Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: Turning the Tables

Okay. Another chapter whose contents will be somewhat familiar to regular readers. This chapter suffers from containing some of the oldest layers of the thesis – points that I have now written in a number of different forms, not only for the thesis itself, but for various conference presentations and journal articles. The result is that it’s quite difficult for me now to “hear” this part of the thesis – or to keep in my head whether I’ve used this material to make a specific point in this version, or if I’m remembering some other presentation of the material. I’ve tried to align the voice of this section so that it is adequate to the things I learned while writing the other chapters – and this process has meant that I have introduced some new content into this chapter, trying to weaving this in as seamlessly as I can. I’m not sure I’ve quite gotten there yet. Work in progress and all that…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

Turning the Tables

“reality” [is] one of the few words that means nothing without quotes.
~ Vladmir Nabokov

In the previous chapter, I drew attention to the overarching narrative arc of the first chapter of Capital, arguing that the narrative structure of that chapter should be read as an ironic, deflationary adaptation of a drama staged originally in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In this chapter, I explore how this interpretation might transform our sense of the argument about commodity fetishism. What follows is therefore a very close reading of the commodity fetishism section of the first chapter of Capital, one which both looks back to the interpretive framework set out in the previous chapter, and also anticipates and provides preliminary textual support for the analysis of Marx’s method and presentational strategy that will be the focus of the following chapter.

I. Practical Metaphysics

Marx begins his discussion of commodity fetishism:

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

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

In the next line, Marx encompasses the perspectives opened up by the “transcendental” and “dialectical” interpretations:

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

At this point, even absent the clues we have derived from reading Marx’s text against the narrative arc of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Marx has explicitly tipped his hand in relation to the textual strategy in play in the earlier sections of the chapter. Marx expects the reader – certainly by this point, if not before – to be “in on the joke” being played in the earlier sections of this chapter – a joke that consists of allowing several character actors to come on stage, elbowing one another aside while solemnly performing their own conflictual interpretations of the commodity. Marx says directly here that the transcendental and dialectical analyses attribute metaphysical and theological properties to the commodity – properties that, as we shall see below, Marx considers to be “socially valid”, but for which he also intends to provide a demystified, deflationary interpretation, which demonstrates how such properties could arise as the contingent results of particular forms of collective practice. The strategic concerns of the commodity fetishism discussion suggest that the interpretations put forward earlier in the chapter do not adequately grasp the contingent, practical origins of the phenomena they describe. From the standpoint of this section, then, earlier perspectives appear too exclusively concerned with interpreting the commodity, when the real – though, of course, not completely unrelated – question is how to change it.

To begin to address this new question, Marx moves to the evocative passage about the dancing table:

So far as it is use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

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

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

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

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

What is Marx saying here? Commodity fetishism does not arise from the determining factors of use-value – that much is clear. But apparently fetishism also does not arise from the determining factors of value. None of the component moments of the commodity would appear, on this analysis, to account for commodity fetishism. If none of the components of the commodity explain the fetish, then what does explain it, in Marx’s account? The answer, as Marx goes on to tell us, is that the commodity form itself explains the fetish – not the component parts of the commodity form, whether those parts are situated in its use-value or its value dimension, but instead the historically distinctive combination of these particular parts, into this specific form. Marx expresses this point in the following way:

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

In more contemporary terms, Marx is making an argument here about emergence. He is arguing that an overarching relation or assemblage has come to possess distinctive qualitative characteristics that cannot be found in any of its component parts. He is claiming that, if you could abstract use-value from the commodity relation, nothing about its components would render “socially valid” the sorts of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” expressed in the interpretations Marx has brought on stage earlier in this chapter. If you could abstract the determinants of value from the commodity relation, those parts would not account for such interpretations either. Only the aggregate effect of combining these parts, into this whole, accounts for the fetish.

This point is the one Marx elaborates toward the end of this chapter, where he provides a quick series of examples – from the hypothetical consideration of Robinson Crusoe on his island, to the historical examples of personal relations of domination in the middle ages and in peasant households, to the speculative analysis of a society of freely assembled producers (169-172). These examples are each designed to reassemble for the reader the various parts that are also found in the commodity-form, but in circumstances in which that form itself has been subtracted, and these parts therefore exist in other relations. As Marx phrases it:

The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production. (169)

In looking at other forms of production, Marx’s goal is to demonstrate, not that the alternative social relations he describes are desirable, but rather that the parts of the commodity-form, when these parts are found within other relations, are not fetishised – they are, in Marx’s terminology, “intelligible” – they no longer exhibit the metaphysical and theological properties that they possess within the commodity relation (169-172).

Marx’s aim here is therefore not to position these metaphysical and theological properties of the commodity as illusions, nor to criticise the character actors from the early sections of the chapter for falling into some sort of naïve conceptual error. Rather, his point is to establish the need to grasp the practical conditions that are required for these metaphysical and theological properties to become real – and thereby to establish that these properties can be transcended once those conditions have been overcome. While the metaphysical and theological properties that pertain to the fetish are real, it is still possible to criticise specific interpretations that articulate the commodity’s exotic properties – both on the grounds of how adequate those interpretations are to the phenomenon they attempt to grasp, and on the basis of whether such interpretations overlook the practical conditions on which the commodity’s properties depend. In this section, Marx is particularly concerned with the second problem – with approaches that overlook the practical basis for the fetish-character of the commodity-form. Unless this practical basis is kept clearly in view, properties that are generated by the commodity relation can be confused for intrinsic properties that necessarily inhere in that relation’s component parts. This confusion undermines the ability to identify practical potentials for transformation and critique.

From this standpoint, Marx’s criticism of Barbon, which we originally explored in the previous chapter as a seemingly cryptic objection, begins to make a bit more sense. Marx is suggesting that Barbon is attributing to a material object – a loadstone – a qualitative property that this object only comes to exhibit once the object becomes embedded in a very specific sort of interaction with humans. Marx is pointing here to the fundamentally asymmetrical character of the form of analysis involved in Barbon’s statement, which positions consciousness as a contemplative, and therefore passive, factor that discovers intrinsic properties that are taken to have always existed, also passively, in some object that subsists outside consciousness. This form of analysis, for Marx, risks naturalising the qualitative characteristics of both the object and consciousness, by failing to grasp how particular qualitative characteristics come to be enacted only in a specific form of interaction. Marx’s hint – not voiced explicitly in the footnote, but discernible if the criticism of Barbon is read in light of the argument about commodity fetishism – is that a better formulation would be a relational one – one that recognises the ways in which a specific sort of interaction is generative of determinate properties in objects and in consciousness itself.

