Once again, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to carve out a discussion-sized section from the material in Capital’s introductory chapter – in this case, the third section, on “The Form of Value or Exchange Value”. Once again, the problem is that the meta-commentary going on in this section is densely packed and intricate, and much of the power of the section hinges on drawing attention to this too-tacit argumentative layer of the text.
I read this section, among other things, as Marx’s somewhat playful virtuoso demonstration of the ease with which he can (from his perspective) surpass Hegel by embedding certain core concepts of “dialectics” by revealing the ways in which certain dimensions of collective practice possess practically dialectical properties. It’s not an accident that Aristotle figures in this section, in a discussion of the historical determinants of logical deduction – a passage in which Marx will both relativise the deductive form of reasoning on which he had been apparently relying in the previous sections, and also suggest the need for an immanent and reflexive theory to account, not simply for the content of its own theoretical claims, but for the very form of theoretical analysis itself. The tacit argument here is that theories – even (especially?) critical ones – must locate themselves as determinate moments of the objects they theorise.
This is almost over-clever stuff, and I don’t really think I can do it justice without writing something that moves back and forth between Hegel and Marx to draw out the elements of this complex master-apprentice conversation much more clearly. For the moment, unfortunately, “not doing justice” is what I’ll need to settle for – perhaps I can come back to this more adequately over the summer break, when I’ll need to explore Hegel in more detail to prepare for an event where I’ll be speaking on Hegel and Marx… For present purposes, I’ll simply mention that one layer of this section begins to suggest an unacknowledged practice-theoretic dimension to Hegel’s analytical technique, while another layer hints at the potential for theorising how notions of reciprocal intersubjective recognition might arise as a moment within a more overarching impersonal social dynamic. Beautiful, provocative, generative material – much of which I won’t cover with anything close to adequate complexity here.
Okay. So what to say. In this post, I think I’ll limit my comments primarily to the question of how I understand the meta-commentary Marx is offering here on the reflexive relationship of theory to its context.
We’ve previously discussed Marx’s statement that the first chapter of Capital presents the “greatest difficulty” in grasping the analytical strategy of the text. In section 3A, Marx confronts us with the difficulty of that difficulty:
The whole mystery of the form of value lies hidden in this elementary form. Its analysis, therefore, is our real difficulty.
Let’s see what this might mean.
Section three begins by reminding us that we are still operating within the form of phenomenological experience that is “given” in the way that wealth “presents itself” in capitalist society. As Marx has already outlined in the first section, this form of subjectivity perceives commodities as dual entities, possessing use values that are conditioned by their qualitatively specific, bodily, natural, “material” properties, and exchange values that appear to entail accidental and purely relative quantitative proportions, and that relate to supersensible social properties that bear no intrinsic relation to the material form the commodity possesses. In the present section, Marx expresses this in the following way, incorporating elements from the discussion of value that Marx has unfolded in the previous sections:
Commodities come into the world in the shape of use values, articles, or goods, such as iron, linen, corn, &c. This is their plain, homely, bodily form. They are, however, commodities, only because they are something twofold, both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value. They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value form.
The reality of the value of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know “where to have it.” The value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition. Turn and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will, yet in so far as it remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it. If, however, we bear in mind that the value of commodities has a purely social reality, and that they acquire this reality only in so far as they are expressions or embodiments of one identical social substance, viz., human labour, it follows as a matter of course, that value can only manifest itself in the social relation of commodity to commodity. In fact we started from exchange value, or the exchange relation of commodities, in order to get at the value that lies hidden behind it. We must now return to this form under which value first appeared to us.
Every one knows, if he knows nothing else, that commodities have a value form common to them all, and presenting a marked contrast with the varied bodily forms of their use values. I mean their money form. Here, however, a task is set us, the performance of which has never yet even been attempted by bourgeois economy, the task of tracing the genesis of this money form, of developing the expression of value implied in the value relation of commodities, from its simplest, almost imperceptible outline, to the dazzling money-form. By doing this we shall, at the same time, solve the riddle presented by money.
