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Category Archives: Reification

The Contingency of Labour

For some reason, the passages on commodity speech at the end of Capital‘s opening chapter seem to draw particularly self-satisfied critics, delighted at what they take to be a performative contradiction between the “definition” of the commodity as an “external thing”, the critique of the commodity fetish – a critique of a fantastical, metaphysical “thing”, and these passages that make commodity “things” stand up on their own hind legs and talk. For this to be a performative contradiction, Marx would have to be a man with a short attention span indeed… These passages should instead, as I have argued at some length, be read as part of a sort of dark comedic arc, in which Marx marches out on the main stage of Capital a set of characters, modeled on the political economy of his own day, who treat commodities as mere “things” – and thus theorise capitalism in a way that ignores the presence of the walking, talking commodity that is wage labour.

The readers are meant to be in on this joke – we aren’t meant to share the blindness of the characters who attempt to understand capitalism while ignoring the secret in plain sight of wage labour. When the text puts forward declarations about what commodities would say “if only” they could speak, we are meant to understand that commodities do speak – do exercise will – do resist and therefore have to be taken by force – and we are therefore meant to know, intuitively, that the characters striding on the main stage, speaking as though such walking, talking, protesting commodities do not exist, are absurd burlesque figures – clowns whose performances are held up for ridicule.

I’ve written at some length about the ways in which the text signals this joke – from snarks in the footnotes, to the use of the language of civil society to describe commodity social interactions in the third section of Capital‘s first chapter, to the analogy Marx draws with prostitution at the beginning of Capital‘s second chapter, at the point when the main text is (absurdly) declaring that commodities, as objects, lack their own independent will and motive force, while also explaining that, if these things should happen to prove unwilling, their owner may use force to compel them.

The reader is meant to know the punchline of this joke all along – and once the category of labour-power is introduced, Marx takes the main text to have demonstrated how selectively – how narrowly – certain kinds of political economic theories must look out onto capitalist production, in order to make the sorts of claims that have been demonstrated – and pilloried – to that point. This doesn’t mean that the theorists Marx has in mind literally are unaware of the existence of wage labour – they may be quite well aware in various aspects of their work. It means that aspects of the theories they put forward – the claims and the categories used in their work – would only ever be adequate as categories if applied to very narrow and limited portions of a much more complex whole.

I’ve written less on how this sort of strategy continues beyond the opening chapters of Capital. The “definitions” of labour that are introduced in chapter 7 form part of a similar joke. All of the things that labour purportedly “is”, in those definitional passages, are demonstrated, over the course of many subsequent chapters, to be things labour can only be said to be, if a theorist looks at capitalist production through an absurdly selective lens, bracketing out large swathes of practical experience. Marx will insistently bring those excluded, obscured aspects of experience into view – revealing how partial and blinkered these initial “definitions” are.

One of the more important “definitional” aspects of labour Marx will try to undermine, is the claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity”, something that is transhistorically and intrinsically required for material production. The great irony of capitalism is that, of all forms of production, it demonstrates most clearly the non-necessity for the expenditure of human labour as a motive force in the processes through which we meet our material needs. The need for the direct expenditure of human labour is progressively phased out in specific spheres of productive activity, due to the development of machinery, improvements in organisation, and the development of technical and scientific knowledge.

At the same time, collective practice constrains our ability to take advantage of this potential – crises occur if human labour is phased out too far, and pressures drive the development of ever-new “opportunities” for human labour to be expended in new forms – or retained in forms where, technologically, we could reduce or eliminate it.

These conflictual pressures – driving for the reduction in the need to expend human labour directly in meeting material needs, and driving for the retention and reconstitution of the need to expend human labour in some form – constitute, for Marx, the rational core of classical political economy’s “labour theory of value”. Capitalism, uniquely amongst human societies, directly values the expenditure of human labour – not as a means, but – speaking here on a structural level, as a long-term unintentional pattern of behaviour – as an end. Capitalism’s primary product is labour. The claim that labour is an “everlasting necessity” is a claim offered from a capital-eye-view: other historical systems of production do not have this orientation – human labour may be as central, because other motive forces are not available – but in capitalism, other motive forces emerge as possibilities – and yet labour remains structurally central, for reasons that cannot be reduced, Marx argues, to any intrinsic necessity to expend specifically human labour in order to meet material needs.

The need for human labour in capitalism is specifically not material – the passages in Capital that declare this necessity to be imposed by nature need to be read in the same tone as the passages that declare commodities to be external objects that lack will, volition and voices of their own: partial, ideological views that view capitalism through a narrow slice of practical experience – a slice that brackets off immanent potentials for political contestation, and that obscures the practical possibility to abolish the specifically social – not natural, but contingent – centrality of human labour power as a motive force.

I’ll try to do more on this textually in later posts – have just been mulling over this recently after reading yet another critique of Marx’s “performative contradiction”, which caused me to wonder what else Marx needed to do to make this opening joke more explicit… I realise the writing style is perverse and Marx has a veritable phobia of signposting what he’s trying to do. But his exasperation at theorists who write as though commodities are “things” is more overt than most of his text-play… The complex ricochet of this argument is much much harder: the reflexive point that, although people can be commodities, they are so only as split subjects, who experience only part of themselves – labour-power – an ojectified, object-like, “material” bundle of physical capacities and talents – as the commodity part. But the basic joke that commodities are not only or always passive, inert, voiceless, will-less, things – this I would think would be clearer on the surface of the text…

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.

The In-Ourself

Okay. Labour power. Inversion. How does this inversion retroject itself onto the opening passages of Capital, transforming our understanding of what we thought we knew at that moment in the text? Just as important: how does what was already said at that early point in the text, interact with the new things that we think we know now about the centrality of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power?

It’s funny: I wrote this post – in my head, not yet in text – last night, thinking about Nate – about some of his writings, and some of our conversations – while I was composing. I woke this morning to find that, as if this imaginary dialogue had actually taken place, Nate had responded overnight to yesterday’s post on labour power. Many of Nate’s comments speak to what I’m trying to write here, but since I was writing in relation to retrojected-Nate, from past conversations, rather than in relation to this-morning-Nate, from his current post, this may result in a strange collection of overlaps and offsets between what I’m writing below, and what Nate has just written. At any rate: go read his post, which is relevant to what I’m writing here, even if I haven’t done justice to that relevance in this post. Among Nate’s reflections are comments about the experience of reading Marx – reading, not interpreting. And among those comments is the following, which just expresses so well how I have come to read Marx and other forms of complex theory, that I have to reproduce it, before I move into the topic of this post. Nate writes:

Maybe what this really boils down to is that we shouldn’t read Capital so much as re-read it. (This was my approach when I was reading Capital for the first time, as well as other difficult material – come to think of it, pretty much all German stuff … Kant, Marx, Hegel, Habermas … weird … I guess I later started applying this elsewhere. What I tried to do and sometimes still do though less rigorously/vigorously, was to never give up on reading, specifically by initially committing at a minimum to looking at all the words, rather than committing to understanding. After looking at all the words I could at least go back to the text in discussion, more than I could if I hadn’t looked at all the words, then actually read it, and afterward re-read it.)

