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The New Dialectic and the Bubble

July 25, 2011

Christopher Arthur coined the useful term “new dialectic” for recent attempts to reevaluate Marx’s relation to Hegel, by focusing on Hegel’s Logic, rather than Hegel’s philosophy of history. In Arthur’s words:

The point is usually put by saying the effort is to construct a systematic dialectic in order to articulate the relations of a given social order, namely capitalism, as opposed to an historical dialectic studying the rise and fall of social systems. (3)

Arthur contrasts this “new dialectic” to what he describes as the “lifeless formalism” characteristic of orthodox Marxist dialectics, and finds a common open and exploratory spirit in a diverse set of recent works that each explore Marx’s relationship to Hegel in quite different ways, but that share a common anti-dogmatism, together with a concern with how to understand capitalism as a system of relations.

My own work plays off against the new dialecticians more than it does other schools of Marx interpretation, and can be regarded, on one level, as a sympathetic critique of this broad church of approaches to Marx’s work. I share with many of the new dialectical authors the sense that Marx’s relationship to Hegel has often been misunderstood and misrepresented in ways that have impeded our ability to understand Marx’s own theory. I think it’s important to think about capitalism relationally, and I agree that Marx sees in Hegel’s systematic philosophy some potential for thinking in the appropriate relational terms. I also think that the new dialectical interpretations have been particularly important in laying the groundwork for realising that Capital is a more complex work, on a textual level, than has often been assumed in the past – that reading Capital as though it is operates in a typical social scientific genre, risks misunderstanding the work very badly indeed.

At the same time, in reading many of the authors that fall into Arthur’s broad new dialectical church, I’m often struck by how strongly these are texts of the great bubble – texts of the era when it was somewhat plausible to think of capitalism as a sui generis force, materially unconstrained, autonomous from social practice. This manifests itself in various ways in different authors. In Arthur, it emerges in the suggestion that Marx is able to draw on Hegelian philosophical categories because capitalism itself possesses “ideal” qualities in some genuine sociological sense. Postone makes a similar argument, only slightly pulling punches with the addition of the prefix “quasi”, when speaking about the “quasi-autonomous” categories that dominate social life. Even Ollman, in many ways more deflationary and pragmatist in his approach, metaphysicalises Marx’s theory, arguing that Marx’s relational claims about capitalist production must live or die on the accuracy of a set of transhistorical metaphysical propositions about internal relations…

It’s no accident, I believe, that so many new dialectical interpretations focus so heavily on the opening chapters of Capital. These chapters present a very particular – partial and one-sided – perspective and standpoint on the capitalist market. They are meant to be taken in tandem with later chapters, which explore other perspectives and standpoints. The categories they introduce are not master categories, providing the key to Capital as a whole. The arguments they make are not more foundational or fundamental than the arguments made later. Yet they are often treated as such a master key by new dialectical interpretations.

As a result, a set of fairly disembodied characterisations of categories like the commodity, money, and capital itself, are treated definitionally – the idealist method of presentation that Marx adopts in the early chapters in order to mock idealist approaches to the analysis of capitalist society, are taken as Marx’s own final word. Even dramatically sarcastic passages, such as the one in chapter four where Marx equates capital with the Hegel’s self-moving substance that is subject – a passage that appears alongside others where Marx also compares it to the Christian Trinity, and the goose that lays the golden eggs – are taken at face value, and then used as the basis for claims that there is something genuinely “ideal” about capitalist production. That this same chapter concludes by explicitly declaring that the perspectives voiced here are those of interest-bearing capital – perspectives that seem plausible only within the standpoint of a financial bubble – are disregarded. These mis-steps locate the new dialecticians as the theorists and articulators of a very specific historical moment – able to reclaim insights into the international market that were lost during the period in which the market was mediated largely through national domestic economies organised along Cold War lines, but not able to reach beyond these insights to attain a genuine critical perspective on the valorisation of the kind of global market that was emerging in their own time.

This locates my reading as well, of course. Although I began writing this interpretation before the global financial crisis was in full swing, a series of precursor bubbles and bursts were part of my formative intellectual experience. It is much easier, now, to recognise the comedic elements in Marx’s depiction of the puffed-up discourses that proclaim that capital is free of all material constraints, the self-moving substance that is also subject of our history. Marx’s comedy is writ large in the farce of our own times – our ears are tuned by our own immediate practical experience to this aspect of his text.

The question is whether, and how, it’s possible to use these insights – to use the elements of our own time that sensitise us to specific historical possibilities – to achieve something more critical. It’s an easy target, taking pot shots at theorists who were caught up in their own times, channeled those times with insight and perspicacity, but didn’t quite manage to extract from those times insights that are simply far easier to achieve today, than they would have been a short time ago. The ability to criticise these positions now, when the historical spell is broken, earns no plaudits for the come-lately critic, even if this criticism also forms a necessary moment of what we currently need to do. Chances are very high that the insights that come to us easily, are not the insights we actually most need… So the question is how to hold on to as much as we can – from our current moment, from past moments – to render our history citable in sufficient detail that we can speak concretely about institutional transformations that can achieve emancipatory ends in our own time. A keen awareness of our own event horizon – of how unlikely it is that we will be any more immune to the partial and one-sided character of our own experience – is crucial for this process.

  1. Some brief thoughts that came to me as I read this:

    – I think there is very little reason to lump Postone into the same pot as “Systematic dialectics”, though Arthur at least has expressed some sympathy for part of Postone’s work. If for not other reason than Postone has a very different take on labor in Marx’s conception. The “Systematic Dialectic” people are more or less treating labor in the same way conceptually as their opponents, the embodied labor people, at least relative to a reading like Postone’s.
    – Readings oriented towards communism as the abolition of labor as the determinate social mediation has a long history, not just with the bubble, going back to I.I. Rubin, but also which can be found in as diverse readings of Marx as Adorno and via Adorno and Marcuse to Postone (from 1974, clearly very pre-bubble) and Wertkritik in Germany from the 1980’s, and Communist Left groups like the Internationalist Communist Group, who take their cues on this from Rubin, Bordiga, Camatte, Pannekoek, and so on. In other words, the critique of labor as the critique of capital, which is [i]not[/i] the view of “Systematic Dialectics”, has an older and more varied trajectory which overlaps with the also older tradition of value-form analysis.
    – Value-form analysis also stretches back to Rubin and Evgeny Pashukanis, to Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt. The work of the latter began int he 1960’s, very, very pre-bubble. Not everyone interested in that work has taken up the lead of Arthur, et al, such as Simon Clark and Werner Bonefeld (sticking more closely to Frankfurt School readings) or James Mott and Geoffrey Kay (themselves associated more with an Aristotelian ontological reading of labor in their value-form critique, which finds expression in the journal Critique.)
    – Unlike the work of the “Systematic Dialectic” milieu, Postone begins his work from a reconsideration of the Grundrisse and his education in Frankfurt School critical theory in Germany.
    – There is a reason that Marx does not start with actual world, and he is quite clear about it:
    “The economists of the seventeenth century, e.g., always begin with the living whole, with population, nation, state, several states, etc.; but they always conclude by discovering through analysis a small number of determinant, abstract, general relations such as division of labour, money, value, etc. As soon as these individual moments had been more or less firmly established and abstracted, there began the economic systems, which ascended from the simple relations, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market. The latter is obviously the scientifically correct method. The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.” Grundrisse, 1857

    This starting point [i]is shared[/i] by “systematic dialectic”, Postone, Wertkritik, Rubin, etc. It is a common thread to Hegelian readers of Marx, whereas your approach seems more akin to E.P. Thompson or Ellen Meiksins Wood.
    – I raise Thompson and Wood because you also seem to be of the idea that Marx really isn’t into this abstraction stuff, that he is just taking the piss. This seems highly implausible when Marx in no uncertain terms differentiates capitalist society from pre-capitalist societies by the absence of direct, social relations domination. Capitalist society is marked by objective and indirect relations of domination: value commands and even the capitalist is only a capitalist because she obeys. The individual capitalist is a cipher and even the class itself is secondary to the capital-labor relation, hence the way in which capital could develop in the U.S.S.R., China, Vietnam, etc. in the absence of a capitalist class as such. You seem to start from property relations (the capitalists as owners of the means of production), that is, relations of distribution, than from the social form.
    – However, I think you are spot on with the observation that one commodity most certainly does walk itself to the market. I am always amazed at the way in which value-form theory seems to be attentive to every commodity except labor (which I would argue is central to what makes Postone different from the value-form milieu in general.)
    – This does not mean that capital is free of all material constraints. It wants to be free of all material constraints, hence it’s perfect and most absurd form is money. I don’t think Marx is mocking anyone at all when he says that money is a purely ideal or mental form. What else would it be? Value isn’t “in” the object or service. Therefore the form of value qua money also is not a quantification of the thing, but of its value (the expression of socially determined labor time). The measure of the thing would be weight or height or volume or joules or watts.
    – Further, it seems you want to counterpose material and ideal with material having a positive connotation and ideal a negative connotation, that is, you treat the concepts as primarily normative. I can’t quite see how that works. This is not to say that an ethical element is not contained in Marx’s work. Like Hegel, Marx rejects the way Kant treats law and ethics as an antinomy, but also like Hegel Marx is in fact a speculative thinker (at least when he is not overly concerned with distancing himself from Hegel, which in my opinion is usually Marx trying to distance himself from Left or Right Hegelians.) It seems to me that his humor is just that speculative thinking of the concepts.

    Ok, well, so much for brief…

  2. Hi Chris – many thanks for your detailed comment, and sorry you were held in moderation – it should only happen the first time you post (anti-spam measure).

