Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: September 2010

It Gets Better

Just a quick link to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, which is collecting videos from LGBT adults, addressed to adolescents, describing the ways in which things get better after high school. From the column in which Savage announced the project:

Another gay teenager in another small town has killed himself—hope you’re pleased with yourselves, Tony Perkins and all the other “Christians” out there who oppose anti-bullying programs (and give actual Christians a bad name).

Billy Lucas was just 15 when he hanged himself in a barn on his grandmother’s property. He reportedly endured intense bullying at the hands of his classmates—classmates who called him a fag and told him to kill himself. His mother found his body.

Nine out of 10 gay teenagers experience bullying and harassment at school, and gay teens are four times likelier to attempt suicide. Many LGBT kids who do kill themselves live in rural areas, exurbs, and suburban areas, places with no gay organizations or services for queer kids.

“My heart breaks for the pain and torment you went through, Billy Lucas,” a reader wrote after I posted about Billy Lucas to my blog. “I wish I could have told you that things get better.”

I had the same reaction: I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.

But gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don’t bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.

So here’s what you can do, GBVWS: Make a video. Tell them it gets better.

I’ve launched a channel on YouTube—www ­.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject—to host these videos. My normally camera-shy husband and I already posted one. We both went to Christian schools and we were both bullied—he had it a lot worse than I did—and we are living proof that it gets better. We don’t dwell too much on the past. Instead, we talk mostly about all the meaningful things in our lives now—our families, our friends (gay and straight), the places we’ve gone and things we’ve experienced—that we would’ve missed out on if we’d killed ourselves then.

“You gotta give ‘em hope,” Harvey Milk said.

Today we have the power to give these kids hope. We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and let them know that it does get better. Online support groups are great, GLSEN does amazing work, the Trevor Project is invaluable. But many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like, let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.

The video my husband and I made is up now—all by itself. I’d like to add submissions from other gay and lesbian adults—singles and couples, with kids or without, established in careers or just starting out, urban and rural, of all races and religious backgrounds. (Go to http://www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject to find instructions for submitting your video.) If you’re gay or lesbian or bi or trans and you’ve ever read about a kid like Billy Lucas and thought, “Fuck, I wish I could’ve told him that it gets better,” this is your chance. We can’t help Billy, but there are lots of other Billys out there—other despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future—and we can help them.

They need to know that it gets better. Submit a video. Give them hope.

The Education of the Future

We tend to think of Marx’s work on immanent potentials for transformation as referring to dramatic, large-scale sociological processes. Certainly his work analyses such processes. And certainly he presents large-scale transformations of everyday social practices as generating unexpected possibilities, which can then be appropriated for new ends. More often than is appreciated, however, Capital will drill down into accidental historical discoveries that happen on a more micrological scale.

In section 9 of chapter 15, for example, Marx examines the implications of the sanitary and educational clauses of the factory acts. Most of the section discusses the impact of the factory legislation on small businesses – the trend toward centralisation of production hastened by the centralised application of even very weak regulation – and the poor state of occupational health and safety practices in the industry of the time. These passages are often harrowing, and I’ll discuss them at a later point when I can give them more adequate attention than is possible in my current time-starved state.

In one small passage, however, Marx discusses the requirement that factories provide some minimal education, if they are to hire children. Under pressure not to steal too much productive time away from the working day, the factory legislation mandated education – but only for a fraction of the time that it would be provided for non-working children. Quoting from the factory inspectors, Marx suggests that this makeshift practical compromise – reducing the teaching day to minimal hours – led to several accidental discoveries, including that manual labour could be combined successfully with education, and that the shorter school day did not impede learning:

Paltry as the education clauses of the Act appear on the whole, yet they proclaim elementary education to be an indispensable condition to the employment of children. The success of those clauses proved for the first time the possibility of combining education and gymnastics with manual labour, and, consequently, of combining manual labour with education and gymnastics. The factory inspectors soon found out by questioning the schoolmasters, that the factory children, although receiving only one half the education of the regular day scholars, yet learnt quite as much and often more.

“This can be accounted for by the simple fact that, with only being at school for one half of the day, they are always fresh, and nearly always ready and willing to receive instruction. The system on which they work, half manual labour, and half school, renders each employment a rest and a relief to the other; consequently, both are far more congenial to the child, than would be the case were he kept constantly at one. It is quite clear that a boy who has been at school all the morning, cannot (in hot weather particularly) cope with one who comes fresh and bright from his work.”

Further information on this point will be found in Senior’s speech at the Social Science Congress at Edinburgh in 1863. He there shows, amongst other things, how the monotonous and uselessly long school hours of the children of the upper and middle classes, uselessly add to the labour of the teacher, “while he not only fruitlessly but absolutely injuriously, wastes the time, health, and energy of the children.” From the Factory system budded, as Robert Owen has shown us in detail, the germ of the education of the future, an education that will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings.

A political compromise – a partial concession – a provision for education inadequate according to the prevailing pedagogical standards. And yet, according to Marx, also an accidental discovery of “the only method of producing fully developed human beings”.

What interests me about this passage is not whether Marx is right in his positive assessment of this historical development, but rather the form of analysis the passage implies. Political potentials can be generated by accident, as unintended side effects even of the most ill-willed historical developments. Without the practical test of how children would actually learn, if learning were provided in this new assemblage, we would have lacked a valuable practical demonstration that education could be organised in a fundamentally different way than it had been in the past. We would have lacked a practical example that class divisions in the provision of education are not required – that all children can still learn and develop themselves, even if work were equitably allocated among all members of society. The “education of the future” can construct itself with insights built out of present-day possibilities, revealed on the ground in practices experimentally introduced now.

