June 25, 2008

Subject and Object

Leaving aside the obvious significance of Marx actually defining capital in chapter four, I want to concentrate on what I see are some important theoretical arguments made in this section. Here are four.

First, the formal distinction between C-M-C and M-C-M. As he states on page 249:
In the circulation C-M-C, the money is in the end converted into a commodity which serves as a use-value; it has therefore been spent and for all. In the inverted form M-C-M, on the contrary, the buyer lays out money in order that, as a seller, he may recover money. (italics added)
The first process begins and ends with use-value, that is, with concrete things. The latter begins and ends with exchange-value and hence is merely a displacement of use-value that must be continually realized. In the former, absolute commensuration does not seem necessary, because if we are only dealing with a concrete set of items, then it is okay for me to exchange one thing for another as long as it has a greater use-value for me, that is, determined subjectively. As a religious man, I could find nothing wrong with spending my time producing linen, in exchange for money, so that I can acquire a bible. At that point, my journey is finished, and others may find me a bit idiosyncratic, but who cares I have my bible. The other process, however, is entirely impersonal. I may hate all Christians, or maybe I have only lukewarm feelings for them. It matters absolutely nothing what I think, because my goal is not to acquire more bibles but rather to appropriate commodities that OTHER people find useful -- in order for me to acquire what I really seek: money.

With that simple inversion, we go from a relatively stationary, independent process to one that is infinite and intensely socially dependent.
"In buying in order to sell ... the end and the beginning are the same, money or exchange-value and this very fact makes the movement an endless one" (252)
Not simply endless in terms of time but also in terms of space. Taken as a whole, value is, on the one hand entirely dependent upon what is considered valuable by a greater amount of people, and on the other hand indifferent to the actual buyers' preferences.

What is Marx truly saying here? When extended logically, these formulas appear interchangeable:


The difference is the ΔM: surplus value.
"Now it is evident that the circulatory process M-C-M would be absurd and empty if the intention were, by using this roundabout route, to exchange two equal sums of money, ₤100 for ₤100. Ths miser's plan would be far simpler and surer: he holds onto his ₤100 instead of exposing it to the dangers of circulation" (248).
But this ΔM disappears in the formula, because as an anonymous object of congealed labor-time, money does not recognize from where and from what time it was acquired. It simply acts as a collection of interchangeable numbers. So once 100 becomes 110, 110 becomes the new M in the next M-C-M. The subject and the object magically merge into one.

Second, the thing about the subject.

Someone who has read more Hegel should perhaps deal with this topic. Marx here first asserts, as far as I can tell, the assertion that capital is a subject and not merely an object of history.
If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject (footnote: i.e. the independently acting agent") of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently (255).
Yeah, I'll just leave it there. Except I'll add that Marx also builds in an argument against the idea that specific humans, specific capitalists, specific collections of capital are the agent of history, for they are temporally too limited. As he explains with ...

Third, value as socially necessary labor time.

He explains this in chapter six. The basis for capitalism as a self-reproducing system is not that it squeezes every penny out of its workers but that it sustains them as a work force capable of feeding itself, housing itself and breeding. He writes that capitalism is characterized by freedom, equality and Bentham -- Bentham, because even though it seems like everyone acts in concert, following the same set of predetermined guidelines and rules, they are really only consciously acting for selfish reasons. Thus the paradox that this system is expansive, involving and uniform and yet somehow individualizing and atomizing in the way it characterizes its subjects (this is what Althusser means when he says ideology functions through the figure of the individual subject, no?). All of those individual subjects, however -- capital can take or leave them. The only thing that remains constant is the drive towards accumulation, or the self-realization of value as even greater value: the subject acting upon itself as an object (this presages Lukacs, no? Because both are Hegelian, no?).

Fourth, the argument against circulation as the creator of value.

This is an important distinction between the classical economic view which separates price as an autonomous realm of profit creation (Marx argued that such economists were "vulgar" because by separating the realms of production and distribution and circulation into autonomous spheres, they created alibis for capitalists who didn't want to question where all their surplus value came from), and it also seems to be a key distinction between historical economic forms (Marx uses "mode of production" for the first time in this section, too!).

