Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 7 December 2020



We have proposed to periodize revolutionary movements into an initial phase comprising two stages, that of origins and formation and that of the seizure of power as Party-State, during which the movements may be said to operate according to a purposive rationality, and the second and last phase, what we styled with Paxton as “the ultimate stage”, during which they proceed in accordance with what we call value rationality. The rationality that we intend here is not an absolute rationality: it is not the Logos of Platonic or even Pauline or Johannine doctrine (“in the beginning was the Word [Logos]”); rather, it is a Weberian relative or “value-free” (wert-frei) rationality that we believe is distinctly applicable to advanced industrial capitalism (it is the famous Rationalisierung theorized by the German sociological titan as early as the Vorbemerkung to Die Protestantische Ethik) for reasons that we shall adduce presently. It is essential to understand our historico-materialist paradigm in this connection because we believe that it is a novel and crucial application to revolutionary movements and their totalitarian denouement - one that, we submit, will enhance our ability to understand their historical and politico-economic dynamics even for practical political purposes. In the premises, we propose to improve – with the utmost respect owed to a great historian – on the periodization advanced by Tim Mason in his seminal essay on “The Primacy of Politics” wherein he argues that the advent of the Nazi Dictatorship to power in 1933 constituted the beginning of an epochal substitution of capitalist economics with Nazi totalitarian politics. Whilst we agree with Mason that Hitler’s accession to power epitomised the “primacy of politics” where the politico-economic exigencies of the German bourgeoisie were concerned, we differ from him in the narrow sense that, in our submission, to the extent that, to repeat, the Nazi Dictatorship represented and answered to the politico-economic exigencies of German capitalist industry, it was still operating, at this early stage between 1933 and 1939, under the guidance of the purposive rationality that we described earlier. Although, quite plainly, it cannot be denied that the “ethics of conviction” or absolute value rationality were already at play right from the inception of the Nazi movement, we insist on this fundamental “break” or “turn” or caesura between the earlier phase of the Dictatorship when “the ethics of responsibility” prevailed regarding the conduct of social and economic policies favourable to German capital, and the later phase when “the ethics of conviction” lost all contact with the purposive-rational needs not just of German capital but of German society tout court! It may be useful, in this context, to invoke the well-known distinction introduced by Ernst Fraenkel in The Dual State between “the Normative State” and “the Prerogative State”. Evidently, we argue that in the early phase of Nazism it was the ethos of the Normative State that prevailed in line with the interests of German capital as the Nazi Dictatorship sought to cement its power as a Party-State, whereas in the late phase it was the Prerogative State that virtually eclipsed the Normative once the Dictatorship had eliminated all forms of resistance to its totalitarian rule.

It may be said from the outset that economics is truly a concentrate of politics and that consequently economics can be distinguished from politics only in terms of the time periods or cycles that the two spheres occupy. Economics is the inner sphere of social reality, spinning around a hypothetical centre with a different torque or angular momentum from that of the political sphere which has a faster cycle or torque. As we shift from this hypothetical centre of the social sphere to its outer layers, economics grows increasingly political until it turns into policy and finally, at the outer surface of the social sphere, it finally resolves itself into strategy and tactics. 

The correction we have made to Mason’s own periodization may seem trivial but we insist on its importance on at least two grounds: the first is that it is incorrect to say that “the primacy of politics” imposed itself in Germany only from the time of Hitler’s appointment as Kanzler because, as we explain below, to the extent that “economics is a concentrate of politics”, politics always has “primacy” in social relations. The real question is the extent to which economics as the rationale of capitalist enterprise, which (as Mason rightfully argues) led to the rise of Nazism, continued to hold sway over Nazi regime policies after its accession to power. The second reason is that our differentiation of the periods of Nazi totalitarian rule helps us focus on the extent to which capitalist social relations of production are consistent with totalitarian rule, at what stage the two part ways, and therefore on the significant differences between capitalist social relations of production and the social policies of totalitarian regimes. 

Contrary to what Lenin is said to have quipped, then, politics is not a concentrate of economics. It is the other way round: economics is a concentrate of politics. In other words, it is not politics that "boils down" to economics; it is economics that can be reduced to a bundle of politics. The important thing is to focus on the meaning of the phrase "a concentrate of" and the phrase "boils down to". What is it that we mean when we say that "in the final analysis" politics is economics or the opposite, that economics really is politics? What kind of "reality" do we refer to when we speak of the ultimate foundations of economics or politics? As we all know, necessity is not just "the mother of invention" - meaning that there are some needs that are so fundamental that they stir up human imagination and inventiveness. Necessity can also be camouflaged and disguised or simply be rationalised away as "virtue": this is what we do when "we make virtue out of necessity". Differently put, we recognize that there are situations in social relations when we are coerced into doing things that either we would rather not do or else "concentrate the mind" to the point of inducing virtue - the acquiescence to necessity as virtue - or inventiveness, the desperate search for alternative solutions.

But in all these cases, in all these instances, what we call ‘necessity’ is a function of social relations, not of physical or physiological necessity. If we accept that our environment offers sufficient resources for human societies to reproduce themselves, then it is evident that economics - which as "the dismal science" is often confused with "the sphere of necessity" - has little to do with physical or physiological necessity but must instead have everything to do with "coercion". The necessity of economics intended as a "science" is therefore in reality the necessity of political coercion. That is why it is correct to insist that "economics is a concentrate of politics", in the sense that what we describe or circumscribe as a separate field of human activity - "the Economic" - is a specific form of coercion imposed by some people on other people in the sphere of the production of and for human needs and their satisfaction. To accept with Lenin that "politics is a concentrate of economics" would be tantamount to allowing that economic activity is dictated by a "necessity" that is independent of "coercion", that is physical or even physio-bio-logical in nature – and therefore independent of "the Political". This may make sense in terms of the economic determinism – indeed, an eschatology or even a “theodicy” of communism – that Lenin inherited from Marx’s labour theory of value and is implicit in the conception of human history expounded most explicitly in The Communist Manifesto and in the “Preface to A Contribution”.

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