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Category Archives: Negations

Fragment on the Working Day

To celebrate Labor’s victory in Saturday’s election, I thought it might be appropriate to post some rough thoughts on Capital, volume one, chapter 10 – The Working-Day.

Note that, since I haven’t worked up to this chapter in the systematic reading I’ve been trundling through recently, these comments will be much more provisional than my other recent posts on Capital. Corrections, as always, are welcome.

This chapter always reminds me of the William Morris quotation that I probably reproduce a bit too often:

men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

The main line of political drama that plays out in this chapter involves a story of strange reversals: apparent working class victories are thwarted, or provoke rapid political reversals, or unexpectedly rebound to the benefit of capital – until what appears initially as a “decisive” victory of capital brings about its in own reversal, in the form of the effective mobilisation of the working classes and the final achievement of a legislated normal working day. Only after the discussion of this working class victory does Capital open up to the discussion of relative surplus value and to the development of machinery and modern industry – suggesting yet another complex consequence of political struggle anticipated by none of the participants: the strengthening and routinisation of the drive of capital for ever-increasing levels of productivity.

At some point, I hope to return to this narrative of unintended consequences more adequately, on the basis of a more thorough exposition of the chapters leading up to and out of this section of Capital. For present purposes, I want instead to draw attention to some of the interstitial metatheory that peeks through long quotations from the factory inspectors and accounts of the popular press. This chapter contains some of the more surprising and unexpected metatheoretical material in the first volume of Capital – specifically opening questions of the determinate limits of what can be predicted by this theory of capitalism – what the theory can say, and cannot say, about the sorts of struggles likely to arise, and how those struggles might play out. At the same time, this chapter begins to thematise the relationship between capital, state regulation, and the journalistic public sphere. This chapter’s particular “immanent voice” – captured in long quotations, interspersed by Marx’s own sardonic commentary – is that of state bureaucrats (factory inspectors) and journalists – as well as the voices of capital as played out in these emergent public spheres.

First some brief background – with the caveat that, as I’ll need to summarise this argument quickly here, the broader strategic intent of this economistic-sounding argument won’t be clear – I’ll hopefully be able to come back to all of this more adequately at another time.

Previous chapters have already established that there is something strange about commodities of the human sort. Somehow, such commodities manage to be sold for their full value – and yet, somehow, surplus value emerges from this transaction. Marx is aware, of course, that all sorts of swindles and abuses may prevent labour power from being sold at its full value, but he brackets these potentials because, as he puts it somewhere, an entire society cannot grow materially richer by stealing from itself: somewhere, somehow, a kind of surplus is produced and, on the level of society as a whole, such a surplus does not arise solely from unequal distribution, however unequally distributed wealth might be: a surplus must somehow be generated. But where could a surplus come from, if labour-power is bought and sold at its full value?

Marx answers this question by introducing a distinction between the costs of the reproduction of labour power, and the value derived from capital’s use of labour-power for a specific duration. Labour’s exchange value, then, is its cost of reproduction (speaking here, although it may not yet be quite clear in the text, across capitalist society as a whole – individual labour powers, like individual commodities of all kinds, may be purchased for prices above and below the actual cost of reproducing those empirical labours – a clinical-sounding point with devastating human implications). Labour’s use value, however, is the role it plays in generating surplus value. Thus it becomes structurally possible for labour (again, across the whole of capitalist society) to be bought and sold at its full value, while still also generating surplus value.

Continuing to skip superficially through the previous chapters, surplus value production takes place, according to Marx’s argument, in that period during which labour works in excess of whatever time would have been necessary merely to reproduce labour power. The sum of the time spent on both necessary and surplus labour constitutes the working day.

Marx voices this as though he is speaking of individual labourers, the wage required for their personal subsistence, and the length of their personal working day. It becomes clearer in chapter 11, on the Rate and Mass of Surplus Value, that Marx – as I’ve been noting above – intends these categories (like all his others) to be indiscernible at the level of immediate empirical experience at levels of abstraction below that of capitalist society as a whole, as its dynamic unfolds over time:

The labour which is set in motion by the total capital of a society, day in, day out, may be regarded as a single collective working-day.

More on all of this at some other time. For the moment, I intend these flashbacks and flashforwards simply to provide a bit of context to understand how the chapter on the working day slots into the text. With this out of the way, just a few brief points on the chapter itself.

The chapter on the working day explores the consequences of a structural variability or intrinsic indeterminacy at the heart of capitalist production. On the one hand, previous chapters have established that the rate of surplus value production hinges on the proportion of the working day devoted to necessary labour vs. the production of surplus value. On the other hand, no intrinsic structural determination governs the absolute length of the working day. This combination – the structural importance of the rate of surplus value production within the working day, absent a structural determination of the duration of the working day – defines a space of conflict. Marx initially describes this conflict from the perspectives immanently available to the process of commodity exchange, in which labourers and capitalists face off as sellers and buyers of the commodity labour-power, each determined to receive the full value of the exchange:

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.

Here, where the forms of subjectivity that inhabit the sphere of commodity exchange reach their limit – where equal rights claims offer no basis for selecting one right above the other – Marx opens up the space for force. The “free” sphere of commodity exchange is presented here as immanently generating an impasse that points to the existence of further perspectives that lie beyond the sphere of commodity exchange, but are nevertheless connected immanently to that sphere. Marx says here:

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. (italics mine)

Class conflict is the mode in which the determination of the working day presents itself – expressing the perspectives available with the sphere of commodity exchange, which divides capital as buyer, and labour as seller, or the commodity labour power. This presentation (remembering that Marx tends to use this term for how some particular dimension of capitalist society “gives” itself, but where this particular “given” is not the only possible perspective that can cast meaningful light on what the “given” perspective describes) expresses a socially meaningful binary relationship generated within the sphere of commodity exchange. This presentation is not, however, identical with the empirical actors whose skirmishes play out in practice over the long process of political struggle that results in the eventual determination of the normal working day. Instead, the complex and nuanced stories Marx presents in this chapter are filled with diverse social actors combined into complex collective arrays whose allegiances frequently shift in response to circumstances that are clearly presented in the text as contingent – as something the theory of capital does not attempt to predict or regard as foreordained. The binary categories of class conflict therefore do not seem to be intended to grasp the immediate empirical identities of collective actors, but rather to capture a genuinely bifurcated set of structural consequences that arise from a much more diverse set of empirical conflicts.

Of course, as with any other immanently-available perspective unfolded in Capital, class categories can also become the nucleus around which subjective self-experiences of social actors can crystalise. And, as with other immanent-available perspectives unfolded in Capital, class categories can be confused as naturally inhering in some particular empirical group – can be confused, that is, for categories of immediate empirical experience – instead of being seen as real abstractions expressing the collective enactment of a particular structural relationship.

The consequences of this confusion are ambivalent: marking a site for creative political potential, but also for misrecognition.

On the one hand, the availability of forms of subjectivity associated with class identity makes it possible to create movements of empirical social actors united around a resonant class identity – to seize potentials latent in a real abstraction, and create a transformative movement of empirical social actors who mobilise around these potentials and this identity.

On the other hand, the assumption that some particular identity will necessarily or naturalistically inhere in the members of specific empirical groups – like the assumption that some given commodity will sell at its value – can be mistaken: the practical, empirical affiliations and responses of social actors can be expected to be much more diverse and fluid than the binary class categories suggest. On another level, a “naturalistic” misunderstanding of class categories can render more likely a politics oriented to the realisation of the working class as a working class – a form of politics that is vital in the contest to humanise capitalism, but that by itself does not point beyond capitalism. (Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, for example, polemicises against this kind of vision of working class politics in the beautifully titled The Right to Be Lazy, arguing that the working class should not assert its “right to work” – its rights as sellers of labour power in the labour market – but rather assert its “right to be lazy”, its collective potential to contest the endless productivist drive characteristic of capitalist accumulation.) All of this, however, deserves a much more elaborate treatment than I can provide here – I’ll leave these points inadequately developed for now, and move a bit further along in the text.

In the development of this evocative chapter, Marx explores the historically unique boundlessness of capitalism’s drive for surplus value. The language in these sections – of were-wolves, vampires, and other animated creatures preying on living labour – deserves an analysis in its own right (I have made previous gestures at this here), as does the analysis of decentred and diverse small-scale conflicts, reminiscent in many respects of Foucault. For present purposes, I’ll leave these issues aside, and draw attention to the voices that speak in this portion of the text: state officials and journalists (even the voices of capital, in this section, are addressed to or through one of these). Marx has unfolded the possibility for such voices immanently from within his discussion of the conflict of equal rights that remains irreconcilable within the categories available within the sphere of commodity exchange alone: between equal rights, force decides – the force, in this case, of legislation and the public sphere. The story Marx unfolds in this chapter describes these forms of force as responses to capital’s own boundless drive for surplus extraction – a drive that is coercive on individual capitals, and that therefore requires a countervailing universal force. He thus describes the gradual emergence of enforced limits on the working day as the “negative expression” of the boundlessness of capital’s own drive for surplus value:

If the Règlement organique of the Danubian provinces was a positive expression of the greed for surplus-labour which every paragraph legalised, the English Factory Acts are the negative expression of the same greed. These acts curb the passion of capital for a limitless draining of labour-power, by forcibly limiting the working-day by state regulations, made by a state that is ruled by capitalist-and landlord. Apart from the working-class movement that daily grew more threatening, the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder that in the one case exhausted the soil, had, in the other, torn up by the roots the living force of the nation.

He further recounts the ways in which such constraints were initially exceptionalised (enacted for certain categories of workers – children, then women, then men in some industries but not all) – and, in this form, were initially largely unsuccessful – until, with periodic reversals and surges, constraints grew more and more universal, and thus more “adequate” to capital. A tipping point in the English story comes when large industry’s own need for predictability in the production process, combined with the fear of social unrest from the working classes, drives the development of a legislated normal working day. Marx makes clear, however, that this sequence of events was by no means uniform across different countries – that local circumstances and random events fundamentally shaped the course of the political contestation. The text suggests that the theory of capitalism Marx is outlining can make sense of the emergence of a particular kind of defused contestation, of key political ideals that would resonate during such contestations, of some of the complex consequences – many of these initially unintended by the social actors engaged in political contestation, but nevertheless plausible and intelligible with reference to the theory – that flow from various moments in this contestation, and of the form of political resolution “adequate” to prevent capital’s own boundless drive from undermining the reproduction of labour-power on which capitalist production itself relies. Yet the text also treats an enormous amount as contingent: this chapter does not suggest that a theory of capitalism will provide a vision of predictable, linear, theorisable historical outcomes from a process of political contestation, such that the theory can specify structural conditions that drive in one direction alone, and that will outweigh the effects of local situations and contingent events in determining the success or failure of specific political initiatives.

