Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Scratchpad: Chapter 1 – The Play’s the Thing

Still effectively offline – apologies again for not being able to respond to comments. Below the fold is the first chapter of the (rather completely different) new revision of the thesis. Although the early sections walk some of the same ground as the recent Goldsmiths talk, there’s a great deal more here than I could fit in there, as well as substantial revisions to incorporate the fantastic suggestions and feedback I received there and at the earlier conference at John Cabot. John – if you’re reading – I had your questions in mind when writing this, as well: although it’s probably a bit much to ask you to read such a long piece, just to get to the sections where I answer what you’ve asked, the payoff is that I almost certainly say things more clearly and more systematically here than I would in the comments – particularly now, with my very limited online time.

And a special thanks to Praxis, who has read and/or listened to multiple iterations of every thought that has made its way into this draft.

The Play’s the Thing

While trying to reconstruct the complex narrative arcs through which Marx unfolds his argument in the first volume of Capital, I happened to run across Kenneth Koch’s poem “One Train May Hide Another”. This poem resonated so strongly with how I had come to interpret Marx’s textual strategy, that its lines immediately became a sort of touchstone for me as I continued to work through Marx’s text. In the first stanza, Koch warns:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line –
Then it is safe to go on reading.

Too many interpretations of Capital, I want to suggest, have failed to wait long enough to look both ways, before crossing the complex intersections of this text. Stepping confidently into their readings after the first lines have passed, interpreters have too often either missed, or been insufficiently attentive to the significance of, the many moments in the text where subsequent lines of argument travel in precisely the opposite direction to the first. This rush to cross the text carries consequences greater than missing the occasional step in its argument. It obscures how comprehensively Capital is committed to confronting its reader, repeatedly and relentlessly, with contradictory and conflictual claims in the course of its own exposition. It overlooks how very strange this textual strategy is, and fails to ask why Marx is so committed to this counter-intuitive style of exposition. In the process, as I attempt to show in this thesis, it occludes the complexity and the distinctiveness of Capital’s standpoint of critique.

In this chapter, I want to begin to show just how difficult to is to tell when it is safe to read Capital, by reconstructing what I take to be the main narrative arc for the opening chapter. To anticipate and foreshadow the argument I make below: my central interpretive claim is that this narrative arc is surprisingly difficult to find. This difficulty arises in the first place because, as I argue below, the first chapter must be understood as a play staged for the reader’s benefit, in which Marx successively brings on stage a series of character actors who perform conflicting interpretations of the central category of the commodity. This play, moreover, is built around a purloined plot – one stolen from the early chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. While this central theatrical conceit is nowhere explicitly declared, the chapter is shot through with subtle gestures that draw the reader’s attention to the artificiality of the performance playing out in the main text, by recurrently destabilising and undermining the claims that are put forward in various moments of this performance. By focussing on these destabilising gestures, and by drawing attention to the voicing and the dramatic structure of the various sections of the chapter, I hope to render plausible the claim that the first chapter of Capital should be read as a comedic restaging of the early chapters from Hegel’s Phenomenology.

Interpreting the chapter in this way has profound effects on how we understand Marx’s relationship to the various claims articulated in this chapter, how we make sense of the argument about commodity fetishism, and even how we understand Marx’s broader method and standpoint of critique. I will explore these effects in some detail below, while also providing a preliminary analysis of why Marx might choose to begin Capital this way – why Marx’s content assumes this peculiar form. I suggest that the form of the first chapter expresses what I take to be a substantive claim about the way in which capitalism itself possesses a theatrical character, due to its constitution of a set of social relations that are peculiarly disembedded from the intersubjective worlds of the human agents who enact them, rendering these agents into social actors in a particularly literal sense – into bearers of economic roles who, to the extent that they step forth onto what Marx often explicitly calls the economic stage, find themselves performing acts and voicing scripts that are in some meaningful sense not reducible to those agents’ personal subject positions, but are instead externalised and collectively-constituted parts that transcend the actors who happen to perform them in any particular production of capital.

Before developing these points and exploring their implications, I need first to render plausible the claim that all is not as it appears in the opening lines of Capital. This argument will require a close reading of a number of passages in this chapter, dwelling initially on some very minor textual gestures that may at first glance seem to be too insignificant to merit the attention I give to them: I ask the reader’s forbearance while I wait to unpack these gestures as a means of discerning whether it is safe to read on.

I. The Phenomenology of Capital

In the opening sentence of Capital, Marx quotes himself; he references his own earlier work: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, appears,” he tells us, “as [self-quotation] ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’” (125). This gesture is peculiar. Having opened the text and set about reading, we had been assuming that we were engaging with Marx’s argument about capital. Only a handful of words in, however, and we are confronted with a curious problem: if we are already reading Marx, then why does the text need to quote him? Has he not been speaking all along? If he has, why does the text not simply restate his position, perhaps footnoting his earlier work if the goal is to mark the origin of the idea being expressed? What is the benefit of intruding into the main text with an explicitly marked quotation of the author’s own earlier writing?

This gesture suggests a distance between the voice expressed in the text, and Marx’s own citable positions. It hints that the voice speaking to us in the opening sentence of Capital is somehow not fully identical to Marx’s voice, such that the intrusion of Marx himself into the text must be explicitly marked in the form of a quotation. Somehow the argument being made in the opening sentence references Marx – Marx’s position is in some sense immanent to the opening declarations about how the wealth of capitalist society “appears” – but, at the same time, the very act of quotation seems to suggest the main text is somehow disjointed from Marx’s views. What the distinction might be between the Marx who is quoted, and the voice otherwise speaking to the reader in the main text, remains at this point quite unclear. How should the reader make sense of this bifurcation, this play within a play or Marx within a Marx, in the opening sentence of Capital? Perhaps – already here, in the first sentence of the work – we have been reading too quickly. Maybe we need to wait and read the next line, to make sure it is safe to go on reading.

A few sentences later, and we stumble across another subtle warning – another trace of multiple lines operating simultaneously in the text. In the main body of the text, we are being told: “The discovery… of the manifold uses of things is the work of history” (125). A footnote provides a citation to Barbon – a quotation that seems to support the claim being made in the main text: “Things have an intrinsick vertue”, Marx quotes, “which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron” (ftnt. 3, p. 125). Reading the next line, however, changes this picture: it turns out that Marx is criticising Barbon here – and, by implication, criticising the position put forward in the main text, which the Barbon citation supports. Barbon speaks of “intrinsick vertue”, and the main text tells us that uses lie latent, waiting the long years until at last we discover them in history. In the footnote, Marx disagrees, arguing, “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had led to the discovery of magnetic polarity”. But what could such a statement mean? How could Marx possibly disagree with the claim that material things have intrinsic properties that humans discover over time? Even more perplexing, given that Marx seems to have such a disagreement, why whisper it in a footnote, while declaiming quite the contrary so prominently in the main text? Who exactly is speaking in the main body of Capital? Why does Marx appear marginalised and bracketed – footnoted and quoted, but nevertheless strangely excluded from the main line of argument in the body of his own text?

This problem only deepens as we continue to move forward, hoping to find the point at which it is safe to go on reading. The opening paragraphs tell us that “first of all” the commodity is an “external object” that satisfies our changeable needs through its own intrinsic material properties (125). Our needs are described as contingent and as varying with time; not, however, the properties of material things that satisfy those needs, which are described as intrinsic to the materiality of those things. We discover material properties – given time and effort – but these properties themselves subsist outside us: they are objects of our contemplation, more essential, more timeless, more stable than we. Use value, bound as it is to material properties, is also more essential: the text describes it as a transhistorical substance of wealth, as contrasted with the more transient and socially specific form of wealth, which in capitalism happens to be exchange value (126). Exchange value is then itself described as a purely relative form – as an expression of the ways in which quantities of commodities may be equated to one another – without a substantive content specific or intrinsic to itself (126).

