Over the Rainbow — Pynchon and the Pandemic

Toto, I have the feeling we’re not in Kansas any more…”
— Dorothy, arriving in Oz


Maybe it was all those rainbows in lockdown that got me thinking about Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece from 1973. His rainbow had been there all along, on my bookshelf for more than thirty years, lying unread. I’d heard plenty these days about virtual reading groups tackling Moby-Dick, discussing Ahab’s monomania alongside the President’s. But Melville’s Great White isn’t a patch on Pynchon’s V2. Here was a book, and a man, for our times, a maestro. He’d made self-isolation a life-form, paranoia a permanent mode of being, quarantining himself for a half-century or more, avoiding everybody in his splendid velvet underground. I remember the old days, when I lived in a broom closet on the Upper West Side, when you could venture out without fearing crowds, happily strolling down Broadway to Zabar’s. Back then, I’d even discovered where the great recluse actually lived, on West 81st Street, twelve blocks down from me. But it’s only now, years later, that I seem really ready to deal with Pynchon’s rainbow, to enter his Zone and get it, to finally feel its curve, unmistakably.

They say you can’t hear the killing. It’s a silent death. If you hear the explosion you’re still alive—this time. But what about the next one to drop? Early on in Gravity’s Rainbow, the mad neurologist Doctor Spectro explains, “Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after it explodes. The blast of the rocket, falling faster than sound—then growing out of it the roar of its own fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning. . . A ghost in the sky.” The virus is like this ghost in the sky, a silent passing. You don’t know until afterward, once the coughing starts, the fever begins, exploding after you’ve already been hit, catching up to what’s already death and burning. The rainbow is the pandemic’s trajectory, the curve under which comes life or death.

The English statistician Roger Mexico and servicewoman Jessica Swanlake lie awake under the threat of this rainbow, snuggled up in bed, their affair in hiding, hearing a rocket strike close by. Their hearts pound. Will the invisible death train spare them? My wife and I have wondered likewise these past months, lying awake in bed, in quarantine, our hearts pounding. Outside, the traffic stopped. We talked about the day’s news—the bad news, the numbers, our fears, what will happen tomorrow, another day having passed. After a while, we stopped talking, just listened together in the silence.

From my bed comes an urge to run lose like Tyrone Slothrop, Pynchon’s alter-ego anti-hero. The British and American military are running psychological tests on him in London, Pavlovian experiments. Yet he wrenches himself free from their grip, and embarks on a search for himself and a rocket in the Zone—in the ruins of Occupied Europe. It’s 1944-5, the War is officially over, yet somehow battles still rage. In the Zone, reality isn’t what it appears. There, a destructive military machine morphs into a destructive economic machine, squabbling over war spoils, trying to cash in on rocket technology. Industrial cartels (ICI, Shell, GE, Agfa, I.G. Farben) scramble for a piece of the peace.

Slothrop’s knows it’s a scam, that there are sinister forces orchestrating it all, out to get him, never coming clean. Today, we’d place the pharmaceutical, medical insurance and techie cartels at the top of this roster of schemers. Plots get overlaid with counter-plots, about which ordinary mortals have little inkling. Slothrop’s right, of course; but the problem here is that reality follows one of his “Proverbs for Paranoids”: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Another problem seems our big problem: “There’s nowhere to go, Slothrop,” someone warns him, “nowhere.” And it’s true, a pandemic means literally that: it’s everywhere, and we’ve no place to hide, not for long anyway, notwithstanding one’s privileges.

The Zone unsettles in war’s aftermath. Perhaps it is unsettling because, as we ease lockdown, it mirrors our own disarray and chaos. We bury the dead while convincing ourselves the worst is over. A crisis of truth-telling, a battlefield of unknowns and imponderables, of information blockage. Science versus anti-science. Public health paling beside private gain. In our Zone, free-floating anguish prevails.

Slothrop chased the rainbow from point to point. Its arc reduced itself to a series of equations, to aerodynamics and electronics, to propulsion and insulation, to guidance systems. His quest was for a rocket—an “R”—with a serial number 00000, pointing northwards. Epidemiology has its own “R” factor, pointing outwards, exploding everywhere. This is the reproductive value of a virus, how infectious it is, the average number of people a single individual might infect with it. Our quest is for a R-0 or below (an R-negative), suggesting the virus’s passage is diminishing. An R value above 1 is bad, since infection is spreading exponentially, being silently passed on to an ever increasing number of persons.

Maybe Pynchon, our Laureate of intrigue and paranoia, should write his next book about the pandemic, calling it R. After all, he’s already written a V., as well as a sort of V2, Gravity’s Rainbow. Why not R-Zero, about a search for an epidemiological Holy Grail—a Coronavirus vaccine? An older rocketman Slothrop might engage in this latest mission, peeling back the investigative layers it’ll likely necessitate, haunting the laboratories and corridors of institutional darkness. The novel might try to resolve the conundrum of our times: entropy, the measure of disorganisation in a closed system, the collective chaos resulting from cosmic heat-death. It might be a field guide to entropy management, offsetting our thermodynamical gloom.

In the 1850s, German physicist Rudolf Clausius said the entropy of an isolated system always continually grew. Order and predictability gradually decline. In an early Pynchon story, “Entropy,” from 1960, the character Callisto thought this an adequate metaphor to apply to our lot. “He was forced,” Pynchon says, “in the sad dying fall of middle age, to a radical reevaluation of everything he had learned up to then; all the cities and seasons and casual passions of his days had now to be looked at in a new and elusive light.”

Callisto confronted entropy the same way Pynchon confronts it: by hermetically sealing himself off, constructing in his apartment a tiny enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos. It’s one mode to survive a pandemic. But it mightn’t be the most resilient method to maintain healthy human relations. Perhaps the other solution is the alternative Pynchon touts in the final part of Gravity’s Rainbow—a counterforce, a dialectical ballet of force meeting an opposition, a collision that establishes a new order. “Creative paranoia,” Pirate Prentice reminds Roger Mexico, “means developing at least as thorough a We-system as a They-system.”

A counterforce is scattered throughout the Zone, even throughout our Zone. It’s there to disarm and dismantle the Man. Melvillians believe Ahab is the Man, the avatar of our times, the narcissist who eventually sinks his ship. Yet the masochistic nazi rocket captain Blicero–“White Death”—seems more representative of our demented political incumbents, who climax in tyranny, in seeing giant penises launch into the sky, photo-shooting the countdown. As the rockets rain, falling at nearly a mile a second, there’s still time, Pynchon says, if you need comfort, to touch the person next to you, that there is always a hand to turn the time. This thought alone is enough to bring on a moment’s soporific calm—before another restless night.


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Remembering Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray, who died in 2004, would have been 79 on June 5, 2020. Here is my personal remembrance of a sadly missed storyteller and artist.

I was so excited waiting in line to enter. I was there early, eager and jittery. The line was long. People straggled out onto promenade next to the Thames. I hoped C. would arrive soon. It was our first real date together. Friday evening, the day after my thirty seventh birthday. I’d bought two tickets to see one of my heroes perform at Royal Festival Hall, on London’s South Bank, someone I’d never seen live before: Spalding Gray. The line was edging indoors, and I knew that once we were in, in our seats, and Gray had commenced, cleared his throat for the first time, nobody would be allowed late entry. I began to get tense as seven-thirty struck. The show was due off at seven-forty-five. Still no signs of C. anywhere. I got worried. I’d have to choose soon. Go in alone, or be loyal, wait for C., and, if she’s late, miss the show. I got really edgy as seven-forty approached. She wasn’t about. Maybe she’d mistaken the venue?


I remember the previous evening telling her all about Spalding Gray. Who was he? she’d wondered. How to describe what he did? I wondered. He was a monologist, I said. What’s a monologist? she said. Someone who sits behind a desk with a glass of water, I said, and, without props or fancy effects, for an hour-and-a-half talks about themselves in front of an audience. Oh, she said. He tells stories, I said, that make people laugh and think and sometimes cry. He tells of his everyday adventures, his inner thoughts, his doubts and hang ups, his euphoric moments. He’s hilarious, I said.

But, listen, I said, he’s no stand-up (or sit-down) comic: this is profound existential and psychological inquiry, “a way of taking full responsibility for my life,” Gray says, “and also a more therapeutic way of splitting off a part of myself to observe another part.” People can relate to what he says, I said. They find him funny—darkly, ironically, hypochondriacally funny. Here is ego and id dialoguing with one another, doing it in public. What Gray says is both rehearsed and improvised, structured and destructured, depending on his mood, depending on the audience’s reactions. No monologue is ever the same, even if it’s the same monologue. It’s always a work in progress; the wheels spin each night.

Gray comes from Barrington, Rhode Island, I said; but his angst, his self-dramatizing hyperbole, his arrogances and insecurities, make him, for me, quintessentially a New Yorker. “For thirty four years I lived with you,” he once said of his adopted home town, “and came to love you. I came to you because I loved theater and found theater everywhere I looked. I fled New England and came to Manhattan, that Island off the coast of America, where human nature was king and everyone exuded character and had big attitude. You gave me a sense of humorbecause you are so absurd.”

Gray made New York home in 1967. He got involved with its underground experimental theater community, under Antonin Artaud’s and Jerzy Grotowski’s spell; and with Liz LeCompte, Gray’s girlfriend at the time, joined Richard Schechner’s Performance Group. A few years on, he and LeCompte broke off to form the Wooster Group, headquartered at a grungy loft space, the Performing Garage, along Wooster Street in SoHo. The troupe and the venue quickly became the springboard for Gray’s monologue career. What if I spoke my own words, he wondered, instead of somebody else’s? What if I used myself to play myself? What if, he joked, “I began playing with myself?”

The Wooster Group became Gray’s first audience. He’d perform short monologues in front of its members, twenty-minute stints in which he’d unearth childhood memories and reminiscences of his mother, her decent into madness and eventual suicide at fifty two. These performances, sat behind a simple wooden table, became the beginnings of public autobiography. Each day, “when I’d come in for rehearsal,” Gray said, “they would ask me to tell it [the monologue] again, and I did, while Liz taped it. Each day it was embellished and edited and grew as a text until at last we transcribed it.”

The big break through came with Swimming to Cambodia, a watershed monologue, still his best-known, a virtuoso performance mixing personal and political history—the story of a genocide, a film about that genocide, and Gray’s bit role in that film about that genocide. Gray became the US Ambassador in Roland Joffé’s 1984 Oscar-winning The Killing Fields, about two New York Times reporters who’d uncovered the US’s secret bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s. The covert campaign was designed to drive the Vietcong out of Cambodia yet instead only stirred things up. The Vietcong retreated to the Cambodian bush, hitched up with a bunch of ruthless guerrillas—the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot—who then initiated the worst auto-homeo-genocide in modern history, the said Killing Fields.

Gray’s monologue was about this movie and this real human tragedy. Soon afterward, his monologue about this movie became a movie about his monologue. In November 1986, director Jonathan Demme shot two consecutive performances of Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia before a live audience at the Performing Garage, as close as you could get to being there without actually being there. At first Demme wasn’t turned on. “Before I’d seen Spalding perform,” he confessed, “I was horrified at the idea of being trapped in a room with just one person speaking at a desk. I didn’t want to see him, even though everyone kept telling me how much I’d love him. When I finally did go to one of his shows I was instantly won over.”

The film’s prologue is my favorite scene. There, we track Gray pacing Lower Manhattan’s streets, notebook under arm, en route to his performance. He looks like the struggling artist he is, or at least was then: forlorn, a bit down at heel, traipsing across Canal Street amid speeding traffic, piled up garbage and graffiti, greatcoat collar turned up; a Dostoevskian underground man fighting off his existential chills. But there’s a slyness about him, too, a sprightliness to his gait, an air of anticipation and optimism, bobbing up and down merrily to Laurie Anderson’s jaunty soundtrack. Moments later he approaches the steel entrance door of the Performing Garage, with its green sign overhead almost winking at us. Next thing he’s on stage, sat at trademark desk, sipping water, taking a deep breath, ready to begin.

This was 1980s New York. Living for the city in that decade had been rough. Fiscal crisis still bit deep into public budgets; factories were closing; decline and hard drugs expressed themselves out on the street, scarred the city’s fabric, even as Wall Street boomed and financiers laughed all the way to the bank. Ironically, crisis meant that abandoned old industrial spaces, like the Performing Garage itself, were affordable for a while, to struggling artists who sometimes made great art amongst the debris, in these ruins, without hot water.

I remember seeing this same 1980s New York cityscape before, elsewhere on film, in My Dinner With André, which similarly starts off with a theater guy—Wally Shawn—trudging through Lower Manhattan, similarly in a greatcoat, similarly surrounded by blight, litter and bleak emptiness, similarly crossing Canal Street. As Wally walks we hear his voice-over dialoguing with himself, telling us of his artistic woes: “The life of a playwright is tough,” he says. “It’s not easy, as some people seem to think. You work hard writing plays, and nobody puts them on. You take up other lines of work to try and make a living—acting, in my case—and people don’t hire you. So you spend your days crossing the city back and forth doing the errands of your trade.”

I told C. that evening how my acquaintance with Gray first came about through Marshall Berman, through All That Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall said Gray’s early play, Rumstick Road, developed between 1975-8 as part of the Wooster Group’s Three Plays in Rhode Island, was “a powerful confrontation with home and with ghosts.” Rumstick Road, after Gray’s childhood home address, tries to understand his mother, her malaise and gradual disintegration, his family as well as Gray himself, as a child and as an adult, as a man-child—“to live with what he knows and with what he will never know,” Marshall said. Its dialogue speaks to anybody who’d lost somebody, especially one’s mother. In Rumstick Road, Gray for the first time talks directly to the audience, dramatizes his dreams and reveries; there’s dance, abstract movement and music; original reel and audio recordings of his mother and father and grandmother, even of his mother’s shrink (with Gray miming his words); and photos and slides of his family and two brothers, all seemingly hunky dory in suburban Rhode Island, circa 1950s.

Rumstick Road, said Marshall, suggests that “a kind of liberation and reconciliation is possible for human beings in this world.” This liberation can never be total, Marshall thought, “but it is real, and earned: Gray has not merely looked into the abyss but gone into it and brought its depths up into the light for us all. Gray’s fellow actors have helped him: their intimacy and mutuality, developed through years of work as a close ensemble, are absolutely vital in his labor of discovering and facing and being himself.” Still, the play, and the actual experience of his mother’s suicide, would remain an open wound for Spalding Gray. How could it be otherwise? For much of his youth, he remembers trying to help his mother through long periods of depression. She might suddenly turn to him and ask: “How shall I do it, dear? How shall I do it? Shall I do it in the garage with the car?”


An emerald apparition approached, flapping in the breeze, a blast of verdant light, arriving just in the nick of time, with barely a minute to spare. She was wearing her new green jacket, bought that very afternoon, especially for the occasion, a special occasion almost missed. But she’d made it, apologized for her tardiness. So much to do today, she said, and she took time out to go clothes shopping, too. Had to run all the way across Waterloo Bridge. She was here, C., and now we could both go in, take our seats, ready ourselves for the monologue Spalding Gray was calling It’s a Slippery Slope.


It was a packed house, over a thousand people. I never knew he had so many UK fans. The atmosphere was electric. I had to admit, and did admit it to C., that I was terribly nervous; not about being with C. so much, but nervous that she might be disappointed with Spalding Gray, that she wouldn’t like him. And I was nervous he’d fluff his lines, that something would go wrong, and I would be disappointed. There was a sudden hush, and then he appeared, discretely, very unspectacularly. Yet there he was, sure enough, Spalding Gray, in the flesh, wearing a red and gray checked flannel shirt. He sat down and paused, calmly took a sip of water, looked up, and then, in a dulcet voice very familiar to me: “The first mountain I ever remember seeing was framed in the pane of my geometry class window at Fryeburg Academy in Maine in 1956.”

After a couple of moments I knew he was going to be just fine. Skiing no longer became a gray area: now it was a Gray area, a tale of a mid-life crisis, of a man trying to find his balance in life and on skis, a man who, no matter what, “was always a little bit not present.” “I’m tired of being a VICARIAN,” Gray told his partner Renée. “I want to live a life, not tell it! I want to turn right on skis!” At a ski lesson, he’s the only one in class who can’t turn right. Right, left, right, left, they all went, snaking gently down the bunny slope. While he: left, left, left, then right, left, right…then bam, down he went, into the snow. Just a simple shift of weight was all you needed, and you could turn right, then left, then right again, and left—“Oh my God, Spalding,” his inner cheerleader voice began saying, at those rare moments of equilibrium, “you’re skiing!” Then: CRASH! He’d be in the snow again. “If I was not whole and completely there and balanced on my skis,” Gray said, “I would be DOWN! The mountain would HIT me hard.” A metaphor about existence, maybe, for a life full of sharp twists and turns, hard bumps and tight corners. You need to be able to wiggle every which way to keep your balance.  

There was a lot going on in Gray’s life just then. Before long, the monologue took on a serious, almost painful tone. Off piste, things were more unbalanced. He spoke about his own suicidal tendencies, fantasies about how he was going to do it, now that he was fifty two himself, the age his mother ended it all. “I was reversing my history,” he said. “Mom was no longer going mad, my inner kid was going mad and saying, ‘Hey, Mom! Hey, Renée, look at this—look at what it looks like to go crazy.’ The craziness manifested itself in imitations of Mom’s behavior, or my actually becoming like her.” He said he was beginning to act up in public places, much the same way his Mom acted up. “I’d be muttering to myself,” he said, “and involuntarily shouting out.” Yet this was New York City, and nobody really noticed or cared. Or if they did notice, they joined in. “I can remember screaming in the streets at night,” Gray said, “and hearing my scream picked up by other people who passed it on down the street for blocks and blocks. What started out as real panic was turned into a performance by the people.”

When I heard this, I thought it a tremendously affecting eulogy to New York. The city could participate in a collective reenactment of Aristotle’s Poetics: acting out tragic drama, people engaged in a public catharsis, like Aristotle suggested theater should be—a communal release, a cry for HELP, a cleansing of tragedy. “When Mom let out a few of these yelps in a Rhode Island supermarket,” Gray said, “they put her in a straight jacket and gave her shock treatments. If Mom had lived in New York City, she’d still be alive today.” This was the killer line. Cities should release repression rather than enforce it. There, in the streets, we bring our worst feelings to the surface and work through them as a public.

Gray’s personal life was getting complicated and self-destructive. He confessed to an affair he’d had, was still having, with a younger woman called Kathie; and she was pregnant with his child. But he doesn’t want the kid, doesn’t want to be a father, tells Kathie “get rid of it.” He acts crummily, is in denial. On a whim he marries longtime girlfriend Renée, consummating a relationship they’d begun in 1979, hoping it would extinguish the burning hot affair, and refreshen a stale relationship—Renée, like Liz LeCompte before her, wasn’t only Gray’s confidante and lover; she was also his theatrical soulmate and creative advisor, almost his business manager. Yet the affair hots up even more. Renée has had enough, hears about the pregnancy, leaves Gray, clears out of their SoHo loft. Gray goes to see Kathie and his eight-month-old son, Forrest, and suddenly has the exhilarating experience of fatherhood; a new life as a family man beckons. “Bending over him, I looked down into his eyes, and fell in. I did not expect the gaze that came back, it was absolutely forever. Long, pure, empty, mere being, pure consciousness, the observing self that I’d always been trying to catch was staring back at me; they were no-agenda eyes.”

Kathie moves into his loft with her seven year old daughter, Marissa. Now, with  Forrest, they were a foursome; domestic chaos is thrust upon him. But it’s maybe a first glimpse of real happiness, even of contentment, of being there and only there. And there it seems like he’s come to life again, earned the sort of liberation that Marshall had hinted at; never total, but real. Out skiing in Vermont, at the end of the day, at the end of his monologue, alone in contemplation, he skis through the twilight like a demon. Left, right, left, right he goes, tucking behind a seventy year old man, who is “skiing the most beautiful, carved, Tai Chi-like turns.” “And later I bid him farewell,” Gray said, “knowing I have seen both a person and an apparition, the spirit of the future.”

Gray thought he was undergoing a meltdown, was self-destructing, disintegrating. But instead he brought new life into the world, rejuvenated, grew up, accepted responsibility for his new creation, and for being a grown up. There was a split and then a fusion, a passionate embrace. For that he gave himself a big high-five. “I knew now,” he said, “that I had to stay alive to help this little guy through.”


Exiting the auditorium I was dying to know what C. thought. She could see I was ebullient, thrilled by the experience, absolutely not disappointed. But what about her? I’d heard her laugh a few times, giggle at Spalding a bit. Then she turned to me and said she’d really enjoyed it, didn’t understand everything, but that he was great. She said he was special. He was brave, she said. You mean confessing in public? I said. No, not really that, she said. It’s just the idea of sitting there alone, at a desk, talking to lots of people without anything. That was a brave. There’s nothing to protect you from flopping. It’s so low-tech, isn’t it, I said, in a world saturated by technology. Nobody would ever believe it possible. Engaging an audience like that.

We’re so used to seeing flashing images, shifting images, loud, pulsating music and dramatic effects and gimmicks. We’ve almost lost the ability to sit still and listen to somebody tell a story, one human being communicating with other humans beings, without mediation, through language and nothing else. It was how Wordsworth said a poet should address their audience: “using the language of real men,” “a man speaking to man.” It was why Gray didn’t really like his monologues becoming films. It was real life he was after, not reel life. Although, you know, he’s a bit weird, isn’t he, C. said, a bit strange. I guess it was true. Most people I love are strange, a bit weird somehow.

Years later, she told me what she liked most about things then, about seeing Spalding Gray and others, was how it was all new and unknown to her, a great adventure; being exposed to it was a thrill and a pleasure. That was what was most important, even if she didn’t get it all, or even if she didn’t like everything. I mean, she said, he was a shit toward his old girlfriend, Renée, wasn’t he, how he’d betrayed her, cheated on her, abandoned any sense of loyalty. It was all immediate gratification for him. Selfish, just about him, she’d said, any woman could see that. His monologues were definitely stories for guys. He’s a bit too obsessed with sex, she’d said.

We did see Spalding Gray perform again a couple of years on, at the Lincoln Center, after we’d moved to New York, a new monologue, Morning, Noon and Night, about a single day in the life of his new domesticity, Gray’s Joycean moment. Now, he became a sort of Leopold Bloom, an ironical Everyman. He’d had another kid, another boy, Theo, only a few months old, moved to east end of Long Island, to the quaint town of Sag Harbor, buying an old house next to a whalers’ church, straight out of the opening scenes of Moby-Dick. It was a strange Odyssey he’d recounted that night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, a charming, less conflicted and angst-ridden tale about the daily round of fatherhood, bike riding with Forrest, eating ice cream together, meals and bath time with Theo, an ordinary life made a little less ordinary through the wave of Gray’s magic wand.

But then something terrible happened. In June 2001, he was in Ireland celebrating his sixtieth birthday, out driving one night with friends, along a deserted country road, with Kathie at the wheel and Spalding in the back. Out of nowhere, at a sleepy junction, a speeding mini-van, driven by a local vet, struck them head-on. Gray, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, broke his hip and smashed his forehead against the back of Kathie’s head; both were unconscious for a while. Kathie seemed okay, suffering only bruises and minor injuries, nothing permanent. But Gray couldn’t walk; his head swelled up. He had hip surgery, sciatic nerve damage, which left him with a numb foot.

Bone fragments pressed against the right frontal lobe of his brain, the part that enables you to think reflectively and maintain steady focus. It seemed he had brain damage. Titanium plates were fitted. His face was disfigured and he could no longer walk properly, no longer hike nor ski. Nor, apparently, could he do his monologues as before. Gray sunk into a deep depression, deeper than ever. Meanwhile, he decided to sell his old Sag Harbor house, the one lovingly depicted in Morning, Noon and Night, buying another newer and bigger property nearby, more practical for his enlarged family. Immediately, though, regret seized him. Selling it had been “catastrophic.” He tried to buy it back. But the new owners weren’t interested. His depression worsened. Then he started to leave suicide notes on the kitchen table.

Gray had been a depressive most of his adult life, like me. In early 2004, when I was living in France, I learned he’d finally gone through with it, had committed suicide. It was a bitter blow, crushing for my own wobbly midlife. With his watery disappearance in New York Harbor, after throwing himself off the Staten Island Ferry, in bleak mid-winter late one night, part of my New York drowned, too. Poor Spuddy Gray. He could tell a life but couldn’t quite live a life. How he tried. I hope it doesn’t happen to me.


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BEAT CITY 4 — Emancipation of the Shufflers Passing By

“If you ride around on the subway with Jack,” Kerouac’s friend “Davey” Amram remembered, “or just go out on the street, he would talk to everybody, be natural and real with anybody.” “We used to walk around New York’s streets for hours,” said Amram. “One time we were hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, and there was a guy we met on the Bowery. He was a full-time wino named Buddy.” They all decided to go to Allen’s place with Buddy, and read poems. “I just listened,” Amram said.

They sat up all night. Ginsberg read his poems and Buddy, supping wine, would say, “Yeah, that’s pretty nice. I can dig that.” Then Kerouac read out his own and “Buddy would flip out and scream with laughter and slap his knee…he liked Allen’s poems, but he really identified with Jack’s. And Jack said, real quietly while Allen was reading a poem, ‘These guys are where I get so much inspiration from and learn so much from. They are the true poets of the streets’.” [1]

When Kerouac starred on Steve Allen’s Plymouth Show in 1959, the host asked Jack “How would you define the word ‘Beat’?” Kerouac didn’t hesitate in his response to Allen, saying, shyly yet assertively, “sympathetic.” He wasn’t being frivolous; Kerouac meant it and we can hear this sympathy resonating in his long blues prose poems, like Bowery Blues, dated March 29, 1955.

The Bowery was one New York landmark that captivated Kerouac and the Beats in their gnostic search for human truth. (Burroughs lived at number 222 in the mid-1960s, in a windowless apartment he called “the bunker,” really an old locker room of the former YMCA building.) For most of the twentieth-century, the strip, running from Third Avenue at East 6th Street and Cooper Square, down to Canal Street in Chinatown, was America’s most notorious skid row. Its flophouses and bars and sidewalks literally flagged out the end of the road for many denizens, a final port of call for the castoffs and casualties of Great America. It was an eternal source of attraction and repulsion for Kerouac, of sorrow and pity, and if we listen to the Bowery Blues in Poetry for the Beat Generation we can feel that pathos, as well as the compassionate embrace, for Bowery bums and winos, for lost souls like Jack’s buddy Buddy.

Interestingly, there’s a wonderful cinematic document of the Bowery from Kerouac’s time called On the Bowery, produced the same year as On the Road (1957), by indie filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. It’s a peculiar documentary, one part actual footage of the winos and bums and rag and bone men of what the Bowery’s own Mission Minister said was “the saddest and maddest street in the world and that might be an understatement”; many of the most vagrant vagrants we see carted off in a police paddy-wagon; they’re better off behind bars.

Yet the other part of Rogosin’s film is overlaid with performing actors, like Ray, from Kentucky, a dead ringer for Neal Cassady, who even worked the railroad before his luck ran out and he hit the bottle. Ray befriends Doc Gorman, once a genuine doctor but now a wily street veteran, an old rogue who scams his way through life, preying off the likes of Ray in dive bars and crummy SRO hotels.

The other looming presence, casting a dark shadow across much On the Bowery, is the overhead El, then in the process of being torn down, a redundant giant somehow adding further grit to Rogosin’s already gritty camera, as it pans images of real streets and real soup kitchens with real human flotsam and jetsam. At the end of On the Bowery, one old crony muses, watching Ray bidding them all a “final” goodbye, “Everybody tries to get off the Bowery.” To which his pal, shaking his head knowingly, adds “He’ll be back!”


“LATE COLD MARCH AFTERNOON,” Kerouac begins Bowery Blues, “the street (Third Avenue) is cobbled, cold, desolate with trolley tracks.” He’s sitting in the Cooper Union cafeteria, in its “Foundation Building” at Cooper Square, composing his poem, penciling impressionistic lines against a muzak, which, he says, is “too sod.” It’s an overcast, chilly, melancholic day, and Jack seems to feel the melancholy in his bones, gazing out the window on to Third Avenue, observing “cold clowns in the moment horror of the world.”

In those days, pretty much anybody could wander in and out of Cooper Union, an arts and science institution founded in 1859 by wealthy New York industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper. Cooper was prominent in the Gilded Age, an anti-slavery liberal progressive, a fervent believer that education should be free and open to all. Since inception, Cooper Union was intended to be an East and West Village community resource; its library and cafeteria were open late so working folk could eat and borrow books after hours, when their day’s toil was done. Cooper Union’s shibboleth back then was that every accepted student be granted a full-tuition scholarship.

Over the years, Cooper Union formed three Art, Architecture and Engineering Schools, though in 2014 it abandoned its long legacy of free education. These days, Cooper Square is dominated by the main campus building, at number 41, a controversial glitzy post-modern, deconstructed structure, costing 100 million dollars, accelerating the gentrification of the neighbourhood. Melancholy Beatsters, scribbling poetry in pencil, aren’t very conspicuous anymore.

“A funny bum with no sense trys to panhandle,” writes Kerouac in Bowery Blues, “and is waved away stumbling,/he doesnt care about society women embarrassed with paper bags on sidewalks—Unutterably sad the broken winter shattered face of a man passing in the bleak ripple.” “I shudder as at the touch of cold stone to think of him,” says Kerouac, “the sickened old awfulness of it like slats of wood wall in an old brewery truck.”

The same broken humanity that occupies Rogosin’s frame populates Keroauc’s prose: seafarers who’ve jumped ship, “bleeding bloody seamen…/sad adventurers/Far from the pipe/Of Liverpool…/Streaked with wine sop”; others “who’ve lost their pickles on Orchard Street”; and “old Irishmen/With untenable dignity/beer bellying home…/Paddy McGilligan/Muttering in the street…/Sad Jewish respectable/rag men with trucks.” The whole damned lot “with tired hope/Hope O hope/O Bowery of Hopes!”

“The story of man,” Kerouac says, “Makes me sick/Inside, outside,/I dont know why/Something so conditional/And all talk/Should hurt me so.” “And I see Shadows/Dancing into Doom…God bless & sing for them/As I can not.” “Then it’s goodbye/ Sangsara/For me,” he writes in the concluding stanza. Sangsara is the Buddhist cycle of birth and death, the continuous wheel of suffering. Does Jack want to give up and die that cold March day? It appears so. “Okay./Quit,” he says. But he doesn’t quit. Instead, Sangsara is his epiphany, his insight into life’s impermanence, into the reality of his “non-self,” revealed to him on the Bowery: “He’ll be back!”

The strangest thing about the Bowery was that it was an area of New York that successive artists and writers dug most of all, finding creative stimulation amongst the human commiseration. Amid the grunge and desolation, a ragged community of dislocated and creative odd-balls discovered a certain liberty. A big attraction, needless to say, was the neighbourhood’s cheapness. Artists undertook quasi-legal rehabs of former Bowery industrial lofts, giving them work and living space at relative low cost. Jack’s photographer friend Robert Frank loved the Bowery and set up home and shop there in 1968, at number 184. (In 1980, he moved around the corner, onto Bleecker Street. By then, though, as rents began to soar, he and artist wife June Leaf spent most of their time up in Nova Scotia.) [2]


But it wasn’t just the low-cost that enticed. When Albert Camus came to town in 1946, like Sartre and de Beauvoir the year prior, it was the Bowery he wanted to see first: “Night on the Bowery,” Camus wrote in his journal, “Poverty—and a European wants to say: ‘Finally, reality’.” Sammy’s Bowery Follies, at 267 Bowery—a self-avowed “alcoholic haven” since 1934—was one venue Camus particularly adored and spent time in, drinking and mixing with Bowery bums; at Sammy’s, whose last orders came in 1970, vaudeville really required no stage. On the Bowery, bare life lurked, existentialism was on the street, expressed itself in dive bar banter, especially after dark.

One of the city’s best jazz-joints, the Five Spot Café, likewise found cheap haven for awhile on the Bowery, between 4th and 5th Streets, staging jam sessions with jazz’s greatest—like Bird, Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, who’d just transplanted himself from the West Coast. It was one of Burt Glinn’s favourites venues to photograph. Here’s his luscious shot of Davey Amram blowing his French horn, before the Five Spot’s racially-mixed audience, a minor miracle in the 1950s.


JACK’S OTHER GREAT HYMN to pavement pathos and hobo rags is MacDougal Street Blues, penciled June 26, 1955. Its three “Cantos” embody almost all Beat street sensibility and wisdom. Kerouac’s street becomes something transcendental, a world-beyond, a wild wilderness for Bodhisattva meditation. It’s a shifting scene full of sidewalk strollers eating ice cream on a lovely June Sunday afternoon, struggling Greenwich Village artists selling their wares, eccentric winos and chessmen of Washington Square, homeless bums panhandling and old bohemian barflies, like the legendary Joe Gould, holding court in the Minetta Tavern, corner of MacDougal and Minetta Lane. All the while, overhead, Kerouac says, “is a perfect blue emptiness of the sky.”

The goofy foolish
human parade
Passing on Sunday
art streets
Of Greenwich Village

Slow shuffling
art-ers of Washington Sq
Passing what they think
Is a happy June afternoon
Good God the Sorrow
They don’t even listen to me when
I try to tell them they will die

Unrepresented on the iron fence
Of bald artists
With black berets
Passing by
One moment less than this
Is future Nothingness Already

The Chess men are silent, assembling
Ready for funny war—
Voices of Washington Sq Blues
Rise to my Bodhisattva Poem

Parading among Images
Images Images Looking
And everybody’s turning around
& pointing—
Nobody looks up
And In
Nor listens to Samantabhadra’s
Unceasing Compassion

Why are you so tragic & gloomy?
And on the corner at the
Pony Stables
Of Sixth Ave & 4th
Sits Bodhisattva Meditating
In Hobo Rags
Praying at Joe Gould’s chair
For the Emancipation
Of the shufflers passing by

Joe Gould was one of the most infamous Village street shufflers, immortalised in Kerouac’s early New York days by New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell. In 1942, Mitchell had written his celebrated profile of Gould—“Professor Sea Gull”—and one can speculate whether Kerouac had ever read this piece. Mitchell was of an older generation, a Village denizen himself, a street-smart journalist, who, like Kerouac, was an intrepid urban legman, with sympathies for the downtrodden. His New Yorker “Profiles” were the last time the Condé Nast magazine would ever write about poor, ordinary, non-celebrity people. Mitchell did so with considerable literary dash. (His great hero was James Joyce.) Joe Gould became Joe Mitchell’s masterwork; and “the penniless and unemployable little man” even became a kind of alter-ego for Mitchell.

Gould, wrote Mitchell, “came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years.” He “looked like a bum and lived like a bum. He wore castoff clothes, and he slept in flophouses or in the cheapest rooms in cheap hotels. Sometimes he slept in doorways. He spent most of his time hanging out in diners and cafeterias and barrooms in the Village or wandering around the streets or looking up friends and acquaintances all over town or sitting in public libraries scribbling in dime-store composition books.” For years, Gould said he was at work on his epic masterpiece, “An Oral History of Our Time,” and for that he was always on the cadge for money, for contributions towards “The Joe Gould Fund.” Gould said this was his life’s endeavour, going about the city listening to people, eavesdropping, and writing down whatever he heard that sounded revealing, no matter how idiotic, obscene or trivial it might be to others.

He claimed he’d already amassed millions of words in this Oral History, filled hundreds of composition books, scattered all around town, hoarded for safe-keeping by assorted friends. He bragged it was a study of modern America as historically important as Gibbon’s treatise on ancient Rome. Yet before Gould died, in 1957, of arteriosclerosis and senility, aged sixty-eight, Mitchell came to recognise something he’d long suspected: the Oral history didn’t exist, had never existed. Gould’s entire oeuvre amounted to just a few bad poems, a “chapter” on the death of his father—written, rewritten and revised over and over again—together with a gibberish disquisition on how tomato consumption spread a disease Gould called “solanacomania.” But that was all. Nothing else. He’d duped everybody, Mitchell included.


In 1964, more than twenty-years after his first assignment, Mitchell completed a second and longer New Yorker piece about this enigmatic little man—“Joe Gould’s Secret”—revealing the awful truth. [3] At the same time, Mitchell anticipated his own awful truth, his own secret, finishing his article with a confession: he’d been at work on his own version of Gould’s oral history, a Bildungsroman novel, autobiographical, about a young man coming up from North Carolina to conquer New York’s reporting world, a man who falls in love with a woman and with a city. This man would poke around every one of city’s hundreds of neighbourhoods, in a soul searching mission, a quest for self-discovery, not in “the lofty, noble silvery vertical city but in the vast, spread-out, sooty-grey and sooty-brown and sooty-red and sooty-pink horizontal city; the snarled-up and smouldering city, the old, polluted, betrayed, and sure-to-be-torn-down-any-time-now city.”

Mitchell had provided a disguised synopsis of a promised book, a book he’d never write, seemingly couldn’t write. Meanwhile, his 1964 profile, revisiting Gould, was valedictory, the last thing Mitchell wrote. Up until his death in 1996, Mitchell came almost every day to his New Yorker office, typed away, immaculately attired as ever, in collar and tie and trademark hat, yet produced nothing more, no more Profiles, no novel, not anything. What had he been typing away at all those years? Nobody knows.

SOMETIMES, WHENEVER MITCHELL received mail addressed to Joe Gould, he’d forward it to the Minetta Tavern, Gould’s home away from home. [4] There, each evening, the Village vagrant got a free spaghetti and meatballs dinner, made from leftovers, his sole meal of the day. In an unspoken agreement with the proprietor, he was the “authentic” house bohemian; and clientele usually bought Gould a glass of wine or a beer or a martini. His best-known antic was imitating the flight of a seagull, hopping and skipping and leaping and lurching about, flapping his arms up and down and cawing like the sea bird. He claimed he’d long ago mastered the language of seagulls, learned it in boyhood, when he spent hours sitting at Boston harbour.

One time Mitchell received a letter from a neighbourhood artist called Sarah Ostrowsky Berman, warning of how Gould was “in bad shape.” The writer said she felt “the city’s unconscious may be trying to speak to us through Gould. And that the people who have gone underground in the city may be trying to speak to us through him. People who never belonged anyplace from the beginning. Poor old men and women sitting on park benches, hurt and bitter and crazy—the ones who never got their share, the ones were always left out, the ones who were never asked.” Perhaps the Beats, too, had heard this city’s unconscious speaking out—Kerouac hadn’t called his crew the subterraneans for nothing, once saying homeless underground people had good reason to cry, for everything in the world is stacked against them.

Kerouac had written movingly about homelessness in his debut novel, The Town and the City (1950), an adolescent Bildungsroman the likes of which Mitchell couldn’t quite pull off, where alter-ego Peter Martin attempts to exorcise ghosts of his small town past in Galloway (Lowell), only to have to confront the equally troubling demons of big city (New York). One raw Sunday afternoon in winter, Peter finds himself on the Bowery, “when the cold ruddy light of the sun was falling on dusty windows and streaming through El girders black with soot, he saw three old men, old Bowery bums, lying on the pavement against a wall trying to sleep, on newspapers.”

He stops to look at them. “They looked dead,” Peter says, “but then they stirred and groaned and turned over, just like men do in bed, and they were not dead. He thought of what must have happened to them that they slept on the pavements of November, and that their only belongings in the world were the filthy clothes that covered them. It also flashed through his mind that they were old men as well, rheumy-eyed, sorrowful, sixty or so, shaking with palsy, fixed against the weathers and miseries as though driven through with a spike, sprawled there for good. He had to walk away, he cried.”

Around the time Peter cried, his creator heard in person the city’s unconscious speaking out through Gould, knowing Professor Seagull’s notoriety first-hand; Burroughs also remembers witnessing Gould’s seagull act. Indeed, not long after Mitchell’s profile first appeared in The New Yorker, both Kerouac and Burroughs had Gould cameo in their jointly-written novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. That was in 1944, and the Minetta Tavern was then their local hang out; Gould’s Village was similarly the Village of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. It was likewise the Village of their mutual friends, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, the two principal characters—real-life characters—fictionalised in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. In August 1944, a nineteen-year-old Carr had stabbed to death Kammerer, fourteen-years his senior, in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, dumping the body in the Hudson. It was front-page news, an older-guy-stalker impulsively killed by a younger victim in a drunken quarrel.

In those days, Kerouac and Burroughs were unpublished unknowns; the former had yet to go on the road and the latter’s drug habit was still soft. For decades their novel remained unpublished, the manuscript even thought lost. But it resurfaced, eventually getting published in 2008, with chapters sequentially written by Mike Ryko (Kerouac) and Will Dennison (Burroughs), in a remarkable recreation of wartime bohemian New York, a sort of Beat pre-history, Beatnik life and times avant la lettre. And there, in all his mad, eccentric glory is Gould, too, whose table at Minetta’s Ryko, Dennison and their girlfriends often shared. They said they frequently had “a good time listening to Joe Gould and basking in the suggestive dialogue around him.” Sporting his cane, Gould sometimes followed them to parties, participated in their haphazard drinking and drifting, in their talk-ins and poetic excess.

Today, everything here, Mitchell’s stories included, sound like period pieces, a tale of another era when Gould-like eccentrics, urban cast-offs and subterraneans found a little space to exist in the city. It was an era when they were tolerated and occasionally encouraged, when they had some underground as well as a few overground haunts to roam in, their own secret language-game, muttering the city’s unconscious. Gould had its history in his head. The Beats spent the following decades trying to transcribe those words on the page, in poetry and prose. If there was a singular impulse, perhaps we can think of it as a body of work dedicated to the emancipation of street shufflers who once passed by—passed by before they were chased away.



[1] I’m citing Amram from the wonderful testimonies of Jack’s Book (1978), compiled by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. David Amram is still with us today, ninety this year, and well-known as a composer and conductor of orchestral and chamber works, many bearing a distinctive jazzy penchant. In his early Beat days, he wrote the musical score for Frank’s Pull My Daisy, and was a young sideman (French horn) for Thelonious Monk and other jazz stars. Later, Amram composed film soundtracks and worked with the New York Philharmonic as a composer-in-residence. In 2002, his Beat remembrance, Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac, appeared, followed five years on by Upbeat: The Nine Lives of a Musical Cat. Amram’s other claim to fame was to appear with Kerouac (and Philip Lamantia and Howard Hart) at New York’s first ever jazz poetry reading, at the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. The historic event was organised by poet Frank O’Hara, who’d later achieve notoriety with Lunch Poems, published by City Lights in 1964.

[2] Kerouac and Frank, just two years apart in age, were like two peas in pod, outsiders both, with roaming “eyes” for “American-ness”; the former, of French-Canadian extract, the latter, a Swiss-born immigrant. When Kerouac wrote, in his famous introduction to Frank’s The Americans, that “after seeing [Frank’s] pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin,” you could say much the same thing about Kerouac’s prose. In April 1958, he and Frank undertook their own road trip together, from NYC to Florida, described in Kerouac’s essay “On the Road to Florida.” “It’s pretty amazing,” Kerouac said, “to see a guy, while steering at the wheel, suddenly raise his little 300-dollar German camera with one hand and snap something that’s on the move in front of him, and through an unwashed windshield at that.” After awhile, “I suddenly realised I was taking a trip with a genuine artist and that he was expressing himself in an art-form that was not unlike my own.”

[3] Joe Gould’s Secret became a film in 2000, staring Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. The atmosphere of Greenwich Village in the 1940s is beautifully evoked, yet the movie only scratches the surface of the deep and complex psychologies of both Joes.

[4] Minetta Tavern first opened its doors in 1937 and lives on—though is much less rougher around the edges, reinventing itself in 2009, to attract a more upmarket and tonier crowd. The tavern’s website says, “Since its renovation, Minetta Tavern has best been described as ‘Parisian steakhouse meets classic New York Tavern’.” “The Tavern,” the site continues, “was frequented by various layabouts and hangers-on including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, e. e. Cummings, Dylan Thomas, and Joe Gould, as well as by various writers, poets, and pugilists.” Yet at $22 for a glass of Chardonnay, and $33 for a “Black Label” prime- cut beef burger, the only layabouts and hangers-on these days ascend from Wall Street.


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BEAT CITY 3 — Goofing at the Table

My favourite Beat diner image is an inspiring black & white shot, taken in a long lost Lower East Side diner.


In the photo, we can see Kerouac (left, front on) sat at a booth with poet friends Allen Ginsberg (glasses) and Gregory Corso (wearing hat), musician David Amram (tooth-picking), and actor Larry Rivers. Rivers seems to be the centre of attention, doing most of the talking, relating some yarn or another. Gripped, Kerouac and Ginsberg are grinning.

The quintet were taking a break from filming Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, a twenty-six minute miracle scripted, with an ad-lib narration, by Kerouac himself. The 1959 film is an improvised alchemy that relives scenes from the ordinary madness of the life of Neal Cassady with his wife Carolyn. Frank said Pull My Daisy “was made by non-professionals in search of a freer vision.” Kerouac said of Frank, in his introduction to the Swiss photographer’s masterpiece, The Americans, from 1958, a roving series of black and white images of postwar America, “You got eyes.”

The impulse of Pull My Daisy, like so much Beat art, is a city of poets who are ordinary people and a city of ordinary people who are also poets. In grungy affordability, they mix the artistic—the late night parties, the jam sessions, the beautiful sociability of fellow-travellers, Ginsberg and Corso arguing about Apollinaire (as they do in Pull My Daisy)—with the everyday familio, in lofts and coffeehouses. The diner, of course, was one place where this commingling became most commonplace and epic. Poetics there tapped the taken-for-granted, expressed a vernacular as ordinary as the diner’s counter and grill in the photo, with its “BUTTERMILK” plaque on the sidewall mirror. For its literary hub, the Formica table, with stock items of the Beat trade: cups of coffee, salt and pepper pots, a Ketchup bottle, cigarette packets, scraps of paper. The overall impression of the image is earthy and youthful, happy and fraternal, full of promise for what lies ahead. But there’s a presence of the moment, too, a now, of being there and only there—spontaneously captured by photographer John Cohen’s lens. That’s what seems inspiring: unselfconscious being there.

I’ve never seen any caption for this photo. But if I were to give it one myself I’d call it Goofing at the Table. Webster’s Dictionary says “goofing” means “to spend time foolishly,” playing around, behaving sillily, goofing off school or work, killing time, idly avoiding one’s duties. Goofing here comes across as something pejorative, as dead time, as wasting one’s time, as being somehow unproductive. And yet, for the Beats, goofing signifies something else: a richness, a virtue, the poet’s muse, a moment when the senses are fully alert—when, as Allen Ginsberg says, “lightening strikes in the blue sky.”

“Goofing at the table” is actually a line from Mexico City Blues, Kerouac’s best-regarded set of poems, written in the Mexican capital between August and September 1955. He was shacked up then in a hut along Calle Orizaba, on the roof of a building where William Burroughs once had an apartment. (Burroughs had shot and accidentally killed his wife Joan there, in a drunken party stunt, playing William Tell with a water tumbler.) “I took a little dobe block up on Bill’s roof,” Kerouac said, “2 rooms, lots of sun and old Indian women doing the wash…perfect place to write, blast, think, fresh air, sun, moon, stars, the roof of the city.”

In “candlelight in a lonely room,” high on morphine and marijuana, Kerouac scribbled the 242 choruses (stanzas) of Mexico City Blues, riffing on memories of his late father and older brother Gerard (dead aged nine of rheumatic fever), on past New York kicks, on Nirvana and Buddhism, on Mexico and dope, climaxing with a lovely paean to bebop giant Charlie Parker, “the prefect musician,” who, “with lidded eyes,” “looked like Buddha.” Kerouac explained at the start of Mexico City Blues, “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday.” [1]

Here, then, in that Sunday afternoon jam session, are Choruses 80-83, hooting a few glorious notes to the American diner:

[80th Chorus]

“GOOFING AT THE TABLE/‘You just dont know.’/‘What dont I know?’/‘How good this ham n eggs/is/‘If you had any idea/ whatsoever/How good this is/Then you would stop/writing poetry/And dig in.’‘It’s been so long/since I been hungry/it’s like a miracle’/Ah boy but them bacon/And them egg–’”


[81st Chorus]

“Dem eggs & dem dem/Dere bacons, baby/if you only lay that/ down on a trumpet/Lay that down/solid brother/’Bout all dem/bacon & eggs/Ya gotta be able/to lay it down/solid —/All that luney/& fruney”

[82nd Chorus]

“Fracons, acons, & beggs,/Lay, it, all that/be boppy/be buddy/I didnt took/I could think/So/bepo/beboppy/Luney & Juney/—if—/that’s the way/they get/kinda hysterical/Looney & Boony/Juner & Mooner/Moon, Spoon, and June.”

[83rd Chorus]

“Dont they call them/cat men/That lay it down/with the trumpet/…I call em/ them cat things/ ‘That’s really cute,/that un’/ William/ Carlos/ Williams.”

This last allusion is to Beat godfather poet, a reluctant kindred soul. Williams was of an older generation, a man of two personas: one half “square,” straight-laced professional; the other, his shadow self, a radical experimenter, a “hip” creator, the man who inspired the Beats. By day, it was Doc Williams, the family practitioner of native Rutherford, New Jersey, where he delivered 2000 babies and cared for countless patients in a medical career spanning 1910-1952. By night, and at spare moments, “Bill” Williams scribbled verse, became a major innovator in American poetry, a leading twentieth-century literary modernist, contemporary of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; yet unlike them, not a wordsmith of the scholastic meter but a bard of the vernacular voice.

Williams’s masterwork is the long poem Paterson, after the New Jersey city, Allen Ginsberg’s birthplace. Paterson spans five books, written between 1946 and 1958; its refrains follow the flowing rhythm of the city’s Passaic River with its dramatic Great Falls. The Passaic and Paterson became for Williams what the Liffey and Dublin were for James Joyce, both a place and a person, a metaphor and medium through which the personal and public merged into one great epic universal. “A man in himself is a city,” said Williams, “beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody.”

Early on in Paterson, Williams offers advice to the would-be poet: “Say it! No ideas but in things.” Stick to the concrete; keep direct contact with the external phenomenal world; write it from actual experience, from events and objects; express how real people talk, how they sound. Kerouac and Ginsberg, especially, took heed, worked through Williams’s homily. In 1950, Ginsberg, then a young unknown of Paterson, wrote to the old maestro who’d just written a poem about Paterson. Williams was so knocked out that he replied, saying, “I’m going to put this letter in my book, do you mind?” “Gee,” Ginsberg said, “I’m going to be immortal because I thought he was immortal.”

Ginsberg’s letter, letting rip about himself and his New York writer pals (like Kerouac), made it into Book 4 of Paterson. Ginsberg also sent along a few of his own poems. “I do not know if you will like my poetry or not,” he wrote Williams, “that is, how far your own inventive persistence excludes less independent or youthful attempts to perfect, renew, transfigure, and make real an old style or lyric machinery.” As it happened, Williams didn’t much care for Ginsberg’s poems. But he saw the potential, and was typically gracious and encouraging. Six years on, with his epic Howl, Ginsberg learned Williams’ lesson. “The whole point,” he said, “is that from the subjective babble, meandering, thinking, and daydreaming you’ve got reality all of a sudden, shifting and becoming aware of the actuality outside, just like Williams was writing about actualities.”

This, too, is what Kerouac meant by “laying it down solid”: digging immediacy, finding the right note, blowing it, getting it down on the page, in ink, in pencil; a poet cat man, “sketching” honest feelings from actuality: the taste of dem eggs & dem dere bacons, the hunger, the joy of food, gobbling it all down greedily. “I made a pome out of it,” Kerouac says in “Goofing at the Table.” Indeed he did. No ideas only things; simple, ordinary stuff rendered artistic, made poetic, brought alive. Such is Kerouac’s poetics, like his prose: a depiction of sensations and experiences, the restless search to give ordinary life deeper meaning and freer expression. Sometimes he didn’t even know himself whether he wrote prose or poetry. Either way, he said, he wanted to be sincere.

The analogy with jazz is nowhere more evident than when you hear Kerouac reading his poems to musical accompaniment. His best poetry recording, which includes “Goofing at the Table,” along with other choruses of Mexico City Blues, is Poetry for the Beat Generation—Kerouac’s collaboration with pianist and TV talk show host Steve Allen, released again in that big Beat bluesy year of 1959.[2] The history of the recording harks back to December 1957, when Allen first heard Kerouac read at the Village Vanguard, Greenwich Village’s legendary jazz venue. Kerouac was on an up-curve then: the previous September, On the Road had received a rave review in the New York Times, and the novel was a bestseller, Kerouac a big star.

Vanguard’s owner, Max Gordon, thought Kerouac’s voice might click at his jazz club, so he engaged the beatster for seven evening shows. Drunk on opening Xmas night, Kerouac discovered he’d forgotten to bring On the Road. “He leafs through lots of little pads filled with the tiniest hand-lettered notes,” Village Voice reporter Tony Ortega recalls (“Jack Kerouac Live at the Village Vanguard,” The Village Voice, December 25, 1957). “When I write I print everything in pencil,” Kerouac tells Ortega. “Swigging from an always handy drink,” Jack is nervous, fidgety and sweaty that night, before a full house. About to go on stage he decides not to read to music, to go it alone, to read jazz without any jazz. “He slurs over the beautiful passages as if not expecting the crowd to dig them,” says Ortega, “even if he went slower.” But they do dig him, his whirlwind fifteen-minute stint. “The applause is like a thunderstorm on a hot July night.”

Steve Allen dug Kerouac, too, asking afterwards if he could accompany Kerouac at the piano for the second show. He did, and from that night’s performance came the idea for Poetry for the Beat Generation, as well as a guest appearance on Allen’s Plymouth Show, where Kerouac read with tremendous emotional depth the closing sequence of On the Road—“nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody beside the forlorn rags of growing old.”[3]


For the recording of Poetry for the Beat Generation, Jack remembers “going into the studio to meet Steve at 1P.M.” He came carrying a massive suitcase full of loose manuscripts. Allen asks Kerouac, “‘What’ll read?” “Anything you want,” Kerouac says. Allen begins stroking cords on the piano. “They were pretty,” Kerouac says. Reaching down into the suitcase, he digs up at random some typed sheets, shows them to Allen who says, “OK.” Allen starts to play, signals to the sound engineer, and they roll. Between cuts Kerouac takes a hit from his Thunderbird wine, passing it to Allen, “who drank with charitable gaiety.” “He was nice,” Kerouac says. “We finished the session in an hour. The engineers came out and said, ‘Great, that’s a great first take.’ I said, ‘It’s the only take.’ Steve said, ‘That’s right’, and we all packed up and went home’.” And here, for all to hear, is Kerouac and Allen’s spontaneously improvised GOOFING AT THE TABLE: https://youtu.be/3mw-xI0UUt8

There’s a little coda to this tale, telling us a few things about Kerouac’s America and why the Beats were beat with it. Although Poetry for the Beat Generation was recorded in March 1958, it didn’t make vinyl until June 1959. Why the delay? The problem was Dot Records, who produced the recording and were scheduled to distribute the album. But after hearing the disk, company president Randy Wood decided to pull the project, turning prissy, saying he thought certain passages “in bad taste,” and that his company “would never distribute a product that’s not clean family entertainment.” Wood’s reaction struck many as bizarre. If clean family fun were record companies’ primary motivation, much of rock ’n’ roll history wouldn’t exist. Even Dot Records’ vice-president Bob Thiele was bemused. While Poetry for the Beat Generation clearly isn’t for kids, Thiele said, neither are Walt Whitman or e.e. Cummings. But should that invalidate their artistry or genius?

After his tiff with Wood, Thiele quit Dot, taking the master tape of Kerouac and Allen’s recording with him. A smart move. The rest, we might say, is music legend. With Steve Allen, Thiele founded the Hanover label, really a vehicle to give Poetry for the Beat Generation a public hearing, finally bringing to melodious life the goofy jazz cadences of Kerouac’s voice and poetics. Thiele would soon establish himself in jazz annals, heading up Impulse! records between 1961 and 1969, producing many stellars like Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and, perhaps above all, John Coltrane, most famously A Love Supreme. A year before he died in 1996, Thiele released a memoir whose title bore Louis Armstrong’s famous hit: What a Wonderful World.

IF KEROUAC’S VERSE SPEAKS a jazz register, we can hear the musicality of the city, too, the joys and melancholy of urban life, its camaraderie and loneliness, its blues. Often, like Williams’ Paterson, or Baudelaire’s Paris, the city itself became the subject of the poetry, Kerouac’s mindmatter muse. Mexico City Blues is one obvious example, yet so is San Francisco Blues and Washington D.C. Blues. Sometimes Kerouac narrowed it down even more, unique in his oeuvre in that he wrote poems about specific streets, such as Bowery Blues, MacDougal Street Blues and Orizaba 210 Blues (the latter about a single building, on whose roof he once lived). Along the way, he penciled “Tangier Poems,” “Haikus in Berkeley,” as well as “Pomes on Doctor Sax” from hometown Lowell. The city, as such, was Kerouac’s standard measure, its idiom his pitch. His was an aural as well as oral gift, a refined sense and sensibility for the street, and, as I’ll discuss next time, for its unrefined habitués.


[1] Grove Press published Mexico City Blues in November 1959, after Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights rejected it. Grove was a tireless supporter of Beat literature and owner Barney Rosset was close to both Kerouac and Ginsberg. He pumped much of his own family fortune into promoting literary experimentation and free expression, winning landmark court cases against the censorship of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the latter also in 1959). Meanwhile, Rosset brought the European avant-garde to American audiences, notably Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.

[2] Coincidence or not, it’s worth remembering that the other great American blues poem of the decade, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, likewise hailed from 1959.

[3] Other accounts report that Kerouac had a disastrous week at the Vanguard and his stint was prematurely terminated. It’s hard to know who to believe. Voice’s Tony Ortega implied that Kerouac went down really well—one bartender called Jack “a beautiful cat.” What seems clearer is that showbiz Steve Allen was sufficiently impressed to want to cut a record with Kerouac.

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BEAT CITY 2 — On the Road and On the Sidewalk

THAT ARTISTIC ROMANTICISM I spoke about last time evoked the thrill and possibility of urban life. Inscribed in the art, in the activity of that age, in its human poetry, was something about the city itself; how the creative energies of artists and writers were nurtured in city, were nurtured by the city. At the same time, Beat culture helped shape this energy, helped nurture this urban communion for awhile. In other words, it both tapped and enriched the energies of the post-war American city. Yet it came with a few contradictions.

One was the sense of liberation embodied in Beat books like On the Road, which marvelled at blasting across the great American plains, journeying coast to coast, in cars and on buses. Such was “the purity of the road,” the freedom “of moving and getting somewhere, no matter where, and as fast as possible and with as much excitement and digging of all things as possible.” “There was nowhere to go but everywhere,” Kerouac says. To move meant “leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!” At one point, Neal Cassady shouts “we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.” “Where we going man?” “I don’t know but we gotta go.” [1]

But to get there you needed to arrive someplace, and that someplace, that there, was invariably a big city—a Denver or Los Angeles, a New Orleans or Chicago, a New York or San Francisco. Thus the dramatic tension underwriting On the Road: between the road-going and what happens afterwards when the car is parked, or when you get off the bus, touch sidewalk, and hit the bar or diner. At these moments, the immensity of the road shifts gear into the intensity of the city. And there, in neutral, protagonists inevitably had to confront themselves.

On the Road affirms this fluidity between road-going and big city, moves between a purity and a profanity, and that includes a profanity of the city within the self. The city is where the Beats worked themselves over, often turning this working over into an art form. They revelled on both flanks, loved purity and profanity, dug the immensity of the road as well as the intensity of the sidewalk: “Suddenly I found myself on Times Square,” Kerouac says early on in On the Road. “I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of the rush hour too, making me see with my innocent road eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves.”

And yet even back then this peculiar conjoining between road and sidewalk was coming unstuck. Not only through the commercial upscaling destroying cheap rents, but also through the same moving impetus that powered On the Road cross country. The development promises of mobility and liberty that Kerouac revealed to a whole younger generation were, for instance, the same development promises that the era’s titanic expressway builder, Robert Moses, revealed to a whole nation. We’ve seen Burt Glinn photographing interior Beat spaces at night; by day, Robert Moses was blasting bulldozing his way through entire cityscapes, with little concern for what lay within. “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,” he liked to boast, “you had to hack your way with a meat ax.” Suddenly, road and sidewalk were moving in opposite directions, wrenched apart by a deadlier dialectic.

Several of Kerouac’s most cherished neighbourhoods, like the West and East Villages, would have been butchered by the mighty meat ax had Moses’s multi-story Lower Manhattan Expressway been realised. But the plan was quashed, largely because of a coalition of vociferous residents, led by the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs, who’d mobilised to “KILL THE XPRESSWAY NOW!” By the early 1960s, Manhattan’s West Village had been designated a slum by city planners and government officials. The data proved why. It was overcrowded and run down, in the way of the automobile, the modern future.

In February 1961, a month after the manuscript of Jacobs’s famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had been submitted to the publisher, a campaign to save the West Village was unleashed. Jacobs was chip off the Beat’s own block. A Beat mom, we might say. She even liked to tipple gin in an old Beat watering hole, the White Horse Tavern, along her Hudson Street block. (For a time, Kerouac lived above the tavern, in a tiny apartment.) Jacobs wrote lovingly about grubby streets and busy sidewalks and workaday neighbourhoods. Cities aren’t reducible to statistics and population densities, she’d said, to something “officially” mapped. There’s a lot more going on, as the Beats knew, a lot more there there, a lot more Wow!

One thing Jacobs insisted upon, like the Beats, was that cities need hearts. Big cities usually have more than one heart. Yet always these hearts beat at crowded intersections, have corner stores and corner cafés, corner bars and corner public squares. And hearts thrive off diversity not homogeneity. The liveliest city blocks mingle high and middling yield with low with no yield enterprises. But as the decades were to unfold, high yield steadily became the only asking price, forcing many corner enterprises and corner people out of business and out of the neighbourhood. Bustling city hearts, once saved from Moses’s wreckers’ ball, increasingly got economically razed (raised) by financial investment. Out of the old vibrant mix came not much mix: city hearts were ripped out, became functionally and financially standardised, clean and predictable the way they are today. Their blood ran thin. Their hearts no longer Beat.

“ACROSS THE STREET you can see the ruins of New York already started,” wrote Kerouac, perceptively, in his introduction to The Beat Scene. He’s watching the old Globe Hotel, on the corner of 44th Street and 8th Avenue, being torn down. “An empty tooth-hole,” he says, “right off 42nd Street,” making way for something fancier. Kerouac would have been standing somewhere near Times Square, on a street corner “sketching,” as he was wont to do, looking around, feeling and listening, depicting streets like a painter would but doing it with words, creating verbal images from scenes and sounds, “slapping it all down,” he says, “shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing.” Much of what Kerouac was seeing and sketching was already history, about to be razed and forgotten, rebuilt anew.

For awhile, though, there was no better place to sketch than Times Square. The Square marked journey’s end somehow, the road’s terminus; at the same time as it staked out the beginnings of another adventure, another voyage, down a rabbit hole into the city’s bowels. Times Square was Beat home-ground, where they held court, where the world of road-going encountered the crossroads of their world. This was where the city’s heart throbbed. Things here were chancy and risqué, spontaneous and wondrous, a giant antechamber off which a myriad of other hidden chambers led, full of hipsters and hustlers, castoffs and bums, lost kids and street punks, pimps and prostitutes, buskers and poets, lonely underground men trying to fight off the existential chill, seeking kindred company.

On the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue was Grant’s cafeteria, “our favoured dining place,” Kerouac says. “For 65 cents you get a huge plate of fried clams, a lot of French fried potatoes, a little portion of cole slaw, some tartar sauce, a little cup of red sauce for fish, a slice of lemon, two slices of fresh rye bread, a pat of butter, another ten cents brings a glass of rare birch beer—What a ball it is to eat here!” Twenty thousand customers a day, he reckons, fifty thousand on rainy days, one hundred thousand on snowy days. “Operation twenty-four hours. Privacy—supreme under a glary red light full of conversation—Toulouse-Lautrec, with his deformity and cane, sketching in the corner—You can stay there for five minutes and gobble up your food, or else stay for hours having insane philosophical conversations with your buddy and wondering about the people.”


“Why does Times Square feel like a big room?” Kerouac asks.

“There’s a whole floating population around Times Square,” he says, “that has always made Bickford’s their headquarters day and night.” Bickford’s, another popular cafeteria, nearby at 225 West 42nd Street, “the greatest stage on Times Square,” Kerouac calls it. Under its glowing submarine light, “many people have hung around there for years, man and boy, searching. God alone knows what, maybe some angel of Times Square who would make the whole big room home, the old homestead… civilisation needs it.”


In the old days, Beatsters went to Bickford’s in search of the mythical Herbert Huncke, the poor, shady Times Square hustler, the original, almost archetypal Beatnik, the Raskolnikov of 42nd Street, a quintessential William Burroughs junkie. In the 1940s and ’50s, Huncke haunted Times Square and Times Square haunted him. He “used to come in and out” of Bickford’s, Kerouac says, “in an oversized black raincoat, looking for somebody to lay a pawnticket on—Remington typewriter, portable radio, black raincoat—to score some toast (get some money), so he can go uptown and get in trouble with the cops.” The poets came to Bickford’s “to smoke a peace pipe, looking for the ghost of Huncke or his boys, dreaming over the fading cups of tea.”

Bickford’s was a Beat Mecca, and “if you went there every night and stayed there you could start a whole Dostoevsky season on Times Square.” So the road did eventually lead to the whole world, just as Kerouac said, led into Times Square. Its streets took you onto the sidewalk, and that sidewalk spilled into the diner, a terrain the Beat’s made their own. They made its down at heel banality somehow literary, casting neon-light on low American culture and highbrow existentialism, blending Maxwell House with Prince Myshkin. It was probably the last time we’d ever see high and low culture mixing, public and private spaces flowing into one another, coming together in a city that was still accessible, open and brimming with cheap thrills. The greatest trip of all.



[1] These citations, like all others I am using from On the Road, are taken from Kerouac’s “Original Scroll,” his “uncut” first draft version, hammered out on rolls of teletype paper. In the eventual “novel” edition, published in 1957, a lot of the juicier action is edited out; and the names of protagonists became fictionalised. But the usage of real names—including the narrator’s—together with full disclosure, makes the unexpurgated On the Road more graphic, rawer and wilder. Read as a memoir, everything sounds more convincing, madder, and even more inspiring. Then, too, the fact that the book has no real storyline or structure hardly matters.

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BEAT CITY 1 — Burning Like Roman Candles

One of the many amazing things about the Beat generation is just how photogenic its protagonists were. They liked taking pictures of themselves, and celebrated photographers of their age, such as Robert Frank, did too. Magnum photographer Burt Glinn also had eyes for the Beats. A sumptuous new collection of previously unseen Glinn images, called The Beat Scene (Reel Art Press), tops anything ever before glimpsed. Part of the novelty of these images isn’t so much that they again capture the thrill of the Beat movement (and moment)—the cheap diners of Times Square and East Village, the basement and second-floor bars, the grungy apartments and jazz jams and poetry readings of Greenwich Village and North Beach—but that they capture this one-take spontaneity in glowing and hitherto unseen colour.

USA. New York City. 1959. Grant's Timesquare.

USA. New York City. 1959. Grant’s Times Square.

Glinn died in 2008, aged 82, leaving a vast and disorderly archive at his East Hampton home. He spent a good deal of his own career on the road. But rather than bum rides, Life magazine and Magnum Photos paid him handsomely for his globe- trotting assignments. He’d seen much, through his camera lens, arriving in Havana the same year he’d photograph the Beats (1959), only to discover that Cuba was revolting; for ten days Glinn documented the mayhem and the majesty of Fidel Castro, risking life and limb amid the fireworks and gun blasts.

He also photoed English royalty, the St.Moritz jet set, shot rich and famous movie stars and politicians, the landscapes of the South Seas and Japan, of Russia and Mexico, documented wars and invasions—even captured the back of Nikita Khrushchev’s bald head, backdropped against Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. (Glinn said he’d arrived late for the event and could only hastily get a rear shot; but it would become more famous than any full frontal of the Soviet leader.)

And yet, maybe above everything else, Glinn had a unique feel for the Beats, an odd-ball affinity for “the mad ones,” as Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” Now, we can glimpse those roman candles burning for ourselves, in glorious colours.

The story goes that when Michael Shulman and Tony Nourmand at Reel Art Press planned a Burt Glinn retrospective, they were rummaging through his Long Island studio with widow Elena, delving into an old colour archive. They innocently asked Elena “What else do you have of the Beats that we haven’t seen before?” She pulled out boxes full of colour slides, material that hadn’t been opened for years, perhaps not ever. Holding a few up to the light, Shulman and Nourmand shrieked with excitement, “seeing amazing photos from long ago in a contemporary light.” “The vivid colours,” they recognised, “seen through Burt’s painterly eye, give us a new insight on the reality of the Beat daily life.”

IT WAS BACK IN 1948 when Kerouac, sitting around with John Clellon Holmes (author of Go and The Horn), tried to think up the meaning of the Lost Generation and its “subsequent Existentialism.” After awhile, Jack reflected, “You know, this is really a beat generation.” Suddenly, Kerouac recalls, “Holmes leapt up and said ‘That’s it, that’s right!’” The label stuck. So here we had it, Beat, “a swinging group of Americans intent on joy…a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters,” Kerouac said, “rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beautification, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way—a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word beat spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown-city-night of postwar America—beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction.” That was Beat. “Live your lives out? Naw, love your lives out.”

We can see a lot of that love in Glinn’s photos, the ragged beautification that Kerouac talks about. In fact, a Kerouac essay, “And this is the Beat Nightlife in New York,” introduces Glinn’s images and its message flows through the entirety of The Beat Scene. Kerouac reminds latter-day viewers that this nightlife has nothing to do with nightclubs, nor with spending money; “it’s a complete nightlife in the truest sense,” he says, well off the radar of commercial night-spots, where you need “mucho money.” In this twilight realm we find the broken ghosts from the penniless wilds, defunct nocturnal treasures like the Half Note Club and Five Spot Café, Gaslight Café and Seven Arts Coffee Gallery, and Grant’s and Bickford’s cafeterias.

One popular all-night joint was Hell’s Kitchen’s Seven Arts Coffee Gallery, at 9th avenue and 43rd street. A grungy set of stairs, with tatty walls adorned with scotch-taped notices, led revellers up to a second-floor sanctum, to an art gallery-cum-bar-cum-coffee shop-cum-poetry stage. A sign overhead says “POETS READ EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT AT 2 A.M.” Once inside, there’s Kerouac himself, shot in black and white, standing amongst crowds of people in a cramped room, all snuggled around little tables. Kerouac sports a raincoat and beret, grips a scrap of paper. What’s he reading out aloud? We’ve no idea. A Haiku? A poem from his Book of Blues?


USA. New York City. Jack Kerouac and John Rapinic at the Seven Arts Cafe. John is the owner. 1959.

As we leaf through The Beat Scene, Kerouac suddenly appears in full colour, talking with John Rapinic, Seven Arts’ owner. That raincoat and beret, we discover, are matching greyish-green; the colour seems to matter, alters the look and feel. The Seven Arts’ walls come alive, too, in moody red, bearing vibrant abstract expressionist canvases. With colour, the scene leaps out before us; or else maybe permits us to leap into it.

Glinn’s pictures freeze-frame the kinetic humanity of that era, the jazz improvs and poetry readings, the art openings, the dancing and prancing, the couples frolicking in cold-water lofts, the drinking and smooching, the celebrations to life and liberty—they’re there on the page, in rich and evocative technicolour. More than sixty years have passed, yet we’re blessed being able to inhabit this history vicariously.

Sometimes it doesn’t even look like history. Everything looks weirdly contemporary, right down to the haircuts, to the beat- up tennis shoes, to the chinos and white T-shirts. It could almost be a fashion shoot for The Gap. I stress “almost” because there’s a crucial difference, a refreshing contrast to our day: an utter absence of anything commercial, of any branding or labels, of any product placement or scam to fleece us of money.

Equally noteworthy is how immediate and connected everybody is, sitting on one another’s lap, whispering in each other’s ear, engaged in intimate and intensive conversation, making eye contact, focussing on one another, face to face, nose to nose. And all because there weren’t any cellphones or screens around. Nobody cut themselves off with headphones, fiddled with gadgets or got distracted by electronic gismos— just an honest sociability, the nemesis of our alienated Information Age. People created their own entertainment, made their own music and art, their own sounds and rhythms, their own home-baked spontaneity. At these venues, participants themselves were the venue, the entertainment. It was purely inter- subjective; a lifetime burning in every moment.


USA. New York City. 1959. A Beatnik party at an artist’s loft on Cristie and Division streets. The band is the Walter Bows Band.

A CRITICISM OFTEN VOICED against the Beats is how it was boy’s own stuff, that women figured only as muses or decoration, as “minor characters” (Joyce Johnson), left behind “off the road” (Carolyn Cassady). While it’s true that the movement was overarchingly male, both gay and straight, Glinn’s photos suggest something more nuanced. If anything, there’s a ubiquity of women in The Beat Scene, many in the heart and heat of the action, gutsily holding their own alongside the men, conversing and gesticulating, dancing and painting, reciting poetry, affirming their sexuality, creating and making their own noises, their own quieter history.

USA. San Francisco. 1960. David Stone Martin party.

USA. San Francisco. 1960. David Stone Martin party.

One image is of an eighteen year old poetess, Barbara Moraff, whom Kerouac called “the baby of the Beat Generation,” standing at the Seven Arts Coffee Gallery, reciting her verse to an enthusiastic crowd. A native of New Jersey’s most poetic town, Paterson, immortalised by William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, Moraff was one of the nation’s most talented young poets. Meanwhile, other women artists fill Glinn’s frame, like San Francisco painters Judy Smith, Emily Eugenia Frost and Jay DeFeo, working in their studios. Touching up a massive eleven feet by eight feet encrusted oil canvas, DeFeo crouches on her stepladder, busily making a name for herself among North Beach Beats.

Some of Glinn’s most sensitive portrayals are of the New York-based artist Helen Frankenthaler, with a similar penchant for giant abstractions. There are three or four of Frankenthaler working off the floor. She’d been inspired by a visit to Jackson Pollock’s Long Island barn, seeing him spread his canvases par terre, ferociously dancing on and around them, in dirty dungarees, dripping cheap paint, scattering rusty nails, and stubbing out cigarette butts. Only Frankenthaler’s action paintings were of a gentler quality. She diluted her paints, almost to the consistency of watercolours, letting them soak into the canvas to leave softer, ethereal stains, opalescent wisps of colour.


USA. New York City. 1957. Painter Helen FRANKENTHALER works on an abstract expressionist painting in her studio.



Frankenthaler’s status as a rising star began to twinkle eight years earlier, in 1951, when, at the tender age of twenty two, she and ten other women (together with sixty men!) were selected to exhibit in the historic Ninth Street Show. In its aftermath, Frankenthaler and four female peers became internationally renowned. The writer Mary Gabriel uses the moniker Ninth Street Women to locate Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner as groundbreaking, odds-defying women artists of the Beat era.

Glinn shoots Frankenthaler siting with Hartigan and Joan Mitchell one evening, engaging in pleasantries together, alongside a female admirer. But the apparent sorority here was misleading: in a cut-throat man’s art world, ambitious women like these were propelled into rivalry, often sniping at one another. Joan Mitchell, as hard a drinker and swearer as a lot of the men, labeled Frankenthaler a “tampon painter.” In the end, Mary Gabriel sets the record straight, pointing out that of the Ninth Street Women only Frankenthaler has anything displayed today at MoMA. For the most part—and this for the women as much as for the men—that decade’s exuberance and carefree hopefulness, lovingly instantiated through Glinn’s lens, was the first and last waltz of an artistic urban romanticism.

[*This is the first of series of posts to follow on the Beats]

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Marx, Dead and Alive

This essay originally appeared at Monthly Review online (November 26, 2019)

It’s late November, nine months since I last stood in Highgate cemetery, beside Marx’s vandalised grave. It’s a chilly autumnal morning, damp and grey, and even before midday the light is already starting to fade. I am here to speak with Ian Dungavell, of The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, who’d said, via email, that he’d be more than happy to talk to me about Marx’s ransacked resting place, about what’s been happening there since last February’s attack.

Ian is a tall, athletic-looking man (he’s a passionate swimmer), in his early fifties. He greets me warmly at the East Wing’s entrance, dressed in a black wind-cheater bearing the cemetery’s logo. As we stroll over to Marx, he talks enthusiastically about his 53,000 grave, 37 acre fiefdom, about what it means to keep it all together, looking after the long as well as recent dead. It’s a non-stop task for the Friends, he says; trees forever fall over; weeds and weather erosion overwhelm a lot of old, untended graves. And since people are always dying, there are space constraints, plot sharing, all of which is an inevitably costly and time consuming affair.

The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust is a registered charity and survives off donations and gifts from wealthy benefactors. A lot of the workforce manning the wheelbarrows and entrance points are volunteers, both local Highgate residents, who see the cemetery as part of the neighbourhood’s heritage, and other Londoners attracted by the specialness of the place. Ian tells me that since they began charging an entry fee in the early nineties (currently £4), finances have perked up, drawing a not-inconsiderable sum when one considers that around 100,000 visitors pass through the cemetery’s gates each year. Marx grabs the majority of grave-spotters’ attention, he says. People come from all over the globe to walk around the cemetery, either by themselves, unaccompanied, or in group guided tours. Marx is usually high up on the list of must-sees.

After a couple of minutes, we approach Marx and for an instant I hold my breath, wondering what state the great man might be in. Good news: the red paint has gone; the marble plinth looks clean and back to normal, just as I remember it from former times. What a relief! “Yes,” Ian says, “the attacker used water-based paint, which could be removed with blasts of heated water from a powerful thermal spray. It took the best part of a day for a skilled conservator to get rid of it, but there are still traces of red if you look hard.” The attack had probably been carried out in the early hours, Ian recalls, “as when I arrived first thing in the morning, after being notified of what had happened, the paint was still wet.”

Marx’s grave is quite peculiar at the cemetery because it’s actually the domain of the Marx Grave Trust, a different charitable organisation to the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. The Grave Trust owns and maintains Laurence Bradshaw’s Marx tomb, inaugurated in 1956, at a ceremony presided over by Harry Pollitt, then the British Communist Party’s General Secretary. Bradshaw, an artist and sculptor, was himself a Party member, had been since the early 1930s. His most famous work was designed “to be a monument not only of a man,” Bradshaw said, “but to a great mind and great philosopher.” He wanted the site to convey “the dynamic force of Marx’s intellect.” Which is probably why he made it so big. Since 1974, the bust and headstone have been designated a listed monument, reaching the highest Grade-1 status in 1999.

Thus the bust and headstone are the Marx Grave Trust’s responsibility, not ours, Ian says. Though, obviously, “we’ve been working together to supervise the repairs.” The marble tablet looks like it’s on the mend, too, the one that had been brutally and maniacally walloped with a lump hammer. I run my hands over it, touch the lettering with my palm, only to discover that it’s a mock up panel. It’s really a photo printed on the plastic board that estate agents use to advertise their wares; the giveaway is that if you look closely you can see the screws holding it in place. “Ah,” Ian says, “that’s our little trick for the time being.” “The Grave Trust is still trying to decide what to do with the original tablet. One suggestion is to replace it behind reinforced glass, but,” he says, “I’m not so keen on that.”

To prevent further attacks, “some want to put the whole tomb behind high railings.” Again, says Ian, he’s against it. People can always climb over. “What are we to do? Put up barbed wire around it?” “It’s a cemetery,” he says, “and that sort of thing seems out of place, even distasteful, here.” “To convert the place into a prison seems wrong to me,” he maintains.1 “I think what shocked people most about last February’s vandalism was its ferocity,” he continues, “that it was a terrible violation. Whatever your views about Marx, cemeteries are sites of peace, reflection and remembrance, not places of aggression and violence.” “It’s really interesting, isn’t it,” he resumes after a brief pause, “how certain people would want to go to such lengths to smash Marx. What is it about the man and his ideas that seem to threaten people so much after all these years? Do they really think they’re going to destroy the ideas by destroying the grave? It’s interesting how people feel so afraid of Marx. Is there any other intellectual throughout history that is like that?”

We lighten the conversation for a minute, joke about the flowers left around the base of the plinth. The “Sainsbury’s” supermarket label is still vividly apparent on some of them, bearing the tag £2.98, “reduced from £4.” “You’d have thought they’d have at least taken the price off,” Ian says. We laugh together. And we agree: surely Marx is worth more than even the original £4!

Ian has a PhD in architectural history and is keen to point out some of the fine-grain features of Bradshaw’s original design. Marx’s plinth is Cornish granite, but it is only a covering, he says. Inside is brick. “It would have been better if the entire structure were solid granite. Yet in the mid-1950s it was clearly too costly for the British Communist Party who paid for it.” If you look closely you can see traces of previous attacks, like the NF bomb from the 1970s. One time, in the 1960s, Ian says somebody tied a rope around Marx’s massive bronze bust and toppled it. The bronze head was found on the ground. It was put back, he says, and is now firmly attached to the plinth, thank goodness!” The 1960s, apparently, was a dismal period for the cemetery, when it fell on financially hard times. The owner then was a pretty horrible property developer, Ian tells me, who wanted to sell Marx to the Soviets, ship his whole tomb and remains to Moscow. But the Russians, with their own problems of what to do with embalmed Lenin, weren’t interested.

The patch immediately in front of the grave, a two-metre square area, is now paved over with black granite. “That was paid for by the Chinese government,” Ian says. “We wrote to them asking for a contribution and they obliged by financing the whole amount.” In fact, he confirms that the Chinese are amongst the most frequent visitors to Marx’s grave. Just last night, Ian says, “around 3:50pm, ten minutes before the cemetery was due to close, a minibus rolls up full of wealthy Chinese businessmen, dressed immaculately in suits, wanting to see Marx. This happens quite often, Chinese businessmen coming to see Marx.” “On these occasions, I feel a responsibility for showing them around personally, even if it is after hours. Marx continues to fascinate the Chinese.”

It’s ironic, I think to myself, how for decades the Chinese people were force-fed Marx when their peasant society could hardly digest him. Marx’s thought, outlining the inner contradictions and human misery stemming from modern industrial capitalism, was poorly suited to agrarian China. Only now, with China’s massive and dramatic industrial development, do they seem ready to really get Marx. Doubtless these businessmen know it. Combining the worst features of capitalism and communism, now they can begin to see how Marx might be their future guide. He’s somebody who can lead them into their modern-day, twenty-first century industrial contradictions, together with the class antagonisms that’ll likely reveal themselves in the years ahead. China’s engagement with Marx—dead and alive—may only just be beginning.

Standing in front of Marx with Ian Dungavell, I remember High Hopes, Mike Leigh’s tragicomedy from 1988, the British director’s take on the fear and misery of Thatcher’s third term. It’d been a long time since Ian had seen it, he says. One memorable scene is where Leigh’s hero Cyril and heroine Shirley jump on their motorbike to pay homage to old Marx here at Highgate. The duo are all out of sync with value system of their age, with the Iron Lady’s greedy individualism. They’re happily shacked up in a condemned little council flat behind King’s Cross, two socialists a bit lost in the free-market world, wondering what’s left, what’s to be done to survive. Cynicism and despair almost overwhelm Cyril; but Leigh’s humour, and Shirley’s love, keep him fresh, keep his hopes high. So off they go, up to Highgate cemetery, Cyril and Shirley, on a Marx pilgrimage; and like Ian Dungavell and me today, they stand before Marx, confronted by that giant bust and colossal brain.

“He’s a bit big, iny?” says Shirley. “He was a giant,” says Cyril. “No, I mean ’is head,” Shirley qualifies. “He’s all right,” says Cyril. “What he done was he wrote down the truth. People was being exploited. The Industrial Revolution—they was forced off the land into the factories. There weren’t no working class before then. Marx set down a programme for change.” “I wish I’d brought some flowers now,” says Shirley. “Don’t matter, does it, flowers,” Cyril quips. “What d’ya mean, it don’t matter?” Shirley asks, surprised. “He’s dead,” Cyril says. “Well, you’re goin’ on about ’im,” says Shirley. “I’m talking about his ideas,” Cyril says. “I know,” says Shirley. Then she reads the inscription on the plinth: Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. “There you are.”

Shirley wanders off, inspects the other graves and the cemetery’s wild flowers. Cyril stays put, ponders over Marx’s quote. He says nothing, just gazes up at the bust. He’s so close to Marx that he’s almost looking under the revolutionary’s massive chin, eyeing his bearded profile from below, his forehead and protruding brow, his huge bushy eyebrows around those intense eyes staring out. Cyril stares, too, but in wonderment, in some strange personal cosmic reverie. Mike Leigh gives us a long, quiet frame, a sequence not risked very often in modern action-obsessed commercial cinema. The camera lingers on Marx. Nothing happens. All we hear is the gentle breeze, the birds, and Cyril’s inner thoughts, his doubts, his admiration.

We listen to Cyril’s brain ticking over; Marx’s inanimate bronze seems to be listening, too, cogitating with Cyril, alive amongst the cemetery’s dead. Suddenly, Cyril jolts out of his reverie, and blurts aloud: “The thing is, change what? It’s a different world now, innit? By the year 2000, there’ll be 36 TV stations, 24 hours a day, telling you what to think.” Then another pause, another quiet reflection; then, out of the blue, almost arguing with himself: “Pissing in the wind, innit.” It’s the “innit” that suggests Cyril isn’t quite sure, that maybe following Marx mightn’t really be pissing in the wind, and that even pissing in the wind is to relieve oneself.

Karl Marx's grave at Highgate cemetery in London, England

Parting with Ian Dungavell, I thank him, we shake hands, and he’s gone, off up the lane back to work, leaving me alone with Marx and my camera. I took a photo (above). Then I think: Marx knew how capitalist society was a sorcerer that mesmerises people, that has us piss in the wind, believe in the crap it feeds us. In the Manifesto, he said “modern bourgeois society” had even mesmerised itself, that its ruling class “is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world they’ve summoned up with their spells.” This is especially worrying now, because never has modern bourgeois society been so full of conjuring tricks as today, carried out by joker politicians who’ve lost all control of what they’re doing, of what they ought to be doing; they’ve long ago lost contact with ordinary people’s everyday reality. But that doesn’t seem to bother them, nor bother the people they govern. They’ve cast spells the likes of which we’ve never seen before. They’ve become sorcerers of collusions and conspiracies, of tricks and deceptions, of fake news and endless, unbelievable, sleights of the economic and political hand. Bizarrely, many people seem to want to believe these sleights of hand, this smoke and mirrors, this visceral wand-waving that summons up the emotions, the unthinking senses. The greatest spell they’ve cast is that we can’t see how they’ve turned us into toads.


It’s time for me to leave Marx now, leave the dead Marx at the cemetery. I walk up the lane that Ian took a few minutes earlier, carrying Marx inside me, his living spirit, those ideas that threaten reactionaries so much. Perhaps this spirit can be the kind of counter-magic we need more than ever, something that can transform us back into thinking human beings again. Maybe Marx can give us the critical faculties we need nowadays, to get an analytical grip on the current impasse. I stroll back to the entrance gate. My mind wanders. Our life is afflicted with the insomnia plague that Gabriel García Márquez outlines in One Hundred Years of Solitude. When the insomnia plague hits Macondo, the sick person no longer sleeps a wink. At first, the townsfolk aren’t alarmed. On the contrary, they’re happy in their hallucinogenic state: there’s much work to do building up the new town and barely enough time to do it; so much the better, then, if they don’t sleep.

But soon people traipse around busying themselves with all manner of inane activities, fidgeting about and telling each other the same old jokes over and over. After a while, the most fearsome aspect of the insomnia plague strikes: memory loss. People forget the past and begin to lack any awareness of the present, of their own being, until they sink into “a kind of idiocy,” Márquez says. Meantime, the person no longer dreams, loses the capacity to imagine a future. They enter instead into an eternal present, a senseless state that sounds a lot like our senseless state today. So-called “screen-time insomnia” does an effective job of numbing us even more. Excessive screen-time and taking smartphones to bed effect our brain cells, prompt attention span deficiencies and sleeplessness. It’s particularly apparent amongst teenagers. Yet adults seem equally mesmerised by the blue light that screens emit, muddling our brains as to whether it is actually day or night time. We, too, thereafter, sink into a kind of collective idiocy that makes us easily manipulable.

And yet, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Márquez’s hero, the radical liberal freedom-fighter, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, conceives a novel method to protect himself against memory loss. As soon as he begins having trouble remembering objects’ names, he decides to mark each one with labels. All he has to do is read the inscription in order to identify them. With a ink brush he marks everything with its name. Then he realises that one day people might also forget not only the names of things, but where they came from, and what use they have. Thus he stuck signs on things, like on a cow, saying: “This is a cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.” So it went, to prevent reality slipping away. But the system demanded so much vigilance and moral strength that many succumbed to the spell of an absurd reality.

As our reality seems to slip evermore into absurdity, Marx can help us put labels back on things, help us not forget the value of written letters. He can ensure we remember where things come from, who made them, and how they function in society. The Marxist label recalls that a thing is really a social relation, a social process that requires deeper and wider understanding. Things get mist-enveloped and we need a thought-procedure that can penetrate this fog, help us grope our way through the haze. Marx’s ideas can keep our brains and our bodies alert. They can put our individual lives not only in a relative, collective perspective, but also in some sort of historical continuum. Who we are hinges on who we once were and who we might become in the future. Past and future are internalised in the present, and the present is always open-ended and fluid, never fixed or forever given, written in stone. Nor even cast solid in bronze.

That’s the dead Marx. The living Marx can help us stay vigilant. He can ward off magic spells, repel the incantations of demagogic magicians. Marx’s thought can act as a revelatory power, alerting us to anything phoney and false, to hollow promises and lurid conspiracies. For the Marx who’s alive, as Cyril says, “it don’t matter, does it, flowers.” “Well, you’re goin’ on about ’im,” says Shirley, and it’s true, I have been going on about him here. “I’m talking about his ideas,” Cyril says, helping me along. “I know,” says Shirley. I can hear Shirley in my head now, reading the inscription on the grave’s plinth: Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. “There you are,” she says afterwards. There you are indeed.


  1. For the record, the sole concession to modern security has been the installation of three very discrete, almost invisible, CCTV cameras around the grave, perched up in nearby trees, with highly-sensitive night vision.
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Marx on Technology

The longest chapter in Capital is the fifteenth, on “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry.” At almost 150-pages, it’s really a book in itself, a staggeringly dense and expansive discussion that could easily standalone—not only as a brilliant exegesis of capitalist machinery, but also as a sweeping social history of technology. At its broadest reach, the chapter is a vivid demonstration of historical materialism in action, of Marx’s method put through its dialectical paces. As ever with Marx, his footnotes aren’t to be passed over glibly: they’re worth studying, pondering over for the nuggets of insight they contain.

His intent is expressed early on, in footnote 4, where Marx suggests that what’s crucial here is to write a “critical history of technology.” “Darwin directed attention to the history of natural technology,” says Marx, “i.e. to the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life.” Doesn’t, then, “the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organisation of society, deserve equal attention?” Footnote 4 is especially rich, buried away for all but the most meticulous reader to fully absorb: “Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature,” Marx tells us, “the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.”

Marx goes on, digging still deeper:

Even a history of religion that is written in abstraction from this material basis is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e. to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosised. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one. The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own specialty.

More fog, in other words. More uncritical discussions in our midst. Once again, Marx’s desire is to cut through this ideological fog, to get at the “earthly kernel,” to displace “misty creations,” and develop a grounded and critical analysis of technology. Humans make machines, he says, develop technology from bright ideas. Always have done, always will do. Bright ideas, however, don’t just spring from up above, from the heavens, but emerge out of prevailing material circumstances. Yet as soon as those bright ideas are realised materially, get embodied in new technology, in new machinery, they react back, help shape us in dramatically ambivalent ways. We make the technology; technology remakes us. Technology changes prevailing ideas, too, which then open further possibilities for the development of other new ideas, and other new technological advancements.

Note here that Marx may be fascinated by technology but he’s no technological determinist. Actually, little in Marx’s universe is ever determined. Technology conditions the parameters of our lives at a given moment in time; it doesn’t determine our lot, control our fate. Technology may be benign in itself, and commercial proponents of technology always happily insist upon it; but because, in human society, there’s no such thing as “in itself,” technology can never be benign. Its development over time has been something of a “revealing” social process: from the development of the steam-engine to the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, technology has revealed a certain stage of human advancement, a certain way in which we relate to one another, exploit one another, know one another.

Marx is well-versed in the history of technology and seems to have read everything on the topic. There are references galore in chapter 15, hundreds of sources cited, reports consulted. Given the chapter’s length, as well as its detail, he plainly thinks technology is paramount in our lives, particularly since the invention of spinning machine and steam-engine. Technology mediates our “metabolism” with nature, Marx says, mediates our productive transformative of nature. Since the beginning of time, we’ve interacted with nature, made tools to shape nature, confronted the material forces of nature, and appropriated these forces as a force of our own nature. By acting upon external nature and changing it, we’ve invented a human nature, Marx says. This is why he places so much stress on the act of productive human labour. Humans make modes of production, so they’re not beyond our reach to control or change. This might seem obvious; but Marx’s point here is that there’s nothing God-given or “natural” about capitalism. We have the capacity to fix technology, to transform the mode of production. Through the exertion of our working organs, our own bodies, our arms and legs, our heads and hands, our physical and mental powers, we’ve consciously created the people we are today, as well as the world we live in. This creation is always ongoing, never a done deal.

Technology is a vital force of production: from primitive tools to more complex instruments of specialised handicraft, from beaters and combers, tanners and cobblers, shearers and spinners, manufacture and combined mechanisation, to fully-automated factories and micro-chip technology—these have defined the development of different epochs of human history. Each epoch somehow strives to go beyond its own technological limits: “When a system had attained a certain degree of development,” Marx says, “it had to overthrow this ready-made foundation, which had meanwhile undergone further development to its old form, and create for itself a new basis appropriate to its own mode of production.

Just as the individual machine retains a dwarf-like character as long as it is worked by the power of man alone, and just as no system of machinery could be properly developed before the steam-engine took the place of earlier motive powers…so too large-scale industry was crippled in its whole development as long as its characteristic instrument of production, the machine, owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight and the manual dexterity with which the specialised workers, in manufacture, and the handicraftsmen outside manufacture, wielded their dwarf-like implements.

Thus large-scale industry replaced isolated machines, developed an organised system of machines. Often, when Marx talks about the mechanised factory system, his prose sounds Gothic, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published the year of his birth, 1818), with its ghost in machine. Inanimate objects take on a terrifying vitality of their own. As dead labour, they come alive to wreak havoc on animate bodies, on puny living labour: “in place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power, at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countess working organs.”

It doesn’t take Marx long before he casts his critical gaze upon capitalism’s mechanical monsters. Here demonic technology becomes yet another pretext for producing surplus-value. Insofar as machinery dispenses with muscular power, shouldn’t it lighten the load, actually make worker easier? Sensible people would have thought so, and plenty of political economists began arguing as much, often with noble, if naïve, intention. Marx was the first, and most vociferous, to twist the logic around, to point out the “economic paradox”: “that the most powerful instrument for reducing labour-time suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorisation.”

With new labour-saving technology, the “civil war” over the working day begins to get waged on another front. Henceforth, exploitation isn’t just blatantly absolute: now it’s necessarily relative as well. Indeed, any potential gain made by labour to restrict the working day—through the Ten Hours’ Bill, collective bargaining, unionising drives, strike actions, etc.—are destined to be offset by ratcheting up the intensity and productivity of work, making the job faster and more efficient within a set time-frame. This extra productivity Marx calls “relative surplus-value.” “By an increase in the productivity of labour,” he says, “we mean an alteration in the labour process of such a kind as to shorten the labour-time socially necessary for the production of a commodity, and to endow a given quantity of labour with the power of producing a greater quantity of use-value.”

The sheer numbers of workers brought together, now cooperating in a factory, creates a new, intrinsically collective, power. On the one hand, it highlights the tremendous potential of modern men and women to make life fruitful. Yet, on the other hand, this radiant dream sadly becomes merely “another driving motive and determining purpose of capitalist production.” The “free-gift” of collective labour undergoes ever-greater sophistication when cooperative work is divided up into discrete tasks within a division of labour. All liberating connections rip apart and metamorphose into alienating separations. What capital gains in kind, a worker loses in substance, since repetition and uniform activity “disturbs the intensity and flow of a man’s vital forces, which find recreation and delight in change of activity itself.”

Cooperation and the division of labour reach a higher level of efficiency with the advent of mechanical invention. The ante is upped once machines and technological knowledge burst onto the scene. Now, instruments of man only betoken man the instrument. In effect, machines lessen the burden. In reality, they become an “alien power,” more frantically setting in motion labour-power, transforming people into mere appendages of mechanical devices, crippling true subjectivity, ushering in the “real subsumption” of life under the domain of capital. Even the lightening of any labour turns into “an instrument of torture, since the machine does not free the worker from work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content.” Work, we might say, gets lean and stupid, at least for the bulk of workers; and an increased expenditure of labour and heightened intensity of labour-power achieves “a closer filling-up of the pores of the working day.”

These contradictions, needless to say, don’t arise from the machinery itself, “but out of their capitalist application. Therefore, since machinery in itself shortens the hours of labour, but when employed by capital it lengthens them; since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital it heightens its intensity; since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature but in the hands of capital it makes man the slave of these forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital it makes them paupers.” Remember, the United States, the most technologically advanced nation, leads the world in hours worked. The work week continues to grow longer and longer because of time-saving ingenuity. The workday pores have filled up accordingly, spurring hefty productivity hikes. This is hardly surprising, given that cellular phones, e-mail, laptops, and various hand-held electronic devices permit lots of people to work while they’re traveling to work, to work at home, on vacation, at their leisure, to their heart’s content.

Instruments of labour, in the form of giant machines, quickly become competitors to workers. Such is Marx’s stance. For one thing, it becomes the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, “those periodic revolts of the working-class against the autocracy of capital.” The steam-engine was the first antagonist of “human power,” Marx says, an antagonist “that enabled the capitalists to tread underfoot the growing demands of workers,” especially those rallying to limit the working day. “It would be possible,” Marx quips, “to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt.”

The other thing about technology is that with it a worker’s productive days are numbered; superfluity beckons. This is Marx’s first mention of an idea he’d later deepen, in chapter 25, under the rubric “the general law of capitalist accumulation”: the progressive production of a relative surplus population. Like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment, with the advent of new machine technology, Marx says, human beings themselves become unsaleable, no longer directly necessary for the self-valorisation of capital, losing both their use-value and exchange-value capacity. Now labour-power is dispensable and disposable, expelled from one branch of industry, attracted to another, pushed and shoved and cajoled into others, swamping lower-rung labour-markets, depressing the overall price of labour.

Marx seems to guess what lies in store for these workers; his language even has a contemporary ring about it: “every branch of industry attracts each year a new stream of men, who furnish a contingent from which to fill up vacancies, and to draw a supply for expansion.” To the “great consolation” of these “pauperised workers,” their sufferings, he says, mocking bourgeois apologists, “are only temporary, ‘a temporary inconvenience’.” These days, most of us have heard assorted economists and politicians brag about Information Technology single-handedly raising productivity, cutting costs for business, and allowing economies to grow, lowering unemployment and creating work for people. Marx would turn this rationale on its head, puncturing such techno-fetishism.

He would see increased accumulation residing in increased exploitation, in the diminution of living labour, in the progressive production of irregular, insecure, low-paid work. He’d likewise dispel a few myths about his own class analysis en route. “The extraordinary increase in the productivity of large-scale industry,” he says, “accompanied as it is by both a more intensive and a more extensive exploitation of labor-power in all spheres of production, permits a larger and larger part of the working-class to be employed unproductively.” By “unproductive,” he means “servant classes,” “domestic slaves,” “lackeys,” which constantly expand in numbers. We can perhaps update these occupational groupings, interpret them today as home-care workers and cleaners, as check-out clerks and restaurant workers, as janitors and security guards, as hamburger-flippers and delivery men and women.

When Marx wrote Capital, the largest working-class faction wasn’t in fact blue-collar factory workers, but an “unproductive” servant class. In England and Wales in the 1860s, he notes, those employed in textile factories, mines and metal industries, taken together, were “less than the number of domestic modern slaves.” “What an elevating consequence of the capitalist exploitation of machinery!” he exclaims. The logic is counter-intuitive yet crucial to grasp: technological expansion of the productive forces actively creates an unproductive service-sector class. As the mode of production advances, what looks like the disappearance of the “traditional” working-class is, in actuality, a reconstitution of this traditional working-class, a working-class that is really swelling its ranks. The growth of a service class reflects a deepening of capital-labour relations, not its supersession. That we are nowadays said to be living in a high-tech, “postindustrial” society is definitive proof of Marx’s class theory—not a reason to abandon it. Capitalism was always post-industrial, even back in the 1860s. From the get-go, tertiarisation was immanent in its process of proletarianisation.[1]

“Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” is Capital’s most dialectical chapter. Contradiction and conflict infuse the narrative almost everywhere, give it its vitality, its moving force, pushing and pulling the reader along in all manner of different directions. Marx’s own ambivalence reflects technology’s ambivalence, and while what he’s writing about is obviously rooted in his own times, it’s surely not hard to relate this ambivalence to the technology that infuses our times.

Marx acknowledges that “modern industry” is both thrilling and scary, revolutionary and progressive:

Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production, but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby revolutionises the division of labour, and incessantly throws masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another.

And yet, that self-same modern industry is brutal, too, inflicting immense suffering on the working-class who operate it:

[doing away] with all repose, all fixity and all security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands the means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his specialised function, to make him superfluous. We have seen, too, how this contradiction bursts forth without restraint in the ceaseless human sacrifices required from the working-class, in the reckless squandering of labour-powers, and in the devastating effects of social anarchy. This is the negative side.

Marx brings together the soft and hard realities of modern life. On the one hand, the subjective human element, of what happens to the pliable worker, as living labour, when they encounter technology; on the other hand, an objective side, of what machinery itself represents under capitalism, how it functions as a physical repository of value, as dead labour, as constant capital. On the human front, Marx makes it clear that all capitalist technology will likely enervate the body and mind of workers. “Factory work exhausts the nervous system to the utmost,” he says. “At the same time, it does away with the many-sided play of muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity.” “The technical subordination of the worker to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour,” Marx adds, “gives rise to a barrack-like discipline.”

Now, it’s true that the factory system Marx describes here, with its “barrack-like discipline,” might be a blast from western nations’ past, a relic of their former “Fordist” mass-producing glory days, between the 1930s and 1960s; but over in China, with its burgeoning mega-Fordist factory system, Marx’s analysis sounds as fresh as ever. (Even the Chinese government speaks a triumphalist rhetoric that echoes Marx’s nineteenth-century English boosterists’.) Maybe more significantly, though, is that those specific traits of the factory system have, these days, entered into the generic traits of society writ large. Thus factories might be disappearing, have disappeared through deindustrialisation; yet their logic has seeped into everyday life. Whether inside or outside the factory, every form of labour has now been reduced to a kind of industrial labour, to dispensable labour-power, with its work drills and efficiency targets, its speed-ups and intensity drives, all designed to fill in those leaky workday pores.

Even high-tech work, as we’ve seen, resembles a sweatshop, only its digital, with its flashier barrack-like discipline. In fact, if anything, new technology enables surveillance and discipline to be even more draconian and despotic. And the idea that work “exhausts the nervous system to the utmost,” and “does away with the many-sided play of muscles, confiscating every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity,” strikes as pretty actual for lots of twenty-first-century employees. Frequently, too, work becomes a torture and dread zone because it is so utterly deprived of any content, is so senseless and meaningless for those who carry it out, enervating body and spirit. It lasts too long as well, and nobody would miss it if it were ever abolished.

Every year in Europe, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) at work increases 20 percent. In keyboard-tapping offices and checkout-scanning supermarkets, RSI rises as much as 50 percent each year. In 2017, 4.5 million Canadians and 1.4 million Brits were affected by work-related RSI. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reckons nearly two-thirds of all occupational illnesses reported in 2017 were caused by RSI (most notably to the wrist, elbow and shoulder), affecting 8 million American workers every year. While women represent 45 percent of the overall U.S. workforce, they experience two-thirds of RSI. (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a painful compression of the nerve as it passes across the front of the wrist, accounts for half of all RSI cases.) This is what happens, Marx might have said, when humans are forced “to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.”

Marx pinpoints the fallacy of technology, even on its own terms. At first glance, new technology and machinery seem to raise productivity. By deploying new technology capitalists can gain an edge over competitors. Yet those effects are usually short-lived, lasting only until a competitor reciprocates. But there’s mystification here, too, because machinery, says Marx, while entering into the whole of the labour process, “enters only piece by piece into the process of valorisation. It never adds more value than it loses, on average, by depreciation.” Like every other component of “constant capital,” machinery creates no new value. Constant capital, Marx explains, is the part of capital turned into means of production, into the raw material and instruments of labour, into the machinery and auxiliary inputs that “don’t undergo any quantitative alteration of value in the process of production.”

Adopting new technology is a costly and risky business for any capitalist, invariably an upheaval that involves the destruction of old constant and fixed capital, the ripping out of archaic machinery, the transformation of former warehousing, casting everything past aside, into the dustbin of history, throwing in one’s lot with new devices, with new instruments of labour. It’s one reason why capitalists get twitchy when expensive machinery lies idle, isn’t functioning to maximum capacity. They want it operational day and night, without interruption, thrashing out productivity, maybe not realising that diminishing returns are already setting in.[2]

Marx suggests deterioration of machinery takes three forms. One arises from use, or rather from over-use, a piece of machinery that wears out just as coins wear out through being in active circulation. Another sort of deterioration is the flip side, that caused by lack of use, “as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard.” In addition to wear and tear or rusting up, Marx says machinery can undergo a third type of depreciation, more common under capitalism. And it’s nothing physical, not initially; more a conscious boardroom decision. Marx uses an odd term to describe it: “moral depreciation.” Here, he says, a means of production “loses exchange-value, either because machines of the same sort are being produced more cheaply than it was, or because better machines are entering into competition with it.”

Almost every aspect of deindustrialisation since the 1970s stems from moral depreciation. The rusted up machinery, the broken windows of the redundant town plant, the rats gnawing away inside the warehouses, the weeds pushing through the concrete forecourts, the forlorn sense of abandonment we’ve seen everywhere in the old manufacturing heartlands of Europe and America—rarely has any of it had anything to do with under- or over-use. It’s been a very capitalist morality play, the explicit devaluation of the means of production because those means of production weren’t valorising enough. Moral depreciation frequently means revaluation through relocation, since the value embodied in old constant and fixed capital can’t be rebooted without being destroyed. All that is solid melts into air.[3]

Innovation becomes compulsive for any competitive capitalist, the perpetual yearning to out-do a rival, to break a rival, to monopolise a market. Science is complicit in gaining this edge, in the technological expediency of production. Marx, accordingly, casts a justly skeptical eye over the institution of science, recognising its ability to promote life while knowing it is also a darker, Faustian force, yet-another element incorporated into the competitive process. In the Grundrisse, the raw notebooks eventually distilled into Capital, Marx notes how “the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain is thus absorbed into capital.” In Capital, footnote 23 of chapter 15, he says that, “generally speaking, science costs the capitalist nothing, a fact that by no means prevents him from exploiting it. ‘Alien’ science is incorporated by capital just as ‘alien’ labour is.” Production blossoms through the technological application of science, driving productivity onwards, yet ushering in moral depreciation around some not too distant corner.

Many of Marx’s visions of science in cahoots with industry have been wildly surpassed. Once upon a time, industry had its own “in-house” Research & Development (R&D) arm; now, it has universities, its off-site R&D arm. University science is little more than a hand-maiden for big corporate business. Indeed, universities are themselves big corporate businesses and university research an external department of industry. Biotech, software and pharmaceutical enterprises now cluster in and around major university campuses almost everywhere, blurring the boundary between scientific endeavour and capitalist commerce. The two are synonymous and the symbiosis is rarely questioned. It’s just as Marx thought: “Invention becomes a branch of business, and the application of science to immediate production aims at determining the inventions at the same time as it solicits them.”

Yet the business of science goes much further and much deeper than the university. It percolates through the whole fabric of our society, bringing a new kind of business ethic into our lives, especially into our cities, which now seem to be neo-capitalist factories for valorisation. Technology might have once powered the assembly line, and in scattered global cases still does; but more widespread is its engineering of the “science of cities,” with its own “unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.” In the old factory, the capitalist formulated an autocratic power over workers; now, in cities, technology becomes the new overseer, helping keep cities as profitable as possible, filling in the financial pores not only of time but also of space, of exploitable urban space.

This new science of cities sees “smart” techno-cities as bright and fresh, as vast isotropic planes and seamless webs of connectivity, where objects and entities circulate in a smooth, frictionless space, and where information flows and business flourishes. Such paradigms of urban life have been most energetically endorsed by big mainframe techie companies, like Cisco Systems and IBM, as well as by engineering and consultancy giants such as AECOM and McKinsey. Their unanimous mission is to embed wireless broadband and computerised sensors into urban infrastructure everywhere.

Every piece of street furniture, from lampposts and traffic lights, to bike racks and domestic appliances and home heating systems will comprise the “Internet of Things,” a global business niche said to be worth around 1.7 trillion dollars. Every credit card transactions, GPS usage, city street plan, subway and bus schedule, traffic flow pattern, graph of land and property prices, census tract, electricity consumption, etc., etc.—all this and much more can be fed into a model out of which algorithmic averages emerge, calculating our future “optimal” city, how best it should be organised and governed. Though by whom rarely gets a mention. Meanwhile, the enormous information database that ensues will be monetised by private capital in what may well be the most innovative development yet to extract relative surplus-value from the totality of daily life.

All this might be a new testing ground for Marx’s ideas around technology and science, the context in which we should perhaps update him, reread him, think through some of his ideas. Nevertheless, there’s one basic theme that remains timeless: Technology, in its capitalist guise, always has been, always will be, an innovative method to discipline working people. It quite fundamentally revolutionises the agency through which the capital relation is formally mediated, Marx says. Its deployment creates fear and division amongst workers, boosts production through bloating needless consumption. Conflict and dissent don’t figure within its algorithms, either, nor do democratic debates about its implementation. Technology pleads innocence, time-served at masking the social power lying behind its control and manipulation.

Marx is surprisingly quiet in Chapter 15 about the role of class struggle. Towards the end, in Part 9, over several pages, he projects the immanent possibilities for a technologically-driven society, one that functions around people’s needs, varies work and even shortens the working day. But he hardly says anything about how we might reach that utopian point. Though he does give us a few hints of what he thinks isn’t required: “the whole-scale destruction of machinery which occurred in the English manufacturing districts during the first fifteen years of the nineteenth-century, largely the result of the employment of the power-loom.” Here, of course, Marx is referring to the Luddite movement, to the legendary machine-breakers rallying around their folkloric hero Ned Ludd. “It took both time and experience,” Marx says, “before workers learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and therefore to transfer their attacks from the material instruments of production to the form of society which utilises those instruments.”

Marx distances himself from a rage against the machine. Since the Luddites, we’ve seen this rage unfold in both fiction and fact, from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, where the mad anarchist Verloc wanted to blow up London’s Greenwich Meridian, to the Unabomber’s two-decade bombing spree, targeting everything and anyone in America involved in technological development. (Along the way, we could probably throw into the lot Al-Qaeda and, for that matter, The Book of Revelations.) But Marx’s approach is more grown up than a simple plague-on-your-house denunciation, than wholesale rejection of new technology; it’s less tantrumy, more nuanced and complex in its dialectic of ambiguity.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with it, even if they’re sometimes problems not of Marx’s own choosing. For one thing, our current society, with its Twitter streams and tabloid soundbites—viscerally reducing social complexity to a few snappy buzzwords, to simplistic black or white scenarios, us versus them categories—makes it hard for a nuanced discussion, like Marx’s, to get a satisfactory hearing. The other problem, however, is of Marx’s making: it’s not clear, for instance, what any nuanced action against an abstract and virtual technological system might these days entail?

Marx’s point against the Luddites is well meant; but there’s a sense, too, in which he underestimated the Luddites’ anti-capitalist stance, giving short-shrift to their ties to nascent trade unionism and to the growing workers’ underground. Arguably, the Luddites offered a way into attacking not just the material instruments of production but also the form of society that utilised them. To that degree, their agitation and activism remains instructive, maybe even inspiring, in our own abrasively technocratic and technological age.

Much controversy, to say nothing of mystery, surrounds the Luddite movement—even down to whether Ned Ludd actually existed as a person. Some studies suggest the movement was a lot more sophisticated than it was cracked on to be. One of the best reinterpretations, pitched from a Marxist perspective, is E.P.Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which sought to “rescue the Luddite cropper from the enormous condescension of posterity.” Luddite attacks, says Thompson, had particular industrial objectives: “the destruction of power-looms (Lancashire), shearing-frames (Yorkshire), and resistance to the breakdown of custom in the Midlands framework-knitting industry.” To explain these actions, he says, we need to look beyond immediate economic and industrial grievances.

When we do, Thompson reckons that the Luddites emerge as a tight-knit secret organisation, as a shadowy political movement that covered its tracks, that left no minutes to its clandestine meetings, no written evidence of its activities, nothing to incriminate itself. Many activists and law-breakers did end up on the scaffold. But, contrary to being a band of roughneck thugs, Thompson suggests otherwise. Its members were well-informed about the laws of industry and trade unions, and, as a highly-disciplined group of men and fellow-traveller women, their policy was nothing short of the “diffusion of agitation.” Luddites were smart and skilled, privileged textile workers glaringly aware that they were undergoing a deterioration in status. “They were,” Thompson says, “in direct conflict with the machinery which both they and their employers knew perfectly well would displace them.”

And yet, at the same time, the character of Luddism wasn’t blind protest. Nor was it operating narrowly, with immediate selfish, reactionary interests in mind. Indeed, Thompson argues that “Luddism was a quasi-insurrectionary movement which continually trembled on the edge of ulterior revolutionary objectives. This is not to say that it was a wholly conscious revolutionary movement; on the other hand, it had a tendency towards becoming such a movement, and it is this tendency which is most often understated.” They were the first collective group to launch agitations that led to the Ten Hours’ movement; and they called for an alternative political economy and morality to laissez-faire, to the irresponsible and unlicensed competition of the Industrial Revolution. What they instigated, all told, was an open-eyed class warfare.

Perhaps the Luddite sensibility can be applied to our own micro-chip age? Can we take a sledgehammer to the mainframe the same way the Luddites took it to the knitting-frame? Probably not. Likely Marx’s more nuanced approach might come into its own, yet mixed with a healthy dose of Luddite scepticism and open-eyed class warfare, which pits itself against the pixel panopticon and business technocracy before us. Perhaps the Luddite equivalent nowadays is the call for disgruntled citizens to go off-grid? Or maybe we should mobilise the Luddite’s insurrectionary character to a start a class war with their weapons?

In his unsettling dystopian novel, The Circle (2013), Dave Eggers reimagines what life would look like if an omnipotent tech company (The Circle”) took over the world’s governments and controlled every aspect of public and private life. Visualise a dream conglomerate of Google, Microsoft, FaceBook and Amazon, headquartered in a dazzling California campus, where employees live and breathe the company and have no life beyond work. That’s the picture. “Outside the walls of the Circle,” someone says, “all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected.”

It’s a reality which throws Marx’s commodity fetishism back in people’s faces, because now nothing is hidden anymore: all is transparent, trackable, observable, quantifiable. Embedded in every nook and cranny of life are millions of commercial “SeeChange” cameras, which can pan in and out on every big or little act on planet earth, letting us glimpse precise details in the densest cities, on the tallest mountaintops, in melting glaciers and arid deserts. Nothing is private anymore. Not even going to the toilet. “All that happens will be known.” The only thing that remains invisible is ideology, the market belief system implicit in the transparency.

One sceptical character, Mercer, isn’t up for it. He knows it’s a capitalist scam and wants out. But this is a big problem. Somehow, he is worse being offline than on, worse unplugging himself and fleeing than standing his ground and engaging. It’s like sheltering under a tree during a lightening strike. He writes his ex-girlfriend Mae, the book’s central protagonist, one last note. She’s been bitten and smitten by the Circle and wants nothing else. She once loved Mercer but now hates his guts because he’s a loser, a symbol of the mess outside, the past she wants to expunge. “By the time you read this, I’ll be off the grid,” Mercer tells his ex,

and I expect that others will join me. In fact, I know others will join me. We’ll be living underground, and in the desert, in the woods. We’ll be like refugees, or hermits, some unfortunate but necessary combination of the two. Because this is what we are. I expect this is some second great schism, where two humanities will live, apart but parallel. There will be those who live under the surveillance dome you’re helping to create, and those who live, or try to live, apart from it. I’m scared to death for us all.

He’s right to be scared: fleeing in his pickup truck, SeeChange cameras track him and drones hunt him down. In fierce determination to get out, to escape beyond their gaze, Mercer ploughs his vehicle through a barrier and careens into a gorge— dead, very dead indeed. Everything is on film, recorded, remarked upon: “Mae, you were trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man,” a work colleague reminds her afterwards. “You and the other participants were reaching out, trying to bring him into embrace of humanity, and he rejected that.”

Actually, there’s another sceptic in The Circle. In many ways, this character is more politically satisfying than Mercer, more dialectical, perhaps even more Marxian. He’s an insider who’s also an outsider. Wearing “an enormous hoodie,” he looks like an occupier or black bloc revolter, but he’s none other than the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, Tyler Gospodinov, the company’s first “Wise-Man,” whom everybody knows as Ty. Mae knows him as Kalden, Ty’s alter ego, his shadow self, a kind of Edward Snowden whistleblower who warns her of the closing of the Circle, of the totalitarian nightmare he’d helped create.

He’s not running away from anything—he’s hacking it, trying to disassemble it from the inside. But he needs help; he reaches out to Mae, seeing her as ambivalent, as still a potential subverter, as a twisted dialectician. Yet as things move, she’s too far gone, too straight. The other Wise-Men, says Kalden, have “professionalised our idealism, monetarised our utopia.” They “saw the connection between our work and politics,” he says, “and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, and soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with incredible private-sector efficiency and an insatiable appetite.” It sounds frighteningly familiar.

Kalden knows more than Mercer. He’s not so much a great refuser as a double agent, maybe more Engels-like, calling out to others who aren’t unplugged and offline but are tuned in, masters and mistresses of both worlds and who know the limitations of each. They know what’s what, know how to strategise, how to disrupt. They know how resistance these days is more ontological than epistemological, something that cuts right inside you, into your beliefs and democratic hopes. It needs to be wholesale, a total way of being. “There used to be an option of opting out,” Kalden says at the end of The Circle. ‘But now that’s over…The Circle needs to be dismantled.”

Maybe we can think of computer hackers in this neo-Luddite vein, as collective Kaldens, groups like Anonymous, digital dissenters and direct action hacktivists who haunt the ghost in the machine. Anonymous is well-organised, with an international reach, and has already unnerved the global financial and political powers that be. In November 2010, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks started to release thousands of diplomatic cables about U.S.’s economic and military plans, its weapons systems and initiatives against terrorism. The U.S. government retaliated, kicking WikiLeaks off the server; PayPal, MasterCard and Visa also pulled the plug on WikiLeaks. In response, in “Operation Avenge Assange,” Anonymous hacked Paypal’s website, bringing it down, and disrupted MasterCard’s and Visa’s. PayPal reputedly lost $5.5 million from the hijack. “WE ARE ANONYMOUS. WE ARE LEGION. WE DO NOT FORGIVE. WE DO NOT FORGET. EXPECT US.”

Anonymous’s dark humour plays with Marxian ambiguity at the same time as it embraces the schtick of Dostoevsky and Kafka; the movement gets off on what it calls lulz, a deviant style that revels in demonic laughter and infiltration of big organisations and big bureaucracies, targeting individuals within them, spreading humiliating information on corporate bigwigs and politicians who deserve to be humiliated, uploading videos on YouTube, generally creating mayhem with its cyberattacks and infiltrating trickster campaigns. Anonymous seems representative of a newly-forming, looser coterie of smart and concerned younger people. They span the entire globe, dialogue in many different languages, yet find their collective lingua franca in the growing array of informational technology acronyms like SMS, PDA, GPS, GPL, XML, etc., etc. And they’re drawing upon a dazzling expertise to create a subculture of politically-minded hackers and virtual radicals whose activism and communication sometimes comes home to roost in bites as well as bytes.

Technology’s prowess, Marx says, rests on its ability “to increase the productive power of the individual by means of cooperation,” by creating a new productive power, “which is intrinsically a collective one.” The problem with this form of cooperation is that it’s phoney: its control is exercised exclusively by the bourgeoisie. It’s a collective power, in other words, that’s used to exploit social labour not mobilise it cooperatively for the common good. But Marx’s dialectic cuts both ways: this cooperative power, hastened as it is by globalisation and informational technology, opens up new potentialities for revolt and resistance—Marx knows it and so do groups like Anonymous. The “unavoidable antagonism,” Marx says, is that “as the number of cooperative workers increases so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.”

Marx imagines how a technologically-advanced society could realise human needs and desires. If only technology could be wrested away from private gain and put to cooperative public use. If only cooperation could lead to technology becoming a “common property” right rather than an Intellectual Property Right (IPR). This vision of cooperation is one of the most hopeful things that dramatises Capital, and it’s there in Chapter 15, lying undeveloped, in raw, tentative state. Given all the miseries and horrors technology inflicts on working-class people, it’s a miracle that Marx can pull us back from the brink. But he gives us an ideal of humanity that is rich and expansive, generous in its affirmation of us as fundamentally cooperative beings—not ruthlessly competitive animals involved in some dog-eat-dog war of all against all.

Much as Marx admired Darwin, he never accepted human life as a competitive struggle where only the fittest survive. The admiration was genuine enough; we’ve seen it already, expressed in footnote 4 to Chapter 15, cuing the whole discussion on technology. In footnote 6 to Chapter 14, on “The Division of Labour,” Marx had also called Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species “an epoch-making work.” Remember, too, these were precisely the two chapters (14 & 15) that Marx wanted to dedicate to Darwin. (Darwin, flattered, politely declined.) But there’s equally a sense that Marx’s dedicatory intentions might have also been laced with a certain irony and provocation. Maybe Darwin recognised it, suspected it.

Privately, Marx told Engels (letter dated June 18, 1862) that it’s “remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes bellum omnium contra omnes.” Engels shared Marx’s scepticism about Darwin: “The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence,” he’d said (in a letter to Lavrov, November 12, 1875), “is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population.”

Darwin’s biggest stumbling block, for Marx, was Malthus, the English parson-cum-political economist, the prophet of a quack theory of over-population. (Tolstoy had cut to the chase, calling Malthus a “malicious mediocrity.”) Why, then, had Darwin so uncritically accepted Malthus’s bourgeois claptrap? Perhaps because Darwin was bourgeois? Perhaps because he had married into a bourgeois industrialist’s family? Emma, Darwin’s wife (and first cousin), was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the prominent Staffordshire pottery mogul. And father-in-law Josiah was credited with industrialising pottery manufacture, intensifying divisions of labour and trimming labour costs at his factories—all of which helped his empire expand throughout the world. Competition, divisions of labour, survival of the fittest, etc., were evidently “virtues” in the family’s blood. (So, too, apparently, was child labour: in footnote 82 of “The Working Day,” Marx notes how, in 1863, twenty-six firms owning extensive potteries in Staffordshire, including Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, presented a petition saying that competition with other capitalists didn’t allow them to voluntarily limit the hours worked by children.)

Darwin’s theory of natural selection took from Malthus the belief that population growth would outrun food supply. The result is an overt battle for dwindling resources. The world here is seen as crowded out by species jostling each other for survival. It’s so packed that only by shoving out another inhabitant can a new species live. Darwin used the metaphor of the “wedge” to highlight how any new species literally had to wedge themselves into another, creating their own little chink by forcing the other out. Success came from bullying out a rival, making space for oneself at their expense. (It’s hard to get a better description of bourgeois political economy in action, as well as the reactionary little-Englander mentality. Immigrants are the new wedges trying to chink away homegrown scarce resources.)

Marx, conversely, saw things differently, had another kind of humanity in mind. “When the worker cooperates in a planned way with others,” he says, “he strips off the fetters of his individuality and develops the capabilities of his species.” Implicit in this understanding is that cooperation enables our species to flourish. It is only through individuals cooperating with one another that they can develop a fuller sense of individuality, as well as a “higher form” of coexistence. In fact, even in Marx’s time there were other visions of evolutionary theory that emerged outside bourgeois England. If social Darwinism seemed internalised in nineteenth-century British social and economic life, this wasn’t the case in Russia, where Darwin’s evolutionary theory was most categorically questioned.

Russia was a vast, sparsely populated land, a giant territory, most of it harsh, barren and cold. Life in its wasteland might have been nasty, brutish and short but it wasn’t because of any principle of over-population, or straining of potential supplies of food and space. Too many people with too little resources? This would have seemed an utterly bizarre conception for any Russian. In other words, Darwin’s Malthusian underpinnings weren’t quite as universally applicable as the great scientist might have thought. Wasn’t Darwin merely projecting onto the natural world a particular ideology about competitive open markets in his own crowded social world? Wasn’t Darwin just following Malthus as an article of bourgeois faith?

Such was the belief of Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), the Russian anarchist prince, geographer and geologist and author of numerous heterodox texts, including Mutual Aid (1902). The work, written in English in Bromley, Kent (Darwin’s own county), bore a revealing subtitle: “A Factor of Evolution.” Kropotkin says at the beginning of his enquiry how two aspects of animal life impressed him most during his long travels around Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One was the extreme severity of the environment and the desperate struggle for existence most species had to wage there. The second was “even when animal life teemed in abundance,” Kropotkin says, “I failed to find the bitter struggle for the means of existence.” During heavy snow storms, across miles and miles of iced-up tundra, amid howling winds and Artic temperatures—“in all the scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to the extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.” If animals and insects fought one another in this brutal environment, they’d have wiped each other out long ago.

Maybe if Darwin had travelled to chilly, empty Siberia, rather than to a fecund tropics, with its super-abundant plant and animal life, another image of nature might have emerged. If, Kropotkin wonders, “we ask, ‘who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or whose who support one another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organisation.” Kropotkin yearned to import these natural laws into the laws of government and community life. Self-sustaining, cooperative societies could become the conditioning laws of human culture, he thought, life-forms based on solidarity and peace rather than competition and slaughter. “The unsociable species,” he concluded, throwing the gauntlet down on us today, “are doomed to decay.”[4]

We’ve no record of Marx and Kropotkin ever meeting. Most likely they never did. Most probably they’d have treated each other with suspicion even if they had. And yet, notwithstanding their doctrinal disagreements, Marx’s evolutionary theory of “the productive organs of man in society,” ends up being a lot closer to Kropotkin’s than to Darwin’s. Indeed, “mutual aid” marks the dénouement of Chapter 15, the means through which capitalist production “can be dissolved and then reconstructed on a new basis.” Bleak Siberia appears the more meaningful metaphor for the English labour system than does a tropical paradise overflowing with warm life. In the former domain, survival necessitates creatures working together in cooperation, collectively bargaining, forging some associative mutuality of the oppressed to ward off extinction.

Marx closes Chapter 15 with a call for a new “collective working group,” which, he says, will be “composed of individuals of both sexes,” who, in unison, turn production “into a source of humane development.” He even envisions the founding of socialist schools for the vocational teaching of technology, “where the children of workers receive a certain amount of instruction in technology and in the practical handling of the various implements of labour.” It’s a fascinating glimpse of Marx’s educational system, influenced by Rousseau’s Emile and the German progressive educational theorist, J.B. Basedow. Primary schools would have children develop their intelligence by coming into closer contact with reality through practical activities. “Technological education,” says Marx, “both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the schools of workers.”

Yet to get that far, “the possibility of varying labour must become a general law of social production, and the existing relations must be adapted to permit its realisation in practice.” “That monstrosity,” argues Marx, “the disposable working population held in reserve, in misery, for the changing requirement of capitalist exploitation, must be replaced by the individual who is absolutely available for different kinds of labour; the partially developed individual, who is merely the bearer of one specialised social function, must be replaced by the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity they take in turn.”

The latent possibility for varying labour, for making it fulfilling and authentic, is real enough for sensible people to see. Marx asks us to see. Technology can take the stresses out of work, he says, can shorten the workday, can create abundance for anyone, liberate people from drudgery, provide more free time for intellectual and artistic nourishment. It can transform the “partially developed individual,” the bearer of one detail or deskilled social function, into a “totally developed individual.” This, then, is Marx’s romantic dream: a society that breaks free of the vicious competitive circle of undefined productivity, of productivity for productivity’s sake, of accumulation for the sake of capital accumulation.[5]

Marx wrote Capital as a manifesto on how capitalism generalises both over-employment and unemployment, being at once hypertrophic and atrophic; he warned of the progressive production of a “relative surplus population” who float in and out of jobs and whose destiny is entirely contingent on the whims of the business cycle. Yet, at the same time, as a dialectical counterflow, Marx also penned passages with daring leaps of the utopian imagination. Even in this dire system, he says, immanent possibilities reside, immanent possibilities for a planet that’s been transformed into a vast arena of fixed capital. More than a hundred and fifty years on, Marx’s reality is here, now.

He sees a world that “suspends living labour,” that revolves around “dead labour,” that organises production around automation and high technology, as a society equipped with all the vital powers to reduce “necessary labour time”: all the instruments are available, all the wherewithal is here for creating socially disposable time, for reducing labour time to a bare minimum, for freeing up everybody’s time to engage in a more passionate and fulfilling life in and beyond work. It’s a logic that requires us to embrace contradictions, to flow in Marx’s counterflow. When the world is dominated by machines, when we’ve become appendages to machines, to new technology, to new digitised informational technology, then and seemingly only then, he thinks, are we on the verge of something new and possible. We’ve been on that verge for a while. Are we ready to cross the threshold?


[1] It’s interesting to consider this with respect to the current American working-class, which is much less likely to be any kind of factory worker. To be sure, the real face of the U.S. working-class isn’t blue-collar at all, but the lowly-paid woman care-worker who’s probably looking after an ex-factory worker. Half of the ten fastest growing jobs in America are now low-paid variants of nursing (see “Reviving the American Working Class?” New York Times Editorial, August 29, 2019). The other thing, of course, is that new manufacturing activity doesn’t usually mean more jobs. On the contrary, it invariably means more capital-intensive technology, more robots and Computer-Aided Manufacturing, likely done far away from the shores of America. Dongguan, for example, a Chinese city near Hong Kong, the manufacturing capital of the world, recently launched its first fully-automated factory, the shape of things to come.

[2] Though some do. In many business-friendly nations, like the United States, corporations finagle compensation for depreciation through generous tax write-offs.

