Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Nature and Society

Just a fragment tonight – very tired… A quick look at the introductory section of the first chapter of Capital, from the online version here.

Marx begins this chapter with what looks to be a fairly straightforward definition of the commodity:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.

Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history. So also is the establishment of socially-recognized standards of measure for the quantities of these useful objects. The diversity of these measures has its origin partly in the diverse nature of the objects to be measured, partly in convention.

The utility of a thing makes it a use value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities. When treating of use value, we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron. The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities. Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.

I’ve previously suggested that this opening definition is not meant to represent Marx’s own position, but is instead intended to express the way in which the wealth of capitalist societies is intuitively perceived by social actors embedded in this context. By examining the implications of these intuitive perceptions, Marx will gradually unfold more complex categories – with the intention, ultimately, of looping back and “grounding” the sorts of definitions with which he starts: showing that these apparently simple and pristine beginnings presuppose, and express, the much more complex social and historical process that he will analyse throughout Capital.

In this opening passage, Marx suggests that capitalism presents itself in terms of a bifurcation between nature and society. On the one hand, in discussing use value, Marx suggests that capitalism presents us with (or sensitises us to the possibility of) a “thingly”, objective, material world that possesses timeless intrinsic properties. We can study and eventually uncover the properties of material objects over time, and we can also project human desires and meanings onto them, but the material world fundamentally sits “outside” of us.

On the other hand, in moving from use value to exchange value, Marx suggests that capitalism presents us with (or sensitises us to the possibility of) our current social arrangements as only the most recent instance in an ever-changing, accidental, relativistic historical succession – a succession of human conventions that may wrap themselves arbitrarily around, or project themselves contingently on, the “outside” material world. The material world figures by contrast as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations, as what remains behind when arbitrary human social arrangements have been stripped away – as a “true” content, which then comes to be covered over or masked by arbitrary social forms.

Why do I suggest that this is not Marx’s own position? Am I suggesting that Marx doesn’t believe that human social conventions are historical to their core? Am I positioning him as some kind of radical constructivist who sees in the natural world nothing but a human invention? No, to both questions. But something about the ways in which nature and society “give” themselves to us intuitively under capitalism, strikes Marx as in need of further investigation: after he outlines the definitions above, he invites: “Let us consider the matter a little more closely”.

Where he goes next is to a series of deductions or “conceptual abstractions” (the significance of this term will become clearer over time). Here, once again, I would suggest that Marx is not entirely speaking in his own voice, but is instead attempting to remain immanent to the phenomenological perspective he is trying to analyse.

So, still speaking in this immanent voice, Marx begins to analyse the process of exchanging two commodities. He presents an argument that runs along the following lines: The material forms of the commodities you intend to exchange are qualitatively different from one another: the goods aren’t in any qualitative sense the same. You would hardly desire to exchange one for the other if the goods were identical: what would be the benefit? Yet exchange makes an equation: it determines that the goods must be exchanged for one another in some specific quantitative proportion – the goods must therefore be “equal” in some sense.

But what is being equated? Not the determinate, qualitative, material properties of the goods – we have already established that we do not exchange goods that are qualitatively the same and, Marx adds, in a context in which any good can in principle be exchanged for any other, we are clearly willing to abstract from every material property of a good for purposes of exchange.

If we aren’t equating a material property of the goods, then we must be equating something else – Marx suggests that this must be a purely social property – without “an atom of use value”. Marx nominates the social property of being the products of human labour, “arguing” (remembering, again, that we aren’t yet reading Marx’s own position, but rather his exposition of what is “given” to a particular phenomenological perspective) that the only possible thing diverse commodities could have in common, is their common origin in human labour.

This common property, however, can’t refer to any specific kind of labour: if the determinate qualitative characteristics of particular labouring activities were taken into account, then we still wouldn’t have a common property, something homogeneous and uniform, to render possible the exchange. We must therefore be talking about labour abstracted from all its variegated concrete forms – abstract labour – a measure of the human labour power congealed in particular objects – a “social substance” that Marx calls “Value”.

But how is this labour power measured, such that it becomes possible to equate commodities in various exact proportions? Marx suggests (again not in his own voice) that abstract labour, devoid as it is of any qualitative characteristics, can only be measured by its duration – as labour-time. The measurement of the labour-time congealed in particular commodities enables the equation required for exchange.

