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A historical political economy of capitalism—an interview with Andrea Micocci

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Andrea Micocci has recently published a book, A Historical Political Economy of Capitalism. In this interview with Stuart Birks he describes aspects of his approach.

Andrea Micocci









  1. The term “political economy” has several interpretations. What do you mean by it?

My main concern was to overcome what I see as the typical problem of economic theories: they mix up capitalism in theory and “capitalism as we know it” in practice. This is the result of the logical flaws of economic theory and of capitalism in general, which constitute the general subject of my book. By political economy I therefore mean the materialistic study of the economic activities of the capitalist era. It comprises what we term economics, political economy in the Marxist sense, political science, sociology, psychology and history. As I explain in the book, it is a Classical approach only in the sense that is inspired by Adam Smith and Karl Marx (with his “critique of political economy”). But this is only the beginning of a theoretical reasoning that leads to a proposed “historical” political economy, which differs from everything hitherto devised even in the role it can play in practice.

  1. Why a “history-based” critique of political economy?

I argue in the book that a “critique of political economy”, as Marx correctly named it, can only serve the revolutionary purposes of a radical critique of capitalism.  In order to do so, it must challenge the basic logical tenets of the dominant intellectuality of capitalism, and hence of other theories. All heterodox approaches to economics have failed so far because they were not based on a logical “otherness” to existing economic theories. These last in turn mirror the dominant intellectuality of capitalism: its metaphysics. Heterodox theories have in other words corrected rather than replaced mainstream economics and mainstream Marxism. It is definitively from the logical ground that we must begin if we want a radical change.

I base my argument on the consideration that capitalism has produced a metaphysics, an intellectual organization of reality that fits, and corresponds to, its own flawed intellectual mechanisms. Such metaphysics, common to the economic mainstream and to mainstream Marxisms, is constituted by a vulgar dialectical logic that denies non-dialectical occurrences. Many thinkers, however, have opposed this limited and limiting intellectual framework. Hume, for instance, was the first to notice that there is no reason whatsoever to argue that humans or anything else are condemned to play the role they seem to play in society or in nature. By constraining nature in an intellectual straitjacket we constrain ourselves. To achieve liberty we must free nature by freeing chance.

Take, for illustration purposes, the mainstream and Hegelian mistake that work is a good thing which must be fairly rewarded. The very opposite might be true: any work beyond what is needed for human survival is inhuman and anti-ecological. It is the widespread intellectual acceptance of such capitalist logical absurdities that implies that we must argue alternatively. We must criticize the flawed intellectual reasoning behind this and the other methodological problems of the value-labour relationship: the metaphysics of capitalism, which attributes an economic role to just about everything, including nature.

A non-capitalist situation might well mean a non-economic set of human relationships. This implies that it is not necessarily socialism as the re-organization of production that we must have as a reference. A non-capitalist situation may need planning, but not economic planning, for this is related to those human relationships that can be shown to be logically wrong and typical of capitalism only, not generally applicable to humankind. If so, then political economy cannot be more than a study of the history of economic relationships and of their institutional organizations, showing their absurdities. The above means that political economy not only cannot, but must not tell us what to do. We must look for other ways, richer and more satisfactory, to organize our lives.

In other words, logic and creativity can take us away from the dominant mentality of capitalism. In fact we can identify capitalism precisely with such a limited and limiting common logic. The point of a historical political economy is the destruction of such common logic, the capitalist metaphysics, without the creation of yet another metaphysics.

  1. How do you view the intellectual representation of capitalism?

What is outlined in the answers to questions 1. and 2. is built on the core argument of the book, which is that, following a reasoning that is traditional in European philosophy and political economy (I refer in the book to Berkeley, Hume, La Mettrie, d’Holbach, Rousseau, Smith, Marx), we can hypothesize (as anticipated in questions 1. and 2.) that capitalism is in theory and in practice a poor and flawed, hence limited and limiting, way to interpret, (not) understand and predict reality. Such a way is typically dialectical in the vulgar Hegelian sense, and is as a consequence suspended in between the abstract (logically sound reasoning) and the concrete (the material, which we can only hypothesize about, however, as I am going to sketch in the following): the resulting metaphysics is neither material nor abstract. Yet it is generalized, and only can be so, or there would be fatal cracks in the construction. It thus compels everything and everybody to exist only as metaphysical concepts rather than as physical bodies: hence the apparent logic of commodities, value and labour with their connections. Only thus in fact can objects become commodities, people become workers, nature become the environment (an object of human positive and negative intervention).

The material nature of things becomes secondary, for there appears to exist an economic and political role to everything and everybody: this is rendered for instance by Smith’s invisible hand as described in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, or by Marx’s triple alienation (from ourselves, our fellow human beings, nature in general). We can only hope we can recover the material in and outside ourselves by ridding ourselves of the metaphysics, i.e. the dominant, socialized intellectuality of capitalism that, very importantly, also dominates our sentiments. To this goal, we need a process of human individual emancipation I outline in the book, calling it silence so as to signify the importance of the flawed language of capitalism for the functioning of the metaphysics. In fact all capitalist objects and relationships correspond to words (concepts) which, being logically faulty in the sense directed by the metaphysics, have the paradoxical characteristic of being vague while all the time striving to appear precise. Take the concepts of market, profit, equilibrium.

