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Marx After Growth #2 The Esoteric Marx, Sean O'Brien

The Esoteric Marx

This second lecture picks up on some key points from the first lecture to explore the ‘esoteric’ Marx, a subterranean current of Marxian thought distinct from the ‘exoteric’ Marx of the workers’ movement. I therefore want to begin with a recap of those aspects of Marx’s work discussed in the first lecture which serve to distinguish his thought not only from that of classical political economy, but also from much of what has been called traditional, orthodox or ‘worldview’ Marxism, specifically the value-form, the fetish-character of the commodity, and the significance of critique. In the first lecture I noted that, while commodities have both a use-value and an exchange-value, value isn’t a physical attribute of the commodity. Marx jokes that ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond’ (1990: 177). Indeed, the abstraction from use-value effectively disregards the concrete materiality of a commodity, whether it’s a good or a service that is exchanged on the market. While a commodity has an exchange-value, value itself exists as a relation between commodities, and it is this ‘value-relation’ which renders commodities commensurable.

In order to move through the cycle of valorisation—what Marx calls the general formula for capital, or M-C-M’—value must assume a series of forms: the money form and the commodity form become ‘bearers of value’ (143), and can therefore be described as ‘forms of appearance’. And so in Marx’s famous equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, the value of the linen takes the form of a coat. The linen now has a ‘value-form’ distinct from its physical form as linen. As the equivalent form, the coat ‘expresses’ the value of the linen, which exists only as a relation between the two commodities. Marx writes, ‘in the expression of value of the linen the coat represents a supra-natural property: their value, which is something purely social’ (149). In this equation, the coat represents value, something that is not natural, Marx writes, but ‘supra-natural’. In other words, a commodity’s exchange value is a ‘form of appearance’, as Marx says, ‘of a content distinguishable from it’ (127). This content, Marx argues, is labour. And not particular, concrete acts of labour, but ‘human labour in the abstract’ (128), which is to say a social average, or socially necessary labour time, which is the average time socially necessary to produce a given commodity.

Crucially, this abstraction emerges in the act of exchange itself, which necessarily abstracts from the concrete characteristics of commodities in order to render them commensurable as values. Whenever we abstract from the use-values of commodities in the act of exchange, Marx writes:

There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values. (128)

As something ‘purely social’, value is not empirically verifiable. You cannot point to it. It is rather ‘supra-natural’, something that ‘transcends sensuous’ (163), as Marx writes in the section on ‘The Fetish-Character of the Commodity and its Secret’.

And, as Marx insists, it is this attention to the form of value that distinguishes his own approach from that of classical political economy:

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within this form. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These forms, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself. (173-75)

So we can see here another key aspect of Marx’s critique: his attention to the fetish-character of the commodity, which appears as natural to bourgeois consciousness. But it’s important to point out that this fetish-character is by no means a matter of ‘false consciousness’, as the traditional critique of ideology would hold, a failure to see the real relations behind their fetishized outward appearance.

As I noted in the previous lecture, Marx argues that ‘a commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (163). What’s apparent in this passage is that the fetish-character of the commodity is not an aspect of its outward appearance but something that’s only revealed through analysis, and what’s revealed is this ‘supra-natural’ aspect of the commodity. What’s more, this ‘supra-natural’ aspect of the commodity is fundamentally not a product of human consciousness but is rather an actually existing aspect of the commodity, even if it cannot be seen or empirically verified. In other words, Marx is arguing that the fetish-character of the commodity has an objective existence in reality that is distinct from the commodity’s outward appearance. The illusion is therefore not that relations between people are mediated by things, a fetishism that in fact holds true for commodity producing society. The illusion is rather that this is a natural state of affairs existing throughout human history, ‘a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity’ (175) as it appears to bourgeois consciousness. The fetish is not the false appearance but the secret of the form itself.

