Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 25 August 2017

Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Perception

This is Part Two of "The Philosophy of the Flesh". Against the idiotic fumblings of "identity politics", what we are attempting here is the opening of a path to a new immanentist ontology that can lead to the discovery of a new humanist ethic. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in my view, laid the foundations for such a novel ethic - with considerable influence on the work of Hannah Arendt (see especially her The Life of the Mind). Here we provide a constructive critique.

The entire aim of Kant’s critique of metaphysics – his enquiry into the “possibility” of any “future metaphysics able to call itself ‘science’” – was to avoid the Cartesian dualism by relegating the subiectum of reality to the inscrutable status of “the thing in itself”, which allowed the hiatus between this last and human knowledge to be “bridged” or “mediated” by the human faculties of intuition, the intellect (the understanding), and finally pure reason, in a series of “mediations” that moved from “mere appearances” to “the laws of nature” and those of logico-mathematics as “governed” by the rule of pure reason. Kant accepted the skepticism of both Leibnitz and Hume over the existence of a “subject” as the “author” or agent of the thinking process. Descartes had committed the fallacy of presupposing an “agent” behind every “action” – and therefore he presumed that the act of thinking necessarily presupposed the existence of a “thinker”. Both Leibnitz and Hume, and most emphatically Nietzsche, showed that this was a non sequitur. Leibnitz, in particular, postulated that reality could not be divided into noumena and phenomena for the “sufficient reason” that everything that exists, including phenomena or mere appearances (Kant’s blosse Erscheinungen), has a greater right to exist than what does not: - and that is a “sufficient reason” for its being.

Only in this limited sense, the certainty of “per-ception” – the fact that there is something instead of nothing – was the Cartesian cogito “certain”. And in this sense Nietzsche was right to replace the Cartesian cogito ergo sum with his “vivo ergo cogito”. As Merleau-Ponty reminds us in the quotation below regarding the cogito: “Sa vérité logique … est que pour penser il faut être.” It is not the act of thinking that comes first; rather, it is the ineluctable reality of “living” or perception that precedes “thinking-as-reflection” or “consciousness” and, much farther down the track, that of the thinking subject, of the ‘I’. This conceptual chain, what Nietzsche calls “the ontogeny of thought”, and the evermore strict con-nection between perceptions, then reflection, and then the extrapolation to a conceptually or logically necessary chorismos (Plato) or separation between the perceiver and the perceived (of ideas and things, says Merleau-Ponty below) was to become the fateful problematic for Western thought. Had Descartes been more careful in his formulation of the cogito, as Nietzsche and Arendt suggested, he would have expressed it as “cogito me cogitare, ergo sum” (p.20, LotM). But in that case it would have become obvious to him that the first “cogito”, the one that “perceives” that “I think”, begs the question of whether the “thinking” is done by a “thinker”, by an ‘I’ – which, as Nietzsche showed beyond question, leads to a circulus vitiosus (each fresh statement pre-supposes a previous “thinking subject” or ‘I’); or to a non sequitur (because thinking can occur without a thinking subject or ‘I’). This is the “fundamentality” of thought, its “abyss” or, with Nietzsche, its “Being-as-becoming”:

Quant à la source même des pensées, nous savons maintenant que, pour la trouver, il nous faut chercher sous les énoncés, et [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, SIGNES. (1960) 27] notamment sous l'énoncé fameux de Descartes [that is, the cogito]. Sa vérité logique - qui est que « pour penser il faut être » -, sa signification d'énoncé le trahissent par principe, puisqu'elles se rapportent à un objet de pensée au moment où il faut trouver accès vers celui qui pense et vers sa cohésion native, dont l'être des choses et celui des idées sont la réplique. La parole de Descartes est le geste qui montre en chacun de nous cette pensée pensante à découvrir, le « Sésame ouvre-toi » de la pensée fondamentale. Fondamentale parce qu'elle n'est véhiculée par rien. Mais non pas fondamentale comme si, avec elle, on touchait un fond où il faudrait s'établir et demeurer. Elle est par principe sans fond et si l'on veut abîme; cela veut dire qu'elle n'est jamais avec elle-même, que nous la trouvons auprès ou à partir des choses pensées, qu'elle est ouverture, l'autre extrémité invisible de l'axe qui nous fixe aux choses et aux idées. (Merleau-Ponty, Signes, p.27.)

This “fundamentality” of thought is why for Kant, contrary to Descartes, the question of the Ich-heit or Ego-ity (the thinking subject), could not be settled by rational means: the ‘I’ was a concept that belonged to the transcendental dialectic in that its existence could not be proven by scientific or logical means. Arendt (in the preface to ‘LotM’, pp13ff) rightly laments the distinction Kant made between Reason and Intellect and the relegation of the former to the task of “cognition” rather than “thought”, of “truth” rather than “meaning”, - something that he ought to have left to the Intellect instead, as Schopenhauer rightly insisted (see discussion in section below). But neither Kant nor Schopenhauer nor even Arendt ever question the nexus rerum constituted by the physical laws of cause and effect; and this failure is what prevents them from posing correctly, “meaningfully”, the question of “transcendence”, of the “separation” of the suprasensible and the sensible worlds. Though he questioned the possibility of meta-physics, Kant’s philosophical efforts were directed at showing how scientific laws were possible: how it is possible for human beings to discover invariant relations between physical events with the predictable precision or “certainty”  of logico-mathematics that justified their description as “natural laws” on account of the causally necessary link – otherwise known as nexus rerum - that permitted the ontological and epistemological ordo et connexio rerum et idearum (order and connection of things and ideas). Kant reasoned that we need to go beyond the Leibnitzian Principle of Sufficient Reason because that principle cannot account for the mathematical regularity of scientific observations: - as he revealingly put it, Reason had to give back to Nature the “order” that the latter had supplied with its “regularity”. Although reason is inconceivable without human intuition to provide it with the material content of its conceptual categories, this human intuition in turn could not become aware of its content (it could not con-ceive or com-prehend or “grasp” it) without the mediation of the Schematismus of the intellect and, in turn, of the logico-mathematical “rules” of Pure Reason.

Kant regresses back into Cartesian dualism by simply positing the “finitude” of the per-cipient subject and the “noumenality”, the incom-prehensibility of the per-ceived Object, of Being in its “totality”. This is the kernel of what we may call (with Merleau-Ponty) “the transcendental attitude”. Kant distinguishes two “moments” (momenta) of experience, one being the “constitutive” (perception) and the other the “regulative” (concepts or theory). This “separation” (or chorismos) of perception and the perceived, of the percipi and the esse, already pre-supposes a dualism of perceiving Subject and perceived Object. The act of perception is founded on the logical presupposition that there is a “thing” that is to be perceived – the Object. And the logical requirement of the act of perceiving is that there be an “entity”, a Subject, that “does” the perceiving. Whereas Descartes had placed the Ego or the Soul at the summit of philosophy, Kant preferred to appoint the logico-mathematical powers of human thought. It is the very ec-sistence of logico-mathematical id-entities that are within life and the world, within experience, and yet are independent of experience for their “truth” or “validity” – it is this a priori ec-sistence of logico-mathematical rules or laws that confirms the ec-sistence of two separate yet inextricable aspects of human existence: the constitutive principle of experience and the regulative principle of theory, the awareness or intuition of the res or “things”and the cognitive ability to link these “things” according to cognitive rules. There exists therefore both a faculty that “links” or “con-nects” ideas between themselves, and a faculty that links or connects these “ideas” with “things”, and an entity that pro-duces these “ideas” (the Sub-ject) as well as the “things” (that are ordered and connected) in themselves! Here Being is seen as “pre-sence”, as a fixed entity: what is forgotten is that the only “fixity” is that of the “degree zero” of being, which is its “being-for-others”, its perceptibility and not some kind of “nothing-ness” (Heidegger), as even Merleau-Ponty ends up mistaking it:

Les choses et le monde visibles, d'ailleurs, sont-ils autrement faits? Ils sont toujours derrière ce que j'en vois, en horizon, et ce qu'on appelle visibilité est cette transcendance même. Nulle chose, nul côté de la chose ne se montre qu'en cachant activement les autres, en les dénonçant dans l'acte de les masquer. Voir, c'est par principe voir plus qu'on ne voit, c'est accéder à un être de latence. L'invisible est le relief et la profondeur du visible, et pas plus que lui le visible ne comporte de positivité pure. (Signes, p26, my emphases.)

