“Fetishisation” of Terminology in Marx.

“Fetishisation” of Terminology in Marx.

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Somebody has emailed regarding the use of the term “surplus value”. According to the correspondent, the term has become fetishised and it would be better if we used the term “socially produced surplus” instead of “surplus value”. He writes….

“It seems to me the key lies in resisting the tendency to allow the terminology itself to become fetishised. The only way to do that, as far as I’ve been able to make out, is to understand the essence (“Wesen”) of the explanatory framework of historical materialist analysis well enough that one can use the terminology more flexibly, and suitably to context. For instance – to stick with your example – when one is explaining the class-based nature of exploitation, and thus the expropriation of surplus value by members of one class from members of another, one might perfectly well substitute the phrase “socially produced [or ‘generated’] surpluses” instead of “surplus value”.

Hence, the legitimacy of such a substitution would depend on context. Implicitly, he is warning against the quest for exact semantic equivalents irrespective of context. Such a quest, he seems to suggest, would be precisely the fetishisation of terminology against which his remarks are intended to warn. In other words, if we look for a substitute for the term “surplus value” which is “an exact semantic equivalent”, this is a continuation or re-articulation of the “fetishisation of terminology” which we are seeking to avoid.

Moreover, immediately we recognise that a “socially produced surplus” does not necessarily take a value form. It is a transhistorical category which is not specific to capitalism. The category of surplus value – in its fully developed, “classical” form – is historically specific to capitalism. In other words, in my opinion, it would be a less adequate substitution because it would be less concrete as a category. The Incas “socially produced” a “surplus” but that surplus was not part of a social reproduction and augmentation of value. But our correspondent has already qualified this by asserting that we need to take into account the “context”. In other words, we take a transhistorical category and deploy it according to context.

But “context” gives the term its historically-determined conceptual content. It is possible to take and relocate such a term out of its historically-determined context but then the term ceases to describe and articulate the objective character of the historically-posited and historically-specific form or relation. Likewise, if we describe the surplus value form as a “socially generated surplus”, we are not actually describing what gives the “socially generated surplus” its specific social character, its value-form under capital. We are stripping away (paring down) the concreteness of the category, arriving at a conceptually more impoverished category, in order to “apply” it in different “contexts”. Which is precisely the very “pre-Platonic” “abstraction” of a “universal” from the specificity of “phenomena” – divorcing it from its concrete universality – and then proceeding with its “concrete application” according to “context”. i.e., not grasping the universal in its actual concreteness, in its real, specific determinacy. Fragmenting the “concrete universal” into a “universal” which is abstracted and then applied “concretely” according to “context”. We are effectively disembowelling the conception of the “socially produced surplus” under capital of its historically specific and crucially animating content i.e. not articulating it as essential value-form of the surplus. It is not really a question of “fetishisation” here but really of one of calling “things by their real names” in order to articulate an historically relative and approximate conception of what these “things” “are”. In fact, fetishisation has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the matter.

He continues….

“In my experience, using such alternate formulations can help the hearer “triangulate” on the essential meaning to be grasped beneath any supposed “proper name” at the level of logos – the concept, the “Begriff”, the eidos (the latter in what many would consider a pre-Platonic sense, mainly due to having little grasp of Plato) – rather than becoming mystified at the level of the word.
I think this is a very difficult level of mastery to achieve – mainly because the capitalist system of production: (1) is itself so complex; and, (2) is virtually “upside down” in its appearance, as compared to its reality, its essence, its “nature”, its physis.”

This, in my opinion, is a rather high-priestly approach to the whole question. If you can understand it, brother, why must the rest of us be introduced to the method of “triangulation” in order to grasp it. I thought that was something to do with the geographical surveying of the contours of barren landscapes. So if we are addressing a group of striking factory workers, they will be delivered into the Eleusinian mysteries of surplus value by a process of “triangulation” but there will be no need to subject a seminar of “Marxist academics” to such an initiation because they have gone beyond this transitory “primary school” stage. It might be easier to simply pick up volume one of Capital and spend a few days of intense study on the first chapter. It would certainly strip the “capitalist system of production” of some of its “mystery” and “complexity” and start to place it “on its feet”.

The present historical “context” is the global rule of global capital i.e. the rule of capitalised surplus value and not simply capitalised “socially produced surplus”. This is why the use of the latter would be the use of a less concrete category. Categories used are, as is method, “socio-historically determined” by the existent “context” in which case the substitution of the less concrete (“socially produced surplus”) for the more concrete category (“surplus value”) is rendered redundant by the prevailing historical conditions and “context”. The term ‘surplus value’ is, accordingly, the most adequate for encapsulating the conceptual content of the category because it is the most concrete under the prevailing historical conditions. For Marx, the concept of value – introduced in the first chapter of Capital – was fundamental to his overall conception. All class societies are necessarily based on the production of a surplus by “society” and this surplus is the basis upon which the owning ruling class or controlling caste can parasitically feed. But the equally parasitic existence of the capitalist class is based on the production of surplus value.

Shaun May


May 2014



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