Markets and the Family

“Enacting this aspect of the proclamation wages familial, rather than market warfare on democratic principles and institutions” (Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, p. 115.

I am trying to figure out how families and the mediations that govern them are not commodified and therefore can be treated in contrast to the “market warfare on democratic principles and institutions.”

I am trying to figure out how “democratic” — a process — as opposed to “republican” — a substantive social form — principles and institutions might contrast with the market.

It strikes me that Brown reifies a slice of capitalist ontology, arbitrarily (but not arbitrarily) isolates it from its generative form, and counts it as a determinate form of resistance against the dominant form.

I do not get it. Is she just theoretically sloppy? Or is she really, deeply, fundamentally, internally committed to the abstract value form of the commodity?

Market and Family

Wendy Brown counts marketization and “familialization” as two processes with a shared goal.

They work together conceptually and practically: dismantling public provision is routinely coupled with extended private sphere norms to delegitimize the concept of social welfare provision and the project of democratizing the social powers of class, race, gender, and sexuality. As everyday life is marketized from one direction and “familialized” from the other by neoliberal rationality, these twin processes challenge principles of equality, secularism, pluralism, and inclusion, along with democratic determination of a common good.

Brown, Wendy. In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (The Wellek Library Lectures) (p. 108). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

Herein, Brown reproduces a theoretical trope more often found among less critical Marxian theorists who suppose that “the social” is a quality absent in capitalism that the vanguard aims to make explicit. Here Brown is taking aim at Hayek, who, curiously, like Brown, believes that “the social” is a surface form that it is possible to administratively add, supplement, or eliminate. But “the social” only captures in the most abstract and general way that our relationships with one another are shaped. How are they shaped? Socially.

Again, curiously, just as Hayek believes that the properly administered community has no need for “the political,” so Brown believes that the political is a quality that can be “added to”; but added to what? The social? The moral?

The correspondence between Brown’s and Hayek’s frameworks — the manner in which each mirrors the other — is not coincidental, for each take as their points of the departure the abstract value form of the commodity. To be sure, Hayek believes he is simply taking human nature, as it has been historically elaborated, as his point of departure; and Brown believes that she is simply taking the emancipatory impulse, also displayed historically, as her point of departure. In each case, however, the value form of the commodity lurks in the wings. And this explains why the expansion of the value form lends itself to “familialization” (and racialization, genderization, and classification).

Unlike the young and immature Marx preferred by college students and often by their professors, the mature Marx already recognized the signature of the value form in the democratic trope:

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equaiity, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest.

Capital, volume one, part two, chapter 6.

Admirers of the young Marx — the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Manifesto (1848) — are inclined to fault private property and the market for the evils of capitalism; and they are inclined to feel that “the people, united, can never be defeated.” Yet, the abstract social subject embraced by the young Marx, whether “species being” (1844) or “proletariat” (1848) the mature Marx recognized as equally and narrowly as much products of the abstract value form as the private property and markets against which they bristled.

For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material form bring their individual, private labours into relation with each other as homogeneous human labour, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.

Capital, volume one, part one, chapter 1, §4

Two points are clear from Marx’s significantly more rigorous grasp of abstract value. The first point, obviously, is that, unlike Brown, Marx was no longer inclined to universalize or transhistoricize “religion,” even “Christianity,” but was ready to appreciate how the abstract value form of capital had shaped and reshaped “traditional” values. The second, less obvious, point is that Marx counts abstract, homogeneous, undifferentiated social being another expression of the abstract value form of the commodity. For this reason it is important that we appreciate why Marx’s more rigorous grasp of abstract social being falls under the heading “Der Fetischcharakter der Ware und seiners Gehemnis” (The Fetish character of the commodity and its Secret).

The body — all bodies — is the perfect expression of the commodity. It enjoys an outward form of appearance by which it is differentiated from and therefore differentially valued from other bodies. And, yet, underlying all of these bodies is their abstract value. Because but only insofar as commodities are differentially valued they also all are related to one another in a community of surface forms. Does class have value? Does race? Does gender? Does sexuality? Yes. All are differentially valued within capitalism. But so too do equality, secularism, pluralism, inclusion, democracy and the common good. Anyone familiar with the social democratizing of capitalism in the twentieth century cannot help but have noticed that social democracy demanded de-differentiation, homogenization, the elimination of difference; but this was always already, as Marx noted in 1867, a capitalist project: a project of value expansion through fetishization. Can capitalists be secularists? Can they promote a plurality of highly differentiated product lines? Can they promote consumer democracy and democratic consumerism? Can they embrace highly differentiated gender lines for their products? But, finally, as in the case of fascism, can the abstract value form find expression in nations, ethnicities, races, flags, anthems embraced, if not by a majority, then at least by a plurality?

