Utopia: The barely visible and the practical market
Monday, June 22, 2009
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
I won't be seeing that Bay of Pigs again.
-William S. Burroughs
The sentence above is from William Burroughs' novel The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1969: 142). The whole book is highly political, though of course not in the mainstream sense of politics. Instead, Burroughs' novel is political in the subversive sense of presenting a world that doesn't really exist, perhaps a world between utopia and dystopia, certainly not the empirically given, although at the same time not the non-empirical. It is a world which doesn't really exist, yet exists in an eminent way. Thus it is political in the sense that it recreates culture as a whole: from the fact of production (self-production) to that of desire (which always, as Hegel shows, implies destruction) and pleasure; in any case, a recreation of the culture of everyday life. The whole book is political, but the sentence in question appears in the most politically charged section of the novel, "Mother and I Would Like to Know." It begins with the words: "The uneasy spring of 1988" (p.138). Then, it states: "Our aim is total chaos" (p. 139).
It is in the construction, in the invention of an alternative, that Burroughs' radical imagination works, penetrating into the ontological dimension of utopia. It is here that the question of the empirical must first be addressed. In Burroughs, all is experience, and of the most sublime form. Yet, this experience is always defiant of the empirically given. It always goes beyond, behind, under or above the narrowness of the empirically given; it is, as we shall see at the end of this essay when speaking of Ernst Bloch, transcendent within the order of immanence. For who cares for what is so dully present, really all too present? In fact, it is that which is present and absent at the same time, like Pascal's hidden god, which constantly defies, in Burroughs, the control machine. But what is present and absent, what is and is not, what can be but can also not be, constitutes a form of experience inclusive of the potential, all possibilities, what-could-be in our otherwise miserable world. But what could be?
In Mexico, South and Central America guerrilla units are forming an army of liberation to free the United States. In North Africa from Tangier to Timbuctu corresponding units prepare to liberate Western Europe and the United Kingdom. Despite disparate aims and personnel of its constituent members the underground is agreed on basic objectives. We intend to march on the police machine everywhere. We intend to destroy the police machine and all its records. We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems. The family unit and its cancerous expansion into tribes, countries, nations we will eradicate at its vegetable roots. We don't want to hear any more family talk, mother talk, father talk, cop talk, priest talk, country talk or party talk. To put it country simple we have heard enough bullshit (pp.139-140).
Real liberation then is what's possible, liberation from what keeps the potential, not merely from actualizing itself, but from showing itself as potential; liberation from the empirical shackles which keep concealed the ontological roots of a higher form of experience - experience of the ‘yes' and ‘no' of presence, of action (inclusive of passion), of this action, inclusive of the universality and commonality which bestow upon ‘this' the whole significance of being (‘this' being a contraction of being), of the body's transformation into the forest's body (see, for instance, the story "The Dead Child," pp.102-120), from which the city arises and to which it must still listen, the spirit of the forest to which it must return, the poetic experience without which all praxis is nothing but a mechanical, bureaucratic routine, a deadly business, constrained within what is given, without the fundamental support (the work of art, poetry, what-is-not-given, that is, unconstrained labor) without which not only the humanness, but even the animalness of ‘man' is lost, the vital force, the unconstructed labor power (that is, not construed as a commodity for the capitalist market) able to agreeably transform the earth into a world, a different world, inclusive of the earth which includes it. This Southern liberation of the North of the world, as Burroughs imagines it, was not simply a tendency present in the mid-twentieth century, when Burroughs was writing this, when guerrilla movements such as the one led by Che Guevara were numerous and really threatening the established order, but it is also present now, with the important qualification, however, that this ‘South' is also contained in the North (as the North is contained in the South). It is then a worldwide movement, a movement which contains many movements,[i] a world which contains many worlds (as the Zapatistas say), which must liberate the territories occupied by the Northern control machine, "the police machine everywhere." The armies of liberation, made of wild boys for Burroughs, reach into the commonality of any ‘this' which remains in touch with the ontological structure of what is not given, what is indeed denied at the level of the merely empirical, yet is always present and absent as possibility.
