Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

Still not comfortable tossing online my attempted overview and consolidation of the work I’ve been doing on this section. At the moment, I’m struggling with how to articulate something in relation to the concepts of abstract labour and commodity fetishism. I thought perhaps I could get back into the series on the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, by thinking out loud a bit about what Marx means by the following comment, from the section on commodity fetishism:

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

So what is the peculiar social character of this labour?

It’s not unusual for interpreters to gloss this section in terms of the sentence immediately following:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.

If this sentence is emphasised, the “social character” of the labour that produces commodities, seems to consist in that this labour is undertaken by private individuals or groups of individuals. Yet it’s clear from the section just below this in the text – Marx’s playful discussion of Robinson Crusoe – that he doesn’t hold that private or individual labour, just by dint of being private or individual, is necessarily fetishised:

All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.

The key phrase here is “intelligible without exertion”: the central question that opens the issue of the fetish for Marx is why it should be necessary to discover the existence of value, and why the determination of value by socially average labour time should be a “hieroglyphic” only deciphered through the detection of lawlike properties beneath the seemingly random flux of everyday experience:

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.

It is important to understand that Marx does not take for granted that societies should be subject to laws whose existence, nature, and practical origin is not immediately transparent to participant social actors. Marx provides a number of examples toward the end of this chapter, running through social arrangements that are good and bad, emancipatory and oppressive – but all regulated through means that are “transparent” to participant social actors and “overtly social”, whether in the form of custom, force, or self-governance by free members of an emancipated community. That capitalism should be characterised by non-overt laws whose “objective” character obscures their origin in social practice, is therefore part and parcel of its distinctive character. A theory that presupposes that there should be such non-overt laws, and then sets out simply to uncover them, misses a significant aspect of the puzzle that capitalism poses.

Back with the original passage, Marx continues:

Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers.

Above Marx said that “The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.” By itself, that could imply that “social labour” was simply a conceptual abstraction: add up whatever private individuals empirically do, and you arrive at total social labour – regardless of the subjective isolation and privatisation of the individuals and groups whose efforts are collected into this aggregate. We already know from the examples used earlier in the chapter that Marx doesn’t mean this: not all labour empirically expended gets to “count” as “social labour” for purposes of the reproduction of capital. Hand loom weavers operating in the period of the power loom, producers whose products do not form a use value for sufficient numbers of others: the empirically-expended labour of these private producers, regardless of time and energy actually expended, does not fully “count” as part of social labour.

The privatisation of empirical labour, then, is not itself the “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”. Rather, privately-conducted empirical labouring activities are a sort of process that takes place prior to the point at which “the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society”, while “the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange”. Commodities (rather than simply use values) are produced only in and through this coercive process that culls the efforts empirically expended in production, winnowing down to a smaller subset of those labouring activities that get to count as part of the labour of society (from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital). This winnowing process is manifested by the exchange of goods, with the proportion in which goods exchange revealing how much, and what kinds, of the empirical effort thrown into production, becomes successfully incorporated into “social labour”.

The “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”, therefore, is the result of this process – the outcome – the coercive, unintentional and blind collective judgement of social actors who are not deliberately attempting to achieve any specific vision of what will count as “social labour”, but whose actions nevertheless do result in “reducing” empirically-undertaken labouring activities, down to what “counts” as social labour for purposes of the reproduction of capital.

Marx is trying to distance us from this process – to denaturalise it – to get us to see it anthropologically, in its alienness and exoticism. His evocative metaphors are attempts to recapture the sense of strangeness we lose in taking our own context for granted. Our collective behaviour, he argues, is equivalent to acting as though there there is some supersensible world of social labour – “human labour in the abstract”, he has earlier called it – that is not identical with the sum total of the empirical productive activities that we collectively undertake in aggregate. Marx speaks of commodities as “social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses”, and of exchange value “expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object” (i.e., not the amount of labour expended in the object’s empirical production) (italics mine). We elevate our collectively chosen empirical labouring activities by behaving as though they partake in this supersensible world – by allowing them to “count” as part of social labour to the extent that they produce goods that we collectively treat as the bearers of an homogenous supersensible essence – by treating these goods, in other words, as though they have “value”.

This supersensible world haunts our empirical activities – exerting a coercive force on them that generates certain lawlike effects, which allows us eventually to deduce the presence of this otherwise intangible realm, by following its indirect traces in immediate empirical experience. Its presence must be deduced because it does not align directly with our empirical activities: “social labour” is not the sum total of all labouring activities that private individuals empirically carry out; “value” cannot be discerned by examining the physical object that will bear value in the social process of exchange. The supersensible realm constituted in social practice thus possesses a counterfactual character in relation to immediate empirical experience, and its presence is therefore initially easy to miss in the apparently random flux of individual decisions, empirically diverse productive activities, and the ever-fluctuating proportions in which goods exchange.

