Do Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach Still Hold Validity?

Ludwig von Feuerbach, the Heidelberg-trained theorist, published his Das Wesen des Christentums in 1841. Feuerbach’s provocative thesis was that religious beliefs (by which, of course, he meant Christian religious beliefs) were alienated abstractions which, when relieved of their abstract, alienated form, could quickly be recognized as descriptions not of divine being, but of human being. So revolutionary was Feuerbach’s thesis that it was immediately adopted by nearly every radical who was eager to advance “beyond religion” to its worldly “essence.” And, truth be told, many today who consider themselves to have advanced “beyond religion” still embrace and in the face of religious obstinacy still recite one or another version of Feuerbach’s creed. Contemporary Sociology of Religion, in fact, often unwittingly promises little more than a warmed-over version of Feuerbach’s method.

Barely four years later, however, in 1845, a still young Karl Marx would have nothing of it. In his Thesen über Feuerbach, Marx therefore criticized Feuerbach for failing to recognize how even the restored, humanized, and worldly version of religion that he believed he had recovered was itself still the product of alienated human action. It therefore followed, thought Marx, that even a demystified, immanent, and worldly version of religion, since it was still structured by the actions of alienated human beings, could tell us little about the essence of human being as such.

And, in this, Marx’s critique of Feuerbach casts an unsettling shadow over much that still passes today, particularly on the Left, for criticism of religion. For, unlike “religious” atheists, who, much like their theistic counterparts, are sticklers for “objectivity,” Marx saw in the question of “objective truth” no more than the atheistic counterpart to the theistic preoccupation with objectivity.

The question whether objective truth [gegenständliche Wahrheit] can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality [Wirklichkeit oder Nichtwirklichkeit] of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

And, when we move from the question of practice to the question of truth, do we not also expose ourselves to the same criticism? “Truth” is what we make. Or, rather, “truth” is what is in fact made whenever we act. In other words, rather than raising the question of the supposed “objectivity” of truth, we should instead begin by acknowledging the “objectivity” of each “truth,” but then proceed to critically interrogate the practices that gave rise to this specific “truth.”

Since, however, this methodology can be meaningfully applied to every “objective truth,” not excluding this methodology itself, its aim cannot be to identify a place or position “outside” of and therefore “immune to” practice, but can only be to explore the “this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit]” of all thinking, its necessarily practical composition.

To put the matter bluntly, Marx’s aim is not to strip away the layers of mystification so that he can lay bare that essence of a human being that is not structured by practice—and therefore could not possibly be an “essence” in the first place—but rather his aim is to expose the futility of this aim, to show how this aim—the aim of identifying the human essence—is itself the creation and product of alienated human being.

Thus Thesis No. VI:

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.

In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

  1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.
  2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.

From this vantage-point it must be clear that Marx is less calling for action than he is calling attention to the already practical and active character of social being, which is not the realization of something new, but the recognition of something that has always already been—namely, the immanent, non-transcendental, practical, and therefore contingent and social composition of human being.

The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity (X).

What is new, therefore, is grasping the fact that we actively compose our own social being and therefore are fully capable of practically transforming our social being. We always already do actively choose our being. This being so, we are obligated to recognize the immanent and therefore practical character of our own critique. The supposedly “ideal” human being we seek to practically create is never itself anything other than an “ideal” already structured by practice.

And for this reason alone it is open to criticism. But not as though some other, preferable, “ideal” is not structured by practice. We must take care not to misinterpret Marx’s closing line: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

We always already do, in fact, change the world. And it is always already our practices that give rise to this change. But, only rarely is this “the point” or “object” of our action. Only rarely do we reflect critically on our actions with this in mind. But, it is always this change to which our actions give rise.

This, in fact, is the only possible interpretation of the German: “Es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern.”

So, not only do Marx’s Thesen remain valid. It is doubtful that any social scientist would care to say otherwise.

Supreme Court and Healthcare: Randy Barnett may Have a point

Randy Barnett may have a point. We may not want our national legislature to require citizens to obtain health care. We also may not want our federal representatives to regulate commerce, raise revenues from the states, negotiate treaties, erect (or abolish) tariffs, or declare war.

