Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

When Is It Safe to Read Capital? (Update)

Some time around now, I will be delivering something like this talk to the Marx and Philosophy event at Goldsmiths. The topic, as in the title of this post, is: when is it safe to read Capital?

Wish me luck 🙂

Updated: Just a quick update to say that I had queued this post before making some changes, particularly to the final sections of the paper, that I didn’t have the time to mirror here. I’ve now made some edits to the post below the fold to reflect more accurately the talk actually delivered – these changes smooth out a few rough spots, but aren’t so substantive as to merit an independent reading for anyone who has already clicked through.

The event itself was fantastic – very good collection of papers and excellent discussion. In my accident-prone way, I managed to twist my ankle in a somewhat drastic way, just before the event, so I ended up presenting through a fair discomfort, which meant that I was rather more subdued than I would ordinarily be. Those who know me in person might realise that being more subdued, might not be such a bad thing… 😉 I did, though, particularly wish my attention hadn’t been distracted anklewards during the Q&A session, which was genuinely valuable and fired off a number of associations about things I’ll hopefully be writing about more adequately in the near future.

What I want to talk about today is how we know when is it safe to go on reading Capital. I take my title from Kenneth Koch’s poem “One Train May Hide Another”, a text that, while not written with Marx in mind, nevertheless offers a very useful image for grasping one of the major difficulties in coming to terms with Capital. Koch cautions us:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line –
Then it is safe to go on reading.

In this talk, I want to explore some of the ways that lines – lines of text and lines of argument – hide others within Capital, making it particularly difficult to know when it is safe to go on reading. By exploring the unusual textual strategy in play, particularly in the opening chapter of Capital, I hope to begin to make sense of some of the otherwise deeply puzzling moments of this text. I also hope that I can begin to communicate how this textual strategy expresses a substantive claim about the layered and multifaceted character of the process by which capital is reproduced, about the peculiar way in which the reproduction of capital hides within itself lines of flight that point beyond this social form.

I want to start with the claim that it is deceptively difficult even to find the main line or narrative arc for the opening chapter of Capital, precisely because this main line is, initially at least, hidden within and expressed through other lines that point in very different directions. The layered presentation of the argument in this chapter makes it quite difficult to discern what Marx is trying to do and therefore when it is safe to go on reading.

In the opening sentence of the text, Marx quotes himself; he references his own earlier work: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, appears”, he tells us, “as [self-quotation] ‘an immense collection of commodities’” (125). This gesture is peculiar. Having opened the text and set about reading, we had been assuming – surely the most basic and safest assumption for a reader to bring with them to this sort of text – that we were setting out to read Marx’s argument about capital. Yet only a handful of words in, and we find ourselves stumbling, false-footed: if we are already reading Marx, then why does the text need to quote him? Hasn’t he been speaking all along? If he has, why doesn’t he simply restate his own position here, perhaps footnoting his earlier work if the goal is to mark the origin point of the idea being expressed? What is the benefit of intruding into the main text with an explicitly marked quotation of the author’s own earlier writing?

This gesture – is it entirely safe to call it a self-quotation? – suggests a distance between the voice expressed in the text, and Marx’s own citable positions – it suggests the voice speaking to us in the opening sentence of Capital is somehow not the same as Marx’s voice, such that the intrusion of Marx himself into the text must be explicitly marked in the form of a quotation. Somehow the argument being made in the opening sentence references Marx – Marx’s position is somehow immanent within the opening declarations about how the wealth of capitalist society “presents itself” – but, at the same time, the very act of quotation seems to suggest that the main text is somehow not quite identical with Marx’s own views. But what the distinction might be between the Marx who is quoted, and the voice otherwise speaking to the reader, remains at this point quite unclear. How should the reader make sense of this bifurcation, this play within a play, or Marx within a Marx, in the opening sentence of Capital? Perhaps we have been reading too quickly. Maybe we need to wait and read the next line, to make sure it is safe to go on reading.

