The Object of Political Economy

To answer this question, I shall take literally the sub-title of Capital -- 'A Critique of Political Economy'. If the view I have put forward is correct, 'to criticize' Political Economy cannot mean to criticize or correct certain inaccuracies or points of detail in an existing discipline -- nor even to fill in its gaps, its blanks, pursuing further an already largely initiated movement of exploration. 'To criticize Political Economy' means to confront it with a new problematic and a new object: i.e., to question the very object of Political Economy. But since Political Economy is defined as Political Economy by its object, the critique directed at it from the new object with which it is confronted could strike Political Economy's vital spot. This is indeed the case: Marx's critique of Political Economy cannot challenge the latter's object without disputing Political Economy itself, in its theoretical pretensions to autonomy and in the 'divisions' it creates in social reality in order to make itself the theory of the latter. Marx's critique of Political Economy is therefore a very radical one: it queries not only the object of Political Economy, but also Political Economy itself as an object. In order to give this thesis the benefit of its radicalism, let us say that Political Economy, as it is defined by its pretensions, has no right to exist as far as Marx is concerned: if Political Economy thus conceived cannot exist, it is for de jure, not de facto reasons.

If this really is the case, we can understand what misunderstanding separates Marx not only from his predecessors, critics and certain of his supporters -- but also from the 'economists' who have come after him. This misunderstanding is a simple one, but at the same time it is paradoxical. Simple because the economists make their living from Political Economy's pretensions to existence -- and these pretensions revoke all its rights to exist. Paradoxical, because the consequence Marx has drawn from the de jure non-existence of Political Economy is a vast book called Capital which seems to speak of nothing but political economy from beginning to end.

We must therefore go into detail, uncovering the indispensable corrections, little by little, in the rigorous relationship that unites them. In order to anticipate them, which is necessary if we are to understand them, let us give one first reference point. Political Economy's pretensions to existence are a function of the nature and hence of the definition of its object. Political Economy gives itself as an object the domain of 'economic facts' which

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it regards as having the obviousness of facts : absolute givens which it takes as they 'give' themselves, without asking them for any explanations. Marx's revocation of the pretensions of Political Economy is identical with his revocation of the obviousness of this 'given', which in fact it 'gives itself ' arbitrarily as an object, pretending that this object was given it. Marx's whole attack is directed at this object, at its pretensions to the modality of a 'given' object: Political Economy's pretensions being no more than the mirror reflection of its object's pretensions to have been given it. By posing the question of the 'givenness' of the object, Marx poses the question of the object itself, of its nature and limits, and therefore of the domain of its existence, since the modality according to which a theory thinks its object affects not only the nature of that object but also the situation and extent of its domain of existence. As an indication, let us adopt a famous thesis of Spinoza's: as a first approximation, we can suggest that Political Economy's existence is no more possible than the existence of any science of 'conclusions' as such: a science of 'conclusions' is not a science, since it would be the actual ignorance ('ignorance en acte ') of its 'premisses' -- it is only the Imaginary in action (the 'first kind'). The science of conclusions is merely an effect, a product of the science of premisses: but if we suppose that this science of premisses exists, the pretended science of conclusions (the 'first kind') is known as imaginary and as the imaginary in action: once known it disappears with the disappearance of its pretensions and its object. The same is true grosso modo of Marx. If Political Economy cannot exist for itself, it is because its object does not exist for itself, because it is not the object of its concept, or because its concept is the concept of an inadequate object. Political Economy cannot exist unless the science of its premisses, or if you prefer, the theory of is concepts, already exists -- but once this theory exists, then Political Economy's pretensions disappear into what they are: imaginary pretensions. From these very schematic indications, we can draw two provisional conclusions. If the 'Critique of Political Economy' does have the meaning we have proposed, it must at the same time be a construction of the true concept of the object, at which classical Political Economy is aiming in the Imaginary of its pretensions -- a construction which will produce the concept of the new object with which Marx confronts Political Economy. If any understanding of Capital depends on the construction of the concept of this new object, those who can read Capital without looking for this concept in it and without relating everything to this concept, are in serious danger of being tripped up by misunderstandings or riddles: living merely in the 'effects' of invisible causes, in the Imaginary of an economy as close to them as the sun's distance of two hundred paces in the 'first kind of know ledge' -- as close, precisely because it is an infinite number of leagues away from them.