[3] In a series of remarkable black and white photographs from the West Midlands, John Myers documented the last days of some of Britain’s industrial landscape during the early-1980s. The book’s title says it all: The End of Industry. After the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Black Country companies, Myers says, “folded and factories were demolished at an unbelievably rapid rate in the couple of years after these pictures.” The region’s industrial heritage was “clobbered overnight.” Unlike the north-east’s shipyards and the north-west’s textile mills, these industries were smaller-scale affairs, chain-making operations, foundries and brickwork firms. Their fixed capital couldn’t be rehabbed into upscale warehouse apartments and so most were simply razed, brutally blasted into air, amorally depreciated.

[4]  When Kropotkin lived in England, the bourgeois scientific establishment was wary of his evolutionary theories and political anarchism. He once spoke, on invitation, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Cambridge University even offered Kropotkin a Chair in Geology, provided he quit his political activities. But Kropotkin turned the university down because he was never going to quit his anarchist beliefs. In reality, Kropotkin bore no resemblance to a stereotypical black-masked anarchist, bearing bombs. He was a gentle pacifist, and with his great grandfatherly beard looked more like an aged monk than any terrorist. He was how we could imagine Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov appearing as an old man.

[5] Marx’s romantic dream has been explored recently, as a utopian manifesto, by Aaron Bastani, in something he calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Capitalism’s post-work telos dialectically heralds the beginning of real history, not its end. (See Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, Verso, London, 2019.)

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Marx in the Museum

Essay originally blogged on September 20, 2019 at Monthly Review

Perhaps it’s not hard to visualise a ragged and moth-eaten Marx traipsing from Dean Street to his British Museum hide out. He’d be shuffling along, incognito, through Soho’s crowded backstreets, headed for the Reading Room to plot capitalism’s downfall, forever on the look out for creditors and police spies. Revolutionary hopes sustained him through the acute penury; Marx’s political calling was more important to him than anything else, he’d said, more important than even his health, his happiness, and his family. He’d pass up Dean Street, across Soho Square, through narrow Sutton Row onto Charing Cross Road, up to New Oxford Street and then Coptic Street, northwards towards Great Russell Street and, finally, climb the steps of the Museum’s majestic entrance. At a good lick, it’d take fifteen minutes.

Soho in those days was densely populated, seedy and sordid, full of poverty and slummy housing and not the trendy gentrified neighbourhood it is today. (Underneath Marx’s old place nowadays is an upscale restaurant, Quo Vadis, where private diners can hire “The Marx Room”—“an elegant, airy and versatile space, perfect for lunches and dinners, weddings and drinks parties.” A smoked eel sandwich will set customers back 10 quid. Fixed menus begin at £55; a nice bottle of Burgundy costs around £175.) In the 1850s, Soho was inhabited by hard up bohemian types (like Marx), writers and artists, as well as poor immigrants from Italy and Greece (hence Greek Street), and French Huguenots. There were market tradesmen (along Berwick Street) and silversmiths and tailors and other artisans with workshops. And, of course, the ubiquitous pubs.

In 1854, a cholera epidemic broke out there, killing over 600 people. It would be one of the last to plague London. The well-known physician John Snow was on the job, studying this outbreak. He formulated the hypothesis that, in fact, the disease resulted from water-base germs not airborne miasmata. Soho’s drinking water was contaminated by a sewer, Snow thought, and by an antiquated pump in Broadwick Street. Cholera wasn’t picky about social class. Thus Snow’s discovery prompted developments in public health and improvements in sanitation infrastructure.

Any reader of Dickens, meanwhile, would also know that in those days the other plague striking central London was fog. Bleak House, very much rooted in Marx’s Dean Street era, famously opens with a set piece on the fog engulfing London, especially engulfing the poor London of “Tom-all-Alone.” Everywhere, fog reigns. Fog up the river, Dickens says, fog down the river. Fog in the eyes and throats of London’s denizens; “a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.” On a raw afternoon, fog is rawest, and “the dense fog densest.” The fog allowed people to see everywhere as a whole, as an egalitarian mass; but in seeing everything in shimmering white, you saw nothing. Here was a foggy world shrouded in mysterious impenetrability, an enigma for all to see yet to little comprehend. Such was the giant London of Marx’s and Dickens’s day. In Bleak House, to resolve the foggy murder mystery, Dickens’ sleuth, Inspector Bucket, had to find his forensic way through the opaqueness.

Inspector Bucket was one of Dickens’ more likeable characters, an honourable man, dedicated and practical. He went about his craft with dignity and honesty, was “affable in his manners,” and “innocent in this conversation—but, through the placid stream of his life, there glides an undercurrent of forefinger.” “Time and place cannot bind Mr. Bucket,” says Dickens. “Like man in the abstract, he is here today and gone tomorrow—but, very unlike man indeed, he is here again the next day.” And like the natural scientists of his day, such as Darwin, Bucket was on the lookout for clues, for forces and processes that aren’t visible to the naked eye, but which nevertheless structure and disrupt events, and which have their own seemingly inscrutable logic.

Inspector Bucket mightn’t have been lost on Marx. His own cold case, after all, was a similar mystery he wanted to solve, and sometimes murder was implicated—even if, often, the perpetrators weren’t actually breaking the law, because they made it. Marx wanted to understand those invisible laws and enforce new laws. The fog wouldn’t be lost on Marx, either, and it could easily be a metaphor for capitalist society’s opaqueness, for its ability to dissimulate and occlude. It’s a mist-enveloped plot involving bad guys and good guys, villains and witnesses, victims and bystanders, judge and jury. Yet it’s a thoroughly modern crime, Marx said, in which social processes decouple from human agents, making it a systematic mystery where sole perpetrators aren’t always guilty.

Inspector Marx felt inclined to spell out the difficulty of resolving such capitalist crimes: “To prevent possible misunderstandings, let me say this,” he declared in his preface to the first edition of Capital. “Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interests. My standpoint from which the development of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he remains, socially speaking, however much he may subjectivity raise himself above them.” Marx isn’t interested in pointing his forefinger at individual miscreants; it is more widespread and organised criminal activity he wants to indict. He’s interested in bringing down the whole capitalist mafia.

After penetrating the white foggy wall of London town, once in the museum Marx set himself the task of penetrating the “mystical veil” of bourgeois society, breaking through its “misty realm,” its dense ideological fog. Sat at his favourite pew—G7– Marx dedicated himself to a complex analysis of economic forms in which “neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance.” Instead, he said, “the power of abstraction must replace both.” It was thought and practice that had to plunge into the fog, and had to come out the other side with the truth, with perceptibility.

But Marx couldn’t sit long studying and writing before his carbuncles played up. So he had to stand up periodically, move around, stretch his legs, take the pressure off his backside. He suffered from piles, too, and from rheumatism. And in winter, he’d have to cut his day’s work short, to around 3:30pm, because Sydney Smirke’s great Reading Room had no artificial light. By day, natural light flooded in. In the fog, it might have been just as radiant as bright sunlight. Yet by afternoon, the light receded, eventually getting lost.

One of Marx’s brightest concepts, perhaps his profoundest dialectical construct in Capital, is the “fetishism of commodities.” Appearing at the end of the first chapter, it tells us plenty about the “commodity-form” under capitalism; yet it also has tremendous purchase on life and knowledge in general. It emphasises something very important about the foggy world of appearances and how we can forget what lies within, behind what is immediately apparent. We can read it as a parable in which Marx tries to bring to life (and light) the “secret” of the ostensibly trivial commodity, the genie that exists within the magic bottle.

On one level, at the level of sensuous appearance—of touch, smell, sight, taste—there’s nothing mysterious going on. It is as it is, a thing satisfying a need, a use-value. A strawberry is a fruit and a fruit it remains despite being embalmed in plastic on a supermarket shelf. Wood, too, continues to be wood long after it has been converted into a saleable table. On another level, though, once these useful items step forth as commodities, they “transcend sensuousness.” Then, Marx says, they “stand on their head, and evolve out of their wooden brains grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if they were to begin dancing of their own free will.”

These grotesque ideas make commodities “mystical” and “enigmatic,” Marx says. A commodity is created (or picked) by the actual labour of living people, who’re brought together in “concrete” labour activities, employed by someone and paid a wage by someone, a capitalist. This labour is privately owned and controlled, making social items for sale and for profit. The concrete “thing-appearance” of a commodity is real enough: shoes, shirts, books, iPhones, computers, automobiles—all have very real “thing existence” in our world; we wear them, read them, touch them, tap them and drive them. They bear quantitative price tags that adjudicate their qualitative identity. In the sensuous, perceptible realm of everyday experience, we think and deal with these objects in terms of things—exchanging one thing (money) for another thing (the commodity). This activity is very straightforward and we seldom ponder it at any length.

But this is merely one part of the story. There’s another tale to tell, says Marx, so listen up, because a commodity’s physicality, its palpable thing quality, bears little or no connection to the social relations that made and distribute it. We learn nothing, from the commodity, about productive relations between workers and owners, between minimum wage toilers and rich bosses, between factory hands and corporate CEOs, between Nike sole-makers in Vietnam and stockbrokers on Wall Street, between 14-year old Foxconn girls making iPhones in China and the gleaming, billion dollar Apple stores across the world. Inter-subjective human relations, relations emerging through a particular social organisation and mode of production, get perceived by people as objective.

A commodity’s thing-like character disguises its social content, occludes its process basis. Form belies content. We perceive a thing while the process and social relations are somehow beyond our grasp, invisible and untouchable. The masking effect, the blurring of content by “mist-enveloped” form, essence by “mystical” appearance, Marx dubs fetishism. “It is precisely this finished form of the world of commodities,” he says, “which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.” “It is nothing but the definite social relation,” Marx says, “between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”

The working class Marx described in Capital is still our working class; his commodity fetishism remains our commodity fetishism. Perhaps even more so. Often it involves a working class far removed from our own work lives. The Taiwanese company Foxconn has 1.3 million labourers on its payroll and employs 450,000 at its “Foxconn City” plant at Shenzhen, China, where young women put in exhausting 12-hour shifts piecing together iPhones. Most employees last only a year before burn out; worker suicides are common; survivors tell of long, gruelling working days, compounded by callous managers who humiliate workers for slip ups. 350 iPhones a minute are churned out. The product itself is sleek, clean and sexy, bearing no trace of the grubby labour conditions that went into its production. And the billion dollar Apple Inc. washes its hands of its subcontractor far, far away.

Everything is forgotten, occluded behind the high-tech glitz, concealed within the brand and fetishised in the store. Meanwhile, at the warehouses of Amazon’s $800 billion empire (headed by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man), workers clock up brutal 60-hour work weeks; ambulances are frequent sights, treating maimed workers who scurry at breakneck speeds up and down windowless warehouse aisles. They’re an unseen thousand-fold army of toilers, ensuring millions of parcels of books and other paraphernalia are distributed and delivered every day, for which they’re lucky to earn a minimum wage.

Marx thought conceptual analysis could demystify fetishistic visions of human experience. Like Inspector Bucket, he follows up on clues, leaves nothing unturned. But while Marx’s strategy might be effective at exposing the skeletons in capitalism’s closet, his urging to lay bare the real truth of our society isn’t likely to go down well with the bosses. The ruling class, Marx says, is content to deceive, is “happy in its self-alienation.” It has a powerful interest in maintaining the fog, in concealing what it does behind the scenes, in preventing perspicuity. It’ll do everything to propagate its myths, to emit ideological smokescreens, everything to ensure nothing interferes with its pursestrings. Thus the millions upon millions it spends bombarding the world with glossy ads and sophisticated campaigns to promote its goods, never letting up. All this enshrines products with the thickest, most impermeable aura that encourages us to simply go with the fetishistic flow.

Ever since his early existential days, Marx has interested himself in money. His vision of money was always counter-intuitive, not just because he wrote about it without having any, but also because his theory of money was at odds with the classical political economists of this day—and, indeed, with the classical economists of our day. His was never a “quantitative theory of money.” For Marx, it isn’t so much that money permits the circulation of commodities as the circulation of commodities expresses itself through the circulation of money, ensuring that commodities burst through all barriers as to time and space, launching themselves into an orbit that is somehow, and necessarily, limitless.

Marx had his favourites refrains about money, like those he’d known as a young man in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: “Thou visible god./ That solder’st close impossibilities/ And mak’st him kiss! That speak’st with every tongue,/ To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!”

This is Timon of Athens, and Marx would footnote the work twenty years later in Capital. And the “visible god” in question is, of course, nothing other than money. “Shakespeare paints a brilliant picture of money,” Marx insists, vividly shows the alchemy of money, how nothing is immune from money, not even “the bones of the saints can withstand it.”

Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold,/ Thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair; wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant/… What this, you gods? Why this/ Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,/ Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads;/ This yellow slave/ Will knit and break religions; bless t’accurst;/ Make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves,/ And give them title, knee, and approbation,/ With senators on the bench: this is it,/ That makes the wappen’d widow wed again:/ Come damned earth,/ Thou common whore of mankind.

Around money matters, penniless Marx also liked to recite Goethe’s Faust, as well as Aristotle, the Ancient Greek. Aristotle, says Marx, contrasted economics with so-called “chrematistics.” The former was the “art of acquisition,” of obtaining articles necessary for existence, useful things for the household. They’d likely involve money to acquire them. But money here was a mere token of exchange, a facilitator that extended barter. As money became more widespread, trade became more widespread. Money became instrumental, a means towards enlarging ends. With money you could get stuff. After a while, money unleashed those immanent contradictions that Shakespeare harked about, growing into another way of acquiring things; simple barter and a nascent money economy morphed into a more complex money-making economy, called chrematistics. No longer a means towards an end, money now became the end, the thing desired—the acquisition of riches for the sake of acquiring riches.

Aristotle was onto a new breed of moneybags: a capitalist, a person who wants to extract money from money. Aristotle never used the term capitalist; the label hadn’t been invented then. In Aristotle’s slave society, there weren’t capitalists. Not yet. They were lurking around the historic corner, taking another several thousand years to really burst through. Capitalism emerged out of a kind of chrematistics, even if the capitalist has a deeper money mania, a more modern chrematistical sickness: the unceasing compulsion to generate profit, to acquire more and more money, to accumulate more and more capital. Before long, there’s a new species of money grabber in our midst: “the rational miser,” Marx calls them. Still, money circulating as mere money, and money circulating as capital, is, Marx says, “palpably different.”

Indeed, Marx called his book Capital for good reason. Capital is more than money, even though capital secretes money, realises itself in money. Capital is money in process, money that “enters into circulation, emerges from it with an increase in size, and starts the same cycle again and again. ‘M-M, money which begets more money,’ such is the description of capital given by its first interpreters, the Mercantilists.” Buying in order to sell dear—the mantra of the merchant. Alongside the merchant, meanwhile, comes the finance capitalist, the money-lender, the loan-shark, the personification of “interest-bearing capital,” who fixes the terms of any money transaction at the going rate of interest—or at their going rate of interest. Marx thinks a merchant’s and financier’s wealth are “derivative forms of capital,” antediluvian in the development of capitalism, not the primary type of capital for modern times.

For one thing, they operate exclusively in the sphere of circulation, and Marx is adamant that “capital cannot arise from circulation.” On the other hand, “it is impossible for it to arise apart from circulation.” Marx likes his riddles, liking even more to resolve them: “capital must have its origin in circulation and not in circulation.” The other problem here is that the capitalist system cannot grow, can’t expand, through merchant and finance capital alone. Neither merchant nor finance capital create new value. Their functioning is redistributive rather than generative, not like industrialists. These forms of capital, Marx insists, involve a certain legalised cheating—cheating the consumer at the supermarket, cheating the borrower on the money market.

To generate capital, something at once more subtle and brutal is required. “In order to extract value out of the consumption of a commodity,” Marx says, “our friend the money-owner must be lucky enough to find within the sphere of circulation, on the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption is therefore itself an objectification of labour, hence a creation of value. The possessor of money does find such a special commodity on the market: the capacity for labour, in other words labour-power.” “The process of consumption of labour-power is,” Marx says, “at the same time the production process of commodities and of surplus-value. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the market, or the sphere of circulation.

Let us therefore, in the company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business’. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare.

Accessing this “hidden abode,” crossing its threshold to spy on capitalist production, on industrial capital’s daily workings, requires negotiating more fog, groping through more dense opaqueness. On the inside, things are gloomier, frequently windowless and suffocatingly hot. The scene of capitalist manufacturing is mysterious and mystifying, ideologically obfuscating, purposely designed to throw any faint-hearted sleuth off the trail. Part of fog derives from the bourgeoisie’s own claims, the kind of immunity it pleads, tries to create for itself, around itself. It manoeuvres for its own legitimation, hides behind a contractual basis that Marx calls a “legal fiction.”

This legal fiction haughtily expresses the “innate rights” of man, of Freedom, Equality, and Property. “Freedom,” says Marx, “because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law.” Equality, “because each enters into relation with one another, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent.” Property, “because each disposes only of what is his own,” and “because each looks only to his own advantage.”

Marx caps off this conceptual shift from circulation to production with a passage that exhibits the typical wit peppering Capital, making its seriousness funny:

When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as a worker. One smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing else to expect but—a tanning.

We’re not sure if Marx ever went into a capitalist factory, whether he ever entered or saw the hidden abode with his own eyes. Chances are, on his visits to see Engels in Manchester, he did. Perhaps Engels showed his friend around then, showed him the oily cogs and worker sweat of his father’s textile manufacturing business, Ermen & Engels, in Salford. Engels had spent twenty-odd years running the plant. By day, as a capitalist, he’d applied himself to dad’s factory, using some of the proceeds to subsidise Marx. By night, the communist Engels dedicated himself to overthrowing everything dad’s firm stood for. (Like everybody else living under capitalism, Engels had to deal with his own personal contradictions; and in dealing with them, he became a double-agent.)

The other way Marx built up his critical insider image of capitalism was through testimonies. He made his case for prosecuting capitalist production by summoning up the evidence of people who were nearer the crime scene. He’d assemble eye-witness accounts, examine written reports, interrogate old material, introduce new material. He’d follow up on leads, check quotes against other quotes, cross examine and recross examine. Then he’d piece each bit of the puzzle together, before drawing his own conclusions. Afterwards, he’d make policy recommendations and revolutionary prognostications. And he did it all without ever having to leave his speck in the museum, at G-7.

One of the amazing things about Capital is the sheer number of voices we hear talking. Marx wanted to give everybody their say, and usually he let them speak in their own tongues, frequently forked, oftentimes at length. Some people, like the economists, are sectarian and use a language only intelligible to themselves. Other voices, like the mill, mine and factory owners, grate, and come across as callous and inhuman; Marx lets the tape run, and the more they talk, the more they dig their own graves. Still more voices are politicians’ and civil servants’. They’re either indifferent about committing themselves or else apologists for a system that’s clearly feathering their nest. Here and there we also snatch the broken words of workers themselves, who, rather than moan indignantly, appear resigned to their lot.

Marx never deals with his characters unfairly, never quotes them speaking words they never said. He makes value judgements, for sure, intervenes in the flow of their narratives; yet nothing in Marx’s larger narrative seems non sequitur; nothing is fabricated. He handles his subject matter as skilfully and as adroitly as the great novelists of his generation. Only this isn’t fiction. Marx’s integrity is for real reality, to be truthful about it. In this regard, his greatest resource were the “Reports of the Inspectors of Factories,” Parliamentary reports “that provide regular and official statistics of the voracious appetite of the capitalists for surplus labour.” Generated under the Home Secretary’s directive, appearing twice-yearly since 1835, Marx seemed to have waded through every one of them, past and present, citing vast chunks in Capital.

They were a gold-mine of information, one of the few advantages of his living in England, perhaps the only advantage; a country not only “the classic representation of capitalist production,” he says, but also “the only nation to possess a continuous set of official statistics relating to the matters we are considering.” To boot, they’re openly accessible, readily available to anyone, even to the scruffy émigré Marx. (One wonders who else in his day ever studied them so attentively?) Above all else, the Inspectors’ Reports shape the English Factory Acts, which, says Marx, “curb capital’s drive towards a limitless draining away of labour-power by forcibly limiting the working day on the authority of the state.”

Marx has no illusions about the role of the capitalist state as the executive committee managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. But he’s a revolutionary who recognises that without the Factory Acts, and without the factory inspectors, things would be a whole lot worse for the working class. Smarter bourgeois know, too, that to temper their cut-throat drive to extend the working day beyond humanly-possible lengths, will prevent them killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Limiting the working day ensured that a less exhausted workforce became a more productive workforce. And if that weren’t enough, some factory inspectors warned that if the government didn’t properly enforce the Ten Hours’ Act (1848), “class antagonisms would reach unheard of degrees of tension.”

Marx portrays the manufacturers like the cast of a gothic horror story, with a “werewolf-like hunger for surplus labour,” “vampire-like, living only by sucking living labour, and living more, the more labour it sucks.” The inspectors get a walk on part as Jekyll and Hyde characters, fulfilling an ambivalent role within the state, acting as both advocate and critic. Not a few inspectors had their blood sucked out of them long ago. They turned a blind eye to their masters’ infringements, to the manufacturers’ drives beyond the legal limit, to the nibbling and quibbling at worker mealtimes, pilfering minutes that should be lunch breaks and recreation times. Five minutes a day’s increased work, multiplied by x-number of weeks, equals several days extra labour per year. Moments are the elements of profit.

Not all inspectors, though, were dishonest. Several were even upright, trustworthy souls, liberals who steadfastly sought to uphold the law. They dedicated themselves to their duty and to doing the humanely right thing. Amongst the latter was Leonard Horner, whose testimonies fill the pages of one of the pinnacle chapters of Capital, perhaps the pinnacle chapter, the tenth, on “The Working Day.” Leonard Horner is one of the unsung heroes of his era (1785-1864), although Marx does his utmost to sing his praises. Marx could be damning of people, viciously critical, never taking fools gladly; yet, at the same time, he wasn’t afraid to give credit when and where it was due. And, for Marx, Horner’s “services to the English working class will never be forgotten. He carried out a life-long contest, not only with the embittered manufacturers, but also with the Cabinet.”

We don’t know a huge amount about Leonard Horner. [1] He never lived long enough to receive Marx’s compliments. Maybe, like Darwin, he’d have taken them grudgingly, been flattered yet guarded, maintaining his distance from a notorious foreign agitator. Interestingly, Horner, as a member of the Geological Society, was on friendly terms with Darwin; the author of On the Origin of the Species became a sometime visitor to the Horner household. Leonard himself was born in Edinburgh in 1785. His father was a prosperous linen merchant and Leonard entered the family business for a while. Later he worked as an underwriter in London for Lloyds insurance and then had a four year stint (1827-31) as Warden of the newly-formed University of London. The Horners were Whigish and Protestant but progressive in their belief in science and Enlightenment ideals. Thrift, hard work and moderate asceticism were family virtues; Leonard stuck fast to this value system throughout his life.

Like Marx, he was intellectually precocious. He attended Edinburgh University as a fourteen year old, studying moral philosophy, Maths, Chemistry and Geology. He read lots of classical literature, too, and around the political and social issues of his day. A talented linguist, Leonard taught himself French, German and Italian. He soon became a man of “formidable erudition.” But Horner will be remembered, if he’s ever remembered, as the longest serving and most honourable of all the early factory inspectors—a “tireless censor of the manufacturers,” Marx said—on duty between 1833 and 1859 in Lancashire, the epicentre of the textile industry. By then, he was living off a private income, though probably a modest one, since his father’s business had declined. Horner’s employment had never been a big payer, either. Yet money doesn’t appear to have been any sort of interest or motivation; Horner was driven, rather, by a sense of public duty.

He was often seen as “ruthless” by his manufacturing antagonists, and much maligned by them. Incorruptible, he was never afraid to speak his mind in the many reports he compiled. Without his input, it would have been difficult to imagine the Ten Hours’ Act ever becoming law; nor limiting child labour. Before Horner, nine year olds regularly put in fourteen hour days! It was always an uphill struggle, he’d said, full of conservative obstacles and political foot-dragging. And once the legislation was enacted, somebody had to regulate it, had to keep tabs on those laws being respected. Horner was an ex-businessman himself, so in no way hostile to capitalism, nor to the desire of the mill-lords wanting to make a buck. But he was morally committed to the belief that profitability could arise from good working conditions and from educating the masses.

He had his run-ins not only with the manufacturers, but also with some of the best-known political economists of his day, who balked at the idea of government intervention, especially intervening to curtail the working day. Horner’s economic philosophy probably had more in common with J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism than with Marx’s socialism. Horner believed the aristocratic system of monopoly and privilege had to be fended off. Strong government was necessary, he said, to protect the “free market” from the unscrupulous greed that can distort it. His was a laissez-faire economics world’s removed from Milton Friedman’s, and from the avaricious neoliberal deceit we know today, which has bought off most governments and created not-so-free markets everywhere. Like Mill, Horner believed markets could only ever be “free” if wide-ranging government regulation took place, assuring social as well as individual liberty.

Horner’s most famous run-in around regulation was one of Marx’s most famous run-ins: with the Oxford political economist Nassau W. Senior. Horner’s views on factory legislation were most forcefully articulated in his “open letter” to Senior, published in 1837, and endorsed by Marx. The theme was the so-called “Last Hour” of the working day. Both Horner and Marx had questioned the validity of Senior’s thesis, even questioned the validity of Senior himself, the integrity of a “scholar” who acted like a mouthpiece for the cotton trade. Here Horner had to remind a renowned economist, a teacher with an Ivy League Chair, that children weren’t “free agents” on the labour market and needed the state to protect them from brutal factory employment. No matter where children worked, Horner told Senior, “their having a fair chance of growing up in full health and strength or with the opportunity of receiving a suitable education,” was a moral right.

Senior, for Marx’s part, embodied everything loathsome about English political economy, with its class bias masquerading as rigorous scholarship. This was pure ideology, Marx said, channeled through the authority of a rich, internationally-renowned bourgeois institution. Thus it implicitly bore the stamp of “science,” of “economic science.” Marx, conversely, was an outsider, a trained philosopher yet autodidact in economic affairs. Unaffiliated and frequently destitute, sitting alone in the British Museum, he had no institutional status, no professional badge of credibility to invoke. But as an “amateur” he took to task Senior’s infamous “Last Hour.”

