Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: February 2005

Weberian Ethic and the Analysis of Capitalism

I’ve just been reading R.A. Wild’s Heathcote: A Study of Local Government and Resident Action in a Small Australian Town (1983). This work operates within a more traditional concept of politics than does Richards’ book, about which I wrote below: it focuses on “classical” political conflicts between governmental institutions and organised citizen political movements, and operates largely within a classical Weberian framework for understanding the trajectory of political institutions. Among other things, this approach leads to some strange anachronisms: it sounds historically out-of-synch, even for a book written in the early ’80s, for an author to relate with confidence that (p. 57):

Generally the modern state has become more bureaucratic, interventionist and centralised. Bureaucratic expertise has become necessary to administer the complex tasks of the state. Intervention has become increasingly positive and directive and has encompassed what were traditionally private areas of economic activity. Centralisation has occurred partly as a result of the need for national and international long-term economic planning.

The book therefore occupies a thought-space that is historically just on the cusp of the powerful reassertion of the market that would undermine the way in which sociologists had for decades conceptualised the secular trends of politics, economy, and society. This historical tension is evident in the economically liberal views the book documents in the Councillors, which Wild explores in relation to constraints on local government, without, however, calling into question Weber’s essentially linear historical narrative of the sweep of rationalisation through history, culminating in the dominance of formal, procedural rationality in the bureaucratic service of elite interests under the planned capitalist economy (see p. 59-63).

I tend to think it is quite important to keep Weber’s narrative in mind in attempting to develop a critical theory – although I would strip from that narrative its world-historical dimensions, and reinterpret those as a projection back into time of dynamics that are specific to capitalism – thus opening the path to reclaiming Weber’s work as a critical analysis of oppressive trends within a particular society, rather than an analysis of the unavoidable consequences of rationality per se. (Habermas has approached this same issue in another way – reinterpreting the essence of the world-historical process, and distinguishing the potential logic of that process, from the actual historical realisation of that process under capitalism – I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to comment more on his narrative over time.)

Leaving aside the issue of how to appropriate Weber’s work for critical theory, I think that it is particularly important to remember his insights now, in the wake of a period of market triumphalism in which many analysts have forgotten the ways in which capitalism is not the opposite of state planning and bureaucracy, but instead generates its own pressures for planning, bureaucratisation, and regulation.

At the same time, in my opinion, Weber’s epistemology hinders his analysis, and often strains against the critical logic of his own analysis. I’ve mentioned the world-historical dimension of his narrative – the notion that the trends he is describing are on some level transhistorical – as one potential epistemological problem. Another – and one more central to Wild’s book – is Weber’s notion that his analytical categories are “ideal types”. As Wild explains the concept (p. 19, ftnt 1):

As ideal-type models and analysis are sometimes the cause of confusion, I shall comment briefly on the approach. Elsewhere I defined ideal-type modes as ‘hypothetical constructs developed from empirically observable or historically recognisable components with the aim of making comparisons and developing theoretical explanations’. The basic assumption behind ideal-type analysis is that a total reality in all its complexity cannot be known – cannot be objectively grasped by the human mind. In observing reality we are confronted with a chaos of sense impressions. Ideal types are used to help us abstract from this chaos and thereby make knowledge of the world possible through a framework of prior conceptualisation. Ideal types themselves do no generate knowledge or provide explanations, rather they are a framework for research and point us towards asking paticular questions and formulating useful propositions.

The method of reasoning used in this passage is actually quite common in the social sciences, and is not limited to sociologists who use ideal types, or even to social scientists who invoke relativist concepts. The passage is worth unpacking, to draw out its assumptions and non sequiturs.

Wild starts with a statement that would be quite difficult to disagree with, regardless of the reader’s epistemological or normative stance – namely, that “total reality in all its complexity cannot be known”. This very strong claim provides an aura of authority that can make it easy for the reader not to realise that the statements that happen to follow sequentially in the passage, nevertheless do not actually follow logically from the initial claim.

So Wild moves from “total reality in all its complexity cannot be known”, to the much more controversial and contestable claim that “in observing reality we are confronted with a chaos of sense impressions”. A wide variety of perspectives, from sociobiology to theistic approaches to critical theory, would disagree with this second claim, albeit for different reasons, while having no real difficulty with the first claim. Wild then argues that ideal types “help us abstract from this chaos and thereby make knowledge of the world possible through a framework of prior conceptualisation” – a statement whose logic suggests that our most fundamental analytical categories somehow pre-exist and are unshaped by our interactions with the world around us, but are also fundamentally random. In this formulation, there is no check – whether social or natural – on the ability of a particular anaytical category to arise, to appear persuasive, or to succeed in orienting our actions in the world. Analytical categories in this approach are “mind play” – all approaches as intrinsically plausible as one another, with only convention dictating which categories pique our interest at a particular time.

