Rough Theory

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Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Inverted World

So one of Nate’s recent posts has generated my bedtime reading for the past several days – Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital, an early work updated by Engels after Marx’s death, and his 1865 “Value, Price and Profit”. The former I have read before, but not recently. The latter I’m not sure I’ve ever read – if I have, I’ve thoroughly forgotten the content. Both works are interesting as self-popularisations – expressing Marx’s own attempt to simplify and prioritise elements from his work for a more popular audience.

From the standpoint of my own attempt to unpack and make sense of the textual strategy of the first volume of Capital, reading pretty much anything else by Marx has a particular kind of strange effect. On the one hand, his terminology in other works, particularly, but not exclusively, earlier works, is often very loose compared to the unfolding of the argument in Capital (which is not always itself consistent, but which reads, to me, much more consistent than anything else of Marx’s that I’ve read) – and, even where the terminology is reasonably consistent within a work, the sense of a term may be subtly, or even dramatically, different from the senses on which the first volume pivots. The first volume of Capital is also a “scientific” text – as Patrick Murray expresses it, Marx’s only “scientific” text – where the sense of “science” here is Hegelian: a science is something that does not step outside its object – something that reflexively accounts for its own categories as immanent moments of the relation it is analysing critically. The “point” of this kind of “scientific” analysis – as I’ve tried to express in many posts – is not to debunk the categories being analysed, but rather to locate them – to situate how our collective practices generate these particular categories as “practical truths”. Once this sort of “scientific” analysis has been carried out, the categories themselves can then be deployed – with an appreciation of their bounds and limits that derives from the “scientific” analysis itself, but without the need to replicate the massive apparatus that a reflexive critique requires. “Value, Price and Profit” in particular does this – relying on and, in places, even closely paraphrasing moments from Capital, but leaving aside the complex textual metastructure that allows Marx, in Capital to destabilise the categories in order to express at each moment their relational determination within the overarching social configuration he is trying to capture in this text.

Among other consequences – and as you would expect – these self-popularised works are much easier to read than Capital. When I bury myself in the textual strategy of Capital for too long, I always forget this: that Marx isn’t, so to speak, congenitally cryptic about his own substantive claims – that the esoteric textual strategy of Capital derives from the attempt to come up with a mode of presentation that expresses certain substantive claims about the peculiar, practically reflexive, character of the process by which capital is reproduced. Where Marx isn’t attempting to be rigorous in this very peculiar sense, he actually is capable of saying directly what he means. I often get startled by this, after spending long periods reconstructing the sense of over-subtle passages in the first volume of Capital, only then to stumble across Marx, in effect, chatting away about the point in a quite direct way in some other writing. This unfortunately doesn’t mean – at least, I don’t believe that it does – that Capital can be cast aside, in favour of other works where Marx speaks more plainly: there are things the first volume of Capital does, that are not done in other places, there is a systematicity and internal consistency to this volume compared to other works, and the very presentational form of the work itself makes a substantive argument worth unpacking in its own right. Nevertheless, I often feel a bit peculiar when shifting from the maddeningly indirect way the first volume of Capital makes its points – a form of presentation that always leaves interpretation feeling precarious and risky to me – to other works that state key points more baldly.

I’m thinking about this today because “Value, Price and Profit” concludes on a point I’ve been arguing (in work not yet on the blog… more on all this soon) is suggested by the dramatic structure of the first volume of Capital. In a concluding section titled “The Struggle Between Capital and Labour and Its Results”, Marx has, on the one hand, outlined the necessity for a struggle between labour and capital in order for labourers to realise the value of their peculiar commodity of labour power. This discussion positions the struggle between labour and capital as essential – but in a peculiarly qualified way. Marx argues first that the working classes must engage in this sort of struggle over the terms of the labour contract:

These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

The structural tendency of the system is such that this particular sort of struggle is required in order for labourers to receive the value of their commodities: this form of struggle, in other words, takes place within the ambit of commodity-determined production, and is part and parcel of this form of production. Moreover, failure to engage in this form of struggle may render other forms of political contestation impossible, subjectively and objectively. However, so long as political contestation remains restricted to this terrain, this contestation operates as a moment of the reproduction of the capital relation – mobilising ideals and forms of organisation that do not point in a fundamental way beyond the logic of commodity-determined production. What is needed, Marx argues, is a mobilisation that, however much it may begin from this sort of immanent contestation, reaches for ideals and forms of organisation that point to the abolition of commodity-determined production as such. Marx writes:

At the same time, and quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:

Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.

Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. The fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.

In the first volume of Capital, this sort of argument is made in a strangely subtle way. On the one hand, the narrative arc of the opening chapters, through the introduction of the category of labour power, marks out a dark parody of Hegel’s Phenomenology. In Hegel’s drama, when consciousness confronts the inverted world and comes to realise that it has been its own object all along – when consciousness achieves self-consciousness – this is an achievement of spirit. In Marx’s parody, when we finally grasp the wealth of capitalist society, and come to the realisation that this wealth is not an object “outside us”, but rather is us – that labour power is the substance of value and the emergence of the “free” labourer a necessary historical condition for generalised commodity production, it is the capital relation itself that is described in the vocabulary Hegel uses for the Geist: a blind, processual, process of domination – a runaway production become an end in itself and achieving domination over humankind – is what is “realised” once the subject-object dualism is undermined in Capital. At the dramatic moment where Hegel whips aside the curtain to reveal self-reflexive consciousness, Marx stages a very different kind of dramatic pivot in his text:

We now know how the value paid by the purchaser to the possessor of this peculiar commodity, labour-power, is determined. The use-value which the former gets in exchange, manifests itself only in the actual utilisation, in the consumption of the labour-power. The money-owner buys everything necessary for this purpose, such as raw material, in the market, and pays for it at its full value. The consumption of labour-power is at one and the same time the production of commodities and of surplus-value. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

A similar dramatic downturn follows the other major “self-realisation” of labour portrayed in the first volume of Capital: the story of the achievement of the normal working day.

On the one hand, the text speaks here with enormous sympathy and evident pride for the achievements of the working class struggles that culminate in the achievement of the normal working day. The poignant concluding passage of the chapter rings with the historical significance of this triumph:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo! [What a great change from that time! – Virgil]

At the same time, this conflict is positioned in the text as taking place within the ambit of commodity-determined production, with workers banding together in order to realise their rights as commodity owners – albeit of a very peculiar commodity. In the drama staged in this chapter, the conflict over the working day begins:

The capitalist has bought the labour-power at its day-rate. To him its use-value belongs during one working-day. He has thus acquired the right to make the labourer work for him during one day. But, what is a working-day?

At all events, less than a natural day. By how much? The capitalist has his own views of this ultima Thule [the outermost limit], the necessary limit of the working-day. As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour.

