Sociality, solitude, and the struggle for socialism


by Jeff Noonan

The basic principle of historical materialism is that all complex socio-cultural systems and institutions are rooted in and ultimately depend upon reproductive and productive labour. Reproductive and productive labour connect human beings to each other and the sustaining natural environment. “The production of life,” Marx wrote in The German Ideology, “both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation… appears as two-fold relation: on the one hand, as a natural, on the other, as a social relation—social in the sense that it denotes the cooperation of several individuals.”[1] The second principle of historical materialism is that conscious commitment to the cooperative ethos embedded in life-productive and life-reproductive labour has been repeatedly impeded by different concrete forms of social division. While the institutions and legitimating value systems differ, there is a common basis to these social divisions: private and exclusive control over the resources all require in order to survive, develop, and create lives that are valuable and valued. Historical materialism, as a critical and not simply an analytical method, is a form of understanding that aims to contribute to the solution of the problems these social divisions generate for the lives of those forced into dependent labour. Practice depends upon theory just as much as theory depends on practice.

In order to realize its basic practical goal of overcoming private control over universally required resources, historical materialism must draw political and social generalizations from its studies of the past. The problem has been that these generalizations have then tended to be treated as necessarily true for the future, and not just, as the evidence warrants, the past and immediate present. Unfortunately for the truth of these predictions, human history has proven remarkably inventive, within the constraints imposed by biological life-requirements and the social relations needed to satisfy them. Given this inventiveness, the third principle of historical materialism ought to be that concrete political inferences drawn from the study of social and natural life-processes are provisional generalizations only, always refutable by subsequent developments unanticipated in the period when the generalization was first made. While Marx never formulated such a principle explicitly, he was aware of the need for something like it. He warned certain supporters, late in his life, against turning historical materialism into “a historico-philosophical theory whose greatest advantage lies in its being beyond history.”[2] The warning was not heeded.

Instead, supporters typically took ideas like the primacy of the working class to the struggle for socialism and the progressive nature of the development of the forces of production as generalizations that would, in the first case, hold true as long as capitalism lasted, and, in the second, into the socialist era as well. Being a historical materialist has typically been interpreted to mean that one is committed both to an open-ended analysis of the changing pattern of social and cultural life that reproductive and productive labour engender and certain fixed principles concerning class struggle and productive force and scientific development. While this belief has been typical, it does not follows from, is indeed ruled out by, the first and second principles of historical materialism. They do not, and logically cannot, commit one to the future truth of any generalization, because life-processes and the struggles they generate are, by historical materialism’s own account, dynamic and open-ended, and therefore potentially productive of problems and solutions which could not be seen at the time when a given generalization was made.


In this paper I will explore the general theoretical and the immediate practical consequences of my third principle of historical materialism. I will argue that if one takes seriously Marx’s claim that history originates in life-productive and life-reproductive labour, then historical materialism is essentially life-grounded. The life-ground of historical materialism entails a reconsideration of at least three core practical claims associated with its usual formulations: the primacy of the working class over other oppressed groups in the struggle for socialism; the necessary connection between the growth of the productive forces and historical progress towards socialism; and the connection between techno-scientific development and the emergence of forms of “rich individuality” which socialism will liberate.

The argument will be developed in three sections. In the first, I will provide a concise re-reading of historical materialism as a life-grounded practical human science of the concrete. In the second, I will argue that it follows from this re-reading that movements struggling for liberation from the different forms of capitalist oppression, exploitation, and alienation find their common ground not in working class consciousness of its historical mission, but in the systematic barriers they face in accessing the goods, institutions, and relationships valuable and valued lives require. Not only must the structure of socialist movements be reconsidered, the immediate targets of struggle must also be constantly re-evaluated. In contemporary conditions of accelerated capitalist restructuring of social life, preservative struggles (struggle to preserve older forms of solidarity threatened by the forces of contemporary capitalism) take on a new significance. In the third, I will argue amongst all the preservative struggles currently underway, none is more important than the struggle to preserve time and space for the cultivation of rich forms of imaginative interiority. At this point in the development of capitalist techno-science the intrinsic link Marx saw between scientific development and robust, multifaceted individuality is being severed, and the effects of virtual reality and on-line social networks are in fact tending to erode the interiority that Marx’s understanding of ‘rich individuality” presupposes. The social conditions in which this general idea of rich individuality could be realized as the form of life for every individual remain valuable as the generic content of socialism, but part of the social conditions must now include, I will argue, space and time apart from others. Having something to say and to give to others requires moments of solitude impossible in on-line life.


I: Historical Materialism: A Practical Human Science of Concrete-Life Processes

As an explanation of the dynamics of human history, historical materialism focuses the processes by which reproductive and productive labour generate social structures, institutions, and symbolic codes that seek to govern, control, and legitimise that government and control over, the basic life-processes from which they emerge. Labour, productive or reproductive, is, for Marx, the “nature-imposed condition of human life,” but it changes as reflective intelligence responds to novel environmental and social challenges.[3] As an analysis of human history, historical materialism is primarily interested in the processes by which one set of social institutions reaches its limits and gives way to a new set of institutions capable of solving the structural problems the previous social form could not solve. By following the changes in the labour process as its through-line, historical materialism is able to avoid the error of reifying historical dynamics as quasi-natural laws. As a corollary of the principle that social regularities change as societies change, historical materialism also demonstrates the truth that no particular set of social roles and ruling value system is any more “natural” (i.e., timelessly legitimate) than any other.

