Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


Some time around now, something resembling the talk below the fold is being presented here.

What is commodity fetishism? In the famous passage from the first chapter of Capital, volume 1 (1976), Marx cryptically defines it as:

the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things… (165)

The meaning of this passage is murky. If readers focus only on the portion quoted above, it sounds as though Marx is speaking about some sort of ideology or false belief that causes what is “really” a social relation between people to appear as something else, as something this relation is not: a “relation between things”. In this interpretation, the “relation between things” is an illusion, a sort of veil covering over what is really the case, which is a personal relation. Under such a reading, Marx would believe that different aspects of “reality” exist in a hierarchy, with some more fundamental, more essential, than others. Critique would then consist in stripping back the veil to uncover what is most real, while rejecting other dimensions of social experience as illusion.

Yet, in the text surrounding this quotation, Marx strongly suggests that he does not understand commodity fetishism as false belief. He does this first by suggesting that fetishism is not, strictly speaking, a belief at all. This point becomes clear when Marx sets up, but ultimately rejects, an analogy between commodity fetishism and religion. Marx argues:

In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands (165, italics mine).

The analogy Marx wants to make is that both fetishism and religion posit the existence of intangible entities – entities that Marx regards as the products of human practice, but which the social actors in question treat as “autonomous figures”. Marx quickly qualifies, however, that the way that social actors posit intangible entities is not the same in these two cases: Marx suggests that religion involves social actors sharing a belief in the existence of intangible beings; for the fetish, by contrast, belief is not required – instead, social actors somehow make these intangible entities “with the products of their hands”. What this distinction could mean is somewhat unclear: how do social actors posit intangible entities, without even being aware that this is what they are doing? The answer to this question becomes important in understanding the sort of social relation Marx is trying to thematise through his argument about the fetish. I will return to this point in a moment but, before doing so, I need to explore a few further dimensions of Marx’s argument.

Having suggested that commodity fetishism should not be understood as a belief, Marx goes on to suggest that commodity fetishism might not even be false. He argues:

the labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things (165-166, italics mine).

Here the “fantastic form of a relation between things” is the “definite social relation between men”: there is no illusion to be stripped away, no veil to pierce. Yet, if producers see their social relations “as what they are”, why is this passage framed so critically? Why call this a “fetish”? What critical work remains to be done?

To address these questions, it is helpful to contrast the reading of Capital I am proposing, with the influential interpretation set out by Georg Lukács in his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1968). Lukács’ reading overlaps and diverges in important respects from my interpretation, in ways that make a comparison particularly productive. In the discussion below, I therefore move back and forth between an analysis of Lukács’ attempt to interpret fetishism as “reification”, and my own attempt to interpret it as a reference to the ways social actors unintentionally behave as though the intangible entities of value, abstract labour, and capital exist, and thereby confer a social existence on them. These different interpretations of fetishism yield radically divergent consequences for how we should understand both the standpoint and the target of critique in Capital – an issue that I explore in greater detail below.

In my opening comments, I suggested that a close reading of the passages where Marx introduces commodity fetishism, reveals that Marx does not view fetishism as an illusion. Lukács cites some of these same passages to develop his own interpretation, yet he reads them through the lens of other elements of Marx’s work – in particular, later in light of passages from Capital that thematise the development of machinery and large-scale production and that analyse structural tendencies toward bureaucratic management. This more eclectic approach to Marx’s text enables Lukács to uncover Weberian elements in Capital, and to highlight what Lukács sees as parallel trends toward the expansion of formalistic, mathematical systems that Lukács traces through philosophy, government, economics, and culture. Lukács understands these trends as expressions of a socially-general privileging of forms of thought that abstract from qualitative specificity, in the same way that market exchange abstracts from the qualitative specificity of the use values of goods.

While Lukács’ approach enables a creative interpretation of Capital oriented to the distinctive circumstances of the transition away from liberal capitalism, it also leads Lukács to overlook some of the implications of the passages to which I’ve drawn attention above. As a consequence, Lukács starts from the position that the term commodity fetishism is intended to pick out an illusion – a “necessary illusion”, Lukács will call it, but an illusion nevertheless. Lukács describes this illusion in the following way:

a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people (83, italics mine).

