November 1, 2007

Marx on Property. (Part 1 of a series of 840)

Filed under: Economics, Marx — duncan @ 9:34 pm

Like most blogs, mine occupies a slightly ambiguous rhetorical or conceptual space. Polemic; calls to action; whingeing; whimsy. An attempt to change the world; solipsistic mumbling. Much of what I’ll be posting here will basically be notes to self; a record of my autodidacticism. In other words, I know fuck all about my chosen topics. Foamy sludge of the brainchurn, and so on.

On which note. In Chapter 2 of ‘Capital’, Marx writes: “Things are themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other.” (page 182 of my Penguin edition. [The high page number’s an illusion; this is really p. 57.])

When Marx first introduces the concept of alienation in Capital, he does so in relation to commodities, not people. Similarly, in ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, we first encounter alienation on page 42 (of my collapsing Progress Publishers / Lawrence & Wishart edition). “Only as a result of this universal alienation of commodities does the labour contained in them become useful labour.” At least in this exposition, our alienation from ourselves or from our work is secondary to commodities’ alienation; man’s alienation is derived from the alienation of his labour’s products.

That alienation is, basically, the treatment of objects in terms of exchange, rather than use. Again, Marx quotes Aristotle. “[A] sandal… may be worn and is also exchangeable. Both are uses of the sandal, for even he who exchanges the sandal for the money or food he is in need of, makes use of the sandal as a sandal. But not in its natural way. For it has not been made for the sake of being exchanged.” (‘Capital’, p. 179; ‘A Contribution…’ p. 27.) A good Derridean like me gets hot flushes, reading this. Don’t we have here the old theme of the ‘proper’; an attempt to draw a boundary between an object’s true essence and the contaminating or parasitic external force which divides that essence against itself? Same old, same old. A sandal is always already made with the possibility of exchange in mind; there can be no fundamental line drawn between use- and exchange-value. Alienation is a constitutive element of all things and all people. I know this tune.

In the opening pages of ‘Capital’, Marx develops an extraordinarily tangled set of arguments in order to establish the conceptual space he needs to advance his political claims. I can’t remember reading any text, except perhaps some of Nietzsche’s, in which key terms’ meanings are so obviously mobile. One day I’d like to try to discuss this. For now I want to say a few far-too-simplistic things.

First: Marx’s critique of private property is based on the concept of the proper. The problem with private property is that it prevents us from achieving real possession – of ourselves or of commodities. An object contaminated by the alienating exchange-relation can never truly be our own – unless it leaves the capitalist system of exchange altogether. And this means that while we inhabit the capitalist world we can never be truly ourselves; we are infected and condemned by our possessions’ alienation.

Second, and more interestingly: For Marx, the idea of the individual is derived from the institution of private property. This is the point of the first quote above. It is precisely because we treat people as owners of alienated things that we treat people as independent of each other. Or, to put it another way, the modern concept of individualism is a product of our social system. First the commodity; then the modern concept of the individual. To quote one of Marx’s most famous lines: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (‘A Contribition…’ p. 21)

A big question for anyone interested in economics is: why does the idea of the rational self-interested individual have the dominance it does? Marx gives us an approah to an answer: the idea of the rational self-interested individual is the corollary or product of the institution of private property. The more private our real selves are – the more individual or discrete – the more this institution is praised or justified (for corresponding to the true demands of the self). Similarly, if individual motivation is understood in terms of self-interest, which is in turn understood in terms of accumulation, then possession is made fundamental to our identity. Economics tries to ground its analysis in the utility-maximising individual; but we can analyse this idea as itself a fiction, created to justify the true ground of economics: private property.

Well… that’s playing pretty fast and loose with both ideas and facts. The next step, I fancy, would be to follow Foucault’s advice, and examine the institution of private property as it actually exists – which would reveal that our idea of ‘private property’ is also a politically-motivated fiction, concealing an almost unthinkably complex collection of social relations and historical contingencies. But we’ll do that next week…

1 Comment

  1. I’m fascinated by the philosophical analysis of economics. Without having a familiarity with any of the mentioned texts I have to say it all does sound a bit like solipsistic mumbling to me. Therefore, I will not venture an intelligent response except to say that I agree that private property enhances each person’s individualistic consciousness. Solidarity of mind and spirit within the context of a larger diverse yet unified social structure is the only reality I can fathom having lived my whole life as an American.

    On an unrelated note, however, I must say that the balance between collective experience and private reflection is becoming more and more asymetrical these days as more and more options become available to consumers. Consider the plethora of cable channels on TV these days and the ability most of us have to control when we watch certain shows. This diminishes the chances that millions of people will be watching the same shows at exactly the same time (hence a collective–or shared–experience). As we spiral further and further into isolation we will become a society of loners as fewer and fewer shared experiences exist to unite us together. We may be facing a future where solipsistic mumblings will become a common vernacular spoken by everybody so that nobody will be able to comprehend anybody else–only themselves. We will all be speaking in tongues.

    Comment by robertjerome — November 3, 2007 @ 8:54 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: