Chapter 4 The Two Dialectics of Capital: Analytic and Synthetic

In: The Spectre of Capital: Idea and Reality
Christopher J. Arthur
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The value form of the commodity is not an axiom, or an empirical given, upon which all else depends; as an abstract beginning, it gains actuality and truth only when grounded in the concrete totality to which it gives rise through a dialectical development.

To begin at the beginning. Should one follow the method of rising from abstract determinations to the concrete whole? The concrete as the unity of diverse determinations is then the result, not the starting point. Or should one begin with something concrete, such as the commodity, because wealth presents itself to us immediately as ‘a heap of commodities’? Confusion on this point is resolved by taking account of two different meanings of ‘abstract and concrete’. Marx speaks, in his Preface to Capital, of the power of abstraction, by analogy with the microscope, because it yields ‘the economic cell-form’, the commodity. Here the ‘abstract’ means that which is taken apart from the whole that supports it, and within which it gains its meaning; it is separated off from it. But, especially if the commodity is not understood as mediated in the whole, it may be taken in immediate experience as ‘concrete’ in the sense of tangible. However, a more usual sense of the ‘abstract’ is that which results from the most general way of thinking about anything, achieved by leaving aside all its specific characteristics so as to generate a simple immediacy for thought, namely a pure category not susceptible to analysis (as is the concrete of course). If this distinction is accepted then my systematic presentation has, correspondingly, two beginnings: analytic, and synthetic.1

In its first sense, ‘abstraction’ means to separate something from the whole that produced it and within which it has sense, by analysing the whole into parts. Capital is the object, but this is analysable into the movement of money, and money mediates commodity exchange. This makes the analytical starting point of the systematic presentation the commodity, as the ‘cell’ of the economic organism, abstracted from the context that gives it meaning. This same commodity, we will say, is ‘posited’ once it is grasped as the immediate product of capital.

This beginning has the apparent advantage that the commodity can be hefted in the hand, so to speak. However, this advantage is only apparent, because one cannot tell what it is one has in one’s hand: that it is a product of capital, for example. One cannot tell from the taste of wheat from what mode of production it comes. Even if the concrete context of its acquisition defines it as a commodity, it could be produced from plantation slavery, share cropping, yeoman farming, or a gigantic capitalist agri-business. Its social character remains opaque.

In the second sense, ‘abstraction’ signifies stripping away from the concrete all its determinacy, leaving it characterised only by a simple category. In the case of the commodity, we first distinguish its specific usefulness and its universal exchangeableness. Once all its bodily qualities, supporting its use-value, are left out of consideration, there remains only its social standing as a commodity exchangeable with others. It has, beside its use-value its exchange-value. But that the commodity has value is not branded on its body. Turn and twist it as one may, no value can be discerned in it. So this commodity form is a pure form, and it is the synthetical starting point from which the concrete as a unity of many determinations is to be reconstructed by unfolding what is implicit in it. It is a methodological premise of the systematic-dialectical logic required for this enterprise that it moves from abstract to concrete. Although the analytical starting point, namely ‘the commodity produced by capital’, appears as a concrete one, I shall argue that the practical abstraction imposed in exchange from every given feature of it leads to a systematic dialectic of ‘pure form’ comparable with the ‘pure thought’ of Hegel’s logic.

Yet the form of exchange-value may be empty in itself, merely registering the effect of external contingencies. How can it be the form of value? Thus the synthetical starting point is the highly speculative presupposition that commodities are intrinsically valuable. This beginning must be treated with suspicion, thoroughly interrogated, and shown to be both the real basis of the whole system, and the result of its movement. The systematic exposition shows how the truth, therefore, is only the whole.

There is no doubt the commodity exists; the problem for theory is to explain its prevalence in this mode of production. On the other hand, it is a conjecture of theory that the capitalist economic order is rooted in, and may be developed from, the presupposition that value obtains. Here ‘presupposition’ means that it is taken in advance of the argument to establish it. Only as a result is this presupposition ‘posited’. The value form is the abstract starting point for a systematic-dialectical development of the concrete whole of capitalist production articulated in terms of the totalising concept of ‘value’. The synthetical starting point, value, is shown to exist only as a result of the full development of capital, which, as self-valorising value, produces above all itself, but in so doing makes real its abstract moments. Likewise, that value is an abstract moment of capital is consistent with its presence in this very abstraction when commodities are thrown on the market as a mere heap of exchangeables.

