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Category Archives: Contradiction

Thesis Workshop: Forms of Motion

Another thesis chapter in the series that focusses on Capital‘s third chapter. This chapter spends quite a lot of time using the new material Marx is providing to take a much closer look at the opening categories of value and abstract labour. It also explores the implications of some brief comments Marx makes about “real contradictions”. These comments are methodologically quite important: they indicate that, when Marx unfolds – as he continues to do throughout Capital – new forms whose implications “contradict” those of earlier forms, he does not understand the new stage of his analysis to have superseded the earlier analysis. To state it crudely: like Hegel, Marx rejects the notion that, when two things contradict, one of those things must be wrong. Pointing to contradictions, however, can be useful as a means of establishing the boundedness and limitations of particular interpretations of social experience – a point that is stated more clearly below than I can do so in brief here. Marx’s early statements about contradiction also begin to make clear that the existence of “social contradictions” does not, by itself, point beyond the existing form of social life – although such contradictions can make it easier to recognise the contingency and artificiality of this form of social life in specific ways. Much more on this below, plus – as always – a systematic move through the underbrush of the text.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Thesis Workshop: How Does Essence Appear?

I’m going to be in transit for the next couple of days, with very limited net access, and so won’t be able to respond to comments or mails. This and the next couple of thesis chapter posts have been queued, so if the blog does its job, they’ll keep trundling their way into the world in my absence.

This chapter is part of a set of three that spends a possibly inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of the complex third chapter of Capital, in which Marx undertakes an extensive deconstructive analysis of money – exploring all the various ways in which this “single” object takes on different roles, and as a result comes to carry radically different meanings, implications and consequences for practice. This chapter is perhaps the single best example of how Marx consistently under-signposts what he is trying to achieve when he makes specific argumentative moves. There is an enormous amount of work being done in Capital‘s third chapter – something you might guess by the sheer length of the thing, but which can be difficult to tell when actually reading the text, because Marx relentlessly refuses to pause and draw out the implications on his own. Often, he’ll point out several chapters later that he sees himself to have made a specific point in an earlier chapter; he rarely emphasises the significance of his argumentative moves at the time, for reasons I’ve explained in chapter 4 of the thesis. Understanding the reasons, however, doesn’t make the practice less frustrating… This is why a single chapter of Capital can blow out into three chapters of my thesis: I provide the signposts Marx should have, but didn’t…

This thesis chapter, as you would guess from the title, focusses a lot of its time and energy on Marx’s use of Hegel’s vocabulary of essence and appearance. The idealist loan words and style of expression often manage to conceal the fact that Marx means pretty much the exact opposite of what the text intuitively seems to be saying: when Marx talks about an essence (like value) expressing itself in a form of appearance (like price), this sounds as if value is an external causal factor, driving the play of appearances. What Marx means is very different: essences are essences of their forms of appearance – it is the play of appearance that constitutes an essence as an immanent pattern that emerges in the transformation of appearances over time. Honest. Trust me. Scout’s honour.

All this – and a lot of textual interpretation – below the fold…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Thesis Workshop: Personifying Commodities

Okay. Now we get to the new stuff. The argument put forward in this and the remaining chapters, although it has been discussed on the blog in somewhat abstract terms from time to time, will probably seem at least somewhat new – and at the very least much more fully developed than what I have been able to post here before. This chapter begins to unfold what might seem a somewhat counter-intuitive interpretation of moments in Marx’s text where he writes as though he is reducing other phenomena to an economic or material dimension of social experience that he finds more ontologically fundamental – as though he is making a sort of metaphysical claim about the primacy of the economic. My reading of these passages is that they are attempts to make a very different sort of claim – a claim that is very specific to capitalism, and that attempts to pick out the distinctive qualitative characteristics of a form of sociality that Marx regards as unique to capitalist societies. But better to let those who are curious click through to the actual argument, which makes the case as well as I know how – and will therefore make it better than what I could summarise here.

One funny aspect of drafting and re-drafting: I’ve done a number of essentially stylistic revisions since I got the whole argument roughly into the form I was after. I find it interesting the way my evaluation of chapters changes due to the uneven periodisation of the revision process. This chapter, for example, came out of the original drafting process relatively cleaner and clearer than the other chapters. As a consequence, I’ve been focussing my editing energy on those other chapters, and only very slightly revising this one. So now, doing one further edit tonight, I’m finding myself mildly disappointed in this chapter, because the others have (I think…) now been edited into forms that surpass it… More editing to come I guess… ;-P In any event, I think the chapter is in an adequate state to post it here…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Secret Marx Decoder Ring

All right. As long as I’m here, maybe one brief comment about the thesis. Although generally I’m happy with the revision process, one of the nagging worries I have to keep bracketing relates to the number of times I have to quote a passage from Marx and, effectively, say: “What this means is the opposite of what it seems to literally say…” The thesis, of course, lays out the argument – in possibly too great detail ;-P – for why I interpret passages the way I do, and points out how the text becomes much more explicit about what it’s trying to do as it develops, etc., etc. Still, particularly in chapters where there’s a lot of close textual heavy lifting, I find myself saying this sort of thing so often that I start feeling like I’m writing: “Now examiners! Let’s see what this passage looks like, when we view it through my Secret Marx Decoder Ring!”

The passages from last night’s writing that elicited this reaction particularly strongly were:

Returning to the main line of argument: the interpenetration of these two different social functions confers and elicits a complex combination of social properties, and socially-relevant material properties, in the “same” object. Money is not a unitary social entity, and its multiplicity generates potentials for both practical and theoretical confusion. Marx expresses this by suggesting that the singular name “money” should not disguise the internal multiplicity of the object picked out by this term:

The name of a thing is entirely external to its nature. I know nothing of a man if I merely know his name is Jacob. In the same way, every trace of the money-relation disappears in the money-names pound, thaler, franc, ducat, etc. The confusion caused by attributing a hidden meaning to these cabalistic signs is made even greater by the fact that these money-names express both the values of commodities and, simultaneously, aliquot parts of a certain weight of metal which serves as a standard of money. (195)

The confusion that arises from this concentration of social functions onto a “single” object, however, is not one that Marx believes can be avoided. He argues:

On the other hand, it is in fact necessary that value, as opposed to the multifarious objects of the world of commodities, should develop into this form, a material and non-material one, but also a simple social form. (195)

When Marx speaks of “necessity” here, it is easy to hear this passage in almost idealist terms – as if value as a concept generates its own forms of actualisation. It is also easy to hear this passage in more conventional causal terms – as if value somehow exists separately from its forms of appearance and causes these forms to come into existence. I suggest that, instead, we need to hear this passage in light of Marx’s peculiar pragmatist appropriation of Hegel’s analysis of appearance and essence: Marx is not saying that value has somehow brought money into being out of itself, or caused money, as its form of appearance, to develop these multiple roles. For Marx, as for Hegel, appearance and essence are necessarily related because they are mutually interpenetrating moments of the same substance – value does not subsist separately from its forms of appearance and cannot act on those forms as independent to dependent variable. Appearance is not a medium to look through to see essence, on the other side, existing independently in some separate realm (an error for which Marx criticises classical political economy) – appearance is instead the medium in which essence also exists: essence is an immanent pattern of appearances.

In saying that it is necessary for value to develop into the money form, Marx is therefore saying that the practical combination of these specific social roles in this object is necessary in order for value to be generated as an unintentional pattern in collective practice. Although it is not yet clear in the text how Marx will cash out this claim, he is suggesting here that something about the multiplicity of money facilitates our collective enactment of the supersensible property of value, as a long-term, aggregate statistical tendency that we generate unawares. Value must necessarily “develop into this form” because our practical engagement with this and other such forms is, in Marx’s argument, how we unintentionally generate value.


