Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form [3/10]

3. Abstractness of the commodity form

The dominant trait of the commodity form is indeed abstractness, an abstractness that appears to seize hold of the entire vicinity of the commodity form. Thus, the value of a commodity or its exchange value is at first itself an abstract value as opposed to the use value. The value of a commodity is only capable of quantitative differentiation, and the quantification applied here is in turn of an abstract nature in comparison to the quantification of use values. As Marx demonstrated, even labour, as the specification of the value quantity and as the substance of value, becomes “abstract human labour”, human labour as such, labour in general. ­The form in which commodity value comes into appearance, namely money and specifically minted coin, is an abstract thing, a contradiction in itself. Within it, wealth, too, becomes abstract wealth. As the owner of such wealth, Man himself becomes the abstract Man, his individuality becomes the abstract private character of the proprietor. And, finally, a society in which the traffic of commodities is the nexus rerum is an abstract society.

Abstractness thus lies in the essence of the commodity form and dominates its entire vicinity. Furthermore, this abstractness exhibits a highly characteristic trait: it deceives the owners of commodities about the historical character of the commodity form and stamps unto their thinking that timelessly absolute claim of validity that denies all temporal origin and topical conditionality. “We  followed  up  this  false  appearance  to  its  final  establishment,  which  is  complete  so  soon the  universal  equivalent  form  becomes  identified  with  the  bodily  form  of  a  particular  commodity,  and  thus  crystallised  into  the  money-form. […] The intermediate steps of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind.”

The fetishistic character of the commodity dominates the thinking of the owners of commodities with such indomitable might that up until Marx it was an axiomatic assumption within philosophical thinking, that form, especially concept form, is not spatio-temporally derivable. Even to this day, it has completely escaped the attention of most philosophers that Marx has made a dent in this assumption. This ignorance doesn’t just come from the fact that Capital belongs to economic literature and therefore doesn’t seem to concern professional philosophers. The philosophers of academic credentials would hardly be receptive towards the Marxian deed, even if it was explicitly demonstrated to them. Were it different, the teachers of philosophy would have picked Marx’ analysis of the commodity form as their favourite target and attempted to tear it apart by the book of traditional formalism a long time ago. The habits of metaphysical thinking are, however, so deeply entrenched, that the full of the meaning of Marx’ commodity analysis as the first historical explanation of the origin of a purely formal phenomenon hasn’t even fully been appreciated by Marxist theorists.

However, it is also important for my intentions that the formal phenomenon of Marxian analysis is the economic category of value. It is none of the universal foundational concepts of philosophy, none of the categories of the so-called pure understanding or of object-thinking I general. In other words, it is none of the categories to which the method of metaphysical conceptualisation is epistemologically attached, the origin of which we have suspected to lie in the commodity form. This suspicion can therefore not be justified by the Marxian formal analysis, it goes beyond it. It is equally impossible to accompany the Marxian reduction of the economic category of value with a likewise reduction of pure object-categories. Our suspicion can only be confirmed by independently demonstrating the roots of the pure object-categories to lie in the exchange of commodities. This requires an expanded approach to the formal analysis of commodities, such that the determination of the size of value and thus the economic aspect are completely eliminated and the focus is kept exclusively on the formal problem.

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