Just now, and in what follows, I deploy a key dialectical figure, that of the ‘positing of the presupposition’.2

The dialectic of positing the presupposition has two referents and the presuppositions are accommodated in two different ways accordingly. These referents are a) the analytical dialectic, and b) the synthetic dialectic. In the movement of positing the presupposition, I distinguish ‘conditions of existence’ in the first, from ‘grounds’ in the second. I propose to treat ‘condition of existence’ as a term referring to an original ‘given’ later ‘posited’ by the system; and I distinguish it from ‘ground’ which is the mediated result of the dialectic of form, as a development of a category to its positedness in its further forms of existence.

So, beside the search for the mechanism that reproduces conditions of existence already obtaining and appropriated by capital, I treat the transformation of the forms of value itself as a grounding movement. Here something unobservable and highly abstract (namely ‘value’) is to be grounded in the course of its presentation at successive levels of concretion. This argument will culminate in a claim that capital is a self-grounded system exercising power over its human bearers. Thus when money grounds exchange-value, it makes true something which at the prior level (simple exchange of commodities ‘at value’) cannot be true, and hence must be sublated. However, this move to money preserves what element of truth is there at the outset, namely the notion that commodities have a value to be realised. Similarly, credit money replaces gold, which is inadequate to the truth of money, but it preserves the ambition of gold, namely to make actual the unique universal equivalent.

I now show how the two aspects of the systematic presentation work together, first treating them separately so far as it is possible.

1 Analytical Dialectic

The analytical phase begins with the object of enquiry, namely capital, as an uncomprehend whole, and then analyses it into simpler elements. The most striking result of such research is the realisation that capital is money in movement, so we first must understand money, but then money has meaning only in relation to commodities, so we must begin by determining what a commodity is: this is the analytical starting point of the presentation. Indeed, the most common meaning of ‘presupposition’ refers to that which is analytically necessary to something. It is in this sense that we say that capital presupposes money, and money presupposes commodities. Such a chain could be interpreted in two ways: as purely logical, or as also historical, in which latter case each stage is a causally necessary condition of the next. But here we treat the matter logically.

The presentation, then, reconstructs the whole capitalist system, by first defining what a commodity is, then going to money and finally to capital understood as a unity of circulation and production. This systematic dialectic is a movement of theory designed to present the whole in its inner determinations. The presentation begins with the commodity as simply given; but at the end it is comprehended as the result of capitalist production, in its prevalence as the general form of the product.

But the analytical starting point is supplemented throughout the presentation by further episodes of analytical reflection that identify necessary conditions of existence of the form under consideration. While there is no self-positing movement of the sequence of such preconditions there is a specific phase of the systematic dialectic that shows how each is dialectically incorporated in the developing system, as they are posited as moments of it.

For example, it is a necessary condition of capitalism that ‘free labour’ comes together with the general form of capital so as to generate the capital relation. So it is seen that for capital as a general form to prevail socially, it must appropriate wage labour. This condition of its existence presupposes a further precondition, namely the availability of ‘doubly-free labour’. Such labour is that of freed slaves or serfs, now lacking immediate connection with any means of production. This last is the work of history, but in the systematic presentation it is treated initially as simply given. But the upshot is that I show capital in its own movement recreates this condition of its existence. Free labour was historically produced but now is subsumed by the capital system. (It is important that, although the presence of free labour is a necessary condition of existence of capital, it does not necessarily lead to capital, as can be verified historically.)

There are many such conditions encountered by capital, and then subsumed, reproduced, and transformed. Such conditions of existence theory takes up at the appropriate point in the reconstruction of the capital system. When it is shown that they are endogenously reproduced by the system their origin is sublated. We say the presupposition is now posited. This means it is different from an assumption which remains as an external condition of the process, e.g. capital assumes the availability of infinite natural resources.