A few sentences later, and we stumble across another subtle warning – another trace of multiple lines operating simultaneously in the text. In the main body of the text, we are being told: “The discovery… of the manifold uses of things is the work of history” (125). The footnote to this sentence, however, seems to follow a different line. It first provides a citation to Barbon – a quotation that seems to support the claim being made in the main text: “Things have an intrinsick vertue” – Marx quotes – “which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron”. Reading the next line, however, changes the picture: it turns out that Marx is criticising Barbon here – and, by implication, criticising the position put forward in the text, which the Barbon citation supports. Barbon speaks of “intrinsick vertue” and the main text tells us that uses lie latent, waiting the long years until at last we discover them in history. In the footnote, Marx disagrees, arguing: “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had led to the discovery of magnetic polarity” (ftnt 3, p. 125). But what could such a statement mean? How could Marx possibly object to the claim that material things have intrinsic properties that humans discover over time? Even more perplexing, given that Marx seems to have such an objection, why whisper it in a footnote, while declaiming quite the contrary so prominently in the main text? Who exactly is speaking in the main body of Capital? Why does Marx appear marginalised and bracketed – footnoted and quoted, but nevertheless strangely excluded from the main line of argument in the body of his own text?

This problem only deepens as we continue to move forward, hoping to find the point at which it is safe to go on reading. The opening paragraphs tell us that “first of all” the commodity is “an external object” that satisfies our changeable needs through its own intrinsic material properties (125). Our needs are described as contingent and as varying with time; not, however, the properties of material things that satisfy those needs, which are described as intrinsic to the materiality of those things. We discover material properties – given time and effort – but these properties themselves subsist outside us: they are objects of our contemplation, more essential, more timeless, more stable than we. Use value, bound as it is to material properties, is also more essential: the text describes it as a transhistorical substance of wealth, as contrasted with the more transient and socially specific form of wealth, which in capitalism happens to be exchange value (126). Exchange value is then itself described as a purely relative form – as an expression of the ways in which quantities of commodities may be equated to one another – without a substantive content specific or intrinsic to itself (126).

At this point in the text – if we ignore Marx’s unsettling intrusions and puzzling objections from the sidelines – it looks as though we know what the commodity is: it is a unity of sensible properties, some more essential than others, but all subject to direct empirical investigation by a contemplative consciousness that sets its sense perception working hard, to determine the characteristics of the commodity, understood as an object outside consciousness.

Bizarrely, just as we seem to have all this settled and to be arriving at a decent sense of what the commodity might be, a second voice intrudes – enter stage left – and an argument breaks out (126-131). This new character tells us that the first voice is sadly mistaken: a commodity cannot at all be understood with reference to its sensible properties alone. Rather, the condition of possibility for commodities is something that transcends sensuousness entirely – a supersensible property whose existence can be intuited by reason, but to which our sensory perception remains sadly blind.

This second voice then engages in a virtuoso demonstration of its deductive acumen, dazzling us with a bit of geometry (127), and then walking us through a sort of transcendental deduction of the existence of the supersensible category of value, through the determination of value by labour time, and then through to the intuition that the labour involved here derives from some strange entity the text calls “human labour in the abstract” (127-131). These supersensible categories are presented as something like transcendental conditions of possibility for commodity exchange – conditions whose existence was invisible from the perspective of the opening voice, which doggedly held fast to what could be perceived directly by the senses, and therefore overlooked these intangible properties that subsist behind the world of sensuous experience.

In this supersensible world, the apparently arbitrary and contingent appearance of exchange value is disspelled. Exchange value, it turns out, does have an intrinsic content – an essence – albeit an intangible essence that cannot be directly perceived by the senses: value (129-131). Moreover, in this supersensible world, the proportions in which commodities exchange on the market no longer appear purely arbitrary and conventional, but rather exhibit lawlike properties: the determination of value by socially necessary labour time emerges as an immanent order behind the apparently random motion and relation of goods that is immediately perceptible to our senses (131).

So have we finally found Marx in this text? Is this second voice – tussling explicitly with the first – Marx’s proper entry into the main stage of Capital? Here it helps to know a bit of Hegel, who, as it turns out, has put on something like this play before. A comparison of the opening chapter of Capital with the early chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit suggests that Marx is adapting an earlier work – appropriating this plot and turning it to his own ends, rather than staging a fully original act. In the opening sections of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel sets out to show how consciousness seeks certainty of its object, which consciousness initially assumes subsists separately outside itself. Consciousness assumes a number of different shapes in its attempt to grasp its object, propelled forward into new efforts as each shape proves unstable – unable to offer the certainty that consciousness seeks – because, in Hegel’s account, this certainty can never be attained so long as consciousness clasps tight to the presupposition that its object subsists in a separate substance or world that is severed from consciousness.

