Lucia Pradella, Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy: New insights from Marx’s writings

(New York: Routledge, 2015), 218 pp., hardcover, $155

While many heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union as the final nail in the coffin for Marxist thought, the ascendance of neoliberal globalization has given new life to Marx’s economic analysis. In this context, Lucia Pradella sets herself a dual task in Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy. First, she argues that Marx rejected his predecessors’ fall into the trap of nationalism and Eurocentrism; his analysis did not take the nation-state as its starting point but rather was a critique of the global capitalist system. Second, she takes this insight to respond to post-structuralist and post-colonial criticisms of Marxism, criticisms that centered around Marx’s supposed dismissal of non-European peoples and their revolutionary agency and potential. To this end, she draws on Marx’s previously unpublished notebooks, which show how Marx understood capitalism as a totality, helping us to critically understand capital’s function and power on the global stage.

Pradella works at the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice and is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Her latest book is in some ways a continuation of her earlier studies of Marx’s Das Kapital, resulting in L’Attualita del Capitale (2010), a study of how Marx viewed pre-capitalist societies – a subject on which she discovered the roots of Marx’s thought in his notebooks. She argues that it was precisely Marx’s rejection of viewing capital within the boundaries of the nation-state – his positing of capitalism as an international system – that disproves his supposed Eurocentrism.

The book is divided into three parts: beginning with an overview of the historical evolution of political economy, then introducing Marx’s critique, and ending with an analysis of Marx’s unpublished notebooks. The first part is dense, packed with historical, economic, and political chronologies. Pradella begins by tracing the ideological and material forces that, beginning with mercantilism in Great Britain, culminated in bourgeois society. She argues that the movement from mercantilism to capitalism, as experienced by the industrializing British economy, was understood in the minds of economic thinkers to be unilinear. Concepts of value, labor, and property were all defined from the British perspective of economic development. The division of labor within the nation-state, as observed by political economists such as Adam Smith, was now a global phenomenon that divided nation-states ideologically between the colonizing and the colonized. She argues that the theories of political economy, in tandem with the newfound science of administration, created the philosophical justification for the exploitation of colonized societies by their colonizers.

In keeping with Marx’s theory of base-superstructure, Pradella shows how the transition from a mercantilist to a capitalist economic system propelled the need for capital accumulation, culminating in the economic necessity for colonization. She stresses that this transition in the base embedded racism within the colonial discourse; racial generalizations and colonial domination became a natural facet of classical political economy.

Pradella then focuses on how Hegel’s thought expressed the embedded colonial mentality within the methodological nationalism of political economy. She argues that while many other scholars have viewed Hegel’s Eurocentrism through an anti-colonial lens, “little research has been done so far on the political economic roots of Hegel’s Eurocentrism” (59). Pradella traces Hegel’s philosophic system to assumptions made within political economy. His thoughts on political economy grounded his theories on the development of civil society. Where classical political economy viewed capitalist expansion as having a civilizing effect (including on colonized societies), Hegel saw the evolution of civil society as having a similar impact. Believing that capitalist society was the highest stage of development, Hegel shared the Eurocentric positions of his predecessors.

Having established this background, Pradella turns to Marx himself. She introduces Marx’s critique of the theories presented in the previous chapters, arguing that Marx transcends the view of political economy as the stuff of nation-states, and instead establishes his theory of bourgeois political economy as a globalized universal. In doing so, Marx breaks from the settler mentality that until then had plagued political economy and develops an understanding of the relationship between the Global North and South in the context of the accumulation of capital and the division of labor on an international scale. His critique of capitalism was not solely an economic one, but rather a critique that broke with the Eurocentric tendencies of the political economists who preceded him.

To make this distinction and move to the international stage, Marx identified the antagonistic forces that defined bourgeois political economy. Private property was established as the source of the contradictions of bourgeois society, a point that previous political economists were unable to observe because of their class position. Critiquing Hegel, Marx argued that the contradiction between the state and civil society stemmed from the fact that the state became the defender of private property, and thus represented the interests of the class of property owners. Pradella quotes a draft of an article Marx was preparing on the work of Friedrich List to illuminate the burgeoning internationalism, “The nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is labour, free slavery, self-huckstering. His government is neither French, not English, nor German, it is capital” (CW4: 280). Marx recognized that the dissemination of the world spirit was therefore a movement grounded in the domination of one global class by another.

Pradella’s argument is founded on attempting to reconstruct missing volumes of Marx’s work through analyzing his unpublished notebooks. She utilizes the notebooks of 1843-48, as well as the London notebooks (1850-53), to sketch out a telos of Marx’s thought. In particular, she focuses on the Grundrisse and Marx’s plans for future books that became lost in the movement of time. Just as Das Kapital was argued in a phenomenological style – beginning with the commodity and expanding outward – so it was Marx’s intention to generalize outward and push his analysis to a global breadth. The London notebooks suggest that Marx was going to continue expanding outward, eventually addressing the state and its relationship to the bourgeoisie, the foreign market, and finally the reality and consequences of the world market (132). It is clear that Marx saw capital as a global force that, as opposed to originating within the productive capacity of nation-states, was instead derived from “world money” (172) and implanted into the modes of production of nation-states through the exploitation of labor power.

Here we begin to see Marx as a global thinker, who was deeply entrenched in the international struggle against capitalism, and a philosopher who understood the system as a totality. From this ground, Pradella shows how Marx’s own thought regarding non-European societies and persons had changed; where he once denied the importance of peasant revolts, he now supported their aims within the context of global revolution; where he once dismissed struggles against colonialism, he now recognized their revolutionary importance.

The crux of her thesis rests on the Labor Theory of Value, what Pradella uses to distinguish herself from other thinkers who have tried to answer the post-colonial question. She states,

the substance of value is social, universal labour, which progressively becomes so with the universalization of the capitalist mode of production. The world market is not just a point of arrival but using Marx’s own words, it forms the ‘presupposition of the whole’ as well as its ‘substratum’. (128)

Regardless of the location of labor power across the planet, Marx understood better than anyone in his epoch the ruthless dynamic of capital and the changes in social relations, culture, and history that this dynamic would create.

Pradella, in this book, achieves even more than she claims. She reconfirms the importance of the historical materialist tradition in reckoning with the complexities of social reality. In responding to the post-structuralist and post-colonial critiques of Marx and Marxism, she posits a 21st-century Marxism, one that recognizes capital as a global force in the world today, a world that is in deep crisis from the consequences of neoliberal globalization.

Reviewed by Riad Azar
graduate student in Sociology
London School of Economics and Political Science

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