Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

HSS2008 Paper

I’m both wired and utterly exhausted. I presented today to the Hegel Summer School conference. Prepping for this event has been a bit all-consuming, and I haven’t been able to get my thoughts together for blogging or even responding to comments. I still won’t respond tonight – I just want to get the paper online, as I promised this at the event, but I need some rest before I can get back into the swing of blogging.

This paper was originally meant to bring together some of what I’ve been working on in the thesis, particularly in the second chapter, with some of what I’ve been writing on the blog, particularly in relation to the reading group posts for the Science of Logic and Phenomenology of Spirit. I had no idea, to be honest, that bringing this material together would prove as productive for me as it has – I now have a much clearer idea (I think…) of what I’ve been trying to say about Marx’s relationship to Hegel and also about the textual strategy of the first chapter of Capital. Most surprising and pleasant to me, was also finally figuring out something I’ve been dancing around for a very long time, about how Marx understands the textual strategy of the first volume of Capital, to relate to what I’ve been calling immanent critique. In a sense, writing this paper was almost too useful for me: now I have to go back and rewrite at least one, and possibly two, chapters in the thesis. One step forward, etc…

An event like this is so unusual and rare. Time to unfold a genuinely complex argument. Space to tackle some extremely difficult theoretical material. Incredible scope for discussion – we went, I think, for something close to three hours. Where many conferences have left me longing for the blog, where ideas can be worked out in detail and the discussion can sprawl, this conference is truly special. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and I’m humbled and a bit stunned by the time and attention and ideas and energy that the participants have put into the event.

My head is spinning from the ideas that came forward from discussion – I’m utterly unable to summarise any of it. I had been planning to wait to post the paper until I could perhaps say something about the issues that came up in discussion, but I’m realising that it may take quite a while for all of that to sink in. I’ll put the paper up now, and will most likely be working through the ideas sparked by the discussion in a more embedded way in whatever it is I write over the next while.

I’m conscious of many debts for this paper. The online and in-person participants in the Science of Logic reading group have been of enormous help as I’ve tried to get my head around at least a small slice of this text. Wildly Parenthetical took the time to read over an earlier version of this paper, and to workshop concepts, and generally to force me to be a little bit clearer (and perhaps bolder ;-P). L Magee somehow got drafted into chairing my session, and managed this last-minute appointment exceptionally well. :-) A number of people attended to provide moral support (one of my lasting memories from this event will be of my head of department, overhearing someone ask me during a coffee break, “So is your university a major centre for Hegel scholarship?”, and almost choking on his tea…). And others I haven’t named individually provided genuinely formative feedback on draft work.

I’ll place the intro above the fold to give a sense of the general theme, and the rest below, as of course it’s an hour-long talk, and so a bit bulky for the main page…

Fighting for What We Mean

I’m going to be talking today about Hegel and Marx, two thinkers who analyse relational networks of mutually-determining phenomena. This style of theory makes it extremely difficult to say anything, unless you intend to say everything. Marx and Hegel say “everything” in works totalling thousands of pages – in Marx’s case, works that were never actually completed. Today, we have an hour. An hour in which I have tried to say at least something – but have perhaps included a bit more of everything than might have been ideal. What I suggest is that, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the texts I am analysing, you not worry about the details of the argument, but focus instead on the overarching contour. I can review the details if needed during discussion, and I will place the talk online after this event for anyone who wants to work through the arguments more closely.

The title of the event today – “Solidarity or Community: Philosophy and Antidotes to Fragmentation” – frames the problem confronting us in a very specific way. It suggests that:

  1. fragmentation – understood as the breakdown of the social bonds connecting us to one another – is a central theoretical and practical problem for our time – something that requires an “antidote”;
  2. two potential “antidotes” present themselves immediately to us: one, encompassed in the concept of “solidarity” and the other, encompassed in the concept of “community”; and
  3. philosophy – specifically, Hegelian philosophy – may be able to help us understand why social bonds are breaking down, or how we can prevent or correct this breakdown.

The title suggests that something – let’s call it capitalism – is corrosive of social bonds – that it erodes such bonds, and that such an erosion is a bad thing, something that deserves to be the target of critique. Yet capitalism is presented here, not simply as something that produces negative effects, but as a negation – as something that strips away, leaving us to confront a gap or an absence – which then must be filled by some new sort of positive social bond, in order to avoid fragmentation.

The question I want to consider today is what might be missing from this picture: what are we at risk of overlooking, if we thematise capitalism one-sidedly, as a corrosive force that erodes social bonds? Is there any sense in which we can grasp capitalism as constitutive or generative of some particular kind of social bond? If capitalism can be understood as generative in this way, then why is the problem of social fragmentation so striking? These questions, I suggest, carry us into the heart of Marx’s motivation for appropriating Hegel’s work, when he sets out to write Capital.

Hegel is perhaps Marx’s most consistent theoretical reference point, and Marx critically appropriates a number of Hegelian concepts in his work. Today, I want to focus on two concepts that are particularly important in making sense of the textual strategy of Capital: Hegel’s concept of “science”, and the associated methodology Hegel sets out in the Science of Logic; and a complex set of arguments relating to appearance, essence, and inversion, which Hegel makes with different emphases in a number of works – for today’s talk, I will focus on the version of the argument Hegel presents in the early chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

When thinking about how to appropriate Hegel’s work for critical social theory, his concept of science or his arguments relating to appearance and essence are not necessarily the ones that most immediately leap to mind. It is more common to turn to Hegel’s own more direct reflections on civil society, the state, and other recognisably “social” topics, to discuss Hegel’s comments on labour and the master-bondsman relation, or else to explore the complex theme of mutual recognition. These dimensions of Hegel’s work are logical starting points for a social theoretic appropriation, as they seem most directly to touch on questions that we recognise intuitively as “social” – questions relating to intersubjectivity, social relations, or social institutions.