We might pick up on different practical insights by using a similar technique today. In another part of the same chapter, Marx quotes the lament of a witness who bemoans the impact of the factory system on women:

The greatest evil of the system that employs young girls on this sort of work, consists in this, that, as a rule, it chains them fast from childhood for the whole of their after-life to the most abandoned rabble. They become rough, foul-mouthed boys, before Nature has taught them that they are women.

“Nature” has a fascinating status here – suggestive of a kind of strain involved in maintaining the conviction that women are, by nature, different from men, when practical experience demonstrates that this need not be the case. Nature is presented here as something that doesn’t always get the time to work its magic – practical experience can intervene, turning girls into boys before Nature has the opportunity to teach them what they really ought to be. In this situation, when practical experience conflicts with received cultural preconception, the gendered “ought” can still be asserted – but it can no longer remain doxic: practical experience shows the contingency of this aspect of women’s perceived role. The gender roles of the future can therefore also construct themselves by appropriating the insights built out of present-day possibilities, demonstrated in practice on the ground.

The Missing Think

I just discovered Mark Twain’s delightful takedown of anthropocentric teleological understandings of the “purpose” of the world, in his posthumously published “Was the World Made for Man?”. (Hopefully that link will take people to the actual work, rather than to some random place in the anthology…)

Voiced as the response of a “scientist and theologian” to “Alfred Russell Wallace’s revival of the theory that this earth is at the center of the stellar universe”, the piece begins by professing a qualified belief that the world was likely made for man, but argues that patience is required, for all the necessary evidence is not yet in. What evidence is still required? And why must we be “patient” to receive it? The answers come out gradually – and implicitly – as the piece tells the story of how the preparation of the world for man came about.

First the piece deals with the age of the world – evaluating different scientific positions on how long it took to prepare the world for man:

It takes a long time to prepare a world for man, such a thing is not done in a day.

Siding with an estimate on the conservative side, the piece suggests that man has been in the world for 32,000 years, while the world itself is 100 million years old. These figures mean that quite a long run-up was required to prepare for man – which is only to be expected, the author argues:

Very well. According to these figures it took 99,968,000 years to prepare the world for man, impatient as the Creator doubtless was to see him and admire him. But a large enterprise like this has to be conducted warily, painstakingly, logically.

Then a quick absurdist jump. From logic to… the oyster:

It was foreseen that man would have to have the oyster. Therefore the first preparation was made for the oyster. Very well, you cannot make an oyster out of whole cloth, you must make the oyster’s ancestor first. This is not done in a day. You must make a vast variety of invertebrates, to start with – belemnites, trilobites, jebusites, amalekites, and that sort of fry, and put them to soak in a primary sea, and wait and see what will happen. Some will be a disappointment – the belemnites and ammonites and such; they will be failures, they will die out and become extinct, in the course of the 19,000,000 years covered by the experiment, but all is not lost, for the amalekites will fetch the home-stake; they will develop gradually into encrinites, and stalactites, and blatherskites, and one thing and another as the mighty ages creep on and the Archaean and the Cambrian Periods pile their lofty crags in the primordial seas, and at last the first grand stage in the preparation of the world for man stands completed, the Oyster is done.

The oyster was created for man. Over a long period of time – and long before man was on the scene. From the standpoint of the oyster, the author concedes, this whole process might have been thought to have the oyster for its endpoint. But this view was sadly mistaken:

An oyster has hardly any more reasoning power than a scientist has; and so it is reasonably certain that this one jumped to the conclusion that the nineteen-million years was a preparation for him; but that would be just like an oyster, which is the most conceited animal there is, except man. And anyway, this one could not know, at that early date, that he was only an incident in a scheme, and that there was some more to the scheme, yet.

And so on the article moves, through a whole absurdist evolutionary process. Many of the passages focus on the exuberantly wasteful nature of the whole process, if the purpose is to prepare a world for man:

The oyster being achieved, the next thing to be arranged for in the preparation of the world for man, was fish. Fish, and coal – to fry it with. So the Old Silurian seas were opened up to breed the fish in, and at the same time the great work of building Old Red Sandstone mountains 80,000 feet high to cold-storage their fossils in was begun. This latter was quite indispensable, for there would be no end of failures again, no end of extinctions – millions of them – and it would be cheaper and less trouble to can them in the rocks than keep tally of them in a book.

So the millions of years drag on; and meantime the fish-culture is lazying along and frazzling out in a way to make a person tired. You have developed ten thousand kinds of fishes from the oyster; and come to look, you have raised nothing but fossils, nothing but extinctions. There is nothing left alive and progressive but a ganoid or two and perhaps half a dozen asteroids. Even the cat wouldn’t eat such.

Still, it is no great matter; there is plenty of time, yet, and they will develop into something tasty before man is ready for them. Even a ganoid can be depended on for that, when he is not going to be called on for sixty million years.

At several stages, some creature foolishly believes that it is the endpoint, purpose, and culmination of the whole:

Then the Pterodactyl burst upon the world in all his impressive solemnity and grandeur, and all Nature recognized that the Cainozoic threshold was crossed and a new Period open for business, a new stage begun in the preparation of the globe for man. It may be that the Pterodactyl thought the thirty million years had been intended as a preparation for himself, for there was nothing too foolish for a Pterodactyl to imagine, but he was in error, the preparation was for man.

