Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Devil’s Dialectic

And as long as I’m posting… A tiny bit of new content, excerpted from something I’ve been writing offline…

Roger has been writing on Marx and Faust recently – so a quick riff on the passage in chapter two of Capital where the text explicitly invokes him… This passage mocks the perspective that has, just previously in this chapter, been occupying Capital‘s main stage. That perspective takes the idiosyncratic social preconditions for the exchange of material good so much for granted, that it simply looks through them, seeing only the material end result of the complex social process through which the exchange of material goods is brought about. For part of chapter 2, it is possible to read along, believing that you are seeing a discussion of direct barter. No longer – the passage on Faust begins a process of destabilising and, ultimately, relativising the perspective introduced earlier in the same chapter, in the process convicting that earlier perspective for naturalising and taking for granted the specifically social preconditions through which this material result has been brought about. The text says:

In their difficulties our commodity-owners think like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ They have therefore already acted before thinking. The natural laws of the commodity have manifested themselves in the natural instinct of the owners of commodities. They can only bring their commodities into relation as values, and therefore as commodities, by bringing them into an opposing relation with some one other commodity, which serves as the universal equivalent. We have already reached that result by our analysis of the commodity. But only the action of society can turn a particular commodity into the universal equivalent. The social action of all other commodities, therefore, sets apart the particular commodity in which they all represent their values. (180)

At this point, something sinister strides forth into the text. Summoned by the reference to Faust above – and followed immediately by the arrival of the beast of Revelation (181): “Money necessarily crystallizes out of the process of exchange” (181). These satanic images lead directly into an analysis of how money develops as the product of a historical dialectic driven by the internal contradictions of the commodity-form:

The historical broadening and deepening of the phenomenon of exchange develops the opposition between use-value and value which is latent in the nature of the commodity. The need to give an external expression to this opposition for the purposes of commercial intercourse produces the drive towards an independent form of value, which finds neither rest nor peace until an independent form has been achieved by the differentiation of commodities into commodities and money. At the same rate, then, as the transformation of the products of labour into commodities is accomplished, one particular commodity is transformed into money. (181)

This historical dialectic directly contradicts Marx’s repeated criticisms of political economy for its ahistorical treatment of its categories as the explicit realisations of qualities understood to be latent in nature – a critique repeated at the beginning of this chapter with reference to Proudhon. It also contradicts the discussion on the immediately prior page of how, in the absence of money, goods offered for exchange simply are not commodities, but merely products. Whatever internal tensions may be enacted in the commodity form, these are the emergent results of a complex social process, rather than the immanent drivers of the historical realisation of money: where commodities are, money is always already on the scene – as are many other sorts of social practices yet to be introduced, which must operate in tandem to generate any of the emergent results analysed in this text.

This dialectical sweep needs to be read, I suggest, as an ironic performance of a particular kind of analysis – one that usually recounts historical processes that gradually bring forth miraculous beings such as the Geist. In this passage, however, the imagery is satanic, and the historical dialectic is tacitly portrayed as unleashing the devil into history. The dialectical imagery here is the butt of a convoluted joke, rather than a demonstration of a form of analysis we are meant to apply. Unfortunately, where the joke is missed, it can seem as though the text advocates a form of idealist dialectical analysis: both critics and supporters of Marx have sometimes missed the punchline, and taken such moments – which are put forward periodically in Capital – as illustrations of Marx’s own method, rather than as one of the many methods Marx sets up for critique…

4 responses to “The Devil’s Dialectic

  1. anxiousmodernman February 16, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Another blog reader glad to see you break the silence!

  2. Pingback: Labor’s Relation to Capital: Notes on Christopher Arthur « Jonathan Dettman

  3. N Pepperell February 19, 2010 at 8:37 am

    For the moment, I’m managing to squeeze some blogging in around other responsibilities – I’m hoping I don’t have to interrupt it for as long as has been common this past year – I’ve missed it!

  4. Pingback: Labor’s Relation to Capital: Notes on Christopher Arthur « Jonathan Dettman

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