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Transcription of Postone's Capital Lectures: Lecture 3

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Lecture 3 – Finish Selections from the Grundrisse, Begin Capital Chapter 1


The Grundrisse – Historical Specificity of the Categorical Logic in Capital


One of the things we talked about last time in discussing this section of the Grundrisse was the problematic of where to begin the critique of political economy and why it is a problematic for Marx. And I suggested (before we go back into it) that it is a problematic because by this point in his intellectual development the object of investigation, as well as the categories that purport to grasp that object are all historically specific. So, how do you begin a theory that, in its form, doesn’t contravene what you assert about historical specificity? That is to say, if you had a theory that began with first principles that are universally valid and you deduced everything from that, like Descartes, essentially what you would be doing in the form of your presentation is you would contradict the assertions you are making about historical specificity. Make sense? This will become very important in a couple of hours when we begin trying to figure out what the word commodity means at the beginning of the book Capital – which after all, is the point of departure of the book Capital.


Now… in discussing this, Marx first of all denies that the correct thing to do is to do it historically – that you present categories as they developed historically. Which also tells us something about the way in which we’ve got to read the book Capital. He then goes on a tangent, which is extremely important for our purposes, to argue that even the simplest most abstract categories, such as money and labor, are in their simple and abstract form only categories of modern capitalist society. I believe we began talking about that last time… am I correct? [Looks around for confirmation] OK. And we did a little bit of discussion about under what circumstances is money “really money”. Under what circumstances can you have an overarching category “labor”, that refers to what in other societies may be regarded as a myriad of qualitatively different activities. And you’ll notice, implicitly (and this will become explicit in moving up to the fetish of commodities), what is also involved here, are the hints of a theory of knowledge. Whereas do you recall in the German Ideology, Marx says at one point that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class – that was A. B he had another formulation (which some people read as being exactly the same and certainly I’m suggesting by the time you read this text are not the same) which is the ruling ideas are the idea that express the dominant relations. The first, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, like the category (alas) hegemony, tells you nothing about the nature of the thought itself. It just says, whoever is on top – they determine. But why, let’s say in the 18th century you have some…


[Video skips]


Student [halfway through answer] It’s really more of a reflection of the individual as opposed to being like the natural man before civil society. It’s a reflection of man within civil society before the construction of…


So, what he says (and you should speak a little louder), what he says is that the 18th century individual is a construct, but it is a construct which goes hand in hand with the rise of (what he calls) civil society. In other words, it is not a construct that springs from the head of people, and it’s not natural – it’s neither. It’s not ideology in the vulgar way in which that’s used – we have a theory of the individual that everybody knows, if you look at other societies you don’t have individuals in all societies. Much the same may be. That’s true. But there is the individual in the 18th century. The only thing is that the individual, like money and labor appears abstract, universal, and therefore is taken to be natural. It’s not taken to be the way the person is constituted in 18th century western Europe. But rather, the way the person is once you scrape away all the artificiality of feudalism and the church. So that in the 18th century you have this notion basically that the movement of history and the movement of the enlightenment is a movement towards what is natural – towards what is natural. And what you have up to that point are simply artificial institutions. And this is true in political philosophy, it’s certainly true in political economy as well. So, what you want to do is get rid of the artificial institutions and (as it were) “natural man” will simply blossom. So what Marx is saying is not that this is a total crock, but rather, what we’re dealing with is a historical product that presents itself as ontological. And because it presents itself as ontological people can regard it in an ontologizing fashion.


One of things (and I hope I will be coming back to this several times as we discuss) some of you who have studied social theory probably have run across Pierre Bourdieu and his notion of misrecognition. On one level, Marx’s notion of the fetish (which we’re going to get to) is similar to that of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of misrecognition, on another level it’s fundamentally different. Bourdieu’s notion of misrecognition is based on the function of misrecognition. That is to say (I’m gonna vulgarize Bourdieu for a second), basically people really are maximizers, utility maximizers. However, if everyone were openly utility maximizers, society couldn’t hold together. So, the only way society can hold together is, in a sense, by bracketing that human behaviour and misrecognizing it. Marx’s isn’t that kind of theory. Marx is saying that the way people think has to be analysed in terms of the social relations in which they exist. You’ll notice that right now we’re already moving towards a theory of form. Simply a theory of class domination would not get you this theory of knowledge. So that, he is not only saying that you don’t begin with money, which is interesting for him to discover since his original manuscript the Grundrisse actually begins with money, so this is a conclusion that he’s coming to as he’s working through this material. But he’s saying more than simply, “You don’t begin with this.” What he is also suggesting is a theory of knowledge which can help explain what characterizes categories that are historically specific to capitalism is precisely that they appear to be decontextualized.

At the same time (and right now this is a promissory note on my part), at the same time, this isn’t simply, in the everyday use of the word, a deconstruction. Because Marx thinks the fact that although ideas are historically specific, that does not mean that all ideas are equivalent – some are more adequate to their object than others. So, the task is to come with a theory that is both rigorous and self-consciously historically specific. In other words, it’s an attempt to get beyond the antinomy of absolutism and relativism. Does that make sense? I know this is just a riff on two words, money and labor, but I thought I would uh… take it as far as I could.


OK. Um… we did talk about money, we talked about labor, we talked about objects (which we’ll come to again today) and we also (I believe) began to talk about history… Yes? No? Maybe…? Where he says uh… you know, human anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of apes. What does that say about historical knowledge? Or what does it seem to say about historical knowledge?


Student: That it’s retrospective.


That it’s retrospective, OK. That it is retrospective. So, viewed from the present, you can understand this development. However (and now again this is a promissory note, I’m jumping ahead of the text), what he is going to do is try to argue that capitalism has an inner dynamic, and in that sense has a logic of unfolding. See, if he says that historical knowledge is retrospective, that means that that historical development does not have an intrinsic dynamic, otherwise the knowledge wouldn’t have to be just retrospective. In capitalism however, there is a dynamic and then finally, post-capitalism there would not be a dynamic. What I’m trying to suggest (and again, this is another promissory note, I’m just squeezing a lot here in a preliminary way to sort of raise flags) if someone like Adam smith, taking the category of labor, projected that onto all of human history and society, Hegel (for Marx) projected the logic of capital development and projected it onto humanity as capital “H” History. Which means, that the critique of Hegel is not that he doesn’t understand history is contingent. In a sense, Marx is trying to go beyond the debate between Hegel and Nietzsche (even though he’s writing this before Nietzsche). The issue isn’t whether history has a logic or history is contingent. The issue for Marx is that there is no transhistorical history – whether contingent or logical – but rather that what characterizes capitalism is that it has a historical logic – societies before did not, societies afterwards will not. And the idea of a logic of history (if you really think about it), the idea of a logic of history implies constraints on agency. If humans really were agentive there would be no logic of history. So the logic of history (I’m going way ahead of myself) is part of the working out of the theory alienation in the early manuscripts. [Looks to student] Yes?


Student: So, agency is uniquely constrained in the capitalist


No, it’s (well) constrained in very specific ways. I mean, there’s a section of the Grundrisse that I didn’t ask you to read where he characterizes capitalism as a society of personal independence within a framework of objective dependence. That compared to (let’s say) feudal society the person is much less constrained in what they can do – society as a whole is extremely constrained. But that constraint is not a function of the will of anybody or any group of people. But now we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves [smiles]. We’re going to have to see what that means. It doesn’t mean that agency is not constrained in other societies.


The Grundrisse: The Contradiction and Overcoming of the Value-System


He doesn’t say machinery creates value. He makes a distinction, in those pages, between value and what he calls real wealth. One of the hardest things, one of the reasons why these pages are extremely significant and why you have to swim against the current of a great deal of literature on Marx, is that what he is arguing here, is for the historicity of value as a category. You’ll notice that the subtitle on page 283 is:


“Contradiction Between the Foundation of Bourgeois Production (and then in parenthesis “Value as Measure”) and its Development."


And so, what he is arguing, is that production based on value is generative of enormous increases in productivity. So much so, that use-value, output (what he calls here real wealth) depends less and less and less on labor-time inputs. However, he claims there’s a contradiction… and this is the ultimate contradiction of capitalism as far as he is concerned. If you look at page 35, starting about the 6th line from the top, he says:


“Capital itself is the moving contradiction in that it presses to reduce labor-time to a minimum while it posits labor-time on the other side as the sole measure and source of wealth. Hence, it diminishes labor-time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form. Hence posits a superfluous and growing measure as a condition – a question of life or death – for the necessary.”


So what’s he saying? Just as money is not a transhistorical category, just as labor is not a transhistorical category, value is not a transhistorical category. Value, for Marx, is at the heart of capitalism, therefore, overcoming capitalism would necessarily involve overcoming value. This has nothing to do with most of the discourse on the labor theory of value. Most of the discourse treat it as a labor theory of wealth… in an indeterminate sense, the idea that labor always, everywhere is the singular factor in the production of wealth. Now, and this goes in many different directions in terms of common interpretations, you had a well-known Cambridge economist a generation and a half ago Joe Robinson who argued that, for Marx, the labor theory of value only is valid for socialism. It’s only post-capitalism that it is evident that labor really creates wealth. There are others who say, “no, value is historically specific”, but what they mean by that is that value is a category of the market and private property. Labor always creates wealth (within that framework), the problem with capitalism is it’s anarchic (the market) and its fragmented (private property). Get rid of that and labor will come into it’s own as the real producer of wealth. Now, Marx is saying neither of these. He is not ontologizing, and this comes as a big surprise to some people, he is not ontologizing labor as the transhistorical, universal, sole source of social wealth. What he is saying, is that capitalism is characterized by a form of wealth and that form of wealth I (Marx) am going to call value. [Video skips]


But certainly here, what he seems to be saying is as follows. He seems to say that a form of wealth based on labor-time expenditure is generative of pressures towards ever-increasing levels of productivity. Those pressures towards ever-increasing levels of productivity mean that increasingly, science and technology become integral parts of production. Once science and technology become integral to production, what plays an increasing role in production is knowledge. However, and this is his claim, value will remain at the heart of capitalism so that capitalism on the one hand generates all of the condition for going beyond value and structurally it will always pull everything back into value… and this tension becomes intolerable. And that’s what he means by contradiction – it’s not between the peasants and the first world or… it’s not conflict, it’s not opposition, that isn’t what the word contradiction means. [Looks to student] Yes?


Student: (inaudible question)


Good question. It can’t be answered here. There has to be something about the way in which he sets up the value form that will try to show how structurally, value becomes reconstituted at every stage.


[Video skips]


I do think, however, that with these sections of Grundrisse, you should be able to start reading Capital with very different eyes. Because most people start to read Capital: (A) it’s a historical account from something called simple commodity production through money, through capital, he’s told us it’s not that. (B) that it is a theory about how labor always produces wealth and in capitalism its being exploited – so, the main category is surplus value. But there’s very little about how he deals with value as historically specific and how it becomes anachronistic. So these are the lessons I wanted to pull out of the Grundrisse as a kind of a… this doesn’t give us the analysis, at all. But what it does is, begins to orient our reading. So there’s a lot of debates about money, labor, the labor theory of value, that I think are rendered irrelevant by the Grundrisse.


[Video skips]


One last little footnote to our discussion on this section of the Grundrisse. What is the… if one wishes… the social corollary of the idea that the abolition of capitalism entails the abolition of value…?


Student: The abolition of proletarian labor.


The abolition of proletarian labor… Not the realization, not the affirmation, but the abolition of proletarian labor. It raises a lot of political questions but that’s not something we’re going to be talking about right now.


Capital Chapter 1: The Commodity Form


We just read… you know, last week we began talking about a kind of a meditation on “where do you start?” The critique of political economy and what we came up with is that Marx thinks you begin with what is logically prior i.e. what is most essential to the society, to capitalism. And that that which is most essential is also historically specific. So, before we go into his logic here, what does this imply about the commodity historically according to Marx?


Student: It’s the most essential category of capitalism.


It’s the most essential category of capitalism. So therefore, among other things, what work does it have to do…? There isn’t a singular answer… What kinds of work does it have to do!? I mean it’s one thing just to say, “Well, it’s the most essential category.” …so what!? What does that mean?


Student: Its historical transition dictates the historical transition of social relations in general.


What do you mean “historical transition”?


Student: Um… how it develops historically.


But he doesn’t do how it develops historically, remember. Even when it looks like that is what he’s doing, he’s not – unless, he says one thing and writes another. So, let’s assume that Marx like most theorists, doesn’t have ADD. OK, it’s a fair assumption and even if he did, we would pretend that he didn’t. So, let’s just try and make sense of the text, say that he knows what he’s talking about. I’m sure there are people who… you know… Cornelius Castoriadis wrote an essay which really implied that Marx of the first 3 pages of Capital is contradicted by Marx 10 pages later. At any rate, if it’s the most essential that means you have to be able to show that capitalist society really can be derived from this category. Now that in itself (and I’ll get to this in a minute) says something about the nature of the category we’re dealing with (which I’ll get to, I hope… unless I forget). And number 2, just very obviously, if this is what is most essential to capitalism, it has to be able to really ground, it has to motivate your analysis of capitalism. And (B) it means that the abolition of capitalism and the abolition of the commodity are the same thing. Right, it makes absolutely no sense within this framework to use language like uh… “socialist commodity production.”


Student: Do people do that?


Hmm? Yup. People did it, I don’t know if they still do it. It makes no sense at all. So what we’re dealing with is something called the commodity. At first it just looks like it’s stuff. Right? The wealth in capitalist society appears as, like, a lot of stuff. Right, “an immense collection of commodities.” And then he quickly goes below that kind of phenomenal surface. And what does he say about commodity? Oh, incidentally this is a corollary to what I’ve just said… [interrupted by jazz piano music – his phone ringtone] Excuse me [leaves to take call].


A corollary that I’d like you to think about, since what we’re not talking about in using the word commodity are goods that are exchanged as they might be exchanged in the Trobriand Islands or along the Silk Route, we’re talking about something that purports to be historically specific to capitalism. Which means, that the analysis that follows, in terms of the self-understanding of the theory, is not an analysis of commodity out of time and place, but commodity in capitalism. So, the whole thing that we’re going to start talking about – the duality of use-value, value etc – this is all the specific analysis of a specific form. OK?


So, having sort of introduced this duality, tell me about it. What is use value?


Student: Something particular.


Something particular… [smiling] I need more…


Student: Transhistorical…


Is my coffee transhistorical? [Laughter] So, I mean, yes and no. Let’s start at the beginning. What is use value? It’s something that…


Student: Satisfies a need.


Satisfies a need. A basic need? Like, you know, food, shelter, clothing?


Students: No.

No. Any kind of need. It’s any product that satisfies any need. In that sense, use-values [emphasizing the plural] exist in all societies, but you may not have use-value [emphasizing the singular]. OK, now how do you measure use values? Is there a single standard of measure of use values? No? Well how do you measure?


Student: According to the particular requirements of the need.


OK, partially by convention, like, you know, you say metre, I say yard. Or it has to do with the nature of the material itself. Right, you don’t talk about a yard of milk or a metre of milk. So there isn’t a single homogeneous measure. You have measures that are related to the nature of whatever good we’re talking about and historical convention. In other words, what he’s saying in these sentences is, “in different societies you have different forms of wealth.” That’s the claim, right? And that in our society use value is the content or is the bearer ( the träger) of, what he first calls exchange value. So exchange value (which he’ll then call value), exchange value is what (if I can just blur that distinction for a second)? In terms of the sentence that came before it… this is just like… it’s important that we read this carefully.


Student: The social form of wealth?


Yes, the social form of wealth in capitalism. OK? So, and then he goes on to say, at first glance, exchange value appears to be accidental, purely relative. And then, he does a kind of a Cartesian mediation (you know, like the wax), and he peels it away until he gets where?


Student: The intrinsic value.


And the intrinsic value is what? The value is what? Exchange value is simply the phenomenal form of value (which I hope is clear, but just to make it absolutely clear). Marx does not have an umbrella concept of value which divides into use value and exchange value – he’s got use value and value. OK? It’s unfortunate terminologically and it’s susceptible to confusion, but its pretty clear – value is what is underneath exchange value, it’s on that side of the equation. What constitutes value? So, it’s not exchange value (that is, exchange value as its phenomenal form) which is accidental, quantitative… Where does he go from there?


Student: (inaudible answer)


Excuse me?


Student: (inaudible answer)


Before he measures it, what is it that’s there?


Student: Congealed labor-time.


Congealed labor-time, what kind of labor?


Student: Socially necessary?


Socially necessary of what sort?


Student: Abstract.


Abstract. Right? Abstract human labor. They’re all reduced to the same human labor – abstract human labor. As values, they have a (I’m using his language now) a “phantom-like objectivity”. We’re going to have to try and figure out what this is.


“They are congealed quantities of homogeneous human labor.”


And then finally, at the bottom of this paragraph, which is the 2nd last paragraph on page 128:


“As crystals of this social substance which is common to them all they are values, commodity values.”


OK? A side-point and then we’ll get into the puzzle. The side-point is the word substance. For those of you who are even a little familiar with philosophy the word should have set a little bell ringing. [Video skips] You know when you get to Descartes, a distinction is made between substance and subject, right? So, this is another way of speaking of Cartesian dualism, is substance and subject. And the whole issue of Cartesian dualism is one that, as you may or may not know, Hegel tried to deal with with his notion of “Geist” as, in his terms, “the self-moving substance that is subject.” Whatever that means. But whatever it means, it is intended to overcome an ontological dualism – the self-moving substance that is subject, is the Geist, is the world historical spirit, is that which moves history. The fact that Marx uses the word substance here you should just take not of because it’s going to reappear in important ways when he introduces the category of capital. So, part of what’s going to be involved here, is a meta-commentary on western philosophy (Descartes to Hegel), all discussed in the form of how much black ink and linen and sheaves of wheat.


Now, I have a problem. I insisted, and I think it’s legitimate to insist based on the Grundrisse readings, that the commodity has got to be not only the essential category of capitalism but (what amounts to the same thing) a historically specific category. If it weren’t historically specific, it couldn’t be what is essential to capitalism. It could be (maybe) what is essential to human life. But not what is essential to capitalism. The commodity is historically specific. He takes the commodity analytically, he divides it in half, and the first half he calls use value. Right? Now use value, the way that Marx treats it in a very preliminary fashion here, use value is historically specific?


Student: Not really.


Not really. Not really. It has strong transhistorical elements. So, the commodity has got to be a form that has strong transhistorical elements and historically specific ones. Now, what did we say was the form of wealth that’s specific to capitalism?


Students: Value.


Value. So, value has got to be the dimension which is historically specific. OK. But then, when you follow him, what do you end up with? What did he say ultimately constitutes value, what is the “substance”?


Student: Abstract labor.


Labor in the abstract. Later on, he’ll talk about it as the expenditure of muscle and nerve and…


Student: (inaudible)


It has to be. It has to be. So, on the surface, what it looks like, is that we have the two dimensions of the commodity both of which are transhistorical(?)– one is use value, the other is abstract human labor. But unless he is, you know, even more self-contradictory than Castoriadis thinks, that can’t be. So there has to be something about “abstract” the category, abstract human labor which is historically specific. At this point we can only infer this from our reading of the Grundrisse. We don’t know it yet, I can’t prove it.


Student: We’ve already talked about it though.


We may have talked about it, but now I’m sticking to the text. OK? So, this is an important problem that we are going to shelve until we get to the section of chapter 1 called the "Fetish of Commodities". But even before we get there, having read the Grundrisse, we are faced with a problem that also… is beginning to shine a light on something, which is as follows: abstract human labour (if Marx still follows his own dictum in the Grundrisse) is historically specific (and actually even within Capital, since value is historically specific abstract human labor has gotta be). Yet, it appears simply as physiological expenditure. So that, on a very basic level, what Marx is saying is that one of the things (but he hasn’t worked it out yet) that characterizes capitalism is that it constituted by historically specific forms that don’t appear to be historically specific. So, you have one of two ways of reading this. Either you can read it positively, in which case Marx just contradicts himself, or you can read this immanently, and one of the reasons why the book Capital is so hard to read (and one of the reasons I’ve taken so much time before we started reading the book) is that it is completely immanent to its object, and that makes it very difficult to understand. Because most people (and this is a general statement) take Marx to be affirming, that which he is actually criticizing.


If Marx is going to try to unfold capitalism from the commodity, does that mean that with each society, what you do is find an elementary form and unfold it? It may be the commodity here, sheep there…conch shells in a 3rd place… Is there an elementary form that you could unfold the same way? … I think you can tell from the way I’m asking the question [laughter] that I want to suggest “no”. And the reason for that is, that one of the peculiar dimensions of this form is its homogeneous dimension. Abstract labor is abstract homogeneous labor. It is undifferentiated – labor A, labor B, and labor C, on this level are all the same. And what that will mean ultimately (and this you [pointing to student] reminded me of) is that the commodity (and this is what Althusser hated) is a category of totality and singularity at once. Not because you just assume there is such a thing as a totality and the properties of totality are that you have a homogeneity, but rather, there’s something peculiar about this social form that is generative of these attributes of totality. Does that make sense?


…B, I keep on saying Marx is going to try to unfold capitalism from the commodity (which is what he tries to do). I noted that Marx noted, in the Grundrisse, that you cannot begin from a point of departure which is purportedly transhistorically valid – you cannot begin with an indubitable point of departure. Fine, no-one thought that was problematic. But then how do you justify it? How do you justify that point of departure? If you can’t provide (you know) indubitable grounds for it as your bedrock, upon which you build everything else (you know, I doubt therefore I am), if you can’t do that, then what can you do? So, I want to suggest (and at this point it’s only a suggestion) that the way this book is structured is that each step confirms what came before it. It’s the exact opposite of what it appears. So that the further you can get in your unfolding, the more you retroactively justify your point of departure. And that’s the only way of consistently beginning with a point of departure that you claim is not ontologically grounded, but rather is historically specific. Does this make sense to you? But it makes the book an extremely difficult book to analyse – singularly difficult. Especially because (you know) on the surface, we’re talking about flax and booting and labor day and just a whole lot of things that are available to you just reading on the surface.


Which means, that if I can take to two of the figures against whom Marx is reacting, but whom he’s appropriating very strongly, Smith (or Smith and Ricardo, or Smith, Ricardo, and the rest of the gang) and Hegel have grasped something essential to the nature of modern society. But…they haven’t understood how what they have grasped is specific to modern society, they think it’s valid for human society and insofar as they think it’s valid for all of human society, they don’t really understand it. If you don’t understand what makes it specific to modern capitalism and you assume that it is a feature of history or modern social life, then you haven’t really understood it’s specificity. Hegel’s historical dialectic therefore has to be grounded by Marx. It’s the grounding of the dialectic that is its adequate critique. All of these are promissory notes… [points to student] Yes?


Student: I’m not sure I understand what you said about Capital sort of, retroactively justifying itself, wouldn’t that mean that the commodity as a fundamental element of capitalism, isn’t so much a grounding of the critique of capital so much as it’s conclusion? And then if that’s the case, what’s the actual grounding?


There is no grounding…and that’s the difficulty. How could there be a grounding because the term grounding itself suggests something that is valid outside of time and place. Right? So how do you establish something which is rigorous and can play the role of a grounding but it’s not a grounding?


Student: I mean, if you define rigorous to mean something that’s absolutely transhistorical (inaudible)… but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a grounding if you just acknowledge that it’s historically indeterminate.


What would you ground it on?


Student: I’m reading to find out.


[Laughs] And I’m suggesting that… imagine more like a gyroscope… no it’s not a good analogy…um… it’s not a good analogy. Forget about the gyroscope! [Laughter] But you have something which, in a funny way is thrown up and it’s suspended, and then he’s got to fill in the rest, otherwise it’s gonna not work. Otherwise, what you have are simply a series of dogmatic assertions. So, the fact that he says the commodity is the elementary, fundamental form of capitalism, isn’t something that you should just write down and say, “Ohhh, the commodity” and somebody says “No! It’s not the commodity it’s um… the turtle.” [Laughter] The argument is the unfolding (is what I’m trying to suggest). And to the degree to which the theory succeeds, not only in unfolding the historical logic of capital, but embedding within itself phenomena as well as theories that contradict it, to that degree it renders itself plausible. It can never be “certain”. It can be highly plausible. So that, by the time you get to the 3rd volume, Marx is dealing with phenomenon after phenomenon after phenomenon that seems to completely contradict the validity of the labor theory of value. But what he does is he derives it out of the labor theory of value.


The reason I introduced marginal utility even though no-one else did is because if you stayed in the first chapter, the only way you could say it’s not marginal utility is by dismissing it. There is no argument. There is no argument. It then just seems completely random – why labor and utility? And I think it’s perfectly legitimate to raise those kinds of questions. Not, “Utility? Oh my god, I am (sort of…) polluted by bourgeois thought!” I was trying to say that that will become clearer as we go on, but what the other side of that is, let’s say for a moment – a half-promissory note – that when the category of capital is introduced, that this retrospectively makes sense of why he chose labor, no better yet, that it indicates why utility wouldn’t be a good point of departure. That would retroactively justify where he did start from.


OK. Can we move to what appears very simple, the magnitude of value? Let’s introduce the quantitative dimension. OK? And now we have moved all the way to (where are we…) 129. At first glance this is a very simple thing, what is the magnitude of value? According to Marx…


Student: The amount of labor socially necessary.


The amount of labor socially necessary, right?


The total labor power of society which is manifested in the values of the world of commodities counts here as one and the same totality: human labor-power, although composed of innumerable individual labor-powers.”


So, on the one hand (this is before we get really into the meat of things), this is sort of what I was trying to say earlier when I talked about homogeneity. This is the first introduction really of totality. Right? This isn’t an ontological statement about human social labor – that in all societies human social labor is just an aliquot part of a homogeneous mass of labor. This is capitalism (as far as he’s concerned). OK? That’s A. B… right… in other words, totality isn’t just a whole – it’s a homogeneous whole whereby the moment and the whole replicate one another. Socially necessary labor-time… let’s unpack that.


[Video skips]


OK, so “necessary” has 2 valences here, right? One is simply descriptive – how much time on average does it take to produce a widget? But the second is: what is the level of productivity that you must be at to get the full value of your labor. Right? And if you’re not at that level, you’re going to get less. Now, let’s take a look at this example, about the hand-loom weavers and the power looms. What I’m going to say is completely underdeveloped here, but I’d like to squeeze it in. OK, so Marx sets up a situation. Let’s say you’ve got a situation where (looming is…) weaving is done by hand looms. And let’s say that the average productivity is such that 10 yards of cloth are woven per hour. OK? And let’s say that the amount of value is x. Now let’s say that someone introduces a power loom, and the power loom doubles productivity. So that’s 20 yards of cloth woven in an hour. How much are those 20 yards of cloth… what is their value?


Students: 2x.


2x because when it’s first introduced socially necessary labor-time is still determined by hand-loom weaving. So, it would be 2x. What happens when a bunch of other people think this is a great idea and they introduce power looms as well? What is the value of the 20 yards of cloth that are produced?


Student: X.


X. So the value is a function of time alone. You’ll notice, however, that the use value has doubled. Productivity has doubled, but the amount of value has not. Now, of course, it gets much more complicated when we go into surplus value. But at this point, I want you to note that this is corollary of measuring wealth by time – rather than by output. Right? Twice as much cloth, same value – after a while. Right, so the image that I use is it’s like a treadmill, you can run faster and faster and faster, you’re gonna stay in the same place. But you’re going to have to run to stay in the same place. Or as Marx later puts it, “Becoming is the condition of Capital’s being.” If you want to use that kind of language. You’ll notice, and this is the first sliver of response to a question that you [pointing to student] raised, you’ll notice that another way of looking at it is the value is reconstituted at each level. Doubling productivity (if we can keep it just in this extremely oversimplified scheme), even if you increased productivity 100-fold, x would still remain your baseline. What happens is, the baseline itself is changed by the level of use value production. So that, on the one hand, you have a constant, and what is that constant?


Students: (inaudible answers)


No. The time! A certain amount of time generates a certain amount of value regardless of the level of productivity (is what he says). Now part of the story here is the constitution of abstract time. Um, if I can do little riff on time, as many of you (hopefully) know, our idea of (let’s say) the day having 24 hours is something which was first developed (to the best of my knowledge) in ancient Egypt – the division of the day into 24 hours. The thing about it, however, is that the day always has 12 hours and the night always has 12 hours, so that in the summer daytime hours are longer and in the winter daytime hours are shorter – i.e. the hour is variable, it varies with the season.


Now, there are people like Lewis Mumford who argue that our notion of time as independent variable, the abstract homogeneous unit of time, the hour, is a result of the clock. But I don’t think, historically, this holds up. And the reason why I don’t think it holds up historically, is because already in the ancient world they had very very sophisticated timepieces that measured variable hours. Hellenistic Greeks had it, the Arabs had it… it spread throughout what we call the world island. Now, to have a device that measures variable hours, you have to be very sophisticated technologically. So, it’s not as if our modern clock was the result of a great breakthrough technologically. As a matter of fact, when the Jesuits introduced clocks, western clocks, to Japan in the 16th century, the Japanese think this is really neat, and they take these clocks, and they modify them so that they show variable hours. The hours vary with the seasons in Japanese clocks until the Meiji restoration, until the 19th century when you begin to get real capitalism in Japan. So, the abstract homogeneous hour has little to do with any kind of technological breakthrough. It is, I want to suggest, a historical product. And it’s as a historical product that we’re dealing with it here and I would want to suggest (and only suggest it here) that abstract time goes hand in hand with abstract labor.


Even within the framework of this example, you’ll notice the abstract temporal frame is constant and not. That is to say, an hour generates x amount of value regardless of the level of productivity – that’s A. B, the level of productivity behind the backs of the actors determines what counts as an hour. Do you get that? So, in a sense, the hour is constant, but it’s moved in time. [Looks to student] Yeah?


Student: Can you just say that again? I’m not sure I’m getting all of it.


On the one hand (at first glance), what you have is a pure independent variable, the frame, 60 minutes, an hour, that the amount of value produced per hour is always the same (of course, with the simplifications that we’re only on the 3rd page of the manuscript, of the text) regardless of the level of the productivity, right? That was the example of the hand-loom and power-loom weavers – regardless of the level of productivity, an hour is generative of x (on the one hand). On the other hand, what counts as an hour depends on the level of productivity… so that, in a non-overt way, the timeframe is being moved. And yet it remains, the form of appearance of the time, remains constant. Cause not every hour is an houreven though in terms of in abstract temporal terms, every hour is an hour. On the one hand, that’s what characterizes hours, right? Hours don’t have qualities. They’re not attached to signs. Whereas, in the ancient world, they are. Just as the monks are attached to signs, that’s not homogeneous time, right? That’s what the Zodiac was all about – right, the qualitative specificity of units of time. Once you have abstract time, it’s all interchangeable. Whether you’re going from 1pm to 2pm, or 10pm to 11pm, it’s an hour. It doesn’t have a different quality, it’s an hour – 60 minutes. And yet… historically… in a non-overt way, that hour is being pushed. [Video skips]


Let’s move away from the philosophy of time. You have power-looms being introduced. What happens to our hand-loom weavers?


Student: They’re left to starve?


Well, they could starve, and there is mass starvation in (?), of weavers in the 1840s – mass starvation. They can either try and somehow come up with enough to get a power loom themselves or they can emigrate, or they can starve. They are forced to move up, to step up to this new level or go under. Who’s forcing them?


Student: Time.




Ah… time. But it’s time that’s a constituted time. No-one is forcing them. Ultimately (ultimately), the system does not depend on the wills of some fat-cats in striped pants. Marx doesn’t like them… at all…but that’s not the ultimate ground for what’s going on. I’d like you to remember the theory of alienation, and the argument against Proudhon, right? That alienated labor has primacy over private property in terms of the logical structure of capitalism. You’ll notice that what we have here already is the constitution by labor of a structure that compels labor – that’s what value is. It’s not simply, how much am I going to get for my widget.


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