- Jan 2020
The nature of the wants that commodities satisfy makes no difference. This is perhaps somewhat surprising to readers, given the extent to which everyday critiques of capitalist society often center around the role that consumerism plays and the subjective effects that this produces, namely, the way that consumer society creates all sorts of desires (as well as the obverse--many will defend capitalism on the grounds that it is able to satisfy our inordinate appetite for novelty by producing an enormous proliferation of desirable commodities). Yet, for Marx, the nature of these desires "makes no difference."
It is worth pointing out that the critique of the appetites that consumer society spawns is by no means new (a rather early moment in the history of consumer society). We find it already on display in Book II of Plato's Republic. In looking to shift the terrain of the analysis of justice from the individualistic, social contractualist theory of justice elaborated by Glaucon, Socrates founds a 'city' based on the idea that no one is self-sufficient, that human beings have much need of one another, and that the various crafts--farming, weaving cloth, etc.--fare best when each person specializes in that craft to which they are most suited by nature. After sketching out a kind of idyllic, pastoral community based on the principle of working together to satisfy our natural appetites, Socrates aristocratic companion Glaucon objects, describing this city as a 'city fit for pigs'. At this point, Socrates conjures what he calls the 'luxurious city', at which point a whole host of social ills are unleashed in order to satisfy Glaucon's desire for the luxuries to which he is accustomed. Currency and trade are introduced, along with a more complex division of labor (and wage labor!), and quite quickly, war. On the basis of the principle of 'one person, one craft', Socrates argues that making war is itself a craft that requires specialization (and thus a professional army).
For Plato, this represents the beginning of class society, as the profession military becomes a class distinct from the class of producers and merchants.
Plato thus anticipates a version of a view that becomes one of the key theses of the Marxist theory of the state, namely, the idea that the state exists only in societies that have become "entangled in an insoluble contradiction within itself" and which are "cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel," (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State). The state emerges as "a power apparently standing above society...whose purpose is to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of 'order'" Engels writes, "this power arising out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly separating itself from it, is the state." Lenin cites this passage in the first pages of State and Revolution in order to critique the 'bourgeois' view that the state exists in order to reconcile class interests. In Lenin's reading of Marx, the state exists as "an organ of classs domination, an organ of oppression of one class by another," a view articulated in The Communist Manifesto, (cf. V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution in V.I.Lenin: Collected Works, Vol. 25, pp. 385-497).
Marx cites this same passage from Republic in a long footnote to his discussion of the Division of Labor and Manufacture on pp. 487-488, which also happens to be the sole place in Capital where Marx cites Plato.
The fact that Marx here expresses indifference to the particular appetites that commodities satisfy is thus intriguing and ambiguous. Given that this question both clearly animates Plato's discussion of the origin of class society in Republic and, additionally serves as an alternative to the social contractarian view of justice that descends from Glaucon through Hobbes and the 18th century 'Robinsonades', this seemingly technical point also touches upon questions concerning Marx's engagement with both classical and modern political theory.
If for Plato, the unruly appetites represent the seed of which class-divided society is the fruit, Marx's dismissal of the question of the nature of the appetites that are satisfied by commodities points to exchange-value and the social forms that it unleashes as being key dimensions of the particular form that class-antagonism takes in capitalist society.