This is a transcript from Radhika's presentation at the book launch of Carlos Garrido's The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, which you may purchase HERE.
Thanks for the invitation to be part of this panel of some of the most acute thinkers discussing this very important book. It is important particularly for its focus on dialectics, which is a philosophical mode that is much maligned and misunderstood in the English speaking world, dismissed as ‘Hegelian mystical fog’. Garrido’s is a crystal clear discussion of dialectics and why it matters, very practically, today.
In the few minutes I have, I want to liken Carlos’s discussion of what he calls the purity fetish – the inability of most of the Western left to give up its juvenile longing for some sort of pure socialism and embrace socialism in its inevitably soiled earthiness – to Marx’s discussion of ‘the fetish character of commodities’. Though Carlos uses the term fetish in his title and argument, he does not draw the parallels that I see between Marx’s discussion of ‘the fetish character of commodities’ at the end of the first chapter of Capital, volume 1. I also value this opportunity to make this parallel because I am fed up with people, including many scholars claiming to be well versed on Marx and Capital, assuming that the ‘fetishism of commodities’ is about ‘consumerism’.
The similarities between Marx’s argument about the fetish character of commodities and Carlos’s argument about the purity fetish become clearest if we begin with what Carlos argues at the close of his introduction: that
what can help overcome Western Marxism’s purity fetish is not simply, as Losurdo argues, “learning to build a bridge between the different temporalities” found in Marx’s notion of communism – that is, on one end, the utopian remote future where “society inscribes on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” and the actual future where communism is described as the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
If, for Garrido, this intellectual move is not enough, this is very similar to Marx’s argument that the intellectual recognition of the source of value is not enough to banish the fetish character of commodities. The ‘mystical character’ attaches itself to the commodity thanks to its social form and the three-fold objectivity it gives to historically specific social relations. First is that ‘[t]he equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values’. Secondly, the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour’. And thirdly, ‘the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labours are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour’. Thus the fetish character of commodities arises from
However, Marx also argued that the mere intellectual understanding was not going to be enough to banish the mysticism and replace it with clarity. That clarity would only be achieved by a clarification, and thus transformation, of the social relations:
The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind's development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labour. Something which is only valid for this particular form of production, … appears to those caught up in the relations of commodity production … to be just as ultimately valid as the fact that the scientific dissection of the air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration.
The reason is that the appearance arises spontaneously, not from thought but from practice.
Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. (KI: 166)
This means, again in Marx’s words, that
The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development.
There is no way of banishing the semblance when it is daily reproduced by human social practice.
Carlos’s argument in The Purith Fetish is similar. The purity fetish cannot be removed by mere intellectual advances. It requires the emergence of a different reality, in his case, a different kind of left. Mere intellectual realization of the truth is not enough.
Although [it] is important, …. a more accurate ‘cure’ is for Western Marxism to reflect on the objective conditions which drive its purity fetish, and once self-conscious of these, move towards both changing these objective conditions (which means moving away from a PMC dominated left and towards a working class centered left, free of the dominant influence of the PMC Iron Triangle institutions and culture), and towards stripping its purity fetish outlook – something which can only be done through the rearticulation of its ambiguous ideological elements towards a consistent dialectical materialist worldview.
In essence, Garrido’s argument is that the purity fetish is rooted in the objective division between intellectual and manual labour which, in late capitalism, had developed into a veritable class divide. Indeed. In the twenty-first century, it is also a national divide, with the intellectual and manual elements of the working class occupying not just different parts of cities or different parts of a country, but different countries. The richer countries of the world not only concentrate within themselves the ‘intellectual’ functions of labour, but also rely on regularly siphoning off the ‘intellectual’ elements of the working classes of the rest of the world, appropriating these, gratis, from the rest of the world.
This is also why the struggle for socialism must also always be anti-imperialist.
Unless we move on from this sort of left, towards a left that is connected with the real struggles of working people world-wide, we will not be rid of the purity fetish.
FULL BOOK LAUNCH HERE:
Dr. Radhika Desai is a Professor at the Department of Political Studies, and Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group at University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. She has proposed a new historical materialist approach to understanding world affairs and geopolitical economy based on the materiality of nations. Some of her recent books include Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire (2013), Karl Polanyi and Twenty First Century Capitalism (2020) Revolutions (2020) and Japan’s Secular Stagnation (2022). Her articles and book chapters appear in international scholarly journals and edited volumes. With Alan Freeman, she co-edits the Geopolitical Economy book series with Manchester University Press and the Future of Capitalism book series with Pluto Press. Her latest book is Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A Geopolitical Economy, which is now available through open access.