Fetishizing subject in Marx’s Capital, The

fetishizing subject in Marx’s Capital, The

Knafo, Samuel

`It is fair to say that the duality of worker as “object of capital” and as “living creative subject” has never been adequately resolved in Marxist Theory.’ (Harvey, 1982: 114)

Capital has always occupied a special place amongst Marx’s works. Praised by many as his ultimate achievement, it has also been the object of criticism by many historically-minded Marxists for falling `into the theoretical whirlpool’ of Political Economy in presenting a reified and ahistorical conception of capitalism (E.P. Thompson, 1995; Negri, 1979). The ambivalence towards Capital reflects in part the difficulty of articulating Marx’s historicist sensitivity and his analysis of the law of value. The former can be found in his historical works starting in the late 1840s, where class struggle is identified as the driving force of history (Communist Manifesto, the 18th Brumaire, or the Civil War in France); whereas the latter is often associated with Capital and seen as an analysis of the general or inherent laws of capitalist development. This difficulty has left many Marxists defending the analysis of the inherent logic of capitalism, while clinging to class struggle as the driving force of history. But their inability to clearly articulate both has vindicated criticism concerning the deterministic tone of Capital and its reductionistic treatment of subjectivity (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Castoriadis, 1976).2

To avoid falling into the trap of determinism, Marxist economists have insisted that Capital only presents the general nature of capitalist development, which must be substantiated with historical material. This tendency to formalize the distinction between objective and subjective features of capitalism has resulted in the increasing separation of the logic of capital, as depicted in Capital, from history.3 Such a solution, however, is far from satisfactory and remains viable only as long as the concrete historical analysis is postponed. Ultimately, either class struggle determines history, and there can be no space for an inherent logic of capitalism,4 or it is the logic of capitalism that plays the active role in structuring society, leaving class struggle with a limited influence in a process already given by the structuration of capital (Gunn, 1992).

By contrast, it is argued here that Capital cannot be reconciled with Marx’s historicist preoccupations if the issue of the subject is not directly addressed. Once the primary focus is placed upon structures or laws, it becomes impossible to explain how subjects can instantiate and act according to a previously defined objective dynamic. Hegel’s dialectic offers a solution to this problem because it rejects the subject/ object dichotomy. For Hegel, subjectivity constitutes the starting point of any understanding of objective forms. More precisely, objectivity is the form taken by subjectivity; the form through which subjectivity is projected onto the world; how it relates to the world. Such a romantic notion of the subject is very close to Marx’s conception of labour. In Marx’s work, labour represents an open, creative and subjective force; the process by which people relate to nature and give form and meaning to it. The purpose is to discern how subjective expression comes to be historically channelled into constraining forms such as wage labour. Hence, labour represents more than simply workers in factories. It concerns, more broadly, the social forms that constrain the capacity of individuals to express their subjectivity and the ways in which these forms are invested and reshaped by social struggles around power.

The aim of Capital, I argue, is to uncover the process of objectification of subjectivity, not the logic of motion of objects (i.e. capital). It sets out to examine the process by which subjectivity acquires form (e.g. how becoming a worker qualifies our experience of the world and the way in which we act upon it), instead of a process by which the subject is reduced to a form (e.g. how being a worker determines how we will act in the world). Capital is fundamentally about the nature of agency in capitalism, the specific form that subjectivity takes in capitalism, which in turn conditions the nature of social interaction, and thus class struggle.

This argument is set out in three sections. First, I discuss the limits to economic conceptions of Capital that view Marx’s work as one concerning the logic and circulation of value. By economic conceptions, I mean those approaches that attempt to uncover causal relations regarding the production and formation of value at the abstract level of theory. Such approaches, I argue, cannot articulate their own economic theory with history, and necessarily share a reductionist conception of agency. In the second section, I present the dialectic as a means to problematize subjectivity. This leads to a re-examination of the appropriation of Hegel’s dialectic by Marx. The third section lays out a conception of value as a structure of signification that organizes the way we rationalize capitalism. Fetishism is integral to the working of this structure of signification because it shapes consciousness in specific ways. It explains how value appears as a thing, a product of labour, when it is only the form of appearance of a social rationality that is structured by production. This leads to the conclusion that the law of value is not the result of class struggle (i.e. a product of alienated labour), but the expression of class struggle (the form in which it appears).

The economic perspective of Capital and its contradictions

The passage on fetishism in Marx’s Capital is one of the most debated amongst Marxists and their critics. Its importance lies in its explicit treatment of the nature of subjectivity in capitalism and the role of agency within what many call the logic of capital. For Marxist economic theorists, this passage has often served to anchor their attempts to uncover the structural tendencies of the circulation of value inherent in capitalism. This is because `objective processes’ that are determined prior to concrete and historical actions of subjects raise the problem of their own enactment. How can subjects instantiate a logic which transcends them? This definition of a logic, created prior to what people do in history, generates a problematic trade-off since theory is ,explanatory’ only to the extent that people do not alter substantially what was defined abstractly. In other words, the theory has explanatory powers only if it considers subjects to be reified by the logic of capital. The less subjective factors interfere with the logic, the purer is its unfolding. Fetishism constitutes a useful link to justify a Marxist economic discourse about the world. It is said to reflect the fact that capitalist structures tend to reduce people to interact ‘rationally’ and ‘instrumentally’ according to this logic. Fetishism, as the internalization of the logic of capital, becomes a convenient way to equate subjects with objects and enables us to move further in the study of the inherent laws of capital.

However, once this move is made, it becomes impossible to bring back the subject. Marxist economists might argue that the logic of capital is only partially instantiated, because people are only partially constrained by economic imperatives. But without concretely defining what it means to be partially determined by the logic of capital, any theory of the logic of capital will stand only as long as subjectivity is excluded. Of course, `in the last instance’, when we come back to history, subjectivity is supposed to re-enter the picture. But when a second narrative is introduced to account for subjective factors, the problem initially excluded resurfaces: how does human subjectivity relate to the logic of capitalism? Considered from the start as two different perspectives, there is simply no way to articulate one with the other. In the end, this double narrative leaves subjective and objective factors side by side by qualifying the analysis with levels of analysis, or by distinguishing between inherent tendencies or the pure logic of capital and historical capitalist forms. This defensive formalism only holds as long as the historical work is postponed.

