5. The dialectic of capital and the counter-dialectic of class struggle

Submitted by libcom on October 28, 2005

5. The dialectic of capital and the counter-dialectic of class struggle

In the famous opening of The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels proclaim: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re- constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes." (MESW, p. 35) With such polemical clarity Marx and Engels posited class struggle as the motor of history; as the fundamental contradiction that drives the dialectic of history forward. From this premise Marx and Engels then go on to sketch out the dynamic of class struggle within the bourgeois epoch. An epoch in which class antagonisms reach their starkest form: Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, posses...this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. (MESW, p. 36) For Marx and Engels the bourgeoisie had made startling achievements with its rise to power: The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations before. (MESW, p. 39) What is more: The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self- interest, than callous 'cash payment'. (MESW, p. 37) Indeed, for Marx and Engels, the: ...bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. (MESW, p. 37) Yet the bourgeoisie's incessant need to advance and revolutionize the forces of production -- to expand or die - increasingly, and repeatedly, comes into conflict with the limited conditions of bourgeois private property. A conflict that periodically erupts into economic crisis: Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of bourgeois society. In these crises a great part not only of existing products, but previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity -- overproduction. (MESW, p. 40) But it is not the revolt of the productive forces as such that ultimately spell the end of the bourgeoisie, but the revolutionary subject that the development of these productive forces have called into being: the revolutionary proletariat: The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.

But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring; it has called into existence the men who are to wield these weapons -- the modern working class -- the proletarians. (MESW, p. 41) Hence: What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces above all, is its own grave-diggers. (MESW, p. 46) So, in this opening section of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels show that the objective and subjective conditions through which bourgeois society comes into being are the very same conditions which promise its demise. We can see Marx and Engels sketching out the broad outlines of their thematic of 'capitalism and its overthrow'. A thematic that is explicitly articulated in terms of the dynamic of class struggle.

Yet it must be said that The Communist Manifesto is a work of propaganda. Its broad sweeping arguments are those of the partisan protagonists of the emerging communist movement that were designed to enthuse this movement with the importance of its 'historical tasks'. It was a rallying cry on the eve of the 1848 revolutions.

If we compare, what is perhaps considered Marx's most 'sober' and 'scientific' work, Capital, to this youthful work of propaganda what we find is a notable absence of the dynamic of class struggle; of class subjectivity. Indeed, as Negri notes,1 we can see the class hatred within the text of Capital, we may note the occasional flurries in which Marx invokes the revolutionary potential of the proletariat and its struggle against capital, but at the heart of the analysis within Capital, class subjectivity, particularly that of the working class, is notable by is absence. Indeed, as we shall see when we come to examine this work in detail, the working class is only allowed to enter as the object of capital; as variable capital or as the commodity-object labour power.

Is this absence simply due to Marx adopting a less partisan, and a more 'scientific' approach in Capital? Does it imply a revision of his thematic outlined in The Communist Manifesto? No, we think not.

If Marx was to go beyond sweeping proclamations of the eventual downfall of capitalism to understand how it could be overthrown, he first had to understand how it persisted. He had to show how revolutionary class subjectivity could arise out of the objective and material conditions engendered by the capitalist mode of production. This meant that he had to uncover its inner laws of movement, the logic of capital or what we shall term the dialectic of capital. This required Marx to focus on the general problematic of political economy. Yet, as we shall see, in focusing on this problematic Marx was obliged to hold class subjectivity and class struggle in abeyance in order to uncover the objective laws of capitalist development. As a consequence he had to inscribe a provisional closure within his thematic of 'capitalism and its overthrow'.

A) The dialectic of capital i) The economy as the object of science The development of the capitalist mode of production is one of remorseless expansion. Its ceaseless drive to expand brings it to subordinate the entire globe. As Marx and Engels vividly describe it:

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarian's intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e. become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. (MESW, p. 39) Yet this remorseless advance of the capitalist mode of production is not merely extensive but also intensive. All the complex human relations of feudal society become progressively swept away and replaced by those of the market and 'callous cash payment'. The personal relations of dependence between the lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman and so forth become steadly reduced to the simple impersonal and independent relations of buyer and seller. The worth of the individual is no longer in themselves but in their pocket.

