Capital?

March 18, 2008

It first became apparent to me that Zizek didn’t really have a theory of what capital is when I read (er…‘browsed’) Matthew Sharpe’s Little Piece of the Real. It’s been a worry for me since.

Thinking about it today the movie Pi came to mind. The story is of a dude who in trying to develop a means to accurately (read: in exactitude) predict what stock values would be produced in world markets. But he has troubles: the work involved gives him major migraines; his computer tends to crash when the decisive moment comes.

In addition, not only is some financial firm after his work, a group of Orthodox Jews wants the secret they see he is on the verge of discovering. For the financiers, it means economic power; for the Jews it means grasping the name of God.


Throughout this, the protagonist meets with an old professor of his, one at one point had been working on a similar mathematical problem. The professor gave up his hunt; he had a breakdown much like that of the protagonist. The protagonist, however, keeps pushing and eventually finds the answer he is looking for – the (264?) digit number that lies at the base of it all – which is also the name of God (in Hebrew, I think).

But, he doesn’t give up the secret. He smashes his computer. Not only that, he is then no longer able to calculate (or at least refuses to) large multiples in his head (a game his pre-teen neighbour liked to play with him).

I think that this ‘holy number’ can be thought of as the Real, and help me (us?) think about the status of Capital and the labour theory of value. On one side, you have the capitalists who know how to make money, who ostensibly know how capital works, but their knowledge isn’t complete – there’s something that eludes them: they can’t predict everything as accurately as the like. There’s always a crash or a crises at some point. On the other side, the Orthodox Jews have tried every combination of numbers and evoked them, but they don’t understand what the number means so nothing happens. All they have is a senseless string of numbers (one of the vicissitudes of the Real that Zizek points out re: Badiou in his response to Laclau’s response to “Against the populist Temptation”).

Now, the protagonist has the answer and understands what it means. But it’s killing him: he constantly blacks out; someone warns him that if he continues he’ll die. And in the end, he lets go of the answer and is ‘healed’ – he leaves math behind and no longer has killer migraines. Perhaps we can say this is the ‘end of’ his ‘analysis,’ that he stepped beyond all the demands people were putting to him (Either ‘give me the answer!’ or ‘give up on looking for it; it’ll kill you’), met his death, and came out on the other side (and, one assumes, into the beginning of a new life where he could choose what to become, and not into happiness with the way he is now…).

So what I took from this thought about Pi is that ‘Capital doesn’t exist’ – that is, capital is not a unified whole that can be captured by any theory, Marxist or otherwise; There is no ‘God number’ at its core that we can discover that will give us a full knowledge of what capitalism is. So, what we are left with are theories that work and not theories that cover all possible bases. So, the way capitalists think about the economy isn’t wrong insofar as it works: they can reasonably predict what to do to make money. Likewise, Anwar Shaikh defends Marx’s theory of value on the basis that it works, as shown in the title of one of his papers: “The Empirical Strength of the Labour Theory of Value”.

Zizek’s project, I think, is to find a way to find out which side to choose: that is, just because ‘capital doesn’t exist’ doesn’t mean that all truth is equal. Hence the need for engagement (the Lukacs stuff) and the wager: picking the right side, based on theoretical work, will have infinite payoff.

Where Deleuze gets his ‘does it work’ from his Humean empiricism, Lacan gets his ‘does it work’ from Bentham’s utilitarianism: I.e. Theory is a myth/fiction that we keep so long as it still functions in analysis…which Zizek has implicitly inherited?

G

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9 Responses to “Capital?”

  1. dystopier said

    From what I understand… and I thought that this was obvious… the fact the capital doesn’t exist, that it is imaginary, is the whole point of surplus-value. In the exchange C-M-C, money is just the measurement of the value of commodities in relation to each other. But when money becomes the commodity, use value and exchange value fold into each other. So surplus-value is just an imaginary supplement to the value of the commodity which masks the social relations behind it (speculation and so forth). In the formula for capital, M-C-M1, M1 is imaginary. This is why Lacan/Zizek overlap the formula for capital with the formula for desire. This is also where we see the relationship between commodity fetishism and fetishism (in the psychoanalytic sense). Of course capital doesn’t exist, this is why it has to be territorialized in some way (see Jameson on Culture and Finance Capital, or ‘The Brick and the Balloon’ in “The Cultural Turn” (1998); or David Harvey, “The Condition of Postmodernity” (1989)).

    And I agree that theory can’t cover all possible bases… that’s why critique is such a valuable tool for theory. That’s also why some of the best work in theory comes from analyzing failed attempts at revolution. That is the success that comes out of multiple failures. Grand narratives, yes! But they must be worked on… backwards.

  2. The Thing said

    “He smashes his computer. Not only that, he is then no longer able to calculate (or at least refuses to) large multiples in his head (a game his pre-teen neighbour liked to play with him).”

