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Lawrence & Wishart & the Marxists Internet Archive

So, in case anyone is still around from time to time: I’m not able to blog in any meaningful way (as I assume people have noticed…), but just had to come online to say something about the takedown notice issued to the Marxists Internet Archive by Lawrence and Wishart, publishers of, among other things, the Marx and Engels Collected Works.

The MIA has been doing tireless, incredibly useful, work for many years converting existing print content into well-edited, searchable, and linkable online form. They have, in the process, helped to sustain and cultivate a “market”, if we must use this term, for the works of Marx, Engels and other figures in Marxist thought, very broadly defined. Among the work they have been doing is the transcription of a portion of the works otherwise only available in the MECW – and therefore otherwise only accessible for those with access to major institutional libraries. Even for those who do have such access, their volunteer labour has added significant value to the original print editions by transforming them into readily searchable form, making certain kinds of research much more viable and infinitely more efficient than they would be with only the print texts in the world.

According to a comment on Crooked Timber by Einde O’Callaghan, for an extended period the MIA had an informal agreeement with Lawrence and Wishart, along the following lines:

I work on the MIA and I’d like to clarify a couple of things:
1. What we”ve been asked to take down are the texts from the first 10 volumes of the MECW that are under copyright, i.e. those texts that were translated under the auspices of L&W, International Publishers of NY and Pioneer of Moscow.
2. The major works will still be available – including Capital – as the copyrights on the translations have long expired.
3. We didn’t get a letter from solicitors – we got a request from the company, admittedly with the hint that if we didn’t comply a solicitor’s letter would follow.
4. We were aware of the copyright status but had an agreement that they could stay as long as we didn’t add any more volumes. We abided by this agreement.
5. The agreement was subject to the agreement of all parties concerned and could be terminated by any of the three publishers.
6. L&W have now made use of their option to cancel – and we will respect their request.
7. We hope that at some stage L&W will reconsider their decision.
8. We will continue to make the widest range of Marxist and related materials possible available free of charge on the Internet.
9. We are gratified by the wide support we have received since we had to make this regrettable announcement.

Based on Lawrence & Wishart’s statement, this informal agreement seemed to have been rescinded because L&W now intend to sell an online version of the MECW to institutional libraries, and are presumably fearful that a freely-available online version of portions of their new archive would provide a disincentive for institutional libraries to purchase their new offering.

Lawrence and Wishart are now feeling a bit bruised by the online reaction. Their recent statement says “Over the last couple of days Lawrence & Wishart has been subject to campaign of online abuse because we have asked for our copyright on the scholarly edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to be respected.” (Just as a kindly sidenote, solely in concern for the wellbeing of the people involved: it may not be promising for your future in radical political contestation, if you quail at electrons broadcast in your general direction…) They go on to express incredulity at the “The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W.” To be fair, they are not claiming copyright – if only because they cannot, original works being out of copyright, and some other translations being out of copyright, or held by other copyright holders – over every work by Marx and Engels. Only over the specific translations included in their specific collection – which runs fifty volumes of works, including many difficult to obtain in English in other ways…

They go on to defend the move by saying that, in an electronic form available to those with institutional library affiliations, their new digital edition will “have the effect of maintaining a public presence of the Works, in the public sphere of the academic library, paid for by public funds”. They call this “a model of commons that reimburses publishers, authors and translators for the work that has gone into creating a book or series of books”.

I need to write more on the current debates over the rents claimed by producers of creative content, and whether and to what extent the figures in this list – authors, translators, and publishers – should be regarded as comparable categories, particularly in an era of digital distribution. But for the moment let me just say that there’s a real irony here to a press presenting itself as gracious for placing its work for sale in a form in which some fraction of population who didn’t pay personally for the work, might still be able to access it, when squaring off against the real-world example of an actual bona fide commons, maintained by volunteers, geared toward the production of an actual intellectual common resource. No one is going to see the pallid “public sphere” of academic libraries as anything but an enclosure move, in this context. To note that public funds might be used for this purpose is particularly weird, since the fact that, in some micrological way, the whole of one public might be taxed to pay for a thing, doesn’t really change the fact that the whole of that public will not have access to the thing they have now been compelled to pay for (in this model)… Of course Lawrence and Wishart has every legal right to do this – their intellectual property has already been “enclosed” by capitalist property rights, and so they can control its sale and general distribution by law. But to try to frame this as placing their work into the ‘commons’ is ludicrous.

It doesn’t help that Lawrence and Wishart simply don’t want to address the intrinsically capitalist nature of their move. They simply can’t be capitalist – the concept seems ridiculous – because they don’t think of themselves that way. And, anyway, shouldn’t a capitalist be better paid than they are? (They might consult some of the writings in their own collection for further guidance here…)

They then raise some serious points about the general proletarian character of artistic and creative production – the difficulties these professions are facing because it is now difficult to enforce rents on past production via copyright provisions. These are potentially serious questions, and I’ll hopefully write on them in another context soon. These points, however, are particularly jarring when they are faced directly off against a cadre of volunteers, who have laboured every bit as hard as transcribers, editors and publishers of intellectual content, who are operating as part of a genuine intellectual commons. It simply is not the case – with current technology – that publication necessarily requires the kinds of enclosure that provided the economic model for it in the past. These economic models have therefore become very difficult to defend, particularly in a radical political context, but even in much more mainstream spaces. To make a crass Marxist gesture here: the superstructure is no longer supported by the base.

The unfolding institutional transformation will result in genuine losses. It also offers some creative possibilities for new institution building – some of which could point in emancipatory directions. In the short term, however, this transformation is also resulting in a widespread assertion of economic privilege (and, yes, even those paid poorly relative to their expectations may possess economic privilege), in an attempt to hold onto exclusionary forms of property right that were in the past secure. This dynamic is much broader than Lawrence and Wishart – their arguments are just variations of positions being put forward in many locations now, as part of a much more general political contestation over the potential social implications of technological and economic transformation.

But on the practical question: Lawrence and Wishart have stated that giving up their copyright would be “institutional suicide” – that the sales of this collection of works in particular are what enable them to continue functioning as a press, providing an incubator for other, more recent, less monetisable, radical works. There are some empirical questions here. The first is whether the presence of an alternative version of their works on MIA will actually harm their ability to sell the digital version of their archive to institutional libraries. If there is still substantial content not available in the free and genuinely public archive, there is still a value for institutional libraries to purchase the entire collection, since their purpose would be to enable more detailed scholarly investigation. The existing works on MIA leave out a great deal of the collection: do they really hurt the market? Or do they in fact increase the market, by serving as a teaser of what would be available if someone had access to the whole thing? What is more likely to increase the interest in, and demand for, these kinds of works? It might well be a licensing arrangement explicitly allowing the availability of a selected portion of the collection would be of financial benefit to the press…

All of this may be irrelevant if Lawrence and Wishart are contracting with a restrictive third party to issue their digital edition – it may be someone else’s requirements for exclusivity they are wrestling with. From their statement, it sounds as though they are at the negotiation stage with some distributor, so they know the requirements they will be facing. I wonder how well these will be negotiated, for the quasi-commons they are promising to create. My experience with other digital editions suggests high risk for poor formatting, sluggish searching, poor reading experience, and extensive restrictions on excerpting, printing, etc.: things end-users don’t currently experience with the excellent MIA digital versions of the works. I wonder if any thought might have been given to a distribution solution involving a certain actual, existing commons that might have some experience putting these kinds of works online – whether alternative mechanisms for funding such a solution might have been considered, rather than going with an existing commercial distributor?

