My Reply to William Clare Roberts
I appreciated and enjoyed William Clare Roberts’s extended and thoughtful response to my post about Marx. However, I think Dr. Roberts responds more to what he wishes I had written than what I have actually written. Roberts says my “provocation” is “guilty” of “three conflations”: “of science with positivism, explanation with determinism, and the material prerequisites of socialism with acelerationist faith in the autonomy of productivity.” Neither I nor Marx are positivists or techno-utopians. I will fully cop to one of them: believing there is a strong deterministic streak in Marx’s work.
Ganz implies that Hist-Mat 101 means that the sufficiently-developed productive powers of labor cause – that is, are necessary and sufficient conditions for the coming into being of – socialism.
Except, I don’t. What I wrote in my post what “the powers of industry and their labor-saving and productivity-increasing nature, are themselves necessary conditions for human liberation,” not necessary and sufficient.
Roberts says that I say:
If socialism is so much more productive that the moral issues that arise in capitalism don’t come up, it seems that the increase in productive powers is what brings socialism about – otherwise the moral issues about how to distribute scarce goods would still be coming up under socialism.
I’m not sure I fully follow this one. On some level of abstraction, yes, the prerequisite for any form of society is production developing to a certain level. There’s no capitalism without the development of modern manufactures, and there’s no socialism without the labor-saving innovations of capitalist production. But I never said and don’t think that socialism will just one day pop out of capitalism fully formed like Athena out of the head of Zeus.
On to the idea that capitalist relations are a fetter on the productive powers of labor:
Cohen thought the US was in a period of fettering in the late-1970s. According to Ganz, Marx thought that “the social organization of capitalism, with its class relations, was holding back or ‘fettering’ productive power” – and presumably this means in the England of the 1860s. That’s a lot of fettering!
It seem that, according to Hist-Mat 101, fettering has been happening in the capitalist core for 150 years. The productive powers we have are incompatible with the economic structure we have, and call for a new economic structure, and yet the old economic structure persists. The moral issues that arise in capitalism shouldn’t be coming up now, and shouldn’t have been coming up for a while. The functional explanation of social power by natural power – the fundamental theorem of Hist-Mat 101’s social physics – is unable to explain anything that has happened in the capitalist core since Hist-Mat 101 was formulated. That seems bad.
So maybe Marx and Cohen were both wrong, and fettering isn’t happening yet. Maybe the forces of production still have to develop for a while under capitalism before they will be sufficiently mighty to burst the constraints of the capitalist relations of production. Maybe?
Maybe. — Marx writes, “Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.” Does the old economic structure persist? In a way, yes, we still have capitalism, but it has not gone without important alterations. We have a complicated global interdependency of trade and credit, with sophisticated financial products that could not have been imagined in Marx’s day. Since Marx’s death the capitalist world has faced internal crises and then experiments with alteration in the arrangement of social production: imperialism, partial socialization and nationalization of industry, welfare states, financialization and the replacement of welfare states with consumer finance, etc. During the World Wars, the great powers had to embark on vast projects of economic coordination and skip over markets. Peacetime efforts —like the dirigisme of the Trente Glorieuses—also came close to socialism. These can all be fruitfully interpreted as ways of dealing with the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. It’s a fairly reliable response across the capitalist world to respond to a crisis with some form of socialization: whether that’s of profits or, more likely, of losses, as in the case of bank bail-outs, etc. Now, of course, these all had strong political and ideological components, but you can also profitably view these as ultimately shaped by and being responses to the productive crises: the dislocations in society caused by capitalism.
Of course, these efforts have not all gone one-direction: there are obviously claw-backs by the capitalist class. But still there seems to be a drift towards the specter of socialization out of the material logic of capital accumulation itself. Now we have massive investment managements firms like Black Rock that act almost as central planners for capitalism. Investors complain that the emergence of Exchange Traded Funds with their agglomeration of entire sectors of the economy as being “worse than Marxism.” During the last major crisis, Allan Greenspan even backed bank nationalization. So, yes, in a certain way, I do think the constraints of capitalism are constantly birthing mini-socialisms out of its own contradictions,—if you look at it dialectically, you can see it happening.
To the question of positivism — I never said Marx suggested that the methods — microscopes, experiments — of natural sciences should be used. That’s sort of besides the point, because Marx clearly believes he is doing scientific theory on the order of Darwin, not specific researches. Roberts quotes Marx saying:
In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.
