Michael A Lebowitz
Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2009. xvi + 365pp., $28 pb
Reviewed by Tony Mckenna
Tony Mckenna’s work appears in The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, The United Nations, New Statesman, The Progressive, New Internationalist, New Humanist, Ceasefire Magazine, Monthly Review, Science and Society, Critique, Rethinking Marxism, and others. His first book was on Art, Literature and Culture; the second, on Joseph Stalin, is out now.
In the history books Lenin is usually portrayed as a pragmatist of a particularly vulpine type – using the chaos and confusion of events to further his ruthless, revolutionary agenda whatever the cost. And yet in 1915, as Europe was shaken to its foundations by the violence of world war, our ‘revolutionary pragmatist’ did something really rather odd. He took a year out in order to pore over the magnum opus of nineteenth century German philosopher G.W.F Hegel. When Lenin had concluded his foray into Hegelianism, he returned the single devastating verdict, ‘it impossible to fully grasp Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic.’
If there is an overriding purpose to Michael Lebowitz’ book, Following Marx, I would say it is the attempt to validate Lenin’s words. Much of this book is concerned with explorations of Marx’s Capital through the prism of Hegel’s Logic in order to elucidate the dialectical thread which runs through both. One should note, in advance, that Lebowitz does not fall foul of the crude and all too common approach by which the categories of the Logic are grafted externally and crudely onto the structure of Capital for this would be schematic, indifferent to the inner life and organic development of the concepts and categories themselves. Lebowitz is keen to distance himself from any such account, which he naturally regards as deficient, criticising in particular the ‘Uno-Sekine construction of the theory of pure capitalism’ (323) formulated very much in this mould.
Edmund Wilson once described Marx as the ‘poet of the commodities’ which seems incongruous for where is the poetry in a dry economic form? Nevertheless the description is apposite in as much as, for Marx, the commodity is never at rest; along with the billions of economic exchanges taking place at any given moment in the world of the ordinary, the commodity form as concept is possessed of its own ghostly life; riven by inner contradiction and crystallised through a series of moments, it strives to ‘become’; the poetry, then, lies in the transfiguration of this dead lifeless ‘thing’ into a living development.
Lebowitz, therefore, focusses on two realms: on the one hand we have the movement of commodities occurring in the empirical world; on the other we have the logical necessity which underpins the concept of commodity itself. In true Hegelian fashion Lebowitz describes the first moment as ‘appearance’ and the second as ‘essence’ (in some places the same distinction is framed in terms of the One Capital and the Many). Also, in true Hegelian fashion, Lebowitz seeks to demonstrate that the two moments do not stand in a fixed and petrified opposition, but instead attain an identity in difference, realising a totality in which the ‘truth’ of the inherent logical nature of the commodity is realisable only in as much as it is manifested in and through empirical social-economic forms and processes. As Hegel remarks, ‘essence must appear’ (quoted 196)
And so the world of appearance – ‘the familiar world – a world of market prices, cost of production, long-run equilibrium prices, profits, profit rates, capital flows, interest rates, rent, etc.’ (200) must be understood by the way in which ‘the inner tendencies … are manifested through the real actions of the many capitals’(200). Consider Lebowitz’ account of money:
Simple or direct exchange of two products (i.e., barter) is not adequate to the concept of the commodity because here each seller is simultaneously a buyer – and is a seller only insofar as he is a buyer (There is a direct identity between the exchange of one’s own product and the acquisition of another’s product) Here, each seller looks at the commodity opposite her not as the expression of homogeneous abstract labour (i.e., not as indifferent to its content) – but as the expression of a particularly useful concrete labour … it is only when value has an independent existence, separate from any particular use-value – which presumes the existence of general exchange, itself a social product – that the exchange of commodities occurs.
Yet, this independent existence for value is that of a commodity as universal equivalent, as indifferent to any particular use value, or money. Thus the process of exchange of commodities, which is the becoming of the commodity form, is simultaneously the process of the formation of money. (92)
In other words, Lebowitz postulates (and note the Hegelian locution) ‘the commodity can only be for itself [my emphasis] by passing into money’. (92) Money is more than a form in which value is represented as a conceivable quantity, it is also ‘the basis for the realisation of that value in sale.’ (94) By deriving the logical movement which follows ‘from the initial determination of the commodity as a unity of use-value and value’, Lebowitz is able to show how, for Marx, the appearance of money in the empirical world as a mediation in exchange represents an externalisation of the inner logic of the commodity form at a given moment in its own ‘becoming’.