Significant structural transformations are unfolding in these areas. There is always potential when this happens – and there is always also the great default rut of falling into an institutional response that does nothing but favour existing powerful institutions within the capitalist economy. A radical press taking its stand on the sacred rights of private property looks, to me, to be helping to water the field for arguments that will not help radical causes going forward. Defending the right to be a (very small, very vulnerable) micro-capitalist is not going to provide a stable basis for future forms of radical intellectual or creative production. It could be time to search for a more creative solution.


Communization and Its Discontents

Apologies for not being online more in the past while – it’s been a bit hectic…

I did want to post a pointer to a new collection, edited by Benjamin Noys and published by Minor Compositions. The text will be available for purchased from Minor Compositions from the 30th of November, but is also freely available for download. The blurb is:

Communization and its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles
Edited by Benjamin Noys

Can we find alternatives to the failed radical projects of the twentieth century? What are the possible forms of struggle today? How do we fight back against the misery of our crisis-ridden present?

‘Communization’ is the spectre of the immediate struggle to abolish capitalism and the state, which haunts Europe, Northern California and wherever the real abstractions of value that shape our lives are contested. Evolving on the terrain of capitalism new practices of the ‘human strike’, autonomous communes, occupation and insurrection have attacked the alienations of our times. These signs of resistance are scattered and have yet to coalesce, and their future is deliberately precarious and insecure.

Bringing together voices from inside and outside of these currents Communization and Its Discontents treats communization as a problem to be explored rather than a solution. Taking in the new theorizations of communization proposed by Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee, Théorie Communiste, post-autonomists, and others, it offers critical reflections on the possibilities and the limits of these contemporary forms, strategies, and tactics of struggle.

Contributors: Jasper Bernes, John Cunningham, Endnotes, Alexander R. Galloway, Maya Andrea Gonzalez, Anthony Iles, Leon de Mattis, Nicole Pepperell, Théorie Communiste, Alberto Toscano, Marina Vishmidt, and Evan Calder Williams.

My piece in the volume is titled: Capitalism: Some Disassembly Required.

Fierce Planet

Those who used to read the Rough Theory blog may remember my good friend and colleague L Magee, who used to post there occasionally. Magee is currently looking for some feedback on a game he is developing, which uses a tower defense model to create a simple simulation of sustainability (and social modelling) concepts – if anyone has some time and interest, you can participate in the pilot online here.

Occupy Melbourne: Fed Square Rally noon today

Rally information at Indymedia.

Occupy Melbourne website

Irony and Inversion

Marx is fascinated with the notion of inversion – with mirror-images – with mental conceptions of the world that, from the perspective of his analysis, reverse real relations and up-end actual causation. The presentational strategies deployed in Capital begin within these inverted, topsy-turvy, backwards conceptions – apotheoses of existing relations, Marx will call them at one point – and try to demonstrate how these conceptions imply the existing relations that they also deny and distort. Confusion over this point has caused many people to mistake Marx’s presentation of the inverted conceptions – as manifested in the discourses of political economy – for the relations Marx is attempting to present, but to present in a manner that makes it clear why those specific relations are prone to being experienced and interpreted in characteristically inverted ways.

As a consequence, Capital presents us with a series of reversals as the text unfolds. Commodities start as mere things, passive objects without voice or motive force of their own, which are carried about and acted for by separate entities – commodity owners. Subjectivity and objectivity are split in this initial presentation. But before too long, this clean dichotomy is undermined with the introduction of the peculiar commodity of labour-power, in which the commodity inhabits the same physical body as its owner – a reversal that, when it happens, suddenly makes sense of the ironic tone of many preceding passages, which seemed to depict commodities involved in relationships of mutual recognition of the sort we associate with social contract theory, which constantly teased with the notion that commodities do have a speech of their own, which offered seemingly nonsensical advice on how to distinguish commodities from their owners, which conceded that “in certain ways a commodity is like a man” – which implied, absurdly given the assumption that commodities are mere things, that commodities might resist, and necessitate the use of force against them.

Capital also presents us with the notion that labour is an “everlasting nature-imposed necessity” – this in a work that will later present a vast chapter on machinery and automation, and will analyse the labour process as this process comes to instrumentalised in anthropologically distinctive ways under capitalist production. This overarching argument demonstrates, by the end, that the qualitative characteristics attributed to human labour as an “everlasting nature-imposed necessity” in earlier chapters of Capital, are characteristics suggested by historically specific and contingent aspects of how we labour in capitalist societies alone. It operates within the context of Marx’s overarching critique of political economic discourses that attempt to apologise for the contingent barbarisms of capitalist production, by means of an ideology that it is transcendent nature, rather than contingent human practice, that imposes the necessity for the expenditure of specifically human labour.

In Capital, this ideological claim is undermined by the discussion of the historical potential of machinery – removing the need for human labour-power as a nature-imposed motive force – as well as by the extended analysis of the categories of value and capital as historically specific, and contingent, forms of social wealth. It is these contingent forms of social wealth, in Marx’s argument, that specifically and directly impose the need for the expenditure of human labour power. Other forms of social wealth – ones that have been favoured in past human societies, and ones that we could politically assert as the basis for social wealth in the future – can be decoupled from the expenditure of human labour per se. The wealth of capitalist societies, however, cannot. If there is some nature that imposes the necessity for human labour, that nature is only our own, contingent, one – and in Marx’s overarching argument, there is nothing everlasting about it.

The language of essence and appearance is similarly transformed in Marx’s analysis – in ways consistent with Hegel’s impulse to dissolve the dichotomy that posits these two terms as external to one another, but with Marx’s distinctive emphasis on what this sort of dissolution would mean in practical terms. So essence must appear – and the connection between an essence and its form of appearance is not accidental or arbitrary. Instead, the essence is the essence of its forms of appearance – the essence is an implicit pattern that emerges within the flux of appearances, and has no other “reality” other than as a pattern within that flux. Leaving aside the Hegelian formulations, in Capital the terminology of “essence” picks out something like statistical patterns or tendencies that become visible only as they play out over time. If essence is treated in a way that severs its intrinsic connection to its forms of appearance – if it is treated in the way that, Marx argues, classical political economy treated it – then contingency is allocated only to various forms of appearance. The contingency of the essence itself is lost – and thus the core historical patterns whose reproduction is definitive of capitalist production are hypostatised and treated as socially transcendent. The flux that, on Marx’s analysis, forms part and parcel of how this essence is actually reproduced – the flux that forms the actual body of the essence, the only location in which the essence actually resides – can therefore be treated as the only genuinely contingent aspect of capitalist production, and this contingency – which on Marx’s analysis is only to be expected within the reproduction of capitalist production – can be mistaken for transformative. The result is an endless cycle of the sort noted by William Morris, where:

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

Among other things, Capital provides an analysis of this specific sort of dynamic, by showing how easily critique can be systematically diverted, by a sort of trompe-l’œil intrinsic to capitalist production, into constantly criticising aspects of our social experience that are in flux as part and parcel of the reproduction of capitalism, while asserting and reasserting – even actively institutionalising, when transformative movements succeed in gaining political power – the need to reproduce certain “essences” that are experienced as everlasting necessities, as nature-imposed, intrinsic requirements of social life, human nature, or advanced technologies. The recurrent failure of imagination – the difficulty of imagining genuinely alternative forms of social life – is presented in Capital as a consequence of a dichotomous understanding of the relationship between essence and appearance, which regards essence as more timeless, and appearance as only arbitrarily related to it. Marx’s alternative is to account for the generation of historically specific long-term patterns – essences – whose reproduction specifically relies on the flux of other dimensions of social practice that social actors experience explicitly as contingent. The essence is equally contingent in Marx’s argument, but inverted perceptions attribute to it a timelessness that Marx expresses when sarcastically mimicking political economic discourses in the opening sections of Capital.

