If Trauma Were Bitcoin We’d all be Fucking Rich

“What are you capable of? You can be the one to string them up and beat them to death. When you cut the bodies down, you’ll see the face of your failure and shame. This is a world of professional liars: a bleating chorus of tempered truths, who like pealing church-bells echo its’ virtues sung over and over and over again. Rotting at the bottom is better than living as a fool. I can’t find the meaning in the great achievement. When you commit heart and soul to earning your place, opportunity kills common sense.” – Ordinary People do Fucked-up Things When Fucked up Things Become Ordinary by Propagandhi.

I quote this band quite a bit. Obviously I like them. Having a song that parallels the ethos of these things is helpful. It gives me something to sink my teeth into. I wonder sometimes if it distracts from the essay but then I realize that there are rarely more than five people that look at this in a given day and it’s likely that they all know me.

I’m reading Karl Marx’ Capital for what is probably the fourth time in my life. I’m reading it in a group. Doing anything in a group is challenging for me. I have a profound inferiority complex that, as far as I can tell, is contextually appropriate. I log on to a Zoom meeting and I am greeted by seven people who I have known for over a decade, and in some cases for a solid two decades. I have no doubt that I am loved by them. I’ve gone through some of the most intense experiences a person can have with them. All my memories of these people are pleasant. This might explain why I avoided contact with most of them for the past four years. There’s no reason to taint our time together with my crushing depression.

The painful part of this is that they are living lives that appear to be quantitatively better than mine. It’s a shitty habit, to constantly compare yourself to others, but I can’t seem to stop. I reflect on their middle class jobs, their partners and their economic independence and I feel angry. Not at them but at myself. How is it that I’ve arrived at the temporal center of mid-life with none of the accoutrements that accrue to someone over a span of forty years?

Regardless, I get on the call. I block out the concern that perhaps people speak of me with pity or regret or disappointment. I don’t say much. I let others lead the charge. There’s no shame in listening. 

To varying extents we all identify with a current in Marxism that would be called autonomism. That likely doesn’t mean anything to most people, at least in the U.S. The general contours of this current involves a reframing of the relationship between capitalism and the working class. In general, most Marxist thinking asserts that capitalism is the agential force that acts upon the working class. Autonomism presents an inversion of this relationship- It is the activity of the working class that is dynamic and all of the technical and disciplinary discoveries of society are a reaction to this. 

Perhaps this is simply a preference. We’re all anarchists who, frustrated with the lack of analysis in this tradition, took up Marx’ work for its explanatory power.  Autonomous Marxists presented this in a palatable way and we jumped on it.  

When you talk about Marx people generally recoil in confusion or disgust. Mostly they have no real conception of what he had to say, or at least what he had to say that was important. Often it’s a very peripheral knowledge buoyed by the widespread political impressions that morons get from right wing mouthpieces. Bullshit common sense is proffered by assholes, flapping in the breeze like windsocks, who veil their belief that most of us should just lay down and die in the garb of McCarthyist hysteria. 

This isn’t to say that the history of state communism hasn’t been awful. It definitely has. It’s produced death and misery on a grand scale and polluted the left with dingbats who want to offer Mao, Lenin and even Stalin as heroes. They’re not, unless you admire authoritarian murderers. But it’s also the case that the endless list of dicks on the other side of things are also murderers and authoritarians. They just are afforded an airbrushing by people who think their arbitration of the truth can withstand the scouring wind of historical fact.  

If people have read Marx it is generally The Communist Manifesto that they have a familiarity with, and this familiarity is mostly out of context. The manifesto is a political document written at a particular point in time. It is largely concerned with a number of programmatic points for an organization long dead. A significant proportion of the work is concerned with policy statements such as universal public education and a progressive income tax. These are a general practice of governments around the world that no one would ever mistake as Marxian. Or maybe not. 

It is Capital that is (or should be) the canonical work of Marx’ oeuvre, but it’s unsurprising that nobody reads it. It’s fucking long. It’s exacting. It has very particular assertions to make about the functioning of capitalist society and you have to hang in through a lot to get to these assertions. For a college professor to assign it as reading, even in part, is to run up against both the attention spans and the political leanings of their students. And if you were to even mention it in a high school classroom ugly American parents would call for your death on Facebook. 

In our reading group we approach the text in the way that is suggested by Harry Cleaver. He’s a University of Texas economist who wrote a terrific book called Reading Capital Politically. One of the most useful things suggested in this text is that one begins Capital by reading the last chapter first. This is where Marx presents the rupturing of all previous social relationships that is necessary for the inauguration of a capitalist economy. The essential point is that the system could not be born unto itself whole cloth. It required an initial influx of human labor, money, and private property where there had been none before.

The way this plays out on the ground is through a thoroughgoing application of violence that encompasses the destruction of feudal relationships in Europe, the theft of millions of Africans and their transportation into the plantation economy of the United States, and a genocide perpretrated upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It amounts to nothing less than a campaign of terror that played out around the world. 

I have always wondered about the psychic components of this process. Inasmuch as there was an initial campaign of violence that had to be deployed in order to bring people, land and money into this system there was also, necessarily, an original accumulation of trauma. People did not go quietly into the night, instead fighting to preserve their traditional rights and ways of living. The answer to this was inevitably to kill or mutilate anyone who resisted. 

One of the perennial assertions of autonomous Marxist discourse is that there is a need in capitalist governance to dissolve and appropriate any renewed practices of ‘commoning’ and to always move towards the ‘real subsumption’ of human life, which is to say that if there’s something that hasn’t yet been commodified they’re gunning for it. Ways of being that resist the penetration of capitalist logics will be eroded, stolen, destroyed, quarantined or otherwise isolated until they collapse, at which point price tags will be rapidly affixed to the corpses on the ground. 

This is to say that capitalism needs bastards and it needs the position of these bastards in society to appear as completely natural. From captains of industry right on down to everyday sexism, from senators to cops, from middle managers to schoolyard bullies, dickheads are absolutely fundamental to the reproduction of human beings as labor power. All of the world’s outliers, from the mentally ill to the homeless to the trans person are receptacles for the sickening cadence of fists. Violence is a labor process intended to turn rebels, dropouts and misfits into retail clerks and Uber drivers. Don’t you dare be yourself. For even one generation to escape this process would destabilize the global order. For labor power to be reproduced cruelty and apathy must be reproduced as well.

Not to trade in platitudes but the assertion that ‘hurt people hurt people’ captures the ethos that I’m trying to express. While I’m not so naive as to pretend that the species was skipping around the maypole and tickling each other with feathers prior to the advent of the current economic system, I think it is fair to say that the application of violence assumes a universality under this regime that is thoroughgoing, constant and baked into the fabric of society. There is an implicit terror to living, in which we are faced with an endless parade of miserable futures should we fail to summon the will to restock coca-cola or detail cars. Too many days out of work and one sleeps on pavement, loses their children, petitions social service agencies for the meager resources of survival, gets arrested, gets sent to the psych ward, back to the street as the cold creeps in, and only then might you be granted the privilege of dying by another’s hands. 

It is guaranteed that there will be functionaries at every step to offer a helping hand only to snatch it back at the last moment. These people weren’t born but made, a legacy of damage done as hope begins to fade. 

2 Comments

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s