Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta

Now that we’ve finally escaped chapter 3 of Capital, a quick breeze through chapters 4 and 5, focussing on the imagery in chapter 4 of capital-as-Geist, and then on the impasse Marx sets up in chapter 5, as a wedge through which he will drive the category of labour-power in the following chapter.

Chapter 4 contains one of the more overt references to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the text – a number of commentators have noticed the parallel being drawn there between capital and the Geist. There is a certain tendency, however, to beat up on the authors who notice this gesture, as though these authors are attributing to Marx the position that capital is actually the Geist – an autonomous, self-grounding process that has achieved independence from human agency. I’m not convinced this is a fair reading of other commentators who have noticed this same reference in the text. Regardless, in my discussion of this issue below, I position this gesture into the context of Marx’s critique of Hegel: Marx is not saying that capital is the Geist – he’s saying that the process of the production of capital includes within itself a perspective that makes that process appear to possess certain qualitative attributes that Hegel attributes to the Geist. This is the same move Marx makes when criticising any competing form of thought: critique for Marx involves a process of demonstrating why a competing position is plausible – a demonstration that, for Marx, takes the form of showing what aspect of practical experience could plausibly be interpreted in the form being criticised – and then, having done that, showing all the other things that competing position can’t grasp, because it gives too much ontological weight to one small aspect of a much larger phenomenon. If the reader were in any doubt as to whether Marx thinks capital just might be a god-process after all, this passage of text is filled with Marx’s signature destabilising gestures that – more clearly in this section than in many other passages in Capital mock the perspective being presented overtly in the text. All this and more below…

Chapter 5 presents a nice deconstructive analysis of an aporia within commodity circulation – a process that both presupposes the creation of surplus-value, and yet offers no perspective from which this creation can be grasped as anything other than a mysterious, occult phenomenon. This analysis sets up for Marx to offer a preliminary practice-theoretic account of this phenomenon, beginning in the following chapter.

[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.]

9 – Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta

“If we’re all in it together, what is it that we’re all in?”

James Meek (2009) “To Live in Remarkable Times”

As we have seen, the opening chapters of Capital seek to identify the practical basis for the social validity of political economic categories – in particular categories that attempt to grasp the wealth of capitalist society in terms of processes associated with commodity circulation. The structure of the text is such that it gradually unfolds more and more detailed determinations of its opening category of the commodity. Three chapters in, we therefore have a clearer sense of what the commodity “is”. Our understanding of this category, however, is not yet complete. A full understanding of this category – and thus of the elementary form of wealth of capitalist society – will be achieved only at the end of the work, at which point it will be clear how the combined action of all the social practices analysed in the text achieves this particular result.

In order to unfold its argument, Capital radically refuses to allocate quanta of “reality”, in greater or lesser increments, amongst different moments of the overarching social relation it analyses. Instead, the argument relies on taking seriously the notion that all aspects of an overarching relation carry their own implications and consequences – as does the action of the entire relation as a whole. When competing forms of popular opinion or formal theory are criticised in the text, this criticism takes the form of demonstrating the small aspect of the overarching whole on which those competing forms of thought confer a disproportionate reality. This criticism has the effect of situating the purportedly privileged dimension of social experience back into the network of relations within which its distinctive qualitative character becomes manifest. This strategy aims to undermine attempts to interpret the privileged dimension as a self-sufficient, independent, or foundational entity – one that intrinsically and ahistorically possesses a particular qualitative character. At the same time, it opens the possibility to examine other nodes in the network of relations, to expose the possibility for conflicting implications, consequences and potentials.

The opening chapter thus criticises empiricist sensibilities for focussing only on what is immediately, synchronically accessible to the senses, denying reality to anything that cannot be perceived in this specific way. It likewise criticises “transcendental” sensibilities for looking through appearances in order to grasp an essential social or material reality that purportedly subsists behind such appearances, bearing no necessary relation to them. As an alternative, the text puts forward a peculiar pragmatist adaptation of Hegel’s “dialectical” method – asking how “appearance” and “essence” can be understood as dynamic moments of the same overarching relation. Where Hegel, in Marx’s reading, sees this relation as an ideal one, which gradually finds expression in reality, Marx sees the relation as fundamentally practical – arising from the relations of persons and other objects engaged in determinate forms of interaction (102-103).

In Marx’s account, the qualitative characteristics of this dynamic interaction are then understood to implicate determinate types of disposition, forms of perception, expectations, performative stances, and other forms of subjectivity – not as external “ideal” entities that are “caused” by practical relations, but simply as aspects of those practical relations themselves. These practically-primed forms of subjectivity can then be articulated into more formal kinds of conscious theoretical articulation – which can therefore be understood as ideal expressions of a particular set of given relations. Such ideal expressions include most explicitly the categories of political economy – but also, on a more subterranean level of the text, the categories of science, philosophy – and even, in a reflexive move that refuses to exceptionalise out his own analysis from the standards he applies to others, the categories of Marx’s own social critique.

