Grand Hotel Abyss

Georg Lukács in 1962 used the colorful image of a fictional “Grand Hotel Abyss” to express his disappointment in the theorists of the Frankfurt School. Here is a passage in which the idea is described in “Preface to the Theory of the Novel” (link):

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ (The fact that Ernst Bloch continued undeterred to cling to his synthesis of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (e.g. cf. Frankfurt 1961) does honour to his strength of character but cannot modify the outdated nature of his theoretical position. To the extent that an authentic, fruitful and progressive opposition is really stirring in the Western world (including the Federal Republic), this opposition no longer has anything to do with the coupling of ‘left’ ethics with ‘right’ epistemology.)

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School — Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Benjamin, Wellmer, Marcuse — were for Lukács too much devoted to theorizing capitalism and barbarism and too little about changing it. They were like imagined world-weary residents in the Grand Hotel Abyss, observing the unfolding catastrophe but doing nothing to intervene to stop it. They were about theory, not praxis.

Stuart Jeffries uses this trope as the organizing theme of his group biography of these figures in Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, and, in a word, he finds that Lukács’s critique is unfounded.

Jeffries emphasizes the common social origins of these boundary-breaking critics of capitalism. The book is detailed and insightful. Jeffries emphasizes the common social and cultural origins of almost all these men — German, Jewish, bourgeois, affluent — and the common threads of their criticism of the capitalism and consumerism that surrounded them in the early and middle twentieth century. The central question of how it came to pass that ordinary people in cultured, philosophically rich Germany came to support the Nazi rise to power was of vital concern to all of them. But consumerism, authoritarianism, and the suffering both created by and hidden by capitalism are also in the center stage.

The book is primarily about ideas and debates, not the particulars of personal biography. Jeffries does an impressive job of walking readers through the debates that swirled within and across the Frankfurt School — is capitalism doomed? Are workers inherently revolutionary? Is art part of the support system for capitalism? Is Marxism scientific or dialectical? Jeffries does an exceptional and fascinating job of telling this complex story of intellectual history and social criticism.

A particularly important innovation within the intellectual tradition of critical theory was the pointed critique these theorists offered of mass culture. Unlike orthodox Marxists who gave primary emphasis to the workings of the forces and relations of production — economics — the critical theorists took very seriously the powerful role played within advanced capitalism by mass culture, film, media, and television. (The publication in 1927 of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 appears to have been an important impetus to much of the theorizing of the Frankfurt School.) Here is one example of the social criticism of Hollywood offered by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Consider, for instance, Donald Duck. Once, such cartoon characters were ‘exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism’, wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Now they had become instruments of social domination. ‘They hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.’ (225)

So what is a more progressive role for works of art and culture to play in a society embodying serious social exploitation and domination? One work that was important point of consideration for several theorists was the Brecht and Weill opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. Adorno and others regarded this work as one that gave appropriate and unblinking attention to the suffering of the modern social order.

Brecht’s libretto, too, sought to make it clear that the bourgeois world was absurd and anarchic. ‘In order to represent this convincingly’, wrote Adorno of the dramatisation of the bourgeois world as absurd and anarchic, ‘it is necessary to transcend the closed world of bourgeois consciousness which considers bourgeois social reality to be immutable. Outside of this framework, however, there is no position to take – at least for the German consciousness, there is no site which is non-capitalist.’ This was to become one great theme of critical theory: there is no outside, not in today’s utterly rationalised, totally reified, commodity-fetishising world. When Marx wrote Capital in the mid nineteenth century, the more primitive capitalist system he was diagnosing made commodity fetishism merely episodic; now it was everywhere, poisoning everything. ‘Paradoxically, therefore’, Adorno added, ‘transcendence must take place within the framework of that which is.’ Brecht’s assault on capitalist society in Mahoganny was then paradoxically both from within and from without at the same time, both immanent and transcendent. (132)

Jeffries also provides a fascinating and extended discussion of the deep interactions that occurred between Thomas Mann and Adorno in Los Angeles as Mann worked at completing Doctor Faustus. Mann wanted Adorno’s expert advice about modern music, and Adorno obliged. Jeffries argues that Adorno had a substantive effect on the novel:

Arguably, the finished novel reflects Adorno’s melancholic philosophy more profoundly than Mann’s. This is not to suggest plagiarism: as Adorno wrote in 1957, the insinuation that Mann made illegitimate use of his ‘intellectual property’ is absurd. The underlying aesthetic philosophy of the novel goes beyond the binary opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between the orderly and the ecstatic, that Nietzsche set out in The Birth of Tragedy and to which Mann repeatedly appealed in his fiction… During the collaboration with Adorno, however, Mann set aside his original, Dionysian conception of the composer and as a result Leverkühn became something much more interesting –a figure who dramatised something of the Frankfurt School’s, and in particular Adorno’s, distinctive contribution to the philosophy of art. (243)

And what about fascism? This was a central thrust of Frankfurt School research, and opinion was divided about the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany among the Frankfurt School theorists. But here is an interpretation that seems particularly relevant in 2016 in the United States, given the pageantry of political rallies and the slogans about making America great again:

Fascism was, as a result, a paradox, being both ancient and modern: more precisely it was a system that used a tradition hostile to capitalism for the preservation of capitalism. For Bloch, as for Walter Benjamin, fascism was a cultural synthesis that contained both anti-capitalist and utopian aspects. The Frankfurt School failed to emphasise in its analysis of fascism what Benjamin called the ‘aestheticisation of politics’. It fell to Benjamin, Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer to reflect on the Nazi deployment of myths, symbols, parades and demonstrations to command support. (250)

The chapter on Habermas is also very good and can be read separately as an introduction to Habermas’s leading ideas (chapter 17). It is significant that this final voice of the Frankfurt School should be one that provides a basis for greater optimism about the prospects for modern democracy than what emerges from the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The perspectives of the Frankfurt School were developed in the context of crises of capitalism, fascism, and anti-semitism in the 1930s. But these theories are once again deeply relevant in the context of the politics of 2016. A xenophobic, divisive candidate and party have assumed the reins of power in a populous democracy. The issues of propaganda and unapologetic political lies are before us once again. The politics of hate and intolerance have taken center stage. And the role of culture, media, and now the internet needs to be examined carefully for its dependence upon the corporate order as well as its possible potency as a mechanism of resistance. The Frankfurt School thinkers had important insights into virtually all these questions. Jeffries’ very interesting intellectual history of the movement is timely.

Jeffries quotes from a letter from Adorno to Mann on the aftermath of Nazism in Germany with observations that may be relevant to us today as well:

The inarticulate character of apolitical conviction, the readiness to submit to every manifestation of actual powers, the instant accommodation to whatever new situation emerges, all this is merely an aspect of the same regression. If it is true that the manipulative control of the masses always brings about a regressive formation of humanity, and if Hitler’s drive for power essentially involved the relationship of this development ‘at a single stroke’, we can only say that he, and the collapse that followed, has succeeded in producing the required infantilisation. (273)

These are words that may be important in the coming years, if the incoming government succeeds in carrying out many of its hateful promises. And how will the institutions of media and culture respond? Let us not be infantilized in the years to come when it comes to the fundamental values of democracy.

French sociology

 

Is sociology as a discipline different in France than in Germany or Britain? Or do common facts about the social world entail that sociology is everywhere the same?

 
The social sciences feel different from physics or mathematics, in that their development seems much more path-dependent and contingent. The problems selected, the theoretical resources deployed, the modes of evidence considered most relevant — all these considerations have to be specified; and they have been specified differently in different times and places. An earlier post considered the arc of sociology in France (link).

Johan Heilbron’s French Sociology has now appeared, and it is a serious effort to make sense of the tradition of sociology as it developed in France. (Jean-Louis Fabiani’s Qu’est-ce qu’un philosophe français? provides a similar treatment of philosophy in France; link.) Heilbron approaches this topic from the point of view of historical sociology; he wants to write a historical sociology of the discipline of sociology.

For this historical-sociological view I have adopted a long-term perspective in order to uncover patterns of continuity and change that would have otherwise remained hidden. Several aspects of contemporary French sociology—its position in the Faculty of Letters, for example—can be understood only by going back in time much further than is commonly done. (2)

Understanding ideas is not merely about concepts, theories, and assumptions—however important they are—it simultaneously raises issues about how such ideas come into being, how they are mobilized in research and other intellectual enterprises, and how they have, or have not, spread beyond the immediate circle of producers. Understanding intellectual products, to put it simply and straightforwardly, cannot be divorced from understanding their producers and the conditions of production. (3)

Heilbron traces the roots of sociological thinking to the Enlightenment in France, with the intellectual ethos that any question could be considered scientifically and rationally.

If the Enlightenment has been seen as a formative period for the social sciences, it was fundamentally because a secular intelligentsia now explicitly claimed and effectively exercised the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independently of official doctrines. (13)

This gives an intellectual framework to the development of sociology; but for Heilbron the specifics of institutions and networks are key for understanding the particular pathway that the discipline underwent. Heilbron identifies the establishment after the Revolution of national academies for natural science, human science, and literature as an important moment in the development of the social sciences: “The national Académie des sciences morales et politiques (1832) became the official center for moral and political studies under the constitutional regime of the July monarchy” (14). In fact, Heilbron argues that the disciplines of the social sciences in France took shape as a result of a dynamic competition between the Academy and the universities. Much of the work of the Academy during mid-nineteenth century was directed towards social policy and the “social question” — the impoverished conditions of the lower classes and the attendant risk of social unrest. There was the idea that the emerging social sciences could guide the formation of intelligent and effective policies by the state (20).

Another major impetus to the growth of the social sciences was the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. This national trauma gave a stimulus top the enhancement of university-based disciplines. The case was made (by Emile Zola, for example) that France was defeated because Prussia had the advantage in science and education; therefore France needed to reform and expand its educational system and research universities.

Disciplinary social science now became the predominant mode of teaching, research, and publishing. University-based disciplines gained a greater degree of autonomy not only with respect to the national Academy but also vis-à-vis governmental agencies and lay audiences. Establishing professional autonomy in its different guises—conceptually, socially, and institutionally—was the main preoccupation of the representatives of the university-based disciplines. (30)

Heilbron pays attention to the scientific institutions through which the social sciences developed in the early twentieth century. Durkheim’s success in providing orientation to the development of sociology during its formative period in the early twentieth century rested in some part on Durkheim’s ability to create and sustain some of those institutions, including especially the L’Année sociologique. Here is Heilbron’s summary of this fact:
 

Because the Durkheimian program eclipsed that of its competitors and obtained considerable intellectual recognition, sociology in France did not enter the university as a science of “leftovers,” as Albion Small said about American sociology. Durkheimian sociology, quite the contrary, represented a challenging and rigorous program to scientifically study crucial questions about morality, religion, and other collective representations, their historical evolution and institutional underpinnings. (90)

Here is a graph of the relationships among a number of the primary contributors to L’Année sociologique during 1898-1912:

 

But Heilbron notes that this influence in the institutions of publication in the discipline of sociology did not translate directly or immediately into a primary location for the Durkheimians within the developing university system.

Heilbron’s narrative confirms a break in the development of sociology at the end of World War II. And in fact, it seems to be true that sociology became a different discipline in France after 1950. Here is how Heilbron characterizes the intellectual field:

Sociological work after 1945 was caught up in a constellation that was defined by two antagonistic poles: an intellectual pole represented by existentialist philosophers who dominated the intellectual and much of the academic field and a policy-related research pole in state institutes for statistical, economic, and demographic studies. (123-124)

An important part of the growth of sociology in France in this period was stimulated by practical needs of policy reform and economic reorganization. It was in part because of a lack of intellectual status that the demand for applied research came to fulfill a new function for the social sciences. The growth of applied social science research was produced by the needs of economic recovery and the new role of the state in that respect. (129)

But academic sociology did not progress rapidly:

In the postwar academic structure, sociology was still a rather marginal phenomenon, a discipline with little prestige that was institutionally no more than a minor for philosophy undergraduates. The leading academics were the two professors at the Sorbonne, Georges Davy and Georges Gurvitch, each of whom presided over his own journal. Davy had succeeded Halbwachs in 1944 and resumed the publication of the

Année sociologique

, assisted by the last survivors of the Durkheimian network. (130)

Assessing the situation in 1955, Alain Touraine observed a near-total separation between university sociology and empirical research. Researchers were isolated, he wrote, and they lacked solid training, research experience, and professional prospects. Their working conditions, furthermore, were poor. The CES had only three study rooms for almost forty researchers and neither the CES nor the CNRS provided research funding. (139)

On Heilbron’s account, the large changes in sociology began to accelerate in the 1970s. Figures like Touraine, Bourdieu, Crozier, and Boudon brought substantially new thinking to both theoretical ideas and research problems for sociology. In a later post I will consider his treatment of this period in the development of the discipline.
(Here is an earlier post discussing Gabriel Abend’s ideas about differences in the discipline of sociology across the world; link.)

Domain of the social sciences

 

Is the domain of “all social phenomena” a valid subject for scientific study? Is there a place for a purely general sociology, designed to be a theory of the social everything? Sociologists from Comte to Parsons have sometimes put forward this idea, and James Coleman pursued something like this in Foundations of Social Theory. But upon reflection, this seems like the wrong way of thinking about the social world.

Instead, the social world consists of a hodge-podge of actions, rules, organizations, motives, and the like, at a wide range of scales (link, link). A key task for social scientists is to segment social phenomena into related groups of actions or entities, with a scientific goal of making sense of how these various kinds of stuff work. So social scientists should permit themselves to be eclectic and specialized, identifying sub-domains of interest and uncovering the mechanisms and processes that are at work in this area of social life.

These considerations make it understandable that social research focuses on specific groups of social phenomena like these — contention, organizations, racial discrimination, norm systems, market behavior, voting behavior, families, delinquency, …. These are all selected groups of social action and structures, similar enough to admit of a condensed description of what unifies them and plausibly explained by a similar set of causal mechanisms and processes. This provides a logic to the separation of the discipline of sociology into a large number of sub-disciplines; as of last count the American Sociological Association encompassed 52 sections, each organized around a set of research topics and methods (link).

