Chapter 19 Beyond Capital and Class

In: The Spectre of Capital: Idea and Reality
Christopher J. Arthur
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At the outset, the capital system originates through an original separation between the logical forms, and the useful products, of social production. This split is never healed, no matter how much adequation of each side to the other is achieved; so there remains throughout its presentation a context in which the system is always to be understood as alienated from human sociality. Nonetheless, capital acts as an autonomous power. It is not just a mistake by us to take it only as if it were standing over against us as dictating our possibilities.

Capital becomes fully determinate only in the capital relation which is developed into a class relation. However, the relation is properly termed ‘the capital relation’, not ‘the wage labour relation’, nor yet the capital-labour relation. Capital is the principal moment of this contradiction, because through this relation it realises itself. Waged labour, by contrast, negates itself in yielding value and surplus value. Capital continually accumulates; labour continually returns to its propertylessness. I suggest that such a striking asymmetry legitimates a presentation of the relation of capital to waged labour as internal to the concept of capital, albeit that a special study of waged labour would usefully complement it.

From the capital relation flow subject positions, which articulate it at the phenomenal level, and structure the opposition of classes and their struggle. However, the struggle between such classes is already given in terms of the capital relation which logically pre-exists them. In this sense ‘wage labour’ is a category of capital itself, but it would be a mistake from this to conclude that capital can only be disrupted from outside. Living labour is always in-and-against the capital relation. So ‘class struggle’ is a category that undoubtedly has a place at the level of pure theory, despite the fact that the trade union movement, for example, may be left to be discussed at a more concrete and historical level. Yet epochally the working class is atomised by capital, so it is at present merely a virtual counter-subject until historical events give rise to a consciously organised anti-systemic movement.

Workers have to sell their labour power to capital, but normally are recalcitrant to their exploitation even when the dull compulsion of economic necessity forces them to accept their destiny as wage labourers. Although the capital relation is antagonistic, the principal pole is always capital, which sets the terms for labour’s engagement, for the workers are separated from the means and object of labour. But the movement of self-valorisation runs up against the recalcitrance of the working class to being interpellated as a mere resource for capital to use as it thinks fit.1

Nonetheless workers fight always on capital’s terms, and their victories are largely defensive and partial, e.g. the reduction in the work-day. This is why the workers are the secondary pole of the contradiction. Momentarily they may become the principal pole (workers control) but unless revolution eventuates, capital reasserts its authority. It is true the capital relation can be read in both ways, but the revolutionary variant is the repressed truth, while capital is epochally dominant. The task is to make the working class the principal moment. Politically, labour is merely a virtual counter-subject until it acts to break from capital.

The theory of value presented earlier is not merely political, in that it roots value in struggle at the point of production; at the limit it is internally related to the revolution against self-valorising value. But it is beyond the scope of this work to study the dynamics of revolution. Here the point is to show how capital reproduces itself on a daily basis in unexceptional times.

However, there are two ways in which class comes into pure theory. First, the very constitution of capital requires a recognition of the – always problematic – subsumption of labour. Indeed, I have argued this is central to the very definition of capital and separates this form of exploitation from others. (Traditional labour theory, descended from classical political economy, speaks of the toil and trouble of labour. But in capitalist production this is irrelevant. What is relevant is the time and trouble of capital as it tries more effectively to pump out labour services from recalcitrant workers.) Second, although revolution is not discussed here, pure theory must undercut capital’s claim to be the absolute reality, and to find a standpoint from which such a critique is meaningful. This can only mean adopting the standpoint of labour. Capital is a real power in the world. Epochally, it has made itself the ruling idea, and it has imposed its regime of truth. However, there remains the possibility of the working class becoming a counter-subject to capital. All along, from the human point of view, the capitalist system embodies the self-negation, alienation, of the workers.

The dialectic of waged labour is as follows: i) formally it is determined in relation to capital, meaning its conditions of existence are determined for it; ii) determined for itself in Trade Unions etc. ameliorating conditions, it has some consciousness of itself as a social subject even if defined in capital’s terms; iii) in and for itself, labour takes up a critical attitude to itself, and re-determines its conditions of existence so comprehensively as to abolish itself.

