Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

Those who have been following this discussion closely enough to read along in the comments, know that I have been struggling to work out how to write this post. The main thing I’ve been wrestling with is how to write something that captures the concepts I think Marx was trying to express, while also giving some sense of why Marx expresses those concepts in the style that he does. My sense is that the style of these early sections of Capital – the form of presentation or the way in which the concepts are unfolded and defended in the first couple of sections of the chapter in particular – is intentionally not really adequate to the concepts these sections purport to express. In fact, the form of presentation in these early sections actually contradicts some of the specific claims that Marx will make later in this same chapter. This leaves the reader in the very strange position of trying to decide whether Marx is wildly inconsistent, or whether there is something very strange going on here at the level of presentational strategy. What I want to do here is try to express how I have threaded my way through this decision.

My way of trying to understand this text is to view the entire chapter as building toward the argument about commodity fetishism (I assume everyone would agree with this), but then to take the – perhaps more controversial? (how common is the reading I’m unfolding here?) – step of suggesting that elements of the earlier sections of the chapter are actually illustrations of fetishised forms of thought. Marx begins this chapter, in other words, within the fetish – within in a form of thought that attributes particular social properties to material objects. Thus: the wealth of capitalism presents itself as a vast accumulation of commodities – a commodity has a dual character – therefore we can deduce that the labour that goes into the production of a commodity has a dual character – therefore we can see how the process of exchange and the development of money expresses what we have discussed as a tacit, internal duality within commodities. The arc of the first few sections of the chapter unfolds in this way, with occasional interstitial comments that suggest that something else must be in play.

As I suggested to Nate in the comments below, I think this arc is “backwards” from the standpoint Marx unfolds later in this same chapter: these early sections unfold as though objects (commodities) possess supersensual properties that then become manifest when we toss those objects into relations with one another: what could this presentation be describing, if not precisely the form of thought Marx is criticising in the section on the fetish? I therefore think we need to see the concluding section on the fetish as reacting back critically upon the earlier sections of this chapter, revealing these sections to be expressing forms of thought predicated on fetishised modes of experience.

So, reviewing some of the material I covered in the previous post, when Marx tries to analyse why exchange is possible, he unfolds this argument as though there must be some common non-material property congealed in the objects themselves, that provides a universal, quantifiable essence that enables objects to be exchanged in whatever proportions ensure that they contain the same quantity of this supersensible substance. Marx then presents an argument that claims to deduce (through a decontextualised application of reason that Marx himself will refute in the discussion of Aristotle in the third section of this chapter) that this common substance is labour. The labour that enables exchange, however, is not labour in its variegated concrete forms, because these diverse labouring activities have no more common identity than does the material dimension of the diverse commodities such concrete labour produces. Instead, concrete labouring activities also possess a cryptic supersensible property that cannot be identified when just examining the overt qualitative characteristics of the production process: the property of being “human labour in the abstract” – of being an aliquot portion of the (normative!) labour power of society as a whole:

The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units.

This homogeneous labour power is then allocated across the universe of all commodities produced, determining which kinds and which amounts, of all the diverse concrete labouring activities that are empirically undertaken and that generate concrete goods and services that comprise material wealth, get to “count as labour” under capitalism. Marx argues that the production of “human labour in the abstract” – of the “total labour power of society” – and its allocation among the universe of commodities, is determined by the labour power socially required, on average, to generate those use values for which there is a social demand. Empirical labouring activities that produce material goods for which there is insufficient social demand may not count as labour under capitalism, because they will not receive an aliquot portion of “human labour in the abstract” – no matter how much concrete effort has gone into their empirical production process. Empirical labouring activities that fall behind the socially average level of productivity may also experience a disjoint between the amount of time empirically spent in labouring activities, and the labour time that gets to “count as labour”.

“Value” is Marx’s name for the supersensible measure of the amount of labour power that “counts as labour” within particular commodities. The quantity of “Value” cannot be determined from any empirical property of a commodity or a labouring process taken in isolation: it is established only when goods are brought into relation with the entire universe of commodities through the process of exchange. Yet, in Marx’s account, “Value” is also not created within exchange – instead, the apparently random and arbitrary proportions in which commodities are exchanged are taken to express an underlying “lawlike” regularity that governs exchange in such a way as to distribute an impersonal compulsion to labour at socially average levels:

The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantities vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them. It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. And why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.