Consider a possible analogy. Suppose we have just arrived on planet Earth and have noticed that we are surrounded by noises, and we want to understand this blooming, buzzing confusion. More exactly, we “hear” a wide range of phenomena with qualitative properties through our auditory sensory systems. And suppose we wanted to formulate a science of sound. How would we proceed?

We wouldn’t begin, most likely, by collecting and cataloging the sounds that we perceive — birds tweeting, jets roaring, children singing, elephants rumbling, … No, we would begin by trying to determine what “sound” is (what the physical phenomenon is that underlies the phenomenology of sound through our hearing system). We will answer that question fairly quickly — “sound is the result of vibrations in a medium in a certain range of frequencies, conveyed through a medium that extends from the vibrating object to the sensory detectors in our inner ears.” And then the vast majority of sounds will be disregarded as scientifically uninteresting. The essentials have been identified: a source of vibration and a medium of transmission. More interesting will be the anomalies — harmonics, differential speeds of propagation, echoes, Doppler effect, … And we will be interested in the non-obvious mechanisms of sound production and transmission.

I’m not really interested in sounds, but rather in social phenomena. But there is a possible analogy here. The social world that we observe presents a bewildering variety of social phenomena. Where should we start in formulating a science of society? Perhaps the clue from acoustics and sound is this: we can ignore much of the phenomena, identify the surprising bits, and look for the mechanisms that underlie this surprising outcome or that. It is the fact of patterns and recurring surprises that will be of primary scientific interest.

There is a unifying feature of all sound phenomena — vibrations in a medium. And likewise, there is a unifying feature of all social phenomena — real human beings interacting with each other on the basis of their own mental maps of the world around them and conceptions of where they are trying to go, subject to constraints created by the natural environment and the behaviors and practices of individuals around them. But the real substance of research in both fields takes place at a more refined level, in which researchers seek to identify mechanisms and explanations for apparently anomalous outcomes.

What this thought experiment suggests is that we should not think of the subject matter of social science as the domain of all social action and social phenomena. Rather, much of what we observe in social life can be put in the category of noise, best filtered out as we focus our attention on surprising outcomes and mechanisms that permit of substantial illumination and explanation. The real subject matter is various bundles of related phenomena where we have succeeded in finding some important structural similarities and some relevantly similar causal mechanisms.

And we shouldn’t hold out the chimera of a unified social theory that explains all social phenomena — whether rational choice theory, world systems theory, or psychoanalysis.

*              *              *

This is the conclusion that I am inclined to support. But there is a different way of taking this analogy which comes back to giving greater support to James Coleman’s aspirations in Foundations of Social Theory. If it is agreed that there is a unifying feature underlying all social behavior —

real human beings interacting with each other on the basis of their own mental maps of the world around them and conceptions of where they are trying to go, subject to constraints created by the natural environment and the behaviors and practices of individuals around them

— then we might argue after all that “general sociology” is possible after all. It would consist of (a) discovery of the premises that govern the actors, (b) exploration of the most important ways in which actors interact, and (c) exploration of some of the specific boundary conditions within which (a) and (b) play out in the actual social world. Much of the variation represented in the list of the sections of the ASA above takes the form of enumeration of special cases in category (c). But the general science of sociology is contained in (a) and (b).

This gloss on the story also conforms to some extent to the science of acoustics: a common set of principles defining the physics and mathematics of the production and propagation of vibration through a medium, and a set of special cases where these principles produce odd results.

*           *            *

These contradictory conclusions point to a central tension within sociological theory between greater generalization and greater attention to context and variation. (This tension is highlighted in the recent post on Peggy Somers’ rebuttal to Kiser and Hechter; link.) But I’m forced to acknowledge that this is also a tension in my philosophy of social science as well. The question of the availability of general theories in sociology relates to my own advocacy for the idea of methodological localism — the idea that all social phenomena derive from the actions and thoughts of locally situated and locally constructed individual actors in proximate relations to other actors. “The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules” (link). But this formulation seems to leave it open that we might aspire to having general theories of the actor that permit us to explain social outcomes in terms of the features of action that are identified. And that seems to be the program that Coleman is exploring in Foundations.

The big ideas

image: Luten Baher, Musician

The deluge of changes that shook Europe around 1800 — the making of the modern world — brought with them an explosion of big new ideas, new ways of framing the social, historical, and natural world which we inhabit. Darwin, Freud, Marx, Walras, Carnot, Poincaré, Einstein — each brought forward one or two foundational and iconoclastic ideas in terms of which to understand some very profound but mysterious features of the world. We think about the world differently because of their originality. And their categories, once shockingly strange, now seem like pure common sense. And the stock of ideas and theories we now have for understanding the social and natural world is vastly richer than it was in earlier epochs.

One theme that runs through these thinkers is the binary of order and disorder, rule and randomness. Classical physics offered a view of the world that stressed the fundamental orderliness of nature — the idea that natural phenomena were mathematical and law-governed. Much of the intellectual ferment in nineteenth century and early twentieth century physics stemmed from the insight that randomness and the statistical properties of ensembles were even more basic (Carnot, thermodynamics; Brownian motion) and that the laws of physics were stranger than we thought (Poincaré on non-Euclidean space, Einstein on special relativity, Schrödinger on quantum physics). (Peter Galison’s fascinating book, Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time, sheds light on the conceptual revolutions of Poincaré and Einstein.)

In a similar vein, Darwin brought the workings of random variation within a population into center stage in biology. Instead of species with fixed properties, Darwin described a process of evolution through which the properties of a species change over very long stretches of time. Rather than assuming that the features of an organism have been fine-tuned by an intelligent designer, Darwin conceived of a myopic process of adaptation and selection through which functionality could emerge without a designer. (Jonathan Howard’s Darwin: A Very Short Introduction is a good account of Darwin’s innovation.)

Freud and Marx brought a different sort of paradigm shift to the human sciences. Human behavior is not a transparent consequence of instrumental rationality. Rationality and full self-knowledge are not the primary keys to human action. Instead, people have hidden and only partially available thoughts, aversions, and wants, and it is the work of psychoanalysis to uncover these hidden ideas and thoughts. The self is contradictory and hidden to the actor. (Here is a nice essay by Donald Carveth on the relevance of psychoanalysis for social theory; link.)

And Marx disputed the assumptions of collective rationality and optimality that were embodied in the political economy inspired by Smith and Ricardo — the idea that a person-independent market served to solve the most basic social problems behind the backs of the actors. In place of this assumption of neutral impersonality Marx argued that modern society reflects a fundamental opposition between groups of people based on their property and economic interests. And he argued that the behavior of the state and its primary institutions could best be understood as the expression of the interests of the dominant class. (Two very different accounts of Marx’s intellectual system include Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx and David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital.)

