Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Marx of the Day

This is probably not the most self-enobling observation, but I must confess that I enjoy Marx’s snarky footnotes. This one from the second chapter of Capital caught my eye today:

Proudhon begins by taking his ideal of Justice, of “justice éternelle,” from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities: thereby, it may be noted, he proves, to the consolation of all good citizens, that the production of commodities is a form of production as everlasting as justice. Then he turns round and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, and the actual legal system corresponding thereto, in accordance with this ideal. What opinion should we have of a chemist, who, instead of studying the actual laws of the molecular changes in the composition and decomposition of matter, and on that foundation solving definite problems, claimed to regulate the composition and decomposition of matter by means of the “eternal ideas,” of “naturalité” and “affinité”? Do we really know any more about “usury,” when we say it contradicts “justice éternelle,” équité éternelle “mutualité éternelle,” and other vérités éternelles than the fathers of the church did when they said it was incompatible with “grâce éternelle,” “foi éternelle,” and “la volonté éternelle de Dieu”?

There’s an enormous amount packed into this short passage, and I don’t have time to write on it in adequate detail. A few quick points on distinctions Marx makes between types of critique, some more tacit than others in the passage quoted. I toss these here by way of placeholders for future posts, as I don’t have time to do more than make notes now.

One is the issue of utopian forms of critique – forms of critique operating in the name of ideals that could never be realised (generally, in Marx’s work, this charge is levelled at a form of critique that he believes is assuming that some necessary moment of the reproduction of capital could be overcome, while all the other moments remain intact – since Marx sees the reproduction of capital as a “logic” that tends to generate its own conditions, he is deeply sceptical of such critiques; a major goal in Capital is to specify more precisely what needs to be overcome, in order to halt the reproduction of capital).

A separable issue is that of types of critique that operate within the established social form – appealing to ideals that resonate, that can to some degree be realised, and whose more complete realisation might make a significant difference to living conditions on the ground, but in situations where the ideals do not point beyond the existing social form. Such forms of critique can be problematic to the extent that they take themselves as something more transformative than they are, and thus obscure a recognition of what would be required to overcome that social form itself. Recognised as contestations within the existing social framework, however, these forms of critique can make a significant difference in the humanisation of everyday living and working conditions – precariously, as there will remain pressures to roll back humanising reforms, but with meaningful consequences while they hold, including perhaps the consequence of increasing receptivity to more fundamental transformations.

A third – quite significant – issue here is Marx’s criticism of Proudhon for shoving what Marx regards as historically-emergent ideals into an asocial and decontextualised space. Marx (characteristically) immediately likens this move to a form of religious mysticism, and reaches for practice: what are we doing that renders such ideals plausible to us? How do these ideals arise? Only once we can answer these questions, are we in the position to speak in terms of critique. For Marx, critique doesn’t float in an intrinsic “ought”, but is practically-emergent, albeit in a form that can react back on the existing organisation of social practice.

I have to leave this hanging for the moment – trying to get something else done on a deadline, and so depositing these thoughts here more to clear space for the things I’m meant to be thinking about right now. I’m sure I’ll have ample opportunity to retract later, what I’ve posted here in too much haste. :-)

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7 responses to “Marx of the Day

  1. Tom (Grundlegung) January 22, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Marx’s criticism of Proudhon in that quote reminds me of Hegel’s criticism of the tedium of stoicism’s appeal to wisdom and virtue in the Phenomenology (para. 200):

    To the question, what is good and true, it responded by giving again the abstract, contentless thought; the true and good are to consist in reasonableness. But this self-identity of thought is simply once more pure form, in which nothing is determinate. The general terms true and good, wisdom and virtue, with which Stoicism has to stop short, are, therefore, in a general way, doubtless elevating; but seeing that they cannot actually and in fact reach any expanse of content, they soon begin to get wearisome.

    On this issue, I think I am less convinced than you are that it is some sort of genealogy of normative ideals which is required to ensure that they are immanently connected to the objects of critique rather than externally and dogmatically imposed upon them. At least, I think any such genealogy needs to be primarily conceptual rather than socio-historical (as I take Hegel to think too). But perhaps it is other features of your project, such as its narrower focus that is directed towards sociality and norms for emancipatory critique, that brings the socio-historical source of certain norms to the fore.

  2. N Pepperell January 22, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Hey Tom – I’m probably just using terms that suggest the wrong connotations. I agree with you on Hegel (at least, if I’m understanding you correctly: that the issue for Hegel is developing a sort of immanent conceptual connection – such that, even when he seems to be dealing with “historical” materials, the concern is developing a sort of reconstructive logical necessity of the connections between concepts for us, rather than making a case for any genealogy in an historical sense?).