Through analysis, then, Marx aims to demonstrate not only that people do not relate to one another directly in commodity society but do so through the mediation of things. He also seeks to dispel any notion that such a state of affairs is natural or transhistorical, as classical political economy held. Whereas classical political economy took for granted these categories—value, commodity, labour, money, and so on—Marx argues that ‘the value-form of the product of labour… stamps the bourgeois mode of production as a particular kind of social production of a historical and transitory character’ (174, n. 34), which is why his work is not an extension but a critique of political economy. Indeed, Marx writes, ‘It is one of the chief failings of classical political economy that it has never succeeded, by way of its analysis of commodities, and in particular their value, in discovering the form of value which in fact turns value into exchange-value. Even its best representatives, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, treat the form of value as something of indifference’ (174, n. 34).

This critical aspect of Marx’s work, however, was largely neglected by traditional Marxists, who tended, like classical political economists, to treat capitalist categories like value and the commodity as natural and transhistorical forms. So we can make a distinction between a subterranean or ‘esoteric’ Marx, who offers a ‘radical critique of value as a form of totalising social mediation’ (2010: 97), as Endnotes writes, and an ‘exoteric’ Marx who has his legacy in the workers’ movement. This distinction is derived from Marx’s doctoral dissertation, in which he discusses Hegel’s argument that there exists an ‘esoteric’ and an ‘exoteric’ dimension in every philosophy, where the latter reflects its ‘intellectual climate’, as Norman Levine writes: it’s ‘an expression of its time’ (2006: 43). And so we might note that Marx is writing during the rise of a workers’ movement in which he is very much involved, and this ‘exoteric’ aspect of his work is oriented towards that audience. In addition, there’s also, according to Hegel, an ‘esoteric’ interior, which is closer to the core conceptual logic of the philosophy or methodology. And it’s worth noting here that, over the course of the drafts of Capital, Marx struggled with the presentation of his critique of value, and may even have gone to some lengths to hide some of its dialectical subtleties in order to make it more legible to a popular audience in order that it might play a more decisive role in the workers’ movement.

Indeed, between the Grundrisse, the Urtext, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, the first edition of Capital and the second edition of Capital, there are significant changes in the presentation of his analysis of the value-form, and he actually makes several different versions of the argument. But it would be a mistake to assume that each new version is an improvement on the last since, as a number of critics have argued, Marx in fact attempted to popularize the presentation under pressure from his publisher after people had difficulty understanding his argument. As Ingo Elbe argues, the exoteric reading of Marx effectively ‘updates traditional paradigms in political economy, the theory of history, and philosophy. Systematized and elevated to a doctrine by Engels, Kautsky, et al, it succumbs to the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production and culminates in the apologetic science of Marxism-Leninism’ (2013). The exoteric reading of Marx, then, forms the historically predominant interpretation of Marx associated with traditional Marxism. The esoteric reading of Marx, on the other hand, forms something like an ‘underground Marxism,’ as Elbe calls it, and I’m going to draw on Elbe’s work to sketch the difference between types of Marxisms.

Despite Marx’s emphasis on the importance of his analysis of the value-form and his assertion that the fetishized categories of political economy are anything but natural, much of this critical spirit is lost in what is known as traditional Marxism, as Elbe and indeed many others have argued. This ‘traditional Marxism’ tends to affirm the labour theory of value as a universal truth in human society, insisting that labour is the substance of value, that value is embodied in the commodity, and that the magnitude of value embodied in the commodity is determined by the amount of labour socially necessary for its production. Like classical political economy, traditional Marxism never asks ‘why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product’ (Marx 1990: 174).

Traditional Marxism can be traced to Engels’ writings, especially his review of Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and his own text, Anti-Dühring, whose influence on the workers’ movement is difficult to overstate. According to Karl Kautsky, ‘there is no other book that has contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is greater. But it was first through Anti-Dühring that we learned to correctly read and understand Capital’ (quoted in Elbe). So we can see here the authoritative role that Engels’ reading of Marx played in the formation of traditional Marxism and its influence on the theoretical literature of the workers’ movement. The problem is that Engels gets a lot of Marx wrong, particularly with regards to the value-form. In his reading of the opening chapters of Capital, Engels argues that Marx’s presentation of value from its simple to its general form offers an historical account of the emergence and development of capitalism, leading Kautsky to declare that Capital is ‘an essentially historical work’ (quoted in Elbe). Advancing a theory of history as a process of becoming in which human development mirrors that of the natural world, Engels’ historicist reading of Capital belied a bourgeois faith in progress and expressed a conviction that human society developed according to natural laws, culminating in a mechanistic doctrine of development rooted in a dogmatic historical determinism.

