Sometimes when I find myself questioning many of my political positions (which I do every so often despite what appears here: which is the mark of a good social scientist I should add) I return to some foundational passages from bygone years and see if in them I am still able to see myself; that is, my sentiments –the fusion of the heart and head– reflected (don’t get all scared: you have a heart even if you think you don’t use it; and, don’t get all scared: you have a head even if you feel you don’t use it).
Below is one such passage which has been heavily edited down to the punch line. What I like about this passage is that it makes plain what characterises relationships between human beings when they are reproduced through alienated labour and its products. But more significantly the passage outlines the sentiment of what one might call an alternative socialist modernity in which mutual recognition in love through our individual labours and subjectivity is the causa belli. And although the passage offers no clue about how a community of human beings could be constituted on such a basis it does provide a normative basis from which we can judge our own and hold ourselves to account.
The passage is also quite stunning in the way that the author deals with subjectivity and objectivity: and even puts forward a positive notion of objectification. If you have not read this passage give it a twice-over; if you have, perhaps you will feel a little less lonely after having revisited it.
Comment on James Mill
When I produce more of an object than I myself can directly use, my surplus production is cunningly calculated for your need. It is only in appearance that I produce a surplus of this object. In reality I produce a different object, the object of your production, which I intend to exchange against this surplus, an exchange which in my mind I have already completed. The social relation in which I stand to you, my labour for your need, is therefore also a mere semblance, and our complementing each other is likewise a mere semblance, the basis of which is mutual plundering. The intention of plundering, of deception, is necessarily present in the background, for since our exchange is a selfish one, on your side as on mine, and since the selfishness of each seeks to get the better of that of the other, we necessarily seek to deceive each other. It is true though, that the power which I attribute to my object over yours requires your recognition in order to become a real power. Our mutual recognition of the respective powers of our objects, however, is a struggle, and in a struggle the victor is the one who has more energy, force, insight, or adroitness. If I have sufficient physical force, I plunder you directly. If physical force cannot be used, we try to impose on each other by bluff, and the more adroit overreaches the other. For the totality of the relationship, it is a matter of chance who overreaches whom. The ideal, intended overreaching takes place on both sides, i.e., each in his own judgment has overreached the other.
On both sides, therefore, exchange is necessarily mediated by the object which each side produces and possesses. The ideal relationship to the respective objects of our production is, of course, our mutual need. But the real, true relationship, which actually occurs and takes effect, is only the mutually exclusive possession of our respective products. What gives your need of my article its value, worth and effect for me is solely your object, the equivalent of my object. Our respective products, therefore, are the means, the mediator, the instrument, the acknowledged power of our mutual needs. Your demand and the equivalent of your possession, therefore, are for me terms that are equal in significance and validity, and your demand only acquires a meaning, owing to having an effect, when it has meaning and effect in relation to me As a mere human being without this instrument your demand is an unsatisfied aspiration on your part and an idea that does not exist for me. As a human being, therefore, you stand in no relationship to my object, because I myself have no human relationship to it. But the means is the true power over an object and therefore we mutually regard our products as the power of each of us over the other and over himself.
That is to say, our own product has risen up against us; it seemed to be our property, but in fact we are its property. We ourselves are excluded from true property because our property excludes other men.
The only intelligible language in which we converse with one another consists of our objects in their relation to each other. We would not understand a human language and it would remain without effect. By one side it would be recognised and felt as being a request, an entreaty, and therefore a humiliation, and consequently uttered with a feeling of shame, of degradation. By the other side it would be regarded as impudence or lunacy and rejected as such. We are to such an extent estranged from man’s essential nature that the direct language of this essential nature seems to us a violation of human dignity, whereas the estranged language of material values seems to be the well-justified assertion of human dignity that is self-confident and conscious of itself.
Although in your eyes your product is an instrument, a means, for taking possession of my product and thus for satisfying your need; yet in my eyes it is the purpose of our exchange. For me, you are rather the means and instrument for producing this object that is my aim, just as conversely you stand in the same relationship to my object. But 1) each of us actually behaves in the way he is regarded by the other. You have actually made yourself the means, the instrument, the producer of your own object in order to gain possession of mine; 2) your own object is for you only the sensuously perceptible covering, the hidden shape, of my object; for its production signifies and seeks to express the acquisition of my object.
In fact, therefore, you have become for yourself a means, an instrument of your object, of which your desire is the servant, and you have performed menial services in order that the object shall never again do a favour to your desire. If then our mutual thraldom to the object at the beginning of the process is now seen to be in reality the relationship between master and slave, that is merely the crude and frank expression of our essential relationship.
Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual objects. Hence for us man himself is mutually of no value.
Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person.
1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt.
2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature.
3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love.
4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.
Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.
This relationship would moreover be reciprocal; what occurs on my side has also to occur on yours.
Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition:
My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.
Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.
Secondly, the specific nature of my individuality, therefore, would be affirmed in my labour, since the latter would be an affirmation of my individual life. Labour therefore would be true, active property.
Presupposing private property, my individuality is alienated to such a degree that this activity is instead hateful to me, a torment, and rather the semblance of an activity. Hence, too, it is only a forced activity and one imposed on me only through an external fortuitous need, not through an inner, essential one.
My labour can appear in my object only as what it is. It cannot appear as something which by its nature it is not. Hence it appears only as the expression of my loss of self and of my powerlessness that is objective, sensuously perceptible, obvious and therefore put beyond all doubt.
Karl Marx, “Comments on James Mill” 1844