Marx’s own “position”, I would suggest, goes something like: we are doing something extremely strange with our collective practice under capitalism. We are behaving collectively as if there exists some supersensible entity called “human labour in the abstract” – a specific, bounded quantity of a homogeneous substance that exists apart from material wealth or the actual expenditure of human effort to achieve some determinate aim, and that comes to be congealed in material objects as “Value”. By behaving this way, we are, in effect, creating or enacting “abstract labour” and “Value” as real (albeit social) entities. We do this by unintentionally collectively enacting a situation in which the production and distribution of value is somehow the pivot around which much of our social and material reproduction revolves. This unintentional collective enactment of a supersensible realm of “real abstractions” (more on this term later), far from bringing into being a rational and demystified form of social life, generates its own distinctive mystifications:

…the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

For many reasons (I’ll come back to this more adequately in later posts), when we come to discover that such “real abstractions” are operating to constrain our behaviour, we don’t initially grasp that our own social practice is the origin point for these coercive abstract structures or patterns. Instead, we do what the political economists did: we interpret these supersensible, socially-constituted entities to be an “essence” intrinsically existing tacitly within more overtly-observable, “sensuous” empirical entities.

So we say that commodities possess a dual character – and then we analyse how that dual character that we take to be intrinsic, becomes manifest when commodities interact with one another on the market. We become sensitive to the possibility of a “material” world that operates according to supersensible laws whose existence can be inferred from observing patterns in the movements of material objects, and we begin to try to discover and to manipulate such “laws” instrumentally to human advantage. We become sensitive to the possibility that certain dimensions of social practice – dimensions associated with direct personal or intersubjective relations – are social (and therefore contingent on human practice and – potentially – contestable). We therefore collectively, unintentionally enact two mutually-differentiating, interpenetrating dimensions of social life: an “overtly social” realm of interpersonal relations, and an impersonal realm in which material objects are governed by invisible laws. Both realms are “social” – but not in the same way. And their mutual determination can render plausible a systematic trompe-l’œil in which one dimension of our social is taken not to be social at all.

There is much, much more to say here – I’m not doing the argument justice, both in the sense that I am skipping details that are present in this chapter, and in the sense that I am also skipping ahead to elements of the argument that are not yet evident from this chapter at all. I’ll try to come back to all of this more adequately as I have time. My goal for the moment is just to render plausible the notion that Marx might be aiming for a WTF? reaction in the early sections of Capital. Marx might expect his readers already to know the punchline – already to be “in” on the joke. Marx then takes us through an immanent exploration of this fetishised position anyway because the standards of immanent critique don’t allow him to dismiss fetishised forms of thought as “mere” errors – he has to show how and why they arise, and also how they point beyond themselves, suggesting the possibility for something like his own critical position. And he also has to give an account of how his own position is given immanently within the social context he is criticising. He doesn’t do any of these things completely in this first chapter, but I think this is the kind of argument he is trying to set up here, to prime the reader for what is to come. Perhaps there’s a point to be made here about what goes wrong when an author has to explain their own jokes – or, perhaps in this case, what goes wrong when an author desperately needed to explain their own jokes, but didn’t get around to doing it… At any rate…

More on all of this as I have the time…

The quotations here are taken from the version of the first chapter available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.

Previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

13 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

  1. Mike Beggs September 30, 2007 at 12:22 pm


    I think this is right on the mark. Much of the social structure/process which makes labour appear as value is left unsaid until much later, even to other volumes, such that it is easy to be misled by Chapter 1, or Part 1, or even Vol 1.

    Have you checked out I. I. Rubin’s “Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value”? I think they back up your arguments here, but Rubin is less concerned about the detailed ‘textual strategy’ and he considers Capital as a whole. You can read most of it at Also you might like Diane Elson’s essay in the book she edited, “Value, the representation of labour in capitalism”. She argues that Marx held a ‘value theory of labour’ rather than a ‘labour theory of value’ – i.e. that Marx was trying to explain the form labour takes under capitalism, and less concerned about how labour-time determines price.

