted sectoral validity within itself, and thus at once canceling and preserving them.

            Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Not only would I challenge the primacy of Marxist literary criticism, I would also question its fundamental validity: how can a Marxist framework applied to a work of literature harvest anything useful, meaningful, artistic, or of intellectual value?  What is the purpose of such analysis?  How does it compare to traditional forms of literary criticism?  Does Marxism and literature actually relate?  And if so, to what degree?

Marxist literary and cultural critics have thrived for many decades, and would scoff at my intellectual naiveté, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in doing so.  My grasp of complex Marxist criticism is necessarily limited to the few writers I have studied, and cannot be considered complete.  Even so, I will embark on a discussion and review of various sources, perhaps even reach a conclusion or two, and hopefully learn something in the effort.

Fellow Marxist Critics

As a first step, I want to consider comparing several Marxist/Socialist critics I am familiar with to Jameson.  For instance, in the four volumes of Walter Benjamin’s collected work translated into English, despite the amazing array of topics, genres, academic spheres, historical analysis, literary commentary and cultural criticism contained in his work, he never crosses into political economy.  The closest he comes to the topic is when he writes in a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem:

Of course, I lack the particulars to form my own opinion (which is not at all my strong point in concrete politics).

       Walter Benjamin, correspondence with Gershom Scholem

Benjamin was associated with the Frankfort School, a group of neo-Marxists and cultural critics that did much of their work under the aegis of the Institute of Social Research. The institute was led by Max Horkheimer, and included Theodore Adorno, who worked closely with Benjamin.  While much of Benjamin’s work was cast loosely in the mold of these cultural critics, the two elements of literary/cultural criticism and political economy never cross paths.  This in contrast to Adorno, who wrote in a letter to Benjamin:

…in a communist society, work would be organized in such a way that human beings would no longer be so exhausted or so stupefied as to require such distraction. 

     Theodor Adorno, letter to Walter Benjamin

Such statements simply do not appear in Benjamin’s work.  Rochlitz tracks major influences on Benjamin, and the challenge to integrate them:

For a dozen years, the interlacing objections of Brecht, Adorno, and Scholem would be a determining factor in the development of [Benjamin’s] thought, though he did not manage to make a real theoretical synthesis of these heterogeneous imperatives.  “My writings have certainly always conformed to my convictions,” he wrote to Scholem in 1934, “but…I have only seldom made the attempt—and then only in conversation—to express the whole contradictory grounds from which those convictions arise in the individual manifestations they have taken.”  The indisputable richness resulting from that unstable situation, which has delighted the literary interpreters of his work, goes hand in hand with a certain philosophical incoherence.

     Rainer Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art

The appeal that Benjamin has for me (along with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) is the centrality of art within their philosophical universe:

From a systematic point of view, the center of all [Benjamin’s] work of reflection is the question of the work of art.  The work of art constitutes the strategic place where the theological situation of the contemporary age, the source of tradition and of memory, manifests itself; but the modern work of art is also the stakes in multiple subversions that target the deceptiveness of art’s appearance, its illusory beauty, myth, and ideology.  The fundamental aporia of Benjaminian thought forms around a philosophical need for art, formulated in the name of truth, and a need to reduce the ambiguity and illusions that disenchantment combined with the recurrent image of a rescue operation. But this process is also close to that of modern art itself and its self-destructive adventure, of which Benjamin has become, for that very reason, one of the exemplary theorists.

     Rainer Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art

Perhaps this evidence simply indicates Benjamin’s lack of genuine Marxist intellectual credentials, making him a poor example within this context.  Smith provides a summary consistent with my reading of Benjamin, reflecting Benjamin’s weak ideological connection with Marxism:

The emancipatory turn to a critique of society, the choice in values favoring communal culture, the turning away from the purely theoretical sphere, and the insight into the necessity of social activism led Benjamin to Marx;…In Benjamin’s view, the bourgeois world is not a society without communities, but a world of the open, plural communities embedded in many different traditions; a world which is not transcended but depraved by the tendency of commodity production to universalize the market, to atomize the individual and to destroy tradition….Furthermore, since he does not trace every repression back to economic exploitation, the concept of emancipation receives new dimensions and cannot be reduced to economics and politics.

     Gary Smith, Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History

Benjamin traces social and cultural conditions beyond economics and politics, in direct contrast with orthodox Marxist thought.  All to the good, as we get such literary gems as the following:

What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism?  Not what the moving red neon sign says—but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.

     Walter Benjamin, Collected Works, Vol 1

Another intellectual who didn’t mix literary criticism and Marx is Terry Eagleton, a Professor of English Literature.  While his main focus is literary criticism and commentary, his work is strewn with explicit Marxist and socialist rhetoric.  Even so, his work rarely, if ever, mixes the two.  Paragraph to paragraph, book to book, his topic is one or the other – literary comment or socialist rant.  As an example of Eagleton’s profound non-Marxist thought, consider the following:

We are the precious custodians of meaning, since we are all that stands between reality and utter chaos.  It is we who give tongue to the dumb things around us.  

     Terry Eagleton, After Theory

In contrast with his explicit political content:

A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.  Arrest history at any point whatsoever, and this is what we find.  

     Terry Eagleton, Ideology

So while Eagleton is a Marxist and a literary critic, he never functions as a Marxist literary critic.

Given that I am overly familiar with Benjamin and Eagleton’s work, they naturally represent for me an appropriate distancing of literary criticism from Marxist thought.  Perhaps a review of basic Marxism would be apposite, along with a discussion of the purpose of literary criticism, and what literary criticism claims to achieve.  

Literary Criticism

For the moment we will confine the discussion here to literary criticism, and put off cultural/social criticism for later in the piece, although Jameson will routinely conflate the two.  

The following will be hopelessly simplistic, failing as it will to adumbrate such major philosophical movements as structuralism, deconstruction, phenomenology, and the major schools of literary criticism that have reigned in the past hundred years. The intent is to aim for a fundamental center of literary criticism, what it means or attempts, and any value we derive from it, ultimately to set it besides orthodox Marxism and see where they might overlap.

Matthew Arnold provides a basic definition when he writes that literary criticism is a “A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”  Gore Vidal keeps it simple when he writes that criticism is meant to “show us what we missed or just plain didn’t get.”  In a more extensive example, Ford Madox Ford writes:  

Criticism is not the warm expression of sentiment but the cool exposition of a man standing back and viewing with relatively cold eyes the object upon which he is to descant.  Indeed, in its final depths, criticism is the explanation of the appeal made by a work of art to humanity.  The critic—and the literary historian must be critical—must make a constatation, not primarily of the merits of the work but of the nature of its appeal.  He must not say—at any rate, primarily—whether he likes a subject or not. Here is Dante; he has millions of readers.  For hundreds of years his fame has endured and shows no trace of failing.  The critic must analyze the causes for that appeal. It is only when he throws off his robes of office that he is at liberty to become a man and to state his preferences.

     Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature

I consider this somewhat limiting, as I tend to ‘throw off’ any robes I wear and attempt to understand, as a critic, why a particular work appeals to me, what I admire (or despise) about it, and why.  It matters less to me the social/cultural reasons for a works popularity or longevity. John Gardner relates an approach more congenial to me when he writes:

Critics would be useful people to have around if they would simply do their work, carefully and thoughtfully assessing works of art, calling our attention to those worth noticing, and explaining clearly, sensibly, and justly why others need not take up our time.

      John Gardner, On Moral Fiction

George Steiner makes the following relevant point:

In distinction from both the reviewer and the literary historian, the critic should be concerned with masterpieces.  His primary function is to distinguish not between the good and the bad, but between the good and the best.

     George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

But this is really not the form of literary criticism that interests Marxists.  Marxist literary critics are not interested in the particular merits of a novel or poem.  They are not looking to enjoy reading it, or to assess its literary merits on a scale that Arnold, Vidal, Ford, Steiner or Gardner would recognize.  In the last sentence of his book, Fredric Jameson asserts that Marxist literary critics are primarily interested in how a text furthers the Marxist political agenda:

It is only at this price—that of the simultaneous recognition of the ideological and Utopian functions of the artistic text—that a Marxist cultural study can hope to play its part in political praxis, which remains, of course, what Marxism is all about.

       Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

This sentiment appears to me misplaced.  It’s far more likely that a polemical novel (Altas Shrugged), or a political tract (The Communist Manifesto), or scientific study (Origin of the Species), might actually serve to change the world, but a work of criticism?  Perhaps examples exist, but I can’t think of any.  For those of us who read criticism, are we more influenced by the critic, or by the work being criticized?

Aside from such world-changing considerations, it seems to me that in order for a work of criticism to be meaningful, it needs to be based on a valid worldview, one that can generally be accessed and understood by most intelligent readers.  This doesn’t mean that a critic’s reading of a particular work need be fully accepted, or accepted at all: it’s perfectly possible to render a meaningful and worthy criticism of a work while completely misreading it. A good example might be Heidegger’s work on Nietzsche.  He casts a dark Heideggarian shadow over Nietzsche’s thought, rendering that thought nearly unrecognizable.  Even so, there are some readers of Heidegger who consider it some of his best work.

In the case of the Marxist critics, it seems to me that many of their fundamental assumptions and/or principles are flawed, their worldview skewed, their perspective lacking validity. For instance, I greatly admire the work of Walter Benjamin, and while I certainly don’t understand everything he expresses, his conclusions are ultimately unworthy of serious consideration, or application to the world in which we live.  I consider his work “intellectual art,” in that he creates something unique and meaningful that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and that has no practical value.  

In contrast with Marxist literary criticism, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is an excellent example of demonstrating how race in major works of literature reflect the racial history of America.  My reading of her book has deepened my personal understanding on the subject and enhanced my sensitivity.  As such, it seems that Morrison’s work has made a valid and useful impact on society (at least in my case).  She does so by applying an understandable worldview to works I am familiar with, in a convincing fashion.  

This seems a reasonable criteria for assessing Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious later in this piece:  Does he apply meaningful criteria?  Are his assumptions sound?  Can we support his conclusions?  Do we find ourselves convinced?  And if not, why not? 

But before we look at Jameson’s work in more detail, a quick overview of Marxism, and major concepts associated with it.  Doing so will highlight my original question, as the majority of traditional Marxist thought is purely political and economic, with only a sliver pointing towards literature and culture.

Marxism: Political Economy

Marxism, and later interpretations of his work, are wide-ranging, complex, and often conflicting. An attempt will be made to present the core of his political economy in what follows.

Marx provides his own summary when he writes in The Communist Manifesto, “In this sense the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property.”  His most famous slogan went something like this: “From each according to hisability, to each according to hisneeds.”  George Orwell provides a nice summary consistent with Marxism:  

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production.” Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee.  

     George Orwell, Essays

One of the key implications of state ownership is the need for planning.  Instead of a market determining levels of production and how goods and services will be distributed, central planners decide where, when and how much of one thing or another gets produced, and how those products and services get distributed, and to whom.  This marks perhaps the fundamental economic flaw in Marxist (and all socialist) theory, as the lack of a market, and the prices that a market creates, means that planners do not have the information necessary to make competent decisions:

In any social order, even under Socialism, it can very easily be decided which kind and what number of consumption goods should be produced.  No one has ever denied that.  But once this decision has been made, there still remains the problem of ascertaining how the existing means of production can be used most effectively to produce these goods in question.  In order to solve this problem it is necessary that there should be economic calculation.  And economic calculation can only take place by means of money prices established in the market for production goods in a society resting on private property in the means of production.  That is to say, there must exist money prices of land, raw materials, semi-manufactures; that is to say, there must be money wages and interest rates.

     Ludwig von Mises, Socialism

Relying on central planning results in mal-investment, inefficient use of resources, and low levels of productivity.  And it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable, or competent the planners:

…no single man, be he the greatest genius ever born, has an intellect capable of deciding the relative importance of each one of an infinite number of goods of higher orders.  No individual could so discriminate between the infinite number of alternative methods of production that he could make direct judgments of their relative value without auxiliary calculations.  In societies based on the division of labor, the distribution of property rights effects a kind of mental division of labor, without which neither the economy nor systematic production would be possible.

     Ludwig von Mises, Socialism

Another key pillar of Marxist theory is the belief in the inevitable and the ultimate transition from a capitalist to a communist state.  Marx was so sure of this historical process that he resisted incremental efforts to improve the lot of the workers, as he considered such political tinkering as interfering with the march towards the utopian state.  In hindsight this resistance seems odd, on two counts: one, that he wouldn’t support an increase in wages, or a shortened workday, or safer conditions for the ordinary worker, as he was profoundly concerned with the quality of life of the proletariat, and two, his belief that nothing could interfere with the coming revolution, no matter what social expediencies the capitalists allowed on behalf of the working class.

As for history requiring an actual bloody revolution, Marx was torn.  In some places he favored some form of peaceful transition, where in others he explicated violence.  In my understanding, Lenin was the person that advocated the violent overthrow of the capitalists, whereas Marx less sure that violence was absolutely necessary. In any case, we have witnessed few, if any, examples of a nation becoming communist without shedding blood:

So far as any single country is concerned there is, at least as yet, no ground for assuming that the birth of socialism can be either a gradual or a peaceful process; up to now socialism has come into the world as a result of a revolutionary overturn and has established its position only after a bloody civil war let loose by its enemies.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

As for the ultimate state, Marx taught that once the revolution had taken place, and the ruling class removed from political power, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be required for an interim period, followed by the ultimate “withering away of the state,” with the subsequent advent of a classless society.