At the same time, historical materialism also provides grounds to support the claim that while moralities and social roles are not naturally fixed, there are objective grounds for distinguishing between better and worse forms of social organization. Whatever the particularities of a given social form, underlying it, but generally hidden, is a general life-interest that the institutions must serve. No social form can survive the fundamental breakdown of its systems of productive and reproductive labour or the natural systems in which they are grounded. In other words, all social life depends upon the natural environment and the social structures that mediate the productive and reproductive labour in and on that environment. Whatever else a society produces, it must produce life-goods and it must preserve the life-capital out of which those goods are regularly produced. Life-capital is, as McMurtry argues, “the life base of the common interest—that without which humanity’s life-capacities degrade and die. It is the bridging concept across the economy-environment division as well as across present and future generations… the true meaning of economic necessity and the sole substances of growth and development.”[4]

Life-capital and life-goods—that which supports and enables life in all eras and grows in all conditions of genuine social progress—are what Marx’s argument that history emerges out of forms of life-engendering labour requires to be complete, but neither he nor subsequent Marxists have spelled it out consistently. Marx’s conception of capital remains one-sided—value that produces more value, whereas the life-ground of historical materialism points to the deeper idea of life-capital—life that produces more life as the real foundation of human life, and all that may rationally be called good in it. That Marx and subsequent Marxists have failed to see this life-ground does not mean that it was not there all along. Now that environmental breakdown, non-Marxist political struggles against capitalist life-destructiveness, and decades of philosophical labour have brought it to light, contemporary historical materialist critique of capitalism can overcome the limitations of its nineteenth century origins without losing its grip on productive and reproductive labour as the fundamental driving force of historical change.


If all social institutions ultimately seek to reproduce themselves, then they must enable the production and reproduction of at least as much social labour as is necessary to maintain the society. The people who undertake the productive and reproductive labour that sustains society are not, no matter how they might be treated by the ruling class, mere tools, but socially self-conscious centres of activity and potential enjoyment. They are capable of fighting back against life-destructive and unsatisfying forms of exploitation and oppression. Along with creative response to environmental challenges, historical materialism must count social struggle as a force of change. Historical materialism is thus not only an objective analysis of social change, it is a practical human science of the concrete which intervenes in history on behalf of the majorities in every age who do most of the reproductive and productive labour, but are dominated by the ruling class standing Oz-like behind the curtains of political power and the justifications for it thrown up by the ruling value system of society. The analytical and critical and the objective and subjective are not two independent parts of historical materialism, they are internally integrated with each other. The essential analytical finding of historical materialism is that “human beings make their own history.” It follows from this fact that they can always change “the circumstances not of their own choosing” which each new generation confronts as a given set of facts.[5]

Yet, it does not follow from the collective capacity to change society that any particular set of social changes is necessarily better than the forms of life it changes. That a revolutionary intervention into the established order of things is possible does not mean that it is legitimate, or that human life, collectively and individually, necessarily improves as a result. Marx sought to legitimate revolution on the basis of a theory of social crisis that maintained that social forms reach a point beyond which they can no longer fulfill even basic life-support functions—they objectively break down, which in effect forces the majority—who always suffer first and most in any crisis—to intervene and resolve the crisis through fundamental social change.[6] Marx conceived the revolutionary process as class struggle, and historical change as changes in the ruling class, which, after its victory, re-orders social institutions to consolidate its rule and establish its social interests as supreme.[7] The final revolution would be a revolution of the proletariat which, as the social power which performs all productive (but not all reproductive) labour, has no need to exploit anyone else. Once it has overcome the bourgeoisie which exploits and alienates its labour, the basic contradiction of human history—that some live on the productive labour of others without productive contribution of their own, (or, in life-value terms, that some appropriate life-capital without contributing back to it)—has been resolved. Overthrowing the bourgeoisie and removing the fetters on the forces of production is, for Marx and most subsequent Marxists, the necessary conditions for the construction of “that economic formation… which with the highest upswing of productive forces of social work assures mankind its most universal development.”[8]


One can once again see the implicit life-ground of historical materialism appear in Marx’s theory of crisis. Revolutions are made possible by breakdowns in the system of productive and reproductive labour, upon which human life ultimately depends. Yet, in its concrete explication, Marx’s theory of revolution focuses only on the effects of crisis on the political agency and consciousness of the working class. In its subsequent “orthodox” developments, culminating in the Stalinist and Maoist disasters, historical materialism insisted upon the primacy of the development of the productive forces to the success of the socialist project. Socialism itself tended to be understood not in terms of non-alienated labour as well as non-alienated forms of mutualistic relationships and life-experience and activity across all dimensions of human life-capacity, but higher levels of consumption and parochial, stifling forms of community.

