As it becomes increasingly clear that globalised capitalism cannot generate public welfare for all, the Left is once again putting the critique of capitalism on the table. Quite unavoidably, after decades of focusing on a liberal civil rights agenda primarily characterized by special issue and identity politics, reference is being made to the works of Karl Marx, or at least to his name. The rhetorical value of invoking Marx’s critique of capitalism has not lessened, despite the way in which during the greater part of the twentieth century he was associated with a sterile and dogmatic system of thought serving state and party dictatorships. Nowadays, it is common to hear that now that that Marxism is dead and buried, we are in a position to read what Marx really said with fresh eyes, unspoiled by the distortions to which many of his assertions were subjected. Marx can now, it is said, be emancipated from the stranglehold of Marxism (read: Marxism-Leninism) and of Marxists, allowing us to read Marx as we would any other social scientist or philosopher.
The question then is how we read Marx. Some examples of works discussed in the social sciences today, where Marx’s concepts are either employed or criticised, would be Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (a book which, if nothing else, has made it legitimate again to write about Marx), Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s two books Empire and Multitude, Manuel Castells’ trilogy on the emergence of a network society, and in Sweden, the journalist Andreas Malm’s När kapitalet tar till vapen (When capital takes up arms).
However a quick survey of these works (which have had varying degrees of influence) reveals that much remains to be said regarding the various understandings of Marx they each can be said to reflect. Expressed very simply, they are not up-to-date. Present-day research on Marx provides insight extending far beyond the prevailing understanding of him, even as expressed in these recent works. This claim is particularly true of those texts that deal explicitly with Marx’s critique of political economy (that is, Capital and related texts). Whether the authors above criticise Marx (Castells), deconstruct him (Derrida), praise him (Hardt and Negri, though this appears to have no particular implications for their own analysis), or claim to develop Marxist theory further (Malm), they nevertheless adhere, basically without exception, to a traditional interpretation of Marx. Similarly, many branches of the Left seem largely content with simply giving a wink to “Marxism” as it is generally agreed upon, without going beyond notions of a neoliberal conspiracy of financial capitalism against the welfare state (hardly Marxist ideas). It is striking the extent to which the understanding of Marx’s works, both in the mainstream of today’s critical social sciences and within Leftist debate, remains at a level far below the one found even two or three decades ago, when the reception of Marx in the academic world was becoming far stronger than it had ever been before. Clearly, something has been lost that needs to be regained.
Marx’s work and its history of reception
The reception and interpretation of Marx’s works has unfolded as a complex story indeed, one that has gone through several different moments. Of these, I would argue one can clearly distinguish four phases. In the first of these, due in no small part to Friedrich Engels’ and Karl Kautsky’s popularisations, Marxism – or an image of Marx’s works – was created in the international Labour Movement (the Second International). At that time, Marx’s and Engels’ writings were considered to represent a coherent system in their entirety. The core elements of that system – it was argued – were created during the second half of the 1840s, when Marx and Engels together developed the notion of “historical materialism”. However, within Marx’s economic writings of that period – for instance, The Poverty of Philosophy – political economics had not yet received the critical elaboration that was to follow after 1850. Thus, Marx’s position at this point was largely synonymous with that of Smith, and – even more so – of Ricardo.
This body of theory became known as orthodox Marxism. Such a position could just as well be referred to as Engelsism, given the strong influence Friedrich Engels’ own philosophical project had on it, and Engels’ influence in editing Marx’s writings. The Marxism of the Second International was characterised by a comprehensive worldview (Michael Heinrich terms it Weltanschauungsmarxismus). Marx’s theory was considered synonymous with historical materialism, a general theory of different modes of production and the process by which they, of apparent necessity, succeed each other in the course of history. Capital was thus interpreted as the application of the theory of history to a particular era, that of the capitalist mode of production. A widespread view held at the time, by Kautsky and other theorists within the labour movement, was that Marx had analysed just one phase of the capitalist mode of production, one that was characterised by free competition for the average profit. According to this interpretation, this particular phase of capitalism was preceded by a mode of production based on so called simple commodity production, where the producers of commodities exchanged the products of their labour with one another in accordance with their actual value, corresponding to the labour expended in their production. Marx is supposed to have analysed this in the early chapters of Capital.
To be sure, within the Second International there were detractors, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and Anton Pannekoek, who maintained resolute objections to the determinism of the theory of history. More importantly, there gradually arose, as extensions of orthodox Marxism, two influential directions of major importance: the Social Democratic and the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of Marxism. As a state and party ideology, the latter would provide the pervading image of Marxism (in the singular), a direction representing an all-encompassing economic-determinist worldview. Several directions and schools surfaced in reaction to this monolithic form of Marxism. These Marxisms (in the plural) have come to be known as “Western Marxism”.
During a second phase, a less “economistic” Marx emerged. The publication of the writings of the young Marx, above all the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, revealed a different Marx, one less preoccupied with technology, and less deterministic. It became possible to criticise “Marx through Marx”, a critique which had particular importance in the eastern European state socialist systems. However, this humanist Marxism (in its various forms) soon became toothless and diluted. The theory of alienation became public property (even for theologians), and the critique of political economy was soon overshadowed by the humanist-existentialist Marx.
One can speak of a third phase arising in the 1960s, when new readings of the older Marx undertook to expose those parts of Marx’s works, in particular the critique of political economy, that had not been adequately understood by earlier interpretations. Important impulses were derived from the work of French philosopher Louis Althusser’s, who emphasized a break between the young and an older Marx (a discovery that Althusser was not the first to make, the existence of such a break already being constitutive of some humanist Marxism). More important in the long run was the accessibility of additional, previously unavailable or unheeded works (largely ignored by the Althusserian school) such as Grundrisse, “Results of the direct production process”, Theories of Surplus Value, and the analysis of the commodity from the first edition of Capital. Marx’s theory as presented in Capital now appeared to be something quite different from what had previously been imagined. Moreover, its relationship to the rest of Marx’s writings, both the theory of history and the anthropological view within the writings of the young Marx, appeared to be considerably more complex than traditional Marxism had thought it to be.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, research on Marx entered yet another phase, which I would call the fourth. This also depended on additional texts not previously accessible, becoming available. Of particular importance were the typical research manuscripts similar to Grundrisse that Marx wrote during the 1860s, original manuscripts for the second or the third volume of Capital, as well as notes made in connection with new editions. In addition, the editing and release of Marx’s works for the new MEGA edition was no longer an exclusive matter for institutions controlled by the communist parties. As a result, it became possible to highlight and discuss editing principles and philological issues in an entirely new way.
To characterise this most recent phase, one could say that it resembles more closely the phase immediately preceding it, whereas the earlier phases discussed above had each taken on radical and abrupt new directions with respect to previous tendencies. A shortcoming of the interpretations of the 1960s and 1970s, however, was that they were steered by the illusion that one could discover the authentic Marx simply by clearing up the mess after state and party Marxism. Still, in the fourth phase one finds a greater hermeneutic and philological sensitivity to contradictions and inadequacies within Marx’s texts (a sensitivity largely initiated by the works of Backhaus). For that reason, it is perhaps only now that Marx can be given a truly scientific reception, not “beyond Marx” (Negri) but beyond Marxism.
A work of central importance in this current phase is that of the political scientist and mathematician Michael Heinrich’s, whose doctoral thesis, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert (The science of value), was written in the 1980s at a time when interest in Marx was at an all-time low. First published in 1991, it re-appeared in a new and revised edition in 1999. Since that time, Heinrich has developed the arguments set forth by his thesis in a series of articles and introductory texts, as well as in extensive lecturing activity and as author of introductory texts. In 2004, Heinrich published Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Eine Einführung (Critique of political economy. An introduction), an introduction to all three volumes of Capital. This highly praised and much read book, printed in seven editions, has been followed recently by yet another, Wie das Marxsche Kapital Lesen? Hinweise zur Lektüre und Kommentar zum Anfang von “Das Kapital” (How to read Marx’s Capital. Hints on reading and commenting on the beginning of Das Kapital, 2008), which deals solely with the difficult initial chapters of Kapital. Heinrich’s work is characterised by an extremely thorough textual knowledge of both well-known and somewhat more obscure parts of Marx’s works, and of the secondary literature and various debates that have taken place concerning Marx’s critique of political economy. Heinrich interprets Marx’s theory of value as a monetary theory of value and directs attention to his frequently overlooked theory of money. He also maintains that Marx’s critique of political economy can be read as an incomplete attempt to mount a scientific revolution against classical political economics, thus giving birth to certain ambivalences in Marx’s texts.
