My Stuff

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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."

Total Pageviews

Friday, September 29, 2023


And so we come now to the famous mysterious puzzling section entitled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.”  A word about Marx’s use of the term “fetishism.”  The term derives from the Portuguese and was first used by 17th-century sailors who encountered peoples on the West Coast of Africa.  A fet\ish is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “material image of a religious idea …; a material object in which force is supposed to be concentrated …; a material object, or a class of material objects, plants, or animals, which is regarded by man with superstitious respect, and between whom and man there is supposed to exist an invisible but effective force.”  


Marx writes, “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.” inseparable from the production of commodities.”


Marx is here asserting something astonishing, something that flatly contradicts everything that had been written about political economy before and virtually everything that has been written since.  This is, in a way, the most important claim Marx makes and we need to understand it before we can move on to the theory he sets forth in later chapters.


Several pages later he asserts, “When I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form.  …The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.”


It was a commonplace with Marx and Engels, so often repeated as to become a cliché, that the Germans were essentially philosophical (which was to say, religious), the French political, and the English practical (or economic). The first of these three great realms of thought and practice – the philosophical or religious – had been dramatically demystified by Kant’s refutations of the claims of rational theology, by David Strauss’s assault on the historicity of the Gospels in his influential Life of Jesus, and above all by Ludwig Feuerbach’s thoroughgoing secularisation of God in The Essence of Christianity. The effect, Wizard-of-Oz-like, had been to blow away the clouds of incense, revealing the church in its true nature as a secular institution, created by man as an instrument of domination.


The second realm, the political, had been washed clean of its especial and peculiar mystery by the bloodbath of the French Revolution. When the head of Europe’s most glorious king fell into a basket and the heavens did not open, the aura of monarchy was forever dissipated. There were attempts, of course, to revive the corpse, most notably Hegel’s desperate defence of the majesty of the ruler. Indeed, one of Marx’s most serious early efforts at philosophical criticism is aimed at that defence. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, despite its almost impenetrable obscurity, is a shrewd and focused attack on the first premise of the mystified state, namely the claim that the existence of the state is logically and ontologically prior to that of its subjects, and hence that the state takes moral and political precedence over them as well.


Needless to say, new mystifications of the state were readied to replace the old. As the divine right of kings retreated to the nursery, there to take up residence in fairy tales of peasant maids and frog princes, the doctrine of popular sovereignty stepped forward as the new sophistry by which power misrepresented itself as authority. With the hindsight of yet another century, we are forced to acknowledge the tenacity of these myths of the state. As the churches empty, the public squares fill up with deluded citizens ready to cheer the latest pretender to state authority.


By the time Marx was a young man, several centuries of effort by Enlightenment thinkers had prepared the way for dispelling the clouds obscuring the truth about the altar and the throne.  And, the young Marx believed, the bourgeoisie had completed the process with rergarfd to the market. Here is what he and Engels have to say near the beginning of the Manifesto:


“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”


In 1848, it appeared to Marx, Engels, and many others that Europe was on the edge of revolutionary change. But the failure of the revolutionary efforts of 1848 fundamentally altered Marx’s understanding of the nature of bourgeois capitalism. (This is speculation on my part, but it appears to me to make sense.) Marx seems to have come to the conclusion that bourgeois capitalism was as mystified as medieval feudalism had ever been, and that this is what explains the tone, language, and deliberate mystification of the early chapters of Capital. 


However, in attempting to demystify the marketplace, as his predecessors had the altar and the throne, Marx encountered a special problem, reminiscent of that with which Socrates had wrestled two thousand years earlier. For the marketplace did not seem to call for demystification. Mysteries there might be in the throne room or the sacristy, but what mysteries could lurk in the marketplace? There all was plain as day. Men came to trade, to bargain, to advance their individual interest as shrewdly as they might. They wore everyday clothes, not ritual garments tricked out with precious gems in iconic patterns. They spoke the demotic tongue, priding themselves on being simple, straightforward, no-nonsense men. The political economists who recorded and anatomized the doings of the marketplace reflected this simplicity, this absence of pendulous transcendent significance, of shadow and echo. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, all wrote a transparent, serviceable prose – clear, efficient, devoid of the metaphor and metaphysics that clouded the great rationalisations of church and state. Land, labour, and capital. Equals exchanged for equals in a sunlit market where every interaction was a contract, every contract a quid pro quo and the law enforced all contracts with blind impartiality. The English had no head for theological subtleties, and their Reformation, unlike Germany’s, had arisen more from the concerns of the flesh than from those of the spirit. Their brutal truncation of monarchy had been softened by the compromises of the Glorious Revolution. Where better than in England to observe the plain dealings of the market, free of the lingering wisps of religion or monarchy?


Or so it seemed. For Marx was persuaded that the market was more deeply mystified than ever the altar or the throne had been. The market was a strange and ghostly place, inhabited by things that behaved like people, and people who were treated, and came to treat themselves, as things. Marx’s predecessors had failed to discern any mystery in the exchange of commodities on the market. There were puzzles, to be sure; theoretical problems, such as the nature of rent, or the consequences of taxation; but not mysteries. The market, they supposed, was a realm of scientific investigation from which the last ghostly shreds of mystification had been blown away by the clean air of secular reason.


But Marx thought that the “scientific” explanations of the classical economists, apparently so straightforward and empirical, were in fact wildly metaphysical. Why then take up the language and concepts of so unsatisfactory a theory? Why not simply brush the theory aside and put in its place a new and better account of capitalism? Or, at the very least, why not quickly and effectively expose the mystifications to an audience already attuned to the secular?


Alas, demystification presupposes the acknowledgement of mystery, and the classical political economists were unaware of any mystery in the marketplace. The communicant, in the presence of the Host, experiences a tremulous awe that cries out to the secular mind to be explained – or explained away. But the political economist, confronted by a commodity, feels no tingle of divinity, no sense of things unsaid and unseen. Marx’s first problem is thus like Socrates’: He must lead his audience to the recognition that they are in need of enlightenment before he can even begin to provide it. Marx undertakes, in a theoretical tour de force, to extract his own doctrine of exploitation and accumulation from the bowels of classical political economy by demonstrating that the Ricardian theory of value is incapable of accounting for the central phenomenon of capitalism, namely profit. He must therefore begin with the mystified premises of value theory in order simultaneously to expose and transcend them.


More subtly, Marx wishes to assert, as an indispensable tenet of his analysis of capitalism, that the particular obfuscations exhibited in classical political economy are the necessary and characteristic mode in which capitalist social relations misrepresent themselves. Consider what he says in the next paragraph after the passage I quoted earlier:  “the categories of bourgeois  economy consist of … forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.”


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 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 labour 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 theorising 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. 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 pre-capitalist craft pride, may incline him to a more costly suiting than the market demand justifies. Soon he will find himself 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 senses 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.


