U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Quotes and Un-Quotes

Running somewhat low on non-dissertational energies, today I take the easy way out and present two quoted passages that I came across (in both cases, during re-readings) this week and which speak to questions with which I have been wrestling here at the blog.

First, a quote from Khalil Gibran-Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard, 2010).

Readers may recall that I have been playing around, under the influence of Lewis Gordon’s   interweaving of Frantz Fanon and Maurice Natanson, with the theme of “anonymity” and particularly with the Gordonian premise that much of the history of postbellum American anti-black racism can be organized around the notion of “combined and uneven anonymity.” Re-reading Gibran-Muhammad several days ago really helped me further concretize this idea. In particular, I was startled by the deep resonance of the following passage found on the second page of The Condemnation of Blackness. It is taken from the 1928 writings of the white racial liberal social scientist Thorsten Sellin on the unreliability of racial crime statistics:

We are prone to judge ourselves by our best traits and strangers by their worst. In the case of the Negro, stranger in our midst, all beliefs prejudicial to him aid in intensifying the feeling of racial antipathy engendered by his color and his social status. The colored criminal does not as a rule enjoy the racial anonymity which cloaks the offenses of individuals of the white race. The press is almost certain to brand him, and the more revolting his crime proves to be the more likely it is that his race will be advertised. In setting the hallmark of color upon him, his individuality is in a sense submerged, and instead of a mere thief, robber, or murderer, he becomes a representative of his race, which in its turn is made to suffer for his sins.


The second quote (longer than the one above) is offered in response to some readers who have been critical of my writing on capitalism, Political Marxism, and slavery. It is from Michael Lebowitz’s Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 5-11, and it conveys far more capably than I could the basic argument that I would want to rearticulate:

“Back when he presumably considered himself a Marxist, Jon Elster called attention to Marx’s repeated focus upon a common logical error – the ‘fallacy of composition’. Elster defined this error as the position that ‘what is possible for any single individual must be possible for them all simultaneously.’

It was a revelation to me… The classic case, cited by Elster, concerns the securing of profit or surplus-value by selling above value. Can surplus value have its origin in a ‘mark-up’ over the value of the commodity? Marx’s well-known response was: Yes, an individual capitalist can add a markup to his value and therefore secure a surplus-value; however, all capitalists cannot do so because they are also purchasers: ‘the capitalist class of a given country, taken as a whole, cannot defraud itself’ (bolded emphasis added, throughout; italics in original).

Once Elster articulated the point, I saw it everywhere. (Not only in Marx: any individual country can drive down wages, environmental standards, etc and can be internationally competitive, but. . . .) Can a worker become a capitalist? Of course. Any worker – with the proper combination of skill and fortune – may become an exploiter of other people’s labor, a capitalist. But, the same cannot be true for all workers at once: where there is no labor to be exploited, ‘there would be no capitalist nor capitalist production’.

Can capitalists decide to lend their money-capital for interest rather than employ it in industry? Any individual or group of capitalists can, but all capitalist can not do so:

Taken generally, i.e. when we apply it to the whole social capital, as is done by some vulgar economists and even given out as the basis of profit, of course, this is of course quite absurd. . . . But, as we have said above, for the individual capitalist this is in fact how it is.

This is not only a question about the differing characteristics and conditions facing the whole and its parts; also relevant (as Marx notes in his discussion of the last example) is the way in which parts interact and affect the conditions of existence of each other.

As the Grundrisse (that rich mine for the understanding of Marx’s thought-processes) indicates, any single worker can engage in self-denial and save. Yet, if workers generally act this way, it would affect the total amount of spending and there would be damage to general consumption: ‘the loss would be enormous . . . and hence also to production, thus also to the amount and volume of exchanges they could make with capital, hence to themselves as workers’. Indeed, the effect of all workers attempting to achieve what is possible for a single worker would be to nullify the efforts of each: ‘If they all save, then a general reduction of wages will bring them back to earth again.’

This early identification of what may be called a ‘Keynesian’ fallacy of composition argument is only one example of the effects of the interaction of individual actors. Every capitalist, Marx noted, ‘would like the workers of other capitalists to be the greatest consumers possible of his own commodity.’ 

The mass of workers ‘with the exception of his own workers, appear not as workers, but as consumers.’

Since each capitalist in his actions forgets that other capitalists are trying to restrict the consumption, i.e., the wage of their own workers, however, Marx indicated that the effect of the competition of capitals, ‘their indifference to and independence of each other’, is a tendency to crisis… Marx’s stress upon the whole, appropriately, led him to criticize any theory which proceeds from particular cases to establish general principles for the whole.  

Commenting, for example, on the argument that capital accumulation leads to rising wages and therefore to an increase in the supply of labor, he proposed that economists were confusing the relation of all workers and the total social capital ‘with the laws that distribute the working population over the different spheres of production’. What the economists see, he argued, is not the response of the total population but, rather, ‘the local oscillations of the labor-market in a particular sphere of production.’

