Karl Marx remains one of the most fascinating figures in history due not only to his contributions to the study of political economy and conclusion about the capitalist system, but his unique method of analysis, the dialectical view of social transformation. Dialectic analysis has confounded many and tends to be counter intuitive relative to historical advancement of knowledge via the more ubiquitous Cartesian approach. This by no means makes dialectics an inferior method of inquiry, but requires a re-orientation of focus on the multifaceted relationships and processes which can be extrapolated to form a comprehensive view of a given subject of study. The form of dialectics in Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital, is also unique to him; forming the basis of Marxism as a general socioeconomic method of analysis. David Harvey’s chapter on dialectics in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference provides clarity to Marx’s particular method of dialectics, which Marx implicitly argues for as a starting point for analysis in his published notes, Grundrisse, which were written prior to Das Kapital.
In Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, Harvey notes that Marx’s particular use of dialectics tends to be misunderstood as a pure adoption of Hegel’s view: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. However, as Harvey remarks, Marx “starts with Hegel, [but] achieved a radical materialist transformation of Hegel’s views (cf. Bhaskar, 1989: chapter 7). The effect is to dissolve the dialectic as a logic into a flow of argument and practices” (p.57). This is an important distinction to understand Marx’s use of dialectics throughout his work in Das Kapital as there are many instances of summation of Marx’s method through the interpretation of Hegel, but Marx’s dialectic is more nuanced then that.
Harvey breaks down Marx’s dialectic method into a series of useful propositions to keep in mind as you read and attempt to interpret Marx. I will attempt to summarize these propositions and provide some examples to elucidate their meaning as I understand them. First, dialectics “emphasizes understanding of processes, flows, fluxes, and relations over analysis of elements, things, structures, and organized systems” (p. 49). For example, understanding the relationships between the factors of productions, e.g. labour, capital, commodities, as well the change in modes of production over time. Second, elements of a system are created out of flows, processes, and relations within the system and constitute the system. For example, capital (e.g. machines, land, and buildings) are created by the system, the flow of which constitutes the system of capitalism. Third, systems and the elements that make them up are in constant flux, changing over time creating new elements and new systems. Capitalism today is different from the capitalism of a century ago, or even a few decades ago. Fourth, everything can be deconstructed into other things. There are always more levels of understanding. Nation states can be broken down into territories, regions, etc. which can be broken down into municipalities and cities, which can be broken down into neighborhoods, precincts, buildings, streets, populations, etc. Fifth, the best way to understand the nature of something is to examine the processes and relationships it is involved in. For example, the best way to understand money is to examine how it is created (destroyed), its use, its circulation in the economy, and its relationship to institutions of banking, government spending (taxation), and finance. To better understand something, one should also look at the contradictions within it. For example, the currency of the state is simultaneously a liability, a promise to pay the face value printed on the currency, and a source of revenue by way of seignorage, the difference between the value of the currency and the cost to produce it which is born by the public. Next, space and time are not external factors to integral parts of any process, its elements, and the system they constitute. Parts and wholes constitute each other. For example, agents constitute an institution, and the institution constitutes the agents, they are not mutually exclusive. This also means they are interchangeable as subject and object. Harvey uses the example of individuals being both the subject of social change, in other words the cause of social change, as well the object of social change. And this said change or transformation arises out of contradictions, and is a continuous aspect of any system. Harvey’s tenth and eleventh propositions boil down to dialectics as itself a process which generates assumptions and theories which are subject to constant change and revision, space and time, and so one should attempt to envision alternative possibilities and revisit our assumptions.
In Grundrisse, Marx is concerned with how to approach social analysis of political economy; implicitly advocating a dialectic approach. Marx begins with a critique of the typical bourgeois’ analysis, the Cartesian method, which presupposes the system and institutions, a sort of top-down approach (e.g. population, nation state, society, market), then abstracting general relationships which seemingly determine outcomes in the broader system. For example, the generalized relationship in neoclassical economics that supply and demand determine market prices. While an abstract model of supply and demand would confirm this prima facie relationship, such an analysis is shallow and ignores important social dynamics which factor into market prices. This relationship is then generalized to all markets. This analysis is flawed Marx’s argues, favoring a more bottom-up approach in the dialectic method which emphasizes the relationships between elements (e.g. labour, commodities, money, capital) and how they interact (e.g. production, exchange, trade) to draw a richer understanding of the whole (e.g. economy, global market, crises). Marx goes on a considerable rant here using some examples which are somewhat hard to follow, but his overall point is clear that he is advocating for a dialectical approach to socioeconomic analysis without explicitly stating as much and leaving us with a starting enumerated list by which one might proceed.
This dialectical method as Harvey laid out would seem to provide some advantages over traditional Cartesian analysis which is predicated on the ceteris paribus assumption in order to extract relationships. Understanding that this is not the case that all elements of a system are in flux seems obvious, but leads to a predicament for the typical mathematical approaches of analysis. The challenge is defining legitimate quantitative methods consistent with a dialectic approach.
Aaron Medlin is a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying macroeconomics of private debt, monetary economics, international finance, and comparative economic systems.