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Modern French Philosophy

French Post-Marxism

Peter Benson tells us how critiques of both Marx and capitalist society have evolved in France, with special reference to Jean Baudrillard and Bernard Stiegler.

In 1989, when the Soviet Union imploded and its satellite states chaotically collapsed, there were those in the West who declared that communism had been not only defeated but refuted. Francis Fukuyama famously declared that History was at an End, with the Cold War stand-off between capitalism and communism resolved with the triumph of capitalism.

Twenty-five years later the ideological landscape looks very different. The catastrophic economic crisis of 2008 led to large-scale protests and riots in Spain, Greece, Britain, the US, and elsewhere, with an avowed ‘anti-capitalist’ agenda. This, however, was not necessarily classical Marxist-Leninism rising from the dead. What the protesters were against was far clearer than what they were advocating, and no unifying manifesto emerged from the widespread dissent. There were slogans, notably ‘We are the 99%’; but no-one was demanding the communal ownership of the means of production, nor any other of the aims of Marxism in its original phase. In fact, the nature of capitalism had changed in ways that Marx had not predicted. Rather than the shrinking manufacturing industries whose exploitation of their workers had been denounced by Marx, the protesters’ principal target was the bloated finance industry, with its fantastical world of futures and derivatives.

While some thinkers have sought to use the tools provided by Marx to analyse the new situation, others drew on a more eclectic range of intellectual influences. These influences included Guy Debord, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, none of whom could be described as ‘Marxist’ without serious qualification. This mingled tradition of mainly French thought can be found alluded to by writers associated with the recent wave of protests, such as the veteran activist and philosopher Franco Berardi.

For an earlier generation of French thinkers, the question of allegiance to or rejection of Marxism and/or the Communist Party had been a major issue. The friendship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus came to an end over this very issue, for example. But once the French Communist Party collaborated with the Gaullist government in bringing the uprising of 1968 to an end, it lost all semblance of being a radical force. New ideas were needed on the radical Left, and they were not slow in appearing. The early work of Jean Baudrillard (1929-2004) is a particularly interesting example of this shift away from an allegiance to Marx, and is remarkable for the clear reasons he gives for taking this step.

Jean Baudrillard

Baudrillard’s earliest writings, culminating in his 1970 book The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, adopt a Marxist perspective. This book was an incisive analysis of the characteristics of the period of relative wealth and abundance in capitalist countries in the 1960s. That Baudrillard wrote at the end of this decade exemplifies Hegel’s dictum “When philosophy paints its grey-on-grey, then is a form of life grown old. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at dusk” – meaning that a historical period begins to be understood only when it is coming to an end. How distant that era is might be inferred from Baudrillard’s claim that “our societies are now potentially in a phase of continual [social] mobility” (p.111). In Europe and America this phase of social mobility has now ceased, and the majority of people will remain in the social class into which they were born.


The subtitle of the book, Myths and Structures, indicates the influence of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957), which had combined analyses of media images with a Marxist interpretation of the ideologies revealed through them. Throughout the 1970s a grand synthesis of Marxism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis pervaded humanities departments in Britain and America, dominated by ideas imported from France. [Structuralism, pervasive in France in the 60s, came originally from Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory that language is a self-supporting structure, so that things said can only be understood by analysis of their relation to other parts of language.] Frequently quoted maîtres à penser included Louis Althusser, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan. Baudrillard was less often referred to, and tended to be regarded as an eccentric thinker lacking in rigour. This was a pity, as it was during this period that he came to the conclusion that Marxism and Structuralism were incompatible, with their incompatibility revealing the limitations of each. His presentation of these ideas in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972) and The Mirror of Production (1973) constitutes, in my view, his most substantial contribution to philosophy, and deserves to be better known. From today’s perspective, Baudrillard may seem a more significant prophet than he appeared at the time.

It is in The Mirror of Production that he turns his attention most fully to a critique of Marx, declaring that “all the fundamental concepts of Marxist analysis must be questioned” (p.21). For example, he asks, “what is axiomatic about productive forces?” (p.21). Communist society was envisaged by Marx as one in which productivity would exceed that of capitalism, as if this would inherently be a good thing. But Marx’s critique of modes of production does not touch the centrality he accords to production itself as the most basic characteristic of every society (p.17). As a result “the liberation of productive forces is confused with the liberation of man” (p.21).

