The other day I was shelving books at work and came across Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. It was the subtitle, "The Experience of Modernity," that actually caught my eye, as I tend to gravitate toward any work that demonstrates a willingness to explore our epoch's deepest paradoxes. During my short stint at The New School For Social Research, we had to take a core curriculum class called, "What Is Modernity?" Since then I've been endlessly fascinated with definitions of modernism, postmodernism and the debates between adherents and critics of both. (Personally, I'm of the belief that "postmodernism," or the postmodern condition," is merely a minor stage of the "modern" era, but I don't have the room to explicate all this here.)
I wasn't sure what to expect from Berman's book, since it's shelved in the Literary Criticism section, but flipping through I immediately had to sit down and start reading (a luxury I actually have at work). Part One focuses on Goethe's Faust as the premier work that spans the fissures out of which the modern era has grown. Unfortunately, I've never read Faust, though as soon as I have time I'm doing so. Most people are familiar with the terms "faustian" or "a faustian" bargain, but Berman points out that all too often those terms are used poorly and in situations that don't quite fit the allegorical mold. Anyway, that's not what I'm writing about at the moment (though with some more time to think, maybe I will in the future).
While I was intrigued by Part One and stormed through it, I was really looking forward to reading Part Two, which revolves around The Communist Manifesto. I can't tell you how many times I've read this work, and my own copy (in The Marx-Engels Reader) is highlighted and marked up beyond recognition. Berman's take on it is fascinating, and now I'm going to have to read it all again. He describes it as the first true work of art of the modernist period despite the fact that it is all but ignored when works of Marx's contemporaries—like Baudelaire, Flaubert, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky—are discussed.
Berman notes that Marx was stunningly prescient in envisioning the course of the bourgeois project. In fact, Marx, more than any of capitalism's cheerleaders, makes the case for the world-altering power of capital and its never-before-seen ability to liberate people from the binds of previous social and religious systems. Capitalism was (and is) notoriously unstable, though while Marx saw this as virtue, it was a facet that the major proponents of the emerging system kept shushed in the corner, out of the spotlight.
To this day you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone writing about the transformative glories of capitalism with the same poetic gusto with which Marx wrote. However, Marx believed that this transformative power, this era in which "all that is solid melts into air," would lead to continuous revolutions and the rise of a new kind of man. As capital must always expand, it must always destroy to clear room for newer, more efficient methods and products and ideas. This was the major paradox of Dr. Faust's activity in the world as well as something the Futurists would embrace just prior to WWI ("We want to glorify war - the only cure for the world"). Capitalists have always been the world's truest nihilists in this regard.
Still only in section 2 of Part Two, Berman touches on Marx's "theory of crises." Here, suddenly, the theoretical, the allegorical, the metaphorical all peeled away to today. Berman's words from 1982 display Marx's words from 1848 which mirror 2008. (Call it synchronicity, coincidence, whatever, but when I got home and opened my Marx-Engels Reader, my bookmark was on p. 445, the second page of Marx's "Crisis Theory". This book has been in a box for months.) This is what he writes, on page 103:
Here we are in the midst of a growing worldwide economic depression. And you know what? Millions of people are frightened, but I'm not. People are scared because they've tried to build comfortable lives in an uncomfortable world. There is no rest, no respite. Capital will not let you rest, because if you do, it will destroy you like every other obsolete barrier it faces. Your future will become like that Philemon and Baucis, consumed in cleansing fire to make space for the new tower.
I hardly consider myself an apologist for capitalism, but it has its virtues. I admire the Futurist project for its liberating lack of sentimentality and its nihilistic dedication to destroying the obsolete. Of course, this always means that once all those old traces have melted away, one must find a new solid to burn for fuel. But there is plenty of shit that capital has produced that many of us would love to burn, clear away, to make room for something better. (And if you're averse to the concept of burning, think of it as dismantling and recycling the usable elements.)
So here's to a new year of destruction and creation, of Shiva Nataraja triumphantly dancing upon the defeated dwarf of ignorance.