By Brady Thomas Heiner
“[A] mass ego exists only in earthquakes and catastrophes, while otherwise objective surplus value prevails precisely through individual subjects and against them.” –Max Horkheimer
The capitalist system reduces human beings to commodities. Under its immanent logic, the unified surface of society is fragmented and rationalized in order to streamline economic production, making it more specialized and thereby more efficient. Thus, workers are reduced to units of abstract labor whose value is quantified and exchanged just like any other manufactured good. This law of equivalence–i.e. the law of the commodity form–dominates all social relations under the structure of advanced capital. However, it is veiled from mass consciousness by postindustrial technologies and mystificatory discourses. As Marx and Engels assert in The German Ideology, the modes of production at a given historical moment determine (in the last instance) the superstructural discourses that circulate and which ultimately serve to reproduce that infrastructural base. In other words, dominant ideology in this socio-historical moment reflects in thought the same fragmentation and specialization that individual and collective subjects experience in society.
Two words can accurately characterize contemporary society in the so-called United States of America: division and alienation. For, the division of labor in this free-market economy causes workers’ labor to appear to them as an alien force opposed to them, which enslaves them instead of being controlled by them. And also because the ethos of rationalization that stems from, and is foundational to, that division of labor underpins those processes by which communities are fragmented into alienated private individuals–a process which imposes a cleavage between the particular and the general interest in society. The capitalist system pits neighbor against neighbor under the auspices of ‘laissez-faire competition’, while, from behind a technological veil, the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value of those workers’ labor, reaping profits from a system that promotes antagonism and disunity among laborers. This division alienates us from our immediate communities as well as the greater communities that we live in. As Angela Y. Davis writes,
As capital makes its ingression into history, the worker is transfigured into an isolated private individual–isolated from the means of production (hence also from the means of subsistence) and equally isolated from the community of producers. To a hitherto unprecedented degree, workers are fragmented among themselves to the point of perceiving their own social relations as the nexus of exchange binding commodity to commodity. The fragmentation of the community of producers thus complements the fetishistic appearance of the commodity, the veiled crystallization of social relations under capitalism.
The structural, experiential and conceptual gap between the public and the private, between the political and the psychological, between history, or the social, and the ‘individual’ is so hypostasized that it “maims our existence as individual subjects and paralyzes our thinking about time and change just as surely as it alienates us from our speech itself.” This law of social life under capitalism is monopolized by the processes of reification; processes which penetrate not only the bodies but the very consciousness of individual subjects and communities enveloped in the hegemonic web of consumerism and commodity fetishism that is the late capitalist mode of production. Thus, we not only live as fragmented beings alienated from one another, we think, feel and understand phenomena in disjointed and inadequately partial ways.
However, the intensity of this feeling of disunity is quelled by the anesthetizing forces of the dominant ideology–an ideology infused with the logic of the commodity form. The primary forces of this ideology are that of naturalization and fetishism. The alienation that subjects under the capitalist system experience is presented to them as a natural relation. The organizing principle of society–the cash nexus–as well as the state that preserves and enforces that principle, are presented in dominant discourse as natural and immutable elements of social life that are not subject to transformation. This misrecognition of a system of social relations between humans for a system of commodity exchange is a symptom of the penetration of the commodity form into the consciousness of the individual subject, for as the commodity form permeates all aspects of culture and thought, the relations between humans that lie hidden in the immediate commodity relation, increasingly fade to the point where they can be neither recognized nor even perceived. Hence, the real life-process of capitalism–the extraction of surplus value from the labor force in the course of production–is regarded by the reified mind as the natural life-process of humanity.
