N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has written a beautiful clarification of a number of her positions regarding capitalism, immanence, the self-reflexivity of theory, and social transformation as a salvo in an ongoing discussion with Joseph Kugelmass and Ryan/Aless that I would like to post in full here as both a way of preventing it from flying under the radar and drawing some connections to Marx and other trends in emancipatory political thought. While much of this post can stand on its own, readers will find it worthwhile to return to N.Pepperell’s original post to get the full context of the discussion. In a lengthy post, N.Pepperell writes:
Fantastic stuff, folks – my thoughts are running in all sorts of directions. Many thanks for this. Let’s see how much sense I can make here.
Yes, the term “outside” could be reappropriated to be compatible with an immanent critique. I tend personally to reserve the term “outside” for “nonsymmetrical” theoretical approaches – for approaches that basically offer two different theories – one that explains what capitalism is, and another that explains the standpoint of critique. The issue is that many theories have no idea that they are asymmetrical – whether because they take so for granted a certain notion of human nature, or because they claim not to have a normative standpoint, or because they theorise a “margin” or a potential for “rupture” that is so completely unspecified on a qualitative level that it has no determinate qualitative relationship to capitalism. So, effectively, I tend to use the term “outside” for what, in a Hegelian framework, would be an “abstract negation” – for an approach that rejects something, without explicitly thematising its own determinate relationship to what has been rejected.
I then use terms like “transcendence” or “determinate negation” or similar for the concept you’re trying to capture with the Mobius strip metaphor. No one owns the words, of course – and my terminology isn’t in any way standard. The concepts are the important thing – and you’re correct in taking my point to be that an immanent dialectical theory thematises the way in which something can arise within capitalism, and even fill some determinate role in the replication of that system – and yet, as Benjamin argues, we can still “brush history against the grain”, and use these very things against the context that has given them birth.
(At the risk of introducing a confusing aside: Habermas is an interesting outlier here. He does offer a critique from the standpoint of “nature” – albeit a “nature” that has realised itself historically. His theory, though, actually is immanent – it’s just not immanent to capitalism. Instead, he takes the somewhat novel approach of positioning capitalism as immanent to something else. Basically, Habermas reacts to the impasse of the first generation Frankfurt School theorists, by concluding that theories immanent to capitalism are dead ends – he accepts the first-generation Frankfurt School verdict that capitalism has become one-dimensional, and therefore that any contradiction will need to be between capitalism and something else.
Above, I’ve suggested that when theorists talk about the contradiction between capitalism and “something else”, they generally break the immanent frame – this is because theorists who do this usually have a theory of the determinate character of capitalism, but don’t actually offer a theory of any determinate relationship between their “something else” and capitalism. Habermas avoids this problem by changing the boundaries of the immanent frame. So his critique is actually immanent to a theory of rationalisation – understood as a world-historical process out of which capitalism (and the “systems world”) is only one precipitate – the post-traditional “lifeworld”, with its distinctive communicative structures, is another. This allows him to talk about the contradiction between capitalism and communicative rationality without formally breaking out of an immanent frame, as the overarching theory of world-historical rationalisation explains the determinate relationship between the systems world and communicative rationality.
This means, among other things, that Habermas needs to be criticised in a slightly different way – his approach can’t be dismissed as an “abstract negation”, but instead requires something more like a competing, and more adequate, historical theory – one that contests the adequacy of his narrative of world-historical rationalisation. (Of course, Habermas can be rejected for other reasons, as can any theory – I’m just focussing on this specific line of critique because we’re discussing immanence.) But in the context of the current discussion, a side comment on Habermas is probably one topic too many… ;-P)
Just to add another wrinkle, as long as I’m complexifying the discussion: it shouldn’t be accepted as a point of dogma that theories must be immanent to what they criticise. :-) I realise that this will probably sound perverse, as I spend a lot of time on this site griping about theories that aren’t immanent – but that’s because I am prepared (hopefully…) to make a case that an immanent theory of capitalism is both possible, and provides the best means of understanding both the reproduction and the determinate potentials for the transformation of this social form. But this is actually an argument that at some point needs to be made – otherwise, the assumption that critique must be immanent to its object is actually a bit… theological. :-)
As it is, most of the theories I criticise themselves posit the importance of immanence – whether directly, by saying they are aiming for an immanent theory (as, for example, Scott did when he offered a critique predicated on the argument that historians can’t stand outside history), or indirectly, by making claims that would logically require immanence (by, for example, treating capitalism as a form of social life, rather than just as an economy, and then also arguing that consciousness is socially determined). So in a sense I can abbreviate this argument for purposes of most discussions – but it’s still always worth remaining aware that the notion of immanence has no more right to function as an argumentative a priori than other normative standards do: it has to be justified.
Okay. After that wild burst of free association, perhaps I should actually try to respond to your points… ;-)
On the concept of a universalised proletariat: this is another one of these issues that has become extremely complex for historical reasons and, in discussing the issue above, I was more summarising an historical trend in critical theory, than laying out my own position. Apologies that my “voice” is often unclear when I write on this stuff. When I’m sketching broad-strokes summaries of theoretical positions, I often don’t explicitly – at least during the summary itself – outline my personal perspective. Theorists often make judgments of historical events, and these judgments are never the only conceivable judgment that could have been made. Once made, though, these historical judgments then often have an impact on the future development of forms of theory that may even lose track of why things originally came to be deflected into a particular path.
Just to give a meta example, playing off the example of Habermas above: I have suggested above that Habermas made a particular set of theoretical moves because he accepted an historical interpretation of capitalism as one-dimensional – and interpretation that itself derived from how Adorno and Horkheimer reacted to the development of planned economies. Now the reality is that Habermas is writing in the epicentre of a massive structural transformation of global capitalism – a transformation that arguably refutes Adorno and Horkheimer’s interpretation fairly convincingly. But Habermas is still caught in the conceptual intertia of a particular theoretical tradition, and so he develops a theory that thematises some other dimensions of his historical moment reasonably well – but discusses these dramatic transformations of capitalism in only the most external and superficial way, because he simply doesn’t think it is productive for a critical theory to focus on the issue… I am critical of this move – but I won’t necessarily bring up my specific critique if I’m just, say, summarising the historical trajectory of the Frankfurt School…
Something similar applies in relation to the negative evaluation of the proletariat: there was a massive historical reaction, crossing a number of otherwise hostile theoretical traditions, reacting against the concept of the proletariat as revolutionary subject (where the meaning attached to this concept, and the specific reasons for reacting against it, vary slightly across traditions). Something very similar happened to concept of a logic of historical development (which is what most people have in mind when they say they reject Hegel’s Geist). Unless my specific intent is to outline my own position in relation to these issues, I’ll often just acknowledge the historical trend in theory, basically to flag that I’m aware of it, and think that I can address the concerns that motivate these sorts of critiques – but I often won’t go into the gory details of my position.
In terms of the gory details – at least in brief… ;-P The critique of notions of the proletariat as revolutionary subject are generally predicated on a couple of specific concerns that were historically associated with some theories that viewed the proletariat in this way. One concern (particularly important to the Frankfurt School folks) was that this vision of the proletariat was sometimes associated with the belief that capitalism (or human history as a whole) was characterised by a developmental logic that would automatically lead to emancipatory socialism. This argument went something along the lines of: capitalism “socialises” the means of production, both on a technical level – by generating organisational and technological techniques for the mass production and distribution of material goods – and on a human level – by driving more and more of the population in the proletarian class. These developments sit in tension with the continued role of the market, which introduces irrationalities into the process of producing and distributing goods, and steals material wealth away from the genuinely productive proletarian class, and reallocates it to the unproductive capitalist class. Within this framework, the central social contradiction is between these trends toward socialisation, and the privatisation characteristic of the market. Eventually, the market will lose out, and a more adequate socialised form of production will come into its own, ushering in an emancipated egalitarian society.
Basically, the Frankfurt School folks look at the structural transformation of capitalism in the early 20th century, and conclude that the ideals of this theory have largely been realised: centralised economic planning and the “massification” of society look, in their view, rather like a nightmarish realisation of this vision of socialism. They don’t believe this outcome was inevitable – but they believe that the form of Marxist theory that posited that the proletariat was moving with history was actually politically harmful, because, in a sense, it generated a level of complacency about the direction in which history was trending – it didn’t sensitise the proletariat (or anyone else) to the potential that certain political and economic goals might be realised, without this leading to political self-determination. This is quite explicit in Benjamin, for example:
The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working, class so much as the notion that it was moving, with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program * already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as ‘the source of all wealth and all culture.’ Smelling a rat, Marx countered that ‘…the man who possesses no other property than his labor power’ must of necessity become ‘the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners…’ However, the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: ‘The savior of modern times is called work. The …improvement… of labor constitutes the wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do.’ This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at, their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism. (Thesis XI)
So that’s one kind of critique – and certainly not a critique that is in any particular way hostile to the proletariat as such. (And Adorno of course follows up with his own analyses of the psychological dynamics of capitalism, precisely in relation to the sorts of concerns you raise at the end of your post.)