In practice, very few social analysts – and least of all Weber – actually practice their academic work in a manner consistent with these philosophical claims. Instead, they procede very much as though they are making interpretive claims about a non-chaotic reality: they make arguments in favour of their interpretation, and against others’; they refer to supporting evidence; they even occasionally cede ground to a more convincing analysis. Where the explicit epistemology would seem to support an “I’m okay; you’re okay” relativism, analytic practice suggests an awareness of shared normative standards to which we can appeal when assessing the worthiness of our analytical categories. This is indicated quite clearly in the passage quoted above, where Wild also describes ideal types as “constructs developed from empirically observable or historically recognisable components” – a formulation that invokes a common ability for empirical observation that sits in clear tension with a “chaos of sense impressions”.

So why does practice suggest a tacit non-relativist epistemology, while the explicit theory talks in relativist terms?

I think there are several levels of answer to this question and, as always, I won’t be able to do full justice to any of them here.

One issue – on which I have written before – is that Wild (and other social scientists invoking similar explicit epistemologies) has a very absolutist concept of truth. Reading between the lines of his passage, to be “true”, something must be “objective”, “total”, and, a bit more tacitly, it must be abstract and sit outside the chaotic detail of the real world. While some approaches might appeal to religious or natural truths that claim to meet these criteria, a social theorist who posits that profound changes have taken place over time in the structure of human society, culture, and even fundamental categories of perception and thought, cannot logically aspire to truths that are objective, total, and abstracted from concrete historical experience.

There are several ways social scientists try to thread their way around this dilemma.

Possibly the most common approach is simply to ignore the issue – to continue to analyse the forms of perception and thought that characterise earlier eras as historically specific, culturally determined, etc., while not turning this same lens on our own analytical categories. When asked, most historically-sensitive social scientists would claim that they are as historically and culturally embedded as their objects of analysis – but there is nothing internal to their analysis itself that explains how they could potentially escape the relativist trap and make, to use Habermas’ vocabulary, truth claims about their work. There is also the minority who do seem to maintain that, while the object of analysis is culturally and historically determined, the social scientists’ own categories represent “discoveries” that transcend social, cultural, and historical limitations. I believe it was Marx who described this approach as the claim “that there used to be history, but now there is none”.

Another is the approach adopted in Weber’s explicit epistemological statements, as well as in a variety of other (sometimes far less sophisticated) relativist approaches: to accept that historically-sensitive social scientific research cannot attain objective, total truth – and therefore to repudiate the notion that social science is in the “truth game” at all. This position is seldom consistently maintained – tensions between explicit epistemological expositions, and the actual logic of the social analysis (such as in Wild’s passage above) are more the norm than the exception.

A third is most recently expressed in Habermas’ work (although many of the social scientists who draw inspiration from Habermas seem loathe to follow his line of reasoning to the end). Habermas provides a sweeping historical/evolutionary narrative of the emergence of reason in history – effectively, a very sophisticated way to explaini why it could potentially be the case that “there used to be history” – people used to think and perceive the world very differently from how we do – but “now there is none” – we can make and assess potentially valid truth-claims about the individual, social, and naural worlds.

A fourth – and this is what I would like to work toward, and what I believe a fully self-reflexive critical theory would actually require – would seek to embed our analytical categories within our own social experience (would move beyond the claim that there is no longer history), and would explain how to move beyond the notion that we perceive “a chaos of sense impressions” without, however, appealing to biological or theistic understandings of how perception and thought come to be structured. This approach would bear a number of analytical burdens, among them moving away from the concept that valid truth claims can be made only with reference to timeless, abstract, transhistorical, asocial, absolute values, and moving equally away from the concept that no truth claims can ever be made (e.g., because timeless, abstract, etc., valules are impossible) – and moving toward a concept of “truth for us” – of socially-generated and shared forms of perception and thought that can validly perceive and make judgments about our society precisely because these judgments are integrally related to the society we create.

There are many other criteria a fully-self-reflexive critical theory would need to meet (not least among these, providing an analysis of why relativist and absolutist approaches to truth are so common in this historical period), but proposing an alternative concept of truth is a pivotal step. Understanding truth as the non-random, but still socially-embedded and non-absolutist, collection of things we are collectively teaching ourselves at this historical moment, begins to overcome the subject-object divide that haunts most analyses, and points to the need for a theory of how our subjectivity – our forms of perception and thought – are constituted by, constitute, and are in many ways coterminous with the various “objectivities” of our society – the nature of the economy, the state, civic institutions, gender relations, race relations, family structures, etc.

It’s always a bit disappointing not to be able to “walk the talk” in this blog, but there are limits to the medium, as well as advantages. I’m sure this theme will recur, and I’ll hopefully be able to give a clearer sense of where I would like to go, and how I might attempt to get there, in future entries.

What Theorists Do

I haven’t posted much this week, as classes have begun, and I always require more preparation time when I haven’t seen my students yet, and am preparing lectures or tutorials for an unknown audience. The first teaching and tutorial sessions are always a mixed bag – some flat moments; hopefully a few successful interactions to build on over time. But I did enjoy some of the exchanges in a Planning History and Theory tutorial in which the goal is to assist the students in thinking more theoretically about their planning practice – which necessarily means first getting them to think more practically about their planning theory.

In this case, I started the tutorial with the question of whether the students (who have all completed at least a work experience stint to provide them with some practical background in the planning profession) could provide an example of planning theory in relation to their professional work. I would have been happy if someone had provided an example, but I was much happier when no one did – the best reaction, from a pedagogical point of view, is the one I received: students looking back and forth at one another, laughing out loud at the thought that planning theory could have some immediate resonance in their workplace.

We moved fairly quickly to a discussion of actual practice stories – what is right, what is wrong, what they would improve if they could, who (if anyone) had the power to make improvements, and how. Once in this realm of the familiar, the students were articulate, incisive, and insightful. They were also theoretically-savvy – although the trick is to get them to see this.

The goal of the session – which will continue to be the goal of the course – is to communicate that theory isn’t something that philosophers do behind ivory towers: it’s a general proclivity, for which “professional” theorists have developed a specialised vocabulary and set of shared concepts to assist them in elaborating and communicating theoretical ideas.

So, every time a student says, “This is how x works”, they have generated a theory.

Every time one says, “This is how x ought to work”, they have generated a critical theory.

(Self-reflexive critical theory is probably a bit more specialised – it’s a bit harder to find a spontaneously-generated practice story where someone says, “I believe that x ought to work this way, and my belief can be explained by the following historical or social potentials generated within my own social context.” But anything is possible… 😉 )

The goal will be to keep pushing that theory really is this basic, and to get the students to keep this in mind as they read academic theorists, so that they grasp how these theorists are actually engaged with their own practice stories (however technical and abstract their descriptions of them), and so that the students can then interrogate the usefulness or shortcomings of these theorists with reference to practice stories and counter-theories of their own.

Forced Relations

I have been reading Manuel Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed., 2000. In this post, I don’t intend to undertake a systematic and comprehensive review of Castells’ ambitious work, but I would like to comment on Castells’ historical periodisation, and the theoretical presuppositions that appear to underlie it.

Early in the work, Castells outlines his basic theoretical framework, distinguishing it from post-industrial theory, and situating it against a broadstrokes account of the historical relationship between the state and technological development. I’ll quote Castells’ description of his project at length (p. 14-15):

This book studies the emergence of a new social structure, manifested in various forms, depending on the diversity of cultures and institutions throughout the planet. This new social structure is associated with the emergence of a new mode of development, informationalism, historically shaped by the restructuring of the capitalist mode of production towards the end of the twentieth century.

The theoretical perspective underlying this approach postulates that societies are organized around human processes structured by historically determined relationships of production, experience, and power. Production is the action of humankind on matter (nature) to appropriate it and transform it for its benefit by obtaining a product, consuming (unevenly) part of it, and accumulating surplus for investment, according to a variety of socially determined goals. Experience is the action of human subjects on themselves, determined by the interaction between their biological and cultural identities, and in relationship to their social and natural environment. It is constructed around the endless search for fulfillment of human needs and desires. Power is that relationship between human subjects which, on the basis of production and experience, imposes the will of some subjects upon others by the potential or actual use of violence, physical or symbolic. Institutions of society are built to enforce power relationships existing in each historical period, including the controls, limits, and social contracts achieved in power struggles.

So here we essentially have three very familiar categories – translations of the economy-civil society-state triad that seems to permeate the self-understanding of capitalist societies and, not coincidentally, appears as a core analytical concept in the works of many social theorists (Habermas’ three orientations for communicative action provide another example). After defining these concepts, Castells continues in a more explicitly Marxist vein (p. 15-16):

The product of the production process is socially used under two forms: consumption and surplus. Social structures interact with production processes by determining the rules for the appropriation, distribution, and uses of the surplus. These rules constitute modes of production, and these modes define social relationships of production, determining the existence of social classes that become constituted as classes through their historical practice. The structural principle under which surplus is appropriated and controlled characterizes a mode of production.

So here we have them: the forces and relations of production.

Castells uses these concepts to explain why he believes the emergence of new forms of information technologies *should* yield a qualitatively new historical period (which he analyses under the term “mode of development”), as well as to explain divergences between states and regions within historical periods. Castells thus tries to account for technological influence on society, and especially on culture, without invoking a reductionist technological determinism. His path is nevertheless a very familiar one within Marxist theory, relying on the concept that technology serves as a driving force within history, generating potentials that are then either hindered or facilitated by social relations.

There are a number of paths into a critique of these concepts – Castells is a nuanced and thorough theorist, and he raises and address many potential problems himself. In some ways, for me, it was watching the ways in which Castells strains against the limitations of the forces-and-relations-of-production framework – the ways in which he makes points that surpass what his analytical framework can easily grasp – that prompted me to write this post.

I have to admit that I always find the forces-and-relations-of-production rubric very frustrating – not that there aren’t interesting things that have been done, and could still potentially be done, with it. But it still misses what I believe were the most interesting questions Marx posed. I realise that it’s always problematic to attempt to divine Marx’s “true intent”, and I realise that the forces-and-relations-of-production approach is probably the dominant way to read Marx’s work. But it seems to me the forces-and-relations-of-production reading entails a really unfortunate flattening of Marx’s work – a flattening that is problematic, not because it misinterprets Marx, but because it sidesteps what seem to me to be fundamental questions for any contemporary critical theory.

