HM Paper

Here is the text of my talk at the Tenth Annual Historical Materialism Conference. I’m afraid I’m too busy to properly copy-edit or cite it. So I thought I would stick it up, riddled with the sort of run-on sentences that drive some people mad, before I flaked on it.  With any luck I’ll be able to develop the comparison between Backhaus and Reichelt and Ranciere into a proper article that compares their respective notions of negative humanism and anti-humanism and social domination.

The Structure of the Process: Value and Fetishism in Ranciere, Hegelian-Marxism and the New German Reading of Marx. 

Before I begin a few words on the history and intent of the paper. The idea for this panel came out my regrettable tendency to bang on about value-form theory in the neighbourhood bars in Kreuzberg / Neukoln. On one occasion Frank (bender) mentioned that he found it interesting how three Marxist schools developed in reaction to ’68 in isolation from each other. He also mentioned that he found the way that the Anglophone world was currently scrutinizing these schools in relation to each other to be exciting and productive. I thought a panel that drew on this orientation to addresses how different schools or thinkers that have drawn on Marx’s critique of political economy to understand social domination and social crisis, could contribute to this sort of productive comparison. Rather than, say, a Marxological comparison between Ranciere and Backhaus’ analysis of how Marx uses certain terms in his late critique, what follows is intended to offer a general contextualization of Ranciere’s contribution to Reading Capital in relation to the type of Western Hegelian-Marxism that Bender discusses and the New German Reading of Marx, and in so doing to compliment Jan and Bender’s papers.  This will be done in three parts. Part one will quickly frame Ranciere in relation to Western Hegelian-Marxism and the New German Reading of Marx. Part two will demonstrate these differences in relation to my exposition of Ranciere’s reading of fetishism as a scientific account of the structure of autonomous social domination established by the metonymic causal link between relation and form between. Part three will show how this analysis has been drawn on and extended in contemporary Althusserian value-form theory.


By drawing on and extending Bender’s paper, as well as the work of Elbe and Jan, I think a paradigmatic distinction between Western Hegelian Marxism and the New German Reading of Marx can be made along the following lines: Western Hegelian Marxism can be described as a project that sought to formulate a social theory that generalised Marx’s account of the commodity to an array of objective and subjective social phenomena that were not addressed in Capital. The New German Reading of Marx might be seen as a reaction to the insufficiencies of this method that first tried to understand, and reconstruct, the system that Marx presents in Capital and then tried to derive a systematic account of capitalist society in accordance with this system. Whilst such a distinction is obviously simplistic, and invites you to denounce me in the discussion that follows this paper, it does allows me to place Ranciere’s The Concept of Critique and the Critique of political economy in relation to these two paradigms.

As I will try to show Ranciere’s work can be seen as analogous in many ways to the first wave of the New German Reading that developed in the 1960s. In reaction to ‘orthodox Marxism’ as well as the methodological orthodoxies of Western Marxism, Ranciere might also be said to have undertaken a close reading of Capital that tried to discern Marx’s systematic theory of capitalist society. This can be seen by drawing out, comparing, and contrasting Ranciere’s reading of Marx with Western Hegelian-Marxism and the New German Reading of Marx.

In contrast to the major figures of Hegelian Marxism, as described by Bender, Ranciere does not interpret Marx’s account of the commodity in terms of an opposition between quantitative things and qualitative humans dehumanized by the production of these things, nor does he utilise such an interpretation of the commodity to provide an account of the socially pervasive objective and subjective aspects of capitalist society. Instead, rather like the early work of Backhaus and Reichelt, Ranciere engages in a close reading of Capital that attempts to decipher an esoteric system hidden behind the exoteric account that the prevalent reading he criticises (in this case Marxist humanism) draws on. As in Backhaus’ essay, Dialectics of the Value-Form, this reading focuses on the centrality that the section on fetishism possesses in Marx’s system, arguing that properly understanding this section in relation to the other sections of part one, discloses what differentiates Marx’s theory of value from the Ricardian theory of value.  Moreover, in contrast to the prevailing notions that fetishism consists in a theory of alienation or ideology that can be generalised to social totality from part one of Capital, both Ranciere and Backhaus stress that the concept of fetishism is integral to Marx’s account of the objective sui generis social reality of capitalism and that this account develops from abstract to concrete through out the course of the presentation of Capital.

