May 17, 2008

More Marx Ignorance

Filed under: Economics, Marx, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 12:09 pm

I’m sort of torn between never writing on Marx again until I actually know what I’m talking about, and continuing to use this blog as a place to store my ignorant thoughts. The latter is what the blog’s meant to be for. But now that it actually has (a couple of) readers, there’s a bigger downside to making an idiot of myself.

I am unafraid! I laugh in the face of intellectual embarrassment! And I post the following:

What is this ‘value’ thing then? Specifically, what is this labour theory of value? On any straightforward reading, it seems just utter nonsense. The value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production? Really really not. I don’t think that’s what proponents of the labour theory of value are actually saying… (?). But so what’s going on?

There’s a weird circularity to any discussion of value. Let’s say you tell the following story: the value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production. But because of a social/economic system based on exploitation – and because of the difference between labour and labour power – labour itself can produce more value than the value required for the production of labour. That’s surplus value. A certain value of commodities is required in order to keep labour more or less trim – workers have to eat and house themselves, and the capitalist class pays wages that allow this, much of the time. But because the use value of labour is (in part) its ability to produce value, there is a disjunct (a disjointure) between value in and value out, in the production process. The difference between labour and labour power is the disjointure that enables the accumulation of value. So – it’s apparently possible to say – workers aren’t paid for the true value of their labour. Ground of critique.

But all value – every commodity – produced under capitalism is a result of this production process based on disjointure. So it seems to me that everything falls apart if we try to say something like “the true value of labour isn’t represented in labour’s wages”. Because value itself, under capitalism, is based on this injustice. Where are we getting the solidity of value – the ‘true’ value of labour – that allows us to frame a critique of exploitation?

Where does value come from? Is there a real, non-exploitative value somewhere, at the base or root of the system, with surplus value built on top of this true reality of value? I don’t think that Marx believes this. And even if he does believe this – or if some other Marxist thinker believes this – where are we getting this value from? What is the account of the formation of value, here? And why on earth would labour produce value in the first place?

Value has already come on stage when ‘Capital’ begins. Where has it come from? What is it?


I think there’s a parallel here with orthodox economics’ theory of value. Marshallian analysis tells us that value – exchange value – is the result of a meeting between demand and supply… and that demand is a result of the meeting of desire (understood in terms of utility) and ability to pay. Utility – this wholly fantasised concept – is here apparently the ground for value. But of course (putting aside the fact that there ain’t no such thing as utility) utility doesn’t explain exchange value at all. All utility analysis can tell us is why certain things are valued more than others – once value has already ‘come on stage’. Exchange value, in Marshallian analysis, comes from the meeting of utility and cost (more or less) – but cost is already there, already out there, outside of us, in the world, in the system within which exchange and utility-maximisation takes place. The social system of valuation, within which different powers compete to maximise their utility, obviously cannot be explained simply in terms of utility. So where do we get the general concept of value that’s part of the system within which we analyse the determination of specific values, by means of supply and demand?

Now – something along these lines is why I don’t think Marx should be understood as grounding his critique on any idea of value. (And again I think I’m in the ballpark of N Pepperell’s posts here – though very much don’t attribute any of these opinions to N Pepperell, I’ve probably misunderstood everything…). My current take on this situation is: Marx doesn’t say – there’s this thing called value, it’s produced by labour, but under capitalism labour is exploited because the value of its product is more than the value of its wages. Rather, the concept of value that’s operative under capitalism (and, therefore, in Marx’s work too) is itself one of the objects of Marx’s critique. Marx’s idea is that this concept of value is a product of an exploitative social system, and that the system needs to be destroyed. His critique of the system, however, is not based on deploying the idea of value. Exploitation is just exploitation – it’s obviously exploitation. If people have to do work they hate, work that hurts them, that shortens or ruins their lives, and they’re doing this work for most of their waking hours, to serve the interests of the ruling class… that’s exploitation. You don’t need a theory of the production of surplus value to identify it as such. So Marx doesn’t say – here’s my theory of value; it allows us to recognise and analyse exploitation. He says – here’s exploitation; the social syste within which its embedded produces a certain theory of value (and, more important, a set of social behaviours that can be understood in terms of value); let’s analyse this theory, and develop it, in order to better understand exploitation, and the capitalist system it’s part of. Value doesn’t ground anything for Marx – it’s part of what needs to be explained. So, I think, it’s possibly politically misguided to deploy a ‘Marxist’ theory of value as a way of critiquing capitalism. Theory of value isn’t the starting point, here; it’s more like an object of critique.

Not sure how much of this is incredibly obvious and how much of it’s incredibly wrong. The interesting point, for me, I think, is that if something like the above is in the ballpark of right, it may be a mistake to see Marx as offering a theory of value that’s been occluded in the economics canon. Marx deployed the economic theories of his time, and, more importantly, analysed the social conditions that created them. The ‘labour theory of value’ was the principle economic theory he analysed, because it was prominent when Marx wrote. But the labour theory of value is no longer prominent (though it may not be as dead as we’re told…). It would, I think, [perhaps] be a mistake to read Marx and say ‘the (Marxist) labour theory of value needs to be brought back’. Rather, we should say – ‘the labour theory of value is no longer so prominent; economics now understands value in other ways; what has changed in the structure of capitalism such that economic theory has also changed?’ That, I think, would be a ‘Marxist’ question. (And another question, while we’re at it: why has no one developed a comprehensive critique of political economy since Marx? What the hell happened to left theorising? We’re due another proper critique, folks, come on, get busy…)

Needless to say, all this is just totally underinformed. I wonder why I’m writing it down, when I could be studying…


  1. “Marx doesn’t say – there’s this thing called value, it’s produced by labour, but under capitalism labour is exploited because the value of its product is more than the value of its wages. Rather, the concept of value that’s operative under capitalism (and, therefore, in Marx’s work too) is itself one of the objects of Marx’s critique.”

    I’m afraid I think Marx really does say “there’s this thing called value etc”. This is only the negative side of criticism though. Positively the book you suggest remains to be written.

    hey, well done for breaking with specialisation, all the best

    Comment by Luke — May 19, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  2. “why has no one developed a comprehensive critique of political economy since Marx?”

    There’s a book by Marc Linder I haven’t read. Nitzan/Bichler. Keynes had a thing for heterodox economists: Hobson, Gesell. There’s been a lot of stuff on these lines over the past few years but nothing’s really snowballed.

    Comment by Luke — May 19, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  3. re: the thing value, how bout this; It’s not a thing, it’s a conceptual abstraction; it is a relation, an emergent property of humanity, which is always humanity in conditions. It should be seperated from an idea of “nature”; the environment is not the garden of eden with everything designed for adam and eve. Some things have no use value. Depends on people. A fine story here is Exodus: those plagues. In some conditions, plagues have no use value, but we see in that story, there’s a social order, there’s an antagonism between the hebrews and the egyptians, there’s a conjurer who has learned to control some elements of nature, so cattle murrain has use value; that use value comes out of the social relations; the specific thing, the plague, takes a place in social relations, in human life; the specific qualities of the thing – kills cattle, because of whatever material properties it has – condition the way it takes this place in human life and social relations, as does the fact that Moses can control it; and that relation is use value. Now in general we can speak of biological weapons as use values in our conditions. The things which take these places in human social relations, to which human beings have relations – relations to the things and to other people via the things – can be thought of as having this property, as a property – use value. Though it isn’t an instrinsic physical property like “twelve protons”, all those physical properties are among the factors which determine it. But one can speak of the use value of “a network” whose physical properties can be very protean, or a “knowledge” or “information”, whose physical properties are at present unknown.

    Everybody doesn’t have to agree. The locusts are useful to Moses and the Hebrews in their struggle with the Egyptians – that the Egyptians have no use for them is unimportant. So one has to resist the impulse to form a Robinson Crusoe anecdote about value, to test the idea with one guy, say Pharoah, and one thing, river of blood. It’s only in the perspective of the whole society that use value appears, although you can make a model with an individual, you’d have to stack the deck – Moses and death.

    “The value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production? Really really not.”

    The value – exchange value – of any commodity is indeed the amount of abstract labour socially necessary to produce it. Yes. It’s a quantity of the total of human labour, considered as an abstract substance, producing everything, just as the commodity is a part of the total of everything human labour produces. This exchange value – the labour value – is the “centre of gravity” of the market price.

    Thus with wages, the exchange value of labour power. Its exchange value, the “centre of gravity” of its market price, is the amount of labour necessary to reproduce the labourer for the day.

    “So – it’s apparently possible to say – workers aren’t paid for the true value of their labour. Ground of critique.

    this is not Marx; this is the position Marx critiques in The Critique of the Gotha Programme.

    They are paid the “true value” – the true exchange value, the labour value, of their labour power.

    The thing is human labour is unique. It is the only thing which produces use values. It is, effectively, use value itself (with small exception for certain things naturally occuring in the environment – we can hardly speak of anything but air and rain now that has not been altered). But exchange value is something else – it is the relations between things produced by human labour. Consider a day of human life as one of these things, produced by human labour. It takes a labourer a day to make a chair, say. But it does not take a labourer a day to reproduce himself – to make what he needs to consume to live another day, to be back to work the next day. Like lions, people can kill more than they need to eat. This is the marvel that is animal life. There’s no explanation – it’s just a fact. The human species does not need to work eight or ten or twelve hours a day to reproduce itself. Less and less as technology accumulates. That is how an animal species reproduces – the babies and the elderly can be fed by a minority. That is why if you can get control over people, you can get a surplus out of them/us. One can exploit people. In slave societies, the control is just exerted directly. In capitalism the control is property – people have no access to what they need, so they have to trade for it. Seemingly freely. Having nothing to trade but their labour power, they trade that. And the value of it, like the exchange value of all other commodities, is determined by a market. But labour power is special. A capitalist can use it to create use values.

    Comment by chabert — May 21, 2008 @ 10:35 pm

  4. oh forgot…after “moses and death” insert:

    all that stuff that occupies a place in human relations, in social production and reproduction. Take it all together. It’s use value. Enclose it in property – certain people controlling certain parts of it, like Moses is in control of his cattle murrain. Suppose exchange, expanding, becoming general. Now another emergent property appears, another web of relations, between the exchangeable portions of all this stuff that has use value. Exchange brings all the segments of the stuff into relations to each other, this much wood for that much wool. As using gives rise to use value, so exchanging gives rise to exchange value. But exchanging presupposes using. And exchanging is a way of using.

    Comment by chabert — May 21, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

  5. “And why on earth would labour produce value in the first place?”

    Well, this is like asking why a zebra is edible for lions and why lions happen to be able to kill what they can digest. People have this quality of being living organisms, with big brains, ability to abstract, belonging to the “kingdom of ends” – that is, we can plan and decide and make things. We can get fish out of the ocean and cook it, and we’re motivated to do that because we want to eat it; or because someone is whipping us, who will take the fish away. Or for wages. Only we can build palaces we can live in and computers we can use. Everything begins and ends in this analysis with people – people’s needs and wants, people’s capacities to satisfy them. We have the quality of liking comedy and the quality of being able to produce it. So how does a minority intervene here and exprpriate and accumulate what everybody needs and makes? This is the question. And in capitalism it happens differently than in feudalism.

    Comment by chabert — May 21, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  6. “that’s exploitation. You don’t need a theory of the production of surplus value to identify it as such. ”

    right, but you need a theory of surplus value to explain capital, this thing, this form of property, and the the “laws” of the mode of production to which it belongs. Which is what Marx is setting out to do. That is, you have to understand how surplus is extracted, how profit is created to understand what capital is, and thus how capital behaves.

    Comment by chabert — May 22, 2008 @ 12:16 am

  7. Luke, Chabert, thanks for the comments. Luke first… Yeah – I realise my take on Marx is a little… uh… tendentious. Pushing fairly hard on certain things I find in the text, and adopting a sort of provisional selective blindness towards others. I agree that Marx does think “there’s this thing called value”, really. I just think that Marx is a lot less uncritical towards this idea of value than it’s easy to take him as being. (Object not ground of critique, etc.) But I guess I am, to some extent, imagining the Marx I’d (at provisional present) like Marx to be, rather than providing any kind of adequate exegesis.

    Thanks for the references. I’m sure you’re right that there’s a whole lot of stuff out there. My entirely ignorant impression is that one reason this stuff hasn’t snowballed may be that a lot of it’s fairly piecemeal – doesn’t have the scope of ‘Capital’ (or ‘Wealth of Nations’, or whatever). But I have a lot of reading to do :-). All these names have been added to the list…

    Anyway, thanks for the encouraging words. 🙂

    Chabert – thank you. Very haphazard responses, as usual…

    “It’s not a thing, it’s a conceptual abstraction; it is a relation, an emergent property of humanity…” Right – but I’d be inclined to remove the ‘conceptual’, here. Value, for Marx, I’d say, is a social abstraction which (unlike ideology) people don’t have to believe in to make ‘real’, or to make effective. I think this has some bearing on the discussion over at Roger’s site. (I really should post some more comments there, but every time I start writing something for that thread I end up ditching it and starting over – so I’ll rather rudely note the relevance here instead). There’s a big shift in Marx, I think, from ‘German Ideology’ to ‘Capital’; In ‘Ideology’ Marx seems to see conditions of production, social forms of life, etc. as fairly directly producing ideology – the ideology of the ruling class. Then, as Amie notes in her post, ideology goes underground in Marx’s work, following 1848. By the time we get to ‘Capital’, Marx is mostly talking not about ideology, but about fetishism… the fetish isn’t a belief – not a conceptual abstraction, like all those Hegelian and Stirnerian (?) tropes… rather, it’s a social network of behaviours (let’s say), which can and does in turn produce beliefs. Marx’s later account is more anthropological, and more sophisticated, I think. In ‘Specters’ Derrida conflates ideology and the fetish – which is one reason his account of exchange value and so on ends up far closer to the terms of the young Hegelians than anyone (probably even than Derrida) would like…

    “‘So – it’s apparently possible to say – workers aren’t paid for the true value of their labour. Ground of critique.’ this is not Marx” Ach, sorry… I didn’t mean to attribute this position to Marx – I meant to suggest that it’s a way it would be possible to misread Marx. Sorry – unclear.

    “human labour… is the only thing which produces use values.” I thought (perhaps wrongly) that somewhere else in the ‘Specters’ discussion you’ve said that that’s not true… (?)… (I’m not sure about this… I just seem to remember…). I mean, there’s always, as it were, stuff that isn’t the product of labour (though as you say, rain, wind, it’s all been changed now). Probably not a good idea to get into this area now though… moving on with apologies…
    “”The value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production? Really really not.”
    The value – exchange value – of any commodity is indeed the amount of abstract labour socially necessary to produce it. Yes.”

    Hmm. This is the crux, I think. Let me try to say a few quick words.
    To start with, I think it’s perhaps worth distinguishing between actual labour and abstract social labour, and between value and exchange value. Again, as usual, you know Marx just way better than I do. But I think one of Marx’s big questions in ‘Capital’ is how we move from actual physical (or immaterial…) labour – the work we actually do, to feed and house ourselves and our masters – to this concept of abstract social labour – an abstract labour that ‘abstracts’ from the real inequalities between different forms of labour. How is the labour of an accountant (say) to be mapped on to the labour of a subsistence wage farm worker (for instance)? Marx’s answer seems to be – well, they both partake of this abstract social labour. And in a way I think this is Marx’s answer – but IMO Marx sees this as the answer of capitalism… capitalism posits ‘abstract social labour’ (at least the political economy of Marx’s day did…), in order, in part, to evade or obscure inequalities of labour, inequalities between different forms of labour, different actual labours. Marx thinks that one of the ways in which the capitalist system exploits labour is by making certain forms of labour count for less than other forms. (An approach that’s much more sophisticated in orthodox economics today, with all this stuff about marginal productivity.) And capitalism achieves this through the way in which the concept of abstract social labour is constructed.

    This ties in, I think, to the difference between ‘exchange value’ and ‘value’. At times Marx writes as if these were just the same things. But I’m not sure Marx really believes this. For Marx, I hesitantly believe, under capitalism exchange value is… well… just exchange value; the concept’s pretty clear. But ‘value’ in general is a much stranger thing, which both produces and is produced by exchange value, as well as by other social forms of life, in our very strange social and economic existence. ‘Value’ (which is of course to be understood in terms of abstract social labour, for Marx) produces exchange value, because this homogenous/homogenising social category enables the equivalence of non-equivalents – the generalisation of which is the condition of a world market. But value is also produced by exchange value, because the particular equivalences we find on the marketplace in part determine what we understand as valuable… or, to put it better, the social coercions and commitments that determine the functioning of the marketplace (and of production) determine our general social sense of value.

    Again, I find it helpful to think about this in anachronistic terms – in terms of marginal productivity. A worker works, and contributes to the production of a product. How much value has the worker produced? Well… that depends on how much the product sells for. The market, here, is the arbiter of value – the arbiter of productivity. And what determines market price? ‘Supply and demand’ – which is, of course, in large part a code for power-relations. Rice (for instance) sells cheap, not because rice is ‘inherently’ ‘cheap’ to produce, but because the factors of production, human and natural, that go into the production of rice, are near the bottom of our world economy’s hierarchy of exploitation. There are many other influences too, of course – many important ones. But if I’m labouring, farming rice, what is my marginal productivity? Fuck all, probably. Why? Because rice sells cheap. Why? In part because I can be made to work for a pittance, through exploitation, wage slavery, or just slavery. Economics says – I get a disastrously small wage because my marginal productivity is so low. But this gets things almost completely backwards. In fact my marginal productivity is low because (in part) I can be made to work for next to nothing. It’s about power, and violence – and economics is this immense intellectual structure dedicated to concealing or evading that fact.

    Now, to get back to (I hope) more Marxist space. The situation, I think, is similar for ‘abstract social labour’. Marx uses this category – he doesn’t think it’s nonsense. But he also wants to know how this category is produced. And it’s produced in a not wholly dissimilar way to the concept of ‘marginal productivity’. We mustn’t say (IMO) ‘abstract social labour is the source of exchange value’ – not if we want to be able to get an adequate distance from the theoretical resources capitalism uses to justify itself. Rather, we should say something more like ‘the way in which the concept of abstract social labour functions is in large part determined by the social mechanisms that produce (any given) exchange value – and these social mechanisms include, massively, exploitation.’ I think Marx argues this. And this is why I say in the post above that I think it’s a mistake to use the concept of ‘value’ as a ground of (Marxist) critique.

    Now as I say, all this is highly provisional. I really haven’t spent nearly enough time with Marx, let along with Marxist literature, to be in any way confident of this read. My hunch, I guess, is that everything mentioned in this thread is going on in Marx – partly because ‘Capital’ functions at different levels, with Marx moving in and out of the discourse of political economy that he’s partly critiquing, partly deploying, and partly transforming or expanding; and partly because I’d be pretty surprised if Marx turns out, in the end, to be altogether consistent. [Here I suppose my hunch is that once Marx starts seriously studying economics, he first appropriates fairly wholesale a lot of the Ricardian political-economic machinery – and then gradually submits this machinery to a more and more capacious and critical stance… However, this couldn’t be any more guesswork if I threw darts at a critical theory textbook, and constructed sentences that way. I have a lot more reading to do.]

    All this is probably both too much and too little. In any case – thank you for your comments. Perhaps one day I’ll get round to commenting on ‘Specters’ again. Still very interested in that ongoing debate.

    Comment by praxisblog — May 22, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

  8. “Value, for Marx, I’d say, is a social abstraction which (unlike ideology) people don’t have to believe in to make ‘real’, or to make effective”

    I meant the word – “value” – the term, is a conceptual abstraction, with a referent; the referent is a feature of concrete social relations. Use value is a process, human labour; exchange value is a process arising from exchange of use values, a web of relations; the term “value” is a conceptual abstraction which comprehends these relations.

    “There’s a big shift in Marx, I think, from ‘German Ideology’ to ‘Capital’”

    But of course these works have different subject matter; the first, philosophy product in Germany, the second, the capitalist mode of production.

    “In ‘Ideology’ Marx seems to see conditions of production, social forms of life, etc. as fairly directly producing ideology – the ideology of the ruling class. …By the time we get to ‘Capital’, Marx is mostly talking not about ideology, but about fetishism… the fetish isn’t a belief – not a conceptual abstraction, like all those Hegelian and Stirnerian (?) tropes… rather, it’s a social network of behaviours (let’s say), which can and does in turn produce beliefs.”

    “Beliefs”…is kind of difficult…perhaps perceptions, worldviews, ideas instead. But I guess I’m not convinced that the change of topic indicates a change of view here; the discussion of commodity fetishism seems to assume the view of ideology laid out in GI, which is that “a social network of behaviours (let’s say),” “can and does in turn produce” products of consciousness, ideas and assumptions and perceptions.

    So, as you say;

    “In ‘Ideology’ …. social forms of life, etc. as fairly directly producing ideology – the ideology of the ruling class. “

    and in Capital: “a social network of behaviours (let’s say)… can and does in turn produce beliefs”

    – there doesn’t seem to be much change between the proposition that social forms of life directly produce ideology and social network of behaviours can and do produce ideology.

    Comment by chabert — May 23, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

  9. Hey there, thanks as usual. On the run now. But “there doesn’t seem to be much change between the proposition that social forms of life directly produce ideology and social network of behaviours can and do produce ideology.” yeah – fair point. 🙂 Will (hopefully) get back to you soon.

    Comment by praxisblog — May 23, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

  10. I think partly its some kind of reading Marx back through the lens of nietzsche that makes “value” the focus of interpretive problems – because the word is used to refer to aesthetic and moral preferences etc – even though “production” is of the same order of abstraction. Yet we don’t have baudrillard and derrida pondering the impossibiliy of ‘pure production’, which i suppose could be imagined to be production without destruction or something. It would be as valid in terms of deconstructing the vocabulary of the text. But’s it not attractive because there isn’t a traditional discourse about that word as there is about (aesthetic, religious, moral) “values” into which one can, because of the multiple meaning of the word, squeeze Capital, if just barely, by mystifying use value (which can be called also “product in general,” the result of “production in general”, but this has the disadvantage of clarity). I agree that the critique is not grounded on some self evident “value” – that this is an object of explanation (value is produced), but I think once explained – there’s use value, “product in general” which satisfies some want “of the stomach or the fancy”, there’s value (exchange value) arising from exchange which creates relations between use values or parts of “product in general” – it is assumed throughout. That is, re; value, I don’t think there’s a ‘debunking’ thing going on as for “Man” in GI any more than ‘production’ which creates it is an object of debunking.

    Comment by chabert — May 23, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

  11. I agree with Amie’s point also that the confidence, which is partly puffery, about the proletariat’s low vulnerability to or attraction to bourgeois ideology which we see in the Manifesto and GI is lost and this gives rise to the question, and the work of concrete production, of “class consciousness”; perhaps its meaningful that its “proletarian class conciousness” and not “proletarian ideology”, in line with a distinction Marx makes which vanishes in academic Marxism i think as a consequence of the influence of nietzsche and freud. but this notion of class consciousness is anticipated in GI, the revolutionary ideology of a revolutionary class in which that class sees itself as universal (a little more legitimately each time; in the case of the proletariat this would be finally true, thus consciousness rather than ideology, perhaps), and I don’t think you could show that Marx or Engels actually revised their assumptions about how ideology is produced; rather, they might have revised their assessment about how powerful certain versions of bourgeois ideology – ruling class ideology – was in the circumstances they addressed, how intense its grip on some part of the exploited classes, how difficult the ideological and cultural aspects of the struggle to abolish capital would be. (Though I think that they actually over time saw the ideological situation as improving in some places, and very varied. As Marx sheds stuff he picked up from Hegel – like “asiatic mode of production” – his perception of the irredeemably reactionary ideology of peasants seems to go, along with the other remnants of hegelian determinism). But one cannot argue they ever considered it trivial, in any case not so trivial that it wasn’t worth all that writing.

    Comment by chabert — May 23, 2008 @ 9:56 pm

  12. Ach – you are too prolific for me, Chabert! The below is a response to your #8. I’ll have to read & think about your last comments. So, time out of joint: I suppose my thought was that in ‘Capital’ the abstractions of fetishism are something like social abstractions (whatever that means), whereas in ‘Ideology’ ideologies are conceptual abstractions. In ‘Ideology’ concrete social relations generate conceptual abstractions either because the conceptual spaces we inhabit map onto the social spaces we inhabit (in some perhaps undertheorised way), or because intellectualz are in the pay of the ruling clazz. (Which they generally are – don’t get me wrong…) In ‘Capital’, on the other hand, there’s another ‘layer’ between conceptual abstractions and concrete social relations – the layer Marx analyses using the trope of fetishism. The fetish is an abstraction, but it’s not a conceptual abstraction. I really don’t have any coherent take on this (as if that wasn’t obvious 🙂 ). But I think there’s a deepening of Marx’s approach. So if the term ‘value’ is a conceptual abstraction with a referent, yes, that referent is a feature of concrete social relations – but the feature it chiefly refers to is the fetish; and the fetish obscures concrete social relations just as much as it comprehends them. Or, rather, the fetish isn’t best understood using the terminology of knowledge. It’s more like Mauss’s mana, or something. [It’s a fucking age since I read Mauss; I’m probably just digging myself deeper into a hole by mentioning him…] Marx always returns to the concrete, the real – empirical discussions of violence, exploitation, expropriation, etc. But by the time we get to ‘Capital’ the movement between ideology and the social relations that produce it traverses so many different levels, is subject to such vicissitudes, that the relation between the two becomes very complex. I think. But again again again – I know not what I say. I remember this feeling from university, as it happens… you know, or believe you know, that somewhere somehow you have something to say. But words are traitors armed by ignorance, and the babble your produce does nothing to clarify, and everything to embarrass. So – sorry if I talk teh shit.

    Comment by praxisblog — May 23, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  13. in 1893, this was Engel’s view of his writing and that of Marx on ideology:

    Otherwise there is only one other point lacking, Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in regard to which we are all equally guilty. That is to say, we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side — the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about — for the sake of the content. This has given our adversaries a welcome opportunity for misunderstandings, of which Paul Barth is a striking example.

    Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought. The ideologist who deals with history (history is here simply meant to comprise all the spheres – political, juridical, philosophical, theological-belonging to society and not only to nature), the ideologist dealing with history then, possesses in every sphere of science material which has formed itself independently out of the thought of previous generations and has gone through an independent series of developments in the brains of these successive generations. True, external facts belonging to its own or other spheres may have exercised a co-determining influence on this development, but the tacit pre-supposition is that these facts themselves are also only the fruits of a process of thought, and so we still remain within that realm of pure thought which has successfully digested the hardest facts.

    It is above all this appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain, which dazzles most people. If Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic religion, or Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or if the constitutional Montesquieu is indirectly “overcome” by Rousseau with his “Social Contract,” each of these events remains within the sphere of theology, philosophy or political science, represents a stage in the history of these particular spheres of thought and never passes outside the sphere of thought. And since the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and the finality of capitalist production has been added as well, even the victory of the physiocrats and Adam Smith over the mercantilists is accounted as a sheer victory of thought; not as the reflection in thought of changed economic facts but as the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere – in fact if Richard Coeurde-lion and Philip Augustus had introduced free trade instead of getting mixed up in the crusades we should have been spared five hundred years of misery and stupidity.

    This side of the matter, which I can only indicate here, we have all, I think, neglected more than it deserves. It is the old story: form is always neglected at first for content. As I say, I have done that too, and the mistake has always only struck me later. So I am not only far from reproaching you with this in any way, but as the older of the guilty parties I have no right to do so, on the contrary; but I would like all the same to draw your attention to this point for the future.

    Hanging together with this too is the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction; these gentlemen often almost deliberately forget that once an historic element has been brought into the world by other elements, ultimately by economic facts, it also reacts in its turn and may react on its environment and even on its own causes

    Comment by chabert — May 23, 2008 @ 10:35 pm

  14. sorry, posting at same time!

    Comment by chabert — May 23, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

  15. fetishism: attributing uniquely human capacities (to create use value, what once was called “wealth”, in the specific case of Marx) to non-human things.

    commodity fetishism is the “bottom rung” of ideology (in the sense of false consciousness) in capitalism, because it’s the impression people have that capital is creative, that wealth is something other than social relations, that something other than human labour in “production in general” creates value:

    “Since living labour is incorporated into capital — through the exchange between capital and the worker — since it appears as an activity belonging to capital, as soon as the labour process starts, all the productive powers of social labour present themselves as productive powers of capital, just as the general social form of labour appears in money as the quality of a thing. Thus the productive power of social labour, and the specific forms of it, now present themselves as productive powers and forms of capital, of objectified labour, of the objective conditions of labour, which — as such an independent entity — are personified in the capitalist and confront living labour. Here once again we have the inversion of the relation, the expression of which we have already characterised as fetishism in considering the nature of money.” (

    Commodity fetishism succeeds fetishism of concrete wealth in prior forms of property:

    “To this enlightened political economy, which has discovered — within private property — the subjective essence of wealth, the adherents of the monetary and mercantile system, who look upon private property only as an objective substance confronting men, seem therefore to be fetishists, Catholics. Engels was therefore right to call Adam Smith the Luther of Political Economy [See Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy]. Just as Luther recognised religion – faith – as the substance of the external world and in consequence stood opposed to Catholic paganism — just as he superseded external religiosity by making religiosity the inner substance of man – just as he negated the priests outside the layman because he transplanted the priest into laymen’s hearts, just so with wealth: wealth as something outside man and independent of him, and therefore as something to be maintained and asserted only in an external fashion, is done away with; that is, this external, mindless objectivity of wealth is done away with, with private property being incorporated in man himself and with man himself being recognised as its essence. But as a result man is brought within the orbit of private property, just as with Luther he is brought within the orbit of religion. Under the semblance of recognising man, the political economy whose principle is labour rather carries to its logical conclusion the denial of man, since man himself no longer stands in an external relation of tension to the external substance of private property, but has himself become this tense essence of private property. What was previously being external to oneself — man’s actual externalisation — has merely become the act of externalising — the process of alienating. This political economy begins by seeming to acknowledge man (his independence, spontaneity, etc.); then, locating private property in man’s own being, it can no longer be conditioned by the local, national or other characteristics of private property as of something existing outside itself. This political economy, consequently, displays a cosmopolitan, universal energy which overthrows every restriction and bond so as to establish itself instead as the sole politics, the sole universality, the sole limit and sole bond. Hence it must throw aside this hypocrisy in the course of its further development and come out in its complete cynicism. And this it does — untroubled by all the apparent contradictions in which it becomes involved as a result of this theory — by developing the idea of labour much more one-sidedly, and therefore more sharply and more consistently, as the sole essence of wealth; by proving the implications of this theory to be anti-human in character, in contrast to the other, original approach. Finally, by dealing the death-blow to rent — that last, individual, natural mode of private property and source of wealth existing independently of the movement of labour, that expression of feudal property, an expression which has already become wholly economic in character and therefore incapable of resisting political economy. (The Ricardo school.) There is not merely a relative growth in the cynicism of political economy from Smith through Say to Ricardo, Mill, etc., inasmuch as the implications of industry appear more developed and more contradictory in the eyes of the last-named; these later economists also advance in a positive sense constantly and consciously further than their predecessors in their estrangement from man. They do so, however, only because their science develops more consistently and truthfully. Because they make private property in its active form the subject, thus simultaneously turning man into the essence — and at the same time turning man as non-essentiality into the essence — the contradiction of reality corresponds completely to the contradictory being which they accept as their principle. Far from refuting it, the ruptured world of industry confirms their self-ruptured principle. Their principle is, after all, the principle of this rupture.

    The physiocratic doctrine of Dr. Quesnay forms the transition from the mercantile system to Adam Smith. Physiocracy represents directly the decomposition of feudal property in economic terms, but it therefore just as directly represents its economic metamorphosis and restoration, save that now its language is no longer feudal but economic. All wealth is resolved into land and cultivation (agriculture). Land is not yet capital: it is still a special mode of its existence, the validity of which is supposed to lie in, and to derive from, its natural peculiarity. Yet land is a general natural element, whilst the mercantile system admits the existence of wealth only in the form of precious metal. Thus the object of wealth — its matter — has straightway obtained the highest degree of universality within the bounds of nature, insofar as even as nature, it is immediate objective wealth. And land only exists for man through labour, through agriculture.

    Thus the subjective essence of wealth has already been transferred to labour. But at the same time agriculture is the only productive labour. Hence, labour is not yet grasped in its generality and abstraction: it is still bound to a particular natural element as its matter, and it is therefore only recognised in a particular mode of existence determined by nature. It is therefore still only a specific, particular alienation of man, just as its product is likewise conceived nearly [as] a specific form of wealth — due more to nature than to labour itself. The land is here still recognised as a phenomenon of nature independent of man – not yet as capital, i.e., as an aspect of labour itself. Labour appears, rather, as an aspect of the land. But since the fetishism of the old external wealth, of wealth existing only as an object, has been reduced to a very simple natural element, and since its essence — even if only partially and in a particular form — has been recognised within its subjective existence, the necessary step forward has been made in revealing the general nature of wealth and hence in the raising up of labour in its total absoluteness (i.e., its abstraction) as the principle. It is argued against physiocracy that agriculture, from the economic point of view — that is to say, from the only valid point of view — does not differ from any other industry; and that the essence of wealth, therefore, is not a specific form of labour bound to a particular element – a particular expression of labour — but labour in general.

    Physiocracy denies particular, external, merely objective wealth by declaring labour to be the essence of wealth. But for physiocracy labour is at first only the subjective essence of landed property. (It takes its departure from the type of property which historically appears as the dominant and acknowledged type.) It turns only landed property into alienated man. It annuls its feudal character by declaring industry (agriculture) as its essence. But it disavows the world of industry and acknowledges the feudal system by declaring agriculture to be the only industry.

    It is clear that if the subjective essence of industry is now grasped (of industry in opposition to landed property, i.e., of industry constituting itself as industry), this essence includes within itself its opposite. For just as industry incorporates annulled landed property, the subjective essence of industry at the same time incorporates the subjective essence of landed property.” (

    Comment by chabert — May 24, 2008 @ 1:26 am

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