Wednesday, August 27, 2008
The way I’m using it, a category is a metaconcept. It’s a concept that shows you how to use other concepts. To illustrate, let’s say you have two concepts that aren’t categories, like “table” and “brown”. There are many ways you can assemble these concepts in judgments, but only some of these judgments will make logical sense, and only a portion of the ones that make logical sense will actually be about the world. So you can say, “The brown is table.” This is nonsense. But you can say, “The table is brown,” which makes sense. The reason it makes sense is because the concept “table” occupies the “subject” position of the sentence, and the concept “brown” occupies the predicate position. Perhaps “brown” could occupy a subject position in a judgment, for example if you’re talking about the properties of the color brown. But “table” can never occupy the predicate position, because a table is never a property of something else. The reason we recognize this difference is because of categories. We know that a table is the sort of thing that is only a substance and never an accident. To judge that something is a substance or an accident is to make a categorical judgment about those things. Take another example: ice melting when a flame is applied to it. Categories allow us to understand that heat is the cause of the ice melting, not that the ice melting causes the heat. We place the heat in the “cause” position, and we place the melting in the “effect” position. We apply categories to those things, and by doing so, we know how to think about them, how to say things about them, and so how to know about them.
Marxism is a category theory because it attempts to come up with the most fundamental concepts applicable to the anatomy of civil society (political economy). Perhaps the most important category Marx discovers is “surplus-value”, which is the fulcrum around which his theory of the “valorization of value” turns. Understanding what surplus-value is (and the labor that produces it, surplus-labor) allows you to order the other phenomena of capitalist society in such a way as to make sense of the actual world, rather than to deal with mere subjective appearances or nonsense.
Part of the problem with technocratic explanations of capitalism and even technology is that they use concepts like “cognitive surplus” or “creative class” not only without knowing what they mean but without any fundamental understanding of what capitalism is. This leads to a picture of the world which is inverted. Claiming that technology on its own brings about a revolution or that high technology capitalism is capable of smoothing over the class conflict is like saying that the melting of ice causes a flame to ignite. It’s not that technocrats observe different phenomena from us. They see the same revolutionary transformations of society we do. But they order the phenomena of experience in such a way that substance becomes accident and vice versa. They remain purely at the level of appearance and never penetrate to the essence of the thing.
Every category theory is faced with the problem of explaining where the categories come from. Kant famously attempted to ground the table of categories in the table of logical judgments—in other words to make transcendental logic project a kind of transcendental syntax on to the world. This is not very different from more modern attempts by philosophers to ground metaphysics in the philosophy of language, thus making linguistic analysis first philosophy.
Marx does not attempt to ground the categories of political economy in thought, language, or anything of the sort. Instead, he grounds the categories of political economy in the most fundamental social relations composing civil society: the capital social relation. Yet the capital social relation itself is historical: it came into existence at a particular point in time out of other social relations. For this reason, Marx believes the categories of political economy are historical in nature, i.e., they came into being at a certain point, and they may very well pass away again, too. But because these social relations are themselves concrete relationships between people, based in the way the society produces and reproduces itself, Marx’s theory is rightly called “materialist”.
Therefore, Marx’s category theory arises by means of a critique of political economy, and the theory Marx uses to explain the ground and origin of these categories is historical materialism.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
This is not to say that the capitalist never participates in the circuit C-M-C. On the contrary, the division of labor ensures that no one is in control of the entire means of production of all commodities. Even the capitalist must use some of his profit to procure his means of existence, although this is ridiculously easier for him than for the vast majority of humankind. But M-C-M is the circuit in which the capitalist participates insofar as he is a capitalist, that is, insofar as he imposes the commodity-form on labor. He may comport himself toward people in other ways, but he does not do so qua capitalist. It is for this reason that Marx calls M-C-M the “general formula of capital”. It is capital’s most primitive and general description.
Neither is this to say that the working class never participates in M-C-M. A working couple may purchase a house in order to provide themselves and their children a home. This is an example of C-M-C in which one works for money in order to use that money to buy something useful (a home). But they may also “invest” in the home in the hopes of selling it for more money in coming years. This is a form of M-C-M. Yet just as C-M-C was a process favoring the capitalist when he participated in it owing to his immense wealth, so is M-C-M a process disfavoring the working class when they participate in it. This is clear in the case of the current housing market collapse—a “crisis” disproportionately deeper and further reaching for the working class than for the capitalist class.
The two classes in the capital social relation each relate to money in their own characteristic ways, and this is also reflected in their characteristic processes of circulation. Insofar as money determines a person’s access to social wealth under the capitalist mode of production, workers fight for increases in wages (amongst other things). They want a greater share of social wealth in exchange for less work. They want to spend more time enjoying life and enriching themselves and less time serving another person. In the circuit C-M-C, M is a barrier between the working class and the fulfillment of its needs and wants. The lower that barrier, the more wealth accrues to the working class. The higher that barrier, the more wealth accrues to capital.
The capitalist by contrast pursues the circuit M-C-M’. In this circuit, C consists in (amongst other things) the labor-power the working class sells to him. The more effectively he imposes the commodity-form on labor, the greater the difference between M and M’. This means getting workers to spend more time working and to spend less time enjoying themselves. Whereas time spent working is dead time to the working class, it is living time to the capitalist. And time the working class spends enriching itself and not producing for the capitalist is dead time the capitalist wishes to eliminate. Therefore, M + ΔM is not only an increase in the capitalist’s wealth; it is also an increase in capital’s ability to impose the commodity-form on labor and to continue the general condition of forced work. The two circuits feed into and contradict one another. This contradiction is equivalent to the class struggle between worker and capitalist.