These are indeed big and important ideas. We understand the real workings of the natural and social worlds better because of these revolutions in thought. We can ask two important questions. First, why did the modern world — industrial revolution, democratic movements, revolutions in physics and biology — stimulate such a rich flourishing of innovation and insight, as contrasted to the ancient world or the medieval world?

The beginnings of an answer to this question can be found in the velocity and manifest importance of the changes that western Europe began to experience from 1750 forward — the French Revolution, the advent of the factory system in England, the spread of revolutionary ideas from anarchists and socialists into popular movements, and other profound changes. Thomas Carlyle was one of the creative thinkers who was forced to find a new vocabulary to describe industrial cities and factories in the early nineteenth century (Past and Present); these social complexes barely existed in the previous century.

The second important question is even more interesting — where are those new ideas today? Has the twenty-first century yet created any genuinely new thinking to compare with the nineteenth century period of intellectual ferment?

I am tempted to answer this second question in the negative. We have witnessed enormous technological advancement in the past fifty years. Who, in 1964, could have imagined the connectivity created by the Internet and Google, or the extension of human cognition enabled by a connected iPad? But have we encountered genuinely innovative and insightful new ways of organizing our world in thought, about either nature or society? Perhaps not. The social sciences have certainly advanced in the half century of research that has transpired since 1964; but I’m not sure that I would say that there are fundamentally new conceptions of social reality in play. (Perhaps the ontology of assemblage might compete for a spot on the stage; link.) It seems rather that our frameworks of thought have remained somewhat static for the past fifty years.

It is possible that we should not expect big ideas at this point in our history, on the grounds that we now have a reasonably good understanding of both the natural and the social world. If we made that assumption, then we should expect long periods of incremental growth, expansion of knowledge of detail, along with combination and recombination of existing theories and concepts, but no major new breakthroughs.

There will be objections to this line of thought. One is that earlier epochs may have been more innovative and paradigm-breaking than I suggest. Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book on Epicurus and Lucretius certainly makes a case for profound intellectual innovation in the ancient world (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; link). So it is possible that the impression of radical intellectual change starting in the nineteenth century is just a consequence of the foreshortening of history; perhaps the ancients were as resourceful and creative in their thinking as the moderns were.

Another objection is that each of the thinkers I have mentioned had predecessors, including Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace and the many versions of socialism that competed with Marx. Was Marx so innovative after all, when compared to Proudhon or Blanqui? So one should not over-emphasize the point of absolute originality. But taking all of this into account, it seems inescapable that human conceptual and imagination space took a major step forward between 1850 and 1925. And, by contrast, the past fifty or seventy-five years seem rather tame when it comes to big ideas.

What thoughts do readers have about genuine innovations in thought in the past fifty years, especially in the social and historical sciences? Are there intellectual or conceptual discoveries that strike you as being genuinely transformative to the way we understand the contemporary world?

(T. J. Clark makes a number of interesting points about the influence of modern social change on the representational arts in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. In an earlier post I discussed the connections that seem to exist between social conditions of modernity and the forms that modern art took during those decades; link.)

Lincoln and Marx

Robin Blackburn has assembled a fascinating book drawing out some surprising connections between Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Since both thinkers are highly original in their thinking about the worlds they inhabited, I’ve found the book to be absorbing. It consists of a brilliant hundred-page historical essay by Blackburn that draws out the themes in political theory that were of concern to both thinkers and demonstrates some surprising parallels. The book then provides several relevant speeches by Lincoln, several pieces of journalism by Marx about slavery and the American Civil War, letters by Marx including the centerpiece, a letter from Marx to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association; and several miscellaneous short articles by other people about Marx and Lincoln.

Blackburn is the perfect person to do this work. He is a recognized expert on Marx’s thought, and he is also an expert on the history of New World slavery. (The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848). So he is unusually well prepared to draw out the connections between the ideas of Marx and Lincoln on the topics of the Civil War, slavery, and economic competition between the North and the South. He also offers a very interesting analysis of the impact that the large immigration of German workers had on the politics of the North in the twelve years before the Civil War. Here is one illustrative incident:

As the Civil War unfolded, German Americans and their overseas friends furnished vital support to the Northern cause. At the outbreak of the war, a German American militia in St. Louis played a key role in preventing Missouri’s governor from delivering the state–and the city’s huge arsenal–into Confederate hands. [Marx’s friend] Wedemeyer became a colonel, served as a staff officer in St. Louis for General John Frémont, and was put in charge of the city’s defenses. (25)

The International Workingmen’s Association itself came to have a substantial presence in the United States and brought with it a political agenda advocating racial and gender emancipation. After the suppression of the Paris Commune the headquarters of the IWA was moved to New York, and there were dozens of IWA sections in large Northern cities.

The IWA mustered a demonstration of 70,000 or more in New York in December 1871 to pay tribute to the Commune’s tens of thousands of martyrs. The parade brought together the Skidmore Guards (a black militia), the female leadership of Section 12 (Woodhull and Claflin), an Irish band, a range of trade unions, supporters of Cuba’s fight for independence marching under the Cuban flag, and a broad spectrum of socialist, feminist, Radical, and Reform politics. (77)

source: Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution, p. 99
 

The 1864 letter from Marx to Lincoln is on the occasion of Lincoln’s re-election as President. The thrust of the letter is to express support for Lincoln in the effort to end slavery in the United States. Here is the closing paragraph of the letter:

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American antislavery war will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come, that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. (212)

A reply to this letter was received through the intermediary of Charles Francis Adams, United States Ambassador to Britain. The key lines of the reply are these:

[The government of the United States] strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men, and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and goodwill throughout the world. Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery-maintaining insurgents as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragement to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies. (214)

About one month following the assassination of President Lincoln, Marx sent another letter to President Andrew Johnson, also on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association. It contains a powerful elegy for the President and is perhaps the most moving prose to be found in Marx’s writings.

It is not our part to call words of sorrow and horror, while the heart of two worlds heaves with emotions. Even the sycophants who, year after year and day by day, stuck to their Sisyphus work of morally assassinating Abraham Lincoln and the great republic he headed stand now aghast at this universal outburst of popular feeling, and rival with each other to strew rhetorical flowers on his open grave. They have now at last found out that he was a man neither to be browbeaten by adversity nor intoxicated by success; inflexibly pressing on to his great goal, never compromising it by blind haste; slowly maturing his steps, never retracing them; carried away by no surge of popular favor, disheartened by no slackening of the popular pulse; tempering stern acts by the gleams of a kind heart; illuminating scenes dark with passion by the smile of humor; doing his titanic work as humbly and homely as heaven-born rulers do little things with the grandiloquence of pomp and state; in one word, one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good. Such, indeed, was the modesty of this great and good man, that the world only discovered him a hero after he had fallen a martyr. (214-215)

The “Unfinished Revolution” in Blackburn’s title refers to the failure of two large forms of human emancipation in the United States following the Civil War that lay at the heart of the political philosophies of Marx and Lincoln — the full emancipation of African Americans as the descendants of slaves, and the creation of a broad workers’ movement that would successfully challenge the power of big business. “If the nonappearance of a US labor party marked a critical defeat for Karl Marx, the failure of the Republican Party to emerge from Reconstruction and its sequel as a party of bourgeois rectitude and reform registered a spectacular defeat for Lincoln’s hopes for his party and country” (96). And Blackburn closes his introduction with some speculation about how Marx might have acted had he himself have relocated to America (as Engels briefly visited New York and Boston in 1887).