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

The capitalist then takes his stand on the law of the exchange of commodities. He, like all other buyers, seeks to get the greatest possible benefit out of the use-value of his commodity. Suddenly the voice of the labourer, which had been stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production, rises:

The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own. That is why you bought it. That which on your side appears a spontaneous expansion of capital, is on mine extra expenditure of labour-power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it, but to the buyer, who acquires it. To you, therefore, belongs the use of my daily labour-power. But by means of the price that you pay for it each day, I must be able to reproduce it daily, and to sell it again. Apart from natural exhaustion through age, &c., I must be able on the morrow to work with the same normal amount of force, health and freshness as to-day. You preach to me constantly the gospel of “saving” and “abstinence.” Good! I will, like a sensible saving owner, husband my sole wealth, labour-power, and abstain from all foolish waste of it. I will each day spend, set in motion, put into action only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration, and healthy development. By an unlimited extension of the working-day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three. What you gain in labour I lose in substance. The use of my labour-power and the spoliation of it are quite different things. If the average time that (doing a reasonable amount of work) an average labourer can live, is 30 years, the value of my labour-power, which you pay me from day to day is 1/365 × 30 or 1/10950 of its total value. But if you consume it in 10 years, you pay me daily 1/10950 instead of 1/3650 of its total value, i.e., only 1/3 of its daily value, and you rob me, therefore, every day of 2/3 of the value of my commodity. You pay me for one day’s labour-power, whilst you use that of 3 days. That is against our contract and the law of exchanges. I demand, therefore, a working-day of normal length, and I demand it without any appeal to your heart, for in money matters sentiment is out of place. You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in the odour of sanctity to boot; but the thing that you represent face to face with me has no heart in its breast. That which seems to throb there is my own heart-beating. I demand the normal working-day because I, like every other seller, demand the value of my commodity.

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.(bold text mine)

Between equal rights, force decides: this is a form of struggle determined by the structural indeterminacies built into the process of the reproduction of capital itself – a decentralised Foucaultian conflict that does not contravene the power relations built into the process of the reproduction of capital, but rather constitutes one of the moments for the reproduction of those relations. It is therefore not surprising that, in spite of the palpable compassion and pride with which this chapter reports the outcome of this struggle, what follows on this achievement, in terms of the dramatic structure of the text, is not a discussion of emancipation, but rather a discussion of relative surplus value – that is to say, a discussion of the particular form of surplus value extraction that results from the successful self-assertion of labour as a commodity owner.

This pivot in the text has sparked any number of debates over whether Marx is making a logical/analytical point, or describing some sort of temporally-identifiable historical shift. While I’m sympathetic to reading the point as logical, rather than as historical, I want to suggest that the more relevant point may instead be political: Marx is saying something here, through the structure and staging of the dramatic narrative of the text, about the limits of particular forms of working class mobilisation and political ideals – specifically, he is making here, subtly, the argument he makes explicitly in the passage I’ve quoted from “Value, Price and Profit” above: that not all forms of contestation, just by dint of being contestation – that not all struggles important to the working class, just by dint of being important to the working class – are revolutionary forms of conflict. Instead, the text suggests, some forms of conflict are actually part and parcel of the reproduction of the capital relation, expressive of the tendencies and of the immanent indeterminacies of that relation – vitally important for the humanisation of capitalism, crucial for their impact on the material and social forms of everyday lives, important for what they might open for a future politics – but in and of themselves not pointing beyond this social form.

So living labour – to the extent that it attempts to realise itself as living labour – participates in the reproduction of capital. This is half of the largest-scale “inversion” that structures the first volume of Capital. The other half relates to dead labour – the vampire, the were-wolf, the reanimated undead creature with no heart in its breast that survives only by constant infusions of lifeblood from the living: the graphic language of the text leaves no doubt of the horror that results from the domination of dead labour, so long as the capital relation continues to be reproduced. If the text expresses an evident pride and compassion for the struggles of living labour, it expresses an equivalent condemnation of the monstrous figure of dead labour.

And yet… In this text, capitalism figures as a Hegelian “inverted world” – a world in which what is overtly good and noble, gives birth to its opposite, participating in the reproduction of a form of domination, and what is overtly a form of domination, generates the conditions of possibility for emancipatory transformation. It is the monster – genuinely horrific in current conditions – that provides the seeds around which future emancipation can crystallise – but only to the extent that living labour – what is genuinely noble in the existing context – is destroyed. This is the major narrative inversion around which the first volume of Capital pivots – this passionate, maddening, over-cryptic plea to recognise that capitalism gives the “practical truth” of Hegel’s “inverted world”, such that emancipatory political mobilisation precisely requires a speculative reach beyond the characteristics that all things have, as they are suspended within the capital relation, and to the characteristics that these things might have – if only we can appropriate them, redeem them, reconstitute them in a new form.

No time to edit… Apologies…

The Accident of Design

impromptu light fixtures attached to the ceilingSo for the past few weeks, when I’ve been able to fight the crowds to get to my usual spot in my coffee shop (as I type this, one of my postgrad students has walked past and casually asked, “Oh! So is this your office?” I’m getting emails from people I don’t even know, asking whether I’m in my “office”, where the emailer clearly means this place… The regular use of this term for this place has to come from students talking to one another, since I don’t advertise it – er… other than writing about it to the entire net, of course… But no one gets their information from the internet, do they?), my view as I look upward is something like this.

I’m taking these photos on the webcam built in to my laptop, which is not what one would normally call a high resolution device… So, in case it’s impossible to tell what this is a picture of, the photo is meant to show the padded tiles along the walls (yes, folks, I voluntarily place myself in a padded room on a regular basis), looking up toward the purple ceiling. You can see the previously-blogged ceiling power point – the white cord dangling down is the extension I’ve donated to the place, so I can plug in my laptop without scaling the furniture. For some weeks, my extension cord was the only thing regularly suspended from that power point. But recently there have been a couple of additions – the two light fixtures (presently turned off) that have been plugged into the power point, and then clipped with random office supplies to the beam that runs across the ceiling.

garden of eden muralThis gives my regular table a veritable wealth of light sources (all the others have one at most) – the fruits, I suppose, of sitting under a power point. But who am I to argue. I’m used to the interior of this place changing quite often, as the owner stumbles across new objects from which he creates found art. There are some fixtures, such as the Garden of Eden mural next to where I normally sit, which are constants.

But most of these bits and pieces on the ceiling, for example, are new. I’ll just walk in one morning and find – as shown in this photo – that someone has strung a flag, or hung up lots of clear plastic streamers with glistening foil fish taped to them, or found a convenient spot to prop a pair of stray blue legs…

objects dangling from the ceiling

In context, the fact that my table suddenly sprouted two new light fixtures in addition to the one it’s always had… not really that strange…

So I didn’t ask.

