Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: What a Piece of Work Is Man

Okay. Last substantive chapter of the thesis. This chapter was very difficult to write. I think it was worth the difficulty. But perhaps that’s just relief at finishing the argument…

This chapter outlines the derivation of the category of labour-power, explores how this derivation fundamentally alters our sense of the opening categories, and generally tries to pull everything together. I’m queueing this piece for publication several days before it will appear on the blog, so I’m not certain whether there will be an introduction and conclusion to be posted hot on the heels of this chapter, or whether this will be it for a while. I have considered possibly just ending the thesis with this chapter, as anything that follows will likely be a bit more prosaic than the ground this chapter covers, ensuring the thesis ends, so to speak, on a whimper. I suspect, though, that I need a more formal conclusion just to get a quick outline of the major points all in one place… So: a concluding chapter probably still to come, and an introductory chapter definitely still to come (and, since we all know the beginning can’t really be fully grasped until it can be shown to be the necessary starting point of the system derived from it, it’s surely fitting that what should have been first in the order of presentation, will instead appear last… ;-P).

[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.]

10 – What a Piece of Work Is Man

Nowadays the categories are grasped by those who belong to them.
~ Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift

Marx opens the chapter on the sale and purchase of labour-power by summarising the peculiar, neither flesh-nor-fowl quality of the problem this chapter must resolve: how can we grasp the creation of surplus-value, when surplus-value does not arise from money by itself, or from money when placed into relation to a commodity, but does somehow arise in the circuit M-C-M’ – buying in order to sell? Relying on the arguments set out in previous chapters, he summarises: money by itself cannot generate a surplus because, left to itself, it simply petrifies into a static hoard. Brought into relation with ordinary commodities in the first metamorphosis of this circuit, money simply realises those commodities’ prices, resulting in an exchange – across the social aggregate – of equivalent for equivalent. No value is added through such exchanges: value merely changes its form. The final exchange of commodities for money is yet another change of form, realising the money shape of the value those commodities possesses. Each of the component moments of commodity circulation seem to offer no opportunity for surplus-value to be generated in aggregate, leaving it unclear how an overall expansion of wealth might take place at the level of the social whole: from the standpoint of commodity circulation, the creation of surplus-value thus appears to be an inexplicable, occult phenomenon – a form of spontaneous generation, an emanation of the intrinsic properties of money or commodity exchange (270).

The way Marx sets up this problem should remind us of the narrative structure of the opening chapter, that play-within-a-play which pivoted around the question of how we can best grasp the wealth of capitalist societies. Capital‘s opening act also attributed a peculiar ontological ambiguity to capitalism’s wealth – at one point invoking Dame Quickly, who was accused of being “neither fish nor flesh”, to impugn political economy for its inability to decide “where to have” the commodity (138). The opening of chapter 6 reminds us that determining the ontological status of the wealth of capitalist societies has been our guiding thread all along, even as the text has led us through complex considerations of other topics. Marx argues that the ontological status of this wealth can be determined only by demonstrating how it has been generated in practice – by chasing the practical origins of phenomena that originally present themselves to us as mysterious occult properties. By understanding how these phenomena are brought about, we will understand the phenomena themselves.

At this point in Marx’s narrative, the text’s careful analysis of commodity circulation has generated an impasse: surplus-value has been demonstrated to be a necessary presupposition of commodity circulation, and yet the component practices involved in commodity circulation do not appear to account for how surplus-value could be generated. By demonstrating this impasse, the text shows that commodity circulation presupposes something outside itself – that it points to another practical process integral to commodity circulation, and yet not fully grasped by the perspectives available within circulation itself. Exploring the immanent potentials of commodity circulation has thus exploded this process from within: commodity circulation cannot stand alone, as a self-sufficient and autonomous process – it must itself be a partial, component moment of a larger process. The need to embed commodity circulation within a more complex, overarching social process has been demonstrated immanently.

I. Free Labour

None of the practices associated with commodity circulation offers the potential to generate surplus-value, and yet surplus-value does manifest itself within commodity circulation. The text therefore searches for the traces, within commodity circulation, of where surplus-value might arise. The circuit of money, the process of buying in order to sell, does contain one internal aporia: the moment after the first metamorphosis – after money has been used to buy a commodity, and before a commodity is sold again for money – in which the circuit is interrupted for a time, and the commodity purchased falls outside of circulation and into the sphere of consumption, a sphere whose internal processes are opaque to the perspectives available from within circulation itself. This immanent aporia provides the sole moment that resides both within, and yet outside of, commodity circulation – the only site where surplus-value could potentially arise within commodity circulation, but through practices invisible to circulation itself. Something about the process of the consumption of the commodity first purchased, must account for the production of surplus-value (270). In Marx’s words:

In order to extract value out of the consumption of a commodity, our friend the money-owner must be lucky enough to find within the sphere of circulation, on the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption is therefore itself an objectification [Vergegenständlichung] of labour, hence a creation of value. (270)

The commodity purchased in the first metamorphosis must therefore possess the unusual property that its consumption is productive of value – that its consumption objectifies labour in material goods. The only commodity that could achieve this result, however, is labour-power itself – labour-power available for sale on the market as a commodity:

The possessor of money does find such a special commodity on the market: the capacity for labour [Arbeitsvermögen], in other words labour-power [Arbeitskraft]. (270)

With the introduction of this new category, the perspective of the text suddenly widens. Commodity circulation and its associated practices – the concern of the text thus far – are shown to be only partial aspects of a more encompassing relation: aspects that make their determinate contribution to that relation, but that are impacted in turn by the other aspects of the relation – and by the aggregate effects of the relation as a whole. The text is now in the position to “zoom out” – to consider commodity circulation from the new perspectives made available by this wider view – and also to “zoom in” to the implications, consequences, and potentials of the component practices that are associated with this new dimension of the overarching relation.

