‘Opening up’ Marx. A comparison of Open Marxist and French Regulationist approaches to political economy.
by Juraj Draxler
MA Comparative Politics
Department of Politics
University of York
Supervisor: Dr. Simon Parker
The paper describes two neo-Marxist political economy schools, Open Marxism and the Regulation Approach, as two contradictory discourses. Both schools start with similar aims: to revive Marxist political economy, to overcome deterministic, structuralist Marxism, and to demask neoclassical attempts to portray society in terms of an equilibrium-oriented market composed of free, contracting individuals. Yet, at the end, the two schools come up with very different statements about the nature of reality. They disagree on the significance and nature of the 1929 and 1987 Wall Street crashes, they construe inflation in strikingly different terms, or, most notably, give different pictures on how capitalism is going to overcome (or how it is overcoming) the economic slowdown that set in after the boom postwar decades.
The paper shows how the outcome is given by the different discursive strategies chosen. Essentially, the Regulation Approach, as a self-avowedly scientific, empiricist school, chooses to constantly describe, categorize and re-categorize events. Open Marxism is more interested in a narration that presents capitalism as always the old story – capital tries to get the better of labour and vice versa. While doing so, Open Marxists claim they are creating an ‘open’ approach to Marxism, and Marxist political economy, by rejecting the rigidity of sociological categories that has been subverting class struggle.
The paper, however, contends that their approach, rejecting ‘intermediate categories’ and relying on two terms, ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ for any meaning, necessarily does come up with intermediate categories. Except it leaves them ill-defined and therefore without the possibility of showing their interlinking and transcendence. In order to hold the narrative together, introduction of new discussion terms is not allowed. The result is a closure towards praxis.
Literature review… 9
The two schools
Regulation Approach… 13
Open Marxism… 19
3.1 Capital and capitalism… 24
3.2 Value… 38
3.4 Capital circuit… 49
3.5 Money… 52
Capitalist crisis… 61
4.1 Production and consumption… 65
Coercion, command and class… 71
5.1 Epistemology and methods… 74
Discussion pragmatics – coherence,
logic and ‘straw men’… 77
5.3 Discursive formations… 84
6. Conclusion… 88
In early 1990s, a group of political scientists and philosophers who had been members of Conference for Socialist Economists, a wider discussion forum that sought to revive Marxist political economy, came together to found a counter-current to what they saw as a noxious tendency in Marxism. This was, according to them, sociological fetishism, the tendency to accept social relations as ‘thinglike’ (Bonefeld et al, 1992a). Their stated aim was to revive the dialectical element of Marxist political economy. Early ideas of this group were aired on the pages of Capital & Class, a journal, new defunct, of the above-mentioned Conference for Socialist Economists. They then published a three volume ‘manifesto’ Open Marxism, a compendium of texts by authors subscribing to the programme of the group. Some of the contributors also published their own books on political economy and social philosophy.
‘Open Marxism’ has remained a small group. The number of core authors can be said to be well under ten1, with a few ‘outsiders’ having contributed to the discussions either in Capital & Class or Open Marxism. The somewhat exclusive nature of this group is being underlined by the tendency of these authors to cross-reference within ‘the group‘- in their discussions, as we shall see, they very seldom cite as sources of inspiration or empirical fact anybody else but yet another member of ‘Open Marxism’.
Why, one might well ask, would someone want to write a dissertation on a relatively obscure group, whose epistemological predilections he does not completely share, as will probably become clear in the course of this paper?
There are at least two good reasons. First, the concerns that ‘Open Marxists’ express about the ‘closure’ of Marxist analytical concepts are simply worth pursuing for anyone interested in the general development of Marxism. Secondly, the analysis of Open Marxist discourse, this paper will try to show, serves to expose the typical tension that Marxism faces by being both a source of powerful analytical concepts and at the same time insisting on ‘praxis.’ The latter might lead to an emphasis on subject-empowerment, emasculating the analytical drive of Marxist discourse. My aim is to show that this is the case with Open Marxism. At the same time, the paper does not strive for a ‘normative’ statement. The strong pairwise confrontation with the other school analysed here could encourage such perception. However, the objective here is to strictly bring out clearly the discursive tendencies in Open Marxism.
Open Marxism: Volume 1 (1992) begins partly as an attack on the Regulation Approach2. The Regulation Approach, editors of this volume claim, is an offshoot of Althusserian structuralism (Bonefeld et al, 1992: ix), something that ‘Open Marxism’ will consciously stand against.
This is a strange statement, since the Approach (and certainly the core of it, embodied by the work of Aglietta, Boyer and Lipietz, otherwise known as the Paris regulation school3) has been based on the rejection of the notion of ahistoricity of structures as exhibited in Althusserian Marxism. Regulationists posit that a variety of modes of regulation are possible, and view the process of evolution towards them as essentially indeterminate (Boyer 1990: 12).
Nevertheless, the Approach certainly does exhibit most of the traits that the editors of Open Marxism Vol. 1 list as noxious tendencies in Marxism. First, there is the issue of structures as such. The Regulation Approach is essentially concerned with identifying a peculiar set of institutions that according to it define the form of capitalism that arises. An offshoot of this is a certain tendency to periodise the development of capitalism – we will deal with this later. This is, secondly, due to the fact that Regulationists are keen to contribute to “the renovation of positive research” and to “develop the potential of Marx’s concepts by deploying them” in critical studies of transformations in individual countries (Aglietta 1979: 17).
