February 16, 2008


Filed under: Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:05 pm

I’m years from being able to do anything with these suggestions. But the blog’s for getting things off my chest, and so:

Karl Polanyi, ‘The Great Transformation’, p. 75. “The crucial point is this: labor, land, and money are essental elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them.”

Critics of economics, or of market economics, tend to see capitalism as betraying or concealing the true realities of our social existence. The methods of valuation that are essential to the operation of a market economy destroy the valuations that should be guiding our politics and our lives.

I endorse this view. But I only partly endorse it. One of my strategies in this blog is going to involve its rejection. On the one hand, yes: strip away the lies that generate our vision of the market economy. But on the other hand: trace out the full implications of that vision. My goal here is Derridean: to wholly inhabit the philosophical system we wish to deconstruct. I see economics’ treatment of money as closely parallelling metaphysics’ treatment of the sign. And if economics proposes that everything can be seen in terms of commodities (which is also to say, in terms of money), I say – fine, let’s see how far you’re willing to take that idea. In my opinion, the commodification of everything is, for economics, unthinkable without a foundation that escapes commodification. I propose that we attempt to eliminate that foundaton – and see what this does to the concept of the commodity.


  1. My goal here is Derridean: to wholly inhabit the philosophical system we wish to deconstruct.

    Exactly. 🙂

    This may be right, as well:

    In my opinion, the commodification of everything is, for economics, unthinkable without a foundation that escapes commodification.

    depending on how you understand “commodification”. My approach has been more to see “the commodity” as itself internally torn – and identity of identity and non-identity – and therefore to see many of the attempts to oppose commodity to something that sits outside the commodity, as perhaps being better or more effectively expressed through a redefinition of the category of the commodity itself, such that “commodification” becomes always already an internally contradictory form. This, though, relates to a definition of the commodity that doesn’t equate it with money – if I were starting from that equation, I’d probably formulate it more closely to what you’ve said here. But these are differences of emphasis – I agree with the underlying impulse of what you’ve said above, with the basic concept of critique.

    Comment by N Pepperell — February 17, 2008 @ 6:27 am

  2. “I agree with the underlying impulse of what you’ve said above” – I can’t tell you how glad this makes me. I’ve been reading your blog with enormous interest and sympathy – it’s very flattering for me that you feel able to agree with the ‘underlying impulse’ here.

    “This, though, relates to a definition of the commodity that doesn’t equate it with money”. You’re right, it’s too simplistic to equate commodities with money. It would, perhaps, be more accurate to say that money is a ‘pure’ commodity; or that it is the principle of the commodity or of commodification ‘itself’, freed from its instantiation in actual commodities. Another way of putting this would be by deploying the (problematic) distinction between use and exchange value. Commodities are (let’s say, provisionally) a ‘synthesis’ of use value and exchange value. An object which has only use value isn’t a commodity – because an object only becomes a commodity once it enters the capitalist system of exchange – which is to say, once it is given an exchange value. Money (if we follow the basic or, perhaps, merely manifest) Marxist story, is a commodity that as it were ‘loses’ its use-value. It is only ‘useful’ in its social role as a medium of exchange, store of value, etc. Money is thus a commodity which only exists as exchange value – that is, which only exists in its ‘commodified’ aspect.

    Now this story is riven with contradictions. (I’m still not really clear regarding just how many of these are, as it were, intentional aspects of Marx’s dialectical exposition – but I’m sure plenty of them are; this is something I’ve learnt from your blog :-)) Basically, it’s far from clear that Marx is able to distinguish between use- and exchange-value in any kind of coherent way; because exchange-value is itself a use (money is useful as a medium of exchange), but also because use-value is always already socialised – that is, always already partakes of the social mechanisms that create exchange-value, and that pure use-value supposedly escapes. This is basically the bottom line of Derrida’s critique of Marx: that all production involves fetishism, that we can’t escape fetishism.

    Now what this means, in my opinion, is that we are in fact unable to distinguish, at a theoretical level, between money and commodities. At a practical level we can distinguish between them just fine; and this practical level will be the level at which most of our critique will be conducted; but we must also engage with economic theory, and here the distinction between commodities and money is, in my opinion, at least given certain pervasive assumptions (assumptions shared, as far as I can tell, by both Marxist and classical/neoclassical economics) unsustainable.

    So I agree with you entirely when you say that “the commodity” is “itself internally torn” – but my strategy – the strategy I’m trying to articulate in the post – is to use this internal contradiction as a way of expanding the concept of ‘money’ – or, if you prefer, of ‘commodification’; of ability-to-be-exchanged – such that it incorporates the entire economy; or, alternatively, saying that everything is always already commodified. This strategy, in my opinion, parrallels Derrida’s (notorious) philosophical strategy of expanding the meaning of the word ‘text’ until it incorporates all thought, all experience, and all the objects of experience. Which is why I’ve made play in the past in this blog with Derrida’s idea of infinite substitutibility.

