Christopher J. Arthur
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This work is devoted to the explication of the idea of capital. But it is unique in that it argues that capital is itself ‘Idea’ in much the same sense that Hegel advanced in his philosophy. For him an Idea is not a mental entity, but the full actualisation of a concept, of its ‘truth’, one might say. So capital, as such an Idea, is continually making itself present in reality. This book aims to show that capital is the spectral subject of modernity.

The term ‘spectre of capital’ I coined in a journal article of 2001.1 It echoes the Manifesto’s ‘spectre of communism’. But communism was a real movement aimed at abolishing the existing state of things, ruled by capital. However, just how ‘spectral’ and how ‘real’ is capital itself? Paradoxically it is both. Although it has purely a spectral presence, it is without doubt a real social power, and it retains this in the face of any critique such as that presented here. (Thus, in the phrase in our title – ‘Idea and Reality’ – the ‘and’ should not be taken contrastively; it is indicative of identity.)

The method followed in my presentation of capital, as a social form, rests on the logic proper to the peculiar character of its object. For a presentation of the inner logic of capital, the protocols of ‘systematic dialectic’ are required.2 This systematic-dialectical presentation draws on Hegel’s philosophical logic. It is unconcerned with recovering the grand narrative of his philosophy of history, and then relating it to historical materialism. Rather it is focussed on his logic of categories. Here this is taken to be architectonically homologous with the social forms of capital.

Systematic dialectic is deployed to articulate the forms of this social order, namely capitalism. My method of logical development of form is rooted in the observation that the movement of exchange is analogous to the movement of thought, in that there is generated a realm of pure forms, which stand in logical relations to each other, any content absented. Thus the presentation is informed by ‘value-form theory’. This is a relatively new approach to the critique of political economy. It affirms that value relations play an active part in determining the shape, and purposes, of material production. The developed form of value (commodity, money, capital) is the characteristic social form of present economic relations.

Hegel is a natural reference for value-form theory because his logic is well suited to a theory of forms. Moreover, Hegel’s systematic development of categories is directed towards articulating the structure of a totality, showing how it supports itself in and through the interchanges of its inner moments. This presupposes that the totality is structured by internal relations; this is so by definition in the case of a logic of categories. I argue capital is such a totality. A theory of active social form, specifically the value form, requires a systematic-dialectical presentation, then.

So the scope of this project is restricted to a theory of a purely capitalist society. More than that, it is restricted to its ‘pure theory’, or principles, as distinct from the stages of development of capitalism, on the basis of which an empirical study of an existing capitalism may be carried out in a historically informed manner.3 Moreover, it is even more restricted in that its entire attention is directed towards the concept of capital itself. Indeed, I take the concept of capital so narrowly that even rent is excluded because I regard it as an impurity from the theoretical standpoint that elucidates only those forms which are necessary to capital as a concept, or, as I shall call it, the Idea of capital.

Despite this narrow focus, an important result is demonstrated, namely that the logical tendency of the Idea of capital is to complete itself through its own immanent development, and therewith to posit all its presuppositions; it is self-grounded, self-determining, and self-reproducing. The qualifications required to this bold thesis are addressed in the course of the argument itself as appropriate.

Such a study as this is the necessary prolegomenon to any adequate scientific study of capitalism. However, it is purely a conceptual exercise, developing a system of categories that stand in quasi-logical relations. So this book is not a work in economics, but of philosophy. For example, the ‘capital concept’ presented here is far from a properly articulated economic one. The same goes for ‘production’ and many other themes touched upon.

This is because the peculiar logic of the object has itself a conceptual character. The very possibility of a pure theory, and of the reality of the capital Idea, depends upon an ontological claim about the way capital itself abstracts from its material underpinnings, and constitutes a realm of pure forms. I hope to vindicate this large claim in part by developing the categories of capital within a systematic-dialectical framework. At the same time, it is a critique of the economic categories it presents. A critique of political economy is understood here not as a criticism of bourgeois apologetic for capital, but as a critique of the capital system itself insofar as its own forms lack truth.

In developing my ideas, I have been fortunate to be a member of the International Symposium on Marxian Theory research group, founded by Fred Moseley in 1991.4 Beside Moseley himself, I thank especially, for their patient commentaries on my work-in-progress, long-standing members: Riccardo Bellofiore, Martha Campbell, Roberto Fineschi, Patrick Murray, Geert Reuten, and Tony Smith. (These thinkers are also those who have produced the most significant works in English on the critique of political economy.)

For commenting on the original manuscript of this book, I thank especially Geert Reuten and Tony Smith. They have saved me from many an error; but, of course, they bear no responsibility for the book itself.


See Arthur 2001.


For an overview of the literature on systematic dialectic see Arthur 2002. Path-breaking books in the field were Reuten and Williams 1989, and Smith 1990. Relevant earlier works were Sekine 1984, and Eldred et al. 1982.


On such ‘pure theory’ cf. Uno 1980.


The International Symposium on Marxian Theory has published a number of conference volumes as follows: Moseley (ed.) 1993; Moseley and Campbell (eds) 1997; Arthur and Reuten (eds) 1998; Campbell and Reuten (eds) 2002; Bellofiore and Taylor (eds) 2004; Moseley (ed.) 2005; Bellofiore and Fineschi (eds) 2009; Bellofiore et al. (eds) 2013; Moseley and Smith (eds) 2014.

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