One of my emphases in the little book I wrote on Marx some time ago was that Marx made the great leap towards what became Marxism in Cologne in 1842, when he became the editor of a newspaper there and did a few articles on a local controversy: the new legislative rules that eliminated the time honored custom of gathering sticks in forests owned by the great landholders. Marx at this time was a graduate of law school. He gets it that the legislature is creating something new here – a property – out of the denial of something old – a customary right. But it occurred to him that it was not enough to remain on the level of the law – for what was driving the legislative proces was not so much any legal confusion, or any unfolding of some previous logic in the legal code, a la Hegel, but instead, was a basic, extra-legal social force.
The custom of gathering fallen wood, as Marx came to see it, had its roots in another kind of social order. Marx latter on considered this social order as pre-capitalist, evidently defining it from the ‘stage’ that succeeds it. However, I think it is entirely within the Marxist spirit to define it differently, as the regime of the “image of the limited good”, a phrase coined by the anthropologist George Foster to describe the image of the world inherent to those who inhabit a social economy in which economic growth is not the norm. The norm, instead, for the peasants and their governors, is of rise and fall, in which prosperity can be expected to lead to superbia, or vanity, which in turn creates the condition for the fall. The image of the limited good is congruent with the iconography of nemesis, or justice, a blindfolded figure holding a scale in which our sins and accumulations are weighed.
In this world, it makes sense to talk about the poor. There is no sense that in this world, the laborer produces such wealth as will cause economic growth to be the primary fact of the social world. Marx, in Cologne, began to sense the meaning of this.
To put this another way: Marx made the very important discovery that “the poor”, as a socio-economic category, was vacuous. The poor were easily recognized in pre-capitalist economies: the beggars, the serfs, the slaves, they all exist under the sign of minus. They had less, and that quantitative fact defined their social existence. What Marx saw was that capitalist society was not just a matter of old wine in new bottles – the archaic poor were now free labor. Perhaps nothing so separates Marxism from religion as this insight: in all the great monotheistic religions, poverty is viewed in feudal terms: the poor you will have always with you. But in capitalism, or modernity tout court, the poor continue to exist as a mystificatory category, usually in a binary with the rich. In fact, the real binary in society is capital and labor. The bourgeois economists, and even the non-scientific socialists, operate as though the archaic poor still exist. To help them, we need to develop a method of redistribution that is, in essence, charity – run by non-profits or run by the government, but still charity. But Marx saw this in very different terms. Labor produces the economic foundation of capitalism – value. In these terms, it is not a question of the poor being a qualitative or moral category – it is a question of the alienation of value, of surplus value, that circulates through the entire capitalist system and allows it to grow on its own, while at the same time making it vulnerable to crisis.
Baudelaire famously created a slogan for the 1848 revolution: Assommons les pauvres. Kill the poor! This seems on the surface to be the most radical and effective of welfare schemes, for it would get rid of the poor once and for all. But Marx explains why it wouldn’t work: the poor describes an illformed social category, a survival from the past. To kill the working class would be to kill capitalism itself. What Marx learned in the forests of Koln was that capitalism was as atheist as could be against property. Far from being founded on the defense of property, capitalism was quite comfortable with changing its definition to suit – capital. What was once a right of the “poor” – for instance, to glean windfallen branches – could be swept away with a penstroke when the large landowners so desired. What was once the very definition of property - to have the full usage of an item one buys - can suddenly be hedged round with limitations when we try, for instance, to copy it and upload it on the internet. We are suddenly deprived of the inalienable right to give our property - and this is named Intellectual Property, and a legal structure grows up around it in a heartbeat. Property is not, then, a constant element, but a fluid one, changing its meaning and effect with the system of production in place. To describe the poor as having little “property”, in other words, reified property, placed it outside the social, and disguised the social conflicts encoded in what property is.
Marx’s logical clarity, however, is a bit too bright even for many of his own followers, who are as prone to fall into the language of the struggle between the poor and the rich as anybody else. It is, after all, one of the richest images we have, and leads irresistibly to a one-sided discourse on equality.
One of the great contradictions of neo-liberalism is that it retains the vocabulary of the image of the limited good – “the poor” – while promoting an image of infinite growth – that is, of capitalism, with the financial sector dominant. Vox had a headline during the Democratic primaries that I thought was an exemplary reflection of this contradiction. The article criticized Sanders’ positions on trade, and the headline went: If you're poor in another country, this is the scariest thing Bernie Sanders has said. Poor here is taken as a group to which “we” must be charitable. If the headline had read, If you are an underpaid laborer in another country… the argument would have been more honest, although I am not sure the headline writer thought that he or she was being dishonest. Marx is very firm that the reserve army of the unemployed and the underpaid in all sectors are the foundations of the wealth of nations. Neoliberalism certainly recognizes their function, but disguises its intents by transforming this into a mawkish morality play.
In a sense, that headline is the exact moral antithesis to another famous slogan: workers of the world unit, you have nothing to lose but your chains.