As a consequence, the relations between people manifest themselves as a relation between things. People come to relate to each other only through the commodities that they come to sell or buy. Marx considers this in detail in his analysis of commodity fetishism in the opening chapter of Capital. Here he shows how the social character of labour, and the social relations it gives rise to, becomes manifest in the quantitative relation of commodity-objects: A commodity is...a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye.

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities.

There, the existence of the things qua commodities and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising there from. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. (Capital I, p. 77) This reification of social relations is, however, no mere illusion. It is a real consequence of the social relations within the capitalist mode of production. It with such reification that the economy comes to stand over and against the subjective needs and desires of individuals as an autonomous sphere of society which then forms the basis, and indeed structures, the social 'superstructure' constituted by the realms of politics, ideology and so forth.

It is with the emergence of the economy as an autonomous social sphere, with its own objective laws and regularities, that political economy as a positive and objective science becomes possible. As a complex system of relations between things -- between commodities as objects -- the economy presents itself as a mere mechanism.(2) (Indeed, for modern economics the economy is merely a 'mechanism for the optimal allocation of scarce resources). It is with political economy and economics that the autonomous movement of the economy becomes conscious of itself.

However, if we consider how the commodity economy arises and sustains itself through production we find that this reified world emerges out of the very process of human objectification which is at one and the same time a process of alienation. For the mass of individuals in society, the only commodity they have to sell is their own labour-power. As a consequence, they do not sell a commodity-object distinct from themselves but their very life-expression -- their very own subjective activity. Their subjective will and purpose, which finds its objectification in their labouring activity, becomes subordinated to that of capital with the sale of their labour-power to the capitalist. As even bourgeois economists will admit, it is not labour that hires capital for its own purposes; it is capital that hires labour. But, what is more, the alienation of the worker's subjective activity becomes inscribed within this very productive activity itself. This becomes readily apparent within the very development of capitalist production -- as Marx points out in the Grundrisse: As long as the means of labour remains a mere means of labour in the proper sense of the term, such as it is directly, historically, adopted by capital and included in its realisation process, it undergoes a merely formal modification... But, once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery...set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast as merely its conscious linkages... In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker's means of labour...to transmit the worker's activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine's work, the machine's action, on to the raw material -- supervises it and guards against interruptions. Not with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity.

Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, and with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matieres instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker's activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not existing the worker's consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself... The production process has ceased to be a labour process in the sense of a process dominated dominated by labour as its governing unity. Labour appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism. In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it; a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital. (Grundrisse, p. 692) For the worker then, the capitalist production process is a process of alienation. The worker finds that in selling her labour-power, her subjectivity, her own will and purpose, is objectified in an alien product and to an alien end. Her alienated and objectified labour then comes to stand over and against her in the form of capital, to which she herself stands as a mere object.

But capitalist production is not only a process of alienation for the worker; it is also a process of alienation for the capitalist, albeit in a qualitatively different way. If the capitalist is to remain a capitalist then she must act in accordance with the laws of the market. Failure to intensify the exploitation of her workers, to mechanize production and to maximize the accumulation of capital, will ultimately lead to bankcruptcy and her demise as a functioning capitalist. Hence, the subjective ends and purposes of the capitalist must be in accordance with the needs of capital's accumulation. As a result, the capitalist becomes merely a personification of capital. The capitalist emerges as merely a conscious agent through which capital is set in motion. Hence, it becomes clear that it is not the capitalist that is the subject of the capitalist production process, but rather it is capital itself! So, with the capitalist mode of production we have a fundamental ontological inversion. As a first order mediation, the subject/object of the dialectic of human praxis is the human being. Human beings, through their labour, come to objectify themselves in the external natural and social world. In transforming the world in accordance with their own subjective will and purpose they come to transform themselves as natural and social beings. As such, the dialectic of human praxis is the self-development of human beings in their relation to each other and to nature.

However, as we have seen, under capitalist relations of production the process of objectification is at one and the same time a process of alienation. As a result, human beings confront their own objectified labour as an alien power that has its own dialectical self- development. The purpose of production is no longer so much the self-development of human beings but the accumulation of alienated labour -- that is the accumulation of capital. So, as a second order of mediation, the dialectic of human labour has as its subject/object not human beings but capital! Capital subjectivizes itself through the subordination of human ends and purposes to its own self-expansion. Like a vampire, it is dead labour preying on the living. Sucking the life blood of living labour it accumulates itself as alien dead labour. But in doing so it reproduces both the objective and subjective conditions of the worker and the capitalist necessary for its own continued existence and development. We therefore have the self-development of capital over and against the will and purposes of human beings -- what we shall term the dialectic of capital -- which is what underlies the apparent autonomy of the economy within bourgeois society, and with it the objective and positive science of political economy.

ii) Political economy as science So, with the reification of social relations and the ontological inversion of human praxis that arises out of the dialectic of capital, we find that bourgeois society becomes distinguished from all preceding societies by the emergence of the organization of the production of its material life as a distinct and autonomous sphere -- the economy. As such, the economy emerges as a system governed by positive and objective laws and regularities independent of conscious human will.

Despite the vast development of human intercourse brought about by the development of capitalist production and communications, immediate human relations remain restricted to friends and family and even then bear the imprint of economic necessity. All other human connections must become mediated through the economy; they must be represented as a relation between commodities or as relations of impersonal rights and duties. With the development of the capitalist mode of production society becomes atomized into an indifferent mass of commodity-owners who only become socially connected through the dialectic of capital. The dialectic of capital therefore stands as the essence of bourgeois society -- and the capitalist mode of production upon which it rests.

So what does this mean for Marx's project? How does this structure of bourgeois society condition Marx's critique of it within his thematic of 'capitalism and its overthrow'?

If Marx was to theoretically arm the emergent communist movement so that it could consciously transform reality, if he was to develop an understanding of how capitalism could be overthrown, he had to first of all understand what capitalism is and how it perpetuates itself. He therefore had to understand the essence of capitalism in its inner coherence. He had to understand the dialectic of capital in and for itself in its intrinsic identity.

It was only on the basis of such an understanding of the objective conditions, that define the terrain of class conflict within bourgeois society, that Marx could raise the question of class strategy and class struggle itself. The analysis of the dialectic of capital -- the objective and positive logic of capital -- had therefore to be the first moment within his thematic. A moment that, as we shall see, must set out from the general problematic of political economy -- that is the analysis of the objective and positive laws of the bourgeois economy.

So, how was Marx to penetrate to the essence of bourgeois society? How was he to grasp the workings of the dialectic of capital? Marx did not have to dig through a mass of empirical data from scratch, nor did he have to rely on a stroke of intuition to find this essence. On the contrary, the essence of bourgeois society is necessarily reflected in the everyday thinking and practical concerns of human individuals immersed in bourgeois society. What is more, such ideas had long since been systemized and codified by bourgeois thinkers. However, the immediate reflection of these ideas, which arose out of material and social activity of the capitalist economy, were necessarily refracted though the reified and alienated conditions of bourgeois society. They therefore made their appearance in immediate consciousness in both a fragmentary and a distorted fashion. Marx's principal task, therefore, was to critically appropriate such ideas which were already evident within bourgeois society itself.

But where was he to begin?

The two essential classes of capitalist production are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Both of these classes are directly involved in the capitalist production process and both directly confront the reified social relations that arise from it. Indeed, as we have already noted, for Marx, the human individuals that make up both these classes are necessarily alienated, but they experience this alienation in radically different ways. As Marx remarks in the Holy Family: The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation.

But the former class finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power: it has in it a semblance of human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. (Marx, 1956a, p. 51) Insofar as she is subordinated to capital, the individual worker comes to know capital and its economy as nothing more than an alien and hostile force to which she must either submit or rebel. Either way her relation to capital is one of denial, either of herself or of capital. She immediately sees only the negative side of capitalist economy since she only perceives capital in terms of negation and denial. Hence, although it is the labour of the proletariat as a class that creates capital and the capitalist economy, so that the proletariat is an integral and intimate part of it, the proletariat does not immediate become conscious of what capital is, but rather what it ought to be, or, indeed, what it ought not to be.

As the personification of capital, as its conscious agent and organizer, the capitalist is able to identify her own ends and purposes with those of capital and its economy. The accumulation and profitability of capital appears at one and the same time as the capitalist's own wealth and enrichment. The growth in its productive power appears as the very growth of her power. Of course, the capitalist still confronts the economy as a whole as an alien system with its own immutable and objective laws. The capitalist is indeed ruled by the market -- the laws of 'supply and demand' -- which can never be 'bucked' for long. But the capitalist seeks to use these laws to her own advantage, just as she may use the laws of nature in the process of production. The capitalist therefore becomes immediately conscious of the positive side of the capitalist economy; she comes to know what capital positively is.

