Tag Archives: Theory

Capitalism and the Value Form

The following post is the third installment in an ongoing series on some of the key ideas in Marx’s thought. Part one can be found here. The second part is linked here. The last two parts will follow as they are completed: “What is Capital?” and, lastly, “Communism”.

Capitalist Society and the Value Form

Marx begins Capital by raising the question of wealth: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form” (125). In putting forward the contradiction between increased productivity of labor and the division of labor, Marx was able to show that as wealth grows so does exploitation and misery. It is only with capitalism that this contradiction reaches its limit. In no other form of society has the concentration and accumulation of productive powers been so great and exploitation so immense. In capitalism, as Marx writes elsewhere, “the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production” (“Estranged Labor”).

So far we have been discussing Marx’s ideas for all societies in general. But Marx’s aim was to understand what was particular about capitalist society, a form of production that was, from a world perspective, only embryonic in his own day. For Marx capitalist society is characterized by the value form, a form of existence and social relations unique in human history. What follows is an attempt to summarize and synthesize this concept.

The Dual Character of Labor

For Marx, central to understanding the organization of capitalist society is the dual character of the commodity. He argues in Capital that one side of the commodity is defined by how it is used, or “use-value.” He defines use by how the commodity “satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (125). We have seen how the idea of “human needs” plays an important role in Marx’s thought. Throughout history human beings have produced uses to satisfy and express their needs, giving rise to particular forms of society.

When looked at as a use the commodity is indistinguishable from the process of fulfilling needs as a general characteristic of all human societies. As such, commodities “constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be” (Capital, 126). However, the production of uses takes, or, more precisely, cannot be separated from a specific form in each society or historical epoch. In capitalist society, Marx argues, the production of uses has a dual character that consists of its use and its exchange value. As he writes in Capital: “In the form of society to be considered here [uses] are also the material bearers of exchange value” (126).

Marx defines exchange-value as “the quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind” (Capital, 126). This type of exchange is necessary because of the division of labor in capitalist society, which is composed of separate workers producing privately and selling their labor power to produce single uses. He writes:

The totality of heterogeneous use-values or physical commodities reflects a totality of similarly heterogeneous forms of useful labour, which differ in order, genus, species and variety; in short, a social division of labour. This division of labour is a necessary condition for commodity production….Only the products of mutually independent acts of labour, performed in isolation, can confront each other as commodities. (Capital, 132)

Continue reading Capitalism and the Value Form

Communism is the Ascension of Humanity as the Subject of History: A Critique of Althusser and the Affirmation of Marx

(By Gussel Sprouts)

“Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” (Marx)

If we are to affirm the ideology of Marx, and the Marxist understanding of not only communism, but its relationship to humanity, we can only begin so by understanding his thoughts on ideology and of his break with Feuerbach, and what this means for the relationships of subjects/objects. Louis Althusser, the philosopher who said “structures don’t take to the streets” as he turned his nose up at the students protesting in May ’68, disingenuously knew or cared little for the ideas of Marx and the ways they were distinct from the other thinkers of his time. At other times, he was willfully and honestly ignorant, but it is important to understand that Althusser’s thought is largely contradictory in a logistical sense (he was inconsistent in his breaks/agreements with Marx) but also in a sense that he produced thought which was fundamentally anti-Marxist.

Our critique of Althusser must go even further here than that of his misunderstanding of Marx, but what he builds on with such a conclusion, parallels can be seen in ideological apparatuses already in historical existence and the present moment, to which we can conclude that the ideological and cultural apparatus, the real movement to abolish the present state of things is not one of ideas, nor ideological “structures”. Capital has already reached an unprecedented level of totality, a certain subsumption of the Real by an irreconcilable “big Other” (1). Althusser would have all of this for what he calls “socialism”. We have seen this already in the history of existing socialisms, while originally hiding the ill-informed and possibly disingenuous veil of being “the first Left-wing critique of Stalinism”.

The first few sections are to provide contexts of Althusser (and therefore his thought) with that of Marx, revolutionaries of his time, and his politics in the Communist Party of France. After such, we will venture into Althusser’s ideas themselves. We will find that we do not require a deep understanding of Structuralism (or the sociological and Freudian undertones in his thought) to see that Althusser’s thought is irreconcilable with that of Marx.

Continue reading Communism is the Ascension of Humanity as the Subject of History: A Critique of Althusser and the Affirmation of Marx

Debating Base and Superstructure

In the recent debate over the legacy of Marxist-Feminism, Eve and Tyler presented a critique of Nat Winn’s use of the infamous ‘base and superstructure’ meme. Despite its wide usage, this particular set of categories has lead to deterministic theorizing, often gutting the subjectivity of the working class and oppressed from communist praxis. Underlying this political consequence has been the method of isolating the objects of investigation — in this case the forms of activity of the class. As Eve and Tyler explained, the ‘base and superstructure’ meme establishes a duality between subject and object, rather than theoretically explaining their dialectical unity. Simply put, the working class, no longer the creators of the social world — in this case capital — become helplessly determined by it, and communists thus abandon the concept of “coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing” as central to any revolutionary process.

In an effort to deepen and expand this conversation, we offer Raymond Williams’ essay, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (pdf). In this essay (later expanded into a whole book) Williams takes up the common ways in which the categories of base and superstructure are used, and challenges his readers to, instead of considering isolated objects — in this case objects of art since Williams was a cultural critic — investigate the objective parameters and social relations of the activity behind the production of those objects. Part of this challenge requires us to consider the interrelation of all social practices (their “totality”) as opposed to considering one set, whether deemed “political” or “economic”, a part from another, and even more, to do so would require us to understand each of these particular sets as different forms of an active (or “moving”) social process.

This contribution to the discussion shares important features with Marx’s explanation of the fetish, which he begins in chapter one of the first volume of Capital. There, Marx demonstrates that modes of thought which treat objects in isolation of their historical development are a product of the organization of capitalist society. In this way, capitalist society understands itself to be timeless — a natural condition of the human race. One of the important contributions of Marx, then, is that he provided a critical theory that pierced through capital’s veneer of being natural, allowing us to understand the ways in which our activities and those of the rest of the working class can be equally critical, destroying capital in practice as well as in theory. As a new generation of communists, we must continue to wrestle with the difficult tasks of theory and method in order to play our part in creating a better world.

-Mazin

Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory

by Raymond Williams

Any modern approach to a Marxist theory of culture must begin by considering the proposition of a determining base and a determined superstructure. From a strictly theoretical point of view this is not, in fact, where we might choose to begin.[1] It would be in many ways preferable if we could begin from a proposition which originally was equally central, equally authentic: namely the proposition that social being determines consciousness. It is not that the two propositions necessarily deny each other or are in contradiction. But the proposition of base and superstructure, with its figurative element, with its suggestion of a definite and fixed spatial relationship, constitutes, at least in certain hands, a very specialized and at times unacceptable version of the other proposition. Yet in the transition from Marx to Marxism, and in the development of mainstream Marxism itself, the proposition of the determining base and the determined superstructure has been commonly held to be the key to Marxist cultural analysis.

Now it is important, as we try to analyse this proposition, to be aware that the term of relationship which is involved, that is to say ‘determines’, is of great linguistic and real complexity. The language of determination and even more of determinism was inherited from idealist and especially theological accounts of the world and man. It is significant that it is in one of his familiar inversions, his contradictions of received propositions, that Marx uses the word ‘determines’. He is opposing an ideology that had been insistent on the power of certain forces outside man, or, in its secular version, on an abstract determining consciousness. Marx’s own proposition explicitly denies this, and puts the origin of determination in men’s own activities. Nevertheless, the particular history and continuity of the term serves to remind us that there are, within ordinary use—–and this is true of most of the major European languages—–quite different possible meanings and implications of the word ‘determine’. There is, on the one hand, from its theological inheritance, the notion of an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity. But there is also, from the experience of social practice, a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures.

Now there is clearly a difference between a process of setting limits and exerting pressures, whether by some external force or by the internal laws of a particular development, and that other process in which a subsequent content is essentially prefigured, predicted and controlled by a pre-existing external force. Yet it is fair to say, looking at many applications of Marxist cultural analysis, that it is the second sense, the notion of prefiguration, prediction or control, which has often explicitly or implicitly been used.

Continue reading Debating Base and Superstructure

History and the Social Forms of Existence

This is the second part in an ongoing series on some of the key ideas in Marx’s thought. The first part can be found here.

*******

The preceding section discussed Marx’s understanding of human beings in the abstract. However, a true picture only emerges when one grasps humanity in the concrete; that is, in its actual living existence. So, for instance, in the beginning of the previous section the relationship between essence and existence was described as a matter of “standpoint.” This terminology is important because it suggests how Marx conceived of humanity as a dialectical unity between its essence and its mode of existence. One can only view human beings from different, distinct sides that, nonetheless, constitute a whole. As was emphasized above, essence only comes into being through existence and its content only exists objectively as form.

To develop this methodological point further it is necessary to consider the important role of abstraction in Marx’s thought. In order to understand the concrete phenomena of society, it is necessary to abstract from their particularity. Since a specific phenomena cannot be comprehended in itself, but only in its relation to other phenomena, it is necessary to discover new concepts that explain their unity. One thereby moves toward a conception of the totality of all relations in society. Without the relations between phenomena, the concrete becomes merely empirical. Once again, in Marx’s approach there are no “things,” but only relations and moments of totality. However, it is also necessary to grasp the concrete or else the relations from which phenomena emerge would become abstract. As a result, social reality and its concrete historical movement could not be comprehended at all. Marx’s methodology regarding abstraction and the concrete will be returned to later and developed further.

With these considerations in mind it becomes clear that Marx’s philosophical break in the “Theses” and ‘Estranged Labor” does not really begin to take methodological shape until he grounds his categories in history. For Marx history is the movement of the successive modes of existence humanity has created. History is the result of and the process of the objectivity of sensuous activity he speaks of in those early writings. In this light it is possible to understand more clearly Marx’s turn to the critique of political economy. Of course, this move was necessary to critique bourgeois ideology. But this critique proceeded in immanent fashion by grasping the movement of human activity in its concrete forms of existence. Marx’s aim was to show how in class society, humanity’s essence and existence come into contradiction with each other.
Mode of Production and the Mode of Life

When Marx turns to history he does not look at human beings in isolation, but rather in society. It is not possible to think of humanity as separate individuals. Human beings only come into being and gain awareness in mutual association with each other. In The German Ideology, Marx writes that if “consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other” people, then “consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around [them] is the beginning of the consciousness that [they are] living in society at all.” Consequently, Marx’s concept of self-activity must be understood as being a social process, one that involves human beings reproducing themselves only in relation to each other.

We are not dealing with the materialization of a single individual, but a collective realization. Only in mutual association do human beings therefore “distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.” The means of subsistence are the objects produced by people in association that consist of the tools and knowledge that subsequently absorbs and gives shape to the labor that follows. The means of subsistence is the basis for society because it is the foundation for the reproduction of the people who comprise that society. As Marx notes, “By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life” (The German Ideology). The result of this mutual materialization is the creation of the means of labor.
Continue reading History and the Social Forms of Existence