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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Thursday, February 28, 2013


The exchange value of a commodity -- or, more precisely, the exchange value in virtue of which a commodity is a commodity, the exchange value that constitutes the commodityness of a commodity -- is a crystal of abstract homogeneous social labor.  The quantum of exchange value congealed or crystallized in each commodity can neither be seen nor felt nor smelt nor tasted.  This homogeneous, infinitely divisible, nonsensory stuff, this value, is contained in the products of labor as a consequence of their being produced by workers hired by capitalists in a system of market exchange regulated by competition.  In the production process, portions of this stuff congealed in previously produced commodities are transmitted or passed on to newly produced commodities.  As the spindle turns, it smoothly, invisibly, magically passes on infinitesimal bits of its value to the thread that collects around it.  When the spindle breaks and must be discarded, it is emptied of its crystals of value, exhausted, spent -- unless of course it has yet some resale value as a used spindle, in which case it will be found to have held back a little cache of its secret value to bring, as a dowry, to its new owner.

The passionate aim and single-minded purpose of the hard-headed businessmen from Manchester and Liverpool, London and Sheffield, is to accumulate as much of this transcendent ectoplasmic stuff as possible, as fast as possible.  They want it, not for its attractive and gratifying sensory qualities -- for it has no sensory qualities at all -- but for its magical ability to increase in quantity.  They want it, that is to say, so that they may get more of it, which they want in order to get more still.  When they grow old and weary, these metaphysical entrepreneurs may decline into sensation, and cash in their crystals of value for inferior things of the flesh, for houses and clothes and rare paintings.  But so long as they are young and vigorous, they shun all such temptations and pursue the holy grail of self-expanding value.

What can Marx possibly have in mind by advancing so manifestly absurd an account of the commodity?  That he does consider this theory of "crystals of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labor" to be absurd is demonstrated by the language in which he chooses to expound it.  The chapter on commodities, in which this extraordinary doctrine is introduced, is strewn with religious metaphors.  Marx sets himself to trace the "genesis" of the money form of exchange value.  As coats and linen change and exchange in a ghostly minuet, the linen, he says, "acquires a value-form different from its physical form," an echo of the miracle of transubstantiation.  "The fact that [the linen] is value," Marx observes, "is made manifest by its equality with the coat, just as the sheep-like nature of a Christian is shown by his resemblance to the Lamb of God."

Lest there be any reader so insensitive to even the broadest mockery as to imagine that this account of the inner essence of commodities is meant literally as a straightforward description of what makes anything a commodity, Marx breaks the ironic tone of his discourse momentarily, near the end of the chapter, to tell us that such talk is deranged, crack-brained, crazy -- verrückt:

If I state that coats and boots stand in relation to linen because it is the universal incarnation of human labour, the craziness [die Verrücktheit] of the statement is self-evident.  Nevertheless, if the producers of coats and boots compare those articles to linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold and silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same deranged form.

Why does Marx persist in speaking in a language that he himself characterizes as crazy?  Marx gives us the essential clue in the very next paragraph.  "The categories of bourgeois economy," he says, "consist of such like forms.  They are socially valid, hence objective forms of thought for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of production., i.e., commodity production."

They are socially valid, HENCE objective.  In this phrase is encapsulated Marx's revolutionary theory of the objectively crazy [or contradictory] nature of capitalist social reality, and the radically new epistemological, mathematical, and literary standpoint following therefrom.  What does it mean to say that crazy forms of thought are socially valid, and hence are the objective forms of thought for commodity production?

Consider the concept of the commodity with which Marx begins Capital.  As natural being, a commodity is a material object with a variety of physical, chemical, and other properties which make it more or less useful in the satisfaction of human needs.  But a commodity is not, qua commodity, a natural object.  A commodity is a quantum of value.  Its natural properties are accidental and irrelevant to its true inner essence, which is the crystal of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labor that lies concealed within it.

This is an absurd notion, as should by now be obvious.  But Marx insists that it is nevertheless a  socially valid notion, and hence an objective form of thought for those participating in and theorizing about the particular social relations of production and exchange characteristic of capitalism.  Let us see exactly what this means.

Economic efficiency demands that both entrepreneurs and merchants abstract entirely from the natural properties of the commodities they produce and sell, attending only to their exchange value.  [Those of a literary turn of mind may wish to look at the hilarious old novel by Paul Goodman, Empire City, and in particular the scene in which Eliphaz, Goodman's splendid send-up of mercantile capitalism, trades away his dinner table in an advantageous deal even as his family is eating dinner, leaving them with their plates in their laps as workman come into their elegant Fifth Avenue apartment to cart the table away.]   The prudent capitalist cannot allow his economic decisions to be influenced by his normal human responses to the accidents of his wares.  The tailor in love with his worsteds is no better than a whiskey priest drunk on sacramental wine.  A sensuous affection for fine cloth, lingering on from a precapitalist craft pride, may incline him to a more costly suiting than the market demand justifies.  Soon he will be driven to the wall by rational tailors whose fingers are numb to the feel of good wool, but whose metaphysical consciousness can discern the exact quantum of value in each yard of goods.

