BOOTLICKER

Emails Between Me and Simon About Capitalism and Abstraction

2018-07-12

From Simon to Blair:

I’m trying to figure out the whole problem at the heart of the entire philosophical discussion of Marx’s Capital –> the relation between capital’s forms and ‘abstraction’.

Mainly by trying to work what I think are the three best readings of Capital / Grundrisse: Lukacs’ History & Class Consciousness, Althusser & co’s Reading Capital, and Negri’s Marx beyond Marx; combined with a Badiouian take on abstraction (which I think is Hegelian in the precise sense that D-lo used to associate with lukacs - abstraction as not isolating a single element, but appreciating a multiplicity of determinations)

You might be interested in a very high end article on abstraction by a Badiou-inspired philosopher engaging with accelerationism: http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wandering-abstraction

But basically what I’m trying to answer is: how can we theorise capital as pure forms (the syllogisms), while still managing to account for the way capitalism changes itself? And not just in a constant ever-revolutionising sense – slowly adding new technology, greater masses of constant capital, increasing divisions of labour and complexity – but in a qualitative sense with the development of news forms of abstraction within capital’s forms itself. Most importantly, the twin developments of a qualitatively new inclusion of abstraction within post-70s capitalism: the rise of abstraction, or logical thought, being a key aspect of service labour after the demise of factory labour (and taylorisation, the exclusion of autonomous mental thought from the workers body through its mechanical measurement); and the rise of financialisation whereby the inner workings and measurements of capital itself are determined by share-holder led financial evaluations: self-audits, constant profitability (not just long term, but short term dividends delivered regularly to share holders), and the variety of financial innovations (mathematical tools like derivatives and securitisation) that increasingly form core components of corporate strategies. And of course crossing both these forms of increasingly dominant forms of abstraction (cognitive labour and financial calculation) is the rise of information / communication technology that extend our ability to abstractly think, as technologies which operate upon mathematical principles (vital to both modern service work and the modern financial sector – think what would the stock market be without computers & networks).

So appreciating this qualitative shift within capital itself, which can be isolated as three forms (only two mentioned above): the new forms of service labour that incorporate abstraction within the workers activity itself, the new forms of money now that it is no longer attached to any sort of gold standard but whose value is determined through both the market in currencies, as well as derivatives (which contingently fix the exchange rate in advance in order to reduce uncertainty & risk), and finally the corporate form itself which has progressively shifted from the private firm, to the joint-stock company (the corporation, which Marx mentions in Capital III as the socialisation of capital within capitalism), and finally the share-holder led multinational corporation which arose after the 1970s.

Notably Hardt & Negri describe all three forms in their latest book Assembly, but don’t do an adequate job theorising this correspondence of this new stage of abstraction within capitalism – a problem which can be traced back to Negri’s reading of the Grundrisse in the 1970s. But the idea he proposed in the book is still important – that workers struggle itself is what drives the transformations of capital and its internal categories (labour, money, productive capital) – rather than capital slowly ‘perfecting’ itself or unfolding its concept or some other lukacs-inspired interpretation what can’t appreciate qualitative breaks within abstraction.

Anyway, on abstraction itself, I’ve always felt a bit unconvinced by the arguments of Sohn Rethel (not that I’ve read him) that the key to replacing the ‘idealist’ conception of abstraction as simply the ideality of thought (like when something is called ‘just abstract’ as opposed to concrete, real, material) with an appreciation of the way capital operates as a ‘real abstraction’, an abstraction that operates without peoples awareness (hence the way D-lo connects it to reification) because of capital’s automatic self-reproducing forms, which comes prior to the emergence of abstraction within human thought. Although I think this opens up the vital issue of the role of abstraction in a non-idealist form in Capital, it’s always struck me as a simple flipping of the idealist schema. ‘Real abstraction’ still comes across as something that sinisterly places singular elements (like labour-time, money as measure) over humans, who must then abolish this abstraction and return to concreteness – this is certainly the argument D-lo has advanced in the past. Plus he doesn’t account for how capital effects this ‘real abstraction’ – usually approaching it at the level of simple exchange, where to buy or sell something means to treat that commodity ‘abstractly’ as a single value / price, thus reducing the labour that went into it into a homogenous standard (‘abstract labour’). Again, this clearly gets at something important, but strikes me as philosophically a bit naive, still opposing in romantic fashion labour or essence against the evil abstraction that measures it.

Badiou on the other hand I think repeats Hegel by offering a different account of abstraction entirely, not the one that Hegel would consider as the common sense abstraction of the Understanding (reducing a multiplicity of elements to a single element which unites them – like ‘abstract labour’ or concepts which subsume their objects). Roughly put, because I still don’t entirely understand Badiou, abstraction is then a ‘singular’ operation –> it operates upon its raw material in order to produce a different configuration of knowledge; rather than simply imposing on a raw material an abstract unity from above (hence Kant’s transcendental subject plugs the hole in this logical antinomy).

