Sunday, April 13, 2014

Abstract Materialism: Sohn-Rethel and the Task of a Materialist Philosophy Today

This is the longer version of an old conference paper. It never quite became publishable; it is left here to the gnawing criticism of digital mice.

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. 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 reality of production and 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.

As important as this idea of real abstraction is for an understanding of Marx’s philosophy, and its specific rupture with idealist philosophy, it is perhaps more useful for navigating the increasingly abstract terrain of contemporary capitalism. To follow a remark by Fredric Jameson, any attempt to understand the problem of abstraction must take into consideration the structural and qualitatively distinct abstractions of contemporary capitalism.[1] Thus our interest here is not limited to a consideration of the real abstraction as a heuristic device clarifying Marx’s specific intervention in the field of philosophy, but also includes the real abstraction as a framing device for thinking about the history and tension of contemporary capitalism.

Marx: From Philosophy as Abstraction to Real Abstraction

What exactly meant by materialism? This question becomes particularly pressing in terms of the pairing of materialism and abstraction, but is no less a question with respect to Marx’s writing. As a general definition of materialism in Marx’s philosophy we could start with the overturning of the priority of the relationship between life and thought in The German Ideology. As Marx writes, “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”[2] Marx’s inversion of the priority between thought and life in that text seems inadequate to grasp the materiality of abstraction, as it is organized around a stark opposition between the concrete and abstract, between the abstractions of philosophy of the concrete experience of real life. A point of clarification is offered by the first of the “Theses on Feuerbach,” which offers a more nuanced, even dialectical statement of the relation between materialism and idealism. That thesis is perhaps most well known for its definition of praxis, but what is less frequently addressed is the manner in which it states a fundamental contradiction, if not paradox integral to Marx’s definition of materialism. As long as materialism takes as its model the material object(such as the body) it will remain secretly idealist, because this object will always be an object for contemplation. Idealism, on the other hand, and Marx is thinking primarily of idealism after Kant, German Idealism, is secretly materialist, concerned primarily with activity.[3] The rest of the theses follow this line: developing a materialist philosophy that is not so much opposed to idealism, but drawn from it, claiming its defining characters of activity and relation. It is a materialism without matter. This can be seen in the infamous sixth thesis: Marx does not so much oppose the idea of a human essence as make it the produce of social relations, simultaneously moving against the idea of a human essence, and situating it on the terrain of social relations. The concept of relation itself is the lynchpin, the point of transition between essence and appearance the ideal and the material. The history of philosophy has vacillated between two positions: in the first relations are thought to be entirely mental, or extrinsic; while in the second, relations are real, intrinsic.[4] One could argue, following Balibar, that what we find in Marx is a third position, one that posits the real as relation. This is one way of understanding not just the infamous sixth thesis on Feuerbach, but the early work on ideology, in which the opposite of ideology is not the truth found in this or that instance of society, but in the totality of social relations.[5]

All this becomes much more complex if one shifts from Marx’s early critique of philosophy to the critique of political economy. Marx’s engagement with philosophy, at least the philosophy of post-Hegelian German Idealism, was always two pronged: demonstrating that it failed to account for its material conditions, while simultaneously appropriating something of its fundamental orientation to produce a materialism of activity, transformation, and relations. Marx’s strategy of critical reading must necessarily shift when confronting political economy, which cannot be said to fail to consider its material conditions since it directly intervenes in them. Marx is of course most famous for arguing that the categories of political economy “are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production.”[6] It is from this assertion that we get the well known Marxist imperative to “always historicize,” to always consider the historical conditions of any given concept or situation. It is perhaps less well known, however, that Marx often expressed the difference between his understanding of political economy and bourgeois political economy as one which hinged on the status of abstraction itself: for Marx abstract labor and surplus value are the fundamental points of distinction between his account and the bourgeois account of capitalism.[7] Marx’s understanding of capital hinges on the understanding of the abstractions, labor considered indifferent to its material situation and surplus value considered independent of this or that manner of generating surplus; these abstractions considered in terms of their concrete and material conditions and effects. 