Merleau-Ponty, like Heidegger and Husserl and Hegel before them, continues to approach the question of being in its “verticality”, its transcendence – and so betrays his own enterprise. (Arendt speaks of “depth” [or ‘true being’] and “surfaces” [or ‘mere appearances’] to distinguish between transcendence and immanence [see ‘LotM’, p26 and p30 on “the value of the surface”]. Negri adopts this term, too in his writings on Spinoza.) Had he turned to the immanentists, he would have understood more fully what he himself sustains below when he substitutes “visible et invisible” for “etre et neant” – the impossibility of Being ec-sisting in its “totality”, as “pre-sence” that would render the pre-sent (the nunc stans) meaningless, as “un etre sans restriction”; - and therefore the futility or irrelevance of transcendentalism:

Dimensionnalité, ouverture n'auraient plus de sens. L’absolument ouvert s'appliquerait complètement sur un être sans restriction, et, faute d'une autre dimension dont elle ait à se distinguer, ce que nous appelions la « verticalité », - le présent - ne voudrait plus rien dire. Plutôt que de l'être et du néant, il vaudrait mieux parler du visible et de l'invisible, en répétant qu'ils ne sont pas contradictoires. On dit invisible comme on dit immobile: non pour ce qui est étranger au mouvement, mais pour ce qui s'y maintient fixe. C'est le point ou le degré zéro de visibilité, l'ouverture d'une dimension du visible. Un zéro à tous égards, un être sans restriction ne sont pas à considérer. Quand je parle du néant, il y a déjà de l’être, ce néant ne néantise donc pas pour de bon, et cet être n'est pas identique à soi, sans question. (Signes, p27.)

The limit of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception can be sensed in his failure to appreciate how the notion of “becoming” in Nietzsche’s version of the concept does not leave “the sensible, time and history” untouched but trans-values them quite radically:
La philosophie qui dévoile ce chiasma du visible et de l'invisible est tout le contraire d'un survol. Elle s'enfonce dans le sensible, dans le temps, dans l'histoire, vers leurs jointures, elle ne les dépasse pas par des forces qu'elle aurait en propre, elle ne les dépasse que dans leur sens. On rappelait récemment le mot de Montaigne « tout mouvement nous découvre. » et l'on en tirait avec raison que l'homme n'est qu'en mouvement 6. De même le monde ne tient, l'Être ne tient qu'en mouvement, c'est ainsi seulement que toutes choses peuvent être ensemble. La philosophie est la remémoration [anamnesis] de cet être-là, dont la science ne s'occupe pas, parce qu'elle conçoit les rapports de l'être et de la connaissance comme ceux du géométral et de ses projections, et qu'elle oublie l'être d'enveloppement, ce qu'on [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, SIGNES. (1960) 28] pourrait appeler la topologie de l'être.

But Merleau-Ponty’s interesting notion of “invisibility” as “the degree zero of visibility” leads us back to the discussion over Schmitt’s “exception” and Hobbes’s “hypothesis” and Nietzsche’s Invariance – all of which are “border” or “liminal” concepts, as it were, and offer revealing radiographies of the bourgeois transcendental and ontogenetic understanding of human being. Having just stated that “quand je parle du néant, il y a déjà de l’être”, Merleau-Ponty remains locked in the transcendental attitude that he attempts to supersede because he remains tied to the Heideggerian phenomenological notion of “nothing-ness”: if “being is in motion”, if it is a “be-coming”, then there must also be a non-being that pre-supposes being, which is the “space” left “empty” by the pre-sent being understood as a fixity. Similarly, “in-visibility” has meaning or “sense” only in the light of visibility (“la lueure de l’etre” [p21], an echo of Heidegger’s Lichtung). Merleau-Ponty has a vice of falling into these delusional dualisms as when he speaks of “silence” enveloping “words”, for meaning or “sens” as “l’etre d’enveloppement” and the Platonic “anamnesis” (cf. his expressions above, at p.28 of ‘Signes’).

It is interesting also that Foucault and then Agamben (Homo Sacer) mistake this “degree zero” for some puerile pre-political “state of innocence” that has been tainted by “statality”, by civil society as “bourgeois society”, as a degeneration or de-secration from “zoe” to “bios”. In effect, Agamben et alii erect a “naked life” as a bulwark against the “fiction” of citizenship that de-fines the “border” between the state of legality and that of “exception”. 

E em referencia a esta definicao que Foucault, ao final da
Vontade de saber, resume o processo atraves do qual, nos
limiares da Idade Moderna, a vida natural comep, par sua
vez, a ser incluida nos mecanismos enos calculos do poder
estatal, e a politica se transforma em biopolitica: "Par milenios,
o homem permaneceu o que era para Aristoteles: um animal
vivente e, alem disso, capaz de existencia politica; o homem
moderno e um animal em cuja politica esta em questao a sua
vida de ser vivente." (Foucault, 1976, p. 127) (See pp.3-4 of Eng. Edtn.)

Despite his appeals to the authoriality of Hannah Arendt (for he is a master at seeking out associations with “authors” such as Heidegger and Deleuze), Agamben neglects the cardinal importance that Arendt gave precisely to the concept of “citizenship”, not as a mark of biopolitical repression, but indeed as the only realistic and real “protection” of a human being by a human community! There is no reference in Arendt to this “primacy of natural life” to which Agamben refers (p.4). Little wonder that he should complain (same page) that “Arendt establishes no connection” between the analyses in The Human Condition and in Origins of Totalitarianism! The Nazi concentration camps operated not on the basis that “citizenship” was denied to the Jews, as Agamben foolishly believes, but precisely on the Nietzschean and later Schmittian notion that society and its “ontogeny of thought” are fictitious “masks” that serve to dissemble the “nakedness” of life as exploitation! Though this debacle may have begun with the progressive emargination of social groups from the protection of citizenship, as Arendt genially showed, the Nazis never saw Jews as “people deprived of citizenship” – and they never meant thereby “to exclude” them from any kind of biopolitical “statality” or “statal power”. The Nazis quite simply ob-literated the very notion of “citizenship” altogether! – In such a way that the Jews became in their eyes the “innocent” (Unschuldig!) victims of the struggle for life, the war of all against all, - the state of nature that is exactly what Agamben’s notion of “nuda vita” and Foucault’s earlier Aristotelian one of “zoe” ineluctably revive! In the Nazi ideology, Jews were merely the representatives of a losing “slave morality” that were to be dominated by the homologously “ir-responsible” or “un-accountable” (un-ver-antwort-lich) Nazi “Arian” bearers of the “master morality”! To lump together political systems that retain the notion of “citizenship” with systems like the Nazi state that abolished citizenship completely is to commit a political misjudgement of the worst possible kind! The puerility of Agamben’s “late-romantic” Rousseauean reveries is of an almost unbearable naivete’ – something that Nietzsche exposed and ridiculed with “the ontogeny of thought” which shows, in a manner later rejuvenated by Arendt, the (sit venia verbo!) “nakedness” (allusion to Agamben’s “nuda vita” or naked life) of the violence that the bourgeois transcendental attitude and ontogeny unleashes on beings human because of its equally “naked” denigration and denial of any phylogenetic inter esse, let alone “citizenship”! Nietzsche falsely believed to be able to overcome the nihilism of Western thought by exposing its Invariance: in reality, however, he only ended up identifying the ineluctability of exploitation and of “the pathos of distance”, as well as the instrumentality of the capitalist logico-mathematical and scientific order. (Esposito, incidentally, has sought to redefine inter esse as comunitas, with the emphasis on the munere which preserves the social individuality of the esse and shifts the political emphasis from the inter.)


