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Repression Was the Point of Capitalism
Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, consciousness, & the bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello fellow humans,
I recently published a new podcast episode with Katherine Gibson, 1/2 of the J.K. Gibson-Graham collective responsible for publishing a number of highly creative books on economic transformation such as The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), and Postcapitalist Politics.
The relationship between self-transformation & economic transformation
How national policies like basic income can support individual and community scale practices
Why “self-entrepreneurship” is the ultimate expression of neoliberal subjectivity
Why ‘post-capitalism’ requires new practices of feeling & identity.
Ok, in we go.
When Karl Marx & Adam Smith Agree
Let’s begin with two quotes. One written by Karl Marx, another written by Adam Smith - two thinkers who you might assume usually disagree. But here not only do they agree, it’s difficult to tell who wrote which quote:
“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations; frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life … The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind … His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society, this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it…Notwithstanding the great abilities of those few, all the nobler parts of the human character may be, in a great measure, obliterated and extinguished in the great body of the people.”
And the second:
“Furthermore, to the same degree in which the division of labour increases, is the labour simplified. The special skill of the labourer becomes worthless. He becomes transformed into a simple monotonous force of production, with neither physical nor mental elasticity.”
So which was written by Marx, which by Smith?
I think the more interesting point is that most readers might assume Marx wrote them both. Each takes a rather scalding view towards the effect of the division of labor on the minds of individuals.
In fact, Adam Smith wrote the first - and more critical - quote!
This sort of close - and surprising - reading of Adam Smith was the topic of my conversation with economic anthropologist Gustav Peebles a while back on the podcast.
Labor, Flow, & Complexity of Consciousness
Despite critical views of the division of labor, Marx nevertheless held that “useful” labor itself is an “eternal natural necessity”:
“Labour, then…as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.”
But there’s something unique about human labor as compared with other animals, despite that we’re all doing it for the common sake of staying alive.
Although a spider weaves just as a human weaver, and bees seem more capable than most architects, human labor is differentiated by the fact that the human laborer “raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
The human laborer “subordinates his will” to that directive that already exists in their mind. The process demands, Marx writes, that:
“during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work…and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.”
This forced subordination of the will to the work varies in proportion with which worker is intrinsically attracted to the nature of the work.
This is one way I read that ubiquitous Marxist term, alienation. When we are forced to engage in work that requires forced subordination of our attention to a purpose that we have little or no intrinsic attraction to. This is a spiritually, developmentally violent act. It fuels Smith’s torpor of the mind.
This also helps explain why it’s so common to dreamily imagine work that feels like play. Play is work that requires negligible subordination of the will to the purpose. It flows - to appropriate Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s also ubiquitous term. Mihály goes so far as to claim that flow experiences increase the complexity of consciousness, which fits as the inverse of both Smith & Marx’s condemnations of the division of labor. If over-specialization incites a torpor of the mind, flow experience - a kind of skill-oriented play - expands the mind’s capacities.
In a recent fit of naivety, I thought about defining the point, or purpose of economics as designing social environments that support the sustainable and democratic development of the complexity of consciousness.
If so, we’d want to decrease the amount of ‘forced close attention’, or subordination of the will, laboring classes are subject to. Another reason we might want to pursue this is plain old compassion, but that doesn’t seem to carry much weight in economic debate.
Capitalism Did Exactly What It Was Supposed To
Smith & Marx feared the advanced division of labor would function as a straitjacket applied to the mind. The complexity of consciousness would atrophy. And they were not alone.
This line of critique has only grown louder. That capitalist society is inherently repressive, and its process of repression is also one of standardization. It carves human consciousness into shapes predefined by the evolutionary preferences of capital. Herbert Marcuse wrote that capitalism produces One-Dimensional Man. That all thoughts, behaviors, and aspirations that transgress the logic of capitalist society are either “repelled or reduced” - redefined by capitalist rationality. It produces a ‘society without opposition’, and powers a ‘closing of the ideological universe’, prefiguring Mark Fisher’s work on Capitalist Realism.
In Albert Hirschman’s wonderful The Passions and the Interests (which I wrote about in a previous newsletter that wound up getting super popular & then flagged on Hacker News by the Hacker News Capitalism Defense Force - HNCDF - an entity that I’ve since been told does, in fact, exist. And they do, in fact, coordinate flagging of any HN content that incites critical discussion of capitalism), he suggests that we shouldn’t be surprised by such a feature. His intellectual history of the 17th & 18th century excavates a fact that would strike us as bizarre today.
Repression was precisely the stated purpose of capitalism! If it’s repressing you, it’s working!
“…capitalism was precisely expected and supposed to repress certain human drives and proclivities and to fashion a less multifaceted, less unpredictable, and more “one-dimensional” human personality…In sum, capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature.”
In earlier centuries, the “world of the full human personality” was seen with fear. The chaotic, despotic, and dangerous interior life of human passion “appeared as a menace that needed to be exorcized to the greatest possible extent.”
This reframes one of the most popular critiques of capitalism. If you criticize capitalism for producing one-dimensional humans, who are repressed and reduced into standardized beings that are neutered of their creativity, well, what you’re actualy doing is proclaiming: “It worked!”
Alternatively, if you rebuke this critique, if you defend capitalism by refuting the one-dimensional critique, well, then you’re arguing that capitalism failed.
Where does this leave us? I guess the relevant question becomes: are we still scared of the unfettered development of the ‘full human personality’? Do we still believe the unfolding of human passions inevitably lead to despotism?
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Until next time,