There’s another, slightly more recent, line of critique that basically rejects the universalistic ideal associated with the notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary subject – asking what gets masked by this universal, etc. This line of critique is fuelled by a broader disillusionment with grand revolutionary projects that not only failed to realise their utopian aspirations, but seemed to lead to particularly repressive societies, and also expresses sensibilities that were both excited by the potentials of a range of diverse “new social movements” not centred on economic contestation, and strongly critical of the technocratic state.
Arguably, both the first generation Frankfurt School critique, and the more recent critique, made some over-hasty historical judgments – it’s possible (it’s not even that difficult) to conceptualise other forms of critique that retain a notion of proletarian revolution, that don’t fall prey to the issues being criticised. So the question for contemporary theorists becomes, among other things, whether to address the “rational core” of these earlier theoretical reactions by reclaiming the category of proletarian revolution as a central category of critique, or by setting this category aside, and conceptualising emancipatory potentials in some other way. The field of contestation is open here. :-)
Personally, I tend not to describe emancipatory potentials within capitalism in terms of the “proletariat” – for reasons that are related to the issues I was discussing above, related to the way in which the concept of “class” is generally understood in our time. Marx has a very specific structural definition of the proletariat: they’re people who, because they do not own the means of subsistence, must sell their labour on the market. Let’s think about this definition for a moment: to whom would it apply today? A better question might be: to whom wouldn’t it apply? You can be extremely well-paid (exorbitantly overpaid, in fact) and be proletarian according to the structural definition of this term – emiseration is actually not part of the structural understanding of this class category. So we have reached a state in which, as Marx predicted, the overwhelming preponderance of the population has been proletarianised: the proletariat is – right now – the “universal” class. Not because (as was the case in Marx’s earlier works) they are marginalised and excluded from any specific social identity and therefore are uniquely poised to become the standard-bearers of universal human rights, but because they are socially central – they are, in fact, the specific and historically distinctive “product” of capitalism (this is, incidentally, what I think Marx actually means by the “labour theory of value” – that the actual product of capitalism isn’t material goods – from a structural point of view, those are incidental side effects of the actual social product, which is labour…).
This development actually does have emancipatory possibilities, which are actually bound together with the sorts of things you raise – correctly, in my view – at the end of your post: this development makes universally available certain forms of perception and thought that actually do have emancipatory import – that can be removed from the context in which they have been developed, and severed from the role they currently play, and provide the foundation for political contestation that points toward a very different organisation of social life. My problem is that this is not at all what people customarily think of when they think of “proletarian revolution” – so the term risks introducing immense confusion, due to its accumulation of historical associations…
At the same time, there is still a tendency to conceptualise a “revolutionary subject” such that this term means a demographic group that has some unique and privileged perspective on capitalism. I am leery of such claims, both because they can lead (and in fact routinely do lead) to theorists embracing movements because of who, demographically, participates in those movements, rather than evaluating the actual political goals such movements express (so people will embrace, say, a fundamentalist religious movement because it’s “anti-capitalist”, without exploring the particular alternative to capitalism being sought, or they will embrace a working class movement because it’s an expression of the self-assertion of the working class, without exploring whether the movement is predicated on perpetuating the centrality of the kind of instrumental labour that is central to capitalism), and because I simply don’t think there is a correlation between “structural” perspectives generated by capitalism, and the political positions held by empirical individuals who happen to hold particular kinds of social roles. The structural perspectives generated by capitalism are not psychological: they’re “objective” – they’re products of collective practice. Individuals can, of course, internalise particular perspectives, but the “system” doesn’t actually require that this happen (and here I think you rightly point to Weber, who appreciates this far more than most other social theorists). Like everything else under capitalism, this potential disjoint between structural positions and individual or collective attitudes holds both emancipatory and regressive potentials – but it does, I would suggest, mean that we have no actual reason to assume that the economic role someone plays will have a strict correlation with how they perceive capitalism or how they orient themselves politically.
