The Condition of Postmodernity (David Harvey): A Summary of Chapter Five

Condition PostmodernityA summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change.

This is a summary of chapter five. You like to read my summaries of chapters one and two and three first of all:

The Condition of Postmodernity: A Summary of Chapter 5.

NB this is a very heavy going chapter….

Modernism is an aesthetic response to conditions of modernity produced by modernization. A proper interpretation of the rise of postmodernism, therefore, ought to grapple with the nature of modernization. Only in that way will we be able to judge whether postmodernism is a different reaction to an unchanging modernization process, or whether it reflects  a radical shift in the nature of modernization itself, towards some kind of ‘post-industrial’ or even ‘post capitalist’ society.

Marx provides one of the earliest and most complete accounts of capitalist modernization. His theory of capitalist modernization makes for particularly compelling reading when set against the cultural theses of postmodernity.

In The communist manifesto Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie has created a new internationalism via the world market, together with:

  • ‘subjection of nature’s forces to man,
  • machinery,
  • application of chemistry to agriculture and industry,
  • steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs,
  • clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers,
  • whole populations conjured out of the ground.’

It has done this at great cost:

  • violence,
  • destruction of traditions,
  • oppression,
  • reduction of the valuation of all activity to the cold calculus of money and profit.


‘Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men’. (Marx and Engels, 1 952, 25) .

Marx here unleashes a rhetoric that defines the underside of al modernist aesthetics.

Marx begins Capital with an analysis of commodities, those everyday things (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) which we daily consume in the course of reproducing ourselves. Yet the commodity IS, he avers, ‘a mysterious thing’ because it simultaneously embodies both a use value (it fulfils a particular want or need) and an exchange value (I can use it as a bargaining chip to procure other commodities). This duality always renders the commodity ambiguous for us; shall we consume it or trade it away?

But as exchange relations proliferate and price-fixing markets form, so one commodity typically crystallizes out as money. With money the mystery of the commodity takes on a new twist, because the use value of money is that it represents the world of social labour and of exchange value. Money becomes the means by which we typically compare and assess the value of all commodities. Plainly, since the way we put value on things is important, an analysis of money is of interest.

The advent of a money economy, Marx argues, dissolves the bonds and relations that make up ‘traditional’ communities so that ‘money becomes the real community.’ We move from a social condition, in which we depend directly on those we know personally, to one in which we depend on impersonal and objective relations with others. As exchange relations proliferate, so money appears more and more as ‘a power external to and independent of the producers,’ so what ‘originally appears as a means to promote production becomes a relation alien’ to them.

Money concerns dominate producers. Money and market exchange draws a veil over, ‘masks’ social relationships between things. This condition Marx calls ‘the fetishism of commodities.’ It is one of Marx’s most compelling insights, for it poses the problem of how to interpret the real but nevertheless superficial relationships that we can readily observe in the market place in appropriate social terms.

The conditions of labour and life, the sense of joy, anger, or frustration that lie behind the production of commodities, the states of mind of the producers, are all hidden to us as we exchange one object (money) for another (the commodity). We can take our daily breakfast without a thought for the myriad people who engaged in its production. All traces of exploitation are obliterated in the object (there are no finger marks of exploitation in the daily bread). We cannot tell from contemplation of any object in the supermarket what conditions of labour lay behind its production.

Marx’s meta-theory seeks to tear away that fetishistic mask, and to understand the social relations that lie behind it. Marx would surely criticise postmodernists for simply focusing on the ‘masking’ without looking deeper at the social relations of production which lie behind the production of commodities.

But we can take the analysis of money deeper still. If money is to perform its functions effectively, Marx argues, it must be replaced by mere symbols of itself (coins, tokens, paper currency, credit), which lead it to be considered as a mere symbol, an ‘arbitrary fiction’ sanctioned by ‘the universal consent of mankind.’ Yet it is through these ‘arbitrary fictions’ that the whole world of social labour, of production and hard daily work, get represented.

In the absence of social labour, all money would be worthless. But it is only through money that social labour can be represented at all. The magical powers of money are compounded by the way owners ‘lend their tongues’ to commodities by hanging a price ticket on them, appealing to ‘cabalistic signs’ with names like pounds, dollars, francs.

So even though money is the signifier of the value of social labour, the perpetual danger looms that the signifier will itself become the object of human greed and of human desire (the hoarder, the avaricious miser, etc.).

Money, on the one hand a ‘radical leveller’ of all other forms of social distinction, but is itself a form of social power that can be appropriated as ‘the social power of private persons.