But this means that “familialization” entails not so much the privatization of the household — which is already despotic (ruled by a δεσπότης) and private (οἰκονομία) — but the commodification of the private sphere and therefore its incorporation into the commodity form, which is socially composed by abstract labor and abstract capital.

AV Miller’s Phenomenology; Translation Please?

How did AV Miller possibly come up with this translation?

Wenn zuerst der bloße Begriff des entzweiten Bewußtseins sich so bestimmte, daß es auf das Aufheben seiner als einzelnen und auf das Werden zum unwandelbaren Bewußtsein gehe, so hat sein Streben nunmehr diese Bestimmung, daß es vielmehr sein Verhältnis zu dem reinen ungestalteten Unwandelbaren aufhebe und sich nur die Beziehung auf den gestalteten Unwandelbaren gebe. 

I’ve looked at both the Durr’schen (1907) and Suhrkamp (1970) editions and cannot figure out how AV Miller came up with the following translation:

If at first the mere Notion of the divided consciousness was characterized by the effort to set aside its particular individuality and to become the unchangeable consciousness, its efforts from now on are directed rather to setting aside its relation with the pure formless Unchangeable, and to coming into relation only with the Unchangeable in its embodied or incarnate form.

“Embodied”? “Incarnate”?

Further Remarks on Phenomenology of Spirit

But although desire and work were unable to effect the negation for self-consciousness) this polemical bearing, towards the manifold independence of things will, on the other hand, be successful, because it turns against them as a free self-consciousness that is already complete in its own self; more specifically, because it is thinking, or is in its own self infinite, and in this infinitude the independent things in their differences from one another are for it only vanishing magnitudes. The differences, which in the pure thinking of self-consciousness are only the abstraction of differences, here become the entirety of the differences, and the whole of differentiated being becomes a difference of self-consciousness.


In the multivariate universe that GWF Hegel is contemplating, each determinate datapoint occupies the center of a web of relationships that in aggregate have neither center nor boundary. This point of departure for skepticism is unable to account for its own determinateness, the place it occupies in this web, and therefore its own shape. To what does skepticism owe this disability?

Only if my aim is to shape the totality, or to self-consciously express the totality; only in that case would I lose track of what is nearest to hand, to its determinateness and to mine.

This is the market. It has no center or boundary. Each seller and purchaser, each producer and investor, is a determinate datapoint from the a web of relationships fans out in all directions. The freedom of unknowing is the freedom of the market actor. The totality is its God.

Fake News

Yuval Noah Harari shows that the human capacity to compose and organize groups larger than 150 individuals is grounded in lying; or, if you prefer, in the capacity to invent stories that command attention and obedience among large groups. This was one of the themes Harari covered in Sapiens. And it is one to which he returns toward the end of Twenty-One Lessons.

In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws and can thereby cooperate effectively.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (pp. 240-241). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Nevertheless, Harari’s précis ignores the determinate character of fiction. Not all social formations spread the same lies, nor can they afford to, when, for example, the livelihood of my clan relies upon the reliability of the fictions we share: where is the next watering hole, when is winter coming, is that a storm on the horizon, when should we expect the herd to arrive, is that poisonous or not? So, while it is certainly true that Sapiens cannot command all of the information available to them, it is also true that the kinds of information they are asked to command and the reasons they might like to command such information differ from one social formation to another.

This specification of fiction turns out to be specially important in the capitalist social formation, in which power and knowledge are reduced to their marginal value, i.e., to ΔQ/ΔL. What is “true” in this instance is the marginal product, a ratio. If Rand Paul can convince his constituents that the medical community is in the pocket of socialists eager to deprive them of their rights and freedoms, it really does not matter whether exposure to Covid-19 does or does not grant him or those with whom he is in contact immunity to the virus. What matters is the marginal value Senator Paul and his employers, private business lobbyists, derive from the stories he is telling. But this is not to say that Senator Paul knows that he is lying. I suspect that he does not.

Harari suggests that Sapiens are not equipped to handle the information dished out to us. But is that true?

Let me propose that the capitalist social formation — like any social formation — is equipped to reproduce itself, that it has cultivated practices and forms of thought specially suited to its reproduction. And, let me propose that among the forms of thought capitalism generates and cultivates is an empty experience of “freedom,” freedom as absence, as pure void, as nothing. Capitalism generates and cultivates this empty experience of freedom because a substantive notion of freedom would fundamentally undermine ΔQ/ΔL; it would require that we specify Q as some quantity of some thing. But things, by their very nature, suffer the disability of specificity, determinacy, of being one thing and not another. That is, things are, by their very nature, constrained. Capitalism, by contrast, is grounded in the unconstrained aspiration of abstract value, in the endless expansion and flexibility of the ratio ΔQ/ΔL. Capitalism reproduces itself when and only insofar as social actors in sufficiently large numbers, enjoying sufficient power, embrace and behave on the basis of this fiction, this story.

This story is not, however, every story. It is a highly specific story. It is a determinate story specially suited to a specific kind of society, capitalist society. Is it fake?

Among the vehicles through which our story today is delivered none is perhaps more powerful than science fiction, to which Harari devotes a chapter toward the end of Twenty-One Lessons: Chapter 18. In large part, Harari is not impressed. In each, the heroine or hero (and increasingly the heroine) proves herself equipped to escape the algorithms that determine others. Without saying so explicitly what Harari finds unconvincing in these stories is their indeterminate grasp of freedom.

Most science-fiction movies actually tell a very old story: the victory of mind over matter. Thirty thousand years ago, the story went like this: “Mind imagines a stone knife; hand creates a knife; human kills mammoth.” But the truth is that humans gained control of the world not so much by inventing knives and killing mammoths as by manipulating human minds. The mind is not the subject that freely shapes historical actions and biological realities; the mind is an object that is being shaped by history and biology. Even our most cherished ideals—freedom, love, creativity—are like a stone knife that somebody else shaped in order to kill some mammoth. According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (p. 256). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Which is why Harari prefers A Huxley’s Brave New World to G Orwell’s 1984. Winston sees outside the illusion. It is an illusion. John the Savage, by contrast, kills himself because he recognizes that the illusion is freedom. He recognizes that he prefers the illusion to the reality.

“But I like the inconveniences,” says the Savage. “We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.” “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” “In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.” “All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” “Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence. “I claim them all,” said the Savage at last. Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (pp. 260-262). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But let us now suppose that this “freedom” is itself determinate, that it is specified by the commodity. What Senator Paul mistakes for indeterminacy — for “freedom” — is, in fact, the freedom of the value form of the commodity. And let us further suppose that substantive freedom is not only a form of information, the subject of the stories we tell, but is also a constraint, a limitation, a thing. Universal health care, universal education, housing, food security, sustainable energy are so deeply troubling to Senator Paul and to his private plutocratic supporters because and insofar as they show how constraints give rise to substantive freedom. Does John the Savage really want syphilis, cancer, too little to eat, typhoid, and the right to be tortured?

No. This is what radical right wing extremists want. They want to protect the right of Senator Paul to infect them.

The line separating A Huxley from A Rand is thin indeed. The story they tell, that they need to tell, is a story where constraint is malevolent. But (and I take this to be Harari’s main point) constraint need not be either malevolent or fake.

Capitalism is not fake. It is real. Were it not real we could not model it with such pin-point precision. Nevertheless, capitalism reproduces an experience of freedom that is fake, indeterminate freedom; which simply does not exist, anywhere, not even in God. But this means that the multiple layers of domination under which we labor dominate us not because they are constraints, but because they bring us to tell stories about our constraints that are not true. So, for example, the story about global climate change is not nearly as terrifying as the story that denies catastrophic climate change; the story about systemic misogyny and racism is not nearly as terrifying as the stories that deny systemic misogyny and racism; and the story about Covid-19 is not nearly as terrifying as the story that ignores the epidemiological evidence surrounding Covid-19.

Substantive freedoms — health, education, and welfare — also require stories. But they are stories that produce and reproduce a different kind of world, perhaps no less terrifying in its own ways, but also not false; perhaps simply sustainable.

Further remarks on Phenomenology of Spirit

The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness. Similarly, just as each stakes his own life, so each must seek the other’s death, for it values the other no rpore than itself; its essential being is present to it in the form of an ‘other’, it is outside of itself and must rid itself of its self-externality.


For some time, anthropologists have known that animals do not in fact exhibit the behavior GWF Hegel here ascribes to them precisely because they do not differentiate themselves from the “other” in the manner he does here (see, e.g., N Bird-David Feb 1992). In the immediate-return systems that prevailed for most of human history

the metaphor of sharing is a clue both to their views of their environment and to their action within it. Recent theory — from diverse perspectives — indeed shows that cognition (concepts, especially metaphorical ones, and percepts) is interrelated with action (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Gibson 1979, 1982; Ingold 1989) and this is, of course, in harmony with our own most commonplace experience. For example, our use of the metaphor “a dog is a friend” indicates that through close interaction with the dog we have come to perceive and approach it as a friend. Even when we represent the dog as an animal, in the course of what Marx called the life activity we engage with the dog as our friend and express this in various ways in our conduct and discourse.

N Bird-David, op. cit.

Rather than establishing myself by risking death or killing the other, the immediate-returns system sees in the other one whose life supports mine only so long as I share my life. But this begs the further question: in what kind of society might GWF Hegel’s master-slave relationship enjoy validity?

