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The Philosophy of Political Economy: Circumstances and Choices

Since my PhD happens to be in philosophy, due to my interests I often encounter the bemused question: "so how, exactly, is your chosen area of study philosophy?"  That is, since I tend to spend a lot of time doing academic work on radical political economists such as Samir Amin––and in the context of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism––I'm often told that my areas of interest are supposedly outside of my chosen discipline, that I'm not doing philosophy, and I've shot myself in my metaphorical job-hunting foot by studying and writing upon areas that are the property of "political science" or "sociology" or even "economics."

Well maybe I have cursed my academic career by choosing to focus on a political theory that leans towards what might be deemed "political economy."  I cannot help but recall how, years ago during my dissertation proposal process, a member of the philosophy department's faculty tried to block my project on the grounds that it was "not philosophy."  And though he prefaced his attempted block by arguing that he was unfamiliar with what I was researching, he seemed quite confident that I was doing something outside of what he accepted as proper philosophical investigation.  From that point on I could not help but feel as if I was engaged in a fight to try and prove that my chosen area of study was properly philosophical––which is a rather odd thing to do, if you think about it, since if you ask anyone to define philosophy, even so-called "philosophers", aside from the banal etymological definition ("philosophy is the love/study of wisdom" - what??), no one can agree on a definition in the first place.  All I can say is that I'm grateful I possessed three readers who cared about my project, who fought for its completion, and who eventually oversaw a defense, with an equally generous committee, where I ended up passing without revisions.  Now when I think back on that process, I cannot help but feel a faint and subversive pleasure at the thought of my bound thesis, which is filled with M-L-M inspired theory, on the department shelves beside treatises on the philosophy of cognitive science.

Still, now that I have to look for a job, when potential employers look at my CV and my interests I am still faced with the same question: how the bloody hell is this philosophy?  And though I've started to think that I need to focus my energy on looking for a secure job in an interdisciplinary program, this question still nags me because sometimes it makes me feel as if my degree was some sort of sham.  As if all the torturous, debt-ridden, I-feel-so-stupid-because-I-don't-know-as-much-about-this-tiny-academic-area-as-that-guy years did not lead to a deserved doctorate but, perhaps, something that I was just handed because of dogged persistence.  Hell, when you're a casualized intellectual worker who can never be sure if s/he will have a job come September, you start to feel as if all that time and money and angst was wasted, over-priced and framed PhD diploma notwithstanding.

So I figured that, because I've had all this time being contract faculty to think about it, maybe I should try to answer this question about philosophy and my area of study.  What do I do that is supposedly philosophical when I seem to spend so much time studying certain areas of political economy?  Well, keeping in mind that I don't think that I, or anyone else for that matter, can really define what is properly philosophical, I am going to try and answer this question.

In his essay "Philosophy and Circumstances", Alain Badiou argues that "philosophy confronts thinking as choice, thinking as decision.  Its proper task is to make the choice clear.  Hence, we can say: a philosophical situation involves the moment in which a choice is proclaimed––a choice of existence, or a choice of thinking." (Badiou, Polemics, 4)  So philosophy is about confronting the very act of thinking of a situation and interrogating the possibilities of choice that this situation requires.  Various circumstances require philosophical interrogation, in forcing relations, and how "it is necessary to relate a relation." (Ibid., 10)

So what exactly does this mean?  When it comes to the acceptable philosophical field deemed "the philosophy of science", Badiou's definition is clear: these philosophers examine the inherent logic of scientific frameworks, argue for definitions of these frameworks, place competing frameworks in logical relation, and attempt to argue why we must choose one mode of thinking over another.  Or when it comes to "the philosophy of mind", philosophers will go to great lengths to demonstrate why we must choose the cognitive science paradigm of the mind-body relation over the neural science paradigm (or vice versa), and argue why this choice should be clear.  They do not theorize the scientific boundaries of these situations in the first place: the philosophical situations are taken as given, are already presented, and the point is about the philosophical encounter itself, the relation of the terms, and how the relational definitions of these terms require a choice.

Now when it comes to politics, traditional philosophy finds itself in an odd place.  There is a tradition within my discipline that is known as "political philosophy" that is unfortunately rather antiquated, spending most of its time with liberal theorists from Locke to Arendt (I'm simplifying), and making rather outrageous (and supposedly "analytical") pronouncements about human nature.  My area of supposedly philosophical interest is generally outside of the boundaries of what passes as "political philosophy"––just as my area of political interest, thankfully, belongs properly to what the police of academic disciplinary boundaries wish to deem "political science" or "sociology."  So what the bloody hell am I doing in philosophy and what do my philosophical interests in political theory have to do with the Badiou quotations noted above?

(A tangent: here I have to be careful to note that I am not a Badiou scholar.  I have read and studied Badiou, but not as much as some of colleagues who are Badiou scholars.  Unlike some people who like citing Badiou, because of his past and current commitments to a radical politics, I do not pretend that I am an expert in his weighty theory because, after studying some of his most significant texts, I still find myself bemused.  Although my philosophical background has permitted me to appreciate what Badiou's rigour, along with the long-standing ontological problems he is trying to solve with his weighty analyses of metaphysics, I am also somewhat suspicious [and maybe this is just my crude activist history] of the amount of expertise that is required to understand these problems––and equally suspicious of those who excitedly use Badiou's terminology, as if it's the new revolutionary coca-cola, in what I take to be inappropriate and utterly misinformed ways.  I also find Badiou's reading of communism, as it has developed through Lenin and Mao, though gratifying because of its recognition of Maoism, somewhat problematic.  Even still, I find a lot of the things Badiou says about philosophy itself gratifying.)

