Marx and the Creative Economy

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?

Extracts from essays on Hamlet

From Hamlet and the Ghost

The only explanation for Hamlet’s action, or lack of it, is that he doesn’t believe in the ghost. Once he establishes the facts clearly he has a clear intention to act, even though things don’t go according to plan. Hamlet is impossible to understand unless you understand the importance of this. In 1598 atheists were put to death. Not believing in ghosts or the afterlife was very dangerously close to the wind. This is why Shakespeare set the play in Denmark, a notoriously Lutheran and free thinking country, and has Hamlet and his friend Horatio as Lutheran scholars recently returned from Germany. It gave him a little distance. Nevertheless, Hamlet was right on the edge.

This makes the whole business with the ghost very strange. Shakespeare makes it a very physical ghost, visible to everyone, thumping around under the stage after its appearance in front of Hamlet. If it’s not a ghost it’s just an actor after all, and Shakespeare seems to enjoy this idea. He makes the ghost look ridiculous, a parody of a ghost. It’s just a bloke dressed up in silly clothes.

If this thought is correct, it casts an interesting light on Hamlet’s use of a play to prove Claudius’s guilt. If the ghost is an actor then here the actor is a ghost and Claudius is confronted with his past deeds. Haunting and acting are suddenly the same activity.

This also makes us think about stories. In a world where spirits have no actual effect on conscience storytelling does the same job. It brings back the past and makes us confront the things we did. This, if you think about it, is what ghosts do. It’s the opposite of how we often think of ghosts. We usually view them the other way, from the perspective of what they did. They’re haunting us because they’re unhappy, they did something bad and they can’t get into heaven. They are restless spirits. In fact, it’s our own restless spirits that ghosts really reflect. They bring things back for us to remember. They remind us of things as they were. They confront us with things we did.

Ghosts and stories are inescapably linked. When Claudius sees his misdeeds played out in front of him it’s like he’s seen a ghost. Instead of acting on the ghost, Hamlet has now passed it on. The memory it represented didn’t apply to Hamlet. It was Claudius’s.


From Relationalism

Characters in stories have three categories of existence. They act, they relate to each other and they have relativity to each other. In the first respect, they are functional and structural. That’s pretty clear. Without action there would be no plot. However, the other two categories are constantly muddled up, although having a relationship and being relative are of course very different. In the second respect, a characterisation may be emotional and empathetic, or otherwise. Characters without feelings for or about each other would be irrelevant to us. And in the third respect, they are consistent. It would be impossible, for instance, though perhaps rather amusing, for Quilp to appear in Sons and Lovers, or for Hamlet to appear in The White Devil for that matter. Relative existence is a question of time and place, but particularly of time. Relationships may evolve and change but relative existence shifts constantly, because we are never relative to anyone for long. If functionality is only as stable as cause, relative existence is only as stable as circumstance.

The way we think about stories is dominated by our concept of the individual. We are generally comfortable with the idea that an individual can have freedom of choice and action and that this has consequences relative to other characters; and moreover that we all think and act in consistent, and therefore comprehensible ways. When we read a book we often criticize it in terms of the nature of the personalities it contains – are they sufficiently interesting and lifelike? – and in terms of its consistency – is the story believably carried by its actors? When we think about Hamlet, for instance, we habitually attempt to focus on a person. The play is called after him, after all. If Hamlet isn’t a real person, what is the play about?

This is odd, on the face of it, because characters in stories clearly don’t exist either functionally or relatively, outside the book itself. Action and context is contained within story. If the book is to engage us they have to have the third order of existence, and this is where it becomes clear that this is of a different kind altogether.

Hamlet is a good place to examine this, because the play is about what it means to be an individual. We could say that the play is about what Hamlet is. The title of the play is as much a challenge as a statement. Hamlet is the first work in English literature to carry the name of someone nobody had ever heard of before. A Prince of Denmark? Where’s that? But most importantly, who is he?