In this account, value, labour and the commodity are all transhistorical and natural forms present throughout human history rather than historical forms specific to capital, and are understood as empirical categories that can be measured and quantified. Engels argues that a ‘pure form’ of the law of value, ‘unadulterated’ by money, operated from 6000 BC to 1500 AD, during which peasants could measure the amount of labour that went into the product ‘consciously and directly’ (Elbe). Like Adam Smith, who Marx criticises for projecting capitalist categories back onto to the past as if they were natural and transhistorical, Engels elides the historical specificity of capitalist form-determinations because he fails to account for the distinction between value and the form of value. In other words, there’s no attention to the historical specificity of a social process in which labour is abstracted in order for quantitative magnitudes to be compared, a very specific form of mediation required to regulate the relationship between singularities that have no common measure, that is to say, to create an abstract commensurability that exists only in a society of private production.

For Engels, then, categories like labour and value not only pre-exist capitalism but also persist after its abolition and are therefore internal to communism, too. This is because, as Elbe writes, Engels ‘falls prey to the reified appearance of immediacy of that which is socially mediated, the fetishism of an in-itself of that which exists only via a historically determined framework of human activity’. The upshot is that, ‘If labour is something that exists quasi-naturalistically in the product, and exploitation is seen as an issue of the distribution of that product’, as Endnotes puts it, ‘then socialism does not have to substantially alter the form of commodity production; but may simply take it over, eliminate the parasitic class, and distribute the product equitably’ (72).

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, there was a flourishing of critical readings of Marx, particularly in the work of the Soviet economist I. I. Rubin, who recognized that ‘the theory of fetishism is, per se, the basis of Marx’s entire economic system, and in particular of his theory of value’ (2008: 5). Along with Soviet legal scholar Evgeny Pashukanis, Rubin emphasised the attention to form in Marx’s critique, but both figures were executed by Stalin and their insights supressed. In this period following the First World War, however, the workers’ movement passes through a period of crisis, and it is during this moment that George Lukács and other figures associated with Western Marxism emerge. Lukács called into question the notion that Engels’s work was adequately representative of Marx’s thought, arguing against the Marxist doctrine of ‘the objective laws of nature and society’ to insist that capitalism is ‘a historically specific form of social praxis’ (Elbe). I won’t spend too much time covering Western Marxism—which is today associated most immediately with the Frankfurt School and especially the work of Theodor Adorno—except to note that it acts as something of an ‘intellectual bridge’ (Benanav and Clegg 2018: 1629) between the return to Marx that followed the Russian Revolution and the German ‘New Reading of Marx’ that emerges in the 1960s.

Adorno in particular gave a series of lectures late in his career that were to prove decisive to this New Reading of Marx. Drawing on ideas first discussed with Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Adorno proposes an account of the exchange-relation distinct from the empiricist approach favoured by the workers’ movement. Against positivist approaches in sociology exemplified by the work of Karl Popper, who suggested the claims advanced by the Frankfurt School of an abstract relation governing society were flights of fancy, Adorno says:

The abstraction we are concerned with is not one that first came into being in the head of a sociological theoretician who then offered the somewhat flimsy definition of society which states that everything relates to everything else. The abstraction in question here is really the specific form of the exchange process itself, the underlying social fact through which socialization first comes about. […] Classical political economy demonstrated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands behind money as the equivalent form is the average necessary amount of social labor time, which is modified, of course, in keeping with the specific social relationships governing the exchange. In this exchange in terms of average social labor time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded; instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the thought of the sociologist, but in society itself. (2000: 31-32)

Based on these late lectures, you have the emergence in the 1960s of what is known as Neue Marx-Lektüre, or the New Reading of Marx, particularly in the work of two of Adorno’s students, Hans Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, who rejected the historicist and empiricist interpretations of Marx in favour of a critical reconstruction of the esoteric core of Marx’s critique. This German new reading of Marx argues against the substantialist theory of value put forth by both classical political economy and the workers’ movement, shifting focus from the quantitative to the qualitive. In other words, if Marx first enacts a movement from the qualitative aspect of the commodity in its use-value to its quantitative aspect as exchange-value, a further move occurs in Marx’s critique of value from ‘the quantitative issue of the substance and magnitude of value’ to ‘the qualitative issue of the form of value’ (Endnotes 2010: 70).