    This last issue opens up another related issue, though – why Marx deliberately left the qualifications to his value theory related to varying compositions of capital out of Vol 1, when he knew this would confuse people familiar with political economy and possibly make him look ignorant of those qualifications. Engels strongly encouraged him to include a discussion of it in Vol 1:

    “… I marvel that you have not taken this into consideration already, for it will quite certainly be held up to you at once and it is better to dispose of it in advance. Perhaps you will return to it in the next [printer’s proof] sheet…” [Letter to Marx, June 26, 1867]

    And Marx replied:

    “As for the inevitable objections you mention of the philistine and the vulgar economist… [The answer to this problem] presupposes [among other matters] … that the conversion of surplus value into profit, of profit into average profit, etc., is set forth. This presupposes a previous account of the process of the circulation of capital, since the turnover of capital, etc. plays a part here. Hence this matter can be set forth only in the third book…. If I were to silence all such objections in advance, I should ruin the whole dialectical method of development. On the contrary, this method has the advantage of continually setting traps for these fellows which provoke them to untimely demonstrations of their asininity.” [Letter to Engels, June 27, 1867]

    This suggests another deliberate aim for a WTF, and that Marx intended to make the determination of value progressively more complex throughout the whole work, because value cannot be understood properly without understanding the whole structure of capitalism.

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

  3. N Pepperell September 30, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    It’s funny you should mention Rubin – I actually skimmed the text (and, to be honest, a pile of others – but I particularly liked the Rubin, and want to go back and read it more carefully) when I was stuck over how to write this post… I haven’t seen the Elson, though – I’ll look it up – there are a few other folks who make a similar argument (and somewhere back in my archives I have a couple of posts making a similar claim, although I think the way I explained the argument is considerably less precise than how I would go about it now). I’m looking very actively for people making arguments along these lines, to get some sense of where I “fit” in the broader discussion – if you think of any other references, please do toss them my way.

    On your points about Marx and the WTF? (this is such a useful shorthand – I wonder if I can somehow smuggle “Marx’s WTF?” into the thesis… ;-P): yes – I agree, and I find the work very similar to Hegel in this respect – except that I think Hegel constantly tells his readers that this is what he’s doing, whereas Marx… has a lot of trust that his readers will figure it out, or have an enormous amount of patience to follow along with him… I understand Marx’s point – there’s a not wanting to “put the science before the science” aspect to the structure of the work. But since so little else is written this way, it does encourage a level of confusion…

  4. Mike Beggs September 30, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Yeah in some ways it’s unfortunate that he develops it this way, if he’d only flagged what he was doing it would have been so much more clear and saved an awful lot of Marxological effort! I always recommend people read a good secondary source before trying to read Capital itself, though there are also bad secondary sources!

    I think David Harvey’s Limits to Capital argues along these lines too, that’s how I got on to the Elson essay. Limits to Capital is a great secondary source, and it gives an overview of the debates about various points rather than just following Harvey’s own argument. Here’s something from his first chapter:

    “It is rather as if… Marx sees each relation as a separate ‘window’ from which we can look in upon the inner structures of capitalism. The view from any one window is flat and lacks perspective. When we move to another window we can see things that were formerly hidden from view. Armed with that knowledge, we can reinterpret and reconstitute our understanding of what we saw through the first window, giving it greater depth and perspective. By moving from window to window and carefully recording what we see, we come closer to understanding capitalist society and all of its inherent contradictions.

    “This dialectical way of proceeding imposes a great deal on the reader. We are forced to grope in the dark, armed with highly abstract and seemingly a priori concepts we have very little understanding of, working from perspectives we are not yet in a position to evaluate. Most readers therefore encounter great difficulty on reading the first few chapters of Capital.”

