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Notes on Marx, my book, narrative, normative individualism


The new condition of having written a book is an odd one in part in that I had inaccurate intuitions or unarticulated assumptions about what it would be like to have done so - I thought I’d understand what I wrote, that I’d resolve things somehow, and would have a generally greater degree of felt clarity. I guess to some extent all of that is true but the degree to which I’m unsure what I accomplished in the book, have old questions unresolved and new ones generated, and remain just as foggy-feeling as ever has surprised me. Of course those same qualities are part of what drives my ongoing intellectual work since finishing writing the book whenever that was (two years ago? a thousand?) so that’s ultimately for the good, it’s just not comfortable.

As I was writing the book I began to wonder if there was something about the, uh, literary form that mattered in some significant way. My book’s relatively theoretical for a work of US history anyway in a way that might be somewhat unconventional or uncommon (at a gut level in part I don’t like the idea of being unconventional or uncommon, I want to be a normal, full historian), but it also tells stories in a way that’s fairly conventional to the discipline. As I wrote I began to wonder if that narrative element of history writing may have a degree of sophistication as practice even if it’s not always rigorously theorized by practitioners. I’m not sure how to get at what I mean other than by analogy: baseball players playing their sport perform enormously complicated activities in terms of neurons and muscles and in terms of skills drilled upon to the point that making the right move becomes intuitive. Scientists who study athletes can articulate those complex activities in their full complexity but that’s different from performing them. I suspect in some ways the disciplinary activities historians perform are analogous to baseball players - what we do is complex and important in ways we may not have a second order account of yet. Complex first order activity resists second order accounting; developing accurate second order accounts takes time, longer the more complex the first order activity and the less the second order activity is prioritized. History is a more first order field than second order to an important extent - baseball players more than exercise scientists. That doesn’t mean the disciplines practices are intellectually simple, though, it could mean some of the practices are complex but only partially consciously performed. I think narration is one such practice, and I think it can do a wide range of things. I think scholars in non-narrative fields may sometimes miss that complexity (akin to how people who don’t like sport may not understand the complexity of athletic activity - as a lifelong nerd I was shocked when in my late 30s I developed an interest in weight lifting and discovered how complex and intellectual interesting it was, and how subject to getting nerdy it was).

In my book it was narrative and suffering and loss and justice/injustice that loomed largest in my mind. I had an intuition there was a kind of loss and injustice in the conversion from narrative to statistical representations of injury. I further had an intuition that the specific kind of injustice was hard to articulate, and that this implied something about kinds of harms and their relationship to their representation. I began to suspect that some kinds of injustice are only representable in some specific kinds of representation, or at least that some forms of representation are more and less amenable to accurately conveying certain kinds of injustice. I also began to think that affective states are tied communicating about injustice.

I think I first started to think about affect and injustice in teaching about the history of slavery in the US. There are primary sources about enslavement that are so appalling that I don’t assign them. I’ve often tried to find what I think of as least appalling examples of the most appalling phenomena. What I mean is that I think if someone has never felt a kind of visceral horror at the practices of enslavement, one has not really understood the full scope of the reality of enslavement. So to really understand enslavement is to endure feeling some unpleasant feelings. In my teaching about slavery I’ve tried to keep that unpleasant feeling to a minimum while still having it be present. This was on my mind in writing my book as I think there’s an analogous phenomenon with workplace injuries: someone who has never felt appalled about workers’ suffering and dying in their jobs hasn’t fully understood workplace injury. Some of the early twentieth century journalists and social scientists whose work I read seemed to have understood this, at least in an implicit way in that they practiced it. I think slavery historians have as well. That stuff was on my mind as I wrote so I wanted my book to be affecting. To me that was not merely stylistic but did a kind of cognitive work because of the link between affective states and actual understanding of awful things. This also made me notice elements of Marx’s writing that I hadn’t before.

Writing a marxist book on occupational safety and health I of course became more drawn to Marx’s writing on occupational safety and health. But I also began to notice his use of appalling and individualized examples, like of a woman worked to death due to excessively long hours, or a man who starved to death in a barn, or a woman found dead from hunger surrounded by her crying children. It seemed to me that these instances did a kind of work for Marx that was not merely rhetorical or stylistic flourish.

After finishing my book I read Tony Smith’s fantastic Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism. I plan to write a review of it at the end of this year or early next, it has much to recommend it. If I’d read it sooner it would have shaped my book (this is part of the weirdness of having written a book - I feel like I’m beginning to arrive at the place where I’m ready to write my book...!). One of the things that I’ve begun to wonder about very recently is Smith’s discussion of what he calls normative individualism, which is the view that “individuals are ultimate units of moral concern.” (54.) Smith argues that Marx was a normative individualist, as expressed in his vision of a future society wherein “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.” (Smith, p99, note 46.)

That doesn’t mean Marx was either a methodological or metaphysical individualist in the way that liberals tend to be. Marx saw individuals as fundamentally social (Smith, p99, note 46). He sought to understand collective/social processes and patterns, social relations. But that analysis was animated by a strong concern that the social relations he wrote about and against were ones that were destroying concrete, singular persons, and that destruction was not worth it. (Marx was no utilitarian. Goran Therborn is good on that.) I tried to express a similar sensibility in the epigraphs to my book, though I only sort of knew why - the epigraphs expressed a strongly felt intuition that I am still now, writing this post, trying to articulate more clearly.

