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Three provisional theses on Marx’s concept of value

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“Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It’s no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values.”

–Marx, Capital, Volume I

I

Value is not transcendental. It is born only when it discovers itself in and through the historical accident of exchange. But the birth of value, which follows its discovery of itself, amounts to it being instituted as that which is a presupposition of exchange so that exchange is its realisation as value. Consequently, exchange ceases to be an accident of history to be transformed into an expression of its systemic principle, which is value. This is precisely the dialectic of history of logic and logic of history that Marx demonstrates while mapping the unfolding of value from its elementary or accidental form to its general form and money-form through the intermediate moment of its total or expanded form.

However, it is precisely the failure to closely attend to this rigorous dialectic of history of logic and logic of history that has often led scholars – mostly post-Marxists, but also a good number of Marxists of various kinds – to erroneously claim (and affirm) that for Marx value begins with exchange. Such an error renders value trans-historical and/or has disastrously reformist political consequences.

Essence, of course, becomes accessible only when it appears. But that does not mean appearance precedes essence or that the latter is an effect of the former. All those who insist that value – or the dialectic qua the principle of mediation – begins with exchange are falling precisely into such an error: it’s only in exchange that value is accessed so exchange precedes value. As a result, they mistake Marx’s demonstration of the historical precedence of exchange over value as the former’s logical priority over the latter.

Qualitative equalisation of (qualitative) difference — valorisation — is not the effect of exchange. Rather, it’s an integral dimension of the mode of organising of production (in its hidden abode) that must be logically prior to exchange in order for it to be realised in exchange. Had that not been the case, there is no way “mental”, “ideal’ or “imaginary” money-form as the measure of value would precede, and be distinct from, the tangible money-commodity as standard of price that really changes hands as definite quantities of metal money in the actuality of exchange. Marx in demonstrating this draws our attention to the logical priority of measure of value (and thus value) over standard of price (and price qua exchange-value). In other words, Marx is emphasising, implicitly or otherwise, how value precedes exchange-value with the latter realising the former.

Besides, if in Marx’s conception value did begin with exchange why would he then need to dwell at length (in Capital, Volume I) on Aristotle’s historical incapacity to come up with a conception of value when the latter is faced with the historical fact of exchange?

Therefore, the assertion that value begins with exchange is a complete and correct statement of things only if one is thinking of value merely in terms of its accidental creation. However, if one is dealing with value in terms of it being the logic of organising production — which is the mode of mobilising labour through quantification of respectively different socially necessary labour times for various qualitatively different concrete labours through a process of reducing them to human labour in the abstract — then this statement is incomplete and perhaps even wrong. In such circumstances, one will do well, instead, to state the following: exchange realises value-relationality (or the dialectic) precisely because the latter presupposes the former. So, instead of saying dialectic begins with exchange one should say the dialectic (value qua value-relationality) appears (or is realised) in exchange (exchange-value qua exchange-relation) precisely because the former is presupposed by the latter as its principle.

To not grasp the dialectic qua the law of mediation, and exchange in those precise terms is likely to lead one into the serious error of conflating and confounding the function of price (and its standard) with that of value (and its measure). Both being distinct functions of the one and the same money-form or money-commodity. That would compel one to erroneously insist, one way or another, that the market is the be all and end all of capital.

II

Marx’s exposition on value in Capital reveals two things at once. One, value is not transcendental. Two, value in being instituted, however, conceives of itself as being transcendental. This thinking of value by itself, which renders it transcendental (value qua value), is precisely the systemic operation of capital. Marx’s articulation of critique of value is intimately bound up with demonstrating what commodities say about themselves – or what value thinks of itself. In fact, what is important for the Marx of Capital is, first and foremost, the demonstration of what value says about itself. (See the citation with which this post begins.) Hence, Marx demonstrates how value is, in its own thinking, transcendental. He needs to do this because his critique of value is a deconstruction of precisely the transcendentality of value – or value as transcendental.

Marx’s critique of value begins by showing how value is, in its instituting, the abstraction of use-value, which is the irreplaceable, uncountable one (the singular). In other words, value, in thinking itself as being transcendental, is negation of this singularity of use-value. When Marx tells us that exchange-value – which is expression of value – has not an atom of use-value, even as use-value is the “material depository” of value/exchange-value, he is underscoring precisely that. He is drawing our attention to how value conceives of itself, or operationalises itself, as transcendental through a process of abstraction of use-value that is, therefore, the latter’s negation or disavowal.