There is, however, a cruel irony to Professor Barnett’s argument. Barnett and his fellow libertarians count themselves federalists. Yes, I said “federalists.” But, you object, weren’t these the folks who, back in 1787 believed the Articles of Federation so woefully inadequate that they convened a second constitutional convention, where, in essence, they took away all of the independent rights granted to the states in 1783? And weren’t these the same folks who locked the anti-federalists out of their convention so that they could found a more perfect union? And does not their donning the name “federalist” therefore constitute the height of Orwellian deception (perhaps even self-deception)?

Well, yes. But, in their defense, these so-called “federalists” have never displayed too much interest in what the framers of the constitution wanted or didn’t want, what they intended or didn’t intend. What they want is the complete destruction, the annihilation, the abolition of the federal government. And about this aim they have been refreshingly straightforward.

Who cares what the Constitution says? “We want smaller government.”

Fair enough. But, in that case, you will not find much support from a document composed, from top to bottom, by your constitutional opponents, the real federalists. Which is why, should the Supreme Court grant your petition, they will have to overturn the very heart of the document from which they claim to be taking their guidance, the Constitution itself.

Not to worry. This particular Court has shown itself time and again not to place too much weight on this old, antiquated document.

The point is, the real Constitution (as opposed to the fictitious one Professor Barnett wants) was composed to protect the financial interests of its framers and their friends. Between 1783 and 1787, these real federalists found their locally minted notes deprived of all their value, their foreign and domestic credit well-neigh useless, their deeds and titles suspect or (thanks to roving vigilantes) destroyed, and their ability to raise a militia (much less pay for the same), so that they might combat said vigilantes, completely bankrupt. They needed a secure currency. They needed a dependable, professional, militia, independent from the states. They needed the power to tax and conclude treaties, without fear of interference from the states. And they needed a judiciary that stood above the state judiciaries and legislatures. And that is what these real federalists got.

And, in return, in order to buy approval from the states, the Congress gave them a Bill of Rights.

This every school boy and girl knows, or used to know before these ANTI-federalists gained control over our educational system.

The irony is not that these ANTI-federalists now call themselves federalists. The irony is that they want to rewrite the Constitution, originally written to protect private financial interests, so that it fits more nearly the new, less politically responsive, more flexible and dynamic, economic realities of neoliberalism. And so they imagine that by freeing individuals from the protections of the federal government, they are therein delivering the public over to the true realm of individual liberty.

This is their more perfect union. Alexander Hamilton shakes hands with Thomas Paine. The federalist and the anti-federalist embrace. They kiss. And so is ushered in Francis Fukuyama’s long-awaited End of History.

The framers of the real US Constitution, the real Federalists, were not so naive. Strong federal institutions and republican values were the only adequate response to the anarchy of private self-interest and democratic values.

As we learned in Citizens United, the elimination of federal protections and restraints has not expanded the realm of individual freedom. It has simply empowered the already bloated political power exercised by unrestrained corporate wealth. Here as elsewhere the lone, private citizen is the victim.

And so here we are again, bringing our petitions to the most anti-federalist arm of government in the land, the US Supreme Court, the enemy of all that 1787 once championed. Outside the gate once again is Thomas Paine, represented here by Randy Barnett. Will the Supreme Court let him in? Will they let him tweak this anachronistic document, just a little bit? Will they bend, if ever so slightly away from 1787 and toward 1861 (when the Constitution of the Confederate States was passed)?

All indications are that this Court will side with Tom Paine, with 1861, and with the anti-federalists. Because Randy Barnett has a point.

The Homogeneous and Universal State

Many marxian and post-marixian theorists are rightly concerned about the periodization of the twentieth century: the empire/industrial driven growth from the 1870s through the 1910s; culminating in the transfer of global economic responsibility during World War I from Great Britain to the United States; the equally dramatic and related explosion in US investment throughout the 1920s, built in no small measure on the JP Morgan cycle of German reparations=>UK and FR=>US and, from there, to growth sectors throughout South America, North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The 1929 financial collapse has been interpreted both as the terminal event in UK global economic responsibility or the signal event in US global economic responsibility. (This transfer needs to be distinguished from the US’s industrial and financial supersession of the UK, which had already taken place in the 1890s.) We then follow the rise the of US through the 1930s and 40s, to its emergence in the immediate post-war period as the universal coordinator of the global economy.