Such a formulation permits both the “subjective” and “objective” moments of the interaction to come equally into the frame of the analysis – in Hegelian terms, it recognises that transformations of consciousness and its object mutually implicate one another. For Marx, such an analysis is valuable for how it opens up the possibility for an explicit consideration that the moments of a particular relation might not express the same characteristics, if those moments were connected through some other sort of interaction: Marx focusses on relations, in other words, as a means of opening up the possibility for a critique of the whole from the standpoint of the potentials of the disaggregable parts.

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

While I reserve a detailed discussion of Hegel’s Science of Logic for chapter 4, it may be worth briefly anticipating that argument, and suggesting that Marx’s method as I have sketched it above can be seen both as an appropriation and an “inversion” of Hegel’s approach. In the Logic, Hegel painstakingly demonstrates that a relation binds together phenomena that might appear disconnected to everyday consciousness, Perception, or Understanding. Hegel understands the key critical move to consist in the speculative demonstration of the existence of the underlying relation, which Hegel sees as a means of bringing to light an implicate order that reveals the rationality immanent within what might otherwise appear to be random phenomena. Hegel views this speculative move as a critical one, because he sees the existence of this immanent order as an expression of the self-realisation of reason and freedom in history.

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

To effect this speculative dimension of his critique, Marx deploys a number of strategies: he undertakes historical analyses of the properties particular parts have exhibited in other social contexts; he draws close attention to the ambivalent and conflictual properties that particular parts exhibit even now, within the process of the reproduction of capital; and he performs various sorts of hypothetical analyses of the potentials that lie, unexpressed, in particular parts. He carries out, in other words, analyses similar to those he offers toward the end of the first chapter, where he abstracts the component parts of the commodity relation from that relation itself, in order to explore what the properties of those parts might be in various hypothetical and historical configurations (169-172). Through this process of abstraction from the commodity relation, Marx seeks to render plausible his claim that the commodity form itself, rather than any of its components, is generative of the fetish. This speculative method is reminiscent of the Benjaminian notion of blasting elements out of the historical continuum: it relies on the notion that component parts can be appropriated from an existing relation, and reconfigured into radically different sorts of wholes. These new wholes would then have characteristics distinct from the relation from which the parts had been seized because, according to this argument, placing parts into a new relation would unlock fundamentally different potentials in the parts themselves.

II. Prestidigitation

Moving back to the section on commodity fetishism: I want to examine a bit more carefully the specific claims Marx makes about the social character of labour associated with the commodity-form. Right after telling us that the metaphysical and theological character of the commodity derives, not from its parts, but from the relation into which those parts are suspended, Marx moves into a dense series of paragraphs that culminate in the naming of the fetish. Because the strategic intention of these paragraphs is so difficult to parse, I will quote and analyse this section in full. Marx first offers the analysis that:

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

These sentences are very compressed and difficult to unpack. What Marx wants to do here is to talk about the distinctive social characteristics that constitute the social specificity of commodity-producing labour. He talks about these social characteristics from two perspectives: the perspective of their content, and the perspective of their form. At the level of content, he argues, commodity-producing labour is distinguished by the following social characteristics:

(1)the different kinds of human labour are all treated (in at least one dimension of social practice) as equal to one another;

(2)the expenditure of human labour-power – the amount of human effort that gets to “count” as part of social labour – is measured by its duration; and

(3)this duration does not reflect the actual amount of time empirically spent in production, but rather reflects a socially average duration, based on socially average conditions of production.

It is not simply these contents, however, that mark out commodity-producing labour as socially distinct. Commodity-producing labour is also distinguished by the unusual form in which these contents are socially expressed. Specifically, these contents are not explicitly manifest at the level of immediate, empirical social experience. They are not, for example, enacted through some sort of intersubjectively meaningful process, such as a long-standing cultural tradition, custom, or explicit legal act that maintains that all kinds of human labour are equal and that the expenditure of labour-power must be measured by the socially-average duration that would be required under normal conditions to produce particular goods. Instead, these contents take the form of various implicit properties that, in collective practice, are unintentionally conferred on the material products of human labour that are imbricated in the process of commodity exchange.

This distinctive form means, first, that these social characteristics of labour arise as unintentional side effects of practices that are not intended to assert or bring these specific contents into being. The unintentional way in which these social characteristics of labour are generated, means that these social characteristics arise in a distinctively non-intersubjective way and, as a result, social actors are not initially even aware that these contents exist. The social characteristics of their own practices are instead a latent content that emerges unintentionally as they set about achieving entirely other ends. This latent content then eventually comes to be discovered by social agents – but, because this content is expressed in the form of a relation that social agents establish through particular kinds of interactions that are mediated by material objects, this discovery appears to reflect a sort of latent social content of material things. This appearance, moreover, is perfectly accurate as a depiction of the qualitative characteristics material objects exhibit in this specific social context. Marx therefore argues, in the following paragraph:

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

A social relation, mediated by a particular sort of interaction with nonhuman objects, and existing separately from overtly meaningful, intersubjective, relations among the producers, is therefore central to the commodity-form. The metaphysical and theological properties of the commodity arise in the course of this interaction, and reflect the qualitative characteristics of the relation the interaction constitutes. These metaphysical and theological properties really do exist, and genuinely are independent and objective – but only within this very specific and contingent sort of interaction. Yet the distinctive qualitative form in which these characteristics are expressed – the fact that they are unintentional and do not arise through any intersubjective process, and the fact that they manifest themselves in the course of social relations established between objects – can make it very difficult for social agents to discern the contingent practical basis for these characteristics of commodity producing labour. Where this practical basis is not grasped, the qualitative properties that arise and are objective within this very distinctive form of social relation, can be misrecognised as properties that are objective in a very different sense – objective in the sense of inhering in the timeless and essential intrinsic material properties of the things that mediate the social relation. The risk of this specific sort of misrecognition is not a random conceptual error, but is rather built into the form of the social relation itself, arising from the unintentional and non-intersubjective origins of these characteristics, and from the way these characteristics are expressed only in the form of a particular sort of interaction imbricating material objects.

