Thursday, March 26, 2015

social forms and the individual

Unknown unknowns: All the things you don't know you don't know

I thought I had understood capitalism, that the bosses owned the means of production and the workers had no option but to sell their labour to the boss. There were rich people, poor people and class struggle.

But I didn't know about Value as a social form and so my real understanding of capitalism was deficient.

Despite my involvement in radical anti-imperialist / communist politics going back to the late 1960s I totally missed that a variety of social forms (formations) that we swim in daily have evolved and materialised from non material things, namely social relations. For example, some people worship money and virtually everyone can't help but adopt a strong interest in money, since it is essential to both survival and a good life. But most people haven't thought through that money originates in a social relation, that is, the need to standardise commodity exchange.

Such social forms are historically contingent, not an inevitable aspects of society. In the late 60s I had looked below the surface of capitalism and understood some of its workings but had missed that there was a lot more happening down there than I had imagined. Sadly, I now realise, my ignorance was and is shared by most other 60s radicals. This ignorance originated in a failure to understand Marx's most important work, “Capital”.


Social forms are things that emerge (materialise) as social artefacts as society evolves. Their origin is social not material. They become part of that society and are often perceived as part of the air we breathe. But it is social function that has brought them about and not the form which has created the social function. They don’t have any necessary permanence beyond that. Social forms in capitalist society include things of major importance such as value, money, capital, the commodity, commodity exchange, the market, rent and interest. These things emerge from a social process and are not set in stone for all time.

What Marx meant by Value as a social form was the capacity of a commodity to be exchanged as an equal. In terms of social or class consciousness some people have a strong sense of boss – worker relations as a social construct, something that can change, but usually do not have the same sense that Value has arisen socially and will not be around forever. You can imagine a society (socialism, communism) where things are produced for people's needs or wants, that people will receive food, medicine and white goods irrespective of their financial status. In such a society Value as a measure of commodities to be exchanged would whither away.

I am taking a lot of short cuts here. I can explain Value in more detail in another post. Marx argues that money (he refers to gold or silver as money) evolves from the commodity. Money eventually evolves as a universal equivalent. Gold has the ideal properties required for money (divisibility, durability etc.)

Hence Value arises through the social process of commodity exchange. Its origin and evolution is through this social process and has nothing to do with any identifiable physical or material properties of commodities. Although value eventually takes a physical form in the shape of money its origin is social.
“No scientist to date has yet discovered what natural qualities make definite proportions of snuff, tobacco and paintings 'equivalents' of one another” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part 3, p. 130, link)
In time the social forms become more than the expression but the bearers, the motivators, the dominant consideration in the decisions people make in their lives. This is fairly obvious, in the case of money, for instance.


My friend Peter, is trying to develop a theory of ethical and moral value, based on Marx. One of his ideas here is to include the concept of the individual as a social form. In his words:
“I want to isolate, and show the epistemological weaknesses in notions (widespread in both philosophy and psychology, both in the past and today) of the separate, atomistic, private, individual self, as if it is, as if it could be, the basis of value and meaning in society today.

Such a self, I hope to demonstrate, is a by-product of, an abstraction, from material, universal human interaction. And that that self arises, historically, along with money – as a result, initially, of exchange relations, but only becomes individual autonomy (a very abstract and alienated idea of individual freedom and equality, as described by Marx in Capital) with the rise of wage labour as an important part of exchange in capitalism.

The abstraction that is the separate, atomistic, private individual self today sits over, and obscures (what is regarded as ‘outside’ - both behind the backs, but also in front of the noses, of every individual) – the material, social and universal aspect of everyday human interaction. The creative potential of all our human interactions is depleted in the ubiquitous ‘breaking up’ of those interactions into well intentioned, but very separate, atomistic, private, individual selves (deemed to be both real and ‘universal’).

Life is about, we are told, each of us, giving and taking what we need and we want. And that, the give and take, is a natural and ahistorical fact of life - there is no value greater, there is nothing more real, than the good self who strives to live by what is given to us all, according to what we all have inherited, as good, right and true.

I hope to demonstrate that the religious, superstitious and fetishistic abstraction, that is the autonomous individual, works every day, to erode, deplete and render sterile the creative and social opportunities that arise every day in human interaction. Such individualism, insinuated between every one of us, and between our actions, makes us strangers to the immanent nature of universal social need and injustice. The solitary self is a stumbling block that continues, is actively used, to crush real human creativity."
I have some issues with this interpretation of the individual. I will write about those later. What I wanted to do in this post was to explain the meaning of social forms and at least outline the case, from Peter, that such an interpretation of the individual is at least plausible.


Peter Green said...

You say “… social forms … evolved and materialised from non material things, namely social relations.”
Social relations are material. They are how we, humans, in our daily, living, interaction, produce and reproduce our life. One example of the materiality of social relations is this, my reply to you.
Social relations, also called the “social relations of production”, is what Marx meant by the “base”, from which ideology, material, ethical and moral values and social institutions (as well as the abstraction that is the autonomous individual) – what you call “social forms”, arise. Social forms are an abstract reflection of material social relations.
This is made clear by Engels (letter to Bloch) “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of life. More than this neither Marx nor myself have asserted. Hence, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract and senseless phrase.”

Bill Kerr said...

hi Peter,

In the section of Capital vol 1 about commodity fetishism, Marx said:

"... the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things"

From that statement alone I think you would have to agree that Marx is pointing to a big difference b/w social relations and material relations. He is saying that material relations are less than fully human to human relations. When human relations become more formal, trapped or degraded within a capitalist framework then Marx refers to them as "material", ie. less than human. So your reply to me is social not material in Marx language even though it takes the material form of electrons passing through the world wide web.

Your evidence in the form of a letter from Engels merely confuses the concept of a materialist conception of history with how Marx used the word material, which is not the same thing at all.