    My position on Marx is slightly more complex, as I think he’s translating some of the Hegelian notion of critique into a social theoretic space, and deploying it with a different intention. I still don’t take Marx to be concerned so much with genealogy in the sense of historical origins, but I do take him to be concerned with establishing the link between concepts and contemporary social practice – I understand him to think that he is “standing Hegel right side up”, by placing concepts into relation, not only with one another, but with dimensions of social life in which those concepts are necessarily enacted as practical sensibilities.

    In this sort of context, it then becomes a strong claim about social practice, to argue (as Marx seems to do, in Capital), that it is possible to develop a sort of Hegelian “logic” that connects those practical sensibilities to one another in some kind of ordered totality in thought. Marx doesn’t – I think – naturalise this – it’s not something he thinks would always be possible to do with any collection of social practices. Rather, it indicates something specific about the peculiarities of the reproduction of capital – about the form of constraint involved in this process, that gives the process this sort of “logical” characteristic. Marx then does various things with this with this argument, including using it to explain why social actors might find it plausible to confuse this kind of “logical” necessity with other sorts of necessity – historical, causal, etc.

    Marx is, though, you’re right, engaging in a far narrower project – at least in my reading. He’s looking at a particular social process, and developing a kind of theory that (in my view) understands its method as specific to that object – and the goal is a practical one, related to the demonstration that the form of critique is non-utopian. Although the effect is also to demonstrate the “locatedness” of the theorist within a particular social context, and so the approach has certain “epistemological” implications, the objective is a practical one.

    If this makes sense? :-)

  3. N Pepperell January 22, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    P.S. Sorry – one other point that had occurred to me. I may come across, when I write about this sort of thing, as more “normative” than I actually intend to be – I may come across as though I think certain things are intrinsically and necessarily important for critique of any sort. I actually specifically don’t think that, although I write about a number of people who, I think, might have thought such things.

    My personal position is that a particular form of immanent and reflexive approach may be necessary to flush out certain characteristics of a peculiar sort of social context – and that some other approaches, by not exploring some of the issues that come up when trying to develop an immanent, reflexive social critique, may as a consequence develop a more one-dimensional vision of social context than is possible. From my point of view, certain forms of critique “give up” too soon on the conflictual potentials of the social and, as a result, have the effect of ruling out certain potentials for critique (and also, sometimes, of not recognising the practical implications of certain kinds of critical ideals).

    This isn’t the same, though, as thinking that critique can only be unfolded in one specific form. In this sense, I’m not making, say, specific metaphysical commitments that critical sensibilities must arise in one and only one form. I’m more trying to say that they do arise in some specific form, and that this form is often overlooked, and valuable to grasp.

    (Can you tell I’m procrastinating from my next chapter? ;-P)

  4. Tom (Grundlegung) January 22, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Before I begin, I must say how exciting I’m finding the reading of Marx that you are developing and how expertly it is being deployed (your protestations to the contrary notwithstanding). I only wish your ‘Greatest Difficulty’ piece was a draft of the first chapter of my thesis!

    I think we are more-or-less on the same page with respect to Hegel; and at the very least I agree that the historical content of Hegel’s analyses is always meant to indicate a deeper point about the conceptual categories that the situation in question exemplifies and/or those which are used to understand it. I would also endorse the claim, “the concern is developing a sort of reconstructive logical necessity of the connections between concepts for us,” if in the final analysis this does imply a contrast with how things and their concepts stand in-themselves. I’m not sure whether you would agree with that as a reading of Hegel or as an independent claim, whereas I want to defend it in both respects (as a reading and a viable methodology). That is, I want to move away from any sort of projectivist analysis, whether of empirical concepts, ethics, logic, etc. That is still the case even if it is urged that the ‘appearance’ is somehow necessary and therefore should not be discarded as mere error. I think it is a crucial point for Hegel that we can construct a logic of appearance, but I don’t think this is in order to move from the necessity of things appearing to us in a certain way to some claim about their objective validity. Making that sort of move would be one way to secure immanence — to philosophise without stepping outside of ourselves, so to speak — but I think it is one that retains Kantian elements that Hegel rejects. Sometimes I get the (perhaps mistaken) impression that this is the sort of move that you see as important to Hegel’s project. If so, I think this is one thing which we might differ over. (Sorry if that is a bit incoherent and underdeveloped. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to post on this properly fairly soon.)

    Secondly, the relation that you claim Marx draws between aspects of the reproduction of capital and the dispositions of agents strike me as very interesting. The slippage between economic, deontic and causal modalities seems one that is particularly ripe for analysis, and is one that I think runs very deep. Zizek has claimed that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a modest change in the mode of production. In effect, I think he is right and for the reason that not only do capitalist forces present themselves to us as necessary, they condition our understanding of ourselves as agents who can act, shaping the subjective horizon on which possibilities for action come to be understood. Here I have in mind aspects of capital such as its abstract nature, and therefore its ability to exericse a form of control that is many ways depersonalised, presenting itself as a brute given, and so as fated and incontestable. Is there anywhere in particular in Capital that you see an analysis of the sort of constraint operating upon the reproduction of capital which then bleeds into an analysis of the conditioning of social actors?