This morning, though, the owner wandered over personally with my coffee. His eyes followed the line from my laptop, to the extension board, up the way to the ceiling power point, and then, leaping back – “WTF?! Where did those lights come from?!”

“I thought you put them up,” I said, startled.

“No – no – not mine,” he stepped back to appraise them from different angles. “I like though… I like… They’re very nice…”

And off he wandered, looking pleased.

Now I’m finding myself reappraising the interior: how much of this place, exactly, has he deliberately created? I’ve seen him do some of it – I had assumed it was all his… Now I’m wondering… How much of the regular, ongoing transformation of this place comes from people like me – people who decide to make… just a little change… add just that little bit… to feel more at home… A cord… a light fixture… a pair of blue legs tucked in the corner just so… Maybe even a mural of mutual temptation… Found objects… donated ones… deliberate designs… detritus… How much of this place did the owner discover one morning, to his surprise, and then accept with a pleased “I like… They’re very nice…”

Things I Find Myself Writing on Assignments

“We don’t usually have strong data on the start of mankind.”

Abolishing the Quant/Qual (and Other) Distinctions

So today was the formal logic lecture in our newly designed social research course. In the spirit of the best pedagogical traditions we established in our quantitative methods course last year, my esteemed colleague L Magee set out to instil in our students the virtues of rigour and precision with a thorough discussion of the connections between logical operators, variable types, and research methods. For reasons that quite elude me, the normally intrepid LM seemed however to stumble when it came to explaining to our students the culminating point of one of his slides, which confidently informed:

Interval – constant intervals between values.

Consider temperature:

Arbitrary starting point

But degrees are constant and fixed units

Values are additive: 10 degrees + 10 degrees = 4 days

I’m not clear what the problem with this conclusion is meant to be? Why else were you recommending Lewis Carroll during this lecture, were it not to equip our students to parse conclusions such as this?

Resolve and Resignation

Mikhail Emelianov from Perverse Egalitarianism has a new post up on New (Academic) Year Resolutions – a post which he has spun mimetically, asking for responses from a few of us who are known to lurk around those parts… Mikhail resolves to (or wishes for the ability to?) include more complex material in his courses, spend more time on research, and wear a bow tie: what more could any academic want?

Since I live in an inverted country, Mikhail’s tap actually hits me in the middle of my academic year, rather than at the start – making me uncertain whether this gives me an advantage, in that, whatever resolutions I make, I only have to keep for something like another seven weeks… Or whether, weighed down as I am from the detritus of this year and this term, it simply makes it more difficult for me to find any resolve whatsoever… I find myself wondering whether I should perhaps make resolutions about what I would like to have achieved… before the next academic year begins?

First… there is a veritable mountain (well… perhaps more an imposing molehill… but still…) of pieces I need to finalise, in order to send them off for review, where kind reviewers will no doubt shoot them back to me with quite a lot more work still pending than I would hope. I consider this a short-term resolution: something I have resolved to do during this term – during, in fact, the next few weeks… Resolution: that I will actually keep my own deadline.

Second… the current draft of the thesis needs to be completed. Notice the lack of agency in that sentence. The thesis is the actor… It needs to be completed. My resolution, evidently, is agnostic about who, specifically, needs to do the completing… Nevertheless. Completion needs to happen. Actually, technically, it doesn’t – not quite yet – I have more time. But I don’t want more time. So my resolution, I suppose, is to stick to my own deadline, rather than waiting for impending administrative doom to compel completion. So: resolution: thesis, by the end of the Australian summer.

Third… to choose something genuinely removed from my control: I would like to know, before the beginning of the next academic year, that I have a “next academic year”… My current contract ends with the proper calendar year, and so I must soon begin sorting through that overwhelming deluge of desperate job offers that immediately confronts all academics from the humanities and social sciences, as soon as they enter the job market… Right. Resolution: that someone else will resolve that I shouldn’t be summarily expelled from academic space.

So… two resolutions about keeping my own deadlines, and one… wild gesture of random hope…

Not sure whether Mikhail intends this to be passed along further… I’ll open it to the gallery – feel free to add your own resolutions here and elsewhere, if the mood strikes…

Abstract Materialisms vs. Real Abstractions

Praxis has helpfully suggested that my thesis should be titled “Capital in Footnotes”. Personally, I’m rather more partial to “Marx from the Margins”… ;-P In either case, another footnote for your edification – this time one that often gets cited even by people nowhere near so fond as I am of Marx’s apparatus. [Returning here to post a memo from the end of this post: this probably wasn’t the best day for me to ramble on about this topic – but I’m trying to extract time and thoughts from a schedule that leaves room for neither… Apologies in retrospective advance for the disorganised and rambly character of these points – I’d much rather have been more systematic and just… clearer… but I don’t have the thought-space to do that right now… And, once again, I haven’t even read this post myself – no editing, etc… Too exhausted from the writing of it, and too guilty at the thought of putting off any longer all the other things I need to do… At any rate… With apologies…]

From early in chapter 15 on Machinery & Large-Scale Industry:

A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of any single individual. As yet such a book does not exist. Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, i.e. the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organization of society, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations. Even a history of religion that is written in abstraction from this material basis is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e. to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosized. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one. The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. (ftnt. 4, pp. 493-94)

Rorschach sculptureThis footnote often operates as a sort of Marxian Rorschach test: it’s possible to elicit quite divergent images of Marx, depending on which bit of the quote you focus on, and which bits you subordinate or suppress. My own eye, not surprisingly, is drawn to the final sentence – the part where Marx criticises the “abstract materialism” of the natural sciences on the grounds that this materialism “excludes the historical process”. Evacuating history, this form of materialism becomes “abstract and ideological”. But what does this mean? How is Marx – speaking in earlier sentences about “the material basis of every particular organization of society” – not evacuating history?

This specific dilemma – the dilemma of what Marx thinks he is doing, when he makes sweeping criticisms of other approaches for their ahistoricity, while to all appearances setting forth his own sweeping transhistorical claims: if I had to point to one thing in Marx’s work that has driven my own approach to this text, squaring this particular circle would be it. A great deal of my working interpretation of Capital derives from a decision, in Nate’s terms, “to never give up on reading” in relation to this specific issue: from a decision to continue asking myself whether there were some way that the form of analysis put forward in Capital might actually be consistent with this sort of critique of the abstract materialism of the natural sciences – and with the closely related critique of political economy for behaving as though “there has been history, but there is no longer any” (ftnt 35, p. 175). How can Marx offer these kinds of critiques, while also clearly wielding in his own claims about “every particular organization of society”? What does he think distinguishes his approach from what he criticises? How does he think he meets the critical standards that he applies to others?