Marx will argue that this “supersensible world” that gives commodity-producing labour its peculiar social character, and whose constitution exerts such coercive effects on empirical activities, nevertheless arises nowhere else aside from the flux and change of the immediately empirical realm: a major goal of Capital, across all three volumes, is to account for how such a process might unfold. His argument about commodity fetishism – and here he traces back over ground Hegel covers in the discussion of appearance and essence from The Science of Logic, and in the sections on Perception and Force and Understanding from the Phenomenology of Spirit – is targeted at forms of thought that fail to recognise that the supersensible “essence” of value arises only in and through the apparently random and contingent flux of the world of “appearance” – and that there is therefore a necessary relationship (so long as capitalism is sustained) between “appearance” and “essence”, contingency and law, form and content, what we take to be historical and what we take to be natural, in capitalist society. Paralleling Hegel’s argument about essence and appearance, Marx suggests that the supersensible, counterfactual, non-immediate character of “social character of labour that produces [commodities]” creates an immanent temptation to regard “form” and “content” as only externally and arbitrarily connected with one another – and to understand “essence” and “appearance” as subsisting in two different substances or worlds, one arbitrary and subject to change, and the other timeless and transcendent.

Revisiting the opening passages of Capital will place a more concrete spin on the mystical-sounding Hegelian language in play here. Marx opens Capital with an argument that commodities can be defined as containing use value and exchange value. These two parts of the commodity are described in terms of a form/content distinction:

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. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

The relationship between the content or substance of use value, and the form of exchange value, is posited here as arbitrary: “in the form of society we are about to consider”, the social form of wealth involves exchange value – by implication, this social form is different in other societies, while the material substance of use value remains a timeless and untouched content, in and through these arbitrary fluctuations in social form.

By the time Marx reaches the argument about the fetish, if not before, we know that these opening passages are intended to be examples (among others in this chapter) of fetishised thought: that they do not reflect Marx’s own perspective, but a perspective that “presents itself” within capitalism, which has a certain “social validity”, but which can be criticised from the standpoint of other perspectives that are also immanently generated within the process of the reproduction of capital. This doesn’t mean that Marx will simply reject such forms of thought. His goal is rather to render available the insights of various immanently-generated perspectives, by locating them in relation to the process of the reproduction of capital, and by casting light on their relationships with one other and with everyday forms of social practice. He argues:

The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.

Hegel somewhere comments that the joke is that things appear as they are. Marx’s argument about the genesis of the fetish follows a similar insight. He therefore attempts, not to dismiss the fetish – to reveal it to be a mere illusion or a sort of cognitive defect that can be cast aside by shining the cold light of objectivity on capitalist society – but rather to account for its plausibility: why this form of subjectivity? Why this experience of self? Why this experience of world? How might we understand the non-arbitrary character of this set of habits for apprehending this social configuration? How might we grasp this as something “real” – but real “for us”? Note Marx’s phrasing in the following passage:

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (italics mine)

Marx’s criticism here is not that social actors are operating under an illusion, e.g., that things have entered into social relations, and persons into material ones. His criticism is that political economy does not go far enough in understanding how we have collectively constituted such a situation – and in exploring the implications of this situation from the “inside”, to see what potentials this situation holds. Marx then pairs this with a practice-theoretic notion of the ways in which forms of perception, thought, and embodiment are constituted and shaped in determinate ways by our everyday practical experience of such a social world – among many passages:

The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour, have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.

In this and similar passages, Marx is suggesting that we are collectively enacting a situation in which everyday experiences render it plausible to experience our selves and our world in terms of material receptacles that partake in a single, uniform, homogeneous, supersensible substance, and intuitive to think in terms of immediate, empirical, sensuous entities whose apparently random movements are governed by supersensible lawlike forces. The practical social experience that “primes” us to be receptive to resonant forms of perception and thought is, however, prone to being misinterpreted as an experience of an asocial, “material” world, for determinate reasons: it is unintentional; it involves forms of coercion that are genuinely impersonal, abstract, and “counterfactual” in relation to immediate empirical experience; the lawlike operations of the supersensible realm are coercive and drive determinate forms of change in the realm of immediate empirical experience, thus rendering the realm of immediate empirical experience visibly contingent and “overtly social”, and reinforcing, by contrast, the sense that coercive laws arise in an asocial realm independent of human practice, etc.