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Now… What was I thinking about last night again? Something about commodities as things… things later revealed to be human… humans, however, that have already been revealed as things – as material objects onto which contingent social circumstances are projected – humans that remain determined as material bearers of an immaterial essence of value… Humans whose materiality – whose thingliness – is counterintuitively shown to be their distinctive form of socialisation under capitalism… The inversion that results from the introduction of the category of labour power is a far more potent inversion even than it first appears: in this category, it is not simply use value and exchange value that come to be inverted, not simply freedom and constraint – society and nature are inverted as well. Capitalism is shown to involve a distinctive practice of self as material object – as physical, biological life that is then socialised into some contingent form: the physical determinations of labour power that permeate Capital – abstract labour as the expenditure of so much quantity of nerves, muscles, and physical energy – this determination, in spite of appearances, is a social determination – this naturality, this materiality, is not the stripping away of social determination to reveal a persistent material substratum underneath: it is a specific, historically-emergent, positive form of socialisation under capitalism – Nature is the new Society… What is most distinctively socially determining of capitalism, adopts the perfect disguise – a cloak of physicality, a material veil – and thus intuitively seems not to be social at all… Let’s see if I can pick up that thread…

Okay. The commodity is introduced as a “thing outside us”. Intuitively – with intuitions encouraged by the examples (linen, coats) that Marx uses in the text – with intuitions also undermined by many marginal gestures that Marx makes along the way – but, intuitively, when Capital opens, we think we are talking about things. The subject matter is the wealth of capitalist societies – and this wealth presents itself initially in a particular way – as a vast accumulation of empirically-sensible stuff that can be grasped in terms of its (transhistorical, essential, material substance) use value and its (contingent, extrinsic form) exchange value. We learn fairly quickly that we need to look beyond the empirically-sensible, to a supersensible realm where categories of value and abstract labour operate – categories that we are initially tempted to see as themselves essences lurking behind a realm of empirical appearances to which they are only contingently connected. And then we visit an inverted world, where we begin to appreciate the connections – the relations – that bind the realm of appearance necessarily to this realm of essence: we are in train, at this point, to understanding how a particular sort of essence could be constituted from a specific kind of appearance – how everyday practices that are not intentionally aiming to constitute some sort of social essence, might constitute such an essence nevertheless.

All of this, however, operates within the ambit of the claim that commodities are “things outside us”. Things that, being passive objects, enter into social relations with one another, through the agency of their owners. Things whose collective relations then relate the owners themselves – connecting people through the mediation of objects. The type of connection being effected here is more than the material connection established by the social metabolism involved in any circulation of goods and services: an immaterial connection – a subterranean water table marking the depths and heights of the purely social fluid of value – flows through the social metabolism of material exchange. This immaterial flow has no intrinsic connection with the social metabolism of material distribution – this is part of the critical claim of the text, part of what Marx must establish, to demonstrate the non-utopian character of his critical ideals. Under capitalism, however, this immaterial flow is coterminous with social metabolism – one of various factors that encourages the hypostatisation of characteristics specific to capitalism – one of various factors that encourages people to miss how the immaterial dimensions of capitalism are not secret essences of material reproduction as such – the intertwining of these characteristics with material reproduction now, makes it difficult to see how these characteristics are not intertwined with material reproduction in some essential and intrinsic way.

The text has already introduced several layers of complexity, then, before the category of labour power is introduced. The movement from empirical, to transcendental, to dialectical – and then to something else, to whatever the unnamed perspective is, that enables the practical constitution of the fetish to be grasped – these movements already give the reader a taste of a text that will recurrently destabilise its own overt claims. The empiricist voice that opens Capital sounds confident in its articulation – so does the transcendental voice that follows – and the dialectical. The movement of the text is not so much to contradict these voices – not so much to dismiss them as errors. Instead, the movement is more like that of taking something that asserts itself as a foundation – as a firm point on which we can stand – and violently ejecting it into a dynamic environment: all these voices have something in them of truth – as long as truth is understood as something intrinsically and inevitably in motion. A truth for now. A truth for here. A truth that provides a platform wide and stable enough to stand on for some purposes. A truth whose platform borders an abyss into which we can fall, if we mistakenly assume the platform extends too far.

I’ve written about the introduction of the category of labour power elsewhere. Marx derives the category by showing that the standpoint of simple circulation and reproduction unwittingly presuppose it – that it must presuppose it, because it presupposes growth. The equilibrium values of circulation are tacitly indexed to an expanding system: for the commodity to become the socially general form of wealth – for the social contract imaginary of a society of commodity producers and exchangers to become a socially plausible just-so story – a constant transfer of new and ever-expanding productive energies are required. However much the process of circulation ratifies the success of such growth, the circulation of what already is, cannot increase the volume of what is circulated – a society as a whole does not increase the total volume of its wealth by thieving from itself in aggregate. Some new source of productive energy is required. The category of labour power captures this productive energy that enables the whole to expand.

The wealth in question, however, is not material wealth. That tends to increase too – but structurally, in terms of the argument put forward in Capital, the increase in material wealth is a side effect – a consequence of material wealth’s distinctive social role as a bearer of value. Value is the invisible and secret coin of the realm – well disguised in the visible scrabble over the empirically-sensible proxies of use value and exchange value, which empiricist sensibilities take to be the stakes of the capitalist social game. Value flows through these empirically-sensible entities, but is not minted from them – but rather from labour power alone. As the secret within a secret, the labour power constitutive of value is itself not empirically-sensible – it is abstract labour – what Marx will sometimes call “directly social” labour – labour that has been socially ratified to enable it to count as labour – a retroactive judgement of the unconscious action of the whole of society on each of its members, determining what sorts and intensities of empirical labour are treated in collective practice as possessing “value”.

