Comments on James Mill. Reading Notes

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Comments on James Mill. Reading Notes.

Make sure that you understand the following key ideas and think about their significance.

Page XXV. Paragraph 1: The abstract law and the real movement

Is this distinction a particular feature of economic laws? Or of social laws? Or of all laws? What is the real content of this distinction as a critique of political economy? Does it have a wider application in social theory?

Paragraph 2: Two conceptions of money

Marx apparently starts by endorsing Mill’s conception of money, providing a philosophical critique (a critique in the sense that he develops the philosophical implications of Mill’s argument, providing the analysis with a philosophical foundation, not in the sense of disagreeing with Mill): the essence of money is not (the mercantilist idea) that property is alienated in it but (the substance of Mill’s idea, though Mill does not put it like this) that the social act of the mutual exchange of products is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of a material thing outside man. This is Marx’s key idea: it is the basis of the theory of alienated labour in the 1844 manuscripts and of the value form and fetishism of commodities in Capital. Do not move on until you understand it. Marx took the philosophical idea from Moses Hess (see especially Marx’s On the Jewish Question) and the idea of the inversion comes from Feuerbach’s critique of religion. There is an inevitable reversal of the original relationship: the mediator has now become the real power over what it mediates. Compare and contrast the idea with Simmel’s quasi-psychological account of the inversion of means and ends as money is transformed from means of exchange to social power, an idea taken up in Weber’s Iron Cage: formal rationality giving rise to substantive irrationality. What is the basis of this inversion for Marx?

End of Paragraph 2, paragraphs 3, 4, 5: Property, money and the redeemer

Money is the ‘estranged essence of private property’. What does this mean? What does Marx mean by private property here? Why is it now alienated?

Is the religious analogy just an analogy? Or is Christian doctrine a reflection of/on the illusions of commodity exchange (see Alfred Sohn-Rethel on commodity fetishism as the constitutive idea of western culture)?

Page XXV(2) The money system

Why must private property develop into the money system? Here Marx is providing a theoretical paraphrase of Mill’s traditional story of the development of money out of exchange and exchange value. The social relationship between things ‘is already a relationship in which private property is estranged from itself’. Money is the `form of existence for itself of this relationship’, it is the ‘alienation of private property’. What does this mean?

Modern economics versus the monetary system

Now Marx moves from a purely philosophical critique, which has shown the underpinnings of Mill’s analysis of money, to a substantive critique, showing the one-sidedness of Mill’s view. The economist (Mill) has quite correctly pointed out to the monetarist/mercantilist that money has no inherent value, it is just a commodity like any other that has been selected to serve as the means of exchange. But the monetarist is quite right to respond that once the money commodity has come to take on that role, it is money that is the embodiment, expression, representation and measure of value.

In fact, far from debunking the monetarist myth, the economist has used his power of abstraction to `recognise the existence of money under all forms of commodities’. The `soul of money’ is present in all branches of production and all activities: again the religious analogy of body and soul. How does this relate to the opposition of content and form?

So the modern economists `have conceived the essence of money in its abstract universality’, but they have only universalised the mercantilists’ superstition. But the `economist does not attack the essence’ of money. This is why Marx’s philosophical critique takes us beyond the economist: it attacks (criticises) the essence of money by showing that the economist merely describes the superficial results of the alienation of private property in the form of money without explaining the process by which this takes place and so discovering private property (whatever that is) lying behind money.

What is the distinction between `the personal mode of existence of money as money’ and `the hidden social relationship between commodities’?

Why is paper money `the more perfect mode of existence of money as money’?

Why does it appear in the credit system `as if the power of the alien, material force were broken’?

Why is `an organised banking system’ the Saint Simonian ideal?

Page XXVI Critique of the socialists

Why is this `abolition of estrangement … only an appearance’?

What is the essence of credit? Why is credit the ultimate form of self-estrangement? (Again Marx distinguishes content, which is of only passing interest, from form/essence, which is the focus of his critique).

What is the status of this critique of the credit system? Is it only a moral critique? Or is it a phenomenological critique? Or is it a theoretical critique?

Where has the `antithesis between capitalist and worker’ come from? What, if anything, has this to do with money and credit?


What is `the secret contained in the lie of moral recognition’?

Marx now moves back to exchange to develop further the philosophical critique that he began in relation to money at the beginning of the text. What is the difference between the exchange of human activity `within production itself and of human products against one another’? Why is this `equivalent to species activity and species-spirit’? How does this relate to Adam Smith’s idea of the propensity of humans to `truck, barter and exchange’? What is human nature? What is the `true community’? Why does this community appear `in the form of estrangement’?

Why does Marx counterpose the idea of the community as being produced directly by the life-activity of individuals to the idea of the true community as coming into being through reflection and counterpose men as an abstraction to men as real, living particular individuals? What would Marx think of post-modernism?

The critique comes back to political economy which `defines the estranged form of social intercourse as the essential and original form corresponding to man’s nature’. What does Marx mean by this?

Page XXVIII The critique of political economy and the critique of property

The key lies in the starting point: `Political economy - like the real process - starts out from the relation of man to man as that of property owner to property owner’. If this is the real starting point, why is it wrong to start with it in theory? Marx summarises the logic of political economy’s argument in this and the next page, developing his critique of political economy that will be the basis of his theory of the form of value in Capital.

`The social connection between the two property owners is that of reciprocity in alienation … whereas in simple private property, alienation occurs only in relation to oneself, one-sidedly’. What does this mean, precisely?

Exchange is the social act which is the opposite of the social relationship. What does this mean?

What is alienated private property?

What does the word alienation mean?

Is it good, bad or indifferent for personal property to become alienated property?

How does the mode of existence of private property become that of an equivalent?

What is an exchange value?

What does this mean: `Its mode of existence as value is an alienated designation of itself. Different from its immediate existence, external to its specific nature, a merely relative mode of existence’?


What is the significance of Marx’s distinction between the purpose of labour and the mode of existence of labour?

Is the division of labour a bad thing? Or is it the exchange of the products of labour as values that is a bad thing? Does Marx distinguish the two here? What is the difference? Look at the second half of page XXXIII for a description of human exchange.

In the middle of the page we have the first formulation of the theory of alienated labour that is developed shortly afterwards in the 1844 manuscripts. Compare the two passages.

`Just as the concept of the equivalent, the value, already implied the alienation of private property, so money is the sensuous, even objective existence of this alienation’. Is this just rhetoric? What is its theoretical basis?

Page XXX

`Political economy is only able to grasp this whole development as a fact, as the outcome of fortuitous necessity’. Marx started off by contrasting real living individuals to abstractions. Now he seems to be denouncing political economy for its empiricism. Is Marx offering a metaphysical, anti-empiricist critique of political economy?
The rest of the text does not really add anything more. The bottom of page XXXI and top of page XXXII develops the phenomenology of exchange a little bit, drawing heavily on Hegel and getting a bit rhetorical.

At the bottom of page XXXII Marx contrasts alienated property with ‘true property’.

There is an interesting discussion of means and ends at the top of page XXXIII that adds something to the discussion.

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