The repeated presentations of capital as Geist-like, as self-valorising, self-reproducing: these are equally inverted, idealist, representations that reverse the actual relations Marx is attempting to document in Capital. The derivations of categories using the idealist dialectical style – where new categories are presented as necessary because they resolve defects in earlier categories – are sarcastic representations of inverted forms of argument that attribute historical motive force to ideal categories, instead of human actions undertaken by large numbers of people engaged in everyday practices. Each time Capital puts forward one of these apparent idealistic dialectical derivations – and the text does so several times – it follows the derivation by an actual historical representation of how the practice in question arose. The latter analysis “corrects the idealist manner of presentation”, as Marx explicitly reminds himself he will need to do, in a note in the Grundrisse manuscript, and demonstrates the previous idealist derivation to have been an inverted form – one that attributes effective historical force to an ideal category, rather than to human actors.

The largest of these particular inversions is at the grandest scale of the architectonic of Capital as a whole. Up until the section on original accumulation, Marx has organised his categories as though he is presenting a systematic dialectic, chasing defects in the categories toward more adequate categories, as though the argument intends to close the loop in the Hegelian manner, by deriving its own starting point as the necessary product of the system as a whole. The text therefore begins by chasing the question of what is the wealth of capitalist societies, follows this into the question of how we can understand the generation of surplus-value, and then begins to ask where the original wealth came from, which started the processes analysed thus far.

It is this final question that will break definitively with the “idealist manner of presentation”, because it is a question that cannot be answered by the ahistorical approach adopted by political economy. It is this question that Marx uses as the narrative lever to break apart the systematic dialectic that he could otherwise appear to be presenting, and raise explicitly the analysis of the contingency of the whole – by opening into the analysis of original accumulation, and thereby showing that his presentation will not, in fact, loop back onto its own starting point and demonstrate the rationality or the necessity of the whole (which are, after all, the goals of the systematic dialectic for Hegel – goals inimical to Marx’s political purpose).

Instead, Marx ends the text with the actual relations of which the preceding forms of political economic discourse have been inverted, topsy-turvy, mirror image distortions. His systematic presentation helps to show why these specific sorts of distortions should arise – why they are not arbitrary mental errors, but plausible hypostatisations given the characteristics of the actual relations themselves. This plausibility does not make these inverted discourses less wrong. The apologistic character of each of the previous discourses Marx has analysed – from the attempt to grasp capitalism as nothing more than a process of social metabolism, a means of moving goods from one place to the next, to the attempt to grasp capitalism as a self-moving system whose internal rationality can be revealed via a systematic dialectic that shows how the beginning of the system can be demonstrated to be its own product – is revealed conclusively with the shift to original accumulation, which convicts the preceding discussion of having been a fairy tale, a religious myth, to which Marx will now bring a very distinctive doctrine of original sin and the fall from grace…

This does not mean that Marx reserves the whole of his actual argument to the tailing chapters of Capital – he intersperses often quite long expository sections in between narrative representations of forms of political economic discourse he spoofs, and he shifts between idealist dialectical presentations and contingent historical ones frequently throughout the text: both of these moves help readers locate themselves in his argument, so that the double-voiced nature of some passages of text is easier to see. This hasn’t prevented many readers from taking at face value a number of passages that seem to be making definitional declarations, without asking whether it makes sense, in terms of the overarching argument, for Marx to put forward this specific definition, without examining the tone of the passage, and perhaps without sufficient familiarity with the forms of political economy that Marx is criticising, to ask whether they are encountering a parody of old content, rather than encountering Marx’s original argument.

It doesn’t help that Marx is often clearer in his ironic parodies of others’ positions, than he is when presenting his original argument – among other things, his argument is much more complex than those he is criticising, and therefore more difficult to boil down to a few paragraphs. As well, the parodic sections are often written in more striking language – offering burlesque caricatures of his opponents voicing satirical bombast that, while absurd in its content, is certainly easier to grasp hold of than the non-linear argument that Marx outlines over the course of hundreds of pages. And so Marx – the great theorist of unintended consequences and historical accident – has the tragically ironic fate of being the vehicle for the preservation of the arguments of his many opponents from 18th and 19th century political economy and philosophy. His name is now, for many people, indelibly attached to the very positions he worked so hard to criticise.

The Sole Rightful Colour of Freedom

No time for blogging at the moment unfortunately, but I wanted to catalogue a passage Marx wrote in 1842, which is on point for the sorts of reading strategies I apply to his style in Capital:

You admire the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not demand that the rose should smell like the violet, but must the greatest riches of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom. Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour! The most essential form of the spirit is cheerfulness, light, but you make shadow the sole manifestation of the spirit; it must be clothed only in black, yet among flowers there are no black ones. The essence of the spirit is always truth itself but what do you make its essence? Modesty. Only the mean wretch is modest, says Goethe, and you want to turn the spirit into such a mean wretch? Or if modesty is to be the modesty of genius of which Schiller speaks, then first of all turn all your citizens and above all your censors into geniuses. But then the modesty of genius does not consist in what educated speech consists in, the absence of accent and dialect, but rather in speaking with the accent of the matter and in the dialect of its essence. It consists in forgetting modesty and immodesty and getting to the heart of the matter. The universal modesty of the mind is reason, that universal liberality of thought which reacts to each thing according to the latter’s essential nature.

Further, if seriousness is not to come under Tristram Shandy’s definition according to which it is a hypocritical behaviour of the body in order to conceal defects of the soul, but signifies seriousness in substance, then the entire prescription falls to the ground. For I treat the ludicrous seriously when I treat it ludicrously, and the most serious immodesty of the mind is to be modest in the face of immodesty.

Serious and modest! What fluctuating, relative concepts! Where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin? Where does modesty cease and immodesty begin? We are dependent on the temperament of the censor. It would be as wrong to prescribe temperament for the censor as to prescribe style for the writer. If you want to be consistent in your aesthetic criticism, then forbid also a too serious and too modest investigation of the truth, for too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all, and too great modesty is the bitterest irony.

Finally, the starting point is a completely perverted and abstract view of truth itself. All objects of the writer’s activity are comprehended in the one general concept “truth”. Even if we leave the subjective side out of account, viz., that one and the same object is refracted differently as seen by different persons and its different aspects converted into as many different spiritual characters, ought the character of the object to have no influence, not even the slightest, on the investigation? Truth includes not only the result but also the path to it. The investigation of truth must itself be true; true investigation is developed truth, the dispersed elements of which are brought together in the result. And should not the manner of investigation alter according to the object? If the object is a matter for laughter, the manner has to seem serious, if the object is disagreeable, it has to be modest. Thus you violate the right of the object as you do that of the subject. You conceive truth abstractly and turn the spirit into an examining magistrate, who draws up a dry protocol of it.