In Lukács’ version of the argument, then, there is a hierarchy of levels of social reality, which includes a “fundamental nature” – a “relation between people” – that is more essential than other dimensions of social experience, and that is also hidden. Lukács suggests that commodity fetishism describes a social relation that “takes on the character of a thing” – a relation that appears objective because it “seems so strictly rational and all-embracing”. Already with this formulation, Lukács is pointing critique in a particular direction, and implying a specific critical standpoint. Lukács is setting up for an argument that capitalism only appears rational and all-encompassing. In reality, however, the system is irrational and insufficiently encompassing. Lukács is reaching for a standpoint of critique that is more fully rational and more genuinely comprehensive, from which he can convict capitalism for its irrational and partial character. Lukács’ critique aligns well, therefore, with a critique of liberal capitalism and of the irrationality of the market, from the standpoint of the greater rationality and transparency that will purportedly be provided by centralised planning.

How would this approach differ from the reading of Marx I am proposing? If Marx does not see commodity fetishism as an illusion, and critique does not take the form of penetrating this illusion to capture the reality underneath, what is the standpoint and the target of the critique? My suggestion is that Marx wants to describe the form of an historically distinctive social relation – a relation that, in his account, does not simply “appear” objective, but rather is genuinely mediated through social actors’ interactions with objects – a social relation, then, that implicates, as one of its moments, a particular relation of social actors to things – and that, moreover, has an impersonal character. The critical edge of Marx’s analysis then derives, not from any sort of declaration that this social relation does not exist, but rather from its demonstration of how this relation is generated or produced in collective practice.

Within this framework, critique does not take the form of debunking its object. Instead, critique entails the demonstration of how its object is produced – the demonstration of what sorts of social conditions or practices its object presupposes. It is in this spirit that Marx acknowledges the validity of political economy, saying:

The categories of bourgeois economy… are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production… (169)

This acknowledgement, however, entrains a critique. Marx intends to convict political economy of not grasping the conditions or presuppositions of its own categories – of not grasping the limits of its own analysis. As Capital unfolds, Marx will systematically explore those limits in order to demonstrate the ways in which the reproduction of capital – the process that renders the categories of bourgeois economy “socially valid” – generates possibilities for determinate forms of transformation.

Marx’s approach, I suggest, points toward an analysis that will accept the reality of the social relation it sets out to criticise, rather than treating this relation as an illusion that needs to be reduced back to something more “real”. Having started from the reality of this relation, however, Marx will then investigate what the relation is – what constitutive moments make up the relation – and how the relation is produced – what diverse sorts of practices are required for its constitution. The result is a vision of a heterogeneous assemblage of diverse parts that possess particular qualitative attributes as they exist now, within the current social relation – but that can also be examined for the qualitative attributes these parts could potentially possess, if reassembled into different sorts of wholes. By carefully and systematically exploring the divergent implications of various moments of the reproduction of capital, teasing apart how those moments exist within this process, from how they might exist outside it, Marx can thus investigate diverse possibilities for novel forms of practice that are currently being incubated within the present social form. Where Lukács’ work points toward a more rational, transparent, and comprehensive realisation of the potentials generated by capitalism, Marx’s work points toward the creative multiplication of diverse potentials currently both constituted and constrained by their forced service to the reproduction of capital.

Returning to Lukács: I have suggested above that Lukács conceptualises fetishism differently from Marx – that Lukács takes the argument about the fetish to be a claim that critique must strip away an illusion to reveal an underlying reality, rather than a claim that critique must grasp how a relation comes to be produced in a specific form. Yet Lukács also, I suggest, operates with a different notion of the commodity, than the one Marx puts into play. On the one hand, and consonant with my interpretation, Lukács senses that the category of the commodity is intended to pick out more than just an object or a thing, and he also senses that Marx’s analysis of the commodity is intended to cast light on more than just the “economic” dimensions of capitalist society. On the other hand, Lukács articulates this point in a particularly expansive form, arguing:

at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure… the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them. (83)

In Lukács’ analysis, then, the “structure of commodity relations” operates as a sort of Rosetta Stone for all dimensions of social experience in capitalism: there is no problem that does not lead back to the analysis of the commodity-structure; the commodity-structure yields a model of all objective and subjective forms. Why does Lukács believe such sweeping, exclusionary claims are warranted?

The answer to this question lies in how Lukács tries to square a particularly awkward theoretical circle. Lukács argues that commodity fetishism arises from the commodity-structure – from whatever social relation Marx is trying to pick out through the term “commodity”. Lukács further insists that commodity fetishism is specific to capitalist society (84).

