[OPE-L:241] MegaPost Part II of III

Alan Freeman (100042.617@compuserve.com)
Wed, 11 Oct 1995 09:58:06 -0700

[ show plain text ]

Part I: the context

Minimalist summary

1) Actually existing capitalism as the subject of enquiry

2) Clarity as driving motive

3) 'Critique of Political Economy' as the method of enquiry,
including the Critique of Twentieth Century Political Economy
and above all Twentieth Century 'Marxism'.

Detailed Argument of Part I

There is a context to all projects like this, of which there
are several and I think there will be more. I want to single
out three of its many elements:

1) The generalised revival of interest in Marx's political

2) The political outcome of the triumph of neo-liberalism or,
as Kagarlitsky calls it 'neo-barbarism'

3) The political economy of the Twentieth Century, its
interpretation of Marx, and the role of Critique

1) The revival of interest in political economy in Marx's

The indicators of this are many and varied but from my
personal experience I can cite:

(a) the International Working Group on Value Theory and its
conferences. This project was started by Andrew Kliman and
myself with a call for a mini-conference at the EEA in 1994.
We expected maybe a dozen people. The first conference
brought in well over twenty, and the mailing list, as I can
testify having carried it to the post, now runs to eighty. In
the runup to our third conference next March we have by no
means reached even a large minority of those interested in
the study of value.

(b) the value stream at the CSE, which five years ago had run
down to practically nothing, and has now built up again to a
regular thirty, of whom, astonishingly, the majority come
from outside the UK.

(c) the Marx-Actuel conference in Paris this September, which
I want to write up for the PEN-L list, was quietly recognised
by most French participants I spoke to as a turning point in
French intellectual life. A total of 150 journals from all
over the world took part and I think there must have been at
least 400 individuals going through the turnstiles at one
point or another. Le Monde carried a full-page interview with
the main organiser, Jacques Bidet; three years ago it was
hard to survive in any academic position with an interest in
Marxism and marxist thinking had virtually disappeared from
French public life, of which it has always been a distinctive
and recognised component.

(d) the Bergamo centenary conference on Marx last Winter
which brought together around 60 economists - by no means all
working in the Marxist tradition - for the single purpose of
evaluating and extending his work. The presence of non-
Marxists might be considered a negative feature of such an
event but I would argue, on the contrary, that it is a
grudging recognition at least in the fringes of the orthodox
world that his work cannnot be ignored.

(e) Eric Nillson's Journal of Heterodox Economics project. I
had no idea there were so many *Marxist* journals, let alone
journals critical of the mainstream position.

(e) at the conference the MEGA publishing project made a
presentation on their future work in which they issued a
public appeal for collaborators on the 'Historical-Critical
Dictionary of Marxism', a twelve-volume project which they
aim to make into the definitive critical presentation of the
vocabulary and conceptual structure of Marx and his
successors. The survival of the MEGA itself is something of a
miracle, since following the destruction of the USSR and the
East German state, and the decimation of Marxists in East
German and former Soviet Universities, not only did official
support collapse, as goes without saying, but a major public
witch-hunt was launched in prominent German newspapers
against the MEGA project. The intention of this campaign was
nothing to do with the crimes of the former regimes in these
countries - many of its leaders were themselves ex-state
officials - but to eradicate marxist thinking at root by
preventing further publication of Marx's own work and
removing marxists from public life. A further important
development is that the 'scholastic' study of Marx - the
'bad' tradition of official state support - has given way to
a distinctive and important aim, which is to treat Marx as a
*thinker* worthy of at least the same exacting standards of
publication, critical analysis, and discussion as would be
accorded any other.

(f) the growth of interest in the work of writers who have
gone through a long and hard uphill grind for recognition
through the dog days.

2) 'Neo-barbarism' and the political outcome of the triumph
of neo-liberalism

Any intellectual project has to enquire into its own material
roots, or it will exist only in a vacuous academic
stratosphere. Why is interest in Marx's economics reviving?

