Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Scratchpad: The Greatest Difficulty (No Kidding…)

all work and no play makes jack a dull boyOkay. Below the fold, one substantially – substantially – revised version of my previous attempt to develop a sort of programmatic chapter, outlining the broad brush-strokes of how I’m attempting to approach Capital in the thesis. This version sucks much less than the previous version – it’s decent enough that I would even post it to the main page, except that it’s simply too long (@12,000 words, for those tempted to peer below the fold). This time around, I managed not to forget my main argument while writing the piece. Hopefully this version comes a little closer to addressing some of the fantastic questions Alexei raised in relation to the previous iteration – it’s impossible for me to express how valuable such thoughtful, sympathetic critiques are in the formation of this project, particularly when, as Alexei did, someone takes the time to offer such criticisms with reference to an incredibly crude and… er… speaking frankly, deeply problematic version of the argument I was trying to make.

There are elements with which I’m still fairly uncomfortable. I’ve used, for example, a language of “embodied cognition” in some programmatic bits of the text. While this is a useful shorthand for some of what I’m trying to say about Marx’s argument, it’s also not completely accurate – at least, I don’t think it is… But for the moment, it’s somehow sneaked its way into the text, perhaps to be replaced by something more adequate later on.

There are also elements that are still, essentially, placeholders – the discussion of Phenomenology of Spirit, for example, may well be replaced by a discussion of the treatment of essence and appearance from the Logic – but I haven’t decided yet, and I’m ready to write on these issues in relation to Phenomenology, whereas I’m not quite ready to do this in relation to the Logic, so I’ve written the version that I can include now, in order to give readers at least some sense of what I want to argue in that portion of the chapter.

There is a lot of stylistic chaos in the piece – particularly in the final half, which I still find myself substantially revising each time I look at the text. A few parts have survived relatively unscathed since the previous version: the first two pages are similar, as is the summary of Hegel’s “With What Must the Science Begin?” Everything else is completely new, and therefore as raw, in its own way, as the draft I tossed onto the blog last time. I think this version has a clearer sense of what it’s trying to do, and I hope the internal structure is adequate to render the connections between the various sections clear, and that the piece provides sufficient background along the way that readers aren’t having to struggle to figure out what I am trying to argue. We’ll see…

The text loses something from having the footnotes excised: I write a lot of footnotes, often make substantive points in them, and engage with other literature primarily in this apparatus. It’s unfortunately clumsy to reproduce such things on the blog. As with the previous version, there are heavy debts here to Patrick Murray (for his work on Capital as a Hegelian “science”), Derek Sayer (for his work on Marx’s methodological eclecticism), and Moishe Postone (for his work on Capital as an immanent critical theory), as well as passing references to many others. I’m happy to clarify these sorts of debts in the comments, if anyone is curious.

I owe a very different sort of debt to certain people who have been putting up with my various thesis-related freakouts off the main page πŸ™‚ Everyone who walks within range at the moment gets an earful of speculation about how Marx understands the relationship between essence and appearance. I suspect somehow that most folks don’t find this topic quite as enthralling as I seem to at the moment. I’m therefore particularly grateful to the ones who haven’t yet started running the other direction whenever they see an email from me πŸ™‚ Such support is more deeply appreciated than you can know. You’re welcome to “out” yourselves here if you’d like, but otherwise I’ll keep under wraps that you get sneak peeks of ideas that are too ill-formed even to toss up on the blog. ;-P

Below the fold for the piece itself… Although I am still revising this piece, and working on the following chapter, there is a real sense in which working out what I’ve posted below really has been the “greatest difficulty” for me. I’m going to take a break from the blog and from all forms of writing for the rest of the day, but I will hopefully find time tomorrow at least to update the list of posting related to the Science of Logic reading group, which has seen a burst of inspired reflections over at Now-Times during the period when I’ve exiled myself from blogging to get this other writing done.

The Greatest Difficulty

Marx famously warns about the difficulty posed by the opening chapter of Capital, volume 1 (hereafter Capital). In the preface to the first German edition of the work, he comments:

Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty.

The Grundrisse reveals how Marx struggles to find a beginning for his analysis, arriving at the commodity as a starting point only very late in his drafting process. Engels worries about whether the beginning of Capital will be accessible to its intended audience, warning Marx that contemporary readers will not understand or appreciate the Hegelian movement of the text – and even suggesting that Hegel is, in certain respects, stylistically easier to follow. Marx struggles with the material from his opening chapter many times, adding a “popularised” appendix on the value form, and later reworking this “popularised” material back into the main text, while also substantially expanding the concluding section on the fetishism of commodities. The beginning of Capital is thus the result of a long gestation period, as well as the focus of substantial revision.

For all this concern, Capital appears to open on a straightforward note. It begins, as is well known, with what looks like a clear a priori declaration of its starting point:

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

If understood as the introduction to a text that endorses the positions it explicitly puts forward and that deploys the analytical techniques it overtly displays, this beginning seems to posit a sort of “elementary form” – a simple, irreducible unit, which is then aggregated to form more complex social phenomena. Investigating the properties of the elementary unit, the text suggests, will cast some light on more complex entities that such units can build.

The text then defines the elementary unit – the commodity – as a somewhat complex entity, characterised by an internal division between an intrinsic material content and an arbitrary social form. On the one hand, the text tells us, a commodity is a useful thing – a use value. As such, the commodity is “an object outside us” that possesses material properties, both qualitative and quantitative, that enable it satisfy some human desire. The properties that make commodities useful inhere in material things, but must be discovered by humans. Such discovery is “the work of history”. Use value is therefore inextricably bound together with the inherent material properties of particular commodities. This connection to material properties means that use value constitutes “the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth”. Social forms of wealth, by contrast, vary historically. In our society, use values have become “the material depositories” of a specific social form of wealth: exchange value.

While use value is connected with the intrinsic material properties of the commodity, exchange value seems, by contrast, abstracted from anything intrinsic. It appears to express nothing more than a purely quantitative relationship between commodities – to capture only the relative proportions in which commodities are exchanged – and thus to be external to the intrinsic properties of particular goods. This quantitative relationship, moreover, is always in flux, varying with time and place. Exchange value therefore seems to be “accidental and purely relative” in many different senses.

The opening passages of Capital therefore confront the reader with an elementary unit, constructed from the unstable union of an intrinsic material content – use value – and an arbitrary social form – exchange value. At this point in the text, it appears that the intrinsic content of the commodity is not itself contingently constituted by social practice. Instead, this content inheres in the commodity’s material properties, whose intrinsic potentials can only be discovered in history – indeed, history figures in the text as a passage of time marked by the progressive accumulation of knowledge about such material potentials. The social form of the commodity, on the other hand, is contingently constituted in social practice, and in such a way that this form remains indifferent to the commodity’s intrinsic material content. Form and content are positioned here in an arbitrary, external relationship to one another. The text suggests that form is accidental and social, and can therefore conceivably be contested and replaced by some other social form; content, on the other hand, is intrinsic and material, and is therefore always reconstituted, persisting in and through all social transformations.

If readers were, at this point, to make a guess about the critical strategy of this text, a plausible interpretation would be that the text intends to base its critique on the form/content distinction with which it opens. On that reading, Marx is setting out to criticise an arbitrary social form – the form associated with exchange value – from the standpoint of his “historical discovery” of the principles governing material life. Marx’s theory here appears to gaze out on a contingent social reality, judging that reality against critical standards that, while they have been discovered at some specific historical moment, have not been contingently constituted by social practice. The theory’s critical standpoint thus resides outside the social form it criticises, residing within inherent “materialist” laws that operate behind the flux of social transformation. As the text unfolds, the material “use value” dimension of the commodity comes to be determined to include, not only nonhuman objects, but also human labour. At this point, Marx could further be interpreted as grounding his critique on the intrinsic centrality of labour to social life. The text further suggests the possibility to construct a theory of historical development that would try to grasp the succession of contingent social forms in terms of underlying “materialist” principles of social development.