I don't understand classical economics enough yet, so I'll hold off on that fight. But the other thing -- yeah, that. Well, one working dichotomy in much historical literature is that between commercial and merchant capitalism versus production capital.

So a few hundred years ago ("early modern" for many), empires like the Dutch, Portuguese and British made a lot of money by buying low and selling high. This was made possible by the almost absolute immobility of capital at the time. Value was seen as something held in a finite amount of specie (gold and silver?), international commodities represented only a small amount of the total stuff for sale in a given locale, and all other sort of local ties and forms of exchange took precedence over anything like a world market. In other words, capitalist competition did not yet level the field as it does today in the international division of labor.

Anyhow, by a few hundred years later, it's clear that simply buying low and selling high won't cut it because too many people have caught on, and you can only guarantee those sorts of trade advantages for so long before they evaporate. So the advent of advanced production techniques: centralization, the factory, wage labor, division of labor, etc. And hence the shift from commercial to monopoly capitalism, where investors do not so much own a bunch of stuff but rather also the means of production. In Marx's time, there was much confusion that the former was still the primary means by which one made money. He wanted to argue that this view ignored the violence and centrality of production, which is why he wrote this chapter arguing against circulation as the source of exchange-value.

I think.

June 20, 2008

I'm not dead, but my computer kind of is ....

On a personal note, I will have been in India for one week as of ten hours from now. In that short amount of time, several computer setbacks have arisen, which forces me to type this abbreviated version of an entry today. If I don't type it out now, then I can't do it by Sunday because -- no internet at home. So here are a few notes.

Generally, I found these two chapters an interesting expansion upon the theory of the commodity form that Marx lays out in the first chapter. I'm more than eager to move onto the chapter about capital, because thus far we have only paid attention to the problem of consumption and its spectral other, use-value. Nonetheless, I thought there were several extremely provocative passages, and I find Marx's logic to be sharp and clear throughout, even if I drifted off at times, unable to differentiate the points he was making regarding money, coins, exchange, etc. Here are a few thoughts:

1- chance and der staat. Several times Marx describes how the process of exchange relies upon an extremely unstable and indefinite assumption that things will be bought and sold but really without any guarantees that the value or price of the commodities will be realized. In order to ensure the market runs smoothly, the intervention of some regulatory agent - as opposed to the invisible hand - is necessary. The link between the role of the state and its complicity/shared typology with the market is hinted at throughout.

On page 178: "In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relations to one another as persons whose will resides in those objects .... The guardians must therefore recognize each other as owners of private property."

Here is a non-deterministic connection established between the ideal, liberal subject of individual sovereign subjectivity (the law) and the ideal subject of exchange who must be considered independent but is constituted by its relation with others in social exchange.

2. The universality of the commodity form.

On page 197: "Things which in and for themselves are not commodities, things such as conscience, honour, etc. can be offered for sale by their holders and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price."

and page 229: "Since money does not reveal what has been transformed into it, everything, commodity or not, is convertible into money."

Here Marx answers a logical objection to his labor theory of value: what of price that is not tied to labor? In other words, does Marx falter at the point where people have seemingly moved beyond labor-based production (computers, intellectual property, etc.)? The condition of possibility for this shift is the establishment of a universal equivalent, which does not actually have to function universally but at least takes on the form of universality. By universality, Marx continually stresses, he simply means the disappearance of all particularity. Exchange-value is this disappearance, and hence here is the (or, a) significance to the opposition between exchange and use-value outlined in the first chapter. Labor, although concrete, is continually posed in an ideal form - "what socially necessary labor could one suppose they could get for X item?" the question is continually posed. EVEN THOUGH the item itself could spring completely from a non-labor process? Hence, it seems that when people try to disprove the labor theory of value by arguing that labor did not FIRST establish itself as a universal form, they are misunderstanding what Marx means by universality. The abstraction of money away from its concrete form is the precondition of abstracting value from specific items - once this is done, then it can potentially invade into the "pores" of everything else in a society. Consider this: if not labor, then what else do prices signify? If one simply says that price itself represents value (classical economics' response to Marx) then that is a tautology (as Marx shows).

