No More Coats and No More Home:
Thoughts on Modernity, Society, and Community

A few members of our Institute recently found ourselves reflecting on just how many people we’ve met in our lives, and how different this must be from people's experience prior to modernity. This led to a discussion of Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts Into Air, and his reading of Faust, specifically the Gretchen episode that takes place in a small, closed town where everyone knows everyone else and those are probably the only people they'll ever meet — until, that is, the intrusion of the forces of modernizing dissolution, Faust and Mephisto, who make history by undermining all established satisfaction.

What follows are a few thoughts that emerged from that discussion, written by one of its participants.

...It is this old world that is the final protagonist in the Gretchen tragedy. When Marx in the Communist Manifesto sets out to describe the bourgeoisie’s authentic revolutionary achievements, the first achievement on his list is that it has “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic conditions.” The first part of Faust takes place at a moment when, after centuries, these feudal, patriarchal social conditions are breaking down. The vast majority of people still live in “little worlds” like Gretchen’s, and those worlds, as we have seen, are formidable enough. Nevertheless, these cellular small towns are beginning to crack: first of all, through contact with explosive marginal figures from outside—Faust and Mephisto, bursting with money, sexuality and ideas, are the classical “outside agitators” so dear to conservative mythology—but more impor­tant, through implosion, ignited by the volatile inner develop­ments that their own children, like Gretchen, are going through. Their draconic response to Gretchen’s sexual and spiritual deviation is, in effect, a declaration that they will not adapt to their children’s will to change. Gretchen’s successors will get the point: where she stayed and died, they will leave and live. In the two centuries between Gretchen’s time and ours, thousands of “little worlds” will be emptied out, transformed into hollow shells, while their young people head for great cities, for open frontiers, for new nations, in search of freedom to think and love and grow. Ironically, then, the destruction of Gretchen by the little world will turn out to be a crucial phase in the destruction of the little world itself. Unwilling or unable to develop along with its children, the closed town will become a ghost town. Its victims’ ghosts will be left with the last laugh.

Our century has been prolific in constructing idealized fantasies of life in tradition-bound small towns. The most popular and in­fluential of these fantasies is elaborated in Ferdinand Toennies’ Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society, 1887). Goethe’s Gretchen tragedy gives us what must be the most devastating portrait in all literature of a Gemeinschaft. His portrait should etch in our minds forever the cruelty and brutality of so many of the forms of life that modernization has wiped out. So long as we remember Gretchen’s fate, we will be immune to nostalgic yearn­ing for the worlds we have lost.

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air

I love Berman’s discussion of the Gretchen tragedy, because the dialectics of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft are central to my thinking about modernity, capital, and communism. In my opinion, capital’s most profound achievement is the negation of the old, closed community by society. That we have and will meet innumerable people in our lifetimes, many of them coming from wildly different backgrounds and perspectives — this is the grandeur of modern society. A price of this freedom of physical, social, and intellectual movement (the only truly hard limit to which is our purchasing power) is that we will never feel at home anywhere. We will never understand the power and depth of the bonds of community, as they existed everywhere in the precapitalist epoch — and Goethe and Berman remind us that this is largely a good thing, as they were oppressively narrow. But nonetheless, our modern condition of generalized separation, of pervasive social antagonism, of atomistic, egoistic interiority, of unappeasable dissatisfaction, of being monads helplessly buffeted by alien forces “hostile to the subject” (Adorno) that we can at best valiantly weather, is one of acute spiritual homelessness and loneliness.

Thus in this modern world, all appeals to supposedly actually-existing ‘communities’ — typically racial, ethnic, religious, regional, national, in a word, identitarian — are a very understandable form of self-consoling palliative, but are largely illusory and always deeply reactionary, whether they come from decolonizers or white-ethno-statists. There is no going back to the closed gemeinschaft of the precapitalist epoch, and to pretend that there could be, that the fundamental atomization and antagonism of capitalist society could be papered over with communitarian sentiment, is a prime example of what Adorno called identity-thinking. The very formalism of such attempts undermines and exposes the falsity of their supposed basis — the positing of, say, a fictitious ‘white racial community’ does not spring, as its proponents like to think, from organic communitarian bonds (the bonds of unalterably-entrenched, lifelong, biologized personal subordination, hierarchy, and deference of an intensity we can no longer imagine, which marked the premodern world of caste), which were already dissolving in Goethe’s day, but rather from what Adorno terms the identification of the non-identical, the lumping together of incommensurables (like everyone who shares a skin color), and this is precisely the characteristic thought-form born of capitalist modernity, in which social relations exist as generalized commodity relations, mediated by the abstract universal equivalent, money, with its quantifying and identifying logic. As Marx puts it, money “dissolve[s] the community” and “simultaneously becomes the real community.”

As an inveterate modernist, I love Berman’s book, but I think he tends toward a too one-sided championing of gesellschaft over gemeinschaft. In my own view, gesellschaft — modern, global, capitalist society, with its free movement and dazzlingly universal character, but a universality that remains abstract and antagonistic, because it is the universality of commodity relations, of the infinite formal exchangeability of an emptied out and irrelevant content, universally prostituted meaninglessness — is an absolutely necessary negative moment, and its destruction of gemeinschaften bonds of the old premodern type must be everywhere defended, and extended. As Bordiga puts it, we would attempt to preserve unchanged such relations only “if we weren't dialecticians… On the contrary however, we say that the quicker these are swallowed up in the infernal circle of market capital the better.”

But this gesellschaft is not tenable in itself, and it is certainly not an historical end-point. It can and must be superseded — and what is communism but the ascension to a higher form of community, a human gemeinwesen that is no longer tradition-bound, hierarchical, closed, crushing, and narrow because it has passed through and been enriched by the moment of global gesellschaft? This will be a community in which man is a gattungswesen, a species-being (in the phrase of Feuerbach and Marx), a concrete universality in all the particular, real relations of her life. The coming-to-itself of the human species-essence is not a resumption of a natural state, but an historical process, not a return to some pure origin, but the ‘growing together’ of manifold determinations through great suffering, patience, and labor. Jacques Camatte emphasized that “communism is the true human community where the mediation is man himself.” But the precondition of this new species-community is capital's dissolution of the old sedimented, limited organic community, the ‘little world’ of Gretchen's village. There was no generic human being in precapitalist epochs: capital produces human universality in perverted, topsy-turvy form by universalizing the dehumanization of the exchange of living labor time for dead, by dissolving all particular organic ties in a universal mediation — not man herself, but her abstracted activity become an alien power over and against her in the shape of value and its glittering form of appearance money, which acquires life as that monstrous automaton capital only by draining us of ours. Marx describes the necessity of this negative moment as well as gives intimations of the human community to come, marked by rich individuality and all-sided activity, in what I consider perhaps the most searing and luminous lines of modern prose ever written:

Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labor beyond the limits of its natural paltriness [Naturbedürftigkeit], and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labor also therefore appears no longer as labor, but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared; because an historically created need has taken the place of the natural one. This is why capital is productive; i.e. an essential relation for the development of the social productive forces. It ceases to exist as such only where the development of these productive forces themselves encounters its barrier in capital itself. ...

The old view, in which the human being appears as the aim of production, regardless of his limited national, religious, political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, where production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production. In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historical development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? In bourgeois economics — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete working-out of the human content appears as a complete emptying-out, this universal objectification as total alienation, and the tearing-down of all limited, one-sided aims as sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end. This is why the childish world of antiquity appears on one side as loftier [i.e., nostalgia for the old gemeinschaft]. On the other side, it really is loftier in all matters where closed shapes, forms, and given limits are sought for. It is satisfaction from a limited standpoint; while the modern gives no satisfaction; or, where it appears satisfied with itself, it is vulgar. 

When I first read these passages from the Grundrisse, I shook and wept. I suddenly comprehended as never before the acutely painful historical epoch through which we are living, and knew that I would never again be able to approach any aspect of it with a simple position of affirmation or of condemnation. I grasped that I had always suffered from the separation from all-sided activity, and almost certainly always would, but that this universal dissatisfaction which reveals in its negative image the possibility of satisfaction from a universal standpoint is far superior to any antique satisfaction from a limited standpoint, and given the choice, I would always choose such cosmically expansive pain over any narrow, cloistered happiness. I finally knew what it is to be a modern

Today’s racialist and ethnicist identitarians who chase a return to their idealized vision of limited communitarian relations of personal domination like to talk in cod-Nietzschean terms of strength and weakness, and claim that they represent ‘natural’ traditional strength in the face of decadent modern weakness. But it is they who are pitifully weak in choosing to cling to a fading fantasy of narrow, cloistered happiness, of “closed shapes, forms, and given limits” — so weak they cannot even glance in the direction of the void. Nietzsche would have nothing but contempt for them. Strong is the modern who will not only contemplate the void (this is the attitude of those vulgar ideologues who appear satisfied with the present state of things), but will plunge into the midst of its painful universal alienation, determined to move through and beyond it, knowing full well that she most likely will not. Nietzsche would be horrified to learn that modern strength (what he calls “active nihilism”) lies with the communists. It is because of this ‘Faustian’ aspect that the communist movement deserves to be called the devil's party: “negation at work in society,” “the ‘bad side’ that makes history by undermining all established satisfaction” (Debord). 

What Novalis once said about being a philosopher, I'd say about being a communist: “it is the longing to be at home everywhere.” Such a truly cosmopolitan condition will only be realized in the human community in the absolute movement of becoming, in contrast to the old gemeinschaft, in which one was stiflingly at home in one place only, and in contrast to the modern capitalist gesellchaft, in which one can go anywhere and meet anyone (if one has the money), but is at home nowhere. I think perhaps Rozanov gave the experience of this latter, the experience of modernity, its most poignant and succinct expression: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around... no more coats and no more home.”

A New Institute for Social Research