2010 annual conference abstracts

Richard Seaford
Money, Abstraction, and the Genesis of the Psyche

This paper centres on Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s theory concerning the historical role of real abstraction (in commodity-exchange) in the formation of what Kant called the transcendental unity of apperception. This attempt to create a Marxist epistemology was based on Sohn-Rethel’s intensive study of Marx, as well as on his rather limited knowledge of the historical and economic context of the genesis of Greek philosophy. My use of traditional techniques of classical scholarship to investigate the cultural achievements of the early Greek polis converges with Sohn-Rethel’s theoretical conclusions.

In my book Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge U. P. 2004) I explained the basic shared feature of presocratic ‘philosophical’ cosmology (the universal power of transcendent abstract substance) in the context of the exactly contemporary monetisation of the Greek polis (the first pervasively monetised society in history). In my paper I will develop this argument into the realm of the subject. I will provide confirmation, critique, and development of Sohn-Rethel’s theory by tracing the development of the idea of a unitary site of consciousness (psyche) in Homer, Anaximenes, Herakleitos, Parmenides, and Plato. The focus will be on the unprecedentedly individualising power of money together with the structure of abstract centralisation shared by money, cosmos, and psyche.

Alberto Toscano
The Dead Pledge of Society: Methodological Problems and Political Consequences of ‘Real Abstraction’

Marx initiated an epistemological revolution by demonstrating that life under capitalism is dominated by abstractions which are not the product of mental acts, but of social practices. The view that the treatment of such real abstractions lies at the very core of the critique of political economy has been defended by a disparate set of thinkers – among them Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Lucio Colletti, and Roberto Finelli. But before we try to reconstruct and revive the subterranean tradition of a Marxism of the abstract, it is necessary to examine the rifts and stresses that separate various accounts of the relationship between abstraction and social form. The aim of this paper is to produce a provisional inventory of key methodological disputes among thinkers of real abstraction, among which we can count: the periodisation of Marx’s work (does real abstraction identify a caesura between the ‘Marx of alienation’ and the ‘Marx of the abstract’?); the role of real abstraction in the genesis of philosophy; the primacy of exchange or labour in the account of real abstraction; the philosophical sources of real abstraction (Kant or Hegel?). The paper will then explore the political consequences and lessons drawn by different thinkers from putting real abstraction at the centre of Marxism – focussing in particular on the politics of labour, the viability of transition, and the forms to be taken by the negation of capital as a social relation.

Graduate Panel 1

Jan Sailer, University of Freiburg
Securities: The Purest Form of Abstract Wealth. A Re-evaluation of the Concept of “Fictitious Capital”

A good number of marxist scholars regard the recent financial crisis as proof that the wealth accumulated in the financial sector is no wealth at all. Drawing on Marx’ concept of “fictitious capital”, they argue that the assets traded on the capital markets instead constitute mere claims to “real” wealth – which is the wealth produced by exploiting labour. If production in the “real economy” cannot justify the claims that finance capital imposes on it, these claims become worthless. According to these authors, therefore, the financial crisis reveals the dependency of fictitious capital on the productive sector. And yet, finance capital performs all the functions of “real” capital so well that it not only supersedes the value of the productive sector to astonishing degrees, but has also come to constitute the centre of the capitalist economy, the foundation upon which all other economic sectors depend. I argue against the tendency to interpret “fictitious capital” as a false appearance of capital functioning elsewhere. I argue that because wealth in capitalist society is nothing but the power to control the forces of production in order to expand that power, which Marx therefore termed “abstract wealth”, fictitious capital is just as real as the kind of capital advanced in order to exploit labour and extract surplus value. The expansion of value of advanced fictitious capital is not restricted to that of the underlying exploitative business. Contrary to what the term “fictitious” might imply, this kind of capital differs from “real” capital not in terms of its reality, but in terms of its source. It derives not from a completed process of exploitation, but from the use of credit. It consists of anticipated future surplus-value in the form of currently existing assets, materialized in securities.

Nick Gray, University of Sussex
Abstraction, Universality, Money and Capital: The Capital-Theory of Value

In this paper I argue that a fully-developed Marxian theory of value goes beyond substantialist, or productivist, and monetary, or circulationist, theories of value. More precisely I argue that the former overcomes, or sublates, the opposition between the latter two types of theory. In substantialist or Ricardian theories, value is intrinsic within commodities by virtue of the labour embodied in them. Monetary theories of value hold that value inheres in the relation between commodities which are exchanged against the universal equivalent, money. The fully developed Marxian theory grasps value as value-in-process, as constituted by the unity of the spheres of production and circulation qua production process of capital. Through the subsumption of production under the capital-form of value, which itself originates from the dialectic of forms of value arising from the sphere of exchange, abstract labour is posited as the substance of value, and the labour-process is posited as (surplus-)value-producing; (surplus-)values produced in this way are realised in exchange. The entire process is the circuit of value-in-process qua self-valorising value. Thus capital is the overriding unity of the two opposed spheres, which are now posited as moments of its own circuit; each is the presupposition of the other. Such a reconstruction of Marxian value theory is a capital-theory of value, which shows that value can neither be posited nor realised without the entire circle of posited presuppositions of capital being in place – something lacking in both one-sided substantialist, or productivist, and monetary, or circulationist, theories of value.

