For some reason, the passages on commodity speech at the end of Capital‘s opening chapter seem to draw particularly self-satisfied critics, delighted at what they take to be a performative contradiction between the “definition” of the commodity as an “external thing”, the critique of the commodity fetish – a critique of a fantastical, metaphysical “thing”, and these passages that make commodity “things” stand up on their own hind legs and talk. For this to be a performative contradiction, Marx would have to be a man with a short attention span indeed… These passages should instead, as I have argued at some length, be read as part of a sort of dark comedic arc, in which Marx marches out on the main stage of Capital a set of characters, modeled on the political economy of his own day, who treat commodities as mere “things” – and thus theorise capitalism in a way that ignores the presence of the walking, talking commodity that is wage labour.
The readers are meant to be in on this joke – we aren’t meant to share the blindness of the characters who attempt to understand capitalism while ignoring the secret in plain sight of wage labour. When the text puts forward declarations about what commodities would say “if only” they could speak, we are meant to understand that commodities do speak – do exercise will – do resist and therefore have to be taken by force – and we are therefore meant to know, intuitively, that the characters striding on the main stage, speaking as though such walking, talking, protesting commodities do not exist, are absurd burlesque figures – clowns whose performances are held up for ridicule.
I’ve written at some length about the ways in which the text signals this joke – from snarks in the footnotes, to the use of the language of civil society to describe commodity social interactions in the third section of Capital‘s first chapter, to the analogy Marx draws with prostitution at the beginning of Capital‘s second chapter, at the point when the main text is (absurdly) declaring that commodities, as objects, lack their own independent will and motive force, while also explaining that, if these things should happen to prove unwilling, their owner may use force to compel them.
The reader is meant to know the punchline of this joke all along – and once the category of labour-power is introduced, Marx takes the main text to have demonstrated how selectively – how narrowly – certain kinds of political economic theories must look out onto capitalist production, in order to make the sorts of claims that have been demonstrated – and pilloried – to that point. This doesn’t mean that the theorists Marx has in mind literally are unaware of the existence of wage labour – they may be quite well aware in various aspects of their work. It means that aspects of the theories they put forward – the claims and the categories used in their work – would only ever be adequate as categories if applied to very narrow and limited portions of a much more complex whole.
I’ve written less on how this sort of strategy continues beyond the opening chapters of Capital. The “definitions” of labour that are introduced in chapter 7 form part of a similar joke. All of the things that labour purportedly “is”, in those definitional passages, are demonstrated, over the course of many subsequent chapters, to be things labour can only be said to be, if a theorist looks at capitalist production through an absurdly selective lens, bracketing out large swathes of practical experience. Marx will insistently bring those excluded, obscured aspects of experience into view – revealing how partial and blinkered these initial “definitions” are.
One of the more important “definitional” aspects of labour Marx will try to undermine, is the claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity”, something that is transhistorically and intrinsically required for material production. The great irony of capitalism is that, of all forms of production, it demonstrates most clearly the non-necessity for the expenditure of human labour as a motive force in the processes through which we meet our material needs. The need for the direct expenditure of human labour is progressively phased out in specific spheres of productive activity, due to the development of machinery, improvements in organisation, and the development of technical and scientific knowledge.
At the same time, collective practice constrains our ability to take advantage of this potential – crises occur if human labour is phased out too far, and pressures drive the development of ever-new “opportunities” for human labour to be expended in new forms – or retained in forms where, technologically, we could reduce or eliminate it.
These conflictual pressures – driving for the reduction in the need to expend human labour directly in meeting material needs, and driving for the retention and reconstitution of the need to expend human labour in some form – constitute, for Marx, the rational core of classical political economy’s “labour theory of value”. Capitalism, uniquely amongst human societies, directly values the expenditure of human labour – not as a means, but – speaking here on a structural level, as a long-term unintentional pattern of behaviour – as an end. Capitalism’s primary product is labour. The claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity” is a claim offered from a capital-eye-view: other historical systems of production do not have this orientation – human labour may be as central, because other motive forces are not available – but in capitalism, other motive forces emerge as possibilities – and yet labour remains structurally central, for reasons that cannot be reduced, Marx argues, to any intrinsic necessity to expend specifically human labour in order to meet material needs.
The need for human labour in capitalism is specifically not material – the passages in Capital that declare this necessity to be imposed by nature need to be read in the same tone as the passages that declare commodities to be external objects that lack will, volition and voices of their own: partial, ideological views that view capitalism through a narrow slice of practical experience – a slice that brackets off immanent potentials for political contestation, and that obscures the practical possibility to abolish the specifically social – not natural, but contingent – centrality of human labour power as a motive force.
I’ll try to do more on this textually in later posts – have just been mulling over this recently after reading yet another critique of Marx’s “performative contradiction”, which caused me to wonder what else Marx needed to do to make this opening joke more explicit… I realise the writing style is perverse and Marx has a veritable phobia of signposting what he’s trying to do. But his exasperation at theorists who write as though commodities are “things” is more overt than most of his text-play… The complex ricochet of this argument is much much harder: the reflexive point that, although people can be commodities, they are so only as split subjects, who experience only part of themselves – labour-power – an ojectified, object-like, “material” bundle of physical capacities and talents – as the commodity part. But the basic joke that commodities are not only or always passive, inert, voiceless, will-less, things – this I would think would be clearer on the surface of the text…