Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

This coming Friday, I have to fulfil a mandatory pre-submission requirement for the thesis that basically involves presenting on the structure and the major claims of the thesis, and then taking questions from faculty and students who happen to attend the event. The faculty who attend are provided with the abstract, first chapter, and table of contents for the thesis – unless they are actual supervisors, they are unlikely to have read anything else. The students who attend are not, to my knowledge, supplied with anything. Presumably they are either friends of the presenters, and therefore know their work through that connection, or they are simply there to see what this hurdle requirement entails. The purpose of the requirement is to provide a sort of check and balance on the supervision process – making it less likely that theses will be sent out for examination (which, here, is an entirely external process) when they are likely to require major amendments or not to pass.

If any readers from my university would like to attend, the event will be held in the Research Lounge from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday 27 February. There will be four or five of us presenting and taking questions – each of us with an hour to ourselves. I don’t know as of yet which hour is mine. If this matters, send me an email, and I’ll let you know when and if I find out…

Since the introduction I recently posted to the blog was mainly a placeholder – and one that was specifically not very well-designed, I didn’t think, for people who weren’t going to read the rest of the thesis – I have rewritten it for purposes of distribution to the staff who will be attending this event. I think it’s much better than the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, so, to satisfy my archivalist impulses, I’ve posted it below the fold. As before, it still needs a lot of detail work (and footnotes have been stripped from the blog version), but as an overarching introduction it does a much better job – I think – of preparing the reader for the sort of thesis they are about to read, the terminology used in the thesis, and the style of argument the thesis makes. I think…

I belong to the first group of students to whom this presentation requirement has been applied, so the groundrules for the event – and what you have to do to “pass” – are still a bit unformed. I’m not expecting any major dramas, but who knows… I’ll let folks know next week…

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

1 – Historical Materialism, Real Abstraction, Social Deconstruction

This thesis makes the case that the introductory chapters of the first volume of Marx’s Capital: a Critique of Political Economy (hereafter, just Capital) are written in such a way as to progressively destabilise the claims with which the text explicitly opens – in particular, claims that assert firm ontological boundaries between subjective and objective, historical and transhistorical, or social and material phenomena. The thesis begins with the introduction of the category of the commodity in Capital’s first chapter, and ends with the derivation of the category of labour-power in Capital’s chapter 6, focussing along the way on how the text gradually assembles the resources to deconstruct from within the apparent stability of its opening ontological distinctions.

To demonstrate how these deconstructive strategies play out in the text, the thesis devotes much of its interpretive energy to very close readings of small passages – often moving sentence-by-sentence to unpack the steps and to explore the implications of the argument in some detail. These close readings mobilise what must initially be treated as a working hypothesis: that Capital can be read as progressively deconstructing its own opening claims. This working hypothesis is then gradually justified by showing how it becomes possible to make sense of apparently cryptic and conflictual passages of text, if we assume that this complex, destabilising textual strategy is in play. By exploring the consequences of our working hypothesis – by seeing the interpretive conclusions to which this hypothesis leads – we can therefore progressively make the case for its validity, both by demonstrating its power in making sense of important and murky aspects of the text, and also by showing how it reveals, within Marx’s work, strikingly relevant theoretical resources for contemporary critical theory.

In addition to the evidence assembled by exploring the consequences of our working hypothesis, this thesis also brings forward two other kinds of supplementary evidence that support the claim that Capital should be read as a self-deconstructing text. One line of supporting evidence derives from an analysis of Marx’s complex relationship to Hegel – explored here mainly with reference to how specific passages in Capital mimic the style and the method of sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic. A second line of supporting evidence derives from an evaluation of Marx’s rare explicit methodological reflections, as presented in the first volume of Capital and in other works. These lines of supporting evidence provide more conventional, explicit demonstrations that Marx has something like our working hypothesis in mind, when he sets about developing the textual strategies in play in Capital. All three lines of evidence are introduced in a preliminary and schematic way in the early chapters, and then developed in tandem as the thesis progresses.

