Originally posted at palaverer.com.
One of my correspondents in the Anti-Capitalist Meetup read the series of posts I am engaged in on my own blog, and suggested I post them here on DKos. The series is a liveblog of Marx's Grundrisse. This is the first of the series. I'm up to pt. 9 as I write this, about to start on pt. 10. As per a discussion with a couple of the ACM crew, I will write summaries/distillations along the way to be posted to the group. This series, however I'll post as-is, to my own feed.
I'd add that if this is of interest to you, by all means, be part of the discussion.
Here goes the first post:
I started reading Marx's Grundrisse yesterday, and plan to blog it. It will talk a lot of time, and I'll just go bit by bit. I don't have any particular expertise and certainly not any credentials, but I'm persistent and have some experience reading Marx. So, bearing this in mind, I invite anyone else out there to read along with me. Let me know what you think.
I will write what I write as part of my own working out of the text. I fully expect that I will misunderstand things. Corrections are invited. This is in no way intended to be a comprehensive or even coherent summary of the work. It's just me writing about what I read, because that's how I best develop my own understanding of a subject.
I haven't tackled a major work of theory in many years, and it's been a good fifteen years since I read the first volume of Capital. I participated last year in a Marx reading group, and we got through the following:
- On The Jewish Question
- Introduction to Critique of Philosophy of Right
- the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
I had had it in my head that I wanted to re-tackle Capital, v.1, but over and over again in the group I had heard of the Grundrisse, and it piqued my interest. It seemed like it was kind of a dress-rehearsal in notebook form for Capital, and since I'd already read that I might as well dig deeper.
So, on Day One I began with the Introduction, not that of the translator, Martin Nioclaus but that of Marx himself to the series of notebooks. I skipped the translator's preface entirely. I had read here and there on the net that the Grundrisse had more of a philosophical bent than Capital, that Marx the dialectician was in fuller display in this work. This struck me almost immediately. Bear in mind that these are notebooks Marx wrote for himself to clarify the subject, i.e., capitalism and the critique of political economy. I read the first two sections, on production and then the relationship between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption.
He begins with one of most important points Marx made in his critique of political economy, and I say this partially because I think that Marx needs to be read, open-mindedly, by people who are not Marxists, because I think they will improve their understanding of the world we actually live in if they do. So, his point, which is really a critique not just of political economy but of the Enlightenment as a whole: the political economists, in direct proportion to the vulgarity of their understanding of their subject, took a particular historical development and considered it as a natural, eternal truth, namely the individual producer.
Smith and Ricardo still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets, in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual – the product on one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century – appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure.
This is incisive thinking, and it's precisely this kind of clarity that makes me find value in Marx. To this day, apologists for capital will resort to this kind of ahistorical nonsense, as if people have always acted as selfishly as they do in the modern United States. I think this maybe makes them feel better: it can't be better than it is, so we don't have to worry about it, and don't have any responsibility either. We can simply drink to excess. But of course, for 95% of our history as a species, we lived in small, communal societies. We may have had senses of self, but we were not selfish in the modern sense, and indeed I would argue we manifested our selves as part of a community. What is, now, has not always been. In no high school economics text will you find this truth.
Of great interest to me was not simply Marx's definition of the four categories, production, distribution, exchange, and consumption, but his dialectical demolition of the concepts, demolition, and then reassembly. This floored me:
Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite. But at the same time a mediating movement takes place between the two. Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products.
Marx simultaneously posits the identity of two concepts, and their particularity, and a bi-directional mediating relationship between the two. That's deep. More importantly, though, why is it important? It is important because one of the ways that political economy--read: "capitalist economics"--hides the actual working nature of the system from the people it enslaves is by forming distinctions, reifying distinctions, between aspects of a process as if those aspects were themselves separate, unrelated things. People do not see their relationships to other people. Divide, and conquer.
Beautifully, Marx expands this basic understanding to include distribution and exchange, in the broader process of circulation:
The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity. Production predominates not only over itself, in the antithetical definition of production, but over the other moments as well. The process always returns to production to begin anew. That exchange and consumption cannot be predominant is self-evident. Likewise, distribution as distribution of products; while as distribution of the agents of production it is itself a moment of production. A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments. Admittedly, however, in its one-sided form, production is itself determined by the other moments. For example if the market, i.e. the sphere of exchange, expands, then production grows in quantity and the divisions between its different branches become deeper. A change in distribution changes production, e.g. concentration of capital, different distribution of the population between town and country, etc. Finally, the needs of consumption determine production. Mutual interaction takes place between the different moments. This the case with every organic whole.
Again, why is this important? Because this type of understanding of capitalism shows the real connections between the people trapped in it, and is therefore essential to any substantive forward historical movement. We are not going to get anywhere worth going if we, those of us who do not sit at the commanding heights of the capitalist world economy, don't at least start by seeing that while we may sit in different spots, we are all in the same boat.