Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Contingency of Labour

For some reason, the passages on commodity speech at the end of Capital‘s opening chapter seem to draw particularly self-satisfied critics, delighted at what they take to be a performative contradiction between the “definition” of the commodity as an “external thing”, the critique of the commodity fetish – a critique of a fantastical, metaphysical “thing”, and these passages that make commodity “things” stand up on their own hind legs and talk. For this to be a performative contradiction, Marx would have to be a man with a short attention span indeed… These passages should instead, as I have argued at some length, be read as part of a sort of dark comedic arc, in which Marx marches out on the main stage of Capital a set of characters, modeled on the political economy of his own day, who treat commodities as mere “things” – and thus theorise capitalism in a way that ignores the presence of the walking, talking commodity that is wage labour.

The readers are meant to be in on this joke – we aren’t meant to share the blindness of the characters who attempt to understand capitalism while ignoring the secret in plain sight of wage labour. When the text puts forward declarations about what commodities would say “if only” they could speak, we are meant to understand that commodities do speak – do exercise will – do resist and therefore have to be taken by force – and we are therefore meant to know, intuitively, that the characters striding on the main stage, speaking as though such walking, talking, protesting commodities do not exist, are absurd burlesque figures – clowns whose performances are held up for ridicule.

I’ve written at some length about the ways in which the text signals this joke – from snarks in the footnotes, to the use of the language of civil society to describe commodity social interactions in the third section of Capital‘s first chapter, to the analogy Marx draws with prostitution at the beginning of Capital‘s second chapter, at the point when the main text is (absurdly) declaring that commodities, as objects, lack their own independent will and motive force, while also explaining that, if these things should happen to prove unwilling, their owner may use force to compel them.

The reader is meant to know the punchline of this joke all along – and once the category of labour-power is introduced, Marx takes the main text to have demonstrated how selectively – how narrowly – certain kinds of political economic theories must look out onto capitalist production, in order to make the sorts of claims that have been demonstrated – and pilloried – to that point. This doesn’t mean that the theorists Marx has in mind literally are unaware of the existence of wage labour – they may be quite well aware in various aspects of their work. It means that aspects of the theories they put forward – the claims and the categories used in their work – would only ever be adequate as categories if applied to very narrow and limited portions of a much more complex whole.

I’ve written less on how this sort of strategy continues beyond the opening chapters of Capital. The “definitions” of labour that are introduced in chapter 7 form part of a similar joke. All of the things that labour purportedly “is”, in those definitional passages, are demonstrated, over the course of many subsequent chapters, to be things labour can only be said to be, if a theorist looks at capitalist production through an absurdly selective lens, bracketing out large swathes of practical experience. Marx will insistently bring those excluded, obscured aspects of experience into view – revealing how partial and blinkered these initial “definitions” are.

One of the more important “definitional” aspects of labour Marx will try to undermine, is the claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity”, something that is transhistorically and intrinsically required for material production. The great irony of capitalism is that, of all forms of production, it demonstrates most clearly the non-necessity for the expenditure of human labour as a motive force in the processes through which we meet our material needs. The need for the direct expenditure of human labour is progressively phased out in specific spheres of productive activity, due to the development of machinery, improvements in organisation, and the development of technical and scientific knowledge.

At the same time, collective practice constrains our ability to take advantage of this potential – crises occur if human labour is phased out too far, and pressures drive the development of ever-new “opportunities” for human labour to be expended in new forms – or retained in forms where, technologically, we could reduce or eliminate it.

These conflictual pressures – driving for the reduction in the need to expend human labour directly in meeting material needs, and driving for the retention and reconstitution of the need to expend human labour in some form – constitute, for Marx, the rational core of classical political economy’s “labour theory of value”. Capitalism, uniquely amongst human societies, directly values the expenditure of human labour – not as a means, but – speaking here on a structural level, as a long-term unintentional pattern of behaviour – as an end. Capitalism’s primary product is labour. The claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity” is a claim offered from a capital-eye-view: other historical systems of production do not have this orientation – human labour may be as central, because other motive forces are not available – but in capitalism, other motive forces emerge as possibilities – and yet labour remains structurally central, for reasons that cannot be reduced, Marx argues, to any intrinsic necessity to expend specifically human labour in order to meet material needs.

The need for human labour in capitalism is specifically not material – the passages in Capital that declare this necessity to be imposed by nature need to be read in the same tone as the passages that declare commodities to be external objects that lack will, volition and voices of their own: partial, ideological views that view capitalism through a narrow slice of practical experience – a slice that brackets off immanent potentials for political contestation, and that obscures the practical possibility to abolish the specifically social – not natural, but contingent – centrality of human labour power as a motive force.

I’ll try to do more on this textually in later posts – have just been mulling over this recently after reading yet another critique of Marx’s “performative contradiction”, which caused me to wonder what else Marx needed to do to make this opening joke more explicit… I realise the writing style is perverse and Marx has a veritable phobia of signposting what he’s trying to do. But his exasperation at theorists who write as though commodities are “things” is more overt than most of his text-play… The complex ricochet of this argument is much much harder: the reflexive point that, although people can be commodities, they are so only as split subjects, who experience only part of themselves – labour-power – an ojectified, object-like, “material” bundle of physical capacities and talents – as the commodity part. But the basic joke that commodities are not only or always passive, inert, voiceless, will-less, things – this I would think would be clearer on the surface of the text…

6 responses to “The Contingency of Labour

  1. John Garvey August 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm


    To what extent do you think that Marx was writing a self-critique of his and Engels’ confident, but then disappointed, expectations that the crisis of 1857-58 would be prolonged and would result in a renewal of revolutionary challenges to the established order?


  2. N Pepperell August 26, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Hi John – Sorry for the delay replying – have had a hectic work week…

    In terms of whether Capital operates as a self-critique, I think portions of the work can be read this way – although not a critique only of positions held in some specific period, if that makes sense? But the positions that Marx attacks most savagely in political economy, philosophy, or other areas, are often positions he could be said to have been insufficiently critical of in earlier manuscripts. Likewise, some of the positions that he gloats over very explicitly in Capital – positions that he trumpets as “advances” or unprecedented findings of various sorts – are often not particularly theoretically central to the argument being made in Capital, but instead reflect positions that are in some ways hard won for Marx – points that he personally wrestles with for some time in draftwork before becoming satisfied with how he wants to present the issue.

    Although I focus a lot on tone and voicing as a way that Marx flags the critical direction of the work, this is one of the ways that tone can be misleading in Capital: there are places where the intensity of the sarcasm seems to relate more to a particular personal emotional satisfaction important to Marx, than to flag a particularly conceptually central moment in the argument – places where a reader interested in the theory of capitalism, rather than interested in how Marx’s personal gratifications track in the text, could be misled into thinking that a passage of argument was theoretically important, rather than just offering up a particular affective gratification for Marx…

  3. bill j February 8, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Seems odd to me that you would think Capital was not material. It absolutely is. But the product of a material reality created by people.
    If its not material, then its immaterial that is non-existent. If its non-existent then it doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist why bother writing the book in the first place?

  4. N Pepperell February 8, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Hi bill j – sorry you were held in moderation – anti-spam measure, which shouldn’t catch you again.

    I’m not trying to say that capital is not material – my argument, among other things, is that Marx analyses historically specific forms of materiality, such that what is “material” in some periods won’t be in others, and our intuitive concept of materiality owes a great deal to a historically specific enactment of materiality now.

    That said, Marx also shares with Hegel an intense dislike of particular forms of materialism – ahistorical materialisms, and naive forms of empiricism that refuse to acknowledge that something can exist, when it can’t be immediately perceived by the senses. Some of the categories that interest Marx are best defined as patterns of historical change – certainly “material” in the sense in which Marx means this word, but not directly tangible – their existence needs to be deduced by observing the transformation of other, more immediately perceptible, things over time.

    At the same time, while the reproduction of capital is a historically-conditioned form of materiality, there is – as you’ve commented above – nothing necessary about this form. So political economic claims that there is some sort of “material necessity” behind capitalist production – for example, arguments that capitalism is necessary if we want to preserve a complex division of labour – are something that Marx rejects. The constraints and distortions capitalism places on material production, do not arise from any inherent nature of materiality as such – in this sense, these constraints do not conform to the notion of materiality espoused by the political economists. But this isn’t the same as saying these constraints are, e.g., ectoplasmic residue…

    What this means, and where it sits relative to other common interpretations of Marx, is probably not going to be very clear from a small number of posts and comments – it’s a limitation of the medium. I try to elaborate better in more systematic writings.

  5. Nate February 8, 2011 at 6:24 am

    This is off-topic but… Bill says “If its not material, then its immaterial that is non-existent.” I think I’d want to argue that it’s not possible to write books about things are non-existent, at least in a strong sense of non-existence (having absolutely no determinations/predicates). I think I’d want to say that anything that can be written about must have at least some type of existence – it must at least be existent enough (existentially rich enough?) that it can have the determination/predicate “able to be written about” which would also imply the determination/predicate “able to have at least one other determination/predicate.”

  6. Chris Wright April 2, 2011 at 1:08 am

    Well said, very precise.

    This is really important:
    “The need for human labour in capitalism is specifically not material – the passages in Capital that declare this necessity to be imposed by nature need to be read in the same tone as the passages that declare commodities to be external objects that lack will, volition and voices of their own: partial, ideological views that view capitalism through a narrow slice of practical experience – a slice that brackets off immanent potentials for political contestation, and that obscures the practical possibility to abolish the specifically social – not natural, but contingent – centrality of human labour power as a motive force.”

    I look forward to reading your article in The Devil’s Party.

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