Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
Degrees of sizes in each box are found:
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
Although they are not subject to our sense, […]

~ Margaret Cavendish “Of Many Worlds in This World”

Fragments on Lukács’ essay, focussing on how I would contrast Lukács to Marx, in relation to various claims Lukács puts forward in the first section of his essay, under the subheading “The Phenomenon of Reification”.

I. Quantity to Quality vs. Relationality

In my previous post, I mentioned a key problem confronting this text – a problem that was also a central question for Marx: if capitalism is understood as something historically unique, why do the categories used to theorise capitalism – commodities, money, interest, profit, rent, etc. – appear to be less historically specific than the object those categories purport to grasp? As I discussed previously, Lukács attempts to answer this question by suggesting that a quantitative expansion of the phenomenon grasped by these categories – to the point that this quantitative expansion becomes totalising and all-encompassing – yields a qualitative shift: in Lukács’ framework, capitalism can be generated as a historically-specific object from the extension of forms of practice that are much older historically.

Lukács believes that this is how Marx would also answer this question, and cites various passages from Marx suggestive of this idea. I would suggest that Marx’s answer actually takes a completely different form: for Marx, capitalism as an historically distinct object is constituted when various older forms of practice come to be reconfigured as component parts of an historically novel and qualitatively distinctive social relation. Following Hegel, Marx grasps the meaning of the categories as something that is determined relationally. To say this more plainly: Marx thinks that “commodities”, “money”, and similar categories are only apparently non-specific to capitalism – in his account, these categories take on a very different meaning and significance under capitalism, than various phenomena that, from our present-day point of view, look similar in other societies. The “essential difference” between these categories in a capitalist, compared to a non-capitalist, context, is therefore not due, in Marx’s account, solely to a process of quantitative expansion, but instead due to the emergence and reproduction of the historically distinct sort of social relation whose constitutive moments these categories express. Since Marx also does speak of various quantitative expansions associated with the development of capitalism, this argument is complex to demonstrate on a textual level – I’ll leave that task for another post. My goal here is simply to draw attention to a possible alternative to the sort of analysis Lukács presents, when he tries to explain why the core categories of “capitalism” appear more transhistorical than the object they purport to grasp.

II. Totalities and Tipping Points

Lukács seems to regard the “tipping point” at which quantitative expansion yields a qualitative shift, to be the point at which the “commodity-structure” becomes universalised or totalised. In Lukács’ argument:

The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it. Only then does the commodity become crucial for the subjugation of men’s consciousness to the forms in which this reification finds expression and for their attempts to comprehend the process or to rebel against its disastrous effects and liberate them, from servitude to the ‘second nature’ so created.

Logically, even within Lukács’ quantity-yields-quality framework, this isn’t the only analytical option – in principle, quantitative expansions might yield qualitative shifts without some sort of maximal, universal extent of quantitative expansion. Theorising this sort of “tipping point” concept, however, would probably pull the analysis closer to Marx’s relational approach, due to the need to explain why a certain level of quantitative expansion should yield a specific qualitative shift – an explanation that might point toward an exploration of whether some sort of specific configuration, with distinctive qualitative properties, becomes possible at some particular level of quantitative expansion. I don’t specifically see Marx’s analysis following this line – Marx seems to focus more on the effects to an entire set of practices, of the constitution of a new form of social relation, and to understand this qualitative shift to drive a quantitative expansion. Marx does, though, appeal in other dimensions of his argument to the notion that capitalism presupposes a certain (itself expanding) scale that transcends earlier historical organisations of production.

III. Personal vs. Social Relations

At one point early in this section, Lukács makes the point in passing that, at some early point in the development of capitalism, it was easier to “see through” the commodity-structure. Lukács argues:

the personal nature of economic relations was still understood clearly at the start of capitalist development. (emphasis mine)

Lukács intends this as a gloss on Marx’s argument about the fetish, in which Marx argues “a definite social relation between men… assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” In his reformulation of Marx’s argument, Lukács tacitly assumes that the “social” equates to the “personal”. I would suggest that Marx precisely does not make this equation – that Marx is instead attempting to theorise the collective constitution of a social relation that is specifically not personal in nature. As Marx puts the point:

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

Marx’s formulation also calls into question Lukács’ tacit suggestion that reification involves a sort of ideology or illusion – something that, when it is less totalistic, can be pierced, to reveal the “true” relation – a personal one – that sits on the other side of the veil. Marx is not attempting to theorise an ideology (not even a “necessary” one), but instead a distinctive form of social relation, characterised precisely by its “objective”, “materialist” character. Marx is not suggesting that theory needs to help up pierce the veil of an illusion of objectivity: he is suggesting that theory needs to grasp how we are collectively constituting a genuinely impersonal form of social relation. The categories of the “social” and the “personal” precisely do not align for Marx – this disalignment is central to Marx’s attempt to thematise capitalism as historically distinct, and it also alters the strategy at play in Marx’s critique, which is not to uncover the reality that has come to be crusted over by illusion, but instead to analyse the genesis and potentials of a very distinctive form of social relation.