Grasping the practical basis for the social validity of the categories simultaneously provides the foundation for a particular kind of critique: a critique from the standpoint of the practical boundaries and limits that determine the extent of the social validity the categories possess. Considering commodity circulation from the standpoint of its material result, for example, is socially valid – up to the point that the analysis denies or fails to consider how this result is achieved, and the complex range of social consequences and potentials that arises, not due to the result in isolation, but due to the whole complex of practices and relations through which this result is brought about. Recognising that each element of a dynamic relation can generate its own qualitatively distinct potentials – as can elements operating in relation with one another and with the whole – greatly increases the resources that can then be consciously mobilised in efforts to create new forms of collective life. The knowledge thereby gained can potentially avert attempts at transformation that are likely to fail because they are predicated on the reproduction of practices and institutions that are generating the effects these movements are setting out to undo: when Marx labels a transformative movement “utopian”, it is this sort of problem he has in mind – movements, for example, that aim to abolish a particular phenomenon, but whose proposals for transformation involve replicating the factors that generate that phenomenon. It can also prevent an overly narrow, abridged sense of what kinds of transformation are possible – the sort of constricted sense of possibility that could arise, for example, when the origins of particular social phenomena are not well-understood, and therefore appear intrinsic to human nature, social reproduction, or material life. Marx’s method therefore seeks to free up critical resources through the painstaking process of making our history citable in many more of its moments than considered by competing forms of theory.

By chapter 4, this exposition has reached the stage where Marx has demonstrated that commodity circulation – a process that does really exist in certain dimensions of everyday experience – immanently generates moments whose consequences and implications deviate from those which this process seems to imply at first sight. Marx argues that political economy misses these tacit implications because it attempts to grasp commodity circulation reductively, focussing on its material result – the development of a process of social metabolism, through which the circulation of use-values is effected – to the exclusion of a consideration of the form through which this result is achieved. Marx’s analysis of that form then derives a number of potentials that invert – and even threaten – this material result: among them, the recurrent possibility for crisis – which reveals particularly clearly the social preconditions on which the material result depends – and the possibility for the process to be driven, not by the end material goal of the satisfaction of finite, bounded needs, but by the boundless and insatiable goal of the accumulation of money.

Having established these points immanently through the analysis of commodity circulation, Marx is now in a position to introduce the category of capital – and, following quickly on its heels – the related category of wage labour. In this chapter, I will sketch the steps through which Marx advances this argument in chapters 4 and 5 of Capital. These chapters finally make explicit that Marx sees generalised commodity exchange to be predicated on an overarching social relation whose consequences, implications and potentials diverge from, and react back upon, the qualitative characteristics of commodity exchange itself – conferring on this process the differentia specifica that is both expressed, and yet not fully grasped, by the categories of political economy.

I. Money as Capital

Marx begins chapter 4 of Capital where chapter 3 left off: with the historical existence of world trade and a world market. From the beginning, we now know, Marx has been analysing a form of commodity circulation that is conditioned by the existence of economic relations at this global scale, untethered from local boundaries. The chapter once again asks its readers to disregard the material content of the circulation of commodities – the circulation of use-values – in order to focus on its form. The product of the form of commodity circulation, as analysed in previous chapters, is not use-values, but money. Marx explicitly introduces the category of capital in the opening paragraph to this chapter, and calls money its first form of appearance (247).

The phrasing – that money is a form of appearance of capital – already suggests that capital, like the categories of value and abstract labour, has a supersensible character: otherwise it would not require “forms of appearance”, but would simply be directly perceptible. If the category of capital operates similarly to other supersensible categories, we can expect the argument gradually to unfold the ways in which social actors, by interacting with particular “forms of appearance” – objects of everyday experience, including money – effect the supersensible “essence” that is capital, unintentionally, as a long-term aggregate consequence of their own actions. While a full breakdown of this argument exceeds the boundaries of this thesis, we can trace out its earliest steps.

Marx begins unfolding yet another multiplicity within money, distinguishing between what he calls “money as money” and “money as capital” by pointing to a difference in their form of circulation (247). Drawing on the conclusions of the previous chapter, he notes the distinction between the circulation of commodities, and the circulation of money – in his algebraic notation, the distinction between C-M-C and M-C-M: the distinction between a process oriented to the circulation of use-values, and bounded by material needs – selling in order to buy – and a process oriented to the circulation of money – buying in order to sell (247-248). Money seen from the standpoint of the second circuit functions as capital. This function is distinct from money’s role in commodity circulation, and yet it is also effected in practice via commodity circulation, and is thus intrinsically bound together with that process – a practical entanglement that confers on capitalist commodity circulation its distinctive historical cast.

