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.