Thus, for a positive understanding of the dialectic of capital it is not to the proletariat that Marx must look, but to the bourgeoisie. In addressing the problematic of the positive laws of the capitalist economy -- that is, the general problematic of political economy -- Marx has to take up, albeit critically, the perspective of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, as we shall see, it is this critical perspective of the bourgeoisie -- which reduces the working class to mere object of exploitation -- that informs and delimits Marx's critique of political economy and serves to inscribes the provisional closure that we find in the three volumes of Capital.

So, to understand the essence of capitalist society Marx had to address the problematic of political economy -- the bourgeois science par excellence. But in doing so Marx could not, as bourgeois political economy did, take the laws of the bourgeois economy as given. He had to show that they were not natural or immutable but were the historical creation of human beings; that the laws of capitalism were historically contingent. He, therefore, had to address the problematic of political economy critically; it had to be a critique of political economy. For the critical method with which to approach political economy he needed to look no further than the critical philosophy of Hegel.

As we saw in the previous chapter, the importance of Hegel to Marx was that he grasped bourgeois society as a self-developing totality. Indeed, Hegel, as the pinnacle of bourgeois idealism, had developed the active and subjective side of the understanding of bourgeois society; he saw it as a process of self-realization and self-creation. Unlike the political economists, he did not take the bourgeois economy as an empirically given fact but rather critically examined its presuppositions. As a result he saw the positive economic laws as merely a means through which the abstract will of the individual, initially immersed in the immediacy of the family, came to realize itself as a particular expression of God and the state. The economic laws, for Hegel, were therefore clearly seen as the creation of human subjects.

To this extent Hegel can himself be said to take a critical bourgeois perspective; although a very exclusive one in that Hegel is only concerned with the individual members of the bourgeoisie (the proletarian rabble is allowed only a haunting existence within the perspective of Hegel). Hegel seeks to show how, through the very competitive battle of the marketplace, each bourgeois individual is able to reconcile themselves as constituent parts of the totality of bourgeois society and thereby gain a 'semblance of a human existence'.

Of course, Hegel, by making the process of alienation a mere matter of attitude, a mere semblance of alienation, he was able to make this semblance of human existence a real human existence. As a consequence he was unable to recognize the real ontological inversion which makes capital the subject/object of bourgeois society and subordinates the social realization of human individuals to its own ends and purposes. He was therefore unable to see that the economy was not a mere means whose positivity was annulled, but rather that it was human subjectivity and will that was the means; that the will of the state and the individual were merely external moments to the dialectical movement of capital. To this extent Hegel's critical perspective ceases to be critical, it becomes a mere apology of bourgeois society that, having dissolved the positivity of the economic, reaffirms it.

Nevertheless, Hegel's critical and dialectical philosophy did provide Marx with the method with which to make his critique of political economy. For Hegel, the totality bourgeois society was constituted out of the dialectical movement its three moments, which itself mirrored the development of human consciousness: Abstract Will > CivilSociety > State {The Economy} | | | Subject Object Absolute | | | Self-Consciousness > Nature > Reason Of course, from this illustration we can see the ontological conflation inherent within Hegel's idealist dialectic that makes bourgeoisie society absolute. But we can also see that for Hegel the individual subject and the state are intricately connected with civil society and the economy; they are the constituent and interpenetrating moments of the totality of bourgeoisie society. In contrast, the problematic of political economy abstracts civil society and the economy from this totality and takes the state and the individual subject as given presuppositions. By rigidly demarcating the economy as the object of its analysis, political economy is then able to proceed as a positive and objective science. We have: The Economy/ Civil Society | Object/ Objective Laws | Nature For political economy then, the subject is excluded from the object of analysis. The state and the individual lie outside its domain.

Of course this did not mean that political economists did not concern themselves with the individual or the state. Indeed, classical political economists, such as Adam Smith, were very much concerned with the role of the state and government policy, and as natural philosophers did not entirely dismiss the plight of the individual in bourgeois society.(3) However, while they concerned themselves with how far the individual and the state could intervene or supplement the positive mechanisms of the economic system for their own normative ends, political economists did not consider how the State and individual were implicated in these very mechanisms. The individual and the State as subjects were rigidly separated from the economic system as object.