The separation of theory and history places Marxist economists in an awkward position when they wish to address historical developments, such as changes in social structures or specific developments in different capitalist societies. In order to use the logic of capital to explain history, Marxist economists must accomplish a quantum leap between theory and history.They must assume some kind of analogy between the pure logic of capital and history in order to make possible the analysis of history from the viewpoint of theory. Theory is said to grasp the principal causal dynamics that structure history, to uncover the tendencies buried under the complexity of history. Never, however, can there be any real articulation within history of the mechanisms laid out in theory. This produces both a deterministic conception of capitalism and a voluntaristic view of social change. Deterministic, because our understanding of capitalist history is provided by the relations that are drawn from an abstract logic defined outside of history, which is only later somewhat ‘adjusted’ according to class struggles. Class struggle is given only a marginal role in history that is defined by the extent to which it resists the capitalist process of structuration that is defined, in itself, a priori of the actions of subjects. This view is also voluntaristic since it considers change as a move out of the dynamic of capitalist structures. Agency, then, is thought in terms of the capacity to escape historical structures in order to act outside of them. Its constitutive power can never be thought of in historical terms because it presupposes moving out of the structures that define an historical condition. It is impossible then to have a theory of the subject, because subjectivity is defined precisely by the fact that it escapes the grasp of theory.

The dialectical structure of necessity in Hegel and Marx

The concept of commodity fetishism can suggest an oversimplified solution to the subject/object dualism. Many Marxists now recognize that appearance is not simply a veil that mystifies people, making them unaware of the true nature of their social relations (Rubin, 1972; Geras, 1972; Dunayeskaya, 1975). Rather, the logic of capital exists precisely because relations between people really do take the form of relations between things. Fetishism points to the fact that objective laws exist only because they are rooted in subjective experiences that are constitutive of these laws.

But this explanation is not sufficient to escape the problem of the relationship between subject and object, nor is the idea that both are mutually constitutive. What is required is an understanding of how it is possible to speak of the world without reproducing this dualism. Hume offers a version of this problem in his critique of induction where he challenges the possibility of grasping necessity itself. For Hume, there are no sufficient instances of an event that ensure its future occurrence. Thus we cannot draw necessary causal laws from our experience or from history. Similarly, Kant considers the problem of how rationality rooted in subjective experience can relate to the world.5 For him, the issue is more complex than simply acknowledging the subjective roots of experience. Rather, it consists in specifying how subjectivity, often associated with freedom and arbitrariness, can serve as a foundation for understanding objectivity and necessity.

In this debate, Hegel’s originality lies in his rejection of the traditional conception of necessity. Both Hume and Kant rightly stress the difficulty in identifying a source from which to derive causal necessity. The problem is intractable as long as we maintain a conception of necessity that is rooted in terms of causality. To circumvent this difficulty, Hegel reformulates the problem of necessity as pertaining to the structuration of consciousness. For him, necessity lies in the way in which we invest the world with meaning.

The Hegelian dialectic

Hegel’s dialectic constitutes an attempt to historicize consciousness. His project has often been readily dismissed as idealist, leading Marxists to generally misunderstand the significance of Capital. According to the orthodox interpretation, Hegel took the wrong object as the starting point of his dialectics. His focus on the Spirit would be responsible for seeing the subject as the creator of the world. By contrast, Marx and the materialist tradition would assert that subjectivity reflects the material conditions in which subjects live. This inversion would imply that the Marxist dialectic moves away from the proposition that objects are reflections of subjectivity, instead contending that subjects are reflections of objective relations.’ This, of course, makes it hard to escape the conclusion that subjects are completely determined by objects, or more specifically, by the logic of capital.

Since the early and problematic conceptions of authors such as Engels, Lenin or Plekhanov (see Colletti, 1975), the theme of Marx’s inversion of the Hegelian dialectic has undergone important developments. However, the fundamental flaw of these early views continues to persist in contemporary Marxist accounts of the dialectic, albeit in a more subtle way. The source of the misunderstanding lies in the idea that the Hegelian dialectic constitutes a method that can be applied to a different object than consciousness. For most Marxists, the dialectic constitutes a method to uncover the internal contradictions explaining the movement of self-expansion of a system. According to this view, the difference between Marx and Hegel would only be one of object, not of epistemology. Whereas Hegel uses the dialectic to trace the development of the Geist, Marx would apply it to the development of Capital (Murray, 1993; Smith, 1993; Reuten, 1993). The problem is that this assertion rests on a reductionist and formalistic view of the dialectic. It assumes that Marx reappropriated the dialectic as a formal logic that could be dissociated from the purpose behind its design. Without accounting for the reasons the dialectic could deploy its features, these Marxists are not only incapable of justifying the use of the dialectic,7 but miss its crucial significance.’ The dialectic is not a method applied to subjectivity by Hegel; it is the nature itself of subjectivity. Hence, the method cannot be disentangled from its object (i.e. subjectivity) because the purpose of the dialectic is precisely to see them as one and the same.

By contrast to this perspective, Hegelian scholars often point out that the originality of Hegel’s dialectic lies in the fact that it is not a method in a traditional sense, but represents the structure of consciousness itself (Stewart, 1998; Taylor, 1975; Kojeve, 1947). Its purpose can only be descriptive, not deductive. Whereas Plato views the dialectic as a method that allows to grasp the essence behind appearances, Hegel insists that the structure of consciousness cannot be uncovered by moving beyond the appearances that constitute the experience of subjects. There is nothing behind appearances. Essence lies only in the way in which appearances relate to one another (Fraser, 1997). Through these relations, appearances take on a different meaning as our knowledge of them is mediated by our understanding of other experiences:

‘Hegel’s method is radically undialectical. It is the experience of consciousness itself which is dialectical and Hegel’s Phenomenology is a viable philosophical enterprise precisely to the extent that it merely describes this dialectical method […].’

`The intelligibility of the entire phenomenology hinges upon a firm grasp of what phenomenal experience,

knowing as it appears, consists in. In the first place, phenomenal experience is more restrictive than other philosophical experience because experience, to be described as a phenomenon, must appear. Thus mere intentions, capacities, dispositions, meanings, and so forth, do not, as such, constitute experience. […] For Hegel, on the contrary, genuine experience is a self revealing process and philosophy is conceived as a description of this process, not as a systematic analysis of a presumed relationship between meanings and assertions. Experience is constituted by an act: something which is actually said or done. Experience is therefore revealed in language and work and what is revealed can be described! (Dove, 1998: 57-58)

Instead of deducing the nature of the world out there, the Hegelian dialectic aims to specify the nature of our own experience. More specifically, it represents the mode through which we invest meaning in the world, the way we relate to it. A central premise here is that one cannot understand objects without problematizing the subject that relates to them. The meaning of things lies in the process itself through which we invest meaning. The dialectic is thus a means to problematize the object from the position of the subject. It posits that our knowledge of both is always socially and historically situated. It must be clear then that reality, or more specifically capitalism, does not in itself follow a dialectical dynamic. This starkly contrasts the prevailing view amongst Marxists that the dialectic constitutes a non-linear mode of thinking, enabling us to grasp the interconnectedness between causes and effect in the world itself (Carchedi, iggi) Rather, the use of the dialectic is justified because it represents the way by which we rationalize the world.

