Chris Arthur vs Theorie Communiste on alienation

Notes on TC First Letter

This is a very interesting discussion carried on at a high level your contribution so far on is splendid naturally I agree more with you than with Simon.

I have to say that the last chapter of my book, and by implication Marx's 1844 Manuscript, is defective in that the self positing character of capital is not theorised. Since that time I have been working on that side of the problem. I think we have to differentiate between different levels of analysis.

We should not be ashamed of being humanist. Humanism is only a problem if it is understood ahistorically. However, historicity is precisely the main dimention of the human, self changing is of the essence, the other main dimension being sociality. It follows that every social system that sets man against man is alienating. Likewise any social system that prevents the great body of people from creative activity is also alienating.

Humanity and history and society are clearly categories that are universal whereas capital and wage labor pertain to a specific epoch which in human history represents a peak of alienation and a peak of social schism. It follows that this system is an epoch of alienation. It is a reasonable question to ask how did humanity alienate itself and how on a daily basis does it reproduce its alienation. The answer has something to do with the constitution of a social relation characterized by a social division of labor. Within this context the autonomisation of a value results in the self positing activity of capital simultaneously constituting labour as alienated. But this is at a lower level of abstraction than the broad dialectic of history. I have myself been accused of Objectivism because of the stress in my recent works on the objective logic of the capital form but I still think that it would be a great error to pose capital as an external force confronting labour. It is an historical product that is to be superseded.

It is interesting you are accused of neglecting exploitation in favor of alienation. I myself have been so accused especially with reference to my chapter on labor and negativity. I agree that many of the concepts Simon likes seem to me to presuppose the category of alienation. I especially like your formulation alienation characteristically exists on both sides of the capital relation; in such a relation an abstract Objectivity confronts an abstract Subjectivity and the mediation of exchange precisely constitutes what I call in my books a second alienation overcoming a split resulting from a primary alienation.

In the same light this split into classes is the spitting of a single subject society in a sense ; albeit that as Marx says one class tries to maintain the existing relations while another class is forced into a struggle to abolish the relation and thereby itself as a class. It is strange to me that Simon quotes from the '6th Chapter' and even gives a bit from his own book, pages 512 to 530, which seem to me to imply the kind of identity between capital and labor to which he objects when he insists on the exteriority of the poles. The same thing happens a bit later when he quotes from the Grundrisse and quotes himself from page 92. Once again these passages surely refer to alienation.

The question of what is to be explained and what is explanatory is very interesting. I shall respond later to this second letter of his. The question of what is to be explained and what is explanatory is very interesting. I shall respond later to this in the second letter of his.

Notes on TC Second Letter

TC try to frighten us with 'bad words' such as 'ontology'; 'speculation'; 'self-alienation'; etc. And even 'activity' in the extract from TC 17.


1. Ontology. As I argue in my book Dialectics of Labour this is unavoidable; all social theory has explicit or implicit ontological commitments. Is society atoms? A whole? Relational? (if so internal or external R?)

Marx's T of F is largely an exercise in social ontology, including the 6th. Indeed the 6th is rather inadequate, ontologically speaking, because it is limited to anthropology and misses out the key ontological relation, namely that to the object (discounting the implicit 'man is an object to man'). The fact is that human being cannot be understood outside its objective relations and human development cannot be explained solely by reference to social relations, it requires reference to material reproduction, i.e. taking an object and working it up into a human form. For Marx human being characteristically distinguishes itself by a) history (self-changing=changing of circumstances) b) sociality (6th thesis) c) productive activity (historical materialism).

2. Alienation. It follows that from the three dimensions just noted there is alienation if there is a) one-dimensionality b) asocial sociality (cf. Kant) c) most people are condemned to 'labour' in the sense of machine-like 'work' (the critique of work - see below).