It is therefore particularly striking that Marx’s relies quite heavily on the more abstract, “philosophical” – and, in fact, “idealist” – elements of Hegel’s project, when developing the structure and method of Capital. Today I’ll briefly sketch what I mean by this claim, in order to render more visible the tacit methodology at work in Marx’s text. Focussing particularly on the categories of the commodity and labour power, I then illustrate how recognising Hegel’s influence can help us make sense of elements of Marx’s argument and presentational style that are otherwise easy to overlook. From this foundation, I return to my opening question of whether something might be missed, if we conceptualise capitalism as a negation – as something that corrodes social bonds – without asking at the same time what sort of distinctive social bond capitalism might also generate.

I want to begin my discussion of Hegel by analysing some of his methodological reflections on the requirements for a “scientific” philosophy. It is important to recognise that “science”, for Hegel, means something quite different from what this term signifies for us today. An act of translation is therefore required when we go back to Hegel’s work: we need to set aside our contemporary intuitions, and try to reconstruct Hegel’s quite different concept of science. As it turns out, Hegel’s concept of science is closely related to what Marx intends, when he occasionally refers to Capital as a “scientific” work.

When Hegel talks about “science”, he is concerned with what would be required for philosophy to make good on the Enlightenment challenge to appeal to no authority other than that of reason. When he criticises other approaches for not meeting the standards of science, he is saying that those approaches are assuming premises that, tacitly or explicitly, fall outside the philosophical system itself, and therefore outside the workings of reason. A “scientific” philosophy, for Hegel, is one that accounts for its premises immanently, through the development of its system. In recent commentaries on Hegel, this is often described as a commitment to construct a presuppositionless philosophy; critical social theory modelled on this approach is sometimes described as a form of immanent, reflexive critique. The meaning of both terms will become clearer as we look a bit more closely at why Hegel thinks this issue is so important.

In the first Preface to his Science of Logic, Hegel draws attention to what motivates his distinctive concept of “science”. In this text, the Enlightenment figures initially as a corrosive force – tearing down older forms of theology, custom, and metaphysics, disenchanting the myths on which these older forms relied, by appealing to the authority of experience. With characteristic sarcasm, Hegel describes the self-confidence of the Enlightenment in the wake of its early critical success:

having got rid of the dark utterances of metaphysics, of the colourless communion of the spirit with itself, outer existence seemed to be transformed into the bright world of flowers – and there are no black flowers, as we know.

Hegel proceeds to locate the black flowers in this radiant field. The Enlightenment critique, he argues, comes at a price. Fearing myth, it regresses into a myth of its own – the myth of the given, the belief “that the understanding ought not to go beyond experience”. Fearing dogma, the Enlightenment succumbs to the dogmatism of experience – rejecting the possibility for critical transcendence of what is. The Enlightenment thereby loses its critical edge. It finds itself unable to identify a standpoint from which it would be possible to criticise the rising focus on the functional and the practical – the ascendancy of what would now be called instrumental reason – the subordination of life to the means of securing a living. For this reason, Hegel suggests, logic has been allowed to become a purely procedural exercise, devoid of substantive content and therefore of critical, living truth. Hegel’s task is to breathe life into the hollowed-out forms of reason that the Enlightenment has left behind in its wake – by restoring the speculative impulse in philosophy.

Up to this point, this Preface reads very similarly to the argument put forward by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment – and I have accentuated these similarities in how I have paraphrased Hegel’s argument here, in order to make it a bit clearer how this seemingly abstract text connects up with what will become some of the central themes of Hegelian Marxism. Adorno and Horkheimer, however, draw pessimistic conclusions from their analysis of how the Enlightenment collapses back into the myth of the given. Hegel does not. Instead, he positions this corrosive, anti-speculative, impulse of the Enlightenment as a stage – as a symptom of the rawness of a new movement that hurls itself fanatically at what it seeks to overcome. This fanatical phase, Hegel argues, confuses its attack on an outgoing system, with the rejection of systematicity as such, and takes its critique of metaphysics, to be a rejection of all speculative forms of thought. Hegel’s work attempts to move beyond this stage, and in the process to transcend a hollow procedural concept of reason, by developing a substantive, speculative philosophy that preserves reason’s living, transcendent, critical potential.

To achieve this goal, Hegel develops a distinctive methodology – an overview of which he provides in a section of the Science of Logic titled “With What Must the Science Begin?”. Examining key elements of the method Hegel sketches here, will help us make sense of the largely tacit method that underlies Capital.

The question Hegel poses in “With What Must the Science Begin?” is how to construct a philosophical system whose starting point is not dogmatic or arbitrary. Interestingly, Hegel regards this question as an historically-emergent one: “It is only in recent times,” he argues, “that thinkers have become aware of the difficulty of finding a beginning in philosophy”. Earlier philosophers concerned themselves instead solely with an ontological question – with the question of what the first principle of a philosophical system ought to be, and what could be derived from this first principle.

Contemporary philosophy, by contrast, is additionally concerned with the epistemological question of how we could be subjectively certain of any first principle. The historical emergence of this question reveals that earlier forms of philosophy treated the principle of a philosophical system dogmatically, positioning the beginning as a kind of foundational exception to the system itself. Contemporary philosophy is characterised by its unease with approaches that treat the beginning of a philosophical system as a sort of supra-rational ground from which procedurally rational inferences can be drawn, but which itself cannot be rationally justified.