In Metapolitics Badiou argues that there can be no such thing as political philosophy; rather, philosophy, because it is about confronting thinking as a decision, needs to be about politics.  So instead of a political philosophy we need to have a philosophy of politics.  For by reducing politics to an object of thought (which is what political philosophy does), we end up reifying the normative politics of the ruling class––we accept the state of affairs as is, and philosophize about it ad infinitum––rather than beginning with the understanding that "every opinion actually conforms to a mode of politics." (Badiou, Metapolitics, 24)

So, generally speaking, I am interested in interrogating, on what Badiou terms a metapolitical level, how opinions confirm to modes of politics and, also in accordance with Badiou's analysis of philosophical circumstances, the situation of politics.  My academic project is a philosophy of politics and, because of this, I treat political economy and political theory in the same that a philosophy of science treats the relations of competing scientific frameworks.

If it is possible for there to be a philosophy of science, why can there not be a philosophy of political economy?  The second order (or meta-) concerns of my work have to do with the problems produced by political economic frameworks.  I am inquiring about the relationship between these frameworks, comparing them logically against one another, and trying to ask questions about the circumstances that can be produced within a mode of politics that Marx and Engels once called "the science of history."  So for me the labour theory of value, for example, is less important when it comes to the "transformation problem" than when it comes to explaining, ur-logically and without any of the flourishes that lead to the stupidest and most illogical rejection, the grounds of value itself.  Define value first, and think of the logical ramifications of a rejection of the labour theory of value, and you will realize that the people who reject this theory haven't understood the circumstances in the first place––again, questions of metapolitics.

So for me, philosophically speaking, it is not enough to produce a bunch of ahistorical algorithms with supposedly "mathematical" logic (again, this is why I like Samir Amin who speaks of how the appeal to math in these situations is often a dodge), because I think it is important to "relate the relations" and make sense of what political circumstances are produced.  Better yet: what circumstances produce the most revolutionary choices––this is where my perhaps pitiful attempt at the philosophy of politics intersects with my interests as an activist.

Going further.  What are the philosophical foundations behind this thought?  Here is where I probably part ways with Badiou, especially with what he attempted to establish in Ethics and Theory of the Subject, just as I part ways with Louis Althusser and his sympathizers who, in an attempt to resist the stupidity of bourgeois humanism swung to the opposite and mechanical extreme.  What are the philosophical foundations behind human liberation and the revolutionary subject?  What are the material grounds that lead to a revolutionary rupture from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom?  In other words, what produces the necessity for revolution––why should, and why have, human beings resist oppression and what is the ontological reason behind this resistance?  For if we accept that there is no such thing as a human subject (this is a tangent, I admit), then just what precisely is rebelling and why should it rebel in the first place?  Point being: even if I do not accept Badiou's answers to these sets of questions, he's correct in arguing that these are the questions that concern philosophy.

So maybe this is what I'm doing as a supposed "philosopher" (an antiquated and pompous term that should probably be scrapped).  Circumstances, situations, choices, relational frameworks concerning political economy.  Generally: a philosophy of political economy––I think this needs to be done because, especially when it comes to the mess that is marxist scientific method ("science" in the older sense and in the sense meant by Beauvoir's category of ambiguity), there is a mess of logical categories versus logical categories.  And through my philosophical encountering I have been trying to force a choice within this relational framework: a communist theory that comes from a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective (but open to the future) because I believe it answers certain philosophical questions––just as I believe the competing frameworks are philosophically, as a philosopher of political economy, a fucking joke, just as I believe that the political economy that evolved from this position (and the political economy I have defended on this blog) is superior to other idiotic and illogical approaches.  This is the reason, on the metapolitical level, that I believe that other anti-capitalist approaches are lacking: anarchism, for example, fails when it is philosophically assessed––it lacks the theoretical tools to comprehend and respond to capitalism.  Furthermore, if we zero in on the "marxist" tradition, the reason I eventually drifted to the "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist" mode of politics was because the competing traditions did not, and could not, answer the questions produced by their philosophical circumstances.

I've been accused of rhetoric here but I will argue, as I will always argue, that what I am doing is pushing, philosophically and logically, a sustainable position and philosophically demonstrating (but only repeating others - I am not original) the boundaries of proper historical materialist discourse.  And I push this discourse for the same reasons that I believe capitalism is "philosophically" (but philosophy understood as an apprehension of the scientific comprehension of socialism versus barbarism) unsustainable.


  1. Excellent post, Josh. I think the centrality of the LTOV, as you point out - can only be understood philosophically - like Diane Elson puts it as a "value theory of labour." IMO, Marx's philosophical exercise was to historicize the LTOV, which started with Locke's stipulation that an apple becomes property when someone bites it - i.e. mixes his (always his) labour with the apple. the point of Marxist philosophy is not what makes labour appear as value, but what makes value appear as labour. The 11th thesis and all that... With that said, I believe that Carchedi and Shaikh solved the transformation problem...(but the LTOV they take straight from Ricardo..)

  2. Thanks Jordy... I've never heard the term "value theory of labour" but I like it because, by rearranging the words like that, it explains in some ways precisely why the theory is important. Although I agree that Carchedi and Shaikh (along with others we could add!) should be understood as demonstrating that the transformation problem is often nothing more than a bourgeois political economist red herring, it is still treated (wrong perhaps) as *the* problem by people whose ideology and careers are contingent on rejecting the LToV (or, since I like this wording you've quoted, the VToL).

  3. I think you'd really like Diane Elson's work - she coined the phrase. Re Transformation problem - its not nearly as important as the points you make...But anyway, check out Diane Elson's work..


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