The great multitude of dissident Marxisms, with the exceptions of certain feminist and eco-centric variants, (Saleh, Kovel, Foster) also lost sight of the originating but implicit life-ground in favour of idealist doctrines of the socio-historical construction of everything, including human needs.[9] The later path can be traced to Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, in which even nature is taken to be a historical product.[10] What both orthodox and Western Marxist variants shared was the idea that socialism had to come about through revolution which swept away all ‘bourgeois” forms of social life, social relationship, and individual identity. The idea that preservation of older elements of social life, relationships, and identity as a life-capital inheritance from past ages of labour, preserved in civil commons institutions and older forms of relationship, narrative, memory, and traditional life-practice generally could become of central importance to the struggle against capitalism is anathema to almost all interpretations of historical materialism.


II: The Life-Ground of Multidimensional Social Struggles and the Future Value of the Past

As I noted in the introduction, historical materialism risks contradicting its two fundamental methodological principles, as well as its deeper implicit life-ground, if it believes that general structural features of capitalism ensure the future truth of contextual political generalizations. Today, three such generalizations have been called into question: (1) that the working class must always be the leader of the struggle for socialism; (2) that growth of the productive forces and techno-scientific development are always progressive; and (3) that the struggle for socialism is a struggle for a society rooted in a completely new set of institutions and values. I will work through each of these claims in turn.

David Camfield has recently (and rightly) argued that historical materialism has not ever really “grasped the extent to which contemporary societies… have been socially organized both extensively and intensively by social relations other than class—those of gender, race, and sexuality—as well as by class. These social relations are not epiphenomena. Where they exist… social reality is constituted by them at the same time as it is constituted by class [and they must not] be treated as ‘add-ons.’”[11] However, if the experience of social reality is not only formed by one’s class position, but by one’s gender and sexual and racial identity, then it follows that class, from the perspective of those other identity-formations, is one element of identity amongst many. If historical materialism continues to justify a path of historical change which identifies the proletariat as the embodiment of universal human interests, then it follows straightforwardly that the other identities are being treated as add-ons, important only for the way in which they modify a working class consciousness that remains foundational for the project.

In order to solve this problem, historical materialism requires the distinct understanding of universal interests and a different conception of the content and political means for achieving “the most universal development of humanity” that materialist ethics can provide. If racial and sexual and gender oppression are not to be treated as mere add-ons to class, then all must be understood as concrete forms of identity that shape human lives. Human beings are social self-conscious centres of experience and activity, whose immediate life-horizons are shaped by their actual social identity. Their actual social identity is always a complex of sex, gender, race, ethnic, age, and class factors. These factors are both given (because given ruling value systems assign meanings to these markers of identity) and alterable (because given ruling value systems can be changed through changed forms of action and interaction). That which motivates struggles for change is the experience of being limited in one’s range of experience and activity by one’s social position and identity, but underlying the struggle as its ultimate justification is a universal human life-interest in securing comprehensive access to those resources, institutions, and forms of relationship that free life-capacity development requires. These life-requirements are shared across all different concrete identities, although the experience of being deprived of that which will satisfy them (as well as the specific means of satisfying them) varies with the identity concerned. Class exploitation, alienation, and the variety of oppressive hierarchies operative in a society at any given time find their unifying ground in the principle that all are systematic ways of depriving, and justifying the deprivation of, one or more natural-biological, social-cultural, or temporal conditions of living and leading a valuable and valued life.[12]


To be a woman, for example, in a patriarchal society is to have one’s ability to satisfy one’s life requirements impeded by false assumptions about “women’s nature,” impediments which may be intensified relative to one’s racial identity, sexuality, age, and class position. What matters politically most of all is not one marker of identity as opposed to another, but rather the concrete experience of facing specific additional burdens in the struggle to satisfy one’s life-requirement and the realization of one’s life-capacities because of one’s position in the social hierarchy constructed by the ruling value system. For all oppressed, exploited, and alienated people the goal of struggle is the same—comprehensive, universal access to the means of life-support, development, and enjoyment—but articulated through different concrete histories, anchored in different concrete experiences of the structurally identical barriers.

If that is true, then it follows that all alienated, exploited, and oppressed groups have the same political life-interest: eliminate those social institutions, and the false ideas that justify them, that impede the universal and comprehensive satisfaction of the shared life-interests of each and all, in those forms that are adequate to the concrete identities that shape the experience of oneself and social life. Achieving this goal by whatever political means genuinely advance it—means which will necessarily differ depending upon the particular levels of social development of the society in which groups find themselves—is the general condition for that sort of “universal development” that Marx associated with socialism. Given the universal threats to universal development today—environmental crisis, economic crisis, the steady erosion of democracy, the persistence of archaic forms of oppressive hierarchy, the generalized nihilism of the ruling money-value system—there is no longer any historical ground for maintaining that the working class alone embodies the universal human life-interests. The embodiment of the universal human life-interest is the species in the concrete universality of its different identities, and anyone who recognizes the threats and undertakes to address their causes in a way that frees resources from life-destructive uses for the sake of adding to our life-capital stores is a proponent of the conditions of “universal development,” whatever their actual identity and whatever they happen to call themselves. The social conditions that enable the “most universal development” of human life must be constantly re-evaluated in light of what actual histories of struggle teach, not only about what works and what does not at the level of social organization, but what is more or less valuable and valued in human life by people who take the time to reflect upon what their societies offer, and what they actually require.

