Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Close Reading of the Naming of the Fetish

The entire long series on the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, was written as an exercise in unpacking Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism. En route, the series has done much more than that – but it has also done a bit less. Among other things, I’ve never gotten around to detailed textual analysis of the passages in which the argument about commodity fetishism is immediately presented. One of the things that I’ve been noticing, as I read other commentaries that attempt to interpret these same passages, is that certain specific “moves” in Marx’s argument tend not to be mentioned, or tend to be glossed in ways that, from the standpoint of my own reading, seem fundamentally to alter the thrust of the argument. What I want to do in this post – and this likely won’t make for entertaining reading – is to move through the first several paragraphs of the text somewhat closely, to gather together some notes on how I read this argument.

Marx begins:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.

I have suggested in earlier posts in this series that the “empiricist” voice that opens Capital sees the commodity this way: as a “given” – an irreducible “elementary form” whose characteristics can easily be perceived. The “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices introduced as the chapter unfolds call into question the apparent self-evidence of the commodity, enabling Marx to say, at this point in the text:

Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

Why does the commodity possess such “metaphysical” properties? Almost all commentaries get the first step in Marx’s argument, which is that the use values of commodities cannot account for the strange properties Marx has discussed through his exposition of the “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices:

So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.

Many commentaries, however, want to interpret this statement in terms of a dichotomy between use value and exchange value – to assume that Marx is setting up here for an argument that use value is not mysterious, but exchange on the market introduces some sort of mystification. Where commentaries put forward this line of analysis, they often overlook or else interpret away the next move of Marx’s argument, which discusses how there is also nothing mysterious about the component parts that make up value:

Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.

So the “parts” of the commodity, as these have been determined at this point in the argument, do not – as parts – account for the genesis of the mystification Marx has associated with the commodity-form. So where does the mystification come from? From the unique relation in which these parts have come to be brought together and connected to one another, in a situation of generalised commodity production:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.

The strong assumption that Marx is primarily concerned with opposing use value to exchange value, in order to make exchange value the primary target of his critique, tends to make it very difficult for commentators to grasp what the text is doing here. Marx is not distinguishing use value at the beginning of this section, in order to praise use value for its demystified character. He is trying to distinguish use value along with other parts of the commodity-form – the parts associated with value, as parts, are treated as no more mysterious here than the part that is marked out by the term “use value”. The argument here is not that we need to find a privileged “part” to serve as our standpoint of critique – it is, instead, that, if all we do, in analysing the commodity-form, is break it down into parts and examine those, then we will never be able to understand the genesis of certain “metaphysical” qualitative properties that Marx has been analysing throughout this chapter. This argument, in other words, is a further development of Marx’s critique of naive empiricism: he is arguing here that no amount of breaking things down into their components will ever answer the question he is trying to pose – proceeding in that manner will only lead to a point where the analysis must naturalise or treat as given the qualities Marx is trying to grasp.

Those qualities, Marx is arguing, do not arise from some “part” of the commodity-form – but from this form itself – from what happens, in other words, when these particular parts are brought together into a relation of a particular sort. The strategic thrust of this moment of the text is not to direct our attention to the mystifications of market exchange, but instead to direct our attention to the need to analyse parts only in and through an understanding of the relationships within which those parts are suspended.

(For those who have been reading regularly, my point here is similar to the one I expressed in developing the distinctions between Lukács and Marx: Lukács treats the commodity-form as a category that expresses exchange on the market – a form of practice with a very long historical provenance – and therefore views what is historically new in capitalism as the product of the quantitative expansive of this very old practice; Marx, by contrast, treats the commodity-form as a category specific to capitalism, expressive of a new social relation in which market exchange and other sorts of practices have recently come to be embedded, therefore fundamentally transforming the qualitative characteristics of these older forms of practice, by placing these practices into new relations. The relations, as well as the parts, have qualitative characteristics – and the argument about the fetish, in part, is an argument about how the qualitative characteristics of the relationship have come to be read off onto the parts, so that certain qualitative characteristics are read as intrinsic attributes, when these characteristics are instead, according to Marx, the contingent products of the suspension of the parts into a particular whole.)

The next few sentences are very compressed. Marx argues:

The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.

Many commentaries see these sentences, again, as a reference to market exchange – to the abstraction from qualitative specificity and therefore the equation of goods and people that occurs when these are exchanged on the market for money. I see the argument here as much more complex than this – the Lukács piece cited above, particularly the discussion of equality in the final section, begins to outline how I see this argument, as does my earlier discussion of Diane Elson’s work. I won’t replicate that content in this post. The short version is that – at this particular moment in the text – I don’t take Marx to be talking about the reduction of everything, through market exchange, to the common denominator of money. I take Marx to be talking instead – again remembering this is an extended critique of naive empiricism – about how social actors have no way of knowing how much of the labour they empirically expend in production, will get to “count” as part of “social labour”, until market exchange reveals this result. Marx argues that this structuration of collective practice – in which social actors only find out after the fact whether, and to what extent, their activities get to “count” as part of social labour – can be seen as social actors enacting a distinction between empirical labouring activities (which can be directly perceived by the senses), and some subset of those activities whose empirical extent will only be known after market exchange takes place. This process of culling activities empirically undertaken, down to activities that get to “count”, Marx argues is tantamount to collectively treating certain activities as though they possess a “supersensible” essence – which Marx names “value” – thus enacting “value” as an intangible social reality.

Marx will later talk about the creation of value (and surplus value) as a process that takes place both inside and outside of circulation: the market isn’t the only institution relevant to the social process being shorthanded here. At this point in the text, Marx hasn’t yet introduced the categories he will need, to make the nature of his argument more overt, and so it is easier to “hear” the text as an argument about circulation. It is particularly important to remember that Marx is gradually unspooling further determinations of his initial categories all the way through the text, such that the argument at any particular moment, is expressed only in terms of the categories he has derived to that point: he adopts this strategy because he thinks it’s the only way to reveal the relationships that connect the categories to one another, in the context of an argument whose primary objective is to disentangle the qualitative characteristics and potentials of that relationship, from the qualitative characteristics and potentials of various moments. This makes the strategic thrust of the early moments of Capital difficult to appreciate, until further along in the text. Unfortunately, the received impression that Marx is trying to make an argument about “the market”, combined with the focus on circulation in the opening chapters of Capital, can occlude the strategic thrust of the text overall.

Marx then moves to a set of analogies. First, from the physical sciences:

In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things.

What Marx is reaching for here, I would suggest, is an example that involves a relation that comes to be misperceived as an object – where the emphasis is on the relationality of the example – on the need to grasp the relation, in order to grasp the process. Marx seems to realise the risk of this analogy, in the course of an argument against the tendency to treat the qualitative characteristics of social relations as the intrinsic properties of natural objects, and so reaches immediately for a more social analogy. Here he turns to religion:

But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.

Here Marx tries to drill in that he is not trying to talk about some natural property, which comes to be filtered through socialised perception into some particular form. He is trying to talk about a distinctive sort of social entity – something entirely enacted in collective practice. He thinks his readers will find it intuitive to think of religion in this way – as a collective practice in which social actors behave as though intangible, supersensible creatures exist. This analogy has its limits as well, however: Marx worries that his readers will think that the supersensible entities of religious practice are the products of shared belief – “products of the human brain”, as Marx puts it. This also isn’t quite what Marx is reaching for: social actors (aside from the occasional political economist or philosopher) don’t need to “believe” in the existence of supersensible entities like “value”, in order to organise their collective practice to behave as though such entities exist. This is what Marx is trying to capture with his next sentence:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.

So it is this collective enactment of supersensible entities like value, which social actors effect unintentionally, that suspends the “parts” of the commodity-form into the distinctive relation that produces the “metaphysical” traits Marx has been analysing in this chapter. It is here that Marx finally gives this process a name:

This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

10 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Close Reading of the Naming of the Fetish

  1. bob allen April 26, 2008 at 4:18 am

    This is quite interesting, and a much appreciated exposition. Thanks..

  2. Tom Bunyard April 27, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Hi, I hope all is well

    OK, I’ve just finished reading through all that, and to be honest I’m a little confused as to:
    1) Why are you so concerned with the first chapter
    2) Your claim about the constitution of value.

    As regards the former: the structure of Capital doesn’t involve a move from an essence to an appearance (which would imply that the opening sections are more ‘true’ than Vol. 3, for example), but rather from the abstract to the concrete. These opening sections will become subsumed into more developed, more conmcrete determinations.

    I make that point not because I’m being petty, but because I think my second question arises from this.
    It seemed that the really substantial part of your argument was the following claim:

    ‘social actors’ don’t know to what extent the labour time that they’ve expended will count as socially necessary labour until they get to market. the labour process thus ‘enacts’ a distinction between labour itself and the quantity of that labour that will be realised on the market.

    I’ve got two problems: the first is with ‘social actors’, and the second is with teh production of value.
    At this very early stage of Capital – simple exchange – we’re looking at independent producers who make their own commodities and exchange them on the market – i.e. we haven’t introduced class yet. It’s only later that we’ll find that producing property for exchange in fact involves expropriation. Real exchange is conducted for a wage, and involves teh extraction of surplus value.