Much more needs to be said, and I’m conscious that much of what I’ve already written is extraordinarily underdeveloped and, in this form, deeply problematic – this is an intensely rich chapter, and I am not doing justice to its argument. But it’s getting very late here, and I need to call it a night. Unfortunately, I probably won’t get back to Capital for the next few weeks – many other things on my plate right now. Apologies for these various forms of truncation – at some point, I intend to get back to this. But it will be a while…

Modernities Conference Talk

Too tired to post anything substantive tonight. I’ve posted the conference talk to the Modernities: Radicalism, Reflexivity, Realities conference below the fold, for the curious.

A few folks at the conference also asked where they could find the background material that lies behind the reading of Marx hinted at in the conference paper. In case anyone drops by, the back posts on the first chapter of Capital are listed immediately below (although I’m in the process of consolidating all this into something shorter and a bit more linear than in the think-out-loud material posted to the blog thus far):

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Random Metatheory

The Universal as Particular

Many thanks to folks who showed up to lend their support when I was presenting. For folks who weren’t there, but have been reading the blog regularly, I’m not certain that the materials below the fold will add much you haven’t seen. In some ways, I find conference talks more limited than the blog – the writing feels much less nuanced, even though it is probably a bit better organised than most of what I typically write here… Note that what I say at the event is never quite identical to what I write beforehand; in this case, though, it’s likely to be fairly close… Read more of this post

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Okay. Back to Capital. The third section of the first chapter. When I was last discussing this section, I had just finished an analysis of the section on the relative form (3.A.2), which would suggest that I should perhaps pick up with the subsequent section on the equivalent form. But of course that would be too simple… ;-P

What I want to try to do here is skip around a bit to see if I can make some sense of a few of the overarching lines of analysis that structure this text. I’ll apologise in advance, as I suspect this might be quite a scattered post – I may need to come up behind it with subsequent posts that will express the content more clearly and coherently. But anyone reading along in this series will probably be somewhat used to that…

In earlier posts, I’ve made the claim that, in spite of appearances, Marx isn’t outlining an historical development of capitalism in this section. When I say “in spite of appearances”, this is because there are moments in the text where it looks very strongly like Marx is doing precisely that, so my claim about textual strategy is not immediately or self-evidently true. Marx speaks of “metamorphoses” that the forms must undergo, in order finally to yield the money form. He speaks of “transitions” from forms that are more “elementary” to forms that are more “complete”. He speaks of the simple commodity form as the “germ” of the money form. And in section 3.C.1, you get a long passage that looks very much as though it is recounting stages in historical development:

All commodities now express their value (1) in an elementary form, because in a single commodity; (2) with unity, because in one and the same commodity. This form of value is elementary and the same for all, therefore general.

The forms A and B were fit only to express the value of a commodity as something distinct from its use value or material form.

The first form, A, furnishes such equations as the following: – 1 coat = 20 yards of linen, 10 lbs of tea = ½ a ton of iron. The value of the coat is equated to linen, that of the tea to iron. But to be equated to linen, and again to iron, is to be as different as are linen and iron. This form, it is plain, occurs practically only in the first beginning, when the products of labour are converted into commodities by accidental and occasional exchanges.

The second form, B, distinguishes, in a more adequate manner than the first, the value of a commodity from its use value, for the value of the coat is there placed in contrast under all possible shapes with the bodily form of the coat; it is equated to linen, to iron, to tea, in short, to everything else, only not to itself, the coat. On the other hand, any general expression of value common to all is directly excluded; for, in the equation of value of each commodity, all other commodities now appear only under the form of equivalents. The expanded form of value comes into actual existence for the first time so soon as a particular product of labour, such as cattle, is no longer exceptionally, but habitually, exchanged for various other commodities.

The third and lastly developed form expresses the values of the whole world of commodities in terms of a single commodity set apart for the purpose, namely, the linen, and thus represents to us their values by means of their equality with linen. The value of every commodity is now, by being equated to linen, not only differentiated from its own use value, but from all other use values generally, and is, by that very fact, expressed as that which is common to all commodities. By this form, commodities are, for the first time, effectively brought into relation with one another as values, or made to appear as exchange values.

The two earlier forms either express the value of each commodity in terms of a single commodity of a different kind, or in a series of many such commodities. In both cases, it is, so to say, the special business of each single commodity to find an expression for its value, and this it does without the help of the others. These others, with respect to the former, play the passive parts of equivalents. The general form of value, C, results from the joint action of the whole world of commodities, and from that alone. A commodity can acquire a general expression of its value only by all other commodities, simultaneously with it, expressing their values in the same equivalent; and every new commodity must follow suit. It thus becomes evident that since the existence of commodities as values is purely social, this social existence can be expressed by the totality of their social relations alone, and consequently that the form of their value must be a socially recognised form.

What gives? How is this passage – with its “in the first beginning”, its shifts from “‘accidental” to “habitual” exchanges, its “lastly developed form”, etc. – not a description of an historical progression? The answer, I would suggest, is that the account above does express itself as though we used to have “accidental” commodity production, and then moved on to “habitual” commodity production, and finally to “fully developed” commodity production – but that the historical rendering of this narrative can be read as an expression of the particular phenomenological perspective Marx is analysing at this point in his narrative. It does not, in other words, reflect the “for us” of Marx’s text, but simply the latest located perspective – one that, in this case, confuses a potential logical ordering of these various expressions of value, for an historical progression in which the less “complete” expressions of the value form are interpreted as being more historically primitive. (This begs for a meta-commentary on Durkheim’s Elementary Forms, but I’ll restrain myself… ;-P)

How do we know that this is the case? First, because we have already been “primed” for this conclusion, in the digression on Aristotle that takes place in 3.A.3. Marx has claimed that the elementary form of value – the form in which individual commodities are “accidentally” exchanged with one another, which appears to be historically primitive in the passage above – already contains “the whole mystery of the form of value”. Yet he presents Aristotle, analysing something that looks very much like the elementary form of value – hypothetically arriving at the notion that some underlying common substance must exist, in order for the exchange of unlike goods to be possible – and yet ultimately dismissing his own hypothesis, and concluding:

“It is, however, in reality impossible, that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes”.

Marx doesn’t quite voice the “for us” of the text explicitly here, but his ironic engagement with this example is more palpable than in many early sections of the text. He argues with Aristotle here – of course there is something that makes diverse goods qualitatively equal – their common quality of being products of human labour! Aristotle doesn’t see this, however, because Greek society is founded on the slavery – and, thus, on the incommensurability of different kinds of people – and, therefore, of the practices those different kinds of people perform – their diverse labouring activities. Marx then makes explicit that the “mystery” of the elementary form is one that requires a fully developed system of commodity production, to “solve”:

The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

Marx can’t resist putting “in truth” into quotation marks. The meta-commentary here suggests that the form of perception being analysed in this section may indeed perceive Aristotle’s society to possess the same “essence” – to contain the same “truth” – as our society. Aristotle might not have seen this truth – but nevertheless it was always there, waiting for historical circumstances to bring it to light. The “for us” of the text is meant to see through this form of perception: human labour was not “in truth” at the bottom of exchange in Aristotle’s time – the conditions of his society did not simply prevent him from seeing value or the equality of human labour – those conditions meant that this “truth” had not yet been brought into being in collective practice – the “truth” of value hadn’t yet been enacted for Aristotle to “see”. In the section on commodity fetishism, Marx offers a more explicit meta-commentary on the perspective he is illustrating here:

forms of social production that preceded the bourgeois form, are treated by the bourgeoisie in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.

Elaborated in the attached footnote, which quotes Marx’s earlier critique of Proudhon:

“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”

The perspective being unfolded here is thus historicising to the extent that it is explicitly aware that not all times have possessed the insights of the current moment. It is also dehistoricising, however, to the extent that it exempts its own insights from (reflexive) historicisation, and views them instead as capturing a “truth” that has always existed, but that has become apparent only in the present time. Marx can’t resist a playful poke at the form of thought he is immanently unfolding here – offering side by side an historical explanation for why the “mystery” of value (and the solution to this mystery) relies on a particular historical configuration, while continuing to speak as though he is solving a timeless riddle – uncovering a material reality that has “in truth” existed all along.

Even without the leap forward to the section on the fetish, and even without a recognition of the mild irony in the digression on Aristotle, it is still possible to see that Marx is embedding and relativising the notion that there might be some kind of historical progression in the “development” of value’s forms of expression. Marx unfolds these forms of expression, ranking them by how well each one meets the criteria of expressing the opposition between use value and value, and of expressing value as the materialisation of “undifferentiated human labour”. Along the way, he undermines the historical interpretation by showing how the “less adequate” forms continue to be preserved as moments of the “fully developed” expression.

Thus, in the “fully developed” expression – the “general form” – one commodity (money) has come to be exceptionalised out from the universe of other commodities, such that its own value is never directly expressed, because it serves as the universal equivalent in terms of which the values of all other commodities are measured. Yet the universal equivalent can fill this role only by entering into the relationship described by the “elementary” form, with all other commodities. So the elementary form of expression of value is preserved as a necessary moment within the most developed expression:

All commodities now express their value (1) in an elementary form, because in a single commodity; (2) with unity, because in one and the same commodity. This form of value is elementary and the same for all, therefore general.

