More on Althusser and the critique of political economy

I found another passage that lends support to the hypothesis I offered yesterday on the relationship between politics and economy. In this section of his essay ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination,’ Althusser is arguing against various interpretations a well-known quote from Capital: ‘With Hegel, the dialectic is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.’ The main goal in the essay is rejecting readings of Marx which remained in Hegelian idealism. These readings are legion apparently (or at least were when Althusser was writing), so he describes and critiques a variety of the existent possibilities.

One such temptation is to interchange the role of the economic and the politco-ideological. ‘While for Hegel, the politico-ideological was the essence of the economic, for Marx, the economic will be the essence of the politico-ideological. The political will therefore be merely pure phenomena of the economic which will be their “truth”’ (108).

Althusser responds to this by arguing, as is his habit, that this swapping of roles remains within the structure of Hegelian dialectics. ‘The logical destination of this temptation is the exact mirror image of the Hegelian dialectic – the only difference being that it is no longer a question of deriving the successive moments from the Idea, but from the Economy, by virtue of the same internal contradiction. This temptation results in the radical reduction of the dialectic of history to the dialectic generating the successive modes of production, that is, in the last analysis, the different production techniques’ (108).

Althusser goes on to render Hegel’s internal contradiction problematic, and instead argues for his own notion of ‘overdetermination.’ This concept exposes the reductive simplicity of Hegel’s understanding of contradiction and combats another frequent foe of Althusser, the geneticist structure of Hegelian dialectics. Anyway, overdetermination renders economics only determinative in the last instance, and the last instance never comes. I confess I’m still struggling with this last point; I don’t quite follow his argument about the relation between overdetermination and ‘in the last instance.’

(These quotes are from the edition of For Marx in Verso’s Radical Thinkers series)


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