Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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…

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