Marx states explicitly what Horner had only politely implied: that Oxford credentials are mobilised to legitimise flimsy scholarship; that with Senior we were witnessing the time-served ties between the academy and industry, how each scratched the other’s back, how each continues to scratch the other’s back. Senior had been summoned to Manchester, the seat of international textile trade, to battle for the manufacturers as their chosen “prize-fighter” (as Marx put it); Senior’s economic science was just the ammunition needed to silence struggles to reduce the factory working day. But Senior hadn’t reckoned on Horner.[2]

Senior went to great technical lengths, invoking much numerical data, to argue that if the working day were reduced from twelve to ten hours all the manufacturers’ profit would be destroyed. It would equally destroy the manufacturers’ ability to pay their workforce, because along with profits, money for wages would go, too. Everybody would lose out. In the eleventh-hour, Senior said, the worker reproduced their wages and in the twelfth—the so-called “Last Hour”—the manufacturers’ profit. To cut the working day to ten hours would thus eliminate both. As Marx says, “and the Professor calls this ‘analysis!’”

These are “extraordinary notions,” Marx writes, and spends pages carefully denouncing prejudice dressed up as economic science. Senior grovels before the manufacturers, Marx says: “The heart of a man is a wonderful thing, especially when it is carried in his wallet.” At one point, the Oxford professor even tries to give scientific credence to exploiting child labour. There’s a “warm and moral atmosphere in the factory,” Senior says, which keeps children out of mischief and vice, beyond the grip of their idle parents. Marx, like Horner, questioned the accuracy of Senior’s figures. And, he says, “apart from errors in its content, Senior’s presentation is confused.”

Profit results from “surplus labour time,” of course, the time workers spend beyond the “necessary labour time” of earning their wages and recuperating manufacturers’ overheads. The longer the working day, and the lower the wages, the greater the surplus labour amassed. Surplus labour time is the source of “surplus value,” and surplus value is, in turn, the real source of profit—all of which has absolutely nothing to do with any “Last Hour” of work. Thus “this faithful ‘last hour,’ about which you have invented more stories than the millenarians about the Day of Judgment, is,” Marx concludes, “all bosh.”

Overwork remains a major problem for working people. So long as capitalism sucks blood from living labour, it persists as a death-warrant for producing surplus value. In his “Working Day” chapter, Marx recounts the demise of Mary Anne Walkley, a 20-year-old garment worker who, in June 1863, toiled on average sixteen and a half hours a day without a break, often as much as thirty hours straight. The “flow of her failing ‘labor-power,’” Marx says, “is maintained by occasional supplies of sherry, port and coffee.” Mary Anne was busy “conjuring up magnificent dresses for the noble ladies invited to the ball in honour of the newly imported Princess of Wales.” After twenty six and a half hours of straight toil, done in a small, stifling sweatshop, with thirty other girls, Mary Anne fell ill on a Friday and was dead by Sunday, “without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having finished off the bit of finery she was working on.” “Death from simple overwork,” was the verdict in the following day’s newspaper.

On March 8, 1997–on International Women’s Day—Carmelita Alonzo, a 35 year old mother of five, suffered a similar gruesome fate at a Philippines factory, stitching garments for VT (Vitorio Tan) Fashion Image Inc, a subcontractor of the clothing chain Gap. She died at the Andres Bonifacio Memorial Hospital in Cavite, Philippines, after 11 days in intensive care. According to her co-workers at VT Fashion, “Carmelita was killed by her 14 hour workday every day plus overtime of eight hours every Sunday.”

In July 2013, Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old journalist, working for Japan’s public broadcasting corporation, logged up 159 hours of overtime and took only 2 days a month off on the run up to her death from heart failure. In April 2014, likewise in Japan, Joey Tocnang, a 27-year-old trainee at a metal casting company, died in the firm’s dormitory, after a similarly punishing work schedule finally took its toll. Japanese authorities said his “death was directly related to the long hours of overtime he was forced to perform.” He’d been working between 78.5 and 122.5 hours of overtime every month, cutting steel and preparing casts of molten metal, sending home his meagre salary to his wife and 5-year-old daughter in the Philippines. [3] In April 2015, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee at the Japanese advertising conglomerate Dentsu, did herself in before work got to her first, committing suicide after regularly working more than a 100 hours a month overtime. She posted a message on social media a few weeks before she died, saying, “I want to die…I’m physically and mentally shattered.” [4]

The Japanese have a name for this—Karōshi: death from overwork. Japanese companies expect employees to put in long hours in a fiercely competitive workplace culture. Workers are cajoled into clocking up mammoth hours, proving their dedication to the job, as well as their loyalty to the company. The government says one in five workers in Japan are now at risk from overwork—from strokes and heart attacks to mental illnesses and suicides. The Japanese health ministry reported 93 cases of suicides or attempted suicides in early 2016, directly linked to work pressure. And the national police agency said overwork was likely responsible for 2,159 suicides in 2015.

Overwork is rife in Britain as well. In 2016, 40 percent of working Brits didn’t take their full holiday entitlement; 1 in 6 employees have a full working week of unused holidays spare. 7 out of 10 British workers drag themselves out of their sickbed to go to work (the majority presumably because they’re not paid otherwise). The number of people working over 48 hours per week has doubled in Britain since 1998, up from 10 percent to 26 percent. Overwork problems hit the working privileged—who feel they must rack up the hours to advance their careers—as well as the working desperate—who have little choice but to toil to make ends meet, often at more than one job. Studies illustrate how output significantly trails off after a 50 hour work week, and nose dives after 55 hours. (They also show that people who regularly work more than 49 hours a week are at a significantly higher risk of a stroke.)

In the U.S., there’s no such thing as Senior’s “Last Hour” simply because there’s no obligation for employers to limit the working day. The limit, one assumes, is when you drop. Leonard Horner would have had his work cut out as a labour inspector; but given there aren’t regulators, nor any future openings for labour inspectors, his own hours would be drastically slashed! Americans, on the whole, work longer hours and have more stress-related work illnesses than their European counterparts, even more than their Japanese counterparts, which is hard to imagine.[5] Reasons are due to stagnating wages and to hopelessly outdated overtime laws.

But the problem is writ large, too, in the tech industry and in finance jobs, which are always trying to motivate workers to hustle more and work harder. No matter how seductive and “happy” the workplace is, today’s reality remains Marx’s reality: employees are human widgets used and discarded at the behest of bosses. What counts for a firm is your VORP—“Value Over a Replacement Player.” You’re as indispensable so long as there’s nobody else around who can perform better, who’s more compliant, and who’s more able to work even harder and longer than you. “Companies burn you out and churn you up when somebody better, or cheaper, becomes available.” [6]

At HubSpot, a high-tech start-up in Cambridge, Mass, there’s a slick and happy veneer “with beanbag chairs and unlimited vacation—a corporate utopia where there’s no need for work-life balance because work is life and life is work. Imagine a frat house mixed with a kindergarten mixed with Scientology, and you have an idea of what it’s like.”[7] But despite the cool office interior there’s no job security. It’s a typical digital sweatshop where young workers, packed side by side at long tables, hunch over laptops rather than sewing machines, staring into them for hours and hours, barking commands into headsets, trying to sell software, selling themselves in the process. “The free snacks are nice,” one ex-employee said, “but you must tolerate having your head stuffed with silly jargon and ideology about being on a mission to change the world…Wealth is generated, but most of the loot goes to a handful of people at the top.”

Tech software work pales, however, compared to tech hardware work, which is usually just that—hard—frequently done thousands of miles away from any hip Silicon Valley paradise. Over in China, at Foxconn again, in Shenzhen, there’s been a spate of worker suicides, all overwork-related. One male worker hanged himself in a Foxconn toilet in 2007; another, in 2009, threw himself from his apartment window, after being beaten by Foxconn managers. In 2010, 15 (11 men, 4 women) employees killed themselves. In 2011, 4; in 2012, 1; in 2013, 2. The latest, on January 6, 2017, Li Ming, jumped to his death in Zhengzhou, where he worked for Foxconn, no longer able to endure his working life there.

Meantime, Foxconn’s child-labour practices take us back to Capital. The company was recently found recruiting more than a thousand school children to work nights, making Amazon’s Alexa devices—the virtual voice gadgets used to control lights and domestic appliances. These kids are classified as “student interns,” there to cover labour shortages and to trim costs. Sixteen year olds toil 10 hours a day, six days a week, on the production line, receiving 16.55 yuan (£1.93) an hour, compared to the 20.18 per hour for regular employees. They’ve little choice in the matter. If students refuse to work the designated hours, including the compulsory overtime, their teachers tell them it’ll affect their graduation chances and scholarship opportunities. Foxconn defends its use of school children: “it provides students,” they say, “who are all of a legal work age, with the opportunity to gain practical work experience and on-the-job training in a number of areas that will support their efforts to find employment following their graduation.”[8]

This notion that hard work is healthy for kids harks back to the workhouses of a certain “Dr.” Andrew Ure, another quack bourgeois political economist from Marx’s day—and ardent cheerleader of Nassau Senior. Ure, said Marx, “argued that if children and young persons under 18 years of age, instead of being kept the full 12 hours in the warm and pure moral atmosphere of the factory, are turned out an hour sooner into the heartless and frivolous outer world, they will be deprived, owing to idleness and vice, of all hope of salvation of their souls.”[9] The Foxconn of Capital’s era was Sanderson Bros. & Co., a steel rolling-mill and forge in Sheffield. Boss E.F. Sanderson admitted “great difficulty would be caused by preventing boys of under 18 from working at night. The chief would be the increased cost from employing men instead.” Besides, it would be impossible, Sanderson said, to leave such expensive machinery idle half the time, working only throughout daylight hours. The training that his company gave to an apprentice, he bragged, should be considered “part of the return for the boys’ labour…Boys must begin young to learn a trade,” and to learn their station in life…

Back in the mid-1990s, when I lived in central London, I used to walk past the British Museum nearly every day. More often than not, I’d pop in, did so for years, getting thrilled by a couple of things. The first, obviously, was entering the great Reading Room, for which I had a Reader’s Card, glimpsing and even sitting in space G-7. I never ordered any books, had no need to order anything; all I wanted was to sit there, in Marx’s seat, and try to feel the vibe. Usually, there wasn’t any vibe, only the hushed shuffling and page-turning of others close by, mixed with the odd cough and splutter. The atmosphere was bookish and musty. No PCs were in sight. It was pencil and paper stuff in those days. I tried to imagine Marx scribbling away, muttering to himself, piling up those Inspectors’ Reports in front of him, working frantically on Capital. Doing so, I remember, was strangely comforting.

Afterwards, my other great delight was visiting the “old” Reading Room, with its permanent display of “literary treasures.” Glass cabinets housed original handwritten drafts of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, William Wordsworth’s poem Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. But the treasure that thrilled me most was one of James Joyce’s notebooks of Finnegans Wake—at that stage, in the 1930s, Joyce was still cagey about its title; for years he’d called it simply “Work in Progress.” The writing, in soft pencil, was chaotic and sprawling, and as mad as Marx’s handwritten scrawl. Like the drafts of Capital, there was as much crossed out as left legible. Joyce used thick coloured crayons (orange and green were favourites) to score out sentences, sometimes whole pages that he seemed not to want—until he informed someone that he crossed out what he wanted, but had already used elsewhere, in another more definitive version.

In those years, Marx and Joyce were my heroes; they still are. But it’s perhaps only now that I realise curious similarities between each man. After all, they both had an obsession with wanting to include everything in their work, constantly adding to it, expanding and inserting material, making it seemingly impossible for them ever to finish anything. Like Marx, Joyce was a publisher’s nightmare, forever making last minute insertions into the proofs. After he’d eventually published Ulysses, his benefactor Harriet Weaver asked him what he planned on doing next? Joyce responded that he wanted “to write a history of the world.”

Marx had a similar lofty ambition for Capital, likewise attempting to write a history of the world, incorporating everything, seeking the same organic unity and wholeness that Finnegans Wake sought. Capital circulated through Marx the same way as the Liffey circulated through Joyce; “a commodius vicus of recirculation.” In a sense, each book is a “hyper-text,” a big, intricately entangled, introverted yet expansive text, historical yet somehow universal, exuberant and imaginative and at times colossally difficult to understand. Joyce said his principal character H.C. Earwicker was a “fargazer,” whose “patternmind” dreamed the vastest dream, whose sigla H.C.E. meant “Here Comes Everybody.”

Capital was Marx’s dreaming fargazing, his Here Comes Everybody, a condition, he thought, where all countries were headed, his image of everybody’s future. He’d sketched it out for us, the historical and geographical mission of the capitalist mode of production, with its need to create industrial cities, to move mountains, to dig canals, to connect everywhere, to nestle everywhere. Within it all, Marx thought that a physical and emotional proximity of workers would be created, workers beside one another, workers sharing a common experience, even if they were hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. This common experience would be a sort of cosmopolitanism, a common awareness, a global solidarity, a Here Comes Everybody.

This summer, I returned to the British Museum. A lot had changed since the mid-1990s; a big, postmodern overhaul had taken place there, a sparkling new design, a sort of canopy had been spread across Sydney Smirke’s Reading Room. Everything was now bright cream and a new skylight enclosed an open public forum—“The Great Court,” Europe’s largest covered square, inaugurated in 2000–which was packed full with tourists. Dominated by a sprawling Museum store, it felt like a glorified shopping mall. I tried to get into the Reading Room, through a puny little corridor, following the route I used to know; but barriers where placed across, preventing any public entrance; “No Entry” signs were emblazoned everywhere. In fact, everybody, staff included, seemed barred.

I asked one of the museum ushers what was happening, “Why can’t you access the Reading Room anymore?” “It had been closed for ages,” he said. “Is it being refurbished?” I wondered. He didn’t know. “They don’t tell us anything.” I mused on who “they” might be? I asked someone else at the “Information” booth. She was sourly, seemed suspicious of my questioning, and didn’t know anything, repeating what I’d earlier heard: “They don’t tell us anything.” I asked a third member of staff, at the “Membership” zone, who was friendlier. In her heavy Eastern European accent she told me the Reading Room had been closed since 2000, since the time of the refurbishment. “For nineteen years!” I exclaimed. “Yes,” she said. She didn’t know what was happening, either. I asked her who employed the staff at the museum and she said a subcontractor; only a minority of people actually work “in-house” for the museum. Cleaners and other auxiliary staff are mostly outsourced labour.[10] I felt the alienation in the air, alienation in the place where Marx wrote about alienation, and departed despondent, struck by the irony, and disillusioned about the times in which we live.

The entire book and manuscript collection, once stored in the Reading Room, had been relocated in 1998, up the road, to the new British Library, next to St.Pancras Station. The pressing problem, apparently, was lack of shelf space at the old British Museum. It had been a “legal deposit,” meaning it received every book published in the UK, including many overseas titles. It needed an extra 2km of shelving every year, which the new British Library, reputedly the largest national library in the world, can now offer. All the “literary treasures” have been transferred to the British Library, too, and that got me wondering about my old Finnegans Wake treasure, those notebooks from years ago?

So I wandered over to the library, but in the new display section, impressively organised and expanded—to include the Magna Carta and rare editions of The Bible—there was no Joyce. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were new additions, “younger” writers added to the modernist canon; yet it seemed Jim had been bumped off. Somebody told me at the Information desk that if he wasn’t on display then he’s probably in storage. Some texts, she said, needed a “rest,” so Joyce was likely resting. Finnegans Wake needing a rest? It was about a sleeping man! No Marx’s seat, no Finnegans Wake notebook; the times were a-changing; it didn’t seem to me they were moving in the right direction, changing for the better.

Somehow, the experience of Marx in the museum began to strike me as more vital than ever. I’m not just talking here about Marx the revolutionary; I’m talking about Marx the dedicated scholar, Marx the dedicated reader of texts, Marx the restless yet patient analyst of reports and documents; Marx the inquirer of truth, I mean, the Dickensian sleuth searching for answers, the solver of mysteries, the man who wants to cut through the fog. Indeed, so much of what he presents in Capital involves the lies and misinformation of others, the bourgeois propaganda that lurked behind the apparent seal of knowledge—that dense, intentionally-created fog, which enveloped everything then, and still envelops everything now. Marx wanted to expose these kinds of made-up ideas, these ideological smokescreens. He wanted to prise them open, to cut through them with his razor mind. He wanted to demonstrate a certain truthfulness. He got pilloried by his right-wing antagonists for it.

Marx had his own special notion of ideology. For him, ideology is “information” that transmits an implicit message. It doesn’t seem like a lie, doesn’t appear like a fabrication; at first blush it seems plausible, and first blush is often enough for it to be believed. Reactionaries, on the other hand, dismissed Marx’s knowledge as ideological because it had an explicit political message, which, if you think about it, is always easier to dismiss. Marx conceived a body of thought that was openly honest about where it was coming from, a mode of thinking that explicitly tried to frame things from the standpoint of the proletariat. This is how capitalist society appears, he said, how it operates if you view it from the perspective of a worker—not from the perspective of a greedy boss or parasitic landlord. Yet, for all that, what endures about the analysis in Capital is Marx’s rigour, his intellectual honesty, his desire to tell it how it really is, yet to tell it fairly, within the rules of legitimate knowledge. Not make-believe, not ideology, not deliberate obfuscation or deceit. Not on anybody’s payroll.

I say that we need this more than ever now because, in recent years, we’ve had assorted demagogues who’ve persuaded masses of people that they have nothing in common anymore. These demagogues have been rather frivolous with the truth; in fact, they’ve profited from a plurality of truths, many of which aren’t truthful at all but are misinformation and falsities; and not a few are peddled on social media. It’s especially hard now to pass rational critical judgement. Telling the truth requires courage and great skill, and often considerable energy to sift through the lies ringing out morning, noon and night and much of the time in between. Truth seems to hobble along lamely compared to the lies that fly in the face of the public. What seems most disturbing of all, perhaps, is people’s willingness to believe these political falsehoods, even when they know they aren’t true.

Marx had no illusions about the struggle around knowledge production and its dissemination. He knew that we can never prevent our politicians and business people from lying. They have the means and the media to do so. But Marx hoped that, maybe one day, we could create the social conditions whereby people’s need to believe in the miraculous lie might dissipate, might somehow whither away. To call on people to give up foggy illusions about our condition is, he thought, to make a call to give up a condition that requires illusions. We live in foggy times. The Nassau W. Seniors, Andrew Ures and E.F. Sandersons are still amongst us, those characters we hear in Capital, those moneybags and ideologues and mill-lords accumulating capital at other people’s expense. Their names are different, they look different, but what they do isn’t so different: it was, always will be, simply a pretext for profit-making, for extracting surplus value. Marx conceived this in a museum that is no longer accessible. The museum has effectively gone. The need for Marx has apparently gone. He has no seat amongst us anymore. But his vision of what is wrong and what might be right with our society gathers no dust. It is far from antiquated.



[1] Horner did write a memoir in two volumes, published privately, and posthumously, in 1890. In 1969, the historian Bernice Martin wrote a portrait of Leonard Horner in the International Review of Social History (vol.14, No.3), using this memoir. My own brief sketch of Horner here draws upon Martin’s article, downloadable at: International Review of Social History

[2] Other factory inspectors were equally incredulous of Senior “fatal hour.” In one report, dated May 21, 1855, Marx cites Inspector Howell talking: “Had Senior’s ingenious calculation been correct, every cotton factory in the United Kingdom would have been working at a loss since the year 1850.” Evidently, they weren’t; business was in fact booming.

[3] See “Death from Overwork,” The Guardian, October 18, 2016

[4] See “Japanese Woman ‘Dies from Overwork’,” The Guardian, October 5, 2017

[5] See “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Country in the Developed World,” Forbes Magazine, March 1, 2018

[6] See “Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired,” The New York Times, April 9, 2016

[7] “Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired,” The New York Times, April 9, 2016

[8] See “School Children in China Work Overnight to Produce Amazon Alexa Device,” The Guardian, August 8, 2019

[9] It’s scary that such drivel actually made it into a “scholarly” text: Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufacturers was published in 1835, to considerable acclaim.

[10] Until quite recently a lot of museum staff were Carillion employees. In early 2018, after the giant management and construction services company went belly-up, with £7 billion in liabilities, some of the staff were brought in-house again. But only because of loud public outcry and a series worker protests outside the museum. The dispute brought to light the deeper concern of the privatisation of Britain’s cultural institutions and the misguided decision made by the British Museum’s trustees—the “they” in question, presumably. Since 2013, Carillion had negotiated a controversial deal at the museum, where it’d been instrumental in offering zero-hours contracts and slashing staff benefits.

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Marx’s “Dangerous Classes”

Most Marxists know that Marx infamously dismisses the lumpenproletariat — those band of “vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes,” “the demoralised, the ragged,” swindlers and tricksters, ragpickers and pickpockets, tinkers and beggars (all Marx’s words). These ruffians, he says, “dwelling in the sphere of pauperism,” are nothing but “the deadweight of the industrial reserve army,” trapped in the Lazarus layers of society and generally not, nor ever likely to be, a progressive political force.

In Capital, Marx’s bad faith in the lumpenproletariat only redoubles what he’d said some fifteen years earlier. In Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, he’d written about the rise of Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire, and how a lumpenproletariat had helped crush the June 1848 workers’ insurrection in Paris. Without this lumpenproletariat, Marx insists, there wouldn’t have been any coup d’état, nor any Louis Bonaparte. The latter’s banditry were recruited from the most desperate lumpen elements, bought off (for 1 franc 50 centimes a day) to do the bourgeoisie’s dirty work. Thus Louis Bonaparte shines as “the chief of this lumpenproletariat,” Marx jokes, as its reactionary embodiment assuming the mantle of power.

Louis Bonaparte deployed a time-served tactic that sought the only way out of the crisis: “to play one part of the proletariat against the other.” “For this purpose,” Marx says, “the Provisional Government formed 24 battalions of Mobile Guards, each a thousand strong, composed of young men, from 15 to 20 years. They belonged for the most part to the lumpenproletariat, which in all big towns forms a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat, a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, people without hearth or furniture, unapologetically with no fixed address.”

Doubtless few smart people these days would deny the dubious leanings of the lumpenproletariat, especially if we consider the rabble heartlands of Donald Trump, and the most gung-ho Brexiteers. But perhaps Marx never recognised the logic of his own analysis? Failing revolution, what’s to stop this relative surplus population from relentlessly expanding its ranks? What’s to prevent those Lazarus layers from becoming a global norm, outnumbering fully paid up members of a rank-and-file proletariat?

To diss all lumpenproletariat as backward is, then, to diss a large whack of the global working class. What’s more, if the lumpenproletariat could be once bought off to fight for the bourgeoisie, why can’t it be encouraged to shift its allegiances, and come over to fight for the other side? Why should the lumpenproletariat necessarily and always be a reactionary force? It’s evident that this mass of humanity, when given the right nudge, has periodically awoken from its slumbers.

Another significant aspect of the lumpenproletariat is that it has no aspirations of being bourgeois. It isn’t interested in bourgeois respectability, in its rewards and trappings, in becoming upwardly mobile, ascending into the upper classes. The lumpenproletariat is relatively immune from the bourgeois’s commercial grasp, its advertising, its gloss and market ideology, even its dominate ideology. So, although the lumpenproletariat has sometimes been bought off, it certainly hasn’t bought into the capitalist system. This, if nothing else, ensures that its potential radicality is always there, waiting in the wings.

The ballast of the deadweight has shifted. The lumpenproletariat has become a decommissioned reserve army of labour that nowadays maybe outweighs the active reserve army of labour. As such, it’s a mistake, and this is perhaps Marx’s mistake, to see the lumpenproletariat as a bastard ward of labour. Perhaps a rethink is in order. Maybe we need to reconsider the lumpenproletariat less scathingly, explore it more speculatively, project what it might be capable of—if ever it came together as a collectivity of desperate and deprived people, of poor working class people. The threat of its latent potentiality is enough to send a frisson through the progressive senses: a spectre haunting the reactionary landscape, the popular masses united, actively rejecting populism!

It’s curious how some translations of Capital Volume One don’t actually employ the term lumpenproletariat. Samuel Moore’s and Edward Aveling’s first English edition, for instance, achieved in 1887, opts instead for “dangerous classes.” Lumpenproletariat doesn’t appear anywhere in Moore’s and Aveling’s efforts, supervised by Engels. [1] I’ve always wondered why their translation, which International Publishers reissued in New York in 1967, at Volume One’s centenary, differed from Penguin’s 1976 edition (and Vintage’s 1977), translated by Ben Fowkes?

That latter translation was carried out in conjunction with New Left Review, a major theoretical mouthpiece of international Marxism since 1960; its editorial committee is predominantly Trotskyist; and the most seasoned of Fourth International Trotskyists, Ernest Mandel, wrote a long introduction to the text. Whether Trotsky’s stamp, another intellectual who scoffed at the lumpenproletariat, had any subtle bearing on the translation; or, conversely, whether Moore’s and Aveling’s reveal their own secret yearning for a class becoming dangerous, is anybody’s guess.

In saying this, we should probably also give a nod to Bakunin, Marx’s great leftist rival. Bakunin sat on the other side of the fence in the First International, championing its anarchist wing. He waxed lyrical about “the flower of the proletariat,” which, he said, “doesn’t mean, as it does to the Marxians, the upper layer, the most civilised and comfortably off in the working world, that layer of semi-bourgeois workers… By the flower of the proletariat I mean, above all, those millions of non-civilised, disinherited, wretched and illiterates… that great rabble of the people ordinarily designated by Messrs. Marx and Engels by the phrase at once picturesque and contemptuous of ‘lumpenproletariat’.”

For Bakunin, “that rabble which, being very nearly unpolluted by all bourgeois civilisation, carries in its heart, in its aspirations, in all necessities and the miseries of its collective position, all the germs of the Socialism of the future.” Bakunin is as glowing of the lumpenproletariat as Marx is as damning. But I’m wondering whether their black or white positioning might be better tempered by a dialectical shade of grey, by some critical positioning within each man’s camp?

The first twentieth century scholar to raise the lumpenproletariat out the mire, and critically affirm it as a “dangerous class,” came from beyond the white European world: Frantz Fanon, a physician and psychiatrist from Martinique. His opus The Wretched of the Earth (1961) highlights the role of a black lumpenproletariat in the anti-colonial struggles sweeping across Africa during the 1950s. “It is within this mass of humanity,” writes Fanon, “this people of the shantytowns, at the core of the lumpenproletariat, that the rebellion will find its urban spearhead. For the lumpenproletariat, that horde of starving men, uprooted from their tribe and from their clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary force of a colonised people.” “Like a pack of rats, you may kick them and throw stones at them, but despite your efforts they’ll go on gnawing at the roots of the tree.”

Fanon says revolutionary groups and progressive political parties need to find a space for the lumpenproletariat to manoeuvre. This is his crucial point. Any struggle for liberty and justice, he says, ought to give its fullest attention to this lumpenproletariat. Or else. Or else what? Or else oppressors and demagogues won’t lose the chance to pit the poor against the poor. It was Marx’s fear, too, as we’ve seen. Oppressors and demagogues are “extremely skilful,” Fanon says, “in using ignorance and incomprehension which are weaknesses of the lumpenproletariat.”