However, Ranciere’s text does possess some differences with the early Backhaus and Reichelt’s account of the relation between the early and the late Marx. (this may have something to do with the individual relation to the particular type of Western Marxism) whereas as Backhaus and Reichelt in a way are concerned with saving aspects of Frankfurt school critical theory and Adorno’s negative humanism, Ranciere is engaged in a polemic with French humanist Marxism that draws on Lukacs and reads the late Marx thru the early Marx) Whilst Reichelt’s social reality as appearance focuses on the continuity of what he terms the skeletal structure of Marx’s theory of domination from his thesis through Capital, and Backhaus likewise argues that the structure of Marx’s notion of critique is contiguous in early and later work, Ranciere argues that standpoint and the content of this structure  – what he terms ‘the Change in the function of the structure of incarnation’ is discontinuous between the early and late Marx. Following Althusser, Ranciere argues that the early Marx presented an anthropological critique that was still within an ideological discourse. Although vestiges of this standpoint persist, Ranciere argues that in the late Marx The terms present are not subject, predicate and things, but relation and form. For Ranciere, the critique of political economy is thus a fundamentally scientific theory of metonymic causality between relation and form concerning the ‘formal operations which characterise the space in which economic objects’ which ‘manifest social processes while concealing them’. Ranciere’s account of Marx’s scientific critique of political economy thus centers on his analysis of fetishism, to which I now turn.


In Ranciere’s analysis, ‘the concept of fetishism in Capital poses a problem which can be initially formulated in the naive form: What is involved in fetishism? …. Since Ranciere’s answer, is that ‘we shall only understand fetishism if we think it in continuity with what I have said about the structure of the process and the development of its forms’, it is necessary to first give a quick description of Ranciere’s argument. In so doing I focus on how this metonymic causality is relayed in his characterisation of the structure of the process and the development of its forms and realized in the theory fetishism and the related concepts of appearance, materialization and inversion.

As I noted above, Ranciere distinguishes the structure of the process that Marx describes in Capital from the Early Marx’s anthropological standpoint and Ricardo’s theory of value. He argues that both the early Marx and Ricardo take the categories of political economy as a given and focus on the substance underlying them; failing to examine the relationship between form and content. For the early Marx criticism is centred on the separation between human essence and alienated social spheres. Alienated labour, as the unrecognized substance of private property, is exemplary of this alienated separation. For Ricardo, labour is the trans-historical substance of value. It does not matter in what form this substance appears. In distinction, Marx’s scientific approach:

unlike Ricardo, will not be content to pose labour as the substance of value while deriding the commodity fetishism of the Mercantilists who conceived value to be attached to the body of a particular commodity. It will expound fetishism by theorising the structure which founds the thing-form adopted by the social characteristics of labour.

Thus, Ranciere argues that for the late Marx this metonymic causality consists in the relation between labour and the form in which it necessarily appears: ‘labour is [necessarily] represented in value, it takes on the form of the value of commodities’ Consequently, Value takes on the form of a thing. The form/content relation as a relation between the inner determination and the mode of existence, is thus realized in the phenomenal form, of this determination’.

This structure, and the form in which it appears, arises from the historically specific character of capitalist social labour. In Ranciere’s analysis the manner in which the relations of production are realised in the identity between abstract labour and concrete labour ‘expresses the structure’ of the capitalist mode of production. Thus ‘the formal operations which characterise the space in which economic objects are related together manifest social processes while concealing them’.

Such a process sets up a further distinction that Ranciere makes between the early and the late Marx. Whereas the early Marx used terms such as gegenstand in a sensualist manner to describe a world characterized by the separation of human essence into alienated spheres, in the late Marx these terms are used to describe the sensuous-supersenuous character of capitalist social reality in which the structure is manifested, whilst simultaneously concealed, in the autonomous social character of things as the phenomenal form of value:

 What Marx designates as the subjectification of the thing is the acquisition by the thing of the function of motor of the process. In the process this function does not belong to a subject or to the reciprocal action of a subject and an object, but to the relations of production which are radically removed from the space of subject and object in which they can only find supports. The properties received by the thing are not the attributes of a subject but the motive power of the relations of production. It is insofar as the thing inherits the motion that it presents itself as a subject.

This means that:

 the pattern which designate the speculative procedure in the anthropological critique, here designates the process which takes place in the field of reality itself. This concept of reality must be understood to mean precisely the space in which the determinations of the structure manifest themselves (the space of phantasmagoric objectivity).

Rather than a world characterised by separation as in the early Marx, these determinations of the structure thus manifest themselves in this space of social reality as an internally related series of chiasmus that articulate an abstract form of autonomous social domination and inversion and subjectivation.  For Ranciere this determination thus consists in a double motion:  the materialization of the social determinations of production and the subjectification of its material bases in which things are rendered personified and autonomous and invert to determine persons as bearers or supports of the structure their relations constitute.  Moreover, This chiasmus develops in the course of Marx’s presentation from its most abstract level in ‘the simplest determination of the capitalist mode of production’ to its most concrete in ‘the enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world’ of the Trinity formula. The latter ‘incarnates’ the chiasmus between the personification of things and the reification of persons — the social determinations of production and the personification (Versubjjektiviierrung) of the material foundations of production — which characterize the ‘modes of existence’ of the entire capitalist mode of production and the related concepts of inversion and support (traeger).

