Congealed, Mute Lettuce: some more critical notes on David Harvey’s Companion to Capital.

The other day I posted about what I think are some glaring deficiencies in David Harvey’s Companion to Capital. I also poked fun at the way he described fetishism. Today it occurred to me that this description is also symptomatic of his problematic conception of capital the socially specific form of social production and Capital: A critique of Political Economy. Here are some rough notes on why.

To start let’s revisit how Harvey describes the genesis of fetishism:

So what’s going on here? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price-the “how much” …,..-is socially determined, and the price is a monetary representation of value. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers-those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange its impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them.

So what’s wrong with this?

In the first place Harvey seems to have a substantialist interpretation of fetishism. In Harvey’s view fetishism occurs because the complexity of the market veils the amount of labour congealed in the lettuce.

This leads to what I see as his second problem: he treats fetishism merely as something that comes about because the mute lettuce does not disclose who or how they were produced. I view this as problematic for a few related reasons: (a) Harvey’s metaphor of mute lettuce is the opposite of how Marx describes the personification of commodities in the very same section:

“If a commodity could speak, they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange values.”(Capital 177)

This leads to (b) that for Marx fetishism does not arise because it disguises social relationships, it characterizes how social relationships are necessarily perverted into the fetish characteristic form of money. As many, including Heinrich, have pointed out this is crucial for understanding what capital is as socially specific form of social production and how it reproduces itself and this is what Marx show in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy:

Marx attempted to show that the bourgeois mode of production itself necessitated a particular means of exchange, money, which by its very nature is not as innocuous as a theater ticket.

Individual private commodity producers are connected with one another through the societal division of labor, but their products acquire social character only in retrospect, namely, when they realize their value on the market.  In a society based upon exchange, the social character of goods produced does not consist solely of their ability to satisfy the needs of others; products must stand in a quantitative exchange-relationship to one another, they must possess a Value in addition to their use-value.  In bourgeois society, wealth becomes an abstract quantity: it no longer consists of a multiplicity of use-values and amenities, but rather of abstract “Value.”  But Value cannot be grasped by considering a single commodity, because it exists solely in its relationship to other commodities.  However, Value finds only a limited, coincidental expression in an exchange relationship with another commodity.  The value of a commodity can only obtain a universally valid social expression when it can relate to an independent embodiment of Value — that is, when it can refer to a thing that stands in relation to all other commodities not simply as another commodity, but as a direct form of existence of Value.1  Only in such a relationship can a single commodity actually assert its character as Value independent of its concrete character as a use value.  Abstract wealth necessitates a particular material form of existence — and money is exactly that.

In a society based upon the exchange of commodities, money is not merely a more or less important tool; it is a necessary means of economic socialization.  Individual commodity producers do not constitute their social relationship to one another as people.  Only their products stand in relationship to each other, as Values.  Precisely because isolated individuals disappear behind their products, social cohesion must — in a very literal sense — become reified (German: verdinglicht, thing-ified), tied down by a thing, money.  Money is not simply — as the neoclassical school maintains — a simplification of the process of exchange, which could in principle be dispensed with.  Rather, money is the means by which isolated individual commodity producers are first able to stand in relationship to one another.

As money, a thing acquires social properties and social power.  Marx describes this “transcendental” quality of a thing as fetishism.2  Such fetishism is not merely a delusion, or a sort of “false consciousness.”  In bourgeois society, money actually does possess the greatest power.  However, it only possesses such power due to a specific social relationship which underlies it: atomized commodity owners who can constitute their social relationship to one another only by means of a thing, money.  Money only has power because all social actors relate to money as money, that is, as an independent embodiment of Value.  But insofar as individuals act as commodity owners exchanging products, they have no other choice but to stand in such a relationship to money.  Having said that, fetishism does contain a delusional aspect in that money seems to possess an inherent social power.  The fact that this power is the result of an automatically executed social process evades the grasp of everyday cognition.  The process vanishes in its own result.

Commodity production is thus impossible without the correlation between commodities and money.  For that reason, there is a principal limit set for all utopian projects; if one wishes to abolish money, the set of societal relationships which necessitate the role of money must also be abolished.  One can’t have the one without the other. (From Money: A thing with Transcendental Qualities)


This ultimately leads to (c) what Ellen Meiksins Wood points out is problematic about Harvey’s conception of Capital:

For Harvey, since the ‘capitalist’ is simply someone who puts money into
circulation in order to appropriate more money, capitalism is nothing but
more of the same. In this respect, there is no difference between the merchant
acquiring profit on alienation – buying cheap and selling dear – and the
capitalist whose profit takes the form of surplus-value. In fact, money making
more money without even the mediation of commodities or even commodified
services would suffice, so that the most ancient practices of usury would satisfy
this definition…..Capitalism, in this conception, has no defining logic or dynamic which
clearly differentiates it from other social forms. In particular, the specific
imperatives of capitalist competition, its specific rules for reproduction – the
need for maximising strategies, profit-maximisation and the need constantly
to improve labour productivity – are not, apparently, essential to the definition
of capitalism. (In HM 15 A reply to my critics.)


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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