Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Scratchpad: From Something, Nothing Comes

Okay. Below the fold is the preliminary draft of the chapterised version of my post from the other day on indeterminacy as a form of determination (doesn’t that line make you wanna peek beneath the fold?). The last third of this chapter is still very undeveloped – basically, if you’re reading, once you get to the point where I start talking about the relationship of all of this to Hegel’s essence/appearance argument, the text from that point gets really sketchy and dubious. If it helps, I’m aware of this, but wanted to write at least a set of placeholder notes for things I want to discuss, when I’m able to revise that section properly. I may not be able to get back to this draft for some days, however, and so I thought I might as well toss it up in its current form. The main line of argument – which relates to how you can provide a socially-immanent explanation for certain categories that appear transhistorical in Marx’s work – is (I hope!!) sufficiently clearly developed for the moment. The points that remain undeveloped will always – in this chapter – be sort of foreshadows of material I can’t discuss in great detail until I’ve set up a few more layers of this argument.

Those who read the version of the previous chapter posted to the blog may notice that the transition at the end of the previous chapter draft doesn’t “work”. That’s because, partially in response to feedback received here, I significantly expanded the previous chapter – to the point that it got a little bit cancerous, and so I split it into two chapters, dividing off the programmatic bits, from the discussion of Marx’s relationship to Hegel, and adding more material to both of those discussions. So I suppose I can now say I’m working on the draft of the third chapter of my thesis. 🙂

Usual caveats apply to the content below the fold – with the additional caveat that, for some reason, I’ve found sleep almost impossible for the past several days, and so I’m really not in the position where I can “hear” this text. I think it’s still okay, but it may be much rougher than I realise. 🙂 Here goes…

From Something, Nothing Comes

The previous chapter made four central claims about the relationship between Capital and Hegel’s concept of “science” – specifically, that Capital:

1. should be read as deploying a method derived from a critical appropriation of this Hegelian concept;

2. organises its presentation in form of such a science, beginning with a simple, immediate, abstract category, and progressively demonstrating how this category presupposes more concrete categories, which in turn presuppose even more concrete categories – all of which can be unfolded in a system that can “loop back” and justify its point of departure as the result of the world derived from the abstract category that serves as the starting point;

3. “embeds” a particular Hegelian narrative about essence and appearance into the structure of its opening chapter, with the intention of signalling to the reader that the text unfolds a critique of the form/content distinction with which the text opens; and

4. transposes the Hegelian concept of a scientific philosophical system into a social theoretic framework, where it takes the form of an immanent, reflexive critical theory that justifies its own critical standpoint by demonstrating how the process of the reproduction of capital “presupposes” the possibility for its own emancipatory transformation.

Thanks to a number of careful studies that have painstakingly documented the parallels between Hegel’s work and Marx’s Grundrisse and Capital, the first two claims enjoy a relatively “mainstream” status in contemporary specialist interpretations of Marx’s work – to the extent that one commentator has described such claims as “part of the new ABCs of Capital“. While some commentators would certainly still contest the strong Hegelian tilt of recent interpretations of Marx’s work, the bulk of the current specialist debate relates, not to whether Capital is written in close dialogue with Hegel’s work, but rather why it is written this way, and how Marx’s position deviates from Hegel’s own.

Often, even commentators who are deeply sensitive to Hegel’s influence on Marx, and who read Capital to be structured as a Hegelian “science”, nevertheless interpret Marx as relying on a core set of critical categories that take the form of transhistorical, socially non-specific categories of material production – categories such as “use value” or the “labour process”. Such categories appear to function in Capital as means of revealing the contingency of capitalist production, by demonstrating that material production as such does not require the sorts of constraints capitalism arbitrarily imposes. These intrinsic “materialist” categories then appear to operate alongside other, more “immanent” categories – for example, the analysis of crisis tendencies endemic to capitalist production – to establish the critical standpoint of the text. In such interpretations, Marx is understood to be critical of political economy for conflating capitalism’s own immanent dynamics, with the intrinsic requirements of material production as such. Marx is then interpreted as disentangling these conflated moments, by carefully separating out the intrinsic requirements of material production from other, more contingent, requirements that relate solely to the reproduction of capital.