It is perfectly true that this conceptualisation is purely descriptive. This raises the issue of explanation which Marx himself raises in 1844 (and which I study in my book). Marx makes two moves. a) he claims to have gone beyond CPE which take private property as a given fact so that even their LTV remains trapped within the bourgeois horizon because productive activity is considered as typically wage labour. Marx problematises PP (=Kapital) by saying that to take this as given is to fetishize a social form of productive activity which has to be seen as just the result of alienated labour in the double sense of being a historical product and one sustained through daily alienation. b) but whence this alienation? he asks. He has no answer to speak of here (altho' there is a bit more in the GI. In the GI the system of PP is reduced to the social division of labour.). However we may say that the 'original sin' is separation (Trennung) with double reference. (See stuff in my book also). Marx is very clear in the Grundrisse that the normal state is unity and community. (Historical note; alienation always caused pain at every stage of its development; see Aristotle on money and the indignation at the alienation of the land which separated people from their very conditions of existence.) Unity does not have to be explained he says; it is separation that has to be explained. Separation in the social division of labour (initially simply trade between communities) eventually leads to the separation of the worker from the object. This is the primary alienation. Then I stress in my book this alienation has to be overcome by a 'second alienation' i.e. exchange, the value form, money, the capital relation, etc. Here dissociation is sublated but preserved as the alienated condition reproduced through the activity of second alienation.

Now, why couldn't Marx finish the line of thought in 1844? Because he lacked any understanding of how such second alienation develops; he could not explain then the true nature of the power of capital as a self-constituting power. He knew the capital relation reproduced alienation but he didn't yet understand how it did this.

Before going on to this more concrete question I need to finish the discussion of wholeness and separation. [the next bit is from my 'Napoleoni on Labour and Exploitation', Rivista do Politica Economica, April/May 1999]

In Hegel's logic separation gives rise to contradiction in that a relation between the separated items is possible only if each term identifies with the other term in such a way that each becomes the opposite of itself. For if what belongs together is separated for some reason, a relationship established on the very basis of such a real estrangement can only be secured in a contradictory way, as a result of a further alienation. If the basic separation of the workers from their object is overcome through wage labour this is such a 'second alienation' solution; worker and object are brought together, but within a system of estrangement, hence the mediating movement is that of labour alienating itself.

Let us name names. When we talk of the separation of the worker from the object what we are addressing is the presupposition of the private property system. In 1844 Marx elucidated this in a wonderfully dialectical passage:

The relationship [Das Verhältnis] of private property contains latent within itself the relationship of private property as labour, the relationship of private property as capital, and the connection of these two terms to each other. On the one hand we have the production of human activity as labour, that is as an activity wholly alien to itself, to man, and to nature ... the abstract existence of man as a mere work-man ... on the other hand, the production of the object of human activity as capital - wherein all the natural and social specificity of the object is extinguished ... in which the same capital stays the same in the most diverse natural and social instantiations [Dasein], totally indifferent to its real content.[1]

In this passage the term 'relationship' (Das Verhältnis) has implications stronger than that of terms such as 'relation', 'tie' or 'connection'; indeed in Hegel's Science of Logic 'absolute relationship' is one in which the sides are so closely implicated in each other that it is better to regard them as emerging from a single source and 'ideally' homogeneous; furthermore in this ideality each is impelled to reunify the separated sides through identifying the other as itself thus structuring the relationship as one in which it achieves self-mediation. However, if this separation is a real one (estrangement) this attempted reunification will produce a contradictory unity. Thus a few pages later Marx draws this conclusion:

Labour, the subjective essence of private property as exclusion of property, and capital, objective labour as exclusion of labour, constitute private property in its developed relation of contradiction - hence a dynamic relationship driving towards resolution.[2]

Marx goes on to explain that this contradiction emerges in all its purity only with the full development of private property. In such pre-capitalist formations as the entailed estate with the specification of the worker as the property of such an estate or as the member of a particular guild, the contradiction did not exist in its abstract purity. Labour and the conditions of labour were chained together in particularised fixed units. Now each side has become free to move and has attained abstractly universal form within a systematic totality. Condensed out as abstractly opposed spheres, labour and capital, says Marx, stand in 'hostile reciprocal opposition', their contradictory unity reflected in the 'opposition of each to itself'.[3] On the side of the capitalist, he cannot accumulate capital except through appropriating labour, yet the wages paid out represent a sacrifice of his capital. On the other side, the labourer cannot gain a livelihood except by treating his labour power as his 'capital', a resource to be alienated.

