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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Seeing Through Marx

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Writing in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester offers a very perceptive and trenchant reflection on the value of Marxism as an explanation of the world economy today. Lanchester rightly observes some of the twenty-first century paradoxes that classical Marxism might struggle to explain. The welfare state in particular is a problem. For example:
Singapore is one of the most avowedly free-market countries in the world, regularly coming top or near top of surveys for liberalisation of markets, and yet the government owns most of the land in the country and the overwhelming majority of the population lives in socialised housing. It’s the world capital of free markets and also of council flats. There are lots of different capitalisms and it’s not clear that a single analysis which embraces all of them as if they were a single phenomenon can be valid.
A quite literally bigger problem is that the world's largest socialist state, China, has tripped over itself to provide the world with a surplus of workers who seem only too ready to be exploited as their products are exported. There has been and will be no rebellion of the proles at Foxconn.

Despite these awkward issues of modernity, I (like Lanchester) am repeatedly struck by just how easy it is, on the whole, still to see the twenty-first century world through a Marxist lens. When I teach Marxist literary theory, it is always a fun but remarkably straightforward task to think of real-world examples to explain key terms and concepts.

Take the idea of "alienation," for example, the principle that the bourgeois owners of a product are disconnected from the proletariat who produced it. In a feudal, pre-capitalist economy, Marx argues, we sympathetically know what labour value is intrinsic in the things we own: to put it simplistically, when I exchange five hens for that new set of horseshoes, I know the labour that went into producing my hens, and so I know the labour that my neighbour the village blacksmith must have put into making those horseshoes.

Yet in a capitalist economy, especially the globalised one that we have today, the buyer is alienated from understanding the amount of work that goes into the thing they buy. A buyer knows the price of a product, of course, but not the labour-value that is bound up in it. To show this, I ask my class where they bought the tops they are wearing. The usual suspects roll out: Topshop, Primark, Next. Then I ask them where their tops were made. Of course, no one knows. Then I ask them to look at the labels in the back of their tops and to find out. The results are usually surprising: of course China features heavily, but so to do Spain, South Africa, India and more. I point out that if they do not know where the product they own comes from, then it is highly unlikely that the factory worker who sews the button that holds the sleeve that attaches to the shirt they are wearing knows anything at all about how his sewing of the button will translate into a finished product on a discount rail in Primark.

Or Abercrombie and Fitch, for that matter - this being the retailer of choice for the wealthier student. A t-shirt from Primark might cost £10. One from Abercrombie and Fitch might cost £50. Materially, there is virtually no difference between them. Yet what justifies that higher price tag is the aura that accumulates around an object that has been marketed by the athletic, semi-naked young men who strut around Abercrombie and Fitch stores, turning a mere garment into a definition of lifestyle, of "cool." As Marx says of such fetish objects, "A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."

Or extend this theory more abstractly, to think about the way that all products embody a certain value that is a combination of labour and perception. The bourgeois - the owning class, which is to say pretty much most of the Western world today - get rich by ensuring that the labour which produces those products is deferred to someone else. In canny capitalism, this someone else is, often and ironically, the consumer of that same product, who is seduced by the perception that actually they are getting better not worse value. Lanchester uses the neat example of automatic airport check-in:
Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly. They’re transferring their inefficiency to the customer, but what they’re also doing is transferring the labour to you and accumulating the surplus value themselves. It happens over and over again. Every time you deal with a phone menu or interactive voicemail service, you’re donating your surplus value to the people you're dealing with.

It is a valid cliche of intellectual history that the most elegant ideas are typically those which seem to slot easily into our normal pattern of existence, because they announce things which have been always already before our eyes. Freud freely admitted that he was not the first to discover the unconscious; all he did was nudge us acknowledge the truths of our own minds that we always, secretly, knew to be there. Darwin did not need to invent a machine to decode the genome in order to develop the theory of evolution; he merely spent some time looking at common finches and worms, and saw that their biology must vary according to principles of survival.

Similarly with capitalism, which might seem, in the era of the credit crunch, collatoralised debt obligation, and the trade deficit, incredibly complex. Yet look through a Marxist lens at the small details, the little incidents we all experience, and suddenly the world looks much simpler - even if it seems more resistant to fundamental political and economic change than ever.

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