The naturalized state of social and psychological fragmentation that results from the rationalizing system of capitalism becomes the subject of fetishism that saturates social life. Fetishism is literally the substitution of a part for the whole–a structural protection against the estrangement that is constituent of the reified social fabric. Thus, subjects under capital celebrate the cult of individuality and the “freedom” of individual choice (of course, choices are inevitably between one form of subjugation and another). Whence the development and success of the individual and the joys of the private sphere become the focus of social production and are protected against the “threat” of exterior infringement by all means necessary. Therefore, the part–e.g. the individual, the isolated case, the commodity, the image–becomes the emphasis, at the expense or total ignorance of the greater collective whole. Collective solidarity and communal relations are ignored as individuals work and save capital to purchase goods that function as substitutes for their greater estrangement from communal life. Thus, a new car with nineteen inch rims, tinted windows and a thousand dollar stereo system serves as a substitute for the fact that its owner works 10-hour days in a cubicle or on an assembly line where he functions merely as a cog within a greater bureaucratic manufacturing machine and where he has little to no contact with other human beings. It is in this way that individuality and the commodity act as a structural protection against (i.e. a disavowal of) the alienation and objectification of life under capitalism.
It is in this environment where division and alienation preside, where the individual has primacy over the collective, where commodities take the structural place of human relationships, that the Prison Industrial Complex has taken root and expanded to its current proportions. Prisons have come to function as fetishistic substitutes for the employment and enfranchisement of poor and racialized people in this country. As David Theo Goldberg claims in his essay on the political economy of prisons and policing, impoverished youth of color are considered surplus value in the capitalist economy of the United States. They are
an unstable commodity, the remainder stock, the detritus of the economy, an inhuman capital capable of producing profit on capital investment only by being treated as alien(able) objects, products to be traded in the marketplace of that new racially fashioned economy of the prison industrial complex.
Therefore, prisons serve as “warehouses” for those people the society has no other place for. And rather than depicting that surplus as an inadequacy of the capitalist social system–a system wherein some 80% of the wealth and resources lay in the hands of approximately 5% of the population–dominant discourse criminalizes and villainizes the politically disenfranchised, i.e. impoverished and racialized communities, and locks them away from public visibility. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is truly the ethos of the fetishistic economy that incarcerates over 2 million people (over 50% of which are people of color).
Discourse on and around the issues of imprisonment and policing occur in this material and epistemological climate and, hence, must be radically critiqued for moments when they fall victim to the processes of fetishization and depoliticization (i.e. naturalization) that veil the greater structural relations between these issues and the infrastructure and state that perpetuates and enforces them. Daily presented with false (fetishized) images of the socio-historical totality, we are faced with the task of mediating these images into a greater network of structural relations. As Karen Miller asserts in her essay on prison labor, our society which is preoccupied with crime (in part, with protecting the private property of (white) individuals from the perceived threat of violation by (poor and racialized) exterior forces) is ignorant of the root causes of crime (read economic and political disenfranchisement) and the goals of punishment (containment, as opposed to rehabilitation). The dominant population is satisfied with “image over substance, sound bites over complexity; lip service to American ideals and simultaneous repudiation of the realities of democracy.”
This is an epistemological problem that stems from an economic system that quantifies and divides human beings and fetishizes commodities. However, the sort of analysis suggested above and executed in the body of this essay is not limited to the dominant discourses which justify and support the prison industrial complex. This strain of critique must also be applied to discourses which in one mode or another criticize the prison system, but do so inadequately (from the radical perspective put forth here) because they take at face value and perceive as natural some of the deep structures of capitalist society that reproduce (and require for their vitality) the hegemony that these discourses allegedly rebuke. It is the aim of this essay to identify the strategies by which these texts which criticize the prison industrial complex and the policing of impoverished and racialized communities ignore the root causes of these hegemonic structures–i.e. capitalism. For this ignorance limits the potentially transformative resistant practices and alternative models such texts are able to prescribe and displays their complicity to the state that constructs and reproduces such structures.
Strategies of Containment
The Marxist hermeneutic espoused here is underpinned by the premise that all cultural texts are in one way or another profoundly ideological and have a vested interest in and a functional relationship to social formations based on violence and exploitation. Therefore, the restoration of the meaning of these cultural texts cannot be separated from a passionate and partisan assessment of everything that is oppressive in them and that knows complicity with privilege and class domination. Discourses, in this case on the prison industrial complex, have implicit ‘strategies’ (whether conscious or unconscious) that frame their subject matter in such a way as to contain and predeterminately demarcate the possibilities and responses that are thinkable. These tactics are what in a Marxist register are called strategies of containment. As Fredric Jameson claims, a strategy of containment is a narrative frame which “allows what can be thought to seem internally coherent in its own terms, while repressing the unthinkable which lies beyond its boundaries.” In the case of liberal humanist and some more radical critiques of the prison industrial complex, that which lay outside the ‘reasonable’ boundaries of thought configured in those texts is revolution–that is, the complete abolition of the prison system, the eradication of the repressive state apparatuses that construct it and the deracination of the capitalist system, and, thereby, class antagonism in its entirety.
