Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Contradiction

Stakes

I’m mired in the selection process at the moment, but couldn’t resist replying (too) quickly to john’s comment under the Is Slavery Capitalist? post below, which was itself a response to a discussion of this issue over at Nate’s. I realised after posting that I should really lift the exchange to a more visible place, particularly given that I’m unlikely to be generating other content this week to draw any attention to the blog… So – john’s comment first, and my response below, with apologies that I’ve not at all fully addressed the points john has raised…

john wrote:
After having abandoned the discussion over at Nate’s I see it’s popped up over here as well. That’s very satisfying, as these are my two favorite blogs.

I’ll try to summarize what would have been my response to Nate (sorry Nate for not getting back to you, i fell into disuse for a couple of months). I’m basically not sure what’s really at stake in the question of whether slavery is capitalist. In my experience arguments between Marxists about what is and what isn’t capitalist tend to become fights over different definitions of capitalism that can be extracted from Marx, but since Marx clearly never provided a definitive definition such arguments tend to have an irresolvable quality at best, and at worst become a matter of racking up quotations on either side. My worry is that in all these definitional disputes the actual historical object of enquiry (whether it be slavery, or wage-labor based production, or indeed global trade) gets lost.

So when NP defines 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” – my inclination is to just to say, well that seems like an extremely broad definition, which would tend to push the origin of capitalism pretty far back in history, and even potentially apply to some ancient “global” systems, but whatever, I’ll roll with it. But the point is that there is no necessary relation between this definition and all those non-linear “trends” that Marx identifies in Capital (I’m assuming that “a range of apparently contradictory practices” is not meant to be synonymous with those specific trends). So that if we are to accept this definition then we need to come up with another term or set of terms for specifying to what extent those specific trends are applicable in any particular social arrangement of production/reproduction. My argument is that most of the trends Marx identifies in Capital do not apply in “societies” or regions dominated by chattel slavery. Thus for instance the tendency for social labor to be mediated by the exchange of commodities does not apply since the slaves do not exchange anything and their labor is not redistributed automatically by the market, but only by the command of the slave-owner who is partially insulated from competition in respect to his allocation of labor (because it is not simply an input, but also an asset for him). This also means that there is no simple reproduction in slavery, and no tendency for necessary labor to be reduced to a minimum, because the slave (because it is an asset) will be supplied with food whether he/she produces or not, and is in this respect not dispossessed, and under no compulsion from the relations of production themselves (and must thus be directly compelled by physical force). Last but not least, there is also no tendency in chattel slavery to replace labor with machinery (no rising org. composition), since it is not easy for the slave owner to expel labor from the production process (due to transaction costs), and the resulting endemic problem of surplus labor is most efficiently resolved by diversifying output rather than specializing. All of these points are made by Marx in the Results. I agree that it is probably wrong (and of little import) to say that because these tendencies don’t apply under chattel slavery that chattel slavery is not capitalist. But then we still need a theoretical vocabulary to refer to this non-application of tendencies which Marx thought were central to the history of the CMP. I’ve toyed with the idea of saying chattel slavery is “formal subsumption” but that doesn’t seem to really work. Any ideas?

Saturday, 20/11/2010 at 6:38 am

N Pepperell wrote:
Hey john – good to see you again :-) I’ll have to apologise that this may not be a very thorough response – I’m in disuse a bit myself at the moment, working on a selection-related deadline, so my time online is very constricted right now…

In terms of the stakes: yes, this sort of question is generally approached either from a historian’s perspective – how far back can we date the origins of capitalism? – or perhaps from a textual/pedantic perspective – whose quotations trump whose? I’m not uninterested in the historical issue (that was my original training, and I did a lot of work starting out on the question of why historical markets differ from modern ones – i.e., why “the market” we have now carries different consequences than various other sorts of complex markets in other historical periods). But for me the definitional stake in this sort of debate relates more to how we think about transformation, and what it would mean to develop post-capitalist institutions.