This contrast carries over into a number of other dimensions of Lukács’ argument, some of which I’ll pick up on below.

IV. Subjects, Objects, and Things in Between

Both Lukács and Marx offer an argument about a distinctive form of subject-object dualism related to the commodity-structure. The very different conceptions of commodity-structure in play, however, point each in very different directions.

Lukács understands the commodity-structure to relate to the exchange relation. In his account, the quantitative expansion and, ultimately, totalisation and universaliation of the exchange-relation, leads, on the one hand, to a “world of objects and relations between things” – which Lukács equates with “the world of commodities and their movements on the market”. This “objective” world of market exchange confronts the individual subject as a “second nature” beyond their control – an environment whose laws the subject can attempt to anticipate and calculate, but not overcome. Proletarian subjects are further compelled to sell their labour-power onto this market – to externalise part of themselves as an object – and also confront the full effects of the fragmentation of the labour process which, in Lukács’ account, comes to be organised in such a way as to break apart the “organic unity” of use values, scattering the production of a finished product in time and space, and turning labour from a purposeful mastery of nature, into something itself mastered and inserted as a motive force into a production process to which labour must adapt. In each of these ways, Lukács argues, the subject – or, specifically, something he calls “the personality” – the aspect of subjectivity that exceeds what is required for the labour-power that is bought and sold on the market – comes to experience itself as set apart from the totality of the object world. The subject thus becomes contemplative – passively analysing and adapting itself to the laws of an object world the subject experiences as fundamentally alienated from its own practice.

Most visibly with the strange, ungrounded category of the “personality”, but also with the undertheorised category of the “object world”, Lukács’ argument here falls short of the type of theory Marx is attempting to construct. Lukács tacitly takes for granted the qualitative characteristics of both his subject and object worlds. The type of explanation Lukács uses, for example, to account for the “objectivity” of the market, could implicitly be used for any sort of social environment into which any human subject finds themselves “thrown”: single social actors do not, as single social actors, have the capacity to alter any social context – why does the “contemplative” relation of subjects to an object world not characterise all of human history? Lukács’ implicit answer hinges on his argument that capitalism uniquely breaks apart the “organic unity” of the production of use values: lurking in the background here is a notion that subjects realise themselves through their self-externalisation of themselves in material nature, coupled with a tacit romantic glance at skilled handicraft production. “Personality” – which might perhaps realise itself as an active agent in a less fragmented productive environment – lingers into an era in which it figures as nothing more than an idiosyncracy – a “source of error”. With no means available to externalise and thus realise itself as an active, creative agent, it finds itself cordoned off from the object world, which it confronts in a state of contemplation.

It is significant, I would suggest, that, in order to make this argument, Lukács directly juxtaposes – as though they were intended to make the same sort of contribution to Marx’s argument – passages from Capital that are describing commodity fetishism, and much later passages describing the transformation of the labour process that takes place under capitalism, particularly after the introduction of large-scale machinery. These juxtapositions assist Lukács in his attempt to equate Marx’s category of the “fetish”, with Lukács’ own category of “reification”. I would suggest, however, that these two categories point in quite different analytical directions. Marx’s argument about the fetish is intended to account for something that remains unproblematised in Lukács’ argument: the constitution – in the sense of the enactment or performance in collective practice – of the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the forms of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” that are enacted via the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument here is more complex and difficult to express than Lukács’ – I won’t be able to do justice to it in this post (I have, however, erected the scaffolding within which to reconstruct this argument, in the series on the first chapter of Capital, volume one, under the Marx tab above). Here – and still very gesturally and inadequately – I can begin to sketch some of what might be at stake, by looking briefly at the contrasting ways in which Lukács and Marx approach the question of the social constitution of particular forms of equality.