    Consequently, isn’t this section a little early in the text to be extracting these concerns with concrete social relations? if you start developing this stuff now, aren’t you going to end up with something that effaces the distinction between capitalist and worker?

    ‘social actors’ never know how much of the labour time expended in production will be realised in exchange; bosses don’t add up units of labour time and speculate on that basis. And workers don’t either, as all they care about is a wage. Neither party ever have any way of knowing how much labour will count as socially necessary labour, and they never bother to find out… and that’s the very essence of the fetish and of the ‘appearances’ of capital, which is: value appears to be something distinct from labour. Perhaps it’s just the way you phrased it, but it seems that this is being effaced slightly as you imply that these actors are in some way in tune with concepts of labour time and socially necessary labour time.

    If I remember rightly, in Volume 3 Marx describes putting money in the bank and watching it grow as if by magic as ‘epitomising’ the fetish. It appears as though value is independent of labour, but of course it’s not – the deposited money is being lent out, applied in production and valourised.

  3. N Pepperell April 27, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    Hi Tom – Thanks for this. I won’t be able to answer in a fully adequate way in a comment, but I’ll make a few gestures to try to point in the direction of where I’m heading.

    In terms of why I focus so much on the first chapter: in part, because it gives me a focussed narrative frame for teasing out some issues that interest me in relation to Marx’s work – many of these points could be made with reference to other sections of the text, but this particular section of text is well-known and often (from my point of view) misinterpreted, and so working out a reading of this section is a useful means of drawing attention to what I am trying to thematise. In part, I think there is much more going on in this chapter than is often realised, and so it’s a rich and productive focal point for analysis.

    A small point: I’m not certain why you make the comment that the structure of Capital doesn’t head from essence to appearance? Are you suggesting that something in what I’ve written, suggests that I read the work this way? I do think the first chapter is making an argument about the ways in which certain consequences of social practice come to be plausibly mistaken for intrinsic (material or social) essences, but this isn’t intended as part of an argument that the text of Capital moves from essence to appearance overall (although there are some readings – Postone’s comes to mind – that do sort of make this claim – and that wouldn’t see this as contradicting a notion that the work moves from abstract to concrete).

    On the issue of the text moving from abstract to concrete: I agree with this, but I may not agree in the way this statement is often interpreted. When people talk about Marx’s “abstractions”, this often seems to mean something like “conceptual generalisations” – abstractions in thought. I tend to think that Marx is actually dealing with abstractions in practice – so that the earliest sections aren’t simply making some sort of analytical abstraction, but are setting up for an argument about the collective enactment of an abstract entity – an entity that isn’t just something we think, but something we do – something, in fact, that we were doing quite a while before we started thinking about it: Marx’s analysis tends consistently to link forms of thought back to forms of collective practice those forms of thought express. This method is already operative in the first chapter – a lot of my writing is trying to work out how to express the practice-theoretic referent active at this point in the text.

    In terms of what you say about this point in the text operating at the level of “simple exchange”, with wage labour and surplus value yet to come: I’ve thematised this issue in a number of other posts and papers. With an important qualification: the way I understand the text to be structured, Marx is unspooling presuppositions – the introduction of later categories like wage labour or surplus value, is done in such a way as to demonstrate that these categories were always already operative – that earlier categories presuppose them as social conditions.

    So, in a sense, there is no “simple exchange” – not as a freestanding social or economic system: there is a moment or an aspect in a much more complex and overarching social process, that can plausibly (but incorrectly) be perceived as “simple exchange”, if this moment is hypostatised or taken to be able to exist in isolation from the overarching process of which it forms a component part. There is no world of “independent producers who make their own commodities and exchange them on the market” – except as a fleeting moment of a very different kind of social relation: Marx’s analysis moves by demonstrating that the presupposition of any notion of a world of independent producers exchanging their goods on the market, is actually full-blown capitalism – whose characteristics and trends are very different from those assumed to pertain, if someone thinks they are analysing a system characterised by simple commodity production and exchange. By the same token, Marx doesn’t hold that there was some point in the historical past at which some sort of simple commodity exchange existed, and then developed into capitalism: he is offering a critique of a certain “just so” story about simple commodity exchange, by attempting to demonstrate why the just so story might become plausible, given certain tendencies or characteristics within fully developed capitalism.

