‘The Metaphysics of Capitalism’ reviewed by Todd S Mei

The Metaphysics of Capitalism

Lexington Books, Lanham MD, 2008. 280pp., £18.95 pb
ISBN 9780739128381

Reviewed by Todd S Mei

About the reviewer

Todd Mei is Associate Lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at the University of Kent. His …


The Metaphysics of Capitalism (henceforth MC) takes up the enduring question of what makes capitalism so resilient and why its type of resiliency is unjust at the socio-political level. Micocci presents a materialist philosophy deriving from Epicurus as both a diagnostic tool for explaining the fatal flaws of capitalism and providing an alternative to existing practices, though the bulk of the latter is only sketched in MC and promised in a future volume. The target of Micocci’s book is clearly set against the materialism developed from Marx, and it becomes evident from the start that Micocci has had a long history of vigorous debate with Marx scholars. The main point of difference for Micocci is the way in which dialectical structures constitute the metaphysics of capitalism and thus reveal Marxism’s reliance on dialectic, despite its criticism of political economy, as ultimately another face of the capitalist mode of production. No doubt such claims will have philosophers sympathetic to Marx up in arms, notwithstanding Micocci’s claim that his work is “within the Marxist tradition” (11).

The main thesis of MC can be distilled down to the argument that the history of political economy has failed to engage with material life and has instead erected a metaphysics that hypostatizes real, material life in terms of ideas. This is done economically through theories of value according to which we identify what we think we need and how we set out our lives to fulfil these needs. Capitalism is therefore a self-sustaining system which refuses our escape, and it above all distorts the exigency and meaning of change by replacing revolution with its technical and productive innovation.

MC has seven chapters with alluring and provocative titles. Chapter one, entitled “Outline of an Intellectual Monster”, is exemplary in this sense as it describes the all-encompassing nature of capitalism which removes individual identity and thus inhibits our independent, philosophical ability to question and change the status quo. This has detrimentally affected how we conceive of capitalism, understand and relate to material and how we think revolution should occur.

In chapter two, Micocci presents what he refers to as the “anti-Hegelian argument” which alleges that Marxists “have failed to grasp the fundamental mistakes in their Hegelian dialectical interpretation of Marx’s thought” (29). At the core of this is a distinction between “real opposition” and “dialectical contradiction” which Micocci borrows from Lucio Colletti (38). The former constitutes an authentic opposition that cannot be reconciled, or what in particular Micocci will develop subsequently as our relation to material. The latter involves a conceptual structure that imposes itself on reality, thus masking and distorting real oppositions. Dialectics is therefore inimical to creating change since it conceals the need for a genuine “rupture” (39). Micocci notes, nonetheless, that thinking and conceptualization is not itself the problem: he makes a distinction between metaphysics and the abstract, where the former masks and distorts while the latter grasps logical relations correctly. This chapter is notable in that Micocci first proposes the basis of his alternative materialist philosophy.

Chapter three outlines the ways in which classical and neo-classical economic theory falls prey to thinking within, and therefore repeats, the metaphysics of capitalism. Marxists, as one can anticipate, do not escape this folly. The edifice of methodology in the social sciences is dialectical and metaphysical at its core. Chapter four extends the analysis of dialectical structure according to repetition or iterativeness which reduces the meanings of innovation and change to minor alterations within the dialectical structure of capitalism. This, in turn, diminishes individual autonomy, not least because we are led to believe, via the small changes we make, that we and our social and natural environments are undergoing innovation. The institutions of capitalism then become the centres which command and direct “economic and political” discourses (131). These institutions constitute capitalism’s politea, as MC elaborates in chapter 5. Its reach and distortion is, in this sense, historical and imaginative (158) and is a different type of fascism whose organisation cannot be escaped except by a complete rupture.

Hence, in chapter 6, MC turns to a sketch of what this rupture requires—i.e., a turn to individuality and materialism. Individuality arises from the break with metaphysics which, in turn, can only be secured through a turn to materialism. MC refers to Francis Bacon as an example of “materialistic practice” (195) despite his reluctance to break completely with religion and God as the ultimate context for truth. The main lesson to be learned from Bacon is his distrust of philosophical thinking which, when uncritically wed to metaphysics and dialectical structures of thought, results in “tautologies of a reckless use of the senses” (196). This chapter concludes with a sketch of what individuality entails by contrasting it with what it is not. There is a hint here that we cannot define individualism if we are thinking within the metaphysical matrix itself. Thus, against the conventional idea that capitalism is the bastion of individualism (à la homo economicus), MC argues that it denies, atomises and represses true individuality (218–219).

