Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: Introduction – Historical Materialism and Real Abstraction

It’s a bit rough and ready, but I’ll post the working introduction to the thesis here anyway. If I keep this introduction in anything like its current form, I’ll need to make some slight modifications to several of the later chapters, since the introduction currently covers some of the ground discussed in later chapters, and would make those discussions seem repetitive…

Lots of detail work still to do – but this should be the end of the thesis-related posts for now. I’ll put up a PDF of the version of the thesis that is actually submitted when that is ready to go.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

1 – Historical Materialism and Real Abstraction

This thesis is centred around a close reading of the introductory chapters of the first volume of Marx’s Capital (hereafter, just Capital) – from the introduction of the category of the commodity in chapter 1, through the derivation of the category of labour-power in chapter 6. By providing a close reading of this discrete section of Marx’s argument, the thesis hopes to cast light on the methodology and presentational strategy of Capital as a whole, interpreting this introductory section in light of a more overarching sense of Capital as a reflexive critical theory of a key aspect of modern societies.

On one level, this close reading can be considered a contribution to the ongoing debate over the ontological status of the topics discussed in these introductory chapters. The apparent abstraction of the categories introduced in these chapters, alongside the gap between the phenomena the chapters describe, and the phenomena analysed later in Capital, has generated considerable debate over how readers should understand the subject matter of these introductory chapters, and over how – or even whether – the analysis put forward in these sections relates to later dimensions of Capital‘s argument. Some commentators have attempted to understand these early chapters as descriptions of a (real or hypothetical) pre-capitalist form of production where practices of simple commodity production and exchange were predominant. Others have suggested these chapters should be read as an ideal type – perhaps the first of many ideal types introduced in Capital – which attempts to bring readers gradually into a better understanding of capitalism proper, by means of more or less adequate abstractions or models that approximate aspects of capitalist production, but in a deliberately simplified way, with the intention of complicating and adding nuance to these abstractions in later chapters. Still others have read these chapters as a depiction of an illusion – as a portrayal of an ideology, a fable that some members of capitalist society tell themselves, in order to cover over the reality of class exploitation with a veneer of equality and freedom. And finally, some have argued that these opening chapters already place the reader into the thick of Marx’s analysis of full-blown capitalism, and should therefore be considered neither as an account of an ideological veil, nor as conceptual approximation, nor as a quick foray into pre-capitalist history, but simply as the beginning of Marx’s analysis of capitalism.

While the basis for my own position can only be developed fully in the chapters to come, I can foreshadow at the outset that I side with the final interpretation – the one that sees the opening passages in Capital as already engaged in the analysis of fully-developed capitalist production. In this thesis, I explore the reasons for this stance, by attempting to render plausible an interpretation of Capital as a reflexive critical theory. In the chapters to come, I put forward a case that Capital provides an anti-essentialist, deflationary, pragmatist account of how the everyday social practices associated with the production of capital generate particular qualitative characteristics in humans and in other objects with whom humans interact, as unintended side effects not deliberately sought out by the social actors engaged in the various moments of the production of capital.

In my reading, Capital advances its argument by progressively analysing new dimensions of social experience, gradually identifying specific perspectives from which it becomes possible to see how particular qualitative characteristics are conferred on humans and other objects through determinate forms of practice. This pragmatist account is deflationary and anti-essentialist because it does not presuppose that humans and other objects intrinsically possess the characteristics being analysed, but rather seeks to show how such characteristics are produced in historically specific kinds of practical interaction. This theoretical strategy suggests the contingency of the characteristics it analyses, and thereby points to the possibility for transformation: if a given characteristic can be shown to arise in particular kinds of interactions, an alteration in the form of those interactions could be expected to abolish or significantly alter the expression of the original characteristics. At the same time, this strategy provides the resources to convict other forms of analysis of essentialism to the extent that they presuppose that specific characteristics are intrinsic to human nature, social life, or material reproduction, when Marx’s strategy can demonstrate the practical origins of the characteristics other forms of theory presuppose. By showing how particular characteristics – of people, material objects and processes, social relations, etc. – are generated, Capital seeks to demonstrate the transient, contingent, historical character of elements of social experience that are simply presupposed as given by political economy and other forms of theory – and thus to expose much more of our social experience to critique and political contestation.

I. Reflexive Critical Theory: a Few Definitions

I have characterised Marx’s theory above as a reflexive critical theory. Some quick definitions may be in order, to clarify how I understand these terms. The notion of a reflexive critical theory – as developed particularly within Hegelian Marxist theoretical traditions – picks out a kind of analysis that attempts to show how the object being criticised immanently generates a “standpoint of critique” in the form of specific kinds of potentials for emancipatory transformation. A reflexive critique of capitalist production, for example, would seek to demonstrate how the same sorts of practices that reproduce this form of production, also and necessarily reproduce specific potentials to transform the productive process in particular ways so as to open up determinate possibilities to achieve more emancipatory ends. By citing these possibilities, and comparing their potential results with the results of capitalist production, the theory can unfold immanent standards for judging capitalist production and finding it wanting. In Benjaminian terms, a reflexive critical theory seeks to make our current history “citable in all its moments”, unearthing truncated and abridged practical potentials that are currently generated as fleeting moments within some dimension of social practice, and then arguing that these moments form so many seeds around which transformative practices could crystallise – or, to use Marx’s image from the Grundrisse, so many mines with which to explode contemporary society (159).