V. All Else Being Equal

Just as Lukács reduces the commodity-structure down to the exchange relation, so he also attempts to explain distinctive ideals of equality with reference to the exchange relation. Once again, this pushes Lukács onto the terrain of personal relations: he speaks of the recognition of formal equality, as one of the “objective” conditions for the exchange of qualitatively incommensurable goods. This is a very common way of accounting for the modern resonance of ideals of equality – to point these ideals back to the conceptualisation of exchange as a form of contract, presupposing the formal equality of contracting parties as in principle self-determining agents who are operating free from coercion, and also presupposing the intrinsic fungibility of the goods being exchanged. Marx will make use of these sorts of arguments, as these sensibilities and their associated forms of practice are dimensions of capitalism. Significantly, however, Marx suggests a different line of argument in the immediate context of his discussion of commodity fetishism. He cites a passage in which Aristotle considers the question of whether the goods exchanged on the market – since these goods are being, in effect, “equated” with one another in social practice – might possess some underlying sort of commonality or identity – whether they might, as the chapter has just discussed, possess the homogeneous supersensible substance of “value”. Aristotle considers the possibility, and rejects it, arguing that exchange is simply a “makeshift for practical purposes”. Marx then suggests why Aristotle failed to arrive at the concept of value, and points this back to the absence of wage labour in classical antiquity. Marx argues:

The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

The “in truth” is sardonic – Marx is miming the forms of analysis of political economy in speaking this way. Political economists might speak as though value has always existed, but Aristotle and other thinkers failed to “discover” it until the present enlightenment enabled us to uncover what has always tacitly been there (remembering here Marx’s characterisation of the political economists, that they speak as though “there used to be history, but there is no longer any”). The argument of the first chapter of Capital, however, is that value was not there to “discover” until the development of the distinctively modern social practices that performatively (if unintentionally) bring “value” into being. Aristotle didn’t overlook the presence of value: value did not yet exist.

This argument connects in complex ways with how Marx understands the social constitution of modern ideals of equality. Value figures in Marx’s analysis as an intangible social substance – as something that cannot be directly perceived, but whose existence can be deduced through observations over time of the non-random transformations of aspects of social experience that are immediately evident to the senses. Value is an implicit social category – its existence must be deduced. This deduction is possible, because non-random (lawlike) patterns of transformation of material nature and social institutions take place over time. The constitution of value is unintentional (social actors are not attempting collectively to generate the patterns Marx labels with the category “value”), and it is impersonal (taking the form of a constantly reset social norm that marginalises social actors who cannot conform).

I have mentioned before that one image or metaphor for thinking about “commodity producing labour”, involves a nested collection of sets, where the largest includes any sort of social practice involved in any way in the reproduction of our social existence, within this, is that subset of activities oriented in some way to producing goods intended to be sold on the market, and within that is the subset of activities that succeed in what Marx calls a salto mortale – activities that survive a process that Marx describes as a reduction of the labour that social actors empirically expend in production, to labour that gets to “count” as part of social labour. This reduction takes place, in Marx’s account, behind the backs of the social actors involved in the process, who have no way of predicting what percentage of their empirical activities will get to “count”: some empirical activities will “count” fully, some partially – some excessively. And this impersonal process, over time, exerts a coercive pressure back on empirical activities themselves, creating incentives and disincentives that tend (probabilistically) to drive empirical activities in non-random directions, conferring a “developmental” directionality on aspects of capitalist history.

Marx argues – and here is where “value” enters the argument – that this impersonal, unintentional process of culling empirical activities down to a smaller subset of activities that “count” as social labour in this very specific sense, can plausibly be interpreted by social actors engaged in the process, not as a collective social process of culling excess investments of empirical labour, down to what “counts”, but rather as a process of discovering how much “value” a material object inherently or intrinsically possesses. In this dimension of collective practice, social actors behave as though something like “value” exists – as though there is a single, intangible, homogeneous substance that is the total social labour, which then comes to be subdivided in greater or lesser proportions among all the products that are empirically produced. Goods are “valued” to the degree that they participate in this intangible substance – and the degree to which they participate in this substance is not discernible when either the use value or the empirical labour invested in the good is examined: it is revealed only in the social interaction among goods – only in the process of exchange.

There is much more to this argument, but I want to break off here, to reflect briefly on the implications of what I’ve written so far, for the question of how to understand the emergence of modern ideals of formal or abstract equality. To the extent that human labour-power is also a commodity under capitalism, it also participates in this culling process – in this coercive “reduction” down from the various labour powers that have been “produced”, to those that get to “count” – partially, fully, or excessively. Social actors engaging with the labour market – whether as buyers or sellers of labour power – have practical, everyday experience with this process of reduction. “Value” – this invisible, intangible, homogeneous substance – flows in greater or lesser degrees through humankind as well, in spite of the array of visible, tangible, empirical differences that materially distinguish humans from one another. Beneath these apparent differences, something common flows through us – we all partake of a similar intangible essence. Marx suggests, in other words, that the strangely counterfactual ideal of equality that develops in tandem (he believes) with capitalism, that exerts a critical force on actual social institutions and over time is used to call into question the importance of immediately sensible differences between humans – that this counterfactual ideal is a plausible articulation of the experience of partaking in the common intangible substance of value. Quite independently of the formal, contractual dimensions of the wage relation or of other sorts of exchange (which also, of course, play their part in reinforcing ideals of equality and experiences of personhood), this unintentional, impersonal reduction of human commodities down to a common, intangible, social “essence”, helps to enact the distinctive qualitative form of modern ideals of human equality.

