Usually, the (shit)posts on this blog are non-rigorous ideas dumps that I consider “food for thoughts” more than anything else, but for once I want to gather a few specific pointers from Marx because I keep searching for them and it’s driving me crazy. That being said I’m still not a Marx scholar and there’s so much I have yet to read.
Labour is the start, not the end
I’m mostly interested in doing a cross-reading of Marx and Baudrillard, focusing on where they agree instead of where they potentially diverge, because I believe they have a lot in common when it comes to the direction in which capitalism is headed.
Marxism is often criticized because of his emphasis on labour value. It is certainly a valid criticism, though it was probably a pertinent analysis during his lifetime. But I believe Marx’s work contains hints of going above and beyond this concept. Incidentally, I was told that he had plans to address and develop this in the third volume of Capital (let me know if you know more!).
I want to look at the crumbs that hint at where he would have been going, especially through the concept of commodity fetishism, which goes in a direction quite opposed to labour value (and somewhat Baudrillardian). What’s interesting to me is that although Marx stipulates that the origin of value derives from labour, he does notice a trend towards empty simulations.
Marx famously highlights the tendency of capital to continuously grow and demand more and more. Some people (more than I initially realized) have drawn a parallel between the textbook case of a rogue super-AI “paperclip maximizer” and capitalism. The starting point for this article was the vague remembrance of Marx himself talking about this unstoppable cancerous maximization.
The purpose of capitalist production, however, is self-expansion of capital, i.e., appropriation of surplus-labour, production of surplus-value, of profit.Capital Vol. III Part III Chapter 15. Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law
He even points out to speculation as a core mechanism of this expansion.
The rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals (…). It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population.Capital Vol. III Part III Chapter 15. Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law
That comes into play naturally because a smart decentralized maximizer system will exploit any opportunity it finds to the fullest following a revenue over investment analysis. Speculation is a trade of empty air that can bring revenue for very little (or none) investment. And it’s not bounded in the same way labour is.
The speculative side of Capital
Marx talks a lot about speculation and the trade of empty promises through the notion of fictitious capital, which qualifies floating money without concrete anchor point used to gamble and speculate in stock markets.
The greater portion of banker’s capital is, therefore, purely fictitious and (…) it should not be forgotten that the money-value of the capital represented by this paper in the safes of the banker is itself fictitiousCapital Vol. III Part V Chapter 29. Component Parts of Bank Capital
Gambling in the stock market is not the only way for capitalism to create value out of nothing, though. It also excels at manufacturing demand and creating needs where there was none before. Marx writes about this in the form of imaginary appetites:
The extension of products and needs becomes a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
The fetishism of money
In this world of make-belief, humans then become not the goal, but the means through which this maximizer system operates. It takes a life of its own, and its goals take priority over human ones. Capital becoming its own end is echoed in the concept of fetishism.
Here the products of the human (…) appear as independent figures endowed with a life of their own and standing in a relation to one another and to people. (…) This I call the fetishism which clings to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities and which is therefore inseparable from commodity-production.The Value-Form, Appendix to the 1st German edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1867
Marx highlights that it is an eminently social manifestation (dare I say “ideology” ?).
This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.Capital Volume One SECTION 4 THE FETISHISM OF COMMODITIES AND THE SECRET THEREOF
The specifics of the fodder for this maximization process do not matter, as long as they contribute to the process.
In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, are brought out in their pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birth-marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relation of a thing, of money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we see here only form without content.Capital Vol. III Part V Chapter 24. Externalization of the Relations of Capital in the Form of Interest-Bearing Capital
Form without content… Doesn’t it sound Baudrillardian? The culmination of this empty and ambivalent form, its total incarnation, is the ultimate commodity, the universal equivalent, the meta-fetish, value incarnate: money.
