ON TIMELY MEDITATIONS: MARSHALL BERMAN’S ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR

My reading of the Manifesto in the early 1970s turned out to be the core of All That Is Solid Melts into Air, my big book of the 1980s. In that book, Goethe’s Faust comes first in the table of contents, but the Communist Manifesto came first in my mind. It helped me see how the bad things and the good things in the world could spring from the same place, how suffering could be a source of growth and joy, how radical thought could escape doldrums and dualisms and gather vision and energy for better times.

—Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism (p. 97)

The experience of modernity is a problematic one. Each morning we wake to our television sets, personal computers and mobile phones greeting us with the worst excesses of exploitation, alienation, and state-sanctioned injustice—an almost-up-to-the-minute cavalcade of human grief confronts us on a daily basis. Against the background of an increasing erosion of the political power of individuals and groups, one could hardly be blamed for eyeing recent events – or, perhaps more accurately, the consequence of recent events – with cynicism. Like some Kafkaesque re-run of 2008-09, arguably the most disheartening season of Real Life I’ve been present to watch, mega-corporations doff their caps to beg for astronomical bailouts financed by the tax-payer, whilst education, physical and mental healthcare provision and social services have been laid siege to through a decade of funding cuts; enfeebled, they are shored up in their shortfalls through charitable public donations and the exhaustion – and unfaltering moral compass – of their workforces. The inaction of Western governments in response to a global public health crisis puts paid to Hito Steyerl’s dictum that the contemporary sovereigns are, first and foremost, the markets; that ‘the markets, not the people, are to be appeased, satisfied, and pleased by the political class.’[i].

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Under house arrest, the public longs for a return to normalcy, whilst accelerationists of every stripe take to Twitter to theorise the imminent demise of neo-liberal capitalism, with seemingly willful ignorance of the resiliency of that system: it is a given that history has shown us that there is no reason why crisis cannot simply become a fact of life for societies across the globe – in its wake a rubble of ruined people, places, communities – whilst leaving the fundamental structure of the capitalist mode of production and accumulation intact.

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Crisis, chaos, and catastrophe are pay-dirt for actors within the market; they open the door for lucrative investment and re-development. See the sprouting of so many companies and corporations which seek to tackle the fallout of ecological devastation and climate change through technocratic means, nimbly side-stepping the roots of the issue – the interwoven development of capitalism and its reliance on fossil fuels – through appeals to scientific rationality and the ingenious castigation of average citizens, caricatured as greedy consumers who simply cannot go without plastics or personal vehicles, despite the evidence that almost three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the so-called “100 Carbon Majors,” with the lion’s share of that figure – 91% – given over to the fossil fuel industry itself. Stretching the figure over the history of fossil fuel-driven climate change, beginning with the invention of Watt’s steam engine in 1784, paints an even more damning picture: over half of greenhouse gas emissions in the intervening 236 years can be traced to just 25 corporate and state entities.[ii]

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In short, things are fucked up. Like, really, really fucked up. It can be hard to maintain a semblance of hope in such times—and such hopelessness really does appear as a sensible reaction to the everyday sorts of horror we encounter, the decadence which is thrust into our faces as we struggle to pay our utility bills, keep a roof over heads and commute into work on public transport services which continue to pay dividends to shareholders whilst reducing the quality and quantity – and increasing the cost – of their services. I’m speaking from a position of relative affluence, of course; these are admittedly “first-world” problems (though I take issue with that kind of distinction and its roots, this is already going to take too long, so I’ll leave this here as a note to myself to try and tackle this in the future).

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Aside: I believe without any shadow of a doubt that Hip-Hop is the medium par excellence when it comes to navigating modern experience and modernism in all of its guises, positive and negative. If you listen to Phife’s lines in Buggin’ Out and don’t appreciate the writerly way he articulates the experience of trying to carve out a life (and how we turn to not-so-helpful methods to deal with the emotional fallout of being young and broke) you’re beyond aesthetic reproach:

Yo when you bug out / You usually have a reason for the action / Sometimes you do it just for mere satisfaction / People be hounding, always surrounding / Pulsing, just like a migraine pounding / You don’t really fret, you just stay in your sense / Camouflage your feeling, of absolute tense / You soar off to another world, deep in your mind / But people seem to take that / as being unkind / “Oh yo he’s acting stank,” really on a regal? / A man of the fame, not a man of the people / Believe that if you wanna, but I tell you this much / Riding on the train with no dough / sucks

—A Tribe Called Quest, Buggin’ Out (The Low End Theory, 1991)

