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Category Archives: Philosophy of History

The Fetish and the Commune

Marx makes significant edits to Capital between the first German edition in 1867 and the second in 1873 – edits that begin to be articulated in his revisions for the serialised French publication of Capital between 1872 and 1875. Revisions are particularly heavy in Capital‘s opening chapter – where the concept of the fetish character of the commodity is massively expanded and gains its own section. When interpreting the dramatic structure of the first chapter, as I’ve done on this blog off and on for the past few years, I’ve followed the text as it stands after the revisions of the second German edition. I would have done this even if I had regarded these revisions as fundamentally altering the meaning and structure of the first edition but, as it happens, there is textual evidence from the first edition that Marx understood the dramatic structure of that original edition to be very similar to what I find in the edition familiar to us: a text that enacts three different perspectives on the wealth of capitalist societies, and then destabilises even the final perspective by suggesting that it is still not fully adequate to express the characteristics of that wealth. In Marx’s words (using Hans Ehrbar’s extremely useful side-by-side German-English version of the first edition) these are the final sentences of the equivalent to our current opening chapter:

The commodity is immediate unity of use-value and exchange-value, i.e. of two opposite moments. It is, therefore, an immediate contradiction. This contradiction must develop as soon as the commodity is not, as it has been so far, analytically considered once under the angle of use-value, once under the angle of exchange-value [by which, in this edition, Marx means what will be called “value” from the second edition], but as soon as it is placed as a whole into an actual relation with other commodities. The actual relation of commodities with each other, however, is their exchange process [which is what Marx will explore in the following section]. (cf. Ehrbar 148)

So: three voices, the first two of which do not have the capacity to show how the contradictions in the commodity can be developed in practice – the third of which does potentially lead in a more promising direction, but not in the form in which it has been presented in this opening chapter. The revisions for the second edition, on my reading, bring out the distinctions between these voices more clearly – at which point Marx, in a typical move, excises the little bit of stage direction I have quoted above, ending the chapter instead on the Dogberry and Seacoal exchange that, in the first edition, takes place in the paragraph prior. The edits to the chapter – which include a much clearer terminological distinction between exchange-value and value, as well as the expansion of the discussion of the fetish character of the commodity – each seem, on my reading, ways of cashing out more clearly the claims of its original concluding sentence.

Particularly in Marxist Humanist readings of Capital, it is common to argue that the revisions to the first edition were provoked by Marx’s experience of the Paris Commune, which, it is suggested, for the first time give him a sense of the standpoint from which the fetish character of the commodity can be penetrated: the standpoint of freely-associated labourers.

Peter Hudis, for example (159-60), argues:

Remarkably, there is no section on commodity fetishism in the 1867 (first) edition of Volume 1 of Capital. It was only between 1872 and 1875, in revising Capital for the French edition, that Marx created a section entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret’. Marx introduced certain crucial changes to his discussion of commodity fetishism in the French edition, which he said ‘had a scientific value independent of the original’. One of the most important changes concerned his effort to answer the question of ‘whence arises this enigmatic character of the product of labour, once it assumes the form of a commodity’. It is only with the French edition that Marx answered this to his satisfaction, by stating, ‘Clearly from this form itself’. With this change, Marx makes it clear that what explains the fetish is the very form assumed by the product of labour, the very nature of the ‘peculiar social character of the labour’ which produces commodities. This new formulation, as well as the new section on commodity fetishism as a whole, explicitly posed the abolition of fetishism as centring on the abolition of value-producing labour.

What intervened between the first German edition in 1867 and the French edition of 1872-5 which explains Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism? The Paris Commune. The changes introduced in the French edition reflect its impact…

The activity of the Communards thereby allowed for a new leap in thought. Commodity fetishism cannot be penetrated by enlightened critique which assumes a privileged standpoint outside the value-form; nor can it be stripped away by pointing to a hidden essence obscured by the ‘illusion’ of fetishism. Instead, ‘The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surround the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes as soon as we come to other forms of production.’ The emergence of a new form of association pointing to the transcendence of the value-form in 1871 provided the vantage point for penetrating the secret of the fetish. Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism after the Paris Commune reveals the impact of the workers’ revolts on the creation of his central value-theoretic categories.