All of these interpretations are, in fact, quite common readings of this text. They correspond with widespread preconceptions regarding the nature of Marx’s commitments to the working classes, materialism and science – preconceptions that find textual support in the sorts of claims Capital overtly expresses, and the sorts of analytical strategies it explicitly displays, in its opening passages.

In the present work, I attempt to render plausible a very different kind of reading – one that understands Capital as an extended critique of the form/content distinction with which the text opens. The full development and substantiation of this claim is the focus of the chapters to come. A few preliminary programmatic remarks will, however, foreshadow the major claims and the analytical approach adopted in the remainder of this work.

In the reading presented here, Capital understands the entire structure of the commodity – both its use value and its exchange value dimensions – as a social form whose moments are equally contingently constituted in collective practice. Capital then sets out to explain why part of this social structure presents itself as manifestly the product of contingent social practice, while another part of this social structure presents itself as asocial, noncontingent, and material. This analysis quickly leads to the identification of a third dimension of this social structure – a dimension whose existence, then, is not immediately apparent. The text initially describes this third dimension as a supersensible property that hovers behind the material and social realities that are the objects of immediate empirical perception – the property of value.

This entire tripartite structure – including the many additional determinations of this structure that are unfolded over the course of Capital – is the target of Marx’s critique. The primary critical goal of the text is therefore not to reject the manifestly social dimension of this structure, nor even to unmask the underlying social character of the dimension that presents itself as asocial and natural (although both of these forms of critique are, so to speak, side effects of the main line of Marx’s argument). The primary goal is instead to demonstrate how this complex social structure might be generated in social practice, in circumstances in which social actors have no intention to bring such a structure into being, but instead experience the unintended consequences of their own social practice as a form of domination. Marx’s argument takes the form of a complex theory of practice that operates by:

(1) breaking down the process of the reproduction of capital into moments;

(2) presenting those moments in a way that renders their tacit relationships to one another explicit, by showing that the moments of the reproduction of capital can be organised analytically into a “logic” that demonstrates the necessary connections that bind together apparently contradictory aspects of the reproduction of capital; and

(3) deriving from each moment what today might be called their associated forms of embodied cognition: exploring the dispositions, experiences of self, forms of perception, and habits of thought that are enacted in the course of carrying out the social practices constitutive of each moment.

Through this strategy, Capital attempts to make an argument that specific forms of social practice simultaneously generate characteristic forms of β€œobjectivity” and β€œsubjectivity” associated with capitalist society. In other words, on this reading Capital does not present an “economic” or other theory of the “objective” characteristics of modern society, and then attempt to derive forms of subjectivity externally, by arguing that these forms are caused by objective forces. Instead, Capital attempts a fine-grained analysis of how the performance of characteristic forms of social practice entrain particular subjective dispositions as intrinsic elements of that practice, while also generating characteristic collective consequences that confront social actors as objectivities divorced from their own practice. In this way, Capital develops a complex theory of misrecognition that does not dismiss social actors’ experiences of themselves and their social context as mere illusions or cognitive errors, but rather as socially plausible forms of perception and thought that are both engendered by, and also mask, key characteristics of the social context.

This practice theoretic strategy requires a complex approach to the criticism of competing theoretical approaches. To the extent that such approaches express some aspect of capitalist society, they cannot be dismissed as mere errors, but instead must be criticised with the recognition that they are forms of thought that, as Marx phrases it, “possess social validity”. Marx thus undertakes his critique of competing theoretical systems by showing how they possess social validity – something he does by gradually linking them up with the practical experiences and subjective orientations associated with specific moments of the reproduction of capital. By establishing these connections, Marx shows that he can explain how competing approaches become socially plausible, to the extent that they express the dispositions generated within some specific moment in the reproduction of capital. At the same time, Marx criticises competing positions by revealing them to be partial, to the extent that they fail to recognise the moment whose dispositions they express, or take that moment in isolation from other moments and from the whole, and thus hypostatise insights valid for one dimension of the reproduction of capital, without recognising how such insights are conditioned by their practical origins.

From this foundation, Marx seeks to demonstrate how his analysis can grasp what these partial perspectives miss: the social conditions or limits of their validity; the reasons it might be plausible, not simply for these partial perspectives to arise, but also for them to fail to recognise their own partial character; and the relationships that necessarily connect them to other perspectives whose equivalent social validity they cannot grasp. In the process, Marx attempts to criticise competing theoretical approaches, not by judging them against some external standard of validity, but immanently, with reference to standards that arise, and therefore hold social validity, within the same social structure competing approaches are also expressing and attempting to grasp.

Marx develops this immanent critique by demonstrating how moments in the reproduction of capital can be unfolded from a starting point – the commodity – through a progressive deconstruction of what this starting point tacitly presupposes, but fails explicitly to thematise. By rendering explicit the tacit presuppositions of this starting point, Marx opens up new perspectives that have a clearly established relationship to that starting point. As he then demonstrates that these new perspectives in turn tacitly presuppose further perspectives, which he can also make explicit, he can gradually unfold a network of mutually conditioning perspectives that are all necessarily and intrinsically connected to one another – even if, as is often the case in this text, these perspectives, looked at in isolation, appear unrelated or even contradictory. This approach enables Marx gradually to assemble the basis for criticising competing perspectives without stepping outside what can be derived from those perspectives themselves.

On this reading, Marx does not except his own critique from the standards he applies to others: he embraces the obligation to demonstrate how his own position is also socially conditioned and intrinsically related to what he criticises. Within this framework, however, demonstrating that a position is conditioned and socially situated does not debunk that position, but rather demonstrates the site of that position’s validity. For Marx to situate his own theory’s critical standpoint, he must therefore show that the possibility for the emancipatory transformation of capitalism itself possesses social validity – that something about the process of the reproduction of capital, relies necessarily on the production of the conditions for the overcoming of this social structure.

Capital therefore must generate its own critical standpoint immanently, through a detailed exploration of the tacit potentials of the social structure, undertaken from a standpoint inside the structure being criticised. Marx does not fully align his critique with any of the particular perspectives through which his analysis moves, nor does he align his critique with a “universal” perspective that claims to express the totality. Instead, Marx’s own critical standpoint consists in the entire demonstration, across the whole of Capital, which renders explicit the tacit presuppositions of the necessary moments of the reproduction of capital, and thereby makes it possible to break with the “necessity” of those moments as arrayed in that specific configuration. Marx’s critical perspective consists in a kind of appropriation of the insights sedimented in, but not consciously available to, the partial perspectives he explores, in order to demonstrate the ways in which the process of the reproduction of capital itself presupposes the ongoing constitution of the conditions to overcome the social structure itself. One implication of this approach is that the theory has become reflexive: in the very process of accounting for the reproduction of capital, the theory also shows how its own conditions of possibility are immanently generated, by demonstrating how the reproduction of capital itself presupposes the generation of the conditions for its own emancipatory transformation.

This style of critique therefore carries substantive implications: the immanent textual strategy results from the search for a form of presentation adequate to its critical content. Ultimately, Marx seeks to show through both the style and the substance of his critique that the potential for emancipatory transformation is also an intrinsic moment in the process of the reproduction of capital, and that this social structure therefore opens up a standpoint from which it can be criticised from within, through an immanent and reflexive form of critique.

These brief programmatic comments provide a preliminary sense of how I approach the interpretation of Capital in the chapters to come, which will flesh out and substantiate these claims by pointing to the often subtle textual evidence that Marx deploys such a method, and also by demonstrating how this reading makes sense of a number of otherwise quite confusing shifts of perspective that take place over the course of Capital.

Before I move into a close reading of Capital, however, I want to address a prior question, which is why, if this programmatic sketch is correct, Marx nowhere provides a similar statement of the methodological strategy of his work. It seems clear that readers who do not approach the text with this method in mind, will very likely come away with a quite different – and confusing – experience of the text. An explicit methodological discussion in a preface or appendix would have gone a long way toward minimising the risk of this sort of confusion – and would, perhaps, have led to a very different history for the reception of Capital. Yet Marx declines to provide such programmatic statements, instead relying on subtle hints that point his readers to how they might reconstruct the method tacit within the text. In the remainder of this chapter, I want to examine a few of these hints, in order both to render plausible the claims I have made above about Marx’s method, and to make sense of why Marx does not speak more explicitly, and in greater detail, about method himself.