It is in this light that the generalization concerning the necessarily progressive nature of productive force and techno-scientific development must be considered. Capitalist social dynamics not only prevent the emergence of life-valuable forms of expressing and enjoying cognitive, imaginative, and practical-creative capacities, they also constantly threaten the life time and space that past struggles and older forms of human sociality and experience have carved out and protect from absorption into capitalist markets. This claim is true in traditional societies not yet fully incorporated into capitalist money-value circuits, but it is also true in the most technologically developed social spaces. However, in the later spaces there are new forms of threat to older solidarities and forms of experience and interaction. Beyond security of access to the most basic life-requirement satisfiers, the most important of the general conditions for the free development of our life-capacities is the experience of time as free, as an open matrix of possibilities for life-valuable action, experience, and relationship.[13]


Marx was the first to systematically understand the role of free time, but what he did not understand was that the high degree of labour productivity that capitalist techno-science made possible and which was responsible for what he regarded as free time (time outside of necessary labour), could itself become, past a certain point of development, the primary threat to individuals being able to experience that time as free. Marx believed that capitalist competition drove techno-scientific progress, which in turn drove labour productivity, which in turn created surplus time, which would be appropriated as free time in a socialist society.[14] Free time would be realized “in the development of the rich individuality, which is as varied in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour no longer appears as labour, but as the full development of activity itself in which natural necessity has disappeared in its immediate form, because natural need has been replaced by historically produced need.”[15] From his vantage point on the nineteenth century, focussing on a working class still living in conditions of monstrous deprivation, Marx could see no contradiction, and no possible contradiction, between the given structure of historically produced needs and “the rich individuality.” At this point in techno-scientific and social development, I believe, such a contradiction has opened up. The forms of social interaction which new communications technologies are making possible do permit the extension and deepening of social connection across the globe and new forms of play and virtual labour, and in that sense they add new content to the meaning of “rich individuality.” On the other hand, social networks and virtual life generally are altering our understanding of what social relationships mean, as well as the relationship between the imagination and its material realizations in ways which, I will argue, work against the subjective conditions for the development of the “rich individual.”

This result is perhaps doubly ironic: first, because the defenders of networked society justify it precisely on the grounds that Marx invokes here: it promotes a “multi-sided production and consumption” and second, because it depends upon recapturing the free time opened up by the more productive labour which Marx regarded as the temporal substance for socialist society. In recapturing the potential free time opened up by highly productive labour, networked capitalism has simultaneously intensified the experience of time as a coercive external force and threatened the forms of interiority “rich individuality” requires. I will return to this point in Section Three below.

Before turning to a more nuanced discussion of the problems of virtual social networks the third problematic generalization must be examined. Valuable and valued lives certainly require a variety of life-serving, non-alienated forms of labour. However, since human life is a unity of sentient, cognitive, imaginative, and practical-creative capacities, its valuable and valued forms require more than opportunities to work in non-alienated, worker-governed ways. Good human lives involve the full and free development of our capacities for non-exploitative and non-appropriative relationships—with the natural world generally (as an intrinsically valuable field of living and non-living things and forces), with other people, and with our own inner life as field of imaginative play and projection. The latter is especially important as a condition of our becoming uniquely individuated contributors to the health and vitality of the natural and social worlds we share. These non-exploitative and non-appropriative relationships are threatened by the generally exploitative, instrumentalizing, and alienating forms of action and interaction typical of capitalist society. At the same time, not every form of relationship or every experience in capitalist society is alienated, oppressive, or exploitative. Alongside the deformations and deprivations of capitalism one finds forms of action and interaction which are satisfying, mutually affirmative, and life-building—elements of a socialist value system and modes of interaction existing within and alongside of alienating capitalist relationships. Friendships, relationships, moments of beauty snatched from the dreary tedium of social routine, and institutions which develop out of solidaristic commitment to one another are also elements of capitalist society, but whose sources are not reducible to the capitalist social forms in which they continue to exist.


In conditions of highly developed productive forces, in which human beings are now found increasingly as nodes in virtual social networks, a seeming political paradox emerges: progressive demands must include conservative—or perhaps better said, preservative—elements. The claim, however, is only apparently paradoxical. As Andrew Collier has demonstrated in an essay of superb originality, Marx’s own understanding of political struggle was not determined by abstract ideals whose realization depended upon the complete destruction of existing social forms (what he calls the Noah complex) but by an organic conception of struggle driven by people trying to solve the immediate and concrete problems they face. He argues that “capitalist society is not just the capitalist economy. The institutions of capitalist society which generate values in their participants include families and circles of friends, trade unions and cooperative societies, churches and mosques, allotment associations and babysitting circles and so on, and these generate values of mutual help and solidarity and another non-commercial values.”[16] It is demonstrably the case that the values of mutual help, solidarity, and relationship for the sake of the pleasures of human relationship are all threatened by the current dynamics of the capitalist economy.