The sense are too coarse to apprehend the miracle of self-expanding value.  No mechanic, however keen his eye, can perceive in the bustle of an automatic assembly line the measure of its profitability.  Only the accountants, those eremites of capitalism for whom all sensory qualities fall away to reveal the transcendent crystals of value, can discern whether a firm is earning an appropriate rate of return on the value of its invested capital.  Romantic entrepreneurs, enticed by the stench and heat and fire of the blast furnaces, will soon yield place to the Pythagoreans of the market, for whom only numbers are real.


I have started working with a graduate student in Philosophy at McMaster University in Canada to digitize some of my out-of-print books and make them available cheaply on and other sites.  The first one, now available, is my 1968 book The Poverty of Liberalism.  I will try to get others up there, once we work out some delicate copyright questions.  Harvard University Press let my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, go out of print forty years ago or so, and now all of a sudden wants to celebrate its 100th anniversary by reissuing some of its10,000 titles, including maybe mine [for a gazillion dollars, probably.]  I am going to arrange to get the rights back and have it put up on Amazon cheap.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The quintessential embodiment and presentation of the mystification of capitalism is the commodity, and that, therefore is where Marx begins his analysis.  I am reminded of that lovely old movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, an South African movie.  Here is Wikipedia's rather elegant and compact plot summary:

"Xi and his tribe of San/Bushmen relatives are 'living well off the land' in the Kalahari Desert. They are happy because the gods have provided plenty of everything, and no one in the tribe has unfulfilled wants. One day, a glass Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an aeroplane and falls to earth unbroken. Initially, this strange artifact seems to be another boon from the gods—-Xi's people find many uses for it. But unlike anything that they have had before, there is only one bottle to go around. This exposes the tribe to a hitherto unknown phenomenon, property, and they soon find themselves experiencing things they never had before: jealousy, envy, anger, hatred, even violence.  Since it has caused the tribe unhappiness on two occasions, Xi decides that the bottle is an evil thing and must be thrown off of the edge of the world. He sets out alone on his quest and encounters Western civilization for the first time. The film presents an interpretation of civilization as viewed through Xi's perceptions."

Echoing the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx observes that a commodity may be understood in two ways, either as a useful physical object capable of satisfying some human need or desire [a "use-value" in Smith's odd locution], or as a quantum of exchange value, as something produced to be exchanged for other commodities in the market, and as having an exchange value determined by how much labor it took to produce it.  As a use-value, the commodity is entirely without mystery.  It is a bushel of corn, or a hammer, or a yard of linen, or a peck of potatoes.  Its ability to satisfy human needs is determined by the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics, and it possesses that ability regardless of where or how it has been produced, regardless of whether it has ever been to market at all.  A coat will warm me, a potato will nourish me, and a bandage will bind up my wound no matter who or where I am.

But a commodity, Marx says, is "a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,"  for as a commodity, an object is stripped of its natural properties, which matter not at all from the point of view of an economist.  That is why, in Economics textbooks, one never finds the slightest useful information about the types of wool best suited to weaving, or the temperature to which coal must be raised before it will burn, or the number of kilocalories in a Twinkie.  A commodity is an abstract entity, significant solely as a quantum of embodied exchange value.  Sensible of this fact, corporations, in referring to the goods they make and sell in the market, regularly refer to those goods as "product," without even the grace of the definite article [rather in the way that the pretty girls and boys whose faces suit them to appear before the cameras as news readers on a cable news program are referred to as "talent."]

Marx understands [in a way that no one before him did] that a lengthy historical process is required to transform useful objects into commodities, a process that transforms the objects as much as it transforms how we think about them.  In pre-capitalist craft production, the tables and robes and silver salvers made by the craftspeople bear the individuating marks of their distinctive styles of work, just as the food brought to the market carries with it evidences of the farm on which it was grown.  But capitalism requires standardization, so that careful calculations can be made of the costs of production and the profit margins yielded by each quantum of commodity.  Thus we get indistinguishable loaves of bread, shirts, and television sets, the quirks and idiosyncrasies having all been carefully removed by "quality control engineers."  Every MacDonald's Big Mac must have exactly the same indistinguishable "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun," to quote the jingle that my wife and I would recite as we drove down from the Berkshire hills to Northampton for a MacDonald's lunch.  Eventually, identifiably different loaves of bread or rounds of cheese come to be considered up-scale luxury items produced by artisanal craftspeople for specialty upper-middle class customers.

A corresponding homogenization of productive labor takes place, as traditional crafts give way to routinized factory labor performed in measurably identical temporal units before machines that churn out identical units of product.  Competition reduces the multiform varieties of actual laboring to units of "abstract socially necessary labor."  This is Marx's answer to the question asked in every course by a bright student who wants to know why, if the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor embodied in it, is it not the case that slow, lazy, inefficient clumsy laborers embody more value in their products that fast, industrious, efficient, deft laborers.  [I like to think of this as the question why we pay skillful brain surgeons more than we pay brain fumble-fingered brain surgeons who are forever dropping their scalpels and leaving sponges in their patients after the incisions have been sewn up.]

[At this point, I shall incorporate into this narrative some pages taken from Moneybags.  Having managed to say this right once, I see no need to attempt that feat a second time!] 

The development of the concept of abstract labor begins in the opening section of Chapter I of Capital.  We start with concrete particular objects whose natural properties make them capable of satisfying various human wants, and whose existence results from particular concrete acts of human laboring -- specific acts of weaving, sewing, spinning, and so forth.  We "make abstraction from" or "put out of sight" both "the useful character of the various forms of labour" embodied in those physical objects, and also "the concrete forms of that labour."  What is left when we have completed this process of abstraction is merely "what is common to them all," namely "human labour in the abstract."

Thus far, we are describing a familiar process of intellectual or conceptual abstraction, of the sort that is required to bring many concrete instances under one general heading.  But as the chapter unfolds, a series of quite complex conceptual and theoretical shifts take place.  Elaborating on "the two-fold character of the labour embodied in commodities," Marx observes that the coat and the linen in his simple example are, insofar as they are values, "things of like substance, objective expressions of essentially identical labour."  But tailoring and weaving, taking them as actual concrete human activities, are "different kinds of labour."  So if exchange is based on equating the quanta of abstract labour whose concrete instantiations are quite diverse, some sort of process of real abstraction must take place.

There is a linguistic oddity in Marx's discussion which, if we subject it to a strenuous construal, is revelatory of a very profound and important conceptual shift.  Marx says not that the coat and the line have value, but they are values.  Now this is a peculiar diction.  We might at first be inclined to treat "the coat and the linen are values" simply as elliptical for "the coat and the linen are objects that have value."  But that would be a mistake.  To say that the coat and the linen, qua commodities, are values is to say that the coat and the linen, qua commodities, are not natural objects at all.  Indeed, it signals the possibility that commodities, strictly so-called, are not substantives, save in a quite superficial grammatical sense, and that, in the language of the logic I learned as a boy, they are syncategorematic terms that can be defined only by explicating the contexts in which they characteristically appear.  If this is the case, then the question "what is a commodity?," would be grammatically misleading, and the "correct" answer, namely, "a commodity is a crystallization of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labour," would be thoroughly metaphysically misleading.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The Geek Squad says my computer has been freed of five viruses and a mess of malware, so tomorrow, I hope to resume my endless narrative.  Stay tuned.

Monday, February 25, 2013


My computer has caught a virus, and there is nothing to do but unhook it from life support and take it in to the Best Buy Geek Squad for surgery.  I shall be out of touch for several days as a consequence.  Instead of flowers or condolence cards, please donate to Doctors Without Borders.  Believers, if there are any among this blog's readers, are encouraged to pray for a speedy recovery.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Today I shall begin to connect up my exposition and reconstruction of Marx's economic analysis of capitalism with his decision to write the opening chapters of Capital in highly charged, richly metaphorical language utterly unlike that of either his predecessors or those who came after him [including, of course, those who considered themselves his disciples and called themselves Marxists.]  Since this is going to take a while, let me summarize the central idea at the outset so that you will find it easier to follow.
Marx believes that capitalism is objectively mystified, that in fact its mystifications are essential to its continuing existence.  These mystifications go so deep into capitalist social reality that all of us, including Marx and those who have learned from him, are infected with them, beguiled by them, unable to get through the day without repeatedly reenacting them and thus reinforcing them.  It follows that the only way in which Marx, or any of us, can simultaneously anatomize those mystifications and also give them their proper weight and significance in our understanding of capitalism is through the use of an ironic voice.  Merely understanding intellectually the nature and origin of those mystifications is not sufficient to rid ourselves of them, for they are not intellectual errors, nor are the result of ignorance.  Rather, they are necessary and inevitable so long as capitalism persists.  Truly to be quits with them, Marx believes, will require the overthrow of capitalism itself.  [I happen to disagree with Marx that in a socialist society mystification will disappear, but that is another matter -- at present I am trying to explain Marx, not criticize him.]