    I’m not sure whether you’re reacting just to what I’ve written above, or whether you’ve also read any of the more systematic discussion I’ve written on these issues in other places – in the old blog or in the doctoral thesis. I’ve tried in other places to flesh out better what I’m on about (although I still haven’t gotten everything out in a public form), so this post was less about outlining the basis for these sorts of claims, and more about trying to address an issue I haven’t explicitly discussed in print, which is a rough gesture at why the sort of reading I’m providing is possible now – and, by implication, why the criticisms I’ve made of some other authors are not intended as criticisms of “bad thinking”, but as reflections on why certain theoretical insights are more readily available at some times than at others.

    To try to address some of your concerns in order – I’ll do this in a series of comments, as my computer is being unreliable at the moment – if I do it in one long one, it’ll probably crash and lose the content… 😉

    In terms of lumping Postone with the other new dialectical folks. I’m aware of course that there is a different treatment of labour in Postone’s work. In my view – and I’ve written on this at length in the thesis – Postone doesn’t actually go far enough in this respect. Although he’s programmatically very good – and I’m sympathetic, on a programmatic level, to much of what he’s trying to do – the standpoint of critique in his own work is still tacitly transhistorical. Much like the people he’s criticising, he ultimately – and in spite of his own programmatic claims – only specifies historically what he’s actually critical of. He doesn’t close the loop and provide a historically-specified account of his own standpoint of critique. Instead, that standpoint is something like “material wealth” – explicitly understood as a socially transcendent category that provides some critical purchase on the socially-explicit form of social wealth that is value.

    In my read, Marx closes this loop, with a very complex argument about historically specific forms of materiality that help render plausible the notion of a “material world” devoid of anthropological determinations that becomes intuitive in the capitalist era. Postone speaks in a number of passages as though he’s going to try to make this sort of argument, but the argument never comes – the loop never closes. I’m trying, in part, to show in my work what it might look like if we actually cash out some of the sort of programmatic claims Postone puts forward but, from my perspective, doesn’t implement.

    This more specific critique of Postone aside, I lump him with some of the new dialecticians here because, in this post, I’m not interested in how he understands labour, or even how he understands his critical standpoint: I’m interested in the parts of Capital with which he’s primarily engaging in his work. Although he does draw on the Grundrisse, and although he references later parts of volume 1 and other volumes, the categories he focuses on are derived primarily from the opening chapters of Capital. You wouldn’t necessarily know this from how his book talks about what he’s doing, but it provides a much more detailed exploration of the first six chapters than of anything after that point. In this, he’s similar to someone like Arthur, whose interpretation is also leaning very heavily on a smaller number of chapters, clustered toward the beginning of the text.

    The question that interests me in this post is why, at a particular historical period, you get a number of quite interesting, innovative works that are able to extract really quite complex content from a particular section of Capital that had arguably been underemphasised in previous scholarship. My suggestion is that there are historical, sociological reasons that many different people began suddenly finding these particular chapters resonant when they did. And my suggestion is that the insights that might have been primed by these historical, sociological shifts, might themselves have historical horizons that made other aspects of the text less intuitive.

    This sort of reading always cuts both ways: there has been a recent burst of interest in irony, sarcasm, and parody in Marx – mostly by people with a literary theoretic background, who aren’t particularly interested in what sort of systematic theory you can get from the text, and who tend by and large to be people who assume that, if there’s something “literary” like irony going on, this must mean something entirely negative – as if Marx is solely “taking the piss”, rather than using the ironic mode of expression to make a positive, substantive point. I’m trying to draw out the systematic theoretical implications of Marx’s irony – but I also need at least to try to keep in mind that there will be non-idealist reasons that I find certain aspects of Marx’s text more intuitive than previous generations of commentators.

  3. On the precursors of the recent generation of value-form theorists: yes, I’m aware of them, and have written on them elsewhere. I’m not trying to provide even a gestural sociological analysis of their readings here – I might do that another time.

    On Rubin, though: I’d need more of a run-up to flesh this out, but Rubin also struggles with an over-emphasis on the early chapters of Capital when he tries to work out what sort of “sociological” relations might like in the background of the value relation. Specifically, I don’t think Rubin fully gets (and I think this problem then carries through into a number of subsequent readings that are drawing on Rubin) the specific character of the social relation to which Marx is trying to draw attention when he thematises the category of value – I think Rubin’s ultimately casting about for a more “intuitively” social relation between people as the relevant social relation, whereas Marx is trying to thematise a sort of relation between people that arises indirectly, as an unintended, aggregate side-effect of their more overt and intuitively “social” direct interactions. Several specific categories in Capital – value, abstract labour, and capital itself – are categories whose referent is this sort of unintended, aggregate side effect. Rubin hits around this – I think in places he almost gets it – but you can see in how some of his distinctions play out, including particularly what he places on the “quantitative” and what he places on the “qualitative” side of his value theory – that he doesn’t quite make it.

    One corollary of this is that Rubin tends to be “circulationist” is his understanding of value. He rightly rejects the sort of labour-input view of value, but his own analysis still remains sort of locked in the market. Marx analyses more than this – and is critical of classical political economy for its own circulationist impulses. This sort of thing becomes difficult to discuss within a Marxist theoretical framework because many of the people who aren’t circulationist, are labor-input folks, or folks who view labour as some sort of ontological ground. I think we have better alternatives to all of these positions – but I don’t think Rubin is quite there, and I think it’s actually some of the limitations and shortfalls of his work that have led him to be particularly intuitive and plausible in recent history.

