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Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy: Review

by Paul Cammack on December 6, 2016

Lucia Pradella’s book Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy advances the argument that ‘Marx’s notebooks are … of the highest importance for understanding the scope and approach of his critique of political economy. They provide evidence that, if “the international” had a central place in the elaboration of the materialistic conception of history, Marx developed his theory of surplus value presupposing not only the historical but also the logical primacy of the world market’ (171). It is excellent, for five reasons.

pradellaIt addresses an issue of immense contemporary significance; its scholarship is impressively rich and detailed; its main argument is thoroughly convincing; its critical judgements are balanced and generally compelling; and the analytical framework that results is a crucial resource for thinking about global capitalism in the twenty-first century. Pradella ‘seeks to contribute to developing a genuinely international conceptual framework for understanding the global political economy’, in response to the profound transformations that have taken place since the 1970s: ‘the growing integration of the world market, the relocation of industries to the Global South and the emergence of new capitalist powers such as China’ (1), and in doing so, she convincingly refutes the notion that he should be charged with either Eurocentrism or methodological nationalism. She argues that his critique of political economy aimed at a ‘critical understanding of the laws of development of the capitalist system as a totality’ (4), against the alternative view that his main work centred on England as a ‘self-enclosed national economy’, and sets this argument in a broader context in which ‘political economy from the mercantilists onward and its critique by Marx were concerned from the start to understand the dynamics of capitalism as a global system’ (11, emphasis mine).  Her detailed analysis of Marx’s notebooks from 1843-1853 and the twenty-four ‘London Notebooks’ written from 1850 to 1853 is followed by an account of the development of the argument in detail up to the 1861-1863 manuscript, and briefly beyond, to the publication of Capital. This is, then, ‘the first attempt in English to present the development of Marx’s notebooks with regard to the issue of the world market’ (6), and it is the teasing out of the centrality of the world market for Marx from the earliest accounts of historical materialism that gives the text its contemporary resonance. At its heart is the important argument that it was only when Marx worked through and rejected Ricardo’s quantity theory of money that he was able to base his whole analysis consistently on the labour theory of value, extended to the global scale. This is buttressed by critical accounts of his response to Hegel and List, and linked to the broader claim that by the early 1850s he was tracing a reciprocal relationship between proletarian struggles in industrialised countries, and anti-colonial movements in India and China, and rejecting a ‘Eurocentric’ vision of capitalist development. And throughout, the text brings out one of the most striking features of the notebooks – the evidence they provide of the profoundly undogmatic nature of Marx’s approach – constant self-questioning and commitment to developing and refining his analysis, grounded in prodigious reading and critical reflection, across the major European languages, in fields ranging from ancient and modern history, political economy, sociology and anthropology to organic chemistry. In sum, it is a precious resource.

With one caveat, it is particularly recommended for readers who are not too familiar with Marx or the vast body of critical scholarship surrounding his work, but wish to engage with it in a serious manner. The caveat is that the early chapters are dense, and closely argued. It’s essential to grasp their broad argument and progress to the later chapters – Four and Five – in which the bulk of original analysis is concentrated. A good strategy would be to start with a careful reading of the Conclusion, which sets out the overall development of the argument of the book very clearly, then to go back to the beginning. Anyone who then makes it back to the end, and keeps in mind the summary statement that the labour theory of value ‘is not abstractly national or international, but expresses the logic of capital universalisation, its becoming world’ (165), will find themselves with a sound basis both for assessing contrasting approaches to Marx, and for applying a critical perspective to contemporary global development. In what follows, I focus on Chapters Four and Five, and the Conclusion, drawing particular attention to key judgements and conclusions, and giving a sense of the original material on which they are based.

Marx settled in London in 1849, in a new industrial era characterised by growth of foreign trade and investment, and made a ‘new beginning’ to his studies, identified by Pradella as a ‘qualitatively new phase of his research’ (93). The twenty-four notebooks he produced between September 1850 and August 1853 had a common thread of capitalist globalisation; and his rejection of the quantity theory of money (the idea that commodity prices were determined by the amount of money in circulation) proved ‘a real turning point, which allowed Marx to elaborate the theories of value and surplus value starting from the developed division of labour on the world market’ (93, emphasis original). Marx focused not on the quantity of money but on production relations and the movement of commodities at international level, or the ‘general circulation of commodities in the world market’ 98. ‘In world crises’, he argued, ‘it was not the contradictions of money circulation that emerged, but those of capitalism as a mode of production’ 99. In the course of developing the argument, he advanced clearly a conception of uneven development as a perpetual feature of global capitalism and a driving force behind it – competition-induced leaps in productivity in particular sectors or locations with repercussions for other producers giving rise to the ‘extended reproduction’ of capital:

‘In order to increase this exchange value there is – apart from mutual swindles – no other means than to reproduce product, to produce more. In order to achieve this plus-production, the forces of production must be increased. But in the same proportion as the productive forces of a given quantity of labour are increased – of a given amount of capital and labour – the exchange value of the products fall and a duplicated (sic) production has the same value that half of it used to have. Even if we do not take into account the depreciation … if this happens evenly, the value would never change, and the whole stimulus to bourgeois production would cease. To the extent that it happens unevenly, every kind of collision occurs, but at the same time bourgeois progress occurs’ (100, citing Notebook 8, 364). In sum, the London Notebooks accorded conceptual as well as empirical primacy to the world market, led to the conclusion that the labour theory of value expresses the internationalisation of capital, and began to explore the dynamic that drove capitalist reproduction forward.

Over the following decade Marx produced the first and second drafts of Capital, in the Grundrisse (1857-8) and the 1861-63 Manuscript. Over this period he developed the idea that the ‘substance of value is social, universal labour, which progressively becomes so with the universalisation 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, citing the revised plan in Grundrisse, 227-8). Pradella’s summary of the significance of the world market is striking, and could not be bettered as a starting-point for grasping the relevance of Marx to the present, and the scope and power of his approach: ‘The world market is not a static sphere, but consists of the process of universalisation of capital’ (130); it is a ‘concrete reality’, reflected in ‘the imposition of its laws over the multiplicity of states’ (133). For me, although there is much more in the book besides, on imperialism, Eurocentrism and post-colonialism for example, these brilliant formulations capture the essence of Marx’s project, and should underpin studies of the global economy today.

Pradella argues that in the Grundrisse Marx ‘had not yet managed to integrate movement into the concept of capital in general’ (145, following Wolfgang Jahn). It was only through the 1861-3 Manuscript that he revised his plan for Capital, ‘overcame the separation between capital and competition, postponing or completely abandoning a concrete analysis of the latter’, and similarly brought capital and wage labour fully into the same analytical frame (146). With all of this, the significance of the world market as the arena within which capital reproduced itself was reinforced. First:

it is only foreign trade, the development of the market to a world market, which causes money to develop into world money and abstract labour into social labour. Abstract wealth, value, money, hence abstract labour, develop in the measure that concrete labour becomes a totality of different modes of labour embracing the world market’ (1861-63 Manuscript, cited p. 148 from Collected Works,Vol. 32, 387-8).

And second:

The reproduction process is dependent not on the production of mutually complementary equivalents in the same country, but on the production of these equivalents on foreign markets, on the power of absorption and the degree and extension of the world market. This provides an increased possibility of non-correspondence, hence a possibility of crises (1861-63 Manuscript, cited p. 147 from Collected Works, Vol. 34, 221).

In this perspective, ‘capital is not invested abroad because of a lack of opportunities domestically, but in a quest for higher profits’ (149); ‘the transfer of surplus value between national capitals with different levels of productivity is based upon and shapes an overall, global antagonism between capital and wage labour’; and ‘accumulation does not exclude but coexists with forms of “primitive accumulation” like the extraction of value from non-capitalist sectors; and ‘these mechanisms did not condemn all countries to underdevelopment, but contradictorily laid the premises for the development of new independent centres of accumulation’ (all 153). The following account of the move from the abstract to the concrete in Capital itself (153-60) draws out the implications of the foregoing analysis, around the main contention that, contrary to dominant interpretations (such as David Harvey), ‘Marx’s positing the national and world market levels as coinciding is not synonymous with the assumption of an “enclosed national economy” but is a premise for conceptualising global production relations’ (155). This is crucially important, as it undermines the case for identifying two separate (if related) capitalist and territorial logics of power.

As noted above, the conclusion (164-74) provides an excellent summary of the argument as a whole. At the same time, the concluding judgement advanced (contestable, no doubt, as all such judgements are) – that for Marx the antagonistic relations between nations and the development of new capitalist states ‘were subordinate to the system’s laws and to an overall, globalising antagonism between capital and wage labour’, but that at the same time he ‘never believed in a “trans-nationalising” logic of capital according to which inter-state conflicts would be replaced by the polarisation of classes at the global level’ (169) – provides a distinctive analytical framework that, as Pradella notes, excludes systematically unilinear interpretations of history and also the stageist vision of revolution  that later characterised “orthodox Marxism” (169).

This post was previously published on Paul Cammack’s critical political economy site What’s Worth Reading

Paul Cammack
Paul Cammack graduated in English Literature in 1971, went to Chile (1971-3), got into studying and teaching Latin American and Third World Politics and shifted into global political economy, most recently at the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and City University Hong Kong. He is currently Honorary Professorial Research Fellow in the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. Recent publications are available at, and recent book reviews at

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