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Capital as an "immanent critique" of Political Economy

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Yorkie Bar
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Sep 3 2009 13:21
Capital as an "immanent critique" of Political Economy

Following on from this thread:

Joseph Kay wrote:
Marx is doing an 'immanent critique' - adopting the concepts and categories of his opponents, the political economists, and showing that even if you accept their assumptions (that markets reach stable equilibrium etc), the conclusions should lead to a communist critique of capitalism.

If that's the case, can Capital be taken as an accurate description of how capitalism works in practice? I mean, if it's intended as an 'immanent' critique of classical political economy, then it must describe how capital would work according to the assumptions of the economists Marx was critiquing, rather than how it works in reality. Unless said economists were basically correct in their assumptions anyway.

For instance, when he talks about surplus-value, is Marx saying that workers really produce surplus-value for capital? Or is he saying that according to political economy, we produce surplus-value for capital, whether or not we actually are?

I get the impression that most readers of Capital assume the former - but how is that possible if Marx is writing an immanent critique?

Can anyone help?

~J.

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Joseph Kay
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Sep 3 2009 13:32

well Capital is an abstract model of how capitalism functions, just like the models of the political economists. What Marx does at length in Capital is show the real-world consequences of the tendencies he identifies - so there's whole chapters on the struggles over the length of the working day, the inhuman conditions of the english proletariat at the time (drawing heavily on parliamentary enquiries and press reports from the time) etc.

so the question to ask, like that of the political economists, is does the conceptual model adequately grasp the pertinent features of reality? i would argue it does a pretty good job. you could criticise Capital on the grounds that 'Homo economicus', market equilibrium and all his other inherited assumptions are mere convenient fictions, but then the onus is on the critic to provide a more compelling way to understand the very real recurrent struggles between classes and so on that Marx links to the very functioning of capital itself.

So for example, a lot of recent economics literature focuses on markets never reaching equilibrium - this doesn't undermine Marx's discussion of price and value, it merely removes a simplifying assumption and complicates the picture. The way Marx structures Captial is to start from a very stripped down model of capital and gradually add back in complicating factors. He never finished the planned volumes, and the reader is free to bring their own complicating factors to the analysis in order to understand exactly how capital functions in the real world (for example, the fact people aren't the pure rational self-interested agents of poltical economy goes some way to explaining why workers aren't in constant revolt, since the rational self-interested thing to do would be to expropriate the expropriators).

Yorkie Bar
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Sep 3 2009 14:07

So, I understand that Marx deliberately abstracts from the real economy in Capital, leaving out a lot of complicated stuff in the process. But if, as you say:

Quote:
Capital is an abstract model of how capitalism functions

Then how is it an immanent critique of political economy? Either Marx attempted to build a model of how capitalism functions, or he attempted to show how the assumptions of political economy led naturally to a communist standpoint? Unless those assumptions actually did lead to an accurate model of how capitalism works?

Sorry if I'm being a bit thick - guess I should probably wait till I've read the whole thing at least once before trying to discuss it in such broad terms.

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Joseph Kay
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Sep 3 2009 14:12
BigLittleJ wrote:
Then how is it an immanent critique of political economy? Either Marx attempted to build a model of how capitalism functions, or he attempted to show how the assumptions of political economy led naturally to a communist standpoint? Unless those assumptions actually did lead to an accurate model of how capitalism works?

Sorry if I'm being a bit thick - guess I should probably wait till I've read the whole thing at least once before trying to discuss it in such broad terms.

no problem, fair enough questions. what i meant is that by picking up the concepts of the political economists and running with them, he both carries out an immanent critique (showing how the labour theory of value held by Smith, Ricardo et al means class exploitation, for example), and necessarily presents an abstract model of capital since he's basically extrapolating from poltical economys concepts. i think Marx's goal was both - to show what was missing from the political economists' models (an understanding of what goes on in the 'hidden abode of production') and thereby provide one more adequate to the task at hand - the working class overthrow of capital.

Yorkie Bar
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Sep 3 2009 14:38
Joseph Kay wrote:
no problem, fair enough questions. what i meant is that by picking up the concepts of the political economists and running with them, he both carries out an immanent critique (showing how the labour theory of value held by Smith, Ricardo et al means class exploitation, for example), and necessarily presents an abstract model of capital since he's basically extrapolating from poltical economys concepts. i think Marx's goal was both - to show what was missing from the political economists' models (an understanding of what goes on in the 'hidden abode of production') and thereby provide one more adequate to the task at hand - the working class overthrow of capital.

Ok, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for clarifying.

~J.

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waslax
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Sep 4 2009 07:07
BigLittleJ wrote:
... can Capital be taken as an accurate description of how capitalism works in practice? I mean, if it's intended as an 'immanent' critique of classical political economy, then it must describe how capital would work according to the assumptions of the economists Marx was critiquing, rather than how it works in reality. Unless said economists were basically correct in their assumptions anyway.

I think the simple answer to your question from the viewpoint of someone (e.g. me) who thinks Marx got things mostly right is that he did both things, analyzing how capitalism really works (in its most general, fundamental terms), and how it would work according to the assumptions of the political economists. Marx in fact thought that the best of the political economists, such as Ricardo, actually got quite a bit right about capitalism, but that they left out some very crucial factors; hence the immanent critique. Also, not all the political economists agreed with each other about everything, so Marx thought some of them got some things right and other things wrong, while others got different things right and different things wrong.

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Chilli Sauce
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Sep 4 2009 15:29

Also, my personal reading (and Harvey will talk about this if you watch the lectures) is that Marx does both. In most instances, it's about the abstract, 'ideal' capitalism, but he'll throw in a tangent or two (often quite ironically or sarcastically) analyzing "real world" capitalism. It's actually something to watch out for. It's makes the book more complex, yet richer at the same time.