When these sections of the Phenomenology are read against the opening sections of the first chapter of Capital, a number of striking parallels leap out. Hegel traces a shape of consciousness – he calls it Perception – that in one of its configurations takes its object to be a thing outside itself, a collection of sensible properties. Consciousness takes this thing to be more essential than itself, and adopts a contemplative stance toward it. Ultimately, in Hegel’s account, Perception fails to achieve the certainty consciousness seeks, and consciousness finds itself driven toward a new shape, which Hegel calls Understanding. Understanding attempts to reach beyond Perception, by searching for supersensible universals – for certain knowledge of its object that transcends the sensible realm but can be intuited by reason. The opening sections of Capital appear to be retracing Hegel’s steps, suggesting that there are parallels between the shapes of consciousness Hegel traces out, and the attempts of political economy to work out “where to have” the commodity – to figure out how to grasp the commodity’s ontological status (cf. 138).

This parallel with Hegel’s text, however, suggests that the introduction of the second voice will likely not be the final act of this production: it still isn’t safe to read Capital. For Hegel, Understanding also fails to provide a stable resting place for consciousness as it seeks certainty of its object. Understanding does open up for consciousness an appreciation of the lawlike regularities that lie behind the apparent randomness of what can be perceived by the senses. In spite of this useful insight, however, Understanding falls into the error of assuming that these laws subsist in some separate substance or world that lies behind the flux perceptible to the senses, thus replicating in a new form the separation of consciousness from its object that has plagued Perception. This new shape of consciousness is therefore also unstable, leading consciousness to a restless oscillation through which it finally confronts what Hegel calls an “inverted world”.

Hegel’s discussion of the inverted world is one of the stranger moments in his work, and the details of his claims need not concern us here. What matters for our analysis of Capital is gaining an appreciation of the overarching narrative arc within which Hegel situates the story of the inverted world. In the Phenomenology, consciousness’ confrontation with the inverted world is one of the major dramatic pivots of the text. Through this confrontation, consciousness realises that what it had taken to be a realm of flux and appareance is generative of lawlike regularity, and what it had taken to be a realm of law and essence is generative of flux. Through this confrontation, consciousness comes face to face with the instability of the sorts of ontological divisions and hierarchies into which it had previously attempted to carve its world, by treating some dimensions of its experience as more “real” or “essential” than others, and thus treating different dimensions as though they held distinct ontological statuses. What consciousness had previously taken to subsist in separate substances or worlds, now come, through the confrontation with the inverted world, to be grasped instead as mutually implicated and interpenetrating moments of the very same dynamic relation. This relation, moreover, implicates consciousness itself as one its moments, such that consciousness comes to realise that it can no longer position itself as external to its object, but instead grasps that it has been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s drama, consciousness achieves Self-Consciousness.

This part of Hegel’s narrative, in which Understanding confronts an inverted world and achieves self-consciousness, is paralleled in the third section of the first chapter of Capital, in which Marx introduces a third voice, arguing with the previous two and insisting that the commodity cannot be understood adequately in terms of either its immediately sensible properties or in terms of some sort of supersensible “transcendental” essence that subsists “behind” what can be perceived by the senses. Instead, this third voice argues, the commodity must be understood dialectically, as a dynamic relation comprised of mutually-implicating moments (138-163). This section of Capital is rife with textual and footnoted references to self-reflexivity – in social institutions, practices, and consciousness – and it mimicks particularly closely the vocabulary Hegel uses in his discussion of Force and the Expression of Force, morphing these terms into Value and the Expression of Value. This “dialectical” voice derives the money form through an analysis it claims would be unattainable from the standpoint of the “empiricist” or “transcendental” perspectives, and, in the process, unfolds a series of “inversions” in which moments of the same dynamic relation are shown to be expressed by their opposites, thus demonstrating the intrinsic interconnection and mutual presupposition of aspects of experience that, taken statically, might appear to be antinomically opposed.