Competition standardises commodities, substitutes abstract calculation for concrete technical judgment, stifles passions and affections 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. The same historical process of development produces a mass of workers who, in the homogeneity of their culture, their mobility, and their lack of particularised skills, approximate ever closer to the inverted ideal of abstract labour. As the rational becomes real, the real becomes ever more irrational. These absurd forms of thought – the commodity as quantum of crystallised value, the worker as petty commodity producer of abstract labour – acquire social validity and hence objectivity, which is to say that successful day-today interaction with the world of work and consumption, of production and circulation, requires workers and 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 he 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 labour 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 fulfilment of her nature. But the exigencies of profitability demand the services of a neutral, adaptable labour 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 labour 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 labour, the more likely he is to get and hold a job, win the praise of those around him, and 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 in the 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 naturally 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-maximisation 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.


Every mode of production, Marx argues, rationalises and justifies its social relationships of production in a distinctive manner. Capitalism’s strategy of justification is to present a surface appearance of justice and equal exchange, so concealing its fundamental exploitative nature as to appear to have nothing to hide. Marx must find a language that will permit him to do three things at once. First, his language must express the mysteriousness of our daily experience of commodity production and exchange; Second, it must lead us to confront that mysteriousness; and Third, it must help us to dispel the illusion so that we may apprehend the real nature of capitalist social relations and move beyond the false clarity of classical political economy to a true understanding of exploitation, accumulation, and crisis. Marx seeks, furthermore, a discourse that will permit him, while accomplishing this complex effort of demystification, still to capture and express the extent to which he, and we, as participants in the mystified social order of capitalism, preserve its illusions, fetishisms, and mysteries even as we expose them and strive to overcome them. Marx’s language in the opening chapters of Capital is artfully devised for these purposes, while permitting the expression of complex moral sentiments in a fashion that would be prohibited by the style of Value, Price, and Profit. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that Capital is a work of high literary art whose dominant metaphors, ironic structure, and authorial voice subserve a deliberate philosophical purpose.


Thursday, September 28, 2023


 From time to time the real world does intrude on serious work.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023


The first chapter of Capital is so puzzling, so completely unlike anything that political economists had written before Marx – or indeed, since Marx – that it requires a number of implausible interpretive maneuvers to make sense out of. The third section of chapter 1, entitled “The Form of Value or Exchange Value,” can I think best be made sense of by comparing it structurally to the inversion of an old Jewish joke.


Mrs. Feinschmeck’s little boy Reuben developed a terrible phobia about blintzes. Whenever Mrs. Feinschmeck brought a platter of delicious cheese blintzes to the table, Reuben would let out a cry of terror and flee to his room. As blintzes were the pièce de résistance of Mrs. Feinschmeck’s culinary repertoire, this posed a serious domestic problem. Mrs. Feinschmeck pleaded and wept. Mr. Feinschmeck threatened and also wept. But nothing could woo Reuben from his irrational fear of blintzes. Finally, in desperation, Mrs. Feinschmeck sought the advice and counsel of the leader of the Reformed Temple, Dr. Lewis (son of Reb Levi, the leader of the Orthodox community). Dr. Lewis, who had studied abnormal psychology and psychiatric counselling at Brandeis University, opined that Reuben’s phobia grew out of nothing more than an inadequate understanding of the nature of the blintz. If Mrs. Feinschmeck would take Reuben into the kitchen and proceed step by step before his very eyes through the making of blintzes, Reuben would see that there was nothing mysterious or ominous in the component elements of the blintz. By accustoming himself slowly to the coming-in to-being of the blintz, Reuben would lose his phobic fear. For, as the great (albeit goyische) philosopher Immanuel Kant had observed, “Reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own.”


Mrs. Feinschmeck dutifully gathered up the ingredients, sat Reuben on a kitchen chair in full view of the worktable and stove, and began to make blintzes. At each stage, she turned to Reuben to see whether he was becoming frightened. She mixed up the filling. “Is it all right, Reuben?” “It’s all right, Mama.” She made the batter. “Is it all right, Reuben?” “It’s all right, Mama.” She made the first paper-thin pancake, laid it on the table, and placed a big spoonful of filling in the middle of the pancake. “Is it all right, Reuben?” “It’s all right, Mama.” She folded over the first corner. “I’m all right, Mama.” She folded the second corner. “I’m all right, Mama.” She folded the third corner. “I’m still all right, Mama.” Finally, she folded over the last corner. “And there it is, Reuben.”


“Heeeeeellllllpppp!!!! BLINTZES!!!!!!”


The joke is, if I may put it this way, an Enlightenment joke. Phobias are superstitions grounded in an inadequate understanding of nature, society, or culture (the blintz being, at one and the same time, a natural object, a social product, and a cultural icon). The appropriate way to dispel a phobia is to offer a rational explication of the origin and structure of its object. The humor of the joke – such as it may be – derives from the fact that Reuben remains atavistically, irrationally afraid of blintzes, even though it has been demonstrated to him with the clarity of a Voltaire that there is nothing frightening, unexpected, or inexplicable in the pancake, the filling, or the fourfold process by which the two are combined.


In chapter one of Capital, Marx inverts this joke, thereby calling into question the underlying Enlightenment premise of the rationality of social reality. For twenty-five pages he stirs and cooks his mystified metaphysical categories of value until at the end, with a last turn of the pancake, he presents us with the most commonplace, unmysterious phenomenon of capitalist life – a list of prices. The contrast between the vexatious oddity of the derivation and the banality of the product forces us to recognise that our best-loved, most comforting economic concepts are through and through crazy. For, as Marx reminds us on the very next page, a commodity is a very queer thing, “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” .


 The story begins (for it is, in its way, the longest shaggy dog story in the annals of political economy) with the opening paragraph of the third section of chapter one: Commodities come into the world in the shape of use-values, articles, or goods, such as iron, linen, corn, etc. This is their plain, homely, bodily form. They are, however, commodities, only because they are something two-fold, both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value. They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form and a value-form.


The physical or natural form of commodities, their character as natural objects, poses no philosophical problems, however difficult it may be for science to give us adequate explanations of such properties as magnetism or color. But the value of a commodity is another matter. Turn and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will [Marx observes], yet in so far as it remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it. Commodities have a “value-form,” as Marx puts it, which contrasts markedly with their natural form. We experience commodities not only as physical objects with the most varied natural properties, but also as things having value. Commodities do not merely have price tags attached. They present themselves to us as value incarnate, as entities whose essence is their monetary worth. Marx proposes to trace “the genesis of this money-form,” to “develop the expression of value implied in the value-relation of commodities, from its simplest, almost imperceptible outline, to the dazzling money-form.”


What exactly is the puzzle Marx seeks to solve? Where is the mystery to be dispelled? Ricardo and the classical economists explained money-prices as exchange ratios between a variety of commodities and a particular commodity arbitrarily selected as numeraire. Once we understand the notion of an exchange ratio – understand furthermore, how competition and market exchange bring about a system of stable, regular, consistent exchange ratios – there is nothing more to be explained. Money-prices are merely relative prices, or exchange ratios, expressed in terms of the numeraire. The classical account of relative price is perfectly correct as an explanation of exchange ratios, and Marx endorses it in the course of his discussion. But it is a grave mistake, he believes, to suppose that there is nothing more to be said. In fact, there is everything more to be said, for the classical account is utterly unable to explain the nature of money, unable consequently to explain the nature and inevitability of economic crises and the instability of capitalism.


The classical account of relative price, by portraying the system of relative prices as a rational representation of stable exchange ratios regulated by labor-costs of production, systematically conceals the inherent contradictions of capitalism and serves as an ideological mask for the craziness of bourgeois society.


