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Irony and Inversion

September 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. nate permalink

    hey there NP
    I read this quickly and am not at my best right now (or like, ever) but I think I agree strongly on all counts. One quibble though:

    You write that “The derivations of categories using the idealist dialectical style” are not intended sincerely and are usually followed in the text “by an actual historical representation of how the practice in question arose” which, quoting Marx, “corrects the idealist manner of presentation.”

    Agreed. But/and — this may not be your project per se but I think we could probably also disaggregate Marx’s “actual historical representation”, which is to say, he writes and uses history in more than one way. I think at least some of those ways are still more in the neighborhood of abstraction and ideal-typical capitalism than they are depictions of actual capitalism. Or some mix thereof. I’m thinking in part of the quote, can’t remember it exactly, somewhere I believe early in the section on primitive accumulation where Marx states that in Britain primitive accumulation takes its ‘classic form,’ where ‘classic’ is code for a type of abstraction or ideal type (though a very different one than the straightforwardly theoretical ideal types earlier in the text). I’m not sure how much Marx recognized or was deliberate about this or if he had ideas about doing history that I disagree with. I think this fits with what you say in your post – the aim of these historical passages is to show “the previous idealist derivation to have been an inverted form – one that attributes effective historical force to an ideal category, rather than to human actors.” The big take away there is a sort of point of materialist theory — history is made by historical actors, not by ideas in abstraction — which is important but is more of a founding axiom of materialist historical inquiry and less of an example of materialist historical inquiry. Does this make any sense?

    take care,

  2. Hey Nate – let’s see what I can get out before the laptop crashes again…

    On this: yes, absolutely. Although I tend to veer away from this vocabulary, because I don’t like how it’s been used by, say, folks like Sekine, who argue that Capital is trying to represent ideal capitalism, and who use this reading as an excuse to strip away large sections of the text – so that they end up reading Capital as though it’s simple description of ideal capitalism, and sort of miss how the work operates as a critique. Or, for that matter, the form of systematic dialectics that misses that Marx is putting forward a critique of idealist dialectics when he spoofs dialectical derivations of his categories.

    I know this isn’t where you’re coming from at all – just explaining why I might seem to be over-emphasising the historical elements in Marx’s work. I’ll need to think about how to say this better in the book – the historical passages are idealised, in some ways, for the same reason Marx also idealises his theatrical representations of specific forms of practice (see my other comment if this makes no sense!): because it makes it easier for him to illustrate specific implications of complex historical processes. Although to be fair, when he does use the “classic form” terminology, he also does tend to append at least a quick discussion of the other ways things have played out on the ground – say, in the working day chapter, where he provides the “classic form” discussion, but then also includes brief discussions of things that have happened in other parts of the world, some of which directly contradict the trends demonstrated in the “classic form”. I think this demonstration – and the direct claim that things can play out on the ground in such contradictory ways – is also a really important dimension of his argument, and not an afterthought. I think this becomes more explicit toward the end of the book, where the “classic”, geographically bounded, story of the development of capitalism in England is expressly situated in a global context, and Marx says that the truth of capitalist production is exposed clearly in the colonies, etc.

    But this doesn’t keep the history from being idealised or abstracted – I think in the service of making more explicit the political implications of our collective practices. It’s a sort of politicised version of Brandom’s point about the possibility of making explicit the tacit commitments we’ve entered into, whether we’re aware of those commitments or not. I don’t think the vocabulary of “commitment” quite works for what Marx is doing – but certainly I think there’s an argument going on here that we’re accidentally showing ourselves, collectively, that better social institutions are possible – and Marx is trying to make explicit how we’re doing this – and also demonstrate a method other people can use for extending this kind of analysis in more concrete ways.

    But I better post before the laptop crashes and I lose this. A bit incoherent and associative – apologies…

  3. Nate permalink

    hi Nicole,
    Thanks for this. My thoughts on this are influenced a lot by Dale Tomich’s book Through the Prism of Slavery. I don’t recall which he uses to describe Marx but Tomich distinguishes between what he calls theoretical history and what he calls historical theory. He doesn’t favor one over the other, but rather sees them as working in tandem. It seems to me that Marx’s over all goal is to equip people with tools to analyze capitalism, rather than to provide an exhaustive account of all hitherto actually existing capitalisms. I think one of the points of the final part is to make an argument for historicizing, as I think you said. So it’s an example of historicizing capitalism, and it’s a sort of methodological capitalism. It’s not clear to me how much sense it makes to call British capitalism the classical form, and more importantly I think Marx’s analysis largely implies capitalism as a nationally bounded thing, more often than not, and Britain’s classical status reflects this. There’s a fantastic essay called The Pedestal and the Veil about primitive accumulation, by Walter Johnson, he notes among other things that Marx’s decision to talk about linen has different implications and implies a different geography imaginary and a different understanding of slavery than if Marx had selected cotton, a commodity which figured differently in the capitalism of Marx’s day globally and in Britain.

    Oh gotta run, kid thing

  4. On his concurrent descriptions of appearance and essence I really like to return to the early works, e.g. the economic and political manuscripts Marx wrote in 1844 and the Grundrisse, which show how he delved through the layers and take you on a mind’s journey. Following Harry Cleaver, I still feel that a careful reading of the first couple of chapters sets you up for the rest. I have quibbles with the representation in them and find those concerns rippling onwards and expanding outwards right through his analysis.

  5. Just came upon this post. It’s brilliant. Thank you N Pepperell, as always. I may post a more insightful comment once I’ve processed the full meaning of it for me. There is much to ‘chew’ over.

  6. inspired permalink

    I share your enthusiasm Nicole, I really do, but I am reminded of the words of a very dear friend of mine who warned me a long time ago to be careful not to make your study of Marx into something akin to a search for the Holy Grail. Marxology is interesting, but in the final analysis, there are too many urgent issues calling for analysis, of the Marxist sort — ie., critical, that make the pursuit of obscure or exoteric Marxist texts begin to look contradictory to what he was trying to do and encourage others to do as well.

    And by the way, but not to encourage you further, I notice you frequently use the word ‘whole’ and sometimes even refer to Marx’s whole argument in Capital but there is very little reference to the other volumes (three volumes if you count the theories of surplus value as volume four).

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