These are threatened externally, by attacks on solidaristic associations that have evolved to fight against or mitigate the rule of money-value over all facets of life, and internally, by the loss of interiority and material interaction to networks of virtual sociality advanced capitalist society is making increasingly compulsory. If these claims are true it suggests that the problem with highly developed capitalism is not that its relations of production are impeding the development of the forces of production, but that the run-away growth of the forces of production and their embodiment in networked cybernetic systems is destroying the social and interior foundations for valuable and valued lives. If this claim is true, then the “radical needs” that Marcuse felt underlay demands for revolution are not exclusively needs for a future different from the present in all respects, but for a future that in some essential respects preserves or recovers forms of slow, material interactions between unnetworked selves.[17]

Some, like Giuseppe Tassone might object that to affirm the value of preservative struggles is to abandon the boldness of vision and radicality required to overcome capitalism in favour of merely “ethical denunciation.”[18] In response it must be said that ethical denunciation is an essential moment of historical materialist criticism. If the critique of capitalism is not a critique of the way in which it impedes the possibility of people leading good lives, then it is merely technocratic critique of economic functions that holds no interest to most people. On the other hand, to the extent that the faith that Tassone places in the possibility of “historical leaps” beyond what seems objectively possible in a given moment is not ahistorical wishful thinking, it is fully compatible with the sort of preservative struggle I am describing here. It is true that preservation in the face of relentless pressure to serve capitalist commodity markets also requires transformative struggles against those forces, but that is no reason to not preserve older, life-valuable forms of non-alienated social relationships where they exist.

Indeed, a society that protects some time outside of and apart from virtual networks has become, I will now argue, an essential condition of the emergence of Marx’s “rich individual.” In order to become a person with ideas and stories and talents worth sharing with others, one requires time and space for oneself. Socialism, or the form of rich individuality that Marx looked to socialism to enable, requires, I believe, the preservation of the possibility of moments of solitude.


III: The Networked Self and Interior Conditions of Rich Individuality

Progressive social struggles protect or reclaim life time and space from the alienating and exploitative structures of capitalist labour markets and the invidious hierarchies that characterise all forms of oppression. Within life time and space thus protected and reclaimed, people are able to access the natural and social resources and forge the sort of mutualistic relationships valuable and valued lives require. The more successful histories of struggle have been, the more life time and space has been reclaimed and protected from alienating, exploiting, and oppressing forces, the more important preservative struggles become. These preservative struggles attain more importance because the more life time and space that has been reclaimed and protected from alienating, exploiting, and oppressing forces, the more human lives become the intrinsically valuable creation of the life-bearers (as opposed to the instrumentally valuable object of social and economic power). Social struggle may thus be understood as a complex interweaving of battles over the control of life time and space, for whomever controls the time and space within which life is led controls life itself.

Battles over life time and space are not always obvious or overt. In fact, the most successful strategy for the capitalist re-colonization of life time and space would be a strategy that its victims not only do not recognise as alienating and oppressive, but rather appears to them as their own work. One might call the realization of such a strategy, (adapting a turn of phrase from Marcuse), “repressive de-alienation.”[19] Marx argued that human beings living in a society that had overcome capitalist contradictions would “contemplate themselves in a world they have created.”[20] The virtual lives and relationships that people create for themselves on-line appear to them as worlds they have created. I suggest, nevertheless, that this de-alienation is repressive, in these two respects: hiding behind the apparently free virtual life time and space is the coercive material power of capitalist market forces, and the forms of individuality encouraged by virtual reality lack the depth interiority substantively valued and valuable forms of individuality require.

Marx looked to techno-scientific development as the fundamental material condition of liberating human life activity from its instrumental domination under capitalism. Techno-science would produce such abundance that necessary labour time would shrink. A class conscious proletariat, seeing the abundance denied it, would organize so as to realize the potential for multifaceted self-creation that capitalism created but could not fulfill. Amongst the many checks on this road to freedom that Marx could not foresee is perhaps the most damning of all: that techno-scientific development could reach a point where it could simultaneously liberate life time and space from and re-capture it for determination by capitalist market forces. That is not to deny that the experience of the reduction of socially average labour time is uneven. It is true, as Massimiliano Tomba points out, that “different temporalities are tied to each other, marking the rhythm of global production. Individual productive arrangements can exploit labour which has higher or lower productivity than that of [globally] socially average labour, which remains, however, the temporality that determines the pace.”[21] The global economy combines radically different actual labour times, with some workers still working in conditions which resemble the early nineteenth century while others enjoy flexible workdays and weeks or at least time outside of paid labour and access to communication networks sufficient to the invention of a virtual identity and life. It is the later form of life that interests me here, because the actuality of such lives demonstrates the possibility of repressive de-alienation, and the possibility of repressive de-alienation emphasises the importance, in conditions of highly developed cyberspace networks, of solitude and material, rather than virtual, connectivity.


