The Marxian Matrix: A Statement of Principle

This blog first saw the light of day many years ago, in an enthusiastic effort to analyze the Matrix trilogy of movies by referencing Karl Marx’s writings and critique of capitalist social relations. That analysis turned out to be so germane, it allowed me to see so much more and so much more clearly into the movies and their detailed and complex narrative, that it laid the first brick of a process whereby I’ve come to see much of the world around me, and not just the movies, as a Marxian matrix.

Part of that process took me through the institution of “higher learning”: I spent six years studying sociology at Uni, and that path led me to write a 200-page Master’s thesis on Marx’s theory of value and valorisation, based also on a 4-month work in the field doing collecting some comparative empirical data. In the process of writing that document, and especially towards the end as it was taking its most concrete shape, it was brought under extreme pressure: my supervising professor asked for its most fundamental, epistemological parts to be taken out and, when I tried to argue against its removal and for its relevance, I was simply told to go look for another supervisor. Despite a very difficult period that followed, where I didn’t find anyone willing to support me in my research, I managed to finish it to my satisfaction and submit it for my department’s evaluation, all by my lonesome with no supervisor (and thus no supporter) in the evaluation jury. The result, in the form of a formal evaluation report that came a few months after, was most dire: except for the empirical research that had to do with shopping malls, the report asked for a complete redo without engaging with the thesis’ arguments: simply put, it had already been decided that the Marxian tradition was theoretically irrelevant.

The brutal conservatism could not have been more eloquently expressed: that which showed the world as it was (empirical part) was deemed acceptable, but the theory which critiqued the state of the world (the theoretical part), and which thus invited change or progress, was denied recognition.

I became very affected by the violence of this process, and its refusal to actually have any discussion as to the validity of the arguments I presented. But it was also true that I had felt, since the beginning of my writing, that this would be the result. And so, the trust I had (and still have) in my theoretical ground gave me the courage to cut my losses and quit academia, with no Master’s diploma in hand despite years of investment. Time has proven that decision to be the correct one: I’ve explored many a professional path, met with many workers and vastly improved my mental health. In a word, I’ve grown as a person, and I want this publication to grow along with me.

What, exactly, is the Marxian Matrix? As a certain Morpheus would say, no one can be exactly told what the Matrix is, they have to feel it and understand it for themselves. One thing is for certain: we are all born and raised inside of a matrix, the matrix of the social relations in which we are inscribed. As the word describes, this social matrix is “the cavity or mold in which anything is formed”. Without going into the very complex conversation to be had about how that process goes and to what extent our individual form of body, mind and soul is molded according to our social environment, I think we can all roughly agree that a child with poor parents compared to a child with rich parents will face almost completely different conditions of molding.

So, if we agree about the relevance of a social matrix in which we are thus inscribed, why a Marxian point of view then? Why a Marxian matrix? Simply put, I have met no other work of thought with the explicative range and power of Marx’s critique. In fact, to crank this up another notch, I believe that as long as capitalist relations of production remain dominant (as they have been since the 18th century), Marx’s critique and the intellectual work of those rooted in his legacy remain the best mental tools 1) for understanding the world around us, and 2) for the autonomy and freedom from the (at least mental) exploitation that comes with that understanding.

And this speaks to the role of this publication, of the Marxian Matrix as a place to foster critical thinking, to generate wholesome understanding and to propose a blueprint for collective emancipation. Lofty goals? So what? Since when is the human mind supposed to be limited solely to his own personal, at most familial, gain or well-being? Since when has the horizon of a peaceful, prosperous and well-balanced society disappeared from the allowed aspirations of collective AND individual humanity? Since when is the most, or only, acceptable path the one studied by focus groups and promising the biggest return on investment?

This then, is the first and most fundamental usefulness that we assign to this Marxian Matrix: to create a public space dedicated to the elaboration of a logic and practice beyond merchandise, market, valorisation and everything else that comes with it. It is especially important that this imply a refusal of the general logic and process of valorisation, of always seeking a return on investment in monetary terms. Of course we strive for polished and researched writing (the “investment”), but we accept the possibility (and even probability!) that this will not result in some monetary gain. As such, the Marxian Matrix will never have any ads or paywalls, and commercial interests in general will be absent from it. As for the “return” on this “investment”, read on.

