Issue #30 April 2020

Marx and “Anti-Oedipus.” Production, Distribution, Fetishism

Joseph Mallord William Turner — Lecture Diagram 36. A House in Perspective (ca. 1810)

Any attempted critique of capitalism needs, of course, to first resolve the question of what is supposedly wrong with it in the first place. A popular form of protest is set against the so-called 1%. It is called out for owning half the world’s net wealth, which is considered unjust. The problem of capitalism is thereby framed as a problem of distribution. Not only is the dichotomy of the “1%” against the “99%” based on purely quantitative — distributive — terms, instead of, say, notions of class, but what is demanded as a solution to the problem, is redistribution. Any such form of redistribution is, of course, to be guaranteed by laws, which creates another dichotomy, the one between the state and the market. The state is thereby to institute a secondary distribution, which is to correct the deficiencies of the ‘natural’ distribution by the market. A ‘natural’ distribution, which, coincidentally, makes the rich richer, and continuously increases the wealth gap. But that is not the point. What we might rather ask ourselves is: What is this call for redistribution based on? Redistribute, but on what grounds?

Any redistribution needs to be legitimised by and based on certain principles, as it intervenes into a seemingly automatic process from the outside. One such principle could be fairness, but it can also be based on nationalism — creating tariffs that protect the domestic economy — or the efficiency of the market — which increases the number of consumers, people work better when they’re happy etc. What is important here is that such principles are extra-economic and transcendent, or, in other words, values. Obviously, such values can be invoked in the name of the economy, but they come, strictly speaking, from the outside. In short, the immanent distribution of the market — according to the ‘natural’ economic laws of supply and demand — undergoes a relative redistribution according to certain transcendent (external) values or principles. The problem that such criticism sees, just as the solution that is proposes — however these values look in specific — are exclusively questions of distribution: The 1% owning half the world’s wealth is unjust, but everyone owning exactly the same1placeholder is also unjust, so we need to find a certain middle distribution, where the rich can be rich, there’s a stable middle class, and the poor don’t start protesting. We can see this form of criticism in various discourses — in the calls for a ‘moderate’ and ethical capitalism, green reforms that curb the exploitation of nature, job quotas for minorities, and others.

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Why do such forms of criticism dominate in the first place? The capitalist mode of production seems to completely depend on distributive laws — in a simplistic understanding of capitalist economy, on the laws of supply and demand. Indeed, as we will see, it does not need recourse to any extra-economic principles to function. It therefore seems intuitive to consider this distribution to be foundational. Maybe I wish to produce jewellery, but if the market for accessories is already saturated — or if others can produce them much cheaper than me — then I won’t be able to sell my products — hence, the circulation of goods, the market, determines my production, QED. But as Marx notes in the introduction to the Grundrisse, the distribution of goods — circulation — belongs to a later state of production.

“[B]efore distribution can be the distribution of products, it is: (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of the society among the different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production.) The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production”2placeholder (Grundrisse, p. 96).

What comes before the distribution of goods is on the one hand the distribution of the means of production — like tools or land — and on the other hand the distribution of the members of society under different forms of production — workers, serfs, slaves, etc. The means of production do not just include the tools to produce the desired product — say linen and a loom — but also the means to reproduce the producer, i.e. the worker’s means of survival. Let’s say again that I wish to produce jewellery. But there’s no demand, so I have to stop. But if I’m an independent farmer, who produces his own food and his own tools,3placeholder I can produce my jewellery in my spare time. If there is no demand, this does not affect me much. But the more my own survival depends on me selling the things I produce, and the more my production depends on things I can’t produce on my own — say, a tractor — in short, the more I am forced to produce commodities, the more I will depend on the economic laws of supply and demand. Once I have absolutely no way to produce my own means of survival, I will completely depend on the forces of the market — if we’re speaking of the capitalist mode of production, of course. As Marx notes, all production is social, so we cannot really speak of a loss of original independence here. Living in any kind of community means depending on others, and what Marx said about the two forms of distribution preceding circulation counts for any form of production. The point is that capitalism is no exception here, and that the way it distributes the means of production and the members of society is itself a historic result. As Marx notes in Capital, the proletariat — the ‘free’ worker — had to be actively created by the capitalist class, and it did so with help of the government. One large influx of ‘free’ labour came from the expropriation of the agrarian population — literally its de-territorialisation (terre = earth), loss of land — which was robbed of its own means of production and thereby had to migrate to the cities to find work.

In short, the specific form of the distribution of the means of production in capitalism is that they themselves become commodities, while the specific form of the distribution of the producers is that they have become ‘free’ workers. As we will see, these are both results of a double process: On the other hand, there is a process of abstraction of the product, on the other hand, there is the abstraction of labour — i.e. of the producer. Producer and product are therefore subsumed under and shaped by a certain form of distribution. We therefore need to have a closer look at the relation between production and distribution, and how distribution itself manages to produce the abstraction of product and producer.

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Marx’s concept of fetishism investigates the dynamic of how certain modes of distribution appropriate and determine specific forms of production. He most famously develops it in the first volume of Capital in the chapter on the fetishism of commodity, but the early Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 gives us insight into pre-capitalist forms of fetishism, and how the capitalist one came to be. Let us therefore begin with the earlier text.