Let us begin by reminding ourselves of the way in which we actually perceive commodities, as opposed to the way in which they are spoken of in economics textbooks. All of us, by the time we are old enough to buy candy at the corner store or play an arcade game, have learned to experience the price of a commodity, its cost, its value, as one of its intrinsic properties. A Mercedes-Benz looks expensive. We don’t need to rehearse its exchange ratios with potatoes or shoes or home computers. We simply see it as expensive, as worth a great deal, just as we see elephants as large or feel lead as heavy. Show me a side chair with carved legs, and I will admire it. Tell me that it is a Goddard piece worth twenty-five thousand dollars and the wood begins to glow. Prove to a collector of fine paintings that her Corot is a fake and it will dwindle in her eyes, not merely in her account book.


We speak of fabrics as having a “rich” texture, of furnishings as “reeking of money.” The value of commodities is as immediately given to us as their colors, tastes, and shapes. Marx subjects these commonplace beliefs and assumptions to a devastating critique. Like Socrates, he uses our unreflective convictions, our unexamined experiences, as a foil for his revelation of the exploitative foundations of capitalism. The starting point for his critique – and, as we shall see, the essential conceptual mystification – is the experience of commodities as quanta of value. Everything in Capital depends upon that starting point. The experience of commodities as quanta of embodied value is universal in capitalist society. Even we few who have achieved a critical ironic distance from capitalism have the experience countless times in every day. What is more – and this, of course, is at the heart of Marx’s argument – we must experience commodities in this way to function efficiently in a capitalist world. Those who are truly innocent of the value-form of commodities walk through the world, like Prince Myshkin, as idiots.


As an intellectual tour de force, Marx undertakes to draw the secret of money and the value form of commodities out of the most elementary value relation imaginable. He begins with what he calls the Elementary or Accidental Form of Value. The simplest value-relation is evidently that of one commodity to some one other commodity of a different kind. Hence the relation between the values of two commodities supplies us with the simplest expression of the value of a single commodity. x commodity A = y commodity B, or x commodity A is worth y commodity B. 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat. The whole mystery of the form of value lies hidden in this elementary form. Its analysis, therefore, is our real difficulty.


The Elementary or Accidental form of value


20 yards of linen = 1 coat


With what appears to be deliberate perversity, but is actually deep insight, Marx insists that we begin by abstracting even from the quantitative aspect of the elementary relationship between twenty yards of linen and one coat, concentrating simply on the assertion that some amount of linen is equal in value to some number of coats. What exactly is involved in the assertion that an amount of linen equals a number of coats? The classical economists tell us that the assertion, x yards of linen = y coats, expresses a relation between linen and coats. The relation is, in the jargon of logicians, symmetric, for if x yards of linen = y coats, then y coats = x yards of linen. But the classical economists are wrong, Marx insists. The assertion x yards of linen = y coats expresses the value of the linen in coats. That is entirely different from the statement, y coats = x yards of linen, which does not express the value of the linen at all.  As Marx explains – if, indeed, such patent obfuscation can be labelled “explanation” -- the value of the linen is represented as relative value, or appears in relative form. The coat officiates as equivalent, or appears in equivalent form.


To grasp what Marx has in mind, we may begin by reflecting on our everyday experience of the sizes and weights of ordinary physical objects. Suppose that my baseball has rolled into a puddle of water, and I want to retrieve it without getting my feet wet. I need something about three feet long, rigid, not too heavy, and preferably long and thin, to reach over the puddle and push the ball out. My baseball bat just fills the bill, and I use it for the purpose. Being about three feet long, being rigid, being long and thin, and being not too heavy are all, in my immediate experience, properties of the bat. They are not relations between the bat and something else.


Although the length of the bat (like its weight, etc.) is a property of the bat itself, I cannot give expression to that property (or, speaking quixotically, the bat cannot give expression to its own length) merely by referring to the bat. How long is the bat? It is no help to say, “It is as long as itself.” That is no doubt true, but it does not express the bat’s length. To express the length of the bat, I must find some already existing measure of length, and set the bat in relation to that measure. I must say, for example, that the bat is three feet long. Perhaps I have a one-foot ruler which I use to measure the bat. I lay the ruler down alongside the bat consecutively and note how many lengths of the ruler can be laid off against the bat from one end to the other. I thereby discover that the bat is three feet long. In this case, the length of the bat (one of its own properties) can find expression only by being set in relation to some other object which, in this context, is officiating as standard of length.


The ruler, meanwhile, stands all by itself as length, as the equivalent of length. It is the standard unit of length even when there is no bat or stick handy to lay it off against. But so long as it plays this role, it cannot itself express its own length. How long is a foot-ruler? One foot is hardly a satisfactory answer. We can, of course, answer “one third of a yard,” but then the yardstick has become the standard of length, and has taken up the role of equivalent form of length. The foot-ruler is now able to express its length in relative form by being set in relation to the yardstick as standard of length.


The psychological shift in perception involved in considering the length of a stick first as the relative form of length and then as the equivalent form of length can be explored a bit more closely by considering the way in which we experience foreign weights and measures when we travel abroad. An American visitor to France who has never been out of the United States before will probably begin by translating prices, weights, and measures into their familiar American equivalents in order to find out how much things really cost, weigh, or measure. If the Euro is currently exchanging for $1.10 then a newspaper that costs two Euros really costs $2.20. A journey of 120 kilometers is really 75 miles long. When the thermometer reads 30°C, it is really 86 degrees.


At first, if I am the traveler, I must carry out this translation in order to grasp the properties of the objects and situations I encounter. I don’t know whether a restaurant is cheap or expensive until I convert its prices into dollars. So too, the two-Euro piece has a certain worth, or value (for I experience it as an object having value, not as the embodiment or equivalent of value). I find out what its value is, I express its value, by ascertaining how much a two-Euro coin will cost me (that is, $2.20). Little by little, a network of associations develops around the two Euro piece, or the meter stick, or the kilometer signs. I begin to know immediately whether a five-kilometer hike is a long walk or a short one, whether I ought to blanch at spending one hundred Euros for a meal, whether a prediction of a 30°C day means shorts and a t-shirt or a jacket and sweater.


Eventually, I may reach a point at which I genuinely switch over to Euros and kilometers and degrees centigrade, in which case the kilometer will take up, for me, the role of equivalent form of length, and the degree centigrade will become the equivalent form of temperature. In that case, when I ask how long a proposed journey is, I will conceive the journey as having a certain length, which is a property of that journey, and I will seek to express that length in terms of the equivalent form of length, namely kilometers. But I will no more experience the question about the length of the journey as an implicit question about the relation between the journey and something else than I did the original question about the length of a kilometer, back when the mile or the foot was, for me, the equivalent form of length.


Thus, statements to the effect that a stick is three feet long or that a book weighs two pounds are experienced by us as descriptions of the properties of the stick or the book, not as assertions of relationships between the stick and a foot-rule, or the book and a lead weight. In like manner, Marx says, we experience statements about the value of a commodity as a quantitative characterisation of a certain property of that commodity, namely its value.


