Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Materialism

Capital Against Capitalism

So back in Melbourne after attending the Capital Against Capitalism conference in Sydney over the weekend. The event reminded me that I keep meaning to put up the actual submitted version of my doctoral thesis (the version that has been linked under the “Thesis” tab was the penultimate version). The submitted version of the thesis contains a number of changes, clarifications and improvements on the penultimate version, particularly in the chapters on the fetish character of the commodity, and in the discussion of Capital chapter 2, that will hopefully be a bit easier to read and understand.

The book will offer a much more substantial revision of this text, based on what I’ve learned from examiners’ comments, reviewers’ comments on the book manuscript, and the comments of many people who have listed to talks I’ve given since submitting the thesis, where I have been trying out alternative approaches to presenting the basic argument. Among other things, the book will approach the issue of Marx’s relationship to Hegel a bit differently – drawing out more clearly the way in which the achitectonic of Capital as a whole recurrently presents, and then undermines, idealist dialectical presentations – putting these presentations forward, only to undermine them a short while later with much more contingent historical explanations of the same phenomena previously presented idealistically. At the same time, I’ll focus even more strongly on Marx’s humour and the importance of understanding his humour if we want to unpack his argument – how much the work turns on vulgar restagings of the grand and elevated themes of the grandest and most elevated theory and philosophy of Marx’s own time. Although the book will still focus on these same early chapters, I’ll try to give a much clearer sense of how this sort of argument plays out at the level of the whole of volume 1 than I was able to do in the thesis. And I’ll discuss in a much more systematic way the relationship between this reinterpretation and the interpretations of major figures such as Lukács, Rubin, and Sohn-Rethel, using these discussions to develop more clearly than I think I do in the thesis, the stakes of the argument.

But until that’s in the world, I thought I should at least toss the final version of the thesis out…

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.

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.

The Contingency of Labour

For some reason, the passages on commodity speech at the end of Capital‘s opening chapter seem to draw particularly self-satisfied critics, delighted at what they take to be a performative contradiction between the “definition” of the commodity as an “external thing”, the critique of the commodity fetish – a critique of a fantastical, metaphysical “thing”, and these passages that make commodity “things” stand up on their own hind legs and talk. For this to be a performative contradiction, Marx would have to be a man with a short attention span indeed… These passages should instead, as I have argued at some length, be read as part of a sort of dark comedic arc, in which Marx marches out on the main stage of Capital a set of characters, modeled on the political economy of his own day, who treat commodities as mere “things” – and thus theorise capitalism in a way that ignores the presence of the walking, talking commodity that is wage labour.

The readers are meant to be in on this joke – we aren’t meant to share the blindness of the characters who attempt to understand capitalism while ignoring the secret in plain sight of wage labour. When the text puts forward declarations about what commodities would say “if only” they could speak, we are meant to understand that commodities do speak – do exercise will – do resist and therefore have to be taken by force – and we are therefore meant to know, intuitively, that the characters striding on the main stage, speaking as though such walking, talking, protesting commodities do not exist, are absurd burlesque figures – clowns whose performances are held up for ridicule.

I’ve written at some length about the ways in which the text signals this joke – from snarks in the footnotes, to the use of the language of civil society to describe commodity social interactions in the third section of Capital‘s first chapter, to the analogy Marx draws with prostitution at the beginning of Capital‘s second chapter, at the point when the main text is (absurdly) declaring that commodities, as objects, lack their own independent will and motive force, while also explaining that, if these things should happen to prove unwilling, their owner may use force to compel them.

The reader is meant to know the punchline of this joke all along – and once the category of labour-power is introduced, Marx takes the main text to have demonstrated how selectively – how narrowly – certain kinds of political economic theories must look out onto capitalist production, in order to make the sorts of claims that have been demonstrated – and pilloried – to that point. This doesn’t mean that the theorists Marx has in mind literally are unaware of the existence of wage labour – they may be quite well aware in various aspects of their work. It means that aspects of the theories they put forward – the claims and the categories used in their work – would only ever be adequate as categories if applied to very narrow and limited portions of a much more complex whole.

I’ve written less on how this sort of strategy continues beyond the opening chapters of Capital. The “definitions” of labour that are introduced in chapter 7 form part of a similar joke. All of the things that labour purportedly “is”, in those definitional passages, are demonstrated, over the course of many subsequent chapters, to be things labour can only be said to be, if a theorist looks at capitalist production through an absurdly selective lens, bracketing out large swathes of practical experience. Marx will insistently bring those excluded, obscured aspects of experience into view – revealing how partial and blinkered these initial “definitions” are.

One of the more important “definitional” aspects of labour Marx will try to undermine, is the claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity”, something that is transhistorically and intrinsically required for material production. The great irony of capitalism is that, of all forms of production, it demonstrates most clearly the non-necessity for the expenditure of human labour as a motive force in the processes through which we meet our material needs. The need for the direct expenditure of human labour is progressively phased out in specific spheres of productive activity, due to the development of machinery, improvements in organisation, and the development of technical and scientific knowledge.

At the same time, collective practice constrains our ability to take advantage of this potential – crises occur if human labour is phased out too far, and pressures drive the development of ever-new “opportunities” for human labour to be expended in new forms – or retained in forms where, technologically, we could reduce or eliminate it.

These conflictual pressures – driving for the reduction in the need to expend human labour directly in meeting material needs, and driving for the retention and reconstitution of the need to expend human labour in some form – constitute, for Marx, the rational core of classical political economy’s “labour theory of value”. Capitalism, uniquely amongst human societies, directly values the expenditure of human labour – not as a means, but – speaking here on a structural level, as a long-term unintentional pattern of behaviour – as an end. Capitalism’s primary product is labour. The claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity” is a claim offered from a capital-eye-view: other historical systems of production do not have this orientation – human labour may be as central, because other motive forces are not available – but in capitalism, other motive forces emerge as possibilities – and yet labour remains structurally central, for reasons that cannot be reduced, Marx argues, to any intrinsic necessity to expend specifically human labour in order to meet material needs.

The need for human labour in capitalism is specifically not material – the passages in Capital that declare this necessity to be imposed by nature need to be read in the same tone as the passages that declare commodities to be external objects that lack will, volition and voices of their own: partial, ideological views that view capitalism through a narrow slice of practical experience – a slice that brackets off immanent potentials for political contestation, and that obscures the practical possibility to abolish the specifically social – not natural, but contingent – centrality of human labour power as a motive force.

I’ll try to do more on this textually in later posts – have just been mulling over this recently after reading yet another critique of Marx’s “performative contradiction”, which caused me to wonder what else Marx needed to do to make this opening joke more explicit… I realise the writing style is perverse and Marx has a veritable phobia of signposting what he’s trying to do. But his exasperation at theorists who write as though commodities are “things” is more overt than most of his text-play… The complex ricochet of this argument is much much harder: the reflexive point that, although people can be commodities, they are so only as split subjects, who experience only part of themselves – labour-power – an ojectified, object-like, “material” bundle of physical capacities and talents – as the commodity part. But the basic joke that commodities are not only or always passive, inert, voiceless, will-less, things – this I would think would be clearer on the surface of the text…

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…

Irony and Totality

Another fragment of offline writing re-posted here – this one’s potentially quite rough and ready, and in need of double-checking with the texts to which I refer, so read with all due caution, etc.

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The notion that Capital has certain “literary” features is neither new nor uncommon. As Wolff (1988) notes, however, until very recently such analyses have generally been put forward by scholars who lacked a social theoretic background, and who could therefore point out literary tropes, but not explain what substantive social theoretic purpose these tropes might serve. In this category falls, for example, the impressionistic and somewhat breathless argument by Sypher (1948: 438) that that Capital should be understood as an example of a common Victorian literary trope of melodrama:

Philosophically, the work is not melodrama; aesthetically it is… Capital is a dramatic poem, or possibly a dramatic epic. Its great economic themes are treated chorally, with all the strophic progress of the ode and all the rhythmic stress of an ironic injustice committed against the masses. If we are not distracted by the superficial diffusion of the book, its elaborate and energetic logic and its accumulation of evidence, we see that its concealed structure is mythical.

