Stories belong to all of us. Sounds like a trite, sentimental truism, doesn’t it? So let’s add a vital corollary: Because we make them.
Let’s put it another way: the wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails (and probably any form of class society, if you ask me), presents itself as an immense accumulation of stories. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a story.
In the original lines that I’ve just travestied, Marx is actually talking about commodities, but he recognises stories as commodities, as – in other words – one of the things that are made for the market in capitalist societies. He goes on to say that a “commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference”. Here we shall concern ourselves with those that satisfy fancy.
Just as surely as the material products of human labour should be controlled by those who produce them, just as surely as the services we perform for each other should be ours to control, so should the stories we make be ours. Those who profit from them should be those who create them.
This is not going to be a whinge about torrents and filesharing (much as I don’t think you should diddle artists). This is nothing to do with the impoverished bourgeois view of individual rights. This is nothing to do with profit. Indeed, by distinguishing what I am saying from such concerns, I can also distinguish something else important.
What do I mean by ‘those who make them’? I’m talking about the human race communally.
Absolutely, individual producers should retain control over what they produce, and when, and how. Absolutely, individual service workers should have the freedom to control their own creation of services. Absolutely, those who produce should benefit to the full from their production. Absolutely, such elemental human rights should be respected, rather than routinely violated in the way that we currently take for granted as an everyday fact of life. I don’t doubt the existence of individual rights, to the extent that abstract concepts exist. Individual rights are a natural and valid and useful inference based on the facts that we are sentient beings capable of reasonably inferring the sentience of those around us, that we are limited in time, that we are separate bodies in space, and that we all feel emotions – not least simple pain and pleasure. Rights are real. Bourgeois philosophy and politics got that much right. However, bourgeois philosophy may not have grasped why they are real. The truth is: we make them real. They emerge from a dialectical interaction of our material circumstances with our evolving personal and social and historical conceptions of those circumstances, which then feed back into the circumstances… To be crude: rights are real because, at some point, we decided we had them. This doesn’t mean we can suddenly extend life by deciding that we have the right to live longer. But it does mean that, given the right circumstances, we might decide that we have the right to live longer, and that such a right would then come into existence as something socially real. Indeed, such a right has come into existence as a result of historical developments. In real terms, this right is limited to a lucky few because the lives of the rest are curtailed by exhaustion, poverty, war, lunatic allocations of resources, etc. Yet the idea of the right remains socially real. One day we might even take the right seriously, which would mean universalising it in practical terms. It’s in the nature of the bourgeois epoch to invent universal rights, to make them socially real, to then limit their practical applicability to a lucky few, and to then expend huge amounts of effort distracting everyone from the fast one that’s been pulled. Nonetheless, the right has come into existence.
This is the impoverishment of rights I was speaking about before. They exist in a form limited from reach their potential, much like human society itself. The impoverishment comes from material causes, and is expressed in the way we currently think of rights, consciously or unconsciously: as legal forms in a market-based view of social life in which our rights are like competing claims. Markets have winners and losers, of course – and we’re supposed to believe that the extension of this winners/losers logic to all human social, political and moral life is eternal, inevitable, unavoidable, as natural as breathing. There’s even an extent to which capitalism forces such a manner of thinking onto Marxism and Anarchism, with their howls of injustice often resembling – or reducible to – anger at the violation of some ideally Just contract. There’s an extent to which this is inevitable, given the terrain that opposition to capitalism must fight upon, i.e. the terrain of capitalism itself, what with all opposition being fundamentally parented by that which it opposes. There’s also an extent to which bourgeois liberalism has found, founded, and championed worthwhile truths – albeit while viewing them reflected in mirrors that it broke in the first place. When I say that individual producers should control what they produce, this is me parroting Marxism’s foundational acceptance of the great and genuine humanist leaps of bourgeois liberalism, and I’m happy and proud to do it. But, as I say, that’s not fundamentally what I’m getting at. It’s a side assumption that I’m pleased to acknowledge. My real assertion – and here, to your relief, I begin to circle back into the general direction of the point – is that communally, the human race creates the stories that narrate, tell, retell, imagine, reimagine, invigorate, reinvigorate, represent, distort and spur our lives, and thus also our social praxis, and history itself.
We must always be careful not to fall into vulgar idealism. An ever-present danger when giving the power of stories its due. Ideas, stories, do not make themselves. They have no existence apart from us, except insofar as they are alienated from us, expropriated, enclosed, and used by the inhuman force of capital – which is itself only metaphorically inhuman, in that it is a distortion of humanity created and perpetuated by humanity. Ideas do not breed and reproduce and go off exploring by themselves. Ideas do not move history in any simple way. To the extent that ideas shape what we do, that is us shaping what we do, just in deferred and attenuated form. Ideas do not inhabit brains, they are brains. Ideas do not do anything by themselves, and when they seem to, what we’re actually seeing is our own shadows projected onto the cave wall by the fire. If we don’t recognise our shape in the shadows, that’s because there’s too often someone else stood behind us, claiming to own the fire, and standing between us and it so as to hog the best of the light and warmth.