    Your comments about it being too early to be discussing social relations in relation to the first chapter, assume that the only “social relation” that concerns Marx, is the class relation. This isn’t how I read his argument. I take the “social relation” to be the commodity form. What the commodity form means, as a social relation, then gets unfolded over the course of the entire first volume – and the discussion of class is of course part of this determination (I’ve discussed in a number of previous posts and in formal papers how the understanding of the opening categories is transformed by the introduction of the category of wage labour – it’s not that I think the issue is unimportant – it’s that I think all of the categories are meant to be understood relationally – which means that yanking wage labour or class out of the network of relations can be as misleading as sticking with the initial, naive empiricist, description of the “commodity” as a “thing”, with which Capital opens). I’m trying to pay attention to each of the determinations, rather than seize on traditionally privileged determinations that fit into a sense of what Marx “must” be arguing in this text. I would see this as rather the opposite of effacing the distinctions Marx is trying to make…

    On your points about social actors being unaware of value: of course. This has been a central theme in any number of posts here. The post above isn’t relying on a notion that social actors are aware of what they are enacting – this is why the analogy with religion, although Marx suggests it as a means of explaining what he’s trying to achieve, doesn’t fully work as an analogy, and he then moves to the phrasing that social actors are effecting value “with their hands”. If I had analysed the subsequent paragraphs of this section, I would eventually have come to the passage where Marx explicitly argues that social actors don’t know what they are doing, but they do it anyway. When I mention above that Capital relies on a critique of naive empiricism, I am referring explicitly to the various ways in which social actors have no way of knowing things like how much of their empirical labour gets to “count”.

    What the first chapter does, in part, is explore some of the possible articulations of the experience of living in a context characterised by this strange sort of culling down of empirical activities, to activities that get to “count”. Marx suggests, again among other things, that certain characteristic forms of thought become socially plausible – they resonate or become intuitive – because of the day-to-day experience of living in such a world. Certain sorts of beliefs in intrinsic “essences”, Marx is suggesting, become plausible, because social actors – quite unintentionally – are behaving as though certain intangible entities exist: they are enacting or performing the social substance of value into being – at this point in the text, we don’t know how (and your comments above about the later volumes are salient here, but this isn’t yet what I am trying to analyse) – but Marx is already beginning to explore some of the implications of this world, even if it will take quite a bit more work to unfold his full story about how the world gets created…

    There are of course limitations in discussing this sort of point non-systematically, in the way I have done over the past year on the blog. I suspect we don’t have a strong disagreement – I’m just trying to tarry with the analysis, rather than cutting to the chase of an argument about class relations or exploitation: those arguments are certainly there, in the text, but there’s a great deal more going on. I’m trying to draw attention to some of that “more”…

  4. Tom Bunyard April 27, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    I brought the essence-appearance thing came up because I was reading an absolutely crushing book review of one of Postone’s texts; it seemed that some of the stuff you were saying was similar in part to the issues that the reviewers objected to.

    …which is perhaps why commentd this morning might have sounded a little hostile or pompous; if that was teh case I’m very sorry, as it certainly wasn’t intended.

    Anyway, compressing your post we have the following issues:
    1) Concentrating on the first section of Capital;
    2) Abstractions in practice
    3) class

    1) OK, fair enough; but as Marx is above all concerned with real, concrete reality and how to go about changing it, I do get a little fidgety when people concentrate on those opening sections as if they’re the sum truth of the whole thing (I’m not accusing you of doing that). Yes, you can make the claim that the later determinations are all implict within the earlier ones – but cincentrating on them to the detriment of teh later ones starts to get very close to inverting Marx, i.e. turning him into a philosopher concerned with abstractions. I read those opening sections as the ‘analytical abstractions’ that you disagree with, so:

    2) I don’t realy follow what an ‘abstraction in practice is’, not havign read your previous posts on the subject. Could you sketch this out for me, very briefly?
    Is it the case that you’re saying that simple commodity exchange in the first chapter is actually an anthropological account, i.e. that its a description of real events? I understand this section as Marx starting out from the conclusions of bourgeois economy, i.e that we’re all effectively independent producers fairly exchanging things for a wage. He then goes on to show that the relation of objects in exchange are the appearance of subjects in labour relations (the fetish), and then shows that those labour relations involve expropriation (surplus value extraction). Consequently, the argument is that bouregois economists can’;t see past the fetish: they view value as an intrinsic property of the thing, don’t see the importance of labour, and hence don’t see the ‘swindle’ of surplus value.
    So, I understand these opening sections as conceptual abstractions, presented in order to make an argument, and which will be subsumed by later more concrete determinations.

    I guess when you talk about ‘abstractions in practice’ what you’re getting at is the sense in which real, concrete practice perpetuates capital and value relations…?

    3) Why is Marx writing this book? he’s not just doing anthropology; he thinks present social relations are fundamentally flawed, and ready to develop into something better. This flaw is the expropriation of one class by another. Consequently, surely the whole thing is about class? That’s not to say that the social forms and practice stuff that you’re interested in doesn’t come in to play; it’s juts that I think those forms are class relations.