Sypher captures the theatrical character of the work – and also suggests, as I often have, that the Hegelian dialectic is in some sense the target of the critique (441-42), but proposes no substantive reason for Capital to adopt a particular literary form, other than that melodrama was purportedly a common form of presentation at the time Marx was writing.

Wilson (1972: 191) argues that “Marx and Engels have been inadequately appreciated as writers”, foregrounds the artistic character of Capital (338), and insists that “Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and he has a good deal in common with him” (340). Like Sypher, however, Wilson cannot identify a substantive argumentative reason for Capital to have been structured as a satirical work, and so ends up searching about for idiosyncratic psychological motives. Thus he explains the sardonic character of the text by arguing that “Marx had the satanic genius of the satirist: his jeers are the true expressions of his nature” – a “relentless misanthropy” – “and for this reason they are often effective” (301).

Hyman (1974: 143-45) offers an acute and insightful reading of the dramatic structure of Capital – understanding the work as a play, and dividing it into acts, much as I will also do in reinterpreting the dramatic structure of the work. Hyman interprets this dramatic structure, however, as evidence that Capital should be read “not as science, social science, or exhortation, but as imaginative literature” (133) – following Sypher in claiming that the literary form is that of Victorian melodrama (146). This perceived conflict – the purported incompatability between Capital’s “literary” character and its status as “serious” social theory – undermines Hyman’s ability to grasp the substantive points being made in and through some of the presentational strategies Hyman accurately identifies.

The first serious social theoretic attempt to analyse Capital’s presentational strategy as an integral part of its substantive argument was Wolff’s (1988: 4) short work Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, which begins with an account of the author’s reaction to Capital’s “bitterly satirical language quite unlike anything I had encountered elsewhere in political philosophy or the social sciences”. Unlike the earlier, more strictly “literary” analyses of Capital, Wolff sees a substantive social theoretic purpose in Capital’s presentational strategies. He argues: “Marx’s literary style constitutes a deliberate attempt to find a philosophically appropriate language for expressing the ontological structure of the social world” (20). Wolff’s brief treatment of the relation of style and content in Capital zooms far above the surface of Marx’s text, however, leaving the fine-grained analysis of how Capital makes substantive points through distinctive literary strategies as a task for future scholars.

These initial treatments of Capital’s dramatic structure were isolated works, not part of a broader overarching conversation about Marx’s literary techniques. In the past fifteen years, however, there has been a burst of interest in using the techniques traditionally associated with literary theory to cast light on Marx’s substantive claims, from both literary and social theorists. Derrida perhaps helped to spark this interest by providing a controversial deconstructive critique in Specters of Marx (1994), a work which both inspired imitations and provoked criticism from those who felt the reading misrepresented Marx’s theory. In 1997, Keenan produced a brilliant reinterpretation of the opening chapter of Capital, in particular highlighting the way in which the opening chapter loops back on itself, destabilising the earlier sections that had initially appeared as static “definitional” claims. In 1998 (24-28, 63-66), Carver called for greater attention to the “textual surface” of Marx’s argument and highlighted the way in which the text positions social actors as characters who are not fully exhausted by any specific role the text shows them to play. In 2007 (75-76), Wheen published a “biography” of Capital in which he argued that the text must be read with close attention to voice, tone, and dramatic genre, and homes in on the primary substantive concern driving the various literary gestures: “To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated with irony – an irony which has escaped most scholars for 140 years”. In 2008, Sutherland mounted a convincing case for détournement in Capital’s opening chapter, accompanied by a scathing critique of Marxist theory for attempting to reduce Marx’s claims to a list of theoretical “contents” abstracted from the style in which those claims had originally been put forward. In Sutherland’s words:

Marx has been read, and continues now to be read, as though his thinking had nothing to do with literariness and with style, not at least in any radical sense… The most important way in which the meaning of Marx’s is transformed, not only by his translators, but likewise and as though collaboratively by current literary theorists, is through their elimination of satire from Capital. (6)

Two earlier works, not yet mentioned in the survey above, deserve particular attention in relation to the reading I have been developing: John Seery’s (1990) Political Returns, and Dominick LaCapra’s (1983) Rethinking Intellectual History. Neither of these works is focussed solely on Marx. Both, however, present interpretations that prefigure important aspects of my own argument – in particular, the claim that Capital needs to be read as a self-deconstructing text that puts forward positions that it then destabilises. I want to dwell for a moment on their arguments here.

