Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Anyone who achieves a critique of Hegel to the extent that Marx did must end up with a position that is extremely close to Derrida's

Le gai savoir philosophy, literature, art, and other things i'm up to and working on, in cambridge, california, new york, princeton, and wherever else i may be Saturday, December 8, 2007
Perhaps one of the most concrete instances where we can see Marx contesting Hegel, and where we can see how easily he can be misunderstood, is in the subsection on hoarding in Capital. It is at once an amazing, and yet typical section. Amazing, because we find Marx here describing with amazing precision one of the very last contradictions in money that needs to be "won" or worked through by the system of capitalist production, one that actually the use of money within the capitalist system can always potentially devolve into when considered on a small scale: hoarding comes dangerously close to what I do when I have change in my pocket--that is, it is immediately visible that when I consider my money (and only money, not the things that it supposedly would buy) my private property, I am almost hoarding. This passage is typical, however, because Marx explains this arresting of the capitalist system of production in pseudo-natural terms, which have the potential to undermine the real power of his diagnosis of the contradiction here. Let's take a look at a short bit of it:
a) Hoarding
The continuous circular movement of the two antithetical metamorphoses of commodities, or the repeated alternating flow of sale and purchase, is reflected in the unceasing turnover of money... But as soon as the series of metamorphoses is interrupted, as soon as sales are not supplemented by subsequent purchases, money is immobilized. In other words, it is transformed... from coin into money.
When the circulation of commodities first develops, there also develops the necessity and the passionate desire to hold fast to the product of the first metamorphosis. This product is the transformed shape of the commodity, or its gold crysalis. Commodities are thus sold not in order to buy commodities, but in order to replace their commodity-form by their money-form. Instead of being merely a way of mediating the metabolic process, this change of form becomes an end in itself. The form of the commodity in which it is divested of content is prevented from functioning as its absolutely alienable form, or even as its merely transient money-form. The money is petrified into a hoard, and the seller of commodities becomes a hoarder of money. -Capital, Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 3, 227-228 (in the Penguin edition)
What's happening here is that the full elaboration of the commodity into capital through money is getting stuck at money. When we take money out of circulation, it becomes not the representative or signifier of a certain good or potential to buy a good, but just ends up in our pocket. If this happens enough, it introduces a problem in the general system of circulation itself--and this because the money does not actually mean anything in itself but is given its meaning by the process of circulation.
Here Marx shows us a contradiction that freezes the dialectic of capitalist production. By "dialectic" I mean the accumulation of resolutions to contradictions in the elaboration of a theory of value that results in an incredibly powerful economic form, capital. And Marx isn't just doing this here. At any stage, we reach something that cannot be resolved and overcome.
But what interests me here is that Marx can be seen to most always mark this indeterminacy through a natural vocabulary. Here is the most interesting sentence: "Instead of being merely a way of mediating the metabolic process, this change of form becomes an end in itself." Why "metabolic process?" Marx uses the word Stoffwechsel (literally, "stuff-changing"), which is used in biology precisely to describe what goes on in a cell. This isn't a unique instance of this. His descriptions of the worker's labor, use-value abound in similar vocabulary. What we're witnessing here is not a call for that metabolic process to appear again, which is what people think about use-value. Indeed, this can't be the case here--Marx is describing the movement of capital! How can he describe the movement of capital as what is just as natural as natural use value? What I'm suggesting is that Marx uses this vocabulary at any instance of the work not to refer to a particular natural thing or thing that, because it is natural, arrests the technological and mechanistic and human process of the development of capital, but because he is marking a point at which this development in general arrests itself. Where nature appears in Capital, there appears a possibility to overthrow capital.
But there arises a problem. Why a natural vocabulary? Why hearken back even here, where there is no harkening back, to an origin, to a nature? We can state the problem positively thus: where he is not hearkening back to an origin, Marx harks back to an origin. In the end, nature remains the only language he can use. Marx must be insufficiently conceiving of the space of indeterminacy and arresting that opens up in these instances that he marks if he can only think them as origin, as a primal space of meaning and liberation.
