Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Random Metatheory

My previous post in the series on the first chapter of Capital has prompted a nice set of meta-theoretical questions from Nate, revolving loosely around the question of whether some of my formulations suggest the need to breach the immanent frame of the analysis. This discussion is still continuing in the comments, but some of the questions that have come up in that discussion strike me as potentially relevant for the main line of analysis of Marx’s text.

What I want to do in this post, is not so much answer Nate’s questions directly, as use the thought-space that those questions have opened as an excuse, first, to explore some of the implications of this reading of Capital for how we can conceptualise critical judgements about competing forms of theory and practice generated immanently within capitalism. And second, to talk a bit about how this kind of theory involves a form of relativising, locating, or situating dispositions (intuitive forms of perception and thought) by demonstrating at least one dimension of collective practice in which such dispositions are enacted, without, however, reducing dispositions to the theorised form of enactment (i.e., without claiming that the theorised form of enactment is the only space in which such dispositions are enacted), and without automatically undermining the validity of such dispositions (i.e., without acting as though situating a disposition by itself suffices to debunk the insights or potentials that disposition expresses).

Although I will use examples from the first chapter of Capital to explore these issues, my goal here is a bit different from my goal in other posts in this series: here, I will be deploying a particular reading of Marx without, however, trying to render this reading plausible with reference to the text of Capital. I may use some occasional quotations for illustrative purposes, but I’ll leave for the other posts in this series, the issue of whether I can defend this kind of reading textually. I will also not be concerned here with whether the reading I’m deploying is making a defensible argument about capitalism: my concern is rather to explore the form of the argument, the sorts of moves the argument makes, regardless of the content. By limiting the post in this way, I will try to bring some of the meta-theoretical implications of this reading a bit more clearly into view.

Okay. Where to start. I think the easiest way to organise this discussion is to explore (in a very, very superficial way) one example of a set of dispositions that Marx begins to “situate” in the first chapter of Capital – an example that relates to dispositions we might be tempted to associate with the study of the natural world (note that, in the discussion with Nate below, I have sketched a partial second example, relating to dispositions that we might associate with the study of history). These dispositions are related in complex ways to how social actors might be tempted to orient themselves in practice – they thus carry potential political implications, even if these implications might not be immediately clear when Marx begins his analysis.

The first chapter begins to suggest that there is some way in which we are enacting, in collective practice, a kind of social indifference to different forms of labouring activity. This indifference does not extend to all dimensions of collective practice: in some dimensions of practice, the variegated qualitative forms in which labour is expended remain collectively important. In at least one specific dimension of collective practice, however, we are treating a wide range of empirically distinct labouring activities as, in some respect, qualitatively the same – and thus enacting a practical equality of types of human labour (a practical equality that, significantly, takes the form of a coercive and normalising indifference to empirical labouring activities).

Because of how we are enacting this equality, however, it is not immediately obvious that we are the ones enacting it. The argument for why it is not immediately obvious – for why it might be structurally difficult for us to recognise our own collective hand in constituting various forms of labouring activity as equal in at least one dimension of collective practice – is complex, and not fully laid out in the first chapter of Capital. Very roughly, in terms of what is visible at this early stage in Capital, the argument involves a claim we are enacting a collective indifference to the qualitative diversity of labouring activities “behind our own backs” – unintentionally and coercively – through a form of mutual compulsion that we are not individually or collectively setting out to generate. This particular form of unintentional mutual compulsion possesses certain specific qualitative characteristics: it is “universalising”, “lawlike”, and coercively “normalising”, and manifests itself via quantitative relationships that seem to govern movements of the products of labour. It also drives a constant process of transformation of concrete labouring processes, thereby constituting such processes as contingent and potentially ephemeral. It confronts individuals and social groups as an alien force outside themselves and beyond their control, to which they must adapt. Investigation can lead to the discovery and description of some of the lawlike principles of this form of compulsion. These discoveries, however, do not by themselves dissolve the coercive force of this compulsion, which, although contingent and grounded in human practice, is not “imaginary” or subject to individual control.

