Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

At Your Service

My schedule is very compressed at the moment, and I have no time for serious writing, but I’ve been meaning for the past couple of days to post a pointer to a discussion going on over at Nate’s what in the hell…, sparked by Nate’s dissatisfaction with Negri’s claim that recent transformations in the nature of labour undermine “classical” conceptions of the working day and the labour theory of value. Nate argues:

It simply is not the case that there is a transition which has occurred like that which Negri describes. There certainly have been important changes in capitalism (though there are important continuities as well which I think Negri understates) but Negri’s periodization strikes me as at best a clumsy took for grasping this – like trying to catch a ball while wearing oven mits or with grease on one’s hands.

It’s not at all clear that “the classical descriptions of the “work day” and the law of value/labor no longer correspond to reality” though Negri is convinced it is. His conditional is rhetorical, not sincere – there is no question “if” the transition has happened. It has for Negri. Interestingly and I think revealingly, Negri has asserted the supercession of the law value since at least the late 1970s, well before his post-structural vocabulary and his attention to the affective and immaterial. It seems to me the case that his resort to that vocabulary and that attention is at least as much the result or expression of (that is, it’s motivated by a desire to retain) his views on the law of value as it is the case that this vocabulary and attention support his arguments about value.

The full post goes into much greater detail, and I won’t reproduce Nate’s argument here, but rather point readers to the original.

Nate’s post reminds me, though, of something I’ve been meaning to blog, about a somewhat similar reaction I had to elements of Honneth’s presentation at the recent Recognition and Work conference. Caveat here that I don’t have a copy of Honneth’s written paper, and I’m also writing this without the notes I actually took at the conference, so I write this with a strong self-consciousness about potentially being unfair to the nuance of Honneth’s position. But my impression at the conference was that Honneth, first, reads Marx as criticising industrial or factory labour against a model of craft labour (understood as self-determining activity in which people could develop themselves through the process of “objectification” in the creation of a material object). So Honneth seems to take Marx’s critical standpoint (in this one talk – I’m far from an expert in Honneth’s work as a whole) as being grounded in the notion that people can realise themselves in the transformation of material nature. It goes without saying that I find this a problematic reading of Marx, but that concerned me less than what Honneth did with this argument, which was (if I understood him correctly) to say that the shift away from industrial manufacturing and toward the development of more service oriented labour undermined this “Marxist” notion of a critical standpoint, because labourers no longer produced any kind of visible, tangible thing: no (material) object, no self-objectification, no standpoint of critique in labour (at least, labour seen with reference to its role as an activity transforming material nature).

Now, as it happens, I don’t think Marx understands his standpoint of critique this way, so in a sense it doesn’t particularly disturb me to have someone argue that the transformation of nature provides no privileged normative standpoint from which other aspects of social relations might be judged. On that level, I don’t have a dog in this fight.

On another level, though, what a strange way to conceptualise historical transformation – to see the rise of service industries (which of course poses its own unique historical challenges, not least for forms of organisation) as some sort of fundamental qualitative transformation in the nature of capitalist labour: to think that it would somehow compel us to change, say, a structural determination of labour under capitalism, because it doesn’t produce a discrete material product, but instead provides some kind of “immaterial” service for other people. Of course, it may be easy for me to say this, because I understand Marx’s argument about “value” to be an argument about how capitalism revolves specifically around the production of a social substance – something that, moreover, Marx expressly says has no “material” component. From my starting point, it’s perhaps a bit difficult to see why the shift from producing physically distinct widgets to… widgeting for other people, would mark any necessary structural shift in the nature of capitalist labour. Again, I’m not trying to suggest that the concrete organisation of production or the qualitative characteristics of what is being produced makes no difference, or is irrelevant, or shouldn’t be analysed. I am, though, saying that pointing to the shift from industrial to service industries, by itself, doesn’t have any clear or immediate implications for the “labour theory of value” – which is expressly described as being about ways in which material production (a term that, itself, Marx defines extremely broadly, in ways that would comfortably accommodate ephemeral goods like services) comes to be “haunted” by an immaterial social essence that has nothing intrinsically to do with material production at all.

For the same reason, I’m unconvinced that this sort of shift tells us anything about the validity or lack of validity of Marx’s understanding of his own standpoint of critique. Of course, again, it’s easier for me to say this, because I don’t read Marx (by Capital, certainly) as grounding his critique in some sort of romantic valorisation of craft labour, as this was progressively being threatened by the rise of industrial production. In other words, I don’t see Marx criticising capitalism against the model provided by something pre-capitalist or non-capitalist, but rather as unfolding an immanent critique of contradictory tendencies within capitalism.

