Thursday, 8 November 2018

Accentuate the Positive

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

                  Arlen & Mercer, ‘Accentuate the Positive’ (1944)

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

In the new consumer world of the postwar era, popular culture was awash with demands to ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘eliminate the negative.’ The world was called on to, as Monty Python satirised it, ‘always look on the bright side of life.’ We may snigger today at such unsubtle calls to positivity and productivity, but contemporary mindfulness discourse is really little more sophisticated. Are we really less naive today about the concept of positivity? Self care is based on treating and regarding oneself and others positively. Gender and body positivity both build a politics around the rejection various toxic negativities. Twitter stars like jonny sun (the misspelt ‘aliebn’ who dispenses ‘little pep talks’ on self-care to his 700,000 followers) tap into a desire for redemption from a fallen world:

my friend asked me if i was happy & i said i think im going to be & my friend said maybe thats the closest we'll come & maybe thats hapiness’

There is a dozy, heavily constructed naivety to these missives, as if they are someone’s impersonation of what they think a child might say. In fact, there is a whole genre of child-ventriloquising on Twitter, in which parents get to express their own liberal wish fulfilment in the form of some shit their kid says. ‘My 4 year-old just asked me...’ goes the tweet before the child reveals a youthful, egalitarian common sense. Often it involves the most anodyne forms of political mislabeling (‘man-sized tissues’) which seems calculatedly designed to unite as many people as possible in denouncing the softest possible cultural target. Positivity is, in this discourse, the source of resilience and strength, a natural fullness-of-being that our fallen political reality has somehow divorced us from and blinded us to. 

But there is also an obverse trap - the trap of a too-protesting negativity - the so-called ‘hellworld’ pose of Chapo Trap House, the leftist podcast. Here, everything is bitterly, knowingly dejected. Interestingly, both positions - either seeking the kernel of sunny redemption in the fallen world or revelling masochistically in humanity’s destructiveness - could have existed any time since the 1990s. There is something very Gen-X about knowingly misspelt words. It’s as if Kurt Cobain’s teenage diaries, emitting some black smoke from whatever attic they’ve been locked in, are still hypnotising the politics of popular culture today. 

What has become harder to sustain is a critical orientation towards the commodification of culture that does not either fully embrace the chink of light or simply give itself up to the darkness. But then that may be because of the secular crisis of critical theory itself, one stretching beyond the 1990s and back to the onset of the postwar era itself. Critical theory itself is often criticised for being overly negative, even if its greatest contemporary exponent - Habermas - is reconciled to the power of reason, consensus, democracy and - why not? - the Catholic Church. In its early days the so-called Frankfurt School could indeed be radically pessimistic, though this was as much part of its politics as its philosophy. It usually supposed that critical reason could itself escape the power of consumer culture. Only by embracing the ‘critical element’ in thought can reason escaped the instrumentalising effects of bourgeois culture, Adorno and Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment. At times it believed that true insight was only available in isolated moments of critical revelation, such was the all powerful effect of mass consumerism. It was natural, then, that the Frankfurt School would feel its negative method - criticism itself being a kind of proto-deconstruction - was swallowed up by the acceleration and intensification of postwar mass consumerism. 

Nevertheless, there were times when the Frankfurt School could break free of its philosophical negativity and suddenly pen the most limpid of ethical propositions:  "There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more.” Whatever it was in the dreaded ‘system’ of critical thinking (the dialectical method and so on) which permitted such outbursts, their scope is determined by the overwhelming ambience of pessimism.  After the war, Adorno did not believe that contemporary language and thought  were capable of articulating a vision of a different society that would not reproduce capitalism’s barbarism in a different form. Thus there is only the coarse demand (perhaps unfulfillable) that no one go hungry and no grand utopian alternative.

In this piece I want to argue that the Frankfurt School was not dialectical enough in how it approached the opposition of positivity and negativity in the theory of the commodity form and the spread of commodification across society.  In the advance of the commodity, the Frankfurt School tended to see the spread a single, undifferentiated consumer culture: ‘Culture today is infecting everything with sameness,’ as Horkheimer and Adorno put it in Dialectic of Enlightenment. By believing that an undifferentiated process of commodification prevailed across modern societies, the Frankfurt School surprisingly neglected its twin, negative process of decommodification. Moreover, they sometimes mistook decommodification for the end or erasure of capital rather than as the negative moment of a higher capitalist unity. 

