Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Abstraction Before Us

Marx starts what is now published as the introduction to the Grundrisse:

The object before us, to begin with, material production.

It takes over 800 pages of manuscript before he arrives at the starting point he retains in Capital:

(1) Value

This section to be brought forward.

The first category in which bourgeois wealth presents itself is that of the commodity. The commodity itself appears as unity of two aspects. It is use value, i.e. object of the satisfaction of any system whatever of human needs. This is its material side, which the most disparate epochs of production may have in common, and whose examination therefore lies beyond political economy. Use value falls within the realm of political economy as soon as it becomes modified by the modern relations of production, or as it, in turn, intervenes to modify them. What it is customary to say about it in general terms, for the sake of good form, is confined to commonplaces which had a historic value in the first beginnings of the science, when the social forms of bourgeois production had still laboriously to be peeled out of the material, and, at great effort, to be established as independent objects of study. In fact, however, the use value of the commodity is a given presupposition — the material basis in which a specific economic relation presents itself. It is only this specific relation which stamps the use value as a commodity. Wheat, e.g., possesses the same use value, whether cultivated by slaves, serfs or free labourers. It would not lose its use value if it fell from the sky like snow. Now how does use value become transformed into commodity? Vehicle of exchange value. Although directly united in the commodity, use value and exchange value just as directly split apart. Not only does the exchange value not appear as determined by the use value, but rather, furthermore, the commodity only becomes a commodity, only realizes itself as exchange value, in so far as its owner does not relate to it as use value. He appropriates use values only through their sale [Entäusserung], their exchange for other commodities. Appropriation through sale is the fundamental form of the social system of production, of which exchange value appears as the simplest, most abstract expression. The use value of the commodity is presupposed, not for its owner, but rather for the society generally. (Just as a Manchester family of factory workers, where the children stand in the exchange relation towards their parents and pay them room and board, does not represent the traditional economic organization of the family, so is the system of modern private exchange not the spontaneous economy of societies. Exchange begins not between the individuals within a community, but rather at the point where the communities end — at their boundary, at the point of contact between different communities. Communal property has recently been rediscovered as a special Slavonic curiosity. But, in fact, India offers us a sample chart of the most diverse forms of such economic communities, more or less dissolved, but still completely recognizable; and a more thorough research into history uncovers it as the point of departure of all cultured peoples. The system of production founded on private exchange is, to begin with, the historic dissolution of this naturally arisen communism. However, a whole series of economic systems lies in turn between the modern world, where exchange value dominates production to its whole depth and extent, and the social formations whose foundation is already formed by the dissolution of communal property, without

[Here the manuscript breaks off.]

It will not be until the second edition of Capital that Marx settles upon the specific presentation of the distinction between value and exchange-value that I have analysed in the detail in my thesis. (For exhaustive comparisons of Capital’s various editions, see Hans Ehrbar’s site.)

In 1857, however, Marx begins – not with the bifurcated commodity – not with the real abstraction of value – but with material production. We can see already, in this beginning, the struggle to assert that this starting point is historically and socially specific, in spite of the apparent transhistoricity of the category.

Marx’s first gloss on the term “material production” is “Individuals producing in Society”. He immediately qualifies that individuals are not an a priori given, but rather an historical result – the product of many past developments, but misrecognised as an originary starting point for historical development. This misrecognition – a projection of historical results back into prehistory – is itself peculiarly ahistorical at this moment in the text. All times, Marx suggests, make this kind of projection from the historical results they find ready to hand:

Smith and Ricardo still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets, in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual – the product on one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century – appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure. As the Natural Individual appropriate to their notion of human nature, not arising historically, but posited by nature. This illusion has been common to each new epoch to this day.

By Capital, even projections back onto prehistory have their historical index – even illusions have their differentia specifica. At this earlier point, Marx is still wrestling with the historicity of his own categories: this illusion is common to all new epochs – but not this exact illusion – Marx qualifies – the illusion of individuals as originary requires a very specific historical constellation.

This leads him to qualify his opening sentence: our object is material production – but, when we speak of this, we don’t mean the sort of socially general, transhistorical category this term implies:

Whenever we speak of production, then, what is meant is always production at a definite stage of social development

This attempt to locate the concept doesn’t feel quite right either. It implies the need to talk about historical origins, to declare upfront the social specificity of the category (and we all know from Capital how very far Marx is capable of taking his intense reluctance to declare his presuppositions up front…). Marx’s reluctance to make the dogmatic declaration – to presuppose or declare a priori that his analysis will be historically bounded – leads him to point out that it’s an empirical matter, really, what aspects of production are historically specific:

Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations. Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them

This still doesn’t satisfy. Marx retreats immediately to emphasising the historical element, which forms the “essential difference”:

however even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten.

This formulation suggests that what is historical is precisely what is not general – and that the historicising move, therefore – the move that would grasp the “essential difference” – is the move that picks out the particular, and discards the general and common elements that can be found in diverse eras. The problem with political economy, Marx says here, is that it mixes up the particular and the general – it gets the general wrong – it projects the particular back onto epochs in which it cannot be found.