From this time onward for nearly another thirty million years the preparation moved briskly. From the Pterodactyl was developed the bird; from the bird the kangaroo, from the kangaroo the other marsupials; from these the mastodon, the megatherium, the giant sloth, the Irish elk, and all that crowd that you make useful and instructive fossils out of – then came the first great Ice Sheet, and they all retreated before it and crossed over the bridge at Behring’s strait and wandered around over Europe and Asia and died. All except a few, to carry on the preparation with. Six Glacial Periods with two million years between Periods chased these poor orphans up and down and about the earth, from weather to weather – from tropic swelter at the poles to Arctic frost at the equator and back again and to and fro, they never knowing what kind of weather was going to turn up next; and if ever they settled down anywhere the whole continent suddenly sank under them without the least notice and they had to trade places with the fishes and scramble off to where the seas had been, and scarcely a dry rag on them; and when there was nothing else doing a volcano would let go and fire them out from wherever they had located. They led this unsettled and irritating life for twenty-five million years, half the time afloat, half the time aground, and always wondering what it was all for, they never suspecting, of course, that it was a preparation for man and had to be done just so or it wouldn’t be any proper and harmonious place for him when he arrived.

And then a final analogy for the perspective that argues that this extravagant process has, as its culminating goal, us:

Such is the history of it. Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

The Emergence of Capital

After a weeklong term break that has given me enough thinking space to generate content for a few new posts, I’m about to be swallowed by work again for several weeks… Although the second half of the term is generally not as relentless as the first half, I have no idea when I’ll find the breathing room for more content here. Just in case I need to fall silent again, I wanted to point to what I think is a quite important set of reflections on possible institutional arrangements for a post-capitalist society, which has been percolating along for some time at Demet’s excellent nights of labour, but which is also attracting recent discussion from Reid’s new blog The Luxemburgist, and which has been a long-term interest of Duncan’s as well.

In the last post, I talked about why – as I understand the category – an institution like slavery can be understood as capitalist, even though the institution violates certain common understandings of the characteristics that capitalist production is supposed to exhibit – in this case, the characteristic that capitalist production must rely specifically on wage labour. My argument is that “capitalist production”, for Marx, is a global phenomenon, generated as an aggregate effect of a wide range of diverse social practices that are not directly aimed to generate this aggregate result, but that unintentionally contribute to this result nevertheless.

In this reading, “capital” is a (weakly) emergent phenomenon – emergent, that is, in the sense used in the harder sciences, where the term “emergence” doesn’t pick out anything particularly mysterious, ontologically spooky, or incapable of being analysed. Instead, “emergence” in this context simply means that the aggregate effect is sufficiently qualitatively different from the immediate properties of the simpler phenomena from which it arises, that the examination of those simpler phenomena in isolation would not imply the potential for the aggregate effect. Once confronted with both the aggregate effect and the phenomena that generate it, however, the problem of how the aggregate effect could be generated is tractable to analysis – weakly emergent phenomena are surprising, they teach us something we didn’t anticipate in advance, but once we are past this initial shock, we can set about the task of analysing how and why these emergent phenomena come to be.

Marx’s analysis of the fetish character of the commodity hinges on treating this character as an emergent effect. He does not have this vocabulary at his disposal, but he does have recourse to a range of theorists – from Smith to Hegel – who were fascinated with the problem of spontaneous self-organisation. For Marx, the political economists are awestruck by an emergent phenomenon, and their analytical tools are insufficiently complex to enable them to get to the root of how this phenomenon is produced. They look around at a range of simpler phenomena that – for Marx – are part of the solution to this problem. They look at these phenomena, however, atomistically – as if the only important thing to consider is what effects a phenomenon produces when looked at in isolation. But this is precisely the sort of analysis that will never get to the bottom of an emergent effect like capital (or value, or abstract labour), because the effect is not produced by simple phenomena, operating by themselves. The effect is, instead, the product of an interaction – one that plays out between many different sorts of social practices, over a period of time.

What the political economists do, according to Marx, is stop their analysis too short. They hold up and examine a range of different aspects of social experience – atomistically, asking what the “essence” of that aspect should be held to be. When none of these atomised analyses generates anything like the complex aggregate effects of which they are also, at least to some degree, aware, they don’t roll up their sleeves and get down to the work of developing a more adequate mode of analysis. Instead, they treat the unexplained emergent effects as essentially mystical phenomena – as givens, as “data”, as intrinsic properties of human nature or material life – as, for example, a spontaneous propensity for the material world to organise itself, if left free from human interference.

It is this move that Marx criticises as failing to grasp the grasp the fetish character of the commodity form. The fetish character is a real thing – the term refers to the emergent character of the phenomenon to be understood. This emergent character makes it plausible that at least some social actors would find the aggregate effect mysterious and difficult to explain – because its explanation is quite complex, and requires a consideration of how different sorts of practices generate more than just their immediate and easily-observable direct effects, how practices also generate various indirect effects if and only if they are operating in tandem with other sorts of practices. This complexity, however, does not make it impossible to understand how the emergent effect is generated – it makes the problem difficult, but not insurmountable. Because, at the end, we are still dealing with a product of human practices. By stopping short of this analysis, by accepting and standing in awe before aggregate consequences whose practical origins they have not been able to understand, the political economists fall prey to an understandable, but fatal, error in their attempts to understand capitalist production.

