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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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Phenomenologies of Suffering, Phenomenologies of Joyousness: Beyond the Moral Voluntarism of Anti-Capitalism

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Theoretical practices on the working-class left today must be completely immersed in the spirit of chapter one of Capital, Volume I, because that is the only way in which militants of proletarian-revolutionism can hope to cleanse their politics of anticapitalism of the dross of moral voluntarism that has, for a while now, thoroughly obscured and blunted its critical edge. This is particularly important in this new conjuncture of capital because its openly barbaric character compels its so-called antagonists to hold on ever more tightly to a morally voluntaristic anti-capitalism.

In the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, Marx is at his rigorous best, as it were. Here he kind of prefigures his critique of political economy in its entirety by demonstrating political economy or capital in its basic cell-form. The spirit, and orientation, of the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, is critically significant because in that chapter Marx demonstrates with great acuity how commodity, as the basic unit of capital, has a two-fold nature: use-value on one hand. and, on the other, exchange-value and value (and thus also the bipolarity of labour between useful concrete labour and human labour in the abstract). Therefore, the moving contradiction — or the internally schizzed condition of social being — that is capital implies, and Marx demonstrates as much, that while exchange-value (which is representation of value) tends to be a negation of use-value, use-value in its concrete qualitative singularity is the necessary material depository/bearer of exchange-value. This is the paradox, or moving contradiction, that is commodity. For, even as exchange-value tends to be a total negation of use-value, use-value cannot be totally negated as that would cause exchange-relations themselves to disappear.

This then means that capital as the actuality of the law of value — which is the rationalisation of exchange as social relations — is not the elimination of use-values through their subsumption into exchange-relations; or, which is the same thing, subsumption by the law of value. Rather, capital as the subsumption of use-values and their concomitant concrete labours (and their immanent affectivity in its diverse experiences of singularity) into exchange-relations is their de-singularising instrumentalisation by the latter. This is most clearly evident in Marx’s explication of the elementary value-form. Here he shows how value — which is an abstraction from the materiality of use-value because it comes into being only in, as and through rationalisation of exchange of use-values into social relations – can express itself only in an exchange-relation, which is the appearance of a value equation, and thus through its embodiment (equivalent value-form being that embodiment). This embodiment, needless to say, is possible only through the instrumentalisation of the sheer bodily form of use-value. Concomitant with such instrumentalisation of use-values, which is clearly not their elimination or total negation, is the regimentation (and, once again, not elimination) of their respective concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and affective experiences.

We can, in a more obvious kind of way, say that concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations as diverse forces of affectivity are regimented precisely because they first come into being within capital by militating against it. In other words, capital, as the actuality of the law of value, is possible only as the regimentation of that which militates against it as that regimentation. That is why capital expands in order to reproduce itself. And it reproduces itself in and through its recomposition. And it can recompose, and thus reproduce, itself only when it is determinately subverted and destroyed. For, recomposition of capital is its reactive response — via regimentation of concrete labours in their singular subjective operations as diverse affective forces — to its determinate subversion caused by the militation of those concrete labours in their singular subjective operations. In other words, capital is always the incompleteness of its own destruction. Thus capital as its own continual recomposition — and thus expanded reproduction — is the continuous hypostatising of the effects — or limits — of its own determinate destruction.

What Althusser terms subjectivation is arguably nothing but this regimentation and instrumentalisation of concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and immanent affective experiences. This regimentation, or instrumentalisation, is conceptualised as subjectivation because it is registered in and as the effect of a subject that is produced by such regimentation (or instrumentalisation) of concrete labour in its singular subjective operation as an affective force. Hence, subjectivation is the truncation of concrete labour as singular affective force in its subjective operation. This is the source of the various experiences, and phenomenologies, of suffering and pain in capitalism. Thus, phenomenologies and experiences of suffering are not on account of affective forces (as the multiple singularities they are) being completely absorbed into, and totally negated by, capital as an entity external to them. Rather, phenomenologies of suffering stem from the truncation and thus de-singularisation, rather than complete elimination, of multiple affective singularities in their concreteness. In other words, a phenomenology of suffering must be grasped not as something that stems from the elimination of an affective singularity in its operation, but as something that is so precisely on account of its instrumentalised and truncated, and thus partial and de-singularising, operation. A phenomenology of suffering is, therefore, not actually a phenomenology of suffering. From the vantage-point of Marx’s explication of commodity — and labour — as something that is characterised by its two-fold nature, it’s, instead, a truncated, interrupted and partialised phenomenology of joyousness.

Clearly then, for the Marx of Capital — particularly in the first chapter of volume I — capital as an objectivity is the operationalised demonstration of its own immanent critique. Althusser is, therefore, entirely correct in observing that Marx’s critique of political economy shows capital in its objectivity to be a symptomatic demonstration of its own Real-impossible (“process without subject”). That is, however, not to suggest, in the manner of an obdurate determinist, that capital as the symptomatic demonstration of its own immanent critique and thus its own immanent impossibility is also the gradual actualisation of the Real-impossible. That more and more of capital will be less and less of it. To think the actualisation of the Real-impossible in gradualist terms is, in fact, an absurd paradox. Such evolutionist social democracy is not at all the point of symptomatic reading that is Marx’s critique of political economy. The point of such symptomatic reading, instead, is to actualise that which is revealed by the symptom. That, in other words, means, subjectification (as opposed to subjectivation) of the immanent critique of capital — which capital as an objectivity is shown to demonstrate or symptomatise — into an active political force of desubjectivation. And that is precisely the reason why concrete labours as diverse affective forces in and as their singular subjective operations must be conceptually articulated — of course, by going through the dialectic of phenomenologies of suffering and phenomenologies of joyousness to their antipodes — as an indivisible post-phenomenological construction of austere and neutral extensionality.

In such circumstances, it would be deeply erroneous, and politically unproductive, to not see the dynamic of subsumption of living/concrete labour by dead/abstract labour (value) as a dialectic. [Regardless of how crisis-ridden, precarious, and thus tautological this dialecticity might have become, the mode of the dynamic called capital will always be dialectical.] And to grasp this dynamic as a dialectic is to come to terms with the fact that subsumption of concrete labour into the web of exchange-relations is also equally about the internalisation of the rationality of exchange-relations (or the law of value) by concrete labour as a singular affective force in and as its subjective operation. That is the reason why politics animated and orientated by an approach that stems from Marx’s critique of political economy can have little to do with ethics as politics, and yet is something that is not completely exhausted by the political. Instead, such politics can, and must, only be the indivisible singularity of the ethico-political, which is basically the dialectic as the mode of determinate presentation of the antidialectic, or its own asymmetry. This amounts to is ascesis, as care of the self, being articulated in its indispensable integrality to the operation of the political. This is how, following Alain Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus, one can think politics as the operation of its own immanent thought, and as thought-relation-to-the-real respectively.

Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is

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A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.

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