I guess the key thing to problematise in the way Capital is interpreted with the naive approach to abstraction (lukacs & sohn rethel, possibly Althusser) is to highlight the role ‘reproduction’ has within these theories. Both Lukacs & Althusser essentially see the ‘reproduction’ of capital (of its forms – such as the stability of money/currency, or the company/corporate form of productive capital) as an essentially automatic or entirely self-produced process, basically a static universal which you can’t theorise internal change with (except as gradual perfecting of its form, or purification). I think the inability to think the relation of abstraction (what produces the measurement of ‘abstract labour’?) in both these approaches highlights the inadequate philosophical approach of both lukacs and althusser. Hence why I think Badiou – whose whole project consists in overcoming the division humanism (sartre for him) and structuralism (althusser, lacan) – is the guy who can better theorise abstraction. Especially as his views on logic / abstraction evolves in an important critique he makes of Jacques Alain Miller’s attempt to provide a lacanian theory of logic in the 1960s, the guy who coined ‘metonymic causality’ which becomes a crucial concept in Althusser’s Reading Capital.

Anyway, there’s more to be said but this was longer than I thought, so I’ll just send it now and give my head a break! Lemme know what you think so far, if you have any criticisms or comments to add, directions that might be useful etc!

Blair’s Reply to Simon:

Okay! A lot of the stuff on how abstraction and concreteness works is a lot more solid for me, I think. You should take a look at Fred Besier’s monogram /Hegel/ from 2005, I think.

ALSO. I have a book on Aristotle’s logic which deals with his four forms of causation, (material, efficient, formal, and final), and there is an extended discussion on how Aristotle considered non-sentient/sapient things to have final causes. Basically modernity is constantly wrapped up with the problem of ‘only sapient things can have concepts/formal-final causes, because only sapient things have intentions’. I think if we unlink intentionality from formal-final causation, then the issue of how abstraction works is basically solved.

The kind of materialism we need therefore needs to be a lot closer to Spinoza’s pantheism–although I maintain my system of how the universe is permeated with concepts even if humans didn’t exist (my supervisor said this ‘baffled’ him) if absolutely atheist and has nothing to do with God.

Have you read my article on Marx and Feenberg? I talk about how materialism has been wrongly understood to mean a purely efficiently-caused universe. Anyway here is the link: (https://bootlicker.party/posts/marx-naturalism-and-the-disenchantment-of-nature /)

For me we have been too obsessed with the Understanding. And focusing too much on how bourgeois economists or bourgeois philosophers deal with concepts leads to this idea that concrete universals/perfectly mediated abstractions is a difficult issue.

I have an article which spells this out. I’ll attach it. It’s by a scholar named Franz Knappik, and it talks about how Hegel’s science of logic is a kind of ‘natural kind essentialism’. That is, every entity in the universal is natural, and it is also an essence/a bundle of properties. The idea that everything is a little monad which is trying to develop itself into the most perfect conception of the Absolute Idea is /my/ brand of materialism. This manages to explain what abstraction and concreteness is, because only the most self-reflexive and self-determining entities are the most concrete – only those entities which are able to go through ‘absolute negation’.

So the question I ask myself when I think about how pernicious capitalism has become is how have humans become /less/ reflexive, or /less/ interdependent in a transparent way. Then you start looking for /material/ or /efficient/ causes, not formal ones. So for /me/, the issue of how to characterise the formal-final essence of capitalism comes from its /material/ effects. And those material effects are to be enumerated in terms of ‘moral damage’, or ‘moral demerits’, how the human essence or human moral character has become damaged by the system.

Does this make sense?

I also tend not to think of capitalism as a system which integrates us all and binds us all together invisibly, as if it was some sort of inisible magic force. I think capitalism is something which is /consciously perpetuated/, and the level of habituation occurs at the level of leaders, and not at the level of workers. I am definitely more of an instrumentalist than say Negri and Hardt. I don’t think worker’s resistance or worker’s development/struggle/organisation is something which is coopted by the system – it is something which is consciously and actively crushed. You can see that by say working at a call centre.

Control is still naked and one-dimensional for me.

I think we still share a lot of ideas in common, though!

Blair

Simon’s Second Email to Blair:

Basically, following Negri but without his Deleuzian vitalism (using Badiou instead – Hegel > post-structuralist vitalism), I’m trying to figure out how workers struggle itself can drive capital to adopt increasing levels of abstraction itself –> how is this possible, what are the mechanism that shift capital from one level of abstraction to another (industrial to service work, fixed money to floating, large fordist corporations to the frantic restructuring (flexibility, outsourcing, downsizing) imposed by the rise of the contemporary stock market (which itself is what destabilises the fixed form of money – as increased capital flows between countries in the 60s is what made the post-WWII gold standard system of internally money (tying currencies to the US dollar, which itself was pegged to the value of gold) untenable, and hence its replacement by floating currencies)) (sorry for the triple bracketing ahaha). Put another way… what makes capital ‘porose to the event’, able to respond to class struggle which destabilises capitalist hegemony by not simply restructuring itself, but incorporate the very ideas and energies of revolt into a new configuration of production-consumption? As you can tell, I’m trying to mash Badiou and Negri together here…

Blair’s Second Reply to Simon:

Hmm…

Well I think you need to read this book I am reading. It is about imperialism in the 21st century.

