A post in the reverse of my standard order, at least sort of. In a recent post NP writes “in spite of their own explicit claims, these early categories [in the beginning of Capital v1] tacitly presuppose the existence of what Marx will call the “peculiar commodity” of labour power,” then promises in a subsequent post to “sketch the major moves that enable Marx to make this tacit presupposition overt.”

NP has a whole series of posts on Marx and Capital that are worth reading closely, a great many of which – hell, all of which – I want to respond to when I get time (when will that be again?). I just want for now to indicate the post, agree, and speculate a bit. (Indication, check.)

I agree completely. (Agreement, check.) It seems to me that the categories in v1 only make sense in relation to that peculiar commodity labor power. Or, put less strongly in terms of textual argument and more strongly in terms of normative claims – the categories only really matter in relation to that peculiar commodity. One could (and many do) read Marx as being about objects which are only objects – you know … stuff … things, objects we purchase which are not subordinated life forms or at a minimum subordinated humans. But why would anyone care about that? Certainly one ought to care more about that the more it relates to issues related to the exchange of labor power. (To the degree that one is on board with the [implied? explicit? I’m not sure] moral framework – or, shares the moral intuitions or gut-level reactions – which I think Marx operated from and which I know I operate from [these sorts of things aren’t all that hard to discuss but can be hard to recommend – how does one recommend a gut reaction? how does one take a recommendation of a gut reaction? Rorty remarked somewhere that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more to bring about moral progress than Kant ever did, and on a related note he recommended that those interested in more progress focus more on the circulation of sad stories over the circulation of arguments.)

When I first read Marx (and Freud) the professor told us that it’s very hard to read Marx (and Freud) for the first time, because so much of the material is in the air, in the culture now. This makes the text appear banal in ways that it didn’t back when, which in turn magnifies the weird parts. I now use this same advice when I teach Marx and facilitate Marx discussion groups. It’s like listening to Nirvana or the Ramones or the Sex Pistols now (there are a great many other examples possible too of course). It so influenced music afterward that it doesn’t sound like anything special, it sounds kind of typical, dull and slow. It’s easier to appreciate this stuff in relation to how much it differed from what it was contemporary with – it’s also much better live than recorded (there might be some analogy here to Marx – Marx “live” maybe being something like reading about his political involvement and how he related that to his writing? I’m not sure, maybe the analogy is stupid).

I mention this because NP’s post made me wonder about the reading side … how should we read Marx? I don’t mean so much “what should our interpretation of Marx be?” but more simply – “where should we start reading Marx?” A related question or set of questions might be “what is it like to read Marx?” (this is the closest I think I get to being a lit crit person, happily – given that incompetency on my part – I am no longer in the field of comparative literature), and I wonder if it might be useful to lay out a typology of ways to read Marx (I don’t mean in the way that Harry Cleaver lays out economic, philosophical, and political readings – in the sense of interpretations – though I think what Cleaver does is useful; rather I mean simply different sorts of reactions we might have on reading Marx – shocks of recognition, irritation, boredom, confusion etc… in case it’s not clear, I make no claim to the importance of this, it’s more likely only something hobby marxologists should care about, but for those of us who are I think it might be good fun).

If Marx’s early categories presuppose a later category, would it make sense to start reading with that later category? That might mean starting from chapter six. That might be an interesting approach for a reading group. It’s not clear that this is necessary, though – it’s not clear that conceptual priority (the peculiar commodity labor power as the linchpin or axis for the rest of the body of ideas) has to mean temporal priority (reading about labor power first).

I initially learned Marx and I know others who take/took the same route starting from the 1844 Manuscripts, particularly the sections on estranged labor. Negri essentially recommends reading Capital starting from and based on the Grundrisse. In “How To Read Marx’s Capital” Althusser recommended the following for readers of Capital:

begin with reading Part II of Volume I entitled ‘The Transformation of Money into Capital’. It is not possible in my view to begin (and only to begin) to understand Part I without having read and re-read the whole of Volume I from Part II onwards. This is more than a piece of advice. It is a recommendation, one which I regard as imperative. Everyone can confirm it by practical experience.

This means starting from chapter four, the chapter on the general formula of capital.

In his approach to Capital Cleaver recommends starting with

“with Part VIII of Capital instead of Part I for two reasons. In the first place, Part VIII is a lot easier to read, being less abstract and richer with historical detail. The chapters of Part I, which deal with “value” and money, tend to be very abstract and terse. In the second place, the study of Part VIII, which shows how the capitalist system originated, i.e., how capital originally created the working class and imposed its system on it, provides a very useful point of reference for the careful dissection of value in Part I.

Once we have seen how people were driven off the land and otherwise dispoiled of their means of production and reproduction, how their existing social and cultural relations were destroyed, how they were thus forced to sell their life-time as the commodity labor-power, and found their lives subordinated to work, then it is much easier to understand why Marx elaborated a “labor” theory of value (because the substance of the social relations of capitalism is imposed work) and why he pays so much attention to the “commodity form” (the form of the imposition of work). At each step of his abstract discussion of the substance, measure and form of value, we will find it easier to explore the social and class meaning of their various aspects thanks to our reading of Part VIII. If the imposition of work on most members of society through the commodity form, i.e., through the process of forcing them into the labor market, is the defining case of exchange in society, then we can see how every aspect of exchange, including the role of money, is an aspect of that central class relationship. To remember this after stating it as an abstraction is difficult. To remember it after having explored the historical period of the inception of the commodity form is much easier.”

Maybe what this really boils down to is that we shouldn’t read Capital so much as re-read it. (This was my approach when I was reading Capital for the first time, as well as other difficult material – come to think of it, pretty much all German stuff … Kant, Marx, Hegel, Habermas … weird … I guess I later started applying this elsewhere. What I tried to do and sometimes still do though less rigorously/vigorously, was to never give up on reading, specifically by initially committing at a minimum to looking at all the words, rather than committing to understanding. After looking at all the words I could at least go back to the text in discussion, more than I could if I hadn’t looked at all the words, then actually read it, and afterward re-read it.) Speculation, check.


As I said, a post in reverse order, sort of. The preface: For a variety of reasons, some good and some bad, some planned and some accidental, more often than not I feel short on time and mental and emotional energy. It has been probably 9 months since I’ve felt like I’ve had adequate time, even if then, maybe longer. I feel like I miss out on a lot of things that I very much want to be part of and shortchange a lot of people who I care about and like (and enjoy, such that said shortchanging also shortchanges me). On both lists is NP.


I had another thought as I was working on another post which will be up soon-ish. (I’ve had what is for me a fair bit of caffeine and sugar today, and I’m listening to some fast tense music, maybe that’s part of why I feel like I’m writing like 3 things at once [I’m usually doing more than one thing at once, it’s an ambivalent habit]. I’m currently working on a post about some Foucault stuff that made me think of this.) For all my exasperation with Negri, Negri has an essential insight (taken up by Cleaver, and others have had this insight too as both Negri and especially Cleaver indicate, for instance Tronti‘s ‘copernican inversion’) about perspectives in reading Marx and understanding capitalism.

That is: there is are important differences between labor power as subject and as object, and there are various modes of each (subjects and objects, or workers as subjects and workers as subjected, in various ways). I fumbled toward this in theoretical terms in considering the phrases ‘vogelfrei’ (free as a bird) in Marx here, suggesting that the metaphor can mean both the animalizing of the proletariat – the standard rendering of the term in Marx translations plays up the rightlessness of the proletariat – as well as the proletariat as having a power of flight, the power which Negri and Virno and others under the term ‘exodus.’

Negri and Cleaver and others in the general theoretical tendency often called ‘autonomist marxism’ (the term has a broader and narrower scope depending on who is talking) often emphasize the self-activity of the working class and on paying attention to what they call the self-valorization of the working class. I think Michael Hardt provides a useful distinction for characterizing this, that between critical marxism and projective marxism – “a Marxism of proletarian projectiveness” (here) drawing upon “a projective logic in Marx’s work” (here; actually re-reading that dissertation might be useful, though I’m most interested in the stuff after the chapters on Spinoza).

Matt’s recent question to me about my focus on the state was I think in part a question about why I’ve more recently(ish) gone back to an interest in critical marxism. At least that’s how I took it.

There are think two or three reasons for this, aside from simply following what I’m fired up about. Part of this is that I think there are conceptual mistakes made in at least some of the projective stuff, though not necessarily in that whole approach as such (some of these mistakes I’ve harped on about re: Negri). Part of this is that I think there’s useful knowledge to be had from the critical approach – something I doubt anyone would explicitly deny, though Negri’s remarks that negativity is over I think imply this, suggesting that critical marxism has been superceded by projective marxism. A third reason has to do with organization. I’m not sure how to put this. I think there’s a lot that’s right, I would even say invaluable, irreplaceable, necessary, about the projective stuff – like the point about the power of the working class to be subject(s) – that is, the self-determining power of the working class, the point that the working class is underdetermined by capital (overdetermination be damned). Still, I can definitely say that at the very least I’ve find more recently in the operaismo reading group and in reading Negri and in the operaismo reading that this doesn’t really satisfy me anymore. And some of the time I think it can serve to obscure or prevent thought on organization of the type that is very important (or at the least that I really want right now). I feel like this focus also doesn’t do enough to enhance political perspectives – one piece of evidence is the movementism of many autonomists and the ways that their politics often seem to be determined by their involvement (which is right and smart, but then what does the theory add? I feel like sometimes it’s as much an expression and defense of a political position as it is an enhancement thereof. Maybe that’s always true, though. Hmm. Anyhow… ) That is, the assertion of a projective perspective can stand in for actual projects of organization (a la the Marx dis on Feuerbach that I like so much), and the assertion or enactment of a critical perspective is compatible with carrying out organization (as much of the history of working class and radical organization demonstrates, for all the flaws we can – and should – notice and criticize).

I had set out on this edited/inserted additional point to ask which perspective on labor power was the right one in reading Marx – to ask, in the terms I’ve just been using, if the conceptual centrality of labor power should be understood from a critical or projective point of view – but I think that may be wrongheaded. I’m tempted to use that old dear term ‘dialectic’ here but instead I’ll just say that maybe the best use of v1 of Capital is as a way to think through matters of criticizing and of projects, in relation to each other and to specific circumstances.