Before returning to Capital, I am going to expand on the notion that a society can be objectively mystified.  In this part of my story, I will be drawing on things I said in my essay, "Narrative Time:  The Objectively Perspectival Structure of the Human World," which is archived on and is available via the link at the top of this blog.  I remind you that my purpose in writing this lengthy many-part essay is to weave together into a single coherent narrative ideas that I have put in print over the past thirty-five years and more.

According to the traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim account, the universe is essentially a story told by God, with a beginning, a middle, and an end -- the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran are the revealed versions of that story, suitable for human comprehension.  [In The Chronicles of Narnia, a telling of the Christian story for children, the lion Aslan roars the world into existence -- an echo of the opening line of The Gospel According to John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."]  Now, literary theory has a good deal to tell us about the structure and character of stories [or fictions, if you prefer the more pretentious locution.]  If you think about novels, for example, you will immediately realize that they are written from a narrative point of view, which builds into the text a temporal structure and an anisotropic spatiality that define objectively significant times and places.  In a novel there is a beginning and an end.  A novel may privilege certain places as having a special significance that is in the space of the novel, not merely in the mind of the reader.  For example [to choose one from very many], Edith Wharton's famous novella, Ethan Frome, has a frame structure, in which the narrator's story of Ethan and Mattie and the other characters begins as he lifts his foot to step over the threshold of the Frome home, and ends many pages later as his foot falls inside the doorway.  Thresholds have a special significance in Wharton's novels that they do not have, say, in the novels of Austen or Dostoyevsky.

The crucial thing to note is that because the world of a novel is created by the novelist's words, not merely described by those words, the fictional world actually has whatever properties the words of the novelist ascribe to it.  To choose another example, in Dickens' novel Bleak House, characters are in some passages described as having to walk all day to get from one place [such as "Tom's all alone." a slum neighborhood] to another.  In other passages, they seem to make the journey quickly.  This is not an error on Dickens' part [like Conan Doyle's inability to recall which leg Watson took a bullet in during his stay in India].  Rather, the degree of the spatial separation is intended by Dickens as a measure of the moral distance between the two parts of English society, and that separation changes during the course of the novel.
Even names can have a creative significance in a novel.  Dickens plays endlessly with the names of his characters as a way not of revealing but of constituting their nature.  If an historian labels the economic, social, and technological changes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries an "industrial revolution," she is making a claim about their nature, asserting, we may suppose, that in the scope and depth of their effects they produced as a great a change in Europe as the overthrow of the British and French monarchies.  But when Dickens names a group of greedy poor relations The Pockets, he is literally creating their distinctive trait in the act of naming.

Now the physical world was not created by God, so nature is not a story with a narrative structure.  There is, however, another world that is not natural but rather created -- the social world.  Society is not, of course, the product of a single purposeful individual.  It is rather the product of countless purposeful individuals whose choices, desires, habits, expectations, understandings, misunderstandings, fantasies, and concepts create and recreate -- or produce and reproduce, to use the economic terms -- the social realm.  At any moment we wish to choose in the evolution of society, individuals experience social reality as objectively real, independent of their wills, given in just the way that the natural world is given.  No one is capable of stepping completely outside of the social world he or she has encountered at birth and in the process of becoming a fully developed human being.
This simple truth, so often denied, is central to my story, and needs to be elaborated upon.  Some philosophers in the Western tradition have seemed to suggest that at birth the infant is a tiny rational agent not yet possessed of useful information about the world and a control of its bodily functions.  But that, we now know, is absurd.  It takes a long time [and a village, according to some political aspirants] for the infant to develop into a coherent person, and in the course of that development, each infant internalizes some particular way of interacting with the world, managing its drives and fantasies, deferring gratifications, and coming to terms with its sexuality, all of which makes the child a twenty-first century working class Indian, an eighteenth century aristocratic Frenchman, a Roman slave, a Chinese peasant, a Boston Irish ward heeler.  Even such seemingly "natural" matters as how one walks, sits, or stands turn out to be culturally internalized and reenacted by the individual.  Those who rebel against social norms and strive to create their own ways of being, free the dead hand of the past, end up rebelling in ways that are immediately recognizable as shaped by the culture from which the rebel has declared his or her independence.

[Those wishing to pursue this in more depth might find it interesting to read Michael Oakeshott's great essay, 'Rationalism in Politics," in the book of the same title, or Erik Erikson's seminal work, Childhood and Society, or -- not at all in their class -- my tutorials on The Thought of Sigmund Freud and How to Study Society, archived on]
Tomorrow, we shall see how Marx engages with these ideas.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Subjectively, irony is a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the superficial audience, which explains the feeling of shared superiority engendered by the irony.  Objectively, irony is the appropriate trope to capture the distinction between social appearance and reality.  Because this point is central to my entire undertaking, I must spend some time elaborating on it with an extended example.  I have deliberately chosen an example that has little directly to do with Marx's insight into the nature of capitalist social and economic relations, because I want you to understand the logical/literary point I am making before I engage with the extremely controversial theses advanced by Marx in the opening chapters of Capital.  Eventually I shall connect this analysis up by arguing that Marx's complex vision of the reality and mystifying appearance of capitalist society can be rendered successfully only by the ironic discourse that we in fact find in Capital.  This, right here, is the core of my entire narrative.  It is the idea that flashed on me in 1977, when my long exegetical odyssey began.