The moves here are typical of many of Marx’s works: the scathing contempt for analyses that sunder subjectivity and objectivity, that fail to grasp the specificity of the object, that adopt an external and free-floating “objective” perspective on truth. The sensitivity to how “the same object is refracted differently as seen by different persons and its different aspect converted into as many different spiritual characters”. And, of course, the well-developed sense of the absurdity of the social and political situation that confronts him – and the conviction that an absurd object needs to be addressed in a way that expresses and brings this absurdity out.

I’m unfortunately very unlikely to have time online this week, but thought I should at least throw the passage up as a placeholder.

The Wealth of Capitalist Societies

Adam Smith investigated the wealth of nations, offering an analysis that can be localised in history, but that did not thematise the historical specificity of its own categories.

Marx begins Capital with a similar question, but asks it, not of nations, but of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. The question is posed from the beginning in a socially-specified form.

The wealth of such societies presents itself – at what Marx will later call “first sight” – as a tremendous accumulation of commodities. An accumulation that possesses an elementary form – that of a single commodity. The text begins with the analysis of this elementary form, and so unpacks the first form of appearance of the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails.

Architectonically, this first form of appearance is situated within a longer critical analysis of approaches that attempt to understand the wealth of capitalist societies on the assumption that capitalism is a form of “social metabolism” – a process in which material goods, satisfying various utilitarian needs, are produced and then circulated to the site of consumption via the medium of money. This arc within the text – the exploration of all the approaches whose understandings of the wealth of capitalist societies fall under this broad umbrella – occupies the text from its opening chapter, until chapter 6.

Capitalist production includes a process of social metabolism – goods really are produced, and really are circulated – and so there’s a certain “social validity” to the categories generated by forms of political economy that understand capitalist production in this way. The categories are expressive of real aspects of our social practice. Treating capitalist production as nothing more than a process of social metabolism, however, reduces a complex process to only one of its moments.

This reductive, partial and one-sided treatment of capitalist production is associated, in Marx’s text, with a specific kind of politics. Throughout these chapters, while exploring the sorts of practices and theoretical claims that are suggested by the “social metabolism” view of capitalist production, Marx also repeatedly targets social contract theory – with its emphasis on the politics of mutual recognition, formal equality, and rights. This undercurrent is introduced in the third section of the opening chapter, and culminates in Marx’s sarcastic declaration at the end of chapter 6 that this perspective on capitalist production understands capitalist societies to be “a very Eden of the innate rights of man… the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham”. This sort of politics does not provide an adequate basis for the critique of capitalist production – as Marx flags when he draws attention to the change in the “physiognomy of our dramatis personae” at the end of chapter 6, as

He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to marker and now has nothing else to expect but – a tanning.

I’ve written below on an overarching joke that structures this arc within the text, which is that the text begins, and continues to assert in multiple chapters, that commodities are objective – are things – in a way that implies that these “things” are external, passive objects that are separate entities from the human subjects busily engaged in the intersubjective social contract relations of mutual recognition, consent, and formal equality that also populate these chapters.

With the derivation of the category of labour-power, this subject-object dualism is undermined. The category of the commodity is redetermined as something that can also include a particular class of human subject – a class whose separation from the means of production requires it to objectify and sell its own powers and capacities on the market. These subjective powers and capacities are thus plausibly experienced and enacted in an objectifying way – and the compulsion that arises from the need to sell them is, by chapter 6, presented as something that is social in origin, but that can plausibly appear to social actors to be an objective physiological constraint, rather than an arbitrary social one:

If his capacity for labour remains unsold, this is of no advantage to the worker. He will rather feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that his capacity for labour has required for its production a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, and will continue to require this for its reproduction.

Chapters 7-10 then explore a new perspective on the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. This new perspective is a positive appropriation of the perspective that has been introduced negatively in chapter 6. In chapter 6, the need to expend human labour-power in order to preserve one’s life is experienced by social actors as a “nature-imposed necessity”, and this necessity is experienced as a curse. In chapter 7, this necessity to expend human labour-power has been seized upon and redeployed in a positive valorisation of the creative importance of human labour as the source of social wealth. Note that both approaches – the one presented in chapters 1-6, and the one presented in chapters 7-10 – accept that the need to expend human labour-power is imposed by nature, not by an arbitrary social convention that can be transformed:

The labour process, as we have just presented it in its simple and abstract elements, is purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.

The text goes on to say that, because this category of productive labour is socially transcendent, it was not necessary to investigate social relations between people in order to present the category. It sufficed to examine, in isolation, the relationship of the worker with natural raw materials, mediated by instruments of labour, rather than by social relations.

The perspective in this section of chapter 7 needs to be understood as an immanently-voiced representation of a particular understanding of social wealth – one that Marx intends to criticise, and has already flagged that he intends to criticise in earlier chapters. Earlier chapters have already laid the groundwork for grasping why a contingent social relation should appear to social actors as an objective natural constraint – for grasping why this sort of perspective would be “socially valid”, but also one-sided and partial, confused by the fetish character of social relations that makes these relations appear to be objective and asocial – appear to be attributes of natural processes or of human interactions with nature – rather than social relations that arise under determinate and changeable conditions that are constituted by human practice.

As he does with the social metabolism conception of social wealth, Marx explores the sort of politics that he associates with the labor-centric perspective – and is considerably more sympathetic towards it, than he was to the “very Eden of the innate rights of man” associated with the social metabolism understanding of wealth, which Marx revisits at the end of chapter 10:

It must be acknowledged that our worker emerges from the process of production looking different from when he entered it. In the market, as owner of the commodity ‘labour-power’, he stood face-to-face with other owners of commodities, one owner against another owner. The contract by which he sold his labour-power to the capitalist proved in black-and-white, so to speak, that he was free to dispose of himself. But when the transaction was concluded, it was discovered that he was no ‘free agent’, that the period of time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the period of time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited’. For ‘protection’ against the serpent of their agonies, the workers have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital. In the place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’ there steps the modest Magna Carta of the legally limited working day, which at last makes clear ‘when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins’. What a great change from that time!

While the politics of the labor-centric view is presented sympathetically, this sympathetic treatment does not reflect Marx’s endorsement of either the conception of social wealth, or the political adequacy of the labour-centric view. At the beginning of chapter 10, Marx characterises the fight for the normal working day as one that takes place within the realm where – as Marx has the voice of the worker announce – “You and I know on the market only one law, that of exchange of commodities”. The worker’s demand in this conflict, as Marx voices it, is: “I demand the value of my commodity”.

Marx presents the contestation over the working day as an essential conflict, in order to constrain what Marx characterises as a vampire that “lives only by sucking living labour”. The conflict is necessary to prevent the trammelling of the working class – and, interestingly, also to prevent the self-destruction of capitalist production itself, which does not possess the ability to self-regulate without the external “universal” compulsion that can be provided by the state, which emerges in this section as an essential aspect of capitalist production whose necessity was not foreseen by the social metabolism conception of capitalist production, but which comes clearly into view once working-class contestation is factored into the account.

Yet this contestation is not the sort of politics Marx has written Capital in order to endorse, and the labor-centric conception of social wealth associated with this kind of politics is one that his argument will ultimately undermine. As he moves past both the “very Eden” of political economy, and the “modest Magna Carta” of working-class self-assertion as a working class, Marx contests the notion that human labour specifically must be central, in all societies, to social wealth. The analysis soon to come – of cooperation, the division of labour, and machinery, of the development of socially general scientific and organisational knowledge – will open up the possibility for the development of forms of social wealth to which the expenditure of specifically human labour grows increasingly contingent – increasingly sustained because it is imposed, not at all by nature, but by human practice.