At this point, Marx finally begins the analysis not undertaken when he introduced this circuit in the previous chapter – analysing the implications, performative stances, and potentials associated with the circulation of money. Like commodity circulation, whose result – the exchange of commodity for commodity – C-C – masks the process by which this result was achieved, the circulation of money also generates a result that masks the distinctive process that brings about this result. The result in this case is what Marx calls “the exchange of money for money” – M-M – a result that appears to be tautological at first glance.

As we have discussed in earlier chapters, in commodity circulation, the process would not make sense if the commodity that starts the circuit were identical to the commodity that ends it: the commodity at the beginning of the circuit is therefore a non-use-value for its owner, and the purpose of the circuit is to exchange this non-use-value for different commodities for which the original owner does have use. The circuit whose formal shape is C-C thus involves a different determination – a different substantive content – for the commodity at the beginning and the end of the process.

In money circulation, the process also would not make sense if the money that starts the circuit were identical to the money that ends it. Money, however, is not qualitatively differentiable from other money in the way that ordinary commodities are: the money at the end of the circuit will therefore necessarily have the same qualitative determination as the money at the beginning – making it impossible to differentiate the two ends of the circuit in qualitative terms. The only way money can be transformed as it moves through the circuit is therefore by changing its quantitative character: by increasing, by becoming more money, in the process of its circulation (248, 251).

While the circulation of money possesses the same component moments as the circulation of commodities – consisting of two antithetical metamorphoses, of commodity into money and money into commodity – in commodity circulation, the order in which those metamorphoses take place is the exchange of a commodity for money, and then the exchange of money for a commodity, giving the whole circuit the form C-M-C – selling in order to buy, a process driven by the end goal of exchanging use-values in which social labour has been invested (250). This end goal lies outside the circuit itself – in consumption (252). The circuit here is therefore simply a means, oriented to achieving a goal that is distinct from the means by which it has been achieved – the satisfaction of material needs (253).

The circulation of money, by contrast, inverts the order in which the metamorphoses take place: it first advances money to buy commodities, and then sells those commodities to acquire more money than was advanced at the start. This circuit thus has the form M-C-M’ – selling in order to buy. The inverse order in which the metamorphoses are undertaken points to a different determining purpose: money circulation incorporates the process of social metabolism – the circulation of use-values – only as a means. The end goal of the process is the acquisition of exchange-value – and, specifically, the acquisition of more exchange-value than originally advanced at the outset of the process (250-251). This orientation to the creation of more value than originally advanced is, for Marx, what renders the circulation of money into a form of appearance of capital. In Marx’s words:

The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while in circulation, but increases its magnitude, adds to itself a surplus-value, or is valorized [verwertet sich]. And this movement converts it into capital. (252)

The end goal of this process, however, is the same as its starting point: the money that ends the process is quantitatively greater than the amount that advanced at the start, but qualitatively remains the same. The end goal therefore need not drop out of the circuit in order for its benefit to be realised – it can immediately become the starting point of a new phase of the same process. In Marx’s words:

If, then, we are concerned with the valorization [Verwertung] of value, the value of £110 has the same need for valorization as the value of £100, for they are both limited expressions of exchange-value, and therefore both have the same vocation, to approach, by quantitative increase, as near as possible to absolute wealth. At the end of the process, we do not receive on one hand the original £100, and on the other the surplus-value of £10. What emerges is rather a value of £110, which is in exactly the same form, appropriate for commencing the valorization process, as the original £100. At the end of the movement, money emerges once again as its starting-point. (252-253)

The circuit of money thus begins from a starting point that is also its own necessary result. This circuit therefore exhibits a reflexive, self-referential, processual character that is missing from the circulation of commodities when examined from the standpoint of its immediate material result. This self-grounding process that continuously regenerates the basis for its own expanded reproduction is what Marx calls “capital”:

Therefore the final result of each separate cycle, in which a purchase and consequent sale are completed, forms of itself the starting-point for a new cycle. The simple circulation of commodities – selling in order to buy – is a means to a final goal which lies outside circulation, namely the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of needs. As against this, the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself, for the valorization of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The movement of capital is therefore limitless. (253)

Marx’s analysis of the circuit of money has thus unearthed a practical process that shows some of the qualitative characteristics we have previously explored as principles of Marx’s method: the peculiar reflexive, self-grounding presentational structure of the opening sections of Capital is here demonstrated, at a preliminary level, to be consonant with the real properties of the object being analysed; the form or style of Marx’s presentation is shown to be adequate to the content or substantive claims of the argument. These substantive claims, however, relate to a set of given relations – to social phenomena that arise from contingent human practices. Marx’s practice-theoretic trap for Hegel is now ready to spring.

II. The Substance that Is Subject

As discussed in chapter 4, Hegel understands his “science” as the necessary means to capture the intrinsic characteristics necessarily exhibited by the free self-development of thought. Marx, by contrast, insists that the only scientific method consists in the development, from the analysis of a set of given relations, of those forms of thought into which those relations have been apotheosised.