Next: the different roles of money and commodities in the two circuits
Friday, July 25, 2008
The circuit C-M-C describes an interaction in which a person sells a commodity in order to buy a commodity. I exchange x commodity A for y dollars, and then I exchange y dollars for z commodity B. All other things being equal, we can assume from any transaction of this form that x commodity A has the same exchange-value (is worth as much) as z commodity B. This is given by their equation with an identical quantity of money.
Although it is rational to assume that the quantity of exchange-value is preserved in this transaction, the same does not hold true when we consider the qualitative traits of the commodities. No rational person intentionally sells a gallon of gasoline in order to use the money immediately to buy a gallon of gasoline. He takes the money and uses it to buy something he did not already have. Therefore, while the actors participating in C-M-C aim to realize identical exchange-values across their transaction, what they do makes no sense unless the first C and the second C are different sorts of things.
C-M-C is a process conditioned by consumption—the use and using up of things that satisfy wants and needs. One participates in C-M-C only in order to consume. The first C enters circulation and becomes the property of the buyer. From there it is either consumed, sold, or used to create more value. But the second C necessarily drops out of circulation. C-M-C is a form of circulation that necessarily terminates in something other than circulation. Its entire aim and reason for existence is consumption.
The circuit M-C-M describes an interaction in which one person buys a commodity in order to sell a commodity. I exchange x dollars for y commodity A, and then I exchange y commodity A for z dollars. Whereas the extremes in C-M-C were qualitatively different use-values, in M-C-M the extremes are identical use-values. One dollar is as good as the rest. Yet while it made sense to assume exchange-value was preserved over C-M-C, it makes no sense to assume the same for M-C-M. All other things being equal, I need do nothing more than hold on to my $100 in order to preserve its exchange-value. The only reason to throw $100 into circulation is if I hope to have more on the other side. Therefore, M-C-M is really M-C-M’ where M’ = M + DM. Marx calls DM “surplus-value”.
Unlike C-M-C which aims for the realization of use-value, the purpose of M-C-M is to increase exchange-value. One participates in the interaction M-C-M in order to make more money. Yet unlike commodities, we do not consume money (except by wearing it out). Unlike food, medicine, or even a yacht, money serves no purpose outside the sphere of exchange. Therefore, M-C-M is not conditioned by consumption the way C-M-C was. Its only purpose is the expansion or realization [Verwertung] of value.
Next: the class characteristics of each circuit
The essence of the capital social relation consists in the imposition of the commodity-form on labor by those who own the means of production. This imposition creates by force a situation in which the only access workers have to the necessities of life is by selling their labor-power to the capitalist. This turns all the products of labor into commodities. Each has a price.
The act of buying is one in which person A gives x dollars to person B in exchange for y number of commodities. Marx represents this interaction by “M-C”, money in exchange for commodities. Yet every act of purchase by A is simultaneously an act of sale by B. Marx represents this interaction by “C-M”, commodities in exchange for money.
If we put these two primitive forms of interaction together, we generate two circuits. The first circuit is C-M-C: selling in order to buy. I sell x commodity A for y dollars, and then I use those y dollars (or some of them) to purchase z commodity B. For example, I sell my labor-power by working for two weeks, and at the end of that time I get a paycheck. I use the money from the paycheck to buy groceries, put gas in the car, buy medicine, pay for daycare for my child, etc.
The second circuit is M-C-M: buying in order to sell. I buy x commodity A for y dollars, and then I sell x commodity A for z dollars (and hopefully z is greater than y). For example, I buy a house for $200,000, and I sell it ten years later for $250,000. Or I purchase materials to make a house, I hire workers to build the house, and once the house is finished, I sell it to a family to live in.
Both C-M-C and M-C-M involve acts of buying and selling. Each involves an exchange of money for commodities and vice versa. That is where their similarities end. Their principal differences are as follows:
- The two circuits differ in their aims: while C-M-C aims at the satisfaction of concrete human needs and wants, M-C-M aims at the generation of profit.
- From this it follows that C-M-C best describes the characteristic behavior of the working class within the capital social relation, while M-C-M best characterizes the behavior of the capitalist class within that same relation.
- The roles commodities and money play in each circuit are different, too: while money principally measures value and facilitates exchange in C-M-C, it is principally a vehicle for the generation of more money in M-C-M.
- Finally, given the intrinsic class character of each of these circuits and the way capital uses money to control working class access to social wealth, the self-expansion of value in M-C-M is equivalent to the deepening and expansion of the system of forced labor.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
One might object that Marx's starting point is arbitrary. We have no good reason to believe that use-value and exchange-value make up the essence of a commodity. Indeed, the only support Marx offers in favor of this view is a quote by Aristotle. Marx's starting point succumbs to the fallacy of appeal to authority. Clearly everything that follows from here is invalid.
Yet Marx’s starting point is only provisional. His purpose is not to show that the commodity in fact is use-value and exchange-value simpliciter. Indeed, as Marx proceeds to show in the first chapter and even more emphatically in the second chapter, this view of the commodity as being composed simply of use-value and exchange-value is rife with contradictions, and so the initial appearance the commodity gives off of being composed of exchange-value and use-value cannot be in fact what the commodity is. By developing this inadequate, abstract account of the commodity through its series of contradictions, we can finally arrive at what the commodity in fact is. Therefore, at least for right now, it is not necessary that this account of the commodity be absolutely true, only that it be prima facie true.
So assuming at least provisionally that the commodity really has two aspects, use-value and exchange-value, it follows that the labor that produces the commodity must also have two aspects, one qualitative, the other quantitative. A shoe has use-value because it is made of leather, rubber, and thread, materials capable of withstanding the normal wear and tear of walking. The labor required to make a pair of shoes consists in cutting and shaping rubber and cutting and sewing leather. This labor is qualitatively different from the kind of labor that goes into making a jacket, a car, or even a pair of sneakers. Just as when we consider commodities in terms of their respective use-values each appears qualitatively different from another, so too does the labor which creates the commodity qua use-value appear qualitatively different from other forms of labor which produce other use-values. Therefore, qua use-value, a commodity is materialized particular labor.