The third manuscript opens with the statement that the “subjective essence of private property […] is labour” (Manuscripts, p. 93). For us who live and work within capitalism, this statement will appear so obvious that we are inclined to read it ahistorically — as we work, we receive a salary, the more (and better) we work, the higher our salary, and as the quantity of money that we own increases, so does our wealth. Indeed, even if you have a huge mansion and several cars, if you have no income and no money in the bank, you won’t be considered rich in the strict sense. Evidently, then, (objective) wealth is generated through (subjective) labour. But this wasn’t always the case.

Let’s take feudalism as the mode of production that preceded capitalism. Here, wealth is measured by land property. It therefore stems not from subjective activity (labour) — the nobleman doesn’t need to work — but from an objective condition. The more land (and serfs) you have, the wealthier you are. More so, this condition does not result from economic activity — so that property was the result of past subjective labour — but from inheritance. Land, i.e. wealth, is distributed through an extra-economic entity, family, which is part of an overarching power structure.4placeholder All land inherently belongs to the king as a divine right, and he decides, who has the exclusive right to ownership.5placeholder The nobleman is thus not a producer, but an agent of distribution, which is founded on a transcendent principle, and which organises a specific form of production — serfdom — to appropriate its surplus. This surplus is the wealth that the feudal system produces. It seems therefore that it is the nobility (distribution) that generates wealth, for if the serf was a free farmer, he wouldn’t (be forced to) produce that surplus, and hence no wealth would be generated (this is what Deleuze and Guattari call a “apparent objective movement” in Anti-Oedipus). At the same time, only a specific form of labour can be productive here — agriculture (under the condition of feudalism, where the serf is forced to produce a surplus that is appropriated by the nobleman). Labour is therefore not only bound to feudalism as its principle of extra-economic distribution, but also to earth, which, as an extra-economic entity, produces an endless flux from which surplus can be generated: “Land [earth/Erde] is not yet capital: it is still a special mode of its existence, the validity of which is supposed to lie in, and to derive from, its natural peculiarity.” (Manuscripts, p. 96). It is therefore unsurprising that the transition from the feudal conception of wealth to the capitalist one began with physiocracy, which considered agriculture to be the only form of labour to generate wealth, but which already made the first step towards the dissolution of the feudal order.6placeholder

The historic rise of the capitalist class, and the increasing domination of the capitalist mode of production, changed this dynamic. Just like the nobleman, the capitalist is an owner, not a worker, and what they both own are the means of production. But the capitalist class did not own land; its wealth originated from (increasingly industrial) production. In other words, it generated its wealth through the production of commodities. These are not necessarily, or even primarily, raw materials, which means that the labour that generates wealth, is not necessarily agricultural. For example, the sugar that was extracted through slave work on the plantations of San Domingo was refined in France, in factories owned by the bourgeoisie that employed the domestic proletariat and thereby generated their wealth (ref. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins, p. 40). The importance of the colonies and of slave trade — the planters as the land owners excluding the slaves from ownership obviously mirror the feudal order — shows just how complex this transition was, and how important it was and is for capitalism to uphold and reintroduce power structures from past modes of production.7placeholder But at the same time, with the arrival of capitalism, the provision of cheap raw materials was no longer a means to generate wealth, but rather a way to decrease the cost of industrial production, and therefore a means to increase industrial profits, which have now become the primary source of wealth. In other words, it was no longer land that generated wealth — and thereby the extra-economic distribution of land by the king became outdated — but capital, a quantity of money with which the capitalist can buy the means of production (including the workers’ labour force).8placeholder

But unlike land ownership, the ownership of capital does not stem from an extra-economic principle of distribution, it is through the economy itself, i.e. through successful and profitable industrial production, that capital is acquired and accumulated. This also means that wealth is only wealth if it stays within the economy, within circulation — capital is only capital, if it keeps moving, if it keeps being reinvested. In that regard, Marx analyses the difference between the hoarder and the capitalist: It is no longer the money under the mattress or in a safe that measures wealth, but money that exists in the form of stocks, interests, investments. At the same time, it is no longer a specific product that generates wealth — the agricultural good — but the commodity, which can essentially be anything. We can thereby observe not only an abstraction of the product (commodity) that occurs with the arrival of capitalism, but also an abstraction of wealth, which is freed from extra-economic conditions and power structures.

As a flipside to the abstraction of wealth, it is no longer agricultural labour that generates wealth, but labour in general, as long as it is employed by the capitalist. In other words, it is not a specific kind of labour that generates wealth, but labour as such — abstract labour.9placeholder To keep his factories running, the capitalist needs to have access to a labour force that can quickly change its profession. And the workers need to be ready to take up different kinds of work — they need to become indifferent to their production process10placeholder — because the kind of labour that is in demand can change quickly. What counts here, is that he receives a salary, with which he can buy what he needs to survive. In other words, the unskilled and semi-skilled work of the factories — where it is no longer important if I work in a paper factory or a sugar refinery — leads to an abstraction of the concept of labour. Labour itself becomes an abstract subjective activity, and the worker is an abstract individual that can take up any kind of work.

