Archives for category: Marx

Very little, probably. Still, this comment – – got me thinking. Said thoughts here. Read the rest of this entry »


I’ve written before about my impatience with the category ‘fetishism’ in Marx, I’m like quadruply impatient with it in many marxist writings. Fetishizing fetishism, that’s what much of marxistspeak is on this category, the sort of thing best left to the dustbin. I say this because I just started this article at Khukuri. I generally like what’s up there but so far this article… not so much.

To be just slightly less unfair, I quit reading before the section on alienation because I have other stuff I have to get to. I’ll come back later before making a final determination as to what the judgment of history ought to be on the piece (since I am, of course, the arbiter). Thus far in the article it strikes me as part of a whole approach to Marx that ought to be abandoned and which we should look back upon as one of the embarassing habits of our otherwise respected forbears (like poodle skirts, say, and treating illnesses with mercury. I don’t know that Badiou has ever written this sort of thing tied to Marx, I’d be keen to hear his remarks on these categories; Ranciere is quite scathing on this sort of thing, rightly so.) One of the basic intellectual intuitions behind all of this is to find a master category that decodes all of v1 of Capital. The amount of ink spilled on those first three chapters… it’s tied I’m sure to the fact that an embarassing number of cadre of many so-called communist groups and all too-many self-described Marxists never read much further beyond those three chapters, and the overemphasis of those early sections helps continue this condition. There’s also an aesthetic component tied to it, part of the affect of philosophy: “look! fetishism! ooooooohhh! deep! let us ponder and meditate upon its profundity!”

Another way to characterize this basic mistake is that it treats the beginning as laying out the important parts of the book. I don’t think that’s what it does at all. I think the beginning is sort of like the opening to films like The Usual Suspects: it’s an entry point and one which is deliberately crafted to mislead the audience. That means its meaning and its textual function differ. Its real meaning only becomes apparent at the end of the book and should be read via the ending. This fetishizing fetishism approach doesn’t do that, it basically hypostatizes (not 100% sure I’m using that word correctly but I wanted to try it out! woot! vocab points!) the experience of those sections on the reader’s first time through the book.

Below are my minimal notes on what I’ve read of the piece so far. I’ll update this with the rest of my notes as I finish reading. Read the rest of this entry »

I recently re-read the bit of Capital chapter 1 of v1 on commodity fetishism. I’ve long been annoyed by a common habit of treating this short bit as a sort of key that unlocks the whole book. As such, I’ve sort of avoided this bit much of the time for a long while.

In this selection Marx refers repeatedly to commodities has having a “mystical character,” “enigmatical character,” and famously as “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Marx also writes that “wood (…) is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.” These quotes have never sat well with me. Marx has always struck me as having no patience for subtle metaphysical theological enigmatic transcendent niceties. He has always struck me as mocking those. As such, I’m skeptical about the idea that for Marx commodities really do have these qualities. Read the rest of this entry »

More notes related to this thing. Marx says that what capitalists do is spend money to buy materials of various sorts and to hire people to work with those materials. The workers make goods and/or perform services that the capitalist owns. In general, capitalists sell those goods/services for more than what they spent in materials and wages. The difference between the sale price of the product and capitalist’s cost is called surplus value. The operating principle of the capitalist system is for capitalists to spend money in order to make more money, on and on in a spiral. And they way they make money is by making us work. Their wealth comes from our labor, so in an important way we pay our own wages – minus deductions for the capitalist. Read the rest of this entry »

That Desrorieres book on statistics got me thinking about something related to things that have been on the back burner in my mind lately about Marx. There’s a really interesting discussion of prescriptive and descriptive aspects of statistics, which is relevant to parsing out those elements in Marx, and then there’s the matter of paying attention to the sources Marx used in writing his chapter on the working day. I don’t have the book in front of me and can’t find the bit I’m thinking of online, but someplace in the short book collecting Marx and Engels’ correspondence on the writing of Capital Marx refers to the chapter on the working day as a compliment or sequel to Engels’ early book on the conditions of the working class in england, and suggests that Engels might revise and update it drawing on new data. He councils Engels about which information is scientifically sound, recommending the state inspection and (if I remember right, not sure I do) statistical agencies. That information and the history through which it came to be compiled and available to Marx is an important part of how Marx wrote at least those passages of v1 of Capital. I think Marx’s treatment of this material could be a bit more self-reflexive, by which I mean that is analysis could explain a bit more of its own conditions of existence: why did the information he drew on come to exist and be accessible to him? what does that say about capitalism, if anything, or about British capitalism and the British state at the time the material was collected and when Marx made use of it?

“Nothing is more characteristic of the spirit of capital than the history of the English Factory Acts from 1833 to 1864,” Marx claims, in Capital volume 1, in a section of the chapter on the working day. Read the rest of this entry »

A friend sent me some writing on chapter 1 of v1 of Capital, which set some wheels turning in my head.

