That quote of Althusser is indeed one of my favorites: “as there is no such thing as an innocent reading, we must say what reading we are guilty of.” George, I am very glad that you share our enthusiasm for the reading group and look forward to continuing our discussion.

Certainly, everybody brings into the text his or her “fire-in-the-belly”, curiosities, politics, inclinations, egos, and so on, and in that respect my sin is eminently philosophical; I confess then to be as much influenced by Alain Badiou as I am by the philosophy of science of Ian Hacking and Quentin Meillassoux; which make me, I guess, some kind of anti-postmodern critical realist, whatever that means… [end of boring confession]

I apologize if I will not¬†directly¬†answer George’s post — I’m feverish and sleepy and I wouldn’t make much sense.

Let me just highlight how Marx offered a logico-historical description of the process that makes “commodities” — and, later, “money” — emerge in precapitalist societies.

As I said the other days, some times it’s not very clear whether Marx’s arguments are historical or logical. It’s really both. In Chapter 2 (and I propose that we should talk about Ch. 2 next week: smashed between two very difficult and foundational chapters, it tends to be overlooked, but I claim it should be read as carefully as the other, since it unfold certain mechanisms that were left implicit in Ch. 1), Marx writes (I quote from a different translation, from:

“The direct barter of products attains the elementary form of the relative expression of value in one respect, but not in another. That form is x Commodity A = y Commodity B. The form of direct barter is x use-value A = y use-value B. The articles A and B in this case are not as yet commodities, but become so only by the act of barter. The first step made by an object of utility towards acquiring exchange-value is when it forms a non-use-value for its owner, and that happens when it forms a superfluous portion of some article required for his immediate wants. Objects in themselves are external to man, and consequently alienable by him. In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals. But such a state of reciprocal independence has no existence in a primitive society based on property in common, whether such a society takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian community, or a Peruvian Inca State. The exchange of commodities, therefore, first begins on the boundaries of such communities, at their points of contact with other similar communities, or with members of the latter. So soon, however, as products once become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become so in its internal intercourse. The proportions in which they are exchangeable are at first quite a matter of chance. What makes them exchangeable is the mutual desire of their owners to alienate them. Meantime the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act. In the course of time, therefore, some portion at least of the products of labour must be produced with a special view to exchange. From that moment the distinction becomes firmly established between the utility of an object for the purposes of consumption, and its utility for the purposes of exchange. Its use-value becomes distinguished from its exchange-value. On the other hand, the quantitative proportion in which the articles are exchangeable, becomes dependent on their production itself. Custom stamps them as values with definite magnitudes.”

Fowkes translates “barter” with “exchange”, but the rest is pretty similar. Here Marx is proposing a model of process, a mechanism of development that is causal only when presented in words (causes, for Hegel and Marx, depends more upon descriptive language than on empirical development): empirical history of different societies offers different sequences: some interrupted, some slow, some fast, some jumping passages, some going back to a previous situation, and so on: what is “necessary”, for Marx (but not for Analytical Marxists), is the contingency of historical events (isn’t precisely this the meaning of the famous “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”?).

The logical development of “money” as the universal equivalent is, in other words, already implied (but not realized nor recognized) in the act of exchange itself: when I go to the market to sell one of my thing to get something else (and in that moment, my commodity works as a universal equivalent, because it is commensurable with other objects). Markets transform the myriads of empirical objects in commensurable units — socially necessary labour-time being what makes them commensurable.

When Marx says that they remain however sensuous things, trivial things, by no means he implies that objects are directly experienced and devoid of any symbolic meanings. Far from it. Only, he just claims that nothing of their everyday uses and meanings (practical, material, symbolic) — necessary as it is, since you can exchange only things (or ideas) that are socially recognized as having use-value — plays a fundamental role to prepare them (making them commensurable) for the act of exchange, which is purely social (being them social hieroglyphs of “socially necessary labour-time”).

The image of Robison Crusoe works therefore in two ways: on the one hand, for the bourgeois economists it epitomizes the “rationality” of the modern European homo oeconomicus (with inventory, measuring, booking, etc.); on the other, Marx uses it to highlight how market mechanisms function as an unconscious process: “commodity-owners” he writes in Ch. 2, “think like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ They have therefore already acted before thinking” (180). It is a result of a quantitative increase of the act of exchange, its normalization in a trans-communal arena, since the process that create universal equivalents “vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind” (187). In other words, Crusoe embodies a worldview that commodity-exchange has contributed to create.

This is not yet capitalism: but it is the precondition for the emergence of capital, as we shall see in the next few chapters.