While we will review in more detail the goals of such a society below, Terry Eagleton indicates that the only way to bring about the desired society is through radical action, and the focus of such radicals on creating the appropriate social conditions:

For the ‘interest’ of the radical is just to bring about the kind of social conditions in which all men and women could genuinely participate in the formulation of meanings and values, without exclusion or domination.  The liberal pluralist is not wrong in seeing such an open dialogue of differences as a desirable goal; he or she is just mystified to think that it could ever be adequately conducted in a class-divided society, where what counts as an acceptable interest in the first place is determined by the ruling power.  Such participatory, socialist democratic institutions could be created only once such a power has been overthrown…As to what meanings and values might result from this comradely encounter of differences, the radical has absolutely nothing to say, since his or her whole political commitment is exhausted in the effort to bring about its historical conditions of possibility.

     Terry Eagleton, Ideology

By all accounts, Karl Marx wanted the right thing for the miserable working poor, hated the conditions that obtained during the early stages of industrialization, and abhorred the treatment of the working class, and working children in particular.  He wanted to create a society where everyone could live with dignity, purpose and justice.  Where a working family could enjoy the fruits of their labor, with time and energy to explore a more meaningful existence, as opposed to being ruthlessly exploited by the capitalist and completely worn out through long hours and brutal working conditions.  Within this context, it is important for our later analysis to understand that Marx, and many Marxists, believed that improved material conditions were crucial for the liberation of the working class.  Marx calls out the incredible productivity of industrial Europe, when he writes in The Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie during its rule of scarce one hundred years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”  He then goes on to assert the ultimate increase in material wealth once all capital is in the hands of the new ruling class, the proletariat:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class, and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

     Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Paul Sweezy, and his book The Theory of Capitalist Development, serves as a good representation of Marxist thought because it was written in 1941, long before history had rendered such devastating judgment against communist and socialist states operating (at least tacitly, if not explicitly) on Marxist ideology.  Sweezy represents a perspective perfectly consistent with orthodox Marxism, as in his echoing of Marx concerning material prosperity:

It must be remembered that socialism is founded upon a non-antagonistic and non-exploitative economy.  It follows from this that the socialist system would be able at once to turn its energies to raising living standards within its borders through the planned production of use values.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

Marx advocated the labor theory of value, meaning that the genuine value of an item consisted of the labor that was required to produce it.  This theory led to the conclusion that the exploitation of labor by capital took the form of “surplus value,” an unfair contribution forced from labor that lined the pocket of the unproductive ruling class.  Sweezy echoes this view when he writes, “labor power must be the source of surplus value.”  

Another central aspect of Marxism, and for many of us, one of the most profoundly troubling, is the elevation of the collective above the individual:

Individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests.

      Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

The Marxist places the collective ahead of any considerations of individual rights, or freedom, or value.  Society in general, and the proletariat in particular, defines what is good and right, led by leaders and intellectuals that properly interpret and represent that society.

Marxists came to believe that their collectivist society could only sustain itself if socialism became universal:

In brief, socialism can be built up in one country, but its permanence is assured only when socialism has been victorious on an international scale.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

This seems to me a valid assertion.  As long as genuine freedom obtains, at least in part, in other countries, the communists will be threatened by unflattering comparisons, material envy, political pressure to change, and the exodus, where possible, of its citizens.  This can be seen most starkly in history’s social experiments of North/South Korea, and East/West Germany.  The existence of an alternative state destabilizes the communist one, resulting in collapse (East Germany) or the most brutal repression (North Korea).

Marxist Critique of Capitalism

Marx objected to many aspects of modern industrial society.  Reviewing Marx’s analysis of that society, its weaknesses and vulnerabilities, will provide a deeper insight into Marxist ideology.

Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”  The power of the ruling class originates in controlling production, and thereby controlling the state:

If now we ask, where the state comes from, the answer is that it is the product of a long and arduous struggle in which the class which occupies what is for the time the key positions in the process of production gets the upper hand over its rivals and fashions a state which will enforce that set of property relations which is in its own interest.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

Once the ruling class obtains power, it controls the wealth and property rights of its citizens, favoring in every case its own class:

It is important to realize that, so far as capitalist society is concerned, ‘class domination’ and ‘the protection of private property’ are virtually synonymous expressions…have in mind not capitalist property, but rather private property as it would be in a simple commodity-producing society where each producers owns and works with his own means of production…Capitalist private property does not consist in things…but in a social relation between people. Property confers upon its owners freedom from labor and the disposal over the labor of others, and this is the essence of all social domination whatever form it may assume.  It follows that the protection of property is fundamentally the assurance of social domination to owners over non-owners.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

As part of the inevitable transition to a communist state, Marx identified various weakening tendencies within capitalism, ones that would lead to its eventual collapse, paving the way for the working class to wrest the means of production from the oppressors. One of these tendencies is the propensity to overproduce.  As Marx writes in Capital:

[a fall in the rate of profit] promotes overproduction, speculation, crises, surplus capital along with surplus population.

     Karl Marx, Capital

One of the inevitable results of overproduction is the creation of ‘surplus population,’ something that proves necessary for capitalists:

But capitalist production requires uninterrupted, rapid expansion if unemployment and poverty for the workers…

     Kautsky, quoted by Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

Because capitalism continuously creates unemployment, Sweezy writes, “at any given time and place wages gravitate around a level which is socially recognized as a minimum standard of subsistence.”  The application of technology simply exacerbates the trend towards unemployment:

In introducing machinery [individual capitalist] is therefore merely attempting to economize on his own wage bill.  The net effect of all the capitalists’ behaving in this way, however, is to create unemployment which in turn acts upon the wage level itself.  It follows that the stronger the tendency of wages to rise, the stronger also will be the counteracting pressure of the reserve army, and vice versa.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

The unemployed masses, known as the “industrial reserve army”, serve an important role in Marxist theory.  The industrial reserve army  

during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labor army; during the periods of overproduction and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

Marx considers the overproduction and underconsumption inherent in the capitalist system as the principle contradiction:

Here, then, we can see the elements of what Marx in one place calls the fundamental contradiction of capitalism: production entirely lacks an objective unless it is directed towards a definite goal in consumption, but capitalism attempts to expand production without reference to the consumption which alone can give it meaning.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

With levels of production routinely disconnected from consumption, capitalist industry just keeps producing without regard to demand, producing more than the economy can absorb, leading to stagnation:

Since the tendency to underconsumption is inherent in capitalism and can apparently be overcome only by the partial nonutilization of productive resources, it may be said that stagnation is the norm towards which capitalist production is always tending.  

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

One of the ways that capitalists have delayed the inevitable decline into stagnation and depression has been through creating captive markets overseas:

From the standpoint of capitalist production such a crisis could be mitigated or overcome by the normal imperialist method of expansion abroad.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

Another way to interrupt the slide into stagnation would be the advent of major new industries.  Yet Sweezy considers the “lack of new dominant industries,” as “perhaps the most important reason, in favor of the view that capitalism is headed for a period of chronic depression.”

Given the importance of the concept of undercomsumption to Marxist theory, it’s important to note that we find the notion empirically invalid.  Schumpeter explains:

Under division of labor, the only means normally available to everyone for acquiring the commodities and services he wishes to have is to produce--or to take part in the production of--some equivalent for them.  It follows that production increases not only the supply of goods in the markets but normally also the demand for them.  

      Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis

The economic stagnation and depression that the Marxists attribute to capitalism is caused by other factors, ones too involved to cover here.

“What [World War II]has demonstrated,” George Orwell summarizes, “is that private capitalism—that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit—does not work.  In cannot deliver the goods.”  

Terry Eagleton grants capitalism with tremendous accomplishments, but at what cost?

As the greatest accumulation of productive forces which history has ever witnessed, it is capitalism which for the first time makes feasible the dream of a social order free of want and toil.  As the first truly global mode of production, it uproots all parochial obstacles to human communication and lays down the conditions for international community. Its political ideals—freedom, justice, self-determination, equality of opportunity—outshine, in principle at least, almost all previous ideologies in the depth of their humanism and the universality of their scope.
            All of this, of course, is bought at the most terrible cost. This dynamic, exuberant release of potential is also one long unspeakable human tragedy, in which powers are crippled and squandered, lives crushed and blighted, and the great majority of men and women condemned to fruitless labor for the profit of a few.  

      Terry Eagleton, Illusions of Postmodernism

Marx believed that capitalism was doomed to inevitable stagnation and depression.  With the working class burdened with subsistence wages and chronic unemployment, revolutionary seeds would become ripe for the proletariat to overcome the ruling capitalists and take charge of the means of production, and by doing so, increase production and redistribute the previously wasted surplus value to all people equally, bringing about a truly classless society, a society where everybody could live with dignity, freedom, and unlimited self expression.

Marxist/Socialist Target Society: the Vision

Marx wanted a better world. He wanted people to be fulfilled and happy.  Many writers, in various ways, have expressed the vision of such a world.  Terry Eagleton suggests that within a socialist society each person “attains his or her freedom and autonomy in and through the self-realization of others.”  (After Theory) For Jameson, the fundamental theme of Marxism is “collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity.”  Many socialists who believe that a properly planned society will allow more time, create less stress, and produce more opportunity for individual self-expression, frequently echo this notion.  Terry Eagleton puts it like this:

The goal of socialism is to fashion a society in which we would no longer have to justify our activities at the tribunal of utility—in which the realization of our powers and capacities would become a self-delighting end in itself.  

     Terry Eagleton, Illusions of Postmodernism

George Orwell considers “The good society” as one in which “human beings are equal and in which they cooperate with one another willingly and not because of fear or economic compulsion.  This is what Socialists, Communists and Anarchists, in their different ways, are aiming at.”  Herbert Marcuse, associated with the Frankfurt School, lays out some of the requirements for his socialist utopia:

Distribution of the necessities of life regardless of work performance, reduction of working time to a minimum, universal all-sided education toward exchangeability of functions—these are the preconditions but not the contents of self-determination.

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

Jameson relates how a future communal society, a “genuine community,” one that is no longer “fragmented” and “individualized,” will dampen the nihilistic truth into something more palatable, thereby alleviating the anxiety of passing:

The real issue is not the propositions of existentialism, but rather their charge of affect: in future societies people will still grow old and die, but the Pascalian wager of Marxism lies elsewhere, namely in the idea that death in a fragmented and individualized society is far more frightening and anxiety-laden than in a genuine community, in which dying is something that happens to the group more intensely than it happens to the individual subject.  The hypothesis is that time will be no less structurally empty, or to use a current version, presence will be no less of a structural and ontological illusion, in a future communal social life, but rather that this particular “fundamental revelation of the nothingness of existence” will have lost its sharpness and pain and be of less consequence.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

George Orwell, in his typically simple way, asserts, “The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood.”

Everything related so far of Marxism lies solidly within the realm of political economy, with no clear path to literature, or literary criticism.  With Marxist political economy, a novel could be evaluated for such content, and how that content was portrayed (Man’s Fate, for instance).  Or called out for its polemics on behalf of the party, and in what flavor of politics was explicated.  But in order to apply Marxist thought in a universal manner, to virtually any serious works in Western Literature, one more consideration must be made, another significant Marxist concept explored.

Mode of Production and Class Consciousness

The basis for Marxist literary criticism doesn’t lie within his political or economic theory, but instead, in his social theory of class consciousness, summarized in Marx’s assertion that, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”  Sweezy adds that, “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life.”  Expanding the concept until it encompasses every aspect of culture, and providing the foundation for subsequent literary and cultural criticism, Sweezy writes:

The most influential lesson of Marx…has, of course, rightly been taken to be the lesson of false consciousness, of class bias and ideological programming, the lesson of the structural limits of the values and attitudes of particular social classes, or in other words of the constitutive relationship between the praxis of such groups and what they conceptualize as value or desire and project in the form of culture.

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

Fredric Jameson makes a related claim when he identifies “the mode of production” as a primary source of a person’s identity:

According to this analysis, the prior moment of class consciousness is that of the oppressed classes (whose structural identity—whether a peasantry, slaves, serfs, or a genuine proletariat—evidently derives from the mode of production).  

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

I fundamentally question the value and validity of Marxist literary and cultural criticism, beginning with the foundational concept of “false consciousness,” and the primacy of society’s “mode of production” in determining character, values or culture. Everybody views the world differently. Every person has different ideas of what is relevant, what is true, what matters, what took place in the near and distant past, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is good, right or wrong. And nobody would be strictly wrong in their beliefs, or necessarily right in any of them.  In other words, “false consciousness” is just another way of saying “consciousness”:

The separation of what is true in itself from the merely adequate expression of false consciousness is not to be maintained, for correct consciousness has not existed to this day, and no consciousness has the lofty vantage point from which this separation would be self-evident. 

    Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

As for the claimed ubiquity of “class bias and ideological programming,” you would have to abstract the nature of humanity at a very high level for this to be even partially meaningful. In any particular individual within a given society, specific influences might be adduced: how he or she was raised and where; how they were (very specifically) educated; what traumas they suffered or what deprivations they faced.  Even with all of that, doing so in a particular case might fail to determine some aspects of their character, perhaps something genetically inclined, or a combination of experiences that resulted in special fears, or tendencies to drug addiction, or aspirations of greatness.  And then if you performed the same operation on the person sitting in the next cubicle at work (same company, same job, same ‘class’, same race, same gender, etc.) you would get a completely different profile.  Every time.  Because people are not the same, they do not think or act the same, regardless of class, wealth, occupation or community.  This is a social fact, particularly in a modern, sophisticated society, one that consists of countless sub-cultures and communal variations. Treating a particular “class” (should one be identifiable) as politically and socially homogenous is no different then asserting broad generalizations concerning race or gender, a practice we generally refer to as “racist” or “sexist” when such generalizations are proffered.  We know better.

This isn’t an exaggeration of the Marxist position.  Horkheimer and Adorno make this perfectly clear when they write:

Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate.  A man is made by his assets, income, position, and prospects.  The economic mask coincides completely with a man’s inner character.  Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence.  

     Horkheimer/Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

How people make a living (their relationship to a particular “mode of production”) is simply one variable among hundreds in determining what “they conceptualize as value or desire and project in the form of culture.”  Everyone views the world through a different set of lenses, none of them without distortion: unique worldviews, built upon differing foundations, exposed to contingent storms that mold and bend the internal structure into its distinctive state, one that will never precisely match another’s, resulting in differing tastes, values, and desires, none of which are determined by “class bias” or “ideological programming.”

The Marxists will claim that such assertions simply demonstrate the existence of my “false consciousness,” the power of the ruling ideology over my thinking, and my deliberate (or inadvertent) support for the dominant class.  According to Sweezy, there is no “cure” for my condition, or for anyone that lies outside the “collective unity”:

Even the Freudian model of the unconscious, which has been exemplary in our own proposal of a properly political unconscious here, is everywhere subverted by the neo-Freudian nostalgia for some ultimate moment of cure, in which the dynamics of the unconscious proper rise to the light of day and of consciousness and are somehow “integrated” in an active lucidity about ourselves and the determinations of our desires and our behavior.  But the cure in that sense is a myth, as is the equivalent mirage within a Marxian ideological analysis: namely, the vision of a moment in which the individual subject would be somehow fully conscious of his or her determination by class and would be able to square the circle of ideological conditioning by sheer lucidity and the taking of thought.  But in the Marxian system, only a collective unity—whether that of a particular class, the proletariat, or of its “organ of consciousness,” the revolutionary party—can achieve this transparency; the individual subject is always positioned within the social totality.  

     Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development

This form of ideology precludes criticism from outside the party, as only the proletariat’s “organ of consciousness” maintains a pure view of reality, and lies beyond such criticism.  Only the revolutionary party, through this special “organ,” knows the truth. But a collective can’t know anything; a collective is an abstraction of a particular group of people.  Only people can think, judge, act.  Same goes for a “party” (unless it’s a party of one). Therefore, this “organ of consciousness” must necessarily be a particular person, one who maintains this “transparency” of vision.  But given that “the individual subject is always positioned within the social totality,” how is this person exempt from such positioning?  How do they gain this “transparency” denied to the rest of us?

Given the weakness of the Marxist concepts of “false consciousness” and the questionable relationship between “the mode of production” and anything else, a critical approach that relies on these flimsy foundations is bound to be problematic.

Fredric Jameson as Marxist Critic

In addition to the elements already mentioned, Jameson identifies two additional conceptual tools for Marxist criticism in “rationalization” and “reification:”

It has no doubt already become clear…that the mediatory code I have found most useful here is that variously termed rationalization by Weber and reification by Lukacs.  Yet the reader should also be reminded that Marxism knows a number of other such mediatory codes, the most obvious ones being social class, mode of production, the alienation of labor, commodification, the various ideologies of Otherness (sex, race), and political domination.  

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Max Weber pointed to the tendency of modern civilization becoming more technically and economically efficient, and labeled this tendency “rationalization.”  This concept is also includes the inevitable replacement of traditional social norms and values with modern techniques and practices.  In general, “reification” occurs when something immaterial (love, honor, or evil, for instance) is rendered material or concrete, with the intent of making it easier to understand.  Specific to Lukacs, “reification” can represent social attributes, or the relationship between people and commodities, say. Lukacs considered reification as a specific form of alienation.  

Armed now with the full array of Marxist critical apparatus, we can take a closer look at Jameson’s The Political Consciousness.  Consistent with the notion of rationalization, Jameson charges modern industrial society with the elimination of the sacred (among other things), resulting in a spiritual debasement of society:

… “epiphany.”  The latter term, however, is misleading, precisely to the degree to which it suggests that in the secularized and reified world of modern capitalism, epiphany is possible as a positive event, as the revelation of presence.  But if epiphany itself is a mirage, then the most authentic vocation of romance in our time would not be the reinvention of the providential vision invoked and foretold by Frye, but rather its capacity, by absence and by the silence of the form itself, to express that ideology of desacralization by which modern thinkers from Weber to the Frankfort School have sought to convey their sense of the radical impoverishment and constriction of modern life.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

This is not an issue of political economy, nor solvable within a particular ideology, be it Marxist or Liberal.  The sacred still exists within the human universe, fully independent of political, economic and social structures, and occasionally revealed epiphanically. Humanity revels in the spiritual, in nature, in art and God.  Only in a world that crushes the spirit—Stalinist Russia say, or the killing fields of Cambodia—does the lack of a positive epiphany obtain.  Thus, looking back exclusively to some previous era in human existence, or forward towards a mythical socialistic Utopia, one misses the spiritual reality that beckons to every living person.  The advent of science, the exploration of nature, the creation of art, the submission to religion, along with more common realms of entertainment, sports, culture and society, provide a host of healthy and rewarding possibilities.  That many people won’t partake, or pursue, or immerse themselves in one thing or another says nothing against the society in which they live. Such behavior, or lack of it, has been the case in every decade of every millennium that humans have existed.

Jameson goes on to cite recent currents in art as a symptom of the capitalist degeneration of society:

The increasing abstraction of visual art thus proves not only to express the abstraction of daily life and to presuppose fragmentation and reification; it also constitutes a Utopian compensation for everything lost in the process of the development of capitalism—the place of quality in an increasingly quantified world, the place of the archaic and of feeling amid the desacralization of the market system, the place of sheer color and intensity within the grayness of measurable extension and geometrical abstraction. The perceptual is in this sense a historically new experience, which has no equivalent in older kinds of social life.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

And yet in the midst of modern industrial society, I find in art the most amazing plethora of theme, color, imagination, surprise, rebellion, horror, and pain that likely ever existed on Earth prior to now.  It’s always difficult to compare the contemporary to the past, and there has been an inventiveness and social transgression in art since the late 19thcentury, exampled in one memorable painting by Picasso in 1907 (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), and followed by dada, Duchamp, and countless others.  But to wade into the diversity of artistic expression available today is to wander among a rich swamp of terror, meaning, and alternate worlds, all infinitely expressed with distinctive claims of the inarticulate in ways never before imagined.  Perhaps it is the Internet that gives the impression of the modern artistic multitudes, so many amazing images at ones fingertips.  Someone close to me expressed it like this:

Basically, my generation has been left so jaded and disillusioned with life (and capitalism in particular) that we resort to absurd and dark humor to cope.  Nostalgia is also an extremely common factor that shows up to combat the ennui associated with modern life. What's interesting is that instead of in art galleries, coffee shops, or underground clubs, modern absurdist art lives on the Internet.  It is created, spread, modified, and shared at a breakneck pace with little or no attribution to an original author.  It is Meme Culture.

     Alexis Wheeler, personal communication

And yes, today’s art often expresses alienation, dismay, and disillusionment with the modern world, and it’s easy to understand why, as so many reprehensible social conditions exist. The question that such art fails to address, or interprets incompletely, is the basic cause for the lamented circumstances.  A Marxist would assert that a socialist solution would mend all.  While many modern social issues stem from political, economic and social sources, the potential solutions are complex and multi-varied (beyond the scope of this piece), and the superficial, uninformed and technically ignorant artists cannot be expected to know any better.  Many of the social conditions they blame on capitalism are actually rooted in socialist-style policies.  Even so, the important role artists serve is to sound the alarm, to create arresting images and works that express the depth of discontent, and to demonstrate that a (relatively) free society still exists, one that permits such expression without political or legal consequence, a situation historically unknown in Marxist societies.

More specifically, Jameson asserts that 

…the novel plays a significant role in what can be called a properly bourgeois cultural revolution—that immense process of transformation whereby populations whose life habits were formed by other, now archaic, modes of production are effectively reprogrammed for life and work in the new world of market capitalism. 

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Such a generalization may or may not be historically correct.  It’s difficult to say, without referencing a historical study that compared the content and dissemination of the popular novel with modern changes in society in order to gauge the influence of such literature.  So many novels, even today, hark back to other times, display traditional sets of values and lifestyles, or project entirely different ones.  During what period in history, and in what Western countries, can we chart changes in “archaic” “life habits” with those associated with “market capitalism?”  And what do those “life habits” consist of?  Are they generally uniform across a given society, in a given period?  And what do those “life habits” change into, with the advent of “market capitalism?”  Can the link be plausibly made between those changes and popular literature?  Making such broad, sweeping assertions without the least bit of historical detail renders them near meaningless.  Such statements are highly rhetorical, meant by the author to be accepted by the reader without thought or dissent, and yet they can be seen as highly problematic after applying a modicum of critical thought.  Jameson elaborates on the role of the novel in cultural change:

The “objective” function of the novel is thereby also implied: to its subjective and critical, analytic, corrosive mission must now be added the task of producing as though for the first time that very life world, that very “referent”—the newly quantifiable space of extension and market equivalence, the new rhythms of measurable time, the new secular and “disenchanted” object world of the commodity system, with its post-traditional daily life and its bewilderingly empirical, “meaningless,” and contingent Umwelt—of which this new narrative discourse will then claim to be the “realistic” reflection.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Throughout Jameson’s book, broad attacks are leveled against modern Western civilization without providing viable alternatives.  “Corrosive mission,” “disenchanted,” “bewilderingly empirical,” “meaningless,” all in this one paragraph.  Presumably some form of human society that existed in the past, or one that could be realized in the future, would eliminate such horrid social conditions.  In what way, outside of ones subjective judgment, could such a society be identified, or fashioned?  Is it possible that many of the social conditions that exist today are superior to those of the past, and theoretically superior to a society designed by socialists?  To what extent is the “disillusionment,” “ennui,” “alienation,” “fragmentation,” and “meaninglessness” of human life part of the human condition and inherent in the natural world?  George Orwell rightly points out that

…when economic injustice has been righted, the fundamental problem of man’s place in the universe will still remain.

     George Orwell, Essays

Is it possible that any particular organic, stable and unchanging society (characteristics implied by Jameson’s book) would suit every person equally?  Would unrest disappear, unhappiness abate, and meaning reappear in such a society?  How could anyone possibly know, one way or the other?  And why would any of us, those who consider such things, allow a particular social engineer to determine what society can and cannot be?  How many of us are likely to approve one design over another?  

One consistent theme of Jameson’s is the unfortunate unraveling of traditional culture – apparently every aspect of traditional culture – with the advent of modern industrial society.  How storytelling, for example, has been “blasted by the corrosive effects of market relations”:

The representational fiction of a storytelling situation organized around Marlow marks the vain attempt to conjure back the older unity of the literary institution, to return to that older concrete social situation of which narrative transmission was but a part, and of which public and bard or storyteller are intrinsic (although not necessarily visible or immediately present) components: such literary institutions, once genuine or concrete forms of social relationships, have long since been blasted by the corrosive effects of market relations, and, like so many other traditional, organic, precapitalist institutions, systematically fragmented by that characteristic reorganizational process of capitalism which Weber described under the term rationalization.  The older, inherited ways of doing things are broken into their component parts and reorganized with a view to greater efficiency according to the instrumental dialectic of means and ends, a process that amounts to a virtual bracketing or suspension of the ends themselves and thus opens up the unlimited perspective of a complete instrumentalization of the world: cultural institutions could scarcely hope to resist this universal process, which sunders subject from object and structurally colonizes each separately, producing hierarchies of functions according to their technical use (thus, the quantifying, “rational” parts of the psyche are to be developed, indeed, overdeveloped, while the more archaic functions—the senses, or certain types of thinking—are allowed to vegetate in a kind of psychic backwater).

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Aside from the acidic rhetoric, what Jameson describes is no doubt true.  Modern industrial society has changed the world, sometimes in drastic ways.  The advent of technology and the division of labor have greatly increased the wealth and health of every society that employ them.  Such universal rationalizationhas created opportunities that never before existed, resolved countless threats to human health and longevity, and opened vastly new cultural vistas for anyone to explore.  The poor people in today’s modern society are healthier and wealthier than the richest in ages past.  Everywhere and in every time where people were offered the opportunity to join a modern society, or remain tethered to a traditional village with access only to traditional technology, they have voted overwhelmingly with their feet towards the new industrial world, and away from tradition.  C. P. Snow makes this point exceedingly well when he writes:

Industrialization is the only hope of the poor…It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don’t matter all that much. It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialization—do a modern Walden, if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion. But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose.  In fact, we know what their choice would be.  For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.

