Staring Into the Abyss

A Blog on Theory, Anarchy, Nihilism and Whatever Else I Post Here

Pages 293-307

During the previous session the focus was on the concept and material process of labor. In this discussion we went through a critical element for understanding the discussion for this session. Specifically I am referring to the connection of laborer and context to product.

In the labor process the laborer enters into a conflict with the particularity of the moment and the nuances of material and tools. In the labor process a laborer, who is a person at a time and space, comes into contact with a material, which is in its form only in that time and space. This extreme historical particularity not only ensures that every act of production is a unique unrepeatable moment, unlike any other moment, but that it is inherently tied to the particularities of that moment.

As such, we cannot approach labor as something that either necessarily produces a specific product, all products, even of the same type, are different materially, nor something that can be thought of as a mechanism of the past or the future. Labor exists as an activity, in which we come into contact with material and tools, all of which contribute to the final outcome. But, this is just labor as labor. As we have seen, the introduction of capital fundamentally shifts the calculation around time.

Early in the chapter Marx foreshadows this a bit. In the discussion at the beginning of the chapter there are two distinctions that are made, one is between time and labour-power, and the second is between unique product of labor and generic object of commodification. During the act of production, as production, one is engaged in activity on a particularized basis. The act is a unique act, which have never occurred before and will never occur again, and this uniqueness is formed from the particularity of time, the particularity of material, of labor, of action and of tooling, all of which are not ever to be repeatable in this same form. This act is actualized immediately, it is only ever what it is, and results in the object being produced in a unique form.

The problem, within the context of commodity circulation, is that without a nested series of generalizations. The first layer of generalization we have discussed extensively, the generalization of value in the ways that value is attributed to objects. This imparting of equivalent forms of value eliminates the particularity of the object. On a second layer, this also generalizes the act of production as well.

When a capitalist purchases labor, they are not purchasing actualized labor, or labor that is occurring. Rather, what is purchased is the potentiality of activity of the worker in the future, or labour-power. In order to do this all acts of labor need to be rendered equivalent, and able to be valued quantitatively; we call that a wage. The process in which labor gets rendered equivalent and imbued into the value of the commodity is called valorization, and that is where we will be focusing our attention today.

Before jumping into the notes I want to re-emphasize another point made in weeks past. The content for this section really focuses heavily on the labor theory of value. Within this conceptualization labor is utilized through the medium of tools to change a material into a use-value. In the end product the value of that product is in itself an expression of all of the labor accumulated in that object, and every step that was taken to get to that object. But, as Marx has stated, there is a problem here. If labor were the only determination of all value, including exchange value, then all products would be valued at what their value in production was, and profit would be impossible.

What occurs in the valorization of the commodity, and labor within the commodity, is that value shifts form from a qualitative value of the particularized object and moment to the quantitative magnitude of equivalent objects and moments. After this process of wrenching moments and things out of history, profit margins are then added to this quantified value. These margins are based on conditions that exceed the object, such as social conditions, political circumstances, abstract risk, supply and demand dynamics and so on. This addition of profit margins have been used by capitalist economists to claim that the labor theory of value is not relevant, but this position misses something, once profit is added and the quantitative value exceeds that of the quantification of all labor embodied in the object we leave the realm of value and enter the realm of price. Again, it is the labor theory of VALUE, and not the labor theory of PRICE. To understand what is going on in this section that distinction is critical.

With that all out of the way, here are the notes for this session.

  • We begin where we left off during the last session, with the connection between labor and value. This discussion can get us pretty far in attempting to understand the ontology of capitalism, but there is a clear gap here; thus far we have been unable to really speak of labor itself as a commodity, except to say that it is one. That is what we will be approaching during this session.

Labor, in its base form, creates use-values, or it produces objects that have a use for the recipient or consumer of that object. As we have discussed, this concept of value, which is particular to the consumer at a particular moment, is eliminated in the process of capitalist circulation, and all value is reduced to exchange value, with exchange value being expressed in a magnitude of quantity. In this form the object retains its use-value for the consumer, but for the capitalist these use-values are only produced to function as the “material substratum”, or mechanism of transport, for abstract exchange value. In this form use becomes contingent on exchange, and labor is turned toward producing objects, not based on utility or use, but purely based on the possibility of exchange.

“Our capitalist has two objectives : in the first place, he wants to produce a use-value which has exchange-value, i.e. an article destined to be sold, a commodity ; and secondly he wants to produce a commodity greater in value than the sum of the values of the commodities used to produce it, namely the means of production and the labour-power he purchased with his good money on the open market. His aim is to produce not only a use-value, but a commodity; not only use-value, but value; and not just value, but also surplus-value.” (293)

  • Just as the commodity functions as a materiality contingent on an abstraction, labor, inserted into capital flows, also attempts to function around a paradoxical fusion, now between the materiality of labor and the creation of value. The value of the commodity is related to the perceived use of the object conceived of by the buyer and expressed through quantified abstraction. Within this circulation of commodities, we also have to redefine the concept of use.

Take, for example, something like a stock. It is a commodity, even if it is an abstract commodity, and it would seem like that stock does not have any direct use-value. But, in reality that stock allows one to have a level of control over the entity they hold stock in to the proportion of stock that they own out of the total. Stock is also tradeable, and can in itself be used as a mechanism through which its direct use is to create surplus value. Even in this case, where we are talking about an abstraction that only exists in relation to another abstraction (a part of an abstract legal entity), there is still value in the use of the object.

For the object as such, the object as object, the value of the object is related to the labor utilized to produce the object as a use-value. Though the abstraction of price will emerge in the circulation process, the value of the capitalist commodity is still determined by aggregate labor, now expressed through the lens of capitalist production as a quantity of equivalent labor and laborers.

“It must be borne in mind that we are now dealing with the production of commodities, and that up to this point we have considered only one aspect of the process. Just as the commodity itself is a unity formed of use-value and value, so the process of production must be a unity, composed of the labour process and the process of creating value [ Wertbildungsprozess ].

Let us now examine production as a process of creating value. We know that the value of each commodity is determined by the quantity of labour materialized in its use-value, by the labour­ time socially necessary to produce it. This rule also holds good in the case of the product handed over to the capitalist as a result of the labour-process.” (293)

  • This value of aggregate labor manifests through a number of forms that are outside of immediate labor. The base material is extracted or purchased, which takes on the guise of labor valued through quantifiable magnitude. The same goes for the wear on the machine, which is expressed as a partial cost per object of the overall cost of the machine, product loss, social conditions and elements that impact efficiency and so on. All of these elements of overall value involve labor as a force of creating value, and all of which then contribute to the overall price of the object in market circulation.

Outside of labor itself, however, all of these circumstantial elements, like social unrest, cannot be directly taken into account in the price of the object for a very simple reason; the object is priced now, but social unrest, for example, has an endless timeline of possibility. These elements are also not able to be generalized as a standard cost, the events themselves and the dynamics of existence are not able to be subsumed to generalized concepts. But, most importantly for our discussion here, these elements cannot be eliminated either; they are the distance between life and abstraction, and to eliminate contingency would mean to eliminate life itself. So, without an ability to take these elements into account, or the ability to eliminate them in the calculation of value, the value of the commodity comes to be determined by an averaging of potential costs.

“Hence in determining the value of the yarn, or the labour-time required for its production, all .the special processes carried on at various times and in different places which were necessary, first to produce the cotton and the wasted portion of the spindle, and then with the cotton and the spindle to spin the yarn, may together be looked on a s different and successive phases of the same labour process. All the labour contained in the yarn is past labour; and it is a matter of no importance that the labour expended to produce its constituent elements lies further back in the past than the labour expended on the final process, the spinning. The former stands, as it were, in the pluperfect, the latter in the perfect tense, but this does not matter. If a definite quantity of labour, say thirty days, is needed to build a house, the total amount of labour in­corporated in the house is not altered by the fact that the work of the last day was done twenty-nine days later than that of the first. Therefore the labour contained i n the raw material and instruments of labour can be treated just as if it were labour expended in an earlier stage of the spinning process, before the labour finally added in the form of actual spinning.” (294-295)

  • Within this structure it is not just important to identify an average of contingent costs, it is also important to prevent anything from happening that could displace that average. To allow for this structure of exchange value to function, not only do conditions of production need to be leveled, but also the particularities of labor and laborers. When an object is made purely as a use-value the particularity of the labor expended helps determine the shape of the object. Within capitalist production this quality of labor disappears, and must, otherwise all objects would need to be valued separately, rendering mass production impossible.

In most economics this elimination of contingency if treated like a simple efficiency calculation. In reality, this imposition of generic average is the very foundations for the assembly line, Taylorism and the entirety of the performance metric driven workplace, which is structured to construct the worker as an entity as close to a machine as possible; this is the ultimate core of the alienation of the laborer from labor within the wage structure. We will return to some of these themes when we get to Chapter 15, which is about the factory, in a couple of weeks.

“We have now to consider this labour from a standpoint quite different from that adopted for the labour process. There we viewed it solely as the activity which has the purpose of changing cotton into yarn ; there, the more appropriate the work was to its purpose, the better the yarn, other circumstances remaining the same. In that case the labour of the spinner was specifically different from other kinds of productive labour, and this difference revealed itself both subjectively in the particular purpose of spinning, and objectively in the special character of its operations, the special nature of its means of production, and the special use-value of its product. For the operation of spinning, cotton and spindles are a necessity, but for making rifled cannon they would be of no use whatever. Here, on the contrary, where we consider the labour of the spinner only in so far as it creates value, i.e. is a source of value, that labour differs in no respect from the labour of the man who bores cannon, or (what concerns us more closely here) from the labour of the cotton-plan ter and the spindle-maker which is realized in the means of production of the yarn. It is solely by reason of this identity that cotton plan ting, spindle-making and spinning are capable of forming the component parts of one whole, namely the value of the yarn, differing only quantitatively from each other. Here we are no longer concerned with the quality, the character and the content of the labour, but merely with its quantity. And this simply requires to be calculated. We assume that spinning is simple labour, the average labour of a given society. Later it will be seen that the contrary assumption would make no difference.” (295-296)

  • In this process all labor is rendered both equivalent and potential. The labor that one sells to the capitalist is not work performed in a specific, particular, unique way in the past. Rather, one is only able to sell the potential of generic labor; this is the selling of a portion of the future to mediocrity. As labor is rendered generic, and measured as a quantity, all that comes to matter is the quantity and not the type of labor or laborer. For example, to a capitalist fine metal machining and mass produced metal casting do not differ on a qualitative level, but only on the level of the time and cost of that time. The products of that labor are equivalent, in that they are both quantities, and the labor aggregated in the object is also equivalent, as a quantity, even if machining is a fine craft that takes years to learn and casting is a common and simple process. The material is also reduced to a quantity, with the quanytitative difference disappearing through its role as the substrate to which labor is inscribed and, as a result, value attributed.

