Chapter 5 With What Must the Critique of Capital Begin?

In: The Spectre of Capital: Idea and Reality
Christopher J. Arthur
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It is presupposed at the outset that exchange is a primary mode of social synthesis in the bourgeois epoch; it constitutes and reproduces bourgeois relations such as the dissociation of social production into autonomous enterprises. So the dialectical exposition proper begins with the most abstract indeterminate notion, but nonetheless the essential and originating one, which initiates the process of social synthesis in the bourgeois epoch, that of exchange. The only presupposition made at the start is that dissociation is overcome through exchange. Goods therein take the form of commodities.

It might be objected that starting the presentation with the notion of simple commodity exchange is dubious because we never see this: all trade is mediated by money. Even if it were true that barter relations once existed, this supposed historical beginning has no relevance to the purely systematic presentation here to be developed. So it must be admitted that the presentation starts from a virtual relation, for logical reasons, namely to begin with the most elementary relation possible. (Money is clearly a very complex form; it is hence to be developed in the course of the argument itself.)

As I said in the previous chapter, there are in effect two beginnings: the commodity is analysable into the complexities of use, on the one hand, and the utter simplicity of its exchangeableness, on the other. Hence the ‘synthetic’ beginning of the value-form logic is as simple as that of Hegel’s, once use-value is left aside.

The founding moment of the idea of capital is that there is a realm of ideality set up by the exchange of commodities. One might say that exchange results in a practical abstraction from the given nature of the commodities. But this is not quite correct, for it could imply that what is generated through exchange is the category of ‘utility’ (an abstraction from the specificity of use-values, but not from the genus itself). It is essential to the possibility of a commodity entering exchange that it has a specific use-value (however qualified this imputation). In a practical abstraction it would be logical for the result to be that the commodity retains use-value, but in the abstract, sheer ‘utility’, all difference of use-value (which gives sense to the exchange in the first place) being ignored. For example, it might be possible to argue that two baskets of goods selected in a supermarket that happened to cost the same overall price must therefore be ‘equal’ in utility, or someone would change their basket from the less ‘valuable’ to the more ‘valuable’. (This is an illusory equation, a shadow form cast by money; but it shows the need for a proper value theory to oppose value to use-value altogether.)

However, exchange is more radical than that in its constitution of the commodity, not only is its specific use-value disregarded but the genus use-value itself is abstracted from. The very fact that it is a use-value is suspended as it crosses the space of exchange; if when used the commodity is not being exchanged, when exchanged it is not being used. Hence, rather than the notion of ‘abstraction’ I prefer that of ‘absence’ consequent on a peculiar ‘negation’.1

An objective transcendental negation is brought about in the exchange of commodities through a total absenting of all the bodily characteristics of the goods exchanged.2

It is a very peculiar case of a determinate negation. That determines something as other, but in principle both are presupposed to occupy the same field. Thus ‘This is not green’ has sense if it is coloured – perhaps it is red – but not specifically green. But I hold that what happens when commodities are taken as identical in exchange is a complete negation of use-value, not just of specific use-value. Thus the commodity is defined as ‘Being-in-exchange’ in opposition to all the bodily features that sustain any conceivable use-value. It is because of these considerations that I say that the practical judgement effected by exchange is that of an ‘infinitely negative judgement’ on the material character of the commodities that underpin their use-value. In a formula, the commodity as Being-in-exchange is not-use-value.

The resultant judgement on the commodity is ‘this is not-what-it-is’. In denying all possible predicates of the commodity that might give it use, it seems that nothing is said of it. But I shall contend this is yet a determinate negation yielding a determinate result because of its origin in a definite practice. Conversely exchange does not exclude any given object; anything whatsoever might be exchanged.

The obvious response to this is to say, then, that exchange is an entirely external operation on commodities to be grounded in the motives of the exchangers, and that the notion of commodities having exchange-value intrinsic to them is moonshine. However, my presentation seeks a grounding for value, beginning from the very unpromising start that accepts it cannot be grounded on anything given in the commodities prior to exchange.

Before proceeding further with my characterisation of exchange as resulting in an ‘infinitely negative judgement’ on commodities, I must address its distinction from the existing logical term, discussed by Hegel, of ‘negatively infinite judgement’.