Marx develops this theme further by exploring the everyday operation of price – which is also analysed as a multiplicity, expressing both the “money-name of the labour objectified in a commodity” (195-196) and “the greater or lesser quantity of money for which it can be sold under the given circumstances” (196). Marx makes clear in this paragraph that value does not sit outside its form of appearance in price, causing prices to be set according to the socially necessary labour-time required for the reproduction of a particular productive activity. Instead, prices are set according to how much money a commodity can capture in contingent circumstances that may have nothing to do with socially necessary labour-time:

Suppose two equal quantities of socially necessary labour are respectively represented by 1 quarter of wheat and £2 (approximately ½ ounce of gold). £2 is the expression in money of the magnitude of the value of the quarter or wheat, or its price. If circumstances allow this price to be raised to £3, or compel it to be reduced to £1, then although £1 and £3 may be too small or too large to give proper expression to the magnitude of the wheat’s value, they are nevertheless the price of the wheat, for they are, in the first place, the form of its value, i.e., money, and, in the second place, the exponents of its exchange ratio with money. (196)

If circumstances allow it, a commodity’s price may therefore enable it to capture a quantity of gold that requires far more socially-average labour-time to produce than the commodity itself requires. By the same token, circumstances may force a commodity to be exchanged for gold that costs far less socially average labour-time to produce than the commodity did. That a commodity realises more or less than the money equivalent of its own socially average labour-time, does not by itself redetermine the socially average labour-time required for that commodity’s reproduction. Socially average labour-time is determined by conditions of production that do not change automatically because a commodity’s price rises or falls above its value:

If the conditions of production, or the productivity of labour, remain constant, the same amount of social labour-time must be expended on the reproduction of a quarter of wheat, both before and after the change in price. This situation is not dependent either on the will of the wheat producer or on that of the owners of other commodities. The magnitude of the value of a commodity therefore expresses a necessary relation to social labour-time which is inherent in the process by which value is created. (196)

The realised price of a commodity, and the labour-time socially required for the reproduction of that commodity, are therefore described here as factors that are – at any given moment – determined independently of one another: price by contingent circumstances that dictate how much money can be captured in the exchange; and socially average labour-time by the average conditions of production and productivity of labour. Since the magnitude of value is not expressed in any way other than by the price of the commodity, the expression of value is necessarily and inexorably contaminated by all the other contingent factors that affect the amount of money for which that commodity can be exchanged:

With the transformation of the magnitude of value into the price this necessary relation appears as the exchange-ratio between a single commodity and the money commodity which exists outside it. This relation, however, may express both the magnitude of the value of the commodity and the greater or lesser quantity of money for which it can be sold under the given circumstances. (196)

The expression of the magnitude of value is therefore irredeemably contaminated by the universe of factors that can affect the price of a good: the noise of those situational factors makes it impossible to tell how well price expresses the signal of the magnitude of value. Once again, Marx has barred our access to the quantitative determination of essence from the direct observation of the realm of appearance: we cannot know from the price of a good – even once that price has been realised in exchange – what the magnitude of that good’s value is, because the price may express the influence of other contingent factors that opportunistically help or hinder the ability to capture any particular amount of gold.

Marx then argues that this contamination is in fact required in order for price to serve as the adequate form of appearance for value:

The possibility, therefore, of a quantitative incongruity between price and the magnitude of value, i.e. the possibility that the price may diverge from the magnitude of value, is inherent in the price-form itself. This is not a defect, but, on the contrary, it makes the form the adequate one for a mode of production whose laws can only assert themselves as blindly operating averages between constant irregularities. (196)

What is Marx saying here? I have previously suggested that Marx follows Hegel, both in seeing the realm of essences as a realm of laws, and in seeing essence as something that does not subsist in some ontologically separate substance or world from appearances: essence is therefore a pattern that arises in the movements of appearance over time. I have also argued that, by “law”, Marx means a statistical pattern or tendency that becomes visible in the non-random transformation of aggregate phenomena that are observed over time. Marx’s “laws” are less like simple predictive causal determinations, and more like descriptions of socially plausible trends – statistical tendencies that are, however, always subject to counter-tendencies and contingent factors that will affect how historical situations play out on the ground.

Value, I have suggested, is a term that picks out one of these long-term aggregate patterns: value is a category that describes a result of aggregate social behaviour, in the form of a trend or tendency that becomes visible over time. This trend, Marx suggests, has something to do with a compulsion to adopt socially average conditions of production and levels of productivity, such that production requires no more than socially average labour-time.

This compulsion is somehow mediated by price: this is what Marx means by calling price a form of appearance of value – somehow, by interacting with forms of everyday experience like the prices of goods, we collectively enact the long-term pattern that is value. Price “expresses” the magnitude of value by being a practical vector through which this magnitude is constituted in social practice. Price somehow helps to transmit compulsions for production to conform to socially average labour-time.

This compulsion, however, is not transmitted instantaneously: Marx draws attention to this when he distinguishes the factors that, synchronically, determine socially average labour-time – conditions of production and levels of productivity – from those that determine price. Price can deviate at any given instant from the money equivalent of the socially average labour-time currently required to reproduce the production of that commodity. So long as these situational deviations cancel one another out, no compulsion arises, in aggregate, that would redetermine the amount of labour-time, on average, that tends to be devoted to a particular productive activity. If the deviations trend over time in some particular direction, however – regularly capturing more or less money than equivalent to the labour-time currently required on average to reproduce a specific productive activity – this would tend to react back on the organisation of production and the social division of labour. If particular productive activities consistently attract higher prices than required to reproduce production at its current level, an incentive would exist to expand the volume of those productive activities. If particular productive activities consistently attract lower prices than required to reproduce production at its current level, an incentive would exist to scale back those particular productive activities.

In a situation in which the economy is not consciously planned, rising and falling prices provide an unconscious social signalling mechanism that helps achieve the result that Marx describes it in the opening chapter of Capital:

…all the different kinds of private labour (which are carried on independently of each other, and yet, as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are in a situation of all-round dependence on each other) are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. (168)

Production develops spontaneously – and therefore speculatively, in the absence of firm knowledge of whether it will succeed in reproducing or expanding itself as an element of the social division of labour. Production takes place without producers knowing for certain whether their labours will get to “count” as part of “social labour” because, in capitalist societies, the social mechanism for including or excluding productive activities from the social division of labour is market exchange — a social process that postdates production itself.

The market therefore culls from among the universe of spontaneous, speculative labouring activities — it “reduces” these activities down to the “quantitative proportions in which society requires them”. This reduction happens, in part, through the signalling mechanism of price, which can fill this role precisely because price deviates from value, as this category might be synchronically defined, as the labour-time socially required to reproduce all the speculative productive activities currently undertaken. Instead, price operates as a signal to society to reallocate its productive energies into new configurations: it signals “the proportions in which society requires” productive energies to be spent, by capturing, over time and on average, sufficient money to reproduce certain productive activities, insufficient money to reproduce others, and surplus money to encourage the expansion of still more.

Seen in this light, “socially average labour-time” takes on a new aspect. In the opening chapter of Capital, this category seemed to refer to socially-average levels of productivity: thus, the value of the product produced by hand loom weavers fell when the introduction of the power loom reset social standards for productivity. By chapter three, it seems clearer that “socially average labour-time” encompasses more than just the average level of productivity: it also captures the aggregate amount of social labour that, on average, should be dedicated to a particular activity. In this system of material production where productivity activities are governed neither by custom nor by a plan, where no individual or group possesses advance knowledge of the productive activities that will be able to serve as use-values via the hurdle of market exchange, production still does not take on a purely random form – long-term aggregate patterns can still be discerned. Price is one of the mechanisms through which such patterns are enacted, without any conscious intention by social actors to effect such patterns. By deviating from “value” – from the socially average labour-time that would be required to reproduce a given synchronic slice of productive activities – prices can, over time, provide incentives for – or compel – the reorganisation of production, so that production gradually tacks to the changing winds of unconscious aggregate social demands for social labour to be apportioned in particular ways.

This is not the entire story. We still do not have a full grasp of the concept of value or the problems Marx intends this concept to help him solve. Immediately following his discussion of how price can deviate from the magnitude of value, Marx begins adding further complications. The first is that things can come to have prices that do not possess value – that are not the products of labour – in any sense:

Things which in and for themselves are not commodities, things such as conscience, honour, etc., can be offered for sale by their holders, and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price. Hence a thing can, formally speaking, have a price without having a value. (197)

This gesture underscores that price does not relate to value as consequence to cause, or as an emanation from an essence. The form – the direct object of social experience – possesses its own reality, its own autonomy, its own impacts and implications – even if our interaction with forms like this, in the current context, also happens to generate the long-term aggregate trend named value. This move is consistent with Marx’s strategy of treating component parts of a larger assemblage as capable of being analysed apart from that assemblage, as possessing their own implications – some of which, like this one, can mislead social interpretations that hypostatise their significance, and some of which – as we will see in later chapters – provide the building blocks from which we could create alternative forms of collective life.


Marx notes that the exchange of commodities for money is an exchange of two commodities, each of which is characterised by an internal opposition between its use-value (for someone else) and its exchange-value (for its owner) (199). Marx argues that this internal opposition is externally expressed by exceptionalising the money commodity out from the universe of other commodities as the universal equivalent:

Commodities first enter into the process of exchange ungilded and unsweetened, retaining their original home-grown shape. Exchange, however, produces a differentiation of the commodity into two elements, commodity and money, an external opposition which expresses the opposition between use-value and exchange-value which is inherent in it. (199)

As always, the vocabulary of “expression” points back to Marx’s pragmatist appropriation of Hegel: the claim here is not that commodities possess a pre-existent internal division that then somehow causes or emanates into a division in the outside world: any internal or “essential” division within commodities must share the same substance and subsist in the same world as external divisions that present themselves directly to our practical experience of the world of appearance. The claim here is rather that we enact an internal division in commodities through our social practice of differentiating the money-commodity from other commodities. (Marx elsewhere argues that the key practical step takes place when social actors begin producing commodities with the intention of exchanging them, rather than simply exchanging whatever commodities are accidentally in excess of the producers’ needs – from this point, when exchange-value has become a purpose for social activity, the use-value/exchange-value distinction is firmly anchored in practical experience.) The “external opposition” that presents itself to our immediate experience thus constitutes the “inherent internal opposition” whose existence that external opposition is said to express. In Marx’s framework, essence does not precede the existence of its own forms of appearance. Instead, essence is the essence of its form of appearance. Essence and appearance are two moments or aspects of a single dynamic relation.

Okay. Enough fragments. I should note that these passages of text in particular are in a state of flux – in some of these sections, I’m not quite hitting what I’m trying to say yet: revision, revision, revision… Also: apologies in advance if there are comments, and I’m unable to respond to them: I’m generally trying to focus fairly exclusively on the thesis revision process, so am not much online…

More soon. Take care all…

Fragment on Crisis, Contradiction and Critique (Updated)

Once again, very very tangentially related to discussions of the current crisis. And deeply underdeveloped.

My contention is that Marx understands the “standpoint” of his critique to be potentials that could be released by a reconfiguration of the “materials” that we have made available to ourselves in constituting a particular aspect of our present form of collective life. It is not incidental to his critique that he understands it to be possible to grasp core aspects of the present form of collective life in terms of contradictory social forms, nor is it incidental that he understands the present form of collective life to be crisis-prone. Neither contradiction nor crisis per se, however, directly provides Marx with a standpoint of critique. Instead, contradiction and crisis tendencies are presented, in his analysis, as distinctive qualitative characteristics of the process by which capital is reproduced.

Marx makes the point that contradictions and crises are characteristic of the reproduction of capital, rather than phenomena that by themselves point beyond capital, in various places. I’ll archive two quotations on the subject here – from Marx’s discussion of the means of circulation in chapter 3. First on contradiction:

We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another and at the same time constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved. (198)

Then on crisis (and the relation between the possibility for crisis, and the contradictory character of the form, is particularly clear in this quotation):

Circulation bursts through all the temporal, spatial and personal barriers imposed by the direct exchange of products, and it does this by splitting up the direct identity present in this case between the exchange of one’s own product and the acquisition of someone else’s into the two antithetical segments of sale and purchase. To say that these mutually independent and antithetical processes form an internal unity is to say also that their internal unity moves forward through external antitheses. These two processes lack internal independence because they complement each other. Hence, if the assertion of their external independence proceeds to a certain critical point, their unity violently makes itself felt by producing – a crisis. There is an antithesis, immanent in the commodity, between use-value and value, between private labour which must simultaneously manifest itself as directly social labour, and a particular concrete kind of labour which simultaneously counts as merely abstract universal labour, between the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things; the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of the commodity are the developed forms of motion of this immanent contradiction. These forms therefore imply the possibility of crises, though no more than the possibility. (209)

Crisis figures here as the violent assertion of the underlying unity of antithetical moments of a social relation. Crisis is implied by the qualitative characteristics of that relation itself. In and of itself, neither the contradictory character of the relation, nor the crisis tendencies through which that contradictory character sometimes manifests itself, point beyond this relation.

This point is separate from the question, now being discussed at a few other blogs, of whether a historical period characterised by crisis is ripe for the development of a movement oriented to emancipatory social change. My personal opinion is that this latter question cannot productively be discussed abstractly, because I don’t see how the answer is amenable to generic theoretical determinations: theoretical analysis can cast light on how a particular kind of crisis could represent, not a breakdown of a social system, but rather a distinctive mode of social reproduction for a peculiar form of collective life; this is a far less complex question than whether some particular historical juncture might provide a fertile ground for the right kind of political struggle.

Updated to add: Reid Kotlas from Planomenology has a nice post up, discussing the cross-blog conversation on crisis, contradiction, and possibilities for transformative political practice. Among other things, the post picks up on elements of the comment above, linking these reflections to some of the concepts I’ve outlined earlier. A quick excerpt:

What would Bartleby politics look like for us, here on the ground level of the economy? Nicole at Rough Theory weighs in on the debate concerning crisis and change, and her response is quite instructive for our problem. She reminds us that the crisis and contradictions generated by capitalism are, for Marx, not necessarily elements of its collapse or overcoming, but rather, only part of the reproduction of capital. The question of emancipatory change, which for her is bound to the standpoint of critique, the genesis of a position capable of really breaking with the logic of capital, cannot be posed abstractly; it is not a question of ‘is this the right time?’ or ‘what kind of conditions does it require?’. It is a practical question of bringing about such positions through the reconfiguration of the ‘materials’ of social being – the ‘social but non-intersubjective element’ that she has previously discussed, which I would not hesitate to identify with the Symbolic order itself, or rather, the way subjects are bound up in it through organizations of jouissance. By intervening directly in the organization of collective praxis, which is to say, arrangements of enunciation and production, we can engender such a critical standpoint.

Or maybe I can put this another way. It is not that we must figure out some more radical form of organization, so as to bring about a break with capitalism. The question is how to organize collectively in line with a break that is already structurally presupposed in capitalism (the proletariat position), but that is at the same time rejected from assumption or possession, that is dis-inherited or foreclosed. It is not a question of bringing about a critical standpoint, but of enacting the necessary exclusion of its possibility, through the circulation of praxicals (indices of collective praxes, constellations of discursive and productive arrangements) that do not point toward capital as a pure possession of productivity, as the fullness of the yield of production. This latter notion is probably quite enigmatic at the moment, but it is what I am attempting to develop in my thesis (which is complete and will be posted here soon), and in my preliminary formulations of a practical model of schizoanalysis, which is, for me, a collective reorganization of the social/non-intersubjective materials of symbolic structures and relations of production.

Keep an eye on Planomenology, then, to see how these points are elaborated and developed. (Apologies for lack of a more detailed comment on these points – buried away working at the moment, but will hopefully resurface again soon.)

The Inverted World

So one of Nate’s recent posts has generated my bedtime reading for the past several days – Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital, an early work updated by Engels after Marx’s death, and his 1865 “Value, Price and Profit”. The former I have read before, but not recently. The latter I’m not sure I’ve ever read – if I have, I’ve thoroughly forgotten the content. Both works are interesting as self-popularisations – expressing Marx’s own attempt to simplify and prioritise elements from his work for a more popular audience.

From the standpoint of my own attempt to unpack and make sense of the textual strategy of the first volume of Capital, reading pretty much anything else by Marx has a particular kind of strange effect. On the one hand, his terminology in other works, particularly, but not exclusively, earlier works, is often very loose compared to the unfolding of the argument in Capital (which is not always itself consistent, but which reads, to me, much more consistent than anything else of Marx’s that I’ve read) – and, even where the terminology is reasonably consistent within a work, the sense of a term may be subtly, or even dramatically, different from the senses on which the first volume pivots. The first volume of Capital is also a “scientific” text – as Patrick Murray expresses it, Marx’s only “scientific” text – where the sense of “science” here is Hegelian: a science is something that does not step outside its object – something that reflexively accounts for its own categories as immanent moments of the relation it is analysing critically. The “point” of this kind of “scientific” analysis – as I’ve tried to express in many posts – is not to debunk the categories being analysed, but rather to locate them – to situate how our collective practices generate these particular categories as “practical truths”. Once this sort of “scientific” analysis has been carried out, the categories themselves can then be deployed – with an appreciation of their bounds and limits that derives from the “scientific” analysis itself, but without the need to replicate the massive apparatus that a reflexive critique requires. “Value, Price and Profit” in particular does this – relying on and, in places, even closely paraphrasing moments from Capital, but leaving aside the complex textual metastructure that allows Marx, in Capital to destabilise the categories in order to express at each moment their relational determination within the overarching social configuration he is trying to capture in this text.

Among other consequences – and as you would expect – these self-popularised works are much easier to read than Capital. When I bury myself in the textual strategy of Capital for too long, I always forget this: that Marx isn’t, so to speak, congenitally cryptic about his own substantive claims – that the esoteric textual strategy of Capital derives from the attempt to come up with a mode of presentation that expresses certain substantive claims about the peculiar, practically reflexive, character of the process by which capital is reproduced. Where Marx isn’t attempting to be rigorous in this very peculiar sense, he actually is capable of saying directly what he means. I often get startled by this, after spending long periods reconstructing the sense of over-subtle passages in the first volume of Capital, only then to stumble across Marx, in effect, chatting away about the point in a quite direct way in some other writing. This unfortunately doesn’t mean – at least, I don’t believe that it does – that Capital can be cast aside, in favour of other works where Marx speaks more plainly: there are things the first volume of Capital does, that are not done in other places, there is a systematicity and internal consistency to this volume compared to other works, and the very presentational form of the work itself makes a substantive argument worth unpacking in its own right. Nevertheless, I often feel a bit peculiar when shifting from the maddeningly indirect way the first volume of Capital makes its points – a form of presentation that always leaves interpretation feeling precarious and risky to me – to other works that state key points more baldly.

I’m thinking about this today because “Value, Price and Profit” concludes on a point I’ve been arguing (in work not yet on the blog… more on all this soon) is suggested by the dramatic structure of the first volume of Capital. In a concluding section titled “The Struggle Between Capital and Labour and Its Results”, Marx has, on the one hand, outlined the necessity for a struggle between labour and capital in order for labourers to realise the value of their peculiar commodity of labour power. This discussion positions the struggle between labour and capital as essential – but in a peculiarly qualified way. Marx argues first that the working classes must engage in this sort of struggle over the terms of the labour contract:

These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

The structural tendency of the system is such that this particular sort of struggle is required in order for labourers to receive the value of their commodities: this form of struggle, in other words, takes place within the ambit of commodity-determined production, and is part and parcel of this form of production. Moreover, failure to engage in this form of struggle may render other forms of political contestation impossible, subjectively and objectively. However, so long as political contestation remains restricted to this terrain, this contestation operates as a moment of the reproduction of the capital relation – mobilising ideals and forms of organisation that do not point in a fundamental way beyond the logic of commodity-determined production. What is needed, Marx argues, is a mobilisation that, however much it may begin from this sort of immanent contestation, reaches for ideals and forms of organisation that point to the abolition of commodity-determined production as such. Marx writes:

At the same time, and quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:

Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.

Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. The fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.

In the first volume of Capital, this sort of argument is made in a strangely subtle way. On the one hand, the narrative arc of the opening chapters, through the introduction of the category of labour power, marks out a dark parody of Hegel’s Phenomenology. In Hegel’s drama, when consciousness confronts the inverted world and comes to realise that it has been its own object all along – when consciousness achieves self-consciousness – this is an achievement of spirit. In Marx’s parody, when we finally grasp the wealth of capitalist society, and come to the realisation that this wealth is not an object “outside us”, but rather is us – that labour power is the substance of value and the emergence of the “free” labourer a necessary historical condition for generalised commodity production, it is the capital relation itself that is described in the vocabulary Hegel uses for the Geist: a blind, processual, process of domination – a runaway production become an end in itself and achieving domination over humankind – is what is “realised” once the subject-object dualism is undermined in Capital. At the dramatic moment where Hegel whips aside the curtain to reveal self-reflexive consciousness, Marx stages a very different kind of dramatic pivot in his text:

We now know how the value paid by the purchaser to the possessor of this peculiar commodity, labour-power, is determined. The use-value which the former gets in exchange, manifests itself only in the actual utilisation, in the consumption of the labour-power. The money-owner buys everything necessary for this purpose, such as raw material, in the market, and pays for it at its full value. The consumption of labour-power is at one and the same time the production of commodities and of surplus-value. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

A similar dramatic downturn follows the other major “self-realisation” of labour portrayed in the first volume of Capital: the story of the achievement of the normal working day.

On the one hand, the text speaks here with enormous sympathy and evident pride for the achievements of the working class struggles that culminate in the achievement of the normal working day. The poignant concluding passage of the chapter rings with the historical significance of this triumph:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo! [What a great change from that time! – Virgil]

At the same time, this conflict is positioned in the text as taking place within the ambit of commodity-determined production, with workers banding together in order to realise their rights as commodity owners – albeit of a very peculiar commodity. In the drama staged in this chapter, the conflict over the working day begins:

The capitalist has bought the labour-power at its day-rate. To him its use-value belongs during one working-day. He has thus acquired the right to make the labourer work for him during one day. But, what is a working-day?

At all events, less than a natural day. By how much? The capitalist has his own views of this ultima Thule [the outermost limit], the necessary limit of the working-day. As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour.

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

The capitalist then takes his stand on the law of the exchange of commodities. He, like all other buyers, seeks to get the greatest possible benefit out of the use-value of his commodity. Suddenly the voice of the labourer, which had been stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production, rises:

The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own. That is why you bought it. That which on your side appears a spontaneous expansion of capital, is on mine extra expenditure of labour-power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it, but to the buyer, who acquires it. To you, therefore, belongs the use of my daily labour-power. But by means of the price that you pay for it each day, I must be able to reproduce it daily, and to sell it again. Apart from natural exhaustion through age, &c., I must be able on the morrow to work with the same normal amount of force, health and freshness as to-day. You preach to me constantly the gospel of “saving” and “abstinence.” Good! I will, like a sensible saving owner, husband my sole wealth, labour-power, and abstain from all foolish waste of it. I will each day spend, set in motion, put into action only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration, and healthy development. By an unlimited extension of the working-day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three. What you gain in labour I lose in substance. The use of my labour-power and the spoliation of it are quite different things. If the average time that (doing a reasonable amount of work) an average labourer can live, is 30 years, the value of my labour-power, which you pay me from day to day is 1/365 × 30 or 1/10950 of its total value. But if you consume it in 10 years, you pay me daily 1/10950 instead of 1/3650 of its total value, i.e., only 1/3 of its daily value, and you rob me, therefore, every day of 2/3 of the value of my commodity. You pay me for one day’s labour-power, whilst you use that of 3 days. That is against our contract and the law of exchanges. I demand, therefore, a working-day of normal length, and I demand it without any appeal to your heart, for in money matters sentiment is out of place. You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in the odour of sanctity to boot; but the thing that you represent face to face with me has no heart in its breast. That which seems to throb there is my own heart-beating. I demand the normal working-day because I, like every other seller, demand the value of my commodity.

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.(bold text mine)

Between equal rights, force decides: this is a form of struggle determined by the structural indeterminacies built into the process of the reproduction of capital itself – a decentralised Foucaultian conflict that does not contravene the power relations built into the process of the reproduction of capital, but rather constitutes one of the moments for the reproduction of those relations. It is therefore not surprising that, in spite of the palpable compassion and pride with which this chapter reports the outcome of this struggle, what follows on this achievement, in terms of the dramatic structure of the text, is not a discussion of emancipation, but rather a discussion of relative surplus value – that is to say, a discussion of the particular form of surplus value extraction that results from the successful self-assertion of labour as a commodity owner.

This pivot in the text has sparked any number of debates over whether Marx is making a logical/analytical point, or describing some sort of temporally-identifiable historical shift. While I’m sympathetic to reading the point as logical, rather than as historical, I want to suggest that the more relevant point may instead be political: Marx is saying something here, through the structure and staging of the dramatic narrative of the text, about the limits of particular forms of working class mobilisation and political ideals – specifically, he is making here, subtly, the argument he makes explicitly in the passage I’ve quoted from “Value, Price and Profit” above: that not all forms of contestation, just by dint of being contestation – that not all struggles important to the working class, just by dint of being important to the working class – are revolutionary forms of conflict. Instead, the text suggests, some forms of conflict are actually part and parcel of the reproduction of the capital relation, expressive of the tendencies and of the immanent indeterminacies of that relation – vitally important for the humanisation of capitalism, crucial for their impact on the material and social forms of everyday lives, important for what they might open for a future politics – but in and of themselves not pointing beyond this social form.

So living labour – to the extent that it attempts to realise itself as living labour – participates in the reproduction of capital. This is half of the largest-scale “inversion” that structures the first volume of Capital. The other half relates to dead labour – the vampire, the were-wolf, the reanimated undead creature with no heart in its breast that survives only by constant infusions of lifeblood from the living: the graphic language of the text leaves no doubt of the horror that results from the domination of dead labour, so long as the capital relation continues to be reproduced. If the text expresses an evident pride and compassion for the struggles of living labour, it expresses an equivalent condemnation of the monstrous figure of dead labour.

And yet… In this text, capitalism figures as a Hegelian “inverted world” – a world in which what is overtly good and noble, gives birth to its opposite, participating in the reproduction of a form of domination, and what is overtly a form of domination, generates the conditions of possibility for emancipatory transformation. It is the monster – genuinely horrific in current conditions – that provides the seeds around which future emancipation can crystallise – but only to the extent that living labour – what is genuinely noble in the existing context – is destroyed. This is the major narrative inversion around which the first volume of Capital pivots – this passionate, maddening, over-cryptic plea to recognise that capitalism gives the “practical truth” of Hegel’s “inverted world”, such that emancipatory political mobilisation precisely requires a speculative reach beyond the characteristics that all things have, as they are suspended within the capital relation, and to the characteristics that these things might have – if only we can appropriate them, redeem them, reconstitute them in a new form.

No time to edit… Apologies…

The In-Ourself

Okay. Labour power. Inversion. How does this inversion retroject itself onto the opening passages of Capital, transforming our understanding of what we thought we knew at that moment in the text? Just as important: how does what was already said at that early point in the text, interact with the new things that we think we know now about the centrality of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power?

It’s funny: I wrote this post – in my head, not yet in text – last night, thinking about Nate – about some of his writings, and some of our conversations – while I was composing. I woke this morning to find that, as if this imaginary dialogue had actually taken place, Nate had responded overnight to yesterday’s post on labour power. Many of Nate’s comments speak to what I’m trying to write here, but since I was writing in relation to retrojected-Nate, from past conversations, rather than in relation to this-morning-Nate, from his current post, this may result in a strange collection of overlaps and offsets between what I’m writing below, and what Nate has just written. At any rate: go read his post, which is relevant to what I’m writing here, even if I haven’t done justice to that relevance in this post. Among Nate’s reflections are comments about the experience of reading Marx – reading, not interpreting. And among those comments is the following, which just expresses so well how I have come to read Marx and other forms of complex theory, that I have to reproduce it, before I move into the topic of this post. Nate writes:

Maybe what this really boils down to is that we shouldn’t read Capital so much as re-read it. (This was my approach when I was reading Capital for the first time, as well as other difficult material – come to think of it, pretty much all German stuff … Kant, Marx, Hegel, Habermas … weird … I guess I later started applying this elsewhere. What I tried to do and sometimes still do though less rigorously/vigorously, was to never give up on reading, specifically by initially committing at a minimum to looking at all the words, rather than committing to understanding. After looking at all the words I could at least go back to the text in discussion, more than I could if I hadn’t looked at all the words, then actually read it, and afterward re-read it.)

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Now… What was I thinking about last night again? Something about commodities as things… things later revealed to be human… humans, however, that have already been revealed as things – as material objects onto which contingent social circumstances are projected – humans that remain determined as material bearers of an immaterial essence of value… Humans whose materiality – whose thingliness – is counterintuitively shown to be their distinctive form of socialisation under capitalism… The inversion that results from the introduction of the category of labour power is a far more potent inversion even than it first appears: in this category, it is not simply use value and exchange value that come to be inverted, not simply freedom and constraint – society and nature are inverted as well. Capitalism is shown to involve a distinctive practice of self as material object – as physical, biological life that is then socialised into some contingent form: the physical determinations of labour power that permeate Capital – abstract labour as the expenditure of so much quantity of nerves, muscles, and physical energy – this determination, in spite of appearances, is a social determination – this naturality, this materiality, is not the stripping away of social determination to reveal a persistent material substratum underneath: it is a specific, historically-emergent, positive form of socialisation under capitalism – Nature is the new Society… What is most distinctively socially determining of capitalism, adopts the perfect disguise – a cloak of physicality, a material veil – and thus intuitively seems not to be social at all… Let’s see if I can pick up that thread…

Okay. The commodity is introduced as a “thing outside us”. Intuitively – with intuitions encouraged by the examples (linen, coats) that Marx uses in the text – with intuitions also undermined by many marginal gestures that Marx makes along the way – but, intuitively, when Capital opens, we think we are talking about things. The subject matter is the wealth of capitalist societies – and this wealth presents itself initially in a particular way – as a vast accumulation of empirically-sensible stuff that can be grasped in terms of its (transhistorical, essential, material substance) use value and its (contingent, extrinsic form) exchange value. We learn fairly quickly that we need to look beyond the empirically-sensible, to a supersensible realm where categories of value and abstract labour operate – categories that we are initially tempted to see as themselves essences lurking behind a realm of empirical appearances to which they are only contingently connected. And then we visit an inverted world, where we begin to appreciate the connections – the relations – that bind the realm of appearance necessarily to this realm of essence: we are in train, at this point, to understanding how a particular sort of essence could be constituted from a specific kind of appearance – how everyday practices that are not intentionally aiming to constitute some sort of social essence, might constitute such an essence nevertheless.

All of this, however, operates within the ambit of the claim that commodities are “things outside us”. Things that, being passive objects, enter into social relations with one another, through the agency of their owners. Things whose collective relations then relate the owners themselves – connecting people through the mediation of objects. The type of connection being effected here is more than the material connection established by the social metabolism involved in any circulation of goods and services: an immaterial connection – a subterranean water table marking the depths and heights of the purely social fluid of value – flows through the social metabolism of material exchange. This immaterial flow has no intrinsic connection with the social metabolism of material distribution – this is part of the critical claim of the text, part of what Marx must establish, to demonstrate the non-utopian character of his critical ideals. Under capitalism, however, this immaterial flow is coterminous with social metabolism – one of various factors that encourages the hypostatisation of characteristics specific to capitalism – one of various factors that encourages people to miss how the immaterial dimensions of capitalism are not secret essences of material reproduction as such – the intertwining of these characteristics with material reproduction now, makes it difficult to see how these characteristics are not intertwined with material reproduction in some essential and intrinsic way.

The text has already introduced several layers of complexity, then, before the category of labour power is introduced. The movement from empirical, to transcendental, to dialectical – and then to something else, to whatever the unnamed perspective is, that enables the practical constitution of the fetish to be grasped – these movements already give the reader a taste of a text that will recurrently destabilise its own overt claims. The empiricist voice that opens Capital sounds confident in its articulation – so does the transcendental voice that follows – and the dialectical. The movement of the text is not so much to contradict these voices – not so much to dismiss them as errors. Instead, the movement is more like that of taking something that asserts itself as a foundation – as a firm point on which we can stand – and violently ejecting it into a dynamic environment: all these voices have something in them of truth – as long as truth is understood as something intrinsically and inevitably in motion. A truth for now. A truth for here. A truth that provides a platform wide and stable enough to stand on for some purposes. A truth whose platform borders an abyss into which we can fall, if we mistakenly assume the platform extends too far.

I’ve written about the introduction of the category of labour power elsewhere. Marx derives the category by showing that the standpoint of simple circulation and reproduction unwittingly presuppose it – that it must presuppose it, because it presupposes growth. The equilibrium values of circulation are tacitly indexed to an expanding system: for the commodity to become the socially general form of wealth – for the social contract imaginary of a society of commodity producers and exchangers to become a socially plausible just-so story – a constant transfer of new and ever-expanding productive energies are required. However much the process of circulation ratifies the success of such growth, the circulation of what already is, cannot increase the volume of what is circulated – a society as a whole does not increase the total volume of its wealth by thieving from itself in aggregate. Some new source of productive energy is required. The category of labour power captures this productive energy that enables the whole to expand.

The wealth in question, however, is not material wealth. That tends to increase too – but structurally, in terms of the argument put forward in Capital, the increase in material wealth is a side effect – a consequence of material wealth’s distinctive social role as a bearer of value. Value is the invisible and secret coin of the realm – well disguised in the visible scrabble over the empirically-sensible proxies of use value and exchange value, which empiricist sensibilities take to be the stakes of the capitalist social game. Value flows through these empirically-sensible entities, but is not minted from them – but rather from labour power alone. As the secret within a secret, the labour power constitutive of value is itself not empirically-sensible – it is abstract labour – what Marx will sometimes call “directly social” labour – labour that has been socially ratified to enable it to count as labour – a retroactive judgement of the unconscious action of the whole of society on each of its members, determining what sorts and intensities of empirical labour are treated in collective practice as possessing “value”.

The argument here is circular – tautological – and deliberately so: it is an attempt to capture an immanent qualitative characteristic of a runaway form of production become an end in itself, rather than an attempt to capture an external factor that “causes” production to assume a certain form – the category of value is an attempt to characterise clearly what we are doing, rather than an attempt to specify an independent variable that causes us to do it. Capital will discuss the forms of coercion – personal and impersonal – that tend to generate “value” as an aggregate result. At this point in the text, however, this level of analysis remains largely unspecified.

I’ve talked about all of this elsewhere – no doubt not enough, and without sufficient clarity. Nevertheless, this is revision, and not what I am trying to think about today. A diversion, as I avoid writing about things I find harder to say.

What I am trying to write about – what I am avoiding writing about – is the ricochet that takes place once the category of labour power is introduced as a pivot category that inverts our sense of what was being discussed earlier in the text. When the category of the commodity is introduced, use value and exchange value are determined as externally and contingently related: use value is specified as an intrinsic and transhistorical material substance, and exchange value is specified as a contingent social form that is projected onto this material substance. The implication here is that the substance is eternal, while the form is ephemeral – a move that would position circulation as the appropriate target for political contestation (since it is circulation – the arbitrary and contingent form – that is here positioned as able to change over time), while cordoning off production as a timeless and essential material requirement that must perpetually be reproduced.

One of Capital’s central critical targets, of course, is the compulsive reproduction of production – specifically, of human labour as a component and motive force of production – the binding together of human labour and material reproduction, no matter how great the growth in the science and technology as motive forces for the production of material wealth. The category of value is the category of this tendency – the category that gives a name, a label, to this trend to produce new forms of human labour, as older forms are automated away: Marx insists that value is constituted by human labour power alone, because value as a category is intended to give a voice to this unintentional trend toward the compulsive reproduction of the need to expend human labour time, no matter the heights of productivity. This is why he becomes so impatient with people who argue over whether nature plays some role in the constitution of value: how could it? “Value” is a term for a social drive to reproduce human labour – and nature, as Marx insists with some exasperation, has nothing to do with this historically unique social drive…

One of the distinctions that becomes inverted with the introduction of the category of labour power is the use value/exchange value distinction: the use value of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power, is to generate value – substance and form – now understood as the historically unique substances and forms specific to capitalist society – no longer appear extrinsic and contingently connected to one another, but instead intrinsically related. Which doesn’t mean that these categories aren’t also distinct – their mutual-implicatedness is not the same as their seamless identity – they are united in a tense and uncertain dynamic relation.

Subject and object also become inverted: the pivot category of the commodity – the “thing outside us” – is now revealed to rely on a peculiar commodity that is a subject, a person. But what conclusion are we meant to draw from this? That the opening categories do not apply to those peculiar commodities that happen to be people? I think not quite. Rather, we have to re-read the opening passages as determinations – we can now see – of distinctive forms of embodiment and practices of self that become widely available as possibilities within social practice with the development of capitalism.

The sale of labour power on the market is a strange thing. The labourer doesn’t sell themselves entire – this would be slavery. (It is perhaps appropriate to flag here that Marx will destabilise and invert this distinction, too: the later sections of volume 1 provide a number of examples of how the system of “free labour” results in modern slavery – particularly within families, as parents act as the brokers for the labour of their children who cannot contract for themselves, but also within work gangs – and workhouses – and the dimensions of the capitalist world market where the hard coercion of the state is freely wielded to constitute a labour force… The system of “free labour” presupposes its own inverted forms of “unfree labour” – labour that is unfree even according to the immanent standards generated by this system – as well…) The labourer instead sells a part of themselves – a capacity – specifically, their capacity for labour.

In a sense, then, the commodity labour power remains a “thing” – something objectified from its owner, who brings this thing to market. And yet this form of objectification is a self-objectification: it implicates a distinctive sort of internal bifurcation in the labourer’s socialised practice of themselves. Labourers enact themselves as agentive owners exerting their will against passive objects – passive objects that are, however, their own capacities, bound and inseparable to them, yet bifurcated and objectified – alienable and yet ineradicably their own. (All of this doesn’t get into the various levels of analysis around the conditions of agency for the working classes in the conditions where their distinctive form of “freedom” renders both plausible and necessary forms of collective self-assertion, in order for agency to be effectively asserted in conditions where the presupposition of the labourers’ “freedom” of contract, is their simultaneous “freedom” from the means of subsistence. For present purposes, I leave this issue to one side – not because it is unimportant, but because I am trying to tease out the argument about forms of embodiment – and the bifurcated or perhaps trifurcated form of embodiment tacitly being mapped out in the first chapter of Capital, in passages where the text appears only to be discussing “things outside us”.)