    …as you said above I think we may be saying the same thing but with slightly different words in some respects. I’m not feeling very well at the moment and my brain is working very slowly, so if I’m just parroting things I’m sorry

  5. N Pepperell April 27, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Hey Tom – Thanks for this – it makes what you were reacting to a bit clearer – I’ll see if I can respond in a more useful way (with the caveat that some of what i’m trying to is difficult for me to say briefly, partially because it’s intrinsically hard to say briefly, and partially due to limitations in my own writing) – we’ll see how we go.

    At some point, I should write something systematic on Postone – I like his work on the structuration of time, and I also read Marx as an immanent reflexive theorist (although I think I understand this concept somewhat differently than Postone does, but I’ve cribbed the vocabulary from the Frankfurt School, as he does I think, while repurposing it to express something a bit different – this vocabulary crossover could be responsible for some of your reaction: I’ve had other people assimilate my work to Lukacs, for similar reasons I think: the vocabulary sounds like it “belongs” in that Frankfurt School space). I don’t agree with Postone’s take on abstract labour (and as a result I understand the meanings of the key categories and the way the analysis unfolds in Capital very differently). I also think Postone buys himself unnecessary grief by jumping from a conclusion that many forms of Marxism would be comfortable with – that “labour” is central to capitalism, and the abolition of capitalism entails the abolition of the proletariat – to claims that suggest that the proletariat therefore cannot be a political subject: he may nor may not mean to say this, but elements of his work suggest it – and those suggestions, I think, then tend to cause his work to be bashed, often in a somewhat ungenerous way, by reviewers. In any event: I don’t have a dog in his fight, but I’ve seen reviews of his work too – they are often very harsh 🙂

    I actually completely understand your reaction about focussing on the first section – I have this reaction too, as perverse as it may sound from how much time I’ve spent writing on it. You can feel when readings have gotten hung up in, say, the derivation of the money form, or just on the first few chapters… I hadn’t realised above that this is what you were worrying about. If it helps, I’m spending a lot of time writing on this section, in part because of this tendency – I’m just trying to nail a particular way of expressing what is going on in this chapter, in part driven by a similar motivation to stop readings getting stuck on it, like moths to a flame. My reading of the initial chapter is driven from a reading of the whole – and in the thesis itself the discussion of the first chapter doesn’t occupy anywhere near the proportional space it has on the blog. I’ve just been trying to nail the text down in a very thorough way, precisely because it tends to get sound-bited to death – I’ve been working out various ways of explaining why the sound-biting approach doesn’t work – why a sense of the overarching logic of the text is needed in order to make sense of the various moments…

    It may not be a strategically sound thing to do 🙂 The nice thing about the thesis is that there is a sense in which the whole thing can be regarded as draftwork – obsessive draftwork, but something that can ultimately be set aside, blank page, to present the argument later in a different way.

    The “abstraction in practice” thing is something I have a very hard time expressing (which is one of the other reasons I keep tracking back over the same material – trying, in a sense, to hold some things constant, while I change around how I’m trying to express the same core concept). Marx complicates matters further by himself talking about abstraction in very different ways – there are methodological statements about how he uses “abstraction” as his tool (and of course he does, and a lot of my work relies on showing what this means in his work, as well); there are places where he clearly has a critique of other people’s “conceptual abstractions” in mind; and then there’s the thing I’ve mainly been trying to hit on across a number of recent posts, which Marx sometimes calls “abstraction with a practical truth” – which I’ve called “practical abstraction” above. This last sort of abstraction relies on a sort of pragmatist argument – that something can exist because we collectively behave as though it does. The categories of abstract labour and value in the first chapter, I have been suggesting, are abstractions of this sort: they aren’t just “conceptual” abstractions – they are “objective” (socially) – they are consequences of things we do.

    Because no one is setting out to behave as though “value” exists – no one needs to “believe” in value – its existence has to be “discovered” – we have to notice that there is a sort of pattern being acted out in collective practice. The nature of this pattern is still quite underspecified in the first chapter, and the first chapter tells us almost nothing about how or why an unintentional pattern might be acted out – the first chapter, does, though, begin to explore some of the forms of thought that might become plausible or intuitive to social actors who are engaged in practice with a context in which this sort of pattern is being enacted or performed.

    The argument has a weird layered character in this chapter – I’ve described it in other posts as the chapter moving through three “voices” – three different perspectives that are expressive, not simply of themes in political economy, but of themes in philosophy: the opening paragraphs voice an “empiricist” perspective, the text then moves to a “transcendental” perspective, and then finally to a “dialectical” perspective: Marx is, on my read, critical of all of these perspectives – but he is also suggesting that their existence isn’t random – that they aren’t mere conceptual errors – that they are symptomatic of something strange about our peculiar social context – that they express the experience of persons confronting a social context characterised, not only by interactions with empirically sensible things (personal social relations, material nature), but by an “intangible” social dimension – the dimension Marx picks out by the categories of value and abstract labour.

