Okay. Let’s see if I can move a bit further through the first chapter of Capital before I leave for Sydney.
In the last instalment, I suggested that the first chapter should be read as a sort of immanent dialectical unfolding of forms of phenomenological experience that are “given” under capitalism. Each of these forms of phenomenological experience is (at least tacitly) positioned as simultaneously a form of subjectivity and objectivity – as a form of perception and thought whose existence is rendered plausible by the experience of social actors attending to or engaging with a particular moment in collective practice. These forms of phenomenological experience are therefore not positioned in the text as imaginary – Marx doesn’t criticise them as “mere” beliefs, cognitive errors, or subjective illusions, but instead tacitly points to the ways in which they are the “true” expressions of some determinate moment of a complex, multi-layered social form.
At the same time, to the extent that Marx shows how each phenomenological perspective fails to recognise that it is the perspective of such a determinate moment – to the extent that he can demonstrate how a perspective hypostatises itself, either by abstracting itself from the determinate collective practices within which it is enacted, or by totalising its partial perspective and thus confusing its situated vision for an “objective” view of the whole – he can also demonstrate that each perspective is also false. Marx reveals this falseness by gradually unfolding, immanently from within each phenomenological perspective he analyses, symptomatic indications through which a perspective reveals its partial character – often in the form of questions a perspective can pose, but not answer; problems it can open up, but not resolve.
The complex critical strategy that motivates this presentation (discussed in more detail in previous posts) enables Marx to avoid unfolding his critique in the name of some kind of objective Archimedean point that purports to stand outside the context being criticised. Instead, he can “ground” his critique by demonstrating how his own critical perspective can be generated from within the context itself, by appropriating the insights made available by its own movement across various immanently-generated perspectives that have been constituted as moments within a complex overarching context that spawns multifaceted internal tensions and contradictions. This critical strategy has practical, as well as philosophical, significance: philosophically, it “performs” or expresses a form of subjectivity adequate to Marx’s own theoretical claims; practically, it enables Marx to demonstrate how the context itself is generative of practical potentials for its emancipatory transformation.
In the sections we’ve discussed thus far, Marx begins with a phenomenological perspective that perceives a world of subjects and objects, and a world of arbitrary human history, and timeless, essential nature. From the standpoint of this perspective, a contemplative subject interacts instrumentally with an object world, projecting its own historically variable interests onto nature’s objective reality. Instrumental manipulation of the intrinsic material properties of the natural world provides the basis for meeting human needs – and thus for the creation of use values. Use values, grounded as they are in objective materiality, are the “true” substance of wealth in all human societies. Wealth can, however, take arbitrary, historically variable forms in different human societies – in our society, for example, this historically variable form is exchange value, which appears to be a purely quantitative, accidental, and relative matter governing the proportions in which goods exchange for other goods.
Marx will move quickly to undermine this perspective. He does this by tugging on the thread of whether use value can be validly seen as the material “substance” within the historical “form” of exchange value. His argument runs roughly: If exchange value establishes quantitative proportions in which goods are exchanged, then surely there must be some common, qualitatively homogeneous “substance” whose quantity is being equated. But use values or the material properties of goods cannot provide such a substance, because use values and material objects are qualitatively diverse. Something else must therefore provide the “substance” encased in the “form” of exchange value – but the original phenomenological perspective, although it can use its subject/object, substance/form distinctions to pose such a question, is not adequate to provide an answer.
Marx then quickly unfolds a second perspective, which offers a kind of transcendental argument that the condition for exchange is the existence of some common, qualitatively homogeneous substance common to all commodities – a substance which Marx calls “value”. This second perspective “deduces” that this substance cannot reside in the material properties of commodities – for what single material property could possibly be held in common among all the universe of diverse commodities? This perspective inherits the dichotomy between material nature and human society from the first perspective, and so concludes that, if the common property cannot be material, then, ergo, the only remaining possibility is for it to be social.
But what common social property might all commodities share? “Obviously”, the property of being products of human labour. But labouring activities are as diverse as the material properties of goods, so we cannot be proposing that any specific labouring activity could serve this role. Instead, we need something universal, something abstracted from empirical labouring practices – something Marx calls “human labour in the abstract”. This phenomenological perspective sees “human labour in the abstract” as a sort of physical or biological category, a distillation of the expenditure of human “brains, nerves, and muscles” that must take on some specific form, but that can be conceptually abstracted from these particular forms and thereby grasped in its universal essence. This homogeneous universal essence of human labour can then be measured and subdivided into units, based on the duration of the expenditure of labour – labour time.
Logically, this transcendental argument suggests that it ought to be possible to measure the value that inheres in individual commodities, or that is generated by specific labouring activities, by measuring the duration of the labour empirically spent in the production of particular goods. Yet this logical conclusion isn’t drawn, as what counts in determining the measure of value is not actually the labour time empirically invested in the creation of a good, but rather the labour time socially required, on average, to produce goods of a particular sort. The amount of value that inheres within goods therefore cannot be established through the examination of an individual good or labouring activity taken as an atomised and isolated entity. Instead, individual goods (and, indirectly, empirical labour processes) must be brought into relation with one another, in order to grasp the determinants of value.
