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