The being everywhere of the police machine is thus countered by the being everywhere (and nowhere) of nakedness and revolutionary potential:
I have a thousand faces and a thousand names. I am nobody I am everybody. I am me I am you. I am here there forward back in out. I stay everywhere I stay nowhere. I stay present I stay absent (p.140).
The movement of positing and not positing the elements of presence does not imply a both/and logic: ‘I' am not both nobody and everybody, both me and you, etc. Rather, what is here at work is a logic of neither/nor: in staying everywhere and nowhere at the same time, in being present and absent at the same time, ‘I' actually withdraw into what is ‘only' potential. But the potential is not only, indeed not at all, what can be. What can be is the content of the potential, which is actualized or not actualized as this form. Yet, the potential as such (that which can be and not be) always and fundamentally is. To remain within the potential is to withdraw from the act, that is, to perform the apparently paradoxical act of withdrawal, the act of not acting, to remain within the potentiality not to (an Aristotelian category, without which potentiality is not adequately understood).[ii] To take this position in actuality is to step onto the ontological structure of potentiality, which remains a no place only from the point of view of the empirically given (which is in itself a mere reduction of the totality of the real), but not at all from the point of view of reality as a whole. From this latter point of view, what is usually taken as a no place is instead already there, everywhere and nowhere, present and absent, but as neither this nor that actuality. I think we have reached the ontological structure of utopia, which is the structure of the potential, and which is also the topic of this essay, that is, showing that utopias are already present in the structure of the real. This is Marcuse's concept of utopia as well, as defined, for instance, in the introduction to An Essay on Liberation, and according to which utopia is
no longer that which has ‘no place' and cannot have any place in the historical universe, but rather that which is blocked from coming about by the power of the established societies (Marcuse 1969: 3-4).
The logic of neither/nor, which I have pointed out in Burroughs' text with reference to the revolutionary potential of the Southern army of liberation, the wild boys' ‘I' dissolving into the neutrality and commonality of the revolutionary subject, or more precisely in the flow of revolutionary practice (for even the subject seems to be dissolving in Burroughs, giving way to the act, the repetition of the act, the confusion of the many repetitions of the act, or the suspension of it), is the most important structure of ontology. Its classic locus is to be found in the metaphysics of John Duns Scotus, where it appears as a definition of the univocal concept of being. For Duns Scotus, being is neither finite nor infinite, neither created nor uncreated, though it acquires either one or the other qualifying notions in empirical or divine reality; yet being as such, in its simplicity and commonality, the concept of being, is the most common concept, neutral and univocal:
Whatever [predicates] are common to God and creatures are of such kind, pertaining as they do to being in its indifference to what is infinite and finite. For insofar as they pertain to God they are infinite, whereas insofar as they belong to creatures they are finite (Duns Scotus 1987: 2).
In Burroughs, in the confusion arising from the repetition of the act, commonality and univocity remain as the most certain (and most solid) elements of reality: an ‘I' which is ‘not-I', a ‘this' which is ‘not-this'. What remains is a situation in which all differences partake, a situation which is similar to the active space theorized by Henri Lefebvre (1991). Often, in Burroughs, in the middle of the description of a sexual encounter, a character is revealed as not being there, as in the story "The Frisco Kid", where the kid who "never returns" (1969: 99) is present and absent from the scene:
I turned and looked at him. His eyes were open in the grey milky light and I felt a shiver down the spine. He wasn't there really. Pale the picture was pale. I could see through him (pp.95-96).
Yet, as Lefebvre says, "no space disappears completely." Rather: "‘Something' always survives or endures - ‘something' that is not a thing" (1991: 403). In Burroughs, the moment of doubt is accompanied by the certainty of a vision which sees through the sensuous, which is only given as ‘this', and reaches a plane where all the different ‘thises' come together and dissolve to make graspable the situation as such. It is through the dialectic of certainty and doubt that the logic of neither/nor bears fruit.