But ‘positivism’ is an almost derogatory term for Open Marxists. “ the closure and positivism of sociology” (Bonefeld et al, 1992: x), according to them, effaces the “dialectical dimension” in Marxism. Also, “empirical research…can elide all too conveniently with positivism” (Benefeld et al: xi).
To restore the dialectics of Marxism to its place, Open Marxists propose a programme of “opening up” Marxist categories. “This openness appears in, for instance, a dialectic of subject and object, of form and content, of theory and practice, of the constitution and reconstitution of categories in and through the development, always crisis-ridden, of a social world” (Bonefeld et al, 1992: x). In ‘closed Marxism’, which Open Marxists identify as the dominant form4 social relations becomes thinglike and are presented in “a commodified and sheerly structural form” (Bonefeld et al, 1992: xi).
The attack on the Regulation Approach appears strange, since, as we said, Regulationists explicitly aim to overcome the epistemological and methodological straitjacket of immutable and determinate structural forms. But, this is not the only area where the methodological aims and scope of analysis of the two approaches overlap.
Both Open Marxism and the Regulation Approach promise to revive Marxist political economy, and they do focus on abstract as well as rather spatio-temporally specific phenomena. Both approaches discuss the economic slowdown of 1970s, the fall of the Bretton Woods system, onset of monetarist and laissez-faire orthodoxies, nature of credit economy, the meaning of the term ‘globalisation’, and so on.
Both approaches profess close affinity with Marx’s conceptual framework. Both offer sharply critical views on the conceptual basics of neoclassical economics. And both, for example, criticise those voices that mention how capitalism might be becoming less exploitative due to changes in production methods or labour organisation5.
So, Open Marxists and Regulationists set off on their journeys with similar aims. Then something happens, and the two approaches emerge with different statements about the nature of real world phenomena, and different praxis, and downright policy, prescriptions (or non-prescriptions).
The aim of this book is to research precisely this something that happens in between. To do this, it is not enough to take the concepts used somehow for granted. It is necessary precisely to investigate the way these concepts are discursively construed and joined together. Here, the inspiration comes from discourse theory and partly from the speech acts theory. The methodology used is not rigorous, and serves mostly to give a simple, rough and ready exposition of the contrasts presented by the two approaches. It is expounded in ‘Methodology’ section of this introductory part of the paper.
The main body of the paper is divided into two parts. Part One deals with the simple narratives of Open Marxism and the Regulation Approach, comparing practically pairwise the statements of these two approaches regarding key concepts, such as capital, labour, money, credit, and so on. Part Two, then, delves into the analysis of the discourses themselves, opening up with some general remarks on epistemology and on methodology-construal. It then discusses ‘pragmatics’ of argument presentations by the Open Marxist approach (especially how they present arguments which they seek to refute) - the reason why only of this approach is simple – while the Regulationists strive for a widely accepted scientificity, which includes careful documentation of claims and counter-claims, Open Marxism seeks an entirely different way of argumentation which must be described in order to proceed further in its dissection. The final section presents how, especially, frequency and positioning of concepts in narratives makes up for discursive formations, which need to be identified in order to assess how the particular discourse ‘acts’.
The introductory section of the paper includes a basic overview of Open Marxist and Regulation approaches. This is meant to establish a basic understanding between the author of the paper and the reader. It cannot substitute for reading of the texts in question themselves. Especially when it comes to the Regulation Approach, which comprises a dense and extensive set of conceptual tools, the ‘implied reader’ of this paper is someone who is already familiar at least with Aglietta’s seminal A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience. Sound understanding of Marx’s as well as of neoclassical economics is also presupposed.
2.1 Literature review
The seminal work that introduced Regulation Approach to the world was Aglietta’s A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience. Here, he built on some of the research work done by Destanne de Bernis, who proposed the term ‘regulation’, and the Research Group on the Regulation of the Capitalist Economy (French abbreviation GRREC), who “devoted themselves to describing the different norms and adjustment variables specific to capitalism” (Boyer 1990: 16). Aglietta’s book also helped to coin the term neo-Fordism, which in later literature became post-Fordism, originally proposed by Christian Palloix (Aglietta 1979: 122). Theory is an attempt to interpret changes in social formations in the United States by studying them as modes of regulation, which developed to make possible regimes of accumulation (in other words, the specific labour organisation and capital accumulation setups). The ‘make possible’, again, should not be understood in a predominantly functionalist sense – Aglietta tries to see relations of production as essentially indeterminate, developing ‘spontaneously’ as sets of social structures. These structures are necessary to contain social contradictions. The study is a detailed analytical work packed with historical analysis of quantitative and qualitative data.
Although it took six years to sell the whole first run of the French edition of the book, the Approach was quickly picked up by an ever-growing group of researchers (Boyer 1990: 18 and 22-4).
There developed a variety of sub-approaches. In macroeconomic analysis, for example, there are differences in reliance on Kaleckian, Kaldorian, or neo-Keynesian toolboxes (Jessop 1988:150). Also, different researchers adopted different theories of value, ranging from more subjective to more objective versions. Aglietta himself, for example, adhered strongly to Marx’s labour theory of value in Theory, yet in his later La violence de la monnaie (1982) and in Les metamorphoses de la société salariale (1984) he abandoned it (Baslé 1995: 26).
But this arguably does not amount to a substantive difference. Where Regulationists themselves see their approaches as different is the precise understanding of the concept of regulation. Destanne de Bernis’ Grenoble group tends to understand regime of regulation as heavily formed by the state (Boyer 1990:16). The Paris school that follows more closely the concepts introduced by Aglietta rejects the notion that “regimes of accumulation remain invariant over the long run, only the institutions supporting them change without affecting their nature” (Boyer 1990: 17).
