Chapter 3 Systematic Dialectic

In: The Spectre of Capital: Idea and Reality
Christopher J. Arthur
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The method employed in the presentation of the forms of value below may be unfamiliar; it is therefore worth spelling out. What it is not: it is not an inductive method generalising from empirically given instances a hypothetical law of the phenomena, to be further tested in experience; it is not a hypothetico-deductive system in which an axiom is made the basis of a sequence of inferences that formally follow from it, the result being, as it is said, already ‘contained in’ the premises; it is not a transcendental argument for the conditions of possibility of a form of experience taken as established. It is the logical development of a system of categories, or forms of being, from the most elementary and indeterminate to the richest and most concrete; it is self-evident that the result cannot be ‘contained’ in the premise, for the latter is poorer in content than the former. But this is precisely the key to the argument; the impulse to move from one category to the next is the insufficiency of the existing stage to prove its necessity and prevail against the contingencies to which it is subject. Upon examination, it is seen that the form under consideration is not able to sustain itself on its own basis; it depends on conditions of existence that seem to be contingent, such that it could easily vanish.

The movement of thought is thus from the ‘conditioned’ to the ‘unconditioned’; each stage ‘takes care of’, with the minimum of new elements, the problem perceived with the previous stage, but in turn is found insufficient. The presentation ends when all the conditions of existence needing to be addressed are comprehended by the entire system of categories developed. The forms incorporate within themselves, and produce through their own effectivity, these conditions; this means that the totality so grounded is judged self-sufficient. Moreover, the originating form gains actuality and truth only when grounded in the totality to which it gives rise through the dialectic outlined.

I argue that the peculiar character of the object under investigation requires a systematic-dialectical presentation. I reconstruct Marx’s Capital in this light. In the present chapter, having briefly sketched the difference between historical dialectic and systematic dialectic, I go on to treat the latter in more detail.

There are two different types of dialectical theory in Hegel. Famously there is a dialectic of history. Hegel believed there is a logic of development underlying world history. But there is a second sort of dialectical theory, found in writings such as the Science of Logic and the Philosophy of Right. This may be termed ‘systematic dialectic’ because it is concerned with the articulation of categories designed to conceptualise an existent concrete whole. In discussions of dialectic generally it is most often taken to characterise a historical process; indeed, it is frequently reduced to a type of efficient causality. A contradiction is said to ‘produce’ a resolution in much the same way as a cause ‘produces’ an effect. But, in treating a given whole and demonstrating how it reproduces itself, the ordering of the categories is in no way determined by the recapitulation of a historical sequence; it is articulated synchronically on the basis of purely systematic considerations. So the expositional order of these categories does not have to coincide with the order of their appearance in history. In sum I distinguish between systematic dialectic and historical dialectic. Historical dialectic is a method of exhibiting the inner connection between stages of development of a temporal process. Systematic dialectic is a method of exhibiting the categorial articulation of a given whole.

Science in treating such a totality must elucidate a set of categories, capturing the forms and relations constitutive of it in an ordered presentation. While categories mark ontological unities, and are thus required to render reality intelligible, they must themselves form a coherent whole; they must take shape as a system. The categories must be systematically related to one another in such a manner that their presentation shows how each category gains systemic meaning by virtue of its positioning with respect to the other categories and the whole. The object here is a totality where every part has to be complemented by others to be what it is. Taken in isolation, in abstraction from its systematic placing, a category is imperfectly grasped.

Since all ‘moments’1 of the system exist synchronically, all movement must pertain to their reciprocal support and development. While this motion implies that moments become effective successively, the movement winds back into itself to form a circuit of reproduction of these moments by each other. Because of this character of a totality the theoretical system traces a logic of mutual presupposition in the elements of the structure and hence of the necessity of certain forms and laws of motion of the whole under consideration.

If what is concretely true is so only as totality, science in treating such a totality must take the shape of system. Hence the presentation of the totality in thought takes the shape of a systematic dialectic of categories. The task of systematic dialectic is to organise such categories in a definite sequence, deriving one from another logically. Although it is natural to read a systematic exposition as one in which later categories are developed from their antecedents – at least in the sense that the latter must be analytically presupposed – this cannot be the whole story; for a dialectical presentation rejects any dogmatic founding category. The progressive development is therefore not securely established on a given presupposition. There is, however, another consideration. Since the categorial progression cannot be validated as a deduction, it can only be a reconstruction of the totality. The whole, as the most concrete, complex, and complete reality, sustains all the elements that make it up. Thus theory retrogressively justifies the logical sequencing from this viewpoint. Insofar as Hegel’s dialectics finish with something ‘absolute’, its absolute character grants validity retrospectively to all the stages of its exposition, and their dialectical relations; if ‘the truth is the whole’, the moments of the whole gain their validity within it; if the lower categories lead on to the highest, the reason is that the lower categories are merely abstractions from it. It is the whole alone that is self-subsistent.2

