I’m not sure whether to classify this post as a contribution to the reading group discussion on Hegel’s Science of Logic, or instead to treat it as part of the series on Marx. The theme is one I’m trying to work out how to discuss in my current chapter draft, but I’m pointing my argument in that chapter back to these concepts in Hegel, so perhaps these things have become too interpenetrating to distinguish clearly.
In the chapter draft, I’m working on a specific tension. On the one hand, Marx criticises, for example, the political economists for exempting their own position from their analysis – for treating the categories of other economic systems as artificial and as socially and historically conditioned, but treating the categories they use to grasp capitalism as “natural”. This critique shows up in passages such as this one, originally from Poverty of Philosophy, but replicated in a footnote to the first chapter of Capital:
Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. … Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any.
Given that Marx finds it relevant to replicate this comment in two works quite dispersed in time, and given how this critique dovetails with other sorts of critique Marx offers, evidently this is an abiding and somewhat central concern for Marx. My impulse is to take from these sorts of comments the notion that Marx does not intend to engage in this sort of political economic manoeuvre himself – that he is not simply, so to speak, criticising the political economists for being wrong in viewing their specific position as an emanation from God, but is instead arguing that it would be wrong to regard any position as such an emanation: I take Marx’s argument, in other words, to be that critique should be reflexive and provide an account of its own position of enunciation (I take Marx, in other words to share some of the sorts of concerns with abstract “philosophical” forms of critique that Sinthome has raised this morning over at Larval Subjects).
The challenge for my reading is that Marx also often makes statements that seem to jar with this notion of reflexivity – statements, for example, that compare what actually takes place under capitalist conditions of production, with what appear to be something like “essential” categories that Marx seems to claim would apply to any sort of production. The form of critique here looks very similar to what Marx objects to in the political economists. When, for example, Marx makes a claim like, e.g., the substance of wealth is always use value, and then appears to criticise capitalism for the way that it imposes additional conditions on what gets to “count” as wealth, that go beyond this unavoidable “material” requirement – this structure of argument looks rather similar to that used by the political economists, who argued that, e.g., the feudal guild system imposes additional conditions on the organisation of production, that distorted the “natural” institutions of capitalist society. Marx may offer a different version of what counts as “natural”, but this doesn’t change the apparent structure of the argument, which still involves the criticism of some set of social institutions against a standard that purports to be more “natural” than those institutions. This approach does not appear to correspond to the concept of immanent critique I’ve argued is at play in Marx’s work.
Most interpreters, of course, are comfortable with the notion that Marx is a straightforward “materialist” who doesn’t problematise the genesis of his own critical insights. Even Patrick Murray’s very sensitive reading of Capital, which captures the Hegelian subtext of the work quite well, regards Marx to be criticising both Hegel and the political economists for not recognising a difference between “genuine” (asocial) abstractions, and abstractions specific to capitalist society: on this read, Marx’s great critical contribution was to disentangle these two sorts of abstractions, and so clarify what is “essential” to material production, from what is only made to “appear” necessary by the distorted configurations characteristic of capitalist production. This reading, however, leaves somewhat unclear where Marx obtains such clarity of insight into what is truly essential, when such insight has eluded so many others.
Certain kinds of theory – Habermas would be the obvious example – try to answer this latter question through a strategy I tend to call “appealing to the historical realisation of the natural”. Here, what is “essential” is not treated as contingently constituted in social practice – the essential is thematised, either explicitly or tacitly, as always having been “natural”, at least as a latent tendency or necessary step in a developmental logic or similar – while an explanation is offered for why we have only recognised or discovered the essential in recent history. This approach still possesses the basic structure of the political economists’ argument, as Marx criticises it above: it positions the approaches being criticised as artificial, and treats its own position as natural. In the process, it treats critique as an abstract negation – as something that is left behind, when everything artificial has been stripped away. Essence is not constituted – at least not in any contingent way. Even where essence is treating as arising in human practice, it is treated as non-contingently arising. Critique takes the form of a criticism of appearance from the standpoint of essence.
