Marx’s critique of political economy and the problem of revolutionary subjectivity

Pothik Ghosh


Let us begin with an axiomatic assertion: the strategic insolvency of the Indian communist left in all its various strains and stripes is an outcome of the subsumed Leninist form of its political practice. Insofar as effects go, this coopted Leninist form of political practice has, ironically enough, put these so-called communist left groups on the same page as the non-Leninist and/or post-Marxist communitarian leftists, and the radical democrats of this country. It has ensured the various parties, organisations and groupuscules that comprise the Indian communist left – together with their non-Leninist and/or post-Marxist allies-in-practice – do no more than indulge in spectacular display of empty optimism and vulgar romanticism that, for all practical purposes, make for a politics of system-reinforcing reformism.

We, at Radical Notes, have been trying to develop a critique of such politics in order to articulate a conception of revolutionary generalisation that is quite distinct from what such Leninism has to offer. It is also arguably more plausible with regard to our own conjuncture. In developing this critique vis-à-vis various concrete instances of such political practices and programmatic statements in the Leninist form, we have also sought to pose a modality of militant political practice that is meant to instance our conception of revolutionary generalisation. This modality of practice is distinct from that of the so-called communist left organisations – to say nothing of the practices of non-Leninists, post-Marxists, and anti-Marxist radical democrats.

The theoretical basis of this endeavour of ours, admittedly nascent, is the approach Marx elaborates while developing his critique of political economy, particularly in Capital. In that context, we find in Moishe Postone’s “reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory” an indispensable and kindered theoretical resource. Postone’s principal contribution lies in his having demonstrated that Marx’s critique of political economy is not, contrary to what different types of “traditional Marxism” would have us believe, a critique of capital from the standpoint of labour. Rather, such a critique of capital is, as Postone rigorously contends, a critique of labour itself as it exists in capital as a historically determinate mode and form of production and socialisation respectively.

Postone, through his attentive reading of Marx’s Capital, has shown how the traditional Marxist approach of critique of capital from the standpoint of labour serves to merely alter the form of distribution of value in order to democratise such distribution. It can, he contends, do nothing to unravel and overcome the mode of production of value that founds this form of distribution, which is essentially inegalitarian and undemocratic. Political practices informed and underpinned by “traditional Marxism”, in fact, enable capital qua the mode of production of value to reproduce itself through its expansion. Therefore, only those political practices that are orientated by critique of capital as critique of labour can overcome and negate capital as the mode of production of value.

On this point Postone’s argument resonates with our own critique of Leninism of the communist left in India. In our bid to develop this critique we have discerned the theoretical approach implicit in such Leninist practice, whether their various practitioners explicitly acknowledge it or not, to be that of critique of capital from the standpoint of labour.

Critique of capital from the standpoint of labour; or critique of labour?

In this essay, one hopes to offer a glimpse of how this cardinal theoretical insight of Marx’s critique of political economy enables us to grasp such Leninism as basically restorative, if not outright reactionary. More importantly, one hopes to demonstrate how our conception of a different form of revolutionary subjectivity — and, concomitantly, a different modality of militant political practice – is derived from this insight, particularly as it obtains in the conceptually central first chapter (‘Commodity’) of Capital, Volume I.

What is the implication of our insistence, together with Postone, that a truly radical critique of capital can only be a critique of labour in the specificity of its historical existence in capitalism? Postone writes (2003, pp.4-5):

“My reading of Marx’s critical theory focuses on his conception of labor to social life, which is generally considered to lie at the core of his theory. I argue that the meaning of the category of labor in his mature works is different from what traditionally has been assumed: it is historically specific rather than transhistorical. In Marx’s mature critique, the notion that labor constitutes the social world and is the source of all wealth does not refer to society in general, but to capitalist, or modern society alone. Moreover, and this is crucial, Marx’s analysis does not refer to labor as it is generally and transhistorically conceived—a goal-directed social activity that mediates between humans and nature, creating specific products in order to satisfy determinate human needs—but to a peculiar role that labor plays in capitalist society alone. …the historically specific character of this labor is intrinsically related to the form of social interdependence characteristic of capitalist society. It constitutes a historically specific, quasi-objective form of social mediation that, within the framework of Marx’s analysis, serves as the ultimate social ground of modernity’s basic features.”

Labour as it exists in capital has a historically specific character that distinguishes it from forms of labour in societies before capital came into being. This historical specificity of labour, Marx demonstrates in Capital, is characterised by the specific mode in which it is organised, mobilised and functionalised as labour. This historically determinate mode of functionalising labour is characterised by the creation of private or individuated labouring subjects that so exist only to be concomitantly socialised through the exchange of the products of their respective labour. Such socialisation, therefore, rests on the presupposition of value or human labour in the abstract as the qualitative equalisation of different qualities. Marx writes (1986, pp. 77-78):

“As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other…. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”

Marx’s insistence here is that exchange, which necessarily presupposes valorisation in order to be its expression, is the only form of socialisation possible when private and individuated labouring subjects are in play. He, however, completes the dialectic between relations of production (relations between different labouring subjects) and relations of exchange (relations between different products produced by different labouring subjects) when he clearly indicates how exchange-mediated socialisation presuppose the existence of individuated or atomised labouring subjects. While explicating “the riddle presented by money” by way of explicating “the riddle presented by commodities”, Marx writes (1986, p.96):

“In the form of society now under consideration, the behaviour of men in the social process of production is purely atomic. Hence their relations to each other in production assume a material character independent of their control and conscious individual action. These facts manifest themselves at first by products as a general rule taking the form of commodity.”

As a matter of fact, only in this mode of functionalising labour through creation of individuated or atomic labouring subjects is qualitative equalisation of different qualities achieved. More precisely, valorisation — which is reduction of different useful and concrete labours into human labour in the abstract – is what socialises those differences by rendering them quantitatively comparable, and thus exchangeable, with one another. Hence, this mode of constituting and functionalising labour through individuation or atomisation of labouring subjects – which are socialisable only through the mediation of exchange of their products – is the actuality of valorisation. Thence the importance of Marx’s inference (1986, p. 77):

“The Fetishism of commodities has its origin…in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.”

The impersonal power of capital: Value versus value-form, or how the juridical masks the economic

Clearly, fetishism of commodities, which is naturalisation of the abstraction of qualitatively different products in their concrete materiality into qualitatively equal things, is an inescapable outcome of the socio-historically specific character of labour that comes into being through the mode of individuation of labouring subjects. It ought to be clarified here that this historically determinate mode of existence and functioning of labour amounts to the abstraction of qualitatively different useful concrete labours into qualitatively equalisable human labour. This abstraction of concrete labour logically precedes the abstraction of qualitatively different products (use-values) into mutually commensurable commodities. In other words, human labour in the abstract is the substance of capital qua modernity as a historically determinate form of socialisation. Postone observes (2003, p.6)

“…Marx’s theory proposes that what uniquely characterizes capitalism is precisely that its basic social relations are constituted by labor and, hence, ultimately are of a fundamentally different sort than those that characterize noncapitalist societies. Though his critical analysis of capitalism does include a critique of exploitation, social inequality, and class domination, it goes beyond this: it seeks to elucidate the very fabric of social relations in modern society, and the abstract form of social domination intrinsic to them, by means of a theory that grounds their social constitution in determinate, structured forms of practice.”

What is this “abstract form of social domination”? One of the clearest demonstrations of the same is arguably found in Marx’s explication of the money-form. He writes (1986, p.93):

“The act of exchange gives to the commodity converted into money, not its value, but its specific value-form. By confounding these two distinct things some writers have been led to hold that the value of gold and silver is imaginary.”

What will at a given moment function as the money-form – or the formal embodiment of value qua universal equivalence – is a matter of historical convention decided through interpersonal consent at that particular moment. But that does not, therefore, mean value qua universal equivalence, and the necessity of its formal embodiment, are contingent on universal consent of mankind achieved through interpersonal intercourse among free human subjects. Rather, value as congelation of human labour in the abstract — which is the substance of qualitative equivalence of different qualities – is an impersonal and abstract power that necessitates the search, through mutual consent of free human/personal subjects, the historically conventional form of embodiment of itself as universal equivalence.

But ideological folly is the lifeblood of capital. Let us belabour the point a bit more to get a better grip on what that folly is. It is about different historically conventional kinds of money-form concealing the fact that the impersonal power of universal equivalence is their condition of necessity precisely by virtue of being its expressions. What really happens is this: the historically particular type of the general form of value — universal equivalence in its most adequate form – passes off for the logic of that form. In other words, the logic, which is value qua universal equivalence, is confounded with its particular form. As a result, the logic of the money-form is grasped as a function of interpersonal consent that actually does no more than historically institute the type of the money-form, or general form of value, which is an impersonal necessity. Marx writes (1986, p.95):

“What appears to happen is, not that gold becomes money, in consequence of all other commodities expressing their values in it, but, on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in gold, because it is money. The intermediate steps of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind.”

At a more general level of juridical relations, Marx demonstrates a slightly different variation of the same dialectic: personal freedom concealing the necessity of the impersonal and the abstract precisely in expressing it. He writes (1986, p.88):

“In order that…objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another, as persons whose will resides in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and part with his own, except by means of an act done by mutual consent. They must, therefore, mutually recognise in each other the rights of private proprietors. The juridical relation, which thus expresses itself in a contract, whether such contract be part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills, and is but the reflex of the real economic relation between the two. It is this economic relation that determines the subject-matter comprised in each such juridical act.” (Emphasis added.)

Juridical terms – or terms of contract — are decided through conscious deliberation among persons or personified subjects. But the logic of juridicality that necessitates such interpersonal intercourse for setting up and/or modifying the terms of contract, or juridical relations, is the determinate mode of constitution of labour through its subjective individuation.

In other words, the terms of contract or juridicality can be set, and changed, through mutual consent of conscious human/humanised subjects precisely because the logic of juridicality is an inescapable necessity due to the historically determinate mode of existence of individuated labouring subjects. Clearly, the contractual – or juridical – relation between free human wills is meant to be the operationalisation of exchange of commodities. That, in turn, is necessitated by the historically determinate mode of existence of individuated labour.

In such circumstances, self-legislating subjects continuing as themselves by way of repeatedly realising their personal/personified freedoms through changing the juridical terms of their mutual relations, amounts to the reconstitution of that impersonal and abstract iron-cage. It would, therefore, not be inaccurate to insist that modernity as the intercourse of free-willed, self-legislating human/humanised subjects is the ideological form of capital. The abstract and impersonal domination of the historically determinate mode of subjectively individuated labour is accomplished by free human subjects precisely because the latter express that impersonal necessity in the form of freedom of personal/human subjects.

Marx says as much about modernity – the Enlightenment to be precise — while demonstrating how the logic of money, which is the most adequate general form of value, is confounded with a particular kind of that general form fixed through mutual consent of personal/human subjects. He writes (1990, pp.185-186):

“The fact that money can, in certain functions, be replaced by mere symbols of itself, gave rise to another mistaken notion, that it is itself a mere symbol, since, as value, it is only the material shell of the human labour expended on it. But if it is declared that the social characteristics assumed by material objects, or the material characteristics assumed by the social determinations of labour on the basis of a definite mode of production, are mere symbols, then it is also declared, at the same time, that these characteristics are the arbitrary product of human reflection. This was the kind of explanation favoured by the eighteenth century: in this way the Enlightenment endeavoured, at least temporarily, to remove the appearance of strangeness from the mysterious shapes assumed by human relations whose origins they were unable to decipher.” (Emphasis added.)