Hence, in Smith, for example, the state is given the minimal role of providing those services, such as law and order, defence and education, essential to the functioning of society but which the market mechanism is unable to provide efficiently. The state is thereby seen as a neutral agent that should only intervene in those exceptional circumstances where the 'market fails' to provide for the 'common good'. The is no question of determining how the state arises out of the social relations of capitalist production, nor how the economy presupposes and is presupposed by the state-form. Such questions are precluded from the very problematic of political economy which presents the economy/market and the state as a rigid dichotomy.

So, with the problematic of political economy -- political economy as a positive and objective science -- the political economists closed off the economy as object and radically opposed it to the State and the individual as subject. In adopting the problematic of political economy Marx was also obliged to inscribe such a closure, but Marx's closure is only a provisional closure. By critically examining the presuppositions of political economy Marx is able to abstract the capitalist economy as an objective and positive system without severing its links to the subjective. Thus, as we shall see, while in Capital he is concerned with revealing the inner laws of the capitalist mode of production, Marx makes it clear that such laws are only such insofar as they reflect the reification of social relations. For Marx, unlike the political economists, the subjective is implicated in the objective laws of the economy; it cannot be rigidly excluded.

Yet nevertheless, while political economy sought hold the subjective at bay it returned to haunt them. This first became evident in the limitations of the capitalist economic system as a self-regulating mechanism. A point perpetually raised by the theoretical critics of political economy and perennially pressed home in practice through economic crisis.

For the political economists, the capitalist economy, like Isaac Newton's universe, worked like clockwork; it was both efficient and self-regulating. But also like Newton, who feared that tiny imperceptible disturbances in the smooth movement of the planets would, without divine intervention, bring them crashing into the sun, the political economists often found themselves haunted by the ultimate limits of bourgeois production and thus of 'civilization as they knew it'. While current economic crises could be dismissed as being due to accidental causes or to unwise tampering with the economic mechanism on the part of governments, classical political economy was haunted by the fear of the falling rate of profit and the eventual stagnation and demise of bourgeois society in the, albeit distant, future.(4)

The critics of the classical political economists, however, such as Sismondi, were not slow to point out the real contradictions of the capitalist economy. How it was not a smoothly self-regulating mechanism, but a system which repeatedly had to be forcibly recomposed through violent economic, and often political, crises. Against the coherence of the dialectic of capital such critics stressed its incoherence. Indeed, for Marx these critics brought out how the dialectic of capital developed as unity of opposition; a unity that was never guaranteed and one that was prone to contradiction and even rupture.

However, it was insufficient for Marx to merely counterpose the impossibility of capitalism to its possibility as the early critics of political economy did. For him it was necessary to understand the dialectic of capital in its coherence; he had to realize political economy in order to suppress it. Thus in Capital we find Marx emphasizing the unity and possibility of the capitalist mode of production -- the conditions of its persistence -- in the light of the classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo. While Sismondi's criticisms of classical political economy were valued by Marx, and indeed often provided a starting point for his investigation into a critique of political economy, they are not considered in any detail in Capital. Indeed, in his Theories of Surplus-Value, Marx quite explicitly defers his consideration of Sismondi to a later work on competition, which he repeatedly promised, but which never actually came to write: I exclude Sismondi from my historical survey here because a critique of his views belongs to a part of my work dealing with the real movement of capital (competition and credit) which I can only tackle after I have finished this book. (TSV III, p. 53) This deferral of Sismondi goes hand in hand with the deferral of the question of capitalist crises, which as we shall argue is always tangential to the principal line of theoretical development of Marx's presentation in Capital, and which, as a consequence, is always marginal to its text. Here we have the second part of the two- fold provisional closure inscribed in Marx's broader thematic by the problematic of political economy. But this is not all, as we shall now see in the second section of this chapter.

B) The counter-dialectic of class struggle

For Marx, classical political economy reached its scientific heights with Ricardo. With Ricardo political economy could go no further within the bourgeois perspective without revealing the historical and social limitations of the capitalist mode of production. With the death of Ricardo political economy entered into its long decline that led to the vulgar economics of Marx's contemporaries and finally to the neoclassical economics that still holds sway as the prevalent orthodoxy to this day.

