Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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…


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