Marx is not advocating for a politics predicated on the notion that human labour is an “everlasting, nature-imposed necessity” – to him, the notion that readers would take literally such representations of perspectives he sets out to criticise, would seem as unlikely as the notion that his readers would agree that commodities are, by definition, external objects separate from their owners. He will acknowledge in places that some expenditure of human labour-power – some ongoing realm of necessity – will likely be required into the future, but this is a very different proposition from the claim that human labour is always and eternally the way nature forces humans to mediate their relations to the natural world. Moreover, the specific descriptions of the labour-process here – and the raw material conception of nature that accompanies it – are “practical truths” for capitalist production, in a way that they would not have been in other human societies.

It is capitalist production, for Marx, that specifically sanctifies and glorifies the expenditure of human labour in this way – and that treats the natural world as disenchanted “raw material” that passively awaits reworking by humans. The presentation in chapters 7-10 is therefore not of a transhistorical labour process, as contrasted with a historically specific valorisation process. It is rather a representation of a socially specific process that possesses a fetish character, such that aspects of the process have taken on an objective, socially-transcendent character, while aspects appear intuitively social and contingent. This complex bifurcated process, both parts of which are equally historically specific in Marx’s argument, is enacted in such a way that a significant dimension of the social process appears not to be social, or subject to transformation by human actors, at all.

One implication of this argument is that attempts to eliminate “the socially specific side” of this dual construction – the part that intuitively appears “social” – while preserving the “transhistorical” side – attempts to abolish the valorisation process without also simultaneously transforming the labour process itself – will not succeed in abolishing capitalist production, on Marx’s analysis. There are the seeds here, in Marx’s text, of an analysis of aspects of the Soviet system, as well as of aspects of the period of more “organised capitalism” in the 20th century in the West.

Another implication of this argument is that Marx is not advocating the social centrality and importance of the expenditure of specifically human labour power – still less is he asserting that the expenditure of human labour-power in the forms described in these chapters are anything like everlasting nature-imposed necessities. He is instead, in the longer arc of the text, advocating something much closer to the “right to be lazy”, as expressed in Paul Lafargue’s classic work, which opens:

A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work. Blind and finite men, they have wished to be wiser than their God; weak and contemptible men, they have presumed to rehabilitate what their God had cursed. I, who do not profess to be a Christian, an economist or a moralist, I appeal from their judgement to that of their God; from the preachings of their religious, economics or free thought ethics, to the frightful consequences of work in capitalist society.

The frightful consequences of work in capitalist societies will preoccupy much of the later chapters of Capital – a work that is oriented toward, not the apologist justification of labour as an everlasting nature-imposed necessity, but instead the question of why – after the development of machinery, automation, the dramatic increase of scientific and organisational knowledge we possess – the expenditure of human labour-power should nevertheless remain so central to capitalist societies. The standpoint of Marx’s critique – no more transcendent to the society he is criticising than the various perspectives he criticises in the course of his work – requires appropriating the insights of more of our collective experience than is expressed in either the social metabolism or the labour-centric understandings of capitalist production.

His critique operates by mobilising insights from one portion of the argument, against incomplete perspectives suggested by other portions. So the social metabolism conception of capitalism runs aground on the introduction of a category that breaks apart the subject/object and form/content dualisms this perspective attempts to assert. The labour-centric conception of capitalist production runs aground on both the earlier analysis of why social phenomena take on a fetish character that entails that they are experienced as physiological processes, and also runs aground, retrospectively, on the later analysis of the growing role of machinery, which suggests the possibility to organise production in a way that undermines any “nature-imposed” necessity for human labour to be central to social wealth. The nature of Marx’s argument thus becomes clear only when the individual parts are able to be thought – and, often, re-thought – in tandem with the implications of the whole.

The problems posed by his text replicate those posed by the analysis of capitalist production itself – a process which contains something that could be described as “social metabolism”, a process for which the expenditure of specifically human labour-power is essential, and essential in ways that plausibly imply to social actors that this necessity is driven by nature, rather than by contingent social practices. In attempting to demonstrate the social validity of partial and one-sided analyses of capitalist production – analyses that fixate on only small portions of a complex social phenomenon – Marx generates a number of opportunities for readers to stumble across his re-presentations of the partial and one-sided views of political economy, mistaking those views for Marx’s own, rather than understanding them as perspectives specifically put forward to be criticised in the course of a more complex analysis of capitalist production and the wealth of capitalist societies.

Beyond the Exchange Abstraction

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a bit more about one of the issues that came up in the exchange with Chris Wright in the comments below: the issue of what sort of abstraction is involved when Marx talks about “human labour in the abstract” in the opening chapter of Capital volume 1. On one level, this is a central issue in the thesis – but my feeling is that it might not have been thematised there in a way that would draw out its full implications for both for Marx’s understanding of capitalist production, and for a whole Marxist tradition of trying to understand what have come to be called “real abstractions”.

The term “real abstraction” is closely associated with Sohn-Rethel, who is attempting to wrestle with whether it might be possible to understand certain kinds of abstraction as being more than just mental constructs, but as instead things that we enact in collective social practice. This enacted character of the abstraction moves it from the realm of pure thought, into the realm of shared social practice. It also, in more Hegelian terms, makes the abstraction not merely a negative phenomenon – not merely an abstraction from the determinate properties possessed by a thing – but something that has its own positive attributes. A real abstraction is something actively done by collective social practice – it’s not a mere negation, but an active constitution of a determinate social phenomenon.

I very much like the concept of a real abstraction – and I think this concept latches on to something important in Marx’s work. I’m less enamoured of the specific example to which analyses of real abstraction return, again and again, in Frankfurt-associated theory. For Sohl-Rethel – but also for Lukács, for Adorno, and arguably for more recent theorists like Postone – the quintessential “real abstraction” is the abstraction from use-value that takes place in the process of exchange.

On a pedagogical level, I could understand why someone might start with the exchange abstraction, in order to communicate what sort of phenomenon is being picked out by the term “real abstraction”. Exchange is a fairly intuitive example of an everyday social phenomenon that requires collective practice to operate in a “contradictory” way. In order for exchange to work as a social practice, our collective practices need to be simultaneously doing two things, which viewed in isolation appear to have contradictory implications.

On the one hand, our collective practices need to be attentive to determinate qualitative distinctions between certain things – we need to be enacting corn, for example, as something that social actors like us might eat, or we need to be enacting coats as something that social actors like us might wear. In this specific respect, we are collectively enacting a whole range of objects as socially-meaningful and relevant precisely to the extent that we are attending, collectively and individually, to specific kinds of qualitative differences between those objects.

On the other hand, for exchange to operate as a social convention, our collective practices need, at this same time, to actively disregard this rich universe of socially-meaningful qualitative distinctions, when we are engaging in the specific social ritual of exchange. For purposes of this latter social ritual, we need collectively to be able to treat a wide range of objects as in some sense equivalent. When we do this, we “abstract” – in one dimension of social practice – from the very qualitative characteristics that we enact in other dimensions of practice.

