Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: November 2010


I’m mired in the selection process at the moment, but couldn’t resist replying (too) quickly to john’s comment under the Is Slavery Capitalist? post below, which was itself a response to a discussion of this issue over at Nate’s. I realised after posting that I should really lift the exchange to a more visible place, particularly given that I’m unlikely to be generating other content this week to draw any attention to the blog… So – john’s comment first, and my response below, with apologies that I’ve not at all fully addressed the points john has raised…

john wrote:
After having abandoned the discussion over at Nate’s I see it’s popped up over here as well. That’s very satisfying, as these are my two favorite blogs.

I’ll try to summarize what would have been my response to Nate (sorry Nate for not getting back to you, i fell into disuse for a couple of months). I’m basically not sure what’s really at stake in the question of whether slavery is capitalist. In my experience arguments between Marxists about what is and what isn’t capitalist tend to become fights over different definitions of capitalism that can be extracted from Marx, but since Marx clearly never provided a definitive definition such arguments tend to have an irresolvable quality at best, and at worst become a matter of racking up quotations on either side. My worry is that in all these definitional disputes the actual historical object of enquiry (whether it be slavery, or wage-labor based production, or indeed global trade) gets lost.

So when NP defines capitalism as “a global system, effecting global forms of compulsion – and effecting this compulsion precisely in and through a range of apparently contradictory practices playing out in various regions, through apparently dissimilar forms of everyday practice on the ground” – my inclination is to just to say, well that seems like an extremely broad definition, which would tend to push the origin of capitalism pretty far back in history, and even potentially apply to some ancient “global” systems, but whatever, I’ll roll with it. But the point is that there is no necessary relation between this definition and all those non-linear “trends” that Marx identifies in Capital (I’m assuming that “a range of apparently contradictory practices” is not meant to be synonymous with those specific trends). So that if we are to accept this definition then we need to come up with another term or set of terms for specifying to what extent those specific trends are applicable in any particular social arrangement of production/reproduction. My argument is that most of the trends Marx identifies in Capital do not apply in “societies” or regions dominated by chattel slavery. Thus for instance the tendency for social labor to be mediated by the exchange of commodities does not apply since the slaves do not exchange anything and their labor is not redistributed automatically by the market, but only by the command of the slave-owner who is partially insulated from competition in respect to his allocation of labor (because it is not simply an input, but also an asset for him). This also means that there is no simple reproduction in slavery, and no tendency for necessary labor to be reduced to a minimum, because the slave (because it is an asset) will be supplied with food whether he/she produces or not, and is in this respect not dispossessed, and under no compulsion from the relations of production themselves (and must thus be directly compelled by physical force). Last but not least, there is also no tendency in chattel slavery to replace labor with machinery (no rising org. composition), since it is not easy for the slave owner to expel labor from the production process (due to transaction costs), and the resulting endemic problem of surplus labor is most efficiently resolved by diversifying output rather than specializing. All of these points are made by Marx in the Results. I agree that it is probably wrong (and of little import) to say that because these tendencies don’t apply under chattel slavery that chattel slavery is not capitalist. But then we still need a theoretical vocabulary to refer to this non-application of tendencies which Marx thought were central to the history of the CMP. I’ve toyed with the idea of saying chattel slavery is “formal subsumption” but that doesn’t seem to really work. Any ideas?

Saturday, 20/11/2010 at 6:38 am

N Pepperell wrote:
Hey john – good to see you again 🙂 I’ll have to apologise that this may not be a very thorough response – I’m in disuse a bit myself at the moment, working on a selection-related deadline, so my time online is very constricted right now…

In terms of the stakes: yes, this sort of question is generally approached either from a historian’s perspective – how far back can we date the origins of capitalism? – or perhaps from a textual/pedantic perspective – whose quotations trump whose? I’m not uninterested in the historical issue (that was my original training, and I did a lot of work starting out on the question of why historical markets differ from modern ones – i.e., why “the market” we have now carries different consequences than various other sorts of complex markets in other historical periods). But for me the definitional stake in this sort of debate relates more to how we think about transformation, and what it would mean to develop post-capitalist institutions.

One of the things that’s concerned me all the way along in this work, but that gets occluded – or, more accurately, just hasn’t been particularly strongly expressed – on the blog, is the issue of what happens, what sorts of institutional proposals get put forward and implemented, in those rare historical moments when substantial radical change suddenly becomes possible. Often, transformative movements are stopped by sheer hard power, but when this doesn’t happen, when movements gain power themselves are able to implement substantial institutional transformations, the changes they will implement will depend greatly on how these movements understand what capitalism “is”, and therefore how they understand what it means to construct a post-capitalist society.

So, if capitalism “is” property relations, then changing the structure of ownership will abolish capitalism. If capitalism “is” wage labour, then changing the structure of industrial labour will abolish capitalism. Etc.

What I’m working toward – and pretty much everything published here is a very preliminary step in this process, since there’s just a huge amount of underbrush clearing that’s needed first, to clarify what’s happening in Capital as a text, etc. – is a specification of the specific aggregate social trends in terms of which capitalism can be defined, so that it becomes possible to ask a little more clearly whether some specific institutional configuration is likely to generate those exact same trends, even as it may also make extensive transformations on the ground in other ways.

One of the trends I have written a bit about here and there on the blog is the way in which capitalism pivots around human labour in a manner that Marx regarded, I think plausibly, as historically unique. Looked at from a great height, and over a period of time, capitalism figures as something that is constantly displacing and reconstituting the need for the expenditure of human labour, in a way that is disconnected from the “material” need to expend human labour as a motive force for material reproduction. The practices that generate this overarching historical pattern are quite diverse – they generate immediate consequences that can diverge from the aggregate pattern, and that can also diverge from the immediate consequences of other practices required to generate the overarching pattern. If someone looks at capitalism from too narrow a perspective, they will therefore see “trends” that are, in practice, checked by the operation of other, conflicting trends – and, if they extrapolate from one set of trends without taking into account the implications of conflictual trends that play out in other aspects of social practice at the same time, they will misunderstand where the whole aggregate system is heading.

If that makes any sense 🙂

So on one level, I’m saying: yes, there are enormous on the ground, practical differences between production mediated by slave labour and production mediated by wage labour – and these differences should be analysed, and might in fact be possible to mine for the different potentials they suggest for future social development.

On another level, I’m saying: capitalism is an indirect effect of a wide array of concrete practices and, where this isn’t understood, people are extremely likely to decide to target their political energies toward a concrete aspect of the overarching system which can be comfortably abolished without particularly touching the system itself.

Now: I don’t actually /object/ to someone deciding to focus political energy on a small aspect of the more complex whole. I think in the short term this is simply necessary, and it can also make a life-or-death difference on the ground to many many people: the humanisation of living conditions in a capitalist context is itself a vital immediate political goal.

Where problems can arise, however, is when it isn’t understood that this is what’s happening – when people think that, by abolishing x, they are eliminating capitalism itself. This can create problems both in the sense that people can rationalise more horrific things, if they believe they are achieving something grand, and it can create problems because, while believing they are abolishing capitalism, they can pour enormous amounts of energy into building a new set of social institutions that happily replicate the same old dynamic – and this dynamic is itself corrosive of radical political achievements over time, and institutions that promote it are generally oppressive in the immediate moment, as well…

So basically, I think there’s an on-the-ground value to what can seem like a very abstract definition of capitalism. But, at the same time, I need to do much more – to get much more “out” than I have so far on this blog – to feel like I’ve established any of this in more than a really gestural way… So I’m sympathetic to skepticism 🙂

But apologies for having to write in such a rushed way – I’ve probably scrambled the intended content beyond all recognition… Hopefully I’ll have more time in the coming year to get some of this out in a more systematic form…

Sunday, 21/11/2010 at 7:31 am

Someone, You or Me, Wants an Article

I’m in charge of student selection for a popular undergraduate program this year – around 1300 applicants for 60-odd places. I’m told that selection will severely restrict my ability to do anything else over the summer, aside from reading student applications, and so I’ve been seizing this last precious week before I’m able to access student files, to get some writing done. Two articles down, a third in process hopefully to be largely completed by tomorrow… I don’t normally write in such an assembly-line fashion, but my other work obligations have made it seem like this would be an appropriate skill to develop…

Producing several articles back to back like this has drawn my attention to aspects of my writing process that I hadn’t specifically noticed before. One of the things that strikes me is that I spend the overwhelming amount of my time working out how to get the article started. I don’t mean that I spend a lot of time staring at a blank piece of paper, wondering what to say – each of these pieces is being developed from one or more blog posts written earlier in the year, and so I’m starting with the argument and the bulk of the article structure in front of me from the outset. What’s taking time is working out how to frame the paper for a formal publication.

Writing for the blog doesn’t pose this same sort of problem, since I generally just start by saying something like “I was reading something recently that irritated me”, or “someone asked a good question in the comments to this other post”, or even “last we left off, I think I had finally gotten to the second sentence of Capital – maybe it’s time to talk about the third…”, or whatever… Even though I know people may stumble across blog posts fairly randomly, without much sense of other things I’ve written, I still tend to write blog posts as though I’m speaking to people who have been reading for some time, and so don’t require much of a run up to explain why I’m writing on some particular topic. This has the incidental effect of excising from blog writing the thing I find most difficult about formal writing: having to start a paper in a way that will provide a sufficient shared context to enable readers from a fairly diverse set of backgrounds to orient themselves to the issues you plan to cover.

So in the past week, I’ve written two papers and a bit, and have spent easily 80% of my time working on the opening couple of pages of each piece.

