Notes on “The Grundrisse” (1939/1993) by Karl Marx (4)

Notebook 4

“Notebook 4” of the Grundrisse is, perhaps, the one that focus the most on the way capitalist production relies in “transforming labour,” or the ways into which labour is transformed. At the same time, this notebook is also about what some critics have identified as the backbone of capitalism, the general equivalent. Continuing with the way surplus value is produced, Marx states that one of the main ways to approach this is via “developing the nature of surplus value as the equivalent of the absolute or relative labour time mobilized by capital above and beyond necessary labour time” (385). With this, then, surplus value must always be placed in one side of an axis of equivalence. The other side of this axis is meant to be occupied by absolute or relative labour time. With this, then, surplus value appears to be as a mere addition of labour (absolute or relative). The problem with this, is that by force of equivalence, surplus value can only be equal to surplus labour. Since capitalist production presupposes a specific use of machinery by the bourgeoisie, and this use implies “the saving of necessary labour and the creating of surplus labour” (389), then, new capital will always be equal to the old capital plus a fraction of it [the old capital]. Capitalism only works when surplus meets surplus, and consequently, the division of labour is never a necessary attribute that labour comes naturally with: labour suffers an imposition for its division and its eventual conversion into surplus labour. 

With not much surprise, as in the same Grundrisse it is already mentioned, wealth “is disposable time and nothing more” (397), since the time that can be completely thrown away is already producing surplus in all its forms, value, capital, and labour. At times, it seems that all the exercise and display of mathematical formulas is but trying to depict several forms of disguises, or mystifications, that capitalism requires. We see then that when it is written that “capital, as the positing surplus labour, is equally and in the same moment the positing and the not-positing of necessary labour; it exists only in so far as necessary labour both exists and does not exist” (401), this ambivalent existence of capital, that of being positing and not-positing, or existent and non-existent, is precisely what could be called a disguise, or a mystification. The very fact that capital exists only in the act of being placed in a position of ambivalence tells more about the fact that capital is always acting, performing a role in disguise as it is in the process of becoming something else. Capitalism, then, is a territorialization of becoming.

In “Notebook 4” there is also a topic later developed by Rosa Luxemburg, that of the limits of capitalism. Marx notes that there is a point after the different processes of circulation, production, and consumption have held sway in which capitalism becomes a barrier for itself, and “hence will drive towards its own suspension” (410). This suspension means that capitalism takes a step back only to eventually push forward its drive, to go “beyond [habitual] production” (413). The logic for Marx, then, is not that capital will wait for processes of crisis to expand, as Luxemburg will expand, but that capital in its highest points of development is when it “more appears as barrier to [its own] production —hence also to consumption— besides the other contradictions which make it appear as border some barrier to production and intercourse” (416). The logic is that capitalism, as with its axis of equivalences that only accepts in both sides different, but equalized, forms of surpluses, follows a drive for self-realization that demands “excess [that] it posits surplus labour, then, as the condition of the necessary, and surplus value as the limit of objectified labour, of value as such” (421). The only rule in town is to always demand an equivalence of excess. While it is emphatically mentioned that surplus value presupposes surplus labour, it happens otherwise when Marx explores the notion of “living labour.”

The realization of living labour is stated to be a process that “at the same time [realizes and then adds] the de-realization process of labour. It posits itself objectively, but it posits this, its objectivity, as its own not-being or as the being, of its not-being-of capital” (454). Consequently, it is not surplus value what presupposes surplus labour, and neither the other way around. What presupposes the exchanges and equivalences, the disguises, is living labour. When placed in front of capitalist production, living labour is territorialized (realized) and at the same time deterritorialized (de-realized). The process of deterritorialization of living labour is, by the same token, the process of becoming and of flight off capitalist production. Capitalism relies in something that is alien to it, something that is outside of it, something that carries the possibility of ending the never-ending spiral of accumulation or of repeating it. Living labour is a force of repetition, what haunts the production of surplus value, “the condition and presupposition of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presupposes precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming” (459). Once capitalism has territorialized that becoming then the worker is negated from its products. But perhaps before it was different. 

As “Notebook 4” closes, Marx elaborates on different modes of production that did not require the disposition of the worker’s labour and its product to guarantee social existence. Perhaps this part is the one that most strongly influenced further explorations on what communism could be. At the same time, one might wonder if the exploration of these past commons (common land, labour, time, etc.) should not necessarily be the core of the search for the commons. That is, perhaps, the commons are already outside of the past, outside of history, repeating in many different ways, all the time always becoming. 

Notes on “The Grundrisse” (1939/1993) by Karl Marx (3)

Notebook 3

There is something in capitalism that not only relies on the way it affects and habituates the masses. While Marx famously stated that religion was the opium of the masses, capitalism, could also be said, relies on a psychotropic force. When describing how capitalists are directly affected by the time a worker consecrates to production, Marx notices that “the struggle for the ten hours bill […] proves that the capitalist likes nothing better than for him to squander his dosages of vital force as much as possible, without interruption” (294). The squander of dosages speaks volumes of the addictive relationship that capitalists have with the labour of workers. With not a lot of imagination one can picture capitalists as characters from The Wolf of Wall Street: bodies addicted to everything that excites them. In the Notebook 3, It is not the only time that Marx uses images that allude to addiction, or sickness. Marx compares labour “as the living source of virus” (296). Dosages and viruses are not necessarily contradictory in themselves. They are, in fact, tied by the idea of toxicity and addiction that both terms evoke. 

The body of the addict lives and breathes that which addiction dictates it. If the capitalists are like addicts and “labour is the yeast thrown into it, which starts fermenting” (298), the capitalists need the liveliness in order to satisfy their thirst, their craves. With this, then, the whole process of production is a process that relies on live above all. What does, then, capital do? That is, if normally we associate capitalism with death, dispossession and destruction, why is it that the mogul addicts that feed the machine need so much of live? And more importantly, how is it that even consumption “which terminates neither in a void, nor in the mere subjectification of the objective, but which is, rather, again posited as an object” (300-301) still has some of the live that capitalism transformed? Perhaps a point of departure for understanding this is the fact that “production for unproductive consumption is quite as productive as that for productive consumption; always assuming that it produces or reproduces capital” (306). If capital, as in Notebook 2, is considered as something intrinsic to the way the body extends its power and its plan on something, then, capital is something unavoidable, something that is produced and reproduced at any times. The question, not new at all, is why does capital imply capitalism as a system to be easier to observe? 

For capitalism, capital is something that must be preserved. Outside capitalism, if today we can possibly picture that, capital is something that sooner or later will stop working. That is, if capitalism acts as an addiction, capital is always a reactivation of withdrawal symptoms. As “the value of capital has preserved itself in the act of production, and [after it] now appears as a sum” (315), the addict too, after withdrawal sees the sum of further doses as the only target. Preservation at all costs is the slogan of capital in capitalism, like euphoria or dysphoria for the addict. Form this it is visible that for the sake of preserving oneself, the worker gives life to a system that extracts affect from it. Labour is moved, then, by a process of addition, while capitalism is moved by a process of addiction. Addition is that which labour do as living labour, as something that “adds a new amount of labour; however, it is not this quantitative addition which preserves the amount of already objectified labour, but rather its quality as living labour, the fact that it relates as labour to the use values in which the previous labour exists” (363). While labour adds, capitalism dosages that addition turning it into addiction. The distinction between these two, addition and addiction, is blurry, and perhaps today impossible to tell.