Reading Capital (somewhere outside the General Law of Accumulation)

What should one do with a reading of Marx now? It seems the last fifty years have been a long detour through psychoanalytic, structuralist, and deconstructive readings. Blame Althusser. He took up Jacques Lacan’s insistence that one should return to the foundational texts of a discourse, Freud for Lacan, Marx for Althusser. Many people have thought or been told Read Marx during these decades, perhaps even by people who never read Marx themselves, an encouragement that Mike Davis recounts recently: Read Marx! Okay. How?
That question—how?—has given rise to a small but persistent industry of guides to Marx, some academic, some popular. In academia, the answer to how? was answered by post-structuralist urges themselves often informed by Lacanian ideas, beginning with Althusser himself. Readings of Marx are always re-readings, of course, and re-readings are always interpretations and redefinitions. Read Marx! But, you know, read him using someone else to make sense of it.

That’s not entirely fair, but it’s also not entirely wrong. Attempts to send readers back to the language of Marx’s texts, for instance, need other theoretical supports, whether analyzing his rhetorical devices, his metaphors, his literary references. These are helpful turns but they open up fundamental questions about hermeneutic method: how do we interpret a text? What are the processes and theoretical supports for our so-called “close reading”? This is all the more pressing when it isn’t clear that a critic means to offer a psychoanalytic reading of Marx, or a deconstructive reading, or a Spinozist reading…

To answer the how, I think we have to answer another question, one which is more important but often seems to go unasked: Why? I mean, I started a band after I bought The Velvet Underground and Nico. Capital has the same effect on people, but that doesn’t justify another reading (or writing of a reading). So why do it?
In all fairness, most of the reasons why come down to a question of the writer’s now and Marx’s then. How can I make Marx’s ideas applicable to my world? Such an approach is effectively what Marxism means. Yet that approach founders, I think, on something we can see when we read Capital, volume one carefully. Marx’s only completed volume does not mean to describe capitalism in order to demystify its workings. No. That would make it a piece of political economy, not a critique of political economy. What is it, then?

It extracts categories from capitalism necessary to imagine its overcoming.
The categories that Marx devises in Capital—surplus-value, constant and variable capital, means of production and labor-power—are not useful for capitalists, and capitalists who know Marx’s terms and analysis of their interaction are unlikely to be any better at the work of managing their production than those who haven’t.

The divergence between Marx’s notion of surplus-value and the capitalist idea of profit offers a useful example of the problem posed by his terminology. Marx sometimes treats surplus-value and profit as the same, sometimes as different. The rate of surplus-value would seem to indicate the profit rate, yet it does not, and Marx is never terribly concerned about the divergence between the two categories, even in the notes collected in volume three. Yet Marx’s famous ”falling rate of profit“ is for all intents and purposes the falling rate of surplus-value: the continual accumulation of capital in means of production leads to the devaluation of living labor. The result is that labor-power is worth less and less, a vertiginous devaluation as capitalism presses itself to produce more in order to accumulate more and thus, perversely, devaluing labor-power as a result of its persistent drive to accumulate. Marx clearly sees the two terms as distinct, yet this intermittent use of them as interchangeable means that Marxist economists spent an inordinate amount of time trying to account for profit rates. And that’s before we introduce Pierro Sraffa into the mix.
Marx is unconcerned about this terminological distinction because the rate of profit is beside the point. His categories and analysis are not meant to fine-tune capitalist economies but to give workers the tools to take those economies apart.

The fundamental categorical division for this work is between use-value and exchange-value. It’s no surprise that the nineteenth century’s other famous socialist, William Morris, grasped the importance of this distinction in Marx more than any other. It’s the one that matters. Capitalism produces use-values almost incidentally—it needs use-values to be part of its commodities, but it is not concerned with use-values as such. What capitalism wants is exchange-value, pure value, money for money’s sake. It will consume labor-power and means of production without concern for what is enough because exchange-value lacks the very concept of enough. This is why Marx begins Capital with exchange and the system of signification which structures capitalism. Exchange in capitalism is essentially a linguistic system, one which seems to be capable of producing new values endlessly by exchanging equivalents within a closed system. Exchange-value is endlessly generative, like language.

But if exchange in capitalism is like a language, it is one that will talk us all to death.
It is this indifference to material wealth that Marx wants us to understand about capitalism. This, more than anything else, even surplus-labor or the falling rate of profit, explains why capitalism once produces more material wealth than prior modes of production and terrifying immiseration. Marx uncovers the operations of this pair, which is to some degree unconscious on the part of capitalists. What matters isn’t their lack of consciousness, though. It is our understanding that we can divorce material wealth from exchange-value. We can organize production for use rather than exchange. We can determine how much surplus-value, if any, is necessary to extract in production for a society to reproduce itself. We can control the anarchy of production for the benefit of humanity and the earth.

