Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Contingency of the Law

Nate has been posting some very nice pieces over at what in the hell… recently, on the topic of what Marx means by free labour (and in what sense Marx understands free labour to be central to capitalism), and more recently on the theme of industrial accidents (and on why this theme isn’t more prominent in Capital). Both posts have sparked (er… at least from my somewhat selfish point of view) quite nice discussions that range beyond these immediate topics, and into the metatheoretical question of how Marx understands his categories. I wanted to cross-post one snippet from one of my comments over here (and to apologise to Nate that this might well have been the only snippet in several long comments that might have been useful ;-P – I’ll plead a mild cold and much distraction for the poor signal/noise ratio in my contributions to this discussion – I spend a great deal of time beating around what I’m trying to say, before coming up with this):

My current attempt to make generous sense of the category of wage labour is to say that, on one level, we are talking about a historical precondition – about the way this happened empirically. On another level, however, we aren’t only talking about this, but about a category adequate to enable certain immanent potentials of capitalism to be expressed. There are a number of categories that function this way in Capital – money as universal equivalent, for example, expresses certain tendencies more “perfectly” than other categories. Those other categories, however, continue to exist – empirically, but also in the “ideal” account in Capital – because the “imperfect” categories often continue to be implied in the operation of the “perfect” ones. (Marx doesn’t use this vocabulary – I’m trying, somewhat clumsily, to work out how to express this…) The argument, as I understand it, is that there are structural tendencies that drive toward the discovery and then the realisation of the more “adequate” categories, the categories that enable a more complete or adequate expression of certain structural potentials. So the “ideal” presentation of capitalism argues that the realisation of such categories is socially plausible (Marx might say “necessary”, but I like to gloss this in terms that make more explicit my probabilistic concept of how all this operates… ;-P). The “ideal” presentation of capitalism, however, is a non-linear one: tendencies find expression in one dimension of capitalism, run into impasses, and then, in flowing around those impasses, those same tendencies can drive the introduction or reintroduction of forms that don’t express those tendencies as “perfectly” as they might have been expressed even in the immediate past – and the non-linear cycle begins again.

I think when Marx goes more empirical – when he analyses actual events – it seems reasonably clear that this sort of concept is operating in the background. I don’t think he sees the process as linear, or that less “adequate” categories are understood to be superceded. What he doesn’t think we can shake, globally and in the long run, is the logical “ranking” of the categories – and therefore the intuitiveness with which something like “wage labour” is perceived as more “advanced” than something like “slavery” – even though the form of slavery we’re examining may be every bit as “modern” in its origins as the form of wage labour to which we’re comparing it. So I think there’s a tacit metatheory here about why we perceive certain practices and institutions as historical throwbacks, when they are nothing of the sort: we’re engaging in a form of socially plausible misrecognition, which confuses an internal logic of capitalism, which makes it possible to “rank” categories based on how well they express certain tendencies immanent to capitalism, with a historical development. This misrecognition then makes it more difficult for us to process the ways in which capitalism is itself generative of these forms that we mistakenly perceive as historical holdovers from earlier times.

The main theme I touch on here – that Marx offers a sort of theory of misrecognition, that attempts to account for why certain perfectly “modern” phenomena come to be perceived as “premodern” – is the planned focus of the fifth chapter in my thesis (with the caveat that the thesis structure is very much a fluid entity). Nate nails perfectly why I want to make this kind of argument, in his follow-up comment responding (in part) to what I’ve cross-posted above:

…it seems to me that Marx’s methodological appeals to social averages is relevant here, in that he appeals to systemic tendencies and the like. I’m fine to say there’s a systemic tendency in the logic of the capitalist form of social relations, so to speak… that capitalism on average has a tendency to produce waged labor. I’d even be okay with saying there’s a tendency to encourage free waged labor and to discourage unfree labor. Those are at least in part empirical claims and I’m not qualified to make or to dispute them. Where my objection is to anything that is a serious (ie, not just rhetorical) claim that slavery is a historical throwback – in a sort of evolutionary sense, that we can leave it to the forward progress of history or the logical of capital to eliminate it…

The importance of this kind of argument is underscored by one of Benjamin’s comments, on the intrinsically disempowering effect of conceptions of history (or of contemporary society) that count on some sort of automatic “progress” to achieve desirable political results, absent actual political struggle:

The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

One of the other, somewhat related, themes that runs through this conversation is what Marx means when he talks about tendencies within capitalism. He often uses the vocabulary of “law” to describe these tendencies – a vocabulary that suggests to the contemporary ear that some particular outcome must result, in an exclusive way. I’ve always read this vocabulary, instead, as probabilistic – I think that Marx’s analysis of how various “laws” play out on the ground, makes it clear that he is talking about very abstract structural potentials and constraints, whose realisation in any specific form depends on a variety of local circumstances that cannot be predicted in advance. The vocabulary of “law” captures the sense in which something non-random happens in and around these contingencies, but isn’t intended to assert that the exact same local circumstances would be generated by capitalism in all times and places. I ran across a typical formulation of this use of “law” while looking up something from the chapter on the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”:

This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.