More interesting, the “expanded” form of value – which Marx initially analyses as an intermediate stage between the elementary and fully developed forms – is also preserved. Marx had originally determined this expanded form as one in which each commodity expressed its value in relation to the entire universe of other commodities. Most commodities leave this “expanded” form behind when a particular commodity crystallises out as the universal equivalent, expressing their value in terms of the universal equivalent alone. There is, however, one exception: the commodity that serves as the universal equivalent, which cannot serve as equivalent to itself, and which therefore continues to express its value through the expanded form, in relation to the entire universe of other commodities. The “expanded” form is thus also preserved as a necessary moment within most developed expression of the form of value:

The commodity that figures as universal equivalent, is, on the other hand, excluded from the relative value form. If the linen, or any other commodity serving as universal equivalent, were, at the same time, to share in the relative form of value, it would have to serve as its own equivalent. We should then have 20 yds of linen = 20 yds of linen; this tautology expresses neither value, nor magnitude of value. In order to express the relative value of the universal equivalent, we must rather reverse the form C. This equivalent has no relative form of value in common with other commodities, but its value is relatively expressed by a never ending series of other commodities. Thus, the expanded form of relative value, or form B, now shows itself as the specific form of relative value for the equivalent commodity.

Why on earth does all this matter? Well, for starters, it’s fairly clear, once Marx makes these points, that he cannot intend the logical development he traces in this section, to be any kind of straightforward historical progression: the forms that initially appear more “primitive” (and that in reality are less adequate, when viewed with reference to how fully they can express certain social potentials) nevertheless remain integral to the ongoing operation of the most “developed” form, which expresses these potentials most clearly.

This is a motif that will recur throughout Capital, and it carries profound implications for the normative evaluation of proposals for specific forms of political practice. Marx will use this sort of analytical strategy repeatedly, in order to foreground what he will claim is an underlying and tacit unity between moments of capitalist society that appear superficially opposed to one another. Although I can’t develop these points adequately here, it may be worth exploring some of the general sorts of things Marx will try to do with this kind of analysis.

At the most basic level, he will suggest, at times, that specific proposals for political practice may be “utopian” in the sense of being unrealisable – because, for example, they call for the abolition of some dimension of capitalist society that is integrally bound together and generated along with another dimension that will be preserved. In terms of the categories introduced at this point in the text, for example, it would be “utopian” to put forward a proposal for retaining the “general form” of value, while abolishing the other forms of expression, since the general form bears these other forms necessarily in its wake – this point is less narrow than it may appear, once we’ve explored some of the implications of these forms – I’ll come back to this in just a bit.

Marx will also use this form of analysis to suggest specific ways in which complex interrelationships between moments in a multi-layered social context can operate to trick the analytical eye. In the sections we’re discussing here, for example, Marx explicitly argues that certain strands of political economy get distracted by the contingency inherent in the equivalent form – in which the specific commodity that comes to play the role of equivalent is a matter of contingent social custom. This contingency is “genuine” – and it leads the political economists to make perfectly valid claims about the various arbitrary commodities that have served the role of equivalent in different times and places. Yet, to the extent that analysis stops at this point, the mystery of value cannot even be posed as a problem for analysis – the focus on which commodity serves the role of equivalent deflects attention to the contingent contents that happen to occupy a certain position in a structural relationship, and thus helps to obscure the question of how such structures or forms have come into being. As a result, the contingency or necessity of those structures becomes more difficult to analyse – the problem becomes more difficult to “see”.

The temptation to read logical ordering as historical progression is another form of perception that this text highlights as a kind of immanent risk – a socially plausible form of “misrecognition”. Marx here suggests a way to ground a teleological perspective that, once again, expresses something genuine about its context – that different forms express, to greater and lesser degrees, specific potentials immanent within the context. Yet other immanently-available perspectives reveal the teleological perspective to be an inadequate expression of the potentials it attempts to express. The teleological perspective inappropriately (if plausibly) projects a logical order back into time, confusing moments within contemporary capitalist society, for historical stages of development that purportedly led to contemporary capitalism. Capitalism thus comes to be positioned as a teleological culmination – as a kind of immanent “truth” toward which previous human history was always already tending (for better or for worse – Marx will eventually explore both potentials). This teleological perspective impedes an adequate exploration of the form of this “logic” and obscures the contemporaneous relationships that connect moments within the logical “progression” intrinsically to one another.

While Marx doesn’t thematise this issue explicitly at this point in the text, the consequences of the teleological form of perception for modern history have been particularly devastating, as actively constituted, fully modern, forms of “underdevelopment” have been recurrently recast as naturally-occurring, indigenous, “primitive” social forms, perceived as occupying some early stage on an as-yet-unrealised continuum to capitalist modernity… Marx is beginning to set up for a critique of such narratives of “underdevelopment” – very tacitly – at this early point in the text.

The tension Marx outlines between the “expanded” and “general” forms of value is also of particular normative interest. The expanded form of value – in which each commodity seeks to express its value via relationships with all other commodities – is positioned in the text as a kind of materialised relativism:

The value of a single commodity, the linen, for example, is now expressed in terms of numberless other elements of the world of commodities. Every other commodity now becomes a mirror of the linen’s value. It is thus, that for the first time, this value shows itself in its true light as a congelation of undifferentiated human labour. For the labour that creates it, now stands expressly revealed, as labour that ranks equally with every other sort of human labour, no matter what its form, whether tailoring, ploughing, mining, &c., and no matter, therefore, whether it is realised in coats, corn, iron, or gold. The linen, by virtue of the form of its value, now stands in a social relation, no longer with only one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities. As a commodity, it is a citizen of that world. At the same time, the interminable series of value equations implies, that as regards the value of a commodity, it is a matter of indifference under what particular form, or kind, of use value it appears.

And, moreover, as intrinsically corrosive and unstable:

In the first place, the relative expression of value is incomplete because the series representing it is interminable. The chain of which each equation of value is a link, is liable at any moment to be lengthened by each new kind of commodity that comes into existence and furnishes the material for a fresh expression of value. In the second place, it is a many-coloured mosaic of disparate and independent expressions of value. And lastly, if, as must be the case, the relative value of each commodity in turn, becomes expressed in this expanded form, we get for each of them a relative value form, different in every case, and consisting of an interminable series of expressions of value. The defects of the expanded relative value form are reflected in the corresponding equivalent form. Since the bodily form of each single commodity is one particular equivalent form amongst numberless others, we have, on the whole, nothing but fragmentary equivalent forms, each excluding the others. In the same way, also, the special, concrete, useful kind of labour embodied in each particular equivalent, is presented only as a particular kind of labour, and therefore not as an exhaustive representative of human labour generally. The latter, indeed, gains adequate manifestation in the totality of its manifold, particular, concrete forms. But, in that case, its expression in an infinite series is ever incomplete and deficient in unity.

The “general form” at first appears to be a solution to this spiralling relativistic regress. In this form, one master commodity steps outside the endless mutually-referential signifying chains, to stand, apparently exceptionalised, in relation to the sliding and endlessly permutating network of relationships among the universe of commodities, in an attempt to “ground” entire network of relations on a more secure foundation:

Finally, the form C [the general form] gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because, and in so far as, thereby all commodities, with the exception of one, are excluded from the equivalent form. A single commodity, the linen, appears therefore to have acquired the character of direct exchangeability with every other commodity because, and in so far as, this character is denied to every other commodity.

Significantly, this general form is presented as fully adequate as an expression of the distinctive social form of labour under capitalism – “undifferentiated human labour” – which, in this text, figures as a form of domination (more on this, hopefully, in the next post):

The general form of relative value, embracing the whole world of commodities, converts the single commodity that is excluded from the rest, and made to play the part of equivalent – here the linen – into the universal equivalent. The bodily form of the linen is now the form assumed in common by the values of all commodities; it therefore becomes directly exchangeable with all and every of them. The substance linen becomes the visible incarnation, the social chrysalis state of every kind of human labour. Weaving, which is the labour of certain private individuals producing a particular article, linen, acquires in consequence a social character, the character of equality with all other kinds of labour. The innumerable equations of which the general form of value is composed, equate in turn the labour embodied in the linen to that embodied in every other commodity, and they thus convert weaving into the general form of manifestation of undifferentiated human labour. In this manner the labour realised in the values of commodities is presented not only under its negative aspect, under which abstraction is made from every concrete form and useful property of actual work, but its own positive nature is made to reveal itself expressly. The general value form is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour generally, of being the expenditure of human labour power.

The general value form, which represents all products of labour as mere congelations of undifferentiated human labour, shows by its very structure that it is the social resumé of the world of commodities. That form consequently makes it indisputably evident that in the world of commodities the character possessed by all labour of being human labour constitutes its specific social character.

As discussed above, however, the general form – introduced as a form that would constrain the inherent corrosive relational permutations of the expanded form – necessarily draws the expanded form along in its wake. Exceptionalised from the universe of commodities, having no relative form in common with other commodities as a result, the commodity that occupies the role of universal equivalent (money) can express its own value only in relation to the entire universe of all other commodities – only, that is, through the expanded form:

The commodity that figures as universal equivalent, is, on the other hand, excluded from the relative value form. If the linen, or any other commodity serving as universal equivalent, were, at the same time, to share in the relative form of value, it would have to serve as its own equivalent. We should then have 20 yds of linen = 20 yds of linen; this tautology expresses neither value, nor magnitude of value. In order to express the relative value of the universal equivalent, we must rather reverse the form C. This equivalent has no relative form of value in common with other commodities, but its value is relatively expressed by a never ending series of other commodities. Thus, the expanded form of relative value, or form B, now shows itself as the specific form of relative value for the equivalent commodity.

I would suggest that this complex, somewhat convoluted discussion of the relationship between expanded and general forms of value, sets up the possibility to determine a structural tension within capitalism for an antinomy between a particular kind of relativism and a particular kind of “fundamentalism” or “absolutism”. In this antinomy, both forms of thought, and the practices with which they are associated, are mutually constitutive, intrinsically drawing one another along in their mutual wake – each perhaps at times appearing as the solution to the other, both potentially failing to grasp their own mutual imbrication. Marx here suggests here a potential to embed forms of perception that seek out an exceptionalised a priori ground on which to found a stable system, as well as forms of perception that deny the possibility for such a ground, and that then see a corrosive instability as the inevitable result. He thereby points to at least one dimension within collective practice where a conflict between “absolutist” and “relativist” forms can be seen as inhering in more than abstract “ideas” – where such a conflict can be seen to be enacted within collective practice. He further suggests the potential that such a conflict – to the extent that it can be seen to be enacted in practice – might not be amenable to a purely “conceptual” solution. To the notion that such antinomies might result from trying “to scratch where it doesn’t itch”, Marx might reply that, unfortunately, the itch, although social, is nonetheless all too real – and we can’t expect to abolish in thought, what is generated in practice…

But all of this is very gestural at this point in the text – most of these points remain extremely tacit. I draw attention to them as suggestions for a potential, more fully developed, analysis, rather than as points that are in any way fully fleshed out here.