From this perspective, both parts of the opening definition of the commodity – use value and exchange value – as well as the relation between these parts, are all equally “historical”. This claim will seem counter-intuitive, given the abstract and universalistic “materialist” meaning Marx has given to use value in the opening passages: surely it is in fact the case that material wealth is the substance of all wealth, whatever the social context? How could such a claim ever be historicised? But the movement of this chapter already suggests the determinations that lurk beneath the surface of this apparently asocial universal: how is it that we have available to us a general category for “material wealth as such”? Why does such a category originate only in certain circumstances, if it is truly such a timeless universal? And what of the “secular” character of such a category – the ability to segment off a “material” world understood as intrinsically devoid of social determinations, even if we should then project social determinations onto this void: from what standpoint does this become clear to us? How have we suddenly managed to step far enough outside our own social determinations, to recognise the intrinsic secular materialism of the natural world?

To treat such insights as “discoveries” – as timeless truths that have, quite unaccountably, suddenly become apparent to us, as if on the strength of our rational acumen alone – is, tacitly, to treat the standpoint from which the theory is articulated as a negation: to take the theorist to be speaking from a position of neutrality or objectivity that contains whatever universal content happens to be left behind, once all arbitrary particular contents have been stripped away. Other times held superstitious, culturally-conditioned visions of an anthropomorphised nature: we do not. Other eras made strange social distinctions between types of labour, but we now understand that all forms of labouring activity are united in being expenditures of human physiological energy. Etc. Marx explicitly and repeatedly mocks the political economists for such views: it is implausible that he engages in this form of critique himself.

So what is he doing instead? My suggestion is that he is trying to keep multiple perspectives simultaneously suspended in critical focus at the same time. He is not simply targeting his critique to secure the abolition of the “overtly social” elements of capitalism such as exchange value: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice sudden become visibly and overtly dimensions of social practice – why it becomes so clear that these are arbitrary and potentially contestable dimensions of collective life. At the same time, he is not basing his critique on purportedly more timeless “material” dimensions of nature or social life – nor is he simply trying to assert that what we take to be timeless, isn’t really timeless at all: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice come plausibly to appear as asocial – in part due to how they interact with, and mutually differentiate themselves from, other dimensions of social practice that are constituted as visibly contingent and overtly social. In the mix is the nucleus of an argument about how we might become “primed” in social practice – in our everyday experience of a dimension of social life that we experience as asocial – to search for certain qualities in nonhuman nature (and perhaps to be relatively less sensitive to other qualities), with ambivalent consequences for nature and for human society.

Does this mean, then, that Marx would reject, for example, the notion that something like “use value” could be said to be the material substance of wealth in all human societies – or, to state the question more generally, that he would repudiate the notion of making comparisons across historical time? I think the answer is clearly no – he would, and often does, make historical and comparative analyses that deploy contemporary categories. To do this, however, is to look out at the past with our eyes, to ask our questions, to make, in Benjamin’s terms, a “tiger’s leap” into the past, hunting for resonances with our own moment. The target of this sort of critique is not so much to undermine historical comparisons, as to ensure that we don’t miss an opportunity to grasp something about how our own society is constructed in practice: to ensure that we are attentive to possibility that there may be some special sense in which our society enacts “use values” as a general category of collective practice – some sense in which our society is really, as a matter of practice, so indifferent to the particular forms in which labour is expended and the types of products that are produced and consumed, that a “universal” category like “use value” obtains a practical reality for us that might explain the social plausibility or intuitiveness of such an abstract concept. To ignore the sense in which “use value” is uniquely and particularly a category of capitalist society is thus also to lose a source of insight into our contemporary situation, by mistaking a practically-constituted indifference that enables a universal category to arise as a kind of “real abstraction”, for a mere “conceptual abstraction” that takes itself to reflect an isolated cognitive process of generalisation from concrete particulars.

There is an argument here, in other words, about the ways in which categories that seem purely “material” – categories that seem to lack anthropological determination and that seem to be genuinely universal and non-specific to social context – are the categories that, for Marx, most purely express the most distinctive elements of the distinctive form of sociality characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism steps forward here as a society whose distinctive form of anthropological determination consists in its apparent freedom from anthropological determination – in its “disenchanted” character, its “secularism”, its “materialism” (which isn’t to say that Marx views capitalism as a purely secular form of society – “materialism” isn’t the only thing Marx is trying to ground – but he is nevertheless interested in capturing the fetishised character of even these apparently sober and scientific forms of thought). Certain kinds of universals and abstractions have a real, practical existence to which Marx is trying to draw attention: he wants to treat such things, not as negations or as what remains when determinacy and particularity have been stripped away, but as positivities in their own right, as actively constituted in collective practice, hiding in plain sight under the guise that they are nonspecific to any particular human society.

