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Present and history

by Emmerich Nyikos
Postmodern consciousness is completely absorbed in the present, the point of the now, indeed is eager to be absorbed in it - a state of affairs that manifests itself in the fact that all thought and action relates solely to it: There is the present - and nothing else. Or to be more precise: there is the present of the now (which continues indefinitely) and the past presents.
Present and history
A spotlight on the delusion on which postmodern consciousness is based

by Emmerich Nyikos
[This article posted on 5/23/2024 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.streifzuege.org/2024/gegenwart-und-geschichte/.]

“Through the simple fact that each later generation finds productive forces acquired by the earlier generation, which serve it as raw material for new production, a connection is formed in the history of mankind, a history of mankind is formed, which is all the more the history of mankind as the productive forces of mankind and consequently their social relations have increased.”
(K. Marx, letter to Annenkov dated December 28, 1946)

“We know only one science, the science of history.”
(K. Marx / F. Engels, The German Ideology)

“The original formula of postmodernism is what Goethe understands as the original sin. In other words, to say to the moment: 'Linger! You are so beautiful. ... What one wants is the eternal present, so that history and the future can be occupied by the present. That is stupidity or fear, or both.”
(H. Müller, On the State of the Nation)

1.

One could get the impression that postmodern consciousness is completely absorbed in the present, the point of the now, indeed is eager to be absorbed in it - a state of affairs that manifests itself in the fact that all thought and action relates solely to it: There is the present - and nothing else. Or to be more precise: there is the present of the now (which continues indefinitely) and the past presents, whereby one present continuously replaces the other. Accordingly, for this consciousness there are only separate presents that follow one another by their very nature, but in their quality are nothing but the present - even if (except for one) they are past. The past as such is thus acknowledged, for there is time, which is difficult to deny, but only as a strange thing that is so distant and so external to the present that it cannot concern those who live in the “last” present. Unless as an antiquarian object or as a collection of examples, i.e. as a “lesson to be learned”. However, this has nothing to do with history. It is nothing but its caricature, its parody or its distorted image. But what is history then?

Let us put it briefly: history is every given moment in which becoming condenses into what has become and from which, in turn, becoming arises again.

2.

To illustrate what has been said, let's take any person who is now sitting in an armchair. That is the present. Plain and simple. Or perhaps not? Because the question is: Has the armchair always been there? Or was it made - say, several years or possibly decades ago? Obviously, one might say. But that's not enough. Because the production of this or any other piece of furniture that is available to the person at this moment (apart from anything else here) necessarily involves not only the material from which it is made, say, wood, glue, nails and whatever else is needed to produce it, but also the tools that are necessary to create such a piece: hammers, saws, planes and much more. However, the material and the tools that were used here in carpentry obviously also had to have been manufactured before they were used: for example, in a tool factory, which in turn received the metal for the hammer, saw and plane from a smelting plant, which obtained the ore for its production from a mine, and the machines from other factories, which in turn received material and machines from somewhere else ... and so on endlessly back to, if you want to go back that far, the first stone of the australopithecines.

The carpenter who made the armchair, in order to be able to make it at all, trivially had to feed himself with food and clothe himself with clothes beforehand, and this food and these clothes were in turn produced by other workers with the help of other materials and other means of labor, which had also previously been produced using completely different materials and completely different means of labor - and so on and so forth.

Not to mention all the other things that also play a role in this context: For example, the work of the teachers who taught the carpenter (and all the others too) how to read, write and calculate (skills without which even less demanding work such as that of the technician or engineer could not be carried out), whereby this took place in a building that had been designed and built years before by architects, bricklayers, electricians and plumbers with the aid of materials, equipment and machines, which in turn must have been manufactured with the aid of materials, equipment and machines, which in turn - and so on.

And all that has been said here obviously applies not only to production activities and to those that are necessary for production, but also to others that tend to take place on a purely intellectual terrain; among other things, it therefore applies not only to the material, but also to those instruments or “tools” that are used in an “intellectual” context: Among other things, it thus applies to the books that are being used now, at this moment, and which are the result of thought processes that could and also, necessarily, had to draw on other, earlier books - thus on the knowledge that has been transported with them. And so down into the depths of time - ultimately to the point where writing, indeed language as an instrument of communication and thought, entered the historical stage.

What does all this mean? Well, the presence of the person now sitting on this armchair has shrunk to the size and weight of a grain of sand, if one understands it merely as the present detached from becoming, and it evaporates completely when this person rises from this armchair again. Only if, sitting in the armchair, he should happen to write, let us say, a text that could perhaps be of some significance later on (however small the probability of this may be), then the point of the present will - perhaps, for one cannot know - attain a reality that goes beyond the fleeting moment, the instant, which in and of itself has no permanence. But if this is the case, then what happened at that particular moment is in fact just another moment in the chain (process) of history - a transition point at which becoming becomes becoming and at the same time becoming becomes becoming again.