'Market reforms' have not worked and threaten the livelihood
and lives of millions not just in the former USSR and Eastern
Europe but Mexico, the Third World in general and even in the
heartlands where we are battling against the 'contract on
America' and its European counterparts. I would by no means
say this is the start of a political fightback; far from it.
But the failure of the market is very plain, and people want
answers. As Kurt Tucholsky says 'political economy is when
people wonder why they have no money'. I cannot but believe
that this is connected to the revival of interested in Marx's
political economy. In my view the principal starting point
for identifying what concepts in Marx must be *developed* (as
opposed to merely grasped properly) should be to identify the
most *salient* contradictions of the world as it is today.
The second starting point, below, is the political economy
through which today's world represents itself.

3) Critiquing the Political Economy of the Twentieth Century.

Marx's work was not 'Capital' but 'Capital: a Critique of
Political Economy'. Its 'Fourth Volume' (Theories of Surplus
Value), unlike the remaining two, was actually written. It
was moreover written *first*. I tend to think this should
tell us something. Jerry's feeling was

>While our own understandings are certainly related to our
own critiques of existing economic thought, my own feeling is
that we can avoid the task of critiquing marginalist et. al.
economic thought. I would say that the best critique is to
advance our own theory.

I tend to think this misses the point and want to spend some
time arguing for a rethink. I actually believe the critique
of Political Economy is *the* central task of an Outline of
Political Economy in the tradition of Marx. I suspect that a
misunderstanding is involved, based on the evolution of the
word s 'Critique' and 'Critical' since Marx's time. But let's

It seems that only Jerry and Paul Burkett - unless I missed a
posting - have so far referred to the full title of the work
the project is designed to extend. This is surely an omission
My own view is that the concept of Capital as a Critique of
Political Economy is central to Marx's project and that one
of the most important tasks we face is to continue and
advance this *particular* facet of Marx's work. Since this
appears more controversial than the other points, let me
elaborate it.

a) Fetishism, Social Laws and the Critique of Actually
Existing Thought

Social Laws, taking as read that they exist, cannot be the
same as Natural Laws, at least as the Victorians and hence
Marx's contemporaries, perceived them. This is because,
unlike Victorian atoms, we are the conscious agents of our
own destiny. To reduce things to absurdity, if I as a
thinking being were able to formulate laws governing my own
actions, I could negate those laws simply by disobeying them.
If my theory predicts I will go to Brighton on 6th May I can
falsify it by going to Birmingham instead. This is simply a
property of the nature of thought, which no thinking being
can avoid. Only an agency which I am powerless to resist can
compel me with the force of a law; such an agency is by
definition a Natural, not a Social Law.

The same applies to any collectivity which is master of its
own destiny, to any conscious society capable of representing
intentions and controlling joint actions publicly. If the
governing authority of any body of people, be it the people
in arms, the King in his court, the elders in their wisdom or
the parliament and bishops assembled, were to discover a
Social Law that predicted something they did not want, and
had it in their power to prevent, they would stop it
happening. If they could not prevent it, it would not be a
Social Law.

How can there be a law of motion of a society, then? IMO only
if its workings are disguised. I think this is fundamental to
Marx's conception, and one of the things Engels understood
least clearly. It got lost in the mechanistic materialism of
the Twentieth Century. Commodity fetishism, the disguising of
relations between people as relations between things, is I
tend to think a precondition for the existence of social
laws. Commodity fetishism is the basis on which humans
believe the things they are actually able to change, are
unchangeable, decreed by fate; that the Great are Great
because an immutable Law cast them there.

But the fact that they are driven to this perception is not a
fault in their education. It cannot be eradicated by means of
clear textbooks, sound thinking, and solid propaganda. The
beliefs above are a faulty kinaesthesia which results
directly from the crippled posture of a maimed body politic
and it is only, in Larkin's words, when we arise from our
knees that the Great can be humbled because it is only then
that we see them as they really are. The perceptions which
sustain capitalism are generated by its law of motion and are
part and parcel of the means by which the law enacts itself.

If we were all fully conscious of the law of motion of
capitalist society we would abolish it tomorrow, and it would
end, just as I could abolish a 'law' that puts me in Brighton
by voluntarily deciding to go to Birmingham. It also means
that, even when we rebel against what society imposes upon
us, we lack the knowledge of the means directly to achieve
the change we desire.

But if our society could directly perceive the true choices
before it then that society could not exist.