Yet in order to consider the commodity solely in terms of its exchange-value, we have to abstract completely from its use-value. It does not matter that shoes are for walking and palaces are for habitation by princes; considered solely in terms of their exchange-value, we can measure the value of a palace in terms of pairs of shoes. But this means we must abstract from everything qualitative in the commodity, including the labor that produced it. “As exchange-values in which the qualitative difference between their use-values is eliminated, they represent equal amounts of the same kind of labour. The labour which is uniformly materialised in them must be uniform, homogeneous, simple labour; it matters as little whether this is embodied in gold, iron, wheat or silk, as it matters to oxygen whether it is found in rusty iron, in the atmosphere, in the juice of grapes or in human blood.” Just as when we consider commodities in terms of their respective exchange-values each commodity appears to represent an identical, quantitative proportion to other commodities, so too does the labor which creates exchange-value appear as mere concatenations of identical units of simple labor. Qua exchange-value, a commodity is materialized abstract, general labor.
At this point one might object that Marx’s argument for the exchange-value of the commodity rests upon the validity of the labor theory of value. Classical political economists came up with the labor theory of value in order to explain the value of commodities in terms of the labor-time that was contained in them, but allegedly neo-classical economics has since shown that the labor theory of value is incoherent. Surely we cannot trust anything Marx says beyond this point, because his entire theory of value is infected by an antiquated notion of value.
And yet again it is necessary to point out that the essence of the commodity Marx is constructing here is not the one Marx intends to hold to without qualification. Marx adopts this model not because he thinks it is the correct model of the commodity.; on the contrary, he adopts it in order to show that it is inherently contradictory and therefore cannot be a self-sufficient description of what the commodity in fact is. Again, all that is required at this point is that the essence of the commodity appear prima facie true, not that it in fact be absolutely true. This is not the foundation upon which Marx intends to construct his theory; rather, it is the view of the commodity which appears (or appeared in Marx’s time) to be immediately correct and which Marx intends to show is in fact not true in the unqualified sense in which its proponents take it to be. That the commodity is simply use-value and exchange-value, individual labor and general labor, is assumed from the start in order to expose its contradictions and lead us to a more concrete, more adequate account of the essence of the commodity.
With that in mind, let us now more closely examine this account of the commodity, specifically as it appears in action. Assuming the commodity really is just the unity of use-value and exchange-value, could it ever fulfill the function of an actual commodity that we find out in the world, like a loaf of bread? That is, if the loaf of bread were just use-value and exchange-value, materialized particular labor and materialized general labor, would the bread in fact ever be eaten or exchanged? If not, then we know this cannot in fact be what a commodity is like. It must be like something else.
Immediately after producing the commodity, the commodity is both a use-value and not a use-value. It is a use-value insofar as it has properties that potentially satisfy human needs, but it is not a use-value insofar as the one initially in possession of the commodity will not use it to satisfy his needs. For example, if the bread in the bakery were tasty to the baker, he would eat it. But if he ate it, it would not be a commodity, since commodities are produced to be exchanged for other commodities of equal exchange-value. Instead, the bread is a means of exchange for the baker, a means to his livelihood. It is something he can sell. The “use” of the bread to the baker is that it can be sold. So at this point, no one has yet regarded the bread as a use-value. The commodity in the shop has yet to become a use-value.
To become a use-value, the commodity has to encounter the particular need it satisfies (in this case, hunger for bread). So to become a use-value, the commodity has to switch hands, say, from the hands of the baker to the hands of the man who wants to make a sandwich. In order to switch hands, it must be exchanged. In order to be exchanged, the commodity must be an exchange-value. In order to be an exchange-value, both parties involved in the transaction have to abstract from its use-value and consider it purely quantitatively, in terms of its price. Marx calls this abstraction from all use-value of the commodity the “alienation of the commodity”. Only by means of alienation (by not considering it a use-value at all) does the commodity become a use-value (since that is the condition under which it can be exchanged and fall into the hands of someone who will use it). Only by abstracting from the use-value of bread (i.e., that it can be eaten) does the bread ever really become eaten. So under capitalism, only by being exchange-values do commodities ever become use-values.
Our view of the commodity has already undergone significant revision from our first take on it. We initially regarded the commodity as simply being the unity of exchange-value and use-value. Use-value was something a commodity had by virtue of its ability to satisfy human wants and desires, and this ability seemed to be based solely in its immediate, physical properties. But when we look at actual commodity production and exchange under capitalism, we find this is not the case. In fact, the commodity is not a use-value at the beginning of its existence but rather has to become one by means of exchange. Only once the commodity has passed into the hands of the consumer does it finally become a use-value. Therefore, what initially appeared to be a freestanding property of the commodity is actually a property that is “mediated”. It is a property that comes into being only by means of a social process in and through which it is “alienated” from itself.
At this point it appears as though a commodity becomes a use-value only by means of being an exchange-value, but we have already seen that a commodity has exchange-value only because it is materialized labor-time. Yet the particular commodity (say, our loaf of bread again) only comes into existence and subsists in this world by means of particular labor. The loaf of bread is not “just any” loaf of bread. It is this particular loaf of semolina wheat bread on this particular shelf of this Italian bakery in Hoboken, NJ. A loaf of bread is materialized individual labor, not materialized universal labor-time. But the commodity has exchange-value only insofar as it is materialized universal labor-time. Therefore, the commodity is not yet an exchange-value.