To schematise for a moment, Marx’s argument relies on something like the following claims:

- key categories (value, abstract labour, and capital) are aggregate effects

- these aggregate effects are produced only when a large number of different social practices are operating in tandem

- the aggregate effect is an indirect effect of any individual social practice, produced only downstream, and only when various sorts of social practices operate in tandem

- individual social practices have other direct and indirect effects, in addition to the overarching aggregate effect of producing capital – in other words, the same social practice is understood to produce more than one consequence

- the consequences, even of one single social practice, can be contradictory – and the consequences of the many different forms of social practices required to produce capital are contradictory

- capitalism is therefore a complex, multilayered, internally complex social system, characterised by contradictory trends

- many theories seize on only a very small sample of this contradictory whole – often overextrapolating from trends that are visible in aspects of capitalist production, while missing how other aspects of capitalist production operate to offset, diminish, and undermine the full development of whatever trend a particular body of theory privileges

- Marx seeks to expose as many as possible of these contradictory trends, by exploring the multifaceted direct and indirect consequences of the range of social practices that operate in tandem to produce the overarching aggregate effect that Marx calls capital

- along the way, Marx shows how specific theoretical traditions become stuck on the flypaper of specific elements of practical experience, and therefore offer plausible accounts of parts of the process through which capital is produced, without however arriving at a good sense of how the process works as a whole

I could go on – this will do for the moment. My point here is to suggest – very very briefly – how this sort of apparatus intersects with the sorts of discussions unfolding in the blogs listed above.

On the one hand, this sort of apparatus makes it much easier to bring into view the diverse elements of capitalist production – so that, as in the previous post, we don’t end up excluding some part of the complex world system on the grounds that it doesn’t meet some specific definitional criterion for capitalist production (many such definitional criteria apply to much more concrete dimensions of social experience than the aggregate global emergent result with which Marx identifies capital). A very diverse set of social practices, which don’t at all qualitatively resemble the aggregate result, and whose immediate consequences wouldn’t seem to have much in common with the aggregate result, may nevertheless – when operating in tandem with other sorts of social practices – generate indirect consequences, far downstream, that help to generate capital.

On the other hand, it makes it a bit easier to see how – as Reid, Duncan, and Demet already do (without over-committing any of them to accept what I’ve said above – just interpreting how I see the projects from the standpoint of my own framework) – it is possible to mine potentials generated within capitalism, to think about the transformation to alternative forms of collective life. Because the fact that a practice generates some sort of indirect, tandem, downstream effect that we want to contest, does not take away that this practice also generates a number of more direct effects, as well as a number of indirect effects on various scales. These effects are just as “real” as the overarching aggregate trend – and may generate trends and provide us with practical experience that can be developed into alternative forms of collective life. By mining this wealth of practical experience – for example, for alternative models for decentralised decision-making and economic administration (to pick one theme that has come up in each of the blogs listed above) – we can begin to choose the aims toward which political contestation could be directed, and begin to develop alternative institutional structures that can incubate new forms of collective life.

There’s much much more to say – some of it will be easier when I’ve gotten a bit farther into Marx’s text, and can explain more easily what he thinks the “aggregate effect” of capital actually is (short version: a long-term set of conflictual macrosociological trends that pivot around human labour: on the one hand, a trend toward the constant displacement of human labour in specific regions and activities; on the other, an offsetting trend toward the continuous reconstitution of human labour in ever-new forms). But more on all this another time…

Is Slavery Capitalist?

Just a brief placeholder note here, since I don’t have the time to develop this textually (and it would take a very long run-up, since it relates to the architectonic of Capital as a whole), but I was reminded that I’ve been meaning to post on this, by a discussion over at Nate’s over whether slavery in the US in the 19th century could be considered capitalist.

This is one of the many, many – have I mentioned many? – ways in which the presentational strategy of Capital has led to unfortunate confusions… By starting, as it does, deep within the epicentre of a certain classical political economic fantasy about capitalism, then only gradually panning back to bring into view the complex world-system that Marx believes that capitalism really is, Capital makes it too easy for readers to take the opening passages as “definitions” of capitalism, as conditions that need to be met in order for something to be considered capitalist. In relation to Nate’s specific question about slavery, there is a long debate over whether slavery – because it doesn’t involve wage labour – meets the criteria Marx sets out for capitalist production.

These “criteria” are taken be those set out in the early chapters, where Marx initially starts out from a sort of petty bourgeois fantasy of simple commodity production and exchange, and then pulls the rug out from under this fantasy by introducing the category of wage labour – and the related category of the capitalist, as someone who exchanges goods produced by the labour of others. This initial détournement, where Marx shows that the petty bourgeois conception of capitalism is only a partial and narrow view, which cannot account for reality of wage labour, is often read as a one-off gesture: at this point, Marx is taken to have swept aside the curtain and revealed the true reality, which is that capitalism is founded on wage labour and class exploitation, rather than on some purportedly harmonious system in which those who work exchange the products of their respect labours for a fair price. From this point, the text is taken to settle down to business – it has abolished the petty bourgeois illusions and arrived at the reality of class exploitation.

This passage of text of course does do this sort of work – it pans back from the initial petty bourgeois forms of theory with which Capital begins, and shows those forms of theory to be adequate only to a very blinkered and limited view of capitalist production – one which ignores the implications of the existence of class relations. Panning back to the categories of wage labour and capital show that the capitalist vista is much wider than can be grasped by the opening theoretical gambits with which the text begins.

The problem comes in seeing this movement as a one-off strategem. As though, having used this technique to shatter the presuppositions of petty bourgeois theories, Marx then spends the vast remainder of the text just working through the details of this single and unique discovery.