In this chapter, I propose a way to make sense of the apparently transhistorical categories to which Marx appeals in Capital, such that these categories can be incorporated consistently into an immanent and reflexive critique. I should note at the outset that my intention is specifically not to make an argument that Marx “meant” his transhistorical categories in the way I propose below: I think textual evidence for identifying Marx’s intentions is ambiguous at best; citations and counter-citations of proof texts from Marx’s work will not definitely resolve this issue, not least because divergent interpretive frameworks shape the ways in which passages from Marx’s texts are understood. My argument is rather that Capital and the Grundrisse provide the theoretical resources for interpreting what appear to be transhistorical categories, in immanent terms – and that an exploration of how this could be done holds independent theoretical interest, regardless of whether Marx intended categories like “use value” or the “labour process” as transhistorical or immanent ones.

At the very core of the notion of immanent, reflexive critique, lies the pivotal question of how critical sensibilities can arise within a social context, and yet somehow transcend the very context that generates them: the question of how a social context might somehow constitute a reservoir of counterfactual ideals capable of passing judgement against the social context as it currently is, through the articulation of demands that this context be transformed in determinate ways. As will become clearer in later chapters, the apparently transhistorical categories in Capital are not the only categories that suggest the possibility for such an immanent, yet counterfactual, perspective. Nor do these categories, taken by themselves, fully express the critical standpoint of the text. These categories do, however, provide a good way to begin to explore the complex question of how such counterfactual perspectives might be theorised via an immanent social theory. Addressing how it might be possible to view even the most apparently socially non-specific categories in Capital as immanent categories, therefore opens up onto questions that will remain central for the remainder of this work.

To explore this question, I want to begin by examining a few passages in which Marx criticises the political economists for their failure to historicise their own categories. These passages come closest to suggesting overtly that Marx intends to construct an immanent, reflexive critique – and yet this interpretation appears to be contradicted in a quite explicit way by the sorts of passages I will illustrate next, in which Marx appeals to categories that seem transparently transhistorical and devoid of social specificity. This contrast sets up the problem. I then take a quick sidestep to Hegel, to outline an argument about the way in which an apparent lack of determinations can constitute a determination – and then back to Marx, to highlight certain passages in the Grundrisse that suggest Marx is at least aware of this line of argument, and sometimes deploys such an argument to qualify the sense in which he understands categories to be “transhistorical” or socially non-specific. Marx’s argument here hinges on the notion that certain apparently transhistorical conceptual abstractions, gain practical reality only in very specific historical circumstances – and that it is only where categories arise from this sort of abstract enactment that such categories emerge as the sort of simple conceptual abstractions prevalent in political economy. I then turn briefly to Capital, to illustrate how such an argument plays out with reference to the paradigmatic categories of use value and the labour process, and then to explore some of the implications of this argument for how Marx understands immanent critique.

This line of argument makes it possible to grasp categories that appear socially non-specific and transhistorical, as immanently emergent categories of capitalist society. It also suggests that one of the more distinctive social determinations that arises within capitalism, is precisely this apparent absence of social determination: that the specific expression of the historicity of certain categories that arise in the reproduction of capital, is precisely their attribute of appearing ahistorical and socially non-specific. Such categories can, however, be demonstrated to be socially specific through an analysis of how collective practice enacts such abstractions. Such an analysis does not operate by debunking the abstraction – by, for example, revealing that the abstraction is a mere “ideological” semblance that obscures, masks, or covers over the existence of more concrete social relations that are the true underlying social reality. Instead, the analysis seeks to demonstrate how social practice generates real abstractions – by constituting a set of qualitative distinctions in one dimension of social practice, while enacting an active, practised indifference to those same qualitative distinctions in another dimension of social practice. In this way, conceptual abstractions characteristic of capitalist modernity can be grasped as expressions in thought of real abstractions enacted in social practice. Let me now attempt to develop this argument in greater detail.

In a footnote to the first chapter of Capital, Marx reproduces a criticism of political economists that he originally makes in the much earlier Poverty of Philosophy – suggesting that this line of criticism has been central to his work for some time:

Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. … Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any.

This passage can be read in two ways. First, it could mean that Marx simply believes the political economists are wrong in taking capitalist institutions for natural, socially non-specific ones – but is not necessarily opposed to the concept that some sort of socially non-specific institutions or transhistorically valid conceptual abstractions might exist. In this case, the critique would hold that the political economists are incorrect in what they treat as socially non-specific, but would not rule out that some other form of theory might be able to appeal to socially non-specific categories in its own critique of the artificiality of capitalism – so long as this other form of critique is correct in what it takes to be socially non-specific. This interpretation invites the reflexive question of how Marx could account for the standpoint that allows him to make critical judgements of the categories the political economists treat as transhistorical, while asserting the validity of his own transhistorical categories

Second – and more consonant with a notion of immanent and reflexive critique – Marx could be criticising the political economists for failing to apply their historicising insights reflexively to themselves. In this case, the critique would hold that it is a false move to treat any position as socially non-specific, and that a new form of critique is required that historicises, not only the forms of thought or the institutions being criticised, but also the perspective voiced by the critic. This interpretation runs into the difficult of how to account for Marx’s apparent practice of appealing to transhistorical categories in Capital.