The proof of this argument, however, lies mainly in the reading: while supplemental evidence is interesting in suggesting that Marx intentionally adopted the presentational strategies the thesis attributes to his text, the principal focus of the thesis is not on Marx’s authorial intention, but rather on the form of the argument – on what the text of Capital does in practice. For brevity of expression, the thesis will often speak in terms of Marx’s intent. The object of analysis, however, is not Marx, but Capital – and the arguments put forward here are concerned, not with discerning Marx’s true intentions, but with breathing life into theoretical resources within Capital that can assist in the construction of a deflationary, anti-essentialising critique of capitalist production in the present time.

Because of its focus on Capital’s deconstructive presentational strategy, this thesis takes much more literally than most other interpretations of Capital, Marx’s claim that he sought to compose the text as a “dialectically articulated artistic whole” (Marx 1865). To unpack the sociological claims being put forward in Capital, the thesis pays close attention to elements of textual strategy that would normally be more central to the interpretation of “literary” works, including voice and mood, imagery and metaphor, perspective and narrative arc. While such matters may seem “merely” stylistic, a central contention of this thesis is that Capital is a text almost uniquely devoted to communicating its substantive arguments by means of its presentational style. As a result, the substance of Marx’s argument is very likely to be overlooked, once that substance is abstracted from the style in which it is presented. This thesis therefore concentrates on illustrating how Capital is shot through with stylistic gestures that subtly destabilise and undermine the claims set out explicitly in the main text. Where these stylistic gestures are overlooked, the result is very likely to be a deep confusion between positions the text “performs” overtly, and a very different kind of substantive argument the text enacts on a much more subterranean level, which takes the form of demonstrating how the positions that have been overtly enacted, are not as self-contained and stable as their initial enactment suggests. Close attention to Capital’s style thus rewards the reader with a sense of how the text constantly destabilises and undercuts the positions that are explicitly put forward – a presentational strategy consonant with the claim that the production of capital is itself a contradictory process whose potentials do not all point in a single, monovocal direction.

In this reading, such destabilising gestures form an integral part of an argument that attempts to provide a deflationary, pragmatist account of phenomena that are often treated by other forms of theory as unexplained explainers – as “givens”, or “data”. Presentationally, as this thesis will show, Capital begins from the standpoint of approaches that are willing to invoke such unexplained explainers in their own attempts to make sense of the wealth of capitalist societies. Such approaches, however, do not express the perspective Capital itself intends ultimately to endorse: instead, such approaches should be understood as expressing one-sided and partial perspectives on the production of capital – and, thus, as illustrating the targets of Capital’s critique. The destabilising, undercutting gestures that are so common in the early chapters of Capital, signal to the reader that all is not as it seems – that the argument unfolding overtly in the main text will not be the final word on the production of capital.

As Capital develops, the text gradually accumulates the resources needed to show that it is possible to account for the practical genesis of phenomena that the opening perspectives treat as given. By accounting for the genesis of such phenomena, Capital reveals that its own opening passages treated the contingent and transient results of human practices in a mystified and metaphysical way – as sui generis properties inherent in either material objects and processes, technology, human nature, or social life, rather than as properties that material things, humans, and social processes possess because we collectively constitute such properties by engaging in determinate forms of interaction. In this way, Capital seeks to expose to critique and political contestation dimensions of social experience that are treated as given and uncontestable by other forms of theory.

While the thesis thus relies on – and makes a case for – an overarching interpretation of Capital as a whole, it can most directly be read as a contribution to the ongoing debate over the status of Capital’s opening chapters. These chapters have proved vexing for commentators – in part because Marx provides no explicit methodological direction as to how they should be read in relation to the text as a whole, and in part because the overt subject-matter of these early chapters seems far removed from the explicit discussions of large-scale industrial mass production that occupy Capital’s later chapters.

