Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Political Economy

Essence, Appearance and Elster

Since I’m writing on Elster… another bit that caught my eye in passing…

Elster (1985:124-25) understands that Hegel is being name-checked when Marx appeals to notions of essence and appearance in discussing the relation of value and price. Because, however, Elster assumes Marx is attempting to explain movements of price via his theory of value, he accuses Marx of missing Hegel’s point:

Marx frequently referred to a distinction between ‘Wesen’ and ‘Erscheinung’, essence and appearance, in economic life. I shall not go deeply into the darkly Hegelian origin of these notions, except to suggest that in his best-known application of them Marx may have misunderstood Hegel quite radically.

The appearance, that which appears, allows for two different antonyms. First, it may be contrasted with what is hidden, and accessible only by the mediation of thought. In this sense one may say that behind the appearance of a table is the atomic structure that forms its essence. This, broadly speaking, is how Marx conceived the relation between labour values and prices. The former are of a different and more fundamental ontological order than the latter, which, however, are the only ones that appear to the economic agents. Prices are on the surface of things, in the double sense of being immediately observable and of being explicable in terms of a deeper and more fundamental structure. Secondly, one may focus on the local character of the appearance – since what appears always appears to a person occupying a particular standpoint and observing the phenomena from a particular perspective. Hence any given appearance may be contrasted with the global network of appearances that is not tied to any particular standpoint. As far as I understand Hegel’s theory of essence and appearance, the second interpretation is the correct one. It says that the essence is the totality of interrelated appearances, not something that is ‘behind’ them and of a different ontological order.

Needless to say, I believe that it is precisely this second sort of analysis that Marx puts forward. Elster overlooks this possibility because he is misled by the peculiar presentational strategy that leads Marx first to speak in the voices of positions he intends to criticise, only in order to destabilise and relativise those voices as the argument moves on. Marx deviates from Hegel, not in wanting to view essence as persisting in some different ontological dimension than appearance – this is what he criticises political economy for doing, when he asks why it has never pursued the question of why a specific content appears in a specific form. He differs from Hegel in wanting to mobilise this sort of framework to make more visible the potential to disaggregate the parts that contingently generate a particular set of unintentional aggregate consequences like value.

Ironically, a few pages after the quotation above, Elster cites later passages in Capital – by which point, of course, the text has gathered the resources to be more explicit about its method – to suggest that Marx sometimes adopts a better understanding of the essence/appearance distinction – at which point Elster (126-27) argues:

We are dealing here [in the discussion of the wage form] with a generalized form of fetishism, that is structurally induced illusions about how the economy works. One might be tempted to conclude that the proper place for the essence-appearance distinction is not in economic theory proper, but in the sociology of economic thought…

One might indeed. Perhaps, in fact, one should. By not recognising the reflexive, iterative character of the text, Elster misses a great opportunity to realise how the essence-appearance distinction always already operates – even in the earlier sections where Marx has not yet tipped his hand and is still ventriloquising idealist metaphysical presentations in the main body of his text.

Advertisements

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…

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.

Notes on I.I. Rubin’s Qualitative and Quantitative Value Theories

I unfortunately don’t have the time to write on this topic properly, in a way that would make it accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with I.I. Rubin’s work on value theory. It might, for that matter, look a bit alien to people who are familiar with Rubin, since these are more personal notes to preserve a set of associations, than a worked-out argument… But for what it’s worth…

The rediscovery of I.I. Rubin’s work in the 1970s is one of the events that opened up new paths for understanding Marx’s value theory. Rubin’s work opposes substantialist interpretations of the category of value – interpretations that would, for example, understand value as something calculable from labour-time inputs – or interpretations that viewed Marx’s theory of value as oriented to explaining movements of commodity prices. Rubin argues that such interpretations miss the sociological dimension of Marx’s value theory – a dimension which Rubin attempts to recapture by focussing on how Marx’s category of value relates to an analysis of “production relations”.

So far, so similar – at least in superficial terms – to my own attempt to push into the foreground what I tend to call the “anthropological” character of Marx’s argument: like Rubin, I have tried to suggest that Marx is analysing the peculiar qualities and consequences of a distinctive form of social relation – and that the liminal ontological characteristics attributed to categories like value, abstract labour and capital reflect the anthropological peculiarities of the relation being analysed.