The text begins this process with a preliminary definition of labour-power. Since labour-power enters into the text as a commodity, its opening definition spoofs the opening definition of the commodity itself, with a distinction between what appears to be a transhistorical material content and a historically specific social form. Labour-power thus appears to be an essentially “material” entity – a physiological capacity human beings intrinsically possess:

We mean by labour-power, or labour capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind. (270)

This material entity then appears to be encased within a socially-specific form that bears no intrinsic relation to its material content – as though use-value were a transhistorical phenomenon, and only exchange-value were historically specific; or, to put the matter another way, as though the commodity were determined by exchange-value, rather than by the mutual differentiation of use-value and exchange-value, understood as co-constitutive categories both equally constitutive of the commodity form. Consistent with this opening presentation of the commodity, the main text initially separates out a list of historically-specific factors from the original “material” definition (270-272).

The historically-specific factors the text lists, however, reflexively imply that this distinctive separation of the self into material and the social components may, as a whole, have a socially-specific, practical basis. The text begins to suggest this possibility in the famous discussion of how labourers in capitalism come to be doubly “free” – free to sell their own labour-power on the market, and also “free” of any means of subsistence in the absence of such a sale (272). This passage is, on one level, a discussion of the coercion that lies beneath the conventions of free consent in contract law. On another level, however, it provides the nucleus of an analysis of a distinctive form of embodiment and enactment of the self that becomes socially plausible with the rise of capitalism. I will quote from the text at length, to provide a frame of reference for the analysis below:

In and for itself, the exchange of commodities implies no other relations than those which result from its own nature. On this assumption, labour-power can appear on the market as a commodity only if, and in so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale or sells it as a commodity. In order that its possessor may sell it as a commodity, he must have it at his disposal, he must be the free proprietor of his own labour-power, hence of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and enter into relations with each other on a footing of equality as owners of commodities, with the sole difference that one is a buyer, the other a seller; both are therefore equal in the eyes of the law. For this relation to continue, the proprietor of the labour-power must always sell it for a limited period only, for if he were to sell it in a lump, once and for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. He must constantly treat his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and he can do this by placing it at the disposal of the buyer, i.e. handing it over to the buyer for him to consume, for a definite period of time, temporarily. In this way he manages both to alienate [veräussern] his labour-power and to avoid renouncing ownership over it.

The second essential condition which allows the owner of money to find labour-power in the market as a commodity is this, that the possessor of labour-power, instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labour has been objectified, must rather be compelled to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power which exists only in his living body. (271-272)

Marx argues here that the historical preconditions for the existence of labour-power as a commodity in the market are that the owners of labour-power must be free to enter into contracts to sell their own labour-power – that the owners of labour-power, therefore, be recognised as self-governing individuals, rather than treated as slaves, serfs, or other categories of personal dependence – and, at the same time, that the owners of labour-power must be “free” of the means to reproduce themselves other than the sale of their own labour-power – that the option to set themselves up as peasants, independent commodity producers, or other independent producers not be socially available to them. In Marx’s words:

For the transformation of labour into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the commodity-market; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that, on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization [Verwirklichung] of his labour-power. (272-273)

Marx immediately underscores the historical peculiarity of this arrangement:

One thing, however, is clear: nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly a result of a part historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production. (273)

From here, Marx moves explicitly to historicise the categories that have already been introduced into Capital:

The economic categories already discussed bear a similar historical imprint. Definite historical conditions are involved in the existence of the product as a commodity. (273)

Marx then offers a long list of preconditions – factors on which commodity production depends. All but one of these factors, however, long predates capitalism, without its existence generating the distinctive qualitative dynamics Marx has been attributing to commodity circulation in his analysis:

In order to become a commodity, the product must cease to be produced as the immediate means of subsistence of the producer himself. Had we gone further, and inquired under what circumstances all, or even the majority of products take the form of commodities, we should have found that this only happens on the basis of one particular mode of production, the capitalist one. (273)

The commodity becomes the “elementary form” of wealth, then, only in capitalist societies: the opening discussion of the commodity and its circulation has been indexed – all along – to this very specific historical and social phenomenon; Marx has never assumed that commodity circulation could exist in the generalised form in which it currently presents itself, as a free-standing and autonomous form. Nevertheless, he could not make this point explicit until this moment, because the dependence of commodity circulation on an overarching process is not visible from the perspectives made available within commodity circulation itself. In Marx’s words:

Such an investigation, however, would have been foreign to the analysis of commodities. (273)

What sorts of practices, in Marx’s account, made possible the emergence of generalised commodity production and exchange? Marx rules out a number of practices on the grounds that they have been present in many previous social contexts, without leading to this distinctive historical result. First, Marx argues, commodity circulation is not intrinsically expansive: it is capable of co-existing with forms of production oriented to the immediate needs of the producers, without necessarily undermining those alternative forms and leading to full-blown capitalism:

The production and circulation of commodities can still take place even though the great mass of the objects produced are intended for the immediate requirements of their producers, and are not turned into commodities, so that the process of social production is as yet by no means dominated in its length and breadth by exchange-value (273).

Other preconditions of commodity production and exchange – a social division of labour, the separation of use-value from exchange-value, and the existence of money – have also arisen in various historical contexts without leading to the development of capitalism:

The appearance of products as commodities requires a level of development of the division of labour within society such that the separation of use-value from exchange-value, separation which first begins with barter, has already been completed. But such a degree of development is common to many economic formations of society [ökonomische Gesellschaftsformationen], with the most diverse historical characteristics.