Marx’s exposition in Capital reveals this abstract character of domination even further. He demonstrates how the historically determinate mode of mobilising labour through its subjective individuation – and the forms of practice structured by such a mode – has exploitation, or extraction of surplus-value, as its inseparable dimension. The socialisation of those individuated labouring subjects through exchange of products (commodities) created by them implies the partitioning of the total labour time that has gone into the production of a particular commodity into that which is consumed by the producer himself for his own social reproduction, and that which is alienated in exchange in the form of a surplus of the commodity in question. What we see here is exploitation as an integral dimension of an impersonal structure of abstract and quasi-objective socialisation, insofar as that structure is constitutive of alienation of surplus labour time and socially necessary labour time. Marx underscores this quasi-objective nature of capital when he writes (1986, pp.78-79):

“…when we bring the products of our labour into relations with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.”

The short point of all this elaboration is that capital as a fact of exploitation cannot be got rid of unless capital as the historically determinate mode of mobilising labour through constitution of individuated labouring subjects is abolished. In the latter’s negation, which is abolition of labour in its historical specificity, lies the former’s disappearance. Marx writes (1986, p.84):

“The life-process of society, which is based on the process of production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan….”

So, unless politics is an endeavour to abolish the historically determinate mode of mobilising labour by way of putting in place a plan that seeks to realise free association of direct producers, there can be no decisive break with capital. Only a plan that seeks to realise free association of direct producers will, in replacing and thus abolishing the historically determinate mode of atomised labouring subjects, tend to preclude socialisation through the mediation of exchange of products produced by such labour.

All other kinds of political exertions that seek to expand personal freedoms only reproduce the logic of juridical relations by expanding its ambit. Such exertions concomitantly reproduce, through expansion, the historically determinate mode of existence of atomised labouring subjects that impersonally necessitates the logic of juridical relations and the subjectivity of free personhood. In other words, such political manoeuvres, in seeking to expand the freedom of personal/personified subjects, reproduce the mode of distribution of value by seeking to democratise such distribution.

As a result, such politics, in tending to purportedly increase the freedom of personal subjects, serves to perpetuate and expand the historically determinate mode of existence and functioning of individuated labouring subjects, and thus reproduces the mode of production of value that necessitates the question of its distribution among various personal/personified subjects. Clearly, politics that seeks to expand the freedoms of personal/personified subjects is no more than a quest for increasing democracy within the horizon of impersonal and abstract domination that, therefore, renders such democracy, and its expansion, foundationally and constitutively undemocratic.

This does not, however, mean the experience of (relative) lack of freedom in a particular juridical relation is a figment of the imagination, and the struggle against that lack pointless. The point is, instead, to grasp such lack of freedom in terms of the necessity of the juridical logic of interpersonal relations that is impersonally imposed by the historically specific mode of existence of individuated labouring subjects. Only then will struggles against such lack of freedom be able to envisage themselves, not as exertions to change the juridical terms of interpersonal relations, but as tactically instantiated strategic manoeuvres to abolish the logic of juridical relations constitutive of personal/personified subjects. In other words, such struggles need to envisage themselves in a manner that seeks the abolition of the historically specific mode of existence of individuated labour that impersonally necessitates the logic of juridicalised relations.

The theory implicit in a politics that seeks to expand the freedoms of personal/personified subjects by merely changing the juridical terms of relations among those subjects is, quite evidently, critique of capital from the standpoint of labour. It is not the actuality of critique of capital as critique of labour in its historically specific existence within capitalism.

“Traditional Marxism”: subjective individuation and the folly of classical political economy

This is the salience of Marx’s critical theory. Failure to grasp this leads to the error of “traditional Marxism”: grasping and deploying Marx’s critique of political economy as a critique of capital from the standpoint of labour. Political practices that have implicit in them this theoretical approach make for, if at all, a politics of continuous democratisation of distribution of value. However, what such politics actually yields is continuous recomposition of juridical and exchange relations by way of repeatedly changing their contractual terms. This, as we have seen above, preserves the mode of production of value by reproducing it through expansion and intensification (expansion as intensification) of its subsumptive remit.

Marx quite clearly anticipates this problem of “traditional Marxism” when he writes (1986, p.80):

“The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is…a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.”

Such “discovery”, or knowledge, of value as the secret of the determination of its magnitude by labour-time – a secret that is hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative value-forms of commodities — is doubtless a theoretical critique of value. But to the extent it is not a critique of value in terms of the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation of labour – precisely that which makes possible the individuated subject that discovers this secret – it is a mystified critique of value. It is, therefore, unsuccessful as a total critique of capital.

As a result, such knowledge in its immediate and direct translation into practice will not result in a radical break with capital. That is because it will not alter the mode in which the magnitude of value is determined by labour-time. In fact, practice in such a form will actually reproduce that mode by expanding the remit of the form of distribution of value the former necessitates. The translation of this knowledge into practice in an immediate and directly correspondent manner would imply the subject of such practice is the unproblematised individuated subject of knowledge. That, in turn, would mean the subject through its practice of overcoming value as the essence, qua labour-time, of relative value-forms, instantiates its individuated mode of existence.

Not surprisingly, such subjective practices of overcoming the rule of value, by way of overcoming it in its phenomenal expressions – which hide it precisely in expressing it as the universal denomination of its different magnitudes – reproduce value and its rule. For, when such subjectively individuated practices seek to overcome the rule of value they perpetuate their specific mode of existence, which is the mode of determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time. In other words, such practices are instantiations of the actuality of the rule of value qua congelation of human labour in the abstract.

If we attend carefully to Marx’s exposition in Capital, we shall see how this folly of “traditional Marxism” – critique of capital from the standpoint of labour – is nothing but the theoretical folly of classical political economy registered as so-called anti-capitalist political practice. Marx writes (1986, pp.84-85):

“Political Economy has indeed analysed, however, incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value. These formulae, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulae appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself….”

What would have happened if classical political economists had asked this question? In addition to coming up with the crucial conception of value — which Ricardo, for example, articulates when he reveals that commodity qua exchangeable-value is embodied human labour, which is its essence –, they would have also grasped how this is necessitated by a specific mode of subjective individuation of labour that is historically instituted. Marx writes (1986, p.85):

“It is one of the chief failings of classical political economy that it has never succeeded, by means of analysis of commodities and in particular, of their value, in discovering that form under which value becomes exchange-value. Even Adam Smith and Ricardo, the best representatives of the school, treat the form of value as a thing of no importance, as having no connexion with the inherent nature of commodities…. The value-form of the product of labour is not only the most abstract, but is also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois production, and stamps that production as a particular species of social production, and thereby gives it its special historical character. If then we treat this mode of production as one eternally fixed by Nature for every state of society, we necessarily overlook that which is the differentia specifica of the value-form, and consequently of the commodity-form, and of its further developments, money-form, capital-form, & c….” (Emphasis added.)

The “inherent nature of commodities” that necessitates the specificity of the “form under which value becomes exchange-value” is the historically determinate mode of production. It is the mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation. It is this historically determinate mode of production that ensures both labour and its products acquire a “two-fold character” – concrete labour and human labour in the abstract, and use-value and exchange-value respectively.

It is important, therefore, to attend carefully to the historical peculiarity of the value-form – the form under which value becomes exchange-value – as the embodiment of the two-fold nature of social labour and its products. This is crucial because only that will reveal the historical specificity of labour in capitalism. That is, it will reveal the historically determinate mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation.

That Ricardo, according to Marx (1986. p.84), paid “so little attention to the two-fold character of the labour which has a two-fold embodiment” is because he did not grasp the mode of determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time in spite of having grasped value qua labour-time as the secret hidden by its expression, which is the form of the commodity. That, if one is faithful to Marx’s exposition in Capital, ought to be discerned, and designated, as the vulgar economic element in Ricardo, and other classical political economists.

Science as knowledge, praxis as science

This folly of classical political economy – and by extension “traditional Marxism” – becomes even more evident when Marx criticises the “vulgar economists” for the absurdity of their “Trinity Formula”: capital—interest, land—rent and labour—wages. He finds the formula to be absurd, vulgar and unscientific because it affirms the naturalisation of immediate appearances of the abstraction of use-values that is wrought by the historically determinate mode of functionalising labour through subjective individuation. Marx writes (1986, p.817):

“Vulgar economy actually does no more than interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations. It should not astonish us, then, that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations in which these prima facie absurd and perfect contradictions appear and that these relations seem the more self-evident the more their internal relationships are concealed from it…. But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided….” (Emphasis added.)

This indicates for Marx a radical critique of capital must necessarily be a critique of the human subjective form (and its individuated mode) of consciousness – whether such consciousness be the experience of immediate appearances (as in vulgar economy) or knowledge qua discovery of the hidden essence of such appearances (as in classical political economy).

One tends to read this criticism of the so-called Trinity Formula as Marx’s anticipation of the objection that there is an unresolved problem of transformation of value into price in his theory of critique of political economy. What is it about Marx’s theorising that prompts this mistaken objection? For the purposes of our discussion it should, for now, suffice to come up with one example from Capital, Volume III, to indicate what prompts such a charge. Marx, after a considered and rigorous explication of cost-price, value, profit and surplus-value, writes (1986, p.37):

“The fundamental law of capitalist competition, which political economy had not hitherto grasped, the law which regulates the general rate of profit and the so-called prices of production determined by it, rests…on this difference between the value and the cost-price of commodities, and on the resulting possibility of selling a commodity at a profit under its value.”

Postone’s critical engagement with Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk’s objection that there is a transformation problem in Marx is, in this context, illuminating. He writes (2003, pp.133-134):

“In Capital Marx tries to solve this problem by showing that those phenomena (such as prices, profits and rents) that contradict the validity of what he had postulated as the fundamental determinations of the social formation (value and capital) are actually expressions of these determinations—to show, in other words, that the former both express and veil the latter. In this sense, the relation between what the categories of value and price grasp is presented by Marx as a relation between an essence and its form of appearance. One peculiarity of capitalist society, which makes its analysis so difficult, is that this society has an essence, objectified as value, which is veiled by its form of appearance.”

At this point, it would perhaps be best to get the truth from, as it were, the horse’s mouth. The failure to grasp this veiling of value by price leads to a serious theoretical error. Marx’s vituperative assertion ensures his exposition has not a trace of ambiguity on that count. He writes (1986, p. 39):

“The thoughtless conception that the cost-price of a commodity constitutes its actual value, and that surplus-value springs from selling the product above its value, so that commodities would be sold at their value if their selling price were to equal their cost-price, i.e., if it were to equal the price of the consumed means of production plus wages, has been heralded to the world as a newly discovered secret of socialism by Proudhon with his customary quasi-scientific chicanery.”

In that context, the rest of Postone’s argument on this point becomes extremely pertinent (2003, pp.134-135):

“The divergence of prices from value should, then, be understood as integral to, rather than as a logical contradiction within, Marx’s analysis: his intention is not to formulate a price theory but to show how value induces a level of appearance that disguises it. In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx derives empirical categories such as cost price and profit from the categories of value and surplus value, and shows how the former appear to contradict the latter. Thus, in Volume 1, for example, he maintains that surplus value is created by labour alone; in Volume 3, however, he shows the specificity of value as a form of wealth, and the specificity of the labour that constitutes it, are veiled.”