A positive judgement is ‘a rose is red’, to which corresponds a negative one ‘the rose is not blue’. Conceivably the rose could have been blue, but happens to be red. However, what if the predicate is qualitatively other than the range of predicates which it is possible to ascribe to the subject? Hegel, under ‘negative judgement’, considers also the ‘negatively infinite judgment’ such as ‘this lion is no table’ which leaves untouched all possible predicates of ‘lion’, ‘table’ not being one of them.

However, Hegel’s negatively infinite judgement is not at all the same notion as my ‘infinitely negative judgement’ which absents all relevant predicates (including ‘uselessness’!). My own, superficially similar, term is a generalisation of Hegel’s in that, instead of a judgement that some one grammatical predicate stands to the subject as qualitatively other than the categorial status of that subject, I am considering a case in which every possible predicate attached to the commodity is qualitatively other than its being as result of exchange. The judgement comprehends an infinite number of such negations.

A transcendental sphere is therewith constituted throughout the space of exchange, an ideality which reduces the absented sphere of use-value to its sublated origin; nonetheless, the notionally absented field is yet required as the material bearer of the ideal one. Thus a new ontological level is posited beyond that of use-value. In a sense this transcendental negation creates its own space within which to effect a contrast with all real being of goods.

The point is that the commodity as such is identical with the sum of its material properties so that to constitute it as something other than this is to manifest sheer absence, but this all-round negation is yet determining. The usual case of determinate negation says if something is not-white it must be black, and conversely black is made determinate in being not-white. But here there is all-round negation resulting in the real being of the commodity getting wholly displaced (yet, although displaced, use-value is still presupposed, but in sublated form).

There is a subtle difference between the following two claims.

  1. ‘Value is not use-value’ means merely that value is a diverse determination, having a different character to that of use-value, possibly a contrary one in the sense that both cannot be realised at the same time.

  2. But ‘Value is not-use-value’ is an infinite judgement, which is the affirmation of a negative predicate; it affirms through denying, so the ‘is’ makes a positive claim, not a negative one merely, as in the first case.

In sum this primordial practical judgement defines what a commodity is. It is negative because it says that, as ‘Being-in-exchange’, it is defined as what is not-use-value. It is infinite because the whole basis of its utility is absented, not merely specific use-value.

(When I speak of the infinitely negative ‘judgement’, this deploys a different sense of ‘judgement’ than that I use later when I discuss the judgement of worth, namely ‘this commodity is worth $x’, characteristic of a determination within the value-form analysis. The latter is a case of the well-known propositional judgement, in our case uttered easily enough in the marketplace. In this chapter, however, the so-called ‘judgement’ is a practical one, which obtains objectively, not as a form of thought. It generates an ontological divide between material and ideal realms, underpinning the original separation between use-value and value.)

Thus the commodity form is a pure form imposed on goods without expressing anything given in them. The judgement ‘this is not use-value’ is an abstract negation rather than a determinate one. But I take it to be determinate when it is read as the definition ‘this is not-use-value’, albeit that means we are left with an empty place-holder devoid of content.

In the beginning the movement of exchange negates the use-value of the commodity while it crosses the space of exchange, meaning here that its ‘real being’ is absent. Hence one can say what it is only by expressing the infinitely negative judgement that it is absolutely other than all the real physical properties of the commodity (corresponding to real, or imaginary uses). But what is it that is left as a result? In the space of exchange, there is posited a bare singular thrown back from the emptied field of predication. It is identical with itself because, abstracted from all determinate predicates, it becomes determinate only if it reflects itself into itself, becoming simply a faceless ‘One’.

It follows that the other commodity in the space of exchange is equally One. It would seem then impossible to distinguish them. However, we shall argue below that there is a numerical difference in that they are poles of the exchange relation. Accordingly they affirm themselves as other than their other. But in our presentation the relatedness is as yet an empty form they inhabit. The infinitely negative judgement, which strips away all material being, results in an impermeable singularity.

