Text: Can “Political Economy” be adapted for the big screen? / Are there images for “commodity fetishism”? / For concepts like “alienation,” “surplus value,” and “primitive accumulation”? / In 1928, Russian director Sergej Eisenstein was planning a film about Karl Marx’ “Capital” / A conversation with Oskar Negt, author of KANT AND MARX - -

Text: “SURPLUS VALUE” & ITS IMAGES / How to adapt Marx’ CAPITAL for the big screen?

Alexander Kluge: In 1928, after he completed his famous movie “October,” director Eisenstein wanted to make a film about “The Capital” by Karl Marx. There are notes, drafts, and so on. How would you turn Marx’ “The Capital” into a movie? For example the second-to-last chapter, Machinery and Cooperation.

Text: Machinery and Cooperation

Text: Adam Smith

Oskar Negt: It’s the old example of the sewing needle production that Adam Smith brings up when he talks about the concentration of the labor force by means of an increased division of labor: One person makes the pin head, another hardens the needle, and so in about a hundred of different collaboratively tightened, interconnected production processes something like a pin is produced in the end. And Marx uses these examples in the chapter. That means there is a lot of sensory material, a lot of imagery.

Text: Oskar Negt, social scientist

Kluge: That means cooperation is a human trait. It relates to our sociability, the fact that we are social animals.

Negt: He also says this in a passage we have here, if I may cite quickly: “Apart from the new power that arises from the fusion of many forces into one single force, mere social contact …” – mere social – “… begets in most industries an emulation and a stimulation of the animal spirits that heighten the efficiency of each individual workman …” and so on. And then he says: this is because man is by nature, if not a political animal, as Aristotle said, so at least a social one. The human social potentials are challenged and activated during these cooperative processes.  

Kluge: And when he says, “The history of industry is the open book of human psychology,” that means that 30 years after one has engaged in machinery and cooperation, the factory continues to affect the individual. That’s where it reappears, right?

Text: “The history of industry is the open book of human psychology - -”

Negt: That’s correct. At least in his early writings Marx believes that the industrial landscape is mirrored by the human mind, with all the consequences that …

Kluge: Also in form of creator’s pride. In form of the idea that concentration is possible. And this is concentration, you could say that, right?

Negt: Yes, the concentration of forces and a form of mutual appreciation of achievements in the context of cooperation. One actor acknowledges what the other accomplishes and is proud of their joint effort. And that includes a form of creator’s pride.

Kluge: It’s the easiest for the producer to see in war machinery: the tiger tank, the battle ship, the aircraft squadron – basically, he could … when Speer organizes something like that, or the American organizers in Chicago, he could easily witness his own achievement, the shared accomplishment of so many people. It’s not that easy with civilian products.

Negt: Although cars and airplanes have a similar function. Of course, military production during the war comes with the addition of a kind of patriotism that excites the animal spirits, and the creator’s pride is amplified by the confidence of victory.

Text: Sergej Eisenstein

Kluge: The first thing Eisenstein finds fascinating is that the examples Marx uses tell us a lot about the human soul. The soul is affected by the external processes, with a delay.

Negt: And the same goes for other chapters of the “Capital,” of course – they can be illustrated. When Marx talks about the phantasmagoria of commodity production, for example. Or something twisted, commodity fetishism, the fetish …

Kluge: What is commodity fetishism? What is a fetish?

Negt: Well, it is an object that is considered to be sacred and have healing powers. And commodity fetishism is basically …

Kluge: ... an emotional flag.

Negt: It’s the disconnection of a sacred object from its use value.

Kluge: Because commodities have an exchange value. Because a sack of grains contains, in a way, a bit of gold, a pair of shoes, all kinds of things. That’s commodity fetishism.

Negt: This universalization is included in the product’s exchange value, in the value that is determined by the quantum of living labor it contains. But the fact that this one value, converted into money, the universal means of exchange, practically contains the entire universe of commodities …

Kluge: ... makes them exchangeable ...

Negt: ... so that each good represents the entire world of commodities, and that’s the fascinating phenomenon he calls fetishism.

Kluge: The commodities are like a parliament of wishes, if you want. They have little heads, carry little lights.

Negt: And that’s something else that Eisenstein … I don’t know how far he got with his plans …

Kluge: He took careful notes. He focused primarily on the first chapter, the commodity, as the basic form.

Negt: But the community does not stand on its own. In “The Capital,” he says: the commodity does not walk to the market by itself. It requires a carrier of commodities, that means a commodity possessor. Commodity possessors are configurations, of course, figurative elements, which can easily be turned into film material or …

Kluge: The commodity collection ...

Negt: He also mentions the dramatis personae. The acting characters enter the stage.

Kluge: It’s a stage play, isn’t it?

