Albritton- Critique of Chris Arthur

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  • Historical Materialism, volume 13:2 (167188) Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2005Also available online

    1 This is particularly clear in Arthur 2003.2 See Sekine 1997 for a strong presentation of the inner logic of capital as a dialectical


    Robert Albritton

    How Dialectics Runs Aground: The Antinomies of Arthurs Dialectic of Capital

    Chris Arthur and I agree on the basic nature ofdialectical reasoning, but, when it comes to thinkingthrough the ways in which Marxs theory of capitalsinner logic is and is not dialectical, I shall argue thathis dialectics runs aground and finally breaks up onthe rocky materiality of class struggle.1 In developingmy analysis, I shall start with a brief discussion ofhis take on dialectics, where there is much accordbetween us. It is my belief that his account gets stuckon two specific oppositions: the opposition betweenvalue and use-value and between capital and labour.It seems to me that a dialectical approach based onthe work of Japanese political economists Uno andSekine can deal with these oppositions in a muchmore effective way than does Arthur, a way thatconceives of Marxs theory of capital as a much morecoherent dialectic, while, at the same time, presentinga potentially much more powerful way of theorisingclass struggle.2

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    3 Arthur 2002, p. 42.4 Arthur 2002, p. 8.5 Sohn-Rethel 1978.6 Lukcs 1971, Albritton 2003, Postone 2003.


    At the most fundamental level, Arthur and I share a great deal in our conceptu-alisation of dialectical reason and its immense potential in presenting thestrongest possible theorisation of capitals inner logic. He clearly and forcefullyargues that, through the operation of its own logic, capital tends to bothexpand and deepen the commodification of economic life. And, to the extentthat commodification becomes complete, the quantitative side of economiclife is asserted with increasing indifference to the qualitative side.3 As quantitiesof value or price all commodities are qualitatively the same, differing onlyquantitatively. And this also applies to labour-power, which, in its deskilledforms, becomes a homogeneous commodity input into the production process.To the extent that social relations are expressed through the commodity-formin capitalism, they can be conceptualised quantitatively, and this quantitativethinking hugely facilitates abstraction. It follows that, if capitals logic isallowed to unfold, that unfolding will constitute a process in which socialrelations self-abstract. Further, if that self-abstraction is allowed to completeitself in thought, the result will be a thought totality (self-expanding value)or a theory that reaches closure. To summarise, capital, as self-expanding value,commodifies economic life and this commodification is also a quantification,which, by homogenising social relations, actually makes them more abstractable,so that abstract thought is supported by self-abstracting forces present withinsocial relations. Appropriating a term from Sohn-Rethel, Arthur refers to the ontological characteristics of capital that make its self-abstracting realabstraction.4 For Sohn-Rethel, real abstraction refers to the fact that exchangeprocesses make qualitatively different things the same quantitatively byabstracting from their differences.5

    The self-abstracting tendencies of capital are closely related to its self-reifying tendencies. Since the publication of Lukcss brilliant but difficultessay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, the understandingof exactly what reification is has appeared daunting.6 No doubt, in its fullphilosophical ramifications, it is a complex concept, but its most fundamentalmeaning is simply the impersonal rule of the commodity-form. That is, in sofar as all goods are capitalistically produced as commodities for society-wide

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  • The Antinomies of Arthurs Dialectic of Capital 169

    7 Arthur 2002, p. 8.8 Ibid. The extent to which this critique can be encapsulated in a simple inversion

    metaphor such that objects become subjects is a complicated issue that I will not tryto address.