Joseph Mallord William Turner — Lecture Diagram 36. Basic Perspective Construction of a House (ca. 1810)

Further on in the third manuscript of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx traces how the national economists conceptualised this abstraction and subjectivation of wealth and labour. As we already noted, the physiocrats still bound wealth to an objective condition, land ownership, and considered only agriculture to be productive labour. It was only with Adam Smith that the idea of the subjective essence of labour was fully developed, meaning that labour was completely internalised. For that reason, Engels could call Smith the “Luther of Political Economy”:

“Just as Luther recognized religious faith as the substance of the external world and in consequence stood opposed to Catholic paganism-just as he superseded external religiosity by making religiosity the inner substance of man just as he negated the priests outside the layman because he transplanted the priest into laymen’s hearts, just so with wealth: wealth as something outside man and independent of him, and therefore as something to be maintained and asserted only in an external fashion, is done away with; that is, this external, mindless objectivity of wealth is done away with, with private property being incorporated in man himself and with man himself being recognized as its essence” (Manuscripts, p. 94).

But if the essence of labour, and therefore the generation of wealth, is to be found in the worker’s activity, so that labour itself becomes abstract, as labour ‘as such’, this does not mean that any human activity is now considered to be productive, i.e. labour. The demarcation between productive and unproductive labour is as strict as ever, and it is not primarily dependent on the production of goods with a use value. It is only when the capitalist employs workers in his factory that his activity truly becomes labour. Wealth is not produced in the form of salary — as the worker only receives the amount that will secure his survival (minimum wage). The worker’s salary is supposed to correspond to the value of his labour force on the market; in that sense, an equivalency is supposed between the work expended and the value produced. In short, no wealth is generated.

The capitalist invests a certain amount of money into production, but in the end, once he has sold his products for the market price, he magically owns more than he started with. It seems then, that, while to generate wealth, he needs to employ labour, it is not labour per se that generates wealth. Rather, only when labour is employed within the capitalist mode of production can wealth be generated; but wealth only comes up on the side of capital. In other words, once again, it is the distributive agent (the capitalist) who appears as the generator of wealth, and he does so by controlling production. Marx’s great discovery in Capital was that this is illusionary — for the capitalist lets the worker work longer hours than it is necessary for him to secure his means of survival, and it is during the time that the worker labours for free that the surplus value is generated and appropriated by the capitalist. So it is still the worker, the producer, that generates wealth. But while illusionary, this condition is at the same time objective — “apparent objective movement”. For, just like the nobleman, the capitalist appears (and presents himself) as the necessary condition for labour to be productive. Here, not only the distinction of manual and intellectual labour comes into play,11placeholder but, more importantly, the factual statement that if workers received the salary for all the work they expend, then the quantity of money that was invested in the beginning of the production process, would equal the quantity that flows back to the capitalist in the end. The spiral M-C-M’ [Money — Commodity — Money + surplus value] would once again be reduced to the tautological M-C-M. But if production does not generate profits — wealth — then there is ‘no point’ in producing (in the capitalist mode!) in the first place. In other words, if workers owned production, and paid themselves fairly, then this production would not generate any wealth — as capitalism defines it. While the capitalist mode of production indeed frees up labour from all natural (transcendent) bounds that forced it into submission, for example in feudalism, it comes along with the creation of new limitations. Wealth, labour, and the product become more and more abstract, internalised, and immanent. And yet, it is controlled and directed by a force that does not pertain to the production process as such, but to distribution. The question, who owns the means of production, is decided purely on economic terms — if you own capital, or not. If you don’t, you need to sell your labour force so that you can earn a salary and survive, if you do, you have to employ labour and generate wealth — in the form of revenue that is yours to appropriate, as it is your capital that has (seemingly) created it.

But what does all that have to do with fetishism? “To this enlightened political economy, which has discovered within private property the subjective essence of wealth, the adherents of the money and mercantile system, who look upon private property only as an objective substance [Wesen] confronting men, seem therefore to be idolators, fetishists, Catholics” (Manuscripts, p. 93f.). In other words, fetishism takes place when the essence of wealth is seen in an objective entity, like land property, meaning in an extra-economic (transcendent) principle. Through their acts of internalisation — and immanentization — Adam Smith and Luther have destroyed this fetish. And as political economy conceptualised the real development of capitalism, by extension, capitalism has destroyed these fetishes, i.e. the transcendent principles that legitimised a certain power structure to appropriate production. As such, capitalism is a completely immanent system, as it no longer takes recourse to any extra-economic principles.