Now our view of the commodity has undergone yet another shift. A moment ago we treated the commodity as though just by virtue of sitting in the baker’s shop, it was an exchange-value, and by virtue of being an exchange-value, it could become a use-value. But now it appears as though the commodity is not immediately exchange-value, either. The commodity has yet to become exchange-value. But the commodity which has yet to become an exchange-value or a materialization of universal labor-time (in this case, a loaf of semolina wheat bread in a shop in Jersey), is a particular existing object. Bakers don’t create “just any” loaves of bread. All loaves of bread which are to become exchange-values are particular, actually existing loaves of bread, produced by particular people under particular circumstances. This is the only sort of thing that can have a price. But what we have just described is a use-value. So only something which is a use-value can become an exchange-value.
Our analysis of the commodity as the unity of exchange-value and use-value has led us in a circle. To be exchanged, commodities must have exchange-value, but commodities don’t immediately have exchange-value just by virtue of existing in the baker’s shop. They have to become exchange-values. To become exchange-values, commodities must be materialized universal labor-time. The only thing that can embody universal labor-time is a particular thing, a use-value. But commodities are not immediately use-values, either. In order to be use-values, they have to be exchanged. But to be exchanged… etc.
Our analysis of the commodity has led us not only to a circle in which exchange-value and use-value presuppose one another; it has also led us to a contradiction. As use-values, commodities are inherently unequal with one another. A bottle of water does not fulfill the same exact need as a loaf of bread or even a different bottle of water. And yet as exchange-values, commodities must be equal to one another, since it is possible to express the value of a loaf of bread in terms of the value of a bottle of water. To become equitable (to become exchange-values), commodities must first become unequal: to become an exchange-value, a commodity has first to be a use-value. But once the commodity becomes a use-value, it cannot be exchanged, since being a use-value includes being qualitatively different from other things. But qualitatively different things are not equitable (and so cannot be exchange-values). But to become unequal (use-values), commodities have to be exchanged, since the commodity is not immediately a use-value (to its producer). The commodity only becomes a use-value in the hands of its consumer. So in order to be unequal (use-values), commodities have to be equal (exchange-values) and vice versa. This is the contradiction inherent in the commodity considered as the unity of use-value and exchange-value.
At this point Marx invites us to ask ourselves what would have to change in this account of the commodity in order to allow the commodity to be what it purports to be. Let’s imagine for a second that the commodity already made the salto mortale, that it made it through the process of exchange and passed from the baker’s hands into the hungry man’s stomach. What would have allowed that to come about? The answer, says Marx, is money.
Money resolves the contradiction inherent in the commodity by allowing the commodity to transform from a use-value into an exchange-value and vice- versa. This is because money is a commodity that itself serves as a “universal equivalent” or a “universal commodity”. Its use-value is that it is a measure of the exchange-value of other commodities. The commodity starts as a use-value in the baker’s shop. The baker attaches a price to the commodity. This price is a hypothetical exchange-value of the commodity, what Marx refers to as a nominal price. The baker takes the bread to market with this nominal price in the hope of attracting money with it. Once the exchange takes place, the nominal price transforms into a real price, i.e., the bread is exchanged for actual cash. The commodity has “proved” it was really that price. (If it doesn’t get exchanged, nothing was proved.) The bread has now proved itself to really have this abstract value attached to it (its real price), and as a result, the particular labor which went into the production of the bread proves itself to have really been in fact abstract general labor. Contrariwise, from the side of the consumer, the bread is now able to prove itself as use-value.
Without any details (I’ll provide them in a future post), this account of how money resolves the contradiction inherent in the commodity is murky, but it is still possible to get the general idea of what has happened. The commodity was allegedly the simple unity of use-value and exchange-value. These were purported to be two properties immediately inhering in the commodity, apart from any complex social process. Yet we saw that if we assumed this to be the case, we were forced to assume that one and the same thing was both particular and general at the same time and in the same respects. Money did not fully eliminate this contradiction. On the contrary, one and the same object (the loaf of bread) is still both particular and general. Yet it is no longer particular and general at the same time and in the same respect. Money comes between these two properties of the commodity so that the commodity can be exchange-value at one point, use-value at another. Therefore the essence of the commodity is not simply use-value and exchange-value, but neither is the essence simply not use-value and exchange-value. The essence of the commodity is revealed in the process of exchange. This is the “social metabolism” of the essence of the commodity, and it requires money.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
In his “Copernican” turn, Kant displaces the conditions of knowledge from nature or from God on to the knowing subject. So instead of talking about substances represented, we're going to talk about representations and the (universal, necessary, and subjective) conditions of representation. Instead of talking about categories as predicates of objects, we're going to talk about categories as (universal and necessary) forms of the thinking of objects. Instead of talking about God as the maker of the underlying order of the universe, we're going to talk about the subject (universally and necessarily) ordering the manifold of perception. All these processes of representing, categorizing, synthesizing, etc., are universal and necessary (and hence a priori) conditions of the possibility of having experience of objects. This is precisely what Kant means when he uses the term “transcendental”.
Now in making this shift, Kant is arguing that the subject of knowledge (considered formalistically, that is, from a universal, abstract perspective) brings to the knowing situation specific forms of knowledge that serve a foundational role for the knowing situation. Therefore, those forms of knowledge are conditions of the possibility of knowledge. For Kant, these are space, time, and the categories. What the object is outside of its subjection to these forms of knowledge, we cannot know for certain, since the application of those forms is the sine qua non of something being an object of knowledge in the first place. So Kant doesn't deny that ultimate reality outside of these forms exists; he just denies that such an object is accessible to the kind of knowledge that we finite knowers have.
Given this shift, it is easy to see why the upshot of Kant's Copernican turn is the denial of our ability to know things as they are in themselves. We can never know the material, causal substratum of our concepts—the content of our categories and empirical concepts—since that's a mere "X" lying outside our forms of knowledge. And we can never know "totality", the ultimate object of philosophical knowledge, because the application of our categories is always restricted to mere appearances. We have to "bracket in" both of them.
