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Beyond the Exchange Abstraction

August 19, 2011

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.

  1. Toby Simmons permalink


  2. allan permalink

    I came across your blog today while looking for some material on surplus-value. I would like to comment briefly on “human labour in the abstract.” I am by no means an expert on Marx but I am always amazed at how relevant (and revolutionary) he is today: for instance, capitalist crises still happen every 7-10 yrs or so, although they are not as violent as they used to be, thanks to Keynes; 10% unemployment and the industrial reserve army of the unemployed; higher productivity leads to cheaper commodities, etc.

    But on “human labour in the abstract,” Marx began with the understanding that for any commodity to have value it had to be a product of human labor. Thus, a weaver produces cloth, a tailor a coat, a wine maker, wine, a goldminer ,gold etc. And these commodities are equal to a proportion of the value of each other: 10 yds cloth=1 coat=5 bottles of wine=1/4 oz of gold. All of these commodities can be exchanged, in quantity (proportionally) one for the other although each was produced with a different quality of labor (weaving, tailoring, winemaking, etc.)

    When looked at in the “abstract” there must something which makes all these commodities capable of being exchanged for each other even though they are all qualitatively different. Nobody, as Marx says, exchanges a coat for a coat. It is true that people have been making coats since man could wear clothing. (Also there was barter before capitalism.)

    This abstract characteristic is not labour in a particular, qualitative form, but rather labour in an abstract, purely quantitative form, time.

    You seem to be saying that abstract labour is an unintended product of capitalism.

    I would say that capital is the taking of the product of labour, and it is not at all abstract. Rather, it results from the entirely real fact that, on average, a worker produces more per hour (or any other time period) than she is paid in wages for that hour. In the U.S. the median hourly wage is about $20 while the median hourly product is (at least) $50 per hour.

    The labour is real, the wages are real and the profit is real. The exchange which results in money is real. Money is simply a form of labour, I suppose an abstract form. People can look at a car and see it as a product of labour; but money? Not too many people would look at a U.S. dollar and see labour. Maybe that is the abstraction of labour.

    Sorry to ramble like this.

  3. Hi allan – thanks for your comment, and sorry you were held in moderation – should only happen the first time you post.

    If I get some time soon, I may try to reply more properly, at greater length, in a full post. But just to jot out a couple of quick responses for the time being.

    On this:

    Marx began with the understanding that for any commodity to have value it had to be a product of human labor

    It’s not Marx that begins with this understanding: it is the political economic theory that Marx is trying to criticise, that puts forward this notion. This sometimes isn’t easy to see because of how Capital is written. Parts of the text have a parodic style, which means that they operate, in the first instance, by sending up the positions Marx is trying to criticise. Then – often much later – Marx will outline his own position.

    I have a similar reaction to this:

    When looked at in the “abstract” there must something which makes all these commodities capable of being exchanged for each other even though they are all qualitatively different.

    There are passages, for example in Capital‘s opening chapter, that sound like this. Such passages have created great confusion for both critics and supporters of Marx’s theory, because the argument put forward in these passages seems to contradict things Marx says elsewhere in the text – including later in the same chapter.

    This “contradiction” begins to make more sense if the passages are understood to be sarcastic parodies of the sorts of positions Marx is trying to criticise, rather than demonstrations of the analysis Marx actually uses to arrive at his own conclusions about the reproduction of capital.

    On this:

    This abstract characteristic is not labour in a particular, qualitative form, but rather labour in an abstract, purely quantitative form, time.

    The social construction of time is very important to Marx’s argument, but the argument about abstract labour is a bit more complex than this.

    Marx characterises capitalist production as a system in which production is done speculatively, without secure advance knowledge of whether the labouring activities we are carrying out, at any specific moment in time, will continue to be reproduced into the future. We lack this secure, advance knowledge because the products of our labouring activities must survive the test of the market: the goods need to sell, and need to claim a price that is at least sufficiently high to reproduce their own production, if a particular labouring activity is to continue to be reproduced.

    Marx tries to look at this situation anthropologically – trying to distance us a bit from a situation that we can take for granted, and get us to look at how strange its social implications are – as strange in their own way as the strangeness of various “exotic” customs that Marx sarcastically references periodically in Capital, in order to flag that he’s offering this sort of anthropological perspective on capitalist society.

    He argues that capitalist production involves a strange arrangement – where we are engaging in all manner of productive activities, on the one hand, but without knowing which productive activities will succeed in reproducing themselves in the long run, on the other.

    We know that some subset of our current, empirical labouring activities will succeed in reproducing itself in the long run. We don’t know, however, what that subset will be. There is no way to determine this from looking at any directly observable empirical dimension of the labour process. The only way to know is to wait, and see what happens in the process of market exchange. Once exchange has taken place (over and over and over), we will eventually learn – but only retrospectively, after the fact – which labouring activities attract enough “effective demand” (demand as it can be expressed in the medium of money) to continue to be reproduced at their current scale, at a reduced scale, at a greatly expanded scale – or not at all.

    Since this process only ever takes place retrospectively, capitalism is characterised by a historically and socially novel global system for determining its social division of labour. People engage in speculative production, sometimes over-producing, sometimes under-producing, and occasionally, precariously, managing just to hit the mark. The social division of labour that results from this process is neither consciously planned, nor even intersubjectively meaningful: it is an accidental byproduct of the aggregate practices of many different social actors, none of whom is immediately trying to allocate global labour in some specific form.

    Abstract labour is the term Marx applies to the invisible subset of labouring activities that will eventually be selected for, by means of this unintentional, aggregate process. A subset whose concrete members we won’t – and can’t – know, until money has been allocated to purchase the goods generated by some specific collection of labouring activities. (The argument as a whole is more complicated than this, as the operation of credit, the turnover rate of money, and other institutions and practices all have implications for how this process plays out on the ground, but this provides at least a gestalt of what the argument entails.)

    Abstract labour is Marx’s term for the invisible subset whose exact composition is impossible to determine at any specific moment in time, because it’s determined by social practices that will take place after the act of production has been undertaken. Money, in its distinctively capitalist form, stores the power to intervene in an ongoing process of the dynamic reallocation of the sorts of activities that comprise the social division of labour – it stores the practical social force that can summon labour-that-is-to-become, and thus represents potential labour, as-yet-unformed or channeled into any concrete expression. In this very specific sense, money is a real abstraction – just a different (more complex) sort of real abstraction than most analyses of the abstraction from use-value would suggest…

    I’ve written on this a bit more systematically in the thesis, and will probably take it up here again at some point in the future – I’m writing this in between other obligations today, so my expressions are not ideal. But hopefully this gives some sense of the argument…

  4. allan permalink

    Thank you for your response. I must say I don’t think I have ever seen an argument that the economic analysis of Marx is based on his use of irony, sarcasm, and parody. He often ridicules bourgeois economists (the bagmen of free trade); his “Poverty of Philosophy” is an unsubtle destruction of Proudhon.

    The jokes and sarcasm that I see in Marx (Capital, Ch 1) usually are fairly straightforward: “Dame Quickly;” “This shows that when placed in value-relation to the linen, the coat signifies more than when out of that relation, just as many a man strutting about in a gorgeous uniform counts for more than when in mufti.” (Value as a relation. This quote reminds me of a remark from Mencken–If you take the average general and put him or her in civilian clothes they look like store clerks.) And, from the same chapter: “The fact that it is value, is made manifest by its equality with the coat, just as the sheep’s nature of a Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God.”

    I get the sense that you are arguing that he is somehow using a “subversive” style. Does this mean that when he says, at the beginning of Capital, “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity…” that you take him to be saying that the immense accumulation of commodities is somehow something that he wants to parody rather than analyze, or analyze through parody?

    I would have thought that Marx was deadly serious in his analysis of capital. He wanted to kill it, put a stake in its heart (somewhere Marx describes capital as a vampire,) not just make a joke of it.

    Again, these are, more or less, random thoughts. I will take a look at your thesis.

  5. To be honest, I always find it a bit weird when people conclude that a parodic style means that someone isn’t being serious. As a genre, parody is often associated with very serious critiques that think their object of critique is utterly contemptuous, and express this contempt precisely through this style. Marx expresses the level and extent of his contemptuousness for political economic theory through the style he adopts in Capital. He also expresses his rage at the needless barbarism of capitalist production using this style. A straightforward, neutral “sociological” mode of expression – aside from being utterly anachronistic in the period in which Marx is writing – wouldn’t give the basic affect – the essential fury driving the critique – adequate expression in his analysis. It’s a dark humour – a pleasure taken in exposing exactly how monstrous the system is – but this dark humour pervades the text.

    Marx has other substantive reasons for using for presentational strategies that rely on parody, irony, sarcasm, and similar gestures. A great deal of the argument hinges on communicating that it is possible for the “same” social practice to generate more than one kind of consequence – and for the “same” social phenomenon (including physical objects) to serve more than one social purpose. Irony, sarcasm, parody, and burlesque are specifically suited to the substantive argument he is trying to make, since they are all presentational styles that require the reader to keep more than one thing in mind at once, in order to follow the point being made in the text. Text is linear. Marx’s argument isn’t. So he reaches for the best textual styles available to him to preserve as much of that non-linearity as he can, to help his readers grasp the non-linear character of capitalism itself.

    In terms of the opening line of Capital: there is a joke in the line, as well as other jokes in the open paragraphs. The joke in the opening line relates to Hegel, whose method Marx is spoofing in subtle ways throughout the text, as part of a subterranean critique of idealist dialectics. Hegel argues at some length, in a work that Marx references obliquely in the preface to volume 1, that the beginning of philosophical systems is particularly pivotal. He spends some time reflecting on what is required from a philosophical system, in order to ensure that the beginning is not extrinsic to the system, and therefore irrational – Hegel wants to swallow even the foundation, the “first principle”, of his philosophical system, within the system itself. So, Hegel argues, it is necessary that the beginning should also be a product of the system as a whole.

    Throughout Capital, Marx scatters passages that secularise Hegelian concepts, showing what sort of real-world, sociological referents resemble or seem to possess similar qualitative characteristics to elements in Hegel’s idealist system. The first gesture in this critique is to start Capital with… a product. Not the sort of product Hegel had in mind – but a darkly humourous gesture that suggests that capitalism as a global system possesses many of the attributes that Marx takes Hegel to have read off onto an ideal process. To analyse such a system, we should therefore begin with that system’s product – the commodity, parodically described in the opening chapter as an apparently simple and straightforward category, which will be demonstrated by the end to be filled with complexities. This is a riff on Hegel – not in order to “apply” him to the analysis of capital, but to mock him (and, more specifically, to mark the various self-professed acolytes of Hegel in Marx’s time).

    On another level – and this has been pointed out by other people – the opening sentence also includes a quote. The quote is to Marx’s own previous work. This sort of gesture establishes a disjoint between the text, and Marx’s own voice – which is cited or quoted in the text, but which isn’t always the only voice being expressed. Often, the voices being cited or quoted are those of other people – often, people Marx holds in contempt, or at least people Marx doesn’t believe have a particularly solid understanding of capitalism and its very specific form of “wealth”. So the opening chapter proceeds to trace various attempts to grasp the wealth of capitalist societies: is it an empirically-observable thing? Is it a transcendent ideal entity, deducible by thought but not amenable to empirical analysis? Is it something that can be ascertained by an idealist dialectic? Marx mocks each of these approaches in the opening chapter, rejecting them all as adequate ways to understand the wealth of capitalist societies – and continues to mock further attempts to understand capitalism’s historically novel form of wealth, in subsequent chapters.

    The structure of this initial argument again mimics a structure that Hegel uses in several works, where he moves from a critique of empiricist approaches that rely on direct sense perception, through a critique of forms of scientific deduction that treat the forms and laws that they deduce idealistically. Marx mimics this structure, and adds onto the end of it a critique of clumsy idealist dialectics – thus tacking bad Hegelianism onto the list of approaches to be dismissed, and distinguishing his practice-oriented dialectics from the sort of dialectics he sees being carried out by idealist acolytes of Hegel.

    Most of the critical jokes in Capital don’t rely on this sort of fine-grained understanding of Marx’s relationship to Hegel – but some important ones do. Personally, I’d rather he have done a bit less of this, and also been a bit more explicit about his presentational style. Marx seems to have assumed the parody would be obvious – Engels warns him while he’s drafting Capital that he is assuming too much familiarity with Hegel for his likely audience…

    The point of Marx’s mocking presentation, however, isn’t simply to dismiss everyone he’s mocking. The substance of the critique – the serious part of the critique, if you must – is that he claims to be able to show how all of these other positions are “right” – what their logical core is – how they are, in Marx’s words, “socially valid”. He does this over the course of Capital by gradually pointing out real sociological referents for the sorts of phenomena described by other theories of capitalist society. This operates as a critique because these referents end up being only very small, partial, fragments of the system that is laid out by Marx’s own analysis. By repeatedly demonstrating how other attempts to theorise capitalist production are partial, one-sided, blinkered – failing to recognise how the system operates as a whole – Marx demonstrates that he has insights into the wealth of capitalist societies – into its production and reproduction, but also into its contingency – that competing forms of theory simply don’t possess.