Indeed, while our work may not end up bringing any monetary gain, that does not mean it will not bring any gain. A few of the gains we are aiming for is a sharper mind, a better knowledge of society and the pride of developing oneself multilaterally. And should all of these fail, the simple pleasure of self-reflection, as Hume puts of it, will suffice: we tend to get caught up in the cycle of work whereby much of our lives are spent working for a salary, preparing to work for a salary or resting from work for a salary; what if the Marxian Matrix could be an activity outside of the sphere of work for a salary, such as work to improve written expression or to discover the joy of past philosophical discoveries? Would the humanity within each of us not benefit from this endeavor of striving beyond the one-dimensional life of being human capital?

I also want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of the critical aspect of critical thinking. Coming from my own life experience, the act of critique has always been fraught with danger and nervousness, but also with exhilaration and long-term pride: it’s about speaking truth to power, telling it of its inconsistencies; it’s about not drowning out our honest thoughts; it’s about being existentially generous as we engage in authentic and maybe difficult, conflictual dialogue with another. It is the ultimate personal expression of one’s existence and of self-affirmation.

This becomes clearer once we also remind ourselves of Marx’s explanation of critique, as he once wrote in a letter to Arnold Ruge, in 1843. For Marx, critique is a socially necessary act, much as value might be socially necessary labour-time: the problem as he sees it is that “reason has always existed, but not always in a rational form“. Ruthless criticism, as he calls it, has two primordial conditions: “that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.” And most concretely if not succinctly, critique means

We shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. […] The reform of consciousness consists entirely in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in arousing it from its dream of itself, in explaining its own actions to it. […] It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality. It will then become plain that our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past. Lastly, it will become plain that mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work. We are therefore in a position to sum up the credo of our journal in a single word: the self-clarification (critical philosophy) of the struggles and wishes of the age. This is a task for the world and for us. It can succeed only as the product of united efforts.

Marx, Letter to Ruge, 1843 (My emphases.)

Marx’s quote here helps us link up two notions: that of consciousness and that of history. In 1920’s Hungary, G. Lukacs helped develop the explicit problem of the relation between the two, and just how central and ubiquitous the problem is to any life caught up in the matrix of the capitalist relations of production. For Lukacs, any discussion of consciousness needed another term: that of objective reality, counterpoised to that of social being. Specifically, through specific categories of mediation, the simply immediate reality becomes objective reality.

In a class society where the very few are owners of the means of production while the very many are not, the categories of mediation will be different for each class and will imply different objective realities. To put it simply, Lukacs argues that those favored by this social set-up (the owners) will elaborate categories of mediation, or paths to conscious thought, that conceive of history as governed by “laws” outside of free human action, whether individual or collective: instead, men are governed by these laws in the measure that these laws are the laws of history. An oft-recited aphorism that fits this bill is “we never learn from history, and so we’re doomed to repeat it”. Lukacs desperately insists to point out that this position implies a justification of the status quo by denying it the possibility of substantive change, especially through human intervention.

Before talking of the class consciousness of those without ownership, Lukacs draws a last implication of the methodological position of the status quo: “thought entered into an unmediated relationship with reality as it was given”, as immediate representation, or a representation lacking mediation. The succinct problem is that of the contradictory nature of an unmediated mediation, an impossible “representation of immediacy”.

This is one problem the Marxian Matrix can challenge itself to tackle: first, to criticize how categories of mediation (movies, books or games, any medium/media really) create a representation which is a purely formal detour by which consciousness has the impression it travels someplace else, in space or time, but whereby in fact it only imprints on those other places the aspects and dimensions of its own space-time and thus also reinforces the limit which it places on what is possible; second, in Lukacs’ terms, to foster mediations (paths to objective, explicit consciousness) through a search for content rather than form (relations between empirical phenomena rather than distinctions between abstract classifications) and a refusal of conformist consciousness whereby the status quo is simply justified; the point being to empower thought to seize the differences and changes that have happened in history, the existence of which can show how the present can also change.