Following Postone on this point, we need to realise that Marx does not merely critique the vulgar economists’ assertion that price in its empiricality is a denial of its essence — which is value qua labour-time. He also critiques classical political economists for contending that value, which they have discovered as the essence of price hidden by it, is approximated by the latter. Postone writes (2003, pp.135-136):

“…Marx also seeks to indicate that theories of political economy as well as everyday ‘ordinary consciousness’ remains bound to the level of appearances, that the objects of investigation of political economy are the mystified forms of appearance of value and capital.”

We can, therefore, claim that for Marx there is, in the final analysis, not really much of a difference between price being grasped as its own empirical knowledge and thus as the denial of value (a la the vulgar economists); and price being grasped as the knowledge of appearance of value, which is therefore grasped as the hidden essence of price (as in classical political economy). That is, of course, as long as the latter does not explicitly reveal how the mode of constitution of labour through its subjective individuation, which is the actuality of value and its rule, is precisely that which effectuates this dialectical relation of essence and appearance.

Such a revelation would, however, amount to displacing the ground of scientificity from knowledge or knowing, as a structure and form, to praxis. When classical political economy grasps price as that which hides its essence qua value in being its expression, it indicates the determinate mode of functionalising labour through subjective individuation as the necessary condition of this value-price dialectic. This means the knowing subject as the instantiation of its individuated mode of existence is precisely the source of the hiddenness of value qua essence that it discovers under the empirically given price as the former’s appearance.

Insofar as value is the logic that renders price the empiric that conceals value by virtue of being its expression, the knowledge of this dialectical logic by way of discovering in price the hidden ness of its essence qua value is science as critique of price qua critique of value. But in classical political economy this science rests on knowledge and its individuated subject. It is, therefore, not a critique of the mode of subjective individuation of labour as the integral condition of the value-price dialectic. Hence, such a critique of value is incomplete and mystified. As a theory of value, it reveals the limit of its own scientificity. It is this limit of the scienificity of classical political economy that Marx demonstrates by way of its immanent critique in order to have that scientificity reconstruct itself by being displaced on to the ground of praxis. Jindrich Zeleny’s contention is, in this context, extremely pertinent (1980, p. 187):

“…the beginnings of the ontopraxeological supersession of traditional philosophy, as sketched in the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology, presuppose a critical perspective on political economy and a grasp of the connection between bourgeois forms of individual and social life – and metaphysics.”

Marx’s critique of political economy, we have already seen, demonstrates that capital is fundamentally the historically determinate mode of constitution of labour through its subjective individuation. This ensures such labour is socialisable only through the mediation of exchange of the products produced by such labour, which presupposes value as the abstract substance of universal qualitative equivalence. In that sense, “a critical perspective on political economy” implies “a grasp of the connection between bourgeois forms of individual and social life – and metaphysics”. And to the extent praxis is conceived by Marx, while articulating his critique of Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism”, as practice qua its own immanent theory of abolition of the mode of subjective individuation that structures it as practice by compelling it to forget, as it were, its own immanence, it presupposes critique of political economy.

Hence Zeleny (1980, p. 187):

“…the critique of bourgeois political economy…made possible for Marx a deep, critical view of Hegelian philosophy as completion of traditional metaphysics and a break with the whole of traditional ‘ideological’ philosophy (in particular, Young Hegelians and Feurbachian anthropology).”

Clearly, the problem of limited scientificity of classical political economy is, in another register, also the problem of Hegel’s dialectic. Here we ought to underscore the fact that it is the same symmetrically inverted relationship between classical political economy and “traditional Marxism” – something we have sought to indicate above – that exists between Hegel’s dialectic and Feurbach’s dialectical anthropology. We will attempt to demonstrate that here in order to show how “traditional Marxism” as a politics of critique of capital from the standpoint of labour, is nothing but Feurbachian dialectical anthropology at work. Dialectical anthropology in practice amounts to social democratic progressivism. At best, and in its most radicalised form, it yields no more than the militant reformist politics of seizure of state-power, which often tends to get programmatically codified as the be-all and end-all of revolutionism.

Allies I: Classical political economy and Hegel

For now, however, let us turn to Hegel’s conception of the dialectic as the totalising movement of realisation of the self-knowing spirit. In Hegel, the dialectic is grasped as the movement of overcoming of that which is given in terms of the former’s realisation – i.e. movement constitutive of moments of overcoming of that which is historically given in order to produce new moments of givenness. Hegel grasps the dialectic in this manner because he thinks the movement of history as an individuated subject of knowledge – an individual subject caught up in that movement as an inhabitant of one of its constitutive historical moments. As a consequence, Hegel imputes his knowledge of the movement-as-realisation acquired by him as an individuated subject to the movement itself, thereby rendering the latter a self-conscious, egoistic subject of totalisation a la the spirit.

But precisely for that reason he is unable to grasp the fact that the subjectivity of practices constitutive of the movement-as-realisation is structured by the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation. That is, historical movement is a process of realisation not because it knows itself thus, but because this supposed self-knowledge or self-consciousness of the movement is the outcome of this movement being, in reality, a process of its own punctuated realisation. This reality of the form of the movement is necessitated by the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation that structures the practices constitutive of the movement in a manner that the latter is such a reality. Postone writes (2003, p.76):

“Marx, by suggesting that what Hegel sought to conceptualize with his concept of Geist should be understood in terms of the social relations expressed by the category of capital, implies that the social relations that characterize capitalism have a peculiar, dialectical, and historical character…. He also suggests that those relations constitute the social basis for Hegel’s conception itself…”

From this one ought to infer that capital is a totalising subject. But to the extent that capital, as a system of social relations constitutive of value as the abstract substance of universal equivalence, is generated, and re-generated spontaneously on account of the subjectivity of practices being structured by a historically determinate mode of individuation, it is a totalising subject that is ego-less and blind [1]. Postone writes (2003, p.77):

“As the Subject, capital is a remarkable ‘subject.’ Whereas Hegel’s Subject is transhistorical and knowing, in Marx’s analysis it is historically determinate and blind. Capital, as a structure constituted by determinate forms of practice, may in turn be constitutive of forms of social practice and subjectivity; yet, as the Subject, it has no ego. It is self-reflexive and, as a social form, may induce self-consciousness, but unlike Hegel’s Geist it does not possess self-consciousness….”

Hegel’s error lies precisely in attributing consciousness and self-knowledge to this ego-less and blindly totalising historical subject. That, to reiterate what we have earlier observed, is because he imputes the knowledge of the movemental system – or the structured movement — he has acquired as an individuated subject to that system itself. As a result, he is unable to grasp how the individuated structuring of his knowing subjectivity is, as a subjectivity of practice, precisely that which spontaneously generates this totalising movemental system rendering it, thereby, a blindly toalising subject.

However, to the extent that capital as a system of social relations is a totalising subject, it does, indeed, incarnate the principle of abstraction, which is Hegel’s spirit, in value as the abstract substance of social mediation. The only difference between the two is while Hegel’s spirit is a self-conscious substance that is subject precisely through such self-knowledge, value as the constitutive substance of capital as a totalising subject has no such self-consciousness and is spontaneously generated on account of the historically specific mode of functionalising labour. Postone writes (2003, p.75):

“Marx…explicitly characterizes capital as the self-moving substance which is Subject. In so doing, Marx suggests that a historical Subject in the Hegelian sense does indeed exist in capitalism….”

But Marx understands that self-moving substance, which is, therefore, subject, differently from Hegel. Postone emphasises that when he writes (2003, p. 75):

“…Marx analyzes it in terms of the structure of social relations constituted by forms of objectifying practice and grasped by the category of capital (and, hence, value). His analysis suggests that the social relations that characterize capitalism are of a very peculiar sort—they possess the attributes that Hegel accorded the Geist. It is in this sense then, that a historical Subject as conceived by Hegel exists in capitalism.”

Be that as it may, the historical movement is, for Hegel, an unfolding process of its own realisation, and is thus totalising, precisely because it knows itself thus as the self-conscious spirit. This is the basis of his project of philosophy as the increasingly closer approximation of the self-knowing, self-realising spirit to its historical appearances. The latter in instancing the self-realisation of the former hide it by causing it to withdraw from its own realisation in those appearances. Let us, at this point, attend to the famous last lines of ‘Absolute Knowing’, the concluding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1998, p.493):

“The goal, Absolute Knowing, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit, has for its path the recollection of the Spirits as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their realm. Their preservation, regarded from the side of their free existence appearing from in the form of contingency, is History; but regarded from the side of their [philosophically] comprehended organization, it is the Science of Knowing in the sphere of appearance: the two together, comprehended History, form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone….”

The Hegelian project of philosophy is, in other words, all about historical movement being moments of its own realisation so that it can, as the self-knowing spirit in its unfolding, realise itself fully as its own knowledge in a historical appearance that knows itself as its essence and thus concludes the process of unfolding by being transparently one with the essence. This transparent oneness of the historical appearance with its essence lies in the former being the embodiment of the latter as its own self-knowledge.

This is hardly any different from the project of classical political economy that discovers value qua labour-time as the hidden essence of value-form in order to grasp and demonstrate the latter as an approximation of the former.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Marx, should, on this count, also critique Hegel. Through this critique, Marx seeks to demonstrate that the abstraction of movement as a constant historical process of its own punctuated realisation, even as it must necessarily be intellectually grasped, is not itself the outcome of intellectual abstraction. He writes (1993, p.101):

“…Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being….”

This critique of Hegel by Marx lays bare the fact that Hegel conflates and confounds the intellectual abstraction, through which he, as an individuated knowing subject, grasps historical movement as a process of its punctuated realisation. It also reveals how the movement is really abstracted thus due to the historically specific mode of subjective individuation that structures practices constitutive of the movement.

In such circumstances, Marx’s critique of capital, insofar as it is a demonstration of how capital as a blindly totalising subject is necessitated, and re-necessitated, by the determinate mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation, is a critique of totalisation. In fact, the aforementioned demonstration by Marx reveals nothing else but the actuality of value qua labour-time, which as the abstract social substance of universal equivalence is the basis of totalisation. Postone writes (2003, p.79):

“Marx’s categorial determination of capital as the historical Subject, however, indicates that the totality has become the object of his critique. …social totality, in Marx’s analysis, is an essential feature of the capitalist formation and an expression of alienation. The capitalist social formation, according to Marx, is unique inasmuch as it is constituted by a qualitatively homogeneous social ‘substance’; hence, it exists as a social totality.”

Postone then draws from this an extremely crucial inference (2003, p.79):

“Marx’s assertion that capital…is the total Subject clearly implies that the historical negation of capitalism would not involve the realization, but the abolition, of the totality. It follows that the contradiction driving the unfolding of this totality also must be conceived very differently—it presumably drives the totality not toward its full realization but toward the possibility of its historical abolition. That is, the contradiction expresses the temporal finiteness of the totality by pointing beyond it.”

Dialectical anthropology and social democracy: A close kinship

However, it is precisely this that both Feurbach’s dialectical anthropology and social democratic progressivism fail to come to terms with. Feurbach’s anthropologised theory of the dialectic inverts Hegel’s spiritualist conception of the same. Against the latter’s theory of the dialectic as a self-knowing historical movement of realisation, the former’s conception of the dialectic is about grasping and envisioning the historical movement in terms of the constantly punctuated process of overcoming of that which is constantly realised in that punctuation. The result: Hegel’s conception of the dialectic as the historical movement of the self-knowing spirit is opposed by Feurbach’s (human) subjects whose practices are constitutive moments of the historical movement as an alternative totality of overcoming of the totality of realisation.