    C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures

As George Orwell rightly points out, “The poor do not praise poverty.”  And much of what Jameson seemingly advocates is a return to a wealthless society, one absent the modern array of options that we currently enjoy.  Ludwig von Mises points out what people typically prefer:

The immense majority strives after a greater and better supply of food, clothes, homes, and other material amenities.  In calling a rise in the masses’ standard of living progress and improvement, economists do not espouse a mean materialism.  They simply establish the fact that people are motivated by the urge to improve the material conditions of their existence. They judge policies from the point of view of the aims men want to attain.  He who disdains the fall in infant mortality and the gradual disappearance of famines and plagues may cast the first stone upon the materialism of the economists.

     Ludwig von Mises, Human Action

Jameson continues to catalog the impact of rationalization, charging it with “dismantling,” “inherent loss,” “wholesale dissolution,” and the “destructive effects of capitalism,” consistent with his ongoing theme.  He insist that the social conditions in the past were more “natural” than those today:

We have suggested that the rationalization process is first and foremost to be described as the analytical dismantling of the various traditional or “natural” unities (social groups, institutions, human relationships, forms of authority, activities of a cultural and ideological as well as of a productive nature) into their component parts with a view to their “Talorization,” that is, their reorganization into more efficient systems which function according to an instrumental, or binary, means/ends logic.  We have also touched on the loss inherent in this process, the wholesale dissolution of traditional institutions and social relations beginning in the heartland of capitalism…and ultimately extending to the last vestiges of precapitalist social relations in the most seemingly insignificant backwaters of the globe…It should be stressed that the destructive effects of capitalism, both irreversible and fatal to the older social forms, are not particularly due to conscious planning on the part of the businessmen, who are neither personally wicked nor, in the earlier stages of this process at least, self-conscious efficiency experts.  Rather the process is objective, and is impersonally achieved, or at least set in motion, by the penetration of a money economy and the consequent need to reorganize local institutions on a cash basis… 

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

What makes the “natural” unities of  “social groups, institutions, human relationships, forms of authority, activities of a cultural and ideological as well as of a productive nature,” more natural, and presumably superior to, modern industrial society?  Past social conditions were no less artificial than those we experience today (unless we want to eliminate all civilized life and drag humanity back into the caves).  Annie Dillard expresses such a point of view when she writes:

Do things have meaning?
            For a pantheist they do.  To an Australian aboriginal before Europeanization, as is well known, every bush and rock, by its very existence, continuously uttered its human meaning as if it were speech.  The desert was an elaborate and personal message, or a great book which people could read and interpret.  Similarly, to superstitious people everywhere and at all times, events and objects are personal omens and portents and commands.
            It has been many centuries since adult Europeans have enjoyed and feared a universe so sentient, so voluble, and so interested in their doings.  Christianity and science, which on big issues go hand in hand intellectually as well as historically, everywhere raised the standard of living and cut down on the fun. Everywhere Christianity and science hushed the bushes and gagged the rocks.  They razed the sacred groves, killed the priests, and drained the flow of meaning right off the planet....The individual, with his society changing all around him, with his private prayer and reasoned vote, was the new unit of meaning.

      Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction

Rousseau is probably most responsible for our modern myth of the happy savage, and a clear source for Marx*:

...in a word, so long as they undertook only what a single person could accomplish, and confined themselves to such arts as did not require the joint labor of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives, so long as their nature allowed, and as they continued to enjoy the pleasures of mutual and independent intercourse.  But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.

     Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Origin of Inequality

(*As for Rousseau serving as an ideological precursor for Marx, just consider the following:

Even those who had been enriched by their own industry, could hardly base their proprietorship on better claims.  It was in vain to repeat, “I built this well; I gained this spot by my industry.”  Who gave you your standing, it might be answered, and what right have you to demand payment of us for doing what we never asked you to do?  Do you not know that numbers of your fellow-creatures are starving, for want of what you have too much of?  You ought to have had the express and universal consent of mankind, before appropriating more of the common subsistence than you needed for our own maintenance.

      Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Origin of Inequality

And this:

Such was, or may well have been, the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambition individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery and wretchedness.

      Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Origin of Inequality

Genuinely pre-Marxist thought, philosophical source material for later socialists.)

This longing for pre-industrial times fails to fully consider what is being traded away, and what will replace it should humanity regress as Jameson (or Rousseau) seems to suggest.  To assert that human life was “better” at some point in the past would require a more credible description of the precise circumstances of such a life, and a way to convince us (without anyone living capable of providing first hand testimony) that trading social conditions in a modern industrial society for a primitive organic community would improve our quality of life.  By what criteria could such a judgment be made?  What form of authority does anyone advocating such a radical alteration hold that would prove decisive?  In other words, how would he or she know what was better, or worse, for you, for me, or for anyone else?  What constitutes “better”?  With what facts, figures and analysis could such an algorithm be constructed?  And if such an algorithm was actually designed, and such descriptions realistically made for an ideal society, and the criteria fully vetted by the reigning experts, how would a consensus be reached that this was indeed a preferable society?  And if such a consensus failed to materialize, what happens then?  Do those who designed the target society simply force the recalcitrant to submit to the new design?  Or do the social engineers rely on the relentless Hegelian forces of history to bring about the ultimate society in accordance with the iron laws of Marxist prophecy?

As for the impact of modern industrial society on primitive cultures, societies encountered throughout the history of European expansion and coopted willingly (or by force) into the “money economy,” judgment in such instances calls for complex philosophical considerations.  On the one hand, people don’t like change.  Especially drastic change, and the first European merchant vessels that landed in Indonesia and the Americas brought with them perhaps the most drastic change in the history of humanity.  Also, people can become accustomed to almost any survivable conditions, no matter how horrible, and in some cases, thrive.  For instance, consider Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where a Soviet prison camp is made to seem full of life, including elements of honor, desire, respect and despicability.  Or Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, where again a Russian prison camp is full of characters, drama and where “things were the same as among real people.”  “After all,” Dostoevsky declares, “one must tell the whole truth; these men were exceptional men.  Perhaps they were the most gifted, the strongest of our people.”  Joseph Frank elaborates:

Not, however, because they were criminals, but because their crimes sprang from a strength of character and, frequently, a defense of instinctive moral principles, exhibited under circumstances where others would have been completely crushed.

      Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, vol II

So people living in the most awful conditions might deliberately choose to remain in such conditions, absent an understanding of the alternatives.

As Jameson points out, when modernity meets the primitive, “the process is objective, and is impersonally achieved,” resulting in the replacement of large parts of that traditional society with elements of the modern.  As a thought experiment, when, and where, a choice exists, say in the highlands of New Guinea, where stone-aged tribes existed unknown until the 1930s, that is, in a place of generally no commercial or social interest to the rest of the world, would the best choice be to leave the people alone in their primitive existence, with minimal contact with the modern, or do we decide that the people that exist in such a state, and their progeny, deserve to enjoy the benefits of modern society?

I am sure this question has been posed many times, and debated vehemently on both sides, and without accessing the results of those debates, my question here is philosophical, and considered within the context of Jameson’s argument.

In the case of the America’s, I find it difficult to imagine a history where the Europeans simply left well enough alone.  Without advocating some form of “Manifest Destiny,” and with the acknowledgment that many of the historical acts related to the settling of the Americas could have been accomplished with more justice and less blood, the outcome was, in my opinion, inevitable.  In part because of the likely (and largely unintended) epidemics that swept the land free of most of its indigenous population before the Europeans ever penetrated the continent, leaving the land relatively uninhabited (as opposed to China, say).   

But there are other primitive cultures that exist in modern times, without an immediate threat of modernization.  Deep in the Amazon, for instance, or the Sentinelese, an indigenous people who inhabit an island in the Bay of Bengal and have yet to be assimilated into the modern world.  Do we leave them alone, or enforce our society upon them? Those living in those societies today would prefer to be left alone, based on their behavior when confronted with outsiders.  But what about their children and grandchildren?  Do we deny them the benefits of modern society?

The trouble in posing such a question is that nobody possesses the perspective to know what circumstance is genuinely superior to another.  If you could question a grandchild of a primitive Amazonian and offer that hypothetical person a choice before their birth, laying out both lifetimes for them to examine, which would they choose?  Their grandfather can’t rightly choose because they don’t understand the alternative.  An outsider can’t rightly choose because they can’t weigh the quality of life of that primitive existence, including the spiritual value that may surpass any material considerations, including those of better health and longevity.  

So in the same way the primitive can’t knowledgably decide between a modern existence and a radically traditional one, the modern Marxist critic can’t either.  But there is one thing we can assert with confidence: very few, if any, person living today in modern society would trade the rest of their modern existence for one living with a headhunting tribe in Amazonia (they don’t have internet…or indoor plumbing…or air conditioning [it’s really hot]…or ice cream…or health plans…).

Jameson provides another Marxist criticism of modern industrial society:

And surely, there is a sense in which such faithful “expression” of the underlying logic of the daily life of capitalism programs us to it and helps to make us increasingly at home in what would otherwise—for a time traveler from another social formation—distressingly alienating reality.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

This is an interesting formation by Jameson, because most of us have grown accustomed to the potentially alienating influence of modernity, requiring us to consider how somebody from another time and place might feel if suddenly exposed to 21st century modern society.  But let’s extend the example further: take anyone from one complex (or simple, for that matter) social environment, and throw them unprepared into one quite different (a 14th century Chinese peasant into 18th century Paris, say, or a modern New Yorker into a primitive Amazon village, or a teenager raised in Soviet Russia dropped into the middle of tribal Afghanistan, or a native of Chicago moving to the suburbs of California) and they will find themselves distressingly alienated.  Presumably they would recover, in time, but the initial alienating shock they would suffer cannot be denied.

Marxist critics assume that all forms of alienation within a modern setting are unique to that setting, and wouldn’t exist in other times and places.  I would question the basis of that assumption, and ask how such a critic knows that people living on other continents, in other centuries, didn’t suffer as much, if not more, alienation within their society.  The absence of historical records, or popular fiction, makes such an assumption problematic.  Have not the Jewish people suffered alienation everywhere they have lived since the Diaspora?  Did the women who failed to embrace their role in a patriarchal society not suffer alienation?  What about gay men and women in history?  Did pre-industrial society treat them as normal folk, or did they have to live a lie in order to survive?  What about any individual that was born into a social environment that simply did not fit their character?  For example, in any conceivable model organic society, where everyone is born into a community with set expectations and roles, somebody is bound to feel out of place, as they are slotted into an ill-fitting role, fomenting a desire to rebel. In such a society, all rebellion, whether minor deviations of behavior, attempted flight, or outright violence, will be suppressed, creating social pressure and alienation.  Again, alienation is likely part of the human condition, as some people, if not most people, in any given situation, are going to be unhappy with elements of it.

One of the key distinctions between a Marxist/Socialist ideology and the classical Liberal is the relationship between an individual and the collective.  The source of many of the arguments that sometimes rage between political theorists can often be traced to fundamental differences in how individuals are considered.  As already pointed out, the Marxist believes that collective entities (class, for example) and social structures (“mode of production,” for instance) influence, if not outright determine, an individual’s point of view.  Accordingly, the “autonomous” individual remains a myth:

The fiction of the individual subject—so-called bourgeois individualism—had of course, always been a key functional element in the bourgeois cultural revolution, the reprogramming of individuals to the “freedom” and equality of sheer market equivalence.  As this fiction becomes ever more difficult to sustain (or, to use the somewhat mythic terminology of the Frankfurt School, as the old “autonomy” of the bourgeois subject is increasingly lost under the effects of disintegration and the fetishization), more desperate myths of the self are generated, many of which are still with us today.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

What I find remarkable in such thinking is the obvious individuality displayed by the Marxist thinkers we have closely considered (Sweezy and Jameson), along with the referenced Frankfort School, a school that includes Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas and Walter Benjamin, all of whom I have read and can testify to their unique intellects.  This simply reinforces the empirical claim made by von Mises that, “All rational action is in the first place individual action.  Only the individual thinks.  Only the individual reasons.  Only the individual acts.”  (Ludwig von Mises, Socialism).  

There is no doubt that the society in which we live influences our thought and our behavior, and that we in turn, as individuals, influence the society in which we live.  “The great social discussion,” von Mises writes, “cannot proceed otherwise than by means of the thought, will, and action of individuals.  Society lives and acts only in individuals…”  Our encounter in both instances will always be unique, despite superficial similarities to others.  How a particular aspect of society strikes one person will necessarily differ with how the same thing impacts another.  We will render distinctive interpretations; we will process the information or encounter in our own way.  

Aside from any empirical difficulties with the substance of collectivist thinking, real danger stems from carrying such thinking too far:

Abandoning respect for the individual, his creed, his convictions, and his feelings, is the first step on the road to the gas chamber.