If we think about Hamlet in terms of functionality and relativity we soon get lost, because Hamlet does not know what to do, and his world is radically inconsistent. There is a ghost in it, for a start, which may or may not belong to it. Our search for an individual leads us to begin to believe that functionality and consistency are what the play is ‘about’ – but that does not really take us anywhere at all, because they are supposed to be the tools by which we understand individuality in the first place. Thus, Hamlet dissolves.

But Hamlet dissolves because Hamlet is not what was there.

We habitually treat Hamlet as if he exists. But what do we start with when we imagine Hamlet? When we look at our source material for this supposition we find simply a series of pieces of dialogue which form links between Hamlet and others. This dialogue is performed, in infinitely varying ways. Hamlet is never the same person twice. He might speak the same words, more or less, but the way they are delivered is varied by his actor.

We assume easily that dialogue is originated by characters, and we are in the habit of taking these fictional people as our starting points, assuming that authors do the same. We might call this a Creative Fallacy. Almost without thinking, we invent characters from the words they speak and the names they are given. It seems natural to give these names and speeches individuality and identity. Actors are paid to do exactly that. So if we imagine Shakespeare, say, ‘creating’ Hamlet and Gertrude, we might imagine him drawing two people in his mind. But actually that might not be the way that they are conceived at all. Perhaps they are instead conceived as mother and son (and then they are not ‘conceived’ at all because mother/son is something which existed already), and it is not their identity that is interesting but the space between them. So Hamlet’s identity, in relation to his mother, is not ‘Hamlet’ but [mother/son]. And this is then complicated and made more interesting by his other identities, which are [dead father/son], [uncle/nephew] and [stepfather/stepson]. All of these are Hamlet, and all we really know about him – all that exists – are the relational words, the dialogues, which establish these multiple identities. Hamlet is simply the place where they coincide.

All of these identities are established through dialogue. So maybe we should treat the starting point not as the character but as the speech. And what if the dialogue is generated, not by the nature of the individuals, but by the nature of relationships in which they are enmeshed? It is not the individuals that are created or authored, but a kind of network that interrelates them. If this is true, maybe we are often guilty of looking at things back to front.

If we question the status of the individual within a network of relationships, who is not an individual at all, we must also question our view of the story, which would no longer be an individual ‘creation’ but a repetition and variation of familiar relational patterns.

We could say that in any story, characters are unique meeting places for different sets of identities, not formed individuals. If this is true, it might be supposed that literature is not about the ways that individuals influence the world, but about how the world encourages us to form concepts we call individual, and about how these are in fact illusory. But this is to look at it merely from a functional and relative point of view. It’s akin to the reading of Hamlet which sees it as a play about Hamlet’s ability to act. In fact, it does not seem outrageous to suggest that human beings exist primarily relationally, and the degree to which we have the capacity to do so is arguably what sets us apart from other animals. It is the links, the bonds, the associations that we are capable of forming, our emotional lives in short, that really engage us. It is these lives which enable us to imagine ourselves, and, if we wish to do so, to see ourselves as individual, claiming credit for something we only have access to by virtue of the fact that it is not there


Being material

So, to your question… How can you NOT be materialistic? I think to make an answer to this easier you have to reframe the question. What is not material? And what is material? And then you get to familiar ground. Nothing is actually material. It just appears to be. I refer to the example that is always quoted, and I have used it elsewhere on this blog. A table is not a permanent object. Thinking about it, the idea is a stupid one. Where are all the tables that were around in, say, 1920? Most now exist as rotted or decomposed material, or as ash in some form. A more immediate example, something with a much shorter desirable life, is a car. Cars deteriorate and become useless very quickly. And yet they are a burning object of desire. It is easy to see why the desire to own a beautiful car quickly becomes a source of anxiety and unhappiness, condemning the desirer to a life of continual cherishing of an object which is clearly not worthy and incapable of responding to such attention, since it is deteriorating. What can be worse than to cherish something which is disappearing before your eyes? So from here you can say that materialism is not the belief in material objects but the belief that material objects are material and permanent. The problem is not one of trying to conceive of a philosophy that is anti materialist, because there is no need for such a philosophy. Material is anti-material. Material is not material, and materialism is an illusion. In order to be less materialistic, it is therefore necessary simply to try to remember that this grand illusion is exactly that, and that the real purpose of human existence is to care for all living things as they exist in this state of uncertainty and flux and change, or as the Christians say to love one another.