A similar sort of ambiguity runs through passages from the Grundrisse in which Marx criticises the tendency of political economy to treat capitalist institutions as natural. In a section entitled “Eternalization of historic relations of production”, Marx explores in some detail the question of whether the concept of “production in general” has any legitimacy. He argues that the concept of “production in general” can be a “rational abstraction” (85), to the extent that it serves as a shorthand for common elements in different forms of production – but that much more is required to work such a concept into a form that would have “scientific significance” (86). Marx notes:

[Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them…. nevertheless, just those elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the unity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten. The whole profundity of those modern economists who demonstrate the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations lies in this forgetting…. (85)

He then goes on to list several examples of the sorts of problems that can arise when socially specific institutions are smuggled into the concept of “production in general” and thereby treated as natural. He specifically criticises the tendency to reduce specific dimensions of capitalist society down to features shared with all social forms, noting how such a move operates to occlude – and thus naturalise – the determinate features of aspects of capitalist society, including capital:

Capital is, among other things, also an instrument of production, also objectified, past labour. Therefore capital is a general, eternal relation of nature; that is, if I leave out just the specific quality which alone makes ‘instrument of production’ and ‘stored-up labour’ into capital… (86)

And private property:

All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society. In this sense it is a tautology to say that property (appropriation) is a precondition of production. But it is altogether ridiculous to leap from that to a specific form of property, e.g., private property. (87)

He also analyses in some detail the rhetorical strategy common in political economic texts, whereby introductory reflections on “production in general” are used to argue that the character of production is determined by factors that are socially nonspecific, while the character of distribution (which political economists intend to criticise) is treated as arbitrary and socially variable:

It is the fashion to preface a work of economics with a general part – and precisely this part figures under the title ‘production’… treating of the general preconditions of all production. This general part consists or is alleged to consist of (1) the conditions without which production is not possible. I.e., in fact to indicate nothing more than the essential moments of all production. But, as we will see, this reduces itself in fact to a few very simple characteristics, which are hammered out into flat tautologies; (2) the conditions which promote production to a greater or lesser degree…

But none of all this is the economists’ real concern in this general part. The aim is, rather, to present production – see e.g. Mill – as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the involable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded. This is the more or less conscious purpose of the whole proceeding. In distribution, by contrast, humanity has allegedly permitted itself to be considerably more arbitrary. (86-87)

The political economists, Marx argues, thus write as though: “Production is determined by general natural laws, distribution by social accident…”. (89)

In the course of this discussion, Marx argues that it is possible to conceptualise general characteristics that all stages of production have in common, as long as it is realised that such a concept exists only in the mind, and corresponds with no actual form of society:

To summarize: There are characteristics which all stages of production have in common, and which are established as general ones by the mind; but the so-called general preconditions of all production are nothing more than these abstract moments with which no real historical stage of production can be grasped. (88)

This implications of this discussion are again somewhat ambiguous. It is clear that political economy is being criticised for treating an actual society – capitalism – as the realisation of “society in the abstract”, such that capitalism comes to be represented as a form of social life that is somehow devoid of specific social determinations, and therefore as a sort of historical realisation of the “naturally social”. It is less clear how Marx views the use of concepts like “production in general”, as long as these concepts are clearly understood not to correspond to any existent society. It is particularly unclear whether Marx sees such conceptual abstractions as possessing critical potential for the role they might play in revealing the contingency of existing social institutions. In these reflections, Marx may solely intend to criticise political economy for confusing capitalism with the intrinsic and timeless requirements of production as such – or he may also intend to criticise the political economists for their failure to be reflexive and apply to themselves, the historicising sensibilities they readily apply to others. The passage could support either reading – as could many other passages from similar discussions in the Grundrisse and Capital.

These divergent interpretations carry slightly different implications for how Marx might understand the genesis of the critical categories he applies in his own critique of the reproduction of capital. If he regards it is as problematic that the political economists naturalise capitalism, then he will seek to denaturalise capitalism, perhaps with reference to categories that are not themselves socially specified. If he regards it as problematic that the political economists are not reflexive, then he will seek to denaturalise both capitalism and his own critical perspective at the same time, by demonstrating how the reproduction of capital generates immanent potentials for its own emancipatory transformation, including socially specific critical concepts that express practical political potentials. What form of critique, then, does Marx appear to deploy in Capital?