The originality of such an approach to subjectivity tends to bewilder readers. Whereas traditional thinkers explore subjectivity by trying to recreate the process of thinking, Hegel looks at subjectivity in the way it projects and inscribes itself in the world. Hence, Hegel speaks about subjectivity when he describes objects and facts. In the same way, Marx traces in Capital the social rationality of capitalism, thus qualifying our understanding of it. If Marxists generally miss the subjective dimension of Marx’s argument, it is partially because this social rationality is grasped through its manifestations, and not through the intentions of subjects.

These preliminary remarks help us look more directly at the dialectic itself. The heart of the dialectic lies in Hegel’s theory of alienation. For Hegel, alienation consists of the tension between experience and our ability to rationalize it, in order to render it meaningful (Hegel, 1977). This tension manifests itself in the form of contradictory experiences. Contradictions are subjective symptoms that question or challenge subjects and direct their consciousness towards the sources of their alienation. However, in their attempts to render their reflexive understanding adequate to their experience, alienated subjects tend to approach contradictions as if they existed in the world itself. They do not realize that contradictions do not exist in the world but only in the way subjects invest the world with meaning.’ Hence, people look for something in the world that can account for the contradictions they perceive. Resorting to external forces (gods, myths, laws, human nature, etc.) becomes an easy way to explain, but also justify and naturalize, the tension that people experience. This, however, only creates further contradictions as subjects mystify the significance of their contradictory experiences.

To clarify this, we can imagine in our life having only seen the colour white. If this was the case, it would not only be impossible to describe what `seeing white’ as an experience is, but also of even realizing that there is something that could be seen as ‘white’. ‘White’ could not be differentiated until it would be contrasted by another colour such as black. For Hegel, negation is central to the process of rationalization because things do not have meaning in themselves. Their properties do not exist apart from the way they relate to each other. Investing meaning requires us to distinguish things or categories. This cannot be done by comparing different properties on their own terms. For example, white cannot be compared as the quality of white in itself to black as the quality of black in itself. The only way to relate two objects in order to distinguish them is through a negation (e.g. white as the category of white is not black).” Negation is the only way to perceive and posit difference.

However, if negation is the precondition for meaning to exist, the process also produces the impression that what we observe can be isolated from its context. The contradiction creates the impression that white really exists in and of itself. Only with a second process of articulation can we move beyond this direct appearance in order to mediate our understanding of it. This requires the realization that the negation by the second term represents, in fact, a defining feature of the first (e.g. the black we see qualifies our experience of the white) (Hegel, 1977).” Here, the appearance of a contradiction, or a negation, is the basis for signification to emerge. This leads us to a synthesis, but not in terms of an absorption or subsumption of different principles or categories within a more encompassing one. Rather, it is the realization that both can only be two sides of the same process of rationalizing the world. This helps specify our knowledge by shifting the problem to a third term that makes the first two more specific (e.g. the notion of colour as something that specifies the fact of seeing white). But this third term only helps us to further specify our starting point, not transcend it.

This leads Hegel to a radically new conception of necessity, no longer found in causal relations, but in the way these relations appear to us (Hegel: 1969). Objects are never independent from us. They only represent the form of our projected subjectivity.12 If we often feel compelled to act in certain ways, it is because our imagination is trapped in alienating ways of rationalizing the world: ways that paralyse us into thinking that we are victims of events beyond our control. Alienation leads us to vest the responsibility of our lives in external forces. Expanding on this understanding of alienation, we can say that constraints are created by the fact that our practices must be meaningful for others. The problem is that people tend to believe they must follow specific practices, as though social recognition depended upon these practices themselves. Hence, necessity is simply the misrecognition that the constraints we face depend upon the way people socially recognize practices as meaningful, and not in any obligation to follow a specific practice. There are infinite ways of being meaningful, yet people still revert overtly to the specific practices they have learned. Hence, social imperatives are experienced as the causes of what we do, when they are only pressures to meet certain conditions (i.e. remain competitive, pay for subsistence). They do not determine how we will meet them.

People miss the full significance of this move when they simply claim that necessity and agency are two sides of the same process, or that laws perpetuate themselves because people are not conscious of their own agency. Hegel’s dialectic shows that, although we render the world meaningful to us, the world, as the colour white, is never grasped in itself.13 If we perpetually try to make sense of our experience, it is because something always escapes our understanding of it. The world never presents itself in a positive form, but only in the form of negations that are not meaningful in and of themselves. They become meaningful only when we invest them subjectively with meaning.

For Hegel, subjects and objects can be intertwined only because the objective is the constructed dimension of subjectivity. They are not the mutual product of one another. The world is not a collection of objects, nor is the world the realm of the objective; one that presents itself in the form of objects (even if we say that this is only so because of our subjectivity). Objects, rather, constitute meaningful constructs, means by which we specify the nature of our experience of the world and render meaningful the negations we perceive. Hence, subjects and objects can be interrelated because they both relate to subjectivity, to our experience and understanding of the world. But the world as such always escapes our subjectivity and it is the experience of this distance that is constitutive of subjectivity.

For agency and necessity to co-exist, necessity must already be a moment of agency, one by which subjects project meaning in the world. This inverts the traditional terms of the structure/agency debate where the problem revolves around defining the liberty that agents have within structural constraints. This, it has been argued, can only lead to a dualistic perspective because both are defined in opposition to one another. Cleverly, Hegel turns the problem around to examine how objective necessity is constructed as a subjective experience. Many appraise this in idealist terms, but only because they misunderstand that necessity pertains to the meaning of experience, not the world itself.

The dialectic is a practice of freedom striving to overcome alienation. It constitutes the form through which we delve into the structure of our subjectivity by specifying the nature of our experience of objects. Freedom depends on the capacity to account for experience without depending on exterior forces to explain or appease the tension we endure, It represents the capacity of subjects to position themselves in a way that allows them to be responsible for themselves. This depends on people gaining greater awareness of the significance and implications of their actions. By describing experience rigorously and systematically, the dialectic allows to rationalize and understand the determinants of experience. The dialectic can thus only be descriptive since emancipation requires a reflexive knowledge that avoids any recourse to external forces.