Why can't society just drop the price of any product to any
desired level, different from its market-clearing rate? Only
because all those whose share of the social product depends
on its price (that is, everyone in the world) cannot arrange
for a conscious agreement to set a lower price, compensate
the producers for any loss and plan for additional production
to make up any deficiency. The 'law' that fixes prices exists
only because the distributional consequences of such
agreements are not transparent. If it were transparent it
would not be a law but a social decision. To the extent that
the state can intervene through subsidies and price
regulation, or oligopolists can conspire to circumvent the
market, the 'law' gets suspended and regulation by the
unconscious agency of the market is superseded by the
conscious agency of collective action. Such a suspension is
not merely a violation of the law but, partially, of the
capitalist market itself. It is a partial negation of the
law. If all prices were so regulated, then there would not be
a capitalist market in the normal sense and capitalism in the
normal sense would not exist. The law would cease to be and
with it capitalism, as we know it. I don't at this point want
to get into the discussion as to whether the result is merely
a different form of capitalism; my point is that it is not
the capitalism discussed in Capital, and its law of motion if
it has one is not be the same.

Since awareness of these facts is, in a sense, mortal for
capitalism, it is an essential by-product of capitalism that
its forms of consciousness should retain, promote, and
systematis this fetishism. Capitalist Political Economy is a
byproduct of Capital.

But for this precise reason it affords us one of the vital
instruments for the study of Capital. When we study and
deconstruct the forms of consciousness which Capital
produces, through this deconstruction we arrive at a better
understanding of what Capital is. Don't get me wrong: I am
not arguing for this as the *principal* means of analysing
Capital. But I think it is very, very significant that Marx
arrived at the final drafts of Capital *after* writing
Theories of Surplus Value. The distinction, which I will come
back to, between the order of enquiry and the order of
presentation is rather important. And since the OPE project
is a project of Enquiry, shouldn't we be more concerned with
the method of Enquiry than the method of presentation?

b)The process of, and limits to, the self-movement of a
social law

If social laws were like natural laws we could apply them in
the same manner, as a kind of artefact of social engineering.
IMO modern Political Economy, particularly since Keynes, has
evolved to this concept of a law. The entire 'normative-
positive' codification is designed to achieve this approach.
Typical of 'Theory as Social Engineering' is the desire for
infallible prediction. To be quite frank, I believe that this
is what informs those marxists who ask for an account of the
'Law of Value' as an empirical relation between values and
prices, as a 'prediction' of prices. Prices *cannot* be
predicted in this sense. If we could predict them, our
prediction would falsify itself, because the minute we
published it, people would begin speculating on its
predictions. Prices can only be predicted if we *fix* them;
if we do this we have suspended the operation of the law we
sought to investigate. The Uncertaintly Principle applies
with full and majestic force to all such enterprises.
Macroeconomics calls this Lucas's law, I think.

A Marxist variant of this approach is the Second
Internationalist-type view of the 'iron law of progress' from
which conscious action has been eliminated. One merely awaits
the march of history. Unfortunately, when history marches
backwards as it is now doing, this mechanism turns into its
opposite, the fatalistic view that nothing can be done to
resist the onward march of capital.

The alternative to mechanism is a retreat into Idealism; the
view that *merely* by telling people the truth, the course of
history can be changed.

The great subtlety of Marx's approach was, it seems to me,
the realisation that since Consciousness follows Being, no
amount of preaching will change Consciousness. People learn
only through experience. Consciousness will change through
the process of movement of history itself, through the
process of struggle called into being by the contradictions
in Capitalism's 'Law of Motion'. But at the same time this
process is *not* automatic. The task of what he himself calls
Scientific Political Economy is to identify the potential
process of change and the conscious action required for this
potential to become actual (for the class in itself to become
the class for itself); to lay before humanity the
*possibilities* for its liberation which lie to hand. These
possibilities are not at all inevitable and if not grasped,
humanity may fail.

c) Wage Labour and Capital and the response to Social Laws

The above is clearest, IMO, in Marx's treatment of wage
labour and capital, which he did write about, in the work of
that name. I think this is a very crucial work, and deserves
to be a more integral part of our study.