The opening passages of Capital, as well as the subsequent discussions of the labour process, cooperation, and other pivotal concepts, overtly appeal to categories that, on their face, seem socially non-specific. Thus, the opening definition of the commodity concludes with the claim:

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.

Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.

In this definitional passage, use value is presented as a socially non-specific substance of wealth, while exchange value is determined as a more arbitrary social form specific to capitalist society. In this and later chapters, Marx frequently does critical work with the category of use value, drawing distinctions between what is the case within capitalism because social wealth takes the form of value, and what could be the case, if social wealth were predicated on use value alone. Thus Marx argues, for example, that, as social productivity increases, more material wealth is generated – greater potential use values are produced. Yet value is determined, not by material wealth, but by the expenditure of socially-average labour time, and therefore does not increase with this rising material wealth. Because capitalism, in Marx’s argument, is predicated on value, rather than material wealth, rising productivity has the paradoxical effect of not diminishing the need for the expenditure of human labour power. A society whose wealth was predicated on use value, by contrast, could scale back on the expenditure of human labour power as productivity increases. The possibility for use value, rather than value, to determine social wealth therefore functions as a counterfactual critical ideal in Marx’s analysis – and this ideal appears in the text to derive from the contrast between a socially specific form of wealth (value) and a general substance of wealth (use value) that is not specific to any form of society.

One difficulty with this reading is that the opening presentation of the commodity in Capital is so similar in its structure and its substantive claims to the political economic tropes criticised in the passages from the Grundrisse quoted above. In the Grundrisse passages, Marx criticises political economy for treating production and exchange as only arbitrarily connected to one another, and for arguing that production is structured by factors that are not socially specific, while treating exchange as structured by factors that are arbitrary and historically variable. Marx argues that this approach allows political economy to smuggle unacknowledged historical content into the purportedly “natural” category of production, and then use this cateory as a standpoint to criticise political restrictions on exchange that the political economists regard as “arbitrary”. The form of the political economists’ critique is that the arbitrary social institutions of exchange must be transformed in order to realise more completely the purportedly “natural” requirements of capitalist production. The opening paragraphs of Capital appear to mimic precisely this form of presentation, beginning with a purportedly socially non-specific, “material” category of use value and then moving to the overtly social and historical “arbitrary” category of exchange value.

It seems unlikely that Marx would endorse a perspective that so closely resembles what he criticises in political economic thought – and, as discussed in the previous chapter, there is reason to believe that all is not what it seems in this opening passage. Following the argument put forward in the previous chapter, and assuming that Marx intends Capital to be structured as a “science” in a Hegelian sense, the reader would expect the beginning of Capital – the commodity – not to be fully known until the entire account has been fully unfolded. Only at the end can the reader then look back and finally grasp what the commodity always already was, because only at that point will the reader know the full determinations of the world that the commodity presupposes, and understand how this world generates this specific starting point as its necessary product. Although the full determinations of the commodity are not evident to the reader at the outset, the analysis of these presuppositions structures the order of the presentation of the categories in Capital. Perhaps looking ahead to some of the later determinations of the “commodity” will help clarify the strategy at work in this early part of the text. For present purposes, I limit this discussion to an analysis of how the commodity comes to be redetermined once Marx introduces the category of labour power.

Marx introduces what he calls the “peculiar commodity” of labour power in order to solve a puzzle he sets up through his analysis of commodity circulation. How, Marx asks, can all commodities be traded at their full value (the assumption operative in the self-understanding of circulation), and yet more money crystallise out of the process of circulation than an owner of commodities brings into that process? Marx’s solution hinges on the difference between the value of labour power – which, like the value of all commodities, is determined by its costs of production – and the use value of labour power – which, as it turns out, is to produce… value. The use value of this “peculiar” commodity, therefore, turns out not to be a socially non-specific material substance, but instead a social property that labour power possesses in capitalism alone:

One thing, however, is clear – Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development…

So, too, the economical categories, already discussed by us, bear the stamp of history. Definite historical conditions are necessary that a product may become a commodity… Had we gone further, and inquired under what circumstances all, or even the majority of products take the form of commodities, we should have found that this can only happen with production of a very specific kind, capitalist production….

…we know by experience that a circulation of commodities relatively primitive, suffices for the production of all these forms [associated with simple commodity production and exchange]. Otherwise with capital. The historical conditions of its existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It can spring to life, only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence meets in the market with the free labourer selling his labour-power. And this one historical condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from its first appearance a new epoch in the process of social production.