And in that lies the ‘truth’ of capitalism, as it has shown the falseness of such transcendent legitimations, agents of power (distribution) that appropriate production. It has also destroyed conditions, where “natural” bounds have forced certain people to specific kinds of work (being born a serf, a slave).12placeholder But at the same time, as capitalism (and Smith) only did this within private property, they erected a new fetishism, its own mysticism, but one that is essentially different from the old one, as it no longer is based on objectivity (an external object), but is completely interiorised — within the worker (labour), but also the economy.13placeholder On the one hand, all labour is productive, as it a subjective essence, but on the other hand, it is only productive within the capitalist mode of production, meaning: only as long as the worker doesn’t own his own means of production (and survival) and needs to sell his labour force on the market. Say, if, somehow everyone had a garden at home, which provides them with their means of survival (and, let’s imagine that it is completely automated, and doesn’t necessitate any work), so that their time was completely free and they did whatever they felt like, this would not be considered productive work, as it does not create any wealth for the capitalist.14placeholder In that sense it is quite true when the defenders of capitalism say that without its mode of production, no wealth would be produced — but no wealth by capitalism’s definition. On the flipside, this means that within capitalism, wealth can only be produced by maximising profits, or, in Marx’s terms, by maximising the extraction of surplus value (maximal difference between M and M’). This is not a question of personal greed, but of systematic necessity. To come back to the form of criticism from the beginning of this essay: This means that attempts at redistribution will always only offer temporary solutions, because if one way of maximising surplus value is blocked (for example, limiting the working hours for the domestic proletariat), others necessarily need to be found (for example by increasing the exploitation of the proletariat in the global south with help of neo-colonial structures).

But this new, internalised and immanent fetish of capitalism is not merely the repetition of the old conditions. True, on the one hand, nothing changes — a form of distribution still appropriates production (and its surplus). But on the other hand, everything changes, because distribution no longer occurs under extra-economic “signs of power” that works with a certain “code” that distributes the members of society to certain kinds of work, and ownership of the means of production to others, but directly through economic means.15placeholder There is in that sense a specific fetish to capitalism, but the concept of fetishism itself changes. It no longer merely refers to a legitimation of the distribution of the means of production founded on transcendent categories. It now describes more generally the occurrence of an “apparent objective movement,”16placeholder where a form of distribution overlays and appropriates production, so that it appears as if it caused the generation of wealth (i.e. production) as a “quasi-cause” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 154).

To understand that, we need to move away from early Marx to Capital. The famous chapter in the first volume on fetishism elaborates the specific fetish that capital creates. Its definition is notorious: To the producers, the relationships of production and exchange don’t appear as relationships among people, but as social relationships among things (money and the commodities).17placeholder This “quid pro quo,” where the things stand in the place of people and the people in the place of things, is catchy and might intuitively make sense. It mirrors the “apparent objective movement” described above — the relation of things — distribution — stands in the place of the relation of the producers — the people; and it seems as if it’s not the people producing things, but the things producing themselves — including the people that function as things. But personally, I always had trouble to really understand why that is necessarily so, and how this comes to be. It might therefore be helpful to look at the development of the capitalist fetish from a genealogical view.

Joseph Mallord William Turner -Lecture Diagram 18. Principles of Rectilinear Perspective (after Thomas Malton Senior)

Let us start at the (conceptual) beginning. In the “immediate exchange of products” (Capital I, MEW 23, p. 102) between two people, as Marx describes it in its complete simplicity, I exchange a product that has no use value for me for a product that does; at the same time, my product has a use value for the other, while his doesn’t have one for him. In the act of exchange, we both establish an equivalency between the exchanged goods, meaning that both exchanged goods need to have the same exchange value (if we both agree on the exchange, one can say that the same exchange value is agreed upon). The more the praxis of exchange is developed, the more the exchange value becomes fixed — for example, if there are many other producers who offer the same products, I can compare yours with theirs, and then decide, who I want to trade with, which already initiates a tendency towards price stabilisation — up to the point, where products are being produced specifically for being sold, i.e. as commodities.

The more the exchange value becomes fixed, the more independent does the movement of the commodities appear to be. Money as the “universal equivalent” obviously plays a central role in that process. Now it’s no longer me, who decides how much I want to get for my products; their value is decided externally. But where? By whom? If we assume that nobody has the monopoly on any goods, there isn’t anyone in particular who decides on the price. I am told that my 10 kilos of linen are worth 2 pieces of gold, but the next day they might be worth only 1 piece of gold, without anyone making that decision. The more complex this whole system becomes, the more the values of the commodities becomes independent from the producers. But the more the producers depend on their products being sold — as it is the case in capitalism — the more the values of the commodities decide on what is produced in the first place.

In other words, distribution overlays production and seems to control it. This appearance is objective and factual in the sense that I can’t just disagree on the exchange value. If I try to sell my commodities more expensively, nobody will buy them. Therefore, the value of my linen seems to lie within my linen (ref. Capital I, MEW 23, p. 97). More than that, it seems to be the amount of linen on the market that decides its price, which means it’s purely an economic question of quantity. But, as Marx notes, the whole movement is apparent, because what is actually giving the commodities value is not money, but the labour time, i.e. production. More precisely, it is the average amount of socially necessary working time to produce a specific product.18placeholder If I need to work fewer hours to produce my 10 kilos of linen than my competition, then I can sell them cheaper. But this too is a quantitative determination. It presupposes abstract work, so that different kinds of work can be treated as equivalents. That doesn’t mean that all kinds of work are worth the same. Just like with other commodities — and within capitalism, labour force has become a commodity — different kinds of work can be exchanged. For example, 1h of the doctor’s labour time can be worth 10h of the cleaner’s labour time (of course, such equivalents become messy once we’re not dealing with the production of objects, but of more abstract notions like health, or skills).

