Monsters, Machines, and Magic: Marx’s Gothic Nightmare

In this paper I propose to analyze Marx’s world of monsters, machines, and magic; a motley and fascinating cast of characters which populates his 19th Century Gothic landscape. Each of these characters are entwined in a common drama, but also

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  Andrew Johnson 1 | Page  As the Liberty lads o'er the sea Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood, So we, boys, we Will die fighting, or live free, And down with all kings but King Ludd! When the web that we weave is complete, And the shuttle exchanged for the sword, We will fling the winding-sheet O'er the despot at our feet, And dye it deep in the gore he has pour'd. Though black as his heart its hue, Since his veins are corrupted to mud, Yet this is the dew Which the tree shall renew Of Liberty, planted by Ludd! “Song for the Luddites,” Lord Byron 1   Monsters, Machines, and Magic: Marx’s Gothic Nightmare  1.1:  Prelude to a Horror Story  When Karl Marx looked at the world around him, the world of the 19 th  Century, he did not see an enlightened age, no Age of Enlightenment. All he saw was a Dark Age. Every sense organ is injured by the artificially high temperatures, by the dust-laden atmosphere, by the deafening noise… [the factory] , is turned in the hands of capital into systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the worker while he is at work, i.e. space, light, air, and protection against the dangerous or the unhealthy concomitants. 2  The Factory does not represent man‟s emergence from his self  -incurred immaturity. It houses a miserable lot of folks, lives of pure pain and despair, gathered together, mimicking gestures, imprisoned to a living death. There is a fog hanging in the air, the clouds of industry choking them from the inside. All is black and white. There are no colors, or paintings, or flowers in the Gothic architecture of industry. Utility demands a colorless hue. The worker is not the image of modern-day propaganda, flexing with muscles and slogging massive hammers. Instead he is a sack of bones, a skeleton tarrying with mortality, starved of food, exhausted by work and barred from slumber. He has hunched shoulders, beaten down as an abused dog, as he monstrously repeats and repeats the same motions over and over again. The machine grinding ever still. He might be a she or even a small child, a cheap replacement as his muscles wear thin 1  Lord Byron, one of the few Parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, included this mischievously improvised song in a letter to Thomas Moore. The letter is dated December 1816: Byron had spent that summer in Switzerland, with Percy and Mary Shelley, watching the rain come down, while they all told each other ghost stories. By that December Mary Shelley was working on her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. 2  Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One. Tr. Ben Fowkes. Penguin Books. 1990. pg. 552-553.  Andrew Johnson 2 | Page and soon lose their place in a world where metal and gears do the heavy lifting. The automatic repetition of motions in the factory continues in the sunless marketplace. The dead-eyes of the sellers, constrained to their respective corners of the market, look for eager and tacit victims. This for that, and that for this; everything has a price, switches hands, changes values, shifting its shape from one form to another, the things themselves dancing about the market as they are sold from here to there and back again. All the while, evil lurks. It is there always. Sometimes a vampire, a werewolf, a verified monster, waiting in the darkness to drag prey into the shadows, other times it is a machine moving itself, pushing everything aside, crushing all beneath its unstoppable power, finally it is a magic force that makes 2 + 2 = 5, that distracts with one hand so as to pick the pocket with the other, that hides this ugly reality with a colorful show of false and deceitful appearance. No matter the form, evil has been institutionalized, turned on,  brought to life; it calls its garments money, its home the factory, and its food profit. Evil has a structure, a reoccurring and continuous set of actions, and a face.  Its name is Capital.   In this paper I propose to analyze Marx‟s world of monsters, machines, and magic; a motley and fascinating cast of characters which populates his 19 th  Century Gothic landscape. Each of these characters are entwined in a common drama, but also represent distinct themes and singular movements that Marx‟s  brings into a whole in Capital. There is much to see, but it is my hope that this tripartite structure can epitomize the highlighted moments and transitions that delineate the entire scope of Volume 1 of Capital. These three characters correspond to three themes. Magic denotes the production and circulation of commodities, the creation of money and the value-form, and the sleight-of-hand that produces the first instances of surplus-value. Machines are characterized by the revolutions in the technical process of labor, the historical transition from manufacture to the factory, and reveal the exploitation of the worker and his labor-power by capital. Monsters exemplifies capital itself, the structure of accumulation that feeds and  perpetuates it as a systemic flaw, and the singular capitalist in the background whose guilt is never  beyond doubt. 