    He smashes his computer in more ways than one. He can’t multiply because he’s partially labotomized himself with a powerdrill over his bathroom sink.

    God, I love that movie.
    Can we add it to the movie list?
    “It’s all coming faster now…”
    T

  3. battleofthegiants said

    Maybe Capitalism is imaginary, now that you mention it – a body that is ‘misrecognized’ as complete. I hadn’t quite put that together for myself, though I guess it was there in what I said…

    However, that’s different than saying _capital_ is imaginary. Capital is nothing but the surplus of production. Marx says it in a bunch of places, as does Zizek in “Lenin’s choice.” But surplus-value/enjoyment isn’t imaginary.

    Ideology is closer to the ‘imaginary’: It’s the fantasy (i.e. the imaginary as structured by the symbolic – something I didn’t know until I picked up Evan’s ‘dictionary’) that makes reality possible by regulating our relation to the Real. In capitalism, surplus-value is the Real, the excess of production. ‘Surplus-jouissance’ is also the Real, the left-over of castration (versus the fantasy of a ‘full body of jouissance’ before castration). Just as the role of fantasy is to regulate our ‘access to excess’ (to enjoyment), the role of ideology is to dictate who gets the prime from that m-prime, who gets access to the surplus generated by labour.

    So, it’s not that “surplus-value is just an imaginary supplement to the value of the commodity which masks the social relations behind it”, or that “when money becomes the commodity use value and exchange value fold into each other.” Surplus value doesn’t mask things. It is instead the _commodity form_ that does all that. Hence “commodity fetishism” and not “surplus fetishism”. Marx Begins _Capital_ with a discussion of the commodity because it is the thing that holds together all the relations between people. It was his contention that working out the dialectical antagonism inherent to that form would explain how capital worked. That is, the commodity is by definition BOTH use- and exchange-value to begin with. The dialectic between the two ends in the general-equivalent, i.e. gold/money. What he thought was great about money is that it was the first time exchange value was able to appear by itself as something without use-value, and thereby render visible the difference between exchange- and use-value. So, money isn’t the instance where “use and exchange value” fold into each other, but the instance when exchange value manifests itself alone for the first time. So, you’re right in the sense that it is only after the money-form manifests that the ‘truth’ of the commodity becomes evident.

    In the C-M-C and M-C-Mprime sequences money is already a commodity. There is no difference in the status of the actual M in each one. C-M-C is the circuit of exchange (me buying soap for my dirty, dirty, mouth). M-C-Mprime is the circuit of capital, where the first M is the same as the last M, as well as the M in the first circuit. The only difference is the prime on the end, which is the result of investment of money rather than the consumption of a commodity for one’s own use. The labour theory of value is supposed to explain where that prime comes from. That is, it is extra value generated by _commodified_ labour. That is, the surplus is the result of the commodity form as applied to Labour.

    So, if we are to take ‘capitalism’ as the name of all the social relations in which we live, from the banks to the State to class(/race/gender) relations, then we can say it is imaginary and ‘doesn’t exist’. And it doesn’t exist because there is a surplus upon which it is based – i.e. surplus value, which is the source of class antagonism (which for Marx appeared in arguments over wages, which he characterized as “a conflict of rights” – i.e. the antagonism is a legitimate one based on existing structures, and not a moral one coming from somewhere outside those structures). This surplus is capital – i.e. money that ‘makes itself grow’ (i.e. extracts surplus from labour). This is what Zizek means when he says that ‘capitalism is the Real of our historical epoch’ (or whatever it is he says).

    But what I was trying to get at in my other post is that the economic system (base), and not just the social relations that it relies on/relies on it (superstructure) also ‘doesn’t exist’. That is, it’s argued that Marx’s description of the base, once taken to its dialectical extreme, breaks down (i.e. Straffa pointing out the transformation problem)! Marx’s system is said not to work! That is, the theory of Surplus Value is bunk. What I’m trying to think through is Zizek’s adherence to the Labour theory of value regardless of this. He ‘knows, but pretends not to know’, as you’ve been saying about the pervert. And my answer right now is that even though the labour theory can’t cover everything, it seems to work, perhaps no less than bourgeois theories. The best you can get is a good approximation, and never a God number no matter how you dice it…

    So, while one can easily say that theory doesn’t cover everything, it’s much harder to say how you go about picking which theory you choose. I know that none of us are reading a lot of work by ‘our enemies’ (which Marx did and Zizek seems to do) and correcting what they’ve done, thereby making our own radical theories. Instead, like Zizek, we’ve picked one (like I said, it’s not as though he’s come up with a new theory of economics) and are running with it.