These two dimensions of Marx’s critique of political economy, history and abstraction, converge in Marx’s “1857 Introduction,” which give methodological centrality to the idea of abstraction. Marx argues that while it would appear to make the most sense to begin any discussion of political economy with the population, as an irreducibly concrete point of reference, the population, considered independently of the relations and divisions that constitute it, is an abstraction. Marx argues than that categories such as abstract labor, labor indifferent to its conditions, are more accurate not in spite of their abstraction but because of them. Abstract categories such as labor, labor considered independent of the various attributes, which would seem to be valid to all societies, only become “true in practice” in the most advanced social relations. As Marx writes: “The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society.”[8] Marx’s statement reflects not only a break with any historicism, at least any historicisms predicated on the linear progression from the simple to more complex social formations, but a thorough transformation of the notion of abstraction. Abstract labor is not simply a valid category for capitalist society, a concept that can be applied to it, but it is practically true, experienced in practice. This is a point made even stronger in Capital: abstract labor becomes a practical reality when the social and technological conditions exist to make the labor of disparate and distinct individuals interchangeable.[9] As Marx writes in Capital, “it is a process that goes on behind men’s backs,” a point that is illustrated by the effects of a transformation of the technological conditions of labor in one part of the world on the value of labor across the globe. This is a fundamentally different sense of abstraction, not the abstraction of a mind operating on some irreducibly concrete experience, but an abstraction produced by the interrelation of multiple concrete relations, relations that exceed the consciousness of the individual.

From Real Abstraction to Social Synthesis

With this survey of the problems of identifying materialism in the writings of Marx, 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 the practical constitution of abstraction. Contrary to what one might expect, however, it is not drawn from Marx’s distinction between concrete and abstract labor. For Sohn-Rethel use value and exchange value are each related to particular activities, the activities of exchange and use, each of which have their own specific logics and relations to the object in question. 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.”[10] 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. Marx’s assertion that “life determines consciousness” remains trivially true unless it becomes a matter of the form of thought itself.[11]

Sohn-Rethel’s examination of the connection between the form of thought and practice is not focused on labor, even abstract labor, but on the division between two fundamental practical activities: exchange and use. Sohn-Rethel takes his bearings from Marx’s radical separation of exchange from use, exchange value contains “not an atom of use;” for Sohn-Rethel it is less a matter of what constitutes the basis for value than the constitution of two different spheres, one defined by the practical matters of use, the other by abstraction. “The concept of property is itself only a conceptualization of the factual necessity of keeping use and exchange separated.”[12] Despite the fact that this abstraction takes place practically in the sphere of the market, it is still a practice, defined by spatial and material relations. As much as it takes place within a particular place and time it abstracts from them, effacing them: use values exist in particular place and time, but exchange values are free from the effects of space and time, as is money. It is this abstraction that makes possible the specific abstractions of capitalist thought: abstractions that have as their defining characteristic the purely quantitative unit of space and time. The defining characteristic of money and the commodity form is to be a pure abstraction, pure quantity without quality, and this pure abstraction exists in the practice of commodity exchange before it exists in thought. 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. The abstractions of economics, its tendency to speak of “widgets,” to deal with the commodity in its abstraction from use, from what the commodity is, is something that made “its way from reality into the textbooks,” and not the other way around.[13] It is a reflection of a society ruled by abstractions. [14]

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.[15] 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? This problem becomes is particularly difficult in a society defined by the competition of isolated individuals. 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?”[16] 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 production constitutive of exchange 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. Labor, the metabolic relation with nature, is dominated by exchange: second nature dominates first nature. 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.”[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 consciousness it is a social process through and through. “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.”[18] Exchange is a relation, and the abstractions that it constitutes and sustain it have a necessary collective, or rather transindividual status, as something that exists in relation.[19] Their transindividual status is necessary, even fundamental, to their socially synthetic function. If in commodity exchange the action and consciousness of individuals goes separate ways, then this separation is also a separation between a social synthesis and an individuated perception. 