Hudis’ argument subtly displaces the form in which Marx presents his discussion of the free association of labourers. In Marx’s text, the sentence on how the mystery of commodities vanishes when we confront other forms of production, does not immediately lead into the discussion of freely-associated labourers. Instead, that passage describes the hypothetical Robinson on his island, then moves to a discussion of medieval serfdom, then to a discussion of labour in common within a patriarchal household – and only then to a discussion of freely associated labourers. Moreover, when this more emancipatory example is introduced, the text makes clear that the point is not specifically to put forward a model for future social development, but rather to come up with an example that closely parallels the component aspects of commodity production that have been put forward earlier in this chapter. By omitting all of the other examples Marx considers, and juxtaposing the example of freely-associated labour directly with Marx’s claim to reveal the “magic and necromancy” that surrounds commodities, Hudis makes it sound as though the discovery of the possibility for freely-associated labour is what allows Marx to penetrate the mystery of the commodity form.

Hudis seems unaware that the first edition of Capital – published in 1867, prior to the Commune – already includes the passage on freely-associated labourers (cf. Ehrbar 2009: 120-22). It immediately follows a discussion of Robinson on his island. In other words, the first edition of Capital already contains the nucleus of the passage Hudis presents as new to the French edition – and that nucleus already contains the central insight Hudis argues is pivotal to Marx’s post-Commune critique of the fetish.

What is new with the later edition is that the two earlier examples – Robinson on his island, and freely-associated labour – are now joined by two further, historical examples. What Marx changes, in other words, is a passage from the original edition that included only hypothetical examples: he beefs up the passage by adding a couple of real-world examples from actual historical cases. The nature of this change suggests that Marx might have been worried that, without real-world examples, it would seem utopian to suggest that the fetish-character of the commodity was not in some sense inherent. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but the logic of this revision does not suggest that, when he speaks of an association of free labourers in this context, he has the very real-world example of the Commune in mind. This point should not be too surprising, however, given that the text expressly says that this more emancipatory example has been chosen for the parallels it offers to commodity production, rather than as a recommended model for future social development.

I have written elsewhere on the function these examples serve within the architechtonic of Marx’s argument: they allow him to demonstrate that you can take some of the same component practices that – in their present configuration – help to reproduce capital, and reconfigure them into new forms in which they can be shown no longer to generate this unintentional aggregate result. If I am right about what Marx is trying to show, revising the passage to add historical examples would make sense: otherwise it could appear that Marx is unable to show – other than by ungrounded hypotheticals – that it should be possible to transform social relations in such a way that the fetish character would no longer exist. For this purpose, Robinson on his island – or a hypothetical future society of freely associated labourers – are useful thought experiments, but could leave a nagging doubt about the practical reality of Marx’s claims. The historical examples thus bolster the argument by identifying actual examples of social relations that, while by no means ideal, nevertheless help illustrate that the fetish character of social relations is not an inevitable result of material production – or even of class domination. This strategic goal, I suggest, drives these particular revisions.

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Notes on Elster’s Game-Theoretic Concept of Emergence

Roger’s comments below on Jon Elster’s methodological individualism reminded me that I should stash somewhere (like here) a few fragmentary notes on Elster’s recognition that Marx is making an argument about emergent phenomena – and the way in which Elster’s sense of how this sort of argument operates, differs from mine.

In Making Sense of Marx (1985), Elster draws repeated attention to how Marx focuses on the unintentional aggregate consequences of individual actions. He emphasises how Marx’s work is related to theories that understand human history as the result of human behaviour, but not of intentional human action (3-4), speaks of Marx’s “striking analyses of the way in which micro-motives are aggregated into macro-behaviour” (4), describes the importance of “supra-intentional causality” (22) and “counter-finality” (24-27) for Marx’s argument, etc.

Although my vocabulary is different, I draw attention to similar aspects of Marx’s argument. Yet Elster’s methodological conclusion – that methodological individualism provides the best means to grasp such phenomena – is not one that I myself would draw. What causes this difference?

A good portion of the difference, I suspect, lies in the different sorts of emergent phenomena Elster and I believe Marx is trying to explain. Elster focuses on Marx’s analysis of what Elster (48) calls “fallacies of composition” – passages in which Marx talks about how particular practices would be beneficial for individuals if they were the only ones carrying out those practices, but generate unintentional collective consequences that are very negative when many individuals carry out the same practice. So, for example, Elster (46-48) draws attention to how, for each individual capitalist, it seems like a good idea to lower the wages of their workers, because this increases profits. When every capitalist does this, however, it lowers the amount workers – in their alternative social role as consumers – can spend, and thus reacts back negatively on the capitalist class as a whole.

When Elster talks about unintentional aggregate consequences, this is the sort of phenomenon he has in mind. And Marx certainly does, here and there, offer analyses of this sort of phenomenon. If I thought this were the main thing Marx was trying to explain, I might agree that game-theoretic or methodologically individualistic tools might give us a decent first approximation of the phenomenon.