At first glance, it seems a somewhat obscure and esoteric concern, to worry about approaches that treat the principle of a philosophy as a “foundational exception” to the philosophical system. In practice, however, this sort of move is actually very common – and not simply in rarefied philosophical work. If you think here about Luhmann’s notion that we must begin by making a distinction, or Weber’s concept of the irrationality of ends and the rationality of means, you’ll have some sense of what concerns Hegel here. Hegel is not satisfied with the notion that the initial decision that opens a philosophical system can be arbitrary, as long as whatever follows from that decision is procedurally rational; he is also not satisfied with the pragmatist argument that the beginning can be justified retrospectively, by the demonstration of what that system allows us to do. Hegel is looking for some way to pull the beginning of a philosophy into the philosophical system itself, such that the beginning can be demonstrated to be just as rationally “necessary” as everything derived from it.

If the beginning cannot be rationally grasped, Hegel argues, competing philosophical systems bounce off of one another, hurling dogmatic claims and counter-claims about first principles, with no rational means to adjudicate such disputes. As a result, contemporary philosophy tends to oscillate between the poles of dogmatism and scepticism – a situation that, in turn, leads some to repudiate reason altogether, in favour of frank irrationalism. Hegel understands contemporary philosophy to be trapped in a restless circuit amongst these alternatives. He intends his work to break through this impasse, by ensuring that the beginning remains immanent to reason. A philosophical system is “scientific”, for Hegel, to the extent that it is adequate to this task.

With these goals in mind, Hegel proceeds to outline a method for a philosophical system that would be self-grounding and presuppositionless. Such a philosophy would not rely on any dogmatic starting point, but would rather encompass its beginning within the philosophical system itself.

In the opening moments of the presentation of the philosophical system, the principle might at first appear dogmatic or arbitrary. This arbitrary appearance is gradually dispelled, however, as inferences are drawn from the starting point, and the beginning is thus determined ever more concretely. Since these determinations are inferentially derived from the starting point itself, Hegel regards each layer of determination as a further development or specification of the principle. He argues that the principle is preserved as the foundation of all the developments that flow out of it.

It is not sufficient, however, simply to derive a long, linear “chain” of inferences from the starting point. Instead – and Hegel describes this as the “essential” requirement for the science of logic – the unfolding of the system must loop back on itself, reflexively justifying its point of departure by demonstrating how the system that has been unfolded from that starting point, generates that very starting point as its own product or result. What initially looks one-sided, immediate, and arbitrary, is thus progressively demonstrated to be the fully mediated and necessary result of the system as a whole. Hegel describes this demonstration as a process in which the philosophical system loops back on itself, forming a circle. This circular, reflexive movement ensures that the beginning remains immanent to the philosophical system.

Hegel understands this method as a simultaneous response to the ontological question of what the first principle is, and the epistemological question of how that principle can be known: the principle is nothing other than the unfolded system, and this principle can be known in no other way, aside from through the process by which the system is unfolded.

One important implication of this approach is that the form and content of the philosophical system are understood to be unified: the form in which the system is presented, is itself the system’s substantive claim. Hegel thus insists that the presentation of the text ought to be set out according to the order required to render explicit the necessary relationship of each moment of thinking to other moments and to the whole. The beginning of the system must be what comes first in the process of thinking – not in the sense of whatever immediately comes to mind when a philosopher begins their investigation, but in the sense of what necessarily must come first in thinking, in order to derive the system. The process of thinking then structures the order of presentation within the system, such that it becomes impossible to describe this process adequately, other than by presenting the system in full. As Hegel argues:

to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner and such a manner is alone here in place.

One implication of this method is that the beginning – because it is preserved and determined in increasing detail over the course of the work – is not truly known at the outset – even though the immediate starting point appears to be plainly stated and displayed in full view in the text. Instead, the beginning can be recognised for what it is, only when it can finally be situated in the network of relationships that determine it and give it a substantive character. As the system is unfolded, each new relationship that is derived, alters our understanding of all the relationships analysed before. Not until the final step in the analysis, do we have a sense of the whole network. Only with the whole network in view, do we fully understand all the moments that, ultimately, are what they are, only in and through their relationships with one another and the whole. It is at this point that we finally grasp what the beginning always already was – and why the system had to be unfolded in this specific order, from this particular starting point

A version of this complex method, I suggest, is operative in Capital. Marx hints at this when, in the Preface to the first German edition, he warns:

Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty.

Marx refers here very subtly back to the section of the Science of Logic I have been outlining above. The subtlety of such references – combined with the absence of an extended methodological preface to Capital – unfortunately makes it very easy to overlook how difficult the beginning to Capital actually is. What I want to do next is therefore to open a window onto that difficulty, by suggesting how the narrative overtly presented in the opening passages of Capital, is actually the target of Marx’s critique. To do this, I need to draw attention to a tacit subtext – which is almost tempting to read as a complex, playful joke – that Marx plays on Hegel in the first chapter. This subtext becomes visible when the movement of the first chapter is considered in light of the methodology discussed above, and also when it is compared to the movement of the early chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Before I discuss this subtext, however, I want first to take a quick look at what the opening passages of Capital appear to be arguing, if this subtext is not taken into account.

If you open Capital and read its early passages at face value, you are confronted with what looks like a fairly straightforward, empiricist sociological narrative. The narrative voice seems to stand outside the context it is analysing, offering objective observations about social realities as if from a third person omniscient perspective. The starting point to the text looks fairly arbitrary:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

The commodity is presented here as an “elementary form” whose properties can be investigated in order to make sense of more complex entities built up out of such forms. This elementary form proves to be somewhat complex. On first glance, it is an “object outside us” that possesses many different intrinsic material properties, which can be discovered by humans who investigate these properties over time. These material properties satisfy various human needs, and therefore provide the basis for the use value of the commodity. Use value, we are told, is the transhistorical substance of wealth, whatever the social form of that wealth might be. In the society being analysed here, use values are also the bearers of a particular social form of wealth – exchange value. Exchange value expresses a relationship between goods – the quantitative proportion in which goods trade on the market. This proportion varies constantly and is always in flux, and has nothing to do with the material properties of the goods exchanged, but instead appears to express only arbitrary social convention.