Postmodernism seems to be a reinforcement rather than a transformation of the role of money as Marx depicts it – after all postmodernism suggests that we should focus on:

  • signifier rather than the signified,
  • the medium (money) rather than the message (social labour),
  • the emphasis on fiction rather than function,
  • on signs rather than things,
  • on aesthetics rather than ethics.

As commodity producers seeking money, however, we are dependent upon the needs and capacity of others to buy. Producers consequently have a permanent interest in cultivating ‘excess and intemperance’ in others….’ Pleasure, leisure, seduction, and erotic life are all brought within the range of money power and commodity production. Capitalism therefore ‘produces sophistication of needs and of their means on the one hand, and a bestial barbarization, a complete, unrefined, and abstract simplicity of need, on the other’ (Marx, 1964, 148). Advertising and commercialization destroy all traces of production in their imagery, reinforcing the fetishism that arises automatically in the course of market exchange.

Furthermore, money, as the supreme representation of social power in capitalist society, itself becomes the object of lust, greed, and desire. Yet here, too, we encounter double meanings. Money confers the privilege to exercise power over others – we can buy their labour time or the services they offer, even build systematic relations of domination over exploited classes simply through control over money power.

Money, in fact, fuses the political and the economic into a genuine political economy of overwhelming power relations (a problem that micro-theorists of power like Foucault systematically avoid and which macro-social theorists like Giddens – with his strict division between allocative and authoritative sources of power – cannot grasp).

The common material languages of money and commodities provide a universal basis within market capitalism for linking everyone into an identical system of market valuation and so procuring the reproduction of social life through an objectively grounded system of social bonding.

Yet within these broad constraints, we are ‘free,’ as it were, to develop our own personalities and relationships in our own way, our own ‘otherness,’ even to forge group language games, provided, of course, that we have enough money to live on satisfactorily.

Money is a ‘great leveller and cynic,’ a powerful underminer of fixed social relations, and a great ‘democratizer’. As a social power that can be held by individual persons it forms the basis for a wide-ranging individual liberty, a liberty that can be deployed to develop ourselves as free-thinking individuals without reference to others. Money unifies precisely through its capacity to accommodate individualism, otherness, and extraordinary social fragmentation.

But by what process is the capacity for fragmentation latent in the money form transformed into a necessary feature of capitalist modernization?

Participation in market exchange presupposes a certain division of labour as well as a capacity to separate (alienate) oneself from one’s own product. The result is an estrangement from the product of one’s own experience, a fragmentation of social tasks and a separation of the subjective meaning of a process of production from the objective market valuation of the product.

A highly organized technical and social division of labour is one of the founding principles of capitalist modernization. This forms a powerful lever to promote economic growth and the accumulation of capital, particularly under conditions of market exchange in which individual commodity producers (protected by private property rights) can explore the possibilities of specialization within an open economic system.

This explains the power of economic (free market) liberalism as a founding doctrine for capitalism. It is precisely in such a context that possessive individualism and creative entrepreneurialism, innovation, and speculation, can flourish, even though this also means a proliferating fragmentation of tasks and responsibilities, and a necessary transformation of social relations to the point where producers are forced to view others in purely instrumental terms.

The existence of wage labour is also required before profit-seeking (launching money into circulation in order to gain more money) can become the basic way for social life to be reproduced.

The conversion of labour into wage labour means ‘the separation of labour from its product, of subjective labour power from the objective conditions of labour’ (Capital, 1: 3). When capitalists purchase labour power they necessarily treat it in instrumental terms: the labourer is viewed as a ‘hand’ rather than as a whole person and the labour contributed is a ‘factor’ (notice the reification) of production.

The purchase of labour power with money gives the capitalist certain rights to dispose of the labour of others without necessary regard for what the others might think, need, or fee and this suggests one of the founding principles upon which the very idea of ‘otherness’ is produced and reproduced on a continuing basis in capitalist society. The world of the working class becomes the domain of that ‘other,’ which is necessarily rendered opaque and potentially unknowable by virtue of the fetishism of market exchange. Where an ‘other’ already existed (along gender or race lines for example) Capitalism also made use of this.

Capitalists strategically impose all kinds of conditions upon the labourer. The latter is typically alienated from the product, from command over the process of producing it, as well as from the capacity to realize the value of the fruit of her efforts – the capitalist appropriates that as profit. The capitalist has the power to mobilize the powers of co-operation, division of labour, and machinery as powers of capital over labour.

The result is an organized detail division of labour within the factory, which reduces the labourer to a fragment of a person. The ‘division of labour within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, that are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him. This is enforced through hierarchies of authority and close supervision of tasks – of the workshop and the factory.

