Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Accidental History

I’ve claimed below that Marx is being ironic – or, perhaps more accurately, satirical or burlesque – when he displays forms of analysis that suggest an idealist dialectic playing out in history. One of the reasons I make this claim is that dialectical gestures of this sort are very regularly followed in Capital by an alternative story of historical development – one that emphasises the accidental and contingent character of the history that has led to us, a history which Marx very much does not conceive as the realisation of an immanent telos of historical development. This sort of gesture – a dialectical derivation quickly followed by a contingent historical account – features prominently in Capital‘s opening chapter, in the way in which the dialectical derivations in the third part of that chapter are followed up in the section on the fetish character of the commodity. On a much grander scale, the architechtonic of Capital as a whole pivots on this sort of gesture: the section on original accumulation comes after the more dialectical presentation of the earlier chapters, underscoring the extent to which the history that has led to our present cannot be regarded as a dialectical unfolding of an immanent potential.

In terms of the chapter I have been discussing in this series of posts – the second chapter of Capital: after the brief dialectical demonstration I outlined below, the text returns again to the combined images of the object that, because it is external, can be owned, and the reciprocal social contract relations enacted between the owners of such external objects:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Veräusserung] may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other. (182)

As phrased, this passage seems to suggest that private property and social contract relations are somehow grounded in the inherent properties that objects possess “in themselves” – as though the legal relations have a “natural” basis. The text is enacting here the sort of legal apotheosis already held up for criticism at the beginning of the chapter. In case the reader has forgotten, the text immediately underscores the historical specificity of these forms of “natural” law:

But this relationship of reciprocal isolation and foreignness does not exist for the members of a primitive community of natural origin, whether it takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian commune or an Inca state. (182)

At this point, the text runs through another historical account – this time much more contingent and tentative than the dialectical history presented on the previous page. This second historical account of the origins of money does not position money as a teleological achievement, driven by an immanent potential that must realise itself historically. Instead, it analyses forms of social practice that arise contingently, for contextually-meaningful reasons, and acknowledges the uncertain historical developments that eventually gave rise to aspects of our own history. It begins by suggesting that the exchange of commodities might initially have begun with other communities, when goods were produced in excess of subsistence needs at home. This contextually-meaningful historical innovation was then available for creative appropriation – as one of the historically available raw materials social actors did not choose, but out of which they could build their future histories. Once exchange was available as a practice, accidental exchanges and trades could gradually become more common and expected – enabling the innovation of production specifically for exchange, rather than the exchange of accidental surpluses (182). As exchanges grew in frequency and speed, money also develops – not at the end of a dialectical process that realises the immanent nature of the commodity, but as part and parcel of the contingent growth of exchange itself:

The need for this form [an independent value-form] first develops with the increase in the number and variety of the commodities entering into the process of exchange. The problem and its solution arise simultaneously. Commercial intercourse, in which the owners of commodities exchange and compare their articles with various other articles, never takes place unless different kinds of commodities belonging to different owners are exchanged for, and equated as values with, one single further kind of commodity. This further commodity, by becoming the equivalent of various other commodities, directly acquires the form of a universal or social equivalent, if only within narrow limits. The universal equivalent form comes and goes with the momentary social contacts which call it into existence. It is transiently attached to this or that commodity in alternation. But with the development of exchange it fixes itself firmly and exclusively onto particular kinds of commodity, i.e., it crystallizes out into the money form. (182-83)

This analysis portrays a contingent and fragile historical development, rather than any necessary dialectical unfolding. Such contingent stories help us make sense of our present situation came about. But this story should not be told as though past historical moments somehow realised their own necessary telos in contemporary history. Instead, we look back at the past with eyes focused by our own experiences, validly curious how we came to be. Our questions and concerns can help us understand our own becoming – but this ability to reconstruct the accidental historical shifts that led to our present does not mean that we are in any sense the culmination of the only, the best – or even the worst – potentials generated by past societies.


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