As For Living, Our Commodities Do That For Us……:
Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Social Synthesis and the Dialectic of Real Abstraction.
How is social synthesis possible by means of commodity exchange?
This is the central question Alfred Sohn-Rethel wishes to address in his book Intellectual and Manual Labour,[i] published in German in 1970 and in an English translation in 1978. The Kantian echo is deliberate: he goes on to say:
The word synthesis is used to arm the formulation of my enquiry with a spearhead against Kant’s hypostasis of an a priori synthesis from the spontaneity of the mind and thus to pay back transcendental idealism in its own coin. (IML 37)
If the notions of synthesis and possibility announce the presence of Kant in the investigation, ‘commodity exchange’ tells us from what direction the ‘spearhead’ is to be mounted.
The key text is clearly the first chapters of Capital, but Sohn-Rethel also takes as central the well-known passage from the preface to the Critique of Political Economy
The model of the production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.[ii]
It has been too easy to take this as a delineation of a ‘base-superstructure’ model; to see ‘production’ as the determinant of consciousness, and consciousness as a simple reflection of the material basis of life.
The view is rather this: ‘the model of the production (produktionweise) of material life’, the forces and relations of production, and the whole complex interplay of capital and labour that both conditions and enacts such forces and relations, is understood as a unity through, and only through, the commodity form. And the commodity form in turn conditions ‘social being’, the mode in which we, as otherwise atomised individuals, relate to each other. So the model is not one where the physical processes of material life – the interaction of labour and nature – nor the class relation of capitalist modes of production, condition our social being which in turn conditions the consciousness of individuals. Rather, our social being, which is not merely the aggregate of individual consciousness, but a totality through which the self-consciousness of individuals is brought into being, rests on a particular nexus – the commodity structure – that is also the ground and condition of the processes of production.
The core of Sohn-Rethel’s argument is contained therein; the Kantian subject of the transcendental analytic is displaced onto ‘social being’, the categories and forms of which ‘produce’ a world for us that has all the singularity and necessity of the Kantian model but one that is not hung from a skyhook in a domain of reason outside and beyond time, space and the limits of the human understanding.
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