Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Empiricism

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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Thesis Workshop: With What Must a Science Begin?

Another chapter whose contents may seem largely familiar to regular readers: this chapter deals with Marx’s relationship to Hegel’s Logic, and then, since this chapter is already more or less untethered from the text, it offers a number of other clarifications of aspects of Marx’s method. The chapter tosses around the term “real abstraction” quite often, as though readers will already know what I mean by this term. Folks who have hung around here for a while may well have a sense of this, but the reason I’m being so casual with the term in this chapter is because there is a lengthy discussion of this topic in the opening chapter of the thesis – the chapter I haven’t yet published to the blog, because I have to rethink it now that I know what the thesis will actually say… Hopefully it will be clear enough what I’m about without that information…

I’ve been meaning to mention, for those who haven’t yet seen them, that Limited, Inc. has also been posting a series on Marx recently – among other things, riffing on anthropological themes and – among my favourite topics when thinking about Marx – vulgarity. Where my work on Marx tends to inch its snail’s path through the micro-ecology of the text, Roger’s tends to explode small passages of text, chasing the embers to see where they land, examining what they set alight and, wherever possible, fanning the flames. Something about it reminds me of Marx’s comment from the Grundrisse:

…if we did not find concealed within society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic. (159)

It’s good stuff: go have a look.

[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: Turning the Tables

Okay. Another chapter whose contents will be somewhat familiar to regular readers. This chapter suffers from containing some of the oldest layers of the thesis – points that I have now written in a number of different forms, not only for the thesis itself, but for various conference presentations and journal articles. The result is that it’s quite difficult for me now to “hear” this part of the thesis – or to keep in my head whether I’ve used this material to make a specific point in this version, or if I’m remembering some other presentation of the material. I’ve tried to align the voice of this section so that it is adequate to the things I learned while writing the other chapters – and this process has meant that I have introduced some new content into this chapter, trying to weaving this in as seamlessly as I can. I’m not sure I’ve quite gotten there yet. Work in progress and all that…

[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: When Is It Safe to Go on Reading Capital?

I haven’t finished the chapter that will become the proper introduction to the thesis – in part because I have a cold (been fighting it off for weeks – my body obviously figured that, since I have finished my major writing, now must be a good time… ;-P). Below the fold, though, is the first substantive chapter. For those who have followed earlier drafts, this is a substantial rewrite of the first part of the old opening chapter (which I gather from various bits of feedback was too long, and so has now been split into two shorter chapters). It’s considerably clearer about the overarching stakes of the argument than the old version, but it’s still not as “new” as most of the thesis chapters may seem to regular readers here.

I keep considering fleshing out the discussion of Hegel’s Phenomenology – I have good draft material that does this, which I could technically splice in. I keep not including it, however, because the finer points of Hegel’s argument aren’t really important to the argument I’m making in the thesis. So I alternate between wincing because I can explain Hegel’s position much more adequately, and reminding myself that the thesis isn’t about doing justice to Hegel’s work, but only needs to talk about the much more limited topic of how Marx uses Hegel…

Since I haven’t put up a proper introduction, I should provide the context that the thesis focusses on a very close reading of the first six chapters of Capital, concentrating on how Marx effects the shift from the discussion of commodity circulation to the introduction of the category of labour-power. The guiding questions are how we should understand the analysis of “simple commodity circulation” in relation to the argument being made by Capital as a whole – and how the introduction of the category of labour-power transforms rather completely what these early chapters of the text seemed to be attempting to say. These quite specific questions, which provide the narrative thread that holds the thesis together, provide a sort of scaffolding for analysing the presentational and analytical strategy in Capital as a whole, interpreting how Marx understands the standpoint of critique in his text, and unfolding from Capital the nucleus of a quite sophisticated metatheory that casts Marx as offering a fundamentally deflationary, practice-theoretic account of phenomena that are usually explained in a far more mystical way. I’ll try to say all this much better in the proper introduction – just wanted to give some sense of what the thesis is trying to do.