To use the language of Capital: the private property relation as capital appears in the distinction between constant capital and variable capital; the private property relation as labour appears in the oppression of living labour by dead labour. But in Capital the relationship considered is termed the capital relation [Kapitalverhältnis]. This refinement of the terminology is due to two considerations. First of all, as Marx already said in 1844, the private property relation has a dialectical dynamic only in the case where it is a question of capital and wage labour.[4] Secondly it marks the objective fact that in the bourgeois epoch the 'principal factor' in the relationship is capital. It is the dialectic of capital itself which brings every aspect of the production process under its sway, proletarianises the working population, and accumulates wealth through exploiting them. (The same relationship considered from the opposite standpoint would be the relationship of alienated labour.) If the basic separation of the worker from the object is logically and historically the presupposition of capitalism, it is then posited as the consequence of the movement of capital itself.

[the next bit is from my 'The Contradictions of Capital' in Defending Objectivity, eds Archer and Outhwaite, Routledge 2004]

The capital relation is a contradictory unity. Any attempt to remove the contradiction ideologically by claiming 'all is capital' or 'all is labour' will find such a reductionist programme impossible to carry through coherently. Labour's alienation and capital's self-constitution are inseparable. It is of the highest importance to understand that the contradiction in the capital relation is not between capitalist and labourer (that is merely a conflict); the inner contradiction arises because both 'capital' and 'labour' have claims to constitute the whole of their relation; hence 'capital is nothing but (alienated) labour' and 'labour nothing but (variable) capital'. It is often said that productive labour is the essence lying behind the appearances of value interchanges and capital accumulation. However the many passages in which Marx assigns productive power to capital could well lead in a contrary direction: that capital is the real subject of production. As Marx said, labour appears then as 'the mediating activity' by means of which capital valorises itself.[5] In sum the second view is an inversion of the first. Both views are in truth correct, although contradictory. What this means is that capitalism is characterised by a contradiction in essence.

Each side claims to constitute the whole of their relation, reducing what is not identical with itself to its own other. At first sight the capital-labour relation appears as a two-place one, but each tries to represent the other as a difference within itself. Capital divides itself into constant and variable components; and it claims to absorb labour to itself in the shape of variable capital; for it now possesses that labour. Hence it understands the relation as a relation to itself. On the other side, living labour claims that capital is nothing but dead labour. It, too, understands the relation as a relation to itself.

But in reality these contradictory positings run into each other, such that the affirmation of the essence (whichever one) leads to its appearance in the mode of denial. Thus labour's objectification coincides with its expropriation, its positing as a moment of capital; while capital's subjectification appears as its utter dependence, not only on its personifications such as owners and managers, but on the activity of living labour. Each by being incorporated in its other becomes other than itself. Thus living labour is other than capital, but when subsumed under capital it is at the same time other than itself, alienated labour. The same thing happens to capital when it descends from the self-referring ideality of the forms of value to struggle with the materiality of production. But of course this process of mutual othering is not balanced. 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. Realisation of capital is de-realisation for the worker.

As a result of labour's alienation, and of its subsumption under capital, the objectivity of value-positing, become autonomous, reflects back on the labour process as its 'truth'. At the very same time as being still in some sense nothing but the objective social expression of labour, value achieves dominance over labour; labour is reduced to a resource for capital accumulation. This contradiction in essence is a result of the fact that the whole relation of production is inverted, that the producers are dominated by their product (as value, capital) to the extent that they are reduced to servants of a production process originated and directed by capital. Capital as value in motion is not distinct from matter in motion shifted by labour; labour acts as capital, not just at its behest. Marx says: "Labour is not only the use-value which confronts capital, it is the use-value of capital itself."[6] This labour is absorbed by productive capital and acts as "a moment of capital", he claims.[7] All the productive powers of labour appear as those of capital. The category of value is rooted precisely in capital's struggle with labour to accomplish this 'transfer' of its productive powers.