  6. Chris Wright permalink

    Dear Nicole,

    By way of how I ended up here, I ran across your old blog/site, if I remember correctly, through Principia Dialectica. I have been pursuing my own work for about 30 years; or rather at least, my engagement with Marx and revolution began when I was around 15 years old, and gained speed on getting involved in a small Trotskyist sect when i was 17. Since then I have certainly rethought time and again exactly what Marx’s work entails.
    My current points of focus are, and have been for the last 5 or 6 years, around the seeming disappearance of working class identity, explicitly working class politics, and also, increasingly, the end of collective but universalist politics in general. In other words, the women’s movement, in the U.S. the Civil rights movement, the American Indian movement, etc. have also settled into communitarian or liberal modes to the exclusion of either their collective aspect or their universalist aspirations, that is the aspects which broadly oriented not towards the petrification of gender, race, national, sexual, etc. identity, but towards the eradication of those social structures as essentially repressive rather than representative. As such, a certain uneasy peace has been made with gendering, racializing, nationalizing, whether through assertions of multiculturalism and tolerance or communitarian division in which each should retreat into its ‘natural’, inevitably dominant-submissive role structure. Modes of thought and politics which seek to cut through have suffered serious setbacks to say the least.
    The other part of my work involves trying to comprehend the shifts in the global organization of capital, that is, my interest in various ways of thinking about Marx’s critique of political economy are now driven by what the implications are for 1) the history, as it were, of the labor/valorization process, that is the actual forms it has taken over time, 2) capital as the domination of space, and 3) how both of these have short-circuited the capacity to experience the capitalist organization of society as the problem. In the first, I draw heavily on Moishe Postone (and comments on him by Russell Rockwell, Michael Neary, Glenn Rikowski, and Marcel Stoetzler) because I believe he is one of the few Marxian thinkers who doesn’t ontologize labor, sociality, use-value, etc. The Left has a habit of wanting to moralize, as if “concrete labor”, “use-value”, “directly social” relations, and so on, were not already categories of capital, but transhistorical, and therefore directly or indirectly ontologically primary, categories. However, I also draw extensively on Hans-Dieter Bahr’s 1978 essay “The Class Structure of Machinery”, Richard Gunn’s notion of class and class struggle, Werner Bonefeld’s discussions of the state and “primitive” accumulation, in considering all of this. Capital as the domination of space is, I hope, obviously draw from Debord and the Situationist International, but also from what I think is Engels’ best material, his essays collected in On the Housing Question. On the last aspect, I am indebted to a number of people, but currently most importantly to Gaspar M. Tamás and Gillian Rose, and to a lesser extent Jacques Ranciere (specifically and almost entirely for his conception of democracy and politics) and with a back-handed debt to Slavoj Zizek. This question of experience for me also goes hand-in-hand with the problem posed philosophically by Kant of the fundamental split between Law and Ethics, which expresses the actual split between the State and Civil Society or citizen and bourgeois. I would differentiate myself from anarchism and a lot of contemporary French philosophy growing out of Nietzsche because I do not take the side of Ethics against Law, denigrating Law (and also Reason, Truth, etc.) as “totalitarian”; it is also the standpoint of revanchist populism in the communitarian mode. However, I think that the move which takes the side of Law without Ethics leaves us with the cynical maneuvering of the organizational Left (from Trotskyist sects to the PSF); it is also the ground of the individualistic, technocratic liberalism that has eclipsed what remained of a kind of social justice liberalism. I believe that a renewed emancipatory experience and politics both require us to find the gap indicated by Gillian Rose as “the broken middle”, by Jacques Ranciere as “democracy”, and by Gaspar Tamás as the “rudiments for a political philosophy of socialism”, which for all of them is also the place of the universal.
    My hope is not to engage in some “corrective” sense, but to challenge your points in the hope that both of us are furthered along the way. Having already been encouraged and given pause to reflect by your work (I am very much looking forward to the published book, but I am trying, in the meantime, to read the final thesis you posted), my comments are strictly meant to attempt to encourage you in the same manner. Also, please forgive me if my comments are unfinished. I can lay no claim to being such a finished intellect as an Adorno, Marx or Hegel.
    So, blah blah blah, on to the actual ideas at hand.

    I really understand the intent of your comments on value-form theory as indicating a discussion more of why this kind of insight has become available now. I am suggesting two possible limits to how you have expressed this.
    – Firstly, that if Systematic Dialectics has developed around the bubble economy, and in a time of seeming de-industrialization, what is most interesting in it comes out of ideas that developed in the 1960’s and 70’s from people who were taking critical theory back into a reading of Marx as having a critique of the form of value. This not only drew on the events in Hungary and East Germany, which announced workers’ struggles as back on the agenda in some sense in Europe, but also the events of 1968. If their work was begun earlier, nonetheless the work of Backhaus, Reichelt, etc. was intimately tied to the same environment which produced SDS in Germany, and their philosophical resources were Adorno and Horkheimer. At the same time, Freddy Perlman was making Rubin available in the English-speaking world and the Grundrisse was made available.
    – Secondly, including Postone in this milieu is difficult to sustain since his own work goes back to 1974 and because his perspective differs quite radically from the views of the Systematic Dialectic milieu, and even from value-form analysis on general, though he certainly does have a form-and-mediation approach, not a typical Marxist Political Economy approach.
    So I think you have to differentiate more clearly between Systematic Dialectics and what it contributes that isn’t already present in the early Neue-Marx Lecturne materials, and also what you think Postone has in common with Systematic Dialectics that is not something he already worked out in large part by the mid-1970’s, that is, pre-bubble.
    There are also other possible determinations of the work, such as the defeat of the social struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s, the receding of working class identity, the fall of the Eastern Bloc and then the USSR, etc. I think the picture of why this theoretical work suddenly becomes a hot topic is more complex than being a reading of value which is bubble-liscious. For example, if you accepted the USSR as socialism, then a value-form analysis would not fly. If you held the analysis of “degenerated workers’ states”, then value-form analysis does not make sense. Value-form analysis in general assumes the coming to grief of “really existing socialism” and the traditional Marxist separation of “good industrial production” from “bad relations of production” (capitalist ownership, exploitation, chaos of the market, etc.) The critique of industrial production became a practical critique by workers in the 1960’s and 70’s, and then the collapse of “really existing socialism” and the ease with which the so-called workers’ states went back put paid all the nonsense and opened a space for a critical re-thinking of the root of the problem.
    Do Postone and the Systematic Dialectic people spend a lot of time on the first six chapters? Sure, but so do their opponents. On this I believe they are all justified up to a point because the predicate of the “transformation problem”, “theory of crisis”, “good industry” versus “bad relations of production” and Marxism as a species of political economy is a certain reading of the opening categories of the book. If you don’t accept the traditional reading of the relation of value and price, then the transformation problem does not exist. If you don’t accept the traditional reading of value, then there is no point in trying to turn prices or GNP, or GDP or whatever into value. The procedure itself is a categorical error.
    I also think that Marx takes the first chapters incredibly seriously. That is, everything he does later depends on that chapter (hence my quotes of Marx below.)
    What I think is really, really important is that you read the logic of progression of Capital in a completely different way from how I do. Your argument seems to me to say that Marx starts where he does in a kind of arbitrary way. To me Marx is a categorial thinker and so where he begins cannot be accidental, reversible, and how you understand the beginning effectively determines how you understand everything that comes after. For what it is worth, Werner Bonefeld and Paul Zarembka’s debate over primitive accumulation, which is obviously near the end of the book, is a really valuable example of the downstream effect, or rather, what is entailed depending on how one understands the start. But specifically on your point about Hegel attempting to swallow his own “first principles”, Marx does the same thing. Each starts from a more or less socially specific point, not from a first principle which then is placed beyond investigation. Hegel, as an idealist, starts with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the a priori categories of intuition: time and space. Sense-certainty is a taking apart of Kant’s first principles, his very unsubstantiated first principles. He will then come back in the Phenomenology to ground the emergence of this starting point just as Marx will do in beginning with a category of fully developed capitalist society: the commodity, which presupposes fully developed wage labour and capital, but whcih he cannot simply take as given, as first principles.
    Now, I am curious about your critique of Postone and his failure to “close the loop”, as you say, but your point here to me is a bit murky. From what I glean you seem to think his standpoint is “material wealth” as such, while to me his standpoint is a state of development of capital in which the treadmill effect has thrown so much living labor out of production, has so reached a point where production is overwhelmingly the product of “historical labor” (various forms of dead labor and accumulated, scientific knowledge), that the contemporary locus of the contradictions of capital is between this state of the regressive social form of capital which intensifies poverty, deprivation, overwork, low quality of life, etc. and the material capacity to put an end to each of this and liberate people from both material deprivation and the domination of time by labor. However, I think you on to something that for me relates to the way in which Postone throws out the baby with the bathwater in his analysis (well, mostly dismissal) of the class relation. It is precisely in the capital-labor relation, which Postone reduces to merely phenomenal class struggle, that the “historically specific forms of materiality” become evident, at least in a negative sense. That is, the capital-labor relation has given rise to a dynamic which is historically unique, but which is also resolvable only on a basis which is the abolition of the class relation. I don’t know that we can look to Marx however for what that entails concretely in the present, only that to me a reading of class in a sociological manner, which one would expect Postone to not do but which he does, is inadequate and we need to think proletariat as those determined as labor against that determination. Or something roughly like this.

    I would also like to note that I have a deep and abiding prejudice against two aspects of your work, which is reading Marx ironically and what I see as a fetishistic disavowal of idealism. I distrust the ironic reading because anti-Enlightenment Romanticism and contemporary philosophy which is its inheritor are all too happy to throw out truth, reason, etc. and replace them with an ironic view. It implies to me a mode of thinking that is both naïve and cynical at the same time. Frankly, it is not surprising to me that irony is the mode du jour of hipsters. On the other hand, anti-idealism is the hobby horse of most Marxism. Idealism is used as a swear word, some terrible malediction to be avoided. In turn, what is usually put in its place is a natural-scientific materialism or a kind of philosophical pragmatism. So if I seem a little impatient or cranky, I apologize, I am trying not to be overtaken by my own prejudices.

    On Rubin, I largely agree. I only brought him up to again suggest that the value-form analysis is not just relegated to the bubble, and I believe Rubin’s work reinforces the idea that the value-form type of reading is anathema to “really existing socialism”, to the point that he and Pashukanis had to be silenced with death because the implications of their works is that the USSR was capitalist.

    What I am really interested in is your development of this: “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.” It seems to me that the entire thing needs to be unpacked, almost word by word. It seems, at first blush, that you effectively read abstract labor as a product of the post-production circulation of labor, that is, as effectively constituted in exchange as well, but I may misconstrue your point, so I am looking for clarification.

    Why would an enacted element of social practice not also be ideal or mental? I think this is where the fetishist disavowal of idealism does you a disservice. The two are not mutually exclusive. The concept and the practice go hand-in-hand and the social practice entails a kind of conceptuality. To say that it is “enacted into being” does not get around the ideality of this being. Also, we can skip the worry that objectivity should be equated with physicality or materiality. The objectivity Marx is concerned with is social. Contrary to generations of [i]Dialectics of Nature[/i] and [i]Materialism and Empirio-Criticism[/i] and [i]The Monist View of History[/i], Marx isn’t worried about the objectivity of rocks.
    I think the problem is evident when you say: ” 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.”
    It’s not an abstraction of thought, but of “practiced collective indifference”? This is a difference without a distinction. Practiced or not, collective or not, “indifference to… distinctions” is a failure of cognition. All you are saying is that in other dimensions of social practice (which you do not specify), this cognition would take place, with the result that they would be enacted and taken into account.
    I would, as something of a side-note, indicate that people in a market in medieval Europe were not exchanging use-values because they were not dealing with exchange-values or commodities in Marx’s sense of a generalized social form. They weren’t values.
    I am further interested in formulations like this: “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.” What does “those categories” refer to? Value, abstract, labor, capital? These are the “unintended consequences” of “face-to-face, “intuitively social” interaction? What does that mean? Your notion of the relation of private and social needs clarification, I think.
    Finally in this section, how differentiate your claim that Marx began his theorizing of capitalist production by “focusing on the petty bourgeois sphere of market exchange” from the typical historicist claim that Marx starts with a society of simple commodity production? I think the latter completely misconstrues the assumption of Marx that the categories he is working with are those of a fully developed capitalist society.

