Sunday, 4 August 2019

POSTCARD FROM LYON: SAINT-EXUPERY AND THE LOST WORLD OF ENCHANTMENT

Founded at the confluence of two imposing rivers – the Rhone and the Saone – on a tiny peninsula curiously cut out by their fast running waters, Lyon was perfectly placed to exploit to the full the earliest historical form of capitalist enterprise – the commercial exchange of merchandise by means of rapid and inexpensive transport. At this stage, the capitalist entrepreneur accumulates capital not by directly employing living labour to produce goods but simply by facilitating the exchange of goods produced already by independent artisans and farmers. (Indeed, the very meaning of “entre-preneur” is “to take between”, in other words, to exchange. For Condillac, the entrepreneur was the agent who took goods to markets.) It is evident that in such circumstances the only source of profit for commercial capital is derived from the expansion of the ambit of exchange, by extending commerce to ever-increasing geographical areas. – Hence, the paramountcy of effortless means of transport. The commercial nature of Lyonnais wealth is evident from the squares and monuments and edifices surrounding them that were erected by the city’s bourgeoisie from the early modern age.
Thus seen, the layout and aspect of the city is in perfect congruity with its mercantile origins. What is incongruous, instead, is the preponderant homage that Lyon and its bourgeois citizens pay to what has become the city’s favourite son – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the world-renowned author of Le Petit Prince. The incongruity lies in the fact that the very short masterpiece written by Lyon’s own benjamin represents one of the most powerful late-romantic narrative critiques of the ravages of capitalist enterprise, and by extension of the Lyonnais bourgeoisie itself. The tiny tale is possibly the saddest cri de coeur that I have ever read against the traumatic catastrophic effects that the development of capitalism across the globe has engendered and that now are finally bringing our entire ecosphere very close to destruction. It is also possible for me to say that my entire intellectual life has been devoted to exploring and clarifying the real “scientific” social roots of this apocalyptic denouement beyond the emotional devastation of its passive contemplation.
Because, let us be clear, beyond languorous contemplation and pathos-filled condemnation, there is no doubt that Saint-Exupery does not even remotely begin to pose himself the question of why and how the world has come so close to the tragic condition that his “little prince” so innocently yet powerfully indicts. But the French raconteur was no political economist, which is why we cannot blame him for his analytical shortcomings. The overall and overwhelming pathos of Le Petit Prince is the Daguerreotype of the world of Disney fables so perceptively psycho-analyzed by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment. For whereas Disney initiates children, and by extension us adults, into the world of fabled enchantment, Saint-Exupery’s “little prince” does the opposite – he alerts us and even alarms us against the dis-enchantment operated by bourgeois-capitalist society – all the while pointing to “the world we have lost” that he piquantly exhorts us to regain.
Remember that this, seen through the eyes of a candid child, is the self-same “dis-enchantment” – the Ent-zauberung – decried by Max Weber as a result of that Rationalisierung of the world – the bureaucratic massification and political alienation of humans - framed by capitalist enterprise in its relentless and end-less pursuit of profit (end-less because without rational limit and without ultimate purpose or goal). (The “framing” of the world, in the sense of fixing and rigging, of taming and sullying, of orchestrating, regimenting and manipulating social life, permeates all late-romantic critiques of capitalism, from Marx himself in social science to Lukacs, Heidegger and Sartre in philosophy, and just about every modern novelist from Dickens to Hesse and beyond.) Saint-Exupery confronts this alienation, its irrationality and aim-lessness, at the very beginning of his short tale, in a chapter entitled significantly – “The Businessman”. When the little prince observes a businessman counting money, he asks innocently what he does once he has finished counting. And the businessman famously replies that after he finishes counting his money…. Why, he counts some more! The irrationality of this is that, first, counting is self-evidently end-less; second, and as important, is the fact that due to its end-lessness, counting must also be meaningless if it becomes the overriding purpose of human activity. We work to live, we do not live to work is a realization humans have to indicate that work must have a meaning beyond the mere formal operari – beyond the infinite and meaningless mechanical repetition of monotonous activity.
We were saying that Saint-Exupery does not ask about the social content, the social reality “behind” or responsible for, if you like, this pervasive “dis-enchantment” - or, as it is more commonly known since Hegel and Marx, “alienation” (Ent-fremdung) – with our life-world, social and natural. Max Weber does pose the question, and he finds it in that “exakte Kalkulation” that is behind capitalist enterprise and that is measured in money and that consists in “profits”. It is that auri sacra fames fatidically indicted and obliquely condemned by John Maynard Keynes in the inter-bellum period, just after Weber’s death. Yet, neither Weber (the greatest sociologist) nor Keynes (arguably the greatest economist) proceeded to elucidate the nature and content of this “exact calculation”, of this “profit”, of this “sacred hunger for gold”.
What is “profit”? What social reality lies behind it? It is not a “thing” – this much we know, however much facile economists would have us equate it with “utility”. But if not a “thing”, if profit represents the monetary expression or summation of a socio-political reality, how then can this social reality – by definition unquantifiable – come to be “quantified” in monetary terms? This is also the question that Benjamin Constant failed to answer when he opined that “War is impetuousness, commerce is calculation” – meaning that commerce is to be preferred to war because, as “calculation”, it is intrinsically “rational”. But this Rationalisierung (Weber) contains the seeds of its own dissolution – first because, as Weber realized by explicit reference to “the work ethic and the spirit of capitalism” - it is exquisitely “anti-eudaemonistic”, it is un-hedonistic in sharp contradiction with its ostensible aim “to accumulate riches or wealth” for personal gratification. Secondly, because it engenders the homogenization and massification of the world (the famous Ent-ausserung denounced by Marx and all manner of sociologists after him, from Simmel to Mannheim to the Frankfurt School). And third because these two things combined lead inexorably to our “estrangement” (hence, alienation, Ent-fremdung) from the world.

