Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: Personifying Commodities

Okay. Now we get to the new stuff. The argument put forward in this and the remaining chapters, although it has been discussed on the blog in somewhat abstract terms from time to time, will probably seem at least somewhat new – and at the very least much more fully developed than what I have been able to post here before. This chapter begins to unfold what might seem a somewhat counter-intuitive interpretation of moments in Marx’s text where he writes as though he is reducing other phenomena to an economic or material dimension of social experience that he finds more ontologically fundamental – as though he is making a sort of metaphysical claim about the primacy of the economic. My reading of these passages is that they are attempts to make a very different sort of claim – a claim that is very specific to capitalism, and that attempts to pick out the distinctive qualitative characteristics of a form of sociality that Marx regards as unique to capitalist societies. But better to let those who are curious click through to the actual argument, which makes the case as well as I know how – and will therefore make it better than what I could summarise here.

One funny aspect of drafting and re-drafting: I’ve done a number of essentially stylistic revisions since I got the whole argument roughly into the form I was after. I find it interesting the way my evaluation of chapters changes due to the uneven periodisation of the revision process. This chapter, for example, came out of the original drafting process relatively cleaner and clearer than the other chapters. As a consequence, I’ve been focussing my editing energy on those other chapters, and only very slightly revising this one. So now, doing one further edit tonight, I’m finding myself mildly disappointed in this chapter, because the others have (I think…) now been edited into forms that surpass it… More editing to come I guess… ;-P In any event, I think the chapter is in an adequate state to post it here…

[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.]

5 – Personifying Commodities

In the previous chapters, I have explored the ways in which the opening of Capital relies on an unusual narrative structure, driven by a complex methodological vision, which requires the text gradually to assemble resources to relativise its own opening claims. While Marx has substantive justifications for his systematic refusal to foreshadow the direction of his argument or to break with his presentation to comment explicitly on his method, his presentational strategy is singularly unforgiving of his readers: Marx’s objectives become much clearer as the text moves on; the greater clarity that becomes available later in the text is of unfortunately limited help when readers are confronting the text – as we all must initially do – step by step, in the order in which the points are presented, without the benefit of knowing the whole in light of which Marx intends us to make sense of the often cryptic parts. In this chapter, I try to cut through some of this difficulty by moving back and forth between a close reading of the second chapter of Capital, and a more panoramic analysis of how specific moves in this chapter can be understood in light of Marx’s overarching argument. Breaking with Marx’s presentation will slow our movement through the text considerably, since we must now cover much more ground, and be more explicit, than Marx is himself in these chapters. The reward is a clearer view of how these passage in Marx’s argument fit into the strategy of the text as a whole – which should make it possible for us to move more quickly through later chapters.

I. How A Commodity Is Like a Man

Before the category of labour-power is explicitly introduced into the text, Capital directly and repeatedly puts forward the claim that commodities – as the elementary form of the wealth of capitalist societies – are “external objects”. The opening chapters are written as if describing a society of independent commodity producers who meet their diverse material needs by exchanging the products of their personal labour with one another. Over the course of chapters 2 through 6, these starting assumptions are gradually “inverted”: the opening discussions of simple commodity production and exchange will be redetermined as perspectives that, while “socially valid”, grasp quite limited aspects of the process of the production of capital. These limited aspects are then demonstrated to be parasitic upon overarching processes whose social consequences are the diametric opposites of those implied by these aspects. In this way, the text convicts the opening perspectives as being “apotheoses” of “given relations” that those perspectives both imply, and yet cannot explicitly grasp. Capital‘s critique thus operates by showing how competing interpretations of the production of capital express genuine, but partial, experiences of this complex process – but then fall into error by hypostatising these limited experiences in a way that occludes the process as a whole.

From the first chapter, the text hints at the direction of its overarching argument – suggesting that not all is as it seems, and foreshadowing the inversions soon to come – by making subtle, ironic gestures that cultivate a distance between the reader and the claims made in the text, and that destabilise aspects of the explicit argument. Chapters 2 and 3 of this thesis analysed one of the more subtle of these destabilisations: the way in which the narrative structure of the opening chapter of Capital suggests, through its parallels with Hegel’s Phenomenology, that Capital must eventually overcome the subject-object, form-content, and other dualisms with which the text opens, in order to provide an adequate “dialectical” resolution to its central question of how we can grasp the wealth of capitalist societies.

