Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A short reading of the beginning of Chapter 2 in Karl Marx's Capital Vol. 1

     Before I got sick, I began another attempt of reading Marx's Capital, Vol. 1.  Up until now, I have only worked through about half the text, getting distracted by other projects, some significant, some less than significant.  Remarkably enough, I found reading the text on the airport quite productive.  I managed to work through the first two chapters of the text, while on the plane.  A lot of it was review, but a number of passages stood out upon increased scrutiny.  Marx's literary interests become increasingly apparent in the section on the commodity fetish, and continue into the chapter on exchange.  However, the opening passage of that second chapter, "The Process of Exchange" stood out in particular, given my current dissertation project.  Marx opens that chapter by describing the relationship between the commodity forms and their 'guardians.'

      "Commodities cannot themselves got to market and perform exchanges in their own right.  We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are the possessors of commodities.  Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man.  If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them.  In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons who will reside in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate his own,  except through an act to which both parties consent.  The guardians must therefore recognize each other as owners of private property.  This juridical relation, whose form is the contract, whether as part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills which mirrors the economic relation.  The content fof this juridical relation (or relation of two wills) is itself determined by the economic relation.  Here the persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities.  As we proceed to develop our investigation, we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it as the bearers (Traeger) of these economic relations that they come to contact with each other.

     What chiefly distinguishes a commodity from its owner is the fact that every other commodity counts for it only as the form of appearance of its own value.  A born leveller and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself.  The owner makes up for this lack in the commodity of a sense of the concrete, physical body of the other commodity, by his own five and more senses.  For the owner, his commodity possesses no direct use-value.  Otherwise, he would not bring it to market.  It has use-value for others; but for himself its only direct use-value is as a bearer of exchange-value, and consequently, a means of exchange.  He therefore makes up his mind to sell it in return for commodities whose use-value is of service to him.  All commodities are non-use-values for their owners, and use-values for their non-owners.  Consequently, they must all change hands.  But this changing of hands constitutes their exchange, and their exchange puts them in relation with each other as values and realizes them as values.  Hence commodities must be realized as values before they can be realized as use-values." (Marx 179)

     Marx's description of this relationship takes on a particularly patriarchal valence.  The figure of the guardian is necessary for the commodity form, but the relationship is defined in terms of potential coercion.  Marx notes, "Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man."  The commodity is labelled a thing, but it is strangely animated by the relationship with its guardian.  'He' (to use Marx's language) can 'use force' or 'take possession' of the commodity in order to bring it into the market.  The commodity may be a thing, but it is haunted by a phantom-like volition that must be potentially dominated in order to bring into the set of relations that define the market.  To return to the question of patriarchy, its difficult to avoid the implications of rape contained in the word, 'force.'  If this seems like an overreach, the following paragraph describes the relationship in sexual terms, or perhaps more specifically, as a form of prostitution.  The 'guardian' puts the commodity form into an endless series of both intimate and degrading exchanges, oscillating between the antagonistic poles of use and exchange.  The violent intimacy of the commodity is opposed by the guarded relationship of the guardians themselves.  Haunted by the threat of dispossession, that is, of facing the kind of violation contained in the exchange of commodities, the guardians set up a thick set of laws to avoid that potential threat.

      However, the 'guardian' of the commodity doesn't escape this relationship unscathed. As Marx notes, "the persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities." Hemmed in by the logic of private property, the commodity 'guardian' or owner is flattened or objectified, just as the commodity is personified in exploitation and domination.  The patriarchal logic of instrumental reason reflects back on those who wield it, transforming them into mere representatives, equally trapped by the structure of domination that they created.  Marx makes this explicit with the following passage, "As we proceed to develop our investigation, we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it as the bearers (Traeger) of these economic relations that they come to contact with each other."  Marx's term to describe this term is Traeger, translated as bearer by Ben Fowkers, the term also implies that the object plays the role as receptacle or repository.  In effect, the 'guardian' is himself an empty signifier, as infinitely exchangeable as the commodity itself.  The 'guardian' becomes a curious type of cypher, one that uses 'his own five and more senses' to represent the 'economic relation', which 'mirrors' or 'determines' the social relations between 'guardians.'  Marx describes this form of representation as 'ownership.'  If the commodity form is personified by the social relations in its production, its 'guardian' is transformed into an object.  

      It's fairly obvious that the domination and expropriation of living labor is thinly veiled by the mystified form of the commodity, which explains the threat of force contained in the relationship between guardian and commodity.  However, the patriarchal metaphor shouldn't be ignored.  We can already see a  glimpse of the critique written by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and, perhaps more significantly, a possible feminist engagement with Marx, avoiding a reading that simply operates in the logic of lack.  We can see in Marx's work, a sort of libidinal economy contained in the commodity form itself, one that arises out of the domination of production and colonizes the entire social field.  The role of patriarchy in the so called primitive accumulation of capital described historically by Sylvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch is already implied by Marx in the logical form of his analysis.  Marx continually insists that the commodity form contains in it the social relations of its production, and therefore the dispossession necessary for its genesis.  All to often, Marxists gesture towards this network of social relations without working through the full meaning of that implication.  Perhaps it is time to take that up.

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