Saturday, February 05, 2011

Isolation and Relation: Notes on Capital

I am teaching Capital, or at least parts of Volume One. This is not the first time that I have done this, I have taught selections of it in my nineteenth century philosophy class and have taught parts of Marx, in some form or another, every year. However, this is the most of the book that I have ever taught, almost all of it over seven weeks. It is also my attempt to break with my past reading, more or less documented in the Micro-Politics book and heavily influenced by Althusser and Negri. Along these lines I have been reading some of the more or less recent interpretations by Arthur, Bidet, and Harvey, as well as collection of essays titled Relire Le Capital edited by Franck Fischbach.
I had hoped to make this course a regular feature in the blog, perhaps even giving it its own blog dedicated to a rereading of Capital, but it is three weeks into the semester now and it does not look like that is going to happen. However, I thought that I would write a few things, not so much a full investigation but scattered remarks with the hope that it might be of interest.

My first entry begins not with Capital but with the Grundrisse, and a passage that shows up quite a bit in my thoughts, if not on this blog. Like many of Marx’s most provocative remarks in the later writings, it is simultaneously a critique of political economy and of capital, of the social relation and its representation.

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. The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.

This passage concludes with the “social individual,” the individual who is only individuated within society, which is to say transindividualy, but not before first asserting that the individual can appear as something which opposes itself to its social conditions. This isolated individual appears at the maxim point of the development of social relations: the most general relations appear in and through the standpoint of the isolated individual.

This could just be Marx citing Hegel’s critique of civil society in the Philosophy of Right, but it raises the question as to what extent this idea of the contradictory sociality of capitalism is continued through the text of Capital itself.

The stakes of this question become clear if one recognizes the role that sociality plays in the development for commodity fetishism. As Marx writes,

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor. This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible [sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social].

It might be possible to understand the passage on commodity fetishism cited above, and its structure in general, as an answer to the question that is not even posed in the passage from the Grundrisse. Why does the standpoint of the isolated individual emerge with the most developed general relations? Why don’t these relations produce, or carry with them, a consciousness that is equally social? It is because the relations appear in the commodity form itself. Two things would seem to follow from this: first, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, the commodity form could be understood as Marx’s response to Hegel. There is no passage from the particular consciousness of civil society to the universal consciousness of the state. Second, it underscores in a manner that is often not discussed enough the relational dimension of the value form. In the passages prior to this, the chapters on the accidental, relative, and expanded form of value, the endless equivalences between pounds of corn and yards of linen, which are so tempting to skim over, can be understood to be arguing that the value form is necessarily relational and, at a higher level of philosophical abstraction, that forms are nothing other than relations. Acknowledging this first part is necessary to fend off the moralizing readings of Marx, or critiques of the moralizing straw man, all of which focus on some supposed purity of use value, as an individual unfetishized relation to an object (Such a reading would be nothing other than a Robinsonade). The second aspect gets us close to how Marx is redefining both form and relation, a necessary aspect to understanding his philosophy.

Commodity fetishism is not the only place in capital in which the value form is presented as a mode of sociality, a particular manner of relating. In the Chapter on money for example, Marx makes an explicit connection between use value and exchange value and isolation and relation.

“The owner of a commodity is prepared to part with it only in return for other commodities whose use value satisfies his own need. So far, exchange is merely an individual process for him. On the other hand, he desires to realize his commodity, as a value, in any other suitable commodity of the same value. It does not matter to whim whether his own commodity has use value for the owner of the other commodity or not. From this point of view, exchange is for him a general social process. But the same process cannot be simultaneously for all owners of commodities both exclusively individual and exclusively social and general.”

This passage would seem to prefigure Sohn-Rethel’s assertion that in the act of exchange consciousness and action go separate ways: consciously I am focused on the use value of the commodity, but my actions are still governed by exchange value, by its fetishized value. Sohn-Rethel ups the ante of Marx’s analysis, stressing it is not just the isolated individual that emerges from these interconnected and fetishized relations, but consciousness itself. As Sohn-Rethel writes, “Nothing could be wrapped in greater secrecy than the truth that the independence of the intellect is owed to its original social character.” It is social in that even its isolation, its solipsistic focus on use values, is made possible by the fact that production takes place out of sight. It is also social in that the abstraction of value, even abstraction itself, is formed through these relations. To cite Sohn-Rethel again, “Nothing that a single commodity-owner might undertake on his own could give rise to this abstraction, no more than a hammock could play its part when attached to one pole only.”

More could be said about Sohn-Rethel, and I have tried to do so here and elsewhere, but I would like to draw two provisional conclusions/provocations. First, it seems that Marx makes possible a thought of sociality as a form, or as a form of relations. This is interesting given the way that many trends in contemporary philosophy have turned away from the social, or society, treating it as a badly framed empirical concept, burdened with content it cannot justify, towards various subtractive, formal, or relational ontologies. A reading of Marx would suggest that this is not necessary, and this may have been what was at stake in so-called structuralist Marxism and the endless controversy over Marx’s use of Träger. Second, and this is really more of provocation, it remains to be seen how one could continue to trace this thought of relations through the entire text of Capital.  More specifically, it remains to be seen what remains of this divide when it passes from the sphere of circulation to the hidden abode of production; which is to say, how does the contradictory sociality reframe the divide between exchange and production.

Perhaps I will try to address this in the next post. 

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