Festering improvements

For quite a few weeks now, I keep coming back to the same idea. It seems like every time I come back to it, it gains a bit more flesh. It started a few months ago, with an event that should’ve happened but which didn’t. Really, all possible indicators said it would happen, but it didn’t. That really set me back quite a bit, so maybe a better way to say it is not that it gains a bit more flesh every time, but rather that it’s a wound that keeps festering.

I just checked the definition of fester: sure, we have our standard verb definitions of “to become rotten; to worsen, especially due to lack of attention”. But then, when you look at the noun, lo and behold what an intuition: 1. (pathology, obsolete) A fistula, an abnormal connection or passageway between organs or vessels that normally do not connect.

Whoa. Fester, in noun form, is the most precise thing I can find that expresses my predicament. Something that should’ve happened didn’t happen, which made me develop a fester, a connection between ideas that normally do not connect.

So here’s the fester-idea: it starts with Marx’s quote from The German Ideology (“the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life”) and builds on this by replacing the content of speech and language with objectified relations.

Example: Let’s say I meet a friend from high school whom I haven’t seen in 10 years. After the feelings of surprise and comfort at seeing an apparition belonging to a by-gone, powerless past, the present roundhouse kicks you. “So, what do you do?” “Where are you at?” Immediately, material conditions DEMAND to be put in relation by way of comparison. If I had any idyllic memories about this friend, they will immediately be butchered and made mince-meat by our respective answers. “I wash dishes in a restaurant” and “I deliver pizza”. Even in the most exploited of positions, already a hierarchy sets in by way of material implications: delivering pizza is a higher position because you get tips and besides, it’s less messy.

What I’m getting at is that I’m harboring more and more skepticism whenever anyone starts talking about the words they’re saying. What is this person actually telling me, I ask myself. This gets even better when you get to the subject of whom you can actually talk to. When you get nervous before going to talk to someone, it’s because you already know that the material conditions DEMANDING to be put in relation will net you a lower position.

And I’m beginning to see signs of this replacing of content with objectified relations in other literature. Yesterday, I came upon a text of Ellen Meiksins Wood. She first expounds how the English aristocracy and landed classes were especially (compared to continental Europe) limited in their powers of extra-economic coercion (military, judicial, political) and that this had the consequence of encouraging them to pursue economic coercion (rent the land), and that by doing so they accepted a market dependence (rents were not fixed but responsive to market conditions) which made them pursue a higher rent by pressuring their tenants to produce more by any means necessary.

Apparently, even the concept of improvement starts being used at this point in history, 16th-18th century. Wood says it’s based on the old French words “en”(into) and “pros” or “preu”(profit). So to improve initially meant literally doing something for monetary profit.

And here’s the kicker: with the change in land-use and management, linguistic forms of property changed as well. A block-quote follows with an example of this, but before I finish this entry with it, I just want to mention that in my first and only year of law studies, John Locke was a really big character whose work was nauseatingly often invoked as a foundation of modern law.

New conceptions of property were also being theorized more systematically, most famously in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Chapter 5 of that work is the classic statement of a theory of property based on the principles of improvement. Here, property as a “natural” right is based on what Locke regards as the divine injunction to make the earth productive and profitable, to improve it. The conventional interpretation of Locke’s theory of property suggests that labor establishes the right to property, but a careful reading of Locke’s chapter on property makes it clear that what really is at issue is not labor as such but the productive and profitable utilization of property, its improvement. An enterprising, improving landlord establishes his right to property not by his own direct labor but by the productive exploitation of his land and other people’s labor on it. Unimproved land, land not rendered productive and profitable (such as the lands of indigenous peoples in the Americas), is “waste,” and it is the right, even the duty, of improvers to appropriate it.

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