Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What sort of activity is exchange?

I've been reading a bunch of Arendt, and, in light of my recent re-reading of Sohn-Rethel, I've noticed something both odd and, I think, revealing about Arendt's understanding of the vita activa--she completely overlooks commodity exchange as a distinctive form of activity.

Arendt's overall project, post-Origins of Totalitarianism, is centered around a rearticulation of active or practical life as of principles and a dignity separate from but equal to that of contemplation. I'm very sympathetic to this project, at least in such broad outlines. I'm especially attracted to her recognition of the fundamental plurality of activities, which sets her apart from all the mythologies of utilitarianism and rational choice action theory. However, I've always been nagged by a sense that her effort to separate out the various modalities of active life--labor, work, action--was itself a bit of a simplification or homogenization. However, nagging doubts do not an assessment make. Now I feel like I'm on somewhat more solid ground. Let me lay out the indicators of the problem:

Arendt's only prolonged discussion of exchange (that I know of) is in the "Work" section of The Human Condition (pp 159-67). The discussion is situated as it is because Arendt thinks that the exchange market is the public sphere corresponding to and growing out of work or fabrication, the making of persistent objects of use or artifacts. In Arendt's words, "homo faber, the builder of the world and the producer of things, can find his proper relationship to other people only by exchanging his products with theirs" (160).

But she immediately introduces a consideration that flagrantly contradicts this proper fit of the market to the artisans as producers. The sentence I just quoted continues by "explaining" this propriety; the artisan finds his proper relation to others in the exchange market "because the products themselves are always produced in isolation" (160-1). This sounds strange, I think, because we immediately think of assembly lines, factories, and cooperation when we think of production. Arendt has an explanation for this--basically, the division of labor within a process of production she associates with labor, the reproduction of life, and the conquest of production by the division of labor is therefore the subordination of work to labor--but I'll leave that aside for now. I think the plausibility of her insistence on the solitude of the artisan can be rescued by reference to such commonplaces as "too many cooks spoil the broth," and the certainty that doing anything "by committee" is sure to be a disaster from the standpoint of the quality of the end result. The work, for Arendt, is characterized by a singleness of intention and attention, and hence the artisan qua artisan is alone.

But for precisely this reason, the people who meet in the market are not artisans qua artisans, as Arendt herself recognizes. "The people who met on the exchange market, to be sure, were no longer the fabricators themselves," she writes; "when homo faber comes out of his isolation, he appears as a merchant and trader and establishes the exchange market in this capacity" (162-3). Therefore, she also claims that exchange value cannot be grounded in any "specific human activity" (164).

So, Arendt, it seems to me, is caught in the uncomfortable position of affirming both that exchange "develops without break and consistently" from "the world of the craftsman and the experience of fabrication" (166) and that this exchange presupposes a change in the personae and a dissociation from any actual activity of making things.

This is where Sohn-Rethel can meaningfully supplement Arendt. The recognition that commodity exchange is a separate mode of activity, and a specific from of human interaction, undermines the assumption that Arendt shares with the utilitarians and economists from whom she so radically diverges otherwise: the assumption that a generalized "utility" can be unproblematically extrapolated from the concrete uses of the objects we make. This presumptive link between use and utility is the unthought ground of modern economics, and exposing the absence of any such link is the ongoing task of the critique of political economy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Religious ideology, political ideology

Man, it's hard to figure out what's going on in Andy McCarthy's head. I'm not sure why I do this, but sometimes I go over and read the National Review Online blog. I did so this morning, and the first thing I ran across was this post by McCarthy. After going through what he considers to be the relevant range of opinions about the situation in Iran, he closes with this:
Considerations of Islamic ideology have been discouraged in this country since 9/11 — lest we detect a nexus between Muslim doctrine and Muslim terror. Consequently, there is general ignorance about the Islamic political program (Islam is not just a religion, it is a comprehensive socio-political program [my emphasis]). But for a few nettlesome differences (like equality for women and hostility to homosexuals), the Islamic political program — especially the totalitarian version regnant in the Islamic Republic of Iran — is something the American Left would be very comfortable with. Obama understands this, and I think it is a better explanation for his solicitude toward Khamenei than any hope of reversing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
I'm not even going to say anything about the bizarro-world claims that litter the unbolded parts of this paragraph (though they are instructive, I think, of how far removed we are from any robust ideological consensus in the US at the moment).

I was just struck by McCarthy's notion of what a religion is. Islam is, horror of horrors, a comprehensive socio-political program! Certianly, religions differ in the extensiveness of their socio-political doctrine. To my (extremely limited) knowledge, Buddhism doesn't have a lot to say about the institutions and methods of rule. Among western religions, there is a commonplace division made between Christianity (a religion of faith) and Islam and Judaism (religions of law). Both of the latter are thought to have far-reaching consequencs for the mode of life and social organization of adherents, in a way that Christianity does not. I think it is very odd, to say the least, that McCarthy would say that Islam is comprehensive in its socio-political teachings while ignoring its fellow religion of the law, Judaism. On what basis does McCarthy think Islam is more comprehensive in its legal teaching than Judaism?

But aside from this, theocracy is not restricted to religions of law. There have been theocratic regimes based in Christianity (Catholic and Protestant--though I don't know of any Orthodox theocracies...) and Buddhism (pre-Chinese Tibet). Claiming proximity to god as warrant to rule is pretty close to a universal temptation among us human beings. I would think (again, this is arm-chair history of the most egregious sort) that when and where a particular religion becomes theocratic in its aspirations has more to do with external factors than with the content of its holy texts and teachings. Paul told Christians to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's when they were a tiny and dispersed community, but this did not prevent popes from crowning emperors and leading armies a millenium later. Looking at the Torah or the Koran or whatever will not tell you a) how political a religion can become or b) how extensively and intensively its adherants will live holy teachings as a set of practices.

Moreover, I'm pretty taken right now with Foucault's thesis about government: that the Christian pastoral introduced a practice of government into European life that is without precedent, and that this pastoral form has permeated the modern state in the guise of what the Germans call the Polizei (the administrative and regulatory enforcement arms of the government). Thus, if you set aside the question of theocracy--that is, the directly religious form of the state--you must still consider the myriad other ways in which a religion (a set of practices of worship) can imply, shape, and sustain political, legal, and social practices and institutions that are not explicitly or directly religious.

In short, if McCarthy wants to consider Islamic ideology, he should go right ahead. But he's not off to an auspicious start.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Short Essay in Self-Criticism

So I have slightly mixed feelings about my essay in Marx and Contemporary Philosophy. Of course I'm thrilled to share space with so many of my Marxological heroes--Meikle, Postone, Murray, Carver, and Arthur, especially--from whom I have learned so much over the years. And I am quite happy with many aspects of the essay. And yet...

The root of the problem is that I'm re-reading Alfred Sohn-Rethel's Intellectual and Manual Labor for the first time since I was writing my dissertation. Unfortunately, I read it in German the first time, and apparently I didn't understand it nearly as well as I thought I did. It turns out that Sohn-Rethel should have influenced me far more than he did, and exactly on those questions with which the newly published essay is concerned. In other words, just as this essay is venturing out into the world on its own, I am looking up from my desk and crying, "Wait! You're not ready! Please let me make you a bit more presentable!"

Here's the issue: Understanding Marx's account of capital hinges on understanding the differences between exchange-value and use-value, and between abstract labour and concrete labour. Marx is adamant that exchaneg abstracts from use-value, and that, therefore, use-value plays no rule in the determination of the magnitude of value. Instead, the magnitude of value is determined by the abstract labour-time necessary to produce the commodity under given conditions. Thus, everything that is distinctive about Marx's approach gets off the ground here, where use-value and exchange-value part ways, and abstract labor-time appears as the substance of value. This is where all liberal economists (and most Marxist economists!) lose the thread (all of two pages into Capital). The question is, how does exchange abstract from use-value?

In my paper, I try to answer this question in what I guess could be called a phenomenological manner. I argue that the agents in exchange act as if use-value didn't matter, and that this "acting as if" amounts to a practical abstraction from use-value, which is intensified when a) labour-power becomes an object of exchange and b) is employed within a capitalist production process.

In the essay I waffle a bit on how intentional this abstraction is. My "as if" construction allows for the possibility that the consciousness of the agents does not apprehend what they do. But I also say things to the effect that we "disregard" the use-value of commodities in exchange, or "ignore" thereby the particular usefulness of labor. These formulations suggest, if not full consciousness, at least a sort of intentional structure to the practical abstraction.

In contradistiction to my rather muddled language, Sohn-Rethel is crystal clear: the abstraction from use effected by the practice of exchange is completely unconscious, and the furthest thing from the minds of the participants in exchange. Exchange excludes use in the sense that I can't exchange what I am using, or use what I am exchanging. This brute, physical abstraction from use is the original abstraction, and, according to Sohn-Rethel's analysis, contains all manner of counter-factual norms that structure the practice of exchange apart from any conscious or half-conscious intention. In fact, he even insists that the practice only works if the participants don't pay attention to the abstractions performed by it. I'm not sure I'm convinced by this bit, but he seems to think that exchangers have to think about use-value in order to practice an abstraction from use-value.

Regardles of this last point, I think Sohn-Rethel is invaluable for outlining a performance of abstraction that can proceed without any reference to a determining intentionality. My formulations in the just-published essay lend themsleves to an idealistic (that is to say, ideological) acount of exchange relations arising from conscious subjects. And that idealism of the act is worthy of endless criticism.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The One Product You Need

Out now:

Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy
Edited by Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor

This collection of articles brings together the latest work of some of the world’s leading Marxist philosophers, along with that of a new generation of young researchers. Based upon work presented at meetings of the recently founded and fast-growing Marx and Philosophy Society, it offers a unique snapshot of the best current scholarship on the philosophical aspects and implications of Marx's thought.


‘The Entire Mystery’: Marx’s Understanding of Hegel; J.McCarney
Karl Marx’s Philosophical Modernism: Post-Kantian Foundations of Historical Materialism; M.McIvor
Marx, the European Tradition, and the Philosophic Radicals; S.Meikle

Marx’s Theory of Democracy in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State; G.Daremas
Marx and Conservatism; A.Collier
Forms of Right, Forms of Value: The Unity of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Capital; R.Fine

Species-Being and Capital; A.Chitty
Labour in Modern Industrial Society; S.Sayers
The Concept of Money; C.Arthur
Value, Money, and Capital in Hegel and Marx; P.Murray
Abstraction and Productivity: Reflections on Formal Causality; W.Roberts

The Subject and Social Theory: Marx and Luk√°cs on Hegel; M.Postone
Multiple Returns: Althusser on Dialectics; J.Grant
The Rationality of Analytical Marxism; R.Veneziani

Marxism and Feminism: Living with your ‘Ex’; T.Carver
After Postmodernism: Feminism and Marxism Revisited; G.Howie

Wait, what was that? Go back just a bit...

"Abstraction and Productivity: Reflections on Formal Causality; W.Roberts"

Hey, that's me!

Friday, June 5, 2009