I want to say a little more about materialism, not just because it is encompasses most dominant strands of modern Western philosophy and thought, but because it is an insidious world view that has come to govern most of our popular and social assumptions about the way we live. We are used to observing things as permanent objects, when they are palpably not so. So the important point above, in understanding the concept of compassion, is that the bird in my example is not an object but a living thing, and a living thing is in a constant state of flux and change.

But even inanimate objects are always in this constant state of change. Nothing is ever static. The example most often cited in this familiar argument is that of a wooden table. It might appear to be a solid thing, but over future time it changes, ages, decays and is eventually chemically transformed into other substances and living things – and in the course of past time is has itself evolved from living things which have in turn aged and been transformed. It is a transformation of material in the process of further transformation and it is therefore not a permanent object. It is not hard to see that the same is true of all objects, and in fact that the more technologically advanced an object is the more rapid this process of transformation, ageing, obsolescence and further transformation is likely to be. Nothing therefore exists, in the sense of permanent existence.

So from here you can say that materialism is not a belief in material objects but a belief that material objects are material and permanent. It is not a statement of fact but of psychological dependence, because these imaginary permanent objects are by virtue of their perceived permanence turned into goals, awards, rewards, achievement and desires. And unsurprisingly they then become the reason for much wasted time and energy, and the cause of much unhappiness. Materialism is an invidious and self deluding world view into which we all at (most) times fall simply because it is so pervasively and aggressively promoted by commercial organisations through advertising and media, as well as by states and governments as the driving force within capitalist economies. It is also a block to the understanding of how things actually live, grow and change, which can become a block to a more compassionate and positive way of life.

Impermanence is closely connected to the nature of truth. If we accept the impermanence of things, many statements we rely on as ‘facts’ and therefore ’true’ become unreliable, or at least only true in a temporary and contingent way. It is important to connect objects and facts in this way, because the impermanence of objects also applies to many factual statements and factual truths. It is clear that truth, in the example I gave above, is entirely disconnected and distinguished from material factors which are merely the means of its expression.

The question then needs to be asked, does impermanence undermine all factual truths? If something is a true fact, independent of materialist human ideology, doesn’t it then have longevity? Is not two plus two equals four, for instance, or ‘the earth has a moon’ (or ‘we perceive that the earth has a moon’) a statement of a permanent state of things, or at least as permanent as makes no difference?

It is certainly true that maths has longer lasting principles than a table. However we know that maths evolves. Maths is a fact of the same order as the body of the bird in my example. It is a condition, not a truth. What we consider to be proven today may be unproven tomorrow and scientific understanding is no less uncertain, although I have much more to say about maths and science, and I will deal with this separately. We certainly know that the moon did not exist once and will not exist again as a small planet near earth. The only difference between a moon and a table is scale, both physical and temporal. The transition of the matter of the moon may take place in a longer time frame, but that is not to say that the transition of material is not happening and will not happen. Clearly it is, and it will, and therefore it is as much a mistake to say that the moon exists permanently as it is to say that a table could be permanent. (It is also a fact that our consciousness and understanding have evolved and will evolve further so this is also not a fact that will remain true over time.) So while it is a fact that we perceive the moon, it is only temporarily true.