Virtual life is, in some essential respects if not all, repressively de-alienating because it does not actually overcome, but is structured by, and in fact extends the hold of, coercive capitalist social forces over, the individuals who feel liberated in their on-line life. Capitalist society replicates itself by growing, and in order to grow it must dominate ever more life time and space. Any moment of life time or space withdrawn from capitalist cycles of work and consuming is, from the standpoint of capitalist labour and consumer markets, wasted. The never ceasing demands to be connected cause a “contraction of the present” in which the self is subject to “increased time pressure, under which one attempts… individually as well as institutionally, to culturally digest the compressed assault of innovation.”[22] The demands exceed the limits of physical possibility. Networked life has made possible and operates according to a global space time in which there is no natural night or day and in which one can always be working, or buying, or both. It is arrayed against all natural limits to production and consumption, including one of the most basic biological necessities of all, the need for sleep. “The large portion of our lives that we spend asleep,” Jonathan Crary argues “freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is the uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by contemporary capitalism.”[23] Networked life does not of course abolish the need for sleep, but it seeks to abolish the desire for sleep by generating the anxiety that one will miss out on something because somewhere someone is uploading some content that one might want to access.[24]

Yet, even as people are led into a war against their own most basic natural life-requirements, they do not feel dominated. Quite the contrary, it is often in on-line life that people feel most in control of their lives, because their on-line identities have a plasticity and playfulness that is often not possible in material social life. While I do not deny the life-value of the playfulness and possibilities for manifold interactions between people who would never otherwise meet, it remains the case that networked life is not completely formless. It is rather shaped by the same forces that shape the material world of labour and commodity markets, and which continue to operate on the virtual self, whether the virtual self is fully conscious of their operation or not. Crary again makes this point well: “The only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of electronic exchange. Billions of dollars are spent each year researching how to reduce decision making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation.”[25]

While people feel emancipated from the material forces that cause alienation in material social life, they are in fact being worked upon by those same social forces. More and more of the non-incorporated interior spaces of imagination and reflection are taken over and integrated into only those structures of demand which the established society and value system are competent to satisfy. Marcuse’s postulation of the need for a radically different social order as a condition of rebellion against the established order has neither the time nor the space to develop in such an environment, since it appears that everything desirable is already virtually available.


In order to reproduce itself with as little conflict as possible, society must ensure the internalization of its ruling value system. People are not blank slates, but they are also not born with allegiances to any definite social structure and set of political values. They are born with life-requirements that other people must help fulfill and capacities for imagination which underlie their ability to project satisfying futures for themselves. From the standpoint of the imagination—which, as Bachelard reminds us, “faces the future … as a function of unreality,” which is nevertheless positive in nature.”[26]—the future is that which is not yet but which can be created in reality. The positive function of unreality is to negate the hold of the present and past on our thinking and thus to enable us to foresee and create that which is not yet but could be. To internalise a ruling value system is to import an external limitation on what it is possible to imagine, or to imagine things only in such a way that their material realization does not matter. Once one starts thinking not in terms of what it is possible to imagine oneself becoming but what it is realistic to imagine oneself doing, or—what amounts to the same thing in practical terms—to imagine that one has created something in material reality just because one has introduced content into a network—the liberatory potential of interiority has been compromised. The web seems opposed to this reduction of the possible to the realistic because it appears to be an absolutely open space in which everything is permitted, and the virtual self an emancipated personality.

In fact, Crary argues, networked activity on the web is at least as much about self-monitoring as it is self-expression: “the rhythms of technological consumption are inseparable from the requirements of constant self-administration…The privatization and compartmentalization of life are able to sustain the illusion that one can ‘outwit the system’ and devise a superior system, [but]… in reality there is an imposed an inescapable uniformity to our compulsory labour of self-management.”[27] Even if one could, for a moment, ‘outwit the system,’ the tracking of the eccentric behaviour would be incorporated into the predictive algorithms used by marketers and search engines. Evading incorporation would only enhance the capacity of the economic giants that control the web to incorporate others.

This capacity for self-correction and normalization of the eccentric is the real ideological genius of networked life. It takes two opposed forces—imagination and ruling value system—and makes them disappear into each other. Cyberspace appears to be the ever-unfolding, ever changing objectification of networked imaginations given unrestrained play. On-line, the most staid and banal forms of capitalist life, business and commerce, that which one might expect unconstrained imaginations to reject as suffocatingly conformist, take on the appearance of rebellious iconoclasm but without, alas, ceasing to be business and commerce. “Web culture is the final step,” Lee Siegel argues, “in the long, slow assimilation of subversive values to conventional society. With the advent of the Internet, business culture has now strangely become identified with unlimited mental and spiritual freedom—a freedom once defined by its independence from the commercial realm.”[28] The assimilation of oppositional values by the ruling value system proves once again the powerfully adaptive nature of capitalist society. Assimilation of oppositional values is not, of course, the same as their realization.