It’s in this specific sense – and only in this sense – that I tend to be critical of studies asking why the working class betrays its own “interests”: I think such approaches are assuming that a relationship is “supposed” to hold between an empirical individual’s economic role and their political position, whereas I don’t actually think a “structural” theory of capitalism supports this claim – and it’s actually a good thing that it doesn’t support this claim, because this is how the theory begins to square some of the circles Ryan/Aless poses about agency at the end of his most recent comment. ;-P I’m being very, very condensed here, but this kind of “structural” theory is a bit different from theories that posit some kind of straightforward determination of consciousness by social context – one of the things this theory can help thematise is actually the relative independence of individuals from particular social constraints, such that political contestation becomes thinkable without breaking the immanent frame of the theory… So…
One final point (and I promise I am winding down here… ;-P): when you mention Marx moving away from Hegel’s notion of the Geist. Several theorists have actually pointed out that the language Marx uses for capital is actually the same language Hegel uses for the Geist – Marx refers to capital as the “self-moving substance that is subject” (Postone discusses it here, but I’ve seen the same point discussed by a number of authors). So it may be more accurate to say that, rather than abandoning the Geist, Marx inverts the significance Hegel attaches to the concept, suggesting that the nonmystical core of Hegel’s concept of the Geist is actually capital. To make sense of this, however, it’s actually necessary not to equate capital with money. Money is presented in Capital as one of the (necessary) forms of appearance of capital, and as a form of appearance that begins to suggest the potential for dynamism and for instrumental reason – but it isn’t itself capital. Capital is instead (as the Geist also is) a logic of historical development. In this case, however, the source of this logic of historical development is social practice – and the emancipatory move would not involve the realisation of the logic of development, but its abolition – an abolition that involves, however, the active appropriation of both the material and ideal resources constituted in the course of capitalist development. Again, Benjamin hits the heart of the concept:
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Thesis IX)
Ryan/Aless – Since I’ve been so long-winded in responding to Joseph, I’ve managed to stagger across some of the issues you’ve raised above. You’ll perhaps be relieved to learn that this means that I will respond only very briefly to a couple of additional points from your comment.
First a quick clarification in response to your comment that you don’t want to give up the notion of personal domination – apologies for the lack of clarity on my end here: I never meant to suggest that we would need to give up such a concept; only that theories that try to define capitalism as a form of personal domination have missed something pivotal. Okay. How abstract do we want this discussion to become? ;-) Let’s see how I go here…
One question that motivates my work – one of the oldest “layers” of my project – relates to how we can understand the historical emergence of the social sciences and of related forms of perception and thought that find it intuitive – that find it easy, to an historically unprecedented degree – to understand what kind of claim is being made, when someone calls some institution “social” or “cultural”. In other words, even if we engage in disputes over whether a particular thing (a family structure, for example) is “natural” or merely a “social convention”, we find it relatively easy – and on a mass level – to perceive a very wide range of institutions and practices as arbitrary human creations. Critiques that target personal domination are often doing extremely important things – fighting fights that must be fought – achieving significant political goals that wouldn’t be achieved in any other way: I don’t at all believe that such movements are unimportant or shouldn’t happen – they’re pivotal, and they are one of the things that, I believe, constitutes collective resources that then become available for emancipatory ends.
There is one thing, however, that such critiques don’t do, which is to ask why it is so easy for us to recognise personal domination – to recognise that personal inequalities are arbitrary and artificial, and therefore can be contested politically. Instead, these forms of critique take for granted, and then simply apply, their recognition of this kind of social contingency and political contestability.
Part of what I’m trying to do is to get back behind this – to understand, self-reflexively, the mass availability of this kind of critical perspective on personal domination. I need to stress that I’m speaking at an incredibly abstract level here: it’s clear that not everyone agrees that certain things are personal domination – if there were broad consensus at this concrete level, we wouldn’t need political contestation. What interests me is the more abstract issue of why we see so much political contestation (including at very micrological levels, and over quite everyday things – only some of which spill over into large scale, organised social movements). There are other, related questions that reinforce this point, pointing to similar forms of subjecitivty that manifest in ways other than political contestation, but my goal here isn’t to develop the point comprehensively, but just to gesture toward the problem.