The text presents us, then, with a set of dichotomies: use values are connected with material properties that are timeless, substantive, essential, and intrinsic; exchange values are abstracted from material properties and are historical, arbitrary, and contingent. At this moment in the text, you would expect Capital to unfold a critique of exchange value – as the arbitrary social form – from the standpoint of more essential, transhistorical “materialist” principles. Nothing about this opening content or its style of presentation appears particularly “Hegelian” or suggests that the commodity is the starting point of a complex “science”. As Marx suggests at this point in the text: “Let us consider the matter a little more closely.”

For present purposes, I’ll need to leave aside a discussion of the textual evidence that Capital should be read as an appropriation of Hegel’s method. I’ll therefore take this point as given, and ask what kind of reading becomes possible, if we approach the text with this assumption in play.

One of the first implications of viewing Capital as a Hegelian “science”, is that we realise that the beginning will not be fully understood at the outset of the text. The beginning in its immediacy, in the form in which it appears at the opening of the system, has not yet been situated within the network of relationships that alone will allow us to grasp why this particular beginning is necessary – and, indeed, what the beginning actually is, when finally situated in the network of relationships constitutive of the whole.

A second, related, implication is that we realise that the course of the analysis must demonstrate that the beginning is also a product – the necessary product of the system as a whole.

In this light, Marx’s choice of a beginning looks almost playful – as if Marx had said to Hegel: you want a beginning, which is also a product? Have I got the beginning for you! And so Capital begins… with a product – with the commodity. And, indeed, few people would contest that this beginning is in fact the necessary product of the capitalist system as a whole.

Still, this sort of category – the commodity – seems to be a simple object, a thing. How could this everday object be the sort of complex, relationally-determined entity that anchors a Hegelian “science”? This beginning can’t be what it seems, if it’s intended to serve as the starting point for such a system. And, indeed, by the end of the first chapter, Marx is already telling us that the commodity is much more complex than it initially appears. In the famous passage on commodity fetishism, Marx declares:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties… so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

The nature of this complexity, however, is only gradually revealed as more concrete determinations are unfolded from the starting point. As we would expect in a Hegelian “science”, these determinations react back on our understanding of the opening passages, fundamentally transforming our sense of what was happening in these early moments of the text. I can’t outline Marx’s argument in full, but I can illustrate the manner in which the argument unfolds, by focussing on the pivotal example of how our understanding of the commodity comes to be radically transformed, once Marx derives the category of labour power.

Working immanently, with reference to categories that express the perspective of commodity circulation, Marx unfolds an impasse that appears unresolvable with the categories explicitly available to that perspective. How is it, Marx asks, that commodities can be traded at their full value (which is the assumption operative from the perspective of commodity circulation), and yet expanding amounts of money can crystallise out of the process of circulation? Individual commodity owners, of course, may violate the principle of commodity circulation, cheating one another by buying commodities below, or selling them above, their value. Collective theft, however, cannot explain the quantitative expansion of the entire system. How then is it possible to explain the quantitative expansion, assuming that, across circulation as a whole, commodities are bought and sold at their value?

Marx uses this impasse to illustrate how commodity circulation necessarily presupposes a category that cannot be explicitly grasped in the terms available to circulation. This impasse opens the way for Marx to derive a new category – what he calls the “peculiar commodity” of labour power. This category enables Marx to resolve the impasse by drawing attention to the distinction between the value of labour power – which, like the value of all commodities, is determined by its costs of production – and the use value of labour power – which, as it turns out, is to produce… value. The use value of this “peculiar commodity”, therefore, turns out not to be based on an intrinsic material property, but instead on a distinctive social property that labour power possesses in capitalism alone – the property of constituting value. Marx argues:

One thing, however, is clear – Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development…

So, too, the economical categories, already discussed by us, bear the stamp of history. Definite historical conditions are necessary that a product may become a commodity… Had we gone further, and inquired under what circumstances all, or even the majority of products take the form of commodities, we should have found that this can only happen with production of a very specific kind, capitalist production….

…[capital] can spring to life, only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence meets in the market with the free labourer selling his labour-power. And this one historical condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from its first appearance a new epoch in the process of social production.

For the wealth of a society to take the form of an “immense accumulation of commodities”, labour power must have become a commodity. This “peculiar commodity” is therefore not a trivial exception to the norm of commodity production. Instead, Marx argues, it is constitutive of commodity production – an essential historical condition before the commodity could become, as it is presented to be in the opening of the text, the socially general form of wealth. The opening discussion of the commodity therefore already presupposes the category of labour power. Only once the category of labour-power has been explicitly derived, however, does it become clear how the dichotomies set out in the opening passage break down in another dimension of the reproduction of capital.

As outlined above, the empiricist perspective with which the text opens, strictly separates use value from exchange value, treating them as categories formed of fundamentally different substances – one material, one social. For the “peculiar commodity” of labour power, however, use value and exchange value are not connected only arbitrarily or externally to one another: instead, the use value of labour power is constitutive of exchange value. This distinctive use value, moreover, does not derive from the discovery of some intrinsic material property that labour power always possesses, but instead relates to a distinctive social property that labour power possesses uniquely in capitalism. Further, the commodity labour power is not an “object outside us”: it is us – or at least part of us, a form of being-in-the-world that we perform as social actors, simply by engaging in one of the most mundane and everyday practices in capitalist society – selling our labour power. Deriving the category of labour power – and showing how this category is the unacknowledged precondition for the category of the commodity – allows Marx simultaneously to demonstrate why the opening perspective is socially plausible, and also to open a space for critical reflection back on the limitations of that opening perspective, by illustrating dimensions of the reproduction of capital the opening perspective cannot grasp.