One further idiosyncracy: I deal with the literature almost exclusively in footnotes – a habit I seemed to have picked up during my previous theses. The text has a very complex and cumulative argument to make, and one which runs across a great many different literatures: past experience has shown that it is incredibly distracting for readers when I interrupt the flow of the main argument to go chasing how specific topics have been dealt with by other authors. This strategy causes problems, however, when I reproduce chapters on the blog, since I don’t have a good system for managing footnotes here. When I have this thing properly completed, I’ll put up a PDF that includes the full text. Until then, unfortunately, you are just stuck with my argument, stripped of community context…

I don’t want to flood the blog with thesis chapters, so this post will be the first in a series – I’ll try to put up new chapters every few days or so, as I have time to handle the html. I should emphasise that these are still drafts – lots of cleanup left to do. But they are considerably less drafty than earlier posts and – for those who have followed as I’ve tried to work out pieces of this argument in dribs and drabs on the blog over the past 18 months – should be easier to follow and much more systematic than anything you’ve so far seen.

[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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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: 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

When Is It Safe to Read Capital? (Update)

Some time around now, I will be delivering something like this talk to the Marx and Philosophy event at Goldsmiths. The topic, as in the title of this post, is: when is it safe to read Capital?

Wish me luck 🙂

Updated: Just a quick update to say that I had queued this post before making some changes, particularly to the final sections of the paper, that I didn’t have the time to mirror here. I’ve now made some edits to the post below the fold to reflect more accurately the talk actually delivered – these changes smooth out a few rough spots, but aren’t so substantive as to merit an independent reading for anyone who has already clicked through.

The event itself was fantastic – very good collection of papers and excellent discussion. In my accident-prone way, I managed to twist my ankle in a somewhat drastic way, just before the event, so I ended up presenting through a fair discomfort, which meant that I was rather more subdued than I would ordinarily be. Those who know me in person might realise that being more subdued, might not be such a bad thing… 😉 I did, though, particularly wish my attention hadn’t been distracted anklewards during the Q&A session, which was genuinely valuable and fired off a number of associations about things I’ll hopefully be writing about more adequately in the near future.

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Value as What Will Have Been

Ktismatics has an interesting post and discussion up on different conceptions of value and the fetish, with reference to The Wire. A taste, from the comments:

I’ve been reading some of N. Pepperell’s posts about Marx on Rough Theory, and in so doing I realize that I, like Stringer, have a hard time thinking of value in terms other than product. The Wire doesn’t dwell on the effects of narcotics on the user, and it certainly doesn’t look at the work entailed in growing, processing and transporting the drugs. All we ever see is the exchange: the buyer hands off the money to person A and receives the product from person B. We do see the product being “stepped on;” i.e., reduced in potency by mixing it with baking soda, thereby increasing the sheer weight of stuff being sold. Apparently the users are willing to tolerate, and to pay for, heroin at less than full strength. It’s difficult for the user to know for sure how hard the product has been stepped on, since the high it generates is a subjective response. However, the reduction in effectiveness must be noticeable, especially in comparison to product on offer from competitors. What the buyer cares about is the subjective benefit s/he receives from the product; i.e., the quality of the high from ingesting the dope. And s/he is willing to pay more for what promises to be a better high, based on prior personal experience with the product as well as marketplace information obtained from other buyers who have used the product.

When I was replying to this thread, I found myself writing something that might or might not be clearer than some of what I’ve tossed out over here – specifically, I wrote:

I see value, instead, as referring to, if this makes sense, “what labour will have been”. We operate in a context in which all sorts of empirical activities are being carried out, in the hope that they will somehow successfully push product. Those activities don’t always succeed. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they don’t succeed as well as they were intended to; sometimes they succeed enormously better than expected. “Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed. The amount of value that will be conferred can never be known from the empirical labouring activities or other directly perceptible elements that go into the product. The category of value therefore refers to something of which we can never have exact knowledge – it’s the category of a society that acts out an “in itself” – an unknowable inner essence whose effects nevertheless pervade what we can know and perceive directly.

I’ll correct this comment a bit here: I see “abstract labour” as referring to “what labour will have been”. Value refers to the abstract labour “materialised” in a product. Both are fundamentally retrospective categories – categories that we can read out of macrosociological trends unfolding over time, but not categories that can be derived from any concretistic empirical analysis of actual labouring activities or actual goods at any specific moment in time. Abstract labour and value are products of the reproduction of capital.

I see Marx trying to draw our attention (in this bit of the argument) to the implications of a collective practice we take utterly for granted: the practice of engaging speculatively in labouring activities, in the hopes that these activities will produce something that “succeeds” on the market. Many of these speculative efforts fail; many don’t succeed as well as hoped; many do succeed; and some succeed beyond all expectation. There is no correlation between the amount of empirical labour, resources, and other directly measurable factors, and the level of success – Marx somewhere uses the term “conferred” – on the products of some particular labouring activity.

Marx is trying to tarry over this, when he makes the opening argument about value and the fetish – to ask what the implications of living in such an environment might be, for forms of perception, thought, embodiment, political ideals. The first chapter of Capital is a very compressed demonstration of some of those implications, before we even get to the point of examining the component practices that bring this whole system into existence and reproduce it.

One of his arguments is that the context is haunted by “what labour will have been” – by this intrinsically unknowable “abstract labour” that will ultimately be conferred on particular activities to particular degrees, endorsing or disendorsing those activities as successful inclusions in what gets to “count” as “social labour” – and therefore, over time, exerting a sort of evolutionary selective pressure that encourages the reproduction of certain forms of labour over others. In the tacit metacommentary being addressed to Kant (and Hegel) in the opening chapter of Capital, abstract labour figures as a sort of practically enacted “in itself” of capitalist society – as something we create, something we produce, something we make – but whose qualitative characteristics resemble those expressed in certain kinds of philosophical categories, and that also express, on a much more mass and popular level, certain forms of embodiment and political ideals, such as those, for example, articulated in notions of “inalienable” essences that factor into the development of “rights talk”.

“Value” is a category that picks out the “abstract labour” that has been “materialised” in the products of labour. Of course, since “abstract labour” is “what labour will have been”, value is also a category that “will have been” (in Derrida’s terms, value is inherently a category of a time out of joint – but for Marx this is a specific time and a particular sort of out-of-jointness…). In Marx’s argument, as I hear it, value is a product – and moreover a product whose existence must be deduced from the apparently random flux of the movement of goods on the market and (as Capital unfolds from the first chapter) from trends in the development of the form of production itself. Marx teases the political economists, saying that they “don’t know where to have it” – that they don’t grasp the ontological status of the category of value, and therefore don’t grasp how the category is enacted in practice. This is not because political economy suppresses knowledge of expropriation (Marx will get to that argument later) – at this point in the text, he is arguing that the political economists don’t know “where to have” value, because value is perpetually a category that “will have been” – a category whose existence can only be read off retrospectively from the outcomes of social practice oriented to other ends. Even where value and its connection to abstract labour has been successfully deduced, Marx suggests that political economy doesn’t work out how social practice comes to be constrained so as to render such categories valid for this form of social life.

The rest of the work then, among other things, attempts to work this out – to establish how these “will have beens” are effected by practices that don’t set out to produce such a result. The category of capital – and the capital-wage labour relation – will soon be introduced as the necessary presupposition for these opening categories. More on all this some other time… Just experimenting with the new vocabulary for the moment, to see how comfortable I am with where it takes me…

On other fronts, Nate has a nice post up at what in the hell… distilling points from David Graeber’s “The Sadness of Post-Workerism”.

And, to everyone who helped out as I was trying to piece the lecture together: I delivered it last night (a bit like a premature baby). All went well. I think. All went, at the very least. Not much on global warming. Quite a lot on the philosophy of science, in relation to the specific question of developing alternatives to dogmatism and scepticism. A quick romp through Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault, Latour, and various parts betwixt and between. An overarching argument about how easy it is for critics to be bitten in the butt, when they fail to grasp that they are operating in a non-linear historical context. And some sort of concluding bon mot about dogmatists currently using the tools of scepticism in the service of dogma – it all sounded very Adornian at the time, I’m certain of it… ;-P But seriously: thanks everyone – it was very helpful to be able to vent and to talk some things through.

The Quantitative Indeterminacy of Value

Completely exhausted at the moment – just tossing some quick and probably very ill-thought notes onto the blog for future development. I keep meaning to say something about the curious way that Marx often uses simple mathematical relations to talk about value in the first volume of Capital. What interests me specifically is the way in which these passages – due to the mathematical form in which they are written – could seem to suggest that value is something one could potentially calculate. Yet the actual substance of the passages actually undermines any ability to get back “behind” the flux of the proportions in which goods exchange, to determine anything about the amount of “value” that is expressed through these fluctuations. So, for example, in a section titled “The Quantitative determination of Relative value”, Marx writes:

Every commodity, whose value it is intended to express, is a useful object of given quantity, as 15 bushels of corn, or 100 lbs of coffee. And a given quantity of any commodity contains a definite quantity of human labour. The value form must therefore not only express value generally, but also value in definite quantity. Therefore, in the value relation of commodity A to commodity B, of the linen to the coat, not only is the latter, as value in general, made the equal in quality of the linen, but a definite quantity of coat (1 coat) is made the equivalent of a definite quantity (20 yards) of linen.

The equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen are worth one coat, implies that the same quantity of value substance (congealed labour) is embodied in both; that the two commodities have each cost the same amount of labour of the same quantity of labour time. But the labour time necessary for the production of 20 yards of linen or 1 coat varies with every change in the productiveness of weaving or tailoring. We have now to consider the influence of such changes on the quantitative aspect of the relative expression of value.

I. Let the value of the linen vary, that of the coat remaining constant. If, say in consequence of the exhaustion of flax-growing soil, the labour time necessary for the production of the linen be doubled, the value of the linen will also be doubled. Instead of the equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, we should have 20 yards of linen = 2 coats, since 1 coat would now contain only half the labour time embodied in 20 yards of linen. If, on the other hand, in consequence, say, of improved looms, this labour time be reduced by one-half, the value of the linen would fall by one-half. Consequently, we should have 20 yards of linen = ½ coat. The relative value of commodity A, i.e., its value expressed in commodity B, rises and falls directly as the value of A, the value of B being supposed constant.

II. Let the value of the linen remain constant, while the value of the coat varies. If, under these circumstances, in consequence, for instance, of a poor crop of wool, the labour time necessary for the production of a coat becomes doubled, we have instead of 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, 20 yards of linen = ½ coat. If, on the other hand, the value of the coat sinks by one-half, then 20 yards of linen = 2 coats. Hence, if the value of commodity A remain constant, its relative value expressed in commodity B rises and falls inversely as the value of B.

If we compare the different cases in I and II, we see that the same change of magnitude in relative value may arise from totally opposite causes. Thus, the equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, becomes 20 yards of linen = 2 coats, either, because the value of the linen has doubled, or because the value of the coat has fallen by one-half; and it becomes 20 yards of linen = ½ coat, either, because the value of the linen has fallen by one-half, or because the value of the coat has doubled.

III. Let the quantities of labour time respectively necessary for the production of the linen and the coat vary simultaneously in the same direction and in the same proportion. In this case 20 yards of linen continue equal to 1 coat, however much their values may have altered. Their change of value is seen as soon as they are compared with a third commodity, whose value has remained constant. If the values of all commodities rose or fell simultaneously, and in the same proportion, their relative values would remain unaltered. Their real change of value would appear from the diminished or increased quantity of commodities produced in a given time.

IV. The labour time respectively necessary for the production of the linen and the coat, and therefore the value of these commodities may simultaneously vary in the same direction, but at unequal rates or in opposite directions, or in other ways. The effect of all these possible different variations, on the relative value of a commodity, may be deduced from the results of I, II, and III.

Thus real changes in the magnitude of value are neither unequivocally nor exhaustively reflected in their relative expression, that is, in the equation expressing the magnitude of relative value. The relative value of a commodity may vary, although its value remains constant. Its relative value may remain constant, although its value varies; and finally, simultaneous variations in the magnitude of value and in that of its relative expression by no means necessarily correspond in amount. (emphasis mine)

In other words, we have direct empirical access only to the shifts in the relative proportions in which goods are exchanged. There is no way to get back “behind” these empirically perceptible shifts, to perceive what value is “in itself” – value is operating in the text here as an an sich. Lukács takes Marx to be arguing that this is how the matter appears from the standpoint of bourgeois political economy. Lukács therefore supposes that, from a different standpoint – the standpoint of the proletariat – there is a means to make transparent and explicit, an underlying reality that remains opaque and mysterious from other standpoints.

I take Marx’s point to be otherwise. On the one hand, I hear Marx’s argument as an account of how a concept like an an sich might emerge historically at a given moment, due to social actors’ experience with a very mundane dimension of their social existence that provides everyday practical exposure to navigating something like a phenomena/noumena divide. On the other hand, I hear Marx’s argument to be that value is an immanent order – something that has no separate existence apart from the flux in which it manifests itself – something that does not lie behind empirical phenomena or otherwise exist separately from empirical phenomena, such that it might explain those phenomena. Instead, value is a pattern of empirical phenomena – a “determination” (not a cause, but a specification) of the qualitative characteristics of their movements.

Long-term and contradictory historical trends to displace labour in certain forms by increasing productivity, while reconstituting labour in new forms by constituting new industries and new needs: these tendencies amount to a collective enactment or performance of human labour as a sort of social pivot around which other aspects of “material” life revolve. This social centrality of human labour – revealed over time as productivity increases do not lead to commensurate reductions in human labour expenditure – suggests that there is a unique and distinctive non-economic sense in which capitalist society values labour, quite apart from the role human labour might play as a motive force in material reproduction. Material reproduction, for Marx, might plausibly be facilitated by nature – or machinery. Capitalism, however, relies on human labour – even as it also continues to accumulate historically unprecedented technological, organisational, and scientific capacities that render the contribution of human labour as a motive force for material production, increasingly negligible. Marx suggests that the political economists both stumble across the traces of these trends, and then make the plausible – but inappropriate – move of substantialising what they find – treating the consequences of historical trends – treating value – as something whose existence becomes manifest in the movement of phenomenal forms, and therefore missing how value is not a justification or explanation or cause of the movements that take place, but rather itself a product or implicit order acted out in and through those movements themselves, and inseparable from them…

I’m expressing this in a very imprecise way – just scattering notes here for myself…

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Close Reading of the Naming of the Fetish

The entire long series on the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, was written as an exercise in unpacking Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism. En route, the series has done much more than that – but it has also done a bit less. Among other things, I’ve never gotten around to detailed textual analysis of the passages in which the argument about commodity fetishism is immediately presented. One of the things that I’ve been noticing, as I read other commentaries that attempt to interpret these same passages, is that certain specific “moves” in Marx’s argument tend not to be mentioned, or tend to be glossed in ways that, from the standpoint of my own reading, seem fundamentally to alter the thrust of the argument. What I want to do in this post – and this likely won’t make for entertaining reading – is to move through the first several paragraphs of the text somewhat closely, to gather together some notes on how I read this argument.

Marx begins:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.

I have suggested in earlier posts in this series that the “empiricist” voice that opens Capital sees the commodity this way: as a “given” – an irreducible “elementary form” whose characteristics can easily be perceived. The “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices introduced as the chapter unfolds call into question the apparent self-evidence of the commodity, enabling Marx to say, at this point in the text:

Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

Why does the commodity possess such “metaphysical” properties? Almost all commentaries get the first step in Marx’s argument, which is that the use values of commodities cannot account for the strange properties Marx has discussed through his exposition of the “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices:

So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.

Many commentaries, however, want to interpret this statement in terms of a dichotomy between use value and exchange value – to assume that Marx is setting up here for an argument that use value is not mysterious, but exchange on the market introduces some sort of mystification. Where commentaries put forward this line of analysis, they often overlook or else interpret away the next move of Marx’s argument, which discusses how there is also nothing mysterious about the component parts that make up value:

Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.

So the “parts” of the commodity, as these have been determined at this point in the argument, do not – as parts – account for the genesis of the mystification Marx has associated with the commodity-form. So where does the mystification come from? From the unique relation in which these parts have come to be brought together and connected to one another, in a situation of generalised commodity production:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.

The strong assumption that Marx is primarily concerned with opposing use value to exchange value, in order to make exchange value the primary target of his critique, tends to make it very difficult for commentators to grasp what the text is doing here. Marx is not distinguishing use value at the beginning of this section, in order to praise use value for its demystified character. He is trying to distinguish use value along with other parts of the commodity-form – the parts associated with value, as parts, are treated as no more mysterious here than the part that is marked out by the term “use value”. The argument here is not that we need to find a privileged “part” to serve as our standpoint of critique – it is, instead, that, if all we do, in analysing the commodity-form, is break it down into parts and examine those, then we will never be able to understand the genesis of certain “metaphysical” qualitative properties that Marx has been analysing throughout this chapter. This argument, in other words, is a further development of Marx’s critique of naive empiricism: he is arguing here that no amount of breaking things down into their components will ever answer the question he is trying to pose – proceeding in that manner will only lead to a point where the analysis must naturalise or treat as given the qualities Marx is trying to grasp.

Those qualities, Marx is arguing, do not arise from some “part” of the commodity-form – but from this form itself – from what happens, in other words, when these particular parts are brought together into a relation of a particular sort. The strategic thrust of this moment of the text is not to direct our attention to the mystifications of market exchange, but instead to direct our attention to the need to analyse parts only in and through an understanding of the relationships within which those parts are suspended.

