Okay. I’m realising that I’m in a situation a bit like what happened a year ago, when I started thinking I really should write a quick post on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism – and then realised I needed to outline a bit of background first – and then ended up with that background blowing out into dozens of posts on the first chapter of Capital and, ultimately, into a doctoral thesis… ;-P I keep stalling over “quick” posts about specific aspects of Marx’s work that would be potentially relevant to analyses of the current crisis, because I realise that, in order to write those posts and have any hope of making sense, I need to outline a fair bit of background. Attempts to sidestep this background by coming up with some other way through Marx’s presentational thicket just seem to be adding even more bits of background to my list of things I need to cover… Since this seems to be threatening a sort of infinite regress, I think I need just to start tossing out some of this background, without worrying, for the moment, how I might eventually pick up these various pieces and do something useful with them. Apologies for this, as this is a moment when it might be particularly… useful… to do something… useful… But for the time being I can’t see a good way around it…
So… first fragment… Capital spends an enormous amount of time unfolding what Marx generally calls “formal” analyses of various categories – analyses of forms. “Dialectical” or “categorial” readings of Marx tend to distil these formal analyses, sifting them out from other aspects of the text – sometimes because the formal analyses can be a bit difficult to follow, and so a pristine presentation of the forms and their relations can make it easier to work out what Marx is doing in these parts of his analysis – but sometimes, as well, because these sorts of readings simply regard the formal analysis as the core (or even the entirety) of the analysis put forward in Capital, and therefore interpret other aspects of Marx’s textual strategy as more or less unfortunate digressions from the main thrust of his text. At some point, I’ll try to outline how this plays out in the work of specific commentators. For the moment, I’ll just let this caricature stand as a placeholder without directly impugning the work of any specific commentator with this simplification – my goal here is simply to mark for myself that I need to write on this, while not getting too deep into the Marxological trenches at this precise point.
Okay. Continuing the caricature – another placeholder: Dialectical or categorial readings are often criticised for rendering Marx into an idealist – for hypostatising or reifying Marx’s categories – for granting undue ontological status to what should be seen as “mere” concepts, as the ideological abstractions of political economy – for losing the “materialist” orientation of Marx’s text. For present purposes, I won’t explain why dialectical or categorial readings might draw down on themselves this sort of critique. My personal position is that these sorts of critiques often rely on a somewhat ungenerous reading of dialectical or categorial approaches to Marx – and also that these critiques often miss the nature of Marx’s critique of idealism, which consists – I would argue – in showing how what are often taken to be merely “ideal” entities, are themselves enacted in specific ways in collective practice, and thus possess a constituted collective reality.
Dialectical or categorial readings of Marx are often better on this issue as a programmatic matter – they frequently (although not always) at least note that Marx’s formal analysis is trying to grasp, not “mere” concepts, but, e.g., real abstractions, forms of social being, or similar entities. These readings generally don’t, however, close this programmatic circle by outlining how Marx believes he has shown the practical collective generation of his formal categories – instead, the tendency is to focus on the meaning of the categories, and the relationships between them. This omission takes place, I would suggest, because, once you distil out the formal analysis from other aspects of Marx’s text, you have actually removed much of the means through which Marx effects this demonstration – thus picking out those elements of the text that outline the “ideals” for which Marx is trying to account, while leaving behind many of the moves through which he casts light on the genesis of these ideals in collective practice.
The tendency of dialectical or categorial readings to assert, but not fully cash out, the claim that Marx is doing something more than an idealist analysis is, I believe, one of the reasons that it is somewhat easy to mistake dialectical or categorial readings for being more “idealist” than they generally see themselves as being. (As always, there are exceptions: some dialectical readings of Marx understand Capital primarily as a sort of thought experiment in constructing an ideal type of pure capitalism: these would be frankly idealist readings of the text.)
One of the things I am aiming to do with my own reading – whether this is sufficiently evident in the blog posts to this stage or not – is to draw more attention to how Marx thinks he can demonstrate the practical genesis of the forms he analyses. The principal obstacle to my work is Marx’s own textual strategy, which can very easily be read as a logical – hence, purely ideal – derivation of subsequent categories from earlier ones. The text does present a categorial derivation – new categories are introduced by demonstrating impasses that cannot be resolved by earlier categories. The manner of presentation suggests very strongly that one could, in principle, be able to derive the categories through sheer force of thought alone – as in the opening transcendental “derivation” of the categories value and abstract labour (127-131), the derivation of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power from the demonstration that greater value can arise neither in circulation nor in production alone (268-271), and countless similar moves through the text. The manner of presentation also periodically suggests a strongly idealist vision of pre-existing concepts that can be held up against an empirical reality that can then be judged to be more or less adequate to those categories – as when Marx, for example, analyses the adequacy with which various forms of value express immanent potentials of this category (157-161), or says of world money that it is at this point that money’s “mode of existence becomes adequate to its concept” (241). And finally, the manner of presentation often treats the categories as though they are agents in their own right, shaping the contours of empirical reality – as when, for example, Marx talks about value requiring “an independent form by means of which its identity with itself may be asserted” (255).