In order to understand oppression, alienation, and exploitation, people must feel as though their goals are being impeded by the external social forces. In order to feel one’s goals impeded by external social forces, one must be able to form goals and desire forms of relationship which the given ruling value system cannot realize. If one formulates only such goals and desires only such relationships as are allowed under a given structure of power, then one’s goals and desires will never become a source of political conflict. If the given society permits the realization of all goals and allows the formation of all relationships that are valuable for the self and valued by others, and these goals and relationships give rise to patterns of social action and resource use which are not only sustainable over the open ended future of human existence, but contribute back to the life-sustaining social world forms of labour and interaction which enable others to do the same, then the problems of alienation, exploitation, and oppression would be resolved. But if a ruling value system allows the emergence of a virtual space in which it appears that anything is possible but in reality is monitoring every key stroke for economic and political data that can be used to ensure its own better reproduction, then the radical political implications of the imagination—the capacity to invent interior worlds in comparison with which external worlds can be found wanting—has been incorporated into the reproductive dynamics of the given structure of rule.

When the imagination becomes an object to be mined for the information it can yield about how better to reproduce an alienating, exploiting, and oppressing system, it must become, at the same time, an object of the sorts of preservative political struggles I discussed at the beginning of this section. My argument is not, of course, that cyberspace or virtual networks should be abolished, but rather that people must be wary of identifying their imaginations with their objectifications in virtual life—that something inner be preserved as a space of pure creation. In order to preserve the imagination as a space of pure creation, the individual requires separation and solitude just as much as she requires connection and interaction. As the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr argues, “man is so constituted that he possess an inner world of imagination which is different from, though connected to, the world of external reality. It is the discrepancy between the two worlds which motivates creative imagination. People who realize their creative potential are constantly bridging the gap between inner and outer.”[29]


In order for there to be real creativity, then, there must be both inner and outer, and any force which threatens to collapse the one into the other is a threat to creative self-realization. As Goethe asked, “Why now disturb my quiet elation?/Leave me with my wine alone/with others we seek education/But inspiration on one’s own.”[30] The affirmation of the values of solitude, inspiration, and the distinction between interior and exterior become political when we re-examine them in light of the pervasive alienation of labour in capitalist society.

For most people who work, labour-activity is mindless, deadening, boring, uncreative, performed under the direction of a boss and only in response to an underlying economic and natural necessity. It was against this suffocating alienation of humanity’s world-creating capacity that Marx rebelled. Marx’s deepest and abiding value, that which he believed capitalism most of all violated, was the value of substantive individuality, i.e., of each person as a potentially unique creator and contributor to the collective whole which sustains each and all: “Assume man to be man and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then you can exchange only love for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life.”[31] The development of this real individual life has both external and internal conditions.

Externally, it requires regular and secure access to the basic means of biological life as well as the institutions and relationships through which our human capacities for articulate thought and creative activity develop. Notwithstanding the ubiquity of cybernetic networks, these external conditions are, and remain, material. As Sherry Turkle reminds us, in warning of the one-dimensionality of on-line “communities,” the original meaning of community was “to give amongst each other.”[32] That we must first give amongst each other as material bodies does not, of course, rule out our being able to be given amongst each other as networked selves. What it does serve to remind us of, though, is that material limitations can have contradictory relationships to our goals. On the one hand, material limitations such as are imposed on some groups of people by ruling groups so as to ensure the continued subordination of the deprived are oppressive. But the material limitations imposed on our goals by the general need to ensure that nature retains its life-support capacity, or other people as unique centres of consciousness, experience, and action with their own goals and ideas, are limitations that turn us inward in a life-valuable way. They are those limitations confrontation with which deepens our inner life, by making us realise that not everything we can imagine can be externalized, and that of the things we can externalize, the forms of externalization, in order to be life-serving contributions, must not undermine the life-support capacity of nature or other peoples’ projects and goals.

Hence, the internal conditions of rich individuality require the opposite of that which the external conditions demand. The satisfaction of our life-requirements is all about maintaining connection to other people and life-support systems. Converting the satisfaction of those life-requirements into life-valuable expressions of our capacities requires time apart from others, a deceleration of time, and deliberately imposed constraints on the object of consciousness. All three demands are at odds with the experience of time and content on-line. As David R. Loy argues, “the cyberpresent results from slicing time so thinly that sense of duration disappears, replaced by accelerating speed. Our awareness usually hops from one perch to the other, but now it hops so quickly that the sensation is more like running on an accelerating treadmill. This is possible, however, only because now-moments—our treadmill steps—are denuded of meaningful content.”[33] The rich individuality Marx spoke about, although many-sided, does not try to pay attention to everything and does not create itself by externalizing everything that happens to come to mind.


Marx argues, in the passage from the “Manuscripts” cited above, that real individuals are determinate and limited; they are not capable of everything but must work on themselves to develop the knowledge and form the relationships they desire. Self-creation is not giving voice to every fleeting thought and puerile feeling; it is self-limitation of the most demanding sort; ascesis, giving oneself over to the discipline that commands one’s attention. As Goethe writes of artistic creation: “so too all forming culture needs some tether:/Unbridled spirits end in vain disaster/Pursuing pure perfections elevation./Who wants great things must get himself together/Constraint is where you show yourself the master,/And only law is freedom’s sure foundation.”[34] Not everyone will become an artist of Goethe’s calibre, but of course, that is not the point. Everyone has something to give to the commonwealth of life-capital from which rich individuals must draw. While time and space and solitude might appear like oppressive limitations from the perspective of the on-line restless spirit, contributions worth sharing amongst each other, of whatever form they might take, require them as conditions of their value.