2.1:  Magic, where appearances are not what they seem  Andrew Johnson 3 | Page Commodities are represented by value, exchanged for money, and then circulated to create capital. From Part One to Part Three, Chapter One to Chapter Six, Marx sets the stage for capital‟s grand entrance. “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” acts as a skeleton key for this sprawling section. It reveals the magic whereby the appearance of commodities, money, and value do not reflect their reality. 2.2: Commodities, the thing-in-itself Marx begins with the thing, the external object. This particular thing happens to be a thing  produced, made, not srcinally of this world, and now against all odds it has found itself in the marketplace, for sale, and tagged with a price. That it is for sale is what makes this thing a commodity. The commodity has value; that is why it is for sale. Its value is that some person wants or needs it; for this person it is useful. Therefore, the first value Marx identifies in the commodity is its use-value. “The usefulness of a thing makes it a use - value.” 3  However, use- values are immeasurable; “usefulness does not dangle in mid- air.”  There is no way in which to quantify how much  I want or need those pair of  pants, that delicious apple, or this translation of Hegel‟s complete works . Usefulness is not enumerable. Rather, “use -values are only realized in use or in consumptio n.” 4  This commodity that is for sale, which I desire and wish to put to use, must therefore have an additional value, one which can be enumerated. “Exchange -value appears first of all as the quantitative relation.” 5  Exchange-value allows me to swap one ki nd of thing for another. It is “accidental and purely relative,” its “connection with the commodity… seems a contradiction in terms.” That I might trade these  pair of pants for this book by Hegel, or as Marx proffers this corn for that iron, requires an equation, a way in which to make the objects equivalent or comparable. Marx says: “It signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things… Both are therefore equal to a third thing, 3  Ibid. pg. 136. 4  Ibid. 5  Ibid.  Andrew Johnson 4 | Page which in itself is neither the one nor the other.” 6  So this thing, which started off so simply, so easy to understand, is already something other than which it appears. The thing is not another thing, but rather  something that lacks thing-ness . “It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn, o r any other useful thing. All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished.” 7  It is a phantom object. The commodity is valuable, but its value is of a nature such that you cannot touch or see it. This “third thing,” the “common element,” that is not this  thing or that thing, is its value. If I cannot touch it, if I cannot see it, then what is value? According to Marx, value is socially necessary labor-time. The value of this or that commodity is how much time, on average, it took to make it. The value of commodities can only be realized by the labor that produced it. Value is then formalized; its most evolved mode is the money-form. Since value plays the role of substitution between two things in the world, it is natural and necessary that it become a thing in its own right. At first, value acts as a likeness between disparate objects. Marx calls this the general-form of value. He demonstrates the general-form of value with this table. 8   6  Ibid. pg. 137. 7  Ibid. pg. 138. 8  Ibid. pg. 157.  Andrew Johnson 5 | Page However, the general-form is insufficient. What is needed is a “universal equivalent form.” A buyer might not want to get rid of the thing required to purchase the commodity they desire. Likewise, the seller of a commodity might have no need or desire for the thing being offered in exchange for the commodity. Therefore, the market requires an object of universal exchangeability. Gold, or money generally, takes the  place of linen as the socially accepted custom of exchange. Marx demonstrates this shift from general-form to the money-form of value with this table. 9  2.3: The Fetish, the mystical secret of false appearance The commodity appears easy to apprehend. “A commodity appears at first sight   an extremely obvious, trivial thing [my emphasis]. ” 10  However, it is not so simple. Marx says the commodity is “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” “changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness,” is “mystical,” “enigmatic,” and “”mysterious.” 11  The commodity is not what it appears to  be. The commodity is the product of labor. However, when it appears in the marketplace it is evaluated as merely a use-value and an exchange-value. The living labor which created the commodity is rendered dead, embodied in the product, but invisible in its exchange or consumption. That which remains visible in the commodity, its exchangeability or usefulness, is not what it is. The appearance of the commodity in the marketplace does not correspond to the reality of its production. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things… I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, as soon as they are produced as commodities… 9  Ibid. pg. 162. 10  Ibid. pg. 163. 11  Ibid. pg. 163-164.
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