[OPE-L:6470] [JURRIAAN] Re: Non-Capital and Variable Capital

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Thu, 16 Apr 1998 13:49:59 -0400 (EDT)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 16 Apr 1998 19:03:55 +0200
From: jurriaan bendien <Jbendien@globalxs.nl>

Jerry writes:

I would be interested in
> hearing what others think about the treatment of "non-capital" in
> _Capital_. E.g. what does the above suggest about the archiotronic
> structure of _Capital_ and the extent to which the "negation of capital"
> is (or is not) explicitly discussed as a subject in its own right?

Capital the way I read it is not really a book about the dynamics of
revolutionary social change. It is a critique of the 19th century bourgeois
categorisation of economic life, of the self-reflection of the bourgeois
economy, showing that if matters are thought through to the end, even the
bourgeois is forced to acknowledge that capitalism is macro-economically a
dynamic, even revolutionary but nevertheless irrational and crisis-ridden
system, with class conflict and class exploitation at its very core. And
it was. And it is.
Marx says he deals with human subjects only "insofar as they are the
personification of economic categories, the bearers of particular class
relations and interests" and says he sees "the economic formation of
society" as "a process of natural history". Given production-relations
which are "determined independently of human wills", then his standpoint
can "less than any other make the individual responsible for relations
whose creature he remains, socially speaking, however much he may
subjectively raise himself above them". Indeed, "capitalist production
begets, with the inexorability of a natural process, its own negation".
There is therefore a sense in which active human subjects with the power
to change their circumstances, overthrow capital and change the world
really do disappear from his discourse, that economics becomes a separate
subject (even though Marx also suggests this separation or autonomisation
is a reification, a fetishism). In Marx's portrayal, "the capitalist
machine grinds on", its laws of motion work themselves out "with iron
necessity" and people suffer "the dull compulsion of economic life" despite
frequent attempts (which he mentions in Capital Vol. 1) to revolt against
it or put a spanner in the works.
This view of things has inspired, at the one extreme, e.g. the pessimistic
visions of Harry Braverman concerning the degradation of labour; the
Stalinist interpretation of capitalist "economic laws" articulated in
"Marxist-Leninist" textbooks; and the structuralist interpretation of
Althusser in which history becomes a "process without a subject"
altogether. At the other extreme you have many attempts to correct Marx's
picture, such as Gyorgy Lukacs's insistence on the dialectical category of
totality, or Harry Cleaver's book "Reading Capital Politically", or Harry
Burawoy's "Manufacturing Consent", or E. P. Thompson's "The Poverty of
Theory", or Mandel's attempts to integrate class struggle theoretically
back into capitalist development through a parametric determinism, or for
that matter the recent excursions of the journal Living Marxism.
One could argue that the failure of Marx to discuss the negation of
capital in its own right paved, at the intellectual level, the way for a
lengthy controversy about a dualism or duality (or dillemma), namely
"structure versus agency" (as discussed by Perry Anderson in Arguments
Within English Marxism for example). One could also argue that the said
lacuna has hindered a correct appraisal of the historical continuities and
discontinuities in capitalist development since Marx's own day.
But at least as far as I am concerned blaming all this on Marx's
Darwinist leanings (alluded to above) would be unfair. As Althusser said
once I believe - quite correctly - there isn't an innocent reading of a
text, a text is read in a context. The economistic interpretations of
social democrats, the bureaucratisation of Marxist thought due to
Stalinism, and the academic marginalisation of Marxist thought historically
meant essentially that the relationship between Marxian theory and Marxian
practice, insofar as it was established, was frequently (mostly ?) broken,
impaired or at least became precarious, thus putting the "structure vs.
agency" duality permanently on the intellectual agenda.
Perhaps one thing we ought to learn from Marx that the story of Capital is
a story with many different themes, some of which attract more interest in
some specific historical contexts than in others. That's a concession I
would be prepared to make to postmodernism (postmodernism being the grand
narrative that there aren't any grand narratives anymore). JP Sartre was of
the opinion that Marx continued to define the intellectual horizons of our
epoch. But who could say that now, with so many new wonders of human
labour ? One might with equal justice say that "The Marxists have
interpreted and rewritten Marx in various ways - the point however is to
transcend him".


Jurriaan Bendien.