If we go on to consider money, its existence implies that a definite stage in the development of commodity exchange has been reached. The various forms of money (money as the mere equivalent of commodities, money as means of circulation, money as means of payment, money as hoard, or money as world currency) indicate very different levels of the process of social production, according to the extent and relative preponderance of one function or the other. Yet we know by experience that a relatively feeble development of commodity circulation suffices for the creation of all these forms. (273-274)

The preconditions of capitalism, by contrast, rely on something more historically specific than the conditions of the circulation of commodities and money. This more historically specific condition is the sale of labour-power on the market:

It is otherwise with capital. The historical conditions of its existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence finds the free worker available, on the market, as the seller of his own labour-power. And this one historical pre-condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from the outset a new epoch in the process of social production. (274)

The introduction of labour-power into the existing market for goods appears, on one level, a very small practical innovation, an improvisation that would have seemed socially plausible within the conditions that existed when this practice was introduced, a minor and apparently trivial innovation on long-familiar practices of the exchange of products on the market – a point that Marx suggests much more overtly, in chapter 19:

The exchange between capital and labour at first presents itself to our perceptions in exactly the same way as the sale and purchase of all other commodities. The buyer gives a certain sum of money, the seller an article which is something other than money. (681)

In Marx’s account, however, this innovation carries in its wake a series of unintended consequences that prove corrosive of the relations in which it originally arose. It undermines the boundaries that had allowed commodity production to subsist alongside other forms of production, conferring on commodity production an expansive, dynamic character that this process had never possessed in previous social formations. The new practice of selling labour-power on the market, grafted onto a collection of much older social practices and institutions – commodity production and exchange, money, the social division of labour – generates a new kind of social relation: an historical chimera with unprecedented consequences. This new relation then elicits novel qualitative properties from its constituent parts, such that even very old social institutions exhibit historically unique characteristics when suspended into this form.

We are now much closer to understanding why Aristotle could not “deduce” characteristics in commodity exchange that seem intuitively, “logically” self-evident to us: those characteristics are generated by a distinctive combination of social practices familiar to classical antiquity, with practices that Marx regards as alien to all but capitalist history. Marx reminds us explicitly of this point in a bluntly critical footnote early in this chapter:

In encyclopedias of classical antiquity one can read such nonsense as this: In the ancient world capital was fully developed, ‘except for the absence of the free worker and of a system of credit’. Mommsen too, in his History of Rome, commits one blunder after another in this respect. (ftnt 2, 271)

Such “blunders”, for Marx, reflect the inability to grasp the differentia specifica of capitalist production – a distinctive character that relies precisely on the joint suspension of new forms of social practice together with practices that superficially seem to have a much older historical provenance, but that, in this particular context, come to take on historically unprecedented qualitative characteristics, precisely because they are suspended within a novel practical relation.

II. So Many Mines

This discussion makes explicit in the main text that Capital has concerned itself all along with phenomena that are specific to fully developed capitalism. Although this historical specificity is hinted all through the early sections of the text, it could not be revealed explicitly until this point, when the analysis of the apparently more historically-general phenomenon of commodity circulation has been shown to point beyond itself, to reveal itself to be a subordinate component of a larger relation. The suspension of much older social practices within a fundamentally new practical relation operates to disguise the historical distinctiveness of that relation itself – making it socially plausible to blur the boundaries between capitalist and other forms of production, thus sheltering the historically distinctive qualities of capitalist production from critique by implying that these qualities derive directly from more basic and long-standing practices.

As a consequence, it can thus come to appear to both critics and supporters of capitalism that the abolition of capitalism would require, for example, a romantic abolition of the division of labour, or a return to the face-to-face transactions of barter, or the abolition of money: these component practices can come to appear intrinsically and inevitably to possess the specific characteristics they exhibit uniquely in capitalist history. In such a context, capitalism comes plausibly to appear as the result of the realisation of the intrinsic potentials of material reproduction. By contrast, older social formations can appear to have artificially thwarted the manifestation of these intrinsic characteristics, holding back the historical expression of natural properties or laws. Capitalism can thus be positioned as the realisation of nature in history – such that all previous societies appear overtly “historical” and socially “constructed”, but capitalism itself appears to result from a stripping away of social conventions, in order to unleash what are taken to be intrinsic principles of material production. From this standpoint, as Marx says in his opening chapter, it appears that “there has been history, but there is no longer any” (ftnt. 35, 175). Marx’s analysis attempts to restore a much stronger sense of the contingency of the production of capital, by constructing a fine-grained account of how its various qualitative characteristics are generated in collective practice, and thus revealing these characteristics also to be the historical products of contingent human practices.

The analysis of the category of labour-power allows Marx to mark out the production of capital as a unique historical process, and to position the categories presented earlier in his own analysis, as categories directly bound to the production of capital. From the sentence that declares that capital marks a new epoch in social production, Marx hangs a footnote that makes sure the reader does not miss the implications of this announcement for this chapter’s opening definition of labour-power – a “materialist” definition that centres on physiological labour, which appears on its face to be transhistorical and abstracted from particular social determinations. Marx underscores that, for a category like labour-power to become intuitive as a category of everyday experience, very specific social conditions are required:

The capitalist epoch is therefore characterized by the fact that labour-power, in the eyes of the worker himself, takes on the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently takes the form of wage-labour. On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the commodity-form of the products of labour becomes universal. (ftnt 4, 274)

The intuitive plausibility of a category like labour-power therefore does not result from a process of enlightenment in which humans cast aside their social conditioning and apply an antiseptic, demystifying gaze to material life. Rather, in Marx’s argument, only the practical experience of generalised commodity production and exchange – the everyday experience of the commodity as the “elementary form” of wealth – renders intuitively plausible the experience of part of the self as a reservoir of potential labour-power: only in this context is this distinctive “physiological” experience of an aspect of the self enacted as a “practical truth”.