Yet different amounts of labour are expended in the production of particular goods of the same type – and, if the actual labour time empirically invested in production were to determine the Value of a good, then the least efficient production process would generate the greatest Value. What prevents such a thing from happening? Marx answers: Value is not measured by the labour time empirically spent in particular individual acts of production, but rather by the labour time required, on average, in a given historical and social context, to produce a particular good.

Value therefore acts as a coercive social standard, which operates independently of particular empirical processes of production, which may be more or less efficient than the social norm expressed in Value. Producers labour as they do, at the level of productivity their skill and equipment allow. Value then determines how much of the labour they empirically spend in production, gets to “count as labour”. The producers can’t reliably know in advance how much of their labour will “count”:

The value of a commodity would therefore remain constant, if the labour time required for its production also remained constant. But the latter changes with every variation in the productiveness of labour. This productiveness is determined by various circumstances, amongst others, by the average amount of skill of the workmen, the state of science, and the degree of its practical application, the social organisation of production, the extent and capabilities of the means of production, and by physical conditions.

And, even where producers have reasons to suspect that much of their labour won’t “count”, they may be powerless to avert the situation:

For example, the same amount of labour in favourable seasons is embodied in 8 bushels of corn, and in unfavourable, only in four. The same labour extracts from rich mines more metal than from poor mines.

The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.

In summarising Marx’s text above, I have suggested several times that he is not quite speaking in his own voice: I should clarify here the sense in which I mean this. Marx does retain the notion that socially-average labour-time constitutes the “social substance” of the Value congealed within commodities. The voicing in this section – the deductive form of the presentation that suggests that this social puzzle could be reasoned through with a detached and decontextualised logic – is something Marx will explicitly call into question in section 3, by asking the simple question of why, if logical reasoning were all that were required to deduce the existence of Value, Aristotle rejected the notion and viewed market exchange as a mere “makeshift for practical purposes”. As the chapter unfolds, Marx will therefore suggest that something other than a “conceptual abstraction” is at stake in the recognition of Value – that this conceptual breakthrough of political economy may owe an unrecognised debt to historical shifts – specifically to the constitution of a “real abstraction” enacted in collective practice.

More on the notion of a real abstraction, the concept of abstract labour, and the argument about the fetish (which will bring us back to the nature/society dichotomy with which I started this piece), as I have the time…

The previous instalments in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

8 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Nature and Society

  1. WildlyParenthetical September 24, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    Speaking from complete and utter ignorance…:

    I’m struck by how fundamental the sense of the statistical average/median/norm seems to be to Marx’s account here, particularly if, as you suggest, he later queries the ‘objectivity’ of these logics. It’s intriguing given the analysis of the historical specificity of statistics and norms in, say, Hacking, or (in a more ‘biological’ sense) Canguilhem (and, in a moment of characteristic narcissism, I’m already wondering about bodily norms); and, of course, because ‘exchangeability’ can be seen to filter into so much of life in a way that seems to ensure the preservation of capitalism. With bated breath, I’ll await the next instalment…!

  2. N Pepperell September 24, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Oh no! Someone’s actually reading the posts on Capital! That wasn’t supposed to happen! ;-P Although it’s probably good for me to imagine that someone out there wants me to finish this series… ;-P

    For some reason, I find this material very difficult to write – perhaps because, with this chapter in particular, I read the work as extremely condensed and abbreviated, such that anything I’m writing always seems to be leaving something important out… The theory is that I’ll gradually blog it, and then sort out some of the blog material into a couple of upcoming conference papers, and then have a clearer sense of how to revise this material for thesis purposes…

    But yes, I think the connection to Hacking and Canguilhem is right. A great deal in Capital can be read as talking about issues of embodiment (Marx tends to treat ideas as derivative of practices – as “reflexes in the brain” – which isn’t quite how I’d put it, but it at least captures the notion that there is a close connection between what we do – how we practice our individual and collective selves – and fundamental categories of perception and thought in terms of which we then interpret the world, and those practices through which we engage with it) – a great deal can also be read as an argument about what happens when the connection to embodiment or collective practice comes to be forgotten, such that the ideas appear to float above, or “cause” in a one-sided, non-reciprocal way, other aspects of social life. Marx’s explicit methodological statements can sometimes then go too far in the opposite direction – suggesting something more reductive than, I think, what he actually does in his analysis…