I’ve written about this before, I don’t think the use value vs exchange value distinction is a very good one, I think it tracks onto really important distinctions but is clumsy. It seems to me that by some of Marx’s standards, exchange value isn’t clearly distinguishable from use value and there’s a conceptual asymmetry between then. I think exchange value logically ought to be considered a subset of use value, a subset which is peculiarly important under capitalism and which regulates other actually existing use values and their production under capitalism.

What just struck me now is that I think this distinction is tied in to a larger/more general conceptual thing that Marx does, which is to blur descriptive and prescriptive categories. Descriptively, exchange values meet Marx’s minimalist criteria for use values — use values meet any need whatever — I like his phrase, something along the lines of “whether of the belly or the fancy” — which means “use” is the act of any need whatever. In that case, there’s nothing in the categories to rule out a need to abstract, a need to exploit, a need to mediate, etc. All the things exchange value does and all the acts implied in that social relation, all of those can be called needs and can fit into use value. Indeed, capitalists really do need those things, in so far as they want to remain capitalists.

On the other hand, prescriptively, use value serves a function in criticizing the dominance of exchange value. That’s an important function but I don’t know that there’s much of a gain by Marx making both terms be called “use value” and by not clearly distinguishing prescription and description. (I think there’s some tie here to the stuff on socially necessary labor time.)

As a parallel, there’s that Race Traitor journal slogan, something like “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” This is true in a prescriptive sense of humanity, but descriptively ‘treason to whiteness’ is about opposing a set of social relations in which one subset of humans predominate over the rest. So the meaning of ‘humanity’ is different in the opposition between whiteness and humanity than it is in, say, “humanity descended from homo erectus” or “humanity is peculiarly prone to choking, compared to other primates, because of the size of the larynx.” In this example I think the distinction is obvious, but I think in Marx with use value and exchange value it’s not so obvious.

I’m not sure there are any real stakes to this. One thing I think that does follow from this is a criticism of some of the autonomist marxist perspectives on “the commons” both historically and in the present. The criteria for being considered “commons” seem to mostly be about non-commodified access to use values. The thing is that that’s too broad a notion, we aren’t simply against capitalism, we’re for a good society. Non-commodified access to use values admits of a lot of oppressive variants as well as liberatory ones.

One other thought, not really related to the above, I think Marx exaggerates the extent of commodification in capitalism. In a way, this is I think a sort of literary quality. In a way, this is I think a sort of literary quality. As a parallel, I’m told that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle depicts a world in which there are very few small businesses and independent proprietors. He writes in a social realist perspective but in the time he depicts, his own day, there were actually a host of those kinds of economic actors. Their absence would have been glaring and startling to the readers in his day, and this is probably why he wrote that way. (This is in the book The Racketeer’s Progress, which then argues that many have missed this quality of Sinclair’s work and so have mistakenly assumed his realism was reality.) In this, Sinclair mixes description and a sort of prescription. I think Marx does similar, magnifying elements of capitalism and distilling them.

In actually existing capitalism there are a host of noncommodified circuits of production and distribution — we’re participating in one right now, in a way. They’re under the dominance of a system of commodification, and there’s a tendency to find activities and commodify them, but there remain important parts of life that are not directly posited as exchange values. Wallerstein argues in Historical Capitalism that this is actually better for capitalism as a whole and that individual capitalists are better off if ‘their’ employees keep a certain range of their needs noncommodified because there’s an upward threshold on commodification which starts to increase the likelihood of pressures on (conflicts over) wages (of course there’s also a bottom threshold which allows workers to avoid work, capitalists want people above that). At the same time, capitalists want the employees of other capitalists to have their access to use values be as commodified as possible, because then there’s more to sell them. Wallerstein argues that in capitalism today there’s probably an overextension of commodification and that creates problems for the system at present.

I had more in mind about this but I’m very tired and have forgotten some of my points.

In chapter 1 of volume 1 of Capital, Marx says that when comes to commodities, their value comes from “the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article.” This quantity consists in the “labour time socially necessary (…) required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.” This means that what “determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production.” Read the rest of this entry »

(I’ve had sporadic internet and computer access for a bit here so I’ve written bits of drafts of a few posts over a few days, I’m going to post this stuff all now.)

This began as a digression during my post taking notes on the very beginning of v2 of Capital. I decided to cut it into its own post. More on reproduction… Read the rest of this entry »

(I’ve had sporadic internet and computer access for a bit here so I’ve written bits of drafts of a few posts over a few days, I’m going to post this stuff all now.)

Getting into v2 of Capital now, beyond the preface.

Marx describes what he calls “the circular movement of capital” (23) via this abbreviation:


The dashes represent market activity (exchanges) and the ellipses represent time away from markets (production). Marx breaks this sequence down into “three stages.” (23.) Read the rest of this entry »