Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Étienne Balibar: The Philosophy of Marx
"Those who wish today to philosophize in Marx not only come after him, but come after Marxism: they cannot be content merely to register the caesura Marx created, but must also think on the ambivalence of the effects that caesura produced - both in its proponents and its opponents." Balibar's introduction to Marx as a philosopher contains few revelations, but it manages to outline Marx's major concepts so precisely and freshly that it serves as a worthy companion to Balibar and Althusser's Reading Capital and Althusser's For Marx. Balibar ignores what he considers Marxist "doctrine" and argues that "there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be," but "Marx is more important for philosophy than ever before." According to Balibar, Marx always oscillated "between 'falling short of' and 'going beyond' philosophy." Falling short because he would state "propositions as 'conclusions without premises'" (the finished philosophical system was missing). Going beyond because he refused to consider philosophy as an autonomous activity, instead positioning it in a field of conflicts. But in either case, Marx was an irreversible event in the history of philosophy: he displaced the "site and the questions and objectives of philosophy," forever leaving his mark on it. Balibar still agrees with Althusser's assertion that a rupture occurred in Marx's thought around 1845, but he adds two more ruptures that he claims forced Marx to reformulate his philosophy. The first was the failure of the revolutions of 1848, which doused Marx's hope for an inevitable and imminent revolution. As a result, Marx replaced his focus on ideology with a "research programme bearing on the economic determination of political conjunctures and the long-term trends of social evolution," which would culminate with Capital. The second rupture that Balibar adds is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the creation and destruction of the Paris Commune. These events revealed the "bad side of history" and "decapitated the revolutionary proletariat of France and struck terror into those of other countries," causing Marx to interrupt the writing of Capital in order to study and rectify his theory of social evolution. Balibar's first chapter reads the works Marx produced right around the break that Althusser defined, such as Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology, and its argument does not stray far from Althusser's analysis of the attack on theoretical humanism and the opposition of materialism and idealism. Balibar spends a great deal of time on the Theses on Feuerbach, which he claims reject contemplation and "demand a definitive exit from philosophy." Balibar expands on Marx briefly, claiming that the latter displaces the question of human essence by putting forth a social ontology of the transindividual (a concept that Balibar borrows from Simondon). If the Theses on Feuerbach privileged practice, The Germany Ideology, which was composed around the same time, furthered the attack on idealist philosophy by investigating the "production of consciousness" and therefore opened up the concept of ideology. Balibar's second chapter therefore traces the transformation of the concept of ideology into the idea of the commodity fetish in Marx's later writings. One of the foundations of ideology is the division of manual and mental labor, which Balibar nicely relabels "intellectual difference." In Marx's early work, the proletariat was conceived of as a "non-class" that was fundamentally propertyless and "external to the world of ideology." The events of 1848-50 proved this vision to be unrealistic by showing "the power nationalism and historical . . . myths and even religious forms exerted over the proletariat." Marx therefore suppressed the concept of ideology and began the extended research and critique of political economy that would also produce the idea of the commodity fetish. Balibar emphasizes that the commodity fetish is not simply an illusion that could be swept aside by itself: it "constitutes a mediation or necessary function without which, in given historical conditions, the life of society would be quite simply impossible. To suppress the appearance would be to abolish social relations." With the commodity fetish, the subject is not prior to the commodity, but rather an "effect or result of the social process." In Capital, there is in fact only a "non-subject . . . namely 'society.'" Balibar concludes the chapter by claiming that "The theory of ideology is fundamentally a theory of the State (by which we mean the mode of domination inherent in the State), whereas that of fetishism is fundamentally a theory of the market (the mode of subjection or constitution of the 'world' of subjects and objects inherent in the organization of society as market and its domination my market forces)." The theory of ideology tackles questions of Hegelian origin, and its proponents would include Gramsci, Althusser, and Bourdieu. The analysis of fetishism promotes instead the study of how the logic of the commodity affects everyday life, and its proponents would include the Frankfurt School, Lefebvre, and Debord. Balibar's third chapter returns to Marxism's flirtation with the dubious concept of progress, and is perhaps the least interesting part of the book. The most useful sections are those in which Balibar reads some of Marx's later works, paying particular attention to Marx's response to questions about the revolutionary development of Russia.