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The Turn to the Political: Post-Marxism and Marx's Critique of Politics


Recent political theorists have emphasize the importance of the concept of the political, and criticized earlier theorists, especially Marxists, for dissolving the political in other concepts, especially reducing politics to economics. Marx, however, did not reduce the political to the economic, but instead subjected the category of the political to a sophisticated critique, in his early work, which influenced the direction of all his later work. Following Marx's critique of politics, this dissertation argues against the autonomy of the political, and proposes a political theory which sees politics as inseparable from a wider social and economic context.

The dissertation begins with a discussion of four post-Marxist authors, Badiou, Laclau, Mouffe, and Rancière, who respond to perceived problems in Marxism (particularly the Marxism of Althusser) by emphasizing the autonomy of the political. It then traces Marx's critique of politics throughout his work, beginning with his early identification of the separation of the political and the economic as a "practical illusion," a kind of appearance which is not simply a pretense or error, but which has material effects. The dissertation then discusses how Marx developed this account of the relationship between politics and appearance in the Eighteenth Brumaire and Communist Manifesto, before turning to Marx's most sophisticated analysis of the logic of appearance, the identification of commodity fetishism in Capital. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the implications of Marx's critique of politics for contemporary political theory.

The analysis of post-Marxism and of Marx in this dissertation, then, shows the limitations of the turn to the political, and the ways in which a focus on the political as an autonomous sphere produces a political theory that is incapable of understanding the richness of politics. The reading of Marx also demonstrates a better approach to political theory, one which, through an analysis of politics as appearance, reveals the many intersections and imbrications of the apparently political and the supposedly non-political. In many ways, this analysis is only the beginning, the announcement of a further research program which would found political theory not on the political alone, but on politics, economics, aesthetics and all the other fields into which our discussion of political concepts might take us. Such an investigation could draw on Marxist and non-Marxist theories, being limited neither by the purified notion of politics of post-Marxist, nor by the parochial textualism of too much Marxist theory. What this dissertation proposes is a reconceptualization of political theory which, by rejecting the autonomy of the political, is able to pay full attention to the richness of politics.

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