Marx struggles to develop these points in the following passage, in which he runs through a couple of analogies, trying to make the nature of his argument more familiar or intuitive to his readers. He first reaches for an analogy from the natural sciences, focussing on the way in which qualitative characteristics that emerge within a specific physical relation, come to be perceived, not as arising from that relation, but rather as the intrinsic properties of an objective, independently subsistent thing:

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

Marx’s argument here is similar to the one that motivated his quarrel with Barbon: he is reaching for an analogy – one that he hopes will be more familiar to his readers than the argument he is making about commodities – that suggests how the particular qualitative properties that arise only in the course of a rather specific interaction or relation, come to be taken for “objective” properties that reside intrinsically in an entity, even when that entity is removed from the relation that renders such properties manifest. This analogy does not quite satisfy Marx, as this particular relation does not arise due to human practices, and the analogy thus suggests no potential for transformative human agency. Marx therefore dismisses it:

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

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

In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. (165)

What Marx wants to highlight here is that religion posits the existence of intangible entities – entities that Marx regards, and expects his readers to regard, as the products of human practice, but which the social actors in question treat as “autonomous figures”. He has in mind the similarity between religious belief in supernatural beings, and the positing of the intangible entities of value and abstract labour.

This similarity, however, cannot elide a central and, for Marx, crucial difference relating to how intangible entities are posited in each case. Religious practice, Marx suggests, posits intangible entities that are the “products of the human brain” – enacted through intersubjective processes like shared beliefs and ritual practices explicitly oriented to interacting with these intangible beings. Religious actors are thus intersubjectively aware that they are positing the existence of intangible entities, even if they regard these entities as “autonomous figures”, and perceive their practices to be responding to such figures, rather than constituting them.

The intangible entities of value and abstract labour are enacted in a different way. According to Marx, these intangible entities are not products of the “human brain”; social agents do not have to believe in their existence, nor orient their practices explicitly to interact with such entities. Instead, social agents somehow accidentally or unintentionally generate such entities, by engaging in actions that have other sorts of intersubjective motivations. Marx expresses this point by saying that, just as in religious practice social agents create intangible entities as the products of their brains:

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

Through these two analogies, Marx has therefore set up a contrast. He has distinguished the phenomenon that interests him, from two apparently similar phenomena: physical relations that are genuinely impersonal in origin and which mediate interactions between humans and natural phenomena; and intersubjectively-shared beliefs that are overtly meaningful and which mediate interactions between humans and their own ideational creations. The phenomenon that interests Marx, by contrast, is neither genuinely asocial, nor is it intersubjective in its origins: it is instead a phenomenon that arises from human practice, and is therefore social in origin; at the same time, it is a very peculiar sort of social phenomenon – one that is disembedded from intersubjective frameworks, and that therefore confronts the social actors who create it as though it were an autonomous entity or alien force. It is at this moment in the text, having run through these analogies, first to genuinely autonomous physical relations, and then to social relations effected through intersubjective processes like collectively-shared structures of belief, and having distinguished the phenomenon that interests him from both of these near-equivalents, that Marx finally christens the fetish:

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

Marx then abruptly asserts that he has already shown why the fetish arises:

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

Marx believes that he has “already demonstrated” the peculiar social character of commodity-producing labour in the couple of very condensed paragraphs I have analysed above. He therefore does not dwell on this point, but instead moves into a discussion of some of the practical presuppositions that are required in order for labour to assume this distinctive social form. It is in this context that he mentions that a precondition for commodity-producing labour is that production take place as the act of private individuals whose aggregate efforts then comprise the sum total of social labour. It is easy to hear this passage as a specification of what Marx means by the “peculiar social character of the labour” that produces commodities, and therefore to conclude that Marx is arguing that commodity-producing labour is peculiar because it is the labour of private individuals, or else to think that he is understanding “social labour” as a sort of conceptual abstraction that arises from grouping together the results of all of these private labours, taken on independently. Reading further in the passage, however, makes clear that he has something else in mind: he draws attention to how it is not automatic that labouring activities empirically undertaken by private individuals, should succeed in being “counted” as part of “social labour”. Instead, another process intrudes, stepping in between the labouring activities that are empirically undertaken, and the social determination of which labouring activities get to “count” as part of “social labour”: the process of commodity exchange (166). Through commodity exchange, producers learn, indirectly, whether their individual labours will – in Marx’s terms – succeed in “manifesting” themselves “as an element of the total labour of society” (165). They learn this by seeing the proportions in which the products of their labours exchange with the products of the labours of other producers. Marx argues that the social agents engaged in the process of exchange rightly perceive the fetish-character of their relations to one another:

To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things. (165-166, emphasis mine)

The fetish-character of the social relation established between individual labours is therefore not an illusion – social relations “appear as what they are” – and yet the tone of this section still suggests that this fetish-character is nevertheless the target of Marx’s critique. In the next section, I look more closely at how Marx wields his analysis of the fetish in order to criticise other sorts of interpretations of the commodity-form, first by pausing to unpack some of the implications that Marx does not spell out directly in his very condensed discussion of the “peculiar social character” of commodity-producing labour, and then by moving back into the text to examine how Marx analyses the relationship between the fetish-character of the commodity, and the structural risks of certain forms of misrecognition that operate to obscure possibilities for emancipatory transformation.