     Peter Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander

Some readers may take Drucker’s warning as hyperbolic, until they are reminded that Fascist ideology demanded putting the State before the self, leading directly to those gas chambers. Communist ideology is purely collective, and led directly to perhaps the single greatest calamity in human history, China’s Great Leap Forward.  According to Wikipedia:

It is widely regarded by historians that The Great Leap resulted in tens of millions of deaths. A lower-end estimate is 18 million, while extensive research by Chinese historian Yu Xiguang suggests the death toll from the movement is closer to 55.6 million.  Fellow historian Frank Dikötterasserts that “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history.”

Why did this take place? (again, according to Wikipedia):

Yang Jisheng, a long-time communist party member and a reporter for the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, puts the blame squarely on Maoistpolicies [Marxism] and the political system of totalitarianism[endemic in Marxism], such as diverting agricultural workers to steel production instead of growing crops, and exporting grain at the same time.  During the course of his research, Yang uncovered that some 22 million tons of grain was held in public granaries at the height of the famine, reports of the starvation went up the bureaucracy only to be ignored by top officials, and the authorities ordered that statistics be destroyed in regions where population decline became evident.

Conditions in China from 1957 to 1962 were horrific, the direct result of an aggressive application of Marxist ideology.  Most of the victims starved to death, with perhaps 2-3 million actual casualties of government violence, and another three million or so to suicide.

As for individualism, if we equate “psychic vulgarity” to “alienation,” “reification,” and the effects of “rationalization,” then John Cowper Powys offers a response:

Nothing but an extreme and an almost misanthropic individualism can save us from the ubiquitous atmosphere of all this psychic vulgarity.

      John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture

Jameson issues perhaps his most devastating critique of modernity when he charges it with the discovery, and the dissemination, of the essentially nihilistic quality of human existence:

Thus, the study of value, the very idea of value, comes into being at the moment of its own disappearance and of the virtual obliteration of all value by a universal process of inistrumentalization: which is to say that—as again in the emblematic case of Nietzsche—the study of value is at one with nihilism, or the experience of its absence.  What is paradoxical about such an experience is obviously that it is contemporaneous with one of the most active periods in human history, with all the mechanical animation of late Victorian city life, with all the smoke and conveyance inherent in new living conditions and in the rapid development of business and industry, with the experimental triumphs of positivistic science and its conquest of the university system, with all the bustling parliamentary and bureaucratic activity of the new middle-class regimes, the spread of the press, the diffusion of literacy and the rise of mass culture, the ready accessibility of the newly mass-produced commodities of an increasingly consumer-oriented civilization. We must ponder the anomaly that it is only in the most completely humanized environment, the one most fully and obviously the end product of human labor, production, and transformation, that life becomes meaningless, and that existential despair first appears as such in direct proportion to the elimination of nature, the non-or anti-human, to the increasing roll back of everything that threatens human life and the prospect of a well-nigh limitless control over the external universe.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Jameson is correct: at one time the Christian West believed that life would ultimately be redeemed by the savior Christ, and that all worldly woe would be rendered ephemeral. Later, with the promise of modern progress, and the 19th century’s belief that through the application of science and technology, paradise could ultimately be realized on earth, thereby refocusing human faith on the near future and the foreseeable goal of paradise-like life on earth.  With the advent of modernity, and the general collapse of faith (in Europe, at least), such promises were shown to be in vain.  Humans are still human, and still live as humans in the world, aware for the first time (although thinkers have been saying so since at least Vico) that inherent meaning doesn’t exist in nature, that it cannot be discovered or found empirically outside of oneself.

But this has always been the case, and only fully revealed in modern life.  “We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” Nietzsche tells us.  The full quote is instructive:

For a philosopher to say ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ one ought to thrash him.  Truth is ugly.  
     We possess art lest we perish from the truth.

     Nietzsche, The Will to Power

The ugly truth is the nihilistic truth.  Primitive humans lived with blinders, worshipping the stones and the sun, gloriously ignorant and utterly unaware of the actual meaning of anything.  Future millennia made little progress in limiting ubiquitous ignorance, inventing gods and ghosts and new demons to fear.  (In some ways, our fictions have simply become more sophisticated, in art, religion, philosophy and science.)

And then modernity: no more heaven in the sky with the death of God; no more paradise on earth, with the realization that human progress is not preordained or eternal, and does not necessarily lead to human happiness.  Is that what Jameson advocates, a return to primitive ignorance? Is that what we need in order to regain our spiritual health and eliminate the many symptoms of modernity?  Or is there another way?  Nietzsche thought so:

Nihilism is a dangerous but a necessary and a possible salutary stage in human history. In it man faces his true situation. It can break him, reduce him to despair and spiritual or bodily suicide.  But is can hearten him to a reconstruction of a world of meaning. Nietzsche's works are a glorious exhibition of the soul of a man who might, if anybody can, be called creative.

      Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

I admit to being sympathetic with Jameson’s point of view, as can be demonstrated by the opening lines from my book on literary art:

The mundane world presses inexorably upon every facet of our existence each moment of every day.  Without relief, only undying purposelessness awaits us as we awake each morning and don our civilized masks and bravely submit to a duty to which we have been – typically without our deliberation – indentured.  Early 21stCentury modern technical society crushes us into conforming sameness and squeezes originality from us like brackish ooze every year until we look and behave more like our neighbors, and whatever interior landscapes that may have once beckoned to us now lie reduced to flat mindless plain.

     As we grow older it grows worse, until we no longer recognize – no longer remember – that once a youthful desire to be something other than ordinary lit our ambition like a flaming torch, and burned us with an intensity to embrace life, our life, the only one granted us for this limited duration, an intensity that launched our spirits into the unknown seeking adventure and straining at the moral boundaries so often articulated by parents, schools, church, society.
     But for some people, no: no such calling took place; no imperative to live autonomously; no desire to be other.  For those who find themselves happily conforming, this book is not for you.  You already know the truth as revealed by whatever god you worship.  No screaming noise emanates from within demanding to know more, to be more.  You live free from spiritual want, from moral question.  You pray only that nothing changes ever.

      A. Wheeler, The Literary Novel: Why (and How) You Should Write One

So yes, modern life poses a challenge to all of us.  We suffer various forms of alienation, and long for changes that seem impossible, or hunger for opportunities sure to make us happy.  The prevalent existence of mental health issues and careless obesity and countless other symptoms point to social deficiencies of one type or another. But is this different from any time in the past, other than from a Darwinian perspective? (in that some of the people suffering today wouldn’t actually survive without modern medicine.)  How could such a thing be determined with any accuracy?  How can general well-being be measured, or compared, one age to another? And is that even the right question?

As Jameson points out, modern civilization has created massive productive social machines that promise every form of activity, entertainment, challenge and enticement to an individual human.  People respond differently when faced with so many complicated social and technical variables.  Some people adjust quickly and conform without pain.  Others resist the social framework into which they are born: sometimes they overcome it, and make something of themselves that is uniquely special; most times they ultimately submit to the pressure to conform, and repress their socially inflicted wounds until they erupt in later life as maniacal regret or perhaps chronic depression.

The challenge to every human, in every age, remains the same: given the historically social circumstances of their birth, and their unique heredity, what do they make of their lives? Yes, class bias, political ideology, and the cultural surround all play their part in impacting ones life.  They don’t determine the course of that life, however, or determine what a potentially autonomous individual makes of themselves.  What the modern world provides, and the future promises to enhance (given the continued relative freedom we enjoy) are the opportunities and incentives worth striving for and achieving.

Which brings us back to Jameson.  One of the inconsistencies with his criticism and orthodox Marxism is that he seems to be advocating an organic society where people live much closer to the land, a simpler way to make a living.  He writes repeatedly of how modern commercial society “fragments” traditional social institutions, including the rendering of art and work.  He criticizes the division of labor as being pernicious, and attacks many of the principle strengths (in terms of productivity) of modern industry. Yet Marx believed that the socialist revolution would greatly enhance the material condition of the workers, and everyone else that wasn’t very wealthy.  Within that context, Karl Popper asks an important question, and indicates the Marxist solution:

Is it true that our soul protests against the materialization and mechanization of our life, that it protests against the progress we have made in the fight against the untold suffering through hunger and pestilence which characterized the Middle Ages?  Is it true that the mind suffered when it had to serve humanity as a technician, and was it happier to serve as a serf or a slave?  I do not intend to belittle the very serious problem of purely mechanical work, of a drudgery which is felt to be meaningless, and which destroys the creative power of the workers; but the only practical hope lies, not in a return to slavery and serfdom, but in an attempt to make machinery take over this mechanical drudgery.  Marx was right in insisting that increased productivity is the only reasonable hope of humanizing labor and of further shortening the labor day.

     Karl Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies

So which is it? Primitive ignorance or improved material conditions?  The two are mutually exclusive (with the exception of the individual in a modern society who chooses to live a far simpler life, the Amish for instance). The Marxist critic needs to settle on one or the other, as society cannot be generally structured to accommodate both: either improvements in material conditions improves the lot of humankind (and always has) or society needs to be engineered to drastically limit change, reduce usable technology to some decided minimum, and settle into some form of static communal existence where every person’s place is well defined and secure, thereby (presumably) limiting the spread of “existential despair,” and eliminating “alienation” and every other supposed symptom of modern existence.

Jameson wishes to suggest, consistent with Marxism, that the favored social arrangement will only manifest when the suppressed classes win the struggle against the hegemonic rulers and establish their socialist Utopia.  In the meantime, such suppressed classes will recognize their innate brotherhood, and the inherent violence and injustice of the ruling class that maintains the status quo through “hegemonic ideology and cultural production,” along with direct control over the levers of political power:

…those who must work and produce surplus value for others will necessarily grasp their own solidarity—initially, in the unarticulated form of rage, helplessness, victimization, oppression by a common enemy—before the dominant or ruling class has any particular incentive for doing so…This suggests…that the truthof ruling-class consciousness (that is, of hegemonic ideology and cultural production) is to be found in working-class consciousness.  It suggests, even more strongly, that the index of all class consciousness is to be found not in the latter’s “contents” or ideological motifs, but first and foremost in the dawning sense of solidarity with other members of a particular group or class, whether the latter happen to be your fellow landowners, those who enjoy structural privileges linking to your own, or, on the contrary, fellow workers and producers, slaves, serfs, or peasants. Only an ethical politics, linked to those ethical categories we have often had occasion to criticize and to deconstruct in the preceding pages, will feel the need to “prove” that one of these forms of class consciousness is good or positive and the other reprehensible or wicked: on the grounds for example, that working-class consciousness is potentially more universal than ruling-class consciousness, or that the latter is essentially linked to violence and repression.  It is unnecessary to argue these quite correct propositions; ideological commitment is not first and foremost a matter of moral choice but of the taking of sides in a struggle between embattled groups. In a fragmented social life—that is, essentially in all class societies—the political thrust of the struggle of all groups against each other can never be immediately universal but must always necessarily be focused on the class enemy.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Descending from the theoretical to the practical implications of Jameson’s assertions, it’s important to recognize that where entrenched elites control the government, where actual class barriers exist, where legal limits are placed on those entering a profession (based on race, say, or caste), where government laws and regulations prevent outsiders from entering a market (the exclusion of Japanese-made full-size pickup trucks from being imported into the US, say), or unnatural monopolies are maintained by government fiat (the former AT&T, for example), or where industries owned and operated by the government legally prevent private alternatives to arise (US Postal service, for example, or public highways), then social and economic justice becomes problematic.  This isn’t an issue of class versus class, as Jameson suggests, but instead, the relationship between a free citizenry and the nature of the ruling government.  This becomes particularly clear when a dictator assumes ultimate power in a small Central American country and turns every major industry into a family business (the Somoza family in Nicaragua from 1937-1979, for instance) bleeding it (literally – collecting blood from the poorest people and selling it) of wealth to use for their own purpose.  Again, this isn’t an issue of class – it’s an example of a radical abuse of political power.  Similar examples can be seen in North Korea and the Africa of Idi Amin.  On the other hand, in a theoretical society where the government doesn’t grant special considerations to a minority of citizens, where no self-serving regulation of industry exists, and commerce can be owned and operated by anybody, then antagonistic classes wouldn’t exist, social relationships would be peaceful and voluntary, and there wouldn’t be a “class enemy” to resist.

Marxist Cultural Criticism

We have crossed from literary criticism to cultural/social criticism several times already.  But now we are going to take a closer look at one of the most prominent sources of Marxist cultural criticism, the aforementioned Frankfurt School.  Habermas provides a good starting point when he writes:

Critical Theory was initially developed in Horkheimer’s circle to think through political disappointments at the absence of revolution in the West, the development of Stalinism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Germany. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prognoses, but without breaking with Marxist intentions.

     Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse on Modernity

As already demonstrated, a Marxist approach to criticism spans beyond the economic and political:

With respect to political economy the position of critical theory is clear: political economy is crucial but too narrow a base when taken alone for the development of Marxist concerns.  

     David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory

The diversity of the critical theorists both works for and against them within the context of this study. On the one hand, they bring a wide array of complex theory and historical study to bear on the issue of modern society, while on the other, they fail to coalesce into a coordinated theory of political praxis:

Although it is true that the critical theorists did not produce a sustained political theory, they stand in the tradition of those who maintain the unity of socialism and liberty and who argue that the aims of a rational society must be embedded in the means used to establish that society.