    Apologies that this isn’t fully fleshed out here – the textual case would take some work, and I don’t think I can do it effectively in a comment.

  4. On this specifically:

    I don’t think Marx is mocking anyone at all when he says that money is a purely ideal or mental form. What else would it be?

    What else could it be? An enacted element of social practice.

    Marx is a practice theorist. His analysis casts an anthropologist’s gaze over what sorts of actions we carry out, in order to generate the social world we currently have. Money in its current form, with peculiar properties exhibited in capitalist society alone, is something that we collectively do. It is therefore not a subjective or mental form – nor is it objective in the sense in which we intuitively think the physical world is “objective” (there’s a very nice underlying argument in Capital about why we find it so intuitive that the physical world would be objective, and why we tend to reduce the social world to the intersubjective – to interactions that are subjectively meaningful, to the realm of will and consent and meaningful belief – but that is too complex for a comment). It’s social – but not simply social in the sense of being part of a shared belief system or culture. It is social in the sense of being a product of shared practices – it is enacted into being.

    Money is a real abstraction – an abstraction not of thought, but of practiced collective indifference to specific sorts of qualitative distinctions that, in other dimensions of social practice, would be enacted and taken into practical account.

    That said, I think money as a real abstraction attracts a disproportionate amount of attention when people are trying to make sense of Marx’s argument as a whole. It is a really common failure to take seriously the sort of argument Marx is making about real abstractions – and to do this by focusing overwhelmingly on the sorts of abstractions that might arise in the sorts of immediate personal interactions between people that you might have been able to find in a market in medieval Europe or classical antiquity: people interacting in order to exchange things for various use-values they desire. This is, indeed, the thought-space where Capital begins. My argument is that it very much isn’t the thought-space where it ends – and this different end point is already being expressed from the opening passages of the text.

    Readings that focus heavily on the exchange abstraction – Sohn-Rethel, for example and, I think, also very much Adorno – are missing the distinction between the category of exchange-value and the category of value. Yes, there are various sorts of “abstraction” that can be derived from the practiced distinction between exchange- and use-value. But these aren’t the sorts of abstractions Marx is making use of, when he tries to explain the referent of categories like value, abstract labour and capital. Instead, those categories rely on an argument about large-scale unintended consequences of a very large number of different sorts of face-to-face, “intuitively social” interaction – many of which have nothing to do with market exchange, and therefore with the sorts of abstractions from immediate use-value that preoccupy many attempts to make sense of the concept of a “real” abstraction.

    Again, this argument needs more of a run-up than can be provided in a comment. But my basic point is that: yes, it’s possible to see what money could be, other than a mental or ideal abstraction – it could be a real abstraction, effected in collective practice. And yet I’m also not fully satisfied with various approaches to explain how the concept of a real abstraction is particularly important for understanding the reproduction of capitalism, because I believe most of these accounts are over-fixated on practices associated with the market. Which, I believe, is a sort of structural hazard related to the way in which capitalist production is reproduced – where market relations are particularly attractive to the sociological eye, particularly intuitive as the domain of sociological analysis – moreso in some historical periods than others. But I think this is a structural hazard Marx was actually trying to counteract, by beginning Capital with a sarcastic thematisation of the limitations of trying to theorise capitalist production by focusing on the petty bourgeois sphere of market exchange.

  5. On this, though:

    It seems to me that his humor is just that speculative thinking of the concepts.

    I agree – and have phrased the argument pretty much this way in some drafts, although I’ve moved away from the more Hegelian formulations of what I’m doing, both because I think it’s likely to confuse the point, since what most people are doing with Hegel isn’t what I’m doing with Hegel, and also because the Hegelian resonance isn’t… resonant for very many people.

    When I focus on Marx’s humour, it’s as part of an attempt to see Capital‘s standpoint of critique as not residing in some specific, definable ontological ground, but in the capacity for reconfiguring our own history – for reassembling the historical materials we find lying ready to hand, generated unintentionally by collective practice over many generations. Materials that Marx doesn’t believe we are fated to inherit in the same form in which they have been passed down to us, but materials he thinks we can reassemble into new forms.

    Sarcasm, parody, irony, burlesque: these genres have a relative advantage in expressing how an object of analysis can be more than one thing at the same time. Capital relies on pushing this point, over and over and over. Both in order to claim that the “same” social practice – whether this is selling goods on a market, or working as a factory inspector – can have multiple and often contradictory social consequences, depending on how far down the causal chain you trace its impact. And in order to claim that we can ourselves do something different – that we can transform the practices, institutions and beliefs we find ready to hand, in order to create a different sort of social world. Marx’s style is crucial to the constant doubling (and tripling, quadrupling – multiplying) of vision that his argument requires.

    In this sense, his humour is dead earnest.