This is not to say that we should only grasp at various empirical phenomena without a theoretical orientation; after all, the notion of mediation for objective reality, at the base of a search for content rather than form, is already a theoretical position. To help us navigate what theory can mean for our own practice of writing, and of critique as a way to bring reason from immediacy to consciousness, we can refer to Max Horkheimer’s seminal essay “Traditional Theory and Critical Theory”; it’s by reference to this source that I hope 1) to outline the intellectual posture of traditional theory as a set of dialectically internal rules unaffected by social relations; 2) to characterize a posture of critical theory, a theory of theory as it were, in order to better understand and be more sensitive as to if and how empirical phenomena, and especially social relations, can change the way theory exerts and understands itself.

What do we mean by theory? In Horkheimer’s understanding, the question is less about what theory is, than what theory can be. The problem of theory being how it relates, on the one hand concepts, and on the other hand empirical/sensible facts; this then relates into how the concept(s) explain(s) the fact(s). He outlines a major difference between theory as a traditional activity and theory as a critical one, and this distinction can be traced back to Marx’s position in the German Ideology.

The gist of Horkheimer’s description of traditional theory is how it tends to use concepts “in the absolute“, as “essences of knowledge outside of history“, whose relevance and power reside in a kind of internal dialectic: knowledge as kind of separated from the world and immune to its influence. This is the conception of science as is often presented to us: neutral ideas that have internal coherences that determine their relevance or applicability. Here, considerations of pure logic reign supreme. Consider a few examples, all from very influential philosophers of the turn of the 20th century:

  • Bertrand Russell, despite his political views, championed a conception of theory whereby “The methods of increasing the degree of truth in our beliefs are well known; they consist in hearing all sides, trying to ascertain all the relevant facts, controlling our own bias by discussion with people who have the opposite bias, and cultivating a readiness to discard any hypothesis which has proved inadequate. These methods are practised in science, and have built up the body of scientific knowledge. Every man of science whose outlook is truly scientific is ready to admit that what passes for scientific knowledge at the moment is sure to require correction with the progress of discovery; nevertheless, it is near enough to the truth to serve for most practical purposes, though not for all.” (Free Thought and Official Propaganda, 1922) (My emphases.)
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, in an almost surrealist way when considered from the point of view of our analysis, was and continues to be called the greatest philosopher of the 20th century on the basis of his seven propositions, which being with “1. The world is everything that is the case. 2. What is the case (a fact) is the existence of states of affairs. 3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922) (My emphases.)
  • Edmund Husserl elaborated the technique of eidetic reduction, which requires “that a phenomenologist examine the essence of a mental object, be it a simple mental act, or the unity of consciousness itself, with the intention of drawing out the absolutely necessary and invariable components that make the mental object what it is. This is achieved by the method known as eidetic variation. It involves imagining an object of the kind under investigation and varying its features. The changed feature is inessential to this kind if the object can survive its change, otherwise it belongs to the kind’s essence.” (Historical dictionary of Husserl’s Philosophy, 2009) (My emphases.)

Horkheimer, looking on the history of ideas of human societies, comes to the conclusion that these examples, and the traditional theory they represent, do great violence to the historical procession of dominant ideas, or in Kuhn’s term of paradigmatic shifts: “That the discovery of a fact provoke the reforging of established opinions is never exclusively explained by considerations of pure logic, in the sense of a fact contradicting certain parts of commonly admitted conceptions. It is always possible to erect emergency scaffoldings of hypotheses which would allow to avoid the modification of the theory in its entirety.” (T&CT, 1937, my emphases.) He explains this is because scholar and science, in their institutional forms, are integrated into the social apparatus, and in this sense they tend to act as a factor of self-conservation and permanent reproduction of the established order. Crucially, traditional theory omits the role it plays in the division of labor as an institution of society: it omits the daily activity of the scientist as he exercises it in parallel to all other forms of daily activity and the relation between these different forms of activity.

Even more crucially, traditional theory disregards the fact that data undergoes a double social determination: the historical character of the perceived object and the historical character of the conscience doing the perceiving. And the kicker, the crux of it all: traditional theory does this because it is in its interest to do this. Why? Because of class interest.