One of the things that’s concerned me all the way along in this work, but that gets occluded – or, more accurately, just hasn’t been particularly strongly expressed – on the blog, is the issue of what happens, what sorts of institutional proposals get put forward and implemented, in those rare historical moments when substantial radical change suddenly becomes possible. Often, transformative movements are stopped by sheer hard power, but when this doesn’t happen, when movements gain power themselves are able to implement substantial institutional transformations, the changes they will implement will depend greatly on how these movements understand what capitalism “is”, and therefore how they understand what it means to construct a post-capitalist society.

So, if capitalism “is” property relations, then changing the structure of ownership will abolish capitalism. If capitalism “is” wage labour, then changing the structure of industrial labour will abolish capitalism. Etc.

What I’m working toward – and pretty much everything published here is a very preliminary step in this process, since there’s just a huge amount of underbrush clearing that’s needed first, to clarify what’s happening in Capital as a text, etc. – is a specification of the specific aggregate social trends in terms of which capitalism can be defined, so that it becomes possible to ask a little more clearly whether some specific institutional configuration is likely to generate those exact same trends, even as it may also make extensive transformations on the ground in other ways.

One of the trends I have written a bit about here and there on the blog is the way in which capitalism pivots around human labour in a manner that Marx regarded, I think plausibly, as historically unique. Looked at from a great height, and over a period of time, capitalism figures as something that is constantly displacing and reconstituting the need for the expenditure of human labour, in a way that is disconnected from the “material” need to expend human labour as a motive force for material reproduction. The practices that generate this overarching historical pattern are quite diverse – they generate immediate consequences that can diverge from the aggregate pattern, and that can also diverge from the immediate consequences of other practices required to generate the overarching pattern. If someone looks at capitalism from too narrow a perspective, they will therefore see “trends” that are, in practice, checked by the operation of other, conflicting trends – and, if they extrapolate from one set of trends without taking into account the implications of conflictual trends that play out in other aspects of social practice at the same time, they will misunderstand where the whole aggregate system is heading.

If that makes any sense :-)

So on one level, I’m saying: yes, there are enormous on the ground, practical differences between production mediated by slave labour and production mediated by wage labour – and these differences should be analysed, and might in fact be possible to mine for the different potentials they suggest for future social development.

On another level, I’m saying: capitalism is an indirect effect of a wide array of concrete practices and, where this isn’t understood, people are extremely likely to decide to target their political energies toward a concrete aspect of the overarching system which can be comfortably abolished without particularly touching the system itself.

Now: I don’t actually /object/ to someone deciding to focus political energy on a small aspect of the more complex whole. I think in the short term this is simply necessary, and it can also make a life-or-death difference on the ground to many many people: the humanisation of living conditions in a capitalist context is itself a vital immediate political goal.

Where problems can arise, however, is when it isn’t understood that this is what’s happening – when people think that, by abolishing x, they are eliminating capitalism itself. This can create problems both in the sense that people can rationalise more horrific things, if they believe they are achieving something grand, and it can create problems because, while believing they are abolishing capitalism, they can pour enormous amounts of energy into building a new set of social institutions that happily replicate the same old dynamic – and this dynamic is itself corrosive of radical political achievements over time, and institutions that promote it are generally oppressive in the immediate moment, as well…

So basically, I think there’s an on-the-ground value to what can seem like a very abstract definition of capitalism. But, at the same time, I need to do much more – to get much more “out” than I have so far on this blog – to feel like I’ve established any of this in more than a really gestural way… So I’m sympathetic to skepticism :-)

But apologies for having to write in such a rushed way – I’ve probably scrambled the intended content beyond all recognition… Hopefully I’ll have more time in the coming year to get some of this out in a more systematic form…

Sunday, 21/11/2010 at 7:31 am

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 :-)

Elliptical Critique

Light posting for the moment, as it’s the beginning of our term here, and so things are quite hectic, but I wanted to pick up on one small point that had occurred to me in the course of responding to one of roger’s recent posts on Marx.

I’ve written quite a lot, at various times, on how I understand Capital to be putting forward a series of partial perspectives that are each looking on out specific aspects of an overarching process that is far more complex than any one of those perspectives is able to capture. This is a strategy that, I believe, weaves its way throughout the text, such that no particular moment gives us “the” critical standpoint of the text. This critical standpoint instead resides in the ability to move around amongst the available perspectives, constantly looking back over our shoulders at previous perspectives and seeing how the phenomena they described appear when viewed from a different standpoint.