The division of labour in society ‘brings into contact independent commodity producers, who acknowledge no other authority but that of competition, it is anarchic

This enforced fragmentation, which is both social and technical, is further emphasized by the loss of control over the instruments of production. This turns the labourer effectively into an ‘appendage’ of the machine. Intelligence (knowledge, science, technique) is objectified in the machine, thus separating manual from mental labour and diminishing the application of intelligence on the part of the workers.

In all of these respects, the individual labourer is ‘made poor’ in individual productive powers ‘in order to make the collective labourer, and through him capital rich in social productive power’ (Capital, 1: 341). This process does not stop with the direct producers, with the peasants pulled off the land, the women and children forced to give of their labour in the factories and mines. The bourgeoisie ‘has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than callous “cash payment.”

[It] ‘has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’ (The communist manifesto, 45)

The ‘bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production because the ‘coercive laws’ of market competition force all capitalists to seek out technological and organizational changes that will enhance their own profitability vis-a-vis the social average, thus entraining all capitalists in leap-frogging processes of innovation that reach their limit only under conditions of massive labour surpluses.

Capitalism is necessarily technologically dynamic, not because of the mythologized capacities of the innovative entrepreneur but because of the coercive laws of competition and the conditions of class struggle endemic to capitalism.

The effect of continuous innovation, however, is to devalue, if not destroy, past investments and labour skills.

Creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital itself. Innovation exacerbates instability, insecurity, and in the end, becomes the prime force pushing capitalism into periodic paroxysms of crisis. Not only does the life of modern industry become a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis, and stagnation, ‘but the uncertainty and instability to which machinery subjects the employment, and consequently the conditions of existence, of the operatives become normal.’


All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the workers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (Capital, 1: 604)

The struggle to maintain profitability sends capitalists racing off to explore all kinds of other possibilities. New product lines are opened up, and that means the creation of new wants and needs. Capitalists are forced to redouble their efforts to create new needs in others. The result is to exacerbate insecurity and instability, as masses of capital and workers shift from one line of production to another, leaving whole sectors devastated, while the perpetual flux in consumer wants, tastes, and needs becomes a permanent locus of uncertainty and struggle. This is global in scope.

The resultant transformation in the experience of space and place is matched by revolutions in the time dimension, as capitalists strive to reduce the turnover time of their capital to ‘the twinkling of an eye’. Capitalism, in short, is a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history. If, therefore, ‘the only ‘secure thing about modernity is insecurity,’ then it is not hard to see from where that insecurity derives.

Yet, Marx insists, there is a single unitary principle at work that underpins and frames all of this revolutionary upheaval, fragmentation, and perpetual insecurity. The principle resides in what he calls, most abstractly, ‘value in motion’ or, more simply, the circulation of capital restlessly and perpetually seeking new ways to garner profits.

By the same token, there are higher-order co-ordinating systems that seem to have the power – though in the end Marx will insist that this power is itself transitory and illusory – to bring order to all this chaos and set the path of capitalist modernization on a more stable terrain. The credit system, for example, embodies a certain power to regulate money uses; money flows can be switched so as to stabilize relations between production and consumption, to arbitrate between current expenditures and future needs, and to shift surpluses of capital from one line of production or region to another on a rational basis.

But here, too, we immediately encounter a central contradiction because credit creation and disbursement can never be separated from speculation. Credit is, according to Marx, always to be accounted for as ‘fictitious capital,’ as some kind of money bet on production that does not yet exist. The result is a permanent tension between what Marx calls ‘the financial system’ (credit paper, fictitious capital, financial instruments of all kinds) and its ‘monetary base’ (until recently attached to some tangible commodity such as gold or silver). This contradiction is founded on a particular paradox: money has to take some tangible form (gold, coin, notes, entries in a ledger, etc.) even though it is a general representation of all social labour.

The question of which of the diverse tangible representations is ‘real’ money typically erupts at times of crisis. Is it better to hold stocks and share certificates, notes, gold, or cans of tuna, in the midst of a depression? It also follows that whoever controls the tangible form (the gold producers, the state, the banks who issue credit) that is most ‘real’ at a given time, has enormous social influence, even if, in the last instance, it is the producers and exchangers of commodities in aggregate who effectively define ‘the value of money’ (a paradoxical term which we all understand, but which technically signifies ‘the value of value’).

Control over the rules of money formation is, as a consequence, a strongly contested terrain of struggle which generates considerable insecurity and uncertainty as to the ‘value of value.’ In speculative booms, a financial system which starts out by appearing as a sane device for regulating the incoherent tendencies of capitalist production, ends up becoming ‘the main lever for overproduction and over-speculation.’