  6. Chris:

    “Readings oriented towards communism as the abolition of labor as the determinate social mediation has a long history”

    Insofar as this can fairly be described as the shared assumption of both Postone and Nürnberger “Wertkritik” (and ignoring for a moment the HUGE differences between the two), it is faulty because it posits some sort of ontologically prior “labor substance” that exists before exchange. The category of abstract labor is *meaningless* without reference to the category of money. Production in capitalism is production for *money*. It is not true, as the neo-classical economists maintain, that money is a mere lubricant to exchange, but nor is it true as the Nürnberger maintain (and as an uncritical Nürnberg-influenced reading of Postone might lead one to think) that the point of capitalist production is to suck up great quantities of physiological expenditure.

    The Nürnberg “Wertkritik” ignores one of Marx’s crucial innovations: he is the first thinker, long before Keynes, to underline the crucial importance of money in capitalism. That is what more astute readers such as Backhaus and Heinrich have pointed out. Insofar as the Nürnberger regard money as some sort of inessential shroud hanging over “real” production relations, they end up curiously replicating neo-classical orthodoxy.

  7. Chris Wright permalink

    Dear Nicole,

    Thank you for the wonderfully detailed response. I certainly will do my best to attempt a worthy response in the near future. Just to avoid any possible confusion, I really enjoy what I have read of yours so far and I find it very engaging and I think that the direction of your thought is both provocative and productive.

    Dear NegPo,

    I am aware of your argument (as well as the HUGE, MASSIVE, GIGANTIC, INCREDIBLE, INELUCTABLE differences between Postone and Wertkritik), but all of the value-form types, including Michael Heinrich, miss the point. The issue is not that Marx recognizes the crucial importance of money, which is nothing but a rendition of the claims of Marxist Political Economy, but that Marx recognizes all of the categories of capitalist society as social forms, first and foremost Labor. That Concrete Labor and Use-Value are as completely categories of capital and not transhistorical, that Labor is to be abolished, is the common ground between Postone and Wertkritik, and all I am interested in here.

    Labor is not alienated or abstract (being the historically particularized formulation of “alienated labor”) because of money or exchange, any more than it is alienated because of private property. Money and private property are the outcome of alienated labor, that is, labor as determinate social mediation.

    The problem with Postone is that, at bottom, labor is only the determinate social relation because of the separation of the producers from the means of production, the products, and from each other. He never deals with the genesis of Labor as the determinate social mediation, which is the perpetual separation first expressed by Marx as originary accumulation, but which is sublated within all subsequent accumulation. Capital is nothing but the constant reproduction of this separation in this way. Money is crucial to the value form because it is both its purest and most meaningless form, but it is not logically prior to Labor. If the value-form arose out of exchange, then production is ensorcelled by capitalist exchange, and modernity and capitalist society, industry and capitalist society, are not a unity.

    Whatever Postone’s other limits, and I will reply further to Nicole on those, this nonsense that value is constituted in exchange is not one of them.


  8. “miss the point[…] that Marx recognizes all of the categories of capitalist society as social forms”

    Huh? Everybody says that. Rubin, Backhaus, Reichelt, Heinrich, Elbe, Ellmers. You *know* they say this. Are you seriously saying that these guys don’t emphasize form? Ellmers’ book is even called “Karl Marx’s Form-Analytical Theory of Class.” Backhaus’s essay is “Dialectic of the Value **Form**”

    “Money and private property are the outcome of alienated labor, that is, labor as determinate social mediation.”

    Sorry, this is mystical mumbo-jumbo, pure obscurantism. “Labor” isn’t a determinate social mediation without money and private property. There isn’t some mystical entity called “abstract labor” that sprang fully formed from the forehead of Hegel one day and created the phenomena money and private property.

    Marx actually described this kind of mysticism quite well:

    “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.”

    Labor is a determinate social mediation *because* production in capitalism is done for money. Private property — the splitting up of the production process among multiple independent producers blindly producing for an anonymous market — is what makes this mediation *necessary*.

    • Chris Wright permalink

      Let me be clear: this is not Principia Dialectica’s site. I refuse to engage in the petty sniping like “this is mystical mumbo-jumbo, pure obscurantism”. Your comments do not form an argument, they are chest puffing.

      You have not defended your point, nor criticized mine. You have been insulting and then quoted Marx in a Biblical fashion. You assert and swagger. Too much time with Leftists is poisonous.

      Your second post is at least clear and concise, albeit you misunderstand what “value is constituted” means, since value as a social relation can be constituted in the activity of exchange. I did not say that some kind of embodied value is produced in exchange.

      Arthur and other value-form theorists (Tony Smith, Geert Reuten) argue that the value-form is constituted in exchange:
      “In value form theory it is the development of the forms of exchange that is seen as the prime determinant of the capitalist economy rather than the content regulated by it: all the material and technical economic processes are accomplished within definite historically specific social forms.”

      You can also refer to Chris Arthur’s articles in Capital & Class and his book. I do not perceive Heinrich as improving on Arthur’s formulations.