This form of argument is not something Marx uses only with the category of labour power: it has already been operative in the text, as Marx unfolded from the commodity, categories like value, abstract labour, money, and so forth. The derivation of labour power is also not where this form of argument ends – Marx will continue deriving categories from this point, each of which also reacts back on our understanding of the commodity and all of the other categories (including labour power itself). I use labour power here as a convenient illustration, as the changes in perspective it opens up are in some respects more striking and therefore easy to present in a short space. This specific example, however, should not confuse the more general point that Marx uses this methodology throughout the text. Later sections in Capital often expressly contradict – or, in Marx’s vocabulary, “invert” – the claims put forward in earlier sections. Marx perceives this form of argument to be necessary to express his substantive claim that capitalism is a contradictory social form – one that immanently generates potentials for its own transformation. I’ll return to this point in a moment, when I explore some of the parallels between Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. First, I want to explore a few further implications of this reading for how we perceive the opening passages of the text.

One of the most striking and significant implications of the category of labour power, relates to how the derivation of this category makes clear that we – social actors operating within a capitalist context – have been the subjects of Marx’s analysis all along. With the introduction of this category, it becomes possible to see how the text has always been, not simply an analysis of “objective” phenomena, but also and simultaneously an analysis of distinctive forms of subjectivity: ways of being in the world, forms of the practice of self, habits of perception and thought.

When the opening passage therefore tells us that the commodity is a thing – an object outside us whose intrinsic material properties are then covered over with more arbitrary social conventions – we can now understand this as an argument that, in at least one dimension of social practice, this is how we enact and experience part of ourselves. As social actors in a capitalist context, we have an everyday, mundane opportunity to practice a split or dual form of subjectivity – to enact simultaneously an objectivating and a relativising relationship to self – to practice ourselves as material, physiological objects and simultaneously as social subjects projecting what we experience as our contingent socialised desires onto that objectivated “material” self. We perform ourselves as material beings with socialised and historically contingent interests projected onto our intrinsic material substance. We split our selves into moments that are explicitly experienced as social, and other moments that are experienced as material or physiological, and that are taken to exist, in and of themselves, outside the process of socialisation. The objective, third-person perspective that speaks in the opening passages of Capital expresses, I suggest, a form of analysis characteristic of this distinctive enactment of self.

Note that both sides of the enactment of self, in this analysis, figure as equally social – not only the side that presents itself to us overtly as social, but also the side that presents itself to us as material. This point will become important when we return later to the question of whether capitalism might generate, as well as erode, social bonds.

At this point, two divergences between Marx and Hegel come into view. First, much more explicitly than Hegel, Marx focuses on what might today be called an argument about embodied cognition. Underlying Marx’s analysis is a tacit metatheory that our explicit theoretical concepts are first enacted in practice – that our everyday behaviour involves the performance of practical dispositions, which may then become the subject of more self-conscious theoretical reflection at some later point. When Marx breaks the process of the reproduction of capital into moments, and then analyses the forms of embodied cognition enacted in the performance of each of these moments, he draws attention to the ways in which forms of cognition are quintessentially social and performative, because they are enacted in collective practice. This practice-theoretic focus on how forms of cognition emerge as moments of social practices is, I suggest, a large part of what Marx means, when he describes his method as standing Hegel right side up – whether this is entirely fair to Hegel, we can leave aside for purposes of this talk.

Second, Marx’s goal in appropriating Hegel’s apparently abstract method is an essentially practical one. Marx uses Hegel’s method, not primarily in order to address ontological questions or to ease epistemological anxieties, but instead to demonstrate that his own critical ideals are not utopian, because these ideals can be demonstrated to point back to practical potentials already generated in and through the same process that reproduces capital. Marx thus finds, in Hegel’s method for a presuppositionless philosophy, a means to demonstrate how capitalism presupposes the possibility for its own emancipatory transformation, by generating both the subjective and objective conditions of possibility for overcoming its own process of reproduction. In this sense, Marx’s “science” of the logic of capital is a circle, only to the degree that the process of reproduction is not successfully broken; Hegel’s method is here relativised as the adequate means to grasp the reproduction of a distinctive form of unfreedom. Marx’s goal is to overcome this process of reproduction – and, in the process, to render this form of “science” obsolete. The working out of this argument takes the better part of Capital, and so must fall outside what I can discuss here.

Moving back to the first chapter of Capital, we can now read the text with these points in mind: the perspectives expressed in the text are the targets of Marx’s critique; Marx’s goal is not to dismiss, but to appropriate, the insights of the perspectives he analyses, by demonstrating the social conditions and limits of their validity; Marx demonstrates the conditions of their validity, by revealing how specific forms of thought express practical dispositions that are enacted in the performance of social practices associated with moments in the reproduction of capital.

Shifts in perspective are particularly rapid in the first chapter of Capital, making this chapter a rich source for illustrating Marx’s analytical techniques. The text opens, as I have discussed above, with an “empiricist” perspective that limits itself to material and social phenomena that can be directly perceived by the senses. This empiricist perspective is adequate to introduce the opening category of the commodity, but the text must shift to a different perspective – a “transcendental” one – in order to unfold the categories of value and abstract labour, which are intangible social structures and therefore cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Their existence must therefore be intuited by reason. Finally, the text shifts to a “dialectical” perspective over the course of the derivation of the money form. A quick sidestep to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit will help me illustrate how these shifts in perspective in Capital can also be read in terms of Marx’s subterranean dialogue with Hegel – and how tracing this dialogue can help us make sense of why Marx spends so much time in Capital illustrating how later categories “invert” earlier ones.