    Now I call this a strategy because in lots of important ways it’s complete bollocks. There is, self-evidently, a distinction between money and commodities, and between commodities and non-commodities. Our critique needs to be conducted at two different levels – one level at which the distinction between commodities and non-commodities collapses, and another level at which it works just fine. And it’s far from clear how we’re to distinguish between these levels – lots of economic theory is conducted at what I’ve called the ‘practical’ level at which it isn’t, or at least does’t seem to be, vulnerable to this strategy. So we need to be a bit careful about how we proceed.

    But that’s what’s behind my assimilation of money and commodities in the post.


    You also mention “an identity of identity and non-identity”. This phrase haunts my nightmares :). I really don’t know my Hegel – I must spend much more time with him. But from what little I know, it seems to me that this phrase encapsulates the difference between Hegelianism and deconstruction. To put it very crudely (and, perhaps, completely unintelligibly): deconstruction aims to demonstrate ‘the non-identity of the identity of identity and non-identity’. That’s the difference between Derridean differance and the Hegelian Absolute. But differance is always in danger of becoming just another version of the Absolute, because the Hegelian dialectic can always attempt to assimilate the fundamental ‘non-identity’ deconstruction proposes with the ‘non-identity’ which is, as the original phrase put it, identical with identity. !!!

    I can’t imagine that makes any sense. I really need to spend some more time with Hegel. But then I really need to spend more time with just about every writer.

    Sorry to go on at such length. This is all stuff that’s been on my mind, and your remarks set me off. Thanks again for your comment…

    Comment by praxisblog — February 17, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  3. I’m obviously the last person to whom anyone needs to apologise for going on at length 😉 While we’re apologising, though, I’ll toss in one of my own: for some reason, I am completely wrecked from an event that took place the past weekend, and so am in a period where I’m really just sort of trundling for thoughts… I like what you’re outlining a great deal – apologies if I don’t quite find the way to express it.

    I should say though that, although I tend obsessively to write about Marx and Hegel at the moment, this is an artefact of the work I’m doing for the thesis – if it comes off at all as any kind of insistence that other people ought to think through either of these authors, I don’t mean this. I was commenting to someone the other day that I’ll be relieved when the thesis is done, and I can go back to writing things on other people 🙂 These guys have been my way into a particular problem, but aren’t… how do I put this… I’m not a Hegelian (the “identity of identity of non-identity” was intended as a joke on myself above, rather than as a serious theoretical comment – a silly gesture on my part, as voice tone doesn’t carry across into writing… apologies – I wasn’t trying to be obscure) and I don’t actually take Marx to be a Hegelian – I just think Hegelian gestures in Marx’s writing manage to make him all but unreadable unless those gestures are brought to the surface, so that it then becomes possible to confront his underlying argument. The underlying argument or metatheory is almost more Durkheimian than Hegelian – if one can imagine a sort of critical, non-functionalist Durkheim, who argues that the ways in which we collectively behave shape at a very abstract and tacit level the categories in terms of which we perceive and think about our collective world, and then does a sort of phenomenological analysis of the qualitative characteristics of those practice-thoughts. So the movement of Marx’s argument – what he’s doing, when he criticises – isn’t quite the same “dialectical” sort of move that results in Hegel’s Absolute: “dialectical” thought is positioned in the first chapter – alongside empiricism and “transcendental” forms of argument – as forms of thought expressive of the fetish. It’s therefore an object of critique in Capital.

    The thing that interests me most in all this, though – and this gets back to your comment above about not being able to escape fetishism, and also your comment in the original post about your ambivalence about forms of critique that view capitalism as veiling something “real”: I take the argument about the fetish (and I should indicate that I’m pushing Marx to take the argument in this sense – depending on your point of view, either doing a very sympathetic read of Marx is trying to do, or forcing the text 😉 ), to be, not an argument about a veil that covers over a “reality” we need to uncover, but rather an argument about a distinctive shape of social experience whose practical genesis Marx wants to understand. In other words, I take him to be criticising political economy, not so much for failing to “see through” the fetish, but rather for failing to grasp (or even try to grasp) the distinctive forms of practice that render the fetish available as a (complex and multivocal) way of being in the world. I see Marx’s own analysis, then, not as a claim to have stepped “outside” the fetish in order to look back “objectively” on capitalism, but rather as an attempt to dig into this form – on both a conceptual and practical level – in order to draw out its internal tensions and potentials.

    This is really inadequate as written – too tired to make much sense tonight 🙂 The final thing I wanted to say is that, although I talk a great deal on Marx, I’m not advocating what he does as wholeheartedly as I suspect it generally sounds – apologies for this – I worry about coming off as though I’m lecturing everyone to go read Marx, whereas I’m really just talking incessantly about Marx because it’s what I need to do right now to figure him out… I’m trying to bracket my own critique until I feel I’ve developed a decent case for the strongest reading of him I can offer – but this doesn’t mean in any sense that I think everyone needs to do this. I like the work the you’re unfolding, and hope I haven’t come across as suggesting it needs to unfold in any way other than what it is… 🙂

    Comment by N Pepperell — February 18, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  4. “I hope I haven’t come across…” Not at all – though that would be fine! Re: Marx, I’m really grateful for your discussions of him; whether or not the reading you’re proposing is one you yourself would fully endorse, I find it very illuminating.

    What you say about Durkheim is interesting – unfortunately the little Durkheim I’ve read, I read many years ago, and I might as well have spent the time twirling my moustache for all I can remember. But this does sound like, perhaps, a more useful way of understanding Marx’s concept of the social production of consciousness than seeing him altogether through Hegelian spectacles. You know Marx just massively better than I do, but it’s striking, to me, that Marx speaks of our social existence determining consciousness, not our material existence. Speaking of dialectical materialism is in this respect, perhaps, a bit of a red herring…

    But I’ll stop blathering on about things I don’t understand. Oh, no, wait – that’s the point of this blog… 🙂

    Comment by praxisblog — February 18, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

  5. On the issue of the “social” versus the “material”: the constellation of associations around certain terms have changed significantly since Marx was writing – this same shift also catches the term “science” and some other key terms I’m too groggy to remember at the moment, which contribute to confusions over what Marx is trying to do. “Materialism” carries a strong connotation of “secularism” and is opposed to religion or idealism – to notions of transcendent forces determining the course of history. Marx’s conception of materialism is therefore quite a bit broader than what most people would associate with the term today.

    Marx does tend to emphasise social practices associated with “material” reproduction in our contemporary sense – although again his conception is still fairly broad (he’ll speak somewhere in Capital about political force being a “productive force”, for example).

    I tend, though, to be less concerned with terms like “dialectical materialism”, which loom much larger over the subsequent history of Marxism, than they do in Marx’s work itself. Many of the metatheoretical commitments associated with Marx, occur only in passing in his work. I tend to derive my sense of his metatheory from what he does in his analysis, rather than from his fairly rare explicit discussions of what he takes himself doing, which are often articulated situationally or polemically.

    Comment by N Pepperell — February 18, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

  6. On ‘materialism’ – thanks, this is interesting. I suppose I should track down a book of some kind about the vicissitudes of the word/concept. More, as ever, to read. Re: metatheory, I couldn’t agree more. The thing that’s struck me most about reading Marx himself (as opposed to third or fourth hand glosses) is how specific and empirical much of ‘Capital’ is. The aspects of Marx’s work that can be made into formulas and reapplied (and which are, of course, almost necessarily, the aspects that have been most influential) are not perhaps the most important. I’m on a bit of a Wittgenstein kick at the moment, so forgive a strained analogy. Wittgenstein’s work is constantly misread, because disciples are looking for as it were the ‘rules’ of Wittgensteinian discourse. One of Wittgenstein’s big themes, of course, is that the attempt to isolate and extract such rules, independent of their context, is misguided. And Wittgenstein’s work manifests this theme, in a multitude of ways. Exegetes tend to try to cut through the ‘mess’ of Wittgenstein’s later work, to extract its core – which is precisely the intellectual operation Wittgenstein warns against. Similarly, in Marx, I’m struck by how much weight is placed, in the secondary literature (of which, I should say, I’ve not read much at all) on Marx’s claims about historical necessity, the logic of capitalism, etc. Whereas ‘Capital’ itself tends to emphasise, not so much at a theoretical level, but simply through its practice – its massive accumulation of detail, facts, empirical nuance – that the socioeconomic phenomena we’re dealing with need to be understood in their contingent historical forms. Of course Marx says that too – and Marxists repeat it – but since this idea is also easily abstracted – easily used as nothing more than another formula in the trans-historical critical toolkit – this methodology is often proclaimed without actually being followed. There’s a productive tension in ‘Capital’ between the ’empirical’ tendency, and Marx’s equally powerful tendency to make the most sweeping claims – but that tension all too often drops out when we analyse or paraphrase.
    You know all this much better than I do. As usual I’m just taking the opportunity to offload some thoughts. Anyway, I totally agree with what you say about focussing as much on Marx’s practice as on his statements about his practice.
    Also, you’ve got an appallingly long and obsessive response to that damn book meme on its way. 🙂 I am incapable of writing anything succinct at present.

    Comment by praxisblog — February 21, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  7. […] of Brandom’s queen’s shilling argument. Tom: I have updated your score accordingly. Praxisblog promises “an appallingly long and obsessive response to that damn book meme”. I think I […]

    Pingback by » Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 1 — February 24, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

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