Imagine that I have been raised in the Catholic faith and have arrived at my present atheistical condition through a lengthy and painful process of questioning and self-criticism.  The symbols, myths, and language of Catholicism retain for me, as for many lapsed Catholics, a residual power that I cannot wholly subdue, and whose direct and indirect effects in part define who and how I am.  If now I am asked, "Do you believe in God?" how can I answer in such a way as to communicate this complex state of affairs, with the weights and resonances of the several portions of my religious condition given their proper magnitude?

Simply to answer, "No, I do not" would be, strictly speaking, to lie.  It would be to lie by omission, but to lie nonetheless.  Such an answer would in no way distinguish me from someone who has had no religious upbringing and who has never believed.  It would, by omission, represent me as a simple non-believer.  To say, "I once did, but I no longer do" comes closer, but still misrepresents the true situation by treating the remnants of Catholicism as no longer present in me, as having long since been externalized and destroyed.

We might think that a true, though tedious answer to the question would be a thorough unpacking of the situation in flat, declarative prose, more or less as I have been doing in these past few lines.  But that really will not do either.  To speak that way is to invent a voice that is neither the voice of the victorious portion of myself, nor the voice of the subdued portion, but is rather the voice of an external observer, a scientific reporter, a neutral party implicated neither in the original Catholic faith nor in its rejection.  It would be the voice of the cultural anthropologist describing native customs, of the social theorist denying complicity in the popular culture of her own society by her very manner of reporting it.  Insofar as I purport to be voicing my religious condition in that voice, I am lying.  In all likelihood, I would be deceiving myself at least as much as my audience.  The declarative unpacking of the complexities of my loss of faith would entirely miss the sensuous immediacy of feeling that is an essential part of my present rejection of, and residual clinging to, Catholicism.

Consider now what could be accomplished by means of the adoption of an ironic voice.  Asked whether I believe in God, I might reply -- employing, ever so exaggeratedly, the singsong tone of the Apostle's Creed -- "I believe in God the Father Almighty maker of heaven and Earth and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten son ..."  These few words, uttered thus, would capture, for an audience capable of understanding, the entire state of affairs:  that I once was an unreflective communicant of the Roman Catholic faith, that I no longer am, that I view my former beliefs with amusement, rather than with superstitious fear, but that those beliefs, and the associated rituals, still have some power over me, so that what I now am and believe can only be understood as a development out of that earlier, credulous state.  To a naive audience, it would of course appear that I was simply answering the question in the affirmative.

At the risk of tiring those among you for whom literary criticism is virtually second nature, let me expand on this point for a moment.  In the imaginary example I have been discussing, my problem as the speaker is to render a correct account of the full emotional and cognitive complexity of my relationship to the mysteries of the Roman Catholic faith from the inside, as it were.  I am [we are supposing] not an anthropologist bringing back stories of a Hopi rain dance or a Trobriand Island exchange ceremony.  I am a former communicant of the Catholic Church for whom the rites of baptism and the mass, the miracle of transubstantiation, the terror and joy of the Crucifixion and Resurrection were once the centerpieces of my spiritual life and which retain for me a superstitious power that I cannot ever hope fully to shake.  In short, I am myself both the first and the second audiences of my utterance, and my ironic statement is as much a communication to both parts of myself as it is to external audiences.

Now, at long last, let me connect this up with the explication of Capital. 
Early in his life, Marx believed that the social relations of production were mystified in the feudal economic order.  Ordinary peasants, whose unfree labor supported the relatively luxurious lives of the landed aristocracy and its associated military, legal, and political accompaniments, were led by the Church to believe that their miserable lot was divinely ordained, a belief that as reinforced by the mysteries of the Mass.  But, Marx thought, capitalism had blown away the clouds of incense hovering over the throne and the altar, leaving in plain view the unmystified economic interactions of the sunlit market.  After the failures of the 1848 revolutionary uprisings throughout Europe, Marx reversed his view.  Now, he concluded, it was the medieval economic and power relations that were plain to see.  There was no mystery about how the rulers managed to maintain their power, nor about how the landowners were able to extract a physical surplus of agricultural products from their serfs, a surplus that they used to support armed men and compliant law courts.  Rather, the real mysteries inhabit the marketplace, the sphere that Marx mocks in the brilliant conclusion to Chapter VI as "a very Eden of the innate rights of man.  There alone rule Freedom, Equality, property, and Bentham.... On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities [Marx here is anticipating Léon Walras' famous description of tâtonnement], which furnishes the "Free-trader Vulgaris" with his views and ideas [this is really marvelous -- ed.], and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae.  He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist;  the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer.  The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business;  the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but -- a hiding."

