'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Capitalism and the Neurosis of Collection 

Yesterday, I was visiting Lenin's Tomb, and participating in the comments section in response to Roobin's article about actually existing capitalism in the US. His article provided an opportunity for people to expound upon numerous issues related to a contemporary Marxist analysis of historic capitalist development.

During the course of this discussion, someone, who goes under the Internet alias Lovecat, provoked a specific dialogue as to the means by which a society would evolve from being one centered around private property to one in which property is maintained collectively for the use of all. She did so by reference to the following hypothetical example, one that makes whimsical reference to a couple of others who post comments:

Battersea owned some books - or at least he thought he owned them, presumably because he had shopped for them, paid for them and because the law says that if you do that, you own it. However, johng, in removing said books from Battersea's ownership, showed how vulnerable ownership is when the property is possessed. Johng doesn't need to own the books in order to possess them. Any thoughts?

Lovecat provided some additional clarification here:

I would dispute any claim that Battersea attempted to make that he ever owned the books (because property is theft), which means that he is the criminal and you, in liberating said stolen items from his greedy capitalist mitts, were the libertarian socialist. I think that Battersea has learned his lesson.

Humor aside, I discovered that my engagement with these two comments produced some insight as to relationship between capitalism, private property, and, a particular genre of it, personal property, and I thought that I would repost my remarks here in an edited form.

Here they are: As with most forms of personal property, you don't really need to have a book all the time, or even most of the time, that is an essential dimension of this hypothetical. You have to have food and water every day, and a place to rest every day, but not a book. So, if we are talking about the books in question from the standpoint of use, Battersea doesn't need them that often, only when he or she is inclined to read them. Johng could take them from him or her, and maintain them collectively, without any significant diminishment of his or her enjoyment of use, unless, for some odd reason, they were very popular, and unavailable because so many people wanted to read them.

Hence, the hypothetical highlights possession as manifested by the need to collect. Baudrillard addressed the psychology of being a collector in his first book, The System of Objects, and, now, I recognize that it may have an even greater significance than he gave it in 1968. It is now evident that the urge to collect runs wild under capitalism in its current form. And, whereas it may have been limited to the upper classes in the 19th Century, as manifested by the desire of industrialists to purchase artworks and open libraries (the act of collection par excellence), it has now spread across much of the populace, at least in the developed countries.

People maintain their own vast libraries of music CDs, movie DVDs, books and photographs, among other things, with the ability to increase them and find what they consider to be rarities by means of the Internet. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I remember that people traveled all over the country to find uncommon vinyl records, books, and, as they called them back then, collectibles, or relied upon others to do so. But Larry McMurtry's other job as a rare book scout doesn't really exist anymore. The Internet has exponentially increased the ability of obssessive collectors to find objects that would have otherwise been considered unattainable.

Such explorations have given birth to a new need, the need for storage, something that most people would have considered incomprehensible say, before the 1960s, except in relation to one's essentials, like clothes, furniture and bedding (and, even here, on a much smaller scale than what we currently possess). Now, it is a frequent preoccupation, a secondary preoccupation invariably derived from the primary feature of neurosis associated with collection. The shocking thing about how personal property generates a neurosis of collection is that many of the items collected, whether they be books, movies, artworks, whatever, are therefter hidden, never to be experienced again, or experienced rarely, after the first encounter. They are literally secreted away from anyone else who might be interested in them.

The capitalist response to this contradiction is to mass produce the items in question so that nearly everyone can collect! Needless to say, the economic inefficiencies are incalculable. The activity of file sharing, referenced by Lovecat elsewhere in the Lenin's Tomb comments thread, is pertinent here. File sharing constitutes a rebellion against contemporary capitalism on the margins, for the reason that she suggested, as it constitutes a collective means of sharing personal property, in effect, collectivizing it, therefore constituting a repudiation of the psychological dependence upon collection.

By overcoming a dependence upon collection, one eliminates an essential aspect of the necessity for private personal property, so much so that it could provoke a radical transformation of capitalism, if not its eventual rejection. Along these lines, files sharing is much more economically efficient, which may explain why culture industries, like music, TV and film, are trying to push people away from actually owning a copy of the work in question, by making it costly and subject to punitive restrictions, and, instead, commercializing filesharing as a substitute, as cable companies aspire to do with video on demand, and Apple has done with the IPod. This is important, because, as Lovecat also observed, file sharing outside the corporate context also abolishes money.

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