The essence of contradiction lies in the way contradictions specify experience.” Hegel demonstrates that consciousness is both an historical and social form. First, consciousness is inherently structured by its historical trajectory. Since the features we identify depend on distinguishing different states, conditions or experiences, the knowledge of changes within a historical trajectory are means by which we can specify our experience. These changes are constitutive of forms of consciousness. They help to distinguish the relative nature of things by using different individual or social experiences in order to grasp the necessity contained in the way they appear to us. This allows the dialectic to problematize objective forms that people construct as natural and necessary. Secondly, consciousness is social, because the significance of individual experience always goes beyond what the individual consciously perceives. Alienated subjects cannot directly perceive how they participate in a wider process of structuration of meaning. Hence, by articulating different dimensions of experience, the dialectic traces the context that frames a social rationality and how people participate in it.

Marx’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic

This examination of the dialectic offers hints at understanding the real significance of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. It should be clear by now that the dialectic cannot serve as a means to ‘uncover’ the pure nature of capitalism, but can only serve to socially and historically specify the meaning of capitalist experiences. For Marx, the dialectic represents a means to move beyond the apories of political economy by providing the means to historicize problems raised by political economists and recast them in terms of alienation, not in terms of exploitation, as it is often done.

What about Marx’s criticism of the dialectic? The problem for Marx does not lie in Hegel’s inversion of subjects and objects, but in the fact that Hegel’s conception of consciousness is not specific enough. In Hegel, alienation is a necessary step in the process by which subjects acquire self-consciousness. Hegel’s purpose is to explain the advent of consciousness itself. He locates the source of alienation simply in the incapacity of subjects to understand the form of their experience as a historical and social creation. Even if the emergence of consciousness in Hegel is seen as a social process (i.e. it is pursued socially, not just individually), objective forms are experienced only as natural limits that confront subjects. There is nothing that bars the subject from finally arriving at this understanding once it has gone through its dialectical development. By contrast, Marx insists that limits are social experiences. Alienation is not only linked to our incapacity to understand the process by which we rationalize the world, but to the fact that the projection of subjectivity in the world is intrinsically tied to the structuration of power.” Consciousness is always shaped by the social relations through which it emerges. Since social relations structure forms of power, necessity appears as a constraint imposed by society. Alienation results from the tension between social imperatives and individual desires. It refers not only to the fact that our subjectivity is trapped in objective forms independent from us, but more specifically, that subjectivity is constrained by objective forms which seem to be imposed on us by others. Hence, subjectivity itself is experienced as a contested terrain framed by social relations. This leads Marx to focus on the problematic of class consciousness in order to enquire into the ways people conceive of power in a given society.

Social relations are not the ‘infrastructure’ reflected in consciousness, but rather constitute the mediating relations through which consciousness emerges. This is why Marx refuses to start from the empty category of being, instead opting for the socially specific form of consciousness in capital: the commodity and its value. This point is often misunderstood by Hegelian Marxists who stick to the formal features of the dialectic. It is common, for example, to see scholars argue that Marx starts from the category of value because it is the most undefined category (Reuten, 1993; Sekine, 1984; Arthur, 1993). But this view is profoundly ahistorical. The starting category cannot be pure, such as Being in Hegel’s logic; it can only be already historically situated. The fact that it is undetermined has nothing to do with a particular inherent feature of a category such as value. It is only so because the dialectic starts from something that has not yet been specified.

Value and the form of capitalist rationality

In contrast to an economic perspective that starts from an abstract and seemingly objective logic in order to examine how it is played out in history, I have defended an historicist perspective which seeks to understand how subjectivity projects itself and creates objective forms in the process. Social and objective forms do not determine how subjects act, but instead qualify their actions. In other words, it is not that objective forms determine the choices people make, but they do structure the meaning people impart upon their experience of social relations. Here, the conception of structures (or, more adequately, forms) shifts from a causal perspective that emphasizes the role of structures in producing certain effects, to a perspective that sees structures as mediating forms in social relations, which make agency appear in specific ways. If, to paraphrase Marx, people make their own history but not under the condition of their own making, it is because the social meaning of their decisions always partially escapes consciousness and have unintended consequences. 16 Where an economic understanding of the development of capitalism focuses on an abstract and general logic, the historicist claims that our comprehension of social developments can only be historical in its form. It can only specify what has already occurred; specify how what people do is meaningful in their specific society.

Marx opens Capital with the commodity, because commodities are the objects that mediate capitalist social relations. The commodity represents the category that grounds the way in which people rationalize their experience in capitalism. Hence, the meaning we invest in the world is structured by the way we value commodities. This explains why Marxists see the source of necessity in capitalism in the process of valuation.

Marxist economists take necessity to be a fundamental tendency of capitalism that takes the form of the logic of value. This tendency they claim, is compatible with the view that agents make their own history. One corollary of this position, which is of particular interest here, is the idea that value possesses both an objective and subjective dimension. On the one hand, value is presented as the product of labour. This firmly grounds necessity in capitalism in the process of production. On the other hand, value is also presented as the form of appearance of the product of labour. This qualifies the decisions people make and shapes how a society recognizes something as valuable. The result is that the form of appearance (i.e. value) seems to explain the nature of social recognition and how this recognition structures the objective process of accumulation whose essence lies in the production process. Yet it is never clear how value can be produced and be at the same time recognized socially.17

It would be possible to imagine a society in which people have the desire and the proper information on labour processes to evaluate commodities according to labour time. But nothing in capitalism accounts for how people could consciously validate commodities in terms of labour. In the absence of any instance or institution that ensures that value reflects necessary labour time, the production of value by labour cannot be assumed to be the basis of social recognition. To claim otherwise is to ignore the reality of fetishism.

The logic of value can only constitute a necessity in the sense in which Hegel presents necessity. In other words, the logic of value is not a causal dynamic, but constitutes a means to specify the form of agency in capitalism, how it appears to people. The form of social recognition in capitalism thus qualifies the process of socialization in distinctive ways. To grasp this, we need to understand how labour comes to be evaluated in abstract terms.

