Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: Forms of Motion

Another thesis chapter in the series that focusses on Capital‘s third chapter. This chapter spends quite a lot of time using the new material Marx is providing to take a much closer look at the opening categories of value and abstract labour. It also explores the implications of some brief comments Marx makes about “real contradictions”. These comments are methodologically quite important: they indicate that, when Marx unfolds – as he continues to do throughout Capital – new forms whose implications “contradict” those of earlier forms, he does not understand the new stage of his analysis to have superseded the earlier analysis. To state it crudely: like Hegel, Marx rejects the notion that, when two things contradict, one of those things must be wrong. Pointing to contradictions, however, can be useful as a means of establishing the boundedness and limitations of particular interpretations of social experience – a point that is stated more clearly below than I can do so in brief here. Marx’s early statements about contradiction also begin to make clear that the existence of “social contradictions” does not, by itself, point beyond the existing form of social life – although such contradictions can make it easier to recognise the contingency and artificiality of this form of social life in specific ways. Much more on this below, plus – as always – a systematic move through the underbrush of the text.

[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.]

7 – Forms of Motion

In the previous chapter, we began to follow Marx through his extensive deconstructive analysis of money, following the steps in his argument as he first unpacked further detail from the analysis of money as a measure of value, and then as he began to unspool the implications of the price form – including implications that have significantly transformed our sense of the opening categories of value and abstract labour. In spite of the richness of the analysis in these sections, Marx’s analysis of these two functions of money only begins to scratch the surface of the multiplicity he unfolds from this “single” material object. In this chapter, we follow Marx through the beginnings of his analysis of money as a means of circulation. This section is both methodologically and substantively rich, and we will therefore map out its steps in some detail, stepping back from the text at regular intervals to consider the implications of specific moves and to contextualise this argument within the overarching framework of Capital as a whole.

I. Real Contradictions

Marx’s analysis of money as the means of circulation begins with a rare explicit methodological comment – an important observation about contradiction:

We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another and at the time same constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved. (198)

The subterranean reference is once again to Hegel, who uses the image of the ellipse in his own exploration of contradictory forms. In reproducing this image, Marx subtly restricts the kind of contradiction to which the image applies: real contradictions, the passage argues, are both realised and resolved in some particular form of motion – a tacit dig at what Marx sees as Hegel’s hypostatisation of real contradictions into an ideal realm. Marx sees himself, by contrast, as working out a practical basis for the applicability of Hegel’s method – in this case, a social basis to be found in the practical generation of long-term, aggregate statistical trends that seem to contradict aspects of our immediately given social experience from which those trends nevertheless arise. In a rare explicit gesture at the textual strategy in play, Marx here confirms that the “beginning” of his system – the contradictory form of the commodity – is still being further developed as the text progresses, such that this beginning is preserved as further determinations are unfolded from it, and also such that our understanding of this beginning is gradually transformed as we move through the text and discover what happens when the contradictions of this form are given “room to move”. It is only by the end, then, that we can finally grasp what the beginning always already was.

At this point, Marx begins to analyse the multiplicity within circulation, the function of money at the focus of the current section. On one level, to the extent that the process of exchange manages to circulate commodities from places where they are not use-values, to places where they are, circulation serves as what Marx calls a “process of social metabolism” – a process that moves material goods around to secure the fulfilment of material needs (198). This material process, however, is effected by the distinctive social processes required for the circulation of money and other commodities. The way in which the material process of social metabolism is mediated by this distinctive social process imprints a specific social character on the material process. Marx sets about analysing this social character by investigating what happens to the form of the commodity during the process of exchange (199).

Marx notes that the exchange of commodities for money is an exchange of two commodities, each of which is characterised by an internal opposition between its use-value (for someone else) and its exchange-value (for its owner) (199). Marx argues that this internal opposition is externally expressed by exceptionalising the money commodity out from the universe of other commodities as the universal equivalent:

Commodities first enter into the process of exchange ungilded and unsweetened, retaining their original home-grown shape. Exchange, however, produces a differentiation of the commodity into two elements, commodity and money, an external opposition which expresses the opposition between use-value and exchange-value which is inherent in it. (199)

As always, the vocabulary of “expression” points back to Marx’s pragmatist appropriation of Hegel: the claim here is not that commodities possess a pre-existent internal division that then somehow causes or emanates into a division in the outside world: any internal or “essential” division within commodities must share the same substance and subsist in the same world as external divisions that present themselves directly to our practical experience of the world of appearance. The claim here is rather that we enact an internal division in commodities through our social practice of differentiating the money-commodity from other commodities. (Marx elsewhere suggests that the key practical step takes place when social actors begin producing commodities with the intention of exchanging them, rather than simply exchanging whatever commodities are accidentally in excess of the producers’ needs – from this point, when exchange-value has become a purpose for social activity, the use-value/exchange-value distinction is firmly anchored in practical experience (166).) The “external opposition” that presents itself to our immediate experience thus constitutes the “inherent internal opposition” whose existence that external opposition is said to express. In Marx’s framework, essence does not precede the existence of its own forms of appearance. Instead, essence is the essence of its form of appearance. Essence and appearance are two moments or aspects of a single dynamic relation.