Yet Lukács conceptualises the commodity-relation as the social relation effected via commodity exchange, which Lukács understands in terms of the exchange of goods on the market. This understanding of the commodity relation presents a dilemma, which to his credit Lukács explicitly recognises, noting:

Commodity exchange and the corresponding subjective and objective commodity relations existed, as we know, when society was still very primitive. (84)

Market exchange thus long predates the phenomena Lukács wants to pick out with the term “commodity fetishism”, and so Lukács must account for how a very old social practice, should suddenly come to generate qualitatively different effects in recent history. To get around this dilemma, Lukács hits on the solution that fetishism arises only when the commodity relation – the exchange relation – has become totalised. He argues:

What is at issue here, however, is the question: how far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society? (84)

Lukács suggests that the quantitative expansion of exchange relations, to the point where such relations become totalising, effects a qualitative shift that generates the historically specific phenomena associated with fetishism. Prior to this totalisation, according to Lukács, it was still possible to see through the veil, and to recognise the personal character of the commodity-relation. As Lukács frames it:

the personal nature of economic relations was still understood clearly on occasion at the start of capitalist development, but… as the process advanced and forms became more complex and less direct, it became increasingly difficult and rare to find anyone penetrating the veil of reification. (86, italics mine)

Lukács therefore interprets the commodity relation as a personal relation, deriving from the practice of market exchange, which begins to generate novel consequences as this relation expands beyond the boundaries it occupied in earlier social forms. Among these novel consequences is what Lukács calls reification – in which the personal reality of the social relation comes to be veiled and social actors assume a contemplative stance toward a relation that has come to appear objective, impersonal, and beyond their control.

Once Lukács has posed the problem in this way, he sets critique the task of piercing the veil to reveal the personal character of the underlying relation. Since the personal relation is understood to relate to market exchange, critique and political contestation are here pointed to the overthrow of the market and the institutionalisation of state planning, within which the rationality and objectivity that were only illusory under capitalism, could finally achieve social reality.

So how does this differ from Marx’s own argument? I have already suggested above that Marx does not view fetishism as an illusion to be pierced, but rather as a form of thought with “social validity” for a relation whose genesis needs to be grasped. I have further suggested that there is some sense in which Marx is arguing that this relation, although social in the sense of originating in human practice, is somehow not “personal” – that the appearance that capitalist society is characterised by “material relations between persons and social relations between things” does express how things “really are”.

Does this mean that Marx understands the commodity relation in terms of market exchange, but sees the market as somehow more impersonal than Lukács does? Or is something other than market exchange intended when, as Lukács rightly senses, Marx uses the category of the commodity to pick out a form of social relation? To address these questions, I need first to take a closer look at the opening paragraphs of the commodity fetishism discussion, and then propose an interpretation of how Marx understands the “peculiar social character” of commodity producing labour.

When Marx opens his discussion of commodity fetishism, the first point he makes is that use value cannot account for this phenomenon. In one of the most famous passages in Capital, Marx argues:

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis shows that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it… But as soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. (163)

Lukács joins many other interpreters in concluding that Marx’s point here is to distinguish use value from exchange value – and to argue that fetishism arises from the practice of tossing use values into the cauldron of the market. A close look at the text, however, suggests that Marx is trying to argue something else.

The opening sentence, I suggest, should be read as summing up the trajectory of the first three sections of this chapter. The first section of this chapter opens with an “empiricist” voice that, the text now tells us, took the commodity to be a “very trivial thing, and easily understood” (cf. 125-126). If the reader had remained unaware of the textual strategy of this chapter, Marx has here explicitly tipped his hand: the opening definitions with which the chapter begins, do not express Marx’s own position – at least not in any straightforward way – but are rather a form of perception – a discourse – he has set out to analyse.

As the chapter advances, this opening “empiricist” voice is quickly surpassed, and new perspectives are introduced. The text moves to a “transcendental” voice that spoofs Descartes’ critique of sense perception, claiming to derive “value” and “abstract labour” as something like transcendental conditions of possibility for commodity exchange (cf. 126-137). This “transcendental” voice is then followed by a “dialectical” voice, which claims to derive the money form (cf. 138-163).

Once again, in case readers missed the strategic intention of the text when working through these earlier sections, Marx is telling them explicitly, in his opening sentence here, that he does not endorse the form of these earlier arguments. Marx intends the reader to be “in on the joke” that was being told through the first three sections of the opening chapter: he is now revealing explicitly that he regards the transcendental and dialectical presentations from the earlier sections of this chapter as theological and metaphysical. Believing the reader has been following him throughout this rather subtle bit of textual humour, Marx now thinks he has adequately set up the puzzle whose solution is the concept of commodity fetishism: the puzzle of why the bizarre forms of thought he has outlined in the first three sections of this chapter, should possess a social validity under capitalism – the puzzle of how these apparently mystical forms of thinking express something that is (socially) real.

