[OPE-L] Walter Benjamin and commodity capitalism

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Jul 05 2006 - 16:22:20 EDT

<http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_id=9150 edition
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8 July 2006 | issue 2008


Walter Benjamin and commodity capitalism

The Marxist critic Walter Benjamin was one of the
first to analyse the links between consumer
culture and capitalism. Esther Leslie looks at
his legacy

On 15 July 1892, Walter Benjamin was born into a
well heeled assimilated Jewish family in Berlin.
On 26 September 1940, he was interrupted in his
escape to the US from Nazi Germany. Prevented
from crossing from Occupied France into Spain,
weakened by illness and threatened with being
handed over to the Gestapo, he chose suicide.

In the years between these dates Benjamin lived
all over Europe, as a tourist and émigré. Once
the Nazis had annulled his German nationality,
specifically because of an article he wrote for a
Communist magazine on the decadence of fascist
art, he became an exile.

With the victory of Nazism in Germany and the
fall of France, the spaces of safe Europe were
shrinking. The east held little promise. At the
end of 1926 Benjamin had visited Moscow for eight
weeks in order to decide whether to join the
Communist Party.

He decided against. The Soviet system appeared as
a dynamic and energetic society - but already
there were frightening tendencies towards
leadership cults and corruption. By the time
Benjamin sought to flee the Nazis, the situation
in Russia had worsened.

The Middle East was no option either. Gershom
Scholem, a Zionist friend from his youth, had
long tried to tempt Benjamin to Palestine, but
neither the Desert State nor Zionism held any
attraction for him.

Instead he started a journey undertaken by other
displaced European intellectuals - to the US, in
the hope of an academic post, or simply the
opportunity to flog his talents to Hollywood.

A freelance writer selling literary criticism,
cultural analysis and the odd radio lecture for
children, Benjamin might have secured a few
commissions in the US or aid from the more
successful exile community. It was not to be.

Precarious existence

The topics that attracted Benjamin were
exceptionally diverse. They included the social
dynamics of technology, the philosophy of
history, the politics of literature, theories of
memory and experience, and even the cultural
significance of astrology.

Given his own precarious freelance existence, one
of Benjamin's key concerns was with the changing
status of intellectuals, writers and artists over
the period of industrialisation. The
intelligentsia had to struggle to find financial
backers where once patronage by nobility or the
church had sufficed.

Benjamin was alert to the political meanings of
culture. His essay "The Work of Art in the Age of
its Technical Reproducibility" and his lecture
for a communist circle "The Author as Producer"
proposed ways of creating an anti-capitalist and
anti-fascist culture.

He devised strategies to avoid the pressures on
artists to be individualistic, competitive, or
proponents of art as a new religion. Benjamin
assessed what the new mass cultural forms -
radio, film, photography, photomontage,
worker-correspondent newspapers - meant socially
and politically. He was hopeful that new
technologies could bring culture closer to larger
numbers of people, demystify it and make its
formats relevant for a modern epoch.

Benjamin studied the past in an effort to
understand how capitalism had created the
conditions for the victory of fascism. It was
Paris that Benjamin chose to focus on. From the
late 18th to the late 19th century Paris had been
an animated place of burgeoning consumer
capitalism and repeated revolutionary waves.

For the last 13 years of his life Benjamin
investigated the shopping arcades of Paris and
the developing culture of consumerism they

The first Parisian arcades were built in the
early 1800s and the last was constructed in 1860.
Arcades were passages through blocks of
buildings, lined with shops and other businesses.
These iron and glass constructions housed chaotic
juxtapositions of shop signs, lighting and
attractive window displays of commodities and

For Benjamin the arcades of Paris were a
microcosm of capitalism. They represented both
historical potential and disappointment - a
promise of abundance and betrayal of that promise.

An international architectural form, they were
crammed with colonial plunder, the raided booty
of wealthy nations. The empire aided commodity
production, providing sources of raw materials
which could be worked over and sold off in newly
established markets.

Imperialism unified the world through trade, but
equally it divided peoples, setting them against
one another as workers and as soldiers. The world
exhibitions, another 19th century architectural
form devoted to commodity display, were similarly

Victor Hugo's introduction to the 1867 Paris
World Exposition catalogue is a call for the
unification of peoples - he talks of "the world
as neighbours" who come together to "compare

But in reality, the displays were organised along
the dividing lines of nation. And commodities
were placed on pedestals, erasing the labour of
the workers who had made them.

