Joe McCarney Memorial Conference

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Joe McCarney Memorial Conference ...

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    thJoe McCarney Memorial Conference October 25 2008 Critique & Contradiction Chris Arthur

    The central theme of Joe McCarney‟s work revolved around the question of the relationship

    of theory and practice in Marx. This was especially so in his book Social theory and the crisis

    of marxism. While it is clear that Marx envisaged his theoretical work as a force on the side of

    the proletariat in the class struggle, McCarney fiercely opposed the characterisation of Marx‟s

    theory as „critical social science‟. He felt that its practical significance belongs to its peculiar

    nature as science, not as critique. The central feature of contemporary Marxism, he argued,

    was that it understood itself as a „critical theory‟ of society: a theory that showed that

    capitalism failed by some ethical or rational standard. Whether the standard was an external

    one, as in critiques based on freedom, equality or justice, or whether it was simply one of self-

    consistency, as in so-called „immanent critique‟, McCarney asserted that such a conception of

    his theoretical work was utterly alien to Marx himself. Instead, a truly dialectical social

    theory expresses the movement of the real, and abjures any normative dimension. But if so,

    McCarney asked, how does Marx‟s theory have practical significance? The answer lay in a form of knowledge which is expressive of the necessity inherent to its object. Dialectical

    theory surrenders to the life of its object and seeks to bring that life into the light of

    consciousness. Marx began with the idea that socialism was the „hidden truth and emergent

    reality of capitalism‟, and that the working class was driven by its circumstances to become

    the agent that would bring this reality about. Marx conceived his own theory as articulating

    the understanding of the world that was anyway developing within the working class, so that

    it would facilitate the overthrow of capitalism without ever involving itself in a moral critique

    of it.

    From this perspective a central role is assigned to the category of „contradiction‟; it is above

    all contradictions that need bringing to light. Such an activity itself transforms the situation,

    not merely the conceptual field, where self-contradiction is concerned. For capitalism, and

    hence for Marx‟s science, the fundamental contradiction is that of capital and labour. The proletariat is compelled to rebel by the contradiction of its existence when it becomes aware

    of its own nature and the nature of its situation.

    But what of Marx‟s self-description of his life‟s work as „Critique‟? McCarney gave an

    interpretation of Marx‟s undertaking that takes the object of critique to be the theorists of

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    classical political economy such as Smith Ricardo, Malthus and so on. On this reading, Marx

    compares with their wrong theories his own superior account of capitalism. This has a

    practical bearing because the subordinated classes share the ruling ideas; at least until these

    conflict with their own experience. According to McCarney this sparks off a

    phenomenological dialectic of knowledge and experience.. By showing the gap between the

    claims projected by bourgeois ideology and a scientific account of the reality of capitalism

    Marx delegitimates the ruling illusions by revealing on behalf of the proletariat the

    ineliminable conflict hidden by bourgeois harmonies.

    The immediate object of dialectical social science is provided by social contradictions,

    specifically the intersubjective contradiction of class society. Through the development of

    social scientific insight, subject classes achieve a grasp of the true nature of their situation.

    This process includes qualitative leaps made possible by the universalisng power of

    theoretical concepts. The whole development may be seen as actualizing the contradictions of

    the preconceptions derived from the ruling ideology and reality as it is experienced and

    understood. This is the substance of the idea that ratiocination about the desirability of social

    change is itself already a form of such change. Thus, it serves as the driving force of the

    dialectic of class-consciousness. More specifically, the conflict between classes can be

    superseded in a transition to a new society only if the historical process becomes conscious

    for one of the participants, the proletariat. The process of transition is explicated in terms of

    the directly transformative power of the discovery of self-contradictions by a historical

    subject. (see 120, 126, 127)

    So that is a summary of McCarney‟s views. In what follows I take up two issues: those of

    critique and contradiction.


    I take as my text the following comment by Marx on his critique of political economy. The

    work is “a critique of economic categories or. of you like, a critical exposition of the system

    of bourgeois economy. It is at once an exposition {Darstellung] and, by the same token, a

    1critique of the system.” Unlike McCarney I do not think the political economists are the

    object of this critique. I think such considerations are confined to footnotes of Capital. The

    main text aims to criticise the reality itself not the works of its apologists. After all, what are

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    the „economic categories‟? Marx says they express the forms of existence of this society. (Gr

    106) Even his own new categories I think are such. However, Marx‟s claim to give a

    scientific account of his object rules out a concept of external critique whereby reality is

    measured against some ideal and found wanting. Of course Marx does employ such loaded

    concepts as „exploitation‟. But surely he aimed to do something more fundamental with his

    „critique of economic categories‟.

    At any rate I want to argue that the object of critique should be the Idea of capital. I do not mean by this „ideas about capital‟, but that the reality confronting us is itself Idea in the Hegelian sense of an identity of concept and reality. This is because a striking feature of

    capital is that it has a certain conceptuality to it. Adorno spoke of „a conceptuality which

    holds sway in reality itself‟, a conceptuality „independent both of the consciousness of the

    2human beings subjected to it and of the consciousness of the scientists.‟ The reason why there is something conceptual about the object is that the ontological

    foundation of the capitalist system is the reality of that abstraction in exchange predicated on

    3the identification as „values‟ of heterogeneous commodities. This practical abstraction produces an 'inverted reality' in which commodities simply instantiate their abstract essence

    as values; and concrete labours count only as lumps of abstract labour. It is implicit in this

    process of abstraction that it is not necessary for the parties to the exchange to know what

    they are doing in this respect. When goods are reduced to such a unifying form in commodity

    exchange they are objectively posited as identical instantiations of their abstract essence,

    namely value. The different goods concerned play the role of bearers of this new social determination.

    Hegel's logic, too, springs from the evacuation of contingent empirical instantiations to leave

    the category as such. In my view a significant homology obtains between the movement of exchange, generating a practical abstraction from the natural specificity of commodities, and

    Hegel‟s movement of thought, generating a system of logical categories. In both, the self-moving forms impose themselves on the real material they address. As a result, it is possible

    to illuminate the forms of value with the categories of Hegel's logic, as I have shown in my

1 Marx to Lassalle, 22 February, 1858: Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels, CW40 1983, Letters 1856-59, p. 270.

    2 Adorno, T. W. 1976 „Sociology and Empirical Research‟ p. 80.

    3 see A. Sohn-Rethel 1978 Intellectual and Manual Labour (1970), esp. pp. 5, 6, 23, 19-20.

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    4book. However, Hegel's logic has two characteristics besides its systematicity: i) the forms

    of thought are said to be sufficiently autonomous to be self-moving; ii) the conceptual framework is therefore said to be 'the truth' of reality. This is why he called himself an idealist.

    I believe the form of value has a similar ideality, but it is a real ideality which imposes itself

    on the content of economic life. The reason why I term the commodity form of the product of

    labour 'ideal' is that the mediation of social labours here is of an abstract 'logical' character. As

    we have argued, the value form springs from the abstraction implicit in the exchange process,

    a practical abstraction from the natural features of a commodity that are the basis of its use

    value. As a consequence of this displacement of use value the commodities acquire a new

    determination: the social character of exchange-value. But the value forms, although they

    have a 'logical' character, are out there. As such they require material bearers. Thus value as

    universal is not produced when we think the identity of commodities, it is produced when

    gold is excluded from other commodities to constitute practically their identity as value bodies. The generation of value as a concrete concept is secured only when money as a

    5material existent gives commodities a universal form in price. My view is that we have in the 'Concept' of capital a self-moving system of abstract forms.

    This system of form determinations becomes 'Idea' if it subsumes material production. There is a sense in which the forms apply themselves to the material to be formed, rather than the form being the expression of the content. This ideal aspect of capital springs from the

    inversion characteristic of the system of production for exchange. The result is a peculiar

    interpenetration of „ideality‟ and „materiality‟; capital as an ideal totality attempts to

    subsume within its own form-determinations all otherness, including living labour and natural

    forces. In situating all otherness merely as a moment of its own absolute reality, capital

    achieves a self-identical totality. But capital contracts an unacknowledged debt for this; in

    totalising labours only as abstractions of themselves, it cannot account for what is in excess of

    its concept of itself, the concrete richness of social labour. It is precisely because capital

    cannot fully incorporate its material foundation that there must be a limit to its ideality.

    Nevertheless Capital is the totalising Subject of modernity. „Post-modernists‟ deny the validity of the category of „totality‟, as if Hegel and Marx were at fault for using it, whereas

    4 See Arthur, C. J. The New Dialectic and Marx's Capital Leiden: Brill, 2002. 5 See Arthur, C. J. 'The Concept of Money' in Chitty and McIvor (eds) Marx and contemporary philosophy, 2009..

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    they reflect (Hegel uncritically and Marx critically) the totalising logic of the value form

    which imposes itself in such a manner that all relationships become inscribed within it. All

    that is not itself „conceptual‟ is degraded to its bearer. In revolt against such a „concept‟

    6Adorno declared „the whole is false‟. But to think against capital‟s regime of truth requires

    a peculiar ability: to grasp that in an inverted world „the true is a moment of the false‟, as Guy

    7Debord said.

     Marx's claim that the presentation of the commodity-capitalist system is at the same time a critique of it makes sense when we observe that it is precisely the applicability of Hegel's logic to it that condemns the object as an inverted reality systematically alienated from its

    bearers, an object which virtually incarnates the Hegelian 'Idea'. But the fault is in reality;

    hence the needed critique is not critique of a false view of the world, but one that moves

    within the object itself, granting its objective validity, epochally speaking; the false is out there.

    Contrary to McCarney, a critique of categories is a critique of the object because the ideal

    character of the object here allows for its being false. According to Hegel, the Idea is 'the

    8Subject-Object, as the unity of the ideal and the real'. Such a unity of the ideal and the real I

    suggest is projected in the Idea of Capital. Epochally the Idea of capital has made itself real. Whether that which is in excess of its concept remains forever marginal is for the future to


    McCarney believed such a theoretical critique leads to acceptance of the one-dimensionality

    of the existing order. There is no immanent emancipatory moment. This may be true but

    criticism of a topsy-turvey world has a certain validity; theory can be in-and-against the


    Contradiction [see diagram]

    The capital relation is not a simple two place conflict (like a boxing match) in which labour

    and capital compete over the allocation of new value. This is because wage-labour is internal to the capital relation, subsumed by it on capital‟s terms. At first sight the capital-labour

6 Adorno, T. W. 1978 Minima Moralia, p. 50.

    7 Debord, G. 1977 Society of the Spectacle, ?9.

    8 Encyclopaedia Logic par. 214.

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    relation appears as a two-place one, but each represents the other as a difference within itself.

    This is a contradiction in essence because each side claims to constitute the whole of their

    relation, reducing what is not identical with itself to its own other. Capital divides itself into constant and variable components; and it claims to absorb labour to itself in the shape of

    variable capital; for, through the wage, it now possesses that labour. Hence it understands the

    relation as a relation to itself. On the other side, wage labour claims that capital is nothing but

    accumulated surplus value, springing from surplus labour. It, too, understands the relation as a

    relation to itself.

    However, it is significant the relation is termed „the capital relation‟, not „the wage-labour

    relation‟. Capital is, without doubt, the principal moment of this contradiction, if only because through this relation it realises itself. Waged labour, by contrast, negates itself in yielding value and surplus value. Capital continually accumulates; labour continually returns to its


    A contradiction in essence becomes an immanent contradiction of each pole with itself ; and

    this naturally leads to self-criticism: (1) on the side of labour, it alienates its substance,

    therewith generating its own oppressor, (2) on the side of capital, it is objectively self-critical

    insofar as it produces the proletariat as proletariat, i.e. its own gravedigger.