One of the things revealed by this sort of fluid standpoint, I believe, is that the “same” social practices or social phenomena can carry multiple consequences – only some of which are easily visible from any particular point of view. In this context, categories like “capital” or the “commodity” – the categories often central to recent “new dialectical” interpretations of Marx – pick out what I have called “emergent effects”: these are categories that describe very complex patterns of aggregate social behaviour that are not caused by one type of social practice alone, or even by a few types of social practices operating together, but instead by the joint operation of a very wide array of social practices, none of which is immediately oriented to achieving such an aggregate effect.

Capital sets out to show – and this is its connection with Darwin’s work – how, in the absence of an overarching Designer or Plan, it is possible nevertheless for aggregate social practices to generate non-random results. To do this, it re-assembles the array of social practices Marx takes to be essential to achieving these peculiar aggregate social results, in order to show how the various bits of the array each generate some consequence that contributes to the peculiar overarching historical patterns Marx sets out to analyse.

One goal of the text, then, is to answer the question: how could a complex pattern of aggregate social behaviour come into being in the absence of a designer or a plan? And one could add: without this pattern arising from some essential characteristic of human nature, social life, or the material world? For Marx’s project differs from Darwin’s in that he is committed to showing the contingency of the patterns he describes.

This goal is important, but it is not the only goal governing Marx’s presentation in Capital. The text would be considerably simpler – but also much more one-sided – if the point were just to show how a particular sort of unintended consequence were generated if and only if a very specific array of social practices were operating in tandem.

Another important goal of the text is to explore all of the other consequences and implications of the social practices that – when they operate in tandem – generate emergent effects like “capital”. Because these other consequences and potentials are also dimensions of social experience for indigenous inhabitants of capitalist societies. Thus, when Capital unfurls the array of practices that must operate together to generate specific aggregate results, it also tarries over the more immediate consequences of each practice in the array, exploring the phenomenological experience of social actors who engage in that practice, often as this phenomenological experience shifts from moment to moment during the execution of the “same” practice, and also exploring the more immediate effects each practice generates for other social actors and for the material world.

These more immediate effects are often easier for social actors to discern – and might, in fact, be common to many periods of human history. What has changed for some practices is instead the more indirect effects these practices generate only because they are currently contributing to a complex system that is historically new. This distinction – between immediate effects that may be consciously intended or are at least easier for social actors to discern – and indirect aggregate effects that result from the simultaneous performance of many different kinds of social practices – is one of the reasons, in Marx’s account, that is it so difficult for social actors to grasp the ontological status of the phenomena observed by political economy.

Political economists don’t know “where to have” categories like “value”, because these categories express the emergent effects of many different practices – effects that are not intended, and that often do not resemble – or even “contradict” – the more immediate effects of the very same sorts of social practices that help generate this aggregate result. In this situation, the aggregate effects can come to seem like ontologically spooky results of capacities for self-organisation inherent in the material world, so long as humans keep out of the way. The contingent social basis for this “self”-organisation can come to seem mysterious and opaque. Marx believes that he can deflate this mystery – that he can demonstrate that political economy is being metaphysical in treating phenomena as “given” – by showing how aggregate effects can be produced by the combined operation of social practices whose immediate consequences may bear no resemblance to the aggregate phenomena they generate.

One side effect of this analysis is that it shows how the “same” social practices can generate “contradictory” consequences – depending on how far downstream the analysis follows the consequences that a specific social practice can generate. As Capital moves through various perspectives, what Marx is often exploring is what social tendencies look like, at the precise moment that social actors are engaging in specific forms of practice. Marx goes through dozens of forms of practice in this way – often breaking what we would casually regard as the “same” practice (like “using money”) down into sub-practices that involve very different sorts of actions and performative stances.

Then, quite brilliantly, he links up specific forms of political economic theory to the way the world looks, if you are using the perceptual and conceptual resources engendered by some specific form of practice. In this way, he establishes how, and to what extent, specific forms of political economic are “socially valid”: he shows that a specific theory expresses fairly well the forms of social experience that arise when people are, e.g., selling goods, or paying off debt, or earning interest. He then moves onto another practice, and shows that very different possibilities for social experience are opened up by that practice – and thus retroactively criticises earlier perspectives by showing that they capture only a very small part of the social experience available collectively to us.