As a matter of fact, it is precisely on account of this inverted conception of the dialectic that Feurbach inevitably thinks the various subjective moments constitutive of the historical movement in terms of the totality of humanity as an identical subject-object overcoming that which is realised.

What we have, therefore, is the totality of Hegel’s self-knowing spirit and Feurbach’s alternative totality of humanity, as an alternatively self-enclosed subject-object, trying to surpass one another. Theoretically, this implies the triumph of the principle of totality – and the abstract substance of universal equivalence that totality presupposes –, regardless of whichever theory triumphs in practice. Practically, it amounts to even less: merely accelerating the reproduction of a given social totality, only in order to preserve it and its constitutive principle of universal equivalence.

This ensures the Feurbachian critique of Hegel’s spiritualised conception of the dialectic remains a mystified critique. Feurbach, in merely inverting the object of his critique, inhabits the same subjectively individuated structure of knowledge as Hegel. The only so-called difference between the two being that while the former construes that subjectivity, and its constitutive mode of individuation, as a form of knowledgeable practice; the latter grasps and envisions it primarily as a form of knowing or knowledge only to impute it to the movement as its self-consciousness. Clearly, the human subjective form – and its constitutive mode of individuation – operates as the unproblematised locus of knowledge and/or practice as much in Feurbachian/Left-Hegelian dialectical anthropology as in Hegel’s spiritualised dialectic.

This means the dialectical-anthropological critique of Hegel is, not unlike Hegel, unable to grasp the fact that the historical movement is structured as a process of realising itself in new moments of givenness by the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation. As a result, a practice that implies the theory of dialectical anthropology ends up envisioning itself as the overcoming of the totalising historical movement, even as the effect of such practice is continued perpetuation of historical movement as a structured process of totalisation. This is because practice as the moment of overcoming of that which is given is, in dialectical anthropology, already always orientated by contemplativeness. Marx’s critique of Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism”, which as that critique seeks to found the materiality of practice, clearly indicates that [2].

Hence, practices that imply the theory of dialectical anthropology are identical to practices of social-democratic progressivism. The politics of social democratic progressivism – the Bernsteinian movement is everything, the goal is nothing – is all about the continuous movement of overcoming given juridical terms, or the terms of distribution of value, in order to keep setting up new, supposedly more democratic, terms of juridicality or distribution [3]. As a result, such a movement posits itself as an identical subject-object, quite similar to the Feurbachian human subject-object, as the totality of the process of overcoming value as realised and expressed in the different value-forms constitutive of the totalising process of valorisation. In this way, social-democratic progressivism – just like dialectical anthropology – seeks to practically articulate a critique of value through the individuated subjective form, whose constitutive mode is the actuality of production of value.

Not surprisingly, such a practical critique is constrained to envisage itself as a sequentially continuous process of overcoming value hidden by its various value-forms precisely because such a practice grasps the latter as approximations of the former. The democratisation of distribution of value, and the concomitant expanded reproduction of the mode of production of value that necessitates the form of distribution, is the effect.

In the case of avowed social democracy it would, however, be more accurate to state this critique conversely: social democracy as a political practice of continuous democratisation of the juridical terms of distribution and/or exchange posits itself as a sequentially continuous process of overcoming of value. In so doing it implies a theory that demonstrates the discovery of value qua labour-time as the hidden essence of value-forms, without, however, being able to grasp how value as the logic of this essence-appearance dialectic is actualised and necessitated by the historically specific mode of subjectively individuated labour. The theory of value implied by social-democratic progressivism is, we ought to say at the risk of being overly repetitive, that of classical political economy.

‘Revolution’ in “traditional Marxism”: A proposal for alternative totalisation

What such social-democratic progressivism also implies – much like Feurbachian dialectical anthropology – is the conception of an alternative totality overcoming capital that the latter as an already given totality thwarts. It is precisely this theoretical implication that tends to be explicitly articulated by “traditional Marxism” in its envisioning of the practice of revolutionary politics. Against the evolutionism – even accelerated evolutionism – of social-democratic politics of continuous overcoming of value as phenomenally manifest by its various value-forms, the traditional Marxist conception of revolution is all about the emancipation of this alternative totality from the totality of capital in one fell stroke.

In other words, such a conception of politics envisages revolution as a practice to replace a given state-form — a particular formal embodiment of universal equivalence constitutive of a particular composition of social mediation — with another particular formal embodiment of universal equivalence. The latter being the identical subject-object of the proletariat as a state-form. In this traditional Marxist conception, revolutionary politics is, therefore, primarily about thinking strategy in terms of seizure of state-power. The assumption being that one will then democratise its operation – which is the quantitatively hierarchising social operation of the abstract substance of qualitative equalisation and mediation in its formal embodiment – in a manner that it withers away together with the abstract substance it embodies.

It is hardly about strategising in the here and now of everyday contradictions between capital and labour – or more pertinently, between different segments of social labour – of how to leap into communism as the real movement of free association of direct producers. This would be the process of self-abolition of labour in the specificity of its historical existence within capitalism as the latter’s source. It would, therefore, also concomitantly be the practice constitutive of the withering away of the state. At this point, Postone’s critique of Lukacs’ conception of the proletariat as materialisation of the Hegelian geist into an identical subject-object becomes particularly relevant. He writes (2003, p.73):

“His materialist appropriation of Hegel is such that he analyzes society as a totality, constituted by labor traditionally understood. This totality, according to Lukacs, is veiled by the fragmented and particularistic character of bourgeois social relations, and will be realized openly in socialism. The totality, then, provides the standpoint of his critical analysis of capitalist society. Relatedly, Lukacs identifies the proletariat in ‘materialized’ Hegelian terms as the identical subject-object of the historical process, as the historical Subject, constituting the social world and itself through its labor. By overthrowing the capitalist order, this historical Subject would realize itself.”

To think revolution in terms of the emancipation of an alternative totality – which is proletariat as an identical subject-object – from the totality of capital implies that the principle of totality, or, more pertinently, the rule of the abstract substance of universal equivalence, is not abolished. Rather, all that will happen in such a ‘revolution’, if at all it takes place, is, as we have observed above, one type of formal embodiment of that substance (proletariat as the totalising, humanised, and thus identical, subject-object as the general form of the substance of qualitative equalisation and social mediation) suddenly replacing another type of that general form (money-form, a particular type of state-form and so on). Such traditional Marxist revolutionism then is a more radicalised version of social democracy; not a break from it. This, therefore, also compels us to claim that such ‘revolutionism’ is politicism, which is the obverse of social-democratic economism it deigns to criticise and reject.

All said and done, such ‘revolutionism’ is basically about throwing capital, in one of its historical compositions, out of the front door only to bring it back in a discursively different form through the rear window. Our communist left organisations, thanks to their outdated Leninist conception of politics as party-building for capturing state-power, imply precisely this traditional Marxist conception of revolutionary politics. It does not matter that some among them uphold the party, instead of the proletariat, as the subjective form that will effectuate revolution by uniting various sections and segments of the struggling masses by way of mediating among them. Structurally speaking, these partyists, not unlike those who uphold the proletarian subject-object as revolutionary subjectivity, affirm the principle of mediation and alternative totalisation.

We would, however, do well to hold on to the proletariat as a term of revolutionary subjectivity, if only to load it with an entirely different conceptual valence. But before we make that theoretical move we need to see how this (Lukacsian) conception of the proletariat as an identical subject-object poses an additional set of problems for thinking revolutionary strategy in the south Asian context. South Asia, we know, is socio-economically characterised by an unusually large sector of labour practices and relations that are, in the immediacy of their historical appearances of custom-centric caste-, community- and gender-based labour, unproductive and/or suffer from various degrees of unwaged-ness or unfreedom.

The sociologisation the conception of the proletariat as an identical subject-object entails means only those social groups that are directly engaged in productive labour – labour that is immediately valorised in exchangeable commodities –, and which is also properly waged in the traditional Marxist sense, can comprise the proletariat as a political subjectivity for overcoming capitalism.

That has led some of our communist left groups to pose a stagiest, ‘democratic-revolutionary’ conception and practice of politics. These groups make a stagiest demarcation between labouring sites that are apparently unproductive, and which, therefore, constitute moments of democratic politics of recognition and subsumption by the realm of labour that is directly productive; and labouring sites that are immediately productive, and which politically constitute moments of overcoming such subsumption. These Leninists tend to think that politics has to be about bringing this so-called pre-modern outside within the pale of modernity qua capital so that one can then have the right conditions for forging the much-needed working-class unity to transcend and negate capitalism.

Such a conception of politics has, in practice, meant an endless deferral of the revolutionary politics of overcoming and abolishing capital. The so-called democratic-revolutionary process of subsumption of ‘unproductive’, and/or unwaged/unfree labour into the realm of productive labour goes on endlessly. Meanwhile, the politics of overcoming capital at the so-called proletarian sites has taken on the character of an equally endless process of democratisation of distribution of value, a la social democracy.

There are, of course, those other communist left organisations that seek to mediate between the struggles of social groups engaged in unproductive and/or unwaged labour in an immediate sense, and the struggles of the productively labouring proletariat so that the former can be subsumed by the latter, thereby producing a larger movement to supposedly overcome capitalism. And then there are the post-Marxists, who grasp this so-called outside of capital as that which the latter non-subsumptively commands in order to sustain itself. This particular conception of the outside of capital enables these post-Marxists to theorise politics in terms of the resistance of sites of so-called unproductive labour to the non-subsumptive command of capital so that those sites can exist in the (communitarian) autonomy of their perpetual difference. [4]

Allies II: The outside and unproductive labour – traditional Marxism and post-Marxism

However, when it comes to concrete practice, none of the three tendencies identified above are too far away from one another. Leninism, in its two different programmatic articulations, and post-Marxism produce the same juridical effect in the realm of the political. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that they often turn out to be such staunch allies-in-practice, their ‘fundamental’ differences in theory notwithstanding. In this context, it would perhaps be useful to make a detour by analysing apparently unproductive and/or unfree labour from the vantage-point of Marx’s critique of political economy. This, in order to demonstrate the fallacy of all theories that, one way or another, seek to mark out the sites of so-called unproductive and/or unfree labour as the outside of capital.

Let us begin with Marx’s conceptions of productive and unproductive labour in his Theories of Surplus Value, Part I. While critically engaging with Adam Smith’s conceptions of the same, Marx writes (1978, p.156):

“Only labour which produces capital is productive labour. Commodities or money become capital, however, through being exchanged directly for labour-power, and exchanged only in order to be replaced by more labour than they themselves contain. For the use-value of labour-power to the capitalist as a capitalist does not consist in its actual use-value, in the usefulness of this particular concrete labour – that it is spinning labour, weaving labour, and so on. He is as little concerned with this as with the use-value of the product of this labour as such, since for the capitalist the product is a commodity (even before its first metamorphosis), not an article of consumption. What interests him in the commodity is that it has more exchange-value than he paid for it; and therefore the use-value of the labour is, for him, that he gets back a greater quantity of labour-time than he has paid out in the form of wages.”