This task requires a brief discussion of Marx’s complex relationship with Hegel. I begin this discussion below by tugging on the red thread with which I opened this chapter: Marx’s statement that beginnings are difficult for all sciences. This quotation is a subtle and unmarked reference to a piece titled “With What Must the Science Begin?”, in which Hegel discusses the methodology and presentational strategy for his Science of Logic. By referring to this piece, Marx is hinting that something about Hegel’s methodology is important for understanding the structure of Capital – that Capital can be read in some respect as a “science” in the peculiar sense in which Hegel uses this term. By exploring Hegel’s explicit method, I hope to cast light on Marx’s tacit one, by illustrating the connections between Hegel’s concept of β€œscience” and the programmatic statements I have made above about immanent, reflexive critique.

This analysis, however, opens questions of its own, as Marx explicitly describes Capital as an inversion of Hegel’s method. How then should we understand what Marx takes up, and what he rejects, from Hegel’s work? To cast some light on this further question, I explore a few connections between the opening passages of Capital and Hegel’s discussion of the relationship between essence and appearance. These connections provide further support for my programmatic claim that Marx intends Capital as a critique of the form/content distinction with which the text opens. They also suggest how Marx understands himself to have β€œinverted” Hegel, by embedding key elements of Hegel’s argument about the self-realisation of consciousness, within an analysis of the practical genesis of a certain kind of embodied cognition.

These reflections on Marx’s relationship to Hegel will therefore clarify, develop and render plausible the programmatic reflections above, providing the foundation for the more detailed close readings of the text to be undertaken in the chapters to come.

How Must the Science Begin?

The question Hegel poses in “With What Must the Science Begin?” is how to construct a philosophical system whose starting point is not dogmatic or arbitrary. Interestingly, Hegel regards this question as an historically-emergent one: β€œIt is only in recent times,” he argues, “that thinkers have become aware of the difficulty of finding a beginning in philosophy”. Earlier philosophers concerned themselves instead solely with an ontological question – with the question of what the first principle of a philosophical system ought to be, and what could be derived from this first principle.

Contemporary philosophy, by contrast, is additionally concerned with the epistemological question of how we could be subjectively certain of any first principle. The historical emergence of this question reveals that earlier forms of philosophy treated the principle of a philosophical system dogmatically, positioning the beginning as a kind of foundational exception to the system itself. Contemporary philosophy is characterised by its anxiety over how the beginning or principle of a philosophical system is positioned as a sort of supra-rational ground from which procedurally rational inferences can be drawn, but which itself stands outside reason.

If the beginning cannot be rationally grasped, Hegel argues, competing philosophical systems bounce off of one another, hurling dogmatic claims and counter-claims about first principles, with no rational means to adjudicate such disputes. As a result, contemporary philosophy tends to oscillate between the poles of dogmatism and scepticism – a situation that, in turn, leads some to eschew reason altogether in favour of frank irrationalism. Hegel understands contemporary philosophy to be trapped in a restless circuit amongst these alternatives. He intends his work to break through this impasse, by providing a way to incorporate the beginning within the philosophical system itself, thus ensuring that the beginning remains immanent to reason. A philosophical system is “scientific”, for Hegel, to the extent that it is adequate to this task.

It is important to understand that the concept of “science” in play here is both more, and other, than the present-day commonsense meaning of this term. We currently tend to associate the concept of science with the study of nonhuman nature or with experimental empirical investigations; rarely with the sorts of practices that are associated with current-day philosophy. Hegel, by contrast, relates the concept of science to a process of thinking that recognises no authority other than that of reason. He therefore reserves the concept of science exclusively for systems that do not rely on presuppositions that cannot be grounded immanently to the system itself, a position that would exclude much of what is presently designated by the term science. Nevertheless, Hegel’s conception of science, like our present-day conception, relates back to Enlightenment critiques of metaphysics and to the associated ideal that reason could be a self-directing process requiring no external guidance from dogmatic tradition and authority.

With these goals in mind, Hegel proceeds to outline a method for a philosophical system that would be self-grounding and presuppositionless. Such a philosophy would not rely on any dogmatic starting point that sits outside reason, but would rather encompass its principle or beginning within the philosophical system itself. In the opening moments of the presentation of the philosophical system, the principle might initially appear dogmatic or arbitrary:

But if no presupposition is to be made and the beginning itself is taken immediately, then its only determination is that it is to be the beginning of logic, of thought as such. All that is present is simply the resolve, which can also be regarded as arbitrary, that we propose to consider thought as such.

This arbitrary appearance is gradually dispelled, however, as inferences are drawn from the starting point, and the beginning is thus determined ever more concretely. Since these determinations are inferentially derived from the starting point itself, Hegel regards each layer of determination as a further development or specification of the principle. He argues that the principle is preserved as the foundation of all the developments that flow out of it. For this reason, the beginning remains immanent to the philosophical system, rather than serving as a foundational exception that sits outside the system it grounds:

Further, the progress from that which forms the beginning is to be regarded as only a further determination of it, hence that which forms the starting point of the development remains at the base of all that follows and does not vanish from it. The progress does not consist merely in the derivation of an other, or in the effected transition into a genuine other; and in so far as this transition does occur it is equally sublated again. Thus the beginning of philosophy is the foundation which is present and preserved throughout the entire subsequent development, remaining completely immanent in its further determinations.

Indeed, precisely because the principle is immanent to all that is derived from it, the principle is not actually known until all of its determinations have been fully unfolded – until the system is complete:

It also follows that because that which forms the beginning is still undeveloped, devoid of content, it is not truly known in the beginning; it is the science of logic in its whole compass which first constitutes the completed knowledge of it with its developed content and first truly grounds that knowledge.

What initially looks one-sided, immediate, and arbitrary, is thus progressively demonstrated to be the fully mediated and necessary result of the system as a whole. Hegel describes this demonstration as a process in which the philosophical system loops back on itself, forming a circle:

Through this progress, then, the beginning loses the one-sidedness which attaches to it as something simply immediate and abstract; it becomes something mediated, and hence the line of the scientific advance becomes a circle.

In this way, the starting point is reflexively justified as necessary by the demonstration that from it can be unfolded a world that produces that starting point as its result:

This is true in still greater measure of absolute spirit which reveals itself as the concrete and final supreme truth of all being, and which at the end of the development is known as freely externalising itself, abandoning itself to the shape of an immediate being β€”opening or unfolding itself [sich entschliessend] into the creation of a world which contains all that fell into the development which preceded that result and which through this reversal of its position relatively to its beginning is transformed into something dependent on the result as principle.

Hegel describes this reflexive, circular movement of the philosophical system as the essential requirement for the science of logic:

The essential requirement for the science of logic is not so much that the beginning be a pure immediacy, but rather that the whole of the science be within itself a circle in which the first is also the last and the last is also the first.

The philosophical system is thus positioned simultaneously as a response to the ontological question of what the first principle is, as well as to the epistemological question of how that principle can be known: the principle is nothing other than the unfolded system, and this principle can be known in no other way, other than through the process by which the system is unfolded. The form and content of the philosophical system are thus understood to be unified.

This substantive claim about the unity of form and content carries implications for the manner in which the system is presented. Presentationally, the beginning ought to be what comes first in the process of thinking:

Thus the principle ought also to be the beginning, and what is the first for thought ought also to be the first in the process of thinking.

The process of thinking – by which Hegel means the order in which the moments of the process of thinking must unfold themselves in thought, in order to render explicit the necessary relationship of those moments to one another, and to the whole – then structures the order of presentation within the system itself, such that it becomes impossible to speak programmatically about this process from outside the presentation of the system. The process of thinking cannot be presented adequately, other than through the unfolding of the system itself, in full:

… to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner and such a manner is alone here in place.