Leaving Castells aside for the moment, the forces-and-relations-of-production account assumes that what motivated Marx’s theory was the desire to reveal the existence of class domination – that the primary critical goal of Marx’s work was to demonstrate that, in spite of its idealistic rhetoric of equality and freedom, bourgeois society was in fact characterised by its dark underbelly of class domination. In this reading, Marx’s intellectual achievement was to reveal the existence of class domination that bourgeois society denied – thus empowering the working class to grasp its true historical potential and achieve emancipation. This is the textbook reading of Marx (usually supplemented by the claim that Marx believed that bourgeois class domination would necessarily be overthrown by the workings of capitalism itself – with or without “agency”, depending on the theoretical tendency), and has made its way, with variations, into a wide range of Marxist-inspired theories. What interests me for present purposes is the vision of social critique inherent in this interpretation.

This vision of social critique – one that sees the primary purpose of social criticism as revealing that domination exists, and demonstrating how dominant discourses and ideologies can work to conceal awareness of domination – is actually quite common in various theoretical traditions, from the forms of Marxism discussed here, through to postmodernist approaches. I don’t contest that this sort of critical unveiling or deconstruction is an important task – I argue only that this is not the only possible way to approach social critique, and that it risks a systematic blindness to certain kinds of critical questions that can be important for a social critic to ask.

Moving back to forces and relations of production: while this reading of Marx has been incredibly productive for political movements and academic analysis, I think it misses a central point: I believe that what interested Marx was not revealing the *existence* of class domination (I suspect he thought the existence of class domination was rather self-evident), but instead explaining how, *given* the self-evident existence of class domination, bourgeois society could still find the *rhetoric* of liberty and equality *socially persuasive*. In other words, I suspect that Marx was primarily trying to explain how you could get these very strange, self-contradictory statements like the classic formulation by Rousseau: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains!” If empirical observation so easily reveals the ubiquitous existence of the chains, then isn’t it peculiar that there is such a widespread belief in the existence of “natural” freedom?

It may be that I am wrong in this reading of Marx – certainly I wouldn’t be the first to read something into his text that isn’t there… But I will say that, if this *isn’t* the question Marx was trying to answer, it should have been 😉 More importantly, I believe that similar questions should be at the top of the agenda for critical theorists today. And, unfortunately, while theories grounded in analyses of the forces and relations of production may be useful for many purposes, I suspect very strongly that they cannot take us to the root of these kinds of questions…

Public and Private

The past few days, I’ve been reading a set of sociological studies of new suburbs – mainly trying to get my head around methodological issues relating to the use of qualitative data. I’ve found Lyn Richards’ Nobody’s Home: Dreams and Realities in a New Suburb (1990) particularly helpful in clarifying some of the methodological issues with which I’ve been wrestling.

Methodology aside, however, I was struck by a particular passage in which Richards grapples with the issue of how researchers ought to deal with dichotomies such as the notion of public and private spheres. Her summary of the issue, and of the conceptual and methodological quandaries that remain even after critiques have been taken into account, is worth quoting at length, for the analytical frameworks she considers, as well as, I would argue, for a significant alternative framework she does not pursue.

Richards summarises the historical application of the concept of public and private spheres by both conventional and feminist researchers, and then notes (p. 97-98):

This dichotomy has become a fascination in the literature, and the number of references questioning it must surely now exceed those applying it unquestioningly. Indeed the sources most commonly cited and criticized for the promotion of that dichotomy never presented it as an accurate description of anyone’s worlds, let alone women’s. Thinking in terms of ‘two worlds’ has been attacked as a myth obscuring the reality of the state’s invasion of the home, the real and changing interpenetration of family and work in women’s lives, women’s vulnerability in private ‘havens’, and the reality of make power. Critics have questioned the application of the dichotomy to the understanding of urban space: ‘The idealized opposition of female, domestic, private, often suburban worlds and male, productive, public, usually urban worlds does not really describe the works of many people.’ Nor does it assist in understanding the no-man’s land between family and paid work, the ‘non-residential domestic sphere’ that occupies much of women’s lives and is also always changing, or the ways ‘her’ privacy was always experienced in interaction with the public world. Rather, some have argued, women are ‘positioned at the intersection of two social worlds’; the ‘boundary role’ is hers, not his. Empirical studies of women’s ‘incorporation’ in men’s work and of rural settings have clearly shown the dichotomy just does not make sense of the data.

So why do discussions of the dichotomy persist? Three reasons seem likely, all themes that will recur throughout this book. First, while the distinction of public and private spear-headed a critique on the traditional family, there have been few critical studies of that family form. The studies that query the assumption that the family is a private world are all of anomalous families – mothers on welfare, black families, ministers’ wives and rural town life! A suspicion remains that the hard core of the nuclear family is still home to the private haven, and that suspicion is maintained in the critique of suburbia.

