Exploring the intersections of ecology, technology, and ideology: Marx, machines, Gibson, and Shanghai.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Consciousness and the Market-Stomach of Capital

In an oft-quoted yet deeply unanalyzed moment in Capital, Vol. I, Marx writes the following:

We presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally…Man not only effects change of form in the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of…Apart from the exertion of the working organs, a purposeful will is required for the entire duration of work. This means close attention.

---Capital, Vol. I. Karl Marx (1867) p.283-4.

Read on its own, this passage provokes responses primarily relating to Marx’s attitudes toward animals specifically, or also toward the environment more broadly. But what endows this passage with significant complexity is its contextual placement near the beginning of Marx’s historical description of how people in England transformed their social production from primarily agriculture to one of industry. Within the experience of reading, this foray into the question of the animal can easily be forgotten, lost amidst the whirring of differentiating tools from machines and watching English individuals collected together into the organisms of workshops where they will move from knowledge and skills in a complete craft to the manufacture of pieces only. Only when unpacking the narrative of industrialization from Marx’s end backward toward its start within this volume, did the distinction of humans from spiders and bees strike me as especially odd.

Consciousness is the dividing line Marx offers here; that and the ability to design in the mind what forms will be brought about through labour. I would not fault Marx for using the biological knowledge of bees and spiders available to him at the time which present some difficulties today, though these are important vectors for consideration at another time—perhaps especially with reference to Kevin Kelly’s theorization of vivisystems and all of its prospects for social systems and revolutionary re-thinking of humans in relation to animals and the communal possibilities. Within the scope at hand, I am trying to get my head around consciousness as the dividing line because so very much of Capital demonstrates the profound inability for most (all?) human beings residing within the capitalism-dominant world to be conscious of capitalism: of its forms and structures. The capitalist brain is often depicted by Marx as incapable of grasping, much less of sustaining, the contradictions that come with capitalist practice. Through the commodity, “It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165). Even the accumulation of capital is effaced through narratives of utopic, fictive pasts. Thus, capital is a social product that with astonishing and most dangerous efficacy erases its history even as it pursues a trajectory that seems unplanned. Capital becomes a being unto itself—a monster birthed by human cooperation and collusion. A vampire; a werewolf; an animated monster. And yet even those who accumulate most from the driving machinations of capital are not conscious of its form: the bourgeoisie produces, above all, Marx says, its own gravediggers (930).

So where has consciousness gone? Is the bee actually the more accurate model for capital, since it belongs to a hive and a hive-mind: a social consciousness like that which seems to have been brought about through the growth of capital: through, to borrow William Gibson’s definition of cyberspace before it even existed, “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions” (Neuromancer 51)? Perhaps the bee actually does serve the function here, if we turn to a study using honey-bees, significant for von Uexküll and later Heidegger as accounted in Agamben’s The Open. In this experiment, honey-bees who have begun to suck from a cup full of honey have the ends of their abdomens cut away. Without a complete internally integral system, the honey-bees have no source of feedback to know when to stop consuming. They continue without stop as the honey comes in and goes right through them.

I see the parallel between these honey-bees and Marx’s representations of capital through the common use of the stomach/metabolism as symbol for consciousness in response to input from outside the closed system. Rather than turning to invisible appendages (Smith’s Invisible Hand), Marx frequently describes the market in terms of metabolism/of a stomach. Capital is the substitution of a vampire for the honey-bee and of labour—of blood and dirt—for the cup full of honey. Not only a vampire, but one that is not conscious of limits; in fact, one that must continue to suck until all is drained empty. Capital is a form of “captivation” in the Heideggerian-Agambenian sense.

And yet Marx writes to bring into the light the hidden mysteries of capital—to present to human consciousness what has heretofore been occluded, almost lost. Perhaps what he is striving for is not a break from captivation, but, rather, an openness to that very captivation—a perspective from which human beings can perceive the structures/forms of capital within which we live, not from some imaginary distance but by sensing the structure through its vibrations and patterns traveling along its vectors that intersect us and our lives.

A germane example:

During 1999-2000 I was a corporate training consultant in Shanghai. My work took me weekly to international joint-venture companies throughout the city and the surrounding production zones; while details were negotiated primarily with Chinese HR administrators, I almost always met with GMs or HR managers from the US, UK, Sweden, Finland, or elsewhere in the West. When I look back over notes from that period, the most pervasive sentiments expressed by these global corporate expats were the desire to flood the 1.3-billion person market with their companies’ products and/or to collect as many Chinese labourers as possible into factories in places like Waigaoqiao to produce commodities like mad to ship and sell all over the globe outside of China. A massive and virtually untapped market, China: a hungry stomach that hadn’t yet tasted the capital-gastric delights of Western-styled commodities. A teeming population ready to work for a pittance to feed the outside world’s voracious appetite. UTOPIA for all the business people I talked with!!

Now, 2007, we are bombarded weekly if not on a daily basis with anti-China rhetoric. China is portrayed as an environmental threat that is endangering the globe. Too much oil and coal! Too much steel! And yet, the Chinese people and government have never really questioned the science of global warming—they comprehend the collectivity inherent in the interconnectedness that global warming demonstrates. Perhaps of greater importance here though, China is made a culprit without any reference to the ideological position of international/transnational capital—the ideology that has been driving and driving China to open that hungry market, to make the market hungrier and hungrier, and to make its people available for surplus labour to feed the other markets in the world. Where else have the Chinese appetites for petroleum, coal, and steel among other raw materials come from? From transnational capital, which includes myself, and its seemingly limitless stomach.

Perhaps consciousness within capital is available through close attention, to use Marx’s words, to such transitional moments when the image of a capital utopia becomes effectively not what was imagined before hand by its architects, but erects a form that puts toxic lead paint in the stomachs of children at play.


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