“If this available reserve of human effort isn’t immediately organised by the forces of rebellion,” he warns, “it will find itself fighting as hired soldiers side by side with the colonial troops.” Colonised peoples have to fight for their freedom, with force, if necessary, with violence, through open armed open struggle. Faced with an aggressor, the lumpenproletariat has to grasp its own spirit of spontaneous revolt. “The colonial man,” says Fanon, “finds his freedom in and through violence.” Yet this violence must be “proportionate to the violence exercised by the threatening colonial regimes.”

In the decades since Fanon’s death, the wretched on the earth are still amongst us. The dialectic of coloniser and colonised hasn’t gone away. Its spots have changed; its nature has changed. It is closer to the core now, within core nations, an internal neo-colony, on the urban periphery, out on the coloniser’s banlieue. Colonised peoples are still marginalised peoples. Their freedom of subjectivity continues to be denied. They still lack dignity, suffer daily humiliations, endure all the privations and exploitations that Fanon described. Indeed, one of the keywords in The Wretched of the Earth persists to this day: lack—“sans,” in Fanon’s French. Everywhere we find people lacking: without housing (sans domicile), without homeland (sans patrie), without territory (sans territoire), without work (sans travail), without official identity cards (sans papiers), and ultimately without rights (sans droits).

Fanon’s death was untimely. He passed away a month after Les damnés de la terre first appeared in Paris, dying of leukaemia in a clinic near Washington D.C., aged thirty six. He never saw his great book in print. But its message soon became the message, soul food for another sort of anti-colonial battle, one raging in the American inner city. By the mid-1960s, the Black Panthers had reincarnated Fanon as their patron saint, as their main man, in their fight against racist oppression and economic exploitation.

In Seize the Time, one of the Panther’s founders, Bobby Seale, recounts calling on another founder, Huey Newton, with a copy of Fanon’s book under his arm. “Hey, man, have you read this thing?” he asks Newton. “Huey was laying up in bed, thinking, plotting on the man.” No, he said, he hadn’t. Soon “the brother got into reading Fanon,” Seale said, “and, man, let me tell you, when Huey got hold of Fanon…[he’d] explain it in depth.” Newton understood what Fanon meant about organising the lumpenproletariat—“if the organisation didn’t give a base for organising the brother who’s pimping, the brother who’s hustling, the unemployed, the downtrodden, the brother who’s robbing banks, who’s not politically conscious, that if you didn’t relate to these cats, the power structure would organise these cats against you.”

Another Panther to get Fanon was Eldridge Cleaver. He was just out of prison, on parole, wore a leather jacket and a beret. On the inside, he’d read The Communist Manifesto and written letters about about his incarceration, about a life of petty crime and the reality of the colonised “black soul.” The free-wheeling counter-cultural magazine Ramparts published extracts of these letters. (They’d later become the basis for Cleaver’s memoir Soul on Ice.) In Cleaver, Seale saw another Malcolm X. The dude could write, could rap, and he came from the lumpen. Immediately, Cleaver became the Panther’s “Minister of Information.” The real work for the Party, he suggested, was “organising the brothers on the block.”

A vital organ was a newspaper. In 1967, The Black Panther was launched, beginning as a 4-page newsletter, run off in Oakland; but, by the late 1960s, at 25c per issue, The Black Panther became a fully-blown weekly newspaper, one of the nation’s highest circulating underground papers—selling 125,000 copies per week between 1968-1971. The Black Panther relayed information about the Party’s activities, about its ideology, about other national and international black struggles. The newspaper offered a “serve the people” programme, connecting local needs with larger radical issues, across the U.S. and the imperialist globe. Ex-cons, without jobs, who’d barely finished high school, who’d never written a line, were working at the newspaper, learning new skills while becoming politically organised and conscious.

In The Black Panther, Cleaver published his classic essay, “On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party.” There, he points the finger at the labour unions and the Democratic Party, and at the “Marxist-Leninists.” Cleaver reckons the working class is “the rightwing of the proletariat, and the lumpenproletariat is the leftwing.” “O.K. We’re the lumpen,” he says. “Right on. The lumpenproletariat are all those who have no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of capitalist society… who have never worked and never will.” We’re the “criminal element,” too, he says, “those who live by their wits, those who don’t even want a job, who hate to work and can’t relate to punching some pig’s time clock, who would rather punch a pig in the mouth and rob him than work for him.” “But even though we are lumpen,” Cleaver says, “we are still members of the Proletariat, a category that theoretically cuts across national boundaries.”

So, “WHO SPEAKS FOR THE LUMPENPROLETARIAT?,” wonders Cleaver, in a question still requiring a hard answer. The lumpen finds itself in a peculiar predicament with respect to the working working class. It’s been locked out of the economy, sometimes locked itself out. It doesn’t engage in direct action against the system of oppression; doesn’t focus rebellion on the picket line; can’t call a strike against the factory bosses. The lumpen can’t manifest its complaints through any labour union. “It’s forced to create its own forms of rebellion,” Cleaver says, “which are consistent with its condition in life.” The lumpen is left with little choice “but to manifest its rebellion in the University of the Streets.”

“Streets belong to the lumpen,” Cleaver says, “and it is in the streets that the lumpen will make their rebellion.” This militant reasoning “is often greeted by hoots and howls from the spokesmen of the working class in chorus with the mouthpieces of the bourgeoisie. These talkers like to put down struggles of the lumpen as being ‘spontaneous’, ‘unorganised,’ and ‘chaotic and undirected’. But the lumpen moves anyway, refusing to be straightjacketed or controlled.”

Spontaneity always expresses itself in the street. The street is the last bastion of society that hasn’t been entirely dominated by bourgeois institutions. (It’s crucial it stays that way.) Institutions fear the street, try to cordon off streets, repress street spontaneity. They want to decant street people from the street, patrol and police the street, quell the apparent disorder of the street, reaffirm order in the name of the law. We know enough from past street revolts involving lumpenproletariat that streets fill the void left by institutions; they let the voice of the voiceless make itself heard.

That voice can’t make itself voluble anyplace else. Sometimes mass violence in the street is unavoidable, even justifiable: it reveals the glaring lag between “the people” and degenerate social institutions, including out-of-touch politicians. We might think of the black lumpen revolts of 1965, in Watts, and 1967, in Detroit; or indeed across the U.S. and the world throughout 1968; even in 1992, in Los Angeles, with the so-called “Rodney King” uprising; and then we’ve had assorted “riots” in Britain, in 1981, in Liverpool (Toxteth) and London (Brixton), as well as in 2011, when widespread looting and arson ignited many cities; meantime, in 2005, the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois revolted. And the recent gilets jaunes violence attests to masses of peripheral people demanding their core rights on the streets.

There’s a deep history of ruling classes fearing the dangerous classes, fearing them in the street, fearing their neighbourhoods, stigmatising their neighbourhoods. The French historian Louis Chevalier long ago showed how dangerous class criminality was often simply a strategy to survive an urban environment where the odds were stacked against poor people. Chevalier’s laboratory was Paris; and in Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes (1958), he concentrates on the first half of the nineteenth century, when the criminal activity of the Parisian dangerous classes set a capitalist precedent: it became the most normal aspect of urbanising everyday life.

Chevalier was a historian who’d weened himself off statistical facts gleaned from official archives. He favoured instead the rich descriptions of the great nineteenth century novelists, particularly Balzac, Chevalier’s hero, whose epic Comédie humaine (comprising some 91 novels) represented a vast document of social realism, a tremendous historical resource to be tapped. Balzac’s novels, Chevalier said, sharply define the link between the dangerous classes and the upper classes, with the “honest” labouring classes wedged somewhere in between. Balzac remained a long-life Royalist yet hated an ascendant bourgeoisie with such spleen that he frequently threw in his lot with the lower classes, whom he lived amongst and wrote about with considerable compassion and sympathy.

The backdrop of Balzac’s creative universe was the collapse of the Ancien Régime (which he lamented) and the massive demographic and economic changes the French capital was undergoing from the 1830s onwards. “This unbalanced development of resources and population,” Chevalier said, meant “crime was now an aspect of poverty.” Chevalier, like Balzac, deigns here to Thomas Malthus and the English parson’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which Marx pilloried in Capital. (“The great sensation this pamphlet caused,” Marx had said, “was due solely to the fact that it corresponded to the interests of a particular party.”)

Malthusian ideas were much in vogue then; and the claim that lower class population growth was rapidly outrunning available resources was heartily cheered by a gallic gentry across the Channel. Balzac seems to have swallowed Malthusian thought wholesale, without really thinking about it, without really considering its reactionary implications. From the Malthusian standpoint, the rise of the dangerous classes was directly correlated to a depletion of economic resources; there are just too damn many of the buggers, breeding like rabbits, swelling their ranks through an “absolute” law of population the likes of which Marx decried in “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”; there, he’d said, the creation of wealth progressively produces a relative surplus population. Nothing absolute about it.

The Malthusians were dead against social welfare: it would mean the poor would only reproduce even more numerously. The fertility of dangerous classes had to be curbed; beggars should either be sent to the workhouse or kicked out of town. Malthus himself was merciless in denying relief to the poor, instrumental in helping pass the Amendment Act of 1834 Poor Law, revising existing legislation. He said it had been too easy for the poor to receive aid and they were abusing the old system. Kicking them off welfare was in their best interests; it’d force the lazy blighters to find honest graft, spend less time fucking about. It was a precursor of classic conservative pretzel logic that prevails to this day. [2]

In Balzac’s Paris, proletarians were dangerous because of their desperate situation on the margins of an urban life in transition. Bourgeois capitalism and its factory system was upsizing the city while downsizing the petty-bourgeois artisan, converting the latter into a mere deskilled wage-labourer. And technological change would soon see off the factory-hand, chase them onto the streets where the “hospital” (Marx’s label) of pauperism awaited them. Like everything else under capitalism, pauperism is actively “produced”: “its production,” says Marx, “is included in that of the relative surplus population, its necessity is implied by their necessity; along with the surplus population, pauperism forms a condition of capitalist production, and of the capitalist development of wealth.”

Marx was an admirer of Balzac; allusions to the Frenchmen’s writings are scattered throughout Marx’s works. He was even reputed to be planning a monograph devoted to creator of La Comédie humaine; alas, he never realised it. Engels was another fan, once remarking in a letter (to the radical journalist Margaret Harkness) that “one of the greatest features in old Balzac” is his “Social Realism.” “His satire is never keener,” Engels added, “his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply—the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry, the men, who at that time (1830-6) were indeed the representatives of the popular masses.”

It’s all the more surprising, then, why Marx and Engels should home in exclusively on Balzac’s top-down perspective, on his excoriations of “the nobles.” Why overlook that other aspect of his social realism: its bottom-up picaresque evocations of the dangerous classes? Marx and Engels make short shrift of Balzac’s explorations of their habits and hopes, of their shiftless cacophonous world, which he depicts with both charm and menace. They seem content to have Balzac take apart the elite guys, without seeing how some of his most fascinating and intriguing characters are poor guys, hailing from the lowest depths of the popular masses.

Take the criminal genius Jacques Collin (aka Vautrin, aka the Spanish priest Abbé Carlos Herrera). Collin was a master of disguise and dissimulation, Balzac says, a dab hand at ruse and seduction. In his assorted guises, he haunts the whole of Balzac’s oeuvre, quite literally haunts it, epitomising how the shadowy dangerous classes could unnerve the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois society had helped create this species; but its very being, its very underground existence, its dark satanic reputation, became a constant source of terror for ruling classes.

Balzac was quietly protective of Jacques Collin, could never quite bring himself round to kill off his criminal hero. At the end of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (cf. “The Last Incarnation of Vautrin”), Balzac has Collin negotiate his own release from Paris’s Conciergerie prison, afterwards hanging up his swag bag and “retiring in 1845 or thereabouts.” Collin’s nickname was “Trompe-la-Mort”—“Dodgedeath”—because of his uncanny knack of escaping incarceration, his hair’s-breath avoidance of the gallows. Collin belonged to a highly organised secret criminal association that seemed to mesmerise Balzac: la haute-pègre—the high underworld (the swell mob in some English translations)—a diverse network of malefactors in which the lowest of the low seemed to attain the highest of the high; Jacques Collin reigned as its king and mastermind, as its ringleader and royalty.

The high underworld had its own argot and secret language, its own passwords and codes of behaviour, its own cells and organisations within organisations, operating in a subterranean hide-out of dives and inns, of curtained backrooms and seedy bordels. Members of the haute-pègre considered themselves above the law, taking a pride in flouting the law, living by their own laws. In Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Balzac says “these dukes and peers of the underworld had founded, between 1815 and 1819, the famous society of the ‘Dix-Mille’, so-called from the agreement by virtue of which none of them undertook an operation in which the loot was less than ten thousand francs.” The haute-pègre existed as an underground republic, as a shadow democracy, which, Balzac claims, “presents in the social scene a reflection of those illustrious highwaymen whose courage, character, exploits and eminent qualities will always be admired.” [3]

Louis Chevalier produced two other works on the dangerous classes: Montmartre du plaisir et du crime (1980), on Paris’s famous northern bohemian quartier in the first half the twentieth century, with its artists, low-lifers and mauvais garçons; and another, The Assassination of Paris, three years earlier, devoted to a different sort of criminal dangerous class. This time the perpetrators were more dangerous than ever before, principally because they came from the “respectable” high-life and wore suits and ties: the polytechniciens—the elite bureaucrats educated at France’s grandes écoles—who’d systematically orchestrated the deadly coup de grâce.

This dangerous dangerous class has instigated a greedy feast—a Grande Bouffe—of rape and pillage; technocrats, in cahoots with a new breed of neoliberal business executives, more brazenly entrepreneurial than their forebears, frequently schooled in the U.S., had reorganised Parisian space, done it rationally and profitably in their own crass class image. The wrecker’s ball had torn into medieval neighbourhoods, emptying them of their popular life, built superhighways along the Seine, ripped out old market halls. “Paris is now a closed universe,” Chevalier said, “disinfected, deodorised, devoid of the unexpected, without surprises, with nothing shocking, a well-protected ordered world.”

Chevalier saw the destruction of les Halles, Paris’s central wholesale food and flower market, with its wonderful old glass and cast iron pavilions, as the violation of the City of Light, as its fatal blow. “With les Halles gone,” he said, “Paris is gone.” It’d been the heart and soul of Paris, its ignoble viscera, a palpitating living tissue attached to the rest of the city by nerves and ligaments, by vessels and veins; and such “radical surgery” augurs very badly for the popular future of the city, Chevalier thought. The bloody smell of les Halles—the authentic odour of its working class streets, of butcher’s shops and triperies, of flower sellers and cheap cafés—had been supplanted by “that frightful jumble of pipes and conduits and ducts that they have dubbed the gas works.”

Chevalier meant the Pompidou Centre, “baptised after my unfortunate comrade,” he said, “whom I cannot bring myself to believe was personally responsible for this horrible thing.” “It is blue,” Chevalier quipped, “yet Paris is grey.” He’d been a schoolmate of the French President, still lunched with him almost every week; yet Chevalier ventured into a demi-monde where his President never ventured and loved the democracy of old les Halles, where people from all walks of life and classes—from high society to no society at all—once mingled. “In the old popular neighbourhood from which all the bums have been removed,” he lamented, “one now meets only countless copies of the mink-coated woman walking her dog. Thank God, the dogs at least are not all of the same species. As for the bums, I put amongst them, without hesitation, those most cherished children of Parisian historians.” [4]

Chevalier’s attack on planners and urban managers in The Assassination of Paris was perhaps the first to challenge the emergence of a new brand of city, underwritten by a new kind of economic philosophy: the neoliberal city, dominated by a dangerous class of neoliberals who over the course of the 1980s and 1990s would supersede the ancien urban régime. The popular city began wilting under a historic compromise between a neomanagerialist class and an ascendant cadre of free market businessmen. They’d soon conjoin into a hybrid Frankenstein: entrepreneurs transmogrifying into state managers and state managers into commercial entrepreneurs, embracing one another on the threshold of urban change and global capitalist transformation.

At the new millennium, this new order was well and truly over its birth-pangs. As it stands to date, the assassination of almost all big cities has been perpetrated by a shadowy criminal underworld similarly beyond the law. The only difference now is that this underworld makes the law, rules governments, controls the mass media, operates unashamedly overground, across the planetary airwaves, peddling its credos and crudities morning, noon and night and much of the time in between. It also presents itself with an irreconcilable contradiction, an insuperable dialectic of a neoliberal economy, on the one hand, with its laws of motion sucking in and spitting out a residual surplus population as a condition for its billionaire wealth production; on the other hand, this economic order at the same time begets its progeny, the neoliberal city, which wants to rid itself of this self-same poor lumpen, cleanse its streets of people who have no place to go and who won’t disappear. [5]

What can today’s dangerous classes learn from yesterday’s? When Balzac was scribbling away in the 1830s and Marx still a fresh-faced lad, another kind of clandestine society—“The Society of the Seasons”—met, countenancing conspiracy as one method for instigating insurrection. Its leaders, like the haute-pègre, went largely unseen; secret meetings recruited foot soldiers from the intelligentsia and lumpenproletariat, who all pledged allegiance within a hierarchy of cells—a “week” meant six men and a leader; a “month,” twenty eight members plus a leader; three months made a “season,” and four seasons a “year.” This network hardly stretched beyond Paris; its membership never topped a thousand revolutionaries, around three years of “seasons.” [6] Yet the covert nature of its cells unsettled the powers-that-be, and meant the Society punched above its weight—or else seemed to threaten to.

Maybe The Society of the Seasons offers some suggestive hints about what needs to be done now, about how to change our own inclement weather? Maybe we could experiment with a similar seasonal underground today? That way we might avoid those dangerous classes—as Fanon and the Black Panthers had insisted—getting recruited by the enemy, woo them over instead to participate in a new progressive movement. Just as it did almost two centuries earlier, this Society would need to establish covert cells in the faubourgs and banlieues, setting up leaders and organisers there. Full-time organisers and tacticians could then spearhead a plot to stymie the dominant flow of things.

Against a backdrop of rising unemployment, precarity and alienation, autonomous lefties of different stripes and persuasions—black bloc anarchists and dangerous classes who’ve never been politically active before, men and women, blacks and whites, gays, straights and trans, casseurs and voyous (and voyelles) from the ’hood—all need to be somehow encouraged to join in, welcomed into cells, so they can positively channel their energies and dissatisfactions. Sites of encounter wouldn’t be fancy: ordinary cafés and bars, street corners and youth centres in the peripheral estates, bowling alleys and pool halls at the local mall, school and university cafeterias, independent bookstores, anywhere where young people might hang out. Dialogue might sometimes be online but preferably face-to-face. Secrecy would be paramount during plotting, given how the forces of law and order crack down on subversive activity, tainting everything alternative, anything it doesn’t like, as criminal and/or “terrorist.”

One advantage to those without work is, of course, that they have free-time; so why not use this precious time socially? Fill it with other people, talking about one’s own predicament, which is other people’s predicament. Meeting people without jobs or with irregular jobs lets isolated people feel less isolated, creating a conscious collective with time on its hands, discussing publicly political affairs. Many unemployed people are glad they no longer have a life on the rack. But the perpetual menace is bureaucratic harassment and humiliation, a constant institutional intrusion into your private life, having to prove you’re “actively seeking work,” actively seeking pointless work that nobody really needs, that nobody would ever miss, that lasts too long and pays too little.

Many people, from the far right to the far left, are always up in arms about unemployment, always struggling against unemployment, always trying to dam its torrential flow. It’s never going to work. Many see unemployment as a dirty word, as a negative label, as a pathology. To be unemployed is to be a person without work. But must we forever define ourselves by work, as workers, and nothing else? Marx taught us why unemployment will never be eradicated from our society, such as it’s organised and run. The factory’s going badly. So you lay off workers. The factory’s going well. So you invest in new automation and lay off workers. It’s a no-win situation—no-win for everybody except the bosses and shareholders.

Work for the vast majority people means time spent doing something that has absolutely no meaning for the doer: an alienated activity, with an alienated product (if there is a product), commandeered by an alienating organisation, all conspiring to shape an alienated self. Many twenty- and thirty-somethings these days are learning how to re-evaluate their “career” choices, as well as the whole notion of career itself, because they’re smart enough to know that they might not have anything deemed “career” anymore. In fact, there’s now a whole generation of college-educated twenty-somethings who recognise they’ll never work a “proper” salaried job. They’re not turned on by temping or interning, either, by any “gig” economy. They’re a new lumpenproletariat.

Perhaps we can scheme alternative survival programmes, other methods through which we don’t so much “earn a living” as “live a life.” Perhaps we can self-downsize and confront the torment of work that forever jars: work is revered in our culture yet at the same time workers are becoming superfluous; you loath your job, your boss, loath the servility of what you do, of how you do it, the pettiness of the tasks involved, yet want to keep your job at all costs. You see no other way of defining yourself other than through work, than what you do for a living. Perhaps it’s time for us to get politicised around non-work? Then the lumpen might really become dangerous.

These are “truths” that any Society of the Seasons might promote and disseminate. In its Marxist guise, organisation needs to begin again underground. The underground was the stomping ground for lumpen radicals in the 1960s and it has to be again. But a new underground. Agitate again, build up again, somewhere cheap, somewhere far away. Or perhaps close by. Yet underground. For it’s true today that truth is more truthful in the poor underground than in the wealthy overground. Truth won’t be voiced from the rich core, but from the poor periphery, from the margins of life, from the margins of our cities, from bedsits and sunken basements, from communal squats, from grungy banlieues, from broken-down informal zones à défendre (ZAD), defended everywhere.

The other likelihood is that truth will get communicated via old means not new media. It’ll be shared by word-of-mouth, and on paper, in print form, not just online. Eldridge Cleaver was right to emphasise the importance of a newspaper in organising, with real pages. We need one, probably more than one. We need to reinvent the brawling underground press of the 1960s and 1970s, put a fresh spin on this old idea, and inspire a new audience of readers out there now. In their day, newspapers like Ramparts so rattled the conservative establishment that the CIA spied on them. (In its pages, Ramparts exposed the CIA’s surveillance and caused a huge uproar.)

In the late 1960s, there were around 500 underground newspapers, each belonging to an “Underground Press Syndicate.” All were run as collectives, frequently home-baked, printed on shoestring budgets; editorship usually identified with the counter-culture, with drop-outs and marginals. Some the best-known papers, like The Berkeley Barb and Rat Subterranean News (in a wink to Fanon?), had widespread and loyal readerships, shining because of the integrity of their reporting and the quality of the writing. News stories had an honesty that commercial media never had or lost long ago.

The problem with today’s commercial media, especially social media, is its saturation: there’s just too much of it, too much peddling of lies, too much fear and loathing. Over the airwaves, we’re literally flooded with truths, making it hard to decide which truth isn’t a lie. Through the underground press other truths might emerge, from the bottom-up, like they once did, via the tried and tested printed word, in a newspaper you can trust, that brings integrity to its reportage, correcting mainstream bias and online distortion. It might also help shift the debate from opposing to proposing.

And from this underground a new underground might take hold, together with some new propositions, affirming a different kind of citizenship; not an official citizenship but a sense of identity inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation—underneath it, perhaps; not expressive of a legal right bestowed by the bourgeois nation-state; nor with any flag or country or border. At this point I can only label it something phantom-like, a shadow citizenship, something haunting, lying latent: the repressed will of masses of people yet to find its dangerous collective self.



[1] Neither translator was a professional linguist. Moore was a socialist judge, based in Manchester, whom Engels knew and who had earlier translated The Communist Manifesto; Aveling was the common-law husband of Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor. For the record, The Communist Manifesto does mention the “dangerous classes,” “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society,” says Marx. But, as Marx sees them, the only danger they pose is to themselves.

[2] “Let us note incidentally,” Marx ironises in a footnote to Capital, Chapter 25, “that although Malthus was a parson of the Church of England he had taken the monastic vow of celibacy… This circumstance favourably distinguishes him from other Protestant parsons, who have flung off the Catholic requirement of the celibacy of the priesthood, and taken ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ as their special Biblical mission to such an extent that they generally contribute to the increase of the population to a really unbecoming extent, whilst at the same time preaching the ‘principle of population’ to the workers.”

[3] The haute-pègre really existed in the first half of the nineteenth century; and Balzac’s Jacques Collin was loosely based on a real-life character, Eugène-François Vidocq. Vidocq himself was a criminal mastermind who knew so much about this underworld that, in the end, like Jacques Collin, he turned crime against itself, morphing into the first-known private detective and founder of a national detective agency known as the Sûreté Nationale. For some time Vidocq assumed a life as double-agent, a dialectical spy, though often which way the arrows pointed was blurry. His life of crime and as a criminalist captured the literary imagination of several writers, not just Balzac but Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe (cf. “The Murders of Rue Morgue”).

[4] Guy Debord, who once associated himself with the Parisian dangerous classes in the fifties and sixties, found a strange affinity with the conservative Chevalier. In Panégyrique, he wrote: “It was almost as though… I was the only person to have loved Paris, because, to begin with, I saw no one else respond to this matter in the repugnant seventies. But afterwards I learned that Louis Chevalier, the city’s old historian, had published then, without too much being said about it, The Assassination of Paris. So we could count at least two righteous men in that city at the time.”

[5] In UK cities, there’s been talk about scrapping a 195-year-old Vagrancy Act (1824). Now, there are so many homeless people sleeping rough and begging on British streets that to criminalise them is both a savage flouting of human rights and an over-stretching of police resources. According to the homeless charity “Crisis,” rough sleeping has increased 70 percent between 2014-18; homeless encampments have tripled during the past 5 years. As Crisis say, nobody should be criminalised for having nowhere to live (see “Calls for 195-year-old Vagrancy Act to be Scrapped,” The Guardian, June 19, 2019).

[6] The Society of the Seasons was founded by two great republican revolutionaries, Louis-Auguste Blanqui and Armand Barbès, prominent organisers in the armed insurrection of May 1839 and June Days of 1848. Each devoted his life’s work to not working, to conspiring to overthrow the ruling regime. Marx called Blanqui “the head and heart of the proletarian party in France”; and of Barbès, he thought him “the scourge of the establishment.” In the late 1830s, Barbès wrote a fascinatingly-titled pamphlet: A Few Words to Those Who Sympathise With Workers Without Work.

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