'Capitalism and the Dialectic' by John R. Bell John R Bell
Capitalism and the Dialectic: The Uno-Sekine Approach to Marxian Political Economy
Pluto Press, London, 2009, 256pp, £25 pb
ISBN 9780745329338

Reviewed by Jelle Versieren

About the reviewer

Jelle Versieren

Jelle Versieren is a researcher at the University of Antwerp for the Centre for Urban History. His main research program focuses on the Low Countries regarding labour concepts and discourses in guilds and early factories. He also has published work on the history of economic thought and modern philosophy.(jelle.versieren@uantwerpen.be)



Until the late 1970s, the writings of Kozo Uno had no real impact on the western debates on Marxist economics. In 1980 the first English translation of the Principles of Political Economy became available to us. He did not base his new method of analysis on the usual textual authority of Marx, but attempted to improve the scientific project of Capital as a whole. According to Uno, Marx was wrong to fuse abstract economic categories and historical facts throughout his disclosure of the hidden dialectic of capital. An important contribution was made by Sekine, who emphasised the connection between Marx’ logic of capital and Hegel’s logic of the Absolute. Sekine is insightful on Uno’s original research and provides a convincing extensive Hegelian examination of the motion of capital in The Dialectic of Capital (1986) and An Outline of the Dialectic of Capital (1997).

Uno distinguish three distinct levels of analysis: 1. the logic of capital in a purely capitalist society, 2. the theory of capitalist stages and 3. historical analysis. The purely capitalist society has a complete commodity-economic logic by which all social relations are reified and the dialectic of capital can overcome all use-value obstacles such as labour-power. The different stages of capitalism are the mediating levels between the necessity of the dialectic of capital and the contingency of historical phenomena originating in ‘a consideration of the relationship between the operation of capital’s logic and those crucial use-values which it must manage in a particular stage’. (13) Each level of analysis can inform the other, but at the same time these levels all have specific ontological properties.

Bell recapitulates the main goal of Sekine’s project: the systematisation of the three books of Capital with the assistance of Hegel’s Logic. This method promises the reconstruction of the analysis of a purely capitalist society. The Doctrine of Circulation is founded upon the Hegelian Doctrine of Being and is basically a value-form analysis of the commodity, money and capital. The Doctrine of Production parallels the Doctrine of Essence and discovers the birth and reproduction of the labour and production process according to the concept of (surplus) value, labour-power and the circuits of capital. Here the law of value and the law of relative surplus population come into play. The latter should be considered as complementary to the analysis of the value formation and augmentation process, because it plays an active role in the organic composition of capital and the determination of the value of labour power. The expanded reproduction schemes show the viability of the reproduction of social aggregate capital, by which these schemes indicate the transformation of capital as a ‘self-conditioned, self-dependent and self-determining totality’ (92). The possibility of the reproduction of capital as a totality is a ‘unified process that constitutes the reproduction of capital by capital itself’ (93). Also, Bell convinces the reader that capitalism through these laws exhibits a widening and a deepening phase, which lay the foundations of a general explanation of a capitalist crisis. The two phases are further incorporated in the analysis of the (general/average) rate of profit constituting the business cycles. At the same time, a breakdown of capitalism in a purely capitalist society on account of a recurrent crisis has no logical validity. The Doctrine of Distribution tackles with the Doctrine of Notion the non-problem of the transformation of value into production prices. The Uno-Sekine approach shows clearly that this transformation does not need to be proportional to maintain its logical coherence due to the role of the technological complex between production and distribution. The transformation of surplus value into profit consists of a mathematical-quantitative and a dialectical-conceptual process by which there is a ‘mapping of variables in one space to corresponding ones in another’ (126). This double transformation is based on the fact there is ‘no chronological or logical order. Both production prices and values presuppose a state of general equilibrium, which, once reached, determines both values and production prices simultaneously’ (130). The continuous interconnection between values and prices is essential because ‘the law of value depends on the supply of commodities in socially necessary quantities’ (70). The dialectic closes with the several distributional forms outside industrial profit (rent, commercial credit, loan capital), by which industrial capital ‘delegates its circulatory functions to loan capital and commercial capital’ (170). At the end the form of interest-bearing capital unites the rent of landed property and the rate of profit through which it expresses ‘the fetishism of capital consequent upon its reification as a property’ (174). Capital converts itself into a commodity through which it maintains the motion of capital accumulation unceasingly, thus ‘the dialectic of capital closes its circle ... all previous determinations ... are sublated ... which simultaneously returns us to the beginning of our investigation ... the commodity’ (175).

In a purely capitalist society, a commodity-economic logic makes capital a self-enclosed totality. The dialectic of capital presupposes a complete passivity of labour as being completely commodified. This state of reification is not historical, but a conceptual tool to fully understand the logic of capital:

It should not be assumed that a capitalist society automatically evolves as soon as commodity-exchanges reach a certain state of development or sophistication ... some very peculiar historical conditions must be satisfied before a class of modern, property-less workers, who freely sell their labour power because they must do so to survive, makes its appearance. It follows that the dialectic of capital’s commodity-economic logic cannot, and does not, explain the historical cause of the primitive accumulation necessary for the formulation of capitalist society (48).

