Reviewed by Lewis Hodder
Andrea Micocci’s A Historical Political Economy of Capitalism: After Metaphysics is an ambitious text that attempts to grasp, at its root, the possibility of the existence and perpetuation of capitalism. Since it is a system that depends on a violent antagonism between classes, which actively limits the very possibility of consciousness and logic, Micocci aims to interrogate the consequences of this limitation. ‘Instead of a world where real oppositions cause occasional revolutions’, Micocci writes, ‘we get a world in which only dialectical contradictions operate, and are mistaken for change and even revolution’ (48). In order to overcome this limitation of the capitalist imagination, Micocci writes that A Historical Political Economy of Capitalism is based on a ‘completely different logic’ to those current political and economic critiques, emphasising one aspect in particular, namely metaphysics. Aiming to arrive at a true understanding of the individual and its relationship to the society around them by a ‘continuous sceptical doubt of its material reality’, the core of Micocci’s argument is that the intellectual construction as it currently exists as a ‘social glue’ is at once a problem of metaphysics (1).
In other words, in capitalism, the main hindrance to a solid understanding of the empirical … is the individual society connection … The more we are incapable of knowing reality, for this is substituted by metaphysics. That means the challenging notion that we may not know anything about reality itself, not even its material existence (6).
Whereas the question of the perpetuation of capitalism has been dealt with in the past by Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, and Georg Lukács, with questions of hegemony, ideology, and false consciousness respectively, Micocci is determined to separate themselves from this tradition. Even with the strand of Marxism that found its beginning in 1960s France that seeks to remove Hegel from the influence of Marx, standing against any conception of totality or teleology, and with Althusser as its biggest and most notable figure and proponent, with A Historical Political Economy of Capitalism we see this separation of Hegel and Marx taken to its nth degree. Althusser is able to neatly distinguish between the method of the young Marx who wrote on metaphysics with the influence of Hegel, and the older, more mature Marx of political economy, who no longer relied on the metaphysics of Hegel. However, Micocci goes further, by writing and depending on ‘Marx the anarchist’. This Marx is not simply anti-Hegelian, which would be too Hegelian in itself as a realisation of the negation of Hegel, but who is entirely non-Hegelian. However, in removing this Hegelian element from Marx, Micocci paints a picture of Marx that has no conception of history, and that is not able to recognise that history becomes possible through the antagonism of class. Hegel simply becomes the metaphysical element in Marx as a stand-in for the history of metaphysics against ‘Marx the anarchist’ (7). In staying in the philosophical tradition, however, Marx’s lineage is traced past Hegel, back to Epicurus.
The highly inspiring view Epicurus introduced into Western philosophy, that material reality might have no better explanation than a type of chance whose logic escapes human understanding, certainly is one ideal influence behind what is being proposed here. … We shall also see that it lies behind Marx’s work (5).
Crucially, the text refuses to conceive of metaphysics in its own terms, or to engage with its history, development, or content, and so any speculative element essential to Hegel’s philosophy is exterminated through the actuality of what merely exists. Metaphysics instead becomes ‘the general intellectual discourse’ (144), which – explicitly and unequivocally – is not the case. In eagerly seeking to ascertain this additional element that other texts on political economy have overlooked and forgotten, Micocci turns to a crude materialism that reduces metaphysics to ideology in order to dismiss it outright. Considered after this, dialectics itself becomes a feature of capitalism. Rather than a tool with which to dissect it and fight against it, as Marx, Lenin, and Lukács had, it instead becomes a method of its perpetuation.
Without the tension and antagonism of history essential to Marx, ‘Marx the anarchist’ begins to lose any sense of practice or its relationship to thought. This eagerness to move against Hegelian Marxists, in order to assert the author’s own radical Marxism, turns into a contempt for workers themselves. Micocci continues:
A world without private property and the slavery of work is as urgent as the emancipation from the metaphysics of capitalism and cannot be trusted, as progressive intellectuals do, to class struggle, for this last, as Smith and Marx knew well, is one of the tools that are necessary to preserve capitalism. With this, we are back to the need for radical thinking (193, my emphasis).