This non-existence does not depend upon human perception. The moon may be in a state of flux whether it is perceived or not. If we were discussing whether it existed, and were therefore true, this question would be an important one, but if we accept that moral truth is different to factual truth the issue of whether an object does or does not exist without human perception is now a less urgent one. The only question human beings should be interested in is whether these entities as living and evolving things can be helped (or damaged) by human intervention. Clearly, since the moon is part of a living system, there is a role for human compassion in the attempt to play a small part in its preservation and health. In the case of a mathematical equation there is a different case for the role of compassion.

How to be a religious atheist

People invent gods because they perceive the impermanence of things. However all honest believers in God admit to doubt and uncertainty. Religion is called faith because it is a name for a state of uncertainty. Faith is a response to impermanence. Faith says, we are not materialists, but we don’t really know what else there is. We know nothing human or worldly is permanent so we’ve invented a God. Faith can be a good and a bad thing. Because faith is a rejection of materialism it produces humane and altruistic rules for living – like thou shalt not kill and love thy neighbour. As a society these rules are our only hope for a lasting moral consensus. It occasionally inspires large numbers of people to do good things like object to wars or make better rules about equality. But inventing gods is quite a primitive response to the truth of impermanence. Humans have an awful need to objectivise (ie materialise) everything and God is no exception. They make God into a literal being demanding allegiance and use the idea of God to endow themselves with power using this for material ends. Religion is powerful because it holds out the impossible, a promise of existence after death, and if that existence is interpreted in a material way it can be used to persuade the gullible to do almost anything – even to destroy themselves. Religion is therefore unhelpful and primitivistic because it is used to stop people thinking for themselves.
I think that most of the constructive parts of religion can be in any case be deduced by logic if we accept that the purpose of human life is to care for all living things and that material permanence is illusory.
So I often say that religion is a good thing because it produces moral rules which even quite unscrupulous people are sometimes influenced by. It is certainly the only context within which you can tell people you don’t know to love each other. I sometimes say that I am a religious atheist because religion counters materialism in a way everyone can understand and provides a structure for living which is potentially better than one with no God. I also think that it does no harm to anyone to sit in a church once a week and reflect on the impermanence of things and the limitations of materialism. But I certainly don’t believe in God personally and gratitude for space to think is countered by discomfort at the embellishment of truths about materialism into untruths about faith which are directed at the prevention of thinking.

A Science of Novels

I think it’s plausible to say that ‘fiction’ and ‘narrative’ as I defined them offer a kind of quantum theory for the novel. In fiction we might imagine the particles of memory travelling in wave form with unpredictable appearances and consequences. Indeed, to quote Brian Cox, in fiction, anything that can happen does happen. It is the peculiar nature of fiction to happen unbidden like dreams. As soon as authorship is applied however, just as in the case of the detected particle, the observed memory takes a teleological path and suddenly arranges itself with a beginning, middle and end. This is similar to the action of particles once detected, which immediately behave not as waves but as linear beams. We can take this conceit further if we allow the sea of imagination to pass through two moral gates of good and evil (or in fact any other two opposite concepts). Under authorial observation there are only two possible outcomes, which oppose each other. Left to its own devices however the memory behaves in wave form, producing multiple outcomes irrespective and quite independent  of moral judgement or observation. Like particles in quantum physics, these two states of storytelling coexist and are in fact the same, and are distinguished only by detection. Schroedingers cat is both living and dead in exactly the same way – it is either alive or dead only once observed. This peculiar characteristic of dualities under observation parallels the duality in stories. And if our selves are similarly stories, then we ourselves are in turn subject to the same dual existence. This then offers us the interesting proposition that characters and authors are at once living and dead in storytelling – and so in ‘reality’.

Quantum Memory

A few years ago I witnessed a small accident in a car park. A driver collided with a parked car, did some damage, then left. We dutifully wrote down the registration number and reported it to the police. A few months later I got a call asking me to confirm the make and colour of the car. Simple. I knew it was a blue Peugeot. In fact, it was a silver Fiat. Where did the blue Peugeot come from? It was a clear memory, but not a real one.

