This is a prepublication version of the paper published in Research in Political Economy Volume 26, 2010. It should be cited as Freeman, A. (2010). ‘Crisis and “law of motion” in economics: a critique of positivist Marxism’, Research in Political Economy Volume 26, 2010, pp 211-250. It is a variant of the paper presented to the World Association for Political Economy (WAPE) but should be regarded as the definitive version of this particular text
This paper restores the concepts of freedom, consciousness, and choice to our understanding of ‘economic laws’, so we may discuss how to respond to economic crisis. These are absent from orthodox economics which presents ‘globalisation’ or ‘the markets’ as the outcome of unstoppable forces outside human control.
They were integral to the emancipatory political economy of Karl Marx but have been lost to Marxism, which appears as the inspiration for mechanical, fatalistic determinism. This confusion arises from Marxism’s absorption of the idea, originating in French positivism, that social laws are automatic and inevitable.
The article contests the organizing principle of this view: that economic laws are predictive, telling us what must happen. Marx’s laws are relational, not predictive, laying bare the connection between two apparently distinct forms of appearance of the same thing, such as labour and price. Such laws open the door to democracy and choice, but do not unambiguously predict the future because what happens depends on our actions.
The commodity form conceals these laws, disguising the true social and class relations of society. Accumulation, however, undermines the circumstances that permit the commodity to play this role. The result is crisis, defined in this paper as the point when the blind laws of the commodity form are suspended and open political forces come into play.
In past crises, capitalism has restored the rate of profit through such destructive interventions as imperialism, war, and fascism. Economic laws, properly defined, offer society the real choice of alternative outcomes from crisis.