Just as he saw the importance of the slavery issue at the start of the Civil War, so he would surely have focused on “winning the battle of democracy,” securing the basic rights of the producers — including the freedmen — in all sections as preparation for an ensuing social revolution…. Marx and Engels would have insisted that only the socialization of the great cartels and financial groups could enable the producers and their social allies to confront the challenges of modern society and to aspire to a society in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all. (100)

The ideas that hold Marx and Lincoln together are emancipation and the basic dignity of the common working man and woman, and the vision of a society in which both freedom and dignity are possible for all.

 

Nelson Goodman on psychology

Nelson Goodman is best known within philosophy as an iconoclast within the logical empiricist tradition. He published Fact, Fiction and Forecast in 1954, offering a “new riddle of induction.” Goodman was deeply interested in the arts and he argued that artistic expression is on a par with other forms of assertion and representation — for example, in Languages of Art (1968). And his 1978 book, Ways of Worldmaking, cast doubt on the empiricist project of extracting concepts directly from experience. So Goodman was an important voice within American analytic philosophy. But he had a significant influence on me during my graduate studies in the context of a very different set of problems — the philosophy of psychology.

Goodman taught a course titled “Philosophical Problems in Psychology” at Harvard in 1971. The course contained material from the tradition of empiricist philosophy — Locke and Berkeley — as well as then-current research on cognition and representation by empirical psychologists. These included Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, T.G.R. Bower, Ray Birdwhistell, Paul Kolers, Michael Posner, and R. W. Sperry. Goodman was interested in how perception works — according to the philosophers and according to the psychologists. The guiding concern was this: what is the nature and origin of the conceptual systems through which human beings make sense of the world around them? The course began with an examination of the theories of perception and representation offered by Locke and Berkeley, beginning with the empiricists’ critique of innate ideas, and then proceeded to contemporary efforts to analyze the same processes in real human beings.

Some of the writings of Jean Piaget played a central role in the topics and discussions of this class, including The Construction Of Reality In The Child. Goodman was interested in Piaget’s efforts to chronicle the development of the child’s conceptual world — the formations through which the child makes sense of sensorimotor experience at various ages.

Another noteworthy component of the course was an extensive discussion of Paul Kolers’ work on motion perception eventually published in Aspects of Motion Perception (1972). (This research was published in 1971 as “Figural Change in Apparent Motion”; link.) The phenomenon that Kolers described was a flashing pair of images that oscillated between one geometrical figure and another. The images are stationary, but the visual impression is of a smoothly moving object that changes from one shape to the other. Goodman provided a detailed and perceptive analysis of the methods and assumptions that underlaid Kolers’ treatment of the phenomenon.

One idea that is pervasive throughout many of Goodman’s writings is the idea of conceptual relativism. This is the key contribution of Ways of Worldmaking. The idea comes up repeatedly in the 1971 course. Here is a paragraph taken from my notes from the course that captures a lot of Goodman’s own views about conceptual schemes:

Experience is always organized in one way or another. Moreover, not all ways of organizing are equally good; some work much better than others, some may be ineffectual; others may lead to internal inconsistencies. When one proves unsatisfactory, this leads to a reorganization. But doesn’t this require that there be a world out there to which our schemes conform? Yes and no; no because there is no unalterable way of looking at the world in which facts about the world are expressed; but yes, within any given system of organization there are true facts about the world to which other schemata must form. The important thing here is that there is no unique “structure of the world”…. Goodman calls his point of view “neutralism” or “conceptual pluralism”. (11/9/1971)

What is most impressive about this course is the fact that Goodman paid close attention to current work in psychology and the cognitive sciences. Goodman followed a philosophical method in this course that I continue to admire — the idea that philosophical reflections about an area of science can be valuable to the degree that they are closely connected to real research problems in that area of research. This approach leans against a primary focus on big issues — is behaviorism correct? Are there mental entities? — in favor of more specific questions within philosophical and psychological studies of perception.

What I now find most interesting about the design of this course is the underlying assumption that philosophers and empirical scientists can find common questions where their methodologies can fruitfully interact to shed greater light on the issues.  In this case, philosophers have a lot of questions about perception and conceptual schemes; and cognitive and developmental psychologists are doing experimental and theoretical work that sheds light on exactly these issues. Finding a common vocabulary is challenging for the two research traditions, but it seems clear that the collaboration can be highly fruitful.

(Here is an interesting collection that takes seriously some of Goodman’s strictures on conceptual systems from the point of view of problems in the social sciences: Mary Douglas and David Hull, eds., How Classification Works: Nelson Goodman Among the Social Sciences.) Alessandro Giovannelli’s article on Goodman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is excellent; link. Here is an extensive bibliography of Goodman’s works; link.)

Marx and the physiocrats

An earlier post highlighted an interesting piece of Marx scholarship by Regina Roth, included in a Routledge collection of important articles on the history of political economy (link). Another article that is of special interest in the Routledge collection is “Karl Marx on physiocracy” by Christian Gehrke and Heinz Kurz (link). The illustrations reproduced above are taken from this article. The first is a diagram, in Marx’s own hand, of the process of simple reproduction developed in detail in Capital. The second is Marx’s pairing of this same diagram with Quesnay’s Tableau economique, suggesting Marx’s indebtedness to Quesnay and the physiocrats.

Gehrke and Kurz provide a highly detailed survey of the times and sources through which Marx studied the physiocrats, and the comments and questions that he raised in his working notebooks. They present the results of this analysis in two useful appendices to the article. In the primary text they focus on the most important question: to what extent, and in what specific ways, was Marx influenced by the physiocrats’ system?

They find two crucial parallels between Marx and the physiocrats: first, both present a view of a capitalist economy that originates in a theory of surplus value; and second, each presents a view of the economy in terms of a flow of value through various sets of hands. The tableau represent this flow visually and arithmetically, and Marx’s schemes of simple reproduction do so algebraically.