At this point, I have an awkward decision: I have a few additional points I’d like to make on this section – points that don’t necessarily follow from what I’ve written above, but that also might not be substantive enough (or sufficiently closely related to one another) to form a cohesive post of their own. I think I’ll separate them out into a separate post, just to preserve the quasi-cohesive content I’ve posted above in its own distinct space. This means, though, that the next post in this series is likely to be extremely disjoint, as it will very likely take the form of my playing around with a few stray passages with interesting implications that don’t, at this point, connect up with any the overarching narrative strands to which I’ve been drawing attention… So, one scattered post coming up after this one – and then, perhaps, I’ll be ready to move into the section on the fetish?? We’ll see…

Apologies as always for the non-proofread state – I’m particularly worried about slippage in the terminology I’ve used for the various forms (there are distinctions in the text between relative and equivalent forms within each of the forms I’ve analysed above – writing in a rush, and so I didn’t do justice to this…). Hopefully people will bear with this…

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

What Presses Now

Sinthome’s continued fascination with Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura has led to another wonderful post on historical materialism, in which Sinthome quotes a passage that expresses one of the forms of perception and thought I’ve recently been suggesting Marx is trying to ground in Capital – the distinction between a timeless “material” reality, and contingent, arbitrary, “social” attributes projected onto this reality:

A property is that which not at all
Can be disjoined and severed from a thing
Without a fatal dissolution: such,
Weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow
To the wide waters, touch to corporal things,
Intangibility to the viewless void.
But state of slavery, pauperhood, and wealth,
Freedom, and war, and concord, and all else
Which come and go whilst Nature stands the same,
We’re wont, and rightly, to call by-products.
Even time exists not of itself; but sense
Reads out of things what happened long ago,
What presses now, and what shall follow after:
No man, we must admit, feels time itself,
Disjoined from motion and repose of things.

Sinthome adds:

Lucretius’ stunning observation– I’d be interested to see whether it was commonly made in antiquity, I cannot think of other examples off-hand –is that by-products are not connected to the object itself. Lucretius’ examples are clear enough: regardless of whether I have the property of wealth, poverty, slavery, freedom, or am in a state of war, or peace, I remain the same person. That is, were I to lose all my wealth, I am still this person who has lost all of his wealth. As such, these properties are not connected properties of my being.

For obvious reasons, I’m also interested in the question of how common this kind of observation might have been in other contexts: Marx is making an argument that we are somehow constituting this kind of distinction unintentionally in collective practice. Among the several stabs I’ve taken below to try to express what Marx might be up to (and to continue Marx’s grand tradition, and quote myself), I take Marx to see capitalism as a situation in which:

we say that commodities possess a dual character – and then we analyse how that dual character that we take to be intrinsic, becomes manifest when commodities interact with one another on the market. We become sensitive to the possibility of a “material” world that operates according to supersensible laws whose existence can be inferred from observing patterns in the movements of material objects, and we begin to try to discover and to manipulate such “laws” instrumentally to human advantage. We become sensitive to the possibility that certain dimensions of social practice – dimensions associated with direct personal or intersubjective relations – are social (and therefore contingent on human practice and – potentially – contestable). We therefore collectively, unintentionally enact two mutually-differentiating, interpenetrating dimensions of social life: an “overtly social” realm of interpersonal relations, and an impersonal realm in which material objects are governed by invisible laws. Both realms are “social” – but not in the same way. And their mutual determination can render plausible a systematic trompe-l’œil in which one dimension of our social is taken not to be social at all.

Or, a bit later in my trundle through the first chapter:

I have suggested that the argument about the fetish is not concerned solely with explaining the “supersensible” properties that are perceived to inhere in material objects: it also lays the foundation for grasping the conviction that there are “material objects” – problematising the conception (expressed in many places in the first chapter) that our perception of a “material world” represents some kind of “demythologised” form of thought that arises quasi-automatically, once artificial social determinations have been stripped away, leaving “nature” behind. Instead, the “material world” is grasped in this argument as its own practically constituted “positivity” – as the product of determinate kinds of collective practice. (As a side note, to avoid confusion: This kind of argument is not intended to position human practice as somehow generative of the entirety of the non-human world – evoking a sort of radical social constructivism – but rather to explore connections between our current sensitivity to specific potentials of the non-human world, and other dimensions of our contemporaneous historical experience.)

Note that, since I’m suggesting that Marx is unfolding a reflexive critical theory, this sort of analytical move does not invalidate his own critical deployment of a (grounded) notion of “materialism”. Instead, this move enables Marx to deploy a concept of materialism (or other normative standards) non-dogmatically, in a way that symmetrically applies the same critical framework to his own position, and to positions he criticises, and thus does not rely on critical standards that float above the context being criticised.

I therefore see the “denaturalising” move made by the argument about the fetish as cutting “both ways” – as encompassing concepts of use value and exchange value, sensuous material nature and supersensible laws, subjects and objects, and a constellation of other dichotomies that will be unfolded as having interrelated, practical bases in the course of this analysis. And I see this argument opening up the possibility for an analysis of capitalism as a peculiarly “layered” social context, constituted by intrinsically bound and yet conflictual dimensions of collective practice that mutually differentiate one another to constitute a practical dichotomy between, on the one hand, a “secularised” impersonal world of “material” objects whose interactions are governed by “universal” laws, and, on the other, a contingent, historically-variable, intersubjective realm of human custom.

Sinthome is drawn – as I think Marx also was – to the political implications of such forms of perception and thought. To sample another passage from Larval Subjects:

Lucretius’ distinction between properties and by-products has implications that reach far beyond the examples he gives, and which are a central axiom of historical materialism. His examples of freedom and slavery are particularly telling. Freedom, slavery, are not natural features of physical bodies, but are rather a product of relations among bodies. That is, they are, according to this metaphysic, institutions. Many will recall that Aristotle had argued that non-Greeks and women are naturally inferior to Greek men, thereby treating this inferiority as a property of these bodies. Aristotle naturalizes social relations, thereby treating them as the natural order of things.

If Lucretius’ words cause the world to shake, then this is because this thesis belongs not only to the various social identities we might possess, treating them all as by-products rather than properties, but it also extends (without him saying so) to all social institutions as well. Being-a-king is not a property of the king, but is instead a by-product of being recognized as a king by his subjects. Gender relations between men and women are not the natural way of things, but the result of ongoing autopoiesis whereby both parties involved reproduce themselves in their gendered identities through their interactions with one another (without it being possible to say one group produces the identity of the other). Sexual identities are not natural properties, but are again by products of practices and institutions.

Sinthome also hits perfectly on the critical intention of the form of critique in which I see Marx to have been engaging (without suggesting that Sinthome would have agreed with Marx’s specific claims or with the social or practice-theoretic framing of Marx’s critical approach):

These concepts are perhaps familiar to us today– though I hear people making such claims on behalf of the natural all the time –so it is difficult to hear just how much they make the world rumble and shake. However, if there is one central function of the project of critique and historical materialism, this is to show the essential contingency of social institutions and identities… The way they are “by-products” or “accidents”, rather than properties. The activity of demonstrating the contingency of institutions is not an activity of “debunking” or falsifying. We might, for instance, show that rights are by-products or accidents of certain social organizations. This does not render rights false, just as it is no less the case that I am a professor because being-a-professor required a whole host of institutions from universities, places to teach, states, and my students acting towards me as a philosopher. Rather, if rights are by-products or accidents, then this is because they can fail to exist in certain bodies. This entails that perhaps we fight all the more vigorously for the existence of these by-products. Rather, in the activity of critique, in the activity of uncovering contingency, we render possibilities available, allowing us to counter-factually envision how other forms of life might come to be. The slave that comes to see the institution of slavery as a contingent by-product of his socio-historical setting rather than a natural property of his being also comes to envision the possibility of another life, another world. Perhaps we should begin with the premise that we’re all slaves. Perhaps this would paradoxically be the most affirmative position one could advocate. Sometimes the entire world is changed through a simple distinction, an incorporeal transformation, a concept, that then functions as a lens so potent it is able to concentrate light into fire.

The point of immanent critique (and this perhaps touches on some of the issues currently under discussion in another thread over at Larval Subjects) is precisely not to debunk, but rather to liberate and free up for conscious political practice, potentials that may have been constituted unintentionally, in alienated form, by enabling a better understanding of the determinate sorts of relationships in which these potentials are currently constituted – and the other ways in which those relationships might be unfolded, to release potentials more completely.

Caveats as always that I am not trying in any way to assimilate Sinthome’s argument to my own – just thinking in tandem, as the waves and resonances of online discussion sometimes unexpectedly make possible…

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Human Labour in the Abstract

So I’ve decided that I’m not quite ready to let go of the first chapter of Capital. My provisional thought, very much subject to change, is that I’ll write something brief tonight on abstract labour, then at some point soon take up the complex discussion going on in the section on the form of value, and then write something on whatever bits of the section on commodity fetishism I haven’t managed to roll into the other posts.

In my last post in this series, I suggested that:

  • the first chapter was driving toward the argument about commodity fetishism,
  • significant aspects of the earlier sections of the chapter were intended to express fetishised forms of perception and thought, rather than Marx’s own “position”, and
  • fetishised forms of perception involve the attribution of supersensible social qualities to material objects.

In previous posts in this series (I’ve included a full list at the bottom of this post), I’ve suggested that this argument doesn’t simply involve the claim that “supersensible” qualities are inappropriately “projected” onto material nature. First, since this is a reflexive argument, Marx is seeking to ground, rather than simply debunk, the forms of thought he is analysing (including the forms of thought mobilised in his own critique). He therefore won’t treat the fetish as a “mere” conceptual error or a simple “illusion”. He will instead position fetishised perceptions as “forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production”. He will also present the fetish as arising from a particular way of enacting our collective lives, such that fetishised forms of thought are related to determinate qualitative characteristics of social “realities” enacted in particular forms of collective practice:

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (emphasis mine)

This reflexive strategy enables Marx (in principle) to construct a socially immanent critique that accounts for the practical genesis of the forms of thought it opposes, while also using the same analysis to demonstrate that such forms of thought are partial, and thus fail to grasp emancipatory potentials necessarily generated through the same practical, collective process that reproduces capitalism.