III. Retroactive Realities

I have mentioned above that Marx draws attention to the uncertainty over whether individual labours will be able to “manifest themselves” as part of “the total labour of society” (165). We will be in a better position to understand what Marx has in mind when we analyse the more explicit argument the text puts forward in later chapters. For the moment, we can anticipate that argument in a preliminary way, by suggesting that, already in the first chapter, the text implies a gap between the universe of labouring activities that social agents empirically do, and a smaller subset of labouring activities that get to “count” as part of “social labour”. This gap tacitly positions “social labour” as an “intangible entity” – an imperceptible subset that somehow subsists within, and yet distinct from, the various tangible, sensible labouring activities that social agents empirically do. Social agents enact this supersensible entity by collectively behaving as though it exists – and they do this, without being aware that they do it, by effecting a particular sort of coercive social relation with one another, via the mediation of “the products of their hands”. Marx expresses this point:

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. (166-167)

In an alternative context – one in which, for example, the “social characteristics of labour” were established solely through intersubjective processes such as customs, traditions, or laws – the equality of all kinds of human labour, and the measurement of the expenditure of human labour by socially average labour-time, would be an explicitly-intended – or at least intersubjectively meaningful – dimension of social practice. In such a circumstance, as Marx hints in the quote above, social agents might be intersubjectively motivated to “bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects as material integuments of homogeneous human labour”.

Commodity-producing labour does not, however, rely on any such intersubjective consensus. Instead, social agents engage in the practice of commodity production and exchange – and, as an unintentional side effect or aggregate result of their collective practices, end up treating all kinds of human labour as equal to one another (in this one dimension of social practice, at least). Categories like value and abstract labour do not, for Marx, express intersubjectively-held beliefs, nor are they the deliberate products of collective practices oriented to enacting such intangible entities. Instead, the intangible entities of value and abstract labour are practical realities that are created unintentionally, as social agents pursue the sorts of actions required for their personal and collective material reproduction within a very peculiar social environment. What Marx then tries to do is to understand the consequences – in his terms, as these are “reflected in the brains” of the social agents who participate in this process – of the fact that commodity producing labour has these specific social characteristics (the equality of all kinds of human labour, the determination of social labour by socially average labour-time, etc.), and of the fact that these social characteristics come to be enacted in collective practice in such a strange, indirect, unintentional form (166-168).

What Marx is trying to do through this analysis, is to cast an anthropologist’s gaze on implicit patterns that arise within social practice, which indigenous inhabitants of capitalist society take so much for granted that it is difficult for us to appreciate their contingent character – or their pervasive effects on many dimensions of our social experience. In a very preliminary way in this chapter, Marx has begun to suggest that there are strange consequences to the actions we undertake in order to survive in a context in which empirical labouring activities are undertaken speculatively – without certain knowledge of whether those activities will ultimately succeed in being counted as part of “social labour”. Marx is arguing that the practice of producing commodities for exchange in a capitalist context introduces a practical disjoint between empirical efforts expended in production, and the degree to which those efforts will be socially recognised once the products that result from this empirical effort are exchanged (129, 166).

Marx is suggesting that generalised commodity production and exchange involves the collective enactment of a nonconscious social judgement that determines which empirical activities get to “count” as part of “social labour”. This practical distinction between empirical labours undertaken, and labours whose products “succeed”, relative to the products of other labours, in the process of exchange, enlists social agents – wittingly or no – in behaving as though there exists an intangible entity, “social labour”, that is practically distinct from the aggregate of empirical labouring activities that social agents undertake. In such a context, “social labour” becomes something like a special status externally bestowed by a sort of combined collective action of society on an elect of labouring activities after the fact, once empirical production is long complete (129, 166).

There is no way for social agents deduce in advance, through the examination of the labour process or the goods produced, which sorts of activities will succeed in gaining inclusion as part of “social labour”. As we will learn in future chapters, some empirical labouring activities may discover, through the process of exchange, that from a social perspective, they were no labour at all; some labouring activities may find themselves fully recognised, or recognised in some fractional part; some labouring activities will discover that they possess vastly more “social labour” than their empirical labour inputs would ever have led anyone to suspect. “Social labour” is thus treated in collective practice as a sort of intangible property, unrelated to the tangible, sensuous character of empirical labours, whose presence only becomes physically manifest in the process of exchange, when products reveal, in the bodies of the other products with which they exchange, how much of the labours that created them will be allowed by the total action of society to participate in “social labour”.

“Social labour” is therefore in practice distinct from the empirical labouring activities that producers undertake. In the vocabulary of this chapter, it is a “supersensible sensible” entity – something whose composition remains inscrutable at any given moment in time, because the category is fundamentally unintentional and retroactive. “Social labour” is always a category that will have been – a category perpetually out of sync with any given moment in time, a category constituted by the mutual coercion social agents exert collectively and unintentionally on one another, driving modifications in the social division of labour, and compelling the spread of socially average conditions of production. The result of this unintentional, collective coercion is the reduction of empirical labouring activities down to those that get to “count” as part of “social labour” – the culling of the labouring activities social agents actually do, down to “the proportions in which society has need of them” (168). This result is what was captured by the earlier interpretations of the categories of abstract labour and value: abstract labour and value become “socially valid”, in Marx’s account, because these categories express the unintended coercive consequences of the blind action of society as a whole on its individual members, in the process of commodity production and exchange (165, 169).

So what are the coercive consequences of the process that reduces empirical labours down to “social labour”? Why is it useful to say that the “labour theory of value”, or the determination of value by labour-time, or the concept of “human labour in the abstract”, are socially valid categories for what Marx is attempting to grasp? At this very early moment in the text, this argument is still somewhat cryptic, waiting for Marx to derive other categories that will allow him to say more, and to speak more explicitly, than is possible based on the categories available in this opening chapter. To overleap Marx’s presentation for a moment, I would suggest that Marx is trying to grasp the strange way in which capitalist history pivots around the constant displacement of labour in old shapes, and the reconstitution of labour in ever new forms. Marx is trying to capture the contradictory dynamics that tend, on the one hand, to drive increases in productivity and thus to decrease the need for the expenditure of human labour in some existing forms while, on the other hand, they propel the creation of new forms of production and consumption that reconstitute the need for human labour in new forms.