3. The circuit.

One reason Marx emphasizes the dual nature of the commodity, it seems, is to emphasize how the representation of the market as a collection of commodities commensurate with the total amount of money in the world is a false presentation that is limited by exchange-value. We see all sorts of logical problems with this idea, such as overproduction, underconsumption, competition affecting prices, competition affecting demand, etc. In order to understand this, use-value must be taken into account, namely the instability of -
A) the realization of the commodity at the point of exchange (say, the farmer selling wheat)
B) the realization of money in exchange for new commodities (the farmer buying a bible)
As Marx shows, one person's A is always someone else's B, and so the opposition continues such that, potentially, commodities and exchanges could grow exponentially while the total amount of money remains the same. (pg. 215). As anyone who has dealt with haggling peddlers can testify to, the idea that price and value somehow magically align according to natural laws of supply and demand is quite the fantasy. Consumption and production, buyers and sellers do not speak to each other in any rational, communitarian manner -- isn't that what marketing departments in fact want to avoid? Only with some sort of regulatory force (the state) can money exchange be facilitated at all, and, paradoxically, only with more force does the idea of natural laws of exchange begin to appear reasonable.

4. Crisis.

Marx introduces crisis for the first time, and although it hints at a larger theory, he does not actually talk about crisis in detail until volume three thereabouts. As Lukacs writes in "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat":

"It has often been pointed out-in these pages and elsewhere-that the problem that forms the ultimate barrier to the economic thought of the bourgeoisie is the crisis."

As Marx writes on 209: "These forms [of exchange] therefore imply the possibility of crises, though no more than the possibility. For the development of this possibility into a reality a whole series of conditiosn is required, which do not yet even exist from the standpoint of the simple circulation of commodities."

These chapters seem to be Marx's attempt to lay out his own theory of consumption, against that of classical economics, and to show how the limits of their knowledge - which is trapped within the presentation of the commodity form - prevent them from understanding why crises occur. But Marx cannot yet explain why crises occur, because a true, positive theory will require an eye upon production and the way it acts opposite to consumption. In other words, one must understand not simply money and commodities but also capital.

And with that - Part II: "The Transformation of Money into Capital."

June 19, 2008

Comparability and the Value-form

A few weeks ago I attended a conference at the University of Chicago in honor of the intrepid historian/social theorist Bill Sewell. The topic of one of the panels was the "return to comparison" in history and the social sciences after the cultural turn. In his remarks on the papers, Moishe Postone noted that this return entailed a shift away from the subjectivist, heuristic comparisons of the past (modernization theory) to a new interest in historically specific sources of comparability. The big question: what generates comparability among nation-states?

In some ways this seems to resemble the problematic of "real abstraction" in Marx. In the same way that the abstraction of labor isn't simply produced by thinking and speaking, the comparability of different things (nation-states, cultures, etc.) does not always originate in the brains of crazy social scientists (nor does it spring from the essence of humanity in general).

Marx has something interesting to say about comparison on p. 149...
The relative value-form of a commodity, the linen for example, expresses its value-existence as something wholly different from its substance and properties, as the quality of being comparable with a coat for example; this expression itself therefore indicates that it conceals a social relation. With the equivalent form the reverse is true. The equivalent form consists precisely in this, that the material commodity itself, the coat for instance, expresses value just as it is in its everyday life, and is therefore endowed with the form of value by nature itself. Admittedly, this holds good only within the value-relation, in which the commodity linen is related to the commodity coat as its equivalent. However, the properties of a thing do not arise from its relations to other things, they are, on the contrary, merely activated by such relations.
Hmm... comparability on the one hand, everydayness on the other. Not an easy passage to unpack! It suggests a few questions to me on the subject of comparative history. How do we get from the nation-state-form to the commodity-form (or vice-versa)? Are "real" comparisons a sort of one-way street?