     David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory

The reason that critical theorists haven’t settled on a unified political theory can be explained by pointing to the competing and mutually exclusive principles of “socialism”and“liberty” within their agreed program.  A socialist society necessitates a large state for planning and organizing every aspect of society.  In such a state, what John Stuart Mill defines as liberty wouldn’t exist:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty.  It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.
          Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.

      John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In stark contrast with a liberal view, in a socialist state people would work where assigned, live in public housing without choice, and amuse themselves with state-approved activities. Attempting to reconcile the two concepts within a “rational society” simply isn’t possible.  But the demand for a “rational society” is ubiquitous among critical theorists, without having described the principles upon which such a society would be based:

The notion of what constitutes a 'rational society' is (like Adorno's notion of 'unfulfilled possibilities') undeveloped.  On Horkheimer's view this is inevitable: the truths to be drawn out are primarily negations.  Yet the unpacking, concretization and elaboration of the idea of a rational society seems of central importance if it is to become something more than an abstract standard accessible only to isolated theorists.  How can we or might we reduce institutional structures compatible with its principles?  How are we to differentiate what Horkheimer held to be immanent and potential from those who claim to represent an alternative view—the party, intellectuals, other critical theorists?  Are there criteria that make such distinctions possible?  Or are there a multitude of competing moral and political standpoints compatible with 'the general interest in a rational society'? Horkheimer had an unfortunate tendency to avoid these questions or to treat answers to them as self-evident.

     David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory

As part of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse demonstrates explicit aspects of the irrationality of modern society.  In doing so, he utilizes concepts of “false” and “true” consciousness, and how the “conquered man” is repressed by science and established society:

The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible.  The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest still is meaningful.  But this distinction itself must be validated. Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest.  They can do so only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing.  It is precisely this need which the established society manages to repress to the degree to which it is capable of “delivering the goods” on an increasingly large scale, and using the scientific conquest of nature for the scientific conquest of man.

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

So one of the explicit challenges of critical theorists is to convince the people in modern society that they are repressed, that they don’t understand exactly what is going on (endowed as they are with “false consciousness”), and they need to change their way of looking at things (obtaining the elusive “true consciousness").

Marcuse goes on in an attempt to explain away the paradox of a “free” socialist society by doing away with our accepted understanding of “freedom,” but then reopens the paradox by asserting (correctly) that any institutional determination of what “needs should be developed and satisfied” would be “reprehensible":

In the last analysis, the question of what are true and false needs must be answered by the individuals themselves, but only in the last analysis; that is, if and when they are free to give their own answer.  As long as they are kept incapable of being autonomous, as long as they are indoctrinated and manipulated (down to their very instincts), their answer to this question cannot be taken as their own.  By the same token, however, no tribunal can justly arrogate to itself the right to decide which needs should be developed and satisfied.  Any such tribunal is reprehensible, although our revulsion does not do away with the question: how can the people who have been the object of effective and productive domination by themselves create the conditions of freedom?

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

Redefining “liberty” is a necessary ploy by the critical theorists in order to justify their criticism and reconcile the apparent lack of freedom in a socialist state.  But simply redefining the word doesn’t alter the concept generally associated with it.  Within this context, we follow Ludwig von Mises when he writes:

Only within the frame of a social system can a meaning be attached to the term freedom.  As a praxeological term, freedom refers to the sphere within which an acting individual is in a position to choose between alternative modes of action.  A man is free in so far as he is permitted to choose ends and the means to be used for the attainment of those ends.

    Ludwig von Mises, Human Action

More specifically to political society, and the definition of liberty, he writes:

As far as the government—the social apparatus of compulsion and oppression—confines the exercise of its violence and the threat of such violence to the suppression and prevention of antisocial action, there prevails what reasonably and meaningfully can be called liberty.

     Ludwig von Mises, Human Action

Notice also that it’s not simply having various options that defines freedom in Marcuse’s case, but what somebody actually chooses:

Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination.  The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual.  

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

So even if people are at liberty to “choose”, they only do so after being programmed by the “social apparatus” rendering their choices radically “unfree.”  What choices people make are thus determined by the “totalitarian” society that manipulates “needs by vested interests:”

By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian.  For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

So from Marcus’s perspective, humans in modern society are not free, they do not know they are not free, they behave as if they are free but demonstrate by their choices their programmed state.  Given the hidden “effective and productive domination” they endure, they haven’t the means to free themselves from this unrecognized and abhorrent condition.  Marcuse goes on to argue that the “administrative” controls utilized by the “established society,” the easing of work conditions, and the increased wealth and comfort of the working classes, fails to emancipate the “industrial” slaves:

For in reality, neither the utilization of administrative rather than physical controls (hunger, personal dependence, force), nor the change in the character of heavy work, nor the assimilation of occupational classes, nor the equalization in the sphere of consumption compensate for the fact that the decisions over life and death, over personal and national security are made at places over which the individuals have no control.  The slaves of developed industrial civilization are sublimated slaves, but they are slaves…

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

Those “slaves” are brutally “kept in line” while the better off hardly notice the chains they wear:
Those whose life is the hell of the Affluent Society are kept in line by a brutality which revives medieval and early modern practices.  For the other, less underprivileged people, society takes care of the need for liberation by satisfying the needs which make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable…

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

Marcuse explicates the classic Marxist view of labor, and the “material, tangible element” of modern slavery:

Mechanization is increasingly reducing the quantity and intensity of physical energy expended in labor.  This evolution is of great bearing on the Marxian concept of the worker (proletarian). To Marx, the proletarian is primarily the manual laborer who expends and exhausts his physical energy in the work process, even if he works with machines.  The purchase and use of this physical energy, under sub-human conditions, for the private appropriation of surplus-value entailed the revolting inhuman aspects of exploitation; the Marxian notion denounces the physical pain and misery of labor.  This is the material, tangible element in wage slavery and alienation—the physiological and biological dimension of classical capitalism.

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

But things have changed, Marcuse acknowledges.  With increasing mechanization and the lessoning of “physical energy expended in labor,” and the “exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery” has been transformed into “tension and/or mental effort":

…Now the ever-more-complete mechanization of labor in advanced capitalism, while sustaining exploitation, modifies the attitude and the status of the exploited.  Within the technological ensemble, mechanized work in which automatic and semi-automatic reactions fill the larger part (if not the whole) of labor time remains, as a life-long occupation, exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery—even more exhausting because of increased speed-up, control of the machine operators (rather than of the product), and isolation of the workers from each other.  To be sure, this form of drudgery is expressive of arrested, partial automation, of the coexistence of automated, semi-automated, and non-automated sections within the same plant, but even under these conditions, “for muscular fatigue technology has substituted tension and/or mental effort.”

     Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

Marcuse sees an industrial world much different than I do.  Having worked in many “proletariat” type jobs, in several industries, his analysis rings false to me.  For one thing, those who work in physically challenging jobs generally take pride in their abilities, and scorn those with less endurance.  The most extreme case of this in my experience was working in Alaska one summer packing salmon.  Our crew was recruited on our college campus to work the entire season in Kenai, all of us young healthy males.  The scheduled shift was 8am to 11pm seven days a week, with two one-hour meal breaks.  

Our “factory” worked like this.  Fresh salmon was gutted and cleaned on the “slime lines,” and then six to eight fish were placed in a box nestled in a wire stackable frame.  Once a pallet was full of these wire frames, it was picked up by a forklift and driven from the slime lines and into a blast freezer. The next morning one of our crew would drive a forklift into the blast freezer (40 degrees below zero in the morning, warming to 20 degrees below zero later in the day), pick up a pallet of fish and drop it off next to our production line.  Two guys would grab a basket in coordination and flip it over to drop the frozen block of fish onto a stainless steel table, and then pass the box bottom to a table across from them (the production line was shaped like a “U”). The next person in line would grab the block of frozen fish, weighing between 35-50lbs, and dip it into an icy solution of sugar water, then flip it back up onto the table for the next guy to slide a plastic bag over the fish.  While not as physically demanding, this was the hardest job on the line, as it took real skill to get the bag over the fish without having it sliced open by an extruding fin.  (This was the only job on our crew that I actively tried to avoid.)  Once the bag was on the block of frozen fish, the next person picked it up and threw it back into the same box bottom it came out of. If you did it right, the frozen fish hit the box perfectly and slid to the next station, where Akira, the only Japanese person on the line, would determine what box top was necessary (quantity, type of salmon the variables).  In a loft above our heads two people built boxes, sending them down an aluminum chute as necessary.  Daily humor occurred when Akira couldn’t get the right top.  He didn’t speak English, and the girls upstairs Japanese, so their shouting back and forth was fun.  After the appropriate box top was fit, our supervisor at the next station operated the strapping machine (the only job I never worked).  Yellow straps bound the box, and the box placed on a pallet. When the pallet was full, the same forklift would take it out to the shipping dock, where the boxes were hand-loaded onto a freezer truck.  Driving the forklift was my favorite job (not because it was the least physically demanding, but because it was fun) and loading the truck my second favorite. When loading the final rows of the truck, we would see how far we could stand back and throw the boxes into place. We didn’t always make it.  

The strapping machine would strap a box every three seconds, and that was the rate we worked.  Most of the positions on the line required lifting 35-50 lbs. every three seconds. In one long day I lifted a total of 85 tons, and the next 90 (I was the one throwing the fish back into the box bottom).  I remember those numbers because we weighed every pallet, and those were exceptionally long days (working past midnight).  Other days were mixed.  Because we were hired in Seattle, we were guaranteed work, so when there weren’t fish to pack, we worked the slime lines, or packing salmon eggs.  

For the first two weeks, I was constantly tired, hungry, sick or asleep. A break would be called and I would sit down at my station, lean back against a cold, concrete wall, and close my eyes, just wanting not to move.  At mealtimes, our crew ate at the same table.  Once everyone else was finished eating (another hundred people or so) they would bring the leftovers to our table, and we would polish it off. 

In the end, I worked forty-four consecutive days, averaging thirteen hours a day.  Other people on our crew worked more hours because sometimes we were given an option, and I would quit when I could.  One day we all got off after eight hours, and it felt like a long weekend.  

After those first couple of weeks, I went out every other night.  We’d get off work at 11pm, go home and shower, and walk a mile and a half to an all-night bar with live music.  The same band played every night, the same songs (I could name them), all summer.  We’d smoke and drink and harass the few women there, and then stumble back to our compound by 5am or so.  At 7:55am I would get up and get dressed, back on the line at 8am to work a full day. Go to bed after work, get up and eat breakfast, and work until 11pm.  Rinse and repeat.

But here’s the funny thing.  After a couple of weeks, we began to seek the more physical jobs.  That’s the only reason I ran the forklift – the guy wanted to work the line for a while.  We grew strong and capable, and found ways to make our otherwise dreary workday memorable. I could tell stories about a 400lb shark stranded in the mud a mile upriver at low tide; how we would “jump” smaller king salmon (the only species that we didn’t box because they might be a foot long or 95 lbs. dressed) over the ramp-like bodies of larger fish into the sugar tank.  They didn’t always make it.

When hired, we were offered transportation there and back; room and board; pay including time-and-a-half for everything over forty hours a week. The only caveat was that if we quit prior to the end of the season, they wouldn’t pay our way home.  In fact, they chartered a flight directly from Anchorage to Seattle, and when I requested a different route (I took the ferry from Juneau to Seattle) they reimbursed me the airfare, something they didn’t have to do.

Nobody quit; we weren’t forced to be there, and we could leave any time; we weren’t mistreated or abused; the food was great (we only had salmon two or three times the entire time); the lodging was adequate (two people to a room). 

And as I mentioned earlier, many people worked longer hours than I did. For example, my roommate spent sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, in the adjacent cannery, loading can tops into a machine.  There were three chutes, and all he had to do was make sure they never went empty.  He spent most of the day reading.  

A Marxist might respond, “Sure, that was a fun summer for a college boy, but you didn’t have to do that your entire life.”  And that’s true.  However, half the workforce were professional fisherman and women from the Philippines, and for them, this was a life-long occupation, one they chose to retain.  We all have options, and make choices along the way, the universal intention to better our lives.  Nobody is locked into any particular job, or profession, in a modern industrial society.  

I also worked in mills, warehouses, machine shops, and production shops building furniture.  I dwell on this topic because my experience, and my observations of other people working in those conditions, does not match Marcuse’s, or the notion of exploited labor that is central to Marxist theory.  In fact, a working-class job is an honorable way to make a living, and in many ways, preferable to the alternative.  Of all the jobs I have had, my favorite was working for Amazon during peak season.  The process was simple: trucks delivered product (toys, clothes, books, iPods, etc.); the trucks were unloaded onto large carts; “stowers” took the carts into a mod (a particular section of the large distribution center) and placed each item into a bin, using a scanner to mark its location.  The stower could use any bin that had the space for the item, and any bin might contain any number of different (or the same) items.  A customer orders something online.  A “picker” sees the item on their scanner, along with the specific location (mod, aisle, bin) and wheels a smaller cart to that location and picks the item out of the bin and places it into a tote. When the tote is full (or the scanner directs the picker to close it out) the picker places the tote onto a moving track, one that carries the tote to the packing area.  The item is packaged and addressed, and the box sent to another fleet of trucks ready to ship the items to a customer’s home.