There are a lot of terms being bandied about here - commodity, commodification, consumer society, criticism, and so on - so I’ll attempt first to clarify the key terms.

The commodity

In Marxist terms a commodity is a good that carries a certain amount of labour value which can be realised by being sold on a market. Because it can be sold - that is, it fetches a price - it is said to have exchange value. The point that Marx made about commodities was that, despite their shiny, perfect appearance, they were in fact the product of an invisible process. The commodities that we buy are only possible as a result of a  protracted labour process along with the accumulation of past labour in the form of machinery, property and wealth in the hands of company owners. The ‘form’ of the commodity - whether it is a book, some perishable goods, or an asset-backed security - conceals the social processes that underlie it. Moreover, the labour that produces commodities under capitalism is of a particular type. The labour that goes into capitalist commodities is impersonal, separated from control and ownership of what it produces, and atomised or individualised even as it is anonymously social. Whether grouped in factories or office blocks or scattered among city streets, each worker produces not for themselves but for the market. In principle, no special social distinction guarantees any of these workers a particular role in the social order: each is in theory replaceable. 

The role of the commodity is to stand in place of these complex social processes. The commodity form has been described as a particular kind of reification or thing-ification: the commodity reduces and condenses social relations to the level of a mere thing. 


Commodities are invested with special properties by those who exchange them. The commodities themselves are believed to be value rather than the active or living social labour which prodduces them. Just like the sacred, ritualised totems of ‘primitive’ societies, capital, Marx argues, endows commodities with spectral qualities. If this sounds overly moralising, it can also be viewed from a structural perspective that is vital to Marx’s work. Under capitalism, Marx argued, the use value of things is transformed into a market exchange value of commodities. The market has a tendency to reduce all values to mere quantities. Thus, commodities are not expressions of human need. Instead their value is measured in terms of what they can be exchanged for, that is, other commodities.

In theory, a given quantity of one commodity can be exchanged for an equivalent quantity of any other. The universal equivalent (the commodity which is used to measure the exchangeability of all the rest) is money. Thus, money is a fetish object: it is a commodity that expresses the exchange value of other commodities. It is therefore endowed with seemingly magical qualities. What determines shifts in exchange value between commodities is not social use value, but the competitive market itself. Need is met - if at all - only once the law of profitability is fulfilled. Moreover, because of the fetish nature of money, holding money (what macroeconomics today calls ‘liquidity preference’) as a store of value can be preferable to putting it to any kind of social use. 

Thus, fetishised commodities conceal the real social processes involved in their own creation. Exchange value expressed in money subordinates social use value to the law of the market. As workers we are alienated from the products we produce insofar as we lack control and ownership over them. As consumers we fetishise commodities, entering a market of reified ‘goods’ rather than authentic human interactions. 

Critical Theory and Commodity Fetishism

Commodity fetishism became the cornerstone of critical theory in the 20th century. Frankfurt School philosophers like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse took the theory of commodity fetishism and applied it to culture. They saw society as being increasingly infantilised by the growth of mass consumer culture. The latter produced fetishised desires for simple, mass-reproducible commodities and in the process contributed to the increasing reification of society. What the latter means is that people could no longer understand society as a set of relations between people. Instead, society was replaced by a world of things - magic objects that would supposedly fulfil various libidinal desires.

In mass culture, the Frankfurt School saw a dangerous potential for authoritarianism. The irony of the spread of bourgeois culture was that it tended to undermine the basis of its famous individualism. The era of bourgeois heroism, they believed, was long gone and it was being replaced by a consumer society that reduced the individual to a passive, desiring infant. In the aestheticisation of politics (mass rallies, heroic marches, spectacles and propaganda) that catered to consumer desire lay the seeds of fascism. 

The Frankfurt School has often been reproached for seeing the potential for fascism in everything. As Stuart Jeffries argues in his history of the Frankfurt School, this was understandable. As mostly Jewish German intellectuals, they had been forced into exile by the rise of Nazism. It was the defining political experience of their lives. It made the Frankfurt School question the possibility of meaningful change to the capitalist system. Rather than a Teutonic excess, then, fascism was a peculiar political and social pact between the far right and the industrial bourgeoisie.  