Moreover, Marx’s economic theory was based on the labour theory of value, first tentatively proposed by John Locke, but to which Marx gave a dubious mathematical form. The theory is that the value of a commodity consists in the value of the raw materials out of which it is made combined with the value of the hours of human labour required to produce it. It is from this basis that Marx deduces his theory of ‘surplus value’: that workers are not paid for all their hours of work, because a profit is siphoned off by the owners of the means of production. Hence by definition the worker is being exploited, and a proportion of their labour is being stolen from them. However, Baudrillard, having examined economics from the perspective of the consumer, knew that the amount people are prepared to pay for a commodity bears no necessary relation to the hours of work required to produce it. It’s a measure, rather, of their desire for the object. By eradicating desire from his equations, Marx had produced an impoverished theoretical framework that could not account for the actual economic ebbs and flows of capitalism. As a consequence, Marxism could only promote “the fiction of an ideal distribution of labour, of a concrete ‘non-alienated’ productivity” (p.28), which would supposedly be achieved after a communist revolution.

Baudrillard concludes that “failing to conceive of a mode of social wealth other than that founded on labour and production, Marxism no longer furnishes in the long run a real alternative to capitalism”(p.29). All Marx’s thinking offers is more of the same, if not, in practice, something far worse. The famous Marxist formula (which in fact pre-dates Marx), ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ is far from being a description of a desirable utopia, and indeed was probably most completely realised in the work camps of the Soviet Gulag: the prisoners were given the basic minimum of their needs, and from each was demanded that they work to their maximum ability, until death supervened. For Baudrillard, therefore, there is no original ‘pure’ Marxist communism later corrupted by Lenin or Stalin. On the contrary, those later developments followed in a direct line from the theories of Marx.

Aberrant Social Practices?

In Marx’s theory of production, human labour is exerted on natural raw materials to create useful objects, and for him future freedom would be founded on the conscious domination of nature. This implies an attitude to the natural world in conflict with modern ecological concerns. We cannot blame Marx for being unaware of the long-term effects of industrialization on the planet, but such concerns inevitably throw a discouraging light on his theories. Could we claim that Marx’s ideas were valid in their time and culture, but are so no longer? The problem with this concession is that it would run directly counter to the claims Marx makes about his own theory and the historical forces that enabled him to formulate it. Marx contended not only that the successive stages of society his theories describe follow on inevitably from one another, but also that it was the development of the inherent contradictions of capitalism that made possible the (his) conscious understanding of the significance of modes of production in the sequence of stages leading up to his own time. Baudrillard responds that Marx’s theory is ethnocentric in believing that only from the position of his own society can previous (and other) societies be understood (p.115).

In particular, Baudrillard draws on anthropological data about societies exhibiting the phenomena of ‘potlatch’. The major influence on his ideas about this was George Bataille’s remarkable book The Accursed Share (1949), which itself represented a radical departure from all previous economic theories, including those of Marx.

Examples of Newspeak from 1984
Book cover for George Orwell’s 1984 © Penguin Books Plc

Potlatch is a social ritual found among both Native North Americans and some South Sea Islanders, in which immense feasts take place, sometimes accompanied by the massive destruction of valued objects. The food and objects are provided by one group as a demonstration of their superiority and prestige. It represents a form of challenge, to which the other group sharing the feast must respond at some future date by providing an even larger feast. Clearly these activities make no sense within the logic of production in both the capitalist and pre-capitalist economic systems described by Marx. It might be thought possible to dismiss them as aberrant phenomena. However, following on from the work of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Bataille sought to generalize the principles at work in potlatch to many aspects of society, such as the immense wealth expended in the decoration of churches for example. In his brilliant essay ‘The Art Auction’ in Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard gave the spectacular sums of money paid at auction for paintings by major artists as a contemporary example of such phenomena. This too represents a duel for prestige between wealthy collectors, in which money is expended for objects which have no ‘use value’ in the Marxist sense. Is it an aberrant oddity, or rather a key aspect of economic activity unperceived by Marx?

To the incapacity of Marx to explain either earlier societies or the persistence of ‘irrational’ economic behaviour in the modern world, Baudrillard adds Marx’s failure to predict or anticipate the developments in capitalism since his time. According to Baudrillard, these subsequent developments involve the extension of the principles of equivalence and exchange from the purely economic sphere, eventually to embrace all forms of value. And rather than political economy, semiology, the study of signs and meanings, is needed to examine this extension. “Contemporary society,” he notes in ‘The Art Auction’, “is once again becoming primarily a society of domination by signs” (p.120). What is important now is “not so much the ownership of production but… the control of the code” (p.122, Baudrillard’s emphasis).