In Marx’s argument, placing labour-power on the market requires a particular kind of practical enactment of self. The “free” labourer is not selling themselves entire, becoming a slave. Instead, they are selling an aspect of themselves, for a limited duration. To effect the sale of their own labour-power, the seller must “constantly treat his labour-power as his own property”. Sellers must, in other words, sunder themselves in two – with part of the self stepping forward to operate as an active agent – a commodity owner – while another part of the self is positioned as the passively represented object that is the subject of the sale. This commodity is physically inseparable from its owner, and thus intrinsically attached to its own source of voice, motive force and will: in these senses, it violates the opening definition that commodities are objects external to their owners. In other respects, however, it is enacted just as other commodities are: treated in collective practice as a passive material object that is offered up for exchange. Since this passive material object inhabits the owner’s own body, the owner enacts themselves as a split subject – as an active consciousness and will, conjoined with a passive material body – as a ghost in the machine.

The capacity to experience of labour-power as a separate faculty of the self – and the tendency to grasp this faculty in material, physiological terms, as though physiology should take this distinctive qualitative form, and be distinct in this particular way from will – is therefore specifically not transhistorical. It is of course possible to appropriate the potentials of this distinctive enactment of self, exploring the possibility to extend this potential beyond the contingent historical circumstances that gave rise to it – in order, for example, to explore whether other social configurations could be analysed in terms of a category like labour-power, or in order to examine scientifically the principles of human physiology. The genesis of these potentials, however, is practical – and historically specific. The category of labour-power becomes more than a conceptual abstraction for the first time in capitalism, where this category becomes intuitively plausible because it articulates a practical reality that is grounded in a distinctive collective performance of self.

Having established this point, the text continues to speak of labour-power quite often in “physiological” terms – as, for example, in the discussion in the very next paragraph of how labour-power involves the expenditure of “a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc.” (274). Marx leaves it as an exercise for the reader to keep in mind that this “physiological”, “material” definition of labour-power is its social determination: the fetish-character of practical relations gives rise to the experience of labour-power as a purely physical capacity, understood to be abstracted from social relations. The intuitive appearance of “physiological labour”, as a category that seems to transcend any specific social form, arises because of a peculiar, socially-specific, practical enactment of self that splits off relations mediated by material objects from relations mediated by the uncoerced mutual recognition of subjects, and treats only one of these enacted parts as “social”. The apparent absence of social determinations in the category of labour-power therefore is its distinctive social determination in capitalism: the appearance of disenchantment is capitalism’s distinctive form of mystification – one that comes cloaked in a secular, enlightened disguise. The same is true of the discussion of use-value in the opening chapter, or the discussion of the labour process in the chapter to come: these categories each articulate what Marx sees as an historically distinctive enactment that takes place in distinctive forms of social practice, as a “material” property inherent in an object. The categories, in other words, behave as though “there has been history, but there is no longer any”: as though earlier societies’ beliefs and practices toward material objects, or experiences of the self, are artificial constructs, while our own reflect the transparent, enlightened, untainted experience of material reality as it exists in itself, devoid of all artificial or contingent social determination.

Marx has now overtly expressed his claims about the practical, historically-specific basis for the categories of political economy to assume such abstract and apparently decontextualised forms: the reader is expected to keep this analysis in mind, as the text moves on to explore the perspectives made available from within these categories – during which the text will often not breach the immanent character of the analysis or otherwise overleap the insights available to the perspective being analysed. The purpose of this presentational strategy is not to debunk these articulations of social experience by positioning them as social: these aspects of social experience are no less “real” for being contingent. Their contingency, however, implies the possibility for transformation, and a thorough understanding of the contingent materials that lie ready to hand makes it easier to envision the new forms of collective life we might build from such materials. Marx therefore does not regard elements of contemporary social experience as inevitably limited to the conditions in which they arose. Categories that are “socially valid” for particular practical reasons in our own society, might be preserved and given a new basis for social validity – both now, and in our potential futures. The intuition, for example, that there might be a material realm driven by laws constituted by the mutual relations of material objects might receive social validity in a bounded way through our experience of the production of capital – but might achieve an entirely different basis for social validity in the practices of scientific institutions. The intuition that humans are equal might arise, in the process of the production of capital, in conditions that constantly undermine our ability to realise such equality in substantive terms – but this experience might drive a political process that institutionalises this potential for equality in other forms.

Marx is therefore trying to identify the practical basis, within the process of the production of capital, for the generation of specific insights – not in order to convict those insights for their complicity in the production of capital (although he will analyse this as well) – but in order to demonstrate that capitalist societies necessarily generate specific kinds of raw materials that can be appropriated for emancipatory ends. It is precisely because such materials can be appropriated from the conditions in which they arose, that Marx’s detailed analysis of the production of capital can provide the foundation for a critical theory. Marx conceptualises social transformation as a reworking of materials that already lie ready to hand (cf. 133). By identifying practical resources that can provide the raw material for such a transformation, Marx therefore grounds the standpoint of his own critique – as he says explicitly in the Grundrisse:

But within bourgeois society, the society that rests on exchange value, there arise relations of circulation as well as of production that are so many mines to explode it. (A mass of antithetical forms of the social unity, whose antithetical character can never be abolished through quiet metamorphosis. On the other hand, if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic.) (159)

Capital is designed to dig up the buried mines that have the power to explode the production of capital from within.

With the specificity of its categories established, and the opening analysis of commodity circulation embedded within the overarching process of the production of capital, the text now zooms back into the micrological fabric of the newly-derived category of labour-power. The first question the text asks is how the value of labour-power is determined. The answer, as for all other commodities, is that this value is determined by the labour-time necessary for this commodity’s reproduction. Since this commodity is a living being, this translates into the labour-time socially required to reproduce the necessary means of subsistence for the owner of this commodity (274). The definition of subsistence here is broad, incorporating both “objective” physiological needs and what Marx calls an “historical and moral element”, encompassing not only the labourer’s subsistence during the hours of actual work, but the subsistence requirements that extend beyond working hours and even beyond working years – into childhood and whatever period of training must precede work, through periods of illness or disability that interrupt it, and into the old age that follows it – extending not simply to the labourer’s personal reproduction, but also to the reproduction of the family arrangements that make possible the reproduction of new generations of labourers to replace existing generations (275-276).

