The Best Things in Life . . .

The best things in life are free, But you can keep them for the birds and bees. Now give me money. The Beatles.

Yesterday once again the bumper sticker caught my eye: “The best things in life aren’t things.” Yesterday, however, for the first time it struck me as terribly reactionary.

There is, of course, a trivial interpretation of the aphorism: when we fixate on surface forms of appearance, we overlook their underlying significance. So true. But it strikes me that in a world where social actors and voters are increasingly inclined to ignore facts, or, rather, to view facts as mere subject-effects — products of ideology, culture, or community identity — it is precisely things that might save us.

Think about it for a moment. What so deeply disturbs industrial polluters about Bill McKibben’s “ppm” (parts per million) is that it is a hard, solid, measurable figure. According to McKibben, scientists know what happens when there are more than 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Industrial polluters, by contrast, want us to think about CO2 “marginally.” When we think about CO2 marginally, we “weight” a wide variety of variables (e.g., employment, wages, marginal costs, marginal profits, etc.) and determine the optimum level of CO2 relative to these other variables. Marginal analysis will result in a figure far in excess of 350 ppm. But, it will be said, “we cannot simply pass a law restricting carbon emissions to 350 ppm and expect polluters to comply. Were they to comply, en masse, it is argued, the consequences would be catastrophic.” Think Brexit on a global scale.

The point is that, although we may lie or may simply be ignorant about things, things themselves do not lie. Things tell the truth. But, under capitalism, things are fetishized along highly specific lines. Under capitalism, we experience things in terms of their abstract value, which connects all things to one another, and their empirical surface forms of appearance.

I have just reread a brilliant article by my dissertation advisor Moishe Postone, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust” (in A. Rabinbach and J. Zipes (eds.), Germans and Jews Since the Holocaust, New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986). Postone points out how anti-Semites are inclined to interpret Jewish social being through the components that make up the commodity: its surface form of appearance and its abstract value form. Antisemites fetishize the outward form of appearance; they find meaning along these surfaces that are socially valid, but whose meaning is in fact socially generalized. So, for example, every commodity is connected to every other commodity through the abstract value that mediates their social existence. The abstract value form creates a web or network of value that is co-extensive with the capitalist social form. During economic booms, social actors are scarcely aware of this abstract form of social mediation. During depressions, however, social actors feel as though they are being controlled by occult forces beyond their control. Antisemites fetishize Jews and the cultural “spirit” of Jews as expressions of the abstract value form of the commodity. On the other hand, they fetishize European “nordic” bodies as rooted, natural, and grounded.

The best things in life are not things. In antisemitism, neither the fetishized Jewish body, nor the fetishized Aryan body, are things only. They are material forms of appearance invested with underlying social meanings. The meanings of Jews and non-Jews transcend the bodies of both. A careful examination of the history of antisemitism in Afro Eurasia, and specially modern Afro Eurasia, reveals a social form eager to find meaning and significance beyond surface forms of appearance.

Antisemitism perfectly embodies the aphorism: the best things in life are not things. But also the worst things. Perhaps it is time we paid more attention to things.

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