Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 22 December 2019


I open, by chance, Albert Mathiez’s La Revolution Francaise and parse breathlessly its formidable preamble:

“The true revolutions, those that do not limit themselves to changing the political form and the government personnel, but rather transform the institutions and occasion the great transfers of property, seethe a long time subterranean before bursting to the light of day under the impulse of some fortuitous circumstance. The French Revolution, which caught unawares with its irresistible impetus not less its artificers and beneficiaries than those who became its victims, had a languid preparation for over a century. It sprang out of the discordance, each day more and more profound, between the reality of things and the laws, between the institutions and the customs, between the letter and the spirit”.

The cardinal point to grasp is that in our analyses of all bourgeois political and economic theories it is not relevant whether they are “true” or “scientific” or indeed “false” or “fantastic”: What is most relevant is that these theories are “strategies” (rather than “ideologies”) that give practical order or provide guidance for the political effectiveness of capitalist social relations of production to be preserved, reproduced and, wherever possible, expanded.  We say “strategies” rather than “ideologies” because our main objective is not to show that these theories are “false” or “inaccurate”; rather, we are interested in their “effectiveness” in explaining, revealing or concealing crucial aspects of capitalist reality and hegemonic practice. For us, these theories are “true and scientific” to the extent that they are effective: theirs is a partial truth – they are true only in the sense and to the extent and for the period that they are “effective” - although the theoreticians expounding them certainly believed their “scientificity”. Our exclusive aim here is to identify and comprehend by means of interpretation, analysis and critique of politico-economic theories of capitalism, the essential components of capitalist society so as to enable us to outline and develop our own strategies in the fight against it.

Here we are standing “outside” philosophy and scholarship: we are designing and shaping a “political tool” that will better enable us to combat the established order by helping us com-prehend it from a practical standpoint. Defensive or offensive is beside the point: this tool should help us fight and defeat an enemy that threatens more than our personal enjoyment of life on earth, but indeed the very survival of the ecosphere!

In a nutshell, we wish to do the converse of the histoire raisonnee that Schumpeter attributed to Marx and then sought to emulate. We wish to conduct instead a raisonnement historicise’ – a historicized reasoning, winding our way through a series of critiques that parallel historical developments broadly in the history of capitalism but more intensely in the history of theories relating to capitalism, its history and its economy and, above all, its “meaning”. We say “meaning” because “meaning” is what characterizes, prompts and “shapes” human action: what we do has much to do with “why” we do it, and “why” we do something has a lot to do with how we “interpret” things, the world. (Arendt and Habermas come to mind. But contrast Pareto’s or Mannheim’s studies of “ideologies”.)

The fact that a historical process has “meaning” does not mean that it is “rational” in a purposive sense: the meaning may be different from the self-understanding of that process or entity and, in any case, the purpose may be irrational. We may distinguish between instrumental and substantive or purposive rationality. To insist, for instance, that capitalism is an “anarchic” social system fails to explain how it has survived and indeed “grown” for so long.

It is impossible to tell with certainty when the capitalist mode of production that currently engulfs the world might come to an end. But if we study and understand its historical origins and structural development, it may be possible to elaborate a strategy for us to overcome it. A pre-condition for superseding the present state of affairs is that it should come to be regarded universally as a barrier to the further development of our human creative potential. For this is how we increasingly and overwhelmingly are coming to regard capitalism. It is not sufficient that the present system of human social organisation show itself as “irrational”: for this system to be superseded, it is necessary also that it become redundant and obsolete and above all “counter-productive”. If we survey the state of the ecosphere and our determinant role within it with any degree of practical objectivity, we will asseverate that all the essential practical measures needed to ensure its survival, let alone its enhancement in peaceful co-existence between its life forms, have their way barred by the essential pre-requisite of all social, political and industrial activity under the present system: - that it be “profitable”.

A time there may well have been when “profitability” went hand in hand with “progress”. Yet what is certain is that such time lies now well in the past. What we witness with growing certainty and clarity is the irrefutable truth that “profitability” stands more than ever in the way of human individual and social progress. It is possible to trace the birth of capitalism back to the seventeenth century. But to be able to do that, we first need to identify the historical components that make up this concept – which is the task we have undertaken in the present work. So let us not pre-suppose what we are yet to prove. Again, the present work may be described as the obverse of that histoire raisonnee that Joseph Schumpeter so highly admired in the analytical method of Karl Marx and that he too am Ende sought to adopt. By comparison, ours can be described as a raisonnement historicise, a dialectical enquiry into the origins and character of capitalism, at once an exegesis and a critique that hopefully will light our path to a better and more humane future.

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