Okay. Let’s see how far I manage to get into this concept before other obligations draw me away…
I tend to dislike attempts to understand Marx’s analysis of capitalism in terms of categories like “base” and “superstructure”. This vocabulary is historically associated with dichotomous forms of theory that attempt to parcel out social experience into parts viewed as more foundational – and thus more “real”, or more causally efficacious – than other parts, which are viewed as more ephemeral or derivative. I tend to see Marx’s work as profoundly antagonistic to such attempts to parcel out ontological primacy, and I view Marx as generally dedicated to fluid and dynamic categories that cannot be well understood in terms of any sort of fixed and static dichotomous opposition.
At the same time, there is a potential rational core to this vocabulary – which is used by Marx himself, although much more rarely than one might expect from its prominence in the literature. This rational core does not, however, trace a divide between economic practices and other sorts of practice. It traces, instead, a relationship between high theoretical discourse, and more mundane forms of everyday social practice. And the relationship it traces is one in which high theoretical discourse too often operates as a sort of delusional apotheosis of everyday social practices whose impact on thought is disavowed by theorists who perceive themselves to have arrived at their various conclusions through the brute force of rarified intellect, rather than through the articulation of practical, bodily experiences collectively experienced by a mass of humanity far wider than the few participants in high theoretical discussions.
On this reading, the “base” is not some specific sphere of social action, but rather mundane practical experience in the broadest sense. This base of practical experience is, for Marx, generative of historical potential and insight – the selfsame potential and insight that makes its way into a “superstructure” of high discourse, where it is misrecognised as the product of disembodied and decontextualised thought. Marx seeks to “ground” the superstructure in the base by… debasing this rarified superstructural self-understanding, by dragging it back into the bodily space of collective practices from which it arises. He does this by showing how specific insights that high theoretical discourses claim to deduce – whether through empirical observation, conventional logic, or dialectics – are “deducible” only because these insights are presently being enacted in various mundane and everyday forms of practice that are widely experienced, and thus intuitively familiar, well before their formal theoretical articulations.
To the extent that these formal articulations cannot grasp their relation to everyday practices – to the extent that other forms of theory treat their insights as floating above mundane forms of social experience – these articulations will forever be the captives of the mundane forms they disavow. They will operate as the “apotheoses” of everyday experiences – treating the insights suggested by contingent practical experiences as deep and essential truths become manifest in history through the power of thought. As such apotheoses, they tend to perceive their relationship with practice in an inverted way: instead of recognising themselves as articulations of contingent practical possibilities, accidentally wrested from historical experience, they take their theoretical insights to be sui generis, and then conclude – apologistically – that any compatibility between the claims of the theory, and the mundane practices of collective life, means simply that the compatible practices can be objectively judged to be rational. Such theories, Marx believes, see social reality in an inverted form. By debasing the superstructure, by demonstrating that the sensibilities expressed in high theoretical discourse can be generated in mundane forms of everyday practice, Marx seeks to drag the apotheosis back to earth, and thus upturn this deranged mirror-image self-understanding.
Marx’s obsession with inversion and apotheosis starts very early, and continues through his latest works, although the resources he brings to bear to analyse everyday practice become much more extensive over time. The famous opening passage of The German Ideology, for example, mocks the Young Hegelians – characteristically, for Marx, by opening with a few sentences voiced from the perspective of the position being criticised:
Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.
These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. The first volume of the present publication has the aim of uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; of showing how their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; how the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany. It is its aim to debunk and discredit the philosophic struggle with the shadows of reality, which appeals to the dreamy and muddled German nation.
Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.
This “new revolutionary philosopher” tilts at the windmill of false consciousness, believing that, if only the right battles be fought at the level of concepts, freedom will follow. Without the idea of gravity, no one will drown. Evidence of material harm becomes more grist for the idealist mill – more proof of the harmful nature of the ideal, rather than a practical reminder of the material character of the problem to be solved.
In the next section, we continue to hear from the “new revolutionary philosopher”, sarcasm our guide that this position is not being endorsed, but enacted to establish this character – Marx’s fool:
As we hear from German ideologists, Germany has in the last few years gone through an unparalleled revolution. The decomposition of the Hegelian philosophy, which began with Strauss, has developed into a universal ferment into which all the “powers of the past” are swept. In the general chaos mighty empires have arisen only to meet with immediate doom, heroes have emerged momentarily only to be hurled back into obscurity by bolder and stronger rivals. It was a revolution beside which the French Revolution was child’s play, a world struggle beside which the struggles of the Diadochi [successors of Alexander the Great] appear insignificant. Principles ousted one another, heroes of the mind overthrew each other with unheard-of rapidity, and in the three years 1842-45 more of the past was swept away in Germany than at other times in three centuries.
All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought.
A burlesque image – this is a comedy – we are meant to laugh along: the decay of a high philosophy generates a “universal ferment” in which the actions of “mighty empires” and “heroes” stage battles of world historical significance. The language is heady – but the reader is distanced from the passage by the opening and closing brackets: “As we hear from German ideologists” and “All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought”. The tone is high dismissal. The perspective is tacitly panned back from the positions being criticised, the perspectives caught up in this “world struggle” in the mind.
The next paragraph – crudely, but the strategic elements are there – begins to suggest a more mundane set of experiences that operate similarly to the battle of the mind portrayed just above: the saturation of the market by industrial capital in a state of competition that becomes more frenetic as the market becomes more glutted:
Certainly it is an interesting event we are dealing with: the putrescence of the absolute spirit. When the last spark of its life had failed, the various components of this caput mortuum began to decompose, entered into new combinations and formed new substances. The industrialists of philosophy, who till then had lived on the exploitation of the absolute spirit, now seized upon the new combinations. Each with all possible zeal set about retailing his apportioned share. This naturally gave rise to competition, which, to start with, was carried on in moderately staid bourgeois fashion. Later when the German market was glutted, and the commodity in spite of all efforts found no response in the world market, the business was spoiled in the usual German manner by fabricated and fictitious production, deterioration in quality, adulteration of the raw materials, falsification of labels, fictitious purchases, bill-jobbing and a credit system devoid of any real basis. The competition turned into a bitter struggle, which is now being extolled and interpreted to us as a revolution of world significance, the begetter of the most prodigious results and achievements.
The great revolution of the mind, the text suggests, is being played out, over and over again, in a much more mundane register – and the results of that practical revolution are no more emancipatory than those playing out at the level of ideology.
This narrative move: starting internal to the perspective being criticised, but writing in a way that sends up that perspective, sarcastically destabilising it by exaggerating its worst tendencies, playing the perspective as the Fool – then the shift to a more mundane practical register, where similar self-conceptions and patterns are also being enacted – is a move I have argued is central to the narrative structure of Capital. While the analytical resources, I would argue, are much more complex in the later work, the critical style is similar: first send it up, then tear it down, by showing that there are other dimensions of social practice where the same sensibilities are being enacted. Capital will greatly modify the basic critical apparatus set out in this early work, and offer a much more nuanced theory of practice and understanding of capitalism. This specific impulse, however, is retained. Marx continues to find value in a burlesque representation of his opponents’ views, and in a constant debasement of other forms of theory by demonstrating how the forms of thought, and the analytical categories these theories deploy, are generated in specific forms of everyday social practices that are often oriented to crass ends.
When writing the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrestles systematically with the question of how to apply this critical impulse, not simply to positions he intends to dismiss, but also to positions he accords considerable validity. (Maddeningly, he then decides not to publish these reflections with the Contribution, feeling that they anticipate the results of his investigation… We therefore know them as the opening chapter to the Grundrisse manuscript, and they were not known in Marx’s own time at all…)
In this introduction, which I have analysed a number of times previously on this blog, Marx considers the great difficulty with which Adam Smith managed to articulate the simple category of labour – a category that, Marx argues, is on one level extremely old (it is genuinely true that people have always “laboured”, so the category picks out a phenomenon that transcends many different forms of social life). On another level, however, Marx points out that those other forms of social life themselves lacked this category – and that it was by no means an easy category even for Adam Smith to articulate.
One intepretive option would be to conclude that Adam Smith – genius that he was – finally discovered a phenomenon that had always already existed, but had previously never been recognised. He deduced through the sheer brute force of reason that, logically speaking, all forms of human intercourse with nature were, in their essential being, the same form of activity – a form of activity which he then christened with the term “labour”.
Marx is not happy with this option. Smith is a genius, sure. But his genius does not lie in deducing something that had always already been true. Rather, it lies in his sensitivity to the implications of a very recent historical shift – a shift that means that, in at least one dimension of practical experience, all manner of activities involving intercourse between humans and nature are being treated in collective practice as indifferently the same sort of activity. It is this practical enactment, for Marx, that renders plausible and potentially intuitive the development of the simple category of labour per se – the category that seems so abstract that it applies to all human societies, but a category whose abstraction is directly true, as a practical matter, only for us:
Labour seems to be a very simple category. The notion of labour in this universal form, as labour in general, is also extremely old. Nevertheless “labour” in this simplicity is economically considered just as modern a category as the relations which give rise to this simple abstraction. […]
It was an immense advance when Adam Smith rejected all restrictions with regard to the activity that produces wealth – for him it was labour as such, neither manufacturing, nor commercial, nor agricultural labour, but all types of labour. The abstract universality which creates wealth implies also the universality of the objects defined as wealth: they are products as such, or once more labour as such, but in this case past, materialised labour. How difficult and immense a transition this was is demonstrated by the fact that Adam Smith himself occasionally relapses once more into the Physiocratic system. It might seem that in this way merely an abstract expression was found for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings act as producers – irrespective of the type of society they live in. This is true in one respect, but not in another.
