In the city (1): indifference

In the city (1): indifference


Détourned sign, Rosario, Argentina

In the city there’s a thousand things I wanna say to you…—The Jam

Somewhere in Marx[1] he writes of the experience of indifference that the individual submitted to capitalist social relations has. He argues that the pro-capitalist ideologue, who imagines that capitalism brought true independence for the individual in contrast to the Feudal relations of dependence (‘as feudal lord and vassal, landlord and serf, etc’) is simply mistaken. Under capitalism we remain dependent, and in many ways more dependent, than people caught in Feudal relations. For instance, we are simply unable to materially reproduce ourselves in the domestic sphere on a continuing basis—like peasants were able to—without recourse to buying our means of subsistence.

Marx notes that ‘the independence and indifference of the consumers and producers to one another’ contradicts the developing social ‘bond and all-round interdependence in production and consumption’ that mark capitalist societies.[2] Even though ‘individuals seem independent […], free to collide with one another and to engage in exchange within this freedom’ under capitalism, they ‘appear thus only for someone who abstracts from the conditions, the conditions of existence within which these individuals enter into contact’.[3] Thus Marx says that ‘this is an independence which is at bottom merely an illusion, and it is more correctly called indifference’.[4]

I think ‘indifference’ is the most appropriate word for our experience of contemporary life; the indifference of the capitalist world to our individuality (except, that is, as individual units of potential value production), and our indifference to each other—unless, of course, we establish personal relations with other individuals. Nonetheless, this indifference seems to permeate even these personal relations, in our impatience to simply be the independent individual we never can be (staring at screens, lost in a good book, curled up in despair, “realising” ourselves, etc.). This indifference is writ large in our cities, in the spaces made over in the interests of commercial indifference; in the selfish indifference of individual capitalists, or the state mediated indifference of urban zoning and inhuman regulations.

As Marx further notes, this historically peculiar indifference, socially constituted via the suffocating dominance of money and commodity production, is anything but natural—so we should not mistake it for an existential condition. The universe may very well be indifferent to our fate. Nonetheless, this experience of indifference, the indifference of the city and of the urban life that has devoured the last redoubts of rural dependence, must be understood as designed. Not by an unmoved mover, but rather by the structured indifference of the masses to the real conditions of their own existence (what Marx sometimes calls the ‘personal definition’ given to the individual by the social conditions of their individuality).


[1] Where?

[2] Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Translated by Martin Nicolaus. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, [1857-61] 1974, p. 161.

[3] Ibid., pp. 163-64.

[4] Ibid., p. 163.

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