    This argument takes time to express at all clearly, so this may not be helpful in the least… The closest intuitive analogy, taking the discussion away from Marx, would be to someone like Durkheim, arguing that, for example, it’s not that a particular people organise their camp in a certain way because they “believe” the cosmos has a certain structure, but rather people “believe” the cosmos has a certain structure because this is how they organise their camp… Marx is suggesting, in this first chapter, that certain very dominant conceptual tropes become intuitive to us because we are behaving in a way that makes those tropes reasonable approximations for some specific dimension of our social environment.

    This makes it tricky to answer your question about whether the events in the first chapter are “real”. I think a great deal of Capital turns on an argument about things that are real – but not in the way people take them to be. So: is the first chapter a discussion of some actually existing system of generalised simple commodity exchange, whether now or in the distant past? No. So: is it a political economist’s fantasy? No. So: is it a sort of pedagogical simplification, which will get corrected by more complex concepts later on? No. It’s an analysis of forms of thought that have a social validity under fully-developed capitalism, in a circumstance where this “social validity” does not, however, at all entail that they are fully adequate to grasp the process of the reproduction of capital.

    This links up with what you are saying above – with the argument that Marx is criticising bourgeois economists for viewing value as an intrinsic property of things. But Marx’s goal isn’t just to show that political economists are in error – he wants to show what makes the error plausible – and he wants to show this, because this says something about what is happening at the level of practice – what sorts of practices are involved in reproducing capital, and why a proposal to transform those practices isn’t utopian. So, yes: he’s not just doing an anthropology – but he’s also just not declaring political economists are making mistakes (among other things, the argument could have been much simpler if that were all he wanted to do) – he’s trying to link forms of thought back to the forms of practice he thinks those forms of thought express – and he’s also trying to make an argument that certain qualitative attributes that seem to be intrisic dimensions of, e.g., a labour process, or machine production, or similar forms of practice, are actually not intrinsic to those practices, but rather derive from the embeddedness of those practices within a much more complex dynamic relation. The important point here is that Marx is not trying to declare that political economists are wrong – he is instead trying to show how we behave in ways that make certain forms of perception and thought intuitive to us. He has been gesturing in this direction since Theses on Feuerbach – putting forward the argument that the really difficult task is to show how the ideal emerges from sensuous practice. It’s this sort of thing he is trying to show in large sections of Capital.

    Marx is obsessed with the issue of develop a non-utopian critique: this goal requires (he thinks) that he carefully differentiate what sorts of qualitative characteristics derive from various abstractions-in-practice (capital, value, abstract labour), so that he can demonstrate the existence of other – alienated – potentials that can form the non-utopian basis of an alternative form of society…

    This is all much too compressed – it won’t be textually or argumentatively plausible in this form (also there’s the complicated issue that I have my own disagreements with aspects of what Marx is doing – but it’s difficult to express those while also trying to express what he is attempting to do).

    But no: the whole thing isn’t about class, on my reading, unless class is interpreted in a very unusual way. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a critique of class relations and expropriation at the centre of the text: only that much more is involved in demonstrating what Marx thinks is a non-utopian response to this situation, than the analysis of class relations as conventionally understood.

    Apologies – it’s probably very confusing to condense this argument into this form – it shouldn’t be too long before I can toss up a more systematic version of all of this, which might (or might not!!) provide a clearer sense of what I’m trying to do…

    Hope you’re feeling better, and sorry still to be largely hitting around your questions – these things are difficult to spell out briefly… (My intention, though, with the Goldsmiths talk, is actually to try to spell out at least what I mean by abstraction in practice – with some luck, more systematically than I am managing to achieve here…)

  6. Tom Bunyard April 27, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Thanks, that was helpful; I actually think I agree with much of what you’re saying, but will write a proper response later.

    I’m feeling a bit better, thanks; I’ve taken a few weeks off work to concentrateon writing, and ended up deciding around Tuesday that I was, kind of, allowed to have a few drinks as I was, kind of, on holiday… ugh. Not particularly productive, and I’m suffering for it now.

    I’m looking forward to your talk at the college, and I’m sure you’ll get some good questiosn and replies. I’ve actually had quite a few people mail me regarding it, wehich to be honest came as a bit of a surprise; I wasn’t expectign there to be many people there at all (simply because it’s the wrong time of year), but it looks like we might in fact have quite a few.