In One Dies, Get Another, Matthew J. Mancini gives an historical account and critical assessment of the convict lease system in the Southern United States (a system that he historically brackets as having occurred between the years 1866-1928). Though the bulk of the text is devoted to detailed case studies of individual southern state histories of convict leasing, the ways in which Mancini frames the issues of his inquiry in the first section “Making Sense of Convict Leasing,” in the epigraph that prefaces the text and in the concluding remarks about the abolition of the convict lease system function as strategies by which he implicitly affirms his allegiance to the state and disregards the ways in which the exploitation that he documents is structurally rooted in the capitalist system of which he is entirely uncritical. Such strategies of containment reveal Mancini’s assumption that both capitalism and the state that reproduces it are natural and unquestionable institutions that stand unimplicated by his isolated critique of the southern convict lease system.
Mancini posits the convict lease system in the American south as an historical aberration, a claim that as we shall show causes his critique to be wrought with contradictions. In the first section, he cites a passage from Charles L. Flynn Jr. that is worth reproducing here. Flynn writes of “Southern society”:
The equation of whiteness with membership in society was inseparable from the implicit equation of black labor with agricultural labor as a whole and of whiteness with capital…. White equaled property, equaled capital, equaled society. Black equaled poverty, equaled labor, equaled something somehow alien.
To this Mancini writes that,
The social anomaly of citizens being outsiders helps to explain the penological anomaly of convict leasing [that existed in the south]. In the eyes of Southern whites, blacks’ “outsider” status had passed unchanged through the revolutionary events of 1861-65. From the perspective of the nation as a whole, however, their status as quintessential outsiders had ended. Now, more than ever, their own sense of honor mattered.
By calling the persistence of racial stratification in the postbellum south a ‘social anomaly’ and by claiming that the United States ‘as a whole’ had ended the practices of social exclusion and economic exploitation on the grounds of racial hierarchy after the Civil War, Mancini disavows the continuities inherent to antebellum and postbellum constitutions of blackness in dominant discourse and practice. By geographically and temporally isolating the postbellum exploitation and brutalization of black people to the convict lease system of the American south from 1866-1928, Mancini reveals both his belief that economic exploitation on the basis of race had (and has) ceased in the U.S. ‘as a whole’ and his confidence in the substantive and satisfactory change effected by state reform.
Shortly after making the claims above, Mancini attempts to distinguish between slavery and convict leasing by documenting various definitions of the former. He writes,
Economists tend to understand slavery in terms of exploitation; in neoclassical terms, slavery is that means by which the master captures the difference between the value of the slave’s marginal product and what must be expended for the acquisition, subsistence, and reproduction of his workforce. In Karl Marx’s formulation, it is the value of unpaid labor.
What is amazing in this passage is the fact that Mancini uncritically cites Marx here without attempting to specify what ‘value’ and ‘labor’ mean in a Marxist register. For if he had engaged Marx’s positions with regard to exploitation with anything but the glib and fleeting treatment that he does, he would have recognized that the neoclassical definition of slavery that he put forth is precisely that of labor exploitation in general under the capitalist system. Replace “the master” with “the owner of the means of production” and you have the Marxian description of the way that surplus value is extracted from an abstract labor force. However, he immediately avoids this recognition by writing,
We may thankfully avoid delving into the merits and drawbacks of each of these definitions by noting simply that under convict leasing the rate of exploitation as measured by either model [neoclassical or Marxian] was greater than that under slavery.
