Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Dead Weight of Tradition

Below the fold is just a bit of archived work – a piece that’s seven or eight years old now. I’m posting it here mainly for my own convenience, although it might hold curiosity value for a few other people. The piece was an attempt, essentially, to think out loud on the subject of how far you could stretch a Marxian theoretical framework, if your primary interest was understanding potentially critical intellectual trends in a non-reductive way… It was also, though this may be harder to discern from a straight read of this text without familiarity with my later formal writing, the beginnings of an attempt to loosen certain conceptual categories from a Marxian framework, to experiment with the beginnings of a different vocabulary and thought-space. The text is therefore quite dated, but I’ll be revisiting some of the underlying questions and problems over the next several months and, in preparation, I wanted to remind myself of, and create an accessible archive for, some of my past gestures at these issues. If anyone intends to click through, also a warning that the piece, even with its apparatus stripped, is rather long…

I should note at the outset – particularly given that I’m not reproducing the apparatus that accompanied the original text – that the reading of Marx outlined in the piece owes an enormous debt to Postone’s 1993 book Time, Labour and Social Domination, a work which I have found enormously helpful, although I also disagree with it in many important respects, which perhaps I’ll discuss in another context. My concern – even in this piece – wasn’t really with whether I capture Marx’s “true intent”, but with whether a particular reading of Marx might generate some useful conceptual tools. Postone’s work provided an excellent passageway into Marx’s writings in this respect. I find that I wince quite a lot re-reading this piece – I’ll hope my current embarrassment suggests my thought has developed in more productive directions since this was written… ;-P


As our historical distance from political economic discourse has increased, Marx has come to be viewed as the first to discover, in spite of all appearances, that labour is the source of material wealth in capitalism, or that labour time governs prices or the proportions in which commodities exchange on the market. Those who are still familiar with classical political economic discourse will find such claims somewhat strange, as a number of political economists prior to Marx did in fact maintain that such things were true. Since Marx meticulously catalogued political economic theories in preparation for writing his “critique of political economy”, we can assume he was familiar with authors who held such views – and, in fact, we find that he refers to a number of them in Capital. Marx does not, however, present his work as an extension or application of these earlier political economic theories. Instead, he describes his relationship to political economy in the following way:

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content contained within these forms. But it has never asked the question why this content has assumed this particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself. (pp. 173-75)

In other words, Marx understands political economic discourse as a decontextualising form of thought – as a discourse that presents the characteristics of a specific social order as though they were natural and valid for all societies. Marx’s critique of political economy, I would suggest, consists of his attempt to explain, in social and historical terms, those features of capitalist society that political economic discourse naturalises.

What Marx achieved, I would suggest, was an insight into a unique historical configuration: on the one hand, capitalism appears to be characterised by an historically unprecedented social drive to revolutionise production. That drive generates and mobilises a vast accumulation of scientific, technological and organisational knowledge that greatly increases the productivity of labour. In this respect, capitalism tends continuously to undermine labour as a source of material wealth – to allow greater and greater material production, while decreasing the amount of labour required for any given level of production to take place. On the other hand, capitalism does not appear to result in a concommitant increase in leisure time. Instead, it seems to be associated with a veritable explosion of new forms of production. So, each time advances in productivity reduce the need for labour to be expended in some specific form of production, some social force seems to drive toward reconstituting labour in another form. At the same time, no matter how often new forms of labour are introduced, a contradictory social pressure appears to drive toward increases in productivity that will once again reduce the need for the expenditure of labour in these new types of production.

Although both social drives are deeply implicated in economic processes – both impinge on the production and distribution of material goods – Marx argues that neither can be explained in economic terms. For systems that produce and distribute material goods – no matter how complex they become – are not naturally shaped by contradictory drives to displace and reconstitute the need for labour. Under capitalism, however, it as though economic institutions have come to act out a dynamic, non-linear social pattern that is not intrinsically related to those institutions’ overt purpose of meeting material needs. Marx intends his critique of political economy, I would suggest, to explain the social and historical roots of this dynamic pattern of displacing and reconstituting the need for labour. At the same time, he intends to criticise political economy for treating various symptomatic manifestations of this dynamic as though they could be explained in material and economic, rather than social or historical, terms.