The crux of Bell’s argument is that capitalist production must be founded upon a complete indifference towards the specific properties of use-values, thus this labour-and-production process is ‘a far narrower concept than the concept of use-value production in general, as understood from the point of view of historical materialism’ (56). This means that labour power, although not reproducible as a commodity, is treated as one having an abstract-human aspect and can therefore ‘always be shifted from one branch of value production to another’ (58).

Bell briefly sketches the stages of capitalism in the last quarter of the book. He summarises the Uno-Sekine approach without much new information. In effect, Bell’s reliance on the classic partition between mercantilism, liberalism and imperialism forces him to announce a contemporary tendency towards a post-capitalist society. Imperialism is indeed the highest stage, and the post-war recovery exhibits severe deviations from the law of value. Capital was unable to autonomously overcome the resistance of labour and could not internalise this resistance. The growing technological complexity of use-values makes capitalism unable to ‘effectively manage the production and circulation of heavy and complex use-values on a global scale. Nor can the law of value operate when political considerations so greatly affect ouput, prices, investment, trade flows and the mobility of labour’ (206). Furthermore, the current money games of the financial markets destabilise the value formation and augmentation process:

Currently, currency speculation far exceeds the volume of trade and thus plays more of a role in determining exchange rates than the latter. In this era of massive, unregulated and instantaneous capital movement, only the strongest nations with the largest currency reserves can defend themselves against frequent speculative attacks on their currencies ... The dialectical theory of pure capitalism explains the necessary presence of two unproductive forms of capital, loan capital and commercial capital, but in the pure theory of capitalism there is no room for ‘casino funds’, a chrematistic operation in money games which does not support either the activities of industrial capital or the reproduction of substantive or material economic life (216-217).

This viewpoint is highly contested by the Uno-Sekine approach, since Albritton (a follower of the approach) appears to think otherwise and, in A Japanese Approach to the Stages of Capitalism Development (1991), considers the post-war period as the stage of consumerism with consumer durables as the prominent use-value.

Robert Albritton stated that Uno was the founding father of a complete new paradigm which is capable of interacting with other social theories. He has shown in several books the very specific epistemological nature of the Uno-Sekine approach containing an open pluralist, non-relativist, non-reductionist and rigorous theory. The Uno-Sekine approach successfully avoided the cul-de-sac of the endless structure-agency debate or the ‘everything goes’ mentality of postmodern theoretical humanities. Furthermore, Albritton and Bell believe that a purely capitalist society only can understood by using an affirmative dialectic to think through capital as a dialectic totality.

This book also presents a viable alternative for a reconstruction of the dialectic within the Marx-Hegel connection. The Uno-Sekine approach is grounded in the comparison between the Logic and Capital, whereas several German contemporary researchers try to resolve the question on dialectical method by referring to the ontological crossroads between the movement of value/use-value and Absolute Spirit/Nature. For example Dieter Wolf argues in Hegel und Marx: Zur Bewegungsstruktur des absoluten Geistes und des Kapitals (1979) that value and use-value are the exact same basic categories as Hegel’s conception of history and nature. For Wolf use-value is as active as value in the dialectic of capital. The Uno-Sekine approach already engaged with the research field of New Dialectics in New Dialectics and Political Economy (2003), both contributing to the effort to pin down the dialectical methodology in Capital.

Bell’s book should also invites us to compare the Uno-Sekine approach with temporal single-system interpretation concerning the transformation problem. The latter is keen to stress the coherent structure of Marx’ transformation into production prices, therefore both interpretations can attempt to recover the necessity of the labour theory of value.

Bell, Sekine and Albritton are all proponents of viewing mercantilism as the first stage of capitalism. Although they have incorporated the enclosure movement in their explanation of primitive accumulation, I’m still not convinced there is no such thing as agrarian capitalism. The Brenner-thesis, based on historical facts, shows us that mercantile capital and its putting-out system had limited impact on the disintegration of feudalism. Bell and Albritton on the other hand elucidate the commodification of land as always incomplete, but at the same time they incorporate this in the dialectic of capital as a passive category. Landed property has not a fully commodity-economic logic because of the specific use-value production thereby unable to reach the same flexibility as industrial capital. Furthermore, the properties of land as a use-value cannot follow the logic of capital unless it devastates its ecological fundament. In a same manner they refuse to accept the service economy as being completely capitalist, which is still a controversial point of view. The question is whether the service economy is able to conform to the law of value. Bell’s arguments against this affirmation are purely technical, which does not sufficiently support his conclusion.

Bell’s Capitalism and the Dialectic forces us to reconsider the basic tenets of Capital and can be read together with David Harvey’s Limits to Capital (1982). It is without a doubt that no researcher in Marx’ mature political economy can ignore this book.

15 July 2010


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Source: Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Accessed 23 March 2017
URL: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2010/163

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