Fetishism and the social recognition of value

Marx’s discussion of fetishism aims to clarify the conditions that qualify this recognition. The general mistake of orthodox readings of fetishism is that they conceive of fetishism as the reduction of subjects into objects. Fetishism becomes, then, the way to close the issue of subjectivity when it serves, in fact, as a starting point to pose the problem.” But fetishism can also be understood as the inversion by which people attribute a force to things, as though these things acted according to their own will. Fetishism constitutes an alienated means for people to rationalize their experience.19 The characteristic of fetishism is not the reification of people, but the alienated nature of their experience.20 In Marxist terms, fetishism relates to the way different classes rationalize their place in capitalism and think about how their power is structured.

We can thus distinguish two moments, or features, of fetishism in capitalism.21 First, fetishism refers to the inability of people to grasp the social significance of their actions in the market. This implies that people do not recognize value as an expression of something such as labour. But how do people organize their exchanges according to value when they do not understand what it expresses? As Marx says `value […] does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic.’ (iggo: 167) This is not, as Elson contends, simply because we do not hold the appropriate information about the labour process that produced a commodity (x987), but more fundamentally because the signification of what we do depends on what all other participants will do (McNally 1993). The result is that social value might appear to be something autonomous, existing and acting on its own and apart from the will of any particular agent. But a market is still simply the reflection of the acts of all its participants, not something that acts by itself. We only experience it as an external force imposing upon us the conditions through which we interact with others.

Secondly, the opacity of the commodity shapes the ability of people to make sense of a system they can never fully grasp, and in which they can never directly know the actual consequences of their actions. This condition leads people to make sense of their experience through formal abstractions, seeking in the recurrence of social patterns the causal laws that govern their existence (Clarke, iggi). Such abstractions are not false in themselves because they rest on observations of social dynamics. But the incapacity to specify the historical and social determinants that underpin these observations induces people to emphasize the wrong issues. By trying to deduce laws from their direct observations, people tend to lend an autonomy to phenomena they observe when, in fact, these phenomena are only the manifestations of social struggles. In attempting to rationalize this experience, the tendency is to explain the process by focusing on the mediator, in this case the commodity and money.

Value as a structure of signification

The fetishized form of value rests on the belief that value has positive content, which lies behind its expression in a price. Marxists widely recognize that there are no intrinsic properties in things, or in their use value, which can account for the quantitative form that value takes.22 This generally serves to ground a theory in exchange value by rejecting use value. But exchange value cannot reflect a quantitative property embedded in a commodity. In searching for this positive content behind prices, we are necessarily led to essentialise and locate value as a product that lies beyond people’s agency and precedes social validation. The process of valuation, however, is not the validation or the realization of a value already given. It shapes the content itself that it evaluates. Because value structures the form of meaning we ascribe to our social relations, value must be problematized as a structure of signification. It is a structure that makes social actions meaningful to others in particular ways.

As any structure of signification, valuation depends on a process of differentiation instead of on a process of production. Value is not something contained within an object (i.e. embodied labour) but a meaning. It represents a means of making sense of commodities by comparing them to others.23 To say that value is subjective does not mean that it is arbitrary, but simply that it expresses differences among commodities, and not an intrinsic and positive content such as dead labour. Although Marx does not have a concept equivalent to structures of signification at his disposal, his depiction of the forms of value in the first chapter of Capital clearly suggests such an understanding.24 There, he argues that value does not have any significance in absolute terms (i.e. a positive content), but only in relative terms, in the kind of relation it establishes. By presenting value in differential terms rather than positive ones (Spivak, 1996), the point is to show how subjective decisions, based on different motives, can express themselves in quantified and homogenous terms. Indeed, if abstract labour cannot be the expression of a single feature abstracted from the concrete (i.e. labour time), it must be clarified how concrete qualitative features come to take a quantitative meaning.

Marx’s analysis of the accidental or simple form of value shows that value rests ultimately on qualitative and subjective foundations. Indeed, the equation ‘x commodity A = y commodity B’ reveals value only as expressed through the use value of another commodity. In other words, the value of 2o yards of linen or i coat cannot be dissociated from their use value.

The first peculiarity which strikes us when we reflect on the equivalent form is this, that use-value becomes the form of appearance of its opposite, value. The natural form of the commodity becomes its value-form. But note well, this substitution only occurs in the case of a commodity B (coat, or maize, or iron, etc.) when some other commodity A (linen, etc.) enters into a value-relation with it, and then only within the limits of this relation. (Marx, 1976: 148)

The two poles of the accidental form cannot be reversed. The equation does not imply that 20 yards of linen are equal to one coat in a purely mathematical sense, but that 20 yards of linen have for value one coat. The `one coat’ is here a signified, the expression of value, and thus cannot be at the same time an object that both possesses value and represents value. It can only be one or the other. Because exchange value can only express itself in the form of use value, there cannot be a fundamental difference between use value and exchange value from the standpoint of the commodity alone. What gives exchange value its quantitative and rigid aspect is not in itself the fact that it is a quantitative expression abstracted from its concrete and qualitative dimension, but that it is a social and mediated expression of use value. This is why use value is never divorced from the process of socialization in capitalism; it remains central, but in a mediated form.21 Exchange value is the form through which use value expresses itself through the process of capitalist socialization.

Value loses its subjective appearance with the extended form. This second form of value is basically the equivalent of a signifying chain in semiotics. The linear articulation of relations between commodities (x commodity A = y commodity B = z commodity C = …. etc.) gives exchange value the appearance of autonomy from the previously indistinguishable use value. Here the signifier takes place in an endless series where signifiers refer to a signified that itself becomes a signifier of another signified (e.g. the value of 20 yards of linen is worth one coat, which is itself worth 5 loaves of bread, which are worth something else, etc.). Here, the expression of value loses its arbitrariness because, ironically, we never reach a foundational expression of value. Value imposes itself because it is not contained in an individual object of exchange, and because individuals experience value as a phenomenon that transcends their individual acts of exchange.

If the articulation of a commodity within a chain of commodities can help to generalize, or socialize, the signification of the arbitrary relation we have examined in the first form, it does not, however, produce a quantified expression of value. The specific quantitative form of value comes from the use of a general equivalent. This third form, or the general form, can be characterized by the fact that it sets all commodities against a single one, in order to express their value in a common term:

Value now crystallizes around a universal expression given by a single commodity. This stabilizes value because commodities now share a common term that shapes the way we value these commodities. The peculiarity of this structure is that our judgements are now shaped by the fact that things are set on the same qualitative ground (i.e. the use value of the general equivalent). Value as a structure of signification thus radically changes the way we compare things by making commodities commensurable, despite their qualitative differences.

