Value as Subject: The Unilateral Capital Relation

By K. Gawel

Marx’s Grundrisse (1857) opens with the seemingly paradoxical statement that the “isolated individual” encounters himself detached from his social bonds in the epoch of the “hitherto most developed… social relations.”1 For Marx this apparent incongruity between independent identity and the sociality of capital that informs it is intrinsic to the mystification involved in capitalist reproduction; individualized subjectivity is an abstraction of the social relations that produce it, which as such concretely reproduces these social relations. Indeed, this mystification functions by way of the fact that value — the engine of the capitalist mode of production in terms of which the individual comes to know herself as such — constitutes this ground of sociality precisely as an independent subject.2 Nor is this an innocent fact, as value achieves this independence as the subject of its own valorization process only insofar as the individual worker — ostensibly herself the free agent — forms its constitutive outside and mediation, and as such can never partake in the form of independent subjectivity it casts upon her as its empty shadow.

My aim is to trace the process of value becoming subject in terms of its implications for understanding individualized subjectivity as a vehicle for emancipation. In doing so, I will follow Marx’s elaboration of the money circuit of capital, since money is the universally equivalent form that value takes in its self-positing and multiplication and its circuit thus forms the “general formula for capital.”3 In the following three sections I will analyze the way in which the worker’s contradictory roles as both subject and object, in opposition to value yet perpetually creating and informing it, permit the process of capital’s self-valorization in and through the capital relation between labor and capital.4 Tracing capital’s money circuit, these sections correspond to the initial confrontation and exchange between worker and capitalist, the valorization process in production, and money capital’s return to circulation. Labor is initially posed by capital in exchange as a property-less object whose necessary opposition to capital is realized via its appearance as free subject, and subsequently posed in production as pure subjectivity excluded from the objective value that it produces. In being posited by capital as separate and independent from it only as object, and as originating agency as subject only insofar as it cannot take part in its own objective product, labor in each instance is formed as the reverse image of value. That value thus perpetuates itself as “abstraction in action”5 allows us not only to understand the processual sociality of valorization in its presentation as self-identical subject but also the domination inseparable from the very form of abstract subjectivity. The first two sections will be structured around a passage in the Grundrisse in which the implications of this process are presented with particular force. The final section will rely primarily on passages from Capital, Volume II (1894) on the money circuit of capital.

Part I: The Initial Exchange

Labor posited as not-capital is on the one hand absolute poverty:

Not-objectified labor, conceived negatively (itself still objective; the non-objective itself in objective form). As such it is the not-raw-material, not-instrument of labor, not-raw-product: labor separated from all means and objects of labor, from its entire objectivity. This living labor, existing as an abstraction from these moments of its actual reality (also not-value); this complete denudation, purely subjective existence of labor, stripped of all objectivity. Labor as absolute poverty: poverty not as shortage but as total exclusion from objective wealth. Or as the existing not-value, and hence purely objective use value existing without mediation, this objectivity can only be an objectivity not separated from the person: only an objectivity coinciding with his immediate bodily existence. Since the objectivity is purely immediate, it is just as much direct not-objectivity. In other words, not an objectivity which falls outside the immediate presence of the individual himself.6