And Marx is insistent throughout capital that these are the two agents who we should care about. Human labor and the natural world are two of the three productive forces which capitalist production uses to expand its powers. Capital offers a set of categories and analysis which allow us to imagine social, political, and economic forms of life which would place care for humanity and the earth at their core. This would alter the third productive force which Marx highlights as yoked to capitalism, scientific and technical knowledge, by allowing it to develop in the service of care for the human and natural world. In all, then, use-value, along with the other central concepts and analyses of Capital, lay the ground work for a new ecological social world, one which values the well-being of life and its needs rather than the extraction of an inhuman value for indeterminate ends. That is the point of Capital and of reading it as well.

One can see this best in Marx’s persistent focus on metabolism. The idea would initially seem to come from the Physiocrats, the first economists to theorize the connections between different forms of production and consumption. Throughout his work, Marx exhibits a surprising (for him) amount of respect for the Physiocrats, especially Quesnay, and Marx’s analysis of social circulation in volume two of Capital recalls Quesnay’s table of circulation and his account of a national economy as a physical body with the flow of goods, services, and finances as its blood flow (Quesnay was trained as a physician). Yet Marx’s notion of metabolism is not limited to the human economy like Quesnay’s. Quesnay does make agricultural production the source of all value, which connects his circulation to the natural world. Marx’s metabolism, however, begins with the interchange between these productive forces (forces that are use-values and create more use-values) in order to show us how production organized by exchange will inevitably deplete these productive forces. This is the point of the analysis.

It also explains why Marx recurs to discussions of metabolic arguments when it is not in any way necessary for his argument. This is most apparent in his discussion of the value of labor-power. Marx recurs to labor-power’s value as the cost of its means of subsistence:

The value of labour-power, i.e., the labour-time requisite to produce labour-power, determines the labour-time necessary for the reproduction of that value. If one working-hour be embodied in sixpence, and the value of a day’s labour-power be five shillings, the labourer must work 10 hours a day, in order to replace the value paid by capital for his labour-power, or to produce an equivalent for the value of his daily necessary means of subsistence. Given the value of these means of subsistence, the value of his labour-power is given;1 and given the value of his labour-power, the duration of his necessary labour-time is given. The duration of the surplus labour, however, is arrived at, by subtracting the necessary labour-time from the total working day. Ten hours subtracted from twelve, leave two, and it is not easy to see, how, under the given conditions, the surplus labour can possibly be prolonged beyond two hours. (430 in penguin; 318 in MECW)

His reference there is is to a stack of political economy texts: Petty, Turgot, and Malthus. Considering his account of Malthus later on, the choices here are curious. I do not believe Marx wants us to understand that the cost of means of subsistence determine the value of labor-power for capitalists. He himself states this later on. Capitalists begin with an amount of capital, divide it into constant and variable capital, and invest it with an set of rate of profit in mind. This rate of profit drives their labor practices and extraction of surplus value. Marx doesn’t need the cost of means of subsistence to describe this process at all. His discussion sometimes has the curious suggestion that capitalists factor workers’ cost of living into their production decisions, which is obviously untrue.

The discussion of surplus-value is so abstract because Marx wants to make a point that would be much harder to make with a more accurate and complicated analysis of market economies: there is a distinction between necessary and surplus labor. The presentation indicates that workers are somehow able to produce enough value to pay their wages in one part of the day and surplus in another. This is nonsensical by Marx’s own analysis. The problem with capitalism, Marx rightly insists, is that production is directed toward exchange, not use. And in capitalism, Marx says, use only takes place after exchange. This is the realization of capital. One cannot, then, produce means of subsistence or the value equivalent of means of subsistence within production under capitalism. It’s not possible! What workers producer are commodities which have yet to be sold—that is, realized—and which may become at any moment unexchangeable—that is, unrealizable. The problem of capitalism is that it has delinked production from use by inserting an irrational, impersonal, and anarchic process of exchange. Workers produce the EXPECTED EQUIVALENT OF THEIR WAGES, or rather the equivalent of the capitalist’s variable capital.

But that’s not Marx’s point or his interest. What he wants us to see is, again, simple: workers need means of subsistence, and any ethical ecological system of production would have to account for means of subsistence (not as bare subsistence but as the means of living). Capitalism makes this a game of equivalents and their reproduction, of signs swapping with one another. If we want another world, we have to get past that.

Polanyi via Stiegler

I recently finished Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy, and was struckby his argument that the role of machinery in economic production, a la Simondon, means “it is possible for the individual of the technical system to proceed in a way that is contrary to the individuation of social systems and psychic apparatuses” (99). In essence, this means that the social world becomes a process focused on the production of technical individuals, and that this has nothing to do with human individuation but rather privileges economic production in and of itself.

As I pondered Stiegler’s idea, though, it seemed more and more familiar. Isn’t this argument, in its basic contours, similar to the double movement that Karl Polanyi describes in The Great Transformation? It’s certainly similar. Using anthropological research, Polanyi begins from the claim that “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships” (46). Yet the rise of the idea of a self-regulating market effectively disembeds economic relationships from social relationships and raises the economic as an imagined fundamental nature that precedes and structures the social, rather than the far more longstanding human organization of economic production to meet the requirements of social relationships. How the economic was disembedded from the social, and the reactions of different social institutions to this disembedding, form the heart of Polanyi’s discussion. His focus on the Speenhamland system and the subsequent New Poor Laws means to highlight how poverty went from a problem embedded in a set of social relations (between landowners, the business class, and paupers) to a structural goad in which hunger forces people to work for wages.

To my mind, Polanyi’s argument offers tangible examples of what Stiegler calls—though clearly thinking of more recent events—“the subordination of the technical to the economic system” (102). The key here is how we understand this notion of a technical system. Stiegler explains it as “a dynamic system in which there takes place… a process of individuation” (99). In his commentary on Simondon, David Scott more helpfully explains it to be the system in which norms and values are produced. In effect, it is the realm of subjectivity and culture. He explains, “the subject belongs to the particular reality posing the problem; the technical object’s invention resolves the problem” (196). Hence the technical system should mediate the production of individuals and collectives, and when it becomes subordinate to the economic, the process of individuation becomes corrosive, dissociative, atomizing—what Stiegler calls “a principle of carelessness” (103). Moreover, as the process of individuation slips away from the social, if not the human entirely, it becomes bound to what Marx would recognize as capitalism’s production for production’s sake.

Polanyi makes a related point when he argues that “it was not the coming of the machine as such but the invention of elaborate and therefore specific machinery and plant which completely changed the relationship of the merchant to production” (74-5, emphasis added). One must be careful not to misread this passage as a claim of technological and/or structural determinism: Polanyi insists that the state produced the notion of a self-regulating market. Yet because his focus falls squarely on the creation of a “free” labor market, he does not return to this point. That leaves us hanging, at least in terms of this discussion. What are the norms and values that allow the creation of a very particular technical object, what Marx called constant capital and Polanyi here specifies as plant? The effects on labor through poor law reform offers one view of its effects on individuation, but the more pressing issue would seem to be the role of greed. Albert Hirschman’s work lays out this ideological shift as an agon between the passions, but that’s not quite to the point either. Why the shift to plant? Is it an extension of the disciplinary structure, a mirror to the problems of poor house organization? And what does it mean that, at least for revolutionaries like Marx, plant was also something to be valued? I’ve analyzed this as an attempt to escape the slave/animal/dehumanizing notion of labor elsewhere. But is this not also a question of character? In other words, rather than trace how a technological shift or environmental shift affected character—i.e., the way Foucault has typically been deployed in literary studies—examine how a particular notion of character (and the social world produced alongside it) allows the economic system to subsume the technical system.

My first book tried something along these lines by considering how novels embedded in the financial innovations of the Great Moderation pioneered discourses and practices that could make service workers more pliable and reliable workers. One of the key issues I had in making my argument was causation. What I wanted to get at was something like the process of dual or multi-causation in Simondon—individuals and social relations are produced simultaneously, and then subsequently modulate. This is why genealogy matters for Foucault, right? The disciplinary individual/society pair is both cause and effect. Foucault sets it out as the resolution of a problem that resides in the heart of a factory-based society, yet as a way of acting, organizing, and thinking, it is less the solution than what we might think of as a set of necessary predispositions that the appearance of technical plant crystallizes as its solution. Biopower, then, operates at yet another level of individuation (or perhaps we might think of individuation as multi-dimensional, with biopower operating on another axis from that of discipline), crystallizing those aspects that solve its problem while leaving operative those of discipline, and so on and so on until or unless these processes of individuation come into conflict or the milieus alter in a way that renders prior modes of individuation impossible.

Why does this matter? In terms of character, it raises the question: what was this for? What problem did it solve? How do components of those resolutions continue to operate, or operate over time? In particular, and for reasons that have to do with research I’m conducting now, what does it mean that notions of character become so closely bound to the rise of military volunteerism in the second half of the century? Polanyi argues that one should differentiate national and international finance during this period because national financial interests profited from war and instability while international financial interests (e.g., the Rothschilds) profited from peace. To the extent that international financial interests helped float national debt and shares of various infrastructure projects, those institutions needed stability. The panic of 1890, due largely to the heavy involvement of Barings in Argentina, supports such an argument. Yet its hardly credible to ignore the role of British military power at this moment to threaten countries that hinted at defaulting on their debts. And the Opium Wars were precisely about opening new markets…

I began trying to think through what character really means as a discourse—hence Mill—and for literature asking how it works, how one lives in it, feels it—and now it seems as though it may be part of the milieu necessary for the aggressive militarism of the second Empire.

Works Cited

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 1944. 

Scott, David. Gilbert Simondon’s Psychic and Collective Individuation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014.

Stiegler, Bernard. For a Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Daniel Ross. Malden, MA: Polity, 2015.

Mill via Simondon

All paths in my theoretical research right now seem to lead back to Gilbert Simondon, who figures especially large in Massumi’s Ontopower and Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy.

 [I’ll note here that I have some reservations about Stiegler’s argument that Marx’s notion of proletarianization can be fully captured in what Stiegler calls “the grammatization of gesture” (39) and the subsequent externalization of memory in the technical object. It’s not that the idea isn’t sensible, but it is without a doubt a Simondonian reinterpretation of Marx rather than an exposition of it as such. Marx values the kind of machinic externalization that Stiegler highlights because the centralization of labor power in machines offers an opportunity for expropriation. In Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse, when he discusses what we would understand to be proletarianization, Marx initially focuses on profit-taking and wage-relations before coming to the conclusion that machinic externalization matters most for these political reasons. The reason I emphasize this difference—and I discuss this in chapter one of my book—is that it elides issues of domination in capitalism, most especially their effects on the construction of gendered and racialized subjects. Much as I appreciate Stiegler’s discussion of grammatization and what he calls the technical individual—highlighting the individuation of technical objects and the elision of the humans from contemporary processes of individuation and collectivity—this aspect of his argument threatens to smooth over historical and theoretical problems that we need to think through in discussions of service economies.]

But what does Simondon have to do with Mill? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully yet, but it does seem to me that their theories of character and individuation bear interesting similarities. In part, this seems to be an effect, at least for Simondon, of Spinoza’s influence. I’ve read more about Spinoza than I like to think about, but this account of Spinoza from Pierre-François Moreau in David Scott’s book on Simondon was particularly striking after my reflections on character in Mill:

Moreau writes: “The feeling of finitude is the condition for the feeling of eternity and even, in a sense, it is the feeling of eternity.” Moreau believes that it is this same movement which in Spinoza permits the soul’s acceding to necessity while conscious that not everything is immediately necessary; as a result, it confronts its powerlessness, cultivating the aspiration for an escape from contingency. (81)

Simondon, Scott argues, discovers in the process of individuation the drive of necessity—something much like Spinoza’s conatus—as well as what he calls “the feeling that acknowledges the failure of individuation to ever complete itself, to be not yet completed in the collective” (81). This incompleteness is central to Simondon’s understanding of individuation, not as a lack but rather as an excess that allows new points of individuation to transpire. Rather than lack, individuation contains an incompatibility that opens not into a pre-existing collective but rather to the pre-individual. The results thus describe the constant process of individuation as the construction of individuals, subjects, and collectives from a field of the pre-individual.

On its face, this sounds very little like Mill. Certainly, Mill follows the hylomorphism that Simondon’s project attacks, and his imagined Ethology confronts without solution many of the problems of the constitution of individuals and societies that Simondon’s approach means to solve. Yet the feeling of incompleteness in Simondon suggests Mill’s feeling of moral freedom, the feeling that one is at once subject necessity and yet could do otherwise. The two notions are genetically different insofar as Simondon’s incompleteness means an embrace of difference and change as part of the individual, whereas Mill’s character is so determined by circumstances and habits that change is at best a distant and difficult possibility. And this is without attempting to account for the multiple levels of individuation and subjectivation in Simondon.

Yet I want to imagine Mill’s character, if only for a moment, in a different way, sans passive voice. What difference is there in saying character is formed by habits, rather than habits form character? Take habits as impersonal, character as a result of a cluster of habits, society as the habits of a cluster of characters. The contingencies that thwart Mill’s attempts to imagine a workable Ethology become a space of potentials…

Is it in Mill, if pushed hard enough, if turned in unexpected ways?