    I am tempted to agree that “…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.” But, but…
    This is not a historically grounded standpoint. What you present is a generic species capacity, at least in this phrasing. Also, you emphasize transforming what “we find ready to hand” and you include “practices, institutions, and beliefs.” The problem I see in this is an idea that we can simply use what exists differently, which only works on the assumption that the practices, institutions, and beliefs can be simply given a different content irrespective of their form. If you wanted to worry about an idealist way of approaching the issue, I would think it would be here, where you move into generalities and separate form and content as if you could have one without the other.
    I am not arguing that we can just jump outside our skin. We have to begin with what is, but some things cannot be appropriated (Marx is quite clear on our inability to appropriate the state, the wage form, etc.) Maybe I am too much reading a political implication into your comment here?

    I began with a longer response, but what increasingly jump out at me are the fundamental philosophical issues. I think you open this up with asking what “real abstraction” is, but I think it is necessary to go further and ask what abstraction is, and if there is simply one kind of abstraction. Another example is the relation between practice and ideality, but we have not unpacked what is meant by practice and ideality. I am not concerned with laying out definitions, but in the adequate and self-conscious development of those concepts, which while it might not lead to agreement, might lead to clarifying what is at issue and what is at stake. It also allows us to put Hegel, Postone, Arthur, and even Marx, aside and focus on the ideas we are trying to work through.
    There are many ways that the term abstraction can be used, and frequently authors will use it in different ways without being aware of the shifting. If I can get some time, I will give some examples of what I have in mind, but let me say preliminarily that I don’t think that Adorno and Lukacs merely abstract [i]from[/i]. In fact, they seem most concerned to treat abstraction as a kind of abstracting into, related to their understanding of the relation of concept and object. Marx indicates that unlike the natural sciences he must rely on abstraction. He also declares capital an abstract form of domination because it is not based on direct, personal forms of domination. And so on.

    Finally, I am curious how you square your reading of Marx’s formulations as ironic (as opposed to his use of humor, of comedy, which is not necessarily ironic) with the Preface to the First German Edition.
    ” 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.”

    All the best,

  7. Hi Chris – I’m about to head out for the day, so most of this I’ll need to respond to later. As before, I’ll do this in a series of smaller comments to tease out some of the different issues. I wanted quickly to pick up on one thing from the middle of your comment/question, just because it’s the sort of thing that may be causing you to approach me from the wrong direction, assuming commitments I don’t possess:

    What I think is really, really important is that you read the logic of progression of Capital in a completely different way from how I do. Your argument seems to me to say that Marx starts where he does in a kind of arbitrary way. To me Marx is a categorial thinker and so where he begins cannot be accidental, reversible, and how you understand the beginning effectively determines how you understand everything that comes after. […]

    I would also like to note that I have a deep and abiding prejudice against two aspects of your work, which is reading Marx ironically and what I see as a fetishistic disavowal of idealism. I distrust the ironic reading because anti-Enlightenment Romanticism and contemporary philosophy which is its inheritor are all too happy to throw out truth, reason, etc. and replace them with an ironic view. It implies to me a mode of thinking that is both naïve and cynical at the same time. Frankly, it is not surprising to me that irony is the mode du jour of hipsters. On the other hand, anti-idealism is the hobby horse of most Marxism. Idealism is used as a swear word, some terrible malediction to be avoided. In turn, what is usually put in its place is a natural-scientific materialism or a kind of philosophical pragmatism. So if I seem a little impatient or cranky, I apologize, I am trying not to be overtaken by my own prejudices.

    To say that Marx writes satirically, parodically, ironically, sarcastically: none of these things has anything to do with romanticism. You must be familiar with something like “Juvenalian” satire as a genre – fiery social and political criticism expressed as satire? When you read, say, Jonathan Swift, is the first thought that comes to your mind that he is disavowing the principles of rational discourse? There’s no more reason to assume that Marx is disavowing reason when he uses these tools – remembering also that Marx is writing prior to an established genre for “critical theory”, and working with tools including literary ones – he was a voracious reader of fictional works, and frequently cites them in Capital. I’m suggesting that he is also adapting some of the presentational resources from these works, because these resources are, in fact, very useful for tools for expressing the substantive argument he is trying to make, which is a critique of what he regards as an “inverted” world, with “deranged” categories – a social universe with properties that appear absurd once you realise that they are historically contingent.

    In terms of whether Marx is a categorial thinker, and whether his starting point is arbitrary: I haven’t claimed his starting point is arbitrary: again, I’m not asserting Capital is a novel (although I also think it’s ridiculous to claim that the starting point of a literary work is arbitrary: Marx isn’t the only author who sweats and slaves over how to start his work, how to structure it, and how to array its internal components. He himself speaks of being painfully aware of Capital‘s artistic failings, suggesting that he doesn’t regard analogies to artistic production as completely inappropriate for his own work.)

    Capital is a serious, systematic, work of critical theory that uses certain styles that – in our time – have been ringwalled off as “literary” styles that are perceived as opposed to systematic analysis. I’m arguing that, in Marx’s time, these sorts of styles were being used by quite a lot of people who were writing critical works on capitalism, when those works were aimed at mobilising a mass audience – and these strategies wouldn’t seem particularly incongruous to deploy in a systematic theoretical work. They seem incongruous to us, but Marx hadn’t spent several decades going to the trenches against postmodernism – he’s not worried about defending himself from hordes of hipsters. He’s trying to write a complex, systematic argument that he hopes will influence a mass movement. “Literary” critiques aren’t bad resources to draw on, if that’s your goal.

    He is, of course, also making heavy use of Hegel. I get a bit surprised by many “Hegelian” readings of Marx, because they often see a lot less Hegel than I think is “in” the work, in the form of structural choices, terminology, passing references, duplicated examples. I think there is a very deep engagement with Hegel. But I also think that engagement is deeply critical – and so I think a lot of the Hegelian references in Capital also need to be read as double-voiced: Marx isn’t using this Hegelian terminology to express his identity to Hegel, but to show how much he has surpassed the master – how well he can embed Hegel within his own, very different system.

    All that said, the basic argument is that capitalism is arbitrary. As a whole. The whole system is arbitrary. This is the point of the argument. It’s a historically contingent product of human practice. And it can therefore be transformed. This is what the whole argument is driving towards. This is the case Marx is trying to prove. And at least some of the Hegelian readings of Marx seem to miss this point – not in the affect of the authors, not in where the heart and hopes of their authors lie, but in the basic operation of the argument. This is why some of these readings end up using terms like “quasi-autonomous” to describe capital – why they end up asserting that capital has “ideal” properties: these moves reflect an over-attribution of independence to capital. This over-attribution does not exist in Marx’s text. He displays the “systematic” properties of capitalist production – showing the relations that bind it together, in an order that, I agree, is systematic and meaningful.

    But the whole point of doing this, is to show how and why this “systematic” character doesn’t provide the sort of anchor Hegel believed it did. Ultimately, the “system” is arbitrary and contingent, because it’s a human product – like many other human products Marx’s contemporaries would regard as arbitrary and absurd, and which he cites at regular intervals throughout the text. The point of the work is to show how apparent systematicity doesn’t imply underlying rationality – that the presence of unintended order shouldn’t be taken, as Marx believes various apologists do take it, as a demonstration that somehow capitalism is a manifestation of “underlying” historical or material laws. Whether this is fair to Hegel or not (I’m sympathetic personally to pragmatist readings of Hegel, but Marx doesn’t seem to have been), Marx seems to put Hegel in this same category – he takes Hegel to be concluding that, because there is an implicate order within a system – because it’s possible to array relations into a systematic form – this means the system and its relations can be said to be rational.

    Marx is the anti-Hegel in this precise sense: Capital is a work that will both array the relations in an orderly form, to show how order and nonrandom pattern arise from these relations, and yet he also vehemently opposes the idea that this order implies that the system is rational in any way. In this, he’s much closer to Darwin than to Hegel (do you have the impulse of treating Darwin as an “irrationalist” or a “romantic”?). He’s making an argument that we don’t need a designer – or a Geist – to produce the sorts of nonrandom patterns we see in our social environment. And he’s specifically and purposively demonstrating the irrationality and barbarism of the sort of unintentional “order” we have managed to produce.

    This involves an ironic – tragic – restaging of elements of Hegel’s system. This restaging proceeds by identifying the closest thing to sociological referents for some of the elements of Hegel’s system, and then by showing how the sort of conclusion Hegel would have drawn from his systematic work, simply cannot be drawn when the object of analysis is the reproduction of capitalism.

    But the bottom line for me, when reading Marx, is that the work was written with the intention of making it easier to transform capitalist production. Reading Marx as a “straight” Hegelian doesn’t do this. Nor does understanding capital as “quasi-autonomous” or as really possessing attributes of Hegel’s Geist. Now, Marx could have done these things himself, and then my beef would be with him. But I think I can make the case that he hasn’t done these things at all – and that readings that take him to be doing these things, are taking literally the sorts of positions that Marx is trying to hold up as the targets of his critique in Capital.

  8. Why would an enacted element of social practice not also be ideal or mental?

    On your previous comments on reflex anti-idealism, and this comment on why enacted elements can't also be ideal or mental: I'm sympathetic to the argument that many articulations of anti-idealism can be sort of inverted versions of the idealism they are opposing, asserted in a sort of a priori way that makes this, perhaps ironically, sort of idealist critiques of idealism…

    My argument isn’t that enacted elements of social practice can’t be mental – my argument is instead that anyone who begins with a dichotomy between the mental and the practical won’t make much headway in understanding Marx’s argument. Marx is aiming for a historical analysis of forms of materiality – which will include things like bodily comportments, habits of perception, forms of thought – things that are often placed on the “mental” side of the ledger. But Marx will analyse these “mental” aspects of practice as aspects of practice – so possessing a determinate sociological referent and with a definite historical index, etc. He doesn’t believe his theoretical contemporaries do this – and so part of what he’s doing, when talking about the “social validity” of specific forms of theory, is linking what understands itself as a disembodied product of pure reason, back to the specific elements of social practice for which he thinks those particular sorts of thought are actually valid. The result is a sphere of validity much smaller, generally, than would be asserted by the theories Marx is criticising.

    But saying that an enacted element of social practice includes mental aspects (because we don’t “do” with part of ourselves, while “thinking” with some other part), is very different from what you were asking before, which is what else money could be, if it weren’t ideal or mental. It was that earlier comment I was reacting to in my last set of responses. And I do think it’s not productive to speak about money – an everyday element of our social practice – as being primarily “ideal” or “mental”. It’s primarily something we do, collectively – and doing this thing involves certain characteristic comportments, forms of perception, intellectual habits, etc.

    Marx’s own anti-idealism, I’ve argued in other places, is not a hostility to the notion that there are “mental” practices – he talks about this possibility in various places. It is, instead, I think better described as an intense hostility to forms of thought that present themselves in a disembodied way – without grasping their own sociological or historical situatedness. He also seems to think that new intellectual insights that have arisen historically, may owe much more to changes in the everyday fabric of social practice, than they do to strictly “intellectual” innovation – in this sense, the argument aligns a bit with more contemporary discussions around embodied cognition, and the way we make use of embodiment in thinking, even if this relationship is more probabilistic, than deterministic. But this probably gets off the track of your question.

  9. I am tempted to agree that “…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.” But, but…

    This is not a historically grounded standpoint. What you present is a generic species capacity, at least in this phrasing.

    I understand why this specific sentence would sound historically ungrounded, so I’m sympathetic with your reaction, and I won’t be able to make a convincing case in a comment that the reaction is unwarranted. But one of my main arguments is that Marx does think that part of the differentia specifica of capitalist production, is that it suggests this specific insight into the nature of history.

    I’ve written a great deal on how Marx argues that insights that arise historically in specific moments, can then be extracted from those moments, and then applied to our analysis of the past – or the future – but that he also argues that, when we do this, we need to do it with a “grain of salt” – with the recognition that we are in fact not speaking about things that would have been true for other times, in the same way they are true for us. He’s interested in the differentia specifica that makes this sort of insight possible – and I think he provides a basis, in Capital, for grounding historically and sociologically a range of categories that seem on their face to be intrinsically decontextualised and transhistorical. I’ve begun outlining some of that argument in the thesis – I’ll try to do a better job in the book, as this element of the thesis became a bit compressed due to the restrictions of that “genre”. Even the book will be a bit short for the argument – there’s a second book planned, which hopefully will be finished soon after the first…

    But the point is: I understand that this question seems logical, but showing how it’s possible to say this sort of thing, without breaking the historical and sociological frame of the analysis, is part of what I’m trying to do. And, incidentally, part of what I think someone like Postone doesn’t quite manage to do, even though programmatically he suggests he’s interested in doing it.

  10. I’ll need to pick up on your other points at a later time – heading off to be a fisherperson this morning – will return to being a critical critic later tonight…

  11. Hi Chris – okay, picking things up after the break…

    On the recurrent issue of how Postone should be classified, whom he should be grouped with, etc.: the way that you classify and group a theorist will depend on the sorts of things that interest you about that theorist. There are a number of things potentially interesting about Postone’s work. What interests me specifically are a set of programmatic statements that suggest that he’s interested in showing how Marx grounds his categories socially and historically.