Marx begins with the linen and the coat in order to force us to see that what happens in that rather fatuous example is logically identical with what happens when we say, familiarly, that the linen is worth ten shillings. In the case of the coat and the linen, since neither of those commodities has, in our experience, played the role of money, it seems odd and provocative to say that the value of the linen finds expression in the body of the coat. We are not accustomed to thinking of a length of linen as being worth so many coats, any more than we are accustomed to thinking of a stick as being so many centimeters long. Hence, when Marx forces us to transform the symmetric relation between coats and linen into an expression of the value of the linen by means of the equivalent, coats, we experience his assertions as cognitively dissonant. But, Marx points out, say the same thing in terms of gold or silver and it sounds quite comfortable to the ear.


Marx develops the transition from the simple relation between linen and coats to the full-blown system of monetary exchange of commodities with exquisite slowness and detail. First, as we have seen, he analyses the assertion, linen = coats, only then passing on to the assertion that 20 yards of linen = 1 coat. Finally, he is ready for the second corner of the blintz, which he calls the “Total or Expanded form of value.” At this stage, we have as many assertions of equality between pairs of commodities as there are possible pairs to be compared. Corn and iron, potatoes and shirts, shoes and bibles, tea and silver – for each pair, there is a statement expressing the simple, particular, or accidental form of value.


The Second Corner of the Blintz


The Total or Expanded form of value: 20 yards of linen = 1 coat or = 10 lbs. tea or = 40 lbs. coffee or = 1 quarter corn or = 2 ounces gold or = ½ ton iron or = etc. The next step is the inversion and condensation of these pairwise comparisons so that each commodity, save one, expresses its value in the same commodity as equivalent. In Marx’s example, coats, tea, coffee, corn, gold, iron, and so forth, each express their value in a certain quantity of linen. This is the third corner of the blintz .


The Third Corner of the Blintz

The General form of value

                                               1 coat  =       

                               10 lbs of tea  =

                                  40 lbs of coffee  =

                                   quarter of corn  =  20 yds of linen

                                 2 ounces of gold  =

                                     ½ ton of iron   =

                                      x com. A, etc  =


At this point, for the first time, we as readers may begin to experience linen as truly the equivalent form of value – as money. Especially after a century of anthropological explorations among peoples who use seashells, cows, or glass beads as money, we may have sufficient flexibility of imagination to begin to feel linen as the equivalent form of value, in much the way that we all feel dollars or pounds or Euros as money. But Marx carries the development the final step, and by transposing the linen and the gold, arrives finally, by a turn of the last corner of the blintz, at the money-form of value.


The Last Corner of the Blintz

The Money-form

                                                     1 coat  =

                                             10 lbs of tea  =

                                         40 lbs of coffee  =

                                      1 quarter of corn  =  2 ounces of gold

                                         20 yds of linen  =

                                            ½ ton of iron  =

                                             x com. A, etc  =


To modern readers, the effect of this twenty-page-long development is somewhat blunted by the modern-day absence of gold and silver coins from circulation. Since we do not, today, experience gold as money, as indisputably the equivalent form of value, “20 yards of linen = 2 ounces of gold” may strike us as not too different from “20 yards of linen = 1 coat.” How much is gold selling for these days? we may find ourselves wondering, in an effort to ascertain just how much the 20 yards of linen are worth. But if Marx had carried the development one stage further, and transformed all of these equations into statements of the form “x yards of linen = 1 dollar,” then we could respond to the text in precisely the manner required to grasp its meaning.


Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Capital opens: with these words:  The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, appears as “an immense accumulation of commodities,”[its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”


The principal verb of the opening sentence of Capital is erscheinen als, “appears as.” Marx chooses to begin his analysis of capitalism, and of the theories of capitalism advanced by his predecessors, at the level of appearances, thereby invoking the distinction between appearance and reality on which his entire theoretical enterprise depends.


The image conjured by Marx is a striking one. We begin with the marketplace, the sphere of circulation, where what we first encounter as we look about us are enormous heaps of consumer goods. At the most superficial level, capitalism is a cornucopia from which tumble in great profusion coats, shoes, carriages, loaves of bread, and bottles of wine.


We can compare Marx’s figure with Engels’s vivid description of the city of Manchester in his early book The Condition of the Working Class in England. Manchester, Engels tells us, “is a sort of architectural embodiment of the contrast between appearance and reality: The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks… Manchester contains, at its heart, a rather extended commercial district, perhaps half a mile long and about as broad, and consisting almost wholly of offices and warehouses… The members of [the] money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. For the thoroughfares leading from the Exchange in all directions out of the city are lined, on both sides, with an almost unbroken series of shops.”


What is a commodity?  “A commodity” Marx says, “is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.”  The properties of a commodity in virtue of which it satisfies human wants are aspects of it as a natural object – its weight, colour, texture, potentiality for chemical interactions, and so forth. The commodity, qua natural object, possesses these properties wherever and whenever it exists. Magically remove a loaf of bread ten thousand miles or ten thousand years from the place where it has been baked and it will nourish as well. A coat will protect us from the elements under any social, historical, or ideological conditions. Hence it would appear, if we are hard-headed, sensible empiricists, that the natural properties of commodities are its real properties, and anything science can tell us about these real properties will serve to reveal their essential nature to us. In fact, however, this inference is merely the first of a series of misleading and mystifying inversions by which, in the realm of the economic, reality is made to change places with appearance.


The natural properties of commodities, the properties that first strike our senses as we window-shop along the shop-lined avenues of Manchester, are strictly speaking not properties of commodities at all. For, as Marx tells us, a commodity “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”  Indeed, a commodity, strictly speaking, is not an object of sense perception at all. Ten yards of linen, qua cloth, can be seen, felt, cut, sewn, folded, packaged, and transported from a factory to a retail outlet. But ten yards of linen, qua commodity, cannot be seen, felt, or physically manipulated. For a commodity is a queer thing, a thing full of metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. Only the doubting Thomases of this world sniff the sacramental wine as the chalice is passed to them, expecting somehow that through the miracle of transubstantiation the sweet odour of wine will give way to the stench of blood.


But if commodities are not physical objects, what then are they? Or, to put the same question somewhat differently, in virtue of what are the linen, the coat, the corn, and the iron commodities? Here is Marx’s answer, which I shall quote at some length.


“If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use-value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.


Let us now consider the residue of each of these products. It consists of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour, of labour-power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labour-power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are – Values.”




The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous labour, expenditure of one uniform labour-power.  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 commodity-ness of a commodity – is a crystal of abstract homogeneous social labour. The quantum of exchange value congealed or crystallised in each commodity can neither be seen nor felt nor smelt nor tasted. This homogeneous, infinitely divisible, non-sensory stuff, this value, is contained in the products of labour 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 still more. When they grow old and rich, 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 labour” 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 in 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 absurd, verrückt:


“If I state that coats and boots stand in relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of human labour, the absurdity [die Verrücktheit] of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, if the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with 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 absurd form.”


A word about the translation of Aveling and Moore.  They render die Verrücktheit  as “absurdity.” This is a perfectly fine nineteenth century translation, but twentieth century philosophers have, so to speak, given absurdity a good name.  It would be more accurate to translate die Verrücktheit as crazy, crack-brained, insane.