To reach the point of indifference to this or that particular aspect of the empirically given, is to experience difference as such, that which has no place within the empirically given, and thus to see through the situational elements which are at hand and grasp the situation as such, in its most elemental and structural character, which is precisely not given, where everything confusedly returns to ground that which (like Burroughs' Frisco kid) never returns because it has not yet been there.
The practical market
-Que haga una locura.
Y esto no fué posible. [iii]
Some theorists believe that it is a sheer folly to imagine a radically different world. This is what for instance, speaking about the market, Amartya Sen implies in his book, Development as Freedom. For Sen, "we have to avoid resurrecting yesterday's follies that refused to see the merits of -indeed even the inescapable need for—markets" (Sen 1999: 112). In this sense, Sen can also appreciate Friedrich Hayek's "chastising description of the communist economies as ‘the road to serfdom'" (ibid.); a description which was to play a key role in the ‘revolutionary', neoliberal policies of Thatcher and Reagan. One of these ‘follies' is contained in Karl Polanyi's book, The Great Transformation, where it is clearly shown that the problem is not the market per se, that is, the practical situation in which useful things are exchanged, but an economy "controlled by markets", which Polanyi calls a "self-regulating system of markets" (Polanyi 1944: 43). The latter is no longer simply a practical reality, but one which has a formal and political set of institutional moments and apparatuses. From this point of view, Sen's critique of the critique of the market economy institution loses validity, for it is difficult to see how the programmatic and humanitarian moments of his interesting study still hold if an economy geared toward profit, and profit only, is not completely eliminated. Sen argues, unconvincingly in my opinion, that profit is not the only motive behind capitalist production, and this is "not a new point", he says (1999: 264). He also argues that there are ethical requirements and values that capitalism, as well as any other system, needs to meet (p.279). However, what we ultimately find in Sen's book is a defense of capitalism on the basis of a shift from the emphasis on human capital and economic growth to a new emphasis on human capability and freedom (pp.292-297), where the former modality is not replaced but only supplemented by the latter. Certainly we cannot take the ‘communist' societies of the past and present as models for the dream of utopia, the desire of a different world, of justice, equality, and fundamental freedoms. Yet, at the same time, it is not by initiating a course of action approaching a "middle path" (as Sen implies with an elegant reference to Buddha) that genuine freedoms can be regained (p.112). Not if this middle path implies the act of trying to reconcile the particularistic interests of capital, its will to impose a partial and fake totality on everything, with the totality of social, political, and economic exclusion. What is ‘middle', the mode of the synthesis, or rather, as Balibar shows, the terrain of transindividuality (Balibar 1993: 30-31), is universal and, above all, common. The practical market, which has nothing to do with market socialism, certainly has this characteristic of being common: people exchange useful things within the plane of everyday life; the middle and common is where production and consumption ‘spontaneously' meet. This practical market is simply based on the impossibility, as Marx shows, of pure Robinsonades (Marx 1970: 188), for even Robinson Crusoe's life, on his island "bathed in light", is determined by a relational set of structures which, even in isolation and solitude, imply the concept of the transindividual (see Marx 1977: 170). Yet, the market economy dominated by capital is external and superimposed to the plane of everyday life: the plane of immanence and concretion is lost; labor becomes abstract, useful things become values and money. An economy controlled by markets, or a society in which the economic sphere plays the preponderant role by declaring itself independent from the totality of the social and cultural facts, loses sight not simply of the middle path and the middle term (where production and consumption meet), but also of the telos, the end; so that the end of housebuilding, to use Aristotle's example, is no longer a house, but profit.