    In practice, Postone does not follow through on these programmatic commitments. Instead, his argument operates very similar to Patrick Murray’s work: both of them divide Marx’s categories into a series of historically and socially specific ones – like value and labour as “socially mediating” activity – and a series of more genuinely transhistorical ones – like use value and labour an activity that “mediates” the relationship between people and the natural world. The socially specific categories are then presented as being conflated with the more genuinely transhistorical categories, which is taken to cause the socially specific categories to appear transhistorical and foundational in an inappropriate way. This argumentative structure is more explicit in Murray’s work – I’ve tried to show elsewhere that it also carries over into Postone’s work, in spite of occasional gestures that suggest the possibility for historicising even the categories on the transhistorical side of the register.

    So I personally think that “use value” is a completely historically and socially specific term, in spite of its apparent “abstraction” and seeming transcendence of any specific social context. I think, at times at least, Postone thinks this too. But the actual operation of his argument does not cash out – and does not really attempt to cash out – how this can be the case. He just asserts the point programmatically in various places. He then actually deploys a Murray-style argumentative apparatus, which relies on the capacity of socially-specific categories to become conflated with genuinely transhistorical ones. His standpoint of critique is then tacitly grounded in the tension between those transhistorical categories and the socially specific ones he is trying to criticise. I view my work on this level as a sympathetic critique of Postone and Murray – as well as a range of other figures – in that I’m trying to show what would be required to cash out programmatic statements about achieving a level of theoretical reflexivity that would allow all the categories to be socially and historically specified. I think this is what Marx does in Capital – not for epistemological reasons alone, but because you get a much better on-the-ground understanding of how capitalism is reproduced if you do this.

    When writing on Postone here – when writing on anything on the blog – I tend to presuppose other things I’ve written, knowing that people might not have read those things, but I don’t use the blog as a space for the systematic presentation of an argument, but as a space for moving into progressively newer content. So I don’t expect this argument necessarily to seem persuasive based on what I’ve written here (although I’m not the only person to have noticed this issue with Postone’s work), but just explaining that the comments on Postone are intended as developments of earlier work.

    I do have other problems with Postone’s approach. I think it’s inaccurate, for example, to describe abstract labour – as he sometimes will – as a socially novel “function” human labour comes to play in capitalilst societies. The sociological referent for this claim would be the sorts of practices involved in having to exchange labour in order to obtain the means of subsistence. Although this sort of practice isn’t wholly unique to capitalism, it is certainly much wider in extent under capitalist production, so I understand why the argument seems intuitive. And of course the separation of people from the means of production, and the sort of coercion that becomes possible once this separation has been effected, is important to Marx’s argument.

    But I don’t think the category of abstract labour specifically refers in such a direct way to this phenomenon. It’s not a category designed to capture a special “function” that labour plays, even if labour can be said to be serving this function in capitalist production – by thinking of abstract labour this way, Postone is tacitly still thinking too concretely about Marx’s category. Abstract labour isn’t something labour “does” – historically specifically or otherwise. Its abstract character therefore can’t be said to derive from a conflation between a role labour can always be said to play – mediating relations with nature – and a role it plays uniquely in capitalism.

    The category of abstract labour refers, instead, to the unknown subset of empirically undertaken labouring activities that will eventually be selected to reproduce themselves in the longer term. This subset is constituted uninentionally, through a disaggregated set of social practices that are not aiming at including any specific constellation of labouring activities in “social labour” in the long run. It’s also not empirically discernible through examining the overt empirical properties of concrete labouring activities, and it’s a category perpetually out of joint within any specific moment in time, since it’s something that’s only determined by aggregate social practices that are not temporally bound to the moment of production. In this sense, concrete productive activities are carried out speculatively, without certain knowledge they will succeed in being included in the socially-ratified pool of labouring activities that will succeed in securing the basis for their own reproduction.

    Tacitly, Postone’s use of the notion that the abstraction of abstract labour derives from conflating social mediation, with the mediation of the natural world, relies on naturalising the properties of interaction with the natural world – as though interaction with the natural world “should” exhibit properties of “instrumental reason”, while interaction amongst people “shouldn’t”. Again, in places Postone knows better than this, and he does gesture at historically specific explanations for the instrumental quality of our interactions with the natural world as well, by arguing, for example, that production whose end goal is surplus value, treats the natural world as “material” and as a means to an end. He doesn’t consistently know better, however – or his argument wouldn’t hinge on the point about the conflation of two social “functions” of labour as a means to explain the abstract character of social relations now. In this, he replicates a sort of fractal problem that can be found in a lot of Frankfurt-associated theory, where the one dimensionality thesis hinges on a particular set of assumptions about what labour “is”, and therefore about why the consequences of freeing up the “forces of production” were historically devastating.

    I’d rather push Postone’s work further along the lines where it’s gesturing at something more properly historically specific – trying to develop what are, from my perspective, its more promising instincts. To do this, however, it’s necessary to go considerably beyond the argument Postone makes in his book – which is what I mean when I say that he doesn’t “close the loop”. He may well close the loop on the issues that interest you in his work, but too much of his argument, for me, falls back on the Murray-style argument that relies on transhistorical categories as the means of explaining the qualitative characteristics of socially specific ones. This sort of argument is more one-sided than the one Marx makes, and I’m trying in my work, in part, to show how. By “my work”, of course, I don’t mean the sorts of gestural comments I’ll make on the blogs, but in my formal systematic work, since the argument needs more than a short run-up to become convincing.

    I’ll pick up in the next comment on the issue of how a certain aspect of Postone’s work can be seen to be particularly “socially valid” for the bubble…

  12. Okay, in terms of the sort of position I was taking in the post on new dialectical theory and the bubble.

    It’s probably easiest to address this by backing up a bit, and saying something about how I read the operation of Marx’s critique of political economy, and specifically how I understand his argument about the ways in which forms of theory are associated with specific historical and sociological phenomena.

    I think there are three elements that can be disentangled and distinguished from one another here.

    The first is the point I mentioned above: that Marx’s argument is very hard to understand if someone wants to make a strong distinction between the “mental” and the “practical”. One of the things I’ve tried to show in various places, is that Marx stages small playlike interactions repeatedly in Capital, because they provide a fairly good way for him simultaneously to thematise the way in which social practices involve subjective comportments, intersubjective interactions, practical actions, and the use of various stages and props on which the performances can be carried out. All of these things are implicated in social interaction – and, as a side point, I think far too little attention has been paid to the dozens of demonstrations of this kind Marx stages in Capital, relative the amount of attention paid to a quite small number of privileged “social forms”. Marx thinks that classical political economy, at least, has at least a passing familiarity with the sorts of patterns that tend to get called “social forms” today. What he thinks they lack is an understanding of how these forms are actually produced, unintentionally, in everyday social practices where social actors are not aiming to generate this sort of big picture result at all. The various small-scale, play-like scenes he stages throughout Capital provide him with a way to examine the process of production of these social forms – and to show how the sorts of mundane practices that produce forms (from buying and selling goods, through to colonial administration) can be carried out in a way that leaves social actors oblivious to the aggregate consequences of their actions, and therefore capable of perceiving their own social environment in a highly partial and one-sided way, without having to dismiss these partial and one-sided perceptions as simply errors of thinking.

    So one element of his critique of political economy is to accuse it of stopping short of understanding the process by which particular “laws” or historical patterns are produced by contingent human action. (In case it’s unclear, I should say that “contingent” here, like “arbitrary” in my comment above, doesn’t mean that social actors are behaving in some random and unpredictable way, but rather that there is no underlying, transhistorical law of social life or human nature that necessitates the patterns and laws the political economists discern in their behaviours now.) Marx thinks the political economists – and Hegel, as well – sort of bask in awe at the discovery of lawlike patterns, and react as though they’ve found a sort of deep, inner, more fundamental truth that is itself driving human practice, so that practice is understood as a manifestation of an independent law.

    By contrast, Marx wants to regard the “laws” as regularities of practice, with no independent status that could drive practice as if it’s somehow external to practice itself. He thinks there are apologistic reasons for political economy not to want to delve too deeply into this issue, as doing so exposes the non-necessity of reproducing these “laws”. So he delves into the “microscopic anatomy” of capitalist production, trying to display the specific practices required to operate in tandem, if capital is to be reproduced.

    In the process, he ends up treating the reproduction of capital as a sort of downstream consequence of many different practices – practices which also generate a number of more immediate consequences. The more immediate consequences are easier to see – and they often don’t bear much resemblance to the qualitative characteristics of the overarching trends that characterise the reproduction of capital on a global scale. By themselves, many of the social practices that reproduce capitalism, now, don’t “intrinsically” have this sort of result, if they were carried out by themselves or in some other historical and social context. They only have this particular large-scale consequence, if they are carried out in tandem with many other practices. As a result, it can be quite difficult to work out what “causes” capitalism, because too narrow an examination of any small subset of practices, viewed in isolation, doesn’t suggest that these practices would be able to generate this sort of aggregate result.

    By staging his miniature plays all through Capital, one of the things Marx achieves is to show how and why it’s so plausible to become confused about how capital is reproduced. He shows the many angles from which the process can be viewed, which imply that our social practices would generate very different impacts – indeed, he shows that our practices do generate very different impacts, if you only trace the impacts a short distance from the immediate practices we perform. Each of the plays marks out a dimension of everyday social experience – but also a possibility for theoretical confusion. Particular theories can focus one-sidedly on specific – perfectly real, but partial – dimensions of social experience, and hypostatise those dimensions, or treat them atomistically, and thereby end up with a deeply inadequate perspective on the whole.

    Okay… so that’s one dimension of what’s going on.

    Second, Marx thinks that some theoretical categories have much more specific historical and sociological referents than their theorists realise. I’ve written at great length, several times, about his analysis of Adam Smith and the category of “labour” – where “labour” is understood as an activity that mediates our relationship to nature. I don’t want to repeat that argument again here, so apologies if this seems a bit truncated. But the gist of Marx’s argument is that, while the development of this category requires great intellectual insight, the invention of this category can’t be adequately understood solely in terms of intellectual brilliance. Instead, it only makes sense to have this sort of category – to expend the intellectual effort needed to “discover” it – once something has changed at the level of everyday social practice, to make this category a “practical truth”. Unless there is some practical sense in which we are enacting labour sans phrase, there’s no need to come up with an overarching term for labour as such. Marx thinks the practical shift predates the process of formally theorising the category – the need for a category like this is suggested by a change in our practice that renders our existing categories inadequate to express a new element of social experience. This isn’t a “deterministic” argument – nothing compelled Adam Smith or anyone else to theorise this way. But theorising this way wouldn’t have made a great deal of sense before the shift in social practice.

    At the same time, Marx argues that the abstract character of this sort of category – the fact that it seems indifferent to what sort of labour is being performed – makes it particularly intuitive to regard it, not as a specific theoretic response to a determinate shift in social practice, but instead as a “discovery” of something that had always intrinsically lain tacit within various specific forms of labour all along, even if previous times weren’t sufficiently “Enlightened” to strip away the veneer of their idiosyncratic social practices, and discover what had always already been the underlying truth of those practices.

    In other words, Marx tries to explain the temptation to treat certain categories as though those categories are socially transcendent and are discoveries that have arisen through a process of conceptual abstraction, by stripping away all socially and historically specific content, through intellectual effort. He argues, however, that the abstraction of the categories is not the product of intellectual or conceptual abstraction – of the power of thought possessed by the theorist – but instead needs to be seen as a “practical truth”, grounded in real social processes that entail practical indifference, in some dimensions of social practice, to the concrete character of the labour performed (his explanation of these social processes will become much more complex by the time he writes Capital, but the basic critical “move” stays the same).

    Okay… so that’s another dimension of what’s going on.

    Finally (at least for purposes of this typology), Marx is interested in establishing the “social validity” of the claims of competing forms of theory that he criticises in Capital. He does this, I am arguing, by showing what aspect of social experience can be most adequately described by the theory he is criticising at a specific moment in the text. So he often, for example, stages one of his miniature playlike interactions, explores the comportments, sensibilities, practices, and props involved in enacting a specific social practice or set of practices. He then back up from this – whether in footnotes or in the main text – and namechecks specific kinds of theory. The purpose of this is to say that this practice, which he has just been analysing here, marks out the sphere of “social validity” for a specific competing theoretical claim. This is a critique because Marx doesn’t himself rest with some small subset of social practices, but keeps introducing new practices, over and over and over. When he indicates that a specific set of practices marks out the sphere of “social validity” for some competing theoretical claim, by implication that body of theory can’t grasp all of the other social practices Marx is also exploring – and therefore has been shown to offer a partial and one-sided perspective on capitalist production.

