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)

Althusser, Badiou, and the Critique of Political Economy

At the recent ‘Idea of Communism’ conference at Birkbeck in London, Badiou reiterated his position regarding political economy.  If I understood him correctly, Badiou was arguing that the answer to capitalism is political not economic.  One cannot move from economics to politics (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote).


I find this position troubling.  After all, Marx wrote on political economy, right?  It also troubles my more economically minded friends, who see a necessary economic element in the challenge to capitalism.


Though I won’t go so far as agreeing with Badiou’s argument, I came across a passage in Althusser which rendered his position clearer (for me at least).  It comes from his essay ‘On Marx and Freud,’ which can be found in his Writings on Psychoanalysis.


Althusser is here discussing the process of abandoning bourgeois or petty-bourgeois positions in favour of proletarian ones:


‘In the “displacement” that has him occupying proletarian class theoretical positions, Marx discovers that despite all the merits of its authors, political economy as it exists is not fundamentally a science but a theoretical formation of bourgeois ideology, playing its role in the ideological class struggle.  He discovers that it is not only the detail of existing political economy that is to be criticized but that the very idea, the project, and thus the existence of political economy – which can be thought of as an independent and autonomous discipline only on the condition of disguising class relations and the class struggle that it is its ideological mission to conceal – deserve to be called into question and doubt. Marx’s theoretical revolution thus arrives at the conclusion that there is no political economy… and that it is all the more emphatically the case that there is no Marxist political economy.  That does not mean there is nothing; rather, it means that Marx rejects the object that political economy was alleged to be with an entirely different reality that becomes intelligible through entirely different principles, those of historical materialism, in which class struggle becomes determinant for understanding so-called economic phenomena’ (113).


Allegiance to Marx is much more of a concern for Althusser than for Badiou, but this passage seems to indicate a potential source for Badiou’s understanding.  The accuracy of Althusser’s reading and the efficacy of Marx’s argument, of course, are an entirely different matter.


I wonder if Althusser’s statement could be reworded like this: the ideological role of political economy is to complicate the terrain of resistance by claiming that it is a network of political and economic relations that determine class relations.  In contrast, Marx is arguing that class relations are political (this fits with Engel’s definition of political power as ‘merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another’).  So without denying the reality of economic relations, one can state that these relations are simply a weapon in the arsenal of oppression of one class by another.  I think this formulation then raises a larger question: if class oppression is not reducible to economics (both in its means and its goals) what are the motivations of these tyrannies?