For the wealth of a society to take the form of a “vast accumulation of commodities” – and for capitalism to come into being – labour power must have become a commodity. The opening discussion of the commodity as the elementary form of social wealth therefore already presupposes the category of labour power (Marx has demonstrated this presupposition by progressively revealing aspects of simple commodity exchange, and then circulation, that cannot be grasped without the category of labour power). It is only once the category of labour-power has been derived, however, that it becomes possible to grasp how the perspective expressed at the beginning of the text – which starkly separates use value from exchange value – is a partial perspective that cannot fully grasp its own conditions of possibility. For the use value of the “peculiar” commodity labour power – the commodity whose existence is a precondition for generalised commodity production – is intrinsically connected to – and, indeed, constitutive of – value:

But the past labour that is embodied in the labour-power, and the living labour that it can call into action; the daily cost of maintaining it, and its daily expenditure in work, are two totally different things. The former determines the exchange-value of the labour-power, the latter its use value. The fact that half a day’s labour is necessary to keep the labourer alive during 24 hours, does not in any way prevent him from working a whole day. Therefore, the value of the labour-power, and the value which that labour-power creates in the labour-process, are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference of the two values was what the capitalist had in view, when he was purchasing the labour-power. The useful qualities that labour-power possesses, and by virtue of which it makes yarn or boots, were to him nothing more than a conditio sine qua non; for in order to create value, labour must be expended in a useful manner. What really influenced him was the specific use-value which this commodity possesses of a source not only of value, but of more value than it has itself.

Once the category of labour power has been derived, the reader’s understanding of the opening discussion is transformed, and it becomes possible to apply, critically, the insights gained through the analysis of this later category, to the perspective that “presents itself” at the beginning of the text. At this point, the reader learns for certain that all is not what it seemed: the commodity is not solely “an object outside us” – it also is us, or at least a part of us; the commodity’s “material substance” (human labour power) is not equivalently important to wealth in all societies, but specifically and directly important to the generation of wealth in capitalism in an historically unique way; and the commodity’s “use value” is not a material substance extrinsic to the social form of “exchange value”, but is instead constitutive of that form.

All of these points will be explored in greater detail in subsequent chapters. For present purposes, I use these points only to illustrate how further determinations of Marx’s categories can react back critically on the perspectives voiced when categories are initially introduced in the text. The “scientific” structure of the text necessitates this process of gradual determination of categories as the argument unfolds. These subsequent determinations then do critical work by gradually revealing earlier determinations as of the categories to be partial perspectives – ones that possess limited validity, but that fail to grasp all of their own presuppositions adequately. In terms of our immediate concern in this chapter, I want only to suggest that the introduction of the category of labour power already casts some doubt on to what degree Marx endorses the opening claim that “use value” is the material substance of wealth, regardless of social form. I would suggest that something similar is in play with other apparently socially non-specific categories that play critical roles in the text.

Yet, while suggestive, this argument does not fully resolve the question. On its face, and in spite of the argument I have made above, a category such as “use value” is defined in the text in such a way as to make the category seem genuinely devoid of determinations specific to any particular society. It may be the case that Marx intends the “peculiar commodity” of labour power to be presupposed by the opening definition of the commodity. Does this mean, though, that Marx does not believe that use value, understood as material wealth – and exempting the “peculiar” use value of labour power – is actual wealth, across all societies? Would Marx seriously make a claim that “material wealth” is a category of capitalist society alone? Capital suggests otherwise, containing many passages in which Marx appears comfortable moving back and forth in human history, offering generalisations about “material production, which is the basis of all social life, and therefore all real history”. Such passages are understandably read as evidence that Marx takes certain “material” categories to be as timeless and socially non-specific as, indeed, they present themselves to be. Is it possible to interpret such categories in a way compatible with the notion of immanent, reflexive critique?

My suggestion is that, however ambiguous Marx’s formulations, such an interpretation is possible. A quick detour into Hegel can help me explain how. In the opening to the section on “Determinateness” in the Science of Logic, Hegel offers a lovely paradoxical formulation, which explains how he can derive determinate Being from the immediate and indeterminate Being with which he begins. Hegel effects this transition by arguing that the sheer indeterminacy of immediate Being is its determination:

Being is the indeterminate immediate; it is free from determinateness in relation to essence and also from any which is can possess within itself. This reflectionless being is being as it is immediately in its own self alone.