He evades having to face the fact that the extraction of surplus value from abstracted laborers (a process that is foundational to the capitalist system) is qualitatively similar to the neoclassical definition of slavery by making a purely quantitative claim. Like the good positivist that he is, Mancini sidesteps an avowal that would undermine his entire epistemological position by employing statistical terms and referring to purely quantitative distinctions. Hence, he is able to go on to isolate the ideologies and exploitative practices that buttressed the convict lease system as historical aberrations, thereby, absolving himself of the responsibility to critique the postbellum state and the capitalist system as a whole.
In his concluding remarks on the abolition of the convict lease system, Mancini does mention the carcerality of the state and the economic factors that underpin purported ‘humanitarianism’ within dominant discourse. However, he does so merely in passing and without critical attention. He writes in reference to Foucault that “[t]he abolition of convict leasing is in a sense a key link in a meaningless chain, marking the transition from one distinct form of prison management to another, but it is always, despite such transitions, the same chain.” Here, Mancini makes reference to a qualitative claim (though one he calls “cynical”), one that points to the essential carcerality (a carcerality based on racism, classism and economic exploitation) which underlies the history of the capitalist United States in spite of the various discourses or formal institutions that have appeared on the surface of that history (that is, in dominant discourse and historiography). However, he calls this claim a “distortion”. He also draws attention to the fact that economic factors, and not public disdain for racial oppression and exploitation, were the primary cause for the abolition of the convict lease system when he writes, “[i]t was not until the system lost its profitability to the lessees that is was finally abandoned” and elsewhere that, “[i]ts demise occurred when both its economic and social utility were undermined.” Nonetheless, in the final lines of his conclusion, Mancini invokes the “heroic figures of the convict leasing era” who opposed the convict lease system and “refused to consider the squalor and violence of the camps as normal or acceptable conditions in a nation that aspired to civilized norms of behavior.” This invocation of the managerial ethos and the primacy of individual valor and heroism directly contradicts the historical reality (which he earlier documents!) that economic considerations, not the moral steadfastness, most directly determined abolition of the convict lease system.
As a liberal historian, Mancini treats the convict lease system as an historical aberration, or isolated incident, thereby implying that the ideologies and racial politics that sustained that system no longer exist and are not inherent to the exploitative system of capitalism that underpins the state. Thus, he unwaveringly holds to the narrative of national progress, advocates reform through state channels (federal and local legislation) and erases as a potential option for positive historical change the revolutionary eradication of the capitalist state.
Luana Ross in Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality puts forth radical paradigms of communal justice and solidarity that oppose dominant state rhetoric and deployment of judicial justice. However, at various symptomatic moments within her text she compromises (and contradicts) the radical models she brings to the fore by implicitly avowing the primacy of the individual over that of the collective, thus manifesting her complicity to bourgeois notions of individuality that prevent the formation of class-consciousness and perpetuate social fragmentation. In “Worlds Collide” Ross sets the models of community and justice specific to various Native American tribes against those of the Western colonizers who slaughtered indigenous people on a mass scale and imposed their systems of governance on those colonized natives who remained. She makes a crucially radical move by maintaining that the indigenous population continues to live in a neocolonial state. She writes that “[t]oday, Native people are not free; they are colonized people seeking to decolonize themselves…. Colonialism as control and denial of culture is clearly evidenced by the number of incarcerated Native Americans and by their experiences in prison.” Ross clearly differs from Mancini here, for she does not isolate the ideologies and exploitative practices that underpinned U.S. colonialism but displays their continual presence in contemporary incarceration and policing practices.
The most useful and radical part of her text, I would argue, is the Navajo theory of justice and rehabilitation that she asserts in opposition to current state judicial practices. She cites Chief Justice Robert Yazzie of the Navajo Tribal Court who describes the Euro-American system of justice as “one of hierarchies and power–a vertical system of justice.” In contradistinction to the Euro-American model, which clearly buttresses the anti-rehabilitative/pro-punishment ethos that predominates the state judicial system, Ross puts forth the Navajo conception of law, one of “horizontal justice” where,
all parties are allowed to explain their views, and there is no one authority that ascertains the “truth.” This is a system of justice based on equality and participation, with a notion of justice that involves recuperating both the offender and victim.