  5. N Pepperell January 22, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    This is extremely interesting stuff (far more interesting than the chapter I’m meant to be writing… ;-P which, however, I’ll feel guilty if I leave aside for too long, so advance warning that this response will be quite truncated).

    Am I understanding correctly that you perhaps hear, in “my” Hegel, an attempt to claim that the rigorous demonstration of a logic implies an “objective” validity to what has been demonstrated? If this is what you mean, it’s not what I’m trying to imply. In a sense, his is what I heard Habermas accusing Brandom of doing, and I don’t think Brandom is doing this either. I do think Hegel is trying to address a sort of epistemological anxiety – but not via the claim that the demonstration of some sort of immanent conceptual “necessity” tells us something about a “world out there” (among other things, I would think that sort of reading would be undermined by Hegel’s discussion of the reciprocal transformations of subjects and objects?). Hegel talks about the irreducible contingency or irrationality of the natural world in places – suggesting to me that he’s more trying to relocate the origin point (and therefore the “solution”) to epistemological anxiety, rather than claim a sort of conceptual structuration of things. But I may have gone off onto a complete tangent here, and not be addressing your concerns, so I’ll stop here for the moment, with apologies if I’ve just flown off the side of your question.

    I should say, though, that I don’t have a “reading” of Hegel, if this makes sense – certainly nowhere near the way that I have a “reading” of Marx. So, although I’ll make various comments about what I take him to be doing, this is all very provisional and open to revision, from my point of view, even if this doesn’t come across adequately when I talk about it. Also, since at the moment I’m having to focus somewhat instrumentally on working out Marx’s appropriation of Hegel, and what Marx takes Hegel to be doing, this tends to skew my presentation – I don’t always distinguish clearly, I think, between “Marx’s Hegel”, as I understand that, and my much more provisional sense of what Hegel might have been on about in his own right.

    On your questions on Marx: in a sense, a great deal of the thesis, once I can dig my way of these initial programmatic chapters, revolves around these sorts of questions. I see Capital pretty much in its entirety as a reflection on shapes of subjectivity that operate in tandem with forms of (social) objectivity (ironically, this is probably far less clear in the chapter I just posted, because the footnotes have been omitted – there are some extended footnotes foreshadowing where I’m going with this – I will probably eventually work some of this back into the text, but at the moment wasn’t finding a clean way to do this, so I just dropped the issue down into the apparatus).

    I probably wouldn’t use the term “conditioning” out of fear that it implies that “objectivity” conditions “subjectivity”, whereas I see Marx’s argument to take a slightly different form – to revolve around an analysis of the ways in which social actors perform social practice, in a way that necessarily involves certain practical sensibilities, forms of perception, dispositions, experiences of self, etc. The context, though, is complex – requiring many different and conflictual types of “performance” – and so social actors aren’t positioned as frozen in the forms of being in the world associated with some particular dimension of the performance of the reproduction of capital. So there’s a complex argument that subjective dispositions are intrinsically connected with objective characteristics of the social context, with this involving a reduction of one to the other on a casual level. And, yes, there’s a very complex analysis, then, of the reasons the whole performance tends to get re-enacted over and over again – why it tends to be reproduced – that relies on an analysis of the determinate characteristics of typical forms of objectivity and subjectivity. Hopefully, the thesis will be able to spell some of this out in an adequate way.

    Unlike Zizek, though, Marx would argue that we imagine the end of the capitalist world all the time (the argument here is in some ways similar to Benjamin’s) – we just don’t realise that’s what we’re doing. So Marx’s critical strategy is, in a sense, to render this explicit (my nice Brandomian Marx here ;-P), and so available to practice in a deliberate way. In my read, this is why “immanence” becomes important for Marx – because it’s how he shows this – not in the form of an argument that capitalism will somehow automatically develop into something else, but in the form of an argument that capitalism is haunted with immanently-generated impulses that drive toward other things – until these impulses are brought back into check by the very same process of social reproduction that also generates them in the first place.

    This probably doesn’t make enormous sense at this point – hopefully I’m be able to express it a bit better as the chapters unfold.

    I’m also, of course, then having to work out my own stance with reference to all of this. In a sense, I’m looking at Marx as a sort of case study for a particular approach to understanding the generation of critical sensibilities (among other things), and the effort to get my head around it leaves me sort of thinking that I may not then find the space to decide what I agree with, until after the thing has been written.