Two pivotal early chapters in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit cover ground very similar to the first chapter of Capital. In the chapters on Perception and Force & Understanding, Hegel presents a narrative of how consciousness attempts to apprehend its relationship to its object dualistically, separating itself from its object, essence from appearance, form from content, being-for-self from being-for-other, and treating such dichotomies as fixed, oppositional extremes. These dualistic commitments, however, undermine consciousness’ certainty of its object, creating impasses that drive consciousness from one dualistic form to the next, carrying it closer and closer to a more adequate apprehension of its object.

In Hegel’s account, Perception is an empiricist sensibility that takes the object of consciousness to be an external sensible object, a “thing with many properties” that can be perceived or discovered through the senses. Perception takes the sensible object as “essential”, and attributes everything inessential to the perceiving consciousness, which engages passively with the object in an attitude of pure apprehension. The chapter on Perception thus analyses the same sort of sensibility that Marx expresses in the opening passages of Capital, which presents the commodity as a thing “outside us” that possesses many sensible material properties that we can discover when we approach the object in a contemplative stance. This empiricist sensibility takes the materiality of the commodity – its use value dimension – to be essential; everything inessential is attributed to the contingent social dimension of exchange value.

For Hegel, the shapes of consciousness associated with Perception prove inadequate as an anchor for the certainty consciousness seeks. This impasse drives consciousness to a new, though still dualistic, shape that Hegel calls Understanding, which takes as its object universals that are unconditioned by sensuous experience.

Marx makes an analogous move in Capital when he shifts from the empiricist perspective with which Capital opens, to the “transcendental” perspective that derives the categories of value and abstract labour. This section of Capital mimics Descartes’ discussion of how we intuit that a piece of wax remains somehow the same, even as it undergoes transformations that fundamentally alter its sensible properties. Descartes infers the existence of a supersensible property, a property not detectable by empirical sense perception, but nevertheless discernible by reason. Marx spoofs this argument when he introduces, ‘behind’ the empirically-perceptible categories of use value and exchange value, the supersensible category of value.

The process of exchange, the text tells us, could not take place unless commodities possessed some common property. This property cannot, however, be a material, sensible property: exchange abstracts away from commodities’ sensible properties and, in any event, the sensible properties of commodities are diverse and there is no single material property that all commodities share. From these reflections, the text “infers” the existence of a supersensible property that is not empirically discernible through the examination of commodities’ sensuous forms, but can be intuited by reason. Marx names this supersensible substance “value”, and then quickly “deduces” that the quantity of value must be measured by the labour time expended in commodity production – and that the labour “counted” in this measurement is “human labour in the abstract”.

Marx intends the reader to be in on the joke here: he does not expect anyone to be persuaded by this “transcendental” argument for the existence of value, or by the subsequent “deduction” of the determination of value by labour time. He is very explicit – even in the first chapter – that he does not believe that exchange requires commodities to share some common supersensible property. This section of the text is instead intended to express a form of thought that becomes socially plausible under capitalism – and that is therefore valid, in a limited and bounded way, for this social context alone. This bounded validity arises because social actors are behaving in a way that brings “value” and “abstract labour” into existence, simply by collectively acting as though such things exist. I’ll return to this point in a moment.

Moving back to Hegel’s Phenomenology: Hegel’s argument in the chapter on Force and Understanding is intricate and, in places, quite obscure. Fortunately, for present purposes we don’t need to grasp the movement of this argument in detail. What is important, is to realise that Marx is spoofing elements of this discussion, in his derivation of the money form. Hegel’s discussion of Force and the Expression of Force thus echoes through Marx’s discussion of Value and the Expression of Value. More importantly, Hegel’s discussion of how Understanding dualistically separates essence and appearance – and then learns to overcome this dualism – is also mimicked in Marx’s text. This particular moment in Marx’s presentation, I suggest, allows him to introduce how he understands his own standpoint of critique. It is therefore particularly important to draw out the parallels with Hegel’s argument.

Hegel’s narrative recounts how Understanding initially separates out essence and appearance into two substances or worlds, which are taken to have opposing qualitative characteristics. The world of essence initially figures as a timeless realm of universal laws that subsists behind the flux of the sensible world of appearance. As Hegel’s narrative develops, this initial understanding of the relationship between essence and appearance comes to be reversed through consciousness’ encounter with what Hegel calls an “inverted world”. In the inverted world, the realm of essence figures as the realm productive of flux and change, while the realm of appearance comes to be seen as generative of timeless laws.

In Hegel, it is the confrontation with the inverted world that drives consciousness finally to recognise that its object does not reside in some separate substance or world outside itself, but is rather consciousness itself. Consciousness comes to recognise its own implicatedness in its object – comes to see that it has, in fact, been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s text, consciousness becomes reflexive – becomes self-consciousness.

Marx traces a similar sort of narrative in his analysis of the genesis of the money form, a narrative that culminates in a series of inversions of the distinctions with which the analysis begins. Significantly, after drawing attention to these inversions, Marx opens the concluding section of the chapter, where he discusses commodity fetishism. Here Marx finally voices explicitly that the forms of thought expressed earlier in the chapter are examples of what he calls fetishised forms of consciousness: forms that are valid for a specific social situation, but which have failed to grasp their own social conditions of possibility, and have therefore naturalised the contingent features of capitalist society.

