Methodologically individualist social theories cannot adequately explain power. This is because, by definition, MI theories forbid assigning explanatory value to any emergent social phenomena such as social relations, structures, or systems. MI theories can imagine social change only as a redistribution of social goods. They cannot imagine the reconfiguration of the non-intentional social systems which produce distributions of goods. Instead they must treat distributions as the products of human agency. The result is a Sisyphean labour of moral activism.
Dialectical theories are superior to MI theories, at least in the abstract, because they can conceptualize emergent and nonintentional social dynamics. However, this epistemic strategy suffers from its own limitations.
Theories of cultural hegemony and counterhegemony, as instances of dialectical theorizing, inherit these limitations, and add sociological idealism to the mix.
Prelude: Sociological Idealism
Marx’s great epistemological innovation was to assert the primacy of practical, material social relations over consciousness, thought, and ideology. Following Gramsci and Lukacs, Western Marxists have tended to undo this innovation. Counterhegemonic theories treat oppressive ideology as the prime cause of oppression. Material relations appear secondarily at best. This same sociological idealism has been carried over into identity politics to the extent that the latter studies oppression mainly in terms of ideology or discourse or representation.
This is epistemically convenient. It’s far easier to observe texts than practices. Counter-hegemonic cultural theory can be produced by intellectuals in the arts and humanities, inside and outside the university, simply by adding a critical lens to the kind of work they are already prepared to do. The output of such labour is a consumer product which individuals can use to enhance their own personal cultural capital, and which therefore has readily available markets under social-democratic and neoliberal conditions alike.
However, the most infinitely sophisticated ideological critique cannot show us how to build an egalitarian society. Doing so requires solving the nonintentional emergent problems that disrupt cooperative decisionmaking, problems which do not appear in ideology because people generally aren’t aware of them.
[NB: This limitation doesn’t belong to dialectical hierarchy as an epistemic strategy; any epistemic strategy can be pursued in a materialist or an idealist fashion.]
1. Singularity of Oppression
A true dialectical theory prioritizes one contradictory social relation as the genesis of all social oppression. But which one? Is it class? Sex/gender? Race? Nationhood? (Dialectical theories appear found on the political Right as well as the Left.) There is no possibility of consensus because any purely dialectical theory presupposes the foundational status of its focal social relation.
To comparatively adjudicate, for instance, the competing claims of radical socialists and radical feminists would require situating the dialectical theories of both within a non-dialectical framework of some kind. Such an exercise would itself presuppose that the primacy of any one dialectical relation is historically contingent. There is no impartial ground on which to stand, no way not to make an assumption.
The preferred solution to this problem (among Leftists) is intersectionality. There are two problems with this solution, one theoretical, one practical. The practical problem is that implementing a truly intersectional analysis is very difficult and most people don’t bother. This results in a de facto single dialectic.
The theoretical problem is that rigorous attempts to theorize intersectionality, such as the work of Patricia Hill Collins, are actually methodologically individualist.
One could theorize intersectionality in terms of multiple social dialectics using a tangled-systems approach.
2. Problems of Reduction
In a dialectical strategy one explains all oppression as ultimately the product of a single social contradiction. Therefore, unless one takes great care to construct models of other forms of oppression operative within the terms of the primary contradiction, the tendency will be to simply reduce everything to the root cause in a way that collapses all distinctions among different forms of inequality. MI thinkers call this ‘reductionism’, meaning the word pejoratively.
For instance, in crude forms of radical feminism, all forms of women’s inferiority in society are the products of, and therefore evidence of, sexism. Wage inequality, for instance, appears as a product and as evidence of sexism.
In more sophisticated dialectical feminism, analysis of gendered wage inequality can incorporate the inherently inegalitarian dynamics of capitalist labour markets, along with Bourdieuian phenomena like social capital or cultural capital, for instance. But in principle these factors must also be reducible to patriarchy.
Conversely, crude Marxist analysis ignore or neglect gender disparities, while more sophisticated ones recognize gender but only in a way that reduces it to class. And so on.
This creates problems for practice as epistemic strategies inform empirical claims about causality. Not all problems in women’s lives, for instance, can be solved by action organized in terms of gender. Sometimes particular women are more concerned with class or racialization or colonization or disability and so on.
MI theories are open to this kind of plurality in ways that dialectical theories cannot be. So would tangled-systems theories, if we had them.
3. Fallacies of Division
Reduction to a single dialectic tends to encourage the mental homogenization of the social categories corresponding to the two terms of the dialectic. This can manifest as a fallacy of division.
The fallacy of division is the error of assuming that what is true of a group as a whole will be true of its members. The statistical version of this, called the ecological fallacy, consists of assuming that what is statistically or probabilistically true of a group will be deterministically true of all of its members.
For instance, men on average receive more income than women. But a large minority of men receive less income than the female average, and a large minority of women receive more income than the male average.