I encountered Marshall Berman for the first time (properly, at least—by which I mean in the context of someone turning to face modernism in its most tragic and ebullient modes) whilst writing my master’s thesis. The thing was a great, unwieldy beast, its 15,000 words standing as a testament to my lacking attempts to fuse together a nascent socialist “energy humanities,” drawing on the recent work of Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital and on John Bellamy Foster’s efforts to reconstruct an ecological Marx, with a historical-materialist understanding of literature from the eighteenth century to the present day. It looks to me now like an impenetrable, overly-academic (and frankly unhelpful) guide to how we’ve navigated the relationship between capitalism, modernity and the use of fossil fuels through aesthetic maneuvers and political manifestoes. In any case, at the time I considered Berman’s work in All That Is Solid Melts into Air naïve—too forgiving of modernism and modernization, too willing to give narratives of “progress” a fair due rather than tearing the entire edifice to the ground. It was a juvenile misreading of his work, of course, but at the time I was becoming increasingly depressed, tired of academia, worried about my future (some things never change) and trying to hammer out three thousand words a day for a project I was becoming alienated from even as I was setting pen to paper. I gelled with some of what he said, and some parts truly resonated with me, such as the lines he included in the redacted version of the essay he included in the collection Adventures in Marxism:

The one spectre that really haunts the modern ruling class, and that really endangers the world it has created in its image, is the one thing that traditional elites (and, for that matter, traditional masses) have always yearned for: prolonged solid stability. In this world, stability can only mean entropy, slow death, while our sense of progress and growth is our only way of knowing for sure that we are alive. To say that our society is falling apart is only to say that it is alive and well… The trouble with capitalism is that, here as elsewhere, it destroys the human possibilities it creates. It fosters, indeed forces, self-development for everybody; but people can develop only in restricted and distorted ways. Those traits, impulses and talents that the market can use are rushed (often prematurely) into development and squeezed desperately till there is nothing left; everything else within us, everything nonmarketable, gets draconically repressed, or withers away for lack of use, or never has a chance to come to life at all.[iii]

Apocalyptic imagery like this seems to act as reinforcement for the kind of depression that sets in as a consequence of your environment and financial situation, but any victory that results from chewing on it for a while tends to be a Pyrrhic one. It supported my contention that capitalist modernity revels in what Peter Osborne has characterized as a kind of “temporalized atemporality,” or perhaps more simply a standstill on the bleeding edge of the “new,” or alternatively Walter Benjamin’s “ever-selfsame,”[iv] whilst I chose to object to the parallel positive account of Modernism that Berman constructed and interposed throughout the text. Taking thinkers out of their context in this way is clearly disingenuous, but Berman had been able to articulate what I was coming to notice in a refreshing way, and at that moment appeared to me as pure anathema to the technical, jargon-laden and ineffectual journal articles I had chosen to steep myself in.

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One of the strange features of capitalism is the way it has come to conflate “identity” with “presence,” particularly as it seems to privilege a conception of identity whose authenticity relies on our living wholly in the present moment. We are increasingly invested – for the sake of our relationships, and our livelihoods – on technologies of transport and communication, only insofar as they allow us to master distance and absence in increasingly speedy ways—an impossible task, of course, but a task which nevertheless drives societies towards increasingly accelerated lifestyles.[v]

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Saying such things in 2020 is to simply state a banal fact of life and carries no revelatory truth; theories of acceleration have been one of the driving forces of knowledge-production within humanities and social sciences departments since the very idea of the humanities and social sciences department came about, and they are still being dissected to death in graduate theses every year (i.e. they didn’t start with Heidegger or McLuhan or Virilio, even if those individuals have helped to develop the language we use when we think and talk about the phenomenon). The thing about this palpable acceleration is that it quite neatly dovetails with the violently destructive character of the contemporary bourgeoisie—those “market actors” identified earlier. Everything the market creates carries no weight at all, and is easily thrown away by the forces of capitalist production and development that their very manufacture and construction celebrates, something which Berman’s exegesis of The Communist Manifesto elaborates with a kind of prescient clarity:

Even the most beautiful and impressive bourgeois buildings and public works are disposable, capitalised for fast depreciation and planned to be obsolete, closer in their social function to tents and encampments than to “Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals…” If we look behind the sober scenes these bourgeoisie create to see how they really work and act, we find that… all the anarchic, measureless, explosive drives that a later generation will baptise by the name of “nihilism”… are located by Marx in the seemingly banal everyday working of the market economy. He unveils the modern bourgeois as consummate nihilists on a far vaster scale than modern intellectuals can conceive.[vi]