My laptop battery is about to die, so I have to post this. Apologies for the brevity and lack of development of this blurt – happy to be corrected by people who think I’m being unfair to Honneth (and, again, I am responding very specifically here to things said in one paper, at one conference – I am making no general claims about Honneth’s work). Also happy to explain what the hell I’m talking about, if this post makes no sense… :-)

But go read the discussion at Nate’s – it’s not covering exactly the same ground that I’m ranting about here, and it’s better developed… Running!!

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6 responses to “At Your Service

  1. Nate October 26, 2007 at 11:36 am

    heya NP,
    thanks for the kind words. I got 8 hours of sleep last nite, thank goodness, but only 12 total between the three nights prior, so I’m still in no condition to reply to (m)any of your substantive points. I did print out the metatheory post to read at leisure and reflect on and will reply later. take care,
    Nate

  2. e October 28, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    I think I very much agree with Nate’s first position quoted. And I would agree with your additional comments N Pepperell. I also would tend to argue that there has been a transformation within capital, and there seems to be some evidence of a further separation between labor used for material production and non-material ‘service’ production.

    But this does not necessarily undermine the Marxist critique of the ability of a person to realize their potential for change – linked to class consciousness – and realize their role in the relations of production, nor does this necessarily undermine the labor theory of value.

    From your description of Honneth’s position, it seems a bit of an odd reading (done by Honneth that is), sort of pointing to that the critique of capitalism, from (his reading of) a particular Marxist standpoint, is now less valid due to a change in capitalist social formation, which distances (or completely severs) workers from the material objects that they create, hence lessens potential for realization of their position within production, thus diminishes their potential for change.

    My reading of Marx is also in line with your last observation – I do not think Marx criticised capitalism against what modes of production existed pre-capitalist mode of production, although he did situate his critique within a historical understanding of different modes of production (feudalism) and primitive accumulation (colonialism). Indicating, to my perhaps rather simplistic reading; that such relationships obviously change over time, but retain a connection and semblance to past social formations.

    Does that make any sense to you?

  3. N Pepperell October 28, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Hey Nate – No rush at all. I’ve had very little online time the past few days – and for the next several I’m unfortunately committed to conducting a set of interviews for some of the folks who are paying the bills, so I’ll be out of commission for several more days at least. Never any rush – the topic will still be around, in other forms as well as this one, whenever we both have time…

    Hey e – I’ve got this minor industry running at the moment in the production of Marx commentaries (well, at least, commentaries on the first chapter of the first volume of Capital ;-P) – so posts like this, that are “drive by” comments, are unfortunately presupposing that whole assembly line, and therefore not communicating fully where I’m coming from. Apologies if that makes some of the post above a bit… odd…

    I want eventually to write on what Marx might be up to with the section on primitive accumulation – of course, at this rate, I’ll be around 82 when I get to it… ;-P (Seriously, I think things will speed up a little bit once I’m past the first chapter, since I’ve used this commentary to unfold a lot of “meta” material that on which I can hopefully then rely in interpreting later sections…)

    I tend, to be honest, to take Marx’s comments about feudalism and other “staged” comments about historical modes of production, as sitting somewhat outside the sort of critique I take him to be unfolding in Capital. In other words, I wouldn’t disagree that Marx offers a bit of meta-commentary, even in Capital, that suggests some transcendent comments on history (footnotes, for example, about how Rome couldn’t live on politics, or the middle ages on Catholicism, etc. – which suggest the need to study the mode of material reproduction in order to get to the foundation of historical analysis). I don’t, though, take the critique of capitalism to hinge on those sorts of positions – so I’ve been tending to bracket them, in order to focus on the reading I’ve been unfolding here, without however denying that these moments do persist in the interstices of the text…

    Posting on the run tonight… Got to get back to marking…

  4. e October 29, 2007 at 8:49 am

    I got to primitive accumulation when I was looking into colonial relationships…I sort of got into Marxist thought via Third World Marxists…

    I was just thinking – clarifying in my own head:

    This post on Honneth seems to be to do with the view of the mode of production refering to the social form that production takes within a given society – not just the production of goods/commodities…? Is this part of your beef with his thinking?