At this point in the text, Marx has derived a set of given relations – associated with the practical experience of the circuit of money – whose qualitative characteristics are similar to those Hegel associates with the free self-development of an ideal process. The real relations Marx identifies, however, are not the result of a process of free self-development. They are, instead, an accidental by-product of contingent human practices that have generated a blind process that confronts the humans who create it as an alien force to which they must conform. This process – which Marx explicitly describes with the terminology Hegel uses, in the Phenomenology, to characterise the Geist – is what Marx terms “capital”. Marx thus characterises capital as an autonomous, self-moving subject that brings itself forth on an ever-greater scale as part of a limitless process with no goal outside its own expansion. In Marx’s words:

It is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value is its own movement, its valorization is therefore self-valorization [Selbstverwertung]. By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. (255)

This language suggests a social process that has somehow become fully autonomous from the humans whose practices bring the process into being. Marx is quick to destabilise this impression, however: while his exposition does not yet allow him explicitly to express the limits on this apparently self-grounding process, a subtle sarcastic gesture reminds his reader that this is a depiction of a particular perspective, which will itself ultimately be revealed to be partial and bounded. Marx thus concludes the paragraph quoted above with a distinctively deflationary image:

It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs. (255)

The language implies strongly that the image of capital presented in this section shares something with a fairy tale: while possessing its own level of social validity, this perspective on capital is also framed here as being, in some sense not yet specified, too good to be true. Religious imagery sprinkled throughout this discussion heightens the sense that the perspective presented here may have fantastic, inflated impressions of its own autonomy:

But now, in the circulation of M-C-M, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both still forms. But there is more to come: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it now enters into a private relationship with itself, as it were. It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value, just as God the Father differentiates himself from himself as God the Son, although both are of the same age and form, in fact one single person; for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and as soon as this has happened, as soon as the son has been created and, through the son, the father, their difference vanishes again, and both become one, £110. (256)

We know from the discussion of commodity fetishism that Marx believes that “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” attributed to social processes are not simply illusions: fantastical imagery can convey properties that are socially valid. This social validity, however, is always bounded and limited by the practices that generate the conditions on which that validity relies. Properties that appear grounded metaphysically or supernaturally will therefore be repositioned, over the course of the analysis, on the ground of the practices that bring those properties into being. We would therefore expect that a perspective that presents capital as a god-process, one that overleaps human practices and grounds itself, achieving autonomous and free self-development independent of human action, will be repositioned as a hypostatisation – an over-extrapolation from socially valid characteristics that fails to grasp the limitations and bounds within which those characteristics can be realised. Marx effects this repositioning already in this chapter, by arguing that this perspective views the accumulation of capital only from the standpoint of its result – only as M-M, “money which begets money” – a focus on the material result which neglects the form in which this result has been achieved (256).

On an explicit level, Marx aims this critique against Mercantilism, which is positioned here as a formal theoretical articulation of this perspective on the circuit, as well as against the popular conception of interest-bearing capital. Both articulations of social experience disregard the distinctive contribution of the mediating process by which money becomes more money: the purchase of commodities (256-257). More obliquely, however, the language of the passage suggests that the subterranean target is Hegel. Marx’s imagery of the “self-moving substance” that is also the subject and ground of its own process is taken directly from Hegel’s description of the Geist. Hegel’s idealist method stands subtly convicted in this section as an apotheosis of given relations that are more adequately grasped by Marx’s pragmatist analysis.

In this passage, Marx tacitly embeds Hegel’s analysis within his own – providing an account of the social validity of Hegel’s insights, while also demonstrating moments of history that Hegel fails to cite – specifically, by pointing to the existence of forms of domination that remain invisible to Hegel’s narrative of the self-realisation of freedom in history. These uncited moments provide a perspective from which Hegel’s work appears as a brilliant near-miss: accurately sensing important dimensions of the qualitative character of given relations, and developing an incisive method for expressing that character, Hegel nevertheless hypostatises the dimensions he grasps. In the process, he misses the mark of domination that scars the self-grounding, reflexive process he misattributes to an ideal realm. By combining Hegel’s insights with an analysis of how such a reflexive process could be generated unintentionally in human practice, Marx seeks to set Hegel’s method back on its feet and overcome the apologist implications of Hegel’s own work.