At the same time, the negative unity of the absented predicates affirms itself simply as the pure form of predication. But this is an empty form, in that anything and everything real may in principle be exchanged. The dialectic to follow will show how this empty form gains self-subsistence. Yet, qualifying nothing but the void, all the affirmative categories generated constitute ideal forms absolutely other than their bearer, the One.

The negativity arises in the first place from the practice of exchange. Later we shall see how capital itself takes charge of the movement of negativity. Only then does the present discussion gain retroactive vindication. It might be true that this notion of ‘empty being’ is itself an empty thought. But my value-form dialectic aims to show how this singularity fills itself out, through absorbing the use-value field originally opposed to it. It becomes ‘full of itself’ insofar as it subjects the alien field to itself. At the start this form is so pure that the items inscribed within it are not even seen as products; so, in my view, it is only through a long argument that products are to be discovered to be the appropriate content of the commodity form.

Now the argument in detail begins by presenting Tables of categories with a commentary upon the dialectic of these forms. (The following discussion is a more discursive treatment of the movement to be traced at the beginning of our dialectical presentation proper in the next chapter.) This Table shows the regional absences and presences summarising our view.

Absence and presence in exchange




A: real being (use-value)




B: ideal being (in exchange)




The focus here is on exchange; terms in quotation marks are overly concrete for this level of the exposition, but are used to help give a more accessible ‘picture’ of what is going on. Line A is understood as originating the dialectic, through absenting real being (use-value) during exchange, and line B is derived from A as a quasi-inversion of it.

At A, then, ‘production’ and ‘consumption’ (or, more abstractly, the presenting of goods for exchange and their removal) are presupposed to exchange as realities, and a wealth of use-values gets transferred through exchange from one hand to another. While use-value is here presented to exchange it is suspended for the period of exchange; this absenting of use-value while commodities cross the space of exchange constitutes them as all that is not use-value, sheer absence. This line, therefore, is characterised by ‘the positing of absence (of use-value)’. Immediately, the exchanging commodity is simply predicated as ‘not-use-value’ but this absence ‘makes space’ so to speak in line B for the emergence of ‘absence’ into positive presence (as illustrated in the middle column above).

The Table gives expositional priority to the use-value line, from which we seem to derive a ghostly inverted echo under it. (Using the term ‘value’ somewhat proleptically) this inversion is itself inverted when value posits itself against use-value, we shall see. At this level the immediate motor of exchange appears to be – not value but – the exchange of one commodity for another of a different kind having a different use. Thus a condition of existence of exchange is the universe of use-value. (However, the further development of the dialectic of the value form will posit this condition of its existence in the production of commodities for exchange.)

The movement from A to B is a switch to an inverted world; insofar as line B is itself a determinate negation of the whole of line A, it is here taken as a reality axed around presence (of absence grasped as resulting from the negation of use-value). The ‘ontological inversion’ is the moment of ‘negation of negation’, but whereas the first negation (of the presence of use-value) is brought about by exchange, the second negation is effected in the space of exchange, a space predicated on absenting the ‘real being’ of the commodity as use-value (even as an abstraction, utility). So, instead of returning to the starting point, and recollecting that the commodity is, after all, use-value, within this space there is posited a pure Being-in-exchange: we cannot say what this Being-in-exchange is, only that it is. It makes itself present to us through displacing the real being of commodities, and positing ‘absence as presence’.

Notice that the movement across each line is characterised by ontological reversal, but that from line to line by ontological inversion. The difference is that the reversal maintains the original presupposition, and posits in the same ‘universe’, so to speak, the opposite. But the ontological inversion supplants the entire ‘universe’ together with its existing regional presences and absences such that all is presented as other than it is, as standing on its head. Now why should there be any inversion of line A into line B at all? It must be emphasised that this ‘perspectival switch’ from A to B is as such only a presentiment of the reality of the ‘topsy-turvy’ world of capitalism; as such it seems merely a shadow cast by exchange.

To give the shadow substance requires a long development, in which new, more concrete, categories are brought to birth, precisely through the consideration, at each stage, of the insufficiency of the shape under consideration to prove that it has made itself present.

Thus this argument can follow somewhat the same lines as that of Hegel’s onto-logic, his attempt to constitute the universe out of the self-movement of thought; however, in this case it is the self-movement of capital that has to be shown to constitute its universe.