By “grounding” itself on such practical potentials – by deriving its standpoint of critique immanently from within the object it seeks to criticise – a reflexive critical theory attempts to avoid two problems that often confront other forms of critical theory: the problem of “theoretical pessimism”, and the problem of “utopian” critique. “Pessimistic” theories are those that – while they might judge an aspect of social experience to be wanting based on external standards of how that aspect “ought” to be – cannot identify a practical potential to transform that aspect of social experience in order to bring about a situation that would more completely realise some particular ideal. “Utopian” theories, by contrast, are those that – perhaps unwittingly – advocate self-contradictory kinds of transformation – demanding, for example, that a particular set of social practices be abolished, while also insisting that particular social institutions be reproduced, without realising that the institutions to be preserved depend on the practices to be abolished. Marx pours great energy – in Capital and in other works – into the critique of “utopian” forms of socialism; the risk of theoretical pessimism, by contrast, is likely to be much more visible to those of us on this side of history. Regardless, the same moves that enable a reflexive critical theory to ground its own standpoint of critique in practical potentials immanent to the aspect of social experience being criticised, also enable a critique of both pessimistic and utopian approaches to critical theory.

Historically, most attempts to analyse Marx as a reflexive critical theorist have bound their analysis to a notion that capitalism must be understood as a form of social life (rather than a form of production or an aspect of a potentially broader social experience), as well as to the notion that capitalism is in some respect a “totality” – a system whose moments mutually reinforce and determine one another, so that each individual moment receives its identity in and through its relation to the whole.

In this thesis, I walk a slightly different line. First, although I do think that Marx derives a standpoint of critique immanently from his analysis of the production of capital, I do not believe that, for Marx’s analysis to “work”, the production of capital needs to be understood as the sole or even the primary process constitutive of modern societies – a position articulated, for example, in Lukács’ notion that the commodity-form can be made to “yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them” (Lukács 1968, 83). For purposes of my analysis, a much more modest goal suffices: that it is possible to cite moments of the production of capital that demonstrate the practical potential to transform aspects of social experience in emancipatory ways. This goal can be achieved without denying that other forms of analysis – citing still further emancipatory potentials, in very different dimensions of social practice – can provide equally promising launching points for a critical theory. The analysis I offer below therefore should not be understood as a kind of theoretical land grab, seeking to seize the high ground from which all emancipatory possibilities can be surveyed, but simply as one attempt to cite a particular set of possibilities that emerge in a specific dimension of collective practice.

Second, although I do think that Marx deploys elements of a Hegelian notion of totality to make sense of specific aspects of the production of capital, I argue below that Marx does so in an unusual way – with the aim of calling attention to the possibility to disaggregate the various component practices that are currently suspended into a particular kind of aggregate assemblage, interaction or relation. In Marx’s analysis, the component moments of a relation possess their own particular consequences, implications and potentials, even as these moments are also shaped by their relations with other moments and with the overarching interaction that binds all moments contingently to one another. This kind of analysis allows Marx to paint a picture of a profoundly multifaceted, conflictual, layered, and multidimensional social process that immanently generates a diverse range of perspectives from which the process may be viewed, each of which is associated with diverse practical potentials which could be developed into new forms of collective life. It also allows him to differentiate the current consequences of a particular aggregation of social practices, from the very different consequences the disaggregated social practices might generate, if only they could be suspended into different configurations. By attempting to cite the various moments of this complex configuration, exploring the diversity of potentials embedded within this conflictual, precarious and contingent unity, Marx assembles a standpoint of critique that is grounded in the diverse potentials generated by the component moments of an overarching assemblage – potentials whose existence can then be cited in an immanent critique directed against the ways that the current assemblage constrains, truncates and abridges the potentials we realise.

In hunting through the component moments of the production of capital to identify potentials that can be cited for the critique of the whole process, Marx unearths more than simply opportunities to reorganise material production into new forms: he also analyses the ways in which the production of capital incubates values, political ideals, dispositions, forms of embodiment, and habits of perception and thought – including those mobilised in the core categories of the critical theory itself, such as the categories of history, society, and the material world. Marx’s critical theory, in other words, does not simply presuppose the categories it will mobilise in its own analysis – it does not assume that are universally given phenomena – whether called “society” or “history” or a “material world” – that possess self-evident and well-understood qualities, and that can then be deployed as the foundation for an historical materialist critique of capitalist societies. Instead, each of these categories – as well as more concrete categories, including particular understandings of material production and specific political ideals – is derived in the course of the analysis of the production of capital – which is thereby demonstrated to be a process that provides social actors with opportunities for everyday practical engagement with phenomena whose qualitative characteristics resemble those we intuitively attribute to “history”, “society” or “materiality”. This derivation takes the form of demonstrating how specific elements of practical experience generate suggest the possibility for specific categories – not as purely conceptual constructions, but as ideal moments that arise in the course of specific forms of practical engagements that link together humans and other objects into historically bounded kinds of interactions.

This thesis is by no means the first work to suggest – or to attempt seriously to develop the claim – that Marx can be read as a reflexive critical theorist of capitalist society. The impulse to see at least elements of this kind of reflexive theory – understood as a social theoretic adaptation of elements of Hegel’s work – dates back at least to Lukács, flows through the first generation Frankfurt School, and is strongly represented in the work of contemporary theorists such as Christopher Arthur, Patrick Murray, Bertell Ollman, and – most directly – Moishe Postone. This thesis derives much of its programmatic impulse from such work – but is also driven by the sense that, at specific junctures distinctive to each author, contemporary attempts to understand Marx as a reflexive critical theorist fall short, missing important opportunities to cast light on how Marx accounts for the practical genesis of the critical ideals to which his work appeals.