The New Reading of Marx revives this emphasis on the form of value over the question of its content. In this sense, they are interested in Marx’s form-analysis and his account of ‘form-determination’, the way that categories of political economy such as value, labour, the commodity, money and even the state are constituted as social form. The German debates also enacted a move away from labour-centric theories of revolution, insisting that it is capital that is the ‘automatic subject’ and not the proletariat as subject of history. And it’s this new reading of Marx that advances the esoteric core of Marx’s critique, stripping back the exoteric layers of his work to reveal the non-empirical but nevertheless real abstractions at the centre of commodity producing society.

First formulated and treated systematically by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, the concept of real abstraction aims to distinguish capitalist abstractions from purely conceptual abstractions.[1] In other words, the abstraction that emerges from exchange is understood not as a product of human thought but as a result of human action, a consequence of the act of exchange itself. This actually existing abstraction acts as a kind of social synthesis that constitutes commodity producing society as a social totality. Against both transcendental idealism and vulgar empiricism, Marx’s materialism presents a world “ruled by abstractions’ (1993: 164), as he puts it in the Grundrisse. The ‘phantom-like objectivity’ of value constitutes a form of objective domination, which distinguishes capitalist domination from other forms of class society such as ancient slave societies or medieval feudal societies. In these forms of class society, one group is ruled by another in a form of direct or personal domination and dependency: the slave is the property of the master, the serf is bound to the feudal lord. Wage labourers, on the other hand, are formally free, and at least legally speaking are formally equal to the capitalist. There’s no personal relationship of domination or direct relationship of force.

So modern capitalist society appears to be defined in opposition to earlier societies with their ‘caste privileges and personal relations of dependence’ (Heinrich 2012: 15). But it is precisely through this formal freedom that a historically distinct form of domination emerges: the spectral objectivity of the value-relation corresponds to a form of objective domination or impersonal compulsion. In other words, nobody puts a gun to the head of a wage labourer and forces them to work. Workers, it would appear, freely enter into a contract and are free to leave one job for another within the bounds of the contract. In reality, however, proletarian freedom is the freedom to work or starve. Workers in capitalist society are ‘free in a double sense’ (1990: 272), as Marx puts it: free from the direct domination of the feudal lord, for instance, but also ‘free’ of the means of subsistence.

As I discussed in the first lecture, the process of proletarianisation formally and legally separates workers from the means of subsistence and renders them radically dependent on the wage for survival. Workers are thus compelled not through a personal relation of dominance but by the objective conditions of their existence to seek wage work in order to survive. And capitalists too are subject to this form of objective domination. Capitalists are compelled to put the profit motive above any other concern if they wish to survive in the market. Profit seeking is therefore not a moral failing, and indeed there’s no moral opprobrium in Capital. Capitalists are by necessity forced to adopt competitive measures or face bankruptcy. As Heinrich puts it, ‘capitalism rests upon a systemic relationship of domination that produces constraints to which both workers and capitalists are subordinated’ (16).

Part of what’s crucial about all this is that this form of objective domination results from a process of abstraction that cannot be empirically verified. And so, if the value-relation cannot be seen but nevertheless exerts a palpable force over commodity producing society, then we might pause here for a moment to consider how it might be possible to represent such a relation in art or literature. While labour requires, as Marx writes, ‘a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc.’ (274), it is only labour in the abstract that produces value for capital. As we’ve seen, the process of abstraction that occurs in the act of exchange gives abstract labour a peculiar objectivity as a social relation, and this in turn gives rise to a representational problem, since ‘relations’, as the Marxist literary critic Carolyn Lesjak has noted, ‘cannot be seen in any solely literal sense’ (2013: 251). A similar concern animates Alberto Toscano’s question, ‘how is one to represent, or indicate, the social powers of intangible forms, of real abstractions?’ (2014: 1225). Toscano finds an answer to his question in Louis Althusser’s essay on the Italian painter Leonardo Cremonini. For Althusser, Cremonini’s figurative practice shifts the focus off-canvas to trace a ‘determinant absence’ (2001: 162), gesturing in the process to ‘the relations which bind objects, places and times’ (158).