Second, I have suggested that the argument about the fetish is not concerned solely with explaining the “supersensible” properties that are perceived to inhere in material objects: it also lays the foundation for grasping the conviction that there are “material objects” – problematising the conception (expressed in many places in the first chapter) that our perception of a “material world” represents some kind of “demythologised” form of thought that arises quasi-automatically, once artificial social determinations have been stripped away, leaving “nature” behind. Instead, the “material world” is grasped in this argument as its own practically constituted “positivity” – as the product of determinate kinds of collective practice. (As a side note, to avoid confusion: This kind of argument is not intended to position human practice as somehow generative of the entirety of the non-human world – evoking a sort of radical social constructivism – but rather to explore connections between our current sensitivity to specific potentials of the non-human world, and other dimensions of our contemporaneous historical experience.)

Note that, since I’m suggesting that Marx is unfolding a reflexive critical theory, this sort of analytical move does not invalidate his own critical deployment of a (grounded) notion of “materialism”. Instead, this move enables Marx to deploy a concept of materialism (or other normative standards) non-dogmatically, in a way that symmetrically applies the same critical framework to his own position, and to positions he criticises, and thus does not rely on critical standards that float above the context being criticised.

I therefore see the “denaturalising” move made by the argument about the fetish as cutting “both ways” – as encompassing concepts of use value and exchange value, sensuous material nature and supersensible laws, subjects and objects, and a constellation of other dichotomies that will be unfolded as having interrelated, practical bases in the course of this analysis. And I see this argument opening up the possibility for an analysis of capitalism as a peculiarly “layered” social context, constituted by intrinsically bound and yet conflictual dimensions of collective practice that mutually differentiate one another to constitute a practical dichotomy between, on the one hand, a “secularised” impersonal world of “material” objects whose interactions are governed by “universal” laws, and, on the other, a contingent, historically-variable, intersubjective realm of human custom.

But I said I was going to write about abstract labour… ;-P I’m realising as I pause here that I’ve become extremely tired, but I likely won’t have much time to write for the next couple of days, and I’d rather not let this line of thought go completely cold. As a least-worst option, I’m going to dash something out that I suspect won’t manage to express what I’m after. Apologies for the confusion this will probably cause, but my hope is that folks will be patient enough to offer criticisms in the gamble that my next attempt might be a bit clearer and closer to the mark.

I’ve already suggested in previous posts that the “deduction” of the existence of abstract labour, as presented in the early sections of this chapter, does not represent Marx’s own position, but rather a form of fetishised thought. Thus, in the first section, Marx writes as though commodities can be exchanged because, as objects, they possess the supersensible property of containing equal quantities of abstract labour:

A given commodity, e.g., a quarter of wheat is exchanged for x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c. – in short, for other commodities in the most different proportions. Instead of one exchange value, the wheat has, therefore, a great many. But since x blacking, y silk, or z gold &c., each represents the exchange value of one quarter of wheat, x blacking, y silk, z gold, &c., must, as exchange values, be replaceable by each other, or equal to each other. Therefore, first: the valid exchange values of a given commodity express something equal; secondly, exchange value, generally, is only the mode of expression, the phenomenal form, of something contained in it, yet distinguishable from it.

Let us take two commodities, e.g., corn and iron. The proportions in which they are exchangeable, whatever those proportions may be, can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron: e.g., 1 quarter corn = x cwt. iron. What does this equation tell us? It tells us that in two different things – in 1 quarter of corn and x cwt. of iron, there exists in equal quantities something common to both. The two things must therefore be equal to a third, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange value, must therefore be reducible to this third.

A simple geometrical illustration will make this clear. In order to calculate and compare the areas of rectilinear figures, we decompose them into triangles. But the area of the triangle itself is expressed by something totally different from its visible figure, namely, by half the product of the base multiplied by the altitude. In the same way the exchange values of commodities must be capable of being expressed in terms of something common to them all, of which thing they represent a greater or less quantity.

This common “something” cannot be either a geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities. Such properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities, make them use values. But the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterised by a total abstraction from use value. Then one use value is just as good as another, provided only it be present in sufficient quantity. Or, as old Barbon says,

“one sort of wares are as good as another, if the values be equal. There is no difference or distinction in things of equal value … An hundred pounds’ worth of lead or iron, is of as great value as one hundred pounds’ worth of silver or gold.”

As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value.

If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.

In the section on the fetish, Marx explicitly contradicts this claim:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility. This division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged, and their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production. From this moment the labour of the individual producer acquires socially a twofold character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social want, and thus hold its place as part and parcel of the collective labour of all, as a branch of a social division of labour that has sprung up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold wants of the individual producer himself, only in so far as the mutual exchangeability of all kinds of useful private labour is an established social fact, and therefore the private useful labour of each producer ranks on an equality with that of all others. The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour. have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labour, so far as they are values, are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production, marks, indeed, an epoch in the history of the development of the human race, but, by no means, dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves. The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commodities, the specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered. (bold text mine)

In between the sections quoted above, Marx scatters a number of indications that the concept of “human labour in the abstract” picks out a very peculiar social entity. In the first section, he argues:

The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary.

When Marx refers to the “total labour power of society”, this initially sounds as though he might be suggesting that “abstract labour” could just be something like “the total amount of goal-directed energy humans expend to transform material nature to meet their needs” – as though the term is just a conceptual abstraction from all the varieties of concrete labouring activities humans happen to undertake. Passages elsewhere in the chapter that speak of labour in physiological terms would seem to reinforce this impression:

Productive activity, if we leave out of sight its special form, viz., the useful character of the labour, is nothing but the expenditure of human labour power. Tailoring and weaving, though qualitatively different productive activities, are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, and in this sense are human labour. They are but two different modes of expending human labour power.

From the beginning, however, it is clear that the concept of “human labour in the abstract” is not just a useful conceptual category for classifying and grouping all different sorts of labour activity. Instead, the concept seems intended to pick out something coercive – a sort of unintended collective normative force that adjudicates what gets to “count as labour”. So, as Marx presents it, labouring activities – human physiological exertion, goal-directed transformations of nature, etc. – get to “count as labour” only if they generate a use value for others, and only to the extent that they conform to a socially average level of productivity. And the producers, although they may certainly strategise, plot and scheme, cannot know in advance whether, and to what extent, their labour will “count”.

Marx is already hinting at the coercive nature of abstract labour when, just after he first notes that value is measured by labour-time, he then immediately explains that there is a difference between the empirical expenditure of time in a production process, and the normative measure of abstract labour. He illustrates the potential consequences of this distinction with a well-chosen example:

The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.

Abstract labour figures in this account as a sort of socially-constituted mass with a qualitatively homogeneous, undifferentiated character. Commodities are treated in social practice as though they “partake” of this qualitatively homogeneous supersensible substance to greater or lesser degrees. Concrete labouring activities therefore “count as labour” only to the degree that these activities are productive of commodities that “participate” in this socially-constituted mass. The empirical efforts expended in the production of particular commodities, the empirical form of concrete labouring processes, do not determine the extent to which empirical products serve as receptacles of materialised value. In relation to concrete “sensuous” elements of material production, value stands as a “counter-factual”, sensuously undetectable, social constraint.

Except. Commodities must also be use values. And productivity pertains to the production of some particular kind of use value. So there are determinate connections – conflictual ones – between empirical labouring processes and “human labour in the abstract”. These connections feed into the coercive dynamic associated with value:

If the productive power of all the different sorts of useful labour required for the production of a coat remains unchanged, the sum of the values of the coats produced increases with their number. If one coat represents x days’ labour, two coats represent 2x days’ labour, and so on. But assume that the duration of the labour necessary for the production of a coat becomes doubled or halved. In the first case one coat is worth as much as two coats were before; in the second case, two coats are only worth as much as one was before, although in both cases one coat renders the same service as before, and the useful labour embodied in it remains of the same quality. But the quantity of labour spent on its production has altered.

An increase in the quantity of use values is an increase of material wealth. With two coats two men can be clothed, with one coat only one man. Nevertheless, an increased quantity of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value. This antagonistic movement has its origin in the twofold character of labour. Productive power has reference, of course, only to labour of some useful concrete form, the efficacy of any special productive activity during a given time being dependent on its productiveness. Useful labour becomes, therefore, a more or less abundant source of products, in proportion to the rise or fall of its productiveness. On the other hand, no change in this productiveness affects the labour represented by value. Since productive power is an attribute of the concrete useful forms of labour, of course it can no longer have any bearing on that labour, so soon as we make abstraction from those concrete useful forms. However then productive power may vary, the same labour, exercised during equal periods of time, always yields equal amounts of value. But it will yield, during equal periods of time, different quantities of values in use; more, if the productive power rise, fewer, if it fall. The same change in productive power, which increases the fruitfulness of labour, and, in consequence, the quantity of use values produced by that labour, will diminish the total value of this increased quantity of use values, provided such change shorten the total labour time necessary for their production; and vice versâ.

At this early point, then, Marx has already begun to hint that increased productivity, in spite of the greater material wealth and command over nature it may generate, can provoke counter-intuitively negative consequences under capitalism, as concrete labouring activities are coercively compelled to comply with a new social norm of productivity. Marx describes this situation as “a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him”. Significantly, the type of social coercion being described here, while grounded in human practice, is impersonal in character – generated as the unintentional consequence of practices oriented to other purposes. This is one aspect of why, as Marx describes, value is a “social hieroglyphic” that needs to be deciphered: compared with other, more “concrete” social institutions whose intersubjective character renders them “overtly” social, the dynamics associated with value confront people, by contrast, as if they are an asocial “objectivity”. Marx describes this strange, distinctive “relation of production” as “the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour” – the first generation Frankfurt School capture something similar when they discuss the domination of individuals by the social totality.

More – and hopefully more adequate – commentary on all of this, once I’ve recovered from teaching this week… Apologies for the many problems in this piece – just too tired to edit in any form…

The previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Aside on the Fetish

Okay. I want to stop here for a moment, catch my breath, and emphasise a couple of things about how I’m interpreting the argument on the fetish, before moving back into the text in greater detail. Note that this post might not make sense unless you’ve read at least the post immediately prior, on Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions.