Consequently, in Ranciere’s reading, Marx’s theory of fetishism describes the phenomenal reality of phantasmagoric objectivity in which the structures of the sui genereis type of capitalist social production are realized and simultaneously mystified. This phenomenal form of appearance – arising from the contradiction between concrete and abstract labour inherent in the socially specific capitalist relations of production – personified things and constitutes subjects as supports, determining their action and their consciousness. In contrast to the Western Hegelian-Marxist methodology, Ranciere thus offers a reading of fetishism as a phenomenal form of phantasmagoric social reality that is generated by the relation of production and embodied in personified things presented at different levels of concretion through out Capital. This is similar to early work of Backhaus but, as I have shown, it differs with Reichelt’s contention that the skeletal structure of Marx’s theory of domination remains consistent or Backhaus’ claim about the consistency in Marx’s notion of critique. Instead, it argues that many of the terms that Backhaus and Reichelt utilise to demonstrate continuity, undergo a change of function in Marx’s late work.

This shows the striking similarities that Ranciere’s contribution to Reading Capital posses with the first wave of the New German Reading of Marx. Although Ranciere would not follow up this contribution with a more in depth study of Marx, it can be shown that recent work in the New German Reading of Marx is influenced by him. It should also be noted that the work which draws on the elements of Ranciere’s theory that I have highlighted does so in conjunction with one important point of similarity that Ranciere shares with Western Marxism: the lack of a monetary theory of value.


This is the case for Heinrich’s interpretation of Marx, particularly his argument that Marx’s critique of political economy consists in a science. Whilst the term is from Althusser, it might be argued that the object of Heinrich’s account of science Marx’s science of value focuses on the aspects of Capital that I have shown Ranciere covers, particularly the fetish – value relation. This can be seen in Heinrich’s notion that Capital consists in a systematic and non-substantialist exposition of value that breaks with Marx’s early anthropology by conceiving of the latter as the emergent outgrowth of social relations. Heinrich’s argument that Capital is marred by inconsistencies, in the form of instances where Marx regresses to his pre-scientific analysis, also mirror Ranciere’s take. However, Heinrich’s work can also be said to provide an explanatory advance over Ranciere in terms of his account of how the monetary theory of value is necessary for explaining how commodities relate to each other in the act of exchange in which value is realized and how money 1) functions to measure value, and 2) serves as the means of circulation of value, thus serving to unify production and circulation providing the means of capitalist valorisation. Ranciere does not touch on these issues in his article and they are surely integral to structure and the process of capitalist domination, valorisation and reproduction.

These points are also echoed in the work of John Milios, who seems to have undertaken a theoretical project of formulating a theory of capitalist society that synthesises value-form theory with aspects of Althusser’s social theory. Whilst his article ‘Rethinking Value-Form Theory From an Althusserian Perspective’ approaches this project on the terrain of theoretical points of similarity and dissimilarity, his recent work, Political Economy of Contemporary Capitalism and Its Crisis: Demystifying Finance , co-authored with Dimitris P Sotiropoulos, John Milios, Spyros Lapatsioras, can be said to extend Ranciere’s account of the structure and process and its structural determination and phenomenal appearance qua fetishism, in tandem with a monetary theory of value, to finance capital.

In order to articulate this argument the work follows, and extends, several tacts that I highlighted in Ranciere’s account to finance capital. The author’s thus put forward an analysis of financialization that draws on the scientific account that Marx presents in Capital and contrast it with neo-Ricardian analyses of finance. The analysis they present of financialisation also draws on Ranciere’s focus on the development of fetishism through out Capital.  This leads them to formulate a theory of finance capital by drawing on Marx’s analysis of fictitious and interest-bearing capital, which they argue is Marx’s most developed and concrete account of capitalist valorisation, demonstrating the necessity that fictitious forms of capital, particularly their modern variants as finance capital, play in this process.

They also follow and extend Ranciere by deploying the theory of fetishism on this terrain. In their analysis the different forms of finance capital – derivatives, securities etc. – are sui generis types of commodities. As phenomenal forms of appearance, these commodities are constituted by the structural relations of production, resulting in a chiasmus that personifies things and reifies persons. The former in the autonomous play of derivatives and security markets; the latter in the inverted and determinate role that risk and financialisation have in a reality where the ‘observing subject is always already captured within and dominated by the super-sensible but objective forms of appearance of the existing complex of capitalist power relations’.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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