Since the workers are 'possessed' by capital and the material labour process is simultaneously a valorisation process, the same thing has two frames of reference. But this is not merely a matter of different ways of talking, or of the coexistence of alternative realities, it is also a matter of determination, of one side informing the other with its own purposes. Capital determines the organisation of production: but the character of labour, natural resources and machinery limit it in this endeavour. Although capital is hegemonic in this respect,[8] its subsumption of labour can never be perfected; labour is always 'in and against' capital. Albeit that the production process is really subsumed by capital, the problem for capital is that it needs the agency of labour. Even if the productive power of labour is absorbed into that of capital to all intents, it is necessary to bear in mind that capital still depends upon it. [end]

Within this context we can understand better the question of whether fundamental is a problematic of unity/alienation/recovery or an 'exterior' 'division in the beginning'.

Obviously there is an immediate opposition of class interests. However, this is a surface form of a deeper opposition-in-unity of Kapital and living Labor. It is this social form that assigns positions to classes. The class struggle is the form in which people become conscious of the inner contradiction and fight it out. As we have already shown, the capital/labour contradiction is premised on the insight that capital is the alienated power of the producers. In that sense the alienation problematic is more fundamental than the class struggle. However - and it is a big 'however' - once constituted the contradiction between capital and labour is powered mostly by the autonomous movement of capital (its law of motion cannot be reduced to a reflex response to workers struggles). Epochally capital is the 'principal moment' of the contradiction; so TC are quite right to read many of the post 1844 references to alienation as effects on workers of capital' s self-constitution. But even the most rigorous 'capital-logic' is compatible with locating capital as a form within the historical phase of alienation in the larger sense.

A digression on the critique of work. I am baffled by TC's position. We could criticise 'taking exercise' as abstract. Surely we can do the same with the meaninglessness of work today? The more so if productive activity is taken to be a basic ontological dimension. TC counterpose to activity production relations but this is precisely about how we organise our productive activity. Of course a Marxist critique locates the problem as wage labour, not as industrial production, and still less on the basis the product just as an object exterior to its producer is subject to an alien destiny, the evaluation of others, etc. (Note: On James Mill for Marx on significance of work in socialism.) The extract claims 'alienated labour' has no dynamic implications. On the contrary, as 1968 showed, the revolt against such work will be the central motivation for revolution. And the aim is to organise relations of production that make work life-affirming rather than life-denying.

In my recent work I have gone to a lot of trouble to argue for the objective reality of inversion and fetishism. The whole epoch is objectively characterised by difference and division such that it is no illusion to say that capital is the 'subject' confronting us. It has its own law of motion. It is inimical to our interests. it certainly cannot be reduced, Stirner-like, to a misrecognition of our own powers which we forgot we originated. Yet in the last analysis it is indeed a social form produced through our own activity, historically and daily. So I still think much of 1844 stands as a framing concept for the capitalist epoch. The philosophical difficulty is finding a middle way between saying, like Dussel, that 'all is labour' or fetishising capital as an exterior force that mugs us. The middle way depends upon understanding how what is 'nothing but' a social relation of production generates the objective real power over us because of inversion of subject and object.

This brings me to TC's incomprehension of the S/O dialectic here, and how the human essence appears as the inhuman power of capital. In my Labour book and also in my Brill book (p. 122) I go extensively into this. Given the separation of activity and object characteristic of capital v. labour, it is perfectly consistent to argue that the development of human powers is occurring in alienated form, and to speak of a recovery of the objective powers which simultaneously is the mending of the abstract subjectivity of the work-man (Grundrisse). It doesn't depend on a prior Golden Age, whether primitive communism or the pre-capitalist craftsperson. Of course if, as you argue, each side is estranged from the other, we have to suppose the whole relation is an alienated form of some other relation, which, if it isn't the Golden Age, must be in the future.

