Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Kant and Marx

I am taking a coursera course on Modern and Post Modern [Link] . Last year, i did the Fantasy and Science Fiction and it was awesome. My book reading went through the room but it has been pretty much an average rate for the last six months. I was on the lookout for something interesting when i came to know about this course.  For roughly about the last three four years, i had been meaning to read philosophy. I even bought an Intro to Philosophy book when i was in US but never opened for a single day. Kant fascinated me even more when i read Michael Sandel's Justice.   So, it has been a much anticipated reading and something that i really want to do.

So far, I am three weeks down and it is doing ok. Till now, i have read - 

Karl Marx - 
Gustave Falubert - Madame Bovary (a novel) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_Bovary
Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Arts and Sciences  http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rousseau/jean_jacques/arts/

And i have tried to read his Discourse on origins of inequality - http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11136/pg11136.html

Rousseau has been a much difficult person to read. His ideas are quite radical and his writing is also quite heavy. But it is just amazing how these thinkers have put their ideas into words. Sometimes, it just feels brilliant to read a line and then i have to reread it 2-3 times to marvel at the sentence construction, the thought behind it and how naturally it flows.  

Kant and Marx has been just awesome to read and to understand. Kant's enlightenment is just brilliant. Enlightenment is not about access to knowledge, rather Kant defines it to be able to use one's own reason, freely, without the guidance of another. Kant does not care what is the conclusion, he does not care about the impact, he just makes a case that as long as there is an environment to apply one's own rationale, the society would progress.  The entire essay is quite a small one and it is an easy read, i just want to highlight the first para which just is phenomenal. 

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!

Marx, how do i begin about Marx. His ideas which we have seen in practice and realized its weak points; Marx the ever so controversial. But his treatise on Estranged Labor was just a sheer joy to read. What profundity ! In Estranged Labor, Marx argues that if man works for an output that he can not relate to, the output that he can not enjoy, then as part of his work he is loosing himself. This alienation of work leads to alienation of self and Marx claims that by doing so, man is  forgetting the life-species (humanity) and is becoming an animal - the one that enjoys the physical plesaures such as eating, drinking sleeping etc. 

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.
This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears asloss of realization for the workers[18]; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation

Even though Marx is thinking about Labor class as he is writing about it, his ideas apply to anybody who does not like the work that he/she is doing. His argument is extremely fundamental and it strikes the core of the meaning of our existence. 

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?

First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self. 


In estranging from man (1) nature, and (2) himself, his own active functions, his life activity, estranged labor estranges the species from man. It changes for him the life of the species into a means of individual life. First it estranges the life of the species and individual life, and secondly it makes individual life in its abstract form the purpose of the life of the species, likewise in its abstract and estranged form.

For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life. 

The entire article is actually a great read. Moving to the Communist Manifesto, this is very it gets very tricky to navigate. I am in agreement with Marx on the diagnosis of the problem. In section one, he analyses the state of things and how the bourgeoise is controlling the proletarians (the labor). One can get a sense of things to come by just reading the first line -
The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.
What follows, is a very nuanced understanding of what causes inequality, how the bourgeoise has come to enjoy the current power, what has been missing in the previous revolutions and why we need another revolution. Marx writes -
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors," and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Marx concludes section one by -
Hitherto, every form of society has been based, as we have already seen, on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes. But in order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence. The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern laborer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society. 

Section two talks about the solution to the problem and this is where things get quite tricky for me. The solution is the theory of Communism -  primarily founded on Abolition of Private property.  I can see some sense in the argument but am not in complete agreement. Marx tries to answer the critique that it would lead to a universal laziness by a tautological argument but i do not buy in completely. Also, Marx does not answers the question of communal greed wherein an entire section of people (say in a particular form of govt.) are concomitant in corruption (for their own greed), the system of checks and balances fail. I think the fundamental flaw in Marx is that he assumes public participation in all spheres - something that we witness to be not that true today.

There are however still some sections that ask for a lot of thought. For example -

But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? 
Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage-labour. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism. 
To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.
Capital is, therefore, not a personal, it is a social power.

I am thoroughly enjoying the course so far. Will keep on posting on things that i read. Madame Bovary's review is also coming soon.   

No comments: