and I’m not the kind of Marxist that reads Marx, but I did attempt the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 because I was interested in the idea of “species being”- the “conscious life” and “conscious activity” which Marx ascribes only to humans, who make their own lives ‘the object of [their] will.’
Marx defines humans against other animals: only humans fulfil themselves (“produce”) best when their basic physical needs have already been met, while other animals have their whole purpose, according to him, in meeting those needs. But capitalism destroys our species-being (this “advantage over animals”). We're reduced to working for survival, while the value created by our labour goes into capital, and we are alienated from each other: “each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the relationship in which he finds himself as a worker.”
(And doesn’t it feel obscene, the masque of workplace interactions: me simpering ‘hello’ at my boss, who could sack me, or the man I saw standing at a self-service checkout, sneering “Yes please?’ into the void to activate some functionary to work the machine for him, as if that function was all they were?)
|Snog, Marry, Avoid|
Philosophical definitions of the human tend to identify human attributes by declaring their absence in other animals (who are inattentively lumped into a totalised Other long after the publication of The Origin of The Species in 1859). For Adam Smith, only humans barter, for Lacan, only humans lie, for Levinas and Heidegger, only humans really die - Derrida discusses this in The Animal That Therefore I Am. But, as primatologist Franz De Waal writes, the traits that distinguish us belong to a pattern of specialised traits marking out different species, all developments from a common evolutionary history, solutions to the same problem of maintaining life. We can understand ourselves better in relation to other life-forms than in opposition. Like apes, humans negotiate the world very much through our hands - we have a “handy” intelligence. Like horses, we prefer places with views.
Humans thrive, like other animals thrive, by being free to enjoy our particular nature, and what De Waals calls our “magic wells” of ability - for humans, things like language, communication, arts and sciences - the things that I think are meant by what Marx calls our “spiritual inorganic nature.”
Marx writes that humans are part of nature, and nature part of the human mind, “the material, the object and the instrument of [our] life activity”. At the same time, the polarisation of humans and other animals is fundamental to his definition of species-being. His figurative language also uses the human:animal binary to show how humans are denatured: the worker under capitalism is made “bestial”, “an animal reduced to the minimum bodily needs”.
The way the idea of ‘the animal’ is used to represent degradation reflects human actions towards animals, rather than some mindless and wretched quality actually belonging to every other creature in existence. Because of what we do to them, animals represent bodily life that is brutalised and exploited, while the disembodied mind represents mastery - the force which is able to exploit. This dynamic has been fundamental to how people are treated under capitalism, whereby the rational force (the coloniser, the capitalist) subjugates the gross, lucrative body (women, workers and colonised people).
Marx writes that communism is “the restoration of man to himself”, giving us “time for intellectual exercise and recreation” and ending the corruption of human relationships by the hierarchies of the workplace. I think left wing politics should always focus on this connectedness: social connection and solidarity; self-determination and purpose in our actions; connection with the rest of nature. Marx equates communism to humanism, but to focus on the supremacy of the human, almost making a religion of our species, seems to me to be at odds with the reality of what we are (a product of evolution whose traits are homologous and analogous with those of other creatures), and how we live (in ecosystems, baby! Getting bat disease!).
“Life has not always existed and will not always exist”; “the shapely feminine arm… is simply the hooked wing of the primordial bird and the pectoral fin of the fish”. What a delight, what a fucking boon, to be part of the world! If we value ourselves, we have to value all of it. Politics should be about living our best life (as I believe Marx put it), which we can only do as animals, and in nature.