As a result, some commentators have dismissed these chapters outright, viewing them as an unfortunate holdover from Marx’s Hegelian education, which at best offer nothing substantive to his analysis of capitalism, and at worst send him down a false path from which he only partially recovers. Other commentators – including, conspicuously, Engels – have attempted to understand these early chapters as descriptions of a (real or hypothetical) pre-capitalist form of production where practices of simple commodity exchange were predominant. Others have suggested these chapters should be read as an ideal type, rough approximation, or simplified model – perhaps the first of many introduced in Capital – which begins in a deliberately simplified way, with the intention of complicating and adding nuance to these models 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. 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, not as a mistake, an account of an ideological veil, a simplified model, nor 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 I side with a range of interpreters of Marx’s argument, from the classical readings of Georg Lukács and I. I. Rubin, through to more contemporary interpretations by authors such as Christopher Arthur, Patrick Murray, Bertell Ollman, Moishe Postone, and Derek Sayer. Each of these authors understands Capital – from its opening sentences – to be concerned with the analysis of fully-developed capitalist production, even though the early chapters do not seem to refer to the sorts of large-scale, mechanised, industrial production that Capital analyses in its later chapters. These authors therefore understand Marx to be developing a fundamentally historicising form of theory – one that treats it own categories as historically specific to the form of production that it criticises and that does not seek to leap outside its own historical moment to develop a more general theory of human society.

I. Grounding Critique in the Gap Between the Material and the Social

Even within these historicising interpretations of Marx’s work, however, it is common practice to understand Marx’s categories as divided into two kinds: “social” categories that are genuinely specific to capitalism; and “material” categories that transcend the specificity of any particular social context and express features that material production would possess for any human community. When Marx’s categories are understood in this way, it becomes reasonable to understand Marx’s standpoint of critique – the perspective from which his theory judges capitalist production and identifies a potential for emancipatory transformation – as grounded in the perspective provided by the “material” categories that transcend any particular social form. Under such an interpretation, access to socially transcendent “material” categories creates a necessary non-identity between social actors and the context those actors inhabit, providing critical distance that opens the context to critique and political contestation. In this sense, even historicising interpretations of Marx’s work often ground the possibility of critique and political contestation on the ability to reach outside the social and gain access to a socially transcendent material perspective that is intrinsically irreducible to any particular society, and therefore seems to provide a firm ontological anchor for critical distance from any specific social form. In this section, I will briefly illustrate this point by showing how this conception of critical standpoint manifests itself in the work of the three contemporary theorists whose interpretations of Marx are otherwise closest to my own: Patrick Murray, Moishe Postone, and Derek Sayer.

In Marx’s Theory of Scientific Knowledge, Patrick Murray describes Marx as “one of the most methodologically self-reflective thinkers in the history of science” (1988: 109) – a status he links to Marx’s “[a]ttention to the practical, historical rootedness of the concepts of science, as well as the values which guide it”. For Murray, Marx’s attention to the historical basis of his categories “distinguishes Marx’s theory of scientific knowledge from any positivist version” (xx). Yet Murray also characterises Marx’s reflexive method in terms of an epistemological turn back behind Hegel, to what Murray characterises as a form of Kantian naturalism. This naturalistic epistemology manigests itself, in Murray’s reading, in the way Marx distinguishes socially transcendent, “general abstractions” – what I am calling “material” categories above – from “determinate abstractions” such as value or abstract labour, which are specific to capitalist production. This move allows Marx to ground what Murray describes as a “naturalist” epistemology:

Finally, we can see a direct relationship between Marx’s distinction between general and determinate abstractions and his reinstatement of epistemology. Marx’s distinction is tailored to a naturalistic position. Marx uses general abstractions in his science of capitalist society in order to call attention to the natural presuppositions of capitalist society. Indeed, the tenability of naturalism, and, in particular, naturalist epistemology would seem to require a distinction such as that between general and determinate abstractions. Otherwise it is difficult to see how one can maintain the epistemological reflection on the nonidentity of the way of thought with actuality. (128)

Murray therefore understands Marx’s standpoint of critique – the way Marx accounts for the “non-identity of the way of thought with actuality” or, in more everyday language, the way Marx identifies potentials for capitalism to be transformed – to be grounded in the contrast between capitalism’s “natural presuppositions” – presuppositions which capitalism shares with all other forms of production – and presuppositions that are merely social. Murray argues that:

By distinguishing general categories such as useful labour, instrument of production, and landed property – Marx penetrated the apparent naturalness and fairness of the capitalist economy. In so doing, he expanded the political horizon beyond the bounds set by liberal theory to include the prospect of a postcapitalist society, one in which value, capital, wage-labor, and landed property would have no place. Furthermore, it was by distinguishing wealth (a general category) from value (a determinate one) that Marx disclosed the latent bourgeois principles of the Gotha Programme of the German socialists. When the Gotha Programme declared labor to be the source of all wealth, rather than of value, it slipped into bourgeois idealism (akin to Hegel) which ascribes ‘supernatural creative power’ to labor and ignores the natural conditions of all wealth. (xviii)

In other words, for Murray it is the socially transcendent, historically general, “material” categories, rather than the socially specific ones, that offer a perspective from which the transformation of capitalism becomes thinkable to social actors. By stepping outside of social specificity, and into the perspective provided by our awareness of historically non-specific requirements of material reproduction, it becomes possible to recognise the horizon of our specific social.

While Murray makes this point quite overtly, the same interpretation can be tacitly present even in analyses that programmatically present Marx as a thoroughly immanent critic of capitalist society – as a theorist who understands the “non-identity of the way of thought with actuality” to be generated internally within capitalism itself. Moishe Postone is perhaps the most committed of all the recent interpreters of Marx to the historical immanent and reflexivity of Marx’s critique. Postone’s programmatic statements in his seminal Time, Labor, and Social Domination clearly set out the claim that Marx’s categories are specific to capitalist society and are designed as part of an immanent critique, rather than as part of a theory that measures capitalist production with reference to external or socially transcendent normative standards. Postone thus argues:

Marxian theory should be understood not as a universally applicable theory but as a critical theory specific to capitalist society… Moreover, the Marxian theory, according to this approach, is self-reflexive and, hence, is itself historically specific: its analysis of the relation of theory to society is such that it can, in an epistemologically consistent manner, locate itself historically by means of the same categories with which it analyzes its social context. (1996: 5)

Postone suggests that, unlike Murray, he does not regard Marx as advancing a “naturalist” quasi-Kantian epistemology, but rather as adopting a much more Hegelian strategy – attempting to construct an immanent reflexive critique, which seeks to transcend its object by developing – immanently from within that object – potentials that point beyond the object in its present form (138-144). Postone develops this point by analysing the implications of Marx’s decision to start Capital with an historically specific category – that of the commodity:

The move from a transhistorical to a historically specific point of departure implies the need for a new, self-reflexive sort of social critique. Its standpoint cannot be located transhistorically or transcendentally. In such a conceptual framework, no theory – including Marx’s – has absolute, transhistorical validity. The impossibility of an extrinsic or privileged theoretical standpoint is not to be contravened implicitly by the form of the theory itself. For that reason, Marx now feels compelled to construct his critical presentation of capitalist society in a rigorously immanent fashion, analyzing that society on its own terms, as it were. The standpoint of critique is immanent to its social object; it is grounded in the contradictory character of capitalist society, which points to the possibility of its historical negation. (140)

Such programmatic claims would seem to call for an approach that interprets Marx’s categories as thoroughly historically specific, requiring no leap outside current social conditions in order to ground the possibility for critique and political contestation.

In practice, however – and in contrast to the implications of his own programmatic claims – Postone puts forward an analysis that operates very similarly to Murray’s. Postone thus freely appeals to historically general categories of concrete labour and material wealth, which are presented explicitly in his text as transhistorical categories that transcend capitalist society. Like Murray, Postone argues that, in capitalism, these general categories become enmeshed with historically and socially specified categories such as value and abstract labour. As in Murray’s analysis, Postone presents this enmeshment as leading to an inaccurate conflation of historically and socially specific phenomena with phenomena that are socially transcendent – thus naturalising and shielding from critique the socially specific aspects of capitalist production. In Postone’s words:

This naturalization of abstract domination is reinforced by the overlapping of two very different sorts of necessity associated with social labor. Labor in some form is a necessary precondition – a transhistorical or “natural” social necessity – of human social existence as such. This necessity can veil the specificity of commodity-producing labor – that, although one does not consume what one produces, one’s labor is nevertheless the necessary social means of obtaining products to consume. This latter necessity is a historically determinate social necessity. (The distinction between these two sorts of necessity is important for understanding Marx’s conception of freedom in postcapitalist society, as will become clear.) Because the specific social mediating role played by commodity-producing labor is veiled, and such labor appears as labor per se, these two sorts of necessity are conflated in the form of an apparently valid transhistorical necessity: one must labor in order to survive. Hence, a form of social necessity specific to capitalism appears as the “natural order of things”. This apparently transhistorical necessity – that the individual’s labor is the necessary means to their (or their family’s) consumption – serves as the basis for a fundamental legitimating ideology of the capitalist social formation as a whole, throughout its various phases. (161, bold text mine)

In spite of the programmatic claims about the immanence and reflexivity of Marx’s theory, Capital is thus presented as relying on the strategy of disentangling what is specific to capitalist society, from what is genuinely inherent in material production. Categories such as “labor per se” or “material wealth” are presented as socially non-specific and historically general, and therefore as capable of showing social actors how it is possible to transcend capitalism by constructing a form of production that is not based on value, abstract labour and capital. Postone thus cashes out his programmatic declarations about the historicity of Marx’s categories, only with reference to the categories that Postone regards as the targets of Marx’s critique: categories like value, abstract labour, and capital, which Postone regards as specific to capitalist society and therefore as historically bounded. The standpoint of Marx’s critique, however, is conceptualised in much the same manner as what Murray openly characterises as naturalistic Kantianism: as ultimately grounded in the capacity to distinguish clearly between socially specific, and socially transcendent, forms of wealth and labour. Programmatically, Postone argues that Marx identifies an immanent potential for transformation generated with capitalist production. When Postone operationalises this claim, however, this immanent potential takes the form of a growing tension between merely social requirements of capitalist production, and the potentials that could be released if production were reorganised along the lines suggested by its strictly material dimensions. In its culmination, Postone’s argument therefore presents socialism as the realisation – not of immanent tendencies specific to capitalism – but of the potentials suggested by a socially transcendent, material category:

Socialism, then, cannot be understood as a society with a different mode of appropriating and distributing the same form of social wealth, based on the same form of production; instead, it is determined conceptually as a society in which social wealth has the form of material wealth. (397)

In practice, Postone’s argument thus grounds critique in a gap between material and social requirements of production – much as Murray’s analysis also does. For Postone, however, this strategy sits in tension with his programmatic presentation of Capital as an immanent reflexive critique, posing the question of whether Postone’s programmatic representation of Marx’s critique is incorrect, or whether it might be possible to cash out these programmatic claims – through a different understanding of the status of the apparently socially transcendent, “material” categories in Capital.

In places, Postone’s text hints at paths not taken, which could have allowed a more consistent fleshing out of his programmatic claims. In key passages, Postone suggests that what he otherwise treats as “transhistorical or natural social necessity”, could itself be regarded as something that comes into view only from “the standpoint of capitalist society”. Postone’s analysis of the tendency of capitalist production to “secularise” labour and the products of labour, priming conceptions of purely “material” objects and properties, suggests some lines of analysis that could potentially be appropriated to historicise what otherwise appear to be transhistorical abstractions (172-174). Such passages suggest the potential to analyse phenomena that present themselves as transcendently “material”, as instead historical and social – and thus the possibility to view Marx’s categories as not reliant on a firm ontological distinction between “genuinely material” and “merely social” realms. Such passages suggest that it might be possible to account for the practical origins of the material/social dichotomy, by capturing the historical and social basis for both of its sides.

Focussed, however, on the critique of traditional forms of Marxism, Postone does not pursue these hints consistently or develop their implications fully in his text. Instead, when he invokes the notion of Marx as an immanent critic of capitalist society, Postone consistently and immediately moves straight to an analysis of the historical specificity of the categories Capital overtly presents as “social” – leaving aside the question of how it might be possible to offer a similar analysis for the categories Capital presents as “material”. As a result, he does not fully cash out his promising programmatic claims about the immanent, reflexive, historical character of Marx’s categories, in a way that would more clearly differentiate his position from Murray’s “Kantian naturalism”.

What might the analysis have looked like, however, if Postone had pursued the implications of these suggestive passages, and attempted to develop an immanent, reflexive account of Capital’s “material” categories?

As it turns out, both Derek Sayer and Patrick Murray hit upon an important clue for how we might answer this question. Both authors draw attention to an intriguing passage from the Grundrisse where Marx specifically discusses how he understands the social and historical basis for apparently historically general and socially transcendent categories like “labour”. While recognising the implications of this argument, both authors reject the notion that Marx carries this form of analysis over into Capital. In the section below, I first analyse the Grundrisse passage in my own words, in order to unpack how it suggests the possibility that even the categories presented in Capital as referring to socially transcendent, “material” phenomena could be understood as historically and socially specific. I then return to Murray’s and Sayer’s arguments for why the passage is not relevant to the interpretation of Capital. For both authors, the argument hinges on the fact that Capital explicitly describes some of its categories as socially transcendent. This argument, however, might not hold, if Capital can be shown to be a text that progressively deconstructs many of its own overt claims. This possibility – of reading Capital as a self-deconstructing text – is the one I explore in this thesis. In the sections below, I indicate in a preliminary way the kinds of interpretive strategies and theoretical concepts this reading mobilises, as a point of entry for the more detailed analysis provided in the chapters to come.

II. Real Abstractions?

As is often the case with Marx, a quick sidestep to Hegel will help us prepare for what we are about to encounter in Marx’s own text. 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… (Hegel 1969: 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 determinate 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 selected 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. (Hegel 2003: 79, bold text mine)

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 identifying, through the analysis of the production of capital, specific potentials, immanent to the production of capital, 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.

In the reflections published as the introduction to the Grundrisse, 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 interpretations I have sketched above: it seems consonant with a form of analysis that would carefully sift 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 abstractions that we manufacture in thought, to specific kinds of real phenomena we encounter in history. He is speaking instead about abstractions that are somehow created in practice – that are produced as social realities 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 due to our distinctive practical experiences – 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 cited 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. This sort of extrapolation amounts to the immanent development and appropriation of potentials that manifest initially in a particular social and historical context. Having once arisen, however, these potentials can become the raw materials out of which social actors can consciously construct new history. This move – as we shall see in the chapters to come – is central to understanding the standpoint of critique in Capital, if we are to grasp this text as a genuinely immanent critique of capitalist production.

Moving back to the Grundrisse: 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 Walter 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 (Benjamin 1999: 253). 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. (Marx 1993: 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 an image that he will recycle in the opening chapter of Capital: he equates the method of political economy with that 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. The apparently decontextualised “material” categories 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, I suggest, 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, on this reading, 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 abstracted from the historical and social context it analyses, but rather as articulating theoretically, insights that arise 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.

III. Historical Materialism?

As mentioned above, Murray and Sayer draw attention to this same passage from the Grundrisse. Although neither analyses the passage in the detail in which we have explored it above, both authors examine it closely enough to realise that it suggests the possibility to locate, historically and socially, categories that at first glance appear to be intrinsically socially transcendent and historically general. Both authors, however, ultimately reject the suggestion that Marx carries this sort of historicising analysis from the Grundrisse into Capital. Murray is the more dismissive of the two, characterising the Grundrisse discussion as a “murky” attempt to work through to the clear distinction between general and determinate abstractions that Murray believes Marx finally clearly articulates in Capital (Murray 1988: 127-128). Sayer takes much more seriously the idea that there is some perspective from which Marx’s apparently transhistorical categories could be viewed as socially bounded, suggesting the possibility of treating Marx’s “simple categories” as historically specific (Sayer 1983: 31, 88-93, 95-96). Sayer arrives, however, at a position similar to Murray’s, claiming that, certainly by Capital, Marx deploys a “Kantian dialectic” that hinges on Marx’s ability to differentiate clearly between requirements that can said to be genuinely inherent in material reproduction, from the merely social requirements that political economy misrecognises as genuinely material. With the development of this Kantian position, in Sayer’s account, the problematic of how to treat simple abstractions like “labour” disappears from Marx’s work – and, along with it, the suggestion that such simple abstractions might in some meaningful sense be considered socially “real”. Instead, Sayer suggests, while Marx still relies on conceptual abstractions that enable him to grasp the common elements uniting particular forms of practice, Marx himself never treats a simple category like “labour” as real in Capital: in Sayer’s analysis, only complex and concrete instances of labouring practices are “real” – not the simple abstraction of “labour” per se (146-147).

It is easy to understand how Murray and Sayer would draw the conclusion that Marx does not carry forward into Capital this particular set of reflections from the Grundrisse. Capital invites interpretations of this kind, from its very first paragraph, by telling 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. (Marx 1990: 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 the text presents as social – albeit as social phenomena that exhibit 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 socially determinate 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 origin point 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.

This interpretation seems convincing on its face, based on the straightforward meaning of the overt content of the text. But what if Capital does not always mean what the text most overtly says?

IV. Social Deconstruction

While Capital seems on one level quite clear about its firm ontological distinctions between material and social categories, from the very beginning the text also presents passages that seem to undermine these distinctions, unsettling and destabilising the ontological boundaries the text overtly erects. 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 here, by gesturing to a few striking passages that suggest that the text will not fully endorse its opening dichotomies.

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 (125). 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 until, toward the end of the first chapter, the text explicitly convicts political economy for deploying a method similar to that of the Church Fathers:

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.

The language through which Marx makes this point is important. In the Grundrisse passage we analysed above, Marx uses precisely this same imagery – the equation of the method of political economy with that of the Church Fathers – in the context of a discussion of how we might understand the historical and social boundedness of simple and apparently transhistorical categories. The recurrence of this same imagery at the close of the first chapter of Capital suggests that this topic may not have been superseded by the time Marx comes to write Capital. The use of a quotation from his much earlier critique of Proudhon to elaborate this point suggests, in fact, that Marx was preoccupied with this issue long before it became a topic for reflection in the Grundrisse, and that he continues to be engaged with it in his mature work. The passage suggests that Capital may not leave behind the question of real abstractions or “practical truths”. Instead, Marx’s only published “scientific” may simply render the issue more subterranean – a shift that is consistent with how Capital mobilises Marx’s other methodological commitments, none of which is discussed as overtly in Capital as in his various draft works. This movement to a more subterranean level is physically suggested in the layout of the text, as Capital transposes the bulk of this point into a footnote, leaving only a fleeting hint in the main text to draw the reader’s attention to a discussion that is taking place, in a quite literal sense, below the surface of the main argument.

A similar hint reappears much later in Capital, in one of Marx’s rare explicit methodological comments – once again in the form of a footnote haunting the surface discussion unfolding in the main 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 relies on the gap between material and social phenomena, but rather intends to put forward an immanent critique of capitalist production that identifies tensions within that socially and historically determinate process.

V. Outline of the Thesis

To support this interpretation of Marx’s work in the chapters below, 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, and initially 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, and thereby attributing to Marx a strategy that he expressly criticises in political economy.

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 its 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 slowly 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 steps through which Marx derives the category of labour-power in the opening chapters of Capital.

8 responses to “Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

  1. Paulo February 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Hi there N, greetings from Brasil!

    First of all, some apologies: for the bad english and for the invasion. If the first is inexcusable, the second is the sort of thing you get when publish an amazing work like yours in the internet.

    I find the “What in the hell…” blog trough Google (searching about the translations on “national economy” and “political economy”) and end up falling in here, where I still couldn’t leave. I think this covers the how.

    The why is much more simple: just to give you congratulations for your thesis (and the other materials in the blog). So far I’ve read half of it (the thesis, not the blog :-)) and it keeps surprising me. Fantastic work!

    I had planned to make some commentaries about it, especially about the introduction and the chapter 4, but since there is a new introduction up, I’ll read this first.

    Only one little complain: I miss the footnotes or, at least, some kind of bibliography to know with who (besides Postone) you’re trading cards. Is it possible to put up something like this?

    Best wishes for the presentation.

  2. N Pepperell February 21, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Hey Paulo – Many thanks for your kind words – and please don’t think of it as an invasion of any kind : it’s nice to know the work is being read!

    I’m very sorry about the lack of footnotes – it’s particularly disconcerting not to have them because I do almost all the literature work there. I tend to write quite long footnotes, which often cover a particular debate or issue in the literature… I haven’t worked out a good way to do them on the blog, without requiring a lot of manual coding that, right now, I don’t have time to do.

    What I plan to do is, when the thesis is completely finished, I will put the whole thing up in PDF format. That won’t be as easy to read on screen, but it will include the footnotes and bibliography. I’m not completely sure when this will be, since it depends a bit on comments I receive from people reading the thesis. I’m hoping to have everything finished some time in March – but some people whose feedback I would like can’t start reading until April, and of course it can take some time for people to read, and they might want substantial changes – so it could drag out.

    But there will eventually be a proper version on the blog, so that people can read the whole thing… Sorry for the delay on that… If it helps, I want the whole thing up as quickly as possible myself!!

  3. Bis February 27, 2009 at 10:43 pm


    Would you say agree with David Harvey that part of footnote 34 of Chapter 1 of Capital (quoted below) is an economically reductionist argument?

    “each special mode of production and the social relations corresponding to it, in short, that the economic structure of society, is the real basis on which the juridical and political superstructure is raised and to which definite social forms of thought correspond; that the mode of production determines the character of the social, political, and intellectual life generally”.



  4. N Pepperell February 28, 2009 at 4:00 am

    Hi Bis – Thanks for this. The issue with Marx is always what he means by terms like this – in this case, for example, how broad the concept of “production” is. I don’t think Marx is completely consistent on this.

    Often – and this is what interests me in his work – I think the concept of “production” is extremely expansive as he actually deploys it, referring essentially to the wide range of practices through which we “produce” all the various forms of interaction that make up the fabric of our experience. When he speaks in this expansive way, Marx will still talk about social relations and social forms of thought that correspond to our forms of production, but the point is quite clearly not to differentiate out some separate entity – say, an “economy” – or some special kind of practice – say, practices relating to material reproduction – and to say that separate entity sits outside of other dimensions of experience, causing those dimensions to take a particular form, as if they were dependent variables, etc. The point is instead that forms of practice necessarily implicate forms of thought (that the “material”/”ideal” distinction should not be applied) – and also that the qualitative attributes of persons and their relations can be grasped with reference to the qualitative character of human practices.

    It’s this impulse in Marx’s work that I try to pull on – Marx as a practice theorist who attempts to deflate various presuppositions in political economy, by analysing how those presuppositions only make sense if humans are behaving in particular contingent ways.

    Marx doesn’t, however, always “hit” the mark that most interests me in his work. There are passages that clearly suggest that he prioritises practices relating to material reproduction above other sorts of practices (I’m not specifically certain I would say that this particular footnote falls into that category – there are a number of debates over that passage, and I’d personally be likely to interpret it in a non-reductionist way – but the point is, there are passages where I think Marx does suggest a reductionist reading). I don’t think it’s foolish that people have claimed to find such things in Marx – I just think there are much more complex and non-reductive impulses that one can also find in Marx – and these impulses interest me because, in many respects, they suggest paths out of certain dilemmas and dichotomies in which more contemporary theories are often caught. So I’m particularly interested in highlighting these non-reductive lines of analysis – which often get overlooked in the rush to interpret Marx as what we often presuppose he must be: an economic determinist…

    Apologies if this is a bit ill-formed as a comment: I just had my thesis “completion seminar” last night (which does not mean I have completed the thesis – it’s just a requirement that must be met prior to completion), and so I’m a bit in recovery mode…

    Many thanks…

  5. Bis February 28, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Thanks a lot for responding. I found the following comment particularly illuminating:

    “Marx as a practice theorist who attempts to deflate various presuppositions in political economy, by analysing how those presuppositions only make sense if humans are behaving in particular contingent ways.”

    I have often wondered what you mean by the term “deflationary” which you use in many of your writings on Marx, and it is much clearer to me now. 🙂

  6. N Pepperell February 28, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Yes – sorry about that – it’s quite difficult to settle on a vocabulary (a lot of this blog documents my attempts to work out how to say things – and shows my continued realisation that what I mean by various words, doesn’t necessarily reflect widespread consensus…).

    The term “deflationary” crept into the thesis at a fairly late stage, as an attempt to address issues with earlier vocabulary, which seems for many readers to carry connotations I wasn’t trying to imply. But, as with all terminological choices, the new vocabulary carries problems of its own. Hopefully with enough circumlocution, I’ll manage to get across roughly what I’m aiming for… 🙂

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