This reference point is sufficient as an introduction to our analysis. We shall proceed as follows: in order to reach a differential definition of Marx's

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object we shall make an initial detour: an analysis of the object of Political Economy, which will show us by its structural features the type of object Marx rejected in order to constitute his own object (A). A critique of the categories of this object will indicate to us the positive concepts in Marx's theoretical practice which are constitutive of his object (B). We can then define this object, and draw a number of conclusions from its definition.

A. T H E S T R U C T U R E O F T H E O B J E C T O F P O L I T I C A L E C O N O M Y

I cannot here provide a detailed examination of the classical theories, nor a fortiori of the modern theories, of political economy, in order to draw from it a definition of the object to which they are related in their theoretical practice, even if they do not reflect this object for itself.[36] I propose only to locate the most general concepts that constitute the theoretical structure of the object of Political Economy: in essentials, this analysis concerns the object of classical Political Economy (Smith, Ricardo), but it is not restricted to the classical forms of Political Economy, since the same basic theoretical categories still underly the work of many economists today. With this in mind, I think I can take as my elementary theoretical guide the definitions proposed in A. Lalande's Dictionnaire Philosophique. Their inconsistencies and inaccuracies, even their 'banality', are not without advantages: they can be taken as so many indices not only of a common theoretical background, but also of the possible resonances and inflexions of sense this background provides.

Lalande's Dictionary defines Political Economy as follows: 'a science whose goal is knowledge of the phenomena, and (if the nature of those phenomena allows ) the determination of the laws, which concern the distribution of wealth, and its production and consumption, insofar as the latter phenomena are linked to those of distribution. Wealth means, technically, everything which is capable of utilization ' (I, p. 187). The various definitions Lalande proposes, quoting Gide, Simiand, Karmin, etc., put the concept of distribution in the forefront. The definition of the extension of Political Economy to the three fields of production, distribution and consumption is taken from the classics -- particularly from Say. Discussing production and consumption, Lalande notes that they are 'only economic from one point of view. Taken in their totality they imply a great many notions foreign to political economy, notions borrowed, as far as production is concerned, from technology, ethnography and the science of social mores. Political economy deals with production and consumption ; but only insofar as they are related to distribution, either as cause or as effect. '
36 On the modern theories, Maurice Godelier's remarkable article 'Objets et méthodes de l'anthropologie économique' (L'Homme, October 1965 and in Rationalité et irrationalité en économie, Paris 1966) can be read with profit.

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Let us take this schematic definition as the most general basis of Political Economy, and see what it implies, from a theoretical point of view, where the structure of its object is concerned.

