Dejan of Cultural Parody Center asks how I respond to the worry that collective assemblages lead to disasters such as some of those that characterized aspects of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. In subsequent discussion he qualifies his question, indicating that he wasn’t suggesting that collective assemblages necessarily lead to this outcome, but was rather asking what proposals or thoughts I might have as to how this might be avoided. However, I do think Dejan hits on a fundamental argument that is extremely common in, at least, the United States when arguing against any form of collective action. My position is that this line of argument is always based on spurious reason. Consequently, since this spurious reasoning is so common I thought I’d take a moment to show just where it goes wrong through a formalization of its reasoning. Roughly the argument runs as follows:
Premise 1: The Soviet Union (or whatever poison you might like to choose) was a social system premised on collective assemblages.
Premise 2: Social Formation X calls for collective assemblages.
Conclusion: Therefore, Social Formation X leads to outcomes identical to those in the Soviet Union.
In the United States, at least (Thatcher gave similar arguments, I believe, in Great Britain, and arguments such as this were used throughout South and Central America to justify deregulation and privatization), we have been beaten over the head by arguments like this so often that we don’t even pay attention to them anymore. Indeed, I so commonly hear claims like this from my students (in completely unrelated contexts), that I almost wonder whether they haven’t become lodged in our DNA, manifesting themselves as “innate truths”. However, when we formalize the argument using a venn diagram we see that the conclusion clearly cannot follow from these premises:
For those unfamiliar with venn diagrams, they work by spatially representing relations among categories represented in propositions. For universal propositions (“all A’s are B’s) you use shading. For particular propositions (Some A’s are B’s) you use x’s. When you cannot determine the region to which the x belongs in the three circles, you place it on the line separating the regions to indicate that it could be in either of the regions. To determine whether or not a syllogism is valid, you diagram the premises of the syllogism and if the conclusion follows from the premises, then it will appear after you diagram the premises of its own accord.
The argument above deals only with propositions that are particular in quantity, and therefore uses nothing but “x’s”. For the first premise, the x is to be placed in the intersection of the Soviet Union circle and the Collective Assemblage circle as the first premise asserts a relation between these two classes. We are thus indicating that at least one entity shares the property of being both the Soviet Union and a Collective Assemblage. However, we notice that there are two regions where we can place the x: region 2 or region 4. For this reason, we place the x on the line between these two regions, indicating that we do not know whether it is in region 2 or 4. For the second premise, we now look at the relationship between the circle for some unspecified Social Formation X and the circle for Collective Assemblages. Premise two again asserts an intersection between these two classes of entities. However, once again we notice that there are two regions where our x could appear: region 4 and region 6. Since we do not know whether the social formation in question is in region 4 or region 6, we place it on the line between these two regions to indicate our uncertainty.
If our argument is valid, then we should see an x appear in region 4 at the point of overlap between the circle for Social Formation X and the Soviet Union. What, in fact, do we see? We see that based on our premises it is possible for an x to be in region 2 or region 6; which is to say that there is not a relation of necessity between collective assemblages, social formations, and the Soviet Union, such that the presence of one of these properties or classes deductively entails the presence of the others. The ideological trick thus consists in implying that there is a relation of deductive necessity between collective assemblages and totalitarianism, where there is only a relation of contingency, i.e., a relation that can and often is otherwise.
This argument is, of course, stupid and any school child should be able to immediately see that it is invalid, yet nonetheless people seem to find it extremely compelling or convincing. As Dejan points out, that, in and of itself, should raise all sorts of important questions about human psychology. There is thus, on the one hand, the question of why certain collective assemblages lead to social formations that are totalitarian or fascist in character. And also, on the other hand, the question of how it might be possible to produce collective assemblages that do not lead to these results. Of course, the whole point of such an exercise lies in showing how that which appears natural and necessary is, in fact, contingent such that other forms of life are possible. Reactionary politics and ethics perpetually treats the contingent and historical as necessary and eternal. For example, it is said here in the States that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman and that God would have made same sex couples capable of reproduction had he intended them to marry.” All of this despite massive ethnographic evidence to the contrary. One of the first conditions for change lies in discerning the essential fragility and contingency of social formations. It is only in this way that the social order loses the appearance of being akin to Newtonian laws, trapping us in the iron grip of their necessity.
I apologize to readers for the silliness of this post, but it was fun, at least, to pitch an ideological claim in terms of syllogisms and venn diagrams. Hopefully I’ll be excused for finding lame ways to avoid grading.