Chapter 12 Capital as a System of Capitals

In: The Spectre of Capital: Idea and Reality
Author:
Christopher J. Arthur
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§7 Capital as Universal and Individual

Here I treat the formal Idea of the system of industrial capital, the system in its Notion so to speak.

Remark Under the influence of Marx’s Grundrisse the distinction between ‘capital-in-general’ and ‘many capitals’ has been much discussed.1 In its most common variant it is assumed that this implies two levels of analysis. First capital is to be discussed without reference to competition between capitals, and only later is competition to be thematised. The approach to capital here has nothing to do with that; for the interplay between the Universal and the Individual is essential to the very idea of capital, and it is present at all levels of my exposition of the system.

Because I consider the system in this section in its pure Being, I can deploy effectively the logic of ‘attraction and repulsion’ paradigmatically employed when we developed earlier the logic of value-for-itself (§11.3).

The homogeneity of their value substance means the several capitals are not fully individuated beings and hence liable to coalesce again very easily. If we set aside their material integument and concentrate attention on their value substance, capitals differ only in amount. In their relation of ‘attraction and repulsion’, the moment of ‘attraction’ is present in that two capitals become one once brought together, just as two amounts of money put into a certain account become one amount of money; each such capital is indistinguishable from others except in size, thus attract in the sense that, if brought together, they become one single sum merging their previously separate amounts. To ensure their separation requires a moment of repulsion; this is secured materially if capitals are active in separate enterprises, but even accounting schemata may serve, as when my capital is distinct from that of others in a joint-stock company because I own numbered shares. The moment of repulsion, which maintains separation, is required to constitute them as singular; there has to be some determination that prevents them collapsing together, such as differentiated ownership.

We presuppose in what follows that capital is Idea. This was presented formally in the first two Divisions and must now be developed in its determinacy, as a system of capitals, constitutive of the real world of capital.

In the logic of the presentation, this system, in its Notion, has three moments: every capital is an individual subject in that it unites concept and object in its spiral of accumulation; but its universal quality as capital is necessarily always finitely determined in particular ways, contrasted with others, a particular capital invested in a particular enterprise (§71); indeed a particular capital has as part of its determinacy its being-for-another, namely its competitive relations to the other capitals in the system, which requires it to act as capital (§72); but the whole system of individual capitals is subordinated to the overarching movement of capital as Universal, capital as One Idea, making up a social Individual, which posits its self-sufficiency against the transitory elements subject to the contingencies of competition (§73).

Throughout I shall endeavour to follow the terminological rule I set forth earlier in this book, namely a distinction between the ‘Singular’ and the ‘Individual’. The former is used as an interior moment of a whole, complementing the ‘Universal’ and the ‘Particular’; ‘Individual’ by contrast I deploy to characterise just such a whole of intermediation. This rule gives rise to a certain refinement because I consider each individual capital to be just that, namely characterised by individuality. But I consider the capital system as a whole attains the unity of the Individual. So within the system, then, individual capitals may well be taken as bearers of the moment of its singularity. (See in the next chapter the Table pertaining to The System of Industrial Capital.)

Capital is a concrete universal that realises itself through determining itself to particularity and singularity, instead of opposing itself to them. While the universal, in order to be itself a particular moment of the concept, is opposed to the other moments, this moment of division is fully sublated in the unity of the concept. Taken in its unity, as a whole of mediation in its moments, capital is a concrete Individual, as opposed to that abstract singularity that opposes itself to particularity and universality.

The moments of the capital system in its formal notion are:

§71 Capital as Subject; §72 Individual Capitals; §73 Capital as One Idea

§71 Capital as Subject

In this section, the determinations of the concept are considered purely logically, and are not given the material content they acquire later in the presentation. However, the twist is here that, since value is intrinsically a quantitative concept, values always have a particular magnitude. While a value is still a value whether it is large or small, magnitude is not external to its concept because the only specificity of values lies precisely in their amounts. Moreover, capitals by definition are bent on accumulating greater amounts. One might say that capital’s only quality is precisely that its telos is quantity. The adequacy of any given capital to its concept is measured by its rate of expansion. At the same time, in its material existence capital particularises itself in the production of specific commodities.

For Hegel the paradigmatic incarnation of ‘the Concept’ is the ‘I’. Every reasoning being knows itself as universal, as the possibility of abstracting from everything determinate about itself, and its situation; yet it is existent only with a particular determinate object, content, and end. But these moments are themselves only abstractions; for what is concrete is the universality which reflects its determinations into itself. This unity I term individuality; this individuality is in fact none other than the concrete concept itself. So the subject is the concept posited as totality.