From the perspective of the interpretation I put forward in this thesis, most of these missed opportunities arise from the text’s peculiarly conflictual presentation of the ontological status of the very earliest categories introduced in Capital – a presentation that leaves uncertain the ontological status of both the apparently transhistorical, “material” categories such as use-value, concrete labour, and the labour-process, and also the overtly “social” categories of exchange-value, abstract labour, and the valorisation process. In my reading, Capital‘s opening chapters are stacked against the reader in a very specific way – presenting extremely unusual interpretive challenges due to a distinctive and cryptic textual strategy that I explore in some detail in the chapters below. My decision to focus such attention on the earliest chapters of Capital in this thesis is driven largely by the sense that these chapters are particularly difficult to parse, largely because much of the substantive argument in these chapters relies on subtle shifts in voicing and on a very tacit narrative arc that is not explicitly declared. In order to unpack the substantive argument that is made in and through these complex presentational gestures, this thesis draws on analytical resources more commonly associated with the interpretation of literary texts than with the sort of sociological analysis that is presented here. When Marx declares that he views Capital as “an artistic whole”, unfortunately for his readers he means this point all too literally, and thus constructs a text whose interpretation requires the reader to keep close track of plot lines, narrative arcs, internal references, voicing, mood, tone and other “literary” conventions. As a result, attempting to read Capital as a straightforward or linear presentation of a sociological argument in the style of other foundational works of classic sociological theory, will unfortunately lead to significant misreadings of the sociological, anthropological, and economic claims of the text. I therefore spend considerable time in the chapters below drawing attention to stylistic gestures and unpacking the presentational strategies of the text – not in order to analyse these elements in their own right, but because I think that the text’s substantive claims are much easier to grasp if its stylistic idiosyncracies are at all times kept firmly in view.

The meaning of these claims will be difficult to clarify without jumping into the thick of the analysis. For purposes of this introduction, it may be helpful, however, for me to provide a brief foretaste of the argument to come, by providing a specific example of how the text can be very difficult to parse. I have stated above that I see Marx as a reflexive critical theorist – one who attempts to ground all of the major categories on which his theory relies – including quite “foundational” categories, such as the categories of history, or society or the material world – by demonstrating how such categories are generated in practice, as ideal expressions of determinate – but transient – aspects of our collective experience. Because so many good contemporary interpretations of Marx set out with similar programmatic claims – intending to interpret Marx as a reflexive critical theorist of capitalist society – it may appear that this would be an “obvious” way to read Capital. Defending this sort of reading textually, however, is in reality quite complex – in large part because, on its face, many passages in Capital do not appear to be making this sort of reflexive argument at all. In fact, important passages of text seem directly to contradict the notion of reflexivity by appealing to categories that appear to be so abstract and general that they seem on their face designed to transcend any particular form of social life. These apparently socially transcendent categories – categories that seem on their face to span all human history and therefore to be socially non-specific – are presented explicitly in the text as material categories that pick out the intrinsic qualitative properties that inhere in material objects or material processes, whether or not some particular human society recognises that such qualities exist. It is initially unclear what such categories could contribute to a reflexive critical theory – or how the claim that Capital puts forward a reflexive theory can be reconciled with the prominence of such categories in the text. As a preliminary indication of the kind of analysis I will be putting forward in thesis, I want first to highlight a few of these problematic passages of the text, and then suggest how such passages can be reconciled with others that more directly suggest that Marx regards all the categories of his analysis – including the ones initially presented as decontextualised, socially transcendent, “material” categories – as categories that are understood to be “socially valid” within particular moments of the historically bounded phenomenon of the production of capital.

II. Historical Materialism?

This interpretive problem arises from the very first paragraph of Capital, which tells us that the category of use-value picks out a phenomenon that can be abstracted from any specific social instantiation:

the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be. (126)

A bit later in the chapter, the sort of labour that produces use-values is described as:

a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself. (133)

In chapter 7, the labour-process that is productive of use-values is likewise described as something that needs to be examined:

independently of any specific social formation. (284)

It is defined in what seems to be a socially decontextualised way, as:

purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live. (288)

To arrive at the characteristics of such a material process, the text tells us, we must specifically disregard social determinations and reflect on the material process as it exists in itself:

We did not, therefore, have to present the worker in his relationship with other workers; it was enough to present man and his labour on one side, nature and its materials on the other. The taste of the porridge does not tell us who grew the oats, and the process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave-owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist, whether Cincinnatus undertakes it in tilling his couple of acres, or a savage, when he lays low a wild beast with a stone. (290-291)

Some of the central categories in Capital therefore appear to be expressly socially non-specific, material categories that abstract from any conditions that are historically bound to some particular kind of human society. Such categories appear to be deducible from the unbiased examination of the material object or process itself – this would seem to be why “we did not, therefore, have to present the worker in his relationship with other workers” to determine their qualitative properties: the ability to deduce categories that transcend particular societies appear to depend on our ability to abstract from the circumstances particular to any specific social context, in order to grasp the character of the material process as it exists in itself, distinct from any specific social form.