World exhibitions promised to be places where
visitors of all classes and backgrounds could rub
shoulders demo cratically. Benjamin quoted the
Soviet writer Rjazanov to point out how far from
the truth this notion was:

"In 1855 the second world exhibition took place,
this time in Paris. Workers' delegations from the
capital as well as from the provinces were now
totally barred. It was feared that they gave
workers an opportunity for organising."

In focusing on the spaces of consumerism,
Benjamin uncovered how the brokers of a new
social order determined that bonds emerge only
between consumers, not between workers.
Nevertheless the workers' bond of class
solidarity threatened to endure - and so it had
to be thwarted.

To this end, a new form of consumer experience
proved useful. Benjamin tracked how Paris was
restructured in the 1850s and 1860s in an effort
to counter revolutionary actions. This
modernisation project, inaugurated by Emperor
Napoleon III, involved constructing vast
boulevards designed to confound barricade
building by rebellious workers, and to enable the
swift passage of state vehicles from one part of
the city to another to quell rioters.

Tourist location

Baron Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris aimed to
move the working classes out of the city centre
to the east, remodelling the west for the
bourgeoisie. The arcades, which had been places
of chance encounter, fell victim to this city
tidy-up. Paris was to be turned into a location
for tourists to contemplate rather than a locus
of revolution.

The arcades thus gave way to department stores,
with their economies of scale, fixed prices and
concentration of ownership. Here the mass of
consumers needed by a "modernising" capitalism
found an appropriate home.

This consumer mass, Benjamin observed, is the
mass that enters the stage of history not as a
revolutionary subject, but as the mass of "mass
politics", which can be moulded into a public in
order to prevent it gaining any class-based
understanding. The 19th century mob is tamed and
trained, turned into a consumer crowd encouraged
to forget its own role in production.

By the time Benjamin wrote about the arcades they
were unfashionable, and many had been demolished.
This makes the Arcades Project a piece of history
writing in the sense that Benjamin loved best.
The ruined hopes of the past - dimly remembered
from his own childhood - loom into greater
visibility in his historical construction of

Surrealist influence

Benjamin, influenced by Surrealism, unearthed
impulses, objects, dreams and wishes in matter
that had decayed. He wrote of his Arcades Project:

"We can speak of two directions in this work -
one which goes from the past into the present and
shows the arcades, and all the rest, as
precursors, and one which goes from the present
into the past so as to have the revolutionary
potential of these 'precursors' explode in the

The arcades and the consumer culture they ushered
in was identified as a prerequisite of fascism,
which cannot be understood without reference to
capitalism. This was both in terms of its
economic basis and in the way people are
encouraged to conceive themselves as consumers
and national masses, rather than as workers and

At the same time, the arcades and similar 19th
century forms - railway stations, museums,
exhibition halls - all fizz with the utopian
promise of luxuries, mobility and knowledge.

Benjamin was always alert to how the "hell" of
commodity production and capitalist society could
be probed to reveal traces of hope. So, at the
same time as the worker's consciousness is
colonised by the commodity in spaces of
consumption, the consumer reacts to the utopian
side of commodity production.

The impulse for accepting the commodity is the
wish to see dreams fulfilled. Advertising makes
this so much clearer - it works with our
fantasies and desires in order to convince us
that products will make us happy. Yet they never
do - so the desire remains, as does the
possibility and motivation of genuine improvement.

Arguably Benjamin's writings on film and
technological culture are also an attempt to
explore the revolutionary potential of these art
forms. A democratic possibility inhabits film and
photography, he argued, but it is impeded by
capitalist production relations, such as the
ownership of copyright and display channels by
the rich.

From 1934, Benjamin's dreams became ever more
politicised and the dreams of the past, sought
out in his historical archaeology of human
desires, were obliterated by the pressing
nightmares of the present. The collective
appeared to have succumbed to the spectacle. The
mass found an uncomfortable home in totalitarian
states, where "class" was an outlawed category.

While the Nazis pushed one way, Benjamin moved in
other directions, from country to country,
stumbling finally to ground on a stretch of no
man's land between Spain and France.

This is when Benjamin wrote his final piece, "On
the Concept of History". In the darkest days
Benjamin pointed out the impotency of
conventional modes of thinking and action. He
diagnosed the root of the problem to be the
"servile subordination into an uncontrollable
apparatus" on the part of even those politicians,
such as reformist social democrats, who were

Benjamin's challenging perspectives signal to us
that revolutionary action in hand with
revolutionary theory is the only rightful
challenger to the system that oppresses us - and
the only possibility for true happiness.

Esther Leslie is researcher at Birkbeck College
and author of Walter Benjamin - Overpowering
Conformism (Pluto Press).

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