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Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, have some basic things in common: German philosophers writing in German, deeply influenced by Hegel, separated by less than a century. One was taken, however unjustly, as inspiration by murderous political régimes a hundred years after his lifetime; the other proclaimed his support for a murderous political régime during his lifetime. But something else about them has struck me more recently. Both are attempting in some way to come to grips with the philosophical meaning of the modern capitalist world in which they lived and we still live.

Specifically, I see a striking similarity between the analysis of commodities with which Marx opens Capital, and Heidegger’s analysis of electrical energy generation in The Question Concerning Technology. Both thinkers are examining something in the physical world which is characterized by interchangeability, in a way that it was not in earlier times, and they find this interchangeability weird. Not weird because it is unusual; quite the opposite. It is a commonplace in their world and ours. But they are acutely aware that this commonality is something new, something in its way idiosyncratic to the modern capitalist world, not found in the worlds that preceded it. Most of us in this world don’t normally see how weird the interchangeability is, and Marx and Heidegger want to make us see that. I think neither could do this without the background of Romanticism and its lionizing – romanticizing – of the premodern world, though that is not to say that either thinker is a Romantic himself.

Marx’s analysis of commodities focuses on equivalence, in its most literal sense. That is, whether with the intermediary of money or directly as barter, commodity exchange requires that one commodity be taken as equal in value – its exchange value – to another. Marx says that we can clarify the “peculiarities of the equivalent form” by going back to “the great investigator who was the first to analyse the value-form, like so many other forms of thought, society and nature. I mean Aristotle.” (p151 in the Penguin edition) He turns to Aristotle’s analysis of justice in Nicomachean Ethics V.5, which says “There can be no exchange without equality, and no equality without commensurability.” Because Aristotle lived in a slave society, he was unable to see that behind this equality of exchange always lies labour (or so Marx says). But the labour behind a commodity becomes invisible in the capitalist mode of production as well, as mystification or fetishism. There is something straightforward about making wood into a table for personal use. But something changes when it is made for exchange:

So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it takes on these properties as the product of human labour…. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will. (163-4)

In commodities “The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products as labour as values”, and so, “The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labout themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things.” (164-5) It is the equivalence implied in the exchange form that allows us to lose sight of the labour that truly underlies the commodity. This equivalence hides the true nature of the object as product of labour.

The Question Concerning Technology (which also invokes Aristotle on multiple occasions) is one of Heidegger’s clearer and more understandable writings, which isn’t saying much. In it, Heidegger is concerned with modern technology, rather than capitalism per se. Such technology emerged under capitalism, though it also existed under Soviet-style Communism. Modern technology

puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such. But does this not hold true for the old windmill as well? No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it. (296)

The old windmills’ functioning was directly connected to their effect: the wind moved the sails, which rotated the apparatus to mill grain. In contrast, modern technology (such as power-generating wind turbines) provides a “standing-reserve”, where “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.” For example, “uranium is set up to yield atomic energy, which can be unleashed either for destructive or for peaceful purposes.” There is a “monstrousness” in the process of converting the poetic Rhine into a standing-reserve of hydroelectricity. And this standing-reserve is also a concealing:

Whatever stands by in the sense of standing-reserve no longer stands over against us as object. Yet an airliner that stands on the runway is surely an object. Certainly. We can represent the machine so. But then it conceals itself as to what and how it is. Revealed, it stands on the taxi strip only as standing-reserve, inasmuch as it is ordered to insure the possibility of transportation. For this it must be in its whole structure and in every one of its constituent parts itself on call for duty, i.e., ready for takeoff. (296-7)

So, for both Marx and Heidegger, there is a simple, transparent form that objects, like a table built for our own purposes can take, which hides nothing from view. But in the modern capitalist world that they and we live in, objects appear as something different, something that conceals, mystifies, fetishizes.

Moreover, it seems to me, there is something in common in the specific nature of that fetishization. The commodity and the standing-reserve have in common an equivalence and a universality. When you build a table for yourself, it has its value just in the use, of putting things on; an old windmill is used just for milling grain. These objects exist in their particularity. (Marx notes that in medieval Europe, with an economy based on personal relations and payments in kind, “The natural form of labour, its particular­ity – and not, as in a society based on commodity production, its universality – is here its immediate social form.” I think Heidegger would sympathize.)

But when you build a table for sale, or when a windmill is used for wind power, suddenly there is an interchangeability at play, even a universality. The table’s sale can purchase any other commodity that is seen as equivalent in exchange-value to it. The wind turbine’s power can be used to power any electrical device that requires that amount of electricity. Atomic energy can be used for peaceful or destructive purposes. The choice of what specific good is purchased, what specific device is powered, is up to the desire and will of the humans in charge of it, rather than the nature of the object. The only limitations on that desire or will are limitations of quantity, of number: that is, the produced commodity has an exchange value in dollars or deutschmarks, and the hydro dam produces electricity in watts, and the commodities purchased or the devices powered can go up to a maximum of that number, that dollar value, that many kilowatts. (Such a quantity, in turn, lends itself easily to that maximizing so endorsed by those enthusiastic proponents of capitalism, the utilitarians.) In this contrast between a mystified universalized quantification under modern capitalism, on one hand, and natural objects produced for personal use or feudal bonds on the other, I think Marx’s and Heidegger’s critiques line up surprisingly well.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two thinkers on this topic lies in their differing valuations of the social form they are observing. For Heidegger, as far as I can tell, it is pure “monstrousness”, to the point that he resisted getting electricity in his hut as long as he could. Marx, though, sees capitalist mystifications not only as eventually giving way to a bright communist future, but worthy of admiration in their own right. In the Communist Manifesto he reminds us that the capitalist bourgeoisie “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.” It seems to me that, in his ability to see both positive and negative, Marx is the profounder and more dialectical of the two (on this topic, at least). Nevertheless I suspect we illuminate something about both Marx and Heidegger by seeing the similarities in their critiques.