What Elster overlooks, I would suggest, is that the emergent phenomena that interest Marx are vastly more complex than these sorts of bad individual calls in the collective competitive game. Marx is attempting to explain aggregate patterns of social behaviour that manifest themselves in complex patterns of transformation of social institutions in capitalist societies – examining, for example, the recurrent dynamic of the expulsion and reabsorption of human labour that defines capitalist production as pivoting around the expenditure of human labour power in a much more direct way than would appear necessary, given the levels of automation possible in capitalist production.

These sorts of phenomena, I suggest, do not arise due to bad judgement calls in some specific strategic field of intentional action. They arise instead from how apparently unrelated sorts of social practices, which seem to social actors to be unfolding in very different strategic fields of social practice, operate in tandem to generate cascades of unintentional effects whose multifaceted and indirect causes make it extremely difficult for social actors to sort out how their actions could possibly be responsible for the aggregate result. As a consequence, the aggregate result is discovered playing itself out in the realm of material reproduction and, because it has no obvious social cause, is plausibly interpreted as arising due to some inherent principle for spontaneous self-organisation in the material world. This is how Marx’s argument about the fetish links up with his argument about unintentional aggregate consequences of social action – a connection Elster does not seem able to make, hence his dismissal of the bulk of the fetish argument.

I don’t have time to develop or properly substantiate these points here, so, for what it’s worth, fragmentary notes for a future argument…

Measuring the Social

A quick archival post before the weekend steals me away from the blog for a bit – from the opening chapter of the first edition of Capital, as per Hans Ehrbar’s translation (106):

The measuring stick for “being social” must be borrowed from the nature of the relations peculiar to each mode of production, not from imaginations alien to it.

Accidental History

I’ve claimed below that Marx is being ironic – or, perhaps more accurately, satirical or burlesque – when he displays forms of analysis that suggest an idealist dialectic playing out in history. One of the reasons I make this claim is that dialectical gestures of this sort are very regularly followed in Capital by an alternative story of historical development – one that emphasises the accidental and contingent character of the history that has led to us, a history which Marx very much does not conceive as the realisation of an immanent telos of historical development. This sort of gesture – a dialectical derivation quickly followed by a contingent historical account – features prominently in Capital‘s opening chapter, in the way in which the dialectical derivations in the third part of that chapter are followed up in the section on the fetish character of the commodity. On a much grander scale, the architechtonic of Capital as a whole pivots on this sort of gesture: the section on original accumulation comes after the more dialectical presentation of the earlier chapters, underscoring the extent to which the history that has led to our present cannot be regarded as a dialectical unfolding of an immanent potential.

In terms of the chapter I have been discussing in this series of posts – the second chapter of Capital: after the brief dialectical demonstration I outlined below, the text returns again to the combined images of the object that, because it is external, can be owned, and the reciprocal social contract relations enacted between the owners of such external objects:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Veräusserung] may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other. (182)

As phrased, this passage seems to suggest that private property and social contract relations are somehow grounded in the inherent properties that objects possess “in themselves” – as though the legal relations have a “natural” basis. The text is enacting here the sort of legal apotheosis already held up for criticism at the beginning of the chapter. In case the reader has forgotten, the text immediately underscores the historical specificity of these forms of “natural” law:

But this relationship of reciprocal isolation and foreignness does not exist for the members of a primitive community of natural origin, whether it takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian commune or an Inca state. (182)

At this point, the text runs through another historical account – this time much more contingent and tentative than the dialectical history presented on the previous page. This second historical account of the origins of money does not position money as a teleological achievement, driven by an immanent potential that must realise itself historically. Instead, it analyses forms of social practice that arise contingently, for contextually-meaningful reasons, and acknowledges the uncertain historical developments that eventually gave rise to aspects of our own history. It begins by suggesting that the exchange of commodities might initially have begun with other communities, when goods were produced in excess of subsistence needs at home. This contextually-meaningful historical innovation was then available for creative appropriation – as one of the historically available raw materials social actors did not choose, but out of which they could build their future histories. Once exchange was available as a practice, accidental exchanges and trades could gradually become more common and expected – enabling the innovation of production specifically for exchange, rather than the exchange of accidental surpluses (182). As exchanges grew in frequency and speed, money also develops – not at the end of a dialectical process that realises the immanent nature of the commodity, but as part and parcel of the contingent growth of exchange itself:

The need for this form [an independent value-form] first develops with the increase in the number and variety of the commodities entering into the process of exchange. The problem and its solution arise simultaneously. Commercial intercourse, in which the owners of commodities exchange and compare their articles with various other articles, never takes place unless different kinds of commodities belonging to different owners are exchanged for, and equated as values with, one single further kind of commodity. This further commodity, by becoming the equivalent of various other commodities, directly acquires the form of a universal or social equivalent, if only within narrow limits. The universal equivalent form comes and goes with the momentary social contacts which call it into existence. It is transiently attached to this or that commodity in alternation. But with the development of exchange it fixes itself firmly and exclusively onto particular kinds of commodity, i.e., it crystallizes out into the money form. (182-83)

This analysis portrays a contingent and fragile historical development, rather than any necessary dialectical unfolding. Such contingent stories help us make sense of our present situation came about. But this story should not be told as though past historical moments somehow realised their own necessary telos in contemporary history. Instead, we look back at the past with eyes focused by our own experiences, validly curious how we came to be. Our questions and concerns can help us understand our own becoming – but this ability to reconstruct the accidental historical shifts that led to our present does not mean that we are in any sense the culmination of the only, the best – or even the worst – potentials generated by past societies.

Our Heart of Darkness

Another fragment on Capital‘s second chapter: Soon after the dialectical performance discussed below, the text subtly re-establishes the anthropological character of its object of analysis. The main text introduces a little bit of algebra, giving us an equation for the first exchange of products (181). In a delightfully ironic footnote hanging from this equation, Marx complains:

So long as a chaotic mass of articles is offered as the equivalent for a single article (as is often the case among savages), instead of two distinct objects of utility being exchanged, we are only at the threshold of even the direct exchange of products. (181n5)

The savages in this footnote are us. For direct barter precisely does involve the exchange of two distinct objects of utility. It is only with the development of a universal equivalent – of money – that “a chaotic mass of articles” is consistently offered, in practice, for a single article. This point becomes explicit in Capital’s following chapter, as Marx continues to unfurl his complex deconstruction of money:

…the expanded relative expression of value, the endless series of equations, has now become the specific relative form of the money commodity. However, the endless series is now a socially given fact in the shape of the price of commodities. We have only to read the quotations of the price-list backwards, to find the magnitude of the value of money expressed in all sorts of commodities. (189)

If this is “savagery”, it is a form of savagery produced in the heart of capitalist “civilisation” – one that will continue to be reproduced, so long as the commodity remains the elementary form of social wealth.

For Roger

Roger is complaining about the long silence, and asking me to recycle old content if nothing else to keep things a bit noisier around here… I had been planning to break my silence with a post about sex in Capital (all together now: “ewwww!”), but since I keep having to defer writing that post, I thought I’d do the second-best thing, and lift from the comments something Roger has suggested should have made its debut in post form…

I do plan on being back soon… But I keep saying this, and it’s been a very quiet year around the blog as real-world responsibilities keep escalating as soon as I start to hit a workload groove… So for the moment, something from the old comments. More soon…

***

I have tried to make an extended argument that Capital needs to be read as a deflationary text – meaning that, where other forms of theory tend to presuppose certain “givens”, on the basis of which they then conduct their analysis, Capital tries not to do this. It tries, instead, to show how the major tools in its analytical toolkit – including foundational categories like “society”, “history”, or “material life” – are actively produced by specific forms of human interactions, and therefore reflect the distinctive sensibilities that are primed by particular forms of collective practice.

I’ve written before about a passage in the Grundrisse where Marx praises Smith for developing the category of “labour” – where this term means any sort of productive activity, rather than some specific form of activity (like agriculture). Marx believes that Smith was only able to come up with this category because collective practices were in fact enacting “labour” in that way – there was some dimension of collective life in which we had become genuinely indifferent to whether someone grew food or made handicrafts or provided services. This practical experience made Smith’s theoretical achievement possible, in Marx’s account – which doesn’t mean that Smith didn’t have to work very hard to work out, explicitly, the implications of that practical process – to draw the conclusion that “labour” could mean something like productive activity of whatever sort, rather than being tied to some specific kind of production.

A lot of Capital offers much more complex versions of this sort of argument. It takes categories from political economy (and other forms of theory) and explores what is happening in our practical experience to make it “socially valid” to develop these sorts of categories at a particular period of time. In the process, Marx often also points out that particular forms of theory have seized on practical processes in a “one sided” way – so, a theory may legitimately express something happening in one dimension of social practice – and may be very accurate if applied only to that dimension. However, that same theory may be completely blind to some other dimension of practical experience – and, as a result, it may overextrapolate from the dimension it does express well. It may conclude, for example, that human nature has a certain character, because humans really do behave a certain way in some slice of their social existence. This conclusion can sometimes be undermined just by bringing other slices of social experience to bear on the question. Capital attempts to do this in a systematic fashion.