The unfolding of the process of thinking will then demonstrate how the system that expresses the process of thought, loops back on itself to generate the starting point that came first in the process of thinking. In this way, a specific starting point is demonstrated to be necessary, and therefore non-dogmatic:

But because it is the result which appears as the absolute ground, this progress in knowing is not something provisional, or problematical and hypothetical; it must be determined by the nature of the subject matter itself and its content.

In less hyperbolic vocabulary: a philosophical system is scientific, for Hegel, to the extent that it can reflexively justify its own point of departure, by showing how the system inferred from that starting point, preserves this starting point immanently, and then loops back on itself, generating that starting point as the product of the system as a whole. Hegel understands a scientific theory to carry a particular presentational burden: in order to be adequate to its content, the presentation needs to take the form that renders explicit the necessary logical relationships that bind the moments of the process of thinking to one another and to the process as a whole. In this way, the presuppositions or conditions of each moment are exposed within the system, enabling the system to make explicit – and thus rationally available – insights that are no more than implicit within the individual moments, taken in isolation.

We can see in Hegel’s explicit method, many of the same commitments I have outlined programmatically above, in my reconstruction of the tacit method at work in Capital. What I have described above using the vocabulary of immanent, reflexive critique can be seen as a social theoretic appropriation of Hegel’s notion of “science”. The organisational structure of Capital can now be seen to have been modelled on the method of the Science of Logic, breaking down the β€œlogic” of the reproduction of capital into moments that are derived by tracing the presuppositions from a starting point – the commodity – that is itself preserved as the foundation for all inferences drawn from it over the course of the analysis. Marx ultimately also seeks to demonstrate that this starting point is not dogmatic or arbitrary, but is instead the only starting point from which could be unfolded the logical relationships among key moments of the reproduction of capital, while also demonstrating how the reproduction of capital will then necessarily generate this specific starting point as its own result.

By unfolding categories immanently, through the process of tracing the presuppositions of earlier categories, Marx demonstrates the necessity of the categories he deploys, capturing the intrinsic relationships of the categories with one another, and rendering explicit the tacit conditions and implications sedimented within each category. In this way, Marx assembles critical resources through the unfolding of his analysis – rarely breaking with the immanent style of presentation that expresses the immanent character of his own standpoint of critique. In this sense, Marx’s appropriation of Hegel’s method is more consistent than Hegel’s original work: Hegel often succumbs to the temptation to offer programmatic statements that step outside what has been justified at that point in his analysis; he often provides metacommentary on his own method to ensure that his readers understand how the argument is intended to develop. Marx remains much more consistent, at best offering subtle hints pointing to the tacit method that motivates the manifest content and order of the text. Marx’s strategy, unfortunately, is far less forgiving of his readers; what it gains in rigour or consistency, it loses in transparency, to the detriment of the complex argument Marx is attempting to make.

Marx does not, however, leave his readers completely without guidance – subtle hints and occasional overt statements do draw attention to the textual strategy in play. Before moving on to a discussion of how Hegel and then Marx conceptualise the relationship of appearance and essence, I want first to examine a few of the sorts of hints Marx does explicitly provide, which suggest that he intends to structure Capital along the lines of a Hegelian “science”.

As mentioned above, Capital begins by stating that the wealth of capitalist societies presents itself as an accumulation of commodities. This phrasing, which in the original German carries the connotations of a theatrical staging, is used frequently in Capital. It operates, I suggest, as a subtle flag that Capital intends to analyse the ways in which capitalism is performed by social actors. Social actors are often explicitly likened in Capital to stage performers or dramatis personae who enact the various moments in the reproduction of capital. The phrasing foregrounds the artificiality – the constructedness – of the perspective being analysed, positioning it explicitly as something staged within collective practice and undermining the perception that it might be something objectively “given”. Through the regular use of this and related vocabulary, Capital constantly pressures the reader to examine how particular perspectives are constituted in practice, rather than presupposing perspectives as givens or a prioris.

This first sentence also provides a subtle clue that the text is intended as an immanent, reflexive critique: midway through the sentence, Marx quotes himself, referencing his own earlier work on the commodity. This self-reference, I suggest, provides a subtle flag to a distinction Marx later draws more explicitly, between the “mode of presentation” and the “mode of inquiry”. Marx defines these terms in the afterward to the second German edition of Capital – not accidentally, I suggest, in the course of an extended discussion of his relationship to Hegel:

Of course the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connexion. Only after this work is done, can the actual movement be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction.

I suggest that the self-quotation in the opening sentence to Capital is intended to make a similar point in a more subtle way. The self-quotation confronts the reader, awkwardly, with evidence that Capital is the product of earlier research, the result of earlier investigations whose conclusions are expressed within the current work. It suggests that the current work preserves those conclusions – it “cites” them – but not in the same form. Capital is therefore in some sense itself a “staging” of work carried out previously. The reader, I suggest, is meant to become curious about the stage settings, wondering what motivates the form of presentation adopted in Capital, and beginning to realise that the distinctive presentation of Capital is itself part of the substantive content of this work.

The self-quotation further suggests that Marx intends to treat himself – his own critical perspective – the same way as he treats the political economists and other figures whose work he cites all the way through Capital, in order to situate their positions socially and historically. By citing his own work in the same style, Marx is signalling here that he does not intend to exceptionalise his own critical position: his own perspective will be “situated” in the same way as the other perspectives he analyses.

Finally, the self-quotation positions Marx in a very literal, visible way “within” his own analysis, suggesting already that Marx does not regard himself as standing outside the society he analyses, but instead adopts a critical standpoint immanent to his object of critique. In some sense yet to be determined, his own position is marked out here as being presupposed by that society: something about that society already β€œcites” or presupposes the possibility for Marx’s critique.

As the text develops, these very subtle opening hints are joined by more overt statements that Marx intends Capital to be structured in the form of a Hegelian “science”. Marx repeatedly, for example, clarifies that he cannot move beyond the categories that have been derived at a specific point in his analysis, because no other categories “exist for us at this point in our analysis”. For this reason, for example, Marx refuses to discuss wage labour in the opening chapter to Capital, even though it will later become very clear that the category of labour power is presupposed by the opening discussion of the commodity, that Marx takes the institution of wage labour to be the definitive historical precondition for socially generalised commodity production, and that the significance of the opening statements about commodities cannot be fully understood until the category of wage labour has been introduced. Nevertheless, Marx does not appeal to this category at the outset, because doing so would prevent him from demonstrating that this category could be derived immanently – a demonstration that itself allows Marx to reveal interesting properties about the operation of capitalism that would not come to light if he were to bring the category of wage labour to bear extrinsically and arbitrarily at the beginning of the text. Similar considerations apply to other categories that Marx occasionally mentions in footnotes or the interstices of the text, only quickly to clarify that he cannot discuss such categories at that point in his analysis, as the categories have not yet been derived.

This methodological principle, as well as the vocabulary through which Marx expresses it, is reminiscent of Hegel’s admonitions that a “scientific” work cannot presuppose any analytical categories, other than those whose necessity it has immanently derived from its analysis of earlier categories. It will become clearer, later in the present work, that these are strong substantive claims about the distinctive characteristics of the reproduction of capital: Marx does not take for granted, as a general methodological principle, that all human societies could be analysed through a similar method. The style of his text and the form of his method mirrors the substantive content of its object – and is, in fact, the only way that this tacit “logical” aspect of the substantive content can properly be revealed. By strictly adhering to the practice of immanently deriving his own categories, Marx demonstrates one of the most peculiar characteristics of the reproduction of capital: that this social process possesses the traits of a Hegelian logic, and can therefore be analysed via the method of a Hegelian science.

