Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: How Does Essence Appear?

I’m going to be in transit for the next couple of days, with very limited net access, and so won’t be able to respond to comments or mails. This and the next couple of thesis chapter posts have been queued, so if the blog does its job, they’ll keep trundling their way into the world in my absence.

This chapter is part of a set of three that spends a possibly inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of the complex third chapter of Capital, in which Marx undertakes an extensive deconstructive analysis of money – exploring all the various ways in which this “single” object takes on different roles, and as a result comes to carry radically different meanings, implications and consequences for practice. This chapter is perhaps the single best example of how Marx consistently under-signposts what he is trying to achieve when he makes specific argumentative moves. There is an enormous amount of work being done in Capital‘s third chapter – something you might guess by the sheer length of the thing, but which can be difficult to tell when actually reading the text, because Marx relentlessly refuses to pause and draw out the implications on his own. Often, he’ll point out several chapters later that he sees himself to have made a specific point in an earlier chapter; he rarely emphasises the significance of his argumentative moves at the time, for reasons I’ve explained in chapter 4 of the thesis. Understanding the reasons, however, doesn’t make the practice less frustrating… This is why a single chapter of Capital can blow out into three chapters of my thesis: I provide the signposts Marx should have, but didn’t…

This thesis chapter, as you would guess from the title, focusses a lot of its time and energy on Marx’s use of Hegel’s vocabulary of essence and appearance. The idealist loan words and style of expression often manage to conceal the fact that Marx means pretty much the exact opposite of what the text intuitively seems to be saying: when Marx talks about an essence (like value) expressing itself in a form of appearance (like price), this sounds as if value is an external causal factor, driving the play of appearances. What Marx means is very different: essences are essences of their forms of appearance – it is the play of appearance that constitutes an essence as an immanent pattern that emerges in the transformation of appearances over time. Honest. Trust me. Scout’s honour.

All this – and a lot of textual interpretation – below the fold…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

6 – How Does Essence Appear?

The third chapter of Capital puts forward an extraordinary systematic deconstruction of a “single” material object: money. The previous chapters have primed us for this possibility, by suggesting that objects cannot be taken as simple or immediate “givens”, but instead must be grasped as infused with qualitative properties and characteristics that derive, not from the object in itself, as it might exist in isolation from all other relations, but instead from the various contingent interactions in which an object participates at any given moment of time. The third chapter carries this principle into an extended case study of the various properties and characteristics that the “single” object money can exhibit when suspended in relations of different kinds.

The first and second chapters of Capital discuss money only in relation to one of its possible social functions – that of the universal equivalent – the material in which the values of all other commodities express themselves. The third chapter begins by analysing this function as well – but places this analysis in the context of analyses of other functions money also serves. The third chapter therefore complicates the picture already presented – suggesting that the same object can simultaneously or alternately take on multiple social roles, each eliciting different, and sometimes conflicting, characteristics from what might appear to be a single thing. In the process, the third chapter explicitly thematises the principle that an apparently singular, unitary entity such as money – even when this entity appears to be a simple material object – can be examined from different perspectives in order to unearth multiple, even conflictual traits. The demonstration these multiple perspectives has the effect of relativising any perspective from which the object appears unitary, revealing any such perspective to be partial and incomplete. Each element of money’s interactive multiplicity can then also be explored, individually and in diverse combinations, to cast light on the multifaceted practical potentials that money suggests.

This deconstructive strategy has already been operative in earlier chapters – it is visible, for example, in Marx’s presentation of the different perspectives on the wealth of capitalist societies in Capital‘s opening chapter. In chapter 2 through 4, I foreshadowed the way this strategy provides Marx with the critical resources he needs for his immanent critique of the production of capital. I argued that Marx understands the production of capital as an assemblage that arises from the interactions of a range of different entities that, suspended together, generate consequences and acquire characteristics these entities would not possess if removed from this particular assemblage. I then suggested that Marx’s critique relies on the analytical disaggregation of that assemblage so that its component parts can be examined for the effects they could generate and the qualitative characteristics they might exhibit if blasted out of this overarching relation. This analytical disaggregation is not a mere conceptual abstraction, however: it arises from our everyday practical experience of interacting with the component parts of this assemblage, and it seeks to articulate what might otherwise remain tacit, experiential insights, in order to make these insights explicit and readily available for conscious political action. Once again, the impulse here is resonant of Benjamin – in this case, of Benjamin’s ideal of “making history citable in all its moments”. The critical thrust of Marx’s analysis is that, by reproducing the production of capital, we are citing history only selectively – unintentionally privileging one set of potentials that could be constructed from the social materials that lie ready to hand, while failing to recognise or fully make use of other potentials that could be constructed from the same materials.

While earlier chapters offer evidence that this technique is in play, the third chapter of Capital demonstrates more concretely how this technique might be applied to intuitively familiar aspects of everyday experience. While this demonstration is still offered at a very early point in Marx’s argument, it makes clearer what might be involved in analysing forms of everyday experience that are likely to arise when social actors engage with dimensions of the production of capital, how these experiences can provide the practical basis for “real abstractions”, and how everyday experience can render socially plausible certain characteristic misinterpretations of social experience. In other words, this chapter begins to illustrate more concretely what is involved in implementing Marx’s strategy of deriving, from the analysis of “given relations”, specific “apotheoses” that become socially plausible due to the determinate characteristics of those relations.

I. Social Materialisations

Marx begins with the material already provided by earlier chapters: money’s function as the material in which commodities express their value. The use of gold for this purpose in collective practice, Marx argues, is what renders the money commodity into “money”; examined outside this function, gold does not possess the distinctive qualitative characteristics this role alone confers (188). Marx’s argument suggests that by using an object in a particular way – incorporating the object into the enactment of a particular kind of social relation – social actors thus confer on that object social properties the object would not otherwise possess. One implication of this argument is that, in spite of superficial similarities, money is not “money” in its contemporary sense, outside a very specific historical and context. While we may apply the same term to apparently similar objects that appear in other contexts, we must always be aware that, absent the distinctive practices and social relations that are present in our own context, the specific characteristics we currently associate with “money” may not be present – as Marx says more explicitly in the “Results of the Immediate Process of Production” draft:

even economic categories appropriate to earlier modes of production acquire a new and specific historical character under the impact of capitalist production. (950)

The social properties and significations of a particular object therefore depend on the network of interactions within which that object participates, which elicit from and confer on that object the particular traits that it exhibits within those interactions. Since these traits do not inhere in the object as such, they are contingent on the practical treatment of the object in social practice.

At the same time, the properties of the object can lend themselves either more or less readily to the specifically social requirements of a particular role, creating elective affinities between particular sorts of objects and the social ends to which those objects will be pressed. The properties of the object are therefore not passive and inert factors in the social process: the suitability of an object for a specific social purpose can enable or hinder social actors’ ability to develop particular potentials within their own social practices. Marx illustrates this point in chapter 2 by noting that, while many sorts of objects – including human beings – have historically been used as the universal equivalent, the material properties of the precious metals are particularly well-suited to the social functions money performs:

In the same proportion as exchange bursts its local bonds, and the value of commodities accordingly expands more and more into the material embodiment of human labour as such, in that proportion does the money-form become transferred to commodities which are by nature fitted to perform the social function of a universal equivalent. Those commodities are the precious metals.

The truth of the statement that ‘although gold and silver are not by nature money, money is by nature gold and silver’, is shown by the appropriateness of their natural properties for the functions of money. So far, however, we are acquainted with only one function of money, namely to serve as the form of appearance for the value of commodities, that is as the material in which the magnitudes of their values are socially expressed. Only a material whose every sample possesses the same uniform quality can be an adequate form of appearance of value, that is a material embodiment of abstract and therefore equal human labour. On the other hand, since the difference between the magnitudes of value is purely quantitative, the money commodity must be capable of purely quantitative differentiation, it must therefore be divisible at will, and it must also be possible to assemble it again from its component parts. Gold and silver have these properties by nature. (183-184)

Marx therefore sees the process that imbricates objects within social relations as conferring social properties on those objects. Objects are not infinitely “constructible”, however, and the object therefore must be regarded as an active participant in an interactive process that elicits a specific set of the object’s properties as socially relevant. At the same time, the successful discovery of objects whose intrinsic properties suit specific social functions can shape the practical development of those functions: the alternative money commodities Marx identifies – cattle, slaves – would, for example, hinder the practical enactment of the properties Marx associates with value, perhaps undermining social actors’ ability to constitute certain potentials that might otherwise be available to them.

Implied by this discussion are two potential ways of mistaking the relationship between social practices and the material objects with which those practices interact. One mistake – similar to that for which Barbon is convicted in Capital‘s opening chapter – would be to fail to recognise how specific social practices make an active contribution to the properties manifested by particular kinds of objects, both by conferring distinctive social properties on those things, and by actively soliciting properties that have become socially relevant in particular contexts. Another mistake would be to assume that social practices are confronted by a universe of passive objects that are infinitely “constructible” and offer no material constraints upon what social actors may do. At issue here is not a decontexualised debate over the limits of “social constructivism”, but rather a specific point about the uneasy and unstable union of exchange-value and use-value within the commodity form. As the argument develops, Marx will render increasingly explicit the limits on capitalism’s ability to “construct” its environment – limits which are already implicit in the internal tensions of the commodity-form.

Marx has argued that commodities can only be realised as use-values if they are first realised as values – there are, in other words, quite specific social conditions that govern our collective access to the use-values that satisfy our material needs. Absent these social conditions, our material needs may not be met, regardless of the “objective” presence of an appropriate stockpile of material use-values. At the same time, however, Marx insists that commodities can be realised as values only if they can be realised as use-values. Thus, the function of realising value – even though this function is itself purely social, and not imposed by any intrinsic requirements of material production – can nevertheless be served only if commodities happen to possess the right combination of material properties to meet an existing social need.

Marx’s quick discussion of the interaction between the social and material properties of the money commodity thus thematises a problem that is more anthropologically specific to the production of capital than it may at first appear. This discussion begins to destabilise the dichotomy with which Capital opens, which presented use-value and exchange-value as only extrinsically connected – the one a timeless intrinsic content, the other a purely relative contingent form: the text now suggests the possibility for a mutually-conditioning interaction between these two dimensions of the commodity, such that each requires the other for its realisation, although only with this very specific social context.

The opening to chapter 3 picks up where this discussion leaves off, revisiting once again the ways in which the money commodity provides the material for the physical expression of the values of all other commodities, complicating our understanding of this established function before finally moving on to additional functions not yet explored in the text.

Marx reiterates the claim – which still seems somewhat arbitrary at this point in the text – that commodities exchange with one another, not because money renders them commensurable, but because they are objectified human labour:

It is not money that renders the commodities commensurable. Quite the contrary. Because all commodities, as values, are objectified human labour, and therefore in themselves commensurable, their values can be communally measured in one and the same specific commodity, and this commodity can be converted into the common measure of values, that is into money. (188)

He goes on to add:

Money as a measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour-time. (188)

These formulations are peculiar, and merit unpacking in some detail. From the methodological discussion in chapter 4 of the thesis, we expect the central claim – that commodities exchange because they are objectified human labour – to appear arbitrary and ungrounded – as, in fact, it does. We expect the text gradually to unpack the basis for this assertion – to reveal why this assertion must be true, if we want to account for the various social phenomena Marx analyses in Capital, but we also expect the text to reveal what this assertion actually means, how we should understand this claim. Although the thesis – which limits itself to Marx’s analysis of commodity circulation – will not be able to flesh out this meaning in detail, we can at least tease out some further parameters of the problem that leads Marx to open with these seemingly counter-intuitive claims.

II. The Appearance of Essence

We already know that the claim that value is measured by labour-time does not relate to the empirical labour actually expended in the production of particular commodities – or, indeed, to any sort of directly sensible property of either the labour process or the good produced. Instead, the labour involved is something Marx calls “human labour in the abstract”, which he has linked to a general social average governing how much labour-time ought to be invested in the production of a particular category of good. This social average or standard for how much labour “ought” to have been invested is imperceptible at any given point in time – it emerges instead as a retrospectively-deducible social norm unintentionally generated by the aggregate results of collective practice oriented to other ends. It is for this reason that Marx describes it as a “supersensible” property – something whose existence can be intuited by reason, but which is not immediately accessible to synchronic sense-perception alone. “Human labour in the abstract” – the sort of labour that, Marx argues, forms the substance of value – is that presently-unknowable subset of the universe of actual labouring activities that will ultimately get to “count” as part of social labour, that will eventually earn a place within the social division of labour, by proving itself over time as a use-value – and thereby as an exchange-value – on the social testing ground of market exchange.

The retroactive and unintentional character of the process by which value and abstract labour are collectively determined, means that social actors engaged in production for market exchange undertake this activity speculatively. However much they may plan, or whatever actions they may undertake to maximise their chances of success, their empirical labours nevertheless must be advanced without secure knowledge of whether they will succeed in asserting themselves as part of the social division labour. It is uncertain, at the point of production, whether the goods produced will become use-values for others to a sufficient degree to support the reproduction or expansion of the original empirical labouring activities, in their original form and quantity. Only success on the proving-ground of market exchange confers social validity on specific products and, by extension, their associated labouring activities.

Marx has already suggested that this process – in which the market serves as the institutional vehicle that administers the results of a social adjudication that determines whether and to what extent commodities satisfy social demands – effectively treats the commodities exchanged as possessing an invisible, intangible, supersensible property: the property of possessing a certain magnitude of value. By extension, this process tacitly treats the labouring activities that produce those goods as also possessing an invisible, intangible, supersensible property: the property of possessing a certain amount of human labour in the abstract. The market is thus treated in social practice as an institution that reveals these supersensible properties – not necessarily in any particular exchange, but through aggregate trends and statistical tendencies that unfold over time. Marx has already thematised value and abstract labour as categories designed to pick out long-term, aggregate statistical trends in the first chapter of Capital:

…in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on top of him. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is therefore a secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities. (168)

This understanding of value and abstract labour – as categories that pick out long-term patterns in the transformation of the phenomena of everyday experience – is something that Marx then articulates in terms of the Hegelian distinction between essence and appearance. The realm of appearance is the realm accessible directly to sense-perception – the realm of use-values and exchange-values, for example. What is directly accessible to the senses, however, appears random, contingent, and arbitrary in its synchronic presentation or even in its short-term movements. The realm of essence, by contrast, exhibits a lawlike character that is discernible as a long-term statistical tendency, but is invisible to everyday, synchronic social experience. This is the realm of the “supersensible” categories of value and abstract labour.

Inflected in more pragmatist terms, Marx is attempting to pick out a distinction between aspects of social experience that are immediately evident to most social actors as a matter of everyday experience, and aspects of social experience that must be deduced by the analysis of trends that unfold over time. Marx associates these different aspects of social experience with different dispositions or modes of analysis. When Marx speaks of “forms of appearance”, he is thinking of immediately perceptible, synchronically-accessible dimensions of our everyday experience. Marx often speaks about these forms of appearance as what “first presents itself to our perceptions” – following Hegel’s association of sense-perception with the realm of appearance (681). It is this level of immediate synchronic experience that Marx tends to speak of as being “reflected in the brains” of social actors – as in this passage from the opening chapter:

The private producer’s brain reflects this twofold social character of his labour only in the forms which appear in practical intercourse, in the exchange of products. Hence the socially useful character of his private labour is reflected in the form that the product of labour has to be useful to others, and the social character of the equality of the various kinds of labour is reflected in the form of the common character, as values, possessed by these materially different things, the products of labour. (167)

The use of the term “reflection” here is not a casual gesture, but an important part of Marx’s substantive claim: for Marx, as for Hegel, the realm of appearances inverts the realm of essences. This point is implied all through the work but, as with most aspects of Marx’s argument, becomes much more explicit later in the text. To leap ahead of Marx’s own presentation to his most direct discussion of this point, which takes place in chapter 19, “The Transformation of Labour-Power into Wages”, Marx argues:

These imaginary expressions [he is speaking directly about expressions like the 'value of labour'] arise, nevertheless, from the relations of production themselves. They are categories for the forms of appearance of essential relations. That in their appearance things are often presented in an inverted way is something fairly familiar in every science, apart from political economy. (677, italics mine)

One consequence of this inversion is that appearances can disguise the existence of an essential relation. To overleap Marx’s order of presentation once again, in chapter 19 he draws explicit critical attention to how this process can feed into apologist “vulgar” political economics:

…all the apologetic tricks of vulgar economics, which have as their basis the form of appearance discussed above, which makes the actual relation invisible, and indeed presents to the eye the precise opposite of that relation. (680)

The errors of vulgar political economy – however apologist or self-serving – are thus not random conceptual errors: they arise from the forms of appearance of “given relations”, and reflect a form of analysis that does not seek to reach past immediate experience to other dimensions of our collective practice.

If vulgar political economy contents itself with appearances, classical political economy reaches through appearances to discern the lawlike statistical patterns Marx associates with the realm of essence. In chapter 19, Marx expresses this point the following way:

…the political economists believed they could penetrate to the value of labour through the medium of the accidental prices of labour. (678, italics mine)

This interpretation of classical political economy – linking it to what Hegel calls “Understanding” – is already implicit from the opening chapter of Capital, in the narrative structure of the text, but also in passages such as the discussion of value as a “social hieroglyphic”:

Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher this 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 is 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… (167)

Marx thus seems to regard classical political economy as having achieved genuine insights into the “essential relations” that are overlooked by both everyday consciousness and vulgar apologism. Yet, if classical political economy grasps such “essential relations”, in what sense is its analysis deficient? What does Marx understand his own work to add?

The answer lies in recognising the specifically Hegelian scenario Marx has set up, by aligning some competing perspectives with the realm of appearance, and the rest with the realm of essence. Everyday consciousness, Marx argues, misses the existence of the realm of essence entirely, making it easy to see where it goes astray. Classical political economy, however, also errs: by rushing to the opposite pole of what Marx sets up as a dichotomy – by treating the realm of essence as something disconnected from the realm of appearance – by positioning appearances as a transparent medium to be penetrated in order to grasp underlying patterns that are then tacitly treated as ontologically self-subsistent and therefore as transcendent of the particular social form in which they appear. What classical political economy fails to do, in other words, is to examine the process by which statistical patterns arise. Marx often expresses this point in terms of the failure of classical political economy to examine the relationship between content and 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 this content has assumed this particular form, that is to say, 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. (173-174)

Marx’s question, then, is how the sorts of aggregate patterns or tendencies deduced by classical political economy might be produced.

Marx has already rejected the possibility that these aggregate patterns might arise due to some intrinsic property of material goods or material production: value and abstract labour have been defined from the outset as social categories into which “not an atom of matter enters” (138). The patterns are defined as “social substances”: therefore they must arise from social practice.

As products of social practice, however, value and abstract labour are peculiar. They do not easily conform with our most intuitive ways of understanding the results of social practice.

First, social actors do not set out to generate such patterns: everyday consciousness is not even aware such patterns exist, and Marx presents their discovery as having been difficult even for systematic scientific work. Moreover, the qualitative characteristics of the patterns do not resemble the qualitative characteristics exhibited by the objects of everyday experience: in fact, everyday experience tends to invert or reverse the patterns Marx claims are exhibited by the underlying trends. Our direct social experiences therefore cannot induce us to generate these patterns by some form of extrapolation or mimicry from qualitatively similar objects with which we engage in our everyday practice.

If they are not caused by some intrinsic ontological property of material production, are not deliberately produced, and are also not directly expressive of dispositions inculcated by practical experience, then how do such patterns arise? This is the problem Marx is attempting to solve. His solution takes the form of analysing how behaviours that plausibly arise, given practical exposure to everyday experiences associated with the reproduction of capital, can be expected to generate – as unintended side effects – the long-term aggregate tendencies he tries to pick out through categories like abstract labour and value. The nature of this analysis means that social actors need not set out to reproduce a pattern that lies outside their direct experience. Instead, by reproducing only what is experientially familiar to them – by reproducing the “forms of appearance” – they also, unintentionally, reproduce the aggregate long-term tendencies – the supersensible “essence”. Again to overleap Marx’s presentation to a point where he expresses this analytical strategy more explicitly:

…what is true of all forms of appearance and their hidden background is also true of the form of appearance ‘value and price of labour’, or ‘wages’, as contrasted with the essential relation manifested in it, namely the value and price of labour-power. The forms of appearance are reproduced directly and spontaneously, as current and usual modes of thought; the essential relation must be discovered by science. Classical political economy stumbles approximately onto the true state of affairs, but without consciously formulating it. It is unable to do this as long as it stays within its bourgeois skin. (682)

Marx understands his approach to have surpassed classical political economy by investigating how our modes of practical engagement with the objects of our everyday experience – which are “reproduced directly and spontaneously, as current and usual modes of thought” – generate unintentional consequences in the form of long-term tendencies discernible as statistical trends. Marx tends to express this point by speaking of how appearances “manifest” or “express” a hidden essence – Hegelian phrases whose contemporary connotations can be misleading, suggesting that Marx views “essential relations” as more ontologically substantial than those that operate at the level of appearances. Marx, however, follows Hegel in treating both appearance and essence as necessarily bound to one another, as equally necessary aspects of the same overarching relation. Aspects of this relation are easier to discern, but these more accessible dimensions of the production of capital are not less “real” than the long-term patterns whose existence they can contradict and obscure. Things appear – as Marx says in his opening chapter – as they are: appearances are not illusions – they are real dimensions of social experience. Appearances, however, are not the entirety of social experience. Our social reality is much more layered and contradictory than appearances would suggest. Teasing out these less accessible dimensions of experience – as classical political economy has already begun to do – and then working out the relationships between these different dimensions of social experience, so that we can grasp how these dimensions are generated in practice and, thus, how they can be transformed: this is the goal of Marx’s critique.

III. Social Reduction

To return to the launching point from which we started this discussion of appearance and essence: when the opening paragraph to chapter 3 tells us that money as a measure of value is a necessary form of appearance of the supersensible measure of value immanent to commodities – labour-time – we can now understand more clearly the kind of claim Marx is trying to make. Marx is suggesting that, by interacting with a particular object that we can directly perceive – money – we also help to collectively enact, as an unintentional side effect, a certain kind of long-term aggregate tendency – in this case, a tendency that what we produce, and how we produce it, should conform over time to an implicit and unconscious social norm that governs the amount of labour-time, on average, we collectively invest in particular productive activities. In the opening chapter of Capital, Marx characterises this norm as a destructive social “law of gravity” by which:

…all the different kinds of private labour (which are carried on independently of each other, and yet, as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are in a situation of all-round dependence on each other) are continuously being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. (168)

In chapter 3 of Capital, as Marx revisits this function of money, he expands on what he means by the claim that private labours are constantly being “reduced” to the “quantitative proportions in which society requires them”. At the same time, he further complicates our preliminary understanding of the category of money by introducing several additional functions money fills. With this sense of Marx’s strategic intentions in hand, we can now return to a close reading of the text, hugging more closely for a while to Marx’s order of presentation.

After characterising money as a form of appearance of value, Marx next retraces some of the steps from the “dialectical” derivation of the money form originally presented in his opening chapter. That original presentation appeared to proceed in the form of a “logical” dialectical derivation of the category of money from the immanent principles of the commodity – as if following through the immanent principles of motion of an idea that achieves manifestation in reality, rather than analysing a sociological phenomenon that includes within itself characteristic forms of perception and thought. Marx destabilises this interpretation at the time, by linking Aristotle’s failure to deduce the same conclusion, to the limitations of Aristotle’s society: Aristotle could not deduce the existence of value, Marx argues, because his society lacked the practical experience with the substance of value – equal human labour (151-152). By implication, Marx suggests that Aristotle could not deduce the existence of value because value did not, in fact, yet exist as a practical social entity: value was unthinkable to Aristotle, because nothing in his social experience primed him for this possibility.

While the import of Marx’s discussion of Aristotle seems clear, it was not evident, at that point in the text, what aspect of Marx’s own society makes it so much more intuitive for us to draw the conclusions Aristotle rejected. In this passage in chapter 3, Marx tacitly begins to fill in this gap – and thus render explicit the performative aspect of that original derivation – by pointing to aspects of practical social experience that correspond to some of the steps in the original derivation. Marx thus notes both the “socially valid” form of the custom to express commodity values in gold, and also highlights a practical, experiential basis for the “endless series” of the expanded form of value: a series manifest when the prices of commodities are examined from the standpoint of gold, rather than from the standpoint of individual goods – or, as Marx describes it:

We have only to read the quotations of the price-list backwards, to find the magnitude of the value of money expressed in all sorts of commodities. (189)

By filling in some of the gaps that link his own earlier dialectical deductions back to concrete elements of practical experience, Marx thus reflexively applies to himself, the same standard he has previously applied to Aristotle: he draws attention to specific practical experiences available to indigenous inhabitants of capitalist societies, and links these practical experiences directly to specific theoretical articulations within his own critical theory.

The same principle is at work when Marx criticises other theoretical approaches. The first question he asks is what aspect of social experience those other approaches can be seen to channel: the answer to this question tells Marx how, and to what extent, other approaches can be said to be “socially valid”. This social validity, however, is bounded; to the extent that other approaches overreach the conditions of their bounded validity, they can be criticised – for hypostatising partial moments of their context, and thus failing to make available the full range of practical insights arising from a multifaceted, complex and contradictory constellation of social experience.

Marx thus treats himself as he does his opponents, linking his own insights back to practical experience: to do otherwise would be to risk producing “utopian” theory, disconnected from the practical capacity to realise its ideals. Marx seeks to render explicit and thereby make available to conscious practice the widest possible array of practical possibilities – to make our history citable in all its moments, to make us as aware as possible of the raw materials provided by the social conditions we have not chosen, when we set about making history.

Returning to the text: Marx moves quickly from this introductory reminder of the function of money as a measure of value, to a second function: money as a standard of price. He notes that this form is distinct from the tangible, physical form commodities possess, and labels it a “purely ideal or notional form” (189). The text comments again here that commodities cannot speak, and suggests that the commodities’ owner must therefore “lend them his tongue” in order that they may express their prices to the world (189). A sardonic footnote hanging from this passage destabilises the sense that this arrangement arises due to the natural properties of material things – due to their passivity as objects, for example – by comparing the practice of lending commodities a tongue, to exotic and, from the perspective of Marx’s European readers, arbitrary social customs in different human communities:

Savages and semi-savages use the tongue differently. Captain Perry says of the inhabitants says of the inhabitants of the west coast of Baffin’s Bay: ‘In this case (the case of barter) they licked it (the thing represented to them) twice to their tongues, after which they seemed to consider the bargain satisfactorily concluded.’ In the same way, among Eastern Eskimo, the exchanger licked each article on receiving it. If the tongue is thus used in the North as the organ of appropriation, it is no wonder that in the South the stomach serves as the organ of accumulated property, and that a Kaffir estimates the wealth of a man by the size of his belly. The Kaffirs know what they are doing, for at the same time as the official British Health Report of 1864 was bemoaning the deficiency of fat-forming substances among a large part of the working class, a certain Dr Harvey (not, however, the man who discovered the circulation of blood) was doing well by advertising recipes for reducing the surplus fat of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. (ftnt 2, pp. 189-190)

The familiar, taken-for-granted practice of appending a price to a commodity as an imaginary estimate of the money for which that commodity will be exchanged, is exoticised by this anthropological comparison – positioned as an arbitrary custom institutionalised by nothing more stable than the social practices of indigenous inhabitants of capitalist societies.

Having underscored the anthropological character of this second function of money as well, Marx quickly discusses the way in which prices express definite quantities of some precious metal. These quantities, however, are measured by a physical, material property of the metal – its weight – rather than directly by the social property of its value (190-192). As standard of price, money fills its function best when a certain weight of gold is fixed as a unit of measurement; as measure of value, the variability of the money-commodity’s own value, expressive of the labour-time socially required for its production, is central to the function money performs (192).