    The specific point I was making in the post about the bubble, was this sort of point. I’m not concerned – and neither was Marx – that Postone began writing in the 1970s. I’m concerned – in that post – with the dimension of social experience to which a specific aspect of Postone’s work can be said to be adequate. The aspect of Postone’s work that specifically interests me in that post (in other posts, I have other interests) is that way in which Postone, like Arthur and Murray, takes literally the passages in Capital in which Marx describes the category of capital in the same terms that Hegel uses for the absolute – the self moving substance that is subject. Each of these authors – however else they may differ – take this passage very seriously, and then proceed to analyse capital as a subject of history (albeit a horrific one, etc., as they distance themselves from positions that claim the proletariat is the subject of history).

    Marx is being sarcastic when he uses this phrase to describe capital. In the same set of passages, he also compares capital to the Christian Trinity, and to the goose that laid the golden egg. The selective use of the Hegelian image from this set of passages, obscures the intense sarcasm of the section as a whole. Marx himself goes on in this chapter to say that the perspective put forward here is that of interest-bearing capital – a dimension of social experience that Marx thinks can plausibly suggest various Hegelian and other metaphysical perceptions of a boundless, untethered, self-generative process. This dimension of social experience is perfectly real – but categories that are adequate only to this dimension, are inadequate to understand the reproduction of capital as a whole. Marx presents these images in order to bound certain forms of theory to this sphere – and therefore criticise them by showing, as his own argument moves forward, how much they can’t understand.

    My suggestion in the “bubble” post was that a similar argument can be made about several recent approaches – I wasn’t interested solely in Potone there – and that the specific image of capital as subject is particularly adequate, in some ways, to aspects of our recent history, as well as to the longer-term and more continuous experience of interest-bearing capital that Marx draws attention to himself. This isn’t an argument about the conditions in which these theorists were writing (although I would argue that, in the sense that interests me, the 1970s is not a different historical period from the era of the bubble). It’s an argument about the limitations of their arguments, about what aspects of our contemporary experience of capital they make it easier to see, and what they occlude.

    The phrasing of the piece wasn’t ideal for this – it was intended as a shorthand placeholder for myself, for some writing I intend to develop later. Again, saying that the piece is a shorthand is not intended to wall it off from criticism. I am keen, though, to distinguish the blog from my more systematic writings – this is a workshop space, and so the pieces here will routinely do things like presuppose arguments I’ve made elsewhere, and leave out portions of arguments that are not central to what I’m working on at the time. This can be frustrating to people reading on, and I’m happy to engage and try to clarify what I’m after if I have the time – I’m posting publicly to allow this to happen, although I may not always be able to spend time responding, at the expense of generating new content related to what I’m trying to work on myself – saying this as an advance apology if I leave questions hanging for extended periods.

    But I think I’ll stop here for the moment – enough content on the table for now.

    • Chris Wright permalink

      Actually, there is a lot here I generally agree with, so allow me to restrict myself to some clarifications.

      1. Irony and ironic readings seem to me susceptible to the same sympotamtic reading to which you subject value-form theory. I am not claiming that irony is a 20th century invention. I’m claiming that “ironic readings” of theorists are fashionable for a reason. So noting that irony is ages old is no more an argument against my [i]unease[/i] than my [i]unease[/i] applies to your reading. My comment was solely intended to alert you to prejudices I have and which might unfairly color how I take your argument.
      2. I absolutely agree that capitalist society is arbitrary in the sense you mention. I never claimed otherwise. My concern was that you seemed to intimate that Marx could just as well have started with primitive accumulation or the labor process, that Marx’s critique of capital (not capitalism) was arbitrary. I also am quite aware that most kinds of writing, including those which are literary fiction, are no more arbitrary in their beginning, but the question with Marx is whether or not his beginning conforms to the object of his work.
      3. I completely and totally agree, as far as I can tell, on your desire to completely historicize not only abstract labor but concrete labor; not merely exchange-value but use-value; and further for me, not only the private but also the social. So far, Postone seems to do this better than anyone I have read, including the majority of the value-form theorists whose first criticism of Postone always seems to be his rejection of the trans-historical validity of use-value. This does not mean he could not do it better and more consistently, and I think you point to a really good moment of that: that the assumption of the relation of “nature” and “Man” has some stuff packed into it as well.
      4. I think your staging of the relationship of Marx and Hegel is interesting. I also agree that Hegel is actually much more present in Marx’s work than most Hegelian readers recognize. I have hardly made it through an entire section of the [i]Phenomenology of Spirit[/i] without recognizing Marx in it and thinking about something Marx had said unfold before me, albeit usually in a somewhat different manner.
      5. I don’t think that Marx is closer to Darwin than Hegel, but I do think that you are quite right to suggest that what Marx does is similar to Darwin: he eliminates any trace of essentialism and organicism from the critique of capital. Where Marx identifies any essentialist or organicist aspects to capital, it is absolutely historically specific to capitalist society and is part of it’s irrationality.
      6. I agree with your general point about “social validity”, thank you for clarifying your points on the relation of practical and mental. You sentence beginning with “Marx’s own anti-idealism…” is well taken.
      7. “…one of my main arguments is that Marx does think that part of the differentia specifica of capitalist production, is that it suggests this specific insight into the nature of history.” Yes, that clarifies things. There is certainly a retroactive insight, as when Marx argues that only with capitalist society does the exact nature of money, exchange, etc. become evidently though the nature of these things has vexed thinkers since Aristotle.
      8. I still have questions regarding how you read Marx’s approach and some of his notions, but I think this has been very helpful. So, which of your systematic pieces of yours would be available, aside from the dis?

      • Hi Chris – thanks for this – and, just to clarify, in case it seemed I was tarring you above with positions you don’t hold, some of it will just be that, as long as I’m writing on something, I’ll take the opportunity to sketch out at least some of the surrounding conceptual space – in part because it’s helpful to me, as I try to finish the book revisions. So apologies if some of what I’ve just written would seem obviously not to apply, based on things you’ve said above – I’m just trying to be clearer about what I’m attempting to do.

        On this:

        Irony and ironic readings seem to me susceptible to the same sympotamtic reading to which you subject value-form theory.

        Yes – that’s precisely what I was saying at the end of the “bubble” post. 🙂 On a personal level, the post was a reminder to me that I need at some point to flesh this out – it’s a bit like the line in the Grundrisse, where Marx has gone through an extended analysis of aspects of money, and then includes a note to himself that he needs to correct the idealist presentation of the argument in that manuscript. I need to do this as well – it’s not going to be the case that the current interest in irony, sarcasm, etc., in Capital is going to be happening because someone has suddenly become “brighter” – there will be sociological reasons this sort of reading particularly appeals now, and there will be things this sort of reading risks occluding – and the more aware we can be of these things, the less the likelihood that we’ll reject insights of earlier approaches to the text, etc.

        On this:

        So far, Postone seems to do this better than anyone I have read, including the majority of the value-form theorists whose first criticism of Postone always seems to be his rejection of the trans-historical validity of use-value.

        Yes, I play off against Postone’s work (and Murray’s, and a number of other specific authors) because I think the work is extremely promising in the way it opens up the possibility of thinking about the historical specificity of Marx’s categories. Again, it’s a bit like the passage where Marx talks about Smith developing this insight into labour sans phrase – where Marx mentions that the insight is a difficult one for Smith to hold onto, and so he often lapses back into physiocratic notions of labour, without necessarily realising that this has happened. I think something similar could be said about the way in which Postone works the historical specificity of the categories: I think there are a lot of lapses back into tacitly transhistorical formulations, which fall behind the potential of the basic insights of the work. I’d like to see what the argument would look like if we could do more, and operate more consistently, in the direction of specifying the categories historically. But this isn’t intended as a dismissal of Postone’s work, but rather as a sympathetic critique.

        In terms of things of mine available publicly, the dissertation is still probably the best thing, and it has its limits, both because of the layers in which it was written (so the level of revision is very uneven), and because I had to cut out a good portion of the argument, in order to be allowed to submit it, and this had a negative impact, I think, on the portion I did submit. I’m working on the final revisions for a substantially different version of the argument for the book, so hopefully this will be in the world soon. I realise it’s annoying to put things up here, and then to say that these are just workshop pieces and not the full argument – unfortunately it’s true. It’s very important to me that I be able to use this space to workshop and post placeholders to lines of argument that are not going to be developed fully here, but as I said, I’m sympathetic if the results of doing this are that the positions I sketch online are less then persuasive in their current form.

  13. “So I personally think that “use value” is a completely historically and socially specific term, in spite of its apparent “abstraction” and seeming transcendence of any specific social context.”

    Nicole, do you mean the term itself is historically specific, or the “thing” it’s describing?

    Because Marx is very clear:

    “Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth.”

    Are you simply saying that the differentiation into a transhistorical material content and a historically specific social form is only fully developed in capitalism, so only capitalism makes it necessary to have a term to describe that transhistorical material content, or are you making the far more radical claim (contra Marx) that use-value is itself historically specific?

  14. Hi negative potential – sorry for not addressing any of your points earlier – you seemed engaged in what looked like a discussion carried over from elsewhere, and so I didn’t comment.

    On citing Marx’s text in this way:

    Because Marx is very clear:

    Part of my argument is that it can be very hazardous to say “Marx is very clear” and then quote a line, without first establishing the voicing of the passage, and how the passage fits in the architectonic of the argument as a whole. A great deal of the text – including these very opening passages – are voicing positions Marx is trying to criticise. The passage you’re citing above is part of a more extended argument that is critical of political economy for taking capitalism to be just the latest formal iteration of an underlying identical substance that is at the base of previous historical “economic” systems.

    Marx’s argument in the longer run of the text is that actually wealth in capitalist society specifically is not “use value” – instead, the “substance of wealth” for the society Marx is analysing is, perversely, this strange social substance called “value”. Marx can’t think that use values form the substance of all wealth, transhistorically, because the whole thrust of his argument is that he doesn’t even think use-values are the substance of our wealth, right now.

    I’ve argued that this passage is part of an opening volley that is critical of a particular kind of political economic theory that thinks it can make sense of the internal dynamics of capitalist production by starting from the assumption that capitalism is a form of “social metabolism” – a means to reallocate material goods from one place to another, in order to meet material needs. Capitalism for Marx includes this kind of process of social metabolism – Marx thinks it’s a trivial point that societies must have some way of meeting their material needs in order to reproduce themselves – but he thinks that treating capitalist production as though it is driven by the goal of meeting such needs entails a fundamental misunderstanding of the system. Capitalism’s historically and socially distinctive form of wealth cannot be reduced to a process of social metabolism – and Marx will show why it can’t be reduced to such a process over the length of the text.

    All that said, I think, yes, that Marx thinks something must have changed in our practices, for the category of use value to have become an intuitive category for us. Once we have a sense of what has changed to make this category available, he doesn’t have any problem with tracking the category back through time, with the goal of working out how historical practices are related to what we do now. Viewing history through our eyes, we can identify elements of past societies that we can validly label with our categories, indicating that, when previous societies did X, they were engaging in what we would now validly regard as a kind of Y.

    He just asks that we do this with a “grain of salt” – that we recognise that there is some sense in which the category is anachronistic when applied to earlier historical periods. It is also possible to apply our categories creatively, to think about potential alternative futures – courses for social development that don’t accurately reflect what we do now, but which might have more emancipatory outcomes. In this sense, theorising what an economic system might look like if it were really oriented to use-values as the substance of social wealth, instead of to value, can be a critical move. Marx just thinks that this very same move is apologistic, if made in the course of analysis of capitalism now, because he doesn’t take use-values to be the substance of wealth in capitalist societies.

  15. I agree with Nicole that often Marx uses irony as a literary device to scrutinize notions that he is criticizing: the “automatic subject” one I agree with completely, in fact it’s so glaringly obvious from the context that he’s criticizing the notion of self-valorizing value that it’s rather remarkable that an entire sub-school has sprung up consisting of what Ingo Elbe calls “Marxism-Mysticism”, which basically takes the theological rhetoric in Marx at face value. Krisis and Exit “Wertkritik”, the “Anti-German” Wertkritik of Joachim Bruhn and the ISF, and irrationalist epigones of critical theory like Marcel Stoetzler all succumb to this.

    However, I don’t think it’s very useful to use the explanation of “literary device” as a sort of interpretative get-out-of-jail-free card everytime Marx makes trans-historical claims. I see nothing within the context of Marx’s claim about the trans-historical character of use-value that would indicate that he regards this as an opposing position that he is debunking. Quite the opposite. I think the very usefulness of the idea of “social form” necessarily entails that there is a transhistorical, material substrate to historically specific social forms. Otherwise, what use is the concept of form at all?

  16. Chris Wright permalink

    While disagreeing with his mode and manner of expression and every particular, I will echo the general notion that your approach seems to throw out “form”.

    For example, you said
    “Tacitly, Postone’s use of the notion that the abstraction of abstract labour derives from conflating social mediation, with the mediation of the natural world, relies on naturalising the properties of interaction with the natural world – as though interaction with the natural world “should” exhibit properties of “instrumental reason”, while interaction amongst people “shouldn’t”.”