Perhaps the first to fully recognize this process was George Orwell. With the invented language of ‘Newspeak’ in 1984, Orwell suggested that those who control language control society. Newspeak is a jargon in which heretical ideas become impossible to express, or even think. Furthermore, it is used by an elite class as a mark of their class-membership: it is not spoken by the proles. Today, types of Newspeak are rife in the jargon-ridden languages of politicians, management consultants, and journalists who limit language in order to preserve their own power and privilege. By demanding that any criticisms be translated into their language if they are to be taken seriously, they crush the possibility of articulating ideas dangerous to the status quo.

This control of language and other signs has become a distinctive characteristic of today’s capitalism: “The monopolistic system institutes… planned socialization by the code (of which advertising, style, etc are only glaring examples)” (PES, p.126). Advanced capitalism is now developing not the forces of production, but abstract systems of code: “Economically, this process culminates in the virtual international autonomy of finance capital, in the uncontrollable play of floating capital… This apogee of the system corresponds to the triumph of the code” (p.129). And so we arrive at the world of contemporary financial markets operating through the computerized manipulation of digital code. Remember that Baudrillard was writing this analysis in 1973, remarkably anticipating where the future crises of this system (unimagined by Marx) would arise.

Baudrillard concludes that “Marxism is incapable of theorizing total social practice… From our current position, Marxist analysis… no longer illuminates either modern societies or primitive societies” (p.152). Furthermore, Baudrillard argues that the Nineteenth Century workers’ rebellions against industrialisation exemplified by the Luddites were neutralised by the infusion of Marxist theory into the workers’ movement (p.152). Their rebellion against relentless production was blocked by deferring all workers' demands to a fictitious post-revolutionary future.

Marxism and capitalism agree on “the valorisation of labour as the source of social wealth; the valorisation of the process of the rational development of productive forces” (p.152). Marxism has always colluded in “the aberrant sanctification of work” (p.36). Baudrillard therefore has more sympathy with the utopian socialist thinkers whom Marx denigrated. “For Utopia is never written for the future… Utopian revolt [involves] radical presentness… It is the actualisation of desires no longer relegated to a future liberation, but demanded here, immediately… Such is happiness” (p.163-165).

Bernard Stiegler

Bernard Stiegler
Bernard Stiegler addressing the masses
Stiegler photo © Lamiot 2014

Born in 1952, Bernard Stiegler is of a later generation of philosophers to Baudrillard. He was a student of Baudrillard’s contemporary Jacques Derrida (1930-2007), but he had arrived at philosophy by an unusual route. Whilst imprisoned for armed robbery, he began to read the works of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. We therefore have the excellence of the French prison library service to thank for Stiegler’s emergence as a major contemporary thinker. Husserl believed that understanding our experiences requires a suspension, or ‘bracketing’, of our everyday attitudes to the objects around us. Stiegler’s prison sentence served as a similar ‘suspension’ of ordinary life, in which a reorientation of thought could occur.

Among Stiegler’s many books, the most succinct and accessible is entitled For a New Critique of Political Economy (2010). The old critique of political economy was, of course, that of Marx (the phrase is the subtitle of Das Kapital). Stiegler believes it is time for a new critique because of the changes in society that have taken place since Marx’s day – changes which have notably not lead to the proletarian revolution he predicted. However, Stiegler has less need than Baudrillard to explicitly criticise Marx, because by now there are fewer representatives of dogmatic Marxism in French intellectual life. Nevertheless Stiegler continues the analysis of consumerism begun by Baudrillard, taking into account its further spread and development. In this connection he quotes the C.E.O. of the major French TV channel TF1, who in 2004 declared that, “In the end, TF1’s job is helping Coca-Cola, for example, to sell its product. What we sell to Coca-Cola is available human brain time.”

The astonishing unashamed cynicism of this remark shows the remarkable reversal that has taken place. Where once it might have been thought possible to justify capitalist financial accumulation because of the support it provided for cultural activities, it is now considered obvious that the primary function of artistic and cultural work is to encourage increased consumption. We find the same attitude at work whenever we hear politicians justify the ‘culture industries’ by their contribution to the national economy, by-passing as irrelevant any consideration of artistic worth, which has been effectively removed from their equations.

In his book about education, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2008), Stiegler considers this situation and its effects on the traditional role of education in the passing on of culture and long-term goals from generation to generation. Today, education is frequently reduced to mere training for employment and the acquisition of other survival skills for a competitive society. Even worse, education helps to prepare people for their designated role as efficient consumers. Stiegler regards this as a “new form of proletarianisation… with the aim of creating available purchasing power” (New Critique, p.27).

