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Saturday, March 2, 2013


Marx needs a language whose syntactic and tropic resources are rich enough to permit him to perform a number of literary and theoretical tasks simultaneously.  First of all -- and this, I urge on you, is absolutely indispensable -- the language of Marx's discourse must permit him to represent the quantitative relationships that actually obtain in capitalist production and exchange.  In other words, it must be a language and a set of concepts with which he can formulate a satisfactory theory of price, or, more broadly, a satisfactory theory of distribution and growth. 

Many modern students of Marx, who come to him from the disciplines of philosophy, literature, political science, or history fail to recognize the absolute necessity of this requirement.  Puzzled, or else discouraged, by the complexities of the classical theory of natural price, and unable to master the modern mathematical reinterpretation of Marx's theories, these readers allow themselves to imagine that Marx's vision of capitalism can be rendered in purely qualitative and social-psychological terms.  But Marx himself knew better.  Only an account of capitalism that establishes with quantitative precision the locus and magnitude of exploitation can hope to accomplish the destructive critique that Marx thought himself to have devised.

But this is merely one half of the task Marx faced, for while revealing the quantitative determination of prices, wages, and profits, and thereby the underlying structure of exploitation, the language of Capital must permit Marx also to articulate the structure of mystification that conceals the exploitative and self-destructive character of capitalism.  It must be possible, in this language, not merely to state a theory of price alongside a theory of mystification, but actually to capture linguistically the way in which the mystification of value and equal exchange serve as the necessary surface appearance of the underlying structure of exploitation.

In addition, the language of an appropriate political economy must serve to implicate the speaker in the very patterns of mystification that are exposed.  It must be a language that can express a self-understanding of our own false consciousness, and of the degree to which we have managed to liberate ourselves therefrom.  As this last point, even now, may be unclear, let me spend just a few moments expanding on the idea.

For some years now, cattycorner across West Barbee Chapel Road from my condo there has been a small coffee shop called The Bean Trader.  In the large parking lot for the Harris Teeter supermarket just opposite the cafe, one often sees parked a sleek blue car with the provocative North Carolina license plate "116Bway."  Since I know, as an old upper West Side Manhattan resident, that 116th St. and Broadway is the location of Columbia University, I was curious about the owner.  When I walked over to the car one day to look inside for any evidences of the owner's identity, I noticed that the car is a Bentley, which is to say a car indistinguishable from a Rolls Royce save for the famous RR grill.  Now I do not keep track of the prices of super luxury cars, but I was pretty sure that I was looking at a quarter of a million dollars of automobile.  Somehow, even though I did not find the car especially attractive, and despite my deep understanding of Marx's critique of commodity fetishism, I felt a slight tingle, a little thrill, at the thought of so much money sitting in front of me on the hoof, as it were.  Eventually, by the way, I found out that the car belongs to the owner of the Bean Trader, a wealthy UNC surgeon who attended Columbia as an undergraduate and never got over it.

I have been to the Louvre in Paris, and I have seen the Mona Lisa behind its thick plate of protective glass in a little room off the Denon wing.  It is not, by a long shot, my favorite painting in that gallery, but I am incapable of looking at it without being aware of the enormous price it would bring if it were ever actually to be offered at auction.

In short, I, and I imagine virtually everyone in the modern world, experiences as thought it were an objective fact the exchange value of commodities.  I may mock this awareness, I may rail against it, I may ostentatiously deny it by wearing old clothes and riding a rickety bicycle and refusing to bathe, but, like the lapsed Catholic who still feels the tug of the confessional, I cannot achieve the innocence satirized in The Gods Must Be Crazy.  We are implicated in the mystifications of commodity fetishism, our world view incorporates into itself the distortions and dehumanizations wrought by capitalism, and therefore the only truly honest way to describe these phenomena is through the use of an ironic voice that acknowledges our implication while it works to destroy it.

But the language we use for our characterization of capitalism cannot be entirely self-contained in its scope of theoretical applicability.  It must offer the resources for an eventual transcendence of the mystifications of the capitalist marketplace.

All this, I suggest, Marx sought to accomplish by means of the ironic discourse of the opening chapters of Capital.  Writing for an audience that had been reared on the mysteries and incantations of Christianity, he invoked its most powerful metaphors to force upon his readers a self-awareness of their complicity in the inversions and fetishism of capitalist market relations.  By "coquetting with Hegel," as he himself described his discussion of the concepts of value and money, Marx clearly hoped to jolt the complacent apologists of capitalism into a realization of the opacity, mystery, and underlying irrationality of their putatively transparent explanations of prices, wages, and profits.

If I am correct in my reading of Capital, then we must reject, or at least significantly reinterpret, Marx's oft-repeated claim that his political economy, in contradistinction to that of so many of his predecessors, is scientific.  In advancing that claim, Marx clearly had two contrasts in mind, both of which, I think, are sustained by my reading of the text.  First, he meant to counterpose his work to that of the utopian socialists, who, he thought, conjured their fantasies of a better world with little or no analysis of the structure of capitalism and its root in exploitation.  Second, he wished to contrast his work, and that of selected authors such as Ricardo, to the superficial apologetics of the post-Ricardians whom he stigmatized as vulgar economists.  Scientific political economy, he held, penetrates the surface appearances to reveal the objective structure of exploitation underneath, whereas vulgar economy, like the pseudoscience of the denizens of Plato's cave, merely contents itself with predicting the flicker of the shadows on the wall.

Clearly, Marx is right to insist that his enterprise be disassociated both from utopian dreaming and vulgar apologetics.  But in another, more modern, sense of the term "scientific" Marx is wrong about his own enterprise, and indeed about social analysis and critique in general.  Precisely because Marx's vision of capitalist society requires for its expression an ironic authorial voice, Capital is not, in the modern acceptation, a scientific work.  Its insights and revelations are imperfectly rendered by a textbook redaction of the theory of surplus value.  Like a great novel, a great work of social theory is an inherently perspectival rendering of an authorial vision.  Its truth as well as its power resides at least in part in the ironic implication of its author in the mystifications and injustices that it exposes.

It is for this reason that we continue to read Capital a century and a half after its publication.  And it is for this reason, as well, that we who aspire to follow Marx's path must struggle to find for ourselves a voice in which to speak of the inversions, the mystifications, the verr├╝cktheit, of our own age.


Conrad Decker said...

If Capital has a fundamentally ironic structure, doesn't this imply an ironic distance between Marx himself and the "Marx" who purports to be the author of the book? If so, was Marx himself aware of this distance or was he himself at least partially the victim of his own irony?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is an interesting question, and I don't have a snappy answer to it. Novelists, of course, often adopt an ironic relation to their narrators [see Thackery and Becky Sharp, for example], but CAPITAL is not a novel. I think Marx was fully aware of the complexity of the "voice" in which he wrote CAPITAL, for all that he might not have described it as I have. There are lots of places [some of which I cite] in which he makes it clear that he understands the multi-layered nature of what he is saying.

Don Schneier said...

A perhaps insuperable problem for any effort to avoid such mystification is the subject-predicate structure of grammar, which encourages the atomization and reification of any 'subject'.