So if the “peculiar commodity” of labour power is retrojected back into the opening discussion of the commodity from the first chapter, we arrive at a complex discussion of a social enactment or performance of self – in at least one slice of collectively-available experience in a capitalist context. By implication, this performance of self also has its empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical dimensions. We enact ourselves as material things – use values – use values, not for ourselves (since, separated from the means of subsistence, our own capacity for labour is strangely not useful for us), but for the capitalist. A part of ourselves interests us for its exchange value – a necessary condition of which is its usefulness for another: our labour – always, concretely, some specific kind of labour, the range of things we have been trained or have the capacity to do, and therefore always, concretely, something that might not be useful for someone else – that might not be able to realise itself as an exchange value, because the labour market is flooded with “use values” like us, use values that cannot realise themselves in use, if they cannot realise themselves in exchange.

We enact our own capacities – and not just the traits of objects outside ourselves – as material bearers of exchange value. We enact our own capacities as objects outside ourselves. We perform ourselves as internally divided, as ghosts in our own physical machines – collectively enacting, as a distinctive positive, constructed, social concern, our capacity to expend, as Marx will often phrase it, so much of a quantum of brains, muscles, nerves… Marx’s recourse to this physicalist description of abstract labour is often taken as though Marx is drawing attention to some material invariant – physical human labour. This interpretation misses the thrust of Marx’s argument, which is that this “physical” determination of human capacities – the sensitivity we presently find intuitive, the ease with which we presently conceptualise ourselves as material bodiesthis is social. The physical determination of the human under capitalism, contrary to appearances, is not a conception that arises when we strip away social determinations, leaving our materiality and physicality behind. Quite the contrary, this physical determination is precisely a social determination – a specific and determinate way we enact ourselves in one slice of social practice in a capitalist context.

So that is the machine. The human machine of nerves, muscles, brains, sinews… There is more to this determination – to understanding the qualitative attributes that we intuitively attribute to these forms of materiality – than I can outline here. This post is pure gesture – I’ll have to follow the point at a later time.

But for present purposes, just a quick note that the machine has its ghost: the “transcendental” voice marks out a distinctive form of embodiment, a distinctive collective practice of self, as well. Value flows through us as well – a secret social substance in which we participate – through which we learn how much we, too, get to “count”. This experience – the Durkheimian soul of capital – marks out a supersensible unity of humanity – a unity of mutual coercion – but a unity nevertheless. A dimension of social practice in which a secret identity and equality and homogeneity flows through us, in spite of all empirically-sensible differences: a practical basis for the experience of a common human nature, misrecognised and fetishised as something inherent, rather than something constituted – natural rights, natural justice, natural laws: the children of the fetish, although no less socially explosive for all that.

I’m flagging. And I’m also not expressing any of this well… Just trying to gear up for what I’ll need to write, fumbling toward what I mean… Apologies for the murk… As with the early posts on the fetish, I hope to become clearer and more adequate over time…

I haven’t edited this – haven’t so much as glanced back it… Too tired to do so now… Apologies…

Scratchpad: Peculiar Commodities

Not a lot of substantive writing (or, indeed, writing of any kind) around here lately – apologies. Aside from the struggle to get on top of an unanticipated teaching load, I’ve been trundling through the process of revising various talks I’ve given in the last several months, so that they are in proper form to send off to journals. Since the contents of the talks are generally already available on the blog, and the revision process is not leading to any startling new insights, this process hasn’t been creative for new writing for the blog… Unfortunately, this relatively uncreative period will likely continue for the next few weeks, so things may remain light.

I have been toying, though, with the issue of how to voice the next chapter of the thesis – trying to cash out the narrative line I suggested in the reworked first chapter that was initially workshopped in the Goldsmiths talk. The contents of this second chapter – which follow the thread from the first chapter, to show how Marx introduces the category of labour power – have already been presented here and elsewhere in a different narrative form: my goal at the moment is to try to develop a presentation of this content that hugs the text a bit more closely, drawing attention, as the first chapter of the thesis does, to the voicing and dramatic structure of Marx’s text.

One aspect of Marx’s textual strategy in the early chapters is the constant overt assertion that the commodity is just a “thing”, an object “outside us” – a passive and inert entity. These assertions will come to be inverted with the introduction of the category of labour power – the first major inversion within the text (there are a number of more minor inversions en route to this point – including the “scholastic” demonstrations of dialectical method from the third section of the first chapter: incidentally, for those who have been following David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, I noted that his reaction to what I see as Marx’s critical/ironic scholastic performances of dialectical method, was to comment on how turgid and laboured these passages are – how boring. This stilted “voicing” of the third section is not the only reason I take this third section to be a “character actor”, rather than a straightforward expression of Marx’s position, but it is one of the reasons. Considering the possibility that the different voices or stylistic registers of the text, might themselves be part of the argument being made, at times shifts significantly the sense of the text…)

In any event, for reasons I’ve discussed in various places, Marx cannot begin Capital with the category of labour power – and yet his argument, ultimately, will be that this category has always already been presupposed by the categories he does unfold at the outset. While the text remains largely immanently voiced in these early sections – remaining within the ambit of perspectives that see the commodity as “a thing outside us” – Marx does offer a number of subtle textual gestures that destabilise this perspective, even in the course of presenting it. My rough thought is that the second chapter probably needs to begin with a discussion of these destabilisations, before moving into the material I’ve written about in other places: an outline of the specific argument through which Marx unfolds the category of labour power – that “peculiar commodity” whose characteristics invert those that have been attributed to the commodity to that point – and exception that, as it will turn out, provides the foundation point for the very phenomena that seem to contradict it.

Below is a very rough list – which I almost certainly won’t retain in this form – that begins to play with how I might present these destabilisations…


As discussed in chapter 1, the problem of the opening chapter of Capital is how to grasp the wealth of capitalist society. That chapter runs through various options: perhaps the wealth of capitalist society consists in an empirically-sensible, material object; perhaps it consists in some supersensible property that lies behind what can be perceived by the senses; perhaps it consists in a dynamic relation. Each of these options, however, remains within the explicit ambit of considering the commodity to be a thing “outside us”. The purloined Hegelian plot of this chapter suggests already that this will not be a stable assumption – that consciousness, seeking certainty of its object, will be driven to the realisation that it has been its own object all along. By appropriating Hegel’s plot to express his concerns in Capital, Marx foreshadows that the commodity must somehow be… us.

Other hints are scattered through the opening chapters, particularly in footnotes that offer what must, in retrospect if not at the time, be read as deeply ironic commentary on the positions being espoused in the main text. In a footnote to the dialectical section of the first chapter, for example, Marx offers:

In a certain sense, a man is in the same situation as a commodity. As he neither enters the world in possession of a mirror, nor as a Fichtean philosopher who can say ‘I am I’, a man first sees and recognizes himself in another man. Peter only relates to himself as a man through his relation to another man, Paul, in whom he recognizes his likeness. With this, however, Paul also becomes from head to toe, in his physical form as Paul, the form of appearance of the species man for Peter. (p. 144, ftnt. 19).

The text frequently appeals to the image of the commodity as a woman – and as a potential or actual prostitute – to destabilise the notion that the commodity is a “thing” that must therefore passively be brought to market and sold by human action outside it. The reference to Dame Quickly that marks the transition between the empiricist and transcendental voices, and the dialectical voice, opens the space for this metaphor. Marx asserts here in the main text:

The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that ‘a man knows not where to have it’.

