Re: [OPE] capitalism as a system

From: howard engelskirchen <>
Date: Thu May 19 2011 - 20:00:42 EDT

Hi Jerry,

I've raised the point of abstraction before. We probably approach this a
little differently. A physicist will remove air from a vacuum tube to
observe how a feather falls. This is a kind of abstraction from conditions
that surround us. But the causal tendencies that operate when air is
removed are still actually existing causal forces. So for the critique of
political economy, we use abstraction like a chemical reagent to strip away
so that we can discern how target causal tendencies operate without
admixture of other features, say competition and coercion. But the
abstraction is still to existing forces of social life and their tendencies.
This kind of approach I think is likely to be more searching than the
process of abstracting to conditions that don't exist anywhere and couldn't.
So probably it is better to think of abstracting from the action of one
capital on another, which is a stripping away, than to imagine what might
happen in a closed system. Marx starts with simple determinations and
enriches them. Does he anywhere 'close' a system for analysis? I doubt the
distinction is semantic. If I abstract from one thing to focus on another I
persist in anchoring my investigation in existing social life, even though I
disregard things. If I abstract to conditions that don't exist and
couldn't, there can be a tendency to lose my foothold.

Althusser made what I take to be a mistake that can illuminate the issue.
In pursuing what he called the 'ideality of capital' he argued, "Marx,
therefore, does not even study the English example, however classic and pure
it may be, but a non-existent example." No. Marx uses the process of
abstraction to disregard features particular to this or that capital in
order to pick out those decisive features that constitute capital's
*differentia specifica*. These are real causal features, determinations,
common to every capital, whether English, German, US or other. They don't
become non-existent because we use abstraction to access them.



----- Original Message -----
From: "GERALD LEVY" <>
To: "Outline on Political Economy mailing list" <>
Sent: Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:46 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE] capitalism as a * * * system

>> First, actually Marx is pretty clear that the concept of
>> 'capital in general' does not extend to any consideration of competition.
>> It picks out those distinctive features that specifically distinguish
>> capital from other modes of production without extending to a particular
>> capital's day to day interactions with other capitals. On the other hand
>> it
>> does pick out the separation of productive entities who produce for
>> private
>> exchange and it does pick out the separation of workers from their
>> conditions of production and these two separations already imply the
>> exercise of coercion. The emergence from 'capital in general' of both
>> competition and the state in Marx's analysis, or as a development of the
>> start he provided, is I think in each case work that needs to be done.
> Hi Howard:
> Yes, I agree with the last sentence. But, my comment wasn't limited to
> Marx - indeed it made no mention of him. What it concerned with the
> process of abstraction in political economy. Just as political economy
> (and even neo-classical theory) assumes a 'closed economy' prior to
> examining an 'open economy' so too it typically examined competition
> and capital in general prior to an examination of the state and how
> the existence or the state and states modify one's understanding of
> the process. What I was suggesting is that unless one examines the
> role of the state and its relation to capital one can fall into the
> ILLUSION of believing that capitalism requires free competition. This
> is no more the case than a claim that capitalism requires laissez-faire
> - and, indeed, the same authors who have argued for the policy doctrine
> of laissez-faire have argued that free competition is an essential aspect
> of that policy. In the work of Adam Smith, that policy doctrine was
> based on a theoretical presentation about competition, as can be seen from
> his analysis of the 'invisible hand'. I.e. the reason why the state
> should pursue a policy of laissez-faire (and allow for free competition)
> was the
> belief that capitalism and markets - through the competitive mechanism of
> technological change, etc. - are inherently growth growth-prone
> and socially-beneficial: they caused the wealth of the nation
> to increase so the best policy for the state was to have a minimal
> role in economic activity. That could be seen as a theoretical
> underpinning for the policy proposals of laissez-faire and free
> competition. They express a political agenda of the bourgeoisie
> based on class interests (in opposition to the landowning class
> and the state created monopolies) and very self-consciously were
> not a description of actual current (or historical) conditions.
> In solidarity, Jerry
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