And, yet, we should not permit this uneven, fitful narrative to obscure the steady drive toward universal laws of international commerce and trade for which, without question, Westphalia was the signal event. In Westphalia already we can see the emergence, on the international stage, of an actor or agent whose priority over individual social, political, or economic actors is beginning to enjoy increasingly universal acceptance.

That this actor or agent can embrace, incorporate, and, indeed, constitute the needs and desires of consumers can, in this broader context, be appreciated as its own further elaboration—its own subsumption of the individual into itself as a means to realize its own universality. The KWNS (Keynesian Welfare National State) need not, therefore, from this vantage point be viewed so much as a break on the universalization of the value form of capital as much as a further elaboration and expansion of this form.

At the same time, however, this vantage point may help us to appreciate why, when the KWNS begins to restrict this elaboration and expansion, the value form of the commodity is sufficiently flexible to shed its dependence on its institutions and thought forms in order to enjoy continuing unrestricted elaboration and expansion—to be sure, now at the expense of those individuals which momentarily it embraced as vehicles to promote its own expansion.

This universalization and homogenization are likely to be missed in accounts that focus on a narrative of justice or human rights, for which the totalizing role of the KWNS comes to be interpreted as distinct from and in opposition to the injustice of the free market. KWNS is thus cast as emancipatory in contrast to the SWPR (Schumpeterian Workfare Post-national Regime).

In fact, the two are but two phases of the same movement.

Why we Love to Hate Paul*

*and why we shouldn’t

By Joseph W.H. Lough

Liberal mainstream protestant Christians love to hate Paul. There’s plenty to hate. For one, there is Paul’s apparent fixation on authority. For another, there is his understandable, but no less disturbing endorsement of slavery. But, perhaps the main reason we love to hate Paul today are his teachings on sexuality.

I do not hate Paul. To the contrary, I am convinced that without Paul we lose much that was good about the first century Christian and Jewish diaspora communities.

I once thought that hatred of Paul was a generational phenomenon. Educated in the 1980s at a liberal, mainstream protestant seminary, I knew that Paul was not the author of the pastorals (Titus, and First and Second Timothy), that he was probably not the author of Ephesians, and that he may not have been the author of Colossians either. I knew therefore that “Paul’s” most offensive statements about slaves and women, and about submission, subordination, and authority in general were not Paul’s at all.

Yet, most of those who love to hate Paul, who received their training in the 1960s and 1970s, knew this as well.

I also once thought that hatred of Paul might be an interreligious matter. Unlike Peter, James, and the other Jerusalem apostles, Paul was, after all, not a “real Jew.” When Paul rejected Torah, rejected circumcision, and rejected the uniquely Jewish dietary restrictions, he also drove a wedge between his Greek/Barbarian communities and the uniformly Jewish communities of Peter and James in Jerusalem. And, in so doing, he laid the groundwork for two millennia of Christian Jew-hating.

Except that we now know—and have known since the 1940s and 1950s—that the conflict between the diaspora Jewish community and the Jerusalem Jewish community long preceded Paul. Jews in Rome’s diaspora community, where Paul learned his faith, could not be expected to rigorously adhere to the Cult of the Temple and so had to develop other ways of being good, observant Jews. But this was not all. Where Jerusalem’s Jewish community maintained high laws of ritual and ethnic purity, the diaspora Synagogue had to adjust itself to a much more ethnically and religiously diverse setting. Thus, long before Paul ever advanced his rightly praiseworthy saying “in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no Male or Female, no Slave or Freeman,” Rome’s diaspora Jews were saying much the same.

To be sure, the diaspora synagogue could be rigid in other ways. Rabbis (teachers) in diaspora synagogues found ways to apply Torah to everyday life that it is almost certain bore little relationship to the original intent of the law. (Paul’s Midrash on Torah in First Corinthians, chapters 8-11, would have been deemed laughable by any self-respecting Jerusalem teacher.)