Where the Frankfurt School philosophers were really mistaken was in how they thought of commodification as a wider social process under capitalism. In modern political thought there is no shortage of visions of the progressive subjection of ‘nature’ to what Max Weber called the ‘iron cage of rationality.’ The Frankfurt School embraced a version of this: commodification was always, ceaselessly expanding and subjecting anything spontaneous, creative or autonomous to its law. 

Surprisingly then the Frankfurt School was not dialectical enough in its thinking. What I mean to say here is that commodification comes twinned with its opposite: the equally pervasive phenomenon of de-commodification. In de-commodification, exchange value is removed from circulation and the commodity disappears. Consumption is one obvious example of this: when we eat, we don’t (only) consume exchange value (though what we consume is saturated with symbolic meaning). The commodities in question do at this very fundamental level disappear. They are used up, perhaps to be expended again in the form of reproduced labour power. After lunch we naturally go back to work.

But there are other processes of decommodification going on under capitalism. The market mechanism itself tends to reduce the exchange value of certain items. As supply outstrips effective demand, certain goods become quite literally unexchangeable. There is no market for them. Goods drop out of circulation, contributing to the vast, invisible underbelly of the market system - the waste system. In extreme cases firms actively destroy their own goods in order to increase their price. Improvements in technology brought about by the capitalist search for innovation can lower the production costs of commodities, capital goods, and the barrier to entry for competitors, this undermining the exchange value pf the goods they produce. A business going bust is a case of decommodification via the market. In recent times, digital technologies have threatened to thwart the price mechanism entirely by creating conditions of limitless, free reproducibility of music, TV shows, films and so on. As Paul Mason argues, there is no market price for something that is infinitely reproducible. 

De-commodification is also, at times, capitalist state policy. Since the state is concerned with administering the social conditions that allow for capital accumulation to continue on an expanded basis, at times it will threaten particular industries in order to save the whole. Not only will it allow - indeed encourage - certain businesses to go to the wall, it will also in special circumstances remove unprofitable or dysfunctional sectors from the market by nationalising them. True, it does not do this in a democratic or socialist way. But this is nevertheless a kind of decommodification which is brought about by the very process of commodification itself.

Surely, though, labour is always commodified under capitalism? Certainly in form. There is no denying that very few people exercise meaningful control over their workplace or what they do in it or what goods and services it produces. But the content of labour is not always experienced as alienated - indeed, the reproduction of capital depends on it. When care workers, nurses and doctors look after patients, they do not see them as objects. When people spend hours at work engaged in whatever mildly diverting task is at hand - improvising a way to fix a small glitch in an otherwise smooth process - they are not in the strict sense doing it for money. They are doing it because people are good at problem-solving and irresistibly stimulated by even relatively dull puzzles. This is not an apologia for wage labour. Indeed, precisely because the form of labour is alienated under capitalism, this kind of creative, purposeful application of human skill to relatively mundane tasks is a misapplication. It is in the strict sense a waste of energy.

No doubt a Frankfurt School thinker like Theodor Adorno would reject such views as positivistic in the sense that they attribute to human beings an inherent ‘nature’ which is expressed in their purposeful actions. Adorno did not see anything to be salvaged from such references to nature. While I think there is something valuable in (an admittedly anti-humanist) concept of human nature, that is really beside the point.

I do not mean to say that human nature is creative and expresses itself through labour. Nor do I think that this misapplied human skill is the basis for an emancipated, future form of human labour. Rather I simply want to draw attention to the way that commodification and de-commodification are continually intertwined under capitalism. The social organisation of labour under capital generates the possibility for decommodified working experiences even as it relentlessly commodifies labour forms.

In his book Minima Moralia Adorno writes about the intellectual who seeks to take some pleasure from his work, but is suspected of dilettantism by those who preside over the capitalist division of labour. Thus, capitalist standards of professionalism are imposed on the intellectual in an effort to subordinate the pleasure they may take in their work to a capitalistic understanding of value. Under capitalism there is a fierce policing of the separation between value-creating labour and value-consuming pleasure. The idea of labour-as-pleasure is always at some level vaguely deviant.

Yet the continued existence of the capitalist division of labour relies on a highly circumscribed, but nonetheless real, capacity for creativity and collaboration. And in that lies the source of its strength: in the form of a commodified labour process, capital is nevertheless able to draw on decommodified experience. It is undoubtedly partly parasitic on this spontaneous creative tendency, but - not to fall into a mere vitalism - it also generates certain kinds of collaborative synergy in the way it organises labour processes. Give capital its due: it unleashes, whilst still intending to control, undreamt of opportunities for social interaction. 