Note that, at this stage in the text, when the category of capital itself has not yet been unfolded, the metaphors for this impersonal social compulsion tend toward the “Newtonian” – toward metaphors of universal, abstract, mathematical laws. As we approach the category of capital, the metaphors will become more organimistic – more vitalist. I’ll discuss this shift more adequately in relation to Marx’s text at a later point. (This point begins to suggest how I would eventually like to answer a question posed by Joseph Kugelmass some weeks back about why the model of capitalism I’ve been pointing toward seems to resemble some thematisations of evolution and complexity theory. I suspect that, in asking this question, Joe might have been tugging on some of the threads he has now written into a fantastic post at his own site and The Valve. Just as a quick side note – Joe: I haven’t forgotten your question: perhaps it will be becoming a little bit clearer why this is a particularly complicated question for me to answer, even though it’s an important question to ask… Some of your questions on uneven development from that same comment, incidentally, also lie in the background of some of my discussions in the previous post in this series – albeit very abstractly, at this point.)

For the moment, I simply draw attention to the fact that the account in the first chapter is not intended to be complete, and note that Marx will eventually ground other dispositions, aside from the lawlike universals that concern him here. In any case, when Marx draws attention to specific qualitative characteristics associated with unintentional forms of impersonal compulsion, he is setting up for an analysis of why there is an intrinsic, immanent, “structural” risk that certain specific moments generated by collective practice within capitalism, might plausibly be interpreted, not as peculiar dimensions of our social environment, but instead as qualitative characteristics of asocial material nature. The argument here is both extremely complex and irritatingly tacit in Marx’s text, and I can at best be gestural at this point. But Marx is suggesting that a complex combination of factors – the unintentional nature of the compulsion, its impersonal character, the fact that it manifests itself through the movements of “things”, the way that other elements of social practice become, by contrast, “overtly” social (demonstrated in practice to be arbitrary and contingent, and forced to adapt themselves to this more impersonal form of social compulsion) and a number of other factors – combine to render it plausible for dispositions to emerge that interpret this dimension of social practice as asocial.

The implications of this go beyond the claim that this “impersonal” dimension of social practice is thereby “naturalised” and shielded from critique. The suggestion here is also that our practical experience of this dimension of capitalism “primes” us to “expect”, or sensitises us to the possibility, that asocial environments will possess certain specific qualitative characteristics (note that these characteristics can be mutually exclusive or contradictory of one another – as always, Marx tends to try to capture capitalism as an unstable unity of opposites): that the asocial world is quintessentially “material”, for example, and that such a world exists “outside us”, as an object for human contemplation or manipulation; that the asocial world is governed by impersonal universal laws best captured via mathematical models; that the asocial world (or elements of it) has vitalist properties and should be seen as in some sense a self-determining organism; etc. Again, I am not trying here to do full justice to these suggestions in Marx’s text, but more to open a sense of the scope of the argument and a feel for the way the argument is intended to operate. The important thing here is that there is a complex argument in Marx’s text about the ways in which we unintentionally render ourselves open to certain possibilities through our experience as social actors enacting and engaging with moments of capitalism.

Okay. Here a complex dance begins. I’m going to make the claim that, in unfolding this kind of argument, Marx is not trying to reduce everything we think and perceive back to specific moments in capitalism. First, the theory of capitalism is bounded – it doesn’t capture everything in contemporary experience, and it in fact explicitly defines certain things as contingent (or, at least, as untheorisable), from the perspective available to this specific kind of theory. A simple example of this kind of defined contingency can be found in Marx’s discussion about the conflict over the working day, expressed in the famous passage:

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.