Once this relational dimension of value is brought into being, it becomes clear that we cannot be dealing with a simple conceptual abstraction. Instead, something more like a real abstraction is involved: some overarching social process that is in practice – as an “external” operation of the objective world, and not simply as an internal operation of the perceiving mind – indifferent to the empirical expenditure of labour time in production. This second perspective has thus opened onto the need for yet another perspective – one that can grasp this immaterial, but objective, relationship binding commodities to one another and constituting the substance of value. This second perspective has opened the need, in other words, for an approach that can grasp something like intersubjectivity.
And so we find ourselves in the third section of the first chapter – on which I seem strangely reluctant to write directly – I think this is now the third post that I’ve begun, intending to write on this section, that instead devolves almost entirely into elaborate retrospective reflection, as I try to reposition what I’ve been saying about previous sections, so that I can open up for a half-adequate discussion of what’s happening here. Let’s see if I can at least press a little bit into what Marx is doing here, before I become too tired to continue writing tonight.
This section begins by revisiting (is this why I always feel compelled to do this, as well?) the initial determination of the commodity as a two-fold object, with a material form related to use value, and a value form related to exchange value. No commodity, however, can directly express this dual character in its own material body. Examining an empirical commodity will reveal nothing more than its material properties, and value, as earlier sections have established, is unrelated to those. The inner duality of the commodity – the existence of its supersensible social essence – can therefore become manifest only if the commodity is brought into a social relation with some other commodity, such that their common identity as bearers of value can be compared. At this point, Marx returns to the category of exchange value, which he had set aside after the first few paragraphs in order to unfold the category of value: his analysis has now reached a point where it has immanently unfolded the need to analyse commodities, not as atomised objects or material things that sit “outside” contemplative subjects, but as “expressions or embodiments of one identical social substance” – as entities that exist intrinsically in social relations, whose inner essence therefore becomes manifest only through their social interactions, which are mediated by the process of exchange.
Marx here unfolds a simply astonishing analysis – peppered through with footnotes and textual allusions to relational and intersubjective understandings of human “nature”. He is not ready, at this stage in his analysis, to unfold the category of wage labour, but, if this has been unclear up to this point, here the interstices of the text scream the ways in which the arguments about “commodities” are intended to grasp and ground some of the self-perceptions that circulate amongst commodities of the human sort:
In a sort of way, it is with man as with commodities. Since he comes into the world neither with a looking glass in his hand, nor as a Fichtian philosopher, to whom “I am I” is sufficient, man first sees and recognises himself in other men. Peter only establishes his own identity as a man by first comparing himself with Paul as being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of the genus homo (ftnt 19)
And this pair, one in the main text, and one a footnote (from a different section of the text):
And as equivalent of the linen in the value equation, it exists under this aspect alone, counts therefore as embodied value, as a body that is value. A, for instance, cannot be “your majesty” to B, unless at the same time majesty in B’s eyes assumes the bodily form of A, and, what is more, with every new father of the people, changes its features, hair, and many other things besides. (sctn. 3.2.a)
Such expressions of relations in general, called by Hegel reflex categories, form a very curious class. For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king. (ftnt 22)
In terms of the structure of the section: the organisation, which moves from “elementary” to fully “developed” forms, suggests an historical progression. I have suggested previously that this should be read instead as a logical progression – as an analysis of forms that should all be taken as existing contemporaneously within the same fully developed capitalist context. This section begins to suggest, in other words, that fully developed capitalism admits of the simultaneous co-existence of forms of practice that do not equally express certain potentials immanent to that context, such that it becomes possible to organise or “rank” forms of practice based on how fully they express determinate potentials. It also begins to hint at a certain risk of confusing this logical ranking with an historical one – and therefore, for example, mistaking some particular moment of capitalism for a pre-capitalist social formation, or incorrectly ascribing to human history as such a teleological direction culminating in capitalism, or similar normative moves. I’ll leave this point to one side, as I can’t fully develop these suggestions here, but there are some beautiful potentials in this section for the philosophy of history tacit in this work…
Marx first hints that all forms – even the most elementary – presuppose the full development of capitalism, by stating, “The whole mystery of the form of values lies hidden in this elementary form” – the form in which two commodities are equated by exchange. He unfolds from this binary relationship the categories of the “relative” form – the commodity whose value is being expressed – and the “equivalent” form – the commodity that expresses this value. Relative and equivalent forms are necessarily interconnected and mutually dependent – the value of one commodity can only be expressed by another – and yet also mutually exclusive and antagonistic – the same commodity cannot simultaneously occupy both roles. Marx calls the relative and equivalent forms “poles of the same expression”.