Cutting through the depictions of capital as the “dominant” or “automatic” subject of its own process – language that suggests the autonomy of the process from human action – are destabilising references to the role social actors play in the process of the accumulation of capital. The figure of the capitalist is introduced for the first time in this chapter, as another of the disembedded social roles that are made available on the economic stage. In Marx’s words:

As the conscious bearer [Träger] of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts, and to which it returns. The objective content of the circulation we have been discussing, is his subjective purpose, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole driving force behind his operations that he functions as a capitalist, i.e. as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. (254)

This social role arises as a possibility due to the objective social characteristics and powers conferred on particular kinds of material objects. This role is not in principle embedded in the person of any particular individual – different individuals may play this part, alongside others, if they possess sufficient quantities of the sort of object that confers the right to play this social role. The object that entitles the actor to play this part is external to their person, and in principle could be owned by someone else, who would then inherit the performative entitlements the object confers. Enacting the role thus involves a personification of the social powers conferred directly on that object – and therefore only indirectly, by extension, and more contingently on the object’s owner. This sort of social role – which can be passed, through the object in which the role is grounded, from person to person like a baton – is therefore differentiable in practice from social roles that might seem to rely on characteristics that are not severable from the body of the person who plays them. At the same time, capital does not possess its own consciousness and will, and therefore relies on social actors to perform such personifications, whoever those actors might be, and however dedicated or skilled they are in their acts.

Capitalism’s best “method” actors therefore take into their own soul the end goal of the objective process of the production of capital: the ceaseless expansion of value. In Marx’s words:

Use-values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any individual transaction. His aim is rather than unceasing movement of profit-making. The boundless drive for enrichment, this passionate chase after value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The ceaseless augmentation of value, which the miser seeks to attain by saving his money from circulation, is achieved by the more acute capitalist by means of throwing his money again and again into circulation. (254-255)

A set of social actors therefore plays this part – consciously engaged in the endless pursuit of surplus-value. The availability of the part itself, however, relies on a dense network of social relations that confer particular social properties on material objects when those objects are used to fulfil particular social functions. The qualitative character of the process itself implies a practical contingency in who should play the roles that the process generates: if the role inheres in the possession of objects, and objects are treated in social practice as things that can potentially be alienated and possessed by other people then, as a matter of practical intuition, the role is differentiable from the person who performs it. The unity of person and role is thus enacted, in social practice, as an arbitrary, contingent matter – making this role a particularly visible potential target for political contestation and critique.

The existence of such externalised roles presents ambivalent social potentials, whose implications can be articulated and developed in conflicting directions by social actors who reflect on their practical experience and attempt to mine this experience for practical possibilities. Thus it becomes socially plausible, on the one hand, to distinguish roles that rely on the possession of external things from all other social roles – which can appear, by contrast, to be more intrinsically bound to persons who play them, and thus more “natural” and less contingent and subject to contestation. On the other hand, it also becomes socially plausible to see to what degree this practical experience can be extended – extrapolated to other sorts of social roles that do not, on their face, take the same qualitative form. It becomes possible for social actors to begin to test out whether, even in the absence of external objects conferring special social rights, some social roles might still be to greater or lesser degree externally-mediated, separable from the intrinsic qualities of the persons who bear them. Are gender relations separable from the innate, “natural” qualities of the persons who enter into these relations? Are relations of slavery? Relations of poverty? Crime? The social process being analysed here does not predetermine how social actors will come to answer to these questions. It does, however, prime such questions to be asked and contested, by making generally available an experience of one kind of social role that is clearly separable in practice from the person who performs it – a corrosive practical experience that can render other sorts of social roles potentially non-doxic and subject to contestation.

Marx concludes this chapter by arguing that, although the general formula for capital – buying in order to sell, M-C-M – might seem to be restricted to merchants’ capital, the formula is equally descriptive of industrial capital, because industrial capital also converts money into commodities with the aim of making more money. The different sorts of activities that intrude, for industrial capital, between the acts of buying and selling, do not alter the form of capital’s movement, which is still M-C-M.

Marx’s argument here contains a subtle hint about the preoccupations of later chapters: it suggests that the events that occur between the purchase and the sale, although they may not affect the form of the movement of capital within the sphere of circulation, nevertheless offer a new dimension of social experience that needs to be explored. Like all moments of a relation, these moments between purchase and sale will generate their own implications, consequences and potentials – which may reinforce or contradict those generated by the moments already analysed. This hint is reinforced by the final sentence of the chapter, which already situates and locates the perspective set out here, limiting its social validity to the sphere of circulation. In Marx’s words:

M-C-M’ is in fact therefore the general formula for capital, in the form in which it appears directly in the sphere of circulation. (257, italics mine)

To unpack the tacit suggestion that capital posseses other forms of appearance in other spheres – and then to explore the possibly contradictory implications of those new forms – Marx’s method compels him first to demonstrate immanently, through the analysis of the forms he has already derived, that circulation bears the traces of a more complex, overarching social process. Chapter 5 of Capital, in which Marx explores contradictions within the general formula of capital, allows Marx to assemble the resources he needs to situate circulation explicitly within a much broader social process.