This image of radical thought must then change drastically if the workers are unable to resolve the class struggle that makes them workers, and even people hitherto considered radical thinkers are implicated by this metaphysics. ‘If the metaphysics of capitalism is what we have described so far, those who are inside it are not even capable of recognising radical thought’ (193). Thought itself must become radically separated from any ‘capitalist metaphysics’.
Lenin, Guevara and Castro can easily replace Epicurus and Marx, as long as a ritual, cold-hearted moral distance is kept, not from natural violence, but from metaphysical, language-expressed “violence”. The high moral ground is ritual in capitalism. That is why it is so needed. It serves as Aristotelian catharsis. What we need, to stop this hypocrisy and its materially unbearable consequences, are logically sound radical arguments (100).
Intellectuals, progressive, Marxist, or otherwise, do not become instrumental to workers and to class struggle, but instead, also perpetuate capitalism. ‘The reader can pick his/her favourite example of an intellectual hero of the capitalist time’ (192). By virtue of existing in capitalism and by extension its ‘capitalist metaphysics’, they are without exception susceptible to the pitfalls of not thinking radically. ‘To survive, in other words, the intellectual must work at a level of analytical depth that does not challenge the prevailing metaphysics.’ (192)
Whereas Althusser and Balibar approach Marx by prefacing, ‘we were all philosophers’, ‘we did not read Capital as economists, as historians or as philologists’ (1968, 14), Micocci reduces Marx and metaphysics itself plainly to an abstract political economy and crude materialism. Althusser had written against the concept of totality that Marx receives from Hegel in order to move away from what he saw was a disingenuous and overdetermined totality that reduced all phenomena to single principle, that effaced any sense of the particular and reduced it to the general. This overdetermination removes any content as the form is prioritised over it. Opening the concluding chapter, Micocci falls into Althusser’s critique of overdetermination. Stating that the most common reaction to their own text is a refusal to follow its reasoning, they go on:
As a matter of fact, there is little else one can do against an argument that explains human behaviour in general with the tools of political economy – for this is what has been done in this book. If you recognise what has been described as realistic, you thereby admit that all it takes to sketch human understanding in capitalism as we know it is political economy. The implication is that all other subjects (psychology, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, etc.) say the very same things as political economy, which they are supposed not to do. The possibility that this may be true terrifies the less bold reader: who is right, the present author, with his radical method, past thinkers and unusual Marx, or present-day analyses that do not acknowledge such radical questions?’(191).
Metaphysics, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, as well as any other discipline, becomes reducible to what simply exists – to an abstracted political economy. Micocci extends this line of thought to such a degree that Marx is not able to stand up against Hegel’s rigour of thought and its scientificity, and in the text’s abstracted intuition Micocci is unable to complete the task it had set itself in interrogating this hitherto irreducible element.
Ultimately, A Historical Political Economy of Capitalism demands a nuance from its readers that it is unprepared to give its subject matter. If we are to seriously engage with metaphysics on its own terms, if we are to engage in discussions of metaphysics and how it remains relevant or irrelevant, or even harmful, as Micocci insists, it cannot be viewed as ideology. Metaphysics is not simply an other world of concepts, as we read in Plato, that can then be discarded as existing outside of materialism, but it is the inevitability of living among these concepts and the contradiction that follows it. Micocci instead writes of metaphysics as a certainty that is devoid of this tension, devoid of life, one that is not mediated by actual historical events or the actual existence of workers. The tension of thought against what exists in its materiality is not present anywhere in the text, and as such neither is the tension between theory and practice.
We read of a Marx who is entirely disjointed from history, and workers who are entirely devoid of any concrete existence. Marx’s work, more than any, recognised the relationship of the individual to society, and in turn complicated the question of metaphysics, developing and confronting the form and content of Hegel’s dialectic. Marx is able to transform world history and recognise the proletariat as its driving force, yet mediate this with the relationship of surplus-value to its modes of production, with the everyday life of the worker and their fantasies, of their exhaustion after a 15 hour workday in a pottery factory, or a humble morning spent fishing with the end of the division of labour. In Micocci’s text these aspects of Marx are diminished in their entirety, and reduced to abstraction. The antagonism and resistance that capitalism creates is dismissed outright. Eager to condemn both intellectuals and workers, Micocci becomes a Marxian parody of Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt, and its critique becomes devoid of any content.
23 January 2017
- 1968 Reading Capital trans. Ben Brewster (Verso, London)