These “material” categories are then consistently both paired, and contrasted, with dichotomously-opposed categories that are defined expressly as purely social in character: the categories, for example, of exchange-value, abstract labour, or the valorisation process. This second sort of category seems designed to pick out phenomena that present themselves as directly and overtly social – even if some of these directly and overtly social phenomena also seem, in Marx’s presentation, to have a distinctively “material” cast. To take one prominent example: the socially specific form of labour that Marx begins to analyse in the first chapter of Capital – what he calls “homogeneous” or “abstract” labour – is expressly defined as socially-specific (134, 137). In Marx’s account, this homogeneous labour is productive, not of the material content of use-value, but of the “purely social” content of value, a content into which “not an atom of matter” enters (139). Although expressly an historically specific and social category, homogeneous labour is nevertheless given a definition that, on its face, sounds “material” and abstracted from any specific society – a definition that suggests that this category should be understood in “physiological” terms:

On the one hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labour that it forms the value of commodities. (137)

This “physiological” definition of abstract labour appears to result from a sort of conceptual abstraction – a process of stripping away more specific qualitative properties in order to leave behind a material substratum:

If we leave aside the determinate quality of productive activity, and therefore the useful character of the labour, what remains is its quality of being an expenditure of human labour-power. Tailoring and weaving, although they are qualitatively different productive activities, are both a productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc., and in this sense both human labour. They are merely two different forms of the expenditure of human labour-power… the value of a commodity represents human labour pure and simple, the expenditure of human labour in general. (134-135)

At first glance, then, the text presents us with two sorts of categories: material categories that appear to transcend the boundaries of any specific social and historical context; and social categories that are historically specific, but that, because they pick out the social form of material objects and processes, also have a distinctive “material” cast. These contrasting sets of categories imply that the aim of the text is to differentiate the “genuinely” material categories – the categories that can legitimately be said to transcend the boundaries of any specific society, and that therefore pick out intrinsic and non-transformable elements of material reproduction – from the more bounded categories that capture the historically transient social forms through which material reproduction happens to proceed in capitalist societies alone. This differentiation would then appear to allow critical energies to be channelled away from the genuinely intrinsic, inherent requirements of material reproduction, and mobilised more effectively against historically specific social forms that are transient and therefore politically contestable. Material properties that are actually “everlasting” and “nature-imposed” can thus be left to one side, while political action can focus on transforming properties that material reproduction exhibits in capitalism alone.

Read in this way, the “standpoint of critique” in Capital – the basis for the ideals against which Capital measures capitalist production and finds it wanting – appears to be material reproduction as such, material reproduction as it exists in itself, abstracted from any particular social form. Any aspect of material life that deviates from that transcendent abstraction, is thereby revealed to be an artificial human construct – a product of human practice which is therefore potentially amenable to transformation. According to this reading, Marx’s critique of capitalism is not a fully immanent – and therefore also not a fully reflexive – critique. Instead, the critique of capitalism requires a leap outside capitalism, in the form of an ability to discern what material life is in itself, outside any specific social determination. Marx’s argument is thus no longer understood as an account of how capitalism generates the potential for its own emancipatory transformation from within.

While important passages would seem to support such a reading, contradictory passages of text and lines of argument also exist, running alongside, unsettling and destabilising this interpretation. The analysis of such destabilising gestures forms an important part of the interpretive method deployed in the chapters below. For present purposes, I foreshadow this more developed argument in a very preliminary way, by gesturing to a few examples.

The very first “contradictory” passage actually precedes the introduction of the first “material” category: Capital opens with the claim that the commodity is the elementary form of wealth of a specific kind of society – capitalist society. All of the other categories are then unfolded from this starting point – tacitly embedded within the analysis of one specific social form. This opening implies that there could be something historically and socially specific about the subsequent categories – not simply the categories that present themselves overtly as social – exchange-value, abstract labour, the valorisation process, etc. – but also, perhaps, the categories that seem to defy social classification and appear to describe intrinsic requirements of material reproduction – use-value, concrete labour, the labour-process, etc. In the opening sentence of the first chapter of Capital, this suggestion is only a very faint hint. This hint recurs, however, in different ways at strategic points throughout the text, gaining momentum and analytical weight as Marx’s argument develops. Here I will focus on only a few particularly clear examples.

Toward the end of the first chapter, Marx convicts political economy for treating:

pre-bourgeois forms of the social organization of production… in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions. (175)

Marx appends a footnote to this passage that expands on his meaning by quoting from his critique of Proudhon, published two decades earlier:

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

This passage suggests that the political economists themselves follow a procedure of distinguishing what is genuinely material, from what is contingently social. It also suggests that Marx is deeply critical of such a practice: he sarcastically equates it with claiming divine inspiration – with exceptionalising one’s own position by declaring that, while other perspectives may voice socially and historically bounded stances, your own position uniquely succeeds in leaping outside of history – thus attaining the exceptional status of being “an emanation from God”. The tone of the passage suggests that Marx’s problem runs deeper than just believing that the classical economists erred in the specific properties they attributed to material reproduction: the problem is not that they should have attributed something else, other than what they did attribute; the problem is instead with the whole notion that the characteristics of material reproduction should be grasped ahistorically, as though there were some form of material reproduction that subsists outside of a particular social instantiation. In the more contemporary language I have been using above, Marx is complaining here that the political economists fail to be reflexive – that they fail to subject their own positions to the same analytical processes and evaluative standards that they apply rigorously to the positions they intend to criticise.

A similar point reappears much later in Capital, in one of Marx’s rare explicit methodological comments in this text. At the opening of the chapter on “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry”, Marx mentions definitions of machinery provided by mathematicians and experts in mechanics. Marx quickly dismisses the usefulness of such definitions for economics, specific because they are not sufficiently attentive to history:

From the economic standpoint however, this explanation is worth nothing, because the historical element is missing from it. (493)

A footnote appended to this paragraph provides notes on the method for a “scientific” materialism – a form of materialism which Marx expressly differentiates from the “abstract materialism of natural science” because the latter “excludes the historical process” (ftnt 4, 493-494).