Or, si nous chassons de notre esprit l'idée d'un texte original dont notre langage serait la traduction ou la version chiffrée, nous verrons que l'idée d'une expression complète fait non-sens, que tout langage est indirect ou allusif, est, si l'on veut, silence. (‘Signes’, p45)

 Again, the “totality” of being, just like “the complete expression” is a non-sense, says Merleau-Ponty. The “parallelism” of word and object, of thought and word is therefore also a nonsense:

Il n'est pas davantage de pensée qui soit complètement pensée et qui ne demande à des mots le moyen d'être présente à elle-même. Pensée et parole s'escomptent l'une l'autre. Elles se substituent continuellement l'une à l'autre. Elles sont relais, stimulus l'une pour l'autre. Toute pensée vient des paroles et y retourne, toute parole est née dans les pensées et finit en elles. Il y a entre les hommes et en chacun une incroyable végétation de paroles dont les « pensées » sont la nervure. - On dira - mais enfin, si la parole est autre chose que bruit ou son, c'est que la pensée y dépose une charge de sens -, et le sens lexical ou grammatical d'abord - de sorte qu'il n'y a jamais contact que de la pensée avec la pensée -. Bien sûr, des sons ne sont parlants que pour une pensée, cela ne veut pas dire que la parole soit dérivée ou seconde. Bien sûr, le système même du langage a sa structure pensable. Mais, quand nous parlons, nous ne la pensons pas comme la pense le linguiste, nous n'y pensons pas même, nous pensons à ce que nous disons. Ce n'est pas seulement que nous ne puissions penser à deux choses à la fois : on dirait que, pour avoir devant nous un signifié, que ce soit [26] à l'émission ou à la réception, il faut que nous cessions de nous représenter le code et même le message, que nous nous fassions purs opérateurs de la parole. La parole opérante fait penser et la pensée vive trouve magiquement ses mots. Il n'y a pas la pensée et le langage, chacun des deux ordres à l'examen se dédouble et envoie un rameau dans l'autre. (‘Signes’, p24)

In fact here even the “la” of “la pensee” ought to be in cursive – because if languages interpenetrate thoughts, then it is foolhardy to postulate the existence of “one” thought: there are as many “thoughts” as there are words to articulate and express them. Merleau-Ponty obliquely argues as much when he rightly observes that there cannot be any plausible analytical distinction between synchronic “parole” and diachronic “langue” a’ la Saussure. (See generally “Le Phenomene du Langage” in Signes, p.85:
L'expérience de la parole n'aurait alors rien à nous enseigner sur l’être du langage, elle n'aurait pas de portée ontologique.
C'est ce qui est impossible. Dès qu'on distingue, à côté de la science objective du langage, une phénoménologie de la parole, on met en route une dialectique par laquelle les deux disciplines entrent en communication.
D'abord le point de vue « subjectif » enveloppe le point de vue « objectif » ; la synchronie enveloppe la diachronie. Le passé du langage a commencé par être [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, SIGNES. (1960) 86] présent, la série des faits linguistiques fortuits que la perspective objective met en évidence s'est incorporée à un langage qui, à chaque moment, était un système doué d'une logique interne.

Here once again Merleau-Ponty seems unable to distinguish between human ana-lysis – literally, the retrovisual categorization of reality that ends up in the prima philosophia (ontology) and the “reality” that is the “fundament” or even the “abyss” of thought and language and action, in short, of what may be called the point of intuition, the reality of perception.

Yet Merleau-Ponty’s conception of thought remains tied to the intra-mundane notion of time:

Il n'y aurait rien s'il n'y avait cet abîme du soi. Seulement un abîme n'est pas rien, il a ses bords, ses entours. On pense toujours à quelque chose, sur, selon, d'après quelque chose, à l'endroit, à l'encontre de quelque chose. Même l'action de penser est prise dans la poussée de l’être. Je ne peux pas penser identiquement à la même chose plus d'un instant. L'ouverture par principe est aussitôt comblée, comme si la pensée ne vivait qu'à l'état naissant. Si elle se maintient, c'est à travers - c'est par le glissement qui la jette à l'inactuel. Car il y a l'inactuel de l'oubli, mais aussi celui de l'acquis. C'est par le temps que mes pensées datent, c'est par lui aussi quelles font date, qu'elles ouvrent un avenir de pensée, un cycle, un [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, SIGNES. (1960) 21] champ, qu'elles font corps ensemble, qu'elles sont une seule pensée, qu'elles sont moi. La pensée ne troue pas le temps, elle continue le sillage des précédentes pensées, sans même exercer le pouvoir, qu'elle présume, de le tracer à nouveau, comme nous pourrions, si nous voulions, revoir l'autre versant de la colline : mais à quoi bon, puisque la colline est là ? À quoi bon m'assurer que ma pensée du jour recouvre ma pensée d'hier : je le sais bien puisque aujourd'hui je vois plus loin. Si je pense, ce n'est pas que je saute hors du temps dans un monde intelligible, ni que je recrée chaque fois la signification à partir de rien, c'est que la flèche du temps tire tout avec elle, fait que mes pensées successives soient, dans un sens second, simultanées, ou du moins qu'elles empiètent légitimement l'une sur l'autre. Je fonctionne ainsi par construction. Je suis installé sur une pyramide de temps qui a été moi. Je prends du champ, je m'invente, mais non sans mon équipement temporel, comme je me déplace dans le monde, mais non sans la masse, inconnue de mon corps. Le temps est ce « corps de l'esprit » dont parlait Valéry. Temps et pensée sont enchevêtrés l'un dans l'autre. La nuit de la pensée est habitée par une lueur de l'Etre. (‘Signes’, pp20-1)

This is a “spatial” con-ception of being and time - there cannot be “empty space” because even “emptiness” pre-supposes “space”! And indeed even intra-mundane “time” is “spatialised” because it is conceived as a “now-sequence” of equal intervals unfolding from past to future (cf. Heidegger’s early essay on time). “I do not jump out of time when I think” betrays Merleau-Ponty’s nunc fluens conception of time, as a “flowing river” in which all being floats. So does his reference to “the arrow of time” and to “time is the body of the spirit” – in other words, for the spirit, time is its “embodiment” or “corpo-reality”. Yet we know, first, that “time” is a meaningless concept outside of human intuition (“spirit” here), and second, that if “time” is what gives “body” to the “spirit”, then it comes into opposition with “space”: in other words, we still do not know “where” this “spirit” is! It is this “invisibility” of “spirit” and this “spirituality” or “corporeality” of “time” that relegates us to the illusory dualism of Body and Spirit, of Idea and Thing. These are transcendental notions because they conceive of being as “something” that can be located in a spatio-temporal continuum. Merleau-Ponty himself acknowledges as much when he meekly suggests that l'être et [le] néant, il vaudrait mieux parler du visible et de l'invisible, … ne sont pas contradictoires”. Yet they are! Nothing-ness does not admit of “being”, unless “being” is understood transcendentally, in terms of the philosophia perennis, as the suprasensible world of which “nothing-ness” is only the kingdom of shadows, of appearances, the “negative” or “reverse” of being; or else as “possibility” or “contingency” (Heidegger, Sartre), which is certainly not “nothing-ness” but “being in gestation”, potentiality or Aristotelian dynamis – all of which poses an antinomic dualism that Merleau-Ponty was desperately trying to eschew from the inception. In this “antinomic world”, nothing-ness also has its “being”, and Heidegger’s sophistries come to resemble closely Hegel’s dialectical teleology (see his discussion of Aristotle in Vol.1 of Nietzsche).

It is instructive that Merleau-Ponty’s ultimate lunge to evade this linguistic trap is to prefer the phrase “topology of being” – which is closer to our notion of “place” (Ort) and the “nunc stans” to re-place (!) the old intra-mundane notions of space and time. The “fundamentality” that Merleau-Ponty is chasing is the “materiality” or immanence of being.