On the other hand, interest-bearing capital is the perfect fetish. It is capital in its finished form—as such representing the unity of the production process and the circulation processTheories of Surplus Value, Marx 1861-3 Addenda. Revenue and its Sources. Vulgar Political Economy
The relations of capital assume their most externalised and most fetish-like form in interest-bearing capital.Capital Vol. III Part V Chapter 24. Externalization of the Relations of Capital in the Form of Interest-Bearing Capital
Capital, even fictitious, becomes the core of the ideology, the ultimate signifier, the ontological and teleological foundation of a society.
Petit objet de consommation
In fact, in “Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe” (that I’ve read to prepare this essay), Baudrillard already makes the link between consumer object of economics and objet petit a of desire of psychoanalysis.
Seule la psychanalyse est sortie de ce cercle vicieux, en rattachant le fétichisme à une structure perverse, laquelle serait peut-être au fond de tout désir.“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
He gets pretty upset at Marx because, to him, there is no such thing as “non-fetish”. Only the form and appearances ever mattered to begin with.
Il apparaît alors que le « fétichisme de la marchandise » s’interprète, non plus selon la dramaturgie paléo-marxiste, comme (…) une force qui reviendrait hanter l’individu, coupé du produit de son travail, (…) mais bien comme la fascination (ambivalente) d’une forme (logique de la marchandise ou système de la valeur d’échange)“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
His main point of contention is that the concept of “use value” is already filled with implicit capitalist ideology, that there is no such thing as a need that is not socially mediated. To him, in a capitalist system, all apetites are more or less imaginary.
Marx dit en substance : « La production ne produit pas seulement des biens, elle produit aussi des hommes pour les consommer, et les besoins correspondants. » Proposition détournée le plus souvent dans le sens simpliste de la « manipulation des besoins » et de la dénonciation des « besoins artificiels ». Il faut voir que ce que produit le système de la marchandise dans sa forme générale, c’est le concept même de besoin constitutif de la structure même de l’individu“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
But he himself acknowledges that this is not in opposition to Marx’s worldview, but rather its logical conclusion pushed even further.
C’est ici que joue l’idéalisme marxiste, c’est ici qu’il faut être plus logique que Marx lui-même, dans son propre sens, plus radical : la valeur d’usage, l’utilité elle-même, tout comme l’équivalence abstraite des marchandises, est un rapport social fétichisé.“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
My gut feeling is that Baudrillard is just a few steps ahead of Marx on a not-so-dissimilar path. Maybe the path’s starting point as labour value was indeed always an illusion, and maybe not, but I do feel that the two thinkers come together about the destination.
Very late stage capitalism
So where did Marx see this path going? What did he think the outcome of these trends was going to be? He famously wrongly (as of yet) predicted the unavoidable uprising of the proletariat and the end of capitalism under its own contradictions (thwarted by the hard work of the CIA, probably xD).
But in a way, despite his attachment to the notion of labour, even he foresaw the famous development illustrated by Baudrillard, the move away from concrete and meaningful towards speculative and simulative, which ends up dominating everything:
But it is evident that with the development of the productive power of labour, and thus of production on a large scale: 1) the markets expand and become more distant from the place of production; 2) credits must, therefore, be prolonged; 3) the speculative element must thus more and more dominate the transactions.Capital Vol. III Part V Chapter 30. Money-Capital and Real Capital. I.
It’s almost foretelling a future of pure imaginary speculation completely decorrelated from labour. That is the same conclusion reached by Baudrillard who observes that there is no more value in things.
Il n’y a plus de scène de la marchandise : il n’y en a plus que la forme obscène et vide. Et la publicité est l’illustration de cette forme saturée et vide.“Simulacres et simulation”
In a future (present?) where meaning is dead, only appearances and their (speculative) simulacra matter anymore.
Il n’y a plus d’espoir pour le sens. Et sans doute est-ce bien ainsi : le sens est mortel. Mais ce sur quoi il“Simulacres et simulation”
a imposé son règne éphémère, ce qu’il a pensé liquider pour imposer le règne des Lumières, les apparences, elles, sont immortelles, invulnérables au nihilisme même du sens ou du non-sens.