Through this account, Marx also hopes to render plausible what he regards as pervasive forms of misrecognition, in which these intangible – but, in Marx’s account, socially enacted – qualities are perceived, not as something we have only recently created, but rather as intrinsic essences that we have recently discovered. The argument around misrecognition is, again, quite complex – I won’t be able to recount it here. The argument hinges on a complex and largely tacit set of distinctions concerning the ways in which we perform certain dimensions of our social experience as overtly social – the personal, intersubjective dimensions – while, by contrast, an impersonal social dimension goes unrecognised as social: it plausibly appears “objective” – and, by so appearing, provides us with experience of a set of qualitative characteristics that inform our concept of “objectivity” – a concept that we might plausibly look for or be receptive to in other sorts of impersonal environments – such as material nature…

Much more is required to develop and fully substantiate this argument, let alone to draw attention to the countercurrents and side eddies that curl around the phenomena I have so inadequately described (there is never, for Marx, just one plausible articulation of our collective enactments – and the reproduction of capital, in his account, entails a bewildering multitude of additional enactments, each interacting with one another in complex and dynamic ways). For the moment, just a brief word on the issue of standpoint of critique in relation to this kind of point. As I’ve sketched the argument above, it could sound as though an ideal of equality might hinge on the sort of collective sleight of hand involved in the enactment of value. This is not Marx’s position. Capitalism may have provided the means – quite accidentally – whereby we demonstrated collectively to ourselves that we could simply perform equality – that we could treat one another as equal, at least for certain purposes and in a certain dimension of collective practice – that we could disregard empirically sensible differences in order to perform this social equality, if needed. This accidental discovery opens a space of possibility – a space that becomes potentially wider, once we recognise the collective genesis of this ideal, rather than essentialising it as a “discovery” of something we perceive as having existed all along. This space of possibility might include an exploration of other forms of relation – less formal, less abstract – but attuned to the possibility to create in and around sensible difference, by performing our selves and our relations in a different way. This topic is much too complex to address adequately here – I mention it as only the most passing of references to how Marx conceptualises the potential for the conscious appropriation of potentials that have been constituted – but in alienated form – how, in other words, he understands his standpoint of critique.

This post is a bit of a monstrosity – my deepest apologies. I am trying to capture a set of notes that I hope to develop adequately in other places at other times. I am also trying to come to grips with the difficulty I have in trying to express what I object to in other theoretical approaches, in a circumstance in which the alternative that shapes my objection is just… a great deal more vast, generally, than what I’m objecting to… Working out how to write about this, short of a full thesis-length presentation, is something with which I’m currently wrestling. At the moment, as with this post, I leave out massive amounts, to the point that, while writing is still helpful for me, because I know at least a decent portion of what I would add to flesh the argument out, the posts strike me as though they must be utterly unintelligible and bizarre to anyone reading on. Thanks all for their patience as I write through this morass… Too tired tonight to edit (which, with this post, is possibly a dire mistake…) Take care all…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Reification, pt. 2

9 responses to “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

  1. Carl April 17, 2008 at 9:37 am

    I LOVE this. It’s either not a monstrosity or I’m also a monster, because it seems to make complete sense to me.

    Perhaps it’s because I’ve read Bertell Ollman. He insisted on the relationality of Marx’s categories. But in general I was trained by a series of anti-positivists who always focused on interaction, context, and interpretation.

    I assume that by impersonal, unintentional processes you mean something like ‘structures’; perhaps even what Bourdieu called ‘structured structuring structures’. Or in the full sense of dynamic interactivity, ‘habitus’. We make the world but not in conditions of our own choosing, and all that. I don’t mean to complicate your thought process here, just to indicate that your analysis is for me, at least, flowing into some broader conceptual rivers.

    And by “pervasive forms of misrecognition” I’m supposing you’re linking back in part to the youthful feuerbachian critique of religion? Is ‘value’ something like ‘God’ in being a way we alienate our own power into an apparently-external agency? So in each case the possibility that’s opened up is that we could reclaim that power consciously.

    This for me brings in Durkheim as the middle term between Marx and Bourdieu (Lukacs just looks like a mistake from this perspective). _The Elementary Forms of Religious Life_ elaborates this argument on the misrecognition of contingent social creations, enactments, performances (rituals) as ‘signs’ of something transcendant.

    Thanks N!