In restricting knowledge to appearances, to what appears within the horizon of human cognition, Kant suppresses totality. This is the subject of the Antinomies of Pure Reason: every attempt by reason to ascend from a mere synthesis of appearance according to the understanding to a final synthesis of all conditions of the understanding by reason has to result in dialectical illusion. Furthermore, Kant brackets in the material (or immaterial) substratum of thought—the ultimate source of the content of our categories and empirical concepts—and he makes the categories into brute products of our unintelligible spontaneity. So you get a double-bracketing of totality and self. This corresponds to the third moment of the positivism effect, or the idea that the underlying, concrete reality lies methodologically and in principle beyond our grasp.
Since what we know we only know by virtue of applying our categories to the knowing situation, what something is before it enters into this knowing situation must be a mere "X", an indeterminate, value-neutral "given". This corresponds to the first moment of the positivism effect, according to which the data of the social sciences are "natural", value-neutral givens.
Finally, since according to Kant we are barred from knowing the subject of knowledge (the spontaneous self), the ultimate object of knowledge (totality), and the material basis of knowledge (the thing in itself), knowledge can perfect itself only through methodological refinement. This barring of knowledge from self-consciousness corresponds to the second moment of the positivism effect.
The opposite of Kant’s position would be to argue that objects cannot remain inviolate in their givenness. That is, concepts can't be empty universals under which we subsume irrational particulars. That's the first moment of the positivism effect. But to reverse this means that the phenomena themselves, the "data" of our experience, can't be value-neutral, "natural", mere givens. The reality we confront as standing over and against us has to include some determinacy of its own outside whatever our formalistic methodology tells us about it, and there must be some way for us to disclose that determinacy as well, for it to enter into our experience. This means that our concepts must be able to penetrate into the objects themselves with no irrational remainder. In other words, the content of the experience must also be determinable through and through.
Furthermore, this material basis cannot enter experience by means of a contemplative, knowing relationship without falling back on a representational, subjective point of view. The radicalism of Kant’s position lies in his account of agency: we know by virtue of our activity (acts of synthesis and the like). Yet Kant attempts to understand this agency through a representational framework. That is what ultimately makes his position bourgeois and contemplative. So by saying that in knowing we're active, Kant says we're embodied agents in the world, but then he withdraws that when he tries to make it function within a representational framework. If we can only know what we have made, if this is some version of maker's knowledge, then we need a more serious understanding of human beings as makers or determiners of the world. We need that framework of radical activity but now liberated from the contemplative stance, from a representational framework. That's what's at stake in the idea that the unity of the world is not the unity of judgment (since judgment is a way of representing) but is rather a unity of action and deed. It is at this point that Kantian critical philosophy meets dialectics as exemplified in Hegel’s account of Lordship and Bondage.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Yet if historical materialism is right, then theoretical reflection is part of social reproduction and is therefore situated “in” society itself. Theoretical reflection is subject to the uniform principles in accordance with which social reproduction takes place, and so social critique must involve a self-critique of Marxist theory. Such a self-critique will situate its own theoretical practices and simultaneously account for its own procedure and its truth. In order to be consistent, Marxism has to give an account of itself that does not rely upon a representational or Platonic theory of knowledge and truth. What we know by means of Marx’s theories cannot be an object “out there”. In “representing its object”, Marxism in fact represents itself (it is an object for itself), and its understanding of itself as representational is due to the effects of what Marx called “fetishism”. But if what it thought belonged to the commodity actually belongs to itself, then Marxism’s own theory of itself as an accurate representation of the mode of production has to be false. Marxism is not a “mirror” or a “picture” of capitalism; it is an “internal moment” of capitalism itself.
The representational self-understanding of Marxism is itself an effect of the domination of the whole of the society by the capitalist mode of production. As this mode of production comes to characterize the totality of modern society, the totality itself as a phenomenon vanishes from view and become inconspicuous to cognizing subjects. Reified, capitalist society divides up into discrete, autonomous spheres, each operating according to its own laws. Various sciences arise to study the laws according to which these spheres operate. They treat society, economy, law, the family, etc., not as institutions arising out of concrete human acts, but rather as “given” realities “out there” which their theories attempt to represent (albeit imperfectly). In theorizing society this way, the human sciences must remain unable to account for the real grounding of their objects in human relations and accomplishments, and they must remain essentially unreflective with regard to their own material, historical conditions of possibility. Marxism traditionally understood as the accurate representation of the laws of the movement of capitalist society is just such a representational theory of society and economy following from the objectification of society and its fragmentation into discrete components. The epistemic appropriation of social relations by means of the production of such representational theories is itself an effect of the ubiquity of the capitalist mode of production.
Seen from an abstract, epistemological point of view, this process has three components:
- The data of social theories are taken to be "natural", ready-made, and value-neutral. Therefore, the job of the social theorist is to observe this reality and by means of induction to generalize the laws operative in these particular fields.
- Given the capacity of sociology, economics, etc., to generate such law-like generalizations, methodology progressively overcomes and replaces critical reflection upon the basic concepts and phenomena of the field. Methodology is taken to be a sufficient model of analysis itself.
- As a result of their emphasis on methodology and as a result of their treating the data as mere givens, the social sciences beget a dissolution of their understanding of the social totality (and so the source of reification itself is lost, if not the phenomenon itself), and they continually "bracket in" their historical and ontological conditions.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
In the final section of the "Introduction" to the Grundrisse, Marx puzzles over what he sees as a disparity between the development of the material base of a society and the development of a people’s art.
It is known in the case of art that specific times of artistic flowering by no means stand in a proportional relation to the general development of society, therefore [they do not stand in a proportional relation] to the general development of the material basis, to the general development, as it were, of the bone-structure of its organization.
Marx specifically has ancient Greek society in mind, in which we find works of art whose beauty rivals that of contemporary works, and yet this society had not yet emancipated its social form of organization from nature. If we are to understand a people’s culture in accordance with the material conditions of production and reproduction of that society, should not the most advanced forces and relations of production coincide with the most beautiful works of art? Why should we find works of art that rival the moderns in a society where the division of labor is still confused with division into natural kinds (male and female, for instance)?