The striking parallels between these texts suggest that the structure of the first chapter must be seen, at least in part, as a metacommentary on Hegel’s earlier work. Like Hegel’s grand drama of how consciousness struggles to attain certainty of its object, the first chapter of Capital also stages a struggle over “where to have” an object. In the case of Capital, however, that elusive object is the commodity, and the drama that unfolds takes the form of a burlesque squabble over how to grasp the wealth of capitalist society. Marx is suggesting, through the very structure of the chapter, that all of what Marx will later call the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” that emerge in Hegel’s narrative, already arise in a much more everyday and indeed crass context, in the course of commodity production and exchange. The most basic, most common, most apparently self-evident object of our economic experience – the commodity – has in this chapter been shown to be capable of generating great ontological confusion. What is a commodity, exactly? A collection of sensible properties? A transcendental unity that lies behind sensible experience? A dynamic relation with mutually-implicated parts? All of these positions, unfolded originally in the course of Hegel’s high drama, reemerge here in Capital in a sort of debauched parody of Hegel’s work.

I want to suggest at this point that all of the voices that have been speaking thus far in Capital have been characters – actors Marx has brought on stage to perform for the reader’s edification a particular type of engagement with the commodity – plays within a play that enact different perspectives for the reader’s benefit. And what benefit does Marx expect the reader to derive from this comedy? He expects to confront the reader with the existence of an inverted world. Not the inverted world suggested by the play-acted “inversions” from the third section of the chapter, which are somewhat stilted and scholastic sorts of dialectical exercises enacted as part of the virtuoso display by the dialectical character mask that speaks in that part of the chapter, but instead the inversions that run across and structure the chapter as a whole: the inversions involved in the reader’s confrontation with three co-existent, socially plausible, forms of engagement with even the very basic category of the commodity.

The dramatic narrative of this chapter, I want to suggest, unfolds a bit like the joke about the three blind men, trying to determine what an elephant is by touch. One grabs hold of its ear and declares that it is just like a giant fan; another latches onto the tail and proclaims that it is like a garden snake; a third grasps its leg and announces that it is like a tree trunk. All of these perspectives are “right” to some degree – they are all saying something valid, so far as it goes, about their object. The problem is that they simply don’t realise that their object is a lot larger and more complicated than the part they are touching – and they therefore don’t even know to ask how their part might possibly relate to other parts.

Marx sees the categories of political economy in something like this way – as grappling hooks that fasten to some aspect of the reproduction of capital, as categories that are, as Marx’s phrases it, “socially valid and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production”. He therefore does not attempt to debunk or dismiss such categories. Rather, his critique proceeds by trying to grasp what these categories cannot: their own social presuppositions or conditions – and therefore their limits and boundaries. Marx doesn’t want to dismiss political economy, but rather to understand what sort of world is required, in order to make political economy a socially plausible sort of theory. By reconstructing the elements of social practice that make political economy socially valid, Marx then intends to reverse the direction of the analysis, asking what can be changed, to generate a form of social life in which political economic categories have been transcended. Over the course of Capital, Marx will therefore attempt to reconnect political economic categories systematically back to their own practical presuppositions. In the process, Marx restages yet another Hegelian number, this time from the Science of Logic – I’ll leave this performance aside, however, for purposes of the present talk.

For the moment, and with this reading in mind, I want to take a closer look at the famous passage on commodity fetishism. Marx begins:

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing (163).

This sentence, I suggest, is intended to refer back to the opening paragraphs. In those paragraphs, the first voice – an “empiricist” voice – literally takes the commodity “at first sight”, equates the commodity with its empirically sensible properties, and therefore views the commodity as “an extremely obvious, trivial thing”.

In the next line, Marx encompasses the second, “transcendental”, voice and the third, “dialectical”, voice, saying:

But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties (163).