I want no moaning or eye-rolling here! At the basis of Marx’s or anybody else class theories is a simple, inescapable and obvious fact observable by anyone: there are carpenters, then there are scientists; there are women delivering mail all day every day, then there are supreme court judges and their clerks; there are bus drivers, then there are institutional investors of capital. The daily productive activity of every individual can be grouped into similar activity of his peers, and these are the prototypical categories of the concept of class. Scientists in universities, specialized sciences in other words, as an integral and integrated part of the structure of society, unavoidably tend to reproduce the status quo of that structure. Look back on the quotes of celebrated logicians: do you see them talk anywhere of class concerns or relations? They seem quite unfazed with the fact that while the very many do manual labor, the very few do the intellectual labor: logic is logic, “the world is everything that is the case and the case is the existence of states of affairs”. Isn’t this striking, how transparently the mind (and especially the “phenomenologist’s” mind) can only ascertain whether a changed feature “is essential or inessential” to the object itself? How “scientific knowledge”, despite its inaccuracies, is “near enough to the truth to serve for most practical purposes”? Is it that big of a stretch to associate 1) an intellectual posture of essence, of the world as it is and of science as an eternally unaccomplished “reader” of the world, with 2) the benefit that the individuals arguing for such a position of inertia derive as “intellectuals” already spared from painful, repetitive or stressful aspects of manual labor or work in the service sector? Isn’t it curious (and while we’re at it, is it logical?) that the world of ideas should be so rigid and inflexible, while workers should be ready for any adaption asked for by any innovation in the process of production, to seek ways to do more with less?

This is the beginning of critical theory, of the simple but seemingly very uncomfortable act of associating ideas with their place in the division of labor of society as a whole. Far from critical theory to reproach either the postman or the scientist of his place in this organization: both can be either miserable or content of their activity and much of their lives are indeed tributary to their own existential and individual responsibilities. Where critical theory intervenes is in its emphasis on adding a further dimension to this analysis, a practical one: for that individual, concept or institution, to build a model of the historical reality in which it inscribes itself as a productive component.

The purpose of this inscription is, simply, to show that “there is no theory of society that does not imply political interests, whose truth value could be judged in a pretension of neutral reflection, and not in an effort of thought and action integrated into a concrete historical activity” (T&CT, 1937). Critical theory builds upon traditional theory to make the jump from a society conscious of itself to a society conscious for itself: as traditional theory understands individual action oriented towards its own prosperity as the collective life of society (the “invisible hand”); so does critical theory take that theory and confront it with, on one side the accumulation of fantastic power, and on the other side an equal concentration of material and intellectual powerlessness.

Indeed, just as traditional theory advocates for an inertia that is in its own “political” interest, critical theory advocates for an activity that is also in its “political” interest. What is this interest? That of the many. In critical theory, concepts have of themselves a critical scope:

[They] presuppose a concrete liberty, even if that does not yet exist, [counterpoised] to the idealist conception of a liberty that is always given while Man is chained, of a purely interior liberty. […] In the great majority of the governed, we are struck by an unconscious fear that theory might paint as absurd or superfluous the burdensome effort of adaptation to reality; and in the profiteers of the system develops a generalized suspicion in regards to any intellectual autonomy.

M. Horkheimer, Traditional & Critical Theory, 1937)

This allows us to conclude Horkheimer on the note of the practical dimension of critical theory, so linked to the notion of liberty and to the theme that we’ve explored and committed to in this statement of principle: it concerns the power of thought and reason; more precisely, the understanding that reason is the carrier of critical thought because of its power to define that which it must do and that which it must serve. To aspire to a social state without exploitation or oppression, whose subject is something more vast than the individual existence (because of its inscription into a more general whole, for example the division of labor) such as humanity conscious of and for itself, is not sufficient to actually realize it and highlights the need for collective action; but to abandon thought to the conformism of a mere profession within the social body is to deny and betray its character of being in the reach of all. Critical theory, as theory, “procures no salvation to those who defend it; it does not preach for a disposition of the soul, like stoicism or christianity; its philosophy is politics.” (T&CT, 1937)

I wish to elaborate on a final element: an obstacle stands in the face of the autonomy and freedom this publication aspires to develop through class conscioussness and critical theory. It is this obstacle, standing in the way of that freedom, that ultimately justifies why the Marxian Matrix is necessary, for myself and for those caught in the sluggishness of an oppressive way of life; that obstacle is the final piece in the puzzle of this statement of principle. In my conscience and my experience, as well as my empirical research, that obstacle finds its best metaphorical description in Debord’s concept of spectacle.