When analysing Smith’s category of “labour”, Marx notes that Smith achieved this great breakthrough – he articulated explicitly the implications of this great shift in social practices, which meant that it had become tacitly possible to think about productive activity in general, rather than specific kinds of production. By making this explicit, Smith performed – Marx believed – a great service, making this explicit category available and opening up new forms of perception and practice as a result. However, Smith’s insight was precarious – Marx notes that Smith didn’t always manage to hang onto the best implications of his own insight. Sometimes, Marx argues, Smith slid back into earlier physiocratic understandings of labour – this backsliding, Marx argues, indicates how hard it actually is to hang on, explicitly, to insights that are tacit in new sorts of collective practice – it takes a while for concepts to become intuitive and settle in.

I would suggest there’s something similar happening with Marx’s more crass or “vulgar” statements about the centrality of material life to human society. The overwhelming thrust of a work like Capital is that what matters is collective practical experience – of whatever sort. The text examines practices associated with material production – but it also examines law, the state, contract relations, customs, ideals, gender relations – basically anything it occurs to Marx to fold in. Moreover, when it does analyse “material” relations, it does so in order to show how we effect our material reproduction through customary practices that have nothing to do with the intrinsic requirements of material production per se – and the text also offers an extremely complex and sophisticated analysis of how we could come to believe in the existence of a disenchanted “material world” in the first place (where the answer is that we come to believe in such a world because, at this moment, we are in fact collectively enacting such a world – and then overextrapolating from the slice of social existence where that enactment takes place, losing sight of our role in making a material world of a certain sort).

Spelling all this out is complicated – too much for a comment. So this is probably not all that convincing as stated. But it’s what was floating in the background of the offhand comment above. Some of Marx’s explicit statements to the effect that, e.g., how people meet their material needs is more analytically central than, say, language – I view these as similar to Adam Smith sliding back into physiocratic concepts of “labour”: they fall behind the level of sophistication that Marx actually deploys in Capital – they are fundamentally metaphysical – and, since Marx mounts an enormous critique of the metaphysics of political economy in Capital, he really should know better.

The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.

Normally Marx keeps this squarely in view. Sometimes… not so much. Passages in which he insists that material life is always at the centre are, in my view, “not so much” moments of his work – they get in the way (not just abstractly – this is, historically, practically, the impact they have had) of understanding the sorts of transformations that might be possible, and how those transformations might be achieved.

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Malthusian Asides

Miro's singing fishMarx reserves a special sort of loathing for Malthus. Since chapter 25 of Capital focusses precisely on the ways in which capitalism generates its own distinctive laws of population, the chapter can in many respects be read as a frontal assault on Malthus’ work. Marx’s antipathy is so strong, however, that he has to ease into the direct mention of Malthus’ name. Safeguards are required. A certain amount of buildup is needed.

First, Marx will establish his capacity for equanimity in the face of some fairly explicit apologistic material. Marx quotes – in the main text – Bernard de Mandeville’s sage advice on keeping the poor in their place:

It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in. nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get … Those that get their living by daily labour … have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make his desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy … (765)

After allowing Mandeville the floor for this and other choice recommendations, Marx praises him – calling Mandeville as “an honest man with a clear mind” – and offering nothing more vituperative than a mild corrective rebuke for Mandeville’s failure fully to understand “the mechanism of the accumulation process” (765). Marx then quotes Eden, who agrees that:

It is not the possession of land, or of money, but the command of labour which distinguishes the opulent from the labouring part of the community. (766)

Marx goes on to “remark… in passing” that Eden “was the only disciple of Adam Smith to have achieved anything of importance during the eighteenth century” (766). The comment appears casual, trivial, and beside the point – a curiosity we could surely skip lightly past on the way to the substantive material in the next paragraph. Except that a massive multi-page footnote blocks our way and, when we decide that a footnote of such prodigious length might be important, finally locate the footnote marker at the end of the “passing remark” above, and cast our eyes down into the marginalia, we discover that special circle of textual hell into which Marx has decided he will deposit Malthus…

Malthus is therefore introduced into this chapter with an insult: Eden is the only disciple of Smith to amount to anything – making Malthus a disciple of Smith who… didn’t… Just in case the reader doesn’t make the connection, Marx makes it for them, in the opening sentence of his note:

If the reader thinks at this point of Malthus, whose Essay on Population appeared in 1798, I would remind him that this work in its first form is nothing but a schoolboyish, superficial plagiarism of Defoe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc., declaimed in the manner of a sermon, but not containing a single original proposition of Malthus himself.