The foundation of modern political economy, whose business is the analysis of capitalist production, is the conception of the value of labour-power as something fixed, as a given magnitude — as indeed it is in practice in each particular case. The minimum of wages therefore correctly forms the pivotal point of Physiocratic theory. They were able to establish this although they had not yet recognised the nature of value itself, because this value of labour-power is manifested in the price of the necessary means of subsistence, hence in a sum of definite use-values. (TSV 1:45)

And in fact, the authors think this is fundamental for Marx’s advocacy for the labor theory of value:

To Marx the labour theory of value was not fundamental in the sense that it was considered ‘true’ independently of whether it served the purpose of providing a logically coherent foundation of the theory of income distribution. Marx endorsed the labour theory of value precisely because be was convinced that it would offer that foundation, that is, allow one to elaborate a logically unassailable theory of the general rate of profit. He held the physiocrats in high esteem also because it was another achievement of theirs which he thought had paved the way to the development of such a theory. The achievement under consideration is the Tableau economique. (62)

What defines the physiocrats for most of us — their view that the land is the ultimate source of all value — is for Marx just a minor error of analysis on their part, not a fundamental misconception. Gehrke and Kurz write in paraphrasing Marx:

Scrutinizing carefully the texts of Quesnay, Mirabeau and especially Turgot shows that any surplus product is finally to be traced back to agricultural surplus labour, that is, it has its origin not in the productivity of land, or nature, but in the ‘productivity’ of the agricultural labourer who produces more than he gets in the form of wages. (60)

Here is the thrust of the second point, the fundamental similarity of the tableau economique and Marx’s schemes of reproduction:

Quesnay’s Tableau economique shows in a few broad outlines how the annual result of the nation production, representing a definite value, is distributed by means of circulation in such a way that, other things being equal, simple reproduction, i.e., reproduction on the same scale, can take place’ (C 11: 363). Marx credits Quesnay with developing the Tableau in terms of ‘great functionally determined economic classes of society’ and with striking upon ‘the main thing, thanks to the limitation of his horizon, within which agriculture is the only sphere of investment of human labour producing surplus-value, hence the only really productive one from the capitalist point of view.’ (63)

What isn’t entirely clear is the authors’ analysis of influence and lineage of ideas. Did Marx’s own thinking about surplus value and reproduction derive in some way from the doctrines of the physiocrats? Or did he simply note a pleasing convergence between his own thinking and that of the earliest tradition of classical PE? The authors suggest that the former is the case:

We have seen how much Marx owed the physiocrats for the development of his own views on the laws of production, distribution and circulation governing a capitalist economy. This is the deeper reason why Marx spoke so respectfully of Dr Quesnay and the physiocrats. After all, les economistes were amongst the true forerunners of his own analysis which was in important respects but a metamorphosis and development of theirs. He appears to have been particularly fascinated by the fact that in the physiocratic system, as he saw it, the theory of quantities and growth and the theory of prices and distribution do have a common origin in the concepts of social surplus and production as a circular flow. Marx can indeed be said to have seen through the lens of the physiocratic writings the essence of the duality relationship between the two sets of variables emphasized by later theorists and particularly by John von Neumann . Hence it may be argued that there exists a direct lineage from physiocracy to modern formulations of the classical theory. (73)

But their own chronology suggests Marx had arrived at many of his key economic ideas before he carefully analyzed the physiocrats.

It is worth noting that the availability of digital versions of Marx’s manuscripts makes research on questions like this one immensely more efficient than it was in the 1990s when Gehrke and Kurz did their work. The online Archive of Marx and Engels provides digital access to many of Marx’s most important works (though not unpublished manuscripts), and it is possible for anyone interested in the role that a certain author or issue played in Marx’s thought to trace it quickly using the search functions available. For example, a quick search shows that there are ten mentions of “physiocrat” or derivatives in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844). And there are hundreds of such mentions in Theories of Surplus Value.

Adelman on Albert Hirschman

 

 

Jeremy Adelman’s detailed and illuminating biography of Albert Hirschman in Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman is an excellent example of intellectual biography. Even more, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of social science theories and frameworks.

Born to a professional Jewish family in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman’s life bracketed the most searing nightmares of the twentieth century. Hirschman was an anti-fascist activist as a teenager, leaving Berlin for France in 1933. He was an intellectual from the start, with curiosity and originality driving his quest for ideas and knowledge. But equally early he was an activist, with political convictions and allegiances that gave him the courage to resist fascism in every way he was able to. In France he pursued a doctorate in business (as the only French program he could enter), while continuing his anti-fascist activism.

One part of the interest of this biography is the engagement in war and revolution into which his historical situation and political sympathies led Hirschman. He fought as a volunteer in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Returning to France he found himself as a volunteer in the French army, but was quickly demobilized following the defeat of France by Germany in 1940. He then had an intense half year of clandestine work in Marseille helping arrange escape from France for leftist intellectuals, refugees, and the occasional stranded American. He himself managed to emigrate to America in 1940 by landing a Rockefeller fellowship at Berkeley; but he then enlisted in the American army within weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So in a brief few years Hirschman served in three armies fighting fascism. He spent months in Algiers as an enlisted man, was assigned duties as a translator behind the American lines in Italy, and wound up serving as translator in Rome for the German general who was the first to be charged for war crimes by the American army. (The general was found guilty of these crimes and sentenced to death.) And on Hirschman’s return to America his career was mysteriously blocked at various points by suspicions and innuendos that came to play a role in his confidential security dossier in Washington.

While living in France (and later in fascist Italy as an American soldier) he became closely acquainted with some of the most interesting activists and political thinkers of Europe. Among the intellectuals who passed through the escape channels Hirschman helped to maintain included “Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Siegfried Kracauer, Wifredo Lam, Jacques Lipchitz, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (the serial wife of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel), Heinrich Mann, Walter Mehring” (171).

So Hirschman’s life is inherently interesting. Hirschman combined reflection and activism in ways that were much deeper than most intellectual figures were called upon to do.  (Arthur Koestler’s life has quite a few parallels; link.)

But I find Adelman’s biography interesting for another reason as well. Adelman does a remarkable job of explicating the originality and edginess of Hirschman’s thought, from his service in the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington and efforts at European reconstruction, to his advising role in Columbia, to his mid-life success in gaining entree to elite American universities (Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, Princeton) and the emerging field of the theory of development. Adelman works through the combinations of personal, contextual, and intellectual influences that helped to shape Hirschman’s imagination as a social scientist, and this makes for very interesting reading.

There are many insights in Hirschman’s work. But particularly fundamental is a point that Adelman underlines again and again: Hirschman’s inherent skepticism about the claims of grand theory in social science and public policy. It was a skepticism about the idea of a social science aspiring to the exactness of the natural sciences; about the idea of comprehensive predictive theories about complex social processes; and about the hope of having a unified social scientific theory that could drive policy towards an optimal solution. Against these hopes, Hirschman emphasized the importance of hands-on experience of the complex processes we care about (economic development, for example); he emphasized the value of small and partial theories for limited aspects of the social world; and he celebrated the value of examining the particular rather than seeking always for the generalizable. In Adelman’s words,

This eye for particulars and their meanings imprinted itself on Hirschman, who was already questioning History’s “laws” and searching for a spirit that was more epic because it was open to chance and to choice. (111)

Adelman traces this crucial intellectual disposition to a number of different influences: Hirschman’s brother-in-law, the Italian physicist and activist Eugenio Colorni (murdered by fascist thugs in Rome in 1944); the writings of Hayek; and his own experience as an observer and practitioner of economic change in Columbia (in international trade and in economic development).