Secondly, the dichotomy is seen as not only misleading but dangerous. Like the 1960s debate over conflict and consensus approaches in sociology, it risks becoming an attack on straw theories. Nobody ever seriously suggested that society was characterized only by consensus. But there was growing concern that this ruling theoretical approach made it much easier to see consensus than conflict, and that at least some of its proponents in the social sciences and in places of power, might want society to be like that. Somewhat similarly, critics of dualist images of women’s and men’s spheres point to the tendency of dichotomies, even when critically used, to obscure the crucial areas of confusion and change that fit neither sphere. Those who use dualisms to describe women’s place may confirm that placement, especially by policies allocating care for the dependent young or old to ‘the community’, which means women at home.

Thirdly, whether the world is in fact so divided and whether the researcher is helped or blinkered by looking at it that way, some people do. While dichotomies oversimplify women’s experience, they appear in women’s accounts of their lives, and they do make a lot of sense of men’s. However distorting and inappropriate to the patterns of social change, the division of private and public worlds remains the background to family life, the way we interpret its demands. Ideas about women’s and men’s places, duties, opportunities and options seem to confirm the assumption that the private world of the family is and should be segregated from that other real, hard world of work, and that it is and should be maintained by women.

Richards’ account raises an interesting question – to me, one of the most interesting questions about the… anthropology of capitalist society, and one that is not limited to the public-private dichotomy, but can be extended to a series of other dichotomies that characterise capitalism and differentiate it from other forms of social life.

Richards points out that enormous amounts of research demonstrate that the concept of public and private sphere is really not all that good at characterising the fine grain of men’s or women’s everyday life. For many families, the concept obscures far more than it reveals; even families whose lives conform more closely to the concept, still violate it in countless particulars.

And yet, the concept persists. Not simply as an academic concept – although its recurrent appeal to at least some academic researchers is part of the puzzle – but also as part of the self-understanding of the very men and women whose lives the concept seems to fail to decsribe.

In my opinion, Richards asks an incredibly useful question, when she asks to know why this should be the case – why a concept like the division of the world into public (male, paid work) and private (female, family) should persist and appear meaningful, when it apparently corresponds so poorly to the everyday fabric of most men’s and women’s lives.

Richards’ answers, however, suggest that she perceives this question to be about an *imaginary* category – that the issue is one of why we persist in perceiving things a certain way, why we have created and continue to reproduce a discourse of a particular kind, when the “real world” doesn’t really correspond to that category. Having posed the question in this form, she then argues essentially that there are internal academic and political reasons the category persists (explanation #2), and that the category may also persist because it’s a reasonable approximation in broad strokes terms of the lives of many families (explanations #1 & #3).

I would argue that there is another, unexplored alternative: the possibility that elements of the public-private dichotomy are *real abstractions* – that elements of the public-private dichotomy actually are real, (albeit historically generated and therefore potentially able to be transformed) *social* dimensions of capitalist society. Understanding which elements of the dichotomy are real abstractions can then assist with better understanding the more ideological aspects of the public-private dichotomy – identifying ideological elements that are more easily contested and criticised from within a capitalist context, from elements that would be very difficult to transform without a fundamental reorganisation of our society.

This is not a point I can possibly develop in full here, but I can give a general indication of how I’m thinking of the problem.

For those not familiar with the concept of a “real abstraction”, there are a few ways of getting into the concept. Some of Richards’ explanations for the public-private dichotomy rely on the notion of a conceptual abstraction, or a generalisation, from everyday experience – where the argument is that people look at all these instances of an object – say, a horse – and, from those diverse and individual and variable experiences their minds generalise an abstract concept – like, “horseness”. “Horseness” then might be seen as representing a truer (ideal) reality than our everyday world, or as a rough, imperfect, conceptual approximation good enough that we can “make do” with it, e.g., to navigate through social situations or, alternatively, as cultural constructs, where “culture” is tacitly understood as random or arbitrary. The key issue is that, in such a framework, conceptual abstractions are formed in the mind, and are only generalisations from or approximations of what is (tacitly or explicitly) perceived as the more concrete reality of the “outside” (social or natural) world.

A “real abstraction” is a form of perception or thought that, while historically and socially specific, is not arbitrary and does not reside solely in the mind, but is instead necessarily suggested by some aspect of how society has organised itself – it reflects that fact that there is some dimension of social practice that really does function in the way that the abstraction describes (even if the abstraction can then take on a bit of a life of its own, being adapted to describe dimensions of social life that are not necessarily related it, becoming laden with implications that are not socially inherent to it, coming to be perceived as naturally human and transhistorical, when it has a definable social and cultural basis, etc.).

In the case of the public/private dichotomy, I would suggest that the “real abstraction” is the real (social) difference within capitalism between value-producing labour – work that participates in the cycle of production-for-accumulation – and (without becoming more precise for the moment in this blog) “everything else”. There is a real (social) distinction acted out between these “two spheres”, a distinction that means, with reference to the drive for accumulation, it is socially plausible to distinguish between the world of work in the sphere of production-for-accumulation, on the one hand, and, for example, the worlds of leisure, of those who (for whatever reason) don’t work in the circuit of accumulation, etc.