There is some sense, then, in which Marx considers his method distinctive – considers it “scientific” – because it historicises its “materialist” categories in a more fundamental way than do the natural sciences – or political economy. Such programmatic statements suggest that Marx does not intend to adopt a standpoint of critique that transcends the social phenomenon being criticised, and it also implies that he would be critical of the notion of grasping material reproduction as it exists in itself, divorced of any particular social form. Still, it remains unclear how such programmatic stances could be translated into a reflexive historical account of the categories that appear so intrinsically decontextualised with they are introduced in Capital. In what sense would it be possible to historicise a category such as “use-value” or “productive labour”? Such abstract categories appear to be applicable in a very broad way to the widest possible range of human societies: is Marx attempting to bar their application to societies other than our own? Is the claim that we suffering from a kind of illusion when we find it intuitive that at least some elements of material reproduction genuinely are “everlasting and nature-imposed” necessities? Is Marx’s intent to debunk such categories by demonstrating their complicity in the production of capital? Or does he have some way to historicise such abstract categories – providing a kind of contextual account of the emergence of distinctive kinds of decontextualisation?

III. Real Abstractions?

As is often the case with Marx, a quick sidestep to Hegel opens up a better sense of what Marx may be reaching for, with his suggestion of the need for an historical – rather than an abstract and dehistoricised – materialism. Hegel writes in many different contexts on the ways in which abstraction can itself be a form of determinacy. In the opening moments of his Science of Logic, for example, Hegel effects the transition from abstract Being to determinate being, by indicating that the notion of a form of Being stripped of all specific qualities, is a notion that the mind cannot grasp without simultaneously having recourse to the contrasting notion of all of the specific qualities from which abstract Being abstracts. The resultant abstraction therefore subtly – but necessarily – indexes the determinate phenomena from which it abstracts: it is an abstraction from a specific kind of determinacy; as such, it necessarily carries within itself an index to the determinacy from which it abstracts – and must itself therefore be seen as a form of determinacy. In Hegel’s words:

Being is the indeterminate immediate; it is free from determinateness in relation to essence and also from any which it can possess within itself. This reflectionless being is being as it is immediately in its own self alone.

Because it is indeterminate being, it lacks all quality; but in itself, the character of indeterminateness attaches to it only in contrast to what is determinate or qualitative. But determinate being stands in contrast to being in general, so that the very indeterminateness of the latter constitutes its quality. It will therefore be shown that the first being is in itself determinate, and therefore, secondly, that it passes over into determinate being… (130-131, bold text mine)

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel makes a not unrelated point, when analysing the need for immanent standards of critique – standards that arise from the development of the potentials immanent to the object being criticised. Hegel argues that critique must demonstrate an immanent connection to what is being criticised, such that critique does not take the form of a rejection of its object, but rather the form of a development of its object into some new form that renders explicit potentials that were only tacit before. For this reason, Hegel argues that an immanent critique produces a determinate negation of its object – a negation that abstracts away from some specific object, through the immanent development of specific potentials already embedded within that object, so that elements of the object are preserved in the determinacy of the negation. Critique is therefore not the application of external standards of judgement, but rather a specific means through which the potentials of an object can be preserved and further developed in new forms. In Hegel’s words:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes this one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into some abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79)

In this thesis, I begin to make the case that Marx is putting forward such a determinate negation of the production of capital – a critique that takes the form of developing, through the analysis of the production of capital, specific potentials whose further development would enable the creation of alternative forms of collective life. In Marx’s argument, some of these latent potentials are constituted through means that make it plausible for social actors to lose track of their own active (if unintentional) role in the process – thereby coming to view themselves as occupying only a passive, contemplative role in relation to their own creations. As a result, social actors treat themselves as external observers who merely discover what appear to them to be the given, intrinsic properties that material objects and processes have always possessed, in all human societies. They do not recognise themselves as active participants in an interaction with humans and other objects that elicits distinctive qualitative characteristics from both. In my reading, Marx’s argument repositions what, in political economy, are the categories of an abstract and ahistorical “materialism”, onto the terrain of what can legitimately be described as an historical materialism – one oriented to teasing out the “material” properties that humans and other objects genuinely do possess – but only when suspended within a particular interaction. Marx’s analysis is therefore oriented to making explicit how the entire interaction is itself a contingent historical process that can potentially be transformed.

To support this interpretation of Marx’s work, I highlight the textual evidence that all is not as it seems in the overt presentation of this text. I attempt to demonstrate that Capital can be read as a peculiar kind of immanent, deconstructive critique of political economy – as a text that starts from the self-understanding of political economy, speaks immanently, utilising the insights available from within that self-understanding. By exploring this self-understanding in great detail, the text gradually accumulates the resources to show that political economy fails to grasp the historically specific practical basis for the validity of its own categories – and therefore ends up being unable to explain the origins of various qualitative properties that are exhibited by material objects and material processes uniquely in capitalist societies. Unable to explain the practical genesis of these qualities, political economy ends up ontologising them – treating them as inherent in material reproduction as such, and thus as abstracted from any specific social form. By linking these qualities back to the means through which they are generated in practice, Marx convicts political economy of inappropriately presupposing as given – and thereby sheltering from critique – the contingent historical consequences of capitalist production.

In my reading, then, the form of presentation in Capital – including the recourse to apparently decontextualised “material” categories – is designed to mimic the way in which political economy understands its categories. It is political economy that carves elements of social experience into a dichotomy of socially-specific forms and a transcendent material content that is understood to be abstracted from all forms of sociality. Interpretations that treat Marx as endorsing this same form of argument are missing the thrust of his critique of commodity fetishism, and thereby attributing to Marx a fetishised form of analysis he criticises in political economy – a point made effectively by Derek Sayer, whose work provides another of the major influences on the analysis presented here.