    This strikes me as a complete misreading of Postone, since there is no reason that non-capitalist labor should “exhibit properties of “instrumental reason””. The problem is not that labor is serving its wrong function. The question is how labor and production relations as such suddenly become determinate social relations in place of other kinds of social relations predicated on say personal relations of domination.

    I believe that Marx distinguishes labor in a trans-historical sense that is meaningful and coherent. Labor in this sense refers to what Marx’s way of thinking about human freedom. Marx works within a conception of a realm of necessity and a realm of freedom, and the realm of necessity is exactly that realm bound by the human need to reproduce us as a species. The activity Marx designates as central to the realm of necessity is labor, that is, human activity oriented towards our reproduction. Labor is necessary and un-free because it is activity which [i]must be done[/i] to reproduce ourselves as a species regardless of whether or not we want to do it.

    The realm of freedom is precisely that realm of freely disposed [i]time[/i]. The realm of freedom is not only not the realm of necessary, reproductive activity, i.e. labor, it is [i]not defined by any activity at all[/i]. The realm of freedom is exactly freely disposed time because it may be spent in any manner, doing or not doing as one wishes.

    The realm of necessity is inescapable in Marx’s terms, and in this sense labor, or whatever you wish to call the activity which must be undertaken to reproduce our species being, is common, trivially so, to human existence.

    Out of curiosity, I think I would appreciate your reading of Marx’s letter to his friend Kugelmann on Jul 11 1868 and where you think the sarcasm lies (italics mine):
    ” Even if there were no chapter on ‘value’ in my book, the analysis of the real relationships which I give would contain the proof of the real value relation. The nonsense about proving the concept of value arises from complete ignorance both of the subject dealt with and of the method of science. [i]Every child knows that a country which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but for a few weeks would die. Every child knows too, that the mass of products corresponding to the different needs require different and quantitatively determined means of the total labour of society. That this necessity of distributing social labour in definite proportions cannot be done away with by the particular form of social production but can only change form it assumes, is self evident. No natural laws can be done away with. What can change, in changing historical circumstances, is the form in which these laws operate. And the form which this proportional division of labour operates, in a state of society where the interconnection of social labour is manifested in the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products. [/i] The science consists precisely in working out how the law of value operates. So that if one wanted at the very beginning to ‘explain’ all the phenomena which apparently contradicted the law, one would have to give the science before the science.”
    I would not say that abstract labor is something one does, but it also isn’t abstract because the outcome of an aggregated set of social practices. I would not say that concrete labor is something one does, though, either. One engages in labor, which is both a particular kind of labor and also socially reckoned as producing wealth in a specific social form. A teacher or a clown (two famous examples from Marx) is a productive laborer where each is a wage-laborer producing a commodity. I think you are so focused on activities and practices that you lose sight of the fact that those activities and practices are [i]structured[/i]. In other words, before ever engaging in a single activity, if I have nothing but my capacity to work, and I must sell it, and I can sell it to whomever I wish, then I already arrive at my “empirically undertaken laboring activities” as a wage-laborer, as potential variable capital. Should I sell that labor to someone or some entity in order to produce a commodity which will be sold, then my labor is already capitalist labor, even if the commodity is not effectively sold or sits on the shelves. Living labor has been exchanged for dead labor, in the production process, prior to the exchange of the product of that process for money.

    Marx is certainly being witty and sarcastic when he says that “a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation.” (Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 16) However, that is witty not because it is ironic, but because the schoolmaster in selling his labor for a wage finds that his labor is no longer merely “teaching”, but is a particular kind of labor employed by the schoolmaster which is also value-producing labor, abstract labor, because it produces a commodity. Marx is quite emphatic that this is something different than if the schoolmaster was hired by a parent to teach their child. His labor would not be capitalist labor, though it would be exchanged for money. It would not valorize value.

    As to the auto-valorization, and automatic subject, of course Marx is using humor and even being ironic. How can you have any kind of subject which has no consciousness whatsoever? Clearly he has Hegel in mind, for whom the “subject as substance” is Spirit in its fully developed Notion. An “automatic subject” is a monster, a spiritless Spirit. And yet, the capitalist and the worker must follow the command of valorization, as if it consciously commanded. The joke is on all of us, including the capitalist. A capitalist who refuses to valorize value ceases to be a capitalist, whether as a miser or a penitent sinner or a bankrupted failure. A capitalist is only a capitalist insofar as he obeys the drive of capital. A person with nothing to sell but her labor who refuses to sell her labor also finds himself on the short end of existence. Of course, she, unlike the capitalist, does not cease to have labor power, but if she does not sell her labor power or find some space in the interstices of capital or outside of it, she will starve.

    Frankly, here is where I believe it is more important to read Marx as an arch speculative thinker, which is to say that in all of his categories, and especially those like capital, labor, etc., the category itself is sustained only by the simultaneous identity and non-identity of its moments.
    Anyway, I will stop for now. I really do want to read your dis before I say anything else, as I am worried that, having been warned that your ideas cannot be worked up in a properly systematic manner here, I am going to place too much weight on this discussion.

    Thank you and all the best with getting the book published soon, I look forward to it.

    Chris Wright

  17. Hi folks – sorry for the delay replying – bad cold at the moment, so I spent yesterday offline. As normal, I’ll break my response into a few smaller comments, since my computer is on its last legs, and overheats and crashes often…

  18. negative potential – I understand the worry that emphasising Marx’s “literary” devices could be abused – could become, as you’ve phrased it, a sort of all-purpose “get out of jail free card” by which someone could dismiss any interpretation that displeases them. I’ve seen this happen in a couple of discussions where I’ve described elements of Marx’s humour, and then seen other participants, struck for the first time with the notion the text might be po-faced, then use the concept somewhat randomly against each other…

    I don’t think this risk is higher, though, than the risk we already see in Marxological discussions – the risk of people grabbing random bits of text out of context, and using those bits of text to claim that Marx clearly thinks x, y, or z. The folks who’ve taken the automatic subject passage literally are doing precisely this: they have quite convincing textual evidence that Marx thinks capital is the self-moving substance that is subject – as long as you don’t look left or right of the passage being quoted.

    The corrective for both of these risks is to put forward a reading of the whole text, so that it’s possible to assess individual passages in the context of the whole. This is essential for Marx, as it is for Hegel, and it’s what I’m in the process of trying to do. I do understand that, until that’s done, it can seem arbitrary for me to declare that x passage is not meant to be taken at face value – the basis on which I make this kind of judgement isn’t going to be presentable entirely in a short comment. To be convincing, I need to put forward a reading of the whole. I’ve “got” this sort of reading – what was submitted as my thesis is around a third of the analysis I had written offline of the opening volume of Capital. I’m ultimately going to be more convincing by revising the thesis itself, and then following up with the companion volume that completes the argument, than I’m ever going to be by responding to comments.

    This doesn’t mean that I assume everyone will greet the books with open arms and there will be no further contestation over the reading. It just means that I’ll at least have had a chance to present the entire argument, so that fragments of the reading don’t look arbitrary.

    I’ll pick up your comments on social form below.

  19. On the issue of whether social form means there is a transhistorical substance to be “formed”: there are a couple of different issues to be disentangled here.

    A few years ago, I went to a talk on Hegel by Stephen Houlgate, in which he was trying to explain what he meant when claiming that Hegel was trying to construct a “presuppositionless” philosophy. One of the comments he made was something like, “When I say that Hegel is trying to create a presuppositionless philosophy, I’m not saying anything silly – I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘But he must be presupposing the existence of language, because it’s a written work’. This is a silly understanding of ‘presuppositionless’.” (Houlgate’s Hegel is too Cartesian for my taste, but that’s neither here nor there for purposes of pilfering his comment here…)

    Similarly, when Marx tries to construct a reflexive, historically-self-aware – as opposed to a naive – scientific analysis of capitalism, he is similarly not claiming to be doing something silly. So he’ll write in various places that of course we can make trivial transhistorical statements. To take a few examples that come up directly in Marx, we can say, for example, that “hunger is hunger”. We can talk about “production in general”, and mean something rational by doing this. We can talk about labour sans phrase, and agree that this category is immeasurably old. Etc., etc.

    When Marx makes these sorts of points, however – when he indicates that he is not doing something “silly” when he tries to historicise his categories – that he’s not attempting some sort of radical “constructivism” or naive idealism – he nevertheless immediately moves to the historically specific register that is his main focus of interest. So sure, hunger is hunger – but the hunger that satisfies itself with a knife and fork is different from the hunger that falls on and eats ray prey. Sure, production in general is something we can think about, but it doesn’t equate with any actual existing system. Sure, labour as a category is immeasurably old, but there is a specific sense in which labour sans phrase picks out an actual dimension of collective practice in capitalist societies.

    There is a sense in which capitalism is just a specific historical form of something generic – the Kugelmann letter hits on this: any society needs to have some means of reproducing itself materially. Marx thinks this is a trivial point – something which any child knows. It’s not something profound that he’s trying specifically to demonstrate in his work. In the analysis of capitalism, he shows the anthropologically bizarre ways in which capitalist society specifically does this thing – reproduces itself materially – but the main thrust of his argument is not to reduce capitalism to just another in a series of modes of material reproduction: he thinks this is what the political economists do, evacuating away the differentia specifica of capitalist production in order to equate capitalism, reductively, to other forms of material reproduction.

    Marx’s interest, by contrast, is to focus on the distinctive, anthropologically arbitrary, dimensions of this form of material reproduction – to show the ways in which the reproduction of capital involves compulsions and constraints that are by no means dictated by objective “material” constraints, but are instead purely social in character.

    I would imagine from what you’ve written above that you would agree with these points, but would claim that the discussion of use-value as the substance of all wealth is meant to be one of the objective material constraints, sitting outside the analysis of social constraint that is still to come.

    Again, my most persuasive evidence here comes from a reading of the whole – from a sense that Marx’s argument is not so Kantian as to be asserting that the content he is analysing is extrinsic to the form – from a sense that he splits political economy into vulgar strands that focus on content, and classical strands that focus on form, and part of his dialectical critique is to show how the content is the content of its form: how the secular, “materialist” image we currently intuitively apply to the natural world, which gives us categories like “labour sans phrase or use-value as such, which gives us the sense of the natural world as a disenchanted space, devoid of anthropological determinations, driven by its own internal principles of self-organisation, its own distinctive “material laws” – how these things are themselves the distinctive social determinations generated by our experience of capitalist production. Marx thinks that political economy naturalises its own categories, in part because those categories are based on our practical experiences of a distinctive historical form of materiality that, for reasons he will analyse, we are not aware we are ourselves generating, and therefore experience as the result of the spontaneous self-organisation of a world of physical objects when they interact free from human interference.

    The opening passages are part of this critique – this analysis. Marx won’t try to prove something trivial or silly in this analysis – he won’t try to prove that it’s necessary for capitalist society to have some sort of material reproduction. He will, though, try to analyse why political economy finds categories like “use-value”, which appear on their face to be socially transcendent and historically nonspecific, intuitive, when previous societies haven’t made use of these kinds of categories.

    Political economy thinks it uses such categories because it has become “enlightened” – because it has suddenly discovered what was always the inner truth of every previous form of production.

    Marx finds this implausible – he jokes about it at the end of the opening chapter of Capital, when he compares political economy’s understanding of its categories to the Church fathers, for whom other religions are understood as the products of human action, while their own religion is understood as God’s personal revelation. He suggests that the political economists operate in a similar way: other forms of material reproduction, and the categories people have historically used to describe material reproduction, are weird, arbitrary, social constructs. But when we wield categories like use-value and labour sans phrase, well, those categories arose because we have direct access to revelatory knowledge.

    Marx’s isn’t willing to accept this – he regards it as naïve science or naïve materialism to take for granted that the categories you use are “discoveries” in this sense. He is aiming for a genuinely historical materialism – one that understands how its own concepts, including apparently basic concepts like “materialism” and “society”, are not as generic and devoid of anthropological determinations as they present themselves as being. Instead, these categories express a determinate practical enactment of a specific kind of materiality, a specific kind of sociality. And Marx wants to understand what is required to enact our collective experience, so that categories like these become intuitive to us.

    Having done this, he then has no problem with casting about through history and nature with our intuitive categories – with the natural sciences picking up on what Marx regards as historically contingent forms of materiality, and using the intuitions primed by these contingent experiences, to develop new insights about what we can now perceive as a “material world” – with the historical and social sciences casting about through history, investigating changing forms of what we can now articulate as “material reproduction”, etc. But he does not regard it as scientific to presuppose these categories, to take them as given, or data, when it is possible – as he tries to cash out – to explain their practical constitution in human history.

  20. Chris – some of what I’ve written in the comment on social form above would also be relevant to your comments, but I’ll pick up some of the other things you’ve raised here.

