2017 conference abstracts


Main speakers

Mike Neary (Lincoln)
Critical Theory as a critique of labour, featuring academic work; or, how do revolutionary teachers teach?

This paper presents Critical Theory as a critique of labour based on reading Marx’s law of value as an impersonal form of social domination. Starting with Adorno and his students at the Institut fur Sozialforschung in the 1960s, this critique of labour is configured historically as the New Reading of Marx/Neue Marx-Lecture, Critique of Value/Wertkritik, Capital Relation Theory, Open Marxism and Communisation. At the core of this exposition lies a concern about the social function of academic work and its relationship to communist transformation, prompting the question ‘how do revolutionary teachers teach?

Sara Farris (Goldsmiths)
A Marxist-feminist approach to the theory of the reserve army of labour

(Abstract to follow.)

Anselm Jappe (Sassari)
Marx and the ‘two-fold nature’ of labour: the ‘pivot’ of his critique of capitalism

Marx considered his discovery of the “two-fold nature of labour” to be one of his most important contributions to science. Indeed, he was the first to point out the central role of “abstract labour” in capitalism – a category which is neither transhistorical nor neutral. Abstract labour, and the value it produces, is more fundamental than the exploitation of labour and the surplus-value it produces. It is only in the last decades that the consequences of this presupposition of Marx’s critique of political economy have been fully developed in new readings of Marx which attribute a central place to the concepts of “commodity fetishism” and “automatic subject”. On the other hand, for Marx, “concrete labour” was “natural” – but we should integrate his views with historical and anthropological insights in order to understand that the category of labour, as separated from other spheres of life, is itself a capitalistic one.Graduate panel

Graduate panel

Alastair Hemmens (Cardiff)
Labour, a ‘rational abstraction’? Robert Kurz’s substance of capital and resolving the labour aporia in Marx

This paper takes as its point of departure the recent publication in English of The Substance of Capital by the late German Wertkritik theorist Robert Kurz (1943-2012). One of the most important arguments that Kurz makes in this book is that Marx puts forward two contradictory, even ‘aporetic’, conceptions of labour in his mature critical theory: the first describes labour in positivistic terms as a ‘rational abstraction’, that is, as a positive and universal social form that would exist in all human society; the second describes a critical theory of labour as a negative and destructive social form that establishes the fetishistic grounds of capitalist modernity. The paper begins by examining the evidence for such an aporetic understanding of labour in Marx’s mature critical theory through a close reading of the relevant passages in the Grundrisse and Capital in order to support Kurz’s initial observations. It then briefly traces the epistemology of this notion of labour as a transhistorical ‘rational abstraction’ in Marx and shows that it is primarily this conception of labour that persisted in traditional Marxism. However, the paper demonstrates that there are no historical nor logical grounds to support such a conception of labour. Rather, as Marx himself, in his other, negative, conception of the labour form, demonstrates, labour is in fact an empty social form that is defined precisely by the fact that it does not refer to its own concrete content, but only to its own autotelic and pointless self-valorisation in its dead form of value; a process of ‘real abstraction’ that is specific to capitalism. Labour is, in Marx’s own pleonasm, always therefore ‘abstract labour’ even when it appears to us as ‘concrete’. It is only by fully developing this ‘esoteric’ aspect of Marx’s critical theory against its ‘exoteric’, positivistic, side that we can resolve this contradiction.

Sean Winkler (Leuven)
The Hessen-Grossmann-Lukács Thesis: A Marxist Study of the emotions in early modern philosophy’

In this paper, I will argue that Lukács’s account of ‘reification’ can be utilized to make up for a significant limitation in the classical Marxist, Hessen-Grossmann thesis; namely, the fact that Hessen and Grossmann omit any treatment of early modern philosophers’ and scientists’ accounts of the affects/emotions. According to this thesis, mechanistic philosophy and science arose from the study of the machine technology that began to flourish in the early capitalist economy. The thesis has become outdated, however, as recent developments in the historiography of early modern philosophy and science over the past three decades have seen a consensus among scholars that changes in theories of the affects/emotions were no less important than physics in the rise of mechanistic philosophy and science. Hessen and Grossmann, however, restrict their focus to physics. I propose that one can account for why early modern philosophers and scientists applied the study of machine technology to human affects/emotions if one adapts the Hessen-Grossmann thesis to the conditions of Lukács’s account of reification. For Lukács, reification is the process by which the qualitative origins of the experience of objects, relations between individuals, and individuals to themselves come to be concealed, such that they appear to have an independent, quantifiable ‘thing-like’ reality of their own. By framing the Hessen-Grossmann thesis in terms Lukács’s reification, one can better understand why early modern theorists would have considered machines like clocks, firearms, levers and pulleys, etc., to be properly analogous forms to apply in the study of the life of the human subject. In Part 1 of my paper, I will point out the aforementioned-stated limitation in the Hessen-Grossmann thesis. In Part 2, I will argue that this limitation arises from Hessen’s and Grossmann’s inheritance of the rather underdeveloped account of reification, as it appeared in the works of Karl Marx, and that the notion would not be more fully developed until Lukács wrote “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proleteriat”. In Part 3, I will argue that Lukács account of reification provides the proper means for developing a more robust account of the Hessen-Grossmann thesis, by providing the proper methodological tools for discerning the source of changes in theories of the affects/emotions in the early modern period. In Part 4, I will conclude by providing a text-case for my account. Through this study, I hope to update and potentially help revive this largely-neglected thesis.

Michael Lazurus (Monash)
The standpoint of labour and Marx’s method

This paper examines the importance of the standpoint of labour in Marx’s method. Tracing the development of this notion from the Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, its elaboration in the 1844 Manuscripts and crucial place in Capital, I argue that the standpoint of labour is essential to how Marx conceptualises labour. It is through this vantage point that Marx aims to overcome the ‘either/or’ antinomies of bourgeois thought, and solidifies his claim to discover the essential relations of the capitalist mode of production. Here my analysis draws off Lukács and defends his position against Postone. Further, I argue that Marx’s standpoint of labour underscores the ethical dimension of his thought. First, Marx identifies in Hegelian terms, the proletariat as the universal class, the subject/object identity of society. This philosophical perspective lays the basis for a distinctive world-view heavily indebted to Hegel’s method. However, Marx’s standpoint of labour reworks Hegel’s insights and allows him to fully comprehend the materiality of labour in forming social being. Marx develops this perspective in his 1844 writings with his discussion of species-essence. This term embodies Marx’s fundamental ontological commitment to the view that humans are essentially social animals, formed through and by productive activity. Estranged labour limits human potentiality and flourishing and it is only from the philosophical vantage point of labour that Marx is able to fully grasp the nature of alienation. The development of this position is evidenced in the Theses on Feuerbach, when he writes that his new standpoint is ‘human society’. Marx’s humanist view rejects the standpoint of ‘civil society’ in place for one of ‘human society’ judged from the prism of social relations. I argue that Marx uses both the phrase ‘standpoint of labour’ and ‘standpoint of society’ to denote equivalent ontological positions. This is most strongly demonstrated in Capital, where Marx frequently contrasts the standpoints of labour and society with that of capital. The philosophical significance of Marx’s position here demonstrates the purpose of his critique is the appearance level ideology of Political Economy. Here capitalist social relations are naturalised as eternal laws. This is evidenced in the conceptual importance of quality/quantity and the distinction between labour/labour-power. Marx argues that the concrete totality, the relation between essence and appearance can only be comprehended through the methodological standpoint of labour.