The text slips in an unmarked note that the value of the means of subsistence may itself vary with changes in the labour-time required to produce these means (276). This subtle note flags a dynamic the text will later analyse in greater detail: the tendency of capitalist production to reduce the labour-time required to produce the means of subsistence and thus reproduce labour-power: a dynamic that makes it possible for labourers to receive the same or even expanding access to the means of subsistence, even as these means become less and less “expensive” to produce, in terms of the aggregate labour-time required for their production (cf. 432). From this seemingly gestural observation, Marx will eventually unspool one of the emancipatory possibilities generated as a side effect of capitalist production: the lower the percentage of the total social labour that is required to reproduce the labourer’s means of subsistence, the greater the potential for leisure and free self-development if production were to be re-organised into a form actually driven by the production of the means of subsistence – rather than driven by the production of surplus-value.

The separation of labour-power from the means of its realisation – the separation of the labourer from the means of production and subsistence – entrains a specific kind of domination: the need for labour-power to prove itself on the testing ground of the market, in order to obtain the means of subsistence – the need to be realised as a use-value desired by some owner of money, in order to obtain its own exchange-value in the form of money that can be used to purchase the subsistence goods it requires. As has already been established in the analysis of commodity circulation, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that a commodity taken by its owner to market should realise its price, even if this price reflects the objective costs of its own reproduction. The same is true of the commodity labour-power. In Marx’s words:

It is an extraordinarily cheap kind of sentimentality which declares that this method of determining the value of labour-power, a method prescribed by the very nature of the case, is brutal, and which laments with Rossi in this matter: ‘To conceive capacity for labour (puissance de travail) in abstraction from the workers’ means of subsistence during the production process is to conceive a phantom (être de raison). When we speak of labour, or capacity for labour, we speak at the same time of the worker and his means of subsistence, of the worker and his wages.’ When we speak of capacity for labour, we do not speak of labour, any more than we speak of digestion when we speak of capacity for digestion. As is well known, the latter process requires something more than a good stomach. When we speak of capacity for labour, we do not abstract from the necessary means of subsistence. On the contrary, their value is expressed in its value. If his capacity for labour remains unsold, this is of no advantage to the worker. (277)

The labourer’s need for access to the means of subsistence is continuous, while the labourer’s ability to sell their labour-power on the market may suffer interruptions. Unsold labour-power does not generate the means of subsistence, even if these means embody no more labour-time than what is socially required to reproduce the existing labour-power in its current form. The continuity of the need for the means of subsistence, and its tie to what is experienced as the reproduction of a material dimension of the self, plausibly confront the labourer as a natural need, rather than a social one: the artificiality of this separation of the labourer from the means to realise their own labour can be masked, such that social problems are plausibly interpreted as deficits in the natural, rather than the social, environment: as the natural process of famine, for example, rather than as a social process of imposing anthropologically arbitrary customs onto the process of material production, thereby preventing this process from better serving human needs. In Marx’s words:

He [the worker] will rather feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that his capacity for labour has required for its production a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, and will continue to require this for its reproduction. (277, italics mine)

The “natural” appearance of labour-power, as a material entity taken to be stripped of social determinations, can therefore mask the arbitrary – contestable, transformable – character of a quintessentially social separation that disconnects a class of people from the means to reproduce themselves unless they first participate in the social ritual of selling their labour-power on the market.

If the value of labour-power is determined by the labour-time required to reproduce its means of subsistence, the use-value of labour-power is something else entirely. The use-value of labour-power – which, like the use-value of every other commodity, belongs to the owner of money who purchases this use value, rather than to the owner who brings the commodity to market – consists in the use to which that labour-power is put after its sale (277). The text foreshadows the coercive character of this use through a gestural mention of the fact that labour-power is generally advanced by its owner – and consumed by the owner of money – before money is actually transferred between the two parties to this transaction (277-278). This custom opens the possibility for the coercive supervision and direction of labour-power within the factory – a theme to which Marx will return in much greater detail in later chapters.

III. Redetermining the Commodity

Chapter 6 of Capital brings to a close one of the major narrative arcs that structure the text, rendering explicit a pivotal determination that ricochets back through the text, profoundly transforming our understanding of the opening categories. This chapter reveals, first, that Capital‘s categories have always been more than conceptual abstractions applied externally to dimensions of social or material experience: these categories have, from the beginning, articulated forms of embodiment and perception, dispositions and habits of thought, affects and experiences of self. The commodity – the elementary form of the wealth of capitalist society – is us – or at least a component part of us. All of the things said about the commodity, can now be understood as also having been said about persons – as describing subjective forms of being in the world, as well as the properties of the more externalisable objects that also share that same world.

The category of the commodity – together with the subsequent determinations that further develop the practical meaning of this category – destabilises the dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity, not by denying the existence of the dichotomy, or by privileging one of those poles over the other, but by placing both poles within an overarching relation in which persons and other objects combine to enact specific shapes of subjectivity and objectivity in a distinctive dichotomous manner. This analysis can thereby relate forms of subjectivity and objectivity to one another, without elevating one of these dimensions as more fundamental, or reductively relegating the other to the status of epiphenomenon. Instead, forms of subjectivity and forms of objectivity here become different aspects of a dynamic practical relation whose aggregate properties reflect the constitutive contributions of each of its diverse and potentially disaggregable moments.