But above all else, the still-enchanted world of “the little prince” is an insuperably genial ploy by Saint-Exupery to alert us and warn against the most deleterious danger that all of the above evils - the “sacred hunger for money or riches”, the consequent massification of human social life, and finally the resulting alienation of humans from their “life-world” – the most deleterious danger is posed by two of the essential components of capitalism as a social mode of production: - and these are overpopulation and consumerism. These essential ingredients of capitalist industry and society engender nothing else, nothing other than the destruction of the ecosphere by human beings in the era in which the massive overpopulation of humans on planet Earth has led to the naming of our geological era as “the Anthropocene”.

Overpopulation and consumerism are essential to capitalism for reasons that we can encapsulate as follows. The essence of capitalist industry is profit-making. Profit in monetary terms is the difference between final revenue and initial investment. But profit originated from the “exchange” between the living labour “purchased” by the capitalist “in the market” with the dead labour, that is to say, the past living activity of workers that is now objectified in the products of living labour. In other words, the capitalist seeks to exchange the least amount of past dead labour or “wages” for the greatest “amount” of present living labour or working hours. Of course, no amount of “exact calculation” or any other wizardry will ever enable us to transmute living labour into dead objectified labour or produce for the simple reason that living human activity is unquantifiable in any terms – except through a purely political process whereby the terms of any such exchange can be imposed by the party seeking to quantify the terms of this “exchange”, known as wages!
The upshot of this evidently coercive and often violent “exchange” is quite obviously that the capitalist will wish to impose “overpopulation” on the society in which he operates because the ensuing competition among wage workers will result in the lesser amount of objectified labour or wages to be “exchanged” for their living labour. At the same time, the capitalist will wish for workers to seek to consume as much as possible so as to tether them to the products that the capitalist, as the owner of the means of production, forces them to produce. This process is known as consumerism, of course. And this process, tersely described, is what is leading not just to “the destruction of reason” (a phrase coined by George Lukacs) but indeed to the destruction of the ecosphere.
(To be continued )

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