By breaking into a more explicitly critical voice at this point in the text, Marx hints that, like Hegel, he endorses the position that more adequate forms of consciousness can arise immanently, through the confrontation with the contradictions and “inversions” generated by the reproduction of capital. Marx then structures Capital to draw attention to the ways in which later categories “invert” the conclusions the text had derived from earlier categories. As with Hegel’s argument about the “inverted world”, Marx’s “inversions” are intended, not to suggest that the “inverted” conclusions are “true” and the original conclusions are “false” – this would be to allocate “appearance” and “essence” to separate substances or worlds. Instead, the point is to illustrate that the same social context generates opposing potentials – that the process of the reproduction of capital is contradictory – and therefore that critical reflexivity is generated as an immanent possibility.

At this point, I want to break with the discussion of the parallels between Capital and Hegel’s work, to see if I can begin to use this analysis, to return briefly to the questions with which I opened this paper. One of the pivots of Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism is an argument about the social character of labour in capitalism. Marx claims:

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

Unfortunately, what Marx means by “the peculiar social character” of commodity-producing labour is far from self-evident. Major divergences in the interpretation of Marx’s work arise from different understandings of this claim. What I want to do here is mobilise some of the analysis presented above, to suggest a particular interpretation.

Developing the passage quoted above, Marx argues:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.

Here, the “social character” of the labour that produces commodities, seems to consist in that this labour is undertaken by private individuals – atomised and separated from the social whole. It is clear, however, from a playful discussion of Robinson Crusoe that takes place later in this section, that Marx does not regard private or individual labour, just by dint of being private or individual, as necessarily fetishised.

Another possible meaning of the “social character” of labour in this passage, might be that “social labour” is a simple aggregation of individual labouring activities. This interpretation implies that “social labour” is a conceptual abstraction: add up whatever private individuals empirically do, and you arrive at total social labour, regardless of the subjective isolation of the individuals whose labours are collected into this aggregate.

Through examples earlier in the chapter, however, Marx has already rejected the idea that all labouring activities that are empirically carried out under capitalism get to “count” as part of “social labour” for purposes of the reproduction of capital. The empirically-expended labour, for example, of hand loom weavers operating in the era of the power loom, or producers whose products do not form a use value for sufficient numbers of people, does not fully “count” as part of social labour in capitalism. Marx must intend something else when he talks about the social character of commodity-producing labour.

The “peculiar social character” of commodity-producing labour, I suggest, is the result of a coercive process that culls the efforts empirically expended in production, winnowing down to a smaller subset of labouring activities that get to “count” as part of the labour of society from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital. This winnowing process is manifested by the exchange of goods, which reveals to social actors how much, and what kinds, of the empirical effort privately thrown into production, succeeds in becoming incorporated into “social labour”. Social labour is thus the outcome of the coercive, unintentional, and blind judgement of social actors who are not deliberately attempting to achieve any specific vision, but whose actions nevertheless do collectively reduce empirically-undertaken labouring activities, down to what “counts” as social labour for purposes of the reproduction of capital.

Marx is trying to distance us from this process – to denaturalise it – to get us to see it anthropologically, in its alienness and exoticism. His evocative analogies to supernatural objects and religious beliefs are attempts to recapture the sense of strangeness we lose in taking our own context for granted. Our collective behaviour, he argues, is equivalent to acting as though we believe there is some supersensible world of social labour – “human labour in the abstract”, he has earlier called it – that is not identical with the sum total of the empirical productive activities that we collectively undertake. We create this supersensible world – as a social reality – by making distinctions in our collective practice between forms of productive activity that we treat as partaking in the supersensible essence of abstract labour (such as wage labour), and forms of productive activity that we treat as not partaking in this essence (such as domestic work, volunteer activities, or leisure pursuits), and by treating forms of productive activity as though they possess greater or lesser quantities of abstract labour, through practices that coerce productive activities to conform to socially-average levels of productivity.

As Marx’s argument develops, we learn that the supersensible world haunts our empirical activities – exerting a coercive force on those activities that generates certain lawlike effects, expressed through pressures to transform those activities in order to keep up with an ever-shifting social benchmark for productivity. These effects, which can be traced in non-random transformations of social institutions that unfold over time, allow us eventually to deduce the presence of this otherwise intangible realm. Its presence must be deduced because we are not consciously trying to enact such a social entity, and because this entity does not align directly with the empirical activities we are consciously setting out to conduct: “social labour” is not the sum total of all labouring activities that private individuals empirically carry out; “value” cannot be discerned by examining the physical object that will bear value in the social process of exchange. The supersensible realm constituted in social practice thus possesses a counterfactual character, and its presence is therefore initially easy to miss in the apparently random flux of individual decisions, empirically diverse productive activities, and the ever-fluctuating proportions in which goods exchange.

Hegel somewhere comments that the joke is that things appear as they are. Marx’s argument about the genesis of the fetish follows a similar insight. Marx does not attempt to dismiss the fetish – he does not believe the fetish derives from some sort of cognitive error that can be cast aside by shining the cold light of objectivity on capitalist society. Instead, he sets out to account for the plausibility of fetishised forms of thought. Note his phrasing in the following passage:

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (italics mine)

Marx’s criticism here is not that social actors are operating under an illusion that things have entered into social relations, and persons into material ones, but rather that political economy does not grasp how we have collectively constituted the situation that generates our social relations in these distinctive forms.

Marx suggests that we are collectively enacting a situation that renders it plausible to experience our selves and other entities in our world as material receptacles, onto which socially and historically contingent desires are projected, that partake in a supersensible essence and are governed by supersensible laws. This entire complex structure of experience is social, for Marx – acted out in distinctive forms of social practice that reproduce capital.

This complex structure, however, is prone to being misrecognised, such that only some of its moments are typically grasped as social. This distinctive form of misrecognition does not arise due to a conceptual error, but rather reflects the determinate qualitative characteristics of the social structure itself. Capitalism, for Marx, involves a complex trifurcation of social practice, in which an historical pattern, whose characteristics Marx is only beginning to capture in this first chapter through the categories of value and abstract labour, is reproduced in and through the transformations of material nature and of other concrete social practices and institutions. In such a context, certain dimensions of social practice – those that are contingent with respect to the overarching historical pattern – are relativised in social practice: they become overtly social, and are treated in at least one dimension of social practice as contingent and subject to transformation. Our practical experience of these dimensions of social practice tends to form our intuitive gestalt of “the social”, such that the qualitative characteristics of this dimension of social practice come to be taken as definitive of the social as such. At the same time, the structure itself – the long-term historical pattern reproduced in and through the transformations of “overtly social” institutions and practices – comes plausibly to be perceived as asocial. The qualitative characteristics of this pattern then tend to shape our expectations of the qualitative characteristics we anticipate finding in asocial environments. This distinctive form of misrecognition thus tends simultaneously to naturalise elements of our social practice, to lead to unrecognised projections of the determinate characteristics of capitalist society onto the natural world, and to render us hypersensitive to the contingency of “overtly social” dimensions of social practice.

These are large claims, thrown out very quickly, and in full awareness that I have not adequately developed them here.

Before I close, however, I want to gesture in the direction of how this analysis links up to the questions I asked at the beginning of this piece, about whether capitalism is a negation that destroys social bonds, or whether capitalism can be understood as also constituting some distinctive kind of social bond. The suggestion of the analysis I have unfolded above, is that capitalism does constitute a distinctive form of social bond – but that this bond consists in the complex and multifaceted social connections constituted by our unintentional collective cooperation in reproducing this unusual structure of social experience. One aspect of this complex social bond is that the dimension of social experience that we most intuitively recognise as social, constantly undergoes a process of transformation and is treated as contingent in at least those practices associated with the reproduction of capital. One plausible – but, I suggest, not entirely adequate – articulation of this ongoing transformation, would be to describe it as a process of “social fragmentation”. Such a description, however, plays to the fetish by focussing our attention one-sidedly on the dimension of a more complex process that we most easily recognise as “social”, and failing to thematise the social character of other dimensions of this same process. Thematising the complex historical dynamic of capitalism in terms of “fragmentation” – in terms of the breaking apart of social bonds – grasps one level of social appearance, without fully grasping the equally social “essence” reproduced in and through this flux. Even in and through what we experience as a corrosion of the current configuration of our “overtly social” bonds, we remain bonded – through our unwitting cooperation in reproducing the historical trajectory that is capital.

A famous passage from William Morris reflects on a key paradox confronting social movements that seek emancipatory change:

…men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

I want to suggest that this difficulty that Morris maps out – the trouble we experience in figuring out how to “fight for what we mean” – is, at least in part, related to the complex character of capitalism as I have begun to sketch it above. The question that Marx attempts to address, via Hegel, is how we can stop treating the various dimensions of our social world as though they are formed out of separate substances – material, social, supersensible. If we instead recognise the intrinsically social character of each of these dimensions, the potential for intervening in the reproduction of capital itself is prised open. Marx maintains that capitalism generates “inversions” and contradictions that bring these insights to the surface. The question, then, is how to find and draw attention to such contradictions today.

8 responses to “HSS2008 Paper

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  7. Bis March 1, 2009 at 9:08 am

    “He is very explicit – even in the first chapter – that he does not believe that exchange requires commodities to share some common supersensible property.”

    Hi N we are reading Chapter 1 in our reading group at the moment :-)

    Would you be kind enough to give an example from Chapter 1 of Marx’s explicit rejection of the “transcendental” reduction of exchange value to value and abstract labour?

    Thanks :-)

  8. N Pepperell March 1, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Hi Bis – The passage on Aristotle, in the third section of the chapter, where Marx discusses why Aristotle could not deduce the existence of value – and says that Aristotle couldn’t make this “logical” deduction, because Aristotle’s society lacked a practical experience of equal human labour: this is an argument that rejects the notion that you could deduce the existence of value through the sort of abstract reasoning process that is given voice when the category of value is initially introduced. Here it matters that Marx is talking about Aristotle: the implication is, if it would be possible to deduce the existence of this category through sheer force of intellect, surely Aristotle would have done it; that he didn’t deduce this category indicates the limitations, not of his mind, but of the experiences made readily available in his social environment.

    This passage relativises and locates, historically, the form of argument being voiced in the earlier sections of this chapter, by showing that there are unrecognised historical and social preconditions that help to render certain “logical” deductions more intuitive and thinkable for people living in particular times. The passage also – although this remains more tacit until the later introduction of the category of capital – suggests a difference between the kind of “market exchange” we have now, and the sorts of exchange of goods on markets that have taken place in other historical contexts. It seems intuitive – to us – to think that just the practice of exchanging goods suggests a relation of equality; it wasn’t so intuitive to Aristotle (according to Marx): the suggestion is that more must be involved than the exchange of goods, to provide a practical experience of a relation of equality underlying the process of exchange.

    This particular passage, by the way, is one of the ones where a number of other commentators pick up on the same implication – some of the ways I read the text are… idiosyncratic… ;-) But this particular point is picked up on not infrequently (although not universally).

    There are further suggestions in this direction in the section on commodity fetishism, which speaks about the “post festum” character of our concepts – the way in which we first do, and then think – a qualitative characteristic Marx links to the ontological ambiguity of the category of value (he describes it as a “social hieroglyphic” whose existence needs to be deduced – but this is a very contextual form of deduction of a socially real entity, rather than a decontextualised reflection on the conditions of possibility for any sort of exchange…).

    Hope this helps… Take care…

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