The reader knows now, if they did not know before, that the strategic intention of the earlier sections of this chapter was to illustrate symptomatic forms of thought – forms of thought that are fetishised. In the section on commodity fetishism, Marx then finally begins to discuss the sort of analysis that needs to be undertaken, in order to account for how these fetishised forms of thought come to be socially valid. Marx begins by outlining what does not account for the fetish. This is the context in which Marx comments on use value in the quotation above: use value, he argues, if you could abstract it from the commodity relation, contains nothing that would render rational the sorts of metaphysical moves he believes he has illustrated earlier in the text. The analysis of use value, abstracted from the commodity relation, therefore cannot explain why the empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical voices are socially valid.

Many commentators – including Lukács – assume that Marx is aiming to set up a contrast between use value and exchange value here, and therefore overlook or interpret away the specific move that Marx makes next in the text. Immediately after arguing that the component elements of use value do not account for commodity fetishism, Marx insists – in an exact parallel to the preceding argument about use value – that the component parts of value also do not account for the fetish. Marx writes:

The mystical character of the commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determinants of value. (164, italics mine)

So neither use value (abstracted from the commodity relation) nor the determinants of value (abstracted from the commodity relation), explain the fetish. What does explain the fetish then, for Marx? The answer is that the commodity relation itself explains the fetish – the fetish arises, not from any of the component parts of the commodity relation, but rather from the aggregate relation into which these component parts come to be suspended. Marx expresses this point in the following way:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly, it arises from this form itself. (164)

In other words, Marx is trying to make an argument here, not about the contrast between use value and exchange value, but rather about the way in which a relation can be comprised of many parts, and yet have distinctive qualitative characteristics that cannot be found in those parts, when the parts are analysed independently of that relation. In more contemporary terms, Marx is making an argument here about emergence – about the possibility for properties to arise within some overarching assemblage, without those properties reflecting the attributes that any of the component parts of that assemblage might manifest if these parts were reconfigured into some other sort of relation.

Within this context, commodity fetishism becomes a term for habits of thought that miss the distinctive contribution that the relation makes to the qualitative characteristics expressed by its own moments. Fetishised forms of thought confuse the attributes that parts possess within a particular relation, for attributes that are essential or intrinsic to those parts – thereby naturalising the overarching relationship and missing opportunities to examine what traits those parts might acquire, if they could be reassembled into different configurations. Capital seeks to break the overarching process of the reproduction of capital down into its constitutive moments, precisely in order to explore the characteristics those moments possess within the process of the reproduction of capital, and to distinguish these characteristics from what might be possible, if those moments could be extracted from this process. This approach allows Marx to offer a critique of the whole, from the standpoint of the potentially disaggregable parts – a very different concept of the standpoint and the target of critique than that offered by Lukács.

Among many other implications, this approach provides Marx with a much more supple means of explaining the historical specificity of commodity fetishism than Lukács has at his disposal. When Lukács equates the commodity relation with market exchange, and then notes that market exchange is historically quite old, he finds himself forced into the position that the quantitative expansion of market relations at some point leads to a qualitative shift – a move that then leaves him confronted with a totalising social relation whose power and pervasiveness make critique difficult to conceptualise. Lukács’ ultimately mystical evocation of the proletariat as the subject-object of history can be understood, in part, as a response necessitated by the power and coherence he has already ceded to capitalism, by conceptualising it in such a totalising fashion.

Marx has another option. Some of the component moments that eventually come to be folded into the commodity relation – markets, money, social division of labour, and other factors – are conditions of capitalism, but have also existed in many other social forms without generating capitalism as a result. This conclusion makes sense, given Marx’s basic position that relations can generate consequences that do not necessarily inhere in their parts.

What has changed to bring capitalism into being is the recent recombination of these older forms with something new. In chapter six, where Marx introduces the category of free labour, he finally makes explicit what he regards this “something new” to be, arguing that capital depends on the rise of free labour. Marx argues:

The historical conditions of [capital’s] existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence finds the free worker available, on the market, as the seller of his own labour-power. And this one historical pre-condition comprises a world’s history. (274)

deThis new factor makes it possible to suspend older component parts into a new relation, with novel historical consequences. Interestingly, Lukács actually reverses Marx’s argument in his own discussion of free labour, arguing:

Only when the whole life of society is thus fragmented into the isolated acts of commodity exchange can the ‘free’ worker come into being; at the same time, his fate becomes the typical fate of the whole society. (91)

For Lukács, therefore, the totalisation of the market eventually engulfs even labour itself; for Marx by contrast, the introduction of the labour market is what unleashes the market from its historical bounds. From Marx’s point of view, Lukács could be said to naturalise the dynamism of the market, treating the qualitative characteristics the market posesses within a particular social configuration, as an intrinsic characteristic. Moreover, Marx does not require Lukács’ argument that market relations become totalised and all-encompassing, reducing all forms of social objectivity and subjectivity back to this single factor, because Marx is talking about the emergence of a social relation that is both genuinely new, and also encompasses a number of different component parts. Marx’s stance already points toward a form of theory that grasps capitalism as an assemblage whose various component parts and subrelations might potentially point in multiple, divergent directions.