  2. N Pepperell April 17, 2008 at 9:46 am

    lol – I’m running at the moment, so I don’t have time to comment adequately, but the thesis chapter I’m currently writing is on (among other things) Marx’s similarity to (elements of) Durkheim 🙂 I see Marx as sounding like a Hegelian, but in a practice-theoretic Durkheimian mode (of course this is a gross simplification, but as a broad brush gesture). I’ve made heavy use of Bourdieu in earlier projects… Gotta run!!

  3. Daniel April 23, 2008 at 12:49 am

    Something leaped out at me while I was reading the post: “This deduction is possible, because non-random (lawlike) patterns of transformation of material nature and social institutions take place over time.” — Was this parenthetical merely meant to clarify the sort of non-randomness involved (lawful non-randomness), or do the parentheses hide a disjunctive syllogism leading to the parenthesized conclusion?

    I ask because it’s easy to forget that there are non-random non-lawlike causal relations between events (such as when I open the fridge because I’m thirsty), and it would be interesting if Marx forgot this, like so many other philosophers have. I don’t know that anything interesting would follow from it, necessarily, but I’d find it interesting in and for itself.

    That it might lead to interesting problems somewhere or other is something I suspect because of Davidsonian/McDowellian concerns. If Marx held reasons and causes apart, this might be a serious problem with his thought. I suspect this might be the case, not having read much of Marx at all, because I’m inclined to think that economic relations develop neither randomly nor by law – they are a normative matter, part of the “space of reasons”. An actor’s beliefs and desires include beliefs about objects (and their value) and desires to perform transactions & transformations of various sorts, etc., and I’d’ve thought that economics was concerned with (generally rarefied) subsets of these and what they entail about how agents interact with one another, with non-agental objects, etc. And since the space of reasons is distinct from the “space of laws” (what Sellars called the “space of nature”), so too would economics be (ironically) non-nomic. Any “law of economics” would be a “law” in the sense that “If you go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line, the Sicilian will win” would be an ironclad law, if true outside of fairy tales.

    I took this to be the manner in which Hegel developed from the “mere” individual subjects of the family to the relations of civil society & the state, and why the rational phenomena brought to light by “political economy” at first seem “incredible, since everything seems to depend on the arbitrary will of the individual” (PoR ss189). Individuals are free to do as they please, and are struck by arbitrary, contingent wants, and so it could seem impossible that there is anything reasonable/universal/necessary in their actions — but it isn’t so. Even this subjective willing is a moment of Absolute Spirit; man’s satisfactions of his natural desires are themselves something geistisch and not (merely) natural. Note that in the “system of needs” we are concerned with what is worthwhile or not — as an example, see the addition to 192: “To this extant, everything particular takes on a social character; in the manner of dress and times of meals, there are social conventions which one must accept, for in such matters, it is not worth the trouble to seek to display one’s own insight, and it is wisest to act as others do.” Surely there are no laws concerning when I eat or what I wear, and equally surely this is not a random matter. Even the necessity spoken of here (“one must”) is transparently non-lawlike — “one must” dine at the same time as others because it’s hard to find a good restaurant that’s open at 4 AM. And naturally there’s nothing lawlike about the convention, either; if others in society begin to dine and accommodate dining at 4 AM, then dining at 4 AM becomes a perfectly viable option. All of this can be comprehended rationally, but this is not a matter of discerning laws of any sort; one comes to understand the wisdom in “acting as others do” by grasping that this is the most convenient way to achieve one’s particular ends.

    This has all been irrelevant side-talk if “lawlike” was merely meant to clarify “non-random”. In that case, since no particular laws have actually been mentioned, it would be presumptuous of me in the extreme to grouse about treating as “laws” what is non-nomic, since the “laws” in question might merely be of the “Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line” sense.

  4. N Pepperell April 23, 2008 at 1:24 am

    Okay 🙂 Now that we have your comment back where it belongs…

    My impulse is to say we might need to spend a bit of time talking back and forth to figure out whether we have the same sort of problem in mind. I’ll take a stab – caveat that it is very late here, and so my judgement about how to approach your question might not be the sharpest at this exact moment… 😉

    Marx is trying to talk about unintentional order – about what might in contemporary terms be called a problem of emergence. The vocabulary he has at his disposal for expressing this, unfortunately, is the vocabulary of “law”. I’ve written occasionally before about how the terminology of “law”, for Marx, doesn’t mean some sort of hard necessity – he’s gesturing at something more like a probabilistic tendency, an unintentional regularity that becomes manifest in social practice, even though social actors are not (individually or collectively) intending to bring this specific tendency about. This sort of “law” doesn’t quite occupy the space of causal necessity – at least as this is ordinarily conceived – since it’s constituted (Marx would argue) contingently (transformably) in social practice – but it also doesn’t occupy the space of a normative law, as it isn’t constituted intersubjectively. Marx is trying to address the question of why long-term historical patterns of certain sorts might arise, if these are not due to “natural” laws, and if they are also not due to overt social convention.