One of the things I’ve been trying to suggest in the various posts about abstraction, immanent counter-factuals and the rest, is that this level of the “social” (which I tend to call “concrete social relations”) comes to be perceived as arbitrary and contingent because, at one level of social practice, this is precisely how we collectively treat it: we practice a structural indifference to concrete social relations in one dimension of collective practice – a claim that doesn’t mean that we are at all indifferent to concrete social relations in other dimensions of collective practice. The dimension of collective practice that is structurally indifferent to concrete social relations is capital (here, I should note, I’m speaking in my own voice – Postone’s reading of Marx goes a long way toward this position, but doesn’t quite go here – so at this point, I’m dangling at the end of my own rope… ;-P). I view capital as a contradictory pattern of historical transformation – a pattern that derives from the unintended consequences of collective practice and that, historically, has proven able to replicate itself in and through a wide range of concrete social institutions (thus relativising those institutions – and providing the practical, everyday experience on an everyday level for the development and proliferation of forms of subjectivity that recognise the contingency of concrete social institutions, where these critical forms of subjectivity are, essentially, just making explicit the implications or tacit logic of collective behaviour). I’ve said that capital relativises concrete social relations, but it would be more accurate to say that capital and the various concrete social relations in and through which capital is generated mutually differentiate one another – with the consequence that the structural indifference to concrete social relations informs our sort of intuitive “gestalt” of “the social” (as an arbitrary, contingent, human creation, subject to conscious political contestation and transformation), while capital (which I sometimes call an abstract or impersonal social relation, as it consists in the domination of people by a pattern of historical transformation, rather than by any specifically personal forms of domination – although those obviously also exist) provides a sort of intuitive “gestalt” for those qualitative attributes that we tend to ascribe to “nature”.
It’s possible, I would suggest, to use this approach (in a much more developed form) to understand some of the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the sciences and the social sciences in the modern era. It’s also possible to use this approach to suggest why, in the midst of enormous political contestations and dramatic periodic transformations of political and cultural institutions, capitalism continues to be replicated in new forms: very, very, very gesturally – it’s more “intuitive” to us (for structural reasons) to direct political action toward concrete social relations and, at any given historical moment, capitalism is actually mediated via a particular constellation of concrete social institutions, so it’s not an unreasonable assumption for a movement to make, that it can overcome capitalism by targeting a particular set of concrete institutions, because those institutions may, in fact, mediate capitalism – they may be “causing” the generation of the overarching historical dynamic that gives capitalist society the unique “instrumental” character that continually generates “labour” as its “product”, and thus subordinates people to a system of production that has become an end in itself. The problem is, it’s generally historically plausible to assume that this instrumental character is actually embedded in concrete relations – and so on an empirical level you can get “successful” revolutions that dramatically reconfigure the everyday institutions of social life – and yet build straight back in to the new institutions forms of compulsion that reconstitute the overarching historical dynamic. None of this is “necessary” in any lockstep way – but recognising why these outcomes might have been historically plausible provides a basis for beginning to understand the failure of many large-scale revolutionary projects, without falling into pessimism and disillusionment with emancipatory politics per se.
The fact that one can construct this kind of theory, of course, means that capitalism also tips its hand – there are determinate reasons that it is easy to misrecognise the complex dynamic that results from the mutual differentiation of social practice into concrete and abstract dimensions (and, of course, I’m far from having developed a full argument about misrecognition here), but it’s possible to theorise these sorts of issues, while also pointing to determinate ways that capitalism simultaneously tips its hand (and I’m not going to develop this argument in full here, either… ;-P). But hopefully this at least hand waves in the general direction of what this kind of immanent critical theory tries to do…
One final point, just to relate this back to your questions about agency: one of the things this approach suggests is that it’s not sufficient for a critical theory just to thematise the possibility for “agency”, understood abstractly and divorced from the specific goals toward which agency is directed. One of the things capitalism historically achieves is an immense release of “agency” – political contestation, everywhere! Much of this agency, however, is actually quite compatible with the reproduction of capitalism (note that this does not make the exercise of agency unimportant – it matters a great deal whether we live in a more humane form of capitalism, or in a horrific one, so this point is not meant to diminish the importance of political contestations that remain within the ambit of capitalist reproduction). One of the things this approach suggests is that capitalism itself generates the possibility for contestation (and of a particularly “Foucaultian” kind, as well…) and for “rupture”: these potentials are not difficult to explain, and orienting a critical theory to demonstrate that such things are possible, from the standpoint of this approach, falls short of the mark. What is needed instead is a thematisation of the possibility for particular kinds of agency, oriented to goals that – if the object of the theory is actually to point beyond capitalism – actually “hit” capitalism itself. For this, as I’ve been suggesting, I think we have to capture the impersonal dimensions of capitalism.