Marx quickly traces the impossibility of deducing the movements in the quantity of value, from movements in the quantity of prices (193) – a gesture similar to those from his opening chapter that barred the deduction of the quantitative direction movements in the value of specific commodities, from the empirical observation of movements in the proportions in which individual commodities are exchanged (145-146). While there is some sense in which Marx believes that the existence of value can be deduced as a long-term, aggregate tendency, his analysis seems to close off the possibility of ever quantifying how much value exists at a given moment of time, or even determining whether quantities of value have increased or decreased in particular categories of goods. We have direct, sensible access to the proportions in which goods exchange – and, now, to the prices at which goods sell (and therefore the proportions in which other commodities exchange with the money commodity). Marx seems to suggest, however, that we cannot extrapolate from these directly perceptible (and themselves quantifiable) trends playing out at the level of appearances, to arrive at any sense of quantifiable trends playing out at the level of essence. At this point in the text, it is not clear why Marx seems simultaneously to associate value with a quantifiable measure like labour-time, and yet also to foreclose the possibility for any direct quantitative knowledge of value. The solution to this problem lies waiting for the introduction of further categories that will render explicit what is only tacitly implied earlier in the text.

From this point, Marx quickly traces the ways in which money-names come to be divorced from the weights with which they were historically associated, using this discussion to note the merely conventional association of specific money-names with particular weights of precious metals. In an argument that foreshadows his later analysis of the purely conventional nature of the working day (342, 344, 375, 381-382, 416), Marx argues that the need for a universal and stable association between money-names and weights, combined with the purely conventional nature of this association, necessitates that money be centrally regulated by the state:

Since the standard of money is on the one hand purely conventional, while on the other hand it must possess universal validity, it is in the end regulated by law. (194)

Marx has hinted at the social necessity of central regulation before, when describing the general equivalent as the result of the combined social action of all other commodities (159-160). Here the issue of regulation enshrined by law enters explicitly into the text, as a means of establishing universal social validity in matters that are not perceived to be determined by anything other than human custom. The references to juridical relations at the opening of chapter 2, and the reference to regulation here and elsewhere in the text, point to the ways in which Capital reaches for an analysis of political and governmental forms, as well as forms of economic activity: the categories of Marx’s analysis are not intended to be confined to what we would intuitively consider to be “economic” matters – a point to which I return in later chapters.

For present purposes, I want simply to draw attention in passing to how this passages flags another of the ambivalent potentials primed by our practical experience within capitalist societies: on the one hand, the text marks out a process by which problems that are not grounded in anything other than human custom, can be adjudicated and resolved by political means – by explicit collective decision mediated by the state; on the other hand, the text also argues that our practical engagement with the production of capital obscures just how much of our social experience arises from nothing more stable than human custom. Something about the reproduction of capital abridges and short-circuits our ability to extend the otherwise socially-available insight: that matters of human custom are not grounded in anything objective, and can therefore be adjudicated through political processes – perhaps the same sorts of processes suggested at the beginning of chapter 2: processes that take place between free, equal, and autonomous individuals exercising their capacity for self-determination. While these political concepts are socially available – inculcated by particular dimensions of social experience – their application is truncated by the perception that certain phenomena – revealed in Marx’s analysis to arise from human customs – instead derive from “objective” characteristics of material objects or processes. A potentially emancipatory political insight is thereby curtailed – restricted in its application to limited dimensions of social experience.

Returning to the main line of Marx’s argument: the interpenetration of these two different social functions confers and elicits a complex combination of social properties, and socially-relevant material properties, in the “same” object. Money is not a unitary social entity, and its multiplicity generates potentials for both practical and theoretical confusion. Marx expresses this by suggesting that the singular name “money” should not disguise the internal multiplicity of the object picked out by this term:

The name of a thing is entirely external to its nature. I know nothing of a man if I merely know his name is Jacob. In the same way, every trace of the money-relation disappears in the money-names pound, thaler, franc, ducat, etc. The confusion caused by attributing a hidden meaning to these cabalistic signs is made even greater by the fact that these money-names express both the values of commodities and, simultaneously, aliquot parts of a certain weight of metal which serves as a standard of money. (195)

The confusion that arises from this concentration of social functions onto a “single” object, however, is not one that Marx believes can be avoided. He argues:

On the other hand, it is in fact necessary that value, as opposed to the multifarious objects of the world of commodities, should develop into this form, a material and non-material one, but also a simple social form. (195)

When Marx speaks of “necessity” here, it is easy to hear this passage in almost idealist terms – as if value as a concept generates its own forms of actualisation. It is also easy to hear this passage in more conventional causal terms – as if value somehow exists separately from its forms of appearance and causes these forms to come into existence. I suggest that, instead, we need to hear this passage in light of Marx’s peculiar pragmatist appropriation of Hegel’s analysis of appearance and essence: Marx is not saying that value has somehow brought money into being out of itself, or caused money, as its form of appearance, to develop these multiple roles. For Marx, as for Hegel, appearance and essence are necessarily related because they are mutually interpenetrating moments of the same substance – value does not subsist separately from its own forms of appearance and therefore cannot act on those forms as independent to dependent variable. Appearance is not a medium to look through to see essence, on the other side, existing independently in some separate realm (an error for which Marx criticises classical political economy) – appearance is instead the medium in which essence also exists: essence is an immanent pattern of appearances.

In saying that it is necessary for value to develop into the money form, Marx is therefore saying that the practical combination of these specific social roles in this object is necessary in order for value to be generated as an unintentional pattern in collective practice. Although it is not yet clear in the text how Marx will cash out this claim, he is suggesting here that something about the multiplicity of money facilitates our collective enactment of the supersensible property of value, as a long-term, aggregate statistical tendency that we generate unawares. Value must necessarily “develop into this form” because our practical engagement with this and other such forms is, in Marx’s argument, how we unintentionally generate value.