Marx notes that the exchange of an ordinary commodity for money is, at base, the exchange of two commodities, each of which can be seen as a unity of the opposites of use-value and exchange-value. This unity of opposites, however, is expressed in opposite ways when examined from the standpoint of ordinary commodities or standpoint of the money commodity. The material bodies of ordinary commodities are “in reality” use-values, and are only ideally money, through their price. The “real embodiment” of the commodity’s value stands outside it and opposed to it, in the material of the money commodity. The money-commodity, by contrast, is, in its material form, only the “materialization of value”: its use-value has only ideal form – in the series of ordinary commodities with which it could exchange (199). Returning to the image of contradiction with which this section begins, Marx notes:

These antagonistic forms of the commodities are the real forms of motion of the process of exchange. (199)

Those real forms of motion, Marx has already told us, will not dispel the underlying contradiction: they will instead give this contradiction room to move. Marx now begins to explore what becomes visible when he shifts from perspectives that cast static light on the categories of his analysis, to perspectives that can grapple onto aspects of the categories in motion.

Significantly, Marx presents this next step of his analysis from the perspectives of a cast of characters interacting with one another and with various material props lying ready to hand on the economic stage. The presentation demonstrates how the “same” stage – even the same props – makes available a multiplicity of possible practical orientations, for the social actors. By adopting these practical orientations, by interacting with one another and with available props, social actors can perform different – even opposing – social roles, into and out of which they may move again and again over time.

This practical exposure to multiple social roles provides a reservoir of everyday experience of different forms of interaction with other persons and material objects – together with the associated tacit dispositions, habitual forms of perception, expectations, and orientations of thought – that are conflictual and contradictory. If Marx speaks of interaction with the forms of appearance etching those forms “into the brains” of social actors, the result of this process does not seem to be anything like a uniform, univocal, or monovalent form of socialisation. Instead, the text seems to conceptualise socialisation as a process whereby social actors acquire a range of practical dispositions in and through their mundane interactions with one another and other objects in the course of their day-to-day activities. These everyday interactions require different practical aptitudes and dispositions, thus priming social actors to develop a level of performative agility as they shift from one role to the next.

Something about this performative experience, the text suggests, seems to destabilise the link between the person and whatever economic or social role they might play – rendering social roles potentially visible as roles, as artificial constructs deriving from human practice. This destabilisation, I suggest, arises in part from the repeated practical experience that the same social actors often find themselves alternating through the same set of opposing parts. In part, it arises because the social entitlement to enact these alternating parts is invested in particular kinds of objects that are themselves distinguishable in practice from the person of the actor who owns them.

The text suggests that experience of practical movement through this set of social roles can gradually contaminate social actors’ experience of other sorts of social interactions, even where those interactions do not require the ownership of specific kinds of objects, and are therefore more difficult to differentiate in practice from the persons who enact those roles – roles of gender, for example, or family relations. Alternatively, the experience of social roles that rely on the possession of specific objects could, by contrast, operate to naturalise social roles that do not rely on such material possessions. The text thus subtly suggests the possibility for grasping a set of conflicting, but non-random, fault-lines along which political contestation over particular kinds of social role might plausibly be mobilised.

The text now proceeds to follow the adventures of a small cast of characters engaged in transactions that involve the exchange of their own commodities into money and then into other commodities. The text examines each transaction as it appears from the perspective of different characters, and at different moments of practical engagement with the process.

The text begins from the standpoint of an actor who sells their own product in order to obtain money which they will use to buy other goods – an actor to whom the process, considered as a whole, resembles a drawn-out form of direct barter: a version of the exchange of one’s own good for other goods – a small moment of an overarching “social metabolism” that relocates material goods from where they are not needed, to where they are. In Marx’s words:

Let us now accompany the owner of some commodity, say our old friend the linen weaver, to the scene of action, the market. His commodity, 20 yards of linen, has a definite price, £2. He changes it for the £2, and then, being a man of the old school, he parts with the £2 in return for a family Bible of the same price. [...]

The end result of the transaction, from the point of view of the weaver, is that instead of being in possession of the linen, he now has the Bible; instead of the original commodity, he now possesses another of the same value but of different utility. He procures his other means of subsistence in the same way. For the weaver, the whole process accomplishes nothing more than the exchange of the product of his labour for the product of someone else’s, nothing more than an exchange of products. (199-200)

This end result is real and generates its own consequences: the movement of products from places where they are non-use-values to places in which they can be consumed. This result, however, is achieved in two stages which are also real and generate their own distinctive consequences. Marx describes these two component stages as “metamorphoses” that complement one another as mirror-image opposites: the exchange of the original commodity for money, and then the exchange of this money for other commodities:

The process of exchange is therefore accomplished through two metamorphoses of opposite yet mutually complementary character – the conversion of the commodity into money, and the re-conversion of the money into a commodity. The two moments of this metamorphosis are at once distinct transactions by the weaver – selling, or the exchange of the commodity for money, and buying, or the exchange of the money for a commodity – and the unity of the two acts: selling in order to buy. (200)

Examining the process of exchange so far only from the perspective of one of the social actors who engage with this process (other perspectives will soon be added), Marx has therefore distinguished three distinct moments of the “same” overarching process – three different practical grappling hooks through which social actors who adopt a “single” performative goal can engage with a dimension of their social experience. Marx is gradually unfolding the practical, experiential basis – grounded in a set of “given relations” – for the development of specific interpretative stances that become collectively available for understanding those given relations. In this analysis, our practical engagement with dimensions of our everyday world generates so many experiential matrices within which interpretive crystals can grow. By breaking down the moments of our practical engagements with specific aspects of our social experience, Marx seeks to tether explicit interpretation and formal theory back to what we first experience practically, and then later come to reflect back upon and grasp in a conscious way.

Marx thus presents an analysis of how our collective practical experience provides repeated, widespread, shared opportunities for social actors to acquire specific dispositions, aptitudes, orientations, forms of perception, expectations, and habits of thought, because these forms of subjectivity are deployed as dimensions of socially routine interactions with other persons and objects. Each of these practical opportunities that opens up determinate potentials to understand aspects of our “given relations”, is also and simultaneously an opportunity to misunderstand those given relations in determinate ways: to the extent that an aspect of experience is inappropriately hypostatised, to the extent that social actors over-extrapolate from partial experiences to obscure other dimensions of their relations, there is the risk of particular kinds of “apotheosis”. Both the mistakes and the insights share the same practical basis: what differentiates the two is how selectively the practical potentials of given relations are cited – whether given relations are understood in a way that truncates and abridges, or in a way that opens up and expands, our sense of what sort of history we might make, using as our building blocks the materials provided by the disassembly of the conditions we have not chosen.

II. How the Process Vanishes in the Result

Returning to Marx’s analysis of the process of selling in order to buy: Marx breaks this process down into three moments: what he calls a “material content”; and what he calls two different changes of form. The material content, by which Marx means what I have described above as the overarching result of the process, has the form commodity-to-commodity – in Marx’s algebra, C-C. Marx argues that focussing solely on this result has the effect of obscuring the social specificity of the process through which this result has been achieved:

As far as concerns its material content, the movement is C-C, the exchange of one commodity for another, the metabolic interaction of social labour, in whose result the process itself becomes extinguished. (200)

Marx’s description – of a process whose result renders the process itself invisible – is another nod to Hegel, from whom Marx borrows this concept. Marx is again pointing to a practical, experiential basis for an aspect of Hegel’s method – and is also making convenient use of a Hegelian shorthand to hint at the nature of Marx’s own method, which involves re-situating the result in the context of the process that generates it, so that the result can be grasped as it has been “mediated” by social practices, rather than treated as a self-sufficient, given immediacy. Political economy, for Marx, tends to abstract from the particular social mediations through which a result is produced – disregarding forms of appearance to leap to an essence that is then treated as only contingently related to those forms. As a result, political economy tends to miss the social specificity even of the “essences” it grasps, treating these essences as material universals that subsist behind the flux of historical change, and thereby overlooking both the historical specificity of its own categories and the possibility to transform the social conditions on which those categories rely. As Marx expresses this point explicitly in a footnote later in this chapter:

There are two points here which are characteristic of the method of the bourgeoisie’s economic apologists. The first is the identification of the circulation of commodities with the direct exchange of products, achieved simply by abstracting from their differences. The second is the attempt to explain away the contradictions of the capitalist process of production by dissolving the relations between persons engaged in that process of production into the simple relations arising out of the circulation of commodities. The production and circulation of commodities are however phenomena which are to be found in the most diverse modes of production, even if they vary in extent and importance. If we are only familiar with the abstract categories of circulation, which are common to all of them, we cannot know anything of their differentia specifica, and we cannot therefore pronounce judgement on them. (ftnt 24, 209)

A critical analysis – an analysis that seeks to pass judgement on the forms it analyses – must, by contrast, grasp how categories are situated within a specific social and historical context. To make possible this sort of critical analysis, Marx’s “dialectical” method does not treat the material content or overarching result – or the steps through which this result has been realised in social practice – as independent, self-subsistent realities. Instead, his method tries to grasp these dimensions of social practice as moments of an interconnected whole, while also teasing out what these moments might become if they could be taken independently of this whole, as well as what contribution the whole itself currently makes to the characteristics of its moments.

To foreshadow in a preliminary way one of the themes I will analyse in greater detail below: one striking implication of Marx’s analysis is that what Marx calls the “material content” is not something that arises or subsists independently of social practices. Instead, the material content is treated as itself an emergent result of social practices of a very specific kind, which impart particular qualitative characteristics to that material content. In the context of this analysis, a particular kind of “material world” arises as a peculiar sort of social possibility – a consequence of a particular sort of interaction between objects and persons that provides practical experience of the possibility for a specific gestalt of what properties a “material world” ought to exhibit – properties, for example, of being a lawlike realm of interactions amongst material objects whose relations are understood to exist independently of human practice, and whose discovery is therefore interpreted as the result of a process of disenchantment – as the result of a process of abstracting from all contingent social determinations to leave behind an anthropologically neutral substratum of “natural” properties. The method of political economy – its habit of understanding its own insights as the result of stripping away “artificial” social determinations to reveal what is natural and timeless underneath those determinations – can be understood as a hypostatisation of this distinctive characteristic of the given relations Marx attempts to grasp in social and historical terms.