Curiously, Sen stays away from an indictment of the logic of profit, let alone of the specificity of the capitalist mode of production, and lays the blame for the deficiencies of the market societies on political situations and categories that today are highly equivocal, for instance on the presence or absence of democratic institutions. Speaking of the question of famines, he goes as far as to make a correlation between democracies and the possibility of poverty and the corresponding correlation between famines and totalitarian regimes (1999: 179). Of course, the importance of market relations cannot be altogether ignored; thus, when he speaks about the Irish famine of the 1840s, during which "ship after ship -laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs, and butter—sailed down the Shannon bound for well-fed England from famine-stricken Ireland", he needs to say: "The market forces would always encourage movement of food to places where people could afford to pay a higher price for it" (p.172). However, he soon adds: "One must not jump from this to the conclusion that stopping market transactions would be the right way to halt a famine" (p.173). Yet, the truth of the matter is that the question of the market does not present itself as an either/or: we either have the market or we don't. The question is, first of all, one which is posited at the level of the logic of neither/nor - a logic of exit from the dominant figures of institutional economic and political thinking. Second, but directly following from this logic, the question is: What kind of market do we need? And this question we have already answered above when we spoke of the difference between the institutional and the practical market. It is very simple: if, in times of trouble, the available food is distributed among the people who need it most, certainly famines are curbed or even prevented. And if, as a general rule, the available food is distributed fairly, even the possibility of poverty will be eradicated. But for this to happen, the market, as we understand it, must disappear; the logic of profit, which alters the end and the good of things, must be abolished; a logic of care and caring should prevail; or rather, as Elizabeth Diemut Bubeck says, persona carans should replace homo economicus (1995: 12). No one would really maintain the thesis that the market, as a modality and practice of exchanging necessary and useful things, not for the sake of profit and economic growth, but for the sake of use and general well-being, is the problem. That famines do not take place in the advanced capitalist world does not cancel the truth that they belong to its concept - and poverty certainly does. Something approaching a famine is always present in extreme indigence and homelessness, and in fact, as Sen notes, a famine happens in the midst of plenty of food. Profit and economic growth are essential characteristics of the logic of capital, but they are not metaphysical necessities. Inevitably, the capitalist paradigm, dominant in the modern world, drives to that end even the societies that call themselves socialist or communist. Thus, when, for instance, Sen mentions the Chinese famines of 1958-1961 during the period of the Great Leap Forward -famines which, Sen notes, killed close to thirty million people—he should also take notice of the fact that what the Great Leap Forward intended to achieve was precisely an incredible level of economic growth. The "sense of distance between the ruler and the ruled" which for Sen is a "crucial feature of famines" (p.175) is really the history of the class struggle which has divided and divides societies; with reference to today's world, whether these societies are totalitarian or democratic, capitalist or socialist, makes no substantial difference, for, when measured from the standards of a radically different and better world, the difference is only one of degrees. Thus a socialist market is not a real alternative (see Harvey 2005).
What is really important in Sen's book, which centrally relates to our discourse on the ontology of utopia, is the concept of capability, a conscious and practical application of Aristotle's dual structure of the concept of potentiality as the form of freedom, that is, potentiality itself and the potentiality not to. It is in this Aristotelian sense that Sen defines capability as "a kind of freedom" (p.75), although he invokes Aristotle particularly in relation to the concept of "functionings," to be understood together with that of capability. It can be said that the relationship between capability and functionings in Sen's book reproduces that between potentiality and actuality in Aristotle: "While the combination of a person's functioning reflects her actual achievements, the capability set represents the freedom to achieve: the alternative functioning combinations from which this person can choose" (ibid.). The emphasis on the apparently only negative moment of potentiality, the potentiality not to, without which genuine freedom is made null and void, becomes evident when Sen says that it is "possible to attach importance to having opportunities that are not taken up" (p.76), just as in Bartleby's celebrated "I would prefer not to". He then shows the actuality of the potential, that is, the truth that potentiality is a constituent part of reality as a whole, not something which, unless it becomes actual in this or that way, remains unreal: "Indeed, ‘choosing' itself can be seen as a valuable functioning, and having an x when there is no alternative may be sensibly distinguished from choosing x when substantial alternatives exist" (ibid.). He concludes with a concrete example, still of Aristotelian flavor: "Fasting is not the same as being forced to starve. Having the option of eating makes fasting what it is, to wit, choosing not to eat when one could have eaten" (ibid.). The concept of capability becomes very important, from a political point of view, when, distinguishing between income inequality and economic inequality, poverty is seen by Sen as capability deprivation rather than merely as the result of low incomes (pp.87-110). What is taken away in poverty is then not simply the possibility, in itself very important, of making use of the immediate economic means necessary to improve one's life, or simply to manage to have a good or even decent life; taken away or reduced is also, and more fundamentally, the ontological structure of the potential, in its twofold form of potentiality and the potentiality not to, and thus freedom. This does not mean that the structure of potentiality or the freedom which generates freedoms is completely annihilated, for freedom remains irreducible in the human condition.