    First on Postone: of course Postone “knows” that earlier societies didn’t possess instrumental reason. This knowledge, however, is similar to many of the other programmatic statements he makes throughout his work: he knows many sophisticated things in certain places in his argument, but those things are unfortunately not in play in other – quite important – moves in the argument. In comments, I’m objecting to places where I feel like Postone’s argument simply doesn’t live up to its programmatic promise. Some of my objection is coming from my own sense of the steps required to cash out on the programmatic claims. The lines about labour serving two functions, and this being the distinct problem with capitalist production, are in Postone’s text. They are combined with other lines, which say better things.

    But the argument overall doesn’t live up to its promise, because it is driven, moment by moment, by quite different impulses, and Postone therefore doesn’t quite manage to cash out the best of those impulses in this work. Which is unfortunate, because it’s quite a promising work, and one which I quite like in many respects. But not one that is so important to what I’m trying to do overall, that I want to tease it apart line by line in a series of comments, in order to demonstrate the conflicted character of the text in an incontrovertible way. It works better to develop my own argument, in full – it will then be a bit clearer what I think is missing from Postone’s. But that isn’t something that can be done well in a series of comments.

    On your concerns about form – some of these I’ve hopefully addressed in the comment to negative potential above, but I wanted to say a quick word on the worry that I’m “throwing out form”.

    What I’m trying to do, instead – and what I think Marx was trying to do – is to provide a better explanation of how specific forms are produced. Marx thinks that political economy has already understood, at least to some limited degree, what the forms “are”. What he thinks political economy has missed entirely, is how the forms are related to their contents – how they arise in the flux of everyday practices.

    I worry that some current approaches to social form exhibit this same problem: much more energy goes into sighting examples of a small number of forms, as these appear in various dimensions of capitalist society, than goes into explaining how the forms arise. Saying that practices are themselves already structured, and that this needs to be taken into account, begs the question of how the practices are becoming structured: since the forms aren’t transhistorical or innate in human nature, we aren’t born pre-structured to practice in ways that reproduce these forms. So it’s an active problem – an active issue deserving of analysis – how practices become structured in specific ways. This isn’t denying structure. It is resituating the problem of structure within the context of an analysis of the structures are produced.

    I don’t believe that Marx thought we could understand these structures, outside the context of an analysis of their production. Otherwise, he would have thought classical political economy’s approach – to “discover” form, but to treat form in abstraction from content – would have been promising, if perhaps not entirely complete. His critique of political economy goes much further than this – and my feeling is that this aspect of his argument has not been carried over sufficiently into existing attempt to grasp social form.

    One consequence of the tendency to sever analyses of social form, from analyses of the ways in which those forms are produced, is the over-attribution of independence to capital. In this sense, the insensitivity to the sarcasm of the automatic subject passage, is related to a somewhat abstracted treatment of form. You don’t lose the sense of social form, by talking about how the form is produced. You do gain, though, a much better sense of how Marx thought his analysis of social form, could contribute something to the goal of transforming capitalist production – particularly when you see that the “microscopic anatomy” of that analysis actually analyses extremely large numbers of different social practices, which are implicated currently in the reproduction of capital, but which are not intrinsically and necessarily implicated in that process, as their contribution relies on the tandem operation of many other practices. Marx’s analysis of the production of social form picks out enormously more internal social diversity than most analyses of social form do. As a consequence, it is also enormously less pessimistic: it gives a better sense of how the forms are human products, how they are contingent, and how they might be transformed.

    I think this sense is lost in many approaches that effectively hypostatise form, by evacuating the analysis of how form is reproduced. Saying abstractly that form is reproduced because practices themselves are already structured, is a tautology, not an analysis. I’m trying to flesh out what Marx’s analysis of the reproduction of the form actually was.

  21. I should leave a meta-comment at the end, in case my tone’s unclear in the comments above, since I’m trying to write very quickly and that may cause the responses to seem abrupt: the discussion’s been very helpful in triangulating the sorts of concerns and objections I’ll need to address – thank you both for the care of your comments.

    I may need to scale back on my responsiveness to comments for a while – I’ve been online more than I usually could be, because of a brief lull in other work. And I’m conscious that I’ve written a couple of chapters worth of words in the comments in this and other threads… Which is causing pangs of guilt as I have actual chapters needing to be revised, as well as some clunkier draft work I’d like to put up to get my head around how to revise some material…

    For each of these reasons, I may be a bit light on responses to comments for a while… Apologies in advance…

  22. Chris Wright permalink

    “I would imagine from what you’ve written above that you would agree with these points, but would claim that the discussion of use-value as the substance of all wealth is meant to be one of the objective material constraints, sitting outside the analysis of social constraint that is still to come.”

    This is where I think we are talking past each other a bit. I absolutely [i]would not[/i] say this at all. (Unless you are addressing NegPo, in which case, I think that you are correct.)

    In my view, Concrete Labor and Use-value are forms of appearance of abstract labor and exchange-value, not trans-historical at all. They are not the substance of wealth. Abstract labor is the substance of wealth. It would not even be right to say that “stuff” or “things” are the substance of material wealth. That would still presume labor as the determinate social form. My references on this reading, if you ever find it interesting, is this fellow Russell Rockwell from New York City, in the U.S. His stuff is on the web.

    Also, hope you feel better!

    • Hi Chris – the comment was to negative potential – although there are bits of the response that might interest you, it wasn’t intended for you… I was trying to voice what might be negative potential’s position, in the bit you’ve quoted above.

      Feeling much much better today – yesterday was a total loss, but a lot of sleep seems to have fixed it… I’ll look up Russell Rockwell’s work – many thanks.

  23. Chris Wright permalink

    On your comment on the production of form, I quite agree. I was aware as I wrote it that I was begging the question of how the social forms are produced. To me, Postone’s single biggest limitation is that he does not really deal with just that. I poked him about this at a conference in NYC this year and I didn’t really get a satisfactory answer.

    What I have tried to point to, even here, is that social form has a root in the particular way in which capital separates the producers from the means of producing, the product, each other, etc. That is, the historically specific way in which social relations are actually constituted as production relations is not just given. It is also not something which could have been predicted from or which follows from feudal society. On this, I draw inspiration from Heide Gerstenberger (Robert Kurz’s recent essay on the importance of war production in late medieval society to the formation of capital as a social relation is also an interesting summary of some moves in that direction.) I think that the debates around Rodney Hilton, Robert Brenner, Sweezey, and the rest have to be surpassed for significant theoretical reasons.

    John Holloway, Werner Bonefeld, and the Open Marxism milieu are generally attentive to this problem but I think that they lack a critique of labor and just end up in a kind of “Doing good, Done bad”, Living labor versus Dead labor set of antinomies. I have on occasion considered my own work as a kind of merger of their attentiveness to form constitution and Postone’s critique, but I am interested in other dimensions that neither of them deal with as well (for example, I find Postone’s use of formal versus real subsumption incredibly inadequate and I also disagree with his sociological notion of class.)

    In the end, the question is obviously about what is on the horizon and what a Marxian critical theory can contribute to getting rid of this festering hell-hole society.

    All the best,
    Chris Wright

    • Hi Chris – yes, this is what I’m “after”, if that makes sense – I’m not trying to be dismissive at all of what Postone achieves – apologies if it seems that way when I shorthand (there’s an exaggeration, as well, that comes from the fact that I’m generally madly typing to try to finish a thought before my computer crashes – it makes it a bit comic to try to express any sort of nuance, while the heat clock is running down…). I just feel that Postone’s work leaves a lot still undone, which is really important to do if we’re going to cash out the implications of this sort of argument.

      But I think your comments indicate that I need to try to articulate more precisely what I’m doing, so that it’s clear I’m not trying to dismiss notions of form – I understand the worry – it’s just that, since I take the need to explain this stuff for granted, I can underemphasise it, if I’m not attending more carefully to what I’m writing. I’m just trying to “close the loop” by situating discussions of form back into the context of an analysis of how form is produced, rather than dismissing the forest to go romping around in the trees…

      Although it’s not been central in the writing I’ve put out publicly, since that’s been focused on early chapters of Capital where the issue can’t be thematised well, I’d also probably agree on the sociological notion of class issue – Postone is kicking very hard against a particular instantiation of working class politics, and in the process he loses hold of what Marx is doing in the later parts of volume 1, and tosses out quite a lot of the argument. But I’ve not had time to write on that in any detail…

  24. “That would still presume labor as the determinate social form.”

    I still don’t get how you can have a “determinate social form” without it being a “determinate social form” **of** something. And that something would necessarily be of transhistorical character, otherwise pointing out it’s historically specific **form** is pointless.

    Whether you want to call it “concrete labor” or use another term is not so important. And if you want to argue that it is first the differentiation of human activity into different spheres that really allows us to make those kind of mental distinctions, that’s ok too, but it’s really getting into the realms of the absurd to assert that there isn’t a certain “something” that the term refers to.

    • The line you’re quoting if from Chris, not from me, and so my response may not represent what his would be, but just to respond to the general question:

      It’s possible to have a form that is the form of a historically specific content – so that the analysis as a whole is trying to pick out a very complex practical phenomenon, which is experienced by social actors in a disjointed way, as though part of this complex object is a “form”, and part is a “content” – where the “content” side then tends to get experienced, in this case, as a “disenchanted” material object stripped of anthropological determinations. So the specific content grasped by categories like “use-value” is actually – in spite of appearances – historically specific. Part of the puzzle then becomes how this content that is commonly taken to be socially transcendent, is in fact historically specific in some specific way and, at the same time, why something historically specific should intuitively strike social actors as though it’s devoid of socially-specific anthropological determinations.

      When Marx talks about the fetish, he’s using an anthropological term for the attribution of mystical properties to a physical object. By accusing political economy of having categories expressive of a fetish character – and by saying that this fetish character is a real sociological phenomenon, a way that we enact our social relations, rather than a solely mental ideology or illusion – he is saying, in part, that what they take to be “material” categories, sans phrase, are in fact socially determinate categories that are being taken to be devoid of sociological determination.

      Specifying a complex social phenomenon, parts of which are plausibly interpreted by social actors as “forms” of a “material content” that seems to be “underlying” those forms, and that seems to be more timeless and socially transcendent, and showing how this complex social phenomenon is produced, allows Marx to demonstrate that both the “formal” and the “content” sides of competing analyses are partial and one-sided understandings of severed fragments of capitalist production.

  25. “So the specific content grasped by categories like “use-value” is actually – in spite of appearances – historically specific. ”

    But Marx defines a use-value as an article produced by humans to satisfy wants and needs. I suppose you could say that’s “historically specific”, but the period of history in question extends back 2.5 million years (maybe later if you’re picky about what you want to define as “human”).

  26. More trans-historical considerations straight from Marx’s pen:

    “The labour-process, resolved as above into its simple elementary factors, is human action with a view to the production of use-values, appropriation of natural substances to human requirements; it is the necessary condition for effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature; it is the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather, is common to every such phase. It was, therefore, not necessary to represent our labourer in connexion with other labourers; man and his labour on one side, Nature and its materials on the other, sufficed. As the taste of the porridge does not tell you who grew the oats, no more does this simple process tell you of itself what are the social conditions under which it is taking place, whether under the slave-owner’s brutal lash, or the anxious eye of the capitalist, whether Cincinnatus carries it on in tilling his modest farm or a savage in killing wild animals with stones.”

  27. You’re quoting these passages as if they’re unknown to me – and yet they are the very passages that I quote myself, in trying to walk readers through the individual sentences of the text in a way that shows how the individual parts are situated within the whole. As I’ve said above, the issue isn’t going to be resolved by duelling quotations – I know Marx’s text extremely well. The issue comes down to different interpretations of how these quotations are situated within the argument overall.

    Again, from the standpoint of my argument, what you’re doing is taking passages out of the context of the architectonic of the argument as a whole. Capital unfolds by systematically examining atomised perspectives onto the process by which capital is reproduced. Marx presents these perspectives immanently – voicing them as they appear from the standpoint of forms of theory that are limited to a very partial and one-sided perspective on the whole. From these partial and one-sided perspectives, various definitional statements seem plausible – and they will, by the end of Marx’s argument, be shown to have a specific, limited, bounded “social validity”. This validity won’t, however, be anywhere near as expansive as it’s presented to be when the perspectives are initially presented, immanently voiced, in Marx’s text.

    The first chapter of Capital opens with a statement that the wealth of capitalist societies appears as a monstrous collection of commodities. There is a tacit Hegelian reference here – we are dealing with a form of appearance. The text then immediately moves to examine that form of appearance. When it does so, it splits the form of appearance into two categories – use-value and exchange-value. Use-value presents itself as a transhistorical substance, which takes on various historical contents in different human societies; exchange-value presents itself as a contingent, relational category without any intrinsic content. While there could seem to be a form/content distinction happening here, this requires ignoring the first sentence, which tells us that we are examining how the wealth of capitalist societies – only capitalist societies – appears, and that we are currently unpacking this appearance when looking at the categories of use-value and exchange-value.