When Marx stresses the importance of the labour market, however, in what sense is he not analysing capitalism in terms of a personal social relation? The wage relation itself, in which labourers are doubly “free” – free to sell their own labour-power, but also free of the means to support themselves other than by this sale – would seem to be a class relation (cf. 272). Class relations are relations of personal domination (cf. 280). This class relation is precisely what Lukács has in mind, when he argues that market exchange relation veils a personal relation by abstracting from the qualitative specificity of the goods exchanged, and thus treating the labour market as a free exchange of equivalents by formally equal commodity owners. If Marx has the wage relation in mind when speaking of commodity fetishism, it is unclear why he would refer to this relation as “really” objective and impersonal.

To answer this question, it is important to distinguish what Marx regards as an essential condition or presupposition of capitalism, from the commodity relation implicated in the argument about commodity fetishism. In Marx’s argument, free labour is a condition for capitalism, and capitalism is a condition for generalised commodity production. In spite of this, I suggest, the impersonal social relation being discussed in the section on commodity fetishism is not the wage relation. This point becomes clear in Marx’s own discussion of commodity fetishism, when he claims to have already shown in the first chapter the social relation implicated in the fetish. Marx writes:

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them. (165)

How do we know that the “peculiar social character of the labour” that Marx refers to here, is not the wage relation discussed in chapter six? We know this, because Marx says as much in chapter six, when he argues that the analysis of wage labour “would have been foreign to the analysis of commodities” (273). Although the opening discussion of the commodity does presuppose the later analysis of free labour, free labour cannot be the “peculiar social character of the labour” analysed in the first chapter, since Marx is not able to derive the category of free labour explicitly at that early point in the text. Something else must be going on in the first chapter, something that already demonstrates the “peculiar social character” of commodity producing labour, for Marx to be able to say, in chapter one, that the “foregoing analysis has already demonstrated” this peculiar character. So what does Marx believe he has shown?

In the brief time available here, I cannot develop this argument in full, but I can at least gesture to the type of argument Marx believes he has made. My suggestion is that the “peculiar social character” of commodity-producing labour, consists precisely in the fact that, in capitalism, social actors generate an entity – “social labour” – that is distinguished in practice from the aggregate of the empirical labouring activities in which social actors independently engage.12 Social actors do not set out to generate such an entity, yet they generate it nevertheless, simply by behaving as though it exists. They bring this entity into existence, in Marx’s terms, through the products of their hands.

What Marx is doing here is casting an anthropologist’s gaze on an implicit logic of social practice that indigenous inhabitants of capitalist society take so much for granted, that it is difficult for us to appreciate the extent to which this logic pervades our habits of embodiment and perception, practice and thought. In a very preliminary way in the opening chapter, Marx has begun to suggest that there are strange consequences to the actions we undertake in order to survive in a society in which empirical labouring activities are undertaken speculatively – without certain knowledge of whether those activities will ultimately be allowed to count as part of social labour. Marx is arguing that the practice of producing commodities for market exchange in a capitalist context introduces a disjoint between empirical efforts expended in production, and the degree to which those efforts will be rewarded once the products of labour are exchanged on the market.

Marx is suggesting that capitalist production involves the collective enactment of a nonconscious social judgement that determines which empirical activities get to “count” as part of “social labour”. This practical distinction between empirical labours undertaken, and labours whose products “succeed” in market exchange, enlists social actors – wittingly or no – in behaving as though there exists an intangible entity, “social labour”, that exists within, and yet distinct from, the aggregate of concrete labouring activities that social actors undertake. In such a context, “social labour” becomes a special status collectively bestowed on an elect of privileged labouring activities after the fact, once production is long complete. There is no way for social actors to deduce in advance, through the examination of the labour process or the goods produced, which sorts of activities will succeed in gaining social recognition on the market. “Social labour” is therefore, in Marx’s vocabulary, a “supersensible sensible” entity – something whose composition remains inscrutable at any given moment in time, because the category is fundamentally retroactive. “Social labour” is a category that will have been – a category perpetually out of synch with any given moment in time – something that social actors unintentionally constitute by acting over time in ways that reduce the labouring activities they have empirically undertaken, down to a smaller subset of labouring activities that are encouraged to reproduce themselves because their products have been validated through market exchange. The result of this unintentional, collective reduction of empirical labouring activities to those that get to “count” as “social labour” is what Marx has earlier attempted to pick out through the categories of abstract labour and value.