In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller noted a similar disparity between the flourishing of the arts and a people’s political freedom, which he generalized to all epochs.
And indeed it must give pause for reflection that in almost every historical epoch in which the arts flourish, and taste prevails, we find humanity at a low ebb, and cannot point to a single instance of a high degree and wide diffusion of aesthetic culture going hand in hand with political freedom and civic virtue, fine manners with good morals, refinement of conduct with truth of conduct. (10,4)
Schiller notes the inverse relation that appears to hold between the flourishing of art and political freedom. The Golden Age of Greek culture flowers only after the collapse of Greek democracy. The need for taste makes itself felt only under conditions where there is a relative lack of freedom, as though the former makes its appearance in order to stand in for the latter and hold its place while it is absent.
"It is known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art” Marx continues, “but [also] its ground."
All mythology controls and rules and forms the powers of nature in the imagination and through the imagination; therefore mythology disappears with actual domination over natural powers.
Mythology implicitly contains the domination of nature explicitly enacted by capitalism. The religious person sacrifices to the god in exchange for the god’s control over the portion of nature falling under his jurisdiction. By sacrificing to the god, he makes a deal whereby the god will hold back the destructive power of nature. Sacrifice is a form of indirect control. This is why we see the disappearance of mythology once it is possible for mankind to directly control nature. The purpose of mythology is extinguished with the actual domination of the world. Yet this form of total domination is possible only within the capitalist mode of production and the generalization of the value-form into a world system. The process of demythification presupposed by this system and extended by it replaces all the old, imagined forms of the domination of nature by actual, material ones.
Yet despite the fact that we have emancipated ourselves from the old forms of superstition, we continue to glance back at the art of the ancients as both a standard and an unrealizable ideal.
However, the difficulty does not lie in understanding that Greek art and epic are tied up with a certain social form of development. The difficulty is that they still give us artistic enjoyment and serve in a certain relationship as the norm and unreachable standard.
Our experience of ancient art, therefore, is an experience of beauty that is also tinged with melancholy and dissatisfaction. Though it is linked inextricably with a form of social development in which man is less free, art nevertheless presents an image of lost harmony which Marx directly associates with childhood.
A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does not the naïvete of a child delight him, and must he not himself strive to reproduce its truth again at a higher level? Does not the character of every epoch revive true to its nature in the nature of the child? Why should not the historical childhood of mankind, where mankind is displayed at its most beautiful, exercise an eternal charm as a never-recurring stage? … Rather, [the charm] is the result of the art and is inseparably connected with the fact that the immature social conditions under which it originated, and alone could originate, can never recur.
When we glance back at childhood, we cannot help but think of it idealistically as a time when worry and the responsibilities inherent in freedom did not yet exist for us. But why should the most beautiful occur during a "never-recurring stage"? What have we parted with in the passage to modernity that is now accessible to us only through works of art? Beauty enjoyed is freedom bereaved, as Schiller pointed out. But then why do we cast a backward glance at beauty just as we become emancipated from the slavery and superstition of our pre-modern past? For Schiller, art is more than the placeholder of freedom; in modernity, it is also the placeholder of the lost authority of nature.
Humanity has lost its dignity; but Art has rescued it and preserved it in significant stone. Truth lives on in the illusion of Art, and it is from this copy, or after-image, that the original image will once again be restored … But not everyone whose soul glows with this ideal was granted either the creative tranquility or the spirit of long patience required to imprint it upon the silent stone, or pour it into the sober mould of words, and so entrust it to the executory hands of time.
“Significant stone” is nature that has been worked up by the artist into a beautiful form. It is nature as artist medium, nature as used directly in the work of art. A work is beautiful just in case the purpose of the artist dovetails with the medium in such a way that the union between form and content appears “natural”. Under such circumstances, nature appears as just the sort of thing to receive human purpose, whereas under ordinary circumstances, human ends appear at loggerheads with natural ones. But the confusion of natural and human purpose in ancient society is what made it unjust—the social and political roles men and women respectively played in ancient
Under conditions of modernity, art is our only access to nature as an independent source of meaning. Yet because the work of art is principally for enjoyment, it can lay no claim to truth or goodness. Its image of reconciliation is merely illusory. If nature appears as a source of meaning in the work of art, it must therefore appear as a lost source of meaning, as a source of meaning which no longer really exists. That is why our enjoyment of beauty is tinged with sadness.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
My thesis is that almost none of what Marx says here is important. It's misleading to believe that reading this will prepare you to read Marx's Capital. If Marx felt it was necessary to introduce his readers to his method before presenting to them the arguments of Capital, he would have included a methodological introduction, like many philosophers before him had done, and as many bourgeois economists today, Paul Samuelson included, do. But Marx deliberately did not include an introduction in any of the editions of Capital. The theoretical introduction of the Grundrisse does not make it into the final copy of Capital. Granted, he remarks in the Afterward to the second German edition that he is "inverting" Hegel's dialectic, standing it up on its feet, but there's no systematic exposition of this approach that would put it on the same level of scientific precision as one encounters in the body of the work.
At times Marx makes it appear as though there is a Marxist "methodology" separate from the actual concrete phenomena he analyzes in his work. Engels did much to extend the so-called “dialectical method” from the sphere of political economy and generalize it into a broad account of both nature and society. Lenin was highly influenced by such formalistic accounts, and no one less than Trotsky wrote an essay on the "ABC's of Material Dialectics".