(a) First of all, it implies the existence of 'economic' facts and phenomena distributed within a definite field which has the property of being a homogeneous field. The field and the phenomena that constitute it and fill it are given, i.e., accessible to direct observation and attention: their apprehension does not depend on the prior theoretical construction of their concepts. This homogeneous field is a defined space in which the different economic determinations, facts or phenomena are, by virtue of the homogeneity of the field in which they exist, comparable, and, to be precise, measurable, i.e., quantifiable. Every economic fact is therefore in essence measurable. This was already the great principle of classical economics: precisely the first point at which Marx directed his critique. Smith's great error was, in Marx's eyes, the fact that he sacrificed the analysis of the value-form to a consideration of the quantity of value only: 'their attention is entirely absorbed in the analysis of the magnitude of value ' (T.I, p. 83 n1; Vol. I, p. 80 n2). On this point modern economists, despite the differences in their conception are on the side of the classics in attacking Marx for producing in his theory concepts which are 'non-operational', i.e., which exclude the measurement of their object: e.g., surplus-value. But this attack back-fires on its authors, since Marx accepts and uses measurement -- for the 'developed forms' of surplus-value (profit, rent and interest). If surplus-value is not measurable, that is precisely because it is the concept of its forms, which are measurable. Of course, this simple distinction changes everything: the homogeneous planar space of the phenomena of political economy is no longer a mere given, since it requires the posing of its concept, i.e., the definition of the conditions and limits which allow phenomena to be treated as homogeneous, i.e., measurable. Let us merely note this difference -- but without forgetting that modern political economy remains faithful to the empiricist, 'quantitative' tradition of the classics, if it is true that, to use a phrase of André Marchal's, it knows only 'measurable' facts.

(b) But this empiricist-positivist conception of economic facts is not as 'plain' ('plat ') as it might seem. Here I am talking about the 'plainness' of the planar ('plan ') space of its phenomena. If this homogeneous space does not refer to the depth of its concept, it does do so to a certain world outside its own plane which has the theoretical role of underlying it in existence and founding it. The homogeneous space of economic phenomena implies a determinate relationship with the world of the men who produce, distribute, receive and consume. This is the second theoretical implication of the object of Political Economy. This implication is not always as visible as it is in Smith and Ricardo, it may remain latent and not be so directly thematized in Economics: but it is no less essential to the structure of its object for that. Political Economy relates economic facts to their origin in the needs (or

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'utility') of human subjects. It therefore tends to reduce exchange-values to use-values, and the latter ('wealth', to use the expression of Classical Economics) to human needs. This is also the position of F. Simiand (quoted by Lalande): 'What makes a phenomenon economic? Instead of defining that phenomenon with respect to wealth (richesses -- a classical term in the French tradition, but one that could be imposed on ) I believe it would be better to follow more recent economists who take as their central notion the satisfaction of material needs ' (Lalande, I, p. 188). Simiand is wrong to put forward his request as a novelty: his definition merely repeats the classical one, for behind men and their needs it presents their theoretical function as the subjects of the economic phenomena.

That is to say that Classical Economics can only think economic facts as belonging to the homogeneous space of their positivity and measurability on condition that it accepts a 'naïve ' anthropology which founds all the acts involved in the production, distribution, reception and consumption of economic objects on the economic subjects and their needs. Hegel provided the philosophical concept of the unity of this 'naïve' anthropology with the economic phenomena in his famous expression 'the sphere of needs ', or 'civil society',[37] as distinct from political society. In the concept of the sphere of needs, economic facts are thought as based in their economic essence on human subjects who are a prey to 'need': on the homo oeconomicus, who is a (visible, observable) given, too. The homogeneous positivist field of measurable economic facts depends on a world of subjects whose activity as productive subjects in the division of labour has as its aim and effect the production of objects of consumption, destined to satisfy these same subjects of needs. The subjects, as subjects of needs, support the activity of the subjects as producers of use-values, exchangers of commodities and consumers of use-values. The field of economic phenomena is thus, in origin as in aim, founded on the ensemble of human subjects whose needs define them as economic subjects. The peculiar theoretical structure of Political Economy depends on immediately and directly relating together a homogeneous space of given phenomena and an ideological anthropology which bases the economic character of the phenomena and its space on man as the subject of needs (the givenness of the homo oeconomicus).

Let us examine this more closely. We have been speaking of a homogeneous space of given, economic facts or phenomena. And now, behind this given, we have discovered a world of given human subjects indispensably underlying its existence: The first given is therefore a false given: or rather it is really a given, given by this anthropology, which is itself given. This and this alone,
37 The concept of 'civil society', as found in Marx's mature writings and constantly repeated by Gramsci to designate the sphere of economic existence, is ambiguous and should be struck from Marxist theoretical vocabulary -- unless it is made to designate not the economic as opposed to the political, but the 'private' as opposed to the public, i.e., a combined effect of law and legal-political ideology on the economic.

