Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Metatheory

Indirection

In an indirect and incomplete way, some of the questions currently hanging in the comments here, I’ve addressed – sleepily – in a comment over at Nate’s… Rather than spreading the discussion across two sites, I thought I’d just post a pointer over there… Eventually (soon?), I’ll try to take up some of these issues over here…

Stakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If that makes any sense :-)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emergence of Capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Valued Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immanence and Materialism Conference Talk

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

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

More soon, I hope… Read more of this post

Marx & Philosophy Society Talk

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

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

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

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Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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