In the event that anyone is actually still reading this monster: apologies again for how undercooked all of this is, and how much it leaves untouched. And thank both of you for an incredibly productive discussion – this has been more useful to me than you can possibly know.
This week the reading group in which I participate began reading Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. As I was introducing the material and what Deleuze and Guattari were up to with their synthesis of psychoanalysis, Marx, and Nietzsche, one of the participants piped up and said something along the lines of
Wait, for Deleuze and Guattari schizophrenia as a process is “good”, but capitalism is schizophrenic, yet Deleuze and Guattari are offering a critique of capitalism. Wasn’t Marx against capitalism? How can Deleuze and Guattari both see something positive in capitalism, yet be critical of capitalism?
I confess that I was absolutely delighted by this remark, for what this participant was articulating was a position that can be loosely described as that of abstract negation. On the one hand, so the story goes, there is a position that one can advocate called “capitalism”, and on the other hand there is a position one can advocate called “communism” or Marxism. If one is for Marxism, then they are against capitalism, and political engagement at both the theoretical and practical level (for me these levels are never separated) is then a matter of finding ways to overturn capitalism.
In reality, Marx’s position is far more sophisticated and nuanced. Marx does not simply provide us with an economic theory, nor does he simply provide us with a normative theory articulating “what is to be done” or what institutions we should form. Rather, Marx provides us with a theory that strives to explain why social-formations have taken the form they have taken today and what emancipatory potentials the situation in which we exist contains. As N.Pepperell so nicely emphasizes, this has the effect of showing both how contemporary social-formations and forms of subjectivity are contingent, how they can be otherwise, but also revealing those determinate lines of flight (lines of flight actually haunting the situation or bifurcation points that we might grasp and push further) where change might become possible. In order to discern these points, let’s return to claims Marx makes about the bourgeois and proletariat in The Communist Manifesto. I choose these particular examples from Marx’s work because of the economy (pardon the pun) with which their expressed, but also because they so nicely underline how Marx wasn’t simply concerned with economic issues, but questions as to why the social takes the particular form that it takes at a particular time and how particular subjectivities come to be (questions of individuation). Speaking of the Bourgeois, Marx writes:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.
The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades.
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff.
First, note how Marx describes the bourgeois as the “revolutionary part”. For Marx the bourgeois, in their pursuit of capital, have played a tremendous role in transforming the social. We can quibble and disagree about the details of Marx’s analysis here, but what Marx seeks is not simply an economic analysis, but rather an analysis of why social groupings, moral beliefs, epistemologies and ontologies, legal systems, government institutions, and ways of relating to oneself take the form they take at a particular point in history. Why, for instance, do my students conceive themselves as individuals first with rights (a sort of empty void), and a member of a particular religious, political, or ethnic group second? How did this form of self-relation and self-understanding emerge? How did we come to think of religion, for instance, as a belief or faith that one chooses? Why are certain belief systems particularly attractive at this particular point in history? The position of the historical materialist is distinguished from that of the idealist in that the latter takes these things as eternal verities, whereas the former sees these social formations as essentially contingent formations that had to come to be or be individuated within the order of history. Throughout history there have been bifurcation points where other alternatives were possible, and there will be again in the future. For Marx the bourgeois has been emancipatory in the sense that it has tended to wipe away traditional relations that have often been based on mystification and superstition– for instance, the religious foundations of monarchy under feudalism –allowing us to see ourselves as self-creating beings and individual actors in the world. As such, it has paved the way for an egalitarian conception of the political, that would have never been possible in, say, ancient Greece or a feudal society. How did we come to see nature, as Heidegger puts it in “The Question Concerning Technology”, as a standing-reserve or a present-at-hand so as to develop physical science, mathematics, and logic as we know it today? What Marx seeks is a total social theory, not simply an economic theory. In response to the participant in my reading group, then, Marx’s relationship to capital is far from unambiguous. It is not simply a question of abstract negation or being against something, but of seeing the potentialities that a particular situation has generated.