The state, constituted as a coercive system of authority that has a monopoly over institutionalized violence, forms a second organizing principle through which a ruling class can seek to impose its will not only upon its opponents but upon the anarchical flux mentioned above.  The tools of ‘control’ include:

  • regulation of money and legal guarantees of fair market contracts
  • fiscal interventions
  • credit creation
  • tax redistributions
  • provision of social and physical infrastructures
  • direct control over capital and labour allocations as well as over wages and prices,
  • the nationalization of key sectors,
  • restrictions on working class power,
  • police surveillance and military repression.

Yet the state is a territorial entity struggling to impose its will upon a fluid and spatially open process of capital circulation. It has to contest within its borders the factional forces and fragmenting effects of widespread individualism and rapid social change. It also depends on taxation and credit markets, so that states can be disciplined by the circulation process at the same time as they can seek to promote particular strategies of capital accumulation.

To do so effectively the state must construct an alternative sense of community to that based on money, as well as a definition of public interests over and above the class and secretarian interests and struggles that are contained within its borders. It must, in short, legitimize itself.

It is, therefore, bound to engage to some degree in the aestheticization of politics.

‘The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past,’ Marx argues, ‘but only from the future.’ It must strip off  ‘all superstition in regard to the past,’ else ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ and converts the cathartic tragedy of revolution into the ritual of farce. In pitting himself so mercilessly against the power of myth and the aestheticization of politics, Marx in effect affirms their remarkable powers to stifle progressive working-class revolutions.

Marx criticised Bonapartism as doing just this, and we can criticse Facism as doing the same in the 20th century.

The tension between the stability that state regulation imposes, and the fluid motion of capital flow, remains a crucial problem for the social and political organization of capitalism. This difficulty is modified by the way in which the state stands itself to be disciplined by internal forces (upon which it relies for its power) and external conditions – competition in the world economy, exchange rates, and capital movements, migration, or, on occasion, direct political interventions on the part of superior powers.

The relation between capitalist development and the state has to be seen, therefore, as mutually determining rather than unidirectional. State power can, in the end, be neither more nor less stable than the political economy of capitalist modernity will allow.

 There are, however, many positive aspects to capitalist modernity:

  • The potential for reducing the powers of nature-imposed necessities over our lives.
  • The creation of new wants and needs can alert us to new cultural possibilities (of the sort that avant-garde artists were later to explore).
  • Even the ‘variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer’ holds the potential to replace the fragmented worker ‘by the fully developed individual.
  • The reduction of spatial barriers and the formation of the world market not only allows a generalized access to the diversified products of different regions and climes, but also puts us into direct contact with all the peoples of the earth.
  • Above all, the passage to postmodernity opens up new vistas for human development and self-realization.

Revolutions in technology rendered possible by the division of labour and the rise of the materialist sciences had the effect of demystifying the processes of production (aptly called ‘mysteries’ and ‘arts’ in the pre-modern period) and opening up the capacity to liberate society from scarcity and the more oppressive aspects of nature-imposed necessity. This was the good side of capitalist modernization.

The problem, however, was to liberate us from the fetishisms of market exchange and to demystify (and by extension demythologize) the social and historical world in exactly the same way. This was the scientific task that Marx set himself in Capital.

However, until we reach socialism, there is always the possibility for nature to be re-mythologised.

It is out of the tension between the negative and positive qualities of capitalism that new ways to define our species being can be constructed: Capital may well create Bourgeois society and all of the exploitation and fetishisms that go along with it, but Capital also drives beyond national barriers and prejudices and beyond nature worship…. [beyond] all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproduction of old ways of life. (Grundrisse, 410)

Marx gives us plenty of advice on how we might fuse all the sporadic though widespread resistances, discontents, and struggles against the oppressive, destructive, fragmenting, and destabilizing aspects of life under capitalism so as to master the maelstrom and become collective creators of our own history according to conscious plan.

What Marx depicts, therefore, are social processes at work under capitalism conducive to individualism, alienation, fragmentation, ephemerality, innovation, creative destruction, speculative development, unpredictable shifts in methods of production and consumption (wants and needs), a shifting experience of space and time, as well as a crisis-ridden dynamic of social change. If these conditions of capitalist modernization form the material context out of which both modernist and postmodernist thinkers and cultural producers forge their aesthetic sensibilities, principles, and practices, it seems reasonable to conclude that the turn to postmodernism does not reflect any fundamental change of social condition.

The rise of postmodernism either represents a departure (if such there is) in ways of thinking about what could or should be done about that social condition, or else (and this is the proposition we explore in considerable depth in Part II) it reflects a shift in the way in which capitalism is working these days.

In either case, Marx’s account of capitalism, if correct, provides us with a very solid basis for thinking about the general relations between modernization, modernity, and the aesthetic movements that draw their energies from such conditions.

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