Introduction, Part 2: The Method of Political Economy
How do we do political economy in a way that gives us greater and more accurate insights into the nature of our economic reality? Marx’s answer comes, in a large part, from his years of grappling with Hegel. He believes that a lot of the faulty analysis of classical economists such as the barter myth, and misunderstanding production and capital come in part from beginning them with high level concepts such as “population” and then moving inward to simpler concepts. Adam Smith himself begins his magnum opus An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by diving straight into how labor is divided among the population. Marx states that this analytic process generally takes the following form:
Let’s break this down a bit. These high-level concepts like “population” aren’t physical things. They are ideas that we’ve created which rely on other, smaller ideas we have about physical things, like people.1 But if these high-level concepts are a cohesive collection of smaller concepts, and even smaller determinate parts, then, in Marx’s view they shouldn’t be the starting point of an analysis, but the result of one. To give a real-world analogy, it is important for students going into the field of biology, the study of life, to first study cellular microbiology, chemistry, and so on. Beginning with small units such as the cell and its components, and moving outward to the bigger concepts gives us more insights about the whole organism along the way. These larger concepts really don’t have any rhyme or reason to them until we’ve explored the smaller elements, and learning these smaller concepts give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of life from which all living organisms are composed: every living thing is made of cells and shares many similar cellular components.
Marx’s fear is that if we start an analysis from the high-level concepts, all of the assumptions we make about that concept will trickle down into the rest of our analysis, and therefore we should flip this process right-side-up. Marx describes this method as the movement from the “abstract” to the “concrete”. In this case, “abstract” means the simplest known concepts (ex. the cell), and “concrete” means a collection of these abstract concepts into a totality (ex. the human body). For Marx we should always start with the smallest discernible components and move up to the high-level concepts, and once we reach an understanding of those we can work our way back down with the knowledge we’ve gained. Now, of course there isn’t ever truly a limit to how small we can go, but the important thing to understand here is that we should start small and work our way up.
Why does all of this matter? This is the essence of Marx’s issue with the classical economists when he accuses them of presentism. For example, the problem with the myth of barter is that it assumes exchange has always been integral to society even though, in historical reality, it is shown to have been primarily a practice that took place between various communities and not among them. Likewise, money has taken various forms throughout history, and though it currently functions as a universal medium of exchange and store of value in capitalist society that does not mean we can project that usage backwards onto history: leading to ahistorical narratives like the myth of barter. In fact, in most of the world, money originated as a physical way to keep track of debts; which is much different from money having its origins in exchange and markets.2 If we look closely enough, we can see remnants and pieces of modern concepts like money throughout history, but its a fatal mistake to assume that these concepts serve the same purpose or function in that historical context as they do in the modern.
So, with all this in mind, where do we start an analysis of capitalism? What is an integral component of capitalist society? Could we analyze rent, or wages? Marx says that, “Ground rent cannot be understood without capital. But capital can certainly be understood without ground rent. Capital is the all-dominating power of bourgeois society. It must form the starting-point as well as the finishing-point, and must be dealt with before landed property.”3 Up until now we’ve only talked briefly about capital, what it is, and what it does. It is a complex subject, and Marx goes on to dedicate countless words to exposing its inner-workings and its manifold relationships. In Capital Volume 1, Marx will follow the method of analysis we outlined above by starting with the smallest functional unit of the capitalist economy, the ‘cell’ of the capitalist economy: the commodity. It is a unit that is both exclusive and central to capitalist economy. Like the cell, we can divide it up, and inspect its components and how their individual functions affect its functionality overall, but as far as we currently know, this unit is the essential building block of capitalist economy. Since the Grundrisse is really just a manuscript Marx drafted in preparation for later planned works, namely Capital, he will not necessarily walk us through an analysis using his proposed method of political economy. However, he will carry this through starting in Capital Volume 1 which I hope to discuss here at a later date.
The next entry in this series will discuss the first part of The Chapter on Money, which, along with The Chapter on Capital makes up the entirety of the Grundrisse. The first part of this chapter sees Marx refuting popular economic programs of his contemporaries, and really trying to drive home the fact that in order to truly change society we need to alter the method of production. Some of the arguments he refutes will sound eerily similar to those of today’s progressive politicians, and I will do my best to note these through lines whenever possible.
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- I understand we can get into the philosophical weeds here in that everything we comprehend is a product of the mind and therefore a concept or idea, but here we are talking about how concepts are built upon other concepts about things that do actually exist apart from our mind.
- David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, Ny: Melville House, 2014).
- “Introduction.” Grundrisse, by Karl Marx, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 107.