At this point, even absent the clues we have derived from reading Marx’s text against the narrative arc of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Marx has explicitly tipped his hand in relation to the textual strategy in play in the earlier sections of this chapter. He says directly here that the transcendental and dialectical analyses attribute metaphysical and theological properties to the commodity – a flag that Marx does not fully endorse the forms of argument deployed in these earlier sections. Marx expects the reader – certainly by this point, if not before – to be in on the joke being played in the earlier sections of this chapter – a joke that consisted of Marx’s allowing several character actors to come on stage, elbowing one another aside while solemnly propounding their own conflictual theories about what the commodity “is”.

Where Marx goes next has become one of the most quoted passages in all of Capital. Marx argues:

So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. 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 if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

The mystical character of the commodity does not therefore arise from its use value. (163-164)

The point of this passage would seem to be very clear. Use value, Marx tells us, has nothing to do with what what he will call the fetish. Since we have earlier been told that the commodity is a unity of use value and exchange value, it is easy to leap here to the conclusion that Marx’s point is to argue that, if the use value dimension cannot account for the fetish, then the other dimension of the commodity – the exchange value dimension – must, by process of elimination, account for the phenomenon. This is a very common interpretation of this passage – but are we so certain it is safe to read it this way? Maybe we need to read the next line and see.

Interestingly, the next line, in an exact parallel to the preceding discussion of use value, tells us:

Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determinants of value (164).

What is Marx saying here? Commodity fetishism does not arise from use value – that much is clear. But apparently fetishism also does not arise from the determining factors of value. None of the component moments of the commodity would appear to account for commodity fetishism on this analysis. But if none of the components of the commodity explain the fetish, what does explain it, in Marx’s account? The answer, as Marx goes on to tell us, is that the commodity form itself explains the fetish – not the component parts of the commodity form, whether these parts are situated in its use value or its value dimension, but the historically distinctive combination of these particular parts, into this specific form. 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 more contemporary terms, Marx is making an argument here about emergence. He is arguing that an overarching relation or assemblage has come to possess distinctive qualitative characteristics that cannot be found in any of its component parts. If you could abstract use value from the commodity relation, nothing about it would render “socially valid” the sorts of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” expressed in the forms of thought Marx has brought on stage earlier in this chapter. If you could abstract the determinants of value from the commodity relation, those parts wouldn’t account for such fetishised forms of thought either. Only the aggregate effect of combining these parts, into this whole, accounts for the fetish. In this context, then, fetishised forms of thought – forms of thought that fall behind the insights that Marx puts forward in the section on commodity fetishism – are those that mistake the properties generated by the whole, the properties that the parts of the commodity exhibit now, while those parts are situated in this very specific social relation, with the intrinsic properties that those component parts possess when abstracted from this relation.

From this standpoint, Marx’s criticism of Barbon back in the footnote I discussed earlier begins to make a bit more sense. Marx is suggesting that Barbon is attributing to a material object – a loadstone – a qualitative property that this object only comes to exhibit once the object becomes embedded in a very particular sort of interaction or relation with humans. Marx is pointing here to the fundamentally asymmetrical character of the form of analysis involved in Barbon’s statement, which positions consciousness as a contemplative, and therefore passive, factor that discovers intrinsic properties that are taken to have always existed, also passively, in some object that subsists outside consciousness. This form of analysis, for Marx, risks naturalising both the qualitative characteristics of the object, and also the qualitative characteristics of consciousness, by not thematising the ways in which particular qualitative characteristics come to be enacted only in a specific form of interaction. Marx’s hint – not voiced explicitly in the footnote, but discernible if the criticism of Barbon is read in light of the argument about commodity fetishism – is that a better formulation would be a relational one – one that recognises the ways in which a specific sort of interaction is generative of determinate properties – in objects – and in consciousness itself. Such a formulation permits both the “subjective” and “objective” moments of the interaction to come equally into the frame of the analysis, while it also permits an explicit consideration that these moments might not express the exact same characteristics, if they were connected through some other form of interaction.

In the section on commodity fetishism, it becomes clearer why Marx might find it important to stress this point. Marx is beginning to hint here, very very subtly, at how he conceives his own critical standpoint. He is suggesting that the strange, layered presentation of his text is meant to express an equally strange, layered quality of our social world – in which an overarching social relation supervenes on its component parts, conferring qualitative characteristics that would not inhere in those parts, if the parts could be reconfigured into some other sort of relation. The method of Capital, therefore, consists in breaking an overarching relation – the process of the reproduction of capital – down into its constitutive parts, and then painstakingly trying to prise apart and differentiate the qualitative characteristics and potentials that those parts possess because they subsist in this particular relation, from other qualitative characteristics and potentials those parts might possess if appropriated and reassembled into a different whole.