In §187, Hegel was still only focused on self-consciousness: consciousness of the “other” who is my “self.” I must, in other words, be ready to commit suicide — kill my “self” — in order to establish my “self.” But this my mastery of my self over my self is predicated upon and prefigures a life-and-death struggle for autonomy. The world is not to “share,” but to master, for it is only in this mastery that it reveals its independence, its autonomy.

Sharing gives way to domination and submission (see S Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti).

Further remarks on Phenomenology of Spirit

This simple infinity, or the absolute Notion, may be called the simple essence of life, the soul of the world, the universal blood, whose omnipresence is neither disturbed nor interrupted by any difference, but rather is itself every difference, as also their supersession;


As flawless a description of capital as I have found anywhere. Capital is this simple infinity, the simple essence of life, the soul of the world, the universal blood, whose omnipresence is neither disturbed nor interrupted by any difference, but rather is itself every difference, as also their supersession . . .

It is this quality of capital that renders most Marxian interpretations of capital superficial and one-sided; superficial because they mistake surface forms of appearance for the processes they aim to critique, missing the underlying soulful, living, omnipresent, essence of life that is capital; one-sided because every strategy that focuses on this surface no more than introduces another level of difference on top of a social form that is neither disturbed nor interrupted by any difference, but rather is itself every difference . . .

The Conservative Anglican Church in Africa

The shift in perspective from the curative to the preventive was really one from rejuvenating to conserving society.

Mahmood Mamdani

If Mamdani is correct and the British are credited with constructing pre-colonial “native” tradition in colonial Africa in order to govern the colonized culturally, this may help to explain the anti-traditional, reactionary character of the Anglican Church in some, though hardly in all, parts of post-colonial Africa. That is to say, the “tradition” Africans learned was not only not African. Nor was it Christian in an traditional sense. Just as Anglicanism remade Christianity in the image of capital, so it introduced a capitalist Christianity into Africa; that is to say, a Christianity that owed more to the isolation of abstract value from its material forms of appearance, more to inner, personal experience and mortification of the flesh, e.g., discipline, than to the non-capitalist Christianity that had prevailed for fourteen centuries within the Church. That said, when reactionary Anglicanism confronts its liberal cousin, it is confronting a blood relative insofar as both are fully products of the value form of capital. Which helps to explain why its liberal cousin will not and cannot prevail until it explicitly disavows the capitalism by which liberalism is necessarily animated.

Braudel’s Hegemony

I am recalling a passage from F Braudel, cited by G Arrighi, and ubiquitous in systems theoretical literature, to the effect that rising hegemons are free traders, while declining hegemons are protectionists. This seems to be holding good, with the US and UK circling their wagons and China and the EU fanning out across the globe. But there are a couple of nuances it would be easy to overlook in this analysis: (1) since the investment community is international, it leverages legal and institutional differences to its own advantage, no matter that the community happens to be their community of origin or residence; and (2) investors will naturally restrict or constrain goods whose prices dip too low.

This second nuance is well-illustrated in the current scramble for oil producing nations to reduce refinement of crude in order to raise global prices in light of the demand shock caused by the pandemic. Even if in general terms we support the elimination of fossil fuel extraction, nothing in the logics, public or private, of the Saudis, Russians, or Americans suggests that a sustainable future is on any of their minds. The liberality of free traders finds its nemesis in the price that dips too low to justify the cost of bringing it to market. No one knows this more than Trump’s white nationalist advisor Steve Miller, within whose narrative lurks the ghost of dirt cheap Eastern and Southern European laborers, not to mention prison labor, the labor of the camps, whose value to investors is that it has no access to legal protections, civil rights, or the protections offered by association. Constrain this commodity, and its price will not rise, even in the face of a shortage, because, unlike oil, workers who are unemployed will die. They will therefore take to rafts, boats, deserts, and even face armed vigilantes in order to feed their families. Constraining commodities is among the tools investors enjoy to realize the most handsome returns possible.

National laws, polities, and publics are among the commodities investors are authorized to manipulate. When China or the EU move into Africa, pleading nothing more than good will and altruism, they are not employing a logic different from Trump’s or Johnson’s. The same investors who decry Trump’s extremist white nationalism will, out of the other side of their mouths, welcome the higher returns on commodities offered by what are in effect taxpayer subsidies to US producers. Protectionism is not the enemy of the investor, only the inattentive investor.

All of which is to say that F Braudel is both correct and incorrect. Yes. It is the great preditors who are responsible for the shape of late capitalism. But, no. This is not by contrast to markets and certainly not by contrast to everyday life. Markets under capitalism are composed by abstract value as it occupies and sloshes about among its material forms of appearance, including states and state forms. The liberality of the Chinese and EU is not driven by a different set of global investors than the reactionary protectionist UK and US. Investors are global. Everywhere, they leverage differences in surface forms of appearance to maximize their returns.