Further hints can be found in the first chapter of Capital – particularly in the third, “dialectical” section – in the anthropomorphic language used to characterise commodities and their relations. Commodities are, for example, described as things that enter into a “social relation” (139). These relations are then compared directly to various sorts of human relations that are constituted intersubjectively, through processes of reciprocal recognition amongst human subjects (143). Commodities are described as having a language (143-144). A footnote hanging off a discussion of “mirror relations” in the main text concedes that, at least in some respects, a commodity might be somewhat similar to a human:

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

On a first reading, each of these attempts to elucidate how commodities establish relations with one another can easily be taken as nothing more than a casual, convenient anthropomorphism. These passages take on an intensely more ironic cast, however, as soon as Marx makes explicit that he regards the sale of human labour-power, as a commodity, as an essential precondition for the development of generalised commodity production and exchange. Once it becomes clear the conclusion the text has been designed to reach, these early anthropomorphising gestures begin to read as sardonic foreshadowings of the argument to come – in which commodities, as it turns out, are not always as “external” to their “owners” as the opening discussion makes it sound.

In spite of these hints, the first chapter continues to present the explicit argument that commodities are external things, and this concludes with a purportedly speculative analysis of what commodities would say “if commodities could speak”. The second chapter continues in this vein, opening with another declaration of the passivity and thingliness of commodities:

Commodities cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are the possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. (179)

This passage already contains strange tensions that subtly destabilise the overt claim: if it were unambiguously true that commodities are passive things without the power of movement or the capacity for self-representation, what would be the meaning of the strange clarification that “If they are unwilling” their owner “can use force”? In what way could an external object – something lacking in power to resist – act in such a way that its owner must assert, not simply the physical power to move the object, but the distinctively social, legal power that is required in order to assert possession? Is there some sense in which commodities can be said to have will?

A footnote hanging from the same troublesome sentence further destabilises the claim that commodities are passive things without voice, will or motive power of their own:

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

Hanging from a passage in the main text that insists that commodities are passive objects, while strangely implying that these objects can still somehow resist their owners, we therefore have a footnote that draws the reader’s attention to the existence of a commodity whose characteristics expressly contradict those ascribed to commodities in the main text. The footnote highlights a commodity that decisively does possess the power to go to market and perform exchanges in its own right, because it is a human commodity renting out its services for a limited duration: a prostitute.

These textual gestures, along with other, similar destabilisations throughout the early chapters, are consonant with a conception of capitalism as a contradictory social form that generates conflictual possibilities for collective practice: a univocal text would not be adequate to the multivalent qualitative characteristics of the social practices it analyses. More pragmatically, such gestures also provide the means for Marx to hint, for the reader’s benefit, at the direction the argument will take, without breaching his careful, immanent demonstration that the categories of political economy can be shown to presuppose – to be “determined” by, or betray the traces of – an overarching assemblage of social practices whose characteristics these political economic categories imply, but do not explicitly grasp. Marx must, however, gradually assemble the resources to enable these claims to emerge from the underbrush of the text, so that he can mobilise them explicitly in his analysis. He begins this process already at the opening of the second chapter.

II. Economic Determinism

Capital‘s second chapter opens with a discussion of juridical relations – contract relations – between commodity owners, who must mutually recognise one another’s rights of ownership such that neither appropriates the other’s commodity without consent. This juridical relation is immediately described as being “determined by the economic relation” – a phrase that, particularly for English speakers, can suggest connotations of causal determination and the reduction of all spheres of social life to economic relations. Marx’s point is therefore easily interpreted to be that an underlying and more fundamental economic process has caused a more ontologically derivative juridical relation to come into existence (178). This ambiguity persists as Marx elaborates the point by explaining:

Here the persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities. As we proceed to develop our investigation, we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it is as the bearers of these economic relations that they come into contact with one another. (179)

I have already argued above that this passage should not be read as a declaration of the metaphysical primacy of economic factors in historical causation: it should be read, instead, as a substantive claim spelling out a key aspect of Marx’s anthropological analysis of the production of capital – as a specific claim about one of the peculiar qualitative characteristics of the sorts of social relation that generate this specific form of social production. Read in this way, the passage describes a very peculiar sort of social ritual: persons establish a very specific sort of social connection with one another by means of the material objects they possess. Persons act out social roles that they become entitled to perform because collective practice confers on particular material objects the special social quality of entitling their owners to perform particular kinds of social acts. The juridical relation is “determined” by the economic one because collective practice infuses particular objects with a special kind of social significance, such that certain social roles can be performed only by actors in possession of these collectively sanctified material things.