What this passage suggests is that Marx can theorise that a particular structure of social conflict is intrinsic and likely to recur under capitalism, and he can even say a bit about the forms in which this conflict will likely be articulated (about plausible self-conceptions of political subjects and about likely forms of self-organisation, for example). He cannot, however, theorise the outcome of the conflict in any particular instance: force decides. Marx’s descriptions of actual political conflicts in Capital express this combination of contingent and “theorisable” elements – Marx is clearly comfortable with the boundedness of his theoretical framework, and with the tools it can provide to orient action, even though there are also limits to the reach of the theory (which have to do, interestingly, with limits to the compulsions that characterise capitalism itself: it’s not necessarily a good thing, strictly speaking, to inhabit a context amenable to this form of theorisation – the possibility for this form of theory itself is a testament to the existence of a particular form of constraint). As I continue to move forward through the text in future posts, I’ll no doubt have occasion to draw attention to other examples of this sort of self-bounding of the theory.

Second, the fact that a particular form of perception and thought is enacted in a specific moment of capitalism, does not mean that this form of perception and thought cannot also be enacted in some other way in collective practice. Just to take a throwaway example: Marx makes an extremely complex argument about the specific ways in which a kind of human equality is enacted in collective practice in the reproduction of capitalism. This doesn’t mean, however, that human equality is not or cannot be enacted in completely different ways (in fact, it is actually essential for Marx’s critique that it at least be possible to enact certain dispositions in different ways, else the abolition of capitalism would necessarily entail the abolition of forms of perception and thought that Marx clearly wants to preserve and views as integral to a more emancipated form of collective life). So, a particular group of people may well constitute some local environment in the present time that enacts some kind of human equality in a particular way that is separable from the ways in which a particular kind of equality is unintentionally played out in capitalist reproduction – or a human collectivity in the future might devise very different (less abstract and formal, etc.) ways of enacting human equality in a very different form of social life.

Third, even if Marx successfully establishes that a particular form of perception and thought arises as a moment in the reproduction of capitalism, this kind of argument does not by itself invalidate the entirety of this form of perception and thought. Again, let’s take the issue of human equality as an example. Marx’s argument here (and please forgive that I am stating this very, very roughly, and without trying to establish the plausibility of the argument, but only to give a sense of some of the “moves” involved) is that, in some dimension of collective practice, we are coercively enacting an indifference to the variegated qualitative forms of commodities – including commodities of the human sort – by treating those commodities, in collective practice, as bearers of a common, qualitatively homogeneous social substance, which Marx calls “value”. Sticking to the terms set out in the first chapter, we are (at first unintentionally) collectively treating commodities (including humans) as “intrinsically” material objects that possess supersensible essences and are governed by impersonal universal laws, but which can also be contingently pressed into arbitrary and ephemeral social roles. By engaging in this unintentional practice, we inadvertently constitute a situation in which “the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice”.

This prejudice has a strange, “counterfactual” character, since it is not based on any extrapolation or conceptual abstraction from our experience of empirical humans, but rather on our experience of a “real abstraction” generated in collective practice (I realise the nature of this argument will probably not be completely clear at this point – this is one of the issues I hope to thematise more precisely as I continue moving through Capital). It is therefore socially plausible that a belief in human equality should arise and spread, in conditions in which humans are in other dimensions of social practice treated profoundly unequally. This belief may then provide the motive force for the emergence of social movements that mobilise to transform other dimensions of collective practice, in order to enact the equality already being practised elsewhere. (Note that the qualitative form of equality sought politically – abstract, formal, and universalising, for example – can also be primed by the qualitative characteristics in which equality is coercively enacted in the course of capitalist reproduction.)

When social actors set about trying to understand the basis for this belief in human equality, however, they run the risk of not grasping the social genesis of the impersonal dimension of capitalist practice in which this equality is being unintentionally enacted. This risk does not reflect the potential that social actors might make a “mere” conceptual error or suffer from a defect in cognition, but is rather a risk grounded in the determinate qualitative form of specific moments within capitalism. If social actors fail to grasp this social genesis, then they might, for example, conclude that human equality is natural, while the various forms of inequality that confront us on all sides in other dimensions of social practice, might strike them, by contrast, as artificial: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”

When they try to explain the basis for this “natural” equality, they might interpret it in biological or physiological terms – Marx suggests that this is a socially plausible interpretive move when he mentions that we treat commodities as material objects in at least one dimension of social practice. Or they might interpret this naturally equality more “spiritually”, in terms of the supersensible essence – the ghost in the machine – that also emerges in our collective enactment of the commodity form.