Marx’s “labour theory of value” is therefore not intended to prove that labour plays some transhistorical role as a foundational social activity that generates material wealth or regulates exchange. Rather, it is intended to explain how capitalism revolves peculiarly around labour, continuously reconstituting the social need for labour in ways that could never be explained with reference to the need to produce and distribute material goods. Similarly, Marx’s analysis of why the magnitude of value can be measured by labour time is not intended to show how we can explain the actual proportions in which material goods are exchanged on a market. Instead, it is intended to illustrate how capitalism is characterised by a peculiar drive to increase productivity – thus recurrently displacing the need for labour time to be expended in specific forms of production, in ways that could never be explained simply with reference to the need to generate material wealth. Together, these two components of Marx’s critique of political economy are intended to grasp the historically unique “foundational” role conferred upon labour by the contradictory social drives characteristic of capitalism.

Marx’s interpretative framework, however, is to some degree obscured by the idiosyncratic mode of presentation he adopts within his work. He tries to present his conclusions immanently – by demonstrating that political economic discourse is already tacitly aware of symptomatic manifestations of these contradictory drives. For Marx, however, political economic discourse tends to naturalise these symptoms, rather than searching for their social and historical roots. To make this point, Marx mimics the mode of presentation or the logic of analysis of political economic texts – beginning with simple categories like the “commodity” and unfolding his argument as though he is logically deducing more complex categories from these simple forms. Marx explicitly argues, however, that this order of presentation inverts social reality – that social phenomena must be analysed historically, rather than through the decontextualised application of an ahistorical logic, and that the simplest categories make historical sense only within a very complex society. Marx is therefore trying to prove that categories like the “commodity” – in spite of their apparent simplicity – depend upon the existence of more complex social realities that all of his later categories represent. Marx’s presentation is so immanently voiced, however, that it is often difficult to distinguish his own positions from those of the political economic discourse he sets out to criticise. He is therefore frequently read as if he were affirmatively espousing specific political economic theories, rather than criticising political economic discourse for being a decontextualising form of thought.

Marx thus devotes the first chapter of Capital to this immanent critique of political economic discourse. He also introduces the question of how capitalism’s contradictory drives are reproduced by specific forms of social practice and thought – an issue that will figure much more prominently in later volumes. In this brief presentation, I will not address Marx’s complex argument about the social reproduction of capitalism. I will suggest, however – and I cannot develop this point here – that our understanding of how capitalism’s contradictory social drives are reproduced would have to be modified for different periods within capitalist history. For, as will be clearer below, capitalism is characterised by an astonishing structural indifference to specific institutional forms – by an amazing institutional creativity that nonetheless transmits and reproduces the same contradictory drives to displace and reconstitute the need for the expenditure of labour. While the persistence of such drives allows us to define an historical period as capitalist, it is an intrinsic structural possibility within capitalism that these drives can be reproduced in different ways in different times.

Leaving aside for this piece the issue of the reproduction of capitalism, which cannot be treated adequately here, I would like to explore further Marx’s attempt to demonstrate that political economic discourse manifests a tacit awareness of symptomatic manifestations of capitalism’s contradictory social drives. By briefly introducing a few dimensions of Marx’s critique of political economic discourse – in a way that renders Marx’s strategic intent clearer than does his own immanent presentation – I can begin to suggest how this theoretical framework might grasp the historical emergence of certain decontextualised forms of thought that can be reappropriated and reinterpreted more critically, once embedded within a more historical analysis.