The argument here is circular – tautological – and deliberately so: it is an attempt to capture an immanent qualitative characteristic of a runaway form of production become an end in itself, rather than an attempt to capture an external factor that “causes” production to assume a certain form – the category of value is an attempt to characterise clearly what we are doing, rather than an attempt to specify an independent variable that causes us to do it. Capital will discuss the forms of coercion – personal and impersonal – that tend to generate “value” as an aggregate result. At this point in the text, however, this level of analysis remains largely unspecified.

I’ve talked about all of this elsewhere – no doubt not enough, and without sufficient clarity. Nevertheless, this is revision, and not what I am trying to think about today. A diversion, as I avoid writing about things I find harder to say.

What I am trying to write about – what I am avoiding writing about – is the ricochet that takes place once the category of labour power is introduced as a pivot category that inverts our sense of what was being discussed earlier in the text. When the category of the commodity is introduced, use value and exchange value are determined as externally and contingently related: use value is specified as an intrinsic and transhistorical material substance, and exchange value is specified as a contingent social form that is projected onto this material substance. The implication here is that the substance is eternal, while the form is ephemeral – a move that would position circulation as the appropriate target for political contestation (since it is circulation – the arbitrary and contingent form – that is here positioned as able to change over time), while cordoning off production as a timeless and essential material requirement that must perpetually be reproduced.

One of Capital’s central critical targets, of course, is the compulsive reproduction of production – specifically, of human labour as a component and motive force of production – the binding together of human labour and material reproduction, no matter how great the growth in the science and technology as motive forces for the production of material wealth. The category of value is the category of this tendency – the category that gives a name, a label, to this trend to produce new forms of human labour, as older forms are automated away: Marx insists that value is constituted by human labour power alone, because value as a category is intended to give a voice to this unintentional trend toward the compulsive reproduction of the need to expend human labour time, no matter the heights of productivity. This is why he becomes so impatient with people who argue over whether nature plays some role in the constitution of value: how could it? “Value” is a term for a social drive to reproduce human labour – and nature, as Marx insists with some exasperation, has nothing to do with this historically unique social drive…

One of the distinctions that becomes inverted with the introduction of the category of labour power is the use value/exchange value distinction: the use value of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power, is to generate value – substance and form – now understood as the historically unique substances and forms specific to capitalist society – no longer appear extrinsic and contingently connected to one another, but instead intrinsically related. Which doesn’t mean that these categories aren’t also distinct – their mutual-implicatedness is not the same as their seamless identity – they are united in a tense and uncertain dynamic relation.

Subject and object also become inverted: the pivot category of the commodity – the “thing outside us” – is now revealed to rely on a peculiar commodity that is a subject, a person. But what conclusion are we meant to draw from this? That the opening categories do not apply to those peculiar commodities that happen to be people? I think not quite. Rather, we have to re-read the opening passages as determinations – we can now see – of distinctive forms of embodiment and practices of self that become widely available as possibilities within social practice with the development of capitalism.

The sale of labour power on the market is a strange thing. The labourer doesn’t sell themselves entire – this would be slavery. (It is perhaps appropriate to flag here that Marx will destabilise and invert this distinction, too: the later sections of volume 1 provide a number of examples of how the system of “free labour” results in modern slavery – particularly within families, as parents act as the brokers for the labour of their children who cannot contract for themselves, but also within work gangs – and workhouses – and the dimensions of the capitalist world market where the hard coercion of the state is freely wielded to constitute a labour force… The system of “free labour” presupposes its own inverted forms of “unfree labour” – labour that is unfree even according to the immanent standards generated by this system – as well…) The labourer instead sells a part of themselves – a capacity – specifically, their capacity for labour.

In a sense, then, the commodity labour power remains a “thing” – something objectified from its owner, who brings this thing to market. And yet this form of objectification is a self-objectification: it implicates a distinctive sort of internal bifurcation in the labourer’s socialised practice of themselves. Labourers enact themselves as agentive owners exerting their will against passive objects – passive objects that are, however, their own capacities, bound and inseparable to them, yet bifurcated and objectified – alienable and yet ineradicably their own. (All of this doesn’t get into the various levels of analysis around the conditions of agency for the working classes in the conditions where their distinctive form of “freedom” renders both plausible and necessary forms of collective self-assertion, in order for agency to be effectively asserted in conditions where the presupposition of the labourers’ “freedom” of contract, is their simultaneous “freedom” from the means of subsistence. For present purposes, I leave this issue to one side – not because it is unimportant, but because I am trying to tease out the argument about forms of embodiment – and the bifurcated or perhaps trifurcated form of embodiment tacitly being mapped out in the first chapter of Capital, in passages where the text appears only to be discussing “things outside us”.)

So if the “peculiar commodity” of labour power is retrojected back into the opening discussion of the commodity from the first chapter, we arrive at a complex discussion of a social enactment or performance of self – in at least one slice of collectively-available experience in a capitalist context. By implication, this performance of self also has its empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical dimensions. We enact ourselves as material things – use values – use values, not for ourselves (since, separated from the means of subsistence, our own capacity for labour is strangely not useful for us), but for the capitalist. A part of ourselves interests us for its exchange value – a necessary condition of which is its usefulness for another: our labour – always, concretely, some specific kind of labour, the range of things we have been trained or have the capacity to do, and therefore always, concretely, something that might not be useful for someone else – that might not be able to realise itself as an exchange value, because the labour market is flooded with “use values” like us, use values that cannot realise themselves in use, if they cannot realise themselves in exchange.

We enact our own capacities – and not just the traits of objects outside ourselves – as material bearers of exchange value. We enact our own capacities as objects outside ourselves. We perform ourselves as internally divided, as ghosts in our own physical machines – collectively enacting, as a distinctive positive, constructed, social concern, our capacity to expend, as Marx will often phrase it, so much of a quantum of brains, muscles, nerves… Marx’s recourse to this physicalist description of abstract labour is often taken as though Marx is drawing attention to some material invariant – physical human labour. This interpretation misses the thrust of Marx’s argument, which is that this “physical” determination of human capacities – the sensitivity we presently find intuitive, the ease with which we presently conceptualise ourselves as material bodiesthis is social. The physical determination of the human under capitalism, contrary to appearances, is not a conception that arises when we strip away social determinations, leaving our materiality and physicality behind. Quite the contrary, this physical determination is precisely a social determination – a specific and determinate way we enact ourselves in one slice of social practice in a capitalist context.