As we rethink the early sections of the text in light of this new perspective, the subtle ironies and destabilisations to which I have been drawing regular attention become clearly visible as foreshadowings of the future argument. The determinations of the commodity come into focus as determinations of the social properties of subjects as well as objects. A dimension of the self comes to be practised as an objectifiable material thing – a physiological capacity – that is experienced as being prior to social determination, such that social determination appears to arise only in intersubjective interaction – in that meeting of wills that effects the social contract of exchange – while the social determination of the physiological self – the experience of part of the self as a material substratum – is itself experienced as prior to, and outside of, the process of socialisation.

This material dimension of the self appears bound to other forms of materiality – whether attached to humans or to other objects – through direct material relations that possess a lawlike character. The part of the self that is socially enacted as an objectified thing thus appears to be connected – due to its materiality, rather than due to its distinctive social enactment – to a network of pre-social material relationships that are intuitively experienced as “natural”, asocial, “environmental” relations. Among the relationships perceived as natural are those associated specifically with the value-form: the common transcendental identity of material objects as particular incarnations of the same identical, homogeneous, supersensible substance.

The analysis of the fetish can now be used to grasp how this supersensible identity of humans as material beings could appear to arise from their common materiality, rather than from collective practices that simply treat humans – in one dimension of social practice, at least – as equal. Marx mentions in passing in the first chapter of Capital that the equality of human labour has become a “popular prejudice” only in recent history (138). At this point in the text, we now see how Marx understands the practical genesis of this prejudice – and also why he believes that this conviction must arise initially as a prejudice – as something we believe, without grasping the practical basis for our belief.

In Marx’s account, the conviction that humans are equal arises as something that is done before it is thought, and done in such a way that it becomes difficult to understand the practical actions that prime the thought. The potential for human equality thus bursts onto the historical scene with the same ontological ambiguity Marx has associated with the commodity throughout the text: the intuition that human equality is possible is initially expressed in declarations that this equality is an “inalienable” property, or a “self-evident” truth. Such formulations appear to place equality on a sound foundation – removing the ideal from contestation by declaring it to be obvious and essential. This very move, however, attests to an inability to explain the origins of our convictions, betraying that we are unsure “where to have” our common human identity and equality, and thus are forced to treat this ideal as a spooky metaphysical attribute whose origins appear mysterious and occult. The notion of human equality therefore comes to be asserted as if it were a peculiar hybrid of empirical phenomenon and transcendent ideal. We are both intuitively certain that this equality exists, and yet our certainty is violated by too many aspects of everyday experience for human equality to be taken as a straightforward empirical observation: we are confronted with a conflict between our internal conviction that “man is born free” and our sense perception, which shows us that “everywhere he is in chains”. The practical basis for our conviction is difficult to determine, because human equality, as it is enacted as a practical reality in the course of the production of capital, exists only in a “supersensible” form – not as a property that can be synchronically ascertained by direct empirical observation, but only as a pattern that becomes visible in aggregate, as a statistical tendency that plays itself out over time.

One socially intuitive solution to the ontological status of our common equality is to attribute it to our physicality – to our shared physiology or, in more recent terminology, our genetics. Marx alludes to this possibility more explicitly in the next chapter, when he directly suggests that the practice of the self as an embodiment of labour-power is associated with an understanding of human identity in physiological terms:

Man himself, viewed merely as the physical existence of labour-power, is a natural object, a thing, although a living, conscious thing, and labour is the physical manifestion [dingliche Äusserung] of that power. (310)

This “materialist” understanding of the ontological status of human equality has the peculiar status, within Marx’s analysis, of being socially valid: it is through the social relations we establish between material objects – including parts of our selves practised as material objects – that we do, in fact, enact this equality. In capitalist societies, human equality is thus enacted in a form that confers on this equality a fetish-character: a distinctive social character that arises due to the way in which human equality is acted out, unintentionally and indirectly, as a side effect of practices that imbricate humans and other material objects in a peculiar kind of overarching relation. This fetish-character renders it difficult to determine the ontological status of this property of human beings, generating determinate kinds of confusions over its empirical or ideal status, and making it likely that social actors will attempt to understand this equality in material, physiological terms. The resultant – socially valid – picture that humans are equal to one another in their common materiality obscures as much as it reveals: to the extent that it fails to recognise the social and historical dimension of our “material” selves, it tends to obscure the practices through which we collectively enact a specific form of materiality and, in the process, perform ourselves as equal to one another.

In spite of these confusions, the rise of a popular prejudice that humans are equal – the intuitive plausibility of this ideal – is an historically explosive phenomenon, undermining the doxic character of hierarchical social institutions and opening a vast field for critique and political contestation. More explosive, Marx’s critique suggests, would be the insight that this potential for equality arises due to nothing but our own practice: that it lies within our power consciously to appropriate this accidental insight, and to enact more egalitarian forms of collective life – forms in which we assert equality directly, with force of law and conscious custom, rather than as an indirect and subordinate side effect of the production of capital.

At the same time, the introduction of the category of labour-power reveals the discussions of the social relations of material objects to have always already been analyses of the social relations of humans. When the opening chapter of Capital speaks of commodities as “citizens”, describes them entering into relations of mutual recognition, and invokes the imagery of government, these are not casual metaphors, but analyses of the practical basis for the intuitive plausibility of specific ideals of governance – specifically, the ideals of self-governance through uncoerced processes of seeking mutual recognition that we currently associate with democratic theory. When Marx opens the second chapter of Capital with a discussion of how the juridical relations characteristic of commodity exchange are “determined” by the economic ones, we can now understand more clearly how this claim be made in a non-reductive way: the claim here is not that the economic base sits outside the juridical superstructure and causes the latter to assume a particular form. The claim, instead, is that the “economic” categories from the opening chapter are also categories of the “superstructure”: forms of subjectivity as well as forms of objectivity – enactments of self alongside enactments of other sorts of objects – and thus the same categories “determine” or describe phenomena that might at first glance seem unrelated or opposed to one another.