In volume 1 of Capital, Marx seeks to demonstrate that political economic discourse – which understands itself to be speaking about economic processes, about the production and distribution of material goods – continuously betrays its own tacit awareness that purportedly “economic” institutions are, in addition to their economic functions, also acting out a peculiar social dynamic. He begins by pointing to the two dimensions of political economic categories such as the “commodity”. Marx notes that political economic discourse regards the commodity – in its first, “concrete” dimension – as a specific material good that satisfies a determinate social need. In this concrete dimension, the commodity is viewed as the product of some determinate form of labour, which itself is understood as a specific, goal-directed activity that seeks to transform material nature in determinate ways.

Political economic discourse maintains, however, that commodities also possess a second, “abstract” dimension, distinct from the various concrete qualities that enable them to meet specific material needs. Political economic discourse suggests that this abstract dimension consists of whatever common substance allows diverse commodities – as the products of many distinct kinds of labouring activities – to be exchanged with one another on a market. Marx notes that various political economists have suggested that this common substance is labour – labour divested of all the qualitative particularities that enable it to produce a specific kind of material good. Marx then describes how, within political economic discourse, this “abstract” labour can be defined in biological terms – as the expenditure of physical energy in the transformation of nature, regardless of the specific form in which this energy is expended, or the concrete transformation of nature that results. Within political economic discourse, abstract labour thus appears to be a natural, material category that is devoid of any particular social determinations.

Marx then notes that political economic discourse treats all preceding social organisations of production and distribution as if they obscured this natural equality of various labouring activities, by imposing artificial social distinctions that prevented various forms of labour from being treated as commensurable within social practice. Political economic discourse treats the market, by contrast, as a social institution governed by the natural, material commensurability of labouring activities. For, while the market recognises quantitative differences among goods by exchanging them in different proportions, it is indifferent to qualitative differences. The market thus abstracts from the qualitative specificity of determinate forms of production and recognises the “natural”, “material” reality that all goods share a common identity as the products of labour, such that each individual good may be seen as a quantum of the total labour of society as a whole. Political economic discourse therefore believes that, in comnparison to the market, all previous forms of production and distribution are revealed to be artificial and unnatural – arbitrary social inventions with no necessary basis in natural, material reality. For political economic discourse, the market therefore represents the social institution that allows for the historical realisation of the natural, material basis of production and distribution.

Marx characterises this dimension of political economic discourse as a form of thought for which “there has been history, but there is no longer any”. In other words, political economic discourse can recognise other social organisations of production and distribution as historical creations – as the historically specific results of determinate forms of social practice. Moreover, political economic discourse can recognise that the current organisation of production and distribution is historically new – that this organisation did not exist in the past and must therefore be understood as the product of history. Yet political economic discourse still perceives the current organisation of production and distribution as “natural” – and therefore regards its recent emergence as the historical realisation of what has been natural all along. For political economic discourse, capitalism has simply revealed what other societies have always denied: the natural commensurability of various forms of labour.

For Marx, this mode of reasoning represents a peculiar – and historically specific – form of decontextualised thought whose emergence does not reflect mere faulty reasoning on the part of the political economists. Rather, Marx believes that the political economists have drawn historically reasonable conclusions from their detailed observations of capitalism. He therefore seeks to historicise political economic discourse – and thus undermine its decontextualised self-understanding – while he also explains why capitalism renders this specific form of decontextualisation historically reasonable.

To begin to historicise the political economic discourse on the market, Marx introduces an unusual comparison. He notes that Aristotle also considered the question of whether all forms of labour were in some way equivalent to all others, given that the products of various labouring activities were exchanged on the market. The market, Aristotle suggested, implies the equality of various labouring activities because, logically, “There can be no exchange without equiality, and no equality without commensurability”. Aristotle ultimately rejected this idea, however, and concluded: “It is, however, in reality impossible” that such disparate labouring activities could have some underlying essential identity. Aristotle therefore decides that the practice of trading the products of diverse labouring activities does not reflect any natural equality underlying these various forms of labour. Instead, he understands this practice as only “a makeshift for practical purposes” – a pragmatic social convention with no basis in the true essence of labour. Marx summarises Aristotle’s reasoning and then suggests that the centrality of slavery within Aristotle’s society accounts for Aristotle’s rejection of the possibility that all forms of labour might be ultimately equivalent to one another.

