Vol. XL No. 36 September 04, 2016

The Subversion of Concepts

Prabhat Patnaik

Consider two statements: “Petty production is being squeezed out by the encroachment of capital”, and “Petty production is being squeezed out by the encroachment of multinational corporations”. Many would consider the two statements to be more or less identical, the second being only a more specific form of expressing the first. But they are wrong: there is a world of difference between these two statements.

Capital as a social relation has certain immanent tendencies; these work themselves out through the actions of economic agents, each of whom is compelled to act in particular ways by the logic of the system. For instance the fact that capitalists accumulate is not because they necessarily wish to do so,but because the logic of the system compels them to do so. Capitalists in short are not free agents, free to do whatever they wish, but are themselves coerced by the logic of the system; they too are alienated beings under capitalism, merely playing out a script dictated by the system. Karl Marx had gone to the extent of referring to the capitalist as “capital personified”.

Multinational Corporations are entities that are no different in this respect from the individual capitalist. They are not synonymous with capital but are agents through whose actions, dictated by the logic of the system, the immanent tendencies of capital work themselves out. To treat them as synonymous with “capital” is to obliterate this entire conception of capital with its immanent tendencies, to wipe out this entire discourse about the logic of the system and the “spontaneity” of the system, and to operate in effect with a very different theory.

Deep Political Implications
But this shift of “subject” from a “conceptual subject”, namely capital, to a “tangible subject”, namely multinational corporations, is not just a theoretical shift. It has deep political implications. Capital with its immanent tendencies has to be transcended as a social category, through an overthrow of capitalism, if these immanent tendencies, such as the centralisation of capital, the continuous tendency to commoditise all spheres of social life, the destruction of petty production, the tendency to produce wealth at one pole and poverty at another, are to be done away with. Recognising capital as the conceptual “subject” of social dynamics therefore necessarily implies an agenda of social revolution as a condition for human freedom. But limiting our attention to multinational corporations as the drivers, or the “subject”, of social dynamics, gives the impression that they can be restrained, controlled, tamed, cajoled and forced to act in benevolent ways (“corporate social responsibility”) to improve the outcome and direction of these dynamics; from this perspective what follows is an agenda of reform, a progressive liberal agenda. A shift from the “conceptual subject” to a “tangible subject” therefore is not just a theoretical change; it is also a change of agenda, from a socialist agenda to a progressive liberal agenda.
Of course, in ordinary day-to-day speech we do not keep talking about “capital” but talk instead of multinational corporations, of multinational banks, even of individual industrial houses like the Tatas, the Birlas and the Ambanis as the entities against which the workers’ struggles are to take place. That is as it should be, since “conceptual subjects” are polemically difficult targets, while “tangible subjects” also make tangible, and therefore easy-to-comprehend, targets. And, even in practice, the day-to-day struggle, such as trade union action, is always against a particular tangible entity, against a “personification of capital”, as Marx had put it, rather than directly against the conceptual entity called “capital” (for that occurs with a lucidity of comprehension only in periods of revolutionary class struggle). But the point here is different, namely that a substitution of a “conceptual subject” by a “tangible subject” for polemical convenience or because of the particularity of the context of the struggle (such as a trade union action in an Ambani-owned factory) must never entail a substitution in the realm of theory.
Any such theoretical substitution, or any tendency to remain more or less confined to “tangible subjects” even while formally recognising the “conceptual subject” (which implicitly amounts to such a theoretical substitution) is to replace in effect a socialist agenda by a progressive liberal agenda. There are of course progressive liberals who are not socialists and who, quite consistent with their political beliefs, do not recognise “conceptual subjects”. They reject statements like “petty production is being squeezed out by the encroachment of capital” which was mentioned at the beginning, as apotheosizing something mystical called “capital” into the status of a “subject”. But for a socialist to substitute a “conceptual subject” by a “tangible subject” in the realm of theory amounts to abandoning the raison d’être of his or her socialist belief.
The propensity to do so however is particularly high these days because there are a large number of activist groups and NGOs, who are militant and well-meaning but not socialist, who are engaged quite intensely in struggles on particular issues affecting the people and with whom the Left must make common cause. Since the targets of these struggles are “tangible subjects”, continuous engagement in such struggles along with them by the Left runs the risk of pushing theory, and with it a whole array of “conceptual subjects”, into the background. The Left, I am arguing, must guard against this if it is to remain committed to its socialist project.
A second concept which is in danger of being similarly subverted is “imperialism”. The term “imperialism” refers to a network of relationships, involving the advanced and the underdeveloped capitalist countries. These relationships change over time, driven not only by the immanent tendencies of capital but also by the resistance of the people. The Reagan administration, or the Bush administration or the Obama administration are the “tangible subjects” through whose actions the “conceptual subject” that we call “imperialism” operates in practice. But precisely because imperialism is not tangible while all these entities through which it operates are, the tendency is to substitute the term “imperialism” by these other entities, exactly the way the term “capital” tends to get substituted by terms like “multinational corporations”, “multinational banks” and such like.
Sometimes terms like the “American empire”, or the “Evil empire”, or “US hegemony”, or just “Empire” which Hardt and Negri used in a well-known work, are used instead of “imperialism”. While these terms do describe certain relationships, unlike terms such as “Obama administration” that simply refer to particular existing entities, they too refuse to give any suggestion of a link with the immanent tendencies of capital. The problem again is not with the use of these terms per se but with the substitution of the term “imperialism” by these terms, ie, with the obliteration of the theory which derives from an understanding of the immanent tendencies of capital, and that therefore sees the transcendence of capitalism and, by implication, of these immanent tendencies of capital, as a condition for human freedom.
Here again since the Left has to work together with many activist groups who are militant on particular issues relating, for instance, to US aggression around the world, but who are not socialist and for whom these “conceptual subjects” like “imperialism” deriving from the immanent tendencies of capital have little meaning, it faces the danger of a subversion of its concepts and hence of sliding unconsciously into an intellectual stance of progressive liberalism from a commitment to socialism.
This is not to pooh-pooh such struggles or the need for the Left - by which I mean all those who see the necessity of transcending capitalism - to join progressive liberals in the course of these struggles. In fact progressive liberals often may be more militant in particular struggles than the Left. The point is that, while doing so, the Left must never abandon its own theoretical understanding that centres around a set of “conceptual subjects”.

Correct Understanding
It must adhere to its understanding not just out of some loyalty to the memory of Marx and Lenin, but because this understanding happens to be correct. The test of this correctness lies in the fact that specific struggles against “tangible subjects”, even when they are successful, bring only temporary victories which are negated as the immanent tendencies of capital assert themselves. In fact even the most massive “social engineering” that was forced on capitalism by the struggles of the working class in the post-war era,which witnessed Keynesian “demand management” and even ushered in a period referred to as the “Golden age of capitalism”, has been rolled back with the emergence of international finance capital (another “conceptual subject”) as a consequence of the immanent tendencies of capital. It is only when through a recursive build-up of specific struggles, a successful revolutionary challenge is mounted against this universe of “conceptual subjects” as a whole,that mankind would finally have moved beyond these specific struggles. Until then however the Left must adhere to its theoretical understanding based on these “conceptual subjects”, and hence be on guard against any subversion of its concepts.