Ma tra loro, partendosi l'offizi a tutti e le arti e fatiche,
non tocca faticar quattro ore il giorno per uno;
sí ben tutto il resto è imparare giocando, disputando,
leggendo, insegnando, camminando, e sempre con gaudio.[iv]
Campanella continues his description of utopia saying that no game played during so much free time from work takes place while being seated. Instead, all doing involves movement and is done while standing up. In this essay, I am not discussing the classical presentations of utopia, that made by Plato or those typical of the Renaissance, such as the descriptions of Campanella and Thomas More (who coined the term ‘utopia'); nor the later Romantic or socialist utopias of the nineteenth century. In fact, I am here dealing with a different concept of utopia, present in the work of Herbert Marcuse, as we have seen, of Ernst Bloch, as we shall see, but also in the work of Marx. This is, I repeat, a structure of potentiality already present within the real, although more often than not left unrecognized. Yet, Campanella's description, as an example among others, is very interesting not only from the point of view of intellectual history, but also conceptually. In the early 17th century (The City of the Sun was written in 1623), Campanella reduces the working day to four hours, and, as he shows in the next paragraph, he sees in this the condition for the abolition of poverty. He continues:
They also say that great poverty makes men cowards, shrewd, thieves, deceitful, lawless, liars, false witnesses; and wealth makes them insolent, proud, ignorant, traitors, loveless, presuming to know what they don't know. Yet, communal life makes them both rich and poor: rich because they have and possess everything; poor, because they do not attach themselves to things, as if they were their servants, but all things are of use to them (1979: 51).
When labor is looked at as a common concept and a general life activity, covering the spectrum from the necessities of everyday life to the joyful activities, as Campanella has it, its twofold character, whereby value comes into existence, cannot be developed. The market, as the communal meeting point of simple exchange -an exchange which is not merely economic, but also social and cultural—cannot develop into the form which institutionalizes the gap between wealth and poverty, thus the antagonism between the classes. It is rather the place where "playing, debating, reading, teaching, walking" also occur. Perhaps this is something close to today's popular concept of the public sphere. Certainly, it is the common ground where labor is not hidden within the things it has produced, but is free with respect to them and ever-productive: living rather than being reduced to one commodity among others; using the things it has produced, which include space, time, and ideas, rather than being used by them.
Campanella's description is similar to the famous passage from The German Ideology where Marx and Engels say that
in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic (1947: 53).
This means that becoming never turns into being, the "fixation of social activity" (ibid.), which denatures labor. Some say that this passage from The German Ideology shouldn't be taken too seriously for, written in 1845-46, it was never repeated by either Marx or Engels.[v] However, this is not entirely true. In the Grundrisse, for instance, Marx makes a similar point, though in a much more sophisticated way, when, speaking of the difficult question of machinery, he says:
The more this contradiction develops [between the creation of disposable time and its conversion into surplus labor], the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so - and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence—then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time (1973: 708; brackets added).
I quoted at length because of the importance of this passage. Marx's emphasis on the meaning of real wealth (an emphasis given by the shortness of the sentence) should be given some consideration. If disposable time is now the measure of real wealth, that is because this wealth is not limited to the economic order. It follows that the "developed productive power of all individuals" is no longer productive in the sense of capital, that is, productive of capital, but in a more generic sense: it is creative. The difference is that, whereas under capital productive labor is highly compulsive, in true communist society there is very little compulsion, or rather no compulsion at all, for there is no "fixation of social activity" and thus there is ample choice among many activities - a condition for creative labor. This is real wealth.