Like all other sensibilities Marx analyses in Capital, the intuition that there might be a natural world that can be thought “in itself”, independently of human determinations, as well as the intuition that there might be universal aspects of social life that recur throughout time, reproduced in and through changing constellations of social practice, are inspired or primed by particular kinds of contemporary practical experience. Some dimension of our collective experience of the production of capital renders intuitively plausible the potential for a material world that sits outside our social determinations. By resituating “material contents” back in the context of the social practices that generate them, Marx lays the foundation for grasping our intuitive sense of materiality – understood intuitively as something that is left behind once we have abstracted from any specific social determination – positioning this intuition as itself a very peculiar sort of social determination.

I will return to this concept at a later point, where it becomes possible to explain more adequately how Marx suggests we enact, as a peculiar sort of social phenomenon, practical opportunities to experience dimensions of our world as though their properties manifest an absence of social determinations. For present purposes, it suffices to be aware that one of Marx’s central analytical strategies in Capital involves re-situating what presents itself as given, immediate, “material” results – results like use-value, the process of social metabolism, the labour process, and other categories that are often misread as “transhistorical” categories in Capital – back into the context of the practices that produce those results in their current form. Rather than deriving social relations from a material base that is understood as contingently related to social practices and as somehow more ontologically fundamental, the analysis instead proceeds by demonstrating how specific material and social results are generated through determinate forms of practical activity. This is the type of analysis Marx is carrying out in this chapter, as he asks his readers not to leap directly to the material result, but to follow him as he breaks down how this result has been produced. Marx’s analysis then proceeds through a kind of analytical fission: starting with an apparently stable, solid, given phenomenon, it splits that phenomenon into constituent moments, and then splits those moments in turn, gradually unpacking a complex multiplicity whose combined effect was to generate the original “unity” with which the analysis began – a unity that now stands revealed as the emergent aggregate effect of a much more complex and dynamic underlying relation.

In this section, Marx explores how the result – the process of social metabolism, C-C – has been produced, by first examining the two moments that “mediate” or effect this result: the exchange of a commodity for money (C-M), and then the exchange of money for a commodity (M-C). Marx characterises both steps as metamorphoses of value – as movements in which the supersensible entity of value sheds one body and leaps into another, incarnating itself in a new material shell. This transubstantiation is precarious: Marx calls value’s leap from commodity to money its “salto mortale” (200). It is in this leap that value manifests its magnitude. As we have seen in the discussion of price, however, many factors aside from the magnitude of value determine the proportions in which a given commodity will actually exchange for gold: it is therefore possible for value’s leap to fall short, resulting in its incarnation into a quantity of money that does not reflect the amount of labour-time that would on average be required for the reproduction of the original commodity. For the next couple of pages, Marx explores some of the reasons this leap might fall short – in the process developing a more detailed sense of how he understands the concepts of value and socially average labour-time.

III. Speculative Matters

Marx describes money here as the commodity with “universal social validity” – the commodity that can be exchanged for any other. Ordinary commodities can acquire this kind of universal validity only by means of exchanging themselves for money. The problem is, as Marx sardonically points out:

That money, however, is in someone else’s pocket. (201)

Money owners have an inducement to spend, only to the degree that the commodity offered for sale meets one of their own needs. Actual labour, empirically expended in activities that produce material goods, can only assert itself successfully as part of the social division of labour – can only “count” as part of social labour – to the extent that it produces products that serve as use-values for owners of money (201). A product that serves as a use-value for persons who cannot express their needs through the medium of money counts as little – seen from the perspective of this particular process – as a product that does not serve as a use-value in a more generic sense: so long as social metabolism is mediated through the custom of transforming commodities into money, and money back into other commodities, the absolute absence of social interest in the production of a particular use-value, and the incapacity to pay for that use-value, have the same practical consequences. The labouring activities that successfully assert themselves as part of the social division of labour – and that can therefore reproduce themselves into the future – are those that produce goods that sell.

The decision to engage in productive activity of a particular kind, however, takes place without certain knowledge that the goods will sell at a price sufficient to reproduce the original process of production. Marx portrays this speculative process – operating “behind the backs of the producers of commodities” – in images that suggest a ferment of potential productive activities that is simultaneously responsive to, and creative of, social needs:

But the division of labour is an organization of production which has been, and continues to be, woven behind the backs of the producers of commodities. Perhaps the commodity is the product of a new kind of labour, and claims to satisfy a newly-arisen need, or is even trying to bring forth a new need on its own account. Perhaps a particular operation, although yesterday it still formed one out of the many operations conducted by one producer in creating a given commodity, may today tear itself out of this framework, establish itself as an independent branch of labour, and send part of its product to market as an independent commodity. (201)

This roiling, creative, but ultimately blind process cannot guarantee the success of all the productive activities independently undertaken. Marx runs through some of the reasons:

The circumstances may or may not be ripe for such a separation. Today a product satisfies a social need. Tomorrow it may perhaps be expelled partly or completely from its place by a similar product. (201)

Even where a productive activity yields products that satisfy an existing social need, this does not guarantee the success of those products on the market. All needs are bounded quantitatively as well as qualitatively: only so much of any particular good is useful; beyond that limit, and the result is the same as if the good satisfied no social need at all. As Marx expresses this point:

Moreover, although our weaver’s labour may be a recognized branch of the social division of labour, yet that fact is by no means sufficient to guarantee the utility of his 20 yards of linen. If society’s need for linen – and such a need has a limit like every other need – has already been satisfied by the products of rival weavers, our friend’s product is superfluous, redundant and consequently useless. (201)

