Some thoughts, rough and schematic.

First, on _Capital_.

Capital volume 1 only makes sense on the second time through. In a sense, the first time one really reads v1 in a meaningful sense is the second time one reads the book. The first part of v1 of Capital is different in light of the last part. The abstractions of capitalism in the first part are first addressed in abstract form, then progressively concretized. Of course, concretized these abstractions become more specific, more locationally and historically rooted. Their legs get shorter, so to speak, they become less universal, they travel less. The moves between abstraction and concreteness, relative context specificity and relative cross-context universality are moves that characterize the whole book, and characterize the mode of thought Marx’s work exemplifies (if ‘dialectics’ has any useful sense w/r/t Marx and Marxism, I think it will be to characterize this movement across registers).

Second, on use value and exchange value, abstract and concrete labor.

Use values are always concrete and specific. Exchange values render use values equivalent, treating them as less concrete and specific. Every instance of exchange value, however, is still tied to some instance of use value. Exchange value obscures the specificity of use value but does not eliminate it. There is no end of use value but rather an occlusion and subordination thereof. Likewise with labor. Abstract labor is concrete labor rendered as, treated as equivalent. There is not actually existing abstract labor: all labor as practiced is concrete and not abstract. On the other hand, all labor in its concreteness is subject to being treated as any other labor under capitalism, which is to say, rendered abstract.

Third, on history and theory.
Dale Tomich distinguishes between historical theory and theoretical history. I’m fuzzy on the details but in broad strokes the distinction is that between theoretical or ideal-typical ideas about capitalism and actually existing capitalisms. We need the former to identify the latter. The former are incredibly useful and important. But they are not identical with the latter. Not all actually existing capitalisms in history play out in ways which we might expect from our theoretical understandings of capitalism. Theory helps guide us in all sorts of ways but it doesn’t replace engagement with the actual and varied histories of capitalisms, and of their inter-relationship to form global capitalism and its history.

Fourth, and finally, labor power commodified
To return a moment to reading v1 of Capital (which I need to return to in a more literal sense, ie, read the book again, but first I need to finish that damn post on ch25), I said above that one only really reads Capital for the first time after one has read it the second time. This is made more difficult because it is incredibly hard to read Capital for the first time. In a literal sense, the book is daunting. In a metaphorical sense, it is also hard to read the book for the first time because when one begins one starts with all kinds of elements of the book that one has gotten elsewhere in culture – direct and indirect references and influences of the book, but also the influence of capitalist society. Having lived under capitalism, some of what the book describes is intuitive. And some of what the book describes is naturalized and rendered nearly invisible, which is one of the many reasons why it’s such an important book to read. I’m thinking in part of the imposition of work, of the commodification of labor power.

It is easy to think about labor power as a commodity, in some ways this seems like the most natural thing in the world. After reading Marx the condition of labor power commodified ought to seem as it is, historical and contingent. The naturalness of the commodification of labor power can return, however, at the level of theory: after reading Marx it is often still easy to start from and presume the commodified character of labor power. After all, if capitalism exists then labor is commodified. Capitalism obviously exists, therefore labor power must be commodified. Yes, by all means. At the same time, this leaves out the various modes of commodification of labor power (to name just two, waged “free” labor and unwaged slave labor), as well as the forms in which commodification of labor power is created and recreated in various ways across society (to name a few: at the level of force in the form of primitive accumulation, at the level of the extension of commodification into new areas of life as for example in the growth of life insurance, in the extension of exchanges of aspects of life for money as in the growth of injury law) — and in different ways in different social and geographic locations in different societies over time. I don’t know that a historical understanding of labor power (or rather, commodified labor power or the processes of commodification of labor power) would really change the big picture (and/or, v1 of Capital), but it seems to me that there is an important difference between investigating how things actually played out in particular times and places vs assuming how they played out based on the theoretical grasp of capitalism.

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