IV. How Does Price Express Value?

Marx develops this theme further by exploring the everyday operation of price – which is also analysed as a multiplicity, expressing both the “money-name of the labour objectified in a commodity” (195-196) and “the greater or lesser quantity of money for which it can be sold under the given circumstances” (196). Marx makes clear in this paragraph that value does not sit outside its form of appearance in price, causing prices to be set according to the socially necessary labour-time required for the reproduction of a particular productive activity. Instead, prices are set according to how much money a commodity can capture in contingent circumstances that may have nothing to do with socially necessary labour-time:

Suppose two equal quantities of socially necessary labour are respectively represented by 1 quarter of wheat and £2 (approximately ½ ounce of gold). £2 is the expression in money of the magnitude of the value of the quarter or wheat, or its price. If circumstances allow this price to be raised to £3, or compel it to be reduced to £1, then although £1 and £3 may be too small or too large to give proper expression to the magnitude of the wheat’s value, they are nevertheless the price of the wheat, for they are, in the first place, the form of its value, i.e., money, and, in the second place, the exponents of its exchange ratio with money. (196)

If circumstances allow it, a commodity’s price may therefore enable it to capture a quantity of gold that requires far more socially-average labour-time to produce than the commodity itself requires. By the same token, circumstances may force a commodity to be exchanged for gold that costs far less socially average labour-time to produce than the commodity did. That a commodity realises more or less than the money equivalent of its own socially average labour-time, does not by itself redetermine the socially average labour-time required for that commodity’s reproduction. Socially average labour-time is determined by conditions of production that do not change automatically because a commodity’s price rises or falls above its value:

If the conditions of production, or the productivity of labour, remain constant, the same amount of social labour-time must be expended on the reproduction of a quarter of wheat, both before and after the change in price. This situation is not dependent either on the will of the wheat producer or on that of the owners of other commodities. The magnitude of the value of a commodity therefore expresses a necessary relation to social labour-time which is inherent in the process by which value is created. (196)

The realised price of a commodity, and the labour-time socially required for the reproduction of that commodity, are therefore described here as factors that are – at any given moment – determined independently of one another: price by contingent circumstances that dictate how much money can be captured in the exchange; and socially average labour-time by the average conditions of production and productivity of labour. Since the magnitude of value is not expressed in any way other than by the price of the commodity, the expression of value is necessarily and inexorably contaminated by all the other contingent factors that affect the amount of money for which that commodity can be exchanged:

With the transformation of the magnitude of value into the price this necessary relation appears as the exchange-ratio between a single commodity and the money commodity which exists outside it. This relation, however, may express both the magnitude of the value of the commodity and the greater or lesser quantity of money for which it can be sold under the given circumstances. (196)

The expression of the magnitude of value is therefore irredeemably enmeshed with the expression of the universe of other factors that can affect the price of a good. The noise generated by those factors then makes it impossible to tell how well price expresses the signal of the magnitude of value. Once again, Marx has barred our access to the quantitative determination of essence from the direct observation of the realm of appearance: we cannot know from the price of a good – even once that price has been realised in exchange – what the magnitude of that good’s value is, because the price may express the influence of other contingent factors that opportunistically helped or hindered the ability to capture any particular amount of gold.

Marx then argues that this contamination is in fact required in order for price to serve as the adequate form of appearance for value:

The possibility, therefore, of a quantitative incongruity between price and the magnitude of value, i.e. the possibility that the price may diverge from the magnitude of value, is inherent in the price-form itself. This is not a defect, but, on the contrary, it makes the form the adequate one for a mode of production whose laws can only assert themselves as blindly operating averages between constant irregularities. (196)

What is Marx saying here? I have previously suggested that Marx appropriates from Hegel, both the image of the realm of essences as a realm of laws, and the concept that essence is something that does not subsist in some ontologically separate substance or world from appearances: in Marx’s practice-theoretic spin on Hegel’s argument, essence therefore becomes a pattern in motion – visible in the transformation of the phenomena of appearance over time. I have also suggested that, by “law”, Marx means a statistical pattern or tendency. Marx’s “laws” are less like simple predictive causal determinations, and more like descriptions of socially plausible trends – statistical tendencies that are, however, always subject to counter-tendencies and contingent factors that will affect how historical situations play out on the ground.

Value, I have suggested, is a term that picks out one of these long-term aggregate patterns: value is a category that describes a result of aggregate social behaviour, in the form of a trend or tendency that becomes visible over time. This trend, Marx suggests, has something to do with a compulsion to adopt socially average conditions of production and levels of productivity, such that production requires no more than socially average labour-time.

This compulsion is somehow mediated by price: this is what Marx means by calling price a form of appearance of value – somehow, by interacting with forms of everyday experience like the prices of goods, we collectively enact the long-term pattern that is value. Price “expresses” the magnitude of value by being one of the practical vectors through which this magnitude is constituted in social practice. Price somehow helps to transmit compulsions for production to conform to socially average labour-time.

This compulsion, however, is not transmitted instantaneously: Marx draws attention to this when he distinguishes the factors that, synchronically, determine socially average labour-time – conditions of production and levels of productivity – from those that determine price. Price can deviate at any given instant from the money equivalent to the socially average labour-time currently required to reproduce the production of that commodity. So long as these situational deviations cancel one another out, no compulsion arises, in aggregate, that would redetermine the amount of labour-time, on average, that tends to be devoted to a particular productive activity. If the deviations trend over time in some particular direction, however – regularly capturing more or less money than equivalent to the labour-time currently required on average to reproduce a specific productive activity – this would tend to react back on the organisation of production and the social division of labour. If particular productive activities consistently attract higher prices than required to reproduce production at its current level, an incentive would exist to expand the volume of those productive activities. If particular productive activities consistently attract lower prices than required to reproduce production at its current level, an incentive would exist to scale back those particular productive activities.