While I don’t want to say much about Hegel’s Science of Logic in this talk, for the benefit of those who know that text, I can perhaps say in passing that this is one of the senses in which Marx both appropriates and “inverts” Hegel’s method. In the Logic, Hegel painstakingly demonstrates that a relation binds together what might superficially appear to be disconnected parts. Hegel takes the speculative demonstration of the existence of this relation to be critical, in that it provides a means to reach beyond what is empirically given to grasp an implicate order that is not evident to perception or understanding. Hegel sees the existence of this immanent order as an expression of the work of the self-realisation of reason and freedom in history.

Marx will also painstakingly trace out the relation that effects the reproduction of capital, mapping the connections between the apparently disconnected parts that comprise this relation. Marx does not, however, regard the existence of this relation itself as a positive thing – as an expression of reason or freedom or self-realisation of historical potential – but rather as a form of domination that supervenes on its component moments, suppressing the alternative lines of flight that might otherwise emerge if the relation itself could be suspended. For Marx, the key speculative move consists, not so much in the attempt to determine how the parts fit into the overarching relation (although this is also a necessary step in Marx’s analysis), but rather in the effort to work out what might be done with the parts, if they could be extracted from this whole.

To effect this speculative dimension of his critique, Marx deploys a number of strategies: he undertakes an historical analysis of the properties particular parts have exhibited in other social contexts; he draws close attention to the ambivalent and conflictual properties that particular parts exhibit now, even within the process of the reproduction of capital; and he performs a sort of speculative logical analysis of what potentials might lie immanent, but unexpressed, in particular categories. Through each of these methods, Marx reaches for something very similar to Benjamin’s notion of blasting elements out of the historical continuum: Marx’s critique relies on the notion that component parts that are currently configured in a specific relation, can be appropriated and reconfigured into radically different sorts of wholes, in the process also transforming the very essence of the component parts.

Moving back to the section on commodity fetishism, I want in a very preliminary fashion to suggest how this sort of critical strategy plays out in the text, even at this very early point in Marx’s analysis. Right after telling us that the metaphysical and theoological character of the commodity derives, not from its parts, but from the relation in which those parts are suspended, Marx moves into a dense series of paragraphs that culminate in the naming of the fetish.

Marx first offers the condensed analysis that:

The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour; and finally the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labours are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour (164).

These sentences are very compressed and difficult to unpack. What Marx is reaching for here is a further specification of his argument that the commodity must be understood in terms of a very distinctive form of interaction or relation between humans and things – one that involves (and I cannot fully develop this argument here) the externalisation of the social properties of the moments of that relation, such that these social properties take on a genuinely objective and impersonal form. Marx tells us here that this interaction somehow abstracts from the qualitative, empirically perceptible, sensuous specificity of different sorts of labouring activities. This abstraction from empirically perceptible differences, has the effect of treating diverse forms of human labour as equal to one another, at least in this one dimension of social practice. The interaction also involves a form of coercion – the expenditure of labour power is measured through this interaction – it is somehow assessed. This assessment, moreover, is impersonal and objective: it takes place, not through the direct empirical observation and measurement of the expenditure of labour power, but indirectly, through some sort of social comparison of the products of labour, such that the mutual relations between the producers take the form of a social relation between products. This social relation between products, moreover, does not relate the sensuous properties of goods or labour, but rather effects a comparison of the intangible, supersensible property of value.

In the course of this discussion, Marx makes the peculiar and opaque side observation that it is through this relation between the products that “the social characteristics of their labour manifests itself” – a formulation that suggests that there is some sense in which it is uncertain whether the labouring activities that social actors undertake, will actually possess the quality of being social – the “social character” of labour rather seems to be something secret, something latent that must later become manifest. This manifestation, moreover, will never take place within the original labouring activities or actual goods themselves, but rather somehow requires its own separate incarnation or physical form. Marx develops this point further in the following paragraph, where he argues:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social (164-165).