The Navajo conception of justice is communal-based and centered on healing and recuperation, not punishment and exclusion. As Ross points out, the Navajo have a different concept of equality. She writes, “The focus is not on equal treatment before the law; people are envisioned as equal in the law.” This point is crucial, for it demonstrates the fact that this paradigm does not enforce a gap between ‘the people’ and ‘the law’. The law is, thus, not an alien and hierarchical body that imposes its will on the accused–it is not a relationship of coercion and control as is the case in the Euro-American paradigm. The separation between the tribunal and the citizen is dissolved; the “distributive justice” employed in the Navajo horizontal model is aimed at the recuperation of the offender by a community of which he is a part and of which he is a participator. Crucial to this Navajo system of healing and reintegration is the concept of solidarity, which Chief Justice Yazzie expresses as that which
carries connotations that help the individual to reconcile self with family, community, nature, and the cosmos–all reality. That feeling of oneness with one’s surroundings, and the reconciliation of the individual with everyone and everything else, is what allows an alternative to vertical justice to work. It rejects the process of convicting a person and throwing the keys away in favor of methods that use solidarity to restore good relations among people.
This concept of solidarity that underpins the Navajo system of justice is similar to that which founds the concept of revolutionary freedom that Hannah Arendt articulates in her works On Revolution and The Human Condition. Freedom, for Arendt, can only exist positively in the form of a public space wherein all citizens, free from the dictates of necessity, can convene and actively participate in political discourse–i.e. in the decision-making processes of government. Thus, integral to her notion of public freedom is the fact that it can only be achieved through collective action and intercourse, not through individual will or the enforcement by an outside body. Such freedom, according to Arendt, has only existed for brief periods in history, during times of revolution. However, as Arendt laments, the ethos driving this public freedom–what she calls the ‘treasure’ of the revolutionary tradition–has been lost. According to her,
government has degenerated into mere administration, the public realm has vanished; there is no space either for seeing and being seen in action…or for discussion and decision,…for being a ‘participator in government’
Therefore, what Arendt asserts have remained of the revolutionary process are mere negative civil liberties, but no public space for political engagement. As a result, the distinction between the rulers and the ruled, which revolution set out to eliminate, has been reestablished. “Once more, the people are not admitted to the public realm, once more the business of government has become the privilege of the few….” The judicial system, just as the legislative and executive aspects that Arendt seems to focus on, has equally been reified into an exclusive and coercive body that alienates and punishes its subjects. The gap between citizen and governing body that revolutionary collective praxis and Navajo horizontal conceptions of justice attempt to dissolve has reasserted itself in the rationalized surface of social life under capitalism. Thus, contemporary justice is characterized by hierarchical notions of discipline, control and administration as opposed to communal conceptions of reintegration, healing and solidarity.
The theoretical model of justice that Ross puts forth counteracts the fragmentation of contemporary society, and attempts to forge a communal justice and freedom based on solidarity and peacemaking, not punishment and exclusion. However, at various symptomatic moments within her text, she contradicts the ideal of solidarity she puts forth and compromises her focus on collective unity. For example, her treatment of AIM (American Indian Movement) is revealing. AIM was a collective pan-tribal liberation organization of the 60s and 70s that based its unity on a radical ideology of solidarity. However, Ross in a fleeting and inadequate dismissal, calls many of their leaders “kitschymen of tribal manners,” implying that they erase ‘individual’ tribal differences and are apolitical performers. The fact that she reduces a radical collective movement to ‘kitsch’ is indicative of her inability to recognize radical collective praxis as a viable political alternative to the reified state. The sidestepping move that Ross makes with respect to her treatment of AIM is an implicitly articulated strategy of containment by which she limits the field of transformative praxes that are thinkable within her discourse–a lexicon in which there is no place for radical praxis outside of (bourgeois) individualist paradigms.