Althusser writes, ‘Cremonini is a painter of abstraction. Not an abstract painter, ‘painting’ an absent, pure possibility, but a painter of the real abstract’ (158). For Althusser, then, capital poses a representational problem, since its constitutive abstractions cannot be represented in any straightforward sense. We might therefore follow Althusser’s suggestion that, as Toscano summarizes, ‘figuration, as a modality of representation, is…a conditio sine qua non, for “alluding” to or “indicating,” relations which are intangible’ (1232). Fredric Jameson agrees. In Representing Capital, he argues that ‘figuration tends to emerge when the object of conceptuality is somehow unrepresentable in its structural ambiguity’ (2014: 33-34) and suggests that it is figuration that Marx uses to represent the value-relation in Capital. In the equation 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, where the linen ‘expresses its value existence’ in the form of a coat, the ‘object of discourse’, as Jameson puts it, ‘is precisely relationship rather than substantiality’ (34).

In any case, to return to Sohn-Rethel, it’s important to note that the emphasis in the theory of real abstraction is on the exchange relation. It is only in the act of exchange that the abstraction of labour actually occurs and is reflected back onto the total labour of society. The social function of money is therefore key to grasping the intricacies of capitalist abstraction. Sohn-Rethel writes:

Money is an abstract thing, a paradox in itself – a thing that performs its socially synthetic function without any human understanding. And yet no animal can ever grasp the meaning of money; it is accessible only to man. Take your dog with you to the butcher and watch how much he understands of the goings on when you purchase your meal. It is a great deal and even includes a keen sense of property which will make him snap at a stranger’s hand daring to come near the meat his master has obtained and which he will be allowed to carry home in his mouth. But when you have to tell him “Wait, doggy, I haven’t paid yet!” his understanding is at an end. The pieces of metal or paper which he watches you hand over, and which carry your scent, he knows, of course; he has seen them before. But their function as money lies outside the animal range. (1978: 45)

In the act of exchange the commodity is abstracted from its concrete characteristics as a use value in order to become commensurable with something from which it is different, which effectively equates different acts of labour with each other and validates them retroactively. Abstract labour thus emerges in the exchange relation as a real abstraction independent of human cognition, but entirely specific to human social practice. Sohn-Rethel writes, ‘in speaking of the abstractness of exchange we must be careful not to apply the term to the consciousness of the exchanging agents. They are supposed to be occupied with the use of the commodities they see, but occupied in their imagination only. It is the action of exchange, and the action alone, that is abstract’ (26).

Heinrich, too, places a great deal of emphasis on the money-form of value to argue that Marx’s theory of value ‘is a monetary theory of value’ (63). In other words, for Marx, money isn’t simply a useful tool for facilitating exchange. In order for different commodities to be exchanged, he argues, there must be an abstract equivalent that renders all commodities commensurable with each other. This function is performed by the money-form of value, which should be distinguished from money as such, whether as a money-commodity like gold or silver or in fiat money such as banknotes and coins. While traditional Marxism sees the advent of money as a natural development in the history of human society, Marx argues that the money-form of value is a necessity in commodity producing society since the value-relation always implies a general equivalent if exchange is to take place. As Heinrich puts it, ‘money is in no way merely a helpful means of simplifying exchange on the practical level and an appendage of value theory on the theoretical level. Marx’s value theory is rather a monetary theory of value: without the value form, commodities cannot be related to one another as values, and only with the money form does an adequate form of value exist’ (63-64).