Yet this degeneration of classical political economy into vulgar economics was, for Marx, no accident. In the early nineteenth century the bourgeoisie had been seeking through political economy to become conscious of its own economic power against the continued supremacy of the old landed classes. Armed with political economy, the bourgeoisie could declare that it was the productive propertied class; the propertied class that provide the wealth of nation, in contrast to those classes, such as the landed aristocracy, which did no more than fritter this wealth away.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the bourgeoisie had to turn and face the emergence of the political and economic power of what was to become its greatest adversary -- the working class. The class that could claim that it was the productive class, and what is more the dispossessed class, that threatened to sweep away all property. In response to this threat from the working class the bourgeoisie abandoned the science of political economy in favour of the ideological conceptions of vulgar economics, which sought dissolve all the class antagonisms of capitalist society into the free and equal interaction of buyers and sellers on the market. Whereas political economy had sought to penetrate below the surface of the bourgeois economy as a market economy to expose the basis of its class relations, vulgar economy merely remains on the surface; it knows nothing of class except as a mentally constructed aggregation of individuals.

However, the degeneration of classical political economy was not simply an ideological response to the emergence of the working class as subject. It was also an attempt, albeit a highly ideological attempt, to come to grips with an economic reality that was being materially transformed by the emergence of this new proletarian class subjectivity. With the emergence of neoclassical economics in the 1870s, which heralded the culmination of vulgar economics, came the implicit recognition of the class subjectivity of the working class. This becomes most evident with respect to the question of the wage.

For Ricardo, and classical political economy in general, the working class was nothing but a naturally given object. As a consequence, the price of labour, the wage, was seen as being determined by little more than the biological subsistence required to sustain the working class. In contrast, within the marginalism of the neoclassical economists, the wage is seen to be determined not by the biological level of human subsistence of the worker as a natural object, but by both the marginal product and the marginal disutility of the worker's labour. With the wage, the worker is offered 'her share' while the worker offers her labour according to her subjective preference between consumption and leisure.

Neoclassical economics thereby sought to accommodate the growing class subjectivity of the working class, but only insofar as the working class agreed to dissolve itself as a class and entered as atomized 'rational economic agents'. The proletarian rabble could now be admitted as 'kings for the day', 'sovereign consumers' -- even as citizens with the right to vote -- but, of course, only outside work time. There, during work time, the tyranny of capital had to be maintained.

We do not propose to consider the implications of neoclassical economics any further here. What is important for us is that, insofar as neoclassical economics had to admit the subjectivity of the emergent working class, it exposes the limits of classical political economy. But these limits of classical political economy are none other than the delimitations of its object -- the dialectic of capital.

The dialectic of capital can only function insofar as it can impose itself as a second order mediation of human praxis; that is, only insofar as it can subordinate human labour to its own ends and purposes and thereby impose the ontological inversion whereby capital becomes the object/subject. But there is no guarantee of this subordination. Capital can never be certain of imposing its logic on human society. It must always and repeatedly confront the potential class subjectivity of the working class.

As we shall see in more detail when we come to consider the first volume of Capital, in order to accumulate, capital must appropriate living labour -- the objectification of the worker in production -- to itsself as capital. That is, labour-power must be reduced to variable capital. But this presupposes the worker as both a free subject and as non-capital. Unlike the slave or the serf, the worker must be posited as a free individual -- free to enter the market to sell her labour power to anyone she pleases, and free to spend her wages on anything she may fancy. So, if capital is to treat the worker as object -- as means to its own ends -- it must first, and repeatedly, posit labour as subject and as such its own, potentially antagonistic, opposite.

The subjectivity of worker therefore repeatedly stands opposed to that of capital and must be repeatedly subsumed to capital within the process of production. Yet this subsumption not inevitable; the contradiction between capital and labour is not necessarily resolved within a closed dialectic of capital. The workers may resist and seek to impose their own will and purpose on production over and against that of capital. The dialectic of capital must be taken as radically open.

The more the workers combine to oppose the dictates of capital the more the capitalists, as the conscious guardians and protectors of capital, must act as a class. Here then we have the counter-dialectic of class struggle. The struggle between labour and capital becomes the more or less the open struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie.

This counter-dialectic of class struggle comes to delimit the functioning of the dialectic of capital. The workers through their everyday struggles impose limits on the operation of capital. As the representatives of capital, the bourgeoisie are obliged to make concessions to the working class; hence the limits to the working day, health and safety standards, welfare provisions, environmental protection and so forth. It is only within the matrix of these class compromises that the dialectic of capital is able to unfold.