In addition, sales are separated in time from production: the conversion of the commodity into money lags behind and, in the dynamic environment generated by speculative production, new productive techniques and organisational innovations are constantly introduced. The possibility exists for a commodity to be produced in line with what had, at the time of production, been the socially average labour-time, only to see this measure redetermined before the commodity can sell. In Marx’s words, if we assume the commodity owner has conformed to socially necessary labour-time in the act of production:

The price of the commodity, therefore, is merely the money-name of the quantity of social labour objectified in it. But now the old-established conditions of production in weaving are thrown into the melting-pot, without the permission of, and behind the back of, our weaver. What was yesterday undoubtedly labour-time socially necessary to the production of a yard of linen ceases to be so today, a fact which the owner of the money is only too eager to prove from the prices quoted by our friend’s competitors. Unluckily for the weaver, people of his kind are in plentiful supply. (202)

The presence of multiple producers of similar goods – and thus the possibility for competition amongst those producers – exerts a coercive, levelling force that abstracts from the empirically necessary conditions of production at the time that production took place, and imposes on all producers the need to conform to a constantly-redetermined, ever-present social norm.

Moreover, even if each of these competitors conforms to the current social norm in their productive techniques, it is still possible – as suggested above – for the total quantity of a particular kind of good to exceed the social demand that can be expressed at a price that would be sufficient to ensure the reproduction of the whole amount of labour that has been empirically expended to produce that total product. In a competitive environment, the consequence, all other things being equal, is a general reduction in price, such that price falls below the proper expression of the value objectified in the commodities sold. In Marx’s words:

Let us suppose, finally, that every piece of linen on the market contains nothing but socially necessary labour-time. In spite of this, all the pieces taken as a whole may contain superfluously expended labour-time. If the market cannot stomach the whole quantity at the normal price of 2 shillings a yard, this proves that too great a portion of the total social labour-time has been expended in the form of weaving. The effect is the same as if each weaver had expended more labour-time on his particular product than was socially necessary. As the German proverb has it: caught together, hung together. (202)

Looked at as an aggregate, social demand – as this demand is articulable in money – has both qualitative and quantitative limits. These limits together determine how social labour should be organised, how productive energies should be allocated, in order to meet these monetisable needs. The quantitative limit of the demand for a particular good determines the total amount of money that will be exchanged for goods of any particular type, an amount that must somehow be partitioned amongst all the goods of that type, whether or not this partition makes possible the reproduction of the original productive activities. As Marx writes:

All the linen on the market counts as one single article of commerce, and each piece of linen is only an aliquot part of it. And in fact the value of each single yard is also nothing but the materialization of the same socially determined quantity of homogeneous human labour. (202)

To the extent that this amount of money falls below the proper expression of the value of those goods – to the extent that it does not permit the reproduction of the original productive activity in its original form – this signals that society as a whole has overinvested its empirical productive energies in the production of a particular kind of product. The result of this overinvestment is a fall in price that, if sustained over time, will prevent the reproduction of some of the labour-time currently invested in this particular activity, and thereby reduce the aggregate productive energies devoted to this activity.

At this point in the text, it becomes clear that the concept of “socially average labour-time” refers to more than just socially average levels of productivity that need to be maintained through the adoption of socially standard productive techniques. In the context of this passage, “socially average labour-time” refers also to the amount of time, on average, society as a whole devotes to some particular productive activity – the amount of its total collective energies that should be expended in some specific form. The expenditure, in aggregate, of greater or less than socially average labour-time tends to generate consequences – in the form of rising or falling prices – that drive the aggregate allocation of labouring activities closer to this implicit social norm. These two senses of socially average labour-time – labour-time that conforms to socially average levels of productivity, and the aggregate expenditure of no more than the socially average amount of a certain kind of labour – are related to one another, in ways Marx has not yet gathered the resources to discuss explicitly. I will leave this topic aside, in order to present more systematically the theme Marx is exploring here: the ways in which a particular social division of labour is achieved via commodity production and exchange.

Marx suggests that, in aggregate, the system of commodity production and exchange achieves the effect of organising the productive energies of society as a whole – organising the total social labour, inasmuch as this labour orients itself to engage with monetised demand – into the qualitative and quantitative forms that are demanded. The social process through which the division of labour is achieved, however, does not take place transparently – as might be achieved through, for example, intersubjectively meaningful customs or explicit plans that organise the productive process directly. Instead, the organisation of the social division of labour takes place behind the backs of producers, effected through the mediation of practices that are not aiming directly to achieve some particular vision of how productive activities in aggregate ought to be organised at the level of society as a whole. The social division of labour thus emerges as an unintentional side effect of other sorts of social practices – and, as a consequence, never achieves a stable equilibrium. Instead, social production is cobbled together from speculative activities that career constantly from over- to under-production in a never-ending pursuit of monetisable social demand, with consequences that are often calamitous for producers. Marx sardonically characterises this haphazard process as a love story, in which producers of commodities attempt to woo fickle owners of money, with unpredictable results:

We see then that commodities are in love with money, but that ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. (202)

Over time, this fitful romance has the effect of redirecting aggregate productive energies, reorganising the social division of labour through an endless series of uncoordinated private actions that, in aggregate, tend to calibrate social production more precisely with monetisable demand. The result, to revisit a passage we have discussed previously, is the coercive reduction of productive activities down to the proportions in which those activities are socially required:

… 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. The reason for this reduction is that 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 falls on top of him (168).

