Staring Into the Abyss

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

Some Initial Thoughts on the Concept of Revolution: A Review of Specters of Revolt

For the last little bit of time I have been working through some thoughts on the concept of revolution. These are still very much in formation, and will probably be the subject of at least part of a book I plan on working on starting this fall. In doing research for the text I came across a text called Specters of Revolt, by Richard Gilman-Opalsky, and had some thoughts that seemed worth sharing, even as nothing more than an opening salvo in this discussion.


Before diving into the critiques I have of the text I want to discuss the concept of critique itself. There is a tendency for intellectuals, theorists, academics, and people engaged in political theory to approach critique as a sort of eliminationism. By this I mean that critique has become a sort of competition, with critique itself being portrayed as some sort of invalidation of a certain body of thought. This is an absurd view.

On an epistemic level we have to think through what reading, and by extension critique, really is. For us to make the argument that there is a right reading of a text, a correct reading, we have to make a series of highly problematic assumptions. We would need to assume that the text always remains the same in all moments, that it is engaged ahistorically by ahistorical readers that are somehow immune to the dynamics of whatever present they occupy in any given moment. We would also need to assume that all readers are the same; if there is to be a singular right way to read a text there would need to be a common epistemic basis for that reading that would have to be rigidly the same. We would also need to assume that words have objective meanings, and that we all engage with and understand language in exactly the same way. In other words, to claim that there is a right or correct reading of a text is to also assert an entire universe grounded in sameness and determinism.

I want to take a different view, one in which the correctness of reading and concept is secondary, one in which we can dispense with the arrogant assumptions of the true and universal. This view derives from discussions of the act of writing and reading that we will find in Archive Fever, by Derrida, or The Infinite Conversation, by Blanchot. In these texts the act of writing is portrayed as an act. By this I mean that writing is viewed as an event which has contingent effects in particular moments, rather than as the production of a static object that would exist outside of history. The text itself exists in a static, archival, form, which marks the product of a particular series of interpretive moments recorded by a writer. The reader, though, does not enter the text in the same way as the writer, and the writer will not enter the text the same way when they become editor or reader themselves. We encounter text, we engage with it. The text converges with the particularity of our existences and understandings to generate some sort of conceptual outcome.

As such, the concept of critique, for it to be useful, needs to occur in a way that centers around the usefulness of ideas and the theoretical space opened by a specific discourse. As Deleuze writes in his text on Nietzsche:

“Critique is not a re-action of re-sentiment but the active expression of an active mode of existence; attack and not revenge, the natural aggression of a way of being, the divine wickedness without which perfection could not be imagined” (3).

The act of critique is an act of opening, of challenging the singlarity of an understanding to create the possibility of conceptual movement, conceptual reformation, the possibility of presenting the concept in a different light, in a different context, with different results. Therefore, the primary question of critique is not whether we destroy the text we are analyzing; this understanding relies on the assumptions outlined above. Rather, critique functions as an act of destruction and appropriation, a process of borrowing ideas, utilizing theoretical movements, and functionally taking what is useful in the process of attempting to create a series of conceptual possibilities. It is a form of thought that very much exists within life, in all of its chaotic particularity, and in the service of launching attacks to eliminate impediments to the possibilities of that existence. It is revolt.

The existence of critique as revolt, as an opening of possibilities without some prescribed moment of reconcretization (some end of revolt), becomes a core concept in the thoughts I am recording here. We see a similar dynamic play itself out through this text, where the tendencies toward definitionalism and certainty, of concretizing objects of thought and presenting them as analogous to the world, collide with the chaotic contingency of any given moment. In this instance the object of analysis is the concept of revolution, the attempt to define the concept, and the problems latent in that attempt. But, as we will see, it is the framing of the question itself that generates a certain type of problematic in the text, a problematic that points not to issues in the text, but to issues in the entire conceptualization of what revolution is, and whether the category is even useful anymore (or ever was).

Setting the Stage

Initially I had picked this text up in order to explore the discussion of the concept of revolution contained within. As I stated above, this concept, as currently understood, functions as a form of sungularizing historicism. By this I mean that the concept of revolution is in itself something that is singular, and as such, a concept that posits a spatio-temporality with very specific characteristics. We can see this singularity in construction of the very concept itself through the medium of naming a historical moment. The strings of events that we term revolutions are often the result of some deeply complex, often misunderstood, motivations and historical dynamics that construct these events with specific contours. These contours do not spread across space equally, with conflict finding points of greater, lesser, or different concentrations and expressions.

The packaging of this complex series of historical events, which will never be replicated to the degree that our actions have effects that shape the future, points to two core problems with this formulation. Firstly, this reality of revolution, that it is a complex series of historical events summarized within the confines of a singular object, gives us some insight into the process of historicism and its role in the construction of ideology. Ideological constructs function, on a practical level, by taking their epistemic claims to universal truth and then utilizing a pseudo-analysis grounded in the ideological reflection in events, the aura of ideology in the event itself. In this construct there is an implicit assertion that two moves are possible; that moments can be subsumed into historical objects and that these historical objects are somehow comparable across time, even just as an expression of ideology. Without the concept of revolution forming the foundations of this singularization of complex events then conceptual universes, such as Leninism, that rely on this universalization of historical condition, this claim that strategy, for example, exists independent of the strategic context and functions based on this comparability of historical events.

This singularization of historical events mirrors all other processes of historicism, and in this way is not unique. Nor is it unique on the level of grouping a series of historically particular dynamics, freezing them, and reducing them down to their lowest common denominator, while asserting that the common denominator is a thing to begin with. In both of these ways the concept of revolution mirrors our coding of other events. We can take World War II as an example. It was a complex series of events, with highly localized dynamics, which were subsumed within a broader global power struggle, which was in itself inscribed with the urgencies of intervening in genocide. In no two places did the war manifest in the same ways, and in no two places were these events isolated from all other dynamics occurring during that time. So, while the category of World War II may be useful in the discussion of these events, allowing us to make sense of them, in itself the concept of World War II does not express the moments that are subsumed in that concept, it only expresses the contours of the concept that is used to organize these events, defining them by something outside of themselves.

In the coding of specific events as revolution there is a dual move being made. In this first move the events that comprise what will be termed “a revolution” will need to be grouped together under this category. This is where problems like historical revisionism arise, and why there are different Stalinist and Trotskyist histories of the Russian Revolution; there was disagreement over what events counted as part of the revolution and which were not. It is at this location in which rewritings of the coding of events, the determination of what is defined by the category, allows for these events to be coded ideologically, and often in ways that eliminate ethical complications, failures, and mistakes, reducing this “history” to another tool of propaganda and ideological distortion. Secondly, in performing this act of coding a series of events, now grouped under the heading of revolution, are separated from all other events. In this grouping of specific events into the categorical heading of revolution, often with these other events being considered “counter-revolutionary”, a sort of hermetically sealed grouping is created, with boundaries marking it as separate from its outside. This framing completely divorces any notion of “revolution” from its historical conditions of possibility, and constructs it as a specific historical object that can be understood as such. The second move is to then take this categorical definition of events, and exalt it as a specific object that is able to be understood in some sort of true way. It is only from here that one can be said to be studying revolutions, or that one can say that they understand some ahistorical truth about revolutions; all tankies rely on this construct.

These conditions of possibility, historical coding and exalting the category, not only form the foundations for “bad” understandings of revolution. Rather, they form the foundations for all understandings of the concept of revolution, and is implied simply by naming the events and then placing them at the center of political discourses, making the construct of revolution a core political question. It is really from this point that this text departs, that it finds its launching point. In some ways there is a sense in which this is a text that speaks from a specific location. It is a location marked by the activist norms of the 1990s (there are lots of references to the Zapatistas and the anti-globalization movement, and a lot of the same categories), and one in which the concept of revolution still comes to form a core political category. This is a tension that marks the entire text, one in which the critique of the concept of revolution almost crests into a core analysis of the concept itself, bringing the concept itself into the realm of critique, only to get trapped in its terms, turned backwards, and collapsing into paradox at numerous points. But, to see where these moments are able to be identified, we should step through the text, which is definitely worth a read for those interested in this concept specifically.

As with any text there are any number of threads that run through the narrative. In this case there is a narrative on the concept of revolution or revolt (for Opalsky revolts grow into revolutions), but also narratives centered around concepts like culture jamming (note the 1990s reference point), concepts of notions of the future, concepts of desire, notions of struggle and conflict without struggle, as well as any of a number of small ruminations on specific thinkers or texts, all of which are interesting. As with any complex text there is always a bit of arificiality in attempting to separate one thread from the others, to break it away from its weaving into other threads, but that is exactly what we will be doing here. These other narratives, whether they focus on concepts of desire or notions of the future, are all departing from a concept of revolution, which Opalsky attempts to challenge and render more fluid without dispensing with the idea. This tension, between recognizing issues with the concept but not dispensing with it, permeates the entire text, and sets epistemic conditions that create problems as the text proceeds.

Revolution: The Formation of a Concept

A core point in the text, which emerges in the Introduction and carries through the forst couple of pieces, is that revolt exists as a subtext to history, an almost invisible force with its own ontological and epistemic structures; this is a significant claim. In embracing this claim we are directly arguing against the understanding of revolt as a formal category visible in the abstract, outside of history, as a legible force mobilized intentionally. If we think through the concept of revolution, or the notion of revolt, in relation to political activity, a clear assumption becomes clear; namely, the assumption that successful organizing is something that can be objectively managed, and that it always results in achieving some sort of mobilization of revolt. This understanding, which is core to much of the arrogance of political organizing culture, heavily relies on the idea that revolt is an object that can be understood and mobilized regardless of its relationship to events; a wholly despatialized, ahistorical understanding of revolt.

The problems that characterize this move, and this replicates throughout the text, becomes clear almost immediately however. In the very next conceptual move there is an injunction to determine or define what revolt can be, just to do so with more open categories than the deterministic lens inherited from Leninism. This conceptual-material fusionism, this claim that we can understand revolt in the conceptual, and that this will impact the material, prioritizes the categorization, making its definition imperative for the contextualization of the rest of the argument. In other words, revolt and revolution become objects of analysis in this narrative, rather than namings of events, and as such they must be set aside from history in the very act of their definition. One is not defining actual events named revolts, one is defining a category of revolt and then attemptoing to shape events based on this understanding, and as such, the revolt itself becomes removed from its particularity, and begins to exist only to the degree that events can be subsumed within the definition.

To illustrate this move we can look at the ways that the concept of desire is used in the Beyond Struggle essay. The concept of desire is mobilized in this piece to be a counter-point to the concept of struggle, with the injunction being that we should not struggle but act from desire. Let us look beyond the fact that one can desire struggle, or the ways in which this injunction ignores actual hardships, risks, and stakes. Rather, here, I want to focus on the conceptual pre-conditions for this discussion to emerge to begin with. For us to make the claim that desire should become some fundamental motivating force of revolt we need to make two claims. The first claim is that something like desire or revolt can be made into conceptual objects without fundamentally destroying the dynamism that gives these concepts meaning. In naming these concepts as concepts, as conceptual constructions that persist over time, the material particularity of their manifestation as desire or conflict is erased and replaced with a staid and static definition of the concept. Secondly, we then need to posit that the construction of a narrative of conceptual connection between these terms not only speaks directly of the world (which, again, presumes a static world) but is also something that can directly manifest in the world in the terms of its conceptual construction. That is to say, that this architecture presumes that these static categories in themselves are manifested in the world in their static and ahistorical generalism, and that the movements of these concepts then come to define the world.

In another example, this time around pages 80-89, we can begin to see the impact of this sort of thinking. In this section there is a discussion of power as an organic material possibility latent in existence itself. This would imply that the term power, in the spirit of Foucault, is being used to name an active series of dynamics that cannot be subsumed in the term power. Now, if we were to take this position that open categories, like power, or categories that name activity, like revolt, are not able to be defined, and don't speak directly of the world, then the entire attempt here, to define a concept of revolution that does not have the same deficiencies as in the past, would completely collapse in the impossibility of defining actual acts grouped under headings of revolt or revolution. In this discussion of power the discourse itself begins with this clear discussion of the microscopic and organic manifestations of dynamics grouped under the term power, but this then immediately solidifies in the discussion of scale.. Gilman-Opalsky argues that, though capital operates in locality, it is actually “large”, to use his term, and requires revolt at the same scale.

OK, let's investigate this claim. To make the argument that capital operates at “large” scale is to make the argument that capital itself operates across space and time, giving it a body all of its own. This is clearly the attempt of capital, to construct a universe of meaning that operates as the condition of possibility for existence, but this is not something that we can speak of singularly if we want to discuss actions as something that has effects. If actions have effects, then any following moment is going to be directly the result of the dynamics of this present, and as such, no present moment ever repeats. These moments are also not singular across space, with different dynamics functioning within the same moment in different spaces. So, to say that capital is “large” is to say that the local actions that actually comprise economic activity are, in themselves, driven by something outside of themselves in a direct way that defines the actions in actuality. This does not mean, as I would claim, that capital is a structure of meaning imposed through policing, which would involve local decisions and actions. Rather, to claim this scale of capital is to argue that there is something that exceeds the moment materially, an actual transcendental force, that directly defines these acts as capital, and as separate from other “non-capital” acts.

In making this move capital ceases to be an attempt at organizing logistics and imposing limits on the possibilities of existence through police force, in which interventions are fundamentally bound up with this microscopicness, and begins to become a category that defines some actions that are grouped together across time and space, opposing some “large” scale “system” which is also devoid of locality or temporality. In doing so both capital and revolt are abstracted from their occurrence, from the time and space of the events coded in these ways, thrown into a conceptual comparison which is, in turn, then supposed to speak directly of reality; it is a strange, but very very common, conceptual construction when viewed through this lens. The centrality of the category does not fuse the concept of revolt with some dynamic structuring of theory in the midst of conflictual events. Rather, we experience the inverse, the wholesale obliteration of possibility in the static conceptualization of a singular categorical “system” which is meant to be confronted by some generalized revolt. In this arrangement, the world itself disappears and we enter into a whollly conceptual discourse on some idea of revolution against some idea of a “system”.

It is only from this disappearance of life that concepts like revolution, thought as a singular event, can be said to be understood in their entirety by some sort of privileged revolutionary subject, such as the technician in Leninism. So, even though the text itself later returns to a sort of molecularity, this baggage of the assertion of a conceptually singular capital, unified across time and space, leads Gilman-Opalsky to speak of the “micropolitical”, conflict which occurs in the time and space of actual activity, as a politics of failure due to the inability to defeat “systems”. In this claim the concept of “large”, namely non-particular and singular across time and space, is taken as a given category for all analysis, with all other analyses departing from different categories “failing”, due to not addressing a construct, the “system”, which is seen increasingly as an un-useful artifice. The imposition of this analytic framework also imposes an entire conceptual reality in which systems actually exist, in which there are things that are singular and persist in this form across time and space, which then asserts a conceptual reality in which singular concepts of revolution make sense. But, outside of that framing, which I would argue is impossible to actually support conceptually, this assertion of the massification of activity and the removal of the act from its time and space makes no sense. The result is a conceptual tautology, where the assertion of “large” systems necessitates the existence of “large” revolutions, which in turn presumes an entire organizational and ontological model rooted in massification and modernism.

Within the text there is an attempt to address this paradox, which is not unnoticed, around page 92. In this discussion the concept of culmination is raised, as some point in which there is a convergence between the micropolitical and the “large” mass scale of revolution, in this conceptualization. On the one hand, this approach does allow us to displace the question of the act onto the plane of effect, and thus onto the material plane. By placing the culmination of actions at the pinnacle of analysis, and rendering that culmination through the effects of actions, discourses around some essence of the act, or some true act, are eliminated in favor of a discourse that should be grounded in the moment. But, on the other hand, while this is occurring there is a countervailing tendency pulling in the other direction. At the moment that the point of culmination is placed at the center of the discourse on the political all particular acts are subsumed into this culmination, and the nuanced temporality and particular material conditions of the acts grouped into the category of a revolution is condensed into this singular moment of culmination. In other words, rather than seeing acts that exist in light of their particular time and space, the act is said to exist in this form, but only to the degree that it fulfills the condition of possibility of leading to a culmination. As such, the culmination then takes the place of the ahistorical object and becomes the point of orientation in which all action is judged, preserving the singularity of the point of focus, whether we call it culmination or revolution.

There are many other places where these dynamics emerge, but I think this demonstrates the point. Core to this text is a venture that I see frequently in thinkers both of this era, and also within academia. There is a tendency within that world to want to speak of the political within the terms common to those discourses, which were heavily influenced by Leninist reductionism and the simplicity of categorical thinking, while problematizing the limitations of the original articulations of these categories. What results, however, is a discourse in which categories become more open, but also migrate into the center of all narratives, as a condition of possibility for all other thought around the subject. These dynamics typified the New Left, and informed its inability to break from authoritarianism, as well as the more activist left of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which often operated based on simplistic and absolutist categories, often collapsing into purism discourses. What is often not embraced, however, is the impossibility of these discourses, regardless of how nuanced the terms, actually speaking of life, in its temporal and spatial nuances and particularities. There is a hesitancy to speak of philosophy itself, and its impossibility, and as a result, there is often a tendency to adopt terms which imply epistemic and ontological frameworks that undermine the point that one is trying to make. In this case Gilman-Opalsky does a wonderful job of problematizing the very ontology of the concept of revolution, only to then reconstruct some concept of a politically singular moment and call it something else. We can do better than this.

Writing the Indiscernible

This is the section of an essay where I am supposed to outline some new amazing concept that is supposed to solve all of our conceptual problems. I don't have anything like that for you all, and in some ways the very structure of that type of articulation prevents the critique that is being leveraged here; to imply some singular solution is to assert the singularity of the problem which is to assert the singularity of circumstance. On some level we need to abandon the concept of the solution in its entirety, rendering some sort of recommendation counter-productive here.

The real difficulty, and this is the element of this discussion that I am working through currently, and have been working through for a while, is how one speaks possibility, conflict, contingency, and so on. Philosophy in many ways is trapped by the contours of concepts themselves. By this I do not mean that there are deficiencies in specific concepts. Rather, that the entire construction of the concept implies a universe in which singular terms can name singular ideas which wholly and completely express singular categories of objects that are all thought to be the same. Marx discusses this in Chapter 1 of Capital, where he discusses commodities, but we can use a simpler example. When we name something, lets say capitalism for example, we are naming that thing singularly, as something that persists across time and space, and then naming things in relation to that concept. In the context of capitalism, which we discussed above, the term capitalism implies a singularity to the operations of capital. In taking this ontological lens on, one is subsequently eliminating the particular actions that are grouped under capitalism, as material moments, and replacing them with their reflection in this category, tying them to some commonality and not to the material particularity of the moment that occurs. As such, when we discuss resistance to capitalism, therefore, that discourse tends to focus on some asserted necessity of mass resistance, which then facilitates specific political categories and forms.

We have to admit that the revolutionary project, as conceived of in this singular form deriving from the American and French revolutions, has been an abject failure. There is a widely held perspective that revolutions lead to disaster and the mass death of political opponents, and there is every good reason to think that this is true. The end result of this perception is that political imagination is horrendously constrained. And, no, falling into genocide denial and apologetics, like the tankies have done, is not a way to solve this problem. Rather we have to completely rethink political action in the full light of the failures of revolution, and do so with a willingness to abandon the concept, and its notions of space and time, its asserted ontological universe, and its epistemic assertions.

What needs to be thought is a way to speak of action while undermining the singularity of the discourse at the moment of its articulation. It is a similar problem that arises when one attempts to discuss concepts of the self, or notions of social dynamics, or the movement of atoms. It is an attempt to speak that which resist being spoken, to discuss the unleashing of possibilities without defining those possibilities, to embrace a politics in which the future remains open, and in which we are not attempting to impose definitions of life.

This task is something I am very much working through. Some elements of working through this can be seen in Army of Ghosts, but there is a lot of work to do. I very likely have an upcoming book project for this summer, focused on some reflections from the uprising and what that can teach us about the deficiencies of activism. But, once that project is complete this is the next task, to take this critique, expand it, and build a narrative around attempting to map some openings, without mapping out the paths to and from those openings.

Pages 492-564 and 588-610

OK, so, whew, it is done, and sorry about the massive delay between notes in this series. There are some awesome projects on the horizon, that a group of us are hard at work on, and that has been a good amount of my time as of late (it will be totally worth it!).

In lieu of trying to break Chapter 15 down into the sections as they were read, I am just going to fuse all four weeks of sessions into this series of notes. Chapter 15 is a fascinating chapter, and one that is often not afforded its place of importance in the wider work of Capital. Ostensibly this chapter focuses attention on machines and factory production, but there is a lot more going on here than a superficial reading will allow us to see. Before diving into the content in detail, there are a few threads that I want to highlight.

The first theme that comes forward is related to the dynamic between worker and machine. In this discussion Marx delves into some of the ontology of the factory, and how this dynamic fundamentally undermines the structures of self-managed work that proliferated in handiwork, or craft, production. In the relationship to the machine the worker is not eliminated as such, is not destroyed or surpassed. Rather, the worker becomes reframed, not as an entity with skills and tools that produces an object, but as an industrial input, an element of the overall mechanistic system of the factory, where the workers becomes an appendage of the machine itself, as the machine becomes an appendage of the worker. In this construct the imperatives of efficiency and the extraction of surplus value drives the machine to a place of primacy, rendering the worker generic labor.

This dynamic of the machine rising to primacy fundamentally disrupts the directness of the concept of the labor theory of value, giving rise to a second theme centered around discussing how value is transmitted from the machine to the commodity. Within this discussion there is a fascinating discourse around obsolesence, and the rate in which machinery is replaced in the process of production. In this transferrence of value the machine runs into two limitations, both the necessity to save more labor than is expended in its production and operation, as well as the the overall cost of production, which must be less than production utilizing manual methods. The limits, in other words, center around force and velocity, active elements that come to form the core of how the factory is discussed.

The final thread in this selection is the way in which the advent of machinery fundamentally changes the character of labor in practical ways. With the advent of the machine, and the reduction of the worker to one that operates the machine, the specialization of labor implodes into a generic form of labor. As a result of this generic labor, increasing numbers of possible workers, including children, could be considered, causing a downward pressure on wages. This downward pressure on wages creates conditions which draft more of the family or community unit into the labor pool, further reshaping the dynamics between workers and control over the conditions of their labor.

Through these themes I am sure a number of parallels or lines of flight between these concepts and contemporary theory and experience will be noted. One of the more interesting connections here is one that exists between Zerzan, and attendant primativist tendencies, and this specific chapter from Capital. It is often forgotten that Zerzan started off as a Marxist, working alongside unions and leftists in the Bay Area in the 1970s, and during that time penned some works focused on anti-work theory. It is from these roots, though, that the arguments from Chapter 15 are taken on and extended out to some total narrative of history and technology. Now, I have a lot of issues with that reading, specifically the historical decontextualization and the reliance on anthropological assertions, as well as, you know, the whole utopianism angle, but it is always important to see where the roots of ideas that we will come into contact with really are.

It is with these notes that we will be closing this reading of Capital. As I stated at the beginning, this is not meant to be a comprehensive reading of all of Capital, Volume 1. Rather, as with a lot of the things I have been writing as of late, we are tracing a thread, a line of thought that passes through this work, and that has long tails into the present. So, without any additional waiting, here we go with Chapter 15:

  • The machine functions within capitalism to achieve two things. The first is that the machine renders the work performed by a single worker more efficient, namely more can be produced with fewer workers in the same time. Secondly, as a result of this efficiency less labor is embodied in the object, which lowers its value, but may not necessarily lower the price. As such, the machine produced commodity can be a site in which increased surplus value can be extracted from the object than it could be in non-mechanized production. The presence of machines, therefore, necessitates a differentiation between manufacture, where labor is a starting point, and industry, where machines become the point of departure.

“John Stuart Mill says i n his Principles of Political Economy : ' It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have light­ened the day's toil of any human being.'1 That is, however, by no means the aim of the application of machinery under capitalism. Like every other instrument for increasing the productivity of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities and, by shortening the part of the working day in which the worker works for himself, to lengthen the other part, the part he gives to the capitalist for nothing. The machine is a means for producing surplus-value.

In manufacture the transformation of the mode of production takes labour-power as its starting-point. In large-scale industry, on the other hand, the instruments of labour are the starting­ point. We have first to investigate, then, how the instruments of labour are converted from tools into machines, or what the difference is between a machine and an implement used in a handicraft. We are concerned here only with broad and general characteristics, for epochs in the history of society are no more separated from each other by strict and abstract lines of demarca­tion than are geological epochs.” (492)

  • In order to ground this separation between manufacture and industry, one must be able to draw a line of demarcation between the tool and the machine. Superficially, it would seem as if one could derive this separation from a differentiation on the levels of complexity or locomotion, but the complexity of a thing is an arbitrary qualitative determination and the structures of locomotion change and shift between different objects. In order to be able to differentiate between a tool and machine, Marx lays out three characteristics that define a machine; the motor, the mechanism through which power is transmitted to the machine (at this time many machines operated from a single motor often, but mechanisms like drive belts, or even electrical and communications wires and things fulfill this category as well), and the tool manipulated by that transmitted power. If we notice, these categories are not mutually exclusive, in the sense that they can never interact, but, rather, the tool itself is contained within the machine. The inflection point of the difference, therefore, is not in the machine or the tool itself, but is in that which exists around the tool, whether that be human or whether mechanisms are added to the tool to displace it from the hand and render it operative by a mechanism. This connection between the tool and the mechanism removes the tool from the control of the operator, and inscribes the tool and its operation into the mechanism itself.

“On a closer examination of the working machine proper we rediscover in it as a general rule, though often in highly modified forms, the very apparatus and tools used by the handicraftsman or the manufacturing worker; but there is the difference that instead of being the tools of a man they are the implements of a mechanism, mechanical implements. Either the entire machine is only a more or less altered mechanical edition of the old handicraft tool, as for instance the power-loom, or the working parts fitted in the frame of the machine are old acquaintances, as spindles are in a mule, needles in a stocking-loom, saw-blades in a sawing-machine and knives in a chopping-machine. The distinction between these tools and the actual framework of the working machine exists from their moment of entry into the world, because they continue for the most part to be produced by handicraft or by manufacture, and are afterwards fitted into the framework of the machine, which is produced by machinery. The machine, therefore, is a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did with similar tools. Whether the motive power is derived from man, or in turn from a machine, makes no difference here. From the moment that the tool proper is taken from man and fitted into a mechanism, a machine takes the place of a mere implement. The difference strikes one at once, even in those cases where man himself continues to be the prime mover. The number of implements that he himself can use simultaneously is limited by the number of his own natural instruments of pro­duction, i.e. his own bodily organs. In Germany they tried at first to make one spinner work two spinning-wheels, that is to work simultaneously with both hands and both feet. That proved to be too exhausting. Later, a treadle spinning-wheel with two spindles was invented, but adepts in spinning who could spin two threads at once were almost as scarce as two-headed men. The Jenny, on the other hand, even at the very beginning, spun with twelve to eighteen spindles, and the stocking-loom knits with many thousand needles at once. The number of tools that a machine can bring into play simultaneously is from the outset independent of the organic limi­tations that confine the tools of the handicraftsman.” (494-495)

  • In this displacement of the tool from the worker, the character of labor shifts again, from the selling of ontological potential as labor time, still tied to the uniqueness of the worker, into a form in which the worker becomes an interchangeable element of the machine itself. At the point of mechanization, activity undergoes a process of constant modification to eliminate “inefficiencies”, which are nothing other than non-controllable contingencies of everyday life, from the imprecise activity of humans and mistakes, to the unevenness of “natural” forms of locomotion like wind, water or draft animals (we can also consider electricity supply in this calculus). The systemic element of the abstract conceptual structure of manufacture comes into direct collision with the particularity and deep historicity of the dynamism of existence, with the elimination of inefficiencies being an operation to attempt to force the world into the manufacturing model. As these modifications progress the agency of the worker if subsumed to the imperatives and repetitions of the machine.

“The machine, which is the starting-point of the industrial re­volution, replaces the worker, who handles a single tool, by a mechanism operating with a number of similar tools and set in motion by a single motive power, whatever the form of that power. Here we have the machine, but first role as a simple element in production by machinery.

An increase in the size of the machine and the number of its working tools calls for a more massive mechanism to drive it; and this mechanism, in order to overcome its own inertia, requires a mightier moving power than that of man, quite a part from the fact that man is a very imperfect instrument fo reproducing uniform and continuous motion. Now assuming that he is acting simply as a motor, that a machine has replaced the tool he was using, it is evident that he can also be replaced as a motor by natural forces. Of all the great motive forces handed down from the period of manufacture, horse-power is the worst, partly because a horse has a head of his own, partly because he is costly and the extent to which he can be used in factories is very limited. Nevertheless,the horse was used extensively during the infancy of large-scale industry. This is proved both by the complaints of the agronomists of that epoch and by the way of expressing mechanical force in terms of 'horse-power', which survives to this day. The wind was too inconstant and uncontrollable and, apart from this, in England, the birthplace of large-scale industry, the use of water-power pre­ponderated even during the period of manufacture. In the seven­ teenth century attempts had already been made to turn two pairs of millstones with a single water-wheel. But the increased size of the transmitting mechanism came into conflict with the water-power, which was now insufficient, and this was one of the factors which gave the impulse for a more accurate investigation of the laws of friction. In the same way the irregularity caused by the motive power in mills that were set in motion by pushing and pulling a lever led to the theory, and the application, ofthe fly-wheel, which later played such an important part in large-scale industry. In this way, the first scientific and technical elements of large-scale in­dustry were developed during the period of manufacturing.” (497-498)

  • The factory emerges from this efficiency process through the medium of common mechanisms of power (one engine powering numerous machines), which in turn led to the chaining of machines together into complex processes grounded in the cooperation between elements within the assemblage. In order for this shift to occur the tasks involved in any act of production need to be separated, isolated from one another, reduced down to their simplest and most repeatable form, with the machine being developed to embody this simplified and isolated act. These atomized activities, now mechanized, are reformed into an assemblage of machines carrying out repeatable, simplified tasks. This functionally abolishes the division of labor, reducing labor to attending machines, a single task, while machines replace the formerly organic division of labor.

“A real machine system, however, does not take the place of these independent machines until the object of labour goes through a connected series of graduated processes carried out by a chain of mutually complementary machines of various kinds. Here we have again the co-operation by division oflabour which is peculiar to manufacture, but now it appears as a combination of machines with specific functions. The tools peculiar to the various specialized workers, such as those of the beaters, combers, shearers, spinners, etc. in the manufacture of wool, are now transformed into the tools of specialized machines, each machine forming a special organ, with a special function in the combined mechanism. In those branches in which the machine system is first introduced, manufacture itself provides, in general, a natural basis for the division, and consequently the organization, of the process of production. Nevertheless, an essential difference at once appears. In manufacture, it is the workers who, either singly or in groups, must carry on each particular process with their manual imple­ments. The worker has been appropriated by the process ; but the process had previously to be adapted to the worker. This subjec­tive principle of the division of labour no longer exists in produc­tion by machinery. Here the total process is examined objectively, viewed in and for itself, and analysed into its constitutive phases. The problem of how to execute each particular process, and to bind the different partial processes together into a whole, is solved by the aid of machines, chemistry, etcP But of course, in this case too, the theoretical conception must be perfected by accumu­lated experience on a large scale. Each particular machine supplies raw material to the machine next in line ; and since they are all working at the same time, the product is always going through the various stages of its formation, and is also constantly in-a state of transition from one phase of production to another. Just as in manufacture the direct co-operation of the specialized workers establishes a numerical proportion between the different groups, so in an organized system of machinery, where one machine is constantly kept employed by another, a fixed relation is established between their number, their size and their speed. The collective working machine, which is now an articulated system composed of various kinds of single machine, and of groups of single machines, becomes all the more perfect the more the process as a whole becomes a continuous one, i.e. the less the raw material is interrupted in its passage from the first phase to the last; in other words, the more its passage from one phase to another is effected not by the hand of man, but by the machinery itself. In manufacture, the isolation of each special process is a condition imposed by the division of labour itself, whereas in the fully developed factor the continuity of the special processes is the regulating principle.” (501-502)

  • The advent of large scale industrial production also forced a shift in the broader social context of labor. As mass production developed an increase in demand for metals and ther materials, an increase in the capacity to produce power, a concentration of interchangeable workers and improvements to transportation and communication all became necessary. The process through which the social context of labor was modified to fulfill the needs of capital is termed, in contemporary history, as the Industrial Revolution. Not only did this build a necessity toward the expansion of the city, and the building of the slum, but also created a space in which machines needed to be constantly produced in order to make new and different machines to fulfill shifting needs, which necessitated machines to produce these machines and so on, fundamentally altering the character of labor as a whole.

“The transformation of the mode of production in one sphere of industry necessitates a similar transformation in other spheres. This happens at first in branches of industry which are connected together by being separate phases of a process, and yet isolated by the social division of labour, in such a way that each of them produces an independent commodity. Thus machine spinning made machine weaving necessary, and both together made a mechanical and chemical revolution compulsory in bleaching, printing and dyeing. So too, on the other hand, the revolution in cotton-spinning called forth the invention of the gin, for separating the seeds from the cotton fibre ; it was only by means of this inven­tion that the production of cotton became possible on the enormous scale at present required. But as well as this, the revolution in the modes of production of industry and agriculture made necessary a revolution in the general conditions of the social process of production, i.e. in the means of communication and transport. In a society whose pivot, to use Fourier's expression, was small­ scale agriculture, with its subsidiary domestic industries and urban handicrafts, the means of communication and transport were so utterly inadequate to the needs of production in the period of manufacture, with its extended division of social labour, its concentration of instruments of labour and workers and its colonial markets, that they in fact became revolutionized. In the same way the means of communication and transport handed down from the period of manufacture soon became unbearable fetters on large-scale industry, given the feverish velocity with which it produces, its enormous extent, its constant flinging of capital and labour from one sphere of production into another and its newly created connections with the world market. Hence, quite apart from the immense transformation which took place in shipbuilding, the means of communication and transport gradu­ally adapted themselves to the mode of production of large-scale industry by means of a system of river steamers, railways, ocean steamers and telegraphs. But the huge masses of iron that had now to be forged, welded, cut, bored and shaped required for their part machines of Cyclopean dimensions, which the machine­ building trades of the period of manufacture were incapable of constructing.” (505-506)

  • The Value Transferred by the Machine to the Product section of this chapter attempts to discuss an issue that arises in a superficial reading of the concept of the labor theory of value. In the labor theory of value, at a really high level, there is an assumption that labor, as performed by a human only in relation to the production of this specific commodity, adds all value to an object. That is not how Marx articulates this concept, or at least not a well rounded understanding of the concept, but this argument is thrown out there by pro-capitalist economists in the innumerable bad faith readings of this text that have been published over the years.

The issue that arises is relatively apparent. In the labor theory of value the imparting of value becomes a calculation of the total labor imparted into the object, at all parts of the supply chain, not just in the production of this specific commodity being produced in a moment. In economic terms this value becomes quantified into costs, wages and the quantifiable exchange value of the commodity. In the context of the machine, however, human labor-power, and thus the wage, is either absent or parrallelized into multiple processes at once, with machines connected to some central motor. So, the question shifts a bit, away from only being able to conceive of the labor theory of value in relation to labor, and now becomes this question of labor, as well as the question of how machines add value to the commodity. That is what Marx is trying to address in this section specifically.

  • The factory is a form which is defined by the convergence of forces, working in tandem to construct a production process. In the cooperation formed in the factory the collective productive forces of all workers and machines comes to exceed the sheer sum of its parts, and begins to take on a multiplication effect. This multiplication effect generates additional productive capacity, essentially allowing the capitalist to obtain this additional productive force for free. However, even in this formation, the category of the human worker still comes to occupy a central role in the construction, operation and maintenance of the factory. Even if we are to assume a scenario of totally automated production, which we are starting to see emerge in new and more pervasive forms, there is still a human engaged at the beginning of any process, in the construction, shipping, instllation, maintenance, improvement, running and engineering of the machine, and therefore requires the capitalist to obtain that value as a necessary part of production. This means that all production begins with labor, the acquisition of this value in the form of the machine, or both, but none of this can function without labor being involved in various parts of the production process. This value of labor then fuses with the value imparted by the machine to generate the overall value of the commodity.

“Therefore, although it is clear at the first glance that large scale industry raises the productivity of labour to an extra ordinary degree by incorporating into the production process both the immense forces of nature and the results arrived at by natural science, it is by no means equally clear that this increase in productive force is not, on the other hand, purchased with an increase in the amount of labour expended. Machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value, but yields up its own value to the product it serves to beget. In so far as the machine has value and, as a result, transfers value to the product, it forms an element in the value of the latter. Instead of being cheapened, the product is made dearer in proportion to the value of the machine. And it is crystal clear that machines and systems of machinery, large-scale industry's characteristic instruments of labour, are incomparably more loaded with value than the implements used in handicrafts and in manufacture.” (509)

  • The machine enters as a whole into the process, but the full value of the machine is not transferred to the commodity. If this full value were transferred into every commodity not only would the value of the machine be imparted to objects repeatedly, but those objects would exit the valorization process costing an astronomical amount of money to obtain. The value added to the commodity, therefore, must be tied to a portion of the machine that is consumable and non-repeatable. This consumption of the machine is referred to as depreciation, the loss of value of the machine itself, which is calculated as a quantifiable average of how much value the machine has concretized within it divided by the number of anticipated commodities that machine will help produce before replacement.

This construct of adding value based on the consumption of the machine, or to be more in line with the text, the consumption of the labor embodied in the form of the machine, allows for some mathematical magic to occur. During mechanized production the value of the machine, in part, is added to all commodities the machine produces in equal averages of value. As the machine depreciates in value it is imparting less and less value to each object. But, due to the ways that commodity production enforces an attempt to predict future conditions, and how that impacts projections of the life of a machine, the value imparted to the commodity from the machine does not change, even as the value imparted by the machine to the object decreases over time.

For example, say one is running a printshop, and they are factoring in the cost of wages, paper and toner to the cost to print, but are also adding in the cost of the machine divided by anticipated output. If one purchased the printer they are using for $10,000, and anticipate it to last for 10 years, with a $300/year maintenance budget. Therefore the printer is anticipating that the printer will be consumed at a rate of $1000 per year, which gets added to maintenance cost and then divided by the anticipated number of copies made on the machine in a year.

Now, at the beginning, when the machine is new, that value added to the commodity is significant; new machines degrade from this new state quickly upon use. But, as time goes on the rate of the degradation of the machine slows, and the value of the machine begins to drop at a much lower rate. In this scenario we are going to say that the printer lasted 12 years, rather than the 10 anticipated. That means that this average value of the machine consumed in production is added equally to every page printed, even after the full value of the machine has been recovered through value added in valorization. Essentially, that allows a capitalist to use averages to generate the potential of being able to manufacture the value of the machine out of nothing for two entire years of production.

“In the first place, it must be observed that machinery, while always entering as a whole into the labour process, enters only piece by piece into the process of valorization. It never adds more value than it loses, on an average, by depreciation. Hence there is a great difference between the value of a machine and the value transferred in a given time by the machine to the product. Equally, there is a great difference between the machine as a factor in the formation of value and as a factor in the formation of the product. The longer the period during which the machine serves in the same labour process, the greater are those differences. It is no doubt true, as we have seen, that every instrument of labour enters as a whole into the labour process, while only piecemeal, in proportion to its average daily depreciation, into the process of valorization. But this· difference between the mere utilization of the instrument and its depreciation is much greater in the case of machinery than it is with a tool, because the machine, being made from more durable material, has a longer life ; be­cause it can be employed more economically, from the point of view both of the deterioration of its own components and of its consumption of materials, as its use is regulated by strict scientific laws ; and, finally, because its field of production is incomparably larger than that of a tool. Both in the case of the machine and of the tool, we find that after allowing for their average daily cost, that is for the value they transmit to the product by their average daily wear and tear, and for their consumption of auxiliary substances such as oil, coal and so on, they do their work for nothing, like the natural forces which are already available without the intervention of human labour. The greater the pro­ductive effectiveness of the machinery compared with that of the tool, the greater is the extent of its gratuitous service. Only in large-scale industry has man succeeded in making the product of his past labour, labour which has already been objectified, per­form gratuitous service on a large scale, like a force of nature.” (509-510)

  • Machinery transfers value to the object in direct proportion to its force and velocity. The faster the machine operates, and the more force it can mobilize, the more productive the machine is. This allows the machine to contribute less of its total value to the object, until it begins to approach “free” natural forces like wind and water. This marks a dynamic of shifting labor value embodied in the machine and imparted to the object by the machine. To the degree that human labor enters the supply chain, and it always must, labor is still a source of value. Machines, therefore, multiply the value imparted in the production of the machine itself to the degree that this production consumes less labor than the labor saved by the operation of the machine itself.

“It is evident that whenever it costs as much labour to produce machine as is saved by the employment of that machine, all that has taken place is a displacement of labour. Consequently, the total labour required to produce a commodity has not been lessened, in other words, the productivity of labour has not been increased. However, the difference between the labour a machine costs and the labour it saves, in other words the degree of productivity the machine possesses, does not depend on the difference between its own value and the value of the tool it replaces. As long as the labour spent on a machine is such that the portion of its value added to the product remains smaller than the value added by the worker to the product with his tool, there is always a difference of labour saved in favour of the machine. The pro­ductivity of the machine is therefore measured by the human labour-power it replaces.” (513)

  • On top of this necessity to produce more value than was consumed in its production, the machine also runs into a second limit; the value the machine produces in its use must exceed the value of the labor displaced by its use. In other words, the machine must produce greater value than would be produced by workers in the same time period or at the same cost. This, along with resale value, functions as indications of the end of life for the machine, the point in which the value added for the capitalist no longer exceeds that which could be added by workers or newer machines, if those newer machine can also be said to produce more value than was consumed in its production.

” The use of machinery for the exclusive purpose of cheapening the product is limited by the requirement that less labour must be expended in producing the machinery than is displaced by the employment of that machinery. For the capitalist, however, there is a further limit on its use. Instead of paying for the labour, he pays only the value of the labour-power employed ; the limit to his using a machine is therefore fixed by the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour-power replaced by it. Since the division of the day's work into necessary labour and surplus labour differs in different countries, and even in the same country at different periods, or in different branches of industry ; and further, since the actual wage of the worker some­ times sinks below the value of his labour-power, and sometimes rises above it, it is possible for the difference between the price of the machinery and the price of the labour-power replaced by that machinery to undergo great variations, while the difference between the quantity of labour needed to produce the machine and the total quantity of labour replaced by it remains constant. But it is only the former difference that determines the cost to the capitalist of producing a commodity, and influences his actions through the pressure of competition.” (515-516)

  • The machine itself is, on a formal level, nothing other than an appendage, a prostheses for the human body. Traditionally, there is this simplistic understanding of prostheses, in which the tool is developed as a result of a problems that needs to be solved. This is only part of the discussion though, and one that assumes that tools themselves do not have effects outside of the specific problem it is developed to solve. Rather, as theorists like Manuel Delanda argue, technology and history cannot be separated from one another. Sure, tools are developed to solve problems, but the development of the tool changes the way activity itself functions, and, in turn, changing the totality of history. The machine in the factory is no exception; it functions both as an extension of the human, and as something that fundamentally alters the relationship between worker and work.

On a very simplistic level, the very first change is what we now refer to as the “deskilling of the workforce”, namely the elimination of the need for specific skills or training for a job. With the advent of the machine, and the factory, the machine took over the performance of the work, leaving the worker to operate the machine. The machine is able to leverage more force with fewer mistakes, and without rest or pay, than a human worker. This caused a simplification and standardization in production, and with it the pool of possible laborers increased dramatically. This, in turn, creates labor competition, and lowers the exchange value of labor as a result, which allows the capitalist to extract additional surplus-value from the commodity. It also led to the concentration of workers in industrial cities, and incredibly high rates of child mortality and injury in factory environments.

“In so far as machinery dispenses with muscular power, it becomes a means for employing workers of slight muscular strength, or whose bodily development is incomplete, but whose limbs are all the more supple. The labour of women and children was there­fore the first result of the capitalist application of machinery! That mighty substitute for labour and for workers, the machine, was immediately transformed into a means for increasing the number of wage-labourers by enrolling, under the direct sway of capital, every member of the worker's family, without distinction of age or sex. Compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of the children's play, but also of independent labour at home, within customary limits, for the family itself.

The value of labour-power was determined, not only by the labour-time necessary to maintain the individual adult worker, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. Machinery, by throwing every member of that family onto the labour-market, spreads the value of the man's labour-power over his whole family. It thus depreciates it. To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers may perhaps cost more than it formerly did to purchase the labour-power of the head of the family, but, in return, four days' labour takes the place of one day's, and the price falls in proportion to the excess of the surplus labour of four over the surplus labour of one. In order that the family may live, four people must now provide not only labour for the capitalist, but also surplus labour. Thus we see that machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms capital's most characteristic field of exploitation/9 at the same time raises the degree of that exploitation.” (517-518)

  • The introduction of machinery also completely realigned the relationship between the worker and the structure of the working day. The machine functions as an independent instrument of labor, considered separate from the worker and their skills, unlike the tool, which is inherently tied to the one that wields the tool. Unlike this relationship of human and tool, the machine becomes operator agnostic, and functions regardless of the human standing in its proximity. This allows the machine to tend toward perpetual motion as a mechanism for the extraction of surplus value. The limitations that then arise become the purview of failures, rather than normal contingency in the production process; the failure of workers to work consistently or effectively, the failure of the machine itself, the failure of supply, etc. So, in this shift one moves from an assumption of a limited production quantity within a day confined by the limitations of human labor, to a form of production in which perpetual and constant motion is assumed, with all contingencies being portrayed as failings and forcing a standardization of work determined by the parameters of the machine, and not the worker that performs the actual labor. This necessitates the elimination of “human interference” and the reduction of labor to generic work.

“In the first place, in machinery the motion and the activity of the instrument of labour asserts its independence vis-a-vis the worker. The instrument of labour now becomes an industrial form of perpetual motion. It would go on producing for ever, if it did not come up against certain natural limits in the shape of the weak bodies and the strong wills of its human assistants. Because it is capital, the automatic mechanism is endowed, in the person of the capitalist, with consciousness and a will. As capital, therefore, it is animated by the drive to reduce to a minimum the resistance offered by man, that obstinate yet elastic natural barrier. This resistance is moreover lessened by the apparently undemanding nature of work at a machine, and the more pliant and docile character of the women and children employed by preference.” (526)

  • As the machine degrades through its operation, that value is transferred to the product. This occurs, as we discussed earlier, through an averaging of the total value of the machine divided between the anticipated number pf products produced before its replacement, with all additional commodities produced beyond this number getting value added for free. Therefore, in this scenario, the more quickly the machine can be consumed, the more value is transferred to the commodity. For example, a capitalist running a machine shop can transfer three times as much value in the same period if the machine operates all day, as opposed to only operating eight hours a day. As these machines degrade and become more obsolete, however, their resale value also drops. These dynamics generate an incentive to utilize machines as fast as possible, both to accelerate the transfer of value, but also to maximize resale value of the machine. The result of a drive toward the elongation of the work day.

“The productivity of machinery is , as we saw, inversely proportional to the value transferred by it to the product. The longer the period during which it functions, the greater is the mass of the products over which the value transmitted by the machine is spread, and the smaller is the portion of that value added to each single commodity. The active lifetime of a machine, however, is clearly dependent on the length o( the working day, or the duration of the daily labour process multiplied by the number of days for which the process is carried on. The amount of deterioration suffered by a machine does not by any means exactly correspond to the length of time it has been in use. And even if it were so, a machine working 16 hours a day for 7 years covers as long a working period as the same machine working only 8 hours a day for 15 years and transmits to the total product no more value. Notwithstanding this, the value of the machine would be reproduced twice as quickly in the first case a sin the second, and the capitalist, using the same machine, would absorb in 7 years as much surplus-value as he would in 15 in the second case.

The physical deterioration of the machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from lack of use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard. This second kind is its consumption by the elements. Deterioration of the first kind is more or less directly proportional, and that of the second kind to a certain extent inversely proportional, to the use of the machine.

But in addition to the material wear and tear, a machine also undergoes what we might call a moral depreciation. It loses exchange-value, either because machines of the same sort are being produced more cheaply than it was, or because better machines are entering into competition with it. In both cases, however young and full of life the machine may be, its value is no longer determined by the necessary labour-time actually objectified in it, but by the labour-time necessary to reproduce either it or the better machine. It has therefore been devalued to a greater or lesser extent. The shorter the period taken to reproduce its total value, the less is the danger of moral depreciation; and the longer the working day, the shorter that period in fact is. When machin­ery is first introduced into a particular branch of production, new ­ methods of reproducing it more cheaply follow blow upon blow, and so do improvements which relate not only to individual parts and details of the machine, but also to its whole construction. It is therefore in the early days of a machine's life that this special incentive to the prolongation of the working day makes itself felt most acutely.” (527-528)

  • Machinery also creates a multiplication effect. As long as the machine is being used it generates value. Traditionally, to expand production required capital investment in workers and facilities. However, the same effect can be generated by elongating the time machines function. Workers have a limit to the number of hours that can be worked, and only so many can fit within a workshop before it needs to expand. But, with machines one can exceed the limits of the worker, create shifts of workers to operate machines in continuous motion and, in doing so, expand productive capacity. To the degree that machines only add value in their operation, a tendency toward acceleration and a maximalist approach develops.

This generates a tension, however, at this point of maximalization; at the point the machine cannot produce more the addition of more workers does not increase the production of value. The result of this tension is a tendency toward maximalizing productive capacity, to then attempt to further automate and eliminate the worker to the degree possible. This fundamentally reconstructs the imbuing of objects with value, shifting the entity that value resolves around from the worker to the machine. We can see here how capitalist production creates a drive toward automation (which is the single biggest source of industrial job loss in the US since 1973, by a wide margin), but this in itself generates a tension as well. If workers are eliminated then this also begins to contract the pool of possible consumers. Just like capital accumulation, the drive toward automation creates conditions in which workers no longer have money with which to purchase things. As these dynamics approach their theoretical limit, they run into a practical limitation that presents a choice between this maximalism or the continued existence of capitalism as such. We see issues like this arising with growing wealth inequality, and the ways that this leads to a contraction of the consumer pool.

“As machinery comes into general use in a particular branch of production, the social value of the machine's product sinks down to its individual value, and the following law asserts itself: surplus value does not arise from the labour-power that has been replaced by the machinery, but from the labour-power actually employed in working with the machinery. Surplus-value arises only from the variable part of capital, and we saw that the amount of surplus­ value depends on two factors, namely the rate of surplus-value and the number of workers simultaneously employed. Given the length of the working day, the rate of surplus-value is determined by the relative duration of the necessary labour and the surplus labour performed in the course of a working day. The number of workers simultaneously employed depends, for its part, on the ratio of the variable to the constant capital. Now, however much the use of machinery may increase surplus labour at the expense of necessary labour by raising the productive power of labour, it is clear that it attains this result only by diminishing the number of workers employed by a given amount of capital. It converts a por­tion of capital which was previously variable, i.e. had been turned into living labour, into machinery, i.e. into constant capital which does not produce surplus-value. It is impossible, for instance, to squeeze as much surplus-value out of two as out of twenty-four workers. If each of these twenty-four men gives only 1 hour of sur­plus labour in 12, the twenty-four men give together 24 hours of surplus labour, while 24 hours is the total labour of the two men. Hence there is an immanent contradiction in the application of machinery to the production of surplus-value, since, of the two factors of the surplus-value created by a given amount of capital,one, the rate of surplus-value, cannot be increased except by diminishing the other, the number of workers. This contradiction comes to light as soon as machinery has come into general use in a given industry, for then the value of the machine-produced com­modity regulates the social value of all commodities of the same kind ; and it is this contradiction which in turn drives the capitalist, without his being aware of the fact, 71 to the most ruthless and excessive prolongation of the working day, in order that he may secure compensation for the decrease in the relative number of workers exploited by increasing not only relative but also absolute surplus labour.” (530-531)

  • Prior to this discussion the extraction of surplus value was related to the duration of labor. In this discussion of the machine, however, we now need to consider the intensity of labor during that duration. The machine already produces an intensification of labor in its operation. This tendency continues, and drives a process by which labor specialization and the inertia toward maximizing machine use and replacement creates increases in this intensification. This intensification will eventually create an inverse relationship with work duration, where increases in intensity only become viable in shorter work durations. As such, the tendency has been to fix the length of the work day (the shift) and increase the intensity and density of labor within that period.

“It is self-evident that in proportion as the use of machinery spreads, and the experience of a special class of worker – the machine-worker – accumulates, the rapidity and thereby the in­tensity of labour undergoes a natural increase. Thus in England, in the course of half a century, the lengthening of the working day has gone hand in hand with an increase in the intensity of factory labour. Nevertheless, the reader will clearly see that we are dealing here, not with temporary paroxysms of labour but with labour repeated day after day with unvarying uniformity. Hence a point must inevitably be reached where extension of the working day and intensification of labour become mutually exclusive so that the lengthening of the working day becomes compatible only with. a lower degree of intensity, and inversely, a higher degree of in­tensity only with a shortening of the working day. As soon as the gradual upsurge of working-class revolt had compelled Parliament compulsorily to shorten the hours of labour, and to begin by im­posing a normal working day on factories properly so called, i.e. from the moment that it was made impossible once and for all to increase the production of surplus-value by prolonging the working day, capital threw itself with all its might, and in full awareness of the situation, into the production of relative surplus-value, by speeding up the development of the machine system. At the same-time a change took place in the nature of relative surplus-value. In general, relative surplus-value is produced by raising the produc­tivity of the worker, and thereby enabling him to produce more in a given time with the same expenditure of la, bour. The same amount of labour-time adds the same value as before to the total product, but this unchanged amount of exchange-value is spread over more use-values. Hence the value of each single commodity falls. But the situation changes with the compulsory shortening of the hours of labour. This gives an immense impetus to the development of productivity and the more economical use of the conditions of production. It imposes on the worker an increased expenditure of labour within a time which remains constant, a heightened tension of labour-power, and a closer filling-up of the pores of the working day, i.e. a condensation of labour, to a degree which can only be attained within the limits of the shortened working day. This compression of a greater mass of labour into a given period now counts for what it really is, namely an increase in the quantity of labour. In addition to the measure of its ' extensive magnitude ', labour­ time now acquires a measure of its intensity, or degree of density.” (533-534)

  • The shortening of the work day, the fixing of its duration and the fixed efficiency of machines creates conditions for the constant acceleration of machinery in the form of new machines and increasingly dense labor. As a result of this dynamic of fixing labor duration emphasis was placed on increased, and increasingly efficient, mechanization as a medium of labor condensation, and concentration. We see this in the rejection of safety controls and in the focus on computer monitored efficiency, the Taylorist micro-measurement of tasks, increased workplace surveillance and the drive toward automation.

“The shortening of the working day creates, to begin with, the subjective condition for the condensation of labour, i.e. it makes it possible for the worker to set more labour-power in motion within a given time. As soon as that shortening becomes compulsory, machinery becomes in the hands of capital the objective means, systematically employed, for squeezing outmore labour in a given time. This occurs in two ways : the speed of the machines is in­ creased, and the same worker receives a greater quantity of machinery to supervise or operate. Improved construction of the machinery is necessary, partly to allow greater pressure to be put on the worker, partly because it is an inevitable concomitant of in­tensification of labour, since the legal limitation of the working day compels the capitalist to exercise the strictest economy in the cost of production. The improvements in the steam-engine have increased the piston speed and at the same time have made it possible, by means of a greater economy of power, to drive more machinery with the same engine, while consuming the same amount of coal, or even a smaller amount. The improvements in the transmitting mechanism have lessened friction and reduced the diameter and weight of the shafts to a constantly decreasing minimum, some­ thing which strikingly distinguishes modern machinery from the older type. Finally, the improvements in the operative machines have, while reducing their size, increased their speed and efficiency, as in the modern power-loom ; or, while increasing the size of their frames, they have also increased the extent and number of their working parts, as in spinning-mules, or added to the speed of those working parts by imperceptible alterations of detail, such as those which ten years ago increased the speed of the spindles in self­ acting mules by one-fifth.” (536-537)

  • Thus far, as we get into sections four and five of the chapter, we have discussed machines and factories without much of a discussion about the specifics of those terms and how they are being used here. In a simplistic understanding a machine is a device that does a task and a factory is a place where production happens. But, thus far, Marx is marking a difference between the workshop and the factory which has been largely implicit. Now we get into the discussion of how they are different and what this means for the structure of work and production.

The factory is a system, namely a dynamic between component elements in which a series of operations are undertaken in a necessary and intentionally defined structuring of coordination. This definition, though seemingly straight forward, has a number of possible implications, of which Marx discusses two here. In this first mode the factory is thought as an assemblage. The assemblage is not a unity. Rather, to use the autonomist sense of this term, the assemblage is a dynamic between elements, with individual elements maintaining shape and the possibility of autonomy. In this dynamic the factory is thought as a convergent dynamic between humans, tasks, tools and machines. Within this assemblage every element, in its participation in the construction of the assemblage, becomes critical to the particular momentary shape. In other words, the assemblage is thought of as a convergence of parts, all of which change, which in turn changes the whole assemblage. From this perspective the worker maintains status as an essential and primary subject within the assemblage itself.

The second understanding that I want to discuss here views the factory as a sort of Hobbesian automaton. While in this first understanding the components of the assemblage remain able to be differentiated and removed, within this conception the entire apparatus is considered as a subject in itself. As such, the components are removed from their particularity, and inserted into the factory only as components defined by their insertion; this not only includes machines, but also workers, tasks and so on. In this view all elements are component parts of a large living machine, raising the factory-as-machine to a position of primacy. This is the view that one finds articulated in the Five Year Plans under Stalin; the worker became nothing other than the energy and component element of the factory for the “new man”; this is how they justified purges, gulags, forced labor, wave attacks during the war and surveillance within the factory itself. While this first mode, the factory as assemblage, can speak to the factory as such, the second view can only speak to the realities of capitalist production.

“Dr Ure, the Pindar of the automatic factory, describes it, on the one hand, as ' combined co-operation of many orders of work­ people, adult and young, in tending with assiduous skill a system of productive machines continuously impelled by a central power' (the prime mover) ; and on the other hand as ' a vast automaton, composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinate to a self-regulated moving force ' . These two descriptions are far from being identical. In one, the combined collective worker appears as the dominant subject [iibergreifendes Subjekt], and the mechanical automaton as the object ; in the other, the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs, co-ordinated with the un­conscious organs of the automaton, and together with the latter subordinated to the central moving force. The first description is applicable to every possible employment of machinery on a large scale, the second is characteristic of its use by capital, and there­ fore of the modem factory system. Ure therefore prefers to present the central machine from which the motion comes as not only an automaton but an autocrat. ' In these spacious halls the benignant power of steam summons around him his myriads of willing menials.'” (544-545)

  • The reduction of the worker to the position of an appendage to the machine begins with the displacement of the tool from the hand. In capitalist production the machine becomes the means of creating surplus value, and, as such, the machine is primary. The tool gets displaced from the hand and given to the machine, which both exists as a product of, and mechanism for the advancement of automation. This distance between the worker and the tool creates a space for a prime mover, or machine attached to a prime mover, to determine the entirety of how that tool gets used within the production process conceived of as a whole. Through this displacement all possible workers are reduced, not to generic workers, but to generic elements of the mechanistic process, of the factory itself. This reduction also ties the worker to the machine, fragmenting the cooperation between workers in production. Cooperation, then, is replaced with a simple relationship between generic workers, who are components of the mechanistic system of the factory, workers with skills to maintain the machines and capitalists, all of which become atomized elements of the production process as a whole.

“In so far as the division of labour re-appears in the factory, it takes the form primarily of a distribution of workers among the specialized machines, and of quantities of workers, who do not however form organized groups, among the various departments of the factory, in each of which they work at a number of similar machines placed together ; only simple co-operation therefore takes place between them. The organized group peculiar to manufacture is replaced by the connection between the head worker and his few assistants. The essential division is that between workers who are actually employed on the machines (among whom are in­cluded a few who look after the engine) and those who merely attend them (almost exclusively children). More or less all the ' feeders ' who supply the machines with the material which is to be worked up are counted as attendants. In addition to principal classes, there is a numerically unimportant group whose occupation it is to look after the whole of the machinery repair it from time to time, composed of engineers, mechanics, joiners etc. This is a superior class of workers, in part scientifically educated, in part trained in a handicraft ; they stand outside the realm of the factory workers, and are added to them only to make up an aggregate. This division of labour is purely technical.” (545-546)

  • The advent of the factory completes a process, inherent in capitalist production, to render the worker as an appendage of the production process. When combined with the creation of generic labor and the strenuousness of a mode of production centered on acceleration, capital comes to completely subsume the worker into itself, making the deskilled worker wholly independent on it for resources. This also allows capitalists to replace workers at any time, for any reason, which further fragments cooperation between workers, places them in competition and increases the drive of workers to attempt to produce more in less time.

“Factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost; at the same time, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity. Even the lightening of the labour becomes an instrument of torture, since the machine does not free the worker from the work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content. Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour process but also capital's process of valorization, has this in common, but it is not the worker who employs the conditions of his work, but rather the reverse, the conditions of work employ the worker. However, it is only with the coming of machinery that this inversion first acquires a technical and palpable reality. Owing to its conversion into an automaton, the instru­ment of labour confronts the worker during the labour process in the shape of capital, dead labour, which dominates and soaks up living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour, and the transforma­tion of those faculties into powers exercised by capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by large-scale industry erected on the foundation of machinery. The special skill of each individual machine-operator, who has now been deprived of all significance, vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity in the face of the science, the gigantic natural forces, and the mass of social labour embodied in the system of machinery, which, together with those three forces, constitutes the power of the ' master '. This ' master ', therefore, in whose mind the machinery and his monopoly of it are inseparably united, contemptuously tells his ' hands ', whenever he comes into conflict with them; ' The factory operatives should keep in wholesome remembrance the fact that theirs is really a low species of skilled labour ; and that there is none which is more easily acquired, or of its quality more amply remunerated, or which by a short training of the least expert can be more quickly, as well as abundantly, acquired . . . The master's machinery really plays a far more important part in the business of production than the labour and the skill of the opera­tive, which six months' education can teach, and a common labourer can learn.' The technical subordination of the worker to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour, and the peculiar composition of the working group, consisting as it does of in­dividuals of both sexes and all ages, gives rise to a barrack-like discipline, which is elaborated into a complete system in the fac­tory, and brings the previously mentioned labour of superintend­ence to its fullest development, thereby dividing the workers into manual labourers and overseers, into the private soldiers and the N.C.O.s of an industrial army.” (548-549)

  • To finish out our discussion of Chapter 15 we will be focusing on Section 8, The Revolutionary Impact of Large-Scale Industry on Manufacture, Handicrafts and Domestic Industry. In prior sections we began a discussion of the social implications of the factory structure and the labor implications of the use and expansion of machinery. To begin to analyze these shifts it makes sense to discuss them through the lens of how labor flows through a specific structure of production within specific circumstances. for example, one can argue that there is cooperation in handicraft production, but this cooperation is not some total expression of that mode of production. Instead, that mode of production takes on specific characteristics in relation to the historical context of its operation. In other words, certain modes and contexts of production will facilitate specific modes of production As such, the structuring of this discourse around mode of production, history and labor flows allows us to add resolution to this discussion.

Handicraft production is defined as a mode of production in which nodes in the production process operate as atomized acts. For example, one person may just make latches, and makes the whole latch, while another may make the whole wooden trunk, and then a third person may make drawers or dividers for the trunk. Individually all of these objects are complete products, but they are joined together as an act in itself, not as a necessary part of the production process. Cooperation, in this context, functions not through the act as such, but through that which exists between and through these acts, or the collectivity of the entire production process. With the machine both the act and the linkage between acts are abstracted away from labor. This not only shifts the mode of production, but also the relationality and the dynamics of labor that both contribute to and result from this mode of production.

This transition between handicraft and the factory often proceeds through a manufacture phase, where machines are in use but collaboration still exists. At all points, however, the tendency within capitalism is to adopt factory production as a way to elongate total working hours, concentrate production, lower labor costs and increase surplus value extraction. It is here that we can see the connection between mode of production and context of production, in this case the factory and capitalism.

“We have seen how machinery does away with co-operation based on handicrafts, and with manufacture based on the handicraft division of labour. An example of the first sort is the reaping­ machine ; it replaces co-operation between reapers. A striking example of the second kind is the needle-making machine. According to Adam Smith, ten men in his time, using the system of the division of labour, made 48,000 sewing-needles every day. A single needle-making machine, however, makes 1 45,000 needles in a working day of 1 1 hours. One woman or one girl super­intends four such machines, and so produces nearly 600,000 needles in a day, and over 3 ,000,000 in a week.6 8 A single machine, when it takes the place of co-operation or of manufacture, may itself serve as the basis of an industry of a handicraft character. But this reproduction of the handicraft system on the basis of machinery only forms a transition to the factory system which, as a rule, makes its appearance as soon as human muscles arereplaced, for the purpose of driving the machines, by a mechanical motive power such as steam or water. Here and there, but in any case only for a time, an industry may be carried on, on a small scale, by means of mechanical power. Wherever the nature of the process has not necessitated production on a large scale, the new industries that have sprung up in the last few decades, such as envelope making, steel pen making, etc., have, as a general rule, first passed through the handicraft stage, and then the manufacturing stage, as short phases of transition to the factory stage. The transition is very difficult. in those cases where the production of the article by manufacture consists of a series of graduated processes, but of a great number of disconnected ones. This circumstance formed a great hindrance to the establishment of steel pen factories. Nevertheless, about fifteen years ago a machine was invented that automatically performed six separate operations at once. The first steel pens were supplied by the handicraft system, in the year 1820, at £7 4s. the gross ; in 1 30 they were supplied by manufacture at 8s.,and today the factory system supplies them at a wholesale price of from 2d. to 6d. the gross.” (588-589)

  • The introduction of the machine involves a paradoxical reconstruction of the labor process. To construct the possibility of mechanization each constituent act of the production process must be extracted, isolated and simplified in order to render it performable by a machine, repeatable and with rapidity. This involves taking the whole production process, breaking that object down into component parts, then breaking apart the process of producing these parts down to individual operations that need to occur. For example, say we were making stitch bound notebooks. The manual process involves getting paper, cutting that paper, finding cover material, perforating that material to accept a needle, threading the needle, performing the stitching, finishing the stitch and tying it off, and so on. In a mechanization procedure the making of the paper, for example, is isolated into its parts, each of which can be done by a machine; the same for the cover, the stitching, so on. Then, following this fragmentation of the acts of production, all of these component actions are individually mechanized but, and this is what defines the factory, those actions are structured to flow into one another, constructing a singular production process. This is how an assebly line works, for example.

In this process a discourse of methods and skills, the craft of the individual act, the connection of the worker to the object, are all replaced with a generalized discourse on design and engineering, with the worker reduced to a part of the overall process. This entire approach necessitates, and is necessitated by, the removal of the tool from the hand, and its displacement into the machine. This construct requires large numbers of generic workers concentrated into densely populated areas, while at the same time fragmenting that same body of workers through wage competition and the atomization of the worker as machine attendant; mechanistic linkages come to replace cooperation. As such, when combined with the enclosure of the commons (which displaced tens of thousands from their land and forced them into cities), the factory begins to almost take on an ontological dimension, structuring the very shape of existence.

“With the development of the factory system and the revolution in agriculture that accompanies it, production in all the other branches of industry not only expands, but also alters its char­acter. The principle of machine production, namely the division of the production process into its constituent phases, and the solution of the problems arising from this by the application of mechanics, chemistry and the whole range of the natural sciences, now plays the determining role everywhere. Hence machinery penetrates into manufacture for one specialized process after another. The solid crystallization of a hierarchy of specialized processes, which arose from the old division of labour, ceases to exist; it is dissolved, and makes way for constant changes. Quite apart from this, a fundamental transformation takes place in the composition of the collective labourer or, in other words, the combined working personnel. In contrast with the period of manufacture, the division of labour is now based , wherever possible, on the employment of women, of children of all ages and of unskilled workers, in short, of ' cheap labour', as the Englishman typically describes it. This is true not only for all large-scale production, whether machinery is employed or not, but also for the so-called domestic industries, whether carried on in the private dwellings of the workers, or in small workshops. This modern ' domestic industry ' has nothing except the name in common with old-fashioned domestic industry, the existence of which presupposes independent urban handicrafts, independent peasant farming and, above all, a dwelling-house for the worker and his family. That kind of industry has now been converted into an external department of the factory, the manufacturing work­shop, or the warehouse. Besides the factory worker, the workers engaged in manufacture, and the handicraftsmen, whom it concentrates in large masses at one spot, and directly commands, capital also sets another army in motion, by means of invisible threads.: the outworkers in the domestic industries, who live in the large towns as well as being scattered over the countryside.” (590-591)

  • Though it is a bit of an odd place to stop, this is where we are going to end this reading of Capital. So, for the sake of closure I will add some quick closing remarks.

This reading of Capital is not meant to be comprehensive. It is not THE reading of Capital, or even what some would call a “better” or “correct” reading; those categories don't really mean anything. Rather, this is an instrumental reading of capital, through the lens of autonomism and autonomist readings of Marx. Within this reading we uncover a number of elements that are almost always missing from more traditional, more Leninist, readings of Capital, and this allows us to help realign our tactical and strategic orientations.

Anti-capitalism in the US has largely been typified by a discourse on bad outcomes; that we need to overthrow capitalism because of sweatshops, environmental degradation, poverty, starvation, etc. While all of these things are heinous, focus on these outcomes displaces the rejection of capitalism into a discourse on bad results. This discourse is specifically flawed in two ways. Firstly, it is a narrative that is inherently reformist. There are ways that capital can still function while generating better outcomes, this is the whole concept behind “ethical capitalism” or “social enterprise”. But, even with better outcomes capitalism remains a form of existence which nullifies our particularity, necessitates the construction of the state and functions based on an ontology of quantification. Secondly, as a result most resistance to capitalism takes on the form of reformist campaigns, and not systemic disruptions.

In this reading we went through a series of way-points that can assist in a reorientation away from a liberal, reformist reading of capitalism.

  • Capitalism is based on an impossible ontology, in which the material particularity of the object is fused with this abstract quantifiable generality to form the commodity. Within capitalism this results in a structuring of existence that is not only based on atomization (the existence of one as an economic unit), but also which is grounded in the dynamics of the convergence of abstract values within the artifice of “the market”.

  • As such, capitalism does not function as a system, as much as it functions as a condition of possibility for existence in itself. In other words, capitalism does not only force certain actions to occur, it structures the very basis in which we determine normality, and in which we understand the categories we use to make sense of existing.

  • As a result of this ontology, all life and existence becomes defined. This requires an elimination of existential difference and the construction of a mechanism to eliminate contingency and disruption. None of that just functions, it all involves action, and the logistics of defining action through force through the elimination of difference is called policing.

  • Therefore, the struggle against capital is far from abstract and conceptual. What is at stake is the materiality of capital, and how those material conditions structure limitations to existence itself. As a result, anti-capitalism must move away from the activist mass movement mentality, which attempts to disrupt “systems”, and into a mode grounded in the disruption of material logistics through interventions in everyday life, where we are, when we are there. This approach is more closely aligned with insurrectionism than some sort of workerist context.

Those conclusions are minimal on purpose. There is a lot to dig out of this text, but, as a number of thinkers have discussed, there is no point in the analysis without that resulting in effects. We construct our understandings of the world through making sense of our actions, but the actions themselves have their own dynamics. If our conceptual understandings do not lead to effective forms of revolt, then they must be jettisoned. As such, the goal of this reading is effectiveness, the repositioning of modalities of fighting and whatever material outcomes may result.

Hopefully this has been useful. If I return to this text in the future I will make sure to keep these notes coming. For now though, on to other things.

Pages 293-307

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages 283-293

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, sit back, relax and enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages 247-257

Welcome to Chapter 4!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages 208-Conclusion

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

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

Away we go...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages 188-207

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages 178-187

Onto Chapter 2.

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

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

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

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

So, here we go...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages 152-178

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages 132-152

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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