3.

Let us now transfer what we have just said to society in its quality as a system:

The respective present, the order given at a certain point in time, can be imagined as a kind of “construction”, “assemblage” or “formation”, which is built up from “layers” or “strata”, whereby the lowest layer is the most abstract, but those building on it then become more and more concrete one after the other.

This layered structure, however, largely corresponds to the sequence of historical “phases” of the given social system, a sequence that simultaneously represents a “transition”, a “transition” or, more precisely, an “expansion” from the elementary to the complex, whereby, and this is decisive, the elementary by no means evaporates, but is, one could say, “suspended” in the complex (although not necessarily “eliminated”, insofar as the “stages” of one and the same social order are concerned).

The historical phases we are talking about here, however, result from the interplay of (sometimes) time-divergent processes that arise from the specific functioning of the respective historical constellations themselves. It goes without saying, of course, that in the initial phases, earlier states belonging to a previous social form, i.e. surviving states, are always dragged along, but are then gradually dismantled, pushed back or modified (assimilated or adapted).

The progression from the elementary to the complex (the “progression” here is taken as value-neutral: precisely as “expansion”) must not, however, be understood as if the conditions in earlier phases had to be imagined as “simple” or, more precisely, as “uncomplicated”; Rather, it is the case that they were indeed “complicated”, although the “complexity” resulted from the fact that, as already mentioned, the remains and ruins of an earlier social form or order were dragged along for quite some time (or even had to be dragged along), Ruins, therefore, whose “dismantling” or “modification” (their assimilation into the newly emerging structure) then ran parallel to the increasing complexity, the gradual, phase-by-phase intensification of the complexity of the structures and the functioning of the system itself.

The quality of the elementary thus refers exclusively to the structure and functioning of the new social system. It follows that “complexity” in the initial phases (in contrast to the “complexity” of the later phases) only means (and can only mean) that inhomogeneous or heterogeneous moments coexist.

4.

Let us now become a little more concrete and turn to the system of capital as one of the exemplars of the totality of historical modes of production:

If we look beneath the surface of the world of appearances, we see here various strata out of which the capitalist order, as it presents itself at present, is constructed, the “lowest” layer being the most abstract, the “highest” the most concrete: the stratum of relations between commodities produced in private labor processes (the level of value), that of relations between the means of production and social labor power separated from them (the level of surplus value), that of relations between capital entities (the level of the uniform rate of profit, which determines the production price of commodities), that of the centralized capital within the sectors (the level of monopoly capital) and finally that of the independence of external forms (the level of the ultimate increase in the level of productive power, which in the long term leads to the complete automation of production processes), even if the time factor plays a role in the analysis that should not be underestimated, insofar as it must always be borne in mind that over time the respective weight of the individual layers (i.e. their determination potential) changes. (i.e. their determination potential) shifts from the lowest to the highest.

However, these strata correspond to the historical phases of the bourgeois system, i.e. what currently exists is the result of a process that consists in the fact that the complex emerges successively (i.e. “logically”) from the elementary, so that as a result we have a “layered structure”, whereby the earlier is definitely present in the later and is its “basic structure”, as its fundamental “core” or “primal ground” (even if perhaps no longer “visibly” present at the end, but only implicitly as a starting point, merely “suspended” in the now - in this particular case, in a strict Hegelian sense).

These phases are:

1. the phase of commodity production as such (one could also speak here of a preliminary phase), from which the next phase emerges as the result of certain processes that are aleatory and non-intentional up to a certain point with regard to this result (the “original accumulation”, as it has been called by Marx, i.e. the separation of the immediate producers from the means of production, as well as the concentration of the - mostly colonial - distribution channels of certain categories of commodities in a certain regional zone, namely England);

2. the phase of the embryonic capital system, in which profit is produced relatively unsystematically, and from which the next phase arises through accumulation processes (in all sectors), whereby the ratio of means of production to labor, or constant to variable capital (the organic composition), will vary according to the nature of the matter (due to the respective technological basis);

3. the phase of the capital system of the classical type, which is characterized by the equalization of profit rates (within the framework of the varying extent of the respective share of constant capital in the total capital of the capital entities) and from which the next phase arises as a result of the centralization processes induced by competition (“one capital beats many to death”, as Marx aptly called it);

4. the phase of monopoly capital, in which monopoly prices are formed and in which, on the basis of the monopoly profits thus generated, science is finally subsumed under capital, so that it sees itself forced in a certain direction (namely to be active with a view to raising the level of productive power, which ultimately leads to the automation and robotization of the production process);

5. Finally, emerging from the monopolistic phase, the postmodern phase or the final phase of the bourgeois system (one could say this with regard to the fundamental transformations that are literally turning everything upside down), a phase in which only the external shell of capitalist production survives: Due to automation and robotization and thus the tendential elimination of labor from the processes of production, the basis falls away for the production of value (and, a fortiori, surplus value), so that only the external forms, price and profit, remain (this construction being maintained solely by monopoly, the monopoly of private ownership of the means of production and that of monopoly capitals).