    One implication of his argument, I would think, is that the intuitive dichotomy between natural law and social norm misses a third possibility – a possibility he thinks is particularly important to thematise in order to grasp the reproduction of capital. Reflexively, he would also want to explain why it is tempting to see natural law vs. social norm as the available options for thematising regularity – and why it might be more difficult to think “emergent” regularities…

    In the passage above, I was using the vocabulary of “law” because Marx uses this vocabulary in the passages I’m summarising – in other contexts, moving less quickly through this argument, I would spend more time translating Marx’s vocabulary into more contemporary terms (apologies: this series of posts that I classify under the “Marxes” category are sort of notes to myself, and therefore tend to shorthand a great deal – it’s not ideal for public posting, but the discussions that come up are still useful for me). The quick summary above was just gesturing at the peculiar sort of critique Marx offers of, for lack of a better term, synchronic empiricism: Capital returns over and over again to the point that certain phenomena cannot be seen if you look at an object either as that object is frozen at a certain point in time, or as it stands isolated from various sorts of practical relationships. Readings of Marx that flatten categories like “value” into categories of market exchange are often missing this dimension of his argument, and are thinking he is trying to talk about a very different sort of abstraction than I think he’s trying to talk about with these specific categories. So, with someone like Lukács, Marx’s argument is interpreted as a critique of the ways in which the qualitative sensuous diversity of goods comes to be flattened into a quantitative measure: my point was that Marx certainly does discuss this, but the category of “value” is attempting to grasp something else.

    Apologies if this is really unclear or doesn’t hit your question: I’ve been up for close to 24 hours 🙂 – and have been running for much of that time, so this may not be an ideal state in which to respond… 😉

  5. Daniel April 23, 2008 at 10:52 am

    “I’ve written occasionally before about how the terminology of “law”, for Marx, doesn’t mean some sort of hard necessity – he’s gesturing at something more like a probabilistic tendency, an unintentional regularity that becomes manifest in social practice, even though social actors are not (individually or collectively) intending to bring this specific tendency about. This sort of “law” doesn’t quite occupy the space of causal necessity – at least as this is ordinarily conceived – since it’s constituted (Marx would argue) contingently (transformably) in social practice – but it also doesn’t occupy the space of a normative law, as it isn’t constituted intersubjectively. Marx is trying to address the question of why long-term historical patterns of certain sorts might arise, if these are not due to “natural” laws, and if they are also not due to overt social convention.”

    I’m not sure that the distinction between “hard necessity” and more probabilistic forms of laws is an important one. Quantum mechanics deals with irrecucibly probabilistic laws, but it’s still a mechanics, a system of external necessity. There are (probabilistic) laws regarding how the “wavicles” will behave, and the wavicles operate in strict conformity to them (with all variance being due to sheer randomness in how the waveforms collapse, which randomness is itself part of the laws). The wavicles themselves do not influence the laws. This sort of model is clearly inadequate when discussing things like sociological or economic phenomena; geisteswissenschaftlich “laws” are related “symbiotically” to the people whose doings they describe, and vary with changes in time, place, etc just as people do.

    I can sympathize when it comes to the problem of older authors using terms we are nowadays more squeamish about. Hegel too speaks of “laws” and of “necessity” when discussing civil society, though the context makes it clear that he’s concerned with an entirely normative, contingent sort of law & necessity. (This is, of course, not the only place in which Hegel’s choice of words is less than ideal for contemporary purposes, and the problem is one generally confronted when dealing with historical figures.)

    I’m not sure why the sorts of “necessities” Marx is concerned with wouldn’t be normative ones. I’m also not sure what to make of your denial that agents are not “(individually or collectively) intending” to bring them about. There are all sorts of interesting phenomena that come into view when you get a lot of different agents all acting around & with one another, and these seem to be the sort of thing Marx is concerned with. That they might come about needn’t have been anyone’s intention, nor need they take the form of an explicit rule (a convention) once they are brought to light, but they are still inexpressible without resort to normative vocabulary, including both de re and de dicto attributions of intentions to agents.

    As an example, consider a simple economic situation: Alvin can either produce widgets at a rate of 30 per day and geegaws at a rate of 10 per day, or geegaws at a rate of 100 per day and widgets at a rate of 2 per day. Betty can either produce widgets at a rate of 50 per day and geegaws at a rate of 2 per day, or geegaws at a rate of 40 per day and widgets at a rate of 10 per day. Suppose widgets and geegaws are useless by themselves; only a pair of a widget and a geegaw is worth anything. Suppose that the more of these pairings either party has, the happier they are, and neither one cares a lick about how happy the other one is — suppose each one’s only de re intention is to make him/herself happy. It is easy to show that each will best satisfy their intention by having Alvin produce 100 geegaws per day and having Betty produce 50 widgets per day, and then exchanging widgets for geegaws so that both parties end up with 26 widget/geegaw pairs per day, which is 16 more pairs than either could produce on their own.