In the following chapters, I will show in some detail how, from its very opening moments, Capital undermines and destabilises the dichotomy of transcendent material content and contingent social form. In this introductory chapter, however, I want first to take a step back from that analysis, in order to speak more programmatically about what it would mean to ground a very abstract category like “use-value” or the “labour process” within a pragmatist analysis of how such categories could express the determinate qualitative character of a socially specific phenomenon.

In my reading, Marx sees the “material” categories he puts forward in Capital as the abstractions of a specific society: as abstractions that are initially effected – not in thought alone, operating as a process independent of other dimensions of practice and generating purely conceptual abstractions – but in the form of “real” abstractions effected on the ground in distinctive forms of collective practice. Such real abstractions therefore carry within themselves a particular historical index that makes such abstractions true for the society in which they arise in a different way than they can be said to be true for other societies whose practices did not render similar concepts intuitive to social actors operating in those historical contexts.

While I develop this claim in much greater detail in the chapters to come, I can put forward some preliminary evidence in support of this reading here, to support and anticipate the subsequent argument. In a long reflection published as the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx sketches his analytical strategy far more explicitly than he does in Capital. In this introduction, Marx begins by saying that, when he speaks of production, he always means production in a specific social form. Production does, however, have certain common elements that span all historical periods. These common elements can be validly discussed and applied to the analysis of different human societies:

Production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus saves us repetition. Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations. Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them; however, even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the objects, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten. The whole profundity of those modern economists who demonstrate the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations lies in this forgetting. (Marx 1993, 85)

So far, this passage sounds compatible with the reading I sketched at the start – a reading in which Capital is oriented to carefully sifting through determinations of the production process, differentiating out those determinations that are genuinely transhistorical, from those which are limited to – and therefore capture the historical specificity of – a particular social form of production.

As the text moves forward, however, Marx begins to qualify these early statements, suggesting the ways in which even “rational abstractions” – abstractions which genuinely do capture common elements that span historical eras – should nevertheless be understood as indexed to a specific historical moment. In a section titled “The Method of Political Economy”, Marx explores whether conceptually simpler – more abstract, more general, more apparently decontextualised – categories pick out phenomena that arise earliest in our historical experience. Marx analyses this question with reference to the category labour. In his words:

Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. (103)

The abstraction of labour as such – labour apparently divorced from any particular social form – thus appears both simple and historically originary. Yet Marx immediately argues that the ability to conceptualise labour in this way – the intuitive plausibility of the notion that all sorts of qualitatively different human activities can all be grouped into a common category “labour” – is historically quite new:

Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, “labour” is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction. (103)

Here, suddenly, the register has changed. Marx is no longer speaking about conceptual abstractions, and asking whether we can validly apply these abstractions we manufacture in thought, to specific kinds of phenomena in history. He is speaking instead about abstractions that are somehow created – that are produced by specific kinds of relations. Here he runs through various attempts to conceptualise wealth – a quick intellectual history synopsis that allows him to establish that it has not always been intuitive to link wealth in any way to labour (103-104). This discussion allows Marx to establish the distinctiveness of Adam Smith’s claim that labour as such – rather than labour directed toward the production of some specific thing (agricultural products, gold, etc.) – is productive of wealth. Marx describes Smith’s innovation as an “immense step”, which effects a difficult conceptual transition:

It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system. (104)

At this point, Marx expressly rejects the possibility that this is simply a modern discovery of something that has always been true, but had simply gone unrecognised in early periods. Marx argues instead that the emergence of this new subjective understanding of labour reflects an historical shift in the objective treatment of labouring activities in collective practice:

Now, it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposed a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a kind of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category “labour”, “labour as such”, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society. (104-105)

In this account, the practical experience of a rich variety of qualitatively distinctive labouring activities and – in particular – of the possibility for persons to move indifferently amongst these distinct kinds of activities, provides a sort of experiential matrix that makes labour in general – labour abstracted from any specific qualitative form – intuitive as a conceptual category because it can be experienced as practical category. Practical abstractions that become thinkable to us – intuitive and ready to hand – can then be applied to other contexts with some validity. Nevertheless, such abstractions index our own time, whose practical experiences have made such abstractions a matter of our real, practical experience, rather than an unmotivated leap of decontextualised reason. In terms that echo the quotations from Hegel above, Marx goes on to argue that abstract categories “in the specific character of their abstraction” have their “full validity” only within the historic relations that constitute this abstraction as a practical truth:

This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within those relations. (105)

Marx’s move here is unusual by the standards of many kinds of historicising critiques – which often aim to locate concepts within a specific historic context in order to bound those concepts intrinsically and necessarily to the context in which they arose. Marx’s object is different: he wants to grasp the ways in which concepts possess their practical truth – and therefore their “full validity” – within a particular set of historical relations. Having done this, however, he is not averse to extrapolating from these concepts – the accidental products of past historical development – to see how they can be appropriated – in this case, to cast light on other social organisations of production and, in particular, to reconstruct how earlier organisations of production might have led over time to our own. Marx explores this point by speaking of how bourgeois society itself is not an abstract negation of previous societies, but has instead assembled itself by reconfiguring the historical detritus those earlier societies have left behind, thus creating a number of tacit links that preserve elements of the practical experiences that would have been available to inhabitants of earlier societies, and thereby making certain kinds of historical comparisons intuitive to us:

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society. One can understand tribute, tithe, etc., if one is acquainted with ground rent. But one must not identify them. Further, since bourgeois society is itself only a contradictory form of development, relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form, or even travestied. For example, communal property. (105-106)