Heinrich’s interpretation has been disputed and criticised from a variety of standpoints and he has actively engaged in many discussions with representatives of different camps within German Marxism. The most far-reaching of these have been carried on in the journal Das Argument with the renowned Marxian pope of Berlin, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, whose positions represent a more traditional interpretation of Marx. Heinrich has also been involved in debates with members of the so-called value critique (Wertkritik) school, a specific German and Austrian, post-Marxist orientation exemplified in particular by journalists associated with the periodicals Krisis and Streifzüge, as well as members of the group oriented towards operaismo around the journal Grundrisse in Vienna.
Heinrich’s work, however, has not been limited to philology or to internal criticism of different theories. Instead, it centres around the question of whether Marx’s incomplete theory can be useful in analysing contemporary globalised capitalism. In much of the current critique of capitalism by the Left, not least from different fractions of the anti-globalisation movement, emphasis has been placed on the significance of new global financial markets for monetary and financial capital. Such a critique is limited to opposing “Casino Capitalism”. These critiques often amount, explicitly or implicitly, to siding with supposedly “good” productive capital as opposed to parasitic and speculatively inclined capitalism. In concrete politics, this tendency is reflected in proposing such neo-Proudhonist measures as “Robin Hood taxes” directed at financial capital. The traditional, but inadequate, Marxist answer to financialization has often been “productivist” in character. One tends to refer almost ritualistically to the fact that surplus value emerges out of production and, thus, to regard money and credit as uninteresting surface phenomena. Heinrich rejects this reductionism, and the oversimplified conception of Casino Capitalism it often attends, while also emphasizing the radically altered significance that money, credit and financial markets have been assigned. In Heinrich’s work, capital is understood as a unit of production and circulation (it is thus not a matter of replacing a theory of production by a theory of circulation). The monetary theory of value, as he conceives it throughout his work, is largely aimed at elaborating Marx’s (often inadequately understood) monetary theory and his incompletely developed understanding of credit as a constitutive lubricant for the overall reproduction of capital.
Nature or society?
I would like to emphasize here an additional point in Heinrich’s work, one of central importance that, in my view, represents his most original contribution to a new reading of Marx. A basic issue in interpreting Marx’s theory of value has been the question of whether value should be understood naturalistically, i.e. as representing a substance found in the commodity itself, or if on the contrary, it should be understood as a social entity. Marx himself is ambivalent on this issue, a matter serving to underline one of Heinrich’s central arguments: that Marx does not fully settle his accounts with the paradigm of classical political economy. I will attempt to demonstrate how this discussion can also link Marx to contemporary social science.
In reading works of the nineteenth-century founders of the social sciences, one is often struck by a trait most contemporary social scientists would likely experience as strange and obsolete, and which latter-day readers may well choose to ignore or consider an unimportant detail. To varying degrees, one encounters a view in the classic texts, typical of the century, that the prosperous natural sciences represent a model for scientific work in general, a conception that social and humanistic sciences were only able to free themselves of much later. In any case, one finds a tendency to compare societal conditions with conditions in nature, often reducing the former to the latter, or at least drawing certain parallels between them that have had far-reaching epistemological and methodological implications. For instance, Émile Durkheim, in discussing sociological methodology, has no reservations about making direct references to biology. Durkheim is clearly more concerned with delimiting social facts from psychological ones (and sociology from psychology) than he is with demarcating the newly developed social sciences from biology, which he viewed as an ideal. His functionalist successor Talcott Parsons allows this tendency to blossom fully when he takes the conditions of survival for a biological organism to be a model for society. Neither does Max Weber abstain from making a courteous bow to “biological heredity”, which he was “inclined […] to estimate highly the importance of”, considering “racial neurology and psychology” to be “promising”. These writers are today rightfully regarded as having discovered society as an object in its own right and as the founders of the distinctive theoretical and methodological character of the social sciences. That said, passages such as these produce a strange ambivalence and tension in their texts, showing that these writers too had not yet liberated themselves from an orientation derived from a natural scientific prototype or from thinking about society along the lines of “nature”.