The key question expressed through Marx’s version of the labour theory of value is therefore, strictly speaking, more anthropological than political economic. Marx’s question reads something like: why is it, exactly, that capitalist society values human labour so much? On its face, the continued importance of human labour within capitalism seems paradoxical and even somewhat absurd: like no previous form of material production, capitalism is characterised by a hypertrophic development of science, technology, and organisational capacity that renders humans increasingly irrelevant as a motive force of material production. And yet there is some sense in which human labour remains structurally important nevertheless: we know this because, as labour is phased out in old forms, it is perpetually recreated in new – human labour spills out of agriculture, only to be soaked up in manufacturing – ejected from manufacturing, it is engulfed into service industries, etc. Even as material wealth continues to increase, the centrality of human labour to the production of capital continues to assert itself, as if it were an everlasting natural necessity. These sorts of long-term and contradictory historical dynamics point to human labour as some sort of strange attractor around which capitalist history walks. When Marx insists that value is central to the wealth of capitalist society, and that value is determined by socially average human labour-time alone, it is this sort of problem he is trying to pick out, even if the basis for his claim is difficult to work out at this point in the text.

At this early moment in the argument, this problem cannot yet be clearly expressed, and so Marx draws from political economic interpretations the symptomatic enactments and traces of the phenomena he intends to analyse. Small examples along the way – like that of the fate of the hand-loom weavers after the introduction of the power loom – suggest something of the nature of the overarching problem (129, 174-175). A great deal of work remains to be done, however, before Marx will express more openly what the initial categories of the text are intended to grasp. This presentational strategy has the unfortunate effect of divorcing the opening categories from the problem they are intended to solve, thus making the categories look quite arbitrary and dogmatic. In chapter 4, when I take up Marx’s relation to Hegel’s Science of Logic in greater detail, I analyse why Marx believes he needs to unfold his text in this peculiar way. For present purposes, I simply want to mark – once again – that all is not as it seems, and that the structure of this text involves a series of gradual reveals that will continue to react back on how we understand the categories introduced in this opening chapter, as we gain a more nuanced appreciation for the problem that drives this text.

IV. The Social Hieroglyphic

Moving back into the discussion of commodity fetishism, I want to pause over one further implication of Marx’s analysis of the “peculiar character” of commodity-producing labour. The unintentional and non-intersubjective character of the process through which empirical labouring activities are reduced to “social labour” leads, in Marx’s account, to a strange situation in which social agents must later deduce the existence of the intangible entities that derive from their own collective practice. Unlike in religious practice, where agents are aware of the intangible beings at the centre of their cult, agents engaged in commodity production and exchange only gradually become aware, after the fact, of the lawlike patterns their collective practice enacts. Scientific analysis is required in order to discern the existence of value and abstract labour as a sort of emergent pattern arising in and through the flux of the ever-changing proportions in which goods exchange. It is for this reason that Marx describes value as a “social hieroglyphic” – social in the sense of being a product of human practice, but a hieroglyphic that must be deciphered because it confronts its own producers as the result of an unknown and mysterious alien force:

Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product into a social hieroglyphic. (167)

Significantly, the translation of the social hieroglyphic – the discovery of the law of value operating behind the flux of the exchange of goods – does nothing, in Marx’s account, to dispel the fetish. The fetish cannot be analysed away, because it does not arise from a conceptual error or perceptual illusion, but rather from the real – if contingent – characteristics of a determinate sort of social relation. In Marx’s words:

Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product; for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as their language. The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labour. (167)

Marx understands his work as a critique of political economy, not because he sets out to convict political economy of bad thinking, but rather because he seeks to grasp the contingency of the social conditions that render political economy valid. The problem, Marx argues, is not with interpretations that express the fetish-character of how things currently are, but rather with the tendency to hypostatise this fetish-character, treating it as an essential and intrinsic characteristic of material or social life. As Marx complains:

Something which is valid only for this particular form of production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that the special social character of private labours carried on independently of each other consists in their equality as human labour, and, in the product, assumes the form of the existence of value, appears to those caught up in the relations of commodity production (and this is true both before and after the above mentioned scientific discovery) to be just as ultimately valid as the fact that the scientific dissection of the air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration. (167)

Some economists, Marx argues, are “misled by the fetishism attached to the world of commodities” – by what Marx calls the “objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour” (176) – into confused and partial conceptions of the problems they are trying to address, while political economy as a whole fails to ask the question of why the social characteristics of labour should appear in this peculiar qualitative form :

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself. (173-175)

It is this question – concerning the distinctive forms through which particular contents are enacted in practice – that the section on commodity fetishism attempts to pose. Political economy has, in Marx’s opinion, successfully unearthed the content beneath these forms – itself not an easy task, given the hieroglyphic nature of the forms of capitalist production: political economy has thus discovered the equality of the various kinds of human labour, and their measurement by socially-average labour time. In undertaking this task, however, political economy has not managed to escape from the ambit of what Hegel calls Understanding – it falls into Understanding’s characteristic error of wanting to treat the essential content – the supersensible universal – as more ontologically foundational than the forms in which that content is expressed, which are treated as inessential contingencies. As a result, the content can appear to be a timeless, intrinsic “material” property divorced from the more recognisably contingent and historically specific practices that play out at the level of immediate empirical experience. By posing the question that political economy fails to ask – the question of why particular contents appear in the forms they do – Marx is suggesting that it is possible to account for the historical genesis of the content by means of socially-specific forms of everyday practice: he is proposing, in other words, that the material contents identified by political economy should not be grasped as the properties of materiality as such, as properties that are timeless, inherent in physical objects, or extrinsic to the social process. Nor should these contents be dismissed as mere illusion or fabrication, as though the properties identified by political economy do not “really” exist in material objects or processes. Instead, Marx suggests, these contents should be understood as determinate, historically-specific forms of materiality, enacted in socially specific sorts of interactions between humans and nonhuman objects that confer on all of the elements that participate in the interaction, a distinctive historical form. Marx is proposing a form of analysis that will grasp both material and social dimensions of our social experience as historical products – that will investigate how a distinctive form of materiality arises from a particular form of interaction between humans and nonhuman objects – and that will thereby open up the potential to transform both the material and the overtly social dimensions of our experience.

