I recently argued that there is a common thread that connects (1) Marx’s analysis of material world and superstructure, (2) his prediction of the inevitability of communism, and (3) his underdevelopment of subjective political strategy. Now I want to suggest that these three themes are connected to a fourth: Marx’s treatment of the state as an incontestable apparatus.
Marx’s view of the state is complex, inconsistent, and in a process of development over the course of his writing. Above all, though, he sees the state as the bourgeois state. The state emerged to serve the interests of a particular economic class (the bourgeoisie) and it is folly to entertain hope of it serving the proletarian class or ameliorating the inequality, exploitation and suffering caused by capitalism.
To understand this assessment of the state, we must examine Marx’s treatment of bourgeois and proletariat as neatly bounded categories. He details complexities and contradictions within each class, but he mistakenly believes that as capitalism proletarianizes more and more people, their conditions will become increasingly similar and, as a result, proletarians will come to recognize their structural commonality and begin to act self-consciously as a united class. As Cihan Tuğal explained, “The general trend in capitalism, according to Marx, is this increasing simplification of polarized classes. [my notes from a recent talk]” Contra Marx, history has instead shown how capitalism often achieves the opposite: a continuum of stratification within “the proletariat” and between classes, a popular orientation toward upward mobility, and fragmentation of class identity. Read more…
He who is active in politics strives for power either as a means in serving other aims, ideal or egoistic, or as ‘power for power’s sake,’ that is, in order to enjoy the prestige-feeling that power gives. —Max Weber
The “crisis of our times” is that those driven by ideals and those driven by ‘power for power’s sake’ have self-segregated. They have specialized, but their respective specialties hold vastly unequal shares of influence on society’s direction. The result for those who strive for power for its own sake is that they tend to get it (as a category of self-selectors; obviously to varying degrees and not in every individual case). For the sake of a short post, I’m going to skip those who are serving egoistic aims (for the moment) and discuss only those who are serving ideal aims (but, of course, the two are not neatly separable). In this pattern of self-segregation, these folks get to surround themselves with others who share their ideals. They get to express those ideals together, often punctuated with creative collective rituals, but without much realistic hope—perhaps not even the desire—for ever arming their ideals with power.
One category gets to play the field, while the other gets to critique the game from the sidelines.
Of course, this is a simplification. Weber might call these two categories (i.e., power-seekers and idealists) “ideal types”. Many shades between exist in the real world. We need more of those shades between, i.e., more ideal-driven people who refuse to cede power to the powerful.
From childhood I can remember experiencing rare moments of overwhelming wonder. I did not have words to describe what I felt, but it was as if everything in all of its complexity somehow made perfect sense and I was part of it, inseparable from it. In youth, when I learned about political injustices—racism, imperialism, global capitalism, war, and violence—I began to see the complexity behind every surface. In a spoonful of sugar I saw toil, sweat, blood, and struggle — and again, I was overwhelmed by a sense of connection. I felt overwhelmed by the evil which was inseparable from myself. But I was also overwhelmed, again, by the feeling of connection to an unfathomable complexity. It was as if in the realization of its unfathomableness there was somehow a small taste—a fleeting glimpse—of comprehension. Today, as I walked across campus, I felt a return of this overwhelming sense of oneness. I leaned into it. In every face I saw, every word I heard, every object I encountered, in nature and in human constructions, I felt as if I could know the whole of the history and evolution of the universe itself — the universal grasped in every precious particular.
How? How? How do I ever let a day go by without finding a moment to surrender to the wonder of it all?
This Monday during Cihan Tuğal’s comparative analysis of revolts in North Africa, Southern Europe, and Turkey—part of the Berkeley Sociology Colloquium Series—he offered this gem about the occupation of Gezi Park:
Even though a non-commodified space monetarily redistributes resources among its participants, it does not result in an egalitarian world beyond the revolt itself. [from my notes of Tuğal's presentation]
Cihan discussed multiple motivations for several kinds of participants. One key motivation that struck me—which I think relates to the above quote—was pleasure. Many bourgeois participants were motivated negatively by “the impoverishment of social life” caused by increasing commodification and positively by what Cihan described as “pleasure”. All this reminded me of Slavoj Žižek’s warning (to Occupy Wall Street) about “one of the great dangers the protesters face:”
…the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the fun they are having in the “occupied” zones. But carnivals come cheap— the true test of their worth is what happens the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed. This requires difficult and patient work— of which the protests are the beginning, not the end.
And both quotes remind me of a much older text, The Lonely Crowd, in which David Riesman et al discuss what they saw as a newly predominant character structure, embodied in the other-directed individual:
Thus the other-directed child is taught at school to take his place in a society where the concern of the group is less with what it produces than with its internal group relations, its morale.
Is there a positive relationship between the following three themes in Marx’s writing (in The Marx-Engels Reader): 1) his analysis of material world and superstructure (with the former determining the latter), 2) his forecast of the ultimate inevitability of proletariat revolution and communism, and 3) his underdevelopment of a theory of subjective political strategy? Before examining the question of a relationship between the themes, it is necessary to first briefly clarify each theme on its own.
Material world and superstructure: With a thousand different phrases, Marx expounds a cornerstone of his thesis that the world of thought, ideology and consciousness takes its lead from the tangible material world and the processes of material production. History is not determined by ideas; ideas, rather, arise on top of economic reality and essentially serve as post-facto narration, typically idealistic toward the political and economic interests of the dominant class.
Inevitability: Proletariat revolution and communism are, for Marx, a foregone conclusion. Future events, namely “the overthrow of society by the communist revolution” are “just as empirically established (p.163)” as observable world-historical activities that have led to present material conditions. He posits that the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism—observable in his time—as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Read more…
Marx (in Marx Later Political Writings) poses the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Where he does not discuss this analogy explicitly, it nonetheless serves as a foundational concept for his various descriptions, critiques, polemics, and predictions. Looking back, we can now access a century and a half of history in our examination of whether, or to what extent, the analogy holds up. But how much evidence was there to support the analogy’s validity during Marx’s time? Marx fancied his analysis scientific, but to what extent is his analogy a scientific theory or hypothesis, as opposed to an article of faith attached to a political agenda (dressed up in propagandistic signifiers of scientific thinking)? Might greater scrutiny of the analogy have opened up pivotal questions concerning how the particular content of a political system could alter the form—hence the “inevitability”—of revolution (e.g. from feudalism to capitalism vs. from capitalism to communism)?
Perhaps because of his deterministic theory/belief, Marx is able to maintain a long-haul optimism in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Paris Commune — even trumpeting the episode as the “glorious harbinger of a new society.” However, despite the inevitable eventuality of a dictatorship of the proletariat followed by communism that Marx’s structural determinism suggests, these essays still brim with an engrossing sense of subjective agency. Marx did not advocate waiting passively for underlying economic forces to accomplish the predestined. Indeed, most of his writing (in this collection) speaks to contingencies, especially in his polemical detailing of the incompetencies of opponents and allies alike. The details of particular actions and missteps, and their history-altering consequences, are of great concern to him.