This process – by which empirical labouring activities are culled down to those activities that get to “count” as part of “social labour” – is impersonal and objective in a number of different senses. Marx describes the process as happening “behind the backs” of the social actors whose practices generate it – as unintentional and therefore apparently objective. The process is moreover mediated via the exchange of objects – and thus is genuinely carried out via the constitution of “social relations between things”. As well, although this point is only hinted at in the opening chapter, the process involves a strange form of mutual compulsion, in which social actors place pressure on one another to conform to average conditions of production, thus resulting in a form of collective “systemic” coercion that is separable from any personal social relations social actors may also constitute. In each of these respects, Marx argues, the commodity relation is genuinely objective and impersonal – there is no illusion to be pierced, only a form to be grasped and, if possible, overcome.

From this standpoint, it becomes possible to see the forms of thought expressed in the opening sections of the first chapter as socially valid – even though these forms of thought contradict one another. The opening “empiricist” voice that perceives use value and exchange value, but overlooks the intangible entities of abstract labour and value, is a plausible, but partial, perspective that picks up on a particular dimension of the commodity relation – the dimension that manifests itself in empirical goods and money. The “transcendental” voice picks up on the existence of certain “real abstractions” – certain intangible entities that cannot be directly perceived by the senses, but whose existence can be inferred. The “dialectical” voice picks up on the relational and dynamic character of these intangible entities, on the way in which these entities mutually implicate one another and are enacted over time. All of these perspectives are reasonable approximations of a dimension of social experience under capitalism – and yet they point in different directions, and suggest very different possibilities for practice. Marx’s own method – which he will develop in much greater detail as Capital unfolds – consists in tracing out a wide array of dimensions of social experience and tying these dimensions back to types of formal theory or popular ideals that express their potentials. With each step, Marx traces the validity, and the limits, of the dimensions of social experience he analyses, working to differentiate the qualitative characteristics that derive from the overarching process of the reproduction of capital, from the potentials that could be released if this overarching process were overcome.

Lukács criticises capitalism for terraforming social existence by covering over the qualitative diversity of sensuous experience with an abstract, formalistic monoculture. His totalising vision of capitalism drives his critique in the direction of a counter-totality even more comprehensive and rational than what he opposes. Marx by contrast understands critique as a sort of autopsy performed on a monstrous, Frankensteinian creation. This autopsy enables Marx to demonstrate the stitches that hold the great beast together, trace the active and sometimes precarious efforts that are continuously required to animate the creature, and draw attention to the ways in which the history and present potentials of the transplanted parts suggest promising opportunities for future dismemberment and decomposition. These two approaches suggest radically different concepts of the standpoint and target of critique – with Marx’s approach, I suggest, offering far greater possibilities, methodologically and substantively, for reconceptualising capitalism, and its critique, in the contemporary era.

5 responses to “Simulcasting

  1. Lynda May 23, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Hey NP…. Bravo bravo.
    Indulge me…I particularly love your closing Frankenstein analogy – “My Hideous Progeny”, (original title is far better reflection of the multiple demons that Shelley laid achingly bare in this magnificent text), alerts us to the consequences of our relationship to the monster that science enabled us to birth – isolate oneself from it only to bear witness to its havoc. Frankenstein’s monster – in recognising its own frailty and repulsiveness – sought to be understood and transformed.
    Forgive both my romanticism (due largely to a long-standing love affair with this text) and my monumental conceptual leaps – to be clear, I’m (not quite) foolish enough to believe that capitalism is calling for its own destruction [nor did Shelley’s ‘progeny’] – rather, I see Shelley as specifically concerned with, as you say, standpoint and target of critique – hers is a cautionary tale that orients us to see the transformative potentials that reside in both the frailty and repulsiveness of the monster itself – and,moreover, that it is of our making
    Ahhh…thanks for sparking a trip down literary memory lane. Now I really must get some work done 😉