    The issue of bodily norms is an interesting one: there’s quite a lot in Capital that can be read as an argument about embodiment – and differential embodiments: different – sometimes mutually contradictory or conflictual – “trends” or tendencies in the embodiment of the context. There are also obviously some elements that can be used to talk about why the concept of a “norm” becomes such a persuasive, intuitive concept – and then will also provide some examples of how particular norms come to be wielded – in law, in religious movements, in direct disciplinary practices in the factory setting – and there are some Foucaultian reaches here toward notions of why the production of particular kinds of bodies and orientations to managing the life of populations become important in specific ways. But I’m just meandering randomly… ;-P Basically: Marx is prone to making tantalising side references to all sorts of issues that he can’t find the time to thematise in any comprehensive way – so there are gestures to things that could be very interesting around the issue of the emergence of bodily norms, but you have to trawl through a great deal of M-C-M’-style discussions to get to it… 😉

    As I do this close re-read, I’m also wrestling with the issue of how Marx himself understands the “normalising” impulses he’s trying to analyse. He’s very struck with how much the political economists take such impulses for granted – as though this is how social life should always work, through some kind of unintended, but impersonal and coercive, normalising impulse.

    There is a complex argument about the ways in which impersonal constraints come to be “personalised”, as people sort of introject these collective constraints into their personality structure, or rationalise compliance with constraints in various ways – some of this will come out as I keep writing. But Marx focusses a lot of his attention on trying to argue that there is something “impersonal” happening in the background: his argument here is a bit like Weber’s in Protestant Ethic – that you get to a point where, even if you don’t “believe in it”, there are still negative consequences if you don’t abide by it – these consequences only occur because social practice enacts them but, from an individual’s point of view, they are “objective” in that they can’t effectively be overcome by individual noncompliance or by a straightforward process of “demythologisation” – changes in collective practice on a broad scale are required.

    Many theorists, certainly since Marx, would think such things. Marx is interesting in how hard he tries not to naturalise the sense that this is how things would always operate, in any social context, and in how he tries to illustrate in reasonably concrete detail (“concrete”, given that he’s basically trying to analyse something that’s fairly large in scale) how people can be motivated by a, b, and c, but somehow manage to generate x, y, and z – and then how the existence of x, y, and z, as overarching characteristics of a social environment, make it plausible that you would have lots of people running around motivated by a, b, and c, and so it goes… ;-P

    I’m still trying myself to work out how “lockstep” Marx thinks the process is. I’m too fuzzy tonight to explain what my worry with this is (it basically boils down to whether Marx thinks he is talking about tendencies and plausible approximations, or whether he is serious when he talks about “laws”). Hopefully I’ll manage to work out what I think Marx thinks in this series of writings… ;-P

    Sorry to babble… Very tired today for some reason… I’m trying to write the next post in this series – which, unless I change my mind, will explore what Marx means by “abstract labour” (which is, essentially, a further development of these points about social norms – that’s what “abstract labour” is: the coercive social norm) – and to set up for an argument that many interpretations of Marx mistake him to be talking about some kind of “conceptual abstraction” from various forms of concrete labouring activities, or else they take him to be talking about the way in which concrete labouring activities becomes less and less meaningful as capitalism develops – Marx will talk about both of these things, but neither is, I would argue, what he’s trying to pick out with the notion of “abstract labour”.

    At any rate: I seem to be able to blurt fine on this when I’m just babbling in comments, but every time I turn back to the section on the dual character of labour in the first chapter of Capital, for some reason I end up deciding I really need to something else just to make sure I’m not missing something. So, since I wrote this post, I’ve run off and read a bunch of Lukacs, skimmed a pile of people trying to interpret the upcoming section on “commodity fetishism”, flipped back through volumes II and III of Capital, and am now flipping through the Grundrisse… It’s not quite an infinite regress. But I’m not exactly sure it’s what one would call progress either… ;-P

    Apologies that this comment talks more about my work process than anything of general import – this will probably give a fairly accurate sense of where I am right now… ;-P

  3. Nate September 27, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    hey NP,

    I’m ambivalent – on the one hand, I want you to finish this series of posts because I really like reading them and get stuff from them. On the other hand, if you finish the series then there’ll be no more for me to read of them. Can I pick the third (dialectical?) option of wanting you to continue rather than finish? 🙂

    Your remarks on bodies in your comment are really interesting, if I had more time right now I’d write a blog post in response on useful labor and the body, I hope I remember to do so. (I’m just starting to look into workers’ compensation laws and health and safety laws in the US, among other things that connect w/ this.)

