Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Subjects, Objects and Things in Between

I’ve been horrifically ill the past couple of days – feeling much better now, but struggling to get back into the thoughtspace of the previous post, which had originally been intended to glide smoothly into this one… ;-P Best laid plans, etc. The result is that I’m just trying to gather my thoughts at the moment, and so much of this post will be recap and repetition, with perhaps a slight kaleidoscopic reconfiguration of some of my older points.

As we’ve discussed in several earlier posts, Capital begins in a dualistic, “Cartesian” thoughtspace. From this perspective, commodities are material things (use values) that exist “outside us”, whose properties we can investigate in order to discover the ways in which they might be instrumentally useful for us. This “material” dimension of this dichotomy is perceived to be timeless and asocial (“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.”). This apparently timeless and asocial dimension is then paired with or mediated through a social dimension (exchange value), which is understood to be historically arbitrary, contingent, and relativistic (“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.”).

As the argument unfolds, Marx then does a somewhat strange thing. From these two initial categories – use value and exchange value – he deduces the existence of a third: value – a coercive social relationship that determines what gets to “count as labour” and that forcibly generalises socially average labour time. This third category is positioned in the text as deducible from – or as a kind of transcendental condition for – the two “given” categories with which the text begins. Marx has therefore immanently unfolded this third category from the first two – and he has done this using a form of analysis immanently adequate to the “givens” with which he begins (more on this last in a bit). The overarching strategy here, as has been discussed in earlier posts, is modelled on a Hegelian notion of immanently unfolding the ways in which later categories are necessarily presupposed by earlier ones, such that the analysis never needs to breach its own immanent frame, but can demonstrate its own critical perspective as something immanently available to the context being analysed.

Marx determines this third category as a supersensible social essence that apparently haunts the material dimension of commodities and governs commodity exchange in an impersonal, universal, lawlike manner. The existence of this third category is not transparent: the category of value is not initially “given” – it is not positioned in the text as how the wealth of capitalism “presents itself” – although its existence can be deduced from the perspective that does “present”. Which isn’t, however, to say that the perspective that is immediately “given” – the perspective with which Marx begins his text – has a fully adequate conception of value.

One of the earliest things we learn as the text continues to unfold is that the initial perspective is insufficiently historical in its conception of value – that this perspective understands itself to be “discovering” something “given” through its contemplation of an impersonal environment that sits “outside” itself (rather than, for example, understanding itself as a moment within a constituted situation, which is exploring that situation from within). Where value is originally presented as having been logically deduced, as a sort of transcendental condition for the practice of exchange, Marx begins to suggest, in the third section of the chapter, that the practice of exchange alone is not sufficient to deduce the existence of value – that value itself has other historical and social conditions. Marx makes this point by asking why Aristotle could analyse the process of exchange, without deducing the existence of value:

Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

Marx here notes that Aristotle could not see “human labour” – the constitutive stuff of value – beneath the various diverse goods that might be exchanged on the market, because “the great mass of the produce of labour” did not take “the form of commodities”, and therefore “the dominant relation between man and man” was not “that of owners of commodities”. Very subtly here – because the analysis has not yet reached the point where Marx can immanently unfold a category of wage labour – Marx is suggesting that Aristotle could not deduce the existence of value because the commodity form is not predicated on exchange per se, but rather on the existence of wage labour – on the sale of human labour power as a commodity. Marx doesn’t say this in these terms (and the argument here also continues to be pitched in a voice that still speaks as though Aristotle’s time and the time of capitalism are pointing at the same “truth”, which we have uncovered, but which Aristotle couldn’t yet grasp – a form of argument of which Marx is expressly critical in the concluding section on commodity fetishism) because the text is not yet at a point in its exposition where the “for us” of the text can become fully explicit.

Nevertheless, this small hint begins to react back on the modes of presentation with which this text begins, and the strategic intention of the earlier sections becomes a bit clearer. At this point, it begins to become clear that the opening definitions, which appear to concern certain economic concepts about material wealth, are always and already quite sweeping categories capturing forms of subjectivity – encompassing modes of the experience of self, forms of embodiment, possible means of practising selves in their self-relation, relation to others, and relation to a nonhuman environment.

So the perspective sketched in these early sections – which sees in the commodity a material thing haunted by supersensible essences, that distinguishes between timeless materiality and artificial historicity, that unfolds its analysis through deduction from givens or analysis of transcendental conditions – this perspective experiences itself as a supersensible ghost in the physiological machine, as the cogito or atomised subject that engages in the instrumental contemplation of objects “outside” itself, from which it is irrevocably severed. From this perspective, Marx has then drawn out the immanent traces of something more relational – overtly, in the shift that takes place explicitly in the text itself, as the relational discussion of the form of value unfolds from the earlier discussion of the commodity as an object that the thinking subject confronts as an intrinsically unrelated outside. But also much more subtly, in the structure of a text that, from the very beginning, is using categories that are mobilised simultaneously as categories of objectivity and subjectivity. There is no determination of subjectivity by some objective economic base here: instead, there is a peculiar constellation of collective practices through which relations to self, others, and nature are simultaneously constituted in a specific qualitative form.

I meant to say much more, but it is late here, and I’m very tired… My terminology is a bit all over the place in this post, as well – product of beginning to suspect as I write that my earlier terminology was, in some respects, ill-chosen… Hopefully at least the broad contours of what I’m driving at here will be somewhat clear, and folks will extend some forbearance to the terminological oscillations as I gradually home in on the perspective of this text… I’ll try to do better when I next revisit this theme…

Previous posts in this series include:

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

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

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5 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Subjects, Objects and Things in Between

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

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  4. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Not Knowing Where to Have It

  5. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Fragment on Form and Content

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