In this way, political economic theories are revealed to be partial representations of some small dimension of social experience. They might be perfectly accurate as far as that small slice of experience is concerned, but they are guilty of over-extrapolation: they hypostatise that dimension of social experience and behave as though it operates in isolation, unchecked by the operation of any other practices. As a result, they arrive at a very poor sense of the dynamics and tendencies of capitalist production as a whole.

In Capital‘s third chapter, Marx steals from Hegel an interesting image for expressing a social “contradiction”:

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

In capitalism’s much more complex elliptical movement, poor forms of theory operate like someone who sees only one dimension of the ellipse, and doesn’t understand how that dimension is checked by other, contradictory tendencies. So they rightly see that one tendency is that two bodies are constantly falling toward one another, and they declare that the fundamental law of motion is that they shall crash! Or they rightly see that one tendency is that two bodies are constantly flying apart, and they declare that the fundamental law of motion is that they shall become ever more distant from one another! These perceptions aren’t products of poor reasoning, exactly – they are based on the genuine experience of their object. It’s just that they fail to grasp how complex that object is, in practice, and so they arrive at a much simpler, much more linear, understanding of how its dynamics will play out over time.

In roger’s recent series of posts, one recurrent touchstone has been how to understand passages where Marx seems to imply that money dissolves everything – that all relationships become fungible, all hierarchies dissolve, all solids melt into air. I would suggest that the way to understand such passages is as perspectives – perspectives that are partial, that are valid only contingently, and only in bounded ways. Marx ventriloquises such perspectives, showing how the laws of motion of capitalism appear from their standpoint – and he also tries to show what aspect of everyday, mundane practical social experience engenders the sensibilities that have been articulated theoretically into this form. But he does not use these passages to make fixed ontological claims – even historically contingent ones. He does not claim, e.g., that relationships “are” fungible – he claims that there is a dimension of social practice that if it were looked at in isolation from all other social practices would imply that this could be the case. The perspective that claims this, however, operates with a significant blind spot: it doesn’t acknowledge the effects of the many other social practices that stand in the way of realising this implicit “telos” of one small dimension of a complex whole.

At the same time, however, having a dimension of social practice – however small – that suggests the possibility to dissolve all social hierarchies: this is incendiary. Recurrent social experience – even if fleeting – with a dimension of social practice that suggests this sort of contingency has a potentially corrosive effect. The potential to transform hierarchies, to burst through barriers, is placed on the experiential table through countless mundane practices that are not in themselves transformative, but that can be articulated (as Marx does in the Communist Manifesto) to transformative ends. By themselves, these practical experiences point in no specific direction: capitalist “creative destruction” is as compatible with the notion that all barriers can fall, as is the mobilisation for a future egalitarian society – an explicitly political articulation and appropriation of this reservoir of collective experience is required. But the initial corrosive force – the introduction of a nagging possibility for transformation – first arises, in Marx’s account, in a very mundane way – as unintentional as the aggregate forms of social coercion that Capital also analyses.

Capital seeks to tease out these tacit potentials, as they arise in a wide array of everyday practices whose indirect consequence also happens to be the reproduction of capital. There is nothing in the practical constitution of these potentials that suggests that, left to their own devices, they would necessarily drive historical development in some specific direction: our practices generate accidental possibilities; something active is required – a new selective inheritance that cites different moments of our history – to break free of the elliptical movement that, at present, truncates the development of specific potentials, constraining them into a form compatible with the continued reproduction of the unintended whole.