Because it is indeterminate being, it lacks all quality; but in itself, the character of indeterminateness attaches to it only in contrast to what is determinate or qualitative. But determinate being stands in contrast to being in general, so that the very indeterminateness of the latter constitutes its quality. It will therefore be shown that the first being is in itself determinate, and therefore, secondly, that it passes over into determinate being – is determinate being – but that this latter as finite being sublates itself and passes over into the infinite relation of being to its own self, that is, thirdly, into being-for-self. (emphasis mine)

For our purposes, the role this argument plays within Hegel’s system is not important. I draw attention to the passage only in order to suggest an interesting potential for beginning to think about the historical and social specificity of categories that appear abstract, indeterminate, and socially non-specific. Hegel suggests here that indeterminacy should itself be seen as a form of determination. In other words, indeterminacy should be thought, not as an absence of quality, but rather as a specific, positive quality in its own right. Hegel further suggests that this quality of indeterminateness becomes visible or perceptible to us only in relation to some form of determination. Indeterminacy thus becomes a determinate quality, in and through its distinction from a universe of determinate qualities to which it is necessarily related. What might appear initially simply as an absence or as a remainder that is left behind when determinate qualities have been abstracted away, is here repositioned as a determinate quality in its own right.

Interestingly, in the Grundrisse, Marx makes a somewhat similar argument in a much more social theoretic mode. Crucial to Marx’s argument is a distinction already tacit in one of the passages I quote above – the passage in which Marx speaks of “production in general” as a conceptual abstraction, as a category that exists only in the mind. In the passage I analyse below, Marx suggests an alternative means of understanding certain abstractions, which contrasts with the commonsense notion of a merely conceptual abstraction – something not realised in any form of society. Marx suggests the possibility that some abstract concepts might emerge as expressions of what could be called real abstractions, abstractions actually realised or effected in social practice. His argument begins with an extended reflection on the difference between the historical emergence of the categories he will use in his analysis, and the order of presentation required to express the relationship of those categories to one another in contemporary bourgeois society.

Marx begins by noting that many simple categories like “money” and “labour” appear to be historically quite old. He argues, however, that their apparent age is misleading. Money, for example, was not fully developed, or developed in the same way in which it now exists, until the development of capitalist society:

This very simple category [money], then, makes a historic appearance in its full intensity only in the most developed conditions of society…. Thus, although the simpler category may have existed historically before the more concrete, it can achieve its full (intensive and extensive) development precisely in a combined form of society, while the more concrete category was more fully developed in a less developed form of society. (103)

Likewise “labour”, as a general category for human work, appears to be an ancient concept. Marx argues, however, that when labour is understood as a simple category decoupled from any specific form of activity, it is actually quite a modern concept:

Labour seems quite a simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction. (103)

Marx regards it as a major step for Adam Smith to have conceptualised labour in its modern, simple determination, where the concept is not tied to some specific form of human activity such as agriculture, commerce, or manufacture, but encompasses all of these forms:

It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial and agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the old Physiocratic system. (104)

This step, however, was not an abstract “conceptual” achievement that derives solely from Smith’s cognitive prowess. Instead, Smith was able to arrive at the modern concept of labour, because social practice had begun to enact “labour” as an encompassing category through a collectively practised indifference to the determinate forms in which labour was carried out. “Labour as such” – rather than agriculture, or manufacture, or trade – had thus acquired a practical social significance and an enacted reality, before Smith arrived at a term to capture this real abstraction:

Now it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference toward any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference toward specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. (104)

This modern category can then be applied to earlier societies – so long as it is recognised that modern categories do not possess the same sort of practical reality in earlier periods, and must therefore be taken “only with a grain of salt”:

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly unconquered remains are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. (105) …

Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference. The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sidedly. (106)

In the modern period, however, these simple categories are not purely conceptual – not simply categories “in the mind”. These categories are instead true in practice – they have become real abstractions:

Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society. (104-105)

This line of thought provides a possibility for reconceptualising, in immanent terms, the categories in Capital that appear socially non-specific. If Capital provides a basis for conceptualising these categories as real abstractions, then it becomes possible to fold such categories back into the immanent frame of the analysis – without losing the counterfactual critical potential such categories may possess. Thus, for example, if capitalism constitutes something like “use value” – as a practical truth or real abstraction – in its process of reproduction, then the critical distinction between wealth based on use values, and wealth based on value, could be retained – but now understood in terms of a contradiction immanent to the reproduction of capital, such that both the standpoint and the target of critique could be grasped in their historical and social specificity.