This paper follows the Paris variant of the Regulation Approach. Aglietta’s Theory will be the most heavily quoted source. This is because, first, it remains the most complete introduction to the Approach, and secondly, because due to its adherence to labour theory of value it provides a good basis for a comparison with Open Marxist texts, which, too, use labour theory of value, yet in a discursively different way. Two other books will be used for reference, Boyer’s The Regulation School: A Critical Introduction, and the compendium Régulation Theory: State of the Art, edited by, again, Boyer and Yves Saillard.
As for Open Marxism, the trilogy Open Marxism, Volumes I-III, will be used as the primary source, since it is the kind of a manifesto of the approach. And since this paper compares political economy discourses, two other books by Open Marxist authors that deal with this area will be used, The Politic of Change: Globalization, Ideology and Critique, edited by Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis, and Global Capital, National State and the Politics of Money, edited by Bonefeld and John Holloway. Occasionally, there will be references to other books by the core Open Marxist authors, in an effort to go to those works where concepts that appear hazy might be clarified. Also, an important source of information on Open Marxism is the journal Capital & Class.
The paper heavily relies on analysis of concepts. For this, a source is needed that clarifies in detail the extension of Marx’s conceptology as well as pitfalls of his methodological approaches. The author of this paper found none as helpful as Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx. There appears an occasional footnote reference to other neo-Marxists, such as Ernst Mandel, whose Late Capitalism especially is an extensive treatise both on epistemology and methodology and on key developments of modern capitalism.
Capital & Class provided a ‘battleground’ for the future Open Marxists and authors that critiqued their approaches, even from Regulationist positions (for example Jessop 1988). However, there does not exist, to the knowledge of the author of this paper, an extensive monographical critique of Open Marxism, let alone a comparison with the Regulation Approach. Since, again, these two share a number of stated aims and, nominally, concepts, and yet come to very different conclusions regarding nature of socio-economic reality and presciptions for praxis, it is worth investigating how this becomes possible.
2.2 The two schools
2.2.1 Regulation Approach
The Regulation Approach has become in the wider academic world associated with the terms Fordism and neo- or post Fordism. The term ‘Fordism’ has been adopted from Gramsci’s analysis of US capitalism (Boyer 1990: ix). As we shall see later, Fordism does not refer to an economy where some employers prefer Ford’s assembly line techniques and the wage contract where employees get paid relatively well, in homogeneous wage bands, while the industrial conglomerate siphons back this purchasing power through sales. The term denotes the type of economy based on Fordist labour organisation and on economy-wide organisation of production and demand that provides for a smooth commodity cycle. Post Fordism (we will use this chronologically younger term in preference to Neo-Fordism) refers to a regime where new technologies and labour organisation are accompanied by changing patterns and principles of capital accumulation. Economies of scale are replaced by economies of scope and of networks. Massified labour force based on manual skills is being broken up into smaller units where flexibility rather than assembly line rigidity is the norm (Jessop 2002: 96-103). And so on.
The association with these two words has become somewhat excessive and unfortunate. It leads to the simplifying view that what the Regulation Approach is primarily concerned with is the need to somehow ‘periodise’ the development of capitalism. Regulationists state clearly, however, that this would be putting the carriage before the horse. Indeed, in his 1979 Theory, Aglietta even expresses doubt whether something new will soon replace Fordism and as late as 2002 Jessop expresses reservations about the notion of Post Fordism (2002: 97).
Proponents of the Regulation Approach start with questions. Rather than proving discontinuities and crisis tendencies in capitalism, they try to pose questions about them. How come, they ask, that capitalism, despite the internal contradictions researched by Marx, has survived for so long? Furthermore, the Regulationists are concerned with very specific and recent phenomena of economic history. Why is it that what is called Keynesian demand management stopped working in 1970s? How come that the Wall Street crash of 1987, unlike the one in 1929, did not usher in an economic depression?
The core of the Regulation Approach consists of Marxist concepts. Indeed, as Robert Boyer states in his Regulation School: A Critical Introduction, “the objective of the regulation school until the early 1980s was the critical renovation of Marxist economic analysis”. He acknowledges that this strictly Marxist framework has since become ”somewhat dispersed” (1990: 26). Nevertheless, the link to Marx is indisputable. Michel Aglietta starts off his seminal Theory by asserting “the potential of Marx’s concepts” but also by insisting on the need to re-examine them with “maximum rigour” in order not to be confused about their precise meanings (2000: Aglietta 17). Regulationists, however, also “begin with a critique of orthodox Marxism, since they reject the idea of general, eternal laws applicable to all socioeconomic systems” (Boyer 1990: vii). Instead, they focus on the terms, mostly relations and modes of production, that allow a construction of a framework for a dynamic analysis of socio-economic systems. They combine the insights of structuralism with the approaches expounded by the Annales school of historical research. ”On these foundations were built the key concepts of regulation theory: institutional forms, the wage relation, regimes of accumulation, and modes of regulation, their combination defining a mode of development” (Boyer 1990: viii).
A detailed overview of Regulation theory concepts will follow in the next chapters, but as a brief summary, we can start from the notion that institutional forms, or structures, contain social contradictions. The mode of regulation reproduces these structures and therefore serves to preserve the continuity of the mode of accumulation. The wage relation is a specific institutional form that serves to preserve capitalist mode of regulation.
This deployment of Marxist concepts serves one aim: the “renovation of positive research” (Boyer 1990: 32), understanding success at prediction as a test of the viability of a model (Boyer 1990: 23). The Regulation Approach is and has been from the very beginning an attempt to unite rigorous empirical work with more abstract framework concepts.