In this process, money plays a crucial role and constitutes the final form of value that Marx introduces. Money makes value appear distinct from the concrete commodities that are exchanged. In the general form, there is always a tension between the use value and the exchange value of the general equivalent that threatens to destabilise the expression of value. Money solves this problem because its use value lies in its capacity to be exchanged against any commodity.26 Because value is the only raison d’etre of money, money seems to have an intrinsic bond to value (Goux: 1990).

The analysis of the forms of value allows us to shift the nature of necessity as we experience it in capitalism. Marx demonstrates that value has no reality in itself, no intrinsic or natural referent. For Marx, value is a structure of signification that expresses something else. But if value does not determine meaning, it qualifies the way things come to have meaning in a society. The secret lies precisely in the fact that value relates to something qualitative, to social characteristics that are mediated and expressed through a quantitative form of expression. Value is a quantified expression of use value, and acquires this feature through a certain process of socialization. It emerges because it is embodied in a single commodity that crystallizes the relations among all commodities into its own being. Money further creates the illusion that value is cut off from any concrete use value. This leads to the conclusion that value is not a means to reduce the complexity of society to a quantified and objective logic, but shows how this complexity comes to take a social meaning for people in quantitative terms. Value formation escapes the will of individuals, but not because it is structured by something else. Rather, it is because the social significance of individual choices always partially escapes individual consciousness.

Value and the labour process

In the first chapter of Capital Marx deconstructs the commodity. The first three sections of it demonstrate that value is not a positive feature, a property of commodities, but rather a social phenomenon structured by a dynamic of social relations. With fetishism, Marx pushes the arguments, stating that value is not an abstract law, but the result of our own actions. Finally, he shows that if value finds its roots in human actions, this does not rest on human nature. It is not an objective fact about how we relate when we exchange or when we interact in a market. Value is only the expression of our subjectivity, not subjectivity itself. If this expression is quantified it is because of the particular social form that this subjectivity must invest.

This achievement is a true tour de force for Marx. Instead of subsuming class struggle under the law of value, which is something Marx actually denounces in classical political economy (Clarke, iggi), he uses fetishism to ultimately reintroduce class struggle as the determinant of valuation. At this point, however, only the basis of the argument is set out (i.e. that value is a subjective category). To discuss how class struggle in capitalism is shaped by this experience of social relations would require an article in itself, but it is possible to introduce a few concluding remarks. The form of value is important because it structures certain kinds of imperatives on capitalist producers and workers. Because people choose certain commodities over others according to their price, it imposes a competitive imperative on producers to produce at low costs. However, if value relates commodities to one another in a certain way, the process of valuation does not explain in itself what it expresses. As Marx says, `the properties of a thing do not arise from its relations to other things, they are, on the contrary, merely activated by such relations’ (1976: 149).

The factors that define the valuation process depend upon the particular kinds of strategy dominant in capitalism to confront this imperative. The nature of the competition in capitalism implies that producers are led to focus on the organization of labour as the primary means to face such an imperative, both because other means are cut off by the market and because primitive accumulation has set out certain conditions of power which allow capitalists to reshape the labour process. This constant reorganization of the labour process specific to capitalism places labour at the centre of capitalist competition, and in this sense, labour constitutes the central determination of prices. However, this is not because of the cost of labour, or because labour has actually produced value, but because class struggle is at the heart of this process of restructuring. It determines the organization of the labour process and the extension of the working day. If labour does not produce value in itself, it conditions the capacity of capitalists to be more productive than others. In that sense, differential relations between commodities, which structure value, is defined in modern capitalism by class struggle and the resistance of labour.


This article has argued that fetishism should not be viewed as a condition that reduces people to bearers of the logic of capital, but rather one that concerns the value-form of class struggle. Fetishism is not the description of a condition resulting from Marx’s analysis, but a starting point that explains how people and classes make sense of the world around them, and rationalize their experience. In this sense, it qualifies, but does not determine, people’s behaviour.

Hegel’s dialectic represents the basic form of this rationality. By emphasizing that only negations can constitute the basis of a meaningful relation to the world, Hegel shows that our relation to the world can be completely constructed as a subjective experience and yet be founded on a real experience of the world. If this relation were conceived in positive terms (i.e. as the transmission through this experience of a positive knowledge of the world) subjectivity would then become the arbitrary meaning we add to objective knowledge, leading us again to a subject/ object dichotomy. But if our knowledge of the world is shaped uniquely by successive experiences of negations, to which we give meaning, then it is possible to understand how subjectivity can anchor a discourse about the world. Subjectivity constitutes the moment by which we try to render meaningful the negations, or non-sense, we face. This allows Hegel to show how people fully create the world by giving meaning to it, but not under the conditions of their own making, since the world always partially resists their creative attempt to render the world meaningful.

This dialectical reading of experience allows Marx to understand how rationality in capitalism is tied to the constitution of value. Indeed, once Marx demonstrates that exchange value does not have any positive foundations, he turns to their subjective roots. Value then stems from the fact that subjectivity is constrained to express itself through reified categories. The inability to understand what lies behind prices leads people to relate to commodities in terms of value and to rationalize their experience in quantitative terms. This makes it impossible for people to understand the social significance of their actions and creates unconsciously an imperative on producers to increase their relative productivity, instead of other forms of individual creativity. Producers must now structure the creativity of workers in narrow forms to remain competitive. The law of value is nothing else other than the expression of this class struggle. To subsume labour to the law of motion of capital is to fall in the same trap as political economy and build formal abstractions that invert the relationship between labour and capital. In giving the law of value a will of its own, we fetishize capitalism by misunderstanding how people are actually the movers of history.

This leads to the conclusion that Capital is very much a consecration of Marx’s historicist sensitivity: a historical work about capital as a social relation (i.e. class struggle) rather than an economic work about capital as a thing (i.e. the circuit of capital) (Bonefeld, 1995). If Marx introduces both, it is to explain class struggle through capital rather than the opposite. The structure of value is, both in its qualitative features and its magnitude, always historically specific. Hence, Capital cannot be read as the structure of capitalism itself from which we could interpret all its different variations in different periods and countries. It is a historical analysis of the way capitalism developed in England in the nineteenth century. If Marx still speaks to us, it is because he was able to specify some features of capitalism from his vantage point that are useful to specify the nature of other capitalist societies. But in the spirit of historicism, his insights should be used to problematize contemporary societies, but not to explain by themselves the dynamic of these societies.


1. I would like to thank Rob Albritton, Matina Karvellas, Andrew Kliman, Martijn Konings, David McNally, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments.