    best wishes

  5. Nate October 29, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    hey NP,
    Another comment which is more of a raincheck than anything else, sorry. For now – the ast paragraph of your last comment is a really great and succinct statement on how to handle Marx’s remarks about stuff outside of capitalism; I’ve been reading him that way for a long time without knowing how to describe what I was doing. Nice to have words for it now.
    take care,
    Nate

  6. N Pepperell October 29, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    Hey folks! I’ll have to add my apology to Nate’s: I’m committed to doing several days of interviews, and this always completely knocks me out. I won’t be up for serious conversation for a little while.

    e – I couldn’t tell from your comment whether you took me to be saying I hadn’t yet read the section on primitive accumulation :-) Although I am still working out many things on the fly here, because I haven’t forced myself to work through Capital in this kind of intense textual detail before, the broad brush outlines of this reading are things I’ve been carrying around with me for a while :-) I just started wondering at some point how much of my sense of the strategy of the text, would actually survive a really close reading – and for some strange reason decided to resolve this issue for myself publicly… ;-P

    My confusion with Honneth stems from two things (and, again, this is a reaction to one specific paper and some stray comments at one particular conference – I’m not trying to generalise about Honneth’s work in any way). First, Honneth seemed to be reading Marx as: (1) a romantic critic of capitalism, and (2) as presenting a kind of non-immanent critique, by criticising capitalism against a standard that sits outside of capitalism (specifically, a form of craft labour that involved a kind of autonomous, creative production that the development of industrial manufacturing was undermining). I take Marx to be a rather non-romantic critic, unfolding an immanent theory of the way in which capitalism generates potentials for its own transformation, in the process of reproducing itself. So one quarrel is simply with Honneth’s reading of Marx.

    I tend, though, not to be all that worried about Marx’s “true intent” – there are many theories that, from my point of view, are probably not reading Marx in the best way, but that will nevertheless go on to offer an interesting theory in their own right. They may even go on to offer a theory that does some of what I think Marx was also trying to do. I’m more interested in what people go on to do with their critique of Marx – with the kind of theory they then unfold – than in the specific issue of whether they read Marx in a particular way.

    So my more significant concern was with what Honneth appeared to be doing via his critique of Marx. He took Marx to be making an argument that craft labour enabled people to recognise their own potential, through the transformation of material nature to generate an objective thing in which their labour was objectified. And he therefore took Marx to be criticising industrial production for the way in which it removed or diminished this opportunity for objectification through the transformation of nature.

    Honneth seemed then to argue that, now that service industries have become more central to the material reproduction of society, this Marxist argument has become untenable. Labour no longer generates a tangible material product in which labourers might objectify and recognise their own potentials. This transition has made it clearer that self-recognition cannot be achieved through material reproduction – through the relationships through which labourers mediate their relationship with nature – but is instead achieved through intersubjective processes of mutual recognition with other subjects.

    Having done this, Honneth then attempted to get “back” to labour – to work out how his theory, centred on intersubjectivity rather than on interactions with an “objective” material world, might still generate normative standards that could be used to criticise the form of labour or the organisation of production characteristic of contemporary capitalism.

    I’m abbreviating (very, very tired tonight). And I have all sorts of problems with Honneth’s framework (as this was expressed in this paper) – not least because the framework presupposes certain kinds of distinctions (between material reproduction and intersubjectivity, for example) that I think Marx is actually trying to theorise. From this standpoint, Honneth’s theory looks as though it naturalises some of the things that I think a social theory should seek to explain…

    In the post above, though, I was trying to thematise something much more narrow – which is, basically, how much of a fundamental difference should we really take the rise of service industries to represent? I don’t contest that there have been important changes in the concrete organisation of production, and I don’t contest that these changes are worth analysing. I just think it’s a bit strange to thematise such changes as a sort of seismic shift in the nature of labour. Honneth’s position seems to rely on the notion that it would make an enormous difference whether a labour process produces a physical, tangible thing, or whether it produces an ephemeral, intangible thing – and that this difference would have pivotal implications for the “standpoint of critique” – for the genesis of ideals of emancipation. I am… very sceptical about this kind of claim.

    There’s more I would probably need to say to explain what I understood Honneth to be doing, and what my exact objection is – but I’m just too tired at the moment. Apologies if this leaves things very unclear…

    Gotta get some sleep – more interviews await tomorrow!

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