“During the labour process, the worker's labour constantly under­goes a transformation, from the form of unrest [ Unruhe] into that of being [Sein ] , from the form of motion [Bewegung] into that of objectivity [Gegenstiindlichkeit]. At the end of one hour, the spinning motion is represented in a certain quantity of yarn; in other words, a definite quantity of labour, namely that of one hour, has been objectified in the cotton. We say labour, i.e. the expenditure of his vital force by the spinner, and not spinning labour, because the special work of spinning counts here only in so far as it is the expenditure of labour-power in general, and not the specific labour of the spinner.

In the process we are now considering it is of extreme importance that no more time be consumed in the work of transforming the cotton into yarn than is necessary under the given social conditions; If under normal, i.e. average social conditions of production, x pounds of cotton are made into y pounds of yarn by one hour's labour; then a day's labour does not count as 12 hours' labour un­less 12x lb. of cotton have been made in to 12y lb. of yarn ; for only socially necessary labour-time counts towards the creation of value.

Not only the labour, but also the raw material and the product now appear in quite a new light, very different from that in which we viewed them in the labour process pure and simple. Now the raw material merely serves to absorb a definite quantity of labour. By being soaked in labour, the raw material is in fact changed into yarn, because labour-power is expended in the form of spinning and added to it ; but the product, the yarn, is now nothing more than a measure of the labour absorbed by the cotton. If in one hour 1 2/3 lb. of cotton can be spun into 1 2/3 lb. of yarn, then 10 lb. of yarn indicate the absorption of 6 hours of labour. Definite quantities of product, quantities which are determined by experience, now represent nothing but definite quantities of labour, definite masses of crystallized labour-time. They are now simply the material shape taken by a given number of hours or days of social labour.” (295-296)

  • From this process all that results is a value equivalent to capital invested. For capitalism to function there must be a differential between these values, and to achieve this difference surplus-value must be added. It is in the addition of this surplus value that production moves from creating value into valorization.

“By turning his money into commodities which serve as the building materials for a new product, and as factors in the labour process, by incorporating living labour into their lifeless objec­tivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labour in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ' work ', ' as if its body were by love possessed '.

If we now compare the process of creating value with the process of valorization, we see that the latter is nothing but the con­tinuation of the former beyond a definite point. If the process is not carried beyond the point where the value paid by the capitalist for the labour-power is replaced by an exact equivalent, it is simply a process of creating value ; but if it is continued beyond that point, it becomes a process of valorization.

If we proceed further, and compare the process of creating value with the labour process, we find that the latter consists in the useful labour which produces use-values. Here the movement of production is viewed qualitatively, with regard to the particular kind of article produced, and in accordance with the purpose and content of the movement. But if it is viewed as a value-creating process the same labour process appears only quantitatively. Here it is a question merely of the time needed to do the work, of the period, that is, during which the labour-power is usefully expended.Here the commodities which enter into the labour process no longer count as functionally determined and material elements on whieh labour-power acts with a given purpose. They count merely as definite quantities of objectified labour. Whether it was already contained in the means of production, or has just been added by the action of labour-power, that labour counts only according to its duration. It amounts to so many hours, or days, etc.” (302-303)

Pages 283-293

The reading for this week is the beginning of the process of taking all of this complex, abstract and somewhat obtuse theory and grounding it in something tangible, in this case labor. Remember, when we discussed labor earlier that discussion tended to revolve around the concept of the labor theory of value or the positionality of labor within the wider dynamic of circulation.

These ideas are critical to understand, but throughout this discussion there is something lacking, namely a discussion of what labor even really is. That seems like a silly, self-evident element of everyday life, but it is actually a much more complex idea than we often allow it to be. For example, during this clapter Marx will differentiate between work, labor and labor-power. But, even beyond that the concept of labor is fundamentally bound up with the social structure of labor and the relationships between power, knowledge and our understandings of the world.

The concept of labor that has carried itself through the trajectory of Western philosophy is a concept that makes a series of difficult to identify assertions about life, and our relationship to the world. These assumptions are so commonly held that they almost disappear into a sense of unstated normality. But, core to this question, in its traditional understanding, is a very clear, and very problematic, concept of the human.

This conception of the human, which finds a clear early expression in Aristotle, will sound very familiar. It is the concept that there is a fundamental separation between the human and everything else, grouped under the concept of nature. This separation is typified by a dynamic of extraction and domination, namely that “nature” is the dominion of the human. Clearly this idea carried over into Christianity, through the Book of Genesis.

But, coupled with this idea is a specific concept of how we create, or what the process of making something entails. Within this Aristotelian conception the human functions in a relationship with nature in which the human has total sovereignty. This means that, not only can the human extract whatever they need, but also that “nature” is a sort of passive and inert substance. When we make something, say carving something out of wood, within this understanding of the world that carving transfers directly from the mind to the object, with the material presenting no resistance to human action.

Now, anyone that has ever carved wood or, in my case I mess around with amateur metal machining and fabrication, knows that materials all have tolerances, unevenness, gaps, areas which present different resistances, flows that move cleanly through a material and so on. A wood carving needs to take grain into account, as a really simple example, but also if one is welding the metal can warp due to heating differentials. None of that can possibly exist within this traditional understanding of the separation between “human” and “nature”.

There is a lot more to say on this topic, and someday I plan on doing a seminar on the concept of production and the dynamic between the concept of the human and the materiality of prosthetic tools. It is not time to dive into this here, now, but if you are interested I would recommend the Technics and Time series by Bernard Steigler or War In The Age of Intelligent Machines and Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel Delanda.

For now, what is relevant are two points that I will briefly summarize before getting into the heart of the notes. The first is that this traditional conception of production is something that a lot of Marxists impose into Marx; this is the entire basis for the 5 Year Plans, for example. But, as we will see, that reductionistic reading misses a lot of really critical nuance. Secondly, it is in this nuance that we can begin the process of understanding wage labor and the ways that labor is commodified, as well as the ontological impacts of that. We will leave the commodification, valorization, process for next week, and will focus on this understanding of labor presented here for this series of notes.

So, sit back, relax and enjoy!

  • Immediately Marx makes a subtle distinction which is very core to the arguments here. This distinction is between work and labor. The worker is defined through the lens of capitalist production, it is one who sells their potential labor as part of the production process. In the process of becoming-worker a metamorphosis of activity occurs, in which it is taken from a fundamental and simple form and inserted into a different mode of occurrence.

To exist one must possess the potential for activity; to not have the potential to act is to literally describe death. Though these possibilities must exist for one to exist, that does not mean that all of these potentialities are manifested. This potentiality of action, therefore, serves as a sort of labor in waiting, time and effort that can be turned toward a task.

In the construction of labour-power, or labor that has been utilized as part of a mode of a commodified mode of production, the individual is specifically selling this potential labor. During this process a space is opened between the production process itself and the social context of that production. In other words, in the process of labor becoming labour-power or work the social context of labor has been inserted into the dynamic, allowing for the commodification of labor to even be possible. Labor itself is a separate category, independent from the social context of labor, which comes to shape and channel labor. It is in this locality that the structure of power comes to impact the possibilities of activity.

On a second level another gap is opened, this time between the value produced and its circulation within capitalism. This separation has been discussed before, but the point takes on a slightly different shape here. To the degree that labor and the social context of labor are not inherently connected (there are many different social contexts in which labor can occur, and none are essential for labor to occur), this then comes to form the basis of the separation of value created and value circulated. When labor as such occurs the result is the production of use value. It is in the insertion and imposition of a specific context for labor in which this value gets rendered irrelevant, and the object can begin to express the exchange value that ultimately constructs the object as a commodity. It is in these separations that Marx can talk about workers being separated from the products of their labor; that labor ceases to be labor as such and becomes work through its insertion into commodity circulation.

“Hence what the capitalist sets the worker to produce is a particular use-value, a specific article. The fact that the production of use-values, or goods, is carried on under the control of a capitalist and on his behalf does not alter the general character of that production. We shall therefore, in the first place, have to consider the labour process independently of any specific social formation.” (283)

  • Labor, in this basic and fundamental form, prior to the question of social context, is framed here through a concept of a conflict between human and nature. There are an entire boatload of caveats in these statements, of which we will be focused on a few. Before diving into the complications it makes sense to discuss the traditional understanding of labor and its relationship to “nature”, as well as the Leninist interpretation of this (which is, surprisingly, super reductionistic and flat out wrong).

The traditional conception of labor has a number of different roots, including Aristotle and later the Bible. In these narratives this conflict between human and “nature” is based on a number of assumptions. Firstly, there is an assumption that the categories of human and nature are clear and absolute in their separation. This concept is one grounded in the arrogant narrative of “human reason”, and a lack of understanding of the non-human. It also essentializes the human as a thing when, if we follow thinkers like Bernard Steigler here, the human is more identified by the uses of what it is not, namely what Steigler terms prostheses, or, in other words, tools. Consequently this posits some essential characteristic to “nature” as well. These essentializing narratives would literally require understanding the totality of all possible things in all possible ways to even begin to venture some sort of discourse around.

The second element if this traditional understanding is centered around a domination narrative. In Leninist thought this conflict between the human and nature is one in which the task of the human is to dominate nature, to extract from it what is necessary, and to do so as some sort of absurd concept of political duty; this becomes very clear in the early Soviet modernization programs and later in the farm collectivization program and other state central planning processes. This narrative rests on the first, and then attempts to essentialize conflict as something with a victor and a conclusion. Conflict, however, is a much simpler concept, and means nothing more than the non-sameness of things, or the discordance between two entities, but not necessarily antagonism or domination. All of that content is being added in retroactively and used to support points that drift pretty far from this narrative.

These two assertions come together to form a narrative in which the natural is nothing but inert material that is able to be readily manipulated by the human without any resistance. The deficiencies of this understanding are obvious for anyone that has ever done wood or metal working. Both disciplines are largely centered around how to work with and compensate for irregularities and features of the material itself. For example, when welding one needs to tack down the pieces to one another at various points throughout the welding path, prior to actually welding the seam. This is because welding adds significant heat to the material, which causes distortions to the material and causes its shape to change. So, far from an inert and passive medium, the material itself presents distinct features that we are in “conflict” with during the act of making something.