So that is the machine. The human machine of nerves, muscles, brains, sinews… There is more to this determination – to understanding the qualitative attributes that we intuitively attribute to these forms of materiality – than I can outline here. This post is pure gesture – I’ll have to follow the point at a later time.

But for present purposes, just a quick note that the machine has its ghost: the “transcendental” voice marks out a distinctive form of embodiment, a distinctive collective practice of self, as well. Value flows through us as well – a secret social substance in which we participate – through which we learn how much we, too, get to “count”. This experience – the Durkheimian soul of capital – marks out a supersensible unity of humanity – a unity of mutual coercion – but a unity nevertheless. A dimension of social practice in which a secret identity and equality and homogeneity flows through us, in spite of all empirically-sensible differences: a practical basis for the experience of a common human nature, misrecognised and fetishised as something inherent, rather than something constituted – natural rights, natural justice, natural laws: the children of the fetish, although no less socially explosive for all that.

I’m flagging. And I’m also not expressing any of this well… Just trying to gear up for what I’ll need to write, fumbling toward what I mean… Apologies for the murk… As with the early posts on the fetish, I hope to become clearer and more adequate over time…

I haven’t edited this – haven’t so much as glanced back it… Too tired to do so now… Apologies…


Some time around now, something resembling the talk below the fold is being presented here. Read more of this post

The Quantitative Indeterminacy of Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next few sentences are very compressed. Marx argues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
Degrees of sizes in each box are found:
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
Although they are not subject to our sense, […]

~ Margaret Cavendish “Of Many Worlds in This World”

Fragments on Lukács’ essay, focussing on how I would contrast Lukács to Marx, in relation to various claims Lukács puts forward in the first section of his essay, under the subheading “The Phenomenon of Reification”.

I. Quantity to Quality vs. Relationality

In my previous post, I mentioned a key problem confronting this text – a problem that was also a central question for Marx: if capitalism is understood as something historically unique, why do the categories used to theorise capitalism – commodities, money, interest, profit, rent, etc. – appear to be less historically specific than the object those categories purport to grasp? As I discussed previously, Lukács attempts to answer this question by suggesting that a quantitative expansion of the phenomenon grasped by these categories – to the point that this quantitative expansion becomes totalising and all-encompassing – yields a qualitative shift: in Lukács’ framework, capitalism can be generated as a historically-specific object from the extension of forms of practice that are much older historically.

Lukács believes that this is how Marx would also answer this question, and cites various passages from Marx suggestive of this idea. I would suggest that Marx’s answer actually takes a completely different form: for Marx, capitalism as an historically distinct object is constituted when various older forms of practice come to be reconfigured as component parts of an historically novel and qualitatively distinctive social relation. Following Hegel, Marx grasps the meaning of the categories as something that is determined relationally. To say this more plainly: Marx thinks that “commodities”, “money”, and similar categories are only apparently non-specific to capitalism – in his account, these categories take on a very different meaning and significance under capitalism, than various phenomena that, from our present-day point of view, look similar in other societies. The “essential difference” between these categories in a capitalist, compared to a non-capitalist, context, is therefore not due, in Marx’s account, solely to a process of quantitative expansion, but instead due to the emergence and reproduction of the historically distinct sort of social relation whose constitutive moments these categories express. Since Marx also does speak of various quantitative expansions associated with the development of capitalism, this argument is complex to demonstrate on a textual level – I’ll leave that task for another post. My goal here is simply to draw attention to a possible alternative to the sort of analysis Lukács presents, when he tries to explain why the core categories of “capitalism” appear more transhistorical than the object they purport to grasp.

II. Totalities and Tipping Points

Lukács seems to regard the “tipping point” at which quantitative expansion yields a qualitative shift, to be the point at which the “commodity-structure” becomes universalised or totalised. In Lukács’ argument:

The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it. Only then does the commodity become crucial for the subjugation of men’s consciousness to the forms in which this reification finds expression and for their attempts to comprehend the process or to rebel against its disastrous effects and liberate them, from servitude to the ‘second nature’ so created.

Logically, even within Lukács’ quantity-yields-quality framework, this isn’t the only analytical option – in principle, quantitative expansions might yield qualitative shifts without some sort of maximal, universal extent of quantitative expansion. Theorising this sort of “tipping point” concept, however, would probably pull the analysis closer to Marx’s relational approach, due to the need to explain why a certain level of quantitative expansion should yield a specific qualitative shift – an explanation that might point toward an exploration of whether some sort of specific configuration, with distinctive qualitative properties, becomes possible at some particular level of quantitative expansion. I don’t specifically see Marx’s analysis following this line – Marx seems to focus more on the effects to an entire set of practices, of the constitution of a new form of social relation, and to understand this qualitative shift to drive a quantitative expansion. Marx does, though, appeal in other dimensions of his argument to the notion that capitalism presupposes a certain (itself expanding) scale that transcends earlier historical organisations of production.

III. Personal vs. Social Relations

At one point early in this section, Lukács makes the point in passing that, at some early point in the development of capitalism, it was easier to “see through” the commodity-structure. Lukács argues:

the personal nature of economic relations was still understood clearly at the start of capitalist development. (emphasis mine)

Lukács intends this as a gloss on Marx’s argument about the fetish, in which Marx argues “a definite social relation between men… assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” In his reformulation of Marx’s argument, Lukács tacitly assumes that the “social” equates to the “personal”. I would suggest that Marx precisely does not make this equation – that Marx is instead attempting to theorise the collective constitution of a social relation that is specifically not personal in nature. As Marx puts the point:

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

Marx’s formulation also calls into question Lukács’ tacit suggestion that reification involves a sort of ideology or illusion – something that, when it is less totalistic, can be pierced, to reveal the “true” relation – a personal one – that sits on the other side of the veil. Marx is not attempting to theorise an ideology (not even a “necessary” one), but instead a distinctive form of social relation, characterised precisely by its “objective”, “materialist” character. Marx is not suggesting that theory needs to help up pierce the veil of an illusion of objectivity: he is suggesting that theory needs to grasp how we are collectively constituting a genuinely impersonal form of social relation. The categories of the “social” and the “personal” precisely do not align for Marx – this disalignment is central to Marx’s attempt to thematise capitalism as historically distinct, and it also alters the strategy at play in Marx’s critique, which is not to uncover the reality that has come to be crusted over by illusion, but instead to analyse the genesis and potentials of a very distinctive form of social relation.

This contrast carries over into a number of other dimensions of Lukács’ argument, some of which I’ll pick up on below.