As I have presented it here, “commodity fetishism” is a form of perception or thought that perceives material objects and human beings to possess supersensible essences that are distinct from their overtly-observable, sensuous properties. These essences are understood to be governed by impersonal laws. The existence of such laws can be inferred or deduced from empirical observation and manipulated instrumentally for human ends, but the laws (and the essences) are not understood to derive from contingent human practice.

Marx will not deny that such “essences” and “laws” exist – he is not undertaking an “abstract negation” that sees political economy as a simple error in thinking. His critical argument is that he can reach beyond the political economists to show how such “essences” and “laws” are brought into being, why it is plausible to perceive such essences and laws as “natural”, and yet why it has also become possible, over time, to understand the practical basis for these fetishised forms of thought – and thereby to open the possibility for transformation.

In the previous posts in this series, I have suggested that this line of argument opens up some very interesting potentials for understanding dimensions of modernity that reach well beyond the discourse of political economy: our sensitivity, for example, to a particular kind of dichotomy between “society” and “nature”, in which both poles of this dichotomy possess a very distinctive qualitative form; our sensitivity to the possibility for something like “matter” (understood as secularised “stuff” whose intrinsic nature is devoid of anthropological determinations); our sensitivity to the notion of an essential “human nature” lurking beneath the diverse overlays of culture (I’ll poke Wildly Parenthetical here, although I think she’s away at the moment – readers should note I’m not trying to hold her responsible for what I’m saying, but just flagging something I suspect she’ll be interested in – her work on experiences of an inner self is much more extensive than mine, so this is just a quick nod and a wave as I stumble across her terrain…). I could add other examples – and none of the examples I list here have been unfolded in a persuasive way in the writings I’ve undertaken so far. I list these points as placeholders for future development, as partial explanations for why I’m spending so much time lately on Marx, and as suggestions that Marx offers something vastly more powerful than a “critical economics” – that his work carries implications for a critical social theory of modernity that does something much more wide-reaching than it might initially seem.

A few further asides, on other interpretations of the fetish. The argument on the fetish is very often understood – or, at least, very often used – in quite different ways from what I’m outlining here. It is often used, for example, as a kind of anti-consumerist critique: we value money or material wealth so highly that we forget that it’s just an object, just a thing, of importance socially only because we make it important. It is often used as a kind of critique of individualism or private property: because we produce goods privately, rather than planning production collectively, we don’t become aware that, in reality, we are collectively engaged in a single, unified process of social production. It is often used as a critique of class domination: because the circulation of goods appears to involve only the exchange of equivalents, the reality of inequality and class domination is masked. It is often used as a critique of market distribution: markets abstract from the concrete conditions in which goods and services are produced, and thus veil the network of concrete social relations in which material reproduction actually unfolds. It is often used as a critique of “reification” or the domination of instrumental reason: because we perceive the natural world, and our fellow human beings, as “things” – as objects – we therefore treat them instrumentally, as nothing more than objects to be manipulated for our own gain. Etc.

I need to be very, very, very careful here: I am making a small and quite specific point, which is that none of these arguments captures what Marx is trying to say in the section on the fetish. I am not saying that Marx never makes points like those above – in places, even during the argument about the fetish, he will. And I am not dismissive of the potential importance of such arguments as important issues for critical analysis and as pivotal rallying-cries for political mobilisation.

I am saying that these arguments as attempts to articulate the notion of commodity fetishism are missing some of the strategic intent of this section of Marx’s text. The reading I am offering here is intended to drill in on a sometimes overlooked arc in this first chapter, to draw attention to how the entire chapter revolves around a series of reflections on forms of perception that attribute supersensible essences, governed by invisible laws, to things and to people. Such forms of perception, I am suggesting, are the “target” that the term “commodity fetishism” is trying to hit.

Understanding the argument in this way clarifies what was going on in the earlier sections of this chapter – in which Marx was deploying forms of thought that attribute supersensible essences to things and people, and then claiming to deduce laws from this starting point, in order to set the stage (hat tip john hutnyk) for the critique of such forms of thought. This interpretation makes sense of the first chapter as a reasonably unified argument, driving all along toward the critique of commodity fetishism. At the same time, this reading begins to suggest the power of Marx’s critique as a theory of modernity, and as a critical social theory that reaches far beyond a critical analysis of an “economic dimension” of modern society.

I have to plunge into marking first-year economics essays now – something that I suspect will see me longing for a bit of “critical economics” by the time I’m done. I’ll try to come back to this arc later in the week – I have to decide whether to plunge back into the minutiae of the sections of the chapter I’ve skipped across, or whether I’ve said as much as I have to say on this chapter for now, and should move forward in the text…

The previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

Circulating Perspectives

Marx begins his discussion of the general formula for capital with an apparently strange distinction, between “money that is money only, and money that is capital”. In Marx’s account, money that “is money only”, is money in its role as a medium of exchange in a circuit in which commodity producers sell their commodities in order to buy other commodities: Marx’s C-M-C – a circuit oriented to the acquisition of a use value that is then consumed, and therefore oriented to a substantive endpoint that lies outside the circuit itself. Money that is capital, by contrast, inhabits a circuit in which possessors of money purchase commodities in order to resell them to obtain more money: Marx’s M-C-M – quickly redefined as M-C-M’ – a circuit oriented to its own endless quantitative expansion. Marx distinguishes the two circuits:

The repetition or renewal of the act of selling in order to buy, is kept within bounds by the very object it aims at, namely, consumption or the satisfaction of definite wants, an aim that lies altogether outside the sphere of circulation. But when we buy in order to sell, we, on the contrary, begin and end with the same thing, money, exchange-value; and thereby the movement becomes interminable… The simple circulation of commodities – selling in order to buy – is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.

In social practice, these two circuits don’t describe two separate institutions or physically distinct processes of circulation, but rather practically distinguishable moments within the same overarching process – a point that allows Marx to open a strategically crucial discussion of how social actors who are engaging with the very same process, might still plausibly emerge from this engagement with radically different practical orientations and subjective perceptions of what the process entails. Marx is using this discussion, in other words, to open up an analysis of a social process that intrinsically entails a proliferation of conflicting perceptions, subjective orientations, and engagements with a core social institution. This is an analytical strategy Marx uses throughout Capital – not something he regards as unique to the analysis of the sphere of circulation: Capital relies heavily on the notion that the same context can be generative of forms of perception, thought, and practice that conflict with one another, but that nevertheless share the common quality of expressing determinate potentials of that context.

Analysing some of the forms of subjectivity that express the potentials of the sphere of circulation, Marx notes the subject position that the capitalist personifies:

As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.

The phrasing is important here. Marx does not say that we can predict how groups of empirical people will perceive or engage with the process of circulation by, for example, examining how much money they possess, determining whether they own the means of production, or monitoring how they engage with the process of circulation. His point is instead a definitional one: he says that a possessor of money becomes a capitalist, to the extent that they consciously represent and adopt as their subjective aim, a movement that is described in the text as an objective process – a process that confronts individuals as something beyond their personal control – to which the capitalist then orients subjectively in terms of their ongoing search for profit.

At the beginning of the following chapter, Marx further proliferates the perspectives from which this same social process can be viewed, by pointing out that most participants in the exchange process don’t adopt the perspective of the capitalist, but instead engage with the process as if it were a matter of simple commodity exchange – as if the process of circulation were a process of obtaining determinate use values for consumption. Marx argues:

The form which circulation takes when money becomes capital, is opposed to all the laws we have hitherto investigated bearing on the nature of commodities, value and money, and even of circulation itself. What distinguishes this form from that of the simple circulation of commodities, is the inverted order of succession of the two antithetical processes, sale and purchase. How can this purely formal distinction between these processes change their character as it were by magic?

But that is not all. This inversion has no existence for two out of the three persons who transact business together. As capitalist, I buy commodities from A and sell them again to B, but as a simple owner of commodities, I sell them to B and then purchase fresh ones from A. A and B see no difference between the two sets of transactions. They are merely buyers or sellers. And I on each occasion meet them as a mere owner of either money or commodities, as a buyer or a seller, and, what is more, in both sets of transactions, I am opposed to A only as a buyer and to B only as a seller, to the one only as money, to the other only as commodities, and to neither of them as capital or a capitalist, or as representative of anything that is more than money or commodities, or that can produce any effect beyond what money and commodities can. For me the purchase from A and the sale to B are part of a series. But the connexion between the two acts exists for me alone. A does not trouble himself about my transaction with B, nor does B about my business with A. And if I offered to explain to them the meritorious nature of my action in inverting the order of succession, they would probably point out to me that I was mistaken as to that order of succession, and that the whole transaction, instead of beginning with a purchase and ending with a sale, began, on the contrary, with a sale and was concluded with a purchase. In truth, my first act, the purchase, was from the standpoint of A, a sale, and my second act, the sale, was from the standpoint of B, a purchase. Not content with that, A and B would declare that the whole series was superfluous and nothing but Hokus Pokus; that for the future A would buy direct from B, and B sell direct to A. Thus the whole transaction would be reduced to a single act forming an isolated, non-complemented phase in the ordinary circulation of commodities, a mere sale from A’s point of view, and from B’s, a mere purchase. The inversion, therefore, of the order of succession, does not take us outside the sphere of the simple circulation of commodities, and we must rather look, whether there is in this simple circulation anything permitting an expansion of the value that enters into circulation, and, consequently, a creation of surplus-value. (italics mine)

Marx breaks down further potential perspectives in each chapter, each predicated on a socially plausible form of engagement with this very same process of circulation. He customarily links these perspectives, either in the text or in his notes, with specific figures or intellectual movements that express each perspective. These often rapid fire and gestural links are intended as immanent critiques – as demonstrations that Marx will not dismiss alternative forms of theory as “mere” errors or illusions (a form of abstract negation these competing forms of theory often practice on one another), but will instead grasp them as expressions of determinate dimensions of a shared context Marx is also seeking to theorise. By doing this, Marx begins to set up what he intends as a determinate negation – in the form of a theory of capitalism in which circulation itself is positioned as but a moment in an overarching process.