Marx thus painstakingly develops his argument by demonstrating how each moment of the process of the reproduction of capital, considered in isolation, runs up against an impasse that cannot be resolved given the understanding of capitalism explicitly available to that moment. In this way, for example, Capital opens with a perspective that takes the commodity to be an arbitrary unity of a material substance and a social form. This perspective, however, is presented as unable to resolve the question of what common quality allows commodities to be exchanged as equivalents on the market. Pointing to this impasse allows Marx to derive the tacit presupposition that some third category must exist, which all commodities have in common, which enables them to be exchanged. This third category, however, cannot derive from the sensible, material properties of the commodity. It must therefore be a supersensible property – the social property, as it turns out, of the amount of labour time required for that commodity’s production – which Marx names “value”. This perspective, in turn, is quickly demonstrated to be inadequate to account for the disjoint between the labour time empirically spent on the production of some specific commodity, and the labour time that “counts” as social labour. The challenge of accounting for this disjoint, leads to a further determination of value, not as a property of an individual commodity, but rather as a result of the social relationships among commodities that develop in exchange. Through this type of analysis, Marx progressively unfolds more and more concrete categories of social experience.

In following the course of these derivations, it is extremely important to realise that Marx does not endorse any of the particular perspectives he explores along the way, and is not himself committed even to the impasses that he uses to unfold further categories. Instead, Marx is attempting to reveal something experienced as an impasse within whatever perspective he is exploring at that moment in the text. Subsequent chapters will discuss a number of examples of this strategy at work. A brief example here will provide some sense of what this approach entails: as mentioned above, Capital opens with what could be called a “Cartesian” perspective, which posits a world of subjects and objects only contingently connected to one another. This “Cartesian” perspective then runs into an impasse created by a paradigmatic Cartesian problem, which Marx derives fairly transparently from Descartes’ famous speculations about what common quality might persist beneath all of the changes in the sensible form of a piece of wax: what common quality, Marx asks, allows diverse commodities to be exchanged as equivalents on the market?

Marx makes quite clear in other passages that he does not personally assume that commodities must possess some common, underlying, homogeneous substance in order to make possible the act of exchange. In the development of his rigorously presented argument in Capital, however, he does not advance his argument by voicing this personal objection: he does not, for example, reject the Cartesian dilemma out of hand – dismissing it as a result of poor thinking or faulty reasoning. Rigorous critique, for Marx, means, not the dismissal of a competing form of thought, but rather the exacting demonstration of the conditions of possibility (for Marx, the practical circumstances) that render that form of thought socially plausible, and thus valid, albeit only in a limited and conditioned way. To make this kind of argument, however, Marx must begin immanently – staying initially within the thoughtspace that would experience such a dilemma, and exploring the dilemma as it presents itself within that thoughtspace. He then unfolds, from within this starting point, the additional perspectives that cumulatively provide the critical resources to specify the conditions that enabled the starting point to arise.

The form of the analysis is intended to:

(1) cast light on the social conditions under which such categories become plausible;

(2) use this analysis of social conditions to criticise the ways in which these categories are deployed in competing theoretical approaches or in popular culture, in ways that fail to recognise the boundedness or conditioned character of those categories; and

(3) gradually assemble the resources for a more adequate theoretical system, which can appropriate the insights sedimented in these categories, and render these insights critically available by revealing their intrinsic relationship to determinate forms of social practice.

This overarching argumentative structure suggests that a complex metacommentary on Hegel’s work is operating in the text. In places – particularly in the opening chapters of Capital – unmarked references to Hegel’s work are densely packed into the narrative structure and phrasing of the text, to the degree that the opening passages of Capital can be interpreted as an elaborate theoretical joke about Hegel’s work. In the final section of this chapter, I want briefly to reconstruct the major elements of this joke by drawing out some additional parallels with Hegel’s work. My goal is to show how these parallels reveal a particularly complex set of motivations for the structure of the argument in the first chapter of Capital, and also to outline some of the evidence for my earlier claim that Capital intends to offer a critique of the form/content distinction with which it opens.

The Phenomenology of Capital

In this section, I want to focus on the relationship between an argument Hegel makes about essence and appearance, and the stucture of the argument in the first chapter of Capital. The Hegelian argument that interests me appears, in slight different forms, in the first few chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Phenomenology), and also in the presentation of the Doctrine of Essence, from the second book of the Science of Logic. For my present purposes, the differences between these two variants of this argument are not important, and for simplicity I will summarise only the account Hegel provides in the Phenomenology. I will stress at the outset, however, that I am not making a strong claim about the specific text Marx intends tacitly to reference, but simply trying to demonstrate that the organisation of the first chapter of Capital demonstrates convincingly that Marx has a characteristic Hegelian argument about essence and appearance in mind when writing this chapter.

Hegel’s Phenomenology attempts to provide an immanent account of the development of consciousness as it encounters and then learns to transcend a series of impasses in its attempt to gain certain knowledge of its object. The work shares with the Logic a commitment to raising philosophy to the status of a science, and adheres to somewhat similar standards of immanent presentation even though, also like the Logic, it breaks with its immanent voicing to offer extensive metacommentary on its own method and provides frequent stage directions from the standpoint of the reader, looking in on the narrative from the outside. This metacommentary, however, is not used to move the rigorous argument of the text forward. Instead, in order to meet Hegel’s exacting standards for a scientific philosophy, the text attempts to demonstrate immanently, without recourse to concepts that would not be available to consciousness at the points analysed in the text, how consciousness encounters and then moves a series of impasses that will drive it toward a more adequate grasp of its relationship with its object.

For present purposes, we do not need to understand the movement of Phenomenology as a whole, nor even the detailed arguments in the specific chapters to which I want to draw attention briefly here. What is important is instead to gain a sense of the overarching movement of the narrative, and the sorts of concepts that punctuate key moments in Hegel’s text. The overarching story in the first few chapters of Phenomenology is one in which consciousness starts by wanting to achieve certainty about itself and its relationship to its object, but also by taking its object to be something outside itself. This combination, for Hegel, leads to an unstable configuration is which consciousness constantly confronts the limitations generated by its dualistic presuppositions. Such confrontations spur consciousness toward the development of more adequate positions, until consciousness finally overcomes (at least for the moment) its dualistic presuppositions, becomes reflexive, and recognises that its object has always been nothing other than consciousness itself.

In Hegel’s argument, consciousness first seeks certainty through immersion in the immediate particularity of sensuous experience – an attempt that results in a series of impasses as consciousness tries, and fails, to grasp the particular, eventually realising that immediate sense experience does not enable it to grasp any particular, but only the negation of all particulars – “the most universal of all possible things”.31 Through its confrontation with this experience, consciousness recognises that certainty must lie, not in particularity, but in the universal. This realisation, in Hegel’s account, leads consciousness to seek certainty by searching for sensuous universals – a search that Hegel names “perception”.

Perception, for Hegel, takes consciousness to be separate from its object. The object is taken to be a “thing with many properties”, and is understood to be “essential”, while the perceiving consciousness is understood to be contingent and inessential, and takes itself to be engaging with its object in an attitude of pure apprehension. Perception, however, cannot grasp its object as more than a mere container of sensuous properties that are only arbitrarily connected to one another and to the whole. The arbitrary relationship between the object and its properties comes to undermine the certainty consciousness sought from the object: the object itself is split into a thing and its indifferently-related properties, and perception, unable to grasp the intrinsic and immanent relationship that binds together the moments of the object, becomes distrustful of empirical sensation. This experience drives consciousness beyond what merely can be sensed, and toward a kind of universal that can be intuited by reason, and that therefore will not need to be conditioned by sense perspection. Hegel calls this search for supersensible universals “understanding”.

Understanding, in Hegel’s account, continues the dualistic habits characteristic of perception. This dualism is, however, expressed differently when translated into the effort to grasp supersensible universals. Hegel’s argument here pivots on a discussion of force, which he initially describes by stepping out of the immanently voiced perspective available to consciousness at this point in his text. Force, Hegel argues, is a dynamic process comprised of moments where force is withdrawn into itself or appears as a simple entity, and moments where force is expressed or appears in the form of independent elements. Neither of these moments is more “essential”, for Hegel: they are both equally moments of the same dynamic process, and both exist as in and for one another, as distinguished but mutually-interpenetrating elements of the same process.

