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Category Archives: Capital v.1

Theatricality, Critical Standpoint, and the “Reality” of All Moments of Social Experience

Okay… this post originated as a comment to add to the discussion with roger and demet in the thread below, but grew a bit cancerous, so I’m elevating it to post status. What I’ve done here is to replicate the content of my final comment to roger, and then added underneath it what would have been a new comment, in order to get everything together in one place. Note that there is lots of other substantive material in the comment thread below – I’m lifting this content up because I can’t remember whether I’ve put it all into one place like this on the blog…

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The thing that’s most difficult to “get” about Marx’s critical standpoint is that it doesn’t require occupying some sort of Archimedean point – or, for that matter, some singular point immanent to the phenomena it criticises. There’s instead this constant sliding around from point to point – and the “points” themselves are subject to adaptation and interpretation – they don’t always have to be enacted in exactly the same way. Marx will flit from one perspective to another, looking back over his shoulder at the previous perspectives, in a sense looking askance at them, showing how odd certain claims look when viewed from the perspective of other dimensions of social experience.

The end result doesn’t occupy some one ideal position – but it’s also not “perspectival” in, say, a Mannheimian sense, where perspectives are regarded as inhering in social groups. The operation of the text simply wouldn’t work if Marx didn’t have some sense that whatever we had accidentally constituted – whatever perspectives are opened up in collective practice – weren’t potentially available, as performative stances, for social actors to move in and out of (where part of the critical barb derives precisely, then, from the revealed arbitrariness of the actual actors who occupy some specific position).

So the whole operation of the text is driven by a sort of Benjaminian commitment to make our history citable in more of its moments – and then to foreground the potential for other forms of selective citation or inheritance of the possibilities for social development that we accidentally produce, but are too prone to treat as though these are fated to remain in their present form.

Or something like that… 😉 What I’m trying to express is that I’ve run into great difficulty communicating the distinctiveness of the critical standpoint on which the text relies – which is neither a traditional singular “standpoint” (whether immanent or transcendent), nor is it “perspectival” (although there is plenty of analysis of “perspectives” in the text). It’s a standpoint in constant motion, and one which relies on a fundamentally creative possibility to adapt the elements we find lying around us, rather than taking those elements as something fixed and given…

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One other point that I was just thinking in the background, which I’m not sure has made it onto the blog completely clearly: the other bit of work that Marx’s theatricality does, aside from generally allowing him to highlight a multiplicity of perspectives and generate a very complex and agile sort of critical standpoint, is that it allows him to link “forms of subjectivity” and “forms of objectivity” together in a very unusual way.

The more Hegelian interpretations of Marx tend to understand, programmatically, that this is somehow part of the “package”: that part of what Capital is trying to do is talk about forms of subjectivity and objectivity using the same basic categories. Those approaches just tend to vastly underestimate the complexity of the argument, such that you end up with a relatively small number of categories that are understood to replicate, in a fractal manner, at different scales or in different aspects of experience. Marx will suggest things like this, from time to time, but this is only scratching the surface of the argument.

The more interesting move is to decide to treat different aspects of social practice as performances – which means not only that they are artificial, contingent, etc., but that they can be thought of in terms of performative stances, which are combined with particular sorts of practical orientations. Forms of subjectivity and objectivity are thus linked, not because they all share “the commodity form” or something like that, but because what we do, when we engage in a particular practice, is adopt a specific performative stance, while seeking to achieve certain kinds of practical impacts on other people and/or nonhuman objects. In this sense, forms of subjectivity and objectivity are intrinsically interrelated, not because one can be reduced to the other, or because one is related to the other by a more or less mystical concept of “social form”, but just because that’s what a practice is – a combination of a specific performative stance combined with an attempt to have a particular sort of impact on the world.

On this reading, Marx’s doesn’t have one, or even a small number, of basic social forms he’s analysing: he has dozens and dozens. In the third chapter of Capital, for example, he breaks down something that is often casually grouped together – “using money” – into several major sorts of activities, and then he breaks each of those activities down into different stages, each of which involve different performative stances and practical objectives. Each one of these opens up different perspectives onto the “same” social process (including perspectives that do not recognise how they participate in a process that also necessarily involves perspectives other than their own).

All of this, however, relates to aspects of social experience that are potentially intersubjectively meaningful – this is why it is possible to analyse them in terms of performative stances. In addition, there are whole other dimensions of social experience – and here we begin to get to the thing the Hegelian interpretations of Marx do tend to grasp, but they grasp it as though it’s the only thing going on – that relate to the unintended and indirect consequences of all these performative activities, which also generate consequences that then confront social actors, demanding responses of some sort of other.

So social practices are presented as each potentially having several layers of consequences – some of them immediate and easy to discern, some of them quite indirect and arising only because a whole constellation of practices are taking place in tandem, enabling them to generate aggregate effects they would never create in isolation, or even in tandem with a different constellation.

Because it’s very difficult for social actors to anticipate these indirect consequences – in part because they are indirect, in part because these consequences often do not resemble (and may even “contradict”) the more direct consequences of individual practices, in part because the consequences require a very particular combination of different practices to arise – such consequences can be plausibly interpreted as not arising from social practice at all. (It’s more complicated than this, but this is the most basic version of the argument – the one that’s already implied in the commodity fetish discussion.)

These aggregate, emergent consequences are patterns of social behaviour that initially become visible in observations made of the movements of material goods. Because no one sets out to create these patterns, and because the practical conditions required to generate the patterns are so complex, the patterns are plausibly interpreted as not being contingent social phenomena at all, but instead as arising from some inherent capacity for self-organisation that arises when material objects are allowed to interact “free” of human intervention. Capital implies that this very distinctive sort of social experience primes us to expect that a “material world” – as it exists in itself, free of anthroporphic projection – would be a lawlike, spontaneously self-organising realm: our secular, disenchanted conception of material nature is, in Marx’s account, the specific form of anthropomorphism of our time.

Capital is designed to show – I think – how this distinctive unintentional aggregate effect is inadvertently constituted, as people go about their everyday lives, engaging in various intersubjectively-meaningful practices that involve specific performative stances and generate distinctive sorts of impacts on other people and on nonhuman nature.

To understand the critical standpoint of the text, what is most important is to see that – like Hegel – Marx steadfastly refuses to allocate quanta of reality among different parts of social experience. In his account, both the overarching, aggregate, emergent effect and the various intersubjectively-meaningful practices from which it ultimately arises, share an equivalent ontological status. One is not more “real” than the other. All of these elements of social experience are potentially citable – and appropriable – as raw materials around which we can innovate in constructing new forms of history with the materials we have lying ready to hand…

Irony and Totality

Another fragment of offline writing re-posted here – this one’s potentially quite rough and ready, and in need of double-checking with the texts to which I refer, so read with all due caution, etc.

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The notion that Capital has certain “literary” features is neither new nor uncommon. As Wolff (1988) notes, however, until very recently such analyses have generally been put forward by scholars who lacked a social theoretic background, and who could therefore point out literary tropes, but not explain what substantive social theoretic purpose these tropes might serve. In this category falls, for example, the impressionistic and somewhat breathless argument by Sypher (1948: 438) that that Capital should be understood as an example of a common Victorian literary trope of melodrama:

Philosophically, the work is not melodrama; aesthetically it is… Capital is a dramatic poem, or possibly a dramatic epic. Its great economic themes are treated chorally, with all the strophic progress of the ode and all the rhythmic stress of an ironic injustice committed against the masses. If we are not distracted by the superficial diffusion of the book, its elaborate and energetic logic and its accumulation of evidence, we see that its concealed structure is mythical.

Sypher captures the theatrical character of the work – and also suggests, as I often have, that the Hegelian dialectic is in some sense the target of the critique (441-42), but proposes no substantive reason for Capital to adopt a particular literary form, other than that melodrama was purportedly a common form of presentation at the time Marx was writing.

Wilson (1972: 191) argues that “Marx and Engels have been inadequately appreciated as writers”, foregrounds the artistic character of Capital (338), and insists that “Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and he has a good deal in common with him” (340). Like Sypher, however, Wilson cannot identify a substantive argumentative reason for Capital to have been structured as a satirical work, and so ends up searching about for idiosyncratic psychological motives. Thus he explains the sardonic character of the text by arguing that “Marx had the satanic genius of the satirist: his jeers are the true expressions of his nature” – a “relentless misanthropy” – “and for this reason they are often effective” (301).

Hyman (1974: 143-45) offers an acute and insightful reading of the dramatic structure of Capital – understanding the work as a play, and dividing it into acts, much as I will also do in reinterpreting the dramatic structure of the work. Hyman interprets this dramatic structure, however, as evidence that Capital should be read “not as science, social science, or exhortation, but as imaginative literature” (133) – following Sypher in claiming that the literary form is that of Victorian melodrama (146). This perceived conflict – the purported incompatability between Capital’s “literary” character and its status as “serious” social theory – undermines Hyman’s ability to grasp the substantive points being made in and through some of the presentational strategies Hyman accurately identifies.

The first serious social theoretic attempt to analyse Capital’s presentational strategy as an integral part of its substantive argument was Wolff’s (1988: 4) short work Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, which begins with an account of the author’s reaction to Capital’s “bitterly satirical language quite unlike anything I had encountered elsewhere in political philosophy or the social sciences”. Unlike the earlier, more strictly “literary” analyses of Capital, Wolff sees a substantive social theoretic purpose in Capital’s presentational strategies. He argues: “Marx’s literary style constitutes a deliberate attempt to find a philosophically appropriate language for expressing the ontological structure of the social world” (20). Wolff’s brief treatment of the relation of style and content in Capital zooms far above the surface of Marx’s text, however, leaving the fine-grained analysis of how Capital makes substantive points through distinctive literary strategies as a task for future scholars.

These initial treatments of Capital’s dramatic structure were isolated works, not part of a broader overarching conversation about Marx’s literary techniques. In the past fifteen years, however, there has been a burst of interest in using the techniques traditionally associated with literary theory to cast light on Marx’s substantive claims, from both literary and social theorists. Derrida perhaps helped to spark this interest by providing a controversial deconstructive critique in Specters of Marx (1994), a work which both inspired imitations and provoked criticism from those who felt the reading misrepresented Marx’s theory. In 1997, Keenan produced a brilliant reinterpretation of the opening chapter of Capital, in particular highlighting the way in which the opening chapter loops back on itself, destabilising the earlier sections that had initially appeared as static “definitional” claims. In 1998 (24-28, 63-66), Carver called for greater attention to the “textual surface” of Marx’s argument and highlighted the way in which the text positions social actors as characters who are not fully exhausted by any specific role the text shows them to play. In 2007 (75-76), Wheen published a “biography” of Capital in which he argued that the text must be read with close attention to voice, tone, and dramatic genre, and homes in on the primary substantive concern driving the various literary gestures: “To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated with irony – an irony which has escaped most scholars for 140 years”. In 2008, Sutherland mounted a convincing case for détournement in Capital’s opening chapter, accompanied by a scathing critique of Marxist theory for attempting to reduce Marx’s claims to a list of theoretical “contents” abstracted from the style in which those claims had originally been put forward. In Sutherland’s words:

Marx has been read, and continues now to be read, as though his thinking had nothing to do with literariness and with style, not at least in any radical sense… The most important way in which the meaning of Marx’s is transformed, not only by his translators, but likewise and as though collaboratively by current literary theorists, is through their elimination of satire from Capital. (6)

Two earlier works, not yet mentioned in the survey above, deserve particular attention in relation to the reading I have been developing: John Seery’s (1990) Political Returns, and Dominick LaCapra’s (1983) Rethinking Intellectual History. Neither of these works is focussed solely on Marx. Both, however, present interpretations that prefigure important aspects of my own argument – in particular, the claim that Capital needs to be read as a self-deconstructing text that puts forward positions that it then destabilises. I want to dwell for a moment on their arguments here.

Seery provides a detailed analysis of the foreword for Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which addresses the problem of how philosophy is possible after Hegel (243). According to Seery, the answer Marx provides is that philosophy is possible after Hegel – if it assumes an ironic form (244-45). Seery traces the way in which this theme plays itself out in subterranean form in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the difference between Democritus’ more deterministic materialism, and Epicurus’ variant of materialism, which accommodates the potential for a “swerve” that deviates from strict determination (245-49). Seery then argues:

The foreword begins with the question of how it is at all possible to philosophize after Hegel’s total triumph, how, as it were, one can ‘swerve’ from Hegelianism. Traditionally, scholars have interpreted the young Marx as still enraptured at this time with Hegel and Hegelianism, and they have read Marx’s dissertation as an attempt ‘to fill in lacunae in Hegel’s system,’ or else to find a way to put Hegelianism into practice (as a benign resolution to his schoolboy Oedipalism). I suggest, however, that a careful reading of the foreword along with the dissertation reveals that Marx is thoroughly distancing himself from Hegel while at the same time he is informing us that his alternative stance will nonetheless resemble Hegelianism in outward form: a double stance, which cannot be reduced to the epigonal anxiety of a typical young Hegelian. (250)

I have written previously on Marx’s complex relation to Hegel in Capital – Seery’s analysis suggests a very similar understanding of that relationship, foreshadowed in Marx’s doctoral thesis. In Seery’s interpretation, Marx’s citation of the forms of Hegel’s work, the parallels between Hegel’s method and his own, needs to be understood in a deeply ironic light – as a similarity formed at a fundamental level by a desire to effect a fundamental internal transformation of Hegel’s system, while outwardly appearing consistent with Hegel’s method.

Seery argues that Marx’s embrace of irony is a specific response to the question of how we can escape from totalising philosophies:

In particular, Marx wishes to show why, in the wake of totalizing philosophies, it is necessary for the subjective form of philosophy to wear ‘disguises’ and ‘character masks’; why Plato employs myths and Epicurus endorses the principle of repulsion; and why, by extension, Marx will apparently embrace Hegelianism…

In other words, in order to philosophize after Hegel, in order to ‘live at all after a total philosophy,’ Marx is saying that we need ‘ironists,’ or those who are able to break with totalizing views of reality, and then can act on their own, like the self-initiating motion of Epicurus’ swerving atom. But because Hegel’s triumph is so encompassing, according to Marx, post-Hegelian ironists will need to couch their subjective philosophies in Hegelian terminology, nonetheless. (250-51)

Seery thus finds in Marx an anti-totalising impulse, ironically expressed in the rhetoric of a totalising philosophy. In my reinterpretation of Capital, I put forward textual evidence for a very similar claim, but in more social theoretic form. If the early Marx was striving to break away from the dominance of a seemingly omnipresent totalising philosophical discourse, the later Marx confronts a social system that, seen from certain angles, can seem totalising, not just in discourse, but in reality. In both cases, Marx opts for irony as his critical tool of choice, as the technique by which he expresses the possibility for the “swerve” that will burst apart the totality apart from within.

As a presentational strategy, however, irony can have strange effects on the reader’s experience of the text – particularly when, as is the case in Capital, the technique is not explicitly announced in advance. As Seery (1990: 253) notes:

…compounding the problem of discovering Marx’s ‘ironic’ outlook is that Marx would be, according to his dissertation, an ironist on the sly, a writer who conceals his ironic view of things. Is all hope lost of pinning Marx down?

Seery (253) goes on to recommend the sorts of reading strategies that would be required:

I suggest that we can discern Marx’s ‘irony’ by indirection, by disclosing its deep presence through elimination, by smoking it out of hiding: For unless we attribute a buried form of irony to Marx’s language, we cannot make complete sense of his ‘early’ writings. Or to put it more positively: Only by crediting Marx with an ironic, self-critical, partially detached, performative understanding of the function of his own language can we provide an answer to the questions left over from Rose’s analysis of The German Ideology [a work which Seery has used as a foil for his analysis].

The same reading strategies, LaCapra suggests, are required for Capital – a point he attempts to demonstrate through what he calls a “fictionalized reconstruction of the ‘phenomenology’ of reading Capital” (1983: 332).

In this reconstruction, LaCapra notes that the way readers approach Capital’s opening passages generally determines how they understand the claims made in the rest of the text (332). When these passages are read as straightforward definitional claims, this colours the reader’s impression of the other claims that follow, leading to the sorts of literal interpretations I have outlined in previous posts. In LaCapra’s words:

Reading these opening sections for the first time, one is struck by the seemingly abstract delineation of concepts to analyze the commodity form (use value, exchange value, abstract labour power, and so on). Marx seems to conform to the image of the pure scientist, indeed the theorist who, in the afterword to the second German edition, seems to invert Hegel by collapsing positivism and the dialectic into a purely objectivist notion of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. A positivistic dialectic appears to be revealed as ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. The first three sections of the principal text also seem to fall neatly within this ‘problematic’. (333)

LaCapra suggests, however, that as the text progresses, it calls into question this first impression – starting, in LaCapra’s read, with the section on the fetish character of the commodity, which:

… causes a rupture in the text and disorients one’s expectations about it. One is led to reread the earlier sections in its light and to notice the evidence of ‘double-voicing’ or of ‘internal dialogization’ operating to disfigure their seemingly placid positivistic façade. (333)

LaCapra goes on to highlight a number of the same ironic textual gestures I have also highlighted in my various discussions of Capital‘s opening chapter. To avoid repetition, I will not review his specific reactions here. What I want to note here is that LaCapra’s “heuristic” observations on the reader’s experience of the text are very close to the reading strategy I have suggested is most productive in confronting Capital: I have argued that reading Capital requires an iterative strategy that involves the constant re-evaluation of earlier claims in light of new perspectives introduced later in the text. This process helps bring into view what LaCapra calls double-voicing and sensitises the reader to the presence of internal dialogues as a way of making sense of the complex presentational strategy playing out in the main text. In the process, it becomes easier to see how apparently firm ontological distinctions that are put forward in the opening passages of Capital are progressively destabilised and unsettled as the text moves forward.

The Fetish and the Commune

Marx makes significant edits to Capital between the first German edition in 1867 and the second in 1873 – edits that begin to be articulated in his revisions for the serialised French publication of Capital between 1872 and 1875. Revisions are particularly heavy in Capital‘s opening chapter – where the concept of the fetish character of the commodity is massively expanded and gains its own section. When interpreting the dramatic structure of the first chapter, as I’ve done on this blog off and on for the past few years, I’ve followed the text as it stands after the revisions of the second German edition. I would have done this even if I had regarded these revisions as fundamentally altering the meaning and structure of the first edition but, as it happens, there is textual evidence from the first edition that Marx understood the dramatic structure of that original edition to be very similar to what I find in the edition familiar to us: a text that enacts three different perspectives on the wealth of capitalist societies, and then destabilises even the final perspective by suggesting that it is still not fully adequate to express the characteristics of that wealth. In Marx’s words (using Hans Ehrbar’s extremely useful side-by-side German-English version of the first edition) these are the final sentences of the equivalent to our current opening chapter:

The commodity is immediate unity of use-value and exchange-value, i.e. of two opposite moments. It is, therefore, an immediate contradiction. This contradiction must develop as soon as the commodity is not, as it has been so far, analytically considered once under the angle of use-value, once under the angle of exchange-value [by which, in this edition, Marx means what will be called “value” from the second edition], but as soon as it is placed as a whole into an actual relation with other commodities. The actual relation of commodities with each other, however, is their exchange process [which is what Marx will explore in the following section]. (cf. Ehrbar 148)

So: three voices, the first two of which do not have the capacity to show how the contradictions in the commodity can be developed in practice – the third of which does potentially lead in a more promising direction, but not in the form in which it has been presented in this opening chapter. The revisions for the second edition, on my reading, bring out the distinctions between these voices more clearly – at which point Marx, in a typical move, excises the little bit of stage direction I have quoted above, ending the chapter instead on the Dogberry and Seacoal exchange that, in the first edition, takes place in the paragraph prior. The edits to the chapter – which include a much clearer terminological distinction between exchange-value and value, as well as the expansion of the discussion of the fetish character of the commodity – each seem, on my reading, ways of cashing out more clearly the claims of its original concluding sentence.

Particularly in Marxist Humanist readings of Capital, it is common to argue that the revisions to the first edition were provoked by Marx’s experience of the Paris Commune, which, it is suggested, for the first time give him a sense of the standpoint from which the fetish character of the commodity can be penetrated: the standpoint of freely-associated labourers.

Peter Hudis, for example (159-60), argues:

Remarkably, there is no section on commodity fetishism in the 1867 (first) edition of Volume 1 of Capital. It was only between 1872 and 1875, in revising Capital for the French edition, that Marx created a section entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret’. Marx introduced certain crucial changes to his discussion of commodity fetishism in the French edition, which he said ‘had a scientific value independent of the original’. One of the most important changes concerned his effort to answer the question of ‘whence arises this enigmatic character of the product of labour, once it assumes the form of a commodity’. It is only with the French edition that Marx answered this to his satisfaction, by stating, ‘Clearly from this form itself’. With this change, Marx makes it clear that what explains the fetish is the very form assumed by the product of labour, the very nature of the ‘peculiar social character of the labour’ which produces commodities. This new formulation, as well as the new section on commodity fetishism as a whole, explicitly posed the abolition of fetishism as centring on the abolition of value-producing labour.

What intervened between the first German edition in 1867 and the French edition of 1872-5 which explains Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism? The Paris Commune. The changes introduced in the French edition reflect its impact…

The activity of the Communards thereby allowed for a new leap in thought. Commodity fetishism cannot be penetrated by enlightened critique which assumes a privileged standpoint outside the value-form; nor can it be stripped away by pointing to a hidden essence obscured by the ‘illusion’ of fetishism. Instead, ‘The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surround the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes as soon as we come to other forms of production.’ The emergence of a new form of association pointing to the transcendence of the value-form in 1871 provided the vantage point for penetrating the secret of the fetish. Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism after the Paris Commune reveals the impact of the workers’ revolts on the creation of his central value-theoretic categories.

Hudis’ argument subtly displaces the form in which Marx presents his discussion of the free association of labourers. In Marx’s text, the sentence on how the mystery of commodities vanishes when we confront other forms of production, does not immediately lead into the discussion of freely-associated labourers. Instead, that passage describes the hypothetical Robinson on his island, then moves to a discussion of medieval serfdom, then to a discussion of labour in common within a patriarchal household – and only then to a discussion of freely associated labourers. Moreover, when this more emancipatory example is introduced, the text makes clear that the point is not specifically to put forward a model for future social development, but rather to come up with an example that closely parallels the component aspects of commodity production that have been put forward earlier in this chapter. By omitting all of the other examples Marx considers, and juxtaposing the example of freely-associated labour directly with Marx’s claim to reveal the “magic and necromancy” that surrounds commodities, Hudis makes it sound as though the discovery of the possibility for freely-associated labour is what allows Marx to penetrate the mystery of the commodity form.

Hudis seems unaware that the first edition of Capital – published in 1867, prior to the Commune – already includes the passage on freely-associated labourers (cf. Ehrbar 2009: 120-22). It immediately follows a discussion of Robinson on his island. In other words, the first edition of Capital already contains the nucleus of the passage Hudis presents as new to the French edition – and that nucleus already contains the central insight Hudis argues is pivotal to Marx’s post-Commune critique of the fetish.

What is new with the later edition is that the two earlier examples – Robinson on his island, and freely-associated labour – are now joined by two further, historical examples. What Marx changes, in other words, is a passage from the original edition that included only hypothetical examples: he beefs up the passage by adding a couple of real-world examples from actual historical cases. The nature of this change suggests that Marx might have been worried that, without real-world examples, it would seem utopian to suggest that the fetish-character of the commodity was not in some sense inherent. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but the logic of this revision does not suggest that, when he speaks of an association of free labourers in this context, he has the very real-world example of the Commune in mind. This point should not be too surprising, however, given that the text expressly says that this more emancipatory example has been chosen for the parallels it offers to commodity production, rather than as a recommended model for future social development.

I have written elsewhere on the function these examples serve within the architechtonic of Marx’s argument: they allow him to demonstrate that you can take some of the same component practices that – in their present configuration – help to reproduce capital, and reconfigure them into new forms in which they can be shown no longer to generate this unintentional aggregate result. If I am right about what Marx is trying to show, revising the passage to add historical examples would make sense: otherwise it could appear that Marx is unable to show – other than by ungrounded hypotheticals – that it should be possible to transform social relations in such a way that the fetish character would no longer exist. For this purpose, Robinson on his island – or a hypothetical future society of freely associated labourers – are useful thought experiments, but could leave a nagging doubt about the practical reality of Marx’s claims. The historical examples thus bolster the argument by identifying actual examples of social relations that, while by no means ideal, nevertheless help illustrate that the fetish character of social relations is not an inevitable result of material production – or even of class domination. This strategic goal, I suggest, drives these particular revisions.

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.

Our Heart of Darkness

Another fragment on Capital‘s second chapter: Soon after the dialectical performance discussed below, the text subtly re-establishes the anthropological character of its object of analysis. The main text introduces a little bit of algebra, giving us an equation for the first exchange of products (181). In a delightfully ironic footnote hanging from this equation, Marx complains:

So long as a chaotic mass of articles is offered as the equivalent for a single article (as is often the case among savages), instead of two distinct objects of utility being exchanged, we are only at the threshold of even the direct exchange of products. (181n5)

The savages in this footnote are us. For direct barter precisely does involve the exchange of two distinct objects of utility. It is only with the development of a universal equivalent – of money – that “a chaotic mass of articles” is consistently offered, in practice, for a single article. This point becomes explicit in Capital’s following chapter, as Marx continues to unfurl his complex deconstruction of money:

…the expanded relative expression of value, the endless series of equations, has now become the specific relative form of the money commodity. However, the endless series is now a socially given fact in the shape of the price of commodities. We have only to read the quotations of the price-list backwards, to find the magnitude of the value of money expressed in all sorts of commodities. (189)

If this is “savagery”, it is a form of savagery produced in the heart of capitalist “civilisation” – one that will continue to be reproduced, so long as the commodity remains the elementary form of social wealth.

Notes on I.I. Rubin’s Qualitative and Quantitative Value Theories

I unfortunately don’t have the time to write on this topic properly, in a way that would make it accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with I.I. Rubin’s work on value theory. It might, for that matter, look a bit alien to people who are familiar with Rubin, since these are more personal notes to preserve a set of associations, than a worked-out argument… But for what it’s worth…

The rediscovery of I.I. Rubin’s work in the 1970s is one of the events that opened up new paths for understanding Marx’s value theory. Rubin’s work opposes substantialist interpretations of the category of value – interpretations that would, for example, understand value as something calculable from labour-time inputs – or interpretations that viewed Marx’s theory of value as oriented to explaining movements of commodity prices. Rubin argues that such interpretations miss the sociological dimension of Marx’s value theory – a dimension which Rubin attempts to recapture by focussing on how Marx’s category of value relates to an analysis of “production relations”.

So far, so similar – at least in superficial terms – to my own attempt to push into the foreground what I tend to call the “anthropological” character of Marx’s argument: like Rubin, I have tried to suggest that Marx is analysing the peculiar qualities and consequences of a distinctive form of social relation – and that the liminal ontological characteristics attributed to categories like value, abstract labour and capital reflect the anthropological peculiarities of the relation being analysed.

In other respects as well, Rubin seems to hit close to aspects of Marx’s theory that I have tried to foreground. In particular, Rubin seems to grasp what I have characterised as the retroactive determination of categories like value and abstract labour. He highlights that “social labour” is constituted as a subset of labouring activities, when the action of market determines objectively what sorts of labouring activities will succeed in counting as part of social labour – a subset that is smaller than the universe of privately-conducted labouring activities that are undertaken without prior knowledge of the volume of demand for the products those private labouring activities produce.

So much, so similar…

More askew, however, Rubin introduces what has become an influential distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” dimensions of Marx’s theory of value. The dimension I have just described – the culling process that constitutes “social labour” – falls onto the “quantitative” side of Rubin’s dichotomy. He associates it with the analysis of the magnitude of value, but distinguishes it from the analysis of the form of value – which, for Rubin, is what properly falls on the “qualitative” side of Marx’s theory – and thus on the side amenable to sociological analysis.

What seems to motivate this distinction is an assumption that social relations (“production relations” in Rubin’s inflection of Marx) must be fundamentally intersubjective in character. Searching about for some sort of intersubjective relation to which Marx might be referring in the opening sections of Capital, Rubin seems to hit on the sorts of social contract relations discussed at the opening of Capital‘s second chapter – the intersubjective relations of mutual recognition presented there as being at the heart of commodity exchange between formally autonomous, private producers. This move then skews Rubin’s analysis in a number of strange ways.

First, it leads him to a strangely utopian presentation of capitalist social relations as relations of equality between autonomous individuals (a presentation so positive-sounding in its implications that he must constantly backtrack within his own discussion to point out that the relation omits other important forms of equality, etc.).

Second, it leads him to understand the argument about the fetish character of the commodity as an argument about how these intersubjective relations take on an strangely objective character. This is a difficult circle to square, since social contract relations of mutual recognition are, in many senses, the ideal-typic, almost definitional, archetypes of intersubjective social relations, and are thus difficult to confuse with something objective and beyond the personal control of social actors. Rubin attempts to square it by identifying the only seemingly “objective” thing he can find in the social contract presentation: the fact that the social relation is “mediated” by an exchange of objects. He then tries to argue that this sort of mediation confers an objective cast on the social relation – a move that relies on the naturalisation of the “objective” character of objects (as though “things” naturally strike people as “thingly”, and thus a social relation mediated by the exchange of things would necessarily acquire an objective flavour). Rubin is historically savvy enough for this to cause him some worry: capitalism is hardly unique in mediating social relations by means of objects. This leads him to suggest that there is something more objective about our objects – partially because they are somehow not embedded within social relations in the same way, partially because the relationships being mediated have a form of personal autonomy within a general framework of complex interdependence established by market relations. These specific moves have filtered their way into more recent adaptations of qualitative value theory – particularly in Postone’s work.

I don’t have time for a fully adequate presentation of all of the reasons I think this constellation of moves is problematic, but I can suggest the direction of my criticisms by pointing to the third issue with Rubin’s approach: that he does not consider that Marx’s “sociological” analysis was attempting to confront a very different sort of social relation – one that has “objective” characteristics, not because an intersubjective process is mediated by things, but because the relation is simply not intersubjective in the first place. The phenomena Rubin groups on the “quantitative” side of his dichotomy – which he associates with the magnitude, but not the form, of value – should, I suggest, have instead been positioned as precisely what Marx’s “sociological” analysis is trying to explain.

Marx argues that political economy has grasped – somewhat imprecisely, but grasped nevertheless – the content of value: that somehow, somewhere, a pattern of social behaviour is being enacted that constitutes human labour as equal, and as measured by socially-average labour-time. What political economy does not grasp – because, Marx suggests, it is more worried about understanding the quantitative ratios in which commodities exchange – is the peculiar objective form in which these contents present themselves. This objective form relates to the way in which this content is not deliberately constituted by social actors via any intersubjectively-meaningful process, but instead arises unintentionally, as an emergent aggregate effect, from the tandem operation of a complex constellation of other social practices that are not oriented directly to achieving this specific goal.

As a result, when political economy first discovers this strange pattern – the ongoing enactment of a peculiar sort of lawlike pattern of social behaviour – this pattern does not appear to be generated in any obvious way by human social practices: after all, quintessential, archetypal social practices are intersubjective – and the pattern discovered by political economy results from nothing intersubjectively meaningful. Instead, the pattern is observed first in the movements of material goods. The pattern therefore appears to arise, not due to human actions, but due to some sort of intrinsic capacity for self-organisation inherent in the material world. The discovery of this pattern, in this way, not only disguises its social origin, but also makes it plausible for the material world to be perceived as a spontaneously self-organising realm that operates according to its own immanent laws that arise independently from human action. In other words, the material world starts to look… material. Objective. Secular. Devoid of anthropormorphic determination. Our intuitive secular sense of materiality emerges, from this account, as a very peculiar sort of anthropomorphism – wearing the perfect asocial disguise…

By reducing the sociological to the intersubjective, Rubin presents a near miss: he captures part of the argument about the non-intersubjective social relation through which “social labour” is enacted, but he relegates this topic to the “quantitative” side of the theory of value, and assumes the real meat of the argument must pertain to some sort of intersubjective relation. The set of moves pioneered by Rubin continue to be put forward by more recent attempts to understand the peculiar “objectivity” of the social relation Marx is trying to grasp – many of which replicate Rubin’s one-sidedness – the same one-sidedness analysed in Marx’s discussion of the fetish character. Marx’s attempt to break the identification of the “social” with the “intersubjective” is therefore lost – as is his complex analysis of how we collectively constitute this sort of complex, layered, mutifaceted social, only some portions of which intuitively appear social to us at first glance…

This is a very truncated exposition of this point, and not edited… – apologies… A student is bearing down at the door, unexpected, so I’ll put the post up rather than defer… More another time…

Indelicate Things

Well maybe just a little bit about sex in Capital… Backtracking a bit from the passage discussed in the previous post….

The second chapter of Capital begins where the previous chapter ostensibly left off: with a programmatic declaration about what commodities are unable to do, given that they are only things, not people.

Commodities cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are the possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. (1990: 178)

This passage looks like a “dialectical” derivation of a new category from the defects of the old: commodities, as simple objects, are unable to take themselves to market – and yet they are, intrinsically, objects that are exchanged; ergo, we can dialectically derive the existence of… owners! In the previous post, I suggested that such dialectical gestures should be read as ironic – not in the sense that Marx denies the results of the dialectical analysis (there really are owners of commodities, so the “result” is sound), but in the sense that the form of presentation does not reflect the actual form of analysis through which Marx arrives at his own critical interpretation of the reproduction of capital.

The next sentence already begins to destabilise the apparently confident assertion that commodities are passive objects, and casts doubt on the reliability of the character narrating this passage: “If they are unwilling,” the text tells us, “he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them” (178). Commodities have just been described as passive objects – unable to take themselves to market just as, at the end of the previous chapter, they were described as unable to speak. What sense can be made, then, of the notion of “unwilling” commodities that have no desire to be taken to the market and sold?

Marx dangles a footnote from this line that suggests an answer to this question:

In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities. Thus a French poet of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair of Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also ‘femmes folles de leur corps’. (178n1)

In the main text, then, a character declaims that commodities are passive things that rely on their owners to carry them to market. In a footnote to the same passage, Marx impishly provides an example of a commodity quite capable of carrying itself to market – and, while it is there, negotiating its own price and terms of sale: a prostitute. On the other hand, even this commodity, once sold – or, in the case of the prostitute, rented for a fixed duration of time – belongs to its purchaser who can, as the main text has just said, use force if the prostitute is unwilling to consummate the sale. This image of the prostitute who has been forced to service the buyer haunts the discussion in the main text. It prefigures the plight of the wage labourers whose existence has not yet been explicitly acknowledged in the text.

The main text carries on, describing the performative stances that commodity owners assume towards each other, in the process of exchanging their wares:

In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in these objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate his own, except through an act to which both parties consent. The guardians therefore recognise each other as owners of private property. (178)

The text thus describes two different performative stances whose joint performance enacts a social actor as a commodity owner. The first performative stance involves enacting the commodity as an external thing that, as an expression of its owner’s will, can be “objectified” and treated instrumentally – if the commodity resists, the owner is allowed to take possession by force. The second performative stance involves enacting other commodity owners as fellow subjects who cannot be engaged instrumentally – their commodities cannot simply be appropriated by force because the first commodity owner desires them – but instead must be engaged through processes of mutual recognition and consent.

The discussion of mutual recognition amongst commodity owners, and objectification of commodities themselves, reacts back on the dialectical discussion of commodities from the third section of Capital’s opening chapter. In that section, commodities were presented as engaging in social interactions that involved mutual recognition. In this section, by contrast, these forms of interactions have been displaced from commodities to their owners, and the commodities have been repositioned as the objects of instrumental action. The contrast subtly destabilises the notion that the “definitional” claims put forward in either of the opening chapters of Capital could be read as fixed ontological distinctions, by drawing attention to the continuous redetermination of the ontological status of the persons and objects described, depending on the social perspective from which they are viewed.

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…

For Roger

Roger is complaining about the long silence, and asking me to recycle old content if nothing else to keep things a bit noisier around here… I had been planning to break my silence with a post about sex in Capital (all together now: “ewwww!”), but since I keep having to defer writing that post, I thought I’d do the second-best thing, and lift from the comments something Roger has suggested should have made its debut in post form…

I do plan on being back soon… But I keep saying this, and it’s been a very quiet year around the blog as real-world responsibilities keep escalating as soon as I start to hit a workload groove… So for the moment, something from the old comments. More soon…

***

I have tried to make an extended argument that Capital needs to be read as a deflationary text – meaning that, where other forms of theory tend to presuppose certain “givens”, on the basis of which they then conduct their analysis, Capital tries not to do this. It tries, instead, to show how the major tools in its analytical toolkit – including foundational categories like “society”, “history”, or “material life” – are actively produced by specific forms of human interactions, and therefore reflect the distinctive sensibilities that are primed by particular forms of collective practice.

I’ve written before about a passage in the Grundrisse where Marx praises Smith for developing the category of “labour” – where this term means any sort of productive activity, rather than some specific form of activity (like agriculture). Marx believes that Smith was only able to come up with this category because collective practices were in fact enacting “labour” in that way – there was some dimension of collective life in which we had become genuinely indifferent to whether someone grew food or made handicrafts or provided services. This practical experience made Smith’s theoretical achievement possible, in Marx’s account – which doesn’t mean that Smith didn’t have to work very hard to work out, explicitly, the implications of that practical process – to draw the conclusion that “labour” could mean something like productive activity of whatever sort, rather than being tied to some specific kind of production.

A lot of Capital offers much more complex versions of this sort of argument. It takes categories from political economy (and other forms of theory) and explores what is happening in our practical experience to make it “socially valid” to develop these sorts of categories at a particular period of time. In the process, Marx often also points out that particular forms of theory have seized on practical processes in a “one sided” way – so, a theory may legitimately express something happening in one dimension of social practice – and may be very accurate if applied only to that dimension. However, that same theory may be completely blind to some other dimension of practical experience – and, as a result, it may overextrapolate from the dimension it does express well. It may conclude, for example, that human nature has a certain character, because humans really do behave a certain way in some slice of their social existence. This conclusion can sometimes be undermined just by bringing other slices of social experience to bear on the question. Capital attempts to do this in a systematic fashion.

When analysing Smith’s category of “labour”, Marx notes that Smith achieved this great breakthrough – he articulated explicitly the implications of this great shift in social practices, which meant that it had become tacitly possible to think about productive activity in general, rather than specific kinds of production. By making this explicit, Smith performed – Marx believed – a great service, making this explicit category available and opening up new forms of perception and practice as a result. However, Smith’s insight was precarious – Marx notes that Smith didn’t always manage to hang onto the best implications of his own insight. Sometimes, Marx argues, Smith slid back into earlier physiocratic understandings of labour – this backsliding, Marx argues, indicates how hard it actually is to hang on, explicitly, to insights that are tacit in new sorts of collective practice – it takes a while for concepts to become intuitive and settle in.

I would suggest there’s something similar happening with Marx’s more crass or “vulgar” statements about the centrality of material life to human society. The overwhelming thrust of a work like Capital is that what matters is collective practical experience – of whatever sort. The text examines practices associated with material production – but it also examines law, the state, contract relations, customs, ideals, gender relations – basically anything it occurs to Marx to fold in. Moreover, when it does analyse “material” relations, it does so in order to show how we effect our material reproduction through customary practices that have nothing to do with the intrinsic requirements of material production per se – and the text also offers an extremely complex and sophisticated analysis of how we could come to believe in the existence of a disenchanted “material world” in the first place (where the answer is that we come to believe in such a world because, at this moment, we are in fact collectively enacting such a world – and then overextrapolating from the slice of social existence where that enactment takes place, losing sight of our role in making a material world of a certain sort).

Spelling all this out is complicated – too much for a comment. So this is probably not all that convincing as stated. But it’s what was floating in the background of the offhand comment above. Some of Marx’s explicit statements to the effect that, e.g., how people meet their material needs is more analytically central than, say, language – I view these as similar to Adam Smith sliding back into physiocratic concepts of “labour”: they fall behind the level of sophistication that Marx actually deploys in Capital – they are fundamentally metaphysical – and, since Marx mounts an enormous critique of the metaphysics of political economy in Capital, he really should know better.

The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.

Normally Marx keeps this squarely in view. Sometimes… not so much. Passages in which he insists that material life is always at the centre are, in my view, “not so much” moments of his work – they get in the way (not just abstractly – this is, historically, practically, the impact they have had) of understanding the sorts of transformations that might be possible, and how those transformations might be achieved.

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Malthusian Asides

Miro's singing fishMarx reserves a special sort of loathing for Malthus. Since chapter 25 of Capital focusses precisely on the ways in which capitalism generates its own distinctive laws of population, the chapter can in many respects be read as a frontal assault on Malthus’ work. Marx’s antipathy is so strong, however, that he has to ease into the direct mention of Malthus’ name. Safeguards are required. A certain amount of buildup is needed.

First, Marx will establish his capacity for equanimity in the face of some fairly explicit apologistic material. Marx quotes – in the main text – Bernard de Mandeville’s sage advice on keeping the poor in their place:

It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in. nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get … Those that get their living by daily labour … have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make his desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy … (765)

After allowing Mandeville the floor for this and other choice recommendations, Marx praises him – calling Mandeville as “an honest man with a clear mind” – and offering nothing more vituperative than a mild corrective rebuke for Mandeville’s failure fully to understand “the mechanism of the accumulation process” (765). Marx then quotes Eden, who agrees that:

It is not the possession of land, or of money, but the command of labour which distinguishes the opulent from the labouring part of the community. (766)

Marx goes on to “remark… in passing” that Eden “was the only disciple of Adam Smith to have achieved anything of importance during the eighteenth century” (766). The comment appears casual, trivial, and beside the point – a curiosity we could surely skip lightly past on the way to the substantive material in the next paragraph. Except that a massive multi-page footnote blocks our way and, when we decide that a footnote of such prodigious length might be important, finally locate the footnote marker at the end of the “passing remark” above, and cast our eyes down into the marginalia, we discover that special circle of textual hell into which Marx has decided he will deposit Malthus…

Malthus is therefore introduced into this chapter with an insult: Eden is the only disciple of Smith to amount to anything – making Malthus a disciple of Smith who… didn’t… Just in case the reader doesn’t make the connection, Marx makes it for them, in the opening sentence of his note:

If the reader thinks at this point of Malthus, whose Essay on Population appeared in 1798, I would remind him that this work in its first form is nothing but a schoolboyish, superficial plagiarism of Defoe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc., declaimed in the manner of a sermon, but not containing a single original proposition of Malthus himself.

And so on. For three pages of small-typed footnote, which rapidly veers off into a mischievous round of speculation (for which the textual pretense is an observation about Malthus’ personal vow of celibacy) asking why Protestant clergy in particular should have proven so well-represented amongst theorists of overpopulation, and concluding with comments on how Adam Smith was reprimanded for his friendship with the atheist Hume…

Malthus finally makes his way into the main text of this chapter in section 3, in a discussion of modern industry’s need for surplus population. Malthus figures here as a sort of limit case of the obviousness of the point Marx is making: “Even Malthus”, Marx points out, “recognizes that a surplus population is a necessity of modern industry…” The implication is that, if even Malthus recognises it, the point is simply too obvious to be denied…

Even here, however, Marx can’t give Malthus credit for one point well understood: Malthus accounts for this, Marx argues, “in his narrow fashion, not by saying that part of the working population has been rendered relatively superfluous, but by referring to its excessive growth” (787). Marx quotes Malthus at length here – speaking dourly about how many years it takes to bring “an increase of labourers… into market in consequence of a particular demand”, compared to the much shorter cycles of investment of accumulated capital, such that natural population increase is too blunt a means of increasing the supply of workers to accommodate the vicissitudes of industrial demand (787).

At this point, Marx introduces the burlesque image of political economy as a cross-dressing discourse – one that adopts one character to proclaim the necessity of a surplus population available to deploy at any moment, only then to shift to another character that holds the population responsible for not increasing its numbers beyond what subsistence can allow:

After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of a relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capital accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts into the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the ‘redundant’ workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: ‘We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence.’ (787-788)

The final quoted passage does not come from Malthus, but the logic of the section inserts Malthus into this scene – as someone stepping into the character mask required for a particular apologist production, ready to cast that mask aside and step into another as the situation requires…

Malthus crops up again – in the form of a reference to “Malthusians” – in the final section of the chapter, in a passage which summarises the results of a long empirical and theoretical discussion aimed at showing how processes specific to capitalist societies generate demographic trends – laws of population – that are anything but inscribed intrinsically in nature:

Here then, under our own eyes, and on a large scale, there emerges a process which perfectly corresponds to the requirements of orthodox economics for the confirmation of its dogma, the dogma that misery springs from an absolute surplus of population, and that equilibrium is re-established by depopulation. This is a far more important experiment than the mid-fourteenth century plague so celebrated by the Malthusians. (861)

Once again, Marx is unwilling to place Malthus at the centre of his focus – even in a passage in which Marx is essentially claiming to have derived the historically and socially specific basis for the phenomena Malthus reads off onto timeless nature. Once again, Malthus cannot be dignified with a direct discussion, but is allowed to enter the text only obliquely – by way of an aside: “Let us remark in passing,” Marx says:

if it required the naivety of a schoolmaster to apply the standard of the fourteenth century to the relations of production prevailing in the nineteenth century, and the corresponding relations of population, the error was compounded by overlooking the difference between its consequences in England and in France.

Marx underscores here an important point in relation to what he means by “law”. Not only are Marx’s “laws” historically and socially specific – not only are they understood to derive from contingent social practices, rather than invariant nature – but they are also probabilistic – they are tendencies, which play themselves out in different forms in specific situations within the historical and social context Marx sets out to analyse, which confront countervailing tendencies, and which are highly dependent on complex boundary conditions. Like many other chapters in Capital, this chapter draws attention to multiple theoretical possibilities – and a diversity of actual empirical outcomes – every time it attempts to illustrate a “law” at work.

Marx then further highlights the social dimension of the laws that he has derived, by taking one final shot at the Malthusian analogy to the plague – tacitly asking what sort of “natural” law would operate like this:

The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. (861)

The chapter ends with an extended discussion of the Irish famine and migration, emphasising the social character of what is portrayed. It also – characteristically – draws attention to the mirror world – to the unintended consequences of the ways in which this “law” has been allowed to play itself out:

Like all good things in the world, this profitable mode of proceeding has its drawbacks. The accumulation of the Irish in America keeps pace with the accumulation of rents in Ireland. The Irishman, banished by the sheep and the ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian. And there a young but gigantic republic rises, more and more threateningly, to face the old queen of the waves