The process of détournement does not end so soon.

Instead – and this is something I will try to demonstrate textually as I have the time – Capital continues to pan back (and move sideways, backwards, and forwards, in order to view previous claims from an ever-widening array of new perspectives). As the text continues to zoom out, it finally reaches elements of capitalist production that overtly violate the “criteria” set out in the initial discussions of wage labour. The later chapters of Capital highlight a whole range of labouring practices that do not conform to the vision of wage labour presented in the earliest passages – including, among other examples, parents selling the labour of their children, press gangs, slavery, and colonial systems.

This doesn’t mean that Marx hasn’t identified a trend toward proletarianisation – a tendency toward the creation of a wage labouring class. It means that – like every other “trend” Marx identifies in Capital – this trend toward proletarianisation is not linear or uniform, but rather confronts a series of counter-trends and conflicting eddies within a vastly complex overarching global system. All of these trends are “characteristic” of capitalist production as a global phenomenon – theories that focus on one trend to the exclusion of contradictory eddies will thus overextrapolate from a limited and partial view of capitalism, and render themselves unable to grasp the likely impacts of other aspects of the complex whole. The interconnectedness of this system as a global whole means, among many other things, that the development of unfree labour in parts of the world carries implications for the development and political self-assertion of formally free labour in other parts.

Significantly, all of these contradictory trends are equally “capitalist”. Capitalism is a global system. No part of the world is “more capitalist” than any other. The trends that are able to play out in more advantaged portions of the world system are related to the trends that play out in the least. Different parts of the world can experience radically divergent conditions on the ground, radically different organisations of labouring activities, and yet all be part of the same global capitalist system – because what “defines” the system, for Marx, is the downstream aggregate consequence of all of these local practices, operating unwittingly in tandem to drive a coercive process of expanding production.

Within the context of this overarching vision of what capitalism “is”, some of the earlier, apparently “definitional” passages, operate as a part of an argument that explains why it might seem plausible to various theorists to act as though, for example, different parts of the world lie along some sort of developmental continuum – as though some are “pre” capitalist, and some are capitalist proper, and some, perhaps, are asserted to be capitalist in some rarified higher form. Marx believes he has to account for the plausibility of this perspective even though it does not reflect his own understanding of capitalism – which holds that capitalism is an internally contradictory global whole, which is quite capable of suspending within itself local and regional trends that directly oppose the trends playing out in other locations.

So: yes – slavery in the 19th century US is capitalist. If we understand capitalism as a global system, effecting global forms of compulsion – and effecting this compulsion precisely in and through a range of apparently contradictory practices playing out in various regions, through apparently dissimilar forms of everyday practice on the ground…

It will take a long long run-up textually to explain how this argument plays out in Capital – even if I were able to blog regularly, it would be quite a while before I could ground this point… But for whatever it’s worth to foreshadow where the argument would go… Here’s where :-)

Debasing the Superstructure

Okay. Let’s see how far I manage to get into this concept before other obligations draw me away…

I tend to dislike attempts to understand Marx’s analysis of capitalism in terms of categories like “base” and “superstructure”. This vocabulary is historically associated with dichotomous forms of theory that attempt to parcel out social experience into parts viewed as more foundational – and thus more “real”, or more causally efficacious – than other parts, which are viewed as more ephemeral or derivative. I tend to see Marx’s work as profoundly antagonistic to such attempts to parcel out ontological primacy, and I view Marx as generally dedicated to fluid and dynamic categories that cannot be well understood in terms of any sort of fixed and static dichotomous opposition.

At the same time, there is a potential rational core to this vocabulary – which is used by Marx himself, although much more rarely than one might expect from its prominence in the literature. This rational core does not, however, trace a divide between economic practices and other sorts of practice. It traces, instead, a relationship between high theoretical discourse, and more mundane forms of everyday social practice. And the relationship it traces is one in which high theoretical discourse too often operates as a sort of delusional apotheosis of everyday social practices whose impact on thought is disavowed by theorists who perceive themselves to have arrived at their various conclusions through the brute force of rarified intellect, rather than through the articulation of practical, bodily experiences collectively experienced by a mass of humanity far wider than the few participants in high theoretical discussions.

On this reading, the “base” is not some specific sphere of social action, but rather mundane practical experience in the broadest sense. This base of practical experience is, for Marx, generative of historical potential and insight – the selfsame potential and insight that makes its way into a “superstructure” of high discourse, where it is misrecognised as the product of disembodied and decontextualised thought. Marx seeks to “ground” the superstructure in the base by… debasing this rarified superstructural self-understanding, by dragging it back into the bodily space of collective practices from which it arises. He does this by showing how specific insights that high theoretical discourses claim to deduce – whether through empirical observation, conventional logic, or dialectics – are “deducible” only because these insights are presently being enacted in various mundane and everyday forms of practice that are widely experienced, and thus intuitively familiar, well before their formal theoretical articulations.

To the extent that these formal articulations cannot grasp their relation to everyday practices – to the extent that other forms of theory treat their insights as floating above mundane forms of social experience – these articulations will forever be the captives of the mundane forms they disavow. They will operate as the “apotheoses” of everyday experiences – treating the insights suggested by contingent practical experiences as deep and essential truths become manifest in history through the power of thought. As such apotheoses, they tend to perceive their relationship with practice in an inverted way: instead of recognising themselves as articulations of contingent practical possibilities, accidentally wrested from historical experience, they take their theoretical insights to be sui generis, and then conclude – apologistically – that any compatibility between the claims of the theory, and the mundane practices of collective life, means simply that the compatible practices can be objectively judged to be rational. Such theories, Marx believes, see social reality in an inverted form. By debasing the superstructure, by demonstrating that the sensibilities expressed in high theoretical discourse can be generated in mundane forms of everyday practice, Marx seeks to drag the apotheosis back to earth, and thus upturn this deranged mirror-image self-understanding.

