The line of thinking about Marx’s critique I discussed in the last blog post has also got me thinking about the question of the relationship between the critique of political economy and critical political economy. This issue is rather polarizing in Marxist discourse. Many from what I would call traditional Marxism, but also the social sciences, argue that the critique of political economy is equivalent to a critical political economy. In this reading Capital provides the tools for critically understanding the trajectory of capitalist development. Others, in what I would call the critical theory tradition, argue that Capital is a critique of political economy and that critical political economy is foreign to Marx’s project. Finally, some argue for the necessity of combining the two in different ways. (Certainly there are important differences within these groups and some outliers, but this is a blog post and a piece of writing to help me think through this issue, it’s not meant to be authoritative).
I have found myself in all of these groups at different points. I certainly respect each of these approaches and work by people done in each of these areas. However, I think I am developing a new perspective on the issue that comes from reading and thinking about Clarke’s Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology and Adorno’s work. (This perspective certainly doesn’t match up with all of Marx’s work in the critique of political economy, but perhaps it’s a way of understanding Marx at his best. At the very least it’s a way of thinking about how I want to develop Marx’s insights.)
The nub of the issue is how political economy and critical political economy are conceptualized. As I imply above the differences of opinion between these groups are premised on a contemporary conception of political economy. However, Clarke lucidly points out that the classical political economists were more than this: political economy was a science that combined moral philosophy, sociology, political science and economics and claimed to decipher the natural laws of historical development that if followed correctly in all of these domains would lead to freedom and well-being, or at least avoid disaster and misery.
I think it is illuminating to read Marx’s critique of political economy and his critical political economy against this broader conception of political economy. The critique of political economy critiques the premises of political economy by demonstrating how the socio-natural laws of capitalist society are constituted and reproduced by historically specific capitalist social form. Critical political economy shows how at its best these socio-natural laws do not lead to freedom and well-being but disaster and misery. From this perspective, Critical political economy is not then a tool for understanding or predicting the trajectory of capitalist development, nor of developing policy proposals that will improve this trajectory, nor of arguing that these policy proposals cannot ameliorate capitalism’s inevitable collapse, but a means of arguing for the necessity of the emancipatory destruction of capitalist society.
I will develop this train of thought in my chapter on Adorno/Marx and Marxian Economics.