After a weeklong term break that has given me enough thinking space to generate content for a few new posts, I’m about to be swallowed by work again for several weeks… Although the second half of the term is generally not as relentless as the first half, I have no idea when I’ll find the breathing room for more content here. Just in case I need to fall silent again, I wanted to point to what I think is a quite important set of reflections on possible institutional arrangements for a post-capitalist society, which has been percolating along for some time at Demet’s excellent nights of labour, but which is also attracting recent discussion from Reid’s new blog The Luxemburgist, and which has been a long-term interest of Duncan’s as well.
In the last post, I talked about why – as I understand the category – an institution like slavery can be understood as capitalist, even though the institution violates certain common understandings of the characteristics that capitalist production is supposed to exhibit – in this case, the characteristic that capitalist production must rely specifically on wage labour. My argument is that “capitalist production”, for Marx, is a global phenomenon, generated as an aggregate effect of a wide range of diverse social practices that are not directly aimed to generate this aggregate result, but that unintentionally contribute to this result nevertheless.
In this reading, “capital” is a (weakly) emergent phenomenon – emergent, that is, in the sense used in the harder sciences, where the term “emergence” doesn’t pick out anything particularly mysterious, ontologically spooky, or incapable of being analysed. Instead, “emergence” in this context simply means that the aggregate effect is sufficiently qualitatively different from the immediate properties of the simpler phenomena from which it arises, that the examination of those simpler phenomena in isolation would not imply the potential for the aggregate effect. Once confronted with both the aggregate effect and the phenomena that generate it, however, the problem of how the aggregate effect could be generated is tractable to analysis – weakly emergent phenomena are surprising, they teach us something we didn’t anticipate in advance, but once we are past this initial shock, we can set about the task of analysing how and why these emergent phenomena come to be.
Marx’s analysis of the fetish character of the commodity hinges on treating this character as an emergent effect. He does not have this vocabulary at his disposal, but he does have recourse to a range of theorists – from Smith to Hegel – who were fascinated with the problem of spontaneous self-organisation. For Marx, the political economists are awestruck by an emergent phenomenon, and their analytical tools are insufficiently complex to enable them to get to the root of how this phenomenon is produced. They look around at a range of simpler phenomena that – for Marx – are part of the solution to this problem. They look at these phenomena, however, atomistically – as if the only important thing to consider is what effects a phenomenon produces when looked at in isolation. But this is precisely the sort of analysis that will never get to the bottom of an emergent effect like capital (or value, or abstract labour), because the effect is not produced by simple phenomena, operating by themselves. The effect is, instead, the product of an interaction – one that plays out between many different sorts of social practices, over a period of time.
What the political economists do, according to Marx, is stop their analysis too short. They hold up and examine a range of different aspects of social experience – atomistically, asking what the “essence” of that aspect should be held to be. When none of these atomised analyses generates anything like the complex aggregate effects of which they are also, at least to some degree, aware, they don’t roll up their sleeves and get down to the work of developing a more adequate mode of analysis. Instead, they treat the unexplained emergent effects as essentially mystical phenomena – as givens, as “data”, as intrinsic properties of human nature or material life – as, for example, a spontaneous propensity for the material world to organise itself, if left free from human interference.
It is this move that Marx criticises as failing to grasp the grasp the fetish character of the commodity form. The fetish character is a real thing – the term refers to the emergent character of the phenomenon to be understood. This emergent character makes it plausible that at least some social actors would find the aggregate effect mysterious and difficult to explain – because its explanation is quite complex, and requires a consideration of how different sorts of practices generate more than just their immediate and easily-observable direct effects, how practices also generate various indirect effects if and only if they are operating in tandem with other sorts of practices. This complexity, however, does not make it impossible to understand how the emergent effect is generated – it makes the problem difficult, but not insurmountable. Because, at the end, we are still dealing with a product of human practices. By stopping short of this analysis, by accepting and standing in awe before aggregate consequences whose practical origins they have not been able to understand, the political economists fall prey to an understandable, but fatal, error in their attempts to understand capitalist production.
To schematise for a moment, Marx’s argument relies on something like the following claims:
– key categories (value, abstract labour, and capital) are aggregate effects
– these aggregate effects are produced only when a large number of different social practices are operating in tandem
– the aggregate effect is an indirect effect of any individual social practice, produced only downstream, and only when various sorts of social practices operate in tandem
– individual social practices have other direct and indirect effects, in addition to the overarching aggregate effect of producing capital – in other words, the same social practice is understood to produce more than one consequence
– the consequences, even of one single social practice, can be contradictory – and the consequences of the many different forms of social practices required to produce capital are contradictory
– capitalism is therefore a complex, multilayered, internally complex social system, characterised by contradictory trends
– many theories seize on only a very small sample of this contradictory whole – often overextrapolating from trends that are visible in aspects of capitalist production, while missing how other aspects of capitalist production operate to offset, diminish, and undermine the full development of whatever trend a particular body of theory privileges
– Marx seeks to expose as many as possible of these contradictory trends, by exploring the multifaceted direct and indirect consequences of the range of social practices that operate in tandem to produce the overarching aggregate effect that Marx calls capital
– along the way, Marx shows how specific theoretical traditions become stuck on the flypaper of specific elements of practical experience, and therefore offer plausible accounts of parts of the process through which capital is produced, without however arriving at a good sense of how the process works as a whole
I could go on – this will do for the moment. My point here is to suggest – very very briefly – how this sort of apparatus intersects with the sorts of discussions unfolding in the blogs listed above.
On the one hand, this sort of apparatus makes it much easier to bring into view the diverse elements of capitalist production – so that, as in the previous post, we don’t end up excluding some part of the complex world system on the grounds that it doesn’t meet some specific definitional criterion for capitalist production (many such definitional criteria apply to much more concrete dimensions of social experience than the aggregate global emergent result with which Marx identifies capital). A very diverse set of social practices, which don’t at all qualitatively resemble the aggregate result, and whose immediate consequences wouldn’t seem to have much in common with the aggregate result, may nevertheless – when operating in tandem with other sorts of social practices – generate indirect consequences, far downstream, that help to generate capital.
On the other hand, it makes it a bit easier to see how – as Reid, Duncan, and Demet already do (without over-committing any of them to accept what I’ve said above – just interpreting how I see the projects from the standpoint of my own framework) – it is possible to mine potentials generated within capitalism, to think about the transformation to alternative forms of collective life. Because the fact that a practice generates some sort of indirect, tandem, downstream effect that we want to contest, does not take away that this practice also generates a number of more direct effects, as well as a number of indirect effects on various scales. These effects are just as “real” as the overarching aggregate trend – and may generate trends and provide us with practical experience that can be developed into alternative forms of collective life. By mining this wealth of practical experience – for example, for alternative models for decentralised decision-making and economic administration (to pick one theme that has come up in each of the blogs listed above) – we can begin to choose the aims toward which political contestation could be directed, and begin to develop alternative institutional structures that can incubate new forms of collective life.
There’s much much more to say – some of it will be easier when I’ve gotten a bit farther into Marx’s text, and can explain more easily what he thinks the “aggregate effect” of capital actually is (short version: a long-term set of conflictual macrosociological trends that pivot around human labour: on the one hand, a trend toward the constant displacement of human labour in specific regions and activities; on the other, an offsetting trend toward the continuous reconstitution of human labour in ever-new forms). But more on all this another time…
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