In other respects as well, Rubin seems to hit close to aspects of Marx’s theory that I have tried to foreground. In particular, Rubin seems to grasp what I have characterised as the retroactive determination of categories like value and abstract labour. He highlights that “social labour” is constituted as a subset of labouring activities, when the action of market determines objectively what sorts of labouring activities will succeed in counting as part of social labour – a subset that is smaller than the universe of privately-conducted labouring activities that are undertaken without prior knowledge of the volume of demand for the products those private labouring activities produce.

So much, so similar…

More askew, however, Rubin introduces what has become an influential distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” dimensions of Marx’s theory of value. The dimension I have just described – the culling process that constitutes “social labour” – falls onto the “quantitative” side of Rubin’s dichotomy. He associates it with the analysis of the magnitude of value, but distinguishes it from the analysis of the form of value – which, for Rubin, is what properly falls on the “qualitative” side of Marx’s theory – and thus on the side amenable to sociological analysis.

What seems to motivate this distinction is an assumption that social relations (“production relations” in Rubin’s inflection of Marx) must be fundamentally intersubjective in character. Searching about for some sort of intersubjective relation to which Marx might be referring in the opening sections of Capital, Rubin seems to hit on the sorts of social contract relations discussed at the opening of Capital‘s second chapter – the intersubjective relations of mutual recognition presented there as being at the heart of commodity exchange between formally autonomous, private producers. This move then skews Rubin’s analysis in a number of strange ways.

First, it leads him to a strangely utopian presentation of capitalist social relations as relations of equality between autonomous individuals (a presentation so positive-sounding in its implications that he must constantly backtrack within his own discussion to point out that the relation omits other important forms of equality, etc.).

Second, it leads him to understand the argument about the fetish character of the commodity as an argument about how these intersubjective relations take on an strangely objective character. This is a difficult circle to square, since social contract relations of mutual recognition are, in many senses, the ideal-typic, almost definitional, archetypes of intersubjective social relations, and are thus difficult to confuse with something objective and beyond the personal control of social actors. Rubin attempts to square it by identifying the only seemingly “objective” thing he can find in the social contract presentation: the fact that the social relation is “mediated” by an exchange of objects. He then tries to argue that this sort of mediation confers an objective cast on the social relation – a move that relies on the naturalisation of the “objective” character of objects (as though “things” naturally strike people as “thingly”, and thus a social relation mediated by the exchange of things would necessarily acquire an objective flavour). Rubin is historically savvy enough for this to cause him some worry: capitalism is hardly unique in mediating social relations by means of objects. This leads him to suggest that there is something more objective about our objects – partially because they are somehow not embedded within social relations in the same way, partially because the relationships being mediated have a form of personal autonomy within a general framework of complex interdependence established by market relations. These specific moves have filtered their way into more recent adaptations of qualitative value theory – particularly in Postone’s work.

I don’t have time for a fully adequate presentation of all of the reasons I think this constellation of moves is problematic, but I can suggest the direction of my criticisms by pointing to the third issue with Rubin’s approach: that he does not consider that Marx’s “sociological” analysis was attempting to confront a very different sort of social relation – one that has “objective” characteristics, not because an intersubjective process is mediated by things, but because the relation is simply not intersubjective in the first place. The phenomena Rubin groups on the “quantitative” side of his dichotomy – which he associates with the magnitude, but not the form, of value – should, I suggest, have instead been positioned as precisely what Marx’s “sociological” analysis is trying to explain.

Marx argues that political economy has grasped – somewhat imprecisely, but grasped nevertheless – the content of value: that somehow, somewhere, a pattern of social behaviour is being enacted that constitutes human labour as equal, and as measured by socially-average labour-time. What political economy does not grasp – because, Marx suggests, it is more worried about understanding the quantitative ratios in which commodities exchange – is the peculiar objective form in which these contents present themselves. This objective form relates to the way in which this content is not deliberately constituted by social actors via any intersubjectively-meaningful process, but instead arises unintentionally, as an emergent aggregate effect, from the tandem operation of a complex constellation of other social practices that are not oriented directly to achieving this specific goal.