Let us examine more closely the movement of exchange as we now understand it. Although commodities pass across this space, nonetheless something is posited in this sphere. When a commodity is exchanged it has duality, as ‘Being’ in exchange, hence as ‘non-being’ outside exchange.

One use-value is replaced by another use-value, but the very same Being persists in exchange. In proportion as the Being-in-exchange develops into a reality, the ‘real being’ of commodities itself retroactively becomes merely its shadow, its other being, its non-being. The reality that was absented is still latent, but absenting its absence to reach Being-in-exchange leaves the commodity as a use-value facing it as sheer otherness, something of which this Being knows nothing, where it is not, its non-being. This is shown in the next Table.

Being-in-exchange and its other




(use-value) non-being

Being (‘in exchange’)

non-being (use-value)

Commodities are hence posited, when taken as use-values prior to exchange, as the ‘non-being’ of ‘value’, before they are present in exchange as Beings (of ‘value’), only to be ‘devalorised’ as they pass beyond it to be used. ‘Non-being’ might be thought a strange way to refer to the visible reality, use-value; but what is meant is that there is nothing of value in it as such a visible reality, that one can never find ‘value’ there. (Considered as something destined for exchange its ‘Being’ in exchange may be ideally anticipated, but here is only a potential.) But the use-value space is no longer defined as real from value’s point of view, having been reduced to its non-being.

It is necessary to beware the error summarised in ‘what is not exchange-value is use-value hence if value is Being, the Nothing must be use-value’. Rather, defining itself negatively, value simply is the absence of use-value, leaving Nothing, so to speak. Hence, both Being and Nothing are founding moments of the value form. Although what is other than value is use-value, this latter is now posited simply as the non-being of value. But ‘non-being’ is distinct from ‘Nothing’, which as absented use-value is a moment of value. Once constituted, value is then one of the two aspects of the commodity, each determined as not the other. Thus I distinguish between a structure characterised by the correlative moments ‘Being’ and ‘non-being’, and the unstructured immediacy of ‘Being’ and ‘Nothing’, as the starting point of the value form.

However, if and when value succeeds in making itself real, and appearing in finite form as characteristic of all commodities, then, from the standpoint of ordinary empirical understanding, the two determinations appear as contraries, becoming determinant in turn in the life cycle of the commodity. Now what is not use-value is value and what is not value is use-value. But originally value is not-use-value, parasitic on it rather than established alongside it.

Yet, in developing the value form, use-value (as the non-being of value) seems to be set aside to begin with. However, it is important that use-value comes back in all the time insofar as the body of the commodity is first required simply as the bearer of value, and later use-value is treated as having its own economic determinacy. This is especially the case with the use-value of labour which is a necessary condition of existence of capital.

Consider the inversion of absence into presence exhibited earlier in the relevant Tables above (‘Absence and Presence’; ‘Being-in-exchange’) covering the columns: ‘production’; exchange; ‘consumption’. What I need now to do is to focus on what is occurring in ‘exchange’ (the central column), a sphere taken in its own actuality. This means leaving use-value aside (for now), and showing that Being-in-exchange is made present in this sphere. Bearing this distinction in mind allows me to articulate the original separation between use and exchange with the origin of the systematic-dialectical development of exchange determinations themselves, considered later. (See the Table below in §11.13: ‘Dialectic of Being-in-exchange’.)

I shall argue that, because absence (of use-value) is here a determinate absence, having been determined as such by exchange, it has presence; thus what is present is not a mere void but has some sort of Be-ing, albeit a negative Be-ing, namely Nothingness.

Since the categories ‘Nothing’ and ‘Being’ are reminiscent of Hegel’s logic, let us turn aside to consider this. One significant disanalogy is in the starting point. The practical absenting of the bodily shape of the commodity in the movement of exchange is rather like the process Hegel took as presupposed by his science, but not a part of it, when thought clears the ground of all determinacy, and all dogmatic assumptions, to arrive at pure being as the starting point of his logical dialectic. However, my ‘clearing’ is more radical in that the founding category goes behind Being to Nothing.