This is profoundly dialectical. It doesn’t just speak to the external behaviour of commodities – for an empirical consideration and elucidation of patterns of economic movement (i.e., economic laws) would be sufficient for this; moreover it expresses the necessity which is at work within the phenomenal appearance of socio-economic events.
Lebowitz’ consideration of the world market, for instance, is premised on the way in which capital’s inner tendencies are manifested. Capital ‘is made real only through the exchange of commodities’ (120) for it is only in exchange that its nature as self-expanding value can be realised, ‘capital, self-expanding value, in the form of money passes into the form of commodity and returns to a money form as more capital, as surplus-value in addition or original value (M-C-M’)’ (98). Implicit in the logic of capital is the ability and need to project itself outward across its own limits – ‘capital is the endless and limitless drive to go beyond its limiting barrier’ (Marx quoted 110).
However the very moment in which capital seeks to realise its ‘truth’ as ‘self-expanding value’ in and through exchange – transcending its limit thereby – is also the moment in which a new limit is simultaneously created. For in order to realise itself in exchange newly produced capital must pass through circulation. However circulation is the ‘negation of production. Every moment capital existed in the sphere of circulation was ‘pure’ loss, time outside the sphere of capital … in this sense, circulation, although necessary to the production of capital, is a barrier to the production of capital.’ (107)
In circulation, then, capital encounters a necessary limit – for in the limbo of circulation it remains unrealised, inactive, imprisoned in the form of a material thing, or as Marx has it, ‘it is negated capital.’ Thus the process where capital as value self-expands by realising itself through exchange and transcending its limit, is simultaneously the process by which a new limit is called into being. Lebowitz recognises a similar dialectic at work in Hegel’s masterful account of the finite. ‘The finite … thus is self-contradictory; it cancels itself and passes away … [but] the finite in perishing has not yet perished; so far it has only become another finite, which however, in turn perishes.’ (Hegel quoted 112)
The ‘self-contradictory’ nature of capital as ‘finite’, as eternally finite, as a ‘spurious infinite’, driven to transcend its limitation while simultaneously reproducing it anew, is a truly Hegelian contradiction – not simply because of its nature as ‘finitude’ but also because ‘to identify a contradiction in the Hegelian/Marxian sense … is not to speak of a logical impossibility, an impasse, it is to indicate a source of movement, change and development.’ (110) In this case the necessity for development is posited by the limit generated by circulation. Capital as Hegelian ‘finitude’ is limited by circulation but simultaneously driven to transcend it thereby. And such transcendence can only be affected by extending the sphere of circulation itself: i.e., by expanding the market.
And so, though economic globalisation – the creation of a world market is, for us, an empirical fact achieved by the building of bridges, train-networks, telephone cables, internet hot spots, airports and the rest – it is also something ‘directly given in the concept of capital itself.’ (Marx quoted 110)
The Marxist theory of the falling rate of profit is comprehended by Lebowitz in a similar fashion – not as a statistical pattern to be generalised, but rather as a tendency developed from the manner in which the logical ‘contradiction between production and circulation of capital expresses itself, via the emergence of unsold commodities and the increase in circulation time.’ (123) Circulation time – the moment in which capital presents as ‘non-capital’ – is extended precisely because the consumption power of wage labourers is necessarily reduced by the action of particular ‘capitals’ as they are compelled to alter the organic composition of capital, increasing the element of constant capital in order to stimulate productivity. Capital transcends ‘limit’ in terms of productivity by increasing fixed capital but simultaneously generates new ‘limit’ therein – a reduced power of consumption and thus an extended period of ‘negation’ – of time spent in circulation.
For this reason, one cannot eliminate the ‘tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ from Marxism any more than one can ‘eliminate the sphere of circulation of capital’ (123), for the tendency itself is an expression of the contradiction between production and circulation which provides the ‘law of motion of capital.’ (126) Nevertheless Lebowitz does explore those factors which militate against the tendency to some degree. If, for example, the capitalist pressured to introduce more constant capital does so by choosing to ‘produce the means of production rather than to purchase these as commodities’ (239), the same capitalist is able to save significantly, rather than paying for machinery from other companies, in having his or her own workforce produce the machinery. The capitalist pockets the surplus value generated by the labour power of those workers rather than paying the full price in exchange. Here the capitalist is still altering the organic composition of capital by favouring constant capital, but they are at the same time facilitating living labour and so offsetting the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
However those who suggest such a mitigating factor could nullify the tendency of the rate of profit to fall are mistaken for they are only posing the question from the purview of the individual capitalist. This or that individual capitalist might indeed start producing their own means of production but this could not be generalised to Capital as a whole (the One capital) without implying the ‘complete removal of means of production from commodity exchange’ (239), for if each individual capital was producing its own means of production, exchange between them, with regards to commodities pertaining to means of production, would be unnecessary.