At this point in the text – for reasons we have discussed in chapter 4 – the reader should be cautious and refrain from drawing premature conclusions about what sort of social relation is being established: the determinations of this relation are not yet complete, and we expect our view of this relation to be transformed as the text unfolds further determinations. The text seems at this point to be discussing an intersubjective social relation that arises from the interaction of two commodity owners – a relation related to the potentially face-to-face, direct negotiation that plays out in the course of the bargaining session. Because of the peculiar method in play in the text, however, we can expect this preliminary understanding to be substantially altered as the argument is advanced.

We do know from the opening discussion of commodity fetishism – which breaks in part with the immanent presentation of the rest of the text – that part of the anthropological claim being explored in Capital relates to a particular social practice that imbricates material objects within a social relation in some determinate way. This imbrication confers upon those material objects peculiar social properties that those objects would not necessarily possess if they were not suspended within this very specific relation. The analysis of the fetish-character of commodities suggests that, so long as material objects are suspended within this social constellation, Marx regards those objects as genuinely possessing the strange social properties attributed to them by social actors: this is why it is “socially valid” to describe commodities as possessing the various “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” attributed to them in the opening chapter of Capital. These strange properties, however, must be understood to arise from determinate forms of human practice – from the “given relations” of a distinctive form of collective life: failure to understand the practical constitution of these properties can hypostatise and thereby naturalise the contingent consequences of the production of capital.

When the practical genesis of these properties is not understood, the distinctive social properties of material objects can come to be conflated with the intrinsic properties of material objects as such. The risk of this misunderstanding does not arise due to a random conceptual error: it inheres in the qualitative features of the relations Marx is trying to grasp. While these features have not been completely specified at this early point in the text, the analysis of commodity fetishism suggests that this specification will encompass an analysis of how “given relations” are both mediated by material objects and also arise from the unintended consequences of collective practice.

Marx’s analysis of the distinctive qualitative characteristics of “given relations” therefore aims to understand the “apotheosis” that derives from it: in the analysis of commodity fetishism, Marx draws particular attention to the distinctively inverted perception that, instead of seeing human practices conferring particular properties on material objects by using those objects in determinate ways in collective life, sees those objects as possessing innate properties to which human practices must conform. The “given relation”, in Marx’s argument, is therefore a particular kind of interaction between humans and other objects that elicits distinctive qualitative characteristics from each. The “apotheosis” of this given relation “inverts” this picture, treating one of the types of objects in the interaction one-sidedly, as the objective source of the qualitative characteristics that arise from the interaction – as though the intrinsic properties of that type of object carry automatic social implications to which other participants in the interaction must passively adapt and conform. Marx’s critique does not proceed by rejecting this one-sided perception: instead it proceeds by presenting the perception as itself primed by the qualitative character of the interaction – as a socially plausible misinterpretation of the qualitative characteristics and practical impacts the interaction does generate, when examined only from specific, partial perspectives made available within the interaction itself.

While Marx thus “grounds” the apotheosis, he also criticises it as inherently apologist: by treating human practices as passively conforming to intrinsic “material” properties, rather than seeing how a particular interaction between humans and other objects elicits particular qualities from each, such perspectives position the contingent consequences of a specific interaction as “natural”, because purportedly founded on a solid, objective, material base; such an interpretation thereby shields those practices from critique. Marx seeks to “ground” this error – to explain the practical conditions that make this sort of error likely to arise and to persuade – while, at the same time, undermining its apologist defence of existing social relations, by demonstrating how these relations are generated in a contingent, non-objective interaction between humans and other sorts of objects.

Marx is therefore taking as a central target of his critique attempts to derive contemporary social relations from the innate properties of material things – thereby making of capitalism, for all its late historical emergence, a “natural society”. To return to a quotation we analysed in chapter 3 – Marx writes:

Hence the pre-bourgeois forms of the social organization of production are treated by political economy in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions. (175)

And then elaborates with a citation to his much earlier critique of Proudhon:

The economists have a singular way of proceeding. For them, there are only 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 from God… Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any. (175, ftnt. 35)

In these passages, he is marking out what he considers to be the principal target of his critique – a target that, judging from the date of his self-citation, has already been central to his work for decades by the time he writes Capital. The persistence of such concerns within Marx’s work over time suggests strongly that Capital is not itself seeking to derive its standpoint of critique from the intrinsic properties of “material” processes: for Marx to understand his critique in such a way, would be to commit the very same crime of which the text convicts political economy – to argue, in precise analogy with Marx’s theologians, that political economy happens to be wrong about the material basis of social life, but Marx’s own theory sees the material essence clearly.