    By exchanging their products, Alvin & Betty both act in such a way as to maximize the happiness of both of them, though neither intended to make the other happy. And neither did they make each other happy through an explicit convention — that there was greater mutual happiness in the end result of the transaction than would have been possible without it is something that was not established by a convention, nor was it intended by either party; it is a matter of indifference to both parties, and so if there was any such convention neither would have any reason to pay attention to it. Nor is this fact expressible without reference to the normative statuses of Alvin & Betty; that trade was in their mutual interest is something which was entirely dependent on Alvin & Betty having the desires etc. which they had. If they had not desired widget/geegaw pairings, but were equally satisfied with both individual widgets and individual geegaws, then trade would not have been in the interest of both of them; Alvin’s happiness would be maximized by simply holding on to his 102 products, and he would have no incentive to interact with Betty; Alvin would not have acted so as to increase Betty’s happiness, nor Betty Alvin’s.

    So “the happiness of both was increased by the pursuit of the self-interest of each” was true without being intended, without being a convention, without being independent of the agents’ particular normative statuses, and without there being any element of randomness or probability involved. This isn’t a trivial result, either, since it might have prima facie seemed plausible that for either party to increase the happiness of both of them, they would either have to have intended to do this, or at least not intended solely to increase their own happiness; it might have sounded plausible that pursuit of my self-interest was necessarily opposed to “the common good”. I think this sort of finding is irreducibly normative, non-lawlike, non-random, is irreducible to any individual’s psychological states, and is contingent on what is the case in many other contingent matters from which it can often be derived (thus giving it a sort of contingent necessity, []). The geisteswissenschaften can thus seem really weird if your model for “scientific knowledge” is something like Newton’s physics, Darwin’s biology, mechanistic psychology, or the other modern paradigms of “Topics we have firmly established our knowledge on”.

    I think talk of “emergence” refers to an area that can be a locus of philosophical confusion, but does nothing to clarify the matter. What “emerges” seems like it has to have come from somewhere, or else it came from nowhere. But surely this is a confused idiom; an “emergent phenomena” is not like a jack-in-the-box. Certain vocabularies are not usefully employed, and then they become useful to take up; this is all there is to such topics as “the emergence of the mental from the biological”. Trying to treat “emergence” as an ontological matter is like trying to carry a cello by the strings — it’s not good for the instrument, and you won’t be able to get a good grip.

    I’ve rambled on a bit, but this seemed like the most direct way to approach the topic. As I said, I’ve hardly read any Marx, so I’m having to come at the issue sideways. I suspect that Marx (on your reading, at least) sees that certain approaches to “the study of man” are blind alleys, but I’m not yet sure what his alternative approach amounts to.

  6. N Pepperell April 23, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Hi Daniel – Thanks for this. A qualification to begin with that my previous comment, and quite likely this one too, may hit around what you are looking for: one of the issues that arises in discussing this material across disciplines is that a shared vocabulary and sense of the underlying problem being addressed, needs to be worked out in the course of conversations. Certain distinctions are important or pick out problem areas in particular intellectual “spaces”, but can be taken for granted, or pick out completely different problems areas, in others – my experience has been that there is often a bit of triangulation involved in making sure we have the same object in view. Apologies in advance if I’m not yet hitting the mark.

    I agree on the issue of probabilistic laws – sometimes I need to explain this, as there’s a certain tendency to read Marx’s references to laws mechanistically. Obviously not a clarification you need 🙂 – but, as I said, a bit of triangulation is involved in these discussions. Similarly with the term “emergence” – I agree with you that this term is often treated in ontologistic ways, and that a great deal of unproductive confusion often clouds its use – my intention above was simply to gesture metaphorically – I might have used the term “structure” instead (and thus introduce a similar set of problems and concerns 😉 ). In either case, my intention was to try to provide some reference points for the type of reading of Marx I am attempting – for the sorts of claims I’m trying to make.

    As it happens, these reference points are probably not useful in this particular discussion, because your questions weren’t being offered from a place where those shorthand phrases would have been meaningful.

    I am engaging in what, on one level, are a set of somewhat pedantic domestic squabbles over the meaning of this particular bit of text. These domestic squabbles do have broader ramifications (although still bounded to the particular concern of how to pick out what “capitalism” is, as an object of analysis, and how to understand its practical constitution in collective practice). But much of what I’ve written above has been, if this makes sense, an attempt to gesture very quickly to where I am in the household, so that other inhabitants can come yell at me face-to-face, rather than storming around the house, opening doors only to find that I’m not standing behind them. This sort of domestic dispute, to be clear, isn’t at all the only sort of conversation I’m hoping to have here – otherwise, I wouldn’t put this sort of material up on a blog. I’m just explaining why my earlier gestures at definining my position might have been less than useful.

