This is the director’s cut of a piece I wrote for a local discussion newsletter.
The subtitle of Marx’s Capital is “a critique of political economy” and not “a contribution to political economy”. But this can be interpreted in different ways. One is to see ‘Marxian economics’ as a total refutation of ‘bourgeois economics’, with any science in the latter hopelessly compromised by its basis in political apologetics for capital. The Marxian economist has special knowledge of how the capitalist economic system really works. If the ‘transformation problem’ is interpreted correctly, the ‘labour theory of value’ explains relative prices while neoclassical microeconomics is nonsense. Crises always have their root ultimately in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, financial phenomena are mere surface appearances, and so on. There is room for disagreement between Marxists on the details – endless controversy in fact. But Marxian economics is scientific, and bourgeois economists are not only politically reactionary but deluded as well.
A second view sets itself against the first, arguing that Marx brought into question the whole enterprise of an objective economics, ‘Marxian’ or otherwise. In Reading Capital Politically Harry Cleaver criticises readings of Capital as political economy in no uncertain terms: “No matter how critical they are of various features of capitalism, they are basically no more than passive interpretations of the social situation…” [Cleaver, 2000: 30]
In other words, the political economists have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it. Worse, the political economists have interpreted the world in such a way as to present it as a self-reproducing mechanism – a contradictory one, prone to crisis, with an inexorable tendency to run itself down eventually, but in which the working class is a moving part whose whose consciousness doesn’t matter much. They forget Marx’s fundamental criticism of classical political economy – that economic structures are social relations.
I think Cleaver is right that the relevance of Marx to socialists today is due to his strategic vision, and not because he was some kind of prophet of capitalism’s collapse under its internal contradictions. You can find catastrophist predictions in Marx, but not so much in his mature political economy. In Capital, “Crises are never more than momentary, violent solutions for the existing contradictions, violent eruptions that re-establish the disturbed balance for the time being.” [Vol. III, Ch. 15] In Theories of Surplus Value: “Crisis is nothing but the forcible assertion of unity of phases of the production process which have become independent of each other.” [Vol. II] Yet crisis and its cousin ‘stagnation’ have become the main story for too many Marxian economists. It’s unfortunate because it draws the attention away from the more important question of how capitalism has managed to reproduce and expand itself so dynamically for so many decades.
There is a risk, though, that a criticism of the political economic tendency to objectify social relations slides into the opposite tendency, to subjectivise them, especially by falsely attributing a subjectivity to a whole class – a tendency common in philosophical ‘Western Marxism’ and in Cleaver’s autonomism, in which it sometimes seems that revolutionary politics is a matter of conjuring up a new subjectivity for the working class. Marx’s point about certain capitalist social relations appearing as things is not that it is necessarily mistaken to see them as things. Money, capital, commodities really are things, as well as social relations: they are social relations manifest as things. As things, we can’t get rid of them just by deciding to stop believing in them. In understanding capitalist reality, Marx makes positive use of classical political economy to make this point against utopian socialism and Hegelian idealism – for example in The German Ideology when he and Engels approvingly cite Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ as a way of understanding how it is that
the social power… which arises through the co-operation of different individuals as it is determined by the division of labour, appears to these individuals… not as their own united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control, which on the contrary passes through a peculiar series of phases and stages independent of the will and the action of man, nay even being the prime governor of these. [Marx and Engels, 1845: Ch. 1]
It doesn’t take specialist economic knowledge to get the most important ideas from Capital – the emphasis on the law of value as co-ordinator of labour, the vision of capital as process and class relation, the focus on conflict and contradiction rather than harmony. These are the elements on which Marx criticised classical political economy as a whole, and they are as valid a criticism of modern economics. However, Capital is not only a critique of political economy as Marx found it, but also a positive contribution in which he treats economic structures and processes as real, complex things with workings to be unravelled. In investigating the complex workings of capital, he not only criticises political economy, but enters its debates, criticises some writers, takes sides with others. His mode of presentation, moving from the abstract to the concrete, makes it appear as if he is building the whole incredible structure from first principles. But there is much of classical economics in Marx – not only because he adopts freely from it when he agrees, but because his understanding cannot not help but be partly shaped by the discourses he reads and engages with, in the questions they ask and the phenomena they take as significant. He accepts that ‘bourgeois economics’ has its scientific element, that it refers to real social structures and processes, and that explanatory adequacy of economic theories depends on scientific and not political criteria.
Such an understanding of how the economic aspect of capitalist society works remains a vital part of strategic Marxist politics – even moreso today, because modern economics has since Keynes developed into a strategic guide for the state, rather than simply apologetics, and the state’s economic policy is more crucial to the reproduction of the system than it ever was in Marx’s day. Now more than ever, politics is framed by economics.