Because these sorts of dichotomies are grounded in essential characteristics of capitalist society (essential in the sense that they are definitive – capitalism wouldn’t be capitalism without them), I would argue that they will continue to be generated as long as that social form persists. They are not purely conceptual distinctions; they are socially meaningful – they are the forms of perception and thought that correspond to the forms of practice that characterise an important dimension of our shared social life.

However, because this real abstraction entails social practices of perception and thought – which are still available to us when we perceive and interact with all dimensions of our social and natural experience, and not limited to those dimensions of capitalist practice that entrain them – these forms of perception and thought tend to be… portable. They are thus available to be applied to other areas, to be misrecognised as a natural characteristic of human consciousness (there is more to this last, but I can’t develop the point fully here), to be reinforced and overdetermined by other forms of perception and thought, to be laden with moral or practical “baggage” that, while nonessential to capitalist reproduction, derives a broader social plausibility precisely because it rides, parasitically, on the forms of perception and thought that are integral to capitalist reproduction, etc.

I’m very conscious of how ungrounded I’ll have to leave this discussion. For the moment, I’ll have to make do with pointing out that I believe this line of analysis can be expanded into a productive exploration of the way in which concepts like the public-private dichotomy can combine forms of perception and thought that do inhere in capitalism and are reproduced by and through the perpetuation of that social form, with other elements that are more “parasitic” on these core forms of perception and thought, and therefore, depending on the state of historical contestation *within* capitalism, may wax, wane, be created, or disappear entirely.

What I’m calling here “parasitic” discourses interact with capitalism in complex ways: they articulate capitalism in specific ways and can help to disguise its essential and nonessential aspects (think, for example, of the vast sociological literature on how the separation of the workplace from the home was an essential feature of capitalism – confusions like this then encourage the recurrent premature death-knells of capitalism, as nonessential features fall away over time, and this falling away comes to be perceived as fundamental transformation).

Finally, it’s possible that a number of both progressive and “regressive” discourses become successful, under capitalism, precisely because they manage to align themselves with sensibilities engendered by capitalism – to articulate social experiences shared because of the overarching capitalist social context, but in a way that resonates with their own ideological drives (drives which would be, reciprocally, shaped through the constant interaction with forms of perception and thought more inherently embedded in capitalist social practices). Exploring this analytical option would provide a way to explore the relationships between capitalism and ideology, while transcending a traditionalist attempt to reduce political viewpoint to class status (and then the inevitable follow-up tomes trying to explain why political viewpoint doesn’t seem to align all that closely to class status – it is possible that this question is… iatrogenic, a problem generated by the limitations of traditional class-based analysis).

To get back to the public-private dichotomy, this kind of analysis would suggest, for example, that there *is* a real (social) distinction made between different types of work (and between work and various non-work activities). This real social distinction relates to the social practices involved in the reproduction of capital, and it does not intrinsically “need” to be gendered, or to have implications for how socially “important” specific activities are regarded in other respects, etc. Yet other kinds of discourses – about gender relations, moral judgments, etc. – may express the forms of perception and thought that arise from capitalist social practices, because these forms of perception and thought are “always already” available. The “familiarity” of these forms of perception and thought may make a gendered, moral, or other discourse seem more plausible at face value. At the same time, these discourses whose plausibility is increased by their resonance with capitalism, may inflect how capitalism itself is perceived, articulated, and understood – clarifying some aspects of capitalist social practice, while obscuring others.

So, for example, the gender role difference between men and women comes to be articulated in light of the real social distinction between labour-for-accumulation and “everything else”, and the “naturalness” of sex difference is reinforced by the “always already” familiar social distinctions (and their associated forms of perception and thought) acted out in the course of capitalist reproduction; the pre-existence of sex difference, in turn, can assist in naturalising and transhistoricising social distinctions that are historically grounded in capitalist social practice… (While at the same time, other dimensions of capitalist reproduction may entrain practices of perception and thought that denaturalise or call into question these discourses – while supporting and engendering discourses of their own…)

But I suspect this is really all too much for a blog entry… so I’ll stop here.


Last night I read Marion Maddox’s For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics 2001. Maddox researched the work in 1999, during her time as an Australian Parliamentary Fellow, and her work include interviews with a number of federal politicians in the 38th and 39th Parliaments, discussing their personal religious beliefs and the relationship between those beliefs and their understanding and performance of their political duties, as well as the relationship between religion and specific political issues.

The book is worth a longer discussion than I’ll provide here – Maddox provides some subtle and interesting readings of how religious and secular discourses interact in complex ways in several recent Australian political debates, and I’ll no doubt want to examine some of those readings more deeply in the near future. While Maddox is respectful and earnest in her conduct and presentation of her interview results, I couldn’t avoid a certain jaw-dropping reaction to the following comments from Ross Cameron.