  2. john May 27, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    Very interesting paper, I need to reread it, but for now a question: have you looked at the translational issue raised by Hans Ehrbar and others about the difference between the “fetish-character” (Fetischcharakter) and “fetishism” (fetischismus) (
    According to Ehrbar Marx never uses the phrase “fetishism of commodities”, only the “fetish-character of commodities”, whilst the word fetishism is restricted to ideological references e.g. “fetishism of political economists”. The upshot is a seeming confirmation that one shouldn’t read ch.1sec.4 as about illusions in any sense (as it it s the character of the commodity form and not an “ism” pertaining to beliefs that is at issues). I’m not sure if Ehrbar’s reading completely holds up (there is a references to fetishism in ch.1sec.4 that doesn’t seem to be about ideology) but I think it would be interesting to see how such a distinction would work in terms of your argument. In your terms presumably fetishism would correspond to the “forms of thought” and fetish-character to the social relations or behavior they are peculiarly adequate to.

    For me this also raises questions about your interpretation.
    For the fact that it is the latter and not the former which Marx takes as the subject of ch.1sec.4 suggests that Marx is not really interested in “forms” or “habits of thought” in this section, but in a reality which is already perceived as having a fetish-character in virtue of its peculiar ontology. I’m not sure how much this view differs from your interpretation, for you seem to want to both stress the role of fetishized forms of thought (and what is lacking in them) and the sense that they are grounded in a social reality which validates them. A lot depends on how “social reality” is interpreted here, but your language of behavior “conferring” existence on things, specifically behavior “as though” these things exist, suggests to me an at least partial questioning of the reality of fetishized social forms. I’m much more inclined to follow Postone and Arthur in asserting unequivocally the reality of the fetish character. After all it is the social form of money which ch.1sec.4 is leading up to, and the impossibility of behaving “as though” money didn’t exist seems to render the “as though” in your formulation redundant. What’s wrong with saying that money (and abstract labour, and capital, …) has a fetish-character which in no way detracts from its existence, and which is substantively independent of our “forms of thought”? This character would presumably be simply the fact that it, a thing, mediates social relationships; or rather, it acquires social characteristics, becomes uncannily human (like the dancing tables), is the really-existing contradictio in adjecto of a “social thing”…

    i look forward to reading more of your work on this subject.

  3. N Pepperell June 2, 2008 at 4:54 am

    Hey folks – Deepest apologies for the very long delay in responding – and further apologies that I won’t have time to respond adequately now.

    Lynda: I’ve been thinking of Capital as Marx’s Frankenstein for some time – glad you like the image 🙂

    John: Many thanks for your comments – I really should reproduce the footnotes when I post papers here, as that’s where I usually comment on the relation between my work and the work of other commentators – apologies that this omission can make things a bit more ambiguous than they might otherwise be…

    In terms of your questions – yes, I am familiar with Ehrbar (but haven’t tried to double-check the textual case myself, although it doesn’t seem implausible – although Marx’s terminology is often a bit… fluid…). I do see myself as operating closely to the space marked out by Postone and Arthur, but I wouldn’t myself draw the exact contrast you seem (and apologies if I am mishearing your emphasis or intention above) to be drawing between the analysis of “habits of thought” and an analysis that asserts the “reality of the fetish character” – I would take Marx’s anti-idealist move to consist in the assertion that forms of social objectivity and subjectivity both emerge in distinctive forms of social practice, such that habits of thought are necesasarily implicated as moments of forms of social being. So yes, the fetish has a social validity or a practical reality. At the same time, though, Marx is engaging in a critical theory – and the structure of the first chapter (and, of course, of the rest of the work) suggests that “social being” in capitalism is internally multifaceted, such that some forms of thought, formal theories, etc., may be both “socially valid”, but also partial and therefore subject to criticism on the basis of what they grasp, and what they fail to grasp, about the context whose properties they express. So the fetish is real – it is enacted – but at the same time not all theoretical articulations adequately express the limitations or presuppositions of that enacted reality. When these conditons aren’t grasped, then opportunities for critique and potentials for transformation can be missed. In this sense, Marx can both assert the social validity of forms of thought that express the fetish character, but also mobilise other immanently-available social experiences to criticise certain political economic expressions of the fetish as inadequate. If this makes sense? 🙂

    I have another go at this topic in the Goldsmiths talk tomorrow, making more explicit reference than I do in this paper, to how Marx is playing with Hegel in the first chapter – the focus on Hegel, rather than Lukacs, makes it a bit easier for me to explore some of the implications of my argument, for how I see Marx’s critical standpoint (although I’m still finding it very very difficult to find a slice of the argument small enough that I don’t feel that I completely butcher it in any brief talk… But I think I handle certain issues better in the Goldsmiths talk, and other issues better here… Maybe across enough of these things, I can give a sense of what I’m trying to say…)