In this chapter, Marx characterises this reduction of labouring activities in the following way:

The quantitative articulation [Gleiderung] of society’s productive organism, by which its scattered elements are integrated into the system of the division of labour, is as haphazard and spontaneous as its qualitative articulation. The owners of commodities therefore find out that the same division of labour which turns them into independent private producers also makes the social process of production and the relations of individuals to each other within that process independent of the producers themselves; they also find out that the independence of the individuals from each other has as its counterpart and supplement a system of all-round material dependence. (202-203)

Social actors thus find themselves positioned as isolated individuals, apparently devoid of social connections to one another, at least in the form of intersubjective ties, and yet bound together by material bonds. Marx has previously characterised this social experience as “real” – not illusory:

In other words, the labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. 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. (165-166)

The object of Marx’s critical analysis is therefore not to debunk or dismiss social actors’ reactions to their social experiences, as though these reactions were somehow imaginary, but rather to investigate how this strange social situation is generated, albeit unintentionally, through their own practice. Through his analysis, Marx is therefore trying to show how social actors could generate a peculiar form of social relation that confronts them as an absence of social relations – as the domination of persons by the logic of a material world that they experience as an alien force. Marx is beginning to unspool a practical analysis of how a set of given relations, generated by a particular kind of social interaction, and interpolating specific kinds of interactions with objects, can come to assume such a fantastic shape.

I suggested above that one implication of Marx’s argument is that the “material world” – intuitively understood as an “objective” external world of material forces that operate free form contingent social determinations – will itself be shown, in the course of his argument, to be a peculiar sort of social determination. In passages like the one quoted above, Marx begins to suggest some of the practical experiences that enact this distinctive social experience of materiality: Marx argues here that a social process results in a peculiar kind of social relation – mediated by material objects – that is enacted, and experienced, as something independent of the very persons who enact it. The gestalt sense that a “material world” stands separate from, and autonomous in relation to, humans who interact with that world – the sense that humans are governed by independent “material” laws – is, within the context generated by this particular social relation, simply a matter of everyday social experience. If the practical genesis of this social experience is not understood, the qualitative attributes of this peculiar interaction between people and other kinds of objects – attributes which are perfectly real and consequential within this specific social context – can come to be interpreted as though they arise, not from the contingent interaction within which objects have come to be suspended, but instead from intrinsic properties that material objects possess independently or from laws that intrinsically govern relations between material objects, once artificial human conventions have been stripped away.

There is creative potential even in such a misinterpretation: the intuition that there might be a material world governed by its own autonomous laws that stand independent from human systems of meaning, provides the basis for the development of modern forms of science, which then develop their own distinctive practical techniques for determining the properties and laws of a material world. That a social experience might have helped render more intuitive or plausible the gestalt of an independent, lawlike material world – that the development of the modern sciences might owe something to the accidental practical intuitions incubated by a blind social process – cannot be used, reductively, to debunk what the sciences have helped to create from this historical condition that was not of their own choosing. Marx’s critical goals necessitate a rejection of this kind of reductive move: to do otherwise would be to call into question his claim that potentials generated within this historical context could be appropriated and repurposed to different ends, in order to create very different forms of collective life. If the raw materials of our social experience were limited to the conditions that gave rise to them, Marx could not maintain that we could make new history from our accidental inheritance. The materials ready to hand are not, of course, infinitely pliable – they exert their own impacts and generate their own qualitative characteristics that shape what can be made from them. At the same time, however, these materials are also not frozen permanently in the form in which they present themselves to us now: at least some of their current impacts and characteristics relate to relationships in which they are suspended, and are therefore not intrinsic to the materials themselves. By distinguishing the consequences of the current relations from the potential consequences of the disaggregable moments of those relations, Marx thus attempts to open a space for practical improvisation with the materials that historically lie ready to hand.

Although this point cannot be developed fully at this stage in our engagement with Marx’s text, it is worth foreshadowing that this practical association of material objects with a world of objective laws independent of human beings, also helps to crystallise out a contrasting gestalt of the “social world”. The social world comes to be intuitively grasped by contrast to the material world – that is to say, the social world is grasped as something not alien and devoid of human purpose, but instead as the world of practices that are visibly human products because they are intersubjectively meaningful to social actors and – as will become clearer later in Capital – also because these dimensions of experience are often shown to be transformable and, therefore, visibly contingent in practice. This intersubjectively-meaningful world intuitively comes to appear to be the product of human practices – and is therefore more prone to attract critical attention because it is perceived as something human practice can transform. The category of the “social world” – the experience of a dimension of everyday experience that is potentially contingent and variable, and that may be subject to transformation through conscious human practice – is therefore also suggested by practical experience, as a socially intuitive and plausible gestalt concept. This concept is potentially politically explosive, exposing a whole category of social experience as potentially contingent and subject to transformation. The foundational critical concept of the social world thus also emerges as an accidental insight that can be appropriated for emancipatory political ends.