The fact that the specific kind of labour is irrelevant presupposes a highly developed complex of actually existing kinds of labour, none of which is any more the all-important one. The most general abstractions arise on the whole only when concrete development is most profuse, so that a specific quality is seen to be common to many phenomena, or common to all. Then it is no longer perceived solely in a particular form. This abstraction of labour is, on the other hand, by no means simply the conceptual resultant of a variety of concrete types of labour. The fact that the particular kind of labour employed is immaterial is appropriate to a form of society in which individuals easily pass from one type of labour to another, the particular type of labour being accidental to them and therefore irrelevant. Labour, not only as a category but in reality, has become a means to create wealth in general, and has ceased to be tied as an attribute to a particular individual. This state of affairs is most pronounced in the United States, the most modern form of bourgeois society. The abstract category “labour,” “labour as such,” labour sans phrase, the point of departure of modern economics, thus becomes a practical fact only there. The simplest abstraction, which plays a decisive role in modem political economy, an abstraction which expresses an ancient relation existing in all social formations, nevertheless appears to be actually true in this abstract form only as a category of the most modern society. […]
The example of labour strikingly demonstrates how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity in all epochs – precisely because they are abstractions – are equally a product of historical conditions even in the specific form of abstractions, and they retain their full validity only for and within the framework of these conditions.
In this passage, Marx applies the same basic sensibility wielded in The German Ideology – but here in a manner that makes clearer how it is possible to preserve and validate the insights gained from practice. Marx doesn’t contest the validity of the simple category of “labour” – he just bounds this validity, by picking out the practices that have rendered the category socially valid. If we then want to look back on past societies, and apply this category, we can do this – as long as we recognise that we are looking back on past societies with our own eyes, with sensibilities that have been primed by practical possibilities that were not necessarily available in those earlier times. By the same token, we can apply these categories to look forward – toward forms of collective life that we would like to create. If we do this with some awareness of the contingency of our own categories, we are better positioned to understand the need for the development of new institutions (for those categories whose practical reality we wish to preserve, or to adapt into other forms), and we are better positioned for understanding how we can selectively inherit the practical potentials of our own time – an understanding that is more difficult to achieve, if we view our categories as arising from the discovery of timeless truths.
In this manuscript, Marx is still wrestling with how to understand the modern “simplicity” of labour sans phrase. The explanation he sketches briefly here – which grounds the phenomenon in the practical experience of being able to move readily between roles in a complex division of labour – is subsumed, in Capital, into an immensely more complex explanation that I won’t revisit in this post. What I did want to revisit, although it will be a familiar point to regular readers, is that this basic critical impulse remains central to the later work.
So, as I’ve argued, the opening chapter begins by sending up several positions of which Marx is critical – I’ve called them empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical characters. They could equally be called vulgar political economy, classical (or scientific) political economy, and a sort of vulgar dialectics. In all three cases, although this has largely gone unnoticed by all but a few commentators, the tone of the text is highly sarcastic, and the forms of argument are voiced in a blustering style, by characters engaged in a bit of performative self-puffery. While there are hints all through the text – in tone and word choice, in footnotes, and in textual asides – that this sort of burlesque is being performed, the most explicit early indication that Marx takes the forms of argument being displayed to be somewhat deluded comes in the form of a digression on Aristotle that I have analysed a number of times here in the past.
In the passages preceding this digression, Marx has put forward three forms of analysis, each of which, for all their differences, share a tendency to treat their insights as disembodied and sui generis, divorced from collective practice. Thus the empiricist figure treats consciousness as contemplative and takes for granted whatever interpretive insights leap to mind from reflection on how things present themselves “at first sight”; the transcendental character trusts in its deductive acumen and rational intuition; and the dialectical character trusts in its dialectical techniques that cleverly derive a series of schoolbook “inversions”. On one level, these figures disagree – they present conflicting interpretations of what the commodity “really is”. On another level, however, they share a similar orientation that affirms the power of the brute force application of a disembodied consciousness.
The digression on Aristotle is the first moment in the text where Marx flags how profoundly he disagrees.
The immediately previous section effects a tour de force of dialectical logic, one which has drawn its conclusions, purportedly, by examining the immanent logic of the category of the commodity. Marx then introduces Aristotle in order – quite mischievously – to ask: if it’s logic that has brought us to this point, then why didn’t Aristotle work it out? He goes on to show that Aristotle in fact considered the possibility that something like “value” might exist, that some sort of relation of equality might be implied by the act of exchange, etc. So the problem wasn’t a conceptual one – it wasn’t that Aristotle wasn’t smart enough to draw the conclusions put forward by the various perspectives Marx has been presenting in the chapter thus far. No, Aristotle considered these conclusions – and then rejected them. But why?