The very beginning of the Approach goes to Destanne de Bernis, as we mentioned in the previous section, who coined the term ‘regulation.’ De Bernis tried to analyse through rigorous empirical research how the “maximization of the rate of profit makes itself felt through two major tendencies – namely the declining rate of profit and the equalization of sectoral rates of profit”. These three sets of variables put together indicate a mode of regulation (Boyer 1990: 16).
There were some ambiguities in the approach of this research group, which later became known as the Grenoble school. Especially, the state was accorded here the key role in preserving a particular regime of accumulation, “to the point where one could have the impression of a single decision-making center that is relatively conscious of the long-terms interests and necessities of the system” (Boyer 1990: 16). As Boyer sums it up, “in the end, the notions borrowed from systems theory proved to offer no more than a metaphor and a heuristic principle, not a starting point for a precise, quantified analysis of the dynamics of accumulation” (Boyer 1990: 17).
But in subsequent theoretical development the approach was radically re-shaped by Aglietta and his path-breaking Theory.
Aglietta shared with de Bernis the goal of constructing an alternative to the worldview of neoclassical economics, especially as embodied in the general equilibrium theory. At the same time, however, he rejected the notion that one can arrive at a meaningful analytical framework by supplanting the role of economic laws by the role of a quasi-conscious center such as the state that seeks to modify institutions in order to preserve a regime of accumulation.
Aglietta starts with the notion of social relations which become quasi codified in some structural (institutional) forms. This means that the social scientist subscribing to the Regulation Approach now studies structures and their “relevant institutional forms”. In capitalism, the most fundamental ones are money and especially the wage relation, which represents a specific form of surplus appropriation (Boyer 1990: 37). The wage relation is at the same time an interface to the necessary corollary, the mode of consumption (Boyer 1990:17). Hence the view of the state as “ a set of institutionalized compromises” (Boyer 1990: 41).
Thus, “the concept of structural (or institutional) forms is intended to shed light on the origins of the patterns guiding the reproduction of economic formations over given historical periods” (Boyer 1990: 37). The emphasis is on the analysis of the particular space and time, to the point of theorizing what Jessop calls the “spatio-temporal fix” (2002: 12). Regulationists acknowledge their debt to Althusserian structuralism, which is evident in their emphasis on the notions of determinate structure, on the reproduction mechanisms and on the notion of articulation. On the other hand, they reject the ahistoricity of this school. Institutional forms can take on a multiplicity of shapes, hence the importance of the time and space dimension.
The Regulation Approach differs therefore from determinist strains in Marxism. It also rejects the neoclassical notion of general equilibrium, and instead relies on the analysis of ruptures, which arise when a given mode of accumulation reaches its limit and a new mode of consumption as well as that of production must be found to preserve the capital-labour relationship of extraction of surplus value and expansion of productive forces. And at the same, the Approach also refuses the neoclassical and contractual (pace Locke) view of society and economy as a mosaic of independent entities, endowed with definite preferences and production capabilities (Boyer 1990: 45).
Sometimes post Fordism gets lumped together with other post- notions, including those that express a more technologically determinist view or the ones that invests the new labour organisation with a great deal of optimism. In 1970s an 1980s, a number of sociologists noted the phenomenon of ‘Third Italy’ – the rise of small firms in Italian North, marked by “productive decentralisation and social integration” (Brusco 1982, quoted from Kumar 1995: 38). This shift away from the Taylorist and Fordist industrial organisation, even ‘de-industrialisation’ led to the hope that the ‘disorganised capitalism’ of 1960s and later was pregnant with freer forms of work and social organisation “leading to a decline of class politics and the dissolution of the national corporatist system of industrial relations” (Kumar 1995: 48). In Britain, there was a series of articles in Marxism Today, culminating in June 1989 with The Manifesto for New Times, published by the executive committee of the British Communist Party, where Fordism and Post Fordism was given a rather decisive opposition (Kumar 1995: 50-51).
It needs to be said here that the Regulationists, first, usually do not accept the shift from Fordism to Post Fordism as necessarily real, substantiated and of overriding epistemological importance (Boyer 1990: xi-xii), and that, secondly, they tend to reject the notions that new forms of labour organisation and new technologies can overcome the ever-continuing process of exploitation which is the very core of the capitalist process.
Even before we set out on a journey through Open Marxist and Regulationist discourses, one very clear difference between the two approaches is noticeable. Where Open Marxists programmatically refrain from any hints at prescription for praxis, Regulationists do not only strive to provide testable hypotheses, but they come up with detailed policy prescriptions. This is evident in the 2000 Postface to Aglietta’s Theory (originally published in English in 1979), or Jessop’s The Future of the Capitalist State, where he, basically, advocates the need to accept the shift form Keynesian Welfare State (the Fordist form of regulation) to Schumpeterian Workfare State, marked by a stronger emphasis on input-based policies by the government (strong education, continuous education and re-training, for example) rather than on corporatist wage-bargaining support and so on.
2.2.2 Open Marxism
Open Marxism falls within the libertarian, anarchoid strain of the Marxist tradition, something which is marked by their rejection of any benign views of the state as a counter-balance to capital. John Holloway, one of the key proponents of Open Marxism, explicitly rejects the notion that the working class should strive to take control of state structures. This, he contends, would only entangle the workers in the power struggles so typical of capitalism, he says, arguing that “instrumentalism means engaging with capital on capital’s own terms” (Holloway 2002: 214). In place of drawing an alternative path he proclaims that “we do not know how to change the world” but that “the openness of uncertainty is central to revolution” (Holloway 2002: 215). This corresponds to the manifesto sentence of Open Marxism that “1980s Marxism… was all too ready to endorse existing reality” (Bonefeld et al 1992: x).