IV. Subjects, Objects, and Things in Between

Both Lukács and Marx offer an argument about a distinctive form of subject-object dualism related to the commodity-structure. The very different conceptions of commodity-structure in play, however, point each in very different directions.

Lukács understands the commodity-structure to relate to the exchange relation. In his account, the quantitative expansion and, ultimately, totalisation and universaliation of the exchange-relation, leads, on the one hand, to a “world of objects and relations between things” – which Lukács equates with “the world of commodities and their movements on the market”. This “objective” world of market exchange confronts the individual subject as a “second nature” beyond their control – an environment whose laws the subject can attempt to anticipate and calculate, but not overcome. Proletarian subjects are further compelled to sell their labour-power onto this market – to externalise part of themselves as an object – and also confront the full effects of the fragmentation of the labour process which, in Lukács’ account, comes to be organised in such a way as to break apart the “organic unity” of use values, scattering the production of a finished product in time and space, and turning labour from a purposeful mastery of nature, into something itself mastered and inserted as a motive force into a production process to which labour must adapt. In each of these ways, Lukács argues, the subject – or, specifically, something he calls “the personality” – the aspect of subjectivity that exceeds what is required for the labour-power that is bought and sold on the market – comes to experience itself as set apart from the totality of the object world. The subject thus becomes contemplative – passively analysing and adapting itself to the laws of an object world the subject experiences as fundamentally alienated from its own practice.

Most visibly with the strange, ungrounded category of the “personality”, but also with the undertheorised category of the “object world”, Lukács’ argument here falls short of the type of theory Marx is attempting to construct. Lukács tacitly takes for granted the qualitative characteristics of both his subject and object worlds. The type of explanation Lukács uses, for example, to account for the “objectivity” of the market, could implicitly be used for any sort of social environment into which any human subject finds themselves “thrown”: single social actors do not, as single social actors, have the capacity to alter any social context – why does the “contemplative” relation of subjects to an object world not characterise all of human history? Lukács’ implicit answer hinges on his argument that capitalism uniquely breaks apart the “organic unity” of the production of use values: lurking in the background here is a notion that subjects realise themselves through their self-externalisation of themselves in material nature, coupled with a tacit romantic glance at skilled handicraft production. “Personality” – which might perhaps realise itself as an active agent in a less fragmented productive environment – lingers into an era in which it figures as nothing more than an idiosyncracy – a “source of error”. With no means available to externalise and thus realise itself as an active, creative agent, it finds itself cordoned off from the object world, which it confronts in a state of contemplation.

It is significant, I would suggest, that, in order to make this argument, Lukács directly juxtaposes – as though they were intended to make the same sort of contribution to Marx’s argument – passages from Capital that are describing commodity fetishism, and much later passages describing the transformation of the labour process that takes place under capitalism, particularly after the introduction of large-scale machinery. These juxtapositions assist Lukács in his attempt to equate Marx’s category of the “fetish”, with Lukács’ own category of “reification”. I would suggest, however, that these two categories point in quite different analytical directions. Marx’s argument about the fetish is intended to account for something that remains unproblematised in Lukács’ argument: the constitution – in the sense of the enactment or performance in collective practice – of the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the forms of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” that are enacted via the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument here is more complex and difficult to express than Lukács’ – I won’t be able to do justice to it in this post (I have, however, erected the scaffolding within which to reconstruct this argument, in the series on the first chapter of Capital, volume one, under the Marx tab above). Here – and still very gesturally and inadequately – I can begin to sketch some of what might be at stake, by looking briefly at the contrasting ways in which Lukács and Marx approach the question of the social constitution of particular forms of equality.

V. All Else Being Equal

Just as Lukács reduces the commodity-structure down to the exchange relation, so he also attempts to explain distinctive ideals of equality with reference to the exchange relation. Once again, this pushes Lukács onto the terrain of personal relations: he speaks of the recognition of formal equality, as one of the “objective” conditions for the exchange of qualitatively incommensurable goods. This is a very common way of accounting for the modern resonance of ideals of equality – to point these ideals back to the conceptualisation of exchange as a form of contract, presupposing the formal equality of contracting parties as in principle self-determining agents who are operating free from coercion, and also presupposing the intrinsic fungibility of the goods being exchanged. Marx will make use of these sorts of arguments, as these sensibilities and their associated forms of practice are dimensions of capitalism. Significantly, however, Marx suggests a different line of argument in the immediate context of his discussion of commodity fetishism. He cites a passage in which Aristotle considers the question of whether the goods exchanged on the market – since these goods are being, in effect, “equated” with one another in social practice – might possess some underlying sort of commonality or identity – whether they might, as the chapter has just discussed, possess the homogeneous supersensible substance of “value”. Aristotle considers the possibility, and rejects it, arguing that exchange is simply a “makeshift for practical purposes”. Marx then suggests why Aristotle failed to arrive at the concept of value, and points this back to the absence of wage labour in classical antiquity. Marx argues:

The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

The “in truth” is sardonic – Marx is miming the forms of analysis of political economy in speaking this way. Political economists might speak as though value has always existed, but Aristotle and other thinkers failed to “discover” it until the present enlightenment enabled us to uncover what has always tacitly been there (remembering here Marx’s characterisation of the political economists, that they speak as though “there used to be history, but there is no longer any”). The argument of the first chapter of Capital, however, is that value was not there to “discover” until the development of the distinctively modern social practices that performatively (if unintentionally) bring “value” into being. Aristotle didn’t overlook the presence of value: value did not yet exist.

This argument connects in complex ways with how Marx understands the social constitution of modern ideals of equality. Value figures in Marx’s analysis as an intangible social substance – as something that cannot be directly perceived, but whose existence can be deduced through observations over time of the non-random transformations of aspects of social experience that are immediately evident to the senses. Value is an implicit social category – its existence must be deduced. This deduction is possible, because non-random (lawlike) patterns of transformation of material nature and social institutions take place over time. The constitution of value is unintentional (social actors are not attempting collectively to generate the patterns Marx labels with the category “value”), and it is impersonal (taking the form of a constantly reset social norm that marginalises social actors who cannot conform).