  9. One more thing:

    “this nonsense that value is constituted in exchange is not one of them. ”

    Straw man. Value is a social relationship. As such, it encompasses the spheres of production *and* exchange. The question as to whether value is “created” in production or exchange only makes sense if you are clinging to some physiological conception of value.

  10. Chris, to criticize your point, I’d have to know what the hell it is you’re trying to say. And no, saying “mumbo-jumbo” and “mystical” isn’t insulting: I simply don’t have the slightest clue what a statement like “Money and private property are the outcome of alienated labor, that is, labor as determinate social mediation” even means.

    Seriously, parse that statement for me. I think I have a good sense of what Marx means by “alienated labor” in the Parisian Manuscripts, and I think I also know what people mean when they use “alienated labor” in a non-Marxian, everyday sense to mean something like “labor for others”.

    But a statement like “money and private property are the outcome of alienated labor, labor as determinate social mediation” sounds meaningless to me. “Outcome” how? In a historical sense? Does abstract labor function as a mediating instance in societies without money and private property? If so, how? And in that case, does that mean it’s a category no longer specific to capital and capitalist societies? What does it mean to talk about “abstract labor” outside of the money-form?

    The same thing with your use of “constitution”: what does that mean? Historical emergence? Again, how does abstract labor function as a mediating instance in societies where exchange doesn’t take place?

  11. Chris Wright permalink

    What you actually say here is something I can respond to because you actually ask questions for clarification or take issue in a coherent way. Your prior statements had none of this coherent content, nor did it indicate that you didn’t know what I meant and that you felt clarification was in order. Your statement indicated that what I said was at best incoherent and most likely just nonsense, and therefore to be peremptorily dismissed. Not surprisingly, I found it an unproductive and insulting response. I’m not chiding you because I’m hurt, but because I think it is a bad way of doing things and is intellectually debilitating. I’ll say no more on it.

    So what is entailed in the idea that alienated labor is the active root and private property and money are the outcome?

    I obviously cannot mean money and private property in non-capitalist societies. Money and private property existed in lots of places, but not in the form peculiar to capital. So I am only discussing these in relation to capitalist society.

    I also would never use the terms abstract labor or concrete labor to refer to labor in a non-capitalist society. That would be meaningless.

    The question therefore is the logical relationship of these categories and how we understand what is meant by speaking of forms. I am not arguing that once we are discussing full developed capitalist society that abstract labor, value, capital or any of the rest could exist independently of money. In fact, as you see below Marx is quite clear that money or as Marx calls it, the money-form, is the fully developed shape of the value-form. However, he is also clear that substance of value is abstract labor and the magnitude of value is determined by socially necessary labor time.

    Marx is quite specific in the Prefaces and Afterwords to the German Editions of Capital that chapter 1 is intended as a scientific development of the value-form.

    ” Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty. That which concerns more especially the analysis of the substance of value and the magnitude of value, I have, as much as it was possible, popularised. [1] The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.”
    The Afterword to the Second German Edition also holds problems:
    ” In Chapter I, Section 1, the derivation of value from an analysis of the equations by which every exchange-value is expressed has been carried out with greater scientific strictness; likewise the connexion between the substance of value and the determination of the magnitude of value by socially necessary labour-time, which was only alluded to in the first edition, is now expressly emphasised. Chapter I, Section 3 (the Form of Value), has been completely revised, a task which was made necessary by the double exposition in the first edition, if nothing else.”
    Irony also seems less than feasible where Marx considers English and French political economy to be a scientific endeavor:
    “To the present moment Political Economy, in Germany, is a foreign science. Gustav von Gulich in his “Historical description of Commerce, Industry,” &c., [1] especially in the two first volumes published in 1830, has examined at length the historical circumstances that prevented, in Germany, the development of the capitalist mode of production, and consequently the development, in that country, of modern bourgeois society. Thus the soil whence Political Economy springs was wanting. This “science” had to be imported from England and France as a ready-made article; its German professors remained schoolboys. The theoretical expression of a foreign reality was turned, in their hands, into a collection of dogmas, interpreted by them in terms of the petty trading world around them, and therefore misinterpreted. The feeling of scientific impotence, a feeling not wholly to be repressed, and the uneasy consciousness of having to touch a subject in reality foreign to them, was but imperfectly concealed, either under a parade of literary and historical erudition, or by an admixture of extraneous material, borrowed from the so-called “Kameral” sciences, a medley of smatterings, through whose purgatory the hopeful candidate for the German bureaucracy has to pass.”
    Of course, the idea that it is not private property which gives rise to alienated labor but alienated labor (the activity of alienating labor) which gives rise of private property was first noted by Marx in the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, which is exceptionally clear:

    “Through estranged, alienated labor, then, the worker produces the relationship to this labor of a man alien to labor and standing outside it. The relationship of the worker to labor creates the relation to it of the capitalist (or whatever one chooses to call the master of labor). Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labor, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself.
            Private property thus results by analysis from the concept of alienated labor, i.e., of alienated man, of estranged labor, of estranged life, of estranged man.
            True, it is as a result of the movement of private property that we have obtained the concept of alienated labor (of alienated life) in political economy. But on analysis of this concept it becomes clear that though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of man’s intellectual confusion. Later this relationship becomes reciprocal.
            Only at the culmination of the development of private property does this, its secret, appear again, namely, that on the one hand it is the product of alienated labor, and that on the other it is the means by which labor alienates itself, the realization of this alienation.”
    Marx also indicates what he means by the constitution of alienated labor:
    “Till now we have been considering the estrangement, the alienation of the worker only in one of its aspects , i.e., the worker’s relationship to the products of his labor. But the estrangement is manifested not only in the result but in the act of production, within the producing activity, itself. How could the worker come to face the product of his activity as a stranger, were it not that in the very act of production he was estranging himself from himself? The product is after all but the summary of the activity, of production. If then the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation. In the estrangement of the object of labor is merely summarized the estrangement, the alienation, in the activity of labor itself.
            What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?
            First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.”
    This section is reminiscent of the opening of Chapter 7 of Capital, Vol. 1, a chapter which I consider quite neglected because in it is his argument for the way in which labor is expressed as a form of domination.  What I find most interesting is that in the first of these three paragraphs, estrangement is specifically located in the producing activity itself, not in private property (which the section I cited prior to this, but which comes later in the section on “Estranged Labour”), not in exchange qua circulation, and certainly then not in money, though without a doubt money is essential to Marx’s analysis, but money doesn’t estrange labor, does not make it abstract.
    More importantly, Marx will work up the ideas here and make them historically specific in his discussion of labor in Capital.  The compulsion which is external to the laborer is no longer that of a particular capitalist, but of capital as such.  This compulsion is abstract i.e. impersonal, objective.  It is not the compulsion of the Master on the Slave, but depends exactly on the dually free nature of the laborer: free of any means of reproducing herself except by selling her labor, and also free to sell that labor to whomever she chooses.  The dual freedom of the laborer is no mere mocking by Marx, and if he is being comedic, it is comedic because the unfreedom of the laborer is directly to be found in her doubled freedom.
    I would like to add a few more thoughts before ending this.
    Labor is a determinate social relation in capitalist society because it constituted both the social world and wealth.  This is unlike other societies, where the relations of production do not constitute the social relations.  This is why chapter 1, which Marx himself places a great deal of scientific importance on getting right and which he considers the most difficult, starts with the society as a mass of commodities, and then has to explain the way in which commodities are constituted, that is, worked up, generated as, formed as, values.  We thus come to understand value not only as a social relation, but, as value-form theory seems to sometimes forget, as the social form of wealth per se.  Money is the most universal, perfect (and meaningless) form of value.
    But what constitutes value?  What we have with capital is a form of mediation structured by a historically determinate form of social practice: Labor.  This is the above-mentioned alienated labor particularized by Marx as labor in capitalist society, labor split between concrete and abstract.  Labor mediates social relations in this society because as I noted above production relations are not merely technical relations, but just are social relations.  Richard Gunn, in his “Notes on Class” observes a similar idea: that the class relation in capital is just production relations as social relations.
    As a result, the production process is the core of Marx’s critique (not distribution, which is the level of private property and money as exchange.)  Labor itself, then, based on all of the above, is an abstract (impersonal, objectively imposed) form of domination.
    I would go further and cite the same quote from p. 704 of the Grundrisse Postone does:
    “The exchange of living labour for objectified labour, – i.e. the positing of social labour in the form of the contradiction of capital and wage labour – is the ultimate development of the value relation and of production resting on value.”  It would be hard to be more clear that the exchange involved in chapter 1 is not the exchange of circulation and certainly not of petty commodity production, but within capitalist production.
    Now, were private property to determine labor as social form, rather than vice-versa, then the overcoming of capitalism is first and foremost a problem of the distribution of wealth: who owns what.  Abolish private property and money and you abolish capital.  Unfortunately, what is evident in the 20th century is that if you abolish or attempt to abolish private property and money without abolishing labor and value, you create the worst sort of tyrannies, from the USSR and China to Khmer Rouge Cambodia.
    From the point of view in which the social form of labor constitutes (gives rise to, leads to, determines) the forms of property and constitutes value (and as a result, the later forms of value, i.e. money).  You need to pay attention to the fact that the predicate becomes the outcome and the outcome becomes the predicate in Capital.  Marx starts the book with labor which is already capitalist and discusses its contradictory facets as constituting Value.  Marx then develops the forms of value.  Finally, he develops the total circuit, the transformation of value between its various forms, which is Capital.  Only at the end of the book, however, does Marx develop the actual, historical separation of the producers from the means of production, their product, each other, etc. which allows for the constitution of labor as doubly free.  Even though money and private property pre-exist the transformation of labor, we are talking about conditions prior to the real subsumption of labor, and thus prior to the properly capitalist production process.  The “primitive” accumulation separates the producers from the means, but this originary activity is in fact the ongoing actuality of the capital-labor relation.  Capital must always reproduce that separation, in order for labor to be capitalist labor.  The class struggle is just that constant separation, that reproduction of labor as capitalist labor and therefore labor as productive of value, capital, etc.
    Please note, since I am developing this specific point, that capital and money, just like value, are forms of social relation and forms of wealth.  This doubling is central to the contradictions of capital and also to its status as an abstract form of domination, even though it is the activity of people which constitutes that abstract form.  In the end, their activity is not under their control and it cannot simply be brought under their control as long as labor is the determinate social relation.
    I would also suggest that the idea of money you are working with is overly focused on exchange and not enough on money as form of value, that is, as a moment of the total capital circuit and as the expression of value in a purely quantitative form.  The value of labor power is certainly expressed in money because all value is expressed in money, but capitalist labor is the predicate of value.

