Materialism has always been the bastard stepson of philosophy. Its very position is paradoxical, if not impossible. It must use concepts and arguments to conceptualize and argue against the primacy of concepts and argument. Materialism is predicated on the principle that material forces and relations determine thought, not the either way around. This perennial problem is even worse today. If Marx was in some sense the most sophisticated materialist philosopher, elevating the material beyond the brute materiality of the body, to locate the material in the conflicted terrain of social relations, then one could argue that even this version of materialism is in jeopardy today. The economy, the last instance of materialist philosophy after Marx, can no longer be identified with the machines and noise of the factory, it has become digital, immaterial. What then remains of materialism when the economy has become ideal, determined more and more by the idealist category par excellence, speculation, and even labor has been declared immaterial, intersecting with beliefs and desires? At least the beginning of a response can be found in the seemingly paradoxical concept of “real abstraction.” This term, introduced by Marx, takes on a central importance in the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, where it is no longer a methodological necessity, but the cornerstone of a philosophy that seeks to understand the material basis of abstraction itself.
In order to clarify this concept, or to clarify the specific way in which it intersects with materialism, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by materialism. I have already shown my cards in this respect, demonstrating that I define materialism through Marx, and, more specifically in this context, the Theses on Feuerbach. Without engaging in all the tensions and paradoxes that these theses demand, I will extract a general definition of materialism from them: First, the primacy of practice, of acting, over contemplation (from Thesis One) and second, the primacy of relations, specifically social relations, over constituted things (drawn in part from Thesis Six). With these in mind we can now turn to Sohn-Rethel’s use of the concept of real abstraction. Sohn-Rethel’s understanding of real abstraction takes as its starting point Marx’s presentation of the commodity form in the opening of Capital. Sohn Rethel reads these passages to extract a thought of practice; contrary to what one might expect, it is not drawn from Marx’s distinction between concrete and abstract labor, but from the exchange relation. What Sohn-Rethel stresses is that in the act of a commodity exchange one may be focused on the concrete qualities of the commodity, its use value, but acts as if its quantitative exchange value really mattered, it is this after all that governs exchange. “It is the action of exchange, and the action alone that is abstract. The consciousness and the action of the people part company in exchange and go different ways” (Sohn-Rethel 26). This is the scandal that Marx’s thought represents for philosophy: it is not just that “consciousness is determined by life” in terms of the content and concepts that make up ideology, but that the very form of thought, abstraction, is determined by practice. The practice of exchanging does not so much constitute exchange value but constitutes its separation from use, a separation from the thing as material use value and value as an abstract quantity. Despite the fact that this abstraction takes place practically in the sphere of the market, it is this abstraction that makes possible the abstractions of thought: all of which are dependent on abstract space and time as their constitutive conditions. Practice is primary to thought, but practice is less labor as some kind of metabolic relation with nature than second nature: the relations of exchange and the division between exchange and use that constitutes the form of social activity.
Sohn-Rethel’s focus on exchange rather than labor as the activity constitutive of thought may seem strange, undermining Marx’s fundamental assertion that society is best understood from the mode of production not distribution. Sohn-Rethel does not so much dispense with labor, but justifies his selection through a theory of social relations, what he calls a social synthesis. Sohn-Rethel’s idea of a social synthesis is an attempt to answer the question as to how society coheres, holds itself together: in other words, why is there society rather than nothing? A problem that is particularly vexing in a society defined by competition. As Sohn-Rethel writes: “How does society hold together when production is carried out independently by private producers, and all forms of previous production in common have broken asunder? ” (Sohn-Rethel 29). The answer is the social synthesis, and the particular form that this synthesis takes in capitalist society. Basically, a capitalist society is held together through the abstract concepts of value, and the abstraction that it makes possible, despite the fact that physically, at the level of laboring bodies and the accumulation of use values, it remains distinct. We labor in isolation and consume in the privacy of our home, but the condition of both this production and consumption is the totality of relations of value. Sohn-Rethel refers to this as a society of appropriation, in which society is socialized at the level of appropriation, or exchange. It is a society unified in the head, despite its isolation in the laboring or consuming body. This unity does not entail a particular content, a set of ideological beliefs but a form: the form of abstract value as a quantitative unit. A society of appropriation is distinct from a society of production: the latter would imply not only different social relations, but different forms of thought, no longer predicated on the radical divide between the physical object and abstract unit.
Sohn-Rethel’s social synthesis is ultimately not just a theory of how society holds together, but how thought holds together as well. As Sohn-Rethel writes, “forms of thought and forms of society have one thing in common. They are both forms” (Sohn-Rethel 17). A social synthesis expresses this identity of thinking and society. Thus, it constitutes another blow to the claims of idealist thought, if not philosophy itself: it is not just that the abstraction is primarily practical rather than conceptual, but that thought is not the attribute of an individual consciouness it is a social process through and through, it is common.
