Monday, January 9, 2012

Reading Capital via Fredric Jameson


How to read Capital: Another view

Fredric Jameson, for some time one of this country's foremost Marxist intellectuals, has recently published three studies related in some way to dialectics: Valences of the Dialectic (2009), The Hegel Variations (2010), and Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (2011). The following is a preview of this last, along with some thoughts on the current intellectual/political situation.

This essay originally appeared in Mediations. Thanks to onehundredflowers for pointing it out.

It has often been lamented that Marxism seems to be a purely economic theory, which makes little place for a properly Marxian political theory. I believe that this is the strength of Marxism, and that political theory and political philosophy are always epiphenomenal. Politics should be the affair of an ever-vigilant opportunism, but not of any theory or philosophy; and even the current efforts to redefine mass democracy in this way or that are, to my mind, distractions from the central issue which is the nature and structure of capitalism itself.

Marxism is not a political radicalism but an economic radicalism. It incites us, not to contest or transform political power, but rather to change and transform capitalism as such, to change our whole economic system — a more radical ambition, which obviously entails political tactics which can however take various different forms, depending on the historical moment.

A New Reading of Capital

Fredric Jameson

My title promises a preview of my forthcoming book, Representing Capital, a commentary on Volume I of Marx's Capital, which I read somewhat differently than many of the standard interpretations. So I will tell you something about that and then draw some practical conclusions about Marxism today and its political and intellectual mission.

I am anxious that this work of mine not be understood as a "literary" reading of Capital: not only have those few such attempts been either weak generic classifications or fairly obvious notes on style and metaphor: indeed, the very term literary in this context is bound to trivialize the effort and to suggest that those debating the technical details of Marx's economic analyses will have little interest in cultural epiphenomena like the textual status of the book as such. And it is true that I take little interest in Marx's facts as he presents them or in the relevance of the laws he is alleged to have deduced from them. What I have wished to emphasize is the representation of capitalism as a totality, as an infernal machine which can only be described dialectically. I regard the truth of the labor theory of value as a metaphysical issue; I find the extrapolation of Marx's model to the current third or globalized, postmodern, stage of capitalism to be of the greatest interest, but think that so far this can take many forms. And at the same time I consider that Marx's description of capital is fully vindicated by recent events and remains as valid today as it ever was. Meanwhile, in this reading I limit myself to the only completed work, namely Volume I of Capital, and I claim that it gives a complete picture of capitalist totality. I should add, to justify my formal approach (which as I have said I would not want to call literary exactly, but which some will certainly continue to characterize as formalist in that way) — I should add that for me the central formal problem of Capital Volume I is the problem of representation: namely how to construct a totality out of individual elements, historical processes, and perspectives of all kinds; and indeed how to do justice to a totality which is not only non-empirical as a system of relationships, but which is also in full movement, in expansion, in a movement of totalization which is essential to its very existence and at the heart of its peculiar economic nature. Yet also essential to this structure is a process of perpetual breakdown: so we have here a machine which is necessarily and inevitably breaking down and which must therefore, to remain in existence, constantly repair itself by enlarging itself and its field of control. How such a peculiar and indeed such a unique phenomenon can be represented or made to appear in our mind's eye is I believe explained by the equally unique and peculiar powers of dialectical thought, which might almost be considered a new type of thinking invented specifically to overcome the dilemmas of representation posed by this unique and peculiar totality called capital: but I will not pursue any more extensive account and defense or apologia of the dialectic here.

So now we begin, and with a scandalous proposal, namely to bracket the whole of Part One: it is of course the most famous section of the whole work, the one everyone reads even if they get no further; nor is my proposal motivated by quite the same concerns as those of Althusser and Korsch, both of whom suggested that the neophyte or working class reader skip these chapters, at least in part because both these thinkers were for different reasons adamantly opposed to the dialectic as such.

My reasons are somewhat different, though I would agree to this extent, namely that readers can become so mesmerized by the commodity form, fetishism and the like that they cease to explore Marxism any further. I remind you that Part One is what the Grundrisse's editors call "The Chapter on Money": it is not yet about capital, money has here not yet undergone its crucial metamorphosis into capital, and to that degree Part One stages something like capitalism's pre-history (as does, in a very different way, Part Eight, on primitive accumulation), so that strictly speaking Marx's description of capitalism as such can be limited to Parts Two through Seven. Certainly, in a society dominated by commodification, the analyses of Part One are politically more relevant today, just as the dimension of culture more generally is in our third stage of capitalism. Nonetheless in formal terms, I propose that Part One be considered a kind of complete work in its own right, a kind of overture to the main work, or better still a Vorspiel on the order of Das Rheingold, whose fundamental action will then come with the official Ring trilogy.

One of the reasons for doing so is that Part One has proven to be a fausse piste or as Heidegger calls it a Holzweg, a path leading nowhere. Part One is essentially an attack on the very notion of exchange, on the equation which suggests that there can be such a thing as an exchange of equals, or that the equation can be reversible. This means that there can be no such thing as a just price, and with this the whole project of social democracy or of the equitable reform of capitalism falls to the ground. But this result — politically productive — leaves us back at our starting point, with only one acquisition, namely a methodological one, which will now guide my reading of the rest of Volume One and which I will now briefly outline.

