Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 21 March 2021


If we had to summarize the kernel of Karl Marx’s entire critique of political economy, we would do so as follows. All human societies need to produce sufficiently to ensure their reproduction, their subsistence and survival. For this purpose, there is a “socially necessary labour time” needed to ensure reproduction. Any expanded reproduction requires the production of a “social surplus” that also is dependent on “socially necessary labour time”: but now the “necessity” is simply the labour time needed to produce the social surplus. The difference between various “economic formations” or “modes of production” lies entirely in how the social surplus is employed. In Antiquity, for instance, it is employed to acquire landed property and slaves to work on it. In Feudalism, the social surplus serves to increase landed property with serfs of the glebe, to maintain armies, to erect castles for kings, churches for priests and monasteries for monks. In Capitalism, the social surplus is used to expand the formally free labour force so as to expand production further: this surplus is a “profit” and the expansion of production is called “the accumulation of capital”, and this accumulation becomes an end in itself so that production for profit becomes an end-less and irrational goal (one without physical or ethical limits).

The problem with Marx’s theory is that what he calls “necessity” is impossible to define because, as he himself attested, it must be qualified with “social and cultural” elements that destroy the initial notion of “necessity” itself as a physical or physio-logical notion. Marx was always tempted to link “scientifically” the technical means or forces of production with the political social relations of production – the wind-mill with the feudal lord and the steam-mill with the capitalist. As we have amply demonstrated, this connection is utterly invalid and false if the technical means of production are taken in isolation from the social relations that brought them into existence! In other words, Marx’s critique of capitalism is still valid if and only if its supposedly “scientific” categories are reinterpreted politically – which is what we are attempting to do here.

The “necessity” mentioned by Marx is indeed merely “co-ercion” (Greek ergon, work, labour, en-ergy), that is to say, the political com-pulsion of human living activity. The reason why Marx could not bring himself to frame his critique in political terms is that he sought to replace Hegel’s philosophical dialectical idealism with his own scientific historical materialism. For this purpose, he needed to show that capitalist society can reproduce itself “automatically”, through a scientific process of impersonal market forces co-ordinated by labour values – necessary value and surplus value. Yet it ought to have been obvious to him that such a “scientific” analysis is wholly incompatible with the notion of “exploitation” because, as Joseph Schumpeter cleverly pointed out (in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy), if the capitalist mode of production is subject to truly “impersonal market forces”, then any “profit” or “surplus value” that capitalists may make will be quickly wiped out by rising wages demanded by workers – even workers who are only “formally” free – and thus capitalism will disappear just as quickly! If indeed, as Marx rightly maintained for what he and we believe was his greatest discovery, the only use value that matters in capitalism is living labour because coerced living labour alone can provide the surplus value or profits needed for the accumulation of capital, then it becomes impossible to hold, as Marx surely did, that the capitalist market is “impersonal” or “anarchic”, as every good Marxist and socialist has maintained ever since!

This Marxian temptation to emulate the work of Charles Darwin on biological evolution in the sphere of the social sciences and at the same time Hegel’s teleology in philosophy landed him in insuperable historical apories, ethical quandaries and logical contradictions. The most obvious inconsistency, of course, was Marx’s belief that the Political – put otherwise, “the State” – had no effective role to play in the capitalist mode of production because the Political was only an ideological superstructure emanating from “civil society” (burgerliche Gesellschaft) – that is to say, from the elemental social relations derived from the imperative of human societies to reproduce in accordance with the available “forces of production”. As the insuperably genial Norberto Bobbio observed (in Gramsci and the Concept of Civil Society), for Marx “civil society” (a notion coined first by Adam Ferguson and adopted by Hegel in The Philosophy of Right) served as a Hobbesian “state of nature” (status naturae) wholly separate from the political state or State (status politicus or status societatis as Bobbio calls it in “Locke e il Diritto Naturale” – incidentally, for Locke the political state merely preserved the natural rights of the state of nature) which was a mere ideological reflection of the real pre-political “economic” relations of civil society.

Marx’s scientistic quasi-Hobbesian insistence on the physio-logical foundation of social relations of production meant that he had to demonstrate the ability of the capitalist mode of production to function, to co-ordinate itself, solely on the basis of “socially necessary labour time”, on the basis of the Labour Theory of Value, and therefore of “impersonal market forces” independent of political coercion and institutions. At the same time, the notion of “socially necessary labour time”, which was the foundation of the Labour Theory of Value, served for Marx to demonstrate the existence of surplus value and thence of “exploitation” in the capitalist system through “the theft of labour time”. In this way, Marx was seeking to offer a “scientific proof of social exploitation”: - except, of course, the exploitation and “theft” are eminently ethico-political and legal categories wholly inconsistent with any “scientific” categories.

By retaining these aporetic notions of economic necessity and political exploitation, Marx was attempting to show how the necessarily expanded reproduction of capitalist society, achieved through the accumulation of capital, could be consistent with the “private appropriation” of surplus value. Here again, Marx was hard pressed to show how private ownership of the means of production, and therefore private decisions on how, when and what to produce, could possibly be consistent with the co-ordinated market-based reproduction of any society, let alone a complex capitalist society! Marx’s insistence that capitalism could be theorized as a “mode of production and social reproduction” whilst at the same time decrying the “anarchy” of capitalist production, its lack of social planning (Plan-losig-keit) and proneness to economic and social crises – such insistence is a fallacy too obvious for any intelligent interpreter of Marx’s work to ignore! Once again, Marx’s obstinacy in extruding the Political from the Economic was to prove harmful in the extreme for the entire working-class and proletarian movements, parties and organizations that adopted Marxism from the end of the nineteenth century onwards.

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