Mediation and Opposition

A passage from Karl Marx’s Capital reads:

The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this kind. They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e. commodity production (Capital, Volume I, 1982:169).

However much “real Marxists”  might want to adopt (or invent) another kind of economic analysis, the fact is that in nearly all respects, save one, Karl Marx was a fairly straightforward neoclassical economic thinker. The criticisms he leveled against classical economic thinkers, such as Ricardo, or Smith, or Say, were leveled by other neoclassical economic thinkers as well. Nothing terribly exciting here. Neoclassical economics was only just emerging when Marx wrote his Capital; nevertheless, by the late 1850s, William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) was already criticizing the standard classical model in terms virtually identical to the terms Marx used in Capital. Indeed, when “real Marxists” revert to a “dialectical materialist” (which is to say Hegelian) “economics,” they are guilty of the very forms of thought that Marx, in fact, criticized in Capital.

Marx’s economic approach was thoroughly neoclassical; or, since “neoclassical” economics was not a term used in the 1860s, it was thoroughly “bourgeois,” as Marx himself put it.

What does this mean? It means that by the 1860s economic thinkers had already recognized the relativity of all value: as the value of one factor shifts, so shift the values of all other factors to which it is related, including labor. They had also come to recognize the central role innovation played in the value of both goods and of labor. Labor, which had seemed the central factor in production for economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, now appeared to be a dependent variable itself, subject to the inevitable value fluctuations of other factors. This web of mutual constitution had become, in effect, a social totality.

An earlier Marx, prior to and during the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, would have cried — he did cry — “foul!” Not so the author of Capital. That ship had sailed. If all factors — capital, labor, abstract value and material wealth — are tied together in a dynamic, integrated, rational social formation, as neoclassical economic thinkers (including Marx) argued, then little could be gained from pitting one of these factors — labor — against another — capital; since labor was as much the product of capital as capital was the product of labor.

After World War I, Max Weber’s student, Georg von Lukács, attempted to redeem Marxist thought from the clutches of neoclassical economics by theorizing an ideal-typical laborer and his ideal-typical consciousness and practice. Yes, Lukács, admitted; the historically constrained and limited working class is tragically wedded to its opposite. But, if we isolate the ideal-typical working class from its historical condition, we can then see, argued Lukács, that it forms a more perfect, more comprehensive, more integrated totality.

Fail. One does not escape the clutches of “bourgeois” economics simply by idealizing and transhistoricizing bourgeois ontology.

Yet, in one respect, Marx’s approach differed radically not only from other neoclassical economic thinkers, but also from the vast majority of Marxist thinkers as well. Where they take the comprehensive, universal, integrated whole to be both the origin and goal of history, the Marx of Capital takes this totality to be one of capital‘s most illustrious products. Society is integrated in the manner described by neoclassical (i.e., “bourgeois”) economics. This is why the categories of “bourgeois economic thought” are able to characterize the real economic world with such amazing accuracy. Adopting a different, alternative, set of categories (“Marxist” categories) is as silly as adopting “Marxist” categories for understanding nuclear physics or molecular biology.

Where Marx differed is precisely where he said he differed. Yes, these categories enjoy validity, but only “for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production.” Take away commodity production and social relations mediate one another differently. Indeed, a thorough, careful reading of Capital shows that Marx felt that one of the central differences separating the capitalist social formation from other social formations was precisely in their degree of comprehensive, total integration. Since other societies are not mediated by a singular social form — the value form of capital/labor — they display a far greater diversity not simply in things, but in ways of valuing things. Marx’s critique of capitalist modernity therefore began with a critique of the totalizing character of capital; of its tendency to give rise to a comprehensive, rationally and socially integrated whole. But, in order to recognize the toxic character of this totality, one has first to recognize its historically and socially constrained character.

Bourgeois economists are inclined, to the contrary, to view their categories as quasi-metaphysical, eternally valid, truths — which, of course, is pure nonsense.

(Parenthetically, friends often wonder how it is possible for me — a post-Marxian theorist — to be at home in a thoroughly neoclassical economics department such as UC Berkeley’s. There is, I explain, no difference in the interpretive categories we all use. The difference arises from my viewing these categories through an historical (non-Hegelian) frame. History under capitalism is going somewhere; it displays a directional dynamic; it displays rationality; it forms a comprehensive, integrated whole. But this is not because history behaves this way naturally. The dialectical behavior of history is among capitalism’s most enduring inventions. But it is by no means a feature of all of history. To the contrary, prior to the 14th c, history is, quite literally, going nowhere.)

Two thoughts: (1) the non-esoteric character of post-Marxian economic thinking offers social scientists shaped by Marx a valuable platform from which to defend the relative historical and social validity of their critique of capitalism, not on transcendental or quasi-Hegelian grounds, but on the grounds that non-Marxian economic thinking ignores its own socially and historically delimited character; (2) on these same grounds, post-Marxian economic thinking is less likely to be taken in by oppositional political forms; forms which tend to dehistoricize or transcendentalize one or more  agents (e.g., the poor, the working class, the farmers) in a political conflict, as though these agents were less thoroughly embedded in the capitalist social formation. If we are all embedded in the same social formation and if this formation is both totalizing, but also historical, then there is value in our searching for ways out of its domination over us, ways grounded neither in superior (esoteric) knowledge, nor in superior ontology, but rather in careful, thoughtful, and sympathetic listening, thinking, and political action.

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