My suggestion is that Marx is, instead, offering a fundamentally different kind of critique: an anthropological analysis of distinctive sorts of social relations that are generated within a “material” guise that makes their practical origins difficult to grasp even for those whose practices create them. In this reading, the “material” quality of some of our social relations would actually be a very peculiar kind of social determination, deriving not from the intrinsic properties of natural objects, but rather from historically distinctive kinds of collective practices imbricating humans and other kinds of objects in a distinctive sort of relation. A more complete exploration of what it might mean for “materiality” to be a social determination will need to wait for chapters 6 and 7. For present purposes, I simply want to highlight the strategy in play in Marx’s critique, to assist in the interpretation of the peculiar passage at the opening of Capital‘s second chapter, where Marx introduces the concept that social actors can be understood as personifications of commodities.

This passage, I suggest, follows on from the discussion of commodity fetishism, exploring the implications of the fetish-character from a slightly different angle – that of how persons experience themselves in relation to these distinctive forms of social relation mediated by objects that humans perceive as external to themselves. Marx is arguing in the passage above that commodity owners engaged in the act of exchange experience themselves as “personifications” of the commodities whose properties they attempt to represent in the act of exchange. Marx is, in other words, exploring a more “embodied” version of the political economic concepts he began to examine in the discussion of the fetish: when the historically-specific properties of “external” objects – properties these objects possess only within a very specific sort of relation with humans – are interpreted one-sidedly as intrinsic qualities of those objects themselves, it is the objects that are then taken to have social substance and objectivity. Their owners, by contrast, take themselves – and are taken by others – to “count” in certain kinds of intersubjective interactions only as representatives of the objects they control – only, that is, as owners – as personifications of the objects that enable them to confront other owners, equal to equal, in a standoff whose result will be determined by the social properties of the commodities they own.

Marx’s point here echoes his comment from the opening chapter of Capital, where he noted that social actors perceive their relations as these relations really are: as social relations between things and material relations between persons. Certain kinds of intersubjective relations in a capitalist context “really are” – as a matter of everyday experience – “determined” by “economic relations” – by the social relations between things that social actors must personify as a social condition for engaging in certain kinds of intersubjective interaction. This “determination” of intersubjective relations by economic ones does not arise, however, from some metaphysical primacy of the economic dimensions of social life. Instead, it reflects a quite contingent, practical reality constituted in and through a particular kind of interaction between humans and other objects. Understood this way, Marx’s argument about “economic determination” is part of an anthropological analysis of the peculiar, contingent characteristics of capitalist societies – characteristics that are established in collective practice and that are therefore amenable to practical transformation.

Although the point is not explicit at this stage in the text, it is with this strategic aim that Marx draws attention to the ways in which commodity owners relate to one another as the personifications of their wares. The point of his analysis is not an abstract metaphysical one divorced from the analysis of a specific social situation: Marx is not trying to claim, for example, that humans are inexorably driven by economic forces, or that people in all contexts could be equally appropriately described as the “personifications” of things. The point is also not to dismiss or debunk perceptions that – in a capitalist context – people are personifications of things (at least in some dimensions of social practice), that people practice themselves as the representatives of what they own, at least in one slice of their everyday social practice. His point is that, in enacting the production of capital, social actors somehow also manage to enact themselves in a distinctive way – as the personifications of things, as persons whose social objectivity derives from the supersensible properties of the material things they control. This enactment of self is perfectly genuine, for Marx: it holds what Marx will sometimes call a “practical truth”. This truth, however, is a contingent social one – it is true only because we collectively, if unintentionally, make it so. It is the contingency of this truth – its anthropological distinctiveness, its practical production – to which Marx begins to draw attention in this passage.

Marx’s critique thus proceeds by demonstrating this contingency – not just by claiming, as a stance, that any sort of human practice would be indifferently contingent, but by showing in some detail how we enact ourselves in very specific ways. In the process, he also shows how we suggest to ourselves the possibility that we could enact ourselves quite differently, by drawing creatively on the accumulated social experiences lying ready to hand. For Marx, therefore, our collective enactment of ourselves as personifications of things is ambivalent in its implications. On the one hand, this enactment generates a distinctive historical experience of self as individual, bound to other selves through nothing more than consensual relations of mutual recognition. On the other hand, as actually effected in collective practice, this ideal of the free, self-governing community of equals arises on the basis of overarching social relations that constantly undermine its realisation.