Tomorrow the penny drops.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I have now carried my exposition, analysis, and reconstruction of Marx's economic theories as far as I shall in this narrative.  Needless to say, there is a vast amount more to say, and about some of it I have comments, observations, and mathematical reconstructions that are of some interest, but I cannot go into all of that here, so those of you who wish to follow along may consult my book, Understanding Marx.
I began with a puzzle:  Why does Marx write in a style utterly unlike that of any other economist, historian, or sociologist who has ever lived?  I suggested that he chose his unorthodox literary style because he thought that it was required in order for him to capture successfully on the page his extraordinarily complex and many-layered understanding of the reality of capitalist society.  After thirteen Parts of this narration, I still have not explained what I mean by that claim.  My thesis is, to put it as simply as possible, that in order to describe some reality successfully, an author must have syntactical and rhetorical devices complex enough to mirror the complexity of the reality he or she seeks to describe.  For those of you who cannot get enough of my writing [Lord, let there be at least one person who fits this description!], you can find some of these ideas expanded in a different context in my essay, Narrative Time, available at

Let me illustrate this idea of the relation between language and reality, which is central to my reading of Marx, with a single example from the poetry of John Donne.  Here is Donne's famous poem, "Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward." 

Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul's, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look'st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.
Look at lines eleven through fourteen, which I have highlighted.  Donne here draws the parallel, familiar to his audience, between the sun, which rises each day in the east, and God's Son, who was crucified in the east on this day, Good Friday.  As the sun, by going down, plunges the world into night, so God's Son went down -- died -- but then rose again in the Resurrection.  His going down did endless day beget, for it gave to us the hope of salvation and eternal life, an endless day with no night to bring it to a close.

Donne's metaphors and similes are no mere poet's tricks to decorate a line, acutezze, as the Renaissance rhetorician Emanuele Tesauro called them,  They are intended as a representation of the objective structure of the universe.  For, as Donne says in his Devotions on Emergent Occasions, "My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say, a  literall God ... but thou art also a figurative God, a metaphoricall God too ...Neither art thou thus a figurative, a Metaphoricall God, in thy word only, but in thy workes too."  According to Donne, God built metaphors into His creation.  The poet may invent a parallel between the moon, which shines by the reflected light of the sun, and the lover, who glows in the reflected light of his beloved's beauty.  But the poet does not invent the proportionality between the rising of the sun in the east and the Resurrection of God's Son in Jerusalem.  That parallel has been built into the universe by the Creator God.  Hence, Donne must use metaphor in his poems if he is to capture the true structure of creation.  The rhetorical tropes at his disposal are the subjective correlate of the object of his poem.

Marx was an atheist, and hence he would have rejected the suggestion that there are metaphorical relationships between the sun and the moon, day and night.  But his object was society, not nature, and capitalist society, he believed, is objectively mystified.  Any effort by him to represent social reality accurately would therefore have to employ a language adequate to the complexity of that reality.  That is to say, a literal description of capitalist society cannot possibly capture its true structure, because capitalist society has built into it mystifications -- analogous to the metaphors that Donne's God has built into the solar system -- that are essential to what it is.  Capitalism is an economic system built on, and having built into it, misrepresentations, falsifications, mysteries, without which it could not exist as capitalism.  Hence the mathematical models used by the Sraffians and mathematical Marxists cannot correctly represent capitalism as it really is.

It is useful here to remind ourselves of Erich Auerbach's great classic work, Mimesis.  In the middle chapters, Auerbach, who was a specialist in medieval Romance languages and literatures, shows us the stark simplicity of the motivations of the actors in the Chanson de Roland, which is all that the early French can capture with its relative paucity of syntactic devices.  But by the time of the writing of the Decameron, Auerbach teaches us, the rich supple syntactic devices of Renaissance Italian permitted Boccaccio to capture two or even three points of view in a single sentence, thus making possible some of the great comic scenes of that classic.

Now, the literary trope central to Marx's undertaking is irony.  Irony is a mode of discourse that employs an utterance with a double meaning, to which correspond two audiences.  The first, or superficial, audience understands only the apparent or superficial meaning, and thinks, wrongly, that it has understood the communication entire.  The second, or real, audience understands both meanings [irony is thus distinct from ambiguity] and understands as well that the first audience has misunderstood the utterance.  Subjectively, irony is thus a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the superficial audience, which explains the feeling of shared superiority engendered by the irony.  Objectively, irony is the appropriate trope to capture the distinction between social appearance and reality.