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We hereby come back to what we’ve worked out above: The abstraction of labour is itself the result of a historic process. The production process (labour) is now measured by quantitative (abstract) terms — labour hours, i.e. time — and so is the product —price. Meanwhile, the value of labour and the commodity is measured in money, the universal equivalent. Not only that, but the value of production (labour), as much as the value of the product (commodity) seem to be generated by money, through the fixation of the exchange value. In short, the subjects of production — the producers — are passive in regard to their products — the commodities — which take up an active role: The commodities decide on their own price, they decide what is produced, they decide, who produces what. This is the point of the “quid pro quo” of the capitalist fetish, the commodification of human beings. But we need to be careful here. The genealogy described above seems not only to concern capitalism, but the emergence of money as such. But while capitalism is a specifically modern phenomenon, money is evidently not. What is missing in this rudimentary fetishism of money is the introduction of capital into the flow of commodities — circulation — and the emergence of the industrial production process. Here, capital needs to be invested, because the means of production, including labour force that needs to be hired, have themselves become commodities, and it is invested with the intention to make a profit. The nobleman doesn’t need to invest any capital into the land or the serf, because he owns them both by divine right, and because the serf will produce his own means of survival.

What we can see here, is that the commodification, the ‘de-humanisation’ of human beings does not stem from any loss of “transcendence” — those principles have not only been proven to be false, but also to be means of suppression and control. As we have seen, the process of immanentisation has quite on the contrary come along with a liberation from ‘natural bonds’ — at the price of abstraction and quantification. If the commodity is defined by the exchange value, which is quantitative, instead of its use value, which is qualitative, and if humans are commodified, this means that what counts is the worker as an abstract quantity that is used within the production process — as human capital. At the same time, though, the capitalist also becomes a pure representation of his capital, whose profits he is not to enjoy, but that he is perpetually forced to reinvest19placeholder — “your capital or your labor capacity, the rest is not important” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 251). As we have seen, the abstraction of humans does not only concern the proletarian (labour), but also the capitalist (wealth).

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Let us summarise. Unlike the direct appropriation of production within the feudal version of fetishism with help of a transcendent principle or code, capital fetishism is marked by a “double movement”:

“on the one hand, capitalism can proceed only by continually developing the subjective essence of abstract wealth or production for the sake of production, that is, “production as an end in itself, the absolute development of the social productivity of labor”; but on the other hand and at the same time, it can do so only in the framework of its own limited purpose, as a determinate mode of production, ‘production of capital,’ ‘the self-expansion of existing capital.’” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 259).20placeholder

In perpetuating the abstraction and immanentisation of labour and wealth, capitalism perpetually deconstructs any transcendent principles that try to limit and encode production. It is in this ‘negative’ movement that capitalism is at its most creative, as it allows for the creation of new products and new desires. The invention of the smartphone, for example, has lead to the creation and development of a plethora of field of production — app creation, tiny high-tech cameras, batteries — but also for capitalism to penetrate more deeply into our daily lives — permanent availability, advertisements, micro-transactions. This is the other side of the process, as capitalism moves forward this immanentisation, “so as to establish itself instead as the sole politics, the sole universality, the sole limit and sole bond” (Manuscripts, p. 95), thereby subsuming the production process to its rules of (economic and purely immanent) distribution. But to secure this second function, it is more than happy to take recourse to pseudo-transcendent principles and “Neoarchaisms” that stabilise its movements and create a false nostalgia:

“These neoterritorialities are often artificial, residual, archaic; but they are archaisms having a perfectly current function, our modern way of ‘imbricating,’ of sectioning off, of reintroducing code fragments, resuscitating old codes, inventing pseudo codes or jargons” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 257).

We can clearly observe such dynamics at work when it comes to the realisation of surplus value — in selling the commodities. Because not only does capitalism need to extract surplus, it also needs to “cash in,” or else the profits disappear. It is here that an important law of Marx comes into play, namely the tendency of the profit rate to fall.

We can’t treat this rather complex law here fully.21placeholder Let us just say that given the tendency of profit rates to fall, the capitalists permanently need to find ways to counteract it — on the one hand by finding new ways of extracting surplus value (more efficient production, automation, cutting wages, new forms of work — part-time, “uberisation” — , outsourcing), on the other hand new ways of realising or absorbing it (advertisement, militarism/imperialism, government).22placeholder For example, in the name of nationalism, a permanently growing military industrial complex can help to absorb huge amounts of surplus value. Advertisements and the development of consumer culture help to keep the general demand for new products high, as the crisis of under-consumption permanently looms over capitalism — consumption is the third ‘pillar’ of the economy, besides production and distribution (a relation that Marx problematises in the introduction to the Grundrisse). It is this double movement in light of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which Deleuze and Guattari conceptualise as deterritorialization and re-territorialisation:

“As a corollary of this law” — of the falling rate of profit — “there is the twofold movement of decoding or deterritorializing flows on the one hand, and their violent and artificial reterritorialization on the other. The more the capitalist machine deterritorializes, decoding and axiomatizing flows in order to extract surplus value from them, the more its ancillary apparatuses, such as government bureaucracies and the forces of law and order, do their utmost to reterritorialize, absorbing in the process a larger and larger share of surplus value”23placeholder (Anti-Oedipus, p. 34f.).