Marx establishes this ambivalence through subtle moves throughout the chapter. He opens, as mentioned above, with a juridical relation that binds autonomous equals in voluntary partnership. This opening description could sound almost emancipatory, and so Marx immediately points to its practical basis, by saying “the content of this juridical relation (or relation of two wills) is itself determined by the economic relation” (178): in other words, this juridical relation does not purely inflect some sort of voluntary consensual process undertaken by autonomous individuals; instead, it piggybacks on another social process – one in which persons figure as autonomous actors in civil society only to the extent that they act as personifications of the goods they own. The practical conditions of entry to the juridical relations of civil society are somehow entangled with other sorts of relations – in ways and with results not yet clear in the text, but which already contaminate the vision of autonomous and self-determining subjects with which the chapter begins.

III. The Test of Exchange

The text next moves to explore the differences between the commodity and its owner – exploring tensions and non-identities that suggest prior constraints that operate in the background, conditioning the sorts of relations into which the commodity owner might “freely” enter in civil society. The commodity owner, the text notes, is a real person who has specific, concrete needs – needs which can only be met through the exchange of the owner’s commodity. This commodity, in turn, is available for exchange specifically because it serves none of the owner’s needs – aside from the need to obtain other use-values through its exchange. Commodity owners thus only bring their goods to exchange because these goods are not use-values for them: commodity owners only take goods to market to realise their exchange-value, so that commodity owners may acquire other goods of direct use-value to themselves (179).

So far in the exposition, all of this could sound like a simple “material” process – a way to get goods from hands in which they serve no material use, to hands in which they do – a process, as Marx will later call it, of “social metabolism”, in which material goods are circulated to various points where they will be consumed. Marx’s next move, however, subtly foregrounds the distinctively social conditions imposed on this “material” process – an exotic, purely social, convention that must be met before any material needs can be satisfied – the requirement that commodities must be realised as values, in order to be realised as use-values. In Marx’s words:

All commodities are non-use-values for their owners, and use-values for their non-owners. Consequently, they must all change hands. But this changing of hands constitutes their exchange, and their exchange puts them into relation with each other as values and realizes them as values. Hence commodities must be realized as values before they can be realized as use-values. (179)

Through this step, Marx effects a subtle but important shift – the first of many through which he will ultimately derive the category of labour-power: the initial discussion of shifting goods from hands in which they serve no use, to hands in which they do, describes a process that could be effected in practice in a number of different institutional forms – by barter on a mass scale, for example, or through allocation by the state. In the passage quoted above, Marx makes clear that we are discussing a very specific form for moving use-values around: a form in which peculiar social conditions must be met before use-values can be relocated to their places of consumption – the social condition of realising commodities as values, before they can be consumed.

The opening chapter of Capital has already suggested that the process of realising commodities as values involves distinctive forms of social compulsion – by specifying, for example, that commodity values are determined, not by the labour-time empirically expended in the production of an actual good, but by a socially average level of productivity that – in some way not yet clear in the text – becomes compulsive on all goods. Here, Marx reminds the reader of this coercive aspect by underscoring that it is not a foregone conclusion that commodities can realise themselves as values. Marx expresses this point:

On the other hand, they must stand the test as use-values before they can be realized as values. For the labour expended on them only counts in so far as it is expended in a form which is useful for others. (179-180)

Marx’s next line then reminds the reader of another social peculiarity of this process: that commodity owners do not know, when they bring their goods for exchange, whether – or in what proportions – their goods will in fact serve others as use-values. This pivotal uncertainty can be resolved only in practice – only through the actual process of exchange, which enacts commodities as both use-values and values:

However, only the act of exchange can prove whether that labour is useful for others, and its product consequently capable of satisfying the needs of others. (180)

This point – about exchange as a moment of proof that reveals to social actors the unintended consequences of their own collective practices – will recur at each level of Marx’s analysis of the production of capital. Marx develops the point here by recapitulating some of his earlier analysis of the universal equivalent, but in a way that foregrounds how social actors confront and experience the consequences of their own collective practice as an alien and mysterious thing (cf. 186). Marx argues that social actors have already acted – have already constituted their collective world in specific ways – and that their experience of this unintentionally-enacted world shapes the expectations, dispositions and sensibilities that guide their own actions within that world:

In their difficulties our commodity-owners think like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ They have therefore already acted before thinking. The natural laws of the commodity have manifested themselves in the natural instinct of the owners of commodities. They can only bring their commodities into relation as values, and therefore as commodities, by bringing them into an opposing relation with some one other commodity, which serves as the universal equivalent. We have already reached that result by our analysis of the commodity. But only the action of society can turn a particular commodity into the universal equivalent. The social action of all other commodities, therefore, sets apart the particular commodity in which they all represent their values. (180)

This passage is dense with implications the text will only gradually work out in detail. On one level, Marx is attempting to render visible the contingent social preconditions that are interposed between the process of producing goods, and the circulation of those same goods to persons who would consume them. In this passage, he suggests that social actors have difficulty seeing the strangeness of these social conditions because they are born into a world where their practical experiences so automatically connect these very specific social conditions with the circulation of material goods, that it becomes difficult to see that alternatives might be possible.

On another level, this passage hints at a peculiar “universal” quality to certain dimensions of social experience – pointing to the possibility for certain aspects of social experience to arise due to “the action of society”. A few lines later, Marx uses the phrase “the agency of the social process” (180). These formulations are quite peculiar, particularly following as they do from a paragraph centred on the generative powers of human action. The key line, I suggest, is Marx’s claim that that social actors have “acted before thinking”: this paragraph hints that an important dimension of the production of capital will be unintentional products of human practice – aggregate effects of the action of society as a whole, which are not intended by the persons who nevertheless generate those effects. Connected with this claim is the first brush of an analysis of how social actors, when confronted with the experience of the results of their combined actions, might respond to those experiences, shaping their actions adaptively but still treating the forces to which they are responding as an “environment” that lies outside their control.

In this light, Marx’s reference to the “natural laws of the commodity” and the “natural instinct” of commodity owners cannot be seen as pointing to some conception of nature as an external cause determining human practice. The reference to “nature” here is, I suggest, ironic – intended to capture the disposition that leads political economists to speak as though “there are only two kinds of institutions, artificial and natural”. For Marx, I suggest, there is a particular gestalt sense of the intrinsic qualitative attributes of “nature” that he takes to arise historically due to the peculiar qualitative characteristics of our own distinctive forms of collective interactions with other objects: the aggregate consequences of our own practices, this passage has suggested, confront us as an alien force which takes the form of an “environment” whose practical genesis is easy to overlook. This social environment exhibits certain lawlike properties – non-random tendencies that are discerned over time – and our experience of interacting with the properties of this environment provides the practical basis for the development of dispositions, habits of perception, and forms of thought that help us navigate this complex social space. The distinctive way this social environment is constituted in practice, however, can operate to obscure its own practical origins – making it appear to arise, not from contingent interactions between humans and other objects, but instead from the recently discovered intrinsic properties of an external, objective “material” world.

Marx explores this sort of hypostatisation in sections of this chapter, allowing the text to give voice to perspectives, as he did in chapter 1, that present an “inverted” image of social relations as arising from the intrinsic properties of material things. In the following passage, for example, the text suggests that the intrinsic capacity of material things to be alienated provides a material ground for the juridical relation with which the chapter opens:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Veräusserung] may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other. (182)

This quotation still operates within the ambit of the opening claim that the wealth of capitalist society hinges in some way on things “external to man”, and also positions the juridical relations with which the chapter opens as expressive of how material things are “in themselves”. From this perspective, it appears that emancipatory political relations – relations expressive of personal autonomy – can be constituted if social practice simply conforms itself to the inherent potentials of the objective material world. Emancipation, from this standpoint, is the realisation of the intrinsic potentials of nature, within human history – the achievement, in other words, of a state in which “there has been history, but there is no longer any”.

This perspective, I suggest, should be heard as an immanently-voiced representation of how certain aspects of social relations appear in everyday experience: in the “inverted” form of a perception that social actors must conform their practices to the intrinsic interior reality of material things. Marx has already suggested that very specific social determinations are being conflated with the intrinsic properties of the material world – a critique that will become much more explicit and elaborated once Marx derives the category of labour-power. That derivation will allow him to position a “subjective” factor as the key to the historical generalisation of commodity production and exchange, and thus as the (unrecognised) condition of possibility for the sort of perspective he is outlining in passages like this. For the moment, Marx contents himself with a mild destabilisation of the claim presented in this passage: after allowing the text to speak with a voice that suggests that social relations express intrinsic properties of things, the text immediately underscores how rare it is for such “intrinsic” properties to be recognised:

But this relationship of reciprocal isolation and foreignness does not exist for the members of a primitive community of natural origin, whether it takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian commune or an Inca state. (182)