Negt: He says: one character walks ahead, full of self-confidence, the owner of capital, and the other hesitantly follows behind, as if he knows that he is about to sell his own skin and is only waiting for it to fall victim to the tannery.

Text: Eisenstein met with his colleague Dziga Vertov

Kluge: Or to phrase it differently, one of them exchanges his entire life span for money, for a salary. And in return he will get stomach pills at some point, once he can’t take it anymore. Eisenstein then met with Vertov. And Vertov said you can, you also have to portray the opponent in this play, that means the capitalist. And you cannot simply represent him as a caricature. Because if the revolution had merely succeeded in defeating a bunch of caricatures, no one would be able to grasp its meaning, its power. What would be the point? Instead, what should be described is the noble era when capitalism created something. Who is the bourgeois citizen who begins around 1600 to develop a new consciousness, to develop infinite self-confidence, and to associate his path in life with his property?

Negt: Yes, and the bourgeois is someone who in a way erases the class markers of living labor. For the first time in history, this type of bourgeois is someone who valorizes labor, that means, pride in productivity is something that is not exclusively found among those who identify as workers anymore. The bourgeois is proud of his work. And in that sense, labor, which in the Middle Ages is forced labor – labor in Ancient Greece is ponos, in Latin it’s labor, the balancing of two heavy burdens. That means, it is always devalued. Work is something that only those who have to do.

Text: Oskar Negt, social scientist

Kluge: It is hardship. Hardship. But now it is a connection between human beings.

Negt: A connection between people, and it contributes to the formation of identity.

Kluge: And it is godly. God demonstrates his blessing through the object I produce, if it has value.

Negt: Agreeable to God. God’s gaze upon my work is benevolent. And in that sense, the bourgeois, the productive bourgeois, is not a caricature at all. And Marx didn’t mock him, but talked about how he is dependent as well. It is a tragedy, a personification of economic categories, and a character mask. Aside from the fact that he’s an actual human being, within the capitalist context he is also someone who plays a role. And this role …

Kluge: And if he doesn’t do it, he fails as a capitalist. That means, he is being punished, punished by the market. He doesn’t have a choice.

Negt: Marx rather criticizes the self-idealization of the bourgeois as citizen, someone who pretends to have a responsibility towards the community that is separate from his personal interests.

Kluge: He shouldn’t lie, says Marx. He shouldn’t pretend. He shouldn’t entertain such illusions.

Negt: He shouldn’t claim something that he is not capable of. That means, this kind of citoyen does not represent the common good, because he is tied to the traits that make him a petty bourgeois entangled in conflicts of interest.

Kluge: That means, the individual bourgeois is weaker than the sum of all bourgeois who advance the economy. They become wheels. They work together like parts of an engine. 

Negt: That’s how some entrepreneurs still see it, as Edzard Reuter says in his memoirs: Managers are driven too. Driven. And there’s some of that idea in Marx’ writings as well. They don’t break the laws that they follow themselves.

Text: Dziga Vertov

Text: Excerpts from KINO PRAVDA

Kluge: Vertov is the great documentarist, who made Kino Pravda, the weekly newsreel, which portrays the revolutionary era in a very illustrative way. He works in a collective with his brother and many others, and he goes outside. He did not film in the studio, which is what Eisenstein did primarily. Eisenstein is a feature film director. And Vertov is the documentarist, the detective, the image detective. He has certain ideas as to what is available for this project of turning “The Capital” into a film. But he always gets to the point where he collides with the party line. The black market for example, he’d like to show it. But Marx doesn’t talk about the black market at all. What’s the relationship between Marx and the black market? How would you describe it?

Negt: It’s a market that exists underneath the official market, but mostly follows the same principles as the official market …

Kluge: But there is more exchange of natural produce.

Negt: Yes, more exchange of natural produce. It’s a rather archaic aspect of the exchange of goods. But of course even in that context the exchange happens based on relations of value.

Kluge: Carpets for butter.

Negt: Well, the way he explains it at the beginning of the commodity chapter … relations of value are negotiated between iron and oil and butter.

Kluge: At the stock market exchange, and officially, in a capitalist society. This process more or less excludes human beings, remains indifferent towards them, but in itself it is a society. And the black market is a caricature of these rules. There is for example the extravagant hunger of a rich woman who trades on the black market, and trades a very valuable rug for an otherwise cheap, that means elsewhere easily obtainable pound of butter. The situation is reversed.

Negt: It’s a little like the theory of marginal utility that applies in this case. The marginal value, the high marginal value of a starving aristocratic lady who owns a rug is paid for with a commodity which under normal circumstances …

Kluge: ... would be worth less. And bargain hunters are at work in the midst of it.

Negt: There is also a lot of communication, negotiation, and that doesn’t really happen on the official market, because it functions based on specific price relations that have universal value.