Similar naturalistic tendencies can also be found in the works of the third founder of the social sciences, Karl Marx, and of his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels. As pointed out by Sven-Eric Liedman, who has pursued comprehensive studies of the natural scientific perspective within their writing, the intellectual contemporaries of Marx and Engels are not so much Adam Smith or G. W. F. Hegel (who V. I. Lenin famously pointed to as two of Marxism’s three major sources), but instead Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Hermann von Helmholz, and Charles Darwin, all of whom held a natural scientific, or natural scientifically oriented, position typical of their time. Although the influence of the natural sciences is most apparent in Engels’ later attempts to develop a philosophical system, such influence is not at all alien to Marx; in both cases it placed its stamp upon Marxism as a Weltanschauung and its seemingly natural-law-oriented historical determinism. Nor is this tendency to point to a basis in nature for understanding social processes absent from those parts of Marx’s writings which will be of special interest here, those dealing with his critique of political economy, where it causes problems of interpretation and disunity.
In fact, the problem concerns nothing less than the core of Marx’s critique of political economy: the labour theory of value. In its classic form in the works of Smith and Ricardo, where it also is called the doctrine of objective value, the theory states that the value of a commodity is determined by the labour expended on it (as opposed to the subjective theory of value, which states that the value of a commodity is determined by the use its buyer makes of it and thus the demand for it relative to its availability). Marx, however, emphasizes, as one of his most important innovations vis-à-vis classical political economics, what he calls the dual character of commodity producing labour. The labour expended in the production of commodities, which constitutes their value, is determined as abstract labour. Abstract labour is opposed to the various concrete forms of labour (such as bakery work, carpentry work, and the like), which produce use values, the quality of commodities insofar as they are useful. Abstract, value-producing labour is determined as the amount of socially necessary labour needed to produce the commodity given the technological level of productive forces. Commodities can be exchanged according to value they possess distinct from their use value (i.e. besides their being products of concrete labour they can be reduced to abstract labour).
Marx does not simply reiterate the classic labour theory of value as conceived by Adam Smith, who regarded labour as a measure of the value of a commodity based on “the effort and trouble” put into attaining it. Missing in Smith’s conception of value is what Marx regards as the specifically twofold social character of commodity producing labour. Commodities need both to satisfy the demands placed on them by their producers and, simultaneously, to fulfil specific social needs. They must therefore be interchangeable and equal to each other. In opposing Smith’s views on these matters, Marx argues that it is not sufficient simply to point to the fact that commodities are products of different types of labour. All private, useful labour must be reducible to what commodities have in common, thus implying an abstraction from their individual differences. Marx reasons that what different commodities share lies in their ability to represent abstract labour – that is, what they hold in common is the fact that they are all products of human labour power.
Yet what exactly is abstract labour; what constitutes the substance of value? This question is of decisive importance not only for thinking through how value is to be conceived, but also for understanding various related categories, such as the concept of value substance, the magnitude of the value and value objectivity (Wertgegenständlichkeit). Defining the substance of value is also important for interpreting the meaning of the analysis of the different value forms, fetishism, the analysis of exchange and, last but not least, the role of money as the actual expression of value. Heinrich suggests that in the determination of abstract labour, Marx oscillates between, on the one hand, a naturalistic or physiological conception of abstract labour (a residual of classic political economics that expresses the incompleteness of Marx’s scientific revolution), and on the other hand, a non-naturalistic, social conception.