In these two chapters, he only hints at the perspective his own critique expresses, setting up for the analysis of wage labour to follow:

We have shown that surplus-value cannot be created by circulation, and, therefore, that in its formation, something must take place in the background, which is not apparent in the circulation itself. But can surplus-value possibly originate anywhere else than in circulation, which is the sum total of all the mutual relations of commodity-owners, as far as they are determined by their commodities? Apart from circulation, the commodity-owner is in relation only with his own commodity. So far as regards value, that relation is limited to this, that the commodity contains a quantity of his own labour, that quantity being measured by a definite social standard. This quantity is expressed by the value of the commodity, and since the value is reckoned in money of account, this quantity is also expressed by the price, which we will suppose to be £10. But his labour is not represented both by the value of the commodity, and by a surplus over that value, not by a price of 10 that is also a price of 11, not by a value that is greater than itself. The commodity owner can, by his labour, create value, but not self-expanding value. He can increase the value of his commodity, by adding fresh labour, and therefore more value to the value in hand, by making, for instance, leather into boots. The same material has now more value, because it contains a greater quantity of labour. The boots have therefore more value than the leather, but the value of the leather remains what it was; it has not expanded itself, has not, during the making of the boots, annexed surplus-value. It is therefore impossible that outside the sphere of circulation, a producer of commodities can, without coming into contact with other commodity-owners, expand value, and consequently convert money or commodities into capital.

It is therefore impossible for capital to be produced by circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to originate apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and yet not in circulation.

We have, therefore, got a double result.

The conversion of money into capital has to be explained on the basis of the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, in such a way that the starting-point is the exchange of equivalents. Our friend, Moneybags, who as yet is only an embryo capitalist, must buy his commodities at their value, must sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process must withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it at starting. His development into a full-grown capitalist must take place, both within the sphere of circulation and without it. These are the conditions of the problem. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

In Process [Updated]

Just so Alexei doesn’t feel too different, I thought I should point to the current Now-Times (hmmm – can one have past Now-Times?) post on self-reflexivity “self-referential, performative actualization” that continues the cross-blog discussion on self-reflexivity begun at Larval Subjects, and that also responds to Gabriel Gottlieb’s reflections (non-reflexive reflections?) on Fichte over at Self and World. I tried to intervene in this discussion earlier, but have been told that I’m discussing reflexivity, not self-reflexivity, so I suspect I’ll continue to be selfless, and stay out of this… 😉 (At least until I’ve gotten a bit of work done today…)

Alexei’s concluding passage gives a taste of the post as a whole:

I take it that this final characterization of intellectual intuition in terms of an ontological difference between a given self, and the meaning of subjectivity, to be precisely what Pepperell is trying to suggest with the notion of self-reflexivity. That is, Intellectual intuition qua self-reflexive activity is an immanent development of the human potentials to act and understand, one that begins from a concrete, historical situation (although i can’t find the page, Fichte actually calls the development of the Absolute self, ‘History from a pragmatic perspective), and gestures towards an absolute ideal of human agency and freedom. It is critical, in other words, because it does not merely re-affirm the status quo, but recognizes its limitations and tries to move beyond them.

Very nice to see a roving discussion that highlights, from a range of different perspectives, how the sometimes very abstract-sounding debates around issues of (self-)reflexivity are motivated by the concern to understand the possibility for emancipatory transformation.

Updated to add: I just wanted to mention that I’ve tossed a few comments over at Now-Times to continue this discussion. Hopefully Alexei won’t mind if I cross-post a bit of one of my comments over here, as these observations may serve a slightly different purpose for regular readers of this blog, than they do in the context of the discussion of Fichte over at Now-Times and, if nothing else, I wanted to leave this as a placeholder for myself:

…the form of the presentation suggests that there is something already there – latent – that is then realised historically through some process of externalisation and actualisation. This is a common structure for an argument attempting to explain the origins of critical sensibilities: I tend to characterise this sort of argument as an account that describes “nature realising itself historically”. I also tend to see it as a non-self-reflexive form of argument in a very specific sense: it (tacitly or explicitly) takes as given the qualitative characteristics of the phenomenon it is analysing (critical sensibilities or whatever else) – it sees the historical process as a form of uncovering of what it posited as already existing in some latent form.

A self-reflexive theory, in the sense in which I mean the term, seeks a more thoroughgoing analysis of the constitution of critical sensibilities – such that these sensibilities are not latent, aren’t there waiting to be uncovered, aren’t a sort of target toward which we progressively reach ever-more-closely – but are themselves products through-and-through, constituted to their core, not pre-existing the process that constitutes them.

The distinction is a bit difficult to express, but the basic idea is: does a theory act as though its object was discovered or uncovered (in which case, I would suggest, its object is actually no longer a product or a producer within a process – it instead sits outside the process, which serves only to uncover what was already there, unconstituted, even if the existence of this unconstituted thing was only ever discovered in a particular time and place, when time was ripe). Or does a theory take seriously the notion that its object is a product (and, if a self-reflexive product, then also a producer that refashions itself out of the products generated by earlier rounds of production). This latter mode of theorisation, I would suggest, does not see in history a telos that points toward the realisation of some determinate thing (some latent object progressively uncovered or realised over time), but is instead more open-ended in its conception of what history can “achieve”: it doesn’t necessarily believe that we know what we can become, what history can do, what subjects can be – none of which precludes critique of the ways in which we are constraining ourselves in the present time from realising the determinate forms of freedom that we have taught ourselves to desire and shown ourselves are possible.

To shift again to Marx: Marx treats the commodity as a sort of telos latent within capitalism, generated by a historical process, progressively more and more clearly realised over time. But this teleological movement is Marx’s image of domination, not freedom: it is this with which we need to break, to forward emancipatory goals. This is Benjamin’s leap in the free air of history – breaking the treadmill of progress – a step that we can take, however, only by using those materials generated by this process of progress itself – those documents of barbarism, envies for air we could have breathed, experiences, resources and desires generated nowhere else, but in and through the reproduction of that very thing we now need to overcome…

At least, that’s my take on self-reflexive theory… 😉

Vague Generalisations about Real Abstractions

So… I’ve been in several conversations recently where I’ve tried to clarify something by mentioning the concept of a “real abstraction”, only to realise that my interlocutor expresses familiarity with the term, but means something very different by it than what I’m trying to convey. As with the concept of “theoretical pessimism”, I understand “real abstraction” in a somewhat technical way – to refer to a form of argument that claims that at least some forms of abstraction should not be understood as the products of a conceptual generalisation, but should instead be understood as a particular kind of entity that is directly, but unintentionally, constituted in collective practice (more on this in a bit). What I’m finding is that the term “real abstraction” has various other technical and non-technical meanings, each more or less closely bound to particular visions of the object, standpoint, and mechanism of critique. I thought I would toss some generalisations onto the blog on the diverse meanings of the term, both to clarify (or further obscure…) what I’ve meant by the term when I’ve used it in other posts here and elsewhere, and as part of a process of deciding whether it causes too much confusion for me to retain this particular phrase.

I’m finding that perhaps the most common interpretation of “real abstraction” that crops up in local conversation, takes the term to signify some sort of superlative abstraction. So the phrase “real abstraction” is understood to be trying to draw attention to concepts that are really, really abstract – by distinction, say, to concepts that are less abstract, and therefore hug more closely to concrete experience. This usage remains very closely bound to the conventional meaning of the term “abstraction” – where an abstraction is a kind of conceptual generalisation – and generally positions “real abstractions” as worse than… er… other kinds of abstractions. It sets up, in other words, a kind of normative privileging of concepts that hug more closely to what it takes to be concrete experience, views abstraction as something a thinking subject effects when reflecting on data (ruling out the possibility, for example, of “abstraction” as a particular kind of immanent structure or an actively and directly generated product of collective practice), and does not consider the possibility that we might miss some aspects of the “real” if we regard the qualitative characteristics of abstract entities solely as a kind of averaging out of the qualitative characteristics of concrete entities.

Even where interlocutors share a more similar “frame” to mine – even where they view a claim about “real abstractions” as an argument that something determinately abstract might be constituted in collective practice – there is a strong tendency to want to equate a “real abstraction” with an illusion, to view a “real abstraction” as a socially constituted form of appearance whose presence is masking some underlying “concrete” reality that critique is meant to uncover. This understanding of “real abstractions” is often put forward by people who see the market (or, sometimes, money) as the quintessential “real abstraction”, and who are interested in criticising the ways in which certain ideals or forms of thought they associate with the market, function to deflect attention away from the actual existence of domination in concrete practice. In this understanding, the forms of thought and practice associated with what is regarded as the “real abstraction” of the market are thus positioned as illusions that need to be unmasked to bring an underlying reality more clearly into view.

There is also a mirror-image position, which also sees a “real abstraction” as something constituted in collective practice, but which places the opposite “charge” on the abstraction: instead of treating the “real abstraction” as an illusion and as the object of critique, this approach views the “real abstraction” as the underlying reality, and sees other social institutions or forms of thought as illusory, or at least as more contingent or particularistic in character. This understanding of a “real abstraction” often arises from forms of critique that see some sociological group – the proletariat, the poor, the marginalised – as a “real abstraction”, where the abstraction is taken to arise because collective practice has placed a particular population into such a position of abject impoverishment or disempowerment or exclusion that they are reduced to what is most essentially, almost biologically (or spiritually), human – and are therefore positioned as the only social group with direct access to something like universal ideals, the only social group whose experiences render them capable of leading a genuinely universal movement for the emancipation of themselves and all other groups.

Okay. Broad brush strokes, I realise. There are many, many theoretical positions that couldn’t easily be lumped into any of these gestural categories. And now that I’ve run through these contradictory understandings of “real abstraction”, I’m beginning to wonder whether I should just drop the term… But before I make this decision, I’ll at least try to gesture at what I mean by the term – if only because I’ve been using it on this blog and in other writings for some time.