    The text also makes some claims about commodities here – while exploring this form of appearance of wealth of capitalist societies – that any Marxist should know that the text overall is going to disprove. The obvious one is the claim that commodities are external to us. Marx presents this claim several times – making increasingly sarcastic asides about the claim as he moves toward the introduction of the category of labour-power, which is a commodity that is not external to us. Why does he present – sarcastically undermine – and then overtly undermine a claim that he introduces in the opening passages of his own text? Because the text is an immanent exploration of the way in which specific forms of political economic theory attempt to understand the wealth of capitalist societies, with the intention of showing the “social validity” of political economic categories – showing the bounded and limited aspects of social experience to which these categories can be said to be more or less adequate – while at the same demonstrating how very limited this social validity can be, if we’re interested in actually understanding capitalist production.

    After exploring the opening dichotomy for a short period, the text moves on – saying explicitly that we should consider the matter a little further. It then moves on into the deductive “derivation” of value as a sort of transcendental condition of possibility for exchange. In this move, Marx shifts, I would suggest, from an opening perspective that lines up with something like Hegel’s category of perception, to Hegel’s category of understanding – he’s tacitly aligning specific kinds of political economic discourse with moments in Hegel’s critique – suggesting that his argument intends to embed and surpass these perspectives as well (and tacitly including Hegel within the ambit of his argument).

    Again, this doesn’t mean he is completely dismissive of what he’s analysing here. He disagrees with the forms of analysis being presented here – these styles of argument are not how he arrives at his conclusion. But he doesn’t treat them as mere conceptual errors – he thinks these forms of theory are expressive of specific dimensions of our practical experience, and are correct to a point, but fail to understand why their conclusions can be said to be correct, and therefore fail to understand the limitations and boundaries of the propositions they put forward. So Marx will use, for example, the largely mocking Cartesian deduction of the category of value – a form of argument he explicitly undermines in a discussion of Aristotle in the third section of this chapter – to introduce his own category of human labour in the abstract, and he will retain the categories of use-value, exchange-value, and value as categories that can do meaningful work in his own argument – his argument isn’t attempting to transcend its own time, but is attempting to provide a different sort of understanding of what these categories refer to, and therefore what they imply for our understanding of the reproduction of capital.

    The Dame Quickly comment that marks the transition to the third section refers back to these earlier presentations of how the wealth of capitalist societies appears to political economy. As I’ve written elsewhere, the joke impugns the analytical virility of the political economists, insinuating that they don’t understand how to bed down their categories properly.

    And so on – I’ve written on these passages and the architectonic structure of this chapter so many times, in public locations, that it’s a bit ridiculous to need to re-present the argument on an individual level. In saying this, I’m not saying you would be persuaded by that longer presentation – only that it’s ludicrous to come here and quote lines of text to me: clearly that’s not going to resolve the problem, because I am neither ignorant of these lines, nor have I omitted them when analysing the text. I have a reading of these specific lines in the context of the architectonic of the work as a whole. My argument is that, like Hegel, Marx is obsessed with the proper structure and order of his presentation and, also like Hegel, it’s extremely important to pay attention to the voicing and perspective being presented at any given moment, because the goal of the text is to organise specific perspectives and embed them within an overarching, much more powerful, account of the whole.

    In terms of the throwaway comments about use-value existing for millions of years: this kind of comment is precisely what the Church fathers joke at the end of the opening chapter is about. Marx argues that political economy is only very superficially historicising, because it acts as though there is a transhistorical content that its categories adequately and fully express, while the categories of other societies cover over and disguise under contingent and arbitrary social conventions. It treats its own categories as though they have stripped away all historically and socially specific anthropological distinctions, while the categories of all other societies are amenable to historical and social explanations.

    It can do this, and still think it is sensitive to historical difference, because it admits of historical differences in form. So use-value is the transhistorical substance of wealth in all human societies (think about this comment – it’s not even saying that use-values exist in all human societies, but that they are the substance of wealth in all societies), but is happy to admit that different societies find different things useful. It’s just that only political economy knows the real term to use when talking about social wealth. It’s happy to admit that very different objects have played the role of money in other societies, but treats these objects all still as essentially money. Etc.

    Marx is saying, with the joke about the Church fathers, that this is sloppy and superficial historicisation. His argument, instead, attempts to explain how the constellations of qualities we intuitively find in the “material world” – our gestalt image of a material world, as well as the attributes we take to be the inner core of things like use-value or the labour process – are not mere negations – not what remains after we strip away all anthropological determinations. They are, instead, themselves qualities that are actively enacted in specific ways, by historically-specific forms of human practice. This is the sort of analysis he is putting forward, and this is why he accuses political economy – because it fails to provide this kind of analysis – of treating its own categories as though there used to be history, but now – well, our categories just transparently express what has been God’s given truth for the past 2.5 million years.

  28. Chris Wright permalink

    “When Marx talks about the fetish, he’s using an anthropological term for the attribution of mystical properties to a physical object. By accusing political economy of having categories expressive of a fetish character – and by saying that this fetish character is a real sociological phenomenon, a way that we enact our social relations, rather than a solely mental ideology or illusion – he is saying, in part, that what they take to be “material” categories, sans phrase, are in fact socially determinate categories that are being taken to be devoid of sociological determination.”

    I’m not sure that the attribution of mystical properties is simply to a physical object. If this is indeed the fetish character of [i]the commodity[/i], then it was also imply the fetish character of labor power as a commodity, and any other activity constituted as a commodity.

    But that is nit-picking compared to the really important point: you can “know” how capital works inside and out, but still enact the whole mess. Consciousness must go hand-in-hand with another possible practice. However I believe that, unlike those who like to quote the Theses on Feuerbach too much, other possible practices which do not find an adequate consciousness can also sink back into reproducing capital.

    This, by the way, is significantly what I think Marx has in mind with his mocking references to the automatic character of capital.

    • Hi Chris – because Marx’s argument here is particularly complex, it can be difficult to express all the relevant parts in a short explanation. On this:

      I’m not sure that the attribution of mystical properties is simply to a physical object. If this is indeed the fetish character of [i]the commodity[/i], then it was also imply the fetish character of labor power as a commodity, and any other activity constituted as a commodity.

      Yes, it also implies the fetish character of labour power as a commodity. The issue is that, when we constitute labour power as a commodity, we enact labour-power as though it is a physiological capacity – i.e., all the “physiological labour” passages, which are so confusing for many commentators, are expressive of precisely this sort of point – expressive of something very socially and historically specific, which presents itself – to the very social actors who enact it – as something merely physical, and as a kind of material substrate that is devoid of anthropological determinations.

      So, as the argument ricochets back on itself with the introduction of the category of labour-power, it’s not just that we learn that there are kinds of commodities that are not “external” to the humans possessing and using them, It’s also that we learn that the introductory discussion of the commodity form, split between a purportedly transhistorical material substrate that would purportedly exist in any society, and a contingent relative social form that has no intrinsic content: this discussion was all along and always more than a discussion of external things. It was also a discussion of peculiar forms of embodiment and experiences of self – a discussion of a particular form of split subjectivity that we enact, when we objectify part of our selves, enact and experience that part as a “physiological” dimension of our bodies that produces our capacity for labour, and then sell that part.

      So although I’m shorthanding when I explain the anthropological reference of the term “fetish”, this shorthand isn’t inappropriate for what Marx plans to do with the category of labour-power. His use of the vocabulary of “physiological labour”, which is often taken as a transhistorical element within his argument, is itself intended to be expressive of a distinctive historical and social determination – one that doesn’t experience itself as historical and social, one that doesn’t experience itself as the product of contingent practices, but one that thinks it arises from stripping away all historical and sociological determinations, in order to arrive at a material substratum that is understood by some social actors as asocial and transhistorical. We enact part of our selves as though it is a disenchanted, secular, material “thing” – a physiological body – and, for Marx, this is part of a very peculiar, anthropologically very specific and atypical, social enactment of self.

  29. “As I’ve said above, the issue isn’t going to be resolved by duelling quotations”

    Yeah, especially not if you can constantly resort to the get-out-of-jail-free card of saying, “but you don’t understand: Marx doesn’t really mean that, he’s employing a literary device!” every time Marx makes an argument you don’t agree with.

    I think this kind of thing is probably fun for a literature class when people can play fast and loose with interpretations, but it’s rather poor Marxology. Do you really think the numerous researchers engaged in the painstaking task of editing the MEGA2 editions in the original German are just too tone-deaf to have noticed all these literary devices you claim change the nature of Marx’s argument?

    • Your response here boils down to an ad hominem attack, an argument from incredulity, and an appeal to authority. None is these is a substantive critique, and I won’t respond further.

  30. Ad hominem? Where?

    And “argument from incredulity”, I don’t see any evidence of that either. “Appeal to authority”: I guess this refers to German MEGA2 researchers, but I think it’s a fair question: are all of these folks too dumb to have picked up on this brave new literary reading of Marx?

    I just think it’s a kind of “heads I win, tails you lose” logic that you are employing here, where every piece of textual evidence opposing your own interpretation can be neutralized by countering, “but that isn’t what Marx *really* meant! He actually means the opposite!”

  31. nate permalink

    hey NP!
    As usual a substantial post I don’t have time to digest (let alone the discussion in the comments…) so again as usual just some riffing.
    “certain sorts of philosophical abstraction are primed by the practical experience of the social process of exchange”
    These kinds of claims always strike me as way overblown. It seems to me that really all folk can prove are correlations on this, even if we had good data (like, say, quantitative studies of the growth of economic practices which may imply certain modes of thought and other examples of those modes of thought), and those claims are very rarely accompanied by real data (only partly related, one of Franco Berardi’s newer books does this – a passing mention of a single Bureau of Labor Statistics report plus Deleuze plus a dressed up common sense “everybody knows work is like this…” sort of assertion is meant to support claims about changes in consciousness tied to alleged global changes in production). It seems to me that these things mostly convince only the convinced, and it also seems to me a sort of causal claim of a sort that Marx rarely actually made. I think it’s abundantly clear that there’s a resonance or a conceptual similarity between some modes of social practice and the forms of reasoning within them, but that’s about all that can be really said without over-reaching, I think.
    On the use vs exchange stuff, I’m in heated agreement w/ what I think you’re saying here. I also wanted to add that I don’t think there’s actual textual grounds for holding up the use vs exchange distinction as coherently posed (let alone making the distinction logically coherent or a key to understanding v1 of Capital and understanding capitalist society). I wrote about this in a blog post a long while back – Marx uses the terms in a variety of ways such that there’s no single distinction (these are use values and those are exchange values) that he poses consistently in v1; rather, he talks in ways some of the time in ways that some of the time exchange is a use. The clear distinction as a bright shining line is an artifact of commentary on Marx, not a distinction made in the text which runs the length of the whole text. (The distinction is more tenable the less of the text one reads, of course, which is part of why the “first few chapters as master section” read stays around, I think, and why that tends to also involve treating use vs exchange as a master category and one that Marx posits clearly.)
    take care,

  32. *sigh* wrote a long reply and lost it… And now have very little time and won’t be able to reproduce it…

    But just to free associate a bit instead: yes! 🙂 I keep meaning to write on the way Marx tries to relate “forms of social being” and “forms of consciousness”, because it’s not the same sort of argument that’s made in something like Sohn-Rethel’s work.

    On one level, there’s a whole series of Goffman-style analyses of very specific social performances. Although this is ethnography-ish – the performances are intended to be historically and socially specific – it’s also highly idealised, to let Marx draw out specific implications of these performances in a clear way. What these analyses let Marx do, is define a “practice” as a combination of a set of elements: the stage on which the performance is carried out, the props the performance requires, the subjective orientations of the social actor, the bodily comportments, the forms of intersubjective relations that are enacted – all of these things combine to form a practice that simultaneously involves subjective states, intersubjective relations, and specific sorts of actions that generate certain kinds of impacts on other people and on nonhuman objects.

    This goes beyond Goffman in the way it plays with permutations of what could ostensibly seem to be “the same act”. So Marx will look, for example, at all the different things people can do with money. Superficially, it all looks like “using money”. But when you break it down, there are actually really different things going on – at the level of subjective states, bodily comportments, intersubjective relations, actual impacts, etc. Marx uses his theatrical idealisations to communicate this enormous diversity within types of social practice – and so shows how you can get conflicting implications from what superficially seems to be the same broad category of practice.

    It’s sort of the anti-Sohn Rethel (or anti-Lukacs, etc.) in this respect: rather than trying to point everything back to a small number of social forms, it takes what ostensibly appears – seen from a great height – as a uniform and homogeneous thing, and shows it to be intensely internally diverse, so the appearance of homogeneity disguises this internal complexity, and therefore makes it more difficult to see how we already have a great reservoir of practical experience and insight that can be drawn on to think about new forms of social institutions…

    The mobility of Marx’s vocabulary is related to this – the categories need to be, in Marx’s words, “made fluid” in order to capture the complexity of what he’s trying to analyse.

    But I’m not saying any of this well – sorry – no time to reconstruct the more careful comment, so this is a bit more off-target of what you were saying than I meant to be…

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