Does Marx Misread _Robinson Crusoe_?
Tags: literature
The early novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe became fodder for thinkers of economics not long after its publication. After all, the novel was wildly popular in its own time, and entered, although through somewhat acrimonious debate, the English canon, and perhaps most importantly, Defoe was a writer on many topics, among them what was then known as political economy, the predecessor of economics.

In fact, although I have not read Defoe's other writings on economics, he has become known as a defender of the English mercantilist economy. Within the mercantilist mindset, it would appear that simply the movement of goods is what produces profit, and not the production of goods by the use of exploited labor. In fact, one can interpret Crusoe through the lens of a progressing economy, one that we can recognize as near our own, in the way that the novel (or rather, its narrator, Crusoe) takes great pains to document his labor and production. The story is familiar: Robinson Crusoe gets stranded on an equatorial island for over two decades, during which time he effectively reproduces a rational mini-version of the English mercantilist economy on his own. Defoe's is a great novel of production, labor and consumption, as well as accounting, political authority and how the English religious and class traditions fit into the new New World economy. What I want to do is try to locate two documents in their historical-economic moments: Robinson Crusoe and Karl Marx's comments on the novel in his 1867 tome on economics, Das Kapital.

What we can recognize now as "rational choice theory," or the idea that human behavior is guided by reason, both guide Defoe and Marx's ideas. Crusoe's preoccupations with documenting how his days are spent, the objects that he possesses, how he creates some of them from scratch, as well as even his ink spent on how many goats and bushels of corn he has -- all these indicate a belief in quantification and human reason. One would think that Crusoe's lonely ruminations would seem more desperate or emotive, but the relative river of his accounting floods his religious sentiments, which I interpreted more as a ploy for the English audience than a genuine enunciation of belief as such. After all, in the world of rational choice, which Defoe seems intent to make Crusoe's life the story of, there is no G-d in the classic sense. Men control the means of their existence, and even mortality is explainable, no longer a mystery, which in a sense represents the death of religion. The demystified earth needs only a rational creator, a kind of "Providence," for which Defoe makes narrative space in Crusoe's story. Gone for Crusoe is fanatical religion; when he instructs Friday on the basics of Protestantism, he does it because to "bring him to the true knowledge of religion and of the Christian doctrine" (Defoe 222). In other words, Christianity is true and manifest, but more importantly, both are true of the march of the rational English economy. His reckless youth, which comes about through impulsiveness, never truly gets Crusoe to question his labor of meaning-making, for that is already provided. Central to Crusoe's character is his inability to question or have his worldview shaken; even his musings on Providence simply tack onto his previous knowledge instead of undercut it. As a character study, Robinson Crusoe lacks the character development we have gotten used to.

What is essential, the sine qua non, of this story? Well, the very chaff of the narrative -- the fetishistic documentation, the fecund cats thrown away, the wolf and bear part of the story -- point to economics, where everything physical is of utmost importance. Of what importance are Crusoe's longing for companionship or sexual connection? True, both issues are mentioned, but only a fraction of the amount of time Crusoe tells us of his returning to the shipwreck (42 in all, according to Wolfram Schmidgen in "Robinson Crusoe, Enumeration, and the Mercantile Fetish" Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 19-39.). What is expendable are human flights of fancy and nonrational behavior, not the tool in one's hand.

This leads to Marx's interpretation of Crusoe's production of goods, which for Marx, the apotheosis of the materialist economist, is a simple matter of creating goods and using them for one's rational purpose:
Everything produced by him [Crusoe] was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. (Marx, Das Kapital, The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof", online at bibliomania.com)
Here, Marx defines Crusoe's labor-productions as nonsocial, as opposed to the social "fetishism of commodities," where goods lose almost all meaning as goods-in-themselves, usable for a given purpose, and instead take on social significance. Translated to the modern context, as put by one cartoonist, when a man buys a Hummer SUV, "everybody knows" the size of his endowments.