Hegel starts from ‘Being’, passes to ‘Nothing’ and back again, resolving this instability in ‘Becoming’, and collapsing this to ‘Dasein’ (usually translated as ‘determinate Being’, or, literally, Being-There). On the basis of the absenting of use-value, I start from sheer ‘Nothing’, but then make a transition to its possible inversion as ‘Being’. But if Hegel rises from Being in an ‘upward pointed’ spiral of determinations, its shadow side, logically equally possible, is a ‘downward pointed’ spiral from ‘Nothing’.3

So if we deconstruct Hegel’s dialectic, a certain ‘prejudice-for-truth’ is revealed. Occluded is another possibility: a world of falsity, where everything is inverted. This ‘downward’ spiral would be the concretisation of nothingness, the apotheosis of the false, insofar as ‘Being’ is demoted to the other of ‘Nothing’. Such a hellish dialectic, in which, contrary to the vision of ‘the whole is the true’, the whole is the false, is precisely the case in capitalism, we argue. Since the downward spiral, concretising ‘Nothing’, reflects Hegel’s upward spiral, concretising ‘Being’, all the more determinate categories of the downward spiral develop in parallel to the upper, with the understanding that they qualify the ‘Nothing’.

It is important to Hegel’s onto-logic that the stages gone through, in developing the Absolute Idea, are constitutive of it, not abandoned husks of its immature shapes. They are preserved, albeit as sublated moments of the self-comprehending Absolute. This is why even the most primitive, ‘Being’, is itself a way of referring to the Absolute, albeit very abstractly; for the Absolute certainly has being; indeed, in a way, it is nothing other than the fullest expression of ‘Being’.

As a dialectical development, this concretisation of ‘Being’ is equally always constituted at each stage with reference to its opposite, at the start sheer ‘Nothing’; but in Hegel’s dialectic ‘Being’ encloses this ‘Nothing’, albeit Nothing is carried along ‘within’ the whole development. For Hegel ‘Nothing’ is reduced, in effect, to the lack of determinacy of his ‘Being’, and a signal that the latter requires concretising until it has achieved plenitude in the Absolute. For me, ‘Nothing’ is at the origin, and encloses ‘Being’ in the building-up of the shadow world of Nothingness.

Now in the presentation proper, my dialectical development moves forward in parallel with Hegel’s in affirming the necessity of further categories. But, whereas Hegel is reconstructing a positive reality, my categories have a hollowness at their heart. If this is overlooked the dialectic seems purely affirmative.

It follows from the argument thus far that the scaffold of categories, which lies incarnate in economic form, certainly develops itself into a world. However, these pure forms are not forms of anything at all but are to posit themselves as their own presuppositions. To say that Nothingness is at the heart of capital is to say that value is pure form, not the form of a given content. This it produces from within itself, we shall see: itself as content.

In our case it is not thought in its abstractness that yields the beginning with Nothing. Rather, the practical movement of exchange absents the realm of use-value to leave nothing; as determinate this has its own Being. What has become absent through such a process leaves a trace structured by the specific process that brought it about, albeit it is nothing.

In considering the Being-in-exchange, a key movement is that of ‘presencing’, the making present, of this Nothingness. In truth, I see this as the motor of the whole dialectic to come. It presents, not a static array of categories, but the process of their becoming present.

What is prior to the project of reconstructing the inner dialectic of capital, is the external force (exchange) that took hold of goods – against their will so to speak – and transformed them into commodities, comprehensively negating their use-value. Within the space of exchange, then, this absence leaves us with an immediacy, namely ‘Nothing’, as the point of origin of the dialectic of capital. However, it must yet prove itself as present to its world, through inverting its constitutive context. It achieves real presence if it can be demonstrated to develop into a power over reality. But if this ‘Nothing’ is not able to affirm itself as Being-in-exchange, it loses any actuality. Unless Nothingness makes itself present it remains a philosophical fiction.