As the owner of abstract labor-power the worker finds herself stripped of all property in a double sense: both objective property as the means of production or any other means of subsisting apart from the selling of her labor for a wage, as well as property as any characteristic which would distinguish her labor from any other. “Labor posited as not-capital,” or labor posited as opposed to capital as its condition of possibility, is thus in this first encounter “not-objectified labor conceived negatively,”7 deprived of its objectivity in the form of the material means of production through which to enact itself as purposeful activity and thus to perform itself as itself. This “complete denudation” of labor as pure object facing capital as subject is thus also the “purely subjective existence of labor, stripped of all objectivity.” Labor without means of performing itself, labor as pure object, is merely subjective: truncated from its objective extension and thus its grounding in the world it is “poverty not as shortage but as total exclusion from objective wealth,” from anything but its bare subjectivity. This exclusion is also its independence, as “the existing not-value, and hence purely objective use value existing without mediation.” Labor’s very independence from capital prior to its mediation by it — this first moment in which it finds itself confronted by capital but has not yet entered into contract with it — is also its total poverty as abstract labor. What amounts to the same thing, labor as independent subject is an object: “This objectivity can only be an objectivity not separated from the person… Since the objectivity is purely immediate, it is just as much direct not-objectivity.” The human being deprived of his means of subsistence and of any specificity in his laboring capacity is denigrated to the subjective and objective at once, to the extent that the difference between them becomes irrelevant. His existence is simultaneously immediate and abstract: abstract labor in-itself without the mediation of capital, as that which enables it to be actualized as such, is independent in the negative sense; it cannot be a subjective agent, precisely because it cannot not be. Labor is thus posed by capital as an abstract subject/object based upon its character as property-less property. It is pure identity with itself, a mirror image of capital’s own pure identity, but this only negatively, whereas capital is the positive subject opposed to it via its specific incarnation in an individual capitalist as an owner of the means of production.

As use value that opposes capital, labor is and must be both negatively free as a denuded object and also a positively free subject as an agent entering into an exchange; this ambiguity of freedom is the basis upon which the worker enters the bourgeois juridical contract between equals through which she exchanges her labor for a wage. However, this “relation of two wills” necessarily “mirrors the economic relation”8 ultimately constituted in terms of value’s own auto-relationality so that the will of the worker is posited in opposition to capital as its necessary condition only through its lack of objective property as the necessary, but empty, mirror image of capital’s positive identity. As a relation of two wills that mirrors the economic relation, the contract between equals is thus an agreement “tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of… alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other”.9 The contradiction between labor’s apparent freedom and actual poverty is contained in the nature of the relation itself; capital requires that labor confront it as an independent agent completely external to it yet devoid of any characteristics of its own and this is due to the nature of the commodity owned by labor and capital respectively; capital requires that labor confront it as an independent agent completely external to it yet devoid of any characteristics of its own. The capitalist opposes the worker as owner of money, which the worker needs in order to realize her productive capacity as such. The worker on the other hand opposes capital as the owner of its use value to be taken up into it as value. In other words, the “alienable thing” that the worker brings to the contract as independent subject is precisely her own creative capacity to work. That this commodity can be alienated — transferred to the capitalist’s ownership — is due to the fact that the worker must freely do so as property-less yet independent subject. The worker enters into relation with capital as a private owner of abstract labor-power — an alienable, property-less poverty that exists as such precisely insofar as she becomes a subject capable of freely alienating it. Her property as agent in this relationship is thus her purely immediate poverty as object.

In the end the worker confronts the capitalist on the market as both free subject and as object because her dispossessed specificity as total poverty and free subject — as an ‘equal’ in the concrete relationship — is the necessary condition that enables value as abstract subject to take the form of general wealth while precisely excluding the worker from it. In the moment of actual exchange this vacant equivalence belies the unequal social ground upon which the exchange takes place:

“…because the worker receives the equivalent in the form of money, the form of general wealth, he is in this exchange an equal vis-à-vis the capitalist, like every other party in exchange; at least so he seems. In fact this equality is already disturbed because the worker’s relation to the capitalist is as a use value, in the form specifically distinct from exchange value, in opposition to value posited as value, is a presupposition of this seemingly simple exchange; because, thus, he already stands in an economically different relation — outside that of exchange…”10

The worker agrees to trade a quantity of labor-power for a quantity of money. Due to the very self-equivalence of money as universal equivalent and thus the “form of general wealth,” the relation seems to affirm the equal footing of worker and capitalist. In accordance with the ideological grounds of the contract, the worker’s equality in confronting capital in the relationship of exchange is expressed in the money that he receives — an exchange of a portion of the general wealth (albeit from which he was initially alienated) for the ability to employ his labor for a predetermined time. However, as we have seen, capital can preserve itself via the money form as generalized equivalence only in opposition to labor as use value existing separate and independent from it. Thus “this equality is already disturbed because the worker’s relation to the capitalist is as an use value” as opposed to the exchange value which he accepts as his pay. The worker’s equality with capital is therefore not only expressed in terms of money as the generalized equivalence of an alien force existing outside of it and to which it finds itself opposed, but this equality is, moreover, only actualized insofar as she cannot partake in this wealth as such and “thus stands in an economically different relation-outside that of exchange.”

“Value posited as value,” or money, is thus the ever-present term of equality in which the worker both does and does not partake; she comes to the relation of exchange as the negative image of its own self-equivalence so that in the very moment in which she enters into material relation with it she is forced again outside of it. Capital’s valorization requires that money retain its character and that labor as a commodity do so too, since “as capital it can posit itself only by positing labor as not-capital, as pure use value.”11 Once the exchange takes place, its ideological shell falls away to reveal the capital relation as merely the assertion of capital’s necessity to valorize itself by incorporating yet maintaining itself as opposed to what must exist outside of it as its use, namely labor. In the exchange of his use value for money, the worker is ejected from the general wealth of capital through the very act of accepting (and thus using) a portion of it, and in this way finds himself in need of renewing the contract.

Since capital can only become itself when opposed by a free proprietor stripped of all property, its self-identity as valorization is fundamentally also a relation and a constantly renewed process. Labor and capital must continually meet in the market, must constantly replay labor’s freedom as well as its dispossession from its own conditions of production; as we have seen, this freedom and dispossession slip each into the other in the moment they are enacted as such. “This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production.”12 The way in which this reproduction of the worker which is also that of value functions in production itself will be the subject of the next section.

Part II: Production

Labor posed as not-capital is on the other hand the general possibility of wealth as subject and as activity:

Not-objectified labor, not value, conceived positively, or as a negativity in relation to itself, is the not objectified, hence non-objective, i.e. subjective existence of labor itself. Labor not as an object, but as activity; not as itself value, but as the living source of value. [Namely it is] general wealth (in contrast to capital in which it exists objectively, as reality) as the general possibility of the same, which proves itself as such in action.13

Labor as use value becomes a positive reality only when called to action by capital. Whereas, in its negativity, labor was an abstract and property-less object, and as such appeared as free subject in opposition to capital, in production labor is posited as active subject, imbuing the valorization process with its positive subjectivity by constantly endowing value an objectivity that can only be that of capital itself. Abstract labor, capable of all specificity because only an empty self-equivalence, is beckoned to the dance and in its moment of contact with capital it is animated and becomes animator, the enacted use value of capital as its valorizing activity. As such it loses the identity with itself that was characteristic of its presentation in the initial exchange as abstract labor and is transformed into its purely subjective extension as mere action that becomes capital in the moment of its realization. This action of labor as subject is the “mediating activity by which [capital] valorizes itself,”14 incorporated into capital but itself not-capital, not-value, the naked act of capital which belongs to it by remaining outside of it. Here again labor forms the necessary reverse image of value, through and against which it maintains its ultimate identity with itself. That in production the valorization process occurs via value’s becoming object in opposition to labor — which now takes the form of subject — is fundamental to capital’s maintenance of its abstract identity.

In production, money capital, in order to meet itself anew in exchange as self-identical yet augmented value, disaggregates from itself into the object upon which labor as subject performs its valorizing activity. Production therefore forms a material interruption in the money circuit. It is, however, only through this very interruption of value’s abstraction in action that labor can perform the materiality of value as surplus and therefore as general wealth. Capital slackens from itself as form and falls back into its dormant self as substance in order to enable the form-giving activity of labor to penetrate and substantiate it. Thus capital’s material valorization via its differentiation from itself as object — its own illusory negativity — takes place as labor’s subjectivity, as the constant rendering actual of the “general possibility” of wealth it forms as opposed to yet creator of value’s materiality.

Labor’s own positive self-relation is therefore only ever a relation to capital and as such a mere “negativity in relation to itself,” a becoming other than itself in the moment of its actualization as dead labor or capital. Labor — here the positive not-being of value — is pure subjectivity only as a negative relation to itself since its own self-extension as object forms one and the same process as capital’s material differentiation from itself as the same. Labor is again posited as the negative image of capital, so that its self-relation forms capital’s own internal difference; labor as subject is capital becoming object. Labor as active use value, as subject, creates value by perpetually performing itself as an objective positivity in which it never partakes. Value, on the other hand, appears as its own negativity, an object, and this forms its condition of reproduction as valorized subject.

Even in negative relation to itself, object value retains its identity with itself as subject, since its objectivity forms the very content of its own valorization process. Labor, on the other hand, exists in negative relation to itself precisely as pure subject, indeed as this very process of capital becoming object. This moment of capital’s internal differentiation through which labor’s activity valorizes capital as material content is what facilitates value’s ultimate sameness and equivalence with itself. Capital is the reality of general wealth, the self-valorization of itself as subject, against which the subjectivity of labor as the possibility that enables it is always a vanishing mediation, and against which the moment of production therefore comes to be as well. Labor is the being of value in its differentiation, the connecting spark that enables capital to disaggregate itself and thus to become process15 and therefore forms the thread of value’s own identity, revealing that its form had indeed maintained itself precisely through its self-differentiation as substance: “The different modes in which the values existed were a pure semblance; value itself formed the constantly self-identical essence within their disappearance.”16 The becoming subject of labor (the object initially purchased in exchange) and the becoming object of capital as its own passive material being are revealed simply as necessary moments of value’s autonomous movement as pure identity. Living labor constantly becomes a dead object, and capital, via the surplus contained in this object, reveals itself as having always been subject. In terms of the form of value or money capital, the production process is always already a process of self-valorization, of enacted identity that maintains itself through its own differentiation and external mediation. Labor as the subjective process that enables this differentiation as its reverse image can therefore never participate in this identical sameness.

Part III: The Return to Circulation and the Initial Exchange Revisited

“Value enters as subject”17 in its return to exchange value, revealed as the cause and purpose of production. Surplus value, the direct result of the valorization process and therefore of labor’s mediating activity, now appears in circulation as valorized value in the commodity (C’) and the money form (M’) through which it finally returns again to exchange simply as money (M). Via its return to the money form in circulation “[t]he process of formation has been obliterated in the product. M’ now exists independently in its own right, it is independent of the movement that produced it.”18 As value’s form, money capital conceals the capital relation as the condition of its apparent independence in exchange as well as its very content in production. This return to circulation as an obliteration of origins entails the negation of the entirety of the processual relationship to labor that formed both capital’s condition of possibility and its substantial reality. In its final act of abstraction and return to itself as its own valorization and multiplication, money capital encloses upon itself to contain the capital relation as its own relation to itself, its own causality and effect: “M is posited as capital by its relation to another part of M’ as to something posited by itself.”19. Money is valorized as capital insofar as it relates itself to m (surplus value) as its own increase, its own self-augmentation “within which the distinction between principal [M] and surplus [m] expresses, in a naïve, non-conceptual manner, the capital-relation.”20 In the completion of the money circuit, the capital relation is subsumed into the qualitative self-relation of value, which as such is homogenized into a quantitative ratio to itself as self-propagation. This formal relation of value to itself flattens the worker’s labor as it has existed throughout, both as object and as subject yet always existing outside of capital, and not only contains it within itself but presents it as nothing more than money capital’s formal qualitative equivalence and quantitative increase, “simply as a result, without the mediation of the process whose result it is.”21

In its re-entry into circulation, money capital formally presents itself as mere internal mediation, even as the surplus value it contains as its own relation to itself is precisely gleaned through its mediation by labor as its constitutive outside. When money finally re-enters into an actual exchange as M, it has thoroughly eradicated even this internal relation to the surplus value contained within it and thus any remnant of the capital relation through which it came into being; it emerges de-substantiated “only as the form in which the capital value is advanced.”22 Capital is a relational process finally and singularly as its own absolute identity with itself and therefore, insofar as it functions according to its design, is also a relational process of near total domination. That capital as process and relation systematically negates itself as such in order to obtain its final independence reveals the definitive function of labor as the not-being of value, both as object and subject, negatively and positively. For as object, labor was a constantly becoming subject and as subject was a constantly becoming object; as both, it formed capital’s not-value in process, constitutively precluded from the ‘freedom’ and positive self-sameness whose becoming it enabled as value. This exclusion was, as we have seen, intrinsic to capital in process as a social relation that functions as absolute identity and independence, stripped of the mere reference to the externality that constitutes it. These then are the terms within in which the worker meets the capitalist once again.

