In Reassembling the Social Latour draws a distinction between sociologists of the social and sociologists of association. In Latour’s framework, sociologists of the social treat the social as what explains, thereby treating it as some sort of entity that is already there, exerting formative forces of its own on other entities. By contrast, sociologists of association treat society as what must be explained, refusing to treat it as something that is already there.
One of Latour’s critiques of Marx is that he is a sociologist of the social insofar as he treats entities like class as agents in history. Over at Aberrant Monism Jeffrey Bell nicely articulates this critique. Bell writes:
I think it is correct to say one is not a Marxist if by that one means that Latour is not a Marxist. Latour is explicit on this point in his recent book, The Science of Passionate Interests, where he wonders how the 20th century might have unfolded had Tarde’s approach to understanding capitalism been more influential than Marx’s. Latour’s critique of Marx is much the same as his critique of Durkheim (you could substitute Durkheim for Marx in the previous sentence). Rather than presuppose the existence of class and society, Tarde examines the myriad ways in which society is composed. Latour follows a similar approach, of course, and in an essay he wrote with Shirley Strum, ‘redefining the social,’ he explicitly claims that society is not a given but needs to be composed, and composed by way of things – i.e., our human/nonhuman interactions.
Between Bell’s comments here and the discussion of Marx over at Bogost’s blog, I find myself very perplexed as to how Marx is being read. With respect to Bell’s criticism, it’s difficult for me to see how any careful reading of Capital can portray Marx as a sociologist of the social. In Capital Marx does not appeal to either the social or class as an explanatory force. Indeed, class only appears very late in Capital. Rather, it seems to me that Marx practices an exemplary form of actor-network analysis throughout both Capital and Grundrisse. Marx seeks to explain society in the manner of a sociologist of associations rather than appeal to society to explain the world around us. The actants that Marx appeals to in this story are wage-labor, the money form, factories, trade routes, the availability of resources, various technologies, etc. Here class does not serve an explanatory function, but rather is an emergent effect of how wage labor functions. Class is something that comes into being through a variety of different processes.
In this respect, we can think of wage-labor in much the same way that DeLanda– who is bafflingly ferocious in his critiques of Marx –thinks about how seashells of fairly consistent shapes and sizes come to be distributed on a beach. Here the average power of the waves and the extent that water comes up on the beach distribute sea-shells of particular shapes and sizes along a narrow band on the beach. Likewise with wage labor and capital. And where the pursuit of capital goes largely unregulated, we witness, over time, a massive disparity in wealth where the lion share of wealth comes to be concentrated in the hands of a few. In other words, we get the formation or emergence of class. When class comes into being, certain additional consequences follow. If the machine of capital is to continue running, not only is it necessary for goods to be produced, but it is also necessary for goods to be consumed so that the production of additional capital can take place. How can that occur, however, when such a system is prone to depressions and recessions that limit the amount of available money for consumers? And so on.
I’ve been even more baffled by some of the comments on Marx over at Ian’s blog and here. In this connection, a number of folks have suggested that Marxists believe primarily in revolution and that the proletariat will overturn the capitalist mode of production. However, in my experience, Marxism is far less a political theory or a theory of revolution, than a way of approaching and analyzing the world around us. By and large, Marxists tend to be a pretty pessimistic bunch, deeply sensitive to the constraints of the self-organizing system of capital that functions today as the “concrete universal” of our age. To be sure, Marxists are deeply attentive to the role that capital plays in all aspects of our society and life, and Marxists look for those “catastrophe points” (Rene Thom) or bifurcation points where such a form of social life might be able to mutate into something else, but this doesn’t entail that we naively believe in revolution or an immanent uprising of the proletariat. More than anything, Marxism is a way of analyzing the present and why it is the way that it is. Marxism is historico-material analysis. At the level of the political, such a perspective on the world takes less the form of struggling for revolution, but engagement with systems of governmentality that disproportionately benefit the capitalist class to the detriment of both everyone else and the environment.
A lot of people have complained that no new political theory has been invented and that Marxism is the default position of the academy. Likewise, there have been complaints that there is no place for liberals, neo-conservatives, and conservatives in the academy. I’m of a divided mind about this. On the one hand, it is my view that the academy is dominated by liberals. Just think about the disproportionate place of thinkers like Rawls or Habermas in the academy and political theory. On the other hand, I’m really not sure that there’s much of a place for neo-liberals and conservatives in the academy (there I said it) as I think their positions are just plain false. That said, it’s important to note that the neo-liberals dominate economics departments and hold the top seats in the halls of our government. Finally, however, I’m perplexed by the call for new political theories. It seems to me that Marx gives the best description of the present that we yet have available. However, I say this with the caveat that like Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxism is an open theory. It doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive, it doesn’t pretend to know everything. Like any good empiricism, it responds to new formations in the present and attempts to comprehend what these mean.