On a few occasions in the second edition of Capital, Marx does define abstract labour in a naturalistic way, where different concrete forms of labour are considered to have in common the fact that they “are both a productive expenditure (Verausgabung) of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, and so on, and in this sense both human labour”. A few pages later he states, “all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract human labour that it forms the value of commodities”. One can easily get the impression in these passages that commodities possess value simply on the basis of their being products of labour, in other words products of human energy. Such an interpretation would lead one to think that it is the individual labour expended on a single commodity that constitutes its value.
Marx, however, generally determines the value of commodities as “crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all”. This substance consists of a particular social relationship, which first appears in the exchange of commodities, when privately produced commodities are recognized as equally valid in possessing value. “It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values (value objectivity), which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility.” It is thus through a given quantity of one commodity being posed against the given quantity of another in exchange that the respective amounts of two commodities can be said to represent equal amounts of socially necessary labour, and as such be understood as parts of common social labour. Value thus concerns a particular social relation of validity, which must exist in order to conceive of the category of abstract labour. “[B]y equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour.” Not until exchange takes place does an abstraction become possible in which particular qualities and various kinds of labour can be validated as equal. This means that, prior to exchange, commodities do not possess value in themselves; strictly speaking, they are not commodities at all before being exchanged. A commodity’s value is thus not something hidden within the commodity itself, nor is it determined on the basis of the individual labour performed as such. For these reasons, the social version of Marx’s labour theory of value can be said to be opposed to the naturalistic version of it.
The above argument implies that one cannot speak of abstract labour in connection with single commodities. It is only when several commodities are present and encounter each other that it becomes possible for different labours to be abstracted and therefore equated. The value of commodities is not expressed by their individual values, but rather by the fact that the work required to produce them represents part of a general social labour. In all societies, a certain quantity of common social labour is produced. In non-commodity-producing societies, the part of individual labours in social labour is obvious enough. However, what is characteristic for the production of commodities is that it takes place in private; the social character is not presumed, but instead only becomes evident in retrospect. That commodity-producing labour is a part of social labour is only apparent when the products in question are exchanged as commodities. Thus, commodities do not exist as commodities before exchange with other commodities, and accordingly, they have no value when simply considered as individual products. They do not manifest their character as part of common social labour before they have entered the market to be exchanged. Before exchange, they are simply products with use value, but not yet commodities with value. Thus, a non-naturalistic theory of abstract labour does not propose any natural property of labour inhering in commodities. Rather, it is a matter of the particular social determination of the form which pertains to labour as a result of capitalist production of commodities. The social form of labour during capitalism as abstract labour corresponds to the commodity as the social form of the products of labour.
In several passages, Marx expresses unequivocal support for a social interpretation of value and emphasises the point that the identity of private labours in exchange is a social relation which does not come about automatically. As Heinrich argues, it is “only because of this non-natural but specific social equivalence that one can speak of abstract labour”. Heinrich quotes a passage from Marx’s previously unknown manuscript of comments made in preparation for the second edition of Capital, which further demonstrates the extent to which, in the course of his work, Marx had become increasingly aware of and emphatic about this social determination of abstract labour: “The reduction of the different concrete private labours to this abstractum of equal human labour proceeds only through exchange, which actually equates products of different labour with each other.”
Most of the new readings of Marx proposed during the 1960s and 1970s would not have found it controversial to claim that value and abstract labour were to be seen as social relations; however, the ambivalence in Marx’s texts was not always perceived. Wolfgang Fritz Haug maintained, for instance, a “natural basis” of commodity-producing labour and the value substance. For the German and Austrian value critics, this naturalist theory has given rise to a series of conceptions and simplifications, such as the notion that the worker, through abstract labour, would “produce” value in a manner like that of a baker baking bread, i.e. of concrete labour producing use value. As though in the labour process the worker would add value to a product in the same way one would spread butter on bread or jam on toast.