    I’ll back up and try to approach from a different direction – with the concern that we may be trying to have different sorts of conversation. In the post above, I was trying to clarify a very small portion of Capital – a portion that gets cited a lot, and that tends to get interpreted in specific ways. It’s an important bit of text, but it’s not the entirety of Marx’s argument. More importantly, it’s not a metatheoretical argument that seeks to make general claims about abstract objects like the “study of man” or “economics” or “society”. It’s a very specific argument about one particular implication of the ways in which the reproduction of capital plays out in specific sorts of social practices.

    There is a tendency to read Marx’s argument about the “fetish” as an argument about the sort of abstraction that takes place in the course of market exchange. Your latest comment gives an extended example of one of the sorts of “abstraction” that is sometimes said to take place in the interactions that comprise a market – your example hits on the notion that a market is something like a “system” that coordinates the consequences of individual actions, independently of the intention of the individuals engaging in those actions. It is not unusual for critics of Marx to read Marx as himself a critic of the “systemic” character of markets. Read this way, Marx looks a bit like a romantic critic – someone who wants to get rid of the “alienating” dimensions of the systems sphere, and take us back to the days when social interactions were “intersubjective” and meaningful (Habermas seems, for example, to read Marx this way – and therefore to dismiss him as a romantic, utopian thinker).

    Part of what I am trying to do, on a textual level, is to show that the argument about the fetish simply isn’t an argument about the “systemic” character of the market. The form of “abstraction” Marx is criticising in this section of Capital isn’t this sort of abstraction. In the process, of course, I then need to try to explain what sort of abstraction Marx is trying to talk about instead. My argument (and I’m simplifying all through this comment, so apologies again…) is that the “abstraction” Marx is trying to pick out is a sort of historical pattern that unfolds over time. At this point in the text – and this is one of many reasons my account here will remain a bit murky – the nature of this historical pattern has not been very completely specified: Marx has made only a few gestures about tendencies to enforce the adoption of higher levels of productivity, combined with tendencies not to phase out the need for human labour inputs, and a few other, similarly gestural and underdeveloped, moves.

    The focus of this chapter isn’t yet to develop a full argument about the nature of the pattern being analysed, still less an argument about the pattern is constituted by social actors who aren’t trying to create a pattern (so, in terms of your comments on emergence: Marx will attempt to show how something might “emerge” – but not yet – he’s trying to do something else at this point in the text). The focus of this chapter is, instead, to begin to mount a case (which will then continue to be developed in future chapters) that there is a tendency (or, perhaps more adequately, a risk) that social actors will tend to read certain qualitative traits that (in Marx’s argument) derive from the qualitative properties of this enacted pattern, off into intrinsic “supersensible” properties of people and things. The “fetish” is this particular misstep. Marx suggests that this misstep makes it intuitive for social actors to perceive tthe “self”, “society”, “history”, and “material nature” in certain distinctive ways. The argument here is practice theoretic – he is beginning to show how we act out certain ways of being in the world that then find expression in various more explicit forms of theory – without anyone needing to make any sort of conscious or deliberate decision to bring this situation about, and yet without this situation being in any way “intrinsic” or inevitable.

    It may sound intuitive or obvious that there should be a category for types of entities that are neither “intersubjective” in the sense of constituted in some sort of meaning-giving form of communicative interaction, nor “natural” in the sense of intrinsic. This dichotomy is, however, quite strong in a great deal of social theory – particularly if the category of the “natural” is expanded to encompass elements of social practice that we are aware have been created, but that we believe are technically required in order to maintain, i.e., a certain level of complexity, or size of population, or similar. Marx is trying to set up for an argument that these sorts of technical necessities, as well as more naive forms of naturalisation, derive from confusions that result from a failure to grasp how certain sorts of historical patterns are generated in practice.

    I can’t develop the point to any plausibility in this context, and I also haven’t given enough information even to explain what sort of difference it might make to a social theory to try to underscore the point that Marx doesn’t equate capitalism with “the market” – I’m attempting here just to gesture at the sort of problem that’s being addressed. I might still be floating well to the side of what you’d like to discuss – we’ll see how we go.

    I have to go straight from hitting post into a meeting for the rest of the day, so no proofing of this – hopefully that won’t confuse things even more than they might otherwise have been. 😉

    Take care…

  7. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Close Reading of the Naming of the Fetish

  8. Pingback: Position and movement « Dead Voles

  9. Pingback: » Articulating Positions

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