To Otto Albert, the conversations with Eugenio drew his attention “to what we call the small ideas, small pieces of knowledge. They do not stand in connection with any ideologies or worldviews, they do not claim to provide total knowledge of the world, they probably undermine the claims of all previous ideologies”. (114)

The Big Idea, which Hirschman associated with the “claim to complete cognition of the world,” claimed “to explain multi-causal social processes from a single principle.” The alternative was “the attempt to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.” (116)

Here is Adelman on the influence of Hayek:

Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world. Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand.” Hayek’s vision of spontaneous, unguided, and hidden forces at work presumed an inscrutability about life that Hirschman shared, in which its ironies, paradoxes, and the possibilities of unintended consequences provided the underlying engines of change. (238)

Perhaps most important, Hirschman was persuaded by the bad experience of the dogmatic, ideological theories of both right and left in the 1930s of the importance of modesty and open-mindedness in one’s convictions about how the social world works. This becomes one of the key elements in Hirschman’s main academic work, his critique of modernization theory and unified central planning as foundations for the policies of agencies like the World Bank and the IMF.

What comes out of this skepticism about the grand theories of the economists or political scientists is a more pragmatic and experimental approach to policy. Rather than building complex plans that presuppose a detailed knowledge of causation and inter-connection of causes, we should instead take pragmatic steps that seem to be pushing the system in the right direction. In the case of Columbia, this meant favoring the developments of entrepreneurs and businessmen in their individual efforts rather than supporting grand schemes of reconstruction and capital investment. He favored multiple strategies, “not a single road to change” (274).

Instead of a “propensity to plan,” Hirschman advocated a “propensity to experiment and to improvise”— a spirit missing from the council and whose absence deprived all sides from actually learning from experience precisely because the planners were so convinced that it was not they who had to be converted. After all, they were “experts.” (323)

The result, in contrast to expensive, expansive, intellectually seductive general plans and combined assaults, was a piecemeal approach targeting the scarcest of all variables. This was the premise of “unbalanced growth,” a term he eventually abandoned because he did not want his work positioned only as an alternative to a mainstream. (347)

Also interesting is the fine interpretation that Adelman offers of Hirschman’s first two books, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade and The Strategy of Economic Development. The first was a great disappointment to Hirschman, since he had hoped that it would launch his academic career and reputation in the United States; while the second achieved exactly the kind of success he had hoped for with the first. But in hindsight, the first book seems to have as much importance as the second. It lays out a powerful and rigorous argument for the ways in which nationalist and fascist regimes were able to use the “soft power” of trade alliances to achieve their goals. The inequalities of bargaining position that exist between bilateral trading partners create the opportunities for highly coercive actions by the more powerful. This argument still seems relevant in the global trade environment in which we now live. It also propelled the argument towards a de-nationalization of world affairs — a historical development that came to life to some extent in the establishment of the European Union.

Adelman, a professor of history at Princeton, has also edited a forthcoming collection of some of Hirschman’s work, The Essential Hirschman. Both these works are truly valuable, and particularly so for social scientists who have realized that their disciplines need the kinds of independent and cross-sectional thinking that Hirschman was so good at.

(I have a happy memory of meeting Albert Hirschman at a conference on poverty and development at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1990. He was very generous with his ideas, his critical suggestions, and his encouragement.)

Marx’s thinking about technology

 

It sometimes seems as though there isn’t much new to say about Marx and his theories. But, like any rich and prolific thinker, that’s not actually true. Two articles featured in the Routledge Great Economists series (link) are genuinely interesting. Both are deeply scholarly treatment of interesting aspects of the development of Marx’s thinking, and each sheds new light on the influences and thought processes through which some of Marx’s key ideas took shape. I will consider one of those articles here and leave the second, a consideration of Marx’s relationship to the physiocrats, for a future post.

Regina Roth’s “Marx on technical change in the critical edition” (link) is a tour-de-force in Marx scholarship. There are two aspects of this work that I found particularly worthwhile. The first is a detailed “map” of the work that has been done since the early twentieth century to curate and collate Marx’s documents and notes. This was an especially important effort because Marx himself rarely brought his work to publishable form; he wrote thousands of pages of notes and documents in preparation for many related lines of thought, and not all of those problem areas have been developed in the published corpus of Marx’s writings. Roth demonstrates a truly impressive grasp of the thousands of pages of materials included in the Marx-Engels Gesamtaushgabe (MEGA) and Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) collections, and she does an outstanding job of tracing several important lines of thought through published and unpublished materials. She notes that the MEGA collection is remarkably rich:

A second point I want to stress is that the MEGA offers more material than other editions, not only regarding the manuscripts mentioned above but also with other types of written material. If we look at the material gathered in the MEGA we find examples of several different levels of communication. We may think of manuscripts on a first level as witnessing the communication between the author with himself and with his potential readers. On a second level, his letters give us notice of what he talked about to the people around him. And, on a third level, there is the vast part of his legacy that documents Marx’s discourse with authors of his time: his excerpts, the books he read and his collections of newspaper cuttings. (1231)

Here is a table in which Roth correlates several important economic manuscripts in the two collections.

Careful study of these thousands of pages of manuscripts and notes is crucial, Roth implies, if we are to have a nuanced view of the evolution and logic of Marx’s thought.

They show, first of all, that Marx was never content with what he had written: he started five drafts of his first chapter, and added four fragments to the same subject, each of them with numerous changes within each text. (1228)

And study of these many versions, notes, and emendations shows something else as well: a very serious effort on Marx’s part to get his thinking right. He was not searching out the most persuasive or the simplest versions of some of his critical thoughts about capitalism; instead, he was trying to piece together the economic logic of this social-economic system in a way that made sense given the analytical tools at his disposal. Marx was not the dogmatic figure that he is sometimes portrayed to be.

There are many surprises in Roth’s study. The falling rate of profit? That’s Engels’ editorial summation rather than Marx’s finished conclusion! By comparing Marx’s original manuscripts with the posthumous published version of volume 3 of Capital, she finds that “Engels inserted the following sentence in the printed version [of Capital vol. 3]: ‘But in reality […] the rate of profit will fall in the long run’ ” (1233). In several important aspects she finds that Engels the editor was more definitive about the long-term tendencies of capitalism than Marx the author was willing to be. For example:

Therefore, Engels continued, this capitalist mode of production ‘is becoming senile and has further and further outlived its epoch.’ Marx did not give such a clear opinion with a view to the future of capitalism, at least not in Capital. (1233)

She notes also that Engels was anxious about Marx’s unwillingness to bring his rewriting and reconsideration of key theses to a close:

Shortly before the publication of Volume I of Capital, Engels worried: ‘I had really begun to suspect from one or two phrases in your last letter that you had again reached an unexpected turning-point which might prolong everything indefinitely.’ (1247)

The other important aspect of this article — the substantive goal of the piece — is Roth’s effort to reconstruct the development of Marx’s thinking about technology and technology change, the ways that capitalism interacts with technology, and the effects that Marx expected to emerge out of this complicated set of processes. But this requires careful study of the full corpus, not simply the contents of the published works.

To understand Marx’s views on technical change, his whole legacy, which is also comprised of numerous drafts, excerpts, letters, and so forth, must be considered. (1224)

In fact, the unpublished corpus has much more substantial commentary on technology and technical change than do the published works. “In Capital terms such as technical progress, technical change or simply technology turn up rarely” (1241).