Marx then goes on to further explicate his conceptions of productive and unproductive labour (1978, p.160):

“…this distinction between productive and unproductive labour has nothing to do either with the particular specialty of the labour or with the particular use-value in which this special labour is incorporated. In the one case, the labour is exchanged with capital, in the other with revenue. In the one case the labour is transformed into capital, and creates a profit for the capitalist; in the other case it is an expenditure, one of the articles in which revenue is consumed. For example, the workman employed by a piano maker is a productive labourer. His labour not only replaces the wages that he consumes, but is the product, the piano, the commodity which the piano maker sells, there is a surplus-value over and above the value of the wages. But assume on the contrary that I buy all the materials required for a piano (or for all it matters the labourer himself may possess them), and that instead of buying the piano in a shop I have it made for me in my house. The workman who makes the piano is now an unproductive labourer, because his labour is exchanged directly against my revenue.”

Now the so-called outside of capital is constituted by a range of practices of unproductive labour as defined by Marx in the passage above. There are, undeniably, a whole range of labouring activities (including heavily gendered care work in the domain of social reproduction), which yield products that are not directly valorised by being exchanged for profit, but consumed immediately. As a result, the domain of production constitutive of such labouring activities involves no extraction of (surplus) value – or (surplus) labour time. What is involved, as far as such unproductive labour is concerned, is extraction of surplus labour for immediate consumption. The forms through which such extraction of surplus labour – as opposed to extraction of surplus labour time – is operationalised are, more often than not, extra-economic or semi-extra-economic. That is perhaps why such forms can, at times, come across as pre- or non-capitalist at the level of their discursive appearances.

If one were to confine oneself strictly and purely to this level, one would be correct in observing that capital as a value-relational structure of social relations of production institutes socio-economic transactions with an outside of unproductive labour by way of extra-economic or semi-extra-economic command. Such unproductive labouring activities can be easily construed as the outside of capital because the products they yield are not value-embodying commodities in an immediate sense, and such labouring activities are, for that reason, not integrated into the value-equational horizon of production relations.

However, from the standpoint of Marx’s critique of political economy, such an analysis would be incomplete and patently unrigorous. To analyse such a situation more rigorously and accurately, one must attempt to grasp and reveal the concretely precise functionality that this immediate appearance of unproductive labour – labour producing use-values for immediate consumption – has with regard to the value-relational horizon of capital and its productive labour. Here we would do well to attend to what Marx says (1978, p.167):

“The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts. First, labour-power, second, commodities as distinct from labour-power itself. As to the purchase of such services as those which train labour-power, maintain or modify it, etc., in a word, give it a specialised form or even only maintain it – thus for example the schoolmaster’s service, in so far as it is ‘industrially necessary’ or useful; the doctor’s service, in so far as he maintains health and so conserves the source of all values, labour-power itself – these are services which yield in return ‘a vendible commodity…’, namely labour-power itself, into whose costs of production or reproduction these services enter.”

He further clarifies (1978, pp.167-168):

“…the labour of the doctor and the schoolmaster does not directly create the fund out of which they are paid, although their labours enter into the production costs of the fund which creates all values whatsoever—namely, the production costs of labour-power.”

Seen in this context, labour-practices that are unproductive in their immediate appearance emerge as productive in terms of their re-articulation and re-functionalisation, thanks to the causality of the structure within which they get situated precisely by virtue of producing only use-values for immediate consumption. These use-values, in being immediately consumed, yield the “vendible commodity” of labour-power, which, according to Marx, is “the source of all values”. In such circumstances, unproductive labour, which produces use-values for immediate consumption, are, according to Marx, “services” that enter into the “costs of production and reproduction” of the vendible commodity of labour-power. So, in the final analysis, such labour is productive.

Value is, first and foremost, about politically instituting an equalising measure or rationality. (The political in this case being the historical founding and re-founding of the determinate mode of constituting labour through creation of individuated or atomised labouring subjects.) Only then does value emerge as a calculable magnitude. Marx, we have seen, demonstrates this with great acuity in Capital. In that context, we would do well to follow the train of Marx’s aforementioned argument from Theories of Surplus Value, and seek to grasp labour that is apparently unproductive – often unfree – as being integral to the capitalist value-chain of social labour. It is only then we will be able to see how the mostly unwaged and/or partially waged, custom-based extra-economic domain of unproductive work demonstrates value in and as the irrational (political) founding of itself as a rationality (economy). This will, in turn, arguably help illuminate how the instituting and operation of wage-labour, even in its own so-called free domain, has slavery-like conditions as its inseparable constitutivity.

The operation of wage-labour – or so-called free labour – is meant to realise a transaction between buyers (capitalists) and sellers (workers) of the vendible commodity of labour-power. Marx writes (1986, p.165):

“…labour-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labour, i.e., of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law. The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the labour-power should sell it only for a definite period, for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. He must constantly look upon his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and this he can only do by placing it at the disposal of the buyer temporarily, for a definite period of time. By this means alone can he avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it.”

Clearly, being a wage-labourer is all about being the owner of the commodity of labour-power that one sells only for a definite period and not once for all. For, if the wage-labourer were to do the latter he/she would cease to be the owner of commodity and become a commodity himself/herself. That is, he/she would end up “renouncing his rights of ownership over his commodity” and be turned from a free man/woman into a slave. And yet, the founding and operationalisation of wage-labour is constitutive of partitioning of total labour-time expended in production into socially necessary labour-time (expressed in wages) and surplus labour-time (expressed in profit). The latter is the unwaged portion of labour-power expended, and over whose extraction the wage-labourer as the owner of his/her commodity of labour-power has no control during the definite and temporary period for which he/she chooses to place his/her commodity or property at the disposal of the buyer.

Therefore, even as wage-labour is the system of selling the commodity of labour-power by its owner only for a definite period, it is concomitantly also about the wage-labourer having no control over himself/herself as the capacity of expending living labour during that definite or temporary period. This means a wage-labourer in being himself/herself is also a slave for precisely the definite period that he/she puts his/her commodity of labour-power at the disposal of its buyer. In other words, a wage-labourer in being himself/herself by freely choosing to sell his/her commodity of labour-power only for a definite period renounces ownership over his/her own person to become a commodity in that temporary period.

Hence, it is not merely about various degrees, and thus forms, of unwaged labour functioning within a social form of labour that is free. Rather, it is about such unfreedom and slavery being a constitutively necessary condition for the existence of wage-labour. The imposition of industrial discipline at sites of modern waged work – often as an indiscernible or barely discernible dimension of regimes and systems of waged free labour — is empirical evidence of this co-constitutivity of unfree (unwaged) and free (waged) labour. This existence of unwaged labour as a necessarily constitutive moment of wage-labour demonstrates how every moment of economic accumulation – even the most liberal — has the extra-economic moment of primitive accumulation as its indispensable constitutivity.

Wage-labour is, of course, not slavery in the sense of classical chattel slavery. Yet, it would not be inaccurate to insist that it is a peculiar and historically specific form of slavery that is attenuated precisely because its slavery-like effects are obscured. The freedom that wage-labour amounts to is nothing but the integral and necessary condition of such slavery. This freedom, which exists only to ensure the continuance of slavery, gives this slavery its specific historical form, which is, in the final analysis, indispensable for capital. Marx points that out while describing how the bourgeoisie of post-revolutionary France instituted a law “which, by means of State compulsion, confined the struggle between capital and labour within limits comfortable for capital…”. He writes (1986, pp. 692-693):

“ ‘Granting,’ says Chapelier, the reporter of the Select Committee on this law, ‘that wages ought to be higher than they are, … that they ought to be high enough for him that receives them, to be free from that state of absolute dependence due to the want of the necessaries of life, and which is almost that of slavery,’ yet the workers must not be allowed to come to any understanding about their own interests , nor to act in common and thereby lessen their ‘absolute dependence, which is almost that of slavery;’ because, forsooth, in doing this they injure ‘the freedom of their cidevant masters, the present entrepreneurs,’….”

In light of the above discussion, it would be inaccurate to talk in terms of an outside of capital. It would be no less erroneous to talk in terms of noncapitalist relations within capitalism.

What such conceptions of outside of capital also fail to account for is how labour-practices, which are apparently unproductive, fulfil yet another productive structural-functionality over and above the one demonstrated earlier. People, who apparently do unproductive labour in order to only reproduce themselves, constitute the “relative surplus population” or the “industrial reserve army” (Marx, 1986, pp. 589-600). This reserve army of labour works to regiment the productively employed labour-power and increases the latter’s productivity, thereby leading to a concomitant increase in the extraction of surplus value and capital accumulation. In the ultimate analysis, this renders the apparently unproductive, self-reproducing labour of the unemployed and underemployed systemically productive.

The labour that is unproductive in an immediate sense must be grasped in terms of how its unproductive functionality is productively articulated by the structured totality of social labour within which it is constitutively situated. That is precisely what Marx does while explicating his concept of the “industrial reserve army”. He writes (1986, pp. 595-596):

“If the means of production, as they increase in extent and effective power, become to a less extent means of employment of labourers, this state of things is again modified by the fact that in proportion as the productiveness of labour increases, capital increases its supply of labour more quickly than its demand for labourers. The over-work of the employed part of the working-class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to over-work and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working-class to enforced idleness by the over-work of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation.”

This Marxian conception of relative surplus population has become even more significant in this neoliberal conjuncture. The kind of precarity we are currently confronted with is on account of the acceleration in the production of relative surplus population – which, as we have seen, exists to be productively mobilised as a regimenting force vis-à-vis the sphere of labour that is directly productive. This is thanks to the hitherto unforeseen increase in the organic composition of capital (c/v). This increase has resulted in rapid diminution of the quantity of productively-employed living labour due to a significant diminution of socially necessary labour time it has effected. It has also led to unprecedented levels of same-skilling across the entire spectrum of social labour. What we have, consequently, is an accelerated movement of individuals and social groups back and forth between the realms of the surplus population and so-called productive labour. Thus is born the footloose and precarious mass-worker, its ranks ceaselessly burgeoning with an ever-increasing rapidity. This mass-worker is clearly as much a part of the apparently unproductive reserve army of labour as he/she is productively employed in the creation of value.

The post-Marxist thesis of there being a vast outside of capital that capital as a value-relational horizon non-subsumptively commands in order to reproduce itself is even more difficult to sustain in the face of the rise of mass-worker, and its characteristically precarious and indeterminate positionality. Also, the post-Marxists seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that the politics they theorise serves to reproduce the relative surplus population – and its segmented economy of reproduction — in its productive internality to the domain of directly productive labour. In fact, all political practices that assume — whether explicitly or otherwise — an outside of capital have now become ever more complicit in reproducing capital, and its so-called outside.

For an immanent critique of totality

The specificity of this neoliberal conjunctural moment of unprecedented precarity has ensured that neither the Lukacsian conception of the proletariat as an identical subject-object nor the Leninist conception of the party as a mediating form of actualising ‘revolution’ has a shred of feasibility left. That is the reason why the second type of Leninist groups is, in practice, condemned to be no different from the first type, which, in turn, is hardly distinguishable from the communitarian post-Marxists.

In such circumstances, a radical critique of capital must be an immanent critique of totality. The question, therefore, is what will be the mode and form of the subjectivity that will be the actualisation of this immanent critique? Also, how does one envision this subjectivity? The way to go is to arguably turn towards re-conceptualising the proletariat, no longer as an identical subject-object and a sociologised group, but as a subjective mode and form of revolution (or communism) as a radically new order of the universal: the universalisability of non-totality, or universal-singularity.