By “grounding” these interpretive moves, by suggesting that it makes a certain social sense or reflects a certain immanent plausibility that these sorts of interpretive strategies would arise, Marx is not necessarily debunking the entirety of the claims associated with these interpretations. His argument suggests that we are “primed” for, or may find it more “intuitive” to arrive at, specific kinds of interpretations – that these interpretations seem “always already familiar” to us, and therefore lie ready at hand – in part because they do express and are adequate to particular aspects of the context in which they arise. This does not mean that these are the only interpretations possible, or that it is “predetermined” that social actors will make specific interpretations – only that they have a certain social plausibility (since Marx treats capitalism as a complex and multi-layered social form, there are always multiple plausible perspectives, such that forms of perception and thought are neither random, nor are they fully theoretically determinable) . Probabilistically, it is likely that certain kinds of interpretations will arise, given the specific qualitative characteristics of our collective practice. Marx’s argument also suggests that the existence of such interpretations can deflect our attention from the ways in which, to continue with the example, we are enacting a certain sort of equality (coercively) in collective practice. But it leaves open the possibility that these interpretive moves might themselves be subject to validation (and contestation) in their own terms (albeit with a complex potential for cross-interference between moments within capitalism and other elements within collective practice).

To explore this just a little bit more: take, as an example, the notion, mentioned above, that there might be a biological basis for human equality. Marx argues that we enact a kind of equality in collective practice by treating commodities as though they are partake in some qualitatively homogeneous social substance, which he calls value. Commodities might vary in how much of this social substance they embody, but they all share this common qualitative social “essence”. He also argues that there is a determinate risk that this common social substance won’t be recognised as social, but will instead be interpreted as “material”. If, in commodities of the human sort, this social “essence” is misinterpreted as a biological substance, this opens up certain deeply ambivalent potentials. It becomes plausible, for example, to investigate how biologically similar humans actually might be to one another, and to open up for a “secular” investigation of the human form. There is potential in such an investigation for uncovering new grounds for the assertion of human equality, as well as for other scientific and medical discoveries that increase our mastery over our own physiological states. There is also, however, great risk that biological difference – gender, race, disability, simple biological variation from the “norm” – can become inflected in terms of a lack of the common “substance” that renders us equally human – that a biologised notion of the potential basis for human equality could increase the vulnerability to a situation in which biological difference is taken as an “objective” or “material” refutation of the possibility of human equality, and received (given our “priming” to view the “material” as asocial and impersonal) as something more “objective” and less contingent than forms of inequality that appear to result from practices that we are “primed” to perceive as “overtly social” – and therefore as arbitrary and ephemeral.

One reason for exploring the links between such potentials and risks, and capitalist reproduction, is that it makes it a bit easier to understand why certain kinds of theories may recurrently arise (and be defeated, and arise again) so long as capitalism continues to be reproduced: capitalism itself may (in nonintuitive ways) be priming dispositions that render social actors receptive to specific interpretive schemas. At the same time, the sorts of social practices that might be directly associated with the reproduction of capitalism, need not be the sole or even, in particular periods, the primary ways in which particular forms of perception and thought are “primed”: other forms of institutionalisation and other types of social practice that are more contingent in relation to capitalist reproduction may operate to reinforce or to diminish the force of our experiences in engaging with, and extrapolating from, specific moments immanent to capitalism.

On another level, the ability to demonstrate that some particular set of dispositions plays a role in capitalist reproduction, does not by itself “debunk” those dispositions: capitalism may, for example, prime us to be open to many new potentials that we value and wish to retain. Theorising how we might open ourselves to such potentials simply prepares us to understand a bit more about how our own appreciation for specific potentials (and, no doubt, relative insensitivity to others) is located – is something that exists for us, in ways that we can potentially come to understand a bit better. This process of understanding our own locatedness then also potentially renders more readily available a movement across the various moments and perspectives that are available to us, rather than a default glide into whatever perspective happens to lie most closely to mind… But this is an issue for a different metatheoretical discussion.