But, there were other reasons why Jerusalem’s Jews hated their diaspora cousins. For instance, often the most educated members of the diaspora synagogue were non-Jews. Sometimes they were even women or slaves. Yet, in the judgment of diaspora Rabbis, it was better that Torah be read aloud and interpreted, even by a woman, a Greek, a slave, or barbarian, than that Torah not be read at all. Long before Paul appeared on the scene, the Roman diaspora Jewish community was already intimately acquainted and comfortable with women and ethnically non-Jewish religious leaders. This helps to explain the long list of women episkopos (overseers) and diakonos (Eucharistic ministers) not only in the salutations of Paul’s authentic letters, but in the ongoing Pauline mission long after his martyrdom.

So, if Paul inherited such a noble legacy from his diaspora Jewish sisters and brothers, what went wrong? What went wrong was the fall of the Jerusalem Temple and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s Jews in 70/71 C.E.

Here we need to bear in mind that, when they slaughtered Jerusalem’s Jews, Rome’s soldiers did not distinguish between those who followed Jesus and those who did not. A Jew was a Jew, and the Roman soldiers slaughtered the Jews indiscriminately.

The slaughter of Jerusalem Jewry had four related consequences:

  1. First, it transformed all of Judaism into rabbinic Judaism overnight. No Temple, no Cult of the Temple. As a consequence, Jerusalem’s Jews—both Christians and non-Christians—had to learn the ropes of diaspora Judaism. Needless to say, they were none too happy at what they found. (See, for example, II Peter 3:16.) Women and slaves leading service. Uncircumcised religious practitioners. And piles upon piles of rabbinic Midrash specifying in detail what a religious Jew could and could not do on Sabbath.
  2. Second, it transformed all Jerusalem Christians into Pauline Christians overnight. No more patiently waiting for Jesus to return to the Temple and destroy the Roman occupiers. No more rigorous observance of the Cult of the Temple. The transition was no less painful for the surviving members of Peter’s and James’ community than it was for non-Christian Jews. All of a sudden these Christians were thrown at the mercy of communities where women and slaves were leaders and presiders at worship. But, perhaps most difficult of all, the facts themselves—the destruction of the Temple, the slaughter of the Jews, the victory of the Romans—compelled this diaspora community to make peace with the Pauline community’s “realized” eschatology, the teaching that Jesus has returned “in and through his living body,” the ekklesia, or gathered faithful.
  3. Third, the Temple’s destruction rent the already tenuous Jewish-Christian community asunder. Many non-Christian Jews viewed the destruction of the Temple as a punishment for their unfaithfulness in general, and, in particular, punishment for their toleration of Christians in their community. One synagogue after another closed its doors to Christians, thus accelerating the union of the fleeing Petrine-Jamesian communities with the Pauline communities. The consequences for the diaspora synagogue were, in other words, the very reverse from those for the diaspora Christian communities. Where the latter continued to grow more ethnically and religiously diverse (and less Jewish), the diaspora synagogue grew more ethnically and religiously pure and isolated.
  4. Finally, however, the combining of Jerusalem with diaspora Christian communities reshaped the Pauline mission in fundamental ways. As Luke-Acts makes clear, it was following the fall of the Temple (and following Peter and Paul’s twin martyrdoms in Rome) that “Peter” and “Paul” decide to put their differences aside and agree to work together. Of course, Luke-Acts’ story is only partially apocryphal. For, in matter of fact, their two communities do eventually make up, albeit well after the martyrdoms of their respective leaders. And, not surprisingly, so too do the pseudepigraphical and deutero-Pauline authors make up with Peter’s and James’ heirs. For it is precisely here, after 70/71 C.E. that we find the Jerusalem community’s love of authority, misogyny, subordination, and subjection creeping into “Paul’s” letters as well.

To be sure, all of this was already well known to scholars in the 1940s and 1950s. And, so, already by the 1940s and 1950s, there was really no good reason to love to hate Paul. Quite to the contrary; a half-century of groundbreaking research into the Roman Jewish community has brought most scholars to a greater appreciation not only for how well Paul reflected a certain strand of diaspora Jewish political radicalism, but also how close, both theologically and practically, Paul’s supposedly unique “Christianity” was to already existing diaspora Judaism.

So, why do we continue to love to hate Paul? I suspect that our persistent hatred has a good deal to do with our preference for the devil we know than the saint we do not. And, yet, if the past seventy-five years of scholarship holds good, then our learned ignorance of this saint may have deprived us of much that is right, good, and meet about both the first century Christian and the first century Jewish diaspora Roman communities.