  7. N Pepperell April 27, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    lol – yes, those writing holidays can be killers 🙂

    I’m looking forward to the talk – good to hear that you’re getting enquiries. Maybe if it’s the quiet time of year, folks are looking for things to do 🙂 (And thank you, again, for your work putting things together…)

    Take care – feel better…

  8. Tom Bunyard May 1, 2008 at 8:08 pm


    Sorry for the long delay in replying.

    I read your reply through again with a little more focus this morning, and I think I understand a little better what you’re up to now. I’m taking it that your interest in Marx’s relation to Hegel is to do with stressing a kind of organic unity between material and ideal, ‘real’ and ‘illusion’, as articulated in practice…? If so I’m really interested, as I think you’re giving clearer articulation to some of the stuff I’ve touched on but never really developed.

    Two questions then, which would help me with my own stuff:

    Firstly, how do you relate the stuff in the Philosophy of Right about not ‘telling the world how it ought to be’ to Marx’s ‘we do not confront the world in doctrinaire fashion… etc.’ in connection to this kind of organic relation? I ask because I’m assuming that you’re viewing history as just such a developing whole. If theory and consciousness are an organic growth from a developing struggle, what’s the role of the theorist, the philosopher, the party? How is Marx’s position different from, say, that of Lenin? How does one avoid presenting oneself as the ‘vanguard of history’?

    Secondly, you wrote “the whole thing isn’t about class, on my reading, unless class is interpreted in a very unusual way.” How would one have to interpret class to make it commensurable with your reading?

    I hope all is well,


  9. N Pepperell May 1, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    Hey Tom – Just a quick post by way of apology that I’ve committed to teach an “intensive” over the weekend, and then have been commandeered at the last minute to take over a lecture on something I don’t specialise on… at all… So my limited stock of substantive thinking capacity is shot for at least a week…

    As a sort of promissory note, and maybe in case you feel like developing on some of what you’ve written above: it might help me to hear more about how you understand what it would mean, if Marx were trying to develop a notion of an “organic unity” of material and ideal – I wouldn’t tend to use that term, but that’s mainly because the vocabulary has romantic connotations for me – it may be that what you mean by it is similar to what I’m reaching for.

    In terms of what I was thinking when I mentioned Marx not presupposing a dichotomy between material and ideal – I should be clear that I’m using “material” here, not in the sense of nonhuman nature, but in the sense of human practice. I see Marx to be making an argument that we are enacting forms of perception and thought, in and through the collective performances that constitute our social relations – so his account isn’t oriented to explaining how some “objective” aspect of social relations that is “external” to thought, then somehow comes to impinge on forms of subjectivity – it’s oriented instead to demonstrate how the qualitative characteristics of a distinctive form of social relation are enacted. This may be even less helpful than what I wrote before 🙂 (Apologies – I probably shouldn’t be replying, but this is much more interesting than what I’m meant to be doing instead… ;-P Even if I’m not really responding adequately…)

    I don’t, though, read Marx as viewing history as an organic unity – I see him as being fairly explicit that he thinks that different societies can operate in quite different ways, even if they might have in common that they construct themselves from the historical detritus that lies ready to hand from whatever precedes them. I don’t read Marx as a theorist of history in general.

    I do think he argues that capitalism has a “history” in a strong sense – that it is characterised by a (non-linear) developmental dynamic – one that doesn’t automatically overcome itself. Struggle in Marx is complicated, because there are types off struggle that are perfectly compatible with the reproduction of capital, as he presents it – so “struggle”, taken by itself, would be a normatively underdetermined category for Marx: some “struggles” we might be better off not having; some struggles he clearly thinks are utopian (in the technical sense that they are asking for mutually contradictory things) and therefore doomed to failure; some struggles fit quite comfortably within the reproduction of capital. But amongst all this, there is – he suggests – the possibility for a struggle that can seize emancipatory potentials. I see his theory as an attempt to shake loose a better understanding of the “materials” – the possibilities – capitalism generates that could be ready to hand for such an emancipatory struggle.

    In terms of your question about the party, etc.: this won’t hit the centre of what you’re asking, but I do actually think Benjamin is fairly accurate to Marx, when speaking about a “revolutionary cessation of happening”. In other words, while I think Marx thinks that capitalism generates a “history”, and that this “history” presupposes or is parasitic upon the generation and reproduction of ideals, forms of social practice, types of knowledge, etc., that could provide the basis for an emancipatory transformation of capitalism, I don’t think Marx saw this emancipatory transformation as something that would happen automatically. In this sense at least, any political movement that would transcend capitalism would specifically not be a “vanguard of history” – it specifically wouldn’t be, say, Lukács’ proletariat. This response minces terms a bit, of course, since I am using “history” to pick out the specific sort of “history” that characterises capitalist development.