First on the GST (p. 142):

People are entitled to the fruits of their labour, so we need minimal taxation… Every impost on capital reduces the opportunities of those with the least, so we need to remove restraints on capital. Most church leaders are slaves to defunct economic thinking — and those who suffer most are the poor. At the deep inner core of the left is the belief that profit is morally wrong. But the two most offensive parables are the talents and the labourers in the vineyard. The parable of the labourers is challenging the view that says, ‘You shouldn’t be allowed any more than me, especially if you got it on the basis of a privilege I don’t enjoy’. I was giving a talk to secondary students a while ago, and one of them asked a question to the effect, ‘Isn’t it immoral that Company X posted Y billion dollars profit this year?’ They were saying, ‘Shouldn’t there be a limit on profits?’ That’s the kind of thinking that Christ was challenging.

I have to confess that it hadn’t previously occurred to me that unlimited corporate profits were what one might call a New Testament priority. The New Testament parables he cites (I’ve linked to translations for those interested) are, I think it’s fair to say, frequently interpreted in a different light… And I suspect that Cameron’s interpretation would have intrigued Max Weber. But, as Cameron says, perhaps that’s just another example of the kind of thinking Christ was challenging…

The other exchange that caught my eye was the following, initially on indigenous rights (p. 273-74):


There probably is some interventionist role for government. Two hundred years of suffering – and when Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall you can’t unscramble the egg. It’s the hardest policy area and greatest government failure since settlement… Indigenous leaders want their values respected – but they are values based in a nomadic economy with no room for the accumulation of capital. So, under their values, there can be no public hospitals, no public health, no literacy, no numeracy –

Marion Maddox:

But you told me earlier you don’t want us to have public hospitals?

Ross Cameron:

Well, no, it’s true that I see public ownership as the less desirable option. But what I mean is, the Indigenous leadership has selected land as the ground on which to fight – largely successfully – but is reliance on land empowering in the 21st Century?

Tilting at Castles

Reading through different local histories of the City of Whittlesea, I’ve found an interesting constellation of issues running through competing accounts of the construction of this strange structure called “Bear’s Castle”, located near what would become the Yan Yean Reservoir:

Some rumours existed that the old ‘castle’ was the scene of conflict between the whites and the blacks but it never was. There was never any mention, at any time, by my parents of any trouble.

They were treated very kindly by Mr Bear and they loved him. He marked out a portion of land for a burial ground and several graves are there. My mother knew the exact spot, but as it has no mark it cannot be located.

When the work began on Ryder’s Swamp and the reservoir began to take shape, the blacks gradually went back over the hill towards Toolangi and Lilydale.

in E.M. Duffy Reminiscences of Whittlesea 1971 p. 5

Michael Jones’ Nature’s Plenty: A History of the City of Whittlesea (1992) provides a hint of what the “rumours” might have been (p. 11):

Henry Harrison referred to John Pinney Bear as having built Bear’s Castle in the early 1840s, claiming that it was built to protect the pastoralists from the Aboriginal threat. Harrison certainly provides evidence of substantial fear of Aborigines in this early period.

Aside from the cryptic reference to rumours, EM Duffy’s account effaces this potential explanation for the construction of the castle. Instead, Duffy provides a more frivolous reason for its construction (p. 4-5):

In the early 1840s, John Bear came to Victoria and took up a tract of land, including some of the area which is now the Yan Yean Reservoir. On his death, the land came to his son, Mr Thomas Bear and he had sheep and cattle which he brought from his other holdings at different periods. He was very rarely in the district, as his time was fully taken up by his other interests. On one of these occasions he left his sheep, etc., in charge of a shepherd he had brought with him. And on leaving, was asked by the shepherd what he could do in his spare time. There were no neighbours to visit or any recreation to be had, and he was beginning to feel very lonely. Mr Bear jokingly said, ‘Find the highest hill and build me a castle’. Whether the shepherd was really lonely or took the remark literally we will never know, but he did start to build, for when Mr Bear returned he found the ‘castle’ a building of mud and daub half finished. Mr Bear was greatly amused and he told the shepherd that he may as well finish it. And finish it the shepherd did.

So we have two accounts of the original motives behind the construction of Bear’s “Castle”: that it was built as a folly (an account repeated by other local historians, and cited by the Heritage Council of Victoria, or that it was built with a specific purpose – one which continued to be “rumoured” even in periods when this purpose might provoke some guilt, particularly for someone like Duffy, whose own family worked for the owner of the castle and even lived in the structure for a time.

Both accounts rely on testimony from earlier times: Duffy is presumably relying on family tradition, and rests her faith on the fact that her parents would have said something if the (unstated) “rumours” had been true. She then goes out of her way to argue that, far from being hostile to indigenous interests, Mr Bear was a friend to the local indigenous community – although her example (providing grounds for a graveyard) doesn’t quite seem sufficient to explain the apparently overwhelming emotional reaction of that community (who “love” Bear in her account). Her account does raise interesting questions about whether there was any sort of ongoing relationship between Bear and an indigenous community: employment? acknowledged right of movement through the land? It also raises the question of the impact on indigenous communities when the reservoir finally covered over existing lands and they “gradually went back over the hill towards Toolangi and Lilydale”. (J. W Payne cites sources indicating that the area covered by reservoir would have been an initiation site – see his The Plenty: A Centennary History of the Whittlesea Shire 1975 p. 8. The construction of the reservoir would have destroyed this activity.)