In this passage, Marx again draws a strange distinction between the empirical labouring activities social actors undertake, and what Marx calls “the social characteristics of men’s own labour”, which are presented in the text as something ontologically distinct from the sum total of social actors’ empirical labouring activities. Somehow the “social character of labour” has come to exist separately from the labour that people empirically do – social characteristics of labour have come somehow to be disembedded from actual labouring activities, such that the social characteristics of labour possess a separate ontological status that enables the property of being part of “social labour” to be externally conferred on actual labouring activities. The “social character of labour” has become a distinguishable, if intangible, entity in whose existence empirical labouring activities might or might not participate, in quantities that might or might not be commensurate with the amount of time empirically invested in the production of some particular good. Social actors must wait to learn whether and to what extent their empirical labours get to “count” as part of “social labour”. They can learn this only through the act of relating their products to one another in the course of exchange. This very strange interaction of goods and people, through which capitalist society settles the question of what gets to “count” as part of “social labour”, is how, Marx tells us, “the products of labour become commodities”. The metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of the commodity derive from this complex interaction between properties that can be empirically perceived – what uses commodities serve, what they exchange for, what sort of empirical labour goes into their production – and the strange intangible property that cannot be perceived, at least not until long after production is complete: the property of whether and to what extent commodities are bearers of labour that will be affirmed as part of “social labour” – to what extent, in the language of this chapter, commodities bear “value”.

Marx next moves into another very famous passage, in which he struggles through a series of analogies, trying to make the nature of his argument more familiar and intuitive to his readers. He first reaches for an analogy from the natural sciences:

In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye (165).

Marx’s argument here is similar to one that motivated his quarrel with Barbon: he is reaching for an analogy – one that he hopes will be more familiar to his readers than the argument he is making about commodities – in which particular qualitative properties that arise only in the course of a rather specific interaction or relation, come to be mistaken for “objective” properties that the interacting elements would possess intrinsically, outside that interaction. This analogy doesn’t quite satisfy, as it isn’t tied closely enough to interactions that arise due to determinate sorts of human practices, and therefore doesn’t suggest any possibility for a transformation in some sort of human practice, to open the possibility for overcoming this particular sort of relation. Marx therefore dismisses it:

In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things (165).

Marx next reaches for an analogy that is more closely bound to human practices, and that therefore makes clearer that human practices could exert a transformative force. It is in this light that he discusses the example of religion:

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 (165).

The point Marx wants to highlight is that religion posits the existence of intangible entities – entities that Marx regards, and expects his readers to regard, as the products of human practice, but which the social actors in question treat as “autonomous figures”. Marx quickly qualifies, however, that this analogy is not perfect: he suggests that religion involves social actors sharing a belief in the existence of intangible beings; for what he will call commodity fetishism, however, belief is not required. Instead, social actors somehow make or perform the intangible entities of value and abstract labour into existence by developing a particular sort of interaction through the mediation of the products of labour. Marx expresses this:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands (165).

It is at this point, having run through these analogies, first to physical relations, and then to religion, and having explored the limitations of these analogies for understanding the matter at hand, that Marx finally names the fetish:

I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (165).

Marx then reiterates the point he believes he has already established above:

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

So what does Marx believe “the foregoing analysis has already shown” about the “peculiar social character” of commodity producing labour. Very briefly, I want to sketch the sort of argument I think 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 unintentionally generate an “intangible entity” – “social labour” – that is separate from the empirical labouring activities they actually carry out. Social actors do not set out to do this, but they do it nevertheless, by subjecting their labouring activities to the feedback mechanism of market exchange. In doing this, they behave in practice as though some objective, impersonal process stands between what they empirically do, and “social labour”, such that their empirical labouring activities must be objectively ratified by an external process before those labours can – in Marx’s phrase – manifest themselves as part of “social labour”.

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 ulimately 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 practical disjoint between empirical efforts expended in production, and the degree to which those efforts will be socially recognised 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 is both nowhere separate from, and yet still distinct to, the aggregate of empirical labouring activities that social actors undertake. In such a context, “social labour” becomes a sort of special status externally bestowed on an elect of 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 always 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 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 down to those that get to count as part of “social labour” is what Marx has earlier attempted to pick out through the categories of abstract labour and value: abstract labour and value become “socially valid”, in Marx’s account, because social actors are collectively behaving as though these intangible entities exist.

