For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many

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For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many ...

Re-Inventing the Subject: Marx and Ethics

    Caleb Basnett, York University

    The following is a rough draft presented at the Marx and Philosophy Society Annual thConference, 6 June 2009. Please direct any comments or questions to


Marxism’s preoccupation with its relation to science has often involved neglecting the

    possibility of a Marxist ethics. Ethics, along with the ethical ‘subject,’ have often been

    seen as ideological categories hostile to Marxist science. In my paper I will argue

    against this position, claiming that Marx’s Capital, while often seen as a kind of matrix

    for Marxist science free of ideological contamination, in fact contains numerous

    descriptions of different kinds of subjects from which an ethical project complementary to

    revolutionary politics can be constructed.

    I examine three interrelated yet distinct forms of subject found in Volume 1 of

    Marx’s Capital: 1) the subject of circulation, the legal ‘person’ of bourgeois society; 2) the pre-bourgeois subject transformed into this ‘person’ through historical forces; and 3)

    the subject of production, the laborer. While the latter two forms of subject arise through

    Marx’s empirical studies of history to undermine the essentially Hegelian subject of

    bourgeois society, both are described in terms of bodies and wills, concepts which, while

    retaining their Hegelian stamp, for Marx transcend their origins and become something

    altogether new. This empirical short-circuiting of idealist concepts involves the fracture

    of the bourgeois subject. Subjects for Marx are everywhere: indexed to the

    concatenating material processes that make up the world, they harbor the possibility of

    its change.

     Insofar as these material processes everywhere involve subjects, ethical subjects

    who practice the cultivation of their potential, such as those described by thinkers as

    diverse as Aristotle or Kant, need not serve the established order. Instead I argue these

    subjects might through ethical practice rid themselves of that which would mutilate their

    potential, radically alter the functioning of the material processes which they compose,

    and in so doing, re-invent themselves as subjects. In Marx, ethics can be revolutionary.


    Re-Inventing the Subject: Marx and Ethics

Against certain Marxist understandings of ethics and the ethical subject as ideological

    categories which necessarily reinforce the dictates of social repression, I wish to re-

    1examine here the question of the subject in Marx. Specifically, I wish to examine the

    subject as it relates to changing forms of social reproduction and a possible Marxist ethics

    through a re-reading of one of Marx‟s allegedly most „scientific‟ works, Capital Volume


    I will argue that the different dimensions of capitalist development Marx

    describes always involve a subjectsubjects are never ignored, but they are always

    subjects of a process, fundamentally tied to the transformations of „objective‟ forces. The

    relentless re-emergence of the subject in different forms suggests its necessity to

    capitalist development; indeed, that capital needs a subject, and continually and actively

    forges them to suit its requirements. Lastly, I will argue that the subjects of capital that

     1 While different attempts of reading Marx minus a subject are not uncommon (take as one example Teresa

    Brennan‟s “Why the Time Is Out of Joint: Marx‟s Political Economy without the Subject” in South Atlantic Quarterly (Spring 1998; 97, 2), 263-80), perhaps the most well-known proponent of a „subject-free Marx‟ is Louis Althusser. Althusser attacked the category of the subject along with ethics under the rubric of

    „humanism,‟ which he saw as being foreign to „Marxist science‟. See Althusser‟s For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1990), 11; 12; 227-9; 231 and also Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1990), 25; 27-8; 35-6. 2 While the question of Marx‟s work and its relation to science is as old as Marxism, the notion that some

    of Marx‟s writings could be more scientific than others is here again a reference to Althusser. Althusser‟s

    argument against ethical interpretations of Marx and for the development of a Marxist science

    uncontaminated by the ideology of bourgeois humanism, rested upon what he famously called the

    „epistemological break‟ that separated Marx‟s early works from his late works. According to Althusser‟s

    interpretation, this radical „epistemological break‟ came in 1845 with The German Ideology, where Marx (in collaboration with Engels) invented the „science of history,‟ thus fundamentally shifting the manner in

    which he/they explained the world (For Marx, 13; 45; 227). Marx‟s work subsequent to this break, such as