But to once again attempt to wrest this essay back from necessary diversions…
Far more than a mere side issue to the matter of commodities, stories are perhaps the quintessential example of something that humans make, of human labour as productive and transformative. To dream deliberately is to labour. To tell one’s deliberate dreams is to labour. To listen to the deliberate dreams of others is labour. To feel them, to interpret them, to remember them, to retell them… all of this is labour. It may seem a strange idea, since we associate the consumption of stories with enjoyment, leisure, relaxation. This is because our entire idea of labour is perverted by the world we live in. Labour is not necessarily misery. That’s just what they want you to think: that it is natural to hate and fear one’s life activity. This is a lie. It’s the lies that our entire culture is based on. It seems that way to us only because most of us are forced by economic circumstance to expend almost all our life activity labouring for others, on their projects, making their products, performing their services, none of which are of our choice, under our control, or ultimately for our benefit. Moreover, the wealth that is thus created rears up and confronts those who produce it as an enemy, as part of the very system that enslaves them and perverts their life activity into its own production and reproduction. People snatch unalienated labour where and when they can. They build things for themselves, tend their own gardens, pursue their own interests. They find the time because it is our most basic nature to labour upon the world to transform it so that it better suits us, offers us more opportunity to express and fulfil ourselves. This impulse is not unproblematic. It is an undeniable distal factor in the way humanity has transformed the world in negative ways, anti-social ways, potentially catastrophic ways. It lurks within the life activity of serial killers and nuclear weapons scientists and terrorists and dictators. There is something destructively promethean about the great Enlightenment project of rationality, inexorably coupled with industrialisation and bourgeois revolution, which leads to the impulses towards reductionism, categorisation, the liberty of the few at the expense of the labour of the many, imperialism, etc etc etc. Capitalism is as much a product of our species-nature as anything else, even as it – like many such products – distorts it, expanding opportunity for some and savagely curtailing it for most. This promethean impulse is as real as the other promethean impulse, to bring fire (i.e. enlightenment, light, heat, energy, potential, transformation, power) to humanity at the expense of the lowering tyranny of Jove. This is why the two key texts of Romanticism (that mythologizing of the personal and political potential of Enlightenment) are Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus by Shelley, and Prometheus Unbound by her husband.
And we’re back to stories.
Stories are everywhere and everything. Every painting and sculpture is a story, no matter how abstract. Every song is a story. Every piece of music is a story. (We talk of story ‘beats’, and every writer of fiction knows that fictions have movements, that they move from adagio to allegro, and so on. I’m reminded of Orson Welles, talking about his movie of Othello, quoting Carlyle to the effect that almost all things, when looked at closely enough, turn out to be musical.) Every piece of music, even the most aggressively atonal, develops. Even Cage’s 4’33” develops from beginning to middle to end, and unfolds its meaning gradually, simply because it exists in time. Silence is not story, but silence framed as music becomes story. Human-imposed structure is thus revealed as story. And there is no greater generator of structure, so far, than class society… and no more productive iteration of class society, so far, than capitalism. How could it be otherwise that capitalism, having created this world around us (through us), has now filled the world with stories?
Story is thus one way of looking at the value that is created by human labour power. Story is thus revealed as a vital manner of interpreting the effect humans have on the world – natural and social – via their dialectical interaction with it, via their expression of their species-being as labouring creatures. In other words, and as hinted above: we are creatures who, through foresight and imagination, manipulate the world to make it different, and to thus create our own conditions of continued existence. In doing so, we create structures, be they made of bricks or relationships, ideas or symbols, beliefs or sanctions. This is the essential material-historical basis to the valid insights of Structuralism.
The great value of the metaphor of story, here, is that it allows us to consider all these human-created structures as essentially similar, despite their real material differences, because they are linked by the common factor of expressing human understanding of the development of structures, of the interrelations of structures, of the interactions of structures, of the essential temporality of structures, of the feedback loops that make them more than mere rigid scaffolding. The world is not fundamentally made of things, it is made of processes. But processes are iterated as structures, and within structures. Or, to put it another way: Dialectical Materialism… but I become sectarian.
The issue I want to get at is the nature of the capitalist stories that surround us. From the standpoint of Marxist analysis, stories are a relatively neglected aspect of human production, distribution, and exchange. That isn’t to say that Marxists haven’t thought and written about stories. Generally, however, they have approached stories from the standpoint of analysing the ideological meanings they contain, express, and propagate, to greater or lesser levels of sophistication. Lukács and Adorno and Benjamin didn’t confine themselves to saying why their faves were problematic (which is more or less all I ever do) however much I might quibble with many of their analyses (most especially Lukács and his dismissal of Modernism and the Fantastic). Even so, Marxists have – in my opinion – often been slow to really get the grips with the communal production of stories, their essence as an expression of humanity’s species-being, as labour, as consumption of stories as labour, as something pre-rational but not irrational, as structures and as part of the overall network of structures, as metaphor for how processes work in material history (precisely because they are generated by that same history), and as resistance. By resistance, I’m not talking about stories that are about resistance, stories which have resistance as a theme (much as I love such stories). I’m talking about the act of storytelling and story consumption as resistance in itself, and for itself. And I’m also talking about the material social praxis of how stories are accumulated by workers. And also about the personal, private production of stories, in many forms, for non-market purposes.
I hope to go on to talk about some of these things in future instalments of this series.
I don’t care that you’re not interested. I’m gonna do it anyway.
It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.