The problem with presenting such a method as a fact accomplished prior to the science itself is that it is susceptible to skepticism. As such, there have been both socialist and bourgeois critics of dialectical method. None other than Eduard Bernstein, Engels's personal secretary, attempted to rescue scientific Marxism from the mysticism of Hegelian dialectics in his 1899 The Preconditions of Socialism (see chapter 2 especially). Since traditional, orthodox Marxists see dialectics as providing the teleological framework through which to understand the inevitable collapse of capitalism and its “supersession” by communism, it's no accident that Bernstein's rejection of dialectics goes hand-in-hand with his embrace of reformism. Socialism will not come about as a result of the inevitable collapse of capitalism, according to Bernstein; rather, socialism will occur under capitalism once the proletariat attains for itself a more just share of surplus. Bernstein adds the Marx stamp of approval to this position at the beginning of his book when he quotes Marx as saying, "Hence the Ten Hours' Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of the principle." The realization of the political “principle” of Marxism is none other than the concrete condition under which the life of the proletariat as a class is made empirically more tolerable through the larger portion of surplus distributed to working individuals. (Bernstein's socialism has been the most influential, far surpassing Lenin’s.) Bourgeois critics usually find nothing but either metaphysics or mathematics in Capital. The metaphysics they dismiss without further adieu, and so they spend the rest of their time pointing out what a buffoon Marx was for having improperly formulated labor as a series of simultaneous equations rather than linear equations, etc. Outside of metaphysics, there is nothing but positivism.
The assumption shared by both socialist and bourgeois critics of Marx's method is that the rejection of dialectical formalism entails empiricism. Reformist socialists like Bernstein, who see in dialectics nothing more than the imminent, messianic coming of communism, are led through their rejection of it to assume that the only scientific socialism worthy of the name must concentrate exclusively on improving the concrete living conditions of the working classes, increasing their share of distribution, and expanding their consumption. But the Bernsteinian approach is similar in essential ways to the approach of bourgeois economists who also reject "metaphysics" in favor of what is observable and measurable. Moreover, bourgeois economists since Adam Smith have long argued that free markets negotiated by owners of private property would yield the fastest possible growth of production. This in turn would enable social peace and a rising standard of living. Nowhere has Smith's prophecy enjoyed more relevance than in the United States, whose working class has reaped the benefits of increased consumption since the 19th century. By concentrating almost exclusively on improving the standard of living of the proletariat, reformist socialists in the tradition of Bernstein have played directly into the hands of the bourgeoisie. They have demanded from capitalism the one thing capitalism has turned out to be very good at providing. (For more on this, see Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, "Exploitaton, Consumption, and the Uniqueness of US Capitalism”, Historical Materialism, volume 11:4 (209-226).)
All of this might lead one to believe that one must either embrace materialist dialectics as the proper method of political economy, or one must embrace the method of bourgeois economics or reformism. But Marx did not understand things this way. He neither begins Capital with a systematic statement of his methodology, nor does he advocate bourgeois economics or reformism. How does Marx proceed, then, and what makes his way of proceeding differ from the method of bourgeois economics generally? If we answer this question, we can figure out what it means that Marx has a "dialectical" way of proceeding, but going the other way will never help us. That is, we can't understand Marx beforehand by figuring out what "dialectics" is and then reading the book. The latter would assume that Marx has a method which he is then going to apply to the object, economics, the way a biologist might have a scientific method which she then applies to a living thing. But as it turns out, Marx questions the relationship between thought and its object that is assumed by this approach. Adopting a thoroughly Marxist perspective will require one not only to see capitalism differently, but also to see the relationship between thought and object überhaupt differently.
To begin, we might consider two ways in which we can "ground" our inquiry: in facts or in abstractions. In the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx refers to the former as "concrete particulars" and the latter as "abstract ideas". In political economy, an example of a concrete particular might be something like division of labor, the price of a commodity, exchange, etc. These are all observable, simple, measurable phenomena. An example of an abstract idea might be population, society, etc. These are things which, if we abstract from the particular things determining them like classes, etc., are very general ideas which we could apply to a vast multiplicity of human organizations.
Two questions arise from this dichotomy: (1) where do we begin, and (2) what is the foundation upon which political economy rests? Do we begin from very simple phenomena like exchange or actual consumption of goods in one place and build up general theories by means of an inductive method, or do we start from general ideas like society and population, things which are common to all societies, and derive possible ways of being social or being economic out of them? That's the question of beginning. But what are the basic laws or categories we're going to produce by means of this method? Will they belong only to particular societies, or can we generalize them to all societies? What can we say about the people who participate in societies? Do they have properties belonging intrinsically to them? Can we base our economics on those properties? In general, what are the basic, most foundational predicates for economics, and what grounds their universality and necessity?
Many believe Marx proceeds in a basically inductive, linear fashion. According to this interpretation, Marx starts with an observable fact (the existence of commodities) and breaks that fact down into its atoms: use-value, exchange-value, and value. He disregards use-value as irrelevant. Exchange-value on its own is incapable of telling us anything about capitalism. This leads him to construct a proper foundation for his analysis of capitalism: the labor theory of value. This is the building block upon which he will construct everything else, the Archimedean point from which we can learn everything we need to know about capitalism. This in turn is founded upon Marx's insight that all history is the history of class struggle. The labor theory of value is true, because it expresses class relations under capitalism. (See David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, Chapter 1.)
The great thing about this interpretation of Marx—aside from the fact that it turns Marx into a convenient popinjay for bourgeois economists and, therefore, for undergraduates—is that it fits in nicely with the way we expect theorists to proceed. Marx begins with a visible phenomenon—the commodity—and analyzes it into its components. He proceeds by means of analysis to discover a secure principle upon which to base the rest of his inquiry, and he uses that foundation to construct a theory of capitalism. Because Marx proceeds in such a straightforward, linear, analytical fashion, it's easy for us to see right away that Marx's foundation, his theory of value, is wrong. He's going to base the rest of his theory on a wrong foundation, so we can stop right here and not bother ourselves with the rest of what he says.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Marx never argues that the commodity, the value theorem, or anything else serves or can serve as the foundation of a critique of political economy. It's true that Marx considers the commodity to be the material embodiment of use-value, exchange-value, and value, and that we have to understand these concepts if we're going to understand anything at all about capitalism. And yet, in order to fully understand these concepts, according to Marx, we already need to know the inner logic of capitalism itself. So what appears at first to be an a priori beginning to the inquiry, or what appears at least to begin with some elemental "givens", is actually no "beginning" at all in the strict sense of the term. Marx begins in medias res, in the middle of things. (See Harvey, ibid.)