Postone made EZ

How we interpret “Late Capitalism” depends in large measure on what we feel are its defining characteristics. One way we can shed light on the ways these characteristics shape how we interpret late capitalism is to take the widely held, “traditional,” interpretation of late capitalism and see how it shapes our understanding of the last half century of global economic history. Notwithstanding the variety of interpretations we are examining in GEOG 170, the traditional interpretation intrudes at several points, either as foil, or as foundation, for how we interpret late capitalism.

For example, if I feel that capitalism is characterized by the contradiction between forces and relations of production, late capitalism will display characteristics that are plausibly leading to the end of this contradiction. If I feel that the forces of production are the socialized industrial working class and that the relations of production are the individual private property relations, then I am likely to feel that ending this contradiction is likely to entail the socialized working class overcoming or defeating the institutions or individuals who embody or otherwise support private property relations.

Most of the scholars we are reading explicitly or implicitly embrace this some features of this basic, traditional, interpretation of capitalism. To this basic understanding Wallerstein and Jessop add the conclusion that capitalism could not exist without the anti-market, the state, whose coercion is needed to create the fictitious commodity labor. This is consistent with the traditional understanding insofar as it lays the foundation, once labor is no longer a commodity, for labor to reclaim its social character from the private relations to which it has illegitimately been subjected. In either case, one side in the dynamic relationship, labor, will overcome the central contradiction within late capitalism by defeating the other.

Postone faults this traditional understanding on several related grounds. First, if labor is constituted by its relationship to capital, then he finds it difficult to explain how labor’s vantage-point holds the potential of overcoming the contradiction between it and capital without overcoming itself (along with its vantage-point). Second, if labor is constituted by this relationship then Postone finds it hard to explain how this relationship confers to labor a valid interpretation of this relationship–an interpretation beyond simple opposition or conflict. Third, if labor reconstitutes itself as labor following its defeat of capital, then Postone does not see how it could help but reconstitute the very contradiction its victory should have overcome. But, as a gloss on all three of these, Postone feels that the dynamic contradiction within capitalism is constituted by labor, and that, because labor is the source of this contradiction, it cannot also be the agent of its overcoming.

“Late Capitalism” from this vantage-point takes shape at those junctures where labor’s role in reproducing capitalism is exposed as a form of social, not economic, domination. This form of self-domination, however, constitutes a social form in which labor is rendered increasingly obsolete. The increasingly obsolete role played by labor opens up the possibility of ending this unique form of social domination by terminating the value-constituting role that labor is socially compelled to play. However, in order to realize this possibility, social actors need to actively reshape the practices, understandings and institutions that habitually reinscribe labor into this role. In other words, we cannot expect history to perform this separation of labor from capital on our behalf since, after all, we compose history through our actions.

This alternative reading of “Late Capitalism” presents a social scientifically powerful tool not only for understanding the nature of our own self-domination, but also for rethinking how we might transition from this unique form of self-domination to a social form or to social forms that yield greater determinate freedom than capitalism.

Notes on Bob Jessop’s Future of the Capitalist State

Profit depends not only on the demand for different commodities (reflecting their prevailing use-values) but also on the rate of economic exploitation in different branches of production. It is therefore crucially related to the course and outcome of struggles between capital and labour at many different points in the circuit of capital and in the wider social formation (17).

In this traditional understanding of profit and value, labour is not only conceptualized as the source of all value, but also, socially and politically, as the leading obstacle to realizing ever greater profits.

Yet, at least according to neoclassical economic thought, labour is but one factor among many, and often not the leading factor, in the supply and demand price of any given commodity. Thus, for example, under competitive conditions investors are continuously attempting to reduce the cost of the factors of production, not only by driving down wages and benefits, but also by improving capital equipment in order to decrease the factor cost of per unit output and by continuously surveying the markets of factors of production, whose suppliers, likewise, under competitive conditions, are seeking to improve their productivity.

It could be objected that increased productivity at any given stage of production requires that investors calculate which factors of production can be economized and that labour is often found among the most expensive of the factors. It might also be objected that, at whatever stage of production, behind every factor that is not immediately the product of labor—a capital good for instance—is a supplier for whom labour is among the leading factors of production. Finally, even when a producer is able to reduce labour costs to a minimum, the central place of labor in production is best illustrated by aggregate labor—labor in the abstract, i.e., abstract, homogeneous, undifferentiated labor.