The comparison of capitalism with Aristotle’s social context is not an arbitrary one: Marx has chosen a comparison with a form of social life that had also developed an elaborate system of trade, characterised by regional specialisation and production for export. In many significant respects, Aristotle’s context resembles a capitalist one. By contrasting the two economies, Marx is attempting to specify the distinctiveness – within capitalism – of social institutions such as the market, which have a much older historical foundation. Marx is suggesting that historical experience with a sophisticated system of market-mediated exchange is not in and of itself sufficient to render historically plausible the emergence of the forms of thought characteristic of political economic discourse. Thus, Aristotle was able to conceive of a conceptual abstraction from various particular labouring activities. Moreover, Aristotle’s own text indicates that the practice of exchanging the products of various forms of labouring activities on the market suggested the possibility for making such a conceptual abstraction. Aristotle rejects, however, the notion that this conceptual abstraction refers to some real essence uniting various labouring activities. He therefore does not perceive the market to be an institution that somehow expresses the true nature of labour. Instead, he regards the market as simply “a makeshift for practical purposes”. For Aristotle, in other words, it is the market that appears arbitrary and unnatural – a mere artifice or arbitrary social convention.

The political economists, by contrast, within Marx’s account, do perceive a real, essential commensurability underlying diverse labouring activities: they therefore conclude that market exchange arises because of – or expresses – labour’s natural equality. Through the contrast with Aristotle, Marx suggests that the forms of thought reflected in political economic discourse cannot be rooted in the market alone – that the social organisation of production, as well as the prganisation of distribution, conditions how social actors understand the natural essence of labour. Marx implies that, if social practice constructs various labouring activities as fundamentally incommensurable in certain ways, then the practice of exchanging goods on the market simply contradicts social actors’ practical experience, in other dimensions of social life, of the diverse essences of labouring activities. In order for political economists to perceive the market as an institution based on the natural, material equality of labour, Marx suggests that something fundamental must have changed in the way in which labour is constructed in social practice. Marx’s critical theory of capitalism represents his attempt to specify this fundamental change; we can reconstruct part of his analysis by briefly reviewing a few points from the discusison above.

I have suggested that Marx does not define capitalism in terms of the market, but rather in terms of the historical pattern created by a non-linear historical dynamic constituted by two contradictory drives that each revolve around labour. One drive pushes to displace the need for labour from specific kinds of production, by mobilising scientific, technological and organisational knowledge to improve productivity. The second drive pushes to reconstitute labour in new forms every time it is displaced. Together, these two drives delineate a social system that revolves around “labour” in a historically unique way. Yet this social system is also characterised by a profound structural indifference to which specific kinds of labour are being performed. This structural indifference manifests itself as an ongoing dynamic whereby the contradictory drives displace and resonstitute the need for the expenditure of labour (which, of course, can only ever be expended in some specific forms) and, in the process, continuously destroy and reinvent the determinate social institutions associated with specific kinds of production and distribution. As the drive to reconstitute the expenditure of labour asserts itself within this dynamic process, however, it does not predetermine the specific practical expression, application or institutional organisation of new forms of labouring activities. Similarly, the drive to displace existing forms of labour does not point necessarily toward any specific institutional organisation of production and distribution. Therefore the interaction between these two drives – continuously transforming the social organisation of labour without, however, determining that production and distribution assume any specific institutional form – manifests a social need for something that could reasonably be characterised as “abstract labour”. Within this framework, however, abstract labour is not simply a conceptual generalisation that arises from comparing the universe of variegated labouring activities. Instead, it is a real abstraction, corresponding to the existence of a dimension of social practice that appears genuinely indifferent (at least over the long term) the various forms in which labour can be carried out.