We now know, thanks to Marx’s demonstration, that capital is a blindly totalising historical subject, which is nevertheless self-reflexive. In other words, the historical subject that is capital has a two-fold character: it is totalising and yet it is self-reflexive about its totalising nature. In fact, its self-reflexivity is precisely what enables it to constitute and reconstitute itself as that social system, or blind historical subject, of totalisation. Let us state the same in Hegelian terms: capital is a substance of universal qualitative equivalence that becomes subject by realising itself, even as it withdraws from such realisation as its negativity. In Marx, this structured dynamic of capital and its constitutive – and thus immanent – negativity is demonstrated by the two-fold nature of labour and the two-fold character of the product of such labour.

One of the clearest statements on this two-fold nature can be found right at the beginning of Capital, Volume I. There Marx tells us that (1986, p. 44) use-values in becoming a reality “…by use or consumption” are, in capitalism, “the material depositories of exchange-values”. He then immediately makes the following claim, almost in the same breath (1986, p. 44): “As use-values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange-values they are merely different quantities and consequently do not contain an atom of use-value.” (Emphasis added.)

This means exchange-values as the appearances of a qualitatively equalisable denomination in its different magnitudes presuppose that denomination, which is value as the abstract substance of qualitative equalisation of different qualities. This is the first negation qua abstraction of the materially concrete qualitative difference into qualitative equivalence, wherein commodities as expressions of different quantities of the same denomination contain not “an atom of use-value”. Yet, without use-value, which becomes a reality by use or consumption, no exchange-value – and thus value as the essence that exchange-value expresses – is possible. The former is the indispensable material depository of the latter.

Hence, the existence of commodity qua value-form is also a negation of the first negation. We can now see the commodity qua value-form, thanks to its two-fold nature, is a living contradiction. This is most clearly captured, for instance, when Marx while explicating the two poles, relative and equivalent, of the elementary form of value writes (1986, p.55):

“It is not possible to express the value of linen in linen. 20 yards of linen = 20 yards of linen is no expression of value. On the contrary, such an equation merely says that 20 yards of linen are nothing else than 20 yards of linen, a definite quantity of the use-value linen. The value of the linen can therefore be expressed only relatively – i.e., in some other commodity. The relative form of the value of the linen pre-supposes, therefore, the presence of some other commodity…under the form of an equivalent.”

This two-fold nature of commodity qua value-form implies a two-fold (or bipolar) nature of labour. Marx writes (1986, p.53):

“On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour-power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour-power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use-values.”

It means that living labour in its concreteness – and the materially concrete use-value it produces in its expenditure – in tending to overcome systemic totality or social mediation, which is the system of abstract human labour, is condemned, on account of its own spontaneity, to fall into abstraction. This, we have earlier observed, is because the two-fold character is imposed on social labour and its products by the historically determinate mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation.

Hence, concrete labour and use-value, as the immanent negativity of value qua human labour in the abstract and its value-form, will not cease being constitutive of its own abstraction as long as it does not articulate itself in terms of overcoming and replacing the historically specific mode of mobilising labour through subjective individuation.

In this context, we would do well to articulate the living contradiction that is capital thus: use-value and its useful concrete labour is the immanent or constitutive negativity of exchange-value and human labour in the abstract. For, concrete labour in being reduced to abstract human labour is negated, even as the former negates the latter because without concrete labour there will not be anything to abstract from. In political terms, this means the moment of overcoming of the historically determinate form of quasi-objective social mediation, in its concrete instancing, is immanent in that historical form of social mediation or totality and is thus its constitutive negativity.

That, in turn, implies the actuality of critique of capital, which is praxis, has to be envisioned in terms of generalising its immanent negativity in a manner that it sustains itself as that negativity by preempting its capture and punctuation by the force-field of the totality, or the quasi-objective form of social mediation. Only that would amount to the complete negation of capital as a totalising subject. The affirmative side of such generalisation of negativity would be the free association of direct producers, which would be the real movement as the process that is the replacement of the historically determinate mode of mobilising labour through subjective individuation.

When Marx demonstrates how capital as a totalising historical subject is constituted by the negativity immanent in it, his purpose is to arguably show how capital as a totalising system is internally split so that this internal split – this negativity of capital immanent in it – can be leveraged in a manner that it generalises itself on its own terms to be the unraveling of the totality that is capital. His intention is not to show, as the rigorous exposition in Capital often causes many to misunderstand, how this totality is programmed to perpetuate itself in its exitlessness. This becomes plainly evident if we move away, for a moment, from the rigours of Capital to the relatively looser exposition that Marx affords in his famous ‘Fragment on Machines’. There he writes (1993, p. 706):

“Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum while it posits labour time on the other side, as a sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.”

The accelerationist tenor of Marx’s discourse here is not meant to be taken literally. This passage from Marx is, by no means, a political proposal to accelerate capital so that it can through its own acceleration unravel itself. Marx’s discursive accelerationism here is, instead, a metaphor for a formalising manoeuvre that amounts to gathering or concentrating various moments of overcoming of the historically determinate form of social mediation in its respectively diverse concrete instancing of labour-capital contradiction. These empirically concrete moments of instancing of social mediation as the contradiction between labour and capital have, discursively speaking, the appearances of various kinds of oppression and subalternisation, and the equally different kinds of struggle against them. Insofar as this move of concentrating those diverse moments of overcoming is a formalising manoeuvre, what it yields is the formal ontology, or constellation, of revolution qua communism as its own generalisation – which is the universalisability of non-totality, or universal-singularity.

To think this formal ontology of universal-singularity as its subjective dimension is to think this formal ontology as the proletariat. But here one must quickly add a note of caution. Insofar as this ontology is formal, its actuality cannot, and should not, be theorised and conceived in terms of a naïve ontologisation of repetition with a difference, which is the hallmark of a certain strain of difference-thinking within the larger Marxist project of revolutionary politics.

The actuality of this formal ontology of revolution and its generalisation would amount to conducting different struggles against different kinds of oppression and subalternisation in a manner that those struggles tend to enforce free association of direct producers at their respectively specific sites by way of reorganising the specific social relations constitutive of those sites, even as such enforcement unfolds into yet another new level of struggle beyond a particular site in question. This process in its infinitely uninterrupted and seamless unfolding – struggle as articulation of freely associated direct labour and freely associated direct labour as the articulation of struggle — would be the actuality of the formal ontology constitutive of concentration of various moments of overcoming of the historically determinate form of social mediation. In other words, this would be the actuality of diverse struggles constellating with one another to be rendered the generalisation of revolution qua universalisability of non-totality. [5]

Such an actuality of the formal ontology in question, however, implies this formal ontology as its own thought is embodied in a form of subjectivity. To think the form of this subjective embodiment – and the modality of practice that gives this form its singular character – we would do well to take recourse to Althusser’s “process without a subject” as a term to articulate this conception of formal ontology of revolutionary generalisation. But before we do that we need to realise this term, in Althusser, articulates a conception that is somewhat naively ontological. For, it is only through a process of critiquing this conception of Althusser’s that we will be able to retrieve the term “process without a subject” to articulate our conception of revolutionary generalisation as a formal ontology. All this, so that we can arrive at “subjectivity without a subject” as the form of thought of this formal ontology of revolutionary generalisation.

Allies III: Althusser, Lukacs and “process without a subject”

Let us see how Althusser articulates his conception of “process without a subject” (1971, pp. 121-122):

“…for anyone who ‘knows’ how to read Hegel’s Logic as a materialist, a process without a subject is precisely what can be found in the Chapter on the Absolute Idea. Jean Hyppolite decisively proved that Hegel’s conception of history had absolutely nothing to do with any anthropology. The proof: History is the Spirit, it is the last moment of the alienation of a process which ‘begins’ with Logic, continues with Nature and ends with the Spirit, the Spirit, i.e. what can be presented in the form of ‘History’. For Hegel, quite to the contrary of the erroneous view of Kojeve and the young Lukacs, and of others since them, who are almost ashamed of the Dialectics of Nature, the dialectic is by no means peculiar to History, which means that History does not contain anywhere in itself, in any subject, its own origin. The Marxist tradition was quite correct to return to the thesis of the Dialectics of Nature, which has the polemical meaning that history is a process without a subject, that the dialectic at work in history is not the work of any Subject whatsoever, whether Absolute (God) or merely human, but that the origin of history is always already thrust back before history, and therefore that there is neither a philosophical origin nor a philosophical subject to History. Now what matters to us here is that Nature itself is not, in Hegel’s eyes, its own origin; it is itself the result of a process of alienation which does not begin with it: i.e. of a process whose origin is elsewhere – in Logic.

“This is where the question becomes really fascinating. For it is clear that Lenin swept aside in one sentence the absurd idea that Nature was a product of the alienation of Logic, and yet he says that the Chapter on the Absolute Idea is quasi-materialist.”

Althusser upholds Lenin’s characterisation of Hegel’s Absolute Idea as “quasi-materialist”. He writes (1971, pp. 122-121):

“…when we examine closely the ‘nature’ of this Subject which is supposed to be Absolute, precisely in the Chapter on the Absolute Idea, we find that it is the origin negated as an origin. This can be seen at two points in particular.

Firstly, at the beginning of the Logic, which negates what it begins with from the very beginning, by immediately negating being in nothingness, which can only mean one thing: the origin must simultaneously be affirmed and negated, hence the subject must be negated from the moment that it is posited.

Secondly, in Hegel’s famous thesis that the Absolute Idea is simply the absolute method, the method which, as it is nothing but the very movement of the process, is merely the idea of the process as the only Absolute.

“Lenin applies his materialist reading to this double thesis of Hegel’s. And that is why he is so fascinated by the Absolute Idea. He thus lays bare and refines this notion, too, retaining the Absolute, but rejecting the Idea, which amounts to saying that Lenin takes from Hegel the following proposition: there is only one thing in the world which is absolute, and that is the method or the concept of the process, itself absolute. And as Hegel himself suggested by the beginning of Logic, being = nothingness, and by the very place of Logic, origin negated as origin, Subject negated as Subject, Lenin finds in it a confirmation of the fact that it is absolutely essential (as he had learnt simply from a thorough-going reading of Capital) to suppress every origin and every subject, and to say: what is absolute is the process without a subject, both in reality and in scientific knowledge.”

The theoretical move Althusser makes here is, from a materialist point of view, eminently honourable. He strives to demonstrate, through his Lenin-inspired materialist, and thus critical, reading of Hegel, that history has no origin or philosophical subject. His contention here is the origin – and/or philosophical subject – of history is nothing but the institutionalisation of the effect produced by nature, in and as its impersonally spontaneous process of unfolding, which on account of such institutionalisation is rendered history. But in making this move he ends up upholding a transhistorical conception of the dialectic – a transhistorical conception of the labour and process of such unfolding – by grasping nature as the realm of the dialectic. In this he is avowedly faithful to the transhistorical Engelsian “dialectics of nature” that is arguably quite distinct from Marx’s conception of “natural history”. Marx writes (1986, p.21):

“My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.”