Concepts of abstract labour and value that are derived from a naturalist theory result not only in misunderstandings, but also create a series of problems that are in the long run incompatible with other aspects of the critique of political economy. Such simplifications as those referred to above have achieved some agitational advantages, but not without having certain scientific consequences. The traditional interpretation of Marx has often failed to comprehend the meaning of those chapters between the analysis of the commodity (in chapter one) and that of surplus value, the analysis of value forms, of fetishism, of the exchange process and of money (in the later chapters in Capital). Traditional interpretations have not been able to incorporate these into a coherent theory and have therefore often ignored them, proceeding directly to the theory of surplus value in the fifth chapter (assuming they do not go as far as Althusser did in explicitly recommending that one start one’s reading there). Accordingly, they have reasoned that all value that workers create lies in the commodities they produce; and further, that given the fact the wages workers recieve for the labour they perform does not adequately measure up to this value, they can be said to be exploited, and that’s that. The political implications of this view, however, tends at best toward either a democratically or dictatorial state-controlled redistribution of value, and not toward the abolition of commodity production, surplus value, money and wage labour as such. Moreover, the traditional reading of Marx – since it is uninterested in the questions of why value must appear as exchange value or why exchange value must take the monetary form – have not had much to say about the increasingly extensive and rapid flows of money in global capitalism. Relegating such questions to the sphere of circulation, i.e. to the realm of pure appearance, such a view remains fixated on what it considers to be essential, the sphere of production. To the extent that it does so, the traditional reading of Marx may in fact have as little to say about economic matters today as neoclassical theory, insofar as both divide up the economy into a sphere of reality and a monetary sphere and consider the sphere of reality to be concealed and distorted by the monetary sphere.
Naturalist interpretations of Marx result in yet another serious shortcoming, since they entirely miss the most important aspect of the critique of political economy for social theory and epistemology: the theory of fetishism as it is presented in the fourth section of the initial chapter in the first volume, which in the third volume of Capital becomes indispensable for understanding the mystification produced by the so-called trinity formula of land, labour and capital. In fact, the naturalistic theory itself could be regarded as an example of fetishism.
As Heinrich emphasises, the theory of commodity fetishism is not about alienation, false consciousness or ideology, nor is it about people consuming commodities for the sake of the brand involved. Marx appropriates the concept of fetishism from research on religion, where it refers to people assigning to objects characteristics they do not in fact possess, and to the phenomenon of people attributing positive outcomes they experience (such as being successful in hunting, or having a good harvest) to forces external to themselves, rather than to efforts of their own. Along similar lines, Marx argues that in producing commodities, people tend to relate to them like the savages do to things that are in fact animated by themselves. In commodity producing societies, fetishism means that the value objectivity of commodities (as well as the quality of money to express value and the quality of capital to create surplus value) is misrecognized as an inherent property of the thing itself when, in fact, value is very much the result of the common social labour of the producers. Society under the sway of the production of commodities becomes therefore, according to the wording of Marx, distorted and mystified, as human relations and common social labour become increasingly mediated by things (or, as it sometimes is called, reified).
The problem with the naturalist theory of value is that it regards value as a natural property of the commodity because of its being based on a natural physiological process (labour). The theory itself can thus be regarded as an example of the very mystifications and distortions of capital and the production of commodities; being primarily limited to a theory of exploitation, the social theoretical part vanishes. In terms of such a theory, it is by no means clear why only commodity-producing labour should constitute abstract labour, or why abstract labour should not also exist in societies where no production of commodities takes place, and finally, why not all abstract labour is commodity-producing, in other words why in the final analysis not all products are commodities. When it is based on the naturalistic understanding, the entire theoretical edifice of the critique of political economy breaks down. What is left is a theory not entirely unlike Adam Smith’s, one in which individual labour creates value, and the capacity to create value becomes an ontological determination of labour. With good reason, one could speak of a Smithian Marxism, a Marxism no more radical than the criticisms directed at the non-working aristocracy by the working bourgeoisie.