I spent three peak seasons with Amazon, the first one as a stower, and the latter two as a picker.  Picking was my favorite.  I walked ten to fifteen miles a day (so I was active, as opposed to sitting in a cubicle all day), wearing shorts, t-shirt and a ball cap (so perfectly comfortable, as opposed to suit and ties, or even casual office wear); safe, stress-free, easy work (a trained monkey could do it); and plenty of time to think about what really matters (as opposed to silly office politics, budget projections, project status, tracking financial variables, leading teams, deploying complex workflow solutions, writing reviews, and attending endless meetings). I used to tell people (only half kidding) that if they let me listen to music I would pay them to work.  During this past season, I designed the Traffic Panacea Proposal while picking, my single most significant contribution to modern society.   The previous season I discovered major affinities between my two final novels, works that previously seemed utterly unrelated.  

As a corporate professional, I never worked less than fifty hours a week, and usually more.  Not because I was forced to do so, but because I was ambitious and worked hard to make the most of any particular situation.  Most Sunday’s I spent the mornings at work, the only time of the week I could enjoy a few quiet hours without interruption.  From my first role at AT&T as a college hire supervisor, to my final stint at Capgemini working for the State of Texas, I was a disruptive force, an agent of change.  This led to continuous strain on myself and those I worked with, particularly my superiors. Sometimes it worked out: I instituted change that was clearly beneficial to the organization, and was rewarded for it, with promotion and financial bonuses.  Other times I failed (even when I succeeded), and was punished.  Either way, it was always stressful, for all of us. While the compensation was far superior, working at Amazon, in comparison, was a pleasant dream.

While it is extremely difficult to render proper judgment between working conditions of the past and those of the present, two assertions can be made with confidence: first, that workers in the industrial West considered working as they did their best option (they would do something else otherwise), and second, working conditions and compensation have steadily improved over the decades.  The only places this isn’t true is socialist states, where workers can’t quit and the standard of living plateaued or actually declined over time.

Marxist theory of labor has always been flawed, and unsurprisingly.  None of the Marxist intellectuals originated in the working class, beginning with Marx (student of law and philosophy, professional, non-working intellectual) and Engels (factory owner).  In fact, only one of the Marxists in this study, including Walter Benjamin (wandering intellectual and writer), Herbert Marcuse (PhD, worked for the American Government, later to provide intellectual leadership for the New Left), Max Horkheimer (professional academic, instrumental in founding the Frankfurt School), Theodor Adorno (originally obsessed with music, he later turned to philosophy and was a key figure in the Frankfurt School), Paul Sweezy (Harvard graduate and economics professor, engaged in numerous debates with fellow university professor Joseph Schumpeter), Frederic Jameson (professional academic from Yale who also taught at Harvard), Karl Kautsky (writer, editor, and one of the most important theoreticians of Marxism), Terry Eagleton (grew up in a working-class family but excelled at university and never looked back), had any direct experience among the proletariat.  They never worked in a factory, or punched a clock, or got their hands dirty.  It was all theory to them, entirely academic.  They had to judge from a distance, criticizing conditions they knew nothing about.  Perhaps they were simply horrified by the thought of actually having to work for a living.

There is, with very few exceptions, in all forms of labor – including the purely physical, technical, managerial and executive – some measure of tedium, stress, discomfort and boredom, along with, in more or less equal measure, elements of pride, joy and satisfaction.  The nature of productive labor – all productive labor – is both honorable and necessary.

Every living human consumes food, housing, clothes, entertainment, transportation, communication, healthcare, toys, etc.  Everything consumed must first be produced.  Producing what is consumed requires labor, management, leadership, technology, engineering, research, marketing, finances, capital, natural resources, transportation, information, networks, training, education, and countless other factors.  Most people contribute socially useful factors towards production, i.e. they work for a living, and are compensated in such a way that they can obtain what they wish to consume.  The social machine of modern society relies on the private ownership of the means of production and the division of labor to maximize the effectiveness of production, resulting in the highest possible rate of return in terms of what working people value.  What they value gets expressed every time they decide to purchase one item, and not another.  Marcuse argues that these choices – where to work, what to buy – are not freedom, because they aren’t genuine choices (people are enslaved and don’t really choose what they do for a living) and because they don’t choose what it is they should really want to choose.  The latter point speaks to a basic Marxist assumption that the common person doesn’t really know (“false consciousness”), that people are not qualified to decide for themselves what is in their best interest.  Eagleton makes this clear when he writes:

You can, then, be mistaken about whether you are flourishing, and someone else may be more wisely perceptive about the matter than you yourself.  

           Terry Eagleton, After Theory

Accepting this Marxist position allows for someone else to decide what is best for you or for me.  And if we don’t agree, the only option is for the state to insist, repressively if necessary. The Marxist insistence that this option is preferable to one that relies on individual judgment, that “administrative” forces in our modern society are just as “totalitarian” as the actual violent behavior experienced in a police state, strike me as particularly appalling. Marxist frequently equate the two, as in the following examples:

[Jews] are now [1944] experiencing to their own cost the exclusive, particularistic character of capitalism.  

     Horkheimer/Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

This is a horrible comparison.  Forcing a person at gunpoint into concentration camps to be exterminated has nothing in common with the private ownership of the means of production and the division of labor (that is, capitalism).  As another example for the same book: 

The howling voice of Fascist orators and camp commandants shows the other side of the same social condition.  The yell is as cold as business.  They both expropriate the sounds of natural complaint and make them elements of their technique.  

     Horkheimer/Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

“…cold as business”.  This form of moral equivalency appears all too often in Marxist criticism, and greatly distorts the actual nature of the social conditions they wish to criticize and change.

As has been shown in Jameson’s work, there is a stated relationship in Marxist criticism between cultural artifacts, literary works and artistic expression that translates into social behavior, political action and moral truth, without demonstrating the nature of the relationship: what precedes, what follows, what influences, what effects what?

Their work often shifts quite sharply, as one commentator has aptly noted, 'from an internal aesthetic analysis of capitalist commercial culture to its assumed effects on mass behavior and consciousness'.  

     David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory

This assumption is problematic.  We encounter countervailing cultural images and concepts constantly.  How do they affect our thinking, our behavior?  Certainly there is no one answer.  Time and place, context, and the individual all matter. The correlation between what culture exudes and what people imbibe is less than apparent; or in some cases, much more than one might expect; or most likely, something all together different than anticipated. 

As part of the philosophical challenge to present viable political and social solutions, major concepts such as “equality” and “liberty” need to be understood in a common way:

When Adorno argued that the truth or falsity of capitalist society can be assessed according to whether or not it fulfills its concept, he presupposed that we can specify this concept.  Yet even if there is come degree of historical agreement as to the nature of this--bourgeois society claiming, for example, to represent a free and just process of exchange, to sustain liberty and equality--these concepts will not point to a basis for critique unless their content is carefully unfolded.  To do this is to reveal fundamental disagreements--even if we restrict attention to bourgeois political theorists--about the nature of equality and liberty.  Each different understanding of the term could give rise to different critiques, thus opening up such questions as: Which standards should we choose? How do we judge between them? These are the very kinds of questions Adorno's analysis sought to circumvent.  Yet an historical account cannot avoid them.

     David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory

In my view, the same conundrum stands in the way of resolving these critical debates: the critical theorists want their socialist cake and eat their liberty too.  It simply can’t be done:

There is something to be made of the oft-repeated charge that the Frankfurt school failed, ultimately, to integrate studies of the individual and social consciousness with political economy and institutional analysis.

     David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory

One of the common themes in cultural/social criticism is the current degeneration of society.  Such criticism seems to takes place in every society in every age.  Plato’s Republic serves as an ancient example, a radical critique of democratic Athens.  Goethe had this to say in 1796:

…artists of our age are always offering instead of giving.  They always aim at attracting rather than satisfying. Everything is suggested, with no solid foundation and no proper execution.  One only needs to spend a short while quietly in a gallery, observing what works of art appeal to the multitude, which of them are praised and which are ignored, to lose all joy in the present age and have little hope for the future.  

     Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

Spengler’s Decline of the West brings us into the 20th century, and while his marshaling of so many historical and social facts is quite impressive, and his theory of civilizations fascinating, he ultimately fails to convince.  Mills expresses continued decadence in 1962:

Everywhere, the image of the self-cultivating man as the goal of the human being has declined.

     C. Wright Mills,  Essays

Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) serves as a good example:

Most students will be content with what our present considers relevant; others will have a spirit of enthusiasm that subsides as family and ambition provide them with other objects of interest; a small number will spend their lives in an effort to be autonomous.  It is for these last, especially, that liberal education exists.  They become the models for the use of the noblest human faculties and hence are benefactors to all of us, more for what they are than for what they do.  Without their presence (and, one should add, without their being respectable), no society--no matter how rich or comfortable, no matter how technically adept or full of tender sentiments--can be called civilized.

         Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind

Bloom argued that there were far too many students “content” and too few “autonomous,” threatening the health of Western civilization.

More recently (2001) is From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun, the overall theme indicated in the title.  We are in a time of decline, Barzun tells us, and George Steiner would agree.  In many of his books, but particularly in No Passion Spent, Steiner relates his critical assessment of modern society, and laments the passing of classical studies in late 20th century universities, and the poor reading and language skills he encounters as an educator. Throughout Steiner’s oeuvre, he values the exceptional in literature, philosophy and culture, and questions whether or not the best has already been achieved.  He writes in the most damning language the decay of language:

Fritz Mauthner's ... Contributions to a Critique of Language is fundamental.  The uses of speech and writing current in modern Western societies are fatally infirm.  The discourse which knits social institutions, that of legal codes, of political debate, of philosophic argument and literary construct, the leviathan rhetoric of the public media--all are rotten with lifeless clichés, with meaningless jargon, with intentional or unconscious falsehood.  The contagion has spread to the nerve centers of private saying. In a dialectic of infectious reciprocity, the pathologies of public language, especially those of journalism, of fiction, of parliamentary rhetoric and international relations, further enfeeble and falsify the attempts of the private psyche to communicate verity and spontaneity.  Language has, according to Mauthner, become both cause and symptom of the senility of the West as it lurches towards the silencing catastrophes of war and barbarism.

     George Steiner, Real Presences

According to the leading intellectual lights, then, everything everywhere is always in decline. Sometimes this is actually the case, but it can’t always be true.  Depending on the criteria (material wealth, longevity, medical advances, social harmony, spiritual attainment, prevalence of genius, artistic achievement, scientific discoveries) we must acknowledge the existence of progress here and there. We clearly value elements of past culture today, celebrate grand achievements and recognize cultural contributions from the past.  But what about today?  Why are we so critical of today’s society, and the apparent lack of genius, or artistic wonder in literature, music or the visual arts?  Why do we seem to be missing some critical element from another time and place?  Why are past times for so many people so much more appealing?

I think there are three possible answers.  The first one is simple: we don’t really understand the full nature of past lives, and while they may appear from a historical distance as desirable, the hard cold reality would likely be shocking if we actually had to experience it. Even when the nostalgic past is our own: memory is selective and untrustworthy.  What seems preferable in our minds may appear otherwise in its fully lived actuality.

The second reason is that our values change.  This is particularly the case with Steiner, who applies the standards of an old world, continental, multi-lingual and Jewish intellectual tradition to the modern world, and quite frankly, we don’t measure up.  Any of us.  His standards of intellectual excellence surpass the abilities of all but a handful of people in any given age.  Aside from that, the current standards for intellectual, literary, artistic and philosophical differ from his.  The best of us today pursue different tracks of study, skills and general interests than the people Steiner most admires.  We are not Heidegger, Hermann Broch, John Cowper Powys, Homer, or the authors of the Jewish Bible.  Seen in such a light, any age is likely to suffer the comparison.

The third explanation is more complicated.  When we consider a particular age, one studded with mountains of achievement and genius, we wonder where such visionaries exist today.  Walter Kaufman provides a perfect example of this attitude when he writes:

How did his contemporaries fare in any comparison with the ancient Greeks or the men of the Renaissance?  Being primarily interested in art and philosophy, Nietzsche found that asking the question amounted to a condemnation of his contemporaries and a repudiation of any belief that history is a story of progress.  What philosophers are living today whom one could even compare to Plato or Spinoza; and what artists, whom one could seriously juxtapose to Phidias or Michelangelo?  Has the worth of man increased?  Nietzsche concluded that what comes later in time is not necessarily more valuable.

      Walter Kaufman, Nietzsche

When we survey today’s cultural landscape, we fail to observe such majestic peaks of excellence, but instead, all we see are oceans of general mediocrity, with an occasional swell of scientific, philosophic, or artistic achievement.  But consider this: with very few exceptions, if you asked somebody in whatever age of greatness considered, they would tell you the same thing: oceans of mediocrity.  Why? Because those geniuses of originality, of scientific discovery, of literary greatness, remained generally hidden at the time and unrecognized.  It was only in the passing of time did they grow in stature until attaining the historical mountains we see them as today.