If I am correct, and this kind of argument is in play, then this greatly complicates the question of how to understand Marx’s critical standpoint. He won’t simply be criticising exchange value, for example, as the arbitrary social form that is contingent in comparison to the transhistorical “material” reality of use value. He won’t simply be criticising the strange social form of labour in capitalism, against the standpoint of labour understood as the expenditure of physiological effort. Both poles of the various dichotomies he tosses out in the course of unfolding his analysis in Capital are, I am suggesting, equally subject to critique. By the same token, however, critique in this context doesn’t automatically mean rejection: the critique is immanent to its object; Marx isn’t relying on an untainted Archimedean point from which he will claim to gaze at capitalism from “outside”. Critique within this framework involves grasping the interrelations among immanently-available perspectives – and then actively appropriating the resources those perspectives make available, in ways that react back on the reproduction of capital.

Thus the distinction between use value and exchange value, for example, can be wielded critically – without this requiring that the use value pole of this dichotomy be taken as an asocial “material” universal: it suffices that capitalism make immanently available a perspective that continuously suggests that wealth could be founded on material abundance, rather than on value. This critical insight does not depend on the metaphysics of what Marx sometimes calls “naive materialism” – on the claim that “material” realities are somehow more “true” than socially-constituted ones. It can be important not to rely on such naive materialist claims. To take an example that runs through the subtext of this chapter: the argument about the (accidental) social constitution of a kind of human equality. If the “material” (physiological) equality or identity of human beings were taken as the standpoint from which the ideal of social equality were asserted, this would actually step back behind insights gained (however coercively) from the experience of enacting a kind of human equality solely by force of collective practice. Biological difference could become the arbiter of social practice – a position that can be criticised, perhaps somewhat ironically, from the standpoint of insights generated in genuinely oppressive circumstances in which diverse labouring activities are all reduced to the common denominator of value. Marx wants to overcome this destructive process of reduction – but he also treats this process as one that has taught us something, however unintentionally, about the ability to enact something like equality through a purely social process that ignores material differences. This process of immanently mining potentials associated with different moments in the reproduction of capital can continue from here – for example, into critiques of the particularly abstract visions of equality that have tended to emerge in these circumstances – and on and on.

I toss out these examples only as gestures, without claiming they are central to how Marx perceives his specific critical standpoint in this text – my point is simply to give a sense that Marx’s analysis begins to unfold a fairly wide range of immanently available perspectives, all of which, as currently deployed, play some role in the reproduction of capital – all of which are therefore “tainted” or implicated in the reproduction of what Marx wants to overcome. This implicatedness, however, doesn’t mean that critique is impossible: we can still make our own history – just not in conditions of our own choosing. Marx is attempting to illuminate some of the potentials embodied in these circumstances we haven’t chosen, to open up a greater possibility for effective political self-assertion in the future.

I need to develop all of this in much further detail, and link it together with the materials I’ve written in earlier sections. My energy is flagging tonight, so I think I’ll break off here – with apologies that I suspect much of this could be much more clearly stated, and with better support from the text. 😦 As much as I’ve written in this series about Marx’s terminology and textual strategy, I find that I am struggling a great deal over my own presentational choices over how to present this material in a cogent way. Working back through the relevant sections of Hegel has helped in some ways – mainly in terms of giving me a better appreciation for how deeply Marx is playing with Hegel’s work in these sections. Reading Hegel is never particularly good for encouraging clarity of expression, though… ;-P I’m not hitting what I’m trying to say with the essence/appearance discussion in particular (sorry to Tom about that in particular). That, and I’m still just struggling to express what I think Marx means by concepts like “abstract labour”, “value”, and the “peculiar social character of labour” in capitalism. A bit frustrated at my own lack of clarity here… Hopefully I’ll do a bit better next time…

Links to previous posts on Marx below the fold:

Series on Chapter 1, Volume 1:

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

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Random Metatheory

The Universal as Particular

Other Posts on Volume 1:

Modernities Conference Talk

Fragment on the Working Day

The Ghost in the Machine

Devaluing Labour

Turning the Tables

Circulating Perspectives

Self-Quoting in Capital

One response to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

  1. Pingback: Daily Links 01/06/2008 « Umbrella

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