Dans le texte tardif que nous citions en commençant, Husserl écrit que la parole réalise une « localisation » et une « temporalisation » d'un sens idéal qui, « selon son sens d'être » n'est ni local ni temporel, - et il ajoute plus loin que la parole encore objective et ouvre à la pluralité des sujets, à titre de concept ou de proposition, ce qui n'était auparavant qu'une formation intérieure à un sujet. Il y aurait donc un mouvement par lequel l'existence idéale descend dans la localité et la temporalité, - et un mouvement inverse par lequel l'acte de parole ici et maintenant fonde l'idéalité du vrai. Ces deux mouvements seraient contradictoires s'ils avaient lieu entre les mêmes termes extrêmes, et il nous semble nécessaire de concevoir ici un circuit de la réflexion : elle reconnaît en première [121] approxi-mation l'existence idéale comme ni locale, ni temporelle, - puis elle s'avise d'une localité et d'une temporalité de la parole que l'on ne peut dériver de celles du monde objectif, ni d'ailleurs suspendre à un monde des idées, et finalement fait reposer sur la parole le mode d'être des formations idéales. L'existence idéale est fondée sur le document, non sans doute comme objet physique, non pas même comme porteur des significations une à une que lui assignent les conventions de la langue dans laquelle il est écrit, mais sur lui en tant que, par une « transgression intentionnelle » encore, il sollicite et fait converger toutes les vies connaissantes et à ce titre instaure et restaure un « Logos » du monde culturel.
Le propre d'une philosophie phénoménologique nous parait donc être de s'établir à titre définitif dans l'ordre de la spontanéité enseignante qui est inaccessible au psychologisme et à l'historicisme, non moins qu'aux métaphysiques dogmati-ques. Cet ordre, la phénoménologie de la parole est entre toutes apte à nous le révéler. Quand je parle ou quand je comprends, j'expérimente la présence d'autrui en moi ou de moi en autrui, qui est la pierre d'achoppement de la théorie de l'intersubjectivité, la présence du représenté qui est la pierre d'achoppement de la théorie du temps, et je comprends enfin ce que veut dire l'énigmatique proposition de Husserl : « La subjectivité transcendantale est intersubjectivité. » Dans la mesure où ce que je dis a sens, je suis pour moi-même, quand je parle, un autre « autre », et, dans la mesure où je comprends, je ne sais plus qui parle et qui écoute. La dernière démarche philosophique est de reconnaître ce que Kant appelle [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, SIGNES. (1960) 96] l'« affinité transcendantale » des moments du temps et des temporalités. C'est sans doute ce que Husserl cherche à faire quand il reprend le vocabulaire finaliste des métaphysiques, parlant de « monades », « entéléchies », « téléologie ». Mais, ces mots sont mis souvent entre guillemets pour signifier qu'il n'entend pas introduire avec eux quelque agent qui de l'extérieur assurerait la connexion des termes mis en rapport. La finalité au sens dogmatique serait un compromis: elle laisserait face à face les termes à lier et le principe liant. [122] Or c'est au coeur de mon présent que je trouve le sens de ceux qui l'ont précédé, que je trouve de quoi comprendre la présence d'autrui au même monde, et c'est dans l'exercice même de la parole que j'apprends à comprendre. Il n’y a finalité qu'au sens où Heidegger la définissait lorsqu'il disait à peu près qu'elle est le tremblement d'une unité exposée à la contingence et qui se recrée infatigablement. Et c'est à la même spontanéité, non-délibérée, inépuisable, que Sartre faisait allusion quand il disait que nous sommes « condamnés à la liberté ».


Saturday 19 August 2017

The Philosophy of the Flesh: Hannah Arendt and the Ontology of Perception - Part One

This is a lengthy study that I am publishing here in short instalments. What we are proposing here by way of a critique of Hannah Arendt's conception of vita activa (active life) is a sketch of an immanentist philosophy that could form the foundation of a new politics. It seems to me that we need this most at a time when the quest for a "future city" (Gramsci, La Citta' Futura), that is to say, for a new humanist civilisation, has vanished in the fragor mundi (the noise of the world) that has grown in intensity in the last few decades - a deafening noise amplified by the recent transformations of industrial and finance capitalism, its extension to the remotest corners of the globe - and certainly not muffled by the consequent disorientation of the historical political left. Specifically, this study seeks to overcome the helpless lucus a non lucendo (fire that will not light) of more recent so-called "identity politics". If a new humanism is what we are seeking, look around... 

The notions of Nature and Reason, … far from explaining the metamorphoses… from perception to the more complex modes of human exchange, make them incomprehensible. Because by relating them to separate principles, these notions conceal a constantly experienced moment, the moment when an existence becomes aware of itself, grasps itself, and expresses its own sense. The study of perception could teach us a “bad ambiguity”, a mixture of finitude and universality, of interiority and exteriority. But there is a “good ambiguity” in the phenomenon of expression, a spontaneity that accomplishes what appeared to be impossible when we considered only the separate elements, a spontaneity that gathers together the plurality of monads, the past and the present, nature and culture into a single whole. To establish this wonder would be metaphysics itself and would at the same time give us the principle of an ethics. (Merleau-Ponty Reader,’Unpublished Text’,  p.290)

As is abundantly well known, one of the major weaknesses of the Marxian critique of political economy is its “determinism”. In seeking to discover “the economic laws of society”, Marx ended up reducing all significant human activity to the “labour that is socially necessary to ensure the reproduction of human society”. The “laws” governing the pro-duction of use values and exchange values also govern their distribution among social classes and thus form “the economic base” upon which all other social structures and institutions – from the family to the state to culture at large – are founded and that form therefore an “ideal superstructure” that serves merely to hide or camouflage the rock-solid reality of the basic social relations of production. This is the forma mentis of traditional Marxism: in this perspective, it is the “material economic base” that determines or drives the “ideological superstructure”; and it is the combination of the two that constitutes human history. This duality of physical realism and of spiritual idealism is yet another manifestation of the separation of Nature and Reason, of Form and Matter, of Mind and Body, and finally of Subject and Object, that has characterized Western thought from its inception.

Because Marx’s thought – his “realism” – tended to relegate all philosophy to the sphere of mere interpretation, Marxism has always displayed a clear aversion to and insufferance for philosophical speculation and especially the prima philosophia, the theory of the foundation of reality itself – namely, meta-physics and ontology. In this regard, Marx was replicating for his “critique of political economy” what Kant had performed in the Critique of Pure Reason, neatly separating the world into “mere appearances” and “things in themselves”, the latter being the ultimately inscrutable “cause” behind the former. For human knowledge to be founded on “scientific” bases, Kant proposed that we acknowledge the strict separation of appearances in search of explanation and the ultimate immutable reality of which they were a mere “re-presentation” (Vor-stellung). This is the separation (chorismos) or “the separated principles” of Nature and Reason to which Merleau-Ponty alluded in the quotation above – a separation or worse still an opposition (Gegen-stand, the German word for “object”) that we must transform into a “participation” (methexis, in the terminology of Nicholas of Cusa) in harmony with our project for a better world. 

What we find inspiring in Merleau-Ponty’s formulation of this separation is the fact that it states the problem in the tersest manner, and then suggests an answer together with the reason why it is a valid answer. The problem, tersely but improperly stated, is whether metaphysics can suggest an ethics – that is to say, whether an ontology, a theory of reality, can provide the “ground” not just for a “view” of reality but also for a de-ontology, for a framework or pro-ject of action upon reality. One of the hardest things to do for people of a radical disposition is to provide a foundation for their “convictions”, for their intention no longer “to interpret the world, but to change it”. Yet such foundation must be found or at least our inquiry into it (remember that the original word for history in Greek was istorein, to inquire) must be commenced somewhere. Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach betrays most eloquently his “in-sufferance” for the task of (philosophical) interpretation of social reality and his urgency for its practical “scientific” transformation. Had Nietzsche been aware of this Thesis, he would most probably have retorted that “philosophers thus far have pretended to interpret the world when in reality they were attempting to change it”! For unlike Marx, Nietzsche held no illusions that social reality could be deterministically reduced to “scientific laws” or that “socially necessary labour time” could ever constitute and determine “the laws of motion” of human history and societies.