What appears as an origin or a given is really a result of a complex process, and it is the job of the critique of political economy to reproduce in thought the complex process that brought about this result. Yet we cannot reconstruct this process simply by looking at the order in which phenomena arise in time. As Marx argues in the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, although phenomena like money and property appear at the beginning of civilization, their character under capitalism is entirely different. Therefore, no foundation in history, as a mere concatenation of events in the order in which they occurred, is available to us. Furthermore, we cannot reconstruct this process by going back to a more fundamental principle (like some take the labor theory of value to be), because, according to Marx, the only way we can understand anything else going on in capitalism is by means of the inner structure of the commodity. And those atoms themselves which make up the commodity—use-value, exchange-value, and value—cannot be understood except in relation to one another. So we cannot understand what exchange-value is abstracted from use-value and value. We cannot understand value without thinking about it in terms of exchange-value and use-value. We cannot understand use-value except in terms of exchange-value and value. No concept can be understood in isolation, as the foundation of all the others.
So in answer to the question—Does Marx begin from concrete particulars (like actual commodities or particular events in history), or does he begin from abstract ideas (like the labor theory of value or Hegelian metaphysics)?—we reject the premise. The premise is that there is any "given" one can begin from. But it is the very idea of a "given" which Marx rejects. Theoretical insight into capitalism comes about not through the linear construction of a theory on a foundation but rather through the process of thinking the relations that make up the capitalist mode of production.
We must use insights garnered from one standpoint to throw light upon another. Looked at from the perspective of use-value, capitalism will look one way. Then we shift perspectives and look at it from the point of view of value, and it looks another. Then we move to another perspective, keeping in mind what we already saw, and applying it to this perspective. In light of what we see now, we revise what we already saw in order to come to a fuller understanding of what capitalism and its contradictions are.
We don't make our account of capitalism concrete by having the right starting point. The concrete comes about as a result of moving between perspectives and revising our current and previous interpretations in light of what we have already seen and are currently seeing. This is why in the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, we come to that which is concrete not at the beginning, but only by breaking down population and building it back up again. Then and only then is population “determinate”. But this is a result of analysis, not a given.
And this is the way people normally go about learning things. It's rare that one perspective on the world turns out to be entirely wrong, and even if it is wrong, we don't simply throw away what we had. Rather, we revise our beliefs on the basis of the shortcomings of our previous view on things, and we come up with a new account of the phenomenon that takes into account and makes up for our previous errors. In the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel called this process of learning "determinate negation". It is the essence of dialectics, and it is something nearly every reasonable person practices on a day-to-day basis.
Although rejecting the “myth of the given” gets us out of the dichotomy of empiricism and mysticism, it is still not enough to bring us to a concrete understanding of Marx’s actual dialectical procedure. This is because one can reject foundationalism but still reject dialectics. Indeed, most forms of pragmatism follow just such a path. Since Marxist praxis is often confused with pragmatism, a closer look at pragmatism will help us see better what is distinctive in dialectics.
Philosophical pragmatism has taken a few forms, but in general it is the view that the truth consists in the agreement qualified scientists reach about some phenomenon or proposition—or—the test of truth is its practical value for the achievement of human ends. Pragmatism differs from positivism in its assertion of the unity of fact and value. We can form no conception of philosophical “Truth” abstracted from human values. There is no cognition that is not relative to the human, practical perspective. Pragmatism follows dialectics in its rejection of foundationalism—we cannot base our theories on “sense particulars” or static universals, because what counts as a particular or a universal is relative to what we value collectively or what “works” best for our purposes. It also follows dialectics in its insistence upon seeing an underlying relation between people where there appears to be a relationship between things. However, it differs from dialectics where it insists that cognition remain at the level of apparent reality, at the level of what we can manipulate or what simply works. Any philosophy that asks us to accept the role of science as the careful recording of facts chooses to leave the world mystified. By subjectivizing the relationship between subject and object, it leaves the question of our historical development aside, and so it becomes the willing instrument of the prevailing system of power.
By contrast, dialectics starts from a recognition of our own partiality rather than a methodological distrust of our means of getting at “Truth”. The partisanship of critical philosophy—Marx’s included—stems from its goal: the reconstruction of society on the basis of non-exploitative relations between persons. Self-directing, self-conscious human beings will be at the center of this society, not objects. And this brings us to the positive core of dialectics: the idea that the perceived world itself is a product of human activity. What we call “nature” is in fact humanized nature.
Therefore, to call Marx's dialectical way of proceeding a "method" is misleading. There really is no positive doctrine here, nothing that is accepted at the beginning as an accomplished fact, and certainly nothing on the order of what Engels referred to as the "unity of opposites" or the "negation of the negation". We can define dialectics negatively as the rejection of a "given". Positively, the core of dialectics consists in the idea that the world of perception is a product of human activity. There is nothing our senses or our intellects are in touch with immediately, tout court. We can adopt foundational or transcendental perspectives provisionally as a means of getting inquiry off the ground, but, as Wittgenstein says, we climb up the ladder only to throw it away when we're done. There is no beginning which in and of itself is not already a result. We start in the middle of things, trying to figure out what is going on around us. We can achieve a scientific perspective on capitalism, but we achieve that orientation as a result of the inquiry, not as something at the beginning.