Roth finds that Marx had a sustained interest in “the machinery question” — essentially, the history of mechanical invention and the role that machines play in the economic system of capitalism. He studied and annotated the writings of Peter Gaskell, Andrew Ure, and Charles Babbage, as well as many other writers on the technical details of industrial and mining practices; Roth mentions Robert Willis and James Nasmyth in particular.

The economic importance of technical change for Marx’s system is the fact that it presents the capitalist with the possibility of increasing “relative surplus value” by raising the productivity of labor (1241). But because technical innovation is generally capital-intensive (increasing the proportion of constant capital to variable capital, or labor), technical innovation tends to bring about a falling rate of profit (offset, as Roth demonstrates, by specific counteracting forces). So the capitalist is always under pressure to prop up the rate of profit, and more intensive exploitation of labor is one of the means available.

In the discussion in the General Council [of the IWMA], Marx argued that machines had effects that turned out to be the opposite of what was expected: they prolonged the working day instead of shortening it; the proportion of women and children working in mechanized industries increased; labourers suffered from a growing intensity of labour and became more dependent on capitalists because they did not own the means of production any more …. (1246)

So technology change and capitalism are deeply intertwined; and there is nothing emancipatory about technology change in itself.

What about Marx?

At various points since the death of Karl Marx in 1883 his work has been regarded as a dead issue — no longer relevant, too ideological, methodologically flawed, too rooted in the nineteenth century. And yet each of these periods of extinction has been followed by a resurgence of interest in Marx’s ideas, as new generations try to make sense of the tough and often cruel social conditions in which they find themselves. What are the important dimensions of theory that Marx presented through his writings? And how can any of these be considered valuable in trying to come to grips with the global, capitalist, turbulent, unequal, violent world that we now inhabit?

We might say that there are a small handful of key theoretical frameworks that Marx advocated.

Materialism as a methodology for social science. Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Emphasis on the primacy of property and class. Sociologists and historians want to explain processes of social change. Marx puts it forward that the economic interests created by the property system in a given society create powerful foundations for collective social action.  Those who occupy positions of advantage within a given set of property relations want to do what they can to preserve those relations; and those who are disadvantaged by the property relations have a latent interest in mobilizing to change those relations. Persons who share a location in the property system constitute a class, and their interests are systematically different from those in other such positions.

A sketch of a theory of consciousness and culture. Institutions of consciousness and culture play a role in stabilizing and attacking the most important relations of domination in a society. Educational institutions, it is argued, prepare young people for their specific roles in society — workers, managers, elites, sub-proletarians. So struggles over the content and form of the institutions of enculturation can be expected to be polarized along class lines. Less directly, Marxists like Gramsci have postulated that worldviews reflect life experiences; so elites create cultural worlds that are quite distinct from those imagined by subordinate groups.

A diagnosis of social ills including exploitation, alienation, and dehumanization of social relations. Exploitation has to do with the flow of wealth and material goods through the property system from producers to property-owners. Alienation has to do with the loss of autonomy and self-control that individuals have within a capitalist structure. Marx’s distinctive addition to this idea is that this loss of autonomy has psychic consequences — disaffection, lack of self-respect, depression. The dehumanization of social relations follows from the structure of the capitalist workplace — workers and bosses, each related to the other through the workings of a command system. Wittgentstein got it right when he described the “slab” language game: the boss says “slab”, and the worker produces a slab. There is nothing “I-thou” about this relation (Buber, I and Thou).

A theory of several distinct modes of production. Marx believes that history takes the form of a succession of separable and structurally distinct modes of production: ancient slavery, feudalism, and capitalism differ by the structure of the production system, the property system, and the technologies that each embodied. Marx’s most extensive analysis of social formations is his treatment of the capitalist mode of production in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy and the writings that were posthumously edited and published as volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

A common thread through these framing ideas is the perspective of critique: a critical intelligence trying to understand why modern society produces such human misery. But even from the perspective of critique — the perspective that tries to diagnose and understand the systemic flaws of contemporary society — Marxism leaves quite a bit of terrain untouched: gender relations, racism, nationalism, and religious hatred, for example. Marxism doesn’t do a good job of explaining a regime of sexual violence (rape in India); it doesn’t have much to contribute to the rise of fascism; it doesn’t have resources for understanding Islamo-phobia and hatred.  So Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of modern social failings; and we might say that its emphasis on economic conflict eclipses other forms of domination in ways that are actually harmful to our ability to improve our social relations.

Geoff Boucher takes up the issue of the continuing relevance of Marx in the contemporary world in Understanding Marxism. Here is how he opens the book:

Today, radical thinking about social alternatives stands under prohibition. According to defenders of the neoliberal transformation of every facet of human existence into a market, Marxism has failed…. Marx is dead; Marxism is finished — and it must stay that way. (1)

But Boucher rejects this neoliberal consensus.

Marxism as an intellectual movement has been one of the most important and fertile contributions to twentieth-century thought. The influence of Marxism has been felt in every discipline, in the social sciences and interpretive humanities, from philosophy, through sociology and history, to literature. (2)

Here are the core reasons that Boucher offers for thinking that Marxism is still relevant in the twenty-first century:

  1. Marxism is the most serious normative social-theoretical challenge to liberal forms of freedom that does not at the same time reject the modern world.
  2. Marxism is the most sustained effort so far to think the present historically and to reflexively grasp thought itself within its socio-historical context. (2)

And later:

Marxism is a distinctively historical theory that normatively challenges liberalism in a way no other modern theory does. (3)

Much of Boucher’s book contributes to one of two intellectual aims: to give a clear exposition of the most important of Marx’s theoretical ideas; and to explicate the several “Marxisms” that followed in the twentieth century. The successive Marxisms take up the bulk of the book, with chapters on Classical Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, The Frankfurt School, Structural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory, and Post-Marxism. So the book provides very extensive explication of the theoretical ideas and developments that have grown out of the Marxist tradition.

What Boucher doesn’t really provide is a clear rationale, based on contemporary sociology and history, for the conclusions he wants us to share about the continuing utility of Marxism as a framework for understanding the present and future. We don’t get the reasoning that would support the affirmative ideas expressed above. The best rebuttal to the neoliberal triumphalism mentioned above is a compelling collection of sociological studies grounded in the perspectives mentioned above. Michael Burawoy’s sociology of factories is a good example (e.g. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism). But this isn’t an approach that Boucher chooses to pursue.

So what about it? Is Marxism relevant today? Yes, if we can avoid the dogmatism and rigidity that were often associated with the tradition. Power, exploitation, class, structures of production and distribution, property relations, workplace hierarchy — these features certainly continue to be an important part of our social world. We need to think of Marx’s corpus as a multiple source of hypotheses and interpretations about how capitalism works. And we need to recognize fully that no theoretical framework captures the whole of history or society. Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of social organization and change. But it does provide a useful set of hypotheses about how some of the key social mechanisms work in a class-divided society. Seen from that perspective, Marxist thought serves as a sort of proto-paradigm or mental framework in terms of which to pursue more specific social and historical investigations.

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