I would suggest that, for Marx, this real abstraction of labour – grounded in the contradictory social drives to displace and reconstitute labour within capitalism – represents a fundamental distinction between capitalism and previous forms of social life that may also have developed complex systems of market-mediate exchange. A sophisticated system of market exchange might suggest the conceptual generalisation that, on some level, various forms of labour might be alike. Capitalism alone, however, is characterised by a structural indifference to various forms of labouring activities – a coercive indifference, one that recurrently drives specific forms of labour to be displaced, while also continuously reconstituting the expenditure of labour in new forms. Absent from non-capitalist societies, this dynamic, non-random process of displacement and reconstitution renders historically plausible the emergence of forms of thought that perceive various labouring activities as all essentially the same – as equal and commensurable outlets for discharging the social drive to expend human labour.

Marx suggests that the abstract quality that political economic discourse attributes to commodities can be grounded in this social root. Political economic discourse understands commodities as the embodiments of labour, and the two dimensions of the commodity within political economic discourse simply reflect the dual nature of labout in capitalism. Political economic discourse thus recognises that, in many dimensions of social practice, commodities are constructed as determinate goods, satisfying some specific purpose in consumption. In this sense, commodities are the embodiments of concrete labouring activities in all their variegated and incommensurable forms. In another dimension, however, commodities are also the material vehicles through which capitalism expresses contradictory drives for the displacement and reconstitution of the expenditure of human labour. The abstract dimension that political economic discourse discoverd within the commodity therefore reflects the social reality that, in the act of producing and distributing material goods, capitalism also produces and displaces labour – abstract labour, whose production and displacement satisfies a historically specific social “need”.

Marx suggests that – through its notion of abstract labour – political economic thought recognises one of the symptoms of capitalism’s contradictory social dynamic. At the same time, however, he suggests that political economic discourse does not grasp the social or historical basis for its own analytical category. Instead, it tries to account for the category of abstract labour by pointing to notions of a biological, material reality, devoid of any specific social determinations – and suggests that capitalism has finally given free expression to this pre-existent natural reality. To provide a consistent social explanation for political economic discourse, Marx must also account for why the dynamic of displacement and reconstitution can be perceived as natural – and why, under capitalism, it becomes persuasive to conceptualise “nature” as a decontextualised, “material” realm devoid of social determinations. While I cannot develop this argument in full here, I can outline in a very preliminary fashion how Marx approaches the issue.

As I described above, capitalism’s contradictory drives interact to generate a non-linear social dynamic characterised by coercive pressures to displace and reconstitute the need to expend human labour without, however, driving production and distribution into any determinate form. As a consequence, specific institutional organisations of production and distribution are progressively generated and destroyed, so long as the incentives and pressures that drive this process of creative destruction continue to be reproduced. On the one hand, this non-linear dynamic of displacement and reconstitution tends to reveal the historically contingent character of concrete social institutions – by repeatedly destroying and recreating particular institutions and thus demonstrating that such institutions are transformable, human creations. On the other hand, in contrast to these now recognisably social institutions, the dynamic itself can come to appear to be a nonsocial force – a kind of natural background environment, operating outside of conscious human control, that exerts pressures on the kinds of institutions humans might then consciously attempt to create. For, over time, capitalism’s historical dynamic is not necessarily associated with any specific set of social institutions or any persistent social group. Instead, this dynamic expresses itself precisely through the ongoing, non-linear transformation of concrete social institutions: it is a structure in motion, making its presence felt throughout the universe of concrete social institutions, but never permanently settling down into any specific institutional configuration.

This lack of affiliation with any specific set of social institutions is what is most historically distinctive about capitalism. Yet this characteristic also can cause the dynamic to appear not to be social at all. For the dynamic is manifestly not identical with any of the concrete institutions that it has revealed to be contingent, human creations. In contrast to the universe of concrete social institutions that it relativises, this dynamic appears – as it, in fact, is – abstract, impersonal, and objective (in the sense of not generated consciously, through purposive activity aimed at this result). It can therefore be read as lacking any specific social determinations. Moreover, amidst the dramatic social upheavals and ongoing institutional transformations this dynamic provokes, the dynamic itself continues to be reproduced. It can thus appear to be a stable, constant presence, which can be interpreted – incorrectly, but plausibly – as invariant: not created by human practice, and not capable of being overcome. The dynamic can thus be plausibly misrecognised as a neutral, non-social background – a “natural” environment that imposes “objective” material constraints to which social actors and their institutions must then respond.