2 Synthetic Dialectic

While the prevalence of the commodity is an empirically given fact, that it is a value is not. Thus we take it as a presupposition in need of grounding that the economy is ruled by a law of value. Then we ask what social forms make that possible.

Forms of value are synthetically developed in the presentation, but their reality is normally problematic. For example, I show that exchange-value is grounded in the form of immanent exchangeability. But that latter form is simply an assertion of the presentation, itself problematic, until it, in turn, is grounded when money posits commodities are values in themselves. In this case, too, the presupposition that money has this power must be posited. This is accomplished when it is grounded in a more concrete form. The ground actualises an inadequate form of value that cannot at the outset be considered as self-sustaining, allowing it now to subsist, albeit as an abstract moment of a more complex form. The presentation is in large measure a grounding movement from less adequate to fully adequate social forms. Ultimately the only adequate ground is the whole system, which supports its interior moments.

It is noteworthy that my retrospective method of following a retreat through a grounding movement seems necessarily caught up in such a dialectic of presupposition and posit. Every significant move takes shape as a ‘leap’ to a new form of existence of the category concerned.

For example, if we consider the transition from C–M–C′ to M–C–M′ (C = commodity; M = money), I do not seek to show that there is a tendency for the movement C–M–C′ to become that of M–C–M′. I say that, since M–C–M′ more permanently grounds value than does C–M–C′, let us turn to consider this ground of its existence; this itself is grounded in turn when the further development of the dialectic posits it as a mediating moment of capitalist production.

3 Interpenetration of Analysis and Synthesis

The two movements just discussed intertwine because the synthetic movement is forced to take up the analytically necessary conditions of existence of capital to show that value is actual; but it is capital as the form of self-valorising value that powers all the positing of presuppositions in the resulting whole.

The commodity as a given existent lies at the origin uncomprehended, but it is finally understood as the characteristic product of the system. In this system the product of labour takes the social form of a commodity. Implicitly it is assumed to be produced by capital, which is the only mode of production in which the commodity form of the product is prevalent rather than secondary. So, although capital analytically presupposes the commodity, it then posits it as its own, sublated in it.

By contrast, that the commodity is implicitly a value is certainly not given, but is a highly dubious assumption which cries out for a grounding movement. This is supplied by the synthetic dialectic which develops this abstract category to more concrete forms of existence.

Throughout, the grounding movement of ideal forms is interlaced with the positing of analytical conditions of existence. Indeed, the two provide mutual support. For example, we shall see the logical contradiction in the general formula for capital is resolved systematically only when surplus value arises through the subsumption under this form of labour power as a given precondition. Conversely, the prevalence and persistence of labour markets is explained by the dominance of capitalist exploitation which ensures the reproduction of the workers’ propertylessness. Such a circle characterises a self-grounded totality.

Such preconditions are not ‘deduced’ in the ordinary way; they are taken as given, but introduced into the dialectical development of value, and surplus value, as necessary supports of the actuality of the whole, each at the appropriate point in the argument. They are reproduced by the system itself in its whole movement. However, living labour, and land, in their original materiality, are subsumed by capitalist relations but retain their ‘otherness’, however shaped into a foundation adequate to capital.

I begin with the commodity. In a material sense there is production of commodities by means of commodities; but in no way does the commodity become self-positing therein. Rather its prevalence is the doing of capital. But capital is self-valorising value, so value is hence the totalising concept, once it is fully actualised as capital; capital is self-actualising. But value only becomes author of its own action once it becomes capital, a subject that reproduces its own abstract presupposition, sheer value. Value is the logical presupposition of capital for our theory, but its actuality is sheer conjecture until finally grounded. Although the capital system ‘produces’ value, it cannot do so except on the basis of material conditions of existence that it cannot produce, but only ‘subsume’, and make its own only by doing violence to their own ends (particularly those of living labour).

So the commodity requires that it be (i) produced as a use-value, when the product of labour takes generalised commodity form, (ii) produced as a value, which means in accordance with the law of value. So under the first we run up against analytical conditions of existence, e.g. free labour, machinery etc., and with the second we run up against an endless deferral of the actuality of the abstract form because only the self-grounded whole actualises the systemic order of categories.