The concluding chapter offers a metaphor for the world which we have created through the metaphysics of capitalism—“cut flowers”. Taking the theory of value as its focus, MC argues that the history of political economy misrepresents the human relation to material through the way it conceives value, or what is the “transformation problem” (228) that occurs when labour produces value with its use of material. For Micocci, the history of political economy has never been able to solve this problem because its pantheon of thinkers (again including Marx and Marxists) have failed to see that material wealth is not the same as the abstract wealth dealt with by their theories (230). MC concludes with the image that as individuals in the capitalist system, we are like cut flowers excised from our natural life in order to be put on display and eventually wither.

MC presents a bold approach to political economy and current conceptions of materialism, and there is no doubt that Micocci is writing from a deep engagement with both economic and philosophical sources. What is apparent throughout the work (and as stated in the preface) is Micocci’s passion for his position and argument; and yet, this appears to be the book’s weakness as well, insofar as his passion seems to have clouded his judgements concerning the depth of analysis and argumentation he needs to provide in order to convince readers.

For example, much of the analytic detail the reader is expecting to encounter is referred to Micocci’s earlier work, and so what often appears is an appeal to those works without adequate recapitulation in the book. This gives the reader the impression that what is being offered in the book is not really new, and as well, it does not allow for cogent and in-depth argumentation. The lack of argumentation appears in two significant ways involving points concerning epistemology and the economic theory of value, both core features that need to be explicated well if MC’s thesis is to stand up to scrutiny.

Concerning epistemology, Micocci takes a materialist view derived from Epicurus and Diogenes Laertius and which entails a form of realism. While there is no extended treatment of the type of realism he advocates, he uses the term “prolepsis” to encapsulate a kind of realism that relies on an idea “inherent to our nature” (54). What he at first describes appears to be a kind of indirect realism, though the relation between reality and the human mind is not fully explained. Thus, when Micocci remarks “Only a direct, sense-based observation of the concrete grants veridicity to what is studied” (55), further questions arise as to what kind of realism he really intends. Moreover, while prolepsis is used to underwrite a materialist anthropology, it is not explained how one can in fact relate “directly” to reality and nature. The author may contend that “arguing for this direct relation” may be more metaphysics, but at the same time, if we are trapped in this metaphysics, conceptual fallacies can only be exposed by showing an alternative which is true, or at the very least, cogent. As a result, Micocci’s vigorous claim that “the social sciences can only be pursued by returning them to a wider and more rigorous logical frame that only philosophy can supply” (238) is unconvincing.

Similar problems occur with respect to the role value plays in Micocci’s criticism of political economy. That theories of value from classical to neo-classical economics have been problematic is well known. Micocci exploits this issue in terms of the labour theory of value in the classical period and the myopic focus on transactions and “GDP/GNP” in neo-classical theory (228–236). However, his alternative turn to individuality and materialism offers only a theoretical criticism and nothing really constructive. Without an alternative theory, the suggestion is that no theory of value is at all possible. But Micocci’s distinction between metaphysics and the abstract would suggest that there should be an abstract theory of value correlative to material production. Thus, while true to his aim of depicting the radical break that is required for genuine change, the “all or nothing” position he presents the reader is not supported by adequate philosophical analysis of criteria that would generate cogent reasons for making this change.

Generally speaking, there are many instances of passion taking precedence over analysis. Some involve unclear and contradictory meaning in what Micocci appears to want to say (cf. 26, 27 on “new” analysis; 109 on “repetitive”). Two examples dealing with the book’s representation of others’ points of view occur in relation to Aristotle and communitarians. Micocci’s discussion of Aristotelian virtue characterizes habit as a type of metaphysical “conditioning” (165) and fails to take into account the relation of character virtues to the intellectual virtues, most prominent of which is phronesis and its relation to praxis. While a minor historical example in the context of MC’s scope, this mistreatment tends to undercut the bold historical/geneaological sweep Micocci sets up in the attempt to deconstruct the historical development of capitalism. How accurate and reliable is his understanding of the history of philosophy?

A second topic central to Micocci’s argument is the way in which communitarians are seen to be equally as mistaken as liberal theorists in attempting to resolve socio-political injustices. These communitarians are never really discussed in any detail and never identified (cf. 180). Without adequate treatment, MC not only risks setting up a “straw man” but also allows his writing to take the form of a rant.

MC unfortunately carries a bold thesis which is not supported by adequate philosophical analysis, and the frequent deferral of larger questions and theoretical developments to a future volume cause more harm to the cogency of the author’s project than it does to entice the reader to look forward to the next instalment. One suspects that the many targets of MC’s criticisms will therefore find a sufficient lack of engagement with their own philosophical and economic axioms and principles.

19 October 2010

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