October 16, 2008

"A thousand sources of sudden enrichment"

In this time of anxious need, the call goes out. The order is placed, the machinery is fired up and the new printings of standard editions are readied for sale and re-sale. The product, this time, is Marx's Das Kapital. Perhaps it is produced offshore, waiting to be brought back "home" to be distributed with magnificent speed and displayed in bookstore windows for buyers desperate for a way of understanding what is not being adequately explored.

However it comes to be, and come to be owned, it is in many more hands today, talismanic in its thin binding, promising the promise of answers and explanations; a way of knowing what is so frightful.

What trickle of pleasure will a weary train traveler feel when, at the end of a tiring day, the eye impatient with Marx's grueling care and seemingly infinite patience, finds a footnote citing Luther, who writes, "Whoever eats up, robs, steals the nourishment of another, that man commits as great a murder (so far as in him lies) as he who starves a man or utterly undoes him. Such does a usurer, and sits while safe on his tool, when he ought to rather be hanging on the gallows, and be eaten by as many ravens could stick their beaks in and share it. Meanwhile, we hang the small thieves . . . "?

What memory of the Hugo Boss suits and well-shined shoes seen that day will creep in when he finds that Marx writes, "The progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also the exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity. . . " ? Or, "Public credit becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven"?

But just as Benjamin refused an easy reduction of the Paris arcades, those enclosed "worlds of delight," the grasping for answers that come too quick are to be refused. The formulations that might allow one, raven-like, to stick their beak in and pluck out a pronouncing judgment, will always give only false pleasure. They are only avoidance of the shock that rattles the body. The temptation is to look for small symptoms in the normalcy, and seeing both at once, find assurance. If so many continue to take the train to work, to walk the same path, day after day, no matter what the newspapers say, then surely it is a matter of just waiting for whatever it is we claim to know is happening, to have happened; like a hurricane that eventually turns to mere rain over land.

A few years back, Alan Greenspan rejected the very idea that there was a brewing crisis because of the play of credit, which metastasized in housing. He referred, then, to the not very uncommon phenomenon of "irrational exuberance." In other words, to a very simple condition. No cause for alarm. This is as helpful as saying that markets run on fear and greed. And it recalls a fragment from Horkheimer's Dawn and Decline:

As one walks through an insane asylum, the horrible impression the sight of the raving mad makes on the layman is allayed by the matter-of-fact statement of the physician that the patient is in a state of excitation. Being subsumed under a specific scientific category, the terror at the phenomenon is presented as somehow out of place. "It's just a state of excitation." There are people who will not be disturbed about the existence of evil because they have a theory that accounts for it. Here I am also thinking of Marxists who, in the face of wretchedness, quickly proceed to show why it exists. Even comprehension can be too quick.