This is important. Lebowitz wants to argue that such errors flow inevitably from methodological inadequacy. Rather than concentrating on the way in which ‘essence must appear’, many intellectuals theorise ‘from the way things appear’ (4) in isolation, particularly from the standpoint of the individual. One individual capitalist might be able to produce their own means of production but capital as a whole is limited from doing so by its own inherent logic. A different individual capitalist ‘can add a mark-up to his value and therefore secure a surplus-value; however all capitalists cannot do so because they are also purchasers.’ (5) A single worker ‘with the proper combination of skill and fortune – may become an exploiter of other people’s labour, a capitalist. But, the same cannot be true for all workers at once’ for there would no longer exist ’labour to be exploited’ (6)
Lebowitz goes into clinical detail exposing just how the neo-Ricardians and the analytical Marxists remain trapped at the level of appearance. Again Lebowitz is very nuanced, very Lukácian in this respect, for he does not regard appearance as mere illusion. Rather he points out how it acquires a genuine objectivity in Marx, an objectivity which arises in and through the process by which an individual capitalist mediates necessarily the modes and forms of his social existence. ‘The first thing he must do is obtain his necessary inputs and to do everything possible to lower the costs of those necessary imputs. Paying rent for land, interest for money-capital, wages for labour are preconditions of the process of production.’(8)
Consequently interests and rent and wages ‘appear to him as the elements determining the price of his commodities.’ (Marx quoted 8) One of the key achievements of this book is the clarity in which Lebowitz shows how much Neo-Ricardian and Analytical Marxism often involves the move to provide a theoretical generalisation ‘on the basis of the way things appear to the actual agents of capitalist production.’(10) From the standpoint of the individual capitalist, for instance, competition appears as the premise of his or her activity; consequently theorists often see in competition the power which calls into being the contradictions in production and circulation. Lebowitz argues that Marx saw competition as the medium in which those contradictions were realised, but it did not create them in his view. Again the misappreciation of this results from absolutising the appearance, from generalising from the standpoint of the individual, as much vaunted theorist Robert Brenner is inclined to do. ‘For Brenner, it is the intensified competition of capitals that leads to overcapacity, for Marx, the inherent tendency for overcapacity leads to the intensified competition of capitals.’ (288)
This book also contains a critical but sympathetic account of the important Marxist economist Paul Sweezy, from the famous transition debate with Maurice Dobb regarding the nature of feudalism, to the way he developed his theory of ‘monopoly’ which, toward the end of his life, was less to the fore in his work, and his incisive and prescient warnings of the danger of an economic implosion which could result from a grossly inflated sphere of finance capital.
There are a few flaws. Lebowitz is sometimes prone to confuse the method of abstraction in Marx and Hegel. He talks about ‘immediate concrete experience’ but for Hegel immediate experience is always necessarily abstract – and Lebowitz repeatedly confuses the notion of the concrete with the empirical. He asserts that Hegel associated the ‘logical order of categories with the historical order’ (83) which is inaccurate, the relation of the logical and historical in Hegel is nothing like so crude.
More significantly, Lebowitz’ overriding thesis – that the three volumes of Capital are one sided for they offer an unfolding only from the purview of capital – is not persuasive. It is true that – had Marx completed the fourth volume on wage labour, the study would have been further concretised. Nevertheless capital is itself alienated labour power – as Sean Sayers in his recent book on Marx and Alienation points out – Marx’s Capital posits the necessity of ‘the re-appropriation by working people of their work and social relations’ (Sayers 114). It is significant that there is so little discussion of the role of alienation in Following Marx.
Despite this Lebowitz’ book offers a stunning rehabilitation of Hegelian Marxism. It is a credit to Lebowitz that he is able to write about such profound themes in the lucid and engaged way of an educator. An excellent and important work.
1 June 2012