The Real Abstraction of Subjectivity

The two materialist theses that I outlined at the beginning, the primacy of practice and the primacy of social relations, become in Sohn-Rethel’s work 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.[20] 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.”[21] 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.[22]

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.[23]

For Sohn-Rethel the contradiction of the social forces of production and the isolated relations of production passes into the interior of thought itself: the form of thought is irreducibly social, partaking in the real abstractions that define the conceptual space of pure quantity, but its contents are irredeemably individual, even solipsistic, as consciousness focuses on the specific qualities of the commodity in question. This is perhaps Sohn-Rethel’s unique take on the central contradiction between forces and relations of production; only now this contradiction passes into the interior of subjectivity itself, between work and consumption. Sohn-Rethel’s analysis of the real abstraction draws a picture of consciousness that is split between a practical immersion in the transindividual real abstractions and a solipsistic consciousness, practically relational and yet isolated in thought. Sohn-Rethel is largely concerned with the epistemic rather than subjective, or psychological aspects of this shift, its relation to thought in general rather than the individual’s consciousness. However, many of the readers of Sohn-Rethel have pursued this direction, reading his real abstraction less as a criticism of epistemology than as a description of subjectivity in capitalism. It is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is well documented that Theodor Adorno corresponded with Sohn-Rethel for several years, and shared a similar interest in the connections between the commodity form and the form of thought. This is most clearly demonstrated in the homology that Adorno sets up between the commodity form and the concept as two different instance of formal identity.[24] The commodity form and the concept both function by equalizing disparate content, subsuming it under formal identity. In Minima Moralia, moreover, Adorno offers a sketch that roughly matches Sohn-Rethel’s split between sociality and isolation. As Adorno writes: 

The intellectual, particularly when philosophically inclined, is cut off from practical life: revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind. But material practice is not only the pre-condition of his existence, it is basic to the world which he criticizes in his work. If he knows nothing of this basis he shoots into thin air…[H]e hypostatizes as an absolute his intellect which was only formed through contact with economic reality and abstract exchange relations, and which can become intellect solely by reflecting on its own conditions. [25]

Adorno's diagnosis here is a negative one, the less the intellectual thinks of economic reality, the more she thinks in line with it, perpetuating the ideal of consciousness separate from material reality, however, if she turns towards economic reality she risks losing the autonomy necessary to criticize it. "Intellectual business is helped, by the isolation of intellect from business, to become a comfortable ideology." This idea that the social relations are reproduced not so much in a given content, such as ideology, or even in a given form, but in the constant split between form and content.[26] Slavoj Zizek focuses on precisely this split, finding in it the constitutive conditions of cynicism, which is the subjective attitude proper to this split, to a life caught between a radical split between ideas and actions.[27] Practically we act as if the different commodities and disparate labors are interchangeable, exchange value, but at the level of consciousness we are focused on the concrete and isolated qualities, use values. 