Therefore, in terms of value conceiving of itself as transcendental – something that Marx demonstrates in the process of developing its critique — use-value is an absence or lack in value/exchange-value. But to the extent, that this negation, which renders that which is negated a lack, is made possible precisely by that which goes lacking the lack in question is constitutive of that which renders it a lack. In other words, Marx demonstrates how use-value is, in terms of value conceiving of itself as transcendental, a constitutive lack.

Value conceives itself as being transcendental (value qua value) that is expressed as and in the empirical (of exchange). This means value as such – that is, as the final instant of determination in its loneliness – conceals itself as the character of its (empirical) expressions. This also means that value as this concealed character of its expressions in and as the empirical (of things)  is also a concealment of the process of abstraction of the concrete (“historical character” of “meanings” as Marx says in Capital) by which it comes to be the (hidden) essence — the transcendental — of its (empirical) expressions, and the concrete as such (use-value as the singularity it is). In such circumstances, when value as the concealed character of its (empirical) expressions is revealed in its hiddenness, its (empirical) expressions come across as the mystifications or fetishisms/fetishes they are.

Therefore, value as this hidden character of its expressions in and as the empirical — which is value conceived by itself as being transcendental – in being revealed thus is not itself a fetish, a mystification or an ideology. It is, instead, the character of fetishism, mystification and/or ideology. Following Adorno’s explication of the dialectic in Negative Dialectics, we could characterise value as the truth of the untrue. Hence, value qua value, which is value conceived by itself as being transcendental, is not in itself an ideology but is the character, or truth, of ideology.

Besides, value in being revealed as this hidden character of its (empirical) expressions — which are themselves, concomitantly, demonstrated to be fetishes or ideologies — is also a revelation of both the process of abstraction of the concrete and its concomitant repression as that process of abstraction.

This clearly implies that revelation of value as the hidden character of its (empirical) expressions – i.e. its revelation as the character or truth of fetishism or ideology – is also a positing of the concrete qua the reversal of the process of abstraction of the concrete. Which means value in its revelation as the character of fetishism or ideology – or the truth of the untrue – must be grasped and envisaged as the division of this truth of the untrue into itself and truth as such.

III

It is this Alain Badiou points towards in Theory of the Subject, when he writes: “There are two dialectical matrices in Hegel. This is what turns the famous story of the shell and the kernel into such a dubious enigma. It is the kernel itself that is cracked, as is those peaches that are furthermore so irritating to eat whose hard internal object quickly cracks between one’s teeth into two pivoting halves.”

So, it is not simply about extracting the rational kernel of value (dialectic) from its mystical shell – which is ideology qua exchange-value as the (empirical) expression of the rational. Rather, this extraction of the rational kernel from the mystical shell is also the former’s division between itself as the rationality of the irrational and rationality as such. More precisely, it is the transformation of the rational kernel in its extraction. Althusser is quite clear on that score while explaining in an anti-Hegelian register “how”, in Marx, “can an extraction be an inversion?”.  He writes in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’: “…the mystical shell is nothing but the mystified form of the dialectic itself: that is, not a relatively external element of the dialectic (e.g. the ‘system’) but an internal element, consubstantial with the Hegelian dialectic. It is not enough, therefore, to disengage it from its first wrapping (the system) to free it. It must also be freed from a second, almost inseparable skin, which is itself Hegelian in principle (Grundlage). We must admit that this extraction cannot be painless; in appearance an unpeeling, it is really a demystification, an operation which transforms what it extracts.”

But what would this demystification – this extraction as transformation of that which is extracted – amount to? On this count Badiou’s Hegelianism against itself in his Theory of the Subject is brilliantly lucid. At any rate, it is more rigorous than what Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism is in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’. Badiou writes:

“In the peach there is still a kernel of the kernel, the bitter almond-shaped nut of its reproduction as a tree. But out of Hegel’s division, we will draw no secondary unity, not even one stamped with bitterness.” He then goes on to contend: “…at the heart of the Hegelian dialectic we must disentangle two processes, two concepts of movement, and not just one proper view of becoming that would have been corrupted by a subjective system of knowing. Thus:

“a) A dialectical matrix covered by the term of alienation; the idea of a simple term which unfolds itself in its becoming-other, in order to come back to itself as an achieved concept.

“b) A dialectical matrix whose operator is scission, and whose theme is that there is no unity that is not split. There is not the least bit of return into itself, nor any connection between the final and the inaugural….”

Therefore, unless value in its revelation as the hidden character of its (empirical) appearances – that is, in its revelation as the character of ideology or the truth of the untrue – is also the manoeuvre that divides it between itself and truth as such, which is the concrete as the process of abstraction of the concrete in reverse, it would amount to what “unfree mysticism” – Marx’s characterisation of the Stoics in his doctoral thesis on Epicurus and Democritus.

But what of the Marx of Capital – the one who is supposedly an incorrigible and an incurable Hegelian? In the section on fetishism of commodities, he provides us with his own version of Hegelianism against Hegel — one that indicates in its own way how the revelation of the truth of the untrue must also be a division between itself and truth as such. He writes: “The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality, from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.”

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Prayer as Revolution, Revolution as Prayer

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Prayer, thought in its extreme, is dystopian irony. That is because it’s a radically pessimistic act, and thus act as such in its pure immanence. The act of praying comes into being, and perseveres in itself as that act, precisely by disavowing all that is (and, in advance, all that can and will be ‘that is’). For, when one prays, is it not for that which is not? And does that, therefore, not render prayer in its impersonal genericness as the pursuit of the real that is not mortal reality? It is thus an act that can only proceed through disavowal of all mortal hope, and is yet an act. Prayer, therefore, is an earthly, mortal act that proceeds both despite and because of the lack of mortal hope.

That prayer is an act constitutive of the negation of all mortal hope, even as it proceeds affirmatively precisely through such hope, renders it a dystopia that is ironical in its dystopianism. Prayer, therefore, is an act that is in its affirmation ceaseless precisely because its motor is that of absolute, unmitigated pessimism. Or, conversely, prayer is a mortal act that is impelled by a hope that is in excess of all hope one can be mortally conscious of. It’s driven in its affirmation, to borrow Kafka’s messianic language, by the fact of there being infinite hope that is not for us. It is, to borrow from Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, an act that proceeds in and through the dialectic of “rumour and folly”. In other words, it’s the dialectic of faith and doubt — or faith as doubt .

Thus prayer is not merely faith, it’s reason too. For, reason pushed to its radical extreme is nothing but the excess of all mortal (and moral-normative) determinations, the hope they induce, and their power. Prayer as this radically pessimistic — this ironically dystopian — act is the mode of singularisation of faith and reason (faith as the coming-into-being of reason a la Thomas Muenzer). Prayer then is the act that doubts the consciousness of hope of its concrete mortal agents through which it must nevertheless necessarily proceed.

And what of redemption? Is that not the goal of prayer? Without doubt! But that goal of prayer is prayer itself: prayer as its own goal. Hence, redemption is the world as the act of prayer persevering in itself. More precisely, redemption is the world in and as the mode taking-place and thus in radical antagonism to world in and as the mode having-taken-place. For, insofar as the world in mode taking-place is interruption of the world in mode having-taken-place, it’s redemption. This is what a Spinozist utra-rationalist faith — seemingly an aporia — would arguably amount to. One that is far more rigorous in its post-phenomenological radicalism than the experiential and phenomenological radicalism of Nietzsche’s anti-rationalist “will to power”.

In such circumstances, one can speak legitimately of prayer as redemption — i.e. if prayer is not to remain mere illumination by existing only in the interiority of thought and experience, but appear as the in-existence/in-existing it thus is vis-a-vis the world in its existence/existing — only if one speaks the revolution. In other words, while prayer (as illumination) is the practice of thinking, and thus experiencing, the redemption to come, redemption, or revolution, is the prayer as its own immanent thought (or, experience) in action. So, revolution is fundamentally an affirmation, not a negation. Such affirmation is, however, not simply an assertion and celebration. It is, instead, the negativity or void in and as the time of its own determinate presentation or taking-place. and thus an excess of what exists. This is in radical contrast to negativity simply being the negation of what is. Revolution is, therefore, the actuality — or shall we say, profanation — of this ironically dystopian modality of prayer in its radical, and thus messianic and exilic, form. Therefore, revolution as its own affirmation can only be more revolution: Marx’s “revolution in permanence”.

Some random and provisional thoughts on Marxian conceptions of production

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Production as in capitalist production is, pace Marx, always immaterial. That value, as the realisation of production, is, in Marx, objective and thus immaterial proves that. Materiality would then reside only in the singularity/singularisation of destructive creation, as opposed to and in subtraction from creative destruction that is condemned to be productive. Hence, production, following the Marx of Althusser, is an effect of its own displacement and excess, and thus a symptom of its own negation, or better, absencing. Not for nothing does Marx see the recomposition of social relations of production — or the change/increase in the organic composition of capital — in terms of the liberation of developed productive forces from social relations of production that can no longer contain them. Therefore, the so-called productive forces, when seen in the longee-duree of their action, reveal themselves for what they are — active forces of transformative destruction in their reactive rendition. It’s only by grasping productive forces in this fashion can one think practice in its anti-historicist immanence in and against capital, which is the realisation of the abstraction of historicist thought. In such circumstances, radical transformation — transformation as novelty as opposed to transformation as mere change — can neither be the Hegelian circle of movement that seeks to neurotically conceal the brokenness of its own circularity, nor, for that matter, can it be the circle of Nietzschean/poststructuralist repetition, which is merely the obverse of Hegelianism because it openly embraces the brokenness of the circle and makes the broken circle into a virtue. [The circularity of Hegel’s dialectic is broken, and thus neurotic, because his dialectic is about the negation of the concretely realised absolute as already always being the historically concrete realisation of the absolute. This is what Hegel’s conception of employed negativity — negativity that is always already productively employed — basically amounts to.] In such circumstances, radical transformation can only be the ceaseless indivisibility of Spinozist extension — the conception of conatus at work in Spinoza’s thinking — that amounts to the suspension of both the Hegelian circle and its poststructuralist (‘repetitive’) obverse.

However, some astute Hegelian Marxists (Adorno. Moishe Postone and Zizek particularly come to mind) — to give them their radical due — think the schizz in Hegelian thinking in its extreme by mobilising the brokenness of Hegelian circularity against precisely the Hegelian circle itself in order to emancipate the former from the latter. For instance, Adorno’s conception of the dialectic in terms of its negativity shows us the way forward on how to think negativity (of the dialectic) in and as its own presentation, and thus as affirmative excess of the dialectic. His conception of “negative dialectics” — and constellation — demonstrates how one can think the dialectic as a mode of presentation of its own negativity. As a result, it is aligned, as it were, with a way of thinking the dialectic that sees and demonstrates it as the mode of presentation of the determinate excess and voiding of precisely the dialectic itself as an abstraction. Such articulation, or thinking, of the dialectic in terms of its excessive and antagonistic asymmetry is what renders it materialist. That is arguably why Pierre Macherey, a faithfully committed Althusserian-Marxist, reads Adorno’s concept of “negative dialectics” affirmatively as an elaboration of the Spinozist conception of conatus — the ceaseless indivisibility of extension –, albeit one that is articulated in and through the discursive register of Hegelian-Marxism. Which is why, one is compelled to ask, how much of Hegel there really is in such ‘Hegelian’ thinking? Is this not a way that even as it indisputably passes through Hegel takes us to his antipodes? And is this way, in being more Hegelian than Hegel, not already something entirely different? After all, this Adornoesque move to mobilise the brokenness of Hegelian circularity against precisely the Hegelian circle itself in order to emancipate the former from the latter transforms the former into a quality that is radically distinct from that of brokenness-of-the-circle. This new quality is nothing but Spinoza’s conatus as the ceaseless indivisibility of extension — this is also how Marx thought “real history” as the infinity of beginnings in their ceaseless indivisibility. Hence, one feels prompted to ask, together with Macherey, “Hegel or Spinoza”? And answer with him; Spinoza of course; but the Spinoza who comes to us through Hegel and after him

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