I want to understand plot in Capital as the solving of specific problems, the resolution of specific dilemmas. But as capitalism involves many problems and paradoxes, these resolutions will involve a variety of tentative explorations, and they will take the form of overlapping waves. A problem — paradox, aporia, contradiction — will declare itself; then, gradually, its solution will become apparent, but not without raising another problem in its wake. So by the time one wave has subsided, by the time one momentum has run its course, a new wave is beginning, and a new momentum established: a new problem has raised its head, demanding a fresh set of inquiries and chapters and a whole new movement forward. So this reading of Capital will seek to identify the point at which a new conundrum arises and to indicate how it is resolved and at the same time gives way to a new one. There are five or six waves which basically structure Capital Volume I, or in other words, organize that suspense — now how is this question to be answered? — which constitutes the plot of the work. (I hope it will not complicate this view of the text to add that from a dialectical point of view many of these problems turn out to be the same problem, and to involve the same answer — but in a different register, in different terms, from a different perspective.)

Meanwhile I want to underscore a somewhat different aspect of the reading, according to which the structure I have just described is also punctuated by certain climactic moments or revelations. The latter are not necessarily the same as the solutions to the specific problems already mentioned: they can be, as it were, truths revealed in the course of those examinations but not necessarily identical with their resolutions. I also mean to mark a duality in Marx's investigations, which means that such climactic moments or revelations can sometimes come in two forms — positive and negative, say. In fact Capital Volume One has in this spirit two separate climactic endings, which I will characterize as heroic and comic respectively. Finally, on a surface level (rather than these deeper structural ones), I want to point out that there are several reading speeds that vary and succeed each other throughout the text, and which include three enormous chapters between the other, shorter ones and which also demand something of a shifting of gears and a modification of reading methods. Obviously it will be too long and complicated to do full justice to all these matters here, so I just resume the order of topics as simply and succinctly as I can.

The first problem begins with money, which was supposed to have solved the equation problem of Part One (on commodities): it is of course a false solution since money is not a solution but a mediation: it is a duality, a thing called upon to express a relationship but which in reality conceals relationship. This mysterious nature of money explains why so many Utopias, including More's first one, have been organized around the principle that getting rid of money will get rid of the problem altogether. Because if money is a genuine solution, then something like a "just price" for commodities and labor is possible, and therefore social democracy itself is possible: it is possible to tinker with capitalism in such a way as to transform it into a just society. On the other hand Proudhon's great slogan — "la propriété, c'est le vol" — is unsatisfactory as well, since it assumes that getting rid of money altogether in an anarchist spirit will do away with the deeper problem of which money is only a symptom. Money, property, capitalism itself, rest on a deep structural contradiction or at least a structural paradox (whose answer we know, for it is given to us in the labor theory of value), which cannot be solved by fiat or by tinkering either.

So at the beginning of what I am calling the main body of Capital (Parts Two through Seven), we must go back to the beginning and repose the question anew. Money is not the solution since it raises the new and more fundamental question, How does money beget money? And the answer is not, of course, Proudhon's — namely, by cheating and by theft — nor does the answer reduce itself to the question of how we make a profit. Rather, the answer is more fundamental: money can only beget more money by being transformed into something very different, namely capital. This is then the reason for beginning with Part Two of Capital, because capital itself does not appear until Part Two.

We can rephrase all this methodologically: Marx is showing us that profit and new value cannot be derived from the process of circulation. So in order to solve the question, we are necessarily moved forward into the process of production — and this is alone where capital, and new capital at that, can be produced. So we have consumption on page one of the entire book: it is that quality which is quickly bracketed in favor of quantity, use value bracketed in favor of exchange value. We have circulation, whose dilemmas are rehearsed in Part One and end with the non-solution of money. And now finally we have production itself, which will quickly lead to the secret and the solution of the labor theory of value (something which also explains distribution as such). Now presumably our problems are solved: why does Marx not conclude his book here?

The problem is that suddenly time has been introduced, yet still in a merely quantitative and static, non-dialectical way. The labor theory of value leads to all kinds of calculations about rates of profit, on the number of hours of labor, on all those interesting combinations of variables which fed Marx's own hobby, his secondary interest in mathematics and in the calculus. But suddenly these explorations come up against a brick wall: the limits of the working day, the legal limits of the working day, factory legislation requiring such limits and thereby suddenly blocking capital in its necessary expansion.

We thereby come up against the first of the three enormous interpolated chapters I mentioned, the most famous, namely that on "The Working Day." It is a chapter which poses any number of problems, some of them ideological — how is it that government inspectors, bourgeois officials, have been able to force such legislation, and what is the effect now and in the future of working class organization? — and others practical, namely how the capitalists can get around these legislative limits. For they always do, or else social democracy would be possible.

So now the argument must enter a new register, a new level of intensity both in problem and in solution: and the answer (always provisional as we have seen) now takes the form of two great revelations. The first of these two climaxes is the celebration of collectivity, or cooperation as the period language has it. "A free gift to capital," Marx exults: cooperative labor at once dialectically multiplies value and production.