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indeed, allows us to declare that the phenomena which are grouped within the space of Political Economy are economic : they are economic as (more or less immediate or 'mediated') effects of the needs of human subjects, in short, of what it is that makes man, besides his rational (animal rationale ), loquacious (animal loquax ), laughing (ridens ), political (politicus ), moral and religious natures, a subject of needs (homo oeconomicus ). It is the need (of the human subject) that defines the economic in economics. The given in the homogeneous field of economic phenomena is therefore given us as economic by this silent anthropology. But if we look closer we see that this 'giving' anthropology is, in the strongest sense, the absolute given! unless someone refers us to God as its founder, i.e., to the Given who himself gives himself, causa sui, God-Given. Let us leave this point in which we can see well enough that there can never be a given on the fore-stage of obviousnesses, except by means of a giving ideology which stays behind, with which we keep no accounts and which gives us what it wants. If we do not go and look behind the curtain we shall not see its act of 'giving': it disappears into the given as all workmanship does into its works. We are its spectators, i.e., its beggars.

This is not all: the same anthropology that underlies the space of economic phenomena in this way, allowing them to be called economic, re-emerges in them later in other forms, some of which we know: if classical political economy was able to present itself as a happy providential order, as economic harmony (from the Physiocrats to Say via Smith), it was by the direct projection of the moral or religious attributes of its latent anthropology onto the space of economic phenomena. The same type of intervention was at work in liberal bourgeois optimism or in the moral protests of Ricardo's socialist commentators, with whom Marx constantly crossed swords: the content of the anthropology changes but the anthropology survived, along with its role and the site of its intervention. This latent anthropology also re-emerges in certain myths of modern political economists, e.g., in concepts as ambiguous as economic 'rationality', 'optimum', 'full employment' or welfare economics, 'humane' economics, etc. The same anthropology which serves as the original foundation for economic phenomena comes to the fore as soon as there is a question of defining the meaning of these phenomena, i.e., their end. The homogeneous given space of economic phenomena is thus doubly given by the anthropology which grips it in the vice of origins and ends.

And if this anthropology seems absent from the immediate reality of the phenomena themselves, it is in the interval between origins and ends, and also by virtue of its universality which is merely repetition. As all the subjects are equally subjects of needs their effects can be dealt with by bracketing the ensemble of these subjects: their universality is then reflected in the universality of the laws of the effects of their needs -- which naturally leads Political Economy towards its pretensions to deal with

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economic phenomena in the absolute, in all forms of society, past, present and future. The taste for false eternity Marx found in the Classics may have come to them politically from their wish to make the bourgeois mode of production everlasting: this is obvious enough for some of them: Smith, Say, etc. But it may have come to them from a different cause, one older than the bourgeoisie, living in the time of a different history, not from a political cause but from a theoretical cause: from theoretical effects produced by this silent anthropology, which ratifies the structure of the object of Political Economy. This is surely the case with Ricardo, who knew perfectly well that one day the bourgeoisie would have had its day, who already read this destiny into the mechanism of its economy and yet continued to speak the discourse of eternity at the top of his voice.

Need we go further in our analysis of the structure of the object of Political Economy than this functional unity between the homogeneous field of given economic phenomena -- and a latent anthropology, and reveal the presuppositions, the theoretical (philosophical) concepts which in their specific connexions underly this unity? We should then be faced by philosophical concepts as fundamental as: given, subject, origin, end, order -- and connexions such as that of linear and teleological causality. All these concepts deserve a detailed analysis showing the role they are forced to play in Political Economy's stage direction. But this would lead us much too far afield -- and, in any case, we shall come across them again from the other side when we see Marx either rejecting them or giving them quite different roles.

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