Quantum mechanics shows us that particles move like waves, but instead of moving as a body, like waves of sound or water, each particle has its own motion. As a result, we never know where a particle has come from or where it is like to appear next, and in fact it can reappear literally anywhere, governed only by the laws of probability. This, it seems to me, tells us as much about the unreasonableness of our expectations as anything else. After all, if we could plot the path of a particle over time we would be able to predict the future of all matter. This expectation is I think formed by the fact that we are under the illusion that we can recount the past. Quantum physics is premised on the fact that this impression is illusory. The wave motion of the past does not allow us any inkling of the next instant or the previous one. We only ‘know’ the particle as it is observed, at that instant, and we derive a path for its arrival from observations deductions and experiments, but these give us no inkling of its future progress or its real past. In this sense particles are memories. When we remember we reconstruct an impression formed in a moment, at a new moment. Even if we ‘know’ a previous set of positions we only do so by constructing or imagining them and of course they give us no clue as to what is about to happen. They often arrive unbidden and unexpected. They have a past by virtue of arriving as memories and each memory is occasioned by its arrival. The arrival brings the past into being but of course it does not occasion the future. Memories arrive constantly so that we remember what we remember. (We may then conclude that memories too travel in waves – we talk about waves of emotion, or grief, or laughter). The modifications we make to our past happen slowly, through storytelling and repetition, so that we are rarely caught out by our own fictions. That only happens when we are asked to recall something specific which we have not recently re-remembered. This quantum action of memory explains the blue Peugeot. 

It also struck me that trying to anticipate the appearance of a particle was rather like Hamlet trying to anticipate the appearance and reappearance of the ghost of his father. This has the significance of being a ‘new’ memory, one that it has not previously occurred to him to recall. Although it is trivialising to compare the ghost of Hamlet’s father to a small hatchback, it is in this instance rather like my Peugeot. Like a memory – or a quantum particle – the ghost’s past is unverified and even its presence is uncertain and difficult to locate. Hamlet makes up stories in an attempt to impose his will on circumstances, in the process questioning his self-reality and freedom of will, and the reality of law and justice. Obviously Hamlet is just a story. But if memories are like quantum particles stories become the formation of ideas of both self and reality. Our scientific observation of a individual particle is a story. Crucially, just as Schroedinger’s cat is both alive and dead, it is both fictional and real. Reality has no separate or special status from storytelling. The observation of reality and the telling of a story are the same thing. To be clear about this, they are not even two different aspects of the same thing or two different viewpoints. They are identical. Matter is not not undone, opposed or modified in this process. It simply ceases to exist according to our normal understanding of existence. Clearly this applies as much to ideas of the will and the self as it does to ideas of tables, chairs, hatchbacks or ghosts.


Welcome to my blog. It is named after Dickens’ most interesting creation. Morally ambivalent characters have always been necessary in storytelling. These essays, I hope, explain why everyone who thinks about consciousness needs to understand the importance of swivelling.

Like all blogs, this one has arranged itself in chronological order. If you would like some directions I would suggest reading An Essay on Causality, Religious Science, and Truth, Facts and an Injured Bird, then the various essays relating to quantum physics, then the essay on intelligence and then the essay on emotion. Everything else may then make sense. Alternatively, you could just buy my new book, Quantism, which arranges everything for you and covers many of the topics here.

Going back many years, my first book, Charles Dickens and the Form of the Novel has been reprinted and is now available on Amazon in hardback and more affordably on Kindle. It was a first attempt at some of the ideas I have tried to explain on this blog. A paperback edition will follow. Here is the preface to the new edition: Charles Dickens and the Form of the Novel – Preface to current edition

The full introduction to the book may be found here: Charles Dickens and the Form of the Novel – full introduction

(For bizarre reasons beyond my control this full version of the introduction doesn’t appear in the published book)