Exchange is therefore a social practice that enacts a “real” abstraction, rather than a purely conceptual one. We don’t sit around imagining what sort of commonality objects might possess, deep down, if we were to disregard their evident qualitative characteristics. Instead, we exchange them and, in doing so, collectively assert their practical interchangeability. We demonstrate, in practice, that there must be some sense in which two otherwise very different objects can be treated as somehow equivalent to one another. We enact an abstract equality of certain objects through the social act of exchange.

So far, so intuitive. Sohn-Rethel and others go on to suggest that this sort of practical process is actually what underlies more “conceptual” abstractions, of the sort one finds in Western philosophy – they suggest that certain sorts of philosophical abstraction are primed by the practical experience of the social process of exchange. I’m very interested in the ways in which forms of embodiment and shared practical experiences tend to prime or spark particular conceptual insights – how changes in what we do on an everyday basis make it easier or more difficult to attain certain kinds of insights – so I’m broadly sympathetic with trying to make connections between collective practices and forms of thought.


I don’t think that the exchange abstraction, or the abstraction from use-value involved in exchange, is what Marx had in mind when introducing categories like “human labour in the abstract” in the opening chapter of Capital.

The exchange abstraction is “in” Capital‘s opening chapter, of course. It’s in there because it’s a very common modern insight into exchange – an insight that Marx spends a great deal of the opening chapter mocking, because this insight tends to puff itself up, both by projecting itself back across time, and by acting as though some underlying ontological equality amongst things is the “material ground” of our very contemporary practices of commodity exchange. He thinks this form of thought has apologist implications – that it tends to package capitalist production as nothing more than the latest in a long iteration of different manifestations of an underlying, essential social or natural truth. Marx is specifically and obsessively interested in the differentia specifica of capitalist production – and while there is something historically specific in the way we articulate the categories of use-value, exchange-value, and their interaction, the underlying practice of exchange is actually very old: if we want to understand what is historically distinctive about capitalism – if we want to grasp why exchange in our times is dynamic, pervasive, and revolutionary – then we’d be better served looking for a combination of practices that has a more recent historical origin.

From Marx’s perspective, I suspect that even the best attempts to understand capitalist production in terms of the dualism of use-value and exchange-value within the commodity form, would look obfuscatory. The use-value/exchange-value distinction is quite old – in the opening chapter of Capital, Marx cites an example of Aristotle considering the problem. Yet when more recent thinkers cite this distinction, they attempt to anchor in it phenomena that, Marx demonstrates, would be alien to Aristotle. Contemporary theorists often believe, in other words, that many aspects of our contemporary social experience can be pointed back to the basic distinction between use-value and exchange-value. Marx begs to differ – and his difference is expressed, in the opening chapter, by treating the modern relationship between use-value and exchange-value as something that has come to be situated within a much broader and more historically specific sort of social relationship, which he initially shorthands by naming this relationship “value”.

On a political level, if you think the basic problem is that we are abstracting from use-value, then you tend to think what needs to be criticised is abstraction itself. If you are Lukács – or, indeed, Adorno – this might lead you to grab hold of Weber and centre your critique of capitalism on a critique of formalism and instrumental reason. If you are Murray or Postone, it might lead you to suggest that material wealth, understood as a socially transcendent category, is the ground for the construction of a more emancipatory society. Other options might be a kind of political romanticism that attempts to smash through the “abstraction” of modern societies in order to recapture a purported immediacy of concrete relations from a fantasised past.

I don’t believe Marx is writing a critique of abstraction in any of these senses, nor is he taking use-value in any sense as his standpoint of critique. I think, instead, his argument is more Hegelian here – if, that is, we take Hegel in a very secular way, and use his broad relational approach to construct a complex social theoretic argument that what capitalism “is”, is the tandem operation of a very large number of different sorts of social practices, which generate “capitalism” as their combined aggregate effect. Politically, the standpoint implicit in this sort of critique, is the argument that we can construct a new sort of aggregate social product – we can speciate a new form of social life – by hacking the internal configuration of the capitalist system, in order to change the delicate balance of practices and institutions required to reproduce capital.

Acts of buying and selling are among the practices that help reproduce capitalism. These sorts of social practices, however, have a long history, and they can be found in many pre-capitalist societies. If you look at our current practices in a particularly narrow way, focusing only on our immediate actions, and the immediate consequences of those actions, it is just possible to convince yourself that nothing more is going on here, in our markets, than a scaled-up version of what was happening in markets in medieval Europe or classical antiquity. Marx believes this is precisely what some forms of political economy are doing: looking at one small part of current social practice, in a particularly blinkered way that refuses to consider more distant social effects of those practices. As long as you keep the blindfolds on just so, it’s possible to perceive capitalism as nothing more than the latest iteration of a very old sort of social practice – and thus to naturalise capitalism as something essential to the smooth functioning of any society, once it has reached a certain level of complexity.

But when we buy and sell, we are not in fact doing exactly the same thing as when people bought and sold in earlier historical periods. The immediate performance of buying and selling might, for some social actors at least, be somewhat similar to historical practices. But the broader consequences of those performances are different – because the social context in which those performances are now taking place has been radically transformed. What is superficially the “same” act – buying or selling a good – may have profoundly different consequences, depending on the broader social stage on which this act is performed.

And so Marx starts within the petty bourgeois fantasy space where everyone is presumed to be producing their own goods, carrying those goods to market, and exchanging them – and he gradually pans the camera back, and back, and back, so that by the end we know that the broader context is not the implicit bourgeois utopia of face-to-face interaction and mutual recognition with which the story began. Instead, the broader context is one of colonialism, the bureaucratic regulatory state, large-scale class conflict, and a host of other social institutions, beliefs, and practices whose consequences “contradict” the immediate consequences of the practices with which the text begins.

When Marx, with seeming casualness, tosses out the category of “human labour in the abstract” in the opening chapter of Capital volume 1, it sounds as though this category is something like a logical extension of the preceding (deliberately absurd) argument that claimed to derive an underlying ontological essence of objects as the necessary foundation for our practice of exchange. By the end of the text, however, abstract labour is redetermined as the aggregate product of all the social practices Marx analyses in the text – from buying and selling, through to colonial administration. Abstract labour is one of the unintentional, aggregate end products of the operation of the capitalist world system. The phenomenon the category picks out is not that we abstract from particular use-values of labouring activities when we purchase labour-power on the market. It is, instead, that the capitalist global system – seen as a vast unintentional socially-constituted process – constitutes a peculiar kind of real abstraction of human labour itself, operating in contradictory ways that are simultaneously highly-sensitive, and highly-insensitive, to the particular qualitative forms of labouring activity that are being produced.

Capitalism on a global scale is forever expelling human labour from the process of production, while also perpetually calling forth new ways for human labour to be expended in ever-innovative forms. Huge increases in productivity that render the expenditure of human labour unnecessary in specific dimensions of social practice, are offset by other trends that generate crises if we do not “discover” ever new ways for human labour to expended anew. This is Marx’s “labour theory of value” – intended as a perverse, inverted, monstrous version of the labour theory of value of the political economists. For Marx, we have constructed a social monster, one that operates uniquely in human history as though the expenditure of human labour power is specifically valued, regardless of how irrelevant this expenditure may become as a motive force for the satisfaction of material needs. This “labour theory of value” operates only on a global scale, and only as an unintentional side effect of practices whose immediate consequences may be quite different – may in fact directly contradict the end product of the system as a whole.

