Staring Into the Abyss

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

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:

https://www.youtube.com/c/readingcapital

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 (tom_nomad@kolektiva.social)

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.

Some Reflections on Tame Words from a Wild Heart (by Jean Weir) and the Distillation of Core Insurrectionist Concepts

Introduction

In a lot of ways it is difficult to imagine where I, personally, or insurrectionism in the English speaking world would be without the constant contributions of Jean Weir. In running Elephant Editions, and participating in other projects to network with non-English speaking insurrectionists and translating their work, she has been largely responsible for the rise of insurrectionism and the repositioning of the anarchist project around a push for immediacy, and away from arbitrary speculation about some hypothetical future.

This repositioning has taken the anarchist project from the utopian pipe-dreams of the creative and experimental amongst us, from a position that for many years was relegated to a position subservient to Leninism, from a position in which the most anarchism had to offer was a posture of theoretical resistance and activism. The move into an insurrectionist orientation recentered anarchism around the act, around direct action and strategic consideration, and thus, took it out of the clouds and attached it to the Earth, the world that we exist within and the terrain in which fighting occurs. This is nothing short of taking a project that centered around dreams, fictions and speculation, and grounded it in activity, materiality and the immediacy of struggle.

But, in this work she has often been overshadowed by the works that she has participated in translating and propagating. The ideas being expressed in these texts are framed around the voice of the author, and the voice of the translator and the motivations for the translation are lost. In this case, however, we can catch a glimpse into these questions in Wier's on writings, in this case encapsulated in the short collection Tame Words for a Wild Heart.

In this short reflection I am not going to attempt to even claim that this short text is a full expression of the ideas that have motivated this work. Even in this partial view, however, we can catch a glimpse into an important distillation of ideas. Insurrectionist thought can be many things, militant, angry, motivating, complex, simplistic, poetic, bellicose, all of these things at once, but one thing that is often absent is clarity and concision. The tendency, within that space, has been to recognize that complexity requires patience, which results in the spacing of arguments and concepts out over, often, multiple pieces written over a series of years; Bonanno's work is a classic example of this

This is not a critique of insurrectionist thoughts, complexity, and thus a level of difficulty, is necessary in order to not fall prey to simplistic explanations of overly reduced existences. It is important for us to grapple with ideas, to play with concepts, to experiment, to challenge and to complicate; otherwise we risk collapsing into ideology or into understandings of the world which eliminate possibility, complexity and uniqueness all in the service of reductionistic forms of “understanding”. At the same time, however, it can be necessary to ground this complexity, to articulate the core concepts that form the foundations of these conceptual moves, and it is here where we can start to understand the core of a certain understanding of the insurrectional project.

Weir's writing and speaking (some of these texts are transcriptions of speeches) tend to function in a more relaxed form, a narrative that is conversational and human, grounded in an approachability that conceals the complexity of the ideas at work within the narrative. In this approach we can see ideas highlighted, emphasized and brought forward in a way that allows for clarity and the experimental collision of these concepts in a living, breathing discourse which, in itself, is connected to activity. In elaborating on this point we will be focusing on three concepts, projectuality, immediacy and intermediacy, which not only form the core of this text, but also form what, in my reading, really forms the core of insurrectionism, and the specific ontology that is expressed through this medium.

Projectuality

A core concept in the text, and one in which Weir consistently returns, is the notion of projectuality. There are a number of senses in which this term is utilized, but in all senses the concept of projectuality is inherently connected to a concept of action. At its most simplistic, the concept of projectuality expresses the ability of actions to exist within and act upon the particular dynamics of any given moment.

In this sense, the concept of projectuality is being used here to express a variety of different elements of this concept of action and materiality. Firstly, the concept is one which discusses a projection of action across space within immediacy, that actions can have resonance within material conditions, and that these resonances ultimately form the cascading effects of the act. Concurrent to this, the concept of projectuality also interacts with a concept of time, with the impacts of the act stretching out as a series of reverberations into future present moments.

This reliance on a future present moment, expressed in this concept of forming the conditions of the future, carries with it an important rethinking of the concept of “strategy” as often articulated. We will return to some of these ideas when we discuss intermediacy later, but, for now, the concept of projectuality fundamentally disrupts the concept of knowable and extendable conceptual understandings of actions that mimic strategic thinking.