He thinks here about the ways in which production can be particular, and arrives at two sorts of particularity: the particularity of different sorts of production within a time (different branches of industry); and the particularity of a time itself, encompassing the various branches that mesh together at a given moment to form a totality. Both forms of particularity are contrasted with “production in general”.

The political economists seek general preconditions of production, but what they find are simple tautologies. Marx argues that this result arises because their aim is in fact not to derive such general principles, but rather to demonstrate that bourgeois relations are grounded in timeless natural law. Abstract away enough from the particular form of production characteristic of our own moment, and you can find characteristics so inextricably bound to production that they can be treated as intrinsic requirements. Declare, reductively, that these intrinsic requirements are the essential core of contemporary production – and the slide quickly to the conclusion that contemporary production therefore manifests the essential core of production as such.

Marx tries to turn now from this first pass at working out how his own categories contrast with those of political economy. His instinct tells him that the difference relates to the level of historical specificity of the categories – but has the preceding discussion captured what the political economists miss?

He introduces new categories: exchange, consumption. These hold his attention for some pages, but the original problem still nags: how are his own categories indexed to history – and how are the categories of political economy not – particularly when he is wielding categories like “production”, “exchange”, and “consumption” – which on their face sound like transhistorical terms?

I’ve previously analysed the section titled “The Method of Political Economy” (among many other places on the blog here, and also buried midway through this thesis chapter), and I won’t repeat that detailed discussion again. I write this post instead to place that discussion in the context of the earlier sections of this introduction. It is with this section that Marx finally begins to place his problem on the terrain he will continue to develop through the writing of Capital: the terrain of real abstraction.

In this section, it is possible to watch Marx pivot to a more sophisticated understanding of an impulse that must initially be seen as more visceral than explicitly reasoned through: he claims his categories are historically specific, but rejects the option of using categories that, because they are concrete seem more self-evidently historically-bounded – something seems right to him about holding on to the abstraction. He starts out in this section – as in the passages analysed above – trying to rationalise the appeal of abstract categories on empiricist grounds: ultimately, there simply are certain things that transcend historical epochs, and so general categories are important to capture these things. As above, he can’t resist the impulse immediately to qualify his own argument, delving into details and exceptions, asking himself questions, and answering himself “That depends”.

Then he finds his way to the category of labour. Here is where he finally hits it. “Labour” as a category encompassing all sorts of variegated human activity is – precisely in its abstractness – a quintessentially modern category. It is only with a rich development of the division of labour, the experience of mobility across forms of labour, a level of practical indifference to specific labouring activities in some dimension of social practice, that this category achieves what Marx here calls a “practical truth as an abstraction”. This is the issue – this will continue to be the issue, even after Marx decides to replace “material production” with the “commodity” as his starting point: the analysis of material production now requires an analysis of abstractions. Not abstractions that arise in the head. Not abstractions that can be reasoned out by looking at many societies across time, and asking what they all have in common. But abstractions that we produce as social realities…

Getting late here now, and I have an early start, so enough on this for tonight… I’ve analysed this passage in enough detail in earlier posts that it’s likely better to point back to those in any event…

Apologies for the long silences on the blog this term. It’s been extraordinarily hectic, in ways that will likely still take a while to resolve. I’ve been missing the space, though, and hope to be more active online soon.

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5 responses to “The Abstraction Before Us

  1. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Hunger Is Hunger

  2. roger May 13, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Yay! You are back!

  3. N Pepperell May 13, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    lol :-) Thanks roger :-) By rights I probably shouldn’t be back – huge amounts still to do – but this is where I think things through, so it’s had a dulling effect to post as little as I have recently…

  4. roger May 14, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Also, more concretely, I like this post – in particular, the way you have centered on how conceptual strategies emerge for Marx not in terms of completed, finished conceptual structures, but precisely the opposite – in terms of opportunities that carry with them perhaps toxic assumptions. Because of course it is about “stages” and “development” – about characterizing a movement that is both in history and that defines history.

  5. N Pepperell May 14, 2009 at 1:09 am

    Yes – this is nice:

    conceptual strategies emerge for Marx not in terms of completed, finished conceptual structures, but precisely the opposite – in terms of opportunities that carry with them perhaps toxic assumptions

    Most readings of Marx that emphasise vocabulary of stages and development, though, miss the… immanence that you’ve drawn attention to above – miss that he is talking about something that is “sunk in” to the phenomenon he wants to grasp. They also often miss the… matter-of-factness with which he applies these sorts of concepts – the way that he takes for granted that, of course, you build history from history – so whatever you end up with comes out of what came before it, because the way you make things, for Marx, is by transforming what lies to hand.

    So you can tell a story about how the past led to the present – but that story is a non-necessary one – or becomes necessary only from our perspective, only given that it’s us, looking back narcissistically, as it were, and myopically, caught up in our present concerns, and looking for the raw materials and precedents that led to ourselves. By the same token, what follows us will be built out of us, by us – and in that sense be our heir. But it’s a political game, what form those later historical periods take.

    Marx will rally the troops from time to time with reassurances about the “inevitability” of their victory, but his theory tells another story – as does his consistent reluctance to speculate about the details of a socialist society: something that would be built by other creatures, preoccupied by the concerns of their own moment, which we can’t foresee…

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