And so on. For three pages of small-typed footnote, which rapidly veers off into a mischievous round of speculation (for which the textual pretense is an observation about Malthus’ personal vow of celibacy) asking why Protestant clergy in particular should have proven so well-represented amongst theorists of overpopulation, and concluding with comments on how Adam Smith was reprimanded for his friendship with the atheist Hume…

Malthus finally makes his way into the main text of this chapter in section 3, in a discussion of modern industry’s need for surplus population. Malthus figures here as a sort of limit case of the obviousness of the point Marx is making: “Even Malthus”, Marx points out, “recognizes that a surplus population is a necessity of modern industry…” The implication is that, if even Malthus recognises it, the point is simply too obvious to be denied…

Even here, however, Marx can’t give Malthus credit for one point well understood: Malthus accounts for this, Marx argues, “in his narrow fashion, not by saying that part of the working population has been rendered relatively superfluous, but by referring to its excessive growth” (787). Marx quotes Malthus at length here – speaking dourly about how many years it takes to bring “an increase of labourers… into market in consequence of a particular demand”, compared to the much shorter cycles of investment of accumulated capital, such that natural population increase is too blunt a means of increasing the supply of workers to accommodate the vicissitudes of industrial demand (787).

At this point, Marx introduces the burlesque image of political economy as a cross-dressing discourse – one that adopts one character to proclaim the necessity of a surplus population available to deploy at any moment, only then to shift to another character that holds the population responsible for not increasing its numbers beyond what subsistence can allow:

After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of a relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capital accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts into the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the ‘redundant’ workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: ‘We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence.’ (787-788)

The final quoted passage does not come from Malthus, but the logic of the section inserts Malthus into this scene – as someone stepping into the character mask required for a particular apologist production, ready to cast that mask aside and step into another as the situation requires…

Malthus crops up again – in the form of a reference to “Malthusians” – in the final section of the chapter, in a passage which summarises the results of a long empirical and theoretical discussion aimed at showing how processes specific to capitalist societies generate demographic trends – laws of population – that are anything but inscribed intrinsically in nature:

Here then, under our own eyes, and on a large scale, there emerges a process which perfectly corresponds to the requirements of orthodox economics for the confirmation of its dogma, the dogma that misery springs from an absolute surplus of population, and that equilibrium is re-established by depopulation. This is a far more important experiment than the mid-fourteenth century plague so celebrated by the Malthusians. (861)

Once again, Marx is unwilling to place Malthus at the centre of his focus – even in a passage in which Marx is essentially claiming to have derived the historically and socially specific basis for the phenomena Malthus reads off onto timeless nature. Once again, Malthus cannot be dignified with a direct discussion, but is allowed to enter the text only obliquely – by way of an aside: “Let us remark in passing,” Marx says:

if it required the naivety of a schoolmaster to apply the standard of the fourteenth century to the relations of production prevailing in the nineteenth century, and the corresponding relations of population, the error was compounded by overlooking the difference between its consequences in England and in France.

Marx underscores here an important point in relation to what he means by “law”. Not only are Marx’s “laws” historically and socially specific – not only are they understood to derive from contingent social practices, rather than invariant nature – but they are also probabilistic – they are tendencies, which play themselves out in different forms in specific situations within the historical and social context Marx sets out to analyse, which confront countervailing tendencies, and which are highly dependent on complex boundary conditions. Like many other chapters in Capital, this chapter draws attention to multiple theoretical possibilities – and a diversity of actual empirical outcomes – every time it attempts to illustrate a “law” at work.

Marx then further highlights the social dimension of the laws that he has derived, by taking one final shot at the Malthusian analogy to the plague – tacitly asking what sort of “natural” law would operate like this:

The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. (861)

The chapter ends with an extended discussion of the Irish famine and migration, emphasising the social character of what is portrayed. It also – characteristically – draws attention to the mirror world – to the unintended consequences of the ways in which this “law” has been allowed to play itself out:

Like all good things in the world, this profitable mode of proceeding has its drawbacks. The accumulation of the Irish in America keeps pace with the accumulation of rents in Ireland. The Irishman, banished by the sheep and the ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian. And there a young but gigantic republic rises, more and more threateningly, to face the old queen of the waves