The polemic in 'Wage Labour and Capital' is directed against
fatalism in the shape of Citizen Weston (read: Lassalle)'s
'iron law of wages' and utopianism in the form of
Proudhonism. The crucial link component in the structure is
the 'moral and historical' component of the wage. The
argument is a great deal more sophisticated, in my view, than
many readers understand and I simply note in passing that the
word 'moral' (moralische) appears only in one other context,
that of moral depreciation, as some of us have discussed

Because there is a moral and historical component to the wage
- it is not reducible to a subsistence wage, which would give
it the status of a Natural Law - it is wrong to assert that
workers cannot raise wages. But the raising of wages will not
of itself overthrow exploitation, which is where Proudhon
errs. Exploitation arises from the market itself, and will
cease only with the end of the wage system (one of Marx's
principal political slogans).

It is, however, neither adequate nor practical simply to
proclaim this. The fetishised nature of commodity relations
means that workers will not become directly conscious of the
origin of exploitation simply by being lectured at. The
philosophers cannot simply 'interpret' the world. 'The point
is to change it' because it is only the action of changing
the world, within the scope of the law, which changes
consciousness to the point where the law can be challenged.
The working class can only become conscious of its capacity
to transcend the wage system by forming into a 'class for
itself'; a class conscious of its historical potential; it
does so by struggling within the limits of the law, but the
social nature of the law creates just the margin for
manoeuvre which makes such a struggle possible. And it is the
antagonism between worker and capitalist, the wage-relation
itself, which generates the mechanism through which this
historical potential can become actual and the law can be
suspended, such a suspension being no less than the
suspension of capitalism itself.

This view sets Marx and his successors against all orthodoxy.
The most consistently revolutionary thinkers of any age seem
to me those who simultaneously understand not only that the
existing order need not be as it is, not only that it cannot
continue as it is, but also comprehend the practical
possibilities which its dissolution extends to humanity. But
for Marx this was the entire basis of his political economy;
to show that capitalism was not eternal and in the process to
uncover the forces capable of its dissolution and
supersession. Its 'law of motion' is the process of its self-
dissolution. It takes the form of a law, an apparently
objective and external reality, however, only because it is

It is however a genuine law given the existence of
capitalism. In theory, but not in practice, the capitalists
could consciously conspire together, if they wished, to stop
the profit rate falling. They would have to determine among
themselves the optimum Harrodian growth path, the rate of
technical change and investment in each sector, the
distribution of net value among the population, and in short
all the parameters of the economy required to ensure a non-
falling profit rate. But then they would not be capitalists.
The individual would have to be subjected to the collective
will so that he or she could not inadvertently bring about a
fall in the profit rate. But this is a planned society, a
directly socialised economy.

d)Why a Critique of Political Economy?

The question is then, why do the economists not know and
teach all this? Because part of the operation of the law is
the production of the forms of consciousness which keep in
existence the society to which the law applies. Whilst
capitalism can tolerate a minority of hetorodox academics it
could not possible promulgate in *general* a view of society
which let all its kids to the conclusion that capitalism was
doomed. No class ever commits suicide.

But this doesn't mean they can teach any old gobbledegook.
What gets taught in our schools and Universities has to be
logically coherent and has to correspond in some way, however
distorted, to the perceptions of reality which capitalism
presents to us.

Ideology is not just lies. It has a structure and it has a
relation to reality. It must systematise and codify and one
and the same time the appearances which capitalism presents
to us in everyday life, and the idealised version of these
appearances which offer the best prospects for capitalist

The forms of thought we confront therefore *betray* the
operation of the system they describe because of the way they
are obliged to represent it. If we want to study the law, we
have to study these forms of consciousness. I don't agree,
therefore, that we have a choice in this matter. To know what
profit is *really* we have to study the way it appears to
thought, as well as uncovering its essence. We have to know
how this essence becomes transformed into perceptions that
govern behaviour which keep the essence in existence.

And reading the actual discussion on OPE, this is what people
are actually doing. When we say that interest 'appears as if
it were a price' but is actually a transfer of value from pre-
existing profits, what are we doing but Critiquing the
neoclassical view? What I believe is that this method should
be explicit.

Marx reached, in its final developed form, the book we know
as 'Capital' *through* the Theories of Surplus Value, as well
as through his analysis of the objective facts of capitalism.
Indeed there *are* no such things as objective facts of
capitalism in the sense of directly measurable data in a non-
fetishised form, directly accessible to consciousness.

e)The Reverse Transformation Problem and the interpretation
of economic data

To undestand and present the category of value in a form
which will be accessible to consciousness, we have to explain
how it is related to the data and theories now available.
These data and theories are not merely a representation of
capitalism; they are a *part* of capitalism.

