TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Neither Marx nor Smith: Baudrillard’s Critique of Productivism

It seems an apt time to reassess the importance and impact of Jean Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production. Several reasons spring to mind. We are approaching, in 2013, the 40th anniversary of the original French publication. Since the publication of the translated version in 1975 by Telos Press, the themes presented in the book have gained increasing contemporary currency, not least in popular critiques of production such as Kathi Weeks’s recent The Problem With Work (2012) and the growing literature on Italian autonomist theory. Finally, the passing in October 2012 of Mark Poster, responsible for the book’s translation into English, invites us to consider his excellent introduction and condensation of Baudrillard’s complex and challenging argument. In two blog posts, appearing today and next week, I will discuss some of the central themes of The Mirror of Production and attempt to relate them to broader intellectual currents and issues. Today’s post deals with the critical analysis that Baudrillard offers of the perceived “productivism” of both political economy and its Marxist critique.

Baudrillard’s account in The Mirror of Production is motivated primarily by a critique of Marx. While Marx carried out a valuable endeavor in exposing and deconstructing the naturalization of homo economicus and the web of market relation in which it is implicated, the critical standpoint from which this denaturalization was conducted was that of labor itself. By subverting production to a radical position vis-à-vis society and subordinating it to a dialectical picture of upheaval, Marx endowed production and labor with a “revolutionary title of nobility” that has paralyzed subsequent attempts to formulate a political program derived from Marx’s concepts. Thus, one naturalization was substituted for another (Baudrillard, 18–19).

According to Poster, Baudrillard sees production and labor as the “forms” that Marx used as a foundation for the critique of political economy. However, in so using these forms, a part of Marx’s critique was left incomplete, carrying over entirely uncritically two key concepts of political economy itself (Poster, 2). By basing his critique of political economy around production and labor, Marx retained the theoretical and ideological core of the object of that critique, which inhibited his ability to complete his critique and escape the constraints of classical political economy. This leads Baudrillard to assert that Marx’s critique only served to “interiorize” and to “complete” its object. Poster suggests that one example of this interiorization can be found in Marx’s attack on abstract labor from the standpoint of concrete labor, which accepts the terms of the old political economy and gives them renewed efficacy from a different perspective, while remaining squarely within the logic and presentation of labor as a part of capitalist (or indeed, any) society (Poster, 2). As such, for Baudrillard, Marx’s incomplete critique of political economy must be both surpassed and completed. Baudrillard attempts this through a critical analysis of production conducted by means of the critique of the political economy of the sign.

Thus, Baudrillard goes further than merely associating Marx with an inability to overcome the status of labor in political economy. Marx’s productivism is not merely a humanistic fetishization of labor and those who perform it, but a means by which every aspect of life is seen through the prism of production; thereby constituting the titular “mirror of production.” In defining this “mirror,” Baudrillard perceives “man” as having “posit[ed] himself according to the scheme of production which is assigned to him.” Hence, Baudrillard uses the Lacanian analogy of the mirror whereby one is reflected and “comes to consciousness . . . in the imaginary” (Baudrillard, 19).

This notion of production through which man “comes to consciousness” is seen to have a rich lineage in the world of theory following Marx. For Althusser, theory is a “production,” for Deleuze and Guattari the unconscious is a machine that “produces” desire, and for the Tel Quel group, texts are “productions” (Poster, 3). In a more general, traditional philosophical sense, history is often thought of as the “production” of those involved in it (Baudrillard, 34). Baudrillard suggests that radical critiques of capitalism only end up repeating its logic when they render “[s]ocial wealth or language, meaning or value, sign or phantasm” to some kind of “production” at the hands of one or another type of “labour.” Baudrillard attributes to what he labels “productivism” (in both its classical and Marxist variants) a tendency to ascribe to production the status of the “active moment” and to consumption a relative and absolute passivity. This productive logic subordinates everything, “all human material and every contingency of desire and exchange,” to the ends of “value, finality, and production” (Baudrillard, 17–19).

The predominance of this productivist credo is felt in all post-Marxist social theory, in both literal and metaphorical derivation such as the productive machines of Deleuze and Guattari. The productivism of social theory creates a blind spot that cannot account for the “complexity of symbolic exchange in consumption,” which, Baudrillard suggests, plays just as active a role as production. The consequence of this is that what Baudrillard calls “symbolic exchange” is squeezed out of frame. A portrayal of laboring subjects as motivated only by productive “natural necessity” includes no possibility of the “reciprocal play of meanings and acts” that characterizes the richness of symbolic expenditure and exchange found in consumption. From a critique of the standpoint of production, Baudrillard derives his own standpoint. This standpoint is that of consumption. In the second blog, appearing next week, we will seek to ascertain the political program implied in Baudrillard’s positioning.

Part two of this blog series will appear next week.

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