Or, to put it differently, value is not already ‘there’ in the commodity once it’s produced. Value is not an empirical property of the commodity as the substantialist account would hold. Rather, the act of exchange retroactively validates concrete acts of labour as abstract, value-producing labour, as a particular magnitude of the total labour of society. Marx writes, ‘it is only by being exchanged that products of labour acquire a social uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility’ (166). And so the value of the commodity only becomes a reality or assumes objectivity when it is realized in the exchange process. Marx continues:

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogenous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. (166-67)

Even if value does not emerge directly from the production process but is rather retroactively reflected back upon it in the act of exchange, this is not to suggest that value doesn’t determine the process of production and its reproduction. If you remember I spoke about this process last time in terms of real subsumption, where capital, driven by competition and limits to the working day, increases the productivity of labour via technological ratcheting, reducing the amount of socially necessary labour relative to surplus labour to produce relative surplus value. So real subsumption describes the ‘form-determination’ of the capital-labour relation in anticipation of value.

Heinrich describes this process in terms of an ‘estimation of value’ (55) on the part of capitalists, but other value theorists, particularly those thinkers associated with the contemporary German-language school of Marxian critical theory known as wertkritik (or value critique), place a great deal more emphasis on the production process, the production of relative surplus value, and the relationship between rising productivity and economic crisis. As Norbert Trenkle argues in an essay collected in a dossier on wertkritik, Marxism and the Critique of Value,

in the capitalist mode of production, it is not the case that products are innocently created and only arrive on the market a posteriori; rather, every process of production is from the outset oriented toward the valorization of capital and organized accordingly. That is to say, production occurs already in the context of a fetishized form of value, and products must fulfill a single purpose: to represent in the form of value the amount of labor time necessary for their production. It is thus the case that the sphere of circulation, the market, does not serve the exchange of commodities; it is rather the place where the value represented in the products is realized. (2014: 9)

Regardless of whether we agree with Heinrich or Trenkle here about the relative significance of circulation, Trenkle’s argument about the form-determination of the production process has major implications for how we understand labour in capitalist society.

In order for concrete labour to produce value it must be abstracted into a social average. But in order for labour to first take the form of concrete labour, it must already be abstracted in the sense that it is withdrawn:

Abstracting means withdrawing or withdrawing from something. In what way, then, is labor a withdrawal – that is, a withdrawal from something else? What is socially and historically specific about labor is not, of course, the fact that things are created in the first place and that social tasks are carried out. In fact, this must occur in all societies. What is specific is the form in which this takes place in capitalist society. What is essential to this form is in the first instance the fact that work is a separate sphere, cut off from the rest of its social setting. Whoever works is working and doing nothing else. Relaxing, amusing oneself, pursuing personal interests, loving, and so on – these things must take place outside labor or at least must not interfere with its thoroughly rationalized functional routines. (3)

In other words, to produce value, capital abstracts labour not once but twice: first from the myriad of human activities into an isolated activity, and second, from its concrete particulars into abstract labour measurable as socially necessary labour time. As Trenkle argues, concrete labour is already a capitalist abstraction, ‘cut off from the rest of its social setting’ (3). This is what the late Moishe Postone means to underline when he writes that, ‘the abstract domination and the exploitation of labor characteristic of capitalism are grounded, ultimately, not in the appropriation of surplus by the nonlaboring classes, but in the form of labor in capitalism’ (1993: 161). If capital is an ‘abstract temporal form of wealth’ (288), as Postone argues, then not only abstract time and but also concrete time is dominated by capital, subjected to its abstracting motion.

An E. P. Thompson essay on the emergence of industrial time traces this historical process by which labour becomes a distinct, separate and isolated activity. Thompson marks a distinction between ‘pre-industrial’ and industrial time, which he maps onto a distinction between task-oriented work typical of agricultural labour, where there is little distance between work and life, and waged work measured by the clock and formally separated from the rest of human activity:

Those who are employed experience a distinction between their employer’s time and their “own” time. And the employer must use the time of his labour, and see it is not wasted: not the task but the value of time when reduced to money is dominant. Time is now currency: it is not passed but spent. (1967: 61).