Ross further displays her espousal of the primacy of the individual in the final chapter of Inventing the Savage, “Narrative of a Native Woman on the Outside.” There she presents the personal ‘success story’ of an individual Native woman who ‘overcame’ the adversities of incarceration and drug addiction and now is “an internationally recognized artist” who “has received high honors for the traditional Native clothing she creates and has gained the respect of many people across the United States.” The fact that in the concluding chapter of a text that radically critiques the prison industrial complex and its pernicious effects on the Native American community Ross presents a personal narrative featuring a ‘protagonist’ who individually overcomes the repressive forces of the prison system and is recognized by an ‘international artistic community’ is indicative of her complicity to bourgeois notions of individuality. Such notions of individuality, as we discussed in our introduction, prevent the formation of class-consciousness, which is the basis for collective solidarity, and perpetuate the social fragmentation that exists under the rule of the commodity form in the capitalist system. The ideological content of the personal narrative Ross presents seeks a nonpolitical and individualizing solution to the exploitation which is structurally inherent in the social system. Thus, Ross undermines her radicalness because she fails to align the value of the primacy of individuality with bourgeois ideologies that enable and reproduce the social fragmentation of capitalist society and are the foundation for the racist and exploitative practices of the prison industrial complex. Thus, she proffers an individual solution to a structural and deeper systemic problem.
Both Mancini and Ross, for both different and similar reasons, provide inadequate critiques of the prison industrial complex and the capitalist system that underpins and fuels it. The former posits the convict lease system of the American south as an historical aberration whose underlying ideologies and racist practices are no longer present in the carcerality of contemporary America. He advocates state reform and ignores the root of the problem–i.e. the capitalist system. Ross, on the other hand, offers radical alternative models of justice and solidarity that counteract state hegemony and the reification of social life under capitalism. However, she compromises her critique by complying with bourgeois notions of individuality and offering individual (needless to say, inadequate) solutions to deep structural problems. Both, in this way, undermine the very possibility of a collective praxis that exceeds state complicity and, therefore, maintain the division and alienation that plagues the contemporary social scene.
Conclusion: Activism and Solidarity
The division and alienation that plagues contemporary society can be attributed to a late capitalist mode of production that requires a specialized, divided abstract labor force and an ideology of hyper-privatized individualism to sustain and reproduce itself. As we have seen throughout the analysis in this essay and as is deftly articulated by David Theo Goldberg, those impoverished and racialized bodies that are denied even the meager agency to reap wages in exchange for their extracted surplus value are given no place in public society and are themselves treated as surplus value. Hence, they are systematically policed and incarcerated so as to remove them from public visibility and responsibility. Arendt laments the loss of a revolutionary public freedom wherein there are spaces and places for everyone to see and be seen in a participatory democracy (a freedom which I do not believe ever adequately existed, but which provides a theory which can be deployed in the formation of a collective praxis that might pave the road to a truly revolutionary and collective freedom), and she attributes the disappearance of that public realm in part to the hyper-privatization of modern society:
We may consider this disappearance of the ‘taste for political freedom’ as the withdrawal of the individual into an ‘inward domain of consciousness’ where it finds the only ‘appropriate region of human liberty’; from this region, as though from a crumbling fortress, the individual, having got the better of the citizen, will then defend himself against a society which in its turn gets ‘the better of individuality’.
We can see, here, that this is precisely the result of the penetration of the commodity form (of which we spoke in the introduction) into the socio-political sphere of late capitalist society. The processes of reification and rationalization have fragmented society to such a degree that any semblance of a collective consciousness has been spalled. Thus, government, which is now the privilege of the few, loses its social character in the eyes of the many; it appears to the masses as an alien force (precisely as the judicial system appears to the accused). Just as under capitalism the commodity form transforms the products of one’s labor into alien objects that appear in a relation of exchange between other objects, in the post-revolutionary (and let us not forget, post-colonial) modern state, the products of human deliberation and public participation have been ossified into a transhistorical Immortal Legislator which appears to the individual subject as an alien force–a relation between things.