The answer to this question – what I take to be the answer – is that Marx understands his own critical categories to have been reflexively established by his analysis of the reproduction of capital. I take Marx, in other words, to think that Capital shows how the critical categories Marx wields are generated in social practice – and thus shows how these critical categories are therefore themselves the products of a contingently-emergent form of collective life. Having established this, however – having shown the process of practical constitution of his own critical categories – Marx is not troubled by the practice of using those categories – of building or constructing something out of them – even of applying those categories to other times and places – in order to think about times before and, most importantly, times after, the capitalist context that provided the contingent ground for our subjective recognition that such categories are possible – as long as this application is recognised as a speculative move, from a situated standpoint, and not fetishistically confused for the discovery of a timeless truth.

Marx’s method, in other words, is consistent with the notion that we make history – but in conditions not of our choosing. Having analysed the conditions we have not chosen, in order to unearth the various resources those inherited conditions make available to us, we can then proceed to build something new from those resources – to construct or speculate on what has been or might become possible, using as our starting point the perspectives made available by the conditions that are available to us now, improvising around what our experiences place ready to hand. The ideological move consists in losing track of the constructed and unchosen character of the conditions in which we stand. Our locatedness, however – the recognition that we stand in some particular conditions – is no impediment to our ability to analyse or criticise or act: it is, instead, simply the determinate launching point for our future lines of flight. We create by transforming materials already to hand.

For Marx to assert this position consistently, among the materials that must lie ready to hand are those that go into this specific assertion: there must be some specific way that the constructed character of our history, the social character of our society, the contingent and artificial character of our collective lives, is suggested by our own practical experience – such that the potency (and the boundedness) of our own practical activity becomes evident to us now. There must be some sense in which our particular practices are “social”, “contingent”, “constructed” – even “practical” – in some distinctive way – some way that has not been the case in other times – such that something like Marx’s critical apparatus becomes plausible now, when it has not been plausible before. From the standpoint of a time in which such an apparatus has become plausible, it then becomes possible to survey other historical periods through the lens that our experience provides – and to recognise elements of similarity – ways in which those other moments, too, can be said to have their “constructed”, “social”, “material”, “practical” dimensions. In this way, our distinctive historical experiences can form a distinctive constellation with the past, shaking loose a distinctive vision of the past – a vision that would not have been available to the times we analyse, but that possesses a validity for us, a validity in light of the potentials we have stumbled across in our own time. Marx’s method simultaneously suspends: (1) an analysis of the ways in which our insights are suggested by various contingent, located practical experiences, and (2) a complete comfort with the validity of standing on the platforms built out of these contingent, located practical experiences, in order to engage in a quite sweeping speculative analysis that tries to demonstrate what else we can build – what more we can construct – based on a systematic analysis of what we have accidentally constructed so far.

I’ve come at this issue from a slightly different direction in earlier posts, analysing the issue of real abstraction, with reference to a passage from the Grundrisse where Marx analyses “The Method of Political Economy”. Perhaps a quick pass back through that material might give a better sense of what I’m after here (or what I was, perhaps a bit obscurely, trying to express the last time I wrote on this topic).

This is a convoluted passage, in which Marx wrestles (as always) with Hegel, and with the complicated question of how to understand that some elements of capitalist society – and some categories of political economy – seem to have vastly longer histories than capitalism itself. Marx recurrently wrestles with this question, trying to do justice to his instinct that the forms of thought characteristic of political economy have something to do with the emergence of new forms of collective practice, without suppressing the evidence that similar practices and categories of thought seem also to arise in times and places Marx would not regard as capitalist. Ultimately, I think, Marx squares this circle by arguing that the process of the reproduction of capital must be understood as a distinctive relation that suspends in a new configuration forms of practice that possess different qualitative characteristics outside this relation. In this passage of his draftwork, Marx has not yet, I think, distilled this argument clearly, but instead hits on and around it, while wrenching the underlying problem into greater clarity.

In any event: Marx is wrestling here with simple categories – and with Hegel’s suggestion that a simple category concentrates a vast complexity of determinations whose refraction conditions the apparent simplicity. Marx considers how this suggestion might translate into historical and social terms: does it take a particularly complex society, before simple and abstract categories become plausible and intuitive forms of thought? Not necessarily, Marx argues – running through a complex mix of historical examples that jumble together levels of complexity and simplicity in different amalgamations.

Nevertheless, there are types of simple category that do express and rely on an underlying practical complexity: Marx singles out labour. The category of “labour” seems quite old – the notion of “labour as such” is articulated very early. Yet these early articulations, Marx suggests, contain tacit determinations that conceptualise “labour as such” in terms of some particularly form of concrete labouring activity:

Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction. The Monetary System for example, still locates wealth altogether objectively, as an external thing, in money. Compared with this standpoint, the commercial, or manufacture, system took a great step forward by locating the source of wealth not in the object but in a subjective activity – in commercial and manufacturing activity – even though it still always conceives this activity within narrow boundaries, as moneymaking. In contrast to this system, that of the Physiocrats posits a certain kind of labour – agriculture – as the creator of wealth, and the object itself no longer appears in a monetary disguise, but as the product in general, as the general result of labour. This product, as befits the narrowness of the activity, still always remains a naturally determined product – the product of agriculture, the product of the earth par excellence.

By contrast, Marx argues, the modern economic category of labour is genuinely devoid of determinations that tie it tacitly or explicitly to some specific concrete type of labouring activity or to some particular sort of product. Significantly, however, this shift does not mean that the modern category of labour is devoid of social determination full stop. He specifically rejects the notion that the modern economic treatment of “labour in general” is some kind of conceptual abstraction derived from stripping away the determinations of various sorts of concrete labouring activities, in order to arrive – in a purely ideal fashion – at the category of “labour as such”. To claim that “labour” is a purely ideal category would be to treat the category as a negation – as something we become able to think only by subtracting or stripping away its positive attributes, in order to arrive at some substratum that represents an essence that could never be realised in any particular empirical form.

Instead, in Marx’s argument, there is some way in which “labour in general” – this very abstract and “simple” category of the political economists – exists in everyday collective practice, as well as in specialised theoretical reflection – some way in which this category is an empirical, not an ideal, entity – some way in which this category is not devoid of social determination, but instead expresses a peculiar form of social determination. Marx argues:

It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system. Now, it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society.

Marx thus distinguishes here between “the mental product of a concrete totality of labours” – what I tend to refer to as a conceptual abstraction that strips away concrete determinations – and a “practical truth” – what I often refer to as a “real abstraction” – that emerges where some dimension of collective practice acts out a positive indifference toward the particular forms of concrete labouring activities, such that this positive indifference becomes an enacted social determination that actively constitutes, as a meaningful social category, something like “labour in general”.

