Real abstraction: On the use and abuse of an idea

The Marxi­an no­tion of “real ab­strac­tion” has garnered a great deal of at­ten­tion in left­ist the­or­et­ic­al circles of late, with some­what mixed res­ults. It was first for­mu­lated and treated sys­tem­at­ic­ally by Al­fred Sohn-Reth­el, an eco­nom­ist as­so­ci­ated with the Frank­furt School of so­cial the­ory. Helmut Reichelt has poin­ted out, however, that the term was used pri­or in a couple in­stances by the Ger­man so­ci­olo­gist Georg Sim­mel (Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique of Eco­nom­ic Cat­egor­ies,” pg. 4). Not­ably, Sim­mel’s us­age oc­curs in con­nec­tion with the “ab­stract value” rep­res­en­ted and meas­ured by money, as that which con­verts qual­it­at­ively in­com­men­sur­able items in­to quant­it­at­ively com­men­sur­able com­mod­it­ies. He writes that “not only the study of the eco­nomy [eco­nom­ics] but the eco­nomy it­self is con­sti­tuted by a real ab­strac­tion from the com­pre­hens­ive real­ity of valu­ations” (Sim­mel, The Philo­sophy of Money, pg. 78).

With Sohn-Reth­el, the ex­pos­i­tion of the concept is much more thor­oughgo­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the defin­i­tion he provides in In­tel­lec­tu­al and Manu­al Labor (1970), “real ab­strac­tion” refers solely to the so­cial re­la­tion­ship of com­mod­ity ex­change, or rather to their ex­change­ab­il­ity as such. The ex­change of com­mod­it­ies, and the ab­stract equi­val­ence on which it is based, does not simply take place with­in the minds of those ex­chan­ging them. It oc­curs at the level of real­ity. Sohn-Reth­el as­serts that “real ab­strac­tion arises in ex­change from the re­cip­roc­al re­la­tion­ship between two com­mod­ity-own­ers and it ap­plies only to this in­ter­re­la­tion­ship” (Sohn-Reth­el, In­tel­lec­tu­al and Manu­al Labor, pg. 69).

Reichelt and oth­ers have noted the im­port­ance of the way this was framed by the crit­ic­al the­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno, one of Sohn-Reth­el’s close friends and cor­res­pond­ents. He re­spon­ded to charges of an overly “ab­stract” con­cep­tu­al­iz­a­tion of so­ci­ety by main­tain­ing that this ab­stract­ness was not in­ven­ted by so­ci­olo­gists, but rather be­longs to the very con­sti­tu­tion of so­cial real­ity. Ad­orno ex­plained:

The ab­strac­tion we are con­cerned with is not one that first came in­to be­ing in the head of a so­ci­olo­gic­al the­or­eti­cian who then offered the some­what flimsy defin­i­tion of so­ci­ety which states that everything relates to everything else. The ab­strac­tion in ques­tion here is really the spe­cif­ic form of the ex­change pro­cess it­self, the un­der­ly­ing so­cial fact through which so­cial­iz­a­tion first comes about. If you want to ex­change two ob­jects and — as is im­plied by the concept of ex­change — if you want to ex­change them in terms of equi­val­ents, and if neither party is to re­ceive more than the oth­er, then the parties must leave aside a cer­tain as­pect of the com­mod­it­ies… In de­veloped so­ci­et­ies… ex­change takes place… through money as the equi­val­ent form. Clas­sic­al [bour­geois] polit­ic­al eco­nomy demon­strated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands be­hind money as the equi­val­ent form is the av­er­age ne­ces­sary amount of so­cial labor time, which is mod­i­fied, of course, in keep­ing with the spe­cif­ic so­cial re­la­tion­ships gov­ern­ing the ex­change. In this ex­change in terms of av­er­age so­cial labor time the spe­cif­ic forms of the ob­jects to be ex­changed are ne­ces­sar­ily dis­reg­arded in­stead, they are re­duced to a uni­ver­sal unit. The ab­strac­tion, there­fore, lies not in the thought of the so­ci­olo­gist, but in so­ci­ety it­self. (In­tro­duc­tion to So­ci­ology, pgs. 31-32)

Real ab­strac­tion does not refer to ideo­lo­gies that arise on the basis of ma­ter­i­al ex­change of goods, or the labor pro­cess that al­lows such ex­change in the first place. Of course, Sohn-Reth­el is in­ter­ested in ac­count­ing for “the con­ver­sion of the real ab­strac­tion of ex­change in­to the ideal ab­strac­tion of con­cep­tu­al thought” (Sohn-Reth­el, In­tel­lec­tu­al and Manu­al Labor, pg. 68). But this “con­cep­tu­al ab­strac­tion” or “ideal ab­strac­tion” is clearly de­riv­at­ive, a mir­ror­ing of the ab­strac­tion at work in real­ity it­self at the level of ideas.

For ex­ample, Sohn-Reth­el ex­plains the con­cepts of mod­ern nat­ur­al sci­ence as based upon ideal ab­strac­tions of meas­ur­ab­il­ity and quan­ti­fi­ab­il­ity ap­plied to nature, which them­selves de­rive rather from a so­ci­ety in which a premi­um is already placed upon the meas­ur­ab­il­ity and quan­ti­fi­ab­il­ity of labor. “While the con­cepts of nat­ur­al sci­ence are thought ab­strac­tions,” writes Sohn-Reth­el, “the eco­nom­ic concept of value is a real one” (Sohn-Reth­el, In­tel­lec­tu­al and Manu­al Labor, pg. 20). Even then, however, not every so­cial ideo­logy re­flects this spe­cif­ic real­ity. Nat­ur­al sci­ence is cer­tainly one of the spheres of thought that Sohn-Reth­el seeks to ex­plain with re­course to the real­ity of ab­strac­tion, con­sid­er­ing its fun­da­ment­al con­cepts to be ideal­iz­a­tions of this real­ity. Oth­er ideo­lo­gies cer­tainly can be traced to so­cial and ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions, but not ne­ces­sar­ily to the con­di­tion of real ab­strac­tion.
Al­berto To­scano, a Marxi­an the­or­ist and trans­lat­or of Ba­di­ou, of­fers ex­haust­ive sum­mary of prom­in­ent Marx­ist ac­counts of ab­strac­tion in his art­icle “The Open Secret of Real Ab­strac­tion.” To­scano re­hearses these po­s­i­tions with his usu­al com­pet­ence, but his aims re­main purely ex­eget­ic­al. On the whole, he presents a fairly ser­vice­able ac­count. In his own the­or­et­ic­al work, however, To­scano’s de­ploy­ment of the concept of real ab­strac­tion is rather curi­ous. He in­vokes the concept in his study of Fan­at­icism: On the Uses of an Idea, look­ing to un­der­stand “re­li­gion [it­self] as a real ab­strac­tion” (To­scano, Fan­at­icism, pg. 186). Clearly, if one is op­er­at­ing un­der the defin­i­tion of “real ab­strac­tion” offered above, re­li­gion can­not be con­sidered a real ab­strac­tion since this refers only to ex­change.Some­times To­scano comes a bit closer to the mark, as in his passing re­marks re­gard­ing “Marx’s meth­od­o­lo­gic­al re­volu­tion, his for­mu­la­tion of a his­tor­ic­al-ma­ter­i­al­ist study of so­cial, cul­tur­al, and intellectu­al ab­strac­tions [cor­rect] on the basis of the real ab­strac­tions of the value-form, money, and ab­stract labor” (To­scano, Fan­at­icism, pg. 190). Here the real ab­strac­tion be­longs to ex­change value, money, and ab­stract labor, and not to their ideal re­flec­tions in ideo­logy. But just a few pages pri­or, To­scano states that

Wheth­er we are deal­ing with money or with re­li­gion, the cru­cial er­ror is to treat real ab­strac­tions as mere “ar­bit­rary products” of hu­man re­flec­tion. This was the kind of ex­plan­a­tion fa­vored by the eight­eenth cen­tury: in this way the En­light­en­ment en­deavored…to re­move the ap­pear­ance of strange­ness from the mys­ter­i­ous shapes as­sumed by hu­man re­la­tions whose ori­gins they were un­able to de­cipher.” The strange­ness of re­li­gion can­not be dis­pelled by ascrib­ing it to cler­ic­al con­spir­acies or psy­cho­lo­gic­al de­lu­sions, to be cured through mere ped­agogy. (To­scano, Fan­at­icism, pg. 184)

Go­ing from this, it ap­pears that To­scano groups re­li­gion to­geth­er with money as a form of “real ab­strac­tion.” Money ex­presses real ab­strac­tion in a ma­ter­i­al man­ner by meas­ur­ing the value con­tained in com­mod­it­ies, but re­li­gion does noth­ing re­motely of the sort. To be sure, To­scano is right to in­sist that re­li­gion is not an “ar­bit­rary product of hu­man re­flec­tion.” No ideo­logy is purely ar­bit­rary and ir­ra­tion­al, but is rather based in and ra­tion­ally ex­plic­able through ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions. In oth­er words, the ir­ra­tion­al­ity of re­li­gion is of an ob­ject­ive sort, rooted in ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions that can­not be ex­plained away as mere fantasy or su­per­sti­tion, but which must in­stead be re­vo­lu­tion­ized or ma­ter­i­ally rooted out. Nev­er­the­less, this does not mean that the so­ciohis­tor­ic­ basis on which an ideo­logy arises is ne­ces­sar­ily that of real ab­strac­tion.

This er­ror can be dis­pelled fairly simply, for­tu­nately. Since “real ab­strac­tion” refers ex­clus­ively to the ob­ject­ive real­ity of com­mod­ity ex­change, one can only really speak of ideo­lo­gic­al re­flec­tions of real ab­strac­tion wherever com­mod­ity ex­change has gen­er­ally taken hold. Ideal or con­cep­tu­al ab­strac­tions based on real ab­strac­tion prop­erly ex­ist only in so­ci­et­ies dom­in­ated by the re­la­tion of ex­change. Most will agree that cap­it­al­ism is a re­l­at­ively re­cent phe­nomen­on, dat­ing back only a few cen­tur­ies as a truly glob­al (or glob­al­iz­ing) mode of pro­duc­tion. Re­li­gion, by con­trast, has ex­is­ted for mil­len­nia, since the dawn of hu­man his­tory at least. How could re­li­gion be an ideal­iz­a­tion of real ab­strac­tion, much less a form of real ab­strac­tion it­self, in so­ci­et­ies where com­mod­ity ex­change was not a per­vas­ive real­ity? To­scano’s ac­count of re­li­gion as a “real ab­strac­tion” be­comes in­co­her­ent as soon as one con­cedes these facts.

Per­haps there is some much more ex­pans­ive no­tion of “real ab­strac­tion” de­veloped by Finelli or the oth­er the­or­ists To­scano leans on in Fan­at­icism. But if Sohn-Reth­el’s con­cep­tion is the one he’s work­ing from, his ar­gu­ment doesn’t really work.