 It will require a good deal of analysis and exegesis to clarify Marx’s complex reasons for defining the commodity in this deliberately crack-brained way.  Let us begin with Ricardo’s claim that commodities exchange in proportion to the quantities of labor directly and indirectly embodied in them.


The farmer plants and hoes and weeds and reaps and brings to the market his baskets of wheat. The tailor cuts and sews and measures and fits and brings to market his coats. The labor performed by the farmer is nothing like the labor performed by the tailor. One works outdoors in the bright sun all day or in the rain, the other sits crosslegged in a shop. Clearly, if we are to think of the tailor and the farmer as exchanging commodities containing equal quantities of labor, we must abstract from the concrete particularity of the labors they perform. So it is not actual concrete laboring that is embodied in their products but abstract labor.


Now, no one performs actually abstract labor (with the possible exception of philosophers.) So already in this simplest example, we see that Ricardo’s formulation is covertly a good deal more mysterious than it seems.


But suppose there are a number of tailors in town cutting and sewing and stitching and fitting and bringing coats to market.  Most of them, we may imagine, are using the very latest techniques of tailoring – electric sewing machines, perhaps. But one old tailor, stuck in his ways, still makes coats in the manner of his youth, expending more labor on each coat then the other tailors because he has not adopted the new laborsaving techniques. When he comes to market, he offers his coats at a higher price, explaining that they required more labor for their production. The buyers, however, who are looking to buy coats are not interested in the particularities of his tailoring techniques.  They seek only the cheapest coat that fits them and suits their needs.


Let us look at this a bit more carefully. You will recall that when I set up my little equations for system C, I begin by constructing and then summing an infinite series of ever smaller bits of labor expended in previous cycles of production.  Very quickly and without much explanation I argued that in place of those infinite series we could set up and solve a system of simultaneous equations. However, suppose that over the time represented by that backward reaching series, there have been technical improvements in the production of corn or iron or wheat or cloth. In that case, the summation of those infinite series will be different from the solution of the system of simultaneous equations, for the infinite series will contain bits of labor expended at times when the techniques of production were less efficient than they are in the contemporary cycle, whereas the system of simultaneous equations represents the current level of efficiency in techniques of production.


In short, as Marx quite correctly says, but as Ricardo and the others seem not to have understood, the labor theory of value which they all adopted and endorsed implicitly states that commodities exchange in proportion not to the quantities of concrete labor actually expended in this or earlier cycles of production but rather in proportion to the quantities of abstract socially necessary labor expended on their production.


Let us explore this notion still further. Suppose a husband and wife both worked some years ago for the Ford Motor Company. The wife, we may suppose, worked on the production line making Thunderbirds while the husband worked on a different production line making Edsalls.  They were both efficient experienced automotive production workers, and each was working on a production line using the very latest techniques in automobile production. However, the wife was working on a production line making Ford’s most popular line of cars, while the husband, alas, was making Ford’s biggest mistake. Labor expended by the wife was embodied in the products she worked on at full value, while much of the labor expended by her husband, even though he was fully as efficient and competent a worker as she, conferred little or no value on the cars he helped to make, through absolutely no fault of his own.

Monday, September 25, 2023


I have been struggling for several days to continue with my book on Marx. The problem is not my Covid, which by now is pretty much asymptomatic. The real source of my difficulty is that what I have to say is quite complicated and I am not sure how to lay it out in a simple straightforward manner. I hope to have something posted tomorrow and then to continue after that.  I am, however, well aware that sometimes these Covid bouts recur in unpleasant ways so I am not assuming that I am over it. Fortunately, I am safe and comfortable and can look after things pretty easily here in my retirement community. 

More anon.

Saturday, September 23, 2023


 Biden was almost my last choice for the nomination in 2020.  I am delighted that he won, undisturbed by his age (as you might expect), and convinced he can beat Trump again. But there is one more thing that complicates my thinking about him.

Truman never joined workers on the picket line, Kennedy never joined workers on the picket line, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama never joined workers on the picket line. But Biden has announced that he will join workers on the picket line.

That means an enormous amount to me.


Although I am not suffering serious symptoms from the Covid, I find myself without any energy so I have been unable to continue with my Marx book. However, I did want to say a word of thanks to everyone who has expressed good wishes for my recovery.  A special word to Shayan:  I am delighted you have found something of value in my posts on YouTube. Welcome to the blog.

Let me offer one speculation occasioned by the internal incompetence of the House Republican caucus. I wonder whether Jeffries and his aides are sitting quietly, watching McCarthy implode, waiting to make a secret pitch to a group of seven or eight Biden district Republicans, inviting them to switch to the Democratic Party in return for full-scale support in their reelection campaigns next year. They are currently the left wing of the Republican caucus. They would then be the right wing of the Democratic caucus. These sorts of shifts have taken place a number of times in American electoral politics, most notably during my life when the southern segregationist Democrats became Republicans and change the entire electoral map.

It is raining and dismal here in North Carolina, a suitable counterpart to my personal feelings at the moment.

If something like that is to happen, it could only happen after McCarthy's Speakership had been challenged and he had lost several votes.  I may be completely wrong about the possibilities, but if .this is a possibility, I am sure Jeffries haas been thinking about it for months.

Thursday, September 21, 2023


Susie and I both have Covid, we are both on Paxlovid, we are both more or less asymptomatic now although tired, we are both isolated in our apartment with our cat, and since I have finally solved the problem of getting Wegman's to deliver food to us, we have more to eat than we can handle. The major change in my life is that more or less simultaneously with this disease, my Parkinson's got so much worse that  now I can really not move around by myself, even with a three wheel roller. I managed to buy from another Carolina Meadows resident a three wheel electric mobility scoooter, so I go tootling around from bedroom to kitchen the bathroom, scaring the living daylights out of my cat.  I spend a lot of time sleeping, and it may be a while before I can continue putting together my Marx book. Perhaps since Anonymous thinks it is just an assemblage of old things I have published, he could take over from me for a while.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023


 My voice recognition software is so sensitive that now that my voice is roughened by Covid, it does not recognize what I am saying, so I can no longer dictate!


I am on Paxlovid, surviving.  It may be a few days befgore I continue my book. 

Monday, September 18, 2023


 I had a bad night and ran a fever so I am going to get a Covid test.  See you tomorrow.

Sunday, September 17, 2023


 Once again I find that I must make some major revisions in my plans for this synthesis of my various writings on Marx. I have just reread large portions of my second book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  It says much better than I had recalled my analysis of the first chapter of Capital.  Consequently, I am going to revise my discussion of Chapter One of Capital, incorporating large portions Moneybags, which I originally published many years ago. Since I am doing this for myself and for the ages rather than for you, my readers, I am afraid I must simply ask you to bear with me. If you have already read my little book, you can amuse yourself with reports of the Texas Senate refusing to convict and remove the crooked Atty. Gen. of that great state.

Saturday, September 16, 2023


The total compensation this year for the president of General Motors is a bit more than $14 million. A woman working on the assembly line in a GM plant making $20 an hour would have to work for 350 years to earn as much as the president of GM makes in one year.

There is another large American organization with three times as many employees as General Motors. It has headquarters in the United States but branches all over the world. It is widely considered the most efficient organization in its line of work in the world. The man or woman who heads up this organization makes about four times as much as a man or woman working in a position analogous to that of an assembly line worker in GM.  Four times, not 350 times.