The analysis Marx sketches here of the constitution of this real abstraction is not quite, I think, the analysis he offers by the time he writes Capital. In particular, there is a tacit notion here of a purely quantitative process of historical change – bourgeois society is the “richest possible concrete development” – a bit further on it is the “most complex” – rather than an analysis of the qualitative characteristics that mark the reproduction of capital off from other forms of social practices effecting material reproduction. By Capital, I think Marx has incorporated this sort of analysis into a more complex argument about the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the reproduction of capital.

Already here, though, he speaks of the implications for “science” of this argument that certain very abstract categories – certain concepts that might appear to be purely “ideal” categories that result from subtracting or stripping away social determinations – are “practical truths”. He argues:

This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society. One can understand tribute, tithe, etc., if one is acquainted with ground rent. But one must not identify them. Further, since bourgeois society is itself only a contradictory form of development, relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form, or even travestied. For example, communal property. Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference. The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sidedly. (bold mine)

The bold text, I suggest, makes the essential point: we can speculatively extrapolate from our own categories, from our insights, from our own practical truths. But we can do this only “with a grain of salt” – only in the recognition that there will always be “an essential difference” between our time (which generates certain categories as “practical truths”) and other times whose collective practices might not have enacted the same social determinations. When looking out on the past – also when gazing into the future – also when gazing into the natural world – with sensibilities shaped by our own practical truths, we are primed by our own experienced to find constellations – charged connections that strike us because we find them tacitly familiar, because we recognise elements of ourselves in what we see. There is nothing wrong with doing this – unless it gets read into a narrative that views the present as some sort of culmination or telos of a process of historical development, unless it gets read in ways that make aspects of our specific society appear to be necessary or essential, unless it fails to recognise that even the constellations we make, based on the practical truths available to us, are likely to reflect only a very partial and incomplete sampling of even the insights practically available in our own time. These “unlesses”, Marx suggests, are unfortunately more the norm than the exception…

Marx explicitly relates these points to the method he will need to adopt in his own “scientific” analysis:

In the succession of the economic categories, as in any other historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject – here, modern bourgeois society – is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.

This passage suggests very strongly that Marx does not understand his own categories to be exempt from the critical standards he uses to convict the natural sciences of “abstract materialism” and political economy of behaving as though “there has been history, but there is no longer any”. It suggests that Marx sees himself to be doing what he, in fact, labels as “the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific” method in the footnote cited above. He sees the see society he sets out to criticise as “given, in the head as well as in reality” – sees himself as deploying categories that “express the forms of being… and often only individual sides” of this particular society. He understands Capital, I would suggest, as developing “from the actual, given relations of life” the various categories that possess a “practical truth” – a truth bounded to those relations, and often limited, partial, and “one sided” even by the universe of practical truths and insights made immanently available within those relations.

Marx’s own central categories – the categories that allow him to make these sorts of programmatic statements – concepts of society, practice, materialism – must be among the “practical truths” that are made available by dimensions of our collective practice, in order for Marx, by his own standards, not to lapse into something like the “abstract materialism” of the natural sciences, or the ahistorical perspective of political economy. He must reflexively show the historicity, the practical genesis, of his own insights – a demonstration that by no means prevents him from picking up these found categories, these practical truths, and deploying them in his own analysis – speculatively extrapolating and expanding upon the possibilities they make available. We make history in conditions not of our own choosing – but we do make history. And, apparently, we make history in some very special sense in the capitalist era – we make history with “an essential difference” – we make history “with a grain of salt” – we make history in some distinctive way – one that allows this sort of reflexive speculative theory itself to become possible.

The point of this method can sound epistemological. Yet epistemology isn’t, I think, Marx’s concern. His concern is instead with developing a method that maximises the possibility for action. The problem with not engaging in this sort of reflexive analysis, is not so much that the theory will fail to give an account of its own conditions of possibility: it’s that a non-reflexive theory increases the risk of abridging practice and missing the practical potentials of our time. We can abridge practice by falling into the assumption that our own contingent constructions are the culminations of an inevitable historical process or essential to social life as such. We can do it by confusing our own practical truths – things we are effecting in collective practice – with ideal constructions that are disconnected from what we can achieve. We can do it by confusing a small part of our current practical potentials with the whole. Marx is trying to work out a method that – as I have argued in a number of other posts – makes our history citable in more of its moments, a method that opens additional windows onto our own practices, a method that mines and speculatively extrapolates from the practical insights we are collectively making available. The goal here is radically anti-utopian, in the sense that the method is oriented to a systematic demonstration of what we already do. At the same time, the goal is radically transformative, in that it seeks to apply to itself the practically-achieved insights into the constructedness and ephemerality of our social – in order to demonstrate how we need not be restricted to what “is”, even if we will necessarily mine our current context for the building blocks of whatever we build next…

The In-Ourself

Okay. Labour power. Inversion. How does this inversion retroject itself onto the opening passages of Capital, transforming our understanding of what we thought we knew at that moment in the text? Just as important: how does what was already said at that early point in the text, interact with the new things that we think we know now about the centrality of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power?

It’s funny: I wrote this post – in my head, not yet in text – last night, thinking about Nate – about some of his writings, and some of our conversations – while I was composing. I woke this morning to find that, as if this imaginary dialogue had actually taken place, Nate had responded overnight to yesterday’s post on labour power. Many of Nate’s comments speak to what I’m trying to write here, but since I was writing in relation to retrojected-Nate, from past conversations, rather than in relation to this-morning-Nate, from his current post, this may result in a strange collection of overlaps and offsets between what I’m writing below, and what Nate has just written. At any rate: go read his post, which is relevant to what I’m writing here, even if I haven’t done justice to that relevance in this post. Among Nate’s reflections are comments about the experience of reading Marx – reading, not interpreting. And among those comments is the following, which just expresses so well how I have come to read Marx and other forms of complex theory, that I have to reproduce it, before I move into the topic of this post. Nate writes:

Maybe what this really boils down to is that we shouldn’t read Capital so much as re-read it. (This was my approach when I was reading Capital for the first time, as well as other difficult material – come to think of it, pretty much all German stuff … Kant, Marx, Hegel, Habermas … weird … I guess I later started applying this elsewhere. What I tried to do and sometimes still do though less rigorously/vigorously, was to never give up on reading, specifically by initially committing at a minimum to looking at all the words, rather than committing to understanding. After looking at all the words I could at least go back to the text in discussion, more than I could if I hadn’t looked at all the words, then actually read it, and afterward re-read it.)