The entire aim of our studies so far has been not merely to attempt to change the world as it is at present by interpreting it, by “under-standing” its functioning and mode of operation the more easily to intervene on it or at least to contrast it; but it has been also in large part to understand the reasons behind our exertions, behind our radicalism. We may know what to change and how to do it out of what Daniel Guerin once called a “visceral opposition” to the status quo, but we still need to know why we engage in “the ruthless criticism of all that exists” if we are going to have any chance of success. Our goals need to be clear before we set out to deploy our means. What we are attempting here is a critical re-foundation of an “autonomist ontology” that generates its goals not from the positing of extrinsic values but rather from the identification of the most basic human mode of perception of reality. (Cf. M-P, end of “Unpublished Text” synopsis in ‘Reader’.)

So far we have employed the approach of “critique” on the road to this quest because it is often easier to learn from the discoveries as well as the mistakes of theoreticians and practitioners that have preceded us. But “critiques” are necessarily “negative” in character: they are meant to de-struct rather than to con-struct – and that is what we have done predominantly to date, except to the degree that every “negation” often involves also “the negation of the negation” and so, perhaps, some “positive affirmation” as well. It is obvious that our task cannot be confined to “the ruthless criticism of everything that exists” (Marx) because such critique would have no “meaning” unless it also had a “purpose”. There where actions have no meaning they can also be said to lack purpose, and vice versa. What then can be our purpose – and on what meaning can it be founded?

This is the area perhaps where the thought of Karl Marx leaves most to be desired, even in view of its (again) “fundamental” importance. The most refined corrections and improvements on Marxist thought in this arena have probably come from post-Nietzschean elaborations, culminating especially in the Italian left-Heideggerianism that was an offshoot of the “new left” move away from the orthodoxy of Communist parties  of the European post-Stalinist era. Marxism may well have provided a “deontological” guide to our opposition to the ravages of capitalist industry, morally, ethically and then politically predicated on the notion of “the theft of labour time”. But if “labour time” is merely the time that is “socially necessary” to produce goods and services for “consumption”, then it is obvious that Marx has reduced the entire “problem” of capitalism to the mere “distribution” of the “social product”. Not only does this “critique” crumble to a mere “gripe or grudge” over distribution, over the share of the spoils; but it also fails to challenge the technical-scientific orientation of capitalism, its technology and science, - the political choice of what it produces and how it produces it. Even if we agree with Marx that a certain “quantity” of labour-time is (physically!) necessary for a human society to reproduce itself (again, “physically”), it is still obvious that this “minimum quantity” necessary for “reproduction” may well constitute a “necessary condition” but not in the least a “sufficient condition” to ensure the actual “reproduction” of a society – a process that is as much political and cultural as it is narrowly “economic”!

The Marxian critique also never proffered the ontological ground on which any praxis or deontology could be founded and erected. It is fair to say that Marx was too tied to the philosophy of the Enlightenment in its twin excrescences of German Idealism and scientific rationalism to be able to escape the fallacies that engulfed them both and that were exposed so virulently already by the critics of the negatives Denken from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche through to Weber and finally Heidegger (cf. for all, this last author’s Letter on Humanism). The fundamental error of Western philosophical and scientific thought has always been to seek to identify “objectively” the purpose and meaning of action with its “object” – to con-fuse therefore activity with matter, the operari with the opus, the agere with the actus and the facere with the factum. And this con-fusion of the quest for the “meaning” of human reality (of its “perception”) with the “certainty” and “calculability” of it has meant that, in the words of Nietzsche, Western metaphysics has always sought the “fixity” of Being, its “essence”, and has neglected its “being-as-becoming”. As a result, this Western “will to truth” (Nietzsche) has turned into a maniacal “quest for certainty”, for the “full end” (Voll-endung) of history and consequently of philosophy itself. This quest, however, could only end in nihilism – that is, in the debunking of all “truths” and “values” -, and determine what Heidegger called the ‘Vollendung’ – at once the ful-filment and com-pletion, and therefore the ex-haustion, of the Western metaphysical tradition. (Again, the obligatory reference is to Heidegger, Vol.2 of his Nietzsche.) Given that no “ultimate” values can be “fixed” with “certainty”, given that “truth” can never be identical with its “object”, Nietzsche was keen to stress the importance of what happens in “life”, in that place that lies be-tween “the first thing” (birth) and “the last thing” (death).

The question for us is: if we accept with Nietzsche that there are no ultimate values or final and definitive truths, that there is no summum bonum, what “meaning and purpose” can we then bestow upon our lives that will guide our living activity and that will make our political action worthwhile? It may be said that we are a purpose in search of a meaning, a need in search of a reason. Nietzsche’s ontology is in-comprehensible (it cannot be grasped practically) without his notion of the Eternal Return of the Same which is premised entirely on the interpretation of historical events as “symptoms” or “signs” of either the underlying “health” or else of the “Disgregation” of the instincts of freedom (will to power) of human agents. The notion of the Eternal Return is neither cyclical (palingenesis) nor anagogical (as in the anakyklosis), but refers instead to a novel conception of “time” as nunc stans – the “now” understood not as a point on a “sequence” of past nows and future nows, but rather as an entirely different “dimension” in which time is not spatialised, in which it cannot be measured, added to or subtracted from. For Nietzsche, everything happens at once; only in this sense does it “return eternally” and in this sense must “fate be loved” (amor fati).

Arendt’s profound incomprehension of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values is due in large part to her inability to penetrate Nietzsche’s entirely novel interpretation of place (Ort) as different from “time and space”! – Which is strange, because Heidegger (whom Arendt knew…intimately, to be scabrous) elaborated it at great length though incompletely or incorrectly in his thorough critique of the Kantian notion of intuition in his Kantbuch, which he meant as the second part of Being and Time. Arendt also and rightly begins her peripatetic assessment of the life of the mind with a critique of Kant’s epistemology (a cours force’ it seems for most modern thinkers), which in turn she interprets as a response to the solipsism of the Cartesian cogito. We agree with Arendt that the mind has a life not merely metaphorically but in the full sense of the word, materially, because we do not accept as valid the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter – a dualism that degenerates inevitably into solipsism given that the cogito admits and conceives of ec-sistence exclusively as a “mental thing” – the res cogitans as opposed to the res extensa -, and that the res cogitans must constitute an indivisible unity (in Leibnitz’s powerful phrase, “a being must be a being”). The mind has a life because it is “part” of life, it is within “life and the world”: that is its “materiality”. A mind without life and the world is unimaginable because for the mind to ec-sist it needs a life and a world in which to be situ-ated, loc-ated, that is, it needs a site and a locus, a “place” that is categorically distinct from our conventional notions called “time and space”. Similarly, life has a mind to the extent that we cannot conceive of life without an organ capable of conceiving life – the mind, whose locus is not necessarily the brain or the heart but again a “place”, a dimension categorically distinct from any body organs or functions.

[Cassirer, Individuo y Cosmos, fn.57 – Nietzsche and “inter-pretation”, no “thing” to be interpreted. Being-as-becoming, “place” and not “time and space”.]