At this point in the text – if we ignore Marx’s unsettling intrusions and puzzling objections from the sidelines – it looks as though we know what the commodity is: it is a unity of sensible properties, some more essential than others, but all subject to direct empirical investigation by a contemplative consciousness that sets its sense perception working hard to determine the characteristics of the commodity, understood as an object outside consciousness.

Bizarrely, just as we seem to have all this settled, and to be arriving at a decent sense of what the commodity might be, a second voice intrudes – enter stage left – and an argument breaks out (126-131). This new character tells us that the first voice is sadly mistaken: a commodity cannot at all be understood with reference to its sensible properties alone. Rather, the condition of possibility for commodities is something that transcends sensuousness entirely – a supersensible property whose existence can be intuited by reason, but to which our sensory perception remains sadly blind.

This second voice then engages in a virtuoso demonstration of its deductive acumen, dazzling us with a bit of geometry (127), and then walking us through a sort of transcendental deduction of the existence of the supersensible category of value, deriving the determination of value by labour time, and then unpacking the intuition that the labour involved here derives from some strange entity the text calls “human labour in the abstract” (127-131). These supersensible categories are presented as something like transcendental conditions of possibility for commodity exchange – conditions whose existence was invisible from the perspective of the opening voice, which doggedly held fast to what could be perceived directly by the senses, and therefore overlooked these intangible properties that subsist behind the world of sensuous experience.

In this supersensible world, the apparently arbitrary and contingent appearance of exchange value is dispelled. Exchange value, it turns out, does have an intrinsic content – an essence – albeit an intangible essence that cannot be directly perceived by the senses: value (129-131). Moreover, in this supersensible world, the proportions in which commodities exchange no longer appear purely arbitrary and conventional, but rather exhibit lawlike properties: the determination of value by socially necessary labour time emerges as an immanent order behind the apparently random motion of goods that is immediately perceptible to our senses (131).

So have we finally found Marx in this text? Is this second voice – tussling explicitly with the first – Marx’s proper entry onto the main stage of Capital? Here it helps to know that Hegel has staged something like this play before. A comparison of the opening chapter of Capital with the early chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit suggests that Marx is adapting an earlier work – appropriating this plot and turning it to his own ends, rather than staging a fully original production. A quick review of the narrative arc that structures Hegel’s chapters on Perception and Force & Understanding will bring to light important similarities between the drama unfolding in Hegel’s work, and what I suggest is the comedic restaging of Hegel’s plot in the first chapter of Capital.

In these early sections of the Phenomenology, Hegel sets out to show how consciousness seeks certainty of its object, which consciousness initially assumes subsists separately, outside itself. Consciousness assumes a number of different shapes in its attempt to grasp its object, propelled forward into new efforts as each shape proves unstable – unable to offer the certainty consciousness seeks because, in Hegel’s account, this certainty can never be attained so long as consciousness clasps tight to the presupposition that its object subsists in a separate substance or world that is severed from consciousness.

When these sections of the Phenomenology are read against the opening sections of the first chapter of Capital, a number of striking parallels leap out. Hegel traces a shape of consciousness – he calls it Perception – that in one of its configurations takes it object to be a thing outside itself, a collection of sensible properties. Consciousness takes this thing to be more essential than itself, and adopts a contemplative stance toward it, assuming that anything transient or unstable about its perception of this object, derives from the error-prone and ephemeral nature of consciousness itself. In Hegel’s account, Perception fails to achieve the certainty consciousness seeks, and consciousness finds itself driven toward a new shape, which Hegel calls Understanding. Understanding attempts to reach beyond Perception, by taking its object to be supersensible universals. It therefore searches for certain knowledge that transcends the sensible realm but can be intuited by reason. The opening sections of Capital appear to be retracing Hegel’s steps, suggesting that Marx believes there are parallels between the movement Hegel traces out, and the attempts of political economy to work out “where to have” the commodity – to figure out how to grasp the commodity’s ontological status (cf. 138).

This parallel with Hegel’s text suggests that the introduction of the second voice will likely not be the final act of Marx’s production: it is still not safe to read Capital. For Hegel, Understanding also fails to provide a stable resting place for consciousness as it seeks certainty of its object. Understanding does open up for consciousness an appreciation of the lawlike regularities that lie behind the apparent randomness of what can be perceived by the senses. In spite of this useful insight, however, Understanding falls into the error of presupposing that these laws subsist in some separate substance or world that lies behind the flux perceptible to the senses, thus replicating in a new form the separation of consciousness from its object that has plagued Perception. This new shape of consciousness is therefore also unstable, leading in Hegel’s narrative to a restless oscillation through which it finally confronts what Hegel calls an “inverted world”.

Within the Phenomenology, consciousness’ confrontation with the inverted world provides one of the major dramatic pivots of the text. Through this confrontation, consciousness realises that what it had taken to be a realm of flux and appearance is generative of lawlike regularity, and what it had taken to be a realm of law and timeless essence, is generative of flux. In the process, consciousness comes face to face with the instability of the ontological divisions and hierarchies into which it had previously attempted to carve its world. What consciousness had previously taken to be separate substances or worlds, now come, through the confrontation with the inverted world, to be grasped instead as mutually-implicated and interpenetrating moments of the very same dynamic relation. This relation, moreover, implicates consciousness as one of its moments, such that consciousness comes to realise that it can no longer position itself as external to its object, but finally grasps that it has been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s drama, consciousness achieves Self-Consciousness.

This part of Hegel’s narrative, in which Understanding confronts an inverted world and achieves Self-Consciousness, is paralleled in the third section of the first chapter of Capital, in which Marx introduces a third character that argues with the previous two, insisting that the commodity cannot be understood adequately in terms of either its immediately sensible properties or some sort of supersensible “transcendental” essence that subsists “behind” what can be perceived by the senses. Instead, this third voice argues, the commodity must be understood dialectically, as a dynamic relation comprised of mutually-implicating moments (138-163). This section of Capital is rife with references to self-reflexivity, in both footnotes and in the main text, and it mimics particularly closely the concerns of Hegel’s analysis of Force and the Expression of Force, morphing this into an analysis of value and its expression. This “dialectical” voice derives the money form through an analysis it claims would be unattainable from the standpoint of the “empiricist” or “transcendental” perspectives and, in the process, unfolds a series of “inversions” in which moments of the same dynamic relation are shown to be expressed by their opposites – thus demonstrating the intrinsic interconnection and mutual presupposition of aspects of experience that, taken statically, might appear to be antinomically opposed.

It is at this point, after the dialectical voice confronts the reader with the existence of an “inverted world”, that Marx opens the section titled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”. The narrative arc of the first chapter of Capital thus inserts the commodity fetishism discussion at the precise point where Hegel’s Phenomenology draws aside the curtain that has been separating consciousness from its object, to reveal that consciousness has been its own object all along. The section on commodity fetishism steps into the role that, in Hegel’s drama, would be played by consciousness achieving Self-Consciousness.