TC have difficulty with this 'speculation' of course.

Speculation. I can understand the alienation problematic is not explanatory in the sense TC would like. But it is a form of self-understanding, of grasping the nature of our predicament, of informing an historical project.

This brings me to the acute observations to end of the letter relating to 'what is at stake'; with its preference for 'immediate' 'finished forms' of struggle, and its rejection of a view of class struggle as a mediating moment in a larger historical arc.

Let us begin from TC's own position that revolution occurs when the proletariat finds "its definition as a class to be an external constraint". Very good. We agree. But 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 indeed 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. The proletariat is indeed the carrier of human destiny in its revolution and unlocks the riddle of history.

Before looking at the implication, let us clear up a couple of possible misunderstandings. TC claim our view substitutes for class struggle some other 'efficient contradiction' and that it prevents us seeing class struggle as what is "really productive of history". I do not know if 'efficient' means the same in French as in English philosophy. Here it refers to a causal impulse rather than reason for action. In that sense it is class struggle that produces change. But the 'need' for change is something else. In order to articulate it the speculative moment cannot be avoided. (I venture this with due trepidation!) Is it, as TC suggest, a teleological problematic? Certainly not if this means there is some guarantee inscribed in the heavens that communism will redeem us. What it does imply is that the meaning of an historical situation cannot be properly understood in its own terms but only from the standpoint of what it has in it to become. 'Another world is possible' is a speculative proposition, not because we do not have good arguments but in its logical status.

Let us return to Hegel's Encyclopaedia. There Hegel relates the speculative moment to the third phase of a dialectical movement, when a contradiction is reconceived, not as debilitating, but as productive. In what sense exactly speculative? How does speculative reason go beyond ordinary understanding? Because it is creative. Unlike the nomological laws of mechanics, or laws of tendency extrapolating from the existent, it creates something new when it finds a way to surpass the contradiction. It requires 'an upward spring of the mind' to generate a new category, revolution to reorder society.

Looking backwards history must be written in the future anterior; such and such a contradiction will have its resolution in so and so. Looking forward, however, requires a wager on an unactual, perhaps utopian, goal, 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'. This creates the philosophical problems TC are worried about.

Let us return to the Theses on Feuerbach. "The standpoint of the new materialism is socialised humanity." This standpoint is speculative; for there is no actuality to it. What is real is civil society (albeit we see it not as each against each but class against class). At best 'socialised humanity' exists in the mode of being denied, the asocial sociality of bourgeois society. The speculative moment emerges when reason demands the realisation of this standpoint in a practical project, to act as if this 'not yet' is actual.

The speculative moment cannot be eliminated precisely because we live in an alienated society in which the standpoint of socialised 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 which will put an end to philosophy in so far as it abolishes the alienating material relations that require such a detour through speculation. Marx's project for 'a unified science of man' speculatively prefigures such a non-alienated society. But philosophy remains a reality as long as revolutionary practice lacks immediate historical actuality.

In sum the speculative moment is the leap forward. Dialectic is not a science of efficient causation allowing prediction. The future which will become has to be produced by 'us' and in anticipating it the speculative moment is unavoidable. The proletariat must enter into a self-transcending practice even if to begin with its self-assertion against capital is not yet understood in this way (See the problematic of Trotsky's 'transitional program') but we can theoretically anticipate the actuality of human liberation.


cja 10/04


[1] Early Writings (Penguin 1975) p. 336 - translation amended.

[2] Early Writings, p.345 - translation amended.

[3] Early Writings, p.341.

[4] Early Writings, p.345.

[5] Grundrisse (Penguin 1973), p. 305.

[6] Grundrisse, p. 297.

[7] Grundrisse, p. 364.

[8] Grundrisse, p. 693.