Since the presentation employs a non-deductive logic, this approach raises the question of the logic of transition in the exposition. At each stage it seeks the sufficient condition for a further stage of development of the Idea. There is a problem, requiring an innovative solution generated through a ‘leap’ to a new form, but with the minimum new notional material. Resolving that problem gives rise to a new one, and so on. Generally the basis of the advance is that each category is deficient in determinacy with respect to the next and the impulse for the transition is precisely the requirement that such deficiency must be overcome. Interrogation of the category reveals its limits and leads to the determining of a further category to complete it; successive categories are always richer and more concrete. The justification of the whole movement is retrospective when the sequence of categories is shown to ‘hang together’, in designating the forms of its self-reproduction.

If it is presupposed that the whole system of categories is complete and internally self-sustaining, then it is possible to reconstruct its order precisely through moving sequentially from categories deficient in such respects (that is in being inclusive and self-sustaining) to ones less so, until the system as a totality is thereby exhibited as such. Moreover, the method of presentation articulates the categories in such a manner as to show how the logic of the system tendentially ensures its completeness. The presentation ends when all the conditions of existence needing to be addressed are comprehended by the entire system of categories developed.

Thus in a dialectical argument the significance of any element in the total picture cannot be concretely defined at the outset. As the presentation of the system advances to more complex and concrete relationships, the originating definition of a concept shifts accordingly, normally towards greater determinateness. Thus the dialectical method remains open to fundamental reorganisations of the material so far appropriated, as it gets closer to the truth of things in the perfected system. Such a system is complete only when it returns to, and accounts for, its starting point. Because any starting point is severed from the whole, as abstracted thus it is necessarily ungrounded.

While every category depends on its antecedents for its constitutive moments, the problem of the beginning is resolved if the richness of the granted content presupposes analytically the simpler, more abstract, antecedent categories. To reiterate, the progressive introduction of new categories cannot be deduction (for the beginning is not to be taken as an axiom), it can only be a reconstruction of reality which takes for granted that what it is headed for is logically complete. So the sequence of categories has to be read in both directions, as a disclosure, or presentation, progressively, and as a grounding movement retrogressively. What constitutes progression is an arrangement of categories from abstract to concrete; successive categories are always richer and more concrete. In the dialectic every category needs to complete itself in another. All stages are deficient with respect to the final fulfilment of the dialectic in a systematically ordered totality.

Indeed, the progressive/regressive sequencing depends upon the presupposition that there is a whole from which a violent abstraction has been made so as to constitute a simple beginning, which, in virtue of this negation of its positioning in the whole, has ‘lost its footing’, so to speak; and thus there arises a contradiction between the character of the element in isolation and its meaning as part of the whole. The treatment of this moment as inherently in contradiction with itself, on account of this, is given if it is assumed throughout the dialectical development that the whole remains immanent or implicit in it. This provides the basis for the transitions in the development of the categorial ordering. There is an impulse to provide a solution to a contradiction – a ‘push’ one might say – and there is the need to overcome the deficiency of the category with respect to its fulfilment in the whole – a ‘pull’ one might say.

For the most part these elements exist in combination. Since dialectic is generally regarded in the former sense as the positing and resolving of contradictions, I stress here the importance of the fact that the final goal is the fully comprehended whole and that any given stage en route is always deficient with respect to it. The impulse to move from one category to the next is the insufficiency of the existing stage to comprehend its grounds, or conditions; each stage ‘takes care of’, with the minimum of new elements, the problem perceived with the previous stage, but in turn is found insufficient. (It is important that the transition involves a ‘leap’ to a qualitatively new categorial level. A dialectical development has nothing in common with a vulgar evolutionism predicated on extrapolating an existent tendency.)

A key term of art in a dialectical presentation is ‘sublation’. It comprehends simultaneously three linked determinations: elevation, abolition, and preservation. It is the characteristic figure of a dialectical transition towards a greater truth (only the whole is – strictly – true). The primary meaning of sublation is abolition, for example, of a category, or, more commonly, of a pair of categories, for example, Nothing and Being. These last are sublated in my presentation by the more concrete category ‘the Being of Nothing’. So, in this instance, ‘Nothing’ and ‘Being’ are not really abolished but preserved in the more complex category to which they have been elevated. What is, then, abolished is their abstract opposition. In establishing the ‘truth’ of our central concept, namely ‘value’, the presentation therefore develops from less true to more true forms of it; only the self-supporting whole of the capital system realises the whole truth of value, including precisely its articulation as a set of such forms.