I have mentioned before that one image or metaphor for thinking about “commodity producing labour”, involves a nested collection of sets, where the largest includes any sort of social practice involved in any way in the reproduction of our social existence, within this, is that subset of activities oriented in some way to producing goods intended to be sold on the market, and within that is the subset of activities that succeed in what Marx calls a salto mortale – activities that survive a process that Marx describes as a reduction of the labour that social actors empirically expend in production, to labour that gets to “count” as part of social labour. This reduction takes place, in Marx’s account, behind the backs of the social actors involved in the process, who have no way of predicting what percentage of their empirical activities will get to “count”: some empirical activities will “count” fully, some partially – some excessively. And this impersonal process, over time, exerts a coercive pressure back on empirical activities themselves, creating incentives and disincentives that tend (probabilistically) to drive empirical activities in non-random directions, conferring a “developmental” directionality on aspects of capitalist history.

Marx argues – and here is where “value” enters the argument – that this impersonal, unintentional process of culling empirical activities down to a smaller subset of activities that “count” as social labour in this very specific sense, can plausibly be interpreted by social actors engaged in the process, not as a collective social process of culling excess investments of empirical labour, down to what “counts”, but rather as a process of discovering how much “value” a material object inherently or intrinsically possesses. In this dimension of collective practice, social actors behave as though something like “value” exists – as though there is a single, intangible, homogeneous substance that is the total social labour, which then comes to be subdivided in greater or lesser proportions among all the products that are empirically produced. Goods are “valued” to the degree that they participate in this intangible substance – and the degree to which they participate in this substance is not discernible when either the use value or the empirical labour invested in the good is examined: it is revealed only in the social interaction among goods – only in the process of exchange.

There is much more to this argument, but I want to break off here, to reflect briefly on the implications of what I’ve written so far, for the question of how to understand the emergence of modern ideals of formal or abstract equality. To the extent that human labour-power is also a commodity under capitalism, it also participates in this culling process – in this coercive “reduction” down from the various labour powers that have been “produced”, to those that get to “count” – partially, fully, or excessively. Social actors engaging with the labour market – whether as buyers or sellers of labour power – have practical, everyday experience with this process of reduction. “Value” – this invisible, intangible, homogeneous substance – flows in greater or lesser degrees through humankind as well, in spite of the array of visible, tangible, empirical differences that materially distinguish humans from one another. Beneath these apparent differences, something common flows through us – we all partake of a similar intangible essence. Marx suggests, in other words, that the strangely counterfactual ideal of equality that develops in tandem (he believes) with capitalism, that exerts a critical force on actual social institutions and over time is used to call into question the importance of immediately sensible differences between humans – that this counterfactual ideal is a plausible articulation of the experience of partaking in the common intangible substance of value. Quite independently of the formal, contractual dimensions of the wage relation or of other sorts of exchange (which also, of course, play their part in reinforcing ideals of equality and experiences of personhood), this unintentional, impersonal reduction of human commodities down to a common, intangible, social “essence”, helps to enact the distinctive qualitative form of modern ideals of human equality.

Through this account, Marx also hopes to render plausible what he regards as pervasive forms of misrecognition, in which these intangible – but, in Marx’s account, socially enacted – qualities are perceived, not as something we have only recently created, but rather as intrinsic essences that we have recently discovered. The argument around misrecognition is, again, quite complex – I won’t be able to recount it here. The argument hinges on a complex and largely tacit set of distinctions concerning the ways in which we perform certain dimensions of our social experience as overtly social – the personal, intersubjective dimensions – while, by contrast, an impersonal social dimension goes unrecognised as social: it plausibly appears “objective” – and, by so appearing, provides us with experience of a set of qualitative characteristics that inform our concept of “objectivity” – a concept that we might plausibly look for or be receptive to in other sorts of impersonal environments – such as material nature…

Much more is required to develop and fully substantiate this argument, let alone to draw attention to the countercurrents and side eddies that curl around the phenomena I have so inadequately described (there is never, for Marx, just one plausible articulation of our collective enactments – and the reproduction of capital, in his account, entails a bewildering multitude of additional enactments, each interacting with one another in complex and dynamic ways). For the moment, just a brief word on the issue of standpoint of critique in relation to this kind of point. As I’ve sketched the argument above, it could sound as though an ideal of equality might hinge on the sort of collective sleight of hand involved in the enactment of value. This is not Marx’s position. Capitalism may have provided the means – quite accidentally – whereby we demonstrated collectively to ourselves that we could simply perform equality – that we could treat one another as equal, at least for certain purposes and in a certain dimension of collective practice – that we could disregard empirically sensible differences in order to perform this social equality, if needed. This accidental discovery opens a space of possibility – a space that becomes potentially wider, once we recognise the collective genesis of this ideal, rather than essentialising it as a “discovery” of something we perceive as having existed all along. This space of possibility might include an exploration of other forms of relation – less formal, less abstract – but attuned to the possibility to create in and around sensible difference, by performing our selves and our relations in a different way. This topic is much too complex to address adequately here – I mention it as only the most passing of references to how Marx conceptualises the potential for the conscious appropriation of potentials that have been constituted – but in alienated form – how, in other words, he understands his standpoint of critique.

This post is a bit of a monstrosity – my deepest apologies. I am trying to capture a set of notes that I hope to develop adequately in other places at other times. I am also trying to come to grips with the difficulty I have in trying to express what I object to in other theoretical approaches, in a circumstance in which the alternative that shapes my objection is just… a great deal more vast, generally, than what I’m objecting to… Working out how to write about this, short of a full thesis-length presentation, is something with which I’m currently wrestling. At the moment, as with this post, I leave out massive amounts, to the point that, while writing is still helpful for me, because I know at least a decent portion of what I would add to flesh the argument out, the posts strike me as though they must be utterly unintelligible and bizarre to anyone reading on. Thanks all for their patience as I write through this morass… Too tired tonight to edit (which, with this post, is possibly a dire mistake…) Take care all…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Reification, pt. 2

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 2

Whatever the elements
(it’s urban/it’s pastoral,
it’s empty/it’s open), the theory says
it could always be worse.

Until it is. Then theory fails, […]

~ Mary Jo Bang @2004 “Catastrophe Theory II”

At the opening of the “Reification” essay, Lukács puts forward the bold claim that:

It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure. Of course the problem can only be discussed with this degree of generality if it achieves the depth and breadth to be found in Marx’s own analyses. That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.

Lukács emphasises the word “structure” in “commodity-structure” – highlighting that, in Capital, the category of the commodity is intended to describe, not simply a thing, a discrete good, but instead a distinctive kind of relationship – a relationship whose peculiar qualitative characteristics are then read off into the intrinsic properties of goods. This conception of the commodity allows the category to do much more work than might be expected: the category of the commodity figures, not simply as a category of our economy, but a category of our society – in Lukács’ terms, a “model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them”.