The dramatic structure of the text seems to hint that we have now found Marx’s voice: that the “empiricist” and “transcendental” characters might not know “where to have it”, but a bit of dialectics has thankfully dispelled this confusion. Here I want to urge caution and to suggest that all is still not as it seems: this text is not yet safe to read; even the “dialectical” analysis will soon be revealed as the performance of another actor on the stage. But before I discuss the reasons for drawing this conclusion, I want to pause for a moment, first to examine more closely some of the implications of the parallels Marx is making with the Phenomenology, and then to undertake a close reading of the important, but murky, argument about commodity fetishism.

The parallels between the first chapter of Capital, and Hegel’s Phenomenology, suggest that the first chapter of Capital must be seen, at least in part, as a metacommentary on Hegel’s earlier work. Like Hegel’s grand drama of how consciousness struggles to attain certainty of its object, in the process gradually transforming its conception of its object, and thereby itself, the first chapter of Capital also stages a struggle over “where to have” an object. In the case of Capital, however, this elusive object is the commodity, and the production takes the form of a burlesque squabble over how to grasp the wealth of capitalist society. Marx is suggesting, through the very structure of the chapter, that what Marx will later call the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” that emerge in Hegel’s narrative, already arise in a much more everyday and indeed crass context, in the course of commodity production and exchange. The most basic, most common, most apparently self-evident object of our economic experience – the commodity – has in this chapter been shown capable of generating great ontological confusion. What is a commodity, this chapter asks? A collection of sensible properties? A transcendental unity that lies behind sensible experience? A dynamic relation with mutually-implicated parts? All of these positions, unfolded originally in the course of Hegel’s high drama, re-emerge here in Capital in a sort of debauched parody of Hegel’s work.

I have suggested above that all of the voices that have been speaking thus far in Capital have been characters – actors Marx has brought on stage to perform for the reader’s edification a particular type of engagement with the commodity, enacting parts that display different perspectives for the reader’s benefit. But what benefit does Marx expect the reader to derive from this comedy? I suggest that he wants to confront the reader with the existence of an inverted world. Not the inverted world displayed by the dialectical character – who does indeed perform various dialectical inversions, but who does so, I suggest, to set the scene and establish its character, much as the “transcendental” character displays a bit of geometrical knowledge for a similar end. I do not mean to suggest that Marx rejects the validity of what can be derived from the dialectical act – I will come back to this point in a moment. I do, though, suggest that Marx conceptualises the entire chapter as a demonstration – by means of a play within a play – of an inverted world that confronts the reader with multiple co-existent, socially-plausible interpretations of even the very basic category of the commodity.

The narrative of this chapter, I suggest, unfolds a bit like the joke about the three blind men, trying to determine what an elephant is by touch. One grabs hold of its ear and proclaims that it is like a giant fan; another latches onto its tail and proclaims that it is like a garden snake; a third grasps its leg and announced that it is like a tree trunk. All of these perspectives are “right” to some degree – they are all saying something valid, so far as it goes, about their object. The problem is that they simply do not realise that their object is a lot larger and more complicated than the part they are touching – and they therefore do not know to ask how their part might possibly relate to other parts.

Marx sees the categories of political economy in something like this way: as grappling hooks that fasten to some aspect of the reproduction of capital; as categories that are, as Marx phrases it, “socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production” (169). He therefore does not attempt to debunk such categories. Rather, his critique proceeds by trying to grasp what these categories cannot: their own social presuppositions or conditions – and therefore their limits and boundaries. Marx does not want to dismiss political economy, but rather to understand what sort of world is required, in order to make political economy a socially plausible sort of theory. By examining the social presuppositions of political economic categories, Marx intends, so to speak, to reverse engineer the production of capital. Having thus reconstructed how capital is produced, Marx then intends to analyse how this production could be adapted, to generate a form of collective life that transcends the limitations of the original production.

At this point, I want to turn from this analysis of the overarching structure of the first chapter, to a much more fine-grained analysis of the discussion on commodity fetishism. The preceding discussion should make it a bit easier to grasp the strategic intention of moments of the commodity fetishism discussion that are often overlooked or interpreted away, because the commodity fetishism discussion is too often read in light of preceding passages, in circumstances in which the “theatrical” character of those passages has not been understood, and the earlier sections of the text are therefore read “straight”, and thus interpreted as simple declarations of the theoretical claims of this text.

II. Turning the Tables

Marx begins his discussion of commodity fetishism:

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing (163).

This sentence, I suggest, is intended to refer back to the opening paragraphs. In those paragraphs, the first character – an “empiricist” character – literally takes the commodity “at first sight”, equates the commodity with its empirically sensible properties, and therefore views the commodity as “an extremely obvious, trivial thing”.

In the next line, Marx encompasses the “transcendental” and “dialectical” characters, saying:

But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties (163).

At this point, even absent the clues we have derived from reading Marx’s text against the narrative arc of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Marx has explicitly tipped his hand in relation to the textual strategy in play in the earlier sections of the chapter. Marx expects the reader – certainly by this point, if not before – to be in on the joke being played in the earlier sections of this chapter – a joke that consisted of Marx’s allowing several character actors to come on stage, elbowing one another aside while solemnly performing their own conflictual interpretations of the commodity. He says directly here that the transcendental and dialectical analyses attribute metaphysical and theological properties to the commodity – a flag that Marx does not fully identify with the interpretations enacted in these earlier sections: the strategic concerns of the commodity fetishism discussion suggest that, from the standpoint of this section, the earlier acts appear too exclusively concerned with how to interpret the commodity – how to articulate a theoretical perspective adequate to express the commodity’s metaphysical and theological characteristics – while leaving aside the question that most preoccupies this section, which is not how to interpret the commodity, but rather how to change it.

To begin to address this new question, Marx moves to the evocative passage about the dancing table:

So far as it is use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. 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 if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

The mystical character of the commodity therefore does not derive from its use value. (163-164)

The point of this passage would seem to be very clear: use value, Marx tells us, has nothing to do with what he will call the fetish. Since we have earlier been told that the commodity is a unity of use value and exchange value, it is easy to leap here to the conclusion that Marx’s point is to argue that, if the use value dimension of the commodity does not account for the fetish, then the other dimension of the commodity – the exchange value dimension – must, by process of elimination, account for the phenomenon. This is a very common interpretation of the passage, but are we certain that it is safe to read the text this way? Perhaps we need to read the next line and see.

Interestingly, the next line, in an exact parallel to the preceding discussion of use value, tells us:

Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determinants of value (164).

What is Marx saying here? Commodity fetishism does not arise from use value – that much is clear. But apparently fetishism also does not arise from the determining factors of value. None of the component moments of the commodity would appear, on this analysis, to account for commodity fetishism. If none of the components of the commodity explain the fetish, then what does explain it, in Marx’s account? The answer, as Marx goes on to tell us, is that the commodity form itself explains the fetish – not the component parts of the commodity form, whether those parts are situated in its use value or its value dimension, but instead the historically distinctive combination of these particular parts, into this specific form. Marx expresses this point in the following way:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly, it arises from this form itself (164).

In more contemporary terms, Marx is making an argument here about emergence. He is arguing that an overarching relation or assemblage has come to possess distinctive qualitative characteristics that cannot be found in any of its component parts. He is claiming that, if you could abstract use value from the commodity relation, nothing about it would render “socially valid” the sorts of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” expressed in the interpretations Marx has brought on stage earlier in this chapter. If you could abstract the determinants of value from the commodity relation, those parts would not account for such interpretations either. Only the aggregate effect of combining these parts, into this whole, accounts for the fetish.

This point is the one Marx elaborates toward the end of this chapter, where he provides a quick series of examples – from the hypothetical consideration of Robinson Crusoe on his island, to the historical examples of personal relations of domination in the middle ages and in peasant households, to the speculative analysis of a society of freely assembled producers. These examples are each designed to reassemble for the reader the various parts that are also found in the commodity-form, but in circumstances in which that form itself has been subtracted, and these parts therefore exist in other relations. As Marx phrases it:

The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production.

In looking at other forms of production, Marx’s goal is to demonstrate, not that the alternative social relations he describes are desirable, but rather that the parts of the commodity-form, when these parts are found within other relations, are not fetishised – they are, in Marx’s terminology, “intelligible” – they no longer exhibit the metaphysical and theological properties that they possess within the commodity relation.

Marx’s aim here is therefore not to position these metaphysical and theological properties of the commodity as illusions, nor to criticise the character actors from the early sections of the chapter for falling into some sort of naïve conceptual error. Rather, his point is to establish the need to grasp the practical conditions that are required for these metaphysical and theological properties to be (socially) real – and thereby to establish that these properties, tied as they are to determinate social conditions, can be transcended once those conditions have been overcome. While the metaphysical and theological properties that pertain to the fetish are (socially) real, various interpretations of the commodity that express the existence of these fetishised properties can still be criticised – both on the grounds of how adequate those interpretations are to the phenomenon they express, and on the basis that such interpretations overlook the social conditions on which such fetishised properties depend. In this section, Marx is particularly concerned with the second problem – with approaches that overlook the practical basis for the fetish character of the commodity-form. Unless this practical basis is kept clearly in view, properties that are generated by the commodity relation can be confused for intrinsic properties that necessarily inhere in that relation’s component parts. This confusion undermines the ability to identify practical potentials for transformation and critique.

From this standpoint, Marx’s criticism of Barbon in the footnote I discussed earlier in this chapter begins to make a bit more sense. Marx is suggesting that Barbon is attributing to a material object – a loadstone – a qualitative property that this object only comes to exhibit once the object becomes embedded in a very specific sort of interaction with humans. Marx is pointing here to the fundamentally asymmetrical character of the form of analysis involved in Barbon’s statement, which positions consciousness as a contemplative, and therefore passive, factor that discovers intrinsic properties that are taken to have always existed, also passively, in some object that subsists outside consciousness. This form of analysis, for Marx, risks naturalising the qualitative characteristics of both the object and consciousness, by failing to grasp how particular qualitative characteristics come to be enacted only in a specific form of interaction. Marx’s hint – not voiced explicitly in the footnote, but discernible if the criticism of Barbon is read in light of the argument about commodity fetishism – is that a better formulation would be a relational one – one that recognises the ways in which a specific sort of interaction is generative of determinate properties in objects and in consciousness itself.

Such a formulation permits both the “subjective” and “objective” moments of the interaction to come equally into the frame of the analysis – in Hegelian terms, it recognises that transformations of consciousness and its object mutually implicate one another. For Marx, such an analysis is valuable for how it opens up the possibility for an explicit consideration that the moments of a particular relation might not express the same characteristics, if those moments were connected through some other sort of interaction: relational formulations open up the possibility for a critique of the whole from the standpoint of the potentials of the disaggregable parts.

In the section on commodity fetishism, Marx is thus beginning to hint, very very subtly, at how he conceives his own critical standpoint. He is suggesting that the strange, layered, conflictual presentation of his text is meant to express an equally strange, layered, conflictual quality of our social world – in which an overarching social relation supervenes on its component parts, conferring qualitative characteristics that would not inhere in those parts, if the parts could be reconfigured into some other sort of relation. The method of Capital therefore consists in breaking an overarching relation – the process of the production of capital – down into its constitutive parts, and then painstakingly trying to prise apart and differentiate the qualitative characteristics and potentials those parts possess because they subsist in this particular relation, from other qualitative characteristics and potentials those parts might possess, if appropriated and reassembled into a different whole.

While I reserve a detailed discussion of Hegel’s Science of Logic for chapter 3, it may be worth briefly anticipating that argument, and suggesting that Marx’s method as I have sketched it above can be seen both as an appropriation and an “inversion” of Hegel’s approach. In the Logic, Hegel painstakingly demonstrates that a relation binds together phenomena that might appear disconnected to everyday consciousness, Perception, or Understanding. Hegel understands the key critical move to consist in the speculative demonstration of the existence of the underlying relation, which Hegel sees as a means of bringing to light an implicate order that reveals the rationality immanent within what might otherwise appear to be random phenomena. Hegel views this speculative move as a critical one, because he sees the existence of this immanent order as an expression of the self-realisation of reason and freedom in history.

Marx will also painstakingly trace out the relation that effects the production of capital, mapping the connections between the apparently disconnected parts that comprise this relation. Marx does not, however, regard the continued production of this relation as a positive thing – as an expression of reason or freedom or the self-realisation of emancipatory possibilities. Instead, Marx positions the overarching relation as a form of domination that supervenes on its component moments, suppressing the alternative lines of flight that might otherwise emerge if the relation itself could be suspended. For Marx, the key speculative move consists, not so much in the attempt to determine how the parts fit into the overarching relation (although this is also a necessary step in Marx’s analysis), but rather in the effort to work out what might be done with the parts, if they could be extracted from this whole.

To effect this speculative dimension of his critique, Marx deploys a number of strategies: he undertakes historical analyses of the properties particular parts have exhibited in other social contexts; he draws close attention to the ambivalent and conflictual properties that particular parts exhibit even now, within the process of the reproduction of capital; and he performs various sorts of hypothetical analyses of the potentials that lie, unexpressed, in particular parts. He carries out, in other words, analyses similar to those he offers toward the end of the first chapter, where he abstracts the component parts of the commodity relation from that relation itself, in order to explore what the properties of those parts might be in various hypothetical and historical configurations. Through this process of abstraction from the commodity relation, Marx seeks to render plausible his claim that the commodity form itself, rather than any of its components, is generative of the fetish. This speculative method is reminiscent of the Benjaminian notion of blasting elements out of the historical continuum: it relies on the notion that component parts can be appropriated from an existing relation, and reconfigured into radically different sorts of wholes. These new wholes would then have characteristics distinct from the forms from which the parts had been seized, because placing parts into a new relation would unlock fundamentally different potentials in those parts themselves.

Moving back to the section on commodity fetishism: I want to unpack a bit more carefully the specific claims Marx makes about the distinctive qualitative characteristics that he attributes to the overarching relation of the commodity form. Right after telling us that the metaphysical and theological character of the commodity derives, not from its parts, but from the relation into which those parts are suspended, Marx moves into a dense series of paragraphs that culminate in the naming of the fetish. Because the strategic intention of these paragraphs is so difficult to parse, I will quote and analyse this section in full. Marx first offers the analysis that:

The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration, takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour; and finally the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labours are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour (164).

These sentences are very compressed and difficult to unpack. What Marx wants to do here is to talk about the distinctive social characteristics that pick out the social specificity of commodity-producing labour. He talks about these social characteristics from two perspectives: the perspective of content, and the perspective of form. At the level of content, he argues, commodity-producing labour is distinguished by the following social characteristics:

  1. the different kinds of human labour are all treated (in at least one dimension of social practice) as equal to one another;
  2. the expenditure of human labour power – the amount of human effort that gets to “count” as part of social labour – is measured by its duration; and
  3. this duration does not reflect the actual amount of time empirically spent in production, but rather reflects a socially average duration, based on socially average conditions of production.

It is not simply these contents, however, that mark out commodity-producing labour as socially distinct. Commodity-producing labour is also distinguished by the unusual form in which these contents are socially expressed. Specifically, these contents are not enacted through some sort of intersubjective process whereby social agents have, for example, a long-standing cultural tradition, custom, or explicit legal act that maintains that all kinds of human labour are equal and that the expenditure of labour power must be measured by the socially-average duration that would be required under normal conditions to produce particular goods. Instead, these contents take the form of various properties that in collective practice are attributed to the material goods that social agents produce and exchange. This distinctive form means, first, that these social characteristics of labour arise as unintentional side effects of practices that are not intended to assert or bring these specific contents into being. The unintentional way in which these social characteristics of labour are generated, means that these social characteristics arise in a distinctively non-intersubjective way and, as a result, social agents are not initially even aware that these contents exist. The social characteristics of their own practices are instead a latent content that emerges unintentionally as social agents set about achieving entirely other ends. This latent content then eventually comes to be discovered by social agents – but, because this content is expressed in the form of a relation that social agents established among themselves, through the mediation of material goods, this discovery appears to reflect a sort of latent social content of material things, rather than a contingent result of a very unusual form of social practice. This attribution of social characteristics to material things is an accurate understanding of the qualitative characteristics conferred on material objects in this specific social context. Marx therefore argues, in the following paragraph:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time supersensible or social (164-165).

A social relation, mediated by a particular sort of interaction with objects, and existing separately from overtly social, intersubjective, relations among the producers, is therefore central to the commodity-form. The metaphysical and theological properties of the commodity are social properties that reflect the qualitative characteristics of this relation – properties that really do exist, and which genuinely are independent and objective – but only within this very specific social configuration. Yet the distinctive qualitative form in which the social characteristics are expressed – the fact that these social characteristics are unintentional and do not arise through any intersubjective process, and the fact that these social characteristics take the form of social relations established between objects – can make it very difficult for social agents to discern the contingent practical basis for the social characteristics of commodity producing labour. Where this practical basis is not grasped, the qualitative properties that arise from this very distinctive form of social relation, can be misrecognised as properties that are objective in a very different sense – objective in the sense of inhering in the timeless and essential materiality of the things that mediate the social relation. The risk of this specific sort of misrecognition is not a random conceptual error, but is rather built into the form of the social relation itself, arising from the unintentional and non-intersubjective origins of these social characteristics, and from the way in these characteristics are expressed only in the form of a particular sort of interaction with material objects.

Marx struggles to develop these points in the following passage, in which he runs through a series of analogies, trying to make the nature of his argument more familiar or intuitive to his readers. He first reaches for an analogy from the natural sciences, focussing on the way in which qualitative characteristics that emerge within a specific physical relation, come to be perceived, not as a result of that relation, but rather as the intrinsic properties of an objective, independently subsistent thing:

In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye (165).

Marx’s argument here is similar to the one that motivated his quarrel with Barbon: he is reaching for an analogy – one that he hopes will be more familiar to his readers than the argument he is making about commodities – that suggests how the particular qualitative properties that arise only in the course of a rather specific interaction or relation, come to be taken for something “objective” that subsists outside the relation. This analogy does not quite satisfy Marx, as this particular relation does not arise due to human practices, and the analogy therefore suggests no potential for transformative human agency. Marx therefore dismisses it:

In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. (165)

Marx next reaches for an analogy more closely bound to human practices – one that makes clearer that human action could exert a transformative force. It is in this context that he discusses the example of religion:

In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. (165)

What Marx wants to highlight here is that religion posits the existence of intangible entities – entities that Marx regards, and expects his readers to regard, as the products of human practice, but which the social actors in question treat as “autonomous figures”. He has in mind the similarity between religious belief in supernatural beings, and the positing of the intangible entities of value and abstract labour that were enacted earlier in this chapter.

This similarity, however, cannot elide a central and, for Marx, crucial difference relating to how intangible entities are posited in each case. Religious practice, Marx suggests, posits intangible entities that are the “products of the human brain” – enacted through intersubjective processes like shared beliefs and ritual practices explicitly oriented to interacting with these intangible beings. Religious actors are thus intersubjectively aware that they are positing the existence of intangible entities, even if they regard these entities as “autonomous figures” that do not originate in their own practices.

The intangible entities of value and abstract labour are enacted in a different way. According to Marx, these intangible entities are not products of the “human brain”; social agents do not have to believe in their existence, nor orient their practices explicitly to interact with such entities. Instead, social agents somehow accidentally or unintentionally generate such entities, by engaging in actions that have other sorts of intersubjective motivations – specifically, by engaging in commodity production and exchange. Marx expresses this point by saying that, just as in religious practice social agents create intangible entities as the products of their brains:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (165)

Through these two analogies, Marx has therefore set up a contrast. He has distinguished the phenomenon that interests him, from two apparently similar phenomena: physical relations that are genuinely impersonal in origin and which mediate interactions between humans and natural phenomena; and intersubjective relations that are overtly social in origin and which mediate interactions between humans and their own ideational creations. The phenomenon that interests Marx is neither genuinely nonsocial, nor is it intersubjective in its origins: it is instead a phenomenon that arises from human practice, and is therefore social but, at the same time, it is a very peculiar sort of social phenomenon – one that is disembedded from intersubjective frameworks, and that therefore confronts the social actors who create it as though it were an autonomous entity. It is at this moment in the text, having run through these analogies, first to genuinely autonomous physical relations, and then to social relations effected through intersubjective processes like collectively-shared structures of belief, and having distinguished the phenomenon that interests him from both of these near-equivalents, that Marx finally names the fetish:

I call this the fetishism of commodities which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (165)

Marx then abruptly asserts that he has already shown why the fetish arises:

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them. (165)

Marx believes that he has “already demonstrated” the peculiar social character of commodity-producing labour in the couple of very condensed paragraphs I have unpacked above. He therefore does not dwell on this point, but instead moves into a discussion of some of the practical presuppositions that are required in order for labour to assume this distinctive social form. It is in this context that he mentions that a precondition for commodity-producing labour is that production take place as the act of private individuals whose aggregate efforts then comprise the sum total of social labour. It is easy to hear this passage as a specification of what Marx means by the “peculiar social character of the labour” that produces commodities, and therefore to conclude that Marx is arguing that commodity-producing labour is peculiar because it is the labour of private individuals, or that he is understanding “social labour” as a sort of conceptual abstraction that arises from grouping together the results of all of these private labours, taken on independently. Reading on in the passage makes clear that he has something else in mind: his concern here is to draw attention to how it is not automatic that labouring activities empirically undertaken by private individuals, should succeed in being “counted” as part of “social labour”. Instead, another process intrudes in between the labours empirically undertaken, and the social determination of which labouring activities get to “count” as part of “social labour”: the process of exchange. In this process, producers learn, indirectly, whether their individual labours will – in Marx’s terms – succeed in “manifesting” themselves “as an element of the total labour of society”. They learn this by seeing the proportions in which the products of their labours exchange with the products of the labours of other producers. Marx argues that the social agents engaged in the process of exchange rightly perceive the fetishised character of their relations to one another:

To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things. (185-186, emphasis mine)

The fetish-character of the social relation established between individual labours is therefore not an illusion – social relations “appear as what they are” – and yet the tone of this section still suggests that this fetish-character is nevertheless the target of Marx’s critique. In the next section, I look more closely at how Marx understands wields his analysis of the fetish in order to criticise other sorts of interpretations of the commodity-form, first by pausing to unpack some of the implications that Marx does not spell out directly in his very condensed discussion of the “peculiar social character” of commodity-producing labour, and then by moving back into the text to examine how Marx analyses the relationship between the fetish character of the commodity, and the structural risks of certain forms of misrecognition that operate to obscure possibilities for emancipatory transformation.
III. The Social Hieroglyphic

In the analysis of the commodity fetishism passage above, I drew particular attention to Marx’s argument that the “peculiar social character” of commodity-producing labour consists in the fact that the “social characteristics of men’s labour” are not expressed directly in some intersubjectively-enacted form, but rather form a sort of latent content, enacted unintentionally, whose characteristics must subsequently be deduced by the very social agents whose practices bring this content into being. Here I want to explore some of the implications of this phenomenon, in particular in order to draw out some of the implications of Marx’s suggestion that there is some parallel between the intangible entities posited by religious practices, and the intangible entities expressed by the categories of value and abstract labour.

I have mentioned above that Marx draws attention to the uncertainty over whether individual labours will be about to “manifest themselves” as part of “the sum total of the labour of society”. This gap, between the labouring activities that social agents empirically do, and the labour that gets to “count” as part of “social labour”, positions “social labour” as an “intangible entity” – an externalised, disembedded, intangible form of “labour” that somehow subsists independently from the various tangible, sensible labouring activities that social agents empirically do. Social agents enact this supersensible entity by collectively behaving as though it exists – and they do this, without being aware that they do it, by effecting a particular sort of coercive social relation with one another, via the mediation of “the products of their hands”. Marx expresses this point:

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. (166-167)

In a context in which the “social characteristics of labour” were established through intersubjective processes – customs, traditions, laws, etc. – the equality of all kinds of human labour, and the measurement of the expenditure of human labour by socially-average labour time, would be an explicitly-intended orientation of social practices. In such a circumstance, as Marx suggests in the quote above, social agents might be intersubjectively motivated to “bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects as material integuments of homogeneous human labour”. Commodity-producing labour does not, however, rely on such an intersubjective consensus concerning the equality of the kinds of human labour as values. Instead, social agents engage in the practice of commodity production and exchange – and, as an unintentional side effect or aggregate result of their practices, end up treating all kinds of human labour as equal (in this one dimension of social practice, at least). Categories like value and abstract labour do not, for Marx, express intersubjectively-held beliefs, nor are they the explicit objects of deliberate collective practices. Instead, the intangible entities of value and abstract labour emerge unintentionally, as social agents pursue the sorts of actions required for their personal and collective material reproduction within a very peculiar social environment. What Marx then tries to do is to understand the consequences – in his terms, as these are “reflected in the brains” of the social agents who participate in this process – of the fact that commodity producing labour has these specific social characteristics (the equality of all kinds of human labour, the determination of social labour by socially average labour time, etc.), and of the fact that these social characteristics come to be enacted in collective practice in such a strange, indirect, unintentional way.

What Marx is trying to do here, is to cast an anthropologist’s gaze on an implicit logic of social practice that indigenous inhabitants of capitalist society take so much for granted that it is difficult for us to appreciate the extent to which this logic pervades our habits of embodiment and perception, practice and thought. In a very preliminary way in this chapter, Marx has begun to suggest that there are strange consequences to the actions we undertake in order to survive in a context in which empirical labouring activities are undertaken speculatively – without certain knowledge of whether those activities will ultimately be allowed to count as part of “social labour”. Marx is arguing that the practice of producing commodities for exchange in a capitalist context introduces a practical disjoint between empirical efforts expended in production, and the degree to which those efforts will be socially recognised once the products of labour are exchanged.

Marx is suggesting that generalised commodity production and exchange involves the collective enactment of a nonconscious social judgement that determines which empirical activities get to “count” as part of “social labour”. This practical distinction between empirical labours undertaken, and labours whose products “succeed”, relative to the products of other labours, in the process of exchange, enlists social agents – wittingly or no – in behaving as though there exists an intangible entity, “social labour”, that is practically distinct from the aggregate of empirical labouring activities that social agents undertake. In such a context, “social labour” becomes something like a special status externally bestowed by a sort of combined collective action of society on an elect of labouring activities after the fact, once empirical production is long complete.

There is no way for social agents deduce in advance, through the examination of the labour process or the goods produced, which sorts of activities will succeed in gaining inclusion as part of “social labour”. Some empirical labouring activities may discover, through the process of exchange, that, from a social perspective, they were no labour at all; some labouring activities may find themselves fully recognised, or recognised in some fractional part; some labouring activities will discover that they possess vastly more “social labour” than their empirical labour inputs would ever have led anyone to suspect. “Social labour” is thus a sort of intangible property, unrelated to the tangible, sensuous character of empirical labours, whose presence only becomes physically manifest in the process of exchange, in which products reveal, in the bodies of the other products with which they exchange, how much of the labours that created them will be allowed by the total action of society to participate in “social labour”.

“Social labour” is therefore in practice utterly distinct from the empirical labouring activities that producers undertake. In the vocabulary of this chapter, it is a “supersensible sensible” entity – something whose composition remains inscrutable at any given moment in time, because the category is fundamentally unintentional and retroactive. “Social labour” is always a category that will have been – a category perpetually out of sync with any given moment in time, a category constituted by the mutual coercion social agents exert collectively and unintentionally on one another, driving modifications in the social division of labour, and compelling the spread of socially average conditions of production. The result of this unintentional, collective coercion is the reduction of empirical labouring activities down to those that get to “count” as part of “social labour” – the culling of the labouring activities social agents actually do, down to “the proportions in which society has need of them”. This result is what was captured by the earlier interpretations of the categories of abstract labour and value: abstract labour and value become “socially valid”, in Marx’s account, because these categories express the unintended coercive consequences of the blind action of society as a whole on its individual members, in the process of commodity production and exchange.

So what are the coercive consequences of the process that reduces empirical labours down to “social labour”? Why is it useful to say that the “labour theory of value”, or the determination of value by labour time, or the concept of “human labour in the abstract”, are socially valid categories for what Marx is attempting to grasp? At this very early moment in the text, this argument is still somewhat cryptic, waiting for Marx to derive other categories that will allow him to say more, and to speak more explicitly, than is possible based on the categories available in this opening chapter. To anticipate the argument to come, I would suggest that he is trying to grasp the strange way in which capitalist history pivots around the constant displacement of labour in old shapes, and the reconstitution of labour in ever new forms. Marx is trying to capture the contradictory dynamics that tend, on the one hand, to drive increases in productivity and thus to decrease the need for the expenditure of human labour in some existing forms while, on the other hand, to propel the creation of new forms of production and consumption that reconstitute the need for human labour in new forms.

The key question expressed through Marx’s version of the labour theory of value is therefore, strictly speaking, more anthropological than political economic. Marx’s question reads something like: why is it, exactly, that capitalist society values human labour so much? On its face, the continued importance of human labour within capitalism seems paradoxical and even somewhat absurd: like no previous form of material production, capitalism is characterised by a hypertrophic development of science, technology, and organisational capacity that renders humans increasingly irrelevant as a motive force of material production. And yet there is some sense in which human labour remains structurally important nevertheless: we know this because, as labour is phased out in old forms, it is perpetually recreated in new – human labour spills out of agriculture, only to be soaked up in manufacturing – ejected from manufacturing, it is engulfed into service industries, etc. Even as material wealth continues to increase, the centrality of human labour to the production of capital continues to assert itself, as if it were an everlasting natural necessity. These sorts of long-term and contradictory historical dynamics point to human labour as some sort of strange attractor around which capitalist history walks. When Marx insists that value is central to the wealth of capitalist society, and that value is determined by socially average human labour time alone, it is this sort of problem he is trying to pick out.

At this point in the text, however, this problem cannot yet be clearly expressed, and so Marx draws from political economic interpretations the symptomatic enactments and traces of the phenomena he intends to analyse. Small examples along the way – like that of the fate of the hand loom weavers after the introduction of the power loom – suggest something of the nature of the overarching problem. A great deal of work remains to be done, however, before Marx will express more openly what the initial categories of the text are intended to grasp. This presentational strategy has the effect of divorcing the opening categories from the problem they are intended to solve, thus making the categories look quite arbitrary. In chapter 3, when I take up Marx’s relation to Hegel’s Science of Logic in greater detail, I analyse why Marx believes he needs to unfold his text in this peculiar way. For present purposes, I simply want to mark – once again – that all is not as it seems, and that the structure of this text involves a series of gradual reveals that will continue to react back on how we understand the implications of the categories introduced in this opening chapter as we gain a more nuanced appreciation for the problem that drives this text.

Moving back into the discussion of commodity fetishism, I want to pause over one further implication of Marx’s analysis of the “peculiar character” of commodity-producing labour. The unintentional and non-intersubjective character of the process through which empirical labouring activities are reduced to “social labour” leads, in Marx’s account, to a strange situation in which social agents must later deduce the existence of the intangible entities that derive from their own collective practice. Unlike in religious practice, where agents are aware of the intangible beings at the centre of their cult, agents engaged in commodity production and exchange only gradually become aware, after the fact, of the lawlike patterns their collective practice enacts. Scientific analysis is required in order to discern the existence of value and abstract labour as a sort of emergent pattern arising in and through the flux of the ever-changing proportions in which goods exchange. It is for this reason that Marx describes value as a “social hieroglyphic” – social in the sense of being a product of human practice, but a hieroglyphic that must be deciphered because it confronts its own producers as an unknown and mysterious alien force:

Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product into a social hieroglyphic. (167)

Significantly, the translation of the social hieroglyphic – the discovery of the law of value operating behind the flux of the exchange of goods – does nothing, in Marx’s account, to dispell the fetish. The fetish cannot be analysed away, because it is does not arise from a conceptual error or perceptual illusion, but rather from the real – if socially contingent – characteristics of a determinate sort of social relation:

Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product; for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as their language. The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objecitivity possessed by the social characteristics of labour. (167)

Marx understands his work as a critique of political economy, not because he sets out to convict political economy of bad thinking, but rather because he seeks to grasp the contingency of the social conditions that render political economy valid. The problem, Marx argues, is not with interpretations that express the fetish character of how things currently are, but rather with the tendency to hypostatise this fetish character, treating it as an essential and intrinsic characteristic of material or social life. As Marx complains:

Something which is valid only for this particular form of production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that the special social character of private labours carried on independently of each other consists in their equality as human labour, and, in the product, assumes the form of the existence of value, appears to those caught up in the relations of commodity production (and this is true both before and after the above mentioned scientific discovery) to be just as ultimately valid as the fact that the scientific dissection of the air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration. (167)

Some economists, Marx argues, are “misled by the Fetishism inherent in commodities” – by what Marx calls the “objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour” – into confused and partial conceptions of the problems they are trying to address, while political economy as a whole fails to ask the question of why the social characteristics of labour should appear in this peculiar qualitative form:

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself. (173-175)

It is this question – concerning the distinctive forms the social relation that effects the production of capital – that the section on commodity fetishism attempts to pose. Political economy has, in Marx’s opinion, successfully unearthed the content beneath these forms – itself not an easy task, given the hieroglyphic nature of the forms of capitalist production: political economy has discovered the equality of the various kinds of human labour, and their measurement by socially-average labour time. In undertaking this task, political economy has not managed to escape from the ambit of Understanding – it commits Understanding’ fundamental mistake of wanting to distinguish what is regarded as the essential content – the supersensible universal – from the forms in which that content is expressed, which are treated as inessential contingencies. As a result, political economy treats the forms as mere appearances to be looked through, in order to get at the essence that is understood to be lurking behind these appearances. As a result, the forms are never examined as a content in their own right, while the social and historical specificity of the content is also overlooked. The necessary connection between form and content, their mutual implication in a dynamic social relation, is therefore never grasped.

Throughout this section, Marx constantly connects various contents back to their forms: the equality of human labours takes the form of the products being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power takes the form of the quantity of value in the product; the mutual relations of the producers takes the form of a social relation between products, etc. Through these gestures, Marx is trying to bring the form into the frame of analysis as itself as substantive content – as something to look at, rather than look through. He is suggesting a necessary relationship between the contents and the forms of capitalist production – in contrast to the contingent relationship suggested by both the empiricist and transcendental actors, who fill the roles of Hegel’s Perception and Understanding, as shapes of consciousness that want to carve up their experience into essential and inessential moments. Marx’s dialectical gesture is to want to develop a form of analysis that can capture the essential character of both the form and its content, by situating form and content as moments of an overarching dynamic relation.

At the same time, Marx’s analysis cannot rest where Hegel’s dialectic might be content: as a critical theorist, seeking to overcome the situation he has described as a “social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man”, Marx must construct a form of analysis that shows the necessary relationship of the contents and forms of capitalist production – while at the same time convicting this form of production itself of non-necessity. He must adapt Hegel’s dialectics to a very different end, walking a complex line that captures the necessary relationship of a particular content to a particular form within the process of the production of capital while, at the same time, arguing that capital itself need not continue to be produced. Marx must, in the words of the 18th Brumaire, somehow make the case that “the content goes beyond the phrase” – that the component moments of the commodity can be blasted out of that relation, to provide the raw materials with which social agents can construct some very different kind of whole.

Both of these steps, for Marx, are missing from political economy. Caught at the level of Understanding, and therefore committed to separating content and form into separate substances or worlds, political economy fails to grasp the necessary connections between the various moments of the commodity relation, and it also fails to grasp the non-necessity of that relation as a whole. It reads the qualitative characteristics of the relation off onto the parts, and thereby concludes that the parts are, essentially and intrinsically, as they present themselves in the production of capital. Political economy thereby positions capitalism as the form of production in which the immanent potentials of all its component parts, have realised themselves historically. In this respect, political economy behaves, Marx complains, “in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions” (175), adding in a citation to his own earlier work:

The economists have a singular way of proceeding. For them, there are two kinds of institutions, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God… Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any. (ftnt 35, p.175)

This criticism of political economy is also a declaration of standards that Capital itself must meet. Any alternative to capitalism cannot be the “natural” society, any more than capitalism itself has been. This alternative will need to be produced, as Marx believes all human societies have been produced, from the raw materials made available by the society that precedes them. Marx’s own em>production of capital – his re-enactment, in the work Capital, of the social relation by which capital is produced – must have as its object more than just the staging of a faithful dialectical reproduction in thought of the necessity that binds together the various moments of the capital relation. It must also show how the production of capital constantly generates and reproduces parts that could be adapted to create very different forms of collective life. Capital is Marx’s own speculative adaptation of the production of capital – a performance designed to draw attention to how the current economic stage, actors, roles, and scripts provide the raw materials for a very different sort of production. The fetish character of the original production obscures the potential for such an adaptation: by accounting for the origins of the fetish in the commodity relation, Marx is attempting to make it easier for us to see the creative possibilities of the existing parts.

IV. If Commodities Could Speak

The narrative structure of this chapter, as I have outlined it above, parodies Hegel’s story of how consciousness, striving for certainty of its object, finally attains self-consciousness once it realises that it has been its own object all along. At the climactic point where Hegel strips away the curtain that has veiled the object from consciousness, to reveal consciousness itself on both sides of the veil, the first chapter of Capital inserts the discussion of commodity fetishism. This narrative structure could easily be read as implying that the dramatic movement of the first chapter of Capital progresses from artifice to reality, from fetish to self-consciousness, from ephemeral performance to the solidity and certainty of the real world. On such reading, the fetish would be a sort of illusion that has been cast aside by the clarifying analysis offered in the final section of the chapter.

Yet, as we have discussed above, the commodity fetishism section itself destabilises this sort of reading, suggesting that the fetish is “socially valid” so long as its social conditions are maintained. Interpretations that hypostatise this fetish character, misrecognising it for something more intrinsic than it is, can rightly be criticised. The fetish character itself, however, is a real (social) phenomenon, arising from a distinctive form of social relation. It is enacted in practice, and therefore cannot be dispelled solely at the level of thought.

The chapter does suggest, however, that critical resources are somehow assembled as the narrative unfolds, making it possible to develop a different understanding of our object than the one with which we began. The structure of the opening narrative suggests that the empiricist and transcendental voices have been in some sense superseded by the more adequate dialectical voice, whose performance opens onto the analysis of the fetish. Should we understand this movement as the revelation of the standpoint from which the analysis of the fetish has been offered – as a sort of culminating moment intended to account for how Marx understands his own standpoint of critique? To determine whether this is a safe reading, perhaps we need to wait and read the chapter’s closing lines.

The chapter concludes with a couple of very cryptic paragraphs, framed by the question of what commodities might say to us, “if commodities could speak” (175). The presupposition here is that commodities have no voice – an assumption that seems reasonable enough, since this chapter has insisted from the beginning that commodities are external things, objects that exist outside us, albeit objects that possess strange social properties. The aphasia of commodities means that the text must lend them a tongue – something it does, initially, by crafting a monologue that summarises the argument about the fetish:

our use value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange values. (176-177)

The text next brings on stage some political economists who express similar points, and then gives the final word to Dogberry, a character from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, who closes the chapter by confronting the reader with the somewhat surreal, Escheresque formulation: “To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature.” (177)

The speech offered on behalf of the commodities, the quotes from actual political economists, and the concluding comment from the fictitious Dogberry all appear to express quite bizarre positions, and it is easy to read this section as though its point were simply to lampoon political economy. I want to suggest, however, that the text is doing much more substantive work – that it is subtly effecting a shift in focus to the topic that will preoccupy the text for the next several chapters, and ultimately enable Marx to derive new categories that will once again react back on how we understand our object – the commodity.

The nature of this shift is easier to recognise if we examine how Dogberry’s closing line effects a circle – or, more accurately, a spiral – with the opening paragraphs of this chapter. In the opening paragraphs, we were introduced to use value – which, in Dogberry’s terms, is a category of the world of “nature”, understood at the beginning of the chapter to relate to the material properties of things. We were next introduced to exchange value – which, in Dogberry’s terms, is a category of the world of “fortune”, with the doubled, punning connotations of wealth and chance. Having confronted the inverted world over the course of this chapter, our understanding of the categories of use value and exchange value has come to be transformed by our recognition that both categories are moments of an overarching, dynamic, social relation. We see now that contingent human practices have come to generate an inner social essence – value – that renders the wealth of capitalist society neither a simple matter of convention and chance, nor a straightforward product of material nature. The categories of use value and exchange value remain in play, but our understanding of these categories has been fundamentally altered, and we have learned that our object – the commodity – is not quite what we had originally taken it to be.

Dogberry’s concluding comment reminds us of these points, and yet is something more complex than a faithful iteration of the argument in this chapter. Instead, it subtly transposes the content of an argument that had been made in relation to the doubled character of things – into the form of a comment about the doubled character of persons.

At this point if not before, we abruptly realise that the play has never ended – Hegel’s curtain was not whisked aside when we assumed it had been, nor did any curtain fall to close the performance after the opening trio of actors left the main stage. Instead, the concluding paragraphs, by drawing our attention once again to the thingliness of commodities, subtly reveal that a sleight of hand was in play when the chapter slyly substituted the argument about the fetish for Hegel’s story about consciousness achieving Self-Consciousness. We look with a new distrust on the performance of the dialectical character, which at the time had certainly seemed to make a convincing display of self-reflexivity, mutual recognition, and intersubjectivity in its performance. It is only now that we come to our senses, remembering that this act was nothing more than a demonstration of the self-reflexive relations that objects construct with other things. The dialectical character’s prestidigitation diverted our attention from Hegel’s challenge by conjuring up the analysis of commodity fetishism, while allowing the identity of consciousness with the commodity to slip through its fingers.

The final act of this chapter pointedly refuses to allow us to be taken in by this conjuring trick. By drawing attention to the thingly character of commodities as we understand them at this point – by reminding us that commodities cannot speak because, of course, they are merely objects – the concluding paragraphs underscore how all of the performances in this chapter were indexed to an assumption that commodities are things external to us. Even as this chapter has staged a conflict over whether the commodity can best be understood as a collection of sensible properties, a transcendental unity, or a dialectical relation, it has clasped tight to the presupposition that the commodity is an external thing. Nowhere does the chapter bring on stage a character that claims that consciousness is its own object: no character interprets the commodity – the wealth of capitalist society – as us.

At the same time, by closing the chapter with a speech overtly voiced by a character from a play, the concluding section further destabilises any assumption that the narrative movement of this chapter should be understood as a progression from the artificial to the real: giving the final line to a Shakespearean character suggests very strongly that we have never left the stage. Moreover, by having this line circle back to the opening of the chapter, the text marks out the entire chapter as a sort of self-enclosed opening act, hinting that the bulk of the production is still to come.

In the final paragraphs of this chapter, Marx openly teases the reader with the fact that he has not met the narrative expectation that he himself sets up, by stealing Hegel’s plot: consciousness still remains severed from its object – a situation that, according to the rules of Hegelian drama, means that consciousness will be tortured by ceaseless unrest until it can overcome this divide. Marx leaves his readers poised on the cliffhanger of how consciousness might be rescued from this terrible fate, but he brings on Dogberry, at least, to reassure us that the play will go on. Perhaps a happy ending will be forthcoming in the next act. Is it possible to show that we are somehow implicated in our object, the commodity? Is there some sort of peculiar commodity, perhaps, that possesses a human form? We must wait to read the next chapters to see.

2 responses to “Scratchpad: Chapter 1 – The Play’s the Thing

  1. Bis February 16, 2009 at 2:33 am

    I have never encountered such a profound depth of understanding of Marx’s motivations with such pristine clarity of language. I could not have asked for a more fruitful three hours reading this page as a precursor to embarking on my own study of Marx as part of Capital Reading Group – bravo and thank you!

  2. N Pepperell February 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you for the kind words :-) I’ve been buried for the past several months in developing this line of argument: it’s good to know it’s useful :-)

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