In applying systematic dialectic according to a rigorous scheme, a problem emerges as to contradiction and closure. According to Hegel the Idea of the modern state achieves final harmony, resolving all opposition. Marx, on the other hand, thinks capitalism is riven with unsurpassed contradiction, between use and exchange, capital and labour, forces and relations of production; Marx from the outset, and throughout, is always critical of capital, accordingly.3

So how is it possible to argue, as I do, that capital has the structure of the Hegelian Idea? While I do indeed hold this, I also admit that, in the last analysis, capitalist society cannot achieve the self-transparent unity of the Idea. How so? At the outset of my whole system, I show it originates through the exchange abstraction, which introduces a division between the logic of the value form and the useful purpose of the products of social production. This separation is never healed, no matter how much adequation of each side to the other is achieved; so there remains throughout my exposition a context in which the capital system is always to be understood as alienated from human sociality, and its material basis. On the other hand, it is incontestable that capital has the logic of the concept, for ‘the general formula for capital’ is marked by ‘teleology’ (a category basic to Hegel’s Concept); it has its own aim, namely accumulation.

The solution to this problem is precisely to underline the split between form and matter. Thus I hold it is acceptable for me to consider that the form of capital itself follows the logic of the Concept, even though the opposition between capital and labour can never be harmonised; even though in truth the value form and the material inscribed within it are never fully identified. Nonetheless, capital acts as an autonomous power. It is not just a mistake by us to treat it as if it were standing over against us dictating our possibilities. Moreover, insofar as it has successfully subsumed labour under itself, it is effectively the ruling Idea of our epoch.

Since I am following the dialectic of capital, all concern for freedom pertains to capital’s freedom, all ends that count are capital’s ends, all vindication of individuality pertains to the individual capitals. Human ends have no more significance in this respect than the ends of plants and animals have to us omnivores; they are just material to be manipulated through capital’s cunning of reason. If this dialectic is immanent to capital, it is capital’s vindication of its freedom and individuality that is exhibited; to this human ends are properly subordinate, human beings are merely the bearers of the economic movement.

Our ends are important to us; moreover, they exist at the limit as the possibility that capital is not as self-sufficient as it thinks it is, and that it will collapse in the face of the action taken by the people figured as ‘in and against’ capital. In fact, this acknowledgement of the human is thematic because class is integral to my concept of capital, as we shall see. But within the dialectic of capital this is seen only as a limit to be overcome.

In the remainder of this chapter, I address the issues of contradiction and closure; and of the deployment of the same categories at different levels.

I have said that every higher category is truer, because more comprehensive, than earlier, more simple and abstract, ones. It seems then that systematic dialectic necessarily has an affirmative character. To be sure, any dialectic of the Hegelian type resolves all contradiction in the Absolute. The affirmative dialectic of capital shows it becoming absolute in the sense of conquering and shaping production and consumption. But if one traces the logic through which capital affirms itself, it is difficult not to identify with its standpoint. There is the risk that the exposition of a reified system of self-moving abstraction appears itself as a reified dialectical theory unrelated to human practice.

Such a dialectic would show how capital subsumes under its forms all elements of economic life, becoming absolute in the sense of conquering and shaping the use-value sphere itself. If it were absolute, it would effect its own closure. However, the critical aspect of this dialectic shows that on the use-value side capital faces two ‘others’ of itself that it cannot plausibly claim to be merely aspects of its own self. Its external other is Nature, which capital is degrading at frightening speed, thus undermining its own material basis. Its internal other is the proletariat, capital’s own creation, which is potentially capable of overthrowing it. The dialectic of capital remains open, in this sense.

The points I made just now do not invalidate a method of exposition based on systematic dialectic. One can use the notion of a drive to overcome contradictions in order to motivate transitions from one category to another, whether one assumes, with Hegel, that a final resolution within the terms of capitalism is available, or whether, with Marx, that capital cannot overcome its contradictions.

It is characteristic of systematic dialectic that the same category may be deployed at many levels of the presentation as it moves from abstract to concrete. What sense then can be given to the notion of its proper place in the dialectic of forms, given such a ‘nesting’? This is at the category’s initial introduction, for two reasons, firstly because this is the place where the dialectic is immanently compelled to introduce it, secondly because, if it is adequate to the task set at that level of abstraction, it is no more than adequate; hence the need for its sublation by more concrete categories. If it is carried forward to more concrete levels, then it will certainly still be true but less and less informative at such levels just because it abstracts from the new more concrete determination. Moreover, is it really the same category at more concrete levels? In truth, the new context redefines it – indeed, unfolds its true significance.