The Shakespearean play being referenced (Henry IV, Part 1, Act 3, Scene 3) involves a suggestive discussion between Falstaff, who claims, “Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her”, and Dame Quickly, who replies, “Thou art an unjust man in saying so: thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!” Explicit reference to prostitution is more overt in the opening to the second chapter, where the main text tells us:

Commodities cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. (178)

The main text therefore reiterates that commodities are things that “cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right” – and yet the footnote hanging from the final sentence of this passage destabilises this claim with a reference to prostitutes selling their services at a medieval fair:

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‘. (178, ftnt 1)

The prostitute figures as a sometime tacit, sometime explicit, reference point as Marx draws attention to the corrosive, relativistic practices involved in commodity exchange. So Marx characterises the commodity in the second chapter:

A born leveller and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity… (179)

And then, bringing the reference to the exchange of bodies more explicitly in relation to prostitution, money in the third chapter:

Since money does not reveal what has been transformed into it, everything, commodity or not, is convertible into money. Everything becomes saleable and purchasable. Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy, the bones of the saints cannot withstand it, let alone more delicate res sacrosancte, extra commercium hominum. (229)

A convoluted footnote expands on the content hidden away with the Latin phrase, as Marx makes a somewhat forced connection that:

With the Phoenicians, a trading people par excellence, money was the transmuted shape of everything. It was, therefore, quite in order that the virgins who at the feast of the goddess of love gave themselves to strangers should offer to the goddess the piece of money they received in payment. (229, ftnt 2)

These passages destabilise the presupposition still explicitly structuring the main text, that the commodity can be firmly divided off into a separate world of “objects” that subsists completely independently of the world of humankind. Some “objects” that apparently count as commodities have peculiar properties – they self-evidently can take themselves to market and perform exchanges in their own right. At the same time, commodities and money are portrayed as corrosive entities that recognise no natural boundaries – as categories that desire to spill across and undermine ontological distinctions, to exchange themselves and thus incorporate whatever might persist outside. The text is teasing the reader with the question of how stable, exactly, is the ontological boundary that separates the commodity into some other world firmly distinct from our own.

Like the footnote on Barbon analysed in the last chapter, these gestures have the effect of destabilising the claims articulated by the voice speaking in the main text, hinting at some sort of non-identity between the position being explicitly articulated, and the critical standpoint of the broader text. In this case, these destabilising gestures point toward the direction of the argument that is gradually being unspooled, as the main text traces back the presuppositions of the initial categories: an argument that, in spite of their own explicit claims, these early categories tacitly presuppose the existence of what Marx will call the “peculiar commodity” of labour power. I will quickly sketch the major moves that enable Marx to make this tacit presupposition overt.

to be continued…

Scratchpad: Chapter 1 – The Play’s the Thing

Still effectively offline – apologies again for not being able to respond to comments. Below the fold is the first chapter of the (rather completely different) new revision of the thesis. Although the early sections walk some of the same ground as the recent Goldsmiths talk, there’s a great deal more here than I could fit in there, as well as substantial revisions to incorporate the fantastic suggestions and feedback I received there and at the earlier conference at John Cabot. John – if you’re reading – I had your questions in mind when writing this, as well: although it’s probably a bit much to ask you to read such a long piece, just to get to the sections where I answer what you’ve asked, the payoff is that I almost certainly say things more clearly and more systematically here than I would in the comments – particularly now, with my very limited online time.

And a special thanks to Praxis, who has read and/or listened to multiple iterations of every thought that has made its way into this draft. Read more of this post

Times Like Bats

Escher's Angels and DevilsVilfredo Pareto famously commented: “Marx’s words are like bats. One can see in them both birds and mice”. As I work on expressing how I understand Marx’s standpoint of critique in Capital, I keep thinking about this phrase. If readers will bear with me as I toss out some rather disorganised thoughts around this theme, I’d like to try at least to juxtapose, if not entirely integrate or work out, a few themes that I’ve tended to discuss in separation from one another, in order to give some sense of how I hope eventually to connect everything up.

I’ve suggested in a number of earlier posts that I see the first three sections of the first chapter of Capital as, among other things, a metacommentary on the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Specifically, what Marx recreates in these opening sections is a movement from what Hegel would call Perception, through Understanding, and into the confrontation with an Inverted World through which consciousness becomes reflexive, gaining awareness that it has been its own object all along. The first several paragraphs of the first chapter of Capital manifest the orientation toward the sensuous world that Hegel associates with Perception: the voice speaking in those early paragraphs stands outside the context it is analysing, examining what “presents itself” – what is immediately given to the senses – and attempting to grasp the social context based on what it can perceive in such givens. This voice allows a discussion of commodities in terms of the sensible properties of use-value and exchange-value.

A second voice soon intrudes, objecting that these sensible givens presuppose the existence of conditions that cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Hegel’s Understanding has come on the scene, claiming to deduce the existence of the “supersensible” categories of value and abstract labour as transcendental conditions of possibility for the sensible dimensions of the commodity.

The third voice then picks up, unfolding a “dialectical” analysis of the genesis of the money form that illustrates the dynamic relationality and mutual-implicatedness of the earlier categories. This third voice takes pains to illustrate the way in which, with the derivation of the money form, it becomes possible to grasp a number of inversions. These inversions claim to illustrate that what had appeared, when viewed statically, to be dichotomous oppositions, can instead be grasped as mutually-determining moments of a dynamic relation. It is at this point, after the illustration of these inversions, that Marx opens up the discussion of commodity fetishism, which, I have suggested, finally brings his own perspective overtly into the text.

My claim has been that the structure of this chapter is making an argument. Several arguments. But the line that interests me here relates to what I take to be Marx’s reflexive analysis of the conditions of possibility for his own theory: the structure of the chapter suggests that something like Marx’s critique becomes possible because capitalism immanently confronts consciousness with an inverted world. The inversions Marx has in mind aren’t simply the ones articulated by the “dialectical” voice in the third section of the chapter: I take Marx to be critical of that voice, as he is also critical of the “transcendental” and “empiricist” voices that precede it. Rather, I believe that Marx has in mind the “inversion” constituted by the tacit argument that permits the very structure of this opening chapter: the voices expressed in these opening sections conflict with one another, quarrelling over what the commodity “is” – a combination of sensuous properties? a supersensible transcendental unity? a dialectical dynamic? As Marx comments in the opening to section three:

The reality of the value of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know “where to have it.”

Marx doesn’t, I would suggest, think this difficulty arises solely due to poor thinking on the part of political economists. The difficulty is instead intrinsic. It reflects (social) ontological properties of the object of analysis. We have difficulty capturing the characteristics of our context, because we live in times like bats.

I want to suggest that Marx conceptualises the central task of critical theory, to be the task of drawing attention to the existence of inversions within our context. Marx’s concept of inversion, however, is vastly more multiplicitous than the more orthodox Marxist notion of contradiction. Marx isn’t simply seeking out one overarching, cataclysmic contradiction – between, say, the forces and relations of production. Instead, his analysis finds inversions everywhere – in Benjamin’s terms, the context is “shot through with chips of Messianic time”. Marx meanders his analysis through the moments of the process through which capital is reproduced, persistently examining the process and its moments from multiple perspectives, recurrently drawing the reader’s attention to how those perspectives each express something socially valid – it’s just that these various social validities often conflict with one another and suggest very different possibilities for the development of future forms of practice.

Why do this? Why draw attention to the inversions shooting through the context? In part, because their very existence denaturalises the context, opening a space for political choice. If some aspect of our social experience demonstrates something to be alternatively a mouse, when we approach it in one way, and a bird, when we approach it in another, then in its “essence” it is neither mouse nor bird – it “is” what we have made it to be. The question then becomes what we will make next.

Apologies for the underdeveloped character of this comment – as my previous post indicates, I hadn’t actually intended to be posting at all. But these thoughts have been nagging at me, and the best way to get some rest seemed to be to get them out of my brain and deposit them in a safer place. 🙂