Marx is using Aristotle here in order to make it difficult to dismiss the point by claiming that lack of intelligence or lack of familiarity with logic caused the problem. If Aristotle failed to draw the conclusion, Marx suggests, then maybe it’s not logic or intellect that has led to this conclusion in the first place. Maybe the characters presented thus far in the chapter, who seem to understand their arguments to be driven by the brute force of their disembodied and decontextualised reason, have misunderstood the basis of their insights. Maybe something else is in fact required. Maybe intellect is not enough.
The other thing that is required – as Marx here makes clear – is practical experience. Aristotle failed to “discover” value, because value is, like labour sans phrase, a much more historically and socially specific beast than is captured by the forms of theoretical argument that are commonly used to demonstrate its existence and explore its characteristics. In Marx’s words:
The two latter peculiarities of the equivalent form will become more intelligible if we go back to the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many forms, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amongst them also the form of value. I mean Aristotle.
In the first place, he clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random; for he says:
5 beds = 1 house – (clinai pente anti oiciaς)
is not to be distinguished from
5 beds = so much money. – (clinai pente anti … oson ai pente clinai)
He further sees that the value relation which gives rise to this expression makes it necessary that the house should qualitatively be made the equal of the bed, and that, without such an equalisation, these two clearly different things could not be compared with each other as commensurable quantities. “Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”. (out isothς mh oushς snmmetriaς). Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible (th men oun alhqeia adunaton), that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”
Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.
There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.
From this point, it becomes clear that the forms of argument paraded onto the main text of Capital are part of this work’s distinctive presentational strategy – which will often present forms of argument that are intended to be the targets of the critique. This does not mean that the text is as dismissive of the conclusions reached through these arguments: Marx will often preserve a conclusion; the forms of argument displayed, however, are rarely the means through which Marx would support a conclusion himself, and they are quite often sent-up, burlesque renditions of forms of argument Marx regards as absurd, drawn in exaggerated outlines designed to caricature the original position, thus magnifying and clarifying the nature of its absurdity. And, even where Marx does preserve a conclusion, he often does so only in a perverse or counter-intuitive form – in a way that demonstrates that truths held sacred by particular theoretical positions can be retained only at the cost of acknowledging other truths from which that tradition would recoil in horror. Conclusions are preserved by translating them beyond the recognition of their original advocates, by bounding and limiting them to minuscule eddies within a vast torrent of conflicting social currents, by deriving them through forms of analysis that show their intrinsic interconnection with the basest elements of collective life.
The glee with which Marx effects this argument in Capital retains the sadistic emotional charge with which he excoriates his German ideologists. High theorists are to be made to confront the mundane practical origins that render their insights plausible, the most cherished and rarified sensibilities demonstrated to arise in the crass and common maelstrom of everyday collective life.
At the same time, however, the argument is reflexively fueled by Marx’s belief that human thought does not range very free from our practical experiences – we easily intuit only what we collectively do, and we think in doing before we articulate and distill those practical thoughts into any explicit form. Small shifts in apparently trivial forms of everyday collective experience thus serve as accidental incubators for new practical potentials – potentials which can be articulated theoretically – an articulation that can be practically important in its own turn, as an enabling force for active appropriation of accidental practical insights.
Architechtonically, Capital embodies this commitment – and this is one of the things that makes the text so very difficult to parse. It first does. Then it articulates. In the more explicit methodological reflections in the fourth section of the opening chapter, Marx states this explicitly:
Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him.
The text is reflexive: Marx is not here talking only about other people – those flawed theorists out there who think in this peculiar after-the-fact sort of way. This is how he thinks of himself, when he is thinking about capitalism. This is how Capital is structured – as this sort of demonstration, then post festum process of making explicit what has just been done, in a way that makes it possible to articulate the doing in a way that increases the potential to appropriate our practical insights to construct alternative forms of collective life.
So the opening chapter stages this cryptic play. Then the second chapter says explicitly that, in this work, we will often be dealing with characters on an economic stage – a passage often misinterpreted since the playlike structure of the opening chapter, which is done, but not declared until after, is overlooked. Ironically, the passage in chapter 2 that makes this point explicit is itself often misinterpreted – as implying a base/superstructure analysis of the more conventional kind – as implying that Marx thinks that people are merely passive ciphers, determined by objective forces beyond their control. Instead, he thinks we are actors – in a rich sense. We do. And, in doing, we think. And through these thoughts and actions we create possibilities. Unanticipated possibilities, whose consequences we have not thought through or predicted in advance. And, having done this, we can – just possibly – think again, and in new ways opened up by our new practical experiences, and we can perhaps articulate, make explicit, and render more accessible for further practice new possibilities for future forms of collective life.