It’s late, I’m becoming very tired, and I have a very long day tomorrow (apologies, as well, that I’ll be very unlikely to be active online over the next couple of days). I had wanted to do much more with the sorts of things I’ve discussed above (I’m particularly self-conscious about this topic, as there are folks lurking about who know far more about the specific issues, well outside the confines of a theory of capitalism, than I ever will: if it needs to be said, I’m not making grand claims for the power of a theory of capitalism to thematise such issues in a general way, but rather suggesting that there is more potential for interconnection and cross-fertilisation than might appear if Capital is read, for example, as a straightforward “economic” theory). In part, I’m realising that I’m hampered by not having gotten further in the discussion of Capital and, in part, I need more time and space for much greater nuance that I’ve allowed myself above – hopefully the resultant post won’t be too irritating, but will be taken as a sort of promissory note that I can hopefully cash in, in a less superficial way, at some later point.

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

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6 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Random Metatheory

  1. Joseph Kugelmass October 24, 2007 at 8:14 am

    One of the things I find particularly valuable and interesting about this post is the stress on those two ideals of human nature, freedom and equality. Since both emerged during the Enlightenment, it is natural for us to semi-equate them. We think of both as goods; we think of both as realizable under ideal political conditions; and we often think of both as natural endowments.

    At the root, these are deeply opposed concepts. Your analysis brings this opposition to light: equality is based on commensurability, which bears some relationship to the standardization of labor. Freedom tends towards incommensurability, and is a principle of deviation.

    I am not aiming at discarding one of the two terms; nor, I am sorry to say, am I immediately persuaded of some new synthesis. I was inspired by what you’ve written above to reflect on how freedom is used to justify unequal hierarchies — individuals freely pursue advantages over one another — and how equality is used to limit freedom through appeals to the wisdom of the people.

  2. Mike Beggs October 24, 2007 at 10:00 am

    I really don’t see how freedom and equality can be opposed. They have fundamentally different dimensions. An individual is free or unfree, multiple people are equal or unequal relative to one another.

    Of course human ‘freedom’ only makes sense in a social context. But it is not zero-sum, we can concieve of people in all of society being freer in some conditions than in others. Whereas it makes no sense to see some as more equal than others.

    A fundamental point of Marx’s political philosophy is that property relations make some kinds of freedom dependent on other kinds of unfreedom. Bourgeois freedom to dispose of one’s capital as one wishes is socially depedent on a class of workers who are not free and are forced to play a role in reproducing the capital owned by others. It is unequal freedom, where one is free because others are not.

  3. N Pepperell October 24, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Very little online time today, so this will need to be a rapid-fire response: I would see this sort of analysis setting up for “grounding” a particular kind of opposition, between a specific vision of “freedom” and a particular ideal of “equality”. So the opposition Joe speaks of is plausible – is “real” – but is also situated as something generated, in ways we can begin to specify, in the process of capitalist reproduction. Once we recognise this, we can then begin to push on the “necessity” of the opposition – both by reaching for other possible determinations of “freedom” and “equality”, and by exploring which elements of their current opposition are sustained by our failure to transform some specific element of the overarching social context.

    So, for example, in terms of the sketch above, the determination of “equality” in biological terms can be juxtaposed to the potential for equality in social terms – such that people are equal because we’ve learned that it is possible to treat them equally, to enact their equality, in collective practice – rather than understanding equality to flow somehow from people’s presocial biological uniformity. Similarly, the “abstract” and “formal” character of equality could potentially be challenged, in favour of more “substantive” visions of equality. As phrased here, of course, this is all very compressed, and I haven’t shown how such alternative visions might themselves arise immanently, but I would take this to be the general idea…


  4. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: The Universal as Particular

  5. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

  6. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Way of Visualising Abstract Labour and Value

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