Theatricality, Critical Standpoint, and the “Reality” of All Moments of Social Experience

Okay… this post originated as a comment to add to the discussion with roger and demet in the thread below, but grew a bit cancerous, so I’m elevating it to post status. What I’ve done here is to replicate the content of my final comment to roger, and then added underneath it what would have been a new comment, in order to get everything together in one place. Note that there is lots of other substantive material in the comment thread below – I’m lifting this content up because I can’t remember whether I’ve put it all into one place like this on the blog…

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The thing that’s most difficult to “get” about Marx’s critical standpoint is that it doesn’t require occupying some sort of Archimedean point – or, for that matter, some singular point immanent to the phenomena it criticises. There’s instead this constant sliding around from point to point – and the “points” themselves are subject to adaptation and interpretation – they don’t always have to be enacted in exactly the same way. Marx will flit from one perspective to another, looking back over his shoulder at the previous perspectives, in a sense looking askance at them, showing how odd certain claims look when viewed from the perspective of other dimensions of social experience.

The end result doesn’t occupy some one ideal position – but it’s also not “perspectival” in, say, a Mannheimian sense, where perspectives are regarded as inhering in social groups. The operation of the text simply wouldn’t work if Marx didn’t have some sense that whatever we had accidentally constituted – whatever perspectives are opened up in collective practice – weren’t potentially available, as performative stances, for social actors to move in and out of (where part of the critical barb derives precisely, then, from the revealed arbitrariness of the actual actors who occupy some specific position).

So the whole operation of the text is driven by a sort of Benjaminian commitment to make our history citable in more of its moments – and then to foreground the potential for other forms of selective citation or inheritance of the possibilities for social development that we accidentally produce, but are too prone to treat as though these are fated to remain in their present form.

Or something like that… ;-) What I’m trying to express is that I’ve run into great difficulty communicating the distinctiveness of the critical standpoint on which the text relies – which is neither a traditional singular “standpoint” (whether immanent or transcendent), nor is it “perspectival” (although there is plenty of analysis of “perspectives” in the text). It’s a standpoint in constant motion, and one which relies on a fundamentally creative possibility to adapt the elements we find lying around us, rather than taking those elements as something fixed and given…

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One other point that I was just thinking in the background, which I’m not sure has made it onto the blog completely clearly: the other bit of work that Marx’s theatricality does, aside from generally allowing him to highlight a multiplicity of perspectives and generate a very complex and agile sort of critical standpoint, is that it allows him to link “forms of subjectivity” and “forms of objectivity” together in a very unusual way.

The more Hegelian interpretations of Marx tend to understand, programmatically, that this is somehow part of the “package”: that part of what Capital is trying to do is talk about forms of subjectivity and objectivity using the same basic categories. Those approaches just tend to vastly underestimate the complexity of the argument, such that you end up with a relatively small number of categories that are understood to replicate, in a fractal manner, at different scales or in different aspects of experience. Marx will suggest things like this, from time to time, but this is only scratching the surface of the argument.

The more interesting move is to decide to treat different aspects of social practice as performances – which means not only that they are artificial, contingent, etc., but that they can be thought of in terms of performative stances, which are combined with particular sorts of practical orientations. Forms of subjectivity and objectivity are thus linked, not because they all share “the commodity form” or something like that, but because what we do, when we engage in a particular practice, is adopt a specific performative stance, while seeking to achieve certain kinds of practical impacts on other people and/or nonhuman objects. In this sense, forms of subjectivity and objectivity are intrinsically interrelated, not because one can be reduced to the other, or because one is related to the other by a more or less mystical concept of “social form”, but just because that’s what a practice is – a combination of a specific performative stance combined with an attempt to have a particular sort of impact on the world.

On this reading, Marx’s doesn’t have one, or even a small number, of basic social forms he’s analysing: he has dozens and dozens. In the third chapter of Capital, for example, he breaks down something that is often casually grouped together – “using money” – into several major sorts of activities, and then he breaks each of those activities down into different stages, each of which involve different performative stances and practical objectives. Each one of these opens up different perspectives onto the “same” social process (including perspectives that do not recognise how they participate in a process that also necessarily involves perspectives other than their own).

All of this, however, relates to aspects of social experience that are potentially intersubjectively meaningful – this is why it is possible to analyse them in terms of performative stances. In addition, there are whole other dimensions of social experience – and here we begin to get to the thing the Hegelian interpretations of Marx do tend to grasp, but they grasp it as though it’s the only thing going on – that relate to the unintended and indirect consequences of all these performative activities, which also generate consequences that then confront social actors, demanding responses of some sort of other.