What, then, of these potentialities? Where are they to be found? Marx goes on to remark that,
The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.
But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons — the modern working class — the proletarians.
In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.
Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labor, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. What is more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labor increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time, or by increased speed of machinery, etc.
Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army, they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, in the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.
The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labor, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labor of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labor, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.
No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.
The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus, the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.
The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie. At first, the contest is carried on by individual laborers, then by the work of people of a factory, then by the operative of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them. They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois condition of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labor, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Ages.
At this stage, the laborers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition. If anywhere they unite to form more compact bodies, this is not yet the consequence of their own active union, but of the union of the bourgeoisie, which class, in order to attain its own political ends, is compelled to set the whole proletariat in motion, and is moreover yet, for a time, able to do so. At this stage, therefore, the proletarians do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies, the remnants of absolute monarchy, the landowners, the non-industrial bourgeois, the petty bourgeois. Thus, the whole historical movement is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie; every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.
But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labor, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.
Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lie not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by Modern Industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralize the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.
This organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently, into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the Ten-Hours Bill in England was carried.
Altogether, collisions between the classes of the old society further in many ways the course of development of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all time with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. In all these battles, it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for help, and thus to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.
“The bourgeoisie itself… supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education.” Again, Marx here shows an exquisite attentiveness to questions of processes of individuation. Marx does not take it for granted that a class called “proletariat” exists and has always existed, but asks how such a class has come to be. What immanent social forces have generated this particular class? What potentialities are embodied in this class? The proletariat could not have come to be without there first being the erasure of tradition effected by the pursuit of capital among the bourgeois, for the proletariat required (I do not intend this teleologically) the separation from religious, ethnic, and national traditions in order to come into being. This point is underlined by the sale of ones labor on the market as a commodity. When labor comes to be treated as a commodity, as something one sells, the agent comes to be measured in terms of an abstract quantity, money, that is reflected in the proletariats self-understanding of herself as an abstract individual: someone who “chooses” herself, her identity, or someone who is self-fashioning. For money, as Brian Rotman notes, is a form of relation that overcomes qualitative differences among persons and objects, allowing them to be compared despite these differences. Here, once again, we begin to get a sense of how an egalitarian ideal might have come to be.
It seems to me that these are the sorts of questions that N.Pepperell is pursuing in her own work. Terms such as “bourgeois” and “proletariat” or class-struggle no longer seem descriptive of the situation in which we live, so it becomes necessary to return to the stance of historical materialism. Increasingly I am beginning to think this is especially a problem among those thinkers from among the Althusserian orientation of thought. Unconsciously taking over an understanding of the social in terms of synchronous social structure, they’ve been led to ignore process and emergence in ways that lead to a theoretical impasse. Deleuze (who does not fall under this criticism), describing the structure of language in The Logic of Sense, remarks, following Levi-Strauss, that language is such that it must come all at once or not at all insofar as each term of a language is differentially determined. This point holds for the social as well when the social is conceived in terms of synchronous structure. As a result of this understanding of language, we then find ourselves at an impasse when trying to explain or envision how change might be produced. It is thus no mistake that the sons of Althusser (Badiou, Zizek, Ranciere, Balibar, Laclau, perhaps loosely Agamben due to the elective affinities of the structure of his thought with these thinkers), have all sought an empty place or void of some sort within structure– not unlike Levi-Strauss’ “mana-signifier” –that would allow us to explain how something new comes to be. It is especially interesting that all of these thinkers, while occasionally making hand-gestures towards economy and the importance of the economic– Zizek’s “parallax” between the political and the economic, for instance –have had next to nothing concrete to say where economic and sociological analysis is concerned. Instead we get a lot of hand-waving that is very abstract and that seldom refers to determinate situations. Of course, it is necessary, as good historical materialists, to ask why this form of thought emerged when it did and why it has proven so attractive. Moreover, it is necessary to determine what emancipatory potentials this structuralist orientation of thought contains. Nonetheless, these positions strike me as partial, at best, and as abstract negations at worse. Everything changes once one adopts the perspective of process and assemblages. Indeed, a number of problems and the solutions formulated in response to them seem to disappear altogether.