This essentially is the argument of Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx. Let's sum it all up in two powerful theses, which many reactionaries to this book too often muddle together:
1. It is a mistake to read Marx as advocating a return to nature where he is revealing an indeterminate, incommensurable moment in the iron necessity of capitalist dialectic.
2. It is a mistake to see that a huge opportunity to conceive this indeterminacy rigorously, to open it up to infinite indeterminacy and otherness, was lost in the investment of Marx in following this dialectic.
The second thesis seems annoyingly formulated. Also, because Derrida does not illuminate the first thesis enough (though he has a huge body of work on the subject with regard to other people who arrest the dialectic, like Bataille), the second cannot really take hold on his audience in any other form than annoyance. But for all its flaws, I'll argue here that it is important to see it as something that Marx himself would actually have want said of his efforts. I doubt that Marx's own viewpoint is actually in the end worth anything, but because the bitter taste of Specters of Marx probably hasn't been washed from the mouth of many Marxists, and because Marxism is (in some cases rightly) founded on an allegiance to the author, thinking of things in this way might help Marxists begin to appreciate Specters of Marx anew.
Think about it: Marx lost the opportunity to open up his efforts and concretize the indeterminacy in the capitalist dialectic, because he wanted to diagnose much more than any one indeterminacy. Isn't this a good thing? If he would have stayed at any one indeterminacy, we wouldn't have Capital at all. The task of the critic, for Marx, is to follow through all the mediations possible to expose their contradictions, never to just stop at any one and call it a day. In fact, it is to develop a similarity between all the contradictions--namely, that they must cover up a huge historical motor, class. Now, Marx did thoroughly outline a protocol for a socialism, and sketches of a communist state, but isn't the main deficiency in this precisely his inability to outline them within their relationship to a particular moment of indeterminacy within the capitalist dialectic? Because Capital is an elaboration of the theses on history and class struggle in the Communist Manifesto, and because the later writings on communism presuppose Capital, we never get a particular moment in Capital that could be grasped to stop the madness.
Or do we? In fact, don't we get almost all of them? Isn't this the wonderful force of Marx? That he gives us almost every contradiction in the basic movements of capital? By never elaborating any particular point at which we could grasp the force awaiting us in the indeterminacy, Marx gives us more and more points from which we could grasp it. By reinvesting the force he unleashes in discovering an indeterminacy back into the movement of his own critique, into his own movement along with the dialectic of capital, Marx prompts us at each moment to precisely elaborate what he is not elaborating. What he leaves behind, he leaves behind in order for us to pick up, in order for us to expose to a greater, fuller notion of indeterminacy. And this is what Derrida tries to do.
Here is the problem with this, however: this means that the communism and socialism Marx envisaged and sketched out must be seen as an inadequate sketch of a society open to the indeterminacy within the dialectic of capital. That is, they must be seen as "logocentric" in some way, insufficient to the task of a modern ethics. But in an age where people are contending that Marx isn't trying to be a utopian in his sketches of this communist and socialist society, that he grounds them precisely in the unfolding of capitalist dialectic, isn't that precisely what is already being said? When we stress that socialism, for example, is not a mythic space but the fulcrum or transition stage to a society with less (or no) class division or strife, that communism isn't a "natural" (in the sense that we elaborated above) space beyond the trade of goods and private property altogether, but in a specific sense, aren't we stressing that what Marx originally said with respect to this society was inadequate with respect to the conception of alterity and indeterminacy and freedom that it addressed? That it should have addressed them better? Yes. This is indeed what we are saying, precisely when we begin a sentence with "Marx didn't mean that, he meant..." We are trying to reread the original statement of Marx precisely because it is insufficient in a way that provokes us to action--in other words, we rediscover its prescriptive force.
I suggest that this is the spirit that we take the critique in Specters of Marx (and words like "logocentric") with regard to Marx's insufficient conception of alterity, etc.: not that Marx forgot something and was thereby complicit in some huge metaphysical conspiracy against a new postmodern postmetaphysical "correct" ethics and thus was just flat out wrong, but that the original text of Marx in its original prescriptive force precisely calls us back to what it prescribes to flush it out for ourselves with regard to alterity and indeterminacy. In other words, the uniqueness of Marx is in his call for a better conception of alterity in relation to the dialectic of capital precisely in his descriptions of socialism and communism: communism and socialism are precisely the working out of this alterity within a society that is capitalist. In classic Hegelian fashion, once we take upon ourselves the burden of this working out, and take it upon us genuinely, we already will have the society he describes. To put it in one final, extremely risky formulation: communism and especially socialism name this indeterminacy and alterity in the heart of capitalist dialectic. Marx formulates socialism and communism in such a way that to realize it is to complete his critique in Capital, not in such a way that with his critique in hand we can go about applying it in order to realize a socialism. This is what is going on in Venezuela, and this is why it is not socialism or Marxism in general.
Because these are the stakes, I'm risking a misreading of Marx and of Derrida here, a twisting of words, a granting importance to certain things (Capital, the elaboration of a Derridian ethics) at the expense of others (The Communist Manifesto, and the critique of logocentrism). This, however is due to a lack of time and space here: it can absolutely be shown that the misreading here is an actual reading, that the things I grant importance to are necessitated by the less important (I try to do this a little at the end here). I'll refer you with regard to Derrida to his statements regarding use value and its non-existence: all this is really what he is getting at when he says that use value cannot exist without exchange value. In the end, though, if communism and socialism name the alterity already in the moments of indeterminacy of the dialectic, and are the call for a working it out to infinite proportions, they can too easily be said to just be nothing in themselves, no actual positive theory of the state. (Worse perhaps, is that this view can lead to a standpoint where the critique of capitalism like that in Capital can be confused with its downfall--this too is happening in Venezuela. These are the Scylla and Charybdis of Marxism since its inception, of course: practice without theory, theory without practice.) I don't think this is the case, though Marxists everywhere, if they are willing to concede the first thesis and say that Marx isn't naming a "natural" utopian society without property etc. etc., will have to engage this possibility and differentiate themselves from its position somehow. The failure to do this adequately is perhaps what is missing in trying to elaborate a more modern form of Marxism: we can easily admit the first thesis but cannot adequately show what that entails at its most extreme. Thus we are not ready to engage the second thesis, and it seems bitter and too critical of the efforts of Marx to us. Posted by Mike at 4:24 PM What is written about: , , , 2 comments:
Matthew said... Wow--that's provocative. I'm going to have to talk to you about this further--it turns Marx into a sort of Derridean materialist, which I think is interesting. I'm clearly going to have to read Specters of Marx. Also, I revisited your Racism's Last Word post--I'm beginning to come up with an argument for my Vance paper.. -m December 8, 2007 7:24 PM
Mike said... The real trick (which I didn't bring out here) is to see that Marx is someone who gets turned into a Derridian, but that anyone who achieves a critique of Hegel to the extent that Marx did must end up with a position that is extremely close to Derrida's. And actually, it is Derrida who shows us this is the case. Any time you step away from dialectic and try to arrest it in indeterminacy, you open yourself to a possibility of relating yourself (the dialectical subject) to absolute indeterminacy, infinite alterity. This isn't so much a handy thing as a metaphysical law which undoes metaphysics--the logic (or "logic") of the trace, of differance. The move away from dialectic within the dialectic is precisely the attempt to comprehend the trace, the incomprehensible incomprehensible (the supplementarity of this formula, its tautological and repetitive character, attempts to mark it). December 8, 2007 8:20 PM Post a Comment Older Post Home

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