Marx’s obsession with inversion and apotheosis starts very early, and continues through his latest works, although the resources he brings to bear to analyse everyday practice become much more extensive over time. The famous opening passage of The German Ideology, for example, mocks the Young Hegelians – characteristically, for Marx, by opening with a few sentences voiced from the perspective of the position being criticised:

Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.

These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. The first volume of the present publication has the aim of uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; of showing how their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; how the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany. It is its aim to debunk and discredit the philosophic struggle with the shadows of reality, which appeals to the dreamy and muddled German nation.

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.

This “new revolutionary philosopher” tilts at the windmill of false consciousness, believing that, if only the right battles be fought at the level of concepts, freedom will follow. Without the idea of gravity, no one will drown. Evidence of material harm becomes more grist for the idealist mill – more proof of the harmful nature of the ideal, rather than a practical reminder of the material character of the problem to be solved.

In the next section, we continue to hear from the “new revolutionary philosopher”, sarcasm our guide that this position is not being endorsed, but enacted to establish this character – Marx’s fool:

As we hear from German ideologists, Germany has in the last few years gone through an unparalleled revolution. The decomposition of the Hegelian philosophy, which began with Strauss, has developed into a universal ferment into which all the “powers of the past” are swept. In the general chaos mighty empires have arisen only to meet with immediate doom, heroes have emerged momentarily only to be hurled back into obscurity by bolder and stronger rivals. It was a revolution beside which the French Revolution was child’s play, a world struggle beside which the struggles of the Diadochi [successors of Alexander the Great] appear insignificant. Principles ousted one another, heroes of the mind overthrew each other with unheard-of rapidity, and in the three years 1842-45 more of the past was swept away in Germany than at other times in three centuries.

All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought.

A burlesque image – this is a comedy – we are meant to laugh along: the decay of a high philosophy generates a “universal ferment” in which the actions of “mighty empires” and “heroes” stage battles of world historical significance. The language is heady – but the reader is distanced from the passage by the opening and closing brackets: “As we hear from German ideologists” and “All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought”. The tone is high dismissal. The perspective is tacitly panned back from the positions being criticised, the perspectives caught up in this “world struggle” in the mind.

The next paragraph – crudely, but the strategic elements are there – begins to suggest a more mundane set of experiences that operate similarly to the battle of the mind portrayed just above: the saturation of the market by industrial capital in a state of competition that becomes more frenetic as the market becomes more glutted:

Certainly it is an interesting event we are dealing with: the putrescence of the absolute spirit. When the last spark of its life had failed, the various components of this caput mortuum began to decompose, entered into new combinations and formed new substances. The industrialists of philosophy, who till then had lived on the exploitation of the absolute spirit, now seized upon the new combinations. Each with all possible zeal set about retailing his apportioned share. This naturally gave rise to competition, which, to start with, was carried on in moderately staid bourgeois fashion. Later when the German market was glutted, and the commodity in spite of all efforts found no response in the world market, the business was spoiled in the usual German manner by fabricated and fictitious production, deterioration in quality, adulteration of the raw materials, falsification of labels, fictitious purchases, bill-jobbing and a credit system devoid of any real basis. The competition turned into a bitter struggle, which is now being extolled and interpreted to us as a revolution of world significance, the begetter of the most prodigious results and achievements.

The great revolution of the mind, the text suggests, is being played out, over and over again, in a much more mundane register – and the results of that practical revolution are no more emancipatory than those playing out at the level of ideology.

This narrative move: starting internal to the perspective being criticised, but writing in a way that sends up that perspective, sarcastically destabilising it by exaggerating its worst tendencies, playing the perspective as the Fool – then the shift to a more mundane practical register, where similar self-conceptions and patterns are also being enacted – is a move I have argued is central to the narrative structure of Capital. While the analytical resources, I would argue, are much more complex in the later work, the critical style is similar: first send it up, then tear it down, by showing that there are other dimensions of social practice where the same sensibilities are being enacted. Capital will greatly modify the basic critical apparatus set out in this early work, and offer a much more nuanced theory of practice and understanding of capitalism. This specific impulse, however, is retained. Marx continues to find value in a burlesque representation of his opponents’ views, and in a constant debasement of other forms of theory by demonstrating how the forms of thought, and the analytical categories these theories deploy, are generated in specific forms of everyday social practices that are often oriented to crass ends.

When writing the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrestles systematically with the question of how to apply this critical impulse, not simply to positions he intends to dismiss, but also to positions he accords considerable validity. (Maddeningly, he then decides not to publish these reflections with the Contribution, feeling that they anticipate the results of his investigation… We therefore know them as the opening chapter to the Grundrisse manuscript, and they were not known in Marx’s own time at all…)

In this introduction, which I have analysed a number of times previously on this blog, Marx considers the great difficulty with which Adam Smith managed to articulate the simple category of labour – a category that, Marx argues, is on one level extremely old (it is genuinely true that people have always “laboured”, so the category picks out a phenomenon that transcends many different forms of social life). On another level, however, Marx points out that those other forms of social life themselves lacked this category – and that it was by no means an easy category even for Adam Smith to articulate.