Ironically, this overarching dynamic social environment – misrecognised as a kind of material nature free from all social determinations – then suggests the possibility for forms of perception and thought that can be applied to the investigation of both the social and natural worlds. It is in this way, I suspect, that Marx would seek to historicise the forms of perception and thought associated with the Enlightenment – suggesting that decontextualised forms of thought are suggested by the peculiar qualitative characteristics of capitalism as a social context. Marx suggests, in other words, that the Enlightenment could be conceptualised as projecting onto nature forms of perception and thought that are suggested by our social experiences of capitalism as a form of social life that generates an overarching social context that has properties that we associate with nonsocial environments. For Marx, the modern fetish consists precisely in the belief in the existence of a decontextualised material world that is devoid of any social determinations. The Enlightenment – and its contemporary heirs – projects this belief onto nature, but does not recognise how the belief derives from social experience. Enlightenment thought therefore assumes it is reading out of nature a materialist critique of social determinations, when Marx would argue that it is actually projecting onto nature its own misrecognised experience of a very peculiar social context that suggests the possibility for the existence of an objective material environment devoid of social determinations.

On one level, this misrecognition still represents a critical force. The practical experience of an apparently nonsocial realm that is structurally indifferent to particular social customs and institutions can provide a critical standpoint against which various concrete dimensions of social life can be recognised as contingent human creations and become subject to serious critique. moreover, once misrecognised as natural, the structural indifference to specific labouring activities can, Marx suggests, provide the basis for extrapolating the existence of a natural equality of humankind – an extrapolation which then provides a powerful critical standard that can be aimed against any concrete social institution. Concrete forms of social domination – those associated with gender, class, race and other ascriptive categories – can thus be contrasted with concepts derived from the practical experience of another social dimension that suggests the possibility for these concrete forms of domination to be overcome. As a result, concrete forms of domination are rendered non-doxic and can become subject to contestation.

Precisely because it seems to derive from our experience of “nature”, rather than from our experience of some specific social institution, this critical subjectivity can also easily appear universal in its implications. Its critical force can therefore extend far beyond institutions directly associated with production and distribution, and reach into institutions that may not be immediately structured by the dynamic process of the displacement and reconstitution of labour. The result is a wide-ranging and diffused potential for political contestation, raising the possibility for consciously reinventing social and cultural institutions on a massive scale. This transformative potential can suggest the possibility to drive toward a society in which “all that is solid melts into air” – in which no form of thought or practice can remain doxic and beyond contestation, and in which all concrete forms of social constraint become the potential objects of conscious political determination. It can thus represent a critical and emancipatory force – immanent to capitalism – driving toward the fuller realisation of ideals of political equality and democratic self-determination.

On another level, however, so long as the social basis for this critical sensibility is misrecognised as natural, this form of thought remains insufficiently critical. For, in the process of contesting, overturning, and recreating social institutions on an historically unprecedented scale, social actors can continue to reproduce the coercive social dynamic that they have misrecognised as natural.

I suggest that it might be possible to develop from within this framework a more adequately historicised notion of critique – one in which critical ideals need not be grounded somehow outside of capitalism – whether in material nature or in some other source. Instead, critical ideals can be recognised as generated structurally within capitalism – but in an alienated form. Thus capitalism itself suggests the possibility for contestation over social, cultural and economic institutions, in the name of the fuller realisation of ideals of human equality and self-determination, even as it may also close off opportunities for such contestation. This framework suggests, however, that such ideals must be appropriated deliberately, by social actors who have become aware of the peculiar, dynamic social universe their practices have created, and of the specific kinds of constraints this social environment imposes on individual and collective practice.

One response to “The Dead Weight of Tradition

  1. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … does tailoring produce? :: March :: 2007

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