C’est là où commence la séduction.
The price of information
I want to mention briefly here an interesting perspective that I got while reading Kurzweil: the trend of production cost. As things become easier and easier to produce, they get cheaper. Eventually, in an age where 3D printers manipulate molecules, matter becomes interchangeable. The value of a product will not be so much in the actual particules composing it but rather in the information that describes how to make it.
This is perhaps the strongest defense of the move of capitalism towards a service-based society and an information-centric economy. But is it really what’s been going on?
There’s a case to be made that our society has moved further and further away from concrete value into imaginary speculation. More and more human time is dedicated to busy-work, empty talks of hot-air and other bullshit jobs, to use the term consecrated by David Graeber.
Baudrillard concurs with this vision whose best portrayal remains for many the movie Office Space.
Il en est de même du travail. L’étincelle de la production, la violence de ses enjeux n’existent plus. Tout le monde produit encore, et de plus en plus, mais subtilement le travail est devenu autre chose : un besoin“Simulacres et simulation”
(comme l’envisageait idéalement Marx mais pas du tout dans le même sens), l’objet d’une « demande » sociale, comme le loisir, auquel il s’équivaut dans le dispatching général de la vie. (..) le scénario de travail
est là pour cacher que le réel de travail, le réel de production, a disparu.
Bullshit jobs and busy work proliferate as a distraction, to counterbalance and overcompensate the disappearance of meaning. And more hot air begets more hot air.
The IT crowd
One domain where this is especially clear is information technology. Although some of the work in technologies is undoubtedly useful, there is a clear trend of “keeping oneself busy” by constantly reiterating on the design of your favorite products for no reason at all.
This article is already pretty long, so I’ll keep examples to a minimum. I’m sure you have encountered plenty already in your life: features get added, removed and added again, apps split and merge, brands go through endless cycles of redesigns and rebranding, everyone makes their own version of the same thing… Every bug fix introduces two new bugs… Games are now services… When’s the last time you’ve seen a software that was actually finished?
Some of it is doubtless legitimate security arm’s race, but that doesn’t account for everything. Truly, we could not have dreamt of a better vessel than software and apps for busywork. I bet 99% of the code written in 2013 was already replaced 5 years after.
This resonates with mankind’s natural taste for nostalgia and familiarity, most notably in the videogame industry. Scores of companies make the exact same product hundreds of times. Cycles of remakes are shortening, companies are releasing the same game over and over again… Do we really need yet another Final Fantasy 7 game, or Marvel movie? How does it even feel to be working on these? What percentage of jobs are really essential? I wish a fraction of this energy went into making products standard and backward compatible instead 😦
A great reset
And yet, people cling to work as the main core of their identity, as if they had any meaning. Capitalism does, after all, need the anguish of unemployment to thrive. This anguish has now turned into psychosis, with everyone talking about the great reset, a fairytale in which migrants steal people’s precious jobs and ways of life. It’s killing me that ironically, in a weird distortion of this ludicrous fiction, AIs are actually coming to replace people’s jobs and ways of life.
But are most jobs even worth saving to begin with? There’s no shortage of calls for a new society, where humans would be freed from work and would stop defining themselves through their jobs. As for me, I keep looking at the incredible cost (human effort, political risks, environmental…) of keeping this intricate system of bullshit and illusions alive, and I can’t help but wonder if this energy might be better spent…
But I also know that meaning is extremely important to human life and political polls show clearly how adverse to change humanity is. So as much as I would like to overthrow capitalism and found our own meaning making system, I think that might not be entirely realistic. What might be, though, is to embrace bulllshit work, and give one to everyone, so that they can feel accomplished while AI takes over what actually matters. That’s probably where we’re headed, TBH. But then, please, let’s maybe leave a way out of this system for the people who don’t want to be defined by work.