Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at

Total Pageviews

Friday, March 1, 2013


Competition standardizes commodities, substitutes abstract calculation for concrete technical judgment, stifles passions that are inappropriately aroused by the natural properties of goods, and breeds up by ruthless selection a new capitalist man for whom only exchange value is real.  This same historical process of development produces a mass of workers who, in the homogeneity of their culture, their mobility, and their lack of particularized skills, approximate ever closer to the inverted ideal of abstract labor.  As the rational becomes real, the real becomes ever more irrational.  These absurd forms of thought -- the commodity as quantum of crystallized value, the worker as petty commodity producer of abstract labor -- acquire social validity and hence objectivity, which is to say that successful day-to-day interaction with the world of work and consumption, of production and circulation, requires workers an capitalists to apprehend their environment, interpret their experience, and guide their actions by means of them.

But if socially valid, which is to say effective in operation and confirmed in experience, then how absurd?  We have already examined Marx's mocking logical analysis of the concept of a commodity as a quantum of value, in order to demonstrate the inner logical inversions on which such a notion rests.  Now we must present an historical and social account of the actual human and social damage that results from the instantiation, or social validation, of the concept.

The story is twofold, on the side of the worker and on the side of the capitalist.  Subjectively, the worker as purveyor of abstract, averagely efficient labor is torn between her natural human needs and the needs of capital.  Her mind and body require a graceful, rational, integrated development if she is to achieve a healthy fulfillment of her nature.  [We see here the connection between the teachings of Marx's earliest writings, especially the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and his mature writings.]  But the exigencies of profitability demand the services of a neutral, adaptable labor power unencumbered by such obstructive predispositions as natural body rhythms, craft traditions, or a preference for participation in the planning, direction, and evaluation of the activity of production.

The concept of abstract labor is socially valid because the more fully the worker construes his actual work situation in its terms, the more successful he is, as measured by the criteria implicit in the concept itself -- criteria endlessly reconfirmed by employers, fellow-workers, ministers, teachers, and even by the members of his own family.  The more completely he remakes himself in the image of abstract labor, the more likely he is to get and hold a job, win the praise of those around him, ad weather the periodic economic storms.  This repeated social confirmation confers objective validity on the concept, so that finally it comes to seem that resistance to the regime of the machine is mulish stubbornness, rejection of the authority of the bosses is sinful rebelliousness, and dissatisfaction with a subsistence wage is self-indulgence.  The absurdity, the crackbrainedness of the concept of the commodity, Marx holds, is, on the subjective side, made manifest in the increasing misery of the increasingly productive, increasingly twisted and thwarted, ever more alienated workers.

On the objective side, on the side of capital, the immediate and irrefutable evidences of the absurdity of the categories of bourgeois political economy are the periodic crises that threaten to bring to a disastrous halt the processes of reproduction and accumulation.  Economic crises, Marx argues, are the direct consequence of the attempt by capitalists to conform their economic decisions to the tenets of rationality enshrined as socially valid, and hence objective, categories of bourgeois political economy.  It is the social relations of production and circulation, not the technology of capitalism, that produce crises.  The self-destructiveness of capitalism results from the capitalists' reduction of all economic decisions to profitability, to the quantitative measurement of self-expanding value.  The concepts of value, money, and capital achieve social validity through their short-term success.  Capitalists unable or unwilling to live by the ascetic rule of profit-maximization are driven to the wall in the competition of the market.  The craziness of these concepts is manifested in the crises that periodically destroy even the most economically rational of entrepreneurs.

We can see now that there is indeed an inner theoretical connection between Marx's economic doctrines of exploitation and crisis, his psychological theory of alienation, and his metaphysical thesis of the objective irrationality of capitalist social formations.  Marx's philosophical, as opposed to his economic, doctrines have often been construed in ways that make them relatively impervious to disconfirmation.  It is important therefore to observe that if my reading of Marx is correct, the soundness of his philosophical conception of the objective irrationality of capitalism depends essentially both on his claim that capitalism produces a progressive alienation of the working class and on his thesis that capitalism is fatally prone to ever more serious economic crises.  If the evidence leads us to give up these hypotheses, then we lose the critical perspective from which we can issue a negative evaluation of capitalism.  But that, of course, is the price of nonvacuous theory.

All right.  Let us take a deep breath after these sixteen "parts" of my narrative and recall where we began, what now seems like ages ago.  I posed a deceptively simple question:  Why does Marx write like that?  My answer was that Marx's conception of the economic, historical, social, and psychological character of capitalist society requires him to adopt a complex, highly charged ironic voice, not only in his informal descriptions of the world he observed but also in his formal economic analysis of the social relations of production of capitalist economic formations.  The time has come to pull together my many arguments, observations, and formal analyses in something like a single integrated summation.

I began, you will recall, by arguing that the language in which a social theory finds expression must be adequate, in its linguistic resources, to the ontological structure of the object of its discourse.  The classical political economists, like their contemporary neo-classical successors, believed that capitalism as such is a rational form of economic organization.  It is only the people living in a capitalist society who sometimes fall short of that objective rationality, by failing to guide their investments, purchases, sales, and public tax policies by prudentially rational calculation.  This subjective irrationality of economic agents can lead to economic distortions and thence even to economic crises.

As a consequence of this belief, Ricardo and his school used a transparent prose designed to reveal the objective rational economic structure lying beneath the sometimes confusing surface appearances of market prices, temporary super-profits, and local customs.  We as readers are encouraged thereby to adjust our subjective performances to the objective rationality of capitalism.

But Marx, as we now see, holds that capitalism is objectively irrational.  The central irrationalities may be summarized under four headings:

First the human capacity for productive laboring is treated as a commodity to be bought in the market for a price.  Indeed, as Marx and Engels show us in their vivid factual accounts of the condition of wage-laborers under early capitalism, mothers and fathers actually produced this capacity for laboring, as embodied in their children, in order that that it might be sold on the market at the reduced prices assigned to child labor;

Second, in a capitalist economy, production is carried out for the purpose of making a profit, not for the purpose of satisfying human needs, with the consequence that desires must be artificially created for profitable commodities while basic human needs go unsatisfied;

Third, under capitalism economic relationships appear to us in mystified form as a network of mutually beneficial exchanges of equals for equals, whereas in fact capitalism is a structure of exploitation of workers by capitalists;

And finally, political economy represents produced goods and services, through the mediation of market exchange and the system of money, in crackpot metaphysical fashion as quanta of abstract value clothed in sensory garb.

To talk about this world, Marx finds, the transparent one-dimensional language of the classical school of political economy is thoroughly inadequate, indeed, directly misleading.


JCE said...

are you familiar with this book? would you recommend it as a good introduction to the subject?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am afraid I am not familiar with it at all. Sorry.

jim said...

So the Duke group requires a film in tandem with the paper, right? Are you going to choose a fill that models this ironic stance?

Chris said...

JCE, I've read that book. It's mostly terrible.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, I am not even sure I am going to appear. How the hell am I supposed to reduce what I have been writing to forty-five minutes?

I could of course try DR. STRANGELOVE :)

jim said...

Making a one's lover into an abstraction is a common film trope. Some kind of courtly love film?