Even in cultural production, in the form of vintage fashion, new avenues of commodification often depend on the ability to reclaim and recycle outdated commodities. Art decommodifies by reclaiming commodities from the market and reproducing them in autonomous contexts only to return them to circulation via the art market (Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is the zenith-as-parody of this function of art in the age of mechanical reproduction). This higher sphere of commodification relies for its cache on the ability of the artist to augment existing commodity value via the imprimatur of an intangible 'creativity.' 

There is a reason that the critique of consumerism so often just looks like hypocrisy: who is really in a position to criticise the consumption of others without looking at themselves? For the hippy movement, this took the form of a retreat into nature. For the critical theorists it was a retreat into ever more alembicated negative spaces.

A de-commodified mode of production?

It is sometimes assumed that because Marxism makes the critique of the commodity form the basis of its critique of the capitalist mode of production, that socialism (or more properly communism) must be a decommodified mode of production. 

But socialism is not an antimodern asceticism, as if to renounce consumption by attacking one’s own living standards is to enact socialism in the here and now. A mode of production that relied on the decommodifying processes listed here would be self-immolating. It is also an absurdity: as we have seen decommodification is an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. It is the obverse of the supposedly ‘positive’ process of capitalist production. It is the destructive part of what Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction.’

Is it possible then to imagine a non-commodifying mode of production? We can relate this back to the question of reification. When we encounter commodities, Marx argues, we experience them as as magical objects divorced from the conditions in which they were produced. The same could be said of any process of cognition: when you look at a mountain, you don’t see it as a combination of different rock types or as the product of aeons of geological processes. The result of a truly non-reifying act of cognition would be an infinite regression: the mountain would break into its constitutive components and processes and those in turn would be broken up in a kind of schizoid deconstruction.  

We are not going to solve the question of socialism here obviously, but it is worth pointing out that socialism is not merely the destruction of capitalist forms of value nor the closure of the avenues of value augmentation that capitalism thrives on. Rather, it is its supplementation with other, non-commodifying forms of social production. Just as we can’t approach mountains as complex geological processes, it is impossible to imagine an advanced society that does not involve forms of commodification. Nor should all consumption be moralistically and ascetically frowned on (this too, in the Protestant work ethic and the compulsion to save, is itself part of capitalism). But there are many sectors of the economy - care work for example - which already lend themselves to the absence of the commodity form and its replacement by collective, democratic, unalienated forms of collaborative labour. In the conscious regulation of the workplace through democratic means the whole is substituted for the part: we come to see and participate in work as a contributor to its totality rather than as atomised individuals. This noncommodified type of social labour is not simply the obliteration of capitalist commodification. Rather, it builds alternative layers of social relations on top of existing capitalist social ones. 

What this doesn’t mean is that socialism is intent on destroying all semblance of the capitalist division of labour or advanced commodity production or any form of market exchange or the enjoyment of branded goods. These are, at best, ecological utopias, utopias of stringency, asceticism, 'detox' culture and recourse to a spurious natural harmony. At worst, anti-consumerism is a kind of austerity politics – the tightening of the collective belt to stave of the ills brought on by 'overconsumption'. Today, calitalism commodifies decommodification.  Socialism merely wagers that a democratised industrial apparatus would be quicker to embrace ecological sustainability and efficiency than private monopoly control of the means of production. See, for example, the celebrated Cleveland and Preston models for really existing variants of this augmentation of the commodity form with cooperative forms of labour and finance. Socialism is not a bar to development - capitalism places its own limits on that.

Whereas the postwar generation were told to 'get happy' and to 'pack up their troubles', we are asked today to believe that happiness is only available in fleeting moments, in solitude and seclusion, in detox and retreat from the irredeemable poisonousness of modern life. Recall jonny sun's advice: 'maybe thats happyness and thats the closest we'll get.' The attempt to escape negativity through self-mastery is becoming a new kind of capitalist asceticism. It is a parodic reversion to a more authoritarian age: the total administration of the self by means of the body. This new cultural austerity seeks to liberate the subject through disavowal and self-denial. It is a mode of salvation as old as Protestantism. It promises a space outside of commodification that is just as commodified as more obvious forms of consumption.

Against this political quietism, the socialist response should be a resolute commitment to forms of collective joy and communal luxury.

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