2. A particularly pervasive view is represented by Laclau and Mouffe’s conception: `In order that this general law of development of the productive forces may have full validity, it is necessary that all the elements intervening in the productive process be submitted to its determinations. To ensure this, Marxism had to resort to a fiction: it conceived of labour-power as a commodity. […] Labour power differs from the other necessary elements of production in that the capitalist must do more than simply purchase it; he must also make it produce labour. […] The evolution of productive forces becomes unintelligible if this need of the capitalist to exercise his domination at the very heart of the labour process is not understood! (1985: 78-79)

3. Althusser represents the classical example of such attempts to separate science from history. Given the difficulties of articulating both axioms, many Marxist economists have opted to exclude in one way or another subjective features from their reading of Capital in order to salvage their analysis of the logic of capital (Lebowitz, 1996; Sekine, 1984). For them, the exclusion of subjectivity becomes the means to preserve the idea of a general capitalist logic.

4. Some can argue that Capital only describes tendencies, but the important point is that there is no process of structuration that can be inherent to capitalism.

5. For Kant, necessity cannot be derived from the world, and thus must be radically dissociated from it.The foundations of necessity are to be found in its internal logical consistency.This leads Kant to

an abstract formalism. In a way reminiscent of Marxist economists, Kant completely separates experience and necessity. This allows him to ground necessity outside of experience. But only at the cost of recasting necessity as an imperative that is external to history.

6. In his `Postface to the Second Edition’ of Capital, Marx argues that `the mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. (1976: 103). Althusser had already noted that the allusion to the rational kernel hidden within the mystical shell implied that Marx could not be speaking of a simple inversion (1969). Still, Althusser, starting from the orthodox view on Hegel’s dialectic could not solve the problem of determinism that was associated with it.This reduced him to separate what the dialectic had shown to be inseparable (i.e. objective and subjective factors), leading him into all kinds of new contradictions that opened the way towards the dissolution of structural Marxism into Post Marxism.

Marx did not so much invert as radicalize Hegel’s dialectic. For Marx, the mystification does not lie in the emphasis on the subject, but in the fact that Hegel conceives the evolution of consciousness as something that is socially neutral. By contrast, Marx insists on the centrality of power and thus class struggle in the development of consciousness.

7. To solve this problem, some Hegelian Marxists argue that Hegel conveyed in his thoughts the experience of capitalism because he was living in a capitalist society. This allowed him to grasp the basic motion of capitalism. But, unfortunately, these authors argue (Reuten, 1993; Sekine, 1984; Arthur, 1993), Hegel applied his dialectic to the wrong object.This explanation is very problematic. First, many scholars question the fact that capitalism existed in Germany in the first decades of the 19th century (Wood, iggi; Mooers, iggi). One might wonder then if capitalism had evolved sufficiently, if at all, for Hegel to be able to grasp its logic of motion without even being aware of it. Some might argue that Hegel had read the political economists, notably Adam Smith, and could grasp capitalism through their writings.Yet, Hegel’s peculiar interpretation of the problems raised by political economy reflects the different social context that shaped his reading (see Kennedy, 2001). Hegel did not address these issues because they were characteristic of the time (i.e. because of capitalist developments), but because political economists, in addressing issues of capitalist development, provided

solutions for Hegel to completely different social problems. One of them was to think the Prussian state in terms of social necessity and freedom. For this, the notion of the division of labour proved quite useful to Hegel.

Secondly, if we neglect the first point, it remains to be shown in what way does the dialectic apply only to capitalism. How can it express the particular motion of capitalism?The crude idea here of the reflection in thought of the motion of capitalism brings us dangerously close to a deterministic conception of ideas as the reflection of the material basis.Thirdly, even if the dialectic reflected in thought the motion of capitalism, this would not justify in any sense how the formal features used by Hegelian Marxists explain. capitalism.To say that the dialectic reflects a purely capitalist way of thinking, does not justify why this way of thinking explains capitalism.

8. It is impossible, once we take capital or value as the subject of the dialectic, to explain how this subject can tell the history of its own demise. How can the dialectic show the historical specificity of a subject whose being is transcended by its own negation (labour)? By contrast, Hegel argues that the transformation of the subject is central to its own understanding because the subject uses negation as a means to specify the nature of its own being.

9. It is a curious turn of event that Hegel is now criticized for attempting to reconcile contradictions when this is the endeavour Hegel ascribes to alienated experience. This does not mean that there are no real contradictions, but that contradictions are subjective features.

10. The mediation `as the category white’ here is important because we are not comparing white itself but only white as the category of white that we are constructing by comparing it to black.

11. As we mediate our experience of seeing white by comparing it to other colours, we can attribute properties to white (i.e. luminosity, peacefulness, neutrality, etc.) that help specifying our experience of seeing white. But we still do not know white in itself, only how it differs from other colours.

12. Hegel correctly points out that we never understand the world in itself, because there is no meaning that is inscribed in the world. Still a discourse about the world is possible, not because there is a world out there that contains its own meaning, but because our discourse is related to our experience of the world, not the world itself (Hegel, 1977). Objects are subjective constructions. They represent the attempt of subjects to give meaning to the world. But, Hegel insists, this does not mean that objects are arbitrary constructions. Subjects do not create the world, they simply project

meaning over it. Objects are the expression of the relation between subjects and the world. They are possible only because the world partially resists to our desires and to our attempts to invest meaning in it. If we put, for example, our hand in the fire we get the feeling of burning. Even if we wished to think that a fire was pleasant, every time we would put our hand in the fire our experience would tend to contradict our presumption. This would last until finally we attribute to fire something that accounts for the property of burning our hand.This does not mean however that the fire burns in itself. It does not have the meaning of burning inscribed in it.This meaning is only our way to rationalize our experience, one that is more adequate to our experience than the idea that fires are pleasant. Hence, meaning is neither contained in the subject itself or in the world, but emerges from the relations that constitute our experience, even if, in a strict sense, it is still a creation of a subject.

13. It has been argued that subjectivity is constructed in the process by which people try to make sense of what they do not understand. Without this relation to something outside of our subjectivity we would all be schizophrenic (i.e. a subjectivity without form).The dialectic shows that this lack, experienced as a negation, is the only form of relation to the world that can be the basis of meaning. Thus, the lack as the relation we entertain with the world, precedes form and must be thus distinguished from objectivity. Objectivity refers to the means or forms we use to try to rationalize the lack, while subjectivity constitutes the movement through which we mobilize these forms and articulate them.