The text then continues for the next couple of paragraphs to emphasise the contingency of the development by which – through the expansion of exchange relations – it becomes possible to “discover” this potential within the things in themselves. This chapter of Capital remains cryptic about why the process of exchange comes hypertrophically to exceed its traditional social boundaries: the text suggests the possibility for some sort of gradual quantitative creep, driven by internal potentials immanent to exchange itself – the potential, for example, to react back on and corrode the social boundaries of communities that originally traded only at their borders, with other communities. It is only when we reach the derivation of labour-power that we learn how Marx views the hypertrophic expansion of exchange – and thus the generalisation of the commodity as the elementary form of social wealth: at that point it will become clear that Marx sees the novel social experiment of the labour-market as pivotal in constituting such purportedly “immanent” potentials – and thus argues that such potentials can only be adequately understood as the product of a novel form of relation, rather than as the manifestation of intrinsic properties that have only recently been discovered within the component parts of that relation. I will return to these points in greater detail in later chapters.

IV. Conditions Not of Our Own Choosing

For present purposes, I draw attention to these passages in order to suggest that one of Marx’s goals is to examine how the production of capital makes certain social and political possibilities easier to think – in this case, the possibility for a form of intersubjective relation predicated on mutual recognition, individual autonomy, self-determination, freedom from coercion, and equality – a form of relation which is constituted simply because persons agree to treat one another a certain way. As they emerge as fleeting moments in the process of the production of capital, such possibilities, in Marx’s analysis, are themselves ambivalent. Understood as a possibility – as a concept we have collectively, if unintentionally, suggested to ourselves, but which we have failed to realise – this social experience could provide a crystal around which emancipatory social movements might condense. By priming indigenous inhabitants of capitalist society with an intuitive feel for such an ideal, the production of capital also helps to prime social practice that might point beyond capital’s production, to a more emancipatory end.

The apologist danger, however, lies in mistaking this possibility for an achieved reality – and thus interpreting the production of capital as though this process either arises from, or results in, a free, uncoerced process of mutual recognition and joint consent among equals. Marx draws the line between invalid apotheosis and emergent emancipatory potential through his analysis of how this ideal is generated in social practice: specifically, he argues that, so long as capital continues to be reproduced, the ideal expresses the experience of fleeting moments that are suspended within, and dependent on, an overarching social process whose consequences undermine social actors’ ability to realise any ideal of a free self-governing community of equals. To the extent that social actors decide that this ideal is not counterfactual to large dimensions of their social experience – to the extent that they believe this ideal has already been fully realised in contemporary society – the articulation of the ideal becomes apologist, rather than critical.

This apologist risk is not, however, random: “social contract” understandings of the social relations that come to seem intuitively plausible in capitalist contexts are experientially “anchored” in, or primed by, determinate aspects of the production of capital. Equally anchored in everyday experience is the belief that this political ideal could inhere in some intrinsic way in material objects – or, by extension, in material life or nature – or that this ideal could express some intrinsic property of markets as social institutions. These latter views can be problematic even when they are wielded critically (as articulated historically in ideals such as those of “inalienable rights” or “natural justice” – or, in more recent history, in ideals of the self-regulating market, understood as an institution that mediates decentralised decision-making), since they can suggest that the problem confronting political practice is one of how to strip away “artificial” political constraint, in order to allow the purportedly natural tendencies of humanity, nature, society, or material life to shine through.

By contrast, Marx’s analysis, I suggest, does not take emancipatory political achievements to be any more “natural” than the forms of domination he opposes: our history is constructed, it is made by us – but this claim does not mean that we are always and immediately aware of what we make, or that we are not at all constrained by the sorts of building materials that lie ready to hand. Some of the implications and potentials suggested by our own actions are discovered only retrospectively, when we collectively attempt to understand and mobilise the resources we have created. Active political self-assertion, oriented to specific kinds of social transformation, will be required to realise any ideal of a self-governing community of free and equal individuals.

At the same time, as Marx also emphasises, the history that we make is not made in conditions of our own choosing: whatever new, emancipatory construction we attempt to create, must be made out of whatever raw materials our historical experience has provided for us – materials that might take the form of ideals that are already familiar to us from our present social experiences, forms of knowledge we have already accumulated, habitual practices of self, material resources, organisational nous, etc. The critical impulse here is resonant of Benjamin – oriented to the resurrection of historical potentials that we have already constituted and that we continue to reproduce. In Benjamin’s words:

The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. 