And it is here, at this abstract level, that neoclassical theory and neo-Marxian social theory coincide. They coincide because, once all of its historical and social specificity has been bracketed, labor can itself be bracketed, leaving only its residue, abstract value or, more commonly, price. Price accurately captures this coincidence because, from the beginning, it aims not to analyze the production process or price formation into its constitutive elements. To the contrary, from the beginning price aims to identify that abstract place where marginal supply price and marginal demand price meet, a place which, according to neoclassical theory, bears within itself, as a singular data point, the full, although unarticulated, backstory of each transaction. Aggregate labor, labor in the abstract, and aggregate value, value in the abstract, or price: these two are one and the same thing.

And, to illustrate this point, we need only observe what happens when, as is often the case, the factors of production, in aggregate, have cost investors more than the quantity of capital distributed among buyers in that production process. For this is precisely what happens when, notwithstanding an aggregate increase in productivity that entailed declining aggregate labor costs, the factors of consumption experience across the board declining wages greater than the levels of productivity realized by investors. In this case, rather than seeing an across the board increase in per unit returns (owing to increased productivity), investors instead see flat or even declining returns on account of decreasing demand in the aggregate.

This declining rate of profit, to use Jessop’s language, can be explained by the fact that the consumers who account for declining demand on one side of the ledger are the same individuals, in aggregate, as the value producing labor on the other side of the ledger.

And here also we can see the mistake of the neoclassicals. By considering factors of production only in the aggregate—which includes, but is not reducible to, labor costs—and by considering factors contributing to the demand price only in aggregate, they lose track of the fact that while a ton of pig iron, a kilometer of water transport, a hector of land, and so on can be priced without considering the labor that contributed to their production, none of these factors of production also contribute to the factors of consumption save the individuals whose wages presumably derive from producing these items. That is to say, only labor, uniquely, falls on both sides of the ledger.

Which is precisely what brings the “struggles between capital and labour” into the foreground. But note—and this is the point—this foregrounding of the struggle between capital and labour is only possible on account of the necessary relationship between the two: capital forms labor, labor forms capital.

That is to say, contrary to what Jessop claims, there is no first instance—i.e., an instance when accumulated capital takes hold of and pulls labor into its formation—any more than there is a first instance when labor constitutes the first commodity onto which this relationship has been inscribed. To seek a priority here is to display a fundamental misunderstanding of the always already mutually constitutive relationship between them.

Which explains why labor’s reappropriation of alienated value—i.e., the victory of labor over capital—so long as it does not also bring to an end value-producing labor, is condemned to reinscribe the very same process perhaps onto a new administrative or distributional map, but cannot bring to a close the relationship or process itself. To do this, we would have to also terminate the role that labor plays in producing value per se.

Bob Jessop and the “fictitious commodities” land, labor, money, and knowledge

Bob Jessop grounds his understanding of labor’s status as a fictitious commodity in Marx’s distinction between the “contingent, historically specific” character of “social relations” and the “fallacious belief, strongly criticized by Marx, that economic value arises from the immanent, eternal qualities of things” (2003:13).

If Jessop means only to reaffirm the labor theory of value, which Marx evidently shared with other classical economic theorists, most notably Adam Smith, then it is odd that this should lead him to conclude that labor’s status as a commodity is fictitious, rather than leading him to conclude, say, that, among other things, human action too becomes a commodity within the capitalist social formation. Such a conclusion would acknowledge the contingent, historically specific character of social relations under capitalism while at the same time avoiding the implicit transhistoricization and ontologization entailed by drawing a circle around a small handful of items—labor, land, money and knowledge—which, unlike other things, enjoy a special, transhistorical status.

So, what gives? The answer lies, I believe, in Jessop’s grounding of capitalism itself not, as in the case of K Marx and M Postone, in the production of commodities itself, but in the state’s regulation of markets. This is significant because, if capitalism preceded the commodification of labor, then labor as the producer of use and exchange value is not what makes labor unique under capitalism. What makes labor unique under capitalism, in this case, is that the exchange value it produces is regulated by the state and appropriated by the capitalist. It is at this moment of regulation and appropriation that labor becomes a commodity. This also means that once exchange value is no longer regulated by the state and appropriated by capital—once, in other words, the value alienated from labor returns to labor—at that moment labor sheds its status as a fictitious commodity. Labor then becomes what it has always been: the producer of all value, albeit under a variety of different social conditions, under a variety of different regimes of regulation.