    Capital, ought thus to be seen as heterogeneous to Marx‟s early writings (riddled with Hegel references),

    and Marx himself understood as “the founder of a science, comparable with Galileo or Lavoisier” (Reading Capital, 153). For a more detailed account of Marx and Marxism‟s relation to science than is possible here,

    see Paul Thomas, Marxism and Scientific Socialism: From Engels to Althusser (New York: Routledge, 2008).


    populate Marx‟s descriptions are always articulated in terms of a will and a body: it is this relation that capital continually remolds, and it is here where Marx‟s analysis opens

    up to an ethics of the subject, where an individual might actively resist capital through

    ethical practice, molding the self in ways which upset the will of capital. In so doing, we

    might locate ethical subjects which are not simply functions of ideology, but are

    compatible with Marxist political strategy and the ways in which its struggles have been


    I. The Subject of Circulation/Legal Personhood: The Body as Commodity

    The commodity, despite its fantastic properties, Marx notes, cannot stand on its own two

    feet and take itself to market—in the end, the commodity requires a “guardian” to

    perform the functions that will allow it to take on the role of commodity. That is, capital

    3requires subjectsbodies performing certain operationsto facilitate its deployment; however, not simply any subject will do.

     In order for objects to enter into relation with each other in the manner that

    characterizes the commodity form, their guardians must enter into relation with one

    another in a “peaceable” manner; that is, they must not attempt to forcibly capture every

    object brought to market for themselves, but rather must follow certain rules of

    acquisition. That is, each guardian must recognize each other guardian as the rightful

     3 This tentative definition of the subject—“bodies performing certain operations,” or a set of practicesis

    meant to correspond to the specific limits Marx places on his study of capital when he writes: “individuals

    are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of

    particular class-relations and interests.” See Marx‟s Capital Volume 1 (New York: Penguin, 1990), 92. Thus any detailed account of the „inner life‟ of a subject is here bracketed from consideration: what I will

    focus on instead is the set of practices capital requires of the individuals who compose society in order to

    reproduce its social dominance.


    owner of the object he brings to market, and this recognition entails an association

    between the guardian, or the subject, and the object.

    An object is attached to a subject through an infusion of willan object becomes

    a possession in so far as it is possessed by the will of a subject, and thus made disposable

    4to her aims. Lacking a will of its own, an object cannot resist the advances of a subject,

    but as the possession of a subject, falls under the subject‟s protection. In finding an

    object infused with a will that opposes her own, a possession and not some freestanding thing, a subject thus recognizes the existence of another subject, and consequently the

    relation between wills that must be established if she is to acquire this possession without

    the risk of mutual violence. Thus the juridical relation comes into being, establishing this

    relation of wills in the form of contract, whereby one subject may acquire the object of

    another subject only after the latter has alienated her object, withdrawing her will from it.

    It is here, in the establishment of the juridical relation, that the subjects of capital acquire

    the shape of formally independent persons and property owners necessary for the

    5development of capitalism.

     With the independence of property owning persons established and their relations

    negotiable in the form of contract, the stage is set for the two kinds of owners of the two

    kinds of commodities required for capital to make its appearance. Capital requires the

    meeting of one who owns the means of production, a subject whose object can be utilized

    for the creation of more objects, and the owner of labour-power, a subject with nothing

    6but his own person in which to invest his willnothing but his own body to be made an object, his possession. Thus the subject of capital who sells his labour must be a divided

     4 “Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man.” Marx, Capital, 178. 5 Ibid., 182. 6 Ibid., 274.

     5 subject, one capable of possessing himself, and hence alienating himselfif only for limited periods of time specified by contract. To alienate himself absolutely, to sell

    himself into slavery, would be an affront to his „person,‟ the property he has recently come to find as his own, and on which the economic system in its juridical manifestation

    requires in order to guarantee that this system of acquisition remains „peaceable.‟

     While this account of the subject of circulation bears the clear influence of

    7Hegel‟s account of the person in his Philosophy of Right, Marx‟s account reveals the

    seedy underbelly of personhood: the person is not simply the possessor of property, but is also possessed as property. As capital can only emerge on the terrain of property, the

    person too must become property, so as to most efficiently appropriate the commodity

    necessary to produce more commodities: human labour.

