What do we mean when we say that Marx was an historical materialist? Marx begins with a material concept of the self divided against itself. He imagines the self as a stable but at first unsatisfactory identity, and like Hegel he calls the process of self identification and self dissatisfaction one of alienation which begins a dialectical process of self definition. For both, self development stems from the realisation that the self is a subjective agent and that its counterpart is an object to be apprehended and formed. This object can be moulded and realised through action or labour, and therefore fulfilled by labour. “Fundamental to Marx’s idea of meaningful labour is the proposition that, in order for a subject to come to terms with its alienated object, it must first exert influence upon literal, material objects in the subject’s world.” Marx therefore exalts the status of material labour as a means of bringing the human body, or human potential which for him is the same thing, into being.
What is different about Marx is the idea that labour is a realisation of the self. His idea that people only come into being by exerting force on the material objects that surround us is a definition of the self existing in a direct labour intensive relationship with the physical world around us. Labour is a kind of fulfilment of which no human being can long be deprived.
To me this seems to be a philosophical justification of the hugely labour intensive Victorian economy as well as the basis of an empowerment of the worker, which seems paradoxical. Fulfilment through honest labour suits the capitalist economy perfectly and it prepares the way for idleness to be interpreted as regressive dissidence. But equally it elevates the status of labour and proposes the withholding of labour as a new kind of power closely related to selfhood and meaning. Marx intended for it to be the latter, a kind of serendipity of utilitarianism and working class status, and this is certainly the aspect of Marxist thinking which is still enthusiastically embraced.
Whether this is still relevant to us is a more interesting question, closely related to the one of whether labour itself is still relevant. Labour in the sense of a worker exerting force on physical objects is of less obvious importance now than it was 100 years ago. In its most obvious sense, work isn’t like that any more. In the modern economy intellectual properties have the highest value after the profits of mere speculation. The explosion of inequality in western economies is symptomatic of both this and the irrelevance of labour and the nullification of its significance. Invention and innovation are the only means of social or economic mobility (unless we count sporting skills – are footballers the only true proponents of Marxist economics? It seems more sensible to conclude that they are simply lucky commodities).
While industry was certainly once the source of mobility mere hard work now almost never pays, whatever myths are promulgated by old fashioned tories, unless accompanied by either creativity or capital speculation, or both. Marx, we might argue, has no relevance whatsoever to a creative economy, if we define this as one where intellectual property is invented and traded. If a highly developed capitalist system is a precondition for a creative economy to become a means of wealth acquisition we might still argue that Marx’s higher valuation of labour is still morally correct, and that the artist at least has simply found a way of channelling his or her labour to buck the capitalist rules. In this sense every artist is a dissident, but it is then paradoxical that dissidence and difference are the only sources of profit for someone not already endowed with wealth. (Creative thinking is also the exclusive province of the educated or highly imaginative.) If such profit is then the reason for the dissidence it is self-undermined. In fact, this paradox runs through Marxist economics – as soon as labour becomes profitable it starts to bring about a corrupt capitalist economics which drives inequality. The ultimate Marxist paradox is that as a material value, or a value derived from a material action, labour is elevated from the world of objects but defined by them. In order for the true valuation of every human’s labour to be equally recognised – as a value – it has to be performed altruistically, for labour’s sake, and its rewards shared equally, which in a material world is akin to having no value. In a capitalist world to be equal is to be worthless. Marx uses the language of value and worth as if they have none of these earthly ties. While the sharing of rewards works within a capitalist system where reward is divided on the basis on earnings it fails in a Marxist system where it is divided on the basis of labour input alone. Marx might be ‘right’ but the collision of altruistic labour and commerce means that it draws all its conclusions against itself – each time value is valued it is devalued. This is the regression of the dialectic of the self translated into the terms of labour. Each cycle of realisation and alienation produces a further cycle as worth and worthlessness are done and undone by material gaining and shaming. The Marxist understanding of the self is not adequate to defeat this.
The question then remains whether there is a kind of Marxism in which the artist – whose labour is not material and is undertaken independently of material worth -can participate in a creative economy without the creative economy transforming the artist’s labour into mere commerce. And the further question which this then begs – in this new economy can we all be artists or at least promote artistic creativity? After all, to be true to the spirit of Marx, the only world in which this ‘works’ is one in which all human beings are creative entities and all creativity is equal. How can the artist refuse to be rich while exacting a just reward? And in a real world where footballers can earn 1000 times the income of a doctor what concept of ‘just’ could we invent that would mean that this labour would be fairly rewarded? Can the non commercial activity of the artist be systematically recognised and materially sustained outside the material systems of commerce? Can governments, in short, understand the value of the worthless, which is at once what art should aim to be and at the same time how unsuccessful art work is regarded?