Cutler on Laws of Tendency
Some Notes on Cutler et.al. on
Laws of Tendency (Cutler et.al., Marx’s
Capital and Capitalism Today, Vol.I, chapters
4, 5 and 6.)
Cutler et.al. declare themselves opposed to
the epistemological privileging of any level
of discourse, but prefer, instead, to engage
in discursive analyses of specific problems.
Nevertheless, their critique of specific. laws
of tendency in Marx’s texts – concentratlon
and centralisation of capital, the falling
rate of profit, etc. – relies almost exclusively on a single epistemological argument:
there can be no such ‘thing’ as a law of
The epistemology of capital – knowledge
conceived as the appropriation of the concrete in thought -combined with the economism
of the 1859 Preface entails the ’empty’
anthropology of the human species as the
transhistorical subject of the historical
process. The readers’ horror at the invoca, tion of ,the categories of subject, anthropology and teleology is relied upon to complete
the refutation of both the epistemology of
‘appropriation of the concrete in thought’
and economism. But, at best, these consequences, if they follow at all, follow from
the conjunction of epistemology and economism.
If the conclusions adduced do follow,
then consistency requires only the-modification or rejection of either economism or
epistemology, but not both. Cutler et.al.
proceed as if both were refuted.
Cutler et.aI~oncede that not all the
laws of tendency advocated by Marx have the
same form (indeed, in part it seems to be
their aim to show this), but sometimes they
write as if there were different notions of
the status of laws of tendency in Marx which
together form a single ‘complex and contradictory notion’ (p.132). Anyway, they distinguish tendencies as (1) ‘progressively
realised processes’, and (2) ‘the consequences of relations which establish pressure
towards certain states of affairs’. There
are several variants within (2) – depending
on the nature and source of counter-acting
forces which may prevent or modify the realisation of the tendency concerned. Either
the very relations which have the tendency as
their consequence also produce its countertendencies (contradictory relations), or
extraneous and particular circumstances, not
derivable from the general concept of the
relations concerned, may counteract the tendency. As in the case of the falling rate of
profit, both types of counteracting force may
The main arv,ument against the notion of a
law of tendency in each of these forms seems
to be that the epistemology of ‘assimilation
of the concrete in thought’ cannot accommodate the empirical failure of laws of tendency
to be universally and necessarily realised.
Either specific circumstances must be wholly
irrelevant to the understanding of the operatlon or-a-mechanism over time, or they must
wholly determine it. The latter crass empirlC1St posltion seems to be the one advocated
by Cutler et.al. This is what is presupposed
in their insistence (e.g. p.13l) that ‘general causal doctrines are not necessary for
specific discursi ve analyses’ (where else
would these specific analyses get their conceptual materials, methodological procedures
and criteria of adequacy?). Cutler et.al.
preserve the appearance of getting away with
this absurdity only by leaving the concept
of the conditions of existence of ‘specific
discursive analyses’ and problems completely
open – all we know is that they are
The notion of a law of tendency is identified with the first pole of the above dichotomy – the operation of a process whose
working-out is independent of conditions or
circumstances. This caricature of Marx is
one they share with Popper, and the criticism
is substantially the same, too – Marx confuses scientific laws (conditional but universal statements) with tendencies (about
which there can be no necessity).
Cutler et. al. go further, though, and
locate the source of this problematic concept
in the idea of knowledge as an appropriation
of real objects and relations in thought.
Marx’s method involves the specification of
fundamental real relations by means of abstract and general concepts.
consequences of this ‘privileged’ level of
concepts are ‘mapped’ onto reality as necessary effects of the relations specified in
the abstract concepts. Marx thus treats
‘effects’ as logically necessary relations,
and therefore ‘rationalises’ reality.
effect of Marx’s method on the discourse of
Capital, according to Cutler et.al, is, then,
to represent the circumstantially conditioned historical flow of events as the
necessary and logical outcome of certain
This is why empirical
circumstances and the partial or total nonrealisation of tendencies cannot be accommodated with Marx’s method.
Some critical responses to his ‘argument’
(1) At the level of interpretation of Marx’s
1857 Introduction it is a travesty.
movement from abstract to concrete is conceived by Marx in that text as a ‘synthesis
o£ many determinations’ and not as the
simple deduction of the logical consequences
immanent in the most general concepts.
allows for a conception of method in which
concepts of higher levels of abstraction are
used as analytical resources at lower levels,
but supplemented by additional conceptual
elements from diverse sources.
(2) That descriptions of real effects follow
logically from theoretical characterisations
of real relations entails no confusion of
the logical order of theoretical discourse
with the causal order of a real orocess.
It is, rather, a mark of the adequacy and
explanatory power of the initial theoretical
characterisations. This is, indeed, one of
the main points of theoretical activity.
The rejection by Cutler et. al. of the conception of knowledge as involving a relation
between discourse and extra-discursive existents, however, does entail a denial of a
distinction between a logical order in discourse, and a real order of (knowable)
causes and effects external to discourse.
Their main critical weapon is effective
against themselves, but not against Marx.
(3) In their rejection of the ‘privileging’
of any level of discourse Cutler et.al.
confuse two quite distinct features of discourse: (i) an asymmetry between different
levels of conceptual abstraction in respect
of the scope of their logical implications:
the more abstract the level, the broader its
implications, and (ii) epistemological privileging of specific levels of discourse as
In classical rationalist
metaphysics the highest levels of abstraction are also the epistemologically privileged, but in phenomenalist forms of empiricism, for example, it is the lowest level of
abstraction (sense-datum statements) which
Feature (i) is essential to
Marx’s method of proof in Capital~ as to all
scientific proof, whereas (ii) is dispensible.
