So I’ve been deeply remiss in not making a contribution to the reading group Nate has called on the first volume of Capital – currently focussing on chapter 25, although Nate started us off with some nice reflections on chapter 23. A nice discussion has been underway at Duncan’s blog, jumping off from some observations on Marx’s sarcasm, and developing into a discussion of the meaning and implications of different conceptions of class consciousness. JCD has been kind enough to set up a feed for the reading group – if anyone would like to dive in, and isn’t listed in JCD’s aggregator, give a shout.
I’ll say at the outset that I won’t be able to write much for the group at the moment. What I want to do instead – as a sort of promissory note for later analysis – is to point out the way in which this chapter makes an explicit loop back to the opening chapter of Capital in the closing line of its first section (p. 772 in Penguin):
Just as man is governed, in religion, by the products of his own brain so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand.
The internal textual reference here is, of course, to the passage where Marx christens the commodity fetish. In that earlier passage, the text suggests that the fetish character of commodities arises in and through a distinctive kind of contingent historical interaction that develops between humans and other objects – uniquely, in Marx’s account, in the capitalist era. Within this interaction, material objects – including the physiological dimensions of human objects – come to be seen as possessing a distinctive kind of “objectivity” – or, to say the same thing another way, a distinctively modern form of “materiality” comes to be enacted in our collective practices.
To pick out this distinctive form of interaction, Marx distinguishes it from two other, superficially similar, sorts of interactions that result in the perception of something “objective”: he first examines the interaction between the eye and the objects it perceives – arguing that it is the relation between the eye and its object that generates the optical perception, and yet perception is generally understood to arise entirely from the activity of the object, while the eye is understood as a passive recipient of stimuli external to itself; he next examines the purely social interaction between persons who share religious practices and beliefs – arguing that belief in invisible beings arises from an intersubjective interaction among humans, and yet those beings are taken by believers to be external objective causes of the intersubjective interaction that brings them into being.
Commodity fetishism, for Marx, shares aspects of both of these forms of one-sided attribution of objectivity: like the relationship between the eye and the objects of perception, commodity fetishism involves an interaction between humans and other sorts of objects – it does not arise solely from intersubjectively shared frameworks of meaning or networks of beliefs; like the products of religious practice, however, commodity fetishism is a purely social – and therefore contingent and transformable – phenomenon. Marx expresses this point in much the same language to which he returns in chapter 25, saying:
There [in religious belief] the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter in relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (165)
In the first use of this language, we appear to be talking about “commodity production”. By chapter 25, this same language is used to describe “capitalist production”. On the way from there to here, Marx unfolds the argument that generalised commodity production – the existence of a social system in which the commodity appears self-evidently as the elementary form of social wealth – can only exist on the basis of capitalist production. As we follow the developing argument, we learn that the opening chapter always already pointed toward its conditions of possibility – conditions that Marx unspools all the way through the text to the point that, in chapter 25, he is ready to gesture back and say (in his maddeningly indirect way) to his readers: Now. Here. At this point in the text. What the fetish character always already depended on, we can now say explicitly. The promissory note from chapter one can now – Marx thinks – be cashed out. And the discussion that cashes it out is one in which Marx can finally say explicitly what he thinks the “objective social” patterns are, that political economy erroneously reads off onto the inherent nature of material production or material life as such.
This chapter therefore marks the culmination of one of the longest dramatic arcs of Capital – an arc that stretches from chapter one to chapter 25, a textual loop that closes here with a much more explicit discussion of what Marx had in mind when he hints in the opening chapter at some sort of meaningless, unintended, but still historically contingent and social, practices that generate a historically distinctive and unique form of materiality. Several other dramatic arcs have been opened and closed in the interim, while this long arc remained unresolved. It is only at this point that Marx feels he can explicitly cash out what he implies in the discussion of the commodity fetish. The internal textual reference hints that we should flip back, review and revise, and perhaps change our minds again about what the opening chapter was trying to achieve.
I’ll have to break off here – apologies – too much other work to write more… More later, I hope…