This point is expressed very subtly at this stage in Marx’s presentation, mainly through the tacit narrative parallels with Hegel’s Phenomenology, and a few cryptic comments, like the one quoted above, about political economy’s failure to examine form. In the later chapters of Capital, Marx deploys the Hegelian distinction between Perception and Understanding more overtly to convict his opponents for what he regards as their one-sided approach to interpreting elements of social experience. Marx generally groups everyday consciousness together with what he calls “vulgar” political economy, as forms of interpretation that align with Hegel’s Perception – restricting themselves to the realm of appearances and refusing to acknowledge the reality of any dimension of social experience that is not amenable to direct empirical observation. Overleaping Marx’s own order of presentation provides us with a convenient example. In chapter 11, for example, Marx complains that “vulgar” political economy, as an empiricist sensibility that recognises the ontological reality only of forms of appearance that can be immediately perceived, cannot see the intangible, but equally real, “supersensible” patterns that are generated beneath the flux of appearance. Marx is scathing in his dismissal of this commitment to the strategies of Perception:

Vulgar economics, which like the Bourbons ‘has really learnt nothing’, relies here as elsewhere on the mere semblance as opposed to the law which regulates and determines the phenomena. In antithesis to Spinoza, it believes that ‘ignorance is a sufficient reason’. (421-422)

Classical political economy, by contrast, does discern and acknowledge the reality of intangible entities that are invisible to direct sense perception. It errs, however, in a different way – one which aligns with Hegel’s diagnosis of Understanding: it tends to substantialise the intangible entities whose existence it deduces, treating them as though they subsist in some separate substance or world that is distinct from the substance or world in which forms of appearance play out; and it tends to assume that these intangible entities are more real than the directly perceptible forms of appearance, which are treated as contingent and inessential aspects of social experience from which scientific analysis should abstract.

Classical political economy, in other words, treats the forms of appearance as something to be looked through, in order to get at the essence that is understood to be a more foundational substantial entity that lurks behind these appearances. In chapter 19, among other places, Marx provides an example of this characteristic approach, mentioning the way in which “political economists believed they could penetrate to the value of labour through the medium of the accidental prices of labour”: he then characterises this practice as “uncritical” (678, 679). Marx’s complaint in this passage is that classical political economy treats forms of appearance – the phenomena of everyday experience – as entities that possess a purely contingent relationship with “essences” like value. For all of their sophistication and insight when compared with vulgar political economy, the classical economists share with their empiricist colleagues the practice of parcelling out essence and appearance into separate substances or worlds, treating these two dimensions of social experience as only contingently related to one another, and privileging one of the two realms as more ontologically foundational.

As a result, for political economy in both its vulgar and classical forms, the world of appearances – the world of everyday experience – is never grasped as the medium within which implicit essences are constituted in practice – in part because this would require a very different understanding of the ontological status of the essences themselves. To move beyond both vulgar and classical political economics, what is required is a way to grasp the ontological status of the “essential” phenomena that does not require them to take on a separate substantial form, independent of the phenomena of “appearance” – whether this independent form is a self-subsistent substance, or an independent law that stands outside and regulates phenomena external to itself. What is required is a way to grasp essential phenomena as sharing the same substance and existing in the same world as the phenomena of appearance. What is required – as Marx begins to suggest already in the first chapter of Capital – is to treat “essential” phenomena as long-term statistical patterns that arise in and through the constant flux of appearances, and are therefore nothing other than an immanent pattern within appearances, a pattern that captures the shape of transformations, over time, in the phenomena of everyday experience (168). Such patterns are “supersensible” because they cannot be perceived through direct empirical observation of any particular synchronic moment: they are perpetually out of joint with any given moment of time. Yet at the same time, because they can be traced through the observation of empirical phenomena over time, and because they can be shown to derive from determinate forms of practice, they are not inherently mysterious or occult phenomena: it is possible to provide a deflationary, practice-theoretic account of how such essences are contingently made.

The method of political economy, however – in Marx’s account – does treat supersensible essences as “spooky” phenomena, as occult properties that mysteriously inhere in material objects or processes, and therefore require no practical account of their genesis. Caught at the level of either Perception or Understanding, and therefore committed to separating content and form, essence and appearance, into separate substances or worlds, political economy fails to grasp the necessary connection between the supersensible and directly empirical moments of the commodity relation; at the same time, it fails to grasp the non-necessity of that relation as a whole. As a consequence, it reads the historically specific qualitative characteristics of the relation off onto the parts, and thereby concludes that the parts are, essentially and intrinsically, as they present themselves to be in the process of capitalist production. Political economy thereby positions capitalism as the historical realisation of intrinsic and self-subsistent – rather than contingent and relational – properties immanent to its component parts.

The result, from Marx’s point of view, is the essentially mystical assertion that properties that material objects and processes have only come to manifest with the development of capitalist production, must nevertheless have inhered latently in material nature all along, but only become explicit in recent times. This form of analysis positions capitalist production as the unique historical expression of the natural laws governing material reproduction, and thus positions all other forms of production, by contrast, as artificial deviations and mystifications that obscure what capitalism finally demystifies. In this respect, political economy behaves, Marx complains, “in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions” (175), adding in a footnote:

The economists have a singular way of proceeding. For them, there are two kinds of institutions, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God… Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any. (ftnt 35, p.175)

For political economy, the advent of capitalism unleashes a form of disenchantment or enlightenment that enables the intrinsic properties of the material world to realise themselves in human history. Marx’s critique of political economy takes the form of a demonstration of how the essential contents that political economy correctly finds when it analyses material objects and processes of material reproduction now, are not intrinsic to those objects and processes, but are rather the products of historically specific forms of interaction that confer on both humans and nonhuman objects a distinctive social character that is contingent and can therefore be transformed.

This critique of political economy is therefore also a declaration of standards that Capital itself must meet. Any alternative to capitalism cannot be the “natural” society, any more than capitalism itself has been. This alternative will need to be produced, as Marx believes all human societies have been produced, from the raw materials made available by the society that precedes it. And, as Marx argues, production can only take place through the transformation of materials that already exist:

When man engages in production, he can only proceed as nature does herself, i.e. he can only change the form of the materials. (133)

Marx’s own production of capital – his re-enactment, in the work Capital, of the social relation by which capital is produced – must therefore have as its object more than just the staging of a faithful dialectical reproduction in thought, of the necessary relations that bind together the various moments of the practical production of capital. Marx must also show how the production of capital constantly generates and reproduces materials that could be adapted to create very different forms of collective life. Capital is therefore Marx’s own speculative adaptation of the production of capital – a performance designed to draw attention to how the current economic stage, actors, roles, and scripts provide the raw materials for a very different sort of production. The fetish-character of the original production obscures the potential for such an adaptation: by accounting for the practical origins of the fetish in the commodity relation, Marx is attempting to make it easier for us to see the creative possibilities for adapting our existing materials to other ends.