But does Marx's assumption hold up? It occurs to me that Marx is dealing with Crusoe at the level of Crusoe's imagined story; in other words, Marx forgets first that Crusoe presumably writes his "strange surpizing adventures" in the cradle of modern civilization, and that Defoe is the one manipulating the whole of the text. In saying that "everything produced by him was...simply an object of use for him" seems to deny the language of pride in Crusoe's account, or that he wrote the tale for an audience, and that Defoe actually wrote the thing, with his own purposes. Is Crusoe's "country-house" merely an object for his use?
However, I was so enamoured of this place, that I spent much of my time there for the whole of the remaining part of the month of July; and though upon second thoughts, I resolved not to remove, yet I built me a little kind of a bower, and surrounded it at a distance with a strong fence, being a double hedge, as high as I could reach, well staked and filled between with brushwood; and here I lay very secure, sometimes two or three nights together; always going over it with a ladder; so that I fancied now I had my country house and my sea-coast house; and this work took me up to the beginning of August. [emphasis added] (114)
On the one hand, we do have the rationalistic accounting spirit in this excerpt, but the description of Crusoe's second base as a "country house" to complement his "sea-coast house" seems almost an entirely social construction. The point is that Crusoe has the means to build a second house, and this indicates his success, and although we could imagine that he will never again see another human face that he may converse with at this point in the narrative, what purely rational basis does Crusoe have to build two spacious-as-possible homes? Even if we imagine him to never see another human face again, the "country house" still signifies a social reality from which Crusoe cannot escape: the tradition of the English country estate. This cultural knowledge molds how he gives his second home meaning, just as he calls himself "king," "governor," and "generalissimo," among others. The problem with Marx, then, is that his materialism forces him to imagine a reality where objects can be free from social signification, much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined civilization-free "noble savages" 112 years before him. Yet imagining an "outside" necessitates its inside; the two are related indissolubly. As Derrida puts it, "
there is nothing outside the text," i.e. originary thinking, focused on an origin and a telos or end, has a hole you can drive a truck through: the only "origin" is the moment when the outside and the inside are created in language. Further, language itself is the most social of any human technology; its very function is to allow people to communicate in order to make life easier. As long as there is language, then its social fact must follow, like Derrida's trace. Marx can imagine the object-in-itself, but he cannot imagine it or describe it; the object-in-itself is impossible as soon as it is described and given meaning via language. Put another way, G-d knows how many hairs are on your head, and each one signifies that you're a human, and that humans are always already social beings.

In sum, we have parallel constructions that Defoe and Marx are creating: the rational-economic human; Defoe's construction relies on the coming of a truly industrialized economy, and its reliance on labor (the words "labour" and "work" appear throughout Crusoe), while Marx posits a signification-free "object of use" toward trying to understand how economic reality creates human consciousness. Both are economists, and rely strongly on their time periods' version of modern-day rational choice. What both miss is that human motivation occurs at a deeper, hypothalamus level, that utility can go far in defining behavior, but cannot do so conclusively. In fact it took Nietzsche and Freud to point this out, and most in the political science and economics departments have yet to discover this even today.

So, the
Marxian question par excellence: does Crusoe measure and determine objects, or do objects determine Crusoe? As always, it's somewhere between the two.

Below are some secondary material I found informative:
The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour-for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion. In the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production, we find that the conversion of products into commodities, and therefore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subordinate place, which, however, increases in importance as the primitive communities approach nearer and nearer to their dissolution. [emphasis added]

The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature. (Marx, Das Kapital)
Here I must agree with this ideological point of Marx's; although humans may not ultimately be able to control death, by all appearances mortality's magical aspect has been in steep decline for hundreds of years. Humanity's control of external phenomena, from the quark to outer space, can only result in atheism, for humanity's potential can only be underestimated, and G-d's control as such can only be overestimated with the progress of technology. One day human consciousness will catch up with human technology.

So then does Crusoe in the end make his world intelligible? This seems to be Defoe's purpose, to make the mercantilist English economy seem providential and rational, yet things can only be made so intelligible, as it were.
To conclude with Ian Watt and Marx himself (among others), moreover, that the marooned Crusoe is a paradoxical embodiment of pathetically lone capitalist fortune-seeking is to ignore the wholly positive terms by which, throughout the novel, a propagandistic Defoe marvels at commerce's capacity to generate great cities even from bogs. Herein the key actors—the diligent overseas merchant and Providence—are concurring agents.(DeeAnn DeLuna, "Robinson Crusoe, Virginal Hero of the Commercial North" Eighteenth-Century Life 28.1 (2004) 69-91.
Who does Crusoe serve, then? One radical argument could be that in Crusoe, Providence serves commerce, not the other way around, although I may not be the first to make this argument.
According to Marx, the modern commodity fetish is the specific result of an industrial capital whose complex appropriation of human labor generates a reified world in which commodities face us as a collection of opaque, alien objects whose origins in human needs and human labor have been erased. It is, indeed, the great project of the opening chapters of the first volume of Capital (1867) to unlock the hermetic surface of the commodity to recover the historical and economic processes that have led to its appearance as an objectified, independently existing "thing." Marx's key to this recovery is a historically specific analysis of the industrial labor process. (Wolfram Schmidgen, "Robinson Crusoe, Enumeration, and the Mercantile Fetish" Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 19-39.)
This article was the most turgid literary criticism article I have read for a long time; an article for economics professors, not lovers of literature. --adam
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