It is not for nothing that capitalism has been decried as a death-cult throughout the channels of social media in recent weeks. This acceleration of modern life – and the subsequent shocks and upheavals and catastrophes, not to mention the mental and physical tolls such things inflict – Berman continues, ‘enables moderns, by going through them… to discover who they “really are.”’[vii] The paradox lies in what he believes that Marx – via Rousseau – discovered and discussed in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and, to a “lesser extent,” insofar as its focus rarely remains on it, Capital; namely, that such forces, whilst appearing to alienate individuals from themselves and workers from their products, consequently enrich the character of those alienated selves through magnifying their needs and desires – which become increasingly international and cosmopolitan as the nineteenth century gives way to the twentieth – as well as through concentrating individuals in urban areas where they might encounter other cultural identities, and through the speed and global reach of the aforementioned communications technologies. In short, capitalism instills in the modern individual those propellant needs for self-realization and self-actualization, for free activity and free movement and free development and the free time in which to accomplish these things. In Berman’s words, this takes on a refreshing to-the-point-ness:

[The] dialectical imagination starts to work: the very social system that tortures them also teaches and transforms them, so that while they suffer, they also begin to overflow with energy and ideas. Bourgeois society treats its workers as objects, yet develops their subjectivity.[viii]

“…And the free time in which to accomplish these things.” As a supporting statement, this sort of throwaway use conceals the way in which modern life is now, more than ever, parceled into increasingly slim slivers of time, certainly a resource that may be – and is – budgeted, wasted, allocated, sold, and most importantly, controlled.

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Barbara Adam’s pioneering studies of the sociology of time in industrialized Western societies are replete with examples of how neo-liberalism (and, subsequently, micro-managerialism) encourage us to think about time outside of the “rhythms of nature” which the punch-clock seemingly superseded:

Even the most cursory look at contemporary social life reveals that everything is timed. It demonstrates that the activities and interactions of all its participants are choreographed to a symphony of buzzers and bells, timetables, schedules, and deadlines. Layer upon layer of such schedules form the structure of our education system… Like the monastery bell, the school bell secures conformity to a regular collective beat… It gives physical expression to the contemporary standardised abstraction within which the education of our children is organised… Focusing on the timetables of contemporary life, we find that a strict temporal order is particularly pertinent for rationalised, bureaucratically structured organisations… People at home are influenced in their timing by their own habits and those of the people around them… They cannot extricate themselves from the institutional timetables imposed on other members of their family… the institutional timetables of school hours, the schedule of those working outside the home, the opening hours of amenities and the timetables of public transport… Whether we are affected in a primary or secondary way, we cannot escape the clock time that structures and times our daily lives.[ix]

If we boil down the labor power we sell to its bare bones, we see that what we are selling is our otherwise “free” time. No one escapes this regimentation. Even those who Marx would class as “intellectuals,” those who write and paint, those who discover physical laws and apply their scientific knowledge to the construction of the world which surrounds us, those who save lives with their knowledge can do so only if someone with capital will pay them for the time it takes to do so; and the pressures of market capitalism mean that no one with capital will pay them unless it pays to pay them, or, in Berman’s words, ‘unless their works somehow help to “increase capital.”… The creators will be powerless to resist, because they must sell their labor power in order to live.’[x]

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It seems to me that the present moment is one in which our typically reified conceptions of time, of labor, of meaning-making in both life and work, and of community and mutual aid, are themselves “melting,” which makes our crisis a crisis of capitalism. The potential for “something else,” another way of organizing life and time within society, feels to be within our grasp—at least for the optimists amongst us. The human possibilities which modernism has created – and which modernization has subsequently snuffed out – are, in some sense, being allowed to develop in an unrestricted and undistorted manner, at least for now. Some are “seizing the opportunity,” even if that turn of phrase misrepresents the seizing of that opportunity as something laborious or difficult, when in actuality this seizing could be as simple as recognizing how little time one has been able to set aside for our loved ones, or our hobbies and passions, or as worrying as recognizing how close we actually are to having the electricity shut off and our homes taken from us—a point particularly salient to touch upon as this event is a source of extreme trauma for many, myself included; obsessive-compulsive disorder, health anxiety and depression make for poor bedfellows during a pandemic.