Capital does, in fact, suggest the possibility to conceptualise its simple, apparently socially non-specific, categories in precisely this way. Use value, for example is determined as a category that is simultaneously meaningful in its qualitative specificity to one dimension of the process of the reproduction of capital – value must manifest itself in some useful good – and at the same time irrelevant, in its qualitative specificity, to another dimension of the process of the reproduction of capital – value is indifferent to the particular qualitative form in which it manifests, but needs simply to manifest in some sort of useful good. As Marx argues:

Value is independent of the particular use-value by which it is borne, but it must be embodied in a use-value of some kind.


But, however important it may be to value, that it should have some object of utility to embody itself in, yet it is a matter of complete indifference what particular object serves that purpose…

Similarly, Marx determines the labour process as an activity that, from one perspective in the reproduction of capital, is socially relevant for its qualitative specificity while, from another perspective, the specific qualitative attributes of the labour process are socially irrelevant. Marx describes these conflictual, but mutually constitutitive, practical determinations of the labour process in the following way:

We have now to consider this labour under a very different aspect from that which it had during the labour-process; there, we viewed it solely as that particular kind of human activity which changes cotton into yarn; there, the more labour was suited to the work, the better the yarn, other circumstances remaining the same. The labour of the spinner was then viewed as specifically different from other kinds of productive labour, different on the one hand in its special aim, viz., spinning, different, on the other hand, in the special character of its operations, in the special nature of its means of production and in the special use-value of its product. For the operation of spinning, cotton and spindles are a necessity, but for making rifled cannon they would be of no use whatever. Here, on the contrary, where we consider the labour of the spinner only so far as it is value-creating, i.e., a source of value, his labour differs in no respect from the labour of the man who bores cannon, or (what here more nearly concerns us), from the labour of the cotton-planter and spindle-maker incorporated into the means of production. It is solely by reason of this identity, that cotton planting, spindle making and spinning, are capable of forming the component parts, differing only quantitatively from one another, of the whole, namely, the value of the yarn. Here, we have nothing more to do with the quality, the nature and the specific character of the labour, but merely with its quantity.

These distinctions – between use value and value, the labour process and the valorisation process – are thus not merely conceptual distinctions: they are practical distinctions, enacted in collective practice routinely, in everyday settings. Moreover, the same social process – the reproduction of capital – involves social actors in enacting diametrically opposed practical orientations to the same objects and activities. Marx describes the multiplication of perspectives that follows from the bifurcated character of social practice:

If we proceed further, and compare the process of producing value with the labour-process, pure and simple, we find that the latter consists of the useful labour, the work, that produces use-values. Here we contemplate the labour as producing a particular article; we view it under its qualitative aspect alone, with regard to its and aim. But viewed as a value-creating process, the same labour-process presents itself under its quantitative aspect alone. Here, the commodities that take part in the process, do not count any longer as necessary adjuncts of labour-power in the production of a definite, useful object. They count merely as depositories of so much absorbed or materialised labour; that labour, whether previously embodied in the means of production, or incorporated in them for the first time during the process by the action of labour-power, counts in either case only according to its duration; it amounts to so many hours or days as the case may be.

The significance of this argument will become clearer if we draw out some of its implications in relation to the earlier discussion of Hegel’s argument about the relationship of essence and appearance. As outlined in the previous chapter, Hegel is critical of approaches that attempt to divide “essence” and “appearance” among separate substances or worlds – whether this means parcelling out the distinction between appearance and essence into a distinction between the subject and its object, or introjecting the appearance/essence divide into the subject or object. Hegel argues that both appearance and essence must be understood as mutually interpenetrating and constitutive moments of the same dynamic process – and that a confrontation with this interpenetration propels consciousness to recognise its own implication in its object – to become self-consciousness.

Marx is suggesting a social theoretic appropriation of this argument in the passages analysed above. In Marx’s analysis, I suggest, the practice of treating the same objects (use values) and the same activities (labour processes) in two different ways in collective practice, confers a dual social status on these objects and activities, such that the same entities become socially significant in diametrically opposed ways. At the same time, the practices involved in treating use values and labour processes in these different ways, necessarily entail practical dispositions that provide grist for the development of more formally articulated analytical categories – such as the abstractions “use value” and “labour process” – which express the insights tacit in these practical dispositions. By linking these particular abstractions back to their genesis in determinate forms of social practice, Marx demonstrates them to be real abstractions – and thus demonstrates their social specificity as practical truths in capitalist society.

