Confused Shaman Accidentally Revives Marx • 2 February 2007

The marginal mystics of any era turn me on—Heraclitus, Jeremiah, forest monks, Hildegaard, Wittgenstein, Carlton Pearson. Which is my excuse for reading Andrew Cohen. But oh did he disappoint me this month by publishing talk radio shrink/NYU scholar Howard Bloom’s jayvee defense of consumerism.

Though I’m ambivalent (if listing leftward) about what consumerism is doing to us, Bloom’s article “Reinventing Capitalism: Putting the Soul Back in the Machine” is sophistry, and dangerous because many well-meaning people will read it. New agers and shrink-talk listeners are open-minded, yet not tough-minded. Receptivity’s a virtue, yes; when the instrument can hold up.

Not to be confused with the intellectually brawny if also right-wing Harold Bloom, Howard has promoted himself nicely with savvy arbitrage, enthusiasm for ideas, and sometimes telling people what they want to hear. An example of the latter is the project he tags: “In praise of consumerism: the spiritual fruits of materialism.“

Sophistry has its place. It’s decent exercise to play with ideas and provoke others with counterintuitive arguments. In this sense, Howard’s aptly calling out the liberal assumption that consumerism hurts the planet, which is largely a projection of an individual’s vague guilt when she buys herself a ton of crap.

Howard’s essay is a loaf of overwrought, content-lite phrases about capitalism’s messianic potential, for example (paragraph 18): “We have to peel back the lumpy outer skin of capitalism and show the beating heart within…. A capitalism propelled by the troika of empathy, passion, and reason….”

These images of lumpy bodies and chariots are actually the closest he comes to defining the phenomenon. I’m sorry Howard, but capitalism is the continuous extraction of surplus value for the creation of profit. It relies on some people owning capital, and some people selling them their labor, and on the distribution of the stuff and services they create through markets. It’s a way of organizing human energy, not an “idea.”

Dipping into his trusty gym-bag of logical fallacies, Bloom claims that, historically, capitalism has “elevated the downtrodden.” Evidence: cultivation of cotton for comfy clothes (so, the Old South was capitalism? wow.), proliferation of soap, and rapid transit (actually a creation of modern nation-states and taxes). He posits no causal process by which consumer capitalism might save us, no examples of what it can do for us, and no refutation for any arguments against capitalism. And beyond this claim that cotton cultivation elevated the downtrodden, he says nothing about poor people. Nothing. There are consumers in his vision, but no producers. None.

In lieu of arguing against a thesis, Howard Bloom argues against a person, portraying Karl Marx as a “hate”-ful crusader against the middle class. I am glad he has read the manifesto. It’s written at a fourth grade level because it’s a commissioned political tract meant to promote some politician-activists. It’s not social theory.

But if Howard went to Marx with a little sincere receptivity, he would find exactly the transformative, holistic, spirit-infused architecture of economic life he longs for but lacks the historical understanding, clarity, and the vision to work out. Howard would like that Marx is funny, and learn from him because he’s devastatingly direct and doesn’t play around.

What I loved about this essay, then, is that in its selfish confusion it revealed to me the vitality, the epochal brilliance and enduring revolutionary potential of Marxist thought. (Reminds me it’s been a year since I read The 18th Brumaire, too.) Howard showed me that the rich world doesn’t need to be told that everything is fine and getting better. If anything, tell them that everything is connected. Let them pursue that propsotion to the limit.

That everything is connected is Marx’s message. He too was a marginal mystic (just an extremely concrete one). He took every chance to challenge acceptance of given reality as “just the way it is,” stood western philosophy on its head, argued that consciousness is linked to mode of production, and said the deep and organic nature of humans is sensuous creativity and togetherness. He also said it is only by loss of consciousness that we come to believe in commodities as mere objects, alienated from the human evergy and relationships they embody. He encapsulated with honesty and beauty the play of free will and determinism: Yes we make our own history, but not under conditions of our own choosing!

If everything is connected, you don’t get to pretend that the world is constituted by the top 30% of the social strata. It’s not that Nigerian oil workers and Salvadoran seamstresses and rugmakers in Bangalore are getting benignly left out of consumer capitalism. How we live depends on how they live. They’re giving us this. This is where the surplus—the difference between what work is worth on the market and what the worker’s paid for it—is coming from. Surplus is the condition of capitalism’s endless and often brilliant innovations. But consumers are not, in turn, “uplifting” these people with these innovations; we’re demanding (via our brands and their buyers) cheaper prices this year than last. Every year. And whose energy truly drives the system? The dedicated consumer’s… or the backbroke producer’s?

This is consumer capitalism. So harness up your “soul” to that chariot of yours and go forth to take a look, Howard.