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Patrick Crogan, in an essay on Paul Virilio’s engagement with the concept of the future, anticipates the moment we currently find ourselves in (though, it must be said, such moments have occurred throughout history):

The accident is unforeseen; when it happens it changes everything suddenly, like a vehicular accident that violently and unexpectedly breaks a journey. It postpones the arrival at the destination or perhaps even eradicates the original destination by necessitating a new journey(s). The accident threatens the possibility of achieving a rational, homogenous, linear development. While the accident will come to be incorporated in a narrative which will assimilate it after the fact to a sequence of events (the “original” journey started, the accident happened, new journeys/a delayed journey resulted), the accident will always have been experienced as the irruption of another temporality, other to the anticipated continuity of the journey. In the accident, time is, momentarily at least, “out of joint.”[xi]

The current pandemic – and the personal and economic fallout which it has instigated – has itself paradoxically “melted” our otherwise hectic, regimented schedules into the modern air; at the same time, it has revealed the disproportionate nature of wages within capitalist society: those who work the longest hours with the most effort are rarely, if ever, the ones who are well-paid. This statement stands not just for healthcare workers, cleaners and shop staff and the couriers and postal workers that keep them stocked with the necessary materials to carry out their jobs, but also for the teachers and carers who fight against the effects of increasing bureaucratisation and funding cuts on their livelihoods, and for the women across the globe who carry out the – often thankless – task of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, as well as being more often than not the sole figure of emotional support within their families.

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Marshall Berman in London, 1991 (Photographer: Shellie Sclan)

Pace my early reservations, Berman’s work appears to me now as a powerful recognition of the “dialectical” nature of modern life, acknowledging its ugliness whilst simultaneously recognising the power of its effect on individuals and communities. Faced with an uncertain future, and with the discomfiting prospect of continued lockdowns and restrictions on public gatherings (restrictions which will require an astute eye and the courage to challenge them if they are to go on for longer than is necessary), Berman’s writings present us with a picture of a community which is in this together. He articulates those aspects of society which give us pause in their beauty and spiritedness, where people open up new horizons when they encounter adversity, in which the disappointment of our hopes leads us to discover or create new visions that inspire new hopes:

“To be modern,” as I define it at the book’s beginning and end, “is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in this maelstrom… to grasp and confront the world that modernization makes, and to strive to make it our own.” …It might be more fruitful if, instead of demanding whether modernity can still produce masterpieces or revolutions, we were to ask whether it can generate sources and spaces of meaning, of freedom, of dignity, beauty, joy, solidarity. Then we would have to confront the messy actuality in which modern men and women and children live. The air might be less pure, but the atmosphere would be a lot more nourishing.[xii]

In short, he recognised that we would have to pull together against those forces which would seek to pull us apart—to grasp new possibilities as they present themselves and to develop mutual bonds that can aid us in moments of crisis and catastrophe. In the closing pages of All That Is Solid…, Berman elaborates on what he recognises as the strength of Marxism, which has ‘…always lain in its willingness to start from frightening social realities, to work through them and work them through; to abandon this primary source of strength leaves Marxism with little but the name.’ Berman knew, as well as Marx, that the way out is through.


[i] Hito Steyerl, ‘Let’s Talk About Fascism,’ in Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (London: Verso, 2019), p. 172.

[ii] Paul Griffin, The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 (2017), pp. 5-8.

[iii] Marshall Berman, ‘All That Is Solid Melts into Air: Marx, Modernism and Modernization,’ in Adventures in Marxism (London: Verso, 1999), pp. 106-108.

[iv] Peter Osborne, ‘The Image is the Subject: Once More On the Temporalities of Image and Act,’ in The Postconceptual Condition: Critical Essays (London: Verso, 2017), p. 200, pp. 206-207.

[v] Scott McQuire, ‘Blinded by the (Speed Of) Light,’ in Paul Virilio: From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond, ed. by John Armitage (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2000), pp. 154-155.

[vi] Berman, ‘All That Is Solid Melts into Air,’ p. 111. 

[vii] Berman, ‘All That Is Solid Melts into Air,’ pp. 125-126.

[viii] Berman, ‘Introduction,’ in Adventures in Marxism.

[ix] Barbara Adam, Time and Social Theory (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990), pp. 106-107.

[x] Berman, ‘All That is Solid Melts into Air,’ pp. 133-134.

[xi] Patrick Crogan, ‘The Tendency, the Accident and the Untimely: Paul Virilio’s Engagement with the Future,’ in Paul Virilio: From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond, p. 174.

[xii] Berman, ‘The Signs in the Street,’ in Adventures in Marxism, pp. 154-155, p. 168.