Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Fragment on Form and Content

This will be a bit shorter than last night’s blurt… ;-P I just wanted to capture a thought before it escapes me again. I’ve been suggesting across several posts that the opening passages of Capital should not be read as expressions of Marx’s own position – at least, not in any straightforward way – but rather as expressions of a position “given” immanently within a moment in the reproduction of capital, from which Marx will then unfold evidence of other such moments, gradually establishing a more and more detailed “determination” of capitalism. I take the form of argument to be an appropriation (and critique) of Hegel’s notion of how a “science” must proceed: beginning with a principle that may initially appear arbitrary and dogmatic, but that is gradually demonstrated over the course of the analysis to be non-arbitrary, as it can be shown over the course of the analysis that from this starting point can be unfolded determinations of the world that generates the starting point itself. The analysis is thus reflexive – it loops back on itself and, by the end, justifies its point of departure, showing this point of departure to have been, not a dogmatic beginning, but instead a mediated product of the world analysed. The analysis also progressively determines the beginning in greater and greater detail as it proceeds, such that only by the end, when all determinations have been unfolded, is it at last possible for the beginning to be understood.

Okay. So back – one more time! – to the beginning of the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

I am suggesting that this apparently arbitrary beginning will be reflexively justified by the end of the work, by progressively unfolding a more and more complex and concrete “world” from this starting point, suggesting that the starting point already presupposes (could only become a starting point given the existence of) these more concrete and complex determinations. I am also suggesting that the “meaning” of this beginning will be understood only at the end, when the beginning can at last be grasped in its determinate relationship to the world of which it is the product. The apparently simple and immediate category of the commodity will be shown to presuppose and be determined by a dynamic and complex social world whose contours are not yet fully visible at the opening moments of the text. This is the argumentative burden Marx has assumed, with this particular “Hegelian” vision of immanent critique.

In this series, I’ve for the most part stayed within what can be shown with reference to the text of this one chapter, and so I haven’t gone very far in the direction of showing how these early categories come to be repositioned in later moments in the text. I’ve made a couple of passing references to how the commodity – which at this point appears to be only a “thing” that is produced by human labour – can also be human labour-power, bought and sold on a market. And I’ve mentioned that this further determination of the starting point reveals explicitly that the comments made about “commodities” and their properties (as material things with supersensible essences) are also intended to specify ways of being in the world for commodities of the human sort. So, even if it is not fully explicit on a first “cold” read of the text, it becomes evident from how the text develops, that Marx is from the outset making an argument about the self-experience of social actors – about forms of perception, thought, and embodiment – and not simply an argument about how people treat “things” of a non-human sort.

This evening, I was thinking about the form-content distinction introduced in these early passages – I have often quoted this section:

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 passage suggests that there is a material content – use value – that is timeless and “true”, which comes in history to be covered over by arbitrary social “forms”, which are contingent and ephemeral. In this formulation, there is no intrinsic connection between form and content: the content stays the same, in spite of the permutations in form. Content and form have no necessary connection to one another.

I have suggested in a number of posts that Marx is critical of this perspective: that this is not his own perspective being voiced, but a perspective he is trying to “locate” – to situate as a position that becomes plausible, given the experience of a moment of the reproduction of capital, but that fails to recognise its own partial and situated character. I have also suggested that Marx is trying to make an argument about the need to grasp the relation between form and content – that he is critical of political economy, in this and in other sections of the text, for its lack of curiosity about the relationship between content and form. I offered a few comments on this issue in yesterday’s post, which I won’t replicate here. What I wanted to mention tonight was simply one of the things that happens, as Marx further “determines” these opening categories.

Use value – which is determined initially as relating to the material properties of the commodity, the commodity’s physical side – is initially determined as only arbitrarily related to exchange value – which is determined as a social form that has nothing to do with the physicality of the commodity. As the text moves on, however, this arbitrary and apparently extrinsic relationship begins to break down – specifically around the puzzle of how surplus value comes to be generated. Marx rules out the notion that surplus value could arise solely from the process of exchange itself: somehow, something surplus has to be generated – it has to arise, and not simply to be circulated. As it turns out, in Marx’s analysis (and apologies – it’s very late here, and so I’m going to be extremely truncated – this is simply a placeholder so I won’t lose the thought) surplus value arises… from a use value. Specifically, from the use value capital acquires when it purchases the commodity labour power on the market. The commodity labour power is bought at its value – which, as with all commodities, relates to its costs of production. But when this commodity is used – is consumed, in this case, consumed in the production of other commodities – it produces new value. So here the form/content divide with which Capital opens is both sustained and broken down: on the one hand, the division between the use value and exchange value of the commodity labour power enables the production of surplus value; on the other hand, the use value of this particular commodity does not exist in an arbitrary relationship to the generation of value – this content is, instead, essential to the reproduction of this form.

This isn’t the only point in the text that reinforces this point – again, it’s late, and I’m just writing a placeholder for now to show something of how the analysis unfolds, beyond the confines of the initial chapter. My point is that Marx, on the one hand, wants to “rationalise” the sorts of distinctions with which he opens the book – to show the various ways in which these distinctions become socially plausible and arise in everyday practice, and therefore become intuitive to thought. On the other hand, Marx wants to suggest that these distinctions may reflect partial understandings of the overarching dynamic of the reproduction of capital – that core dimensions of this dynamic cannot be grasped, unless partial distinctions are grasped as moments of a whole that may contradict such distinctions in other dimensions of social practice. The form/content distinction with which Capital opens expresses one dimension of social practice – it has a social validity of a sort. But this distinction breaks down in ways that are pivotal to understand, in order to grasp the sorts of historical tendencies and dynamism that characterise the reproduction of capital.

Late. Tired. Hopefully I won’t regret having posted this when I wake up… ;-P

List of 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

What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

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: Fragment on Form and Content

  1. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Way of Visualising Abstract Labour and Value

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