Developing this argument in greater detail would make it possible to show that Marx understands the commodity relation to effect a form of domination, in which social actors find themselves subject to an abstract, impersonal and objective pressure to conform to socially average conditions of production. For present purposes, I will leave this more detailed exposition to one side, in order to return briefly, and in conclusion, to the question of how Marx situates his own critical standpoint, in the course of analysing this distinctive form of domination. I have suggested above that Marx understands his critique in terms of the potential to blast the constitutive moments of a relation, out of that relation in order to appropriate potentials that are both constituted, and yet cannot be fully realised, within the relation being criticised. How does this dimension of his argument play out in this opening chapter? Here I can speak only in a very limited way, without coming close to the complexity and detail of Marx’s argument. By way of illustration, however, I will sketch a suggestive example of how his critical strategy plays out, by drawing attention to the implications of some of the side comments he scatters through the first chapter about political ideals and practical enactments of human equality.

First, in the course of discussing the coercive equation of the products of labour, Marx mentions that this process involves an abstraction from the qualitative specificity of labouring activities – and thus the enactment, in one aspect of social practice at least, of a form of human equality. Ironically, the fetishisation of this equality, in Marx’s account, is the historical origin point of great critical potentials directed toward the humanisation of capitalist society. Not knowing “where to have it”, not grasping the ways in which a particular form of human equality is enacted in the course of a very specific sort of interaction, the ideal of human equality assumed the status of, in Marx’s terms, “a popular prejudice”. That this equality seemed to be empirically contradicted in most spheres of human experience did not erode the conviction that humans were still, in some sense, equal: our practical enactment of a type of supersensible human equality, through the reduction of the products of human labours down to the homogeneous supersensible substaance of value, was misrecognised as an intrinsic intangible property of human subjects – rendering socially plausible the conviction that, in Rousseau’s terms, we are somehow born free, regardless of the extent to which we find ourselves in empirical chains. The equality of humans that is indirectly and unintentionally enacted as part of the interaction that generates commodities, fetishised and misrecognised as an intrinsic property of the human subject, could then serve as a counterfactual critical ideal aimed at actual empirical inequalities enacted in other dimensions of social practice. The tension between the equality enacted, however coercively and intangibly, in the commodity relation, and overt inequalities enacted in other dimensions of human practice, had the effect of undermining the doxic character of those inequalities, opening them to overt political contestation.

In Marx’s terms, the confrontation with an inverted world, in which one dimension of human practice enacts human inequality, while another relies on the constant reduction of human difference down to one homogenous “essence”, opens a space for self-conscious political action. The equality of the commodity relation is both an accident and a form of coercion. Marx’s speculative move is to suggest that this accident can nevertheless be appropriated and turned to emancipatory use – that the barbaric practical origins of the ideal of “innate” human equality do not taint the emancipatory potentials of this ideal itself. Moreover, moving beyond the fetishised notion that humans possess some sort of intrinsic property that makes them equal on some intangible, supersensible level can carry even more power than the ideal of equality in its fetishised form. Where fetishised forms of thought suggest that we need to develop a politics adequate to our intrinsic inner essence, Marx is suggesting that what is truly radical is the recognition that the equality we have enacted actually does not express such an inner essence at all: that, albeit accidentally, we have shown ourselves in capitalist history that we have the power simply to make humans equal, a power unconditioned by empirical or supersensible properties, a power that inheres in nothing more than our collective practice. We can make humans equal simply by behaving as though as they are, and thus performing human equality as a practical social reality that we collectively enact.

This sort of speculative mining of the accidents of our history is not exhausted by this discussion of the ideal of equality, which figures here simply as an illustration of a more general strategy in Marx’s work. Marx’s critical standpoint in Capital can be conceptualised as an extended practical application of Benjamin’s notion that we must make our history “citable in all its moments” – for these citations are what will provide us with the ability to blast the potentials we want to appropriate, from the continuum of capitalist history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: