In this post I want to address Marx’ employment of “freedom” in “The Trinity Formula” chapter (48) of Capital III.  In doing so, I hope to revisit some issues that more generally function as the ideological  backdrop to Marx’ more specific theoretics regarding historical materialism and the critique of political economy under capitalism.  I specifically want to bring to the fore some of the aspects that seem more directly influenced by Hegel and German Idealism, including what seems to be Marx’ teleological conception of history and the practical potentiality for an aufheben of capitalism into a materialist-productivist “kingdom of ends.”  What I ultimately hope to show in illustrating this backdrop is that Marx’ conception of freedom is predicated on a teleological historical metaphysics, one that almost dangerously seems to have inherit an early-Modern anthropocentrism regarding freedom in and its relation to Nature.          

In Chapter 28, Marx’ conversation turns seemingly un-expectantly(though I hope to show that this shouldn’t really take us by surprise at all) to freedom during his recapitulation of the theory of surplus labour, a recapitulation that reminds us that Marx, despite what popular interpretation holds, never seems to be morally indicting capitalism, nor does he lament the bygone forms of social relations of production—thus the tribal arrangement that constitutes a primitive communism, where social relations are predicated on shared blood and soil rather than on exchange, is for Marx not a utopic moment that we are to reclaim any more than is the feudal system of exchange, even though it seems at times that Marx seems to harbor a certain nostalgia for primitive natural productive social formations as well as the pre-mechanical cottage industries of the late Feudal era.  Rather, Marx seems to hold surplus labour as a potentially revolutionary aspect of capitalism:  

A certain quantum of surplus labour is required as insurance against accidents and for the progressive extension of the reproduction process […] It is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it extorts this surplus labour in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.”[1]  

The fact that Marx describes surplus labour as one of the more “civilizing” aspects of capitalism should perhaps give us pause and might do us service to recall the Marx of The German Ideology.  There, a seemingly utopic primitive condition is described (natural communities with immediate natural productive activity) as giving passing into a higher, more “civilized” epoch (the epoch of exchange and abstracted productive activity), where for the first time subjects can relate to each other as individuals.  The process of transforming productive activity from a naturally occurring phenomenon to an artificial abstract phenomenon acts, as it were, as the principium individuationis for subjective social relationality.  However, individuality—as the byproduct of a distortion of praxis, an abstract result of the fragmentation of natural-social productive activity—itself takes on a new practical potentiality.  The laboring class, which exists as individuals “who are completely shut off from self-activity” (191) and share an abstracted self-estranged essence whose intercourse has reached a universal status, is in the practical position to realize itself as a multitude of pure active individuals, where the division between self-activity and material life can once again coincide while at the same time sublating the abstract universal of individuality which was the initial result of the fragmentation of natural production (or of the fragmentation of the natural subject via the division of labor).[2]  That is, through the transformation of labor back into self-activity, and through the corresponding transformation of limited, stunted intercourse into the “intercourse of individuals as such” (192), the individual can exist with individuals authentically— or to put it in other words, the individual can exists individually with individuals, universally.[3]   

This thematic, where a moment in the history of political-economy is shown “to be responsible for the creation of a new a better human potential,” which is certainly operant in The German Ideology and strongly echoes a Hegelian metaphysics of historical progression, repeats itself in the Grundrisse and finally in Capital III.[4]  Before turning to how surplus labour can for Marx in Capital III ultimately be the cause of a new and higher “true realm of freedom,” I’d just like to point out a similar theme in the Grundrisse.  In this text (abandoned by Marx in 1858 and thus falling squarely in between the writing of the German Ideology of 1845-6 and of Capital vols. 1-3 from 1867-1883), Marx makes several arguments for the revolutionary and culturally universalizing effects of money and the economy of general wealth.  General wealth and the effects of surplus labour, he argues, create conditions whereby the status of the human in is elevated to heights never yet seen by history.  That is, the “discovery, creation, and satisfaction of new needs” under capitalism and the money economy creates a new type human, one where humans are “compelled—both as consumers and producers—to develop and to cultivate all of their qualities and powers, thereby becoming ‘cultured to a high degree.’”[5]  Thus, Marx argues that Capitalism is in fact a great “civilizing” process:     

Its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.  For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself.[6]      

In Capital III, Marx expands on this motif of the cultural achievement that capitalism affords once Nature is overcome and completely made object.  True freedom, can in fact only be attained once the necessity and contingency with which one lives in Nature is sublated by capitalism; it is only through such an achievement that a new potential for freedom is effected.  I’ll quote Marx at length here:   

The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by the necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper.  Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.  This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time.  Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.  The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.  The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.[7]  

Thus we have the repetition of what by now is hopefully a familiar trope in Marx—that each stage of historical procession contains the seeds of its own demise and simultaneous sublation to a progressively better form of social relationality, or at least one that harbors the potential for the universal realization of the subjective (human) potentialities.  Here, it seems that all Marx asks of civilization is to proceed with technology to such an extent that surplus labour is multiplied exponentially, that the amount of labour extracted from the most infinitesimal amount of labour time can meet the needs of a labour force to such an extent that human activity is no longer a means to an end but an end in itself.  All that we need to do to emplace such a realm of freedom, however, is simply completely conquer nature.  Now, I know that Marx isn’t necessarily advocating strip mining the earth so that we can elevate to truly free individuals (he seems to have something like the discovery of “cold fusion” in mind, in my opinion).  However, given the wake of destruction that industrial capitalism has effected on the natural world, with still no magic solution to the working day (via the simultaneous increase of surplus labour and decrease of labour time) it might behoove us to perhaps distance ourselves from this part of the Marxian project, or at least root out its sources.     


[1] Marx, Capital vol.. III, 958.

[2] Marx, The German Ideology, 191.

[3] Ibid., 192.

[4] Piotr Hoffman, The Anatomy of Idealism: Passivity and Activity in Kant, Hegel, and Marx (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), chapter 4.2— “Marx and Hegel: Labour, page 100. 

[5] Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage Books, 1973) pp. 409; Hoffman, 100 (Hoffman quotes Marx from p 409 of the Grundrisse too)

[6] Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage Books, 1973) pp. 409-10.

[7] Capital III, 959.

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The Communicative Paradigm and the Possibility of Pre-linguistic Recognition

I was struck by Axel Honneth’s criticism of Habermas’ communicative paradigm of social action, namely that the pre-theoretical basis form which Habermas attempts to normatively disclose recognition is flawed insofar as it offers an account of social reality that fails to take into consideration the pre-linguistic backdrop of social recognition.  What especially interests me is that he suggests that there can be a prelinguistic (and seemingly pre-intentional) disposition where one instinctively feels “disrespected.”  I’ll address later in the post how this seems to parallel (but ultimately clashes with) the ideas of political philosopher Paolo Virno and cognitive scientist Vittorio Gallese.  Before getting to the meat of Honneth’s critique, however, I thought it might be beneficial to give a brief account of Habermas’ theory of communicative action, noting how it bears on recognition and normative social imperatives. 

Habermas is known for merging with critical theory an analytically and pragmatically informed the theory of communicative rationality where intersubjective recognition is the result of a shared understanding in a speech act scenario in which no play of coercion has become operative. Simply put, the theory addresses how social actors can coordinate action plans (and normatively impose them in a valid manner) on the basis of a communicatively reached common understanding.  In this sense, communicative action is posed in contradistinction to strategic action, where actors engage in speech acts purely for instrumental ends, i.e. achieving some personal goal or effect. 

In What is Universal Pragmatics, Habermas discusses the fact that an actor raises the following validity claims when involved in communicative action:

  1. uttering something understandably;
  2. giving [the hearer] something to understand
  3. making himself thereby understandable; and
  4. coming to an understanding with another person     


Habermas goes on to amend these validity claims.  Whereas this set seems to correspond simply to basic conditions of comprehensibility that must be met in achieving understanding, his latter list secures the prospect of normative resolutions in discourse:  

  1. Truth                     [represents facts]
  2. Rightness               [establishes interpersonal relations]
  3. Truthfulness          [discloses a speaker’s subjectivity]
  4. Comprehensibility [entails more or less 1-4 from the list above]


For Habermas, members of a given community can take part in communicative action and aim at reaching a common understanding in their positing of validity claims.  Under this scenario, a speech act’s factual truth, normative rightness, and subjective truthfulness (or sincerity) are raised publicly in an effort to normatively regulate behavior.  Normative behavior and communication thus seem to be inextricably connected insofar as communicative discourse can take a behaviorally-reflexive stance, stabilizing actionable behavioral expectations through the intersubjective recognition of normative validity claims.  Social actors thus reach a stage of mutual recognition in this scenario as long as each has reason to reject the validity claims raised in discourse.  That is, as long as each can be sure that there is no ulterior, strategic motive behind the act of communication other than to reach a common understanding on how to act in a given context.  Hence, this paradigm Habermas believes to be exemplary for democratic juridical procedure insofar as it can function as an emancipatory procedure to further secure a normative basis of social reality while respecting the rights its recognized participants.

For Honneth however, Habermas’ platform misses a crucial, pre-linguistic element of social reality. Honneth writes that:   

            The normative presuppositions of social interaction cannot be fully grasped if they are         defined solely in terms of the linguistic conditions of reaching an understanding free from      domination; rather, we must above all the fact that social recognition constitutes the      normative expectations connected with our entering into communicative relationships    (Honneth 71).

Honneth continues noting that the pre-linguistic moral feelings of social actors must be taken into account prior to any communicative account of recognition—“the emancipatory process in which Habermas socially anchors the normative perspective of his Critical Theory in no way appears as an emancipator process in the moral experiences of the subjects involved” (Honneth 70).  Honneth’s point is that social recognition first maintains itself in a prelinguistic field where social actors may have good “reason” to feel that they have been disrespected prior to any engagement in communicative action (I bracket “reason” insofar as this criticism attempts to escape any attempt to ground recognition in ratiocination).  Honneth points out that social protests among lower classes are not the product of a concrete decision made because certain validity claims were not respected within an ideal communicative scenario where an instrumental, strategic (coercive), normative resolution was reached which can now be the object of protest.  Rather, the social conditions are already present which intuitively present the subjects with a feeling that their rights have been violated.  Honneth goes on to say that “subjects encounter each other within the parameters of the reciprocal expectation that they be given recognition as moral persons” (Honneth 71); this is not due to any linguistic procedure. 

This is an interesting claim, but unfortunately Honneth does not follow through with what might be entailed in such a pre-linguistic “expectation of social recognition.”  He writes “I am currently unable to justify the claim […] for this would require solving the difficult problem with replacing Habermas’ universal pragmatics with an anthropological conception that can explain the normative presuppositions of social interaction” (Honneth 72).  Now, I am not proposing that I have a solution to this problem.  But the recent work of Paulo Virno, which utilizes the discoveries of  cognitive-anthropologist Vittorio Gallese, might help us understand that in which an anthropological explanation of “the normative presuppositions (i.e., that one ought to be socially recognitized) of social interaction” might consist.  This comparison is not without its problems, which I’ll point out, but it offers us a starting point from which to assess Honneth’s critique of Habermas.

Virno, in his “Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation” (2007), draws on Gallese’s discovery of mirror neurons to explain 1)that there is a prelinguistic capacity in human beings (and many other higher mammals) which assures intersubjective recognition—“the relation of the human animal to its own kind is assured by an original ‘intersubjectivity’ that precedes the constitution of the individual mind’ (Virno, 175)—2)“that propositional thought invokes a rift in that original co-feeling” (Virno, 176), and 3) that language also can act as the solution to its initial negating of originary neural empathy.  I can’t go into much of Gallese’s theory here, but he has published much on social cognition (see; his article “The manifold nature of interpersonal relations: the quest for a common mechanism” gives a good overall appraisal: (pages 524-5 give an especially good summary if you are short on time).  But basically, Gallese gives us reason to believe that intersubjective recognition is in fact a prelinguistic capacity made possible by the existence of mirror neurons, which “provide the neuro-physiological basis that allows us to recognize immediately the emotive tonalities of members of the same species and infer the aim of their actions” (Virno 177). 


Social recognition thus obtains as a primary form of cognitive interaction amongst species-specific members, and this recognition is non-linguistic in nature.  This one aspect of the theory does indeed give support to Honneth’s claim that social recognition is not the outcome of a communicatively rational procedure.  However, Honneth suggests that acts of un-recognition (disrespect) can also have a pre-linguistic origin—presumably in the material conditions of labor within an economic infrastructure that already condition the subjects of a lower class to feel as though their moral worth is being neglected.  This thesis however, cannot be supported by the Gallese’s idea of a prelinguistic co-sentimentality, at least in Virno’s interpretation of it.  An act of disrespect, for Virno, is only possible within a linguistic infrastructure.  Only with language can one negate the originary feeling of social recognition (“you are NOT my equal”) made possible within the mirror-neuronal structure.  Thus, Virno would have it that the feelings of social disrespect that Honneth describes as prior to any communicative discourse are still the products of a linguistic infrastructure.  The economic system which designates social class functions according to a logic of negation made possible only by language.  Honneth may be right in assuming that the feelings of disrespect are not the product of an ideal communicative situation wherein communicative rationality was subverted by instrumental reason.  But, according to Virno, he can’t assume that it is not linguistic at all.


Virno claims that language itself is originally ambivalent insofar as it can negate originary empathetic social relations while also holding the power to negate that negation.  Thus, his third claim, that language can mend the break in social recognition, seems on par with Habermas’ general stance that communicative paradigm can indeed generate mutual recognition.  There is obviously a lot more to be said here but I’m running over the word limit.  Feel free to comment.

      Habermas, Jürgen, “What is Universal Pragmatics” in The Habermas Reader, ed. William Outhwaite, 118-131 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996). Originally published in Fredrick G Lawrence, trans., Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).

     Virno, Paolo.  Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, I. Bertoletti, J. Cascaito, & A. Casson trans. (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008). 

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