It is an important methodological point in my presentation that the movement of the presentation from abstract to concrete in truth models exactly such a hierarchy of form in the object itself. In market exchange the commodity is presented to it by capital in abstraction from the real ground of its value, and hence it functions there immediately as the bearer of a pure form. As the presentation develops capital ‘recollects’, as it were, that as a concrete whole it was the ground of all the pure shapes of its abstract moments, commodity, money, profit and so forth. Likewise the presentation develops capital initially as a pure shape, but then it is shown to gain a material ‘filling’, as it appropriates the real economic metabolism.

The encounter of theory with the ‘cell-form’, the commodity, is immediate, and no special power of ours is required to select it as our starting point. What is not immediate, in the appropriation of the commodity by theory, is that it is the bearer of an ideality sufficiently free from the material ‘content’ as to support a self-grounding movement of pure form. This is what our presentation is to accomplish. A rigorous proof of this is required because the market could chaotically register the effect of forces generated outside it, and impacting upon it.

A peculiar methodological difficulty I have is that I operate simultaneously with the most abstract logical terms, and with historically determinate ones. It is a general theme of historical materialism that very little is accomplished by ahistorical categories such as ‘mode of production’. If, then, we follow the method of rising from abstract to concrete we must beware of such a beginning; rather the beginning is to be made with a historically determinate abstraction. This would be very general with respect to this particular mode of production, but sufficiently specific to mark it out from others; ‘the commodity as the general form of the product’ is such a determinate abstraction. However, there is a complication: all round abstraction is precisely what is historically determinate in our case. The commodity, on analysis, dissolves under the force of abstraction – including abstraction from use-value – to leave an empty form. So, we follow in our presentation of the system two orders of categories at the same time, those articulated in the logical structure, and those material determinations predicated on their interpretations in value terms. Along with the system, its moments are shown to reproduce each other, and hence are results of the system they support.

It is senseless to select one moment and claim it is the independent variable presupposed by the rest. Every element presupposes its support in the whole. One can ask historical questions about how a moment became present. The most interesting such question is the historical conditions of ‘free labour’. But one does not need to answer this, because, from a systematic view, it is reproduced now by the system of which it is the presupposition. Its ‘origin’ is in the system itself.

I finish this chapter by recapitulating the taxonomy introduced. Here, I shall underline that the relation of ‘positing the presupposition’ has a different result, according to whether the context is analytical or synthetic.

Systematic-Dialectical (SD) presentation table

Analytical dialectic

Synthetical dialectic

Starting Point

Commodity: its prevalence is a given to be posited as result

Value: the pervasive totalising form posited as grounded on itself through SD


Uncovering of necessary conditions of existence (CoE) then posited

Development of grounds sufficient to posit the starting point


CoEs are sublated when posited as ‘idealised’ by SD

Presuppositions are sublated through the grounding movement of SD

Positing the Presupposition

CoEs are posited through the SD

Grounds posit sequentially the actuality of what they presuppose


All CoEs are subsumed in the system as it reproduces itself

The whole grounds its moments when developed in a hierarchical system of determinations

a) The development of the dialectic requires the presupposition of certain analytical conditions of existence of the system (such as the material possibility of surplus product). These are initially taken as given, and then introduced to the presentation at the appropriate place. Capital appropriates these under its peculiar forms. As such they are ‘idealised’, they have a new meaning in the contribution they make to capital accumulation. In a sense, then, they provide a necessary condition for capital’s actuality. But equally they are sublated in it, especially if capital takes charge of reproducing them (for example, preserving labour’s propertylessness in the capital relation, and increasing its productivity).