The everyday experience of enacting oneself as a commodity owner provides a practical basis for particular kinds of intersubjective relations with other humans – relations that involve the enactment of oneself as an autonomous individual, connected to other persons by no more than material ties of objective dependence, caused by one’s physical need for goods one cannot produce oneself. This “material” motive then appears to be the external cause for entering into social relations – which are then experienced as conscious intersubjective relations, entered into deliberately between autonomous individuals who each mutually recognise one another’s right to participate in, or remain outside of, the relation. The social preconditions for becoming an “autonomous individual” – as Marx already maintains in the second chapter of Capital (182) – tend to go unrecognised, due to the determinate qualitative characteristics of the complex and multifaceted form of social relation involved in the production of capital.

In Marx’s account, the production of capital effects a practical split within the social realm. On the one hand, social practice results in unintentional side effects that emerge in the form of statistical patterns arising from the interactions of objects, and which are therefore plausibly interpreted as resulting from the intrinsic material properties and relations among those objects, rather than from the contingent interactions within which those objects have come to be suspended. At the same time, social practice enacts a realm of consciously-performed intersubjective relations that are deliberately enacted by social actors who freely adopt the associated social roles by personifying the social powers of the material objects they possess. These “overtly social” relations thus also appear external to the social actors who perform them – contingent and binding on the social actor only due to their own personal act of will. If social actors do not grasp the practical basis for these divisions within their own social world, they can plausibly come to experience themselves as intrinsically autonomous individuals, who then come to be bound by social relations that are extrinsic and contingent to themselves – from which they can potentially withhold or withdraw their free consent – who also inhabit a material world external to themselves, which is governed by its own autonomous laws that are not subject to human control, and to which social actors must therefore adapt. In Marx’s account, this entire complex relation to self, social and material worlds is historically specific – the product of a particular collective enactment that binds persons and other objects into a specific kind of practical relation.

To the extent that this practical basis is not grasped, this tripartite division within social experience tends to orient critique and political contestation toward the aspects of this enactment that are intuitively experienced as “social” and thus as subject to human control. Other aspects of this enactment tend, by contrast, to be perceived as intrinsically devoid of social determinations: the human as autonomous individual can seem to be an abstract, asocial substratum to which social relations are then externally added, rather than as itself a particular, historically specific aspect of a distinctive enactment of social relations; the material world can also seem to be intrinsically external to the social, and whatever properties material objects and their relations currently exhibit can come to be conceived, one-sidedly, as properties that arise in the absence of social determinations. The world of material reproduction – the “economy” – is thus enacted within collective practice in such a way as to differentiate it qualitatively from the intuitively “social” realm of intersubjective relations, making this material realm appear driven by its own intrinsic laws onto which overtly social practices may then be artificially overlaid, in violation of the “natural” course of this material process.

Marx has thus sketched a complex and multifaceted practical process, at least two of whose dimensions present themselves as ahistorical abstractions from the social – as dimensions of experience that only become evident once social actors have subtracted all anthropological determinations, as asocial substrata that remain behind once all artificial social determinations have been stripped away. While each dimension is equally “social”, in Marx’s analysis – arising from a peculiar, historically-specific interaction between humans and other objects – the contrasting qualitative characteristics generated in different moments of this complex interaction can mutually differentiate moments of the process from one another, rendering some moments much easier to grasp as contingent products of human practice. The contingency and artificiality of conscious intersubjective relations, for example, is overt and easy to grasp – precisely because social actors experience themselves as intrinsically autonomous individuals who enter into social relations external to themselves (in at least one dimension of their social interactions). The visible artificiality of this dimension of social experience, confers on it a very different qualitative character from our experience of ourselves as autonomous individuals, or from the qualitative attributes we intuitively associate with the “material” world. This overtly artificial character can make this dimension of social experience seem fundamentally, ontologically distinct from these other dimensions – thus helping to shield from view that these other dimensions are equally contingent and artificial, in spite of their different qualitative attributes.

The autonomous individual and the properties we associate with the material world are, of course, not illusions: in their origins, they are historically-contingent enactments, but the potentials they release are no less real for their contingency. Seen in this light, the enactment of our selves as autonomous individuals, the enactment of the social realm as external to our physical selves, the enactment of a material world governed by apparently autonomous laws that seem independent of anthropological determinations: all of these enactments – accidental products of a blind historical process – are nevertheless insights that can be mobilised beyond the conditions in which we happened to stumble across them. That capitalism generates a material world governed by purely social laws that we mistakenly attribute to the intrinsic properties of material objects, takes nothing away from the sciences which creatively improvises around this insight, developing new practices and institutions in which this insight can be tested and explored. That capitalism implies the possibility for human equality obscurely, while resting on an explicit foundation of inequality, takes nothing away from the corrosive political potential that is founded on the ideal of equality – which we can then institutionalise in other practical forms.

Where the practical basis of these accidental insights is not understood, however, the result can be the inappropriate naturalisation of elements of our social experience that are within our power to change: the socially valid requirements of our specific form of material reproduction can come to appear as the intrinsic requirements of material production per se, and therefore never become subject to critique and contestation. Marx is therefore not aiming to debunk the illusions of western culture or bourgeois society, but to make our collective history citable in more of its moments, so that we have a clearer sense of the wide range of materials at our disposal, when we set about transforming those materials to make a new collective history.