The reappropriation of surplus-labor does not entail a reappropriation of surplus-value, but its abolition. Surplus-labor is what produces surplus-value, but when the former goes back to itself as disposable time, surplus-value (and thus capital) simply ceases to be produced. Real wealth does not lie in the fact that now all surplus-value belongs to the workers rather than to the capitalists; instead, real wealth lies in the fact that everybody has the time for meaningful activities, that necessary labor is reduced to a minimum (thanks also to machinery), and that everyone is, as Campanella says, not merely poor, but rich and poor at the same time, which is the same as saying that everyone is neither rich nor poor.
Some say that value is not created by labor and that, as a consequence, surplus-value is not created by surplus-labor. Therefore they deny the formula of exploitation contained in the labor theory of value as applied by Marx. The labor theory of value was not Marx's discovery, but it was already present in the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and before them is also found in John Locke. In fact, Marx's original contribution lies in the formulation of the dual character of labor and thus in the idea that surplus-labor creates surplus-value. For Marx, this explains the mystery of the origin of profit, as well as of the exploitation of the working class by capital. One of the strongest and most typical counterexamples to show that this logic doesn't really work is that of the value of uncultivated land. How is it possible that uncultivated land is at times so immensely valuable if it contains no labor whatsoever? This is a typical counterexample in the literature of ‘analytical' Marxism, one which apparently incontrovertibly shows that labor has nothing to do with value.[vi] Yet, this might appear correct only from the point of view of the empirically given, that is, the positivist point of view which thinks that reality begins and ends with the positum, with what is simply there - a point of view which absolutely excludes from consideration the possible or the potential. It is obvious that uncultivated land is immensely valuable only when it is potentially profitable, for instance, as a construction site. In any case, it is never valuable in itself, but only insofar as labor will be put into it. The fact that the value of the land in question is not only potential or ideal but actual does not mean that it is independent of the labor to come: this labor is anticipated as if it were already contained in it. Without this anticipation, the land would have no value whatsoever.
The new labor as the barely visible
...these people have neither King, nor Lord, nor do they yield obedience
to any one, for they live in their own liberty ... they have no judicial system,
nor do they punish the ill-doer ... they use no trade, they neither buy nor sell. ...
The wealth that we enjoy in this our Europe and elsewhere, such as gold,
jewels, pearls, and other riches, they hold as nothing: and although they have them
in their own lands, they do not labour to obtain them, nor do they value them.
If it were only a question of words, we might as well disregard this word ‘utopia' and terminate the present discussion. However, the question is not at all terminological, but, at one and the same time, theoretical and practical. The word ‘utopia' itself, which means ‘no place', can be seen as a literary expedient; there are so many in More's book, from the last name of the character, Raphael Hythloday (apparently meaning ‘nonsense-peddler'), who, introduced to More, gives him an account of the commonwealth of the new island of Utopia, to the other names usually designating peoples, such as the Polylerites, who live in the Persian area, and whose name means ‘much nonsense'. It is not the fantastic aspects of classical utopias that are of interest today, although they are interesting from the point of view of the history of ideas and of literature, and also because they were certainly instrumental in the constitution of revolutionary discourse. In fact, in a very figurative, yet not concrete, way, they made the essential point: that the world could be a different place. The point was made by means of accounts showing or pretending to show that a different social and political state of affairs actually existed in distant lands and islands, as the explorers from the end of the Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance never tired to repeat, mixing their accounts to memories of things read in the bestiaries. But this didn't show that this different place could indeed be the world itself, in its entirety; that, in other words, what-could-be was in fact already present in what-is - present in potentiality, not in ideality: not a ‘no place' but a place not yet posited. Thus, Ernst Bloch (1991) calls attention to the concrete utopia of Marxism, a critical totality. The difference between the social utopias of the classical age or of the socialists and anarchists of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the concrete utopia of Marx's communism lies in the absence, in the former, of an adequate concept of subjectivity. In what Marx calls "crude communism" in the Manuscripts of 1844, referring to the ideas of the utopian thinkers of his century, there is a leveling down of the individual personality, "the category of the worker is not abolished but extended to all men" (1975: 346), poverty is extended to all, and "the community is simply a community of labour and equality of wages, which are paid out by the communal capital, the community as universal capitalist" (pp.346-347). This kind of communism is a mere extension of what-is, not at all the coming to be of what-could-be; this extension is the hidden and distant ‘no place' of ideal utopias; whereas in the concrete utopia what-is and what-could-be coincide, so that there is no longer a ‘no place' left somewhere.