Pero la grandeza
del Cusano en este aspecto y su significación histórica estriban en el hecho de que en él,
lejos de cumplirse este proceso en oposición al pensamiento religioso de la Edad Media,
se lleva a cabo precisamente dentro de la órbita de ese pensamiento mismo. Desde el
propio centro de lo religioso realiza el descubrimiento de la naturaleza y del hombre
que intenta afianzar y fijar en ese centro. El místico y el teólogo que hay en Nicolás [56]
de Cusa se sienten a la altura del mundo y de la naturaleza, a la altura de la historia y de
la nueva cultura secular y humana. No se aparta de ellas ni las rechaza sino que, como
cada vez se entrega más y más a su círculo, va incluyéndolas al mismo tiempo en su
propia esfera de pensamientos. Aun desde los primeros tratados del Cusano es posible
seguir este proceso; y si en ellos prevalece el motivo platónico del chorismos49, en las
obras posteriores gana la primacía el motivo de la methexis50.En sus últimas obras se
manifiesta como cumbre de la teoría la convicción de que la verdad, que al principio
había buscado en la oscuridad de la mística y que había determinado como oposición a
toda multiplicidad y mudanza, se revela sin embargo precisamente en medio del reino
de la multiplicidad empírica misma, la convicción de que la verdad clama por las
calles51. Cada vez con mayor fuerza se da en Nicolás de Cusa ese sentimiento del
mundo y, con él, ese su característico optimismo religioso. El vocablo panteísmo no es
adecuado para designar acabadamente ese nuevo sentimiento del mundo, pues no se
desvanece aquí la oposición entre el ser de Dios y el ser del mundo, sino que por el
contrario se mantiene incólume en toda su plenitud. Pero como lo enseña el tratado De
visione Dei, si la verdad de lo universal y lo particular de lo individual se compenetran mutuamente en forma tal que el ser de Dios sólo puede ser comprendido y visto en la infinita multiplicidad de los puntos de vista individuales, del mismo modo podemos descubrir también el ser que está más allá de toda limitación, de toda contracción, solo y precisamente en esa limitación. De modo que el ideal hacia el cual debe tender nuestro conocimiento no consiste en desconocer ni en desechar lo particular, [57] sino más bien en comprender el pleno despliegue de toda su riqueza, pues sólo la totalidad del rostro nos proporciona la visión una de lo divino.

We can see here, in Cassirer’s account of the thought of Nicholas of Cusa, which in many ways pre-announces that of Hegel (cf. at par.60), how the notion of “totality” subsists even as Nicholas elevates the “participation” (methexis) of the particular as an “a-spect”, a “view” of the “whole”. Similarly, in the erroneous exegesis of Nietzsche’s thought (in Jaspers as in Foucault), the primacy of “interpretation” is supposed to refer to the im-possibility of encompassing this “totality”. But this is far from Nietzsche’s meaning! The notion of “inter-pretation” always implies a “mediation” between the interpreter and the “interpretandum” – “that” which is inter-preted, a mediation between the “thing” and the “knowledge of the thing” on the part of an “inter-preter”. But this is exactly what Nietzsche denies – the ec-sistence of a “thing” whose “totality” or “truth” we cannot com-prehend or en-compass. Far from ec-sisting independently of the knower or interpreter (whose ineluctable task it is to be con-fined to “infinite interpretations” -, for Nietzsche neither “the thing” nor its “truth” have a “totality” that can re-fer (bring back) to an under-lying, sub-stantial “re-ality” (thing-iness or what-ness). This is the consistent meaning of “esse est percipi” that eluded both Berkeley and Schopenhauer – because both thought that “being” was a function of per-ception, so that it is the “perceiver” that bestows being to the “perceived” – which is the true meaning of “idealism” as against “realism”. In effect, both Berkeley and Schopenhauer conceive of “the world as representation or Idea” in a neoplatonic sense that opposes Ideas to the “world of appearances”. But Nietzsche and Nicholas of Cusa are speaking the language, not of pantheism but of “immanence”, like Spinoza: they are saying that “being” ec-sists only as appearance, as per-ception; for them, “the apparent world” has disappeared together with the “real or true world”. The opposition of “real” and “apparent” worlds or being is the ineluctable outcome of the transcendental attitude that opposes (this is the meaning of the Platonic chorismos, of the philosophia perennis) particular “beings” to “the Being of beings” – the particular to the “totality”, the part to the whole. Note that Heidegger (cited by Arendt in ‘LotM’, p.11) claims that with this phrase Nietzsche has “eliminated the difference between the sensible and supra-sensory worlds” – and in this he is clearly wrong because Nietzsche never wished to refute “the difference” between the two worlds: he wished instead to make a dif-ference by exposing the meaninglessness of their “opposition”! Of course, Heidegger had every interest in “relegating” Nietzsche to the nihilism (incomplete or complete) that he had denounced and sought to overcome! This is the point that Arendt herself misses completely:

What is ‘dead’ is not only the localization of such ‘eternal truths’, but also the distinction itself” (p.10).

And this is the meaning of nihilism for Arendt. Yet she also is wrong: nihilism for Nietzsche does not consist in “the elimination of the distinction or difference” between true and apparent worlds. Nihilism is the very fact that belief in the suprasensory world leads to the annihilation of the sensible world. The seed of nihilism is contained in the very thought of trans-scendence – and this is a “fallacy” to which Arendt clearly and genially points, but ultimately does not elude (see Preface, p.11). The “overcoming” of nihilism, however, starts precisely with the overcoming, not of the distinction or difference between the two worlds, but with the real source of this “distinction” or opposition, which is the forma mentis that generates this distinction, with the transcendental attitude that forms the substratum of this philosophia perennis. This is the “com-pletion and exhaustion [Voll-endung] of metaphysics” for Nietzsche. What Nietzsche certifies is “the end of transcendental metaphysics” in a practical, even political, sense. But that is not to say that a “metaphysics of immanence” is no longer possible: on the contrary, it becomes necessary. – Because, as Arendt insists, as do Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, “meaning” and “truth-as-certainty” are not the same thing! (Preface to ‘LotM’.)

[Refer to discussion of Nicholas of Cusa.]

Thursday 3 August 2017

Mechanical Equilibrium and Political Market Process: From Profit-Seeking to Profit-Making

The relatively recent and prepotent surge of the so-called "FAANGS" or "tech stocks" - and specifically their rise to the position of unassailable monopolies in their respective "markets" - brings just as forcefully to the foreground the nature and substance of capitalist  (loosely called "market") innovation and competition. In this study we hope to lay bare, with the help of Joseph Schumpeter's insights on the Innovationsprozess, the potentially catastrophic consequences of the failure to understand the utterly political roots of these historical developments. This failure is both intellectual and political to the extent that it is powerful bourgeois-capitalist interests that seek to disguise and conceal its true social and political repercussions.

We showed in the last section how Schumpeter perceived that in equilibrium theory the very “purity” of self-interest means that “the laws of competition” imposed axiomatically on individual agents are in contradiction with that self-interest. Pure self-interest and pure competition (atomicity) are inconsistent apories because the limitation on pure self-interest imposed by the requirement of perfect competition contradicts the purity of the self-interest of economic agents as well as the purity of perfect competition. This is so, first, because pure self-interest would push economic agents to ignore the requirements of perfect competition, and second because perfect competition would induce economic agents to engage in imperfect competition as well! (“The union of opposites” is a logical flaw first identified by Nicholas of Cusa. For a discussion, see Ernst Cassirer, Individual and Cosmos.) This aporetic aspect of the axioms of Neoclassical equilibrium theory leads away from its “purity” or “perfection” and into the conceptual analysis of its real implementation which requires conceptual limits on the “purity and perfection” of both self-interest and competition. The formal equality of self-interests, their mutual free-dom, can ensure only a frozen or static mechanical equilibrium or, with Schumpeter, a “circular flow”. Self-interest works aporetically, then: on one side, it breaks out of pure equilibrium, it leads to the “impurity” of imperfect competition, as a logical-conceptual requisite of its “purity”; and on the other side, it leads back to equilibrium as a result of the countervailing equal “purity” of other self-interests, that is to say, as a result of “the laws of pure competition”.