Understanding, however, approaches the experience of force dualistically: it fails to perceive the underlying dynamic unity; treats the moments of force as fixed extremes; and assigns the different moments of force to two different substances or worlds, one of which is regarded as essential, and the other as an inessential appearance. For Hegel, this dualistic presupposition is inherently unstable. Understanding, like perception before it, becomes caught in a restless circuit that will be resolved only once the dualistic premise has been overcome and a more adequate configuration of consciousness has been achieved.

Tracing this restless process from the perspective of understanding, Hegel argues that understanding attempts initially to assign the moments of force to two separate forces, one of which is treated as an inner supersensible essence, and the other of which is treated as a universal medium, in which the first force may then express itself. The second force incites the first to appear – to render its inner essence manifest – in the medium the second force provides. This move, however, is tantamount to suggesting that the inner essence of force exists only outside of force, in the external medium in which this inner essence is expressed or appears. This inversion suggests that what understanding takes to be a one-sided operation of two forces with opposite characteristics (one that incites, and the other that is incited), should instead be understood as a reciprocal interaction, in which each force serves as the universal medium in which the inner essence of the other force may appear, while each also expresses its inner essence in the universal medium the other provides. The interaction of these two forces thus assumes the character of a “reciprocal interchange of characteristics”.

For Hegel, this reciprocal interchange of characteristics reveals that what understanding takes to be two separate forces, fixed in opposition, are instead fluid moments of the same dynamic process, whose identity consists in nothing more than their reciprocal movement toward one another. This process, for Hegel, cannot adequately be grasped dualistically. Understanding, however, still operating still within a dualistic framework, interprets the reciprocal movement of forces an indication of the inessential character of the entire interaction. Still searching for something essential in which ground certainty, understanding relegates the entire play of forces to the status of a world of appearance, characterised by flux and change. Understanding then posits that behind this world of appearance, lies another world of timeless, essential, universal law.

Hegel sees ambivalent potentials in this move. On the one hand, understanding grasps that all reality is “conformed to law” – that the flux of appearance does not mean that everything is accident and chance. On the other hand, understanding replicates in a new form the anxiety over whether consciousness can know its object with certainty. This anxiety arises because the relationship of consciousness to this world of essence is then understood to be mediated by the world of appearance, but in circumstances in which the medium is understood to lack any intrinsic connection to what it mediates. Since the world of appearance, and the world of universal laws, are taken to subsist in different worlds, indifferently related to one another, understanding replicates in a new form the anxiety provoked by perception – the anxiety over how consciousness could achieve certainty of its object, when its interactions with that object are taken to be mediated and where the medium is taken to have no intrinsic relationship to either consciousness or its object.

Hegel next engages in a complex analysis of how understanding contravenes its own principle in how it attempts to grasp the relationship between law and force. The specific moves in this argument are not important for present purposes. What is important is that Hegel attempts to map a process in which the realm of universal law, which understanding initially takes to be an inner, supersensible realm that possesses a different substance or nature from the world of appearance, comes to be experienced as itself a realm of flux and change. At the same time, the world of appearance comes to be experienced as generative of universal law. Hegel characterises this process as one in which understanding confrontsan “inverted world”, whose properties are the opposite of those of the kingdom of laws. This experience undermines the attempt to allocate essence and appearance to two separate substances or worlds, by demonstrating that the worlds understanding takes to be intrinsically and substantially distinct, instead share the same properties – that no substantial distinction can be drawn between them.

Consciousness here runs up against the limits of its own dualistic configuration. It is confronted with the experience that essence and appearance cannot be grasped dualistically, in terms of different substances or different worlds that are only contingently an arbitrarily connected to one another. Instead, consciousness experiences that essence somehow arises only in and through appearance – that essence and appearance are moments in the same dynamic process, possess the same substance, and exist in the same world. At this point in Hegel’s account, consciousness first recognises it does not sit outside its object, in a state of passive contemplation; consciousness realises for the first time that it can know its object because it is its own object – consciousness becomes reflexive – becomes self-consciousness.

Pulling back a bit from Hegel’s speculative waters, I want to move back to the opening chapter of Capital, to draw attention to how the overarching structure of the chapter points ironically to this Hegelian narrative, as well as to some of the methodological principles Hegel incorporates into his notion of a “science”.

As described in the discussion of Hegel’s Logic above, Hegel argues that the “essential” requirement for a scientific philosophical system is that it take the form of a circle: that its starting point be demonstrated, over the course of the analysis, to unfold a world that produces that starting point as its necessary product. This requirement is essential, for Hegel, because it demonstrates that the starting point is not a dogmatic and arbitrary exception to the system, but instead resides immanently within the system itself. By starting Capital with the commodity, Marx complies with Hegel’s “essential” requirement in a playfully literal sense: his starting point is visibly, palpably a product – one that, moreover, few would deny is the necessary result of the capitalist world.

The text goes on from here to speak of the commodity as a “thing”, an “object outside us”, that is “an assemblage of many properties”. The text treats this thing as essential and objective: its properties are described as implicit sensuous realities. Consciousness, by contrast, is treated as inessential and arbitrary: it is described as approaching the object in a state of pure apprehension, in order to discover and render explicit the object’s inherent properties. The text develops this opposition into the dichotomy between a timeless material substance of wealth, and an arbitrary social form of wealth, each understood as fixed extremes that have no intrinsic relationship to one another, but are only externally connected. These opening paragraphs, in other words, recapitulate the dualistic, empiricist sensibilities Hegel attributes to perception.

As Hegel suggests in the Logic, the starting point of the system is not fully known at the beginning: Capital soon shows us that the commodity is more and other than it initially seems. Capital begins to unspool the further determinations of its starting point by moving, as I discussed above, into a “Cartesian” voice. This voice once more parallels Hegel’s description of the course followed by perception: it recounts the confrontation with a dilemma that does not appear resolvable on the basis of immediate sense experience, whether of material use values, or of empirically-discernible exchange values. This “Cartesian” voice asks: if exchange involves the exchange of equivalents, then commodities must possess some common substance, the quantity of which determines the proportions in which commodities exchange. This common substance, however, cannot reside in the commodity’s sensuous material properties, as these are diverse and incommensurable. No more can it reside in exchange value itself, since this is simply the expression of the quantitative relationship or proportion of this common property – a figure that does not cast light on the qualitative character of the property itself. Frustrated by the examination of immediate sensuous experience, this “Cartesian” voice vaults beyond the sensuous, and attempts to resolve the problem by its use of reason – to intuit the character of the common property. Again as in Hegel’s account, this deductive process leads to the discovery of a supersensible universal – something whose presence cannot be detected through direct empirical examination of the commodity’s sensuous properties, but whose existence can be inferred by the mind.

The movement of the text here is often regarded as an expression of Marx’s personal thought process, or as a movement his theory explicitly endorses. Paralleling the account with Hegel’s makes it clearer that Marx is self-consciously treading well-worn ground, attempting to demonstrate that his account will be able to make sense, immanently, of the shapes of consciousness Hegel sought to embed – and also of the kind of analysis in which Hegel sought to embed them. Recognising that this tacit meta-commentary is at work, makes it much easier to understand why Marx so quickly appears to contradict these “Cartesian” moments in the text – both in his discussion of why Aristotle did not “discover” value, and in his analysis of commodity fetishism, which each make clear that Marx in fact does not believe that people exchange goods because they believe a priori that goods have some common supersensible property, but rather the inverse – that the process of exchange, in the context of generalised commodity production, is itself what engenders the belief in such supersensible properties.

The reader, I suggest, is meant to be “in” on the joke – to grasp that Marx is speaking immanently in the voice of perspectives that he does not endorse, in order to unfold the resources to criticise those perspectives from within. Unfortunately, this philosophical in-joke has proven to be more of a shibboleth than Marx perhaps intended, excluding many of his readers from the main argumentative line of his text, and suggesting that he endorses substantive claims and analytical techniques that are intended as the targets of his critique. While Marx might have regarded it as bad form to “explain his own joke” by breaking with the immanent voice of his presentation, such an explanation transforms the apparent meaning of this section of the text.