The mental homogenization of social categories has an obvious political utility. Marx, for instance, wanted all workers to view each other as natural allies and to view all capitalists as the enemy. To this end he worked to prove that class struggle is always at the root of all other social struggles, and to define class in a rigorously coherent way. In Marx’s theory, as a matter of social causality it is always and necessarily the case that capitalists exploit workers; a capitalist who abstains from exploitation will soon go out of business and cease to be a capitalist. This imperative applies regardless of, for instance, the religious or moral or ethnic commonalities between an individual capitalist and some individual workers.
Certain strains of radical feminism, by conceptualizing sex/gender as a social relation, make a comparable gesture. To be a man or a woman is not a matter of biology, it is to occupy a particular social role. Manhood is defined by domination over women and womanhood by subordination to men. This implies that all men dominate women — but also that not all male-bodied person are men.
Fallacies of division appear when these rigorous theoretical formulations are ignored in favour of common-sense categories. Most people think of ‘exploitation’ as ‘treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work,’ not as ‘the appropriation of surplus value’. Most people think of ‘men’ as anyone with an XY chromosome and a penis, not as people who inhabit a certain social role. So attempts to argue that business exploits workers or that men oppress women get bogged down in empirically tenuous claims.
4. Political Polarization
In September 2015, an anonymous user with the handle “Kill Feminists” posted comments on Reddit forums used by University of Toronto students, urging others to “rent a gun from a gang and start firing bullets into these feminists at your nearest Women’s Studies classroom”.
Soon after, I had a conversation in a bar with some colleagues that went roughly like this:
Me: I wonder if comments like these express a real widespread misogyny among men, or if there’s a small but very active subculture of misogynists on the web trying to create the impression of being a larger movement than they actually are.
Colleague: What does it matter?
My internal response was to think: in a struggle, one needs to know where one’s enemy is concentrated and where they are dispersed, and where allies may be found.
However, in a single-dialectic epistemic strategy, the distinction between extremist opponents of the movement and moderate opponents or even indifferent bystanders actually doesn’t matter. Liberation can only come from the movement itself. So anyone not actively part of the movement is part of the problem.
In Marxist theories of cultural hegemony, for instance, anyone not committed to socialist revolution must be either a capitalist, or a worker suffering from false consciousness engendered by hegemonic capitalist ideology.
Even the claim that class is not always primary, that people have a humanity or an individuality prior to class relations, appears as part of capitalist ideology.
The same logic can appear in feminism, anti-racism, or any other form of identity politics. In identity politics, moreover, the oppressor-oppressed duality gains an added tension from the fact that there are a lot more men, or White people, etc. as a proportion of the general population than there are capitalists. So a feminist, for instance, is far more likely to be in work or social situations that bring them into direct contact with men than a worker is likely to be in direct contact with capitalists. Therefore, protecting the movement from corruption by hegemonic thought is that much more fraught, and boundary work that much more charged, intense, and problematic.
This is not just pettiness or zealotry. There is a real epistemic problem at work, arising from the structure of the epistemic strategy being used, concerning the question of how one knows whom to trust and whom not to trust, how to tell friend from foe.
So, for instance, if I write something critical of the movement, how can you tell if I’m writing as an ally seeking to strengthen the movement or as an opponent seeking to undermine it? Dialectical thinking implies that it’s not the tone and content of my arguments that matter, but my objective position in social relations, my historical engagement with the struggle, and so on — all of which are liable to be a bit indeterminate and open to interpretation.
This helps explain why radicals have a tendency to antagonize their allies and to fight amongst themselves, splitting into subfactions and trashing the insufficiently pure.
This epistemic problem can engender modes of political practice in which
- the movement cannot robustly criticize itself;
- key movement ideas are unfalsifiable and hence vacuous (non-differential); and
- the movement is unable to effectively distinguish friends, allies, potential allies, opponents who can be ignored or subverted or co-opted, and opponents who must be fought vigorously.
Such modes of practice are not necessarily maladaptive; they can help preserve the identity of a movement in danger of being absorbed or overwhelmed by larger social forces. But they are manifestly unsuited to serve as the basis of a new social order.
MI theories of the sort commonly employed by liberals are more flexible, more open to pragmatic alliances, and thereby more able to perceive opportunities for expansion, than single-dialectic theories of cultural hegemony. I suspect this is why nearly all political parties in Western countries, Left or Right, practice one form of liberalism or another.
But as I mentioned before, MI theories cannot conceptualize systemic change, only the redistribution of social goods.
For some, the polarization of political discourse is the whole point of radical theory. Workers unite against capital! Women unite against men! And so on.
For me, the appeal of radical theories is their ability to identify root causes of social inequality in ways that can potentially lead to effective strategies for change.
I think we need not just new theories but a new type of radical theory: tangled-systems theories, which explain the social in terms of multiple mutually irreducible systems of material social relations.