Open Marxists’ analysis of economic phenomena usually revolves around the notion of ‘insubordinate labour’ even to the point that this is almost automatically always prominently represented in the causal chain of events leading to any kind of economic hiccups. And when it comes to prescriptions for actions, Open Marxists, similarly, stress ‘the power of labour to resist exploitation.’
Open Marxists seek, to a large extent, to make a “contribution to the growing field of international political economy” (Bonefeld and Holloway 1996: 3). Their scope of writing covers topics such as the rise of ‘credit economy’, the fall of the Bretton Woods system, the problems (or demise, as they state) of Keynesian macroeconomics and the rise of ‘monetarism’ (by which they practically understand any laissez-faire policy, not just Friedman’s prescriptions), the creeping inflation of 1960s, the Mexican debt crisis of 1982. And, of course, the meaning of ‘globalisation’.
Conceptually, Open Marxism borrows heavily from several sources. Most notably from Marx, who is often quoted, even to the point that the reader meets terms otherwise considered obsolete, such as ‘plethora of capital’ (Bonefeld 2000: 56). Open Marxists also use terms such as accumulation and overaccumulation, which, though featured in Marx, come up frequently in the Regulation Approach and were often mentioned during the 1970s ‘state derivation debate’, so the inspiration probably came from these sources as well. Another heavily used term is ‘depoliticisation’, a word coined by Friedrich von Hayek in 1970s to denote the need to insulate economic decision-making from immediate political turbulences. Other than that, there is very little direct engagement with either neoclassical or other neo-Marxist authors. They mostly cite each other, creating a rather close and practically incestuous circle. This extends to citation of simple facts – Open Marxists cite one another even when it comes to simple technical data, for which they cannot be primary sources, such as when Holloway quotes Bonefeld on the ratio of dollar supply to gold reserves held by the Federal Reserve (1996a: 31)
The name ‘Open Marxism’ is designed to denote the epistemological and methodological approach that aims to transcend reified categories of thought, the character of which is minted in the class struggle itself. “ a central target for Marxism with an open character is fetishism. Fetishism is the construal (in theory) and the constitution (in practice) of social relations as ‘thinglike’, perverting such relations into a commodified and sheerly structural form” (Bonefeld et al, 1992: xii). Hence the criticism of anything seeking to identify structures: “the structuralist approach makes a methodological principle out of the economics-politics separation inscribed in bourgeois society itself” (Bonefeld et al, 1992: xv).
As mentioned in the ‘Introduction’, the Open Marxists sort out for attack both structuralists like Althusser or Poulantzas, and authors of the Regulation school. “A sociological approach to social change seeks to identify key variables (such as technological development from mass assembly lines to ‘new technology’ or shifting articulations of ‘the economy’ and ‘politics’) which make everything clear” (Bonefeld et al 1992: xvi).
Periodisation, as part of the ‘sociological tendencies’ in Marxism, is, according to Open Marxists, part of conceiving ‘forms’ in a genus-species way, which, apparently, means falling into the trap of worldview through reified lens. “In contrast to this, form-analysis construes the historical development of capitalism as discontinuous only in and through the continuity of its form: that is through the movement of contradiction constituted by class” (Bonefeld et al, 1992: xviii). All ‘intermediate concepts’ are, naturally, out. (Bonefeld et al, 1992: xvi).
If… we learn that form amounts not to species but to mode of existence then it is incumbent on ourselves to act within, and through, and against, the form(s) under which we live. In ‘the last instance’ these forms are our own. The traditional Marxist dichotomy as between ‘structure’ and struggle’ is surpassed because class struggle is informed while, at the same time, class struggle forms and informs the conditions which it either takes on board, reproduces, or explodes” (Bonefeld et al, 1992: xvii, emphasis in the original).
This doesn’t amount to much yet, and we will deal in more detail with both Open Marxist conceptology and the metadiscourse pertaining to their epistemological approach later. Three things, however, need to be underlined. First, to stress it again, their opposition to ‘sociologizing’ and, by extension, distrust of empiricism. Secondly, the approach of Open Marxists is decidedly ahistorical (as seen in the rejection of historical periodisation, Bonefeld et al, 1992: xvii). Thirdly, the constitutive element of the crucial, for them, dialectical development is the class relation, rather than the dynamism of relations of production as in the Regulations Approach..
This leads to the fact that Open Marxists tend to portray events in terms of ‘capital’ struggling with ‘labour’. Thus, “capital lives by turning the productive power of labour against itself” (Holloway 1996a: 25). “Capital does not compete with capital for nothing. It competes for a greater share in the abstract wealth pumped out of labour” (Bonefeld 2000: 45). “Capital cannot autonomise itself from living labour; the only autonomisation possible is on labour’s side” (Bonefeld 1992b: 103).
‘Capital’, at least in the narrative form, becomes almost an entity endowed with a will, a subject rather than object of discourse. Such a statement might seem unfair at this point, but hopefully the following sections will create a more representative picture of the Open Marxist discourse. The aim of this paper, after all, is to identify how successful Open Marxism is in ‘opening up’ Marxist categories.
3.1 Capital and capitalism
For Marx, the engine of history is the development of productive forces by man. These forces are societally governed by relations of production.