The two materialist theses that I outlined at the beginning, the primacy of practice and the primacy of social relations, become an emphasis on the primacy of exchange as an activity constitutive of thought and society as a social synthesis. These concepts converge in the idea of real abstraction: abstractions that are lived prior to being thought, and are social before being individual. Or, put differently, thought is irreducibly social because it is irredeemably practical, structured by practice. Having defined the basic contours of Sohn-Rethel’s materialist philosophy, we can now return to the initial question as to the question of materiality today. The final chapter of Intellectual and Manual Labor lays out a particular interpretation of Marx’s methodology. As Sohn-Rethel argues Marx’s central works were always a critique of political economy, rather than a direct exposition of capitalist reality: materiality is always approached through a particular form of thought (Sohn-Rethel 195). This suggests that philosophical texts can always be interrogated against the present at the same time that they make such an interrogation possible. We can then ask where do we stand with this concept of real abstraction today: what does it make possible, and what are its limitations. First, there is the way in which it posits a particular split in the intellect. The intellect is immediately social: the fundamental conceptual schemas of thought are produced by social relations, but this sociality is lived differently than it is constituted. The basic forms of its thought are social, the abstract entities of space and time, but unconsciously so, consciously the focus is on the specific qualities of the commodity in question. This is the division between use value and exchange value, only now it explains the genesis of thought not value. “Nothing could be wrapped in greater secrecy than the truth that the independence of the intellect is owed to its original social character” (Sohn-Rethel 77). Sohn-Rethel’s assertion could be used to make sense of Marx’s formulation in the Grundrisse of the fundamental paradox of capitalist social existence:
Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations (Marx 223)
Only now these developed relations do not just concern the interconnected relations of civil society, but the relations constitutive of thought. To cast it into a different conceptual vocabulary, Sohn-Rethel’s thought is rigorously transindividual, in that the individual, even the solipsistic individual, acting in competitive isolation or fulfilling its own independent desires on the market, is an effect and condition of social relations, relations that exceed its comprehension precisely because they are relations.
At the same time as Sohn-Rethel’s reading casts light on the present, illustrating the constitution of an intellect that is at once separate, individual, and social, collective, it is also tied to particular labor conditions, that of “private individuals who work independently of each other” (Marx 165). The social synthesis of appropriation presupposes that labor cannot be the ground for the social synthesis: exchange and not labor forms the basis of society. There is thus a sense in which Sohn-Rethel’s analysis is all too dependent on Marx’s formulation from the chapter on commodity fetishism, in which labor is carried out in isolation. Such a formulation already seems to be in tension with Marx’s analysis of cooperation in Chapter 13 of Capital, in which labor is socialized through the cooperative relations of the factory. The idea of individuals working independently of each other would appear to be already anachronistic at the time of Marx’s writing, let alone in the present. Sohn-Rethel’s does not base the entire idea of the social synthesis of appropriation on the isolation of work: it is more central that the work is governed by the division between the head and hand. This division, as he demonstrated with his analysis of Taylorism, is not just predicated on the dominance of the head over the hand, but on a dominance in which the head is determined by the abstract relations of time and space. The science underlying scientific management is founded on the abstract quantity of time, not the singular case of this or that laboring body. Taylorism is the culmination of the synthesis of appropriation on labor, both in the sense that it is determined by the demands to make a higher concentration of technology profitable by keeping it working at a faster rate and in that its science, like all sciences, is based on the abstractions constituted by the exchange relation. However, this more sophisticated understanding of the synthesis of appropriation would seem inadequate to a present dominated by what has been alternately called cognitive capital or immaterial labor. As Sohn-Rethel argues, one of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism is the resocialization of labor, a trend which has continued to this day. Labor has become more social, moving out of the factory to the call center and the public relations office. This limit can be drawn with respect to two points: first, the post-fordist present can be defined by an increased tendency in the socialization of labor, in which labor is no longer carried out by isolated producers, but actively incorporates socialization and communication. Second, the abstractions of the present are not limited to the commodity form, or even money, but include highly speculative forms of finance capital. Drawing the lines of intersection of these two points, the new socialization and new abstractions, is necessary to comprehend the present.
With respect to the former, real abstraction, Paolo Virno has suggested that the present is defined by a fundamental mutation of the real abstraction. Virno argues that the real abstractions that Sohn-Rethel addressed had one defining characteristic: equality. The socialization of the labor process, the transformation of work in post-fordist capitalism as an activity that is not so much governed by an absent and indifferent intellect, but animated by a plurality of paradigms and concepts, fundamentally changes the nature of the real abstraction. Virno argues that the concept that best illustrates the real abstraction of contemporary capitalism is not the abstract equivalent of exchange value, but what Marx referred to as the “general intellect,” the concepts, paradigms, and knowledges embodied in machines and subjectivity. As Virno writes:
Whereas money, the “universal equivalent” itself incarnates in its independent existence the commensurability of products, jobs, and subjects, the general intellect instead stabilizes the analytic premises of every type of practice. Models of social knowledge do not equate the various activities of labor, but rather present themselves as the “immediate forces of production (Virno 1996, 22)
It is no longer the abstractions of appropriation that constitute the basis for the social synthesis, but the relations of production. However, these relations are not the unity of the head and hand that Sohn-Rethel juxtaposed to societies of appropriation. Virno argues that the general intellect, the abstract formulas, paradigms and concepts, have not disappeared, but have become internal to experience. As Virno writes:
Innumerable conceptual constructions, embodied in as many techniques, procedures, and regulations, orient the gaze and serve as the premises of any operation whatsoever. Direct perception and the most spontaneous action come last. This is the historical situation that comes about once the split between hand and mind manifests its irreversibility; when the autonomy of abstract intellect conditions and regulates the social productive process, on the whole and in every one of its singular aspects. (Virno 2001, 171)
Whereas Sohn-Rethel’s concept of the social synthesis of appropriation was based on the radical division between the practical abstraction, exchange value, and the concrete thought, use value, Virno presents a situation in which this division is not so much overcome, but internalized: abstraction is directly sensed. In Virno’s writing this sense defines the affective tonality of the present: the rise of cynicism and opportunism, as affective compositions predicated on the absence of any equivalence between different rules, structures, and norms become not just the basis for action, but experience as well.
While Virno’s distinction captures much of the present, defining a new social synthesis that is predicated less on the equivalent abstractions of money and exchange value than on the flexible rules and relations of a service and information based economy, its risk is that it makes it appear as if appropriation, which is to say the subordination of all of this to the accumulation of surplus value, has disappeared. To return to Sohn-Rethel’s distinction our society is still very much a society of appropriation, even if the terms of that appropriation have moved away from the simple equivalence of exchange value. It is at this point that the two shifts addressed above converge, the social dimension of labor and the new formulas of appropriation. As writers such as Matteo Pasquinelli, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Antonio Negri have, in different veins, argued, there is a connection between the socialization of labor, between a labor that has internalized various modes of knowing and sensing, and the speculative dimension of contemporary appropriation. This can be seen in the phenomena of rent or real estate value, which is often inseparable from the transformation of modes of knowing and perceiving, the cliché of the connection between gentrification and aesthetic production. A similar connection between speculation and the internalization for forms of knowledge and relations runs through the constitution of various forms of appropriation from the constitution of brand identity to the formation of the value of stocks. In each case speculation is speculation on the constitution and transformation of knowledges and operative paradigms, beliefs and desires. These are merely meant as sketches of a problem posed, not a fully developed theory. The central point, however, is that appropriation operates not through the abstraction of equivalence but through the speculation on differences.
In making sense of this connection between the new forms of labor and new forms of accumulation, in trying to understand the new social synthesis, it is important to keep in mind two of Sohn-Rethel’s fundamental points. First, a social synthesis is both a form of society and a form of thought, as such it constitutes a kind of common. However, and this is the second point, it is not directly perceived as such: central to Sohn-Rethel’s understanding of the social synthesis of appropriation is the way in which it constitutes a divide between the way this form of thought, which is also a form of subjectivity, is split between the social dimension of its constitution and the individual dimension of its apprehension. For Sohn-Rethel the fully socialized abstractions of value make possible an isolation and fragmentation of its apprehension. Thus, following Sohn-Rethel we can ask what are the formations of isolation and fragmentation produced by the transformations of the social synthesis? Virno’s argument about cynicism and opportunism offers a glimpse of what ways a social synthesis constitutes its own specific relations of asociality. The paradox that Marx saw in the eighteenth century, between the most developed relations and fragmentation and isolation, has only deepened since then: now it takes the form of Virno’s cynic who sees every rule, every structure as artificial and contingent, and the modern subject of neoliberalism, who views every relation as the basis for accumulating human capital. Sohn-Rethel’s analysis of the real abstraction has the merit of revealing the social synthesis, the common relations underlying such fragmentation and isolation. Grasping the rift between the social constitution and asocial perception of this constitution is the task of a materialist philosophy, overcoming it is the task of a communist politics.