Moreover, the boredom that one finds in the classical and ideal utopias, together with the strict moralistic requirements and values (and this, notwithstanding Charles Fourier's attack against morality and his emphasis on attraction, passion, and love) - moral values from which one usually excludes the idea of a community of women (but not of men) - shows the limits of this kind of utopian thinking. It is really not radical enough in its vision and imagination. The flattening of subjectivity to the requirements of labor, however attractive that may be made to be, "labour as the condition in which everyone is placed and capital as the acknowledged universality and power of the community" (p.347), reduces the solitude of labor to ashes, and that solitude is a condition for labor's return to itself. Who would want to live in this kind of utopia? Or in the one described by Thomas More? It sounds very much like ‘actually existing socialism'.
The return of labor to itself cannot be a return to the condition, accurate or not, of the Amerindians described by Vespucci, for that would be a return to the "unnatural simplicity of the poor" (Marx 1975: 346). This means that a radically different world cannot be constructed by the rejection, or the "abstract negation" (ibid.), of the historical determinations of the present; nor, of course, can it be constructed by way of extending the most visible tendencies of the posited present, without looking at those tendencies which, beyond the positum, are barely visible. For instance, exporting or enforcing values and systems of what goes under the name of democracy (e.g., useless if not altogether flawed elections, parliamentary systems from which most people are excluded, freedom as free-trade, police machine, control, etc.) belongs to the posited present; but a world in which everyone can develop fully and thus also contribute meaningfully and substantially to what is common, in which war and poverty are eliminated and all children can and do get an adequate, good education and attain happiness - this is barely visible.
Too much still persists all around us, and ultimately we still are not.
The line above is from The Spirit of Utopia, where Bloch fears that the spirit may become a "baseless and basically odious cliché" (2000: 267). The hope of an ethics and a philosophy "open to the extraordinary" (p.268) remains the essential and total reality "including the other side which is not yet" (p.276). Bloch says:
There will still come the inevitable emancipation of humanity by technology, and its now irresistible consecration of life, namely the potential abolition of poverty and the emancipation, compelled by the revolutionary proletariat, from all questions of economics (p.267).
The last chapter of the third volume of The Principle of Hope is a meditation on Karl Marx and humanity. Here Bloch says that the greatness of Marx lies in the fact that he "cultivates not a general and abstract but an addressed humanity, one which is directed towards those alone who need it" (1995: 1357). He also calls this a "concrete humanity." And it is in this sense that the utopian discourse becomes one of a concrete utopia. Bloch also mentions the problem of poverty, saying that in it Marx sees "the revolting element", the "active force of revolt against what is causing [poverty]" (ibid.). I need to add that here we should understand poverty not simply in an economic, but, as we have seen above while discussing the work of Amartya Sen, also in an existential and ontological sense. It is only when poverty "realizes its causes" (ibid.), that is, when it abolishes itself as poverty, that it "becomes the revolutionary lever itself" (pp.1357-1358). Of course, this cannot mean that one has to become wealthy before being revolutionary, certainly not so in an economic sense; what this means is that poverty realizes its causes when, as labor, it returns to the constitution of a different type of wealth. This is the return of labor to itself, which implies the end of the production and valorization of capital, the beginning of the end of capital's falsely autonomous wealth, and the constitution of the wealth of labor. Indeed, this is identical with the abolition of poverty, and it is the path shown by Marx when, as Bloch says, "together with Müntzer, [he] took up the scourge with which Jesus chased the money-lenders out of the temple" (p.1357). For this to happen, labor must stop being merely an economic activity and become something much broader than that, return to its original vocation as a life activity, destroy the accumulated wealth driven by profit (to whose concept the concept of poverty also necessarily belongs), and move toward that real wealth which Marx mentions in the Grundrisse, as we have seen above. This is the concrete utopia, the other side, the not yet.