Despite the resonances that this particular version of contradiction may have, resonances that extend Marx’s remarks about the isolated individual emerging in the most developed relations into an age of a globalized consumer society, they also reveal Sohn-Rethel’s dependence on a particular social and technical division of labor. The dominance of labor by the social synthesis of appropriation culminates in the Taylorist labor process; a process that Sohn-Rethel identifies with the dominance of labor by not only the demand for more productivity, but also by a knowledge framed by the abstract space and time of his famous time/motion studies.[28] The labor of a singular body is forced into the abstract quantities of productivity, abstract quantities that necessarily pre-exist it. Sohn-Rethel’s analysis follows the historical trajectory developed in Marx’s Capital. The transition from handicrafts to large-scale industry is not just a technical reorganization of work, but a fundamental restructuring along a new principle: work is no longer organized around the knowledge and actions of the worker, but according to the demands of the commodity form. Automation is the physical materialization of this transformation. As much as automation reduces labor to a simple function of space and time, it also extends and maximizes the socialization of the abstract intellect. As Sohn-Rethel writes, “Automation amounts to the socialization of the human labor power which, in certain aspects, it surpasses in its scope of capability, range of action, its speed, reliability and precision, though only in a restricted and set specialization.”[29] This sociality is no longer simply the socialization of real abstractions in the form of thought, the abstract space and time that constitute, the basis of scientific thought; with automation these abstractions are materialized, passing through bodies and machines, even if they only intersect with the minimal dimension of labor. As Marx writes, “it is no longer necessary for the individual himself to put his hand to the object; it is sufficient for him to be an organ of the collective labourer, and to perform and one of its subordinate functions.”[30]

At this point Sohn-Rethel’s argument duplicates Marx’s argument in the so-called “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse, despite the fact that he does not draw from this subsequently influential text. In this text, as in Capital, Marx identifies the emergence of machinery with the destruction of skill as the basis for production. While a tool is always dependent on the virtuosity of the worker, the incorporation of knowledge into the machine in terms of its design and ability to mimic and duplicate activities that were performed by workers makes it so the machine itself is the “virtuoso”. As the skill, technical know-how, and science is made into a physical attribute of the machine, it is no longer necessary for the worker to physically embody the skill and knowledge necessary for production. “The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself.”[31] The description in the fragment is the culmination of the domination of the hand by the head. The real abstractions of money and the commodity form, abstract quantity and time and space, have become incorporated in a machine, as a general social knowledge. Marx refers to this social knowledge as the general intellect:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are the products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge objectified [vergegenständlichte Wissenskraft]. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.[32]

For Marx and Sohn-Rethel the rise of knowledge and machinery in the production process necessitates a reduction of the role of labor, labor is nothing but a miserable residue, a conscious organ overseeing the powers of generalized intellectual activity. 

For Paolo Virno the “general intellect” represents less a fundamental continuity with the organization of the labor process by the real abstraction, the dominance of appropriation over production, than a fundamental mutation of the real abstraction itself. Virno’s interpretation begins from an examination of the relevance of the general intellect for understanding contemporary production; the ability of the concept, and the prophetic vision of the future it entails, to match up to the present. Marx “Fragment” presents capitalism as a moving self-contradiction, but this is not the contradiction of the working class with nothing to lose but their chains, a contradiction of complete proletarianization that can only lead to the expropriation of the expropriators; in the “Fragment” the opposite takes place, capital dies of socialization, socialized knowledge as a productive force. As Marx writes, “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 sole measure and source of wealth”[33] Capital annuls labor as the source of wealth, while maintaining it as the measure of value. 

As Virno remarks, the first thing that one has to consider in reading this description of capital’s death by automation is “the full factual realization of the tendency described…without any emancipatory—or merely conflictual reversal.”[34] This does not lead to tossing the analysis out, to yet another rejection of Marx based on a supposed prophecy which failed to come to pass, but a fundamental question: how is it that capitalism has overcome its own basis, overcoming labor power as the basis of wealth, without this resulting in revolution or even conflict? Virno argues that this can be answered by a simple modification of the definition of the general intellect, a simple correction to take into consideration what Marx failed to see. “Marx thus neglects the way in which the general intellect manifests itself as living labor.”[35] The social knowledge that enters into the center of the production process is not just materialized in machines and technology, but in skill, talent, aptitude, and habits.[36] This radically redefines the nature of general intellect, and its machines, which are no longer just machines in the literal sense, but protocols and programs for production. For Virno, “The general intellect includes the epistemic models that structure social communication.”[37] This entails a fundamental transformation of the nature of the real abstraction. 

The shift in the nature of the real abstraction has to do with their relation to production. For Sohn-Rethel the central distinction is between two different social syntheses: a logic of production and a logic of appropriation. In the first, production is the socially synthetic moment, relating the different laboring activities and use values in their heterogeneity and plurality. In the second, logic of appropriation, the real abstractions of the commodity and money relate and bring together the different, disparate, and disjointed labors under the domination of the real abstraction of the commodity form. With respect to the second, to the logic of appropriation, this real abstraction dominates production, but it does so externally, imposing a quantitative demand and a formal structure on the laboring process. Virno understands the transformation from labor to the general intellect as the operative real abstraction to be a fundamental transformation of precisely this exteriority. 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.[38]

The general intellect does not regulate production, it does not stand over labor, as in the case of Taylorism, and the rule of abstract science. Rather, the general intellect migrates into the center of production, becoming part of labor itself, determining its production. The real abstractions of Sohn-Rethel’s analysis, what we could call the real abstractions of formal subsumption, emphasize just that, form. Money and the commodity form operate first and foremost by rendering different objects, different bodies, and different activities interchangeable. As much as this equality, this eden of “freedom, equality, and Bentham,” is, as Marx famously argued, underwritten and undermined by the fundamental inequality and asymmetry of the capital/labor relation, these real abstractions produce a kind of “socially necessary semblance.”[39] The real abstractions of formal interchangeability, money and the commodity, thus cut into two directions: on the one hand, they subordinate labor, the work of this specific hand to the abstract intellect; on the other hand, the image of equality and interchangeability that they produce haunts capitalism, threatening to become a claim for equality in general.[40] The shift from money and the commodity as the real abstraction to the general intellect entails a profound shift in the social semblance. The general intellect is defined by the absolute incommensurability between different forms of knowledge and operative paradigms. “The models of social knowledge are not units of measurement; instead, they constitute the premise for operative heterogeneous possibilities…They do not equalize anything; instead, they act as premise to every type of action.”[41] Not only is their no equivalence, no possible ground of comparison between these different forms of knowledge, but any given individual passes through multiple paradigms, multiple conceptual apparatuses, in a given life or even day. 

The migration of the real abstraction into the center of production fundamentally alters the relationship between thought and existence. Sohn-Rethel’s real abstractions were practiced more than they were thought. They make the abstractions of science, of a particular conception of science predicated on abstract quantitative space and time possible, but they are not properly thought, at least in the moment of exchange: “the action and the consciousness of people goes separate ways.” With respect to production, to labor itself, these abstractions are imposed from the outside, forming the measure and standard that subordinates labor to the logic of appropriation. The shift from the formal real abstraction to the general intellect, which could be a called a real real abstraction, if that was not too awkward, is also a fundamental shift in this relation as well. The difference is not one of interiority, of subjectivization, this was already at stake in Sohn-Rethel’s description, in which what was interiorized was the split between form and content lived as a kind of cynicism, but of the priority between abstract and concrete. 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. [42]

The various formations of knowledge, the various paradigms, programs and cultural literacies, are not simply imposed on the production process from the outside, but become internal to it, they are its raw material and means production. This migration of the real abstractions into the productive process is not without its effects at the level of subjectivity, as a certain relation between life and concept is reversed. Marx’s famous formula of materialist philosophy has been reversed: consciousness now determines life, only it is not the consciousness dreamed of by the philosophers, but a consciousness that is itself produced, circulated and consumed by the productive process. 

These fundamental shifts of the real abstraction from the formal abstractions of money and the commodity to the general intellect have profound effects for subjectivity. Unlike Sohn-Rethel who is primarily interested in epistemology, despite making some interesting and suggestive remarks about the real abstraction and a split in subjectivity between the collective form and individual perception, Virno, like Adorno and Zizek, is explicitly concerned with the intersection of the real abstraction and subjectivity. As he writes, “If we fail to perceive the points of identity between labor practices and modes of life, we will comprehend nothing of the changes taking place in present-day production and misunderstand a great deal about the forms of contemporary culture.”[43] The mode of life, the emotional tonality, which corresponds to this shift in the general intellect is rise of cynicism and opportunism. Rather than see these particular modes of subjectivity as simple ethical failings, or effects of the defeat of the left, cynicism and opportunism have to be understood as stemming from the transformation of the real abstraction. The shift from a real abstraction predicated on formal equality to an abstraction predicated on difference, produces a world without grounds for comparison. It is not just that the different paradigms, rules, and forms of knowledge are incomparable, incapable of being directly related, but that due to the extreme precariousness of labor conditions, any individual worker will pass from one operative form of knowledge to another multiple times in the course of a lifetime. The precariousness and incommensurability of these different productive paradigms leads to a cynicism. This is not the basic disconnect between thought and action that Adorno and Zizek had located in the real abstractions of formal subsumption, but a cynicism based on the incommensurability of thought itself.[44]“Cynics recognize, in the particular context in which they operate, both the preeminent role played by certain cognitive premises as well as the simultaneous absence of real equivalences.”[45] Despite the fundamental difference between this cynicism, predicated on the productive dimension of conceptual thought, and the cynicism of formal subsumption, predicated on a disconnect between thought and action, they connect on the same point: the isolation of the individual. As Virno argues the cynic constitutes a kind of atrophy of the traits of the metaphysical subject: autonomy, transcendence, and intentionality return not as a metaphysical givens, but as the products of a particular economic transformation.[46] As with Marx’s initial thesis on Feuerbach, idealism proves to be much more materialist than it would first appear.[47]

The Problem of Measure

The problem of equivalence, its disappearance in the face of incommensurable productive paradigms, is not simply a problem for ethical tonality and subjectivity. The problem of measure is central to contemporary capitalism and any resistance to it. Marx’s initial coining of the term general intellect was framed by a crisis of value, by the productivity of social knowledge not subject to the measure of wage labor. Virno’s updating of the concept, making the general intellect not just substance, internalized in machines, but subject, part of labor power, does not so much resolve the problem, but exasperates it. Much of what constitutes the productive capacity of the general intellect, knowledge, information, and communication is produced off the clock, outside of the sphere of production. As Virno argues the general intellect can be understood as the migration of precisely those capacities and actions that were defined by being excluded from the realm of work into the production process: the capacity to communicate, not to mention idle talk and curiosity.[48] This tendency of the general intellect to bring the outside of work into the productive process culminates in Virno assertion that the general intellect is less a matter of this or that skill or knowledge than the generic capacity. “The general intellect is nothing but the intellect in general.”[49] What is put to work are the general capacities of the intellect, the capacities to learn knew tasks, which are the generic capacities of humanity. These included language and intellect, the old stand-byes of philosophical anthropology, only in this context they are considered less as faculties than as potentials, as capacities to learn new forms of communication and habits. What Virno stresses is that the productive process comes to include anthropogenesis as such, the very formation of the human which is always a deficit of formation since humanity is defined by a capacity to take on knew habits.[50] It is at this point, the point when all of humanity all social activity becomes part of the productive process, and does so precisely as a potential, as something lacking definition, that it becomes very difficult to subject this to any measure.

The question of measure is a question of the social synthesis: what form of social synthesis corresponds to the transformation of the real abstraction from the formal abstraction of money and the commodity form to the general intellect as the real abstraction? This is a question of the political and economic dimension of the transformation from formal to real subsumption, something that Virno’s investigation of the immediate coincidence of economic forms and subjectivity does not address. At this point it is then useful to turn back to Sohn-Rehel, to the social synthesis as a particular social organization of and through the real abstraction. To say that there is new social synthesis does not mean that money or labor have disappeared from the social reality. As Sohn-Rethel’s concepts suggest, a logic of appropriation does not dispense with a logic of production, it does not dispense with productive relations, but rather a subordinates them to a different order and organization. The primary action of mankind’s metabolic relation with nature is subordinated to the second nature of abstract forms. While Sohn-Rethel’s formulation is perhaps all too schematic, suggesting an absolute rupture where a conflicted and complex (even dialectical) transition is perhaps more appropriate, it is possible to argue that a given moment a particular social synthesis is hegemonic.[51] Moreover, Sohn-Rethel already recognized an increasing trend towards the socialization of production, a socialization that cannot be a return to a synthesis of production, even during the time of his writing. The productive capacities of the general intellect, of general social knowledge, require a new social synthesis, a new manner of capturing the diffuse and shifting productive capacities of the general intellect. Such a synthesis would not dispense with the equivalences of the real abstraction, but these equivalences would be secondary to the differential articulation of different forms of knowledge and social connection. 

Two models have suggested themselves as new social synthesis: rent and finance capital. Thinkers such as David Harvey and Matteo Pasquinelli have suggested the return of rent in the contemporary capitalism, despite the tendency to think of rent as an antiquated, feudal form of accumulation. Rent of space, the rent of metropolitan areas, is precisely a way of capturing the diffuse social creative of subjectivity. It is a way of capturing, which is to say profiting off of, the creativity of subjectivity produced outside of the networks of capital. As Pasquinelli writes, “The general value of rent is indeed produced by the whole social subjectivity, what is called the multitude.”[52] The revival of rent to understand exploitation does not just refer to social space, rather it is argued that there is a dimension of rent in multiple commodities. Rent is at work whenever collective subjective relations, desire and attention, relations that are not subject to the measure of labor, produce value. Just as in the case of social space this rent is based on a differential distribution of energies and attention. The emphasis on difference also defines the second figure that suggests itself for the social synthesis: finance capital. In Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth they write, “Finance capital is an enormous engine of abstraction that simultaneous represents and mystifies the common as if reflecting it in a distorted mirror.”[53] (The common could be understood to be roughly synonymous with Virno’s definition of the general intellect as a diffuse potentiality). Like rent, finance capital follows the flows of attention and imagination. Investing is determined by a general assessment of the viability of a brand or product, a viability that has no ground other than that of belief and desires. As with rent what matters is the temporal difference, that differential, that places one ahead of the general trend, or gets one out before the whole thing crashes down. It is not that the real abstractions of money and the commodity form have been destroyed, just displaced by the differential speculations on the general intellect. The real abstractions of the commodity form are the conditions of the latter, which are layered over it as different abstractions different modalities of value. As Pasquinelli writes:

The total value of a commodity is produced by the material labor plus the cognitive labor plus the symbolic value brought by the public. The first is easily described according to the basic coordinates of wage labor and profit. The second is the value of knowledge embodied in design and intellectual property (patents, copyrights, trademarks). The third refers to the value of the brand produced by the attention economy of publics, mass media, and advertisement.[54]

The different aspects of the commodity constitute different dimensions of the social synthesis, different real abstractions, from the commodity form to the general intellect and beyond to the economies of attention and speculation. 

Sohn-Rethel’s concept of the real abstraction expanded our understanding of the fundamental contradiction at the heart of capitalism: the real abstraction revealed how the contradiction between capital and labor, extended into the field of knowledge and subjectivity. It is not simply that knowledge, scientific knowledge, is shown to be conditioned by the commodity form, and thus immediately implicated in the relations of production, but this knowledge was itself divided in its relation to subjectivity: it had a practical basis that is social or collective and a conceptual understanding that is isolated or fragmented. Virno’s concept of cynicism extended this contradiction to reveal how an increased socialization, increased tendency to put to work collectivity and knowledge, leasds to the fragmentation of cynical and incommensurable subjectivity. In each case the contradiction is also a potential antagonism. The real abstractions of formal subsumption, money and the commodity form, produced an image of equality and relation as much as they perpetuated inequality and isolation. What remains to be developed, at both the level of theory and practice, is an understanding of the antagonisms of the new real abstractions. How can they be rested away from the social synthesis of finance capital to constitute a new social antagonism? As Sohn-Rethel and Virno suggest doing so means puncturing the veil of cynicism and recognizing the relation, the sociality, in what first appears to be isolation and separation. 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.


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[1] Jameson 1998, p. 143. 

[2] Marx and Engels 1970, p.47. 

[3] Balibar 1995, p. 25 

[4] Morfino p.105. 

[5] Balibar 1994, p. 92. 

[6] Marx 1977, p. 324. 

[7] Marx and Engels 1955, 186. 

[8] Marx 1973 p. 104. 

[9] Read 2003, p. 69. 

[10] Sohn-Rethel 1978, p. 26. 

[11] Sohn-Rethel 1978, p. 8 

[12] Sohn-Rethel 1978, p. 40. 

[13] Marx 1973, p. 90. 

[14] Marx 1973 p. 164. 

[15] Postone 1996 p. 178. 

[16] Sohn-Rethel 1978, p. 29 

[17] Sohn-Rethel 1978, p. 17. 

[18] Sohn-Rethel 1978, p. 69 

[19] I use the term transindividual here following the work of Gilbert Simondon to mean that which both exceeds the individual and is the condition for individuation. See Virno 2004, 79 and Simondon 2005, 298. 

[20] Sohn-Rethel 1978, p. 195. 

[21] Sohn-Rethel 1978,p. 77. 

[22] Marx 1973, 223. 

[23] Sohn-Rethel, 1978,p. 69 

[24] Adorno 1992, p. 146 and Jameson 1990, p.23 

[25] Adorno 1974, p. 132. 

[26] Sohn-Rethel, p.15. 

[27] Zizek 1989, p. 31. 

[28] Sohn-Rethel p. 149 

[29] Sohn-Rethel pg. 176. 

[30] Marx 1977, p. 644. 

[31] Marx 1973, p.693. 

[32] Marx 1973, p. 706 

[33] Marx 1973, p. 706 

[34] Virno 1996b p. 267 

[35] Virno 2007a p. 5. 

[36] Read 2003, p.121. 

[37] Virno 1996a p. 22. 

[38] Virno 1996a p. 22. 

[39] Virno 2007b p. 42 

[40] Keenan p. 118 

[41] Virno 2004, p.87. 

[42] Virno 2001 p. 171. 

[43] Virno 1996a p. 14. 

[44] Read 2008, p.150. 

[45] Virno 2004 p.88. 

[46] Virno 1996a p.24. 

[47] Virno 2001 p. 172. 

[48] Virno 1996a p. 16. 

[49] Virno 2004 p. 66. 

[50] Virno 2004 p. 63. 

[51] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that just as Marx argued that factory labor was in some sense hegemonic during the writing of Capital, reshaping other productive practices even if it was quantitatively small part of the overall production process, immaterial labor is now hegemonic. Hardt and Negri 2004, p. 109. 

[52] Pasquinelli 2008, p.136. 

[53] Hardt and Negri 2009 p. 153. 

[54] Pasquinelli 2008, p. 138.


Ross Wolfe said...

Do you find that concept of "real abstraction" is often abused in contemporary leftist circles? Or at least grossly misunderstood? There are those who seek to explain any and every ideology on its basis, even those which antedate capitalism and take place in societies where commodity exchange scarcely existed. I'm thinking of Toscano's attempt to explain religion as a "real abstraction" in his book on Fanaticism, something that seems to me not only a category mistake but an anachronism as well.

unemployed negativity said...

I think that the concept has an odd lineage. Sohn-Rethel seems to trace it back to basic commodity exchange and the creation of money. I would have to reexamine Toscano's argument, but I remember his basic point to be that the abstractions of fanaticism, Kantian universalism, etc., are themselves products of failing to grasp the real abstractions of society. In his work, as in others such as Postone, engaging with real abstraction is a way out of the sterile opposition of abstract versus concrete.

unemployed negativity said...
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