This dynamic creates a complete separation between the individual in its social role as a producer or owner (“social persons” (ibid., p. 264)) — where there are only two options: either you’re a worker, or a capitalist. While there are obvious difference in the quality of life (which is why the capitalist class is the de facto dominating one), both roles are completely abstract. On the other hand, as “private persons” (ibid.), where each individual is to help absorb/realise the surplus value — as consumers — everyone becomes relatively concrete, and is re-encoded in a specific kind of (consumer) identity. Relatively concrete, because what is important is not you as an individual being, but in as much as you can be subsumed under a certain target audience. For example, Facebook’s intrusive activities are not targeting you as such, but only to the degree that it can perfectly target ads to you. There is in that sense no attack on our privacy, and it is not our “private data” we need to save; privacy — anonymity — is all there is. The specific nature of this “private” identity is completely indifferent towards one’s social role in as much as it doesn’t touch — and cannot touch — the role one plays within the economy. You can be an anarchist or a nazi, gay or a trans — Grand Blond Jesus and his helpers will make sure you don’t go too far and he will re-establish order. Everyone can be integrated into the market — in fact, the more ‘minoritary’ you are, the better — as long as you keep working for a salary, or as long as you keep investing your capital.24placeholder But even if you decide not to get a “normal” job, we will create a subculture around you or a cult, if you become a drug addict, there is a whole economy ready to absorb you. In short, the individual as a concrete being becomes completely “privatised” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 263), meaning cut off from influencing the “social machine”:

“Precisely because it is privatized, placed outside the field, the form of the material or the form of human reproduction begets people whom one can readily assume to be all equal in relation to one another; but inside the field itself, the form of social economic reproduction has already preformed the form of the material so as to engender, there where they are needed, the capitalist as a function derived from capital, and the worker as a function derived from labor capacity, etc., in such a way that the family finds itself countersected by the order of classes” (ibid.).

This is why identity politics is so easily assimilable into the market. This is not to say that the whole thing is going smoothly or that the struggle of minorities is futile — evidently, there is still racism, sexism, there is still extreme and direct exploitation on the “peripheries” of capitalism— myriads of “re-territorialisations” with new ways of control and exploitation. The means to counteract the falling rate of profit are more often than not violent, as they need to make sure that the creative outbursts of deterritorialization stay within the limit, stay assimilable, follow the rules of economisation. Feminism, yes, but only to a certain degree. This is the role of the capitalist state, which in that sense is not opposed to the market after all:

“The capitalist State is the regulator of decoded flows as such, insofar as they are caught up in the axiomatic of capital. […] from being at first the transcendent unity, it becomes immanent to the field of social forces, enters into their service, and serves as a regulator of the decoded and axiomatized flows” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 252).25placeholder

· · ·

This essay has focused on the critical aspect of Marx’s and Deleuze/Guattari’s discussions of capitalism. These thinkers have proceeded by problematising the relation between production and distribution and the necessity to pose the question of production anew. Criticisms of capitalisms that try to remedy its ills through redistribution, wrongly assume the existence of a primary and ‘natural’, and thereby unquestionable distribution. As for their “solutions” — and their differences — this would take another big effort. Let it just be noted that the concept of desire, as it is developed in Anti-Oedipus, borrows a lot from Marx; but Deleuze and Guattari pose it not as a problem of consciousness (e.g. class consciousness), but of the unconscious — which is where Freud comes into play.26placeholder

But what we can see is why these thinkers equally refute any solution that tries to re-establish certain transcendent principles, or “tweakings” of the economy with help of laws or rights. Even more generally, the “solution” won’t be found in finding new methods of distribution, and we can now understand, why they insisted on production so much. The important thing, though, is that criticism, if it intends to be more than mere lip service to uphold the status quo, needs to go beyond nostalgia and various attempts to restore whatever utopian past order, and that it needs to understand the different presuppositions and dynamics that produce and perpetuate exploitation and the privatisation and abstraction of human beings.

For a further discussion of the traces of Marx in Anti-Oedipus, particularly regarding voluntary servitude, click here. To learn more about the spinozist sources of the same problem, click here.

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is currently writing his PhD at Paris 1 Sorbonne. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.

Works Cited

Baran, Paul A.; Sweezy, Paul M. Monopoly Capital. An essay on the American Economic and Social Order. Monthly Review 1966.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix. Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1. University of Minnesota Press 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix. L’Anti-oedipe. Capitalisme et schizophrénie 1. Minuit 1973.

Hall, Stuart; Schwarz, Bill. “Breaking Bread with History: C. L. R. James and The Black Jacobins. Stuart Hall Interviewed by Bill Schwarz,” in: History Workshop Journal, №46 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 17–31.

Harvey, David. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. Verso 2010.

James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins. Penguin 2001.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1. Penguin Classics 1992.

Marx, Karl. Das Kapital. Band 1, in: Marx-Engels-Werke [MEW], Bd. 23.

Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. Die Deutsche Ideologie, in: Marx-Engels-Werke [MEW], Bd. 3.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, in: Marx-Engels-Werke [MEW], Bd. 42.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Penguin Classics, 1993

Marx, Karl. Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte. Suhrkamp 2009.

Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto. Prometheus Books 1988.

Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. Prometheus 1998.

Sewell, Rob. The Capitalist Crisis and the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (


Which is often mistaken for communism, but it’s what Marx criticises in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as ‘raw communism’.