The basis to free ourselves from all this is the recovery of free chance to begin with (Hume’s “liberty as chance”), and, beyond Hume, the recognition that in capitalism we consider only the imaginable and the unimaginable, while there is a third category: the un-conceived. In other words, the realm of freedom and of precision in words must, paradoxically for the capitalist logic, acknowledge the presence of the un-determined. This is present in intuition in Marx. Only then can we hope to recover nature, the material.

  1. Does your analysis provide any insights into current events related to neo-liberalism and Brexit?

Only as a by-product and as an example, for my purposes are mainly theoretical. In particular, I take the Tsipras Cabinet defeat in the negotiations with the EU as an evidence of the power the vulgar Hegelian dialectical mediations of capitalism have to make conflicts appear as catastrophic ruptures despite having eliminated from capitalist relationships the very theory and practice of ruptures through their vulgar Hegelian dialectical functioning. The ensuing iterative mediations capitalist life comes down to are as a consequence always won by the status quo, because everything appears (but is not) as clear cut tragic: the mediations of capitalism, being moderate in nature, do not accept otherness, but make conflict look final nonetheless. Hence, they always imply a degree of violence (a compromise must be reached: someone has to give in, or be forced to do so), contrariwise to the recognition of non-dialectical otherness, which only can signify tolerance of what you do not understand or conceive. Small differences (Tsipras’ modest proposals to the EU) are in other words transformed into ruptures that cannot be accepted, and are not accepted, for the sake of the stability of the capitalist system itself.

There is no denying that with this book I also intend to criticize left wing approaches for agreeing to play on the capitalist metaphysical ground: this makes them weak vis-à-vis powers, and incapable of offering true alternatives to capitalism. Also, and I do hope that this is much more practical, my approach points out the logical inevitability of financialization, which is the highest and easiest form of capitalist metaphysics, for it responds much better to the logical limitedness of capitalism than material production.

From: pp.2-3 of World Economics Association Newsletter 6(4), August 2016

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2 responses

  • Dick Burkhart says:

    Intriguing thoughts. But I wonder about two points.
    (1) You say that work should not be the focus of economics (hence not of life) but that economics is still concerned with materialism in some sense that is not clear to me. Many people throughout history have sought to go beyond the work / material approach to life by seeking higher purpose and meaning in things like spirituality, art, relationships, philosophy, science, etc. How does this relate to your framework?
    (2) The dialectical straight jacket that you describe (“only the imagined and unimaginable”) would seem to be handled nicely by complexity economics, where the “emergence” of new phenomena happens naturally. Is this a correct understanding?

    • Andrea Micocci says:

      Reply to Dick Burkhart by Andrea Micocci
      First of all thank you for paying attention to my interview. Your questions give me a chance to clarify important things:
      1. Work, economics and materialism. There are important differences here, whose brief discussion can hopefully settle some matters that look important to me. Materialism is addressed in the book as a philosophical approach in the Western European tradition. As a consequence, the most important problem the book, and ourselves, face (as argued by Epicurus, Hume etc.) is that we might never know whether we have achieved a full grasp of the material. All we can do towards emancipation is to rid ourselves of all types of metaphysics, in the hope to find the material out. From this basic question all the rest stems: the capitalist metaphysics is particularly tough, and objectionable to me, because it needs to be enforced on everybody to function. In what I write there is not, nor there can be, any reference to religious or spiritual arguments, which are, the metaphysics of capitalism argument proposes, philosophically flawed and unable to contribute to human emancipation because they depend on the dominant metaphysics (the imagined – unimagined dialectics).
      Work as we conceptualize it in our days is also the result of the flawed logic of the metaphysics of capitalism. It is in fact laden with non material, spiritual, religious, moral and political meanings that only serve the purposes of power enforcement, religion and economic order. This is valid for mainstream Marxists too (take the “collective intellect” argument I discuss in the book, a typical case: it is not in the Grundrisse fragment its supporters quote, but it comes down to a paraphrasis of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit intead. Its logic is meant to strengthen capitalism). Work is the same as survival: it has no moral, political and economic meanings other than that, and is a hindrance to human emancipation. Ony in this sense can we separate it from economic theory and start conceiving revolution, by which I mean a break from the capitalist metaphysics, the limited and limiting intellectual framework that keeps us all intellectually and emotionally homogeneous, like the individual of microeconomics.
      In other words, economics and political economy (i.e. also the mainstream Marxists, because they confuse Marx with Hegel, or Hegelian arguments) are not concerned with the material, and this last is yet to be conquered. Freeing work of its capitalist meaning is part of this more general task of emancipation.
      Complexity economics makes a similar mistake: it uses the categories it finds at hand, only applying a different (not so different) method. It cannot emancipate. That is why I posit the undetermined besides the imagined and the unimagined I am saying precisely this: we need an intellectual leap that brings us closer to reality (with the condition stated above that a step forward is only a step forward and not the achievement of a materialist approach). Otherwise we are tied to the imagined and the unimaginable, two mirror images of each other from which the new seems to emerge simply because the conception of new it uses comes from inside it, and is therefore flawed and limited, self-serving. The truly new, i.e. the new tha originates in the material, I argue in the book, is invisible or impossible to capitalism and its present-day opposers, because they refuse to admit of the undetermined. Hence, revolution is impossible until we ackwnoledge the undetermined.
      Your questions gave me a chance to explain some concepts (e.g. the undetermined) that are essential to me, and do not belong to economics and political economy. I am very grateful.

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