Capital is blind to the human being of the worker outside its positing as a bearer of labour power, supposedly available for hire to capital like any other input to production. But any critical theory of capitalism that grasps the capitalist totality, not only in its own terms but from a perspective beyond its limits, can draw crucial theoretical lessons from the identity and non-identity of wage labour, and landed property, with capital. True, the overriding ‘middle’ which epochally secures the identity of identity and difference is the Idea of capital, which divides, as new value, into itself (profit) and its others (wages, rents). But, from the standpoint of critique, it is the difference of identity, and difference, of value, and use-value, that points to historical supersession of the value form.

Wage labour is internal to the very concept of capital because it is under the wage form that living labour, and hence surplus value, is available to capital. That is why capital is epochally the pole which determines the conditions of existence of its other more than the reverse. The struggle for dominance is won by capital, which successfully returns from the sphere of production with surplus value, while living labour returns from the factory exhausted and deprived of its own product.

It is not like a boxing match configured by the interaction of independent agents. Rather, capital makes labour its agent when it prevails. Conversely, self-assertion by the working class would involve throwing off the shackles of capital. The world is not big enough for both to fulfil themselves at the same time. For the proletariat to assert itself, in and for itself, is not only incompatible with its definition as a bearer of labour power for capital, it must involve its own abolition as a class. Capital must negate its negation to stay as it is. But wage labour must negate its negation to become something other than what it is.

If the main contradiction of capital is between capital and labour, then ‘capital’ appears twice, once as whole and once as part. If subject positions are constituted by this relational totality, then wage labour as such a subject position is yet negated within the capital relation, hence is in and against it as a whole, not just engaged in a partial struggle with the partial capitalist position. The working class is a peculiar, transitory ‘subject’, posited as a general category only by capital as its ‘otherness’. The meaning of the struggle against the totality that defines its being is then to liberate individuals from ‘classification’.

This capital relation contains an immanent contradiction of each pole with itself; thus:

(1) on the side of labour, it alienates its substance, therewith generating its own oppressor, (2) on the side of capital, it produces the proletariat as proletariat, its own gravedigger.

The contradiction, then, involves self-contradiction insofar as each pole posits its own opponent. Capital, as the principal aspect of the contradiction, for the present affirms itself even in its other. Wage labour denies itself in producing its other, because it has accepted the definition of itself by the other, as internal to capital, hence it affirms its negation. To be self-critical requires that it grasp itself as other than what it is in this definition, and destroy itself along with the relationship that defines it. Thus I argue that the standpoint of our critique is that of the critically adopted standpoint of labour. The aim is to abolish class and therewith ‘labour’ itself. However, this demand to abolish class is rooted immanently in the dialectic of the real; it is not the product of a critique opposing itself to reality. Its presentation is at the same time a critique of capital.

Thus we must not only theoretically engineer the return of the repressed, but anticipate its revolt against capital. However, I do not draw a politics from the theory set out in this work. For that, more mediated forms would have to be developed, notably a theory of the revolutionary subject.

There are two sorts of dialectical movement:

  1. the purely affirmative, perfecting itself through the sublation of all contradictions; here the poles are to be preserved but the contradiction is given ‘room to move’, so to speak, in a higher unity;

  2. and the purely negative, the absenting of the emergent contradiction through its dissolution; here the emergent poles are to be superseded in a re-totalisation that ‘takes back’, so to speak, a misstep.

But the ‘taking back’ is not a return as such but incorporates a learning experience, or else the mistake would be repeated. Within the property system there is to be no going back to a supposed Eden of equal exchange, but the abolition of private property in socialism. The injuries of class cannot be resolved through some class compromise between right and right; without a revolution against class itself there is only a fudge. The very ground of the contradiction has to be transformed.

But if the proletariat defines its task negatively, as its own abolition, when it abolishes the relationship that defines it, what is the standpoint of the positive coming out of this determinate negation? If revolution is not ‘the affirmation of the proletariat’ the question arises of what is it an affirmation? If, negatively, it abolishes class, what, positively, is it about? It can only be about human liberation. In that sense the class struggle is a moment of a larger project, one in which non-proletarians have an interest since the very split into classes is an affront to human community.

Some may claim that the view advanced here substitutes for class struggle some larger socio-historical contradiction, and that it prevents us seeing class struggle as what is ‘really productive of history’. If an ‘efficient contradiction’ refers to a causal impulse rather than a reason for action, in that sense it is class struggle that produces change. But the project of change is something else.

In order to articulate the need for change, I argue the speculative moment cannot be avoided. (I venture this with due trepidation!) Looking forward, however, requires a wager: that communism will have been produced from class struggle. In order to articulate the revolutionary project the existent must therefore be grasped from the standpoint of the ‘not yet’. Is this a teleological problematic? Certainly not, if this means there is some guarantee inscribed in the heavens that communism will redeem humanity. What it does imply is that the meaning of a historical situation cannot be properly understood in its own terms, but only from the standpoint of what it has in it to become. The speculative moment emerges when reason demands the realisation of this standpoint in a practical project, to act as if this ‘not yet’ is actually on the agenda. However, from the practical viewpoint, for the proletariat, the promise of classlessness is a speculative supersession of the contradictions of its existence as long as it lies in the future.

‘Another world is possible’ is a speculative proposition, not because we do not have good arguments but in its logical status. This creates a philosophical problem. The speculative moment cannot be eliminated precisely because we live in an alienated society (the asocial sociality of bourgeois life) in which the standpoint of social humanity is unactual, and hence available only in its displacement to philosophy, which wagers on the proletariat to realise it. Scientific socialism conceives itself as the theoretical expression of a revolutionary process. But philosophy remains an alienated science as long as revolutionary practice lacks immediate historical actuality. In sum dialectic is not a science of efficient causation allowing prediction. The future that will become has to be produced by ‘us’ out of the mire of contradictions, and in anticipating it the speculative moment is unavoidable.

I think it is important to distinguish the peculiar form of sociality underpinning generalised commodity production, and sociality in its truth. From the logically precedent disruption of immediate sociality, by dissociation, arises the untruth of capital. But the opposition of sociation and dissociation is retained when mediated through the association provided by exchange. This is an estranging mediation because it is predicated on the original separation. But sociality as such has no need to appear as something other than itself. If it does so, this is due to a systemic derangement of form. Then labour appears, not as what it is, but as what it is not, a part of capital.

However, capital has established the power to appropriate our powers in its service. Thus, ontologically, the productive powers of capital are nothing but the collective powers of living labour, in alien form. Capital needs our collective heritage of cultural knowledge, including scientific-technical knowledge. Although it successfully appropriates these socially developed powers, they remain external to it in a very real sense, nonetheless. One of the hidden secrets of contemporary capitalism is how it has come to depend increasingly on scientific-technical knowledge, whose development has been funded with public money, because the costs and risks of research at the frontier are too great to be compatible with accumulation. After centuries of capital’s mobilisation of the powers of collective social labour, and ‘the general intellect’, there now arise, more and more, the objective and subjective preconditions of socialism.

The principle of an immanent development of sociality is given in estranged shape in capital’s dialectic of negativity. Never content with its sublation of its previous condition, it continually transforms those presuppositions and creates itself anew. Throwing off the estranged form of the development of our powers leaves humanity as the subject of its own ‘absolute process of becoming’. However, epochally the Idea of capital has made itself real. Capital is the totalising Subject of modernity. Whether that which is in excess of its concept remains forever marginal is for the future to determine.


A good example of recalcitrance in Capital is that Marx predicates the switch to machinery in part on the need to overcome the resistance of skilled craftsmen. Although this change is part of capital’s own history, the point here is that it is to be situated in terms of the achievement of the logical perfection of the Capital Idea.

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