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Transcription of Postone's Capital Lectures: Lecture 4

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Lecture 4: Finish Capital: Chapter 1, Begin Capital Chapter 2


I want to remind you of (just once again because I regard it as being crucially important) those pages in the Grundrisse that I asked you to read, where he talks about the fundamental contradiction of capitalism – value as measure and its results. And what I think is extremely clear there and is (I think) unavoidable, is that value for Marx is specific to capitalism. And you’ll notice that in that section in the Grundrisse, when he talks about value and overcoming value, he does not talk about the market. He talks about the expenditure of human labor-time. What he talks about (and we’re going to recapitulate that going through Capital in a much more rigorous way) is that on the one hand, capitalism is amazingly dynamic, so that the same the system based on value is generative of ongoing changes in production… Such that… after a while human labor-time expenditure becomes less and less adequate as a measure of what he calls the “real wealth” produced. So, you’re getting an opposition there between value and real wealth.


He then goes on to say that although labor-time expenditure becomes superfluous it remains necessary. And I suggested to you (and we will go through this in Capital, but this is a very useful way of beginning to read Capital) first of all what he is saying is that the abolition of value and the abolition of capital are one and the same thing. So that, far from the labor theory of value becoming realized in socialism, or having any sort of transhistorical ontological status, it is specific to capitalism and overcoming capitalism and overcoming the value form are, in these passages, one and the same thing. That’s number 1. Number 2… you have a very (sort of) brief outline of a non-linear development. Which is to say that, on the one hand, capital generates higher and higher levels of productivity. On the other hand, the expenditure of labor-time remains necessary to capital. So, you do not have any sort of smooth development beyond capitalism as was suggested, for example, by post-industrial theory starting in the early 70s with someone like Daniel Bell who argued that the labor theory of value had been valid for the 19th century, but that today what we need is a science and technology theory of value. Jürgen Habermas says the same thing (basically) in the late 60s and what both of those ideas have in common is that the category value simply refers to social wealth. The distinction that Marx makes between value and (here) “real wealth”, (in Capital) “material wealth”, doesn’t exist. So rather than seeing value as historically specific, value is simply a synonym for wealth and at one point in history its created by labor, at another point it’s created (increasingly) by science and technology.


The response to people like Daniel Bell on the part of orthodox Marxists was to say, “No no no, science and technology don’t create value – everything is labor-time,” – and then to break it down, you have to break down how much time it takes to train a computer science etc etc. So, you try to break things down, in a way, to save the phenomenon. It’s a little like 16th century astronomy [laughter]… I’m serious! You save the phenomenon, the Ptolemaic worldview. Both of those equations have in common, an equation of value with transhistorical wealth. Marx’s position is equidistant from both. Marx’s position is that value is created by human labor-time expenditure (A), (B) that it’s a transitory form of wealth, and (C) it is a transitory form of wealth precisely because it generates the possibility of its own superfluity.


[Video skips]


In the post-face to the 2nd edition of Capital, Marx distinguishes between the method of inquiry and the method of presentation. And he says that the method of inquiry has to appropriate the material in detail, analyse its different forms of development, track down their inner connection. Only after this work has been successfully done, can the real movement be appropriately presented. Now, if this is done successfully – if the life of the subject matter is now reflected back in the ideas – then it may appear that we have before us an a priori construction.


Now, I suggested last time that when Marx, worrying about the point of departure, indicates that the point of departure has to be something that is historically specific because if it were not, then the theory would be contravening itself. The theory cannot claim that everything, including value and money and labor, is historically specific and then proceed on the basis of that which cannot be doubted – it can’t. That which cannot be doubted, presumably, cannot be doubted regardless of time and place – that’s a Cartesian project. This is the anti-Cartesian project. Which means that it is a serious mistake to understand the beginning of the book Capital in terms of first principles that are grounded on certitude. Instead (as I’m going to try to render plausible as we go on), the more Marx seeks to unfold from the commodity as he analyses it, the more he intends it, retroactively, to justify his point of departure. It’s a very very different mode of logic. And as far as he’s concerned it’s the only mode of logic that avoids the trap of positive science. OK?


So, what this means is that when we begin talking about the commodity, in chapter 1, we are not talking about commodities out of time and place. We’re not talking about whatever goods might be traded somewhere. Goods are traded, they’ve been traded long before capitalism. That means the analysis of the commodity have a dual character, a value and a use value, the double character of the commodity form is historically specific. We’re going to, today, explore that a little more. Then what we did is (we began to…) we puzzled out something – that the double character if the commodity on the one hand is use value. Specific use values are historically determinate, but the fact that objects satisfy some need is not. So, there’s a transhistorical dimension, but only a dimension, to the commodity. On the other hand, if it’s historically specific (and he’s told us in the Grundrisse it is) then that has to be the value dimension. The value dimensions however… (and this was the puzzle we approached last time) the value dimension as historically specific, to say that means that abstract human labor is not what it appears to be to the analysis. It cannot simply be the physiological expenditure of energy… Because the physiological expenditure of energy can hardly be deemed historically specific. So, what we’re dealing with is a puzzle – something which, presumably, is historically specific that appears, that presents itself as transhistorical and quasi-biological. Now, when Marx first introduces the idea of abstract human labor, we don’t know what it is yet. When he introduces it, he uses the term “substance”. Now, I want to take this notion of substance and say that on the one hand, we have the first indication of the fetish, which is to say, something historically specific appearing to be transhistorical (that’s abstract labor) long before the section on the fetish of commodities which he only added because Kugelmann (I thought it was Engels, I was wrong, it was his friend Kugelmann) said, “Nobody is going to understand this first chapter. Can’t you add a little addendum that makes things clear.” So, he wrote the section on the fetish of commodities. [Laughter] That’s your pony, OK? [Laughter] Cause he [Marx] thought it was all there. So, on the one hand the notion of abstract human labor is already a fetish form. On the other hand, what are the characteristic of substance? Think back to Descartes. What are the characteristics of substance?


Student: Extension…


Extension. The idea of substance… Descartes and Gallilieo, part of the revolution that they effect, the break with Aristotelian science (which, if you follow Lévi-Strauss, is just a continuation of savage thinking)… The break with Aristotelian science is the break with the concern with the quality of objects, of things, of phenomena, and instead a focus on quantity. But the presupposition for being able to focus on quantity is the separation they make between primary and secondary qualities, right? Where it what is “really real” is matter in motion, uniform matter in motion. And the fact that we see different colors, experience different temperatures, etc etc, is a secondary quality which is function of our sensory organs. Right, so you can’t use your sense to get at that reality. Now one of the dimensions of substance is that you have the same substance underlying everything – it is uniform, it is homogeneous. What I would like to suggest Marx is suggesting here by using the term “substance”, is that it says something about social relations in capitalism that they are homogenous, abstract, non-particular, non-qualitatively specific… and not only that, but it is this homogeneity that provides the grounds for the assumption that you can begin with the commodity and unfold everything from it. In other words, there’s something peculiar about this point of departure. You couldn’t just choose a point of departure in any society. What allows you the condition of the possibility of unfolding everything from the commodity as he seeks to do is this homogeneous dimension.


Does this make sense to you? So, already what I’m trying to do is reflect back on the point of departure. Yes, no, maybe? Uh… opaque, illuminating, you disagree? “It’s so clear, why am I wasting your time!”? … Silence [laughter]. It’s a nice projection screen for me. Calling Dr. Freud… [Laughter] Projection screen.


Now, when he introduced the magnitude of value (about which we spoke last time) what I pointed out to you is just what I talked about now, with reference to Grundrisse, about productivity increasing and increasing and increasing, but the necessity of value being reconstituted, is present already (in ?) in his discussion of the magnitude of value on the 4th or 5th page of Capital where he talks about hand-loom and power-loom weavers. And I pointed out to you that what he tries to indicate is that, if value is a function of labor-time expenditure then increasing productivity will increase value only short-term and that once that increased productivity becomes generalized the value-per-unit time will fall back – it is a function just of the unit of time. So, what you have is a kind of a treadmill effect, right? Things are moving but they’re standing still, they’re moving but they’re standing still. And this is independent of how high the level of productivity would go. It doesn’t have to double, it could increase 100-fold. So that, on the one hand, you’re getting more and more and more goods. On the other hand, value is being reconstituted structurally. And this is, you’ll notice, not a product of competition. Competition might be the means by which this is generalized, but the treadmill pattern itself is a function simply of the temporal determination of value. You could conceivably have competition in a situation where the form of wealth was material wealth (that is the amount of goods produced) and you wouldn’t have that treadmill effect. So that value, in its implications already, that is value already in the first few pages, has implications that go far beyond the question simply of the market versus planning.


Now what I wanted to add to that, is that when he introduces the magnitude value Marx says:


The total labor-power of society counts here as one and the same human labor-power although it is composed of innumerable labor-powers.


So, these “innumerable” labor-powers, viewed from the perspective of value, are moments of a totality. So, what you’re getting with the introduction of temporality, is the notion of totality. Totality here isn’t simply a whole, but it’s a homogenous whole whereby the moment and the whole replicate one another. It makes all the difference in the world whether you’re reading Marx as an analysis of social production in general that affirms totality – and that the problem with capitalism is that it’s too individualistic, it’s fragmented, private property, and what you want is the realization of totality. Or if you read totality, and the subsumption of individuals under totality, as being part and parcel of the critique. I want to suggest that what is involved here is a critique of totality.


[Video skips]


What he is saying is, that all of the various individual labors are all equal to one another. And one thing that I’ll want to talk about more today, is that implicitly this is also a theory (particularly when he gets to Aristotle) about the social generation of the idea of equality. It’s not the Bible or Greek philosophy, right? This is something which is socially generated. And you’ll notice, that equality here involves (and it’ll become a little more complicated) an abstraction from concrete specificity – equality is abstract equality. The other point (that I think I made last time) is that if we go back to this notion of temporality and this kind of treadmill effect, what you have is a form of domination that is structural. It’s the domination of people by time. It is not the domination of people by people. It may have the form of domination of people by people, but those people who are dominating (actually) are not generating the system and are subjective to its imperatives and its constraints. So, what we’re on the track of now, is actually the working out of the theory of alienation from the manuscripts. That is to say that people, through their practice, generate something which dominates them – something alien. This temporal totality, I want to suggest, is the initial determination of this form of domination.


And you’ll notice, although we’re only at the very beginning, with the example of the hand-loom weavers and the power-looms, what we already have is the foreshadowing of a historical dynamism. So that, this historical dynamism, the dynamism that is so celebrated in the Communist Manifesto, this dynamism itself is generated by alienated forms. It’s not the entrepreneurial spirit; it’s not the nature of western man… it’s capital. But we haven’t gotten to capital yet.


OK, we did talk about the idea of time as an independent variable last time, right? And it’s a curious independent variable because it’s independent and it’s moved – so you actually have a dialectic of concrete and abstract time. OK… [looks to student], yes?


Student: Um, can you speak a little more about the connection between the domination of people by time and the self-domination? And how those two are related?


Well, self-domination doesn’t mean that you individually dominate you.


Student: I understand that.


What you have here with value is a structure that is constituted by human practice. It’s that structure (we’re no longer talking about the widgets) which is dominating people. The category of socially necessary labor-time isn’t necessary only in the sense of it being descriptive (how long does it take to make a widget?), but how much time do you have to take if you want to get the full value of your hour? Right, it becomes a norm. And it’s a norm which is anonymously created… and is compelling… and actually (against some other points of view) doesn’t depend on people believing in it. So, it’s a peculiar kind of norm – it’s both socially constituted and yet quasi-objective. [Looks to student] Yeah?


Student: Well, I think it’s this quasi-objective character that makes the category of substance appropriate. Because it’s possible that if we interpret substance. as you suggested earlier, along orthodox Marxist readings as being something that’s quintessential to in a transhistorical sense, rather Marx is pointing out that the fact that commodities have a substance to them is an aspect of unfreedom, of heteronomy, that is historically specific to commodity production under capitalism itself.


I would agree with that, but I think… see I’ve been getting way ahead of us. I think that the justification for what I just said about substance only becomes much clearer once the category of capital is introduced, where he has recourse again to the language of substance. And I think you’ll see then, what role it plays there. And I think the second section on the double character of labor was fairly straightforward. Are there any questions on the first half of the first chapter? Can we move to the value-form? You know, relative, equivalent – that whole thing?


This is the section that countless Marxists said you should skip. OK, let’s look at pages 138 and 139. He goes back to commodities being commodities only because they have a dual-nature, right? He then says that their objectivity as value is independent (completely independent) of their physical qualities. Right?


Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values. In this, it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a commodity as we wish. It remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value.”


And then he goes on:


Commodities possess an objective character of value only insofar as they are all expressions of an identical social substance – human labor.”


So that, the value, once again, is a purely social category. It is not physical on any level – it’s social. Now, he says “human labor”, but we’re going to have to unpack that if I’m going to make plausible to you that the category “human labor” isn’t what it appears to be – isn’t transhistorical. Now, if you just read pages 138 and 139, what he is saying is that the commodity, as the unity of value and use value, can only express that simultaneity by means of an externalization. It can’t express it at one and the same time. So, the commodity has to become doubled. And out of this doubling, what is he going to try to derive?


Student: Money?


Money.


I claimed that what we’re dealing with here, in looking at the commodity, is something historically specific. Right? That was my claim. A lot of people read this, and they stumble over it because they think he’s talking about barter. But he’s not. Were he talking about barter there wouldn’t be the asymmetry ­– barter is symmetrical. Really what he’s saying is this (let me put it in the conditional form): If the commodity has a double character, then it must be externalized. So, what kind of movement are we getting here? What’s the name for that? This externalization… where the relative just sees itself in the equivalent. Do we have a name for it?


Student: Objectification?


It is a kind of objectification, but there’s also something else going on. You have an unstable whole that necessarily doubles. You have certain kind of movement going on. I think we call that dialectic. I wanna suggest, even though here, we are truly only at the beginning, that if part of Marx’s criticism is of Adam Smith for thinking that a historically specific social form – abstract human labor – really is just a physiological expenditure of muscles, nerves, etc etc… here you have the beginning of the grounding of the critique of Hegel’s dialectic. That is to say, what is generative of dialectic here, is a historically specific, unstable, social form (unstable because of its dual character). And that just as Smith took that which is historically specific – labor – and transhistoricized it, Hegel took that which is specific to capitalism – dialectical dynamic – and transhistoricized it. So, what this does is (as far as I’m concerned) it removes dialectic from any metaphysical remnant. Dialectic is not a feature of reality, nor even of history as a whole (the way Lukács would have it). Dialectic itself is historically specific and it’s historically specific because of the nature of the forms. Right now, this is a preliminary claim that I hope to be able to justify. I know I keep on getting ahead of myself.


Now, if the commodity really has this dual-nature, it can’t express it one and the same time, so what does the commodity express as the relative form? …According to his analysis. Remember the commodity has two dimensions…


Student: It’s use value?


OK. It appears simply as it’s own use value dimension, right? And the equivalent form is what? Within the framework of this analysis…



Student: Value.


It is the value dimension of commodity A, right? It becomes the externalized expression of the value dimension.


[Video skips]


Let’s follow through his analysis. Once the commodity form externalizes, doubles itself, commodity A appears just as the use value dimension. In other words, commodity A appears to be simply an object. It’s value dimension seems to be that which mediates that object. Let me put it in a language of mediation (which I’ll justify in half a class): he’s basically arguing that the commodity is a form of social mediation – that it is both an object of utility and a form of mediation. In order to unpack that we’re going to have to get the abstract human labor which we will in the fetish section.


In order to express its mediational character, the commodity has to double itself. But then it seems as if it no longer is a mediation, but rather it is an object which is mediated by the equivalent form. So, it appears to be a pure object. Remember how I talked about how the category of object itself is historically constituted? This is the beginnings of that analysis.


So, the equivalent form doesn’t appear as itself, but rather as the value-dimension of the equivalent form. Now, in his analysis then, Marx goes on to talk about the three peculiarities of the equivalent form. One is that use-value becomes the form of appearance of it’s opposite – value. In other words, the equivalent form is commodity itself, so that the value dimension of the relative form is expressed in the use value of the equivalent form – A. B – abstract human labor (the mediational dimension) appears as its opposite: the concrete labor that generated the equivalent form. And finally, private labor, takes the form of its opposite – labor – in a directly social form. In other words, labor as mediation, appears as private labor.


So, what we have is the following (I want you to kind of draw a diagram in your mind): the double character now, instead of looking at the single commodity we’re looking at what he calls the interaction of commodities. In this interaction, the value dimension of the commodity is externalized, but it can’t appear purely as value – it’s both externalized and disguised. It appears as the use value of the other. Labor, abstract labor, can’t appear as such. It just appears as another form of concrete labor. Directly social labor can’t appear as such. What he’s doing is, he’s saying the peculiar social dimension of the forms can never appear as such. They always must appear (to borrow from Hegel), right – the essence must appear and the form of appearance is always and necessarily an objectification. From that he is going to then derive money – money is just the universal equivalent. But one of the things that he’s trying to argue (and we will see the point after money) is he’s arguing against the notion that money mediates objects. Rather, he is saying that money is the external, universal expression of the mediational quality of the commodity form itself.


Right now, this all seems extremely scholastic. I hope to indicate to you that once we reach the level of capital a lot of things will begin to fall into place and why he is doing this very peculiar thing. Now, it’s in this section that he also had reference to Aristotle, right? Now, what’s the point of the reference to Aristotle. Aristotle is trying to talk about how can you possibly exchange a house and a bed because to exchange they have to have commensurability [shrugs shoulders] – they don’t.


[Video skips]


The condition for the idea of value… it already has a cultural presupposition (according to Marx here… I mean he doesn’t use that language). The cultural presupposition is general human equality. And general human equality itself as a cultural presupposition is grounded in the commodity form becoming totalizing. The absence of the totalization of the commodity form in Greece (which is just another way of saying, “Greek society, being based on slave labor,”) means the idea of general human equality is impossible and therefore the idea of the commensurability of things that are qualitatively incommensurable, isn’t available.


[Video skips]


I want you to look towards the end of his discussion of the relevant and equivalent forms. He says:


In this manner, the labor objectified in the values of commodities is not just presented negatively, as labor in which abstraction is made from all the concrete forms and useful properties of actual work, but it’s own positive nature is explicitly brought out, namely the fact that it is the reduction of all kinds of actual labor to their common character of being human labor in general, of being the expenditure of human labor power.”


I want to suggest that in that sentence, what you have is an indication of how Marx understands the double sidedness of the development that he’s analysing. That is, that what is involved is both an abstraction and a reduction. What is involved in the notion of the equality of human labor is, on the one hand (which, then, conservatives really noticed) is that you have the abstraction from all the qualitative specificity of activity. You have a kind of homogenization. On the other hand, what you do have, is the constitution of a notion of sameness, of humanness really. So that, in a very real sense, for Marx the universal is constituted historically but it’s constituted in alienated form – it’s both universal and alienated. It’s both the abstraction and the reduction (here reduction is meant in an affirmative way) – it’s both! Taking one or the other, would be one-sided. And I think (and it’s a very hard line to walk) this is what he tries with capitalism in general. Capitalism is not just oppressive, it’s also generative. But it’s generative in alienated form. As a matter of fact, it’s the alienation (as we will see) that is the condition of possibility of the universal generation.


[Video skips]


You can take the commodity, you can twist it, you can turn it, but you’re not going to find value. It isn’t an attribute of the object, right? Now, when we did the relative and equivalent form, what we had was the double character of the commodity becoming externalized into a relative form and an equivalent form. ­– use value and value. That was step 1. Step 2 however, was that even the externalization of value doesn’t appear as value. Not only doesn’t it appear as value – it can’t appear as value. Value can only appear in objectified form… which is why the common interpretation of the fetishism chapter is that capitalism is really perverse because real social relations among people are disguised by the appearance of social relations among things. So, what you want to do is scrape away those social relations to get at the real social relations. But that isn’t what Marx says. What he says is that the social relations appear as they are – social relations among things. The fetishism of commodities is not an illusion. It’s not something that disguises a much more ontological social level. Rather, it is an expression of the peculiar nature of the social, in this situation.


Let’s try and elaborate on that. He says that the fetishism (look at this 3-line paragraph on page 165):


This fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labor which produces them.”


Now, on the next page, what does he say about this peculiar social character of labor? I mean, labor is social in all societies. What makes it peculiarly social in this society?

Student: It’s two-fold character?


It’s two-fold character. Now here, he talks about the two-fold character in a non-immanent way – he’s taken a step outside of the mode of presentation. On the one hand, labor does what labor does ­– it transforms material in a determinate way and (generally) not only for onseself but for others as well. That’s fine, that’s not specific. What is specific here? What else is labor doing here? He talks about the two-fold character about a third of the way down. What does he say? … (See I have to show you that what I’m saying is kind of based on the text) [laughter].


Student: That labor must satisfy the social needs and the individual needs of the worker.


OK. Now what does he mean it has to satisfy the individual needs of the worker. Does that mean that you eat what you produce?


Student: You need to make wages so you can go and buy things.


So, in this case, you’re the laborer. What function does labor have for you?


Student: It’s so that I can live.


OK. It’s the means by which you acquire goods that others have produced. This sounds very simple, but it’s actually not. What it means is as follows: Marx is claiming that in other societies labor is social labor (you produce, others benefit from it), the way in which other products are distributed has nothing to do with labor. The way those products are distributed has to do with traditional ties; norms; could be power, right? The production of goods and their distribution are two different things. What happens here, he claims, is that labor not only produces things, but it’s a means of acquiring things. And that’s not an attribute of labor per se. That’s not an attribute of labor activity itself. It’s a function of labor. And it’s a function of labor in this society.


Now, if you begin with the commodity, and you being to try and analyse what constitutes value, what you can only come up with is labor itself. You don’t see the function of labor – that you can only see once you unfold the categories. That’s why he stepped out of the mode of presentation here. You don’t see the function of labor, you just see labor. It can’t be this laboring activity, that labor activity, it’s gotta be labor per se. What is labor per se? Well, it’s gotta be physiological expenditure. In other words, a historically specific social function of labor, where labor really begins to pre-empt the role of social mediation; it pre-empts the role filled by other societies by what we call social relations. You still have things like kinship relations, but they don’t play the same role. It’s not that they disappear but they simply don’t play the same role. So, the double character of labor means (if I can use Habermas’ language for a second) is that opposed to what Habermans thinks, what Marx is saying is that what characterizes capitalism is that labor is both labor and interaction. Whereas when Habermas separates labor and interaction, he’s taking labor as concrete labor. This form of social mediation necessarily can only exist in objectified form. And what it does is it constitutes a quasi-objective totality over and against all individuals – an impersonal frame of domination. Or as Marx puts it elsewhere, the way he characterizes capitalism at one point in the Grundrisse is that you have individual freedom within a framework of objective dependence. That, on the one hand, people are individuals – they seem to be much freer, and they are much freer, of traditional social bonds in which they had been embedded earlier. They become disembedded, as it were. However, they are disembedded by a historical process in which social relations acquire a quasi-objective form over and against them. And the unit of the creation of this quasi-objective universe is labor acting as a socially-mediating activity. Which is not, in itself, a function of laboring activity.


So, I want to suggest, once we get this far in the text, that the centrality of labor in Marx’s analysis is not simply a statement that you’ve got to work in order to live. That’s a truism. But rather labor is (however important laboring activity is in all societies, sure it’s important) peculiarly central in capitalism precisely because it mediates social relations. That is, it not only mediates the relations of humans and nature, but it mediates the relations among people (in this quasi-objective fashion). If this interpretation is correct, the overcoming of capitalism would involve the abolition of this centrality of labor – not the realization of labor’s centrality, but it’s overcoming.


Right. So, it’s really not a statement that: well, of course, people have to eat in order to live. People also have to breathe in order to live… And what he’s going to try to do with this will become more evident as we proceed through the text. Right now it sounds like just a series of propositions, right? So we have to be careful and separate (1) what is plausible as a reading of the text and (2) how plausible is the text.

Now, what does he say about bourgeois thought?


[Video skips]


The idea is that people, on the one hand, become disembedded from ties in which they had been deeply embedded and, on the other hand, they operate within this quasi-objective framework. Because they are disembedded and are no longer (really) members of clans, tribes, villages, the same way [as before], they appear to be purely individual – disembedded individuals, decontextualized individuals. So, you have the enlightenment notion that the movement to enlightenment is the abolition of that which is artificial – the church, the monarchy (etc) – so that basically, what you’re doing is, you’re letting natural man emerge by scraping away everything which is artificial. Because what is natural, is simply the individual, who appears not socially constituted, but ex nihilo. Marx is saying that this individual is as much a historical product ­– it’s not an illusion, it’s not a western construct ­– it’s a reality. But it’s a constituted reality. It’s not an ontological reality. The temptation of capital-determined thought is that what is social appears not to be social. This isn’t quite the same thing as saying that it’s doxic (our way of doing things is just the way that we do them) because them you have a sense that it’s our way of doing things. Here, it doesn’t seem to be social, we’re actually just dealing with individuals who may come together for social purposes (may not). Right there’s a kind of a naturalization of the social here. Not in the sense of a taking for granted. But rather, it really appears to be extra-social and the social appears external. So, the idea of the individual is part of the fetish of commodities. And once again, the idea of the individual is neither real, nor false, but is historically specific. It’s not just the idea. The idea of the individual and the actual constitution of individuals, go hand in hand.


Capital: Chapter 2


Yes, but at first, if view them only as things, they lack the power to resist people, they’re unwilling, they can use force, you can just take them, they’re just objects. But in order for commodities to enter into relations with others as commodities:


Their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in those objects.”


A very peculiar kind of formulation.


So that one appropriates another’s commodity only in accordance with their will. That is to say that each appropriates the other’s commodity only by means of a common act of will whereby each alienates their own commodity.”


In a sense, the people here are simply acting on behalf of the commodity. And what kind of category is he developing here? What I mean by that is as follows: on one level, a dimension of what he tries to develop in the first chapter are the categories of universality, generality, equality. What is he beginning to try and develop here? On an equivalent level…


Not freedom from wilfulness? If the commodity is the commodity, you can’t just take it. It’s not, in that sense, an object. You cannot take it against its will. Right? You have freedom from being disposed of as an object without will. It’s a notion of freedom which is tied to one of objective mutuality of contract and also the institution of property, right?


The juridical relation whose form is the contract, whether as part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation of wills in which the economic relation is mirrored.”


In that sense, the person becomes, in a way, the personification of the commodity.


[Video skips]


Now, he doesn’t mean that people are brought to market by objects. But rather that the form of justice itself is a function of this form of social relation and the conception of freedom that is associated with it. People express this social relation as juridical subjects. In a sense, as you’ll see later on, what he’s trying to derive are notions of equality, freedom and property. It’ll be the basis of his little slam against Jeremy Bentham in couple of chapters. You’ll notice also that in the footnotes Marx criticizes Proudhon, the French socialist thinker, of declaring these values to be eternal. And what Proudhon says, basically, is that these are eternal values that are rooted in labor and what destroys them is money. Proudhon separates money ­– part of Marx’s strategy is to overcome a separation which was very very common, which was essentially: just do away with money (or, later, do away with interest) and everything would be ok. Right? And part of the system he’s trying to develop indicates that you can’t make these kinds of separations. But, at this point, these are assertions… derived from the double character, but it hasn’t justified itself yet.

Okay, now. He plays with this notion of (and this has to do with the notion of concrete and abstract labor) the commodity for its owner – what is the relationship of that commodity to its owner in terms of value and use value? According to Marx…


Student: It has to be realized as a value before it can be realized as a use value.


Okay. Now, for the person, their commodity is…?


Student: Labor power?


Well sure, if labor power is their commodity, what is it for them?


Student: Value.


It’s a value for them. But it can only be a value for them if, at the same time, it’s a use value for others. Right? So, it is simultaneously general and particular. Because we’re not talking about a singular individual – we’re talking about everybody. And for everybody, their commodities are values for them, and use values for others. He talks about it being both an individual process and a general social process. So, each commodity, being a means by which other products are acquired, is both particular and general. That is, particular in the sense that it is a specific product (which is a specific concrete labor), and it’s general, it’s a means of acquisition (coming back to this notion) whose character as such is independent of its specificity as a product. It’s both at one and the same time. In other words, the commodity is the simultaneity of generality and particularity. Or (if I can use someone else’s language) the commodity is the identity of identity and non-identity (to quote Adorno). On the one hand, the commodity is identical to every other commodity in terms of its existence as a value. On the other hand, it’s non-identical to them as a use-value. It’s both and it’s always both.


So, what you have is a kind of a dualism that, for Marx, is historically generated. The dualism of abstract and concrete, the dualism of something that is uniform, homogeneous, quasi-objective and quantifiable, on the one hand, and qualitatively particular on the other. This dualism and their opposition, for Marx, are grounded in the form itself. That is, I want to suggest that, rather than imposing a dualism on the analysis, what he’s trying to do is ground a dualism in the double character of the form itself. And this dualism appears (and now we’re coming back to relative and equivalent forms) not as a mediation with a double character, but as a universe of objects that are mediated by a universal equivalent.


So, what appears, is that concrete labor and concrete objects are mediated by something outside of them. Now Marx is claiming (and at this point we really don’t see the pay-off of this) no, that isn’t the case. Money expresses the mediational quality of the commodity itself. And it’s only later that we’ll be able to see why he is arguing this. At this point we can only take cognizance of that fact that this is what he is arguing.




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