The point is to go beyond the empirically given, into what-could-be, in order to transform the concept of what-is; it is to bring into this all the possibilities, the principles of occasion, which left in the mere beyond delimit the given as a world of alienation. It is in this sense that Bloch speaks of transcendere[vii] without transcendence, and thus of immanence. It is the same as the seeing through we have seen when discussing William Burroughs' text, or, to borrow a concept from Whitehead, the translucency of realization, whereby what is indeterminate enters an actual occasion (1967: 171). Bloch says:
Certainly everything, and above all human life, is a kind of transcendere, a venturing beyond the given, but this transcendere, as concrete-utopian, also certainly does not involve any transcendence (1995: 1373).
After all, the concept of transcendence is nothing but the distancing of the possible from its natural site, that is, the denial of its actual presence within the concrete. Religion arises, the world beyond, another life. Yet, the end of the system of transcendence does not imply the end of the spirit, but its true beginning. The liberation of labor, accomplished through the return of labor to itself and the fall of the rule of capital, will also determine the end of poverty (a reality which could be eliminated overnight) and the coming of the world of the spirit as the identity of production and creation. This means that all labor could be artistic, rewarding, ‘attractive' (as in Fourier's expression), once it is freed from the burden of productivity, the illusion of value and economic growth. Transcendence denies the spiritual dimension contained in the ‘this', the everyday, the concrete, by reducing the ‘this' to a mere positum and opening up the illusion of a world other than this. The abolition of transcendence reveals a reconstituted plenitude, where what-is is inclusive of what-could-be, where the tension between these two constitutive moments of reality is not one of antagonism and death, but a creative tension, an ever-grounding power of new relational measures in the finitude of potentiality, for, as Descartes shows, potentiality pertains to the finite and imperfect, to that which remains in tension. The production of the emancipated senses (as in Marx's analysis) will be all that counts. The concept of the family should not be left to the neoconservatives and their family values, rather, as the hearth of emotional and creative life, the place of memory and healthy solitude, where one feels that one's body reaches into the fabric of what is common, the family does not need to cease; in fact, it resembles the Heraclitean ethos, that is, the sharing of what is common without renouncing one's integrity and solitude. This shows to work when, even in total solitude, one feels the presence of the other(s), and theirs is a presence of difference. Thus, one upholds the idea of the family as a body, but not the family as an institution. Indeed, what needs to be eliminated is the latter, with all hypocritical talk of family values and the like, which turns that commonality into a private thing. Then, we don't see a thousand faces, but only one face, infinitely reproduced. Nor do we see the other, who, paling and glistening, opens the door to the barely visible, but the same - all too visible.[viii]
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Balibar, Étienne. 1993. La philosophie de Marx. Paris: Éditions La Decouverte.
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__________. 1995. The Principle of Hope, 3 Volumes, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
_________. 2000. The Spirit of Utopia, trans. Anthony A. Nassar. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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__________. 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus. New York: Vintage Books.
_________. 1975. Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton. New York: Vintage Books.
__________. 1977. Capital. Vol I, trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage Books.
_________ and Frederick Engels. 1947. The German Ideology. New York, International Publishers.
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[i] In this sense, see Hardt and Negri (2004).
[ii] Agamben (1999: 177-184).
[iii] "—Let him do something crazy. / And this was not possible." (Vallejo 1978: 3).
[iv] "Yet among them, as everyone has a share of official tasks and arts and manual labor, each one needs only to work four hours per day; whereas the rest of the time is spent playing, debating, reading, teaching, walking, and all these activities are always performed with joy" (La città del sole; The City of the Sun).
[v] See, for instance, Jonathan Wolff (2002).
[vi] For instance, see Wolff (2002: 113-118).
[vii] Bloch uses the Latin infinitive ‘transcendere', ‘to transcend'.
[viii] An earlier and much longer version of this essay was published in Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination in 2005 with the title "The Folly of Utopia: A Contribution to the Critique of Cultural Disorder."