    Why it is wrong is related to the constitution of categories. The notion of constitution requires clarification. The constitution of categories refers to their genesis as forms of social practice and in thought. This is not quite the same as the old canard of the historical versus the logical analysis, but rather is the idea that the categories don’t exist a priori but are generated out of historically specific human activity. Understanding these categories (I could also say relations, since social relations are comprehended in Marx categorially, not empirically, that is, they behave with an internal coherence and lawfulness) requires understanding

  12. Chris Wright permalink

    Sorry for the weird ending, I did not finish the sentence.

    Understanding these categories (I could also say relations, since social relations are comprehended in Marx categorially, not empirically, that is, they behave with an internal coherence and lawfulness) requires comprehending their reciprocal interaction, but also their logical priority. Exchange and money have been around for a long time without giving rise to the generalization of labor as a commodity, as wage-labor, as the general mediating activity in a society of generalized commodity production and hence of value. Only at the point at which labor is capitalist labor (unity of abstract and concrete) can we talk of exchange as exchange of living for objectified labor, of value, and therefore of the form of value in which these other social forms must be expressed. Money is therefore the form of transition in the circuit M-C-M’ which allows value to constantly change form without losing itself.

  13. „The question therefore is the logical relationship of these categories”

    My understanding though is that the sequence in which Marx unfolds his categories has nothing to do with prioritizing a single category from which all others are derived, but rather these categories are mutually presupposing, so Marx uses the dialectical presentation as a means of sorting them all at. But at the end of the “Results of the Immediate Production Process”, for example, Marx *returns* to the commodity, but the commodity enriched by further concrete determinations.

    The “Wertkritik” people like to argue that “class” is a “derivative” category for Marx because it comes at the end of Vol. III in a mere fragment. But in fact the entire ensemble of social relationships in all three volumes presupposes the existence of the “doubly-free” worker, as Marx states very early on in Vol. I.

    “However, he is also clear that substance of value is abstract labor and the magnitude of value is determined by socially necessary labor time.”

    But that socially necessary labor time cannot be measured other than by money. That is the basis of Marx’s critique of “labor-money” utopian socialists.

    “Private property thus results by analysis from the concept of alienated labor, i.e., of alienated man, of estranged labor, of estranged life, of estranged man.”

    Again, given that this does not correspond to the actual historical sequence, the only way to interpret this that makes any sense is to assume it’s just a fancy way of saying that the production of capital ultimately rests upon the cooperation of the direct producers. Fair enough, I guess, but that’s a rather trivial insight.

    “You need to pay attention to the fact that the predicate becomes the outcome and the outcome becomes the predicate in Capital.”

    Yup, I just said this, which is why I don’t understand the point of prioritizing one category as “constituting” the others.

    “The value of labor power is certainly expressed in money because all value is expressed in money”

    And can *only* be expressed in money. That is, if it’s **abstract** labor that we’re talking about.

    There are some passages from Marx’s Revision Manuscripts for Vol. I, which were later incorporated into the French translation (but irritatingly, not the German edition or English translation) that make the point more explicit:

    There are two passages from Marx’s revision manuscripts for Vol. I (“Ergänzungen und Veränderungen zum ersten Band des Kapitals”, December 1871/January 1872, MEGA II/6) that emphasize this very strongly:

    “Die Reduction der verschiednen konkreten Privatarbeiten auf dieses
    Abstractum gleicher menschlicher Arbeit vollzieht sich nur durch den
    Austausch, welcher Producte verscheidner Arbeiten thatsächlich einander
    my translation:

    “The reduction of different acts of concrete labour to this
    abstraction of equal human labour is consummated only through exchange,
    which in fact equalizes products of different acts of concrete labour.”


    “Ein Arbeitsprodukt, für sich isolirt betrachtet, ist also nicht
    Werth, so wenig wie es Waare ist. Es wird nur Werth, in seiner Einheit
    mit andrem Arbeitsprodukt, oder in dem Verhältniß, worin die
    verschiednen Arbeitsprodukte, als Krystalle derselben Einheit, der
    menschlichen Arbeit, einander gleichgesetzt sind.”

    “A product of labor, considered by itself in isolation, is therefore
    not value, anymore than it is a commodity. It only becomes value in its
    unity with another product of labor, or in the relationship within
    which the various products of labor, as crystalizations of the same
    unity, human labor, are equated to one another.”

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  1. The Social Construction of Value « Uncomfortable Science
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