One intepretive option would be to conclude that Adam Smith – genius that he was – finally discovered a phenomenon that had always already existed, but had previously never been recognised. He deduced through the sheer brute force of reason that, logically speaking, all forms of human intercourse with nature were, in their essential being, the same form of activity – a form of activity which he then christened with the term “labour”.

Marx is not happy with this option. Smith is a genius, sure. But his genius does not lie in deducing something that had always already been true. Rather, it lies in his sensitivity to the implications of a very recent historical shift – a shift that means that, in at least one dimension of practical experience, all manner of activities involving intercourse between humans and nature are being treated in collective practice as indifferently the same sort of activity. It is this practical enactment, for Marx, that renders plausible and potentially intuitive the development of the simple category of labour per se – the category that seems so abstract that it applies to all human societies, but a category whose abstraction is directly true, as a practical matter, only for us:

Labour seems to be a very simple category. The notion of labour in this universal form, as labour in general, is also extremely old. Nevertheless “labour” in this simplicity is economically considered just as modern a category as the relations which give rise to this simple abstraction. […]

It was an immense advance when Adam Smith rejected all restrictions with regard to the activity that produces wealth – for him it was labour as such, neither manufacturing, nor commercial, nor agricultural labour, but all types of labour. The abstract universality which creates wealth implies also the universality of the objects defined as wealth: they are products as such, or once more labour as such, but in this case past, materialised labour. How difficult and immense a transition this was is demonstrated by the fact that Adam Smith himself occasionally relapses once more into the Physiocratic system. It might seem that in this way merely an abstract expression was found for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings act as producers – irrespective of the type of society they live in. This is true in one respect, but not in another.

The fact that the specific kind of labour is irrelevant presupposes a highly developed complex of actually existing kinds of labour, none of which is any more the all-important one. The most general abstractions arise on the whole only when concrete development is most profuse, so that a specific quality is seen to be common to many phenomena, or common to all. Then it is no longer perceived solely in a particular form. This abstraction of labour is, on the other hand, by no means simply the conceptual resultant of a variety of concrete types of labour. The fact that the particular kind of labour employed is immaterial is appropriate to a form of society in which individuals easily pass from one type of labour to another, the particular type of labour being accidental to them and therefore irrelevant. Labour, not only as a category but in reality, has become a means to create wealth in general, and has ceased to be tied as an attribute to a particular individual. This state of affairs is most pronounced in the United States, the most modern form of bourgeois society. The abstract category “labour,” “labour as such,” labour sans phrase, the point of departure of modern economics, thus becomes a practical fact only there. The simplest abstraction, which plays a decisive role in modem political economy, an abstraction which expresses an ancient relation existing in all social formations, nevertheless appears to be actually true in this abstract form only as a category of the most modern society. […]

The example of labour strikingly demonstrates how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity in all epochs – precisely because they are abstractions – are equally a product of historical conditions even in the specific form of abstractions, and they retain their full validity only for and within the framework of these conditions.

In this passage, Marx applies the same basic sensibility wielded in The German Ideology – but here in a manner that makes clearer how it is possible to preserve and validate the insights gained from practice. Marx doesn’t contest the validity of the simple category of “labour” – he just bounds this validity, by picking out the practices that have rendered the category socially valid. If we then want to look back on past societies, and apply this category, we can do this – as long as we recognise that we are looking back on past societies with our own eyes, with sensibilities that have been primed by practical possibilities that were not necessarily available in those earlier times. By the same token, we can apply these categories to look forward – toward forms of collective life that we would like to create. If we do this with some awareness of the contingency of our own categories, we are better positioned to understand the need for the development of new institutions (for those categories whose practical reality we wish to preserve, or to adapt into other forms), and we are better positioned for understanding how we can selectively inherit the practical potentials of our own time – an understanding that is more difficult to achieve, if we view our categories as arising from the discovery of timeless truths.

In this manuscript, Marx is still wrestling with how to understand the modern “simplicity” of labour sans phrase. The explanation he sketches briefly here – which grounds the phenomenon in the practical experience of being able to move readily between roles in a complex division of labour – is subsumed, in Capital, into an immensely more complex explanation that I won’t revisit in this post. What I did want to revisit, although it will be a familiar point to regular readers, is that this basic critical impulse remains central to the later work.

So, as I’ve argued, the opening chapter begins by sending up several positions of which Marx is critical – I’ve called them empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical characters. They could equally be called vulgar political economy, classical (or scientific) political economy, and a sort of vulgar dialectics. In all three cases, although this has largely gone unnoticed by all but a few commentators, the tone of the text is highly sarcastic, and the forms of argument are voiced in a blustering style, by characters engaged in a bit of performative self-puffery. While there are hints all through the text – in tone and word choice, in footnotes, and in textual asides – that this sort of burlesque is being performed, the most explicit early indication that Marx takes the forms of argument being displayed to be somewhat deluded comes in the form of a digression on Aristotle that I have analysed a number of times here in the past.

In the passages preceding this digression, Marx has put forward three forms of analysis, each of which, for all their differences, share a tendency to treat their insights as disembodied and sui generis, divorced from collective practice. Thus the empiricist figure treats consciousness as contemplative and takes for granted whatever interpretive insights leap to mind from reflection on how things present themselves “at first sight”; the transcendental character trusts in its deductive acumen and rational intuition; and the dialectical character trusts in its dialectical techniques that cleverly derive a series of schoolbook “inversions”. On one level, these figures disagree – they present conflicting interpretations of what the commodity “really is”. On another level, however, they share a similar orientation that affirms the power of the brute force application of a disembodied consciousness.

