The Iron Lady and the Postman

Well, many of us complained at the time: The Iron Lady Margret Thatcher reflecting in an interview for Women’s Own that

there is no such thing as society.

There are surely different ways to look at this statement. And one perspctive came to me the other day, something of a deeper meaning getting entirely hold of me, something demonic.

So, what happened? Well, I finally got a new job: A job as postmaster. Yes, I worked the first day in “my own post office”. A green machine standing in the Student Centre at UCC. Three steps: 1) weighing the letter and saying what it actually is: a letter, a large envelope, a parcel …, 2) then choosing where it should go: country of destination. Then 3): buy a stamp (and if applicable: add airmail sticker). I completed the three steps successfully and said goodbye to the postman, looked around (checking if somebody would observe me but there had not been anybody, really – just some people holding the paper under the arm, making phone calls while walking with others through the hall …, just society around me). Feeling safe, I nodded kindly at the postman, i.e. myself: “Very kind of you …” I walked away, thinking about the next possible step: I take the letter with me the next time I travel … – and at that time it meant that I would soon travel again: I booked the flight on the internet, checked in already (leaving soon enough), booked online the train ticket for the next leg of the trip … No, at least up to now nobody stood at the door of any aircraft, handing em over the key: “you know where to go, don’t you? …, and most of it is autopilot anyway …

It is not really the technical side which I see as decisive. It is a different point: the perversion of freedom by welding it with individualism as it is in part grounded in the enlightenment.

We easily forget this side of enlightenment: it aimed on establishing the individual – and its civil society – as counteracting the feudal “state”. The goal: establishing the free individual. And as such it is actually an issue standing at the very outset of modernity – surely gaining the upper hand and not being the only option of historical development, but also surely nothing that comes as a surprise. And if we look at this development a little bit closer, we can clearly see that we may also gain an explanation for the fact that many of the complains frequently return on the agenda, though they may take different expressions – the same statements brought forward in different wordings: Goethe’s Sorrows of the Young Werther; Schiller’s Letters upon the Æsthetic Education of Man or Rousseaus social romanticism as for instance expressed in his Emile.

Part of the core standing behind the perceived and expressed loss – and the often implied longing to some form of suggested natural order – is surely the simple matter that the world seems to be entirely commodified.

However, much of today’s critique concerning the over-commodification, the alienation of consumer society sounds idealist-Aristotelean insofar as it presumes a pre-economic approach to value. Marx, in the first volume of The Capital, engaged on this topic, acknowledging:

In the first place, he (Aristotle) clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random

(Marx, The Capital: Chapter 1.3)

And he quotes Aristotle – we read:

“Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”

But then he importantly opines:

Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

With this we arrive, indeed, at what is in present context the core of the matter in question: a certain factuality of the loss of society. It is the paradox, emerging as de-valuation of actual labour by establishing under the new conditions a separate, distinct value, seemingly outside of, external to the seedbed for which it germinates. This paradox of the the manifestation of the fundamental split between the different dimensions of human activity is expressed by the frequent emphasis within Marxist theory of the distinction between use value and exchange value and already the difference between labour and work on which Engels adds in a footnote in the first chapter of The Capital

The English language has the advantage of possessing different words for the two aspects of labour here considered. The labour which creates use value, and counts qualitatively, is Work, as distinguished from Labour, that which creates Value and counts quantitatively, is Labour as distinguished from Work.

So we may go today a step further than Engels did when he suggested in his work on the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State a distinction of “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life”. He opined

On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of the human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.

And we may add, increasingly today, a third dimension to it: the production and industry of conscience and appearance, including the production of apparent values, manifested in un-founded money, capital that exists (so it seems) only by flotation as its very process. The essence of meaninglessness.

This paradox, which is very fundamental to capitalism in general, is today furthered to the extent to which we arrive at a stage where social labour apparently does not – or increasingly does factually not – need the technical dimension of combining with other labour, i.e. labour of others. It is combined in the unitarian act of a relationship between man and machine. And with the fetishisation of the machines it appears as the relationship between the human being to her/himself. Self-reflexivity in extenso. The Hegelian absolute idea perverted to the absolute self, being able to claim god-likeness. The complex relationality, defined by the dimensions of

  • relating to oneself – the identity in the narrow, self-reflexive sense
  • relating to the ‘general other’, unspecified as other person
  • relating to the specific other, specified as person belonging to a certain class or ‘socially relevant ‘ group
  • relating – definitely not least – to the ‘external’, ‘organic’ nature

(see e.g. Herrmann, Peter, forthcoming: Social State – Welfare State and then? Where to Move from the Welfare State? – A Cooperative State on Sustainable Sociability as Perspective for Innovation) is now entailed in one single inter-act: that between the individual and the machine. But what is more, by this new virtu-re-ality time is equally repealed. It culminates in the one act and – apparently at least – gives us the feeling of having power, the control over time in the here and now. What is wrong with it? The simple fact that the existence determines the consciousness as we know fro the Preface to Karl Marx’ Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

And as such it is twice caught in a trap: By the fact that the existence is a wrong one, one of illusion. And then by the fact that the wrongness of the consciousness actually comes to the fore latest when it is confronted with the real existence: the fact that we lost not only control over the reality – in space and time – but that in addition we lost potentially the power to change it: to total individual that has lost power over society to the extent to which s/he married it with the alienated act of work.

The matter’s roots can be found long time ago – and are from the beginning of their germination deeply ingrained in the entirety of modern societality, interpenetrating societal, social and individual development. And as such they are closely linked to a ‘positivation’ of existence, as such a matter of solidified reification, development of accountability and thus freedom – the freedom as outlined in the various definitions as for instance given by Schiller in the letters mentioned above, or to take another example: by Spinoza. In his understanding freedom is not least a matter of reaching out to the substance of things in question

Per substantiam intelligo id, quod in se est, & per se concipitur: hoc est id, cujus conceptus non indiget conceptu alterius rei, a quo formari debeat.*

(Spinoza, Baruch, 1677: Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata. et in Quinque Partes Distincta)

In abstract terms, this is surely also linked to the definition of freedom S spelled out by Frederick Engels:

Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity; it is therefore necessarily a product of historical development.

(Engels, Frederick, 1894: Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science; in: Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works. Volume 25: Frederick Engels: Anti-Dühring. Dialectis of Nature; London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1987: 1-309; here: 106)

But it turns out to be a double-edged sword as the price to be paid should not be overlooked.We see at the same time the attempt of a fundamental separation within the process of thought.

The untamable organic processes and the linked magic of the renaissance are left to adventurers. The matter of the industrious bourgeois, emerging from craftsmanship, who requires a rational enterprise, is the manufacture. So we can state in very general terms: Economic and scientific progress are in the realm of crafts-related technology linked to the technology in manufacturing. Only when on the foundation of such crafts-related technology the real enterprise could be established, mechanisation of the entire process of production cold be established. And only when mechanisation, excluding the main natural forces, interpenetrated industry, we find the space for subordinating the natural forces under the human will: scientifically and economically.

(Borkenau, Franz: Der Übergang vom feudalen zum bürgerlichen Weltbild; Paris: Libraire Félix Also, 1934: 9)

It is not least the individual now gaining a new position as now, looking at the human being it

is play which makes man complete

as Schiller says in the XVth of his letters.

However, this freedom, the possibility of playfulness is immediately strangulated: to the extent to which the means of production are in the private hands of individuals, we find the development of a society that actually does not exist – and in this sense there is, indeed, no such thing as society. Instead there is a society that is made up of individuals.

Of course, a complex issue as we are, for instance, still dealing with class individuals. And of course, it is a complex issue as being class individual means also today the property bound control over the means of production. But it is also a complex matter as importantly the current development of the means of production allows at least on the level of establishing individualism as ground pattern – the inescapable and permanent reference of the self to himself.

But here we arrive at a further paradox, the emergence of an anthropological stance of this modernity which permanently mystifies the present existence, the existence in the presence which is shifted into eternality. In a lecture about “Men in a Civilised World” Herbert Marcuse highlighted 5 points, still highly relevant for today – points that did not loose anything of their validity by the fact that we are supposedly living in a secularised world. These are

  • seeing life as tribulation – we first have to earn it by labouring
  • suggesting the better life as gratification
  • supposing life as battle, as effort to survive, pleasure being a matter of organisational principle – this actually translates into striving for productivity in favour of “society”
  • nevertheless, leaving the “refined values”, contemplation for something that exists outside of daily existence: during leisure time after work, at weekends
  • and not least as matter of the afterlife, where spirit and soul unite and finally – Dante in his Divine Comedy so eloquently writes about the painful way to be gone before we arrive – we reach supposed “real life”, the ultimate … self in the other, in god which is nothing else than the ultimate loss of self as we finally and definitely giving up the very core of human existence: its social character.

But apparently we can get there before now, earlier and still in the here and now: The apparent production of the self by her/himself and the inescapable life in a world of appearance. – The right we have now, reaching a paradox again, seems to be the right to determine our self, the right of independence, the right to play. But actually these rights to freedom are now nothing else than the negative rights of being protected against being entirely, physically swallowed by the machine, similar to the rights Georg Jellinek talked about when – in his Contribution to the History of Modern Constitutional Law, writing about The Declaration of Human and Citizen’s Rights – looked at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century at these rights as matter of protection against the state: negative in this sense – a matter of protection, not of production – a board game: seemingly overboarding, factually following the board that determining the rules, leaving the many to string puppets. All sounds of the symphonic play centred on production, on economy – but it is not the sound that determines the existence, it is still the real life – and it is not the need to compose different songs, but the need for an entirely different music.

Hello Mr postman


As said In the beginning, I would be travelling soon – in the meantime I did. All working perfect – with e-bookings of tickets and e-check-ins. All made even easier by the fidelity cards of the different airlines, railways and hotels, which nowadays replace the fidelity-smile between Grainne at the travel agency and me, fidelity-wink by Paul … And I still am travelling – the only that actually nearly went wrong …, well the other day I looked on the ticket, saw the ten and thought I have so much time before the train leaves … – and fortunately I looked a bit later again, finding out that that ten stood for the date, the actual time had been 8:05 and all this happened at 7:58, without setting timer and alarm-clock things happen, of course.

Half-time which brought me to Berlin. I leave the train at central station, walk from there, being overtaken by a young women, from somewhere in Asia. While walking she takes the camera out of the bag, Just after she passed me, she stops, takes a photo: the Reichstag – a brief stop only, and soon she moves on, takes another photo and walks quickly towards the Brandenburger Tor. Tourists – individuals and groups … . I interrupt my walk before moving into the central quarters of the self-appointed new German Empire. A small, plain monument, erected to remind us of the individuals who had been killed by the fascist regime, reminding us of what happened between 1933 and 1945. Something that had its roots in the irresponsible individuals and an individualism – seemingly collectivist, but …, yes lacking the negative rights of being protected against being entirely, physically swallowed in the concentration camps. In front of the building of the German Parliament moment of silence for me – remembering those individuals who lived as personalities, being well aware of the relations in and by and for which they developed.

… – I have to move on now, have to go into the building, being swallowed by a small group of people, who apparently came from a meeting in another part of the complex of government buildings around.


*Translation: By substance I mean something that is in itself and that is conceived through itself, in other words something of which a conception can be formed independently of another conception.

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