    Also, just to step back a bit: I haven’t specifically claimed that consciousness arises from struggle – a formulation that would seem to suggest that consciousness is a sort of morally charged term – a good thing to have – to which we might win through after a long emancipatory fight. I’m not saying that I take any kind of stance against the notion that this might happen, but I am instead just trying to clarify that this isn’t the sort of phenomenon I’m trying to pick out. I’m actually after something much more mundane. Much more Durkheim; much less Lenin and Lukács: I’m suiggesting that part of Marx’s metatheory – part of his specific critique of idealism – is that forms of perception and thought don’t float off in some separate world from the rest of our practices – that ideas aren’t “ideal” – because we enact them, at first in the course of very everyday sorts of practices that involve the adoption of certain perceptual and mental practices. When talking about formal theoretical concepts, Marx’s characteristic “move” is to point to dimensions of collective practice where the sensibilities expressed in that sort of formal theory are acted out; when talking about collective practices, Marx’s characteristic “move” is to draw attention to the (often conflictual) forms of perception and thought that arise in the course of carrying those practices out.

    In this way, Marx tries to demonstrate how particular sorts of concepts are “real” – how we “make” them. Marx sees this demonstration of the genesis of concepts as moments within practice, as simultaneously a demonstration of the presuppositions, conditions, or limitations to the validity of those concepts. The process of critique involves a demonstration of why certain forms of subjectivity might seem intuitive – en route then to showing why those very same forms of subjectivity might be deeply flawed, if you try to extrapolate an overarching theory of society or economics or human nature or similar categories from these bounded concepts, without grasping the limitations on their validity. He uses this, both to criticise certain forms of struggle as “utopian” (by showing how those struggles appeal to ideals who conditions the movements don’t understand), and also to highlight potentials for transformation (I should try to spell out what I mean by this last, but it’s complicated to express briefly – a small slice will make its way in the Lukács’ paper, and I’ll be writing more on this in coming months).

    In any event: all this is by way of saying that, without specifically disagreeing with what you are suggesting about struggle, I am at this point trying to talk about something a bit more generic – about the implications of collective practices, even where those practices are not in any immediate sense political or aimed towards transformation. In order to demonstrate that capitalism generates possibilities that could be mobilised by a transformative political movement, Marx spends the bulk of his time talking about much more everyday practices – practices associated with the reproduction of capital, not simply practices associated with its contestation. This is why I call his work an immanent critique: it focusses on a demonstration of how capitalism will never manage to shake off the potential for transformation, because its own reproduction relies on reproducing this potential…

    I realise I’m not quite hitting the centre of what you’re asking – apologies – some things need a bit of a run up (and perhaps a few run arounds…) even when I’m being gestural…

    On your second question about class: when I make certain kinds of arguments, I tend avoid the vocabulary of class because it is too easy to mishear it as a statement about empirical demographic groups – this is a particular problem if I am trying to thematise issues relating to “real abstractions” in Capital – which has been one reason class vocabulary hasn’t figured prominently in recent writings on the blog. I tend – and apologies – I don’t have a simple way to express this, although I’m working on it – to think Capital relies on a repeated demonstration of how the reproduction of capital produces and reproduces certain “real abstractions” whose genesis cannot be grasped by a naive empiricism, but whose enactment then creates the possibility for other sorts of empirical realisations (some of which then could be grasped by a more naively empiricist method). Capital and some of the senses in which Marx uses the term labour, in Capital, operate as real abstractions – as social realities, things that are enacted in collective practice, but not necessarily as demographically-specifiable groups.

    Marx does, though, see the process of the reproduction of capital as a process that produces labour – and that therefore produces the capital-labour relation. But the meanings of the terms capital and labour, and the way Marx understands the relation between them to be reproduced, are not captured very well if this relation is understood solely in terms of a relation of personal domination in which two demographic groups confront one another. Capital attempts, not simply to show that this relation exists (not simply to reveal that surplus is being extracted, for example) but to show what this relation presupposes, what conditions it – in order, Marx hopes, to make it easier to determine a non-utopian form of contestation…

    Apologies for using the shorthand “Marx thinks”, etc., for “my” Marx – hard to qualify things adequately – if it needs to be said, I’m of course aware that there are many other ways to read this text – I’m just trying to tug on the thread of a particular reading, to see how much of the text I can unravel this way…

    And apologies in advance if I’m really slow responding for the next week – I’ve just had a lot fall on me very suddenly…

    Take care…

  10. Pingback: Postmodernism? « Dead Voles

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