By postulating a “development of the economy from within”, Schumpeter is simply making explicit what is implicit in the axiomatic “pure laws of economics” reduced to the status of “laws of mechanics”: he is trying to break free of the apories of pure equilibrium theory by introducing the “impurity” implied in the very “purity” of self-interest and competition – a self-interest so ab-solute (immune from regulation) that it cannot be bound even by the “externally-imposed”, axiomatic “laws of pure competition”, or what Schumpeter calls “pure laws of economics”. As we demonstrated above, if we understand equilibrium as a state of “pure laws of economics” and Entwicklung or “development” as a state of disruption or “crisis” of that equilibrium on the way to, in transition to, a “new” or “fresh” or “another” state or level of economic equilibrium, then such a “transition” is simply impossible because equilibrium and Entwicklung (development-through-crisis or “evolution”) are categorically different concepts or conceptually inconsistent categories.


And yet, as Cacciari has observed (in “Transformation of the State and Political Project”), the notions of “development” and “crisis” entail the existence of a state of “non-development” and “non-crisis”. Both development and crisis point to an ideal or pure model – whether this be Walrasian equilibrium or Robinsonian “tranquility” or Schumpeter’s “circular flow” – that provides a measure or a metre by means of which we can say that an economic system is developing or is in crisis. In a later section we will see how Schumpeter himself shows at one and the same time how his theory of economic development is bound to the pure model of equilibrium and also how it may be possible to define “development” or “crisis” in a novel and different way that does not imply “negatively” the actual existence of a state of theoretical equilibrium or even of a “harmonious” state of “tranquility” or of “circular flow”.



Once again, as we showed in the discussion above, Schumpeter seems to be quite aware of the impossibility of “the pure laws of economics” laid out in equilibrium theory being logically consistent with “the pure economic theory of economic change”: in his own words, he is aware that a “dynamic equilibrium is a contradiction in terms”, an oxymoron. Yet he persists with the idea that it is possible for an economic system that allows of economic change to transit “from one equilibrium to another” – a statement that must be contradictory given that this “transition” can be achieved only by infringing against the axiomatic rules governing “equilibrium”. Whilst he insists on the “distinctness” of the two “processes” – the Statik and the Dynamik – in the sense that they are logically inconsistent, Schumpeter obstinately persists with the attempt to base his entire theory of economic development, Entwicklung, precisely on the ability to transit these intransitable processes, to fuse and bond them together.


As we shall see presently, it was this “chemical mixture” or bonding that Schumpeter envied in the theoretical work of Karl Marx and specifically with regard to the concepts of “economic development” and of “histoire raisonnee”. Indeed it is possible to suggest that Schumpeter found his own theoretical vocation in his own critique of Marx’s labour theory of value – a critique that his mentor, Eugen Bohm-Bawerk, had already conducted and that enabled him to enucleate a novel theory of the nature and causes of “interest”. Schumpeter’s mission was instead to discover the nature and origin of “profit” and, by imitating Marx, to combine profit with a specific “economic subject” – the entrepreneur. Following and applying faithfully Bohm-Bawerk’s critique of Marx, Schumpeter insists that Marx’s labour theory of value has as supreme aim the demonstration of the presence of “exploitation” in capitalist enterprise, and that this demonstration is to be carried out under the overarching assumption of perfect competition. Just as he was able to show that profit is impossible in equilibrium theory, so is Schumpeter able to dispose easily of the existence of surplus value and of exploitation in conditions of perfect competition.


But it is the sequence of the reasoning that Schumpeter performs with regard to Marx’s theory of surplus value that is most enlightening in tracing the train of thought that led Schumpeter to his own theory of economic development. Let us examine this line of thought carefully:


Moreover, it can be shown that perfectly competitive equilibrium cannot exist in a situation in which all capitalist-employers make exploitation gains. For in this case they would individually try to expand production, and the mass effect of this would unavoidably tend to increase wage rates and to reduce gains of that kind to zero. It would no doubt be possible to mend the case by appealing to the theory of imperfect competition, by introducing friction and institutional inhibitions of the working of competition, by stressing all the possibilities of hitches in the sphere of money and credit and so on. Only a moderate case could be made out in this manner, however, one that Marx would have heartily despised….
This is so easy only as long as we see in the theory of surplus value nothing but a proposition about stationary economic processes in perfect equilibrium. Since what he aimed at analyzing was not a state of equilibrium which according to him capitalist society can never attain, but on the contrary a process of incessant change in the economic structure, criticism along the above lines is not completely decisive. Surplus values may be impossible in perfect equilibrium but can be ever present because that equilibrium is never allowed to establish itself. They may always tend to vanish and yet be always there because they are constantly recreated…This aspect proves to be of considerable importance. (CS&D.)


Schumpeter is regurgitating here almost verbatim the arguments advanced by his mentor Bohm-Bawerk in Capital and Interest (at p.171, discussed by Dobb in Political Economy and Capitalism at p.32). Clearly, it is not the case that Marx thought that “capitalism can never attain a state of equilibrium”: in reality what Marx’s critique of bourgeois Classical Political Economy aimed at was showing that the reality of capitalism can never be theorized with the analytical categories of equilibrium analysis. It is not the case, therefore, that Marx thought that capitalism is incapable of attaining equilibrium because it is in “a constant process of incessant change” – as if this were just a matter of degree, just a matter of hitting a specific quantitative target. Rather, what Marx was saying is that the categories of equilibrium theory - which are certainly applicable to the Classical Political Economy of Smith and Ricardo as well as to Neoclassical economics - are conceptually inapplicable to its reality because it is not a quantitative reality but a political one. In other words, the value involved in the capitalist mode of production is not an objective quantity; value refers instead to historically specific “social relations of production”. (We shall examine this point closely in the next section.)


So long as surplus value is seen as an “amount”, a value over and above  what is needed for labour-power to reproduce itself (sur-plus, Mehr-wert or “added value”, in German), then it is clear that the laws of competition can serve to regulate the “distribution” of this fixed amount in such a way that any initial inequality or exploitation is gradually eliminated to a point where no “value” is extracted exploitatively from workers – for the simple reason that “perfectly competitive equilibrium…would unavoidably tend to raise wage rates and to reduce gains of that kind to zero”. We can see therefore that if we postulate the existence of equilibrium as an axiom of economic analysis, then surplus value or profit is impossible because the axiomatic requirement of equilibrium will reduce all economic values and prices to “relative” prices – which cannot be fixed until all transactions have been conducted once and for all – which in turn excludes the notion of surplus value when combined with perfect competition. Similarly, if we theorize surplus value as an objective quantity instead of as a quantity dependent on relative prices, then perfect competition will ensure equilibrium.


But the point is that although “surplus value may be impossible in equilibrium…it can ever be present because that equilibrium is never allowed to establish itself”! And it is never allowed to establish itself not because of “frictions” in the operation of market competition – not because of that “imperfection” -, but rather because the very notion of “surplus value” has a categorically different meaning once the productive system is transformed by the actions of its participants, of its “economic subjects”! In other words, it is the very “reduction” or “reification” of surplus value to a “thing”, to an amount, that (a) makes equilibrium theoretically possible, and (b) makes possible the gradual disappearance of surplus value or profit by means of competition, because capitalists will raise wages until all surplus value and exploitation vanish. To paraphrase Schumpeter’s own words, surplus value may “tend to vanish” because of inter-capitalist competition and rivalry; but it will never so vanish because it is “constantly recreated”. But for something to be “incessantly” recreated it simply cannot be a “thing” or a “quantity” or a “measurable value”: surplus value must be a social relation! If the determination of profit or surplus value is changing incessantly with the economic system, then this incessant change cannot be quantitative but must be qualitative because quite evidently surplus value and profit are not entities that can be determined precisely either in “relative prices”, as in Neoclassical equilibrium, or in absolute prices determined by “socially necessary labour time”, as in Classical equilibrium.


What this means is that once we accept that perfect equilibrium does not describe the reality of capitalism in which surplus value or its monetary equivalent, “profit”, is the essential feature of economic activity, then we must accept that capitalism is not a “thing” or “quantity” or “measurable value”, but it is rather a “political value”! In short, once we change our analytical perspective from the Statik of equilibrium analysis to the Dynamik of economic development, then even the subject-matter of our theory changes, it is trans-substantiated, and we must shift from the quantifiable relative or absolute “values” or prices of equilibrium theories to the “ethico-political values” of development theory!