The simplest value-relation is evidently that of one commodity to some one other commodity of a different kind. Hence the relation between the values of two commodities supplies us with the simplest expression of the value of a single commodity.
Note that this passage still follows the deductive mode of presentation Marx has been spoofing up to this point: Marx “deduces” here that “it follows as a matter of course, that value can only manifest itself in the social relation of commodity to commodity”. This conclusion is positioned in the text as pointing to something that “Every one knows, if he knows nothing else” – that commodities share a common value-form in the form of money. The strategy of the text is important here: the question that motivates this section – how to “solve” the mystery of the value form (the question, ultimately, of why value is expressed, or, what it implies that value is distinguishable from the form in which it nevertheless must appear) – has been posed by forms of analysis that derive directly from how the wealth of capitalist society presents itself.
The question has therefore arisen immanently within a particular dimension of a specific context. Marx argues, however, that this immanently posed question cannot be answered by the forms of perception and thought that have posed it: instead, he argues, “a task is set us, the performance of which has never yet even been attempted by bourgeois economy”. Bourgeois political economy has therefore pointed beyond itself, gesturing to the existence of something that it cannot itself adequately grasp, and opening the way for a more adequate theoretical approach.
With this move, Marx has overtly, if subtly, tipped his hand, and revealed the preceding sections as the opening volleys of a dialectical presentation that has unfolded only with reference to the insights available to a particular phenomenological perspective. At this point in the text, Marx believes he has demonstrated that this initial phenomenological perspective itself betrays the signs that it is not fully adequate to the phenomenon it seeks to grasp – that its perception of the wealth of capitalist societies, as well as its self-understanding, are partial and relate to a specific moment within the reproduction of such societies. Marx’s analysis has shown how this partial character is expressed or symptomatically betrayed within the perspective he is analysing, even though the perspective itself does not recognise its own partial character or realise how it points beyond itself.
So, in this section, what I have been calling the “deductive” mode of presentation, used in the earlier sections of the chapter, is revealed explicitly as a form of theorisation expressive of the phenomenological perspective that, as described in the opening sentences of this chapter, sees the commodity as “an object outside us”. The deductive presentation on which Marx has been relying thus far in this chapter is one that takes the “objectivity” of its object of analysis as a “given” – as something that sits “outside” the perspective from which the theoretical analysis is being offered, and whose properties, once discovered, might be manipulated to serve some human purpose, but that are not constituted through contingent human practices. The deductive presentation thus perceives no intrinsic relationship between its own form, its own analytical method, and the form of its object. Subjectivity and objectivity are not posited in any intrinsic relationship.
This dualistic, deductive form of theory, however, runs aground on the problem of how to grasp the intrinsically relational and reflexive aspects of the value form. In bringing the deductive method to its limits by unfolding from it the problem of the value-form, Marx opens a breach through which some of the elements of a dialectical analysis then enter. As this “dialectical” analysis unfolds, it will react back on some of the claims put forward by the deductive mode of presentation, relativising them as forms of thought that appear adequate only when a very specific slice of an overarching context was being engaged by the analysis. When viewed in the light of the additional perspectives made available by even this introductory “dialectical” perspective, the earlier “deductive” form of presentation comes to appear both plausible, and partial – opening the way for the explicit critique Marx will offer in the section on commodity fetishism.
At this point in the narrative, then, we have moved beyond the phenomenological perspective with which Marx opens Capital. Does this mean that we have now reached Marx’s own “position” – the critical standpoint that provides the tacit “for us” of this text? I don’t believe so. As I mentioned above, I take this section to be, at least in part, a gesture toward Hegel – an acknowledgement of how Hegel’s work moves beyond the forms of thought on display in the previous sections, as well as a rapid-fire set of gestures to where Marx believes Hegel went astray. At the same time, this part of the text continues the work of suggesting how particular political economic perspectives are bound together with specific dimensions of collective practice. Since, however, the “for us” of this text voices the standpoint of an immanent critical theory, Marx will gradually appropriate the alienated elements of the context as his analysis unfolds, leveraging the critical insights unfolded with each stage of the presentation. At this moment, those critical insights are sufficient to begin to point past the dualistic forms of thought with which the text begins, to illustrate (albeit too tacitly) the presentational method of the text, and to open up the critique of commodity fetishism.
