Communication under Capitalism

Written by Jonathan Moss


Karl Marx shows in the first volume of Capital that the proletariat is economically exploited via the bourgeoisie pocketing the surplus value produced. The proletariat is quite literally robbed.

It is important to mention this because while this is the prime way in which the proletariat is robbed, it is not the only way, and not the most visible way. Capitalism robs us artistically, socially, intellectually, it steals our time, being a totality dedicated to its own reproduction. One of the other forms of robbery is our communication, the way we converse. This is what this essay will be exploring. Unfortunately most of the essay cannot be empirically verified, being based more on the author’s observations and experiences. But I trust that it will ring true amongst most readers of it.

Conversation under this epoch of capitalism is, to use one of Marx’s older ideas, alienated. Whilst is is extremely unlikely there has been such a thing as pure communication, with language always serving a practical purpose, we can still posit an abstract ideal in which communication serves a form in which communication is a form of play, employing linguistic ambiguities, delighting in joke, conversing on philosophy and love, amongst other things. The central idea is that language should mean something beyond a practical purpose. This is of course pure idealism on my part, though the closest this ideal was fulfilled was under capitalism with the public sphere, as written about by Jurgen Habermas. This demonstrates that the abstract idea demonstrated in this paragraph has the chance of being mediated and made concrete, it is no utopia. And although the idea may be critiqued as being nostalgic for the public sphere which was of course bourgeois, this is to engage in a crude mischaracterization of socialism in which the working class are glorified and the middle class vilified, despite the historical and artistic achievements of the latter. So, to return to the first sentence after our small dialectical investigation, language is alienated both on an abstract and concrete level, providing we take the public sphere as our starting point. It is estranged as a mode of conversation and rendered mundane.

Conversation under this epoch of capitalism is utilitarian and artless. This is of course a generalisation, it is still possible to converse meaningfully, but it is not encouraged and it is not the norm. In aggregate the purpose of conversation under capitalism is utilitarian, it is this that serves the totality of reproduction, with greater conversation skills creating greater critical thinking skills. This is largely the fault of the school system which, in strict accordance with the logic of capitalism, teaches nothing which doesn’t ultimately have the aim of attaining a job, and this is reflected in the way language is taught, which is as a tool and as nothing else. This prepares people in turn for alienated labour where it is important class consciousness is not attained and the proletariat’s mind remains reified. This produces a vicious dialectic in which the worker is taught enough communication skills to contribute to capitalism whilst not being taught enough to truly understand it, resulting in a situation where they are unlikely to rise above drone, and in this way keeping the bourgeoisie in charge in charge permanently. Communication as a mode of social antagonism is rendered null, and the proletariat is taught to think in the logic of capitalism, everything becomes a utility. In the end the school is nothing but a glorified PR branch.

It should be noted that this is not to suggest that the proletariat is stupid, merely that in understanding language a certain way a certain viewpoint is gained, this has no bearings on taste for art, and indeed in many cases the proletariat can speak in a manner more akin to the unalienated form suggested in the third paragraph, it is just not encouraged and is thus not as done.

In the social realm this results in what is termed “small talk” and it can be broadly suggested that small talk is the social language of capitalism. This puts social language in a dialectic with professional language in which though serving different purposes they are orientated in the same way, creating a contradiction in which language is not quite social and not quite official. It also becomes the language of unknowing dishonesty, as when someone is asked how they are they would be most unlikely to give a thorough answer reflecting the hidden intensity of the question, but instead reply with something like “good” or “fine”, and encourage further conversation, though it is often along the same lines. Amongst closer friends a larger answer may be given of course, but as language operates primarily on a casual level, with close friendships being rare, it serves as a non-question to invite non-answers and facilitate a non-conversation. This can be further termed the jargon of practicality, language fulfils a practical function as previously stated, but in being relegated to solely serve a practical function outside of the discussion of practical things the practicality of the language is negated and rendered quite false. This occurs in a world that has adopted the logic of utilitarianism and abandoned the sensuous and the sublime. This can be fought in small ways, people may meet over hobbies, and bond over those, subsequently developing closer ties. But as most hobbies reflect the mainstream and the mainstream is purposely vapid, as dictated by the culture industry, this is difficult to do as well.

This is why it can be shown that the argument that smartphones and social media are stunting conversation is based on a reified consciousness in which the real sources of stunted conversation are mystified and the thing of the smartphone is assigned blame, of course ignoring that the problems outlined thus far pre-date the smartphone. And indeed, just like it is possible to form genuine friendships under this totality, it is also possible to find genuine friendships through the smartphone and through social media. This is not to glorify social media or smartphones, it is merely to state a fact. Obviously communication over social media is subject to all the same problems as communication in the “real world”, but not because it is social media but because of the logic enforced by modern capitalism. Blaming social media for this is akin to blaming an unstable dog on the dog itself and not on the owner who is responsible for the mental state of the animal.

To make the final point of this essay,  conversation  under capitalism can be understood using a metaphor from Marxian economics, that of use value and exchange value. Communication has a meagre use value in that it conveys what is to be done under capitalism, and the exchange value arises out of the use value and shared practicality with the other workers to make the job, and as “anecdotes” in the social realm. This is a use value and exchange value rid of the dialectical contradiction of its economic formulation, with use value directly feeding into exchange value, and an existential longing must be needed to create that contradiction and get this exchange value away from the “use” of it.