At the same time, this argument demonstrates that, so long as capital continues to be reproduced, these particular practices and their associated dispositions will necessarily be reproduced as well. This intrinsic relationship between the categories and the process of the reproduction of capital carries a number of implications for the form of critique Marx can undertake. Once again, a quick sidestep to Hegel will help illuminate some of the issues.

In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel introduces the notion of a determinate negation – a concept intended to account for the form of criticism (or, in Hegel’s terms, negation) that becomes possible in a “scientific” philosophical system. Hegel describes the concept of determinate negation in this way:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes this one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into some abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself.

A similar concept is deployed in the Science of Logic:

All that is necessary to achieve scientific progress – and it is essential to strive to gain this quite simple insight – is the recognition of the logical principle that the negative is just as much as positive, or that what is self-contradictory does not resolve itself into a nullity, into abstract nothingness, but essentially only into the negation of its particular content, in other words, that such a negation is not all and every negation but the negation of a specific subject matter which resolves itself, and consequently is specific negation, and therefore the result essentially contains that from which it results; which strictly speaking is a tautology, for otherwise it would be an immediacy, not a result. Because the result, the negation, is a specific negation it has a content. It is a fresh Notion but higher and richer than its predecessor; for it is richer by the negation or opposite of the latter, therefore contains it, but also something more, and is the unity of itself and its opposite. It is in this way that the system of Notions as such has to be formed – and had to complete itself in a purely continuous course in which nothing extraneous is introduced.

For Hegel, the motive for introducing this concept is an epistemological one: how can critique be undertaken in a non-arbitrary and non-dogmatic way, so as to offset the danger of scepticism. Marx, I suggest, picks up on this concept and repurposes it – moving it outside the realm of metaphysics or epistemology, and seeing instead the potential to address concerns that his critique might be utopian. A passage from the Grundrisse suggests what is at stake:

But within bourgeois society, the society that rests on exchange value, there arise relations of circulation as well as of production which are so many mines to explode it. (A mass of antithetical forms of the social unity, whose antithetical character can never be abolished through quiet metamorphosis. On the other hand, if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic.) (159)

Marx is interested, in other words, in developing a form of critique that can demonstrate that the resources for an emancipatory transformation are generated immanently to the reproduction of capital. This point is important in part because the naturalisation of capitalism can take different forms – most of which are not as naïve or simple to refute as the assertion that capitalism is some kind of literally natural or timeless social form. Capitalism can also be naturalised via an argument that claims that the size of the population necessitates this social form – or the technical requirements of the means of production, or the complexity of the economy, or the post-traditional character of the society, or a host of other reasons that can be mobilised to make the social context appear necessary in order to preserve some desired dimension of modernity, even if the historicity and artificiality of capitalism is fully recognised.

Marx’s complex play with Hegel’s essence/appearance argument – his insistence that his own critical categories arise immanently within the process of the reproduction of capital and that, moreover, these categories be intrinsically intertwined (as the notions of use value and the labour process are intertwined above) with moments of that process – allows him to refute charges that his position is utopian. In terms of the categories discussed above, for example: his analysis demonstrates convincingly that the production of a diverse set of use values on a large scale – and thus the potential to convert to production based on use values – because he can demonstrate that capitalism already achieves this – albeit in a restless, hypertrophic form Marx would use other categories to criticise.

At the same time, however, because his critical categories are so enmeshed with the reproduction of capital, his critical standpoint cannot unambiguously identify any existing social institution that, entirely in its current form, could serve as a model for a post-capitalist society: all institutions are simultaneously determined by qualitative characteristics necessary solely for the reproduction of capital.

Finally, and as expressed in the passage quoted above, the process of the reproduction of capital will not automatically develop into anything emancipatory: “its antithetical character can never be abolished through quiet metamorphosis”. While the reproduction of capital will thus continue to reproduce potentials that point beyond itself, so long as capital continues to be reproduced, those potentials remain alienated – constituted in a form subordinated to, and abridged by, the process of the reproduction of capital.

All of these points need much further development – as well as supplementation by a much richer network of critical categories than I can present at this point. I offer these concluding comments therefore as a placeholder, pending more detailed development later in this work. For the moment, I want to step away from the very abstract metatheoretical discussion that has been presented in the first three chapters, and move more micrologically into the text, using the metatheoretical foundation developed to this point to help us work through the first chapter of capital, exploring the tacit arguments there about forms of embodiment, the dual character of labour, and commodity fetishism.


2 responses to “Scratchpad: From Something, Nothing Comes

  1. Pingback: » Heat to the Fire

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

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