“[E]he die Distribution Distribution der Produkte ist, ist sie: 1. Distribution der Produktionsinstrumente und 2., was eine weitere Bestimmung desselben Verhältnisses ist, Distribution der Mitglieder der Gesellschaft unter die verschiednen Arten der Produktion. (Subsumtion der Individuen unter bestimmte Produktionsverhältnisse.) Die Distribution der Produkte ist offenbar nur Resultat dieser Distribution, die innerhalb des Produktionsprozesses selbst einbegriffen ist und die Gliederung der Produktion bestimmt“ (MEW 42, p. 31).


Marx warns us against such “robinsonades,” as they are themselves projections of the bourgeois (liberal) subject. This example will in that sense not illustrate any kind of ‘original situation’, but will serve only as a conceptual clarification.


As Deleuze and Guattari note in Anti-Oedipus, such a power structure realises its distribution through a code : A “code is not, and can never be, economic: on the contrary, it expresses the apparent objective movement according to which the economic forces or productive connections are attributed to an extraeconomic instance as though they emanated from it, an instance that serves as a support and an agent of inscription » (Anti-Oedipus, 247) / “[U]n code n’est jamais économique et ne peut pas l’être : il exprime au contraire le mouvement objectif apparent d’après lequel les forces économiques ou les connexions productives sont attribuées, comme si elles en émanaient, à une instance extra-économique qui sert de support et d’agent d’inscription. […] C’est pourquoi le signe de désir, en tant que signe économique qui consiste à faire couler et couper les flux, se double d’un signe de puissance nécessairement extra-économique, bien qu’il ait dans l’économie ses causes et ses effets” (Anti-Oedipe, p. 298).


In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari analyse this as the “despotic machine”. One might remark here that what is distributed here, are not primarily material entities. What is rather happening here, is an encoding, where it is decided, who is a nobleman and who is a serf. What Marx calls distribution, Deleuze and Guattari therefore call “enregistrement”. What is ‘distributed’ here on the social order, is a code, which ascribes certain powers and rights.


“Physiocracy is directly the dissolution of feudal property in political economy, but it is therefore just as directly its metamorphosis and restoration in political economy, save that now its language is no longer feudal but economic” (Manuscripts, p. 95f.).


As Stuart Hall puts it: “[S]lavery existed as a sub-economic system within the larger system of world capitalism: that’s what gives it its connections to modernity. Slavery did not function as a kind of archaic remnant, belonging to a previous age, which somehow capitalist modernity had not yet got around to abolishing — for being insufficiently rational, or insufficiently modern. Far from it. It is exactly the most archaic social relations which are preserved in the modern system” (Breaking Bread with History, p. 23).


“The socius as full body [corps plein] has become directly economic as capital-money; it does not tolerate any other preconditions. What is inscribed or marked is no longer the producers or nonproducers, but the forces and means of production as abstract quantities that become effectively concrete in their becoming related or their conjunction: labor capacity or capital, constant capital or variable capital, capital of filiation or capital of alliance” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 263 / Anti-Oedipe, p. 317)


“With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour” (Grundrisse, p. 104) / “Mit der abstrakten Allgemeinheit der reichtumschaffenden Tätigkeit nun auch die Allgemeinheit des als Reichtum bestimmten Gegenstandes, Produkt überhaupt oder wieder Arbeit überhaupt, aber als vergangne, vergegenständlichte Arbeit” (MEW 42, S. 38).


“Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference” (Grundrisse, p. 104) / “Die Gleichgültigkeit gegen die bestimmte Arbeit entspricht einer Gesellschaftsform, worin die Individuen mit Leichtigkeit aus einer Arbeit in die andre übergehn und die bestimmte Art der Arbeit ihnen zufällig, daher gleichgültig ist.“ (MEW 42, p. 38).


In the claim that without the “brains of the operation,” the capitalist, the workers wouldn’t be able to produce on an industrial level.


“For as soon as the division of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood” (The German Ideology, p. 53). / “Sowie nämlich die Arbeit verteilt zu werden anfängt, hat Jeder einen bestimmten ausschließlichen Kreis der Tätigkeit, der ihm aufgedrängt wird, aus dem er nicht heraus kann; er ist Jäger, Fischer oder Hirt oder kritischer Kritiker und muß es bleiben, wenn er nicht die Mittel zum Leben verlieren will“ (MEW 3, S. 33).


“if this political economy consequently displays a cosmopolitan. universal energy which overthrows every restriction and bond so as to establish itself instead as the sole politics, the sole universality, the sole limit and sole bond, then it must throw aside this hypocrisy in the course of its further development and come out in its complete cynicism” (Manuscripts, p.95); ref. also Anti-Oedipus: “Production as the abstract subjective essence is discovered only in the forms of property that objectifies it all over again, that alienates it by reterritorializing it” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 259).


In short, in the vein of what Marx and Engels imagined communism to be like in The German Ideology: “whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” (German Ideology, p. 53). / “während in der kommunistischen Gesellschaft, wo Jeder nicht einen ausschließlichen Kreis der Tätigkeit hat, sondern sich in jedem beliebigen Zweige ausbilden kann, die Gesellschaft die allgemeine Produktion regelt und mir eben dadurch möglich macht, heute dies, morgen jenes zu tun, morgens zu jagen, nachmittags zu fischen, abends Viehzucht zu treiben, nach dem Essen zu kritisieren, wie ich gerade Lust habe, ohne je Jäger, Fischer, Hirt oder Kritiker zu werden“ (MEW 3, S. 33).