    Chapter calling!! :-)

  6. Tom (Grundlegung) January 23, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Just very quickly on Hegel, the idea floated was that if we could show that a phenomena (colour, morality, an experience of freedom, space, etc.) appeared of necessity to a finite being like us then we might be able to resist calls to dismiss it as ‘merely subjective’. Your claim about reconstructing the necessity of conceptual connections for us (presumably nominally distinguishable from how they are in-themselves, if they even exist in-themselves), along with other things you’ve written previously, suggested this line of thought to me.

    To illustrate with a Kantian thought, Kant thinks that concepts like causation are part of the framework that we bring to bring to experience and thus we cannot talk about causal connections between things-in-themselves, only between empirical objects as things relatable to the conditions of experience. So, someone might say that by Kant’s lights, talk of causation is illusory — that it is a concept which we merely project onto the world. But Kant would reply that his concept has what he calls ‘objective validity’, such that its use is justified. This is because by being part of the framework required for experience, it is both necessary and universal: that is, it is a condition of experience, and a public one at that since it is not only me but everyone else who has to apply it. So, even though he has only been talking about how things are ‘for us’ and not how objects are ‘in themselves’ (and thus arguably remains within an immanent frame), he might be taken to have shown that appealing to the concept of causality is justifiable in a way that appealing to a concept like luckiness or divine providence has not proved to be.

    One way of reading the Logic is as securing a similar necessity claim. In keeping with the Copernican revolution, we would refrain from a metaphysical investigation of objects, instead moving to examine the concepts of those objects. The application of certain concepts would be justified, not by tying them directly to conditions required for experience but by showing how these concepts mutually presuppose each other. If we could show that all basic logical concepts were linked up in this way, forming a mutually supporting system, even if these connections were only ‘for us’ — say, as conditions for the intelligibility or use of these concepts — we might suppose that these concepts could still be justified. For, we might think, employing these concepts are conditions of the world coming to be ‘for us’, and a world that is forever beyond the reach of us is no world at all.

    I had thought your own strategy might be something along these lines, but further detranscendentalised. Habermas, for example, justifies a set of rational norms by tying them to linguistic practice. These norms would have a de jure authority insofar as we used language, and thus the bindingness of the norms are in a sense relativised. However, since being a linguistic creature is a condition of being ‘one of us’, these norms are universal and necessary — we cannot take or leave them, or dismiss them simply because they are not somehow part of the fabric of reality.

    In the same vein, I thought you might be up to a slightly more modest version of this move, one that shows that emancipatory norms (ones that can ground critical theory) could be justified, or at least made available, by the more contingent social practices bound up with capitalist societies. The idea would be that we would not have to step out of our own society, appealing to some abstract conception of right or justice, in order to ground critique. Rather, the dynamics leading to a reproduction of the capitalist mode of production would generate the resources for their own critique — e.g. both requiring and engendering certain modes of thought that reveal captialism’s contradictions; relying on discourses like ‘human rights’ that contain or will provide an implicit critique of it; producing working conditions that provide conditions for a Sittlichkeit where emancipatory norms could take hold; or whatever. As such, these norms would be in some ways ‘matched’ to their objects (the specific social relations of capitalism), where the scope of such norms would not need to be strictly universal because they would only be called upon in relation to those interacting with this specific social form. That was the general idea at least.

  7. N Pepperell January 23, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Tom – I’m running at the moment, but yes – apologies that I misunderstood where you were gesturing above. This sounds more-or-less fair, although in a sense I’m probably even farther in the agnostic direction – as in, I wouldn’t posit as any kind of strong ontological claim that any kind of society would necessarily generate immanent critical resources, or that our kind of society can’t possibly have critical resources that arise outside the sorts of practices associated with the reproduction of capital. But the general idea that, around here, around now, there are such resources that are “universal enough” is where I’m aiming.

    A couple of potential qualifications – I’m not sure that the distinction would be between how things are “for us” and how things are in themselves, but more the notion that things are “in relation”, and that this is an exploration of one particular set of relations in which we are situated. This may just be my way of tip-toeing around the issue of an “in itself”, and so I don’t press it too seriously – you’re right in any event that there is a distinction being made between my “for us” and at least the counterfactual notion of some non-relational universal. This will, in some sense, be the subject of the chapter I’m trying to write now, so it may be easier to pick on me about it in that context :-)

    And one last point: the idea here is not simply to talk about norms, but also something like practical potentials. Capital picks up in a strong way, I think, on Hegel’s occasional imagery of the new society born in the chrysalis of the old – not, I think, in the old Marxist notion that some set of social institutions just becomes the new society, but in a more complex and subtle way, where ghosts of new forms of institutions appear as sort of fleeting moments within existing ones. So the account talks about ideals, but also tries to make a strong “anti-utopian” claim on behalf of the possibility to do practical work with those ideals…

    Apologies if this is very ill-thought-through – very little sleep last night, and writing in a rush :-) And sorry that I so badly misunderstood your earlier question…

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