One final extrapolation: once the category of labour-power is revealed explicitly, many of the apparently humorous and light-hearted discussions in earlier chapters come to take on a very dark tone. Marx’s analysis, for example, of commodities casting their wooing glances at money that lies in someone else’s pocket: those commodities are not simply the material results of entrepreneurial experiments; they are people – people “free” of the means to support themselves unless they can sell their labour-power – people whose talents have been positioned as being without use-value to themselves, and therefore of use only if they can be sold to others – people whose ability to “count” as part of “social labour” depends on their attractiveness to the owners of money. These commodities in human shape are “manufactured” in families, as children who must grow up to prove the value of their existence on the market, in order to justify their continued reproduction as part of the social division of labour. The horror of the process – gesturally foreshadowed in the passing reference to the hand-loom weavers in the first chapter – becomes overt on the surface of the text here. The category of labour-power introduces a commodity that cannot be severed from its human bearers, that must perpetually be resold and resold, again and again, if it wants to sustain itself – that can find itself suddenly cast out of “social labour” by the advance of technology, by the whims of collective fashion, by overproduction, by personal tragedy that prevents it from maintaining “socially average labour-time”. These are the stakes of the text. The entirety of the discussion of commodities in the earlier chapters must at this point be rethought as a human story. The overt actors in the text had seemed to be small business owners and consumers: we now know the commodities were social actors as well, their role the most tragic of all.

To ensure that these reflexive implications of this chapter are not lost – to help readers make the connection that they should rethink the earlier chapters in light of the insights provided by this new category – Marx returns foregrounds the tragic role of human commodities in the concluding passage of this chapter. Theatrical metaphors are once again central in this passage, effecting a stylistic connection with the theatrical imagery in the opening chapter.

As in the opening chapter, we are still chasing the question of how to understand the wealth of capitalist societies – a question we now understand in terms of how to grasp the production of surplus-value. We have followed the trail to the point where it diverts from commodity circulation into a process that is positioned both within and outside circulation: the process through which labour-power is consumed. Along the way, the sphere of commodity circulation has been demonstrated to be a partial moment of an overarching social relation – one whose own implications, consequences and potentials must be understood as partial and bounded to a particular region of practical experience. Marx effects the transition from the sphere of the circulation of labour-power, to the sphere of its consumption, with scathingly sarcastic words:

Let us therefore, in company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business’. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare.

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest. (279-280)

So things appear from the standpoint of the perspectives available within the sphere of circulation, which has provided the practical stage for the opening acts of Marx’s production of Capital.

In the first chapter, we were presented with the challenge of how we might fulfil the standards of Hegel’s drama by uncovering a subjective basis for the wealth of capitalist society, thus achieving the realisation that we are, already, the objects we are trying grasp. With this sixth chapter, Marx has finally demonstrated how he will meet this challenge: labour here has “realised itself”, tearing aside the veil that has hitherto divided subject from object, and recognising that it has existed on both sides of this veil all along. The text has finally overcome the subject-object dualism with which it begins.

In Marx’s adaptation, however, this narrative climax somehow does not seem to be the positive achievement that Hegel’s plot suggests. The conclusion sardonically invokes Smithian ideals of pre-established harmony and omniscient providence, but the reader is on guard against this utopian vision: the derivation of the category of capital in chapter 4 has already positioned capital’s “providence” as nothing more than a contingent social process, spun out of the control of the actors who produce it, and blind to its own coercive results. Marx has already compared this blind, coercive process explicitly to Hegel’s Geist, so we should not be surprised at the suggestion, tacit in the text, that Hegel has also not adequately grasped how the reflexive unity of subject and object might be achieved through a practical process that exhibits a decisively non-emancipatory form. As Marx allows the curtain to fall on this act and warns us to prepare ourselves to meet a new cast of characters, he also foreshadows the practical consequences of labour’s “self-realisation”:

When we leave this sphere of simple circulation of the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris‘ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing else to expect but – a tanning. (280)

2 responses to “Thesis Workshop: What a Piece of Work Is Man

  1. Bis May 3, 2009 at 1:49 am

    Dear N

    Thank you for the enriching and enlightening journey you have taken us through. 🙂

    I am doing a presentation to my Capital Reading Group of Part 2 of Volume 1. At the risk of sounding glib and anti-climactic, what exactly is the relationship between the categories of abstract labour and labour power? If capital is the process of value/abstract labour assuming the successive forms of commodities and money in order to augment itself, and labour power is the commodity whose consumption creates value/abstract labour, then does that make labour power the source of abstract labour?

    Sorry if I appear confused – I am!



  2. N Pepperell May 3, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    If I can confuse you even more: I would say that the argument is more that it is abstract labour that “makes” labour power… 😉 Or, at least, the argument is interested in speaking about what drives an ongoing process whereby the concrete social division of labour is reconfigured over time. My read is that Marx is trying to explore the implications of a process by which – in the absence of any sort of conscious planning and/or overt custom that aims to achieve some particular division of labour – social labour power is nevertheless gradually displaced from its existing uses, and reallocated to others, on an aggregate level, and over time, through unintentional collective processes. Categories like “abstract labour” and “value” – categories of “essence”, rather than “appearance” – are categories that, for Marx, capture unintentional processes that nevertheless arise from human practice – but in ways that confront their creators as a coercive force. It is this unintentional coercion that then reacts back on the concrete division of labour – forcing constant revolution and transformation in the specific forms in which human labour power can be expressed – that Marx is trying to understand and locate in determinate forms of collective practice. This analysis is difficult specifically because the result is not directly intended by anyone – instead, it “emerges” as a byproduct of practices aimed at very different immediate ends.

    This is not, however, necessarily a standard read of the relation between these categories – it’s more common to try to understand the argument as flowing the other way – to argue that, in spite of overt appearances, labour power, or the costs of production of labour, or some potentially quantifiable existent of this sort, is determining of a macrosociological trend that people don’t realise is determined in this way.

    So in terms of what you present… that might be a difficult choice to make 🙂

    What chapter(s) are you presenting on?

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