The categories of the material and social worlds become, in Marx’s own work, critical tools, that, although grounded in a practical process that makes these categories widely available as accidental insights of our own contingent historical experiences, can be appropriated for the purpose of exposing potentials for transformation. In Marx’s analysis, however, this same practical process also generates the potential for pernicious forms of hypostatisation – for applications of these categories, not to release creative social energies, but to dam those energies into the endless reproduction of aspects of our collective life in their present form. Where the “social world” is intuitively understood to relate to intersubjectively meaningful practices, other aspects of social experience can be grouped into the category of the “material world”, and perceived to be independent of human control. This division within our intuitive impression of aspects of our collective experience can operate to channel political impulses one-sidedly into transformations of those elements of social experience that are easiest to experience as contingent – while also systematically channelling political energies away from those dimensions of our experience that we interpret intuitively as arising from the inherent laws or properties of the “material world”.

In Marx’s account, social actors correctly experience themselves to be confronted by a world of objects governed by objective, lawlike forces that operate independently of the conscious will of social actors, and to which social actors are compelled to adapt. What confronts them in this manner, however, is nothing intrinsic to the material world or to the requirements of material reproduction: it is, instead, the consequences of their own aggregate practices, generated by the peculiar social forms in which they interact with material objects to achieve certain material results. To use Marx’s phrase, this contingent social process vanishes in its own material result: when social actors try to examine this material consequence in isolation from the process that brought that consequence about, they miss the contingency of the process – and thus hinder their own ability to reconfigure the conditions they did not choose, to make for themselves a new sort of history. Instead, they can end up directing political energies toward intuitively “social” dimensions of their collective experience, while treating intuitively “material” dimensions of their experience as environmental constraints to which they have no choice but to adapt. In the process, they can find themselves endlessly reproducing an “environment” that they experience as form of domination, even as they transform other aspects of their social experience without recognising that this environment is also arises as an unintended consequence of their own aggregate practices. I will return to theme in greater detail below, as our discussion of the text makes it possible to examine more completely the implications of Marx’s analysis.

IV. Homogenous Labour

Returning to the more immediate concerns of the text: the categories of value and human labour in the abstract, the text suggests, make sense as tendencies implicit in the constant flux of a dynamic process. Considered as an aggregate, this process operates as if society possessed a certain quantity of aggregate labour-time in an unformed state – Marx describes it here as “homogeneous human labour” (202) – which needs to be allocated into concrete labouring activities that generate goods with particular qualities, in specific amounts. This unformed “homogeneous” labour – what Marx calls “human labour in the abstract” in Capital‘s opening chapter – haunts the sensible world in which perceptible labouring activities are empirically undertaken, due to the objective social uncertainty over whether particular labouring activities will succeed in “counting” as part of social labour by securing a sufficient proportion of monetised demand (203-205).

In this context, money operates as a material object invested with the special power of confirming, retroactively, the amount of social labour that “ought” to have been spent in particular productive activities. It performs this role by exchanging – or by failing to exchange – with particular goods in amounts that allow the reproduction of the labouring activities that produced those goods in the first place. As an objective store of unformed, potential social labour-time, waiting to be allocated to particular goods, money gives material form to the concept of abstract labour – or, to express the same point in a more pragmatist formulation: our mundane experience with the everyday operation of money provides a practical basis for the category of abstract labour.

However strange it may sound when stated abstractly, we all manipulate the palpable material incarnation of “homogeneous labour-time” on a regular basis, just as we all routinely participate in the transubstantiation of this homogeneous labour-time into palpable, concrete, empirical labouring activities. We perform such seemingly magical acts every time we participate in the exotic social ritual whereby homogeneous labour-time is invested in the products of various concrete labouring activities, realising their value. We do this, in other words, when we shop. In the process, we play our small part in the process of allocating a modicum of the total abstract social labour to the concrete activities that have produced our favoured goods.

Marx expresses this unusual anthropological vision of money particularly evocatively in a passage from the first edition of Capital:

It is as if, alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds of species, subspecies, families, etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed in addition The Animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom.

In this analysis, then, money functions as a real abstraction: it operates as a socially-valid material store of latent social labour-time. This stored social labour-time is abstract and homogeneous, divested of any specific qualitative form, precisely because, so long as it remains stored in money, it has not yet realised itself in any palpable form of empirical production: instead, it lies waiting for money-owners to perform the actions that will invest it in some specific concrete activity.

Money’s power to direct social labour-time is perfectly real – grounded in its social function as measure of value. Until money invests itself in the products of some particular concrete labouring activity, however, this power remains latent, unrealised: unspent money remains only a store of abstract, unrealised – and therefore homogeneous and undifferentiated – social labour-time, waiting to embody itself in some kind of concrete and palpable expression in a specific sensuous productive activity.

Ordinary commodities, by contrast, derive from real, empirical labouring activities that are concrete and possess a determinate qualitative form. Those activities, however, even if they have already been carried out, are nevertheless only potential social labour-time: empirical labouring activities are undertaken speculatively, without certain knowledge that they will attract sufficient money and thereby successfully assert themselves as part of the social division of labour. Marx expresses this contrast of ordinary commodities and money:

But what is the commodity exchanged for? For the universal shape assumed by its own value. And what is gold exchanged for? For a particular form of its own use-value. Why does gold confront the linen as money? Because the linen’s price of £2, its money-name, already brings it into relation with the gold as money. The commodity is divested of its original form through its sale, i.e. the moment its use-value actually attracts the gold, which previously had a merely imaginary existence in its price. The realization of the commodity’s price, or of its merely ideal value-form, is therefore at the same time, and inversely, the realization of the merely ideal use-value of money… (203)

This contrast between money and ordinary commodities effects a practical distinction between two contrasting realms of everyday experience. On the one hand, there is the realm of speculative labouring activities that have been empirically undertaken – an empirically-sensible, potentially knowable collection of phenomena. On the other, there is the realm of “social labour” – an abstract, unrealised, latent potential – an inner essence of material things, incarnated in a material object with special social powers, whose contents remain intrinsically unknowable as it exists in itself, prior to being brought into relation with the products of human activities: the noumenal realm of the real abstraction of money.

This disjoint between sensuous empirical labouring activities and the abstraction of latent and homogeneous social labour is rendered more severe by the lack of any necessity for money to be spent on commodities in amounts proportionate to the labour-time empirically required to reproduce their forms of concrete production. The aggregate actions of money-owners can invest such a low amount of abstract social labour into a particular concrete labouring activity that this activity cannot be reproduced in its current form. Alternatively, these actions can invest such a high amount of abstract social labour into a concrete labouring activity that this activity is disproportionately treated as worth vastly more social labour than is empirically required to reproduce it. Marx describes this process as a change of form that may result in “an abnormal loss or accretion of substance”:

The division of labour converts the product of labour into a commodity, and thereby makes necessary its conversion into money. At the same time, it makes it a matter of chance whether this transubstantiation succeeds or not… if the process is to take place at all, i.e. if the commodity is not impossible to sell, a change of form must occur, although there may be an abnormal loss or accretion of substance – that is, of the magnitude of value. (203)

In this analysis, then, objectified social labour – materialised in money – directs the allocation of social labour amongst empirical labouring activities, but only retroactively, after those activities have already been carried out, and without any overarching conscious coordination. The socially average labour-time that “ought” to be devoted to a particular productive activity therefore emerges as a long-term pattern within the flux of realised prices. Social actors may attempt to anticipate this pattern and conform their practices to it: their actions, however, remain irreducibly speculative, since the actions of money-owners are not driven by any overarching intention to create some particular social division of labour, and their preferences are therefore revealed only after the fact, at which point a process of coercive reduction of empirical labouring activities must take place.

Until commodities succeed in switching their original forms for money, they remain at best potential products of social labour: hopeful suitors casting their wooing glances in money’s direction (205). It is impossible, however, to know in advance to whose charms money will submit. The future subset of labouring activities that will achieve recognition as part of social labour is contained within the broader universe of labouring activities that have been speculatively undertaken. Out of joint with its own tie, synchronically unknowable, this subset possesses no discernible material substance of its own: at any given moment, the subset is simply a ghost, haunting the aggregate of labouring activities actually undertaken, indeterminate in its qualities and quantities because its determination is effected retroactively, visible only in the form of aggregate statistical tendencies that play themselves out in the reproduction or extinction of labouring activities over time.

This immanent pattern, which can never be directly perceived, but which can be retroactively deduced by analysing the success and failure of speculative labouring activities over time, is what Marx describes in terms of the “supersensible” entities of value and abstract labour. Abstract labour is the unknown subset of society’s productive energy that will successfully be allocated to some particular combination of productive activities, enabling them to assert themselves successfully as part of “social labour”. Value is the unknown proportion of that labour that has empirically been invested in the production of particular goods, which will ultimately succeed in counting as part of socially necessary labour-time. Such categories reflect the valid social experience of engaging with a social world characterised by a practical disjoint between total empirical labouring activities, and some smaller subset that gets to count as “social labour” over the long run. In such a context, the qualitative and quantitative articulation of social labour, effected blindly as an aggregate result of practices oriented to other goals, operates at any given moment in time as a “supersensible” norm to which empirical labours are constantly attempting to conform themselves, but whose composition cannot directly be known.

The practical experience of trying to adapt one’s activities to an overarching norm whose substantive requirements never come clearly into view, grounds the social validity of the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” attributed to commodities – as objects that really are caught up in the complex mediation between the world of immediate empirical experience, and the intangible, temporally disjoint, world of value and abstract labour – between what we actually do, and the ability of our actions to “count” when submitted to the trial of market exchange. We thus draw socially valid distinctions between use-value and exchange-value, between exchange-value and value, between empirical labour and human labour in the abstract. The “supersensible” members of these categories are just as real, just as consequential for practice, as their more directly tangible counterparts. In complex ways not yet spelled out fully in the text, the qualitative characteristics of both the sensible and the supersensible dimensions of this overarching social process shape one another, and are shaped in turn by their joint suspension within a larger whole. I will return to this theme as the analysis of Marx’s text provides the resources to understand his claims more fully. First, however, we need to explore Marx’s analysis of the “second metamorphosis” – in which money is exchanged for commodities, completing the circuit of commodity circulation – and then move through Marx’s analysis of further social functions of money, following the steps through which he opens the path to derive the category of capital.

One response to “Thesis Workshop: Forms of Motion

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