Brendan Cahill on Marx, Capital

The hallmark of Das Kapital is Marx's painstakingly rigorous examination of well-defined variables; it is a masterpiece of methodology, a display of Marx's formidable theory-building skills punctuated by an occasional foray into the polemic. Ultimately, however, this same methodology exposes the weaknesses in his theoretical constructions, particularly in his choice of labor as the primary independent variable of social interaction.

Marx begins his argument by asserting that the wealth of society is determined by its "accumulation of commodities", and to this extent concurs with his predecessor and theoretical rival Smith. Marx, however, believes the route to this accumulation is through production, and not the market, the determining factor of production being labor, and not capital. This view of the capitialist system is further reflected in Marx's unique split definition of the 'value' of the commodity: first in its 'use value' as "utility" to society and as symbol, "an abstract embodiment of materialized human labor"; second in 'exchange value', its convertible relation to other goods in the terms of the society's system of production (1). In the examination of the process of exchange, Marx concludes that "every commodity is a symbol, since is only the material envelope of the human labor spent upon it", laying the groundwork for his further assertions that money as a commodity is even more of such a "social fiction" because it represents not a commodity's "true" value, because it is separated from the labor it represents. It is a fabrication of "the material forms assumed by the social qualities of labor under the regime of a definite mode of production", a social property that falsely appears endowed by "Nature" (2).

Ironically, Marx employs similar rhetoric when describing the action of labor (as opposed to exchange value) in the regulation of a society's production: "In the midst of all the accidental and ever-flowing exchange-relations between the products, the labor-time socially necessary for their fabrication forcibly asserts itself like an overriding law of nature" (3). This illustrates the central problem of Marx's theory of Commodity and Exchange: the unbridgeable disparity of labor and utility, which compromises the integrity of the former as an independent variable. Whereas Marx (correctly) attacks the Smithian capital-denominated model for not recognizing capital itself (in the form of money) as a commodity under constant social evaluation, his theory rejects definitionally the commoditization of labor --and thus its social evaluation-- by labor-denominating society's system of value. Marx defends this view most notably thorough his famous criticism of Aristotle and through a particularly strange citation of Franklin (4).

Irigaray's work shifts these paradigms and casts Marx as Aristotle. Ultimately Irigaray's application of Marxian perspective to gender relations falls subject to similar problems of definition; she stretches the tight hyper-materialistic orientations of Marx's theory as far as they will go, and arguably beyond.

The dialouge between Marx's Capital and Levi-Strauss' The Savage Mind is more abstruse, but no less present. The values of the primitive cultures Levi-Strauss presents clearly relate to their mode of production: the flora and fauna useful to the tribes are represented by highly-attenuated distinctions in their language, and the tribes possess concomitantly high levels of awareness of their environment. The author's comparison between the modern scientist and the primitive 'bricoleur' is particularly intriguing, especially when one considers the implications of further gradations among levels of scientific development, that would perhaps eventually yield a diagram of scientific-epistemic progress mirroring Marx's models of historical economic development.


(1) This is quantified in the "relative form of value", which Marx goes to such lengths to illustrate.

(2) p.103

(3) p. 87: the "invisible hand" of socialism?

(4) Strange because it is nearly the same passage that Weber quotes in his "Protestant Work Ethic", when holding it to be the essence of the Capitalistic spirit.

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