Capital, as was seen in part one, confronts the worker in a relationship between two free individuals. From the vantage of capital’s re-entry into the exchange, this formal equality expresses nothing but the negative image of capital’s own formal self-equivalent parity as independent subject whose self-valorization constitutively excludes the worker from existing for herself. For the relation of two wills which mirrors the economic relation is precisely that which mirrors capital’s relation to itself through labor; thus when the worker relates to himself as property, as “proprietor, as master of the conditions of his reality”23 he does so as the negative image of value as he has performed it throughout the entire process — both as the original “penury which is labor’s sole possession”24 in exchange as well as the constant actualization of capital’s dead objectivity which formed labor’s subjective existence. As an individualized subjectivity inseparable from her relation to value, the worker relates to herself as object opposed to and enabling capital to exist for-itself as subject and as subject opposed to and enabling capital’s internal differentiation as object — as capital’s constitutive outside and vanishing mediation throughout the entire process. The worker’s identity is none other than the simultaneous mirror image and self-negation of capital’s own total self-identity, which in the end functions to eliminate his agency as existing apart from it. “Soon the matter has turned in such a way that as an individual he relates himself only to himself, while the means with which he posits himself as individual have become the making of his generality and his commonness.”25 As the use value for abstract self-identical value, the worker relates to himself as the very abstraction by which capital relates to itself, and this is the ground of both his specificity in the original exchange as naked object and free subject relating only to itself in its independence, and also his negative auto-relationality as a pure generality without identical sameness, the literal undoing of the ideological self-equivalence entailed by the contract. His individuality thus is both poverty and generality, in each case the negative image of capital as the subject of its own process of valorization.

The form of capital as abstract identity in relation to itself is what constituted the basis of the relationship of capital and labor in the initial exchange and in production, and finally in the flattening and eventual negation of this relation which occurs in capital’s return to circulation and to the exchange with the worker which begins the circuit anew. The abstract individual — a processual relationship of domination that negates its relational origins by propagating itself as its own formal equivalence — has been capital’s form throughout. That the human individual is positioned to understand and enact herself as the same is therefore not an insignificant factor in capital’s self-perpetuation. Indeed, I will venture to say that insofar as we attempt to liberate ourselves from capital in the name of such abstract individualized freedom, we may very well terminate in the self-referentiality of capitalist value itself, along with the domination inseparable from it.

1 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1993), 84.

2 In referring to exchange value as subject Marx means an “automatic subject” (Capital, Volume I, 255), which retains its identity through the various phases of its development. This valorization of “value in process” is precisely capital (Volume I, 256).

3 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 257.

4 The complication of Marx’s formulation of the worker by way of a theorization of the proletariat adequate to our current context—including an analysis of the capital relation in terms of the decline of a discrete worker’s identity as well as in terms of the myriad forms of domination intimately tied to capitalist reproduction—is an important concern which this textual analysis does not take up.

5 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume II, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1992), 185.

6 Grundrisse, 295-96.

7 Quotations not otherwise marked are taken from previously cited passages.

8 Capital I, 178.

9 Ibid., 182, my emphasis.

10 Grundrisse , 283-84.

11 Ibid., 288.

12 Capital I,, 716.

13 Grundrisse, 296.

14 Ibid., 305.

15 Ibid., 298.

16 Ibid., 312.

17 Ibid., 311.

18 Capital,II, 128.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 129.

21 Ibid., 128.

22 Ibid., 129.

23 Grundrisse, 471.

24 Ibid., 461.

25 Ibid., 496.