These were the epigraphs:

“And even after the new society shall have come into existence, the happiness of its members will not make up for the wretchedness of those who are being destroyed in our contemporary society.”- Max Horkheimer, “Postscript”

“If I had a list and if I only knew, I'd write down their names and sing them to you.And when I got done, I'd sing them again, so you’d all know each one had a name.”- Utah Phillips, “Yuba City”

This is probably obvious but by juxtaposing the two in that order I wanted the Phillips quote to underscore for readers that “those who are being destroyed in our contemporary society” all each have a name and a face, and that they and their names and their suffering and destruction largely don’t get recorded. I would now say that all of this is a terrible trespass upon the moral worth of those individuals and an awful fact of how capitalist society is in a deep way incompatible with, in Smith’s words, “individuals [as] ultimate units of moral concern.”

I didn’t say this in my book but what I was attempting without fully realizing it was to engage with was what “moral concern” really means as a practice in relation to the book’s subjects - working class people under capitalism, injured people in relation to their employers and the law, and so on. I think mostly moral concern appears in my book as an absence I used to criticize various stuff, including criticizing limited or partial forms of moral concern practiced by different institutions and actors. I think to the limited degree that moral concern appears at all positively in the social practices my book depicts, that moral concern is tied to kinds of representation in important ways. I also think that the same goes textually for the book, in that the degree to which my book expresses a kind of moral concern is also tied to kinds of representation - that’s what I was (or, still am) fumbling for about narrative. And I think this is part of what’s going on in Marx’s illustrative examples of dead and dying people, of his writing in disgust about child laborers sleeping in shifts in beds that never get cold because kids rotate in and out of them.

I’m thinking in part of Marx’s example in chapter 10 of Capital v1 of Mary Anne Walkley, who, at age 20, died after doing a 26 and a half hour shift without any break. Marx wrote about this as follows:

“The doctor, Mr. Keys, called too late to the death-bed [of Walkley], duly bore witness before the coroner’s jury that ‘Mary Anne Walkley had died from long hours of work in an over-crowded work-room, and a too small and badly ventilated bedroom.’ In order to give the doctor a lesson in good manners, the coroner’s jury thereupon brought in a verdict that ‘the deceased had died of apoplexy, but there was reason to fear that her death had been accelerated by over-work in an over-crowded workroom, &c.’

Looking at this passage again now to write this blog post I notice Marx’s editorializing that the coroners jury gave the doctor “a lesson in good manners” and that Marx calls attention to how the legal finding sanitized the doctor’s statement. In my book I called that kind of thing “moral thinning.” I’m also thinking of two essay two essays Marx wrote for the New York Tribune: “Political Prospects - Commercial Property - Case of Starvation” (January 14, 1853, p477-485 in MECW v11) and “Parliamentary Debates - The Clergy Against Socialism - Starvation” (February 25, 1853, p522-527 in MECW v11). In both, Marx goes a kind of financial and policy journalism which he then concludes with an account of the death of a working class person that he clearly found outrageous. The depiction matters - that it’s an individual person rather than an aggregated mass - and the juxtaposition does as well. After relatively dry discussions of policy and commerce, the death really jumps off the page and it also casts a light on the preceding dry discussion. Commerce and policy are conducted in a vocabulary of “good manners”, what I called morally thin in my book, a vocabulary in which moral concern for individual can’t occur, or can only occur to a limited extent. This makes me think the normative individualism is not only an animating impulse in the background - a reason why Marx wrote - but is also part of what his work does and why it has the critical force it does: those passages provide readers an experience of moral concern for individuals that underscore that the other passages, in which Marx depicts social practices that act with terrible indifference to human well-being, are about appallingly fucked up shit.

As an only partially related aside, I’ve seen discussion of ‘exploit’ as not a moral term in Marx’s usage, with the term connoting a neutral ‘make use of as an instrument’. It seems to me that usage has a moral connotation when applied to persons. ‘The shovel I use for cultivating my garden is my instrument to use however I see fit and if it wears out I can get another, after all they’re cheaply purchased’ is a bit of a weird utterance but one with little significant moral connotation, but if we replace shovel with ‘landscaper’ or ‘underpaid neighbor kid’ or ‘hired help’ then there’s a very loud moral connotation, as that kind of instrumentalization of other people is wrong and harmful. Marx clearly thought so as well. People, unlike shovels, should be ends, not means. Marx’s writing is animated by the sense that using people is wrong and harmful and should stop.

I think Marx’s illustrative examples of harms support the argument that he was a normative individualist. I also think that in writing those examples Marx as a writer was trying to get readers into a kind of headspace and experience of moral concern, so they felt appalled. (I’m unsure of the degree to which he was trying to do so implicitly and intuitively, akin to a baseball player, or if it was an explicit and planned out point such that he understood fully the complexity of what he was doing, akin to an exercise scientist.) I think this also means that the examples and stories aren’t bits to skip in favor of the more explicitly theoretical section (or to be treated as just the long-form working out, like a geometry proof, of ideas betters expressed in the theoretical sections).


One last thought. In my book I quote EP Thompson a couple times, criticizing a kind of reductionism he saw as characterizing capitalist society, tied to how people get instrumentalized. My book is a structural book and is not Thompsonian in the sense of ‘the class makes itself’ ‘bottom up’ history way. I think of it as a kind of Thompsonian book though in the sense of being animated by the socialist humanist convictions animating Thompson’s ‘bottom up’ history writing. He wrote that against a top down reductionism that he, rightly, saw as operating in social institutions. I wrote against that top down reductionism by focusing on it directly and trying to describe it, which I’ve come to think of as a structuralist variant on socialist humanism. This isn’t exactly the same as what Simon Clarke had to say about socialist humanist history (as I mentioned in a prior post with notes on some of his writing) but I think there’s a resonance. One aspect of that resonance is in the normative individualism and, I think, in some versions of narrative as practices of normative individualism.

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