V. If Commodities Could Speak

The narrative structure of the first chapter of Capital, as I have outlined it above, parodies Hegel’s story of how consciousness, striving for certainty of its object, finally attains self-consciousness once it realises that it has been its own object all along. At the climactic point where Hegel strips away the curtain that has veiled the object from consciousness, to reveal consciousness itself on both sides of the veil, the first chapter of Capital inserts the discussion of commodity fetishism. This narrative structure could easily be read as implying that the dramatic movement of the first chapter of Capital progresses from artifice to reality, from fetish to self-consciousness, from ephemeral performance to the solidity and certainty of the real world. On such reading, the fetish would be a sort of illusion that has been cast aside by the clarifying analysis offered in the final section of the chapter.

Yet, as we have discussed above, the commodity fetishism section itself destabilises this sort of reading, suggesting that the fetish is “socially valid” so long as its practical basis is maintained. Interpretations that hypostatise this fetish-character, misrecognising it for something more intrinsic than it is, can rightly be criticised. The fetish-character itself, however, is a perfectly real phenomenon, arising from the qualitative characteristics of a distinctive form of social relation. The fetish is enacted in practice, and therefore cannot be dispelled solely at the level of thought.

The chapter does suggest, however, that critical resources are somehow assembled as the narrative unfolds, making it possible to develop a different understanding of our object than the one with which we began. The structure of the opening narrative could therefore be read as suggesting that the empiricist and transcendental voices have been in some sense superseded by the more adequate dialectical voice, whose performance opens directly onto the analysis of the fetish. Should we understand the commodity fetishism section as a sort of culminating moment intended to provide a fully adequate account for how Marx understands his own standpoint of critique? To determine whether this is a safe reading, perhaps we need to wait and read the chapter’s closing lines.

The chapter concludes with a couple of very cryptic paragraphs, framed by the question of what commodities might say to us, “if commodities could speak” (175). The presupposition here is that commodities have no voice – an assumption that seems reasonable enough, since this chapter has insisted from the beginning that commodities are external things, objects that exist outside us, albeit objects that possess strange social properties. The aphasia of commodities means that the text must lend them a tongue – something it does, initially, by crafting a monologue that summarises the argument about the fetish. Speaking for commodities, the text proclaims:

our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange-values. (176-177)

The text next brings on stage some political economists who express similar points, and then gives the final word to Dogberry, a character from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, who closes the chapter by confronting the reader with the Escheresque formulation:

To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature. (177)

The speech offered on behalf of the commodities, the quotes from actual political economists, and the concluding comment from the fictitious Dogberry all appear to express quite bizarre positions, and it is easy to read this section as though its point were simply to lampoon political economy. I want to suggest, however, that this passage of text is doing much more substantive work – that it is subtly effecting a shift in focus to the topic that will preoccupy the text for the next several chapters, and ultimately enable Marx to derive new categories that will once again react back on how we understand our object – the commodity.

The nature of this shift is easier to recognise if we examine how Dogberry’s closing line effects a circle – or, more accurately, a spiral – with the opening paragraphs of this chapter. In the opening paragraphs, we are introduced to use-value – which, in Dogberry’s terms, is a category of the world of “nature”, understood at the beginning of the chapter to relate to the material properties of things.1 We are next introduced to exchange-value – which, in Dogberry’s terms, is a category of the world of “fortune”, with the doubled, punning connotations of wealth and chance. Having passed through the dialectical analysis and confronted the inverted world over the course of this chapter, our understanding of the categories of use-value and exchange-value has come to be transformed by our recognition that both categories are moments of an overarching, dynamic, social relation. We see now that contingent human practices have come to generate an inner social essence – value – that renders the wealth of capitalist society neither a simple matter of convention and chance, nor a necessary expression of inherent material nature. The categories of use-value and exchange-value remain in play, but our understanding of these categories has been fundamentally altered, and we have learned that our object – the commodity – is not quite what we had originally taken it to be.

Dogberry’s concluding comment reminds us of these points, and yet is something more complex than a faithful iteration of the argument in this chapter. Instead, it subtly transposes the content of an argument that had been made in relation to the doubled character of things – into the form of a comment about the doubled character of persons.

At this point if not before, we realise that the play-within-a-play has never ended – Hegel’s curtain was not whisked aside when the concept of commodity fetishism was introduced, nor did the performances end after the opening trio of actors left the main stage. The concluding paragraphs instead subtly reveal that a sleight of hand was in play when the chapter slyly substituted the argument about the fetish for Hegel’s story about consciousness achieving Self-Consciousness. We look with a new distrust on the performance of the dialectical character, which at the time had certainly seemed to make a convincing display of self-reflexivity, mutual recognition, and intersubjectivity in its performance. It is only now that we come to our senses, remembering that this act was presented as a demonstration of the reflexive relations that objects construct with other things. The dialectical character’s prestidigitation diverted our attention from Hegel’s challenge by conjuring up the analysis of commodity fetishism, while allowing the identity of consciousness with the commodity to slip through its fingers.

The final act of this chapter pointedly refuses to allow us to be taken in by this conjuring trick. By drawing attention to the thingly character of commodities as we understand them at this point – by reminding us that commodities cannot speak because, of course, they are merely objects – the concluding paragraphs underscore how all of the performances in this chapter were indexed to an assumption that commodities are things external to us. Even as this chapter has staged a conflict over whether the commodity can best be understood as a collection of sensible properties, a transcendental unity, or a dialectical relation, it has clasped tight to the presupposition that the commodity is an external thing. Nowhere does the chapter bring on stage a character that claims that consciousness is its own object: no character in this chapter interprets the commodity – the wealth of capitalist society – as us.

At the same time, by closing the chapter with a speech overtly voiced by a character from a play, the concluding section destabilises any assumption that the narrative movement of this chapter should be understood as a progression from the artificial to the real: giving the final line to a Shakespearean character suggests very strongly that we have never left the stage. Moreover, by having this line circle back to the opening of the chapter, the text marks out the entire chapter as a sort of self-enclosed opening act, hinting that the bulk of the production is still to come.

