Friday, March 12, 2010

Money just seems to make the world go around

There is a drop of blood on the ground
And it seems to me that it's not my kind
but I can't be sure if its yours or mine

Substitution. Replacement. Fungibility. I have so far been hammering home a point about one of the great, novel features of capitalism, but it is a point that is, inherently, difficult to express. When money is paid for an object, in one sense it operates as a substitute for the object – and in one sense it doesn’t. For the object does not operate as a substitute for money. If I pay 2 dollars for a bag of sugar, as we all know, this does not mean that I can then go into a store and trade my bag of sugar for 2 dollars worth of oranges. In this way, money is a commodity unlike any other in the body of commerce. “It is a matter of complete indifference to money into what kind of commodities it is transformed. It is the universal equivalence form of all commodities, which already show in their prices, that ideally they represent a specific amount of money, awaiting their transformation into money, and only through changing places with money maintain the form in which they are convertible into use values for their possessor.” [Capital II, 36 – my translation] The principle of substitution, the universal equivalence seemingly embodied in cash, not only supplants the system of in-kind payments which, theoretically, held together the feudal world – it becomes a sort of multiplier of other substitutions. Or, to put it another way, it reveals the variables that structure the new world of capitalist production, most notably in the convergence of the specialization and fungibility of the worker.

But is money really, then, impervious to all social boundaries? On one level – for instance, in buying a bag of sugar – money holds its place as a great converter. But though the capitalist would like to think that the worker is merely a screw, a stopgap, Marx clearly does not believe that the human – the social - is so easily liquidated. Rather, we must operate one of those inversions of the terms in place to help us see what is happening here:

“If M-L appears as a function of money capital, or money here as the existence form of capital, thus in no simply because the money steps out here as a means of payment for human activity, which has a useful effect, that is, for a service; thus absolutely not through the function of money as a means of payment. Money can only be disbursed in this form, because the labor power finds itself in the circumstance of being divided from its means of production (including the means of subsistence [Lebensmittel as the means of the production of labor power itself); and because this division can only be abolished through the fact that the labor power is sold to the possessor of the means of production. Thus, even the mobilization of labor power, whose limits are not synonymous with the limits of the necessary quantity of labor involved in the production of its own price, belongs to the buyer. The capital relationship emerges during the production process because it exists in the act of circulation, in the different basic economic conditions by which the buyer and seller confront each other, in their class relationship. It is not in the nature of money that the relationship is given; it is rather the existence of this relationship that makes it possible to transform a simple monetary function into a capital one.” [Capital bk. 2, 36 – my translation. Compare with the David Fernbach Penguin translation, p. 115]

As a character says in Moulin Rouge, “a girl has got to eat/or she’ll end up on the street.” Money’s power as a universal equivalent, in the capitalist era, gives to the capitalist a weapon. That weapon derives from the division of labor. The weapon does not fall from heaven. Rather, all must agree on the weapon, as in a game in which the opponents moves against each other reference agreed upon rules. Why would the worker agree to these rules? Because of the division of labor that separates the worker from the means of production. In this game, one side created the rules – we will call them, as Marx did, the bourgeoisie. I hasten to say that this is not a whole truth – Marx sometimes considers that the rulemakers, the state, are only tools of the capitalist class, and sometimes complicates the base/superstructure model. In fact, he would have no interest in democracy at all if a strong version of the base/superstructure model held – whereas he is always politically throwing his weight on the side of democracy, suffrage, all the gains of the French revolution. However, leaving this aside for the moment - it is in the interest of the (variously changing members) of those who own the means of production that the weapon will be agreed upon in as much as the can valorize their ownership of the means of production. Notice, you tastemongers of dialectics, that this means only that the form of money is agreed upon – the substance – including its practical loss or gain of value, inflation or deflation – is not under the control of the ownership class. Seeds here for future drama.


N Pepperell said...

Hey roger - I'm drowning in beginning of year teaching at the moment, so apologies for not responding in more depth, but just quickly on this:

But is money really, then, impervious to all social boundaries?

Passages very similar to the ones you quote are also included in the first volume of Capital, where they have the advantage of being better contextualised within a narrative structure that makes it a bit clearer that they are voicing partial perspectives - perspectives that seem plausible when you keep aspects of a complex social context in view, but not perspectives that are understood - by the broader standpoint of the text - as fully adequate in the terms in which they are presented.

Remembering Marx's use of Hegel's image of the ellipse as a simple sort of "contradictory" system: if you look at the ellipse from the perspective of only one of its tendencies, then you would think the bodies in the system were constantly falling toward each other (and therefore would eventually crash); if you look at the ellipse from the standpoint of another of its tendencies, you would think the bodies in the system were constantly flying apart (and therefore would increasingly become more independent from one another). In the actual system, however, neither of these implied endpoints or teleologies is ever realised - because the ellipse is marked precisely by the practical reality that both of these "contradictory" tendencies operate in tandem to mark out this peculiar form of movement.

When Marx makes comments like what you've quoted above about money (as when he makes comments about more or less anything else), at least within the more precisely-plotted structure of the first volume of Capital, this is the sort of framework he has in mind. Each perspective he voices would be equivalent to the person who looks at the ellipse and says: the two bodies are constantly falling toward one another and will crash! They've only got part of the story, and therefore draw inappropriate conclusions about the way the system as a whole is going to play out in motion.

So the "telos" of money - to corrode all boundaries, override all distinctions, etc. - is not something that can be realised in practice, within the system as a whole. This telos is implied when some bit of the system is over-emphasised and its tendencies hypostatised, as though those tendencies could operate free of the constraint of everything else that is going on. In practical reality, other constraints apply.

to be continued...

N Pepperell said...


It is important for understanding certain sorts of social phenomenona, that such tendencies are implied - even if the tendencies can never be realised. So, if money (or, more specifically, since "money" is not a uniform "thing" for Marx, if some specific social practice surrounding money) implies the possibility to dissolve all social heirarchies and boundaries, this practical implication - constituted in practice, even if it could never actually be realised in practice - carries material consequences. These are the material consequences of the corrosive ideal that social hierarchies and boundaries have something potentially contingent about them.

In this sense, a "telos" of money that Marx never believes could be realised in practice (he mocks the idea when he introduces the category of capital, and compares it with Hegel's Geist), is corrosive nevertheless, because it introduces into social experience this nagging sense that - in some particular slice of social existence - all hierarchies, all stabilities, all solidity are radically contingent. That this contingency may not in practice be realisable: Marx deals with this, in its tragedy and its promise, in other places, when he is exploring other perspectives.

But the practical experience of this unrealisable potential is nevertheless potent - a very abstract condition of non-identity that can fuel contestation and critique, and can do this in both good and bad ways: channeling the "creative destruction" of capitalist structural transformation, as well as more emancipatory movements for transformation...

In their current configuration, the bodies of capitalism's ellipse may be able neither to fly apart or crash together - their implicit potentials may not be fully able to be realised in any particular direction. But Marx tries to explore - as one dimension of social "reality" - the contradictory implicit trajectories, as well as what "actually happens" - because, of course, to Marx, these implicit, if truncated, trajectories are part of what actually happens. The problem arises when that part - any part - is mistaken for the whole...

Roger Gathmann said...

Nicole, I love what you are saying about the ellipses - and though it would take thousands of years and involve thousands of notebooks for me to make good on my Benjaminian intuition, somehow I am sure that the falling away from each other/falling towards each other motif, in Hegel, is also realized in so many of the perceptual frameworks that open up because of the new nineteenth century technologies: the train and the photograph in particular. I'm thinking of Muybridge's studies of motion, for instance.

I know you've written more about this in your dissertation up on Rough Theory. I wonder, what chapter would I find this discussion in?

I've been led to that first chapter in the Second Book - which is written more in the spirit of the First book than the rest of the ever too hairy Second Book - by trying to put my finger on why, in fact, the working class is a revolutionary class - instead of merely a victim, a reactive body. Thus, I'm trying to get my bearings on the 'emptying out' of skill, which is the other face of the ever greater specialization of labor (something, by the way, that is very applicable at the moment to work in computer tech, which, in the nineties, was the field to go into in the U.S. to secure the great paying jobs - with the inevitable offshoring of those jobs being treated as a betrayal) - and, of course, its relationship to that great mobilizer, money.

Roger Gathmann said...

And now - in my speeded up death march through Marx! - I'm going to try to tackle the base/superstructure model. My least favorite part of Marx - I'd like to say, K.M. simply throws that out there and don't take it too seriously, but I have to do more than that.

Roger Gathmann said...

And as if in answer to my wishes, you put up a post about the ellipses!

N Pepperell said...

Hey roger - the version of the thesis on the blog has gotten substantially out of sync with the manuscript I've been working on offline, so, when I used the ellipse example in the version on the blog, I used it for a different purpose (basically, to point that Marx's argument is not that crisis will lead to the downfall of capitalism, but that crisis is the mode of reproduction of capitalism, and that the critical significance of crisis is that it casts into relief the artificial and arbitrary social constraints characteristic of capitalism as a system of "material reproduction"). What I did with the passage originally I would still endorse - it's just that your post suggested a different way of inflecting the same image... I think the original discussion is in the chapter 7 posted to the blog. (I'll eventually get a later version online - I just didn't want to keep bombarding with revisions...)

On base-superstructure, to be honest I think the readings of Marx that emphasise this both take the concept to be much more central than it is, and also mistake its content. Marx will very explicitly treat more or less everything as a "material force" at some point - there's no rigid distinction between easily differentiated segments of social experience in his work in that respect.

What he does seem to do, though - what I take to be the referent of the base-superstructure vocabulary - is to feel that, at base, humans aren't enormously smart... So if we've come up with some sudden and apparently clever insight, he starts sniffing around for what has changed in our everyday practice, that suggests the insight we tend to attribute to the powers of the mind alone. So there is a constant attempt to locate forms of thought by finding some place that the sensibilities and perspectives they express are located in some form of widespread everyday practice, such that the formal academic or theoretical expression of a sensibility comes to be repositioned as a sort of uppermost tip of a very deep iceberg. Reconnecting the tip to its broad practical base - arguing, for example, that we begin to find ideals of equality persuasive when, in some dimension of social practice, we stumble accidentally into treating one another equally without intending to - is what I think Marx means by his occasional base-superstructure language. This seems to be the thing he does fairly consistently, whereas he's not consistent at all, if you try to read him as someone who reduces everything to "the economic", whatever that would mean...

I seem to be having all sorts of issues with the blog, at the moment, so I'm not sure new posts are updating on the site feed... So if you see all sorts of random empty test posts on the site, this is why. I don't think anyone who's not directly clicking through can tell it's being updated right now...

Roger Gathmann said...

Oh, the base/superstructure thing is most important for Marxism, not Marx. I think you are totally right about that - and I like the not smart remark!

On the other hand, there is that footnote to the kindly american review of the Critique who picked up on the base/superstructure thing immediately - it was like some benign piece of computer code that hte punters out there can immediately see the use of: this is my magic wand! And off they go with it.

Thanks for all this info about the ellipsis. Now I'm going back to the task in hand. The most interesting thing about the base/superstructure thing, to me, is that it can lead to understanding, in Polanyi-ish terms, how economies are embedded or disembedded.


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