5.

What we have here, then, is a static construction, but at the same time also a process, which, in theoretical thinking, are connected in so far as the “ascent from the abstract to the concrete”, as Marx's methodological principle, necessarily reflects the historical passage from the elementary to the complex. For the abstract is elementary, the concrete is complex. Or to put it another way: if the aim is to understand a system, then ultimately the historical perspective must be regarded as fundamental, as decisive for a deeper insight into the connections, into the “gears” of a society, which are always hidden insofar as they do not appear directly in the concrete.

But this means that the moment, the now, the point of the present, since it basically proves to be the condensation of a (polyvalent) process, cannot be grasped as such, as a pure present, as a superficial, insubstantial present: If one considers this point detached from the aforementioned process, from the process of history with it, one will only ever be able to grasp what the given in each case naively appears to be. Anyone who focuses on the here and now will therefore only ever have a narrow perspective, an extremely narrow-minded point of view.

If one excludes the historical dimension from the considerations, then one only receives a static impression of the surface of the reality given at a certain moment (of what catches the eye, i.e. the apparent connections) - an impression of the world of appearance, therefore, which “involves” the essential, but only implicitly - insofar as a system can only be understood in its essence if one understands this system as a processing whole, as a historical totality, i.e. not only “in action”. i.e. not only “in action” (the momentary to and fro of the mutual influences of various “factors”), but also in the process of becoming, because only if it is analyzed in its becoming (from the point of view of what has become, i.e. retrospectively) do the underlying, deeper connections become visible, which elude the eye precisely because of the complexity of the concrete: Only by making the historical transformations “reversible” (in theoretical thinking), “undoing” them and therefore dismantling the superimpositions step by step, can these connections, which ultimately matter, be uncovered, a procedure that then enables the whole to be reconstructed. - It is no coincidence that Marx penetrates as far as the commodity in Capital in order to take the starting point for analyzing the system as a whole.

What applies to a system as a whole, however, also applies to every distinctive aspect of society: the present, of which only the surface is “visible” or, more precisely, which tries to impose itself on the gaze, is always the result of historical processes that reach into the depths and whose analysis alone makes it possible to understand the present as it is.

6.

To draw a conclusion, what exists in each case is therefore not a given, but something that has become. And this implies that what exists now can only be understood as the condensation of historical processes, without which there would simply be no present at all.

At the same time, however, what has become can only be seen as a starting point, as the basis of other, perspective historical processes, as logically follows from this point of view. Indeed, the given can actually only be a starting point - and should, if one is inclined to view the matter from a distance, i.e. historically, also function as such. Because if you are not prepared to use the potentialities that are the result of history, then it would be like “taking over” (from the previous world), so to speak, but without “passing on” (to posterity). Strictly speaking, that would be a standstill or, in the long term, the termination of history.

In short: the present is nothing unless you make something of it. It goes without saying, of course, that the subject of this practice can only be found beyond the nonsense, insanity and brainwashing that is in vogue today - indeed, beyond all cosmetic reforms that aim to somehow “improve” what already exists. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem: For since what has been handed down presents itself today (more than ever) as a “condensate” of the whole of history, this practice, if one takes the matter seriously, can only be a historical one, and that means: a practice that has the functioning of society in its entirety in mind, which ultimately amounts to reshaping this society according to the real possibilities that have been accumulated over time - and all the more so, as the necessity of bourgeois forms (beginning with private ownership of the production apparatus) - and thus also their meaningfulness - dwindles with the elimination of labor from the production of use values, quite apart from the fact that the “business as usual”, as one may assume if one extrapolates the current tendencies, only holds “turbulence” and childishness in store.

This should be obvious to everyone, unless one insists, as postmodernism does (not only postmodern philosophy, but apparently also postmodern society), on burying oneself in the present and, as a consequence, indulging in pensiero debole, “weak thinking”, as unabashedly propagated by Gianni Vattimo at the beginning of the postmodern era (without, however, being aware that he was only describing the real state of bourgeois philosophy and science with this expression) - a “thinking” that, in contrast to Hegel and Marx, is then only capable of miniature narratives.

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