Dream of a Social Theory, part 4

(Continued from yesterday)

Sometimes when I’ve had too much coffee or too much beer I say things like, “Karl Marx is the greatest social theorist I know of, but unfortunately this isn’t saying much!”.

Or, in less obnoxious terms: Marx’s work provides, for me, a beginning to the kind of theory I dream of, but only a beginning.

It seems to me that Marx wrote only one work of systematic social theory[1], and that is Capital.  Much of what he wrote is either metaphysical philosophy, which is not quite the same thing as naturalistic social theory, or else a sociological analytics that falls short of being a systematic theory. So, for instance, I think that Marx had a really excellent political analytics, but no political theory properly so called.

Let me explain the difference I perceive between a systematic social theory and a mere analytics.

Marx’s critique of political economy argues that workers’ poverty is a systemic product of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism produces wealth for capitalists and poverty for workers, and this happens regardless of the intentions of individual workers or owners.

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will

But how does this work? What connects individuals varying intentions to their consistent systemic effects?

In Capital, Marx supplies an elegant and effective answer: exploitation, defined as the appropriation of surplus value from labour by capital. Exploitation is the sine qua non of capitalist production, since all profit comes from exploitation. It is the mechanism by which the productive labour of workers is transformed into their own social impoverishment.  And it does not have to be intended to happen. Exploitation converts the conscious, intentional actions of individuals into the systemic imperatives of the capitalist mode of production, and vice versa.

Now let’s compare this theory of economic production to Marx’s analysis of political struggle.  Marx proposes that human consciousness and ideology emerge from material social relations. I find this proposition highly compelling, both in itself and as a basis for theorizing patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, and other forms of oppression. Since material social relations in capitalist society are contradictory, i.e. capitalist society is divided into objective classes defined by people’s differing relation to the means of production, then social consciousness ought to likewise be divided by class.  But how does that work? What connects the objective, non-intentional class structures with intentional, subjectively meaningful actions of individuals?

To my knowledge, Marx has no answer. Most often he seems to assume some sort of universal human rationality which would convert experience into consciousness in a uniform way.  But such an assertion reduces social practice to a pre-social human nature.  This makes it incomplete as a social theory, and is not really in keeping with Marx’s own assertion that human beings produce their nature through their practical relations with one another. It gives rise to the endless problem of why workers do not achieve class consciousness[2]. And it leaves us without any indication of what concrete practices would enable workers to make genuinely collective decisions together.

This is a very serious problem for Marx’s politics. Capitalism is an economic system, but capital exercises a political function; it structures the social process of deciding what will be produced and how, which is the same thing as deciding who will labour, to what ends, and under what conditions. We cannot just abolish capital; we must replace it with some other way of organizing our labour.

At the heart of economic transformation, therefore, we find a political problem: the problem of how to make decisions together.  Marx has no systematic social theory of how to do this. Neither, to my knowledge, does anyone else.

I am convinced that we have not yet built an egalitarian post-capitalist society because we do not yet know how to do so. The theory I dream of would help us discover how.

Marx Portrait

(Final installment tomorrow)

[1] For the Marxists in the audience, I should probably state my credentials. I’ve studied closely the first two volumes of Capital, the first chapter of The German Ideology, the Theses on Feuerbach, Wage Labour and Capital, the chapter on estranged labour in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and of course the Communist Manifesto. I’ve read The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the Critique of the Gotha Programme, the first few chapters of the Condition of the Working Class in England, the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a smattering of his letters, and little bits and pieces of the Grundrisse. Obviously I’m conflating Engels’s work with Marx’s but then so did Engels himself. Add to this, two biographies of Marx, including the one by Mary Gabriel, and a shit-ton of textbook summaries of his ideas, most of which, unfortunately, seem to be written by Weberians or humanists. I’ve also read the usual selections from Lenin, Luxembourg, Bernstein, Stalin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Lukacs, Kautsky, Mao (thank you David McLellan!), a few key essays by Althusser, some Poulantzas, and samplings from various contemporary Marxists like David Harvey and Alex Callinicos and John Holloway. And, of course, the usual selections from projects spun off of Marxism like the Frankfurt School (Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas) or world-system theory (Frank, Wallerstein, Amin) or critical pedagogy (Friere). So my knowledge of Marx’s thought and of subsequent Marxist theory is far, far from comprehensive, but I hope this shows that what I write on this subject is based on something more than ignorance and prejudice.

[2] Marxists have tried to solve this problem with theories of false consciousness, hegemony, or ideology, but to me these theories feel cumbersome and arbitrary.

4 thoughts on “Dream of a Social Theory, part 4

  1. So Marx is a hero for you in large part because he was working on a “theory of everything” for the social-material world. I think it’s very instinctive to want one, and to humor notional “convergence theory” in hopes of something of the kind arising in the vocabulary of everyday life under its own momentum somehow. I need to rewrite this stub for clarity, but here are some thoughts I’m planning to develop for a blog entry of my own at some point on a similar topic:

    The “psychopathology of everyday life” accounts for innocuous modes of compartmentalizing in ways that are shockingly similar to traumatic repression in rigidity and potential for causing consequential confusion. The routine ambit of everyday life in and out of cognitive cubicle spaces of situational vocabularies can limit personally significant conversations as brutally as a meager command of phrasebook English, in its own peculiar way. This ad hoc compartmentalizing artificially shoehorns our conversational and productive lives into topical received wisdom recitatives that barely apply to our own situation at all in most instances, our own lives being more multidimensional than poorly-operationalized interdisciplinarity allows. The simple explanation for wanting a “theory of everything” is wanting to erode these psychosocial barriers, so that interdisciplinarity comes naturally as needed, and our intuitions are more trustworthy (with fewer paradigm-scale caveats).


  2. ******
    What connects the objective, non-intentional class structures with intentional, subjectively meaningful actions of individuals? To my knowledge, Marx has no answer.
    This question cannot be answered, and need not be; it is a mere phantom of language. What Marx should have said is that “the social being of men is inseparable from their consciousness”, or (better still) “the social being of men is of a piece with their consciousness”.

    No matter how the proposition is stated, though, the reality to which it corresponds dooms us to spin about in the hamster-wheel of Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle indefinitely. We can try to become aware of the presuppositions given in our social being; we can refine them; but we can’t altogether surmount them. The fact of the indelible relationship between social being and consciousness thus, and by itself, probably precludes the possibility of imagining how to build the egalitarian post-capitalist social order. Indeed, our social being continues to pose serious obstacles to our scientific understanding of the nature of the State-capitalist present in the very process of its being built.

    For example, as of the right-now there is, from purely scientific concerns alone (to say nothing of the practical), an urgent need to get Marxist analysis into bed with the new critical assessments of State capitalism being articulated from a classical political-economic point of view. Nobody should hold their breath waiting, though; indeed, given the class configuration of State capitalism (both objective and subjective) the very idea is comically absurd, and not just because of relatively trifling theoretical divergences over the nature of value and so on.

    What makes this state of affairs a real shame is that it is only the most tawdry and contemptible aspects of our social being that prevents the complementary theories from coming together: vanity, self-flattery, conformity, venality, spite, dogmatism, social pretensions and affectations, etc. ad nauseam. These are all the more contemptibly vicious in that we can surmount or at least mitigate them under our own volition. No amount of will can elevate us to a transcendental point of view above our own episteme; there is no escaping the hermeneutic circle. But we could be several hundred cycles ahead if we all of us put some effort into it.


  3. Pingback: Capitalism: The Unsolved Problem | The Practical Theorist

  4. Pingback: Marxism and Genocide | The Practical Theorist

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