Kluge: I am a doctor, and I give the advice to come in at noon because the waiting room won’t be as busy anymore. But I offer this advice because the patient gives me 60 eggs in return. That’s also why I’m particularly careful with her. That would be the black market.

Negt: Yes. At school I even traded rabbit food for grades.

Kluge: And Vertov provided valuable materials for the film, none of which Eisenstein could use, because he said: I can’t really offer this to the party censors who eventually will have to approve the film.

Negt: And no one ever picked it up again later.

Kluge: The project? No. The project was left unfinished, including all the material that had already been shot. The chapter Primitive Accumulation also plays an important role.

Text: What does “Primitive Accumulation” mean?

Negt: For example, hundreds of thousands of people trek from the country into the city, there is a strong movement towards the city, and they have no work. Elizabeth has 72,000 beggars executed. And those who couldn’t find work within four weeks were either branded with an “S” for “slave,” or executed. That means it is a brutal era in the early history of capitalism.

Kluge: But first there are landowners who used to tolerate cottages on their land that belonged to farmers. But now those are flattened to the ground, burned down, so that sheep can graze there. Because sheep wool brings in a lot of money in Amsterdam, Antwerp, whereas the labor of actual people does not bring any money. What do you think, how many hours would it take to shoot even just one chapter of the “Capital”? 20?

Text: How many hours of film are needed for THE CAPITAL?

Negt: Hard to say. I could imagine that it wouldn’t need to be an expansive epos, if you take a very organized, exemplary approach. If you choose concentric points. For example, Primitive Accumulation, of course you could …

Kluge: ... describe it as a novel.

Negt: Yes, 20, 30 hours, you can embellish that, although that would mean to basically tell the entire history. But for example the cooperation chapter, the first chapter on commodity and use value, the commodity fetishism chapter, or cooperation and division of labor … it would be easy to choose four or five blocks that nicely translate the concept of capitalism into images and document it in an illustrative way.

Kluge: And that’s where Vertov criticizes Eisenstein, he is very critical towards Eisenstein, he accuses him of wanting to turn everything into pathos, and of wanting to know all the results in advance. Whereas for Vertov, film is experimentation, trial. You need to have trust, and if the camera records something unintended, then that’s what the film is going to be. And most importantly, he wanted to demonstrate that for Marx there is not only one kind of capitalism, but many different waters. This becomes apparent when you consider Marx’ other writings, for example about the class conflicts in France, or Louis Bonaparte’s 18 Brumaire. You see that the French artisans in Paris, in the quartier Faubourg Saint-Antoine, during the French Revolution … those are without doubt bourgeois characters, they work within a capitalist system. But they have been trained directly on the object. They are blacksmiths, they are craftsmen.

Negt: And they remained craftsmen, which means …

Kluge: They are completely different from a British broker. They don’t throw things away. If they can’t use something for the moment, they put it in storage in the hope that they might be able to use it later. They treat things with care. And what he was getting at was that this careful capitalism is what we need to portray. Because that is a trait we can appropriate.

Negt: Something we can appropriate, and most importantly, it’s one of the strengths of capitalism. If you only foreground the predatory aspects, just as Primitive Accumulation foregrounds the violence, no one would understand why capitalism is so persistent. And that’s still true today.

Kluge: How would you describe the “Capital”? Is it a novel? Is it a documentary?

Negt: It’s more than just scientific analysis. I think, its misunderstanding regarding its own nature is that it’s simply science. But “The Capital” uses a lot of metaphors, images.

Kluge: It’s poetry.

Negt: Poetry perhaps, definitely literature. Once, at a Proust reading in Hannover, I suggested to read “The Capital” as a literary work over five, six years.

Kluge: Taking turns with Proust. 45 minutes of Proust, 15 minutes of “Capital.”

Negt: Possibly.

Kluge: You can’t read long passages of it at a time.

Negt: No. But these passages mostly deal with narrow economic relations: the nature of surplus value, of profit. That’s something the worker’s movement never understood. Bebel once said: I would have preferred if an artisan instead of Marx had written “The Capital.” Because I would have understood it better. And Wilhelm Liebknecht tried to write an abridged version of the “Capital” while he was in prison, and it’s much more difficult to understand than the original version of the “Capital.” That means it is a form of narrative with all these extremely concise images and metaphors Marx uses. And the material that can be considered science in the narrow sense, the surplus value theory, that’s something economists like Schumpeter and others latched onto, and they realized that Marx has another different facet, that of a philosopher of history, you might say.

Kluge: One with a dramatic streak. That’s why Heiner Müller also wanted to put “The Capital” on stage with the Berlin Ensemble.

Negt: But he didn’t do it either.

Text: “SURPLUS VALUE” & ITS IMAGES / How to adapt Marx’ CAPITAL for the big screen?