The digression on Aristotle is the first moment in the text where Marx flags how profoundly he disagrees.

The immediately previous section effects a tour de force of dialectical logic, one which has drawn its conclusions, purportedly, by examining the immanent logic of the category of the commodity. Marx then introduces Aristotle in order – quite mischievously – to ask: if it’s logic that has brought us to this point, then why didn’t Aristotle work it out? He goes on to show that Aristotle in fact considered the possibility that something like “value” might exist, that some sort of relation of equality might be implied by the act of exchange, etc. So the problem wasn’t a conceptual one – it wasn’t that Aristotle wasn’t smart enough to draw the conclusions put forward by the various perspectives Marx has been presenting in the chapter thus far. No, Aristotle considered these conclusions – and then rejected them. But why?

Marx is using Aristotle here in order to make it difficult to dismiss the point by claiming that lack of intelligence or lack of familiarity with logic caused the problem. If Aristotle failed to draw the conclusion, Marx suggests, then maybe it’s not logic or intellect that has led to this conclusion in the first place. Maybe the characters presented thus far in the chapter, who seem to understand their arguments to be driven by the brute force of their disembodied and decontextualised reason, have misunderstood the basis of their insights. Maybe something else is in fact required. Maybe intellect is not enough.

The other thing that is required – as Marx here makes clear – is practical experience. Aristotle failed to “discover” value, because value is, like labour sans phrase, a much more historically and socially specific beast than is captured by the forms of theoretical argument that are commonly used to demonstrate its existence and explore its characteristics. In Marx’s words:

The two latter peculiarities of the equivalent form will become more intelligible if we go back to the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many forms, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amongst them also the form of value. I mean Aristotle.

In the first place, he clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random; for he says:

5 beds = 1 house – (clinai pente anti oiciaς)

is not to be distinguished from

5 beds = so much money. – (clinai pente anti … oson ai pente clinai)

He further sees that the value relation which gives rise to this expression makes it necessary that the house should qualitatively be made the equal of the bed, and that, without such an equalisation, these two clearly different things could not be compared with each other as commensurable quantities. “Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”. (out isothς mh oushς snmmetriaς). Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible (th men oun alhqeia adunaton), that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”

Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

From this point, it becomes clear that the forms of argument paraded onto the main text of Capital are part of this work’s distinctive presentational strategy – which will often present forms of argument that are intended to be the targets of the critique. This does not mean that the text is as dismissive of the conclusions reached through these arguments: Marx will often preserve a conclusion; the forms of argument displayed, however, are rarely the means through which Marx would support a conclusion himself, and they are quite often sent-up, burlesque renditions of forms of argument Marx regards as absurd, drawn in exaggerated outlines designed to caricature the original position, thus magnifying and clarifying the nature of its absurdity. And, even where Marx does preserve a conclusion, he often does so only in a perverse or counter-intuitive form – in a way that demonstrates that truths held sacred by particular theoretical positions can be retained only at the cost of acknowledging other truths from which that tradition would recoil in horror. Conclusions are preserved by translating them beyond the recognition of their original advocates, by bounding and limiting them to minuscule eddies within a vast torrent of conflicting social currents, by deriving them through forms of analysis that show their intrinsic interconnection with the basest elements of collective life.

The glee with which Marx effects this argument in Capital retains the sadistic emotional charge with which he excoriates his German ideologists. High theorists are to be made to confront the mundane practical origins that render their insights plausible, the most cherished and rarified sensibilities demonstrated to arise in the crass and common maelstrom of everyday collective life.

At the same time, however, the argument is reflexively fueled by Marx’s belief that human thought does not range very free from our practical experiences – we easily intuit only what we collectively do, and we think in doing before we articulate and distill those practical thoughts into any explicit form. Small shifts in apparently trivial forms of everyday collective experience thus serve as accidental incubators for new practical potentials – potentials which can be articulated theoretically – an articulation that can be practically important in its own turn, as an enabling force for active appropriation of accidental practical insights.

Architechtonically, Capital embodies this commitment – and this is one of the things that makes the text so very difficult to parse. It first does. Then it articulates. In the more explicit methodological reflections in the fourth section of the opening chapter, Marx states this explicitly:

Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him.

The text is reflexive: Marx is not here talking only about other people – those flawed theorists out there who think in this peculiar after-the-fact sort of way. This is how he thinks of himself, when he is thinking about capitalism. This is how Capital is structured – as this sort of demonstration, then post festum process of making explicit what has just been done, in a way that makes it possible to articulate the doing in a way that increases the potential to appropriate our practical insights to construct alternative forms of collective life.

So the opening chapter stages this cryptic play. Then the second chapter says explicitly that, in this work, we will often be dealing with characters on an economic stage – a passage often misinterpreted since the playlike structure of the opening chapter, which is done, but not declared until after, is overlooked. Ironically, the passage in chapter 2 that makes this point explicit is itself often misinterpreted – as implying a base/superstructure analysis of the more conventional kind – as implying that Marx thinks that people are merely passive ciphers, determined by objective forces beyond their control. Instead, he thinks we are actors – in a rich sense. We do. And, in doing, we think. And through these thoughts and actions we create possibilities. Unanticipated possibilities, whose consequences we have not thought through or predicted in advance. And, having done this, we can – just possibly – think again, and in new ways opened up by our new practical experiences, and we can perhaps articulate, make explicit, and render more accessible for further practice new possibilities for future forms of collective life.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers