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Transcription of Postone's Capital Lectures: Lecture 5

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Lecture 5: Finish Capital Chapter Two, Capital Chapter Three

Now, just a few small points because I don’t think it’s the most complex chapter, certainly not nearly as complex as what we’re going to have to try and work through today. It seems to me that one of things he’s suggesting (which was suggested already in the first chapter) is that the form of social relations i.e. commodity, moulds juridical notions as well as conceptions of personhood. And when he uses language like, “Commodities can’t take themselves to the markets. Their owners have to take them to the market.” When he talks about commodities (later) speaking to one another, instead of viewing it only as a funny paradox ­– you know, you’ve got these objects talking to one another ­– I think you have to read it much more as an indicator of the kind of social relations we’re dealing with and the ways in which those social relations mould people’s self-conception in very determinate forms. So, the idea of the juridical subject, for him, is a function really not of the objects (the widgets) but of the commodity form of social relations. And in a sense, that’s one of the things he was talking about in this chapter and when he refers to individuals as (this is mistranslated as personifications) “character masks” of the relations, what he’s basically signalling to us is that this is a work which is going to try to ascertain what the fundamental relations are and the way they work.

Some of the other related themes that emerged in our discussion of this chapter was the idea that it is the double character of the commodity form that is constitutive of an opposition – an overarching opposition – of abstract generality and concrete particularity. This is something that, to some degree, was further developed by György Lukács in History and Class Consciousness. The idea here is not to get beyond dualistic thought. It’s also not to declare dualistic thought as simply bad thinking. But rather to try to ground the kind of dualisms that have characterized modern western thought in the double character of the commodity form. So, you have this sort of epistemological dimension. It isn’t dualistic, it tries to ground dualism. And, of course, to the degree to which it succeeds it also implicitly separates itself as an approach from all approaches that make general statements about the nature of reality. Whether reality is dualistic, whether reality is totalizing, whether reality is multiple (multivocal), all of these become equally metaphysical statements from the standpoint of this kind of approach. So, it’s a fundamental break (including with a great deal of what comes after it).

The commodity as this dualistic structure is, in his terms, (which is picked up much more strongly later on by Adorno) the identity of identity and non-identity. It’s not simply identity and then non-identity is something that undermines it, that deconstructs it. But rather, the commodity form itself is the identity of identity and non-identity. And most thoughts (and he will do this with a variety of forms of thought) they shuffle between one and the other pole. Now towards the end of the chapter what we begin to get is the first hint that the section on the fetishism of commodities in the first chapter is not the last statement on fetishism (you remember I told you that that was added, later?). But rather, the theme of fetishism continues throughout this text. So, for example, what he begins to suggest towards the end of this chapter is that as a result of this externalization the commodity cannot be, at one and the same time, a value and use value as it appears (although it is both). It has to externalize that character. To put it in the language of this chapter, the commodity cannot, at one and the same time, be a non-use for the seller and universally useful for everybody else. It requires an externalization. This externalization incidentally, once again, this is not a historical account, this a logical account that is going to try to reconstruct capitalist modernity on the basis of the commodity form. As a result of this externalization commodities do not appear as values, that is, as forms of social mediation, but as objects that are accorded value. So, the idea that the commodity really is a thing is itself already one of the fetish forms. The other side of that fetish, of course, is that money is the ultimate expression of value.

So, by the end of the chapter, he touches upon two things that he then develops much more in the money chapter. One is, that because money can, in certain functions, be replaced by mere signs of itself, it gives rise to another mistaken notion that it is itself a “mere symbol”. Now, by “mere symbol” what he means is that it is arbitrary – that it is an arbitrary product of human reflection rather than resulting from the social characteristics of the nature of the bond in capitalist modernity. So, of course, money is a symbol on one level. But in Marx’s analysis, it’s the necessary form of appearance of the commodity form of social relations. It is not simply something which is established by convention to make life easy. But you’ll notice in each of these cases, what he regards as a misunderstanding is rooted in the form of appearance of the forms themselves (which he elaborates at great length in chapter 3).

The other side of coin of what I said before (that commodities appear to be objects) is that gold and silver appear to have the quality of money naturally – it seems to inhere in them as gold and silver ­– rather than that simply being the externalized form of this abstract form of social mediation. Okay, that’s as far as we got on the second chapter.

So how does he begin (and we’ll get to the subject of price because it’s actually very important in this first part)? The measure of value. He’s going to deal with the different functions of gold, and its first is that it is the material expression of the values of commodities, right? The claim is that it is not money that renders commodities commensurable, but quite the contrary. As he puts it on page 188:

Because all commodities as values are objectified human labor and therefore in themselves commensurable they can communally measure in one and the same specific commodity and money is [what he calls] the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value.”

Now, what this means, among many other things, is that each time when he says that it doesn’t appear to be the case you’ll notice there is a play – he’s calling it the necessary form of appearance then he says later on that price and value do not coincide, so the lack of correspondence between price and value follows from the value-form itself.

Now money cannot directly represent labor time, and this is a mistake of all the people who do like labor chits. Why can’t it directly represent labor time according to Marx? Let’s do away with the bankers, let’s do away with all these greedy people who are running around with money bags. Let’s just give honest working people a scrip for the amount of work they did. What’s the problem with that here?

To student] Yes?

Student: [inaudible]

When you sell a commodity – the commodity in Marx’s terms is both this particular product and at the same time it’s a moment of a totality, right? It’s that moment of the totality which is expressed by the universal equivalent. If you had another form of mediation, you wouldn’t need this double character. Again, this is not economics in that sense. This is an attempt to get at this peculiar nature of social mediation in this society. That is, the incongruity is rooted in the commodity’s dual determination as a particular product and as a general objectified mediation. So, money is the expression of the generalized mediation. It’s the value dimension of the commodity. But what it means is, there’s already a kind of a non-1-to-1 correspondence. You begin to have this separation. Now, the price of commodities is like their value-form distinct from their palpable, real bodily form, right? And the price form is a value as expressed by money.

As you may or may not know, Smith makes a distinction between the real price of commodities and the nominal price. The real price is the price in labor, the nominal price is the price in money. Marx is going to further than just making that distinction. But at this point he is still trying to specify the various roles of money because the various roles, in a way, come into conflict with one another. So, money is a measure of value, it’s also a standard of price. And as Marx puts it, it fulfils two very different functions as a measure of value and a standard of price. For the standard of price, a certain weight of gold must be fixed as the unit of measurement. But gold itself is a measure of value only because it itself is a product of labor and therefore variable in value.

Chapter 3

He talks about the price form and the value form in two different ways here. One, which we’ve been talking about, is the quantitative incongruity. However, in this chapter, there is also a qualitative incongruity. Let me quote:

“The price form does not only allow for the possibility of a quantitative incongruity between the magnitude of value and price, but it may also harbour a qualitative incongruity with the result that price ceases altogether to express value despite the fact that money is only the value form of commodities. Things which in and for themselves are not commodities can be offered for sale by their holders and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price. Hence a thing can, formally speaking, have a price without having a value.”

This raises a lot of questions that we can’t answer right here. But I want you to take cognizance of the fact that what he’s saying is that the actual operation of price in the world veils value. It doesn’t tell us at all why he thinks that we should stick with value. But at least it tells us at this stage that he is fully aware of the fact that both quantitatively and qualitatively you cannot find a direct correlation between price and value. Things can have a price without having a value. The price of something, even if it has a value, can stand in a contingent relation to its value.

So, on this level, and this is just at the beginning of the chapter, qualitatively and quantitatively looking at money as the measure of value, you have a price-value discrepancy which hides value.

Let me go back two steps just to remind you of what I think he’s doing – what the narrative strategy is here. One of the things that we talked about in the relative and equivalent form discussion in the first chapter (and in the second chapter), is how as a result of the externalization (which is necessary) of the commodity form, commodity no longer appears to be a form of social mediation. Rather, commodities seem to be objects that are mediated by something else – money. So, the idea that money is the mediator, and it just takes these objects and mediates them, both is (according to Marx) the logical expression of the commodity form and it disguises its nature – it’s both. This is why I keep on saying that, contrary to the way most people have read the book Capital, it has to be read as a long long treatise on fetishism (among other things). So here, the value form necessarily generates price as its phenomenal form, as it’s manifest form, and yet the qualitative and quantitative incongruity of price and value means that the price form disguises that which it expresses.

[Video skips]

What you do is, you go to market with your commodity, you get money and then you go and you buy stuff with that money, right? You, as the commodity owner, are interested (basically) in getting these other commodities. So, what you have is, in his equations:


Commodity – Money – Commodity

In terms of the material content at this stage the movement is:


Where the metamorphoses are the ways in which it’s affected. As I was saying 2 classes ago, the distribution of goods and labor is affected in very different ways in other societies. So, again, this is hardly a theory of exchange in general, but it’s a theory of capitalism. And it calls into question theories of exchange that are ultimately based on theories of capital, including theories that say why other things are different than exchange because they’re usually contaminated already with the actual forms here.

Now, as he goes on to say, we are not talking about individual 1 with their individualized widget, going to some decontextualized market, getting some money and buying food.

“The same division of labor which turns people into independent producers also makes the social process of production, and the relations of the individual producers to each other within that process, independent of the producers themselves.”

Because we are actually dealing with the simultaneity of millions of these actions. So, the independence of these persons from each other, is supplemented by a system of all-round, objective dependence. So, the last way in the world that you could understand this is by imagining barter. It has nothing to do with barter.

Now, on the one hand, you’re having an exchange. The exchange is, as he puts it, a transformation in form. But now there’s a peculiarity involved here. What usually happens to the commodity that is bought?

Student: It’s consumed.

It’s consumed, right? What happens to the money?

Student: It continues.

Right, the money remains. The money doesn’t disappear after that exchange – it continues. And we’re going to have to see the implications of that. So there is, on one level a symmetry and on another level, a real asymmetry – one drops out, the other continues. And it’s because of the simultaneity of these actions, plus the nature of the externalized value dimensions, that he says then, around page 207 that:

“The circulation of commodities differs from the direct exchange of products not only in form, but in its essence. The exchange of commodities breaks through all the individual and local limitations of the direct exchange of products and develops the metabolic process of human labor. On the other hand, there develops a whole quasi-natural network of social connections entirely beyond the control of human agents.”

So, this is a form of circulation that is (A) beyond the control of individuals and (B) it bursts through all spatial, temporal, and personal barriers.

[Video Skips]

Throughout this chapter, each section has a qualitative fetish and a quantitative fetish. In each one, first qualitatively and then quantitatively, the result disguises where he’s coming from. So, if money really is simply the external expression of the value dimension of commodities, the total money and the total value have to be equal. But that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. Why not? What are some of the things that he then introduces? For example, what is one implication of the fact that money doesn’t disappear? If it doesn’t disappear, what does it do?

Student: It’s used again.

It’s used again and again and again, right? So that, a limited amount of money can express a greater amount of value. Everything then depends on turnover time. So, even before we get to credit, time is coming back in. The time, however, at this point is circular, right? It’s turnover time.

There are a number of other factors. We don’t have to walk through all of them. The point I’m trying to make is that on the one hand, Marx is arguing that the total currency and the total value have to match. On the other hand, there is no way, at any given moment, that they are going to match – they can’t. Maybe they could if money disappeared in the exchange (in which case it wouldn’t really be money). But the fact that it doesn’t disappear carries with it immediately the implication that there’s turnover. And then of course there’s credit, come due etc etc. Each theory that he’s arguing again in this section is a theory of the primacy of circulation. And I want to suggest to you, that his very peculiar language – metamorphosis, the value dimension flowing from one to the other, “now it’s commodity, now it’s money” ­– is an indication that when he opposes theories of the primacy of production to the primacy of circulation, the primacy of production is not the primacy of production of goods. It’s not simply the pretty obvious statement that if you don’t have bread, you’re not going to get very far. It’s really not that. Because you could make statements like that without using all of this peculiar language about metamorphosis. Since many Marxists really thought it was about the primacy of labor (because, after all, you have to make things in order to survive), they thought that you could just throw away the first chapters of Capital because they are unnecessarily Hegelian, dialectical, obscure and a pain. So, we’re going to take seriously this peculiar language that he uses and see if there’s anything that comes later that warrants, what appears at first glance to be, this completely unnecessary Germanic way of viewing exchange. Okay?

Now, we can move on to coinage as the sign of value. We began to talk about this already. The use of coins and the fact that over time, coins no longer contain the amount of metal that they say they do, one way of viewing this is that the coin is a symbol of itself. And the fact that it actually contains, you know, 0.8 pounds of silver, rather than a full pound of silver, really is irrelevant. It’s only when it gets down to, you know, 0.01% of silver that it might make a difference. But once you have that, logically, you could just substitute something else for the coin. If a debased coin can represent a pound, so can a piece of paper. And if a piece of paper can represent the coin, then so can anything else. Notice what he’s trying to do is argue that this is not simply convention. Yet, he’s not proving that it’s not simply convention. So, if value is an abstract form of social mediation which is constituted by labor playing a very peculiar role in capitalist modernity, then what the money really is a materialized representation of a form of mediation. As a representation of a form of mediation itself, it is silly to think that it necessarily has to be bound to a particular material form… because that’s not what money is (according to him).

Now, you’ll notice that this isn’t simply an argument for how you can get from value to paper money (in spite of what a lot of people think), but there’s also another dimension to this. I want to back to my suggestion that all of this is about unfolding fetish forms. When gold functions as the means of circulation, gold itself has value. However, once we get to paper, what you have is a relatively valueless object serving as coins in the place of gold. So, that means that something valueless is representing value. But because it’s valueless, this is another step in the veiling of value. So, all the way through this chapter, both quantitatively and qualitatively, he tries to indicate that, starting with value, what you’re going to get are forms that appear to contravene the existence of value. Does this make sense? I think it’s very important to read this really not as economics but also as something which is, in a sense, covering its own tracks as it’s moving. He’s engaged here with a whole range of money theory from the 18th century and early 19th century. But just as with Smith and Labor, he’s also trying to talk about the conditions of possibility of this form of thought.

[Video skips]

The widget that you brought to market is qualitatively specific, right? It is particular. And you just hope that somebody wants to buy this widget – that it satisfies some need, right? But the whole point of the value dimensions is that it is qualitatively generalthat’s the whole point of it. Being qualitatively general means that it’s purely quantitative. It’s not qualitative – it can’t be. If it’s qualitative, it has to be particular. But the kind of generality we’re talking about is an abstract, homogeneous generality. Being an abstract, homogeneous generality, expressed as money, means to the degree to which money expresses that it is by definition boundless (because it’s pure quantity). This was coming back to the point that you [points to student] raised. Does this make sense to people? All of these things are tied together all the way through. This is what value is about originally on pages 2, 3 and 4 of the first chapter. That’s the whole point – there’s no qualitative specificity. That’s the whole point of abstract human labor too. That was the whole point of my saying earlier that the commodity is, at one and the same time, particular and abstractly general, and that that opposition itself is (by Marx) grounded in the commodity form. But abstractly general means really abstractly general – it means it has no bounds (logically).

[Video skips]

At the same time, he is not saying monetarists belong in some play pen or insane asylum. He’s saying that the forms themselves are generative of this understanding. In fact, the actual amount of money is not equivalent, at any given time, to the total value produced – it’s not! So, the discrepancy isn’t a misunderstanding. But time and time and time again (and this is what makes Marx very difficult) he keeps on saying that the one thing you cannot do is judge things on the basis of surface data. You cannot do that. Well, I mean, you can. But then you’re going to get theory A and theory B that contradict each other in systematic fashion.

[Video skips]

Okay. So, in a sense, what he’s done (until he reaches means of payment) in the first section of money is locate the precondition of hoarding in the two metamorphoses of the commodity. There isn’t an immediate coincidence between buying and selling. The producers must have sold without buying in order to be able to buy without selling. So, the fact that you sell without buying so that you can then buy without selling means that you’re trying to hold on to something. And that’s the sort of bottom/first level of the way he deals with hoarding. Then, what he does ­– the means of payment, I think, is a very interesting thing and I don’t want to do it in three minutes. It’s the effects of a time separation between when the commodity leaves the hands of a seller and when its price is actually paid. So, we’re going to do that. And having done this, and having realized that already on the level of money, value theory just doesn’t seem to be valid… on the basis of value theory… That’s part of the strategy of course, is to show that you can derive that which apparently contravenes your presuppositions from those presuppositions themselves. It’s a very Hegelian move. Then, we are going to start with capital, which at first is going to seem incredibly obscure, but I’m hoping that the scales will begin to fall, and you’ll be able to see why this book is called Capital and not commodity. In so much writing about Marx it used to be that the book should have been called Manifesto. That was for about two generations. Then, more recently, people said it should have been called Commodity. But it’s not! It’s called Capital… and we’re going to try and figure out why.

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