Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Empiricism

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…

Immanence and Materialism Conference Talk

Another talk below the fold… this time from the Immanence and Materialism conference – which proved to be a very good event, with a collection of excellent papers that, I understand, will soon be collected for online publication at a conference website – I’ll post a link to the blog when I have one.

As usual, the text below is what was said – more or less – at the conference. I’ll put up a more polished version with full referencing on the conference website shortly.

More soon, I hope… Read more of this post

Marx & Philosophy Society Talk

I will put up a proper version of this paper on the Marx & Philosophy Society website soon. I just wanted to post the text of the actual talk here for archiving purposes in the interim.

The event was fantastic, and the discussion following the paper was rich and thought-provoking – it’s a wonderful event, and I’d encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend in the future.

More blogging soon, I hope – once I’ve caught up on a bit of sleep…

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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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Thesis Workshop: Forms of Motion

Another thesis chapter in the series that focusses on Capital‘s third chapter. This chapter spends quite a lot of time using the new material Marx is providing to take a much closer look at the opening categories of value and abstract labour. It also explores the implications of some brief comments Marx makes about “real contradictions”. These comments are methodologically quite important: they indicate that, when Marx unfolds – as he continues to do throughout Capital – new forms whose implications “contradict” those of earlier forms, he does not understand the new stage of his analysis to have superseded the earlier analysis. To state it crudely: like Hegel, Marx rejects the notion that, when two things contradict, one of those things must be wrong. Pointing to contradictions, however, can be useful as a means of establishing the boundedness and limitations of particular interpretations of social experience – a point that is stated more clearly below than I can do so in brief here. Marx’s early statements about contradiction also begin to make clear that the existence of “social contradictions” does not, by itself, point beyond the existing form of social life – although such contradictions can make it easier to recognise the contingency and artificiality of this form of social life in specific ways. Much more on this below, plus – as always – a systematic move through the underbrush of the text.

[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: How Does Essence Appear?

I’m going to be in transit for the next couple of days, with very limited net access, and so won’t be able to respond to comments or mails. This and the next couple of thesis chapter posts have been queued, so if the blog does its job, they’ll keep trundling their way into the world in my absence.

This chapter is part of a set of three that spends a possibly inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of the complex third chapter of Capital, in which Marx undertakes an extensive deconstructive analysis of money – exploring all the various ways in which this “single” object takes on different roles, and as a result comes to carry radically different meanings, implications and consequences for practice. This chapter is perhaps the single best example of how Marx consistently under-signposts what he is trying to achieve when he makes specific argumentative moves. There is an enormous amount of work being done in Capital‘s third chapter – something you might guess by the sheer length of the thing, but which can be difficult to tell when actually reading the text, because Marx relentlessly refuses to pause and draw out the implications on his own. Often, he’ll point out several chapters later that he sees himself to have made a specific point in an earlier chapter; he rarely emphasises the significance of his argumentative moves at the time, for reasons I’ve explained in chapter 4 of the thesis. Understanding the reasons, however, doesn’t make the practice less frustrating… This is why a single chapter of Capital can blow out into three chapters of my thesis: I provide the signposts Marx should have, but didn’t…

This thesis chapter, as you would guess from the title, focusses a lot of its time and energy on Marx’s use of Hegel’s vocabulary of essence and appearance. The idealist loan words and style of expression often manage to conceal the fact that Marx means pretty much the exact opposite of what the text intuitively seems to be saying: when Marx talks about an essence (like value) expressing itself in a form of appearance (like price), this sounds as if value is an external causal factor, driving the play of appearances. What Marx means is very different: essences are essences of their forms of appearance – it is the play of appearance that constitutes an essence as an immanent pattern that emerges in the transformation of appearances over time. Honest. Trust me. Scout’s honour.

All this – and a lot of textual interpretation – below the fold…

[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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