During the industrial revolution, slowly-acquired craft skills were replaced by the automatic activity of machines. All that was needed by the new factories was a supply of unskilled labourers to tend these machines and keep them running. This process of deskilling the labour pool created the industrial proletariat valorised by Marx as a revolutionary force. The development of Information Technology has now extended this process of deskilling and proletarianisation from manual to intellectual work. Since information is available at the click of a mouse, knowledgeable workers are required less and less. The proletarian class has thus now been extended to include workers who might once have occupied a higher social level, while at the same time it has lost the unified strength provided by industrial trade unions. Furthermore, the proletarianisation of workers has been followed by the proletarianisation of consumers. The economic imperative of quick profits mean that long-term desires, requiring thought, planning, and deferral of gratification, receive less cultural support than quickly experienced, quickly satisfied drives. We’re subjected to repeated promptings to ‘Buy Now!’ to quench our deliberately aggravated cravings. This degeneration from a world of desires to one of drives is, according to Stiegler, characteristic of our culture, producing depleted forms of mental organization, and destructive of individuals, society, and the planet. None of these developments were anticipated by Marx.

Baudrillard also noted how in contemporary society “the drive for appropriation and satisfaction… is supposed to be the deepest of human motivations.” In Political Economy of the Sign he contrasts this with the views proposed by Freud in the early Twentieth Century, who “advanced the exploration of human psychology immensely, taking such minutiae [only] as his starting point. But the fantastic perspectives this revealed have scarcely ruffled the composure of… economic ‘science’” (p.204) – including, needless to say, Marxist economics. Baudrillard is disputing the Marxist perspective in which humans are defined by ‘needs’ which can be ‘satisfied’. Most ‘needs’, Baudrillard contended, are created artificially by advertising through a process which short-circuits the intricate complexities of desire as glimpsed by Freud. But robotic responses are more socially useful than reflection. In much contemporary psychological research, technologies for creating consumers’ needs and satisfactions have replaced the patient delving of psychoanalytic thought. Furthermore, many modern psychological theories view the brain as a collection of modules devoted to efficient information processing – essentially no different from a computer. As the central character in Richard Linklater’s recent film Boyhood (2014) remarks: “Robots are taking over the world. Not because machines are running everything, but because people are being turned into robots.”

This distinction between simple drives to satisfy needs, and complex desires which cultivate cultures, is common to both Baudrillard and Stiegler. ‘Desire’ as this term is used in a great deal of modern French philosophy, is ultimately unsatisfiable yet capable of almost infinite displacements. The psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan seek to illuminate this process. But the cultural creations generated from the efflorescence of desire can be passed on from generation to generation, and form the ambience in which each new human mind elaborates itself. Ideally, therefore:

“Attention… is formed in schools, as a rational discipline of adoption [of culture] inculcated into the psyche of the student… This form of adoption, called ‘reason’, is an education and the simultaneous transmission of long circuits of ‘human experience’ and formation of new long circuits: autonomous individuals dedicated to becoming mature and therefore critical – and before all else self-critical.”
(Taking Care of Youth, p.60, Stiegler’s emphasis.)

Stiegler distinguishes these slow ‘long circuits’ of educated reflection from the advertisers’ agitated ‘short circuits’ of need and satisfaction. This cultural process of education is threatened by our proletarianisation as consumers – the reduction of desire to fragmented and immediate drives. “The result is a psychological and social disorder whose overriding consequence is the liquidation of our cognitive faculty itself, and its replacement by informational dexterity” (p.183). Stiegler distinguishes ‘information’ (including, for example, the accumulating data we can find on the Internet) from ‘knowledge’. “Knowledge and understanding must be psychically assimilated and made one’s own (one’s own self), while information is merchandise made to be consumed – and is therefore ‘disposable’. Knowledge individuates and transforms the learner, interiorizing the history of individual and collective transformations… The information diffused by the programming industries disindividuates its consumer” (p.184). In this way our Information Society takes a quite different shape from the Industrial Societies of Marx’s day, yet is even more corrosive of humanity. In these new circumstances, new means of understanding and transformation are needed. We need to pass beyond the limitations of Marxist theory in order to gain a critical perspective on our own times. Thinkers such as Baudrillard and Stiegler can help to show us how this might be achieved.

© Peter Benson 2015

Peter Benson is undergoing proletarianisation as an employee in the Information Services sector, previously known as public libraries. He reads philosophy as an antidote to the resulting mental decay.

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