June 15, 2008

Real vs. Theoretical Abstraction of Labor

What are the limits to Marx's historicism?  Do labor, use-value, and nature transcend history? Consider the following quote about labor:
Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.
I'm not sure statements like this can be tossed out as humanist, essentialist residues in an otherwise radically historicist saga. Instead, I think we should pay close attention to the way Marx marks (!) the gap between real and theoretical (or linguistic) abstractions in the text.  Real abstraction takes place within history, but theoretical abstractions can be used to point to (or bracket) things that precede real abstraction.

Here's a tricky passage where this gap seems evident:
On the one hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labour that it forms the value of commodities. On the one hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete useful labour that it produces-use values.
In the first case, abstract labor forms the value of commodities.  All particular forms of labor are historically forced into a relation of equivalence. The abstraction of labor clearly takes place within human history since commodity production, exchange, etc. bring it about.

Yet "labor" is also an abstract concept that refers to labor prior to or outside this process of real abstraction.  "Labor" is always already abstract, but labor is not.  If "labor" is always already an abstraction, does that mean that labor is a historical category?

My three answers:
1) Abstract labor is historical (results from real abstraction)
2) The concept of "labor" is historical
3) Labor is transhistorical

Are 2 and 3 contradictory statements?  I do not think so.  Perhaps we could amend 3 to say "Labor is transhistorical to the best of our knowledge," but this is true of all declarative statements.  Why should the historicity of our concepts undercut their truth? 

A better criticism would be to say that statement 3 is somehow incomplete if it does not include knowledge of the historical conditions that allow that statement to be articulated as truth. Hegel might say that 3 remains at the level of "abstract truth." 

It becomes complicated when we try to indicate precisely what those historical conditions are.  We might think that 3 is parasitic on 2, and 2 is parasitic on 1.  In other words, "labor" becomes an abstract concept that can be applied retrospectively on all of human history only after the real abstraction of labor has taken place in commodity production.  Yet history doesn't seem to work precisely in this lock-step linear fashion (a point underscored by Althusser in "Contradiction and Overdetermination"). Consider the following passage from the same section on labor:
The various proportions in which different kinds of labour are reduced to simple labour as their unit of measurement are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers; these proportions therefore appear to the producers to have been handed down by tradition. (emph. added)
Labor as a real abstraction is thus cut off from "traditional labor" by virtue of its insertion within a social process that links the concept of labor to a quantifiable value (note: since this happens behind the backs of producers, it poses a number of problems for naive historical empiricism).  This linkage marks the difference between transhistorical labor and historical abstract labor.  If we abandon the transhistorical aspect of labor for a more radically historicist view, I think we fail to grasp the process of naturalization in capitalism. Abstracted labor appears universal and transhistorical because concrete labor actually is something we (as historical beings) can truthfully declare to be universal and transhistorical. 

June 13, 2008

A plea for more attention to use value

Note: If I quote from page numbers, I am using the 1976 Penguin edition. But to save time, when I do not include page numbers, I am quoting directly from the online Marxists Internet Archive. To locate those quotes in the chapters, you can just copy and paste the line into the search box.

I read Chapter one with an emphasis on deciphering what Marx means by "use value." Sure he defines it a few times in explicit terms, but if you pay attention to the way use value changes in function throughout the chapter, I think you could argue that there are at least two types of use value.

Hold on, backtrack. The real crux of capital is, of course, exchange value, or value itself. Use value could easily be seen simply as a supplement to understand exchange value. That is: by defining what operates outside of the exchange value of the commodity, one can more accurately delimit the contours of exchange value. But let's flip around the operation; knowing what exchange value is, how would you answer the question: "what is use value?" In Derridean terms, exchange value functions as the marked term, and use value is simply its outside: the unmarked term.

There seem to be two conflicting definitions of use value at the outset of the chapter. Marx writes:
Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history....The utility (usefulness) of a thing makes it a use value.

Then writes:
A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities....The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities.
In the first definition, use value is a transhistorical given, independent of specific uses or how those use values emerge. He only describes an item's "usefulness" or "utility," and without exchange value as supplement, there is no "value" in "use value." The second quote attaches use value to a situation wherein commodities and commercial activity are an integral part of human existence. In other words, where the first quote indicates that one could find use value by living alone, the latter indicates that it is a quality of commodified and exchange-based societies, which are thoroughly social. This is most explicitly spelled out in the following quote, which I found the most significant in the chapter (emphases added):
A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values... Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.

