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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The mysteries of Marx: on secrets

Someday, when historians look back on today’s communication technologies, they will marvel at the lag between our cut and paste technology, which is state of the art, and our sad blog commenting machinery, which gives you small squares and limited amounts of characters to work with. Now, as those of us who are longwinded, garrulous and quarrelsome – in other words, the philosophers and philosophes manques among us– well know, our best arguments tend to get diluted, chopped and lost as we pursue our labyrinthian arguments in this wilderness of faulty mousetraps.

Thus, I’m replying to Duncan in a post. Although LI has long become a blog in which the private language provides all the dim lighting – like a dying lightbulb in a refrigerator, spastically blinking on and off every time you open it – most of the time, I do try to be at least a little clear. But this will make no sense if you haven’t followed our argument in the post before last.

So, Duncan…
I heartily agree with your opening move in reading the German Ideology. It is a mistake that is often made to think that Marx invented ideology critique. Instead, Marx in the German ideology is criticizing the Young Hegelians exactly for their ideology critiques.

But your second step, I think, trips you up. What Marx is not doing is negating Ideology critique as a form. What he is doing here is best seen by comparing it with the critique of the classical economists. He does not say, your labor theory of value is wrong. Far from it. In the case of the labor theory of value, he does want to firmly base the classical economic theory on abstract, or socialized, labor – but this is just the entering shot in Marx’s campaign. Rather, he wants to know why the classical labor theorists go wrong. In other words, he wants to pull out of their models “points of view.” This is the overt language in which the section on the Commodity fetish is cast, until we come to the point of view of the commodity itself – and we end, significantly, on a line from a play. A play, of course, is in its dialogic form the narrative correlate of points of view. My thinking on this, of course, is overwhelmingly Pepperrelian. She has definitely demonstrated this, at least for me.

The usual word for this – immersion, or immanent critique – still tries to bottle up the irretrievably social element – that which constitutes the point of view – in terms of a purer logic. This, I think, is still a bad move. To use an analogy from old technology – you can take the needle off a record a little way or a long way – but the decisive moment is when you take the needle off the record. To get the music, you have to adhere to the text and its moves.

Now, the similarities in the wording of the German ideology and the section on fetishism are striking – as, I would say, are the approaches. Whether one takes the re-editing of Capital as simply pulling out its method, or, like Amie, thinks this signals an effect of the history of the Paris commune, the editorial reworking still gives us a text in which the approach and wording seems to fall more strongly along the lines that Marx laid down in the late forties.

I’m going to take up one of those similarities – the use of the term ‘secret’. But first, to continue the thread about the approach: it is a mistake to think that opposition, in Marx’s text, is the same as negation. While it is easy to say this, it is sometimes a difficult rule to follow. Thus, the object of ideology critique in Germany is, Marx thinks, a sign of Germany’s primitive development. One of the reasons Marx was so attractive, post WWII, was his sensitivity to issues of development – by the by. But the form of ideology critique is, in fact, employed in The German ideology with abandon. It is this that makes it – to use your words – a whacko text itself. As Engels worried, what possible use is this loggorheic settling of accounts with an obscure group of German professors? Especially when one has to challenge the wordy cabinetmaker Grun and his Proudhonist tendencies in the League!
Engels, however, was, in the end, wrong. He sort of acknowledged this in his famous letter to Mehring that Benjamin quotes in Eduard Fuchs:

“Namely, we have all put – and had to put - the major weight upon the deduction of political, legal and otherwise ideological ideas, and the actions mediated through these ideas, from the fundamental economic facts. But in so doing, we have neglected the formal side over the content of them, and the way in which these ideas, etc., emerge. That has given our opponents a lot of welcome allowance for misunderstanding. Ideology is a process that comes to completion in the consciousness of the so called thinker, but with a false consciouness. He doesn’t know the actual motives that drive him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process. He imagines for himself false or pseudo motives.Because it is a thought process, he deduces its content as well as its form out of pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with pure thought material that he unconsciously takes in as though produced through thought and otherwise investigates no further from processes independent of thought; it is certainly the case that this is self evident to him, since to him all actions are mediated through thing and even inn the last instance appear to be grounded in thought. The historical ideologue (‘historical’ stands in here the political, juridical, philosophical, theological, and in brief all disciplines that belong to society, and not simply to nature) – the historical ideologue has thus in every scientific field independent material that has been shaped out of the thinking of earlier generations and its complete and proper development has been processed through the brains of the generations succeeding one another. Clearly external facts, that may belong to one or another field, could have co-determinedly affected this development, but these facts are according to his silent premise again simply fruits of a thought process; and thus we remain always in the realm of simple thought, which has happily digested even the hardest facts. It is this semblence of an independent history of conceptions of the state, or the legal system, the ideological ideas in each special field, that do the most to blind people. When Luther and Calvin ‘overcome’ the catholic religion, or when Hegel does this with Fichte and Kant, and Rousseau with his contrat social does it to the constitutional Montesquieu, this is a process that remains within theology, or philosophy, or the political science, represents a stage in the history of these fields of thought, and allows nothing to spill out of the field of thought. And since the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and last instance-ness of capitalist production has come to this as well, the same thing applies to the overcoming of mercantilism by the physiocrats and Adam Smith as a simple victory of thought, not a the cognitive reflex of changed economic facts, but as the finally achieved, correct insight into the continuing and ever present factual conditions.” [My translation – I can’t find the german text of the whole letter, but this much is published in Masaryk’s work on Marx].

In fact, that reading within disciplinary lines is depressingly present in most secondary literature dealing with Marx. All too often, it becomes a matter of Marx ‘overcoming’ Hegel, or whatever. One of the things I like about Amie’s putting the editing of Capital in relation to actual events and an actual audience of French workers, who Marx will know, very well, have had a certain experience of revolution, is that it breaks through these disciplinary boundaries. Frankly, here I suppose I should confess that my own libidinal investment in Marx is not in the man who ‘responds’ to Hegel, but in the man who responds to the history happening around him, and is never too stiff to change. That change, however, does I think emphasize – as NP puts it in another great post here – the structure that was always already there in Capital. But I think it significant that to emphasize that structure, the commodity fetishism section is expanded. It is expanded using a rhetoric that casts us back, indeed, to the German Ideology. Indeed, commodities, abound in “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” – and if there is one book in which Marx goes into “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” with a vengeance, it is The German Ideology. I’m not going to clinch the case by some inexhaustible rundown, cause I don’t have time, but I think the link between the metaphysicians who are critiquing religion in Germany and the Political Economists who are theorizing capitalism in England runs through the commodity fetishism section.

But let’s remember the title of that section: Der Fetischcharakter der Ware und sein Geheimnis. When Secret appears in a title, it has a certain semantic force that shouldn’t be overlooked. Because the English translators didn’t want to make it seem – o double fetish, fetish of a fetish – that the fetish itself has a secret, they translated this phrase, infelicitously, as The fetish character of commodities and the secret thereof. Which acknowledges that a secret is “of something,” and “for some point of view”.

Now, in the “Holy Family”, we have already met some dealers in secrets – “Geheimniskramer”. They happen to be the critics of criticism – o double critique! The whole of the chapter is a catalogue of secrets, which are attributed to the great dealer in secrets – “The secret of the critical presentation of the Mystères de Paris is the secret of speculation, of Hegelian construction.

This is, to say the least, an interesting and –shall we say – ideological use of the notion of the secret. The secret, here, is not found in the substance of the text – as certain actions, in Mysteries of Paris, are kept quiet from the reader and the characters in the novel – but instead, the secret is in the very form of the text. It is, then, a secret instrument. But what is the secret of this instrument? One should remember that the doubleness we have seen with fetishism and with critique seems to reflect the structure of one kind of secret – for secrets possess the Hegelian charm that form and substance, here, intervene on secrecy. A secret of content that is a known secret – say, for instance, a phrase blanked out in a document released by the CIA – is a secret of a different type than a secret in which the fact that it is a secret is a secret – say, the operation that the CIA performed that, until the document about it surfaces, was not publicly known. A secret this is known to nobody, however, is no secret at all. Socially, then, secrets divide us, by definition, into insiders and outsiders.

The moves that Marx makes in the German Ideology mark him as an insider, in that he does understand the Young Hegelian jargon. In fact, here, as with the political economists, one of Marx’s character masks is the whistle blower. He has immersed himself in political economics so that – unlike the dumb French socialists, the crapauds, who don’t know what is happening across the Channel – Marx does. And it is his value as a whistle blower that he does not want to keep the secret.
But it is at this point that Marx ceases to be simply an informer. Both with the critical critics in Germany and with the political economists, his inside experience leads him to a secret that neither the one nor the other know. They can’t decypher it. They can’t read it. It is part of the very structure of their thinking – the form of their thinking. Which, in turn, is part of where they sit in society – their own insider/outsider relationship with entrenched power.
But more later on. I must do some work today!


duncan said...

This certainly demands a full post in response, Roger. But that will take a little time!

duncan said...

Okay Roger - I'm going to respond to this in comments after all, and here's where I'll pick up: two phrases - your "A secret that is known to nobody, however, is no secret at all", and Marx's "They do this without being aware of it." The secret of the fetish character of commodities (a fetish character is something that pertains to the commodities themselves, rather than simply to a point of view on them) is connected to the meaning of this latter phrase. In fact I'll quote several sentences here, from the section that Fowkes translates as "The fetishism [= fetish character] of the commodity and its secret".

"Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men's social product as is their language."

The word "secret" features in this passage: men try to "get behind the secret of their own social product." But this is a secret that precisely can be known to nobody. For this is a secret that is made in practice without those who make it "being aware of it". It is a kind of secret distinct from that which must be associated with a point of view; or with the boundary between insiders and outsiders. (Again, this is part of the force of Marx's distinction between ideology critique - where something proper to consciousness is hidden beneath false consciousness, say, a critique oriented to products of the brain - and Capital's project, which pertains also to what Marx calls the products of men's hands - i.e. to social practice.) In practice, and without those who participate in the relevant practices intending or being aware of the fact, the products of labour are transformed into a social hieroglyphic, in capitalist society, Marx believes. And then, once this social process has already taken place, behind men's backs, as Marx puts it, men can in turn try to "get behind" the secret of this social hieroglyphic - decipher the social form they have unwittingly created.

This social form is not a point of view or a perspective. It is the aggregate effect of a set of social practices.

Marx believes that classical political economy engages in this task - it deciphers the secret of capitalist society's social product. And yet Marx believes that it does so without understanding the nature of what it has uncovered:

"Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form..."

By this Marx means [as is clear from the conclusion of the same paragraph, and from the discussion of bourgeois categories on Fowkes' page 169 - just before the Robinson Crusoe stuff] that classical political economy does not ask why capitalist society should produce this social hieroglyphic (or indeed any social hieroglyphic at all). Having deciphered the secret of capitalist production it then does not look for (does not even try to look for) the social practices that produce the secret - which is where political economy goes wrong.

roger said...

Duncan, I like your development of the brain/hand dualism. And I can see where you are going in this reading of a secret that nobody knows.

There are two problems with your reading, however.
The first has to do with the “political economy”. In one way, this is a translation problem that I ran up against when I translated Silja Graupe’s Basho of Economics. There’s a certain asymmetry between English and German that centers around “economy” and “economics”, between the object and the discipline that studies the object. My reading of the commodity fetishism chapter is that a secret only makes sense if it is attached to economics. Even on the grassroots level of practice, those who are agents in the economy – using their hands – translate that activity into economics – using their brain – when they attempt to reflect on it.

Marx has a story to tell – in the wonderful passage you quote – that has everything to do with the difference between one register – of activity – and another – of reflection:

“They do this without being aware of it. Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men's social product as is their language."

Now, here I see the second problem with your reading that relates to the conflation of the study of the system and the system. In the system, products ultimately have prices, are sold and bought. And the only question that arises here is quantitative: how much. This is a different activity from trying to ‘decypher’ the hieroglyphic. It is at this point that the metaphor of the hieroglyph kicks in, as well as the notion of the secret. For that moment of decypherment is not buying or selling, but the question of how this came about – or the question of the political economy as a system. This is expressly why it value does not have a description branded on its forehead. Rather, the products themselves to the point of view – and here it seems to be impossible that there would not be a point of view – who tries to read them are social hieroglyphs. There is clearly a before and after in this story – first, persons bring their products in relation to one another. That act is not blind – the act of hands without a brain – but the system that emerges is not the product of some collective intention. Second – after this has been done – men (not just political economists, but people in the position of political economists – that is, people trying to make sense of the system – look at what they have done and try to decypher it. The idea that these products are hieroglyphics, and that as hieroglyphics they contain a secret, gets us back to ideology once more. Political economics is, doubtless, situated in the political economy. But the political economy is not doing the second kind of deciphering. Why should it?

duncan said...

Thanks Roger

First of all, just to be clear, I'm not of course denying that ideology critique exists or that Marx engages in it. Marx does indeed think that political economy (the discipline!) is ideological. I'm just saying this is a bad framework through which to approach lots of other aspects of Marx's intellectual project - including a number of those related to his critique of political economy.

More importantly:

I think you're missing a whole level of Marx's analysis, and that this is one of the things that's causing the problem here. You wrote:

"For that moment of decypherment is not buying or selling, but the question of how this came about – or the question of the political economy as a system."

This, to me, suggests a mashing together of several different layers of Marx's analysis. I think this connects to your over-emphasis of the exchange relation - and also to the question you asked in the previous thread, about the dynamics of the capitalist system. There you wrote: "What is capitalist dynamics here? If it doesn’t have to do with the commodity-money circulation outlined in Capital, what other capitalist dynamic is there? Some elaborate form of barter?" But the truth is that it's exactly this question that Capital aims to answer - what are the dynamics of the capitalist system beyond commodity-money circulation? Marx thinks that capitalism has a social logic that is distinct from other historical forms of (even very generalised) commodity-money circulation, of which there are many; he thinks that classical political-economy deciphers one of the principal effects of this social logic - broadly speaking, a strong connection between labour and value - but that it fails to answer the question of the social origins of this social fact. And Marx thinks that this question can't be answered without talking about quite complicated large-scale aggregate results of a number of different social practices - results which are not intended by any participant. The deciphering that political economy engages in, and the deciphering that Marx engages in are very different kinds of endeavour.