Marx’s Capital as critique of and contribution to political economy

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.

Published in: on 28 June, 2009 at 2:33 pm  Comments (11)  

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  1. Interesting stuff.

    On this initial question, which recurs at the end, of Capital being a “Critique” (Kritik) of political economy, I think its wrong to read this word as we ordinarily would today, which is to mean something like “criticism”. In fact, this isn’t what “critique” means – it means something more like “analysis”. Compare Kant’s “critique” of pure reason: Kant has no criticisms to make of pure reason whatever.

    • Kant does not provide merely an “analysis” of pure reason. He also raises the problem of the relation between pure and practical reason, i.e. the antinomy of freedom and necessity. To represent the Critique of Pure Reason as merely an analysis of pure reason is problematic at best.

      • What I said was that the meaning of “critique” was “more like” that of the word “analysis” than the meaning of the word “criticism”. I then said, that one could compare Kant’s use of the word analysis.

        There is no implication here either that that’s all I think the word “critique” means or that that’s Kant’s usage.

      • I have to correct my earlier reply to this reply to my comment: I said “Kant’s use of the word analysis”, when I meant “Kant’s use of the word critique“.

  2. Yes – good point. In fact that would be a better way of putting this than I did.

  3. This could turn into a fairly pointless back and forth, but what the hey:

    1. You said ‘I think its wrong to read this word [critique] […] to mean something like “criticism”. In fact, this isn’t what “critique” means – it means something more like “analysis”.’ But if it ‘means something more like “analysis”‘ than what is this ‘critique’ when Kant engages in criticism? Kant *critiques* previous philosophies, particularly Hume’s which woke him from his metaphysical slumber – even if his criticism is implicit in the the transcendental deduction.

    2. You said: ‘Kant has no criticisms to make of pure reason whatever.’ This is wrong, as I have hinted in the point above. Kant’s transcendental subject is a *critique* (i.e. a criticism) of Hume’s separation of ‘relations of ideas’ and ‘matters of fact.’

    So it is apparent to me that ‘critique’ is *not* more like ‘analysis’ than ‘criticism.’ In fact I would argue that ‘critique’ suggests a rational process that is both analytical and critical. And ultimately my comments are not a result of misinterpreting what you “mean.” Your meaning is perfectly clear.

    • Well, I’ll yield on your points here – I haven’t looked at The Critique of Pure Reason recently enough to refute you, and I suspect since you’re apparently more familiar with the text than I, it’s likely it’s you who are right.

      I’m frustrated however that you again do at the end of your comment what you did in your initial reply to me, which is to put words in my mouth. I didn’t accuse you of “misinterpreting what I mean”. I didn’t invoke meaning in this sense of vouloir-dire at all, nor did I think this was the problem. I thought you’d misread what I’d said or read it carelessly, an impression I now have again, though apparently in the first case I was wrong.

      • I’m sorry you feel that I am putting words into your mouth. You said ‘In fact, this isn’t what “critique” means – it means something more like “analysis”’ and ‘Kant has no criticisms to make of pure reason whatever.’ So if what you say is true, i.e. that Kant makes *no* criticism of pure reason and ‘critique’ is more like ‘analysis’ than ‘criticism,’ than me accusing you of ‘represent[ing] the Critique of Pure Reason as merely an analysis of pure reason’ doesn’t sound too far of the mark. Perhaps the ‘merely’ was going to far.

  4. hi Mike,
    I like this piece. I’d like to know more about that newsletter – who runs it, who reads it, etc. I’d also like to hear you say a bit more about this: “it sometimes seems that revolutionary politics is a matter of conjuring up a new subjectivity for the working class”, you say this as a criticism. Can you expand on this point please?
    take care,

  5. Hey, thanks Nate. The newsletter has been a monthly thing since only May of this year; it’s part of a discussion group which has been meeting once a month. Each month one or two people spark things off with an essay on some topic – so far, we’ve had ‘the crisis’, ‘politics’, ‘the Australian working class’, and next month we’re doing ‘social democracy’. Also in the newsletter are replies and ongoing discussions, kind of like an e-list in slow motion (with strict word limits!), which has turned out to be quite a good way of working. Most of us are members of other groupings, the idea is not to start a new party or anything but to get an open dialogue going on the broadly socialist left. The newsletter’s not really public or private – it’s meant for internal discussion at this point and not published anywhere but we can pass it on to whoever’s interested. I can send it via email if you like; a lot of it’s pretty Australia-specific but there’s also some general stuff.

    On the ‘new subjectivity’ stuff – you’re not the only one to react to that! And I have kind of taken the point from others that in some ways we are aiming to spread a ‘new subjectivity’ in the sense that we want people to see themselves in their social (working and consuming) activity as in an antagonistic relationship with capital. I guess my point is more that any viable radical political project is going to be pretty pluralistic in social vision, that political alliances don’t need to be based on a single theoretical vision, and that in a lot of ways we should be listening to and learning from the aims and desires of the broader class rather than necessarily trying to reshape it. I.e. our job is more to articulate political demands and raise expectations of what is socially possible, rather than try to reshape consciousness. If the former is what people mean by ‘conjuring up a new subjectivity’ then I’m all for it!

    I should say that I actually like Cleaver’s book a lot and his critique of political economic strands of Marxism in the intro is quite acute, and he clearly has done his homework there, which is why I use him as representative rather than certain others.

  6. hi Mike,

    Thanks for elaborating, and yeah if you don’t mind I’d love to see some of the newsletter, it sounds like a really cool project.

    On the new subjectivity stuff and listening more than reshaping, I really want to agree but I’m not sure I do, which makes me feel uncomfortably vanguardist. I don’t have this worked out clearly but my view (gut feelings may be a more accurate term) at least for the US is that we need mass working class organizations (I mean ‘mass’ in the sense less of size – though we need big working class groups here too – and more in the sense of organizations that fight around perceived short term self-interest). I think that experiences of collective action and of class conflict can transform and radicalize working class people, from perceived self interest to long term class consciousness and class anger – from “I want more money at my job” to “expropriate the expropriators!” 🙂 I can’t tell if I’m agreeing or disagreeing with you, I’m sure in part because I’m so tired.

    Final (half-)thought, re: Cleaver and such, that book was huge for me, I don’t think I could overestimate it’s importance in the trajectory I’ve followed, but in the past few years I’ve started to realize (and be unhappy that) much of the autonomist stuff is really spontaneist and liquidationist, where my intuitions are much more voluntarist and organizationally oriented. I think that stuff also blurs differences between mass and political work/organizations. I think those differences can be called into question (in some contexts I think they go away in social reality, I would argue the IWW in the early 20th century US was an example of a revolutionary organization that was both mass and political), but I think the categories themselves should be on the table/in the toolbox and I don’t see much of that in the autonomist stuff, unfortunately.


    take care,

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