Arendt recognizes that this withdrawal from collective interaction is not felt as a loss by the individual subject under capitalism–”the individual, having got the better of the citizen, will then defend himself against a society which in its turn gets ‘the better of individuality’”. Instead, the individual finds in this private sphere the only region of human liberty ‘appropriate’ to the commodified space of advanced capitalism. Hence, the private individual, now feels her isolated individuality as a natural state and, thus, vehemently defends herself against any political practice that advocates communal ideals, for she views them as infringements upon her privacy or ‘violations’ of her individuality. In a Marxist lexicon, the individual subject, as we discussed in the introduction, fetishizes her individuality and the commodities around her in (unconscious) attempt to make up for her alienation from the products of her labor and her estrangement from the greater network of social relations that constitute the socio-historical totality.
This resistance that the reified individual exerts against any collective body–a resistance that symptomatically revealed itself in the liberal and radical discourses of Mancini and Ross respectively–bears witness to the deep penetration of the commodity form into the minds and bodies of society; it exposes the decrepit state of class-consciousness and collective solidarity today. For, solidarity is ultimately a form of compassion, but the force of compassion has been perverted by the self-preserving and reclusive tendencies of late capitalist society. Arendt makes a similar claim in On Revolution. She claims that compassion was introduced by Rousseau and functioned as a unifying force in The Social Contract, quickly being taken up by Robespierre and others of the French Revolution. As she claims, “The magic of compassion was that it opened the heart of sufferer to the sufferings of others, whereby it established and confirmed the ‘natural’ bond between men….” As such, Rousseau “summoned up the resources of the heart” against the ‘heartlessness’ of reason and countered the indifference of the upper classes who looked on indifferently at the suffering of others. However, as Arendt asserts, this notion of compassion (which began playing an important role in the formation of modern sensibility) was subsequently ‘discovered’ as an emotion or a sentiment, which took the form of ‘pity’. Pity, I contend, is the reification of solidarity. For, the sentiment of pity becomes an end in itself, a reified object that is fetishized by the individual. Arendt writes,
[W]ithout the presence of misfortune, pity could not exist, and it therefore has just as much vested interest in the existence of the unhappy as thirst for power has a vested interest in the existence of the weak. Moreover, by virtue of being a sentiment, pity can be enjoyed for its own sake, and this will almost automatically lead to a glorification of its cause, which is the suffering of others.
What was once a galvanizing element of solidarity between members of a body politic has, under capitalism, been reified as a commodity. Pity, a ‘glorification’ of its cause (suffering), is the commodity form of compassion as it becomes a fetish in its own right. Solidarity, on the other hand, I believe is an aspect of the ‘treasure’ that Arendt claims has been lost in modern society. She writes,
For solidarity, because it partakes of human reason, and hence of generality, is able to comprehend a multitude conceptually, not only the multitude of a class or a nation or a people, but eventually all mankind.
It is the place of radical collective praxis today, to form a unity based upon this conception of solidarity and free from the hold of pity; one that mediates the diverse elements of the socio-historical situation so that they can be grasped as a dialectical unity–as a network of social relations that are subject to change. For only a body based on this notion of solidarity can galvanize collective consciousness that simultaneously accounts for the differences of the multitude; only solidarity can coalesce, in the words of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci,
a ‘cultural-social’ unity throughout which a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world, both general and particular, operating in transitory bursts (in emotional ways) or permanently (where the intellectual base is so well rooted, assimilated, and experienced that it becomes passion).
This cultural-social unity is brought together by the passion of solidarity. Where pity is the reification–what Arendt calls “the perversion”–of compassion, solidarity is its radical and totalizing form.
Therefore, in order to form a radical cultural-social unity, one must transcend one’s individuality. More accurately, one must extend one’s notion of the self to embrace a greater collective body. However, in the midst of a society whose sensibilities have been wrought through by the processes of reification–in a moment when, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, the commodity form has “sunk down” into the very “biology” of society–such an endeavor is difficult, to say the least. As Marcuse writes, “The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form.” In this context, the formation of a collectivity united by solidarity would in itself be a radical act, but it cannot approach a revolutionary perspective unless it scrupulously and unceasingly resists the institutions that perpetuate its alienation. It must resist state violence, the prison industrial complex, racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, class-exploitation and all other aspects of the deeply rooted hegemony of advanced capitalism.