There is plenty of language in this section of the chapter that seems to be pushing in this traditional direction, with concepts of sovereignty, power and some inherent separation between human and “nature. However, interspersed with that language you will find quotes (like the one below) in which it becomes clear that something more complex is going on here. Far from just repeating some sort of dogmatic humanism, Marx is actually expressing what, for the time, was a highly complex understanding of the interplay between laborer, material and ontology.The natural in the narrative Marx is crafting here is not one of a passive and definitive nature wholly separate from the human. Rather, this narrative is centered around a dynamic between labor and material, where the “natural” is an active and dynamic space that presents “forces” (to use Marx's term) that are acted upon by labor to ultimately produce a thing that is the result of both labor and the features of the material, or nature.

This allows us to think through a few questions that would be impossible to understand if we think of nature in this Aristotelian/Leninist framework of passive inert nature. Firstly, we would never be able to describe failure. If “nature” were a passive entity acted upon unilaterally by the human, then there could never be any mistakes in the process of taking concept and manifesting it in concrete form. Secondly, and this is critical later when we discuss value and price in the next section, without being able to speak of “nature” as a dynamic entity that is in flux, we can never discuss decay or degradation.

In this dynamic labor, prior to commodification, is in a dynamic with “nature”, or material, typified not by unchallenged human activity and inert materials, but is, rather, a dynamic based in intent and conflict. The shape of the object and material acts of construction exist in a dynamic between laborer and “nature”, making the resultant creation one that is inherently connected to both the laborer and the material in a particularized sense.

“Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.” (283)

  • The tool functions as the medium through which human and material interact. Marx is speaking of this in a highly foundational way, namely that all prosthetics are tools, and tools are necessary for humans to make anything. For example, one cannot carve wood without a tool, or can't fight animals without weapons (we are kind of weak, slow and soft, and don't have claws or big sharp teeth). Even on the basic level of using a rock as a projectile, the object that we throw is a tool.

As with material, the tool itself presents additional and shifting resistances. Tools and the materials they are made of have limitations. Metal, for example, cannot cut harder metals. These tools also degrade, change shape, fail in their tasks. This is all added into the aggregate contingency of the nuances of the material, the skills and capability of the laborer and the social and political conditions of production to construct a far more complex relationship than one would ever derive from reading Lenin.

“An instrument of labour is a thing, or a complex of things, which the worker interposes between himself and the object of his labour and which serves as a conductor, directing his activity onto that object. He makes use of the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of some substances in order to set them to work on other substances as instruments of his power, and in accordance with his purposes. Leaving out of consideration such ready made means of subsistence as fruits, in gathering which a man's bodily organs alone serve as the instruments of his labour, the object the worker directly takes possession of is not the object of labour but its instrument. Thus nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, which he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself in spite of the Bible. As the earth is his original larder, so too it is his original tool house. It supplies him, for instance, with stones for throwing, grinding, pressing, cutting, etc. The earth itself is an instrument of labour, but its use in this way, in agriculture, presupposes a whole series of other instruments and a comparatively high stage of development of labour-power.” (285)

-The process terminates in the object that is produced in this dynamic, and that object, regardless of social form, carries use-value along with it. This use-value is not some sort of direct transference of human idea onto inert material, but is rather a product of labor undertaken on a dynamic material, in a dynamic moment in history, using tools that only exist in a particular way in any moment. This fundamentally binds the production of the object to the particular time and space of its production, and not in the generalized, depersonalized, generic form we infer from mass production. The mass produced object does not escape this dynamic, but that is a topic for Chapter 15.

The product, however, is not some sort of final point of termination. As we can derive from the concept of the labor theory of value, or even just a basic understanding of the logistics of supply chains, products become bound up in the production of other products, and this complicates the relation between object and use-value. Within capitalist production resources are consumed, all of which were products from former acts of production. In this form the use-value of the object becomes directly bound up with the circulation of commodities, and begin to function purely on that basis. This debases the object from direct use-value, and begins to redefine use-value around the terms of exchange-value.

“The process is extinguished in the product. The product of the process is a use-value, a piece of natural material adapted to human needs by means of a change in its form. Labour has become bound up in its object : labour has been objectified, the object has been worked on. What on the side of the worker appeared in the form of unrest [Unruhe] now appears, on the side of the product, in the form of being [Sein], as a fixed, immobile characteristic. The worker has spun, and the product is a spinning...Although a use-value emerges from the labour process, in the form of a product, other use-values, products of previous labour, enter into it as means of production. The same use-value is both the product of a previous process, and a means of production in a later process. Products are therefore not only results of labour, but also its essential conditions.” (287)

  • For next time we will be working through the second part of this chapter, where we start to see how the process of production gets appropriated within the process of capitalist production.

Pages 247-257

Welcome to Chapter 4!

This is one of the shortest chapters in the book, but probably one of the most important. Up to this point we have approached the concept of money as a mechanism of the transfer of value in circulation, and hoarding being what occurs when that money is taken out of circulation. Most anti-capitalists I have spoken to over the years utilize the terms capital and money interchangeably, but there is actually a really nuanced distinction between the two that has some profound impacts on the ways that economics functions on an ontological level.

This initial formulation, of money as a mechanism of transference, is able to explain how the structure of commodities, as material objects alienated from themselves and valued abstractly and quantitatively, allows for exchange and circulation to occur. It is even able to discuss certain aspects of the commodity form, such as the fact that the materiality of the object disappears in commodity circulation. This is all well and good when we are merely trying to discuss the ways in which commodities are bought and sold.

This formulation hits a distinct limit, however. Within this mechanism there is no way to explain the movement of money within a process of circulation in which money itself is the outcome, and not circulation. This is a structure that we call capitalism, and the nuanced shifts between capital and money interact with this initial formulation to allow us to explain much more complex phenomena, like credit, stocks, investments and so on.

That is what we will be discussing for this week, how money differs from capital, and how that distinction comes to shape some pretty critical elements of the discourse on capitalism.

Oh, I figured I should mention, I published my first article on economics, centered around the Chinese housing market, the collapse of Evergrande, the paradoxes of global economics at present and how this could all combine to generate economic crisis conditions globally. If any of you are interested you can find it here:

  • Marx begins this chapter by restating a core, and often misunderstood point; that the core of capital resides in commodity circulation, and thus the commodity form, of which production is only a part. This firmly positions the point of intervention broadly, on a wide social scale, at innumerable nodes, with not all of these existing within the realm of commodity production. I repeat this point often, but it is critical in the actual task we are undertaking here, which is not merely to read and understand Capital, or to even understand capitalism, but to identify and locate effective points of intervention within that circulation. Those that want to confine this to workerism are completely missing the vast array of terrain outside of the mechanisms of production (which is a question that in itself has been vastly disrupted in the move away from purely industrial production).

Commodity circulation forms the ontological core of capitalism, as we have been discussing, and this is embodied in the commodity form itself, the paradoxical construction of a material object in which its material particularity is irrelevant. It is in this process of rendering all things equivalent, and able to only be differentiated by magnitude or quantity, that the commodity gets displaced from itself, its material form is rendered irrelevant and it is reduced purely to a means through which value is transported between transactions.

The paradoxical construction of the commodity, and the alienation of the object from its own conditions of possibility, forms the foundations of the abstraction of the object, which allows for it to come into contact with all other commodity flows, and have those flows all function as a movement of value, regardless of the materiality marginalized by that abstraction. Without this dual removal (from itself as an object and from its conditions of possibility), the entire attempt to discuss circulating value, which is a precursor for capital, would be incomprehensible. The social and historical manifestations this ontological alienation finds its expression in circulation, and by extension production.

“If we disregard the material content of the circulation of commodities, i.e. the exchange of the various use-values, and consider only the economic forms brought into being by this process, we find that its ultimate product is money. This ultimate product of commodity circulation is the first form of appearance of capital” (247).

  • Money and capital are not purely equivalent terms. In its most basic form money only refers to the mechanism through which abstract value is transported through circulation outside of the commodity. In this form, where money is used to facilitate commodity circulation, where money has a direct use-value as a mechanism of exchange, it remains only money. When money is used to purchase or produce commodities purely for for the sale of the object, without this implying that the money acquired stays within circulation, it already functions as capital.

In this process where money is used to acquire the commodity for sale the commodity itself, as a material object, vanishes from relevance, and becomes nothing other than a mechanism through which value is transferred as well. Functionally what occurs at this point is that money is being traded for a different quantity of money. To put this another way, when we are engaged in circulation purely for the ability to extract value from the transaction, separate from the use of that value, what occurs is that the shape of the commodity and its material existence cease to matter, and what happens is that value is used to acquire the commodity, which results in getting value back from the sale of the commodity. In this scenario the commodity exists as a mechanism through which magic occurs, a mechanism through which one can “make” money. Money, when it is used in this form is capital.

Marx uses the example of buying bushels of corn. Say someone buys a bushel of corn for $100, and then they turn around and sell it for $110. What has occurred here is that $100 has become $110 simply by shifting form from money to commodity and back to money again. The materiality of the commodity can be anything in this space, all that matters is that it conveys value from money to money.

The quantities of money that are moved through in this process must be different between the beginning of circulation and the end of the circuit; if they were the same there would be no point in engaging in the activity. Capital only functions as capital due to a differential between money invested and the quantity of money acquired in exchange.

“In the circulation C-M-C, the money is in the end converted into a commodity which serves as a use-value; it has therefore been spent once and for all. In the inverted for M-C-M, on the contrary, the buyer lays out money in order that, as a seller, he may recover money. By the purchase of his commodity he throws money into circulation, in order to withdraw it again by the sale of the same commodity. He releases the money, but only with the cunning intention of getting it back again. The money is therefore not spent, it is merely advanced” (249).

  • As such, the core differentiation point between capital and money flows along around questions of circulation, of which production is a part. This introduces a tension that we see play out in a myriad of ways within everyday life in the 21st Century. Money becomes capital to the degree that money becomes an end in itself, to the degree that the objective is money itself, and not the use-value of money as a mechanism of purchase. This firmly attaches capital to accumulation, by definition, and as such, constructs capital as a flow of circulation which then pulls money out of circulation. It is only here that we start to see phenomena, such as the accumulation of wealth and wealth stratification, where accumulation exceeds the ability of commodities to circulate. At the end of this process, in theory, is the possibility of one person dominating all economic assets, but in that space commodity circulation ceases to occur. So, on this level, the very structure of capital itself exists as a self-destructive paradox in which the more capital functions as capital, and not as money, the less likely it is that commodity circulation can continue within a capitalist context.

We saw this dynamic play itself out in the formation of the New Deal, for example. The New Deal was an attempt to restart commodity circulation after the Great Depression, and construct a mechanism to always preserve the ability of consumers to spend by providing subsidies and social assistance. The Great Depression was largely caused, or at least heavily facilitated by, the fact that preceding the Depression the US saw the worst stratification of wealth in its history, with the exception of right now. In that condition there were not enough consumers (people with money) to be able to sustain the economy when the stock market crashed due to the failure of over-leveraged investments.

The Depression posed a systemic risk to capitalism as a result of the collapse of the consumer. The New Deal was structured specifically to build what they referred to as a “stable consumption index”, namely a base amount of consumer spending guaranteed by government programs that companies could base investment decisions around. By providing programs like the GI Bill, Welfare and Section 8 the state was able to keep consumers spending money by providing the money they would spend. In other words, the New Deal was less of a move toward some sort of odd market socialism, and a lot more about providing subsidies to companies through subsidizing consumption.

It is at this point that we start to see commodity circulation metastasize into capitalism through the medium of abstract value. To the degree that capital functions to extract money through commodity sale, and to store that money as an end in itself, then necessarily, to the degree that capital functions, the conditions of possibility for existence is fundamentally bound up in the conditions of circulating abstract value. This interplays with the core of the commodity form, the rendering equivalent of all things as quantities, which already displaces the conditions of existence away from materiality and into the circulation of abstract value. In this structure all activity becomes premised on exchange-value, rather than just exchange, or the use of money. The world floats into the background entirely.

“The process M-C-M does not therefore owe its content to any qualitative difference between its extremes, for they are both money, but solely to the quantitative changes. More money is finally withdrawn from circulation than was thrown into it at the beginning...The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while in circulation, but increases its magnitude, adds to itself a surplus-value, or is valorized. And this movement converts it into capital” (251-252).

  • The process starts to approach a limitlessness. When accumulation enters stasis in the hoard, technically capital is timeless within an infinite hoard, removing it from history in an active sense. We see this with Bitcoin, for example, where coin can persist indefinitely as long as there is still a blockchain in operation, regardless of whether anyone can actually access it. It is in this limitlessness that money itself changes form, from a mechanism of exchange where the result is use-value, both for money and the object, into a form in which money, like the commodity, ceases to matter in its physical shape and use. As such, it becomes nothing but a mechanism through which value is circulated, but is not value itself.

This means that with the emergence of capital value becomes decoupled from money, and starts to function as an autonomous element, one separated from history and the world, and one that comes to determine the possibilities in the world to the degree that it functions. In other words, value is no longer tied to money, and money itself becomes confined to the use and physical manifestation of the means of circulation. This is the only context that we can understand things like credit cards, stock trading, derivatives, fractional reserve banking and so on; these are all mechanisms of value transfer that exist outside of the constructs of money in its physical sense (its not like you get a bag with thousands of dollars in it when you get a car loan, for example).

The most obvious manifestation of this is fractional reserve banking, which is what the entirety of the economy functions based on. Let's take a situation in which I run a small bank with one customer that deposits $100. The next day someone comes in and asks for a $10 loan, which will be, say, $12 after interest. Obviously the bank only has the money of the other customer. So, the way that banks create debt begins with essentially borrowing from the accounts of their depositors. In this case we take $10 from customer 1s account and give it to customer 2. That is all fine unless customer 1 comes and asks for all of their money back, at which point you have an issue; this is what happens when there are runs on the banks. But, for the bank they just performed a magic trick. Rather than having $100 in assets, or the actual $90 that they physically have access to, now they have $112 dollars of assets, the $100 in that account and the $12 the bank will receive in payment for the loan. In this process $22 was manifested out of thin air. This is how the amount of money in circulation grows, and this is also why weird Ron Paul people complaining about the Federal Reserve controlling currency have no idea what they are talking about.

“In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value is its own movement, its valorization is therefore self-valorization” (255).

Pages 208-Conclusion

Chapter 3 of Capital is not the most enthralling text ever written, but in the notes from this week we will see the points of culmination. So far we have discussed money and the role of money both in the exchange of commodities and in the construction of an object as a commodity. As a universal equivalent that is in itself positioned as an object of the future, we spend money later, and as a structure of social functionality, we can see how capital starts to orient the possibilities of action around some market mediated understanding of future moments. This displacement into the future comes to then shape the conditions of possibility for the present around this displacement of value into a dynamic of commodities in circulation.

For the remainder of this chapter we will continue this discussion of futurity, and get into some of the more technical elements of how futurity functions, the ways this comes to impact commodity forms and circulation and, ultimately, what the social and ontological impacts of that displacement are. I am going to keep the introduction to the material for this week minimal, to allow for the content to stand on its own.

Away we go...

  • Marx begins this thread of discussion with the concept of commodity circulation operating as a circuit. In this discussion the core element is not so much the metaphor of the circuit, or even the metaphor of metabolism, but is the way that this repositions the temporality of the act. Within the process of circulation each act is displaced from its own present, and inserted into a hypothetical future, which in turn operates as a condition of possibility for the present. We can see this in a simplistic example. The act of production is premised on the exchange of the commodity for money, which is then accepted based on the assumption of its future social relevance (others accept this money as an equivalent for commodities in a future moment).

In this simple example of generic commodity production the act is displaced from itself and inserted into some outside moment which has yet to occur. This moment is not just confined to the specific anticipated exchange. Rather, it is the projection of a whole structure of social circulation and existential possibility. We will discuss the concept of circulation as point of intervention later, but for now suffice to say that this circulation is one which tends toward totality. The more people accept currency as money, and the more “stable” the political conditions are the more that these conditions facilitate commodity circulation. As such, capital only functions to the degree that all present moments are defined through the construction of the social structure of the future.

Clearly this is impossible, one cannot predict a moment that has not occurred unless we posit an existentially nullifying deterministic universe (which essentially means that all of these questions, including all of politics and the entire anarchist project are just events that were determined to occur by some controlling entity). So, if actions create contingent effects in their collision with other dynamics, and the aggregate of these effects constructs future moments, then the only way to attempt to construct the future is to limit the possibilities of the present. We have a name for the institution built to impose sovereignty as a limitation on possibility, we call them the police. It is in this sociality and futurity that we see the necessity of policing for commodity circulation to occur, and thus the necessity of the state for capitalism to function.

  • In this process of alienation from the present there is a dual displacement at work. Firstly, the commodity is displaced from the present in its mere existence as a commodity, or as an object produced for exchange only. In its existence as a commodity the condition of possibility for the object is not the object, or even the material use of the object. Rather, the object only exists as a carrier of abstract value, it is completely alienated from its materiality.

When sold the object is transferred both between owners but also between structures of value. For the seller the commodity is only relevant to the degree that it carries abstract exchange value; its material form or manifestation, whether pencils or ammunition, is irrelevant. For the buyer, however, the object fundamentally changes ontological shape, morphing from this object in which materiality has been completely alienated to an object which, again, is able to hold use-value; namely, the person that buys something uses it, and returns the object to its materiality. For the seller the commodity sheds its material guise, and carries forward in the form of pure quantifiable value, or money. This separation of abstract exchange value from the materiality of the commodity becomes really critical later when we discuss savings and hoarding.

The second displacement occurs here. Money, which is the form that value takes when decoupled from the material elements of the commodity (which are relevant to the degree that they carry value through a material object, in which the shape of the object is irrelevant), only matters to the degree that a second future is posited, the future of purchase. For money to function it is not enough for it to function for two people in an exchange in the present. For a seller to accept money they have to predict that some anonymous other in some unknown future moment will accept this as money. This is important, in that the other never needs to be specified, but needs to apply to all possible others, and the unknown future does not need a date, it must apply in all possible futures.

“The two opposite changes undergone by the same commodity are reflected in the displacement, twice repeated but in opposite directions, of the same piece of coin...The frequently repeated displacement of the same coins reflects not only the series of metamorphoses undergone by a single commodity, but also the mutual entanglement of the innumerable metamorphoses in the whole world of commodities” (212).

The commodity comes to exist both as an object with material particularity, for the buyer, as well as a structuring of value and the transportation of value that renders the material shape of the object irrelevant. The ability to nullify the material shape of the commodity in circulation is a product of the way that exchange value functions to render all things equivalent, as a magnitude of quantifiable exchange value. This reductionism, however, only exists in relation to the social logistics of circulation itself, and not just production, which, is itself just a product of circulation as well.

Circulation is where the dynamics of the market come into play, it is a calculus grounded in futurity and, in itself, necessitates this equivalence. So, therefore, we can say that it is circulation, and not production, that actually lives at the heart of the logistics of capitalism; without circulation, of which production is a part, capitalism would cease to function. A similar argument was made in 20 Theses on the Subversion of the Metropolis, which made the argument that the most effective points of intervention were within the logistics chains of capital themselves.

  • Money functions to the degree that the use of a specific commodity is standardized as a medium of representational value. In other words, money exists both as the marker of abstract value, and is a commodity in itself; in Marx's context he is using gold here, but today we can speak of paper and coin metals. This constructs the object of money along the lines of three distinct existential structures; the commodity, the mechanism of abstract value circulation ans as material object with use value. It is this structure that allows us to think of money as something that is able to be separated from circulation.

In the initial incursions into this area Marx discusses money through the lens of spending, leading to the impression of a smooth transition from sale to purchase, with all money staying in circulation. But, if this is the case then something like a bank becomes impossible. To the degree that we can separate money into a mechanism for conveying value, separate from its material commodity form or its use-value as a mechanism of circulation, we can begin to speak of the movements of value, and the storing of value for use in the future. In this existence as a mechanism of circulation money functions as coin, but when it is immobilized, removed from circulation, either through savings or interruptions in circulation, it only functions as abstract money devoid of a physical form.

“The continuous circular movement of the two antithetical metamorphoses of commodities, or the repeated alternating flow of sale and purchase, is reflected in the unceasing turnover of money, in the function it performs of a perpetuum mobile of circulation. But as soon as the series of metamorphoses is interrupted, as soon as sales are not supplemented by subsequent purchases, money is immobilized. In other words, it is transformed, as Boisguillebert says, from 'meuble' to 'immeuble', from coin into money” (227).

So, here we can see that money, as store of value, need not take the form of coin, or money in circulation. Rather, it is able to store value, as a conceptual quantity, separate from its utility in purchasing. It is this potential of to store immobile money that shifts the calculation. Money changes role from mechanism of circulation to an end in itself.

“When the circulation of commodities first develops, there also develops the necessity and the passionate desire to hold fast to the product of the first metamorphosis. The product is the transformed shape of the commodity, or its gold chrysalis. Commodities are thus sold not in order to buy commodities, but in order to replace their commodity-form by their money-form. Instead of being merely a way of mediating the metabolic process, this change of form becomes an end in itself. The form of the commodity in which it is divested of content is prevented from functioning as its absolutely alienable form, or even as its transient money-form. The money is petrified into a hoard, and the seller of the commodity becomes a hoarder of money” (227-228).

To the degree that money functions socially everything becomes represented in a commodity form, giving the one who accumulates money “social power”. In other words, if all action, and therefore all possibility, falls within the commodity circulation process, as it necessarily must, then the accumulation of money allows for the purchasing of greater quantities of possibility, but a very limited form of possibility. Capitalism, unlike state run economies, prioritizes movement and a certain form of experimentation. Capitalists use this to claim that this means that capitalism is an expression of all life, when in reality it merely means that the categories relevant within capitalism displace life entirely, and reshape it within its image. As such, we can take whatever action we want, to the degree that it is commodified or commodifiable, and the more money we accumulate the greater the possibility of action is. Actions like looting, riots and the burning of police stations necessarily escapes commodification to the degree that these acts wholly live within the realm of the disruption of circulation.

  • The drive toward accumulation is grounded in a contradiction in the money-form. On the one hand money is boundless, it can be used as the equivalent for any commodifiable entity. Yet, on the other hand, there always exists a finite quantity of money, meaning that one can never accumulate enough to ever have maximal possibility.Money must always be finite for a relatively simple reason, exchange value is practically based on scarcity, or the imposition of scarcity.

For example, say that there was enough food to feed all the people on the planet, and there is plenty to do this. If that food were available openly then there would not be much of a reason to pay for it; the same applies if there are not police preventing theft. So, food becomes a commodity with exchange value to the degree that there is a scarcity of food. Now, we do actually produce enough food for all humans, so scarcity is not a product of limitation in supply, but is a product of limiting the possibilities of acquisition. This is why stores have loss prevention teams and why starvation can still occur on a planet with an abundance of food.

The same applies for money. During the time of this writing this would have existed within the calculations around commodity based currencies, such as the gold standard. In that space the value of the currency is directly connected to the quantity of gold divided by the amount of currency units exist in total, with each currency unit representing a fraction of this gold supply. In this structure every unit of currency created, either through printing money or the magic of fractional reserve banking and debt creation, adds to the total quantity of currency, lowering its value per unit in relation to gold, and driving up inflation. If an infinite supply were to be created, then it would be essentially worthless, hence people in Italy in the interwar period wallpapering and insulating their homes with money and, in many cases, reverting to a barter economy. The calculations are now based in supply of a currency compared to the demand for that currency in international currency markets, but the same principle applies in its core tenants, even if the actual math has changed.

As such, there is always the possibility of accumulating more money and, therefore, more social power, but this can never lead to a total accumulation, which in itself would lead to the end of commodity circulation. Therefore, though money can be accumulated, and the drive to accumulate is directly tied to power and possibility within capitalism, one can never accumulate all money, and must preserve the money of others in order for the economy to function. This is the core of the continual drive toward accumulation, but also the economic danger of wealth stratification (trickle-down economics is an attempt to disingenuously work around this, but at its core it is just bad, speculative economics theory with no veracity or much support outside of conservative circles in the US and UK).

“This contradiction between the quantitative limitation and the qualitative lack of limitation of money keeps driving the hoarder back to his Sisyphean task: accumulation. He is in the same situation as the world conqueror, who discovers a new boundary with each country he annexes” (131).

Pages 188-207

Welcome to Chapter 3, where we start to pull together the threads drawn out in the first two chapters. As I am sure many of you have anticipated at this point, we will begin the discussion of money here. But, before we do so, let's rehash some of the relevant points, for this discussion, from weeks past.

The construct of money becomes relevant due to the centrality of abstract value in relation to the existence of the commodity. The commodity itself is an object that is produced for exchange, and has exchange value. This production for exchange displaces value from use and into exchange, and, as a result, displaces the conditions of possibility for the object or the act into the abstraction of quantifiable value.

This focus on exchange also generates this necessity of prediction, the prediction not only of the exchange, but also of the continued social operation of abstract value and exchange into the future. This is where we start to see capitalism colliding with policing, and where the concept of stable investment conditions emerges; more on that as we go along.

For this week, the critical point from these past discussions centers around the mechanism of exchange. For objects to be exchanged as commodities a third element must enter into the equation, the form of abstract value. This form operates as a universal equivalent, or a form that all things can be rendered in. So, clearly there is foreshadowing in play here, and clearly money comes to play that role.

In this week's reading, there are a number of concepts introduced, including the concept of the money commodity, the separation between the money commodity as money and money commodity as commodity, and the concept of social metabolism. Now, I will caution, this week's reading is largely a bridge. It lays out critical concepts to understand the second half of the chapter, which doubles back to discuss the commodity form in an interesting and impactful way (but I won't spoil that here).

Here we go!

-Money, and Marx is using gold here as the standard token, only becomes money to the degree that it fulfills a dual role. The first, most obvious, role is that money functions as this third item in the exchange, or the element that brings the other elements into equivalence with one another. In other words, for exchange value to function all items need to be rendered equivalent, they all need to be able to be abstracted into a quantity of value that can be exchanged for the item. Money is able to play this role to the degree that the exchange is broken apart. Rather than exchanging a thing for a thing, now one exchanges a thing for value and value for a thing (Marx articulates this in the M-C-M, C-M-C formulations in this chapter where M is money and C is commodity).

The second role money plays is that, by serving as the conduit for exchange, it allows the object to even be expressed as a commodity. The construction of the commodity involves the removal of the object from its material conditions, and the valuation of that object through a quantity of exchange value. Money is the form in which that quantity of value manifests, and without that functionality of abstract value the object cannot take on the commodity form.

  • The quantity of value carried by the object is not an expression of some qualitative value of the object rendered as a quantity. Rather, due to the materiality of the object being negated in the construction of the object as commodity, the quantity of value is in relation to the abstraction of work as labor-power. This is an extension of the labor theory of value, where labor is said to construct all things, and take materials and render them into objects with use-value. As a result it is labor that gives things value, and it is that value that is abstracted as a quantity, not a value of the object itself, which is negated in the commodity form. One may say, and many economists have, that the labor theory of value cannot address supply and demand, questions of monetary valuation, etc, and we will get to why that reading is wrong in a second.

“Money as a measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour-time” (188).

Here Marx introduces the concept of price, as opposed to value. Price refers to the value of the commodity rendered as a quantity and expressed in money-form. This creates the opening for Marx to be able to discuss economic dynamics in relation to the cost of items. Obviously, the cost of items fluctuates, which would not be possible if labor determined price. But, if we decouple price from value, and discuss price as the mechanism through which commodities interact with market conditions, then we can say that price and value diverge based on conditions.

This simplifies exchange by eliminating the complexity of the material world, the complexity of trading commodities for commodities, which do not have an equivalent value materially, and in which a structure of valuation must be constructed that is unique to that exchange, what Marx refers to as complex relative value. With the advent of money, the commodity no longer exists in relation to another commodity, all commodities are isolated expressions of value, but only exists in relation to money, which is a simple relative value that can be carried between exchanges.

  • Though money allows for price, and even though the physicality of money is a commodity, money itself cannot have a price. Namely, money cannot be used to purchase money, it is a tautology. Now, of course there are currency exchanges, and the language used in that industry is based on the concept of buying other currencies, but this is a misnomer. When a commodity is purchased it transforms back into a use-value for the buyer. Money cannot function in this way, it can only be an equivalent of things that have use value. When a currency is exchanged for another currency one is trading abstract value for an equivalent amount of abstract value. Money is extracted through that process in the form of fees, which are valued in relation to labor, and market manipulations, which just allow one to store abstract value in the form of money, and then exchange that at a future time for the equivalent value at that future time. But, nowhere is money bought in a formal sense; it is merely traded or transformed.

  • “The price or money-form of commodities is, like their form of value generally, quite distinct from their palpable and real bodily form; it is therefore a purely ideal or notional form” (189).

Due to the abstraction of value in the money-form, the valuation of the commodity is not OF the object, it is not a part of the object in its material form, but it defines the object from this exteriority. To the degree that this valuation exists in relation to labor, and labor exists as a production of commodities, then the ability to exchange value also comes to be the condition of possibility for labor as well. In other words, activity produces value, but when the activity itself is premised on the production of objects for exchange, then the predicted futurity of exchange comes to determine the possibility of the action, rather than utility, use or necessity. But, even though labor creates value, and this value is quantified in price, the concept of price is independent from that of value in the sense that price can be impacted by the dynamics of exchange (supply and demand for example), and can fluctuate even if the amount of labor in the object remains the same. Remember, and this is something capitalist economists get wrong all the time, it is the labor theory of VALUE, not the labor theory of price.

  • This construction of the commodity around the dynamics of exchange at a future moment (we will return to temporal alienation in the next section) centers the commodity around a dual displacement. The very construct of the commodity is a removal of an object from itself, as well as from its present. To be able to engage with exchange, the commodity must become abstracted, with the dynamics of the production and circulation of that abstract value being determined by some speculation about the future.

“Though a commodity may, alongside its real shape (iron, for instance), possess an ideal value-shape or an imagined gold-shape in the form of its price, it cannot simultaneously be both real iron and real gold. To establish its price it is sufficient for it to be equated with gold in the imagination. But to enable it to render its owner the service of a universal equivalent, it must first be replaced by actual gold” (197).

  • Social metabolism is a term Marx uses to discuss the production to consumption process of the commodity, as a series of social relations within a wider social structure of commodity circulation. The commodity is produced for exchange, but following that exchange it morphs back into the object, as a use-value for this purchaser. These inflection points in the metamorphosis of the object all occur in exchanges of commodity for money-commodity, through the abstraction of price. In this process a dual move occurs, the metamorphosis of value in the commodity and the morphing of a commodity into money.

“Commodities first enter into the process of exchange ungilded and unsweetened, retaining the original home-grown shape. Exchange, however, produces a differentiation of the commodity into two elements, commodity and money, an external opposition which expresses the opposition between use-value and value which is inherent in it. In this opposition, the commodities as use-values confront money as exchange-value. On the other hand, both sides of this opposition are commodities, hence themselves unities of use-value and value. But this unity of differences is expressed at two opposite poles, and at each pole in an opposite way. This is the alternating relation between the two poles: the commodity is in reality a use-value; its existence as a value appears only ideally, in its price, through which it is related to the real embodiment of its value, the gold which confronts it as its opposite. Inversely, the material of gold ranks only as the materialization of value, as money. It is therefore in reality exchange-value. Its use-value appears only ideally in a series of expressions of relative value within which it confronts all the other commodities as the totality of real embodiments of its utility. These antagonistic forms of the commodities are the real forms of motion of the process of exchange” (199).

It is in this process where commodities are produced to exchange that the predictability of the totality of future dynamics comes to be at issue, as it implies the exchange of commodity for money, and money for commodity, in the future. The purchasing of the commodity for sale, likewise implies this future; one purchases to sell to another later.

“We see here, on the one hand, how the exchange of commodities breaks through all the individual and local limitations of the direct exchange of products, and develops the metabolic process of human labour. On the other hand, there develops a whole network of social connections of natural origin, entirely beyond the control of human agents” (207).

Pages 178-187

Onto Chapter 2.

This is a really short chapter, but not a chapter without consequence. In Chapter 1 we were able to establish the odd ontological structure of the commodity, and how the alienation of value into abstract value, and then the positing of a quantitative equivalence of value, displaces the conditions of possibility for action into the abstract. This fundamental alienation mirrors the same alienation found in all conceptual frameworks, which then frames the question not around thought (which is flawed but necessary), but around the return to the material.

In other words, the question is not about ideas, those can be debated on their own merits, but always must be acknowledged to exist at a fundamental distance from the particularity of moments within time and space. The question is, rather, a question of operationality, or the attempt of capitalism to actually manifest materially. This attempt can never be total, unless capitalism, and the structure of ontological abstract value that forms it foundation, was somehow able to rise to the position of universal truth and, therefore, become the foundation of a deterministic universe.

Barring this sort of cosmic catastrophe (for any definition of life to function materially as a totality, all contingency must be eliminated, which eliminates existence as such), capitalism is not a process of inevitable systemic action. Rather, it is a social construction, one which ebbs and flows, yet somehow also comes to function as a condition of possibility for existence. In other words, capitalism simultaneously exists as a product of activity and social arrangement, but also comes to entirely define these arrangements to the degree that it operates materially.

In Chapter 2 we begin the process of discussing how this occurs, which necessitates a formal discussion around the movement and circulation of abstract value in exchange through the commodity form. As I am sure many of you have come to see, the discussion in Chapter 1 definitely sets up the concept of money, that which conveys abstract value, but we are not there yet (that is Chapter 3). For this chapter we are going to be focusing on exchange itself, and the implications of exchange within the assertions of the commodity form.

So, here we go...

  • Commodities are not entities that can circulate themselves; the market does not function either inevitably or passively. Rather, commodities exist in relation to a concept of possession and exchange. For exchange to occur different parties, isolated from one another as different wills (to use Marx's term), must utilize commodities, which are also conceived of as isolated carries of value, to express this will. In this construct we can already start to see both the construction and absurdity of the conceptualization of the self here, which also flows along the lines of this isolated alienation. This Randian subject is a subject that does not have the ability to socialize, being an isolated economic entity.

The issue with this vision is that it functions as an impossible paradox. For the subject to be an owner of the commodity it must be thought in reference to its isolation, both the isolation of the subject and also the isolation of the commodity. Each entity within the exchange comes to it as a mechanism to convey value; both as entirely isolated and entirely equivalent at the same time. The process of exchange only occurs to the degree that the isolation on which capitalist ontology is based, in part, is fundamentally eliminated in a social transaction.

The transaction is social in two different ways. Firstly, exchange involves another party, someone that wants to engage in exchange, and this requires interactivity. Secondly, the entirety of the terms of the exchange, from the recognition of ownership to the assumption of the continuation of the ability to exchange in the future (money implies being able to spend it at a future moment), requires a structure of social construction, a dynamic in which we construct the conditions of our own alienation. Now, this clearly does not happen passively, or even necessarily through consent (political repression is definitely real and the state functions to operate capitalism within this construct), but it is social nonetheless. This means that the plane of operation for capitalism and the commodity form it is grounded in, is not conceptual or even economic, it is fundamentally grounded in the structuring of and through the dynamics of the social.

  • To the degree that capital frames the relation the structure of the object fundamentally shifts in relation to value. The commodity, for the owner, represents nothing but exchange value, rendering the shape of the object irrelevant. In other words, to the degree that the object becomes the commodity, the shape of the object, what sort of object it is, becomes irrelevant, as the object becomes reduced to nothing more than a vehicle to convey value in exchange. It could be pencils, organic food or book printing, it does not matter as long as it carries a quantity of abstract value. To the consumer, however, the object conveys use value, or has some qualitative value in actual use.

“But this changing of hands constitutes their exchange, and their exchange puts them in relation with each other as values and realizes them as values. Hence commodities must be realized as values before they can be realized as use-values” (179).

To the degree that this construct functions, therefore, the ability to obtain use values is directly premised on the objects conveying this use value being produced, which in turn is only based on their ability to be exchanged. As such, without the conditions to predict that the object will be able to be exchanged for abstract value the object is not produced, even if the use value is critical for survival. For example, we produce enough food in the world to feed everyone a well rounded diet, but people starve. That starvation is no longer the product of localized conditions, there is a whole global supply chain. Rather, starvation is based on the inability to obtain food, or to be able to mobilize enough abstract value to exchange abstract value for food. In that scenario, under the terms of exchange, starvation occurs, even though there is both supply and need. It is here that we can see the fundamental problematic of capitalism express itself; the premising of life on the exchange of abstract value displaces the conditions of possibility away from needs and capacities, and into the dynamics of abstract exchange, which is premised on the alienation of objects and acts from themselves.

  • Now, this dynamic not only forms limitations in the present, but also comes to frame the ways that futurity is thought. When the commodity is produced, this act is undertaken directly for exchange. Now, given that exchange is not instant, the production of the commodity ceases to have to do with the present, the moment of production, and becomes framed around the future, or the ability to exchange the object at another moment. This creates very specific social and political conditions that are often absent from discussions of economics.

For capitalism to function, for commodity exchange to occur, and thus for the commodity to exist at all (it is only relevant in reference to exchange), it is not only the present that needs to be framed within the limits of this construct, but the future as well. If the condition of possibility for production is future exchange, then the ability to produce is itself a framing of the possibilities of the future. If these future conditions cannot be predicted then production does not occur and commodity exchange ceases.

This sort of dynamic directly shapes policy around political repression. Things like disasters definitely disrupt exchange, but also so does strikes, uprisings, social unrest and so on. The International Monetary Fund has a term called “stable investment conditions”. This means that the conditions are predictable enough that the futurity of production and exchange can be guaranteed. This is why the IMF has always recommended an increase in the numbers of police forces as a part of structural adjustment programs, it is to eliminate any possibility of unrest in order to allow for commodity circulation to function. This is also why capitalism can only exist to the degree that it is a content operated by the form of the state; policing becomes integral to this predictability of the future.

The predictability of futurity is not only in relation to the commodity, but also exists in relation to money itself. Money is a commodity, like gold or paper, that functions to convey a quantity of abstract quantitative value, and that can be exchanged for any commodity, including that of which the money itself is made. As a result, it must carry with it a socially accepted meaning, one that others also recognize. Milton Friedman discusses this dynamic, in strikingly similar terms to Marx, in the text Money Mischief, which is a very useful piece of enemy literature. In the functionality of money it is not only that one exchanges money for a thing. Rather, the person accepting the money must also assume that in the future they can use this money to buy other things, which in turn implies that the person selling them this thing assumes the same and so on, and so on.

“Through the agency of the social process it becomes the specific social function of the commodity which has been set apart to be the universal equivalent. It thus becomes-money” (181).

  • This implies a very specific social structure of ahistorical fragmentation, where the objects become simultaneously produced based on this broad social construction, but isolated from this same material social dynamic in their abstraction and separation as a carrier of value; for the commodity to function it must abstract away the very material dynamics that allow it to function.

“In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of these alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other” (182).

Capital, in this sense, is an attempt to replace historical, material, dynamics with an endlessly cyclic affirmation of capitalist ontology. All history, all locality, all immediacy, the very substrate of life, is captured, modified, ripped away from itself and rendered a quantity equivalent to all other quantities. This capture is odd, in that it encourages movement, it encourages action (production, exchange, the creation of new products and new markets) but only to the degree that this action can be alienated from itself, both in its very possibility, but also in its existence and effect. It is on this level that the imposition of this ontology operates microscopically, in every act, as all acts are framed around their utility for exchange. This is very clear in something like Taylorism, where every act is measured in order to maximize efficiency, but can also be seen in the fact that clocks appeared in many European cities only when factories consolidated and wage labor became common.

“Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way. Their own relations of production therefore assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action” (187).

Pages 152-178

With these notes we will be closing out Chapter 1 of Capital. The content of this chapter requires this sort of depth of reading, for a really core reason; the ontological argument made in Chapter 1 completely realigns a number of assumed givens in the discussion of capitalism and resistance.

The first realignment, and I mentioned this in past notes, is a realignment in how we understand capitalism. Far from the monolithic system that is often portrayed in radical literature, the understanding of capitalism developed here begins at the core level of the universe capitalism creates conceptually, the commodity. From this perspective we can see how the development of the commodity form not only forces a certain series of relations into being, namely those of ownership and exchange, but does so through the construction of an odd sort of ontology.

This ontology of the commodity is centered around an impossibility, the generalization and rendering equivalent of the particularized actions that occur in unique present moments (which are all present moments). The construction of this structure of conceptual equivalence in itself does not mean anything, all concepts participate in this sort of process. What emerges, however, is a structure in which the abstraction of the object must come to substitute for the object in exchange, and to the degree that value is displaced in exchange value, the ability to exchange the object reduces the object to this quantitative value. As such, the object does not come into being as a result of need, but, rather, emerges from the abstract imperatives of commodity circulation. We will discuss this much further in following chapters.

Secondly, this positing of a paradox between the object and the concept of the object, embodied in this case as abstract value, also has to realign how we understand the resistance to capitalism. We will begin to approach this question in this week's notes, and will expand on our prior discussions to enumerate the ways that the framework Marx lays out disrupts the traditional concepts of revolution, the overthrow of “systems”, and completely forecloses on the argument for historical materialism.

So, without any more delays, here is the end of the first chapter.

-With the movement of the value away from use value and into exchange value, the value of the object in exchange for other objects, the particularities of qualitative value are eliminated, and replaced with quantities of equivalent abstract value. If we remember back to past weeks, the use value of the object is directly in relation to the qualitative value that object has for the participants of that moment in relation to their needs in that moment. When we combine this with earlier arguments, around the particularity of the object in the moment, the object itself is only expressed through this particularized value. Now, these particularized values are understood by all parties differently, and cannot be the foundation for commodity exchange. What typifies the commodity, then, is not economics. Rather, the commodity is a sort of existential category, a paradoxical category, and this forms the basis, the conditions of possibility, for capitalism as such.

Value, in a general sense, for Marx is created through labor; it is labor that turns materials into use values or exchange values. When value becomes an abstract quantity this reduces labor to a quantity as well, which accumulates in the value of the object through production, destroying the qualitative distinction between forms of labor, and therefore alienating labor from itself. “The linen, by virtue of the form of value, no longer stands in a social relation with merely one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities as well...At the same time, the endless series of expressions of its value implies that, from the point of view of the value of the commodity, the particular form of use-value in which it appears is a matter of indifference” (155).

  • For value to accumulate in the object we have to conceive of this value as aggregate. In other words, it is not just the labor utilized in the immediate form of production that determines the value of the object, it is the labor involved in every step of the supply chain. For many products in the contemporary world, those supply chains can be long and complex. Marx articulates two issues that arise from this point.

The first objection, and the less relevant issue in the political reading of Capital, is grounded in economics. In theory, two objects which require the same amount of labor would carry the same value, and objects that do not require as much labor would carry less value. In the realm of particularized use values, this is fine, all value is relative. But, when we move into commodity exchange, where value has to be standardized as a quantity, this leads to some odd outcomes. For example, gold is a component in computers, and that would mean that the value of gold would be added into the computer, but, somehow the computer costs less than the gold. This is a problem that is related to the abstract of abstracted exchange value into money, and then into price, which involves larger market dynamics, and which we will discuss more in Chapter 3.

The second issue centers around the elimination of the uniqueness of moments of labor, action and history as it relates to this particular object in this particular time and space. “And, lastly, is, as must be the case, the relative value of each commodity is expressed in this expanded form, it follows that the relative form of value of each commodity is an endless series of expressions of value which are different from the relative form of value of every other commodity” (156). The commodity, as a product of a particular historical time and space becomes alienated from this particularity to the degree that it is rendered in the commodity form, or to the degree that its value exceeds this particularity and begins to be constructed around abstract conceptual equivalences. The object is removed from this complexity of history, and becomes rendered in a form that can be considered equivalent across time and space.

The implications here are critical. Marx is arguing that to abstract a moment, act or object into a conceptual form, which we all do, is to alienate the particular thing from itself. Each moment becomes, in this view, a convergence of the effects of everything that has ever happened ever, and each act changes those dynamics entirely. As such, history is not some sort of deterministic and understandable form of objective reality, which Leninism relies on for both claims of authority/legitimacy as well as the foundations for historical materialism. Rather, it is a chaotic, dynamic, contingent dynamic typified by activity and effect, and not some singular deterministic, understandable reality. To render history in that form is to fundamentally remove history from itself and render it in an alienated form. This element of Marx is ultimately by people like Debord identified as Marxists but rejected Lenin (this is not my position, I identify as a nihilist, but this is a valid argument to make).

  • This second issue that Marx identifies in the removal of value from particularity leverages a critique of reductionism to construct a discourse on the ontology of capital, as a structure which imposes definitions of objects and labor, both as a foundation of and result of historical reductionism. The question, therefore, becomes one of equivalencies that function within conceptual structures, in this case the construct of abstract value. In this structure of equivalency, which occurs in all concepts (not all concepts become or aspire to attempting to define life materially, which involves policing), the concepts functions to eliminate the particularity of the thing being named by the concept, freezing it in time and space and rendering it equivalent to all other things within this conceptual category.

On the level of exchange value, the commodity must come to function, materially, as equivalent to all other commodities, only separated by magnitude, or the amount of abstract value carried by the object. This requires the establishment of a universal equivalent value, a thing that can carry and mark that value, and that can be exchanged for all other things. “Finally, the last form, C (this is from a prior example), gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because, and in so far as, all commodities except one are thereby excluded from the equivalent form” (161). In other words, the equivalent form of value, where all commodities are rendered equivalent to one another, has morphed into a new form. Now, the ontology of the commodity is asserted and valued in relation to a single commodity which marks this abstract value. Conceptually this functions by reducing the object to this equivalent form. But, socially, this involves a social agreement, where the relevance of this universal commodity is accepted, and becomes exchangeable for all other objects. To mirror an argument Milton Friedman, the father of neoliberalism, made, money only exists because of the social agreement around its existence. To put it another way, this universal commodity has value to the degree that we posit, socially, that it has value.

The object is typified, therefore, by a social-political structure, which assumes the positionality of objectivity. Each object affirms this objectivity to the degree that it is rendered as a commodity, and becomes affirmed by the social operation of this supposed objectivity. This removal of the object from the material world, and its reinsertion back into the world as an expression of a conceptual framework is what Marx refers to as commodity fetishism, the study of which is political economy.

Pages 132-152

In the first week we discussed the ways in which the commodity form forms the core of the operationality and ontology of capitalism, and how this centers around the shift from use value to exchange.

The commodity form is a strange ontological structure, in which the purely material, the object, and the purely abstract, its exchange value, come to fuse together in a single object, as a paradoxical construction. The object in its material form is unique, particular, contingent, but in its abstracted form it becomes general, immaterial, standardized through the structuring of value. This fusion does not eliminate the material element of the object, but it repositions the object as on which is contingent not on material existence, but on the expression of the object as an abstract value.

Toward the end of the last section of reading Marx begins to touch on the labor theory of value, or the conception that value (whether use value or exchange value) is imparted through labor. Now, labor is a broad category, which does not just speak to the immediate work of producing an item, but also speaks to the entirety of the labor embodied in all elements of the supply chain. In other words, it is through work that raw material is transformed into things with use value, and therefore labor becomes the basis through which the value that is abstracted into abstract value emerges.

Now, later in Chapter 3 Marx will expand on this concept of the labor theory of value, and close an important gap in the concept. As it stands the labor theory of value cannot explain dynamics like supply and demand. Later in the text Marx will talk about the difference between value and price, and use the concept of price to discuss the impacts of market dynamics, but that is a post for another day.

For now, lets jump into the middle section of Chapter 1.

  • As with the commodity, the reconstruction of labor around abstract value also fundamentally modifies labor around a paradox. In the construction of the object labor is directly structured around the “aim, mode of operation, means, and results” (132). These dynamics position the activity, termed “useful labour”, around the immediate conditions of the acts of production, in an immediate and material sense. The act can function around a condition of possibility that is, likewise, immediate; the production of the object is immediate and produced to fill a material need, grounded in the imperatives of use-value. “The totality of heterogeneous use-values or physical conditions reflects the totality of similarly heterogeneous forms of useful labour, which differ in order, genus, species and variety; in short, a social division of labour” (132).

This social division of labor is historical, in the sense that it is a dynamic of activities in unique moments, all formed by the contingent effects of past moments. It is a dynamic that manifests differently in each moment, in each space, in each scenario. It is not able to be generalized, spoken about through a singular concept and, just as with the object, something in which the value we place is tied inherently to this uniqueness of the moment; it is different in every moment. In its basic form, outside of commodity production, labor functions to produce things that are needed, with the value of those items, the conditions of their production, the work performed and the use of those objects directly tied to the uniqueness of this unrepeatable moment.

  • The social division of labor, or the material dynamics of production of use-values, is essential for the production of commodities, even if the purpose of production is to produce commodities for exchange. In other words, the ontology of capital, which is based on this paradoxical structure of the commodity, and the fusion of material particularity and ahistorical conceptualization, is a process in which the social division of labor is necessary. This both positions the social division of labor as something that can exist outside of capitalism, but also as the mechanism through which the social dynamics of capital begin to operate on a logistical or organizational scale within a broader defining of life within the commodity form. This will become critical later when we discuss the concept of workers being separated from the products of their labor, later in the text.

“Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between men and nature, and therefore human life itself” (133).

  • Use-values, therefore, start to be formed through a combination of material and labor, within the spatio-temporal conditions of production. In this structure all labor is heterogeneous and all value is derived from the results of this production as it interacts with the material world, in its use. Once we separate labor from use it is no longer possible to measure value based on the transformative element of labor, or the work to turn a resource into an object of use. In this shift into abstract exchange value labor becomes isolated from its conditions, turned into another quantity related to abstract exchange value, and transformed from labor to labour-power, or labor encompassed and defined by the commodity production process. In this construct of labour-power, or labor separated from the social division of labor, becomes rendered equivalent, in that it becomes valued as labour-power input into the productive act itself, not in relation to its resultant use. Even specialized labor becomes valued in relation to the quantity of simple labor.

  • In the production of use-values various forms of heterogeneous labor must occur. It is only in this abstraction into labour-power does this heterogeneity devolve into quantitative sameness. When we talk about quantitative sameness we should be clear what we are speaking of, because this is widely misunderstood idea.

When we construct a quantity we are positing that the objects that can be measured in this way share some sort of existential sameness. For example, the number one invokes a uniqueness, but once we use the number two we are talking about a set, and something needs to define that set as a set, needs to define the sameness that allows differences to be within the same set. When we say an object costs $12, we are saying that this object shares an existential sameness with any other object which is represented in this same quantitative structure. So, even if one thing costs $12 and another costs $15, it is still positing a sameness, just a different magnitude of that sameness. “While, therefore, with reference to use-value, the labour contained in a commodity counts only qualitatively, with reference to value it counts only quantitatively, once it has been reduced to human labour pure and simple” (136).

  • “Commodities come into the world in the form of use-values or material goods, such as iron, linen, corn, etc. This is their plain, homely, natural form. However, they are only commodities because they have a dual nature, because they are at the same time objects of utility and bearers of value” (138). The commodity, therefore, becomes this sort of Frankenstein's monster, at once composed of heterogeneous production and use, as well as a generalized form of quantitative value which eliminates this very heterogeneity. Though this is the case, however, the very exchange of commodities for value, the exchange value of the commodity, is constructed socially in two senses. Firstly, commodities are exchanged for value, which asserts the existence of the other, the second party to the exchange, which also must share the same assertions that form the basis for the exchange. Secondly, the condition of possibility for the abstract equivalence of labor, and therefore the abstract value of the commodity, is in itself a dynamic of activity; we construct this dynamic, it does not come down from on high as the dictates of deities. The material manifestation of this impossible conceptual process comes in the form of the activity we engage in through production and exchange, and is valorized in every moment of exchange. Nowhere are commodities or capitalism discusses as an autonomous system that we are passively victimized by, contrary to the readings of vulgar Marxism.

Capital: Chapter 1

Pages 125-131

Before we begin with the notes, I would like to make sure that everyone can follow along. The page numbers will correspond to the Penguin Classics edition of Capital, Volume 1, which is the same version that the Marx Library released some decades ago, with the same page numbers.

I would also like to note that some chapters took/are going to take multiple weeks for us to cover in our reading group, and notes will appear as they were presented on a weekly basis. I will notate what chapter we are in at the top of the notes.

For those that want to follow along we are going to be following a pathway through the text that follows along the lines of a course I was fortunate enough to be able to take during my PhD studies called Actually Existing Communism, which occurred during the fall of 2009 (the same semester as the wide-scale rioting in Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit, which was definitely an interesting context to be studying this material). This reading includes chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 13, 14, and 15, and will focus on the ontological elements of the discussion.

If you would like a more economics-centric reading I can definitely recommend David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital or the online lecture series he gives, which can be found here:

Also, note, that I am using the American English versions of terms like labor, even though Marx uses the more traditionally British terminology, like labour, for example. This is mostly due to muscle memory and wanting to ease the process of transcribing and expanding slightly on these notes.

Without further delay, here are the notes from the first week of reading, which covered Chapter 1, pages 125-131.

  • Capital begins with an interesting, and crucial, statement, “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”, the individual commodity appears as its elementary form” (125). As we will see as we go along, these sorts of statements, which present complicating factors, are often completely overlooked in more vulgar Marxist readings. What is occurring here is a positioning of the question and analysis of capitalism. By centering the discussion on the commodity form Marx is setting the stage for a specific approach to the concept of the commodity, and by extension capitalism as such.

This repositioning is critical, as it decenters the question of capitalism away from “bad outcomes” (ecological destruction, wealth stratification, resource scarcity, etc) and firmly into a space in which the discussion of capitalism focuses on the ontological outcomes of the operationality of capital. Most of leftist analysis of capitalism, and most simplistic anti-capitalism, is grounded in an attempt to eliminate bad outcomes, to create economics around concepts of fairness, justice, whatever abstract moralistic concept one chooses to insert here. The problem with that analysis, and we see this in concepts like social capitalism, none of the elimination of these bad outcomes actually necessitates a challenge to capitalism, but, instead, only implies a sort of liberal reformism in which the economy continues to exist as a mass form, but in a more “equitable” form. This analysis completely misses the point, and it is this framing of capital around the commodity form that this becomes clear.

  • The commodity is not simply an object in economic circulation, but, rather, is an object in which a paradoxical, impossible, sort of existential convergence occurs between the particularity of the material existence of this object (the object is a thing here and now) and the conceptual abstraction of the object (object as carrier of value). Now, of course, first and foremost, the commodity is an object that carries with it a concept of use-value, namely it is an object that has a use for a user. This only speaks of the object itself, however, and not its conversion into the commodity form. For that shift to occur something outside of the materiality of the object must be imparted as an ontological condition of possibility for the object.

  • In its initial form, as an object, the commodity carries use-value, or value in relation to the use of the object for the person utilizing the object. In this form the object is not able to carry a standardized value. Rather, it carries of particularized qualitative value related to the value a user puts to the use of the object in an immediate moment, which is a dynamic that is always in flux. Now, these objects can, and are, exchanged, but they cannot be exchanged as a quantity, but must be exchanged only in relation to the judgement of qualitative value one puts on the item in relation to another item, as it relates to the usefulness of the item.

In other words, for items to be directly exchangeable with one another as quantities (100 coats for 1000 yards of fabric) we have to assume that there is some commonality between the objects, some element of value which escapes the objects as material entities, which are always changing from moment to moment. This element of value must be abstract and defined by some element of the object that we assert both defines the object and which is outside of the object at th same time. This element must be immaterial, and exist outside of any concept of material existence.

  • In exchange, value is calculated around an operation in which two items have to be brought into alignment, regardless of whether this is a qualitative or quantitative structure of value. Exchange revolves around the construction of a third element, outside of the two elements involved in the exchange (one exchanging item one for item two). That exchange requires this third element, which is outside of the two elements involved in the exchange, and which comes to posit some sort of equivalence between these objects, or in the least posits a terms of equivalence, in which each item can be valued in terms that are relevant for the other item. This is what Marx refers to as abstract value.

“Such properties come into consideration only to the extent that they make the commodities useful, ie, turn them into use-values. But clearly, the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from use-values” (127).

  • From the structure of exchange we can begin to see the displacement of the meaning of the object from itself into the conceptual, and out of the material. By focusing on this element Marx is starting to sketch out an argument that would come to form the core of Marxist influence on post-structuralism, the non-relation between the concept and the object. Before moving forward I am going to focus on this part of the discussion for a moment, and use a simple example to illustrate the point.

Say we are sitting in a conference room and are observing the chairs in the room. On a material level all of those objects are different on a fundamental level. They are all different materially, have degraded at different levels, have had different collisions with other material objects. Not only are they different from one another, they are different from their own existence in a past moment. All objects are particular and constantly in a process of change and becoming. At the same time we create the concept of chairs to make sense of these objects, to organize their existence into a conceptual category. Though this process is critical for our ability to make sense of things, we are still dealing with a fundamental separation, an unbridgable chasm as Blanchot would say, between the concept and the object or the moment.

The object, at this point, is just this simple material object typified by its locatability within historical particularity and contingency. When exchange emerges, as an attempt to trade objects as values, this third element of equivalence must be created, regardless of the form this abstraction takes. This element exists outside of the qualities and use of an object, and reduces the object to an expression of the magnitude of equivalent quantitative value. As such, the possibility of the object begins to be premised on an ahistorical form of abstract value, even though the object and this abstract value exist at a fundamental ontological separation. “As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain use-value” (128).

This is a core concept in Capital, and one that is missed completely by Leninists, who have a politics entirely grounded in abstraction, concepts of universal truth that exceed the material and a historical determinism that precludes intention or material effect. What Marx refers to as history is these very same material moments that are abstracted away in the fundamentally ahistorical (in the sense that objects and moments are removed from history) reliance on abstract concepts and notions of universality. The entirety of Leninism relies on the ability to claim that these imprecise, highly speculative forms of conceptual sense are, within their narrative, expressions of universal truth, which attempts to argue that the concept and the world are exactly the same thing; this is the theory of technicians that is expressed in State and Revolution.

  • The remainder of this section of reading focuses on the beginnings of the formation of the concept of the labor theory of value, which interplays with this discussion of the non-convergence between abstract and material, and will form the foundations for the discussion of wage labor later. Without use-value the commodity needs another basis through which value can be determined, which for Marx is related to labor, or, in other words, activity (Marx uses the term labor to mean any activity, not just work). This production is not concerned with the qualities of the object. Rather, the object's value becomes an abstract calculus of exchange where labor and object are both removed from their material uniqueness and properties, and inserted into a space where the condition of possibility is not need and use, but becomes abstracted into value as determined by the abstractions of exchange. This exchange value is then determined by the labor embodied in the object, reduced to a quantity within a wider structure that attempts to level all difference and render all things equivalent and exchangeable. The individual worker and particular object evaporate, and are replaced by abstract labor as wage labor, or labor-power, and the object becomes crystallized abstract value.

  • “Commodities which contain equal quantities of labour, or which can be produced at the same time, have therefore the same value. The value of the commodity is related to the value of any other commodity as the labour-time necessary for the production of the other” (130). This is not positing what some less careful readers have claimed, that this is some sort of calculation of labor as a quantity embodied in the object. Rather, Marx is positing a much broader understanding of labor here. When Marx is talking about labor he is discussing the work mobilized to turn a resource into a commodity, to produce the commodity. This commodity, however, is constructed of other commodities, or uses other commodities in its production, all of which is also factored into the abstract value. Then we have to take into account the social possibility of this sort of exchange, which we will return to later, and the costs of the maintenance of logistical infrastructure, security for private property and so on. In other words, labor here refers to the entirety of the conditions involved in the chain of activity bound up in the production of a single object. This begins a process through which the ontology of the commodity begins to double-back onto the material world, as a force that will attempt to maximize labor efficiency and produce the social conditions of capitalist exchange. But, that is a much longer discussion that we will return to as we go forward.

There is a lot in these opening pages of Capital, which present a series of arguments which, when read carefully, completely realign the reading of Capital away from this simplistic economics reading you see in traditional forms of anti-capitalism. Rather than a text about the outcomes of capitalism, as it is often portrayed, Capital is engaging on a different plane, the plane of the ontological conditions of possibility for capitalism, and how that comes to function as a material force within everyday life. The next section, which goes from pages 131 to the middle of 152 will continue to set the stage for the discussions to come surrounding money, the formation of markets and the inherent relation of capitalism to the state.

Enjoy, and if you have any comments get in touch over Mastadon (

For those of you that have not had the opportunity to sit down with the over 1000 pages of Marx's Grundrisse, I would highly recommend giving it at least a passing read. Capital is a complex text, with layers upon layers of concepts arranged around and within one another. It is a text of nuance, one in which terms like “becomes-money” appears, and which indicates something other that “becomes money”. Every element of Capital is relevant in its nuance, and in its entirety as a conceptual plane.

This is not the reading one would get by listening to vulgar Marxists, or authoritarians. For many of them Capital is a text on the economics of capitalism, and how workers are subsumed into wage labor. That is part of the text, but as thinkers like Harry Cleaver, David Harvey and Paulo Virno have pointed out, Capital is much more a text on ontology than it is a text on economics.

It is on this ontological plane that Capital becomes a relevant text. The best one could hope for in an economist's reading of Capital is to grasp an outdated understanding of mercantile capitalism that, though still relevant, hinges on some phenomena that have been transcended, like the gold standard for example. When we start to look at the text through this ontological lens, through a lens which approaches an analysis of the forms of life created within and as a part of capitalist existence.

It is on this level that we can not only gain a much more nuanced understanding of capitalism, centered around the infinite distance between its materiality and its conceptuality, but, further, we can extend this analysis. Here we can not only see the absurdities of the vulgar Marxist/Leninist reading of this text, which is strikingly superficial, but we can also gain some insight into an approach to the political in which movement, nuance, difference, contingency and possibility come to the core of analysis.

The reading group I am a part of, which focuses on nihilist theory generally, has taken on the task of reading select chapters of Capital Volume 1, with sessions structured around seminar style lectures I have been giving on the text. What follows in the posts to come will be the notes I have taken in the midst of preparing these lectures.

The notes will be structured just like in the Grundrisse, as a series of long bullet-pointed blocks of text, some longer than others, but all containing a full thought or point, except in reverse. The Grundrisse was compiled from the notebooks Marx kept while researching Capital, and this is the notes taken on the other end, over 120 years later, at a very different time in a very different place.

Using this form allows for the reader to follow along with the text, but to do so in such a way as to be inserted into the space between the notes and the text; a space less defined than a full essay, but more defined than just random disconnected notes). I hope you enjoy and find this useful. Notes will start being posted in the next day or two.