The genius of Capital lies in its sustained attempt to work out how specific social practices generate many different layers of consequences, depending on how far down the causal chain you trace their impacts. The consequences of buying and selling goods look very different, depending on whether you are looking solely at the face-to-face immediacy of this social practice, or whether you are tracing its consequences to the level of abstraction required to understand its links to the colonial system. Capital attempts to take us from these very concrete, intuitive, immediate practices, whose implications and consequences we feel we understand passably well, into a realm of consequences that follow from our actions only because of the complex system in which those actions take place.

The real abstraction that interests Marx is vastly more complex than the disregard for use-value built into the social process of exchange. Reducing his argument to a distinction he makes in the first two paragraphs of Capital, not surprisingly misses almost the entirety of the theory. It is not incidental that many of the approaches that do this, from Lukács forward, struggle to work out how it would ever be possible to transform capital: they have evacuated capital’s differentia specifica from the outset, and reduced its historically unique effects to habits of thought inculcated by practices millenia old. Hard power relations make the overcoming of capitalism difficult enough to think and strategise. We don’t need to compound this real-world tragedy with theoretical confusions that tend to naturalise capitalism and obfuscate its determinate and transient historical character.

A Commodity Walks into a Bar…

There are a lot of obscure jokes in Capital. I’ve argued elsewhere that the decision to start Capital with the commodity is a subtle, sort of crass, prod at Hegel’s notion that the category that founds the philosophical system must also be a category that can be demonstrated to be the ultimate product of that system, so that the system can loop back in on itself and not need to rely on an extra-systematic standpoint. So Marx starts Capital with a category that is, quite literally, a product… Ba-boom-TISH!

The number of people who would get that sort of joke is pretty small. And, to be perfectly honest, the payoff of being “in” on the joke is also not very high, whether on a literary, theoretical, or political level. I take jokes like this, which are scattered all over the place in Capital, as being sort of small gratifications Marx periodically rewards himself with, as he trudges through the difficult process of assembling the components of his argument… One long hard slog – a little tongue poke at Hegel – another difficult trudge – a pun at Ricardo’s expense… On and on we move through the text, from one bad joke onto the next…

But there are some jokes that really shouldn’t be obscure. Jokes that don’t require the reader to be intimately familiar with the farther recesses of German philosophy, or the arcania of classical political economy. And one of those jokes – the first really obvious joke in Capital – is the joke about how commodities are things outside us, external objects, that lack volition and will of their own, and therefore must be carted around and spoken for by an entirely separate ontological category of entity: the commodity owner.

We all know the punchline here – or at least, we all should, and Marx certainly expects that his working class readers all will: that there does, in fact, exist a certain class of commodity owner that brings a commodity to market that is not, in fact, a separate, external entity, physical distinct from the owner’s own physical body. That certain class of commodity owner is the working class, and the commodity it brings to market is its own physical, emotional, and intellectual capacity to work – that is to say, its labour-power.

The perspective holding forth in the opening paragraph of Capital – and again in the opening paragraphs of the second chapter – is an object of ridicule. The reader is meant immediately to startle, surprised, at this opening “definition”, because the counter-example – the commodity that is not external to us, not an object outside us – should be immediately, obviously, viscerally, ready to hand. This ridicule gets a bit more overt in the third section of the chapter, where Marx stages a series of interactions between commodities, which seems to suggest he is “projecting” onto a world of physical objects all the subtleties of the intersubjective relations characteristic of ideal conceptions of civil society. In the concluding passages of Capital‘s opening chapter, Marx asks what commodities would say, “if” they could speak. The perspective that doesn’t understand that there are commodities already that possess their own will, volition, and voice – the perspective that is in denial of the existence of this peculiar class of commodity owners that must bring their own physical capacities and skills to the market for sale – the perspective that is therefore unable to ask these commodities what they want, because it treats them as entirely external to its own concerns: that is the perspective putting forward the farcical statements at the end of chapter 1, projecting these statements into the mouths of commodities, because its conception of capitalist production (and of civil society) is too blinkered to enable intersubjective relations with the “commodities” themselves.

This farcical production on commodity speech at the end of the first chapter – which ends, after all, with a quote from Shakespeare’s Dogberry, flagging the theatrical nature of what has just been on display – nevertheless manages to attract a large amount of literary analysis that both picks up on the tonal weirdness of the section, and yet entirely misses the joke. So you get, for example, Hillis Miller, tripping over himself to provide a complex semiotic explanation of how commodities really can speak, after all, because what is money if not a complex system of signs – and then gushing at the apparent irony, as Hillis Miller takes Marx to be suggesting, that capitalism is a system in which men and women do not speak, and yet the commodities that they produce do.

Marx’s point is much more crass and direct. He is not talking about ironic sign systems, but about human agency – and about the denial of the agency of large categories of actually existing people by political economy. For Marx, the kind of political economic discourse that acts as though you can understand capitalist production by viewing it solely as a form of “social metabolism” – the production and movement of external things – without taking into account the relations between people, is blinded to the most basic facts about the system it pretends to analyse.

The farce continues, of course, beyond chapter 1. Chapter 2 also begins with the image of the commodity as a passive, inert, external object, lacking will and speech, which must therefore be taken to the market by its virile, potent, owner. Mark pokes at this image throughout the opening section of this chapter. In the main text, he mentions that, if a commodity resists, its owner may use force. Again, the reader should be stopped short by this sentence: if a commodity is meant to be this sort of inert, external, thing, how could it resist? A footnote attached to this section pokes just a little bit more: Marx lists the commodities for sale at a medieval market – among which is a prostitute: in other words, a commodity indistiguishable from its owner’s body, that is therefore capable of carrying itself to market with its own motive power, negotiating its own sale price, leasing itself to a buyer for a brief period of time – and, indeed, resisting its buyer, who must then use force to consummate the sale. This image of the potential for the forceable rape of a living commodity haunts the main text, which still farcically continues to speak as though commodities are always and everywhere inert things.

The chapter goes on to give helpful descriptions of how commodities need their owners to give them a voice, since they lack one themselves, and to assist readers who need advice in how to distinguish commodities from their owners – advice that would make no sense unless there were more possibility for confusion than the forms of theory being presented have thus far allowed.

And so the text goes, until the eventual introduction of what Marx expected his readers to have been anticipating all along: the peculiar class of owners who have nothing but themselves – their own capacities and skills – to take to market – the peculiar class that, by the end of chapter 6, has carried itself to the labour market, negotiated its own terms of sale, and then, having sold itself, must now follow behind its new owner, the capitalist, who now sets aside the pretense of equality and mutual recognition that formally characterises the wage negotiation, steps out in front and leads the way, while the workers, having sold their hides, head off for a tanning…

I get endlessly frustrated when this joke is missed – and, when missed by commentators interested in the literary form of Capital, often missed by people who go on to try to point out various ways in which Marx is being naive, or paradoxical, or contradictory, where the commentators are themselves overlooking a very basic point about the text (that the text is designed to display, and then criticise, positions that Marx thinks are absurd), and about how the text is written (generally very sarcastically). It particularly irritates me, for some reason, to read Marx being lectured for lack of sophistication by a tin-eared commentator who simply missed the joke. Attempts to “save” Marx from naivety by defending the “paradoxical” passages in some complex way are not much better – suggesting that the semiotic character of money means that, in some sense, commodities really do “speak”, manages to reproduce precisely the sort of blinded perspective Marx is trying to criticise in the first place – a perspective unable to see that, really, everyday and everywhere, commodities are carrying themselves to market, negotiating their own price, speaking – and, indeed, resisting and being forcibly, violently possessed by others. No scare quotes required.