So what does Marx actually say in this section? The section as a whole gradually moves from accident to necessity. It is easy to read the textual strategy here as though Marx is making a historical argument – moving progressively through an analysis of earlier forms of production for market exchange, through to fully developed capitalist production. My impulse is to resist this interpretation, and to read this text instead as describing a logical, rather than an historical “progression” or development. My impulse, in other words, is to treat all of the forms Marx analyses here as presupposing the full development of capitalism – and, therefore, as expressions of contemporaneous moments within that fully developed social form.
Some of the moments Marx analyses here do bear a stronger resemblance to pre-capitalist institutions: the analysis of the “elementary” form of value, for example, examines transactions that resemble an intuitive notion of the sorts of exchanges that might have taken place in a pre-capitalist market. Yet Marx specifically draws attention to this possible historical interpretation, by saying that he can best cast light on some of the “peculiarities” of the equivalent form (the basis for the money form) through a digression on Aristotle. Marx then uses this digression to argue that Aristotle was not able to “discover” the secrets of the equivalent form because he lacks a concept of value – because he lacked experience with wage labour. Apparently, then, comprehension of even the most “elementary” form Marx analyses in this section, cannot proceed until capitalism is fully formed – or, better, in spite of superficial historical similarities, the “elementary” form of value should not be taken to have been constituted in collective practice until the development of capitalism.
There are some fantastic side points that beg to be made here about the construction of history and of particular imaginaries of the past, organised around moments that are generated within contemporary societies, but that possess qualitative characteristics that suggest that they are somehow historically “primitive”. For the moment, I’ll just leave this hanging as an interesting tangent for later development, as this isn’t something that Marx thematises in any detail at this point in the text.
The section on Aristotle makes a fairly clear case that the forms Marx is analysing here are not historical forms. The language of this section also hints that the forms being analysed, particularly the “accidental” form, lie quite close the surface of everyday phenomenological experience – they point back to the very first discussion of exchange value, in the opening section of this chapter, which argued that exchange value “appears to be something accidental and purely relative”. This reference to the appearance of “accident” is carried over into this section – except that, instead of looking at this accidental characteristic as it relates to the properties of an object – an individual commodity taken in isolation – we are now exploring the appearance of “accident” within a relation between commodities.
Looking at the exchange of two commodities – coats and linen – Marx differentiates two positions each commodity might occupy within the exchange relationship: the “relative form”, a role occupied by the commodity whose “supersensible” value is expressed in terms of the other commodity, and the “equivalent form”, a role occupied by the commodity whose “body” expresses the value of the other commodity. Marx unfolds some complex characteristics from this apparently simple relationship:
The relative form and the equivalent form are two intimately connected, mutually dependent and inseparable elements of the expression of value; but, at the same time, are mutually exclusive, antagonistic extremes – i.e., poles of the same expression… A single commodity cannot, therefore, simultaneously assume, in the same expression of value, both forms. The very polarity of these forms makes them mutually exclusive.
So Marx unfolds a strange, intrinsically dichotomous relationship that simultaneously binds together and opposes the bodily and supersensible qualities of commodities related in this way. Marx then argues that, when the relationship is looked at from the perspective of any two commodities, the specific role that each commodity occupies within the relationship appears arbitrary:
Whether, then, a commodity assumes the relative form, or the opposite equivalent form, depends entirely upon its accidental position in the expression of value – that is, upon whether it is the commodity whose value is being expressed or the commodity in which value is being expressed.