Pure competition leads to a stationary and stagnant state because, although it makes profit-seeking imperative or axiomatic, under its conditions profit-making is utterly im-possible! But then, it is also the purity of competition - the political antagonism implicit in its conceptual inclusion of profit-seeking or the profit motive - that logically implies or entails its actual implementation as profit-making and therefore the competitive advantage of innovation. It is thus that “market process” becomes a conceptual requirement of the pure notion of equilibrium: market process is the applied version of pure equilibrium theory: market process is the extrinsication of equilibrium. Market process occurs when pure theoretical profit-seeking is allowed to become its impure or applied historical version – that is, profit-making.

It follows therefore that the transition from profit-seeking to profit-making involves the exit from conditions of perfect competition in such a way that some competitors will be dis-advantaged whilst some will gain a competitive advantage. This advantage must be of a kind that no exchange by the disadvantaged competitors will be able to eliminate, and that is not derived from “external or exogenous factors”. The only “endogenous factor” then is the profit-seeking motivation itself and the ability of some competitors (a) to change the production function, that is, to innovate, and (b) to restrain other competitors from adopting the innovations that lead to the new production function. Factor (a) necessarily involves innovation as defined by Schumpeter; and such innovation could hypothetically be originated by a single economic agent. But factor (b) necessarily requires the adoption of competition-restrictive measures, that is to say, of political measures! And these quite evidently cannot be carried out by a single economic agent but must be enforced by some economic agents – innovative entrepreneurs for Schumpeter - against others.

For any kind of competition to exist, short of all-out conflict, certain “rules of the game” must be agreed upon. But these “rules” cannot encompass every aspect of competition because, if they did, the end result would be competition so “pure” that no real competition could take place! At equilibrium, competition would be restricted and confined to being a velleity – the sterile “intention” to seek profit as a necessary trait of self-interest. But once this velleity of profit-seeking is given the opportunity to be implemented as profit-making, this fact by itself requires a fundamental change in the modus operandi of the economy, one in which for profit-making to be at all possible (a) innovation and (b) policies to protect it must be allowed to take place. Therefore, for actual competition to take place, there must always be room for competitors “to innovate”, that is to say, to introduce new and unforeseen or unforeseeable strategies or techniques that will undermine the existing competitive rules founded on the formal equality of the competitors. But the possibility of such “innovation” and therefore of such “inequality” will result inevitably in political conflict and antagonism that will have either to be mediated politically or else to be resolved violently. In either case the search for profit goes well beyond the nature of “profit” itself as “utility” or “welfare” or “ownership” to the very essence of political power!


(A similar point is made by Demsetz in “Freedom and Coercion”.)


Conventional competition – competition as it is theorized in all non-Schumpeterian economics – contains the ineluctable tendency, in terms of its axioms and its aims, to induce a state of equilibrium or stagnation. That is because innovation is not seen as a necessary aspect of the coercion intrinsic and endogenous to the very concept of competition! Yet to be truly competitive, and therefore to be able to realize a profit, the capitalist entrepreneur must compete with existing businesses not just on “price” or “quantity” – but indeed on “innovation”, that is to say, by introducing new products or techniques that fundamentally undermine and threaten to obliterate the business models of competitors! Competition without innovation would lead sooner or later to a stationary state of equilibrium.

All the more controversial is the proposition that entrepreneurs' profits and related gains which arise in the disequilibria caused by the impact of innovation are, as far as the business process itself is concerned and apart from consumers' borrowing, the only source of interest payments and the only "cause" of the fact that positive rates of interest rule in the markets of capitalist society. This means that in perfect equilibrium interest would be zero in the sense that it would not be a necessary element of the process of production and distribution, or that pure interest tends to vanish as the system approaches perfect equilibrium. Proof of this proposition is very laborious 39, because it involves showing why all the theories which lead to a different result are logically unsatisfactory, (Business Cycles, p.125. See also CS&D, p.131 on “The Obsolescence of the Entrepreneur”.)


It may well be that the search for profit motivates innovation; it is certainly not innovation that motivates the search for profits. And yet it is most certainly not the search for profits in and of itself that forces economic agents to innovate. So long as we define “profit” in terms of pure competition as all economic theory does, then it is impossible to explain the existence or possibility of profit! For innovation and economic change to occur, competition must be of such a character that at once it coerces and it enables some competitors to gain an advantage over other competitors by undermining not just their profitability but also their very existence! In other words, competition must reach far beyond the sphere of exchange; it must reach to the very foundations of civil society: – competition must extend to a type of conflict that goes beyond exchange and that encompasses the political relations between economic agents. Competition must include political antagonism!

In other words, the problem that is usually being visualized is how capitalism administers existing structures, whereas the relevant problem is how it creates and destroys them. As soon as it is recognized, his [the economist’s] outlook on capitalist practice and its social results changes considerably.

The first thing to go is the traditional conception of the modus operandi of competition. Economists are at long last emerging from the stage in which price competition was all they saw. As soon as quality competition and sales effort are admitted into the sacred precincts of theory, the price variable is ousted from its dominant position. However, it is still competition within a rigid pattern of invariant conditions, methods of production and forms of industrial organization in particular, that practically monopolizes attention. But in capitalist reality as distinguished from its textbook picture, it is not that kind of competition which counts but the competition from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization…. - competition which commands a decisive cost or quality advantage and which strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives. (CSD, p.84)


Even in the case in which competition is over price, it can be said that lower prices can be achieved from a position of pure competition only when some form of innovation is present!

Competition, then, may well stand for an alternative way of describing political antagonism: the problem is, however, that the overall regulation of this competitive antagonism is to facilitate profit-making, and therefore the owners of capital; and secondly that competition has the overriding role as a repressive weapon against workers in competition with one another over employment, wages and working conditions.

Profit-seeking is the subjective motivation behind innovation; but innovation is the objective factor for the existence of profit, for profit-making as a practical activity! Except that, in turn, the implementation of innovation is impossible without impure or imperfect competition. And imperfect competition implies necessarily the presence of political antagonism to decide just how “imperfect” competition will be and to whose “advantage”. In equilibrium theory, although individual conflict is certainly present because economic agents seek to maximize their “individual utility” or self-interest, they can do so only through “exchange”, and therefore this “individual conflict” cannot axiomatically become “political” – again because individual economic agents are not allowed to combine their self-interests. But this means that “profit-making”, as distinct from “profit-seeking”, is axiomatically impossible in a Neo-classical economy and that it will be whittled away to zero in a purely competitive Classical economy. In other words, “pure competition” is at once inconsistent both with profit-making and therefore also with innovation, unless its definition is extended to cover not just “exchange” but the political antagonism of imperfect competition as well!




Thus, profit-making and innovation can be implemented only in a state of “imperfect competition” because a state of perfect competition excludes axiomatically the possibility of “advantage” that comes from innovation – that is to say, the entrepreneurial “premium”, Schumpeter’s “profit”, would be neutralized instantly. The entrepreneurial premium or profit requires this “friction” between the profit-seeking or motive of pure competition and the profit-making of innovation. This “friction” is what lies between pure and imperfect competition; it is the battleground of politics and political institutions. (Friction or traction, Wittgenstein would say, is what you need to be able to walk on a perfectly smooth surface. Pure competition is just such a surface: it implies the “static plane” of profit-seeking, but it cannot provide the “dynamic traction” of profit-making!) Schumpeter acknowledges the necessity of this political intervention:


The introduction of new methods of production and new commodities is hardly conceivable with perfect – and perfectly prompt – competition from the start. And this means that the bulk of what we call economic progress is incompatible with it. As a matter of fact, perfect competition is and always has been temporarily suspended whenever anything new is being introduced – automatically or by measures devised for the purposeeven in otherwise perfectly competitive conditions. (CS&D, p.105)