“[I]n this way the signs of power completely cease being what they were from the viewpoint of a code: they become coefficients that are directly economic, instead of being doubles to the economic signs of desire and expressing for their part noneconomic factors determined as dominant“ (Anti-Oedipus, p. 249).


“These are the two aspects of the full body: an enchanted surface of inscription, the fantastic law, or the apparent objective movement; but also a magical agent or fetish, the quasi cause. It is not content to inscribe all things, it must act as if it produced them“ (Anti-Oedipus, p. 154).


“als sachliche Verhältnisse der Personen und gesellschaftliche Verhältnisse der Sachen” (MEW 23, p. 87).


As Marx notes, the laws of supply and demand are at work as long as there are fluctuations, but as soon as they are in equilibrium, they explain nothing: “In the case of supply and demand, Marx concedes that these conditions play a vital surface role in generating price movements for a particular commodity, but when supply and demand are in equilibrium, he argues, supply and demand fail to explain anything. Supply and demand cannot explain why shirts exchange for shoes on average in the ratio that they do. This has to be explained by something totally different, congealed socially necessary labor-time, or value. This does not mean that supply and demand are irrelevant, because without them there could be no equilibrium price. Supply and demand relations are a necessary but not sufficient aspect of a capitalist mode of production” (David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, p. 166)


“[S]omething new occurs with the rise of the bourgeoisie: the disappearance of enjoyment as an end, the new conception of the conjunction according to which the sole end is abstract wealth and its realization in forms other than consumption. […] The bourgeois sets the example, he absorbs surplus value for ends that, taken as a whole, have nothing to do with his own enjoyment: more utterly enslaved than the lowest of slaves, he is the first servant of the ravenous machine, the beast of the reproduction of capital, internalization of the infinite debt” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 254). / “[Q]uelque chose de nouveau se produit avec la bourgeoisie : la disparition de la jouissance comme fin, la nouvelle conception de la conjonction d’après laquelle la seule fin est la richesse abstraite, et sa réalisation sous d’autres formes que celle de la consommation. […] le bourgeois […] absorbe la plus-value à des fins qui, dans leur ensemble, n’ont rient à voir avec sa jouissance : plus esclave que le dernier des esclaves […], intériorisation de la dette infinie » (Anti-Oedipe, p. 306).


“d’une part, le capitalisme ne peut procéder qu’en développant sans cesse l’essence subjective de la richesse abstraite, produire pour produire… ; mais d’autre part et en même temps, il ne peut le faire que dans le cadre de son proper but limité, en tant que mode de production determine, ‘production pour le capital’, ‘mise en valeur du capital existant’” (Anti-Oedipe, p. 317).


For a good introduction, ref. Rob Sewell — The Capitalist Crisis and the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall. Marx differentiated between constant capital (machinery and other means of production, raw materials etc) and variable capital (labour power). Constant capital does not produce surplus, as machines and materials only transfer their value to the product. Only variable capital, labour, does. But as the capitalists try to cut production costs as much as possible to be able to sell their products more cheaply than the competition, they are driven “to introduce labour-saving machines,” which “leads […] to a relative decrease in variable capital to constant capital”. As “the introduction of machinery tends to reduce the number of workers and therefore changes the ratio between variable and constant capital,” this “inevitably leads, all things being equal, to a declining rate of profit” (Sewell).


Ref. Baran/Sweezy, Monopoly Capitalism, Ch. 5–7, to which Deleuze and Guattari make reference in Anti-Oedipus.


“Comme corollaire de cette loi, il y a le double mouvement de décodage ou de la déterritorialisation des flux, et de leur re-territorialisation violente et factice. Plus la machine capitaliste déterritorialise, décodant et axiomatisant les flux pour en extraire la plus-value, plus ses appareils annexes, bureaucratiques et policiers, re-territorialisent à tour de bras tout en absorbant une part croissante de plus-value” (Anti-Oedipe, p. 44).


See for contrast the rigidity of the socialist state, Anti-Oedipus p. 256 / Anti-Oedipe p. 308.


“L’État capitaliste est le régulateur des flux décodés comme tels, en tant qu’ils sont pris dans l’axiomatique du capital” (Anti-Oedipe, p. 303).


The project of Deleuze and Guattari to establish a “materialist psychiatry” obviously refers to Marx and Freud respectively. And does the title of the book not also allude to Engels’s Anti-Dühring? The way Deleuze and Guattari tie together Marx and Freud is very particular, and shouldn’t be treated simplistically. It would therefore take a whole new essay to unwrap this ‘parallel’.


April 2020


The Values of the Australian Bushfires

by Diane Delaurens

Beyond the Ruins of Neoliberalism: Diagnosing the Present and Demanding the Future

by Matt Bluemink

Marx and “Anti-Oedipus.” Production, Distribution, Fetishism

by Timofei Gerber

On Antinatalism and Depression

by Sam Woolfe