This distinction between task-orientation and waged work pivots on ‘efficiency’, or what is known in economics as productivity, and is of course tied to profitability along with a series of moral concerns about the lifestyles of the working classes and the relative progress of society. Penal treadmills, for instance, were used in prisons in the early Victorian period in Britain as a method of exerting hard labour, a form of punishment prescribed in the prisoner’s sentence. It was initially intended to be pointless and simply to punish, but as prison philosophy changed it became acceptable to use the energy to power pumps and corn mills. This development in prison philosophy is tied to the emergence of industrial capitalism, changes to the role of discipline in the implementation of what Thompson calls ‘industrial time’, and a new way of thinking that put productivity first.

Thompson goes on to reference a number of additional distinctions that emerge with industrial capitalism to help clarify the difference between pre-industrial and industrial time: life and work, lived time vs. measured time, taken work vs. wage work, time passed vs. time spent. He notes that the transition to industrial time begins rather slowly, but once it gets properly underway it’s protracted, messy, and uneven, full of resistance and recalcitrance on the part of workers across agricultural and industrial sectors, and ultimately far more rocky a process than most sociological accounts of ‘industrialization’ or the ‘Industrial Revolution’ would suggest. Thompson argues that the implementation of industrial time required the development of a disciplinary regime. This included suppressing wages, the implementation of a time sheet, the scrutiny of the Warden, the development of a system of ‘clocking in’, a concerted attack upon customs and holidays of the peasantry (such as Saint Monday, patron saint of the tradition of absenteeism on a Monday), a new emphasis on the disciplinary role of education to cultivate ‘time thrift’, struggles over the working day (i.e. hiding the clocks, changing the time, lengthening the day, and so on), fines, bells, clocks, and later monetary incentives.

Trenkle emphasises the violence of this historical process to insist that there is nothing natural about the category of labour even in its most concrete form:

several centuries of evident compulsion and open use of violence were required before the mass of humanity had internalized this form of relationship to time, and no longer thought anything of arriving at the factory or office door punctually at a given time, giving up their lives at the factory door, and subjecting themselves for a precisely measured length of time to the metronomic rhythm of the prescribed productive and functional procedures. This well-known fact alone shows how little the form of social activity known as “labor” can be taken for granted. (5)

We might then follow Trenkle’s description of abstract labour as a ‘merciless sovereign’ (10) to consider its influence on the production process. ‘If the labor of a business is unproductive’, Trenkle reminds us, ‘its products do not of course represent more value than those that were made under socially average conditions. The business must therefore improve its productivity in the long term or disappear from the market altogether’ (10-11). Capitalists are thus forced—through what we have been calling a form of objective domination—to pursue cost-cutting measures, boosting productivity through investment in fixed capital.

For Trenkle and other thinkers associated with the wertkritik school, this tendency to squeeze labour out of the production process results in a secular crisis of accumulation. As Trenkle writes, ‘since the 1970s, as a result of the worldwide, absolute displacement of living labor power from the process of valorization, capital has reached the historical limits of its power to expand’ (13). In the next lecture, then, we’ll return to this claim about the end of growth and the model of periodisation offered here to consider what the contemporary crisis of accumulation implies for questions of geopolitical economy in the twenty-first century.


[1] Sohn-Rethel writes, ‘In order to do justice to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, the commodity or value abstraction, revealed in his analysis must be viewed as a real abstraction resulting from spatiotemporal activity. Understood in this way, Marx’s discovery stands in irreconcilable contradiction to the entire tradition of theoretical philosophy and this contradiction must be brought into the open by critical confrontation of the two conflicting standpoints’ (21).


Works Cited

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Sean O’Brien is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. His research has appeared in Cultural CritiqueDiscourseScience Fiction Studies, and Bloomsbury’s Companion to Marx, and is forthcoming in Crossings. He is co-editor of ‘Demos: We Have Never Been Democratic’, a special issue of the visual culture journal Public based on work developed during the 2015 Banff Research in Culture residency. His criticism has also appeared in a number of electronic journals and literary magazines, including GUTS MagazineThe Capilano ReviewVector, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Current projects include a collaborative book, Anti-Social Reproduction, and a monograph, Precarity and the Historicity of the Present: American Culture from Boom to Crisis.


This publication is in Copyright. Sean O'Brien, 2020.

The moral right of the author has been asserted. However, the Hythe is an open-access journal and we welcome the use of all materials on it for educational and creative workshop purposes.



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