An absolute general law – modified in its working by many circumstances. Law is always understood this way, in my reading, by Marx.

(By the way, Nate, if you scroll a bit upward from the passage quoted, you’ll find one of Marx’s occasional references to industrial accidents – he refers in passing to “the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery, of mines, chemical works, &c., the mutilated, the sickly, the widows”. From memory, there will be other references in the chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry, as well as scattered about in other places…)


4 responses to “The Contingency of the Law

  1. Nate February 12, 2008 at 9:16 am

    hey NP,

    Thanks for the reference, I’ll look up that passage. It’s funny cuz I’ve been reading Marx a while now and reading stuff on accidents and law since about September and I never thought to ask about Marx on accidents.

    Re: law(s), I know there’s a passage where Marx is very explicit that the laws of capitalism being tendencies and long term social averages. I can’t find it just now on a cursory glance, I’ll see if I can find it later (I’m currently re-reading v1 in a reading group so hopefully I’ll run across the passage).

    What struck me this time around in response to your and Jasper’s comments over at mine is that I think Marx could arguably be said to be deducing a sort of distilled capitalist perspective – what should capitalists do if they are perfectly/solely capitalists. That is also, to some extent, the perspective of the capitalist state. The state functions to manage the relations of individual capitalists to each other and to the interests of the capitalist class, hence the need to pass laws on the working day in order to prevent the destruction of the working class. So in a sense knowledge of social systemic probabilistic laws is linked to the creation of laws in the more common sense and legalistic meaning of the term. My German’s pretty poor but one of these days I’ll have to check if the two terms “law” are the same term in German or not,

    take care,

  2. N Pepperell February 12, 2008 at 10:05 am

    I think there are a number of places where Marx speaks like this – in terms of long term averages – and I haven’t tried to gather them together myself until now, although it’s always sort of how I’ve “heard” what he’s doing. I also agree that he’s distilling out perspectives that would be sort of “pure” expressions of particular tendencies – and not only expressions of capitalist perspectives, but other perspectives, as well – his critique of some socialist movements in his own time relates to the way in which they express certain perspectives, without realising those perspectives are intrinsically connected to other perspectives they are trying to criticise. This is a large part of what I believe he is trying to “get” out of the sometimes annoying Hegelian method: a clear sense of the links connecting together what can otherwise look like conflicting perspectives, so that he can make a case that if you push at point a, something will pop out at point b…

    Your point on law is a good one – and I think this sort of thing operates, not simply at the level of law, but also at the level of social movements: there is a sort of inbuilt structural… temptation, at least, to reinforce in other dimensions of social practice, tendencies that would be operative in any event in the reproduction of capital. This temptation can take the form of an actual knowledge of probabilistic laws, but it can also perhaps be more… irrational than that: we have practical experience with certain kinds of things, so those things “feel right” or seem “commonsensical” or appear like the “natural” things to do or seem “modern”… So we make “more” necessary, probabilistic tendencies that might otherwise be more subtle and more easily overridden by other dimensions of social experience.

    (Apologies if this is really vague and hand-waving – very tired at the moment… but really interesting issues…)

  3. Nate February 13, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    Interesting. It’s been quite some time since I’ve read Agamben or Schmitt and that sort of stuff, stuff I read maybe two years ago and was very excited about. That’s not actually a 100% non-sequitur – a while back I had in mind that I would try to write something beyond a blog post about Marx’s remarks in the 1844 manuscripts where he talks about how the working class as a whole does better over time historically despite the loss of many actual workers’ lives. That plus his comparisons (often via quotes from economists) of industry to war made me think he was sounding something like a statist political science person – sacrificing some lives etc. I wonder if there’s some link to that and the issues in our discussion here about types of laws, their relation (or not), and theoretical point of view…

  4. N Pepperell February 18, 2008 at 1:18 am

    Hey Nate – Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond – I’ve obviously been AWOL from blogging – and I’m still very very tired 🙂 So just a brief response that there are times when Marx writes as though certain types of negative historical circumstances are necessary for the constitution of certain positive historical potentials – the discussion, for example, from the section on primitive accumulation of how small proprietors fight against capital, and how their situation deteriorates dramatically with proletarianisation – but small proprietors would never have enabled the discoveries about socialised labour, the development of general scientific knowledge, the advance of technology, etc., that capitalism opens up. These sorts of statements can be read with very different valences – is he just analysing the differences between the sorts of potentials constituted by capitalism and the potentials of this earlier period? Or making a stronger and more problematic claim about the necessity of what he himself describes as a brutal historical process?

    In general, my own impulse would be to say that the form of reasoning that easily trades off contemporary sacrifices of people against long-term advance of an abstract category like humanity, has parallels to forms of thought Marx criticises elsewhere as characteristic of political economy. That there’s a “capital eye view” in such equations…

    Sorry not to develop this – completely exhausted 🙂

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