I have tried to argue that Marx is doing something quite different – that he is attempting a form of theory loyal to the precepts of his critique of political economy – that he is not simply saying that the political economists are wrong in the specific thing they take to be “natural”, but wrong in adopting a whole structure of critique that does not address its own conditions of possibility. How, then, can I make sense of moments in Capital where Marx himself sets up a contrast between what material production “essentially” is, versus the specific form material production takes under capitalism? How, even moreso, can I make sense of passages in which Marx suggests that it is possible to look back through history, making sense of the changing configurations of social relations with reference to concepts like a “mode of production”?
My full answer to these questions is the subject of the chapter I am working on now, which I will post here for comment when it’s sufficiently complete. That chapter both acknowledges genuine tensions and inconsistencies in Marx’s own work, and also argues that there is a way he could be consistent to his critique of political economy, while still wielding very abstract and seemingly asocial categories like “use value” – so long as he provides an explanation for how those seemingly asocial categories are the categories of a specific form of society. This argument requires a turn to Hegel.
Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in one of the passages in the in-person reading group selection for today. At the beginning of Section One: Determinateness (Quality), Hegel makes the interesting point:
Being is the indeterminate immediate; it is free from determinateness in relation to essence and also from any which it can possess within itself. This reflectionless being is being as it is immediately in its own self alone.
Because it is indeterminate being, it lacks all quality; but in itself, the character of indeterminateness attaches to it only in contrast to what is determinate or qualitative. But determinate being stands in contrast to being in general, so that the very indeterminateness of the latter constitutes its quality. It will therefore be shown that the first being is in itself determinate, and therefore, secondly, that it passes over into determinate being… (130-131, bold text mine)
Hegel is not concerned with social theory, but the argument he makes here suggests the line I follow with Marx’s apparently asocial “materialist” categories: that the indeterminacy of these categories – their apparent detachment from any specific social configuration – is their specific determinacy. In other words, the specific social character of certain categories of capitalist society, consists in their apparent asocial character. This theme, I would suggest, runs throughout Capital.
The development of this argument, which I attempt in the chapter itself, at least as a preliminary sketch, involves an argument about real abstractions. A real abstraction is an abstraction that involves more than simply a conceptual stripping away of determinate content. A real abstraction is effected in social practice, and involves (in my appropriation of this concept) a process of mutual constitution of conflictual dimensions of practice – one of which renders particular forms of qualitative determinacy socially meaningful, while another is actively indifferent to those specific forms of determinacy. In Marx’s argument, for example, a category like “use value” – which appears to be nothing more than a catch-all conceptual abstraction that generalises from any sort of useful thing, and seems transparently capable of extension to the analysis of any human society – is actually effected in collective practice in capitalism, as the value dimension of the commodity must appear in some use value or another, but is structurally indifferent to how it appears. In this sense, an apparently asocial category like “use value” – which presents itself as a substance of wealth, indifferent to social form – is in fact closely tied to value as the social form of wealth in capitalism, which generates at the level of social practice “use value” as a meaningful, socially-immanent category. This doesn’t mean that we can’t then take such abstract categories, and apply them to the past – or, more important for Marx’s purposes, apply them to the critique of capitalism, to assist us in thinking alternative organisations of production. It does, though, provide an immanent account of such categories, and also situates the categories socially and historically, making it possible to explain why these categories are part of the “in and for itself” of our society, but did not emerge in other historical eras.
This approach repositions Marx’s apparently asocial and “materialist” categories as determinate negations – as negations that emerge out of a specific “something”, and therefore carry the traces of what they negated, in their determinate qualitative form. I’ve drawn attention to such a concept previously, in discussing this passage from Hegel’s Phenomenology:
The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes this one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into some abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79)
The reading group starts soon, and I need to review a bit before everyone arrives. And ack! Russ has shown up early!! (How dare you, Russ – you know I read material before we meet!!) No time to edit… Apologies…
P.S. Since Russ so rudely interrupted, I posted this before I got the chance to nudge back at Wildly Parenthetical, who has been trying valiantly to make sense of my often opaque use of terms like “abstract” and “determinate” negation – if it weren’t already clear, this piece is intended as (er… yet another?) gesture to that ongoing conversation… 🙂