Clearly, nature is, in this conception, not something transhistorical, but arguably the immanent, and constitutive, negativity of the historical, which is the process of unfolding structured as a dialectic. [6] In this light, Postone’s criticism of Althusser, though quite harsh in its tone, is accurate. He writes (2003, p.77):

“Louis Althusser’s position in this regard can be considered the one-sided opposite to that of Lukacs. Whereas Lukacs subjectivistically identified Hegel’s Geist with the proletariat, Althusser claimed that Marx owed to Hegel the idea that history is a process without subject. In other words, Althusser transhistorically hypostaized as History, in an objectivistic way, that which Marx analyzed in Capital as a historically specific, constituted structure of social relations. Neither Lukacs’s nor Althusser’s position is able to grasp the category of capital adequately.”

Althusser, in rendering the dialectic transhistorical, fails to grasp the fact that it is a structured process and practice of its own unfolding, which is necessitated by the historically determinate mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation. This compels him to grasp the fetishised or ideologised commodity-form, which is the basic unit of capital, not as what it literally and really is, but as the symptomatic mark, or metaphor, of its own displacement and inexistence. In other words, he grasps the fetish or ideology that is the commodity-form as a symptomatic mark, or metaphor, of “process without a subject”. This is because “process without a subject” is, in his conception, naively ontological. Alfred Sohn-Rethel indicates that when he writes (1978, p. 20):

“Althusser believes that Capital is the answer to a question implied but not formulated by Marx. Althusser defeats the purpose of his search for this question by insisting ‘que la production de la connaissance… constitute un processus qui se passé tout entier dans le pensee. He understands Marx on the commodity abstraction metaphorically, whereas it should be taken literally and its epistemological implications pursued so as to grasp how Marx’s method turns Hegel’s dialectic ‘right side up’. The unproclaimed theme of Capital and of the commodity analysis is in fact the real abstraction uncovered there.”

Althusser’s symptomatic, or metaphorical, conception of commodity abstraction implies that, for him, it is not a problem of real abstraction but that of an intellectual one. As far as he is concerned, living labour in its concreteness does not get abstracted into and as the commodity-form because such labour is functionalised through a historical mode of subjective individuation. According to Althusser, it is, instead, the imposition of an individuated subjecthood on labouring bodies (qua labour-power) by the externality of capitalist social relations that leads to commodity abstraction. This externality of capitalist social relations, if one were to faithfully follow his symptomatic conception of ideology, is that which compels labouring bodies qua labour-power to grasp the symptomatic mark of “process without a subject” – which is the process of displacement of commodity abstraction — as a commodity-form, and thus envisage themselves as its individuated labouring subjects.

Hence, Althusser’s conception of interpellation is not about labouring bodies spontaneously producing the abstraction of human subjecthood — and the concomitant web of capitalist social relations — on account of the impersonal power of the historically specific mode of their mobilisation.

Althusser is undoubtedly a committed materialist. He is concerted and unrelenting in his critique of the abstract human subject and the ideological programme of philosophy of consciousness constitutive of such a subject. It must, however, be admitted this critique of his remains incomplete on account of his failure to focus on the condition that necessitates the abstract human subject and the various ideological philosophies of consciousness. This condition, as we have repeatedly observed, is the mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation.

The crux of the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, is critique of the human subject in terms of critique of the mode of individuation, which inescapably produces that subject as a real abstraction. That is the theoretical bedrock of Marx’s rigorously materialist anti-humanism in Capital. It enables Marx to grasp, as we have earlier observed, how both experience qua consciousness, and knowledge are structures of relationship with the world that instantiate the mode of subjective individuation. Althusser’s failure on that count lies at the root of his incomplete critique of abstraction of the human.

That his critique of the abstract human subject, and the attendant ideology of cogito and consciousness, is partial is borne out by the fact that the standpoint of his critique is science qua knowing/knowledge. Sohn-Rethel’s critical remarks on Althusser emphasise that. They serve to emphasise the French philosopher’s failure to grasp the fact that the structure of knowing – regardless of the scientificity of knowledge vis-à-vis the ideological form of consciousness of immediate experience — is, in the final analysis, also an instantiation of the mode of subjective individuation.

There is, of course, no doubt that Althusser’s conception of “history as process without a subject” constitutes a serious attempt to radically break with, among others, Lukacs’ Left-Hegelian and subjectivist conception of the proletariat as an identical subject-object. However, the objectivism, and thus naïve ontologisation, such a conception involves ensures that Althusser’s science, which is supposed to enable the desubjectivation of humanly subjectivated labouring bodies must enter their respective subject-positions as objective knowledge from the outside in order to enable the desubjectivation of those labouring bodies. This, as we shall soon see, amounts to the restoration of the logic of social mediation, albeit in a form discursively different from the one that such desubjectivation is meant to overcome. So, when it comes to politics, Althusser’s objectivist scientificity turns out to be no more than Lukacsian subjectivism in reverse.

The subjectivist approach to politics that Althusser’s conception of “process without a subject” implies – something the philosopher seems to embrace — is, indeed, quite ironical, given that he is utterly uncompromising in his anti-Hegelianism. What compounds this irony is the fact that Althusser’s theorisation of ideology and interpellation draws upon psychoanalysis — which in its Lacanian articulation demonstrates the relation between the unconscious and consciousness in terms of a rigorous internal dialectic. Why that is so is, however, beyond the scope of this essay.

Althusser’s theorising of ideology – which is another register of theorising commodity abstraction – as primarily a problem of intellection has political consequences not very different from those of “traditional Marxism”. According to Althusser, the commodity-form is a symptomatic mark of its own displacement and inexistence, which is not grasped thus by the labouring bodies that produce them due to the imposition of abstract human subjecthood on those bodies by an extrenalised web of capitalist social relations. Since this results in the perpetuation of a socio-economic order of commodity abstraction, it follows the only way to overcome this order is to have a form that confers (scientific) knowledge to the labouring bodies about their activities and practices. This would, pace Althusser, desubjectivate those labouring bodies. And that, in turn, would enable those bodies, in the process of being desubjectivated, to overcome the externalised web of capitalist social relations.

This, not surprisingly, results in Althusser persisting with the Leninist party-form. The Leninist party, in Althusser’s reckoning, is the embodied form that is meant to confer scientific knowledge to the labouring bodies so that they are desubjectivated. This, so that those desubjectivated labouring bodies in knowing the truth of their practices seek to practically actualise that truth and, thereby, transcend capitalism.

The problem, however, is that the Leninist party-form, in carrying out this task of bringing scientific knowledge to the labouring subjects, ends up mediating among them. Except that now, thanks to the way it is envisaged in Althusser’s theorising, the Leninist party-form adopts an apparently more democratic and thus entryist modality vis-à-vis diverse subject-positions constitutive of social labour. That, once again, amounts to one particular form of social mediation and totalisation being replaced by another. In effect, this is reconstitution of capital as the actualisation of the abstract substance of universal qualitative equalisation while appearing to transcend it. Evidently, the distance between Lukacs and his strategic conception of proletariat as an identical subject-object, and Althusser with his conception of the ‘democratised’and entryist Leninist party is not as much as the latter imagined.

Revolutionary generalisation: Formal ontology and “subjectivity without a subject”

The question, however, is, can we still hold on, as suggested earlier, to Althusser’s “process without a subject” in a way that it is displaced from being the terminological articulation of a conception of naïve ontologisation to be the articulation of a formalising manoeuvre that enables us to come up with revolutionary generalisation– or universal-singularity – as a formal ontology. Alain Badiou arguably carries out precisely such an operation when he writes (2005, p. 65):

“Overdetermination puts the possible on the agenda, whereas the economic place (objectivity) is that of well-ordered stability, and the statist place (ideological subjectivity) makes individuals ‘function’. Overdetermination is in truth the political place. And it must indeed be that overdetermination belongs to the subjective realm (choice, partisanship, militancy), even though it knows no subject-effect (such effects are statist), nor does it verify, or construct, any object (such objects only exist in the field of science).”

In Badiou’s re-articulation, overdetermination clearly ceases to be the scientific and thus objective conception of “process without a subject” and is rendered the thinking of this objectivity of process without a subject in and as its own subjective and thus political moment. This is clearly implied by the assertion that “overdetermination is in truth the political place”. That Badiou should make such a theoretical move is not surprising. He writes (2005, p. 63):

“If ‘object’, taken in the general sense, is an ideological notion (correlated with the inexistence of the subject), in another sense ‘object’ (this time correlated, in the absence of any subject, with ‘objectivity’) designates the very kernel of scientific practice. Science is a process without a subject but with objects, and objectivity is its specific norm. To distinguish politics from science is first to recognise that politics…has no object and does not submit to the norm of objectivity….”

But what does this move of thinking overdetermination as the political place – that is, thinking the objectivity of process without a subject in a manner that it is displaced to become thinkable in and as its own subjective dimension – amount to? First, it means one completely moves away from the naively ontological conception of overdetermination as process without a subject – which is what it is in Althusser’s thinking of it as science and objectivity – to thinking it as a formal ontology. This formal ontology is arguably the one yielded by our formalising manoeuvre of concentrating the diverse moments of overcoming of the historically determinate form of social mediation in its equally diverse concrete instances. Those moments of overcoming grasped in their concentration – that is, overcoming grasped in and as its own moment – is, what Badiou would term, the truth of overdetermination as “the political place”. Secondly, it concomitantly amounts to thinking the formal ontology in its subjective form. What that form would be is indicated by Badiou when he contends (2005, p. 60):

“…Althusser posits that only the ‘militants of the revolutionary class struggle’ really grasp the thought of the process in relations. Therefore, a genuine thought of process is possessed by those engaged in political practice.”

Hence, to think the moments of the practices of overcoming as their own thought is to theorise the grasping of the “thought of the process in relations”. In other words, it is to think overdetermination qua the formal ontology of revolution as a subjective dimension and thus as its own subjective form. And insofar as such practices of overcoming of the determinate form of social mediation in its concrete instances are, in and as those moments of overcoming, not the abstraction of place but taking-place as the excess of the abstraction of place, grasping them as their own thought is to grasp and articulate them in the mode of “subjectivity without a subject or object”. Badiou writes (2005, pp. 65-66):

“How should ‘subjectivity’ without a subject or object be understood here? It is a process of homogeneous thought in the material form of militancy, one not determined through (scientific) objectivity, nor captive to the (ideological) subject-effect. At the place of overdetermination…, this process balances over into the possible, and does so in accordance with a partisanship, a prescription, that nothing guarantees, neither in the objective order of the economy nor in the statist order of the subject, but which nonetheless is capable of tracing a real trajectory in the situation.”

What is this partisanship, or prescription, that is guaranteed “in neither the objective order of the economy nor in the statist order of the subject”? To grasp overdetermination as the political place, we now know, is to grasp it as its own thought, and thereby formalise it in its subjective order. This is nothing else but the grasping of the negativity immanent in capital as its own thought. In other words, it is to think such negativity, immanent in the totality that is capital, as the formalising of its own generalisation as that negativity.

This is something that amounts to envisioning the immanent negativity in a manner that precludes its mobilisation and capture by capital as a system of guarantee of the objective order of economy and/or the statist order of the subject. The “real trajectory” it traces “in the situation” would, in such circumstances, be the process of unravelling of the totalisation of capital – i.e. when such formalising is actualised. This unravelling of the totalisation that is capital would be the real movement of free association of direct producers precisely because it would, in being a movement of freely associating direct labour, constitute the abolition of the historically determinate mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation.