The basic idea, for me, behind the concept of a “real abstraction” is the claim that there are at least certain types of abstractions that are not being fully understood when they are interpreted as conceptual generalisations. When an abstraction is treated as a conceptual generalisation, it is being treated as though it arises from a process of subtraction – treated as a residual or a remainder, as whatever is left behind after a certain amount of qualitatively determinate properties has been stripped away in some kind of analytical process. Abstraction is here positioned as a form of pure or abstract negation, lacking its own determinate qualitative characteristics, but containing only those residue characteristics that persist once other attributes have been averaged out or peeled away. By contrast, I would understand the concept of a “real abstraction” to be an attempt to provide a sociological explanation of how at least some abstractions are constituted through collective practice – and are thus available to think, because collectively they are being enacted – they are existent entities constituted in and through collective practice. This process of collective enactment – like all processes of collective enactment – then confers determinate qualitative characteristics which are best understood as actively constituted in their qualitative determinacy, rather than as passively left behind after a process of generalisation away from more concrete characteristics.

From my perspective, even the more sociological approaches mentioned above don’t quite succeed in unfolding this kind of analysis, because they position “real abstractions” asymmetrically in relation to other dimensions of social practice, treating “real abstractions” as either illusions or essences, and therefore as entities that do not exist on the same practical plane as other sorts of social phenomena. This privileged positioning (whether negative or positive) of “real abstractions” tends to facilitate dichotomous visions of critique: visions that view the abstraction as an illusion and as the object of critique, because the abstraction is perceived to have occluded the qualitatively determinate reality of rich, sensuous, concrete existence; or visions that view the abstraction as the reality and as the standpoint of critique, because it reveals what is most essential and universal and unable to be stripped away.

I tend, by contrast, to restrict the term “real abstraction” to a form of analysis that steps outside this dichotomy, by taking seriously the notion that certain things that we experience as “abstractions” are not negativities left behind when everything has been stripped away, but are instead socially-constituted positivities – actively constructed with their own determinate qualitative characteristics generated (unintentionally) in collective practice – representing neither illusion nor essence, but rather alienated potentials. Such potentials are contingent, in that they are the results of collective practices that could well have been different – that, in other periods, seem to have been different – but they are also real, for us, in our time, which has (albeit quite accidentally) brought them into being. Their “abstract” character, however, places these potentials at risk for not being recognised as such – for being mistaken for conceptual generalisation, or for human nature, or for illusion – all interpretations of real abstractions that can be criticised for the ways in which such interpretations impede our ability to seize actively on the positive potentials we have generated in this peculiar form (I say this, realising that the point would need to be developed in significantly greater detail – for present purposes, I’m simply trying to hand wave at the way the concept of a real abstraction might function in a reworking of the concept of social critique, within a framework that rejects the structure of an unmasking and debunking critique).

So… Nice grand claims about the strategic intentions behind a technical term I still haven’t deployed in more than the most gestural way in any actual social theory… ;-P In spite of my criticisms above, a very, very rough sense of what would be involved in deploying the concept of “real abstraction” in something like the sense in which I use it, can be found in some analyses of the market as a “real abstraction”. The argument would go something along the lines of: in one dimension of the social practices that bring markets into being, markets express a genuine, collectively enacted, indifference to the determinate properties of the goods exchanged, the labours used to produce those goods, the purposes for which those goods might be used, etc; in other dimensions of social practice – including other dimensions of the social practices that bring markets into being – these determinate properties are directly and profoundly relevant. The tension between these two dimensions of social practice provides a “real” – or practical – collectively enacted, basis for rendering socially plausible the existence of certain kinds of dichotomous concepts – between exchange and use value, abstract and concrete, etc. Both poles of the dichotomy, however, are equally qualitatively determined by social practice – one pole does not reflect an essence and the other an appearance (although it may be socially plausible for essence-appearance interpretations to arise). Both poles – and the tensions between them – generate determinate potentials, the exploration and expression of which can then provide standpoints for criticism of the ways in which available potentials are being held back or restrained by the existing organising of social life.

To be clear, I offer the example of the market above because I suspect it will be at least somewhat familiar to most readers – it’s not unlikely that people will have read works using something like the technical notion of “real abstraction” I deploy, with the market as the case example. I feel some discomfort with the example, however, as I think that focussing on the market as a “real abstraction” reinforces the tendency to define capitalism in terms of the market, and makes it difficult to understand some periods of capitalist history. My own work focuses instead on the collective constitution of a long-term and non-linear pattern of historical transformation – on this pattern as a “real abstraction” – and can be seen, in some senses, as a critique of approaches that rely on a focus on the market. I’ll leave this issue aside for present purposes, however, since my main goal here is outline various meanings that seem to have attached themselves to the phrase “real abstraction”, and to explore briefly how these different meanings lend themselves to different conceptions of social critique.

Critique by Necessity: More Random Reflections on Marx and Deleuze

Jared from Sportive Thoughts has been organising a Deleuze Carnival. The first carnival is up – and Jared is also asking for feedback on some ideas for future carnivals.

I’ve been wanting to do a bit more writing on Deleuze – over my short holiday this past week I’ve been attending an excellent lecture series on Difference and Repetition and trundling through the book. Unfortunately, I’ve also come down with (yet another!) annoying illness, and have felt a bit too fuzzy to write.

While I’m thinking about the issue, I did want to toss up a couple of quick quotations to passages to capture some of what has been resonating with me in the work. I’ve been particularly engaged by Deleuze’s interest in how certain structures that clearly do have determinate characteristics, come routinely to be described as mere negatives – creating the problem of how to understand (this question should seem familiar to regular readers here) how something positive should come to be mistaken for a pure negation. Deleuze asks how should we understand the status of negation, given that he rejects the centrality often accorded to negation by other approaches:

One final consequence remains, concerning the status of negation. There is a non-being, yet there is neither negative nor negation. There is a non-being which is by no means the being of the negative, but rather the being of the problematic. (p. 202)

Deleuze’s argument here does not take the form of a simple denial – he doesn’t engage in what, in other contexts, I often call an “abstract negation” (asking forbearance for the confusion that can arise when juxtaposing what Deleuze means by “negation” and the way I use this term). Instead, Deleuze engages in what I generally call a self-reflexive form of argument: he regards it as incumbent on his theoretical approach, not simply to reject a particular conception of negation, but to explain why the conception he rejects would be a plausible position – why someone might come to hold this position, why this position is readily available, even though Deleuze will also argue that the position is inadequate. He does this by arguing that negation is a necessary appearance of the problem it both expresses and conceals:

The negative is an illusion, no more than a shadow of problems. We have seen how problems were necessarily hidden by possible propositions corresponding to cases of solution: instead of being grasped as problems, they can then appear as no more than hypotheses or a series of hypotheses. As a proposition of consciousness, each of these is flanked by a double negative: whether the One is, whether the One is not… whether it is fine, whether it is not fine… The negative is an illusion because the form of negation appears with propositions which express the problem on which they depend only by distorting it and obscuring its real structure. Once the problem is translated into hypotheses, each hypothetical affirmation is doubled by a negation, which amounts to the state of a problem betrayed by its shadow. (p. 202)

As in the reflections I posted on Deleuze’s comments on empiricism, I’m struck by the structural or formal similarity between the movement of this argument, and the movement of Marx’s analysis in Capital, which also takes the form of demonstrating how the necessary forms of appearance of a determinate structure operate to conceal the existence of the structure whose existence, however, those forms of appearance also express (cf. Postone on the structure of Marx’s argument). This similarity derives in part from the way in which both authors recognise that, once critique becomes immanent, and thus renounces access to a privileged realm of objective truth, the criticism of competing positions assumes a new form: it becomes incumbent on the critic, not simply to reject competing positions as untrue (for how could this be done, without implying a move into some realm of objectivity?), but to demonstrate the plausibility of those positions, while also criticising them as partial. It becomes necessary, in other words, for critique to become self-reflexive.

Hegel will make a first pass at developing a form for self-reflexive and immanent critique, using the organic and developmental metaphor that shapes of consciousness are successively more adequate attempts to realise the same notion – a position that both Deleuze and Marx, for their own reasons, will reject. Interestingly, in rejecting Hegel’s approach, both Marx and Deleuze then move to a similar notion that consciousness can find itself beguiled by forms of appearance that are necessary modes of expression for structures that manifest only in such forms of appearance, but that are nevertheless also concealed by the forms of appearance in which they become manifest. Deleuze argues that this self-reflexive move – which enables the appearance of negation to be grasped – is essential to a radical critique of negation:

The negative is indeed, therefore, the turning shadow of the problematic upon the set of propositions that it subsumes as cases. As a general rule, the critique of the negative remains ineffective so long as it assumes as given the form of affirmation ready made in the proposition. The critique of the negative is radical and well-grounded only when it carries out a genesis of affirmation and, simultaneously, the genesis of the appearance of negation. (p. 206)

This “radical and well-grounded” critique is what enables Deleuze to exclude negation from the Idea, by identifying the determinate conditions in which the negative will appear:

Consequently – and this is all we wish to say – the negative appears neither in the process of differentiation nor in the process of differenciation. The Idea knows nothing of negation. The first process is identical with the description of a pure positivity, in the form of a problem to which are assigned relations and points, places and functions, positions and differential thresholds which exclude all negative determination and find their sources in the genetic of productive elements of affirmation. The other process is identical with the production of finite engendered affirmations which bear upon the actual terms which occupy these places and positions, and upon the real relations which incarnate these relations and these functions. Forms of the negative do indeed appear in actual terms and real relations, but only insofar as these are cut off from the virtuality which they actualise, and from the moment of their actualisation. Then, and only then, do the finite affirmations appear limited in themselves, opposed to one another, and suffering from lack or privation. In short, the negative is always derived and represented, never original or present: the process of difference and of differenciation is primary in relation to that of the negative and opposition. (p. 207)

There are many other threads in this section I’d like to discuss – in particular, some of Deleuze’s examples of how determinate structures come to be perceived as negatives, which in some respects hug closely to things I’ve written on the blog from time to time, since my work hinges on a similar problem. This section of Difference and Repetition also offers some interesting explicit reflections on Marx, motivated by a different reading than I have used above, but pointing in interesting and suggestive ways to some of the practical implications Deleuze sees from his work. These sorts of issues should wait, though, until I’m a bit less fuzzy and can think them through in a more adequate way. This may well have been true of the comments I’ve already made above 🙂 – I’m just chafing at being ill, and wanting at least to get a bit of writing done before teaching starts up again next week… Hopefully I won’t have done too much damage to the text, in tossing up these very preliminary associations.