This passage is highly rhetorical, but it actually strengthens my interpretation. Obviously, yes, microscopes and chemical reagents are not going to be of much use looking at a society. But Marx is suggesting that his explanation is just as rigorous as the natural sciences without the use of such tools. Moreover, just below the passage WCR cites in Capital, Marx seems to suggest that he does sort of view certain objects in the world as more revealing of the abstract natural laws of capitalist development — namely that England is a sort of natural experiment where the purest example of the laws of capitalist development can be found:
This brings us to the next point about determinism. On some level, the question of free-will and determinism is a metaphysical problem that I am not sure is amenable to being solved on its own terms. But there also seems to be some confusion about the difference between the world of actual empirical phenomena and the world of scientific abstraction. It’s very rare to see a clear demonstration of a natural law. That’s why we use controlled experiments, scientific instruments, etc. In society and history, of course, we don’t have that benefit. — It’s a mess. It doesn’t mean there’s not determinism going on, just that’s very hard to sort out. As Engels wrote in his 1890 letter to Bloch:
According to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more. Now when someone comes along and distorts this to mean that the economic factor is the sole determining factor, he is converting the former proposition into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis but the various factors of the superstructure – the political forms of the class struggles and its results – constitutions, etc., established by victorious classes after hard-won battles – legal forms, and even the reflexes of all these real struggles in the brain of the participants, political, juridical, philosophical theories, religious conceptions and their further development into systematic dogmas – all these exercize an influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases determine for the most part their form. There is a reciprocity between all these factors in which, finally, through the endless array of contingencies (i.e., of things and events whose inner connection with one another is so remote, or so incapable of proof, that we may neglect it, regarding it as nonexistent) the economic movement asserts itself as necessary. Were this not the case, the application of the history to any given historical period would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
Now, note however complicated this determination it is still “determining” — it doesn’t become not-determining Engels goes on:
Secondly, history is so made that the end-result always arises out of the conflict of many individual wills, in which every will is itself the product of a host of special conditions of life. Consequently there exist innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite group of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant product – the historical event. This again may itself be viewed as the product of a force acting as a whole without consciousness or volition. For what every individual wills separately is frustrated by what every one else wills and the general upshot is something which no one willed. And so the course of history has run along like a natural process; it also is subject essentially to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals – who desire what the constitution of their body as well as external circumstances, in the last instance economic (either personal or social) impel them to desire – do not get what they wish, but fuse into an average or common resultant, from all that one has no right to conclude that they equal zero. On the contrary, every will contributes to the resultant and is in so far included within it.
Basically, this suggests to me that there are two orders of explanation implied by Marxist theory: there’s one that views history as a process without “consciousness and volition” and one that takes seriously the wills of the actors (which are nonetheless described as “impelled” by economic forces.) Roberts is right to champion Marx’s brilliant writing on politics that makes use of sophisticated analysis of the motivations of the actors involved — I am also a big fan. But I don’t think we can just say Marx never intended any deterministic aspect of his work, because he insists on it repeatedly as the passages I pointed out in the last post demonstrate.
I think there is a real tension between the deterministic and intersubjective parts of Marx’s writing. There are few ways of solving it I think: one is to just say, “Okay, well, we know at some high level of abstraction everything can be understood as being governed by physical laws, but that doesn’t every really alter my phenomenological experience of the world.” So, same with Marxism, although we know these economic factors are working behind my back, it doesn’t mean I stop experiencing the world as a person with volitions, even if ultimately they may be determined in ways I am not fully aware. And Marxist theory might be too abstract to be useful for something in our immediate ambit, just like I don’t really need to know Newton’s laws to give someone directions to walk to the store, but when we start to get to the level of societies and civilizations we might start to say, “Okay, now we can start to see these forces at work.”
The other way to solve this is to just say this tension between determinism and intersubjectivity is sort of the point and the productive core of the theory: like with Freud, there is a fraught and split identity within ourselves, being, on the one hand, natural beings and, on the other, conscious, willing beings; this is the subject of the investigation itself, —there’s the worker who is a cog in the machine and the proletarian who becomes a political subject— and history shows how these features are interwoven. And maybe, to borrow from the humanistic tradition of Marx interpretation, history might also be the story of the eventual reconciliation of these two sides of human existence. Wouldn’t that be nice? But that does not mean we can just say, “Oh, there’s not a deterministic order of explanation, that’s not an important part of the theory;” instead, the interesting question becomes, “How do these things interact?”
I think it’s worth insisting on the theoretical hard-core of Marxist determinism no matter what problems arise, because it’s going to create illuminating interpretations of history and society. There will always be other theories and other explanations that may be more plausible. In this I am thinking of Imre Lakatos’s The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes:
Now the empirical track record of Marxism is obviously not as successful as Newton’s mechanics, but the object in question is much, much more complicated. But I still hope that there will be Marxists who insist the theoretical “hard core” of theory: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production.