In the third section of the chapter, on the form of value, Marx continues this tacit meta-commentary, this time targeting what, in Hegel’s narrative, would be forms of thought characteristic of “understanding”. The discussion here deliberately parallels Hegel’s discussion of force and the expression of force – here transposed into a discussion of value and the expression of value. As in Hegel’s account, the discussion here begins with two antagonistic extremes, which seem to possess opposite characteristics. On the one hand, the relative form of value (analogous to force withdrawn into itself, in Hegel’s account) possesses an inner essence – its value – that, as an inner, supersensible essence, cannot be expressed in the empirical, sensuous reality of that relative form. Instead, this inner essence must appear, by taking the form of some other commodity, which serves as the medium in which value can be expressed. This commodity that serves as the medium for the expression of the value of another commodity is the equivalent form (analogous to the expression of force, in Hegel’s account).

As in Hegel’s account, Marx notes that which commodity occupies the role of the relative form, and which the role of the equivalent, is arbitrary: any commodity can, in principle, play this role for any other – a possibility that suggests that the inner essences of all commodities consist in the same essential substance, that no essential distinction separates commodities, and that commodities reciprocally play the role of equivalent and universal medium for one another. This reciprocal interaction of a universe of commodities each service as relative and equivalent, expressing and enabling the expression of one another’s inner essence, allows value to appear only amidst the flux and change that arises as particular commodities indifferently play various roles in the process.

At the same time, the arbitrariness of which commodity serves as equivalent – which commodity provides the universal medium in which the values of other commodities must be expressed – does not mean that the structure of the value relation is arbitrary: as an inner, supersensible essence, value must be expressed in the sensuous form of some other commodity. Flux and change in the realm of appearance – alterations in which commodity contingently plays the role of equivalent – do not undermine the necessity of the underlying structure, the “law” that determines how value must be expressed and that value must appear. The realm of appearance is therefore not contingently related to the realm of essence: the peculiar nature of value as a content determines the form in which that content can be expressed.

Over the course of this analysis, Marx begins from mutually-exclusive extremes, from which he unfolds a series of inversions. These inversions include that use value becomes the form of manifestation or phenomenal form of its opposite, exchange value; that a particular concrete form of labour becomes the expression of its opposite, human labour in the abstract; and that a particular kind of labour of private individuals becomes the expression of social labour. For present purposes, I will leave aside the specific arguments Marx makes here, as these will be taken up in greater detail in later chapters, where their implications can be explored more adequately. For the moment, I want simply to draw attention to the “dialectical” form of presentation of these points – to the effort Marx makes to show how what are originally positioned as mutually-exclusive, opposed extremes, are instead intrinsically interrelated moments of a dynamic relation.

Hegel uses a similar form of argument to argue that consciousness, confronted with the inverted world, recognises the intrinsic connection of appearance and essence, realises that appearance and essence cannot be allocated to separate worlds or treated as being formed of different substances. For Hegel, this experience marks the transition point to a sort of reflexive understanding in which consciousness finally realises that it is not separate from its object, but rather intrinsically implicated within it: consciousness becomes self-consciousness, aware of its role in the generation of the object that is also itself. Without minimising the many other substantive points Marx makes in this chapter, I want to suggest that the meta-commentary on Hegel that runs through the text also provides one of the key substantive claims of this chapter – and that it is not accidental that this sort of “dialectical” analysis precedes the pivotal discussion of the fetish, where Marx first openly posits a relationship between the social practices that generate value, and the forms of subjectivity that become socially valid in conditions shaped by the social constitution of the value form.

The meta-commentary running through the text suggests that Marx believes that the insights he finally expresses openly in the section on commodity fetishism, can be won immanently, through a confrontation with nothing more than the experiences generated within the form of society he intends to criticise. Something like a critical self-consciousness is immanently possible, enabling us to move past taking ourselves to be passive contemplators of the material properties of an object outside ourselves, or intuiters of a world of objective universal laws, to realise how we are implicated in the creation of determinate forms of objectivity as well as the forms of subjectivity with which we tend to confront them. At this point in the text, the issue of how Marx understands his own critical standpoint opens up in earnest: what is the perspective that has been immanently opened here? How rigorously does Marx attempt to close Hegel’s circle, and position his own account within the society he intends to criticise? How does the concept of immanent and reflexive critique need to be thought, when the goal is not to demonstrate the perpetual necessity of a form of social life, but to understand how that society is currently reproduced in a way that casts light on the potential to rupture that form of reproduction?

To begin to address these questions, in the next chapter I consider a central ambiguity generated by the attempt to read Marx as an immanent critical theorist – an ambiguity revolving around how to understand Marx’s repeated distinctions in Capital between forms of constraint that are intrinsic to material production, and forms of constraint that are merely social in character. A consistently immanent social theory would draw its critical standpoint, not from material principles that stand outside society, but rather from contradictory potentials generated within social practice. Such an approach enables the theory to be reflexive – to avoid exceptionalising itself by tacitly behaving as though it floats above the social determinations in which other forms of thought are enmeshed, and to demonstrate the practical viability of its critical ideals by demonstrating how such ideals relate to potentials that are constituted in the course of reproducing society in its current form. Marx offers many suggestions that he intends his theory to be immanent and reflexive in this way – and yet his text often appears to step outside an immanent frame, judging an aspect of capitalism as contingent against a standard of what is intrinsically required for material reproduction per se.

In the next chapter, I want to consider this tension more explicitly, offering some suggestions for how Marx might distinguish his position from what he sometimes calls “naΓ―ve materialism”, and wrap some of his “materialist” claims back into the framework of an immanent, reflexive critique. To do this, I need to return once again to the beginning of Capital, in order to situate the opening claims about the commodity in the context of later determinations of this social form. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

6 responses to “Scratchpad: The Greatest Difficulty (No Kidding…)

  1. Alexei January 22, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    HI N,

    This is an extraordinary piece! And I think it offers a fine beginning to your dissertation. I do have a couple of general, and perhaps rather vague questions for you, though.

    First off, I’m wondering if the strategy you outline and justify here holds for the whole of Capital. That is to say, while the majority of Volume 1 strikes me as immanently voiced, I’m not sure Volume 2 is (I never got to Volme 3, so I can’t comment). Moreover, by the time Marx gets to the Workday in Volume 1, the voicedness of the text seems to disappear. When Marx juxtaposes the worker a work horse in order to foreground the horse’s “natural” working limit of 8 hours in relation to the “unlimited” working potential of Man (I can’t remember if this is a fotnote, which might make a difference for your argument), for instance, it’s hard to conceive of Marx as ventriloquizing another position. So, here’s my question: do you think your interpretative strategy incorporates more than it makes problematic? I mean, I completely agree that the initial 200 pages are immanently voiced, but what about the remaining 400 of Volume 1? And, given the specifically economic argument of Volume 2, it’s hard to see how it remains within the purview of a ventroliquized consciousness.

    I’m also wondering about the importance of non-presuppositional beginnings. For, on the one hand, Hegel’s philosophy has a huge — and at the same time most minimal — presupposition: History. The push, in short, on reconciliation is to transform this basic ground of all thought into living substance (to paraphrase Hegel, to transform the soul into Spirit). So, there’s a sense in which your emphasis on the non-presuppositional character of Hegel and Marx is a little misleading. I take Marx’s discussion of Barter-exchange near the beginning of Capital 1 to be a similar historical presupposition that gives rise to the commodity proper, and his discussion of Gold as that which fixes the relative exchange value of goods within a given circuit of exchange to be another such foothold, both of which require a specific, non-arbitrary history.

    The notion of beginnings also intimates a more logical question. If Marx’s work relies upon a previous thinker and his mode of argument, how is it not the case that Capital presupposes Hegelian philosophy? this is really a minor point, but I thought that, since you spend some time outlining the manner in which Marx’s argument follows the non-presuppositional character of Hegel’s Science, it might be worth noting that the very mode of presentation has a historical antecedent, which implies a certain point of departure that lies outside of the text.

