Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Turning the Tables

Lumpenprofessoriat has tugged on some of the threads from my recent post on Devaluing Labour. Lumpenprof raises explicitly one of the issues that was in the back of my mind when I wrote the original post – the common perception that the rise of information and communications technologies has entailed a fundamental transformation in the nature of capitalism – and then provides more robust references to Marx’s discussions of technology in Capital:

Marx devotes the longest chapter in Capital, Volume I to the topic of “Machinery” precisely in order to explain capitalism’s enthusiasm for large-scale mechanization in terms other than the highly suspect utopian notions of labor-saving devices being used to free workers from the need to toil. For Marx, machinery as used by capital is one of its most ingenious and devious strategies for extracting ever greater quantities of surplus-labor from workers. Digital machines are no different. Capital loves computers because they make workers more productive, cheapening commodities in general, and cheapening the commodity of labor-power in particular. Thus, allowing workers to donate an ever greater share of their labor time to capital for free.

That work resulting in the production of digital commodities strikes us as so different from work that produces other sorts of commodities is perhaps simply the latest version of the ability of the commodity form to dazzle us that Marx describes as the “fetishism of commodities.”

I did have one quick question, on the concluding passage:

Digital commodities seem even more clever than wooden tables, and evolve out of their computerized brains ideas yet more grotesque. They seem to take on a life of their own — they move, grow, replicate, spawn, and evolve — and so hide and obscure the human labor they embody.

I agree with the main point here – I see nothing in digital commodities that is different in terms of the role they play within capitalist reproduction to other sorts of commodities (this doesn’t of course mean that new technologies can’t introduce novel potentials for the development of new forms of subjectivity, embodied relationships, etc., but it does mean that there is nothing intrinsically non-capitalist about the new technologies). I tend, though, to describe Marx’s strategic intention slightly differently (and this may just be a matter of phrasing and emphasis). The emphasis in the passage above seems to be on the fetish as something that hides or obscures – and therefore as something Marx’s critique is trying to strip away, in order to reveal the underlying reality beneath – in this case, the reality that, in spite of the growth of technological potentials, human labour remains central.

I tend – and this difference is somewhat slight, but has some important implications – instead to present Marx’s argument about the fetish as part of an attempt to pose the question of why human labour should remain important, given the hypertrophic development of new technologies and the increases in productivity that are structural tendencies within capitalist development. Rather than simply trying to reveal the centrality of labour, Marx is, I think, trying to foreground precisely how irrational it is that human labour should remain central – trying to nudge us in the direction of realising that there is no material reason for this centrality – that material production could quite comfortably shift to something ever-more technologically mediated, and ever-less dependent on the expenditure of human labour. So: yes, on one level he is drawing attention to the human labour that continues to be required – but with the strategic intent of suggesting that this requirement is essentially bizarre – that it is “social”, that it is arbitrary – and, therefore, that it can be transformed without a regression back to premodern levels of material wealth.

Apologies if this is very unclear – and I’ll stress that I take this to be more a presentational issue, than a substantive one. Writing on the run this morning, with no time to edit… Sorry!

3 responses to “Turning the Tables

  1. Adam Leeds August 9, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    So I take it that you’ve just distinguished two different interpretations of the fetish: 1.) as obscuring the fact that capitalism is based on labor and 2.) as obscuring the fact that it needn’t be. But these are not opposed. On my reading of the end of the first chapter, we are supposed to understand 2 only because we understand 1. That is, recognizing that capitalism is actually a particular form of social relations of production, rather than a natural set of relations among objects, is the key to dehistoricizing it and thus recognizing its contingency. Because it is a form of social relations, it may be one among many possible such forms. The difference between these two interdependent effects is recognized in Marx’s text. The “vulgar economists” are those who did not understand the labor theory of value, while the “political economists” were smarter and did, but understood their analyses as being of a natural ahistorical fact.

    (To address the rest of your post: I (too?) can’t make heads or tales of those who argue that information technology invalidates the labor theory of value.)

  2. N Pepperell August 9, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    I basically agree – and would add a third (also not opposed) interpretation of the fetish to the two you list above: that Marx is trying to understand why the fetish takes the specific qualitative form that it does (why things appear – how things are constituted in social practice – as “material”).

    I should have actually foregrounded this third issue in the post above, because it would have been a slightly clearer way (perhaps…) of expressing what I was trying to say: I don’t take Marx to be engaging in what I often call an “unmasking and debunking” critique (and I don’t think the post to which I was replying takes him to be engaging in this, either). But when the concept of the fetish is deployed as though its primary object is to reveal that capitalism is based on labour, this can sometimes be where people then go (and, again, I don’t take the post to which I was responding to have been going here – which is why I positioned this comment as more of a terminological than a substantive quibble).

    If the concept of the fetish is primarily intended to unveil that labour is socially central in capitalism, the question becomes: what is the potential expressed by this act of unveiling? What sort of ideals or normative principles is the critique expressing? What sort of transformation do we see as immanent within this context?

    Historically, some movements would have seen the potential to be for the more open and transparent structuring of society by labour – so that labour could, in a sense, come into its own. (This of course isn’t the only option, even in an historical sense – the notion of the proletariat abolishing itself is central to many historical movements, as well.)

    My impulse, though, is that some important critical resources – some important dimensions of understanding the social genesis of transformative potentials, and of opposition to transformation – might be missed if we don’t also consider the concept of the fetish to be an attempt to account for the determinate character of some pervasive forms of perception and thought – an attempt, not simply to point out that capitalism is based on labour, or that capitalism disguises this fact by making the requirement appear natural, but also an attempt to explain why we perceive “nature” the way we do – why categories like “nature”, “matter”, etc., acquire their distinctive modern qualitative form, such that we begin to find certain shapes of consciousness, forms of embodiment, and ways of being in the world intuitive and plausible. I see the concept of the fetish as opening up a great deal more than simply unveiling that labour is central, or showing that this centrality is contingent – I see it as opening onto an exploration of some quite complex and multifaceted practical “resources”, with ambivalent potentials that both reinforce and point beyond their capitalist origins in specific ways.

    Apologies if this is a bit too obvious (it’s been a long day here… ;-P) – I’m not at all trying to suggest that you didn’t intend this meaning to be encompassed in what you’ve written above. In a sense, I’m basically trying to work through how to express these concepts in a way that this form of theory is a bit harder to assimilate into other, more common, approaches to social critique or readings of Marx, so I may just be being pedantic with how things are being phrased.

    But basically, yes: you’re absolutely correct that I shouldn’t have implied that (1) and (2) sat in some kind of tension to one another – I had another point in mind (the point that the fetish offers much more than a simple “unmasking”) and didn’t express what I was trying to do particularly clearly… Many thanks for this – I’ll slowly trundle toward what I’m trying to say…

  3. Pingback: » The Ghost in the Machine

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