    For now, I just want to say that I really like your point that Capital’s narrative voice, so to speak, is not Marx speaking at least in the beginning of the book. I think his occasional anti-semitic joke could be read as support of that (something about the language of commodities being hebrew), that he’s placing or finding that joke in the mouths of others. What I like about this is that it works against conceiving of value as a substance even though Marx writes sentences that sound like value is a substance (which lends itself to the mistake of thinking that value derives from actual labor time expended in producing an object rather than from socially necessary labor time; Harry Cleaver calls the value as substance reading ‘the phlogiston theory of value’ which I rather like). Marx writes those sentences but as your post insists, those are the sentences in the voice(s) of the book not the voice of Marx, so to speak.

    Other stuff… you write:

    “The material forms of the commodities you intend to exchange are qualitatively different from one another: the goods aren’t in any qualitative sense the same. You would hardly desire to exchange one for the other if the goods were identical: what would be the benefit? Yet exchange makes an equation: it determines that the goods must be exchanged for one another in some specific quantitative proportion – the goods must therefore be “equal” in some sense.

    But what is being equated? Not the determinate, qualitative, material properties of the goods – we have already established that we do not exchange goods that are qualitatively the same and, Marx adds, in a context in which any good can in principle be exchanged for any other, we are clearly willing to abstract from every material property of a good for purposes of exchange.

    If we aren’t equating a material property of the goods, then we must be equating something else – Marx suggests that this must be a purely social property – without “an atom of use value”. “

    It’s easy to read the first of these quoted paragraphs as saying commodities exchanged aren’t REALLY equivalent, that use value is qualitative while exchange value is purely quantitative. That’s attractive, but I’m not sure… it seems to me that qualities are not solely but largely a matter of interpretation. And it seems to me that exchange value is not purely quantitative (zero quality) but … mono-qualitative, having exactly one quality (qua exchange value), that of being exchangeable. Put more simply and I think better, it seems to me that exchange-ability is also a quality and also a material property. I think this is important among other things in order to avoid a material vs social distinction – the social is also material, just differently material. This is I think important in part in connection to certain types of use values which satisfy needs of the fancy/imagination – presumably those needs are social (needs to look good, or needs to display status in relation to others, etc) but also material (among other reasons because use values are presumed to be
    material, right?)

    As I read the bit on Aristotle, Marx has Aristotle saying “five beds for one house? Insanity! Beds and houses are absolutely different from each other!” But they’re not. They’re different but not absolutely different.

    I’m not sure how much sense I’m making but I can’t do better just now, so I’ll leave off. Again great post and I hope you’re well.


  4. N Pepperell September 28, 2007 at 12:47 am

    Ack! As I finish each reply, there is another Nate comment awaiting – it’s becoming an assembly-line, I tell you! Where are my sabots?! (Seriously: I really appreciate these comments – I may not be answering them particularly well, as I’m still working through all of this, but it’s incredibly helpful to talk it through.)

    On your first comment: given that I’ve now been stuck for close to a week, throwing away half-written follow-ups to this post, your fears of my finishing this any time soon may be somewhat unwarranted… What was funny is that, when I started this, I thought, “I’ll just write something quick on the fetish”. Then I thought, “I can’t really do that, without saying something on the overall textual strategy”. Then I thought, “You know, I should also say something about…” etc. And then, having written a few of these, I thought, “You know, I really should write these on more than the first chapter, to finally work out for myself how I want to read this text.” So I think this will be a quasi-irregular series for a while… You may enjoy this, but I anticipate helping many other blogs create free space on their blogrolls…

    In the passage you quote, I think I’ve fallen into my own immanent voice trap – as well as the trap of not writing what is intended as the follow-up to this post quickly enough. This post was originally meant to be about double the length – to cover what it currently covers, but then to move on to clarify exactly the point you’re raising (among other points): to say, basically, that, if you stop here, you come away with some not-quite-right notions about value and abstract labour – which was part of the point I take Marx to have been trying to make, by starting his presentation here.

    The passages I’m presenting above are sort of… backwards – they act as though something can be logically deduced, when the something that needs to be “deduced” is actually a nonrational social form – not irrational – at least, not any more irrational than previous social forms – but not something whose contours you could deduce through the decontextualised force of reason alone: which is, actually, how I read the section on Aristotle – that, if logical reasoning were all that were required to “deduce” the existence of Value, and labour’s role in the generation of Value, surely Aristotle could have managed to deduce it. If Aristotle couldn’t, but (as Marx puts it somewhere) a “dwarf economist like Bastiat” suddenly can, something else is going on, other than the power of the human intellect: we are being “primed” to find certain deductions plausible, by background and everyday practical experiences that we have, but that Aristotle didn’t share.

    Marx will, in various places, hint that the narrative is “backwards” in this way – sorry: the term “backwards” isn’t a good one – basically, I’m trying to express that most of these categories only make sense at a different level of abstraction to the one being presented here – and I think Marx is very aware of this, and is expecting – as I’ve just written in my latest part-draft of what might become the next post in this series – a WTF? reaction from his readers: he wants this argument to feel wrong, I think – he is setting up for the section on fetish, which begins as though Marx has already established in the preceding sections how “supersensory” are the qualities attributed to commodities: Marx will suggest that these “supersensory” elements are “social” and are qualitatively distinctive “positivities”, but that they are perceived as “material” and as “negations” that remain behind when everything social has been stripped away.

    I’m not being very clear here (this is one reason I can’t quite get the next post together – I can’t seem to say what I want to say clearly), and I haven’t hit very directly on the hesitations you express about the quantitative/qualitative determinations of these categories. Briefly, I think it’s probably safe to say that Marx is actually trying to talk about the qualitative peculiarity of Value (and how this is both expressed and masked by the more familiar category of “exchange value”, which Marx – again playing with Hegel – takes as a necessary form of appearance of Value as an “essence” – but a weird kind of essence – a “social essence”, and therefore an essence that is also a product of human practice – a sort of “Durkheimian” social reality, something that exists only because we enact it by practising our collective lives in a particular way). Much too abbreviated. In any event, if I can figure out how to write this next post, I suspect your questions might be easier to take up in that context – unless I change my mind, what I want to write on next are the concepts of abstract labour and Value…

    Many thanks again for this – sorry not to do the questions more justice…

  5. Nate September 28, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    hey NP,
    Thanks for the substantive replies to all my comments. I don’t know that I’ll be able to get back to you w/ any substance for a week or ten days, life’s hectic just now. What I probly should do is write a blog post about all the many things I want to say about your posts and comments.
    For now I just want to say I really like your point about Marx wanting this argument to feel wrong early on. I was in a Marx group that ran aground on that feeling combined with some of our stultified insistence that Marx could never be wrong plus lack of sophistication on this point (the argument felt wrong, which some of us took to mean Marx might be wrong, which is impossible!). My own first attempt to read v1 foundered similarly (I think I quit maybe 3 or 5 times, each time concluding I was too dumb to read the book), so this point speaks to me in a big way as a useful insight.
    take care,

  6. N Pepperell September 28, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    Nate – Actually, your reaction is reassuring to me: I wasn’t sure how it was going to come across to others, my making this kind of claim about the early passages in the text. I read them this way, among other reasons, because it’s the only way I can make sense of what would otherwise be some very dramatic self-contradictions that take place within a few pages of one another in this first chapter (let alone later in the text). I do think there are places where there are simply tensions or unresolved issues in Marx’s text, but this first chapter – if read “straight” – would involve such strange claims, from the standpoint of other elements of Marx’s work, that it just seems to me that we must be seeing an over-subtle presentational strategy… To me, Marx’s evident confidence, once he reaches the section on the fetish, that the earlier sections have already demonstrated that capitalism’s self-perception is mystical, suggests that Marx takes us to have understood all along that much of the earlier discussion represents a “mystified” standpoint…

    At any rate: many thanks again for the comments – and no rush at all to follow up (maybe I’ll actually manage to finish my damned commentary on the first chapter by the time you are able to dip back into the conversation).

  7. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

  8. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Aside on the Fetish

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