(For those who have been reading regularly, my point here is similar to the one I expressed in developing the distinctions between Lukács and Marx: Lukács treats the commodity-form as a category that expresses exchange on the market – a form of practice with a very long historical provenance – and therefore views what is historically new in capitalism as the product of the quantitative expansive of this very old practice; Marx, by contrast, treats the commodity-form as a category specific to capitalism, expressive of a new social relation in which market exchange and other sorts of practices have recently come to be embedded, therefore fundamentally transforming the qualitative characteristics of these older forms of practice, by placing these practices into new relations. The relations, as well as the parts, have qualitative characteristics – and the argument about the fetish, in part, is an argument about how the qualitative characteristics of the relationship have come to be read off onto the parts, so that certain qualitative characteristics are read as intrinsic attributes, when these characteristics are instead, according to Marx, the contingent products of the suspension of the parts into a particular whole.)

The next few sentences are very compressed. Marx argues:

The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.

Many commentaries see these sentences, again, as a reference to market exchange – to the abstraction from qualitative specificity and therefore the equation of goods and people that occurs when these are exchanged on the market for money. I see the argument here as much more complex than this – the Lukács piece cited above, particularly the discussion of equality in the final section, begins to outline how I see this argument, as does my earlier discussion of Diane Elson’s work. I won’t replicate that content in this post. The short version is that – at this particular moment in the text – I don’t take Marx to be talking about the reduction of everything, through market exchange, to the common denominator of money. I take Marx to be talking instead – again remembering this is an extended critique of naive empiricism – about how social actors have no way of knowing how much of the labour they empirically expend in production, will get to “count” as part of “social labour”, until market exchange reveals this result. Marx argues that this structuration of collective practice – in which social actors only find out after the fact whether, and to what extent, their activities get to “count” as part of social labour – can be seen as social actors enacting a distinction between empirical labouring activities (which can be directly perceived by the senses), and some subset of those activities whose empirical extent will only be known after market exchange takes place. This process of culling activities empirically undertaken, down to activities that get to “count”, Marx argues is tantamount to collectively treating certain activities as though they possess a “supersensible” essence – which Marx names “value” – thus enacting “value” as an intangible social reality.

Marx will later talk about the creation of value (and surplus value) as a process that takes place both inside and outside of circulation: the market isn’t the only institution relevant to the social process being shorthanded here. At this point in the text, Marx hasn’t yet introduced the categories he will need, to make the nature of his argument more overt, and so it is easier to “hear” the text as an argument about circulation. It is particularly important to remember that Marx is gradually unspooling further determinations of his initial categories all the way through the text, such that the argument at any particular moment, is expressed only in terms of the categories he has derived to that point: he adopts this strategy because he thinks it’s the only way to reveal the relationships that connect the categories to one another, in the context of an argument whose primary objective is to disentangle the qualitative characteristics and potentials of that relationship, from the qualitative characteristics and potentials of various moments. This makes the strategic thrust of the early moments of Capital difficult to appreciate, until further along in the text. Unfortunately, the received impression that Marx is trying to make an argument about “the market”, combined with the focus on circulation in the opening chapters of Capital, can occlude the strategic thrust of the text overall.

Marx then moves to a set of analogies. First, from the physical sciences:

In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things.

What Marx is reaching for here, I would suggest, is an example that involves a relation that comes to be misperceived as an object – where the emphasis is on the relationality of the example – on the need to grasp the relation, in order to grasp the process. Marx seems to realise the risk of this analogy, in the course of an argument against the tendency to treat the qualitative characteristics of social relations as the intrinsic properties of natural objects, and so reaches immediately for a more social analogy. Here he turns to religion:

But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.

Here Marx tries to drill in that he is not trying to talk about some natural property, which comes to be filtered through socialised perception into some particular form. He is trying to talk about a distinctive sort of social entity – something entirely enacted in collective practice. He thinks his readers will find it intuitive to think of religion in this way – as a collective practice in which social actors behave as though intangible, supersensible creatures exist. This analogy has its limits as well, however: Marx worries that his readers will think that the supersensible entities of religious practice are the products of shared belief – “products of the human brain”, as Marx puts it. This also isn’t quite what Marx is reaching for: social actors (aside from the occasional political economist or philosopher) don’t need to “believe” in the existence of supersensible entities like “value”, in order to organise their collective practice to behave as though such entities exist. This is what Marx is trying to capture with his next sentence:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.

So it is this collective enactment of supersensible entities like value, which social actors effect unintentionally, that suspends the “parts” of the commodity-form into the distinctive relation that produces the “metaphysical” traits Marx has been analysing in this chapter. It is here that Marx finally gives this process a name:

This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.