To sum up, the two use values are 1) a use value that can exist without being part of a commodity or 2) a use value that part of the dual nature of the commodity. That is, the difference between a non-commodified society and a commodified one; one wherein things are produced for oneself and wherein things are produced for others. This discussion really circles around the break from a precapitalist or noncapitalist socio-economic form of organization to one of capitalist commodity production. One's philosophy for talking about that type of history (the history of the limits of capitalism, the precapitalist past) deeply implicates use value as the pre-history of exchange value.

Marx's theory of time and history in capitalism can be seen very clearly here. While Marx states that the use values and exchange values continually reinforce one another, he also states that exchange value absolutely separates itself from use value: "As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value."

Exchange value conceals history. As a quantitative mode of thinking, it excludes the qualitative; in order to commensurate things, it reduces their singularity; as a marker of consumption, it excludes production. use value is really the pre-history of exchange value: what came before the leveling of everything into an "an immense accumulation of commodities."

Think about the structure of chapter one. Marx spends the majority describing how commodities and exchange value are conditioned by social processes, which reaches a climax with this quote: "It thus becomes evident that since the existence of commodities as values is purely social, this social existence can be expressed by the totality of their social relations alone, and consequently that the form of their value must be a socially recognised form."

But then in the last section on fetishism, Marx suggests to us that we CAN'T really know this social process because it is masked by the commodity form:
Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him.
Where earlier Marx said the investigation of history was the investigation of usefulness, now he says history is inaccessible to the reified mind which sees the world as a given, natural state of affairs. If it is true that, insofar as we live in a society dominated by commodities and labor, then how does Marx step outside of his present in order to understand the past? How does he have access to this world of use value which precedes commoditization? He doesn't. Just as the structure of the commodity form renders the world into a collection of objects and hence makes the past knowable to us only retrospectively - post festum - I think Marx's comments are also speculations on what came before the present from the standpoint of looking back from the present rather than from the beginning. The naive historian's position is flipped on its head; any attempt at getting at how people "really used to think" is necessarily mediated by how we understand the present. The last section on fetishism places the rest of the chapter into a completely new light.

This seems absolutely clear from the fact that in his brief genealogy of world history, Marx begins with Robinson Crusoe: an EXPLICITLY FICTITIOUS tale. The other examples he draws from -- Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, wide-ranging speculations on so-called Asiatic societies -- might as well be fiction. They are more instructive about the contours of European capitalism more than they are about the Ancient or non-European worlds.

So, to return to the use value discussion, I think that the two use values are ultimately related. In the conventional sense, use value is that spectral feeling we get when we buy something and think "hmm, there probably is more to this than its appearances," but in lieu of actually understanding how it was made or how it will be used after it is purchased, we bracket it off and label it "use value." Homologically, we are firmly entrenched in the present, but we have a vague sense of the history before our present. We bracket off everything that came before as "use value," or a history of societies that existed otherwise than contemporary commodity-based societies.

In her scrumtulescent essay "Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value," Gayatri Spivak makes similar arguments about how use value unravels the textuality of the commodity form. As something that stands both inside and outside the commodity -- inside and outside the capitalist present -- use value puts into question how the present came to be. If the commodity form and capitalist reproduction are processes of endless accumulation, how did they begin? What are the limits of this seemingly natural and infinite cycle? Obviously we don't know. All we know well is exchange value; everything else is bracketed off as "use value." In Spivak's words, the function of use value is to "keep randomness at bay."

Of course, if one is to think historically -- and this is not just a task for historians; that you are reading a text from the 1860s already forces you to think historically -- one has no choice but to engage with the mysterious pre-history of the present.

June 8, 2008


I will be a third-year PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School this fall. I work on medieval Chinese Buddhism. I am curious about why we no longer live in medieval times, and I suspect capital has something to do with it.