  5. N Pepperell September 30, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Yes, Harvey is very good – it’s been quite a while since I’ve read Limits – I should read it again. That’s a nice way of putting the sort of thing I’ve been fumbling around with here, using the vocabulary of “perspectives” or “shapes of consciousness” or other (very awkward) terms. Thanks again for the pointer 🙂

  6. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Human Labour in the Abstract

  7. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Value and Its Form - from Deduction to Dialectic

  8. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Subjects, Objects and Things in Between

  9. Pingback: Natural’s Not In It « Grundlegung

  10. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

  11. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Way of Visualising Abstract Labour and Value

  12. K101 January 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I am curious to how your textual analysis of Marx’s strategy (starting form the fetish and moving toward a grounding of it) relates to someone like Bertel Ollman (Dance of the Dialectic) who takes up the problem in a more general way (that Marx’s definitions are constantly shifting, his abstractions constantly taking up more or less space, and can thus seem to contradict himself often) and argues that we can only make sense of this once we understand the nature of Marx’s process of abstraction: that his abstractions constantly change their degree of extension (the amount of matter/material they encircle/contain), their level of generality (he identifies 7 different levels of generality: individual, modern capitalism, capitalism, class society, society, animals, nature) and their vantage point. Ollman is specifically critical of Systematic Dialectics for conflating Marx’s method of presentation in the opening of capital with his dialectical method in general, arguing that Marx employs a variety of styles of presentation all fitting within his general dialectical style of abstraction. I’d be curious if you have thoughts about this distinction between exposition and method, and if you would see your take on Marx’s method of grounding as fitting within Ollman’s larger description of Marx’s method of abstraction….

    Also, I’ve recently been reading Roslyn Bologh’s “Dialectical Phenomenology”, a close reading of the Grundrise with the aim of teasing out Marx’s method. She identifies a common strategy of “grounding” throughout the Grundrise that involves interrogating one-sided abstractions through 4 different “rules” she has identified. I am curious if you are familiar with her work and if you see your project relating at all.

  13. N Pepperell January 11, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Hi K101 – sorry you were held in moderation on the previous post. Should only happen the first time (although it’s been known to stop random posts for regular commenters as well…). I’m unfortunately on a work treadmill at the moment, so apologies that the response is only very brief…

    I quite like Ollman’s work – in more formal things I’ve written, which haven’t made their way onto the blog yet, I’ve talked in more detail about the relationship between his claims and the sorts of claims I make. The short version is that I don’t follow Ollman into claims that Marx has a relational metaphysics – or, at least, I don’t think a relational metaphysics is necessary to cash out the sort of claims Marx is making about capitalism. So, while I like Ollman’s imagery for expressing how Marx’s method looks out on partial aspects of a more complex and dynamic reality, I think it’s possible to be even more deflationary in talking about this method than Ollman, in practice, is. But this is a criticism from a standpoint of sympathy, if that makes sense: I use some of Ollman’s terminology, refer to his work in my own formal work, and agree with the point about systematic dialectics that you’ve mentioned above.

    I’m not sure I’d articulate my relationship to Ollman, exactly, as putting forward a position that fits within his broader framework. I think the relationship is more that I’m agnostic – and think it’s possible for other Marxists to be agnostic – about the more metaphysical elements of Ollman’s claims. This doesn’t mean I would argue those claims are necessarily wrong – instead, I would argue that it makes no difference to the sorts of claims I’m making, whether we are committed to a broader relational ontology or not.

    I tend instead to focus on the question of why – specifically in relation to a theory of capitalism – Marx might find it useful to adopt the sort of Hegelian terminology that is often associated with idealist metaphysics. My suggestion is that Marx is trying to find a vocabulary that can express how certain complex phenomena will arise only if many different sorts of concrete practices are being enacted in tandem. These sorts of phenomena can only be understood relationally, because they aren’t directly generated by one sort of practice, or even by a small number of practices, but by lots and lots of practices, operating together within a complex whole. It’s this sort of problem, to me, that necessitates an analysis of relationality. Whether Marx then also happened to hold a relational metaphysics is separable from what is, to me, a more important question: what sort of analytical tools do we need to understand the reproduction of capital – and the potential for its transformation.

    This won’t hit on everything you’ve asked above – apologies… I’ve done more in formal work to explain how I understand the concept of “grounding” – it’s a bit clunky to try to outline in a comment. Hopefully I can come back to this on the blog in a more systematic way when things are less chaotic.

    I actually haven’t read the Bologh – but will definitely take a look (I’m massively snowed under at the moment, so it might be a while…). Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

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