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).