Such historical comparisons, however, are offered from the point of view of capitalist societies – whose inhabitants pursue the topics and mobilise the categories that carry intuitive appeal within the context in which the comparison is undertaken. Such comparisons are therefore, as Benjamin might phrase it, “tiger’s leaps” into the past: they are hunts in pursuit of distinctive forms of prey whose scent strikes us as familiar and significant when we detect it in the thickets of the past, precisely because we have already scented this prey in our own time. Marx expresses this point:

Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, stunted, or caricatured form, etc., but always with an essential difference. The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself… it always conceives them one-sidedly. (106)

Immediately after mentioning the risk of a “one-sided” conception of very abstract “material” categories – one that misses the historical index and practical reality of such abstractions – Marx evokes the very same image he uses in the opening chapter of Capital, where he equates the method of political economy with the method of the church fathers:

The Christian religion was able to be of assistance in reaching an objective understanding of earlier mythologies only when its own self-criticism had been accomplished to a certain degree… Likewise, bourgeois economics arrived at an understanding of feudal, ancient, oriental economics only after the self-criticism of bourgeois society had begun. In so far as the bourgeois economy did not mythologically identify itself with the past, its critique of the previous economies, notably of feudalism, with which it was still engaged in direct struggle, resembled the critique which Christianity levelled against paganism, or also that of Protestantism against Catholicism. (106)

Marx then moves to reassert the contextual, historical, social character of even the simple, abstract, apparently decontextual categories he has been considering here. Significantly, he links this issue directly with the order and sequence of the categories as he will present them in his critique of political economy:

In the succession of economic categories, as in any other historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject – here, modern bourgeois society – is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well. This is to be kept in mind because it will shortly be decisive for the order and sequence of the categories. (106)

In the succession of economic categories – in Capital, I suggest, as well as in the Grundrisse – capitalist society is therefore what is given: as, indeed, the opening sentence of Capital suggests. The abstractions operating in the text – however simple, abstract, and possible to generalise to other social forms – possess their practical truth for the first time in capitalist society. This society – given in the head because given in practical reality – provides practical experience of certain kinds of active indifference to the qualitative distinctions that could divide, e.g., specific kinds of use-values, labouring activities, or labour-processes – making it a matter of practical experience that such qualitative distinctions are routinely overridden, such that the apparently generic “material” category is constituted as a category of practice, as a distinctive object of human experience in a directly abstract form. Such real abstractions, in Marx’s argument, are the socially specific practical bases for the historical emergence of the abstract and apparently socially transcendent “material” categories that Capital then contrasts with more overtly social, more transparently historical, categories that reveal their social index more openly. The presentational style adopted in Capital introduces such categories in the decontextual form in which political economy mobilises them – unfolding from this immanent presentation the resources to grasp the practical basis – and therefore the historicity – of even these apparently socially transcendent categories.

Read in this way, Capital is not attempting to carefully differentiate genuinely material categories, from categories that capture only socially specific forms of materiality. Instead, Capital is expressive of what Marx describes above as the “one-sided” perspective that political economy adopts toward its own categories – a perspective in which certain categories appear to be discoveries of intrinsic properties of material objects and processes, uncovered by stripping away socially specific properties. Overtly social properties, in this account, are not the only historical determinations operating in the text: material determinations have their historical sides, as well – as real abstractions, produced through determinate forms of active practical indifference to certain kinds of qualitative specificity that are themselves actively enacted in other dimensions of collective practice. These apparently decontextual “material” categories therefore possess a determinate historical index that constantly points them to the other elements of social experience from which they abstract.

On this reading, Marx’s “historical” materialism – the form of materialism he associates with economics and with a distinctively social “science” – is distinguished by its reflexive character: by its desire not to treat itself as an “emanation from God”, but rather as another accidental insight arising from a practical process that makes available certain concepts and certain practical realities which have the ability to explode capitalism from within. The standpoint of critique does not require a leap outside capitalism: it requires the mining of possibilities that the production of capital generates from within.

IV. Outline of the Thesis

In the chapters to come, I explore the textual basis for this interpretation through a very close reading of the opening chapters of Capital – focussing particularly on the narrative through which Marx derives the category of labour-power, through progressive derivations from the opening category of the commodity. This very focussed textual analysis – supplemented by references to other parts of the text, and to works from Hegel on which Marx draws – provides a basis to consider the method and presentational strategy of Capital in detail, to explore the often extremely subtle gestures through which Marx flags the direction of his argument, and to unpack passages that often seem cryptic or contradictory. Through this close interpretation, I attempt to render plausible the claim that Capital should be seen as a particular kind of reflexive critical theory – one that attempts to link its own foundational concepts – including very abstract concepts such as “material”, “history”, and “society” – with practical processes that render these abstractions intuitive by enacting them in some specific form.

A brief outline of the thesis will provide a sense of how the argument develops from this point.

In chapters 2 and 3, I focus on the opening chapter of Capital, in order to begin to make the textual case that all is not as it initially seems in this text. Chapter 2 provides an outline summary of the first three sections of that opening chapter, drawing attention to parallels between Marx’s text and the opening chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I argue that the narrative arc of the opening chapter of Capital can be read as a subtle spoof of Hegel’s grand drama about how consciousness seeks certainty of object. In Marx’s version, this spoof translates into the more debauched territory of a squabble over how to grasp the wealth of capitalist societies – a crass “materialist” mimicry of Hegel’s grand narrative.