Oft do we hear the term “spectacular” in descriptions of excitement or amazement. I, with the help of Debord, want to hone in on this word and get a clear idea of what spectacle in our society represents, and why it can stimulate excitement, all while harboring an unspeakable dimension whose very transpiration of silence expresses the oppression of its unilaterality. What is spectacle, then? And why is it an obstacle to autonomy and its corollaries of freedom, self-possession and lucidity?

For Guy Debord, the first step is to identify spectacle not as an aggregate of images; spectacle in the post-WW2 societies of capitalistic relations of production is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. Images, in other words, are the intermediaries by which people (don’t) interact with each other. This might sound a bit outlandish, until we go back to the notion of objective reality we discussed earlier, with Lukacs. Remember how immediate reality becomes objective reality through categories of mediation that give objects of consideration to consciousness? This is what Debord means by spectacle. Spectacle does not produce techniques of mass image creation and distribution, it rather acts as the category of mediation whereby a vision of objective reality is born.

He offers a description of how spectacle monopolizes the principal part of the time spent outside of production, under the form of information, news, propaganda, advertisement, movies, videogames, etc. There are two important characteristics here. On the one hand, the fact of this monopolization implies for Debord an insidious dimension: “spectacle says nothing more than what appears is good, and what is good appears” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, Thesis 12). This is insidious because, he argues, spectacle only appears as far as it is not individual reality become social reality, directly dependent and directly shaped by social power. He accuses the tautological character at work here, whose purpose is, again, to maintain the alienation between the producer and the product of his work.

This is the second important characteristic of spectacle: it is the material manifestation of a generalized process of abstraction whose result is to confront each of us to that which escapes our grasp; it is that which escapes the reconsideration and correction of our work; it is that which is contrary to dialogue and collaboration between people; it is the erection of a unification in separation, much similar to that which happens in the process of production. Let’s explain this, maybe under the form of a timeline.

First happens, in production, the generalized separation of the worker and the product of his work.

Second, the compensation offered by the system for this situation is, under some form or other, a “liberation of work”: the increase of leisure-time, the expansion of goods satisfying an immense range of possible needs, etc; however, this “liberation of work” is not “liberation in work”, nor “liberation by work”. It is rather the reproduction outside of work of the isolation of workers amongst themselves and of workers with the products of their work.

Third, merchandise as spectacle reinforces conditions of isolation: television and cars are prime examples of the mythology of social discourse around them (the virility of the car, the luxury of the pristine screen, etc.), and also prime examples of social isolation; how often do you have fellow passengers in the car and why are they there? How often do you watch a screen with someone else and why do you watch a screen with someone else? Are they tools that deepen your relation with that person or are they simply a way to pass time in a semblance of togetherness?

Fourth on our timeline, the monopoly that spectacle enjoys as a leisure in the public discourse makes its consumption become an additional duty to the one of alienated production. “Liberation of work” not meaning “liberation from work” either, workers instead enjoy what Debord calls “the blackmail of augmented survival” (Thesis 47): they are asked to accept their separation from the process and product of their work. In return, they may consume the products of “a society of abundance and wealth”, an illusion whose generalized manifestation is precisely spectacle: at which point use-value, the concrete utility of the product, no longer matters; what matters is what that product represents, the image of wealth supposed to act as a consolation to the poverty of the working life.

Fifth on this timeline is the generalized situation brought on by the submission of the workers to the blackmail of spectacle: “the manifestation of a mystical abandon to the transcendance offered by merchandise” (Thesis 67). Examples of this are “gadgets” such as current-day smartphones. Think of the the “new generation” of anything as you read the following quote.

Every particular product, which must represent the hope of a shortcut to finally accede to the promised land of total consumption, is ceremoniously presented, each in turn, as the decisive singularity. […] [But] the object, who within spectacle was couched in prestige, becomes vulgar the instant it enters the home of the consumer. […] It reveals too late its essential poverty, which it holds from the poor nature of its production. And already another object carries the justification of the system and the exigency to be recognized.