Seery provides a detailed analysis of the foreword for Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which addresses the problem of how philosophy is possible after Hegel (243). According to Seery, the answer Marx provides is that philosophy is possible after Hegel – if it assumes an ironic form (244-45). Seery traces the way in which this theme plays itself out in subterranean form in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the difference between Democritus’ more deterministic materialism, and Epicurus’ variant of materialism, which accommodates the potential for a “swerve” that deviates from strict determination (245-49). Seery then argues:

The foreword begins with the question of how it is at all possible to philosophize after Hegel’s total triumph, how, as it were, one can ‘swerve’ from Hegelianism. Traditionally, scholars have interpreted the young Marx as still enraptured at this time with Hegel and Hegelianism, and they have read Marx’s dissertation as an attempt ‘to fill in lacunae in Hegel’s system,’ or else to find a way to put Hegelianism into practice (as a benign resolution to his schoolboy Oedipalism). I suggest, however, that a careful reading of the foreword along with the dissertation reveals that Marx is thoroughly distancing himself from Hegel while at the same time he is informing us that his alternative stance will nonetheless resemble Hegelianism in outward form: a double stance, which cannot be reduced to the epigonal anxiety of a typical young Hegelian. (250)

I have written previously on Marx’s complex relation to Hegel in Capital – Seery’s analysis suggests a very similar understanding of that relationship, foreshadowed in Marx’s doctoral thesis. In Seery’s interpretation, Marx’s citation of the forms of Hegel’s work, the parallels between Hegel’s method and his own, needs to be understood in a deeply ironic light – as a similarity formed at a fundamental level by a desire to effect a fundamental internal transformation of Hegel’s system, while outwardly appearing consistent with Hegel’s method.

Seery argues that Marx’s embrace of irony is a specific response to the question of how we can escape from totalising philosophies:

In particular, Marx wishes to show why, in the wake of totalizing philosophies, it is necessary for the subjective form of philosophy to wear ‘disguises’ and ‘character masks’; why Plato employs myths and Epicurus endorses the principle of repulsion; and why, by extension, Marx will apparently embrace Hegelianism…

In other words, in order to philosophize after Hegel, in order to ‘live at all after a total philosophy,’ Marx is saying that we need ‘ironists,’ or those who are able to break with totalizing views of reality, and then can act on their own, like the self-initiating motion of Epicurus’ swerving atom. But because Hegel’s triumph is so encompassing, according to Marx, post-Hegelian ironists will need to couch their subjective philosophies in Hegelian terminology, nonetheless. (250-51)

Seery thus finds in Marx an anti-totalising impulse, ironically expressed in the rhetoric of a totalising philosophy. In my reinterpretation of Capital, I put forward textual evidence for a very similar claim, but in more social theoretic form. If the early Marx was striving to break away from the dominance of a seemingly omnipresent totalising philosophical discourse, the later Marx confronts a social system that, seen from certain angles, can seem totalising, not just in discourse, but in reality. In both cases, Marx opts for irony as his critical tool of choice, as the technique by which he expresses the possibility for the “swerve” that will burst apart the totality apart from within.

As a presentational strategy, however, irony can have strange effects on the reader’s experience of the text – particularly when, as is the case in Capital, the technique is not explicitly announced in advance. As Seery (1990: 253) notes:

…compounding the problem of discovering Marx’s ‘ironic’ outlook is that Marx would be, according to his dissertation, an ironist on the sly, a writer who conceals his ironic view of things. Is all hope lost of pinning Marx down?

