Roger is complaining about the long silence, and asking me to recycle old content if nothing else to keep things a bit noisier around here… I had been planning to break my silence with a post about sex in Capital (all together now: “ewwww!”), but since I keep having to defer writing that post, I thought I’d do the second-best thing, and lift from the comments something Roger has suggested should have made its debut in post form…
I do plan on being back soon… But I keep saying this, and it’s been a very quiet year around the blog as real-world responsibilities keep escalating as soon as I start to hit a workload groove… So for the moment, something from the old comments. More soon…
I have tried to make an extended argument that Capital needs to be read as a deflationary text – meaning that, where other forms of theory tend to presuppose certain “givens”, on the basis of which they then conduct their analysis, Capital tries not to do this. It tries, instead, to show how the major tools in its analytical toolkit – including foundational categories like “society”, “history”, or “material life” – are actively produced by specific forms of human interactions, and therefore reflect the distinctive sensibilities that are primed by particular forms of collective practice.
I’ve written before about a passage in the Grundrisse where Marx praises Smith for developing the category of “labour” – where this term means any sort of productive activity, rather than some specific form of activity (like agriculture). Marx believes that Smith was only able to come up with this category because collective practices were in fact enacting “labour” in that way – there was some dimension of collective life in which we had become genuinely indifferent to whether someone grew food or made handicrafts or provided services. This practical experience made Smith’s theoretical achievement possible, in Marx’s account – which doesn’t mean that Smith didn’t have to work very hard to work out, explicitly, the implications of that practical process – to draw the conclusion that “labour” could mean something like productive activity of whatever sort, rather than being tied to some specific kind of production.
A lot of Capital offers much more complex versions of this sort of argument. It takes categories from political economy (and other forms of theory) and explores what is happening in our practical experience to make it “socially valid” to develop these sorts of categories at a particular period of time. In the process, Marx often also points out that particular forms of theory have seized on practical processes in a “one sided” way – so, a theory may legitimately express something happening in one dimension of social practice – and may be very accurate if applied only to that dimension. However, that same theory may be completely blind to some other dimension of practical experience – and, as a result, it may overextrapolate from the dimension it does express well. It may conclude, for example, that human nature has a certain character, because humans really do behave a certain way in some slice of their social existence. This conclusion can sometimes be undermined just by bringing other slices of social experience to bear on the question. Capital attempts to do this in a systematic fashion.
When analysing Smith’s category of “labour”, Marx notes that Smith achieved this great breakthrough – he articulated explicitly the implications of this great shift in social practices, which meant that it had become tacitly possible to think about productive activity in general, rather than specific kinds of production. By making this explicit, Smith performed – Marx believed – a great service, making this explicit category available and opening up new forms of perception and practice as a result. However, Smith’s insight was precarious – Marx notes that Smith didn’t always manage to hang onto the best implications of his own insight. Sometimes, Marx argues, Smith slid back into earlier physiocratic understandings of labour – this backsliding, Marx argues, indicates how hard it actually is to hang on, explicitly, to insights that are tacit in new sorts of collective practice – it takes a while for concepts to become intuitive and settle in.
I would suggest there’s something similar happening with Marx’s more crass or “vulgar” statements about the centrality of material life to human society. The overwhelming thrust of a work like Capital is that what matters is collective practical experience – of whatever sort. The text examines practices associated with material production – but it also examines law, the state, contract relations, customs, ideals, gender relations – basically anything it occurs to Marx to fold in. Moreover, when it does analyse “material” relations, it does so in order to show how we effect our material reproduction through customary practices that have nothing to do with the intrinsic requirements of material production per se – and the text also offers an extremely complex and sophisticated analysis of how we could come to believe in the existence of a disenchanted “material world” in the first place (where the answer is that we come to believe in such a world because, at this moment, we are in fact collectively enacting such a world – and then overextrapolating from the slice of social existence where that enactment takes place, losing sight of our role in making a material world of a certain sort).
Spelling all this out is complicated – too much for a comment. So this is probably not all that convincing as stated. But it’s what was floating in the background of the offhand comment above. Some of Marx’s explicit statements to the effect that, e.g., how people meet their material needs is more analytically central than, say, language – I view these as similar to Adam Smith sliding back into physiocratic concepts of “labour”: they fall behind the level of sophistication that Marx actually deploys in Capital – they are fundamentally metaphysical – and, since Marx mounts an enormous critique of the metaphysics of political economy in Capital, he really should know better.
The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.
Normally Marx keeps this squarely in view. Sometimes… not so much. Passages in which he insists that material life is always at the centre are, in my view, “not so much” moments of his work – they get in the way (not just abstractly – this is, historically, practically, the impact they have had) of understanding the sorts of transformations that might be possible, and how those transformations might be achieved.