    All this ‘form’ business comes at the beginning of SOI – i.e. the money-shot of Marx is the commodity form, and the money-shot of Psychoanalysis is the form of the dream. This is also where he first talks about belief and Pascal’s wager. In Lenin’s choice he says the party ‘form’ is what we need to challenge capitalism. What he also says there is that we should not be afraid to call Marxism a religion. All this makes me uneasy – we just pick what we believe in. The twist of the nipples, however, is that I’m not convinced that he’s wrong. I think that it is in fact by belief that we get anything done! (it sounds pretty Nietzschian, actually – values are what we need to do things, but we have to keep in mind that values must change (the whole Hammer bit…).

    In Zizek’s name we pray…

  4. dystopier said

    I’m kinda high, so I can’t really comment on everything you wrote in a coherent manner right now… but if I can just say one thing about that last paragraph… I think you’re dead on! I agree with you completely… and I’m starting to feel this notion of the ‘wager’. Or… to add to the existential mix, here, like Kierkegard’s Leap of Faith. Could this be related to the ontological parallax?

    I have another idea about the figure of the ‘Jew’ and the Proletarian that I will write about when I’m less high.

  5. battleofthegiants said

    Oops! I slightly misread “So surplus-value is just an imaginary supplement to the value of the commodity which masks the social relations behind it”. The way it’s written it sounds like surplus-value is doing the masking (the ‘which’ aims at s-v), but it’s clear to me now that you meant the commodity does the masking.

    Though I still disagree that s-v is imaginary…

  6. dystopier said

    Yes, I did mean that the commodity masks social relations…

    It depends how you read ‘imaginary’. But, as you’ve said about fantasy, it is the imaginary as structured by the symbolic. But in the overlap of surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment, you can also say that capital is Real, in the sense that it is “Void behind the lure” (Parallax, p. 304). So this is where the limit of capital also overlaps with the limit of desire. If you subtract the surplus, you lose the cause which sets things in motion. Which I think is where commodity fetishism comes into play. Commodity fetishism – the ‘we do this without being aware of it’ – at the level of the symbolic, maintains the cause. It is here, at the level of the symbolic, that the fantasy structures the imaginary (the surplus); it is the symbolic relation between commodities in a kind of chain of equivalence: commodity fetishism “consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belongs to it outside its relation with other elements” (SOI: 24).

    I don’t think you can say that the base doesn’t exist, because the base is the social relations of production, and the mode of production. The social relations of production certainly exist, as do the modes of production. What new Master-Signifiers do is change the symbolic structure of the imaginary relation to Real conditions of existence (to paraphrase Althusser).

    I know that surplus-value (capital) is the surplus of production… but it is the surplus exchange value. Alienation is the extraction of this value from the labour of the worker. But there’s a difference between extracting the actual material product of labour and exctracting the value of the labour. The material product is not imaginary, but the (exchange) value of the labour is, as structured by the symoblic.

    I disagree with you (and Althusser) that ideology is just imaginary. Ideology is also symbolic. This is where we encounter the difference between ideology in general and ideologies (in Althusser). It is at the level of the symbolic that ideological struggle occurs. It is at the level of the symbolic that struggles for new Master-Signifiers occur.

    If fantasy is imaginary, then doesn’t the place of surplus-value, as the objet a in the formula for fantasy, also make it an “imaginary fantasmatic lure/screen” (Parallax, p. 304) of desire?

    ‘The limit to capital is capital itself’, for me, suggests that the Real is not surplus-value, but the antagonism that exists within this limit. Capital is real only to the extent of its antagonism with it’s own limit. Which is why I don’t think it’s here to stay… it’s just a very difficult limit to eliminate… precisely because it overlaps with the limit of desire.

  7. dystopier said

    oh… just one more thing about use value/exchange value with money… yes, of course, all commodities have a use value and an exchange value… it’s just that the use value of money is its exchange value… this is what I mean about use value and exchange value ‘folding into each other’. Exchange is already a direct embodiment of its use, making money the ideal commodity. This is why the line – ‘we do this without being aware of it’ – explaining commodity fetishism and so-called false-consciousness is used in describing the way money works. We act as if money (the paper and coins) actually embodies the value it is said to contain (which is imaginary, structured by the symbolic).

    Fetishist disavowal explains how we may know that money doesn’t really embody any special value on its own, but nevertheless, we continue to act as if it does.

    Ignorance of chicken helps us to understand that we do this, not because we don’t know what money is, but because we don’t know that the other doesn’t know. It’s the false-consciousness of the Other that is in question. And, if desire is the desire of the Other, than we (I know that ‘we’ is a tricky word here’) act as if we don’t know in order to satisfy the desire of the Other. This may seem too functional, but I think it’s a good way of reconstituting ideological critique.

    The use value of money as exchange value only works if the Other accepts that money has exchange value. This, perhaps, is another way of reading “Il n’y a pas de rapport.” (I’ll leave on that cliff hanger).