Seery (253) goes on to recommend the sorts of reading strategies that would be required:

I suggest that we can discern Marx’s ‘irony’ by indirection, by disclosing its deep presence through elimination, by smoking it out of hiding: For unless we attribute a buried form of irony to Marx’s language, we cannot make complete sense of his ‘early’ writings. Or to put it more positively: Only by crediting Marx with an ironic, self-critical, partially detached, performative understanding of the function of his own language can we provide an answer to the questions left over from Rose’s analysis of The German Ideology [a work which Seery has used as a foil for his analysis].

The same reading strategies, LaCapra suggests, are required for Capital – a point he attempts to demonstrate through what he calls a “fictionalized reconstruction of the ‘phenomenology’ of reading Capital” (1983: 332).

In this reconstruction, LaCapra notes that the way readers approach Capital’s opening passages generally determines how they understand the claims made in the rest of the text (332). When these passages are read as straightforward definitional claims, this colours the reader’s impression of the other claims that follow, leading to the sorts of literal interpretations I have outlined in previous posts. In LaCapra’s words:

Reading these opening sections for the first time, one is struck by the seemingly abstract delineation of concepts to analyze the commodity form (use value, exchange value, abstract labour power, and so on). Marx seems to conform to the image of the pure scientist, indeed the theorist who, in the afterword to the second German edition, seems to invert Hegel by collapsing positivism and the dialectic into a purely objectivist notion of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. A positivistic dialectic appears to be revealed as ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. The first three sections of the principal text also seem to fall neatly within this ‘problematic’. (333)

LaCapra suggests, however, that as the text progresses, it calls into question this first impression – starting, in LaCapra’s read, with the section on the fetish character of the commodity, which:

… causes a rupture in the text and disorients one’s expectations about it. One is led to reread the earlier sections in its light and to notice the evidence of ‘double-voicing’ or of ‘internal dialogization’ operating to disfigure their seemingly placid positivistic façade. (333)

LaCapra goes on to highlight a number of the same ironic textual gestures I have also highlighted in my various discussions of Capital‘s opening chapter. To avoid repetition, I will not review his specific reactions here. What I want to note here is that LaCapra’s “heuristic” observations on the reader’s experience of the text are very close to the reading strategy I have suggested is most productive in confronting Capital: I have argued that reading Capital requires an iterative strategy that involves the constant re-evaluation of earlier claims in light of new perspectives introduced later in the text. This process helps bring into view what LaCapra calls double-voicing and sensitises the reader to the presence of internal dialogues as a way of making sense of the complex presentational strategy playing out in the main text. In the process, it becomes easier to see how apparently firm ontological distinctions that are put forward in the opening passages of Capital are progressively destabilised and unsettled as the text moves forward.

Indelicate Things

Well maybe just a little bit about sex in Capital… Backtracking a bit from the passage discussed in the previous post….

The second chapter of Capital begins where the previous chapter ostensibly left off: with a programmatic declaration about what commodities are unable to do, given that they are only things, not people.

Commodities cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are the possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. (1990: 178)

This passage looks like a “dialectical” derivation of a new category from the defects of the old: commodities, as simple objects, are unable to take themselves to market – and yet they are, intrinsically, objects that are exchanged; ergo, we can dialectically derive the existence of… owners! In the previous post, I suggested that such dialectical gestures should be read as ironic – not in the sense that Marx denies the results of the dialectical analysis (there really are owners of commodities, so the “result” is sound), but in the sense that the form of presentation does not reflect the actual form of analysis through which Marx arrives at his own critical interpretation of the reproduction of capital.

The next sentence already begins to destabilise the apparently confident assertion that commodities are passive objects, and casts doubt on the reliability of the character narrating this passage: “If they are unwilling,” the text tells us, “he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them” (178). Commodities have just been described as passive objects – unable to take themselves to market just as, at the end of the previous chapter, they were described as unable to speak. What sense can be made, then, of the notion of “unwilling” commodities that have no desire to be taken to the market and sold?