    A person must first possess their labour as if it were a commodity in order to then

    8sell it as a commodity. In seizing her own being as an object, a piece of temporarily

    alienable property, the subject throws herself into the circuit of the market, and finds

    herself related to others as a commodity: the subject of circulation, the person, is herself a commodity. Yet how did labor-power come to be commodified in this way? How did

    the subject as person, as independent and free property owner, come into being?

    II. The Pre-Bourgeois Subject, or The Social Body and its Dissolution

    A very short answer to these questions might be given as simply: through violence. The labor that is, as Marx writes, “first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by

     7 That is, Marx‟s account of the sphere of circulation and commodity exchange and its denizens, the “free

    persons, who are equal before the law,” (Ibid., 279) appears to correspond to the sections on property,

    possession and contract as they are discussed by Hegel. See G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Allen W. Wood, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), ?41-?81. 8 Marx, Capital, 271.


    which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism

    9between himself and nature,” serves to establish a kind of unity between the opposition of man and nature in a common social body. The human subject, as part of this social body, recognizes this body as her body insofar as she recognizes the labour-power articulated within it as her own creative forces, and their products are her products. For

    Marx, the real foundation and starting-point of capitalism is thus the “division between the product of labour and labour itself, between the objective conditions of labour and

    10subjective labour-power”: in other words, the vivisection of this extended social body

    and the creation of a new subject. Once the instruments and objects of labour were cut

    loose of this bodyfreed, as the story goesits human component was cast adrift in a

    11new world.

    This newly found „freedom‟ was not in itself enough to triumphantly herald a

    subject capable of saying „I am I,‟ possessor of an individual and independent body, a

    responsible person. Many could not adapt so quickly to this new condition of existence,

    and turned to begging, robbery, and vagabondage. Here violence was the instrument

    applied, the flame required to refine this mass of unproductive labour-power into free and

    responsible persons, productive workers. Legislation was enacted against these new

    subjects, promising imprisonment, torture, and slavery to those who refused to take up

    the functions of their newly designated position. Perhaps the most telling of these

    punishments were the mutilations: ears clipped, digits removed, and brands burned into

     9 Ibid., 283. 10 Ibid., 716. 11 “The spoliation of the Church‟s property, the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the theft of the

    common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property and its transformation into modern private

    property under circumstances of ruthless terrorism, all theses things were just so many idyllic methods of

    primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into

    capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians” (Ibid.,



    flesh, literally inscribing the letter of the law upon deviant bodies: „V‟ for vagabond, „R‟

    12for rogue, and „S‟ for slave. Subjected to these punishments, the contours of the person

    become visiblethe subject of bourgeois society finds his position written upon his flesh.

    Driven back from the extremities of his extended body and sealed into his individual

    organic body with the branding iron, the subject finally comes to acquire an isolated and

    independent individuality, proprietor of nothing more than the minimum necessary for

    survival: a suffering, solitary body.

    III. The Subject of Production: The Labourer

    With the confinement of human potential within the boundaries of the legal person of

    bourgeois society, the labour-power which previously flowed through an extended social

    body now becomes a commodity isolated exclusively in the body of the individual

    worker, as his sole property. However, while capital requires and actively molds this

    form of subject in one dimension of the process of social reproduction, that is, within the

    sphere of circulation, it requires a very different form of subject in the sphere of

    production. Thus Marx, when he famously invites his reader to follow him into “the

    hidden abode of production,” warns that what has previously been seen was the “Eden of

    the innate rights of man” and that this abode of production will reveal a transformation in

    13the “physiognomy of our dramatis personae. A different form of subject will be required by capital on this different terrain of operation, and we will see the continual

    transformation of the subject to suit capital‟s development. The work of vivisection directed upon the extended social body, carving it up into independent individual bodies,

     12 Ibid., 897. 13 Ibid., 279-80.


    will continue upon these individual bodies, tearing away limbs in the isolation of

    particular functions, and re-combining them into new creatures, new and monstrous

    subjects. Specifically, I would like to now focus on three types of subject, three types of

    labourer, found in the sphere of production: the subject of co-operation, the subject of

    manufacture, and the subject of large-scale industry.

III. A) The Subject of Co-operation

    The subject of co-operation begins with the person deprived of all property but her

    individual organic body which she must sell for specific periods of time in order to live.

    During the time she has allotted to another, she ceases to belong to herself, and in a sense,

    just like any other object that must be alienated by its proprietor in order to legally

    change hands, she withdraws her will from her body and the actions it performs,

    according to the stipulations of a contract. In the stead of her own will the will of the

    14buyer, that is, the will of capital, comes to occupy her body, and direct its functions.

    This possession by capital operates simultaneously on numerous sellers of labour-power,

    bringing them together under this single will to form a new body, a new subject, that will

    labour collectively toward the aims of the will of capital.

    This new, co-operative subject is the offspring of the co-operative exercise of

    labour-power, and as such represents a highly ambivalent development for Marx. While

    planned, co-operative labour begins to reveal the amazing potential of labour-power that

    „man‟ actualizes, rending the “fetters of his individuality” and developing “the

    15capabilities of his species,” the co-operation described previously is brought about

     14 Ibid., 450. 15 Ibid., 447.


    through capital, and is consequently born already annexed to capital‟s ends. Thus the

    plan directing the actions of the labourers is not their ownit is the plan of capital, the

    foreign will that operates through them, animating their motions so as to produce the

    commodities that will be as alien to them as the process of which these objects are the

    result. Likewise, in this alienated state the individual labourers are not capable of forging

    real connections between each other, for capital simultaneously brings them together and

    keeps them separated: it is with the buyer of their labour-power, the capitalist, that they

    have entered into relations, and consequently any relation that might be developed

    between labourers will ultimately be mediated by the presence of capital. Enthralled to

    capital in this manner, the individual labourer partakes in a gross simulacrum of the

    potential of her “species,” as her creative potential is at every turn thwarted towards alien

    aims and its product stolen. As such, the labourer finds that even her last and only

    possession, her body, is not wholly her own, but a unit to be divided and subdivided for

    the enrichment of others, and to her own impoverishment.

III. B) The Subject of Manufacture

    This subdivision of the person paves the way for the further development of the collective labour process, and thus a further transformation of the labourer, as co-

    operation becomes manufacture. The hierarchical division of labour within the collective subject becomes radicalized in manufacture, as productive activities are broken down into

    increasingly specialized operations, accompanied by increasingly specialized instruments,

    and consequently demanding increasingly specialized workers to perform the necessary


    16operations. In establishing a “definite organization of social labour,” manufacture in a sense freezes its labourers in place: the subject of this sphere is enthralled to his position

    in the labour process organized by capital, becoming an “automatic, one-sided implement

    17of that operation.” The subject of manufacture is but a fragment of the body he

    possessed as a person: his individual organic body is now carved up in the same manner

    as was his extended social body, as individual limbs become annexed to processes

    independent of his will. Divided and developed in this way, the subject of manufacture is

    one of mutilated potential, a fragment of the person, who, molded to a specific point in

    the labour process, is no longer suited to others, and left with no more than to continue

    this course in the amortization of his creative powers.

    This crippling of the creative potential of the labourer reaches critical heights in

    manufacture: according to Marx, manufacture “attacks the individual at the very roots of

    18his life,” and thus threatens to diminish his usefulness. Consequently, capital must re-

    invent itself, and transform its mode of existence if it is to continue to flourish.

    Fortunately for capital, manufacture has provided the means necessary for this

    transformation with its development of the instruments of labour. Having apparently

    exhaustedat least at this stagethe extent to which the bodies of individual labourers

    19can be seized and divided, capital now alights upon the instruments of labour, which along with the development of complex coordinated social labour, make possible the

    emergence of machinery, and with it industrial production. The labourer, having been broken down into a simple function operating with the mechanical rhythm of an

     16 Ibid., 486. 17 Ibid., 458. 18 Ibid., 484. 19 Recall that “the simple elements of the labour process are (1) purposeful activity, that is work itself, (2)

    the object on which that work is performed, and (3) the instruments of that work” (Ibid., 284).

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