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Valued Matter

Nate continues to work his way toward chapter 25, so hopefully I don’t need to feel too guilty at putting another brief, drive-by comment on the chapter… Chapter 25 begins with what is by this point a familiar bifurcation – analysing the category of capital as this category can be understood “as value” and “as material” (762). The temptation is to hear this recurrent dichotomy as an indication that the material can be severed in some sense from its form – such that form could potentially be stripped away, leaving behind nothing but a pure materiality. I have argued in a number of different posts that this is not Marx’s position – that he aims himself throughout many works at any attempt to argue that there used to be history – used to be form – used to be social artifice – but now (or in the communist future to come) only nature, only the bare and essential requirements of material reproduction – will remain. Instead, I have suggested, the strategy is more to demonstrate that materiality itself is historical – that materiality has taken other forms in the past, is enacted in a contingent and transient form now, and could potentially be reconstituted in new forms in the future. The question isn’t “how do we strip away the artificial social form from the material essence?”, but “what new form of materiality can we create next?”

Marx relies on various distinctions in this chapter that I can’t adequately unpack without backing up some ways into the text – as Nate is currently doing in his preparatory readings and notes. I’ll therefore leave aside a close reading for the moment and concentrate on a few gestural comments. First is simply to note the centrality of growth – the compulsion to grow – throughout this chapter. This compulsion is contradictory. It is marked by conflicting tendencies to phase out the necessity for human labour by increasing productivity, on the one hand, and pressures to reconstitute the necessity for human labour in new forms, on the other.

The consequence is a peculiar sort of social necessity for the expenditure of human labour that is distinct from the importance of human labour as a motive force in the production of goods. As technological development increases productivity – as it becomes possible to produce a given amount of material goods with less and less investment of human labour – human labour finds itself evicted from the productive process. This expulsion of human labour-power from the immediate process of production does not diminish the material wealth of society as a whole. Employing fewer labourers in production does not, in this circumstance, result in a greater objective scarcity of material goods. For the labourers expelled from the process of production, however, the personal result is the same as if there were an objective shortage of goods: so long as the sale of labour-power on the market is the social precondition for acquiring the means of personal material reproduction, the expenditure of human labour-power – in some form, in any indifferent form – becomes necessary for reasons divorced from human labour’s role as a necessary motive force for material production.

Marx will go on to analyse how a similar dynamic plays out, not simply at the level of the wage labourer, but at the level of society as a whole. I’ll return to this issue in later posts. For the moment, I just want to point out that part of what Marx is demonstrating here is that there is a practical basis for the distinction with which Marx opens this chapter – the distinction between how capital looks “as value” and how capital looks “as material”. These two perspectives aren’t just different analytical lenses that Marx applies externally to his subject matter: they are generated by that subject matter itself.

Capitalism here is characterised by an active, recurrently reconstituted disjoint between the need for human labour as a motive force in the production of material goods, and the need for human labour as a means of acquiring access to the social stock of material wealth that has been produced. These two types of “need” for human labour are not co-terminous – they do not “have” to coincide. Their distinction becomes palpably apparent in the everyday experience of wage labourers, who run the constant risk that their personal need to sell their labour-power in order to secure their own material reproduction, might not find a matching need for someone to buy their labour-power in order to produce a given set of material goods. The same distinction becomes apparent, more spasmodically and dramatically, in periodic economic crises that leave untouched (at least initially) the technical capacity for material reproduction, while vanishing the distinctively social preconditions required to animate that capacity in capitalist societies.

The ability to articulate – theoretically – the distinction between the material and the social, is grounded, in Marx’s account, in these sorts of practical experiences. The issue is not that Marx has done special theoretical work that enables him to see exceptionally clearly what material reproduction would require, once social artifice has been stripped away. Instead, Marx looks on capitalism with categories immanently available to its indigenous inhabitants: capitalism is presented here as a form of collective practice that enacts real – but transient, contingent – distinctions between dimensions of our practical experience that we intuit as related to “material reproduction”, and dimensions that we intuit as “social”. The practical availability of such distinctions underdetermines their political appropriation. For reasons Marx analyses elsewhere, one plausible appropriation is precisely the move to assign greater ontological weight – greater reality – to one of these dimensions of our historical experience – by articulating the “material” dimension of our experience, for example, as the sort of ahistorical, socially transcendent, “essential” category presented in the opening of Capital. Another available appropriation is what Marx articulates in Capital – where practically available categories like “social” and “material” are spun on new axes, to open the possibility to create more emancipatory forms of collective life…

More eventually… Apologies for the truncation of this presentation, but can’t unspool the argument more adequately at the moment…

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Revisiting the Product of the Hand

So I’ve been deeply remiss in not making a contribution to the reading group Nate has called on the first volume of Capital – currently focussing on chapter 25, although Nate started us off with some nice reflections on chapter 23. A nice discussion has been underway at Duncan’s blog, jumping off from some observations on Marx’s sarcasm, and developing into a discussion of the meaning and implications of different conceptions of class consciousness. JCD has been kind enough to set up a feed for the reading group – if anyone would like to dive in, and isn’t listed in JCD’s aggregator, give a shout.