Of course there are also questions to be raised regarding the non-naturalistic theory of value. Does emphasizing the social determination imply that value arises in circulation? Didn’t Marx clearly oppose a utility theory of value, emphasizing that value emerges in production? Can Marx’s labour theory of value manage without a naturalist definition of abstract labour? As should be clear from what has been said above, I have already answered the last question affirmatively, and would add that the theory would not be tenable at all with a naturalist definition of abstract labour. The question “Where does the value of the commodity arise?” or: “Where does the commodity derive its value objectivity from?”) is falsely posed. Such questions are relevant to classical and neo-classical economics, but for Marx, or more precisely for the non-naturalist Marx, those questions already presuppose commodity fetishism. As Heinrich states, “Value does not arise somewhere to then be ‘there’.” Value is not a thing but rather a social relationship. It emerges neither through production nor through exchange, but presupposes both. It is a property something is assigned in relation to other things, which then gives the appearance of possessing it quite apart from such a relationship. As Marx insists on repeatedly, value is a ghostly or over-sensual property, not a substantial one. The conception of a commodity possessing its value objectivity independent of these relations is a semblance that transforms a social property into what is taken to be a natural one.
How should one understand this? Heinrich gives a pedagogical example by comparing our way of describing two things that are red with the proposition that two commodities possess the same value substance. In the former case, we do not need to place the two objects in relation to each other, a red apple and a fire engine are both red without us needing to compare them with each other. The two commodities, on the other hand, have the same value substance only in relation to each other. Heinrich argues, quite rightly, that the latter instance is not the typical way one speaks about properties. Normally, we recognise that properties such as being inferior and superior only apply to a relation. Nevertheless, do we not deal with numerous cases where we actually and naturally speak of properties as if they were augmented objects or persons as such, in spite of the fact that they constitute relations? I would argue that such reasoning applies to a number of sociological concepts, without which we could not understand society. Take, for example, what could easily enough be described as the primordial sociological concept, charisma, central to Max Weber’s sociology of religion. Sociologically speaking, it concerns the relation between a leader and a group of followers, where the followers attribute certain qualities to the leader. Nobody would say that “he or she has charisma, but nobody has discovered it”; in that case, the person does not have any charisma. Yet we still talk about “charismatic leaders” and “charismatic leadership qualities” as though they were palpable characteristics of individuals. In the same way, we say a commodity “possesses” value, and talk about it as a palpable quality, when in fact a commodity that is not assigned value in exchange with other commodities or money, does not have any value; it is simply a worthless object, not a commodity at all.
Heinrich, however, does not suggest here that one should perceive the value theory as a pure relational theory, a position which he in fact criticizes, nor does he argue for it as a pure theory of circulation, which he also opposes. The argument can be clarified if we return to the modern social-scientific concept formation insofar as it has abandoned naturalism. Using Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model, one may say that there is a lot of work done “behind the scenes” to create the charismatic relationship between leader and followers or to elicit any impression whatsoever upon an imagined audience. If the work is not realised through an appearance, nothing will come of the charisma, and if you have not worked on the performance, it fails, and the charismatic effect fails to appear. The same situation applies to Pierre Bourdieu’s non-economic concept of capital. One must both work for one’s capital, get an education, practice, and produce something which is recognised by the field of science or art in order to become a scientist or an artist, or else one becomes neither, regardless of what one has produced for the drawer or the hard disc. Similarly, the value-relation does not arise in exchange without a labour process, but without exchange, concrete labour would never be reduced to abstract labour either, and thus, no value would emerge. One might also bring to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s by now famous, and to modern social sciences so significant statement, that one cannot have a private language. The same thing applies to the value, one cannot decide it on one’s own.
Read in this way, Marx’s critique of political economy enters right into the centre of modern social science, and one can no longer so easily discard it as an obsolete paradigm of production, as a philosophy of consciousness, or of the subject, or of anything of that kind, as is done by convention within the neo-platonic theory of communication. At the same time, of course, the critique of political economy found in Marx is significantly more complicated than that found in the sociology of language philosophy and intersubjectivist sociology, since the circumstances within which the social players within commodity production act, and the acts they perform, are not transparent to themselves. “They do not know it, but they do it”, one reads in the chapter on fetishism, describing how the participants equate their different labours in the commodity exchange. But in wavering between a naturalistic and a social explication, Marx was on his way to making a discovery that he himself was not entirely aware of, nothing less than society’s distinctiveness vis-à-vis nature, and the specific type of conceptual apparatus required to understand it.