Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Marx & Philosophy Society Talk

I will put up a proper version of this paper on the Marx & Philosophy Society website soon. I just wanted to post the text of the actual talk here for archiving purposes in the interim.

The event was fantastic, and the discussion following the paper was rich and thought-provoking – it’s a wonderful event, and I’d encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend in the future.

More blogging soon, I hope – once I’ve caught up on a bit of sleep…

Today I want to talk about the standpoint of critique in Marx’s Capital. Identifying the “standpoint” of a critique requires providing an account of how the ideals expressed by that critique relate to the society being criticised. Religious or transcendent critiques may claim no determinate relation between their ideals and the society they criticise: they may, for example, claim to judge existing society against a transcendent ideal that specifically sits outside any contingent historical relations. Naturalistic and historicising forms of critique – and Marx, of course, explicitly likens Capital with a work of natural history – foreclose this option, forcing the theory to locate itself on the same ontological plane as the society being criticised. The challenge thus becomes how to theorise the reproduction of existing social relations in such a way that the potential for specific forms of transformation can be shown to arise in and through the reproduction of society in its current form. By identifying such socially immanent potentials, critique need not place itself on an ontological plane different from the one on which existing social relations are reproduced – instead, critical ideals can express possibilities generated within the process of social reproduction, whose full development and historical expression would require determinate forms of social transformation.

It has become increasingly common to read Marx as a theorist concerned with explicitly thematising his own critical standpoint – to read Marx as a “reflexive” or “immanent” critical theorist who adapts some of the principles Hegel uses to construct his “presuppositionless” philosophical system, transposing these principles onto the very different terrain of a critique of political economy. To the extent that such readings have taken inspiration from Frankfurt School Critical Theory, they have tended to frame the problem of critical standpoint as though it were principally a problem of epistemological self-consistency – to argue that, if a theory cannot show how its own standpoint arises as a moment within the reproduction of existing social relations, then the theory seems to speak with a “voice from nowhere” and cannot account for its own conditions of possibility.

If the possibility for critique is not shown to arise immanently to existing social relations, then those existing relations are theorised solely as forms of domination. Existing society thus comes to appear “one dimensional” and foreclosed to critique and transformation. Since a critical theorist nevertheless adopts a critical stance toward existing society, the theorist appears to have miraculously escaped the ominous entanglements of this one-dimensional socialisation – a possibility that the theory might ground by introducing some socially and historically transcendent ontological order, or might, alternatively, simply leave incoherent and unexplained.

When we frame the problem of critical standpoint mainly in epistemological terms, it can remain unclear why either of these options is problematic on more than a “philosophical” plane. It may lack a certain intellectual self-consistency not to account for the possibility of a critical stance, it may violate a certain preference for naturalistic explanation to attribute critical ideals to a transcendent ontological plane, but the epistemological framing does not foreground how the failure to provide a naturalistic account of a theory’s critical standpoint is more than just an intellectual issue, but instead an urgent practical matter.

The practical urgency of the question of critical standpoint becomes clearer when we consider what the solution to the epistemological problem would be. The naturalistic solution to the problem of critical standpoint is to identify practical potentials for specific kinds of social transformation, and to show how such potentials are generated necessarily, as part and parcel of the reproduction of social relations in their present form. The way a theory ceases to speak as a “voice from nowhere” is precisely by showing how the reproduction of existing social relations necessarily also produces determinate possibilities for emancipatory change.

To the extent that a critical theory cannot do this, epistemological inconsistency is the least of its worries. Without a link between its critical stance and potentials for emancipatory transformation, the critical theoretic gaze becomes pessimistic in the specific technical sense that it has lost the capacity to illuminate practical possibilities for change. The core problem that drives the discussion of critical standpoint is therefore not epistemological, but practical – or, to put the point another way: the answer to this particular sort of epistemological question is an account of how we can change the world. This point can be obscured by the philosophical language sometimes adopted in discussions of critical standpoint, and so I want to foreground and emphasise this practical dimension of the question clearly, for our purposes here today.

Not all interpretations of Marx, of course, pose the question of critical standpoint in abstract or philosophical terms. A number of interpretations render the practical import of this question more explicit and accessible – but often by equating the problem of critical standpoint with the question of who could be the agent of social transformation. Theorising the possibility for agency per se – or, more concretely, theorising the generation and reproduction of a specific collective agent such as the proletariat – is often taken to be the primary challenge confronting a critical theory. As a result, the question of critical standpoint can be reduced to the task of identifying and securing the possibility for the constitution of a collective subject that would effect a social transformation.

The question of agency is of course an important one. I want to suggest, however, that this question worries contemporary theory in a very different way than it worried Marx. Marx does discuss the constant reproduction of the capital-wage labour relation – and he regards the reproduction of this relation, and its associated structures of conflict – as central to the historical dynamics of capitalist society. He situates this analysis, however, within a much more complex framework that does a great deal more than simply identify a collective political subject. He does this, I suggest, because the central question for him is not “can there be agency?”, or even “who will be the agent of emancipatory change?”. Instead, he takes it as self-evident that agency is possible – that we make our history – but he is also and primarily concerned about the ways in which our creation of history takes place in conditions not of our own choosing.

Capital‘s reflection on critical standpoint, I suggest, takes the form of a sustained analysis of all the conditions that we have not chosen, of materials – in the form of practices, institutions, beliefs, affects, forms of perception and embodiment, habits of thought, technologies, forms of interaction, and other subjective and objective moments that feed into the reproduction of capital – that have been thrown up from the detritus of history and are currently suspended into a determinate form that reproduces the capital relation. Marx’s analysis examines these materials as they currently are – looking at the properties these materials exhibit while suspended within this distinctive relation. It also, however, examines what other properties these materials might exhibit, if they were to be suspended within new relations. It is through this contrast – examining what we currently create with the historical materials that lie ready to hand, and contrasting this to what we potentially could create with these materials – that Marx establishes his standpoint of critique.

Capital thus operates as a kind of comprehensive survey of the building blocks out of which current social relations have been built – in the assumption that historical agency operates by transforming materials that already exist, and thus that an inventory of the most readily available social raw materials will help us achieve a sense of what new forms of collective life we might construct. Particular kinds of agency – and particular sorts of agent – are among the building materials thrown up by the reproduction of existing society – but they are not the only materials Capital attempts to analyse. Capital thus does not ask “is agency possible?” – Marx takes it as given that we already exercise agency in reproducing our collective lives in their current form. Instead, Capital asks “what sorts of agency are implicated in the reproduction of society in its existing form?” – and then: “what other sorts of agency are opened up by what we already do to effect this reproduction?”.

The way that this analysis plays out on a textual level is complex, and I can give only a very limited indication of Capital‘s ornate textual strategy in this talk. The key to Capital‘s analysis of critical standpoint, however, lies in the way in which the text presents social relations from the very beginning as heterogeneous assemblages, formed from complex interactions among diverse component parts that can potentially be reassembled to form different sorts of relations. The formation of existing social relations from heterogeneous components ensures that those social relations make available multiple perspectives – each one immanent to the relations being analysed – onto the process of the reproduction of capital. By sliding from one immanently-available perspective to the next, Capital can gradually bring into view additional insights and possibilities that can then be mobilised for critique.

This focus on the heterogeneous character of capitalist social relations is, I suggest, an under-explored flip side of a dimension of Marx’s work that has received a great deal of attention in recent decades: the insight that Marx’s Capital borrows important elements of its structure from the systematic “scientific” philosophy that Hegel deploys in the Science of Logic. In Hegel’s work, the method of a scientific philosophy is designed to escape the limitations of purely axiomatic forms of deducing philosophical systems from an essentially arbitrary staring point, which serves as an exceptionalised anchor which sits outside the system, but from which all the other components of the system are then deduced. For Hegel, applying such an axiomatic method to the study of logic – of reason – would be tantamount to claiming that the starting point of reason sits outside what can be rationally grasped – that the ground of logic is extralogical – that the first principle of rational thought is irrational.

Hegel’s solution to this problem is to try to incorporate the beginning of the philosophical system within the system itself – to understand the categories that form moments of the system as mutually determining, and to grasp the system itself as something that assumes a reflexive, circular form. Within such a circular system, the opening category would not be arbitrary or external to the system itself – even if this might appear to be the case when the system is initially being presented. As the system unfolds, however, the necessity of beginning with that specific opening category – along with the necessity for unfolding subsequent categories in a particular order – becomes apparent by the way in which the system is able to reveal all the relationships among the categories – relationships that, in Hegel’s method, are understood to determine what the categories actually are. When the system has been completely unfolded, the opening category can itself be derived from the other categories that had been deduced from it. In this way, the system can be shown to loop back on itself, reflexively, such that all categories are demonstrated to have their meanings only in and through the determinate relations that bind them to one another within this particular whole.

For Hegel, this “scientific” method is the only form of presentation adequate to describe a very special sort of object: the free self-development of reason. Hegel’s system is thus not meant to rely on an all-purpose method that could be applied to any subject matter, but rather to capture the distinctive features that only its particular object can be said to possess.

When recent interpretations of Capital suggest that Marx was in some way inspired by this aspect of Hegel’s method, they thereby also suggest that Marx must have believed Hegel was profoundly mistaken in that method’s application. Implicit already in Marx’s willingness to appropriate aspects of Hegel’s method for the very different goal of a critique of political economy, is the claim that it is not the free movement of reason that assumes this reflexive, systematic form, but rather the blind movement of a very distinctive form of domination. By organising its categories as mutually-determining moments of a totality, Capital claims to pick out something peculiar and distinctive about the qualitative character of the process of the reproduction of capital: that this real social process exhibits qualitative characteristics that Hegel associated with a totality.

When Marx is interpreted in this way, totality becomes, not an ideal entity – not an artefact of the movement of thought – but a real entity – an emergent result of the assortment of practices that reproduce a particular form of social life. Totality also becomes, not a good thing – not evidence of the free play of reason – but the target of critique: if core aspects of the reproduction of capital may be best understood in terms of the practical generation of a form of real totality, this attests, not to freedom, but to the persistence of a very distinctive form of domination. From this standpoint, emancipation requires the overcoming of the kind of totality implicated in the reproduction of capital.

Interpretations that understand Marx to be engaging in this kind of argument thus walk a fine line that distances them from the affirmation of totality, on the one hand, and from its abstract negation – the denial of totality – on the other. They attempt to show that real dimensions of the social process of the reproduction of capital possess qualitative characteristics that can best be grasped by appropriating some of the tools from Hegel’s dialectic. The concept of totality is therefore preserved, but by reconfiguring it as the target of critique. But within a process of social reproduction characterised as a totality of mutually-determining moments, where can we find the critical standpoint that enables the totality itself to be recognised as a form of domination?

This question has made a number of critics leery of the new “dialectical” readings of Marx. The resultant visions of the reproduction of capital have been accused – often with some ill will – of idealistically attributing agency to abstractions, rather than to human actors, of over-accentuating the power of social structures relative to human agents, and of obscuring possibilities for collective agency. In part, such criticisms reflect the textual bias that resulted from the heavy lifting that was required in order to make the case that the structure of Capital is heavily influenced by Hegel’s work: the emphasis of many new dialectical interpretations has necessarily fallen on the demonstration of Hegel’s influence, which in some cases may have left uncertain how fundamentally Marx is understood to deviate from Hegel. By exploring this question more explicitly today, I hope to suggest one path through which it becomes clearer how a critique that conceptualises the reproduction of capital in terms of a category like “totality”, nevertheless can retain a strong sense of how human agency drives the process of social reproduction, and can also ground its standpoint of critique firmly in collective practice.

To make this argument, I need to survey very quickly some ground that I have covered elsewhere in much greater detail: I can flesh out these points during our subsequent discussion if I have skipped too lightly across the moves in the argument here.

What I want to do first is back away from Hegel’s Logic for a moment, and speak a bit about the opening chapters of Capital in relation to Hegel’s Phenomenology. The early chapters of the Phenomenology – particularly the chapters on Perception and Force & Understanding – cover terrain that in some respects seems strikingly similar to that of the opening chapter of Capital. Phenomenology tells the tale of consciousness seeking certainty of its object, and assuming a number of different shapes in a series of successive attempts to grasp its object more securely. Each of these attempts fails because, although consciousness reconfigures itself in many different ways, it never drops the assumption that its object is something external to itself – thus reproducing a fundamental dichotomy that, by insisting on the essential separation of consciousness from its object, will never allow consciousness to attain the certainty it seeks.

Thus, in one of the early shapes it assumes, consciousness attempts to Perceive its object, understood as a thing external to itself, which consciousness contemplates passively and attempts to grasp through its perception of that object’s sensible properties. In Hegel’s account, this attempt ultimately fails, resulting in a restless spiral until consciousness finally abandons the attempt to grasp its object in terms of properties that can be directly sensed, and instead begins to search for certainty of its object in the form of supersensible universals, which cannot be perceived directly, but which can be intuited through what Hegel calls Understanding. Understanding, however, replicates the same dualism that characterised Perception: it attempts to grasp its supersensible universals as though these subsist in a separate realm from what can be grasped by sense-perception, thus dividing ontological reality into an external realm in which the random flux of sense perception plays itself out, and a separate, inner realm in which a timeless, lawlike immanent order is understood to prevail.

This new dichotomy still leaves consciousness fundamentally severed from its object, confined to direct access to the phenomenal realm of sense perception, while barred from the noumenal inner realm that it takes to contain its object’s immanent truth. In Hegel’s narrative, this new dichotomy results in another restless spiral, which consciousness finally overcomes through the confrontation with something Hegel calls the “inverted world”. The inverted world confronts consciousness with the possibility that what it had taken to be a lawlike, stable inner realm, and what it had taken to be an external world of constant flux and change, are in fact mutually-determining, co-implicated, moments of the same dynamic relation. At this point in Hegel’s narrative, consciousness begins to overcome the barrier that has separated it from its object, realising that it can attain the certainty it seeks, because it has been its own object all along.

I want to suggest that, in subtle ways, Marx is playing with this narrative in the early chapters of Capital. The parallels begin from the opening paragraphs, which introduce a perspective on the commodity that walks the same ground as Hegel’s Perception: the commodity is introduced from an empiricist standpoint, presented as a thing external to us that offers a collection of sensible properties for consciousness to contemplate and discover. These directly sensible properties can be divided into a use-value and an exchange-value dimension – but both of these dimensions of the commodity are presented here in terms of their directly sensible properties, whether these are the material properties that enable them to meet specific needs, or the directly sensible proportions in which they exchange with other goods.

The limitations of this empiricist standpoint, however, are quickly exposed: a couple of pages in, and the text introduces a new perspective – what could be called a “transcendental” standpoint – which puts forward the argument that the commodity cannot be fully grasped in terms of its sensible qualities alone. Instead, this new perspective argues, the commodity must be understood in terms of supersensible properties, which cannot be directly perceived, but whose existence can nevertheless be intuited by reason. The text puts forward a deductive argument for the existence of the supersensible category of value – explained here as a kind of transcendental condition of possibility for commodity exchange – and, following soon after, introduces the further supersensible category of abstract labour.

At this point in the text, the introduction of the empiricist and then transcendental perspective on the commodity could be read as parts of the progressive movement between stages of a linear argument – as though the empiricist stance had been superseded by the introduction of the more adequate transcendental perspective. The text quickly muddies this interpretation, however, by specifically comparing value with Dame Quickly, a character from a Shakespearean play whose ambiguous sexual status Marx likens to the ambiguous ontological status of value: in Shakespeare’s play, the character Dame Quickly insists that any man must surely know where to have her. It is clear from the previous discussion, Marx argues, that the political economists do not know where to have value.

This discussion implicates both the “empiricist” and the “transcendental” perspectives, and suggests that Marx does not regard either as a fully adequate representation of the commodity. Instead, both of these accounts have been subtly compared to characters from a play – hinting that the perspectives that have been introduced thus far in the text should be seen, not as straightforward presentations of Marx’s personal views, but as enactments of positions commonly articulated or implied by political economy.

Having thus suggested that the empiricist and transcendental perspectives suffer in some unspecified sense from a fundamental ontological confusion, the text now introduces a new “dialectical” perspective, which proceeds to analyse the commodity in yet another way – not as a collection of directly sensible properties, nor as a transcendent supersensible universal – but as a dynamic relation whose mutually-determining moments can be grasped through a dialectical analysis. This dialectical analysis then carries the reader through a series of inversions – confronting the reader with the existence of an inverted world. After this confrontation – at the moment when, in Hegel’s text, consciousness becomes able to tear aside the curtain that has divided it from its object and realise that it has been its own object all along – the opening chapter of Capital introduces the section titled “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret”.

The narrative structure of the opening chapter of Capital thus mimics the structure of the early chapters of the Phenomenology, suggesting that Marx is, in some sense, spoofing elements of Hegel’s text. The organisation of the opening chapter of Capital suggests that it is possible to map Hegel’s account of consciousness’ struggle to achieve certainty over its object, onto the terrain of a much more mundane sort of struggle: the struggle to grasp the wealth of capitalist societies. It suggests, in other words, the possibility to locate – in forms of everyday practice and experience – some of the moments that Hegel attributes to the free self-development of an ideal realm – thus implying the possibility to embed Hegel’s insights within a practice theoretic account of the reproduction of capital.

At the same time, it suggests that elements of Hegel’s critique can be of use in making sense of the limitations of political economic thought. Political economy stands convicted – already here in the opening chapter – of attempting to parcel out quanta of “reality” between different aspects of social experience. Empiricist theories – which Marx will later associate with what he calls “vulgar” political economy – thus attempt to focus on what can be directly perceived by the senses – disregarding dimensions of social experience that, while less immediately tangible, are nevertheless also socially real in Marx’s account.

Transcendental theories – which Marx will later associate with classical political economics – attempt to abstract from immediate sense experience to what are taken to be inner truths that capture lawlike tendencies. These lawlike tendencies, however, are understood by the classical political economists to subsist in some distinct ontological realm of essential material laws that transcends the flux of immediate sensible experience – such that these laws are understood to be only contingently and externally connected to some particular set of empirical phenomena.

What neither approach grasps, according to Marx, is the necessary connection that binds together a particular constellation of empirically perceptible phenomena with the historical generation of a specific set of probabilistic social laws. The means by which a determinate collection of empirically sensible phenomena operate so as to generate particular probabilistic patterns – the relation that connects the “inner” realm of lawlike essences with the “outer” realm of directly sensible appearances – remains, Marx argues, invisible to political economy, which instead insists on assigning quanta of “reality” only to partial and one-sided moments of what Marx regards as a more complex and multifaceted social whole.

To grasp this more complex whole, a dialectical approach is required – but not the same dialectical approach as the one put forward by Hegel – or, as it turns out, the one set out in the brief dialectical analysis that is put forth in the opening chapter of Capital. For, much like Hegel’s Logic, which Hegel argues cannot present “the science before the science”, Marx’s Capital requires traversing the long run of the entire text to demonstrate how its dialectical argument actually unfolds. In the context of that overarching argument, the brief dialectical demonstration put forward in the opening chapter of Capital figures as yet another set piece – another character on Marx’s stage. Marx hints at the artificiality of even the dialectical performance by returning to Shakespeare once more in the chapter’s closing lines – bringing on Dogberry to sum up the perspective of political economy, with the cryptic concluding sentence: “To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by nature.”

This strange quotation begins to make more sense when we realise that it loops back to the opening paragraphs of the chapter, which defined commodities in terms of the split between fortune – exchange-value – and nature – use-value. Dogberry’s verse thus brings the chapter full circle – and yet, by associating fortune and nature here with the properties of a man, rather than associating them with the properties of an object outside us, it also offers a subtle reminder that, thus far, we have not yet met the challenge posed by Hegel’s Phenomenology: we have not yet actually torn asunder the curtain that separates consciousness from its object – we have not yet demonstrated how we are implicated in our own object, the wealth of capitalist societies.

Marx now chases this nagging hint that capitalism might be founded ultimately on a subjective, human source of wealth, across several chapters. Until chapter 6, the main text continues to assert that commodities are things outside us – all the while destabilising these claims with marginal gestures that, much like the reference to Dame Quickly in chapter 1, often use the ambiguous figure of the prostitute to remind the reader that, in spite of the claims being ostensibly put forward, there are in fact commodities that are not objects external to their owners. These destabilising gestures cast doubt on how fully the text endorses its own explicit claims that the commodity is an external, passive thing – maintaining a critical distance from the claims explicitly performed in the main text, until Marx has finally assembled the resources to speak overtly about the social centrality of what he calls the “peculiar commodity” of labour-power. As Marx builds toward the introduction of the category of labour-power, he continues to flirt with Hegel’s Phenomenology – most explicitly in chapter 4, in which the category of capital is openly compared to Hegel’s Geist and described as the self-moving substance that is subject.

Commentators who have drawn attention to this comparison of capital to the Geist have taken fire from critics who have argued that this image attributes too much power and autonomy to capital, implying that the social process has somehow escaped its human origins. The image, however, is clearly presented in Marx’s text: any quarrel over its validity needs to be taken up directly with Marx. A close reading shows, however, that this image is escorted by destabilising gestures that hint that – if capital can in some sense be validly compared to the Geist – this comparison is nevertheless not the full story Marx has to tell. It is worth watching the language carefully as Marx first characterises capital in terms associated with the Geist, and then begins to destabilise and undercut this image. Marx argues:

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

On one level, by deploying Hegel’s terms to characterise a social phenomenon, Marx subtly convicts Hegel here of confusing a practical, social process with an ideal one – and also of mistaking a blind movement of domination for a process of free self-development. There is more to Marx’s critique, however, than a simple substitution of a practical social process for Hegel’s ideal one: the language of the text soon begins to suggest that something about this vision of capital-as-Geist is too good to be true, even once given a practical, social theoretic inflection. Marx begins to signal this in the very next line:

By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. (255)

When Marx labels something “occult”, it is a reliable sign that he has been ventriloquising a perspective that he eventually intends to criticise – speaking from the standpoint of a perspective from which a particular property or qualitative attribute appears mysterious, in order to set up for the eventual critique of this perspective, which will take the form of a deflationary explanation of the practical genesis of the properties that initially appear mysterious and occult. The text hints at the eventual deflationary direction of Marx’s argument – suggesting that Marx does not intend for the ability to add value to remain occult, even if this ability still appears mysterious from the standpoint Marx is examining in this chapter. Marx underscores this hint by linking the vision of capital-as-Geist explicitly with the plot of a fairy tale, offering the analogy:

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

The next paragraphs continue to explore the imagery of capital-as-Geist, while introducing further layers of destabilising gestures that distance the reader from identifying with this perspective. Marx thus describes:

As the dominant subject of this process, in which it alternately assumes and loses the form of money and the form of commodities, but preserves and expands itself through all these changes, value requires above all an independent form by means of which its identity with itself may be asserted. Only in the shape of money does it posses this form. Money therefore forms the starting-point and the conclusion of every valorization process. (255)

This argument is idealist in shape – suggesting a dominant subject that brings into being forms in which it can manifest its various potentials. This idealist language is part of what worries critics, who fear that making too free a use of Hegel in the interpretation of Capital will end in positions that undermine human agency. But let’s see where the text takes us next. On the following page, Marx writes:

In simple circulation, the value of commodities attained at most a form independent of their use-values, i.e., the form of money. But now, in the circulation of M-C-M, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms. (256)

The language here is important: Marx reminds us that we have not always, in the course of his analysis, had access to the perspective from which the text is speaking now. From the perspective of simple circulation, he reminds us, the phenomena he is describing here do not exist – they are not perceptible as dimensions of social experience. Value suddenly presents itself in this peculiar form once we enter into a new perspective. We could read this as a linear advance – as a new moment in a developmental argument whose earlier steps must now be deprecated. The structure of the opening chapter, however, has already suggested that a more complex argumentative strategy might be at work – that new perspectives are not necessarily linearly superior to older ones – that each perspective might have its one-sided and partial dimensions when considered in isolation from the rest.

At this point in the text, however, it seems clear that we are occupying a particular perspective, exploring its insights and implications before moving on to further perspectives, which we should by now expect will provide us with further insights that will limit and relativise the perspective that currently occupies centre stage. The text hints how the current perspective will appear, once Marx can mobilise the insights from other stages of his argument. It first suggests that this vision of capital as self-moving substance provides an essentially masturbatory vision of economic reproduction:

But there is more to come: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it now enters into a private relationship with itself, as it were. (256)

It then marks this vision out as frankly mystical, comparing it to aspects of Christian theology:

It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value, just as God the Father differentiates himself from himself as God the Son; for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and as soon as this has happened, as soon as the son has been created and, through the son, the father, their difference vanishes again, and both become one, £110. (256)

Having convicted this perspective of attributing occult powers to capital, and then comparing it to a fairy tale, a fantasy, and a theological construct, the text then explicitly associates it with one specific body of political economic theory, arguing that this is the description given to capital by the Mercantilists. The suggestion of this section is therefore not that capital can be defined adequately according to the descriptions set out here – that capital really has somehow become self-moving and has thus escaped all constraints – but rather that there are perspectives within the process of the reproduction of capital from which it can plausibly appear that capital possesses such Geistlike properties – at least for a time, and in certain places, and when not also viewed from other perspectives.

Marx believes he has derived the practical possibility for capital to appear this way, in the course of the analysis leading up to this chapter. In this chapter, he cashes out those insights in order to show that his theory can account for the possibility of theoretical perspectives such as Mercantilism, by showing how such theoretical perspectives express very specific dimensions of the practical experience of the reproduction of capital. Marx’s intention here is to criticise Mercantilist theory – not by rejecting the theory as false, but by showing the precise degree to which it is true. Within specific boundaries, Marx argues – specifically within a certain perspective available within the process of circulation – this form of theory has a certain bounded social validity. Hypostatised beyond those boundaries, and this conception of capital simply become a mystification – something Marx can show by exploring other perspectives that look out onto the reproduction of capital from different angles and cast it in a different light.

From this point, Marx spirals rapidly toward the derivation of the category of labour-power in chapter 6. It is in that chapter that Marx can finally cash out his flirtation with the opening moments of Hegel’s Phenomenology, by openly introducing a subjective source of the wealth of capitalist societies – labour-power. In Hegel’s narrative, of course, when consciousness finally recognises that it has been its own object all along, it achieves Self-Consciousness – which is a positive result, the basis for a sort of developmental advance. In chapter six, Marx reverses this Hegelian narrative – once again framing his argument in the language of the stage, and prompting his readers to recognise that they find themselves at the close of a major act in Marx’s critical production of capital – by drawing attention to the decisively non-emancipatory implications of the fact that the wealth of capitalist societies is not, as it had first appeared to be, an external thing. In Marx’s account, we are indeed implicated in our object, the wealth of capitalist societies – but this fact does not provide the basis for an emancipatory result. He argues:

When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free trader vulgaris‘ with his views, his concepts and the standards by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it seems, in our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows behind as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now had nothing else to expect but – a tanning. (279-280)

The implications of this chapter ricochet back through the text: it now becomes possible to read the earlier discussions of commodities as more than an analysis of the peculiar social properties of objects external to ourselves. Instead, these earlier sections now stand revealed as analyses of distinctive forms of socialisation – as determinate ways in which we enact, perceive and experience ourselves, as socially specific forms of embodiment, built around forms of interaction with different aspects of the social process by which capital is reproduced. Once this insight is explicitly derived, it becomes clearer how Capital goes beyond a reductive “economic” analysis or an analysis of “structural” forces that externally compel social actors to behave in specific ways. Instead, Capital provides a very nuanced discussion of agency – which includes a subtle and rich argument about the ways that our practical engagements with different dimensions of a complex collective environment provide a range of opportunities to practice ourselves as distinctive kinds of subjects – and objects.

In the passage just quoted above, Marx mentions that the sphere of circulation gives vulgar free traders the views, concepts and standards by which they judge society; in the earlier discussion of Mercantilism, he identified a dimension of the reproduction of capital that provided a practical, experiential basis for the core claims of Mercantilist theory; in the opening analysis of the empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical perspectives on the commodity, he suggested that each perspective latched on to a particular – but partial – dimension of the object it was attempting to grasp.

These moments in Marx’s argument – and the many others like them that space prevents me from outlining here – suggest that Marx conceptualises the reproduction of capital as a profoundly complex process, which relies on the continued reproduction many different sorts of practices, and thus produces many distinctive possible kinds of experience of what could otherwise be regarded as the “same” social reality. In Capital, I suggest, Marx attempts to catalogue the diverse network of practices required to achieve the reproduction of capital, and then systematically explores the perspectives incubated by each component practice within this network, as well as the perspectives that arise due to the aggregate effects that emerge when the component practices operate together as parts of larger relations. The result is a complex and internally multifaceted social process with which social actors can engage in many divergent ways, in the process acquiring a range of different practical, experiential insights that are each valid for some part of social experience.

Marx seeks to link specific perspectives back to the practical experiences for which these perspectives would be valid – as he links the opening discussion of the commodity back to the way wealth of capitalist societies first presents itself to our immediate sense perception, or as he links Mercantilism back to the experience that capital can, under certain circumstances, appear to grow autonomously within the sphere of circulation. By linking specific perspectives to the collective experiences that render those perspectives socially valid, Marx seeks to avoid idealism, but also to capture the determinate social bounds of specific forms of economic and political theory, philosophy, policy or science. This move enables him to convict a wide range of competing theoretical positions for holding partial and one-sided conceptions of social processes – and thus of having to naturalise or resort to occult explanations for phenomena that Marx can account for in more secular, practice-theoretic terms. Yet how does this process ground its own critical standpoint?

My suggestion – which I cannot develop fully here – is that the critique operates first by attempting to make our present history, in Benjamin’s terms, citable in all its moments. By cataloguing all of the various kinds of practices that are necessarily involved in the reproduction of capital, and by exploring the implications of those practices singly and in combination, Marx attempts to construct a conception of the reproduction of capital that is as sensitive as possible to every insight and potential generated internally by that process. In this way, Marx seeks to identify the conditions not of our own choosing that are available to serve as a raw materials out of which we could construct alternative forms of collective life. Those raw materials include institutions, ideals, technologies, socially available forms of knowledge, habits of perception, practices of self, and forms of embodiment – all of which Marx can theorise as component parts that contribute to the reproduction of capital, but all of which he also treats as potentially severable, potentially appropriable, from the social relations in which they are currently suspended.

This potential for appropriation – the possibility to seize social materials from the form in which they currently present themselves, in order to create something new – is not simply presupposed: its possibility emerges as one of the raw materials generated by the reproduction of capital, as a process that routinely confronts social actors with the necessity to transform their collective conditions of existence, and which also institutionalises certain kinds of performative distance between social actors and the roles they contingently play. In this sense, Marx’s recurrent recourse to stage and theatre imagery is not a mere rhetorical flourish that embellishes unrelated substantive claims: the stage imagery instead expresses a substantive point about the ways in which the reproduction of capital provides multiple opportunities for social actors to experience and enact themselves as disembedded from the specific social roles they play. This experience of the overt artificiality of some social relations – this opportunity to practice some aspects of the self as enacted, and some dimensions of social experience as roles – provides one of many materials on which Marx draws when he assembles the standpoint of critique in Capital.

One implication of this peculiar approach to constructing a standpoint of critique, is that there is no particular tension between conceptualising dimensions of the reproduction of capital as a totality – as an aggregate, emergent result that arises only because specific component parts have been suspended in very specific ways into an overarching relation – and theorising possibilities for emancipatory transformation that arise from the potential to disaggregate those parts. The emergent result – the unintentional, overarching effect that arises from the collective performance of many different sorts of underlying practices – is real. But it is not more real than the underlying practices whose combined, unintentional effect is to bring this overarching relation into being. To think otherwise is to treat different dimensions of the same social process as though these dimensions belong to ontologically different realms – it is to attempt to allocate quanta of reality, amongst different moments of what Marx asks us to treat, instead, as the same social process.

The task, for Marx, is instead to think the different dimensions of social experience together – to explore how a set of component practices that are not deliberately organised to generate any systemic effect, nevertheless reproduce the aggregate phenomenon that Marx calls capital. At the same time, the task is to explore what else we might be able to build with these same component practices, if we were to reassemble them into other kinds of social relations, using the insights we can glean from exploring the perspectives made available by the reproduction of capital. While these perspectives – taken one-sidedly and without regard for their location within an overarching process – can be highly misleading if hypostatised and taken to be fully adequate perspectives on capitalist society, they can nevertheless suggest possibilities for what we might create, when we make new history by disassembling and reconfiguring the component parts of our existing social relations. By drawing attention to these component moments, Marx simultaneously extracts the resources that convict competing theories of partial and inadequate conceptions of capitalism, while also mining the universe of our collective practical experience for even the slightest insight into other forms of collective life we might be able to create. In the process, he treats the reproduction of capital as a vast social experiment through which we accidentally demonstrate that certain forms of collective action are possible – and he invites us to adapt the materials inherited from the reproduction of capital, to improvise more emancipatory forms of collective life.

14 responses to “Marx & Philosophy Society Talk

  1. john garvey June 8, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Rough Theory,

    This is not a response to the specific post. I just wanted to know if you had read Keston Sutherland’s “Marx in Jargon?”

    John Garvey

  2. N Pepperell June 8, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Hi John – Thank you for this – I hadn’t known the work, but have now located a copy – very very nice (and, for me, also very useful).

  3. john garvey June 9, 2009 at 11:45 am

    That’s great. After you get a chance to read it, I’d like to know if you agree with his interpretation that readers of the oiginal German would have been disgusted by the metaphor–and that we, many years later, with or without benefit of reading the original German, should be disgusted as well.

    I should let you know that I came across the Sutherland essay when someone on a list that I belong to responded to a post from me about Marx’s appendix to Chapter 1 in 1867–where he is explicit about “jelly” in English and “gallerte” in German. My first reaction was that jelly was something positive; Sutherland apparently disagrees.

    I’m making my way through your thesis chapters. If I’m right, I like your notion that capital throws up “accidental” possibilities–which we need to seize if we want to change things. I’m old enough to have experienced some of the accidental possibilities of the 1960s and wise enough to know that I wish we had made better use of them.


  4. N Pepperell June 9, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I don’t have the background, personally, to know whether Sutherland is right about how readers of the time would have reacted to the word, but his interpretation is certainly consistent with other moves Marx makes later to… visceralise? depictions of capital living parasitically off living labour (somewhere back in my archives there’s a post on some of Marx’s images of the undead, vampires, were-wolves, etc., that I illustrated with the Goya painting of Saturn eating his children, so I suppose I’m predisposed to think Sutherland’s onto something by hearing cannibalistic resonances in the text).

    I think Sutherland’s absolutely on the mark with the comments about the literary references for the fetish character of the commodity – and right that the point of this was precisely to startle readers who would view this sort of language as something you would only apply to “savages” – there are a number of other examples where Marx makes this sort of move in Capital – often in the footnotes and from the margins, but where I think it’s quite clear that these “anthopological” comparisons are meant to be read in tandem with the main text, and where these passages function as exoticisations of our everyday experience and also contribute to what I see as an overarching argument about the social generation of what we experience as forms of “disenchantment”.

    I had thought, though, that this wasn’t an uncommon thing to recognise in the fetish-character passage: Sutherland seems to think commentators have missed this point more than I would have thought they had (and he may be right – I had just thought it was more a point that didn’t receive much commentary because it should be relatively obvious).

    My only hesitation about his objections to the translation of Gallerte relate to how I personally understand the concept of “abstract labour” – I don’t think it’s terribly misleading to talk about abstract labour as “homogeneous”, in part because I also don’t tend to think of abstract labour – in terms of how the concept functions theoretically in the argument – as being something pressed out of empirical labouring activities, but more as being a sort of social reservoir of latent, yet-to-be-actualised command over future labour, which then (over time) compels concrete labouring activities into particular forms, transforming the social division of labour in a context where these transformations aren’t effected consciously. Empirical labouring activities are undertaken speculatively – without sure knowledge of how much “abstract labour” will be conferred on them – which results in a situation in which the labouring activities we actually do, are haunted by this invisible subset of labouring activities that will actually get to “count” as part of “social labour” – at least on my read. Of course this loops back into Sutherland’s interpretation on the level that it’s stored, past “successfully social” labour that forms this reservoir…

    But I don’t have a specific problem with a translation that emphasises the homogeneity of that jellied labour – particularly given other images Marx uses (there’s a lovely passage from the first edition of Capital that gets edited out of later editions, where Marx describes money as being as if, alongside various actual animals – lions, tigers, horses – there were also The Animal: this sort of image implies to me that Marx is not uncomfortable conceptualising categories like abstract labour as genuinely abstract, as something like real “concepts”, enacted in practice).

    So I guess my immediate reaction – which I might revise once I’ve lived with Sutherland’s argument for a few more days – is that I find it plausible that Marx could be aiming for some sort of disgusting biological and perhaps cannibalistic image, because he does this in a number of other places (and is fascinated, in ways I didn’t really have a chance to explore adequately in the thesis, with biological metaphors for capital), but I’m not as disturbed as Sutherland by the specific translation normally given to the term (although I agree with his more general point that the translation often sort of anaestheticises Marx’s more graphic language).

    A lot of my earlier work – before I got involved with this specific thesis – related to the new social movements and the difficulty of conceptualising and exploiting the structural transformations of the 1960s and 1970s – a situation from which I think we’ve suffered very badly. This question of whether and how we can overcome the “minerva flying at dusk” problem is, I guess, a large part of what has driven me into more systematic work on Capital – the question of whether there’s some way of recognising more quickly the potentials of the present moment in time… A thesis like this is still too distant from that question, but I felt there were unexploited theoretical resources in Capital that I wanted to take a close, careful look at while I had a bit of dedicated time…

  5. john garvey June 9, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response.

  6. N Pepperell June 13, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    By the way, I was just looking back through Hugo Gellert’s Capital in Lithographs for an unrelated reason today, and was struck by the ways in which the work confronts the reader with images of the physical incorporation of the labourer into the product – e.g., here or here.

  7. john garvey June 14, 2009 at 11:33 am

    It’s really quite fascinating. I went to your blog to write about something else and didn’t know that you had sent another message. But, since I sent you my messages, I had been led to the Gellert lithographs by another circuit. I’ll look more at them.

    But back to why I was going to write–I wonder if you have come across or read CLR James’s Notes on Dialectics from 1948. If not, I suggest that you find a copy.

  8. N Pepperell June 25, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Hi John – sorry to leave your comment hanging for so long – I was putting together a paper, and then caught up in a conference, and in crashing after the conference, and so I haven’t been much online. I’ve read CLR James, but it’s been quite a while – I really should look back at it. I did an earlier thesis on the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, and read him alongside that work, IIRC… Part of the text, for the curious, is online – not the whole, unfortunately…

  9. Nate June 30, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    hey NP,
    I’m late, cursory, and off topic as usual – just wanted to say thanks for that point about the lithographs and incorporation of workers’ bodies into products. I’m going to borrow that at some point.
    I hope you’re well.

  10. N Pepperell June 30, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Hey Nate – Good to see you 🙂 I have a cold at the moment (it waited long enough for me to finish my conference obligations, rather than descending as soon as the term was over, as it usually does… ;-P), so a bit fuzzy right now. If you have the time to look at it, I think you would also like the article John Garvey recommended above – for much the same reason.

    More soon…

  11. john garvey July 21, 2009 at 8:35 am

    I just came across a post that you might find interesting. The author(s) write: “Whether one’s own productive investment is of “value” can only be determined retroactively.” If you read German, there’s more of the text available.


  12. N Pepperell July 21, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Hey John – Sorry for the lag responding – it’s the beginning of the term here, and my teaching days this term are particularly long, so I haven’t been online. Yes: I would definitely like the link, if you have it handy. Once things calm down again (it must calm down at some point, I keep telling myself), I want to do a series of posts on the ontological status of value – I’d very much like to read others who are also looking at the retroactive character of the category. Many thanks…

  13. john garvey July 21, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    I thought I had included the link but it appears you found it on your own. This morning, it appears to be malfunctioning.

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