So social practices are presented as each potentially having several layers of consequences – some of them immediate and easy to discern, some of them quite indirect and arising only because a whole constellation of practices are taking place in tandem, enabling them to generate aggregate effects they would never create in isolation, or even in tandem with a different constellation.

Because it’s very difficult for social actors to anticipate these indirect consequences – in part because they are indirect, in part because these consequences often do not resemble (and may even “contradict”) the more direct consequences of individual practices, in part because the consequences require a very particular combination of different practices to arise – such consequences can be plausibly interpreted as not arising from social practice at all. (It’s more complicated than this, but this is the most basic version of the argument – the one that’s already implied in the commodity fetish discussion.)

These aggregate, emergent consequences are patterns of social behaviour that initially become visible in observations made of the movements of material goods. Because no one sets out to create these patterns, and because the practical conditions required to generate the patterns are so complex, the patterns are plausibly interpreted as not being contingent social phenomena at all, but instead as arising from some inherent capacity for self-organisation that arises when material objects are allowed to interact “free” of human intervention. Capital implies that this very distinctive sort of social experience primes us to expect that a “material world” – as it exists in itself, free of anthroporphic projection – would be a lawlike, spontaneously self-organising realm: our secular, disenchanted conception of material nature is, in Marx’s account, the specific form of anthropomorphism of our time.

Capital is designed to show – I think – how this distinctive unintentional aggregate effect is inadvertently constituted, as people go about their everyday lives, engaging in various intersubjectively-meaningful practices that involve specific performative stances and generate distinctive sorts of impacts on other people and on nonhuman nature.

To understand the critical standpoint of the text, what is most important is to see that – like Hegel – Marx steadfastly refuses to allocate quanta of reality among different parts of social experience. In his account, both the overarching, aggregate, emergent effect and the various intersubjectively-meaningful practices from which it ultimately arises, share an equivalent ontological status. One is not more “real” than the other. All of these elements of social experience are potentially citable – and appropriable – as raw materials around which we can innovate in constructing new forms of history with the materials we have lying ready to hand…

Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

This coming Friday, I have to fulfil a mandatory pre-submission requirement for the thesis that basically involves presenting on the structure and the major claims of the thesis, and then taking questions from faculty and students who happen to attend the event. The faculty who attend are provided with the abstract, first chapter, and table of contents for the thesis – unless they are actual supervisors, they are unlikely to have read anything else. The students who attend are not, to my knowledge, supplied with anything. Presumably they are either friends of the presenters, and therefore know their work through that connection, or they are simply there to see what this hurdle requirement entails. The purpose of the requirement is to provide a sort of check and balance on the supervision process – making it less likely that theses will be sent out for examination (which, here, is an entirely external process) when they are likely to require major amendments or not to pass.

If any readers from my university would like to attend, the event will be held in the Research Lounge from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday 27 February. There will be four or five of us presenting and taking questions – each of us with an hour to ourselves. I don’t know as of yet which hour is mine. If this matters, send me an email, and I’ll let you know when and if I find out…

Since the introduction I recently posted to the blog was mainly a placeholder – and one that was specifically not very well-designed, I didn’t think, for people who weren’t going to read the rest of the thesis – I have rewritten it for purposes of distribution to the staff who will be attending this event. I think it’s much better than the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, so, to satisfy my archivalist impulses, I’ve posted it below the fold. As before, it still needs a lot of detail work (and footnotes have been stripped from the blog version), but as an overarching introduction it does a much better job – I think – of preparing the reader for the sort of thesis they are about to read, the terminology used in the thesis, and the style of argument the thesis makes. I think…

I belong to the first group of students to whom this presentation requirement has been applied, so the groundrules for the event – and what you have to do to “pass” – are still a bit unformed. I’m not expecting any major dramas, but who knows… I’ll let folks know next week…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

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Thesis Workshop: Introduction – Historical Materialism and Real Abstraction

It’s a bit rough and ready, but I’ll post the working introduction to the thesis here anyway. If I keep this introduction in anything like its current form, I’ll need to make some slight modifications to several of the later chapters, since the introduction currently covers some of the ground discussed in later chapters, and would make those discussions seem repetitive…

