“Spontaneous System” or Dialectical “Totality”?


Recently some Marxist writers in India have started claiming that one of Marx’s fundamental contributions to the study of capitalism was “his insight into a basic characteristic of the system, that it is a spontaneous system. ” This is a rather curious formulation, especially in the year of Marx’s bicentenary, since neither Marx or Engels ever used the term. This merits the following observations:

1) Marx uses the word spontaneously in two senses in his work. In the Grundrisse, he predominantly uses it in the sense of referring to the beginning of some phenomenon, meaning arising of its own accord, as contingency rather than necessity. Later when the phenomenon or process of self-reproduction establishes itself, then the spontaneous (or natural which he uses alongside) becomes transformed into the historical presupposition (or precondition).

2) In Capital, Marx uses it in the sense of the objective reality of processes in society including economic, social, etc, that take place behind the actors’ back as it were, without the actors’ being aware of it.

3) It has been suggested that “spontaneous system” means that the system is driven by its own “immanent tendencies”. That is true of any mode of production. In fact it is true of any totality, because there is nothing “outside” a totality. In this sense to call capitalism a spontaneous system is a tautology, unless a “god” or something like that interferes from outside, which makes matters even worse.

4) In this view, “spontaneous system” is used to suggest that the capitalists as a class have very little or no freedom within capitalism to choose different courses of action. This is patently untenable since the trajectory of capitalist growth varies widely across countries with very different implications for societies and peoples.

5) At the same time, the underlying logic of capital constantly reasserts itself and is realized through the actions of actors, including both capitalists and the working class. Thus the struggle for the length of the working day is part of the working of capital and not a struggle happening outside of the logic of capital. The “spontaneous system” view therefore has a one-sided view of the tendencies in capital’s development and does not see its inherent contradictory development.

6) The dialectical view of the whole or a “totality” is a much richer view, showing how the abstract and the concrete are related, showing how the individual and the universal are related, showing how the whole and the parts are related. Understanding totality in a dialectical way involves the painstaking tracing of the development of the whole in all its richness of detail from the essence, with its unity of opposites. Marx puts down the key elements of this approach in the section titled Method of Political Economy in his Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

7) The “spontaneous system” view however follows really the path of metaphysical abstraction, where understanding totality amounts to a jump from some microeconomic explanations to a set of macroeconomic explanations (emptied of detail), where the former may eventually even be given up in favour of the latter. It is in this kind of abstraction that Marx appears the same as Keynes at the macro level while admittedly different at the microlevel. In this view Keynes may be forgiven his neglect of exploitation since he really understood, at least partially, some aspects of the spontaneous system of capitalism.

7) It is Marx’s view of totality that leads to the concept of absolute rent as Lenin so simply explains and no idea of spontaneous system will be of any use in such an explanation. Similarly the transformation problem or how, in a full capitalist economy, values are transformed into prices, can be understood only in a dialectical view of “totality” that Marx works out in the Grundrisse and explains (through the efforts of Engels) in volume 3 of Capital. This has been understood and explained by a host of Marxist economists and even by some mainstream economists such as Baumol.

8) In the year of Marx’s bicentenary our task, in my humble opinion,  should be to revisit and relearn Marx’s dialectical viewpoint primarily from his study of capitalism in Grundrisse and Capital and stand up to the renewed attempt to draw metaphysical conclusions from a dialectical Marx.


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