III. The Double Result

Marx opens chapter 5 by noting that the form of circulation expressed in the general formula for capital already contradicts the implications of phenomena analysed in earlier sections of Capital (258). The existence of such a contradictory process, however, does not completely invalidate the implications attributed to earlier processes: instead, it locates and bounds such implications, revealing the limited aspect of social experience within which such phenomena can currently be said to possess their social validity. Real contradictions, as Marx discusses in chapter 3, are solved in forms of motion that make room for each of the contradictory tendencies to be expressed. The co-existence of elements of social experience that carry contradictory implications is therefore not paradoxical for this form of analysis; instead, it is to be expected. The overarching process – the production of capital – is understood as an aggregate effect of the combined and mutual operation of an assemblage of potentially disaggregable parts. All dimensions of this assemblage exert pressures on the qualitative character of the whole; together, they constitute a complex and multifaceted social reservoir of divergent practical possibilities – all of which are then available to collective experience as potentially citable elements of our history.

In drawing attention to contradictions, Marx’s goal is therefore not to privilege, or to dismiss, one of the contradictory elements he unearths. His goal is rather to render our history citable in more of its moments – to make available for conscious reflection and political self-assertion the widest possible array of practical insights that we have accidentally achieved in our collective experience. At the same time, Marx aims to fight against hypostatisations that either block our view of other available social potentials, or else prematurely conclude that certain potentials have been realised fully, when they are in practice only local phenomena whose realisation is abridged by the co-existence of other dimensions of social experience. Unfolding new contradictions therefore does not undermine the earlier conclusions put forward in the text: it enriches our understanding of those conclusions by situating them within an increasingly complex and multifaceted analysis of possibilities arising from our collective practice.

Marx makes clear that the development of the new “contradictory” perspective of the circulation of capital does not vitiate his analysis of earlier forms, by immediately discussing from which socially available perspective the contradiction is even visible. He writes:

The form of circulation within which money is transformed into capital contradicts all the previously developed laws bearing on the nature of commodities, value, money and even circulation itself…

But that is not all. This inversion has no existence for two of the three persons who transact business together. As a capitalist, I buy commodities from A and sell them to B, but as a simple owner of commodities I sell them to B and then purchase further commodities from A. For A and B this distinction does not exist. They step forward only as buyers or sellers of commodities. I myself confront them each time as a mere owner of either money or commodities, as a buyer or seller, and what is more, in both sets of transactions I confront A only as a buyer and B only as a seller. I confront the one only as money and the other only as commodities, but neither of them as capital or a capitalist, or a representative of anything more than money or commodities, or of anything which might produce any effect beyond that produced by money or commodities. For me the purchase from A and the sale to B are part of a series. But the connection between these two acts exists for me alone. (258)

The circulation of capital thus intertwines with the circulation of commodities, contradicting the implications of commodity circulation without, however, abolishing its existence or the bounded social validity of perspectives that arise within it. Perspectives expressive of the potential of the real practical process of commodity circulation become problematic only to the extent that they hypostatise themselves, obscuring the view of the movement of capital within which commodity circulation is now demonstrated to be embedded. Such hypostatisations are themselves socially plausible, however, due to the determinate characteristics of the relations themselves – specifically due to the way in which capital at no moment presents itself in any form separate to the established metamorphoses of commodity circulation, making capital’s distinctive implications within this process difficult to discern. Like other “supersensible” categories, capital haunts the empirically observable process of commodity circulation – a social spectre with no body of its own.1 Marx describes a plausible empiricist reaction from the perspective of commodity circulation to capital’s apparently mysterious, occult qualities:

A does not trouble himself about my transaction with B, nor does B about my business with A. And if I offered to explain to them the meritorious nature of my action in inverting the order of succession, they would probably point out to me that I was mistaken as to that order, and that the whole transaction, instead of beginning with a purchase and ending with a sale, began, on the contrary, with a sale and was concluded with a purchase. In truth, my first act, the purchase, was from the standpoint of A a sale, and my second act, the sale, was from the standpoint of B a purchase. Not content with that, A and B would declare that the whole series was superfluous and nothing but hocus-pocus; that for the future A would buy direct from B, and B sell direct to A. With this the whole transaction would shrink down to a single, one-sided phase of the ordinary circulation of commodities, a mere sale from A’s point of view, and from B’s, a mere purchase. (258-259)

The “same” social process thus makes available multiple “true” perspectives, each valid for a particular aspect of the process, but offering different windows onto the nature of the process as a whole. This practical relativism, however, does not mean that any and all perspectives are socially valid – or that all socially valid perspectives offer equal purchase on all aspects of social experience. Marx thus intends his analysis to make judgement possible – specifically, in this case, the judgement of whether the perspective visible to the capitalist marks out any distinctive phenomena that could not be grasped solely with reference to the categories available to commodity circulation. In the fable, A and B simply oust the middleman capitalist, reinstating a petty bourgeois utopia of simple commodity production. The question Marx asks next is whether this fable is possible – whether the social validity of the perspectives associated with simple commodity circulation can justify the particular conclusion the fable’s actors draw: that the perspective of the capitalist can be simply eliminated from the process. Or have these actors leapt to a utopian conclusion – incorrectly asserting that the perspective of the capitalist can be excluded – that simple commodity production can unfold, in a generalised way, as an autonomous and free-standing social process? Marx poses this question:

Thus the inversion of the order of succession [presented in the fable in terms of the inverse perspectives of the capitalist, versus those of the buyer and seller] does not take us outside the sphere of the simple circulation of commodities, and we must rather look to see whether this simple circulation, by its nature, might permit the valorization of the values entering into it and consequently the formation of surplus-value. (259)

The necessity of surplus-value has already been demonstrated to arise immanently from the qualitative characteristics of commodity circulation. Marx question is: are those same qualitative characteristics adequate to account, by themselves, for how surplus-value can actually be produced?

Marx proceeds to analyse the process of commodity circulation, looking for possible origin points for the creation of surplus-value. He concludes quickly that both parties to a transaction may gain in terms of the use-values they receive from the process, since each starts with a commodity that is not a use-value for them, and ends with a commodity that is. Moreover, the ability to specialise their productive energies may mean that they can each receive a use-value that was produced more efficiently than they would have been able to produce it themselves. Both participants in the transaction can therefore benefit. Such benefits, however, derive only from the use-value dimension of commodity circulation: they have nothing to do with exchange-value, and therefore cannot account for the production of surplus-value (259).

Introducing money as a medium of circulation does not alter this result. As has been established in earlier chapters, exchange is simply a metamorphosis or transformation of the form of the same commodity value, such that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, providing no basis for the creation of surplus-value. In Marx’s words:

If we consider this in the abstract, i.e. disregarding circumstances which do not flow from the immanent laws of simple commodity circulation, all that happens in exchange (if we leave aside the replacing of one use-value by another) is a metamorphosis, a mere change in the form of the commodity. The same value, i.e. the same quantity of objectified social labour, remains throughout in the hands of the same commodity-owner, first in the shape of his own commodity, then in the shape of the money into which the commodity has been re-converted. This change of form does not imply any change in the magnitude of the value. (260)

We know from Marx’s analysis in chapter 3, of course, that commodities may in fact be sold above or below their values. For purposes of the analysis in this chapter, however, Marx initially rules out an appeal to this phenomenon on the grounds that it violates the laws governing the exchange of commodities – laws that grasp this process as an exchange of equivalents. Marx has already derived from commodity circulation itself phenomena that contradict these laws. In this section of the chapter, however, he voluntarily ties his analytical hands behind his back, restricting himself to the territory mapped out by vulgar political economy, which attempts to grasp the production of capital with the categories of simple commodity circulation alone. The analytical goal is the construction of a kind of reductio ad absurdum, in order to demonstrate immanently that the perspectives available to simple commodity production run into an impasse when confronted with the phenomenon of surplus-value. Looked at across chapters, Marx’s argument here takes the form of a pincer movement: in earlier chapters, he has derived contradictory phenomena from the analysis of commodity circulation; in this one, he now closes off the possibility that these contradictory phenomena can in fact be grasped by less dialectical means. He does this by adopting the standpoint of commodity circulation, taken as a potentially free-standing and therefore “pure” phenomenon, and showing that, from this perspective, the production of surplus-value becomes impossible to grasp. In Marx’s words:

In so far, therefore, as the circulation of commodities involves a change only in the form of their values, it necessarily involves the exchange of equivalents, provided the phenomenon occurs in its purity. The vulgar economists have practically no inkling of the nature of value; hence, whenever they wish to consider the phenomenon in its purity, after their fashion, they assume that supply and demand are equal, i.e., that they cease to have any effect at all… It is true that commodities may be sold at prices which diverge from their values, but this divergence appears as an infringement of the laws governing the exchange of commodities. In its pure form, the exchange of commodities is an exchange of equivalents, and thus it is not a method of increasing value. (260-261)

Marx now concludes that attempts to ground surplus-value in commodity circulation rely on a slippage between the categories of use-value and exchange-value: the genuine – but qualitative – benefit conferred by the circulation of use-values is conflated with the purely quantitative phenomenon of the expansion of value (261). This conflation violates the characteristics that political economy itself posits in simple commodity circulation, and therefore leads immanently to an impasse.

