Anyone who has ever taken or taught a philosophy class is familiar with the claim "[Blank] is subjective" in which the [Blank] in question could be anything from literary interpretations to ethical norms. This response effectively ends any and all cultural and philosophical discussion, which is why it is so aggravating. One response is to argue against this claim, to point out that not every interpretation of a poem, novel, or film, is authorized, that there are better or worse interpretations, with respect to cultural version. With respect to the ethical or political arguments it is tempting to point out that the very existence of ethics, of society, presupposes norms that are shared as well as debated and challenged.
What if we took a different perspective? Instead of arguing against this view, ask the question of its conditions. To offer a criticism in the Marxist sense. By Marxist sense I mean specifically the criticism that Marx offers of idealism, of philosophy, in The German Ideology. In that text Marx gives the conditions of how it is that the world appears so upside down that ideas and their criticism rather than material conditions drive and determine history. So we could ask a similar question, how has subjectivity, subjective opinion and perspective, has come to appear as so prevalent and powerful. How did we come to live under the reign of subjectivity?
In a move that will surprise no one who has read this blog that I find a useful starting point for answering this question Frank Fischbach's book Marx with Spinoza. In that text Fischbach argues that rather than seen alienation as an alienation from subjectivity, a reduction of a subject to an object, it is subjectivity itself that is an alienation, an alienation from objectivity, a privation of the world. As Fischbach argues:
"The reduction of human beings, by this abstraction, from natural and living beings to the state of ‘subjects’ as owners of a socially average labour power indicates at the same time the completion of their reduction to a radical state of impotence: for the individual to be conceived and to conceive of itself as a subject it is necessary that it see itself withdrawn and subtracted from the objective conditions of its natural activity; in other words, it is necessary that ‘the real conditions of living labour’ (the material worked on, the instruments of labour and the means of subsistence which ‘fan the flames of the power of living labour’) become ‘autonomous and alien existences’"
"This is why we interpret Marx’s concept of alienation not as a new version of a loss of the subject in the object, but as a radically new thought, of the loss of the essential and vital objects for an existence that is itself essentially objective and vital....Alienation is not therefore the loss of the subject in the object it is the loss of object for a being that is itself objective. But the loss of proper objects and the objectivity of its proper being is also the loss of all possible inscription of one’s activity in objectivity, it is the loss of all possible mastery of objectivity, as well as other effects: in brief, the becoming subject is essentially a reduction to impotence. The becoming subject or the subjectivation of humanity is thus inseparable according to Marx from what is absolutely indispensable for capitalism, the existence of a mass of “naked workers”—that is to say pure subjects possessors of a perfectly abstract capacity to work—individual agents of a purely subjective power of labor and constrained to sell its use to another to the same extent that they are totally dispossessed of the entirety of objective conditions (means and tools of production, matter to work on) to put to effective work their capacity to work."
At the basis of subjectivity, of subjectivity understood as an abstract and indifferent capacity, there is the indifferent capacity of labor power. Behind the figure of the subject there is the worker. I have already argued elsewhere on this blog that this reading of the Marx/Spinoza connection could be understood as one which reflects and critically addressed our contemporary situation in which subjecitivity, a subjectivity understood as potential and capacity, is seen as the condition of our freedom rather than our subjection. What Fischbach suggests through a reading of Marx and Spinoza that such capacity, capacity abstracted and separated from the material conditions of its emergence and activity, can only really be impotence. Just as a worker cut off from the conditions of labor is actually poverty, a subject cut off from the conditions of its actualization is impotence.
What now I find provocative about this analysis is that if we think of it as a general schema in which an objective relation, a relation to objects but also others, is transformed into a subjective potential or capacity it is possible to argue that the constitution of subjectivity through labor power is only one such transformation, and that the current production of subjectivity is itself the product of several successive revolutions in which subjective potentials displace objective relations. One could also talk about the creation of subjectivity as buying power, as a pure capacity to purchase. I know that criticisms of consumer society from the fifties and sixties today seem moralistic and often passé. I am thinking here of Baudrillard, Debord, Lefebvre, and of course Horkheimer and Adorno. It is worth remembering, however, that some of the early critics were less interested in moralizing criticisms of materialism as they were in this kind of constitution of subjectivity. As Jean Baudrillard wrote in The Consumer Society, ‘It is difficult to grasp the extent to which the current training in systematic, organized consumption is the equivalent and extension, in the twentieth century, of the great nineteenth-century long process of the training of rural populations for industrial work.’