There are two sorts of necessary conditions of existence: (i) material conditions, such as the capacity of workers to produce more than they consume; (ii) social conditions, such as the presence of free labour. In the case of material conditions capital thoroughly penetrates, and forms, them into adequate shapes of its material existence. In the case of given social forms these are very often shown to be posited as a result of the movement of the whole system. Their historical origin is therewith sublated; they become moments of capital itself, which in this respect is now unconditioned. An example is that once capital moves on its own basis, free labour is produced immanently.

b) In the case of the synthetical development of new social forms, the presentation of capital takes the shape of a grounding movement.3 Here the term ‘ground’ refers to the need for an abstract form, lacking in truth precisely on that account, to be posited when it is sublated in a more concrete form. This ground is not a given, but it is shown to be a new level of development of the system itself. In the development, the more concrete grounds the more abstract (money grounds immanent value, we shall see). In this case the overly abstract (hence relatively untrue) form becomes posited as the presupposition of the more concrete. But, here, in contrast to the previous case, it is not the ground that is sublated. What is sublated is the originating form now taken up into the more concrete form which grants it therewith the truth apart from which it would be lacking.

So the outcome of positing the presupposition here is the reverse of the analytical case. When money grounds exchange-value it is not sublated in it. Rather value is actual only as money. Money presupposes value in some indeterminate sense, but it posits this presupposition, not in its original indeterminacy, but now as comprehended as that which will have been actualised in what grounds it, which thus determines it, makes it true when fully transformed in the upshot. In the end the whole grounds the sequence of forms by taking up these presuppositions into itself so as to posit them in their truth (whereas abstracted from the whole they are lacking), but, insofar as it is the sequence of its own production, it is identical with what was to be grounded, not some supra-reality. The unifying principle is the movement of negativity which generates the system, I shall argue below.

In both cases there is a positing of presuppositions; but the outcome has a different meaning. In case (a), the required condition of existence is given, and once appropriated by capital it is sublated in it. In case (b), the more abstract form is posited, by that which gives it grounds, as presupposed. Only thus does it have any standing (or it lacks ground to stand on, so to speak). The ground actualises the truth of what is posited by it as the logical presupposition (not material condition of existence) of the concrete form, but it is the earlier form that becomes true only when taken up by the later.

In sum: the uncovered condition of existence, once appropriated and transformed by capital, is sublated in it; but the ground is not sublated in what it grounds, rather the grounding movement yields the reverse; when the presupposition is grounded, the more developed form sublates the previous form.

Finally, I stress that there is a difference between ‘developing’ and ‘subsuming’. One can speak properly of the development of form where ‘home-grown’ forms like a banking system are concerned. These capital brings forth as its own, so to speak. The revenues of financial and commercial capital, while distinct from those of industrial capital, are not distinct from those of capital as a whole, of which they are interior moments. Quite different are those material conditions of existence of capital that it encounters, and then subordinates to its purposes, subsuming them under peculiar value forms. Such conditions of existence are naturally or historically given to capital and then brought within it. An example of a natural condition is the fertility of the soil. But whatever transformation the capitalist mode of production may effect on the earth, its externality remains permanently.


There are two beginnings to the presentation of the systematic dialectic of capital: the analytic, and the synthetic.

Capital is analysable into the movement of money, and money in turn mediates commodity exchange. The analytical beginning is, then, the prevalence of the commodity form as the given mode of association. This condition of existence of capital is reproduced by capital itself such that the presupposition of the commodity form of wealth is posited by it. Other conditions of existence analytically necessary to sustain capital are uncovered as the presentation develops, especially the availability of ‘free labour’: this presupposition is also posited by capital itself as a result of the reproduction of the capital relation.

If the commodity is further analysed into the duality of use-value and exchange-value, the latter is taken as the presupposition of a synthetic movement that grounds it as the result of capitalist production. However, while the prevalence of the commodity form of the product of labour is a given, the supposition that the commodity is ‘a value’ (distinct from, and opposed to, use-value) is highly speculative. To make it a truth, a grounding movement is required for it. Each stage grounds the claims of the previous one, but in turn stands in need of a ground. Only the whole system adequately grounds it interior moments, and therewith makes them into its own presupposition, now adequately posited as such.


Cf. Banaji 1979, p. 40.


This figure was brought into the discussion of Marxian method by Bellofiore and Finelli (1998, p. 50). For ‘posit’, see the Glossary below.


This aspect of systematic dialectic was first adumbrated in Reuten and Williams 1989, p. 22.

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