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society enter into contradiction with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression of the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto… No social formation ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions for their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. (Marx, Preface to Critique of Political Economy, cited from Elster 1985: 243)
The very definition of productive forces is not without problems. For a detailed discussion I recommend Elster (1985: 243-253). However, we do not need to be concerned with this problem here. What remains a fact is that Marx understood his analysis of capitalism as both synchronic and diachronic, theoretical and empirical. The broad outline is clear. „In Marx’s philosophy of history, humanity appears as a collective subject whose inherent striving towards full realization shapes the course of history… “ (Elster 1975: 7).
The extraction from nature of material means necessary as the condition of their existence is what drives men into social formations, into class relationships. This high level of abstraction and broad epistemological outlook is complemented by meticulous groundwork. For Marx, capitalism is a model, and he charts how this ideal type has been developing under various historical conditions. For example, he paid a lot of attention to the transitory forms between feudalism and capitalism, distinguishing between exploitation through usurer’s capital and merchant’s capital (Elster 1985: 255). Indeed, apart from periodisation depending on changing forms of relations of production, Marx, it seems, sketched other approaches to historical periodisation, where goals of production rather than modes where of paradigmatic importance (Elster 1985: 242).
The Open Marxism shirks from this approach to history. The way authors in this tradition portray movement of events is centered around class struggle exclusively. History, to paraphrase them grossly, are attempts by capital to capture/re-capture/sustain command of labour. Of course, this is partly dictated by the their scope of narrative, which is contained to capitalism alone. But it is precisely the aim of this paper to discuss the analytical, narrative, discursive, ideological yield of such an approach.
The term “command of labour” is complemented by the phrases such as ‘capital is nothing without labour’, ‘the fundamental relationship between labour and capital’, and so on. In other words, what the Open Marxists try to do is to draw attention to the fact that capital should be viewed as a social relation.
So, on the one hand we have Marx, explaining the form that relations of production through their ability to maximize the rate of growth of the productive forces (Elster 1985: 242)6. On the other, we have the Open Marxists, who try to draw attention to the fact that capital is a social relation. However, perhaps it should be stressed that it is a productive relation. This is not borne out in Open Marxist analysis. While Regulationists expressly attack tenets of neoclassical economics, Open Marxists create a target out of disparate statements by economists and political scientists, and then try to attack it. A good example would be Bonefeld’s discussion of globalisation. He discusses the construal of globalisation as a phenomenon defined by the fact that some inanimate force, international capital, exacts from nations to conform to its terms of playing the economic game. At the end, Bonefeld concludes that
it makes no sense … to see capital as a thing that can be owned, exchanged, moved from one place to another, applied in that industry or in another, transformed into money and moved from one country to another. The notion of capital as a ‘thing’ and of the state as an ‘actor’ that is accountable to this ‘thing’, leads to nowhere except to the endorsement of invisible principles as the most refined criteria of truth (Bonefeld 2000: 64).
Bonefeld here does not differentiate between levels of analysis. Why does it not make sense for an actor who is forced into a particular game to regard social forces unleashed at him as ‘things’? Is money not a thing as well as a thing representing social relations? When I carry a wad notes, am I carrying no-thing, only a relation?
To start unravelling this discursive conundrum, let us start with one of the most fundamental categories, the one that gave name to the most prominent of –isms in Marxism, capitalism7 – let us talk about capital.
The Regulation Approach goes back to Marx and his insistence on the primacy of the development of productive forces. For Regulationists, the notion of capital underlies a particular form of the division of labour (Aglietta 2000: 38). The starting point for understanding what capital, in abstract, is, must be the more concrete notion of social capital. This expresses the sum total of the productive forces of the society. The moving mechanism that makes it possible to express the productive forces of society as some space of value is abstract labour. “ abstract labour is a social relation that transforms the products of labour into equivalent categories, known as commodities” (Aglietta 2000: 39). In a commodity economy, the homogenization of value happens via the mechanism of exchange, as soon as circulation of commodities is established. The commodity economy, “realizes the uniformity of products… by establishing an equivalence in which private labour appears simply as a fraction of the overall labour of society” (Aglietta 2000: 38). The uniform character of labour, made possible by commodity circulation and expressed through the notion of abstract labour, makes it possible to conceive a homogeneous space of value. Then, it is “quite correct… to say that commodities have a value, just as it is correct to say that material bodies subject to universal gravitation have weight.” On the other hand, “it is as absurd to speak of the value of labour as to speak of the weight of gravity”. It is the “empiricist tradition and their ignorance of the conditions of the mathematical operation of measurement, conditions that require the measurable space to be constructed before it is possible to measure, that have led economists to such aberrations” (Aglietta 2000: 39).
Thus, “production and exchange are two separate processes in the social division of labour”. They are the real contradiction. (Aglietta 2000: 44). What contains this contradiction is the money constraint. But this will be discussed later.
So, capital happens through commodity economy. Acts of exchange make it possible to create a single space of value. Structuration of social capital into competitive forms would not make sense without this homogenization. When the common basis is defined via commodification, and becomes fetishised through value structures, “social capital divides into fractions and structural forms” (Aglietta 2000: 21).
Fetishism is an important economic concept introduced by Marx. We might as well discuss it here in some detail, as fetishism is one of the favourite expressions of Open Marxism.
For Marx, fetishisation is an inevitable fact of economic life (at least under a commodity economy).
A commodity … is a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour… This I call Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (Marx 1967: 72, emphasis added)
Marx is intent on explaining how men are constricted by aggregate structures that arise due to social need to create relations that best harness the development of productive forces. The contradiction between individual wills and structural requirements is to some extent resolved by supra-intentional consequences of individual actions. This can be illustrated by the account of fetishism of gold in Marx’s Grundrisse. Gold had developed over centuries as a storage of value and also as means of payment, and then as the object of universal craving, at least throughout many regions on the Eurasian plane. The hoarding of gold, in Marx’s account, was directly responsible for the development of mercantilist economy:
The period which precedes the development of modern industrial society opens with a general greed of money on the part of individuals as well as states. The real development of the sources of wealth takes place, as it were, behind their backs, as a means of gaining possession of the representatives of wealth. Wherever it does not arise out of circulation – as in Spain – but has to be discovered physically, the nation is impoverished, whereas the nations which have to work in order to get it from Spaniards develop the sources of wealth and really become rich…The hunt for gold in all countries leads to its discovery; to the formation of new states; initially to the spread of commodities, which produce new needs, and draw distant continents into the metabolism of circulation, i.e. exchange8. (Marx 1973: 225)
At any rate, fetishism is a necessary part of commodity economy. Fetishism creates the dynamic mechanism otherwise known as competition.
A capitalist society is not a society driven by a simple coercive principle, it is not a society of two layers in which one would straightforwardly coerce the other to do something. It was precisely Marx’s prescience to analyze the society as a movement of contradictions that allowed him to finally arrive at a holistic model that views society at the same time as a structure and as an ever-metamorphosing dynamic system. This conception of movement of contradictions does not make sense unless those are seen at every level of the society, as, for example, competition of individual capitals as much as contradictions of broader societal structures.
This is why the Regulation Approach dwells so much on the notion of structures. Structures make it possible to define contradictions, which can otherwise be described only at a high level of abstraction.
Now, a commodity economy has a specific way of containing contradictions. As Aglietta states, the law of capital accumulation and the law of competition (the two together defining the structure in motion of capitalism) lead to the articulation of the institutional relation specific to commodity economy, which is the wage relation (Aglietta 2000: 17-18). The wage relation is key to understanding the interplay of production/exchange/consumption. It is key to understanding how circulation of commodities defines capitalist relations, leads to the money constraint. The analysis of the wage relation helps Regulationists to come up with a coherent account of the creeping inflation of Fordism (see ‘Money’).
For Aglietta, “the competition between autonomous capitals issues form the fundamental antagonism of the wage relation that is the motive force of capital accumulation” (2000: 18). The Regulationists, then, “conceive capital not as an immanent entity but as the development of the wage relation” (2000: 169).
So sum up, as we have seen so far, in the Regulation Approach, social capital is the ability of the society to transform nature into means of reproduction of itself. This social capital, an abstraction, comes to be realised only through a process of relations of production governed by laws of accumulation and competition.
Underlying them are laws of value. The notion of value makes possible the structuration of human efforts into a complex of coordination, control and production that creates the sphere of production. In the Regulation Approach, the key institutional feature of capitalist economy, the key structural factor that unites the spheres of production and consumption and makes the commodity economy possible, is the wage relation.
The structuration of social labour is, thus, possible through the interplay of production and exchange or, better, circulation of commodities through exchanges, where “production and exchange are two separate processes in the social division of labour” (Aglietta 2000: 44). The Regulation Approach logically leads into an analysis of how exchange processes bear on the production sphere. This is very different from Open Marxist texts, where circulation of commodities is never even sketchily analysed and much is made of the phrase ‘command of labour’. Open Marxists construct their explanations of productive processes without much hint at either the concept of capital circuit (see next subchapter) or a theory of consumption9.
This very naturally leads to terms such as ‘unproductive capital’ and ‘rise of money’. Open Marxists tend to conceive of capital through lens of static analysis, where surplus value is at one point created in the economy and by having it the capitalists ‘have’ the command of labour.
Marx himself saw this as a fallacy of composition. Value is created only through exchange, and one set of exchanges cannot lead to the production of surplus value at the aggregate level. “The capitalist class as a whole, in any country, cannot overreach themselves” (Marx 1967: 163). Surplus value is created dynamically, as we will discuss in the section ‘Value’. This is where the difference between the static analysis of general equilibrium and the dynamic analysis of abstract labour theory comes into play. Since in neoclassical accounts, ‘capital’ is taken as a given, “the irreversibility of economic time is inconceivable, since everything is homogeneous and no qualitative change exists to create any temporal rhythm”. In abstract labour-based economics, on the other hand, “it is only the time of socially necessary labour that is homogeneous, underlining the predominance of the present conditions of the division of labour.” It clearly follows that “there is no necessary correspondence between past labour and present abstract labour” (Aglietta 2000: 44-45). This is an absolutely crucial statement. In the last instance, it informs a very specific characterisation of the monetary constraint, one that cannot be conceived as a simple relation of money representing fragments of labour, without accepting the temporal element into the equation.
This is why the strict dichotomy between money (being bearer of value) and credit (being a promise of value) as employed by Open Marxists, does not make too much sense for the Regulation Approach.
The difference between this static component of analysis and the dynamic one is in Marx partly conceptualised as difference between absolute and relative surplus value. Absolute surplus value is created by extension of the working day, for example, while intensification of labour obtains as relative surplus value (Aglietta 2000: 50-1). Intensification of labour is expressed as rising labour productivity. In standard Marxist practice this is presented as change in the technical composition of capital (Aglietta 2000: 52-56). “Labour productivity is defined as those processes of transformation of productive forces over time that raise the rate of surplus-value by modifying the structure of the social process of production” (Aglietta 2000: 55). Changes in labour productivity reflect the ability of the circulation process to destroy value, in the form of full consumption of constant capital, the “means and object of labour” (Aglietta 2000: 53).
