Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Valued Matter

Nate continues to work his way toward chapter 25, so hopefully I don’t need to feel too guilty at putting another brief, drive-by comment on the chapter… Chapter 25 begins with what is by this point a familiar bifurcation – analysing the category of capital as this category can be understood “as value” and “as material” (762). The temptation is to hear this recurrent dichotomy as an indication that the material can be severed in some sense from its form – such that form could potentially be stripped away, leaving behind nothing but a pure materiality. I have argued in a number of different posts that this is not Marx’s position – that he aims himself throughout many works at any attempt to argue that there used to be history – used to be form – used to be social artifice – but now (or in the communist future to come) only nature, only the bare and essential requirements of material reproduction – will remain. Instead, I have suggested, the strategy is more to demonstrate that materiality itself is historical – that materiality has taken other forms in the past, is enacted in a contingent and transient form now, and could potentially be reconstituted in new forms in the future. The question isn’t “how do we strip away the artificial social form from the material essence?”, but “what new form of materiality can we create next?”

Marx relies on various distinctions in this chapter that I can’t adequately unpack without backing up some ways into the text – as Nate is currently doing in his preparatory readings and notes. I’ll therefore leave aside a close reading for the moment and concentrate on a few gestural comments. First is simply to note the centrality of growth – the compulsion to grow – throughout this chapter. This compulsion is contradictory. It is marked by conflicting tendencies to phase out the necessity for human labour by increasing productivity, on the one hand, and pressures to reconstitute the necessity for human labour in new forms, on the other.

The consequence is a peculiar sort of social necessity for the expenditure of human labour that is distinct from the importance of human labour as a motive force in the production of goods. As technological development increases productivity – as it becomes possible to produce a given amount of material goods with less and less investment of human labour – human labour finds itself evicted from the productive process. This expulsion of human labour-power from the immediate process of production does not diminish the material wealth of society as a whole. Employing fewer labourers in production does not, in this circumstance, result in a greater objective scarcity of material goods. For the labourers expelled from the process of production, however, the personal result is the same as if there were an objective shortage of goods: so long as the sale of labour-power on the market is the social precondition for acquiring the means of personal material reproduction, the expenditure of human labour-power – in some form, in any indifferent form – becomes necessary for reasons divorced from human labour’s role as a necessary motive force for material production.

Marx will go on to analyse how a similar dynamic plays out, not simply at the level of the wage labourer, but at the level of society as a whole. I’ll return to this issue in later posts. For the moment, I just want to point out that part of what Marx is demonstrating here is that there is a practical basis for the distinction with which Marx opens this chapter – the distinction between how capital looks “as value” and how capital looks “as material”. These two perspectives aren’t just different analytical lenses that Marx applies externally to his subject matter: they are generated by that subject matter itself.

Capitalism here is characterised by an active, recurrently reconstituted disjoint between the need for human labour as a motive force in the production of material goods, and the need for human labour as a means of acquiring access to the social stock of material wealth that has been produced. These two types of “need” for human labour are not co-terminous – they do not “have” to coincide. Their distinction becomes palpably apparent in the everyday experience of wage labourers, who run the constant risk that their personal need to sell their labour-power in order to secure their own material reproduction, might not find a matching need for someone to buy their labour-power in order to produce a given set of material goods. The same distinction becomes apparent, more spasmodically and dramatically, in periodic economic crises that leave untouched (at least initially) the technical capacity for material reproduction, while vanishing the distinctively social preconditions required to animate that capacity in capitalist societies.

The ability to articulate – theoretically – the distinction between the material and the social, is grounded, in Marx’s account, in these sorts of practical experiences. The issue is not that Marx has done special theoretical work that enables him to see exceptionally clearly what material reproduction would require, once social artifice has been stripped away. Instead, Marx looks on capitalism with categories immanently available to its indigenous inhabitants: capitalism is presented here as a form of collective practice that enacts real – but transient, contingent – distinctions between dimensions of our practical experience that we intuit as related to “material reproduction”, and dimensions that we intuit as “social”. The practical availability of such distinctions underdetermines their political appropriation. For reasons Marx analyses elsewhere, one plausible appropriation is precisely the move to assign greater ontological weight – greater reality – to one of these dimensions of our historical experience – by articulating the “material” dimension of our experience, for example, as the sort of ahistorical, socially transcendent, “essential” category presented in the opening of Capital. Another available appropriation is what Marx articulates in Capital – where practically available categories like “social” and “material” are spun on new axes, to open the possibility to create more emancipatory forms of collective life…

More eventually… Apologies for the truncation of this presentation, but can’t unspool the argument more adequately at the moment…

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One response to “Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Valued Matter

  1. Pingback: Marx Reading Group – Links «

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