In defense of "dialectical annoyance"

Dolphins, "social relations" and Marx's method of abstraction

When people tell me they’re starting Capital for the first time, I often describe the process as a very specific kind of continual frustration.

It seems like in every early chapter I identified something that I took issue with in Marx’s methodology, argued about why it was annoying, then proceeded to the next chapter and realized why Marx was setting things up that way — but found something new to be annoyed at in that chapter. It’s sort of a dialectical process of annoyance, where the tensions don’t exactly get “resolved” but propel the analysis forward as the reading continues.

One of these core tensions for me in the beginning of Capital was that of the elevation of human labor as privileged over animal or machine production in the theory of value Marx was analyzing. The theory goes that “value” as an object of analysis for a commodity comes from the amount of human labor time necessary on average to produce that commodity — the labor time necessary for all the little parts like the thread and the loom, themselves added to the labor time of the person in the factory working to spin that thread into linen.

As he set out this theory, Marx’s descriptions of why humans were to be the object of analysis seemed just straight wrong to me. In Chapter 7 of Capital Vol I, Marx mentions a theory of the “imagination” of a human as a way they are distinguished from animal labor that doesn’t seem to have a basis in any form of cognitive science that I know:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.

This seems like a fairly arbitrary definition that is relatively unfalsifiable — how are we to know that a bee or spider does not have the capacity to imagine a structure before producing it?

In a reading group I’m participating in, we got to a section of The German Ideology where a running argument broke out that resembles this point:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

Again, on what basis are Marx and Engels even making this distinction? When Marx says men can be distinguished from animals by “anything else you like” does that not sap his argument of all rigor? One could argue relatively coherently that dogs, dolphins and many other animals have “consciousness” of some form, disproving this distinction. Further in the text, when Marx and Engels describe the concept of “social relations” he again defines them as existing outside of man’s relationship to nature:

Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal does not enter into “relations” with anything, it does not enter into any relation at all. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.

Again, one could call on the ability of dogs, dolphins, apes, and many other creatures to engage in bonds with one another that reflect what we would call “social relations” in any human sense! So Marx’s fundamental presupposition of dolphins as not engaging in “social relations” seems fundamentally flawed. Like my experience reading Capital, we argued about this point and moved on — and now “dolphins” has become an inside joke for this kind of circular argument.

I’ve been trying to figure out the right way to explain my perspective on this, and it took until our recent reading of Mao’s On Practice for me to feel able to really nail down what Marx is here doing by making these potentially flawed assumptions in his analysis.

In that reading group, a friend pointed out an interesting relationship between Marx’s methodology of critique and how in a way it mirrors the Marxist view of cognition itself. In “On Practice”, Mao describes the process of cognition as starting with the practical, perceptual stage (sense impressions of related objects and elements) and proceeding to the formation of ideas and concepts that emerge out of that perceptual stage:

In the process of practice, man at first sees only the phenomenal sidethe separate aspects, the external relations of things. For instance, some people from outside come to Yenan on a tour of observation. In the first day or two, they see its topography, streets and houses; they meet many people, attend banquets, evening parties and mass meetings, hear talk of various kinds and read various documents, all these being the phenomena, the separate aspects and the external relations of things. This is called the perceptual stage of cognition, namely, the stage of sense perceptions and impressions. That is, these particular things in Yenan act on the sense organs of the members of the observation group, evoke sense perceptions and give rise in their brains to many impressions together with a rough sketch of the external relations among these impressions: this is the first stage of cognition. At this stage, man cannot as yet form concepts, which are deeper, or draw logical conclusions.

As social practice continues, things that give rise to man's sense perceptions and impressions in the course of his practice are repeated many times; then a sudden change (leap) takes place in the brain in the process of cognition, and concepts are formed. Concepts are no longer the phenomena, the separate aspects and the external relations of things; they grasp the essence, the totality and the internal relations of things.

In a way this order of operations in the dialectical materialist theory of how knowledge is itself generated itself the exact opposite of Marx’s approach to actively organizing this information in order to affect change.

In the Grundrisse, which served as Marx’s manuscript for self-clarification in the process of writing Capital, Marx describes the process of finding the best way in to perform a thorough critique of industrial capitalism. Marx described the way in which political economists of the time attempted to start with the specific, empirical observations and from that derive a series of laws governing economic relations. But to Marx, to start with these empirical observations would lead one down a series of flawed directions where you would be unable to comprehend the totality of the real motion involved:

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts, from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations. The former is the path historically followed by economics at the time of its origins. The economists of the seventeenth century, e.g., always begin with the living whole, with population, nation, state, several states, etc.; but they always conclude by discovering through analysis a small number of determinant, abstract, general relations such as division of labour, money, value, etc. As soon as these individual moments had been more or less firmly established and abstracted, there began the economic systems, which ascended from the simple relations, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market. The latter is obviously the scientifically correct method. The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.

So, though in Mao’s description of the process of historical knowledge generation, the simple relations of labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, etc., did in fact emerge from real activity in production, the method of analysis that Marx chooses to engage in is in fact a total inversion of this process! Marx says explicitly that his project is to investigate and identify the most basic simple abstractions that govern human activity in a current period of time, presuppose them in his analysis, and work outward to discover the real social motion they imply. So it may seem a backwards analysis to start with potentially empirically flawed assumptions, but it is only because these assumptions rule over us to the degree that they do that they are to become the object of analysis.

Going back to Marx’s description of labor in Chapter 7 of Capital Vol I with this lens, we can see the way in which this method of analysis is actually baked in to the “spiders don’t imagine the web before they weave it”. A note Marx makes immediately preceding that passage:

We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human.

So, again, Marx acknowledges that these presuppositions — labor as exclusively human, dolphins as not forming “social relations” with one another — are not empirical truths present at the beginning of human social development, but rather themselves historically determined! “Social relations” as an object for Marx’s analysis are not the mere empirical phenomena of communication, coordination, and association as we may first assume them to be, but rather a concept that has developed through a history of more advanced communication, coordination, and association on the part of human civilization, which comes to govern practice within the existing world.

In the dialectical analysis of “social relations” Marx performs, it is not that dolphins do not form social relations, therefore humans are non-animals who rule over them. It’s in fact the opposite — humans have developed the concept of themselves as non-human animals who rule over dolphins and govern their actions by this concept, a phenomenon which is then expressed in the statement “dolphins do not maintain social relations with one another.”

One of my favorite dumb jokes is that Karl Marx invented capitalism with the writing of his book Capital (and the corollary joke that Lenin invented imperialism with the writing of his book Imperialism).

But core to this dumb joke is a sort of “don’t blame the messenger” view of Marx’s descriptions of the nature of capitalist development that I think is crucial to bear in mind. Marx is sometimes criticized for assuming nature is an object which exists outside of human experience and could be therefore seen as secondary to human needs in our organizing.

But I think this is a mistake. It’s not Marx’s writing that led capital to hollow out the Appalachian foothills in search of coal extraction, nor Engels who made a cost-benefit analysis to continue tuna fishing despite the deaths of dolphins as part of the process. Rather it is the inherent contradictions that developed out of capitalist society driving those processes. Marx and Engels are simply the messengers here, taking the simple relations governing our experience and explaining the impact they have on our lives.

We can, indeed, choose a future mode of intercourse that expands the role of subject beyond the human — but we must reckon with the concepts governing our world as they are now, understand their historical basis, and acknowledge that the process to building a new view of “social relations” must itself be a project of history that we are to embark on.