Marx on the circuit

Nate has suggested a reading of some texts mentioned in an essay by Althusser. I’m obliging, at least on the first one, Marx’s Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, or, depending what you want to call it, the Introduction to the Grundrisse, because I like to make Nate happy and because I’m going to start a reading of several of Marx’s texts. Thought this might be a good place to start. Nate’s note are here. (Possibly tedious note on translations and texts: This piece appeared in two different books. I’m reading the Grundrisse version, meaning the 1973 translation by Martin Nicolaus, which is different from the translation Nate seems to be reading. I compared a few paragraphs, in which there are some interesting divergences between the two translations, but I’ll steer clear of focusing on them.)

Marx starts by noting Smith’s and Ricardo’s ahistorical human, who is also identical with nature, an identity found in singular form by the figure of Robinson Crusoe. Marx says that the “cultural historians” miss the point of the Robinson Crusoe story, “which in no way express[es] merely a reaction against over-sophistication and a return to a misunderstood natural life.” The cultural historians make the mistake of assuming that the Robinson Crusoe story is mere surface, that underneath lies some deeper ethical impulse. Not sure who specifically Marx has in mind as “cultural historians,” but they sound like some strains of contemporary opposition that see in bourgeois fantasies of escape from civilization an attempt to justify its existence or a revulsion at the violent consequences of the accumulation process. Instead, Marx seems to see the fascination with Crusoe as less a mode of rationalization than of reflection: “In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate.” I take Marx to mean that the Robinson Crusoe story is vital not because it offers insight into the bourgeois mind but because it shows humanity to be free from society’s compulsions (and of course free to sell its labor, or not, or to accumulate capital, or not). In other words, the philosophy of man’s nature is not mere window dressing but actually productive itself, not mere propaganda but a mode of reproduction.

This last quote from Marx raises an interesting paradox, however: The individual appears to be less bounded by and to human groupings, but capital, as Marx notes elsewhere in the Grundrisse, drives to encompass the whole globe, to include as many people as possible within its sphere (with the proper, productive segmentations, of course). The individual appears more “free,” but this freedom has a telos: to include the free, unencumbered subject within the circuits of capital. Which of course is a type of “human conglomerate,” however new. Is this paradox one that capital must overcome, or is it possible that the tension here is itself productive?

Skipping ahead, to the section on the relations between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. I’d forgotten how good these ten pages are, even though it’s “just” a notebook and neither polished nor fleshed out. There’s a lot here, so I’ll limit myself. It seems possible that it was while writing this that Marx realized the importance of the commodity, which in Capital he placed (in chronology, not importance) before everything else. This section examines in outline the full weight and complete circuit of the commodity. And not just the commodity, but its full relationship with its consumer (the object and the subject). Which is to say, unlike the economists he criticizes, he doesn’t deem any aspect of the commodity, any of the moments of its circulation, as being outside economics. There is no autonomous state of repose for the commodity. In its complete life (which is, essentially, eternal), it continues to fall back on other moments of production; even the consumed item is the first moment of (re)production.

This exposition, this seeing consumption as part of the process and thus seeing the commodity as a unit to be followed all the way through its life, shows both how consumption rebounds on production and the ultimate inseparability of any of the moments of circulation. For me, this treatment of consumption also allows for the insertion of desire into economics. Witness this:

[C]onsumption creates the need for new production, that is it creates the ideal, internally impelling cause for production, which is its presupposition. Consumption creates the motive for production; it also creates the object which is active in production as its determinant aim. If it is clear that production offers consumption its external object, it is therefore equally clear that consumption ideally posits the object of production as an internal image, as a need, as drive and as purpose. It creates the objects of production in a still subjective form. No production without a need. But consumption reproduces the need.

This could have been written by Deleuze and Guattari in their discussions of desiring-production. Just as psychoanalysis tends to read desire as being determined by need or as lack–desire is always following around some object and is not productive in itself–most Marxisms see consumption as being due to “natural” lack, and so it is determined by some other sphere, usually by relations of production or by distribution, ie, the social arrangement of products and labor. In other words, desire/consumption is empty in itself, both nondetermining and determined by production and social realtions. Instead, Marx asserts that consumption’s relation to production is not a one-way determination, that the latter is determining of and determined by the former.

This appeals to me because it raises the possibility of change that is not mechanistic: change production relations and you change society and humans. Instead it allows for change that does not arise from the economic or the social/political. Of course if this is taken to mean the human psyche, it leans toward glorifying the beauty of the individual or the pureness of the human being separate from society. But the key here is to follow Marx: there is not autonomy of any of these spheres, only interconnection and immanence.

I fear I might be reproducing some of the banalities of Marx’s foils. I will end here and finish the rest of the intro later.


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