Clearly, the guaranteeless partisanship or prescription in question is the actuality of immanent negativity as the formalising of its own generalisation as that negativity. This is militancy. To the extent such militancy is the material form of embodiment of the mode of subjectivity without a subject or object, it can instantiate itself only in the immanence of political practices constitutive of diverse struggles and their respective subject-positions. After all, the mode of subjectivity without a subject is the formalising of the moment of negativity as its own thought. And considering this moment of negativity is immanent, the form of its subjective embodiment must necessarily instantiate itself immanently. This is the actuality of “really grasp(ing) the thought of the process in relations”.

Inquiry as militancy: notes for a post-party organisation

Hence, a militant as the embodiment of the mode of subjectivity without a subject can instantiate himself/herself as his/her militancy only in the immanence of discursively diverse struggles and their respective subject-positions. This clearly implies that militancy, contrary to what contemporary purveyors of the Leninist party-form would have us believe, is not about embodied forms of ‘scientific’ knowledge seeking entry into empirically diverse struggles from their outside so that they can then mediate among their different subject-positions to inevitably bind them into a new type of statist form of totality and social mediation in order to supplant the already given type of such a historical form. Rather, the modality of militant practice that would instantiate subjectivity without a subject is all about militants inhabiting diverse junctures of struggles as members of those empirically varied practices and their respective milieux, even as they demonstrate, through an ongoing process of investigation and self-inquiry, the limit those practices will constantly run into on account of the discursive specificity of their locations. This is arguably the actuality of the “ontopraxeological” mode that Zeleny discerns in Marx.

Such an inquest-based demonstration of the limits of a struggle amounts to a non-voluntarist practice of militant interventionism. It is militant interventionism because it seeks to induce the diverse struggles to prefigure the overcoming of their respective limits by constellating with one another. It is, at once, non-voluntarist because the modality of this subjective intervention is such that its embodiment does not tend to become the mediating form that would unite diverse struggles by substituting for the self-initiative of their respective milieux.

In other words, the self-inquiry-based intervention of the militant inhabitants of those diverse struggles seek to induce the respective milieux of those struggles to synchronise their respective self-activities in a manner that they emerge as a self-organising process of social labour in and as its own abolition. It is this Badiou affirms when he insists that “a genuine thought of process is possessed by those engaged in political practice”.

The organisation generated by the mutual interactivity of militants — in the process of thrashing out, clarifying and fine-tuning the principles of inquiry and self-inquiry in the light of the specificity of their respective experiences — has a rather loose form. This loose form of organisation of militants is a post-party form precisely because the militants in question belong to no pre-given party or organisation that they would want to institute as the form of mediation among the different subject-positions comprising diverse moments of struggle.

Clearly, this proposed modality of non-voluntarist militant practice and the post-party form of organisation it generates – which are instantiations of the mode of subjectivity without a subject –, tend to entirely preclude the problem of mediation and representation. In this way, the conception of subjectivity without a subject poses a modality of revolutionary generalisation that is radically distinct from the substitutionist and instrumentalist modality of ‘revolutionary’ organisation that dogs the Leninist party-form – now more than ever.


1. Engels famously writes in The Holy Family (2010, p.116): “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” This indicates that even Young Marx, who collaborated with Engels on The Holy Family, has a conception of ego-less and blind subjectivity of totalisation qua history. However, it ought to be pointed out that history, as this blind and ego-less subject of totalisation, is grasped by this Marx before Capital in terms of the activity of making of history by “real, living man”, which renders the subject self-reflexive. It is only after the conception of two-fold character of labour and two-fold character of the commodity-form displaces man as the conceptual centre of his theorising in Capital that we are able to grasp the moment of making of history as internally split between itself and the moment of overcoming of history. In Young Marx, whose dialectic is anthropologistic, there are only two moments – the moment of making of history and the moment of history (made). In the dialectic of Mature Marx – particularly the Marx of Capital – there are not two but three moments – the moment of history, the moment of making of history and the moment of overcoming of history. Hence, while alienation is conceived by Young Marx as estrangement of the human essence from itself, Mature Marx conceptualises it as a social structure of abstraction. This, among other things, is a clear indication that the structure of the dialectic is radically altered in Mature Marx to be rendered fully and rigorously materialist. From the standpoint of Mature Marx’s materialist dialectic one can retrospectively read Hegel’s conception of the dialectic – which is constitutive of the moment of realisation of the essence, and the moment of the process of realisation as the simultaneity of realising of the essence and its withdrawing from itself as the negativity of such realising – as (unreflexively) materialist. Not for nothing does Badiou assert (2009, pp. 3-4):

“The dialectic, inasmuch as it is the law of being, is necessarily materialist. If Hegel touched upon it, he must have been a materialist. His other side will be that of an idealist-dialectic, in a single word, which has nothing real about it, not even in the register of an inverted symbolic indication….
“So, at the heart of the Hegelian dialectic we must disentangle two processes, two concepts of movement, and not just one proper view of becoming that would have been corrupted by a subjective system of knowing. Thus:
“a) A dialectical matrix covered by the term of alienation; the idea of a simple term which unfolds itself in its becoming-other, in order to come back to itself as an achieved concept.
“b) A dialectical matrix whose operator is scission, and whose theme is that there is no unity that is not split. There is not the least bit of return into itself, nor any connection between the final and the inaugural….”

On this point, we would do well to attend to the following assertion of Macherey’s (2011, pp. 212-213):

“…we must put aside (as absolutely devoid of philosophical interest) the idea that all dialectics are idealist in themselves or reactive; for a historical materialism of thought the expression ‘all dialectics’ is completely without meaning. The real question is, what is the limit that separates an idealist dialectic from a materialist one? Under what conditions can a dialectic become materialist?”

2. Marx writes in his 9th thesis on Feurbach (1976, p. 617): “The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.” But what is this “contemplative materialism”, and how does one understand the materiality of practice – i.e. “comprehend the sensuousness as practical activity”? The answer to that is clearly given by Marx when he writes in thesis 1 (1976, p. 615): “Feurbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from conceptual objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. In Das Wesen des Christenthums, he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.”

3. We must take care to distinguish Marx’s conception (in The German Ideology) of communism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” from Eduard Bernstein’s social-democratic progressivism of “the movement is everything the goal is nothing”. The two are fundamentally distinct and radically antagonistic. Communism as the real movement is, itself, a goal to be leapt to. As the free association of direct producers, communism is the accomplishment of the goal of the (real) movement in its uninterruptedness, which suspends the never-ending continuity of the punctuated movement conceptualised and affirmed by Bernsteinian social democracy.

4. Some proponents of post-Marxism will likely find this a crudely vulgar account of their theory of the outside of capital. And, at one level, they would be right. In the theorisations of the more sophisticated among the post-Marxists, this outside of capital has no historico-discursive fixity and is, therefore, not a communitarianised identity. It is, instead, the remainder of capital like the Real of Lacanian psychoanalysis. It is, to be more accurate, the remainder as the hauntological outside of presence and its metaphysics, a la Derrida. This outside is instantiated by various historico-discursive sites only in their respective moments of militation. The outside of capital is, therefore, the moment of difference-in-itself as withdrawal from its subsumption, or abstraction through qualitative equalisation. But insofar as Marx’s critique of political economy is concerned, there is no exchange-value as expression of value (qualitative equivalence) without use-value (difference), which is the former’s material depository, even as value/exchange-value in being qualitative equivalence is the negation of use-value qua difference. Hence, difference or use-value must assert itself as the negation of its negation qua value/exchange-value, only so that the latter can be sustained. This is the secret of capital as “living contradiction” – or, as the bipolar nature of labour and the two-fold character of its embodiment – that Marx reveals in Capital. That is precisely why difference, in being its own presentation, is condemned to fall into abstraction, and thus withdraw from such abstraction as its negativity, precisely in order to sustain that dynamic of abstraction as qualitative equalisation.

In such circumstances, difference qua remainder of capital is not the noncapitalist outside of capital. Rather, difference as that remainder, which is yet-to-be-subsumed living labour in its concrete usefulness, is the negativity of capital that is immanent in it and constitutive of it. In such circumstances, revolutionary strategy can be envisaged only through this conception of immanent negativity of capital by way of thinking its generalisation so that it emerges as the affirmation of its own negative terms, and thus emancipated from its condition of being the immanence of capital, by virtue of being the extenuation of the capitalist totality. However, the post-Marxist thinking of revolutionary strategy in terms of working with the hauntological outside of capital is an illusory one-sidedness that mistakenly affirms the subjective dimension constitutive of capitalist acceleration as revolutionary politics. The post-Marxist strategy of grasping praxis, and the real movement, as accentuation of the outside of capital qua the accelerating withdrawal of difference from its subsumption is nothing but the interpellated subjective reactivity constitutive of the acceleration of capital as a dynamic of subsumption, and its treadmill principle. The post-Marxist conception of the ‘real movement’ as repetition with a difference does not institute the duration and historicity of difference. All it accomplishes is the infinite seriality of lines of flight – which is the infinite seriality of evanescent moments of difference-in-itself. This is arguably nothing but the interpellated subjective side of the historicity of capital qua infinite totalisation in its acceleration. It is precisely on account of this that, in the final analysis, the post-Marxist conception of outside of capital as the ground of revolutionary subject is, in effect, no more than the dynamic of persisting in communitarian difference, and its resistance, vis-à-vis the so-called non-subsumptive command of capital. Of course, it will take much more than this short note, which will have to suffice for now, to engage with the post-Marxist position in its full complexity.

5. Lest this proposal be mistaken for some new-fangled variant of anarchism, or Proudhonist ethical socialism a la commonisation, we would do well to dwell a little more on this conception of seamlessly infinite process of struggle as articulation of freely associated direct labour and freely associated direct labour as the articulation of struggle. It simply means that specific struggles against oppression and subalternisation should, in their here and now, seek to abolish the social division of labour – and the segmentation it entails — by completely functionalising the division of labour constitutive of their respective sites by rendering the various work-roles more and more dynamic, and thus less and less atomised; even as such functionalisation of the division of labour in being effectuated simultaneously articulates its diverse constitutive struggles as the abolition of the mediation of exchange among the different individuated sites of production.

6. Marx’s conception of “natural history” enables us to envision nature as nonidentity – nonidentity-as-process. But this, we need to immediately assert, is quite distinct from Althusser’s conception of “history as process without a subject”. Nature as nonidentity is no more than a formal ontology that articulates emancipation of humanity from the abstraction of the human condition. The theoretical move that yields this formal ontology is constitutive of grasping the historically determinate mode, which necessitates the dialectic, in the process of thinking its extenuation.


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Badiou, Alain, Metapolitics, tr. Jason Barker (Verso, London, New York, 2005)

Badiou, Alain, Theory of the Subject, tr. Bruno Bosteels (Continuum, London, 2009)

Engels, Frederick, ‘Absolute Criticism’s Second Campaign, a) Hinrichs No. 2. “Criticism” and “Feurbach”. Condemnation of Philosophy’. In The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 2010)

Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A.V. Miller (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, New Delhi, 1998)

Macherey, Pierre, Hegel or Spinoza, tr. Susan M. Ruddick (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2011)

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Marx, Karl, Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, tr. Emile Burns, ed. S. Ryazanskaya (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978)

Marx, Karl, ‘Theses on Feurbach [Original Version]’. In The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976)

Postone, Moishe, Time, Labor, And Social Domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003)

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Zeleny, Jindrich, Logic of Marx, translated and edited by Terrell Carver (Rowman and Littlefield, New Jersey, 1980)

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