Too often what passes for “strategic” thinking within anarchist spaces in the US is actually a form of political pre-figuration. In this form of appearance strategic discussions begin with a political discussion, one centered on a world we want to see, with actions being planned in order to fulfill some approximation of this abstract vision. In other forms, what occurs is closer to strategic thought, but often falls down into the application of strategic approaches already deemed to be always already effective; we see this in the discussion of shields, which are often taken as an article of faith, even though they are, most of the time, a hindrance to mobility which fosters poor strategic choices in the streets, like staying together in a single large group.

When we start to think strategic engagement through the concept of projectuality we have to begin the discussion from a fundamentally different point of departure, the actual dynamics of the time and space of the action itself. In other words, a discourse ceases to be strategic discourse to the degree that all action and conditions are thought abstractly, through the lens of the concept first, with discussions of acts occurring only afterward, with the terms entirely premised on the abstract. By discussing projectuality on the level of resonance, the reverberation of an act across time and space, the potential future impacts of the act are thought only in reference to that future present moment when they manifest.

As such, the future resonance of the act becomes something that is unpredictable. As one acts the first move of projectuality is immediate, the projection of action into the present. This immediate ace converges with the dynamics of the moment to create the possibility of reverberations. These reverberations then come to change the dynamics of future moments. If that is the case, if reverberations stretch out across time indefinitely, impacting all future present moments, then it is impossible for us to predict, with anything more precise than blind speculation, what the impacts of these acts can be. The result of this is a grounding of the action in the present, with the purpose of the act being a projectuality which generates unpredictable resonances.

Once this perspective is adopted, which is necessary for us to ever speak of actions, all of which occur in a present, then the concept of having a plan for revolt, or a programme, any sort of rigid strategy that is meant to be enacted regardless of circumstance and the formation of any structures that are meant to determine actions in the future (federations, unions, etc), is at best a work of political fiction, and at worst a discourse which pretends to function strategically, but which in reality functions as a limiting force to the possibility of action. The approach to action, therefore, within this perspective, functions in the present to create the possibilities that form present moments in the future.

Immediacy

Carried within this concept of projectuality is a concept of immediacy, or a reliance on the existence of the present as the site in which action, and life, occurs. We can see this manifest itself in a formula, which is repeated throughout, which fundamentally ties theory to activity. This argument takes on two specific manifestations, both of which come to terminate in the concept of the experiment.

The first manifestation centers around the conceptualization of theory as an act in itself. The realm of theory, the universe of the concept, is one in which the particularity of material objects and moments is eliminated in the construction of the concept. In other words, when we construct a concept which is meant to speak of a group of things, we have eliminated the particularity of those things, and typified, defined, them through the contours of the concept.

On the surface, and there is a far more complex discussion to be had about this point, the role and ontology of theory (totally writing a book on this soon), the realm of the concept is incapable of speaking of the material world. But, at the same time, the act of thought, or the act of theory, is an act, and as such, it occurs in a time, in a space, and has resonant effects. Following from an argument leveraged by Sorel and Galleani, among others, this repositions theory alongside any other act, and as such, the calculus of theory can be thought around the measurement of the effectiveness of the theory act, rather than some abstract discourse on some concept of “correct”-ness.

As such, and this is the second move here, the act of theory becomes thought as an act, and the act itself is imparted with relevance; the act acts on the material world. Now, as we spoke about earlier, this act is not ontologically capable of implying its own conclusion or resonances, which are predicted in a speculative form, at best. The act, therefore, is not something that can be undertaken due to assured outcomes, and as a result, the act always functions within the realm of experimentation.

The concept of the experiment is critical here for a series of reasons. Firstly, experimentalism carries with it a rejection of concepts of truth and universality, and the knowability of universality. There is a lot more discussion that is needed to analyze all of the issues of universality within radical theory (again, writing a book about this soon). Suffice to say, for now, once we reject the concept of knowable universal truth, and wager on its absence, not only do we enter into the only ontological approach that allows for the possibility of revolt, but we also enter into a realm of the unpredictable.

Within this matrix of concepts, the act, all acts, are rearranged, not around their outcomes, but around constant analysis of their resonances, which can only be gazed upon from within the immediate, the actual reality of its existence in the moment. As such, everything becomes provisional, a temporary strategic probe to determine the interactivity between certain acts and their resonances over time, within the immediacy of the present.

Not only does this form the foundation for the concept of informal organization (if the point of action is to fundamentally change conditions, then how can we form eternal political and strategic approaches in the abstract), but also grounds all activity in the immediacy of its occurrence and the resonances it generates. This is nothing short of an argument against utopianism, and a reframing of the objectives of revolt around experimental possibilities, rather than dull deterministic futures and asserted ends of history (all of which carry echoes of millenarian Christianity). The result is a highly dynamic approach to the act, which generates its own possibilities based on strategic openings in the present, the resonances of these events and the constant analysis of these resonances over time in order to shape experimentation, with experimentation becoming method, goal, strategy and politics.

Some may find this lacking, may find the absence of some conclusive strategic doctrine to be a hindrance. But, the question must always become, if the act is immediate, and if the goal is to fundamentally change the terms upon which life is lived, then in what way would we possess the perspective, ability to predict the future or the the intellectual gaze to posit some sort of commonality of moments over time? This sort of commonality, an assertion of a predictable continuity of past and future, of which the present is a mere expression, is inherently implied in any quest to define some sort of universally applicable strategic approach, or the attempt to do strategy in the abstract. If that commonality of moments existed, if everything was defined in some core ontological way that persisted across time, then the whole point of revolt would be rendered moot anyway.

In moving away from these simplifications, these conceptual shortcuts we take to avoid the complexity of the world and the inability to really speak of it directly, we can begin to bring into alignment the ontological perspective necessary to conceive of revolt (which implies the absence of some universal truth), the plane of activity in which we exist and the attempts to make sense of all of this through the concept. It implies recognizing the limitations of perspective, the simplicity of the conceptual frameworks we mobilize, and taking that limitation, that unknowability of the world, not as an end point, but as a point of departure. This is a call to embrace the ontology of the moment, recognize its inherent connection with the concept of revolt, and then build approaches from there.

Intermediacy

Now, I know that working with liberals is largely an experience akin to the pain one would experience stabbing themselves in the eye with a ballpoint pen, and potentially more dangerous (liberals have shown themselves to be snitches time and time again). And I know that working with tankies feels like constantly trying to explain simple points of political theory to a brick wall that is hell bent on justifying genocide, and excusing the acts of any state that is either willing to openly fund propaganda operations (Russia), or that declares themselves “socialist” (North Korea and the PRC). It is a horrible, dangerous, existentially nullifying experience, and at the end of the day, we aren't even fighting the same fight.

The concept of intermediate struggle, as articulated here, is often criticized for encouraging us to attempt to, at all costs, work in these hostile areas of political activity; but that is a superficial reading. Weir discusses intermediacy as an attempt to engage in some immediate conflict with the state, around some issue or question of immediate importance in a local area, that could be expanded in a wider social conflict. Though this seems like a pretty straight forward concept, there are two elements of this concept that fundamentally shape this in a different, much more useful, form.

The first element of immediacy that should be elaborated upon centers around the ways that intermediacy reframes the terms of engagement. The traditional mode of engagement, which I term activism, is a symbolic form of discursive engagement meant to make some sort of rhetorical point through material activity (See the introduction to Insurgencies #1 for more thoughts on this: https://littleblackcart.com/index.php?dispatch=products.view&product_id=318). The focus is on an abstract “issue” and the pace of activity is driven by discursive outrages, rather than material imperatives. In this traditional form the terrain of conflict is displaced from the material, and inserted into a conceptual debate between different discursive positions.

When intermediacy is discussed the question of the “issue” fades into the background. The purpose of engaging in intermediate struggle is not to win that conflict necessarily. Rather, the entrance into this space of intermediate struggle is an intervention, not to create some sort of pre-figurative utopian space (which carries with it all of the problems of the immaterial and non-immediate as discussed above) or predictable outcome, but, rather, to attempt to intervene to shape the dynamics of activity in an immediate sense.

The question of intermediacy is a question of terrain, and this is the second core point. Far from a call to work with liberals and authoritarians, although that may occur, the concept of intermediacy is more of a recognition of the dynamics of terrain within late capitalism. If we are being honest with ourselves, though the anarchist, and adjacent, milieus have grown dramatically in the past two decades, we still are far from a space in which open conflict with the state typifies the spaces of action. So, if we are always necessarily acting in the immediate, and in those immediate circumstances most of the conflicts we are enmeshed in are reformist in nature (this includes calls to defund the police), then engagement in that immediate time and space will likely occur in these scenarios, unfortunately.

This does not mean, however, that we are being called to accept the terms of those engagements as typified by activism. Within the context of activism engagement becomes an imperative in all scenarios, regardless of strategic dynamics. The concept of intermediacy, rather, is a concept of action framed entirely around the propulsion of action through resonance, and the maximization of resonant effects. This requires a perspective centered around strategic calculation, and the analysis of strategy in the framing of points of intervention.

Conclusion

For many of us that have been around for some time the direction of the insurrectionist project within the US has taken a series of unfortunate turns. From the retreat into concepts of “revolutionary subjectivity” and an approach grounded in an assertion of affirmation in action, the insurrectionist project, unfortunately, deviated from its core. In this text we can see this core being illuminated, brought down to core concepts and structured in such a way as to facilitate its role as a foundation, rather than an ideology.

What emerges here is an approach to the act, and to revolt, which is simultaneously a hearkening to the past, as well as an outlining of a possible approach to the present. On one level the discussion of action from the position of ontology is one that strips away a lot of the ideological baggage of philosophical modernity, all of the absurd assumptions of things like “society” or utopian goals, all of the retreats to theory and self-aggrandizement. It is a return to core, foundational discussions and concepts, a basis from which things can be build on top of, grounding these new formations in experimentation and immediacy.

On another level, this reframing of the insurrectionist project around an ontology of immediacy firmly grounds it on the terrain of lived existence, the moment, and in doing so surpasses the terms of the modernist project (of which liberal democracy, socialism and traditional anarchism are all a part). By doing so, by grounding politics in the act, we can overcome the assertions that come to us in theory, from the generalization of objects into categories all the way to the assertions of the existence of some universal truth (which would paradoxically necessitate a deterministic universe in which revolt would be impossible).

This project is critical, more so today than in years past. The level of political discourse and action in the US is at a contradictory spot in the present moment. At the same time that we see a rapid acceleration in conflict against the state, we are also witnessing the reduction of discourse and theory to partisans of various reductionistic ideological projects arguing with one another in incredibly simplistic terms. Whole conceptual universes are asserted in discussions about how best to “manage society”, how some sort of abstract future scenario will be dealt with, how these concepts interact with attempts to end history in the culmination of some ideological revelation. These reductionisms displace action into the realm of the abstract, constructing a politics of abstraction that then attempts to become the world...and we wonder why revolts have a horrible tendency to turn into authoritarian purges and police states.

If we are to escape the tragedies of the past, the failures of the revolutionary project, the purges and massacres, this requires a complete rethinking of the terms in which we engage with action and politics. These new terms must dispense with the simplifications of modernity, move beyond the attempts to end history and begin to embrace the complexity of lived existence, in all of its conflict and contingency. It is only from this point of departure that we can redefine what action looks like, and it is only from that perspective that politics can flow.

*The term politics is being used here in the traditional Greek sense, as “matters of the polis”, or the dynamic of things that occur, and not in the sense of modern statecraft.

If you would like to read the text referenced here it can be found on Anarchist Library:

https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/jean-weir-tame-words-from-a-wild-heart

In Defense of Looting: Select Quotes from Chapter 9

On the crisis in capital in the early 1970s. For more on this era of capitalist development I recommend reading Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

“As rioters, protesters and strikers continued to force wages higher and increase state programs, and as automation increased global productivity to be faster than consumption could absorb, corporations suddenly couldn't sell enough of their products and profits began to stall out. This crisis came to a head in the crash and recession of the early 1970s- most of that decade saw severe economic retrenchment, stagnation and collapse as municipal and state governments went broke and jobs disappeared. But a total reckoning was staved off by the ending of the Bretton Woods agreement and the “floating of the dollar”, which decoupled the value of the dollar from real value in gold, fully transforming the US state and the Federal Reserve into the backbone of global capital.” (220)

In this section there is a discussion of the relationship between the collapse of combative political initiatives and the rise of neoliberalism, as well as its connection to the crisis of “stagflation” which occurred in the early 1970s. What is specifically important about this period is that the conditions that would result in the collapse of 2008 (easy to acquire liquid capital, a focus on asset price increases and artificially low interest rates) all emerged during this period. To address the dual dynamics of inflation and economic stagnation, there was a shift in the shape of the economy, as federal policy, specifically under Reagan, became built around attempting to financialize the economy, or make the economy based on services and investments, rather than material production.

It was this dynamic that allowed for the cascade in asset prices to occur between 1990 and 2008. During that period credit became increasingly easy to obtain, which drove up consumer demand for large items (houses, cars, etc), which in turn drove price inflation in these markets. At the same time we were experiencing mass economic contraction as a result of automation driving wages down and leading to increased unemployment, the 1973 Oil Crisis and falling profitability as US manufacturers started to attempt to compete globally. So, at the same time that wages were falling and cost of living was rising the prices of things like houses continued to increase at a rate faster than general inflation.

This then generated the dynamic in which home owners would refinance their homes at low interest rates, sometimes frequently, as the price of their home increased. This financial windfall was then used in a lot of cases to cover for holes in the household budget caused by stagnating or falling wages. At the same time the wealthy were taking their tax breaks, which were justified under the adage of “trickle down economics”, and investing them in stock. Companies also took their newly found financial benefits and started using them to buy their own stock rather than building the manufacturing facilities and hiring the employees that they promised to if we would only give them one more tax break. This increase in incoming capital drove stock prices up, far beyond the actual value of the capital contained within the company (company stock was sometimes 40-50 times the value of the company in material capital terms). As this occurred financial assets became decoupled from the “real economy”, and began to function as an abstract asset in themselves, traded often automatically, for easy profits. It is from this dynamic that we see the vast, and widening, gulf between the wealthy and everyone else which has typified the 21st Century.

All that it took was for housing demand to dry up, as it did in the 2005-2006 period, to cause prices to stagnate, preventing people from using refinancing to deal with economic shortfall, and eventually driving many of these homeowners into foreclosure. This dynamic was even more brutal in the Rust Belt, where wages fell dramatically, as union labor was eliminated and replaced by machines and low wage jobs, which, when combined with predatory lending practices on the part of financial institutions targeting communities of color, led to the vast emptying out of whole parts of cities between 2006 and 2009.


“But this era of general crisis that began in the seventies did not see a proliferation of mass movements in the United States. Instead, a wave of revolutionary fervor faded and fell to repression...And though instances of anti-white-supremacist rioting took place- most significantly in LA in 1992, but antipolice riots popped up every few years throughout the period- they mostly failed to initiate a cycle of social transformation.

Without a broader movement context, rioters increasingly appeared as simple pariahs. Looting became the prototypical evidence of Black pathology and crime. As the political center of gravity in America definitively shifted to the white suburbs, even liberal explanations of rioting and looting, such as those put forward by LBJ's Kerner and Governor Brown's McCone Commissions, were rejected. Sociology was dismissed for psychology, and narratives about looting and rioting were explained as a question of culture, crime and family. This newly re-racialized definition of looting would reach its horrific apotheosis in New Orleans in 2005, when police and white vigilantes murdered Hurricane Katrina refugees with impunity under the aegis of “stopping looting”“(222).


On the dynamics of the riots in 1992 and its relationship to the rising post-industrial economy:

“Whereas the uprising generalized across the working class, the riots were led by a new group of the urban poor. Members of a new underclass of the near permanently unemployed, cut adrift by the Reagan-driven destruction of social services and the collapse of manufacturing jobs, existing largely outside of the circuits of production and consumption, this class lives at the very margins of society. At the time of the uprising, the LA court bureaucracy was referring to cases around improverished Black males as “NHI”– “No Humans Involved”. As Sylvia Wynter writes, Rodney King was a member of these new Black masses, who, in distinction to the Black middle class that had grown since the sixties, “have come to occupy a doubled pariah status, no longer that of only being Black, but also of belonging to the rapidly accelerating Post-Industrial category of the poort and jobless.” People the state considered to be NHI led the LA uprising, and in thinking through and fighting alongside their rebellion, Wynter argues, we can begin to overturn the current system that constructs “humanity” in such a way as to exile them from its protections and care.” (230)

“The LA riots were ythe first uprising of this new postindustrial underclass, which Marxist theorists has referred to as “surplus populations”– people outside the process of the production of value, people who aren't even needed to drive down wages like the usual mass of unemployed proletarians are. These people whom capitalism regards as surplus do not and cannot make demands of a traditional industrial workplace, so their movements are invisible or opaque to many so-called revolutionaries who believe revolution can only emerge from a shop floor. And this disregard is furthered by the fact that the form of organization favored by this new population of declassed poor is not the union but the criminal gang.“(231)

In Defense of Looting: Select Quotes

I am going to be shifting this series to this new blog platform, as a way to help keep things organized and to cut down on the need to scroll back a month or so to follow where this all began.

I will be listing the chapters I am reading below, along with select quotes, and will be posting updated links on Kolektiva, for those that are on Mastadon (which everyone should be).

Chapter 7

Speaking of the 1964 riots which started in Harlem and spread into Rochester, Jersey City, Patterson, Elizabeth (NJ) and Philadelphia.

“Though these riots were sparked by instances of police brutality, rioting isn't simply a mechanical reaction to police violence: it's not a knee unbending beneath a doctor's hammer. If it were, riots would occur every day in every city in the United States. Riots, instead, emerge out of movement.

Sometimes they come out of that subterranean, invisible but ongoing movement for freedom, justice and Jubilee that Karl Marx called the “historical party” that runs through the entire history of capitalism, reappearing seemingly suddenly and spontaneously (though specific histories of uprisings always tell a more complicated story of rising local tensions and grievances). But uprisings occur more frequently when social movement is highly visible, agitating and powerful. Riots transform the consciousness of their participants, widen the group of people taking part in political action and usually produce a new generation of revolutionaries, opening up new directions for further action.”


“Reducing looting and rioting to a question of crime, calling the looter “just a thief”, as Fuller ironically suggests, serves to mask the liberatory content of the action taking place. In the midst of the uprising, onlookers and participants alike begin to question the ideology supporting property and commodity, order and law. As such, looting represents a fundamental threat to a society ordered by white supremacy, a threat that often goes beyond the boundaries that activists and even self-proclaimed revolutionaries feel comfortable with...

But the riots did more than express a voice. Riots are more than just the “language of the unheard”, as MLK called them. Riots give birth to revolutionary transformation...”


On tactics during the Watts Rebellion in 1965

“The tactics were simple but effective, as Gerald Horne records in his important history of the Watts Uprising, Fire This Time. One common tactic saw a group of rioters, usually young men, drive up to a business, hop out, break out the windows, then drive away. Then cars of looters, a much more mixed group, split between men and women, young and old, would arrive and work to empty the store. The store would only be set alight once credit records had been destroyed and goods had been fully looted. Rioters usually remained nearby to make sure the building burned, attacking firemen with bricks and bottles if they tried to put out the flames before the fire had fully consumed the hated business.

Tactics reflected effective communication and mobility among the rebels. Rioters transmitted information over the radio waves, used payphones to spread intel, and listened in to police broadcasts to see where cops would be deployed. False reports were called in to send police scrambling, at which point areas they'd just “pacified” could be retaken. In areas they didn't entirely control, rioters focused on hit-and-run strikes, then dispersing quickly to reappear elsewhere. All of these tactics would be adopted and practiced, with local modifications, in other riots throughout the period.”


“Many radicals fetishize military-style conflict as the sign of true revolutionary potential. This was especially true of the movements of the late sixties and early seventies, that all proclaimed armed struggle and saw the “guerrilla” as something of a revolutionary saint. But the revolutionary context of the riots does not lie mainly in these military aspects. The shooting is a small piece, not the main component of the attack on white supremacy, the state, property, and the commodity. Whereas armed self-defense will always be an important parts of struggles for liberation, the arms themselves have no magical property to make our movements more serious, more revolutionary, more powerful. The power of the attack on white settler society is seen instead in the broad lawlessness, property destruction, looting and cop-free zones produced by the riot and is reflected in the attendant sense of freedom, unity, and radical safety felt by the rioters.”