This appearance of arbitrariness will gradually be replaced, as the analysis unfolds, such that necessity closes in – not because the commodity that occupies the role of the equivalent isn’t an “arbitrary” matter of convention (on this level, the accidental appearance of the equivalent form is “true”, and renders plausible the forms of subjectivity that focus on the elements that are accidental within this form), but because, as Marx will argue in the section on commodity fetishism, a focus on the arbitrariness of which commodity comes to play the role of equivalent, involves a partial perspective that fixates on a single, “overtly social”, element of the value form, and thereby deflects its analytical gaze from the impersonal forms of social coercion that exert themselves in part through this form:
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.
Marx thus “grounds” theories that focus on the accidental or arbitrary nature of which commodity plays the role of equivalent, by demonstrating such theories to be plausible approximations of a particular aspect of collective practice, while also setting up for a critique that such forms of thought participate in the collectively-constituted trompe l’oeil that grasps the arbitrary nature of “overtly social” dimensions of the context, while failing to grasp the contingent character of impersonal forms of compulsion that also characterise that same context.
Marx next moves to bracket the analysis of the quantitative proportions in which commodities exchange – another apparently contingent aspect of the exchange relationship that he first introduced in the preliminary discussion of exchange value at the beginning of the chapter:
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.
In section 3.2.a, he puts forward the goal instead of considering the expression of the value of a commodity apart from the quantitative proportions in which commodities exchange:
In order to discover how the elementary expression of the value of a commodity lies hidden in the value relation of two commodities, we must, in the first place, consider the latter entirely apart from its quantitative aspect. The usual mode of procedure is generally the reverse, and in the value relation nothing is seen but the proportion between definite quantities of two different sorts of commodities that are considered equal to each other. It is apt to be forgotten that the magnitudes of different things can be compared quantitatively, only when those magnitudes are expressed in terms of the same unit. It is only as expressions of such a unit that they are of the same denomination, and therefore commensurable.
The footnote attached to this paragraph continues this argument in a less immanent voice:
The few economists, amongst whom is S. Bailey, who have occupied themselves with the analysis of the form of value, have been unable to arrive at any result, first, because they confuse the form of value with value itself; and second, because, under the coarse influence of the practical bourgeois, they exclusively give their attention to the quantitative aspect of the question.
The phrasing in this footnote is interesting: the political economists have been unable to grasp the form of value, because they confuse this form with value itself. Marx calls explicit attention here to a distinction already introduced in the previous sections: between value – as a socially-constituted “essence” of capitalist production – and exchange-value – as a necessary form of appearance of that essence. As the analysis unfolds, Marx will rely on this essence-appearance relationship to unfold an analysis of how a social “substance” like value might be constituted by social actors as an unintentional by-product of practices oriented to other goals.
Here, though, Marx focusses on unfolding an extraordinary set of metaphors to capture the qualitative, rather than the quantitative, dimensions of the value form. (I should note that Sinthome has walked before me here, in a beautiful post I wasn’t able to address adequately at the time it was written, but which picks up on Marx’s use of metaphors of coagulation and congealment in this section of Capital, and then improvises around these metaphors into a much broader set of reflections on materialist philosophy.) Marx reflects back here on the earlier sections, which had seemed to suggest that commodities, as objects, possessed a dual character; he now begins to unfold some of what was tacitly presupposed in this perception of commodities:
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.
Marx is beginning here to suggest that the perception that commodities are objects with supersensible social properties, always already presupposes some perspective or dimension of social practice within which these “internal” properties are “externalised” or overtly expressed – already presupposes the relation of commodities Marx has here characterised in terms of the value form:
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.
I’ll leave until next time an exploration of why Marx thinks this discussion has “solved” the problem that thwarted “bourgeois” economics. It’s getting late on my end, and the upcoming passages include some fantastic, suggestive sections on the objective, subjective, and intersubjective relations of commodities of all sorts. Hopefully I can work my way into some of these issues when I next return to this series.
(Apologies for typographical and editing issues above: too late on my end to do a proper review of what I’ve written…)
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