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?

1 comment:

andy said...

So you said:

"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?"

As I wrote in my post for the second and third chapters, I think that there are grounds for believing that the state is tied to capitalism in very stark terms. Most historical comparisons, no matter the time period they operate in, assume the divisions of nation-states in the present. Therefore, Ming/Qing becomes China, the Tokugawa becomes Japan, etc. Comparisons do not simply operate between states as a content-less category. They operate within modern nation-states whose features are intimately tied to the functioning of commodity exchange: stabilizing monetary values, keeping reserves, guaranteeing space for markets, regulating labor, regulating monopoly, negotiating for trading rights, etc. etc. In this sense, the near homology of national government agendas today is not a mere coincidence; it is preceded/concurrent with the homology of economic activity across broad expanses of space-time. Of course, I am not trying to reduce the functions of the nation to economics, but in a major way, they are tied together by this shared foundation. Which can becomes one axis of comparison.