It does not follow from this argument that virtual life should be abolished, any more than it follows from the argument that labour should be abolished because capitalist labour is alienating. What it does do is remind that meaningful creation—the sort that socialism seeks to enable—requires not only inspiration, but the discipline to hold back, to not share everything but only that which is actually valuable and valued by others as real contributions to their own lives as sensing, thinking, and acting beings. Yet, this holding back cannot be merely the act of isolated people, and there must be time and space for them to draw back into. Hence the importance of the preservative struggles that I discussed in Section Two returns. In the context of highly developed capitalist society that which must be preserved is not only air and water and healthy food, forms of solidarity represented by trade unions and cultural groups and social movements, but also life time and space in which people can be alone to think about their real situation, experience themselves both as the object of social forces and as a subject capable of reacting against them, and to imagine different ways of relating, acting, living, and organizing public life.

That these preservative struggles can never attain their goal without transformative struggles goes without saying, for the capitalist search for life space and time to instrumentalize is endless. Nevertheless, that transformative struggles are necessary conditions of preserving that which deserves to be protected does not mean that the preservative moment is not also essential, and even more so in conditions in which transformative struggles are absent. The deep life-ground of historical materialism connects them all and demands not dogmatic adherence to the organizational generalizations of the past but creative openness to the challenges of the future, including the importance of ensuring that older forms of life-valuable sociality and solitude are preserved for the subsequent generations who will need them.


End notes:

[1] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1975, pp. 48-9.

[2] Karl Marx, “Letter to the St. Petersburg Journal Homeland Notes,” The Letters of Karl Marx, Saul. K. Padover, ed., (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall), 1979, p. 321.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1986, p. 179.

[4] John McMurtry, “Winning the War of the World,” Keynote Lecture, Zeitgeist Conference, University of Toronto, March 15th, 2014, p. 12.

[5] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker, ed., (New York: W.W. Norton), 1978, p. 595.

[6] Marx, The German Ideology, p. 83.

[7] Ibid., p. 69.

[8] Marx, The Letters of Karl Marx, p. 321.

[9] See for example Areil Salleh, Ecofeminism as Politics, (London: Zed Books), 1997; John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution, (New York: Monthly Review Press), 2009; Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, (London: Zed Books), 2007.

[10] Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press), 1971, p. 130.

[11] David Camfield, “Theoretical Foundations of an Ant-Racist Queer feminist Historical Materialism,” Critical Sociology, February, 2014, p.7. (accessed, march 23rd, 2014).

[12] For a more detailed discussion of these sets of universal life-requirements than is possible here, see Jeff Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life Value, (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press), 2012.

[13] Jeff Noonan, “Free Time as a Condition of a Free Life,” Contemporary Political Theory, 8(4), 2009, pp. 377-393.

[14] Karl Marx, “Foundations for the Critique of Political Economy,” Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 28, (New York: International Publishers), 1986, p.250.

[15] Ibid., p. 251.

[16] Andrew Collier, “Marx and Conservatism,” Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy, Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor, eds., (London: Palgrave MacMillan), 2009, p. 100.

[17] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1969, p.21.

[18] Giuseppe Tassone, “Democracy at a Standstill: The Idea of Democracy as a Dialectic of Theory and Practice,” Critique, 41(1), 2013, p. 90.

[19] The turn of phrase which I am adapting is “repressive desublimation” which Marcuse explores in One-Dimensional Man. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1964, pp. 72-75.

[20] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, (New York: International Publishers), 1975, p. 277.

[21] Massimilaino Tomba, Marx’s Temporalities, (Leiden: Brill), 2013, p. 168.

[22] Hermann Lubbe, “The Contraction of the Present,” High Speed Society, Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman, eds., (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press), 2009.

[23] Johnathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, (London: verso), 2013, p. 10.

[24] As a terrifying example of this relentless time pressure, consider the case of an intern working for the American investment bank Merrill Lynch, who died in the summer of 2013 after working straight for more than 48 hours. “Intern Death Leads to Bank Review,” The Toronto Star, Aug. 24th, 2013, p. A2.

[25] Crary, 24/7, p. 40.

[26] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1969,

[27] Crary, 24/7, p. 46.

[28] Lee Siegel, Against the Machine, (New York: Spiegel and Grau), 2008, p. 34.

[29] Anthony Storr, Solitude, (New York: The Free Press), 1988, p. 69.

[30] Wolfgang Goethe, “Chinese-German Hours and Seasons,” Selected Poems, John Whaley, trans., (London: J.M. Dent), 1998, p. 159.

[31] Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” p. 326.

[32] Sherry Turkel, Alone Together, (New York: Basic Books), 2011, p. 238.

[33] David L. Loy, “Cyberlack,” 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society, Robert Hassan and Robert E. Purser, eds., (Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books), 2007, pp. 207-208.

[34] Goethe, “Art and Nature,” p. 83.


[Thank you Jeff for this essay and your continued support.]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.  His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012.  More of his work can be found at his website:

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