So, the difference between Open Marxism and Regulationism is apparent at the very surface narrative level. While Open Marxist always stress that “labour is the substance of capital”, Regulationists formulate the relation through surplus value: “surplus value must be incorporated into capital, it is capital’s very sustenance” (Aglietta 2000: 57).
This will be discussed in more detail later. What is important to realize here is the importance of exchange. “ the primacy of exchange value over use-value makes capital appear as ‘value creating value’” (Boyer 1990: 34). To an individual capitalist this appears as profit, extracted surplus that gives him command of labour. At a societal level the surplus extracted reflects nothing else than the real re-integration of labour into the production-consumption circuit. This is why the term wage relation is of such heuristic and analytical value. It is a concept that manages to integrate micro and macro level of analysis by insisting on the dynamic equation of production and consumption.
What the preceding lines hopefully made clear is that the notion of capital does not make sense without the notion of surplus value. Marx defined it through labour theory of value, but there are other ways of constructing a notion of exploitation, in other words of expropriation of some surplus value. The easiest, very simplified, way is to state that “being exploited means, fundamentally, working more hours than are needed to produce the goods one consumes” (Elster 1985: 167). John Roemer, for example, creates an exploitation theory based on control of factors of production in his A General Theory of Exploitation and Class, without recourse to labour theory of value.
In simple terms, surplus value is the means of reproduction of labour power which the individual labour power produces beyond the necessity of its own reproduction. We will discuss the notion of value shortly. For now, let us simply state that the value, taking, for example, its monetary expression as a proxy, is appropriated by the capitalist and used. Only at this specific moment does the notion of command of labour make sense. “Value” created by the production process is at the same time for the capitalist the means of reproduction of the capital relation and for the proletarian means of reproduction of himself. “Production thereby constitutes a structure in motion, in other words an organic set of social relations whose evolution is the condition for perpetuating the wage relation” (Aglietta 2000: 111).
At the same time, since value is properly created in the sphere of exchange, it is safe to say that “capitalist production is the unity of a labour process and a process of valorisation, in which the valorization is dominant” (Aglietta 2000: 111).
The sphere of valorisation is the sphere of competition. “The central issue of controversy over the Marxist conception of the capitalist system is the articulation of the laws of capital accumulation and the laws of competition” (Aglietta 2000: 17). Here, the distinction between individualist, intentional explanations and the supra-intentional outcomes is of primary importance. Marx made this distinction by trying to show how individual capitalists will eventually subvert themselves as a class by necessarily pursuing individual benefit. For Regulationists, the issue of autonomous capitals, competing with each other, is inseparable from the analysis of the process of accumulation and competition. So, the term “regulation” as understood by the approach not only rejects the notion of a centre of the regulatory process. The Regulation Approach also “breaks with the Marxist tradition which makes capital into an omniscient and sometimes Machiavellian collective subject, managing the contradictions it engenders at will”, especially through the state structure (Boyer 1990: 48).
So, Regulation Approach views capital first and foremost as “the social relation of appropriation” (Aglietta 2000: 46). For this purpose, the analysis of laws of accumulation and of its converse, the laws competition, are of primary importance.
Open Marxists, in contrast, tend to disregard the notion of autonomous capitals and approach the issue of competition solely through the mechanistic view of exploitation.
One telling remark is when Bonefeld states that “for Marx, the notion of the international division of labour does not depend on Ricardo’s  idea of ‘comparative advantages’” (Bonefeld 2000:37). Let us make it clear that the whole notion of comparative advantage rests on a simple static analysis of advantages of the division of labour, international or interpersonal. There is nothing in Marx that excludes the notion of comparative advantage as a principle of capital accumulation10. In fact, applying comparative advantage is exactly applying the laws of competition and accumulation in such a way as to strengthen exploitation, via circulation. Application of comparative advantage leads to extraction of surplus of labour, which, to complete the process and gain the bespoke advantage, must be used productively.
We will come back to this statement by Bonefeld and discuss it in more detail in the section on capital circuit. At this moment, it is simply necessary to point out that Open Marxists apply the notion of capital accumulation without recourse to abstract labour, social capital, commodity circulation. This leads to a distorted view of mechanisms of competition and division of labour. In the article quoted above, Bonefeld reverses Marx’s analysis of how it becomes possible to speak of an average rate of profit and instead produces a scheme where capital ‘compares’ rates of profit in different states and punishes “national states should the exploitation of labour within their jurisdiction fall below the average world market rate of profit” (Bonefeld 2000: 37).
Since the meagre conceptology of Open Marxists precludes them from portraying how capital arises, they need take recourse to simple narrative mechanisms of ‘capital tries to regain the command of labour’, thereby constituting an entity almost as if endowed with a will, which harnesses the proletarians by almost physical means. This is the picture that inevitably comes out of Open Marxist texts, their scrupulous adherence to key Marx’s terms notwithstanding.
From now on, this leitmotif – how the construal of concepts might indicate a certain self-defeating process in Open Marxism - will be pursued through a more detailed analysis of concepts that reincarnate as ‘capital’ after they are consumed in a process of more detailed and specific analysis of social interactions. Especially important will be the topic of money and credit, followed by an analysis of the production-consumption circuit and the whole issue of coercion or command in a capitalist economy.
However, before we proceed to capital circuit and then money, let us state with Aglietta that “surplus-value itself depends on a more general concept, that of value, which expresses the relations by which particular labour performed in different sites where productive forces are gathered together becomes social labour” (Aglietta 2000: 37), and discuss the notion of value in some detail.