– G. Debord, The Society of Spectacle, Thesis 69

Towards the end of this timeline, precisely in the sixth moment as we’ve been marking them, Debord seeks to accentuate the consequences of this abandon to consumption: these he identifies as revolving around the linked realities of time and credit (Theses 152-153). Both of these realities embody a material process through which the mind is brought to take a form of consciousness so far away from the one imagined by Lukacs (class consciousness) and to focus on specific content so estranged from the activity of critique as described by Horkheimer (content of a division of labor).

On the one hand, credit comes to emulate and represent the poverty of consciousness and content precisely in this form of spectacle (as a social relation): credit in the first analysis represents the absence of real material autonomy (the necessity to work, the alienation from the means of production/sustenance and also thus from time) by supplying buying power that, simply said, does not exist in the present (else there would be no need for credit); in the last analysis, credit also expresses an absence at the qualitative level of life experiences, whereby spectacle as credit is called as a substitute to this absence by providing various “experiences” (turnkey housing, all-included vacation trips, subscription to cultural products like music/games/movies, dating apps, etc.).

On the other hand, time as spectacle becomes “the social image of the consumption of time”. The idea of time and its quantification takes a more and more prominent role in the space of the conscious mind, leading to the situation where everything becomes organized around the cyclical return of the time we’re waiting for: notice, again, that the condition of waiting for a certain time (the time for leisure, for vacation, for non-work) is the absence of time. Time outside of work is real time which actually matters and which becomes the object of various calculations (how much commuting time, how much time to play a game, how much time for cooking, etc.) so as to, ironically, become the common denominator outside of work, precisely in the way it is the common denominator inside of work. Time of and for consumption becomes the medium, the intermediary category, of all merchandise: but it never explicitly represents that time and its predominance in production itself, which becomes effaced as “something that needs to be done”.

In this way do we arrive at the seventh and final step of the timeline, where “something that needs to be done” expresses with perfect precision the double dimension of ideology: 1) the absence, or misdirection, of “that”; 2) the normativity, or constraint, of “needing to be done”. Absence and constraint are the expression of what Debord (referencing Hegel) calls the extension of spectacle to all social life: “life of what is dead, moving by itself” (Thesis 215). This is ideology par excellence, whereby spectacle has succeeded in separating and furthering humans from other humans, by means of the intermediary of spectacle as ideology, like any system of ideology that negates real life by reducing 1) consciousness to subservience, and 2) activity to poverty. “It is everywhere the project of a restructuring without community.” (Thesis 192)

Much like Horkheimer’s statement that critical theory does not by itself promise any salvation, but only philosophy as politics, Debord (Thesis 89) echoes that by quoting Marx himself: “the manner in which the author presents to others the ultimate result of the current movement, of the current social process, has nothing to do with its real analysis”. It’s to say that much of what has been said here is no prognosis nor guarantee of what is to happen, or what the Marxian Matrix can help make happen. But what has been said can help explain why the Marxian Matrix is important: critique is rare, often not allowed and certainly not a given; by the same logic, these elements help define the way in which critique can empower us to see and act more clearly. In retrospect, this clarity is always worth the trouble of its explicitation.

As we’ve already stated, the exercise of reason, autonomy and (class) consciousness is no panacea, but rather a disposition of mind and body to stand by, a ground on which to field a life project. Writing on the Marxian Matrix, alone or along with others, is the aspiration to such a project: to take a handful of earth, to feel its weight in history, to arouse the smell of its fertility, and to seek solace in its promise of a common destiny. This statement of principle sought to give some guideposts of such a project. In the end, the Marxian Matrix will become its own principle by practice. As a Leninist Hegel once said: “he only gets to know his original nature, which must be his End, from the Deed, while, in order to act, he must have that End beforehand; but for that very reason, he has to start immediately, and, without further scruples about beginning, means or end, proceed to action!”

On the happy chance that this project speaks to you, I invite you to support the effort either by submitting your own article to be published, or by visiting and contributing to the project’s Patreon page. In any case, you may contact us by finding the publications email in the folder tab on the top left of your screen. We also have a Twitter with daily quotes! If nothing else, sign up by email in the same place to get notified of future posts, or leave comments when the content speaks to you.