What I would say at this point is that it may /look/ like capitalism has coopted or ascended into higher levels of abstraction in the /centre/ of the imperialist system, but ultimately this is not even where most of the value production is being done in this day and age.

Basically every single measure of productivity and profit-making of all of the biggest corporations on Earth is a lie. All the value comes from sectors outside the centre of Imperialism, and this is all fudged on the books to make it look like the centre of Imperialism is what is generating the productivity. This is of course a massive fudge a complete lie, and I think this misinformation actually informs a lot of the research into the services sector or the ‘knowledge economy’ in the West. If you are duped by the lie, the idea that the ‘knowledge economy’ is actually productive (it is not), then it /looks/ like capitalism has ascended into a more pernicious and abstract and coopting beast.

But the truth is all the highest rates of exploitation are outside the West, and all that productivity is fudged on the books and made to look as if it originates from INISDE the West, when it fact it doesn’t at all.

So I obviously find autonomism and Negri’s work insanely useful, but I actually think he is overcomplicating the problem. The level of abstraction that capitalism normally needs in order to function hasn’t changed much since the 1970s, I think. I in fact think a lot of the work that the New Left did before post-structuralism (all the humanist stuff) is actually still really important and relevant.

I really need to pirate this book. I can’t find any copies of it anywhere. It would be really important to make it free and accessible.

What do you think?

I guess for me capitalism is very much a one or two dimensional system, not a multi-dimensional one like you.. seem?.. to think?

Hmm..

Anyway this is what I think!

Email Two

Okay! A lot of the stuff on how abstraction and concreteness works is a lot more solid for me, I think. You should take a look at Fred Besier’s monogram /Hegel/ from 2005, I think.

ALSO. I have a book on Aristotle’s logic which deals with his four forms of causation, (material, efficient, formal, and final), and there is an extended discussion on how Aristotle considered non-sentient/sapient things to have final causes. Basically modernity is constantly wrapped up with the problem of ‘only sapient things can have concepts/formal-final causes, because only sapient things have intentions’. I think if we unlink intentionality from formal-final causation, then the issue of how abstraction works is basically solved.

The kind of materialism we need therefore needs to be a lot closer to Spinoza’s pantheism–although I maintain my system of how the universe is permeated with concepts even if humans didn’t exist (my supervisor said this ‘baffled’ him) if absolutely atheist and has nothing to do with God.

Have you read my article on Marx and Feenberg? I talk about how materialism has been wrongly understood to mean a purely efficiently-caused universe. Anyway here is the link: (https://bootlicker.party/posts/marx-naturalism-and-the-disenchantment-of-nature /)

For me we have been too obsessed with the Understanding. And focusing too much on how bourgeois economists or bourgeois philosophers deal with concepts leads to this idea that concrete universals/perfectly mediated abstractions is a difficult issue.

I have an article which spells this out. I’ll attach it. It’s by a scholar named Franz Knappik, and it talks about how Hegel’s science of logic is a kind of ‘natural kind essentialism’. That is, every entity in the universal is natural, and it is also an essence/a bundle of properties. The idea that everything is a little monad which is trying to develop itself into the most perfect conception of the Absolute Idea is /my/ brand of materialism. This manages to explain what abstraction and concreteness is, because only the most self-reflexive and self-determining entities are the most concrete – only those entities which are able to go through ‘absolute negation’.

So the question I ask myself when I think about how pernicious capitalism has become is how have humans become /less/ reflexive, or /less/ interdependent in a transparent way. Then you start looking for /material/ or /efficient/ causes, not formal ones. So for /me/, the issue of how to characterise the formal-final essence of capitalism comes from its /material/ effects. And those material effects are to be enumerated in terms of ‘moral damage’, or ‘moral demerits’, how the human essence or human moral character has become damaged by the system.

Does this make sense?

I also tend not to think of capitalism as a system which integrates us all and binds us all together invisibly, as if it was some sort of inisible magic force. I think capitalism is something which is /consciously perpetuated/, and the level of habituation occurs at the level of leaders, and not at the level of workers. I am definitely more of an instrumentalist than say Negri and Hardt. I don’t think worker’s resistance or worker’s development/struggle/organisation is something which is coopted by the system – it is something which is consciously and actively crushed. You can see that by say working at a call centre.

Control is still naked and one-dimensional for me.

I think we still share a lot of ideas in common, though!

Blair