Chapter 3 follows up on this argument, applying some of its insights to interpret Marx’s cryptic and complex argument about commodity fetishism. In this chapter, I develop the textual case for interpreting the commodity fetishism passage as the opening volley in an argument that attempts to demonstrate how certain distinctive forms of materiality have arisen due to historically distinctive kinds of interactions between humans and other objects. I then use this analysis to begin to unpack the standpoint of critique in Capital – a standpoint that, in my reading, does not involve a leap outside of capitalism, to a material world as it exists in itself, but rather an exploration of the alternative forms of collective life that we might be able to create with the sorts of historical and social materials we have inherited from our immediate past. In my reading, the standpoint of critique in Capital is nothing more or other than the accidental potentials we have unintentionally generated in the process of reproducing capital – accidental potentials that can be made more explicit and articulated into forms that make emancipatory transformation more intuitive and thinkable. I see Capital as a particular articulation of these tacit potentials – a systematic exploration of what other kinds of histories we could make from various materials that have been produced by conditions not of our own choosing, but that can be appropriated and adapted to emancipatory ends.

Chapter 4 takes a step back from this detailed textual analysis to ask why Marx might want to adopt such a cryptic presentational strategy – why he might choose to make his major points so elusive and obscure. This analysis requires a detour into Hegel’s Science of Logic, with a particularly close look at Hegel’s methodological discussion in the section titled “With What Must the Science Begin?” I argue that Hegel understands “science” as a reflexive system that organises its categories so as to make explicit all of the necessary relations that connect those categories to one another and thereby determine what those categories are, as they exist in this relation. Where Hegel sees this method as a means to demonstrate the rationality of all moments of his philosophical system, Marx appropriates this method to cast light on a distinctive form of domination reproduced through the production of capital.

Chapters 5 through 8 apply the methodological and interpretive resources developed in the opening chapters, to a very close reading of the difficult and detailed argument that Marx puts forward in chapters 2 and 3 of Capital. By moving backing and forth between a close reading of short sections of text, and a more panoptic view of the strategy of Capital as a whole, I attempt to show how passages that have traditionally been read as “materialist” in what Marx would call a more abstract way – passages that seem to presuppose the metaphysical primacy of economic or material factors in social experience – can instead be interpreted as historically specific, anthropological determinations of partial aspects of the production of capital. At the same time, I begin to demonstrate the way in which our understanding of the opening categories of Capital progressively changes as the text first identifies, and then explores, additional perspectives from which the production of capital can be viewed. I also track a largely subterranean narrative arc through which Marx gradually assembles the resources for a pragmatist critique and appropriation of Hegel’s method.

In chapter 9, I explore how Marx opens the wedge through which he will eventually drive the category of labour-power, by analysing a key aporia that arises when political economy attempts to treat commodity circulation as an autonomous, self-contained, and independent social process. This chapter sets up for the analysis, in chapter 10, of the category of labour-power: a category that, in my reading, reacts back on our understanding of the opening chapters of Capital, revealing explicitly that categories that had seemed to relate only to external objects, and only to intrinsic properties of material objects and processes, are in fact categories that were always already intended to apply to human subjects – and thus to pick out distinctive dispositions, forms of embodiment, habits of perception and thought, and other “subjective” phenomena. At the same time, this chapter reinforces and renders explicit the historical and social specificity of the categories introduced earlier in the text. This final substantive chapter of the thesis collects together the major insights from the previous chapters, and shows how these insights can be mobilised to achieve a fresh understanding of the opening chapters of Capital, once the category of labour-power has been explicitly derived.

As will be discussed particularly in chapter 4, Capital only gradually accumulates resources to make explicit its own substantive claims – a process that continues across the whole of the work, into chapters and subsequent volumes that will not be analysed in detail here. This thesis instead remains largely within the ambit of the opening six chapters of Capital, with only occasional forays into later chapters to foreshadow how the text will eventually develop, where overleaping the order of Marx’s presentation is necessary in order to clarify why I interpret certain early passages in particular ways. As a result, I will not be able to explore many analytically central developments within the text, and I will be able to make only a suggestive and preliminary case for some of my claims about the argumentative aims of Capital as a whole. These limitations are the necessary flip side of the strengths of this thesis – whose bounded focus on the opening chapters of Capital makes is possible to explore the textual evidence that sociological interpretations of Capital would benefit from keeping the more “literary” aspects of the text clearly in view, and then leaves the space to mobilise this reading strategy to develop a complex and nuanced interpretation of the ontological status of the phenomena that concern the opening chapters of this text. In this reading, the early categories of Capital emerge as “real abstractions” – as categories that arise in thought because they possess a “practical truth” within particular moments of the production of capital. These categories are therefore not conceptual abstractions – not ideal types or rough approximations; they are not depictions of pre-capitalist societies; and they are not ideologies or illusions to be brushed aside: they are categories that pick out partial and one-sided elements of the production of capital. The opening chapters of Capital explore these categories in order to begin the process of linking them with transient dimensions of collective practice, and in order to demonstrate that the categories themselves already betray their one-sided and partial character – pointing to the need to situate the phenomena to which these categories most directly refer, within a much more complex and diverse sort of interaction, whose component moments provide a practical anchor for a universe of practical potentials, only some of which are “cited” fully – are developed and expressed to a significant extent – by the production of capital. By slowing unspooling the complex and diverse elements of social practice that are required to secure the production of capital, the text reveals a dense and multivalent matrix of untapped practical potentials – and, in the process, grounds its own standpoint of critique. The following chapters are designed to indicate how this process begins to unfold – taking as its case study the development of the argument put forward in the first six chapters of Capital.


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