As a result, when political economy first discovers this strange pattern – the ongoing enactment of a peculiar sort of lawlike pattern of social behaviour – this pattern does not appear to be generated in any obvious way by human social practices: after all, quintessential, archetypal social practices are intersubjective – and the pattern discovered by political economy results from nothing intersubjectively meaningful. Instead, the pattern is observed first in the movements of material goods. The pattern therefore appears to arise, not due to human actions, but due to some sort of intrinsic capacity for self-organisation inherent in the material world. The discovery of this pattern, in this way, not only disguises its social origin, but also makes it plausible for the material world to be perceived as a spontaneously self-organising realm that operates according to its own immanent laws that arise independently from human action. In other words, the material world starts to look… material. Objective. Secular. Devoid of anthropormorphic determination. Our intuitive secular sense of materiality emerges, from this account, as a very peculiar sort of anthropomorphism – wearing the perfect asocial disguise…

By reducing the sociological to the intersubjective, Rubin presents a near miss: he captures part of the argument about the non-intersubjective social relation through which “social labour” is enacted, but he relegates this topic to the “quantitative” side of the theory of value, and assumes the real meat of the argument must pertain to some sort of intersubjective relation. The set of moves pioneered by Rubin continue to be put forward by more recent attempts to understand the peculiar “objectivity” of the social relation Marx is trying to grasp – many of which replicate Rubin’s one-sidedness – the same one-sidedness analysed in Marx’s discussion of the fetish character. Marx’s attempt to break the identification of the “social” with the “intersubjective” is therefore lost – as is his complex analysis of how we collectively constitute this sort of complex, layered, mutifaceted social, only some portions of which intuitively appear social to us at first glance…

This is a very truncated exposition of this point, and not edited… – apologies… A student is bearing down at the door, unexpected, so I’ll put the post up rather than defer… More another time…

Indelicate Things

Well maybe just a little bit about sex in Capital… Backtracking a bit from the passage discussed in the previous post….

The second chapter of Capital begins where the previous chapter ostensibly left off: with a programmatic declaration about what commodities are unable to do, given that they are only things, not people.

Commodities cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are the possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. (1990: 178)

This passage looks like a “dialectical” derivation of a new category from the defects of the old: commodities, as simple objects, are unable to take themselves to market – and yet they are, intrinsically, objects that are exchanged; ergo, we can dialectically derive the existence of… owners! In the previous post, I suggested that such dialectical gestures should be read as ironic – not in the sense that Marx denies the results of the dialectical analysis (there really are owners of commodities, so the “result” is sound), but in the sense that the form of presentation does not reflect the actual form of analysis through which Marx arrives at his own critical interpretation of the reproduction of capital.

The next sentence already begins to destabilise the apparently confident assertion that commodities are passive objects, and casts doubt on the reliability of the character narrating this passage: “If they are unwilling,” the text tells us, “he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them” (178). Commodities have just been described as passive objects – unable to take themselves to market just as, at the end of the previous chapter, they were described as unable to speak. What sense can be made, then, of the notion of “unwilling” commodities that have no desire to be taken to the market and sold?

Marx dangles a footnote from this line that suggests an answer to this question:

In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities. Thus a French poet of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair of Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also ‘femmes folles de leur corps’. (178n1)

In the main text, then, a character declaims that commodities are passive things that rely on their owners to carry them to market. In a footnote to the same passage, Marx impishly provides an example of a commodity quite capable of carrying itself to market – and, while it is there, negotiating its own price and terms of sale: a prostitute. On the other hand, even this commodity, once sold – or, in the case of the prostitute, rented for a fixed duration of time – belongs to its purchaser who can, as the main text has just said, use force if the prostitute is unwilling to consummate the sale. This image of the prostitute who has been forced to service the buyer haunts the discussion in the main text. It prefigures the plight of the wage labourers whose existence has not yet been explicitly acknowledged in the text.

The main text carries on, describing the performative stances that commodity owners assume towards each other, in the process of exchanging their wares:

In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in these objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate his own, except through an act to which both parties consent. The guardians therefore recognise each other as owners of private property. (178)

The text thus describes two different performative stances whose joint performance enacts a social actor as a commodity owner. The first performative stance involves enacting the commodity as an external thing that, as an expression of its owner’s will, can be “objectified” and treated instrumentally – if the commodity resists, the owner is allowed to take possession by force. The second performative stance involves enacting other commodity owners as fellow subjects who cannot be engaged instrumentally – their commodities cannot simply be appropriated by force because the first commodity owner desires them – but instead must be engaged through processes of mutual recognition and consent.