    But these minor questions aside, I think this draft does an excellent job in foregrounding the Practice theoretic concerns that motivate your reading of Marx. And you’ve offered a compelling reading strategy. It’s a fine piece, N, and it makes an excellent introduction to your work!

  2. N Pepperell January 22, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Hey Alexei – I was just telling Tom that I had to go run write more, so this will be very brief πŸ™‚

    First on the issue of immanent voicing: I’ve been wondering how to express this myself – as in, I think that whole of volume 1 is structured as a “science”, in which Marx refuses to discuss categories that have not yet been derived (and he will often point readers to later volumes, saying that the categories will be derived there) – so that aspect of the “immanent” presentation continues. However, the really irritating (to me) speaking in the “voice” of perspectives that Marx disagrees with, without flagging that he is doing so: this dies down quite rapidly. So, the first chapter is almost impenetrable, if you don’t know Marx is up to something strange. This fog is already lifting by the second chapter, though, and Marx becomes increasingly clearer that he is deriving categories, and is planning to do so in a certain rigorous order, which allows him to demonstrate their connections with one another, etc. – basically, the text becomes much more explicit about what it’s doing and, when Marx does shift into the “voice” of a perspective, he’ll often flag it explicitly by saying, “But let’s now hear [the factory inspectors/capitalists/etc] on this”.

    At the same time, though, he doesn’t really explicate what’s going on with the derivations – why he “orders” the text the way he does, and the connection of this strategy back to Hegel. Also, I actually don’t take the shift with the working day chapter to be, for example, a shift into Marx’s own voice: I take this chapter to be a reflection on forms of governance intrinsically related to the reproduction of capital, and so I take the factory inspectors’ reports (however much Marx might also share their indignation at working conditions) to be spoken in the voice of the perspective Marx is trying to highlight at that point in his derivation: the voice of the regulatory state.

    So I guess I’m trying to say that this is an active presentational issue for me – as in, I’m undecided how to present this, in the thesis itself, so that on the one hand I’m not overclaiming and acting as though it’s just impossible to figure out that Marx is up to this, while on the one hand I’m doing some justice to the structure of the text, which I think Marx never properly explains to his readers, even as the immediate, paragraph-by-paragraph, movement of the text becomes much easier to track…

    There are also – this will come out (hopefully!) in the chapter I’m trying to write now – one major area where I think Marx’s voice remains a bit cryptic through the entirety of volume 1: this relates to what he means, when he draws distinctions between what is necessary for material production per se, versus what is necessary for material production in its capitalist form. It’s extremely easy to read these passages as Marx stepping out of an immanent frame altogether, to pronounce a verdict on capitalism from an asocial “materialist” standpoint. My argument is that Marx understands these sorts of claims as a determinate negation – not that he doesn’t make distinctions between capitalism and necessary aspects of material production, but that the sorts of abstractions associated with the latter are our abstractions – they are determinate negations that arise from a particular “something” – the determinate negations emergent immanently in capitalist society. On this level, I think Marx is never really sufficiently clear – whether because he is inconsistent in his own argument, or because he doesn’t want to step outside a particular immanent perspective, or because I’m making all this up and he’s just a good ol’ fashioned crass materialist after all ;-P But this sort of problem is the subject of the current chapter (which will follow the one above).

    In terms of the second and third volumes: in a sense, the problem is that they are incomplete. So I also don’t tend to read them as immanently voiced (and in this I follow Patrick Murray, who phrases this point in terms of the first volume of Capital being Marx’s “only scientific work”, in this peculiar quasi-Hegelian sense). My claims in the thesis are intended to be specific to the first volume. References within the first volume, though, make clear that Marx is still intending roughly to follow the process of derivation of progressively more concrete categories, with the intention then of sort of closing the loop on his theory of practice, and demonstrating how social actors driven by their experiences of everyday aspects of capitalism, could unintentionally produce the sort of structure that is the subject of volume 1 (Marx says somewhere – perhaps in the section on relative and absolute surplus value? I’d have to look at my notes – that the first volume is intended to establish what the “form” is, while the later volumes are intended to talk in more theory of practice terms).

    On the non-presuppositional issue: a couple of different reactions. I would take the idea behind a “presuppositionless” theory to be that whatever presuppositions the theory deploys, are unfolded somewhere immanently to the theory itself. So, at the beginning, there are all sorts of presuppositions that look quite arbitrary. As the account becomes more fleshed out, this arbitrary appearance should gradually disappear, and it should be shown why those specific presuppositions were actually “necessary” in the sense that they emerge immanently within the account.

    I take Marx to be making a weird sort of argument about this kind of theory – at least when he transposes it into a theory of the reproduction of capital. His argument is that capital, in certain respects, behaves like a “presuppositionless” entity – it thereby cuts itself off from its own history. It does have historical preconditions (Marx makes any number of references to these in the text, and the whole section on primitive accumulation reflects on this), but these preconditions are distinct from “capitalism” – capitalism is, in this sense, treated as a sort of “emergent” system, with autopoietic properties once formed. So the emergence of capitalism’s peculiar “order” – its historical genesis – is arbitrary and not the subject of the account of the social form unfolded in most of the first volume. The goal here isn’t to grasp genealogy, but rather contemporary genesis – what the full-blown structure is, and how it is reproduced in contemporary practice. It’s this contemporary structure that (contingently) has “presuppositionless” properties for Marx.

    That said, this “presuppositionless” logic only grasps a quite narrow object: Capital is chock full of discussions of things that are structurally contingent from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital. And, of course, Marx also believes that capitalism generates resources that point beyond itself – so it isn’t really the “totality” that it appears to be, from the standpoint of some dimensions of its process of reproduction.

    So I think there’s an element to which Marx uses these notions of “presuppositionless” process, to capture what things look like from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital – in order then better to ground an argument about the way in which this is itself a situated or partial perspective – one that doesn’t recognise that the whole structure “presupposes” the possibility for its own overcoming. I take this, more than historical antecedents, to be the sort of “presupposition” to which Marx is trying to draw attention.

    I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you, for slightly different reasons. At various points in the drafting process, I put more on this into this chapter – it just always made me feel as though I was getting too far ahead of my narrative, and so I kept pulling it out (some of it may survive in footnote form – I can’t remember now). It may well need to go back in πŸ™‚ I think I’m very uncomfortable with programmatic declarations about where the text is going to go, as I experience them as difficult for the reader to interpret before they’ve gotten to the point where I can show them what I mean, so I suspect I’m more nervous than maybe I should be about foreshadowing these sorts of things…

    Thank you for reading this – it’s a long haul through this text πŸ™‚ I appreciate the feedback more than I can express – I was sort of reading over this, this morning, much too close to the text, and thinking it didn’t make any sense (which… er… may still be true, but it’s at least good to know that some folks are managing to work their way through it πŸ™‚ )

    Gotta work on the new chapter πŸ™‚

  3. N Pepperell January 22, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    lol – well, maybe not “very brief” – brief in terms of typing time, and therefore abbreviated in terms of brain cells exercised en route. Brief in terms of words?

    Not so much…


  4. Alexei January 22, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Thanks for the clarifications N — and no need to thank me for reading stimulating, new work. I tend to think of blogging as something between ‘workshoping’ material and a formal presentation; it gets novel stuff out there without the normal, academic delay between submission, vetting, and publication/presentation, which usually distances the writer from the material itself. It’s my way of staying abreast, I guess.

    I always do get something of a chuckle when you say something like ‘this will have to be short/quick” and then ream off several hundreds words (looks to me like your responses is about 1000). I wish I could do that!

    Anyway, go and write more great stuff on Marx!

  5. N Pepperell January 23, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    I wish I could do that with chapters, and not just on the blog! πŸ™‚

    (Back to work again for me…)

  6. Pingback: » From Something, Nothing Comes

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