Hundreds of examples could be cited, but I will offer three.  Friedrich Nietzsche went insane in 1889, having written most of the works we admire today in the fifteen years prior to his mental illness.  He sold very few books during his sane life, but began to gain followers in the German-speaking world in the last decade of his life.  He was far better known in Europe during the early decades of the 20th century, but it was Walter Kaufmann’s book Nietzsche published in the late 50’s, and Kaufmann’s subsequent translations of Nietzsche in the sixties that really brought the German philosopher to his present level of prominence, at least in the English speaking world.  Interestingly enough, one of Nietzsche’s principle teachers suffered a similar fate. When Arthur Schopenhauer published the first edition of The World as Will and Representation in 1814, nobody (other than Goethe) noticed.  For decades the work was almost entirely ignored, despite the influence it would ultimately have on the world.  It was only towards the end of Schopenhauer’s life that his work began to get the recognition it clearly deserved.  One explanation for this in Schopenhauer’s own words:

If you want to earn the gratitude of your own age you must keep in step with it. But if you do that you will produce nothing great.  If you have something great in view you must address yourself to posterity: only then, to be sure, you will probably remain unknown to your contemporaries; you will be like a man compelled to spend his life on a desert island and there toiling to erect a memorial so that future seafarers shall know he once existed.

      Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

Finally, an example closer to home.  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was published in 1851, and sold 3215 copies over the next 34 years.  Out of print, it wasn’t until 1921 that the novel received its first favorable critical study, and in 1926 the Modern Library obtained the rights to the novel.  They published a high-quality edition in 1930, over 70 years after its initial publication.

Are there any Nietzsches, Schopenhauers or Melvilles at work today?  If so, it will likely be decades before they become fairly well known and influential.  And it’s not just the quality of the work, or the magnitude of the achievement: it often takes additional expertise, whether that of literary critics, or professional philosophers, or scientists, to translate the full implications of a particular work, or discovery, to work out fully the potential originally exhibited. And this takes time.  Kafka wasn’t Kafka when he was alive.

Right now we don’t know who, or what, will rise up out of the contemporary mix and exert a lasting influence.  Cultural peaks hidden among the current fashions and pop culture, only to be revealed when the cultural slag slips away into oblivion, leaving the potential mountains of the culturally excellent to be advanced and built upon, universally praised and carried forth.  In this world, entire cultural mountain ranges may be just forming in China, India, South America, or in the suburbs of Fresno.  Given the growing global community, and the multitude of distinctive voices and perspectives in the world, it’s quite possible we are on the verge of cultural magnificence never before obtained.  So for all of those critics who claim we are in an age of decline, they are likely as mistaken as Spengler.  

Conclusion, Questions and Concerns

The motivation for attempting this study of Marxist literary criticism originated in a question concerning the relationship between orthodox Marxism and the nature of literary criticism, which I considered an entirely different thing.  While making this study, the basis for Marxist literary criticism became evident without necessarily demonstrating a valid basis for such criticism.  With all due respect to the countless Marxist critics in the world, and with a nod to their deeper understanding of the issues and my inability to fully represent then, I was left with several conclusions, questions and concerns related to their method and purpose.

For the most part, orthodox Marxist political economy plays a small part in literary and cultural criticism.  For one thing, core elements of Marxist ideology have been fully repudiated in theory and by history.  If it hadn’t, and Marx was correct in his political economy and his critique of capitalism, that the reserve army existed how he described, that capitalism was prone to overproduction and underconsumption leading ultimately to permanent stagnation, that the labor theory of value was valid and operational, and that turning the means of production over to the proletariat would greatly increase the material wealth of humankind and thereby allow individuals more freedom, autonomy and self-expression, we would all be Marxists. But he wasn’t, and we’re not.

As far as the Marxist critic’s dependence on the notion of “false consciousness” and the idea that the mode of production determines major aspects of a person’s character seems particularly weak, as philosophy teaches us that no human individual possess a “true consciousness.”  We know that various social realities exist independent of who controls the means of production. We are all patterned after our personally unique genetics and circumstance, held together only with the flimsiest of social fabrics.  We attempt to create a shared context, and strain to understand and be understood by our fellows, but as complexities mount we drift further apart, stretching ever fewer tendrils of agreement until sorely few remain.  We only share the simplest, the most highly abstracted elements of social context among a community, the polis, and rarely at the level of a nation state, making the Marxist simplifications of “class,” the “proletariat” and the “capitalists” as near meaningless and of little genuine political interest.   I think Bryan Magee identifies the heart of the issue when he writes:

Those that treated political, social or historical levels of explanation as fundamental now seemed to me to be treating externals and surfaces as if they were foundations, and to be superficial and point-missing.  In the world…the most conspicuous example of this was Marxism…Marxism had a complete explanation of the arts in terms of political power, economic interests and social classes, and this seemed to me a grotesque attempt to explain the greater in terms of the less.

     Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher

With a few exceptions (Orwell, Eagleton, Sartre) I find 20th century Marxist/Socialist writers difficult to understand.  The work of Benjamin, Lukacs, Habermas, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno, Sweezy and Jameson expresses more than I can grasp, meaning that I am unable to render complete judgment, one way or another.  It’s possible that they have discovered aspects of social existence that I don’t understand, that I am simply unequipped intellectually to incorporate their sophisticated conceptual frameworks with my own.  That being the case, how many other sincere readers of Marxist literature fail as I have?  How many people genuinely understand complex Marxist literary theory and cultural criticism? Or understand any of it at all? And if it can’t be generally understood, how can its existence apply any influence to society?  Complex Marxist criticism appears from the outside as academically esoteric, a sacred scripture for the intellectually elect.  If, as Jameson indicates below, the work of art alone cannot change the world, how can the application of Marxist criticism do so?  

It is clear that the work of art cannot itself be asked to change the world or to transform itself into political praxis; on the other hand, it would be desirable to develop a keener sense of the complexity and ambiguity of that process loosely termed reflection or expression.

     Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Given that Jameson has already indicated that “a Marxist cultural study can hope to play its part in political praxis, which remains, of course, what Marxism is all about,”  if a work of art, or a work of criticism that reflects on that work of art, cannot be expected to change the world, what’s the point? Doesn’t this desire become problematic when the act of criticism remains opaque to the reading and thinking public? If those of us who make a sincere effort to understand the Marxist perspective, and ultimately fail, what social benefit does such criticism provide?

Traditionally, literary criticism provides a guide to the world’s best literature.  Reading literary commentary enhances the value of literature by showing us what we might otherwise not have understood.  The best criticism explicates, expands and deciphers the most sophisticated literary art objects.  Overly complex or sophisticated literary criticism does the opposite – it conceals and obfuscates the literary art object.  Burdening a particular literary work with Marxist critical apparatus, as Jameson does with Conrad, fails to convince any but the already converted.  As an admirer of Conrad, I doubt that Conrad himself would have appreciated what Jameson did with his text, or agree that the treatment was legitimate.  Not that the author always knows; they don’t necessarily, and much that was reflected in Conrad’s work existed in the text without Conrad’s conscious deliberation.  Faulkner responded like this, when confronted with similar assertions of his work:

You found implications which I had missed.  I wish that I had consciously intended them; I will certainly believe that I did it subconsciously and not by accident.

       William Faulkner, quoted by Malcolm Cowley in And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade

It’s possible, when viewed from a different era, as Jameson does with Conrad, significant aspects of the novel of which the author was simply unaware can be revealed.  But this doesn’t give the critic carte blanche, license to make something of the work that simply doesn’t exist, or can be made to exist.  In this particular example, I didn’t find Jameson’s reading of Conrad convincing, interesting, or particularly relevant.

As for the chief claim of Marxist literary criticism, that it unmasks the otherwise hidden elements of hegemonic ideology, the insidious and ubiquitous programming of the ruling class designed to pacify and render obsequious to power the general citizenry, such global claims seem dubious at best.  Yes, most novels reflect some form of society; some modern, some historical, others fantastic.  The societies depicted consist of laws, social rules, moral claims and cultural norms. Sometimes within a genre these social variables seem consistent and recognizable.  In other works they appear to be idiosyncratic.  In other words, a particular critical paradigm such as the Marxist wields wouldn’t pertain in every case.  For example, it seems to me that the works of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights reflect a very different social reality, despite being written and taking place in the same country and in the same century.  Wouldn’t a Marxist critique differ between the two, despite their common social milieu? In other words, given the differences in the texts, I don’t see how a Marxist uncovers the same social framework from reading Austen and Bronte, despite the fact that the two societies are in fact the same.

Perhaps the Austen/Bronte comparison is a bad example, as 19th century England was ground zero for Marxism. And it’s possible that the core of Marxist criticism was absolutely relevant for a particular time and place (despite Jameson’s claim to universality), but of limited value in other social conditions.  Take African American literary theory, for instance.  Given that no other country has experienced the same racial history as the US (not that racism doesn’t exist elsewhere, such as South Africa, just that black Africans in South Africa were not imported and enslaved as they were in North America), it would be difficult to apply a European critical paradigm (where African Americans do not even exist) to those works unique in American literature that feature African Americans at the center.  Without the understanding, the felt experience of uniquely American racial history, a European, or Chinese, or native African would struggle to fully grasp the significance of what they read.  I would go further and challenge any non-American, even those fluent in English, to read Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (the finest American novel, in my opinion, of the first half of the 20th century) and understand the dialogue that’s written in dialect.  Let alone appreciate the full significance of what Janie Starks experiences. But on the same token, it would be unrealistic to take African American literary theory and apply it to Dostoevsky. The perspective, values and intent wouldn’t be appropriate for a study of the Karamazov’s, and would unlikely render anything worthwhile.  I suspect that Marxist criticism is similarly limited.

Literature is rife with social protest.  While many novels may extol the current ruling paradigm, and sometimes reinforce systems of power intended to keep people in place, so many more scream out in defiance, in protest, of their social circumstances.  Two of my favorites are Catch-22 and Under the Volcano.  But so many more could be cited.  Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut).  Everything Kafka wrote.  Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand).  A Burnt Out Case (Graham Greene).  Thorstein Veblen wrote, “Everything that is, is wrong.”  And most novelists, including myself, agree.  The notion that literature is somehow in league with the ruling class in order to maintain current class structures appears highly doubtful.  Great works of art normally challenge the status quo, and rarely reinforce it.  Artists, and authors in particular, are an unruly bunch, and the ruling regime can no more harvest them for their interests than herd a bunch of cats across a river.  Which is why the freethinking artists are the first to be repressed in a communist regime. Just consider Solzhenitsyn.

For those novels that do present society in a certain light, ones that might perpetuate a particular “false consciousness,” what would that mean in today’s world?  What are the principle values that our current civilization would wish to reinforce?  What sorts of messages might popular and literary fiction emphasize?  Respect for the law?  Democratic principles of justice and freedom?  Wait your turn in line?  Marry someone you love?  Drink with moderation?  Have kids? Don’t steal from the grocery?  Never hurt the ones you love?  Remain single?  Win at all costs?  Pay your taxes?  Everything is permitted?  Stop at stop signs?  Don’t commit adultery?  Pursue wealth?  Travel the world?  Stay clean? Turn the other cheek?  Get what’s yours?  Give to the poor?  Take drugs? Everything in moderation?  Remain humble and poor?  Feed the spirit?  Obtain a trophy home?  Turn the other cheek?  Stay free? Get medicated?  Commit adultery?  Get rich?  Be the man? Pursue your dreams?  Seek redemption?  Become who you are?  Go where no one has gone before?  Send your kids to the finest school?  Don’t get caught?  Be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful?  Exercise daily?  Punish the wicked?  Read the best books?  Vigorously compete?  Bathe regularly?  Do no evil? Explore the heavens?  Search for the genuine truth?  Avoid foul breath?  Honor your parents?  Respect yourself?  Get payback? Be kind to small animals?   I could go on. Literary messages abound, none of them singular or necessarily consistent.  No unified theme exists, no paean to existent power.  Modern culture sings melodies diverse and extraordinary, bursting with pain, protest and broken dreams.

Susan Sontag provides an interesting confession when she asserts the general beneficence of a socialist society while lamenting the personal loss joining such a society would entail:

Of course, I could live in Vietnam, or an ethical society like this one—but not without the loss of a big part of myself. Though I believe incorporation into such a society will greatly improve the lives of most people in the world (and therefore support the advent of such societies), I imagine it will in many ways impoverish mine.  I live in an unethical society that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people but makes available for minority consumption an astonishing array of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures.  

     Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will

She is wrong and she is right: she is mistaken in that such a society would improve the lives of the many, but correct in recognizing that it would certainly curtail the “astonishing array of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures” generally available.  

So much intellectual ink has been spilled criticizing modern industrial society.  What is the least one can do?  Perhaps adopt a socially useful role, contribute to the health and wealth of society, do one’s part in order to earn/gain the benefits of that society.  Owning an Inn and providing safe, comfortable and clean lodging to travelers, say.  Or work in an Amazon distribution center and contribute to the delivery of items ordered online.  What is the alternative?  Exerting no effort, producing no value, living off the labor, intellect and genius of others?  I suppose, if you are a Marxist literary critic….

The Value and Validity of Marxist Literary and Cultural Criticism: 
What is it Worth Today?

A review of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious

Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.