    On Postone and Arthur specifically: I particulary like, and think my position is probably very close to, Arthur’s emphasis on seeing these opening categories as a result. Postone, to me, doesn’t capture this quite as well, because he tries to understand abstract labour in terms of a new function labour comes to perform in capitalism – I both think he is right to emphasise the importance of labour’s novel role, but also wrong to equate this (as his text sometimes, but not always, does) with what Marx is trying to get at with the concept of abstract labour. Apologies if this is very unclear (and also if it’s unfair to Postone, whom I need to re-read). Very little time at the moment, but just wanted to reply quickly while I can…

    Take care…

  4. john June 4, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    I’m really not sure how to respond to you here, as I really think you’re onto something, especially after reading your Goldsmiths paper which gave me a lot to think about, and led me to rethink a lot of my reading of ch.1. To the extent that I still have reservations they all concern your terms, and what they seem to imply about the frame through which you read Marx, particularly the emphasis you put on “forms of thought”. And yet even here, I’m tempted to agree when you say that for Marx “forms of social objectivity and subjectivity both emerge in distinctive forms of social practice, such that habits of thought are necessarily implicated as moments of forms of social being.” I guess in a weird way what I’m saying is that this might be the right answer to the wrong question. Basically I think one of the most common misreadings of Marx is to project twentieth century “critical theory” back onto him, to read a theory of the formation of consciousness and subjectivity into his work, to read him as an ideology critic. Any comprehensive look at Marx’s mature writings (and I would even argue his early writings) reveals very little by way of a systematic account of the formation of consciousness. When he does explicitly refer to consciousness it is usually to dismiss it as irrelevant to the socio-historical dynamics he describes (e.g. the ref. to capitalist’s subjectivity in the first preface), and I think that his critique of the ideology of political economists never extends to an interest in ideology per se (see McCarney’s article on the Marx Myths and Legends site for a good defense of this point). However, 20th century Marxists for a bunch of reasons felt they needed a theory of ideology, and in the absence of any general account of ideology in Marx’s mature works they (eg. Lukacs) latched onto the fetishism chapter as providing one by proxy. I think this is the main reason so many 20th century Marxists have misread fetishism as illusion – because they have read the whole section to be fundamentally about consciousness. I could go on about this for a long time, but hopefully you should understand from this why I am in two minds about your approach to “forms of thought”. On the one hand I think you address the issue in a way that is much closer to how Marx would address the issue than say Lukacs and Adorno read him, on the other hand I just don’t think Marx saw himself as fundamentally talking about “forms of thought”, even of forms of thought rightly viewed as necessarily implicated as forms of social being. Yes he refers to both thought and ideality in the chapter on fetishism, but I read these references as picking out an ideality inherent to the ontology of the capitalist mode of production, and only secondarily a reference to the ways these forms are reflected in people’s minds.

    But as I say, I agree with a lot of what you write and find your research project really interesting, so perhaps I’m just imposing something onto your perspective which isn’t there?

  5. N Pepperell June 21, 2008 at 6:09 am

    Hey John – Sorry again for the delay responding directly. As I commented in the preface to the thesis chapter, my more developed response is there, rather than in anything I could say briefly here. This doesn’t mean that I’m quite hitting the target I’m trying to hit there, of course. But I share, I think, your negative reaction to trying to what is generally meant by ideology critique – I see Marx’s standpoint of critique differently from most ideology-critical approaches: as an analysis of the potentials or implications of various moments currently implicated in the reproduction of capital, with an eye to criticising the reproduction of capital, against the potentials that might be unleashed, given other sorts of social relations.

    Marx does talk quite a lot about the ways in which the various processes he analyses come to be “reflected in the brains” of social actors, and not just in the fetishism discussion – the meta-theory here, though, sounds to me as though he simply thinks that we tend to cognise via what we do – and can therefore look past or fail to notice unintended consequences of our practices, where those consequences don’t arise directly from some specific practice, but rather from the aggregate effect of lots of practices. So he uses this sort of analysis as part of an argument about why this social context has properties that have to be deduced or discovered, rather than being immediately intelligible. I don’t think this sort of point contradicts what you are saying, though, and to avoid confusion I’ve tried to change the way I’m expressing this point in the chapter – whether this has made things better or worse, we’ll see 🙂

    But I should discuss this when I’m more awake 🙂 Mainly just wanted to say thanks again for the questions and comments, which were very helpful when I was having my last go at revising this.

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