Marx, capitalism and the 'automatic subject'

By Karel Ludenhoff

Review: Adventures of the commodity: for a new criticism of value by Anselm Jappe, Munich 2005.

Anselm Jappe has two goals in writing a book about value theory. One, he wants to contribute to explaining the worldwide movements of protest and resistance against capitalist society. He is thinking, for example, of movements like the peasant struggles in India and Brazil and struggles which try to resist the destruction of the welfare state in Europe and which are fighting the new biotechnologies. He argues that today's social movements are limited to their own sectors and propose partial solutions without looking for the deeper cause of the phenomena they are fighting. However, the need for fundamental explanations is emerging and he sees his book as part of a process of providing them. Two, he criticizes those currents of Marxism that have their point of departure in the conception of labor as "the turning point of every society, which in modern society has come to the fore, while it had been concealed in the past.

He writes, among other things, about the commodity as an unknown entity, compares precapitalist societies with capitalism, relates fetishism and anthropology; and criticizes the modes of thinking and practice in the anti-globalization movement. I will here focus here on just one theme, the so-called "automatic subject," and relate it to the concept of the Subject in Marxism-Humanism.


Jappe says that it is of primary importance today to make use of Marx's work because it criticizes the basic categories of capitalist society and is not simply concerned with distribution. Nor did Marx envision applying his theory of value to non-capitalist societies.

He discerns two tendencies in Marx. One is a so-called exoteric Marx, whom he sees as a theoretician of modernization, a dissident of political liberalism and a protagonist of the Enlightenment who wanted to perfect industrial labor society under the guidance of the proletariat. The other is a so-called esoteric Marx, who in his difficult-to-understand criticism of value production went beyond capitalist civilization. According to Jappe, only this second side of Marx can provide a fundamental comprehension of present-day reality and enable us to trace out its most remote roots.

He writes: "This criticism of the center of modernity is nowadays more topical than it was in Marx's lifetime....To bring this aspect of Marx's criticism-value criticism-to the is sufficient to read the texts [of Marx] intently, although nearly no one did that for more than 100 years." On the other hand, Jappe considers most of Marx's empirical work " obsolete" for our times. Jappe makes use of the notion that Marx conceived of abstract labor and the value created by it not as material and concrete entities but as societal abstractions. Jappe then introduces the notion "real abstraction," which he defines as "societal reality, an abstraction, which becomes reality." Although "where the circulation of goods has been mediated by money, the abstraction has become real," he emphasizes that this real abstraction takes place in the sphere of production. That is because "money only makes possible the expression of [value], but it is not its creator."

He differs here from the views of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who situated real abstraction only in the sphere of circulation. Jappe argues that abstract labor, which creates value, dominates and determines all spheres of life in capitalist society: "In reality it is only indirectly, through the self-expansion of value, that the demands of material production in capitalist society are victorious over all social, aesthetic, religious or ethnic points of view." Things are very different in pre-capitalist societies, where "material production could be sacrificed to such considerations." In a society based on commodity production the concreteness of things is submitted to this abstraction of value as a result of abstract labor. One of the most important consequences of this is the destructive forces that it produces in capitalist society. Jappe writes of the "destructive potential" of capitalist society-destructive because what matters to it is only the capacity to transform [things into] money. The ecological crisis is one thing he has in mind.

He argues that the commodity-just like value, money and abstract labor-is a fetishistic category because abstract labor creates the value of any commodity. Jappe refers to Capital, where Marx writes: "As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labor which produces them."

Jappe stresses that Marx conceived of fetishism not only as a mistaken conception of reality but also as an "inversion of reality itself" and he illustrates this with a passage from Capital in which Marx says: "To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labors appears as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things." In his method of analysis Jappe starts with the logic of value and not with surface phenomena-like the actions of social actors or the observable classes and their conflicts in everyday life. These he sees as deduced forms, consequences of the logic of value. We do not need to be surprised about that, he writes, because in a fetishistic society there is an inversion of concrete and abstract, of human beings and means, of subject and object.