Every capital has just this logical structure of subject. This has two moments. First, it is capable of treating itself as a self-determining universal, abstracted from its varying specific content and related to itself in its individuality. This is achieved insofar as, in M–C–M′, capital as an all-embracing subject alternately assumes and loses the form of money and the form of commodities. Second, it has a built-in aim, namely accumulation. Capital determines itself to itself when integrated into a spiral of accumulation: K′–K″–K‴ …. This free subjectivity remains active even if capital is determined on every side by the material potentials of its use-value integument.

However, capital is indifferent to the specificity of its investment so long as use-value is effectively subsumed by the valorisation process. Thus it is not so much notionally free from its determinacy, it is free in this very abstraction, being itself abstraction in motion. Its freedom cannot be the peculiar formalism of interest-bearing capital, because it gains a surplus only through conquering the use-value sphere sufficiently thoroughly to achieve regular returns. There is here a latent material limit. But in form every capital is free subjectivity.

§72 Individual Capitals

What has just been outlined applies both to a notional, single capital and to the system of capitals as a whole. The fundamental point is that the universality of the system is to be taken substantively. It is not to be taken as an abstraction opposed to individual capitals, but rather includes them as determinate parts of its being. So capital-as-universal particularises itself to individual capitals of differing amounts. Capitalist enterprises are specified formally as ‘lumps’ of capital. In such a light the material side appears rather as a predicate of such inner essence. But capital must always be materially instantiated; hence as tied to specific sites of enterprise it must appear as many different capitals. Capital is the unity of identity (capital-value) and non-identity (the material in which it is invested). The material basis introduces a ground for qualitative difference and relation, while as pure form the only difference that counts is in amount. It follows that in the constitution of individual capitals two kinds of particularisation are simultaneously realised: on the one side, the formal existence of capital as value must be quantitatively determined as an amount of capital; on the other side, the material existence of capital invested in commodities (notably means of production and labour power) must be qualitatively determined, and situated in specific sites.

Remark While one has the same capital whether one puts it ‘into’ shoe factories or shipyards, the material particularity of branches of industry is the root of the notorious transformation problem, we shall see later. Use-value therefore plays a role as an economic category for its material particularity is determinant of the form of capital in particularising it.

I earlier argued that a particular capital must engage in a certain line of production, but now the complementarity of all particular capitals is to be considered, in that each has a specific embodiment which interchanges with others in the whole system. Every single capital is both formally particularised as a definite amount of capital, deployed by an enterprise, and materially particularised in the business of that enterprise.

If we set aside their material integument and concentrate attention on their ideal substance, as value capitals differ only in amount. In this way, capitals are not fully individuated beings. They subsist only in their relation rather than bumping up against one another, as it were, in purely external relations. Because of this, in turn, the particularity of value, as merely quantitative variation, has less determinacy than might be expected; but the necessary material integument of capitals in factories, and so forth, does provide concrete individuation. The result is that capital is marked by a duality between its infinite mobility in ideal form and its fixity in its material avatars.

At one level this unity of value with use-value is achieved for each and every capital singly, e.g. this particular factory is constituted as a capitalist enterprise like others. At another level, however, all these instantiations of capital are subsumed formally under their universal concept, just as money actualises the identity in essence of commodities. But requiring material bearers, and even more as requiring material sources of surplus value, they are determined materially as different, contrary to their identical shape as value. This is a central contradiction in the idea of capital.

We need to address and resolve two contradictory discourses. The one asserts that total capital is an effective power and individual capitals simply replicate its categories as aliquot parts of it, picking up their share of the total surplus value as if they were merely shareholders in a single enterprise. The other discourse insists that capital necessarily exists as individual capitals confronting one another in competitive struggle, that only thus are the determinations of capital as such enforced on each.

It is important that the many capitals are not merely complementary instantiations of their general notion. Capitals in the same line of business are engaged in the life and death struggle to win that market for themselves. Moreover, it is only such competition that ensures they recognise the demands of their concept; they are shaped thus as capital against capital, quite as much as they share a common form and aim, namely self-valorisation.

§73 Capital as One Idea

The competition of capitals means that the freedom of each is constrained by that of the others. But capital as a whole, indifferent to the fate of particular capitals, marches ahead to realise its Idea. The transition from the analysis of capital as such to capital as a system finesses the problem that any given capital may go under in the competitive struggle. For the capital system as a whole preserves itself and expands, albeit that many capitals may have only a relatively temporary existence. The system supports their rise and fall, and it survives them, enforcing through competition the norms of capital on them.