    The contradiction in essence, then, involves self-contradiction insofar as each constitutes its

    other as its own . Capital can live with this, because as the principal aspect its affirms itself in

    its other. Wage-labour denies itself in producing its other, because it has tacitly accepted the

    definition of itself by the other hence affirms its negation. To be self-critical requires that it

    grasp itself as other than what it is, and destroying itself along with the relationship that

    defines it. Marx‟s standpoint is the critically adopted standpoint of labour. He says: „when the proletariat is victorious, it by no means beomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious

    only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the

     opposite which determines it.‟ (HF CW4 p.36)


    But if the proletariat defines its task negatively, as its own abolition, what is the standpoint of

    the positive coming out of this determinate negation? Revolution occurs when the proletariat

    experiences its definition as a class to be an imposed constraint. But if revolution is not 'the

    affirmation of the proletariat' the question arises of what is it an affirmation? If, negatively, it

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    abolishes class, what, positively, is it about? It can only be about human liberation. In that

    sense the class struggle is a moment of a larger project, one in which non-proletarians have an

    9 interest since the very split into classes is an affront to human community.

    Some may claim our view substitutes for class struggle some larger socio-historical

    contradiction, and that it prevents us seeing class struggle as what is "really productive of

    history". If an 'efficient contradiction' refers to a causal impulse rather than a reason for

    action, in that sense it is class struggle that produces change. But the project of change is

    something else. In order to articulate it the speculative moment cannot be avoided. (I venture this with due trepidation!)

    Philosophy in its role as interrogator of the regime of truth, and in uncovering what is

    repressed, is in effect a critical practice (as McCarney allows); but in projecting a

    supersession of the objective contradictions, it becomes also speculative in Hegel‟s sense. In

    his Encyclopaedia, Hegel relates the speculative moment to the third phase of a dialectical

    movement, when contradictions are conceived, not as debilitating, but as productive. It is „the

    affirmation that is contained in their dissolution and in their transition‟ (?82). That is how he defines the speculative moment that follows the narrowly dialectical one of antithesis. In what

    sense exactly speculative? How does speculative reason go beyond ordinary understanding?

    Because it is creative. Unlike the nomological laws of mechanics, or laws of tendency

    extrapolating from the existent, it creates something new when it finds a way to surpass the

    contradiction. It requires 'an upward spring of the mind' to generate a new category,

    revolution to reorder society.

    Looking forward, however, requires a wager: that communism will have been produced from

    class struggle. In order to articulate the revolutionary project the existent must therefore be

    grasped from the standpoint of the 'not yet'. Is this a teleological problematic? Certainly not

    if this means there is some guarantee inscribed in the heavens that communism will redeem us.

    What it does imply is that the meaning of an historical situation cannot be properly

    understood in its own terms but only from the standpoint of what it has in it to become.

    Let us turn to the Theses on Feuerbach. "The standpoint of the new materialism is socialised

    humanity." Marx says. This standpoint is speculative; for there is no actuality to it. What is

    real is civil society (albeit we see it not as each against each but class against class). At best

     9 Class struggle is inneraction since the structure of the whole determines class positions.

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    'socialised humanity' exists in the mode of being denied, the asocial sociality of bourgeois society. The speculative moment emerges when reason demands the realisation of this

    standpoint in a practical project, to act as if this 'not yet' is actual.

    The standpoint of social humanity, and the social individual, is as yet not actual; although

    existent (and even deepening) it exists only in its denial, hence a contradiction requiring practical resolution, only possible if there is a real historical subject capable of acting universally as well as particularly. However, from the practical viewpoint, for the proletariat, the promise of classlessness is a speculative supersession of the contradictions of its existence as long as it lies in the future.

     'Another world is possible' is a speculative proposition, not because we do not have good arguments but in its logical status. This creates philosophical problems. The speculative moment cannot be eliminated precisely because we live in an alienated society in which the standpoint of socialised humanity is unactual, and hence available only in its displacement to philosophy which wagers on the proletariat to realise it. Scientific socialism conceives itself as the theoretical expression of a revolutionary process. But philosophy remains an alienated science as long as revolutionary practice lacks immediate historical actuality. In sum Dialectic is not a science of efficient causation allowing prediction. The future which will become has to be produced by 'us' out of the mire of contradictions , and in anticipating it the speculative moment is unavoidable.

     However, to conclude, I agree with McCarney this demand is rooted immanently in the dialectic of the real; it is not the product of a critique opposing itself to it.


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