Is Lukács’ conception of the commodity-structure, though, quite the same as Marx’s? In the paragraphs immediately following this opening, Lukács refers to “commodity exchange”, and to the subjective and objective relations corresponding to such exchange, as though these were the relationships at stake in understanding the commodity-structure. Here Lukács runs into a problem: he stipulates that “commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism” – and hence is historically specific. Simple commodity production and exchange, however, is ancient: how does an ancient practice somehow transform into the dominant and distinctive problem of modern society?

Lukács’ answer is that the quantitative expansion of commodity exchange at some point reaches a scale where quantitative increase yields a qualitative transformation. This answer suggests that the commodity-structure is founded on the the same sort of social relationship – the exchange relation – in modern and ancient times. Lukács argues that modernity is distinguished by the extension of exchange relations beyond their earlier bounds, to the point that the commodity-structure becomes totalising. Lukács characterises this as a quantitative expansion that yields a qualitative shift: his argument does not attempt to explain qualitatively distinctive forms of subjectivity or (social) objectivity with reference to the emergence of a qualitatively new social structure or historically distinctive form of social relation, but rather with reference to a kind of supersaturation of the social context by a kind of social relation whose historical origins lie in the distant past. The key social structure – the central social relation – in Lukács’ account, is therefore not historically coterminous with the form of society whose characteristics Lukács wants most to explain.

One consequence of this move (and I won’t develop this point adequately in this post) is a flattening of the qualitative characteristics of the “forms of objectivity and subjectivity” for which Lukács tries to account. The focus on exchange relationships drives him to criticise various types of formalism and quantification – forms of thought that abstract from qualitative specificity in favour of quantitative comparisons. Lukács argues that what is left out of this relation – what, therefore, cannot be grasped by bourgeois forms of consciousness – is the use value dimension – qualitative specificity, characteristics not amenable to formalisation. Lukács includes in this category production – and thus the proletariat – setting up for his argument that the proletarian class can generate a unique standpoint that can capture the perspective of the totality by grasping those dimensions of capitalism that are occluded by the bourgeois focus on exchange relations.

I will try to develop this summary more adequately in later posts – completely exhausted today, so I am just tossing up placeholders for myself now. What I wanted to suggest, however, is a certain path not taken in Lukács’ approach – a path that, I have previously suggested, is central to Marx’s argument in Capital: the treatment of the category of the commodity as a fully historically specific structure, expressing a form of social relation specific to, and definitive of, capitalism – and therefore as a category that intends to express something more than simply the exchange relation. I have suggested in previous posts that Marx understands both the exchange value and use value dimensions of the commodity as historically specific terms – use value, far from being something that “bourgeois” forms of thought cannot grasp, is a category integral to capitalism, one that grasps phenomena no less central to the reproduction of capital, than the phenomena grasped by the category of exchange value. At the same time, both use value and exchange value occupy a specific place within the overarching category of the commodity: a space of phenomena that can be directly empirically observed. As the first chapter of Capital unfolds, we quickly learn that the first “presupposition” or social “condition” of these empirically-observable categories, is a third category whose existence must be deduced or intuited, because it cannot be directly perceived by the senses: the category of value. This entire tripartite structure – not simply the “exchange relation” – is the “commodity-structure” in Marx’s account, and this structure, however much it may encompass and repurpose earlier forms of social practice, is understood as historically distinct – as temporally coterminous with the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument does involve a complex discussion of phenomena that can directly be seen through immediate empirical observation, versus abstract patterns of social practice whose existence must be deduced through an analysis of distortions or patterns that flow through empirically-observable phenomena. Within Marx’s framework, however, both use value and exchange value fall on the side of what can be perceived directly by the senses. Neither of these categories provides access to a privileged standpoint accessible only to a particular social class: both refer to “overt” aspects of social experience for social actors engaged with the process of the reproduction of capital. And the “non-overt” dimension of social practice – the realm of the mysterious social substances like “value” that Marx argues we unintentionally enact in our collective practices – is no more emancipatory, for all that it is more difficult to perceive or understand. The question of how to understand the standpoint of critique – of how to identify a possibility for emancipatory transformation – is therefore much more complex in Marx’s work, than it is for Lukács.

If I were less tired, I would develop this contrast in much greater detail. That more developed post will have to wait for another day. Apologies for these inadequate mini-posts on Lukács – I’m essentially taking notes for myself here, but will hopefully be able to pull things together more adequately before I’m done…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Seeing What Was Already There

I’m in that stage in the writing process where the work of figuring things out is going on elsewhere, inaccessible to me – whatever part of me works out complex problems, has holed itself up, toiling away, and the rest of me is left waiting, a bit drained of energy, able to sense that intense work is being done, but excluded from the work process and in the dark as to what its end product might be. Keeping me company are various random associations that seem as though they have something to do with one another, and to whatever I’m trying to figure out. I figured I would toss some of those associations up here.

One of the things that troubles me with Lukács is his equation of the totality with the standpoint of critique – an equation that provides the touchstone, unifying concept throughout History and Class Consciousness. The opening to the essay “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg” makes this point particularly concisely:

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science. The capitalist separation of the producer from the total process of production, the division of the process of labour into parts at the cost of the individual humanity of the worker, the atomisation of society into individuals who simply go on producing without rhyme or reason, must all have a profound influence on the thought, the science and the philosophy of capitalism. Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science. (p. 27)

Lukács’ emphasis on totality can be read as a sophisticated, Hegelian inflection of a common line of criticism of capitalism in the crisis-ridden period of the transition from the laissez-faire era to the development of more state-centred forms of capitalism: the critique emphasises the irrationality of capitalism, understood to be caused by the retention of an outmoded system of private property ownership and competition between capitals that prevents production and distribution from becoming fully transparent to itself, and hence rational, through centralised state planning.

The experiences of the mid-20th century led to an intense reaction against this form of critique, as state planning and the suspension of private ownership and competition, were realised in intensely repressive forms. “Rational” planning proved compatible with the rational administration of terror. In such conditions, the political ideal of a society that had become fully transparent to itself, no longer seemed to hold emancipatory promise but, instead, to imply that there would be nowhere left to hide. The pessimism of the first generation Frankfurt School issues out of its confrontation with what appeared to be the horrific oppressive realisation of socialist ideals.