I am, of course, referring to the United States Army.

Just saying…

Friday, September 15, 2023


We are about to embark upon an extended interpretative voyage whose purpose it is to explain why Marx writes the opening chapters of Capital as he does. It will take me a while to explain all of this and if you are patient, I hope that what I have to say will be illuminating not just with regard to the text of this puzzling book but for our understanding of the world in which we now live. But I realize it will take some patience on your part to stay with me on this voyage, so I thought perhaps I could make this a little bit easier by suggesting that we begin by taking two field trips.  Because these will be modern technologically advanced field trips, they will not be restricted by time or space or even, as we shall see, by the limitations of economic theory, but I think perhaps you will enjoy them and I hope you will learn something from them.


Our first field trip is to a late medieval cathedral.  I have chosen to take us to Nôtre Dame de Paris because, as you know, my wife and I had a small apartment near that great cathedral for many years.  But we go not in the 21st century as tourists. Rather we go as faithful Catholics of the 15th century. We are dressed in our best clothes, for this is one of the great churches of the world, and we are devout believers. The cathedral stands on the île de la Cité in the middle of Paris. It is much larger than the surrounding buildings, an imposing structure with a dramatic front, the roof supported by flying buttresses. As we enter, we find ourselves in a vast dimly lit space. Light filters in through stained-glass windows high above, quiet men and women kneel in prayer to our left and right. Far away in the middle of the cathedral, lit by banks of candles, is the altar, the focus of our attention. The men who work in the cathedral speak softly and wear strange robes tricked out with iconic symbols. They speak Latin, a dead language mysterious to commoners but understood perhaps by the lords and ladies who come to the cathedral from time to time.  We are very much aware that we were in the presence of mystery, of power, of ancient truths and rituals of which we understand very little.


The great centerpiece of all the activities of the cathedral is the celebration of the mass. This is a ritual recreation of the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before he was crucified. At that Last Supper, you will recall, Jesus offered bread and wine to his disciples saying to them, “take, eat, for this is my body” and “drink, for this is my blood.”  When the priest celebrating the mass raises the wafers and asks for God’s blessing, God works a miracle and changes the wafers into the body of Jesus Christ. When he raises the wine and asks for God’s blessing, God again works a miracle and changes the wine into the blood of Jesus Christ. Thus it is the body and blood of Jesus himself that is offered to the communicants as they kneel before the priest and accept the wafer and a sip of the wine. But the wafer and the wine have been doubly miraculously transformed, for while the substance of the wafer is changed into the substance of the body of Jesus Christ and the substance of the wine is changed into the substance of the blood of Jesus Christ, the sensory properties of the wafer and the wine – the look, the feel, the taste, the smell – the accidents, so called, remain unchanged. That is why this miracle is called “transubstantiation.”


This miracle takes place not only on the holiest of days in the greatest of the Catholic cathedrals. It takes place every time a Catholic priest celebrates a mass, no matter how modest the church or how distant it may be from the centers of Christendom.


This is the central mystery of the entire society, whose legitimacy and seeming eternity rest upon the authority of God.  This incomprehensible divine intervention in the ways of the world is the foundation, the justification, the bedrock on which the entire society is founded. The art, the law, the philosophy, the political authority, and also the subordination of the vast majority of the population – all of them rest on, are justified by, are sanctified by this incomprehensible miraculous transformation called the Catholic mass.


It took the combined efforts of the greatest minds of Europe centuries to demystify these mysteries, to deprive them of their control over our minds, to expose the exploitation and the domination that they sanctified and justified. It is not for nothing that this struggle came to be called the Enlightenment.


That is our first field trip. We have taken it to remind ourselves of the burdens, both intellectual and social, that Europeans had to struggle to free themselves from in order for the modern world to be born.


Now, if we are recovered from that field trip, I shall take us on a second field trip. On this trip we do not travel back in time. Our field trip takes place today. Once again I shall take us to a place with which I am well familiar, not to Nôtre Dame de Paris, but to another building which I know quite well, a building which might be considered the modern American counterpart to a great medieval cathedral, my local supermarket. It is called Food Lion, and is one of a chain of supermarkets in this part of North Carolina, where I now live.


We are wearing our ordinary clothes, shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops, because one does not dress up to go to the supermarket. We park in the parking lot and walk into the store through sliding glass doors. The building has a broad flat roof – no vaults, no stained-glass windows. It is brightly illuminated by neon lights so that every part is brightly lit and as easy to see as every other part. The men and women who work here speak the local tongue, not a dead language.  The large room is filled with row upon row of shelves on which are stacked cans and boxes and other containers of commodities. On the far left of this supermarket are refrigerated containers for ice cream and other perishables. To the right is a section with fresh vegetables and fruits.  After we have made our selections, we roll our shopping carts to the checkout lanes where we exchange money for what we have selected.


While I am waiting to check out, it occurs to me that instead of a bag of sugar I would prefer to have a box of granola. Fortunately, these are priced equally, so when I get to the checkout counter I ask the clerk, “Can I exchange my bag of sugar for a box of granola?”  The checkout clerk replies, “certainly, since they are the same price there is no problem.”  I thank him take my bag of groceries and leave the supermarket.


Putting my groceries into my car before leaving, I reflect on how strikingly different this trip to the supermarket has been from the field trip I took yesterday to a medieval Catholic Cathedral. Instead of my best clothes, I dressed casually without a thought to the appropriateness of what I was wearing.  Yesterday, I had entered a tall imposing building with a vaulted roof, stained-glass windows dimly lit by candles and attended to by a special cadre of men in unusual dress speaking a language I could not understand.  Today, I had gone into a low flat-roofed brightly lit building where there were working young men and women speaking English. Yesterday, I had been awed by the mystery, the majesty, the authority of my surroundings. Today, I had felt completely at home – no mystery, no majesty, no authority, simply rows upon rows of cans, bottles, boxes, bags of commodities.


And yet, this had been no ordinary supermarket for in fact, as I knew but neglected to tell you, it was a Ricardian supermarket, which is to say, a supermarket in which commodities exchange in proportion to the quantities of labor required directly or indirectly for their production. Thus, when I exchange the bag of sugar for the box of granola, I was exchanging two bundles of commodities containing equal amounts of embodied labor. Now, the sensory characteristics of sugar are quite different from those of granola. The sugar is fine-grained, white, and dissolves easily in water whereas the granola is tan in color, chunky, and does not dissolve very well at all. So the accidents of the sugar are quite different from the accidents of the granola. And yet, from the point of view of the salesperson in the store, since they are of equal price, the exchange was an exchange of equals. The substance of the sugar – the quantity of labor directly or indirectly required for its production – being equal to the substance of the granola – the quantity of labor directly or indirectly required for its production, the exchange of the sugar for the granola, it occurred to me, was actually metaphysically speaking the inverse of the miracle of transubstantiation. In the miracle of the mass, the substance is change while the accidents remain the same. In the quotidian swapping of sugar for granola, the accidents changed while the substance remained the same.


And so I thought to myself: if transubstantiation is a miracle and a mystery on which the authority of an entire society rest, perhaps the same is true of commodity exchange. There is only this difference: everyone recognizes that transubstantiation is a mystery and a miracle, whereas nobody realizes that so is commodity exchange.