One silly example, taken from an early edition of my textbook, About Philosophy, will illustrate the nature of ironic communication.  A young woman from a strait-laced proper family with old-fashioned views about unmarried women and sexuality is asked out on a date by a young man with whom she is secretly having an affair.  When the young man comes to pick up the young woman at her home, he finds her mother at the door, looking rather forbidding.  The mother tells her daughter that she is to be home by ten, not a moment later.  As the couple are leaving, the mother calls after the daughter, "You be a good girl, do you hear?", meaning, of course, no hanky-panky.  The couple go not to the movie they have said they will be attending but to the young man's apartment, where they make love.  Promptly at ten, the young man brings the young woman home, and sure enough, finds the mother waiting, arms crossed and face set in a grim stare.  "Were you a good girl?" she asks her daughter.  The young man answers for her, saying, "Oh yes, she was good.  She was very good."

The young man has engaged in ironic communication.  The apparent audience is the mother, the real audience is the young woman.  The apparent meaning is "Your daughter did not engage in any activity that you would consider inappropriate."  The real meaning is, "You were really hot tonight."  The mother hears only the apparent meaning, which she mistakenly thinks is the real meaning.  The daughter hears both meanings, and is both flattered by the compliment and amused by the joke that she and her young man are sharing, unbeknownst to the mother.

Tomorrow, I shall turn a trifle more serious.


Monday, February 18, 2013


Several people have asked how to access the essays and books that I have archived on  Here is how.  When you look at my blog, at the very top is the banner headline "The Philosopher's Stone."  Just below that is an out-of-date instruction [in ugly yellow] that I must update some time.  Below that is "Total Page Views" and below that is the current number.  The next line says "Archive of Wolff Materials" and the very next line is a link to  If you click on that, you will be taken to a long list of titles, each of which is a book or tutorial or published essay or mini-tutorial or Appreciation.  Just page down to find what you are looking for.

The message on the side of the blog about a gadget no longer working has been removed.  It refers to the gadget that lists the most recent comments.  I have no idea why it is no longer working.  As should be obvious, I view all of this in somewhat the same way that the Hopi viewed their rain dance -- i.e., it is magic, and only works if you do it exactly correctly. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013


The model itself can be found in the essay that I have deposited in  For those of you who choose not to look at it there, suffice it to say that the central idea is to model the workers' production of labor as an industry, on a par with all the others, in which however there is a rate of return that is distinct from the rate of return in the other industries of the economy.  Because the workers cannot shift their "capital" into other lines of production, they are unable to capture a portion of the higher rate of return being offered there.  Hence their rate of return, if indeed it rises above zero [which is to say, if the workers can manage to do better than mere subsistence], will always be lower than the society wide profit rate.  Analytically, what this means is that whereas they are compelled to sell their "product" [their labor] at its labor value, they must buy their inputs [their food, clothing, and shelter] at prices above their labor value.  This has the effect of transferring away to the producers of those wage goods a portion of the labor value produced by the workers.  Not surprisingly, it is easy to show that the quantity of value this transferred away from the workers by forcing them to pay higher prices just exactly equals the value of the physical surplus generated in the economy and also exactly equals the money profit earned by the capitalists.  If this does not seem intuitively obvious, reflect on the fact that in an economy hell-bent on expansion ["Accumulate, accumulate. That is Moses and the Prophets."], the consumers of final goods are the workers.  The consumption of the parsimonious, pious, Puritanical capitalists is negligible -- there are, after all, very few of them relative to the workers.


Let us stand off a bit from the detail of the model and reflect on what our analysis has taught us. According to Marx, the central craziness (Verrücktheit, he calls it) of capitalism is the fact that the capacity to labor, to transform nature purposefully and artfully in the service of human need, is treated in the marketplace as a commodity. This absurdity has its historical roots in the separation of the working class from the means of production. It is, under capitalism, the root and source of exploitation, which, technically speaking, is the extraction from a factor of production of more value than is embodied or contained within it.


Thus far, I follow Marx completely. His insight is, in my judgment, correct, as are the essential elements of his historical account. (The two other fundamental crazinesses of capitalism, to which Marx devotes equal attention, are the emergence of money and capital as objectively real social forms, and the existence of internal crises of over-production.  I cannot spend as much space here as would be required to deal with those "contradictions," although a fully adequate reconstruction of Marx's political economy must deal with both in such a manner as to establish their relationship to the treatment of labor power as a commodity.)


Marx locates exploitation in the sphere of production, not in the sphere of circulation (behind the factory door, not in the sunlit market), and identifies exploitation with the extraction of surplus labor-time from the workers. His principal analytic maneuver is the distinction between labor and labor power, and his most powerful justification for the labor theory of value is its success, in conjunction with that distinction, in identifying the precise source and quantity of surplus value extracted by the capitalists in the process of production. Marx's analysis of exploitation is incorrect, as we have seen. But his central insight is perfectly correct: the root of exploitation, and the source of surplus value, is the treatment of labor power as a produced commodity.


