An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: Marx and Alienation – Draft 2

Baudrillard, like Marx, based his work on the critique of alienation and the rejection of capitalism. Why, then, is Baudrillard rarely considered a Marxist thinker? In the latest instalment in his 14-part series, Andrew Robinson examines Baudrillard's theory of alienation and his critique of Marx.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, April 20, 2012 0:00 - 0 Comments



Jean Baudrillard

In The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard offers a challenging critique of Marxism which radicalises certain of its theories while criticising others. Baudrillard criticises Marxism for ignoring the underlying level at which people are constructed as workers. He argues that categories of “labour” and “production” actually capture and repress desire, particularly when applied to non-capitalist societies. They produce a framework of scarcity, counterposed to symbolic exchange. It then reads capitalist dynamics back into earlier social forms, including indigenous social forms. This ignores the ways in which indigenous cosmologies provide an outer perspective on western culture. This outer perspective is more radical than inner critiques.

Instead of a primary dispute between workers and bosses about the exploitation of labour-power, Baudrillard sees a primary divide between conformity inside the system, by those interpellated as labour-power, and subversion by those outside. These exclusionary boundaries are structured primarily around the exclusion of symbolic exchange and symbolic power. The proletariat does not escape capitalist power because it is within production. The truly radical class struggle is the struggle against being enclosed as labour.

Similarly, instead of the economy being the last instance, Baudrillard insists that separation and alienation are the last instance. The (orthodox) Marxist emphasis on the economy is ideological. It covers-up the operation of the system as a totality. Use-value, for instance, is an effect of exchange-value.  It cannot be accorded independence as a category.

In fact, capitalism does not unleash most people’s creative forces at all – only a few people are encouraged to develop their capabilities. Rather, it depends above all on conformity. Production counterposes itself to desire. It is reproduced, as a code, in an ‘in-depth imperialism’ in everyday life. Capitalism can extract creative power only if it is incorporated as production. Ultimately, this process if self-destructive. The suppression of symbolic exchange means that production cannot obtain the meaning it is directed towards. Capitalism is unable to produce real commitment or participation.

In this work, Baudrillard calls for a radical struggle against capitalism, on an immanent level. This struggle should focus itself at the point of exclusion.  It should be a struggle against enclosure, against redefinition of oneself as labour-power.

Baudrillard expands his transformation of Marxism in his later work, particularly his discussion of workers and symbolic exchange. Baudrillard claims that workers have always been primarily excluded, incarcerated and excommunicated by the system – not exploited. Class struggle has always been a struggle against being treated as subhuman or relegated to a marked term. The core of capitalism is not exploitation but the code of normality.

This account is based on a political history of labour. Baudrillard traces the origins of the working-class in historical forms of slavery. He argues that the first workers were prisoners-of-war who were conserved or spared so as to be put to work. He concludes from this that labour is really a deferred death. This deferred death separates the economic order from the symbolic order. It removes the slave from the symbolic order by removing death. This means that we are all hostages of power. It also means we can’t destroy power without removing the deferral of death.

Today this hostage status comes from the compulsion to be social and communicative – to manage one’s desire, capital, health and so on. To fail to do so is taken to be self-destruction. This extends to a demand that one reveal one’s secret (even if one has none) – for instance in polls and statistics. The command to communicate leads to a compulsory extraversion of all interiority. (This puts a whole different spin on the spread of CCTV, the niqab ban, anti-masking laws and so on). Baudrillard speaks of a society of forced confessions, compulsory statements of truth, obliged revelations – but in a context where there is nothing to reveal.

Capital ‘gives’ labour as a gift (think of the idea of ‘job creation’). The worker, in return, ‘gives’ capital to the capitalist. Wages ‘symbolically buy back’ domination. This relation replaces the original reversibility of symbolic exchange with a dialectic. It is this slide from the symbolic into the economic which allows concentrated power to exist. Otherwise it would be instantly cancelled out by reverse, reciprocal gestures.

Simulation, or the critique of alienation, draft 2

In his recent works, Baudrillard generally replaces the idea of alienation with simulation. This refers to signs which relate to other signs. Simulation happens when signs are exchanged against each other, instead of against the real. The “real” in Baudrillard’s work has at least three different implications: as material reality, as emotional intensity, and as becoming which exceeds being. Hence, simulation refers to signs (or objects functioning as signs) that lack processual becoming, lack emotional intensity, and are generated from the order of signs rather than from reality.

Simulation contrasts with other types of signs. Signs have historically referred to something. Today, the structural dimension of signs – their reference to other signs as a system of differences - becomes autonomous by excluding the referential dimension. Simulation does not hide the truth. Simulation hides the absence of fixed truth.  The original no longer even exists, because things are deduced and brought into being as effects of unlimited reproduction.

According to Baudrillard, there are three different kinds of ‘simulacra’, or simulated things. He refers to these three kinds as the ‘counterfeit’, ‘production’, and ‘simulation’ or ‘the code’.

In early hierarchical societies, there was a strong symbolic order. Signs were given fixed meanings. This world was still symbolically enchanted; signs only become arbitrary in a disenchanted world. At this stage, the main kind of simulacrum is the counterfeit. The counterfeit pretends to be the real thing, as defined by the symbolic order, when it isn’t. It imitates substance and form, not structure or relations. Think, for instance, of someone who impersonates a king or claims to have divine power, or a forged copy of a unique work of art. The counterfeit always copies something taken to be original. At this stage, everything is deduced from an origin in God or nature.

The second stage allows some degree of simulation, mainly through the copying of operational functions. At the stage of production, the main form of simulation is the automaton. At this stage, everything is taken to be equivalent. Equivalence is here mainly functional. Robots are characteristic simulacra of this stage. They are not identical to humans, but they perform certain functions identically to humans. Signs at this stage become crude and functional. Everything is produced rather than deduced.

At this stage, the original reference goes extinct. Mass-produced goods are equivalent, but don’t refer back to an original.  This stage is marked by the production of an infinite series of indefinitely reproducible things and signs. Serial repetition is very important in this stage. The same acts of labour, or the same produced goods, are repeated over and over. They are mechanically reproduced. But they still refer to a purpose or origin of the system. They are produced to fulfil particular functions or uses. In these first two stages, it is still possible for people to exist as conscious subjects. They can still exchange objects dialectically, referring back to a final determination.

At the third stage, that of simulation properly speaking, things aren’t just reproduced; they are designed in order to be reproduced. There is a model or blueprint which is used to create a particular kind of thing. Simulation for Baudrillard now refers to the reduction of everything to signs. The model comes first, it precedes reality: the precession of simulacra. Models and signs circulate, always inside a regime of representation. At this point, simulation exists in a cybernetic sense. Social life operates through the manipulation of cybernetic models.

One might say of the three stages that the first stage relies on the object existing, and simulation is when it is copied. The second has copiable objects, which are mis-perceived as essential, as each incarnating a particular myth. The third has objects which are actually copied from their own myth. The third stage is also known in Baudrillard’s work as the ‘code’. It is the analysis of this stage which takes up most of Baudrillard’s work. As we shall see next week.

[Part Five will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]



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