Comments on Walter Benjamin's Analysis of Capitalism
“Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening” – Walter Benjamin (1935)
Walter Benjamin's Paris as the Capital of the 19th Century draws from, and builds on, the Communist Manifesto. Through the historicizing of the arcades, interiors, exhibitions and panoramas in the world’s capital of fashion, Paris, he provides a cultural and literary history of capitalism. Like Marx, he envisions the end(ing) of capitalism as already contained within its own elements.
For Benjamin, there is a dialectical struggle between art and technology in the context of industrial capitalism. This dialectics is clearly illustrated by the contrasting cases of photographs and portraits. “For its part”, he observes, “photography greatly extends the sphere of commodity exchange, from mid-century onward, by flooding the market with countless images of figures, landscapes, and events which had previously been available either not at all or only as pictures for individual customers” (p. 6). To resist commoditization, art and artists focused on artistic perspectives and aesthetics that photography couldn’t follow. Social movements against commodity fetishism, as encapsulated in the motto “art for art’s sake”, also appeared. This, however, didn’t deter the innovative bourgeois society from findings ways of selling the “fetish”.
For instance, it used the world exhibition in Paris and fashion to ensure that the use value of a commodity (and related class struggles) recedes to the background whilst its exchange value was glorified and globalized across the class divides. The window-shopper thus became a commodity within the universe of commodities. In the case of the interior, the use value of the collected things was replaced with their “connoisseur value.” Judgments of what is valuable and what is new, irrespective of the amount of labor and the relations of production in the “commodity-producing society”, became the ways in which the “cult of commodity” reproduces and thus maintains fetishism.
I find Benjamin’s analysis of the commodity within the cultural historiography of capitalism very convincing. For me, it aptly explains why fashion, and its exhibition, has a strong hold on both the bourgeoisies and the proletariats. Once a commodity is fetishized, any window-shopping person is alienated from its labor relations and thus relates to it in terms of the fantasy of buying and selling – for a rich bourgeoisie this is more of a realizable dream whereas for a poor proletariat it is more of a daydream.
What Benjamin, like Marx, failed to see, however, due to their Marxian historicism, is that the revolutionary elements within the bourgeois society would not necessarily lead to a new epoch. It is not easy to understand why they could not see this given the fact that they both elucidated the virulent ways in which those innovative elements adjust and renew themselves in the context of the cyclic crises of capitalism. It is this deterministic historicism that led Benjamin to pen this tantalizing, albeit farfetched, prediction: “With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled” (p. 13). More than half a century since then, Paris arguably remains the world’s capital of aesthetic monuments of capitalism and, while we have been witnessing a global destabilizing of the market economy, they are far from crumbling let alone being in ruins. One only needs to attend world exhibitions, even through photographic innovations – Internet and Television – to see how fashion continues to sell, en masse, commodity fetishism.