“Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.” (Marx Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
This quote from Marx has always been a favourite of mine because it clarifies a fundamental truth: that many social practices obscure the actual nature of social relationships resulting in imbalances of power and exploitation which because of self delusion are not challenged. The subject here may be religion as an obfuscatory belief system but it equally applies to the tenets of consumer capitalism as an obfuscatory belief system.
Religion says “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father but through me” (John 3:16). Without going into too much interpretation the message here is that Christ is the only path to enlightenment and knowledge of God, of course accepting that there is a God to know in the first place. Thus is established the first hierachy which was then extended into the human realm by such notions as the Divine Right of kings and the established practices of organised christianity. “Rich man at his castle, poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate”.
The flower: Believe in God (and his ordained ministers on earth) and your reward will be in heaven. The chain: your lowly social position.
The apologists for consumer capitalism use the public sector deficit as an ideological cover for their brand of neoliberalism. They say “We are all in this together” and that there is no alternative to slashing public spending to head off becoming Greece. Public sector pensions are also “unaffordable”:
The flower: Cut public spending and we will prosper. The chain: the inability of labour to break free from wage slavery and to organise an alternative relationship to wealth creation, distribution and exchange.
Illusions abound: It is argued that governments do not make money, they only spend it, and that it is the private sector, and importantly, global corporations that provide jobs and wealth. Note the words ‘government’ ‘private sector’ and ‘corporation’. These are illusory abstractions (flowers). They exist in discourse only to explain how a system works. In concrete reality there are human beings engaged in productive processes arranged in particular social relationships (chains).
Thus Marx calls for an examination of actual social relationships as they exist in concrete reality to reveal that it is labour creating surplus value for capital as the basis for wealth creation. Bright, ambitious individuals prosper partly through their own efforts but also because the system they prosper in has been constructed to reward certain types of effort disproportionately. This is now happening to the extent that a financial global elite are making sums of money most ordinary mortals cannot even concieve of for creating things like Credit default swaps (http://tinyurl.com/negativeCDS) which are basically bets on firms or countries failing in a market worth an estimate $45 trillion. That is to say people are working on abstractions in financial markets (which are numbers in a computer software programme) which bear little relationship to actual houses, food and energy. Let’s return to ‘affordability’ – read that number above again. That is in trillions (1 trillion = 1,000 billion). How much is the financial sector worth in trade each year? How much money sloshes around the global sytem, who earns it, who keeps it? Affordability is another abstraction. These questions need concret answers before we talk about affordability.
The flowers include buying your own home, owning a new car, a holiday in the sun, a new kitchen…the chains were the loans you have to take out to get these things and the length of time you need to spend in work to pay it all back. You (labour) work in a system which promises you illusory heaven now to cover the the actual hell experienced while capital reaps the rewards. The system is just not sustainable.