I’ll say at the outset that I won’t be able to write much for the group at the moment. What I want to do instead – as a sort of promissory note for later analysis – is to point out the way in which this chapter makes an explicit loop back to the opening chapter of Capital in the closing line of its first section (p. 772 in Penguin):

Just as man is governed, in religion, by the products of his own brain so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand.

The internal textual reference here is, of course, to the passage where Marx christens the commodity fetish. In that earlier passage, the text suggests that the fetish character of commodities arises in and through a distinctive kind of contingent historical interaction that develops between humans and other objects – uniquely, in Marx’s account, in the capitalist era. Within this interaction, material objects – including the physiological dimensions of human objects – come to be seen as possessing a distinctive kind of “objectivity” – or, to say the same thing another way, a distinctively modern form of “materiality” comes to be enacted in our collective practices.

To pick out this distinctive form of interaction, Marx distinguishes it from two other, superficially similar, sorts of interactions that result in the perception of something “objective”: he first examines the interaction between the eye and the objects it perceives – arguing that it is the relation between the eye and its object that generates the optical perception, and yet perception is generally understood to arise entirely from the activity of the object, while the eye is understood as a passive recipient of stimuli external to itself; he next examines the purely social interaction between persons who share religious practices and beliefs – arguing that belief in invisible beings arises from an intersubjective interaction among humans, and yet those beings are taken by believers to be external objective causes of the intersubjective interaction that brings them into being.

Commodity fetishism, for Marx, shares aspects of both of these forms of one-sided attribution of objectivity: like the relationship between the eye and the objects of perception, commodity fetishism involves an interaction between humans and other sorts of objects – it does not arise solely from intersubjectively shared frameworks of meaning or networks of beliefs; like the products of religious practice, however, commodity fetishism is a purely social – and therefore contingent and transformable – phenomenon. Marx expresses this point in much the same language to which he returns in chapter 25, saying:

There [in religious belief] the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter in relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (165)

In the first use of this language, we appear to be talking about “commodity production”. By chapter 25, this same language is used to describe “capitalist production”. On the way from there to here, Marx unfolds the argument that generalised commodity production – the existence of a social system in which the commodity appears self-evidently as the elementary form of social wealth – can only exist on the basis of capitalist production. As we follow the developing argument, we learn that the opening chapter always already pointed toward its conditions of possibility – conditions that Marx unspools all the way through the text to the point that, in chapter 25, he is ready to gesture back and say (in his maddeningly indirect way) to his readers: Now. Here. At this point in the text. What the fetish character always already depended on, we can now say explicitly. The promissory note from chapter one can now – Marx thinks – be cashed out. And the discussion that cashes it out is one in which Marx can finally say explicitly what he thinks the “objective social” patterns are, that political economy erroneously reads off onto the inherent nature of material production or material life as such.

This chapter therefore marks the culmination of one of the longest dramatic arcs of Capital – an arc that stretches from chapter one to chapter 25, a textual loop that closes here with a much more explicit discussion of what Marx had in mind when he hints in the opening chapter at some sort of meaningless, unintended, but still historically contingent and social, practices that generate a historically distinctive and unique form of materiality. Several other dramatic arcs have been opened and closed in the interim, while this long arc remained unresolved. It is only at this point that Marx feels he can explicitly cash out what he implies in the discussion of the commodity fetish. The internal textual reference hints that we should flip back, review and revise, and perhaps change our minds again about what the opening chapter was trying to achieve.

I’ll have to break off here – apologies – too much other work to write more… More later, I hope…

Immanence and Materialism Conference Talk

Another talk below the fold… this time from the Immanence and Materialism conference – which proved to be a very good event, with a collection of excellent papers that, I understand, will soon be collected for online publication at a conference website – I’ll post a link to the blog when I have one.

As usual, the text below is what was said – more or less – at the conference. I’ll put up a more polished version with full referencing on the conference website shortly.

More soon, I hope… Read more of this post