The Social Construction of Value

When the financial crisis first blew up, I went around collecting examples of people – politicians, economists, business analysts, journalists, talking heads of various sorts – talking about “true value” and about how difficult it would be to establish what the “true value” of various sorts of assets “really was”. At the time, what struck me was the instant and intuitive crystallisation of one of the many discourses Marx analyses in Capital – a discourse that treats “value” as a sort of intrinsic inner property concealed within a thing. Related themes – even the very language of a “bubble”, or of a “market correction” – suggested that the financial system had strayed away from this bedrock substance, pretending the existence of “fictitious” value, and that a crisis would bring things back in line, whisk away the illusion, and reveal once more the objective value reality that always already underlay the “real” economy.

It’s generally unclear what this real crystal of “value” is meant to consist in. Is it something like “material wealth”? Is it, perhaps, labour time? Whatever its substance is meant to be, this real crystal was morally inflected in the discussions after the crisis broke – the true, objective, thing was contrasted in all its solidity and certainty (even if that certainty was regarded somewhat wistfully, as still outside our grasp), with the wayward fictions of the financial markets that behaved as though the financial sector possessed a sui generis freedom from what came to be called the “real economy”.

I would like to cite examples of the sort of discussion I have in mind, but I’m writing without my archives handy – I’ll do more work on this, more properly, at a later time. What I wanted to capture tonight was just a chain of rough associations on how Marx accepts neither this “objective crystal” conception of value, nor the conception that value can be produced by a sui generis process that can self-sufficiently manufacture its own conditions of possibility.

The latter issue I’ve written about recently in discussing the problems posed by some of the “new dialectic” interpretations of Capital, which, I have suggested, channel the sui generis conception of financial capital, without noticing that Marx is mocking this very conception in the passages cited as proof texts of some new dialectical interpretations.

The “objective crystal” interpretations are also mocked, although Marx’s critique here is a bit more complex – at least in the sense that spelling it out requires a longer run-up – than the critique of discourses related to interest-bearing capital, which Marx seems to think he can dispense with more quickly.

On the one hand, what Marx means by “value” is an “objective” thing, in the sense that he doesn’t regard it as something produced “subjectively” – or even “intersubjectively”, in the sense of arising from a process that is on its face intuitively meaningful for social actors. On the other hand, this is a peculiar sort of “objectivity” – not the objectivity of something that inheres intrinsically in material nature, but what Marx will treat as a “purely social” objectivity.

This purely social objectivity requires for its production the tandem actions of many, many different social actors. It is fluid, changeable, dynamic – and not quantifiable with reference to any directly observable material “input”, whether that input is labour-time expended directly in production, existing material wealth, or any other factor. Value is, instead, a social relation – something that transcends individual social actors, and even groups of social actors, but that results from nothing more than their aggregate interactions with one another.

The social character of the process is, on one level, particularly well appreciated by those who attempt to understand capitalism in terms of the financial markets. This appreciation, however, is accompanied by the false conclusion that, if a process is socially constructed, that process is infinitely constructible. This is the sort of perspective Marx is mocking in chapter 4 of Capital, which implicitly compares this notion with the fairy tale conception of the goose that lays the golden eggs.

By chapter 3 of Capital, Marx is already talking about specific sorts of “material limits” to the process of the social construction of value. These limits, however, are not the limits imposed by the “true” value that lies silent in every commodity’s material heart. They are instead limits related to the fact that the desire for any specific material good is finite – and limits related to the fact that the “effective demand” for a specific material good (the sort of demand expressible in money form) may be more limited still.

This sort of limit is not hard and fast. Desires can be stoked, and new desires created – by effective marketing, for example, or by planned obsolescence, or by spontaneous fashion, or by tolerance for waste, or by the discovery of as-yet-untapped markets. Similarly, real desires can go unmet, due to circumstances that prevent those desires from successfully gaining expression in the medium of hard cash. So, while this is a sort of “material limit” on the infinite expansion of markets, it’s a fluid and somewhat permeable one – just not fluid enough to justify the golden-egg-laying conception of interest-bearing capital.

But the capacity of markets both to expand and to saturate is important to Marx’s analysis of the crisis-ridden character of capitalist production, and important to his conception of value as a social relation.

For Marx, actual empirical production for a capitalist market is undertaken speculatively, without sure knowledge that this production – these commodities “casting their wooing glances” at money – will succeed in finding buyers at the right price, and thus successfully reproducing their own production in the future. High demand in a specific area will tend to attract more production to that area – possibly too much more – and then the resultant collapse in demand destroys the excess productive capacity after the fact – and possibly destroys too much productive capacity – and so the system lurches from over- to under-production. This process plays out on a small scale all the time, but sometimes plays out more dramatically and on an international scale.

Credit plays a crucial role, in Marx’s argument, both in the day-to-day functioning of capitalist economies, and in exaggerating the impact of large-scale crisis. Credit is part of what, on an everyday, mundane, causal level, imports a necessary future-orientation to the system as a whole – part of what makes expansion a necessary condition for simple reproduction. This part of the argument would be much clearer if Capital weren’t written as an inverted, “mirror-image”, topsy-turvy representation of how Marx sees capitalist production as actually working – but that’s a topic for another time…

Back to the point about value: the implication of Marx’s argument is that, as a social substance, reflecting the aggregate sum total of a particular kind of dynamic social relation that is constantly in flux, value is just as “real” at the height of bubbles as it is at depth of the most severe contraction. And just as “social” and “constructed” at both of those times as well. Marx talks about the value of a commodity being the attractiveness of that commodity for the universe of all other commodities – manifested in the capacity of that commodity to exchange for all others. This attractiveness transforms and mutates with every change in the global economy – but, at any given moment, what Marx calls the successful “transubstantiation” of an “earthly” commodity into money secures its owner socially effective possession of the amount of social power that quantity of money conveys. Even in the absence of this transubstantiation, the possession of the right kind of commodity – whether coats and linen, or pieces of paper conferring rights over shares in a company – can, in the right circumstances, confer an equivalent amount of social power. Unless the overarching relationship shifts, and unconverted “earthly” commodities are suddenly no longer convertible in the same ratios as before.

Both ends of this spectrum, for Marx, are equally “social” – equally expressive of the sum total of interactions of a large aggregate of social actors. Neither the top of the bubble nor the bottom of the crisis is more “real” than the other. But the experience of cycles of bubble and burst renders socially plausible the emergence of discourses about “true” value – and the perception, however flawed from Marx’s perspective, that the sudden shifts that characterise a crisis are “corrections” that will take us back to a fabled “true” value.

This faith in corrections as a means to establish truth can have devastating consequences on a policy level, particularly when combined with metaphors of economic “health”, where the harsh and inequitably distributed consequences of the crash are viewed as “tough medicine” that will help “us” “get better” – as though the crisis is a kind of fever that will eliminate a virus that is fundamentally exogenous to our economic body, as long as we don’t interfere with the body’s natural defense mechanisms too much. The cynicism involved in this kind of rhetoric, given who is, and who is not, allowed to suffer the consequences of this “treatment”, is mitigated only to a very small degree by the fact that an actual theoretical confusion may genuinely underlie it – at least for some analysts…

There’s much more to say on all this – I’m squeezing this post in too quickly, and therefore writing too casually… Hopefully I’ll have some time to return to the issue in proper detail at a later point…