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Now… What was I thinking about last night again? Something about commodities as things… things later revealed to be human… humans, however, that have already been revealed as things – as material objects onto which contingent social circumstances are projected – humans that remain determined as material bearers of an immaterial essence of value… Humans whose materiality – whose thingliness – is counterintuitively shown to be their distinctive form of socialisation under capitalism… The inversion that results from the introduction of the category of labour power is a far more potent inversion even than it first appears: in this category, it is not simply use value and exchange value that come to be inverted, not simply freedom and constraint – society and nature are inverted as well. Capitalism is shown to involve a distinctive practice of self as material object – as physical, biological life that is then socialised into some contingent form: the physical determinations of labour power that permeate Capital – abstract labour as the expenditure of so much quantity of nerves, muscles, and physical energy – this determination, in spite of appearances, is a social determination – this naturality, this materiality, is not the stripping away of social determination to reveal a persistent material substratum underneath: it is a specific, historically-emergent, positive form of socialisation under capitalism – Nature is the new Society… What is most distinctively socially determining of capitalism, adopts the perfect disguise – a cloak of physicality, a material veil – and thus intuitively seems not to be social at all… Let’s see if I can pick up that thread…

Okay. The commodity is introduced as a “thing outside us”. Intuitively – with intuitions encouraged by the examples (linen, coats) that Marx uses in the text – with intuitions also undermined by many marginal gestures that Marx makes along the way – but, intuitively, when Capital opens, we think we are talking about things. The subject matter is the wealth of capitalist societies – and this wealth presents itself initially in a particular way – as a vast accumulation of empirically-sensible stuff that can be grasped in terms of its (transhistorical, essential, material substance) use value and its (contingent, extrinsic form) exchange value. We learn fairly quickly that we need to look beyond the empirically-sensible, to a supersensible realm where categories of value and abstract labour operate – categories that we are initially tempted to see as themselves essences lurking behind a realm of empirical appearances to which they are only contingently connected. And then we visit an inverted world, where we begin to appreciate the connections – the relations – that bind the realm of appearance necessarily to this realm of essence: we are in train, at this point, to understanding how a particular sort of essence could be constituted from a specific kind of appearance – how everyday practices that are not intentionally aiming to constitute some sort of social essence, might constitute such an essence nevertheless.

All of this, however, operates within the ambit of the claim that commodities are “things outside us”. Things that, being passive objects, enter into social relations with one another, through the agency of their owners. Things whose collective relations then relate the owners themselves – connecting people through the mediation of objects. The type of connection being effected here is more than the material connection established by the social metabolism involved in any circulation of goods and services: an immaterial connection – a subterranean water table marking the depths and heights of the purely social fluid of value – flows through the social metabolism of material exchange. This immaterial flow has no intrinsic connection with the social metabolism of material distribution – this is part of the critical claim of the text, part of what Marx must establish, to demonstrate the non-utopian character of his critical ideals. Under capitalism, however, this immaterial flow is coterminous with social metabolism – one of various factors that encourages the hypostatisation of characteristics specific to capitalism – one of various factors that encourages people to miss how the immaterial dimensions of capitalism are not secret essences of material reproduction as such – the intertwining of these characteristics with material reproduction now, makes it difficult to see how these characteristics are not intertwined with material reproduction in some essential and intrinsic way.

The text has already introduced several layers of complexity, then, before the category of labour power is introduced. The movement from empirical, to transcendental, to dialectical – and then to something else, to whatever the unnamed perspective is, that enables the practical constitution of the fetish to be grasped – these movements already give the reader a taste of a text that will recurrently destabilise its own overt claims. The empiricist voice that opens Capital sounds confident in its articulation – so does the transcendental voice that follows – and the dialectical. The movement of the text is not so much to contradict these voices – not so much to dismiss them as errors. Instead, the movement is more like that of taking something that asserts itself as a foundation – as a firm point on which we can stand – and violently ejecting it into a dynamic environment: all these voices have something in them of truth – as long as truth is understood as something intrinsically and inevitably in motion. A truth for now. A truth for here. A truth that provides a platform wide and stable enough to stand on for some purposes. A truth whose platform borders an abyss into which we can fall, if we mistakenly assume the platform extends too far.

I’ve written about the introduction of the category of labour power elsewhere. Marx derives the category by showing that the standpoint of simple circulation and reproduction unwittingly presuppose it – that it must presuppose it, because it presupposes growth. The equilibrium values of circulation are tacitly indexed to an expanding system: for the commodity to become the socially general form of wealth – for the social contract imaginary of a society of commodity producers and exchangers to become a socially plausible just-so story – a constant transfer of new and ever-expanding productive energies are required. However much the process of circulation ratifies the success of such growth, the circulation of what already is, cannot increase the volume of what is circulated – a society as a whole does not increase the total volume of its wealth by thieving from itself in aggregate. Some new source of productive energy is required. The category of labour power captures this productive energy that enables the whole to expand.

The wealth in question, however, is not material wealth. That tends to increase too – but structurally, in terms of the argument put forward in Capital, the increase in material wealth is a side effect – a consequence of material wealth’s distinctive social role as a bearer of value. Value is the invisible and secret coin of the realm – well disguised in the visible scrabble over the empirically-sensible proxies of use value and exchange value, which empiricist sensibilities take to be the stakes of the capitalist social game. Value flows through these empirically-sensible entities, but is not minted from them – but rather from labour power alone. As the secret within a secret, the labour power constitutive of value is itself not empirically-sensible – it is abstract labour – what Marx will sometimes call “directly social” labour – labour that has been socially ratified to enable it to count as labour – a retroactive judgement of the unconscious action of the whole of society on each of its members, determining what sorts and intensities of empirical labour are treated in collective practice as possessing “value”.

The argument here is circular – tautological – and deliberately so: it is an attempt to capture an immanent qualitative characteristic of a runaway form of production become an end in itself, rather than an attempt to capture an external factor that “causes” production to assume a certain form – the category of value is an attempt to characterise clearly what we are doing, rather than an attempt to specify an independent variable that causes us to do it. Capital will discuss the forms of coercion – personal and impersonal – that tend to generate “value” as an aggregate result. At this point in the text, however, this level of analysis remains largely unspecified.

I’ve talked about all of this elsewhere – no doubt not enough, and without sufficient clarity. Nevertheless, this is revision, and not what I am trying to think about today. A diversion, as I avoid writing about things I find harder to say.

What I am trying to write about – what I am avoiding writing about – is the ricochet that takes place once the category of labour power is introduced as a pivot category that inverts our sense of what was being discussed earlier in the text. When the category of the commodity is introduced, use value and exchange value are determined as externally and contingently related: use value is specified as an intrinsic and transhistorical material substance, and exchange value is specified as a contingent social form that is projected onto this material substance. The implication here is that the substance is eternal, while the form is ephemeral – a move that would position circulation as the appropriate target for political contestation (since it is circulation – the arbitrary and contingent form – that is here positioned as able to change over time), while cordoning off production as a timeless and essential material requirement that must perpetually be reproduced.