Yet, once we compare Jessop’s analysis to the one we find at the beginning of Capital, volume one, we will notice that what Jessop treats as a preexisting social formation to which labor is then subjected, Marx treats as the creation of a specific form of labor: labor as the producer of all value. That is to say, what Jessop treats as universal and transhistorical—the labor theory of value—Marx treats as a “contingent, historically specific” quality of “social relations” under capitalism; and, what Jessop treats as “contingent” and “historically specific” to capitalism, the expropriation of value from human beings through a state-imposed regulatory form, Marx treats as a condition of all societies beyond the wandering, semi-nomadic social formations that have escaped the clutches of empire. Here, specifically, is what Jessop says:

What most distinguishes capitalism from other forms of producing goods and services for sale is the generalization of the commodity form to labour-power [italics added]. This entails the historical development and subsequent reproduction and expansion of a labour market in which workers offer their labour-power for sale to capitalists in a formally free and equal commercial transaction (12).

In other words, commodities existed prior to their production by commodified labor. Commodities are not the product of a process wherein human action is objectified as exchange value in the products of such action. Rather, commodities and capitalism exist prior to this commodification of as-yet uncommodified labor. And it is this uncommodified labor that would then be non-fictitious.

But, what has Jessop achieved by this analysis? A partial clue may be seen in his observation that the “generalization of the commodity form to labour-power . . . entails the historical development and subsequent reproduction and expansion of a labour market” [italics added]. This clue highlights the importance granted the state in F Braudel’s, Karl Polanyi’s, and now Bob Jessop’s interpretation of the rise of capitalism. Here, as we shall see in greater detail when we read G Arrighi’s Long Twentieth Century, the most important factor in the rise of capitalism is played not by measuring value in terms of abstract labor time expended—Marx’s and Postone’s interpretation—but by capital accumulation, which, in turn, empowers state actors to regulate, among other things, land, labor, money, and (Jessop adds) knowledge. This means, incidentally, that the process that Marx seeks to explain on the basis of labor-determined value—the compulsive, self-dominating, directionally-dynamic character of capitalism—Jessop treats as the cause explaining why labor assumes this peculiar form.

The solution, then, presumably to this commodification of labor would be for labor to reappropriate the value appropriated from it by capital: labor would then return to itself.

A Closer Look at Citizens United (558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), 558 U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 876)

A lot has happened since 1787. The un-propertied, poor, non-white (in 1964), and non-male (in 1920) have gained the vote. Senators are now elected by popular vote (in 1913). And, who knows, perhaps by the mid-21st century, we may elect Presidents that way too.

Yet, perhaps the biggest game-changer, the premise implicit in the 1787 US Constitution, is the way that money over the past two centuries has replaced republican institutions and democratic process. Read the US Constitution, the original 1787 Constitution, sans its many amendments, and you will be pressed not to conclude that it is, in the main, an economic, not a political document.

Forget the Bill of Rights for a moment. It was tacked on to satisfy the anti-Federalists, without whose assent the Constitution would not have been ratified. (And, yes, these are the same folks who today continue to rail against the Fed, the Department of Education, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Post Office, etc.)

The issue before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was principally economic. Here is how William Randolph put it when he introduced the Virginia Plan:

In speaking of the defects of the Confederation, he [Randolph] professed a high respect for its [the Articles of Confederation] authors, and considered them as having done all that patriots could do in the then infancy of the science of constitutions and of confederacies; when the inefficiency requisitions was unknown—no commercial discord had arisen among any states—no rebellion had appeared, as in Massachusetts [Shays’ Rebellion]—foreign debts had not become urgent—the havoc of paper money had not been foreseen—treaties had not been violated and perhaps nothing better could be obtained, from the jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty.

What issued from this universal complaint—universal because no anti-Federalists were invited and none gained admission to the Convention—was the interstate commerce clause, federal preemption, sole federal authority to mint money, the authority to tax the states, sole authority to negotiate treaties, and an electoral system that locked five out of every six adults out of the federal franchise.