But these compromises are only ever provisional. They may always be broken up and extended or taken back. They are merely moments of consolidation in the continued flux of class struggle whose objective basis lies in the development of the dialectic of capital. Just as the dialectic of class struggle provides the matrix for the functioning of the dialectic of capital, so the dialectic of capital in turn provides the matrix for the unfolding of the dialectic of class struggle. It is the interaction of these two moments that provide the dynamic of the development of capitalism.

The pivot between these two moments is crisis. Even if the consolidation of class struggle into a viable class compromise allows the delimited movement of the dialectic of capital to operate so that the economy emerges as an objective system, the dialectic of capital will still be prone to rupture and crisis which may drive it to break up the class compromise upon which it previously operated. The intensification and opening up of class struggle may then serve to create rupture and crisis in the dialectic of capital. The contradictory unity of capital and labour, of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, is only ever provisional; it is always prone to rupture and crisis.

With crisis the capitalist mode of production is driven forward towards its own dissolution. For Marx, the objective economic crises grow more intense as capital accumulates on an ever greater, while the potential power of the working class grows with the increasing concentration of capital which brings more and more of the working class together opposed to capital.

With this we have come to sketch out the entire Marxian thematic of 'capitalism and its overthrow'. But, as we have pointed out, Marx had to first consider what capitalism is,; he had to begin with an understanding of the dialectic of capital as such, in its intrinsic identity. classical political economy, which viewed capitalism before the full development of the class subjectivity of the working class, provided the point of departure for this understanding. Marx, with his critique of political economy, sought to push classical political economy beyond itself to expose its own weaknesses and to prepare the way for the understanding of the objective preconditions of the class struggle.(5)

But in adopting the problematic of political economy, by abstracting the economic as an objective system with 'iron laws', the counter-dialectic of class struggle and the class subjectivity of the proletariat had to be closed off; they sank below the horizon of his immediate analysis, albeit provisionally. As a consequence, we find the objectified categories of Capital which has lent itself to deterministic and objectivist readings of the 'mature' Marx.

But inner theoretical imperative of Marx's critique of political economy points beyond such provisional closure. As Marx indicates in the following passage in the Grundrisse:

As the system of bourgeois economy has developed for us only by degrees, so too has its negation, which is its ultimate result. We are still concerned now with the direct production process. When we consider the bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole, then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e. the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has fixed form, such as the product etc., appears as a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct production process itself appears here appears as a moment. The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it, and its only subjects are the individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce anew. The constant process of their own movement, in which they renew themselves even as they renew the world of wealth they create. (Grundrisse, p. 712)

So, we can see that, in adopting the problematic of political economy, Marx comes to inscribe a provisional closure within his broader thematic of 'capitalism and its overthrow'. Before he can adopt the critical perspective of the proletariat to posit the negation of capital he must first take up the critical perspective of the bourgeoisie. The question that we must answer is how does Marx's critique of political economy, that becomes presented in Capital, come impose this provisional closure and, as a consequence, how does this critique point beyond itself?

We shall begin to address this vital question in chapter 7, but before we consider how Marx made this provisional closure within his critique of political economy in detail, we must briefly return, in the following chapter, to consider once more the intellectual and historical context in which this closure was actually made and sustained.


1. See Negri (1991)

2. The importance of commodity fetishism and the reification of social relations as the basis of Marx's methodology as a critique has been examined in depth in Rubin (1972) and in Sayer (1983).

3. The early political economists, such as Adam Smith, saw themselves first and foremost as 'practical philosophers'. As such they were obliged to give some consideration to the human condition as a whole, even if this was from the perspective of political economy. This becomes clear if we examine Smith's most famous work -- The Wealth of Nations -- with his earlier and lesser known philosophical works such as The Moral Sentiments (Smith, 1976). Indeed, as Andrew Skinner has observed in his introduction to The Wealth of Nations: '...Smith's initial fame was (social) philosophy, rather than economics, and...he himself regarded The Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as but parts of a single, greater whole; as the parts of a grand synthetic system which he hoped to complete..." (Smith, 1970, p. 13) However, this broader philosophical perspective is far less evident in Ricardo, by which time political economy had established itself as a distinct discipline.

4. For an examination of how classical Newtonian physics came to reflect the bourgeoisies predicament of the Eighteenth Century, see Cleaver (1980).

5. For a broad theoretical and historical analysis of how class struggle has impacted on the workings of the dialectic of capital see Negri (1988).