And, as suggested in Benjamin’s work, the implication of Marx’s analysis is that social transformation is effected by means of blasting potentials out of the continuum of capitalist history – the overarching network of social relations within which those potentials are currently both incubated and confined.

The production of capital thus figures in Marx’s account as an ambivalent historical happening. Considering for the moment only this one potential: on the one hand, it serves as the accidental historical means for indigenous inhabitants of capitalist societies to render plausible to themselves, on a mass scale, a potentially corrosive critical sensibility that views a free and self-governing community of equals as the only adequate form of governance; on the other hand, this ideal is enacted within everyday experience in such a way that the ideal can appear to be grounded intrinsically in the properties of material goods, or in the essential nature of market exchange; in the worst case, this ideal can appear as though it were an empirical result – not a possibility that might be realised by some future form of political practice, but instead a fully realised achievement of capitalist society. Marx attempts to use his analysis of capitalist society to dig out and free up such potentials from within the overarching relations that suggest these potentials at the present moment. At the same time, he tries to understand how these potentials are suggested by our experiences – and how our experiences can lead us to misunderstand what sort of actions would be required to bring these potentials to reality. (Many of his quarrels with “utopian” socialist movements relate to his frustration at such movements for failing – from Marx’s point of view – to grasp the sorts of transformations that would be required in order to achieve the aims they seek.) To achieve this goal in his own work, he has to distinguish carefully between the ways in which certain potentials are suggested now – as moments bound together with the production of capital – from the ways in which those potentials could be blasted out of the overarching relations in which they are currently suspended, to become the crystallisation points for creative social practices seeking to generate new forms of collective life.

Marx’s emancipatory adaptation of the production of capital is a gradual process, suggested only very subtly in the early parts of the text. The second chapter, however, ends with a series of reminders as to why such an adaptation can be difficult to perform. Marx briefly explores the question of how money can come to be replaced by symbols of itself – and, in a characteristic move, then immediately associates this practical possibility with an apotheosis that overextrapolates from this small aspect of social experience (185-186). Marx then suggests that such overextrapolations are endemic due to the peculiar properties with which very specific social relations confront practical experience:

This was the kind of explanation favoured by the eighteenth century: in this way, the Enlightenment endeavoured, at least temporarily, to remove the appearance of strangeness from the mysterious shapes assumed by human relations whose origins they were unable to decipher. (186)

Marx then recapitulates the argument about the commodity fetish, as it manifests in relation to the money-form: the particular inversion that causes the money commodity to appear to have certain properties independently of its imbrication in a particular kind of social relation, such that the social relation appears to arise on the foundation provided by “a social property inherent in its nature” as a material object. The role of human practice in conferring social properties on a specific object – in enacting a particular object as money – is lost. Social actors recognise the (genuine) social properties of this object, adapting their everyday practice to their experience of the existence of such properties – but they miss the way the properties are only contingently invested in this object as an aggregate consequence of their own collective action. In Marx’s words:

What appears to happen is not that a particular commodity becomes money because all other commodities express their values in it, but, on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in a particular commodity because it is money. (187)

Marx then reiterates that social actors find the money-form ready to hand, as a given aspect of their social environment – and that its existence enables them to relate to one another in the process of production “in a purely atomistic way” (187). The chapter has come full circle, closing in on the juridical relation with which it opened – with a juridical relation that could superficially appear as a self-contained form of sociality, connecting autonomous individuals. The chapter has explored some of the social preconditions for the development of this juridical relation, in the process destabilising any claims that this relation, taken by itself, could adequately describe the sort of social relations constitutive of capitalist societies. The text is gradually assembling the resources to close in on a more adequate analysis of those constitutive relations.

In the midst of the discussion, Marx includes a cryptic line, presented as a gloss of the way in which money appears in inverted form, as an object that intrinsically possesses certain social properties, rather than receiving such properties contingently, through its suspension in a specific sort of overarching relation. Marx argues:

The movement through which this process has been mediated vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind. (187)

The target of this line, I suggest, is Hegel – the text is spoofing, here, a common gesture through which Hegel characterises consciousness’ self-development through processes that cancel themselves out and vanish in their own result. While the principal concerns in the main text are political economic theory and everyday dispositions, this line subtly reminds us that Marx still has in his sights a critique of the Hegelian apotheosis, as well: Hegel’s method is here subtly connected with a much more crass, practical process that displays the same qualitative characteristics. A throwaway line in the midst of an analysis of more important things – but a line that reminds us that this text prepares, among its other targets, a practical trap to capture Hegel’s Geist.

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