There are other ways of understanding what Marx is doing in these sorts of passages – I’ve provided alternative readings of some of these passages in the past, and will hopefully tackle some of the others in the near future. My point is simply that dialectical or categorial readings often attract criticism for being too “idealist” precisely when they retain too much of Marx’s mode of presentation when trying to develop what Marx is doing in these sorts of passages: they attract this criticism because Marx is in fact using frankly “idealist” forms of presentation in such passages, and so it can be difficult to discuss these aspects of the text without making it seem as though concepts have become independent agents on the world-historical stage, while human actors are reduced to the status of mere “bearers” of these concepts – as, indeed, Marx often explicitly labels them to be (254). But if Marx does not understand his argument in idealist terms – if he is intending instead to critically situate idealism as a hypostatisation of “real abstractions” or “forms of social being” that are generated in collective practice – then the weight of his own analysis must somehow lie behind an argument about how such abstractions are generated – how they are products, and not independent drivers, of human action, how they are practised, and not simply thought.
We know that Marx is aiming for this sort of argument from Marx’s rare metatheoretical reflections in the margins of Capital – as in the following footnote, which I have analysed on the blog before, and which states explicitly that the goal is to develop the ideal from an analysis of “actual, given relations” – to show how determinate aspects of collective practices generate some particular ideal, which thus exists in a non-random relation to those practices:
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, 493-94)
Some of the earliest posts on this blog mention how Marx draws the reader’s attention to this agenda in his very early discussion of Aristotle from the discussion of the value form in the third section of the opening chapter (151-152). Aristotle figures here as someone who almost does derive the concept of value as a concept – through something like brute force of logic, from thinking through what might cause the collective practice of exchange to involve the exchange of equivalents. While Aristotle’s towering logic enables him to deduce the possibility of something like value, Aristotle nevertheless dismisses the concept, and concludes that there is no underlying substance that is being equated in the process of exchange. Exchange is, instead, a mere “makeshift for practical purposes”. Marx here explicitly says that the “historical limitation inherent in the society in which he lived” prevented Aristotle from arriving at the category of value: the absence of wage labour – which we will soon learn Marx regards as the “historical pre-condition [that] comprises a world’s history” (274) – prevented Aristotle from “discovering” value. Marx’s mode of presentation doesn’t allow him to say more directly, at this point in the text, that this is because value is not there to be “discovered” – I have argued at length elsewhere that this is Marx’s position.
The categories Marx analyses in Capital are:
forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e. commodity production (169)
Marx is attempting to grasp that social validity – to grasp the generation, and therefore the conditions and limits, of these categories. In doing this, he adopts an idealist idiom – in no small part because he seems to think this idiom grasps qualitatively important characteristics of the forms of social validity he seeks to understand. If value stalks the stage of Capital as an “automatic subject” (255) – and yet Marx maintains that value is a “social substance” (128, italics mine) into which “[n]ot an atom of matter enters” (138) – there must be some way in which our collective practices constitute something that confronts us, its creators, as “a regulative law of nature” (168): something we create reacts back on us as a blind and alien process to which we become subjected. Marx argues that “These formulas [of political economy] bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man” (174-175) – in which our own creation, the product of our collective action, has come to be experienced as an external force of domination. In such a context, idealism offers Marx the resources to express important qualitative characteristics of the phenomena he is trying to grasp – and yet he must also go beyond these expressions, to analyse the practical genesis of what presents itself to us as though it is an agent independent of our control. The “idealist” properties of the context cannot therefore be dismissed as mere errors – instead, these properties need to be situated and explained, through a demonstration of how we collectively effect phenomena that can to some extent be validly (if incompletely) described in “idealist” terms. My suggestion is that Marx tries to square this circle by thematising core aspects of capitalism as aggregate unintentional side effects of collective action that is oriented to other ends – that categories like “value”, “abstract labour” – “capital” itself – are real abstractions that we collectively make, without setting out to achieve such a result. Marx finds idealism – Hegel’s idealism specifically – useful in trying to grasp the qualitative characteristics of these real abstractions, and thus positions Hegelian idealism as a metaphysical hypostatisation of the “actual, given relations” of a distinctive form of social life.
More on all this later… For the moment, just notes for myself… Unproofed. Apologies…
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