Thursday, April 9, 2015

Having v Being: Marx and the accumulation that robs us of our humanity

I recently came across some passages in Lionel Trilling's wonderful book Sincerity and Authenticity that, to my mind, speak both insightfully, and poignantly, to many of our current problems - from the decline of the arts and humanities to the degradation of the natural environment. There is not enough space to quote in full, but perhaps enough to inspire some useful thoughts. Trilling's book is much neglected these days, but it was given a honorable mention in Bernard William's Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, and although it is a bit old-fashioned, even quaint, in its approach at times, it contains many treasures like the following:

"The human autonomy which is envisioned by Schiller, Wilde, and Nietzsche is, we perceive, in essential accord with the conception of moral life proposed by Rousseau and Wordsworth when they assigned so high a significance to the sentiment of being. Indeed, the preoccupation with being informs most speculation about the moral life throughout the nineteenth century. The intense meaning which Wordsworth gave to the word 'be' became its common meaning in moral discourse. And it came commonly to be felt that being, which is to say the gratifying experience of the self as an entity, was susceptible to forces which either increased or diminished its force. There was a pretty clear consensus, for example, that among the things which increased the experience of self, art was pre-eminent. And, there was no question at all of what diminished the experience of the self - the great enemy of being was having ... it is accumulation robs you of being."

Trilling buttresses these views with some telling quotes form the early Marx, among which the following stands out:

"The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life - the greater is the saving of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes away from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth. And everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you; it can eat, drink, go to the ball and the theatre, It can acquire art, learning, historical treasures, political power, and it can travel. It can appropriate all these things for you ... but although it can do this, it only desires to create itself, and to buy itself ..."

With regard to this, Trilling makes an important point about the alienation involved (note, alas, his naive optimism about what "will be readily seen"):

"It will readily be seen that alienation does not mean to Marx what it meant to Hegel. It is not the estrangement of the self from the self which Hegel sees as a painful but necessary step in development. Rather it is the transformation of the self into what is not human. Marx's concept of alienation is not wholly contained in what he says about money; but certainly money is central to it and provides the most dramatic way of representing it."

(Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1972,pp.122-123. The Marx quotation is from Early Writings: Karl Marx, T.Bottomore (ed. and trans.), McGraw-Hill: New York, 1964, p.171-2)