Yes, the working population will rise in one sector with relatively rising wages, but, here again, the experience in the individual case differs from what is true of the whole.

The point is really very simple – the subject is the whole.

The working class taken as a whole, the capitalist class taken as a whole, capitalism as a whole.

To know Marx is to know (1) that the whole is not the sum of the individual parts taken separately and (2) that the way things appear to the individual actors actually involved – even if the events in question occur over and over again – cannot be the basis for our understanding of the whole. There is, in short, a big difference between Appearance and Essence…

Yet, Marx definitely was not arguing that the individual actors were deluded.

On the contrary, the individual capitalist ‘is right in believing’ that his profit is not derived solely from the labor exploited by him:

This is quite correct as far as his average profit is goes. How much this profit is mediated by the overall exploitation of labor by capital as a whole, i.e., by all his fellow-capitalists, this interconnection is a complete mystery to him.

Consider how things appear to the individual capitalist – indeed, how they truly are for him. What that capitalist wants is profits – the excess of the selling price of his commodity over its cost-price. The first thing he must do is obtain his necessary inputs and to do everything possible to lower the costs of those necessary inputs. Paying rent for land, interest for money-capital, wages for labor are preconditions of the process of production.

Thus, ‘it is precisely wages, interest and rent that go into this production as limiting and governing amounts of price. These therefore appear to him as the elements determining the price of his commodities.’

Accordingly, in his calculations as to how to act within competition, the capitalist – who only moves among the forms on the surface – takes into account the relative prices of necessary inputs; if, in one country, wages and rent are relatively low whereas, in another, interest is relatively low, ‘then a capitalist in the first country will use more land and labor and a capitalist on the other relatively more capital.’

But, it is not simply obtaining inputs at the lowest possible price that determines whether the individual capitalist will achieve his goal – it is also a matter of using purchased inputs economically.

Thus, anything that can be done to get more production from a given quantity of inputs will be pursued. There is a logic, then, to increasing the workday – prolonging it and intensifying it. Not only does the capitalist get more output from each worker but he also economizes in this way on fixed capital.

By the same logic, too, the individual capitalist has an interest in increasing productivity in order to lower the cost-price of his commodities. ‘He pockets the difference between their costs of production and the market-price of the other commodities, which are produced at higher production costs.’

That difference is the difference between his production and that of his competitors.

Every step of the way, that individual capitalist is conscious of one reality in particular – competition.

His ability to meet his production costs and to secure profits, the basis for his reproduction as capitalist, all depend upon his ability to defeat his competitors. He is, indeed, driven by competition – both as an innovator and as a follower. For example, if he is successful in increasing productivity, Marx commented, there is additional output to be sold. ‘Other things being equal, the capitalist’s commodities can only command a more extensive market if their prices are reduced’.

To increase his sales and his share of the market, the capitalist cheapens his commodities:

He attains the object he wishes to attain, if he puts the price of his goods only a small percentage lower than that of his competitors. He drives them from the field, he wrests from them at least part of their sales, by underselling them.

Faced with this initiative, the competitors must, in turn, act to reduce their cost-prices if they are to survive; they are compelled by competition to adopt the new method.

The price, accordingly, continues to fall and the advantage of the particular individual capitalist disappears as the new method becomes universal. The stage is set for the further driving down of prices in the search for profits.

No one could possibly criticize the individual capitalist for looking upon the costs of his inputs as the basis of commodity prices (rather than beginning from the concept of the value of commodities), and Marx certainly does not:

Experience shows here in theory, and the self-interested calculation of the capitalist shows in practice, that commodity prices are determined by wages, interest and rent, by the prices of labor, capital and land, and that these price elements are in fact the governing elements of price formation.

Similarly, it is not a surprise to Marx that an individual capitalist, when innovating to increase productivity, has no idea about the inner connection between the productivity of labor and the value of labor-power:

When an individual capitalist cheapens shirts, for instance, by increasing the productivity of labor, he by no means necessarily aims to reduce the value of labor-power…

His interest, as noted, is simply on reducing his costs relative to that of his competitors. Nevertheless, to the extent that he contributes in this way to the reduction of necessary labor, his actions make real ‘the general and necessary tendencies of capital’.

Why should the individual capitalist have any sense of any underlying inner relations? They are not his concern.

All that matters to him is his own reproduction: the interconnection of the reproduction process is not understood, i.e. as this presents itself not from the standpoint of individual capital, but rather from that of the total capital.

The problem, in short, is not with the individual actors. They perceive reality correctly – as it applies immediately to them. Marx’s critique, rather, was with those people who analyze the system as a whole on the basis of the way things appear to the actual agents of capitalist production…”

(Note: Lebowitz cites mostly to the MEGA; most of these quotes can be found in the Grundrisse or Capital, Volumes One and Three)