At this point, having made his critique on purely immanent grounds, Marx frees himself from the strictures of political economy, in order to explore whether it would make any difference if the commodities exchanged were non-equivalents. In Marx’s words:

If commodities, or commodities and money, of equal exchange-value, and consequently equivalents, are exchanged, it is plain that no one abstracts more value from circulation than he throws into it. The formation of surplus-value does not take place. In its pure form, the circulation process necessitates the exchange of equivalents, but in reality processes do not take place in their pure form. Let us therefore assume an exchange of non-equivalents. (262)

Here Marx explores the possibility that a seller should be able to sell their commodity above its value, or a buyer purchase a commodity below its value. He notes that buyers and sellers are mutually dependent on one another, bound in a network in which each relies on the others for the objects of their own needs (262). This mutual dependence, however, carries implications for the practice of selling above or below the value of a commodity. If sellers acquire, across the board, the ability to charge 10% more than the value of their commodities, they will pocket this gain only briefly, because their dependence on other sellers for the objects of their own needs soon forces them to adopt the role of buyer. At this point, the gain they pocketed as a seller will be lost, since they will now be charged the markup themselves. The same holds in inverse form if buyers acquire, across the board, the ability to pay 10% below the value of commodities. The end result is that equivalents are still exchanged – just at a higher or lower nominal price (263). Marx suggests that the notion that selling dear accounts for surplus-value relies on a tacit presupposition that a class of consumers exists that does not produce – a presupposition that cannot be justified from the perspective of simple commodity circulation, which posits that such circulation can proceed autonomously, as a self-sufficient process (264).

Marx next asks whether surplus-value might be explained if individual sellers or buyers – rather than sellers or buyers in aggregate – possessed the special power to sell dear or buy cheaply. He argues that, even though particular individuals may indeed benefit personally from such practices, the aggregate amount of value in circulation has not changed – no new value has been produced – only the distribution of existing value is affected (265). In Marx’s words:

The capitalist class of a given country, taken as a whole, cannot defraud itself. (266)

This point makes clearer than the previous stages of this argument that Marx is concerned here with grasping an aggregate phenomenon – with a process of quantitative expansion of the total quantity of value – with surplus-value as a systemic result, rather than with the more local gains or losses of individual capitals.

At this point, Marx concludes that surplus-value – understood as an aggregate increase in value across society as a whole – cannot be explained through any permutation of the relations of simple commodity circulation. In his words:

However much we twist and turn, the final conclusion remains the same. If equivalents are exchanged, no surplus-value results, and if non-equivalents are exchanged, we still have no surplus-value. Circulation, or the exchange of commodities, creates no value. (266)

This conclusion, however, bequeaths a new problem – the problem that Marx has been trying to reach throughout his opening chapters. If surplus-value cannot be produced in commodity circulation, then it must somehow arise in some background process, not visible from the perspective of commodity circulation itself – by implication, within production. At the same time, Marx argues, production alone cannot generate surplus-value, since it is within the sphere of circulation that commodity owners constitute their mutual relations and thereby realise value of any magnitude. The value of a commodity, as Marx has analysed it in chapter 3, measures “the degree of its attractiveness for all other elements of material wealth” (230) – and can therefore be established only by bringing commodities into relation with one another on the market – by tossing commodities into circulation. Surplus-value – as a quantitative expansion of value – is therefore bound to the same social processes that bring value itself into being, and is therefore also reliant on commodity circulation. In Marx’s words:

We have shown that surplus-value cannot arise from circulation, and therefore that, for it to be formed, something must take place in the background which is not visible in the circulation itself. But can surplus-value originate anywhere else than in circulation, which is the sum total of all the mutual relations of commodity-owners? Outside circulation, the commodity-owner only stands in relation to his own commodity. As far as the value value of that commodity, the relation is limited to this, that the commodity contains a quantity of his own labour which is measured according to definite social laws… But his labour does not receive a double representation: it is not represented in both the value of the commodity and in an excess quantity over and above that value, it is not represented in a price of 10 which is simultaneously a price of 11, i.e. a value which is greater than itself. The commodity owner can create value by his labour, but he cannot create values which can valorize themselves… It is therefore impossible that outside the sphere of circulation, a producer of commodities can, without coming into contact with other commodity-owners, valorize value, and consequently transform money or commodities into capital. (268)

Marx’s analysis has therefore reached an apparent impasse: surplus-value cannot arise within circulation, and yet it also cannot arise outside of it. In his words:

Capital cannot therefore arise from circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to arise apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and not in circulation.

We therefore have a double result.

The transformation of money into capital has to be developed on the basis of the immanent laws of the exchange of commodities, in such a way that the starting-point is the exchange of equivalents. The money-owner, who is as yet only a capitalist in larval form, must buy his commodities at their value, sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it at the beginning. His emergence as a butterfly must, and yet must not, take place in the sphere of circulation. These are the conditions of the problem: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! (269)

Like all real contradictions Marx introduces into the text, we can expect this one to be resolved in motion – in this case, through the derivation of a relation that binds together circulation and production as moments within a larger process. The demonstration of the need for such a relation finally provides Marx with the resources he requires to introduce the category of labour-power: a category that will finally explicitly invert many of the claims Capital puts forward in its opening chapters.

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