Stuff Happens behind our Backs

* My comments at a seminar on Marx’s Capital, 7 August 2010, at the Redfern Community Centre.

1.

My aim today is to give some sense of what Marx’s materialism is like. A phrase Marx repeatedly comes back to in Capital I is ‘behind the backs’. There is stuff going on behind the backs of workers and capitalists. When they act, they act in a world that was created while their backs were turned. They didn’t see its laws being enacted, nor its landscape change. Yet the world is only the mass of their practices. So they must have had some hand in creating it. This is the problem at the centre of Marx’s attempt to think human society in general, but also to think capitalism as an individual instance of human society. To work out what Marx’s materialism is like, we need to work out what Marx means by ‘behind the backs’.

2.

Here is the first instance of the phrase in Capital I:

The various proportions in which different kinds of labour are reduced to simple labour as their unit of measurement are established by a process that goes on behind the backs of the producers; these proportions therefore appear to the producers to have been handed down by tradition (Capital I, 135; emphasis added).*

As a first instance, I’ve chosen a difficult one. This sentence is taken from Marx’s attempt to talk about skilled and unskilled labour; a problem that he took over directly from political economy and was unable to work into his own thought. It is one of the great mistakes, or oversights, that Marx made in Capital.

Jacques Bidet has suggested that Marx had in fact made this question redundant with his concept of labour, and the sort of labour that produces value. He couldn’t work the question of skilled and unskilled labour into his thought, because his thought had moved beyond skill as a determinant of value. Value isn’t a technical issue of skill, for Marx, but a social issue of power. But let’s put these details aside and focus on how Marx uses the little phrase, ‘behind the backs’ in this difficult passage.

3.

Marx is saying that the reduction of complex varieties of labour to ‘simple labour’ isn’t something that the producers sit down and work out. It isn’t a transparent part of their practice. There is a process that happens, and this process is invisible for the producers. It is invisible because is its happening behind their backs. They take this reduction, Marx says, ‘to have been handed down by tradition’.

Both Martin Heidegger and Louis Althusser use a little phrase that might help us here: “always already”. When we are in the world—and we are never not in the world—it is always already there. We don’t have to reconstruct it on each occasion, and it doesn’t matter to what we are doing now how it came to be the way it is. The conditions of the world’s existence don’t determine our practice: the world as is actually exists does. The construction of the world, and how it came to be the way it is, is something that has gone on behind our backs. What has gone on behind our backs is always already the case. We don’t get any choice about it. We don’t get to vote on it. In a later instance of the phrase Marx comments that when the socially valid conditions of producing linen change, they change ‘without the permission of, and behind the back of, our weaver” (205). Worlds don’t wait for our permission.

In the passage we’re looking at, the commensurability of complex and simple labour is always already an established fact. Elsewhere Marx will insist that when you go to buy your groceries the prices are waiting for you at the supermarket not something you negotiate when you get there; or, in the same way, when the grocer brings their goods to market the prices of these goods are always already there. The notion of constant marginal bartering is a myth.

4.

Marx complicates the idea that a process has occurred behind the backs of the producers. He has said that the producers take the commensurability of different labours—the reduction of skilled to unskilled labour, or complex to simple labour—as having been, ‘handed down by tradition’. If we look at a little more of the passage we’ve just read we can see how Marx justifies this idea that stuff happens behind our backs:

More complex labour counts only as intensified, or rather multiplied simple labour, so that a smaller quantity of complex labour is considered equal to a larger quantity of simple labour. Experience shows that this reduction is constantly being made. A commodity may be the outcome of the most complicated labour, but through its value it is posited as equal to the product of simple labour, hence it represents only a specific quantity of simple labour. The various proportions in which different kinds of labour are reduced to simple labour as their unit of measurement are established by a process that goes on behind the backs of the producers; these proportions therefore appear to the producers to have been handed down by tradition (Capital I, 135)

How does this complicate things? The two elements Marx is joining here—among all of the detail—are ‘experience shows’ and ‘behind the backs’. He is saying that,

Experience shows … a process that goes on behind the backs of the producers (Capital I, 135).

This isn’t the only place that Marx relates these two ideas. Later on in the same volume of Capital, in the chapter on The Division of Labour and Manufacture, he says:

The history of manufacture proper shows how the division of labour which is peculiar to it acquires the most appropriate form at first by experience, as it were behind the backs of the actors, … (Capital I, 485).

Here Marx joins the ideas very closely: ‘experience, as it were behind the backs of the actors’. So I think it is clear that Marx thinks that experience has something to do with the idea that stuff happens behind our backs. The question is how can experience show us a process that goes on behind our backs? Isn’t the whole point that it is behind our backs, that the process is something that is not a datum of experience? I used the word invisible earlier: isn’t what goes on behind our backs invisible to us?

5.

One option is to  say that Marx is just making an error—saying that we have an experience of something that he argues we cannot experience. This is Jacques Bidet’s critique. But I think Marx’s repetition of this ideas suggests otherwise—it appears that in Marx’s head ‘experience’ and ‘behind our backs’ go together somehow. So how can make we sense of it?

I think that what Marx is saying is that in if we reflect on our experience of being in the world, we find that the existence of the world we are in—its rules, norms, objects, things, other people, other animals, and so on—is given for us. We find that we didn’t make a choice about it. Our experience of not having a choice about these things shows that we didn’t have a choice about these things; that they happened behind our backs. The world was thrust upon us, indifferent to our individual desires or will. We don’t need to think about its rules and other conditions in order to be in the world and to be under its thumb.

6.

So, what I’ve tried to show is that Marx’s materialism is to do with this being under the thumb of the world. I’ve tried to show that Marx’s insistence that stuff happen behind our backs—and that our experience of not experiencing it confirms it—gives some sense of what his materialism is like. Marx’s most famous statement of the sort of materialism I’m describing is hopefully now more intelligible:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

Saying that tradition weighs on our brains like a nightmare, is simply another way of saying that our present situation has always already been produced behind our backs. That Marx says it is like a nightmare, might remind us of the way that nightmares tend to be dreams where we have no will. The Nightmare on Elm Street series put the will of its monster, Freddie Kruger, into the dreams of countless hapless teens turning them into bloody nightmares.

The power of given circumstances is exactly what politics is a break with—and I think experience shows that we are stuck with the dead generations, if we do not figure out how to make this break.

*all page references for Capital I are to the Penguin edition.