For example, this is true of ‘value’, which moves, in the presentation below, from a relation to a property to a substance (with money) to a subject (with capital as self-valorising) to an Idea (the capitalist system). Only at the end is it fully actual. In the same way the abstract notions of bad and good infinities sequentially laid out at the start (when endeavouring to fix what it is to have value) become much more concrete when capital turns the false infinite into a ‘genuine’ infinite in the spiral of accumulation.

Following this line of thought we could argue that all categories achieve their truth only in the entire system of categories when they inform each other. It is the result that is privileged if anything. The truth of earlier categories being preserved in the whole development, a certain amount of repetition is permissible because they will still characterise the more concrete level. For example, the dialectic of ‘one and many’, introduced below in treating commodity exchange, may also be illuminating in treating competition of capitals.

The category of ‘commodity’ is introduced as an abstract form of that which is present in exchange. A dialectical development demonstrates the necessity for it to double into commodities and money. A further argument identifies its ‘concrete content’ with the product of labour. However, these arguments are not simply expositional, such that the more concrete definition abolishes the more abstract one. Rather, what is traced in the presentation are the ontological levels of existence of the commodity. This means the abstract form persists in its very abstractness. This is why non-products may take commodity form.

Moreover, the form swallows its own tail when that which is derived from it, capital, itself takes commodity form; we speak of costs of capital, money markets, capital markets, and so forth. (In a strange twist it is common to speak of ‘financial products’! – a hopeless confusion of categorial levels.) This explains some complications. It explains why bourgeois economists are unable to grasp the difference between a product and capital. Everything is treated as if its movement were that of commodity circulation. Yet this confusion is not due simply to stupidity, it is due to the way capital presents itself on the surface, when reducing everything to commodity form.

A dialectical presentation of the capital system going from the more abstract to the more concrete, is tracing its reality, it is not merely as a method of arriving at the reality, having rejected its most abstract expression in favour of concreteness. Categories, therefore, must be rigorously ordered from abstract to concrete, but not in the usual way, by ‘adding in’ further determinations; rather, it is through the immanent movement set in train by the requirement of reconstruction of a self-subsistent whole. The interconnectedness of the whole is presupposed, each and every moment is conditioned by others, only the whole is unconditioned if it reproduces in its own movement its interior moments and its material conditions of existence. All its presuppositions must be posited. Validation, then, is always retrospective; but this method of vindicating the necessity of what-will-have-become-of-it is nothing to do with a teleological history; it is simply a demonstration of the logical place each form has in supporting the totality; in analysing how it maintains itself I begin by identifying its most abstract moment, and then positing this presupposition.

As we saw, one consequence of the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is that the more abstract categories still have application at the more concrete levels. But, naturally, they are not then sufficiently informative about the forms concerned, which require defining with an adequately concrete category. This means the temptation is usually to introduce a value form too early in the logical progression of categories, because the more abstract category still applies, as we said, but only abstractly; hence failing to elucidate the logical complexity of the form concerned.

A striking example of this led me to revise Hegel’s own logic. When one sees that he has ‘Measure’ in the doctrine of Being, and when one knows money is the measure of value, there is the temptation to equate the two. But, although money certainly functions as measure of value magnitudes, it cannot be reduced to a form of ‘Being’. The logic of Being is sufficient only to articulate simple commodity relations; and there ‘measure’ equates with exchange-value. But, in order to introduce the doubling of the commodity into the relation of commodities and money, the logic of Essence is imperatively indicated. I take care of the more concrete form of measure, found in money, in this context, terming it measure proper.


At the methodological level systematic dialectic emphasises the need for a clear order of presentation, which, however, is not a linear one, for the starting point is not empirically or axiomatically given but in need of interrogation. Ontologically it addresses itself to totalities and thus to their comprehension through systematically interconnected categories, which are sharply distinguished from historically sequenced orderings; the presentation of the totality in thought is a systematic dialectic of categories. The presentation does not reflect a sequence of historically changing objects. It is the progressive development of the forms of the same object, namely capitalism. It goes from a highly abstract initial concept of it to more and more concrete levels of its comprehension. While the presentation follows this order all categories are grounded only retrospectively; for they gain truth only through their position in the whole system. The logic of transition depends on the insufficiency of the form under consideration to adequately sustain its claim to truth. It must be grounded in a further development of form, and its conditions of existence secured. Care must be taken to identify exactly the level of abstraction at which each category must be introduced, and to avoid characterising a concrete form in an overly abstract way.


This is cognate with the moments of a lever, not with a moment in time. See Glossary.


See Smith 1990, p. 49.


This contrast between Hegel and Marx is emphasised in Smith 1990.

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