Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Aside on the Category of Capital

One very quick comment, as I have a very long teaching day today, and don’t have much time to write: just in case it has escaped attention, the first chapter of Capital – although I obviously think it deserves great attention – does not actually deploy the category of capital (which, in the scheme of things, one would imagine would be a fairly important category to analyse…). Instead, the phenomenological perspective it analyses remains within commodity production and exchange, which means, among other things, that the concept of the fetish as discussed here is therefore primarily directed at certain “Cartesian” forms of perception that are expressed in this dimension of collective experience.

Marx will gradually work his way “up” (down?) to the category of capital, over the course of several subsequent chapters, unfolding an analysis of an array of additional immanent phenomenological perspectives as he goes, linking each to an aspect of collective practice. Each of these phenomenological perspectives remains available as a moment within capitalism, understood as an overarching social context: though these forms of experience or thought may “contradict” one another in various respects, they share the common quality of expressing specific dimensions of their shared context, and they do not reflect “historical” forms of thought that have been “superseded” in the course of capitalist development (although particular phenomenological experiences may come more to the fore in particular places and times).

In emphasising the argument about the fetish is such detail, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this section of Marx’s argument is still a sort of preliminary gesture. I’m dwelling on this section at such length because I find it a useful way to explore Marx’s presentational strategy and tacit theoretical commitments: a close analysis of this first chapter pays off, when moving forward through the text. Nevertheless, the particular forms of subjectivity being analysed directly in this section are only the beginning moves in an elaborate reflexive theory.

Previous posts in the series:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

Next post in this series:

Value and Its Form – From Deduction to Dialectics

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9 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Aside on the Category of Capital

  1. Mike Beggs October 3, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    This relates to my comment on the last post… Once capital is introduced it complicates competition and the very concept of value – in a way ‘price of production’ supercedes value as a concept, and if you want to develop some of Marx’s thinking in Capital 1 and 2 it is more appropriate to use ‘price of production’ where Marx writes ‘value’. But value is still important because it establishes abstract labour time as the unit of measurement, which remains the unit for ‘price of production’.

    I think you’re right that this is a presentational strategy rather than intended as a description of capital emerging out of non-capitalist general commodity exchange. Historically, it took capitalism to develop the dominance of general commodity exchange. Right from the start the concept of ‘abstract labour’ implies competition between capitals, even though like you say Marx hasn’t said anything about capital yet.

  2. N Pepperell October 3, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    Mike – I just wanted to respond really quickly, mainly to say that I won’t be able to respond adequately at all today (but the keep the questions and challenges coming please!) – I teach with very few breaks until past 8 p.m., and then by the time I’ve puttered around in the office and finally managed to catch a tram home, I generally just tumble straight to sleep…

    But very quickly: yes, in the very first post of what (somewhat unexpectedly ;-P) evolved into this series, I said something – insufficient time to look it up now – about these early categories presupposing the entire mega-analysis that follows, such that these very “pristine” and simple categories are eventually positioned as things that would only ever make sense after the full development of this social form – even if their “simplicity” when compared to other elements of the social context can, and their similarity to certain things that did actually exist earlier in history, can make them seem like historically prior forms. (I don’t think I approached the issue quite from this angle, though, in the initial post – but this is how I do read this text.)

    Later categories are in this early chapter implicitly – the hints about the “treadmill effect” of value-determined labour, for example, wouldn’t really make sense without notions of competition, etc. – but that would be the point of this kind of immanent theory: that, in spite of superficial appearances, the early categories actually do presuppose the later ones, and therefore the theory can operate “reflexively”, grounding its own starting points without the need to step outside the context being analysed.

    Deepest apologies for posting in such a rush (and I shudder to think what I wrote in last night’s post, which I still haven’t had the courage to go back and read)… But it’s helpful to lay this stuff out, even if this entails various missteps and necessitates much revision down the track…

  3. Mike Beggs October 4, 2007 at 11:09 am

    No need to apologise, I’m finding all this really interesting and it’s great your close reading seems to match my vague recollections. I’ve been worried that my thoughts on ‘what Capital is about’ may have diverged some way from the actual text so it is great to read this stuff.

  4. N Pepperell October 4, 2007 at 11:42 am

    That’s actually why I’m doing a close reading – I had the same worry! I’ve been wandering around for some time now, talking about what I think Marx is doing – I was making myself nervous that I was making stuff up… ;-P

    I’m still in recovery mode from teaching yesterday (I love my Wednesday classes, but always seem to suffer from a kind of teaching hangover the following day – too much of my own voice ringing in my ears…), and need to put some print materials together for a talk on academic blogging I’m giving tomorrow (know any good one-page handouts that can get someone started off in the academic blogosphere, if they’ve never seen it before?). So not much substantive from me today, unfortunately…

    The questions you’ve asked in the other thread about the relationship to volume 3 have been rattling around in my head, though. I’ve been skimming back through the second and third volumes while writing these posts, basically to try to minimise the chance that I’ll say something that causes massive problems in relation to those texts. I need to re-read them thoroughly – it’s been a long time since I’ve looked at those texts closely.

    I think you’re absolutely right that it’s really only when you get to those texts that you realise the level of abstraction on which this analysis in volume 1 is meant to apply – such that it becomes clear that Marx is saying, on one level: “these sorts of things, that we experience in a very everyday way, and take to be ‘natural’ in various senses of the term because they don’t seem to be constituted in any local practice that we can identify, well, they actually are constituted in collective practice – it’s just that the practice that constitutes these experiences, that makes certain phenomenological orientations plausible or intuitive to us, is often unfolding at such an abstract level, and possesses such strange qualitative characteristics, that we lose sight of its connection to the forms of perception and thought that it provokes”. Or something like that… ;-P

    At the same time – and I have to say this really, really tentatively, as I really need to look back closely at the second and third volumes – my rough sense is that it might be possible to think of the first volume as spending relatively more of its time outlining and making plausible the case that a certain abstract structure is being unintentionally enacted in collective practice, while the second and third volumes spend relatively more of their time making a case for how (on more of a causal level???) this structure is actually enacted, even though no one is directly motivated by the desire to go out and create some kind of overarching structure or pattern of historical transformation. So, if the work can be thought of as something like a very ambitious, reflexive, theory of practice, then the “structure” being enacted is “emergent” – it is not identical to the practices that generate it – and yet the existence of the emergent structure does tend (absent effective political action) to render it plausible that you will see social actors pursuing the sorts of practices that generate this structure, in spite of the absence of conscious intention. So it makes sense, in some way, to me that certain “structural” terms from volume one aren’t revisited in the later works, since I take the later works to be talking about things that more immediately relate to processes of reproduction that are not overtly oriented to the production of the structure that is nevertheless replicated by them? In other words, my tendency isn’t so much to see the earlier categories as being superseded, as to see the earlier categories as expressing an emergent structure – emergent structures will then always pose peculiar problems for attempts to theorise their generation, as the “parts” that generate the structure will not be identical to the structure itself??

    But my confidence in this half-remembered reading is not high, and I have no particular “stake” in this reading – it’s how I tended to perceive the strategy of these works back when I last read them closely, but it wouldn’t disturb (or surprise) me to learn that this is completely wrong.

    Also, apologies for writing this in such a rough way. It’s difficult for me to pull thoughts together on Thursday – I tend to think of it as a period of mental downtime… ;-P I probably should have waited to respond until I could think a bit more clearly, but I’m interested in the issues, and thought I could at least express that, even if I’m not in a position to say much else of use… 🙂

  5. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Subjects, Objects and Things in Between

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  9. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

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