It is not difficult to persuade people that the medieval church is a center of mystery and miracle, of power and authority. It is therefore, relatively speaking, easy to disabuse people of the mistaken belief in that mystery and miracle and the consequent submission to the power and authority. But it is clearly going to be a great deal more difficult to persuade people that our supermarket is also a center of mystery and miracle and power and authority. It will take a quite extraordinary combination of theoretical analysis and literary skill to communicate so profound and implausible a recognition.


And that, my friends, is why Karl Marx wrote Capital as he did.

Thursday, September 14, 2023


In order for us to understand why Marx has chosen to write the opening chapters of Capital in so strange a fashion, we must take a little time to examine certain matters of literary theory which at first seem very far from the economic, political, and historical issues with which Marx is dealing. I am, of course, not the first commentator to call attention to Marx’s striking literary style.  Edmund Wilson, the great literary critic, in his work To the Finland Station describes Marx as the greatest literary ironist since Jonathan Swift.


Irony is a mode of literary discourse that rests on the oldest and most fundamental distinction in Western philosophy, the distinction between appearance and reality. An ironic communication, strictly speaking, is a communication that presupposes a speaker and two audiences. The first, or apparent, audience is a group of people who believe mistakenly that an utterance is directed to them and who understand only the superficial or apparent meaning of the utterance. The second, or real, audience to whom the communication is actually directed, understands both the apparent or superficial meaning and the deeper real meaning, and knows in addition of the existence of the first or apparent audience and its misunderstanding. Thus, in a manner of speaking, an ironic utterance is a private joke between a speaker and the real audience at the expense of the apparent audience.


Let me give you two examples to illustrate this notion, the first, a facetious example original with me, the second a famous example derived from one of the great novels of the English literary tradition. Facetious first. This is an example I used in the opening chapter of the first edition of my philosophy text About Philosophy. For reasons that will become apparent, it was considered a trifle risqué by the editors at Prentice-Hall and so I dropped it in the second and subsequent editions.


A young man is having a passionate affair with a young woman from a devoutly religious family, who of course know nothing of the affair. He comes calling for her one evening, ostensibly to take her to a church social but actually to go back to his apartment with her to make love for a few hours. When he is leaving with her from her home, her mother says to her “Now dear, you be a good girl, and be back before 10 PM.” The couple go off to the young man’s apartment, and he brings her home shortly before 10. The mother is waiting at the door and when the couple return she says to her daughter, “Were you a good girl?” The young man answers for her, saying “oh yes. She was a good. She was very good.”


The young man’s statement, “she was very good,” is an ironic utterance. The apparent audience is the mother, but the real audience is the young woman. The apparent meaning is “she behaved herself exactly as you would have her behave.” The real meaning, which along with the apparent meaning is understood by the young woman is “you were really hot in bed.”


Now a real example. Jane Austen’s greatest novel, Pride and Prejudice, opens with the following famous line: “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Who is speaking? Clearly not Jane Austen. Nor is it what has been called by literary critics an omniscient narrator. I think we can fairly certainly conclude that the speaker is to be understood by the reader to be either the character in the novel Mrs. Bennett or else one of her circle of friends among the landed gentry in the first decades of the 19th century. Who is the audience for this assertion? The apparent audience is pretty clearly people like Mrs. Bennett and readers, if there are any, who share Mrs. Bennett’s expectations, desires, prejudices, and blindnesses.  The real speaker is of course Jane Austen and the real audience is we, the readers, who understand with Jane Austen both the attitudes and the limitations of people like the fictional Mrs. Bennett.


Austen could have started her novel with the following sentence, which in one way communicates the same information but in another way is entirely different: “Women of the landed gentry in England who had daughters with life prospects that depended on their finding appropriate husbands from the available men in the neighborhood, anxiously viewed every single man of their social class with adequate financial means as a potential husband, and hence took the view, which they readily expressed to their friends, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, a view which they knew was shared by all the other women of their circle and, since they had a rather blinkered view of the world, they thought to be a view that was universally acknowledged.”


The sentence Austen actually begins her novel with is of course more economical and graceful than my rather clunky suggested alternative, but there is more to the matter than that.  Austen’s opening sentence expresses, rather than merely asserting, the unquestioning and blinkered self-confidence of women like Mrs. Bennett, while at the same time giving voice to the distance that Austin and, she hopes, her readers achieve from the Mrs. Bennetts of the world, thereby permitting us to experience at one and the same time the immediacy of Mrs. Bennett’s motherly anxiety and the amusement which Austen views Mrs. Bennett’s attitude.


Let us look into this matter little more deeply.


It has become a commonplace in recent philosophical discussions that language has many functions beyond that of the assertion of propositions, among them the asking of questions, the giving of orders, and the expressing of feelings or attitudes. It is perhaps less obvious that the complexities of the mind – the interrelationships among conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, the ambivalences and ambiguities, the projections, introjections, displacements, and transferences that are the mind’s characteristic modes of operation – impose a corresponding complexity on our uses of language.


If it were always the case that I either believe a proposition or do not, have an attitude toward some matter or do not, intend to issue a command or do not, then simple declarative, expressive, or imperative language would suffice for the accurate rendering of thought into language. But what if the reality is more complex than that? For example, what if I can, in some sense, both believe a proposition and not believe it, all at the same time? Indeed, what if there can be one part of me that believes it, and another part that does not, the part of me that does not believe having won the upper hand after an internal struggle? If I wish to give expression fully to this complex situation, what linguistic resources do I require?


To begin with, I must find a way to speak in the voice of that part of me that has won out, and does not believe the proposition, in order to convey the fact that it has won out – for in the struggles of the mind it is control of the authorial voice, the “I think” of the unity of apperception, that is the prize. As Kant tells us, the “I think” can be attached to all my representations. It is the implicit frame of all knowledge claims, and the identity of the “I” who asserts the proposition is an ineradicable part of what is being asserted. Speaking in that voice, I must say that I do not believe the proposition, while at the same time saying that a part of me does believe it, a part that once controlled the speaking voice but no longer does, a part, however, that is still a part of me. And all this must be said in such a way as to convey what it is to assert a proposition against the resistance of a part of me, so that my asserting of the proposition is not confused, for example, with the placid, unstressful asserting by one for whom the contrary proposition never had any significant valence.


If I were to say, for example, in a neutral, impersonal voice, “A part of me believes such and such, but the real me does not,” then I would, by this locution, distance myself so completely from the part of me that still believes as implicitly to deny that it ever had been a part of me at all. Rather, I must convey the fact that I arrived at my disbelief through a criticism of my earlier belief, and that the belief lives on in me, defeated but not obliterated or extruded. Imagine, for example, 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[1]criticism. The symbols, the myths, the liturgy, the 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 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 in no way distinguishes me from one who has had no religious upbringing and who has never believed. 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 been externalised 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 paragraphs. But that really will not do. 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 the voice of an external observer, a scientific reporter, a neutral party not implicated either in the original Catholic faith nor in its rejection. It is the voice of the cultural anthropologist describing native customs, of the social theorist denying complicity in the popular culture of his own society by his 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. What is more, 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 might be accomplished by means of the adoption of an ironic voice. Asked whether I believe in God, I might reply – employing, ever so faintly exaggeratedly, the singsong tone of the Apostle’s Creed – “I believe in God the Father Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth and in Jesus Christ…” These few words, uttered thus, would capture, for an audience capable of understanding what I was saying, 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 for 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.