Although exchange and circulation set up an ‘ideal world’ of pure forms, empty of content, which then take hold of production, this is consistent with, indeed depends upon, the acquisition of emergent powers. In virtue of the mechanism of emergent powers it is possible to suppose that, if there is at the base level a determinate absence, then a more complex practice might re-determine this as a pseudo-positive presence, albeit an ‘empty presence’. Yet, it will be argued, this spectral objectivity prevails over the material of economic life. So our presentation will show how capital makes itself present, a real power in the world, albeit what is made present is this void behind it, which seizes reality only to make of it something other than it. Nothingness becomes present only as pure negativity, which sets up the positive only to supersede it continually.

A final word is required to warn the reader that the presentation to come employs a peculiar language. Not only is it inspired by Hegel’s logic, it mimics his idiom. In Hegel’s case the self-movement of thought is understood objectively; it is not his thoughts that are presented, it is a matter of ‘thought thinking itself’. One thought of itself gives way to another. My own presentation take shape in the same manner. I speak of the commodity becoming money, of money becoming capital, without any reference to human agency. This is because I take these social forms to be self-acting, and giving rise to one another through an inner dialectic. In the earlier stages some ‘ventriloquism’ may be suspected; am I not really directing this movement from behind the scenes? However, it is not I but the Idea of capital that ensures the forms are reproduced immanently. Yet, to show that, I must naturally develop first this Idea through following its self-production as presented here. So, if a reader finds the form of argument in the next chapters ‘occult’, I beg indulgence for this; for I argue that it is philosophically justified. As to human agents, they play a virtually negligible role in the logic of the systematic presentation; it is assumed that, notwithstanding contingent idiosyncrasies, they act in a general way in conformity with the logic imposed upon them by capital. (Recall Marx’s famous ‘Charaktermasken’.4)

Following this logic is what I aim at in my own ‘presentation’. In what follows therefore the presentation of the matter follows the dialectic of the subject’s own presentation of itself. The systematic dialectic simply records the logical development of this presentation in its unfolding. While the initial steps in my own dialectical presentation are apparently reflections on commodity exchange externally undertaken by theory itself, later it becomes clear that theory just reproduces capital’s self-presentation. But theory is still distinct from the object. My presentation indeed follows capital in its movement; but I have the bigger picture in mind throughout, which gives me a standpoint for critique of capital’s drive to realise itself.

Thus the dialectic of capital is one of ‘self-moving social form’. The original displacement of the material process of production and circulation by the ghostly objectivity of value, is complemented when self-positing capital takes possession of it. Capital emerges as a ‘spectre’ that haunts the world of commodity production and circulation.


I begin with the observation that the commodity has diverse, even contrary, determinations, namely use-value and exchange-value. The question arises as to the nature of the relation (if any) between them. Is it such as to allow a well-founded judgement asserting that there is an order to them? For example, someone might claim that the greater the utility of a commodity the greater its value. Moreover, it may be that the social form of exchange is adopted as a practical convenience, but does not admit of any regular determinant of exchange: the form is simply empty. My thesis is that in a developed capitalist economy there is a most peculiar historically unique connection between the two determinations, namely that exchange-value is constituted by the negation of use-value. This allows me to assert that practice has carried through an ‘infinitely negative judgement’ on the material commodity, generating a peculiar social form of ideality, within which form commodities are inscribed.

I admit this all-round negation is a paradoxical form of ‘judgement’, not least because it is socially constitutive in creating a fold in materiality that flows over into a wealth of ideal determinations. However, despite its practical character, it is yet logical in form; hence it is relevant to compare it with Hegel’s logic. Moreover, whereas Hegel talks vaguely of a preliminary clearing away of all determinacy, I provide the precisely articulated logic of that move in the infinitely negative ‘judgement’, albeit I reach ‘Nothing’ (not ‘Being’). The ‘Nothingness’, to be posited here as ‘the presence of absence’, is the origin of the capital system as a historically determinate social actuality. In the rest of this book I show that further exchange determinations (money especially) ground this imputation.

In the next part, I begin the presentation proper of the dialectic of the value form.


For the category of ‘absence’ see Bhaskar 1993.


This notion is similar to that of ‘transcendental abstraction’ employed in Reuten and Williams 1989.


See Arthur 2002a, pp. 163–6, drawing on Willett 1990.


See Marx 1976, p. 179 (the translation is loose here).

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