So there are historical reasons for unease with Lukács’ vision of the totality as the standpoint of critique – fears that this sort of critical discourse is “normatively underdetermined” in the sense that it does not provide critical purchase on the kinds of oppression that are mediated by the state. A theory whose central critical concept is the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts” sounds, to contemporary ears, much more likely to facilitate and apologise for oppression, than to bring to light emancipatory possibilities.

But it’s not just 20th century history that suggests that the totality is not the best way to conceptualise the standpoint of critique. I’m writing away from my books, and so I can’t demonstrate this point textually in this post, but there is considerable material from the Grundrisse and from Capital to suggest that Marx equates the viewpoint from the totality, with a particular moment in the process of the reproduction of capital (Murray has made the point, for example, that the category of capital is introduces using Hegel’s vocabulary for the Geist – suggesting, at the very least, that Marx would not agree with Lukács’ attempt to use a similar vocabulary for the proletariat, in order to claim the totality-eye-view as the perspective of the revolution…).

If Marx does not intend the totality to be his standpoint of critique, what does he intend? How does Marx conceptualise his critical standpoint? My suggestion – and I toss this out as a placeholder for future development, rather than as an argument I intend to make in any adequate way here – is that Marx finds his standpoint, precisely not in the totality, but in various “part contexts” that are generated in and through the process of the reproduction of capital, whose distinctive potentials we tend not to “see”, because our gaze focusses instead on the ways in which these parts are currently configured into a particular whole. A great deal of Capital consists of breaking larger wholes down into their various potential parts, exploring the implications of those parts – both as they are currently configured as moments that make a contribution to the reproduction of capital, and as they might potentially be reconfigured in order to realise very different forms of collective life.

Marx metaphorises capitalism as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster – as a reanimated creature – stitched together from disparate parts, each with their own distinctive tendencies, ensorcelled to contribute to ends that are not intrinsic or essentially bound to those parts. Social actors indigenous to this monstrous context find themselves adopting practical orientations toward these parts, reproducing the parts necessarily in the process of (unintentionally) generating the whole – the subjective and objective consequence of this process, is that the reproduction of capital necessarily drags along in its wake the reproduction of these diverse habits, forms of being in the world, material potentials, and other “resources” that can be repurposed to different social ends. Critique within this framework does not speak from the point of view of the totality (although it may need to recognise that a certain kind of whole is currently being reproduced), but rather from the point of view of the parts – of their disparate potentials, which are currently being abridged in order that this particular whole might persist. To seize these potentials, however, we need to shake off the enchantment that this particular whole, is the only possible whole – we need to learn to search beneath the totality, to begin to recognise the potentials of a diverse array of constituent parts.

I will hopefully write on all this much more adequately in the coming months. For the moment, I’ll just point to a fortuitous image – a poem that happened to be linked for other reasons entirely over at Concurring Opinions today – Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another”:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line —

Then it is safe to go on reading.


One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs

Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the foot of a tree

With one and when you get up to leave there is another

Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,

One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man

May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.

You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important

To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 1

I’ve been wanting for some time to toss up some notes on Lukács’ essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” from History and Class Consciousness (note that the version of this text online at suffers from a number of OCR issues, most of them just nuisances, but some more significant, including omitted phrases and sentences – the text version is preferable).

Each time I sit down to post something on this text, I find myself hesitating over how to approach this work, without quite understanding the basis for my hesitation. I think part of my difficulty is that the text strikes me as often tantalisingly sophisticated in its details, while frustratingly superficial in its overarching perspective. I’m not sure how to capture its contradictions, without myself becoming mired in minutiae. We’ll see how I go… As with the other posts in the “Marxes” category, this one will consist mainly of notes and sketches – written internalistically to myself. I’ll revisit a slice of this material more formally soon, as Lukács is the focus of one of the papers I will be presenting in Europe. For the moment, though, I want to speak in a more tentative voice, and wander through the text in a nonsystematic way… I’m low on laptop battery at the moment, so just the barest of preliminary thoughts here, without even getting into the text at all – just opening the curtain, with more to follow.

One of the problems that confronts Marxist theory is how to understand the relationship of its own categories – which appear to be “economic” categories – to social phenomena that are not generally taken to be “economic” in nature. The stereotypical “vulgar” solution to this problem is reductionism: those dimensions of social life that are taken to be “economic” are posited as ontologically or causally primary in some sense, and other dimensions of social life are taken to be epiphenomena – caused by, or expressive of, an “underlying” economic reality. This reductionist impulse can extend into fairly sophisticated forms of theory, which grant various kinds of relative autonomy and/or reciprocal causal power to “non-economic” dimensions of social experience. Regardless of the epicycles permitted around the reductionist core, critique tends to be understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of an “underlying”, more “essential” reality, in order to target more epiphenomenal or artificial dimensions of social experience.

Lukács is, among other things, an attempt to think this problem in a different way – to do away with the dualistic question of how to relate the “economic” categories of Marxist theory to other social dimensions, by rendering apparently “economic” categories into descriptors of a distinctive form of social life. Within this framework, the theory of capitalism becomes, not an economic theory, but a theory of modernity, and apparently economic categories are reinterpreted as categories of the distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity characteristic of modern society. Modern society itself is conceptualised as a totality – and critique is understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of the totality, in order to realise the potentials of that totality.

My own work shares the sense that Marx’s own categories should not be understood as “economic” categories in the conventional meaning of that term – that these are categories of distinctive forms of social practice, intended to describe the practical rituals through which indigenous members of capitalist society collectively (and largely unintentionally) enact distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity. My analysis, however, does not rely on a notion of “totality” (and tends to view the perception of capitalism as a “totality” as a false, albeit plausible, extrapolation from hypostatising a small subset of the potentials generated by the process of the reproduction of capital), and regards the process of the reproduction of capital as only one dimension of modern social experience, albeit a dimension whose global reach and peculiarly abstract properties render it plausible to experience this slice of social experience as a “background” within which other dimensions of social life unfold. This form of theory attempts to grasp a specific kind of critique – a critique of the process of the reproduction of capital – and attempts to give voice to the conflictual practical orientations that social actors routinely adopt in the process of enacting the reproduction of capital, in order to show that the process of the reproduction of capital is precisely not a totality, but a conflictual assemblage that can potentially be reassembled in different ways, unleashing different potentials for personal and social experience. The standpoint of this form of critique is that diverse constellation of potentials that are being partially enacted, and yet also abridged, by the current configuration of the reproduction of capital. The goal, following Benjamin, is to make our own history citable in more of its moments…

More very soon…