In the final paragraphs of this chapter, the text openly teases the reader with the fact that it has not met the narrative expectation that it originally sets up by stealing Hegel’s plot: consciousness remains severed from its object – a situation that, according to the rules of the Hegelian drama, means that consciousness will be tortured by ceaseless unrest until it can overcome this divide. Marx leaves his readers poised on the implicit cliffhanger of how consciousness might be rescued from this terrible fate, but he brings on Dogberry, at least, to reassure us that the play will go on. Perhaps a happy ending will be forthcoming in the next act. Is it possible to show that we are somehow implicated in our object, the commodity? Is there some sort of peculiar commodity, perhaps, that possesses a human form? We must wait to read the next chapters to see.

3 responses to “Thesis Workshop: Turning the Tables

  1. Bis November 1, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Dear N hope you are well?

    What are the “metaphysical and theological properties” of the commmodity and what is it about these properties which identify them as “metaphysical and theological”?

    Best wishes

  2. N Pepperell November 2, 2009 at 9:41 am

    lol – this is the subject of my entire thesis 🙂 (and the thesis stopped short of an adequate answer by a fair way – word limits!!)

    Very busy, and so not online much (apologies if this comment has been sitting here for a bit…), but otherwise good. I’ll see what I can do with your question…

    The short answer is that Marx wants categories that are as “deflationary” as possible – that presuppose as little as possible about the qualities of the objects or relations being theorised.

    Each time political economy explicitly or tacitly attributes a quality to “human nature” or “material nature” or “the essential character of economic life” or any similar “essential” category, Marx wants us to ask whether the quality attributed to nature or essence, can instead be understood as something that has been actively produced – and that requires, for its continued existence, certain forms of human action be carried out.

    Hypothetically, certain things of course could really be “essential” – humans might really have some sort of unchanging nature, or there might be certain intrinsic properties of the material world – but, Marx believes, if it’s possible to show how something is produced, when other people treat that something as “given”, intrinsic, or essential, then you have demonstrated those other people to hold metaphysical or theological beliefs about that thing. You can explain the production of something they just take for granted – therefore you can show that they are forced to treat as a magical “given”, something whose production you can explain.

    This is important because, when you have to take something as a “given”, it’s very difficult to conceptualise how that thing could be overcome. If you can explain how something is produced, you are in a much better position to analyse how it could be overcome or transformed into something else.

    So the metaphysical and theological properties of the commodity, are all those things political economy treats as “given” – not just about “commodities” in the narrow sense, but about human nature and the nature of economic life more generally. What identifies these “givens” as metaphysical and theological, is that Marx shows that he doesn’t have to treat them as given: he can explain how they are produced, through what sorts of collective practices. It is this theory of practice that provides the standpoint from which Marx can assert that political economy is, by contrast, engaging in metaphysics or theology. Marx’s theory is intended to provide a performative demonstration that it is not necessary to treat so much as “given” – and, in the process, convict political economy of adopting a naive, unquestioning, accepting relationship to what should instead be the targets of its analysis.

    So that’s the second part of your question – what is it about the properties that identifies them as metaphysical: it’s not so much that Marx has a checklist of what qualities something has to have, to be labelled metaphysical – it’s that, if someone else just accepts that something is “given”, and Marx can instead show how that thing is being made, Marx has demonstrated that the position that just accepted the various constitutive moments of its subject matter as “given”, has adopted what he calls a metaphysical or theological attitude toward that subject matter.

    The first part of the question – what are those properties – is much much harder to answer, because this is (on my reading at least) a sort of fractal dimension of Marx’s argument. He keeps exploring this issue all the way through the text – exposing different sorts of assumptions and givens in different forms of theory, and then carrying out lots of small-scale demonstrations of the production of what has been assumed. Often, the “same” phenomena are produced in different ways – to use more contemporary language, the production of some phenomena is “overdetermined” – so the full argument – all the evidence Marx has that something is produced, rather than given, is often not apparent in any specific point in the text. Often (to my eyes at least) the initial discussion of how something is produced is not completely convincing – it’s only as the text moves forward and stacks on additional evidence in progressive “passes”, as Marx examines the problem from different angles, that it becomes convincing to claim that Marx has an account of the production of things that are generally taken to be intrinsic to human nature or material life.

    The scope of his argument is much wider than it’s often read as being (in my reading). So categories like “material life” – that there is a “material world” – and categories like “society” and “history” – are also, in Marx’s account, categories that are usually presupposed by other approaches – and therefore treated metaphysically. One of the most complex arguments presented in Capital is that even these very foundational categories are being actively produced – that there is a reason categories like “history” or “society” or the “material world” suddenly become intuitive at a particular moment in time. Where other sociological theories might simply assert that we now know that “society” is an important determinant of human behavior, Marx treats this as a metaphysical stance: simply asserting this would be theological – Marx has to show how “society” is produced (and is therefore something more historically specific than it’s taken to be when it is simply presupposed).

    Once we understand the production of these various phenomena – the differentia specifica that makes them specific to our time – we can then trundle around in history and look for signs of “society”, or “history”, or a “material world” in other contexts – as long as we realise that we are looking out from the distinctive anthropological perspective of our own time, examining the past or nonhuman worlds with sensibilities primed by our own practical experiences…

    The argument quickly becomes almost impenetrably complex, when you try to trace out what Marx thinks he is doing, and how. So I can answer your first question generically: the metaphysical and theological properties are anything assumed to be given, whose production Marx can explain. But the “givens” include things like the assumption that there is a material world stripped of anthropological determination, the assumption that there is something like “history”, the assumption that there is something like “society” – as well as a whole series of much more specific assumptions about economic life in general, markets, states, cooperative, contracts, machines, etc.

    So… not sure if it helps… I should also note that this is a specific reading of what Marx is up to – some of it is highly idiosyncratic to my work – so you’ll run into very different answers elsewhere… But this is (a bit of) mine…

    Take care…

  3. Bis November 11, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Thanks N. That was really helpful to me in understanding what Marx is saying in this section!

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