  8. battleofthegiants said

    I just wrote a big fuckin’ thing and now its gone. Shit. I guess that means you get a more cogent version.

    1)I’ve re-read the first chapter of SOI and the Com Fet section of Capital, and things are no clearer.

    2)Is exchange symbolic or imaginary?: Z says the manifestation of one object’s exchange value in the body of another is like the mirror stage (i.e. imaginary). The way the General-equivalent works, however, looks more like the phallus: it’s the one thing that guarantees that the values of all other commodities are commensurable. However, Z distinguishes between com. fet. and Freud fet. by saying the former conceals an actual relation, while the latter conceals a lack. The latter is definately symbolic, is the former also? The only way I can make the mirror stage meet commodity exchange is to say that that exchange value is imaginary, but that the system of exchange is symbolic. Is that what you were saying?

    3)I didn’t say that ideology was imaginary, but ‘closer to the imaginary’, i.e. fantasy. Fantasy is ‘the imaginary as structured by the symbolic’… but I don’t know what that MEANS, exactly. Is it to say that the image of a complete, non-antagonistic society is sustained by commodity exchange? The fantasy is betrayed by (revealed in) acting as though money were the natural embodiment of value? Is to traverse the fantasy of Capitalism, then, to de-fetishize money? Where ideology is in the act, would that mean the end of exchange? What does that even MEAN? The end of ‘capitalism’ is not the same as the end of ‘capital’. I’m not sure of the distinction yet, but Marx didn’t want the end of capital – it was to be the basis of a communist society…

    4) I can see how the objet a could be both imaginary and Real. In that triangle diagram, the ‘a’ comes between symbolic and Real, and has the word ‘semblance’ below it. Semblance is of the imaginary. So, does that mean that as imaginary, as the place where fanstasy is screened, there has to be an object standing in as the objet a to act as a ‘screen surface’? And to traverse the fantasy is ‘get behind the object’ to the other side of the objet a and find the Real as void?

    5) To get to the real means to encounter it as horror, but isn’t that horror jouissance? So, is jouissance ‘that which circulates around the void’, or is it the void itself?

    6) Surplus-value and money aren’t the same thing. Money stands in for all exchange-value as well as surplus. That said, surplus-value can only be expressed in another commodity, money or otherwise. That is, it has to have some sort of stand in. So if money is a lure, it’s in the place of the objet a, in the place of the void. So, is money THE ‘sublime object of ideology’? The problem arises for me that money is also a fetish – i.e. the phallus. Can it be both? Have I missed the mark? It seems to me that ‘fetish’ as the thing that holds a system together and ‘the lure’ are different… or are they?

    7) I got a little out of hand with the ‘capital doesn’t exist’ thing. I think I overextended it and got a little crazy. Sure the means and relations of production exist, but I was trying to get at 2 things: 1) ‘Capitalism’ is not a single thing. There’s always ‘uneven development’, as they say, which means different modes of production. 2) Because capitalism is not a unified whole, you can’t find a ‘god number’ to tell you how it all works. I suppose, however, that a dialectical approach would reject this: it’s the play between all the disparate parts that one should set out to explain. There is a single system, and even being outside the system means having some sort of relation to it. The reason one theory can’t cover it all is because theory has to be further elaborated forever. This doesn’t mean having disparate theories, but having one that you stick too and work on (i.e. Marxism as constantly elaborated). This then, leaves me without an answer as to how to think about the ‘transformation problem’, i.e. the possibility that the labour theory of value is bunk…Sure, you can re-vamp marxism to work without it, but Zizek hasn’t done that. He’s based his whole system on it.

    8 ) I don’t agree that money is something in which use- and exchange-value come to be one. use-value refers to the body of the object. Gold can still be used to fill a tooth or hold a watch on your arm, but that’s not what it’s used for when its money. Same with paper – the art work on it is not why you want money; you want it for the value attributed to it… but I’d have to go back and read marx. You could be right.

    G

  9. dystopier said

    I’ll write more on this later… but just quickly, two things:

    I’m not trying to say that surplus value and money are the same thing. Surplus value is extracted from labour, but the exchange value of a commodity is also based on the speculation of its value, as well as the desire for it. In other words, there is a social element to extracting surplus value, in consumption, I guess, rather than production.

    I’m not saying that use value and exchange value come to be one thing in all commodities, only with money. The use value of money is exchange. I guess this involves kind of the mystification of commodity fetishism. We act as if money is the direct embodiment of value, when, in fact, it is really just paper or metal… so if you want, I guess you could say that another use value of money is making it into a paper airplane… but I still think that with money (and only money) use value has a direct correlation with exchange value. In another way, though, you’ve pointed out something interesting about ideology, here. Perhaps in the way in which use value is a product of ideology (“this [whatever you want it to be… the ‘Thing’] is to be used this way…”). Could changing the ideology around use value be a way to produce a new world?

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