In the past I have surprised people by insisting on the
contribution of neglected contributions such as those of
Woll, Callari and Roberts. But in the present context I want
to assert with equal vehemence that the empirical tradition
established by Anwar and his co-workers, and the work of
people like Paul and Allin in investigating the empirical
relation between value and price, is fundamental to any
Marxist endeavour. What we see in the world, what is
available to us as the starting point of our enquiry, is not
value but price, not surplus value but profit, not transfers
of value between classes and fractions of classes, but price
movements and interest rate changes. These are in turn made
available to us through the measurements and pronouncements
of the economists, taking this in its broadest sense to
include the accountants, the statisticians and the army of
assistants who work to their rules employing their concepts.
We have to uncover the road back from these observables,
defined by the rules according to which the observations are
made, to the underlying essence.

We cannot uncover this road back unless we understand the
rules according to which the maps are drawn. The problem is
not a correct map with the road removed from it. The map
itself is a distortion so complete that the road cannot be
marked on it. We are in the position of someone who possesses
only a Mercator's projection of the world and wishes to
undertake a circumpolar navigation. I just don't accept this
to be possible without knowing what the modern economic
Mercators actually do and how their maps were drawn up. Why
do we have a map of the economic world which can only be
navigated from East to West and not from North to South?

Who draws the maps today? In the Twentieth Century we find
forms of political economy that have evolved since Marx's
time. So much so that they have even incorporated,
assimilated and - in my view- completely distorted Marx's own
analysis. For me a vital part of what we have to do, perhaps
the single most important aspect of the *Critique* of the
political economy of the Twentieth Century, is to rescue Marx
from his friends. In a certain sense, this is why it is
necessary to study Marx's political economy in the form it
emerged from Marx's pen. No other branch of science has to do
this. Engineers don't have to go back to Newton's original
works. But this is because Physics is far less affected than
social science by the obligation to represent the world in
such a way that capitalism can survive and perpetuate itself.
It is a necessary consequence of capitalism that Marx's *own*
thought, and indeed the thinking of anyone who penetrates the
veil of commodity relations, will be systematically falsified
and distorted. A central part of our task is to understand
and bring to the light of day the process by which this

Thus in summary, the state of the world today has changed
since Marx in *two* respects; the world has changed, and the
forms of consciousness corresponding to it have also changed.
A systematic reconstruction of Marx's scientific political
economy has to relate to both, and I therefore believe that
our point of departure should be this world and this
consciousness, both: I don't think one can merely pass to the
analysis of the world as if the modern perception of it were
in some way freed from one of the most fundamental aspects of
the law of motion of capitalism, the fetishisation of social

f) Conclusion and Consequences

Conclusion and consequences of this part: my general feeling
is that almost *any* project which brings together thinkers
working in Marx's framework to discuss economics is at this
point going to move things forward, and anything which brings
Marx's economics back into the public domain is going to be
an advance.

However, it does mean that:

(1) none of these projects can consider themselves in
isolation. I would like the participants in this list to
discuss and consider more carefully their relation to all the
other projects and developments that are going on and also to
the past of such debates. The framework of a new worldwide
collaboration has to be very carefully constructed. There is
an immense creativity in North American economic debate,
particularly now, but its negative side is a tendency to re-
invent the wheel every Tuesday.

(2) that these projects have to place themselves in a
critical relation to the past. This has a double aspect: on
the one hand we have to dissect those schools of thought
which have 'rescued' Marx by destroying him. On the other we
have to re-examine the existing literature for all those
writings which resuscitate Marx's original insights. One of
the things The IWGVT set out not merely to specify what
Marx's political economy really involves, but also to re-
examine its past presentation. In the process we discovered
that for years, individual writers had been systematically
reconstructing Marx's political economy, not as it has been
represented - or rather misrepresented - by official
academia, but as it was originally intended. But these
individual contributions had been treated with a wall of
silence. They were given in fact the same treatment that was
supposed to be the prerogative of Stalin's regime - they were
written out of history. This is simply unacceptable. We are
all the poorer for not being aware of their work.