(4) On a realist epistemological reconstruction of the arguments of Capital, there is
nothing problematic about the claim that a
law of tendency really does characterise
the effects of specific social relations,
but which (i) applies only when those social
relations are subject to specifiable contextual conditions or are in certain specifiable
intrinsic states and which (ii) may remain
‘unrealised’ in event-sequences because of
the intervention of intrinsic or extrinsic
In short, Marx’s
method, interpreted as a form of realism
(Cutler et.al., though their account is inadequate in other respects, concur in this),
can accommodate the existence of real tendendies whose realisation is dependent upon
circumstances of operation.
(5) The mileage that Cutler et.al. get out
of the apparent requirement of realist epistemology (for them – epistemology as such)
that reality must be ‘rational’ rests partly
on ambiguity, partly on misunderstanding.
What is it for reality to be ‘rational’?
The strongest form of this thesis is the
interpretation of causal necessity as a form
of logical necessity.
Cutler et.al. are
right to characterise this as rationalist,
but wrong to attribute it to Marx (see (2)
In its weaker, and more plausible
form, it consists in the thesis that reality
necessarily and miraculously exists in a
form appropriate to our knowledge of it.
Realist epistemologies may seem to require
an anthropomorphic conception of the external objects of knowledge.
An ad hominem
response to this would be that an antiepistemological epistemology which entails
that there are no external objects of knowledge at all is-nardly preferable.
more serious answer is that no such miraculous ‘pre-established harmony’.between concept and object is entailed by realist
epistemology: from the premise that the
world, or aspects of it, are known, it does
indeed follow necessarily that the world,
or aspects of it, exists in a form aopropriate to human cognition.
But the premise
is itself quite contingent: the world might
not have been known, or knowable, but since
it is, we can deduce certain consequences as
to its general character and our relationship to it.
Further elaboration of (4) above:
accounts of the status of laws of tendency.
Realism argues that the world has ontological depth, and that this is presupposed in
scientific practices such as experiments.
In particular, this means that scientific
laws are not, as empiricists and Cutler et.
al. suppose, regular (universal) patterns of
Laws are to be thought of, rather,
as tendencies immanent in real mechanisms.
A specific mechanism may be thought of as
requiring certain external and internal conditions to be satisfied if it is to operate
(the motor of a car requires fuel and ignition), and may operate without its various
tendencies and powers being realised or
exercised (the engine may not be in gear,
the brake may be on, etc.).
typically, mechanisms are practically isolated and set in motion in such a way that
tendencies are realised in regular eventsequences, but characteristically mechanisms
in nature and society operate in open systems.
That is to say, the simultaneous
operation of a multiplicity of mechanisms
generates interference-effects such that, in
general, tendencies operate but are not
realised. Another way of putting this would
be to say that tendencies are realised in
open systems, but in the form of resultants
of compounded forces.
Marx’s method is to use abstraction in
the construction of the concepts of systems
of relations (simple commodity production,
the CMP, etc.) which constitute social
mechanisms, and to deduce the consequences
of the operations of those mechanisms in the
form of laws of tendency. The further ‘synthesis of many determinations’ is required
if the resultant flow of events from a
combination (articulation) of such operating
mechanisms (such as constitutes a social
formation), acting under specific historical
circumstances, is to be analysed.
(i) The above arguments should not be
understood as advancing the truth or any
specific law of tendency in caprtal or any
other Marxist text. The point is the more
limited one that the epistemological critiqu~ of all such notions deployed by Cutler
et. al. is ineffective.
(ii) Nor do I wish to be taken as defending
even the coherence of some notions of law of
tendency. Some hlstoricist Marxist writers,
including Marx on occasion, do, indeed, make
use of transhistorical laws of tendency as
‘progressively realised processes’ – the
necessary and progressive development of the
forces of production in the 1859 Preface,
for example – tendencies whose reallty and
realisation in sequences of events are –independent of all circumstantial conditions
This conception of tendential laws does not
seem to me to be coherent, in that it postulates an absolutely autonomous and omnipotent social mechanism. The idea of a
‘terminal mechanism’ also seems to me to be
highly suspect. But there are, as I have
suggested above, other ways of constructing
a concept of tendential law.
(iii) The logical structure of some tendential laws is highly complex, and so the
analysis of the conditions of their coherence is no straightforward matter, leaving
aside the problems of measurement and
empirical interpretation. For example, the
law of the tendency of the rate of profit
to fall is the postulated result of a deeperlevel tendency of the organic composition of
capital to rise. This tendency is itself a
consequence of basic features of the CMP,
but is also regarded by Marx as an instance
of the supposed transhistorical law of the
tendency of the productivity of labour to
rise. Moreover, the same features of the
CMP which ground the tendency of the rate of
profit to fall, also ground its countertendencies (or, rather, some of them cheapening of constant capital, increase in
the rate of surplus value consequent upon
cheapening of the labourers’ means of subsistence, etc.). One among the many pertinent questions here would be: is there a
theoretical case for the law which can be
made out on the basis of the theory of the
CMP independently of any reliance on the
more suspect transhistorical law governing
the productivity of labour?
(iv) Despite the epistemological and other
problems of transhistorical laws, I don’t
think they can or should be dispensed with
entirely. Other historical sciences biology, for example – share simil~r problems. What is it that evolves?· What is the
unit upon which natural selection operates,
and what is ‘selected’ in natural selection?
These are unresolved problems, but they do
not seem to be fatal to biological science.