Jones takes his information from an autobiography written by Henry Harrison in 1923 (The Story of an Athlete), as well as from a series of travel articles published in The Age on 21 May 1887 (p.11). His sources are therefore a bit closer historically to the time the building was constructed, and at the least reflect the perception of an indigenous threat in the popular imagination.

Bear’s Castle aside, the local histories quote several significant passages that testify to the psychology of European perceptions of the indigenous population. In this vein, there are a number of passages that follow the general structure of: a large number of indigenous people assemble near a white settlement for an undetermined reason; the white family becomes afraid; something happens (often a noise generated by a technology that could be constructed as alien to the indigenous population, but sometimes just a child crying out or any other loud noise), and the crowd disperses. These passages have a ritualistic quality about them – a talisman that both expresses and wards off fear of the indigenous Other in European communities. An example is presented in the following account from Payne (p. 8):

In 1854, a large crowd, including many Aboriginals, gathered at Morang for the opening of a flour mill powered by steam. All went well until someone pulled the whistle cord. The Aboriginals fled in panic, convinced an evil spirit haunted the place.

Jones provides a similar cite (p. 9, quoting Harrison):

The blacks in that district belonged to the Yarra Yarra tribe, and were considered dangerous at first. But only on two occasions do I remember our having an alarm through the blacks. The first time, hundreds of them surrounded the house – the quadrangle was full of them – and, as all the station hands were away for the day, my father was the only man about. At first it was thought best for the household to keep perfectly quiet, and we all assembled in the nursery, as it was the largest room in the house. The blacks evidently thought there were only women and children at home, for they became very cheeky, knocking on the doors with their waddies and sticks. My father, who was rather hot-tempered, could not stand that, and suddenly rushed out on them with his gun in his hand; and they were evidently so surprised at the sight of him that they disappeared in the most miraculous manner. In two or three minutes there was not one of them to be seen. But we could hear a great jabbering down at the potato patch (a short distance from the house), and there we could see some of the lubras digging up potatoes with their yam sticks. These were always carried about by them, and were six or seven feet long, about as thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end.

In both passages, the initial fear is one of being outnumbered – of masses overwhelming the isolated settlers. Once this fear is discharged by a loud noise or startling sight, the indigenous are represented as comical figures – fearing something no European migrant would fear, “jabbering”, etc. (Although the second passage testifies to some residual fear remaining – ending on the threatening image of the yam sticks – “as thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end” – a somewhat evocatively gendered image, which one can’t help juxtaposing with the earlier framing fear that the danger seemed greater when it appeared that only women and children were at home…)

The More Things Change…

I’ve been looking recently at historical accounts of Whittlesea, and was amused to run across the following account of the city’s chequered rail transport history:

The first train service between Whittlesea and Melbourne ran on Show Day, October 1889. There was much excitement when it was known that a return ride to the City was available to any who wished to avail themselves of it, and even greater excitement when it was announced that it would be free. Quite a number of people accepted, but many returned home disappointed. The journey was a round about one. It did not go straight to Melbourne but trailed around Carlton North, through Royal Park, Flemington Bridge, Macaulay and North Melbourne, ending up at Spencer Street. (Needless to say, there was not much City at that time around this area.) Some of the travellers were too nervous to go exploring when they arrived at Melbourne, for they feared that they might miss their train. They came back tired, hungry and disillusioned. As there was no platform at Whittlesea the passengers climbed in and out of the carriages with the aid of boxes, chairs and stepladders.

At the present time there are no trains here. Owing to lack of support they were withdrawn and they were substituted by a bus service. At the time a deputation was sent to the Comissioners of the Railways, in the hope of staying the withdrawal, but when he asked the question – ‘How did you come down?’ – everyone shamefacedly admitted he had travelled by car.

She forlornly concludes:

Looking back on it I’m afraid we sent the wrong deputation.

From E.M. Duffy 1971 Reminiscences of Whittlesea

I had to laugh at this passage, given that Whittlesea is still struggling for appropriate train service. There’s also something both familiar and poignant about the ill-fated deputation, failing to preserve the train service because… well… er… they all drove to the meeting…

Humour value aside, the Comissioner’s question – and the conclusions he evidently drew from the answers he received – really aren’t as logical as they might have seemed: the fact that consumers don’t choose to use a service *now*, under specific circumstances, doesn’t really tell us about the potential choices that might be made, under other circumstances that we may choose to bring about. I’m sure I’ll come back to the issue of the dangers of “data” – of treating citizen’s stated preferences as static “givens”, and failing to account for people’s capacity to respond, adapt, learn… It’s a fundamental issue in community consultation – or, at least, it should be… ;-P But more on this another time…