One person who continued such an an analysis is Bernard Stiegler. Stiegler even uses the same word, "proletarianization" to describe both the loss of skills and knowledge by the worker and the loss of skills and knowledge by the consumer. As I wrote in The Politics of Transindividuality:
"At first glance, the use of the term proletarianisation to describe the transindividuation of the consumer would seem to be an analogy with the transformation of the labour process: if proletarianisation is the loss of skills, talents, and knowledge until the worker becomes simply interchangeable labour power, then the broader proletarianisation of daily life is the loss of skills, knowledge, and memory until the individual becomes simply purchasing power. Stiegler’s use of proletarianisation is thus simultaneously broader and more restricted than Marx, broader in that it is extended beyond production to encompass relations of consumption and thus all of life, but more restricted in that it is primarily considered with respect to the question of knowledge. The transfer of knowledge from the worker to the machine is the primary case of proletarianisation for Stiegler, becoming the basis for understanding the transfer of knowledge of cooking to microwaveable meals and the knowledge of play from the child to the videogame. Stiegler does not include other dimensions of Marx’s account of proletarianisation, specifically the loss of place, of stability, with its corollary affective dimension of insecurity and precariousness. On this point, it would be difficult to draw a strict parallel between worker and consumer, as the instability of the former is often compensated for by the desires and satisfactions of the latter. Consumption often functions as a compensation for the loss of security, stability, and satisfaction of work, which is not to say that it is not without its own insecurities especially as they are cultivated by advertising."
For the most part Stiegler considers this deskilling to take place in the automation of the knowledge and skill that makes up daily life. Everything from cooking to knowing how to navigate one's own city is now more or less hardwired into precooked meals and the ubiquitous smartphone. Other cultural critics have pointed to the general deskilling of daily life through the decline of repair, tinkering, and mending. The effect of all this is to change the consumer from someone who buys things based on knowledge and familiarity to a pure expression of buying power, an abstract potential. Just as the worker is separated from the means of production, from the objective conditions of their labor to be the subjective capacity to work, the consumer is separated from the knowledge to consume to become a personification of buying power. As with work the conditions to realize this buying power are outside the control of the consumer. We do not decide what to buy based on our knowledge of our needs and desires but on what is advertised to us as a need or desire.
As much as the worker and consumer are opposed, making up two sides of economic relations under capitalism, they are unified, connected in the tendency to transform work to abstract labor power and consumption into abstract buying power. While abstract subjectivity is how these two sides of the capitalist economic relation function it is not how they are lived. They are lived as profoundly individual, subjective in the conventional sense of the word. What one does for a living is in some sense considered to be one's identity: "What are you?" is in some sense equivalent to "What do you do?" If for any one of the myriad reasons what one does is inadequate to constitute an identity, remains just a day job, then consumption or the commodity form steps in to supply the necessary coordinates for an identity.
From this perspective we can chart not only the historical progression of the two identities, but also the structural similarities. With respect to the first, consumer society, consumption, and the myriad possibilities to construct an identity through consumption, comes after the worker, after the formation of capitalism. Any attempt to read Marx's Capital for consumer society, for the common sense understanding of commodity fetishism as the overvaluing of commodities, is going to have a hard time navigating the dull world of linen, coats, corn and coal. The consumer comes after the worker. However, it is also possible to see a similarity of a structural condition. In both case subjectivity is abstracted from, or separated from, objectivity, from not just objects, but objective spirit, in Hegel's sense, institutions, norms, and structures. This abstraction is lived as a highly individualized identity, in some sense work and consumption form the basis of individuation as such. However, it only has effects, only functions in the aggregate. As a worker one only has effects, both in terms of the creation of value, and in terms of any disruption of exploitation, as part of a collective. The same could be said for consumerism, even though it is through consumerism that we are encouraged to believe that we can have ethical effects as individuals, green consumerism, cruelty free products, etc.
I am wondering if one can see a similar structure of abstract/individual subjectivity in other aspects of society. I am thinking of politics, in which individuals are abstracted from any real connection to their communities and societies only to be constituted as "voting power," an abstract aggregate that is lived as a highly individualized identity. I will have to think more about that one. My point here is to connect the often asserted claim "that everything is subjective" back to its material conditions, to the production of subjectivity in both work and the reproduction of everyday life, production and consumption. It is not just a matter of a bad reading of Nietzsche, although it is often that as well, but an effect in the sphere of ideas and discussion of what is already at work in the sphere of production. The thread running through both is connection between power and impotence. If everything is subjective then I can offer any interpretation, create my own moral code whole cloth, live as I prefer, but if everything is subjective then I can do very little, nothing at all to alter or change anything. This is the fundamental point of intersection between Marx and Spinoza, subjectivity, individual subjectivity, is not the zenith of our freedom and power, it is the nadir of our subjection.
Jason Read, philosophy professor at the University of Southern Maine. Author of many books, including the most recent The Double Shift: Spinoza and Marx on the Politics of Work.
Republished from the Author's blog, Unemployed Negativity.