Lots of detail work still to do – but this should be the end of the thesis-related posts for now. I’ll put up a PDF of the version of the thesis that is actually submitted when that is ready to go.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

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Thesis Workshop: What a Piece of Work Is Man

Okay. Last substantive chapter of the thesis. This chapter was very difficult to write. I think it was worth the difficulty. But perhaps that’s just relief at finishing the argument…

This chapter outlines the derivation of the category of labour-power, explores how this derivation fundamentally alters our sense of the opening categories, and generally tries to pull everything together. I’m queueing this piece for publication several days before it will appear on the blog, so I’m not certain whether there will be an introduction and conclusion to be posted hot on the heels of this chapter, or whether this will be it for a while. I have considered possibly just ending the thesis with this chapter, as anything that follows will likely be a bit more prosaic than the ground this chapter covers, ensuring the thesis ends, so to speak, on a whimper. I suspect, though, that I need a more formal conclusion just to get a quick outline of the major points all in one place… So: a concluding chapter probably still to come, and an introductory chapter definitely still to come (and, since we all know the beginning can’t really be fully grasped until it can be shown to be the necessary starting point of the system derived from it, it’s surely fitting that what should have been first in the order of presentation, will instead appear last… ;-P).

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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Thesis Workshop: Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta

Now that we’ve finally escaped chapter 3 of Capital, a quick breeze through chapters 4 and 5, focussing on the imagery in chapter 4 of capital-as-Geist, and then on the impasse Marx sets up in chapter 5, as a wedge through which he will drive the category of labour-power in the following chapter.

Chapter 4 contains one of the more overt references to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the text – a number of commentators have noticed the parallel being drawn there between capital and the Geist. There is a certain tendency, however, to beat up on the authors who notice this gesture, as though these authors are attributing to Marx the position that capital is actually the Geist – an autonomous, self-grounding process that has achieved independence from human agency. I’m not convinced this is a fair reading of other commentators who have noticed this same reference in the text. Regardless, in my discussion of this issue below, I position this gesture into the context of Marx’s critique of Hegel: Marx is not saying that capital is the Geist – he’s saying that the process of the production of capital includes within itself a perspective that makes that process appear to possess certain qualitative attributes that Hegel attributes to the Geist. This is the same move Marx makes when criticising any competing form of thought: critique for Marx involves a process of demonstrating why a competing position is plausible – a demonstration that, for Marx, takes the form of showing what aspect of practical experience could plausibly be interpreted in the form being criticised – and then, having done that, showing all the other things that competing position can’t grasp, because it gives too much ontological weight to one small aspect of a much larger phenomenon. If the reader were in any doubt as to whether Marx thinks capital just might be a god-process after all, this passage of text is filled with Marx’s signature destabilising gestures that – more clearly in this section than in many other passages in Capital mock the perspective being presented overtly in the text. All this and more below…

Chapter 5 presents a nice deconstructive analysis of an aporia within commodity circulation – a process that both presupposes the creation of surplus-value, and yet offers no perspective from which this creation can be grasped as anything other than a mysterious, occult phenomenon. This analysis sets up for Marx to offer a preliminary practice-theoretic account of this phenomenon, beginning in the following chapter.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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Thesis Workshop: Crossed Circuits

After this chapter, readers will finally be able to make their escape from the deconstructive thicket that is the third chapter of Capital. Before we part ways with this chapter, though, Marx engages in some extremely clever moves to begin to open a wedge through which he will finally drive the category of capital in the following chapter. Here he begins to make the case that commodity circulation allows – and, in some cases, necessitates – exchanges that are not driven by the need to meet material needs, but rather by the need to make money. This may sound like an obvious point, but Marx needs to make it in a way that makes clear that this is not a possibility that arises extrinsically to commodity production, as some sort of corruption of a more fundamental process, but rather is implied by the very nature of the process itself. This chapter is also, by the way, where I most directly treat the issue of crisis – a topic I can approach only in an extremely preliminary way in the thesis, since I am focussing only on the opening chapters of Capital

So one last dance with chapter 3 – and then we get to meet the Geist!

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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