In a situation in which the economy is not consciously planned, rising and falling prices provide an unconscious social signalling mechanism that helps achieve the result that Marx describes it in the opening chapter of Capital:

all the different kinds of private labour (which are carried on independently of each other, and yet, as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are in a situation of all-round dependence on each other) are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. (168)

Production develops spontaneously – and therefore speculatively, in the absence of firm knowledge of whether it will succeed in reproducing or expanding itself as an element of the social division of labour. Production takes place without producers knowing for certain whether their labours will get to “count” as part of “social labour” because, in capitalist societies, the social mechanism for including or excluding productive activities from the social division of labour is market exchange – a social process that postdates production itself.

The market therefore culls the universe of spontaneous, speculative labouring activities – it “reduces” these activities down to the “quantitative proportions in which society requires them”. This reduction happens, in part, through the signalling mechanism of price, which can fill this role precisely because price deviates from value, as this category might be synchronically defined, as the labour-time socially required to reproduce all the speculative productive activities currently undertaken. Instead of conforming to the pattern that would be required to reproduce all current labouring activities, price operates as a signal to society to reallocate its productive energies into new configurations: it signals “the proportions in which society requires” productive energies to be spent, by capturing, over time and on average, sufficient money to reproduce certain productive activities, insufficient money to reproduce others, and surplus money to encourage the expansion of still more.

Seen in this light, “socially average labour-time” takes on a new aspect. In the opening chapter of Capital, this category seemed to refer to socially-average levels of productivity: thus, the value of the product produced by hand loom weavers fell when the introduction of the power loom reset social standards for productivity. By chapter three, it seems clearer that “socially average labour-time” encompasses more than just the average level of productivity: it also captures the aggregate amount of social labour that, on average, should be dedicated to a particular activity. In this system of material production where engagement in productive activities is governed neither by custom nor by a plan, where no individual or group possesses advance knowledge of the productive activities that will be able to serve as use-values via the hurdle of market exchange, production still does not take on a purely random form – long-term aggregate patterns can still be discerned. Price is one of the mechanisms through which such patterns are enacted, without any conscious intention by social actors to effect such patterns. By deviating from “value” – from the socially average labour-time that would be required to reproduce a given synchronic slice of productive activities – prices can, over time, provide incentives for – or compel – the reorganisation of production, so that production gradually tacks to the changing winds of unconscious aggregate demand for social labour to be apportioned in particular ways.

This is not the entire story. We still do not have a full grasp of the concept of value or the problems Marx intends this concept to help him solve – and we know that we will not have a complete sense of these issues until the final moments of Capital. Immediately following his discussion of how price can deviate from the magnitude of value, however, Marx begins adding further complications that add to our sense of what sort of phenomenon the category of value is attempting to pick out. The first complication is that things can come to have prices that do not possess value – that are not the products of labour – in any sense:

Things which in and for themselves are not commodities, things such as conscience, honour, etc., can be offered for sale by their holders, and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price. Hence a thing can, formally speaking, have a price without having a value. (197)

This gesture underscores that price does not relate to value as consequence to cause, or as an emanation from an essence. The form – the direct object of social experience – possesses its own reality, its own autonomy, its own impacts and implications – even if our interaction with forms like this, in the current context, also happens to generate the long-term aggregate trend named value. This move is consistent with Marx’s strategy of treating component parts of a larger assemblage as capable of being analysed as distinct from that assemblage, as possessing their own implications – some of which, like this one, can mislead social interpretations that hypostatise their significance, and some of which – as we will see in later chapters – provide the building blocks from which we could create alternative forms of collective life.

Marx concludes his discussion of price – and effects the transition to the next function, money as a means of circulation – by foregrounding the precariousness of price, as a notational measure of commodity value. Affixing a price to a commodity does not mean this price will be realised: prices are merely ideal measures until commodities are actually exchanged for money (197). Marx describes the process commodities must undergo in order to realise their prices as a “transubstantiation” – a hazardous and uncertain attempt to leap into a new body. References to theological and mystical images flow fast and thick through this section of the text:

In order, therefore, that a commodity may in practice operate effectively as exchange-value, it must divest itself of its natural physical body and become transformed from merely imaginary into real gold, although this act of transubstantiation may be more ‘troublesome’ for it than the transition from necessity to freedom for the Hegelian ‘concept’, the casting of his shell for a lobster, or the putting-off of old Adam for St. Jerome. (197)

Marx invokes the metaphysical and theological imagery here that he also invoked in the section on the commodity fetish, reminding us that the everyday, taken-for-granted process of exchanging money for goods should be seen as charged with exotic and arbitrary social requirements. Marx underscores that these social requirements are not simply difficult, but have a coercive, compulsive character, by evoking the image of Peter challenging Dante in heaven to prove that he has a (spiritual) coin in his purse (198). The section thus ends:

The price-form therefore implies both the exchangeability of commodities for money and the necessity of exchanges. On the other hand, gold serves as an ideal measure of value only because it has already established itself as the money commodity in the process of exchange. Hard cash lurks within the ideal measure of value. (198)

3 responses to “Thesis Workshop: How Does Essence Appear?

  1. glen February 3, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    NP, your comments on essence/appearance are very cool. From a Deleuzian POV, it seems like you’re arguing that ‘value’ as event differentially repeated, etc. I don’t have time to read al this now, but will definitely check it out later.

    BTW, i think we are due to be writing chapters for the same book (on Derrida) ;)

  2. N Pepperell February 3, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Hey glen – Sorry you were caught in moderation – should be a one-off thing. Looking forward to your reactions as you have the time. Take care…

  3. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Form Matters

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