The discussion of mutual recognition amongst commodity owners, and objectification of commodities themselves, reacts back on the dialectical discussion of commodities from the third section of Capital’s opening chapter. In that section, commodities were presented as engaging in social interactions that involved mutual recognition. In this section, by contrast, these forms of interactions have been displaced from commodities to their owners, and the commodities have been repositioned as the objects of instrumental action. The contrast subtly destabilises the notion that the “definitional” claims put forward in either of the opening chapters of Capital could be read as fixed ontological distinctions, by drawing attention to the continuous redetermination of the ontological status of the persons and objects described, depending on the social perspective from which they are viewed.

The Devil’s Dialectic

And as long as I’m posting… A tiny bit of new content, excerpted from something I’ve been writing offline…

Roger has been writing on Marx and Faust recently – so a quick riff on the passage in chapter two of Capital where the text explicitly invokes him… This passage mocks the perspective that has, just previously in this chapter, been occupying Capital‘s main stage. That perspective takes the idiosyncratic social preconditions for the exchange of material good so much for granted, that it simply looks through them, seeing only the material end result of the complex social process through which the exchange of material goods is brought about. For part of chapter 2, it is possible to read along, believing that you are seeing a discussion of direct barter. No longer – the passage on Faust begins a process of destabilising and, ultimately, relativising the perspective introduced earlier in the same chapter, in the process convicting that earlier perspective for naturalising and taking for granted the specifically social preconditions through which this material result has been brought about. The text says:

In their difficulties our commodity-owners think like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ They have therefore already acted before thinking. The natural laws of the commodity have manifested themselves in the natural instinct of the owners of commodities. They can only bring their commodities into relation as values, and therefore as commodities, by bringing them into an opposing relation with some one other commodity, which serves as the universal equivalent. We have already reached that result by our analysis of the commodity. But only the action of society can turn a particular commodity into the universal equivalent. The social action of all other commodities, therefore, sets apart the particular commodity in which they all represent their values. (180)

At this point, something sinister strides forth into the text. Summoned by the reference to Faust above – and followed immediately by the arrival of the beast of Revelation (181): “Money necessarily crystallizes out of the process of exchange” (181). These satanic images lead directly into an analysis of how money develops as the product of a historical dialectic driven by the internal contradictions of the commodity-form:

The historical broadening and deepening of the phenomenon of exchange develops the opposition between use-value and value which is latent in the nature of the commodity. The need to give an external expression to this opposition for the purposes of commercial intercourse produces the drive towards an independent form of value, which finds neither rest nor peace until an independent form has been achieved by the differentiation of commodities into commodities and money. At the same rate, then, as the transformation of the products of labour into commodities is accomplished, one particular commodity is transformed into money. (181)

This historical dialectic directly contradicts Marx’s repeated criticisms of political economy for its ahistorical treatment of its categories as the explicit realisations of qualities understood to be latent in nature – a critique repeated at the beginning of this chapter with reference to Proudhon. It also contradicts the discussion on the immediately prior page of how, in the absence of money, goods offered for exchange simply are not commodities, but merely products. Whatever internal tensions may be enacted in the commodity form, these are the emergent results of a complex social process, rather than the immanent drivers of the historical realisation of money: where commodities are, money is always already on the scene – as are many other sorts of social practices yet to be introduced, which must operate in tandem to generate any of the emergent results analysed in this text.

This dialectical sweep needs to be read, I suggest, as an ironic performance of a particular kind of analysis – one that usually recounts historical processes that gradually bring forth miraculous beings such as the Geist. In this passage, however, the imagery is satanic, and the historical dialectic is tacitly portrayed as unleashing the devil into history. The dialectical imagery here is the butt of a convoluted joke, rather than a demonstration of a form of analysis we are meant to apply. Unfortunately, where the joke is missed, it can seem as though the text advocates a form of idealist dialectical analysis: both critics and supporters of Marx have sometimes missed the punchline, and taken such moments – which are put forward periodically in Capital – as illustrations of Marx’s own method, rather than as one of the many methods Marx sets up for critique…

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…