May 13, 2009
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One of the most often overlooked elements of Marx’s critique of political economy, is that Marx views the political economists as reductive materialists. The nature of this critique becomes clear at least from chapter 3 of Capital, where Marx introduces the concept of “social metabolism” – the process by which material needs are met by circulating things to places where they will be found useful. One of the major problems with political economy, in Marx’s account, is that it acts as though social metabolism is an underlying – and therefore more fundamental – process. Political economy therefore abstracts from the historically specific form in which this process takes place, reducing this form back to the supposedly more basic metabolic process that is understood to underlie it.
The result – from Marx’s point of view – is a false bifurcation of the material process. Hunger is hunger – metabolism is metabolism – but the form that these material processes assume is not some separate, immaterial thing – it is part and parcel of the particular materiality that we live and that Marx tries to understand.
The remainder of the very long third chapter explores different aspects and implications of the form taken by the social metabolism in capitalist societies. I’ve explored this argument in several chapters in the thesis, and won’t belabour the specifics here. The point is that this chapter can be read as an extended critique of the notion that it is possible to treat “materiality” as an underlying and more fundamental phenomenon. Materiality is informed. Form matters.
Chapter three of Capital provides an extended argument about the materiality of what political economy attempts to dismiss as mere sign, the substantive results of what political economy attempts to denigrate as mere means, the historical formation of what political economy takes as a transcendent materiality. Marx’s concern is with that process which is extinguished in the result that political economy myopically takes as its “bottom line”. In this way, Marx attempts map a path beyond an essentially idealist “materialism” that he regards as characteristic of political economy.