Marx dangles a footnote from this line that suggests an answer to this question:

In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities. Thus a French poet of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair of Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also ‘femmes folles de leur corps’. (178n1)

In the main text, then, a character declaims that commodities are passive things that rely on their owners to carry them to market. In a footnote to the same passage, Marx impishly provides an example of a commodity quite capable of carrying itself to market – and, while it is there, negotiating its own price and terms of sale: a prostitute. On the other hand, even this commodity, once sold – or, in the case of the prostitute, rented for a fixed duration of time – belongs to its purchaser who can, as the main text has just said, use force if the prostitute is unwilling to consummate the sale. This image of the prostitute who has been forced to service the buyer haunts the discussion in the main text. It prefigures the plight of the wage labourers whose existence has not yet been explicitly acknowledged in the text.

The main text carries on, describing the performative stances that commodity owners assume towards each other, in the process of exchanging their wares:

In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in these objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate his own, except through an act to which both parties consent. The guardians therefore recognise each other as owners of private property. (178)

The text thus describes two different performative stances whose joint performance enacts a social actor as a commodity owner. The first performative stance involves enacting the commodity as an external thing that, as an expression of its owner’s will, can be “objectified” and treated instrumentally – if the commodity resists, the owner is allowed to take possession by force. The second performative stance involves enacting other commodity owners as fellow subjects who cannot be engaged instrumentally – their commodities cannot simply be appropriated by force because the first commodity owner desires them – but instead must be engaged through processes of mutual recognition and consent.

The discussion of mutual recognition amongst commodity owners, and objectification of commodities themselves, reacts back on the dialectical discussion of commodities from the third section of Capital’s opening chapter. In that section, commodities were presented as engaging in social interactions that involved mutual recognition. In this section, by contrast, these forms of interactions have been displaced from commodities to their owners, and the commodities have been repositioned as the objects of instrumental action. The contrast subtly destabilises the notion that the “definitional” claims put forward in either of the opening chapters of Capital could be read as fixed ontological distinctions, by drawing attention to the continuous redetermination of the ontological status of the persons and objects described, depending on the social perspective from which they are viewed.

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Malthusian Asides

Miro's singing fishMarx reserves a special sort of loathing for Malthus. Since chapter 25 of Capital focusses precisely on the ways in which capitalism generates its own distinctive laws of population, the chapter can in many respects be read as a frontal assault on Malthus’ work. Marx’s antipathy is so strong, however, that he has to ease into the direct mention of Malthus’ name. Safeguards are required. A certain amount of buildup is needed.

First, Marx will establish his capacity for equanimity in the face of some fairly explicit apologistic material. Marx quotes – in the main text – Bernard de Mandeville’s sage advice on keeping the poor in their place:

It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in. nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get … Those that get their living by daily labour … have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make his desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy … (765)

After allowing Mandeville the floor for this and other choice recommendations, Marx praises him – calling Mandeville as “an honest man with a clear mind” – and offering nothing more vituperative than a mild corrective rebuke for Mandeville’s failure fully to understand “the mechanism of the accumulation process” (765). Marx then quotes Eden, who agrees that:

It is not the possession of land, or of money, but the command of labour which distinguishes the opulent from the labouring part of the community. (766)

Marx goes on to “remark… in passing” that Eden “was the only disciple of Adam Smith to have achieved anything of importance during the eighteenth century” (766). The comment appears casual, trivial, and beside the point – a curiosity we could surely skip lightly past on the way to the substantive material in the next paragraph. Except that a massive multi-page footnote blocks our way and, when we decide that a footnote of such prodigious length might be important, finally locate the footnote marker at the end of the “passing remark” above, and cast our eyes down into the marginalia, we discover that special circle of textual hell into which Marx has decided he will deposit Malthus…

Malthus is therefore introduced into this chapter with an insult: Eden is the only disciple of Smith to amount to anything – making Malthus a disciple of Smith who… didn’t… Just in case the reader doesn’t make the connection, Marx makes it for them, in the opening sentence of his note:

If the reader thinks at this point of Malthus, whose Essay on Population appeared in 1798, I would remind him that this work in its first form is nothing but a schoolboyish, superficial plagiarism of Defoe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc., declaimed in the manner of a sermon, but not containing a single original proposition of Malthus himself.

