You are here

The Specters of Marx in an iPhone

By Professor  

Karl Marx was born two hundred years ago. Which is why hundreds of publications rose up in unison yesterday to write his bicentennial anti-obituaries. Nostalgics had a field day. Appropriated in the western or westernized cultures and media as a saint of pro-proletarian jargons, Marx is anything but well-remembered in the contexts that he truly matters today. If anything, there should have been a survey on how many people were reading articles on Marx yesterday on their iPhones.


The Spectres of Coltan

Marx defined commodity as something that has an exchange value, a social value, and has a price as a monetary articulation of its intrinsic and use values. Hundred and ten years after Marx’s death, Jacques Derrida wrote the fascinating Specters of Marx (1993), where he wrote in great detail about the ghostly nature of commodity. He also defined there what he termed as ‘hauntology,’ that aspect of a commodity which is essentially alienated from its origins or so it seems to the guardian of the commodity. The thing or the spectre, Derrida wrote, looks at us but we are unable to see it due to a ‘spectral asymmetry.’

Repetition and first time: this is perhaps the question of the event as question of the ghost. What is a ghost? What is the effectivity or the presence of a spectre, that is, of what seems to remain as ineffective, virtual. Insubstantial as a simulacrum? Is there there, between the thing itself and its simulacrum, an opposition that holds up? Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the Singularity of any first time, makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time. Altogether other. Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology.

He also described the process of how a commodity came to be, and came to be a secret, mystical and fetishized experience in the very fetishism that gave it a singularity of experience, to its every guardian and possessor. The deep malaise in the experience of the commodity, then, is not that it is taken very seriously or passionately, but that it is taken as a de facto secular product. An iPhone for instance! Hardly would this semi-artistic gizmo be ever taken as a mystical device. It has blurred the boundaries between commodity and artifact. It comes in a highly embellished and a highly geometrically configured packaging. Each of its appendages fits neatly into little grooves and crevices in a museumized box. A singular experience that scares no one but merely dazzles and then anaesthetizes. The excess of affectation produces, what the British author, J.G. Ballard termed, ‘death of the affect.’ But this commodity or product or artifact or addiction — in each of its avatars — is actually a ghost that camouflages the spectre — the spectre of coltan. And iPhone does not have monopoly over this spectre. Indeed, all mobile phones and laptops contain coltan mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with recourse to human trafficking, child labour and forced labour. As Congo fuels our twenty first-century lifestyles, about forty thousand African boys and girls are forced to mine cobalt in North Kivu and Katanga, according to a UNICEF report from 2014, braving risks of asphyxiation, accidental rockslides and death, for wages of one or two dollars a day. Two years ago in an investigation by Sky News, it was found that children as young as four years old work in the cobalt mines, euphemized by Apple, Samsung or Sony as ‘artisanal’ mines.’ As ‘coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge — crucial for the miniature circuit boards that power our smartphones, laptop computers, pagers and many other high-tech devices.’

The mysticism that Derrida was painfully trying to explain then — that spectre of Marx — is indeed the spectres of the children of Congo whose labours and lives stare back at us from behind our mobile phones and laptops as we grapple with the cholesterol-free or decaffeinated ghosts of our metropolitan griefs.


I am Not a Marxist

Deforestation in the Congo has led to the ninety percent of its native gorilla population to be gravely endangered. Cobalt mining is one of the reasons. ‘From coltan and cobalt to diamonds and gold,’ Africa has had great allure for China, in recent years. The bloody origins of coltan are safely disguised in the international market. ‘Refined into coltan at smelters in countries such as China, Kazakhstan and the United States, the mineral is sold to manufacturers that make capacitors, high-tech devices that hold electrical charges and are essential to everything from iPads to airplanes,’ thus helping manufacturers and buyers keep a clean conscience about the blood devices they purchase — believing it to be free of conflict. An estimated five million people died in Rwanda and Congo between 1998 and 2008, in what was described as the worst conflict since World War II, with rape and slavery as the major weapons or gulags of the war. The mines in Luwow, in Congo, were fore many years controlled by the National Congress for the Defence of People, which through the sale of coltan built is army against the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Coltan profits in the valley led to the resurgence of grotesque human destruction and mass-rapes.

China especially has shown great interest in Africa, Congo being no exception. In 2014, the trade between Africa and China was greater than $US200 billion, belittling that between Africa and Europe ($137 billion) and the America and Africa ($85 billion). An economic slowdown in China, it has been said, will lead to a slowdown of the economy in Zambia, South Africa and Congo. The economic benefits of China’s investments in Africa however are confined to local warlords in the Congo basin.

The neo-imperial developments in Africa are reminiscent of Britain’s empire in India. Since the Restoration, and the betrothal of King Charles II to Catharine of Braganza, Britain began importing tea from China in exchange of silver, and later opium, grown in India. India was heavily exploited, and used as a physical and agricultural bank to fund Britain’s wars, especially the Opium Wars between Britain and China, since the 1838 to 1860s. After China legalized the plantation of opium, Britain lost its monopoly of smuggling opium into the country. But it had also discovered the mantra to growing tea in India, especially after the horticulturalist, Robert Hooke, was able to smuggle out tea samples from China. Britain began using India instead as the market for tea, while reserving the best of the produce from Darjeeling, Assam and Niligiris, for its own use. A nation of teetotallers in the business of tea, India was turned into a tea-guzzling giant, in turn subsidizing the British railways, military expansion and the tea industry, in the Raj and beyond.

Marx was also a heavy tea drinker. And his entire family was given to opium smoking. It is well known that Marx himself wrote once: ‘I myself am not a Marxist.’ That happened in an exchange with the self-styled French Marxists, Jule Guesde and Paul Lafargue.  What Marx meant was if their revolution-mongering attitude meant Marxist, he himself was certainly not a Marxist. If Marx knew better the history of exploitation, of the millions of deaths due to man-made famines and the unconscionable drain of wealth in India, he would have done better to nurse an addiction for either opium or tea. However, there is enough to vindicate Marx at least on the economic aspect of his living. In the 1860s, he was barely able to scrape together with Friedrich Engels a meagre £5 a month. In 1858, even after the publication of the first volume of Capital, Marx lamented: ‘Never, I think, was money written about under such shortage of it. He may have said in a similar vein today: never a poorer nation and a greater number of dead had served the caprices of a century characterized by attention-deficit-disorders.

Neither we nor him are Marxists, in the true sense then, or the perceived senses, of the term. Marx will be remembered for Capital and the Communist Manifesto. But perhaps we will be remembered for having blood on our hands — worse still — during the most benign acts of exhibitioning with the help of a smart device, or even an intellectual one such as the writing of this article. Is our best response going to be: ‘God you’re such a killjoy!’

For killjoy read Marxist, and belated birthday wishes to the opium addict. The reason why we are still haunted by his ghost is we don’t quite see or hear the spectres of Congo, but there is no reason to suggest that they don’t see us.