notes on Rancière’s “Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy”

From the taste of wheat it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist. Although use-values serve social needs and therefore exist within the social framework, they do not express the social relations of production.

Marx, Critique of Political Economy (1859)

We don’t need a critical phenomenology of capitalism. Or, we don’t need another one, since we can still read classical political economy whenever we’d like. This is Rancière’s thesis in “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy: From the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital,” his contribution to Reading Capital (1965). [1] (This will also be one moment of Althusser’s criticism of the enthusiastic reception among phenomenologists of the 1844 Manuscripts in For Marx). [2] In it, Rancière criticizes the concept of alienated labor as it functions in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. This concept constitutes “the classical image of alienation,” as Rancière calls it, according to which alienation is (i) the separation of the productive subject from the object of their production, (ii) the domination of the object, which is the objectified essence of the active subject, over the active subject, and (iii) the resulting reversal in the roles of subject and object such that the alienated object (capital) poses itself as the subject of movement and the active subject (the worker) becomes the object of their own product. Rancière opposes this schema of the subject-object reversal to Marx’s account of “inversion” in Capital, whereby “what passes into the thing is not the essence of a subjectivity but a [social] relation [of production]”; consequently, in Capital, capital is itself a thing-ified, or “reified” in technical terms, social relation, and the worker appears in Capital as a bearer [Träger] of the wage-labor relation of production instead of the primordial subject of the process. (Rancière, 159-161).

If the 1844 Manuscripts are phenomenological, Rancière continues, they are phenomenological in exactly the sense Marx later criticizes when he writes that the political economists provide only simple, conscious expression of the apparent motions of economic phenomena (83). The problem with the 1844 Manuscripts is that “no economic concept as such is criticized” and “all the concepts are validated at the level of political economy,” which for the young Marx means these concepts “express the facts adequately” even if “they do not comprehend” the real significance of those facts. (83) Political economy therefore “appears as the mirror in which the economic facts are reflected.” (83) Rancière calls Marx’s theoretical operation in the 1844 Manuscripts an amphibology, by which he means each economic law Marx finds in political economy is revealed to have true significance as an anthropological law, or as a partial expression of human essence (86). In other words, Marx’s task is to make explicit the anthropological discourse that is implicit in classical economics, which Ludwig Feuerbach’s already explicit anthropological philosophy of Man allows him to do. (90) Rancière contrasts this with Marx’s approach in Capital of relating the “inner determination” of an economic phenomena to its phenomenal form, the form through which economic phenomena are given to us as phenomena (107). Crucially, for the Marx of Capital, the inner determination is always a social relation of production that both constitutes the phenomenal economic object (e.g., the commodity) and disappears in the object, leaving us with a sense that the commodity is more than a mere thing but concealing the social relationship incarnated in the commodity (108-109). Rancière calls this metonymic causality, a concept according to which “what determines the connection between the effects (the relations between the commodities) is the cause (the social relations of production) insofar as it is absent.” (108) In short, the commodity as an economic object is a metonym, or metonymic manifestation, of the economic structure of capitalist society. (110) As a consequence, we cannot have phenomenological knowledge of the economic structure of capitalist society: “the object is no longer transparent [and] the whole theory of relating the sensuous and the object to the human subject collapses.” (111) The commodity is a bearer [Träger] of a social relation of production that it both incarnates and conceals, which is why the commodity-form vexed political economists for so long as they tried to find the factor that made a commodity equivalent with all other commodities inside of the materiality of the commodity itself.

In Capital, therefore, Rancière argues that Marx discovers a “gap between the conditions of constitution of the objects and the conditions of their perception” that determines their appearance as economic phenomena (114). Succinctly: “the phenomena of economic reality are only comprehensible in so far as they manifest, in a specific distortion, the effectivity of the relations of production.” (123) This is how Rancière understands Marx’s distinction between two motions: “the real motion which is the movement of value, a movement which is concealed in the repetition of the process of circulation, and an apparent motion, a movement accredited by everyday experience, and which presents the inverse of the real motion.” (127) The real production process of capitalism ends in the production of agents of production (e.g., the capitalist, the worker) and the production of economic phenomena which are given to these agents in their everyday experience. Furthermore, the real production process gives these agents of production a flow of economic phenomena in an inversion of the real motions of the production process. (127) Rancière: “It is this form of the apparent motion or of the connection of things which is given to the perception of the agents of production.” (128) The disappearance of the real movement of the inner determination (social relation of production) in the movement of economic phenomena that appears to agents of production is “constitutive of fetishism.” (150) (See Rancière’s discussion of ‘interest’ (150-166) for a concrete example.) To summarize, in the 1844 Manuscripts:

  1. Marx’s theoretical operation is the translation of the categories of political economy (commerce, competition, capital, money, etc.), which are assumed to mirror reality, into an anthropological discourse (of human essence) such that each is rediscovered as an expression of the same concept (alienated labor) (133)
  2. The central conceptual couple is the subject and object (or person and thing). The reality of economic relations is determined by this couple, and we can develop this determination by giving theoretical expression to a three-step process: “action of the subject on the object; inversion of the subject/object relation; recognition of the subject in the object.” (134)

In Capital, on the other hand:

  1. Marx’s theoretical operation consists rather in relating each category of political economy, as a form of appearance in the apparent motion of economic phenomena, back to the absent social relations of production, or the real motion of the capitalist process of production: “The conceptual work grasps the articulation of the forms in so far as it grasps what determines their articulation, i.e., the social relations.”(133)
  2. The central conceptual couple consists rather in the social relations of production on the one hand and the subject (agent of production) and object (economic phenomena) on the other, as “the position of eccentricity of the relations of production (…) determines the place of [both] the subject and the object.” The significance of the discovery of the social relations of production as determinant lies in the displacement of the subject from its former role (in the 1844 Manuscripts) as the constitutive principle of all objectivity to the extent that to be a subject of capitalist social relations of production at all is to be mystified. (134)

By way of conclusion: if the relations which determine the capitalist system can only exist in the form of their concealment (167), we will need a theory capable of simultaneously grasping the capitalist process of production and the necessity of its misrecognition by the agents of production (168). To free ourselves from what Marx calls “the religion of everyday life,” it will take nothing less. [3]


[1] For anyone interested in Rancière’s break with Althusser, Bosteels has an essay here: https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/reviewing-ranciere-or-the-persistence-of-discrepancies

[2] Althusser, in “The ‘1844 Manuscripts’ of Karl Marx: Political Economy and Philosophy”: “Bottigelli’s presentation takes us to the heart of these problems. Among the most remarkable sections are the pages where he discusses the theoretical status of alienated labour, where he compares the economic concepts of the Manuscripts with the economic concepts of Capital, where he raises the basic question of the theoretical nature (for Marx in 1844) of the just encountered political economy. The simple sentence: ‘Bourgeois political economy appeared to Marx as a kind of phenomenology’ (p. XLI) seems to me to be decisive, also, the fact that Marx accepts political economy precisely as it presents itself (p. LXVII) without questioning the content of its concepts or their systematicity as he was to do later on: it is this ‘abstraction’ of the Economy that authorizes the other ‘abstraction’: that of the Philosophy which is used to give it a basis. So a recognition of the philosophy at work in the Manuscripts necessarily returns us to our point of departure: the encounter with political economy, forcing us to ask the question: what is the reality that Marx encountered in the terms of this economics? The economy itself? Or more likely an economic ideology inseparable from the economists’ theories, that is, in the powerful expression quoted above, a ‘phenomenology ‘?” (link: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1962/economy-philosophy.htm )

[3] Rancière draws heavily for his argument on Marx’s criticism of the trinity formula in Capital Vol. 3: “Capital-profit (or better still capital-interest), land-ground-rent, labour-wages, this economic trinity as the connection between the components of value and wealth in general and its sources, completes the mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification of social relations, and the immediate coalescence of the material relations of production with their historical and social specificity: the bewitched, distorted and upside-down world haunted by Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, who are at the same time social characters and mere things. It is the great merit of classical economics to have dissolved this false appearance and deception, this autonomization and ossification of the different social elements of wealth vis-a-vis one another, this personification of things and reification of the relations of production, this religion of everyday life, by reducing interest to a part of profit and rent to the surplus above the average profit, so that they both coincide in surplus-value; by presenting the circulation process as simply a metamorphosis of forms, and finally in the immediate process of production reducing the value and surplus-value of commodities to labour. Yet even its best representatives remained more or less trapped in the world of illusion their criticism had dissolved, and nothing else is possible from the bourgeois standpoint; they all fell therefore more or less into inconsistencies, half-truths and unresolved contradictions. It is also quite natural, on the other hand, that the actual agents of production themselves feel completely at home in these estranged and irrational forms of capital-interest, land-rent, labour-wages, for these are precisely the configurations of appearance in which they move, and ‘with which they are daily involved. It is equally natural, therefore, that vulgar economics, which is nothing more than a didactic and more or less doctrinaire translation of the everyday notions of the actual agents of production, giving them a certain comprehensible arrangement, finds the natural basis of its fatuous self-importance established beyond all doubt precisely in this trinity, in which the entire inner connection is obliterated. This formula also corresponds to the self-interest of the dominant classes, since it preaches the natural necessity and perpetual justification of their sources of income and erects this into a dogma.” (968-969)

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