One of Capital’s central critical targets, of course, is the compulsive reproduction of production – specifically, of human labour as a component and motive force of production – the binding together of human labour and material reproduction, no matter how great the growth in the science and technology as motive forces for the production of material wealth. The category of value is the category of this tendency – the category that gives a name, a label, to this trend to produce new forms of human labour, as older forms are automated away: Marx insists that value is constituted by human labour power alone, because value as a category is intended to give a voice to this unintentional trend toward the compulsive reproduction of the need to expend human labour time, no matter the heights of productivity. This is why he becomes so impatient with people who argue over whether nature plays some role in the constitution of value: how could it? “Value” is a term for a social drive to reproduce human labour – and nature, as Marx insists with some exasperation, has nothing to do with this historically unique social drive…

One of the distinctions that becomes inverted with the introduction of the category of labour power is the use value/exchange value distinction: the use value of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power, is to generate value – substance and form – now understood as the historically unique substances and forms specific to capitalist society – no longer appear extrinsic and contingently connected to one another, but instead intrinsically related. Which doesn’t mean that these categories aren’t also distinct – their mutual-implicatedness is not the same as their seamless identity – they are united in a tense and uncertain dynamic relation.

Subject and object also become inverted: the pivot category of the commodity – the “thing outside us” – is now revealed to rely on a peculiar commodity that is a subject, a person. But what conclusion are we meant to draw from this? That the opening categories do not apply to those peculiar commodities that happen to be people? I think not quite. Rather, we have to re-read the opening passages as determinations – we can now see – of distinctive forms of embodiment and practices of self that become widely available as possibilities within social practice with the development of capitalism.

The sale of labour power on the market is a strange thing. The labourer doesn’t sell themselves entire – this would be slavery. (It is perhaps appropriate to flag here that Marx will destabilise and invert this distinction, too: the later sections of volume 1 provide a number of examples of how the system of “free labour” results in modern slavery – particularly within families, as parents act as the brokers for the labour of their children who cannot contract for themselves, but also within work gangs – and workhouses – and the dimensions of the capitalist world market where the hard coercion of the state is freely wielded to constitute a labour force… The system of “free labour” presupposes its own inverted forms of “unfree labour” – labour that is unfree even according to the immanent standards generated by this system – as well…) The labourer instead sells a part of themselves – a capacity – specifically, their capacity for labour.

In a sense, then, the commodity labour power remains a “thing” – something objectified from its owner, who brings this thing to market. And yet this form of objectification is a self-objectification: it implicates a distinctive sort of internal bifurcation in the labourer’s socialised practice of themselves. Labourers enact themselves as agentive owners exerting their will against passive objects – passive objects that are, however, their own capacities, bound and inseparable to them, yet bifurcated and objectified – alienable and yet ineradicably their own. (All of this doesn’t get into the various levels of analysis around the conditions of agency for the working classes in the conditions where their distinctive form of “freedom” renders both plausible and necessary forms of collective self-assertion, in order for agency to be effectively asserted in conditions where the presupposition of the labourers’ “freedom” of contract, is their simultaneous “freedom” from the means of subsistence. For present purposes, I leave this issue to one side – not because it is unimportant, but because I am trying to tease out the argument about forms of embodiment – and the bifurcated or perhaps trifurcated form of embodiment tacitly being mapped out in the first chapter of Capital, in passages where the text appears only to be discussing “things outside us”.)

So if the “peculiar commodity” of labour power is retrojected back into the opening discussion of the commodity from the first chapter, we arrive at a complex discussion of a social enactment or performance of self – in at least one slice of collectively-available experience in a capitalist context. By implication, this performance of self also has its empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical dimensions. We enact ourselves as material things – use values – use values, not for ourselves (since, separated from the means of subsistence, our own capacity for labour is strangely not useful for us), but for the capitalist. A part of ourselves interests us for its exchange value – a necessary condition of which is its usefulness for another: our labour – always, concretely, some specific kind of labour, the range of things we have been trained or have the capacity to do, and therefore always, concretely, something that might not be useful for someone else – that might not be able to realise itself as an exchange value, because the labour market is flooded with “use values” like us, use values that cannot realise themselves in use, if they cannot realise themselves in exchange.

We enact our own capacities – and not just the traits of objects outside ourselves – as material bearers of exchange value. We enact our own capacities as objects outside ourselves. We perform ourselves as internally divided, as ghosts in our own physical machines – collectively enacting, as a distinctive positive, constructed, social concern, our capacity to expend, as Marx will often phrase it, so much of a quantum of brains, muscles, nerves… Marx’s recourse to this physicalist description of abstract labour is often taken as though Marx is drawing attention to some material invariant – physical human labour. This interpretation misses the thrust of Marx’s argument, which is that this “physical” determination of human capacities – the sensitivity we presently find intuitive, the ease with which we presently conceptualise ourselves as material bodiesthis is social. The physical determination of the human under capitalism, contrary to appearances, is not a conception that arises when we strip away social determinations, leaving our materiality and physicality behind. Quite the contrary, this physical determination is precisely a social determination – a specific and determinate way we enact ourselves in one slice of social practice in a capitalist context.

So that is the machine. The human machine of nerves, muscles, brains, sinews… There is more to this determination – to understanding the qualitative attributes that we intuitively attribute to these forms of materiality – than I can outline here. This post is pure gesture – I’ll have to follow the point at a later time.

But for present purposes, just a quick note that the machine has its ghost: the “transcendental” voice marks out a distinctive form of embodiment, a distinctive collective practice of self, as well. Value flows through us as well – a secret social substance in which we participate – through which we learn how much we, too, get to “count”. This experience – the Durkheimian soul of capital – marks out a supersensible unity of humanity – a unity of mutual coercion – but a unity nevertheless. A dimension of social practice in which a secret identity and equality and homogeneity flows through us, in spite of all empirically-sensible differences: a practical basis for the experience of a common human nature, misrecognised and fetishised as something inherent, rather than something constituted – natural rights, natural justice, natural laws: the children of the fetish, although no less socially explosive for all that.

I’m flagging. And I’m also not expressing any of this well… Just trying to gear up for what I’ll need to write, fumbling toward what I mean… Apologies for the murk… As with the early posts on the fetish, I hope to become clearer and more adequate over time…

I haven’t edited this – haven’t so much as glanced back it… Too tired to do so now… Apologies…

Scratchpad: Peculiar Commodities

Not a lot of substantive writing (or, indeed, writing of any kind) around here lately – apologies. Aside from the struggle to get on top of an unanticipated teaching load, I’ve been trundling through the process of revising various talks I’ve given in the last several months, so that they are in proper form to send off to journals. Since the contents of the talks are generally already available on the blog, and the revision process is not leading to any startling new insights, this process hasn’t been creative for new writing for the blog… Unfortunately, this relatively uncreative period will likely continue for the next few weeks, so things may remain light.