Within this “elementary” form, it is entirely accidental which commodity plays which role. Marx uses this point to ground and criticise the political economists’ fascination with which commodity (gold, pepper, salt, cattle, etc.) plays the role of equivalent. He suggests, in effect, that they become distracted by a level of arbitrariness that genuinely does exist, and therefore fail to recognise the overarching necessity that inheres in the dichotomous poles of the value relation. So, it may well be a matter of indifference (and therefore arbitrary custom) whether cattle or gold coins play the role of the equivalent, but it is not a matter of similar indifference that the value of the commodity occupying the role of the relative form, can be expressed only in relation to some equivalent form. The puzzle of why this dichotomous form should exist is therefore overlooked – the form taken for granted, while attention is deflected to the more malleable contents that occupy structural positions within this form.
Marx here begins in earnest to embed some of the forms of perception and thought that, from the standpoint of the previous two perspectives analysed in this chapter, appear “given”. He quickly suggests that the earlier determination of the commodity, which presented it as a unity of a use value and a value, could only be made in a situation in which value had found some way to become manifest – for, as an immaterial property, a physical examination of a material good in isolation would never reveal its existence. He further suggests the need to invert the transcendental argument that human labour is the condition of exchange, arguing that it is rather in the act of exchange that we equate two dissimilar material goods, and therefore, by extension, equate the dissimilar forms of activity that led to their production:
If we say that, as values, commodities are mere congelations of human labour, we reduce them by our analysis, it is true, to the abstraction, value; but we ascribe to this value no form apart from their bodily form. It is otherwise in the value relation of one commodity to another. Here, the one stands forth in its character of value by reason of its relation to the other.
By making the coat the equivalent of the linen, we equate the labour embodied in the former to that in the latter. Now, it is true that the tailoring, which makes the coat, is concrete labour of a different sort from the weaving which makes the linen. But the act of equating it to the weaving, reduces the tailoring to that which is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to their common character of human labour. In this roundabout way, then, the fact is expressed, that weaving also, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour. It is the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities that alone brings into relief the specific character of value-creating labour, and this it does by actually reducing the different varieties of labour embodied in the different kinds of commodities to their common quality of human labour in the abstract.
Having thus reached beyond atomised commodities with purported supersensible properties, to the exchange relation between those commodities, Marx is now ready to move to an analysis of how these supersensible properties – although social and immaterial in origin – must also find a material expression:
There is, however, something else required beyond the expression of the specific character of the labour of which the value of the linen consists. Human labour power in motion, or human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object. In order to express the value of the linen as a congelation of human labour, that value must be expressed as having objective existence, as being a something materially different from the linen itself, and yet a something common to the linen and all other commodities. The problem is already solved.
This material expression is, of course, the equivalent form.
Before moving to an analysis of the equivalent form, Marx detours into the quantitative determination of the relative form (a topic he had previously bracketed, arguing that political economy focussed too exclusively on the quantitative aspect of the problem). The argument here parallels earlier moments in which Marx has mentioned the quantitative dimension of value: it quickly runs through several scenarios in which the proportion in which goods are empirically exchanged remains the same, but in which this outcome is generated by very different “real changes in the magnitude of value”, to conclude:
Thus real changes in the magnitude of value are neither unequivocally nor exhaustively reflected in their relative expression, that is, in the equation expressing the magnitude of relative value. The relative value of a commodity may vary, although its value remains constant. Its relative value may remain constant, although its value varies; and finally, simultaneous variations in the magnitude of value and in that of its relative expression by no means necessarily correspond in amount.
These sections of the text are strategically extremely interesting – I should have drawn attention to some earlier examples, to prepare for this point. On several different levels in the text, Marx has been introducing strong distinctions between what will be perceived through immediate empirical observations of particular sorts, and the sorts of categories he is mobilising in his own analysis. Thus, the value of commodities cannot be discovered through an exploration of their material properties. Human labour in the abstract is distinct from the labour empirically expended in production, even when we conceptually abstract from the various concrete forms in which human physiological exertion takes place. And now, “real changes in the magnitude of value” cannot be observed directly from the empirical investigation of the proportions in which goods exchange on the market. Curiouser and curiouser: how, exactly, can this supersensible essence of value, which we now know always must appear in some physical form, but which can never be detected in that physical form – nor, apparently, in the relation between that form and commodities occupying the relative position – be perceived? How do we know that such a thing exists? What is its ontological status?
The answer isn’t fully clear at this point in the text. I believe, though, that we are intended to be becoming a bit perplexed: the section does begin, after all, with Marx teasing “The reality of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know ‘where to have it’.”… And I believe that the answer is peeking through the interstices of the examples Marx uses to illustrate the law of value asserting itself – coercively distributing socially average labour time and dictating what gets to “count as labour”. Value is gradually being determined, as the text unfolds, as Marx’s name for this unintentionally generated collective social compulsion whose existence structures and shapes collective experience into, among other things, the forms Marx has been analysing throughout this chapter.
Tired. Lots of strangeness to come in the next subsection. Time to get some sleep – with my apologies for the complete absence of proofreading in this post. I have no idea whether and how much I can post from Sydney. If I can post, it’s also possible that this particular series will be temporarily interrupted as I process thoughts provoked by the conference papers. But I suspect that, one way or another, I will find my way back here again soon…
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
Subjects, Objects and Things In Between