This conception of the logic of value results for Jappe ultimately in the notion of value as "automatic subject": "The dynamics of a commodity producing society is not to be reduced to the subjectivity of the exploiters against the resistance of the subjectivity of the exploited. In reality, real societal subjectivity cannot arise in a commodity producing society." In Jappe's vision, "in capitalism there can be only one subject: the automatic subject, which has to be destroyed and not developed." He adds to this, "Value does not limit itself to being a form of production; it too is a form of consciousness." Jappe thinks he finds support for his conception in two statements of Marx. The first one comes from Capital, where Marx in his chapter "The General Formula for Capital" analyzes the money and commodity function of value: "It [value] is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject." The second one is from the Grundrisse and reads: "Value enters as subject."


It is true Marx criticized the basic categories of capitalist society. In doing so he broke with bourgeois society in its totality. And no one will doubt that the historical situation in Marx's lifetime is different from our own. But to split Marx up in an exoteric and an esoteric part is in my view completely besides the point. On the contrary, the power of Marx's thought is precisely the complementary character of the historical and logical in his analysis of the development of capitalist society.

Of course, there is a logic of value. But value does not exist in a vacuum, as a logic on its own. Or, as Otto Morf puts it in History and Dialectic in Political Economy: "When logical categories are, as Marx holds, real categories, then they have to be found in reality; method cannot be taken out of the object and cannot be put in opposition to it." In this sense the notion of "real abstraction "is better conceived of as a non-observable reality which gets an observable character through expression in a material object."

Is most of Marx's empirical work obsolete? I don't think so. Let us take as an example Marx's chapter about the working day in Capital. In this chapter we can see how Marx listens to the voices from below, how he analyzes the forces of the Subject in capitalist society. Marx writes here explicitly: "It is otherwise with the subjective factor of the labor process, labor power,which sets itself in motion independently." Labor power which is preserving the value of the means of production by transferring it to the new product and labor power which is creating new value at the same time. This chapter illustrates the status of Capital as a weapon in the struggle for human emancipation in capitalist society in order to get rid of capitalist society.

It is this status of Capital, which makes it, as Raya Dunayevskaya put it in Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution, "a very different book than either the Grundrisse or the Critique of Political Economy, and it is a very different book from the first chapter to the is that Great Divide [from Hegel] just because, the Subject-not subject matter, but Subject-was neither economics nor philosophy, but the human being, the masses."

Marx's concern with Subject as the living human being is developed throughout all of his work. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx already stresses subject as the living human being: "The worker produces capital, capital produces him-hence he produces himself, and man as worker, as a commodity, is the product of this entire cycle." More as three decades later, in his "Remarks on Wagner," he states: "neither 'value" nor 'exchange value' are for me subjects, but the commodity." The commodity then is the result of labor power, which functions as wage labor.

It will be clear that a view that is fixated on an automatic subject, and with it the disappearance of the human being as Subject in capitalist society, can only envision the way out of capitalism through a so-called "breakdown" of capitalist society. In the vision of Jappe, such a breakdown occurs through "the increasing productivity of labor-which in the last instance brings about the breakdown of the society resting on value."

Before coming to a conclusion about Jappe's conception of an automatic subject, a few words about the support he thinks he finds in the above mentioned passages in Marx. In both passages Marx is writing about form specifities. In the Grundrisse he is dealing with the formal specificity of the production process: "this process is a process of self-realization. Self-realization includes preservation of the prior value, as well as its multiplication." In the Capital passage Marx is concerned with the difference between Capital-Money-Capital and Money-Capital-Money. In both passages labor power actually is the center and I think Jappe's support is out of place. In reality, Jappe's notion of an automatic subject makes engagement for changing consciousness, in order to change the world, superfluous.

In my view this represents a dramatic example of the reification of thinking into categories. To change the world entails not only reading of the texts of Marx, but also listening to the voices of below, to the living subject, to develop theory to change the world.

This article first appeared in News and Letters Aug-Sept 2006