And so on. For three pages of small-typed footnote, which rapidly veers off into a mischievous round of speculation (for which the textual pretense is an observation about Malthus’ personal vow of celibacy) asking why Protestant clergy in particular should have proven so well-represented amongst theorists of overpopulation, and concluding with comments on how Adam Smith was reprimanded for his friendship with the atheist Hume…

Malthus finally makes his way into the main text of this chapter in section 3, in a discussion of modern industry’s need for surplus population. Malthus figures here as a sort of limit case of the obviousness of the point Marx is making: “Even Malthus”, Marx points out, “recognizes that a surplus population is a necessity of modern industry…” The implication is that, if even Malthus recognises it, the point is simply too obvious to be denied…

Even here, however, Marx can’t give Malthus credit for one point well understood: Malthus accounts for this, Marx argues, “in his narrow fashion, not by saying that part of the working population has been rendered relatively superfluous, but by referring to its excessive growth” (787). Marx quotes Malthus at length here – speaking dourly about how many years it takes to bring “an increase of labourers… into market in consequence of a particular demand”, compared to the much shorter cycles of investment of accumulated capital, such that natural population increase is too blunt a means of increasing the supply of workers to accommodate the vicissitudes of industrial demand (787).

At this point, Marx introduces the burlesque image of political economy as a cross-dressing discourse – one that adopts one character to proclaim the necessity of a surplus population available to deploy at any moment, only then to shift to another character that holds the population responsible for not increasing its numbers beyond what subsistence can allow:

After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of a relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capital accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts into the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the ‘redundant’ workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: ‘We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence.’ (787-788)

The final quoted passage does not come from Malthus, but the logic of the section inserts Malthus into this scene – as someone stepping into the character mask required for a particular apologist production, ready to cast that mask aside and step into another as the situation requires…

Malthus crops up again – in the form of a reference to “Malthusians” – in the final section of the chapter, in a passage which summarises the results of a long empirical and theoretical discussion aimed at showing how processes specific to capitalist societies generate demographic trends – laws of population – that are anything but inscribed intrinsically in nature:

Here then, under our own eyes, and on a large scale, there emerges a process which perfectly corresponds to the requirements of orthodox economics for the confirmation of its dogma, the dogma that misery springs from an absolute surplus of population, and that equilibrium is re-established by depopulation. This is a far more important experiment than the mid-fourteenth century plague so celebrated by the Malthusians. (861)

Once again, Marx is unwilling to place Malthus at the centre of his focus – even in a passage in which Marx is essentially claiming to have derived the historically and socially specific basis for the phenomena Malthus reads off onto timeless nature. Once again, Malthus cannot be dignified with a direct discussion, but is allowed to enter the text only obliquely – by way of an aside: “Let us remark in passing,” Marx says:

if it required the naivety of a schoolmaster to apply the standard of the fourteenth century to the relations of production prevailing in the nineteenth century, and the corresponding relations of population, the error was compounded by overlooking the difference between its consequences in England and in France.

Marx underscores here an important point in relation to what he means by “law”. Not only are Marx’s “laws” historically and socially specific – not only are they understood to derive from contingent social practices, rather than invariant nature – but they are also probabilistic – they are tendencies, which play themselves out in different forms in specific situations within the historical and social context Marx sets out to analyse, which confront countervailing tendencies, and which are highly dependent on complex boundary conditions. Like many other chapters in Capital, this chapter draws attention to multiple theoretical possibilities – and a diversity of actual empirical outcomes – every time it attempts to illustrate a “law” at work.

Marx then further highlights the social dimension of the laws that he has derived, by taking one final shot at the Malthusian analogy to the plague – tacitly asking what sort of “natural” law would operate like this:

The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. (861)

The chapter ends with an extended discussion of the Irish famine and migration, emphasising the social character of what is portrayed. It also – characteristically – draws attention to the mirror world – to the unintended consequences of the ways in which this “law” has been allowed to play itself out:

Like all good things in the world, this profitable mode of proceeding has its drawbacks. The accumulation of the Irish in America keeps pace with the accumulation of rents in Ireland. The Irishman, banished by the sheep and the ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian. And there a young but gigantic republic rises, more and more threateningly, to face the old queen of the waves

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