Since this point is, in fact, the pivot on which my entire argument turns, I shall belabour it a bit at the risk of growing tiresome. The literary complexity of an ironic reply to the question, “Do you believe in God?” is required by the complexity of the speaking subject who gives the reply. If the self were substantively simple, so that either it believed or did not, asserted or did not, and so on, then simple declarative discourse would suffice. Even if this simple self had emerged from a complex process of development, in the course of which first one belief, then another, first one passion, then another, had held sway, even then, so long as the product of the developmental process were simple, unambiguous discourse would suffice to express its present state. The complexity of the historical development of the self would require no special complexity of expression, so long as that complexity were fully represented in the unified nature of the present ego.


However, if the speaking self is complex, many-layered, capable of reflection, self-deception, ambivalence, of unconscious thought processes, of projections, introjections, displacements, transferences, and all manner of ambiguities – in short, if the history of the self is directly present as part of its current nature – then only a language containing within itself the literary resources corresponding to these complexities will suffice to speak the truth.


In the example we have been discussing, the immediately experienced tension between the antireligious conviction to which I have won my way by an inner struggle and the old, defeated but not banished faith that still asserts its claim upon my allegiance is a part of what I actually believe. It is false to suggest that I believe the proposition “There is no God” neutrally, unambivalently, purely assertorically, but also that, as an added and separable fact of my consciousness, I am experiencing certain inner feelings that can be characterised, phenomenologically, as feelings of tension or conflict. The tension is a tension in the belief, in such a manner that my belief differs in its nature from that of a complacent atheist who has never known God. It would be strictly false to say that we two believe the same proposition, and it would be manifestly obvious that we might fail to communicate with one another if each of us were to say to the other, in turn, “I do not believe in God “


The Socratic distinction between appearance and reality has been called into question on the grounds that it presupposes an “essentialist” ontology. To call the straightness of the stick the reality and my perception of it as bent an appearance is to presuppose that there is an objective ground for the claim that the straightness is an essential property of the stick and the bentness a mere subjective mode in which that essential property manifests itself. The same ontological presupposition, it has been argued, is implicit in the theses that profit, rent, and interest are appearances of surplus value, that cultural and political institutions are appearances of, or manifestations of, the underlying social relationships of production, and that the inner essence of history is class struggle. Such ontological claims, it is said, make philosophical sense only on the fundamentally religious premise that being is the product of a purposeful creation, inherent in which is the telos of the Creator. Without such a premise, there is no ground for calling one aspect or element of the world truly real, and another aspect or element merely appearance. Marx, the anti-essentialists observe, frequently speaks in this essentialist way, but he thereby merely manifests the influence of his Hegelian education. They conclude that insofar as we wish to follow Marx in the establishment and development of a scientific theory of society and history, we must put behind us these last philosophical echoes of religious mythology, and develop a theory of capitalism in which the distinction between essence and appearance plays no role.


I embrace this critique of essentialism in the terms in which it is enunciated. I am quite unprepared to readmit into social theory the religious superstitions that were, with such great effort, driven out of philosophy. Nevertheless, I propose to build my entire interpretation of Capital on the objectively grounded distinction between appearance and reality. Clearly, a good deal will have to be said to justify such an undertaking. I can lay the groundwork for my later discussion by drawing out a significant implication of ironic discourse. In defining irony, I referred to the “real” audience and the “apparent” audience. There are two features of ironic discourse that justify this way of speaking. First, of course, we have access in ironic discourse to the intentions of the speaker. Discourse creates a world that is purposive in its objective nature, since it is the product of intentional acts. But this is, by itself, not enough to justify the locutions “real audience” and “apparent audience,” for the speaker’s intentions might be frustrated, or indeed might be inherently unfulfillable. The truly crucial feature of ironic discourse that justifies the appearance/reality distinction is the asymmetrical relation between the two meanings of the utterance and the two audiences that receive it. Irony is not ambiguity. The second, or real, audience hears both meanings and knows that there is a first audience that hears only the first meaning. What is more, the second audience’s knowledge of the double meaning, and its awareness of its privileged position vis-à-vis the first audience, is a part of what it understands when it hears the utterance. Thus, the real audience’s understanding does not merely replace that of the first audience, it incorporates it and transcends it. From an analysis of the first audience’s understanding alone, we could never reconstruct the entire situation of ironic communication. But from the understanding of the second audience alone, we could. Thus, the second audience’s understanding can legitimately be called epistemologically higher, or superior, and an account of the communicative situation from the standpoint of the second audience can be considered objectively more correct.


Furthermore, from an historical or developmental standpoint, the understanding of the second audience can only be a later stage than the understanding of the first audience, for leaving to one side collective amnesia, a movement from the understanding of the second audience to that of the first would represent not merely a change in “point of view,” but an unambiguous loss of knowledge and insight. No one could first learn that the stick is straight but looks bent because of the difference in the refractive indices of water and air, and then move by a process of education, cultural development, or scientific evolution to the unreflective belief that the stick is, as it appears to be, bent. Irony is a mode of discourse, hence it is the product of an intentional act. Nature is not a mode of discourse, nor is it – setting to one side the illusions of religion – the product of an intentional act. But society occupies something of an intermediate status. Society is not the product of a single conscious, purposeful agent – not God, not History, not Objective Spirit, not even Man – but it is the collective product of countless purposeful men and women in their complex interactions with one another. If we can successfully defend the claim that the political economy of capitalism has an irreducible element of collective communication, and if we can demonstrate that that communication has something very like an ironic structure, then we may find that we have sound objective grounds for deploying an appearance/reality distinction without the philosophically objectionable essentialism of religion or religious philosophy.


Perhaps I can conclude today’s episode of this serial book by telling a little personal story that captures something of what I have been trying to communicate. My first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, was raised in a Catholic home and although by the time I met her she was no longer a practicing Catholic, she still retained some of the affect and instincts of her former faith. In the late 1970s, when we were living in Northampton Massachusetts, I was for a period of time the Cubmaster of the local Cub Scout pack, to which both of my sons, Patrick and Tobias, belonged. Most of the little boys in our group were Catholic, as were the women who served as den mothers. We met each month in the basement of a local Catholic Church. One of the boys in the Cub Scout pack, Eddie Scagel, had completed some program for Catholic Cub Scouts and the priest decided to celebrate a mass to mark the occasion. While I was downstairs preparing for the meeting, everyone else was upstairs taking part in the mass. I got done early and went upstairs to see what was going on just as everybody lined up in two rows in front of the altar to receive the host. To my horror, I saw Patrick and Tobias at the end of one of the lines. I was about to rush forward and drag them off the line when I thought to myself, “what the hell, it is not real anyway, let them go.” When we got home that night, Cindy asked me how the meeting had gone. I answered gaily “it was great. Patrick and Toby received holy Communion.” The blood drained out of Cindy’s face and I thought she was going to faint. She might no longer be a good Catholic girl, but the religion still had a hold on her.