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.Continue reading