Marina Vishmidt, Queen Mary, University of London
Art In and As Abstract Labour

If abstract labour is the general social form of labour that produces value for capital, then it is not possible to think of art as abstract labour because art production is not value-producing labour. It is a social institution which mediates value produced elsewhere but operates at a distance from the law of value as it structures waged labour. Abstract labour may happen within art production, when outsourcing and other industrial processes enter into the production process, but not directly in the act of art production itself which is aligned with an artisanal logic. Yet, when art comes to emulate other kinds of activity in its post-conceptual trajectory, including many which would be subsumed under ‘labour’, and when labour is increasingly performed under the aegis of art-like qualities (‘creative industries’, et al.), we can think of art in a new conjunction with Marx’s definition of abstract labour. In order to determine what makes labour a question for contemporary art we would first of all have to revise the Adornian topology of autonomy and heteronomy. Under the sign of abstract labour, a managed and elite ‘creativity’ poses the current condition for both labour in general and what was once the opposite of abstract labour – the concrete, individual and unbound art work. Though it is a challenge to retain the ontological dimension of the critical split between autonomy and heteronomy as the condition of art after the ‘conceptual’ and ‘institutional’ turns, we can still pursue its political economic implications which identify the material and ideological conditions for the ultimate ‘unconditioned’, art, while appreciating the very equivocal resistance that the aesthetic category of the ‘unconditioned’ can offer to the value-form.

Graduate Panel 2

Brian Fuller, York University
Materialism and Dialectic: Reading Marx after Adorno

The themes of materialism and dialectic in Marx’s work have been amply and ably explored in recent years, with the controversial Hegelian heritage typically situating the ways in which the social production of value, and the consequent rule of capital, both constitute our social relations and ground our attempts at understanding them. One of the problems highlighted in Adorno’s reading of Marx is the specifically epistemological consequences of the Marxian theory. Adorno’s ‘materialist’ reading of Marx, in works such as Hegel, Negative Dialectics, and the lectures on Philosophische Terminologie, understands the forms of social abstraction brought about through capital in terms of the non-identical. The rule of capital is understood, as in Marx, as both a cognitive and a social process. However, with his broadening of the process of identification, on which the process of exchange is based, Adorno attempts to retain a properly philosophical and epistemological focus that Marx was eager to shed, and with which he desires a recuperation of the philosophical heritage of German Idealism. The material, dialectical relationship between identification and non-identity occurs at the levels of the ideal (cognitive) and the material (social), and accounts for Adorno’s importance to the tradition of Marxian philosophy. The question for the present paper is, to what extent has Adorno actually built upon Marx’s conceptions of the material transformation of philosophy and the dialectical analysis of the exchange process? Using an analysis of Marx, guided by Adorno, my argument here will be that, contrary to Marx’s own claims, the ‘realization’ of philosophy has been, and will continue to be, missed, because we cannot grasp our social conditions without simultaneously reflecting upon our own thought processes. Adorno understood this claim to originate with Marx himself.

Tim Carter, University of Sussex
Alienation and Domination in Marx and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Anthropologies

The work of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein is here presented as a philosophical anthropology, an account of human nature and the human condition, with deep commonalities with that of Karl Marx. Their work has been related before, but this often is confined to noting methodological and epistemological convergences (as in the work of David Rubinstein), or on the other hand to giving a passing acknowledgement to the implicit theme of ‘linguistic alienation’ in Wittgenstein. I attempt to go beyond these analyses to show how a common architecture of self-alienation and self-enslavement is present in Wittgenstein (in language) as it is in Marx (in productive activity), and that it is based upon a relevantly similar philosophical anthropology. The case is therefore made for a Marxist reading of Wittgenstein which, in addition, will go some way to disrupting the common assumption that his work has conservative implications.

Chris Allsobrook, University of Sussex
Meta-Maieusis: The Ideological Normative Grounds of Immanent Critique

Marxist ideology criticism has generally been characterised as a dialectical form of immanent critique which exposes existing inconsistencies, contradictions and/or conflicts amongst agents’ beliefs, values, ideals, practices etc to reveal underlying material social processes and conditions of domination, without making any personal, subjective, external, transcendent, abstract, utopian, or idealistic normative claims. What motivates the description of these contradictions is the hope that rational people cannot comfortably engage in or endorse practices or ideas that implicate them in domination and self-defeating behaviour. Dispelling ideology, which obscures domination, clears a path to emancipation. However immanent ideology criticism on this formal, non-evaluative model tends to sneak in unwarranted conclusions. I first sketch two basic models of Platonic dialectic, showing how Socrates’ normative grounds, disguised in the elenchus of the early dialogues are made explicit in the Republic. The problem with the first model is that although Socrates wants to refute his opponent and aims to develop moral doctrines, elenchus demonstrates mere inconsistency. Thus Plato later moves to an ascending-descending model of dialectic, with a Utopian teleology and a formal, transcendent conception of the Good, making his normative grounds explicit. In the second half of the paper I draw on these two basic Platonic models of dialectic to show how Marx and the early Adorno’s supposedly immanent approaches to ideology critique effectively lead each to develop an increasingly sophisticated vehicle of ideology. I close with a few brief suggestions as to how a Nietzschean genealogical approach to ideology critique might overcome such problems without entailing any radical discontinuity with Marxist theory.

Martin Sohn-Rethel
Memories of my Father, Alfred Sohn-Rethel

I will say something about the life and work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel: his experiences in Germany before and during the Nazi period; his book The Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism; his analyses of intellectual and manual labour and of the exchange abstraction. I will add some personal recollections of my father and of his accounts of the above.

Chris Arthur
Abstraction, Universality, and Money

The aim of this paper is to exhibit the logic of money in its relation to its analytical preconditions in commodity exchange. The key constitutive moment is that of practical abstraction which is made actual in money. This is why money is the King of commodities. Alfred Sohn-Rethel was the first to draw attention to the importance of the process, and result, of ‘real abstraction’ in the critique of political economy. I briefly relate his insight to Kant and Hegel. At the end I contrast the logical analysis of money with a standard account I call ‘mythodology’. I also defend my position, against a critic who accuses me of a petitio principii, by elucidating the figure of ‘positing the presupposition’.