Bubbles in the Wild: Beneath the Surface of our Commoditized World

In our readings of Marx and Smith thus far, we have examined society and human beings, and how human beings operate in society. The theme we are examining is the relationship between underlying determinants and their various manifestations, in other words the structure and surface of things, but most of the concepts we’ve discussed have been realized in society. This means they’re not latent, but rather invisible forces that have various forms of expression. We will be dealing with the forms of appearance of different institutions and invisible forces in society. 

Image from http://www.gifmania.com/Gif-Animados-Objetos/Imagenes-Juguetes/Pompas-Jabon/Muchas-Pompas-De-Jabon-89541.gif

To relate our theme to a physical example, we examine the phenomenon of bubbles. Bubbles appear to be serene and balanced, and float peacefully. However, in reality the structure of bubbles is very unstable. Bubbles are the visible representation of the invisible forces at work inside them. It’s a battle of attraction between all the water and soap molecules that form the film, and when the battle is won the bubble pops. You can’t see the invisible forces in the bubble’s surface; you only see their manifestation.


For Smith, the driving force behind society is humans’ self interest, expressed as propensity to exchange, which is itself expressed as division of labor and then capitalism. In this way, exchange is both a manifestation of self-interest and a determinant for division of labor. For Marx, the driving force is abstract human labor, which expresses itself in commodities with value (capital). Smith’s writing agrees with this relationship between labor and value, as he writes “The value of any commodity… is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities. (Smith, 33)”

Capital is the manifestation of labor, and it also commands labor, creating the cycle of capitalism (i.e. wealth producing wealth) which structures our society. According to Marx, “Capital is the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society. (Tucker, 243)” Smith argues that capitalism is structured and defined by division of labor, a natural evolution of self-interest in society. Marx, by contrast, argues that society under capitalism is structured by the objectification and alienation of labor, a perversion of what labor should be–free and uncoerced. “Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself. (Tucker, 79)” Because of this alienation of labor, because humans’ labor is directed by someone else, humans’ natural tendency to express themselves freely through their labor is suppressed and does not manifest itself.

Marx also attempts to show that even within capitalism, the social conception of wealth is different from the real structure of capitalist wealth. According to Marx, on the surface capitalist societies’ wealth is “an immense accumulation of commodities,” while the reality and “substance of all wealth” is actually use-values, the utility of things. (Tucker, 303) Within imperfect capitalist society, everyone works towards an accumulation of personal wealth. This is imagined as simply enormous quantities of goods, but in fact the only wealth that matters is wealth that can be used to do something for you, the objects which are useful and helpful to your life.

Marx and Smith are both explaining how capitalism manifests, but while Marx traces it back to abstract human labor Smith traces it back to self-interest. For Marx, the abstraction of human labor under capitalism is what causes the estrangement of man, because his labor is now an average and it no longer matters if it was his. He no longer labors to express himself, but because someone outside himself makes him. “If his own activity is to him an unfree activity, then he is treating it as activity performed in the service, under the dominion, the coercion and the yoke of another man. (Tucker, 78)” In this way, something that is integral to him and helps define who he is is taken from him, leaving him less than a complete human being.

The ideal worlds of Marx and Smith have been fantasized and conceptualized through modern-day artists, novelists and writers. In the following analysis, we explore what Marx and Smith believe should be the ideal forces that are working in society, and the ideal ways in which they manifest. To assist understanding, we draw comparisons with the silver screen – exploring how ideas in the text relate to reality and to two films: Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2008) and American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999).

Marx and Smith would concur that – in natural, or equilibrium, state of things – there is a underlying, definite force that shapes social interaction, and there are forms in which they manifest themselves. As much as these two writers agree upon the presence of an invisible force and manifest form, they disagree over the what is should be.

Marx argues that the invisible force should be personal human relations, and the manifest form should be a set of social interactions that are independent from commodities – such that “the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labor, appear as their own mutual personal relations, not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labor (Tucker, 325)”. Marx condemns the fetishism of commodities, where people see in others what they can do for themselves, and not for who they are as human beings. To catch a glimpse of Marx’s world, we look at Into the Wild – a biographical drama film, on the true story of a fresh college graduate who travels into the Alaskan wilderness, to pursue a life independent of production and commodities. Marx would applaud McCandless’ realization that true meaning really comes from personal relationships, and not with extrinsic circumstances. Indeed, this college graduate, Christopher McCandless, explains, “[this is the] climactic battle to kill the false being within and viciously conclude the spiritual revolution … no longer to be poisoned by the civilization he flees … deliberate living is how one relates to a situation that has value – circumstance has no value, and all true meaning resides in the personal relationship to a phenomenon, what it means to you.”

Smith argues that the driving force behind interactions should be exchange, and this exchange should be manifested through commodities. Smith writes, “by treaty, by barter and by purchase … we obtain from one another the greater part of those mutual good offices that we stand in need of (Smith, 16)”. In American Beauty, a film set in a numbingly materialistic suburban America, people see others in terms of commodities: the things they own, the things they wear, and so on. Such a worldview permeates nearly all characters, from the main character Lester as an advertising executive, to his wife Carolyn as a real estate agent. The materialistic world view is magnified to such an extent that, when Carolyn has an affair with her competitor – whom she looks up to because of his commercial success – her husband Lester responds with complete, unemotional, detached indifference. On the surface, American Beauty is a representation of the world under Smith – materialistically abundant, emotionally indifferent. 

Understanding how Marx conceives of the suppression of human expression under capitalism makes it easier to understand why he believes capitalism is so undesirable and communism an excellent solution. Understanding that Smith conceives of capitalism as an entirely natural manifestation of self-interest that benefits everyone explains why he, in contrast, believes it is desirable. This distinction stems from the fact that the root of capitalism for Smith is self-interest which is aligned with the society’s interest, whereas for Marx the root of capitalism is the abstraction of human labor, which is detrimental to the laborer.

One thought on “Bubbles in the Wild: Beneath the Surface of our Commoditized World

  1. I love how you used Into the Wild as a source…I’ve read the book and seen the movie and both were…really frustrating experiences, mainly because there were so many decisions the main character could have made that would have led to him NOT dying (oops, spoiler alert), but he missed every single one. So on the one hand, you have Marx and Smith who argue that capitalism and the division of labor is a toxic form of economy for the laboring class involved in the system, and that their life-activity will suffer for it. But on the other hand, you have this sort of example, where a person shunned all forms of organized production and refused to “be a part of the system.” He refused to rely on materials that division of labor or capitalism might have produced: maps, a standard paying job, supplies…and it ultimately led to his death. Not necessarily because he acted stupidly, which was a part (a lot, actually) of the problem, but because we’ve created a system wherein you suffer if you’re a part of it, but you suffer a heck of a lot more if you’re not.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s