We may be inclined to credit this original rule by the few (oligopoly) to greed. And, no doubt, there is more than a shred of truth to this interpretation. Note should be taken, for instance, that nearly all of the anti-federalists were property-less, poor, underemployed European American males. Their leaders were by and large tradesmen.

And, yet, if we listen to their arguments during the convention, their real interests were far from being so cut and dried. The real problem with the landless and penniless, or so they claimed, was not their lack of title, deed, or wealth, but the fear that they would use their vote and—God forbid—their office, not for the public good, but to promote their private self-interest. The landed and wealthy, by contrast, had no interest in using their office to acquire what they already had. Thus, it was argued, the landed and wealthy would instead use their vote to promote res publica, the common or shared wealth—i.e., the Commonwealth.

To this, however, we need to add that the framers of the Constitution were deeply suspicious not only of the general, uneducated rabble, “the many” (or hoi polloi), but of the elites who, like Pericles of old, would use the ignorance of “the many” to promote their own self-interest. Better that “the few”—equally well-educated, equally wealthy, equally landed—be compelled to face one another fairly than that some rogue demagogue yield to the temptation presented by Gorgias’ “fine art,” e.g., political speech-making.

(As a simple matter of historical record, each expansion of the franchise, rather than diminishing the role that money plays in politics, has instead expanded this role, forcing candidates to deploy ever larger sums of private capital to placate, buy off, or rhetorically dazzle ever broader and more volatile constituencies.)

In 1787, these two strands of the republican tradition in America—the oligopoly of money and the political oligopoly, the economic elite and the political elite—were joined in the de facto framers of the Constitution. Yet, as the franchise was expanded, non-elite voters posed an ever greater threat to both elites, posing an ever more present danger to the very foundations of the US Constitution and principally to those of its elements (vide William Randolph’s Virginia Plan) surrounding the stability of economic markets. For remember, it was concerns over economic stability that brought the conventioneers to abandon the Articles of Confederation and set out to “form a more perfect Union.”

Viewed from this angle, Citizens United could be seen as an attempt by the Supreme Court to set the US electoral system back upon a more stable and sound path, to restore power to the elites, and to place the electoral system back under the power of the original oligopoly.

So, why did their attempt backfire? It backfired because the justices mistook the contemporary economic elites for the heirs to the original elites. The original elites, it must be recalled, established a narrow franchise at least in part because they believed that res publica or shared wealth would be threatened by the private self-interests of “the many.” For, however deluded they may have been, these original elites, all classically trained, still believed that without rigorous education and economic independence, it would be impossible for a people to govern themselves responsibly. By “economic independence,” however, the framers did not understand some metaphysically obscure belief in freedom of choice. Rather, did they understand real, tangible assets, sufficient means to give a person the education and leisure they would need in order to govern themselves responsibly. And “governing responsibly” meant one thing and one thing alone: in the interests of the shared or common wealth: the res publica.

However, by ruling on behalf of the appellant, the Supreme Court justices displayed not only their complete and total ignorance over the legal reasoning of the original framers—the notorious question of “original intent”—but their complete and utter misreading of the motives driving present-day economic elites.

For present-day economic elites, res publica is the very last thing on their minds. Moreover, today’s economic elites are not the classically-trained, republican-minded heirs to the founders. They are, rather, very nearly the opposite. Nor have they sought to conceal their self-interest. To the contrary, they wear these self-interests as a badge of honor.

To be sure, even if the Justices had been familiar with, much less interested in, the legal reasoning of the framers, this would in all likelihood have made no difference in their decision, which was based, n.b., on the First Amendment granting—money—free speech.

And viewed from this angle, Citizens United would appear to have achieved precisely what it set out to achieve. It completely removed the wall separating the political from the economic, making transparent the interests on behalf of which we make and enforce laws.

And the fact that these interests are not republican only illuminates a tension already implicit in the original document, the original Constitution. Citizens United could therefore serve to draw our attention not only to the undeniable influence money exercises over politics in the US. (That, after all, was the original intent of the Constitution.) It might also serve to draw our attention to the poor companions wealth and politics make in the absence of universal rigorous education, universal social security, and sufficient free time for all citizens to govern themselves responsibly.