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.

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