While capital is realised only through the competition of capitals, these are so subsumed systematically under the drive of the whole that the specific determinate capitals are merely interior moments of the system. These many capitals are ‘subsumed’ by the whole for two reasons: first, a single capital is not fully individuated, because as value it is a specific determination of capital-value as such, as it flows through the economy ideally, although it is materially particular (at a given time) hence different from the other capitals; second, the system has emergent laws unintended by any individual capital. To say capital is essentially one means that each individual capital is conceptually homogenous with capital-as-universal; the whole may rightly be considered then as a supra-individual Individual. As such it is implicitly present throughout the system.

This ‘total social capital’ is not a simple aggregate of self-subsistent capitals but the truly universal moment. It is a concrete universal and as such is Individual itself. In dealing with the ‘spirit’ of capitalism the formal side, having its own economic determinacy, may be treated purely theoretically without the theory attracting a charge of false abstraction. It is a mode of the system itself. However, the move to concretion is a necessity of the system as well as in its theoretical exposition. Moreover, at this level of concretion the reproduction of capital, as a unity of production and circulation, discussed previously, is also to be incorporated in the Idea of capital as a system.

It is necessary to avoid ‘the fallacy of composition’; this lies in moving from the observation that each individual industrial capital traces a circuit in its action to the assumption that total social capital performs such a circuit. Such a conclusion is conceptually incoherent. That a circuit (rather than a system of circuits) of total social capital makes no sense is obvious as soon as we see that the very notion of a circuit, involving purchase of inputs and sales of outputs, logically presupposes the separateness of industrial capitals, each having their own circuit but necessarily interlocking with others. A good part of aggregate capital (viz. constant capital) never leaves the hand of universal capital; so it does not circulate (in the sense required) as an aggregate, but is only conceivable as circulating when capital is disaggregated.

Thus total social capital does not perform a circuit, it consists of a system of circuits: interlinked, they presuppose one another and condition one another, and it is precisely by being interlinked in this way that they constitute the movement of the total social capital. Certainly the different capitals here are not in the position of shareholders in a joint-stock company, in which the dividends are evenly distributed, according to the size of the investment they each of them has put into the common enterprise.2 There is no ‘enterprise’ harmoniously carried on in common! Even if it is possible to calculate the general rate of profit, capitals do not tamely queue up for their appropriate share. They remain within the system as competitors always looking for a better return than average.

However, capital-as-a-whole confronts the labourers-as-a-whole. There is no fallacy of composition in considering all the interchanges between capital and labour at a global level. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that class relations fundamentally condition individual transactions. While it is true that the self-repulsive character of capital gives rise to intense competitive struggle between capitals, they are ‘as one’ in their concern to confront globally their ‘other’. Fundamentally capital is constituted as a social power in this global relation to labour. It is therefore logically prior to the disputes among capitals over how to share out what has been won from exploiting labour. Moreover, if capital is the general economic basis of a capitalist class distinct from the working class, then it is constituted in its unity of many capitals by its negative relation to the working class.

There is a relation where capital acts ‘as one’, as universal capital, this is against labour, but at the same time another relation where it acts as ‘many’, that is, upon itself through competition. Thus the definition of ‘total social capital’, specified in opposition to labour, is merely a partial one, because capital necessarily appears as many capitals imposing the inner determinations of capital on each other through competition. A universal capital, one without alien capitals confronting it, lacks the constitutive moment of determination in and through otherness, exemplified in competition.

I pass now from this formal characterisation of the system of industrial capital, notionally realising the Idea of capital, to the elaboration of this Idea in its structure of differentiated material determinations.

Summary

This first chapter of the thorough treatment of the system of industrial capital explores the formal relation of capitals to themselves and to the whole. So the key logical categories here are those of the moments of the Concept; but also we consider that of ‘individuality’. To begin with every capital is deemed an individual subject; but its universal quality as capital is necessarily always finitely determined in particular ways, contrasted with others, a particular capital invested in a particular enterprise. In the constitution of individual capitals two kinds of particularisation are simultaneously realised: on the one side, the formal existence of capital as value must be quantitatively determined as an amount of capital; on the other side, the material existence of capital invested in commodities (notably means of production and labour power) must be qualitatively determined, and situated in specific sites. But the whole system of individual capitals is subordinated to the overarching movement of capital as One Idea, making up a social Individual, which posits its self-sufficiency against the transitory elements subject to the contingencies of competition. For the system supports their rise and fall, and it survives them, enforcing through competition the norms of capital on them.

1

See Arthur 2010.

2

But a purely notional such distribution is part of our discussion of the transformation problem: see §82.3 below.

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