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.