14. Since specifications depend on articulating different dimensions of our experience, the pursuit of freedom requires a totalizing approach: the more our understanding is expanded and articulated, the more our experience becomes nuanced and complex. Here, the particular cannot be understood without the pursuit of the universal that qualifies our understanding of the particular. It must be clear however that the universal represents the whole, not the category that is universal to everything. Because the whole specifies the nature of each particular, it is universal in the sense that it defines all particular. This yearning for the totality has thus nothing to do with the crude attempt attributed by some poststructuralists to Hegel to reduce the particular to the universal.

15. In the dialectic of the master and the slave, Hegel refers to power as a limit that turns the slave back unto himself. However, despite his allusion to power in the form of a social relation, Hegel is only interested in the experience of the fear of death that shakes everything the slave takes for granted. Death represents the absence of meaning, the crisis of consciousness when it foresees its possible disappearance.

If power enters then the picture it is as something asocial in that it matters only because it conveys the experience of death. But Hegel does not problematize this experience of power in order to understand, beyond the abstract idea of death in general, how it can shape different forms of consciousness.

16. Marxists generally insist on the imperatives that are imposed by certain sets of social relations. But social imperatives cannot be unproblematically accepted without problematizing how these social imperatives are experienced by subjects. In other words, to say that capitalism produces imperatives does not mean anything if we cannot show how and in what way they are perceived by subjects. Hence, imperatives only exist as long as they are constitutive of a subjective experience.

17. This tension exists in Marx’s own work. Many reasons can explain this ambivalence in Marx’s work. One is the influence of Hegel’s language inherited from metaphysics. If one reads the dialectic as a causal dynamic (Kojeve, 1947; Hyppolite, 1948; Butler,1999) terms like essence, substance, or necessity suggest an essentialist view. But a reading of the dialectic as the structure by which consciousness invests meaning in the world (Dove, 1998; Stewart, 1998) radically changes the status of these terms.They are now considered intrinsic to the process of rationalization, not something beyond it and independent from it.

Secondly, for Marx, the idea of embodied labour might not have appeared contradictory with his endeavour to historicize social forms. Important debates have allowed us to specify issues regarding determination and agency in ways that probably were not apparent to Marx. This does not mean that Marx was either deterministic or not. We can find elements that support both positions in his work. It might simply mean that Marx did not position himself on this issue. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand how Marx could have used formulations like embodied labour that were incompatible with his project of historicizing social forms.

18. This is not to say that all or even most Marxists share this conception. Value-form approaches tend to offer rich insights on fetishism (see Rubin, 1972; Geras, 1972; Clarke, iggi; Zizek, 1989). However, even these perspectives generally take fetishism as the description of a condition and seldom try to move beyond in order to see how fetishism actually qualifies our reading of Capital as a work about the nature of subjectivity in capitalism.

19. `The essential feature of commodity fetishism does not consist of the famous replacement of men with things (“a relation between men assumes the form of a relation between things”): rather, it consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation

between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one the elements, as if this property also belongs to it outside of the relation with other elements’ (Zizek, 1989: 24)

20.There is an important difference to make between fetishism and reification. Both are often understood as the objectification of subjects, as if people were reduced to the condition of objects, although most Marxists specify that this is only so within the relation to capital (Lebowitz, 1996). In this conception reification and fetishism are conflated, which closes the possibility to address the place of subjectivity in the process of capitalist accumulation.

Reification refers to the form of a relation to others in which people, pressed by economic imperatives, are obliged to take others simply as means to reach their own objectives and needs (e.g. employers exploiting workers). By contrast, fetishism is a particular way to understand our experience, by projecting agency in the thing itself that mediates social relations. The conflation of both leads us to the view that capital, as an agency, takes people as mere objects of its own accumulation.This again constitutes a useful way to close the issue of the relation between subjectivity and capitalist accumulation. We do not need to understand how people relate to capitalist accumulation, but simply how capital relates to people (i.e. how does capital uses people).

But people never become objects of others or act as objects. They are only considered as objects by others. This, in itself, is not necessarily new to capitalism, but the particularity of social relations in capitalism is the extent to which this occurs. First because the competitive imperative of the market obliges people to systematically disregard the feelings and opinions of others in their relation with them. Secondly, because they are able to use others instrumentally in capitalism since the power of money allows individuals to restructure social life in unprecedented ways

21.As Zizek argues, fetishism in itself is not specific to capitalism. It is the basic recourse of the subject to explain any alienated experience. But the particularity of fetishism in capitalism is that people no longer fetishize men but things. In Capitalism `the place of fetishism has just shifted from intersubjective relations to relations “between things”: the crucial social relations, those of production are no longer immediately transparent in the form of the interpersonal relations of domination and servitude (of the Lord and his serfs, and so on); they disguise themselves […I under the shape of social relations between things, between the products of labour’ (Zizek, 1989: 26).

22. The assumption of utility as a common scale to evaluate specific preferences, needs and desire boils down to pure metaphysics.The belief that somehow people do a certain computation that reduces qualitative features to quantitative ones cannot be simply posited. It is actually what needs to be explained, and what Marx explores in his discussion of value.

23. `We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value. However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore purely social. From this it follows self-evidently that it can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity! (Marx, 1976: 138-139)

24. Without semiotics, which developed subsequently, Marx could not fully grasp the significance of his discovery.This might explain why Marx’s formulations appear ambiguous at times and why he clings to certain essentialist formulations (i.e. embodied labour).

25. For Marxist economists, the dissociation of use value and exchange value is the necessary step to ground an economic theory. Because use value refers to qualitative choices, it becomes difficult to subsume it in a logic. Use value is a category that calls for agency, for the way people conceive of their use of commodities for personal and social purposes. Seeing exchange value as something distinct from use value (Seline, 1984), might allow to ground a social dynamic in an ‘objective’ factor: labour. But in the same way as Neoclassicals who cannot explain the reduction of preferences to a common scale, these approaches are incapable of showing how labour can be reduced to an abstract common scale.

26. Here, the circle is closed in an unending loop where use value assumes the form of exchange value and vice versa.We have reached a tautological situation deemed impossible in the accidental form in which the value of money is given by its own value. But contrarily to the first form, this identity is mediated by all other commodities, thereby catalyzing a chain of signification that represses the qualitative dimension of value. People now act as though money is the true expression of something called value that exists as a property of objects.


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Samuel Knafo1

Samuel Knafo is a PhD candidate at York University and is writing his thesis on financial history in England.

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