    9 Bell 1995 and 2003, Sekine 1997 and 2003, Albritton 1999.10 For a discussion of totality, see Albritton 1999, pp. 235.11 See Albritton 1999 for a fuller discussion of the sense in which closure in this

    context poses the necessity for more concrete levels of analysis.12 See Marx 1976, pp. 24769.13 Arthur 2002, p. 99.14 Arthur 2002, p. 68.15 Arthur 2002, p. 117.

    competitive markets, social life is governed by a commodity-economic logic.In such a society, people only connect through the commodity-form (and itsderivations: the money-form and capital-form), and it is the summation ofthese connections in markets that ultimately dictates economic outcomes.Arthur claims that self-moving abstractions have the upper hand over humanbeings,7 and this is very close to saying that self-regulating markets (themotion of things) have the upper hand over human beings. And I agree withArthur, when he claims that this reification implies a critique of capitalism,a critique that arises from surrendering to an economy where the only thingthat is valued is profit.8

    In the first instance, dialectical reason finds itself at home with capital,because capital is self-abstracting and self-reifying to an extent that stronglysupports the possibility of theorising an inner logic of capital.9 Marx oftenuses the term inner as in necessary inner connections or inner logic orinner relations. And this is the language of totality, because inner impliessome sort of boundedness or closure that can give sense to inner versusouter.10 Indeed, if we take Hegels formulation of dialectics seriously, thendialectical reasoning always attempts to start from a necessary beginning,and, to proceed through a necessary unfolding, to reach a necessary closure.11

    If we take Marxs fundamental formulation of capital, MCM (where Mstands for money, C for commodity, and M is larger than M), this totalitysubsumes the necessary inner connections between the basic economiccategories, in so far as they must enter into self-expanding value.12 Or, to usesome of Arthurs language, MCM must become a subject,13 in the sensethat the basic conditions of existence,14 required for its self-expansion mustbe theorised as an inner structure with an inner logic that can reproduce andexpand itself on its own (that is, commodity-economic) terms. Or, more simply,in order for MCM to be an automatic subject,15 it must be possible for

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    16 Albritton 1999.17 Arthur 2002, p. 65.

    MCM to internalise or subsume its necessary conditions of existence. Onlythen does it become an automatic subject that can stand on its own feet and expand itself from within itself without relying on outside supports orextra-economic force.

    To refer to capital as an automatic subject is problematic unless the senseof subject in this usage is further explicated. The actions of a particularindividual subject may be quite capricious and unpredictable, but capital isa machine-like subject. It is powered by individual subjects who learn or areforced to subordinate their actions to paths indicated by the quantitativeoutcomes of capitalist markets. Thus, capital is both us and not us; in onesense, we are the prime movers and yet, in another sense, our movementshave been caught up in a capitalist machine which ultimately directs them.And, of course, in history we may seek to resist or alter the machine, so thatcapital can only be conceptualised as an automatic subject at a level ofabstraction where we theorise commodification and reification as complete.In this context of pure capitalism, complete reification does not mean thatindividuals cannot act, but that those actions are always trumped by the lawsof motion of capital which those actions themselves set in motion. Indeed, itis only because of this that the laws of motion of capital can be theorisedso clearly as a set of necessary inner connections between the basic capitalisteconomic categories.

    A third important dimension of dialectical reason is the sequencing ofcategories. A dialectic must start with a category that can encompass thetotality being theorised, and, in the case of the dialectic of capital, that categoryis the commodity.16 The reason for this starting point is that immanent in the commodity-form is the entire dialectic. From the commodity-form, onecan generate the money-form and, from these two, one can generate thecapital-form. The dialectic reaches closure when capital itself in the form ofinterest-bearing capital is subsumed to the commodity-form. As Arthur points out, it is only when we reach the end that the logical sequencing isretrogressively justified.17 It is from that standpoint that we see why thesequence of categories proceeds from commodity, to money, to capital andwhy, overall, the theory moves from a theory of circulation to a theory ofproduction to a theory of distribution.

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    18 For a fuller discussion of how Marx conceived the scope of the law of value, seeAlbritton 2004b.

    19 It is the source of the reductionism and dogmatism that has produced suchdivisions between Marxism and many social movements or even many anticapitalistmovements.

    In order to maintain the inner coherence and clarity of the theory of capitalsinner logic, it is crucial to be fully cognisant of its scope. The theory can onlydeal with the necessary inner connection amongst value categories in theabstract and in general. For example, the theory can dea