However, exploitation does not take place in the sphere of production; nor does it take place in the sphere of circulation. Rather, the extraction of the surplus from the workers takes place in the interaction between the spheres of production and circulation. To be precise, the extraction of the surplus comes about through the fact that the workers are forced to sell their product (labor power) at its labor value, but must purchase the non-labor inputs into their production process (that is, their food, clothing, and shelter) at prices driven above their values. Capitalists are able to earn the economy-wide rate of profit because they are able to shift their capital into or out of lines of production according to whether the short-term, or market profit-rate is above or below the natural or economy-wide profit rate. The anomalous status of workers prohibits them from shifting their "capital" about in search of a higher rate of return, and the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed effectively drives the rate of return in the labor-producing industry down to zero.


In Capital, Marx represents the workers, with bitter irony, as suffering exploitation because of the sheer metaphysical accident that their product happens to be capable of creating exchange value when it is consumed as a use value. In short, Marx says that the workers can be exploited because labor is the substance of value. The truth, not surprisingly, is the exact opposite: labor is the substance of value ­because the workers can be exploited!


To put the same point somewhat differently, the distinguishing logical feature of labor in a formal model of a capitalist economy is not that it must be chosen as numeraire, for that is simply false; nor that commodities, at their natural prices, exchange in proportion to the quantities of labor directly or indirectly required for their production, for that too is false. The distinguishing logical feature of labor in a capitalist economy is that the industry producing it does not in general earn the uniform rate of return on the value of capital invested. Any notational system which contains within it enough in the way of formal differentiation to permit an adequate representation of the formal structure of capitalism will preserve this logical peculiarity. It makes no difference whether we use the Greek letter lambda to signify that we are representing labor. What matters is that the logical, or formal, relationships between labor and the other elements of a capitalist economy be modeled in our formal system. So long as this condition is met, the formal structure we set out will be adequate to serve as the basis for an analysis of exploitation consonant with Marx's central insights.


There is a very great deal more to be said about the implications of this analysis, of course, and I simply cannot impose upon my little band of readers to that extent.  But it is worth saying a few things to connect this analysis with the situation we confront in contemporary capitalist society, which differs in important respects from the world Marx was writing about.


Marx treated all labor as essentially interchangeable [referring on occasion to skilled labor as simply a "multiple" of unskilled labor.]  This makes it possible for us to model capitalism as having a single labor-producing sector with a single "rate of return," ρ.  He believed that historical forces were inexorably destroying the traditions of skilled labor, replacing it with semi-skilled machine tending labor.  Indeed, this homogenization of labor, he thought, was the condition for the development of a unified proletariat.  It was, on the side of labor, the counterpart, he thought, to the progressive absorption of small capitals into big capitals, leading eventually to a confrontation between big capital and organized labor.


But the reality, one hundred fifty years after the publication of Capital, is different.  We see a segmented labor sector with seemingly permanent distinctions between unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled labor.  To model this situation properly we would need to introduce a number of distinct labor producing sectors, each with its own capital requirements [most notably in the form of education, resulting in what Gary Becker called human capital.]  As Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis showed many years ago in a fascinating journal article, this situation leads to what they called "relative exploitation."  That is to say, capital exploits labor, and skilled labor relatively exploits unskilled labor.


All of this, in a quite natural way, can be understood as resulting from the different degrees of freedom with which workers in one or another of these "labor industries" can shift their "capital" so as to capture a larger share of the surplus.  Intuitively, an unskilled worker who manages to acquire some post-secondary education acquires "capital" that allows her to shift to a different line of labor production without "cashing in" her body by dying.  She has capital other than her body that can actually be transferred to a different line of labor production.  It remains the case that she is exploited, and hence that the return that she earns on her capital is lower than the return on money capital earned by capitalists.  But she does manage to appropriate some portion of the social surplus, which enables her to live markedly better than those in the unskilled labor sector.  Not surprisingly, once she has made that transition, she does not retain either a subjective sense of solidarity with her former comrades nor an objective community of interest that could serve as the basis for the successful organizing of a united labor front.


By means of a formal analysis, I have managed to introduce the odd notion of a formal model capturing and encapsulating the mystification and false consciousness of capitalist economy and society.  This takes us part of the way to an explanation of Marx's highly unusual language in Capital, the puzzle with which I started, but to complete my explanation, I must now spend some time talking directly about language.  So tomorrow we take leave for a bit of economics and linear algebra and turn to English Metaphysical Poetry of the seventeenth century.  You humanists can breathe a sigh of relief.