I have been toying, though, with the issue of how to voice the next chapter of the thesis – trying to cash out the narrative line I suggested in the reworked first chapter that was initially workshopped in the Goldsmiths talk. The contents of this second chapter – which follow the thread from the first chapter, to show how Marx introduces the category of labour power – have already been presented here and elsewhere in a different narrative form: my goal at the moment is to try to develop a presentation of this content that hugs the text a bit more closely, drawing attention, as the first chapter of the thesis does, to the voicing and dramatic structure of Marx’s text.

One aspect of Marx’s textual strategy in the early chapters is the constant overt assertion that the commodity is just a “thing”, an object “outside us” – a passive and inert entity. These assertions will come to be inverted with the introduction of the category of labour power – the first major inversion within the text (there are a number of more minor inversions en route to this point – including the “scholastic” demonstrations of dialectical method from the third section of the first chapter: incidentally, for those who have been following David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, I noted that his reaction to what I see as Marx’s critical/ironic scholastic performances of dialectical method, was to comment on how turgid and laboured these passages are – how boring. This stilted “voicing” of the third section is not the only reason I take this third section to be a “character actor”, rather than a straightforward expression of Marx’s position, but it is one of the reasons. Considering the possibility that the different voices or stylistic registers of the text, might themselves be part of the argument being made, at times shifts significantly the sense of the text…)

In any event, for reasons I’ve discussed in various places, Marx cannot begin Capital with the category of labour power – and yet his argument, ultimately, will be that this category has always already been presupposed by the categories he does unfold at the outset. While the text remains largely immanently voiced in these early sections – remaining within the ambit of perspectives that see the commodity as “a thing outside us” – Marx does offer a number of subtle textual gestures that destabilise this perspective, even in the course of presenting it. My rough thought is that the second chapter probably needs to begin with a discussion of these destabilisations, before moving into the material I’ve written about in other places: an outline of the specific argument through which Marx unfolds the category of labour power – that “peculiar commodity” whose characteristics invert those that have been attributed to the commodity to that point – and exception that, as it will turn out, provides the foundation point for the very phenomena that seem to contradict it.

Below is a very rough list – which I almost certainly won’t retain in this form – that begins to play with how I might present these destabilisations…


As discussed in chapter 1, the problem of the opening chapter of Capital is how to grasp the wealth of capitalist society. That chapter runs through various options: perhaps the wealth of capitalist society consists in an empirically-sensible, material object; perhaps it consists in some supersensible property that lies behind what can be perceived by the senses; perhaps it consists in a dynamic relation. Each of these options, however, remains within the explicit ambit of considering the commodity to be a thing “outside us”. The purloined Hegelian plot of this chapter suggests already that this will not be a stable assumption – that consciousness, seeking certainty of its object, will be driven to the realisation that it has been its own object all along. By appropriating Hegel’s plot to express his concerns in Capital, Marx foreshadows that the commodity must somehow be… us.

Other hints are scattered through the opening chapters, particularly in footnotes that offer what must, in retrospect if not at the time, be read as deeply ironic commentary on the positions being espoused in the main text. In a footnote to the dialectical section of the first chapter, for example, Marx offers:

In a certain sense, a man is in the same situation as a commodity. As he neither enters the world in possession of a mirror, nor as a Fichtean philosopher who can say ‘I am I’, a man first sees and recognizes himself in another man. Peter only relates to himself as a man through his relation to another man, Paul, in whom he recognizes his likeness. With this, however, Paul also becomes from head to toe, in his physical form as Paul, the form of appearance of the species man for Peter. (p. 144, ftnt. 19).

The text frequently appeals to the image of the commodity as a woman – and as a potential or actual prostitute – to destabilise the notion that the commodity is a “thing” that must therefore passively be brought to market and sold by human action outside it. The reference to Dame Quickly that marks the transition between the empiricist and transcendental voices, and the dialectical voice, opens the space for this metaphor. Marx asserts here in the main text:

The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that ‘a man knows not where to have it’.

The Shakespearean play being referenced (Henry IV, Part 1, Act 3, Scene 3) involves a suggestive discussion between Falstaff, who claims, “Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her”, and Dame Quickly, who replies, “Thou art an unjust man in saying so: thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!” Explicit reference to prostitution is more overt in the opening to the second chapter, where the main text tells us:

Commodities cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. (178)

The main text therefore reiterates that commodities are things that “cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right” – and yet the footnote hanging from the final sentence of this passage destabilises this claim with a reference to prostitutes selling their services at a medieval fair:

In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities. Thus a French poet of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair of Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also ‘femmes folles de leur corps‘. (178, ftnt 1)

The prostitute figures as a sometime tacit, sometime explicit, reference point as Marx draws attention to the corrosive, relativistic practices involved in commodity exchange. So Marx characterises the commodity in the second chapter:

A born leveller and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity… (179)

And then, bringing the reference to the exchange of bodies more explicitly in relation to prostitution, money in the third chapter:

Since money does not reveal what has been transformed into it, everything, commodity or not, is convertible into money. Everything becomes saleable and purchasable. Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy, the bones of the saints cannot withstand it, let alone more delicate res sacrosancte, extra commercium hominum. (229)

A convoluted footnote expands on the content hidden away with the Latin phrase, as Marx makes a somewhat forced connection that:

With the Phoenicians, a trading people par excellence, money was the transmuted shape of everything. It was, therefore, quite in order that the virgins who at the feast of the goddess of love gave themselves to strangers should offer to the goddess the piece of money they received in payment. (229, ftnt 2)

These passages destabilise the presupposition still explicitly structuring the main text, that the commodity can be firmly divided off into a separate world of “objects” that subsists completely independently of the world of humankind. Some “objects” that apparently count as commodities have peculiar properties – they self-evidently can take themselves to market and perform exchanges in their own right. At the same time, commodities and money are portrayed as corrosive entities that recognise no natural boundaries – as categories that desire to spill across and undermine ontological distinctions, to exchange themselves and thus incorporate whatever might persist outside. The text is teasing the reader with the question of how stable, exactly, is the ontological boundary that separates the commodity into some other world firmly distinct from our own.

Like the footnote on Barbon analysed in the last chapter, these gestures have the effect of destabilising the claims articulated by the voice speaking in the main text, hinting at some sort of non-identity between the position being explicitly articulated, and the critical standpoint of the broader text. In this case, these destabilising gestures point toward the direction of the argument that is gradually being unspooled, as the main text traces back the presuppositions of the initial categories: an argument that, in spite of their own explicit claims, these early categories tacitly presuppose the existence of what Marx will call the “peculiar commodity” of labour power. I will quickly sketch the major moves that enable Marx to make this tacit presupposition overt.

to be continued…