I was discussing this with Duncan the other day, and had a sudden association to the opening “exordium” to Derrida’s Specters of Marx. This opening has always annoyed me:

Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally.

Derrida then proceeds to unpack this sentence – which he has just made up – as one might unpack, say, the opening sentence of Capital. He queries the phrasing in his own question:

Finally but why?

To learn to live: a strange watchword. Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know? Will we ever know how to live and first of all what ‘to learn to live’ means? And why ‘finally’?

Now don’t get me wrong: these are pivotal questions which Derrida will explore in the text, and his reflections are moving and substantive – I’ve written in some detail about this work, and am not trying to mock it.

But this opening always throws me. These are the sorts of questions one generally asks of a received text, when trying to draw out the intentional or unintentional implications of its strange word choices or obscure imagery. To subject to the same treatment a question you’ve just introduced – a question that no one else may want to ask, or not in that way, with the peculiar phrasing and structure that you immediately begin to pick apart – this has just struck me as a strange thing to do.

Until I found myself talking the other day about how much time I was spending on preliminaries that were, in many respects, incidental to the argument I was trying to make. I rarely myself started writing on a topic for the reasons I end up putting at the tops of articles – the hooks and frames I use are almost never why I personally got engaged with the material – that’s why they don’t show up on the top of blog posts… By the time I’m drafting a formal version of a paper, I’ve almost always written the entire argument first, and then I end up having to go through an entirely separate process to work out how to communicate to other people “what’s in it for them”, that they should read the piece.

And as I was discussing all of this the other day, the exordium popped into my head. “Someone, you or me, comes forward…” Whatever Derrida’s intentions, it’s sort of the perfect response: “Someone, you or me, comes forward and says, ‘Hey Nicole! Why don’t you write an article on this!'” I can then earnestly respond, not having to explain why I should be writing this – I’ve been asked to! See! The question is right there! The exordium that’s been irritating me for so long, it turns out, is pretty much exactly what I myself do in almost every substantive blog post. Someone, you or me, has asked me to write this… Occasionally, it’s someone… More often, it’s me… But no matter… how am I going to answer the question now…

Somehow since thinking of this, I can’t shake the recurrent thought of this line as the universal article opening: someone, you or me, comes forward and says… how about a paper on commodity speech? someone, you or me, comes forward and says… whatcha reckon about that base/superstructure distinction? someone, you or me, comes forward and says…

Now time to get back to writing that last intro…

Marx Roundtable: Update

Just updating an earlier post about the Roundtable on Marx’s Capital, to be held by the Society for Social and Political Philosophy at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, from 24-27 February, 2011. The scheduled participants are:

Harry Cleaver, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Texas at Austin

Roundtable Presenters:
Alex Anderson, Ph. D. candidate in Philosophy, McGill University
Arianne Fischer, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage, Temple University
Douglas Hanes, Ph. D. candidate in Political Science, McGill University
Jamie Kelly, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Vassar College
Adam Moeller, Ph. D. candidate in Philosophy, Emory University
Rafael Mota, Ph. D. candidate in Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture, SUNY Binghamton
Patrick Murray, Professor of Philosophy, Creighton University
Nicole Pepperell, Program Director, Social Science (Psychology), RMIT University
Christopher Ruth, Ph. D. candidate in Philosophy, Villanova University
Devin Zane Shaw, Part-Time Professor of Philosophy, University of Ottawa
Jessica Soester, Ph. D. candidate in Philosophy, Southern Illinois University
Sarah Vitale, Ph. D. candidate in Philosophy, Villanova University

William Lewis, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Skidmore College
Jason Read, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Southern Maine
William Clare Roberts, Faculty Lecturer in Philosophy and Political Science, McGill University
Hasana Sharp, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, McGill University
Amy Wendling, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Creighton University
Cory Wimberly, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Texas–Pan American

The event has a very nice format, designed to provide generous time for presentations and discussion. I’m looking forward to it.

As long as I’m escaping from Australia for a bit, I’ll likely head to the UK for at least a couple of weeks, before heading to the US for this event. If anyone knows of interesting happenings in the UK or the US in mid-February, let me know…


Over the past year, I’ve found that completing my doctorate resembled a process, rather than a moment or event. I submitted early this year, but that wasn’t completion, as the thesis still needed to be examined (in Australia, examiners are external). I’ve had the examiners’ reports back for some months now, and they required no corrections – but that still wasn’t completion, as there were various mechanical and bureaucratic tasks to complete before I could submit. I submitted the archival copies of the thesis some weeks back – but that wasn’t completion either, since a committee needed to endorse the submission… A couple of weeks ago, I finally received a letter (with a holographic seal, no less), telling me that I am now allowed to assume the title of “Doctor”. Arguably, this isn’t completion either – I still haven’t actually graduated – I believe that happens in December… But perhaps I am far enough along the process that I can now draw a line under it and declare the doctorate complete?